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Sunday, February 3, 2013

When Living "Right," Isnít

Presented by Guest Preacher Rev. Aaron McEmrys with Carol Carter Walker, Worship Associate And the Choir singing an Auction Song won by Carol Carter Walker

When Living “Right,” Isn’t

A Sermon by the Rev. Aaron McEmrys

Guest Preacher

Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

January 13, 2013


In the corner of rural Wisconsin where I grow up, it seems like everyone plays softball.

I smell cut grass, spring nights, and bright white lights that turn on like magic at sunset.  I knock my bat against my shoes like I see my father do.

I grow up understanding that softball is important.

And to be honest, I try my best to avoid it, knowing from sore experience that I’m almost certain to accidentally whack the catcher with my backswing.  And I’m afraid of the looks I know will follow.

But I can’t avoid it forever.  It’s the father/son softball game. Night falls, and the field grows dim. I’m just behind the imaginary line between second and third base.

Crack!  Goes bat on ball, a line drive screams right at me out of the gathering darkness and I don’t know what comes over me but I leap high and to my left in slow motion, stretching my skinny arm out of its socket, and then I tip and tumble and roll on hard ground as my teammates race toward me, jumping.

I look down at my glove – and lo and behold - there’s a ball in it!

There’s my dad, looking at me with such…pride…the other dads clapping him on the shoulder for raising a boy who can make such an impossible catch.

I can’t tell you how vividly I remember that moment.

And after that - I never play softball again.

Because I know I’ll never make a catch like that again.  Right now I can retire victorious – but if I continue, I know I’ll wipe that impossibly rare look of pride off my dad’s face and replace it with the head-shaking disappointment I know too well.

I doubt I’m the only person in this room who grew up believing that my worth was directly tied to my effectiveness, to what I accomplish and achieve.  What I do, and how effectively I do it is what matters – so I stick to what I know I can do, to things that I can point to and call success.

And so the world becomes small and shallow, and no place for dreams.

So what a great gift it is, later, when my best friend’s dad teaches us to play tennis.  I can (and do) miss those balls all day long, and it doesn’t matter.  We spend the whole summer swiping at balls, and after about the thousandth time I whack a ball over the fence – I know for sure that however well or poorly I play the game of tennis, Cory’s dad cares for and respects me just the same.  And after maybe the ten-thousandth ball, I remember to respect myself, too, no matter how many balls I hit over the fence.

We are, without exaggeration, the most productive people in the history of the world.  This, we are told, is America’s chief “virtue,” and so we put a premium on Getting. Things. Done.

We are also told that finding ourselves, being ourselves, is what matters – but...later.

We can follow our heart’s call – but only after that next hurdle, that next promotion, when the last of the children makes it through college – or when we’ve finally saved enough to retire. And maybe not even then. As my second-favorite Transcendentalist observes: “We are always getting ready to live, but never living.”


My friends, the time to start living, really living – is now.

We all yearn for harmony between “soul and role.”  But in the meantime, it’s our productivity and effectiveness that commands affirmation and reward.

When we start using effectiveness as our measuring stick – then what matters most is what can be weighed and quantified and measured. Items on lists we can tick off to simultaneously demonstrate our worth and drown out that little voice that asks, in the still small hours of morning, “is this all there is?”

It is here that perfectionism is born, that frantic race to stay a step ahead of the gnawing feeling that we are not living our lives as the people we were born to be. 

Psychologist Brene Brown reminds us that:

“Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth.

Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame.

 It’s a shield. Perfectionism is a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from taking flight.

 Perfectionism is not self-improvement. Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval and acceptance.

Please. Perform. Perfect.”[1]


 I was maybe twelve years old when I made that miraculous catch and even then I had already taken the lessons of “please, perform, perfect” to heart. 

Thank goodness there were people in my life with different lessons to share. If there were no one to reflect my inherent worthiness back at me, I am quite sure I wouldn’t be preaching this sermon, or any sermon, today.

But I recently watched a movie that reminds me not everyone is so lucky. Margin Call is a fictionalized look at one firm at the very beginning of the 2008 financial crisis.

Let’s drop into an Executive suite, where the firm’s decision makes are beginning to realize just how far they’ve overreached and just how toxic many of their “assets” are.  And after a long night of deliberation, they decide to sell off as many worthless securities as they can before their buyers realize what’s happening.

