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August 27, 2017
Did any of you go through your childhood with perpetually scraped knees? I know I did—and 50 years later, I’ve still got the scars to prove it. I had so many scraped knees that I had scrapes on my scrapes. I fell off my bike, I tripped over my own feet, I slipped in the mud, I fell on the ice. Hearing all that, you’re probably not too surprised that I wasn’t the most graceful child.
I remember my mom telling me that she didn’t want me to wear shorts or dresses out in public until my unsightly knees healed up, but some summers that was hard to do. It required a monumental bandaging effort before I could pull on my husky jeans from J.C. Penney’s. But I learned the lesson early—you need to look put together for the world, to hide the things that hurt, to remove from view anything that might make others think less of you.
That was just one of the lessons of perfectionism that got taught in the school of my upbringing. Other things needed to be perfect too: when we made our beds, they had to have hospital corners, no wrinkles. When we set the table for dinner, the fork was to be centered on the napkin—which was folded into a perfect triangle—and the knives and spoons were positioned parallel and on the right side of the big white plates. I also learned that something small—like forgetting to put the salt shaker on the table—could send my mom into a tizzy that might hijack the whole rest of the meal.
It took me a while to learn that even though it was sometimes hard to grow up in a home where I was always afraid of doing something wrong, the person paying the biggest price for all that perfectionism was my mom. Later I would understand that she was doing the best she could, and that she’d had a difficult childhood of her own. But back then all I knew was that she seemed tight and angry much of the time, and when something “imperfect” happened—like the forgotten salt shaker–she seemed to take it personally, as though life were pointing out that yet again she wasn’t measuring up. And it felt like she was mad at us about that.
I learned early to escape the perfectionism inside my house by spending most of my time outside, outside where it was messy, where flowers grew in all kinds of different ways and butterflies floated and hovered wherever the breezes took them. Trees somehow managed to thrive all crowded together, finding the water and sunlight they needed to grow tall and strong. I spent hours playing in the creek behind our subdivision, curious about the crawdads, marveling at milk weeds, listening to the melody of the stream and the birds, rejoicing in the freedom and joy and beauty of it all. This, to me, was perfection—life unfolding, breezes moving, the spirit of God everywhere, in all, with all. When I was an eight-year-old, perfection didn’t have anything to do with folded napkins or smooth bedsheets or doing things just right. Perfection, in fact, had very little to do with humans at all—as I understood it, then and now, perfection was bigger than people, wider than rules, a timeless, open, light-filled recognition that God is all and all is good.
But as it happens, we fast-forward into our growing years, to high school, college, and beyond, and we learn how our lives impact others and we try to live up to what others need and want from us. It’s part of human relationships that we have certain expectations: we hope for honesty, trust, gentleness, respect, and peace. We try to be responsible; we want to leave things better than we found them. We try to be careful thinking through our choices—especially those choices that affect those we love—and we do our best with the situations that come our way. We try not to hurt each other and to be mindful of those who need our help or encouragement or comfort.
I think most of us find that our relationships change and grow over time, and they invite us to change and grow along with them. There is a never a point when we’re done, we’ve got it, we’re finished and perfect. In relationship—with ourselves, with others, and with God—we are always a work in progress, living up to the light we’ve been given.
But so much of our journey in life—whether we’re creating a family, finishing a career, healing an illness, or recovering from a loss—brings us back to lessons in softening and self-acceptance. Instead of doing battle with the hard core of our ego–that part that recites a list of “shoulds” and chastises us when we fall short—we are given an unlimited number of second chances. Each time, we have an opportunity to choose grace instead of judgement, to accept ourselves wherever we are, however we’re feeling, whatever choices we’ve made up to this point on this day.
In our New Testament story reading, Jesus is telling the story of the prodigal son, who early on was caught up in his passions and eager to leave home and experience the world. He was full of himself and impatient and bored with the life of work and responsibility he saw his father and brother living out each day. He asked for his inheritance early and his father gave it to him. He left home and squandered it all quickly, the scripture says, in wild living. Soon after that, I think, he began to realize where his choices had taken him, because he had to find work feeding pigs. Scripture says he longed even to eat the pods the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything. He was starving.
At that point, Jesus uses an interesting phrase. He says, “When he came to his senses.” The young man’s senses at that time probably gave him a lot of feedback that was uncomfortable. He was hungry and thirsty. He was probably weary from work. He might have been hot or achy, maybe experiencing hunger pains.
It is an important point of reckoning, when we “come to our senses.”
At the hospital I lead several mindfulness groups each month. If you haven’t heard about mindfulness, it is a technique that helps us lessen our stress by learning to be fully present in the moment. One of the basic mindfulness techniques involves taking an inventory of our senses, which helps us connect with what we’re experiencing just now. We ask inwardly, What do I see? (Maybe the vibrant colors of the stained glass.) What do I hear? (The sound of the air circulating in the room.) What do I feel? (The pressure of the pew against your back.) Or it might be an inward feeling, like calm, or worry, or anticipation.
Coming to our senses helps us calm down, stop the flow of fast-moving thoughts, and connect with our lived experience in this moment. It also calms our hearts and makes us more receptive—to kindness, to gentleness, to insight, to God. For the prodigal son, the moment of coming to his senses brought the light of understanding that showed him the error of his ways. Suddenly he understood where his choices had taken him and he was humbled and ashamed.
Our Old Testament reading is from the book of Lamentations. This writer is also “coming to his senses,” realizing that his peace is gone and life looks dark, and he recognizes that his choices, his outlook, has brought him to this unhappy place. He says, “I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall, and my soul is downcast within me.”
That is the soul’s moment of reckoning, when the light suddenly illumines imperfection in our lives. There is great humility and hope of healing in it. Right at that point of pain, that clear moment of self-honesty, where we let ourselves see what we don’t want to see and feel what we don’t want to feel–humiliated, ashamed, or like we’re not measuring up—God does something miraculous. God embraces us in a moment of grace, inviting us to see our situation in a new way, through eyes of hope.
For the prodigal son, that invitation comes when it occurs to him that he could to go to his father and apologize with humility, asking to sign on as one of his father’s hired hands. At least then he will get regular meals, and he’ll be able to do something useful with his days. Similarly the writer of Lamentations has an idea that gives him hope. “Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. 23They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. 24I say to myself, “The LORD is my portion; therefore I will wait for him.”
And of course we know the rest of the story of the prodigal son. After he came to his senses, he was truly contrite and wanted only to serve his father as hired help. But his father had other ideas. He had seen his son when he was still a long way off and, the story says, “he was filled with compassion.” He ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. That must have been quite a reunion for them both.
At the banquet table that night, no one would have been worrying about the way the napkins were folded or how the silverware was arranged. The meal wasn’t about performing to perfection, it was about love, lived fully, overflowing into joy and sharing and celebration.
That’s because any environment that allows the joyful spirit of God to flow freely is blessed with connection, understanding, beauty, freedom, and life. When there is judgment going on, or disharmony, disagreement, anger, and rejection, it’s because we have brought it to the table. Our egos keep their lists of shoulds and reprimand us—and others–when we fall short. It is the opposite of grace. But God sees us only through eyes of love. God’s goodness—because that’s who God is–pours out to us continually, overflowing our self-recrimination, dissolving our hardened natures, softening our resentments, and healing the scraped knees we try to hide from the world.
Jesus gave us the model, the teaching, and the wisdom to help us find God’s perfection once again. In moments of frustration, anxiety, doubt, or uncertainty, we can remember that there is a bigger perfection unfolding, lovingly, in our lives right now. And it only takes a tiny moment for us to come to our senses and recognize it.
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