When I was in graduate school I had a position as a teaching assistant for a class of seminarians. My job was to lead a discussion section of the class, and to help the students to understand their papers and tests. And one semester I was assigned to a new professor who, in retrospect, was probably trying to prove herself as a serious teacher.
Every professor assigned a lot of reading, but this professor assigned an impossible amount. Hundreds of pages each week. It was too much for even the TAs to read, and we knew the material and the concepts already. The new students had at least three other classes and usually an internship too, and it didn’t take long until they were all falling behind and coming to the teaching assistants for help. These were high-level students used to thriving in school, and they were drowning
With the professor’s blessing we decided that we would teach a workshop on how to get through a lot of reading quickly. So, one afternoon we taught them how to scan, how to find central themes and how to outline. Most students walked from the room feeling relieved and like they could keep up.
Afterwards the professor asked how it had gone. She wondered if the students now felt a little more confident about keeping up. I told her that I thought they’d be fine, and that they just needed some skills. And then I said something else. I said, “You know, I think they thought you expected them to read every single word of those hundreds of pages.”
She looked at me affronted. “But I DO expect them to read every single word.”
When I read about Jesus’ words to the crowds this week, I’m reminded a little of that class. This is the last week we are looking at the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ big speech to the crowds. And Jesus is not setting the bar low. He tells the crowd that these are the things they need to do:
If someone strikes your right cheek, offer them your left.
If someone takes your coat, give them your cloak too
If asked to go one mile, go a second mile
If someone wants anything from you, give it to them
Love your family, your friends, but more than that love your enemies and pray for them
And then Jesus delivers this bottom line: be perfect, therefore, as your father in heaven is perfect.
Be perfect. When I think about being perfect, I think a little about that class that I TAed, and I think about unrealistic expectations, and harsh graders. And when I think about being perfect in the spiritual sense, I picture God as a divine professor, checking through my work and saying “it is very clear to me that you did not read every single word of the assigned reading.”
I think a lot of us might wrestle with an image of God that’s a lot like that. God as the ever-demanding, ever-critical, authority figure. The parent you can never please. The teacher who is always disappointed. The client who always complains, no matter how hard you work.
Maybe, at its worst, God as our own critical inner voice, bent on reminding ourselves how much we are messing everything up.
It would be easy for me right now to say “but God’s not like that. That’s human beings. God is love.”
But then we have Jesus here, telling us to be perfect. And somewhere deep down that’s unsettling, because we all know that we don’t measure up to perfect, and we never will.
And so that’s when it’s important to remember that God is a little different from our critical fourth grade teacher, or the coach who always yelled at you when you missed the free throw. God is’t a divine task master at best, and bully at worst. God is different.
I think about that grad school professor from the beginning, and about how she demanded perfection. And, truth be told, grad school is a little about hazing. There’s a lot of “I had to do this, so you will too.” And, honestly, she was trying to get tenure, which is another kind of hazing in and of itself. She was trying to prove that she was perfect too, and being a tough teacher was a part of that.
But the life of faith is not about jumping through hoops, or looking good on paper. It’s not about reading every page. Instead, it’s about this: it’s about progress.
In recovery communities like AA there is a slogan: “progress not perfection”. The idea is that you shouldn’t focus on getting every single thing right. If you do that things are bound to go wrong, and it’s too tempting to just give up. Instead, just focus on doing a little better, one day at a time.
I think that makes sense for the spiritual life too. No one, this side of heaven, is ever going to be perfect. But that doesn’t mean that we get to just throw up our hands and give up. Instead, it means that a little at a time, we get better. We become more generous, more patient, more compassionate, and more loving.
And, if we are doing it right, we also extend all of those things to ourselves. Because in a world that too often seems to demand the unrealistic, we could all stand to treat ourselves with a little more generosity, patience, compassion, and love.
We cannot batter ourselves into perfection. And there’s nothing in destroying our selves that will glorify God.
This week I was remembering something from when I was a kid, and thinking about what it means to be perfect, and to fail. I grew up about 40 minutes from Cape Canaveral where NASA launched all of it’s rockets. We were close enough whenever a shuttle launched we’d all know it was happening and go outside to see it.
There were other launches too, though, that didn’t rate the same sort of hype. Regularly satellites would be sent up on unmanned rockets from the Cape. And one afternoon late in elementary school I was riding my bike down the street when I saw the familiar arc of a rocket coming up over the trees.
I stopped and watched. It kept climbing higher and higher. And then, all of a sudden, far up in the air, it started to go to the side. And then it spun on itself. And this didn’t look quite right. A minute later there was a flash of light and the rocket was no more. Mission control had pressed whatever button they press to cause the rocket to self-destruct.
Later, talking to my dad, I realized how many tens of millions of dollars, if not more, had gone into building that rocket and that satellite, how many hopes had been attached to it, and how now it was just a bunch metal sitting off the coast at the bottom of the ocean.
“So what will they do?”, I asked my dad.
“Well,” he said, “they’ll try again.”
All of us mess up sometimes. But my guess is that you’ve never been the one who caused a spaceflight worth tens of millions of dollars to self-implode.
The irony is that even if you have been, NASA would forgive you and try again.
Why? Because you keep trying. You keep learning from your mistakes and building on what you learned, and you dare to try again.
If NASA can forgive a broken satellite, perhaps God can forgive our brokenness too. And perhaps we can head back to the drawing board, figure out what went wrong, and try again.
Here’s the good news: while spaceflight might require absolute perfection, life does not. We get to get it wrong sometimes. And we get to know we are forgiven. The only thing that we can’t do is stop trying. Amen?