Perfection is risky business. It’s addictive. It will alienate you from everyone, including yourself. It’s a burden too heavy, and you’ll never get your arms around it really anyway. As dramatic as it sounds, perfectionism is deadly- it’s at the root of so many eating disorders, mental illness, and addictions. And yet, time after time, we turn to perfectionism as the remedy for what ails us. Don’t believe me? Think you’ve matured past perfectionism? How many times have you heard any of these phrases, “When I get to my goal weight; when I get the kids out of the house; when I get this house organized and cleaned up; when this project is finished at work, when COVID is over; when I get to feeling good again…” Perfectionism is attempting to live in a reality that does not exist.
And we do it in our spiritual lives just as much- “I need to get in a better habit about praying, I need to be better about reading my Bible, I need to get back to Sunday school…” It’s all a reality that doesn’t exist. So we’re left seeking a life that seems like it would be perfect- we’re seeking a spirituality that seems like it would be perfect. And none of it really exists.
In our scripture reading tonight, we read Jesus’s warning against following the example of the hypocrites who seek to ensure that their spiritual disciplines are visible. They want people to see what good followers of God they are- how they’ve got it all figured out and know the best way to serve God. The thing that makes them hypocrites is the way they seek perfection- they want to look the part, and they want people to notice. Instead, Jesus says, be real. Go somewhere private to be with God, don’t seek attention or perfection, just go be with God. In the realness, the honesty, the desire to grow- that’s where you’ll find God.
And let me remind you of another of Jesus’ teachings, this one from Luke 18. “Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’” You see, it’s not even about being in private really- it’s about being honest, letting go of artifice, abandoning the illusion of perfection.
When I was in Divinity School, I took a Marriage and Family Counseling class with Dr. Mac Wallace. We talked about a lot of things in that class, but only one message stuck with me, remembered like a script in my head. “You need to tell parents,” He said, “that there’s no such thing as a good parent. There are only good enough parents.” I believe that (thank goodness). Here’s a different version of the same lesson- there is no such thing as good followers of Christ. There are only good enough followers of Christ. That’s us. You and me, all of us- simply good enough. We will never be perfect. We will never be finished. We will never be matured. Perfection is impossible, but transformation is not. This is our theme for Lent this year- one I hope we will hear with our full hearts, one I hope we will share with the world- there’s no such thing as a good Christian; there are only good enough Christians.
And here on Ash Wednesday, that reminder is starker than ever. Today, in the smudging of ashes on our forehead, we drop the act. We quit pretending. We take a deep breath and name the reality that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. We’re not angry about it, or even sad, really. We don’t have to come crawling on our knees in sackcloth or a hairshirt. We’re just honest. We mess up. We don’t know everything. We’re broken, incomplete. We will act against God and our own integrity. Our bodies and souls will fail us, and we will return to the dust of the earth. We will transform and reform and keep trying, and we’ll ever be finished. Being human is not a flaw to overcome; it is a reality to embrace. None of it is perfect, but it is absolutely good enough. God can do a lot with good enough, you know. Here’s Jan Richardson’s reminder of that-
Blessing the Dust A Blessing for Ash Wednesday All those days you felt like dust, like dirt, as if all you had to do was turn your face toward the wind and be scattered to the four corners or swept away by the smallest breath as insubstantial— Did you not know what the Holy One can do with dust? This is the day we freely say we are scorched. This is the hour we are marked by what has made it through the burning. This is the moment we ask for the blessing that lives within the ancient ashes, that makes its home inside the soil of this sacred earth. So let us be marked not for sorrow. And let us be marked not for shame. Let us be marked not for false humility or for thinking we are less than we are but for claiming what God can do within the dust, within the dirt, within the stuff of which the world is made, and the stars that blaze in our bones, and the galaxies that spiral inside the smudge we bear. –Jan Richardson
So let us be marked with that which says we are good enough, to go forth not in pursuit of impossible perfection, but in the hope of transformation, marked with the ash that says both that we came from nothing and from everything- that we will return from nothing and from everything. Amen.