11 July 2013

Being perfect

In my head, two scriptures are having a friendly debate:
Matthew 5:48 (which in my head is always in King James wording): Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect. (Context.)
... and ...
Galatians 5:1 Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage. (Context.)
Isn't it a form of bondage to seek constantly to be perfect? That's what I'd like to think, especially these days when we are in the USA, bouncing around from one guest bed to another, constantly on the move, and feeling stressed about dilemmas both here and back home in Russia. Stressed, brittle, a bit short-tempered, and not the least bit perfect.

So: I'd love to think that by being imperfect, I'm just taking advantage of scriptural freedom. But in the back of my head, a voice with a decidedly German accent says, "Grace is great, but a little effort might be called for, too!"

The truth is, I'm neither perfect nor perfectly free, but I hope that even at this late stage, I might be able to grow into freedom, and thereby become a little closer to the person I will be when I really am free. And that person is probably not going to fit any template of perfection, but will at least be closer to Matthew 5:48.

Some forms of bondage are directly imposed by others. We don't dare turn this word "bondage" into a safe little metaphor when slavery is a reality in this world to this very day. The fact that oppressors are also in spiritual bondage doesn't reduce our obligation to face the truth and seek liberty for every captive.

Other forms of bondage may have originated outside us but have now taken root in our heads. Churches are vulnerable to two popular forms of bondage: legalism and sectarianism. Legalism is a great way of appearing spiritual while avoiding the actual freedom promised by Jesus, and this form of self-enslavement can be convenient for both the individual and the body. This heresy drove Paul nuts: "You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?" (from 3:1; context.)

Paul also doesn't mince words about mythologies, genealogies, and vain asceticism of all kinds, which are abiding temptations for small churches like Friends, who can become so enamored of their own specialness that they (we) lose the larger picture. See especially 1 Timothy. We as a group can only become more free as we seek the freedom of others, offering our glimpses of freedom and risking that they might actually want to be with us. When that happens, we will surely change! Our quakerliness might not look the same after a while, but the joy of shared freedom will generate new visions of what it means to quake at the word of the Lord.

I talked about a few of these ideas last Sunday when we visited Reedwood Friends Church, our home meeting in the USA. (There I added some thoughts about what being free means in Russia today.) In these next few weeks of travel, I hope to continue learning from others about what they've learned about accepting the gift of freedom from Jesus. Maybe you have some comments for me about what you've learned.

While I was meditating on these ideas, I happened to come across Donald Miller's Storyline blog post, "What if the Temptation to Be Impressive is Keeping Us From Connecting?" He starts,
A novelist I respect named James Scott Bell gave some writing advice I think applies to more than just fiction. In his book Conflict and Suspense he says, “Perfect people are not interesting to us. We need to see flaws in the characters as well as strengths.”
This hit me especially directly because last night I finished reading Masaryk Station, the last of David Downing's series of World War II spy novels featuring John Russell, a journalist, freelance spy, and partially disillusioned socialist. Russell's ideals and imperfections combine to make him a particularly endearing hero. I highly recommend the whole series of seven novels, and therefore don't want to say anything here that will reveal too much, but I love how Russell wrestles with dilemmas, makes intuitive choices about when to trust and when to lie, and most of all, never becomes immune to simple kindness. Each novel includes several subplots that could each end up being the main narrative of the novel, and the actual plot that eventually drives the novel to its conclusion can begin innocuously halfway into the story. This strike me as close to life.

To reinforce Miller's and Bell's point about flawed characters, Downing's John Russell was the third in a series of such heroes. First, I got very attached to Jo Nesbø's Norwegian detective Harry Hole, whose motivations are both mixed and changeable. His contradictory character has elements of nobility and self-loathing, and you never know which will predominate in any particular decision. And there is a constant spiritual dimension to his own self-examinations, an element he'd probably deny but it's there.

The second flawed character is Swedish writer Henning Mankell's detective Kurt Wallander, whose uncertainty and irritability are redeemed by his capacity for affection and loyalty, and willingness to learn something new. Both Wallander and Hole are reluctant to use violence, and neither one would fit any stereotype of heroic athleticism--in a typical action scene, they're likely to trip, fall, or drop their gun. Wallander can't explain to himself why he doesn't answer a letter or do an errand he knows he should do--how well I know these moments! All three of these writers build their heroes' worlds with wonderful little incidental details--such as Wallander needing to write to-do lists so that he'll remember to do his laundry at the time he's signed up for the machine.

If you're tired of perfect heroes and improbable drop-in plot hooks, try these novels.

More on being perfect (or not) ...

(Part two.)
(Part three.)

Here are a few glimpses from last week's Waterfront Blues Festival. I only attended two of the four days, but was well satisfied by those two days.

Grammy-winner Chubby Carrier and the Bayou Swamp Band

Karen Lovely's Prohibition Orchestra

Kelly's Lot: humor and energy and fun!

Eric Burdon and the Animals

A thoughtful personal survey of the loaded subject of privilege, with tenderly-stated observations and several helpful links.

Online trolls: to feed or to slay?

Sasha Senderovich on being "Stuck in Sheremetyevo." Friday PS: Snowden meets with human rights activists at the airport.

Two rather different pieces from Russia: "The Myths of Putin's Political Repression" and "Navalny Wins a Round."

"Prayer in the Teaching and Life of Jesus." "When we want to get to know Jesus better, we go to the Gospels and read about what he said and did. Then we have to think, because what Jesus said and what Jesus did do not always seem identical."

From the festival: Karen Lovely's Prohibition Orchestra, "Any Kind a Man"...


Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

“Isn't it a form of bondage to seek constantly to be perfect?” I don’t hear Christ telling us to seek constantly to be perfect; I just hear him telling us to be perfect. In other words, don’t try, just do!

And I totally agree with you about legalisms and vain asceticisms

*Real* asceticism, on the other hand — the strenuous life of Christian practice, running the good race and being temperate as a training (I Corinthians 9:24-27) — that is something I have no trouble getting behind. But the difference between the vain thing and the real thing becomes obvious, once you’ve been exposed to both.

Christians talk a lot about the freedom of the gospel, but we don’t always explain what it is, or how it differs from the freedom preached by politicians. I always think of Paul, who converted his jailer at Philippi by showing the difference between the two, not with words, but with his temperate behavior and his joy. (Acts 16) I am glad to see you doing a bit of further explaining here.

Johan Maurer said...

"Don't try, just do"...sounds like a viable definition of self-abandonment (in the best sense). When shame and fear drop away, then we can "just do." I agree with your comments about real asceticism, taken on as a commitment rather than a compulsion.

Ashley W said...

Hi Johan,

I was already going to comment on this post when I saw that you had linked to mine. Thanks!

What comes to me is that I think our definition of perfect is pretty different from God's. My definition of perfect probably is something like "not making any mistakes." I think God's definition is more like "being faithful regardless of the personal consequences."

That is why Jesus is so amazing. Not because he never made mistakes (it's pretty easy to argue that he did . . . and he learned from them), but because he was faithful, even when he knew the consequence would be a painful and public death.


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