Easter Eggs

Rev. Stu Smith at CCU in Anaheim, CA

Some farmer’s kids were painting eggs for Easter. One looked up and said, “Hey, how do you think the chickens would act around these?”
“I don’t know,” said the other. “Let’s find out!”
They went into the chicken coop, stole the fresh eggs and replaced them with the colorful eggs. Then, they stepped out to watch.

The hens came in and nothing, they just went about their business.
The rooster strutted in, saw the eggs, and had a fit. He burst out of the coop, stormed across the barnyard, and beat the hell out of the peacock.

Dyed Easter eggs have been part of Easter celebrations for centuries. Christians didn’t start the practice of dying eggs. Dyed ostrich eggs have been found in Africa that are 60,000 years old. Decorated ostrich eggs were commonly placed in graves of the ancient Sumerians and Egyptians as early as 5,000 years ago.

In Jewish tradition, a white egg is part of the Passover seder plate. According to many sources, the Christian custom of Easter eggs, specifically, started among the early Christians of Mesopotamia, who took the egg symbolism from Judaism and stained them red “in memory of the blood of Christ, shed at His crucifixion“. The Christian Church officially adopted the custom, regarding the eggs as a symbol of the resurrection of Jesus. At some point, they also started dying the eggs yellow and green.

Historian Peter Gainsford suggests that the Easter egg custom was strengthened by the fact that early Christians were prohibited from eating eggs during Lent, but were allowed to eat them once Easter arrived. In fact, in medieval England, it was common practice for children to go door to door begging for eggs on the Saturday before Lent. People passed out the eggs as treats for the children before their fast.

In the 19th century, folklorist Jacob Grimm speculated that the custom of Easter eggs may have stemmed from springtime festivities of a Germanic goddess known in Old English as Ēostre. However, while there is a Neopagan holiday of Ostara that occurs at roughly the same time as Easter, there are no historical accounts that ancient celebrations included any practice surrounding eggs.

One early Christian legend contends that Mary Magdalene was bringing boiled eggs to share with the other women at the tomb of Jesus, and the eggs in her basket miraculously turned bright red when she saw the risen Christ.

Another legend says Mary Magdalene went to the Emperor of Rome and greeted him with “Christ has risen,” whereupon he pointed to an egg on his table and stated, “Christ has no more risen than that egg is red.” After making this statement it is said the egg immediately turned blood red.

In some Mediterranean countries, colored eggs are placed around the house as Easter decorations. On Easter Sunday, friends and family find an egg and hit each other’s egg with their own. The one whose egg does not break is believed to be in for good luck in the future. This ‘egg-tapping’ tradition is also practiced in the North of England, where the world championship is held every year over Easter. In south Louisiana, a similar practice is called pocking eggs.

An old Ukrainian custom included placing a bowl of elaborately painted eggs in the middle of the Easter table, with one egg for each departed family member. In Germany, people create beautiful Easter egg trees, also decorating fountains and wells with colored eggs.

Another tradition that began in Germany is the egg dance, where dyed eggs are laid on the ground and the goal is to dance among them without damaging any eggs. In the UK the dance is called the egg-hop.

Egg rolling is another traditional Easter egg game played with eggs at Easter. Throughout Europe, children traditionally rolled eggs down hillsides at Easter. This tradition was taken to the New World by European settlers, and continues to this day each Easter with an Easter egg roll on the White House lawn. Different countries have different versions of the game.

But the most common game surrounding Easter eggs is the Easter egg hunt, where decorated eggs are hidden for children to find. The eggs may be hard-boiled, chocolate or artificial eggs stuffed with candy and surprises. When the hunt is over, prizes may be given for the largest number of eggs collected, or for the largest or the smallest egg.

Cascarones, is a Latin American tradition where eggs are emptied, stuffed with confetti and sealed with a piece of tissue paper. The eggs are hidden in a similar tradition to the American Easter egg hunt, and when found the children break them over each other’s heads.

That’s probably a lot more than you ever wanted to know about Easter eggs.

But I actually want to talk about another type of Easter eggs this morning. Most of you are probably familiar with this type of Easter Eggs. Let me read you this definition from the Urban Dictionary: a hidden item placed in a movie, television show, or otherwise visual media for close watchers.

That term has been going around for a number of years. It makes sense. Something hidden that brings you a little bit of joy when you find it. I was familiar with the term, but I didn’t know where it came from.

Here’s what the Urban Dictionary says: Originates from the 1975 movie “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” when the cast had an Easter Egg hunt but most of the eggs went unfound. They can be seen throughout the film in various locations (such as under Frank N. Furter’s throne).

What a great explanation. But it’s probably not true. The actual explanation originates from the 1980 video game Adventure for the Atari game console. At the time, Atari didn’t include programmers’ names in the game credits. An Atari programmer named Warren Robinett disagreed with this lack of acknowledgment, so he secretly programmed the message “Created by Warren Robinett” to appear only if a player moved their avatar over a specific pixel during a certain part of the game. Shortly after Robinett left Atari, his message was discovered by a player. Atari’s management initially wanted to remove the message and release the game again, but it was deemed too costly. Instead, they decided to keep the message and, in fact, encourage the inclusion of such messages in future games, describing them as ‘Easter eggs’ for consumers to find.

Other Easter eggs have since been discovered that predate the one created by Robinett, but his was the first to be discovered, and probably when the term was coined.

Easter eggs are included in all types of media. An artist for Marvel comics named Ethan Van Sciver hid the word “sex” in the background of nearly every page of New X-Men #118, from November of 2001). He later said that he hid the word throughout the book because he was annoyed with Marvel at the time for reasons he cannot remember, and thought it would be fun to engage in some mischief with his work. Comic book artist Ardian Syaf was fired from DC comics for including Easter eggs that were considered anti-Semitic and anti-Christian.

There are sometimes Easter eggs in TV shows. In the 1970s Bob Newhart starred in the successful sitcom, The Bob Newhart Show. In the 1980s, he followed up with another successful sitcom, Newhart. In the final scene of Newhart, he wakes up in bed and says he’s just had the strangest dream. But it turns out he’s lying next to his wife from the earlier series, played by Susanne Pleshette. For those familiar with both sitcoms, that turned out to be a fun Easter egg.

Even though the term had not yet been coined, the earliest Easter eggs were perhaps provided by movies. It’s an open secret that Alfred Hitchcock made a cameo appearance in 40 out of his 54 films. It is said to have started when he needed to fill in for a bit actor who failed to show up. His appearances started off mostly as obscure extras in crowds, but became more prominent in time. He was often seen carrying a musical instrument. Stan Lee, the creator of Spiderman, also appears in cameos in many Marvel superhero movies.

This past week, I found an Easter egg. There was a film in the 90s called Trading Places. The film starred Eddie Murphy, Dan Ackroyd and Jamie Lee Curtis. But the plot was driven by two extremely wealthy older men played by Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy. It’s a very funny movie; I recommend it. In the end of the film, Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy lose everything; they’re left penniless. A couple of years later, Eddie Murphy played a wealthy prince in the movie Coming to America. I’d never seen it until this past week. In one scene, Eddie Murphy hands a bag full of money to a pair of homeless men. It turns out to be Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy playing the same two old men from Trading Places, Randolph and Mortimer Duke.

The Google search engine on your computer holds a number of Easter eggs. Type in ‘askew’ and the answer screen comes up at a tilt. Type in anagram, and a prompt will ask you, “Did you mean ‘nag a ram’?” If you ask for ‘the answer to life the universe and everything’, you be given the answer ‘42’—a reference from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I’ll let you find out what happens when you type in ‘do a barrel roll’.

Your iPhone also has a number of Easter eggs installed. (Why did the chicken cross the road? What is 0 divided by 0? I see a little silhouette of a man.)

Easter eggs are fun to find—whether it’s part of a holiday activity or just enjoying some type of media. Everyone likes pleasant little surprises. Starting all the way back in medieval times when children collected eggs door-to-door before Lent, Easter eggs have represented a little treasure of joy. Looking forward to the weeks of fasting ahead, the children would exploit their last opportunity to enjoy the wholesome treat.

This morning, millions of children woke up to find a basket filled with all sorts of Easter eggs, hand-dyed, chocolate, and prize-filled. The anticipation of waking up to see what the Easter Bunny left behind rivals the wonder of Christmas morning for many. This afternoon, a lot of those same children will be laughing and running around hunting for eggs hidden by their parents. These days, most of those eggs are plastic eggs filled with a variety of treats. That’s the fun of Easter eggs. It’s like a little treasure chest. There’s the joy of finding it; but that’s just the beginning. The real fun is opening it up to find what’s inside.

In our Tuesday study of the book Living Buddha, Living Christ, by Thich Naht Hanh, we got to discussing an encounter in the Bible that I’ve always struggled with. This occurred shortly before Passover. I’m reading from the 12th chapter of John:

Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages. He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.

“Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”

I’ll be honest with you—on first read, I find myself agreeing with Judas. My knee-jerk reaction would be to sell the perfume to feed the poor. At the same time, you know you’d better think again if you find yourself agreeing with Judas.

Jesus was speaking as the Christ, the manifestation of Source. And in manifesting of the wholeness of Source, Jesus represented all the good things of Spirit—all of the joy, all of the beauty, all the love.

