When trying to accept imperfections, one of the phrases people like to say is: Progress, not perfection. At first it sounds good. I don’t need to lose twenty pounds, just one per week. My kids don’t need to earn straight A’s, just keep raising their grades. And yet, when you stop and think about it, this mindset is also a trap. It assumes that there is such a thing as perfection, that ideal me, ideal child, ideal you, ideal whatever exists, and we can feel good as long as we’re all making progress toward that ideal.
But who gets to decide what the ideal looks like?
I was at a conference the other week on justice and renewal led by Christena Cleveland. One of her many great lines, maybe my favorite from the week, was, “Perfection is a figment of the colonial imagination.” Our ideas of perfection are usually shaped by powerful people and groups, used to rank people and cultures, elevating some, diminishing others. Perfection has a few winners and many losers. If we settle for progress, we haven’t changed the goalposts; we’re just making peace with our slow speed in never getting there.
A quick look at the trees could have taught us the same thing. I’ve been spending a lot of time this fall, walking, and looking at the gorgeous fall trees. I hope you have to.
You’ll notice there’s no such thing as the perfect tree, so there is no such thing as progress toward that perfection. Healthy trees just grow. Their growth, their expansion signals their flourishing, no matter what beautiful form that growth takes.
At Reservoir, when we think about life, and when we think about the life of faith, we have flourishing in mind, not progress or perfection. Our aim is for people to connect with Jesus and with our church and to thrive more as a result. We don’t think we need to manage exactly where our faith journeys should lead. But we do encourage us all to take one, to stay on journey, to choose movement over stagnation, to see what love and peace and joy this life and the one who made it all have in store for us.
For the next few weeks, on Sundays, we’ll rather explicitly invite you to think about your journey. Pastors Ivy and Lydia and I will talk about five ways of being in the world that seem to help us find more of God and more of the good life, five ways of being in the world that might encourage some movement in our lives. They’re not the only five, obviously, but they’re five we like, five that so happen to be Reservoir’s five core values for doing Jesus-centered community life in our time and place. They’re connection, action, everyone, freedom, and humility.
If you like this approach, and if you’d like more company and encouragement on your faith journey, we’ll strongly encourage you to become a member at Reservoir. Membership in our church is about belonging, not believing. It’s a way of saying to yourself and the community: I belong here. I’ll let these folks encourage my faith journey, and maybe I’ll even encourage some on theirs.
Membership – and the community and the giving it involves – is also a way of sustaining a Jesus-centered, fully inclusive community of faith, one that values and empowers connection, action, everyone, freedom, and humility. Like most things in life, this stuff is good, but it isn’t free. We will only stay on our journey with your membership and your giving.
I look forward to connecting this month around our faith journeys, to listening and learning from one another as we go. To putting aside perfection or even progress for a while, and discovering what beautiful things we will see and become as we move forward together.
Let me read the passage I’ve been drawn to today. In the fourth account of the life of Jesus, the one called the Good News according to John, the story builds toward a climax with this surprising scene.
John 13:2-17 (CEB)
2 Jesus and his disciples were sharing the evening meal. The devil had already provoked Judas, Simon Iscariot’s son, to betray Jesus. 3 Jesus knew the Father had given everything into his hands and that he had come from God and was returning to God. 4 So he got up from the table and took off his robes. Picking up a linen towel, he tied it around his waist. 5 Then he poured water into a washbasin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel he was wearing.6 When Jesus came to Simon Peter, Peter said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
7 Jesus replied, “You don’t understand what I’m doing now, but you will understand later.”
8 “No!” Peter said. “You will never wash my feet!”
Jesus replied, “Unless I wash you, you won’t have a place with me.”
9 Simon Peter said, “Lord, not only my feet but also my hands and my head!”
10 Jesus responded, “Those who have bathed need only to have their feet washed, because they are completely clean. You disciples are clean, but not every one of you.” 11 He knew who would betray him. That’s why he said, “Not every one of you is clean.”
12 After he washed the disciples’ feet, he put on his robes and returned to his place at the table. He said to them, “Do you know what I’ve done for you? 13 You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you speak correctly, because I am. 14 If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you too must wash each other’s feet. 15 I have given you an example: Just as I have done, you also must do. 16 I assure you, servants aren’t greater than their master, nor are those who are sent greater than the one who sent them. 17 Since you know these things, you will be happy if you do them.
At first, this seems like a perfect passage to talk about one of our other values for the faith journey, humility. We can think that faith or religion are connected to being on the winning team, or having power over others, or becoming perfect, and so finally pleasing to a distant god of perfection.
But here’s Jesus, kneeling on the ground, mud and crap on his hands, doing the work of a servant. Grounded, honest, humble.
But we’re going to start with another value that helps us on our faith journey, one we can also see in this story. That is our need and our longing for increasing connection in our lives.
Jesus is moving person by person, touching them, soaking a towel into water, rubbing that water across each person’s feet, scraping dirt, washing off sweat, looking up at each person, talking with them, face to foot, eyes looking into eyes.
