Oh Blessed Mistake | The Community
The Anglican Church of Canada home page
Sites at the Anglican Church of CanadaFind a ChurchFrequently Asked QuestionsStaff Listing

Oh Blessed Mistake

The culture around us doesn’t offer a lot of grace to one who makes mistakes.  Mistakes are the opposite of perfection.   Mistakes provide the opening for criticism and attack.  Mistakes will get you voted off of the tribe, eliminated from the race, and tossed out of the house.   We accept this dynamic when it comes to reality-based competitions.  They are, after all, just games.  Sadly, however, popular culture’s obsession with the perfect isn’t limited to games of strategy.  A toddler in a tiara misses a step and is left out of the running for ‘Grand Ultimate Whatever.’  Magazines compare one celebrity to another, rating breast sizes, ex lovers, and baby bumps (apparently, Kate’s baby bump is ‘better’ than Kim’s). Adoration and glamour quickly turn to torment, ridicule and mockery when a star or starlet wears the ‘wrong’ thing.

The message is not too hared to pick up:  Perfection is to be the standard for life.   The culture preaches that we must strive to live our lives without mistake or error. Like the celebrities exemplars held before us, we must cultivate this perfection or suffer the consequences of judgment and condemnation.  Of course, the difficulty is that the standard keeps on changing, so it’s really a no-win situation.

Sure, Hollywood may be fascinated with perfection, but it hasn’t transmitted its way down into our world has it? And surely the church is a safe place free from the impossible standard of perfection?  We in the church would never declare to someone that he or she didn’t perform ‘good enough’ –would we?

Sadly I think we all know the answer to that question, and if you are like me, you may have a personal experience of the answer to that question.   As a youth, I had the dubious distinction of being slapped at the altar rail.  Apparently, at communion, I grabbed the chalice in the ‘wrong’ place.

I wish I was joking.

We may not call it perfection, but emphasizing the ‘rightness’ of our actions, or the ‘excellence of our work and worship’ essentially leads us down the same road.  A cruise around current church websites will uncover many instances of this.  There are the statements about how a church values “an excellent music ministry;” or strives to cultivate “excellence in Liturgy.”  Pastors and Priests are held against the illusive standard of ‘excellent preaching.’

But what if excellence isn’t achieved in the church?  What if, God-forbid, the musician plays the wrong note, or the choir-member runs out of breath?  What if someone stands in the lectern and reads the wrong reading?  Does this undercut the entire endeavor? Does the Spirit of God leave the place, muttering under his breath something about lambs without blemish and dirty sacrifices?

I doubt it.  Personally, I love it when mistakes happen.  What is more, I think God loves it too.  These mistakes are blessed moments by which we are reminded that in worship we do not offer perfection; we offer ourselves.   The criterion for our worship is not the absence of mistake, but the inclusion of honesty and authenticity.  God cares more for the raw, unhindered, and mistaken-laden offering of our hearts, rather than the vain striving for an unobtainable standard.  I’m not saying that it is wrong to care about our work and worship.  Obviously, a desire for worship to be performed at the best of our ability is reflective of our desire to offer our best to God.  Yet if we are not careful, we can inadvertently turn this into believing that God cares more for excellence than he cares for us.

The quest for perfection or excellence quenches the spirit of love and grace in the Christian community. It cuts us off from receiving God’s grace, so freely bestowed upon us.  The blessed mistakes of the worshiping community break us from the snare of perfection.  The nervous laughter of the one who realizes that they have read from the wrong testament provides the space for us to put down that damning criteria, and the guilt that it sometimes creates within us.  There is freedom in the mistakes, because we come head to head with the reality that we can never achieve perfection.  That may seem uncomfortable at first, but the reality of our imperfections allows us to receive that love of God in deeper fashion.

The truth of the matter is this:  it’s ok.  It is ok to make mistakes in worship; to read the wrong reading; to sing the wrong notes; to stumble over our words.  It is ok to do all these things because our worship is not about the flawless execution of liturgical rite.  It is never about perfect sounds, forms, or actions.  True worship lives and breathes in the space where we come together in the honest offering of ourselves.   So let’s put down all our criteria’s of perfection and excellence, and silence those voices that declare that someone does it ‘better.’  Then, let’s come, just as we are, and worship.