We live in a world that includes difficult times. Jesus said to his disciples, “in this world you will have trouble.” He said, “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” Jesus recognized that there are tribulations in the world.

But in this verse, Jesus was saying, enjoy the good times when they come. He was saying, “You will have plenty of valleys along the way, so enjoy the hilltops.”

Those moments of joy along the way can be our Easter eggs—no matter how frequent or rare they are. Sometimes, so much of our lives seem to be filled with people trying to crack our eggs, or we’re chasing our eggs down a hill, or dancing around trying to keep from stepping on someone else’s eggs.

Maybe part of what Jesus is saying here is to enjoy your Easter eggs when you find them. Ignore all of the nonsense going on around you. Drown out the Judas’. The Abraham-Hicks teaching is that the purpose of our lives is Easter eggs. Actually, it says joy. Potato-potato.

Easter eggs are all around us in countless forms. We just need to treat life like an Easter egg hunt. As we notice the good in our lives, it becomes increased. ‘Look for the good and praise it.’ That should sound familiar. And as we say every Sunday, ‘What I appreciate appreciates.’

The message of Easter is renewal. Maybe this Easter could be about a renewed appreciation for the Easter eggs in our lives. We all have them. I won’t endeavor to name them, because they’re different for each of us. But you know what yours are. You know the little blessings in your life that can bring you joy when you take the time to notice them.

So, as the children go on their Easter egg hunts this afternoon, maybe we each can go on a metaphorical Easter egg hunt, recalling all of the little treasures that Source has hidden in each of our lives.


Palm Sunday

Rev. Stu Smith 3/29/21 at CCU in Anaheim, CA

Today we celebrate Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday has held a variety of meanings over the years. I’d like to take a look at its origins this morning.

To get the whole picture of Palm Sunday, we need to go back a couple thousand years. It all started when the Hebrew people were enslaved by the Egyptians. In the third chapter of Exodus, God speaks to Moses through a burning bush to tell him that he is to free the Israeli people from Pharaoh Repeatedly, Moses tells God that he’s not up to the job, but God insists that he’s the right man for the job. He eventually lets Moses use his brother Aaron as a spokesman because Moses stutters.

So, Moses, along with his brother Aaron, went to Pharaoh and told him that God says to let the Jewish people take a three-day holiday in the desert to worship. But this just made Pharaoh mad. He ordered that the slaves would no longer have straw supplied to them to make bricks. They had to gather their own straw and still make the same number of bricks.  

So, Moses consulted with the Jewish elders and with God. Then, he and Aaron returned to Pharaoh. This time God gave Aaron a miracle to perform to help convince Pharaoh of God’s power. Aaron threw his staff to the ground and it became a snake. But Pharaoh still wouldn’t budge.

This is from the 7the chapter of Exodus:

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Pharaoh’s heart is unyielding; he refuses to let the people go. Go to Pharaoh in the morning as he goes out to the river. Confront him on the bank of the Nile, and take in your hand the staff that was changed into a snake. Then say to him, ‘The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, has sent me to say to you: Let my people go, so that they may worship me in the wilderness. But until now you have not listened. 17 This is what the Lord says: By this you will know that I am the Lord: With the staff that is in my hand I will strike the water of the Nile, and it will be changed into blood. 18 The fish in the Nile will die, and the river will stink; the Egyptians will not be able to drink its water.’”

The Lord said to Moses, “Tell Aaron, ‘Take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt—over the streams and canals, over the ponds and all the reservoirs—and they will turn to blood.’ Blood will be everywhere in Egypt, even in vessels[a] of wood and stone.”

Moses and Aaron did just as the Lord had commanded. He raised his staff in the presence of Pharaoh and his officials and struck the water of the Nile, and all the water was changed into blood. The fish in the Nile died, and the river smelled so bad that the Egyptians could not drink its water. Blood was everywhere in Egypt.”

Eventually, the people had to turn to digging for water along the river bank. A week later, God said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh and say to him, ‘This is what the Lord says: Let my people go, so that they may worship me. If you refuse to let them go, I will send a plague of frogs on your whole country. The Nile will teem with frogs. They will come up into your palace and your bedroom and onto your bed, into the houses of your officials and on your people, and into your ovens and kneading troughs. The frogs will come up on you and your people and all your officials.’”

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Tell Aaron, ‘Stretch out your hand with your staff over the streams and canals and ponds, and make frogs come up on the land of Egypt.’”

So, Aaron stretched out his hand over the waters of Egypt, and the frogs came up and covered the land. But the magicians did the same things by their secret arts; they also made frogs come up on the land of Egypt.

The frogs ended up getting Pharaoh’s attention, and he agreed to let the Israelis go into the desert to worship. But as soon as Moses prayed for God to get rid of the frogs, Pharaoh changed his mind.

So, God sent a plague if gnats. But that wasn’t enough to sway Pharaoh. So, that was followed by a plague of flies. When that didn’t work, God killed off all of the Egyptian’s livestock. Next, all Egyptians were covered with festering boils. Still, no movement from Pharaoh, so, God upped the ante, and sent a hailstorm. (If a hailstorm in the desert doesn’t get your attention, hardly anything will.)

Next came locusts. Again, Pharaoh was unmoved. So, God said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand toward the sky so that darkness spreads over Egypt—darkness that can be felt.” So Moses stretched out his hand toward the sky, and total darkness covered all Egypt for three days. No one could see anyone else or move about for three days. Yet all the Israelites had light in the places where they lived.

Then Pharaoh summoned Moses and said, “Go, worship the Lord. Even your women and children may go with you; only leave your flocks and herds behind.”

But Moses said, “You must allow us to have sacrifices and burnt offerings to present to the Lord our God. Our livestock too must go with us; not a hoof is to be left behind. We have to use some of them in worshiping the Lord our God, and until we get there we will not know what we are to use to worship the Lord.”

But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he was not willing to let them go. Pharaoh said to Moses, “Get out of my sight! Make sure you do not appear before me again! The day you see my face you will die.”

“Just as you say,” Moses replied. “I will never appear before you again.”

At this point, God was running out of ideas, so he decided to pull out the big guns. This is where Passover comes in. This is from the 12h chapter of Exodus:

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in Egypt, “This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year. Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each man is to take a lamb for his family, one for each household. The animals you choose must be year-old males without defect, and you may take them from the sheep or the goats. Take care of them until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the members of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight.Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the door-frames of the houses where they eat the lambs. 

“On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn of both people and animals, and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord. The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt.”

And that’s where the term Passover comes from. God promised to pass over the houses whose doorways were adorned with blood from the sacrificial lamb.

Fast forward a couple of thousand years. Israelis were required to bring their proposed sacrifices to the temple to be inspected by the priests four days before Passover. That’s what was happening on the first Palm Sunday. That’s what made that day special.

As I was researching for my talk for this morning, I realized that Jewish Passover isn’t always celebrated on the Sabbath. It’s set according to a lunar calendar. It’s always within a few days of Easter, but it falls on a different day of the week each year the way Christmas does.

So, when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the only significance of that day was that it was four days before Passover. That’s why all the people were there. Jesus had been teaching around the area, and when they saw him, they got excited and a spontaneous celebration broke out.

This is how Matthew describes the scene a Jesus rode into Jerusalem. ‘A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!”

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Many churches to this day bless and distribute palm fronds to worshipers. One Palm Sunday, a 5 y.o. boy was sick and unable to go to church. When his family got home, he asked what the palm fronds were for. His father told him that the people waved palm fronds over Jesus’ head when he passed by and laid them down in front of him. The little boy said, ‘Man time I don’t go to church and that’s the day Jesus shows up!’

The next few verses of Matthew describe how Jesus drove the money changers from the temple. These were members of the religious power structure who were charged with approving people’s sacrifices. But they would always find tiny flaws that would make their sacrifices unacceptable. Then, they would charge the people outrageous prices for replacements. That’s what set Jesus off. After that, scripture tells us that the blind and lame came to Jesus to be healed.

That celebratory entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday put Jesus more keenly on the Pharisee’s radar than he was before. Five days later he was crucified.

The Christian church incorporated all of the symbolism of Passover and applied it to Jesus. Jesus took the place of the sacrificial lamb. Just as the blood of the lamb smeared on the door posts caused God’s Angel of Death to pass over the houses of the Hebrew people, Christians expect to escape death on the day of judgement by being ‘washed in the blood’.

For many mainstream Christians, the Jesus story is primarily about his death. And that saga starts with Palm Sunday. The wisdom of Jesus teachings is secondary. It’s really all about accepting the narrative about his sacrifice and getting that ‘get out of jail free’ card.

In Unity and in other New Thought churches, we reject the idea of Jesus being sent as a sacrifice, and see him rather as a way-shower. He’s not an exception, but rather an example.

In the book we’re studying on Tuesday nights, Living Buddha, Living Christ, Thich Nhat Hanh sometimes uses Jesus and Christ interchangeably when referring to the higher power. When he uses Jesus, I’ve found myself commenting that we would say Christ. In Unity, we put an emphasis on that distinction. Jesus was the man. Christ was the state of being that he attained.

