‘You’re perf’ – meaning perfect. That was one of the scariest things I have ever read on my daughter’s Facebook wall in the days when she left it open.
Of course I do think she is perfect, she is my daughter but I did not want her, at 13 or so, thinking that being perfect was even a possiblity. I knew what her friend meant. In some ways she fitted our society’s idea of what is perfect for a teenage girl. But she was of course not perfect. So why was I so scared? If my daughter believed that she had, as her friends were telling her, attained perfection how would she feel when that accolade slipped through her fingers – when she dropped a few marks in an exam, put on a few pounds or sprouted some teenage acne? If she is no longer perfect, is she even acceptable?
In an article in this month’s Red magazine, designer Ronald Mouret says: “Most women don’t like a lot about their bodies. We have such a problem with body dysmorphia in our society and women as young as 30 think they have started to lose it. I think that’s weird.” I think that’s true. The only time I actually felt thin enough was when I weighed 8 stone after a serious illness and was clinically underweight. But women’s magazines don’t help – promoting images of unaffordable and unachieveable perfection for our face, hair, wardrobe, homes and even holidays. This month’s magazine had a subtle focus on ageing well – amongst ostensibly feminist articles – that led me to feel by the end of it that I should be investing thousands to make sure my body and my face did not give my age away. From the articles and adverts I take away the message that being over 30 is not perfect. A couple of days later I find myself on a crash diet and hastily re-establishing my Pilates routine.
But do we, as the Church, have a different kind of perfect to offer? Do we have an alternative narrative to the one pedalled by cosmetic companies, pop videos and marketeer?
When I was at Primary School, literally every single child was into horses. Not knowing all the points of a horse was a matter for ridicule. So was speaking differently and being completely useless at games. One thing I loved about my children’s primary school was there seemed to be no dominance of a single culture or group of people. As a specialist school for autism and physical disabilities all sorts of capability was accepted and celebrated. As a reflection of a diverse suburb, children of different ethnicities, faiths and languages happily learnt and played together. There was something heavenly about it.
Paul has a vision for such a church where one image of perfection cannot dominate and being different is the norm not the exception. In Galatians 3 v 26-29 he writes: “For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”
After church today we had a discussion on being a dementia-friendly congregation. The discussion highlighted the way that our services are run for those whose cognitive ability is pretty much perfect. We realised that being dementia-friendly would probably make us learning disability-friendly, child-friendly and maybe even mental-health freindly. And we heard too that the average age of a Church of England worshipper was 61 – yet as an institution we crave youth perhaps because young people appear more perfect than pensioners.
I long for a church that is everyone-friendly and has so many differences that no one way of being is seen as perfect or normal. I long for a church ready to challenge the pressure on young people that is causing a surge in self-harm and poor mental health. I long for a church that celebrates the imperfect and gleans wisdom from people on the margins. I long for a church that is so confident in its identity that the idea of perfection being dictated by dress size, skin tone and exam results becomes a ridiculous impossiblity.
In Matthew 5, Jesus gives us a blueprint for a different kind of perfect. It is definitely worth reading the whole chapter before you get to the startling words in verse 48: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” In Jesus’s narrative he celebrates the poor in spirit, the meek, mourners, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and the persecuted. This is the motley crew who are blessed by Jesus in the beatitudes and become for us a multi-faceted image of perfection.