Perfectionism and the Topsy-Turvy Gospel

perfect familyLet me introduce you to Glen and Glenda from Glen Ellyn:  They are good people. No, I mean it. Glen supervises the regional marketing team for that company that everyone knows and has steadily and consistently been promoted. Glenda is a CPA and works for a small accounting firm doing small business taxes. Their kids are wonderful! Gary plays soccer and baseball, and is now taking trumpet lessons. Gertie has just started field hockey and loves her ballet lessons. They are both in scouts and the children’s choir at church. Glen helps coach soccer and baseball, and is the chair of the Worship Team at church. Glen and Glenda think it’s important to help the less fortunate, so they volunteer at PADS once a month and they have decided this year to help organize the fifth grade classes to do a food drive for the Glen Ellyn Food Pantry.

You would love their house. Glenda has decorated the living room spectacularly; it looks like the cover of a magazine. And not to be outdone by the neighbors, Glen has manicured his lawn to Wrigley Field specifications. It looks perfect. Every Friday afternoon he even cuts the front yard twice so that it has that crosshatched look to it. Not a weed is to be found in that lawn.

These are good people. They are model citizens. They are the kind of people, we might say, that if there were more of them, the world would be a better place.

These good people are tired. They are stressed. They complain about having no time, of being pulled in a thousand directions; they feel consumed and overwhelmed by the pressures around them. They are living, but it’s not much of a life. How can they be doing so much and feel so empty?

We are socially conditioned to be good people. In fact, I think we are socially conditioned to be perfect people.  This perfectionist strain means we have to do everything right — house, marriage, parenting, work, community involvement, church. Now, of course, no one can do that, and in our minds, we know it’s impossible, yet in our guts, we somehow try. So we refuse to make choices, thinking that if I say no to something, there is something I might miss. Because so much is possible, so much must be necessary. Trying to do everything and trying to do everything perfectly is sucking the life out of us.

Imagine Glen and Glenda taking that trip to Italy that they’ve always wanted to take. Two days in Rome, and they get on one of those touring buses and they see everything. The next morning it’s off to Tuscany where they take a quick tour of Assisi in the morning and a vineyard in the afternoon. The next morning it’s off to Florence, where they rush through the art museum in the morning and the cathedral and the shopping district in the afternoon. The next morning it’s off to Venice, where they go see the glassblowers in the morning and a gondolier ride in the afternoon and a romantic dinner along the canals in the evening. Another day split between the leaning tower of Pisa and Cinque Terre, then a day in the lakes region, a day hiking in the Italian Alps and then a day taking the train back to Rome where they fly out the next morning. When they get back to Glen Ellyn, they’re so tired, they need a vacation. They have a photograph of everything, but they have seen nothing.

Does it sometimes seem like that’s how we live?

It recalls for me a story about a rich man who came to Jesus. “Good Teacher, what must I do to be saved?”  The man was a good man. He really was. He had kept the commandments since his youth. He had worked hard. He was a exemplary citizen and a model member of his local synagogue. Infected, perhaps, with that perfectionist virus? How could he do so much and still feel so empty?

“Go. Sell what you have an give it to the poor,” Jesus said. Jesus confronted him with the impossibility his perfectionism. Called his bluff. Forced a choice: the endless and elusive striving to be a good person. Or something different. A life that’s not an achievement, but a gift.

We are not called to be good people. The gospel of Jesus calls us into the circle of God’s love, a love that flows to us in Jesus’ death and resurrection. In Christ we are made new, now, and again each morning. God makes us good people. Goodness is not an achievement. Perfection is neither a requirement nor a goal. In this new kingdom, our lives are not defined by what we achieve. We are loved, and because we are loved, we serve.

This topsy-turvy Gospel and this upside down kingdom of God call us to live differently. Receive the gift. Make some choices. Pare it down to what’s essential. Do your part. Not everything. Your part.

Wouldn’t that be life-giving? Wouldn’t that feel like freedom?

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