”Perfect Presence” – December 12, 2004
Rev. Mark Harris

Opening Words – from Hanukkah Lights by Congregation Beth El

We gather in the chill of winter solstice, finding warmth from each other,
nourishing hope where reason fails.
Grateful for small miracles, we rejoice in the wonder of light and
darkness and the daring of hope.
Holy one of Blessing, Your presence fills creation.
You have kept us alive, You have sustained us, You have brought us to
this moment.

Reading – ”The Father, the Son and the Donkey” Buddhist and Aesop


Sermon – ”Perfect Presence”

This morning I want to share with you how difficult it is being perfect.
Most of you will probably agree that I hide it pretty well. You may not
even have been aware of my perfection. But now its out in the open. It is
a terrible burden to always know the right answer, and to always remain
poised at all times – non anxious presence, we clergy types call it.
Sometimes it is even necessary to fake some flaw in my personality or
demeanor, even dare I say, my diction in an oral presentation. I might
mispronounce a word, use the uneducated accent of my rural New England
roots, or even use improper grammar, can you believe, in order to perpetrate
a ruse on you my unsuspecting parishioners – so, for instance, if I say
idear and not idea, then you know. I am trying to protect you. After all,
even the one whose birthday we are about to celebrate said the only perfect
one was his Father who he clearly stated was living, if not out of state,
then at least in another state, and certainly not very accessible. Yet some
of us seem to believe we have nearly achieved that lofty status. Did you
know I always remain patient with every rental group that I have contact
with? Without perfection this would not be possible. Just ask anyone who
saw me, should I say heard me, warmly greet the person who was honking at
me to get my car out of her way in the circle out front of the church the
day of Faire on the Square. It was a shining example of the perfect use of
preacher’s lungs.

Perfect presence. There is a bit of simple play on words there. At this
time of year many of us seem to develop this agonizing feeling that the
gifts we have purchased for our loved ones are simply not the perfect
presents we had hoped to see them joyfully unwrap on Christmas day. The
genesis of this sermon was the seemingly endless list of Christmas gifts our
6, 8, and 10 year old children have come up with this year. Every new flyer
from the store or television commercial generated additional ideas, which
might be fine, because they surely would never receive every item on a very
long list anyway. Unfortunately, the problem has been that the new items
have gone successively to the top of the list on what seems like a daily
basis. The implication has been that if they did not receive the new, most
desired item then Christmas would not be a very joyous occasion. This has led
to much angst on the part of the recipients of these lists, the brokers
between the children and the purveyor, Mr. Claus. So Andrea and I would make
some purchases thinking we had just what they wanted, and then new desires
would be made known. We thought, “they’ll never be happy, and Christmas
will degenerate into a day of shattered hopes and a deluge of tears.”

Whatever happened to the satisfied, relatively certain ethos of one major desired
item making it a perfect Christmas – like the baseball mitt I once requested
in October, which I expected delivery on two months later with much
assuredness. I still have it. Haven’t these kids ever heard of one simple,
stable request. So how to give them a perfect Christmas when the perfect
seems to keep changing or perhaps can simply not be achieved? All the
effort to make them happy for the holiday, to say nothing of the financial
commitment, increases the desire that it be a good Christmas or else. We
can make a bottomless commitment to making them happy, and still fear a day
of dashed hopes. As Christmas approaches I sometimes feel like the mother I
overheard at the Imax theater the other day. It was an early release day
from school, and we had taken our kids to see the Polar Express in 3-D. As
we waited for the movie to start, I heard the woman behind me ask her kids,
“Well, are you excited yet.? Huh, are you excited?” Before the youngster had
a chance to answer, the mother said, “Well you better be. I just paid $100
for these tickets, and you will enjoy the show.” Nothing like forced
happiness, or was it perfection with a price tag. Remember when we used to
laugh about the toddler who played with box, while the untouched perfect
gift sat in the corner?

What is it about the greatest holiday of the year that induces us to
reflect pervasively on what we can do to create perfect lives for ourselves
or our children? Is it that if we have everything or have that one thing we
want the most, we will be happy. Maybe we think, life will be perfect with
the right toys. That may sound absurd and unattainable, but when we set
ourselves up to give the perfect gift to our children, the one thing in all
the world that will make them happy, or be the person who satisfies the
other and never fails the other then we see how difficult it is to be
perfect. Impossible, in fact. While perfection may not be a word we use very
frequently, the feelings of failure and guilt and shame that we frequently
have are what give flesh to this unspoken desire to be all and provide all
to our children, our parents, or our loved ones. We have a feeling that we
are disappointing them if we do not conform to their requests. We may
think their life is hard or they didn’t get what they hoped for, and now
they are unhappy. Why couldn’t I have given them that one thing they
wanted? My failure shows how far from perfection I am. The holidays
exacerbate this because we are seeing more people, giving more gifts,
involved in more meals and it sets up that many more opportunities for
competition and the judgment of success or failure. Our desire for
perfection as gift givers or parents or family member comes from our own
high expectations, or the perceived expectations of others. We can’t meet
those standards, and thus feelings of failure arise.

