When Perfect Ain’t Good Enough

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls on his listeners to “be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Some early Christian thought, however, was swimming in thick Greek philosophical soup, which understood “perfection” after the manner of Plato – there is a perfect idea of which the things of this world, including us, are merely a shadow. Our quest is to strive towards the elusive realisation of perfection which can never be attained. Thank God for the perfection in Jesus the Christ who vicariously saves us!

This is at odds with the notion of “perfect” we find in the Sermon on the Mount which rests on the Hebrew notion of engaging with growth towards wholeness, or completeness. It is strongly associated with “goodness” with a focus on beauty and attraction, rather than its by-product, moral uprightness. In the beginning, God created…and he saw that it was good… (not “perfect” in Plato’s sense).

Jesus’ call to perfection is the climax of all the practical wisdom distilled in the Sermon on the Mount. It speaks of radical transformation to wholeness, completeness that is beautiful and attractive rather than an unattainable ideal.

In pondering these nuances I ran a question through my philosophical sparring partner, Chat GPT, asking a general question “When is the notion of “perfect” not “good?” It naturally adopts the common version of perfection that is heavily influenced by Plato. Here is its response, and, if inclined, we can run it through the filter of Jesus’ notion of perfection.

The notion of “perfect” may not be considered “good” in various situations and contexts. Here are a few examples:

  1. Perfectionism and its consequences: When the pursuit of perfection becomes an obsession or an unrealistic expectation, it can lead to negative outcomes. Perfectionism can generate excessive stress, anxiety, and self-criticism, hindering personal growth and well-being.
  2. Creative endeavours: In creative fields like art, writing, or music, the pursuit of perfection can stifle creativity and spontaneity. Sometimes, imperfections or unconventional elements can enhance the overall appeal and uniqueness of a creative work.
  3. Human relationships: Expecting perfection in relationships can be detrimental. People are fallible, and expecting perfection from others can create unrealistic standards and strain relationships. Accepting imperfections and embracing each other’s flaws can foster healthier and more meaningful connections.
  4. Innovation and progress: In scientific or technological advancements, the pursuit of perfection can impede progress. The iterative process of trial and error, learning from mistakes, and embracing imperfections often leads to breakthroughs and innovation.
  5. Subjectivity and diversity: The concept of perfection is subjective and varies across individuals and cultures. What one person considers perfect may not align with someone else’s ideals. Embracing diversity and different perspectives often enriches society and fosters inclusivity.

It is important to recognize that perfection is often an idealized concept that may not always align with the complexities and nuances of the real world. Embracing imperfections and focusing on personal growth, learning, and adaptability can lead to more fulfilling experiences and outcomes.

Easter Memoirs: Easter Sunday

Any time after Saturday’s sunset, minds and rites have turned towards marking the Resurrection, the final act of the Easter Triduum. Whether it’s a watch service around a bonfire, a joyful lighting of the Holy Fire at midnight, a gathering on a lake shore to watch a sunrise or the bells and whistles of a full-on cathedral service – resurrection is celebrated.

The empty tomb and the appearance of the Risen Christ is not so much the climax, but the completion of a chapter in the Christian story. All three days of the Triduum are one seamless event – the Passover meal, arrest, trial and crucifixion, and borrowed and emptied tomb all belong together and deserve their own space and time for contemplation. The story will go on – its players and hearers knowing that while death has been vanquished, the Way of Christ has been vindicated in a manner that transcends common understanding. Coming to terms with Resurrection becomes the new task of disciples, old and new. The story continues with new, risky, transforming opportunities and possibilities…

No matter how many Easter celebrations one remembers – the current one always puts before us the challenge and the invitation of the Risen Christ to “go and meet” him wherever he is.

Easter Memoirs: Holy Saturday

Haylie Chambered Tomb by Raibeart MacAoidh is licensed under CC-BY-SA 2.0

The second day of the Triduum. Nothing much happens. It is the Sabbath when all work ceases. Before Friday’s sunset, the body of Jesus has been hurriedly removed and laid in a borrowed tomb. No anointing or dressing can take place until after Saturday’s sunset, although the practical light of Sunday’s dawn suggests a more suitable time for this urgent task.