The chief sales manager, played by Kevin Spacey, is ordered to make it happen.  He knows it’s wrong, and he wrestles mightily with his conscience, but ultimately the money is too good and besides, he’s invested thirty-four years of his life in this work – and he can’t quite make himself walk away.

He takes a deep breath, and steps into the conference room.  He tells them that if they’re successful they will each receive a 1.4 million dollar bonus - and then, knowing that this time money isn’t enough, he says this, his words like sawdust in his throat:

“If we are successful today, it means we will have also been responsible for destroying our own jobs. 


But I can tell you I am very proud of you.  I am very proud of the work you will have done here today.  I’ve been at this place for thirty-four years, and I can tell you from experience that people are going to say some very nasty things about what we do here today, and about what you’ve dedicated a portion of your lives to – but have faith that in the bigger picture, our skills have not been wasted.  We have accomplished much. 

And our talents have been used…. (And here he forces the words out like so many bits of broken glass)…our talents have been used - - - for - - - the greater good.”


It’s like an anti-St. Crispin’s Day’s speech from Henry the 5th, and right before our eyes we see his world collapse. Yeah, you’re a great salesman, all right – but for what?

I know it’s a movie.  And it is on the far rim of a continuum I pray none of us will ever see. But there’s something here I recognize: it’s the absolution of effectiveness.  “Yes this is wrong, but if we do it well, this well-nigh impossible task, selling a hat-rack to a moose – we can still take pride in a job well done.”

Like the ordinary Germans who once made the trains run on time.

All drama aside: “we might find what we do entirely meaningless, we might hate or resent our job, yet still hitch our desire for approval and connection to how well we perform. While this is true for men in particular, most of us rely on work to help us make up for fears of unworthiness. This strategy delivers the goods through money or power, through the strokes we get for our diligence and competence, through the satisfaction of “getting something done.” But we can get lost in these substitutes, overlooking the fact that they will never satisfy our deepest longings.”[2]

 “This is why we cannot settle for mere “effectiveness,” argues Parker Palmer, “as the ultimate measure of our failure or success. Yes, we want to be effective in pursuit of important goals. But when measurable, short-term outcomes become the standard for assessing our efforts, the upshot is as pathetic as it is predictable: we take on smaller and smaller tasks—the only kind that yield instantly visible results—and abandon the large, impossible, but vital jobs we are here to do.


“We must judge ourselves by a higher standard than effectiveness,” he continues, “the standard called faithfulness. Are we faithful to the community on which we depend? Are we faithful to the better angels of our nature and to what they call forth from us? Are we faithful to the eternal conversation of the human race, to speaking and listening in a way that takes us closer to truth? Are we faithful to the call of courage?


Effectiveness grounded in faithfulness; that’s how we sustain ourselves in the work that never ends: doing justice, loving mercy, and calling the beloved community into being.”[3]

This is wholeheartedness.

To live wholeheartedly means to live from the center of oneself.  From the heart; for we cannot do this without loving ourselves.  “Knowledge is important, but only if we’re being kind and gentle with ourselves as we work to discover who we are.  Wholeheartedness is as much about embracing our tenderness and vulnerability as it is about developing knowledge or claiming power.”[4]

“What do I love,” may be the most “wholehearted” question there is.  Not “what do I love,” as in  - Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream – but what do I love so deeply, that if tomorrow morning I wake and this quality is gone from the universe, and there’s no point in getting out of bed?

“What do I love so deeply that I will not live without it? Beauty, perhaps, or justice, or love - especially love.  If I wake up tomorrow morning and any of these are gone from the world – I will pull my blanket up over my head - and wait for eternity to end.

Whatever it is that you love so much that it makes getting out of bed worthwhile – plant your life on that!  For the only place we can truly stand when the storm comes (and it always comes) – is on the holy ground of love.

But “what do I love” is just the beginning. If this is the love upon which I build my life – then how then shall I live?” 

We come to crossroads of choice every day, when we have to choose this way or that – and it is precisely in these moments that remembering what we love matters most. 

So many of our choices are about time, and how best to use it.  Well if it is upon love that I plant my life, then perhaps I need to take Ralph Waldo Emerson’s advice to heart, for “friendship does requires more time than busy women and men can usually command.”