It’s a moment of humble service to be sure, but also one of profound connection. If you’ve washed someone’s feet, or had this done for you, it’s something of an intimate gesture.
This is complicated for Peter, who tells Jesus not to do this with him. This may be because he doesn’t think Jesus should be doing servant’s work. But it also might just be that Peter finds this level of intimacy, this form of connection difficult. It’s awkward for him, maybe, for Jesus to get that physically or emotionally close to him. He doesn’t know what to do with this openness Jesus is offering – outer clothes removed, soul open, so close.
And then when Jesus says to Peter, this is necessary. If I don’t wash you, we don’t know each other. Then Peter is like – pour on the water. Wash my whole head and body.
Kind of extra, Peter.
It also seems like Peter might again be misunderstanding this moment, thinking that Jesus is offering him what in their Jewish culture is called a mikveh. A mikveh is a ritual washing – a way of physically and symbolically cleansing you. You’d be immersed in the waters of a mikveh if you had been ceremonially impure or unclean in some way. It also was used, can still be used, as part of the threshold moment of entering the faith – a precursor to the Christian ritual of baptism, one we’ll talk more about in a couple of weeks.
But Jesus is like: no, you’re good Peter. This is not a baptism. And this is not about making you clean or acceptable or even perfect, I suppose, Peter. This is about seeing that leadership and service are bound into one, and this is about connection.
I find that when one person is deeply connected, deeply connected to themselves and their story, deeply connected to their roots – their history, their god, deeply connected to their surroundings, to the earth, their authenticity is compelling and the connection they shape it draws something out of us.
When I was at that conference with Christena Cleveland the other week, she had us sit in a circle one morning and said she wanted to tell us part of her story. She talked without notes, for a long time, about a journey she’d taken in her life from living in her head, to also living in her heart, in her body as a whole person. She told us about how Ivy-league educated, PhD, super-smart Christena was becoming more whole, more grounded, deeper in herself and in her work.
It was an honest story told by a good storyteller, unguarded. That’s all. But when we had some free time afterwards, and I found a place where I could just lay back on the floor, tears came to me. I was so moved. And I started thinking about my own life journey out of just living in my head – about my own process of noticing my emotions, moving to more integration between my thinking and my feeling and instincts. Moving toward more and more wholeness.
There was something about hearing the movement in her story that gave me that gave me permission to think about the journey I’m on – where I am and where I’m going.
Our connection with other people so often does this. It is so often bound up with our connection to ourselves and to Spirit of God. Deep human connection seems to take us inward (to ourselves) more deeply and upward (toward God) more deeply too. It seems that just as were made for growth and movement, not progress and perfection, so too we’re really made for connection.
This may be part of why Jesus commended this kind of service he was doing to all his followers. Sure, he was telling us to mop floors for people more than boss people around – practice servant leadership. But maybe he was modelling and commending servant intimacy. Offering connection from a place of humility, from an undefended, honest openness to others in the world.
Servant intimacy. What an amazing thing, that we can do so much good by just being authentic, by being increasingly grounded and open.
One of the most powerful ways we can press into this way of being is through careful, loving disclosure.
This is how I got my second best friend in the world.
I’ve known my friend John for more than 26 years. We met at a student conference, and we worked on a little project together, and then hung out a few times. And then John said: hey, can we meet up and take a walk together? I want to tell you my story.
I forget if there was an occasion, like if it was his birthday was coming or something, or if it was just out of the blue, but I said, sure, sounds interesting.
And we took a walk somewhere, and John said something like: the story starts in a Japanese warehouse in 1945. And I thought: this is going to be a long story.
And it was, not as long as you’d think – the Japanese warehouse had to do with his dad, but then we sped forward a couple decades. And on he went, to tell me the things that at the time he thought had been most important in making him who he was. It included very personal stuff, not the kind of things most of blast out in public.
It was an unguarded moment. Like Jesus with the basin and the towel, John was offering me something – offering me the gift of removing the layers over the most important parts of his life, offering me the gift of knowing an important story about him and connecting. All he asked of me was to listen, to care, to receive his disclosure as connection.
I did, and in the short run, this led to me telling him a bunch of my story too, because that’s what you do when someone connects with you and you want to connect back. You tell them a little bit about yourself as well. And in the long run, it’s led to an uncommonly great friendship. We were on the phone this week making plans for how we’re going to celebrate one of our next birthdays.
There are things John and I don’t agree on, some important ones. And probably if John and I had been on some friend version of online dating, we never would have matched. We are too different in many ways.
But we have a friendship of profound trust, and of deep connection; it’s one of the things I treasure most. And it started with disclosure.
Fourteen years ago, Grace and I had a pre-schooler and a baby and we were looking for a church to go to. We were looking for a place that practiced vibrant, Jesus-centered faith but that wouldn’t constantly tell us what we had to believe. And we were also looking for a place where we could make friends, where we could be real and meet other real people. People that would be open about their lives.
