Becoming Perfect

But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect. (Matthew 5:48)

This verse, and John Wesley’s teaching on perfection, is some of what I struggle most with as a Christian. I certainly know I’m not perfect, and from where I sit, I doubt I would ever be able to achieve a state of errorlessness on this side of the veil. Wesley taught that it was possible, to some degree, to achieve perfection in this life:

…that habitual disposition of the soul which, in the sacred writings, is termed holiness; and which directly implies being cleansed from sin, ‘from all filthiness both of flesh and spirit’; and, by consequence, being endued with those virtues which were in Christ Jesus; being so ‘renewed in the image of our mind,’ as to be ‘perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect’ ( A Plain Account of Christian Perfectionism, p. 12). 

“In this is perfection, and glory, and happiness: the royal law of heaven and earth is this, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all they heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength.’ The one perfect good shall be your one ultimate end” (ibid.). Lastly, perfection is “deliverance from inward as well as from outward sin” (ibid., p. 26) and “a Christian is so far perfect as not to commit sin” (ibid., p. 25).

Wesley is right in that it ought to be possible to achieve a “habitual disposition of the soul” towards Christ, and indeed, I know people like that, and I want to become one someday. I also know, though, that those are people who still sin. They are human, after all.

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Jesus’ assertion that we are “to be perfect, even as” God is perfect, though, allows for the possibility that this completeness won’t happen on this side of death. And I think that’s OK: we will become perfect, one day, and while we can certainly strive for improvement, even perfection, in this life, it’s important (I believe) to cut ourselves enough slack to recognize our continuing frailty and humanity even after our justification through grace.

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Caring For The Sparrows

I’d been planning this weekend awhile. The kids are both gone on their mission trip, and so I was going to take Mary up to New York City. She’d never been to see a Broadway show, and the son of my brother-from-another-mother was in his third Broadway production. It would be a marvelous weekend.

Until it started coming apart. Ben’s show got cancelled, after we had already bought the (nonrefundable) airline tickets. So we were going anyway, I figured, might as well see a different musical–and besides, the point was for us to do something together, for me to take her to a show, not just to see Ben.

The day of the flight, lots of running around, but eventually, to the airport in plenty of time…to have our flight get delayed. And delayed again. And delayed a third time. And then cancelled. Seems weather was getting in the way of lots of traffic up and down the East Coast. There weren’t going to be any more flights to La Guardia tonight, and the auto-reroute offer from the airline had us staying home overnight and catching an 8am flight. But then we’d lose out on the hotel room, which we’d already paid for…

We started looking at options. I got in line to spring our suitcase from baggage, and we started looking at train options to get there tonight. And I could just see where this was going: either we have to wait for a flight tomorrow and lose out on the hotel cost, or we have to spring for hundreds of dollars in train tickets. The voice of resignation was pretty loud in my head. And let’s face it, that’s certainly been my experience. Yours too?

But when we got to the front of the line, miracle of miracles, the airline made us a different offer: instead of La Guardia tomorrow, they could put us on the delayed flight to Kennedy still tonight. It’d be late, but we could still get there, still get to our hotel, and still begin our weekend together in Manhattan.

Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. And aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are? Can all your worries add a single moment to your life? (Matthew 6:26-27) But not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it. […] So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows. (Matthew 10:29b, 31)

Two facts: First, the good is always opposed. Love is opposed, and so an opportunity for the two of us to spend time together and add to the structure of our 23-year marriage…I should have foreseen that it would have been opposed. And second: God does take care of us. He’s promised we’re worth more than the sparrows, we’re worth so much to him that he sent his son Jesus to die for us. But we still refuse to believe it.

We’ve been wrestling with some big questions in our family lately, questions about life directions and key changes we may make to ourw ay of living. And in those as well, I’ve heard Jesus whispering, “What was that thing I taught you about the sparrows? Do you trust me yet?”

We got to our hotel room at 2:30 the next morning, after still more delays. But we were there. We listened to the voice reassuring us that there is a plan and it is good. And you know what? We had a great weekend. Seeing Wicked on Broadway is just a great experience. And we could build more bonds in our marriage, and still make it back in time to welcome the kids home. God is good, all the time.

Come, Lord Jesus, Come

Paris. Brussels. Ferguson. Baltimore. Nice. Dallas. Istanbul. Baton Rouge.

So much pain. So much anger. So little coming together, until after the violence. So quickly we become inured to seeing another city on the news.

