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The Joys of Imperfection

47 years ago I had the privilege of teaching typing (do you remember what that is?) to a class of grade nine students in Toronto. To my great dismay, Sandra, one of the brightest students in the class, failed the course. Her mother said to me, “She refused to hand in any work that is not perfect, and finally she completely gave up and chose to fail the course.” I had a little heart-to-heart with Sandra. I encouraged her to try to give up the need for perfection and re-do the course during the summer. She did re-do it, and though her work was not perfect, she earned an “A.”

25 years later I was teaching a course focused on justice issues at Dordt University in Iowa, and a guest speaker shared his experiences of working in the inner city. Several of his justice-seeking strategies contradicted principles the students had learned in their assigned readings. When we arrived at the Q and A time, the students pointed out these principial contradictions. With a twinkle in his eye, our guest asked, “How are you applying these principles you’ve read about to your own work in the inner city?” He was met by an awkward silence, after which he continued with a gracious smile, “I think I prefer my way of making mistakes to your way of doing nothing at all.”

A lively discussion followed, and we all agreed that there are two kinds of mistakes: mistakes of arrogant ignorance which cause more harm than good, and mistakes of navigating very messy situations which have no capacity for perfect solutions.

I am deeply grateful that there is a mighty cloud of wise voices guiding justice-seekers to be better informed concerning the dangers of arrogant ignorance.

And the latter leads us to the joys and sorrows of imperfection. We have hosted dozens of refugees in our home, and have plowed through the fear of “saying the wrong things” by realizing that loving words are better than perfect words. We’ve stumblingly walked with a sixties scoop adoptee with both tender love and tough love until he died of a heroin overdose. We’ve participated in short term medical clinics in Zambia and Honduras while being fully aware of the downsides of short-term interventions. A dozen more examples come to mind.

The community of passionate justice-seekers is filled with rich ideals which nourish vibrant visions. I’m a lifelong idealist, and I have found Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s reflections on the dangers of our own ideals becoming idols profound. At the same time, I am deeply grateful that there is a mighty cloud of wise voices guiding justice-seekers to be better informed concerning the dangers of arrogant ignorance.

And what about you, dear reader? How have you experienced the joys (and profound sorrows) of imperfection? Shall we band together and form an on-line IA community (“Imperfectionists Anonymous”)? No, let’s just keep on keeping on, being well-informed of the best wisdom available to us as we slog through the messiness together, holding these two beautiful Scriptures together in tension: “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins” (I Pet. 4: 8) with “This is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ.” (Phil. 1: 9-10).


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