Sermon: Don’t Mind the Gap

2018 May 6
by Rev Ana Levy-Lyons

What do we do when we find that there’s a big old gap between what we think we should ideally do and what we feel like we actually can do or want to do? It’s an uncomfortable place for most of us to be in and we have an urge to close that gap one way or another. Sometimes we try to close the gap by trying to change what we do so that it matches the ideal; sometimes we try to close the gap by changing the ideal to match what we already do. Let me give you an example.


A recent survey about attitudes towards lying asked people about how important it is for politicians to be honest. They were asked – if they agreed with a candidate on most issues but that candidate sometimes lied, would they vote for the candidate anyway or would the lying be a deal-breaker? Maybe not surprisingly, Republicans said they would vote for the candidate anyway, Democrats and Independents more often said it would be a deal-breaker. But what’s interesting is that this attitude has shifted over the last three years. Since 2015, the number of people who said they would vote for a lying candidate has increased pretty significantly. People were faced with the cognitive dissonance of having a lying president who they really, really like and plan to vote for again crashing into an ideal that they previously held about honesty in politics. Something had to give. And it was the ideal.


A lot of us make this kind of move. I’ve noticed that if we don’t think we’ll be able to achieve something or don’t want to achieve it, we sometimes won’t even hold it out as an ideal to aspire to. Take exercise. We all know that we should be doing at least 30 minutes of cardio exercise at least three or four times a week. The scientific community has been telling us for quite some time that some version of that regimen has enormous physical and mental benefits that will cascade through our lives in all kinds of delicious ways. And yet some of us, myself included at different points in my life, go on a health kick, find that we can’t sustain it, and then give up on the whole thing. We say, “Oh, it’s not that important; it doesn’t make a difference; I don’t have time.” And even though we kind of know, deep down, that it really would make a difference, we don’t want to feel like a failure and so we drop the goal instead.


Or take something with an ethical dimension: the food that we eat. We know that eating a plant-based diet is better for the earth, for the climate, for water use, for animals and, for most of us, for our health. But it’s really hard to do and so many of us say, there are much more important things to think about. That’s not my thing. It’s not going to make a difference anyway – the future of climate change is not going to hinge on whether I have a burger or not. We don’t want to feel like a failure and so we drop the ideal instead.


There are so many versions of this in our world – we move the goalposts based on what we think we can achieve or want to achieve. And as a result we may feel successful (kind of) but we achieve less than we might have if we had kept the goalposts where they were and kept trying to slowly move towards them.


There are lots of reasons for why we do this this, culture being #1. We live in an achievement-oriented culture and there is so much emphasis on “winning” and “succeeding” that, especially with the role modeling of the current president, sometimes we’ll do anything to win, even change the definition of what winning is.


There’s another cultural factor too and this was lifted up by professor Sharon Welch in her book, A Feminist Ethic of Risk. Those of us who enjoy certain social advantages are used to the world being responsive to our actions. We work hard in a class; we get a good grade. We save up our money, we can live in a nice place. We don’t do anything illegal, we don’t get arrested at a Starbucks. Cause and effect flow as they should. This is often not the way it works for those of us without social advantages, but those of us with them, we come to expect it. We act, the world responds accordingly.


And so when we, with the social advantages, run into situations where it doesn’t work that way – when we try to change a habit but we keep backsliding, when we find it really hard or unpleasant to do the thing we’re trying to do, or in the case of trying to effect change on a broad scale, we’re trying really hard and it’s not working – nothing’s changing – racism and poverty still exist, the NRA is still ascendant, and the polar icecaps keep melting – when the world is not responding to our actions, it can result in what Sharon Welch calls “a middle class failure of nerve.” Welch writes, “It is easier to give up on long-term social change when one is comfortable in the present—when it is possible to have challenging work, excellent health care and housing, and access to fine arts. When the good life is present or within reach, it is tempting to despair of its ever being in reach for others and resort merely to enjoying it for oneself and one’s family.”


Now I’m not saying that we in this room are all bailing on our social justice commitments – far from it – but I do think that it’s a temptation that liberals in general are particularly susceptible to. We tend to be perfectionistic; we tend to think that if we try, we’ll succeed; we tend to expect results from our actions. We expect good customer service from the world. And when it doesn’t work out that way, sometimes some of us can’t handle it. We don’t know what to do with failure. So we kind of change the topic to something that we can succeed at.


