Mission Impossible: Why Failure is Not an Option
Rev. Sean Parker Dennison

2015 Berry Street Essay 

To view the PowerPoint presentation click here.


To Heck With Suspense (Introduction)

I have a friend, Ksenia, who writes books. In fact, she writes a new book every few months and gives them away online. She also gives writing advice, which has come in handy as I’ve prepared this essay. One piece of her advice was particularly relevant to this essay. She told me, “Do not keep any secrets as you write.

It’s a hard piece of advice to take, and is controversial in the writing world, where some authors suggest you keep the audience hanging for as long as possible, not letting them in on major themes, plot points, or twists until you absolutely have to. To support her side of the argument, my friend quotes Kurt Vonnegut’s eighth rule of writing:

Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.[1]

My friend even reveals the entire plot of one of her books in the very first sentence, which reads, "Lilith Bloom had a peculiar feeling that the rose garden wanted to eat her."[2] And so, out of respect for my friend and for you, my audience, I am going to take her advice and tell you right away, without suspense, that this essay is about failure.

The title I chose: “Mission Impossible: Why Failure is Not an Option,” is a play on words, an attempt to be clever. But what I mean by “failure is not an option” is not that ministers, Unitarian Universalists, or human beings cannot or should not fail.  When I say “failure is not an option,” I mean that we cannot help but fail. If our mission is big enough we will fail. It’s not an option. It is inevitable.

Why Admit Failure?

Along with avoiding suspense, I promised myself another thing when I agreed to present this essay. I promised myself that I would tell the truth. No distortion, no evasion, no covering up the hard or embarrassing parts, no lies of omission, just the truth. That’s why I started by telling you right off that failure is inevitable. But I need to tell you just as directly that we are already failing.

You may be asking yourself, “Why would anyone accept failure and not fight, kicking and screaming, to avoid it?” Believe me, I understand the question. My biggest coping mechanism is what I call “hyper-competence.” When I’m stressed or anxious, I will do it all, all by myself, and what I do will be so amazing and excellent that you could never doubt my value. So truly, I understand that it’s hard to admit failure. It’s hard to admit that I’ve failed in the past, hard to admit I could fail in the future, and hardest of all to admit when I am failing in the moment. And yet, I’m here, telling you this truth: I am and you are and we are failing.

Now, I’m certainly not proposing that we intentionally fail or engage in self-sabotage. I’m not suggesting we surrender all hope of success in our ministries, our congregations, and our work for the common good in this world.  The real reason I am telling you these truths about failure is that I want to free us all—free us from the fear, the shame, and the isolation—of being people who fail.

You see, as long as we fear failure—as long as we use up vast amounts of energy trying to be perfect, absolutely and adamantly competent, we are not going to have the energy to be or become the relevant, responsive, passionate, and growing movement of Unitarian Universalists we yearn to be. As long as we are frozen in our tracks by the fear that we might fail or more accurately, that others might find out we fail, we are stuck thinking small, making only the safest of plans that we already know will succeed. But I am here to tell you: You might as well go ahead and plan to fail, because you’re going to do it anyway. You already are.

There’s another reason to admit failure. Study after study that measures the priorities of the (mostly) younger demographic that we hope to attract to our congregations are reporting a major shift. People are no longer swayed or impressed by knowledge. They don’t care about having the Big Truths explained to them in sermons. They no longer turn to ministers for answers to religious or spiritual questions. They turn to Google for those things.

We are all now inundated with information, most of which is meant to manipulate us into to clicking, tweeting, posting, or buying something. We don’t need more information and more and more of us don’t trust the sources of the information we already have.  Instead of information, people are looking for ways to sort through it, to determine what is helpful, relevant, and worth remembering. And the way they are determining who can help with that is by looking for authenticity.

A quick Google search turned up millions (literally) of abstracts, books, and articles on authenticity. People in design, tourism, advertising, event planning, and the culinary arts…are all trying to appear more authentic. Did you hear that? They are trying to appear more authentic. In other words, they are faking it. Their product or brand or restaurant or toothpaste is the best because it is the most sincere, down-to-earth, and authentic. Because that’s what sells.