The desire for human perfection comes directly from our religious faith.
The spiritual founder of American Unitarianism, William Ellery Channing said
that the purpose of our faith is to awaken within us aspirations after a
nobler character and higher existence. In fact, he said the design of preaching and
the gospel of ministry was nothing less than the perfection of the human
character. Channing said we have all the capacities to aid in the pursuit of
perfection. But if religion is suppose to ennoble us in this striving, what
is wrong? Does it set our ideals too high? Are we looking for perfection in
all the wrong places? Channing said we have the ability to make unlimited
progress in moral and intellectual excellence. So, if we have this power,
why are we so easily derailed?

Sometimes perceived perfection is not really so. Many of you know that I
have an older son, who is now 25 years old. Oftentimes when we see a
newborn baby we hear people say that the baby is simply perfect in every way
– the rosy skin, the warm, cuddly, cooing little life with wide open eyes
for the world. We often say that the birth at Christmas time symbolizes the
hopes and dreams we all place in the life of a child for all the tomorrows
of the world we live in. Even morally the baby is unsullied and pure as the
world lies before them, ready to be known and understood, and they are the
perfect blank recipients for all its knowledge and beauty. I say this not
to balance the new purity with what we now know about the genetic map each
of us has that may bring problems and heartaches and disease. This does
reflect less than perfection, but I say it in this context today to recall
a memory of an apparently perfect little baby who was born 25 years ago. An
apparently perfect one who swallowed some infected amniotic fluid and was
rushed to a neonatal intensive care unit, for it was feared that these
poisons would poison him, and possibly end this new life. Instead of joy
and happiness at the birth of my first child, I was terrified. This big,
strapping perfect looking child, who was not perceptively sick like the
other babies in the unit was not perfect. I knew right away that perfection
was not possible.

Each of us grows into the world with varying skills and talents which are
nurtured in our environments to greater or lesser degrees. Some of us are
successful economically, some of us are handsome or beautiful, some of us
are smart and some are caring. We have gifts we develop, gifts we use to
greater or lesser degrees. But no matter how we develop no one ever is that
perfect person I presented at the outset of the sermon. I am reading a
biography of Abraham Lincoln, called Redeemer President. Lincoln may be the
redeemer because he saved our nation, but he also believed not that our
nation is favored by God, but that it is our mission is to determine
what God favors for our nation. Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon thought Lincoln was
“as near a perfect man as God generally makes.” He said this because
Lincoln possessed “unlimited integrity, always telling the exact truth, and
always doing the honest thing at all times and under all circumstances.”
Yet this perfect man was not very social or spontaneous in his feelings, and
moreover while he enjoyed life rapturously, still he was the victim of
terrible melancholy. This perfect man also had a deep streak of despair,
worthlessness and disappointment. We know he had marital difficulties, he
suffered the loss of a child, and he sometimes felt less than perfect in his
profession because he never earned a law degree, but was instead
self-taught.

While Lincoln would never have accepted the word perfect to describe
himself, there was a person in our Unitarian tradition who clearly felt
driven to strive for perfection. This was Margaret Fuller, who despite her
female sex was driven first by her father, and later by herself to be the
smartest, most erudite person in the world. Her father had her mastering
language after language, philosophy and science, and then on to polite arts
like piano, drawing, singing and handwriting. Did she ever sleep? In the
meantime he dreamed that she wouldn’t be able to play the piano in true
time, and voiced his doubts to his wife. As a result she practiced the
lesson for two days continuously. ”Father will think I make no progress,”
she said. Pleasing her father became an obsession. She began to worry
whether she was witty or entertaining enough, and then about the quality of
her letters to him. “I have a very bad pen,” she wrote, ”and hope you will
not criticize my writing too severely.” Later she wrote, “I fear I have
often pained you . . . I will endeavor to gratify all your wishes.” Here
we have a case of a woman who could never be perfect enough in her father’s
eyes. The reward may well have been that she was the smartest , most gifted
person in the world, and a great conversationalist to boot. But her drive
for perfection ruined her health, and she suffered with horrible migraines
her whole life, and she was so sure of her perfection that she often implied
that to others. They frequently didn’t like her, but it has always been
hard for a smart, confident woman to be liked in society whether she thinks
she is perfect or not. It is a thin line between self-love and
self-loathing. Those who are most sure of their perfection are often the
furthest from it, and their loathing underneath might be treated with a
generous dose of self-acceptance.

