I had this really interesting moment of shame the other week. And I want to tell you about it.
It happened at a high school sporting event. Now I’ve been watching high school sports for a while – as a teacher, as a principal, now as a parent. And I’ve noticed that certain sports more than others tend to draw out the crazy parent fan behavior. You know: shouting at refs, complaining to coaches, getting overly involved in the game outcome. One sport, though, that doesn’t draw this crazy parent stuff out is cross country running.
First off, like no one goes to these races. They are not popular spectator events. Secondly, you can’t see your kid run very much. These races are three miles long, across fields, through woods, and you only see your kid run by three, maybe four times. And a lot of kids have ordered their parents not to say anything at races when they run by – silence, please! — so the few parents that go to these meets tend to stand around for a long time doing nothing, and then sort of politely clap for a few seconds as their kid and their teammates run by.
Not me, though. I’m kind of a crazy cross country parent. I like the sport. I appreciate watching a running race. And I still run a bit myself, so I can run around to different parts of the course and and see a lot of moments in the action. And the other week, at one of my daughter’s cross country meets, I was a little crazier than usual.
The course was all through the woods, so the only way to get around and see different parts of the race was to run on the same trail the athletes were using. So there was this moment when my daughter had run by me, and she was running fast, and I was kind of excited to keep cheering her on, and there was no one right behind her. So I started running on the trail. I tried to keep my distance behind her, so Julianna wouldn’t think I was trying to chase her down or anything.
But there I was, chugging along through the woods, and I round a corner, and there’s the boys’ team head coach, who eyeballs me with this horrified look, like: Steve, what the hell are you doing? Get off the course – do not try to chase your kid.
And I was mortified – I saw myself through someone else’s eyes for a moment, and I was like: my God, I look I’m this middle aged guy trying to enter the teenage girls’ race. Or that parent crazily chasing my kid down telling her to go faster.
I was actually too mortified to stop and say anything, so I kept running around the corner, away from the coach – like oh, this is normal, just out for a jog in the woods. During the race. And I got out of sight of the coach, and started walking off the trail.
I was flushing with embarrassment. And for hours afterwards, I thought what am I going to say when I see that coach again. I looked so ridiculous. What was my way out of this?
What do you do with an experience of shame?
Well, it turns out my way through that problem, was the same as my way through many others, and it was to know that I am a person. And that a person is less like a machine, and less like a god, and more like a tree.
We began this series four weeks ago with me talking about trees and imperfection and flourishing, and we’re going to end in that same place.
Our first of today’s two scriptures is from the old Hebrew prophet Jeremiah, who said:
Jeremiah 17:7-8 (CEB)
Happy are those who trust in the Lord,
who rely on the Lord.
8 They will be like trees planted by the streams,
whose roots reach down to the water.
They won’t fear drought when it comes;
their leaves will remain green.
They won’t be stressed in the time of drought
or fail to bear fruit.
To be a person, at least to a faithful person, is to be a tree. It’s to know that the conditions of your life, a great part of your environment, is not within your control. The water table, the sunshine, the condition of the soil, the nutrients in the ground, the friendly or hostile conditions of the atmosphere, the weather and the climate – none of that is up to you.
You as a tree lay roots. You pull in the best of the nourishment that is there to be found. And then you add volume, you stretch and grow, you do what you can.
If the conditions for growth are marvelous, it is not your achievement but your blessing. And if the conditions for growth are hostile, it is not your fault.
There’s more to be said from this passage, more that flows from this metaphor, and we’ll get there soon, but let’s start here.
That to be a flourishing human is to own our limits profoundly.
Many places in the scriptures – here, in the very first of the psalms, more than once in the teaching of Jesus – work this kind of metaphor of human as tree or vine or plant – who can remain connected, stay rooted, take in nourishment, but can’t control so many other things.
To think otherwise, to think that we are in control, that we are independent, or that some kind of invulnerable perfection is without our reach, is to maintain an idolatrous illusion. A falsehood that we are more or better or different than we really are. A falsehood that we’d hold so we could avoid our vulnerability or so that we could control or dominate others.
As I said four weeks ago, I have learned from Christena Cleveland that “perfection is a figment of the colonial imagination.” It’s an illusion used to mask our limits and insecurity, and at the same time to try to conquer or control or diminish others and put ourselves on top.
