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.

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