The Cult of Perfection

I read in the latest issue of "Youthworker Journal" that a company called College Discovery charges high school students around $2,000 to match them with the "right" college. The posting, from the youth culture update section of the magazine, went on to say that for new students, applying to and attending the perfect college is a goal that can eat up a great deal of time and money. The pressure on these students comes from their schools, from their parents, their friends, and their own ideas of how life will be with the perfect education. If you watch these students while they sleep, you can see the visions of big paychecks and beautiful spouses dance in their heads.

In the fall of 2001, in an address to freshmen at Hillsdale College, a history professor named Dr. John Willson stood up to give a few words of advice to the young men in the room. His shaggy gray hair shining in the stage lights, he strove to be the grandfather all of us needed living on campus. One phrase of his stuck in my mind. "Relax," he said. "Take five years to do four." In Dr. Willson's eyes, college was a time to explore more than a time to achieve. Changing majors, he assured us, was allowed and even expected. He did not believe that any of us in the room really knew what we would end up doing, and gave us permission to take our time to find that out. Willson wanted the freshmen in the auditorium to take classes that interested us, not just ones that advanced us toward a major. This kindly old professor definitely wanted us to graduate, but he saw the diploma as a means to an end-- the end being a complete and well-rounded life as human beings-- and not the sole end of our four years.

Most of us did not take Dr. Willson's advice. For most students, it's very difficult to take a fifth year of classes. Colleges could make this easier by offering a punch card like the ones grocery stores, gas stations and laundromats use. "Buy four years, get one free!" it would say, and it would be the most popular thing in any school's bookstore. Personally, I was called out of school with two years of classes behind me to go into full-time parish youth ministry. Dr. Willson's words never left me, though. Now that I am shopping for a school here in St. Louis to finish my undergraduate degree, I am pondering them once again.

The trend that bothers me the most, more than consumerism or "moralistic therapeutic deism" or "spiritual but not religous" is the practice of "tracking" students, starting as very young children, so that all of their activities lead toward one goal. Sometimes this is done by parents who want their children to be good at A) the things the parents were good at or B) the things the parents wish they had been good at. Other times, teachers pick up on one special ability that seems to live in students and push this on them. And still other times, the students themselves become focused on just one aspect of their lives.

The worst sin in this, in one rookie's opinion, is that it sets limits on God's call. Riding with a missionary who works in Brazil and had come to Michigan to visit my father, I made a comment about why I don't plan to be ordained as a minister. "That's not where my gifts are," I told Dave. Even though he was driving, he looked straight into my eyes long enough to say, "The Holy Spirit working in you is not limited. Don't say for sure where you won't go."

What would the world look like if we made honest disciples instead of perfect ones? A dear friend of mine in Michigan, who has been in youth ministry for longer than I have been alive, once asked a student why he planned to attend a Bible college. Did he want to go there because it was the best place for him, or because his parents wanted him to attend a school where it was easy to be a Christian? What would our ministries look like if we let students off our tracks for long enough to let the Spirit speak to them? What could be the harm in letting ourselves spend time broken, where Jesus can most easily reach us, rather than adding one more polished, perfect piece to our puzzle day after day?

When Christ spoke, although this isn't often noticed, he gave two ways to be reconciled to God. One is to follow Him. The other is to be perfect. And you can't be both. All of Scripture gives us very clear instructions for how to follow God through the Law. And Jesus always acknowledged that. "I have come to fulfill the Law, not set it aside," were some of his words, for example. And Jesus set a higher standard for perfection than any of the Law had before him. "So what if you don't actually physically commit a sin? If you think it, that's just as bad." And when people started to ask why he wasn't paying attention to the people who had followed the whole law, Jesus told them, "If you're healthy, you don't need a doctor. If you're perfect, you don't need me. I go to the people who admit their need."*

One day I introduced a game to a youth group called "Chocolate Syrup Dodge Ball." The rules of the game, should you ever want to play, are simple. Dress your youth group in plastic raincoats or garbage bags with holes for arms and head. Get two beach balls and a bottle of both chocolate and strawberry syrup. The youth leader is the target. The other adult leaders are the guards. The youth group pours syrup on their team's beach ball and tries to hit the youth leader in the middle of the circle with it. At the end of the game, taste the front of your raincoat. The side you can taste more of wins.

I got covered. I got slimed. And it happened because I kept moving around, making it impossible for my guards to keep me protected. So many times, in our pursuit of perfection, we forget that the only way we are saved is by hiding behind Jesus. We hide most of ourselves, but when part of our lives seem good enough in our eyes, we stick it out beyond Jesus and dare the world to slime us. If we just stood still behind Jesus, admitting we can't do anything beyond him and living like we mean it, we could take the tiny steps toward discipleship that are all we are capable of.

Behind Christ,


No comments: