This started out being about what’s wrong with saying “you can’t be all things to all people.” But I got sidetracked by perfection. Sort of.
I wanted to point out that, of course, you can’t be all things to all people all the time. That’s a pretty important principal. Presuming that you’re speaking collectively and in absolutes. Because it could also be said that you can be some things to some people some of the time. And the effort to be either of those things is neither helpful or life-giving. What you might want to consider is to be something to someone in this moment.
Sorry about the word play, but here’s why I was thinking about it. The apostle Paul writes to the people at Corinth (where he’d helped establish a church) that he has been “all things to all people, so that I might by all means save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). I think he means, first of all, to acknowledge that he doesn’t expect to reach everyone. He wasn’t perfect.
By the way, I don’t suppose Jesus thought he would reach everyone, either. And I don’t think that necessarily consigned them to the sinner pile, I think he realized that some people would hear his message and some wouldn’t. Not being a follower of Jesus didn’t – and still doesn’t – make you inherently bad. God works in many ways.
I also think that Paul doesn’t mean to literally be what others want him to be. I think he means that he’s true to himself, which is someone who has taken the gospel to heart, recognizing the love and grace that is within him. He shares that sincerely and authentically by communicating as best he can, which means meeting others where they are, appreciating that they’re different and respecting who they are. I think he seeks to understand their perspective, where they’re coming from, what their traditions are, what their “language” is. That allows him to offer what he can, but also receive what others offer and learn from them, too. That builds relationships that are whole, healthy and respectful. That creates a place where thoughts and ideas and even beliefs can be shared and people might be open to hearing new things.
This is a valuable learning for us. Paul, just like Jesus, tries to meet people were they are, for who they are and how they are. Both church and society as a a whole, we so often have a tendency to impose ourselves on others, assuming they know our “language” and will hear and understand our message as the valuable life-giving news it is. They should want to be part of it, shouldn’t they? But maybe their questions help us learn. Maybe their disagreement helps us learn, too. Or maybe our delivery of the message isn’t perfect. Maybe we’re not perfect.
Hang on. Because here’s where I found more.
Maybe our communication is flawed. Maybe our evangelizing (I just mean our proclaiming the story) doesn’t succeed like we want it to and maybe we don’t “get everyone.” But maybe we should be satisfied with just one at a time, just like Jesus. And maybe, also like Jesus and Paul, we should focus less on the perfection of our communication and more on the perfect-ness that’s a real part of the message.
Here’s what I wonder. If Genesis tells us we’re created in the image of God, aren’t we perfect in our creation? Aren’t we perfect in our relationship with God at that moment, before we start to exercise our gift of freewill and begin to experience this world around us?
I wonder if our confusion over perfect-ness doesn’t come from what we clothe our souls in with the choices we make in this life. At the heart of things, our souls continue to know that perfect-ness of a relationship with God. How we live, how we relate to the world around us is in the choices we make. When our choices are “true,” we live closer with God. When our choices are less “true,” we not only distance ourselves from God, we distance ourselves from each other and from the harmony that is possible in how we live.
I wonder if we aren’t then seeking the wrong perfection. Jesus was constantly trying to teach people that it’s not the letter of the law, but what’s at its heart. It’s not about the structure itself, but what lives in it. It’s not about how well we follow the ritual, but what it means to us. It’s not about how something looks, but what’s inside it.
Maybe life out there isn’t perfect and maybe we don’t always meet our own standard of perfect. Sometimes it’s the little imperfections that make it interesting. And sometimes it’s the huge imperfections that make it so challenging. But inside, at the heart of you, in your soul: do you know you’re perfect? Isn’t that part of the message?