The virus of perfectionism & the healing acme of God’s love

I remember at the conclusion of my qualifying exam as a seminarian seeking a call to serve as a pastor of a church, the lead examiner made only one suggestion.

Sitting before the bishop and an examining committee for over an hour –  hearing me answer questions about church doctrine, dealing with conflict, upholding the Gospel in a pluralistic society, defining God’s mission, etc. – I remember being taken aback with their summarizing statements at the end of it all:

They said, essentially: “From the sounds of it, Martin, you will have to work on one thing. And this may cause you problems down the road if you don’t navigate this issue well. So this is what you will have to practice, right from the start …

“The first time you lead worship one Sunday morning as a pastor of that congregation, when you notice the paraments on the altar are crooked, or not hanging in a symmetrically-perfect fashion, resist at all costs the urge to correct it.”

Here I was all concerned about issues of theological integrity, confessional adherence, denominational survival and biblical interpretation of controversial proportions – and what the leadership of the church was most concerned about was not what I believed so much, but how I, a future pastor, would exercise my leadership among the people of God.

At first, I was convinced they were missing the point. But the more I reflected on this and the more mileage I clocked over the years in pastoral leadership, I came to appreciate very much their advice. Perfectionism is like a virus, and can lead to many bad things not only in leadership but in the practice of faith:

Perfectionism is why I give up too quickly on many a handy-man project at home whenever it doesn’t work out the way I expect it to. Applied to a life of faith, perfectionism, I have discovered, leads only to discouragement, depression and a low self-esteem. Perfectionism, closely related to the need to please others, places undue pressure and unhealthy stress on our lives. Perfectionism makes religion out of following a bunch of rules. Perfectionism keeps us stuck in negative, self-depreciating cycles of thinking.

Have you, too, caught the perfectionism bug? Laurence Freeman, recipient of the Order of Canada a couple of years ago, said that his greatest success in life was to learn that his failures were more important than his successes (audio, “The Virus of Perfectionism”, http://www.meditatio.ca). I am certain his comments reflect the testimonies of many successful business people and those who are at the top of their fields who confess that the most important ingredient in achieving success is the long list of the failures that preceded it.

And then we confront a text like we read today (Matthew 5:48) when Jesus says: “Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” What are we to make of that? Does God want us to be perfect, and avoid all possibility of failure, at all costs?

I think we have to be very careful in our understanding of this word, as we practice our faith, day to day. As I have struggled with perfectionism I have come to appreciate the flip-side of this coin:

It is born deep within the human soul to want things to be right, proper, good. We are, after all, created in God’s image. And part of this reflection manifested in each other is to seek God’s glory – which is beautiful, holy, perfect, right – full of dignity and yes, perfection.

So, we ought not repress nor deny this natural yearning within our very being. But what is the difference between acknowledging and celebrating this longing deep within us, and falling into the trap of perfectionism?

“Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” I suspect we get hung up on the first part of that sentence all too often; but maybe it would do us well to start with the second half of that sentence.

How is God ‘perfect’? We know from the Gospel that should we want to understand God the Father, we need first to look at Jesus (John 14:7). So, what kind of perfectionism – if we can call it that – did Jesus demonstrate?

When folks ask me: “Why did Jesus have to die on the cross?” I approach the question of the atonement in this way: Is there a better way for God to demonstrate God’s absolute and steadfast love for us than by laying down his life for us (John 10:11) – by letting go and giving up that which is most precious to us all? If anything, Jesus’ death proves to us God’s unyielding, uncompromising and unconditional love for each one of us, in a way to which we could humanly relate.

And second, is there a better way for God to demonstrate absolute power over death and Satan for all time, than by God becoming completely vulnerable through Jesus to the consequences of that evil on earth – which was the unjust condemning of an innocent person to death?

Yes, Jesus could have walked away from Jerusalem. Yes, Jesus could have called down the forces of heaven to save him from the Cross and pound the devil to pulp before our very eyes. That might be a more satisfying approach. But that would have been playing the earthly game; that would have been playing by the rules of the forces of evil: force for force, might for might. Who comes out on top?

But Jesus chose to pull the rug out from under Satan’s legs. Jesus chose to limit his divine self (Philippians 2:5-11) in human form, and to suffer and die as a human completely vulnerable to an unjust evil. If anything, Jesus’ resurrection proves to us God’s absolute power for all time over death and the devil.

My favourite part of Mel Gibson’s film, “The Passion of the Christ”, is the last ten seconds of what feels like a very long movie: When Satan realizes, in agony, for the first time how he has been defeated. Now, that’s a perfect ending to a really graphic presentation of Jesus’ suffering and death.