It’s not easy.  These choices are real.  But I really do get to choose whether to stay at the office for another hour – or make it home in time for dinner with my family. And then block-towers on the floor. Then bedtime; and a story.

What do I love, and how then shall I live?

These are whole-hearted questions, and when we live them our lives flow from our very foundations.

Gino Bartali is one of the greatest cyclists of his generation. He wins wealth and fame and adoration, and in 1938 he wins the Tour de France, the pinnacle of his profession.

All of Italy loves Gino. He has a wife he loves and children he adores. He even moves his parents into their first-ever proper house, with running water and even electricity!

And then the War comes and there are no more races. Gino can easily buy his way out of harm’s way, after all, and the fascists are more than eager to yoke his legs to their propaganda machine. 

But one day Gino has a long, secret, conversation with his parish Priest.  And within days Bartali is once again riding hundreds of miles a week, but not for fame or prizes.  He is smuggling counterfeit IDs for Jews so they can escape the camps.

He rolls the papers up and hides them inside the hollow tube under his bicycle seat.  Week after week Gino rides the length and breadth of Italy, passing through hundreds of Nazi checkpoints, never knowing if the young soldiers will ask for his autograph – or to search his bike.

Gino Bartali is perhaps the most gifted cyclist in Europe, and he does win his fair share of glory.  But he doesn’t stop there, as so many of us do – he keeps his legs yoked to his hard-pumping heart, and keeps his heart yoked to his faith, and so hundreds live who would otherwise die. 

He lives faithfully, whole-heartedly, with a self, undivided.

Late in life, Gino reflects: “Everyone has his own particular way of expressing life’s purpose – the lawyer her eloquence, the painter her palette, and the author a pen from which the quick words of his story flow.  Me? I have my bicycle.”[5]

Gino Bartali shows up with his whole self. But so many of us don’t, and “I cannot imagine anything worse than dying with the thought that during my time on this Earth, I rarely, if ever, showed up as my true self.”[6]

We are creatures of habit.  But which habits we have is up to us.  We get to choose what to cultivate and what to uproot.

Take courage, for example. Courage is a habit like any other, and as theologian Mary Daly writes, “You get courage by practicing courage, like you learn to swim by swimming.  You learn courage by couraging.” “And every time we choose courage, we make everyone around us a little better and the world a little braver.”[7]

Courage, faithfulness, listening, playfulness, the ability to withstand tension and paradox  – these are habits worth cultivating – and this is why people come here.

Because we want to live with integrity. Because we want our living to flow from our loving. Because we long for selves undivided.  And because we cannot do it alone.

We are here to do nothing less than mobilize the power of the human heart –---one person, one row, one sanctuary, one community at a time.

We are here because we are drawn to wholeness.  When we embody this, people come.  For when we do this the light we give off is visible from space – and to the eyes of every soul.

This is why we’re here.  This is why we’re needed.

Within these walls your worth is determined not by your achievements or your lack – but by the light that dwells within you. Here you have nothing to prove. Here you are “worthy - now. Not if. Not when. Right this minute. As is.”[8]

And lest all this authenticity start to sound like still more heavy lifting in a life already full of weight – know this – at its core whole-heartedness is about joy.  Not a task to accomplish, but an adventure to begin.

And last but not least, remember to laugh, freely and often – for as Anne Lamott reminds us, “Laughter is a bubbly, effervescent form of holiness,” something I daresay our whole world can use a lot more of.

So take off your armor and lay down your shield, so you can run through the long grass of your soul.

[1] Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection (New York: Hazeldon, 2010) Kindle location 1024

[2] Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha (New York: Bantam, 2004) Kindle location 2111

[3] Parker Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy: the courage to create a politics worthy of the human spirit (2011) Kindle location 3912

[4] Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection (New York: Hazeldon, 2010) Kindle location 101

[5]Aili and Andres McConnon, Road to Valor: A True Story of WWII Italy, the Nazis, and the Cyclist Who Inspired a Nation (New York: Crown Publishing, 2012) Kindle Location 3647 

[6] Parker Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy: the courage to create a politics worthy of the human spirit (2011) Kindle location 3842

[7] Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection (New York: Hazeldon, 2010) Kindle locations 264 & 403

[8] Ibid, Kindle Location 528

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