A few days ago, I attended the ordination of an Episcopal priest. In our church, ordination comes after a long process of discernment, evaluation, and three years of seminary and field work. A good many Episcopal priests have had a career prior to entering seminary; in my current class, we’ve got lawyers, doctors, teachers, and a number of men and women who’ve worked for the church, in some capacity, prior to feeling called to ordination.
The sermon was given by a priest I know of from North Carolina. One of the things she said struck me. Speaking about what makes a priest effective — more than homiletic skills or teaching ability or a knack for crafting excellent prayers — she said that it’s the recognition of the futility of perfection that most allows a priest to be effective.
Imperfection, she said, is the prerequisite to grace. After all, light only gets in through the cracks.
This is not an original thought, of course; it’s been well covered, including by Leonard Cohen in his beautiful song, Anthem (Leonard Cohen, Anthem). But it’s a compelling image, and it got me thinking about the brokenness we all work so hard to conceal, and the freedom that comes with letting go of the expectation that we’re ever going to get anywhere close to perfection.
A week or so ago, a dear friend sent me a text about something inconsequential, but at the end of it, she wrote, This comes at the end of a week of feeling generally inadequate. I was taken aback by this admission, not because I think my friend believes she’s perfect — she is one of the most down-to-Earth people I know and is completely lacking in artifice, which is one of the things I like most about her — but because, in my mind, she is Superwoman: always smiling, always ably juggling a million responsibilities, universally loved and admired. It never crossed my mind that she would ever feel inadequate in any way.
The funny thing is, reading her words, I felt a deepening of our friendship. The fact that she would admit to something so human and relatable made me love and respect her even more. It was as if she’d made a bit more room for me, and for our friendship, by pointing out that little crack in her life; that little bit of herself that wasn’t perfect.
There was a TED talk a few years ago that got a lot of traction after it went viral; Oprah then brought the woman who gave it onto her show, and into the pages of her magazine. The talk was called The power of vulnerability — you can watch it here: Brene Brown On Vulnerability. The premise is that vulnerability is where fear and shame, which severely limit our lives, reside…but vulnerability is also the wellspring of joy, love, creativity, and connectedness. In order to claim the joy and happiness that is within your reach, you have to be willing to confront fear and shame. You have to be willing to put yourself out there, and be vulnerable.
Far too many of us — and I certainly include myself in this number — live lives that are ruled by fear. Whether it’s fear of change, of judgment, of failure, of hardship, or of loss, we let our fears keep us in tightly constrained existences. We don’t take risks, we don’t put ourselves out there, we don’t take the leaps of faith that could lead to greatness — all because we are afraid.
Thinking about the shackles that fear places on our aspirations and desires, some questions demand to be answered: If you weren’t afraid, what would you do? What changes would you make in your life? What challenges would you take on? What rewards would you reap?
A good many of the people I write speeches for are seasoned presenters. They’ve got tremendous rhetorical skills, and are polished and poised in both delivery and style. Some, however, are not — some are even students, preparing for their first real foray into public speaking.
The story I always tell the kids, right off the bat, is about a prominent Washington D.C. consultant — a total diva — I once worked with, who, at the end of a segment, walked off stage and into the bathroom wearing a lavalier microphone that was still live. It was pretty much exactly like that scene in Naked Gun (Press Conference Bathroom Scene), but with no singing and slightly less grunting.
As her every sound was broadcast through the auditorium, those of us responsible for the event sprang into action, scrambling up to the AV booth like deranged chimpanzees, flipping every switch we could get our hands on — overheads, spotlights, general sound, floor lights. The one thing we couldn’t turn off, unfortunately, was the lavalier mic; the switch was on the transmitter under the consultant’s jacket.
When the consultant was told what happened — a whispered conversation that was also broadcast into the auditorium — she strolled right back out. Standing at center stage, she took a tube of lipstick out of her pocket, applied it to her lips, capped it, put it back in her pocket, fluffed her hair, and said, Well, I guess my secret’s out. I’m human. And here I almost had you convinced I was a goddess…
As far as an off-the-cuff save, it was genius. The audience laughed and applauded, and during the next break, the woman could barely move — she was surrounded by people who wanted to share their embarrassing public speaking story with her. For the rest of the seminar, she had the attendees eating out of the palm of her hand — and the rest of the speakers pea green with envy.
The point is, her vulnerability — and the way she handled it — allowed the audience to relate to her. She was no longer the high-priced Beltway Insider; she was a human being. The crack in her otherwise perfect facade made room for others to identify with her, to root for her, and to see her not as an impossibly perfect ideal, but as a flawed, fallible human being with some wisdom to impart. Her audience was much more receptive to her, despite the fact that her message was not delivered perfectly.
I think that’s exactly what the priest from North Carolina meant, in her sermon. Grace — the favor of God that we’ve been given, undeserved and unearned — comes through in the moments we are less than perfect. Grace comes to us in our weakness, our brokenness, our humanity; it glows through the cracks to remind us that while we were not created to be perfect, we were also not put here to be ruled by fear. We were created to impart our light to others, sharing in our mutual brokenness, in our humanity, and in our connection to one another. Imagine how brightly we would shine, if we replaced fear and shame with joy and love…
So…if you weren’t ruled by fear, who would you be? If you stopped worrying about what other people thought, what would you do? If you let go of the idea of loss, what would you gain?
In the words of Leonard Cohen,
Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack, a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.