The illusion of perfection is a losing game. And so progress is as well. Our call as humans, and our roadmap for a faith journey is not progress, it is not self-improvement on the way to perfection.
Our journey is to be as healthy as we can. It’s to be alive and celebrate the movement we can make. Our faith journey is to be fully human, to be our full tree-like, beautiful, uself, but also limited and dependent selves, nothing more and nothing less.
One of the best words I know for this way of being is humility.
Humility is not self-abasement – being a doormat or a wallflower. Humility is also not denying our gifts or strengths – it’s being who we are.
I recently read The Cloud of Unknowing, this weird, but deep, classic work of Christian spirituality from the 14th century. And its author wrote:
“In itself, humility is nothing else but a human’s true understanding and awareness of himself as he really is.”
Humility is nothing else but a human’s true understanding and awareness of herself as she really is.
Reservoir loves humility – it’s really important to our way of being as a church. It’s one of our five core values, the fifth that we’re exploring this month as we focus on our faith journeys and our invitation to this community to live as flourishing, contributing members of Reservoir Church.
The way we talk about this as a church is humility in what we know and how we learn. Our core value on humility says:
“We are wholeheartedly committed to pursuing the truth of Jesus through multiple sources, including the Bible, reason, culture, and experience, and we take the posture of learners, recognizing that our understanding of God’s truth continues to unfold.”
Reservoir does not have the illusion of being a perfect church, or even a certain church. We’re a humble church, we’re a learning church. We don’t make pronouncements about what the church thinks or believes about this or that. We don’t tell our own members, let alone the world at large, how they should live their lives.
But we do commit to pursue the truth together – everywhere it can be found.
And we do commit to keep learning, to keep listening, to God and to one another, and to keep growing.
Once in a while, someone will ask me – usually indirectly – if we’re a biblical church.
And I don’t always say this, but I think: My God, no! A biblical church? There’s no such thing. None of us live in the first century Roman empire, do we? Lots of us are literate. We use telephones and computers and electricity.
Of course, we’re not a “biblical church.”
But more seriously, we’re a humble church. We don’t pretend that life is simple, that the Bible is always easy or clear, or that our minds or our tradition is always right. So we’ve taken the lead from other church traditions and say: we are wholeheartedly committed to pursuing the truth of Jesus through multiple sources, including the Bible, reason, culture, and experience.
The Spirit of God is so good, and has many teachers.
So you take the ancient creeds for instance, that are our faith statements. They don’t say anything really about exactly what to believe about the afterlife. They don’t tell you exactly what your sexual ethics should be, or frankly, your ethics about most anything else. They don’t tell you the right way to baptize people, or manage your money or your career or your children. Because the Bible, and reason, and culture, and experience have had different things to say about all this. And faithful, smart, earnest followers of Jesus, doing their best, have come to different conclusions about all this and more.
And even when we say the ancient creeds, like: I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only son our Lord.
I believe all that, and yet not only that.
Is God the Father Almighty, as the Bible says? Absolutely. But is God also mother? Is God outside of and beyond sex and gender? Is God like a parent, but actually Spirit, not a person or an animal at all? Well, yes, yes, and yes – the Bible teaches all this too.
And is God Almighty? Yes. But experience and reason teach us this can’t mean all-controlling, like God micromanages the universe, and is the cause of everything that happens. Science, and our experience, and history teach us this can not be so. So we have to search our Bibles and our faith and our minds and our prayers for some other way to understand God as the most powerful, as a constantly active force of love that is all mighty but not all controlling.
And on we could go through every line of the creeds. Earnest, devout faith, but searching for truth, learning, growing, seeking still.
This is why Reservoir doesn’t go around claiming to know the right thing to believe and do in every situation. That practice is not born of cowardice, or laziness, or a desire to keep the peace or avoid conflict, or to not engage the Bible – those would all be lazy, thoughtless assertions.
Our practice of making space and choosing learning over certainty, process over arrival, is born of humility.
Humility is how we know, and humility is how we grow.
And for me, humility is how I be who I am. It’s how I flourish.
