Well, like it or not, we slid on the ice right into a new year. For some of us, the change is jarring—kind of like the way we resist changing to Daylight Savings Time. For others, it’s a relief to see 2017 go. No matter which group you belong to—sad to see the year go or relieved to get it over with—we all face the same thing: A new blank slate of experience, stretching out before us in 359 days (that’s how many days we have left in 2018). What will those days bring? A few things are almost 100 percent certain:
- The sun will come up each morning and set each evening.
- The cold will give away to warmth and flowers and trees will begin to bud again.
- We will most likely feel whole rainbows of emotions throughout the year—love, gratitude, sadness, upset, peacefulness, fear, and hope.
- We will no doubt struggle. And there will be people to help us. And solutions will come.
- We will try to do our best—in everything, generally, or maybe in some things in particular.
We heard in the reading from James that it’s probably a good idea to give up sordidness—just in case any of us make that a habit—but there are also probably other things we want to avoid or change. That’s where the practice of new year’s resolutions come in. We think, “I didn’t do very well with my diet last year. This year I’ll do better.” And a new resolution is born. Maybe the resolution is to eat less, exercise more, or spend more time in prayer. A couple of years ago, my new year’s resolution was to play a musical instrument every day. I kept my resolution faithfully for the first six days of 2016, and then it quickly fell by the wayside.
No matter what our individual resolutions may be, chances are that they spring from some aspect of ourselves where we feel like we should be better than we are. Maybe we think we need more self-discipline, more faithfulness, or more courage. Maybe we struggle with that feeling that we’re not enough, somehow. Our resolutions give us a sense that we’ll be able to overcome whatever weakness or flaw it is that continues to bother us, keeping us so far away from perfection.
Our Old Testament reading today, from Proverbs, paints the picture of wisdom as a living being, calling to us from every experience we have—from the high moments, the low moments, at the crossroads of change, beside the gates of big decisions. She calls out to us from every moment of our day, inviting us to listen to her counsel—counsel that is true, and right, and speaks of noble things. These verses offer us a great and hopeful idea, that God is providing everything we need in every moment and all we need to do is listen and look for the wisdom that shines in our present situation, wherever we find ourselves, whatever we face.
In their book The Spirituality of Imperfection, authors Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham use lots of stories from the Hassidic tradition to illustrate ways that God reaches into our circumstances and provides the balance we need, just when we need it. They offer the idea—which fits very nicely with our Quaker idea of sacramental living, that all life is holy—that spirituality is not something we have but a way we live, arising in what we see, how we feel, and why we choose the things we do.
The struggle with our flaws and shortcomings, they say, is an important part of the wholeness of our lives: God is also in our imperfect moments, perfectly. God is in the noticing of where we fall short—that moment when we see the need for the new year’s resolution. God is in the grace that comes to help us do better next time. I like the way Meister Eckhart said this, back in the 13th century: “To get at the core of God at [God’s] greatest, one must first get into the core of himself at his least.” Several centuries later, the Jungian analyst Marion Woodman recast this for our modern era: “At the very point of the vulnerability is where the surrender takes place—that is where the god enters. The god comes through the wound.”
That is so powerful and so beautiful, isn’t it? Think of any vulnerability you have. Perhaps that vulnerability is the seed of the new year’s resolution you’re going to try to live up to. Maybe you’re vulnerable to dark chocolate. Or taking things personally. Or holiday sales at Macy’s. Maybe you are vulnerable to waves of anxiety or hopelessness or doubt. God is already right there at the crossroads where we’re feeling the need to change, where we experience that uncomfortable awareness of how we’re falling short. God only awaits our surrender, looking for our welcome. And when we allow God into that hurting or empty place, we discover that God was there all along, with all the wisdom of the universe, ready to bring harmony and peace back into our lives.
This is why George Fox’s suggestion to “walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one,” rings so powerfully even today. When we are willing to look for God in every circumstance—even in our own flaws—we find we have the clarity to hear wisdom speaking there. We are sometimes surprised to discover we have new courage and insight that helps us keep our eyes and hearts open for the truth, even in moments we might have resisted or run from earlier.
