Relating, Creating, Transforming

Ezekiel 37:1-10 NRSV

desolateLifeHave you ever felt like you were in a place of desolation? In other words, when have you felt hopeless, stranded, parched from thirst, empty?

Part of our humanity is in recognizing that we do have these low moments—periods of time when we just don’t know if we can continue living. We feel dead. We don’t know if feeling alive again is possible. I invite you to remember when you have felt like this. Where were you? What was happening? What were the sights, sounds, and smells? Maybe today, in this moment, you are experiencing a desolate time.

This is not meant to be a downer of a message. I’m simply saying that we must recognize our “death,” our emptiness, giving ourselves space to express frustration, anger, and sadness. We should not suppress such feelings as this can only entrench us deeper in despair. It’s even important to say and express when God feels far away or even absent. This type of recognition in life is often referred to as spiritual and emotional exile.

In the Jewish tradition, the notion of spiritual exile is important. And it is based on an actual exile and the continuing dynamic of the city of Jerusalem. Most scholars, including Walter Brueggemann believe that the book of Ezekiel was written during the crisis of 587 B.C.E., i.e. the destruction of the Jerusalem temple and the consequent exile of the Israelites in Babylonia.[1] Ezekiel was a priest and a prophet. He witnessed the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem and saw the temple in ruins: desolation. And then Ezekiel, and his community from Judah, were taken to a strange place far from home. The people around them were different religiously and culturally. There was very little hope of returning to Judah, of going back home. And even if they did go back home, the city they loved was in ruins.

So the story goes that Ezekiel had a vision, and in this dream Yahweh’s spirit takes him to a valley of dry bones. As a priest, this would have been extremely uncomfortable, for dead bodies were unclean. This vision was repulsive, actually, it’s supposed to be gruesome. Use your imagination. Think ugly, horrific, disgusting even. This dream is meant to challenge Ezekiel, and all of Israel. Did they really think that Yahweh was confined to a temple or to a city? Did they really think that YHWH could not exist, be present, in a valley of dry bones? Could not YHWH be with them even in exile?

At the moment, the Israelites and Ezekiel thought God had abandoned them. They had no hope because they had lost their financial, cultural, and religious stability. Their community had no life. No way these bones can live.

But YHWH has something to say, something to do.

I will cause breathe, lay sinews, cause flesh to form, I will cover those skeletons—I will put breathe in these bones.

The point YHWH is making is that people must enter into a new way of thinking and doing, leaving the past behind. What they have always thought and done is not helping them—it is hurting them and sucking the life from them. They are challenged to see new life even in a valley full of dry bones. They must ask themselves: can you imagine dry bones coming to life? If so, what can you imagine for your community? What can you imagine for yourself?

Maybe we hear Isaiah’s voice: “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (Isaiah 43:19). The way is the spirit, once again that symbol of Divine wind/breath. Restoration is possible when the people recognize the spirit moving, bringing life even in desolation and despair.

I hope you find some meaning in this story for yourself. Personally, I see this as a call for me to be more honest about those moments when I do feel empty and like dry bones. Because in that honesty, I open myself up to change; I open myself up to others. I also recognize that life will not always be happy, wonderful, and as planned. I won’t always be comfortable or at home. I will sometimes be in spiritual and personal exile.

I also hear, though, that this story is about community. It isn’t just about Ezekiel finding a spiritual path or renewal. It is about whole communities discovering that. So I’m asking this question: what and who in our communities are in need of hope and new life, who is broken and in despair?

Friends, we are all those dry bones; spread out across a massive desolate land we call earth. We all wait for fresh breath of spirit to move through us, reviving us, filling in flesh and skin, making us whole once again. Don’t we? Wherever you are, wherever we are in our community, may we find new life and may we breathe new life into anyone or anything that needs it.

[1] An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination.

Seeing Wholly

John 9:1-7

Roots1943KahloRoots, Frida Kahlo, 1943

How do we see ourselves? Is our view of ourselves accurate? How do our experiences, both good and bad, affect how we see ourselves?

How do we see others? How do our experiences, what we hear or read, affect how we see other people?

How can we see ourselves and others more holistically and honestly?