All of this means that people are becoming incredibly sensitive to pretense. They distrust slick, glossy packaging. They abhor insincerity. They like flaws. It seems the next generation of church-goers, if there is to be one, will not care as much about the learnéd ministry as the authentic one. If we are going to be relevant, we have to be real. And that means admitting that we fail. Not only that we might fail or could possibly fail or that we have a great ten-point philosophical understanding of failure, but that we do fail. Right now. We are already failing.

How We Fail

We are failing. And I don’t say that lightly, because frankly, the ways in which we are failing break my heart. I have spent at least some time every day for the past few years considering leaving Unitarian Universalism and ministry. Not because I feel angry or bitter that others have failed me. Not because I doubt myself, or my ability to embody excellence in ministry. I consider leaving the ministry because my heart is constantly breaking—broken so relentlessly that it cannot begin to heal before it is broken again.

Maybe a story will help:

Once upon a time, when the internet was still shiny and new and there were no blogs, but only LiveJournals and UseNet groups,  an independent Baptist minister who called himself “Real Live Preacher” (imagine a carnival barker yelling, “I got your Real Live Preacher right here…”) began writing about ministry and theology and life. I found him online and was fascinated as I watched his fame and community grow. He moved his writing to its own blog domain, signed a book contract and added a chatroom where a motley interfaith crew began hanging out. He was, by all accounts, an internet success.

Eventually, this Real Live Preacher and I became friends. Not just “oh-hi-I-know-you-on-the-internet” friends, but “I-call-you-when-my-son-is-in-jail-or-my-teenage-daughter-is-pregnant” friends. We became the kind of friends who understand the whirlwind life of being a minister in a rascally, independent, congregation; the kind of friends who don’t get upset when long silences fall between them and distance keeps them from meeting face-to-face.

And then, about three years ago, Real Live Preacher left the ministry. Even though I knew he’d been struggling for a while, I was shocked. I read all his explanations, even picked up the phone and called to hear him say the words himself, but I was still confused and truthfully, scared. This friend and colleague who meant so much to me—whose stories and encouragement and support got me through some of the hardest times of my life—he just…quit. And he was happy about it; or at least, relieved.

I didn’t have a chance to ask him about his decision in person until this past November, when I went to Texas over Thanksgiving for some self-care and healing time with a dear colleague. My host graciously allowed me to invite Real Live Preacher to join us at the family tamalada, where we would all get our hands and shirts dirty and our bellies full while stocking the freezer with tamales for Christmas. It was then, after hours of rolling and steaming and packing up tamales, that I finally had the chance to ask. “Tell me, Preacher, why did you leave the ministry? I mean the real reason. The one you don’t tell just everybody. I need to know.”

As I remember it, he was silent for a minute—the kind of silence that happens when you know you’re going to say something so true that it could change everything.  And then he told me. And what he told me has been like an arrow in my heart and a weight on my chest ever since. His answer is a sore spot in my heart, and I’ve been probing it like a broken tooth ever since, alternately repelled and fascinated by the pain. His answer: “I had to leave the ministry because I could no longer serve the over-served…”

Ouch. I could no longer serve the over-served.

I will admit that from time to time as I prepared this essay, I imagined recounting every way that in my perception, Unitarian Universalism has missed the mark. But I realized as I listened to my friend that all the disappointment I’d been carrying around and trying to ignore; all the hurt I feel when I’d wanted better from myself, my congregation, or my faith tradition; all the weariness from being singled out as a role model or poster child because of what I am and not who I am; all the sadness that made me wonder daily if I could bear to continue in my calling—it’s all there, in that sentence: “I could no longer serve the over-served.” He named, in seven short words, the sum total of our failure.

The Failure of Privilege

It’s important to note that this failure is only, in part, the failure of individuals. It is far more the failure of systems and the particular failure of privilege. We have inherited a tradition and culture that have been aligned with the over-served, the privileged, and the powerful. Of course, this privilege and power are not personally true of all of us. And for the majority of us, it is only partially true or only true in some of the times and spaces of our lives. But as a whole, the culture that defines us is one of privilege.