And when discussing the significance of Christian holidays, we put our own spin on them. We emphasize the metaphorical importance of the events. Christmas is not just about the birth of one special baby; it’s about the birth of the Christ nature within each of us. Easter is not about the physical resurrection of one man; it’s about recognizing that each of us contain that spark of the divine within that will burn on beyond our years on the Earth. It’s about hope. It’s about knowing that we can all overcome whatever obstacles life throws at us.

But I want to take a little bit of time this morning to talk about Jesus, the man. We know that the gospels were written decades after his death. We know that many of the words attributed to him were probably not spoken by him. Much has been added and much has been lost. We don’t know exactly which things Jesus actually said.

But if we look at the forest instead of the trees—if we look at the over-arching message of his ministry, we get a pretty good idea who Jesus was. We can fuss about the details, but we know that he shared a message of love and compassion and forgiveness.

And we do know the effect he had on people. We know because of the events of Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday was a spontaneous event. It wasn’t parade day. People were going about their business and they saw Jesus riding into town. That’s the type of reaction Jesus inspired. He was a rock star.

We take great lengths to separate the man Jesus from his position as the Christ. But I want to give Jesus his props this morning. Jesus wasn’t a metaphor; he was a man. The hardships that Jesus suffered were real. The horrible death that he submitted himself to was real. A real guy did that.

Jesus was a real guy who somehow got it all figured out. But to share that message with the rest of us, he had to sacrifice everything. He was shunned by his community, hounded by the religious establishment, mocked; he was ultimately tortured and killed. He accepted his own death on the cross in order to show us how to live.

Next week, we’ll be celebrating Easter and acknowledging the resurrection of the Christ Spirit within each of us. But this Sunday, Palm Sunday, let’s take this opportunity to recognize the man Jesus. Let us metaphorically, wave palm branches over his head. Let’s be thankful for the wisdom he shared, his compassion, his love, his willingness to set aside everything for the rest of us.

In our mind’s eye let us find ourselves among the people of Jerusalem, shouting,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!”

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Written Talks

Be Ye Perfect

Rev. Stu Smith 3-21-21 at CCU in Anaheim.

The fifth through seventh chapters of the Book of Matthew make up the Sermon on the Mount. Where much of the synoptic gospels—Matthew, Mark and Luke—describe the life and actions of Jesus, that section of Matthew is almost exclusively made up of teachings attributed to Jesus. Whole books have been written on those three chapters.

The Sermon on the Mount contains the beatitudes; its where Jesus tells us we’re the salt of the earth and the light of the world; the Sermon on the Mount is where Jesus tells us to love our enemies; it contains the Lord’s Prayer; it where Jesus tells us to ask, seek, and knock, and to build our house on a solid foundation.

I find myself referring to the Sermon on the Mount frequently when constructing a Sunday talk. Such has been the case over the past few weeks.

One verse that I’ve run across repeatedly is the last verse of chapter 5. Jesus is well into his sermon when he says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

For someone whose basic assumption is ‘there’s something wrong with me’, ‘be ye perfect’ is like fingernails on the chalkboard. That’s met with all sorts of resistance. I can’t be perfect, there’s something wrong for me.

But there it is. Matthew 5:48. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Like any other scripture, that can be seized upon and weaponized. It can be made a millstone around one’s neck. When we expect perfection of ourselves or others, setting someone up for failure.

As I said before, I’ve run across that verse numerous times. What got me really thinking about it was hearing Michael Caine on Youtube read the poem ‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling.

I’ll share a little bit about the poem because it has an interesting history. In 1895, a Scotsman named Leander Starr Jameson led a mercenary army to try to overthrow the Boer government of South Africa. Even though the coup failed miserably, Jameson became a beloved hero in Great Britain. He was so revered that Rudyard Kipling wrote the poem ‘If’ to commemorate his character.

It’s a profoundly inspiring poem. I’d like to share it with you:

If you can keep your head when all about you   

    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,   

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

    But make allowance for their doubting too;   

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,

    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;   

    If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;   

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

    And treat those two impostors just the same;   

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken

    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,

    And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings

    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

And lose, and start again at your beginnings

    And never breathe a word about your loss;

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

    To serve your turn long after they are gone,   

And so hold on when there is nothing in you

    Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,   

    Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,

    If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,   

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,   

    And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

As I read that poem, I found it so moving. It describes such laudable character traits: “trust yourself when all men doubt you”, “being hated, don’t give way to hating”, “meet Triumph and Disaster…just the same”. It describes something very close to perfection.

Then it ends by saying that if you can do all that, you’ll be king of the world. But more than that, you’ll be a man.

What I can’t help thinking is, “Wow. That’s what it takes to be a man?” If I fall short of all of that I can’t call myself a man, according to Rudyard Kipling?

It feels a lot like ‘be ye perfect’.

Actually, perfection seems to be stressed more in Eastern religions than in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Buddhism offers lists of ‘perfections’, that is qualities that one must develop to perfection in order to attain enlightenment. Theravadin Buddhism offers a list of ten perfections that must be attained in order. But since Mahayana Buddhism only has six, let’s look at those.

It starts with Dana, perfection of giving. Perfect giving is selfless giving. There are no strings attached, no expectation of thanks or reciprocation. This unencumbered giving allows us to develop the attribute of non-attachment.

Next comes Sila, perfection of Morality. This deals with selfless compassion and the ability to respond correctly to all situations without having to consult a list of rules.

Third is Ksanti, Perfection of Patience.

Ksanti literally means “able to withstand.” There are three dimensions to ksanti: the ability to endure personal hardship; patience with others; and acceptance of truth.

Next comes Virya, the Perfection of Energy. Virya comes from an ancient Indian-Iranian word that means hero and is the root of the English word virile. It corelates closely to Charles Fillmore’s Power of Zeal.

So virya is about making a courageous, heroic effort to realize enlightenment.

Fifth is Dhyana, Perfection of Meditation. Dhyana is a discipline intended to cultivate the mind. Dhyana also means “concentration,” and in this case, great concentration is applied to achieve clarity and insight.

Lastly come the Perfection of Wisdom, Prajna.

In Mahayana Buddhism, perfect wisdom is the direct and intimate realization of sunyata, or emptiness. Very simply, this is the teaching that all phenomena are interrelated, without self-essence or independent existence.

The teaching is that a student attains one perfection, then proceeds to the next and the next, until finally reaching Prajna.

In Hinduism, perfection is represented by dharma, which signifies moral and spiritual righteousness. Dharma is personified by a god of the same name.

Here’s an excerpt on perfection from

‘Another important idea which you find in Hinduism is that perfection comes from inner purity. You are perfect when you are pure, and vice versa. Your soul is already perfect and pure. It is hidden in the body, just a statue is hidden in stone as a possibility. Therefore, perfection is not something that you create out of nothing, but a state that you unravel by peeling away the imperfections and impurities that are present in you, just as a sculptor chips away unnecessary stone to sculpt an image.’

All of the major religions, in one way or another admonish us to strive for perfection.

Such was the case with a group of monks who were responsible for transcribing copies of the bible…

The entire monastery was devoted to the task, and each day would all wake up and say their prayers before a humble breakfast and then they begin work. On the anniversary of creating his thousandth copy of the bible since he first joined the monastery two decades earlier, brother Gray asks the abbot if he could go and make his next copy using the original in the vault as reference material. Since they’ve just been making copies of a copy for centuries, the abbot agrees and brother Gray descends into the vault where he is given access to the oldest existing copy of the bible they have. They want to make sure they have as perfect a translation as possible.

Days pass, none of the other monks are particularly concerned as brother Gray was known to be a perfectionist and was recognized as one of the best in his craft. After another week though they become anxious as nobody had really seen him since he went into the vault.

When the abbot finally went to check on him, he heard a gutteral sobbing, relentless and distraught. He pushed open the door and found brother Gray lying face down in a heap on the floor, pages of the bible scattered all around. He rushed to his side. “Brother, whatever is the matter? We’ve been so worried about you. What’s wrong?”.

Brother Gray pushed himself upright, wiped away the tears from his eyes and grabbed the abbot by the collar. “The word was ‘Celebrate'”

Oh, well. Nobody’s perfect. And that’s maybe the point.

As much as the world’s religions admonish us to be perfect, they also offer a way out. In traditional Hinduism and Buddhism, you get as many lives as you need to get there. And the Jesus message is all about redemption. This story is from Luke 5:

After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. “Follow me,” Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, left everything and followed him.

Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?”

Jesus answered them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

And Jesus message was that we all need work, that we all belong in that latter group. “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” That wasn’t about attacking us for being imperfect, but rather letting us know it’s okay to be imperfect. Abraham-Hicks affirms that message with the adage, “You can’t get it wrong because you can’t get it done.

So, what is our relationship to perfection? What should we take from those words attributed to Jesus in the gospel of Matthew, “be ye perfect”?

There are two competing principles. The first is that we don’t want to argue for our limitations. We don’t want the idea that we can’t be perfect become an excuse for not striving to be better. Sometimes, that’s called letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. We don’t want to become complacent and self-satisfied.

Also, in theory, we want to leave room for our perfection. I believe that perfection is beyond my reach, but I believe I need to stay open to the idea of being perfect. I don’t want to hold it an arm’s length away just because I’m unwilling to accept it. (Let me make it clear that I realize I’m nowhere close at this point.) I’m in no danger of ascension.