The authors The Spirituality of Imperfection tell the story of a rabbi who encountered a man eating on an important day of fasting. “Surely you have forgotten this is a fast day,” the rabbi said. “No,” answered the man, “I know today is a fast day.” “Aha! You are not well, and your doctor has instructed you not to fast,” said the rabbi. “No, I am perfectly healthy,” the man replied. The rabbi lifted his eyes toward heaven, “Look how precious your children are, dear God. I have provided this man with ample excuse to explain away his behavior, but he refuses to deviate from the truth, even when it incriminates him.”
The authors go on to make the point that the rabbi saw the good, which made it possible for him to feel kinship with the man. When we watch for that of God to arise in our circumstances, it doesn’t matter whether we’re struggling with flaws or blessings. God is there. And wisdom helps us recognize that. Looking for the good, the God, in each other helps us recognize our kinship, which brings us back to peace, as a family, as a nation, as a world.
In our passage from James today, we are reminded to not simply read about these good ideas, not simply hold them close and use them in our own lives, but be doers of the word as well. James was the younger brother of Jesus, one of the disciples in the upper room who encountered the crucified Christ. What we do matters, James says. Don’t keep these ideas to yourself, live them out in your day. Let you life shine with the light of love and service.
This is a great message for us as Friends. We too believe that it is the practical living out of our faith that speaks light to the world. Making decisions based on the leading of spirit. Letting our lives speak with the priorities that ring true. Offering what we can—with as much light as we are given—to improve conditions around us, wherever we find suffering, or oppression, or disharmony.
Mindfulness teacher Tara Brach offered this story in one of her recent lectures. She said she was walking with a friend, who happened to be a Waldorf preschool teacher, through a grocery store, and twice they passed a young mother with her small son coming down the aisle going the other direction. The mother was growing increasingly frustrated with the little boy, who was reaching out and grabbing things from the shelves as they passed. As they prepared to go by each other the second time, the mother grabbed the boy’s arm and shook him a little as she snapped at him to stop. The preschool teacher paused to say something to the mother. Tara tensed up, thinking her friend was going to admonish the woman for her treatment of the child. Instead, she said, “Oh my, what a cute little boy!” The mother cautiously said thank you. “How old is he?” she asked. “Three,” the mother said. “Oh, I remember when my children were his age. So curious! So interested in everything! It was hard to take them to the store because they were so fascinated by all the colorful packages—so much to get into!” The mother had picked up the child and brushed the hair from his forehead. “Yes,” she sighed, “Sometimes he wears me out.” The teacher laughed and said, “Yes they can do that, can’t they? I can tell he is a very smart and good boy, though.” As they walked away. Tara heard the mother say softly to her son, “How about if I make your favorite—macaroni and cheese—for dinner tonight?”
So was there something imperfect going on here? Certainly. The boy’s behavior was less than perfect. And the mother’s frustrated reaction—while understandable for a tired young mom—wasn’t helping things any. But in that moment, thanks to the ability of the preschool teacher to see the good and share it, the energy of the encounter was transformed from irritated disconnection to loving gentleness.
Wisdom would have us remember that there is a system everywhere around us—a system of love and balance—that arises and helps us find our footing if we will allow it to. God has created everything we need and provided all the supports we could possibly want, in every moment, for every circumstance. We just need to keep looking for the good—especially in imperfect moments—to find the wisdom God is showing us there.
Here’s where James’ reminder to be doers of the word and not hearers only comes into play. The preschool teacher could have just held in her heart the loving thought that the little curious boy was just being a three-year-old, full of life. She might have walked away and maybe made a comment to her friend about how badly she thought the mother was reacting. But instead, she was able to completely transform the situation by acting on the goodness she felt within. That moment was a victory for love, an uplifting, healing moment for them all.
So what to do with our new year’s resolutions? We don’t need to throw them out completely, but maybe we can look at them in a new—and kinder—way. Maybe now they can be a sort of witness, a place where we recognize and accept our imperfections, seeing them as places God isn’t finished working with us yet. Seen that way, our imperfections aren’t rejected parts of ourselves we have to hide or remove, but rather unfinished places in us that need kindness and acceptance more than anything else. God is continually about the business of growing us up in love. We can trust that. And we can help that process along by looking for the good around us, watching for the light to appear, and acting on the opportunities we find to bring more wisdom and peace to the immediate—and sometimes hurting—world around us.
- OT Proverbs 8: 1-9
- NT James 1: 17-25
- The Spirituality of Imperfection, by Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham
- Tara Brach podcasts