Jesus understands pain. He was as human as we are, and he suffered unlike any of us ever have or ever will. He knows the pain behind the rage.

But he is not the rage. Instead, he weeps at our rage. He weeps at our brokenness, at our insistence on turning to something other than to him and the Father when we confront the brokenness of our world and of each other.

Jesus’ heart is shattered by Paris, Brussels, Ferguson, Baltimore, Nice, Dallas, Istanbul, Baton Rouge, and any of a thousand other places where we insist on taking out our pain on one another, instead of taking it to him.

Lord Jesus, you promised that you would make all things new. We can hardly wait. Our world is on fire, and we need your healing touch. Come, Lord Jesus. Come into our hearts, restore our balance and our awareness of each other. Renew in us your forgiveness, and teach us once again to forgive one another.

Come, Lord Jesus. Just come.

Amen.

Creatures of Habit

The line between a something that’s a habit and something that’s part of your character is a thin one. There are many things I do regularly: is brushing my teeth a habit, or part of my character? Well, the action is a habit; the character bit is taking care of myself. How about mowing the lawn? I do it habitually, but the character piece is keeping the house up to standards.

How about the stuff that’s not so good? What do my bad habits say about me? If I have a glass of wine with dinners, does that make me an alcoholic? How about my sins: when I get selfish or thoughtless, or worse, does that define me?

Paul reminds the church at Rome that the answer is NO. We are no longer defined by our sins, as new creatures in Christ.

So the trouble is not with the law, for it is spiritual and good. The trouble is with me, for I am all too human, a slave to sin. I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. […] Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 7:14-15, 24-25a)

Nonetheless, we are such creatures of habit. And when we’re taken out of our routines, the changes can make it hard to take up those habits again. Take vacations, for example. Normally, I use some of my morning commute as prayer time; it’s become my routine, my habit. But on vacation, my habits are rearranged: I’m not commuting, so I lose that time I’ve set aside in prayer. I have to make a conscious choice to pray at other times in the day, which is awkward at first because it’s different and outside my comfortable habit.

God understands us better than we give him credit for. He knows each of us, individually and intimately. He understands the power of our habits, and how difficult it is for us to break our bad ones. Fortunately for us, he has given us the possibility of new life in Christ, who can make all things new within us.

If you’ve ever tried to break a habit on your own, you know it’s not easy. The good news is, you don’t have to: You were never meant to bear your sins beyond the cross. Jesus can come into a life and, where the habit has been too strong, he is able to break it and fulfill his promise of new life. Now if that’s not good news, I don’t know what is!

It Takes Effort

Let me tell you a little about the last couple of weeks in my world.

  • Spent two-plus days with my son taking him to his college orientation.
  • Helping plan, then execute, his Eagle Scout project–he’s up against the 18th birthday deadline, so everything has to be done at once.
  • Planning for his own high school graduation, which will be this week.
  • Graduation parties for the high school graduates of some of my best friends in the world.
  • Emceeing the farewell dinner for our two pastors at church, and chairing the Church Council meeting.
  • Replaced the oven, which curled up and died suddenly in the midst of all this.
  • Taking my bride to a Dolly Parton concert, finally fulfilling a lifelong dream of hers.
  • Helping my daughter through the fraught last few school assignments and exams of freshman year.
  • Oh yeah, my day job: helping run a $28B organization while short-staffed.

All of these take a pretty big effort to pull off. Orientation meant eight hours’ driving total, and lots of information flooding at me. The Eagle project required multiple meetings, runs to Home Depot, and general support even before the first spade hit the sod to begin his project. Graduation parties mean multiple guests coming, which means the carpets finally have to be cleaned, and the house too, ahead of the big day. I’m not a big Dolly fan, but my wife is, so I make the time to do this, which is important to her.

What’s missing from the list? Oh yeah: drawing closer to God.

It always seems to me that the paradox of my life is that the times when I need him most, when things are running full-steam and barely under control, or even (shudder) out of control, those are the times I don’t make enough of a priority of being with Christ. Intellectually I know I have to; it’s just the press of the now-now-now that means I don’t make it the priority it needs to be. It takes a high degree of intentionality to stay focused on being in communion with Christ when all around me is swirling, and I confess, I don’t do that as well as I should. There’s a gap between what I know I should do, and what I actually do.