The other principle, and I mentioned it earlier, is accepting that perfection is a lifelong, or perhaps, a lives-long endeavor. While we don’t want to close ourselves off from the potential of perfection, we need to give ourselves some slack. When Jesus told Peter to forgive others seventy times seven times, he was including self-forgiveness.

When I was a sophomore in high school, I went out with this girl named Debbie. One time she was telling me about her brother-in-law being a bowler, and shared with me that he had a 300 average. Many of you realize that 300 is a perfect game in bowling. A 300 average would mean that every game you bowl is perfect.

When I pushed back on her claim, she thought that I was disrespecting her brother-in-law. I tried to tell her that I wasn’t saying that he didn’t have a 300 average, I was saying that nobody did.

That’s true not only in bowling but life in general. Nobody has a 300 average.

So, what do we make of Jesus admonishing us to ‘be ye perfect’? How does a Buddhist approach the six or eight or ten perfections? What relationship does a Hindu have to dharma? It’s a seemingly unattainable goal.

I’ll close with this illustration. If you ever shoot a bow and arrow or throw darts, you always aim for the bull’s eye. You probably don’t expect to hit the bull’s eye every time, but that’s where you aim.

I’m always amused by contestants in competition shows who say ‘I just want to make it to the finals’. Seriously? Nobody wants to just make it to the finals. If that’s your mindset, that’s as far as you’re going to go.

Whether in a game or in life, we aim for the bull’s eye. We aim for the bull’s eye in hopes of getting close. And the more we practice, the closer we get. Every once in a while, we’ll accidentally hit it. But most times we won’t.

Aim for the bull’s eye. Go for that 300 game. Reach for perfection. But if you fall short, don’t allow yourself to be discouraged. We’re just works in progress. Nobody’s perfect.

Written Talks

Off the Hook

Rev. Stu Smith at CCU in Anaheim, CA. 3/14/21

The title of my talk this morning is ‘Off the Hook.’ I’m sure that’s an expression we’re all familiar with. But in my preparations, I recognized that there are multiple uses of that phrase.

One meaning of ‘off the hook’ is a dated reference to leaving the phone earpiece off of its hook, so that nobody could call you. So, ‘off the hook’ was a one-time descriptor for someone who sought privacy. Today, we might say ‘off the grid’.

The current meaning of ‘off the hook’, according to the Urban Dictionary, is ‘wild’ and ‘over the top’. ‘That party last night was off the hook!’ I have no idea what type of hook they’re talking about or how being off if it makes a party wild. But there it is.

The type of ‘off the hook’ I want to talk about this morning comes from fishing. It means to release someone from an obligation or expectation, the way a fisherman might release a fish from his line.

This being a fishing reference, it’s appropriate that I refer to this Gospel story about Jesus and Peter, his first disciple and a fisherman. I believe most of us are familiar with this exchange. But as I reread it this time, it occurred to me how Peter’s question to Jesus seems to have come out of left field.

One day Jesus was teaching about the preciousness and righteousness of little children. He then talked about how each of us is precious to God, and shared the parable of the lost sheep. Then, he went on to talk about how to encourage those who have strayed back into the fold.

Then this happens. “…Peter came to him and asked, “Lord, how often should I forgive some one who sins against me? Seven times?”

I never really thought about it before, but that’s startlingly abrupt and oddly specific. Seven times. I have to guess that, as my friend Jerry Malugeon would say, somebody just ‘scrambled his eggs’ for the eighth time. Had forgiven Andrew seven times for borrowing his sandals without asking. He was fed up, and he must have thought that Jesus would back him up. “Seven times? That’s more than plenty. Go kick his ass, Peter!”

Of course, Jesus answered, “No, not seven times, but seventy times seven!”

And then, Jesus shares the parable of the debtor.

“Therefore, the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a king who decided to bring his accounts up to date with servants who had borrowed money from him. In the process, one of his debtors was brought in who owed him millions of dollars. He couldn’t pay, so his master ordered that he be sold—along with his wife, his children, and everything he owned—to pay the debt.

“But the man fell down before his master and begged him, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I will pay it all.’ Then his master was filled with pity for him, and he released him and forgave his debt.

“But when the man left the king, he went to a fellow servant who owed him a few thousand dollars. He grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant payment.

“His fellow servant fell down before him and begged for a little more time. ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it,’ he pleaded. But his creditor wouldn’t wait. He had the man arrested and put in prison until the debt could be paid in full.

“When some of the other servants saw this, they were very upset. They went to the king and told him everything that had happened. Then the king called in the man he had forgiven and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt.

“That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart.”

The message of the parable is clear. Forgive others if you want to be forgiven.

In another place, Jesus says, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

Now, these verses only work for those who recognize that they require forgiveness. For anyone who doesn’t feel that they’ve ever missed the mark, there is no interest in assuring that forgiveness is available.

The traditional Church has a history of using guilt to keep its followers in line. It has provided the message that we’re all worms of the dust, born sinners, wretched and unworthy. I’m not suggesting we embrace that toxic viewpoint.

At the same time, sometimes the pendulum swings the other way in New Thought. We focus sole-y on our Spiritual nature and ignore our physical selves. We lose sight of the fact that, as physical beings, we sometimes screw up. We act in selfish and short-sighted ways that hurt others.

When our actions are guided by Spirit, we foster hope, comfort and healing. Unfortunately, we’re not always guided by Spirit.

At the end of the Parable of the Debtor, Jesus says,

‘Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt. That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart.’

From a traditional Judeo-Christian viewpoint, that means that when you go to heaven and face the final judgement, Jehovah is going to withhold forgiveness due to your refusal to forgive others, and send you to hell.

But what does it mean in the context of the God of your understanding? Replace Jehovah with the God of your understanding, and what does the parable mean?

If you believe that the Spirit of God is within you—if you believe that you are an heir to the Kingdom and that the divine spark of Source burns in your heart space—it means that you will withhold forgiveness to yourself until you show it to others. It means that you are going to weigh your actions by the same scales that you use to weight the actions of others. And so long as you find others guilty, you’re going to continue to find yourself guilty.

In the scripture when Jesus admonished his disciples not to judge others, he continued the thought in a sort of comical way:

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

Jesus was making it clear that we’re all in need of forgiveness. And if we want to be let off the hook, we need to let others off the hook.

Now, all of that is for those of us who recognize that we’ve fallen short of the mark. And to be clear, we each get to set that mark for ourselves. The key is living up to our own standards of integrity, not someone else’s. So, if you have ever fallen short of your own standards of integrity, you need to find forgiveness for others before you’ll ever really find it for yourself.

In actuality, forgiveness builds on itself. The more we forgive others, the more we’re able to forgive ourselves, and the more we forgive ourselves the more we’re able to forgive others. And we get better and better at forgiving.

But, even if we don’t buy into the idea that we, too, need to be forgiven, it still behooves us to let others off the hook. What happens too often, though, is that we keep people on the hook.

Most people have a variety of people on the hook, different categories.

There are the standouts—those people who have committed some huge offensive act against us. This category includes the parent who failed to nurture and protect us; it includes the unfaithful spouse; it includes the trusted friend who betrayed our confidence. If you’re like me, there are people who have hurt you deeply whom you still struggle to let off the hook.

Aside from those standouts, there are the people we keep on the hook in little ways. I recently talked about having to return to Carl’s Jr. because they left a burger out of my bag. When I returned, I asked if they’d like to compensate me for my trouble. I did that based on the fact that I believe making restitution for our mistakes is an important principle. I really do believe that. But I don’t think it does me any good to try to hold others to that standard. That’s not my job. That’s another way of me trying to keep someone else on the hook.

Giving me free cookies was my condition for letting them off the hook. It’s the same as demanding an apology. “I’m not going to forgive them because they never apologized!” I’m going to say this for the 188th time, because it seems we need to be reminded often: “Forgiveness is about the forgiver, not the forgiven.” Putting conditions on our forgiveness makes no sense at all.

We don’t let people off the hook because they deserve it. We let people off the hook because we deserve it. We deserve not to have to carry around all of that baggage. It’s all about us, not them.

Another category of people I need to let off the hook is celebrities who have violated my standards of integrity. I’m sure none of them are losing any sleep over it, but I haven’t forgotten.

You’re all familiar with the water shortages we face in California. Several years ago, Tom Selleck got in some trouble when the foreman of his avocado farm was caught stealing water. I studied the environment in college, so water is an issue for me. Whenever I see him on those reverse mortgage commercials and he says, ‘trust me’, I think about that.

 Another one is Justin Beiber. There was a video released in 2013 of Bieber peeing into a mop bucket in the back of a restaurant in New York. That’s obviously not okay. But if that was someone I knew personally, I probably would have let them off the hook by now.

But my biggest celebrity grudge is with Arianna Grande. In 2015, she was caught licking donuts in a shop in Lake Elsinore. That one really sticks in my craw because it has to do with food. Whenever her name has come up in the past few years, I’ve referred to her as ‘Donut Licker’.

As I said, none of them care that I haven’t let them off the hook, or for that matter, even know that they have been on the hook. I’m not doing them any favors by releasing them. I’m doing me a favor.

I just don’t want to carry all of that around anymore. There’s just no benefit to resentment. 

