1407) I’m Not Perfect, You Know

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     In Matthew 5:48 Jesus says, “Be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.”  How are you doing with that?  In the piece that follows, Philip Yancey describes the efforts toward perfection made by some religious groups in American history.  Believing they could do away with sin and create Utopian communities of perfect peace and harmony, the leaders of these groups made a noble attempt to get everyone to keep all the rules, all the time.  It did not work.  Every one of them failed.  Are you surprised?  While Yancey sees no hope for such projects, he does admire the effort. 

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By Philip Yancey in, A Guided Tour of the Bible, 1989, pages 657-658.

     A few years ago I attended a conference at a place called New Harmony, the restored site of a century old Utopian community.  As I ran my fingers over the fine workmanship of the buildings and read the plaques describing the daily lives of these ‘true believers,’ I marveled at the energy that drove this movement, one of the dozens spawned by American idealism and religious fervor.

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Rockers in the Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill, Kentucky

     Many varieties of perfectionism have grown on American soil: the offshoots of the Second Great Awakening, the Victorious Life movement, the Shakers, and the communes of the Jesus movement.  It struck me, though, that in recent times the urge to achieve perfection has nearly disappeared.  Nowadays we tilt in the opposite direction, toward a kind of anti-Utopianism. The recovery movement, for example, hinges on a person’s self-confessed inability to be perfect.

     I prefer this modern trend.  I find it much easier to believe in human fallibility than perfectibility, and I have cast my lot with a gospel based on grace.  Yet in New Harmony, Indiana, I felt an unaccountable nostalgia for the Utopians:  all those solemn figures in black clothes breaking rocks in the fields, devising ever-stricter rules in an attempt to rein in lust and greed, striving to fulfill the lofty commands of the New Testament.  The names they left behind tug at the heart: New Harmony, Peace Dale, New Hope, New Haven.

     Yet most Utopian communities— like the one I was standing in— survive only as museums.  Perfectionism keeps running aground on the barrier reef of original sin.  High ideals paradoxically lead to despair and defeatism.  Despite all good efforts, human beings don’t achieve a state of sinlessness, and in the end they often blame themselves, a blame often encouraged by their leaders (“If it’s not working there must be something wrong with you”).

      Still, I admit that I sometimes feel a nostalgia, even longing, for the quest itself.  How can we uphold the ideal of holiness, the proper striving for life on the highest plane, while avoiding the consequences of disillusionment, pettiness, abuse of authority, spiritual pride, and exclusivism?

     Or, to ask the opposite question, how can we moderns who emphasize community support (never judgment), honesty, and introspection keep from aiming too low?   An individualistic society, America stands in constant danger of freedom abuse, and its churches are in danger of grace abuse.

     It was with these questions in mind that I read through the Epistles, charting the motives they appealed to.  I read them in a different order than usual.  First I read Galatians, with its magnificent charter of Christian liberty and its fiery pronouncements against petty legalism.  Next I turned to James, that “right strawy epistle” that stuck in Martin Luther’s throat (too much law and not enough grace for Luther).  I read Ephesians and then I Corinthians, Romans and then I Timothy, Colossians and then I Peter.  In every epistle, without exception, I found both messages:  the high ideals of holiness, and also the safety net of grace reminding us that salvation does not depend on our meeting those ideals.  I will not attempt to resolve the tension between grace and works because the New Testament does not.   We must not try to solve the contradiction by reducing the force of either grace or morality.

     Ephesians pulls the two strands neatly together: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith; and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; not by works, so that no one can boast.  For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (2:8-10).  Philippians expresses the same dialectic: “…work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (2:12-13).  First Peter adds, “Live as free men, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as servants of God” (2:16).

     I take some comfort in the fact that the church in the first century was already on a seesaw, sometimes tilting toward perfectionist legalism, and at other times toward raucous freedom.  James wrote to one extreme; Paul often addressed the other.  Each letter has a strong correcting emphasis; but all stress the dual message of the gospel.  The church should be both:  a people who strive toward holiness and yet relax in grace, a people who condemn themselves but not others, a people who depend on God and not themselves.

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Grant me, O Lord, to fervently desire, wisely search out, and perfectly to fulfill all that is pleasing unto Thee.  Order my worldly condition to the glory of your name; and grant me the knowledge, desire, and ability to do what is required of me.  I pray that my path to Thee be safe, straightforward, and perfect to the end.

Give me, O Lord, a steadfast heart, which no unworthy affection may drag downward; give me an unconquered heart, which no tribulation can wear out; and give me an upright heart, which no unworthy purpose may tempt aside.

Bestow upon me also, O Lord my God, understanding to know Thee, diligence to seek Thee, wisdom to find Thee, and a faithfulness to the end that may finally embrace Thee.  Amen.

