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Disentangling from perfectionism — 2013

Our teaching for Lent in 2013 had to do with “getting disentangled from the world.” Here is one of the first speeches I offered on that theme.

The movie Enchanted (from 2007) had Dr. McDreamy from Grey’s Anatomy as an unlikely prince charming from New York to Amy Adams playing a princess from fairy tale land. (This is the same Ms. Adams who was nominated this year for an Oscar for the wretched film The Master. “Wretched” is not peer-reviewed.). In France they named the movie “Once Upon a Time” and made the better-looking Adams the main face.

The movie Enchanted, (or Il Etait Une Fois) is a sweet-ish fable that deconstructs the old sweetness of being a princess in your imagination and gets you to face the new overwhelming reality of postmodern, urban life and messy, noncommittal relationships. It asks the question, “Can I get some enchantment into the megalopolis?” And, as in many Disney movies, the answer is “Yes, there is a Prince Charming or Princess Giselle for you — probably not the one you are looking for, but you will miraculously find them and everything will be perfect, just as it should be in your own private fairy tale.”

This piece of fluff  is a surprisingly philosophical movi for being a little fairy tale. I think you will see that fact as you watch one of my favorite scenes from it. Amy Adams, Princess Giselle, has just arrived in gritty New York from happily-ever-after land. She wants to make her environment tidy, like at home, where everything is as it should be, so she calls on animal friends to help her like she used to do back in her native land. You’ll see the homage to Snow White. It’s a fun way to get started on our subject.

The song is being ironic instead of seriously asking the question, which is how we keep from addressing the real questions that bother us. But it presents the dilemma we feel about our very messy environments and our need for special powers to make it all perfect. Amy teaches us that:

You could do a lot when you’ve got such a happy working tune to hum
While you’re sponging up the soapy scum.
We adore each filthy chore that we determine.
So friends, even though you’re vermin, we’re a happy working throng.

Our dilemma: we are supposed to make things neat, tidy, working things out together, ultimately loving and never getting your white gown dirty, happy and talented, filmable, effortless, quick, efficient and you win best song for your ditty.

But, it is a big mess, and often feels like it is getting bigger, the only friends we have to help us are pigeons and rats, we have a lot of filthy chores and we are in charge of them, and we don’t get paid enough to do them, and the big one: we are vermin — not happy and can’t sing.

The world’s answer to our dilemma

I think the world’s answer, including Disney’s most of the time, which is the #14 corporation on Forbes 500, is to “make it work” as they say on Project Runway. You can do it; it’s up to you, it’s a DIY world and you have the tools. Dream like an American, just get educated, assert your rights, make all the right choices — consumer choices and otherwise, especially in a mate, and it can all be made well.

The moral to Enchanted, if I recall, is that if you just stick with it, you can make it all work in reality and not just in the movies. If you just believe in the real you instead of the make-believe you, love will find a way and it will be beautiful.

I suppose there are worse things that could be said, but I think the whole premise ends up making us very tangled up, not only tangled up in our responsibility to make everything tidied up, but tangled up in the need to do it with the right attitude, and right psychology, not tripped up with any of the mess from the past, and being pretty much prescient about how we might be messing up the future, AND with the just right person, or church, for that matter.

The alternative way of Jesus

Jesus has a better way. In a huge contrast, in the face of his impending disaster, not just a dirty apartment, when Jesus knows the true frailty of his disciples is going to be fully revealed and evil is going show itself without disguise, when all the facades of the self-sufficient world are going to be shown up for their true self-destructive purpose, he says:

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” — John 16:33

In Disney’s hands, the way is: “Let’s be honest, you are vermin, but you’ve got to make this work or there is no hope.”

In Jesus’ hands, the way is: “There is hope because I have overcome the world. Take heart, because it is not all up to you. Perfection is not the goal, anyway. The goal is a heart at peace in the kingdom of God.”

This might seem like it is an obvious thing a Christian might say. But I am not sure we even hear Jesus talking to us in the middle of our normal pursuits. We even get hung up on whether we are performing Christianity perfectly enough! Christians argue all the time about how badly the other Christians are doing. We do that, even though Paul clearly wants us to imitate him when he says,

“Who makes you different from anyone else? What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not? — 1 Corinthians 4:7-8

There were some overachievers in the Corinthian church who not only thought they could make it work, they thought they were making it work — and better than Paul! Paul says, “Who in the world do you think you are, all puffed up and competing for the highest rank, thinking you need to be number one and, in fact, are number one? You think you are kings in the kingdom of God, while we apostles are still having trouble in the world and rely on Jesus every minute to give us joy in our very difficult circumstances. I’m talking about Jesus who gives us whatever life we have.”

Why don’t you talk back to the Disney faction in Corinth with Paul by reading the rest of this scripture as if you were saying it to someone yourself:

Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! You have begun to reign—and that without us! How I wish that you really had begun to reign so that we also might reign with you!  For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like those condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings. We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored! — 1 Corinthians 4:8-10

You would think we would all be on Paul’s side, but even the first believers were already taking things into their own hands and doing Paul better than Paul and telling him so! — becoming perfect, thinking that was what Jesus had in mind all along, and getting there without Jesus!

Perfectionism has always been tempting

This perfectionism is very tempting for us, which is why we are bringing it up during Lent.

