Part of the depth of a Unitarian Universalist faith is our reliance on covenant, rather than creed. As Rev. Melissa Ziemer-Carvill points out in this sermon delivered at the First Unitarian Church of Rochester, New York on August 14, 2003 when she served as their summer minister, a covenant is more than a promise, but a relationship between ourselves and each other, and the holy, that not only calls us to our higher purpose but also offers forgiveness when we fall short.
Rev. Ziemer-Carvill now serves the Unitarian Universalist Church in Kent, Ohio.
compassion, covenant, deepening, forgiveness, love, Melissa Carvill-Ziemer
On Not Throwing Anything Away
by Rev. Melissa Ziemer-Carvill
Here’s a little quiz. The words to our opening hymn, Come, Come Whoever You Are, are from a poem by the 13th century Sufi mystic Jelalludin Rumi. There are many adaptations of the poem, but most of them include a line omitted from our hymnal. See if you can pick it out.
“Come, come, whoever you are Wanderer, Worshiper, Lover of Leaving, Ours is no caravan of despair Though you have broken your vows a thousand times… Come, yet again, Come.”
Did you catch it? Though you have broken your vows a thousand times . . . We leave that one out, but I think it is such an important line. We need to know that we are not the only ones who break our vows. We need to know that imperfection is part of the human condition, that we can fail again and again and still, we are welcome.
This is something that I am still struggling to learn. In my early twenties I operated under the assumption that I had to earn love. I had to be good enough to merit the respect and care of others. A part of me figured it was just a matter of time before people started realizing I wasn’t nearly as good as I seemed. Once they did, they would probably leave. To guard against that terror, I devoted myself to being good. My vigilance extended into every area of my life; my studies, work, friendships, volunteering, political organizing, exercise habits and knowledge of world affairs. I wanted to do everything right all the time. Any little lapse or mistake provoked in me feelings of failure, fear and inadequacy.
The pressure I put on myself was immense and ultimately debilitating. I couldn’t keep up the pace and, though I tried hard, I could never meet my own expectations. I catalogued my shortcomings and regularly resolved to work harder, be friendlier, accomplish more and generally be a better person. By the time I was 23, I was nearly incapacitated by anxiety and struggling to get out from under the crush of bulimia and depression.
I used to think that if I could just work hard enough, then I would be good. If I were good, then I would be loved. Now I think that part of what it means to be human is that we will be broken. How can it be otherwise? The clinical psychologist and Buddhist lay priest, Tara Brach, reminds us of this in her book Radical Acceptance. “Imperfection is not our personal problem,” she writes, “it is a natural part of existing” [Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha. (New York: Bantam Books, 2003)]. It sounds so easy and obvious to say, doesn’t it, imperfection is a natural part of existing. But I think that most of us are at least sometimes tempted to view our imperfections as personal failings, and I think a lot of us are inclined to try, one way or another, to throw those parts of ourselves away.
I am not just talking about our little imperfections here, our seemingly unshakeable habits, like the way I am often running late. I am also talking about the ways we disappoint ourselves and each other. We all hurt each other, sometimes we devastate each other with our insensitivity, judgment, even deliberate meanness. We don’t like to talk about this, but I think we avoid our brokenness to our peril. When we don’t talk about it, when we leave the line out of the hymn, it’s easy to imagine that it is a personal problem, that other people haven’t broken their vows a thousand times. When we don’t talk about it, it is easier to let ourselves believe that we can eventually get rid of those parts of ourselves that cause us anguish. But my experience tells me we can’t, and that our efforts to try, bring with them their own kind of hurt.
Before I started theological school I worked as a sexual assault counselor. A large number of the women I worked with first approached our organization for help many years after the abuse took place. Strong and smart they had found ways to cope, often extremely creative ways to shut out, suppress, dissociate, medicate or otherwise cut out their pain. But invariably, their coping mechanisms eventually stopped working or became a part of the problem. One woman described the walls she built around the broken places in her heart. They were strong and secure and safely contained those painful, sharp fragments. Problem was, she didn’t know how to dismantle them. Now that she had children, she wanted help taking down her walls. She was troubled because she wanted to be able to give her children more of her heart.
Sometimes we are the ones hurt and sometimes we are the ones who do the hurting. There are moments when we are irritable, inconsiderate, unfriendly. And though we don’t like to think ourselves capable of deliberate cruelty, is there really one among us who hasn’t said something we knew would hurt in the midst of a fight with the ones we love best? We betray each other. We betray ourselves. I don’t know why we break our vows, but I know that sometimes we do.
But here is the good news. We are born into a covenant with the source of life. The word covenant means to come together by making a promise [from Rebecca Parker]. This is often how we think about marriages, two people making promises to each other, joining themselves in a covenantal relationship. But as the Unitarian Universalist minister, Rebecca Parker, writes, “we inherit covenant before we create it.” For reasons we cannot comprehend, we were given the gift of life. The gift was free, a result of life’s longing for itself. But having been given this gift, we are asked to give in return. We are asked to use our lives, to do something lovely and generous and wonderful with them that we might be a blessing. We are born into covenant through some great gift. We live out that covenant through our relationships with ourselves, other people, animals, the natural world, through our relationship with that which called us into being.