Years ago, when I used to iron my own shirts, I realized that it’s not the one or two creases that make a shirt look bad. It’s all of the countless tiny little wrinkles.

Forgiveness is the same way. It’s natural to direct our attention toward those big offenses that we’ve suffered and direct our focus there. But we also need to pay attention the subtle ways that we keep people on the hook.

When we’re driving in traffic and someone cuts us off accidentally, we don’t need to express our disapproval. When someone forgets something we just told them, we don’t need to roll our eyes or click our tongue at them. When someone inconveniences us in some way, we can just let it go. We don’t have to hold them accountable, however noble that may seem at the time. I rarely feel better anymore after I’ve held someone accountable.

And the reason we want to let people off the hook is entirely selfish. We have enough work to do living up to our own standards of integrity. The last thing we need to do is try to hold someone else up to theirs…or worse yet, ours.

Let me close with this. Letting others off the hook is letting ourselves off the hook in more ways than one.

First of all, by forgiving others of their shortcomings, we get better at forgiving ourselves. It’s a snowball effect. The sins we notice in other people are often the same sins we notice in ourselves, and vice versa. Forgiveness begets forgiveness.

Secondly, holding others to account is a full-time job. It’s exhausting. By letting go of our harsh judgements, we free ourselves up to fully express our higher nature. We can stop wasting our energy trying to keep others in line.

Let everybody off the hook. Whoever you’ve still got on your line, let them go. The big fish and the little ones, too—let them all go. The more fully you can clear your hook, the happier you’ll be.

Written Talks

Control Issues

Rev. Stu Smith at CCU in Anaheim on 3/7/21

I want to talk about control issues this morning, and more to the point, who is in control of our lives.

I recently watched a miniseries on Netflix called Unorthodox, which is based on the autobiography of a woman named Deborah Feldman. The full title of her book is Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots.

The main character, who represents the author, is a girl in her late teens named Etsy, who is part of an ultra-orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, New York. The miniseries actually begins with Etsy fleeing the community, and then through flashbacks, reveals what brought her to that point.

In scene after scene, we are exposed to the tight control that the religious structure wields over the community. Everyone is required to dress in a way that might be compared to the Amish. Nobody is allowed use the internet. Marriages are arranged. There are, of course, the dietary restrictions and the required prayers at certain times of the day. They’re required to take ceremonial baths. And for twelve days every month, husbands and wives aren’t allowed to touch one another.

Also, men and women are segregated during religious ceremonies. Even during the celebration after a wedding, all of the men were dancing together and all of the women were dancing together. I’ve been to nightclubs where that was the case, but that’s a totally different context.

And on top of the all of the restrictions for the community, there’s a whole other layer of restrictions for women. Of course, there is.

For instance, the married women in the community wear wigs all the time because they’re not allowed to show their hair in public. They’re also not allowed to sing in public because it might seem immodest. They’re not supposed to play musical instruments. And one thing that is established early on is that in that community, the only role available to a woman is that of wife and mother. And that is not at all an exaggeration. The only role available to a woman is that of wife and mother.

That’s what eventually drives Etsy to flee. The control just becomes too much to bear.

Hasidic Jews are among the extremes when it comes to controlling their communities, but most religions have some degree of control issues. And when I say most, I mean all.

Another example of the extremes is traditional Hinduism. As much as I am drawn to many Hindu teachings, the caste system in Hinduism is one of the most outrageous examples of control gone out of control.

Whether or not the control issues of a particular religion are as draconian as those we’ve been discussing, religions employ one strategy to exert that control. That is, they start working on you at a very early age. That’s not even a secret. Proverbs 22:6 says, “Train up a child in the way he should go, And when he is old he will not depart from it.” That’s what they call saying the quiet part out loud. And that sentiment is expressed in the texts of all the major religions.

By the time those little Hassidic girls can count to five, they know their place. The same is true of little kids in India. Everybody learns the rules early on. Everybody is under control.

Once again, those are among the extremes. But many of us gathered together this morning could share war stories from battling with a controlling religious tradition.

The thing to keep in mind with these controls that the church elders lay upon their followers is that they are presumably what the Almighty dictates. These are, in essence, God’s instructions. At least they’re presented that way.

When a religious rule is suggested, it means that someone has decided that they know what God wants. More specifically, they know what God wants of you. Then, if enough people believe that person, it becomes dogma. It gets taught to little kids and hopefully they grow up without the ability to question it.

Charles Taze Russell, who founded the Jehovah’s Witnesses, badly misinterpreted a Bible verse about Jesus’ second coming, resulting in his many followers believing they shouldn’t enjoy holidays. JWs also took a verse that forbids drinking blood and twisted it into a ban on blood transfusions. So, people die. And they’re instructed not to have friends outside the religion.

And all of those things are presented as God’s rules. Someone decided they knew what God wants of you.

What I believe is the most problematic about those controls being imposed is that it keeps people from living full lives. It keeps people from realizing their potential. It keeps people from experiencing the fulness of freedom and joy.

But those controls don’t come exclusively from the church. We get them from all corners of society. Depending on the culture that you’re born in, you’re subjected to a set of societal pressures designed to keep you from straying from the accepted norms.

Many of those pressures are gender-based. Little girls are taught to be submissive. Little boys are taught to be dominant. Those who don’t fit neatly into those roles are punished. They’re measured against society’s expectations. I’m confident that most of you hearing my voice this morning have experienced society’s disapproval to some degree at one time or another.

There are also very subtle ways that we fall under the control of others—ways that are not necessarily as damaging. But it serves us to recognize them, so that we can avoid being controlled in general.

Recently, I was watching the auditions for American Idol. A twenty-year-old named Cecil Ray came out and auditioned with a song called ‘Talkin’ Tennessee’. During his performance, he moved around a lot, rocked back and forth and swayed his arms around. After he finished, one of the judges, Luke Bryan, asked him to sing a few more lines with his hands in his pockets. He was trying to demonstrate that the artist would have better control over his voice if he weren’t flailing around so much while he was singing. Following up on that, judge Katy Perry asked him if he drinks coffee. He replied, ‘no’, to which Katy Perry responded, “Don’t ever start.”

“No ma’am.,” he said.

I really doubt that Katy Perry put much thought into her comment. It was probably just banter. She was really just suggesting that he seemed antsy. And in reality, his movements had nothing to do with nerves, they were just an affectation.

All the same, I would bet good money that Cecil Ray will never drink coffee in his life, because Katy Perry told him not to. I’m not saying that’s a horrible thing. Arguably, abstaining from coffee is a good thing. But he’s likely to avoid coffee primarily because of that flip comment tossed out on a competition show.

I had a girlfriend in the late eighties named Sabrina. Sabrina would often surprise me with gifts, usually neckties or shirts. Eventually, I realized she just wanted me to dress better. If she was going to be seen in public with me, she wanted me to look the part.

One time we went out and I was wearing shorts.  She pointed out that I had pulled by socks up my calves, informed me of how awkward it looked, and instructed me to push my socks down around my ankles. I do that to this day. I even recognize that I only do it because Sabrina told me to, and I still do it.

So, if I recognize this example of subtle manipulation, how many other casual remarks have steered my behavior? Whether it’s by a strict set of religious precepts or by off-handed comments, so much of our lives end up being controlled by others.

“Red’s not your color.” “You’re not really built to be a dancer.” “That’s dangerous.” “You shouldn’t try to draw so much attention to yourself.” “Don’t be so sensitive!”

I’d like to read the first of a song called The Joke by Belinda Carlisle:

You’re feeling nervous, aren’t you, boy?
With your quiet voice and impeccable style
Don’t ever let them steal your joy
And your gentle ways
To keep ’em from running wild

They can kick dirt in your face
Dress you down, and tell you that your place
Is in the middle, when they hate the way you shine.

That’s what the world will try to do to you. The rule-makers of this world are trying to keep you in the middle because they hate the way you shine. They often have so much invested in their rules and regulations, that they see your nonadherence as a challenge. If the rules aren’t true for you, maybe they aren’t for them, either. And that’s too scary to think about.

So, we get the rules from a number of different channels. But still, the most consequential rules tend to come from our churches, synagogues, mosques and temples. That’s largely because people put too much trust in their religious leaders.

Because I stand behind this white box every Sunday morning, people might tend to think I’ve got the answers. Let me assure you, nothing could be farther than the truth. I’m just doing my best to figure it all out, and sharing my process with you. But you need to weigh everything I tell you and see if it works for you.

I’m quite open about the fact that I don’t think the Bible is the inerrant word of God. I do think it’s inspired. And just as the rules laid out by the Hassidic Jews and fundamentalist Hindus seem oppressive to me, the Scriptural principles I do embrace may seem oppressive to others.

Recall these words from Mathew 5:

“…I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you….You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…”

Now, as bad as I am at following those guidelines, they ring true for me. I really believe what Jesus is saying there. And I advocate that from this pulpit. But I’m not advocating it as a rule, but rather a suggestion.

I’m inviting you to try it out. See if it feels right to you the way it feels right to me. If so, keep striving to do better at it. If not, stop immediately. I don’t want to be responsible for your rules. Because, if I’m wrong, you might get beat up, robbed and abused for no reason.

