A Wabi-Sabi Life

by BC

Our reading today comes to us from the poet Elizabeth Carlson, titled, “Imperfection.”

I am falling in love
with my imperfections
The way I never get the sink really clean,
forget to check my oil,
lose my car in parking lots,
miss appointments I have written down,
am just a little late.

I am learning to love
the small bumps on my face
the big bump of my nose,
my hairless scalp,
chipped nail polish,
toes that overlap.
Learning to love
the open-ended mystery
of not knowing why

I am learning to fail
to make lists,
use my time wisely,
read the books I should.

Instead I practice inconsistency,
irrationality, forgetfulness.

Probably I should
hang my clothes neatly in the closet
all the shirts together, then the pants,
send Christmas cards, or better yet
a letter telling of
my perfect family.

But I’d rather waste time
listening to the rain,
or lying underneath my cat
learning to purr.

I used to fill every moment
with something I could
cross off later.

Perfect was
the laundry done and folded
all my papers graded
the whole truth and nothing but

Now the empty mind is what I seek
the formless shape
the strange off center
sometimes fictional

I never cared much for mending broken wings. Sure, I loved to take my dogs for walks, watch the cat chase a toy, observe hamsters endlessly run and run and run to some unknown destination — but I never desired to put satellite collars onto hounds, or any of the other duties of a veterinarian.

That childhood passion was lost on me. I flirted, as a child, with the desire to be a grand doctor, lawyer, judge, superhero, and, I kid you not, a health inspector. But ultimately, my desires for what I wanted to be “when I grew up” rested on what I like to identify as the call of the limitless and the uttermost. And for me, as a child, I felt the call of the infinite in two vocations.

The first is obvious. I stand here before you today. I have always felt the call to the pray trade. I found myself looking up to ministers across denominations as well as the many monks, priests, and ministers in my own family. I come from a long line of clerics. It was a natural fit and, thankfully, one I felt called to as well.

The second will come as a surprise. You don’t hear this often, especially from a child, but, I found myself drawn to wanting to pursue what is called the dismal trade — known more commonly as being a funeral director. Usually, when there is no history of the profession in a family, people don’t choose that line of work. It is one of the last great inherited trades. And yet, still, I felt a call to it in addition to ministry.

From there I became a rather morbid child. I have stoically contemplated mortality for quite some time and have come to appreciate and value funerals, memorials, and final goodbyes. This will sound odd for some of you in this room today, but, after worship, funeral rites are one of those aspects of ministry that captivate me.

As far as our priestly duties are concerned, they are dear to my heart — I find a sustaining light and beauty coming from how we confront mortality. It feels weird every time to admit such a thing. But every minister, chaplain, or funeral director I ever say it to nods and understands. Morbid? Yes. Most solemn? Definitely.

I clearly have not pursued a profession as a funeral director. There is no desire to at this point in my life, it is no longer a call but I say this knowing I was so close to doing just that, but, for me, ministry — and the life of the church — encapsulates everything that makes mortality so important.

There is the full spectrum of life in our sanctuaries. There are always hello’s and goodbye’s to be had and each and every one can be joyful, exuberant, solemn, or sorrowful. That is the life and the promise of being in our congregations. Saying hello and saying goodbye — always.

Yet even though I did not pursue the dismal trade — I’ve come into contact with many funeral directors during my formation in ministry. I find that we are able to connect on a level that is collegial, familiar, and mutually respecting our different paths. Each and every time I’ve come into contact with a funeral director I’ve left with something that I will never forget. Something that I will hold dear and share with my colleagues, friends, and you — the congregation.

A simple answer and perhaps a perplexing one. Funeral directors are fountains of random wisdom — small shards of insight that cut deep into my soul and scramble it around and leave it changed, challenged, and inspired.

In my experience, there is one encounter with a funeral director that has lingered with me and always will linger. It speaks directly to the life of the church. Specifically, it speaks to how we come together, in covenant, as congregations.

This wisdom story takes us to a typical Chicago winter day — and I am probably cursing all of us here with the sudden chill in the air we are all feeling just by saying “winter.” I realize for many of us that winter is the last thing we want to be talking about right now.

It was a few Marches ago, I’ve lost count, and it was a day when the heavens opened up and buried northern Illinois in slush, ice, snow, and freezing rain. It came rushing down, heavy — obscuring the roads, piling higher and higher, and it started early.

