A few weeks before Christmas I drove past a cozy-looking Protestant church in my neighborhood. I noticed a colorful banner staked into the ground — “Perfect people not allowed!” it read — and I felt a yearning tug in my heart. It had been a tiring month, emotionally and physically, and the idea of walking into a church so cheerfully opposed to perfection seemed like just the ticket. I imagined padding in wearing tennis shoes, jeans and a sweatshirt. Soothing music would be playing. Perhaps someone would give me a mug of hot cocoa. I wouldn’t have to say anything, or do anything — just sit with all the other rumply, exhausted, not-perfect people and rest.
(I realize that people probably don’t often give you mugs of hot cocoa at Protestant church services, at least not until you’re done sitting in hard chairs and listening to the sermon. I also realize that what I’ve described above doesn’t approximate a church service of any kind, really, but more closely approaches going to a spa. But this is my fantasy, mmkay, so let’s go with it.)
Our LDS church services aren’t super concerned with letting us rest in our non-perfection. Of course, Mormon churches exist for the benefit of non-perfect people just as much as the Protestant church with the banner. Every single Mormon, from the nervous twelve-year-old girl at the pulpit reciting an Article of Faith to any one of the men sitting up on the stand at General Conference, is a non-perfect person, and we all know this. Or at least we should know this. But our slogans don’t tend toward “Perfect people not allowed.” We prefer action verbs (“Lengthen your stride!”) or punchy, motivational rallying cries that also work for tennis shoe companies (“Do it!” — even punchier without the “Just.”) A familiar phrase that’s been important to me since I was a girl, “Walk tall, you’re a daughter of God”? Even that implies effort. Walking, for example. And good posture. “Curl up in a ball on the Love Sac and take a nap, you’re an exhausted mother of four,” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, but oh! On certain days I would be tempted to print that out in vinyl lettering and slap it over my entryway.
All kidding aside, though, there are times I wish our church culture allowed us to admit our imperfections a little bit more. We don’t have to print up any banners . . . although maybe a banner would help some women feel more comfortable raising their hands during Relief Society to share their struggles and sorrows and pain. Me, I’ve always been a big fan of warts-and-all people, be they living or dead. They make me feel less alone in my personal wart-iness, more confident that I can make slow and steady progress in the right direction. I’m teaching the Old Testament in early morning seminary right now and it’s the stories of the prophets who struggle that truly inspire me. When Moses heard the voice of God out of the burning bush, he did not respond with an immediate, “I will go and do the things that the Lord hath commanded.” No, he begged the Lord to change his mind. He cataloged his personal imperfections. He equivocated, he whined, he danced around until God was thoroughly exasperated with him, and only THEN did he grab his walking staff and trudge back to Egypt, probably scared half do death and unsure of success. But he kept on trudging, and occasionally complaining, until he had dragged thousands of Isrealites across the Red Sea. I am no Moses, not even close, but I can relate to his journey, and I find inspiration in the struggle he had to work to overcome.
George Albert Smith is another prophet whose struggle with pain and doubt has inspired me recently. We are studying the words of President Smith in Priesthood and Relief Society this year, and I’ll admit to not knowing much about him until I started reading up a few weeks ago. I had skimmed the new manual, but once I read an article in the Journal of Mormon History detailing his struggle with physical and mental illness during his apostleship, his words took on a whole new level of meaning. (A link to the article, as well as a rousing discussion of whether or not our official church manuals should have been more explicit in describing the nature of President Smith’s struggles, can be found at BCC, here.) Speaking on the subject of faith, President Smith says, “It is this principle [of faith], my brethren and sisters, that points us heavenward, that gives us hope in the battle of life. When we become confused, and find ourselves confronted by obstacles we, seemingly, cannot overcome, having faith in the Redeemer of the world, we can go to Him and know that our prayers will be answered for our good.” Knowing more about the nature of President Smith’s personal struggles sinks his words of testimony to a deeper place in my heart.
I do understand that dwelling on imperfection and emphasizing the reality of struggle rather than the ways in which one can make positive change has its downside. Not only can wallowing become an attractive temptation, but human nature is such that if we’re not occasionally kicked in the backside, we’re much more likely to plop right down on it and stay there. We need to be shown the ideal in order to understand what we’re shooting for. But we’re also commanded to “mourn with those that mourn,” to “lay our burdens on the Lord,” to humble ourselves and ask for help. I submit that it’s much more difficult to do these things if we’re too afraid of the taint of weakness. It’s a paradox, isn’t it? As President Uchtdorf said in his fabulous talk “You Matter To Him”, we are simultaneously less than we suppose — sinners, the dust, nothing when compared to God — and greater than we suppose — powerful spirits, the Glory of God, bound for exaltation.
“Be ye therefore perfect,” Jesus Christ tells us. Someday, someday, yes. The hope is we’ll keep trudging, Moses-like, toward that goal, a goal that can only be effectuated by Christ’s atoning grace. Until then, it is possible to find strength in one another’s failures and light in our weaknesses, if we’re fearless enough to admit that we have them.