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I’m somewhat pleased to report, though, that in the midst of this past push of madness, I was able to do an 11-day Bible reading and reflection program. Of course, I did it in only three days: I’d forget about it for a few days then push to catch up, then fall behind again and have to cover several days at once. But I did do it, which is progress for me. I also re-started reading Matthew again, which I haven’t done in awhile, and trying a new discipline of reading it before even getting up in the morning.

It takes a tremendous amount of effort sometimes just to keep going. And to add something to the list–even something as essential as working on my relationship with God–often feels either one thing too much, to be honest, or slips my frazzled brain entirely. It’s not ideal, I know. But it’s real, and it’s where I’m truly at sometimes. I like to think those are the times my forgiveness is all the more precious.

Kingdom Life and the 21st Century

When Jesus returned to Capernaum, a Roman officer came and pleaded with him, “Lord, my young servant lies in bed, paralyzed and in terrible pain.” Jesus said, “I will come and heal him.”

But the officer said, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come into my home. Just say the word from where you are, and my servant will be healed. I know this because I am under the authority of my superior officers, and I have authority over my soldiers. I only need to say, ‘Go,’ and they go, or ‘Come,’ and they come. And if I say to my slaves, ‘Do this,’ they do it.” 

When Jesus heard this, he was amazed. Turning to those who were following him, he said, “I tell you the truth, I haven’t seen faith like this in all Israel!” (Matthew 8:5-10)

This passage always used to puzzle me a little. Is Jesus saying that faith is blind obedience? Is Jesus saying that a hierarchical, military-style leadership is what the Kingdom of God is all about? I don’t think so. Jesus is teaching about life in the Kingdom, yes, and obedience, but it’s not the kind we’re thinking of. Jesus knows that the Kingdom has a hierarchy–God is on his throne, angels are there too (and even angels have hierarchies–see Daniel 10, how one angel needed to call on a superior one in a battle), but we’re neither God nor angels–we are distinct and, yes, lower creations. And it’s when we start to imagine ourselves as bigger than we really are, that we start to commit the sin of pride that Satan did before his fall.

There is a way things work. The Roman officer knew it. He knew his place: he knew he could command others, but equally, he knew he was subject to the commands of those above him. And he understood authority. If the superior officer says something will be done, then he and his men made it happen. Similarly, this soldier knew that if Jesus were to give the word, his servant would be healed even from afar, because he respected the authority of Jesus to get things done, and he knew angels and the forces of heaven would move to bring about Jesus’ will. That’s the reason Jesus is so thrilled: Here’s a guy who gets it!

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If we’re honest with ourselves, there’s something about this that rankles us. We come from a 21st century Western mindset, born of the Enlightenment, that holds that we’re all special and empowered. We have democracies, for pity’s sake, we don’t have kingdoms anymore! Unless you live in Saudi Arabia, Brunei, Oman, Qatar, or Swaziland, you have no idea what it’s like to live in a true kingdom. Don’t like your leaders? Vote ’em out!

The Kingdom of God doesn’t work that way. We have one true King, and we are all subjects of his authority. Yes, it feels alien to us, with our representative republics and, at least as Americans, our history of overthrowing kings. But it doesn’t make it any less true. If anything, it makes it a little but harder for the 21st century American to take to his knees before the King.

Stop The Noise!

Many, many years ago (ahem), my former college roommate and I spent a long weekend in Las Vegas. We rented a car and drove around to see the sights; we saw Hoover Dam and did the dam tour with all the dam jokes that the dam guide could offer. At night we drive west until we couldn’t see the lights of the city anymore, pulled off the road, and turned off the car.

I grew up in Vermont, so I had a pretty good idea what the sky could look like at night without all the lights of a city, but it was still amazing to see. But what I remember most was the silence. There wasn’t a sound, and probably no one around within miles to make any. I don’t think I’ve ever been in the presence of silence that pure. I remember the silence as almost a ringing in my ears: as if my brain, so accustomed to a wall of sound, had to make up something to take its place. I remember we both commented on the phenomenon, we were both not-hearing the same thing: the assault of the world in a place where God alone reigned.

I believe the key to being in conversation with God is being able to tune out The World and to listen for his voice. Unfortunately I’m not very good at that. Even when I sit in the relative quiet of my house, in prayerful attempts at receiving whatever Jesus may wish to tell me, I find my mind occupied by its own sounds. Granted, most of the time I have contemporary Christian music on in my head, but still–it’s not quiet. I find it hard to turn everything off, and to just…be. To just listen, to be completely and totally receptive to God’s voice. I know this is one of the places I need to grow, so I can be in better communion with our Lord.