When Small Things Lead to Great Adventures: A Response to Laura Sumner Truax’s Undone

I am daily reminded of the truths revealed in chaos theory’s metaphorical “ butterfly effect.” According to the butterfly effect, small actions, such as a butterfly flapping its wings in Santa Cruz, California, where I played as a high school and college student, can shape the weather patterns in Cape Cod, where now I live, write, and pastor a congregation. This is one of the nuggets of wisdom I found in reading Laura Sumner Truax’s UndoneSmall actions, authentic, yet imperfect, can change your life and change the world.  Accordingly, make no small plans, for God is at work in your life to do more than you ask or imagine.

Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead asserts that within the limitations of life, we discover possibilities and the energy to achieve them.  In other words, authenticity emerges from the concrete messiness and imperfections of life and not some abstract realm of perfection. The messy imperfection from which all blessings flow reminds us that unchanging perfection is a form of death. Believe it or not, this is good news and this is the good news of Undone.

I have recently become the pastor of a congregation on Cape Cod. It is a gloriously imperfect congregation and I am a gloriously imperfect pastor. I am creative, committed to growth, mission-oriented, and pastoral, not to mention theologically and spiritually reflective, but I also get tired and emotionally overloaded dealing with the realities of three deaths in my first seven weeks, the challenge of substance abuse, the novelty of moving to a new town, and my grief over leaving Washington DC and my beloved son, daughter-in-law, and grandsons. Life is good but also filled with bittersweet sadness and the ambiguities of life.  Health comes from self-awareness and for me that means embracing the whole of my life, body, mind, spirit, and relationships in all their wonderful imperfection. To deny the complexities of life and our own emotional challenges is to live half a life and close the door to the wonders of every day.

One of my graduate school professors, Bernard Loomer, asserted that one of the most important religious virtues is “size” or “stature” or what my good friend and author Patricia Adams Farmer calls having a fat soul. Basically, spiritual size relates to embracing the fullness of reality in all its contrasts  without losing your spiritual center. The scripture says that Jesus grew in wisdom and stature; Jesus grew.  He wasn’t finished.  He learned new things, faced his demons in the wilderness, and grew in his embrace of diversity.  Jesus was in touch with his pain and recognized his need for rest and constant connection with God through prayer and solitude.  Does this mean that Jesus was imperfect? I’m not sure, but it does mean that “the glory of God is a fully alive human” and Jesus was fully alive to the world in all its pain and imperfection.

Undone is a reminder that we can’t let imperfection get in the way of greatness. An editor once told me that one of the characteristics of authors who never write a second book is their need to say everything and write the perfect manuscript. As the author of nearly thirty books, one of the keys to my success is my recognition that each book is finite, incomplete, leaves much unsaid, and is by definition imperfect. I believe that I will get another chance – in a blog, article, sermon, or book – to say some of the things omitted in the most recent text. The imperfection of my work inspires the next adventure.

Truax’s need to be perfect or, at least, maintain the façade of Christian piety and perfection deadened her spirit. Grace and creativity emerged in her embrace of the holiness of imperfection. At the risk of a being labeled a heretic, I believe that God does not require us to follow God’s vision to the letter. God presents us with possibilities and the energy to achieve them; but deviations from divine possibility are met often with affirmation rather than condemnation. Perhaps, God – like a good parent – says to God’s children, “surprise me, show me something interesting I hadn’t planned on, and set in motion some new possibilities for me to work with in transforming the world.” In God’s world, our “refrigerator art,” like a child’s gift to her parent in all its surprising messiness, is met joy.

Truax invites us to flap our wings, create a continental crosscurrent, that joins with other butterflies to bring forth something beautiful and life-changing. When we are “undone” and learn to trust God with our imperfection, we give birth to a lively, authentic, heart-filled, and creative life. Thanks be to God!

Visit the Patheos Book Club for more conversation on Undone.

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