27 September 2018

Being perfect, part three

Red Brick Warehouses, Hakodate, Japan. (Slow boat to Japan.)
(Part one.)
(Part two.)

As we woke up this morning off the coast of Honshu, the U.S. Senate's Judiciary Committee hearing with Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanough was in full swing. I sampled the coverage (to the extent allowed by our slow Internet connection) but soon felt so repelled by the proceedings that I decided, for the sake of resisting despair if nothing else, to continue my meditations on being perfect.

Perfection and community.

Orthodox Church of the Resurrection,
In last week's post, both the Protestant and the Eastern Orthodox writers seemed to agree that ideal disciples are centered in God -- their acts (the Protestant emphasis) and their identity (the Orthodox emphasis) are completely God-oriented. How is this possible? In a demanding and competitive world, where our family's welfare may seem to depend on choosing the lesser of many evils, how can we afford mystical union with the Divine? How can every decision be an act of worship?

Alone, I will never be able to know perfectly whether my choices (for myself and in relation to others) are God-centered. I need a community with others who are struggling with the same questions, some of whom have more experience than I do,  and who make it safe to share successes, uncertainties, and failures.

Christian communities vary spectacularly on their commitment to honesty, peer equality, and safety in this task. Here's a positive example: My very first church, Ottawa Friends Meeting in Canadian Yearly Meeting, was not perfect, but I detected no authoritarianism. Those who had "weight" in the community seemed to my young and skeptical eyes (I grew up in an anti-religious family) to have earned their reputations through the community's cumulative observations rather than church politics. The appointment process for church offices seemed transparent. As a raw newcomer who became a member with what for Quakers passes for blinding speed (about eight months after my first visit), I was encouraged to go further in service to the meeting and in personal growth. And all this at a time when I was dealing with a string of personal and family crises.

Other relatives were, in those same years, involved in an authoritarian Christian cult whose leadership reserved the right to regulate members' lives and personal relationships, to the point of licensing or prohibiting romances. At one point, everyone's right to call themselves Christians was cancelled and each person had to "earn" the designation back again.

Three and a half centuries ago, when the Friends movement was still young, the established church's monopoly of power depended in part on the priestly function of forgiving sins and restoring sinners. Early Friends' defense of "perfection" as a real possibility for each believer was not necessarily a glib assertion that we're automatically perfect, or that it's a guaranteed outcome for some ideal path. It was, instead, a declaration that God's power, when yielded to, can deliver us from sin without the intervention of licensed church authorities. A trustworthy community helps us learn (together!) how to yield to God, rather than demanding that we yield to its own special appointees.

Perfection and submission.

Is there necessarily a contradiction between centering (or "losing") our identities in God, and cherishing the unique identities we actually have? -- our talents, gifts, memories, habits, blind spots, desires and dislikes, our overall sense of continuity? How do we both have and surrender our very selves?

In fact, how do we have the capacity to surrender ourselves if we don't even have a "self" to surrender? The Catholic church reminds those involved with formation in religious communities,
... that to give oneself in obedience, it is first necessary to be conscious of one's existence. Candidates need to leave the anonymity of the technical world, to know themselves as they are, and to be known as persons, to be esteemed and loved....
If I advise you to submit when you have already been robbed of your full selfhood, there is absolutely nothing godly about what I'm doing to you. So much religious literature seems to presume the freedom and privilege to explore self-surrender abstractly, without considering our individual starting points, traumas, addictions, and blind spots. That's why it's so important that we have a safe community of peers who are free to listen, receive and give confessions, and counsel each other based on honesty, not status.

In that trustworthy place, we might be able to begin confessing our joys and uncertainties about our own selves in all our variety. One example: as we grapple with what Jesus meant by his paradoxical invitation to "repent and believe the Good News," men and women may have different priorities in defining repentance. I am guessing that "repentance" for those accustomed to being in control doesn't look the same as "repentance" for those recovering from the social expectation that they must be passive or deferential. No formulaic or coercive demand to REPENT! can possibly honor the full Christian invitation.