What does Jesus teach us about this?

In this John story, we once again find a character encountering Jesus of Nazareth. Previously it was Nicodemus and then a Samaritan woman at a well. Now we have a person who supposedly had been blind from birth. A couple of things to note here. First, the Greek word that is translated “man” in English could be a mistake. The Greek word in question here, anthropon, does not refer to a male, but to a human being. This would not be a stretch to consider, because in many Gospel stories the characters encountering Jesus are not specifically gendered in Greek, so as to allow for all of us to identify with the characters. It’s unfortunate the most translations don’t use “person” or “human being” but we will. A person was blind from birth.

Blindness is also something to not take literally, necessarily. Blindness was a metaphor for not seeing people or the world wholly. Consider, however, that in Jesus’ time someone who was “blind from birth” was considered to be a “sinner” by religious people, and that possibly the sins/mistakes of that person’s parents were passed on. Even Jesus’ own disciples tried to moralize the situation, asking whose fault it was that this person was born blind. Who was to blame?

Do you see how this story is relevant? A person is given an identity by other people and called a sinner because of being born something from birth. Then people say that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree and blame the parents, then the parents blame the circumstances or God, and in the end, the person is left with a pretty messed up perspective and an identity crisis.

So what does Jesus do? Jesus spits on the ground and mixes saliva with mud. Back to the symbols of water and spirit. Saliva is living water, which is also spirit. These are the born from above ingredients. Plus, mud represents the earth and probably hearkens back to the Genesis creation story in the Torah. That would make sense if you consider that John’s Gospel alludes to Genesis quite frequently.

Back to the story. Jesus tells the blind person to go and wash in the pool of Siloam. So the blind person does so, eyes full of mud and saliva. The person comes back seeing.

Should be a huge celebration, right? Not so fast. The story continues on and the neighbors are not too accepting. They remember the person as blind, as a sinner. And now, this person sees? They also knew this human as a beggar. Aha. Even though the person keeps on saying: I am me—I am that person you knew! They don’t buy it. Consider that the now “seeing” person uses Ego eimi, the I AM Greek version of the divine name of YHWH used in Exodus, I am who I am. The person was now born from above, made up of water and spirit. This is how the person saw newly and wholly. Eyes were opened. Positive and personal identity claimed.

So I want to return to the questions asked at the very beginning:

How do we see ourselves? Is our view of ourselves accurate? How do our experiences, both good and bad, affect how we see ourselves?
How do we see others? How do our experiences, what we hear or read, affect how we see other people?

How can we see ourselves and others more holistically and honestly?

See. Yes, we need to see—ourselves and others, as human beings, as creatures made of water and spirit. We need to see each other. Personally, we are not the mistakes our predecessors or parents made. We are not the genders people or society assign to us. We are not the religious dogma we were raised with. We are not the sexual orientation others tell us we are. We are not the school we went to, the town or city or area we grew up in, we are not any of the categories that people assign to us. Instead, we are water mixed with spirit, connected to the good earth. We can all journey to the pool of Siloam together to see that we are beautifully, uniquely, and wonderfully made.

And along the way, We need to see others and stop assuming that someone is this or that based on those restrictive, linear categories. We need to hear someone say I am who I am and we need to celebrate it, accept it, and love that person as is. Identity is important for our health and wholeness.

What are you seeing in all this? What do you think?

Do You Know Your H2O?

John 4:5-15

ebooA couple of weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia’s Dare to Understand Awards event. The featured speaker was Eboo Patel, founder of Interfaith Youth Core in Chicago. I have met with Eboo various times and consider him to be one of my mentors. He inspired me in 2007 when I met him for the first time and read his memoir, Acts of Faith. There was so much in his story that I resonated with and since then, I have been committed to the work of interfaith cooperation and understanding. Eboo, a Muslim, teaches in Seminaries and other religious schools, often encountering American Evangelical Christians, who tend to be the most skeptical or even fearful of people from other faith traditions—especially Muslims. And yet, this is the challenging and important work that Eboo does. He is not afraid to reach across lines of difference. He embraces the most difficult questions and faces the various conflicts.

