He has told you, human one, what is good and
what the Lord requires from you:
to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.
I recently read a story about a pottery class. The instructor divided the class into two groups. She told group one: I don’t care what quality your pottery is, but I want you to make as many bowls as you can over the next month. She told group two: I’m not interested in quantity. Just make the perfect bowl.
Group one went right to it, making bowl after bowl. Group two listened to the instructor, sat at their wheels, and tried to make bowls. Any attempt that wasn’t perfect was immediately returned to a lump of clay. By the end of the class, group one students had made dozens of bowls. Each group two student had one to present to the teacher.
The teacher evaluated the bowls. Everyone in group two had made a pretty good bowl, much better than the early attempts among the bowls submitted by group one. But group one members had made so many bowls that by the end, they were making excellent bowls, far better than the one submitted by each group two student.
The first group of students didn’t get hung up on perfection. The second group did. The result was that the people seeking perfection achieved mediocrity, while the people who tried over and over improved.
This is probably not a surprise to you! The first crocheted blanket, woodworking project, trumpet scale, loaf of bread, free throw– it’s not usually very good. In fact, it’s often more full of mistakes than successes. And yet, we try again. We learn to sink the free throw with a satisfying swoosh, to bake a loaf of bread with a crisp crust and a light interior, to crochet a blanket worthy of a baby catalog, to build a sturdy table, to trill that trumpet up and down the octaves.
This “one step at a time” mentality applies to our faith lives, too. No one wakes up one morning deciding to become an expert on the Bible by noon. No one gets comfortable with praying out loud for others after one try. No one loves their neighbors perfectly on the first or second or twenty-eighth attempt.
The more public the situation and the more there is at stake, the harder it is to try something and risk looking bad at it. I’d rather make a mistake in private than in public. I’m convinced this is part of why many white Christians are reluctant to address racism. I certainly don’t want to say or do the wrong thing!
Too often, though, the concern about hurting others by saying the wrong thing turns into a paralysis that prevents us from doing anything. Like the group one students, we get so focused on perfection that we don’t give ourselves enough opportunity to try. I am grateful for the people who have made space for me to try, to make mistakes, and to learn. One step at a time, I am getting closer to the Christian values of love for my neighbors, justice for the oppressed, and unity in Christ. I don’t expect to achieve perfection, but I hope that by God’s grace and the Holy Spirit’s guidance, each day brings me closer to the prayer, “your kingdom come on earth as in heaven.”
At its very best, the Church is a group that makes room for mistakes, for learning, for growing, for repenting, for forgiving, for reconciling. We make space for people to try and fail and try again, knowing that we need that space, too.
Let’s take the example of the group one pottery students for ourselves. One step at a time, trying not to achieve perfection but instead to get things moving in the right direction, always moving along the path where we walk humbly with God.
O God, set me free from perfectionism. Help me to walk where you lead, following with enough humility to risk making mistakes and enough faith to trust that you forgive me each and every time I need it. In Jesus’ name, amen.