Last week I experienced us in the middle of the dilemma in two ways. And I’ll close by talking about them. I feel bad, if all I am getting you to do so far is wondering if you understand what Paul is talking about well enough, or whether you trust Jesus well enough, or whether you are good enough to be in the church, or whether you can take on one more big idea because you already have so much on your plate to handle, or whether you can be responsible for following Jesus and get spread so thin, you are already so responsible. But if I am getting you to wonder these things, you are not alone. In the world we have trouble. But Jesus has overcome it and brings us peace. I’m shooting for helping you receive that.

Fall 2012
  • Internal perfection police

We were at the prospective cell leader training last Monday and great people were learning all about the ambitious mission we have been given as part of God’s redemption project. At the end of the evening people were invited to express some of the fears they had as they imagined themselves eventually being cell leaders. I think some of their answers reflected the perfectionism we are all saddled with: the need to do it right, to be unjudgable, to not mess up.  I don’t think anyone was unaware that this wasn’t where they wanted to be, they were just being honest.

Someone said, “If I become a cell leader, I want to do it 100%.”
Whatever that means. I think it usually means “the extra effort I am not able to give.” It does not always mean, “Doing the best I can” or “Acting with passion and abandon.” It often means matching up to the best effort I can imagine myself doing with the best outcome.

I am afraid I will alienate someone if I say “Christian.”
And you will. We started out our day at Childs Elementary yesterday with worship and two ladies from the neighborhood walked out and waited until we were done. I felt like I had offended them. As it turns out, I hadn’t, they were just kind of dismissive and sort of rude and self-consumed. But I felt I was supposed to be better than that, better than Jesus, and not be alienating. That perfectionism might lead us to only mention being a Christian in the most controlled of circumstances, when I could be sure I was doing the right thing. Whenever that is.

I am afraid I won’t have the right words.
Cell leaders are know-it-alls, after all.

I am afraid of looking flaky or uncommitted.
I am anxious about making it happen, because I have to make things happen right.

I am afraid to represent Jesus or the church.
I am not wise enough. I don’t match up to what’s in the book. I am not good enough. So I have to wait until I am perfect before I put myself out there and am judged by the perfection police.

And just who are these perfection police? Paul doesn’t even judge himself. And Jesus who will judge the living and dead at the end of time, says  “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

  • Perfectionism is beaming at us

I just talked about an internal process that keeps us tangled up in trying to be perfect, but there are a huge external forces, too! One of our pastors sent out a very interesting article that adds sociological reasoning for why we are so perfectionistic. The powers-that-be totally convince us to disbelieve the trouble we are in for their vision of a perfectible future.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin shows off Google Glass

As far as the Forbes 500 know, everything is getting better. The iPhone 6 will dispense with the annoying home button and feature a 4.8-inch screen and quad-core processor. Google is developing Google Glass, which will allow users to text, take pictures and videos, perform Google searches, by talking in a normal voice to a smart lens. The Dow Jones average just reached an all-time high last week, corporate profits are enjoying “a golden age.” Day by day, problem by problem, American life is being fine-tuned to the point where experts now confidently predict a state of near-complete perfection. We are a happy working throng.

But in other news, America’s economic and social decline continues. The percentage of corporate profits going to employees is at its lowest level since 1966. Unemployment remains stuck around eight per cent, and the long-term jobless make up almost forty per cent of the total.  The concentration of wealth at the top grows ever more pronounced all over the world. From 2009 to 2011—the years of the financial crisis and the recovery—the income of the top one per cent rose 11.2 per cent. The income of the bottom ninety-nine per cent actually shrank 0.4 per cent. Eighty per cent of Americans believe their children will be worse off than they are. We are vermin.

The author of the article said this: When things don’t work in the realm of stuff, people turn to the realm of bits. If the physical world becomes presents a dilemma, we can take refuge in the virtual world, where we can solve problems like – how do I make a video of my skydiving adventure while keeping my hands free? Problems most people in the world don’t even know exist! Futurist Ayesha Khanna, from her think tank in London, which funds research into human-technology co-evolution and its implications, described smart contact lenses that could make homeless people disappear from view, “enhancing our basic sense” and, undoubtedly, making our lives so much more enjoyable. In a way, this does solve the problem of homelessness—unless, of course, you happen to be a homeless person.

We need to stay disentangled from all the forces that would lead us to believe human ingenuity will lead to perfection and evolution is inevitably making progress. Human ingenuity — great. Evolution — whatever. The reality of what is going on in our troubling world was striking us in the face at Childs Elementary yesterday. We made ourselves look again at how the powers keep asking people (like teachers) to make bricks without straw. We can’t make things work well enough. Even though we are smart and caring, we are not changing things fast enough to get where we think we ought to go and it makes us angry, depressed, frustrated and self-hating. Part of our anguish is caused by what is bearing down on us from the weird world that technology is creating. But most of our guilt is just that same old sin that leads us to believe that all we have us what we are and we are who we are without God giving us life.

“Take heart,” Jesus says “I have overcome the world.” When you become silent or you move into your worship connection in a few minutes, when you pray as you pray next week, take heart. Let’s receive the gift that Jesus is giving by overcoming the world and reopening the door to true, everlasting life.

God loves the world and we love it with him. But we can’t receive peace from the dying world or our false selves. We take heart, Jesus has overcome and we will too.

When we feel like we have to get it all right, we let that perfectionism lie pass right by and receive our goodness and strength from the Giver of Life.

When we think we have to do it by ourselves in the face of all the huge forces or even judge our community by how good we are, we need to recognize the seeds of a graceless future and let that impulse, that temptation, pass by and be restored and be restoring in relationship to the Lord of all. Jesus is disentangling us from the temptation to be perfect. He’s good right now, right where you’re at.