So this second day is a day of silence.
A silent empty cross stands on Golgotha.
A silent tomb holds the lifeless corpse of Jesus.
A silent Sabbath enfolds the thoughts and despair of grieving friends and followers.

A day of pause is necessary to grasp the enormity of disorientation, dashed hopes, shame at failure, and despair at the loss of what might have been.

We never made much of Easter Saturday. The ancient tradition that, with modern management efficiency, Christ took the opportunity of bodily absence to visit Hades and deliver trapped souls from captivity did not much catch our imagination.

Holy Saturday remains a day of pause, and this is of benefit. One does not rush easily from Crucifixion to Resurrection. The Third and Final day of the Triduum begins sometime after the sun sets on the Sabbath, Saturday night.

Easter Memoirs: Good Friday

Good Friday did not always enjoy the reflection it deserved in my early awareness. In my youth, there was the distraction of Easter camps and sundry other diversions. Lenten preparatory practices were not part of our tradition.

In ministry, of course, the responsibility for Easter services had me looking across the broader Christian tradition for ways of educating and celebrating the drama of a climax in the Christian story.

I served a number of congregations, and each had a traditional variation of how Good Friday was understood, particularly the central issue of “atonement”, or how the sacrifice of Christ achieved the possibility of humanity being “at one” with God. (A particularly striking representation of the cross is a prominent feature at the Modbury Church of Christ, South Australia – fashioned by Carole-Anne Fooks from a red gum that stood on the building site.)

Did Jesus go to the cross as a substitute for humankind because God could not bear to look past our sins and required a perfect sacrifice in God’s own Son? Was Jesus’ death a ransom paid to Satan to release us from captivity to our soul-destroying ways? Or was it that Jesus succumbed to the predicted outcome of the clash between his Way and the hubris, self-centredness and wickedness of the power hunger in which we are all implicated?

These questions do not sit comfortably and are unsatisfied by argument and proof-texting. Careful listening, reflection, self-examination and gratitude lead the way to an effective Good Friday experience.

So, in retirement, we will attend a Good Friday service somewhere. Ecumenically, there are so many choices. Each will offer that opportunity to listen, reflect, self-examine and express gratitude.

This is still the first day of the Triduum, which goes from sunset to sunset, and that began with Jesus’ shared meal in the Upper Room with his disciples. There is yet more to come to complete the Three Days of Easter.

Easter Memoirs: Maundy Thursday

Having run up a few decades, most of them in pastoral ministry, I have a few Easters to look back on. I have experienced many repetitions of this high season of the Christian story, beginning with participation in my own Restorationist tradition which, in my childhood and youth, did not highlight the seasons to the extent of more liturgical churches. Every weekly occasion we gathered at the Lord’s Supper was a re-enactment of the events that led to Good Friday. Every Lord’s Day was a celebration of the resurrection. Inevitably, the annual marking of the Easter season was simply a recognition of what took place every Sunday.

As my ecumenical awareness grew I began to appreciate the nuances and richness of the particular way the more historic traditions observed Easter. Some of this has now rubbed off on my own tribe following much cross-pollenation as a number of our leaders and influencers helped us shift from cerebral assertiveness to a more reflective embrace of the affective experience of the great Christian story.

The ancient Triduum (Three Days) begins with a focus on the events of the eve of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. Jesus gathered his disciples in the upper room of a Jerusalem house to celebrate the annual Passover feast, a Hebrew rite that marked the liberation of their ancestors from slavery in Egypt. At this commemoration, Jesus first washed the feet of his disciples, demonstrating his servant leadership. Knowing he was about to take the place of the traditional Passover sacrificial lamb, he used the specially prepared bread and wine of the feast to spell out the meaning of the laying down of his life. It was not only a means of preparing his disciples about what immanently lay ahead (he had warned them many times) but a way for them to appropriate his life and sacrifice into their being and way of life. Every time they gathered to eat and drink they were to “Remember him!”