Yes, it is true that only half our name and history are aligned with social privilege, but as is often true when mergers happen, the culture with more practice being in power becomes dominant. And so we are more like our Unitarian ancestors than we are like our Universalist ones. We have inherited a system of expectations, habits, and beliefs about ourselves and the world that reflect this pattern of power and privilege. Whether we like it or not, whether we notice it or not, whether it serves us or not, this is our position. In this we are not alone.

Walter Brueggemann wrote an entire book for those of us who share this position. He called it Prayers for a Privileged People and in it are these words:

We are a people of privilege and

entitlement. We are among the haves—

we have education, connections, power,

and wealth. Too often we are indulgent

and self-sufficient consumers. We speak of

our achievements and accomplishments.

Sometimes we offer God liturgies of

disregard, litanies of selves made too

big. But we hear faint reminders of a

better way.[3]

 

We are part of a system that is steeped in habits of privilege. These habits become a part of us; we internalize and replicate them without conscious thought. And these patterns we’ve inherited are the biggest part of how we are failing. While privilege confers power and status and opportunity, it also proscribes certain kinds of awareness and relationships.

The very basis of privilege is the notion that some people are more worthy than others, that their ideas, needs, and very existence is more important. If you ask any one of us, we will tell you that this isn’t true, that all people are equal and worthy. But the system is insidious and persistent, and teaches us to continually judge and rank people. There is only one powerful criterion we use to judge: how close any one of us is to a very specific ideal of perfection. We all know what perfection is. Perfection is young. It is white. It is male. It is healthy. It is able-bodied. It is thin. It is athletic. It is heterosexual. It is Christian. It is economically “comfortable.” Each and every one of us is measured against this ideal. And we are all taught to measure each other as well. And when any one of us is judged to be lacking, it is never the fault of the system or the standards, but the fault of the individual, who just didn’t measure up.

According to the system, people who do not measure up are less important, less worthy, and just matter less. We have seen, in so many ways over the past weeks and months, this ideology at its most extreme. We have seen what happens when people believe that some lives matter more than others. We have seen murder, violence, incarceration, exile, homelessness, terrorism, and poverty.

And even as we cringe at these things, we find we too have absorbed this mental organizational chart, this way of looking at the world, ourselves, and each other. And in another of its big tricks, the closer we are to the ideal, the less likely we are to notice the whole scheme. We think it is just the way things are.  And that helps the scheme replicate itself in every interaction, every Facebook post, every time we decide whether or not to take a risk, talk to a stranger, clutch our purse or lock our doors.

This system is cunning and crafty and it manages to infiltrate our thoughts and our communities so fully that no one is immune. One can internalize and employ it toward others or toward one’s self. We’ve seen the religious right be brutal and vocal with their judgments. They openly blame the ills of society—human tragedies or natural disasters—on people they believe to be impure and imperfect.

But they are not alone. I am noticing the increasing use of internet shaming on all sides: from publishing the names and addresses of those accused of wasting water, to a kind of vicious joy at calling out the mistakes and excesses of celebrities. Yes, people say and do stupid, unkind, and unjust things. And yes, we can and should critique them. But more and more, I see people demanding perfection—ideological and behavioral purity—in a way that I recognize.  And when someone is judged to be “problematic” I see a new but familiar kind of shaming and shunning. All of this is just another way the hierarchy of perfection exerts its influence, punishing mistakes and failure and demanding perfection.

Ultimately, the obsession with who is good enough, pure enough, right enough dehumanizes us all. It dehumanizes the ones being judged and rejected, but also the ones doing the judging, who must distance themselves from their own humanity and the other’s. This culture of judgment destroys human connection and community and amplifies the messages of hierarchy and inequality.

Not only are we taught to idolize the myth of perfection, but we are trained to fear difference, to fear making mistakes, to fear being or becoming the imperfect one.  Because we have all internalized this fear—no matter how near or far we are to the impossible ideal—we must continuously try to cover up the parts of ourselves that don’t measure up.  We live with the constant anxiety that to be judged less-than-perfect means we are therefore less worthy. The system has taught us that our value comes from our proximity to perfection. No wonder we fear failure!