Recently, Eboo has been focusing on the need for people of faith backgrounds to live out their faith more honestly and publicly. The reason for that is because today many of the most open-minded Christians are mostly silent about their own faith tradition, fearing that they will offend someone or sensing the practice of the Christian faith has nothing positive to offer Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, secular humanists, etc. For example, Cassie Meyer, who works with Eboo at Interfaith Youth Core, says that most Christians have been conditioned to think that there are two ways to engage people of other faiths.

Liberal Christians feel they need to let go of any unique identity and affirm all religions as the same. Call it religious relativism.

Conservative Christians do the opposite. They hold on even tighter to their beliefs and sometimes see other religions as the enemy. Call it fundamentalism.

In both cases, this way of seeing the world does not lead to understanding and cooperation.

But there is another way. What about religious pluralism?  Pluralism claims that we are a diverse culture, worldwide. We have different truth claims. The real question is: how can we live together while being our true selves? The answer, at least, for Jesus of Nazareth, is to encounter the other, the one who others say is untouchable or unreachable. Enter the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus, though it is not often talked about, was one who did not shy away from engaging with diversity—religious, ethnic, cultural, linguistic. He sought out those who were “untouchable” and on the margins. This is why he ended up in Samaria with a Samaritan woman at a well. Jews like Jesus were not supposed to go to Samaria. Just consider that Jesus, a Jew, and this woman, a Samaritan, should not have met. The Jews believed their sacred temple was in Jerusalem and the Samaritans that their sacred site was on Mount Gerizim. They read different scriptures. They had competing truth claims about G-d. And yet, Jesus seeks her out and breaks the rules—only to offer her living water.

In this case, living water is a new identity. For the Samaritan woman, this was being fully human. She had been told that her life didn’t matter and that she was lesser. Jesus, though he was of another religious and cultural background, sought her out to tell her that her life did indeed matter, and that she was full of living water. This is the narrative the Gospels tell about this Jesus—that Jesus seeks people out who feel lost, broken, devalued, marginalized, and forgotten.

That story is good news for all of us.

And yet, within that narrative I also hear another one—that we live in a world in which certain people of certain cultural, political, religious, or ethnic backgrounds cannot meet; they cannot talk to each other. Those meetups are even banned by governments and the rich and powerful. And many of us are conditioned [or at least jaded enough] to start believing this narrative. Christians cannot meet up with Muslims; materially poor people cannot meet up with the materially wealthy; a 16-year-old from West Philly cannot be friends with a 16-year-old from Warrington; a gender-fluid person can never meet up with someone who has no idea about alternative pronouns or even what transgender means; Democrats, Republicans, Independents, Libertarians—they cannot meet up.

These types of meetup groups are prohibited and even impossible, so we are told.

Let me say that certainly for people who are marginalized or discriminated against, they have every right to be skeptical about such meetings. If as a transgender person you have been told more than once that your “new” pronouns aren’t real and even that your gender identification or expression is invalid or unnatural—well, you should not be subjected to that harsh treatment. If you’re Black in America and have experienced both the subtle and not-so-subtle racism and tokenism on many occasions—you have every right to disengage from those who have treated you like this. If you are Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, or Jain and have been mistreated or misrepresented when you encountered Christians, you have every right to walk away from those encounters.

Let me be clear—just because there are nice stories about Jesus encountering and meeting marginalized people as they are and where they are does not mean that it’s easy and happens all the time in society. It doesn’t, and that’s the point. What Jesus did was radical, considered dangerous, and counter-culture. Also, Jesus was the one reaching out. He wasn’t the marginalized. He looked for and befriended those on the margins.

And that’s where the narrative can be beautiful and powerful. As a Christian [and as a human being] I have committed to befriending Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, and others from marginalized religious communities. It is up to me to do that. Likewise, I have made a commitment to be a friend and a student when I am with my LGBTQIA friends, colleagues, and family—to learn from them, because there is so much I do not know.

