One of my first ministry jobs was as a chaplain at a residential treatment facility for young people with mental illness and behavioral disorders. I worked each week with groups of these young people to prepare and lead our chapel service. Those young people, full of energy and ideas for what worship could be, were not reliable. At all.
Nearly every week, the ones who said they would hand out bulletins didn’t show up because they got a chance to go off campus as a reward. Or the group that was going to do a liturgical dance never rehearsed. Or the scripture reader got stage fright and decided not to read. Given the incredible instability in my weekly chapel leadership, I had to let go of the ideals of what worship should be (and I held many of those ideals as a recent seminary grad) and instead allow chapel to be what it was going to be.
It’s been 12 or 13 years since I worked with those delightful young people, but I’ve never stopped working on letting go of my perfectionism. The unrest that erupted after the murder of George Floyd in late May 2020 crashed a wave of uncertainty on me, the likes of which I hadn’t experienced since before those messy chapel services.
I knew I should do something, but I could not for the life of me figure out what I should do. I managed to give money; I read more articles, books and posts from people of color; I blacked out my social media feed in solidarity. I knew I was called to do more, but I just couldn’t land on what that thing was.
Being overwhelmed at the enormity of the situation was only a tiny part of what was holding me back. I wanted to do just the right thing. I didn’t want to be criticized or be accused of being a clueless white person, or worse, a racist. It felt like hands were on my throat, squeezing the air and the voice right out of me.
In the midst of that strangled feeling, one of my yoga teachers named the problem: perfectionism. This struggle with the shoulds I needed to live up to was more than a quirk of personality – it was a tool of white supremacy. (Read more about this in Tema Okun’s article white supremacy culture.) My white cultural upbringing taught me to be very, very sure that something I do is right. It prevents me from taking risks that inevitably lead to embarrassing failure. And this thing – racism – is probably the worst thing that I could fail at.
But, the reality is that no white person has a “perfect” plan for how to reckon with the 400 years of institutional racism, nor how to repent of it and finally how to build a community and world that is egalitarian. We have very few, if any, models for this way of living. We’ve been so conditioned to plan, plan, plan in order to get it right that we do nothing innovative or risky, which helps us learn from what we get wrong. But learning from failure, and embracing our imperfection, will be the only way that we will be able to heal ourselves and create healing communities.
The lesson I learned from those teenagers (most of whom were people of color) more than a decade ago holds up today: God showed up regardless of whether someone was there to hand out bulletins. God showed up in the halting voices of anxious scripture readers. God showed up in the dancers who miraculously pulled off their little-rehearsed choreography. God and those unstable and wonderful young people gave me permission to cast aside the need to be perfect and instead allow a messy miracle to be born in front of our eyes each week.
Let’s all be a messy miracle together.
Go Deeper: Learn some mindfulness practices that can help you let go of the fear and anxiety that might be preventing you from moving into your own messy miracle. Join Nicole’s Spring Cleaning: Rest and Restore Yoga and Meditation, and two more upcoming free offerings – the Meditation of the Month practice and Brown Bag Lunch networking and discussion.