It’s reported that Mary Baker Eddy once dismissed Phineas Quimby’s influence by stating that he had merely ‘rolled away the stone’ for her. In other words, all he had done is to help remove the obstacles to her understanding. That’s all I ever intend to do: help remove the obstacles to understanding.

At a point in Unorthodox, one of Etsy’s newfound friends introduces her to the internet. They end up Googling ‘Is God real?’ Of course, there are thousands of entries to choose from. Etsy says, “There’s too many answers.” Her friend replies, “Yeah, That’s the thing. You can ask, but you still have to choose the right answer.”

The same thing is true when it comes to making life’s choices. You can ask, but you still have to choose the right answer. You have to make the rules for you.

As I was contemplating this talk during the past week, the Universe thrust another aspect of control in my face. Last week I spoke about Maria Nemeth and her You and Money workshop. One of the principles that she stressed was that if you fail someone in some way, you need to find a way to make up for it. She uses that to create the dynamics she fosters into personal revelation. Although cleaning up after oneself wasn’t an entirely new concept, she elevated it to the level of principle.

And just like bunching my socks around my ankles, I embraced it as a personal principle. This past week, when I returned from the Carl’s Jr. drive-thru, I found that they’d left out Kayla’s burger. In the past, I would have gotten angry and judgy. “They only have one thing to do. They can’t even get that right. Blah, blah, blah.” But people make mistakes, so I calmly drove back.

After telling the guy at the speaker box what had happened, he confirmed which order was mine and asked me to pull up to the window. I was met there by the manager who asked me to explain again to her what had happened. Then, as much as I hate confrontation, I asked her if it would make her feel better about it if she gave me something free to compensate me for my trouble.

When I got home and explained why I brought home a half dozen chocolate chip cookies, Keana was sort of rolling her eyes. I asked her what she was thinking, and she said, “I just feel like you sometimes want to have things your way.” Whether or not this was a case of me imposing my expectations upon others, Keana was recognizing a pattern of mine.

And since I have just recently recommitted to accepting coaching from wherever it comes, I took it to heart. After considerable deliberation, I recognized that I do have a framework for how things should be, and I often expect others to acquiesce to my viewpoint.

I’ve done it with issues that come before the church board. I figure out how I think things need to go, and as soon as I get pushback, I draw the battlelines.

So, I realize that just as I need to safeguard myself from being controlled by others, I also need to guard against trying to control others. Because just as I don’t want them standing between me and the fullness of life, I don’t want to be that type of obstacle for them.

In the interest of examining how I might be trying to control others, I found a website called Twelve Signs of a Control Freak. I’d like to quickly go through those and you can see if any of these apply to you.

Number one: Everything has to happen according to their schedule. I can relate to that. I expect people to be ready when I’m ready and to wait when I’m not. It has to be on my schedule. Comedian Rita Rudner joked about her father standing in front of the microwave lamenting, “I haven’t got all minute!” I get that. That’s part of what Keana was talking about with me expecting things to be my way.

Number two: They do not like delegating tasks. This isn’t so much of a problem for me. Delegating a task means I don’t have to do it myself. I don’t have a problem delegating tasks unless I want something to be done right.

Number three: They’re extremely moody. I can be moody like anybody, but I don’t know if this one is a particular issue for me. How about you?

Number four: They lash out at the most minor of inconvenience. I can be that way. If a traffic light turns red on me, I can be thrown for a loop if I’m not careful. Get a drop of ketchup on my shirt; find a hole in my sock; realize I left my wallet down in the car; any one of these might set me off.

Number five: They are extremely critical in nature. There is no end to the reasons why people can fail to live up to my expectations. Just as Keana said, sometimes I expect things to be my way. But I’m much, much better than I used to be.

Number six: They always have to know every little thing. I don’t really think this is an issue for me. While I have a deep curiosity about things sometimes, I really don’t have a need to know other people’s business. It’s not a matter of disinterest; I just figure that they’ll tell me if they want me to know.

Number seven: They always have to have the last word. Once again, I don’t see this as a problem for me. Besides, sometimes denying a final response speaks loudest of all.

Number eight: They never admit they are wrong. I’m not sure about this one. I’ll have to get back to you if I’m ever wrong about something.

Number nine: They cannot work on a team. This might have been more of a problem for me in the past. But I’ve gotten better at working with others on a team. It helps if I’m the team leader. But I think I’m pretty good at playing with others.

Number ten: They use ‘constructive criticism’ to have their way. There’s no aggression like passive aggression. The song Bosom Buddies from the musical Mame is all about using ‘constructive criticism’. The song starts off,

“We’ll always be bosom buddies
Friends, sisters and pals;
We’ll always be bosom buddies
If life should reject you
There’s me to protect you
If I say that your tongue is vicious,
If I call you uncouth;
It’s simply that who else but a bosom buddy
Will sit down and tell you the truth.”

It goes downhill from there. Where would we be without the constructive criticism of our bosom buddies?

Number eleven: The finances are always their department. I get off scott free on this one. I don’t want anything to do with money matters. That’s best for everyone involved. But it’s easy to see how holding the purse strings is a means of wielding control.

Number twelve: They tend to be perfectionists. Guilty as charged. Because I operate under the basic assumption that there’s something wrong with me, I can become obsessed with proving the opposite. I’m ashamed of my perceived shortcomings. My critical nature gets directed inward as easily as outward, and I try to project perfection to cover up my imperfection.

So, how did you fare? After due consideration, I’ve determined that while I’m probably not a control freak, I am at the very least a control enthusiast.

Trying to control others is a matter of making ourselves feel better. It’s a matter of keeping people in a box that supports our idea of the way things should be. Esther Hicks says, “If you knew your potential to feel good, you would ask no one to be different so that you can feel good. You would free yourself of all of that cumbersome impossibility of needing to control the world, or control your mate, or control your child. You are the only one who creates your reality.”

Let me wrap this up. We want to avoid exerting undue control over others because it stands in the way of them living abundantly. The expectations we place on others, deliberate or not, can limit their sense of freedom to choose what works best for them. I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to be responsible for keeping someone else in a box.

And in the same way that we guard against controlling others, we want to avoid being controlled ourselves. To the extent that we’re able, we want to shake of the controlling influences that have restricted us from our full joy. In the end there is only one person who should control you and one person you should control. You.

Written Talks

The Food 4 Less Angel

Rev. Stu Smith at CCU in Anaheim, CA 2/28/21

Before I get into my talk this morning, I’d like to try a little bit of visualization. If you feel comfortable, please close your eyes for a moment. I want you to think of someone who gets on your nerves. Someone other than me, Nina. Someone who gets on your nerves. Picture their face if you can. Hear the sound of their grating voice. Smell their obnoxious cologne. Or think of someone who’s been really rude to you, someone who hurt your feelings in some way. Imagine their stupid clothes and their stupid hair. What about that person you’re still having that same argument with in your mind over and over? How could they possibly be so obtuse? Seriously?

Alright, open your eyes. Now, take a deep breath and exhale all those negative images. But I do reserve the right to bring those folks up again later on.

Now, I want to recall for you an incident that I was a part of a couple of weeks ago. I knew immediately that it would end up being part of a Sunday talk. I just didn’t know in what context. I needed time to process it to figure out what the lesson was.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to pick up Subway sandwiches for the family. The Subway near my house is in the entrance to Food 4 Less. When I got there, I saw a man wheeling a grocery cart out of the store. He walked by the handicapped parking space right before I pulled into it.

When I got out of my car, he yelled something. I looked over and asked, “Are you talking to me?” And he said, “Yeah, fat man, you need to watch your driving!” I said, “Oh, really?” He said, “Yeah, you just zoomed right into that space.” I said, “Oh, I just zoomed right in, huh?” He said, “Yeah, fat man. Next time I might not be so nice.” I said, “This is you being nice?” He said, “Yeah, next time you might not be so lucky, fat man.” He kept yelling at me and I kept telling him that his behavior was over the top. At one point, I very calmly told him that this wasn’t about me, it was about him. Finally, I said, “You know, you’ve got a lot of growing up to do and not much time left to do it.” To which the silver-tongued devil replied, “You do.” Well, ‘brevity is the soul of wit’, as they say. Eventually, I said, “Ok, well, I hope you start having a better day.” And he countered, “I hope you do!” So, I said, “Thank you,” and walked into the store.

As I said, I knew that that was an extraordinary incident, and something from which I could draw a lesson. But, once again, I wasn’t completely sure what that lesson was.

One thing that was apparent to me is how differently I handled that circumstance from how I might have handled it in the past. There was a time when I would have gotten into a screaming match with him right there in the parking lot.

So, the fact that I remained outwardly calm was a victory. Maybe recognizing how I had grown emotionally was my lesson. Maybe it was a sort of cosmic graduation ceremony. But that just didn’t satisfy me.

I want to go back to part of my exchange for a moment. I said there was a point in the conversation when I told him, “You know, you’ve got a lot of growing up to do and not much time left to do it.” And I actually said those exact words. The reason I remember them so well is that I had rehearsed them. Those, in fact, were the words I wished I had said to the guy who yelled at me in front of the grocery store a few weeks earlier. I was actually carrying that around in my pocket. He just gave me the opportunity to use it.

But the reason I commented on his immaturity was not only him being a hot head, but specifically about his schoolyard taunt of calling me fat man.