This fear of failure keeps us isolated, but it can also incapacitate us. Even if we believe and yearn to contradict the system and to fight the resulting oppression and colonialism, we are often immobilized by the fear that we cannot or will not succeed. Dr. Crystal Marie Fleming, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Africana Studies at Stony Brook University, made this point powerfully clear on Twitter this week, when she reminded us, “We must be willing to challenge racial oppression without reaching for or lapsing into liberal fairytales about "ending" racism.”[4] We cannot allow the system to scare us into inaction, keeping us petrified and frozen because we might fail and therefore allow oppression to continue unchallenged.

Walter Brueggemann’s poem ended with the words, “But we hear faint reminders of a better way.” This better way is, perhaps, the reason religion exists at all and why it too is constantly failing and being reformed. A responsible and mature faith dethrones us from the pretense of perfection and accepts that we will fail; that we are failing. Ironically, the fear of failure causes us to fail in this way. Because we fear failing, we are failing.

A Big Enough Mission to Fail

The terrible effect of a system that constantly judges us, evaluates our every action, and shames us for not being perfect is that we begin to limit ourselves. We stop dreaming big. We insist on realism and practicality in all our plans. We begin to pride ourselves on being “dispassionate.” We rely on the already known: information rather than inspiration. We seek advice from people who we feel understand the limits of our resources and capacity. We dismiss and defend ourselves from people who urge us to do more and dream bigger. We may even begin to shame people with big ideas, branding them trouble-makers or fools. “How can they ask such irrational, illogical, or unrealistic things of us?”

We do all this—creating conflict and division in our community—because we are afraid, but also because we are tired, uninspired, burned out. Without vision, the people perish. And people who feel as if they are perishing are all-too-tempted to trade the work of creating Paradise on earth for a strategic plan with a goal of ten new congregations in five years. Or just one pledge drive that will actually balance the budget. This, this is how we fail. Our vision and mission become too safe, too small.

I long for Unitarian Universalists to be claimed by a “mission impossible.” I don’t mean write a mission statement or create a mission. I mean be claimed by a mission so big it startles and scares us: a mission like the congregation in my home town that put up a banner that said simply, “We feed the hungry.” And they did, by opening a soup kitchen, a food pantry, and an after-school program. They fed the hungry by gathering for spiritual sustenance, building relationships that broke through isolation so they could truly begin to love their neighbors as themselves. And the congregation grew and thrived and had to expand their building to hold everything they needed to live into their mission.

I long for us to be claimed by a mission that is bold and huge and daring. Maybe: “Unitarian Universalists Show Up.” Wherever there is a need, a crisis, a cry for justice or for a supportive presence, Unitarian Universalists would show up. We wouldn’t have to lead. We wouldn’t have to plan long-term strategies. We’d just show up wherever we are needed or whenever we are asked. Imagine our reputation: “If you need people to clean up a creek bed or march in a Pride parade, or protest injustice or help protect Muslim worshipers at prayer—call the Unitarian Universalists, they show up!”

I am a firm believer that what will save us—or will at least increase the odds of us being relevant and growing movement we hope to be—is a mission so grand, so BIG, that it is impossible. Call it creating heaven on earth, or building Beloved Community, or repairing the world—it is something so audacious that it demands that we lay aside our culture of caution, our desire to prove our efficacy, and our fear of failure. Our mission would be so big and have such a claim upon us, that even in we messed up, we’d keep trying.

Because no matter how big our mission, we still wouldn’t be perfect. We might show up when we weren’t really needed. Or we might say or do the wrong thing in an unfamiliar situation. Or maybe, maybe we would fail to show up when our presence would have made a difference. And we’d have to find ways to admit our failure, make amends, recommit ourselves to our mission and try again.  I’m okay with that. Because by trying to live up to our impossible mission, we would learn and grow and be in the places where we were needed and we would learn a new kind of courage, a new way of being brave.