Perfection and prayer.

My own halting progress toward cutting the power of sin is linked to my practice of prayer ... and languishes when I neglect that practice. With the caution that my practice might not suit even one other person on this planet, I tend to resort to these disciplines:
  • Short prayers. When confronted by temptation, for example, I tend to pray, "I want to dwell in You." When I'm angry with someone, I try praying for that person. (To be honest, with some public figures I pray for a happy and early retirement.)
  • Remembering to "regard" the world with the same quality of attention I regard Jesus. This isn't easy, especially in times of conflict. When I fail, I don't waste time in recriminations, but try to return to that perspective.
  • A related discipline: using my eyes as "blessing projectors." (This is an idea I got from the late Bill Vaswig, if I remember correctly.) I'm less likely to use my eyes for gratification or judgment if I'm praying blessings on the people I see.
One other thing: I have stopped being embarrassed about my own optimism and idealism -- that part of my self-understanding I'm really reluctant to surrender -- but instead I try to remain committed to hearing the testimony in other people's pessimism or cynicism.

I want to repeat something that I said in my "short prayers" post: When I write about prayer, I don't want you to be fooled. I'm absolutely no more pious or spiritually accomplished than anyone else you're likely to run into in the Christian life. I have my strong moments and my weak moments. I write not to show off but because I find it helpful to learn how others pray, and would like to return the favor. It would be wonderful to hear your reflections on being real while growing in our capacity to dwell in God.

Back to Washington, DC, for a moment. Is there any man in this room that wouldn't be subjected to such an allegation? How are we men coping with the implications of this question?

Donald Trump has declared himself against globalism. Larry Elliott considers whether Trump might have a valid point.

Jayson Casper considers the dilemmas of discerning when advocacy for persecuted Christians can do more harm than good.

With sad memories of Northwest Yearly Meeting, here are two articles on a major Mennonite denomination and its struggles over sexual identities: aligning along the sexuality axis; and GetReligion's subsequent commentary, attempting to find peace on LGBTQ issues.

1 comment:

kfsaylor said...

I have appreciated this series on perfection, especially relating to moment by moment experience of the presence of Jesus Christ in daily life and interactions with people. Through the appearance of the inshining spirit of Christ in my life I am normally come out of the process of reflecting on the Life itself in itself, as it pervades my conscience and consciousness, in the context of a mirrored consciousness that reflects direct intuitive experience through the mirrors of outside concepts like perfection or godliness. Both these, as outward conceptual constructs, are mere shadows or imitations (mirrored images) of actual direct and immediate experience of a life, conscience, and consciousness ruled and governed by immanent Presence itself in itself. I am come out of valuation of mirror constructs like perfection and godliness. These theological constructs cast a shadow over the daily experience for the inshining Light guiding and informing my conscience and consciousness. The process of engaging in the reflective process darkens or overshadows the direct, immediate, and ever present experience of Christ’s appearance in my conscience. Perfection is experienced in the Life itself as is godliness. It is in seeing past the constructs to the thing itself in itself through direct experience in the conscience that understanding happen.

As to your words:

“Alone, I will never be able to know perfectly whether my choices (for myself and in relation to others) are God-centered. I need a community with others who are struggling with the same questions, some of whom have more experience than I do, and who make it safe to share successes, uncertainties, and failures.”

Personally, I am come into the sufficiency of immanent Presence itself in itself in my conscience (without regard for outward leaders, institutions, or community) to guide, rule, and govern my relationships and interactions with others. Through the appearance of the spirit of Christ in my conscience, I am come out the valuation of outward communal formal structures to inform human relationships and interactions ... literally. These forms and the reflective process of mirrored consciousness are discovered to me as a hinderance to the daily and moment by moment immediate experience of the Life itself.

Your testimony of needing community is helpful to me as a remembrance that there are many people who do not share the same spirit and are needful of outward community.