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Wisdom Undelivered – 10/26/2014

Recently, one of you shared this little story with me, and I’m grateful to you for allowing me to share it this morning. Your eldest child had come home from school with a special packet of information. It was a fundraiser for the school – there was a form to fill out, and a plan to make for participating in it. You thought it was funny because you did that exact same fundraiser when you were in school, the same age as your child is now.

You found yourself back in the same scene that you had been in before, only now you were the parent, instead of the child. You could remember how grown-up your own parents – the two most important adults in your life –.seemed to be when you were that age. How wise, how in-control, how full of authority. And thinking back across the 25 years or so between then and now, you realized something – my God, you understood something – maybe for the first time: Your parents must have been just as lost then as you are now. They were just as uncertain about each new step of being a parent, just as capable of self-doubt. At six or seven years old you couldn’t see it then but through the eyes of adulthood and the experience of standing now where they were then you can tell: your parents were never so wise or supremely confident as your own mind made them out to be. They were muddling through then, just like you sometimes feel you’re doing now, just like – could it be that everyone is just muddling through?

That was not even the most striking thing about this experience, though. No, the grand conclusion you drew from all this – the ‘aw, crud’ that really summed up the moment – was as follows: The wisdom that a child imagines in her parent is not on its way. That check is not in the mail. The great and blessed day when you’ll have everything figured out is not coming.

As human beings we have an almost inescapable habit of creating hierarchies in our minds about the people around us. Placing ourselves along a continuum with the folks we look up to on one side of us, and the folks we think ought to look up to us on the other. Of course, for most of our peers, and most strangers, and a lot of the people in the world, they’re not really falling at one end or the other. Instead they land right around where we place ourselves and move back and forth depending on the situation. You’ve got that one friend you would definitely go to for car advice, but never consult about your marriage. That cousin who’s a nurse, you might ask overly-forward questions about some minor medical worry, but for fashion advice, you’d be looking somewhere else. But still most of us, maybe even all of us, have people that we make examples of. The sorts of people that we hope to be, that we wish we could be. And when the day comes that we realize they are anything more frail or fragile or imperfect than what we have imagined them to be, the fall can be terribly hard.

Some of the clearest examples of this come from the realm of religion. History is littered with prophets, teachers, and messiahs who have lost their following once they are revealed to be fallible or out-and-out frauds. Nicholas of Cologne, in the year 1212, was the leader of what is sometimes called the Children’s Crusade: a mass pilgrimage by poor people, many of them children, from Germany and France seeking to convert the Muslim people of the eastern Mediterranean to Christianity. His prediction that the sea would dry up to allow his followers across did not come to pass, and he eventually died crossing the Alps.

Four hundred years later, a man named Sabbatai Zevi rose to prominence claiming to be the messiah. His campaign captured the spiritual imaginations of many Jews living under harsh conditions in Europe and the Middle East and he caused such a stir that he was eventually summoned to the court of the Ottoman sultan in what is today Turkey. The sultan gave him three choices: to be executed forthwith; or to have his divine nature tested by a volley of arrows – which would, of course, all miss if he were truly the messiah; or to renounce his claims of messiahship and convert to Islam. Zevi took the third option.

One farcical example of this trajectory comes from the sketch comedy show The Kids in the Hall. Kevin McDonald plays the only member of Ted’s Church of the Very Bright Lights – an organization its founder insists is a church, not a cult. Kevin’s character grows frustrated when no one on the street wants to take his pamphlets. Lord Savior Ted tries to reassure him that his doubts are a natural part of faith, as he mixes up macaroni and cheese. As Ted launches into a tired recitation of his incredibly banal mission from God – to “tell ‘em I said ‘hi’” – an exasperated Kevin mouths along with the words. It’s a sort of magnification of anyone who has ever felt like they only ever hear the same story told over and over again in church. Ted’s reassurances that his movement will grow with time no longer impress Kevin.  “It’s been you and me for six years, Ted,” he points out. The scene closes when Kevin renounces Ted, and stalks out of the one-room apartment that serves as the church’s headquarters.

Would that false claims of spiritual authority and misuse of religious office were ever as funny in actual practice. Instead they are about as far from the comic as one can possibly go. It would be irresponsible for me to offer a message about the importance of tolerating and appreciating flaws in the people we admire, without making it clear that such space for imperfection must never excuse or justify the abuse of authority. The few decades of my life alone have seen scandals in virtually every modern religious movement, from Zen Buddhism, to Roman Catholicism, to Judaism, and, yes, to Unitarian Universalism. By now we ought to be keenly and sickeningly aware that any crime or betrayal by a religious leader whether personal, financial, or sexual, not only does the damage of the crime itself. It not only diminishes the office of all other clergy. It also damages the faith of those who looked to that person for spiritual guidance. Such is true in virtually any such case of abuse or profound harm: once our trust has been perverted and broken it is terribly hard not to lose trust in others, in ourselves, and in the benevolence of the world we share.

But the mundane imperfections in our teachers, the exemplars who manage to be mortal – as we all are – without exploiting anyone, these are not necessarily a barrier to our own needed learning. The Hindu mystic Rama-Krishna told a story about a spiritual master named Tapobana. One day, Tapobana heard that his most devoted student had been seen walking across the river that divided the city as though it were solid ground. Tapobana believed himself to be far above the student in wisdom and learning; in fact, he viewed the disciple’s unswerving dedication to him as a sign of the student’s limited faculties. Still, he had to know the secret of this powerful display.