–Thomas Aquinas  (1225-1274)

564) The Law Written on Our Hearts (part two)

   

     (…continiued)  Grandma Nell’s choice to die with forgiveness rather than bitterness directly changed the lives of her doctor and her daughter.  It also had an indirect effect on the lives of all that doctor’s future patients, all the many people her daughter served, and on her grandchildren who she would never meet, but who heard about how she died and would also be affected by that story of faith and courage.  These powerful and profound changes, the effects of which go down through generations, are not the kinds of things that can be legislated or enforced, no matter how many laws we get on the books.  These kinds of actions and effects must come from the heart, and it is those kinds of actions that are most powerful.

     In Jeremiah 31:31-32 two types of law are described:

The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel…  It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke that covenant.

     What covenant was that?  What covenant did they get when they came out of Egypt and then broke?  That was the ten commandments and all the other laws that God gave them; law after law written down in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy; laws covering everything from killing and adultery, to when how to rotate your crops, to the correct and lawful way to clear mildew off the walls of your house.  But this covenant and these laws, says the Lord, were broken.

     But the next verse, verse 33, says there will be a new covenant:

This is the covenant I will now make; I will put my law in their minds and I will write it on their hearts.  I will be their God and they will be my people.

     This is a different kind of law.

     The written law is still necessary to protect us and to restrain us– for all of us do resist that law that God has put into our hearts and seek our own gain.  And the more we resist that inner law, the more written laws we will need, and the laws become so cumbersome that one can hardly make a move, no matter how sensible it might be– as in the case of Ruth and Bernice.

     When you borrow money and buy a house, there is a huge stack of papers to sign, covering every loophole and contingency, because no one can depend on strangers automatically doing the right thing.  But when two good friends get together to help each other out, they do not need a mountain of papers to regulate the proceedings, because they both trust in their mutual good will to be able to adjust to any bumps in the road.

     The written laws of the Old Testament go on and on, page after page, and reading it all is tiresome.  But in the New Testament, Jesus, the bringer of the new covenant is able to describe the law of the heart in just a few words.  On one occasion, he was asked what was the greatest law.  Jesus responded by saying that the whole law can be summed up in two commandments.  The greatest law was to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul.  And the second greatest commandment, Jesus said, was to love your neighbor as yourself.  On these two commandments, he said, all the books of the law and the prophets are based.  In another place, he described what it means to love your neighbor as yourself.  What he said there has become known as the golden rule– simply, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

     And then this ‘new covenant’ that Jeremiah says is coming has one more aspect to it.  It was referred to by Jesus himself on the night before he died when he offered the disciples the cup and said, “Take and drink, this cup is the NEW COVENANT in my blood, given and shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sins.  This do in remembrance of me.”  It is that love and that forgiveness, so dearly bought and so freely given, that changes our hearts, and then inspires us to faith and love and obedience.  Grandma Nell’s forgiveness changed a doctor and a daughter, and then a grandson who never even knew her.  God’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ changed the whole world.

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Deuteronomy 30:10b  —  Turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.

Matthew 22:35-40  —  One of them (a Pharisee), an expert in the law, tested him with this question:  “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”  Jesus replied:  “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Luke 6:31  —  (Jesus said), “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

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Grant us, O Lord, the blessing of a mind stayed on you, so that we may be kept in a perfect peace which cannot be broken.  Let not our minds rest on any created thing, but only on the Creator; not upon goods, things, houses, lands, inventions of vanities or foolish fashions; lest, our peace being broken, we become cross and brittle and given over to envy.  From all such deliver us, O God, and grant us your peace.  Amen.

–George Fox  (1624-1691),  Founder of the Society of Friends/Quakers

563) The Law Written on Our Hearts (part one)

     Ruth and Bernice were unmarried sisters and members of a church I used to serve.  They were in their 80’s when I knew them and had lived together almost their entire lives.  The only time they did not live in the same house was in World War II, when Ruth was in Europe serving as an army nurse, and now, in their last years, when Bernice was in a care center.  Bernice was already in an advanced stage of Alzheimer’s disease when I came to that church, so I never heard her speak or even saw her out of bed.  Death would have been a great blessing for Bernice, but death would not come.

     One of the reasons death would not come, was that whenever Bernice got sick, she would be rushed to the hospital by ambulance and everything would be done to make her better.  And she would get better, or, I should say, her body was kept alive; only to go back to laying in bed in the nursing home with that vacant stare.  Ruth could not understand this.  She had asked time and again that nature be allowed to take its course and that Bernice be allowed to die.  She wasn’t asking that Bernice be given an injection to make her die, and she wasn’t asking that food and water be withheld.  Ruth simply said, “My sister has lived a good life and she is ready to die.  When she gets pneumonia, can’t the disease just take its course and mercifully end her life?  It is time, can’t you see?  I’m her only living relative, and I know this would be her request.  I was a nurse all my life, and this is how we used to do things.  Why can’t someone just use some common sense here?”