Creativity, Art, and Failure

Neil Gaiman, who is a writer and creator of many things, gave a commencement speech that was later published as a book. In it, he urges:

I hope you’ll make mistakes. If you’re making mistakes, it means you’re out there doing something… Make interesting, amazing, glorious, fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here. Make. Good. art.[5]

I hear something in Mr. Gaiman’s words that inspires me to a new kind of courage, to new ways of being brave. If our congregations are going to be relevant, I think we ministers have to lead the way. And we have to lead without—or at least, in spite of—the fear of failure. Perhaps, we can learn some of this by reconnecting with the muses, playful and dangerous partners that they are.

Art and spirit are close kin—the only two realms in which people talk openly about inspiration—about being claimed by the beauty of a thing or an idea or a cause. For centuries if you wanted to see art, you would head to a cathedral, temple, or mosque. You might walk through gardens made to resemble paradise on earth or be bathed in light filtering through stories told in glass.  For millennia, people understood art to be a gateway to spirit and spirit to be at work in art. Only in the past few centuries, as industry and capital have begun to determine what is of value, has art been demoted to an avocation, a hobby.

When I was planning my most recent project—Cabaret Church—we used a quote by Jennifer Yane as our motto: “Art is spirituality in drag.” It may have made people laugh, but I hope it made them think as well. Art and spirituality are deeply connected, and I think we have much to gain by reclaiming not just a connection to art, but a sense of ourselves as artists and the work of ministry as art.

Another story:

At the end of my first year at my current congregation, Tree of Life, (Unitarian Universalist Congregation in McHenry, IL) it was clear to me that I was ministering to a community of artists. Our hundred-and-forty-member congregation has a thirty-member choir that honestly, can sing anything. Our awesome Music Director, Tom Steffens, takes every idea I offer and makes it awesome. This year, just to name a few, they sang “Anthem” by Leonard Cohen, my favorite gospel song “The Storm is Passing Over” and R.E.M’s “Everybody Hurts.” (Yes, I’m bragging.)

But it’s not just music. We have actors, sculptors, fabric artists, painters, poets, and glass artists. I can’t think of anyone in my congregation who doesn’t make art. Even the chair of my Endowment Trustees plays the banjo and sings at our coffee house.

One Sunday after the service, I was talking to a few board members, and I spontaneously asked, “So, when I say ‘minister,’ what image comes to mind?” 

Their list was unsurprising, “He’s tall and thin, in his mid-fifties, has gray hair and a beard, wears black, and he is very serious. 

Next I asked, “What about when I say ‘artist?’ What do you imagine then?”

“Oh, she’s young! She has blue hair and tattoos and wears colorful, funky clothes and she is lively and unique and FUN!” As I observed these long-time leaders of my congregation, it wasn’t the answers they gave, but the way they gave them that caught my attention. They spoke with joy and enthusiasm, with heart!

When I pointed out the change of energy in the room, we agreed that we would experiment with trading our mental image of “The Minister” for that of “Artist.”  They laughed and said, “Now you’re going to dye your hair blue, aren’t you?” And I said, “Maybe.” And the chair of the Board said, “Good!” Something began to shift and we began to claim art as part of our mission and it began to change us.

When I said at a planning meeting, “I really should probably teach a class on UU history…” they were savvy enough to ask, “Hmm…is that your “serious-minister-all-in-black” showing up? What do you want to teach?” When I answered, “Well, there is this poetry class I’ve taught a couple of times…”they said, “THAT! Teach that!” And so I did.

Nine women signed up for the class. Four of them were already leaders in the congregation. Two came because they wanted to get to know people better. A mom and daughter decided to take the class together. The ninth woman was new. She’d been on our mailing list because she’d once attended a documentary film we’d shown. That very week her therapist encouraged her to start a writing practice and she saw our poetry class in the newsletter and spontaneously signed up. As we introduced ourselves, she mentioned that she attended a local evangelical mega-church.  