That’s why Jesus died on the cross. To show us how perfect God is, in God’s love for us. We can’t do it perfectly; we will always miss the mark to some extent. But God is “perfect” love (1 John 4).

God’s love (hesed in Hebrew) is steadfast and unbounding, even to the point of complete vulnerability, letting go – for our sake and for all people. Jesus showed us the way of everlasting life for every human being of every time and every place. He said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of God; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:44-45)

The way of Jesus is the way to wholeness, completeness, in God’s eternal love, regardless of any and all human divisions within us and out there.

It’s not an easy way, to follow this perfect love. This way of Jesus doesn’t follow earthly rules of power plays, obsessive self-preservation and competitive perfectionism. Saint Paul prayed that God take away the thorn in his side (2 Corinthians 12:1-10). Presumably Paul asked for this so that he could be better at his job preaching the Gospel of Jesus. But God’s answer would nip Paul’s perfectionism in the bud. God’s answer was, ‘no.’

In fact, Paul’s weakness would be a far more effective way of showing God’s power. What would appear as ‘foolishness’ in the eyes of the world, would in truth be an effective witness to God’s power and God’s love, through Paul’s weakness.

God does not want us to be perfect. Because God does not want us to give up. God does not want us to give up on the journey of faith, no matter how difficult or how unpopular it may become at times. God just wants us to be faithful – to stay on the path, to doing what we can – not out of perfectionistic motivations but out of the heart of God’s love and power working through our imperfection.

And I think God wants us to be vulnerable to one another; that we are not afraid of showing and confessing our weaknesses, our shortcomings and our failures to one another. In the church, we don’t have to wear masks of perfectionism. We are, after all, broken people. That is the truth. But Jesus’ body, too, was broken, for the love of the world. And what is the church, but the Body of Christ?

We are vulnerable to each other, open to one another’s pain and one another’s truth, why? So we can find wholeness, healing, on our journey that begins now on earth and finds completion, perfection, in the world to come.

We are vulnerable to each other, open to one another’s pain and one another’s truth, why? So we can share the truth of God’s love to all people, effectively, genuinely and authentically.

Thank you, Jesus, for accepting us in your perfect love. Amen.

The wrong sign

When a road sign indicates something that you don’t expect is the case, it makes me wonder who is behind the seeming prank. What are they up to? What’s their point?

A couple of summers ago when we drove to Florida, a road sign caught my attention. It was hot when we passed through South Carolina and Georgia on the I-95 where many bridges line the route over various waterways and rivers. I can still remember the heat radiating off the hard-top on the interstate.

So you can understand why I did a double-take coming on to several of these bridges seeing a road sign that depicted a thermometer whose temperature hovered around freezing; above the thermometer was shown a car sliding out of control: “Bridge freezes first,” the sign warned.

Are you kidding me? Seriously? On the one hand, the image is true; as a Canadian surviving and driving on our highways during a rather hard winter, I know that when the temperature is below freezing, the highway can be very slippery. But in the southern U.S.? Perhaps last month that was the case there. But I have to confess a deep reservation that they would experience this danger on a regular basis even at this time of year. In fact, we could use some more of that signage up here in Canada.

One of my favourite Old Testament scholars, Walter Brueggemann, once joked in lecture that a metaphor, or a sign, is only good to a certain point. When you make an argument that is supported well by a metaphor, we say it’s a good metaphor. But when the limits of the metaphor become apparent, the one making the point uses the excuse, “Well, it’s just a metaphor.”

I wonder if that’s not the case with some of the metaphors, or images, we read in the bible. Let’s look at the image that describes Jesus as the “Lamb of God” (John 1:29-42) in our Gospel text today. There is something about that metaphor, that sign, that rings very true. But there is also something about that sign that just doesn’t make sense.

For example: A lamb in the temple rituals of the ancient Israelites was offered as a sacrifice to atone for the sins of the people. But if Jesus is now that lamb, why does a wrathful God have to be satisfied by the death of someone, let alone His only begotten son?

After all, God is Almighty. God can do anything. God is fundamentally loving and forgiving (1 John 4:7-21). If God needed to be satisfied by the death of Jesus to atone for our sins, why couldn’t God have simply exercised what Jesus instructed his disciples to forgive “70×7” (Matthew 18:22)? Why couldn’t God forgive, as many times as is necessary (i.e. infinitely), every person on earth in every place and time?

I read this week (pastordawn.wordpress.com) that the actual phrase, “Lamb of God” comes from the Jewish religious rites of Yom Kipper. It was during this festival celebrating the Day of Atonement that two unblemished lambs were brought to the temple to bear the sins of the people. But one was then set free into the wilderness.

