Be Perfect

“Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” -Matthew 5:46

I have hated that verse. It’s always felt so unfair. How am I supposed to be perfect? Why even bother trying to get better at all, if perfect is what I both should and never can hope to be?

Well, I tried. From years of in depth research, with a sample set of one, I am prepared to share my results and even a conclusion or two…not making mistakes is simply impossible if you live as a human in the world. I try to cook all the healthy things. I try to say all the kind and wise things. I try to advocate for others when I sense they can not advocate for themselves. I try to teach my children how to be true people even as I try to learn that for myself. I do many of these things very well. But I certainly don’t do them perfectly.

So have I failed?

I think the teaching I grew up under would say yes. That me failing is the point, because that’s how I’m supposed to know I need Jesus. Like God is this terrible middle school boyfriend who needs you to feel like crap about yourself before He comes and says something kind of nice and you’re so grateful you’ll do anything to keep Him around.

Somewhere along the line I stopped thinking about God that way. God’s no longer a fickle boyfriend I have to figure out how to please Or Else. The problem is, the things that are part of the soil we grew in somehow become part of our very being in a way that is difficult to change. Not impossible. But difficult. So while I can say (and mean) that I don’t think God works that way, I still behave in ways that belie that confidence. I find myself afraid to make mistakes (because as every good little Sunday School student grows up hearing, you may be the only Bible some people ever read so GET IT TOGETHER).

I’ve been thinking a lot about Matthew 5:46 again recently, and how living under the tyranny of it for years may not actually be true to the original intent. What was Jesus getting at? Did he really mean that people shouldn’t make any mistakes? Has he met people? Because words are important to me I went back to the original Greek and found that Teleios, the Greek word for “perfect” used in this case, can mean “without flaw” but it can also mean something like, “having gone through all the steps of a process and reached the end.” Even in English, the word perfect can also mean “complete and absolute” (example: a perfect stranger is not a stranger who makes no mistakes…so an admonition to be perfect in that sense would mean something like “whatever you are be that thing”).

So then, maybe the point of this verse isn’t “don’t make mistakes.” Maybe the point is, “go through all the steps.”

Going through all the steps is how we complete the process of becoming….well I don’t quite know yet. That’s where faith comes in for me. My faith is a belief that if I just keep going, this next part will lead to something…different. Maybe the next moment will be better than this one; maybe not. But I think with faith the general idea is that we move through the world as though the end goal is good and the good points along the way are meant to remind us of that. When people ask me how I’m doing these days, I usually answer, “Lots of ways! But a general upward trend, I think.”

In any given day, I will feel sad, overwhelmed, relieved, grateful, angry, and many more things. I will succeed magnificently, and I will fail spectacularly. I will be perfect.

 

A Princess Worth Mentioning Again: Rosamond

Another excerpt from The Lost Princess by George MacDonald. For me, where I am now, anxiety = group of some dozen wolves and hyenas. As Robert Frost tells us, “The best way out is always through.”

*****

Then said the wise woman:—

“Below there is the forest which surrounds my house. I am going home. If you pledge to come there to me, I will help you, in a way I could not do now, to be good and lovely. I will wait you there all day, but if you start at once, you may be there long before noon. I shall have your breakfast waiting for you. One thing more: the beasts have not yet all gone home to their holes; but I give you my word, not one will touch you so long as you keep coming nearer to my house.”

She ceased. Rosamond sat waiting to hear something more; but nothing came. She looked up; she was alone.

Alone once more! Always being left alone, because she would not yield to what was right! Oh, how safe she had felt under the wise woman’s cloak! She had indeed been good to her, and she had in return behaved like one of the hyenas of the awful wood! What a wonderful house it was she lived in! And again all her own story came up into her brain from her repentant heart.

“Why didn’t she take me with her?” she said. “I would have gone gladly.” And she wept. But her own conscience told her that, in the very middle of her shame and desire to be good, she had returned no answer to the words of the wise woman; she had sat like a tree-stump, and done nothing. She tried to say there was nothing to be done; but she knew at once that she could have told the wise woman she had been very wicked, and asked her to take her with her. Now there was nothing to be done.

“Nothing to be done!” said her conscience. “Cannot you rise, and walk down the hill, and through the wood?”

“But the wild beasts!”

“There it is! You don’t believe the wise woman yet! Did she not tell you the beasts would not touch you?”

“But they are so horrid!”

“Yes, they are; but it would be far better to be eaten up alive by them than live on—such a worthless creature as you are. Why, you’re not fit to be thought about by any but bad ugly creatures.”