I was on my way to a funeral home half an hour away from where I lived — but I left much earlier considering all things. I was nervous. You see, that day, that day of slush and flakes, of quietness in the midst of blurred vision — I was on my way to officiate my first funeral.

It’s hard to even think about that moment now and remember it clearly. It is like this with every profession, you have your “first moments” and then before you know it you’ve lost count. Funerals, weddings, dedications…innumerable.

I arrived early. I sat in a parking lot half a block away and just waited. Breathed and waited. I thumbed through the pages of the service and inspected this silver chalice I brought with me along with a white pillar candle. That’s when I realized, holding and looking at the chalice, it was scratched.

Worn and scratched with old wax practically burned into parts o the metal. I had borrowed this chalice last minute and it has the appearance of being perfect for the moment it would be used for, but it was, up close, well used. I had to think: how could this object even be of use? How could this dingy, scratched piece of metal do justice to our sacred symbol and do justice to the life that was about to be honored?

I finally drove to the funeral home and was greeted by the funeral director. As I set up and we chatted back and forth about the logistics of the service, I stopped, looked at him, and informed him that the chalice was a little battered and used. I asked him, somewhat awkwardly, is that okay?

Without hesitating he patted me on the arm and said, “Used is good. Used is better than good. It has its own history.”

In that moment, that battered, used, and simple chalice became a meaningful, holy, and whole symbol — and not just a symbol, but a physical embodiment of what led me to that moment and led everyone gathered in their sorrow to that moment.

Everyone gathered there, the minister, the funeral directors, the mourners, the departed — had their own histories. Histories that were used, battered, worn, scratched, and borrowed.

It is tempting to come to our faith with an understanding that it begins anew in the moment we realize we are or always have been Unitarian Universalists. It’s easy to think that somehow our past is erased, that our previous history is no longer relevant. That, as Emerson put it, the ‘sepulchers of the fathers,’ and I would add, ‘mothers’ are no longer the foundation of our spiritual lives.

But it is still the case no matter how much it is temping to say otherwise. Shiny, new, and polished does not lend itself to being human — to letting go of a part of ourselves and embracing something previously unknown.

That is something worth acknowledging. The past is gone, but, the memory of it is a part of us. And it holds true with everything we do in our lives. If we dare to stop and examine ourselves we will pay a worthy honor to our past.

To tremble at the thought of building upon what has gone before us in our lives does not serve us in the least. That is why we are here on this day, on this Sunday, meeting as we do. We are carrying on a way of relating that brings power to the conscience and still says, Yes, we can meet. We can grow. We can remember the past and see that, used is good. It has its own history.

On any given Sunday, we all bring a lot to our congregations. Some of us are lifelong or nearly lifelong Unitarian Universalists — some of us were unchurched and found a sustaining community — some just wanted or needed a change — and some of us left a damaging, painful, and wounding religious past. All these things we bring are worth honoring and when the time is right — worth talking about, worth living into, worth going deeper, worth healing from.

And even then we must acknowledge that it can be difficult and, sometimes, painful or fearful. Doubt rears its ugly head and causes us to question ourselves — to question the sum total of what we have experienced as individuals. And I find doubt is at its most powerful when we hold on to expectations — either our own or those of others — that demand perfection.

Perfection comes to us in many different ways. There is binary perfection — you are either perfect or you are tarnished. There is the idea of perfection that comes to us from Aristotle — he had a lot to say about perfection — he says to be perfect is to be complete or to be perfect is the understanding of perfection to be that which is so good there is nothing that can match it.

From our Puritan ancestors — and I use that word intentionally, Unitarians are indeed the children of the Puritans, but from them, we understand perfection to be that of being undefiled, blameless, and holy. The Gospel of Matthew tells us, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.” Perfection to Christianity is akin to godliness.

And if you keep pushing it, perfection has so many meanings. Perfection in our jobs, perfection in our material possessions, perfection in the new that we are attempting in our lives, perfection as something we fear not being able to attain. All of the above understandings are here in our culture — demanding far too much of us.

But from Eastern traditions, perfection can be called, better, harmony. I like that idea far better. Perfection as harmony. Perfection as not an unblemished state, but rather a state of sabbath, a state of rest in any given moment.