As I shared a few weeks ago, I’ve spent considerable time this fall, looking at trees – giant, old trees; little upstart saplings; upright, mighty maples; twisted, old oaks; trees in their vibrant, full-colored fall glory; and trees who have lost their leaves and are settling into the barren looking cold of winter.
And in the trees, I’ve tried to see myself.
Trees not just as beautiful creations – other things in the world. But the trees as self-portraits, echoes of me, versions of me.
I’ve seen the trees of pictures of the growing things in me, the dying things in me, the beautiful things and the ugly things, the crooked and the just plain odd things in me.
And this phrase has come to mind, that is kind of a different take on a famous line by the Christian reformer Martin Luther, when over 500 years ago, he said: Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God.
Here I stand, I can do not other, so help me God.
This isn’t quite what Luther meant, but it’s how the words have echoed for me:
I can’t be anything today but who I am.
I stand today as the person I am today; so help me God, that’s all I have.
I can learn, I can grow, but in this moment, I can’t be something that I never will be. I can’t even be someone I once was, or that I might become.
Today I am who I am.
This by the way was my first step out of the paralyzing shame I felt when in front of a coach at my kids’ high school, I looked like the craziest parent he’d seen. The butt of an embarrassing coach – there goes Steve Watson, crazy, out of control parent.
My first step out of that shame was to say: that’s exactly what I was in that moment, as I chased my daughter along the wooded trail in the middle of a varsity girls’ race.
I’m kind of extra some times.
I can be really impulsive.
At my best, but also sometimes at my worst, I don’t particularly care about what others think of how I look.
And yeah, that was kind of a nutty moment.
Here I stand, I can be no other, so help me God.
Accepting who you are in a moment, even if it’s awkward, even if it’s not who you want to be, is always better than shame.
There’s more to that story. I’ll come back to it again.
But beyond mere self-acceptance, looking at the trees, being the humble me who seeks health and growth, not progress or perfection, has also meant laying roots and absorbing nutrients.
Jeremiah said: The tree that trusts in God will flourish. Like a tree whose roots reach deep water, when you trust God, you won’t surrender to fear in hard times. You’ll remain alive. Temporary setbacks, hard seasons, don’t need to stress you out.
Laying those deep roots into God, absorbing all those nutrients has meant a lot of things to me, but here’s one picture – in our second scripture of the day, from a New Testament letter that circulated around churches in mid-first century Western Asia.
Ephesians 3:14-19 (CEB)
14 This is why I kneel before the Father. 15 Every ethnic group in heaven or on earth is recognized by him. 16 I ask that he will strengthen you in your inner selves from the riches of his glory through the Spirit. 17 I ask that Christ will live in your hearts through faith. As a result of having strong roots in love, 18 I ask that you’ll have the power to grasp love’s width and length, height and depth, together with all believers. 19 I ask that you’ll know the love of Christ that is beyond knowledge so that you will be filled entirely with the fullness of God.
After vs. 15 – I love that – God loves all the people, all the ethnos, in Greek – all the ethnic groups. And that weird qualifier – whether in heaven or on earth. You descendants of the Anglo-Saxon and Viking tribes from Northern Europe – people like me, whose primitive, woods-dwelling ancestors that in Paul’s time were called barbarians – God knows and loves and recognizes us.
People who have been diminished and excluded and subject to violence and racism in this country’s story, peoples in the USA and around the world who are subject to violence and persecution – you may be done a great evil by others, but you are recognized by the living God. You deserve recognition.
And that goes for any extra-terrestrial life forms way out in space somewhere – every ethnic group in heaven or on earth – recognized by God. Alright, not just that, but the waters for all our deep roots in God.
How do we get strong in our inner beings? Where does resilience come from?
How do we access all of the riches of God’s glory?
How does Jesus Christ palpably live in me?
How can I be filled up with all the fullness of God?
What water nourishes our roots and gives us all this growth and strength, little, imperfect beings that we are?
It’s knowing our complete and utter belovedness – that every part of me is a beloved child of God. That all of the humble, imperfect you that you are today known and loved by God, can be watered and nourished by that love.
This has meant at least two things for me.
One is that I need to welcome, to actively receive God’s love for me. I can look at the trees, and imagine their roots and see myself in them. That my roots are that I am deeply loved by a God that made me.
I can sit in silence for a few minutes a day, remembering that I am seen and loved by a God who is with me.