Friends, as people with H20 in our DNA, we can be water for each other in these encounters. We can make a positive social impact in society if those of us not on the margins seek out those on the margins and listen to their stories, honor and accept them, value their lives, and then join them on the journey. In life, you will encounter people who are worried, who carry way too heavy burdens, and they feel like their life doesn’t matter. You can decide to be water by being a listening ear, a helping hand, a ship out in the middle of the ocean, a glass of water in the middle of desert sand. There will be times when all of our own wells will run dry, and in those moments we will need someone to offer us a refreshing drink and to remind us that our life has value. Whether on the margin or not, water is in your physical and spiritual DNA. Let us be water for each other and refresh and heal the community.

John 3:9-17

Spiritdove.jpeg
Identity is theme of the 40 days of Lent. Who am I? Who is Jesus? Who are my neighbors? These identity questions should stay with Christians throughout this season, and lead to growth, connection, and cooperation. The Gospel stories of the New Testament give us an opportunity to ask these questions, and then to embrace a journey towards light and compassion. Though most of Lent we have been looking at Mathew’s Gospel, this time we take a detour and look at John’s Gospel, the last Gospel written, and the Gospel that stands alone much of the time, as it is very different from Matthew, Luke, and Mark.

The story of Nicodemus and Jesus is an intriguing one, and as our Lenten journey is about questions, so is this story. Now I’ve read and examined this story so much that sometimes I feel that there isn’t much left to explore. But for some reason, my reading of the story this time led me to a different take. You see, much of the time we tend to focus on the characters who encounter Jesus [like Nicodemus] as having some sort of problem, or as being in opposition to Jesus. But I don’t think this is the case with Nicodemus. He is a good question-asker, and Jesus loves questions. This type of question-asking was and is prevalent in many religious traditions, including Judaism and is a way that ideologies and spiritual practices develop. A student asks the teacher a question. Often the teacher will not give a concrete answer but rather, another question for the student to consider.

So the student is Nicodemus. The name Nicodemus means “peoples’ victory.” He’s also called a Pharisee and a leader of the Judeans. Pharisees studied scripture intently and prayed a lot. The issue for the Pharisees [and I would argue, for most “religious” people], is that they often got too caught up in the appearance of religious practice. The institution of the temple, for some Pharisees, had become more important than the actual practice of their faith.

The storyteller writes that Nicodemus met Jesus at night. My take on that is that Nicodemus had respect for Jesus. He didn’t wish to make a spectacle of the conversation; he preferred a one-on-one talk. We also must keep in mind that John’s Gospel often uses the light-dark symbolism. This could be one of those cases. Nicodemus came in the dark. He was about to meet the light.

The conversation started off reasonably well. Nicodemus showered Jesus with praise and respect. Jesus wasn’t all that interested, though. Instead, Jesus challenged Nicodemus’ perspective by saying something strange:

No one can see God’s presence without being born from above.

Born from above refers to the new vision for life that Jesus of Nazareth taught his disciples and led them towards, and is not a statement of belief or some superior knowledge.

Nicodemus was curious but confused, as anyone would be. After all, humans are physically born only once, right? But again, Jesus was pushing Nicodemus to think beyond narrow and linear categories. For Jesus, being born from above meant being born of water and spirit.

stillwater
Water. Probably the most essential resource in all of creation. We all need water to survive. But more than that—water is powerful and creative. It goes around, under, and through things. It carves mountains and forges new habitats. It brings life wherever it flows. Pause for a moment. How are we like water? How does that affect the way you see others?

wind
Spirit.
For Jesus of Nazareth, spirit and wind were interchangeable. The spirit/wind is wild—it blows where it wishes and cannot be controlled. You don’t even see it. It is free of and at large in the world. Pause for a moment. How are we like wind? How does that change the way you see others?

I simply want to focus on these two identity images of water and wind.

As we ask: who am I? during this season, how are we like water and like wind?

And, if we consider that the people around us are also born of water and wind, how will that affect the way we interact and treat others?

Are We Out of the Woods?

Matthew 4:1-11 NRSV

The 40 days of Lent, for Christians around the world, are an opportunity. Now I don’t know where you are in terms of Christian traditions or Lent. Maybe for you, Lent is a strange word that sounds like the small amount of fuzz in your pants pockets [i.e. lint] or the past tense of a word meaning to borrow. Some of you may have grown up in the Roman Catholic tradition, and so Lent may remind you of giving something up, like candy, alcohol, or meat [on certain days]. I also know that many of you have no history with this thing called Lent whatsoever. So let’s focus on the number 40, shall we? And on the journey story of Jesus of Nazareth, which begins with a 40 day period of self-discovery.