To re-enact this drama reflectively and contemplatively as the opening of the Three Days of Easter (remembering that the new day begins at sunset) invites fresh opportunities for insight and understanding at intuitive and instinctive levels.

I have participated in full-blown dramatised Passover re-enactments highlighting how each Jewish symbol retells the Christian story. These have left me somewhat uneasy – they are exposed to the dangers of historical revisionism and cultural appropriation, leading to the murky waters of successionism. On the other hand, there have been occasions of simply hearing the text read with gentle music and soft candlelight, movement, the sharing of bread and wine, and retirement to a Gethsemane garden setting for further prayer and reflection.

Today Christians regularly celebrate the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion or the Eucharist. It is a celebration of Christ’s laying down of his life for the brokenness of the world in order that, through him, the world might be made whole. The small piece of bread and the gentle sip from the cup are a divine banquet. We participate in the fullness of the new life that Christ has wrought.

And it all begins on that first night of Passover all those years ago in Jerusalem.

An Ode to a Vegemite Sandwich

I love a Vegemite sandwich!
It’s always set to please
when spread on multigrain bread
and a nice big slab of cheese.

The red and yellow label
Beckons from the pantry shelf.
It stands out from all other things
And whispers “Come, help yourself!”

Twisting off the yellow lid
I gaze into the deep black sea;
A subtle whiff of dark delight
Evokes shivers of ecstasy.

Smoothly spread on buttered bread
Not too thick and not too thin
Covering our slice to the outer edge
This sanga’s already a win.

Slap on some cheese and close it up.
Anticipating more than I can bear
I carry it off to my favoured spot
And settle to enjoy my fare.

Salty tang of great delight!
Smooth and creamy texture!
The sanga’s swallowed all too soon
Let’s get more of this tasty mixture.

(c) Dennis Ryle, March 2023

A Welcome Spurned

There has been an awkward interlude to the current Obama visit. Tour organisers are in damage control following their prevention of a scheduled and traditional “Welcome to Country” by an indigenous elder. Apologies and repairs are underway and the welcome is now happening at a subsequent event. This is the day the Prime Minister is introducing a Bill for a referendum on the Voice in Federal Parliament. Irony abounds!

I asked OpenAI to compose a sonnet lamenting this clash between the mores of ancient hospitality and fast-paced modern anxieties.

In lands of beauty, where nature prevails,
And ancient spirits linger in the breeze,
A foreign leader’s visit causes travails,
As barriers block an elder’s gentle pleas.

The wisdom of the ages is ignored,
As modern ways impose upon this place,
Where culture, tradition, and respect once poured,
Now snubbed and shamed by a powerful face.

Oh, how we mourn the loss of dignity,
As pride and prejudice take centre stage,
When once we welcomed all with unity,
Now fear and mistrust fill this earthly stage.

But hope still lingers in the heart of man,
That one day we’ll honour the ancient land.

Duty of Care – a Lament

Well, what a week it’s turned out to be
Robodebt, cardinals, a long highway search
Loading lots of disquiet on our TV
Looks like duty of care’s fallen off the perch.

Old institutions seem to be crumbling down
Their trustworthiness once worth more than gold
There used to be a value held all over town
A duty of care that could not be sold.

Structures and frameworks are still manipulated
To meet selfish ends no matter how seemly
Clients and customers poorly situated
For duty of care is denied routinely.

How will we fix such a dire situation?
Look out for each other, and eschew frustration!

Sunset at Burns Beach

Bloganuary does have a final question as it slowly sinks in the West: “Where is the best place to watch the sunset near you?”

Free to share and use courtesy of starlight-aurora.deviantart.com

A picture is worth a thousand words. Perth nestles on the west-facing coastline that defines the border of Western Australia and the Indian Ocean. Burns Beach is just one of many vantage points and a ten-minute drive from where we live. But then we can just open our front door and see a spekky sunset nearly any day.