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.