The Perfection Heresy

The Perfection Heresy

What an A.A. meeting can teach us about our expectations

by Robert Rife | April 7, 2020

THE END

October 2003.

No amount of light could remove the darkness  that had settled inside me. I could feel eyes on the back of my drooping head. One of the sopranos in my church’s choir followed me to my office after the Thursday evening rehearsal. She shook angrily in my office doorway.

Dear God, she knew. I had thought the cough drops, chewing gum, and physical distance had duped those around me into believing I was sober. My cover was blown.

“Will you tell her or shall I?” she asked icily. “Her” being my wife.

“No, I’ll tell her.”

As they escaped, the words brought a tiny ray of hope, even while voicing my despair, as well-fermented as my life had been to that point.

I delayed my return home, believing (erroneously) that an extra hour or two of walking might make my demeanor believably sober. Two blocks from home, my wife pulled to the curb with the family van. Frantic and desperate, she had been looking for me for over an hour.

“Where have you been? I’ve been worried sick!” She looked at me—frightened and bewildered—and, in that moment confirmed her suspicion.

Weeping, I fell into the van. Something had broken. The titanic façade of lies and pretense that had been my life for so many years collapsed.

“I think I’m an alcoholic,” I sobbed.

Pulling into the driveway, she spilled out a mix of rage, confusion, and betrayal. When we got inside the house, she hurled a family picture against the brick fireplace.

We were in pieces, demolished on the floor.

My self-esteem was lodged somewhere in my lower intestine. I had forced her, along with family, friends, and colleagues into a no-win situation. Everything spun as though I’d been tossed, shame and all, into a blender. I stumbled outside to void my stomach. With throat burning and spirit desecrated, I fell asleep in our camper.

Those were the darkest moments of my life. Being found out brought a new reality that would include honest deconstruction and turning to face my daunting demons. For a time, our family hung precariously on a thread. What faith existed was turned toward survival. Hope lay hidden—but it was hope, nonetheless. Eventually, I would feel gratitude for what was happening.
But not yet.

My first ever A.A. meeting was in a room that smelled of nicotine and bad coffee. In my previous attempts at sobriety, I thought I could do it on my own. But in that room I was not an educated, high-functioning ministry professional. Like everyone else, I was broken and in need of the face-to-face confrontation required for grace to begin its slow process of repair.

Around me, total strangers talked about their troubled histories. They revealed forgotten and dark things, bent and sorry places that spoke of resentments and misery, choices made, unmade, never made—of lostness. I became privy to what the walk of grace looks like when others—as shattered as I was—combined their shared mess into a single, bitterly hopeful outcry of “Lord, have mercy.”

The power is not in the art of the teller.
It’s in the truth of the word.

Those were the darkest moments of my life. Being found out brought a new reality that would include honest deconstruction and turning to face my daunting demons. For a time, our family hung precariously on a thread. What faith existed was turned toward survival. Hope lay hidden—but it was hope, nonetheless. Eventually, I would feel gratitude for what was happening.
But not yet.

My first ever A.A. meeting was in a room that smelled of nicotine and bad coffee. In my previous attempts at sobriety, I thought I could do it on my own. But in that room I was not an educated, high-functioning ministry professional. Like everyone else, I was broken and in need of the face-to-face confrontation required for grace to begin its slow process of repair.

Around me, total strangers talked about their troubled histories. They revealed forgotten and dark things, bent and sorry places that spoke of resentments and misery, choices made, unmade, never made—of lostness. I became privy to what the walk of grace looks like when others—as shattered as I was—combined their shared mess into a single, bitterly hopeful outcry of “Lord, have mercy.”

THE EASTER TEMPTATION

Easter comes each year with a steady hand, meeting us in its promise. But tucked inside its timely presence is an ominous reality for those who are pastors like me: what can I say this year that is so unique that people might actually listen? What hasn’t been said countless times before? How can I avoid the clichés?