And we found all that here, so we never visited another church but joined this one. We became members, started giving, within a couple months of first visiting. We started attending a community group that didn’t really work for us because it took too long to drive to in the evening with our two little kids in the back seat. Sometimes we’d want to turn around half way and go home, but we kept going because we were making friends, finding connection.
A year later, after talking for a while to a pastor, we were hosting an amazing group of friends for community group in our own home.
Our church has changed in some ways since then, because we’ve been on a journey too – moving, growing, which is good. But these things haven’t changed.
In my Saturday morning community group, we did an exercise that a lot of our groups are doing this month, where we talk about what we appreciate about this community. And turns out that we all had ways we connect with the love of Jesus here, and many of us were struck by people’s unguarded openness here as well. By people that are real with their stories, so that we can connect with them.
This willingness to open our life to someone else in disclosure, and this willingness to receive someone else’s openness as a gift makes for a good church community. But it also makes for a good life.
Open, unguarded human connection seems to be some of what we most need to be happy, some of what we most need to feel at home.
And it even seems to be one of the best ways we start to feel more connected with ourselves, and even with our God. Connection breeds more connection.
I do want to mention, though, one other means of connection – one other way we start to feel more at home in our own lives, and more connected to the God that made us and walks with us in our lives.
My way in is Jesus and the water. Jesus didn’t talk about service and connection. He served, and connected. And he didn’t just do it with words, he used the power of touch, and he poured water. Even while indoors, he looked at his disciples with whom he walked miles together on most days, and he took water from outside, and he poured it over their feet.
For us, who don’t walk miles on most days, and have so much less contact with trees and ground and water, to slow down and touch the natural world is another way we can start to connect with ourselves more, to be at home in ourselves, and to learn to be at home with God.
At my conference the other week, I met a man named Jonathan Stalls whose purpose in life is to get people walking more, and to get people connected to each other and the natural world as they walk.
I’ve been on walks with Jonathan where you pick up fallen objects in nature that strike you, and you look at them in silence as you walk.
I’ve been on walks with Jonathan where you walk side by side with someone and practice saying more, and listening better.
I’ve been on walks with Jonathan where you go real slowly and pay attention to whatever you see and notice and just take the time to linger wherever your attention goes. Looking, listening, smelling, taking your shoes off to touch the ground.
The goal of all this time outside, and all this walking is really to get us connected with our natural environment again, and to slow us down and see what we notice when we’re less distracted, more still.
I’ve shared before about the Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama, and his powerful reflections on the speed of God, who he calls the three mile per hour God. God, he says, moves at the pace of walking, because God has walked with us. Because God has become one of us. And because the pace of what God does moves and grows slowly, for the most part.
For centuries, followers of Jesus haven’t worshipped God as the three mile per hour God, but they’ve known that God is with us, and they’ve known that we find God and connect with God more when we find time to be still, to be silent, and to be in solitude.
Even in much slower times than hours, times with no internet, no cars, no electricity, even then solitude, silence, and stillness have been classic and important disciplines of the Christian faith.
In our times, where we’re almost always inside, where we’re almost never undistracted and still, maybe one of the most radical ways we can start to be at home again is to slow down, to walk more, to carve out time here and there to be alone, to be silent, and to be still.
These days I’m experimenting a little with the first fifteen minutes of my day. I’m not really ready to pray yet. And if I jump right to the cup of coffee, it’s easy for me to read it while firing up my phone or laptop and checking my social media feeds and email. Instead, I’m taking these very short walks – slow, not for exercise – but to just be outside, to look at the sky, to move my feet and feel the air on my skin, see a tree dropping leaves, and notice what’s on my mind.
It slows down the urgency of the day a little. Helps me feel at home where I live, and – this might sound weird to some of you, but I can’t think of a better way to say it — somehow at home in my body and my life a little more too.
Jesus knew that more than solving our problems, more than any new idea or new technology, we need connection. We want to be know and be known. We want to feel at home in our lives, on our earth.
And so my invitation, my commission to you is to welcome connection in any form you can find it. To welcome the connection to yourself and the earth by taking light fifteen minutes a day, or an hour or two a week, to be outdoors – alone, silent, and just walking slowly – to think, or to pray, or to just let your mind go empty is one of the easiest ways we can start. And in Greater Boston, no matter how urban your neighborhood is, there are bits of grass or trees or water within walking distance of every one of us.
I also invite you to welcome and offer real connection with some people in your lives – maybe looking a few more people in the eye, maybe slowing down in your interactions over retail, or work, or customer service, and making small, human connection. Maybe offering disclosure of part of your story to a friend.
And see how more of that connection feels, see where it leads, see just how much at home you might come to be in yourself, on your earth, in your communities, with your God.
Invitations to Whole Life Flourishing
Walk more. Touch the natural environment as much as you can as you walk.
Spiritual Practice of the Week
In relationships of trust, offer and welcome the gift of disclosure.