And as a help in our own journey of self-discovery, allow me to introduce another story.

wild
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, a memoir written by Cheryl Strayed that describes her 1,100-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail in 1995 as a journey of self-discovery. Her story was made into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon. Cheryl Strayed, at the age of 22, saw her mother die of lung cancer at the age of 45. Afterwards, her family was incredibly distant and disconnected and she began a path of self-destruction, leading to broken relationships and heroin addiction. Four years later, Strayed, with no hiking experience, set out to tackle the Pacific Crest Trail that begins in the Mojave Desert and continues through California and Oregon to the Bridge of the Gods into Washington State. Her story recounts Cheryl’s life before and after this hike, describing her physical challenges and spiritual realizations. Let’s watch the trailer:

Cheryl Strayed’s story is an appropriate one for us to look at during this season. It leads us to Jesus’ story in the Gospel of Matthew. This 40 day journey of Jesus is told by Mark, Luke, and Matthew, though today we are focusing on Matthew’s version, and there are some differences that I need to point out.

First, Matthew’s author says that Spirit “takes Jesus up” into the wilderness, he fasts for forty days and only afterward is he hungry. Matthew’s Gospel was written for a primarily Jewish audience, so no surprise that this version of the story makes two connections with Israel. The number 40 refers to the Israelites who wandered in the wilderness for 40 years and the phrase “forty days and forty nights” refers to Moses in the book of Exodus who was on Mt. Sinai for “forty days and forty nights.”  Further, Matthew’s story defines the character of “the tempter” in various ways, calling him devil, Satan, the evil one, the enemy, prince of demons, and even Beelzebul.

Speaking of the temptations. And no, not the Motown group, though they were AMAZING.

temptationsgroupThis is Jesus’ temptation experience and Matthew switches things up. First, Jesus is told to turn stones [plural] into loaves of bread. Then, Jesus is tempted at the pinnacle of the temple [order change], and lastly, Jesus is tempted up on a mountain [see earlier Exodus/Moses references]. The plural of stones and loaves is important because Matthew is making the point that if Jesus is who he says he is, why not feed the world? Why not use his magic power to do something like that? Jesus rebuffs the temptation by retelling the story of the Israelites in the wilderness and waiting for food, and in that waiting and humility, they were finally able to be ready to receive the manna [bread] that Yahweh provided.

The second test is in Jesus exploiting his supposed religious power as God’s son. This is about the religious elite of Jesus’ day, and how they wielded power over the marginalized of society. Jesus, in Matthew’s story, again refers to Moses, this time to a story in which people were thirsty and Moses asked God to make water flow from a rock.

And lastly, when Jesus is up on a high mountain [so high that he not only sees the promised land but the whole cosmos], he is tempted by the question: who is the divine? Is Yahweh God? Is the tempter God? And it follows: how is Jesus really? That last question, of course, has been the crazy controversy of Christianity since probably around the 3-4th century.

The identity question within Jesus’ wilderness story is the point for us. Just like in the story of the Wild, someone is challenged to look deeply at who they are, facing temptations, anger, sadness, the past, and the present.

I will pretty much leave this here for now, because we need to take this journey appropriately—with patience and care. Self-examination /change/personal growth are not quick-fixes. This is more than just learning a new skill, giving up something, or practicing some sort of religious thing. This is a change not just in what you do but in who you are. Each step of your journey is important. And we all must start where we are. Doesn’t matter what mistakes you’ve made or the state of your life currently. This is where you are. Just take the next step, whatever that is. Take the first step.

See the trail, the wilderness, the journey—as an opportunity. Embrace it. What would it be like for you to forgive yourself? What would it be like for you to embrace your own journey? What is your first step to change that will help to make you a healthier, balanced, and whole person?

 

Matthew 17:1-9

Change.

changeFactory
Does this word scare you? Make you shiver? Excite you? Heighten your anxiety? Give you hope? Motivate you? Change. How does this word make you feel?