We were born into covenant, not into a contract. The Reverend Suzanne Meyer highlights the difference, “Unlike . . . the contract, which is automatically broken if one party fails to honor (their) end of the deal, a covenant remains in place even if one party is unable to honor it. Relationships based on covenants allow for failure, forgiveness, reconciliation, and grace” [”The Curriculum of the Free Church.” The Third Annual Conference on the Free Church. 30 March - 1 April, 2000.]. Covenant allows for the imperfection that is human nature. It assumes we will sometimes fail and welcomes us back. “Though you have broken your vows a thousand times, come, yet again, come.”
Our lives can still be a blessing. The great prophet of liberal religion, the Reverend Dr. William Ellery Channing preached this message in the middle of the 19th century. “Every condition,” he proclaimed, “has hardships, hazards, pains. We try to escape them; we pine for a sheltered lot, for a smooth path, for cheering friends, and unbroken success. But Providence ordains storms, disasters, hostilities, sufferings; and the great question, whether we shall live to any purpose or not . . . depends on nothing so much as on our use of these adverse circumstances.” For Dr. Channing the question was not how shall we eliminate suffering, but rather, given suffering, how shall we live?
How shall we respond to our messy, lovely, breathtaking and broken selves? How do we resist the temptation to shut down and seal away the parts of ourselves and our experience we’d really rather do without? There is wisdom in one of Christianity’s great ethical teachings — “love your neighbor as yourself.” This line is generally pulled out to remind us to be good to each other. Sometimes, though, I think it is even more challenging to be good to ourselves. Love yourself with all your sharp edges and constant imperfections. Love yourself when you feel disappointed or frustrated by your own heart and mind. Love yourself when you feel inadequate. Love yourself when you have been wounded by another and left with anger, fear, sadness. Love yourself when you are the one who has caused the hurt, when the needles of guilt and shame prick your conscience. Love yourself.
It is really important for me to say clearly here that the experiences of those who have been hurt and those who have caused the hurt are not the same. Neither do I intend to promote some cheap grace by suggesting that those who do harm should be let off the hook. We are accountable - to ourselves, each other, the planet, the holy. I believe we are all called to be responsible for what we do with our lives. What I am saying is that healing and repair require love. When we betray, when we are betrayed, there is a break in the covenant we share with life. Though the work of the victim and the offender are quite different, both require love.
Buddhist practice teaches that one of the ways we love ourselves is by opening our hearts to our experience. “The way out of our cage,” writes Tara Brach, “begins with accepting absolutely everything about ourselves and our lives, by embracing with wakefulness and care our moment-to-moment experience.” Acceptance, she notes, does not mean resignation or self-indulgence; it does not condone harm. Rather, it means keeping our hearts open to all our feelings so we can see clearly and have compassion for our experience. “The very nature of our awareness is to know what is happening,” she writes. “The very nature of our heart is to care. We don’t want to suffer or cause suffering.”
I think that is why we often try so hard to throw away painful experiences, we don’t want to suffer or cause suffering. When we suffer and cause suffering both, we often feel quite lonely, separate. I think of the feeling of alienation as a sign of a break in the covenant. We begin to repair that break when we accept our experience and remember our inherit goodness. These two, acceptance and compassion, Brach explains, free us to see how it is with us, thereby opening us to greater freedom of choice about how we will proceed. By clearly seeing and feeling the break, we can know better what we need to do to move closer toward repair.
I once asked my teacher, a wise, compassionate and insightful woman, how she got to be that way. “Oh,” she said with a smile, “I’ve learned not to throw anything away.” That is what the poets teach, too. The nights of anguish can be our most profound teachers if we would embrace their lessons. “How we squander our hours of pain,” writes the poet Rilke. Let us kneel more deeply to accept them. Rumi councils not only acceptance, but also welcome. No matter how dreadful and painful the experiences, “even if they’re a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honorably. He may be clearing you out for some new delight.”
I still struggle to accept my own imperfection. I still sometimes worry that people will leave me when I fail, that I won’t be able to tolerate my own feelings of inadequacy when I make a mistake. But I am trying to learn how to embrace those feelings and treat them gently. I have learned that I break my own heart and injure my body and spirit when I try to shut them out. So I try to remember the teaching of the world’s wisdom traditions. Though you have broken your vows a thousand times, come, you are still welcome. Open your heart. Love yourself, even when it hurts. You will fall short over and over, but when you do, you can forgive yourself again and try to make it right. Reach out and share your experience, especially when you feel most dejected and alone. Others can help us tolerate the things we’re not sure we can bear, can help save us from building walls around our hearts. Remember that life is good and beautiful, that your birth was a gift. Remember the promise that always comes with the morning light. Practice saying yes to all that life brings. Practice love.
May it be so and Amen.