The Beauty of Imperfection


Rev. J. Mark Worth

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “There is a crack in everything God has made.” In Western religious traditions it’s understood that we’re all imperfect, and that while we can improve, human perfection just isn’t possible. Mark’s sermon will draw on the wisdom of Taoism, Buddhism, Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, Marilyn Monroe, and the close of the baseball season to find the beauty of imperfection.

1. From Marilyn Monroe (Norma Jean Baker), 1926-1962, American actress (two quotes):
Life is what you make it. No matter what, you’re going to mess up sometimes, it’s a universal truth. … Just because you fail once doesn’t mean you’re going to fail at everything. Keep trying, hold on, and always, always, always believe in yourself, because if you don’t, then who will, sweetie? So keep your head high, keep your chin up, and most importantly, keep smiling, because life’s a beautiful thing and there’s so much to smile about.

2. … Imperfection is beauty, madness is genius, and it’s better to be absolutely ridiculous than absolutely boring.

3. From Matthew Fox, born 1940, American theologian and Episcopal priest:
If you look closely at a tree you’ll notice its knots and dead branches, just like our bodies. What we learn is that beauty and imperfection go together wonderfully.


Meg Barnhouse, a UU minister, has a photograph titled, “Broken Buddha.” It shows the lap of a painted Buddha statue. One hand is broken off, and is resting on the sole of the upturned foot. Meg writes that she is drawn to that image, perhaps because it shows the Enlightened One as imperfect, cracked, and chipped. She says, “Maybe that’s how my enlightenment feels. It’s not all that shiny anymore. … The Broken Buddha tells me I don’t have to be scared of being the way I am. … The broken Buddha tells me that life is not neat. … The Broken Buddha says he knows how I feel.”

“There is a crack in everything God has made,” Ralph Waldo Emerson tells us. He claims that mythology has it right. Achilles is not quite invulnerable, Siegfried not quite immortal. Every greatness has a drawback. Cassandra could accurately foretell the future, but no one ever believed her. “Every sweet has a sour,” Emerson says. “ … For every grain of wit there is a grain of folly. For everything you have missed, you have gained something else; and for everything you gain, you lose something.”

We are imperfect, and yet, as Matthew Fox reminds us, there can be a beauty in imperfection. Look at the trees – they’re full of knots, twisted bark and dead branches, and yet they are beautiful – “just like our bodies,” he says.

In Western religious traditions it’s understood that we are all imperfect, that we all do the wrong thing at times. I’ve made plenty of mistakes. I messed up my first marriage, we both did, and wound up divorced. I thought I had learned my lessons, but when I married Mickey I made a whole new set of mistakes, both as a husband and as a stepfather. So many times I look back and wish I had done better. I’ll bet you do, too.

So, if you’re like me, it’s not as if you get up in the morning and say to yourself, “Today I think I’ll embarrass myself by doing something really stupid, something I’m going to regret.” No. We start off with good intentions, and yet sometimes we wind up in a place where we didn’t intend to go.

Listen to the words of Paul of Tarsus, St. Paul, who is often called the first Christian theologian. Anyone in a Twelve-Step program can quickly understand where he is coming from. In his Epistle to the Romans (7:14-25) he wrote, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate… I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it. I decide not to do wrong, but then I do it anyway… It happens so regularly that it is predictable.” … Does any of that sound familiar?

Trying to be perfect ~

We don’t set out to be so flawed. We want to be perfect. But of course our human idea of perfection has its traps, too, doesn’t it? Columnist Anna Quindlen doesn’t recommend perfectionism. She recalls being an undergrad at Barnard College. Quindlen says, “I got up every day and tried to be perfect in every possible way. If there was a test to be had, I studied for it; if there was a paper to be written, it was done. … Being perfect was hard work, and the hell of it was, the rules of it changed. So that I while I arrived at college in 1970 with a trunk full of perfect pleated kilts and perfect monogrammed sweaters, by Christmas vacation I had another perfect uniform: overalls, turtlenecks, Doc Martens, and the perfect New York City Barnard College affect – part hyper-intellectual, part ennui. … Eventually being perfect day after day, year after year, became like always carrying a backpack filled with bricks on my back. And oh, how I secretly longed to lay my burden down!”

Quindlen says that the thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself. This is difficult because there’s no roadmap, no guidebook to being yourself. Don’t try to be what the world tells you to be. If you try to live by the Ten Commandments, the Eightfold Path, the Twelve Steps, and the Seven Principles, you can wind up feeling like a failure. Remember the words of Lily Tomlin: “If you win the rat-race, you’re still a rat.” We’re actually better off without the human idea of perfection. We have tried to build Utopias, and they turn out to be nightmares. Utopian dreamers and perfectionists gave us the Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials, Hitler’s Germany, Kim Jong Un’s North Korea, ISIS, and other human hells. If that’s what perfectionism brings, we don’t want it. The truth is that nobody can be a perfect doctor, teacher, spouse, partner, parent or child. You and I will never be perfect. Even our church, as much as we like it here, can’t be perfect. We’re pretty good, I think. Yet nobody is perfect.

