A terrible wholeness

art 03On a high rock promontory overlooking the Mississippi River, I used to sit in the thin shade of an old pine tree to recollect the fragments of my life and to remember who I am. The tree was gnarled and worm-eaten and showed little green; the years and harsh weather had stripped away much of the bark and burnished the underwood. There was no value in its lumber. Yet the deep beauty of that pine tree taught me one of the most important lessons of my life, about the wholeness that comes from embracing brokenness as an integral part of life.

One of the biggest risks we face today, I think, is in not being who we are. Our culture makes it easy to be who we are not. It seems easier than ever to conceal our true identities by hiding in too many options and too much to do. So many people I know – and I include myself – are always at risk of becoming lost in schedules, task lists, jobs, memberships, the roles we play, the expectations of others. Or we hide behind images we create for others, the false selves we think others will value more than our true self.

The risk is there for me as a pastor. One of the most enduring heresies of our faith is that the pastor considered most successful, the one with the largest following and greatest influence, is not necessarily the one who best embodies and represents the enduring gospel of Christ. Rather, it’s the one who best enshrines and reflects the prevailing values of the culture, whether those values have anything to do with the gospel or not.1

That’s not only a professional temptation for pastors; it’s an ordinary temptation for all of us, to present to others our more socially acceptable aspects and hide our more embarrassing ones. We even try to deny or hide them from ourselves. We learn to wear a mask, several of them. So we plod through life with the sense that something’s missing, searching the world for it, only to discover eventually, if at all, that what’s missing is us.

What that gnarled pine tree still teaches me is that my flaws and failures, my defects and weaknesses, are not things to hide or get rid of. They are things to embrace and to love because they are part of who I am. Parker Palmer – one of the great prophets of our day whose work you ought to read if you haven’t already – wrote recently:

“The only way to become whole is to put our arms lovingly around everything we’ve shown ourselves to be: self-serving and generous, spiteful and compassionate, cowardly and courageous, treacherous and trustworthy. We must be able to say to ourselves and to the world at large, ‘I am all of the above.’ If we can’t embrace the whole of who we are – embrace it with transformative love – we’ll imprison the creative energies hidden in our own shadows . . . .”2

Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson explained that growing into maturity involves recognizing and accepting everything we have been and done – everything: the good and the bad, the light and the dark, the blessings and the curses, the successes and the failures – so that we become a whole, complete, fully integrated person. The alternative is to drift into despair. The fully mature person becomes a living affirmation of the truth Walt Whitman expressed: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”3

It can be hard to embrace the parts of ourselves that lurk in the shadows, in our memories, in the closets where we hide them away. It can be hard to embrace the difficult, contradictory opposites that we are and that the world is. What makes it possible is that God is already embracing us. “At the right time,” Paul wrote to the Ephesians, God “will bring everything together under the authority of Christ” (Eph. 1:10 nlt) – everything. The good news is, the right time is at hand.

“If we are willing to move through the pain of honest self-examination,” Palmer wrote, “toward the grace of compassionate self-acceptance, the rewards are great. When we can say, ‘I am all of the above,’ we become more at ease in our own skin, more at home on the face of this richly diverse earth, more accepting of others who are no more or less flawed than we are, and better able to live as life-givers to the end of our days.”4

When I can say, “I am all of the above”; when I can value all the self-contradictory qualities that make me who I am; when I can recognize that all of my weaknesses, deficiencies, and liabilities, as well as my strengths, adequacies, and assets, are essential qualities of my complete self: Then I’ll be able to fulfill the first and greatest commandment of life, to love God “with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:28-30). And I might finally have some hope of loving my neighbor – even my so-called enemy – as myself (Mark 12:31).

One of you recently asked, “Is there a set plan for all of us?” and another wanted to know, “How do I know when I’m following God’s plan for me?” If Paul is right that God’s plan for the fullness of time is to gather up all things into one perfect unity (Eph. 1:9-10), then God’s plan for each of us is that all the fragmented, conflicted, self-contradictory parts of ourselves be reconciled into fully mature human beings. Do you want to know if you are following God’s plan? Then ask to what extent you are giving yourself to the reconciliation of opposites in yourself and in the world.



notes — 1. The early fourth-century heresy called Donatism in its original form held that the effectiveness of the sacraments depends on the moral character of the minister. In other words, if a minister who was involved in a serious enough sin were to baptize a person, that baptism would be considered invalid. A study of Donatism’s history suggests it was really about a preference for local values over the values of the gospel. ▪ 2. Parker Palmer, “Fierce with Reality: Living and Loving Well to the End,” 8 July 2015, in On Being, onbeing.org. ▪ 3. Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself,” Leaves of Grass and Other Writings, ed. Michael Moon (New York: W.W. Norton, 2002), 77. ▪ 4. Parker Palmer, “Fierce with Reality.”

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