Thursday, April 17, 2014

Confessions of a Backsliding Perfectionist

I am a perfectionist. I get angry at every little mistake I make. I get angry at every little mistake anyone else makes. 

I have been socialized to be a perfectionist. My father was a perfectionist. I could never do anything right in his eyes. Seldom was there praise for anything I had done; mostly criticism. So I was driven to be as perfect as possible in order to please my father and get those extremely occasional pats on the back. 

My father was a serviceman for heating and air conditioning and had a truck full of tools. They were some of his most prized possessions. When I would borrow one of his tools, I would carefully place it back in exactly the place from where I had taken it. Didn’t seem to matter; my father’s perfectionistic eye would always catch a foreign presence in his private domain. “Who was messing in my tool box?” he would bellow the next time he returned from work. 

Not only did I receive perfectionistic socialization from my father, but also from my religious tradition. Mennonites, following their Anabaptist forbearers, were serious about following Christ in their daily life. A whole list rules was established to make sure all the tools were placed properly in the tool box. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48), was my church’s rallying cry. 

Like my earthly father, my heavenly Father seldom praised me (or so I thought). I had to strive ever harder to reach the high expectations of my demanding parents. Of course, I expected no less of others as well. The word grace was more foreign to me than the “buenos días” I heard on my uncle’s tomato fields as a boy. 

Over the course of my teaching career, I have directed many one-act plays for my advanced Spanish students to be presented in public. (Oh yes, I learned what "buenos días" means) Like my father’s toolbox, I was meticulous with every detail; especially the intonation and the pronunciation of every word and phrase. It had to be perfect. If they got it wrong, it reflected on me, their teacher. I was a perfectionist. 

For the most part, my students responded well to my perfectionistic direction. Perhaps they were taught in the same tool-box schools of perfection as I had been. However, I will never forget a scene with a sensitive female student during one of the rehearsals for our play. She was SO close to getting it, but I rode her relentlessly until she was reduced to tears. My perfectionism was more important than my relationship with this student. I felt horrible. I’m sure I apologized profusely for hurting her, but the damage had been done. 

Last night my Spanish class staged another play. It was very well done. It was very well received. During the course of the rehearsals, there were times when my perfectionistic self had to bite its tongue, had to stifle its tendencies to demand more and more effort. You see, over the years I have learned that praise goes a lot farther than criticism when expecting students to perform. Whether it is in the classroom or on stage, the same rule applies. 

There were points during the rehearsals that gave me serious doubts whether we could pull it off. There were times when I was tempted to call for more rehearsals, to correct pronunciation and phrasing and stop the ugliness. Instead I pointed out the good things I saw in each performer. 

After the awkwardness of learning to know the meaning of the lines, the importance of proper blocking and movement, and the need to for being present at all times while on stage, my students started to have fun. So that was my final exhortation before the performance. “Have fun,” I told them. And they did. A few tools were misplaced, but it didn’t matter. 

The underlying issue for a perfectionist is the need to control, whether the tool box or the stage. Over the years I have learned to let go. I don’t need to have everything perfect. I am a backsliding perfectionist. And I couldn’t be happier.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Beauty and Ugliness

Devotional for a spring day

Psalm 24:1-4 (NRSV)
1 The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it,
    the world, and those who live in it;
2 for he has founded it on the seas,
    and established it on the rivers.
3 Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?
    And who shall stand in his holy place?
4 Those who have clean hands and pure hearts,
    who do not lift up their souls to what is false,
    and do not swear deceitfully.

I write this during one of those spectacular spring days with perfect temperatures and low humidity. As I crested a hill on my morning bicycle ride, I could see for miles in every direction—the marvelous beauty of the fresh green trees contrasted with the crystal-clear blue sky. I could smell freshly mown hay, and the wind on my face felt like a sweet caress. My heart sang in praise to my Maker as I experienced the beauty of His handiwork.