This was how herself talked to her.

All at once she jumped to her feet, and ran at full speed down the hill and into the wood. She heard howlings and yellings on all sides of her, but she ran straight on, as near as she could judge. Her spirits rose as she ran. Suddenly she saw before her, in the dusk of the thick wood, a group of some dozen wolves and hyenas, standing all together right in her way, with their green eyes fixed upon her staring. She faltered one step, then bethought her of what the wise woman had promised, and keeping straight on, dashed right into the middle of them. They fled howling, as if she had struck them with fire. She was no more afraid after that, and ere the sun was up she was out of the wood and upon the heath, which no bad thing could step upon and live. With the first peep of the sun above the horizon, she saw the little cottage before her, and ran as fast as she could run towards it, When she came near it, she saw that the door was open, and ran straight into the outstretched arms of the wise woman.

The wise woman kissed her and stroked her hair, set her down by the fire, and gave her a bowl of bread and milk.

When she had eaten it she drew her before her where she sat, and spoke to her thus:—

“Rosamond, if you would be a blessed creature instead of a mere wretch, you must submit to be tried.”

“Is that something terrible?” asked the princess, turning white.

“No, my child; but it is something very difficult to come well out of. Nobody who has not been tried knows how difficult it is; but whoever has come well out of it, and those who do not overcome never do come out of it, always looks back with horror, not on what she has come through, but on the very idea of the possibility of having failed, and being still the same miserable creature as before.”

To the Girl Who Came Out to My High School Youth Group

People murmured uncomfortably to each other, “What’s she doing here?”

“I don’t know!”

“I mean, she came out. As a Lesbian. She likes girls!”

Churchgoers between worship services continued to whisper behind their hands and awkwardly avoid eye contact.

You stood there in the middle of the crowded lobby, not moving. Looking at people’s faces one by one. We made eye contact for a brief moment, and then you looked away to the next person as I uncomfortably averted my gaze. I had nothing to offer you. We knew each other but hadn’t been close, and I did not have a grid for how to accept or even understand your presence there because I had been taught that what you were claiming as your identity was an immoral action and so I should pass judgment on it. I was to love you by hating your sin. I was young and impressionable and didn’t yet know that loving someone should not involve voting “yes” or “no” on them before being their friend. So when someone I’d attended youth events with and known moderately well “admitted” to being gay and then came and stared at us on a Sunday morning, I didn’t know that maybe what you needed was for us to look at you like you were still a person; maybe you wanted to know you were still worthy of being looked in the eye and cared about. Better yet, for someone to say, “I don’t know how this works yet because there’s a lot of cultural baggage around this, but I care about you enough to try to figure it out.”

God forgive me.

~~~~~

A few years later, I was home visiting from college when I saw in the church bulletin that the teaching in a couple of weeks was to be on homosexuality. A few years in the school of music and a few key friendships in which I cared about actual gay people having informed my thinking, I emailed the pastor and asked him to please keep three things in mind:

1. That while many Christians think of being gay as a choice or action, most gay people think of being gay as an issue of identity.

2. That when you say that being gay is wrong, you are telling someone that the way they understand their identity is wrong.

3. That even if being gay is a sin, like gluttony or pride, we don’t make people stop doing those other things as a prerequisite for deserving our respect.

I wasn’t home the weekend he gave the teaching, so I don’t know whether my words had any impact. But I want you to know that by that point I had begun to see that our church had mishandled something important by not looking you in the eye that day.

~~~~~

If I go back and think about the day you stood there, I hope that someone in that whole crowd of professed Jesus followers was willing to stop and really look at you. I hope someone, anyone, was able to see your coming and standing there for what it really was: an act of bravery. You came and you said, “this is who I am. This is who I understand myself to be. Do you still love me?” I feel deep shame as I write that knowing it wasn’t me. But wallowing doesn’t help either of us. Guilt is only useful if it propels us to do better because we know better. So I promise to continue learning how to really look at people. I will put away from me, as a doctrine of the Pharisees, the practice of passing judgment on people as though they are nothing but a collection of choices for me to weigh in on.

Congratulations, M. I hope that, wherever you are, the recent ruling from the Supreme Court regarding gay marriage affords you some measure of peace and validation. And I hope and pray you’ve found people who can love you well and see you for the precious child of God that you are.

 

One of us

“If God didn’t do this to us, then what? Who’s in charge here?”

Some version of this has been rattling around in my heart for months.