     “Well,” said the nursing home administrator, “it is not our decision.  She is under the care of a doctor, and we cannot go against the doctor’s orders.”  

     “Yes,” said the doctor, “I know how it was years ago, and it was better then.  But it isn’t that way anymore, and if I just let someone die, I could be sued.  Yes, I know you wouldn’t do that, Ruth.  But that is what everyone says, and then they change their minds, and I’m in court.”

     “We’re sorry,” said the hospital administrator, “we understand your request, and we do have a policy that allows us to sometimes let people die, but your sister does not meet the requirements.  We have our rules and the insurance companies have their rules and Medicare has its rules and the doctors’ insurance companies have their rules and the state has its rules.  So we’re sorry, Ruth, but our hands are tied.”

     I’m not saying this is how it always is.  This was years ago and the law is always changing, and even then, different people had different experiences.  But this was Ruth’s experience.  Law was piled upon law, and regulation upon regulation, and there were policies and more policies.  Sometimes the law did provide needed clarification and consistency and protection, but much of it was in place only to guard against litigation.  Because of the fear of litigation, the primary concern all the way down the line became not to provide the best and most sensible care, but to make sure no one got sued.  

     John Adams once said that a good society depends on the moral and upright character of it citizens, and if the people lack that, no number of laws can maintain peace and order.  For Ruth and Bernice, the laws that intended to help and protect people became not a help, but a burden.

     UNC professor and columnist Mike Adams tells a different kind of story.  Adams never knew his grandmother.  She died of cancer in 1962 just before he was born.  He writes of her death:  “Grandma Nell’s death at the age of 48 was probably the result of a mistake by a physician who removed a cancerous organ during a previous surgery.  Later, when another organ was consumed by cancer, the doctor was consumed by guilt.  He concluded that he should have also removed that other organ during the previous surgery and thus, would have saved her life.  After it was too late, he tearfully apologized at grandma’s bedside.”  He would not have had to do that.  No one would have known the difference.  But, Adams says, “That was back when doctors were able to speak honestly to their patients instead of guarding carefully everything they said because they had to worry about litigation.”

      Grandma Nell, however, had no intention of suing anybody.  Learning that she would die at the age of 48 was devastating news, and she had to face her own personal loss and despair.  But because she was a person of faith, and because the doctor was a good doctor who simply made what turned out to be a bad call, she had no desire to add to the doctor’s misery.  She wanted to make sure that the doctor was all right, and knew that he was forgiven.  During the advanced stages of her illness, she even wrote him an uplifting letter that he kept in his office desk for the rest of his career.  When Nell died, the doctor cancelled his appointments and went to the funeral.  There he told Nell’s daughter, Mike Adams’ mother, that for years as a doctor he had to give bad news and console patients, but that Nell Myers was the only patient who ever tried to console him.  He said that Nell’s good will and forgiveness changed his whole life and career.

     Mike Adams said that his mother was also changed by the way her mother died with such dignity and forgiveness and courage.  She had been tempted to respond to the tragedy with anger and self-pity, but when she heard the doctor’s tearful account of Nell’s loving treatment of him, she too was changed.  She decided that if her mother’s faith could give her that kind of strength in the face of adversity, that in itself was conclusive proof of the power of the Almighty.  She too became a believer in God and decided that her mother’s death would inspire her to that same kind of love and good will and service to others.  And Mike Adams remembered his mother as one who was always ready to serve others– collecting groceries for the needy, serving at church, writing to prisoners, collecting money for various charities, etc.    (continued…)

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Isaiah 28:13  —  So then, the word of the Lord to them will become:  Do this, do that, a rule for this, a rule for that; a little here, a little there— so that as they go they will fall backward; they will be injured and snared and captured.

Psalm 119:34  —  Give me understanding, so that I may keep your law and obey it with all my heart.

Psalm 40:8  —  I desire to do your will, my God; your law is within my heart.

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O Lord, give us more charity, more self-denial, more likeness to you.  Teach us to sacrifice our comforts to others, and our likings for the sake of doing good.  Make us kindly in thought, gentle in word, generous in deed.  Teach us that it is better to give than to receive; better to forget ourselves than to put ourselves forward; better to minister than to be ministered to.  And to you, the God of love, be glory and praise forever.  Amen.

–Henry Alford  (1810-1871), Dean of Canterbury Cathedral

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Prayer of a Chinese woman, recently converted to Christianity:

We are going home to many who cannot read.  So, Lord, make us to be Bibles so that whose who cannot read the book can read it in us.