I can review the highs and lows of my days, knowing that God accompanied me in all of that and never stopped loving me.
And I do all that and more, which we commend to you all the time. A lot of the spiritual life, the life of prayer, is really about remembering and welcoming the experience of belovedness.
I also find that these roots empower four humble phrases I live by at my best. Four honest ways of wholehearted living. Can I tell you what these phrases are?
They’re some of the best, deepest things I know how to say.
Here they are.
FOUR PHRASES for wholehearted, humble living
- I am learning. (Or just: I don’t know.)
- I am sorry.
- I am beloved.
- I am enough.
If you think my preaching these past few years sounds like it’s been influenced by Brene Brown, that’s because it has. I call her Auntie Brene in our house once in a while, because Grace – my wife – has made sure all our family has been exposed to her work, especially her teaching on wholehearted living in The Gifts of Imperfection.
This used to be embarrassing for me – I’m a pastor, I thought, and she’s not a Christian. Well, she is, as it turns out, just not a preacher or a theologian. But more than that, the center of her wholehearted living teaching – this phrase “I am enough” used to trouble me.
The faith I was taught was in some ways that I am not enough. I am a problem for God to fix. A mess for God to clean up. God is enough, God is good, but I am bad.
Now that I do badly, often. That I miss the mark in my life, and have many times. That I have had reason to guilty for things done and things not done. All that is honest. That’s truth. That’s part of humility.
But the shame of “I am never enough” – I am bad. I am the problem. That is not healthy. Never enough, self-erasure: that is not the good news of Jesus. The good news of Jesus is about uplift, rescue, restoration, not erasure. It’s about the full you and me being one with God, not about you or me disappearing into God.
The heart of Jesus-centered faith involved reconciliation and liberation. It means being at home again with ourselves, being at home again with others, being at home again with God, being at home again in the world.
Discovering that in the love of God, I am enough. Humble me, humble you – the actual real me and you – are loved and accepted.
When in another New Testament letter, this one called Philippians, the author Paul says, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me, this is what he’s talking about. The power to be at home no matter where we are, to be content in all circumstances. To not be stressed in times of drought. To not be stressed either in times of plenty, like we might lose it all.
When we are rooted in God’s love, we can know the fearless security of humility – the peace of saying I am loved. The freedom of saying I’m sorry. The honesty of saying: I don’t know. I’m learning. And the joy of saying: I am enough.
The 14th century mystic I mentioned earlier put it this way: For they who are perfectly humble shall never lack anything, neither corporal nor spiritual. The reason is that they have God, in whom is all abundance; whoever has him, indeed, as this book says, needs nothing else in this life. (168-169)
This means so much for me.
That incident of shame when I was crazy at the cross country course. I kept imagining how I’d joke about it the next time I saw that coach. How I’d move past it with him, so I didn’t need to feel awkward around him. But I realized, I didn’t need to do that. I didn’t need to defend or explain myself for being weird. If he brought it up again, I’d joke about it. But if not, I’d move on. That was actually the second moment of public shame I’d had in that week, and each time, I told somebody else – the first time one of the prayer ministers here on Sunday, and the second time a friend of mine over the phone. And each person prayed for me, reminded me I had nothing to e ashamed of, that God loves me as I am.
I don’t need to justify or defend myself in the world.
Other times I’m ashamed and I wasn’t just weird but at fault, I’ve learned to apologize more quickly, to say: I’m sorry, and to say clearly just why I’m sorry and how I want to do better. This happens with my friends, it happens with my wife. It happens with my co-workers, including the ones I supervise, and it happens with my kids too. I wasn’t raised learning about quick and sincere, real apology. God knows it isn’t modelled in our culture either. But I’m trying to learn the humility of saying I’m sorry well.
And I’m enjoying letting go of the stifling illusion of perfection. And instead, living with less fear, and more humble joy.
- I am learning. (But maybe I don’t know yet.)
- I am sorry.
- I am beloved.
- I am enough.
Invitations to Whole Life Flourishing
Welcome the gifts of imperfection: I am learning. I am sorry. I am beloved. I am enough.
Spiritual Practice of the Week
When you look at a tree, view it as a self-portrait. Where are your roots? What can nourish you? How are you growing?