I can’t read accounts of Jesus healing people right now. It hurts too much. When I read about Jesus raising the little girl from the dead, I feel deep anger and confusion.

But I went to an Evensong service last weekend, because I am not prepared to give up on the idea that God is there, God cares about me (us), and that God is involved in our lives in significant and meaningful ways.

The first lesson was from Zechariah and said, among other things, “I will turn my hand against the little ones.”

What the Hell? What. The. Hell?

 

And then in the sermon, she spoke about Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers because he didn’t want people to think about interacting with God as a transaction. We give so many pieces of silver in exchange for our safety, or for that of our loved ones. Part of me still wishes it worked that way. It would be so much less confusing.

In Evangelical Christianity, there is a rampant idea that if we

do the right things,

say the right things,

agree with the right things…then God will approve of us and our life will look a certain way.

 

It’s not usually said in so many words. And if that’s not the way your life looks, there is always a ready explanation.

“God is teaching you ________________.”

“God is protecting you from ______________.”

“God needed another angel.”

 

But really, behind all of that, when nothing bad is present that needs explaining, the idea is that if you

do the right things,

say the right things,

agree with the right things…then God will approve of you and your life will look a certain way.

 

The other thing she mentioned in the sermon was that the night before being crucified, Jesus asked not to have to go through it. I think we tend to focus on the “but not my will” part because it sounds more noble or because we are unable to deal with negative emotion or something. But you know what? Jesus was scared. He felt, and verbalized, “I don’t want to have to do this.”

And it still happened.

 

That changes God from someone who Does Things to us into someone who has Been Through Things with us.

 

And some part of me deep down, which feels very tired, thinks that is very good news.

The Dissonance of Advent

I’ve really appreciated Advent this year. I don’t mean in a Pinterest, made a hand-made ornament out of cinnamon with my children every day sort of way. I mean that the season of Advent just feels really right, somehow.

It feels good to remember that Christianity has this tension built into it because we don’t live in a world where things are all as they should be. Still we are told that God loves us and is always, always doing His best for us. There is confusion built into that, and no small amount of cognitive dissonance sometimes as I try to sort through a tangle of thoughts about God. You know the great thing about dissonance in music though? Eventually it resolves. There is a cadence. That is the promise of Advent. Advent promises that whatever modulation we find ourselves in now, we will get back to tonic eventually. It invites us to sit with tension and hope. Humans desire a deep sense of security and if that is to be found in our surroundings, we often don’t look further. Dissonance draws us out do deal with it, though. I once got my toddler to start cleaning up by playing a cadence a few times and then only playing the first chord and not resolving it until she moved to start putting her toys away. Dissonance is unstable, and even a small child can tell that our ears want unstable harmonies to resolve.

Dissonance of any type can be deafening. It can make it seem like everything’s just noise. It can be interpreted as such, if I choose. There is logic to assuming that we crave pattern and sense from the universe because we were made for it, but there is also logic to assuming that we only seem to see a pattern because we want to; sometimes circumstances seem to imply there is no intentionality governing what happens to us. Maybe, though, to judge all of reality by those moments of greatest dissonance is like trying to explain the legend of King Arthur by saying it’s about some guy who sleeps with his sister. That explanation is not without basis, but it also doesn’t really tell us the whole story.

I wish I could explain the whole story. Of everything. It would be so nice to be able to tell my friends, “This is why this is happening to you.” It would have been so comforting last year to say to my husband, “You’re sick now and it’s awful, but you’re going to be fine. I read ahead and you don’t have a lifelong debilitating illness after all.”

Advent reminds us that not being reconciled to our circumstances is allowed. We are made for more than complacency. We don’t get easy answers. We get Advent. We get a promise that we are not crazy for thinking that this is not how it’s supposed to be.

 I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

I thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

And in despair I bowed my head:
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor does he sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men.”

Till, ringing, singing, on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime,
Of peace on earth, good will to men!

The Yáng Guāng of the Tài Yáng

Disclosure: Christianese ahead. I’ll try my best to deconstruct it, though. Also, there are entire fields of study dedicated to answering some of these questions, so please don’t mistake this one post in the middle of my journey for an attempt to conclusively provide answers.

My faith tree feels like it got struck by lightning this past year. Maybe even a few times. The damage doesn’t go all the way down to the root; I still see clear signs of quickening and health, even if they aren’t perceptible in the same way as ten years ago. But there are definitely some branches falling away. I can feel it. Some of the work is too close right now for me to be sure exactly which branches are being pruned and how, but I am trying to trust the process.