It is not hyperbole to say that recently, in the United States, the word change for many does not have a positive connotation. A president addicted to the bully pulpit and one who consistently uses fear to distract and separate people does not help. Not all change is good, isn’t that true? Removing protections in public places for transgender people and for transgender students is not a good change. Requiring people to carry and show IDs randomly doesn’t feel like a good change either. Forcibly removing native peoples from Standing Rock, their own land, so an oil pipeline can be installed, is not a good change. Banning the majority of the press from presidential press conferences is a bad and dangerous change. Lawmakers skipping out on town hall meetings…not a good change. Detaining people in airports, like Muhammad Ali’s son, a U.S. citizen born here in Philly, asking him about his religion—a horrific change.

Fanning the flames of ignorant prejudice and hate crimes, not a good change. Rest in peace, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, engineer and family man of 32 years, shamelessly killed in a bar in Kansas by a white man who said: “Go back to your country” before he shot Srinivas and wounded two others.

srni

So no, not all change is good.

In my view, any change motivated by fear, prejudice, manipulation, or power is not a good change.

Call it disfiguration.

Change is good when it is progress, when it leads to positive transformation. Changing positively is allowing for a new reality and then advancing towards that which makes us better people.

Call it transfiguration.

The idea of transfiguration [in a spiritual sense for Christians and Jews] is based on the Exodus story of Moses and then the Matthew story of Jesus. In Matthew of the NT, Jesus and three disciples go up on a mountaintop for 6 days. In the OT book of Exodus, the prophet Moses also went up to a mountain [Mt. Sinai] for 6 days. The 7th day, in Jewish thought, is Sabbath, rest, the recharging of batteries, recreation and reinvention of self. Both Moses and Jesus do this for 6 days and then find fulfillment on the 7th day. In Jesus’ case, on top of the mountain, he is transformed by the presence of God. There is light that visibly changes him, just like Moses’s shining face in the Exodus story. The main difference is that Jesus doesn’t wear a veil to cover the light. The three disciples then talk in their sleep—dreaming about Moses himself and the other prophet Elijah. But then more light comes [in cloud form] and wakes up the sleepy disciples, with a voice: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

They have trouble listening, though, and they fall to the ground, scared out of their minds. But Jesus reassures them with a simple touch [like in healing] and these words: “Get up and do not be afraid.” They look up. And then they come down from the mountain.

Day seven; the change begins.

This metaphorical story has relevance in this very moment, I think. It is not a stretch to say that our world is disfigured in so many ways. Why do we judge people by who they love, the color of their skin, their last name, their religion, where they were born or grew up, or which bathroom they choose?

This is sickness, not health.

This is disfigurement, not transformation. So those of us who actually do want to live in a world in which people are valued as they are, and diversity of all kinds is embraced, and affirmation and compassion rule the day—those of us wanting this reality, this change, we have to go up to the mountaintop.

So to speak.

We have to take the time to search ourselves, recharge our batteries, heal and rest. We have to take the time to reinvent, recreate, and transform ourselves. And then we come down from the mountain. Then we make change happen.

A big mistake I have made [and many of us] is to wish for positive change, talk about it, but then never do the necessary hard work to make it a reality. I’m done waiting for a change to come. I’m finished with wishing or hoping for all people to be treated well. I don’t want to wait for the seventh day to come so that light will break through. I want to be part of positive change now, in this moment. Today.

And so I remind myself [and I remind you] that real change is cyclic. In order to make lasting change, all of us will have to do that tedious and difficult mountaintop work of introspection, self-examination, and transformation. We will need to ask hard questions of ourselves. We will need to look in the mirror. This allows us to have the strength necessary to face the obstacles when we come down from the mountain. This gives us the wisdom to discern who we should join with and who we should part ways with.

The world is disfigured. We must face it and not ignore what is going on. But we must spend time and energy recreating and transforming as people, and then making positive changes happen. The approaching 40 days of Lent are an opportunity. How will you get to know yourself better? How will that work lead you to positive change within yourself? And then, how will that personal change lead you to make positive change happen in the world? See you on and off the mountain….

