Last year, I attended the ordination of a friend. In our church, ordination comes after a long process of discernment, evaluation, and three years of seminary and field work. Many, if not most, Episcopal priests have had other careers before entering seminary.
The sermon at the ordination was given by a priest from North Carolina. One of the things she said has stayed with me. Speaking about what makes a priest effective, she said that — more than homiletic skills or teaching ability or a knack for crafting excellent prayers — it’s the recognition of the futility of perfection that makes a priest most 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. But 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.
Last year, around the time of that ordination, a friend sent me a text about something inconsequential. 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; on the contrary, she is one of the most down-to-Earth people I know, which is one of the things I like most about her. Rather, I was taken aback because, in my mind, she is Superwoman: always smiling, always 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, though, her admission 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 brought the woman who gave it onto her show, and into the pages of her magazine. You’ve probably heard of it.
The talk was called The Power of Vulnerability by Brene Brown.
Brown explains her research by saying, “I started with connection. Because, by the time you’re a social worker for 10 years, what you realize is that connection is why we’re here. It’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. This is what it’s all about. It doesn’t matter whether you talk to people who work in social justice and mental health and abuse and neglect, what we know is that connection, the ability to feel connected, is — neurobiologically that’s how we’re wired — it’s why we’re here.”
Brown further explains that her research showed that “[t]here was only one variable that separated the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging and the people who really struggle for it. And that was, the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they’re worthy of love and belonging.”
That sounds simple, right? Just believe you’re worthy of love and belonging, and connection — and happiness — will follow!
But it’s not that easy, because fear and shame get in the way.
“Shame is really easily understood as the fear of disconnection: Is there something about me that, if other people know it or see it, that I won’t be worthy of connection?” Brown says. This is a problem, because “[i]n order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen.”
So how did the connected people — those happy, fulfilled, loved people — get that way? How did they get past the fear and shame we all carry?
This is they key.
Brown says that the people who are happiest:
“fully embraced vulnerability. They believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful. They didn’t talk about vulnerability being comfortable, nor did they really talk about it being excruciating… They just talked about it being necessary. They talked about the willingness to say, “I love you” first, the willingness to do something where there are no guarantees, the willingness to breathe through waiting for the doctor to call after your mammogram. They’re willing to invest in a relationship that may or may not work out. They thought this was fundamental.”
But this is difficult, and it’s uncomfortable, and it’s why we all let fear rule! 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 — because we are afraid.
But if we weren’t afraid, what would we do? What changes would we make in our lives? What challenges would we take on? What rewards would we reap?
Imagine how brightly we would shine, if we replaced fear and shame with joy and love? Imagine who we could be, if we weren’t ruled by fear…and what we might gain, if we let go of the fear of loss?
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 vulnerability.
It remind us that while we were not created to be perfect, we were also not put here to be ruled by fear.
There’s grace in the cracks.
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.