Combatting the virus of perfectionism

I watched the TV news reporter stand on the side of a busy, ice-packed highway last week when Western Canada was getting walloped by the first major snow storm of the season. Behind her all manner of vehicles were exiting off the Alberta highway onto the off-ramp. What caught my eye was a large transport truck identified by its insignia – the company name: SYSCO.

SYSCO is a company in the food-marketing-transportation business operating throughout the country. And immediately who came to my mind was the chair of our council here at Faith Lutheran Church Ottawa who works for SYSCO. And my thoughts then went to wondering how she and her young family were doing that day.

Interesting how branding has such power over us, how seeing the company sign thousands of kilometers away on a transport truck in the middle of a snow storm could lead me to take a moment in my day to send her a short email.

And then I wondered how this works for Christians. By what visible sign will anyone watching know who we are? By how you and I behave in the daily course of our lives outside of Sunday – even in areas of our lives far removed from our Christian home here in the church – will people take notice and say to themselves: So, there’s a Christian! How will people know we are Christian? And how will they know what our purpose in life is?

If we’re not going about the purpose of our life, then what’s stopping us? Even though we are assured by Scripture that “our hearts are sprinkled clean from evil” (Hebrews 10:22) because of Jesus Christ, why do we hold back our generous and public witness of being a Christian? Even though we read in today’s Epistle that Christ makes perfect what we cannot, do we still delude ourselves into thinking we first have to get it right – get it perfect – before we get to the business of whatever business we’re supposed to be getting to? I sometimes wonder whether we are not, in the church, infected with what Order of Canada recipient Laurence Freeman calls “the virus of perfectionism”.

Christians at this time of year in regular worship services are pondering the “end times”. The end of another church calendar year looms – in just a couple of weeks. And so the bible readings are apocalyptic in nature; that is, they describe the trials and tribulations preceding that ‘end’. Christians are called upon to watch for the unsettling, even painful, signs the end is nigh.

In one of those texts, Jesus describes the events surrounding the destruction of the Jerusalem temple and subsequent wars, earthquakes and famines (Mark 13:1-8). To characterize this foreboding end time, out of the blue he uses the image of “birth pangs”.

Jesus uses the phrase “birth pangs” to offer us so much more than mere doom-and-gloom resignation to some random fate. He is offering his frightened disciples a way through their fear, anger and anxiety. Jesus is giving them hope in a particular vision for life and death.

“Birth pangs” refer, of course, to the labour pains a woman must endure – sometimes lasting days – before the expected baby is born. A woman suffers, prior to the birth of a new life. The product of that suffering is normally something immeasurably wonderful, beautiful and precious: the gift of a child.

Jesus gives that image to us to remind us that our weakness, our imperfection, our broken nature is not really the end, but rather a sign that new life is on the way. Here is something painful that would bring about something better.

If we want to bring something good to birth in our own lives, there will be pain. There is a necessary connection between pain and new life. Sometimes that means the pain of vulnerability. Sometimes that means the pain of losing something that we thought was important. Sometimes that means taking a risk and making a mistake. Sometimes that means the risk of failure.

But this reality in which we live ought not to keep us from putting off something we need to do now – even if it means putting yourself on the line and feeling a bit uncomfortable for a time being.

The time will never be perfect. If we are waiting for the perfect timing, it’ll never happen. In another apocalyptic biblical text, Jesus says that we will never know the exact day or hour when he comes again (Matthew 24:36). Jesus description of the birth pangs should, if anything, illustrate how imperfect from our human perspective time and history play out: lots of wars, mistakes, destruction, missed opportunities etc. It’ll never be perfect!

But that shouldn’t stop us from still doing the right thing, whatever it is: whether it is reaching out graciously to that estranged family member; taking a little extra time with someone; saying the words that need to be said; proposing a plan that may not be the easiest way, but the right way, etc. – you can fill in the blank for your own life of work, family, marriage, whatever.

If you enjoy working with your hands – carpentry, crafts, building something – you might understood the struggle with perfection. When you make something with your own hands, you have to come to terms with what mistakes you will allow and which mistakes mean you have to start over.

I read recently of a tradition faithfully employed by the native Navajo people of the south-western United States (Richard Rohr, On the Threshold of Transformation, p.170):

When the crafters of the community knit their rugs, there is always and intentionally one clear imperfection woven into the pattern of the traditional rug. Not only is this done to remind one another of who they are as a unique community.

But the imperfection in the rugs, it is believed, is precisely where the Spirit moves in and out of the rug! It is through the hole where the Spirit enters and moves. Without the imperfection, the presence of God would be missed. It is the acknowledgement of the imperfection that creates the space for what will be good.

Perfection from a healthy spiritual tradition is not the elimination of imperfection. True perfection is not the denial and exclusion of our failures, mistakes and weaknesses from our life narrative. Divine perfection is, in truth, the ability to recognize, forgive, and include imperfection – just as God does with all of us: By forgiving us. By loving us. By holding us and embracing us, just as we are.

And that calls for a bold response from us!

Those who make the rugs in the Navajo tradition don’t end up keeping it for themselves. They make it for others. They give it out even though those rugs are marked with imperfection. In fact, those rugs out there in the world are signs of God’s presence precisely because they are not perfect.

We are called as Christians to be out there in the world, even on the snowy highways and byways of life, even far away from home. We are called to show, even and especially in the storms of our lives, the love of God for the world. No matter how good or how bad it gets, we take who we are and all that we have, trusting that the outcome of our work and being is not in our hands, but in God’s.

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