The Curse of Perfection
A video of this sermon can be seen by clicking (here)
How many of you have ever heard the story of the Princess and the Pea? She had the perfect bed. There were mattresses piled upon mattresses, feather bed upon feather bed. How many were there?
Hmm, some different answers, but it doesn’t really matter for the point of the story. There was a tiny pea underneath all that soft, comfortable, wonderful bedding, but she couldn’t sleep because of that tiny pea. She had a simply terrible night.
Ah, the curse of perfection!
One could even say it is the curse of fairy tales. How many of them just set us up for feeling like our own lives are failures?
Will that handsome prince never arrive? Probably not, so we settle for a good-natured frog. Then we try to turn the frog into a prince. We can kiss him and hug him all we want, but he will still be happier in a swamp.
Dear people, it is time we realize it. We are all pretty much frogs and we all live in a swampy, messy, world. With climate change, the swamp is slowly heating up, and I just hope we notice it in time.
That is another myth, as I understand it.
A real frog will actually jump out of a pot of water long before he is cooked. That is, as long as no one has clamped the lid tightly shut on her.
The never-ending search for perfection is a curse, but so is never trying to improve your life.
Balance, it is always about balance. Our culture tends to push us toward seeking perfection. As in our reading, we are often reminded to do our very best. But what if our best isn’t good enough? What if our best is not perfect?
Voltaire said that the best is the enemy of the good. Sometimes that is translated, as the perfect is the enemy of the good. We see this all the time in politics, where elected officials don’t want to compromise. No law is perfect. Democracy is messy.
We also see it in our personal lives, in our marriages and our relationships. We see it in our jobs. Life is not a fairy tale. Stuff happens. Things go wrong. We blow it. If we don’t make a lot of money, or even enough money to survive in some comfort and security, we can feel like failures. If our partner still leaves wet towels on the floor after all these years, then we sometimes begin to question the relationship. Why won’t they change? (I want to make it clear that Anne doesn’t do that!)We might have an addiction that we think we have completely recovered from, but the craving comes back. If we give in to it, sometimes we are afraid to try again. If we have messed up too many times, we can feel like it will never get better.
We fail one math test and then we decide we hate math.
I loved math when I was younger. When you got the answer right, it was right. There were no grey areas; it was pure perfection. Geometry was beauty. Calculus, on the other hand, made no sense to me, and I did not enjoy it at all. Statistics were great, however. I loved the idea of being 95% confident of something. It seemed pretty good.
There is nothing wrong with 95%. There was an old commercial that used to play on TV. Ivory Soap was supposed to be 99 and 44/100 % pure. Remember that? Ivory was also “the soap that floats.”
We too can float, even if we aren’t 100% pure. The curse of perfection can also damage us spiritually. We aren’t supposed to do bad things, fine, but sometimes all of us think bad thoughts. Sometimes we also do bad things, even things we define as bad. Does this mean we are evil and worthless? Can we really control all of our actions, much less our thoughts?
Historical Unitarianism maintained that we all have divine potential, that Jesus was not uniquely divine. The same is true, as I understand it, in LDS theology. Talk about pressure! To live up to our divine nature, must we be perfect in all things, in word, in deed, and even in our thoughts? I don’t think so. I don’t think perfection is possible. It might even be ungodly.
I love the story from Matthew 15. A Canaanite woman asked Jesus to help her daughter.
(Remember that Canaan was cursed in the story of Noah that we talked about a few weeks ago? If you missed that sermon, it is on youtube.) The Jews despised the Canaanites. Jesus ignored her for awhile, and then said,
“God sent me only to the lost sheep, the people of Israel.” She still asked for his help and he said, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and give it to the dogs.”
The woman answered, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
Then Jesus replied, “Woman, you have great faith! I will do what you asked.”
I love that story because it was a woman who challenged Jesus, and I love it because he realized he was wrong. Even Jesus was not perfect.
Gandhi is also lifted up as an example of goodness. I was actually rather pleased to learn that when he was a young man, he beat his wife. It was something his culture told him was necessary, but he later realized how wrong it was. Even Gandhi was not perfect.
Monday is Veterans Day. It is a day we set aside to honor those who have fought and sacrificed in our country’s many wars. There are always wounds from war, even if someone comes home physically whole. It is very appropriate that we honor our veterans. It is also appropriate that we honor their families, who have also suffered.
If you have served or are serving in our armed forces, please stand if you are able.
If you have a family member who is or has served, please stand. Thank you too.
Because we love you, we know that you are heroes, and we also know that you are not perfect. War is never easy; there are times of great courage and also of great fear. There are feelings of pride, honor and glory, and also feelings of regret and sorrow. No one is perfect. You are still heroes. Even our country is not perfect.
When we try to make our country perfect, when we try to make ourselves perfect, we close our minds and our hearts to pain and suffering. We also close ourselves off from love.
We can love our flag better when we see it as a symbol of aspiration, a struggle for a more perfect union, as a dream that will never be fully realized.
I spoke of the Unitarian side of our heritage earlier, but the Universalist side is what creates the balance. Our Universalist ancestors believed a loving God, a God who loves everyone, no matter who they are and no matter what they have done or haven’t done. Universal salvation means no one is left out.
Not even you. Not even you.
Some of you may not know it, but Joseph Smith was raised in a Universalist family, so the LDS faith also has Universalist those roots as well. It is all about balance.
Leonard Cohen wrote a song called “Anthem.” It is an anti-war song, a little awkward for Veteran’s Day, but it is also about the beauty of things that are not perfect. Let me read some of the lyrics:
The birds they sang
at the break of day
I heard them say
Don’t dwell on what
has passed away
or what is yet to be.
Ah the wars they will
be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
bought and sold
and bought again
the dove is never free.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
That’s how the light gets in.
Don’t you love that line? There is a crack in everything.
Sue Browning, in our earlier reading, said, Maybe ‘the best is the enemy of the good’ when it drives our energies toward comparison and judgment, rather than toward kindness and encouragement.
But maybe there is more to it than that. Maybe striving always for perfection robs us of the beauty we might otherwise see, if we only let the light in.
Can we love weakness as much as we love strength? Can we love it in others as well as in ourselves?
Can we free ourselves from the curse of perfection, and how might we do that?
Some of you may have heard of the “Curse of Macbeth.”
Those of you who are involved in the theater certainly have. It is considered very unlucky to say the name of Shakespeare’s play Macbeth in a theater. This is a church not a theater, so relax. The play is instead referred to as “the Scottish Play.”
But if someone says the dreaded word, “Macbeth” there is a remedy. The offender must go outside, turn around three times, spit, and say the foulest word they can think of.
You might want to try that later if you suffer from the curse of perfection. Remember that the word doesn’t have to be truly foul, just the worst that you can think of at the time.
Or maybe you just want to repeat the words of Mary Oliver, slightly changed to the personal pronoun.
I do not have to be good. (repeat)
I do not have to walk on my knees for a hundred miles through a desert, repenting. (repeat)
I only have to let the soft animal of my body love what it loves. (repeat)
We, all of us, no matter what our failings and our flaws, have a place not only in the family of things, but also in this church community.
Our light can show through the cracks; it is the light of truth, warmed by love. Our imperfect offerings are blessed. You are blessed, and you are a blessing. The rose will begin to open if you let yourself be guided by love.