The ritual around the Day of Atonement had at its central aim, to be united with God, to be reconciled with God. People were aware of and acknowledged their sin. That is what sin is – when we ‘miss the mark’ in faith. This confession was understood as a way towards that ultimate goal of reconciliation with God, a reconciliation that begins in our life on earth.

What happened to Jesus was an injustice. Jesus dying on the cross was a bad thing. He died wrongfully. Just like so many people today suffer injustice on a large scale – dying in wars, brutalized unjustly. God the Father was first to shed a tear when Jesus died; God is first to shed a tear when one of his followers – that’s us – suffers.

But as is often the case, God makes something out of nothing good. The willingness on the part of Jesus to give his whole self unto a wrongful death carries an important message to us. This is the good news, the Gospel: Jesus death and resurrection gives us permission to live life fully in our humanity. Jesus death and resurrection gives us permission to respond positively to Jesus’ invitation – as he made to Andrew and Simon – to “come and see” what God is all about, to embrace our walk on earth with others in faith. Jesus death and resurrection gives us permission even to embrace our own earthly death.

Because this life on earth matters. We are on the path to reconciliation with God that begins in this time and place. We are together on this faith journey to be united with God. Our lives are being transformed in the waters of baptism and in daily walk in faith. This is good news. As I said, one of the first disciples of Jesus identified in this text is Simon; already, early on in his discipleship, Jesus invites him into the transformed life, symbolized by changing his name from Simon to Cephas – the Rock, Peter.

As the liturgy of Holy Communion articulates it well: Jesus, “who on the Cross, opened to us the way of everlasting life” that is to say, to become fully united with God; to respond to that earthly journey towards union with God, a union that will one day be complete, beyond death.

The word “diabolical” comes from two Greek words meaning “to throw apart.” If something or someone is diabolical, that someone or something is dividing and separating that which could be united and at peace. The evil one tears the fabric of life apart. In contrast, the Spirit of God seeks to make one out of two; the Spirit comes to mend, soften and heal.

“Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” cries the Baptist. How does Jesus ‘take away’ the sin of the world? The Son of God accomplishes this through forgiveness. Forgiveness is the M.O. of Jesus. Jesus gives his life for us, on the Cross. His sacrifice is an act of forgiveness. And, as such, unyielding love.

Richard Rohr points out that about two-thirds of Jesus’ teachings are about forgiveness; about a third of all the parables of Jesus, directly and indirectly, have to do with forgiveness (p.133-134, Everything Belongs). The growth and positive change that we experience in our lives because of following Jesus come about not because of a fear of punishment from a wrathful, legalistically-bound God who demands sacrifice in order to be satisfied. The growth and positive change in our lives happens through tears of confession and assurances of forgiveness more so than through threats and punishments.

That’s the powerful and most important meaning of the images of Lamb and Cross that we associate with Jesus: Forgiveness is God’s entry into powerlessness, humility. When we encounter the living Jesus in our own lives, we find someone not against us, but someone who is definitely for us!

The goal of faith is not separation, but union – union with God. We may call it getting to heaven, or being saved – however we describe it. But, ultimately discipleship is about bringing together, rather than dividing. True religion is about union. To live in conscious union, relationship, with God is what it means to “be saved”. To be restored, united, in Christ today is to be restored, united within the living Body of Christ, which is the Church. We are the hands and feet and eyes of Christ in the world today.

To exercise a ministry of reconciliation can only be done with great humility and grace. This was the dominant posture of Jesus’ work on earth: that he submitted himself to be baptized by John, that he knelt to wash the feet of his disciples, that he willingly made himself vulnerable in every human way possible, even unto death on a cross (Philippians 2).

Going into the World Junior Hockey Tournament or the Olympics, Canada is always one of the strong favourites. And given the high expectations, and with the entire nation looking on – there is, to say the least, a lot of pressure on the Canadians to win it all. I heard on the news that during the preliminary round of the World Juniors in 2010 in Buffalo, rather than making the mistake of being over-confident and arrogant, the coach then, Dave Cameron, taught his players to be humble in the face of all the attention and competition. Be humble. Interesting – especially in the highly competitive dog-eat-dog culture, we have the Canadian coach teaching his players the value and wisdom of humility.

In the church, and in the faithful living-out of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, however, it’s not some winning and some losing. It’s about doing both, winning and losing – doing both not apart and divided and competitive – but doing both together with grace and humility.

In humility, we can forgive and let go. In humility, we can see the other’s point of view. In humility we can see others as they are, created and loved in God’s image. In humility we can grow in faith in the ministry of reconciliation.

Let us pray that in all that we are and do, we seek to mend, to heal, and to unite that which has been divided in and among, and around us.

The visible signs of unity in the church can be today the most significant. Let’s watch for these signs.