Famous figures in history remind us that there are no perfect people.
Sometimes there is silence among us because of shame about our status or
feelings of competition with others. The season entices us to buy when we
cannot afford to, or we find our values out of step with what seems to be
the predominant culture. If we have children they clamor for the same things
their friends have. The story I shared today speaks to many of these
feelings we have, especially at holiday time. The farmer and his son are
trying to bring their donkey to market to sell. Each group they encounter
find some reason why they are stupid, inadequate or are taking the wrong
approach. They feel that pressure from others, and so they put down the
donkey they are carrying. Then the son gets up and rides, and the people say
he is uncaring by making the old man walk, and then the next groups thinks the
opposite. Finally they both ride together, but the people feel this abuses
the donkey. In their final feeling of shame, the donkey runs off and they
lose her. The endless cycle of worrying about doing the right thing, or how
others think of us, or trying to please everybody ends us with the family
being empty handed. Christmas time makes us vulnerable to the opinions and
impressions of others, and we need all of our inner resolve to make our own
decisions about what is best for us. It is a time when our inner voice of
what is right must come to the fore.

This seems like the perfect Unitarian Universalist response, trust
yourself. Don’t listen to those other voices at holiday time. Unfortunately
we need those other voices to share our stories of family struggle or
inadequacy, or financial fears with. The profound religious thinker Thomas
Merton says that when we live for others, we are able to face and accept our
own limitations. But isn’t this the Christmas problem we have been talking
about? Its those others who broadcast or remind us of our limitations. But
Merton goes on to say, “As long as we secretly adore ourselves,” that is
think we are perfect, “our own deficiencies will remain to torture us with
an apparent defilement.” When you live for yourself, and think you have all
the answers, you fail to see your humanness. But Merton says when you live
for others, “We will see that we are human, like everyone else, that we all
have weaknesses and deficiencies, and that these limitations of ours play a
most important part in all our lives. It is because of them that we need
others and others need us.” Merton says that we begin to see that both our
success and our failures are part of an organic whole. My success may help
another, or my failures may have been caused by another. Even a mistake may
be compensated for by another. No one is perfect, and we only move forward
on each others backs.

This is a significant part of the power of the Christmas message. Every
baby is us, and we come to earth needing others to care for us and nurture
us. In some ways we are like Gods, marvelously endowed, prefect and
beautiful, but we are also subject to disease and death and hatred, and we
have the freedom to make bad choices, choices that hurt ourselves and
others. I think Charles Dickens’ famous story, “A Christmas Carol” has value
here. You know it as a story of a mean old skinflint, who is redeemed and
becomes a generous philanthropist who knows how to give the perfect gift.
But I want you to think of what Scrooge was like before he was redeemed. He
worried about his business, and told his employee he must work long
hours. He looked into the ghosts of his past, and feared the grave. He is
terribly human in his inadequacies, but what he does is admit those fears.
He does not go on convinced of his rich perfection above all others, but
secretly very vulnerable. Instead he takes the risk of confronting his human
frailty. He takes the risk of encountering how much he needs others. His
problem is that he has to make the decision to be brave. The religious
experience is not that he is transformed to be a nice generous guy, but that he
takes the scary journey of encountering all his fears about life. Once he
takes that fearful journey of admitting his fears of loneliness and
alienation, then he is ready to be a true, loving generous human being who
lives not for himself, but for others.

The idea of perfection, of perfect presence, exists in religion to
remind us that none of us are there – not most beautiful or smartest. We
all have trees with missing branches, jellies that don’t jell, and children
who are ungrateful for those perfect gifts. In faith, perfection is always a
vision, an ideal, a goal. Working towards that vision is what gives meaning and
hope to life. The perfect is not here now, and even when something you greatly desired occurs, it will not be the panacea for your life. When the Israelites, received their greatest desire, and returned to Jerusalem after the exile, the prophet Isaiah reminds us they learned that resentment and fear and family problems were still present in their lives.

Even the return from exile didn’t make everything perfect. So what we will sing
as a closing hymn, which comes from Isaiah 61 is only a vision of the
prophet – being together n religious community, we can only work towards the
time when the oil of gladness will dissolve all mourning, and together we
will build a land where all the captives – all of us who are captured by
loneliness, by fears about money or illness, consumed by pride and vanity,
will one day go free, and as the prophet knew long ago, we will only do that
together, as a community, living for others.


Closing Words – from Howard Thurman

When the song of angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the brothers (and sisters)
to make music in the heart.