I’ve been asking questions I would have been afraid to ask before, and letting go of pointless shame wherever possible.

One of the questions I’ve asked is “What is the point of God?”

If people can still get sick.

If children can die of cancer.

If everything is so damned confusing sometimes.

What are we doing here? Where are we going, and why are we in this handbasket?

The thing is, I think maybe that was the point of Jesus. Because the Old Testament is full of stories of God and Israel just missing each other. There are moments when they see things for the truths they are. But the great majority of the time the nation of Israel is wandering around in the desert, suffering atrocities, committing atrocities, or making and following lots of rules (all the while recognizing themselves as God’s specially chosen people).

There are a lot of things in the world that are utterly bewildering. What is God like, if this is how it’s going to be?

In a letter to the early Jewish church (so some of the first Messianic Jews) it says “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being…”

I took some Chinese classes a few years ago (long story) (there were a lot of Chinese kids in my preschool class so the center I worked for paid for me to go) (OK not that long). </digression>

I remember in one of my classes the teacher explained that in Mandarin there are different words for light. In English we talk about “the light you turn on” and “the light you use to see”. We can use that word somewhat interchangeably. In Chinese though, the word is not interchangeable. “Tài yáng” means sun. The one that rises in the east. “Yáng guāng”, on the other hand, is defined as “sunshine, sunlight, or sunbeam”. The light that is, is a distinct concept from the light you can see by.

As a child I tried once to stare at the sun. Luckily I didn’t do it for too long, because looking directly at the sun can make you blind (I will sometimes foolishly ignore my mama’s wise advice, but only so far it seems).

There are ways in which it hurts my eyes to look at God right now. Through cancer. Through unexplained illness. Through death.

But if God is utterly like Jesus, as doctrine teaches, then there is some hope; though by no means a full explanation. Jesus, who cries with devastated people. Who uses mud and spit to cure blindness, who hangs out with embezzlers and prostitutes, who takes away shame where it can be of no help, and who preaches shame over those that would presume to make God so very exclusive and inaccessible to oppressed and hurting people.

So if Jesus is the Yáng guāng of God’s Tài yáng, I think I can see the point of him. I can’t look directly at the sun. But the light of the sun is the means by which I begin to see everything else.

Drinking Water

I’m kind of a mess right now. Meaning, talking about my own stuff far too much instead of listening to people I find interesting because my brain is like a car engine revved up to 8,000 rpms all the time kind of mess. Meaning up all night, could easily go skipping down any of a number of destructive paths kind of mess. I’m not saying that to garner sympathy (I have enough of that because I have lots of kind and compassionate people around me), and I certainly don’t have the market cornered on Going Through Stuff. I know a lot of people who have a lot going on. 2014 has been sort of a glass 3/4 empty kind of year so far.

The thing about being a parent is that it doesn’t stop just because I am a mess. People still poop in their diapers, and need to be fed, clothed, washed, and cleaned up after/told to clean up after themselves. And there are a lot of other areas of life in which this holds true to varying degrees. Even the most understanding of workplaces will require one to eventually, you know, be able to function and do work. Sick loved ones are still sick, even if I can’t handle it. And sometimes, the astounding pressure to just GET IT TOGETHER ALREADY is enough to get me through an ER visit. But sometimes it’s not. So what then?

My new spiritual practice is drinking water. As a way to remind myself to stop and allow myself to be replenished in the most basic way I can think of. Because if I am not intentional, I can go days without actually drinking a glass of plain water. It’s like being a Christian without praying to God for peace in times of sorrow. Sure, I can do it; probably even for quite a long time, but why would I want to? What does it prove? It’s not as though God doesn’t know I’m a mess if I don’t pray about it. I am privileged to live in a place where water is readily available whenever I want it, so why should I let myself wither like the houseplants I keep forgetting to water?

Someone’s chemo isn’t working? Stop and drink a glass of water.

Kids are fighting over the same toy AGAIN? Stop and drink a glass of water.

A friend’s baby has to have open heart surgery? Water.

We’re doing a test that will “rule out” Crohn’s disease for the fifth time this year? *sigh* water.

Now, drinking water doesn’t directly help any of these situations the least little bit. Any more than remembering to water my houseplants would keep them from burning in a fire or being smashed to pieces if thrown on the floor. But when the hypothetical fire or smashing feels like it’s hanging over my head (especially if it seems to follow me for any length of time), it’s so easy to overlook the important fundamental ways that I can keep myself from withering away in the meanwhile.

Sometimes I don’t feel any different after I drink a big glass of water. But sometimes I do.

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