 

Kyle Norman

About Kyle Norman

I am a Priest in the Diocese of Calgary, serving the wonderful people of Holy Cross, Calgary. I watch reality television, I drink Starbucks coffee, and I read celebrity gossip columns. I am also a magician and often use magic tricks to teach the children at church the lessons of the Bible. I believe that God is present in the intricacy of our lives, and thus I believe that Pop Culture can provide intriguing lessons, examples, and challenges for our lives of faith. Connect with Kyle on
This entry was posted in Pop Culture Piety and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Oh Blessed Mistake

  1. Well said, Kyle, says he who has always cringed at his own and others’ mistakes in liturgy. I believe I’ve learned to go with the flow, but it really has been a struggle. (26 years in ordained ministry.)

    The place where perfection is really held up as the ideal is at weddings. I have always told couples at the rehearsal not to expect perfection, because what they’ll remember in 25 years is not the perfection but the things that made them smile (or frown). Relax and enjoy the day: that goes for all liturgy!

  2. Kyle Norman

    Thanks Dean.  I think you are right on with weddings. I hadn’t considered them in connection with this post.  Good insight. 

    I actually give two sermons as part of the wedding ceremony.  I give the regular one which is standard.  Yada Yada Yada Love Love Love Yada Jesus Yada.  But then at the end of the service – just before I present bride and groom, I have them turn their backs to the entire congregation and just face me.  Then I tell them to that the ceremony is about ‘this moment’ and not about dresses, rings, people, but about the two of them standing together before God as husband and wife.

    It’s a practice that every couple that I have married has commented on and appreciated.

  3. I think there is a line between doing liturgy (or whatever) well and wanting to do it perfectly. The former encourages learning and self-reflection on how to improve one’s skills, while the latter is a faintly unhuman quest for something we aren’t going to achieve anyways. For me, perfectionism tends to be the mask that I take up when I want control, but don’t want to admit that I don’t have it. Mistakes are part of admitting that we’re human and that we don’t control everything we do. It is part of learning some humility as well as God’s sense of humour.

    We’re blessed in my parish that the attitude among the clergy and servers (I am among the latter) is a desire to do liturgy well, but without the kind of strict perfectionism that Kyle is referring to here. I remember, once, I had  become muddled and run the bells an extra time during the elevation of the host and the chalice. After the service, I apologized to our rector for the confusion, but he went on with our sub-deacon to speculate about what that third ringing could mean liturgically. The conversation was rather light-hearted and was designed to put me rather more at my ease for making the mistake. I appreciated that and learned something about my involvement with liturgy- I’ll make mistakes and it isn’t the end of the world. And that is something I need to hear from time to time.

    Peace,

    Phil

  4. Thanks for this reflection, Kyle. It’s inspired some helpful thinking and dialogue (especially on Facebook). I’m a little surprised that none of our BCP faithfuls have pointed out that this conversation has been taking place for ages… even showing up in the Articles of Religion. And while article 26 speaks to “evil ministers” rather than sloppy ones, the point is clear: our relationship with God is not hindered by our… well, our “unmorthiness.” Thank God.

    XXVI. Of the Unmorthiness of the Ministers,
    which hinders not the effect of the Sacrament.

    ALTHOUGH in the visible Church the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometimes the evil have chief authority in the Ministration of the Word and Sacraments, yet forasmuch as they do not the same in their own name, but in Christ’s, and do minister by his commission and authority, we may use their Ministry, both in hearing the Word of God, and in receiving of the Sacraments. Neither is the effect of Christ’s ordinance taken away by their wickedness, nor thegrace of God’s gifts diminished from such as by faith and rightly do receive the Sacraments ministered unto them; which be effectual, because of Christ’s institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men.

