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Perfection and the Beauty of Cracks

In the fifth chapter of Matthew Jesus addressed the crowds and exhorted them to do some really tough stuff: be reconciled with your brother or sister, don't look lustfully at others, don't break your vows, live non-violently, love your enemies. Then in verse 48 Jesus caps it all off by saying, "Therefore be perfect, as Abba God in heaven is perfect."

Well, great, could he set the bar any higher?

I don’t know if this passage spurs people on to be perfectionists or not, but it’s one of the few passages about being perfect in the Bible, and I wanted to talk about this because perfectionism is one of the ways we wear armor to hide and protect ourselves.

First, let’s be clear about what perfectionism is and isn’t. Perfectionism is not the same as striving for excellence or self-improvement. Perfectionism is, as defined by Brene' Brown in her book Daring Greatly, "a self-destructive belief system that basically asserts that: If I look perfect and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment and blame."

Let’s try a little test. Psychology Today gives us 9 signs that might point to us being perfectionists:

  1. You think in all-or-nothing terms. Something is either right or wrong, good or bad, perfect or a disaster.
  2. You think, and then act, in extremes.
  3. You can’t trust others to do a task correctly, so you rarely delegate.
  4. You have demanding standards for yourself and others.
  5. You have trouble completing a project because you think there is always something more you can do to make it better. Books and works of art by perfectionists often aren’t finished because of this.
  6. You use the word “should” a lot.
  7. Your self-confidence depends on what you accomplish and how others react to you.
  8. You tend to fixate on something you messed up.
  9. You procrastinate or avoid situations where you think you might not excel.

Maybe those don’t all fit for you, but we’re probably all somewhere on the perfectionism continuum. As Brown asserts, "We all try to hide our flaws, want to win over people and have had those times where we thought, 'It’s my fault because I didn’t do it good enough or I wasn’t good enough.'”

One of the biggest problems in trying to be perfect is that there is no such thing as perfection. Let’s say you’re playing poker and you get the perfect hand, a royal flush… is that really the perfect hand or can you make it better?  What if you were playing the poker game in Maui? The community Sunday improved on this by playing with their favorite people, with nachos and margaritas, and a big pot... it could go on and on.

Steven Hawking said, "One of the basic rules of the universe is that nothing is perfect. Perfection simply doesn't exist... without imperfection, neither you nor I would exist."

Here’s another problem with perfectionism. It robs us of joy in the present moment because we aren’t focusing on what is good NOW. We’re always looking at what is wrong, what could be different or better, and it distracts from the sacredness and beauty of the moment. When things are getting stressful or difficult, I often stop my mind from running away with itself by telling myself, “This moment right NOW is really good.”

Charlton Heston, who played Moses in the Ten Commandments in 1956 passed away in 2008 at the age of 84, and he was something of a perfectionist. Heston once said, "One of the things about acting or painting or writing or composing music, is you never get it right. You can spend a lifetime and, if you're honest with yourself, never once was your work perfect. People say to me, 'You've got the awards and the parts and the money. What are your goals now?' I say, 'To get it right one time.'"

 Frankly, I find this sort of sad. He lost so much of the joy of his accomplishments by believing that they weren't perfect.

 To live authentically, taking off the armor of perfectionism means

  • We remember our lesson from last week – we are enough at the core of our being. We recognize our innate worthiness and we are kind and compassionate with ourselves
  • We try to be mindful of our perfectionism and instead step back and take a more balanced approach. We can’t let ourselves get swept up in negativity, but we can’t suppress our negative emotions or feelings either. Perhaps recognizing that all humans struggle with feelings of inadequacy would help

    We need to own our stories – the good, the bad and the ugly. Brene' Brown says, "Putting on our perfectionism armor and refusing to see our own errors and denying our own vulnerabilities means denying parts of ourselves just because we don’t want to look at them and think we can hide them from others." When we put up that shield of perfectionism we refuse to say things like “I don’t know,” “I was wrong,” and “I’m sorry.”

We may not like our flaws, but who would you rather be with, or learn from – someone who seems perfect and never talks about their mistakes, or someone who is willing to admit their flaws, talk about the mistakes they’ve made and have some humility? Clearly the latter are more approachable and accessible. If I preached as though I had everything figured out, and had done everything perfect, how could we relate to each other?

It’s the cracks in our armor that make us human and accessible. In his song Anthem, Leonard Cohen wrote, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” But I think it is the cracks where our light gets out as well.

Let me share a story with you. A waterbearer in India had two large pots, one hung on each end of a pole, which she carried across her neck.

One of the pots had a crack in it. While the other pot was perfect, and always delivered a full portion of water at the end of the long walk from the stream to the mistress's house, the cracked pot arrived only half full.

For a full two years this went on daily, with the bearer delivering only one and a half pots full of water to her master's house.  

The perfect pot was proud of its accomplishments, perfect to the end for which it was made. But the poor cracked pot was ashamed of its own imperfection, and miserable that it was able to accomplish only half of what it had been made to do.

After two years of what it perceived to be a bitter failure, it spoke to the water bearer one day by the stream: "I am ashamed of myself, and I want to apologize to you."

"Why?" asked the bearer.  "What are you ashamed of?" 

"I have been able, for these past two years, to deliver only half my load because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to your mistress's house. Because of my flaws, you have to do all of this work, and you don't get full value from your efforts," the pot said.

The water bearer felt sorry for the old cracked pot, and in her compassion she said, "As we return to the mistress's house, I want you to notice the beautiful flowers along the path."

Indeed, as they went up the hill, the old cracked pot took notice of the sun warming the beautiful wild flowers on the side of the path, and this cheered it some.

But at the end of the trail, it still felt bad because it had leaked out half its load, and so again it apologized to the bearer for its failure.

The bearer said to the pot, "Did you notice that there were flowers only on your side of the path, but not on the other pot's side? That's because I have always known about your flaw, and I took advantage of it. I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back from the stream, you've watered them. For two years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate my mistress's table. Without you being just the way you are, she would not have this beauty to grace her house."

Seems like the moral of the story is that we need to get over our need to be perfect in order to do good in the world and to be loved. We need to let down our armor, allow ourselves to not be perfect, to be a little vulnerable so that we can relate and connect to each other, so that love can pour out of us and water seeds of beauty in the world.

So, what did Jesus mean in that scripture reading then? Personally, I think the perfection of God Jesus was referring to is in the area of perfect love, perfect compassion, perfect forgiveness, perfect grace, perfect presence. Not perfect performance at work, perfect looks, perfect house, perfect painting or poem, perfect musical piece. But the only way to get there is to allow ourselves to crack open, to let the light of our love spill out into the world and grow that which is beautiful.

Love & Light!