A rest that is restorative, a rest that is fulfilling, a rest that causes you to sit back, sigh, and let go of your worries. I can live with that understanding of perfection — a whole moment or experience that is much harder to pinpoint.

Those years ago with that tarnished chalice as a wild eyed seminarian dipping in to the holy work of ministry, I found a harmony from the words of that funeral director reminding me that used is good.

And that moment, that funeral, it turned out to be okay. It turned out to have meaning and history. It was used — it was a thrift shop religious experience and that was good and right. Life is like this wherever we turn. We inherit or partake of things that perhaps we would rather do without.

But what if we turned to these things — like a painful religious past — conflict with loved ones — or a troubling history — and brought it into the now. Brought it into our communities with honesty — with a realness that is deep and vulnerable? What if we let go of the need for perfection and instead, let the scratches, cracks, tarnishes, and blemishes shine brightly? What if we filled in the cracks with gold?

All throughout, the story of the tarnished chalice, the pottery with golden cracks, an idea that perfection is not so perfect after all — harkens to an idea called Wabi-Sabi.

The aesthetic of Wabi Sabi comes to us from Japanese culture, whose origins can be placed in the evolution of the Japanese Tea Ceremony in the 16th century. Up to that point, the Japanese Tea Ceremony was lavish, with ornate decoration, the most expensive utensils, bowls, and finery, and it was reserved for the elite.

In the 16th century, in protest of this lavishness, a man by the name of Sen no Rikyu, a student of Zen and a tea master, introduced humble bowls and common utensils to the ritual.

The decorations were simple and natural, and the whole experience was there to foster humility. Whether in a palace or in a mud hut, the Tea Ceremony was made accessible. In doing so, Sen no Rikyu helped launch the concept of wabi sabi.

From Japanese architect Tadao Ando, he describes wabi-sabi as such:

Wabi-sabi is flea markets, not warehouse stores; aged wood, not Pergo; rice paper, not glass. It celebrates cracks and crevices and all the other marks that time, weather, and loving use leave behind.It reminds us that we are all but transient beings on this planet-that our bodies as well as the material world around us are in the process of returning to the dust from which we came. Through wabi-sabi, we learn to embrace liver spots, rust, and frayed edges, and the march of time they represent.

We have a hard time acknowledging that sometimes we bring life experiences to the table that are scratched, secondhand, tarnished, and used. It’s not just American cultural life but also religious life. How different would our religious life be as a whole if we openly shared our struggles, filled in our cracks with gold, and wore them with pride? It’s easier said than done.

Which brings us to today. We’ve welcomed newcomers in to our community. We will do so again in the Fall and the Spring after that and again and again — we will welcome you who are seekers, you who have found a home, and you who might still be wondering what the heck church is about these days.

What I want our newcomers amongst us to know but especially the long time members: church is just as scratched, worn, battered, and full of cracks as anything else on this good earth. Church is not perfect. It never was perfect. It never will be perfect.

To strive for perfection in a community like this is to misplace our hopes. And the fact that we are Unitarian Universalists, a faith tradition rooted in this moment, rooted in the paradox of having a simple but very complex way of being religious, there is no perfection here. But there is history.

Our faith shows its cracks. Our chalices are all the more beautiful for their tarnished look, our old and sometimes very Protestant hymns can sound angelic, the minister will say sorry more than he or she wants to, and our projects will fail, committees will falter, boards will lose sight — and church is all the more amazing for holding itself together with all of these things. It is just that much more beautiful.

We can ignore the brokenness in church and strive for that unobtainable perfection we inherited from the Puritans or we can sit back, stare right at the cracks, rest, and fill them with gold. Fill them with our hopes, our mistakes, our deepest longings.

Fill them with a gold that will strengthen the whole and heal the breaks — while at the same time making the cracks shine brightly and proudly for all to see. Wabi Sabi is a way of looking at the world and seeing that it is used and it is good. It is whole even when it is broken — and that what makes our lives, our communities, tarnished is the very thing that makes life beautiful.

What are the cracks in your life? Ask yourself this and know, here in this church, we do not offer you ways to ignore the cracks and the breaks, but we offer you gold to fill them in so they may shine brightly.

Shine brightly, dear friends. Blessed Be. Amen.