The next week the assignment was: “Write a poem that tells a very short story.” When it came time to share, the newcomer blurted out, “I’m really terrified to read this. I’ve been terrified all day. Can I please go first?” We agreed and she introduced her poem by telling us that she was in counseling because her marriage was abusive, and she was wrestling with what to do. She then read the most honest and painfully beautiful poem telling a story of power and control that while deeply personal, was also a story anyone who had known abuse would find familiar.

In that moment, the class became more than a bunch of people who wanted to experiment with writing poetry. We were claimed by a mission—the most fundamental mission of art—the mission of truth-telling. From that moment on, none of us could share a single poem that pretended to be something it was not. We bonded into a community that could tell and hear truth. More than that, the Unitarian Universalists in the class gained—seemingly instantaneously—the ability to interpret and accept words spoken in a language of faith that they themselves had rejected. No one felt the need to correct her when she said, “God bless you” or to dismiss her when she said, “Praise the Lord.” The mission of truth-telling was too important.

About halfway through the class, she found the courage to move into a local shelter. It was hard for her to be there, and she kept writing poems and we kept listening, without judgment, without correction. Her poems told her story and we learned the terrifying truth of the danger she was in. We heard how the leaders of her church told her to go home, to have faith, and to pray. She couldn’t tell them what she’d told us: that she’d locked his guns in the trunk of her car because she was afraid he would kill her while she slept. We held her and heard her truth and shared a profound artful and spiritual community.

She didn’t become Unitarian Universalist and like many women in her position, she struggled, returned home, left again. Her road to freedom and safety will likely continue to be bumpy, but her willingness to be honest made it possible for all of us to set aside the façade of perfectionism and connect around our common, flawed, humanity. Together, we witnessed two things: the value of her life and each life, no matter how far from perfect; and the power of art in spiritual community to affirm that value and beauty. In this small circle of truth-tellers she could see herself—flaws and all—through our eyes, and ultimately, through our theyology—a theyology in which eternal, all-embracing Love would never, ever let her go. She didn’t become an Unitarian Universalist, but she knows we’re here. She knows there is a religious community that doesn’t believe she is being punished, doesn’t blame her for the abuse, and will not abandon her for being human.

Art is healing. Making good art is more than paint on canvas or a moving melody line or beautiful turn of phrase. Making good art is opening our hearts—our whole beings—to the emotion, inspiration, pain, and courage of being alive. Making good art demands that we let go and allow ourselves to be claimed by something bigger than our egos, something bigger than our fear. Making good art means being willing to face the inevitable messes and mistakes and be brave. When we do this, we sometimes succeed in ways we could never have imagined.

Theyologies of Failure & Forgiveness

Like many of you, I do something now and then that terrifies me just a little: I put a sermon up for sale at the annual fundraising auction.  The winning bidder gets to determine the subject of the sermon, and I’m always afraid the buyer will try to stump me by picking a subject they know I know nothing about. I have had a couple of close calls: a sermon on near-death experience and another on the wisdom of Libertarianism. But even more fascinating than the possible trickster sermons is the one topic that has come up more regularly than any other. At least four of the sermons that people have asked me to preach—have been willing to pay for me to preach—have been on forgiveness.

As Unitarian Universalists, we don’t start our religious story with predestined shame or mutually-assured damnation. I am thankful for that, and yet sometimes I fear we’ve missed the theyological point. Just because we don’t believe in original sin, that doesn’t mean we are perfect. And when the inevitable pain and disappointment come—when people fail us, or we fail ourselves and each other—we find ourselves deeply in need of theyologies and practices of forgiveness.  

And yet our Unitarian Universalist principles and purposes don’t mention forgiveness.  We have no season of forgiveness, no ritual of repentance, no confessional.  There is promise in our Universalism, but we have yet to articulate much more than a vague understanding that somehow, it is possible for us to be reconciled, to return to right relationship no matter how we have failed. We make mistakes—sometimes huge, painful, messy ones—and we feel the consequences of the mistakes of others.  We need theyologies of forgiveness, ways to make things right. Without them, we are stuck, doomed to a hard-hearted pretense of perfection.