Matthew 5:38-48

Are you a perfectionist?

perfectionist
A dictionary definition: a perfectionist is a person who refuses to accept any standard short of perfection. In psychology, perfectionism is a personality trait of a person who strives for flawlessness and sets excessively high performance standards, often accompanied by overly critical self-evaluations and deep concerns about how others evaluate. To a perfectionist, anything that’s less than perfect is unacceptable.

Are you a perfectionist? Do any of these phrases ring true for you?

There is no room for mistakes. You quickly race to correct them.
There is a very specific manner in which things should be done.
If something feels out of place it’s not acceptable.
It’s all or nothing—either you do something well, or not at all.
It is about the end result.
You are really hard on yourself when something goes wrong.
Not achieving a goal makes you feel heavy.
You often ask: What if? After the fact.
Your standards are extremely high and you fear not being able to reach them.
Success is fine, but there is always another level to achieve.
You only start things when you feel ready.
You can spot mistakes a mile away when others are like: Huh?

You are willing to sacrifice sleep, personal time, and even well-being sometimes to achieve something in the way you deem right.

Do you relate to any of this? Personally, I don’t think of myself as a perfectionist in general, but I do relate to a few of these characteristics. So though I may not be a perfectionist in all areas of my life, in certain ways I am. I bring this up, because in Matthew’s Gospel we get a story about Jesus of Nazareth talking about perfectionism, or so it seems. On the surface, it actually seems even worse than the psychological perspective I just shared. Jesus seems to be saying that we as human beings must be as perfect as God.

As perfect as God? Hold the phone, Jeebus!

kermitjesus
No way that Jesus is encouraging us to be divinely perfect, right, because that would be, well, impossible and also depressing. Talk about a self-image downer….

But let’s take a look at the word perfect in English, a translation of the Greek word telos. Telos has nothing to do with being morally perfect [or free from mistakes]. Telos is about being mature, reaching an end in one’s humanity that is…like a tree that after many years grows tall and then can bear fruit. Telos is a goal or purpose reflected in personal growth. This concept, restated by Jesus in Matthew, is referring to the perfection/growth of nature. The growth of trees and plants is perfectly balanced. And as we know from prior Jesus comments in Matthew, we as human beings are compared to things like salt, light, earth, clay, and animals. Being perfect, in this context, is about growth in our love, compassion, and wholeness. Like a tree, we are made to grow buds that eventually bear fruit. That is Divine perfection.

treefruitHow can we love perfectly? How can we live love in a time such as this?

Love your enemy.
Love when it’s not convenient and when it’s difficult.
Love people as they need to be loved—not how YOU want to love them.
Love people in different ways according to where they are in life.
Love with no borders, walls, limits, rules, or formulas.
Love and leave resentment behind.
Love those outside your social circles.

Love consistently, no matter what is happening in the world.

Let’s go back to the discussion about perfectionism. Having perfectionist traits is actually not all bad, you know. There is such a thing as a positive perfectionist, someone who is achievement oriented and not failure oriented. Positive perfectionism, which I argue Jesus practiced, is the lifestyle of noticing that there are things wrong in the world [injustices, suffering] and that helping to make things better gives life meaning. Positive perfectionists focus on how to make a lasting impact and they rarely give up because when they encounter obstacles, they shift to problem solving and see an opportunity. Failure is not the end of the world, because failure or mistakes lead to assessment and renewed brainstorming. Planning happens and there is a renewed commitment to pursuing that positive impact.

Friends, in a time such as this, when people are distracted by hate, and confusion, and manipulation; at a time when it may feel difficult to focus on loving and working for compassion; at a time in which it can feel overwhelmingly dismal and increasingly negative—we need to focus on cultivating the part of ourselves that is beloved, worthy, and good enough to make positive change happen. This is not a time to be overly critical of ourselves or of others. This is a time to be patient and compassionate both with ourselves and others. This is a time to reach out and build bridges, a time to surround ourselves with those who are trying to make a positive difference in the world and who recognize the importance of community.

Whatever level of perfectionist you are, bear in mind that you are enough; you are capable of living love in your relationships. You are capable of making a positive impact in the world. And the more we join together—all of us trees with compassionate roots and growing branches—the more fruit we will bear.

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