    Nevertheless, it appertaineth to the discipline of the Church, that inquiry be made of evil Ministers, and that they be accused by those that have knowledge of their offences; and finally being found guilty, by just judgement be deposed.

  5. In the parish I presently serve, mistakes happen. We have scriptures read other than what is assigned in the lectionary (I assure people there’s no such thing as ‘wrong’ scripture – just different than planned!) We sometimes fumble over our words, we sometimes play different-than-planned music for the hymns (which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t). These are the ‘oops’ moments throughout the liturgy – clergy and laity alike are having them. We try our best, but the oopses still slide in.

    And we’re okay with that. Sure, we’d all like to see mistake-free worship, but we know that mistake-free doesn’t mean perfect. We live out that “perfect” worship is the intention of our hearts and minds, even with those mistakes. We let the Spirit move despite our errors; and sometimes what is read or said or prayed may be unintended by humans but exactly the intention of God – maybe we need to hear a message that wasn’t in that week’s lectionary.

  6. Fr. Bengry

    I essentially agree with the spirit of what is being said, (the first thing I learned about worship is that there is never a perfect offering) but I must admit that I do not agree about your notion of the wrongness of striving for perfection. The concept, while not specifically related to worship in the New Testament, does find a place. Philippians 12—15 for example. I believe there is indeed the idea that Christians need to struggle and strive for better in all areas.

    I think the problem isn’t so much the striving for better, but rather what we do as a community when we don’t find the ‘perfection’ we seek and also, on those rare occasions when we do indeed find ‘excellence’. On the one hand, those who do not ‘measure up’ are judged harshly and can be made to feel less valuable or out of place. And on the other hand, the individual or community who succeeds can feel like they are the author of their own success and can exalt themselves. In these cases I would say we should indeed strive for excellence; excellence in forgiving… excellence in interpreting the action of our neighbour in the kindest light… excellence in love… (and the list goes on..)

    There is a tendency in our culture (at the moment) to sink to the lowest common denominator out of a fear that someone might just get left out. Children can’t ‘fail’ in school because it might hurt their self-esteem; keeping score at the soccer game is a bad idea because someone might feel sad if they lose… etc. But in many ways, I believe we lose out in this kind of environment because, in my view, it is the striving that matters. Not necessarily where we end up with that striving, but to be pointed in a direction with a will that says ‘I want to do better by the grace of God’. And I do believe this has a place in the worship of God the Holy Trinity. In Holy Scripture, we find numerous places where it does indeed seem to matter how we perform worship. Where details and ‘excellence’ do indeed seem to matter.

    I am glad that I feel ‘bad’ when I make mistakes during worship. Not that I beat myself up for it, but only that I have the opportunity to pray and ask God’s grace to do better… it’s another glorious opportunity to ask for God’s forgiveness and love and it’s a reminder that all of it matters… even the little details matter at the altar and at home… in Church and out of Church… the details do matter.

    I believe there are good ways towards inclusion, hospitality, forgiveness, love of neighbour etc. in worship and in the life of the Church, that do not depend on tossing out a striving for better.

    And sorry to say it, but we do have an impossible model of perfection to imitate: our very own Lord and Saviour. (Ephesians 5:1; 13–15; 1 Peter 2:21)

    So like I say, I agree with the spirit in which you write, but I don’t agree that striving for better (in all areas not just worship) is a somehow wrong-headed. I do think we need to re-think what ‘perfection’ is and what ‘excellence’ looks like, but as I have said, it is the striving that matters… and while we strive, whether we fail or succeed, we are called to be humble, generous, forgiving, kind and above all else loving.

    And one more thing, without some kind of a standard of excellence, there can’t be any mistakes to delight in… Without notions of some kind of excellence and perfection we can’t see how far we fall from it and how much we need God to help bring us to the measure of the full stature of Christ.

  7. Fr. Bengry

    We agree on much, but perhaps our disagreements stem from a differing understanding of the nature of Christian worship… or perhaps a differing emphasis… I’d like to explore that more but in person perhaps! Will you be at General Synod in Ottawa?!

Click on a tab to select how you'd like to leave your comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *