Monday, 28 January 2013 00:00

"Perfection", January 27, 2013

Psalm 19
A Sermon Preached by Matty Strickler
January 27, 2013
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN

“May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O G-d my rock and my redeemer.”

Those words or a variation on them are said nearly every week in this church and in many churches before the sermon. I have heard them so often that I never really thought about where they came from. In the bible somewhere, I suppose.

Well, here they are, right at the end of Psalm 19. This outpouring of praise ends with simple humility. Not, “May my words be pleasing to you.” Not, “May my prayers bring glory and honor to your name.” Not even, “May my meditations be good.” No, simply, may they be “acceptable.” The psalmist takes us from the glory of God’s creation, to the perfection of God’s laws, and ends with our need for God’s grace and the humble desire that our prayers and praises be acceptable to God.

But the first section also calls us to humility. It lifts up the shining traverse of the sun as the ultimate praise to God. The heavens pour forth their praise without words, without speech. The tabernacle of the sun makes its way across the sky proclaiming God’s glory in ways that put mere words to shame. Given that the psalmist is himself a poet, this lament of the failure of words strikes me as especially profound. While I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a poet, I like to think that I can put words together to convey the feelings and experiences that make up our lives. But when compared to the miracles of sunrise and sunset, words, no matter how artfully crafted, come up short.

We may look instead to music, to art, to dance as more transcendent ways to express praises, but is there really anything that we mere humans can create that would in any way rival the eloquence of a sunrise or the gentle grandeur of a sunset?


No, of course not, but we don’t need to either. Our praises need not be perfect in the way that God’s laws are perfect. They need only be acceptable.

There’s a part of me that says, well, hey now, that’s setting the bar pretty low, isn’t it? I don’t want us to let ourselves off the hook when it comes to doing the work of peace and justice in the world, so shouldn’t we at least be going for slightly stunning? Marginally majestic? Perhaps even, like Mary Poppins, practically perfect?

No, just acceptable. That’s all the psalmist asks for, and perhaps all we should expect of ourselves, that our prayers be acceptable to God.

My mom and I are in an ongoing conversation about the possibility of perfection. That is, whether or not the human soul, human being can ever be in perfect accordance with God’s will. Some religious traditions argue that we can – that if our prayers are constant enough, we will be able to cultivate, clearly hear and follow God’s voice in our lives, thus reaching the peaks of perfection.

I question whether or not this is actually possible. For one thing, it assumes that God wants perfection for us or from us. I don’t think I believe that’s true. I know that God doesn’t require perfection from us, so perhaps it’s not even what God wants from us. It also assumes that God understands our lives and our beings in a linear or hierarchical way, that there is an endpoint or a peak that can or should be reached in our earthly lives. I’m not sure I believe that God understand our lives in that way. I’m more comfortable with the idea of our lives as ongoing cycles of learning, sometimes a gentle cycle and sometimes a nauseating spin cycle, but an ongoing cycle, in which we are never done, never perfect, never finished learning, but constantly turned towards new vistas and challenged with new ideas.

Even if perfection is possible, I think making it our goal can actually be counterproductive. In 12-step programs, we talk about “progress, not perfection.” And in seminary I’ve often heard the phrase, “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.”

By holding ourselves to an unattainable standard, we set ourselves up for failure and shame. While it is nobly human to strive for excellence in our work, expecting perfection of ourselves demands first that we know perfection and secondly, that we can achieve it.

Setting aside the fact that part of how many of us define humanity is through our imperfection. As in, “To err is human.” The idea that we can know, in any given circumstance, what is perfect in God’s eyes is not only prideful folly, but also all too human. I know there are times when all I want is a black and white, yes and no list that will tell me exactly what is expected of me. No blurred lines, no fuzzy shades of gray. That why people LOVE bad theology! It’s easy - perhaps not to live, but at least to understand.

It’s that living part that always gets in the way though, isn’t it? Once we step out of the farmhouse, we’re confronted by the Technicolor of life. Black and white only exists on pages, on screens and in dreams. Life is full of a beautiful mess of colors. But something in us, or at least in me, still wants the simplicity of true and false or at least multiple choice instead of open-ended essay questions.

Many of you may know the story of Les Miserables – first a novel by Victor Hugo, then a blockbuster Broadway musical which was recently adapted into a film. For those unfamiliar with the story I will attempt to encapsulate a portion of it:

Our hero, Jean Valjean - prisoner #24601, was sent to prison for stealing bread to feed his family. After he is released he starts a new life by hiding his old identity, which is a violation of his parole. Once again an outlaw, he is pursued by the tireless police officer, Javert. Javert is a rigid and ruthless authoritarian, who believes that the law and its enforcement are the highest good in society.

Once Javert discovers Valjean’s secret identity, a confrontation ensues. Valjean pleads for mercy so that he may go save the daughter of the recently deceased Fantine.

In the musical this confrontation is orchestrated as a dramatic counterpoint, in which Javert sings:

My duty’s to the law – you have no rights
Come with me 24601
Now the wheel has turned around
Jean Valjean is nothing now
Dare you speak to me of crime?
There’s a price you have to pay
Every man is born in sin
Every man must choose his way

And finally, tellingly:

You know nothing of Javert
I was born inside a jail
I was born with scum like you
I am from the gutter too

That line, that last line, leads me to the conclusion that Javert’s seemingly heartless adherence to the letter of the law may be something of a shame-based response to what he sees as the foulness of his roots.

By seeking perfection, or at least perfect adherence to the law, is Javert in fact looking for a way to redeem himself from the shame of his past?

I think he is. I have seen a number of people in my own life go down this road. In response to some perceived flaw in themselves, they become zealous perfectionists in some other area of their lives. Shame and perfectionism are two sides of the same coin. Or perhaps more accurately, intertwined pathologies on a downward spiral. The more shame a person feels about themselves, the more they seek perfection. Since they are, in all cases, human, they fail in their quest for perfection. This failure can then lead to increased shame if the person interprets failure as another testimony to their perceived worthlessness. And so the cycle spirals ever downward.

Psalm 19 offers us an alternative to this kind of shame cycle.

Do your best.
Pray that it is acceptable.
Move on.

Acceptable. Not perfect. Just acceptable.

And my truth is that just by entering into relationship with God and praying that our words, our thoughts and are prayers are acceptable, we become acceptable. All we have to do to feel God’s love is to open ourselves to it.

Once we not only understand that, but really incorporate that into our concept of ourselves, we can start to overcome shame. Once we not only know, but believe that as God’s children, as God’s beloved creation we are GOOD, we can begin to bring more love and less judgment into the world. Once we stop using energy to beat ourselves up, we might then have more energy to do God’s work in the world.

In other words, once we stop trying so hard to be perfect and allow ourselves to be acceptable, we might just find ourselves a bit closer to being the lovably imperfect being that God created us to be. Letting go of perfection may just bring us closer to it.