Tapobana sought out his devotee and asked if the stories were true, that he had developed a habit of walking across the surface of the river each day and night. The student declared that they were, and offered all credit for the miracle to his master. “With each step,” he explained, “I recited your blessed name, and this is what upheld me.”

From this, Tapobana decided that he must have had spiritual powers of which even he was not aware – surely whatever his student could accomplish by invoking his name, the master could achieve just as well. He rushed to the river bank and set his foot upon the water. With profound concentration he recited this mantra, “Me. Me. Me.” And then he sank.

Alan Watts, a British mystic who helped to popularize Zen Buddhism in the west, offered a set of instructions for what he called the ‘Trickster Guru,’ someone determined to fake their way as a religious teacher in order to help others attain real spiritual liberation. His advice is to “[b]e somewhat quiet and solitary…[n]ever ask questions,” but, “…provoke people into asking your advice.” Command your students to perform odd exercises; some should be merely difficult, and others should be impossible. Be sure to have, “about thirty or forty different stages of progress worked out…and suggest that there are still some extremely high stages beyond those.” “Insist on some special diet, but do not follow it yourself.” To pull the whole thing off, you will need to be an utter and perfect skeptic, devoid of any superstition or even wonder or awe – otherwise, some other spiritual confidence man might outwit you. But at the same time, you must find a way to believe your own hoax – it’s the only way you’ll ever find enough nerve to pull it off.[i]

Now, as Unitarian Universalists, we have a tradition of turning towards, rather than away from, the imperfect in our teachers, prophets, and saints. At its best, this has allowed us to appreciate the beauty and the truth in a life without discarding it when that life gets messy. During the Enlightenment, when the blossoming of the scientific method led to fresh questioning of the miracles attributed to Jesus, our spiritual ancestors chose to focus on his humanity as a source of inspiration. Rather than having to be perfect in an unquestionable, unapproachable way, Jesus could be understood as a wise teacher whose wisdom sometimes failed him. He could be seen a prophet of peace whose anger, at moments, got the better of him. He could be understood as a messenger of hope who also struggled with his own uncertainty and despair. The lessons of his life weren’t rendered mute by such an understanding of the man – rather, they were made newly accessible. No longer bound up in a character so flawless as to be alien, the words and actions described in the Gospels could now be read to offer a lofty but still possible model for humanity to strive for, and lessons could be taken from his failings as well as his virtues.

This same view applies equally to any spiritual teacher, any teacher of any sort, in fact, and to all those we hold up as examples to ourselves of the lives we aspire to lead. Be they parents or mentors or persons of learning, passion, or experience: all are mortal. Be we those parents, mentors, or persons of learning, passion, and experience, we, too, are mortal. And in that frailty is found our greatest blessing. We are never assured that we will get it all right – we may be certain, in fact, that we won’t. But it is because we are able to fail that we are able to learn.

We live in an age when it has become a sort of sport to recite the moral failures of famous leaders and paragons of supposed virtue. There is a cheap satisfaction for a certain cynical impulse within us to be found there: in the smashing of idols, the fracturing of a monument’s feet of clay. Hence the roll-call of philandering politicians, the salacious repetition of both rumors and proven facts about figures from Gandhi and King to Hawking and Einstein. William Wilson, the famous Bill W. who co-founded Alcoholics Anonymous is said, perhaps apocryphally, to have asked for whiskey on his death-bed. Thoreau took breaks from living alone in his cabin to enjoy the company of friends and a home-cooked meal. It may be that only public figure that history has proven unable to discredit by catching the scent of some hypocrisy or moral contradiction is Mr. Rogers. But all of this begs the question: so what?

I do not mean to brush aside the wrong where wrong has been done. But the only true purpose for the smashing of idols is to make clear the greater truth which they obscure. When our lives point others towards what is true and right, that cannot be diminished, it cannot be cut out from the record of days no matter our faults, however great they might be. Even if moral perfection could be accomplished – and friends, I do not recommend holding your breath – it can never be attained by seeking only to do no wrong: preferring passivity over any mistake. Our highest obligation is instead to seek to do right, despite the limitations of our knowledge, wisdom, patience, and strength. To risk being wrong by having the courage to be, as best we are able.

Which returns us to that story that one of you shared with me a few weeks ago. I confess that like you, I rarely feel so wise or so confident as my parents appeared to me when I was young. Like you, I have my moments of self-doubt. My hours. My days. Like you there is a part of me that wishes for wisdom to arrive on a perfect schedule, fully-formed and pure, to take away the guess work of life. But what I know is that the total absence of doubt in one’s self is the surest sign of fraud. Either a fraud in the person who pretends such perfect confidence, or a fraud in us, projecting that quality onto another. The pretense of perfection is too great a weight to bear: it makes us either pretend that we are faultless, and live in fear of being unmasked, or it leads us to wait around, forever, for the flawless guidance which is not coming. Instead, let us take solace and courage in the fallibility of all persons, first of all ourselves. It is only because we are capable of making mistakes that we are capable of learning to mend them.

[i] From his essay, “The Trickster Guru,” as reprinted in The Essential Alan Watts.

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