Yet, as my eyes returned to the road, everywhere I looked there was evidence of human invasion of this lush garden. Trash littered nearly every foot of the roadside; pop cans of every brand in plastic and aluminum, remnants of fast-food establishments, discarded newspapers and magazines. The contrast between the beauty and the ugliness could not have been starker.
Isn’t this contrast similar to our lives as Christians? On the one hand we are made in God’s image—reflecting the perfect beauty of His creation. On the other hand we have littered our souls with the trash of our human desires and wants—the ugliness of our sin. In order “ascend the mountain of the Lord,” we need to clean up the garbage of sin that obscures the beauty of what God wants us to be.  When we have completed the garbage disposal, we can “stand in his holy place” with “clean hands and a pure heart.”

O God, thank you for the beauty of your creation. Help us not to spoil with garbage either our environmental surroundings or the precious lives that you have given us.
Thought for the Day:
We only have one earth and one soul to take care of. Let’s treat them both with care.
Prayer Focus:
For greater care of all of God’s creation

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

In Thy Holy Place We Bow

In Thy holy place we bow,
Perfumes sweet to heaven rise,
While our golden censers glow
With the fire of sacrifice.
Saints low bending, prayers ascending,
Holy lips and hands implore;
Faith believing and receiving
Grace from Him Whom we adore.

Holy light doth fill this place,
Spirit light our way to guide;
In the presence of Thy face
Sin and darkness ne’er can hide.
Heaven’s gleaming, fullness streaming,
Life and truth for man is found;
Light pervading, never fading,
Lighting all the world around.

On Thy holy bread we feed,
Hunger never more to know;
Thou suppliest all our need;
Father, whither shall we go?
Ne’er forsaking, here partaking
Bread our souls to satisfy;
Here abiding and confiding,
We shall never want nor die.

As a youngster, the words to this hymn written by Samuel Coffman, filled my mind with otherworldly and ethereal images. I don’t know if I really understood them, but they evoked something in me that touched my soul. I was not sophisticated enough to be able describe what was happening to me during this song, but I think it was something mystical.

Added to the otherworldly words was the beauty of the music written by J. D. Brunk. The progression of the chords matched the ethereal nature of the words perfectly. They did not flow in stock harmonies, but modulated slowly and beautifully between major and minor chords, lifting one up musically as did the perfumes, the light and the Eucharist. 

Perhaps it is because the many words are sense-related and image-producing. Smell (sweet perfumes), sight (fire, light, gleaming), touch (lips, hands, feed), taste (bread), are sensory. The perfumes and golden sensors with fire evoke images of burning incense, and the consecrating of the path where the holy walk. The holy bread brings to mind the partaking of the Eucharist, not only food for the body but food for the soul.

Not everyone had the same love of this hymn as I. Even though both the musician and the poet were Mennonites, and the hymn was published in several Mennonite hymnals over the years, it caused some controversy among some Mennonite ministers. Singing the hymn was discouraged in some churches. The reason given was that it was too mystical; too other worldly. 

In my childhood, Mennonite worship was austere at best. Worship centered around the preaching of the Word, with a few simple hymns providing the only aesthetically interesting elements. No crosses, no images or pictures of any sort adorned the walls. Even the hymns were unadorned; no instrumentation, only a showcasing of the unaccompanied voice in four-part harmony. Beyond solemnity, any overt display of emotion was discouraged. Our worship was no where near the description given in the hymn.

In spite of discouragement from some of the leadership, this hymn was loved by many Mennonites. No wonder it had an appeal. Not only is there sensory elements to touch the universal soul, but there is movement; bowing, bending, ascending, guiding, streaming, and going. It gave people permission to FEEL something and exercise their hearts instead of just their heads. 

Movement and emotion were an anathema to pious, stoic, God-fearing, Swiss-German folk. But imminence meeting transcendence cannot be stifled. The joy that bubbles within where the veil between the eternal and the temporal is made thinner cannot be snuffed out. We are created to experience God because we have his image stamped on our souls. That meeting place can happen even in the most austere places. That meeting place is mystical. 

In Thy holy place we bow. Indeed we do.