I gave the following talk a little over a year ago as our family was leaving the Boston II Ward. Apologies to ECS who has already heard it. I’m posting it at the request of annegb. I had sent a copy to her in response to an entry on her blog about some less than perfect interactions she was experiencing at church. I hope that it avoids the pitfalls recently mentioned at BCC. Oh, and feel free to steal it if you are a big enough geek to pull it off.

The three-fold mission of the church is to proclaim the gospel, perfect the saints, and redeem the dead, but not necessarily in that order, or the dead would be waiting for some time. I have been asked to speak in the mission of perfecting the saints.

I hope you will indulge me as I reveal what some of my thinking on the matter of perfection, as this has been a topic that I have wondered about more than once.

There are a handful of things that we know to be perfect, or at least to be perfect as far as we are concerned. Let’s make a short list:

God is perfect, in fact Jesus mentions this in Matthew 5:48:

Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

Jesus himself became perfect, which he implies in the 3rd Nephi counterpart to the previous scripture.

The Gospel that Jesus preached is perfect.

It could be argued that the church is perfect. It was instituted by Jesus, bears his name, and carries his Gospel to the world.

Now let’s look at what isn’t perfect.

I think that I can safely start the list with myself. In an honest self-examination I would probably start with my complexion, though I would guess that Suzanne would begin with my fashion sense. In any case my own list would go on forever. I am imperfect through and through.

I hope that I don’t offend anyone by mentioning that nobody in this room is perfect, though I won’t go into any details about your complexions or fashion sense.

Before I continue my list, I am going to ask for your patience. Please don’t throw any stones until I complete my talk. This is going somewhere. Really.

I don’t think that I’m saying anything heretical when I mention that the leaders of our church, while inspired by God, are imperfect people.

Our doctrines are incomplete. Even our basic understanding of God has changed over time.

Our scriptures are imperfect. The Articles of Faith imply that the Bible is imperfect due to layers upon layers of translations and The Book of Mormon mentions the possibility of its own imperfections, citing that if they are to be found, they are of men.

Now the church is made up imperfect members, again note the name of the church. It is led by imperfect leaders, and uses imperfect documents as scripture. It seems clear that it is not a perfect organization.

This of course contradicts the conclusion that I came to earlier. Not only that, but it presents a problem when considering that one of the missions of this imperfect organization is to perfect us. How can we start with something that is imperfect (that would be us), subject it to an imperfect process (the church) and come out with something perfect? This was a conundrum that I pondered for years.

I’ll get back to that subject in a moment. But first I want to talk about something really cool: Telescope making. Did you know that lots of people make their own telescopes? I’ve known this for years, ever since my first attempt at earning my astronomy merit badge. This guy down the street had a reflector telescope that he had made by hand. At this point a chalk board would be nice, but let me explain quickly what this telescope is. It is basically a big tube with a curved mirror at the bottom. That mirror collects light and focuses it at the eyepiece, which is up near the top. Well, I figured that he had just bought the parts and put them all together, which while still impressive, doesn’t sound like such a daunting task. As is turns out he had made the primary mirror himself. This was amazing to me. The mirror is most important aspect of a reflecting telescope. It has to be incredibly smooth and have a precise shape to properly focus the light. This guy said he made it without tools in his garage. I never figured out how he did that until years later when the internet came to the rescue, and I was able to read up on it.

It turns out that making this mirror is pretty simple. You take two round, thick, flat discs of glass. You mount one securely, put some grit on it, and begin to rub the other one on it. There are only two shapes that can freely rub against each other in all directions while maintaining complete contact. These are two planes or two spheres. In actuality a plane can be thought of as a sphere of infinite diameter, so really you could say there is only one shape, a sphere. As you rub the two plates of glass together, grinding off glass, the diameter of this sphere is reduced. One interesting aspect is that you can’t rub in a pattern or it won’t work. If you rub in a pattern you will create interlocking grooves and the two pieces of glass will no longer be able to move freely in all directions. You have to rub in a random way, which is actually quite difficult to do. Also interesting is that once you achieve the diameter that you wish, which determines the focal point, you switch to finer and finer grit in order to polish the glass. What you end up with is two perfectly polished pieces of glass, one convex and one concave. The concave is then silvered in order to create the mirror. In order to not push this analogy too far I’ve left out a step. The math geeks in the audience can take it as a challenge to figure out what it is.

This simple process creates a better mirror than modern manufacturing does, which is what leads people to build their own telescopes. You actually get a better telescope for less money.

Now you are thinking, this is the silliest talk ever, John has gone off the deep end, but we are happy for him that he is so interested in mirror making.

In his essay, “Why the Church is as True as the Gospel” Eugene England makes an interesting claim that resolves my earlier conundrum and ties all of this together. The basic idea is that the church is structured in such a way as to use our imperfections, and those of the people around us, in order to make all of us more perfect. It gives us a way of interacting with each other that helps shape us to be more tolerant of one another, more loving of each other, and remove our own sins. How does this happen?

Going back to the mirror example, we can think of ourselves as the pieces of glass. We are here to come in contact with each other under less than perfect conditions. This interaction shapes us and those around us. Having a lay clergy accelerates the process. Perhaps we could think of callings or even the makeup of our ward as the patterns in which we interact. These patterns of interaction are always changing, so that we have the opportunity work on different aspects of ourselves that need perfecting.

Let me say something about our attitudes towards this process. Unlike inanimate pieces of glass, we can be aware of the processes that are shaping us. We know when they are uncomfortable. This grit that shapes us can be a painful process. We also have a choice that the glass does not. We can select to not participate in the process. We can leave before we have been properly shaped. What causes someone to leave? In my experience it is because they are offended. They have had an imperfect interaction with someone and rather than forgive them and letting the act of forgiveness shape them they fall victim to their own pride. They have lost perspective of the process.

There is a fine line that needs to be walked here. The point of this is not to excuse sin, but to eliminate it. I am not saying that those that give offense are guiltless, or that anyone should excuse themselves for giving offense seeing it as part of this shaping process. The goal for each of us is to have perfect interactions with others. What I am saying is that we need to see offenses as a necessary part of the process when they happen to us and not use this concept to excuse the offenses that we commit.

It is this process of imperfect interactions leading to perfection that resolves the paradox that we began with. The church is the perfect environment for us to learn how to be perfect because of its imperfection.

In this imperfect church we learn to serve one another. Imagine how strange hometeaching or visiting teaching would be if the people that you visit were all perfect. The interaction wouldn’t be nearly as beneficial.

While at times it seems like it would be nice to have perfect leaders, we should remember that the leaders we have are being shaped as well. I’m sure they would love to know if they have offended someone, but it is even more important for the person that was offended to forgive, since leaving in anger not only deprives the person of this shaping process but deprives the congregation of their contribution to it as well.

As we are approaching the point where we are going to be leaving this ward and its particular mix of interactions, it seems appropriate to speak of our interactions here…

Actually it isn’t appropriate to do so in this post, and I spoke extemporaneously from that point on, so what I said is lost. Bummer. People, write your talks all the way through, just so that you have some record of them.