After church yesterday I had a delightful talk with a parishioner. The conversation was related to one of the questions I raised when preaching: “Why does Jesus seem to be so demanding in regard to the exercise of faith in his followers?” In the sermon I suggested that part of the reason that Jesus had high expectations of his disciples was because of the urgency related to the work of the Kingdom of God… an urgency dictated by the fact that there are lives at stake, and, quoting the title of Paul Elie’s great book about Flannery O’Connor and others, when we take the work of the Kingdom seriously not only can we save the lives of many on the brink but that “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.” The delightful conversation after church added yet another perspective: Jesus is uncompromising in his expectations of us because what he expects is perfection: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5.48).
Perfection is a high standard. The great writer Madeleine L’Engle, bless her soul, once said that the word perfection bothered her so much that she looked it up in an etymological dictionary to find that it didn’t mean perfection at all, but rather means only to do thoroughly: “…and so I think if we can thoroughly work at our questions and thoroughly work at our faith and let it move and let it change that’s what’s meant by perfection; not some kind of rigid moral standard – not success…” said L’Engle.
In both Hebrew and Greek the words for perfection (teleios & tamiym) mean “to be brought to completeness; to be complete, whole.” And indeed, the origins of the word perfect in Latin are derived from a combination of per– thoroughly and facere– to make, do. I suppose, then, that we could say, in the truest sense of the word, that after looking thoroughly at our lives of faith they are perfect in that they are a complete mess; that like the quote from Thomas Merton I used in my Daily Cup last week, we have done all things badly and have thrown away great opportunities to be faithful. But we could also say, perhaps with L’Engle (and perhaps with that old bumper sticker): “Be patient, God is thoroughly unfinished with me.”
A work that has had a profound effect on the ambiguities and contradictions inherent in my faith journey is Parker Palmer’s performatively titled book describing the Christian life (The Promise of Paradox, 1980, Ave Maria Press). Inspired by Thomas Merton’s writing, the book invites us to hold together the paradoxes that can plague, or bless, the thoughtful believer.
Perhaps Rilke’s great poem holds together the tension and the paradox between the urgency of the Kingdom of God and the patience that will be required for us to perfect a faith such that our lives reflect the faith of Christ:
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions
themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue.
Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them.
And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually,
without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
These are good words for the church: Be patient, but live the questions now.
Let us promise and pray: We want dear Lord, as your church, to live fully into the urgent call to faith. Help us to unlock room in our hearts for greater mercy and service today and provide us your patience as we endeavor to a more perfect faith tomorrow. Amen
Peace and happy Monday,