Imperfection and religious teachings ~

Chinese philosopher Laozi, author of the Dao de Jing (or Tao te Ching), understood something about those who thought they could achieve perfection. He wrote, “Fill your bowl to the brim, and it will spill. Keep sharpening your knife, and it will blunt. Chase after money and security, and your heart will never unclench. Care about people’s approval, and you will be their prisoner. Do your work, then step back. The only path to serenity” (Chapter 9, as rendered by Stephen Mitchell). This is the essence of the Daoist approach. Don’t try to force things to fit your point of view. The universe will not conform to our desires because it does not run by human laws. Learn the Dao, “the Way of Virtue,” and let go of your desire to control other people and other things.

The Buddha observed, “Don’t look at the faults of others, or what others have done or not done; observe what you yourself have done and have not done.” Buddhism says that we must let go of our egotism, our craving for success, approval, and material goods, because nothing is permanent. When we stop grasping at impermanent things, and practice mindfulness, compassion, and loving-kindness, we can find the serenity of our true Buddha-natures.

Christianity and Judaism both recognize that there is no such thing as human perfection. Canadian poet and essayist Phyllis McGinley writes, “The wonderful thing about [the Christian] saints is that they were human. They lost their tempers, got angry, scolded God, were egotistical or testy or impatient in their turns, made mistakes and regretted them. Still, they went on doggedly blundering toward heaven.”

Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) understood human imperfection when he wrote the original “Serenity Prayer,” a slightly different version of which is used today by Twelve Step groups. Niebuhr’s original words were, “O God, grant us the grace to accept with serenity the things we cannot change, courage to change the things which should be changed, and wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”

Imperfection and baseball ~

So it’s autumn, time for the World Series. I love baseball; Mickey doesn’t. She says that it’s like watching paint dry. I admit it can seem a little slow at times. That’s it’s nature; baseball a game of strategy, a game with no time clock. It takes as long as it takes.

I’m a Red Sox fan. But I have a friend who teaches in downtown Boston, and she’s a life-long Yankees fan. Here’s the thing about Yankees fans: they expect to win. The Yankees have won 27 World Series championships, a record in Major League Baseball. But they didn’t win the World Series 81 times. The most successful franchise in baseball has failed to be the champions far more times than they succeeded!

And consider the Chicago Cubs. The last time they won the World Series was 1908. “The Cubs win! And, wow, have you seen Henry Ford’s new Model T ?!!” And yet the Cubs, known as “the lovable losers,” have always had loyal fans and draw good crowds. This year they actually have another shot at the World Series.

Fay Vincent, who was Commissioner of Major League Baseball from 1989 to 1992, said, “Baseball teaches us, or has taught most of us, how to deal with failure. We learn at a very young age that failure is the norm in baseball and, precisely because we have failed, we hold in high regard those who fail less often – those who hit safely in one out of three chances and become star players. I also find it fascinating that baseball, alone in sport, considers errors to be part of the game, part of its religious truth.”

So, this autumn, let’s consider the spirituality of baseball. Failure is the norm of life. If you get an on-base hit one time out of three, you’re a superstar. Even the very best pitchers almost never pitch a perfect game.
There is a crack in everything God has made, according to Emerson. Let our spirituality acknowledge those cracks, the knots and the dead branches, and find the beauty in them. We are not perfect, but we are not hopeless sinners, either. We are not “everything,” and yet we are not “nothing.” We are finite and fallible, and that’s okay. Like the broken Buddha, our fractured being, our imperfection, simply is.

Of course, we want to keep learning; we want to understand our behaviors, and do better. But in order to do our best, we first have to see, to understand, and accept that imperfection lies at our core. There is pain in every life. That’s the condition of existence. When we see the beauty of imperfection, we can find the possibility of healing from within the pain.

Our shared journey ~

So let’s end with a story of hope, a story of our shared journey: Once upon a time, two brothers shared a field and a mill. Each night they divided evenly the grain they had ground together during the day. Now, as it happened, one of the brothers lived alone; the other had a wife and a large family. Then one day the single brother began thinking, “It isn’t fair that we divide the grain evenly, because my brother has children and a wife to feed, while I only need enough for myself.” And so each night he secretly took some of his grain and added it to his brother’s share, so that his brother’s family wouldn’t have to go without.

But the married brother said to himself, “It isn’t fair that we divide the grain evenly, because when I’m old I’ll have my children to take care of me, while my brother has no one. What will he do when he gets old?” And so every night he took some of his share and added it to his brother’s share. As a result, both of them always found their supply of grain mysteriously replenished.

Then one night the brothers met each other half way between their two houses, each bringing grain to the other. Suddenly realizing what had been happening, the embraced each other in love. It is said that God witnessed their meeting, and declared, “This is a holy place, and here my temple shall be built.” And so it was. That holy place is the place where human beings discover one another in love.