Are you a perfectionist? Regardless of how you might answer that question, we all struggle with the pressure to perform or be perfect. It’s shocking, then, to read verses like Matthew 5:48, in which Jesus teaches to “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” What business does Jesus have insisting that we are to be perfect, just like God? Yet, too often people assume that religion is about rules by which we are expected to perfectly live. Sure, there is grace, but at the end of the day, God’s mission is to make sure people are living as perfectly as possible.

I wonder about God’s “mission” for us. What does that word even mean? I carried this question on the trip I took last weekend. Eleven middle schoolers and a couple other adults from our church community joined for our Middle School Service-Learning Trip to Des Moines, Iowa. We spent the extended weekend exploring Des Moines and serving and learning with a nonprofit called Joppa, who collaborates with partners across the area to help folk experiencing homelessness to access resources, housing, education, and more. We also cooked together, played hide-and-seek across our host church, explored the art museum in Des Moines, and spent the day at a theme park. We were there to serve, learn, and travel together, making memories as a community.

We call them “service-learning” trips to specifically name the reason why we’re there; “mission” can be a vague word, especially for twelve year olds. Yet, we are there with a mission and purpose, even if it is not a specific quest to accomplish. We were not trying to just serve for a certain amount of hours or make sure that we managed to feed a certain amount of people.

Most English translations use the word “perfect” for that verse from Matthew 5. In Greek, the adjective used comes from the word telos, which one might also translate as “complete” to better capture the root word (tel-) and its connotation of reaching an end or goal. “Be complete, therefore, as your heavenly Father is complete.” The verse sounds different with this translation; instead of striving for perfection, perhaps it means we should wonder what God’s goals are and reach to accomplish them with God.

I would offer a different word, though, and translate this verse as “Be whole, therefore, as your heavenly Father is whole.” Instead of thinking about life as a quest we must complete, the telos can also evoke an idea of something that is complete and whole. During our trip to Des Moines, we talked a lot about this word. I shared a selection from the book Whole: A Call to Unity in Our Fragmented World by Sharon Watkins. In one portion, she invites readers to evoke an image of the globe. First, she describes a globe we may see in a classroom— one that marks borders with artificial lines and countries colored in different, rainbow colors. Then, she describes that iconic image of planet earth taken from the Apollo 17 crew in 1972, when we first had a real picture of the “blue marble” on which we all live. That latter photo, Watkins describes, is how God created the earth— one whole home for our one human species with no artificial division or fragments.

I invited the middle schoolers to imagine the world that way as we explored a new city. Des Moines, in the grand scheme of the globe, is not that much different than Kansas City, but the practice of being in a different place helps us notice things that we usually miss in our day-to-day lives. We got glimpses of this wholeness as we spent time together as friends and church community. We felt a sense of wholeness as we served with Joppa, helping organize the thrift store by which they bring in funding and joining for their weekly food distribution effort, feeding hundreds of people who live outside around the town by meeting them where they are.

One afternoon, once we were done with our service project for the day, we went out to a park downtown Des Moines for a brief meditation activity. I simply invited everyone to simply notice the world outside of them, wondering how they might sense the sacred within the living world around us. I realized that this noticing is exactly what we were doing throughout every element of the trip. Whether we were singing along to pop songs in the van, cooking spaghetti and meatballs in the church kitchen, or walking up to the make-shift home of a new friend to make sure they had a warm meal for the day, nothing we did was done to mark a task off a list. It was all done in intention to more fully notice the sacred in the living world around us.

Our mission on trips like our youth service-learning trips and adult mission trips like the one we’re taking this October to Ecuador is a mission that we might practice everyday. Each moment in Des Moines was done with this mission to notice the sacred wholeness in our world and the ways we might live in response, meeting the needs of neighbors near and far, advocating for a world in which more people can flourish, and being a community of love, support, and celebration. It was never about accomplishing any quantifiable mission. Instead, through service-learning trips and through simple moments at home, the sacred invites us into simple presence, serving and learning and exploring every day how the divine image reflected in our world might inspire us to find more whole ways of being.

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