February 23, 2014
"Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life ... I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won't have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren't even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they're doing it."
Those are the words of Anne Lamott, in her book "Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life." Lamott is my role model in writing, in humor, in faith and in living. This quote comes from the chapter in the book appropriately entitled, "Perfectionism." It follows a chapter about writing lousy* first drafts. The most successful, profound, prolific writers all begin with a lousy first draft. She counsels writers to just put everything out there, get a whole bunch of words on paper, even if you think most of them are junk. Write a lousy first draft. Then in the second draft, you can begin to unearth the treasure from all the trash.
The problem comes when you try to write a perfect first draft. Lamott's contention is that perfectionism kills writing. You can't write with any freedom if you're trying to make every word perfect from the get-go. Perfectionism kills creativity. I know this to be true. How many times have I had what I think is a great idea for a story or a poem or an essay, but freeze up when I actually try to write it? I edit each word as I go, trying to perfect every phrase the minute it reaches the paper. But my need for my great idea to be perfect kills my ability to write it. There have been far too many times when I've given up on an idea before I even write one word. Why write it if it can't be perfect?
"Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people." Perfectionism kills creativity. It kills in other ways as well. A minister friend of mine, who has become a mentor to me, is officially retired, but continues to serve churches and the denomination in a variety of ways. She is the most joyful person I've ever met. I asked her several months ago, how she does it. How does continue to find joy in ministry when ministry can be so incredibly hard? My friend looked me straight in the eye and said she hasn't always felt this kind of joy in her work as a minister. At one point, in her work with a congregation, her perfectionism caused her so much anguish and pain that she was suicidal.
"Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people." My struggle with perfectionism goes far beyond my writing. How many times in my life have I said, "Oh I'll try this or I'll do that when I..." When I what? Lose 20 pounds, paint the house, remodel the kitchen, scrub the walls. I am the master of not doing something because I think that my life or myself has to be perfect before I can. But what has that done except make me put off living? No one and nothing is perfect. So perfectionism, and I know I'm not alone in my wrestling with this particular demon, takes away our ability to be joyful, to try new things, to live a full life.
"Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people." I could probably say "amen," right now and we could all go home, determined not to give into perfectionism and enjoy life. Except for the fact that in the last verse of our gospel lesson, Jesus says two little words that seemingly undo everything I've just said.
Jesus says, "Be perfect." And not just "Be perfect," but "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." So not only are we told by Jesus to seek perfection, but our model of perfection is God. This one verse is tough enough, but what makes Jesus' words even more challenging, is that they follow on the heels of a list of commands that make perfection seemingly impossible.
"You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also." Jesus goes on to say, if someone sues you for your coat, give them your cloak. If someone makes you walk one mile, go a second mile. Give to every person who begs from you. Don't refuse anyone. What's more, love your enemies and pray for the people who persecute you.
These words are beautiful, lovely examples of prose, and they are ones that we've heard countless times. Think about how many common expressions are found in this passage. Turn the other cheek. Go the second mile. Although it's not an exact quote, the phrase, "giving someone the shirt off your back," comes to mind when I read about giving someone not only your coat but your cloak.
Lovely, familiar words. Here's the problem. Jesus means them. We are to turn the other cheek. We are to go the second and the third and the fourth mile. We are to give the clothes off our back. We are to love our enemies, and we are to pray with all sincerity for the people who persecute us, the people who make our lives miserable. And we are to be perfect, like our God is perfect. Jesus means it. I know that saying apparently flies in the face of my sermon from last week. In light of Jesus' antithesis about anger, adultery, divorce and making exaggerated promises, I reminded all of us that God values us and our relationships, broken and imperfect as we all may be. Now this week, in these verses that immediately follow last week's lesson, we hear Jesus say, "Be perfect."
What do we do with this?! The hallmark of our humanity is that we are imperfect. How are we supposed to be perfect? If we follow Jesus' other commands, won't we just be passive doormats; taking whatever nastiness people throw at us without even a whimper of protest? How do we follow these commands? How do we actually do what Jesus says we should do? How can we possibly be perfect?
I think we have to look deeper at the word perfect. Is Jesus calling us to be perfect as we understand it? Is he calling us to perfectionism; meaning that how we look, what we do, what we produce, what we say is without flaw? Or does perfect mean something else?
The word that is translated as perfect is the Greek word telos. It's basic definition is end. A philosophical term, teleology, has its root in telos. Teleology is about looking at the end result of something. For example, do the ends justify the means? So when Jesus tells the disciples and us to be telos, is he saying be perfectionists? Follow me and do everything exactly right, no mistakes? Or is he saying that the result, the end of discipleship, of following him is being perfect as God is perfect.
How is God perfect? God is perfect in love. I don't believe Jesus was commanding anyone to live a flaw-free life. But I do believe that he was instructing them and us to love as God loves; to love our neighbor as ourselves. We are called to love, and at the risk of being redundant, this kind of love is active. This kind of love is embodied. Jesus telling the disciples to turn the other cheek was not a command to, "Be ye a doormat or a pushover." It was a command to say, "You can strike me, but I'm not going to retaliate." Jesus is calling them and us to refuse to cooperate in what the world tells us is normal. We are not to cooperate with the norm that says violence for violence is acceptable. We are not to participate in retaliation or revenge or even holding grudges, because our participation only perpetuates the cycle of retaliation and revenge and ongoing grudge matches. The world is stuck in a deep groove of an eye for an eye, and retaliation and giving back what we're given only seems to be making that groove deeper. Yet in these verses, Jesus says, "Enough." If we are going to follow him, if we are going to walk this narrow path of discipleship, then we have to love as God loves. Even if loving in this way goes against everything we've been told is right and just. It seems to me that Jesus is saying there is no such thing as a proportional response to evil. Evil in response to evil is still evil. But if we truly claim to be disciples of Jesus, then our only response is love. Loving in this way is not passive or weak. Loving in this way is courageous. Loving in this way is extravagant and abundant and over the top. Hard to do? Absolutely. Yet isn't that how God loves us? Extravagantly, abundantly and over the top? Jesus is not demanding flawlessness, but he is demanding love. His imperative is that we love as God loves; and as we do that, as we strive for that, as we put our whole being into loving neighbor as self, then maybe in the end we will be the people God created us to be. You know, perfect.
Let all God's children say, "Alleluia!" Amen.
*Lamott uses a different word to describe this first draft. While this writer doesn’t have a problem with this word in general, she deemed it inappropriate for preaching purposes. She hopes Ms. Lamott will understand.