To be honest, I find that many evangelical pastors over-strive for relevance to the diminishment of simplicity. The need to be heard for our winsome nature, bullet-proof exegesis, and well-timed witticisms is more often than not a window into our own insecurities. It can also be a glimpse into our unwillingness to let the gospel story be a story. Presentation, timing, originality, approachability—these are the tools of our trade. But their pursuit can leave us missing out on participating in the very narrative we seek to share.

Like a cook who regularly prepares nutritious food for consumption, preachers do the same with words. But the temptation is to behave like fresh-from-culinary-school students, always seeking to bring epic fare so that diners will proclaim our prowess. Every week a masterpiece. Every. Week.

Easter worship specifically—with its extravagant pageantry, large crowds, and miraculous story—can bring a confusing combination of nostalgia, uncertainty, and expectation for those tasked with preaching the gospel. Will the message measure up to the presentation?

Perfectionism so easily stifles the invitation to stay in the Story.

Ask any alcoholic in A.A. and they’ll tell you: It’s not about the storyteller’s ability to woo the listener into some state of captivated hypnosis. (Nor is it advisable.) An alcoholic hears the message that is needed no matter how poorly someone tells their story. Our disease has positioned us well to hear the punchlines, intended or not. To us, it’s in the very nature of the event itself. Tell me your old, old story. We’ll benefit just because you do so. Similarly, what little originality or affectation a preacher may feel their struggle to have wrought, the sheer power of retelling the same redemptive story will have its intended impact. The power is not in the art of the teller. It’s in the truth of the word.

When a recovering alcoholic stops telling his or her story, that story starts retelling itself. The recovering part gets wobbly. Then it is forgotten. And wobbled-off-the-wagon stories are never good ones. A five-week trip to Britain in 2016 saw me take a brief but unintended nosedive simply because I’d stopped believing the truth about my condition. I’d begun to ignore what I knew to be true and, instead of regular meetings with the obligatory introduction that told the hard truth, “Hi, I’m Rob, and…,” I got too fancy. “I’m not a true alcoholic like those other guys. I just struggle with self-control.”

Preachers, especially at Easter, try too hard to be fancy. We become perfectionists. But for preachers, as for alcoholics, the weight of such unrealistic expectations can drive us away from what really matters—the promise of grace and redemption, supportive communities, voices of hope and reason, and the possibility of helping just one other soul who still struggles. Ironically, that means narrating our shared imperfections and their healing in the gospel. Perfectionism so easily stifles the invitation to stay in the Story, maybe for no other reason than even one other person is about to be saved in the hearing of it. Maybe not today. But sometime.

THE BEGINNING

“Hi, I’m Rob, and I’m an alcoholic.”

It’s not very original. But saying so, and meaning it, has saved my life countless times. In the years since my first A.A. meeting, I’ve spoken those words often. Saying them somehow winds an internal mechanism that keeps me marching in a sober direction.

In A.A. as much as in our sharing the gospel, perhaps more important than the obligatory homework and textual wrestling, is the Story itself—the paschal mystery, where loss becomes gain and darkness bleeds light, and our hopelessness is banished. In this mystery our tombs are always empty, just a resurrection away from new life and the promise of change.

The journey of my sobriety is a simple one. I tell and hear the same stories and, in so doing, I am saved.

As someone saved daily by storytelling, I know that one simple story, repeated often, is more redemptive than is possible to articulate. It’s about how we got from there to here, and sometimes back again. My own story—sometimes sordid, sometimes glistening—gets repeated often. In rehearsing it through communal repetition, I’ve come to value its power. God’s grace writ large in one man’s life.

It is true of the Easter message. It’s not about memorability, accessibility, relevance, or articulation laced with wit and whimsy. It is about telling a story. The Story.

“Hi. I’m Rob, and I’m a recovering alcoholic.” Why? Because I just remember to keep telling the same story over, and over. And over.

Thanks be to God.

About the Author

Robert Rife and his wife, Rae, are in the process of becoming global personnel in the UK through Serve Globally. He is a distance runner, book nerd, musician, choral director, poet, and writer who loves stand-up comedy.

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