Let’s put that in perspective. As an adult, childish insults like that don’t have a lot of effect on me. But he obviously thought that it would get to me, because he said it repeatedly.

Of course, he chose fat man because it was the first, most obvious thing. If I had been bald, he would have called me baldy or cue ball. Or if I was short, her would have called me shrimp, or pip squeak. Whatever he immediately recognized as a difference, he jumped on it.

He was angry. He felt I had challenged his manhood by getting too close to him in my car. So, he lashed out and tried to hurt me by calling me the first thing that came to mind when I got out of the car.

When I said that childish insult like that don’t affect me much, I mean that. It’s not like I didn’t know I’m heavy. But the words stuck with me. Words that are yelled at you repeatedly in a parking lot tend to do that.

And each time I went over the story in my head, searching for my lesson, I heard those words again and again. Fat man. Fat man. Fat man. And while I could recognize and appreciate how I had grown, there just didn’t seem to be a whole lot there. What was there, and what remained to be there, was those words, fat man.

And I finally realized that the lesson for me was to get back to taking care of my health. Fat man was the lesson. I could relive the incident a hundred times searching for some mystical, esoteric meaning, but it was always going to come back to fat man.

Before the pandemic, I decided that I need to work on my health. And a big part of that is losing weight. That’s something I decided that I wanted to do for myself. I dramatically changed my eating habits and began an exercise regimen. I lost 70 pounds, and received all the benefits that go along with that.

But then the pandemic hit. And, over time, I allowed the pandemic to become an excuse to slide back into my old habits. I got complacent about my eating and exercising. And a lot of the weight I lost, I found it again.

And so, the Universe, in its boundless wisdom, sent me a message, a loud, brash message. The message was, “Fat man.” And that message was heralded by someone who I have come to refer to as ‘The Food 4 Less Angel’.

He wasn’t wearing a halo and wings. He didn’t have a shining countenance, or even a clean t-shirt. But he was an angel, nonetheless.

Hebrews 13:2 says, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” Our angels are among us. And we normally think of angels as being sweet and loving, but that’s not always the case. A story in the book of Genesis tells how Jacob wrestled with an angel that actually injured his leg.

I want to make clear that addressing my weight is something that I chose to do for me. I’m not here to preach to you about looking after your health. But it’s an issue for me because I chose it. And because I chose it, the Universe is going to help me deal with it.

We live in a loving Universe. And sometimes the Universe needs to express tough love. There’s a story of a Missouri farmer who went to buy a new mule. The stable owner brought him over to a huge mule and said, ‘Wilbur, here, is my finest mule. He’s smart and extremely strong. The thing is with Wilbur, you have to treat him with tender loving care. He’s quite sensitive. So, tender loving care is the only way to get through to him.” Then, the stable owner hooked Wilbur up to a plow to show him off. “Pull, Wilbur,” he said. But the mule didn’t move. Come on, Wilbur, good boy. Pull.” Nothing. “Come on, pretty boy. You can do it. You’re such a good boy.” The mule didn’t move. So the stable owner picked up a two-by-four and slammed it against the back of the mule’s head. The farmer said, “I thought you said you have to treat him with tender loving care.” “You do,” he said, “But you’ve got to get his attention first.”

The Universe wants to treat us with tender loving care. But sometimes, it has to get our attention first. In which case, it may send an angel to kick us in the shins.

Back in the early 90s, Rev. Mario went to a weekend workshop. The next week, he was talking about how horrible it was and about the abusive facilitator. I remember him saying that he wouldn’t send his worst enemy to that workshop. Well, it was a two-part workshop, so he completed the second weekend a month later.

After the second weekend, not only had he changed his mind about the workshop and its facilitator, but he was encouraging members of the congregation to go, and arranged for the church to provide partial scholarships.

That workshop was You and Money, facilitated by Maria Nemeth. I was among the first group to go, along with Bev, and several others who are no longer CCU regulars.

Maria’s method is to poke at you until she finds your buttons. And then she points them out for you to do with as you will. Let me be clear: she relentlessly needles you until she finds your breaking point. She’s like a dentist poking around in your mouth with a sharp instrument. She finds those soft spots and says, “Don’t you think you should work on that?”

It’s not fun.

But at the same time, it’s extremely transformative, if you’re willing to embrace it.

Our affirmation from today, ‘I am willing to accept coaching from wherever it comes,’ is a pledge that every participant is required to make at the beginning of the You and Money workshop.

Maria wisely begins that way in order to preempt some of the resistance she knows she’s going to encounter. Mario said he almost got kicked out. She had to stop the workshop and take him aside. The same thing nearly happened to me. I was pushing back so hard during my reaming that she asked me if I wanted my money back. I was within a whisker of saying yes.

And I thank God that something made me stay. I had one foot out the door, but thankfully I stayed.

Anyone who has taken You and Money will tell you its like being pulled through a knot hole. It’s uncomfortable. It’s difficult. It’s painful.

At the end of the second weekend session, we gathered in a circle to reflect on our shared experience. I took the opportunity to thank Maria for letting me hate her.

Maria was an angel—not an angel with shiny golden locks playing a harp. She was an angel with a blowtorch and sandpaper.

Maria was helping me recognize areas where I needed to grow. She was doing intentionally what the Food 4 Less Angel was doing out of ugliness. The only difference was intent.

Bottom line is intent doesn’t affect me. As Rev. Mario once said, “If somebody hits me on the head with a two-by-four, it hurts the same whether or not they did it on purpose.”

In the end, I can benefit either way, if I choose to.

The Food 4 Less Angel and the Angel Maria both came into my life to help refine me. They’re messengers of God. And they didn’t come to rub my head and tell me how precious and beautiful I am; they came to kick me in the butt. Sometimes angels come to rub your head and tell you how precious and beautiful you are; but that isn’t always what’s needed.

Sometimes, an angel needs to call you fat man.

Helping us to see our areas of stretch is one of the ways angels can help to refine us, to knock off our rough edges, if you will.

My Uncle John used to polish rocks as a hobby. He would go out and pull rocks from the stream behind his house. The rocks were pretty ordinary looking when he started.

Then he put them in a tumbler with some really coarse sand and left them tumbling for a day or so. The sand would knock off the roughest edges. Then he repeated the process a few more times with increasingly finer sand. In the end, the rocks were beautifully smooth and shiny.

We can allow our angels to do that for us—knock off the rough edges, and leave us smooth and shiny.

I want to back up to where we started now. I want to go back to those irritating, frustrating, maddening louts that we imagined at the beginning of our talk. Remember those people. I told you they’d be back. Guess what? They’re your angels.

Those people who make you climb the walls, who drive you to distraction, who make you want to pull out your hair by the fistfuls—angels. That person who always seems to be standing in your way, making things more difficult, perhaps forcing you to try harder or to show more focus—angel. The person who broke your heart and forced you to find the strength to start again—angel.

It’s easy to look at the challenging people in our lives and see them as the adversary. It’s not fun to be insulted or to be marginalized. Nobody wants to feel attacked or otherwise mistreated.

But if we are determined to look for the good in every situation, we can find a blessing there; and those challenging people become unintentional angels. It doesn’t matter whether or not they knew that they came to bless us.

I want to close with the illustration of the pearl and the oyster. You often hear that a pearl is formed when a grain of sand gets inside an oyster’s shell. Actually, it’s usually that a tiny parasite invades the oyster. A parasite is a creature that gets its energy by leeching off of its host. So, the parasite is stealing the oyster’s energy. In response, the oyster covers the parasite in a layer of calcium carbonate. Eventually, the layers of calcium carbonate build up and form a pearl.

We can do the same thing. Sometimes, people come into our lives and try to steal our thunder—they present themselves as parasites, of a sort. But we can choose to surround that other being, in this case with white light rather than calcium carbonate. We can see that person as an angel come to bring us a message. And then, instead of getting affected and infected by their actions, we can turn the situation into a precious gemstone.

In the end, it’s our choice. We can choose to find the blessing if we want to. All we have to do is decide that everyone who comes into our lives is an angel. Some of them have come to stroke our hair and say,

“Oh, you precious child of God,” and others come wearing a pair of army boots to kick us in the butt.

You said you were willing to accept coaching from wherever it comes. Did you mean it? I did. And in that regard, let me say, “God bless you, Food 4 Less Angel, wherever you are.”

Who’s your Food 4 Less Angel?

Written Talks

Works in Progress

Talk given by Rev. Stu Smith, 2-21-21

I want to share with you how I came up with the title for this morning’s talk, ‘Work in Progress’.

I recently binged all three seasons of a tv series called ‘Designated Survivor’. A designated survivor is a member of the president’s cabinet that stays in a secure undisclosed location when the rest of the government attends a state of the union address by the president. They started doing that during the height of the cold war in the 1950s just in case the Rooskies tried to take out our entire government with one well-timed attack. In such a case, the designated survivor would be sworn in as president.

In the series, Kiefer Sutherland stars as a HUD secretary who, while serving as designated survivor when the unthinkable happens, becomes president of the United States; President Tom Kirkman. Politically, he’s an independent. Throughout the series, he makes minor missteps here and there, but overall, he’s presented as a man truly committed to principle.