We religious liberals don’t have a good theological framework for holding our more futile efforts to transform. Our view of human nature tends to be triumphalist – progressive in the literal sense that we started out great and we are always making progress. If something isn’t working for us – an approach to parenting, a spiritual practice, a social justice campaign – change direction. We don’t have a religious counter-narrative to the secular culture’s pressure to perform or to the middle class failure of nerve when we can’t make things change fast enough.


I say that liberals in particular struggle with this because some more traditional religious communities do have such a counter-narrative. They have fully fleshed out ideas about what they call “sin,” how we are fallible and weak. Some even have notions of “original sin” – how our fallibility is built into us from the get-go. And that’s why they have concepts like repentance, atonement, confession, forgiveness, self-forgiveness, and patience. They have robust theologies of incurable imperfection. And deep teachings that despite and including our imperfections, we are still worthy of love. As a result of this kind of theology, traditionally religious people seem to be more comfortable with acknowledging a gap between how they are actually, currently living their lives and the ideal of how they should be living their lives; between the world as it is and the world as it ought to be.


I think we could learn from this. Because it’s true. We are going to fall short over and over again. You don’t have to accept the notion of original sin – I sure don’t – to know that each of us is deeply flawed in a hundred different ways. We repeat bad scripts from our family histories, we hurt the people we love, we fall off the wagon of health practices and ethical consumer practices, we can’t muster the courage to confront someone who’s demeaning us or we lash out at people who don’t deserve it, we lose our temper with a child, we say something that perpetuates racist stereotypes, we fail to apologize when we should or we apologize for simply taking up space on this earth when we shouldn’t. The things are different for each one of us but if we’re honest with ourselves, we know what they are.  


We could find great comfort in embracing a spirituality that says that all this woundedness and wrongdoing that we all do – it’s called being human. It’s all part of the richness and complexity of our brief incarnation on this earth. And yet we are still worthy of love. This is not to say that whatever we do is okay or that we shouldn’t try to do better. But if success is defined as perfect execution of our ideals, we’ve got to get comfortable with failure. There is going to be a gap between is and ought. And if there isn’t, your “ought” probably is not big enough. Get over it. Get used to it. Don’t mind the gap because the fact that you acknowledge the gap shows, not that you’re a failure, but, quite the opposite, that you are holding onto your ideals. You are keeping sight of who you aspire to be and how you hope the world will be. Your moral compass is true. You are not compromising your vision one bit based on where you happen to be at today.


So where does this leave us? If we know we’re never going reach that magical point out in space – that end point of perfection, or maybe not even close – how can we ever feel successful? For people of faith in a world of human fallibility success is not reaching a point, but becoming a vector. If you remember from high school math or physics, a vector is a quantity that has a direction. It’s usually shown as a line with an arrow at the front end of it. We can ask ourselves — Am I a vector moving toward my ideals? Not, was I a perfectly patient parent this year, but was I more patient than I was last year? Not, am I the perfect environmentalist, but is my carbon footprint getting a little smaller all the time? Not – am I ready for the Iron Man Triathlon, but did I push myself when I exercised this week? When we imagine the goal as being a vector, the only real failure occurs when we don’t try our best.


I love the word “vector.” It has this sense of directional energy, which is wonderful, and it also has a second meaning: a vector is an organism that transmits a disease from one animal or plant to another. We can imagine that vectors can transmit, not only disease, but good things too. When we are acting faithfully as a vector, our directional energy is infectious. When we are brave enough to hold our ideals up and intact, humble enough to admit that we may never reach them, and committed enough to keep moving towards them anyway, we help transmit that bravery, humility, and commitment to other people and that’s how we transform our culture.


Every religion worth its salt teaches that we are imperfect, we live in a broken but beautiful world, and that redemption is possible, forgiveness is available. We can go ahead and do the very best we can, know that it will be imperfect, and know that our full-hearted effort will be enough. Don’t mind the gap between is and ought. Our spiritual journey is to become vectors moving towards a better version of ourselves while knowing that we are worthy of love no matter what. If we can do this, in the words of the old song, we’ll have peace like a river. Peace actually exactly like a river – a peace that comes, not from the comfort of stagnation and not from the completion of the journey, but from a long, strong, graceful, and constant flow toward the open sea.


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