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Living in Faith

Living risk-free begins as a means to preserve life but ends up confining it

By Keith Howard

I have discovered a place in which I am virtually infallible: restaurants. When I give the waiter my selection, I inevitably receive the response, “perfect” or “wonderful” or “excellent.” Nowhere else is my judgment so unerring or the response to my suggestions so unanimously received as exceptional. And the trend seems to be spreading.

The other day, I was checking in at the airport. The agent asked for my name. I gave it and she replied, “perfect.” Apparently now even my name vibrates with perfection.

I know that the increasing frequency of the word “perfect” in my presence has more to do with its appearance in some customer service training manual than with my flawless character or sound judgment. Perhaps I notice it simply because my family’s religious history reaches deep into that branch of Methodism where holiness and perfection stand as cornerstones.

I continue to have a great deal of admiration for the concepts of perfection in both their religious and secular settings. And yet, a dark side exists.

A strain of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) runs in our family. While the condition has complex roots, part has to do with the need for some things to be done absolutely perfectly, often to prevent a disaster to  self or loved ones. But what may begin as a means to preserve life can end up debilitating and confining it.

One of the realities of loving someone with OCD is wondering what their life might be if they were able to live with the confidence that mistakes could be made and the world would not fall apart. There would be love, acceptance, forgiveness and possibilities.

OCD is not limited to individuals. Author Tony Robinson says that one of the prime ways churches avoid doing the hard work necessary for revitalization is to challenge any new idea or piece of work with the charge, “The process was flawed,” or “I wasn’t consulted.” Even though the intent of including voices is laudable, the current obsession often threatens vitality. Organizations experience gridlock, and ineffectiveness defines their management.

Doug Pagitt of Solomon’s Porch, an emergent church in Minneapolis, maintains that the evangelical side of the family shows great openness to changes in aesthetics and governance. New media, music and styles of worship and mission are readily embraced. Worldview and values, however, meet much greater resistance to change. Those from the liberal tradition tend toward the opposite. We are willing to re-examine our worldview and values but are highly resistant to changes in matters of form, decorum and how things get accomplished.

To assume that if only we could get everything perfect — the right music, all the right people in the room, the definitive process — we would suddenly channel God is presumption at best and idolatrous at worst.

I do not argue for a return to the time when a minister or bureaucrat calls the shots or where no order exists. As a Christian, I simply observe that the way to abundant life involves the courage of grace to live boldly, assured of God’s love and forgiveness.

A question I often hear is, “Are we, as an institution, going to make it?” My answer contains two parts. First, we already have many fine, dynamic congregations with good leadership. Second, we are in desperate need of innovation, renewal and experimentation. The word “experimentation” contains some of the same roots as the word “peril,” so we should not be surprised if the next steps involve danger and require courage.

What would invite disaster is if, as in the story of the three stewards, we simply choose to bury our treasure in the ground for fear of what might happen.

The next phase of our journey feels daunting, but the witness of many retirees encourages me. I hear incredible tales of how they come to a point in their lives where they confront reality and say, “The way I’ve been living is not leading me to the life I want!” So they change, sometimes radically, often bringing consternation to their children or peers. They may not get it perfect the first time. Some people may roll their eyes, and some may “tut-tut,” but they venture out. Trust over safety. Discovery over correctness. Joy over security.

Feels almost biblical at times; it’s certainly a cause for hope.

Scripture: Matthew 25: 14-30
Hymn: 646 (Voices United), We Are Marching In The Light Of God
Author's photo
Rev. Keith Howard is a Victoria writer and executive director of the United Church Emerging Spirit campaign.
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