Our colleague, Marlin Lavanhar named something in a sermon a few years ago that I have not forgotten. He said, “One mistake we often make is trying to lead with our strengths rather than our heartbreak.”[6] Thank you, Marlin, for naming that so clearly. What we need to do, if our movement is going to resonate with the “nones” or the “dones” we hear so much about, is to lead with our heartbreak, even with our failure. We need to counter the culture of purity and perfectionism with a Universalist theyology of love and with new practices that teach us that we will not be rejected, but can find our way back when we fail.

Failure is not easy. If I’ve made light of it in any way, I am truly sorry. Even small failures are embarrassing and big failures are devastating. Forgiveness is not easy either. Despite the pop-culture books and memes with pretty pictures and promises, forgiveness is hard spiritual work. Educator and feminist bell hooks, who I believe is one of the greatest thinkers in recent times, said:

For me forgiveness and compassion are always linked: how do we hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?[7]

What bell hooks is asking is something we have needed for a very long time. This is the other side of the theyology of covenant—the acknowledgement that we have, indeed, broken our vows a thousand times. Only when we begin to form practices that help us live into this theyology can we stop replicating the systems that divide and destroy, that break hearts and threaten to break the whole world. 

To ask for forgiveness or to offer it is a struggle every time, because it is our relationships that bear the brunt of our imperfection. Sometimes those relationships cannot bear the strain. Sometimes our hearts break. Yet, if we can offer ourselves, each other, and the world theyologies, practices, and rituals of forgiveness that are worthy of our ancestors and their daring vision of Love that will not let a single one of us go, we will begin to heal what is broken.

Those in our movement who are urging us to become more missional—to be claimed by a mission, rather than expecting people to be attracted to Unitarian Universalism because we’re so awesome—ask a question that I have been grappling with since I first heard it a few years ago: “For whom does your heart break?”

This question is aimed at getting us to stop pretending that we are or can ever be perfect and to stop buying into the system that wants us to blame others for their suffering. “For whom does your heart break?” There are so many possible answers and each one could claim us, could become our mission. Each one could free us from worrying we must be saved by our competence, by achieving perfection. Each encourages us to admit that while we’ve been good at articulating covenants, we keep failing at living them out. “For whom does your heart break?”

I told you in the beginning of this essay that I hoped that by acknowledging our failure, we might discover a kind of freedom—the freedom to be fully human, to be honest and to stop trying to convince ourselves, our congregations, or God that we are perfect. This radical act of admitting we fail, of casting off the addiction to perfection that is rooted in systems of empire and privilege, is what has claimed me. When I imagine us claimed by this mission, I find that my heart and my faith and my hope for this world begin to heal.  

Author and educator Parker Palmer wrote words that have sustained me through times of near despair:

Wholeness does not mean perfection: it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life. Knowing this gives me hope that human wholeness — mine, yours, ours — need not be a utopian dream, if we can use devastation as a seedbed for new life.[8]

This is my hope, that we can use devastation—failure, heartbreak, brokenness—as the seedbed for a new, growing, and alive Unitarian Universalism. That we will take up the work that lies before us: to refuse to be hardened by the constant demand for perfection; to create tools of compassion that can help us to forgive ourselves and each other;  and to make good art of our lives and ministries—good, messy, imperfect, and beautiful art.

May it be so. May we be the ones that make it so.

Amen. Ashé. And Blessed Be.



[1] Vonnegut, Kurt, Bagombo Snuff Box, Putnam, (1999)

[2] Anske, Ksenia, Rosehead: A Novel, self-published, (2014)

[3] Brueggemann, Walter, Prayers for a Privileged People, Abingdon Press (2010)

[4] Fleming, Crystal Marie, Twitter, https://twitter.com/alwaystheself/status/612113893310242816, (2015)

[5] Gaiman, Neil, Neil Gaiman’s ‘Make Good Art’ Speech, William Morrow, (2014)

[6] Lavanhar, Marlin, “A Calling for US,” delivered to the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist  Association, Fort Lauderdale, FL, (2008)

[7] hooks, bell, in an interview with Maya Angelou, Shambala Sun, (Jan 1998)

[8] Palmer, Parker,  A Hidden Wholeness, Jossey-Bass, (2004)