President Kirkman’s wife has a sister named Sasha, who is transexual. And although Sasha would prefer her privacy, because of her relationship to President Kirkman, she gets outed by the press. One end of the political spectrum crucifies President Kirkman for associating with such a depraved wretch, while the other lambastes him for trying to hide her away in the attic. Kirkman remains unmoved, and by her own choice, Sasha becomes increasingly present at the White House.

In the final season, Kirkman makes the decision to run for reelection as an independent. At one point, Kirkman asks Sasha to introduce him at a rally in Madison, WI. But when, at the last minute, the campaign decides to hold that rally in southern Texas, he thinks better of it—only later to regret that decision. When he later apologizes to her for his infortitude, she reassures him with the words, “We’re all a work in progress.”

Those words, “We’re all a work in progress,” seemed all the more profound to me, coming from Sasha. I thought about how profoundly someone who had transitioned from one binary gender to the other could understand the idea of being a work in progress. I have to guess that they would understand it much better than me. And from that deep understanding, came her loving response, “We’re all a work in progress.” If only that response were more common.

As that idea percolated in my head, I remembered a movie appreciation course I’d taken in college. We learned about the history of film and studied the different genres. I ended up viewing a lot of good movies I otherwise would not have watched. One part of the course was an essay describing the qualities that we personally look for in a good movie. In mulling over my favorite movies, I realized that many of my favorite films are about a flawed character who goes through a transformation.

One film I referenced was As Good as it Gets. In it, Jack Nicholson plays a homophobic, misogynistic, generally xenophobic crank who suffers from severe OCD. Through the course of the film, his emotional armor gets slowly eroded away and we find him making baby steps toward a more connected life.

Driving Miss Daisy follows a similar theme. Jessica Tandy costars as a bigoted southern widow, Daisy Werthan, whose son hires Hoke Colburn, played by Morgan Freeman, as a driver. Miss Daisy is immediately combative and distrustful toward Hoke. But over the years, through his steadfast openness, he gradually breaks down her defenses. One of the most precious moments is toward the end of the film as he feeds her in her convalescent home, and she says to him “Hoke, you’re my best friend.”

One more film that follows that format—I even watched it again this week—is Groundhog’s Day with Bill Murray. Groundhog’s Day is all about a weatherman, Phil Connors, who gets trapped in a time loop wherein he lives groundhog’s day over and over. Only by transforming his consciousness is he finally able to escape and move on.

Each one of these characters were deeply flawed. Their flaws, in fact were so profound, that those shortcomings had become, in large part, their defining characteristics. But the art of the filmmaker was to allow me as the audience to see something in those characters, even from the start, that was redeemable. As nasty and antisocial as they presented themselves, I was always allowed to see something in there worth saving. It might be as little as me knowing that someone more obviously worthy cared about them. And that was enough to make me root for them.

The Bible deals with a number of characters who went through major transformations. Moses went from being an unsure, stuttering shepherd, to being the leader who freed his people from Egypt. David grew from simple shepherd boy to psalmist to King.

Jesus took a ragtag group of fishermen and tax collectors and transformed them into leaders who could effectively spread his message. Matthew 4 tells the story of Jesus calling his first disciples. ‘And Jesus, walking by the Sea of Galilee, saw two brothers, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. Then He said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.”’

Scripture tells us that they immediately left their nets and followed him. And throughout scripture, they and the other disciples are presented as works in progress.

In Matthew 16:23, Jesus turns and says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.” In another story, Jesus rebukes James and John when they ask if he wants to rain down fire on a city that refused to welcome him. Jesus had to admonish Peter to lay down his sword when the Romans came for him. You remember how the disciples scattered when Jesus was arrested, and how Peter denied knowing Jesus three times.

The disciples, Jesus’ inner circle, were works in progress.

The most profound scriptural work in progress is the guy who wrote a big part of the New Testament, Paul. He’s first introduced by the Hebrew version of his name, Saul, working as a bounty hunter, rounding up Christians. Then comes his experience on the road to Damascus, when he is blinded by a bright light; when his vision is restored, he has been transformed into a new person. He acknowledges that transformation by switching to the Greek version of his name Paul.

But as profound as that change is, he still recognizes that he’s a work in progress. In his second letter to the Corinthians, he writes, “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as [b]by the Spirit of the Lord. “…being transformed into the same image from glory to glory…” We’re being transformed into the image of Christ, allowing more of our Christ nature to shine through. And it’s a process. It happens in stages—from glory to glory.

Portia Nelson illustrates the process of transformation in her poem, There’s a Hole in My Sidewalk.

Chapter I

I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I fall in.
I am lost… I am helpless.
It isn’t my fault.
It takes forever to find a way out.

Chapter II

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I pretend I don’t see it.
I fall in again.
I can’t believe I am in the same place.
But it isn’t my fault.
It still takes a long time to get out.

Chapter III

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it is there.
I still fall in… it’s a habit.
My eyes are open.
I know where I am.
It is my fault… I get out immediately.

Chapter IV

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I walk around it.

Chapter V

I walk down another street.

That’s the rub of making a change. It’s often a process. We’re transformed glory by glory.

And we have to not only be willing to change, but rather to pursue change. We have to want to be better. And wanting to be better necessarily involves what has become a dirty word in some circles: regret. But regret is necessary. If we can’t look back and recognize where we could have done better, why would we change?

There’s a song by the boy band One Direction called Night Changes. One of the lyrics states, “Having no regrets is all that she ever wants.” It sounds so unassuming—such a small thing to ask. She doesn’t want great wealth or fame; she just wants to have no regrets. She just wants to go through her entire life without looking back and saying this or that might have been better. We all know how unrealistic that is. But beyond that, they’re talking about a life without change, a life without growth. That’s not life. Life is about being that work in progress.

We don’t want to be riddled with regrets, but we don’t want to deny them. We should maybe take the Frank Sinatra ‘My Way” approach. “Regrets—I’ve had a few; but then again, too few to mention.” We can acknowledge our regrets without allowing them to become part of our daily conversation. Regrets are our catalyst for change.

Accepting that we are works in progress allows us to acknowledge those areas where we would like to do better without condemning ourselves. Recognizing that we can do better opens us up to the possibility to be transformed glory by glory. But we need to give ourselves permission to be a work in progress.

You remember the Dan Fogelberg song we listened to earlier, Along the Road, says, ‘Along the road, your steps may stumble; your thoughts may start to stray. But through it all, a heart held humble levels and lights your way.’

We all stumble at times. We all have periods where our thoughts stray from the things of Spirit. It’s happened in the past and it will happen again. But a humble heart—a heart that accepts being a work in progress—lights the way, carries us along our pilgrim’s journey.

Regrets are a blessing once we learn to give them a light touch. The regret isn’t the misstep we think we took; the regret is the acknowledgement of the misstep we took. The regret is the messenger. And without that message, we have no motivation to grow.

Once we accept that we’re a work in progress, the next step is to realize that everyone else is, too. All those other people out there, all of the rest of us out here, we’re all works in progress, too. And we’re doing the best we can as we are transformed glory by glory into the image of Christ.

After we learn to make allowances for ourselves, we need to make those same allowances for others, too. And the times that we’ll be called upon to see others as works in progress is not when they’re at their best, but rather when they’re at their worst. It’s when their behavior is the most challenging to us that it is most vital to see the emerging Christ within them.

The last point I’d like to make this morning comes from an episode of Wheel of Fortune that I caught this week. I’m sure most of you have seen Wheel of Fortune, the gameshow Merv Griffin created based on the game ‘hangman’. In this particular game, two of the contestants had each amassed over $10k each. But the third contestant had less than two thousand dollars. It came down to the final puzzle where the contestants were guessing letters without spinning the wheel. The woman who hadn’t won much kept continued smiling even though her opportunity was coming to an end. Finally, she was the one who solved the final puzzle, which was a phrase, “It’s never too late.”

That put a big smile on my face. What a great outcome. She didn’t end up winning the game, but she added over $6k to her winnings in that final moment of the game.

Let’s remember that. It’s never too late. Making those changes, choosing a better path, is always available to us. We can always look at where we are or where we’ve been and say, “I can do better.”

You might have stumbled yesterday. You might have had an interaction this morning that you feel might have gone better. You might be having unkind thoughts right now about how long I’m blathering on. That’s ok. Just remember I’m a work in progress.

There’s great freedom in being a work in progress. It can be a great relief to know we don’t have to be perfect. Allow yourself that freedom. Give yourself permission to make mistakes and room to grow. It’s ok if you’re not there yet.

But realize that you have grown. We can sometimes feel frustrated and stagnated because we can’t readily see the changes that have occurred. Growth comes slowly. But if we look over the arc of our journey, if we compare ourselves to a far-removed version of ourselves, our transformation becomes more apparent.

You might not be able to see that you’re a different person than you were last week, but you can hopefully see that you’re a different person than you were 10 years ago. And 10 years from now, you’ll be an even better version of yourself. You’re not a finished product, you’re a work in progress.

Let me bring this full circle. Just like fictional President Tom Kirkman or Miss Daisy or the Apostle Paul, we’re all works in progress. We’re all being transformed glory by glory into the image of Christ. We need to remember that for ourselves and for one another. And in that acknowledgement, we need to extend to ourselves and others grace, compassion and forgiveness.

Be gentle. Be patient. Be kind. We’re all works in progress.