Reflection: Not(e) Perfect September 3, 2017
“Be perfect, as your Father is perfect” Those are dangerous words for those of us with perfectionist tendencies, and difficult words for those who struggle with a sense of inadequacy. Yet those are the words that came to mind this week when I was thinking about wrapping up our Singing the Faith series. I’ve often said to people in church, “The Bible says, ’Make a joyful noise’, not necessarily a beautiful or perfect one.” That can be an analogy for the way we live our Christian lives too – joyfully, but not perfectly. But then we run into a verse like this and we say, “Perfect like God? How is that even possible?”
Well, let’s start by looking at the context of the quotation. Jesus is giving us an extended sermon on love. Not just any love, but love of ALL of our neighbours, even those whom we see as enemies or who see us in that way. Jesus is saying, “Love people the way God does.” Love the NeoNazi and the hatemonger, love the addict who’s shooting up behind your building, love the guy who stole your stuff, love the woman who flirts with your husband, love the kids who are picking on your child, love the politician who stands for everything you dislike. Love them all.”
Jesus doesn’t ask much, does he? What we’re talking about here, is perfection in love. Perfection in kindness. Perfection in compassion. Not perfection in anything else but that. But that’s quite enough, isn’t it!? That’s a project for a lifetime: a process of repeatedly forgiving, repeatedly putting ourselves in the others’ shoes, repeatedly seeking understanding, repeatedly sharing our stories and listening to others’, repeatedly offering reconciliation, being true to who we are and what we believe while still offering the hand of friendship to those with whom we differ. Tough stuff, isn’t it?
Perhaps it helps to know that there’s another possible translation of this passage. The word that’s often translated as “perfect” can also be translated as “persist”. “A quick check on this word in Greek exposes our tendencies toward misinterpretation. The word root is telos. Yes, it can be translated as “perfect” but meanings that better capture its essence are “completion, intended goal, determined end.” In other words, Jesus is not asking us to be perfect, but to persist in the goal Jesus has for us. (Karoline Lewis, workingpreacher.org)”
So then we have “Be persistent, as your Father is persistent.” No-one knows persistence like God. No-one sticks with the seemingly impossible like Jesus’ heavenly Father. No-one keeps giving more chances and keeps believing in our potential for goodness and righteousness like the One in whom we “live and move and have our being”. God is both perfect and persistent in love, and this is the persistence we can model ourselves.
To go back to our music-making for a moment, anyone who has ever sung in a choir or played an instrument knows that it takes persistence to develop our musical skills. Yes, some have more natural ability than others, but without practice and study those gifts won’t be developed as fully as they might. “Practice makes perfect”, is often said; and if we can’t quite achieve perfection we can certainly persist in practicing.
One of the authors I read in the last few weeks – I think it was John Bird – pointed out that for many in our Western culture, singing is seen as a kind of heroic journey, where the individual fights his or her way to the top of their profession, or experiences a miraculous discovery. The person then becomes a superstar – and only the superstars’ music counts. Those who will never make that journey or have that discovery are considered less deserving or less talented, or even believe that they are not actually singers at all.
For many of us, it is singing in a choir TOGETHER, that reveals that we can, indeed, make music, and it is a joyful experience, regardless of whether we’re ever going to be the next Lady Gaga or Luciano Pavarotti. One of the things I love about our choir, and many other church choirs, is that anyone can join, whether you’ve sung anything since kindergarten or not. If you want to sing, you can sing. You can be part of this joyful noise we make together. And even if you don’t join the choir, you can sing on Sunday mornings. You can belt out the tunes or sing or hum along quietly, but you too, can make a joyful noise to God.
I think the Christian life, and in particular, this way of persistence in love is aided by being together, just as our music is aided by the combination of our voices in song. It’s been said that church is the place you learn to love people who are nothing like you. Like a family in which the members are very different but are bound together with love, so the church can be at its best. I’m 48 and Bruce is 87, but we get along. Bob is from Iran and Mary is from Scotland, but they’re part of the same worshipping community. Claire is in elementary school and Ruth is retired, but they enjoy being together at the back of the church. We learn from gathering for worship, serving together on committees and teams, sharing meals and conversation – we learn what it is to love people who are different from ourselves. We also practice love as a congregation – reaching out to those who may have different needs and experiences than many of ours, through Messy Church, or the Community Dinner, or taking soup to the university for the Chaplaincy, or visiting folk with dementia in care, volunteering at the Food Bank, Compassionate Warehouse or Our Place. Practice is how we become closer to God’s perfect love. Persistence in gathering, worshipping and serving together gets us closer to the ideal that Jesus holds out for us.
Our singing on Sundays is never note perfect: and we are not perfect people or perfect Christians. But we can be persistent Christians, practicing our faith the way we practice our music, learning and growing and developing the seeds of God’s lovingkindness planted within us.
I have good news for you! As a musician, I can tell you that there are times when the music takes you over, and it is as if the song is singing me, or the piece is playing you, and you are but a conduit for the music. There are times when the music flows so freely, it is miraculous! The same is true for the love of God. I think most ministers have had experiences in ministry when by the grace of God our sense of ourselves has been shunted aside and it has been very clear to that it is the Holy Spirit working in us doing the ministry – all we had to do was show up! What helps that experience is a consistent practice of spiritual disciplines. Simply pausing to breathe, to be quiet in one’s mind and heart for a moment, and to ask God to use us as God wills, opens us up to let God’s love move in us. This is not just true for people in designated ministry; this is true for all who seek to walk in God’s way.
The more we practice and persist in the disciplines of prayer, worship, Sabbath-keeping, service, and Scripture study, the more we will be able to be open to perfect love. And don’t discount the Holy Spirit! Remember the apostle Paul’s words about the Holy Spirit: prophecy, languages, wisdom and knowledge, all will pass away, but the gifts of the Spirit that are the most enduring are Faith, Hope and Love….and the greatest of these is Love. The Holy Spirit is our greatest Teacher, our Advocate, our Friend, in this path we are walking according to Christ’s example.
Friends, be open to the Holy Spirit working through you. Stay open, and let God love others through you. Then God’s love may be perfected in you and in me. May it be so. Amen.
Reflection: Not(e) Perfect September 3, 2017