Tag Archives: Perfection

Differently Abled in the Church: “Life Unworthy of Life” & the Kingdom of God

What does your church do with people who are differently abled, disabled, mentally handicapped, handicapped, or crippled? (All of those terms have been used in my thirty-odd trips around the sun.)

Do you have someone in your church who comes in a wheelchair? Do you have training for teachers and nursery workers, preschool workers and children’s ministers on how to engage kids with autism? Do you know a person with Down’s Syndrome? Are you equipped to recognize mental illness? When you offer communion, do you comment on how someone who is differently abled may access the Body and Blood of Christ? 

I have two children. So far, to my knowledge, neither one is differently abled. The youngest can’t yet read; it’s possible we’ll learn she has dyslexia later on. Both are what strangers would call, “healthy.” For now, of course. A disease or tumor or accident could hit, leaving one with impaired cognition or missing an arm or with burn scars. When I was expecting my first child, I attempted to mentally prepare myself for various possibilities – miscarriage, birth defects, a disabled child. After all, there are a few pregnancy screenings most expectant mothers go through.

Growing up in North America at the end of the twentieth century during a constantly shifting linguistic atmosphere that aimed for more sensitivity, however imperfectly, meant changes in popular dialogue.

Recently a news story emerged about the drastic reduction of Down’s Syndrome in Iceland, ostensibly nearly “eliminated.” Actress Patricia Heaton stepped up and publicly challenged the portrayal of the reality: you’re not eradicating it, she said. You’re eradicating people with it. Because Iceland’s supposed “progress” wasn’t through some medical breakthrough: it was through abortion. 

Around the same time, when I didn’t recognize the name of one of the white supremacist groups in Charlottesville, I researched it online. The preview of their site used the word, “fit.” Fit. Not healthy or well-toned or strong. Fit, as in, fit or unfit. As in, who is fit to liveNazis had no use for people with disabilities, or people who might need special education. I was sickened to see the word “fit” on that website as my mind went back to the documentaries on the Holocaust. 

Life is a gift. Life is a good. 

Downs people matterBlack people matterJewish people matterCatholic people matterGay people matterHandicapped people matterRoma people matterPeople who protect these people matter. 

All those people went into camps and didn’t come out. 

Life is life.  

Jesus said, “let the little kids come to me.”

When someone talked about a guy born blind (in front of the man, mind you) and asked Jesus, “who sinned, this man or his parents?” Jesus challenged the notion that there was something wrong with parents of a child who was different than other children, and Jesus challenged the notion that there was something to be avoided about a person who was born with a physical limitation.

In fact, Jesus went on to clarify that the differently abled man was part of God’s inbreaking Kingdom, a specially chosen revelation of the power and love of God. 

Around the same time that I read the word “fit” on the Neo-Nazi website, around the same time I saw the news out of Iceland about the approaching “eradication” of Down’s Syndrome, I happened across the video below. 

Sometimes Wesleyan Methodists use the word “perfect” or “perfection.” We use it to mean, “complete in love,” “fullness of love,” “free of the desire to separate ourselves from God.” We use it to mean the kind of perfection alluded to in the Greek language of the New Testament – perfect, having met a full goal: whole, complete.  

We never, ever use it to mean superior, or “fit,” or more worthy than another. All through the New Testament, Jesus encounters people whose minds or bodies work differently than other peoples’, Jesus encounters people whose minds or bodies don’t work “right,” but Jesus always sees them. Jesus makes eye contact. Jesus extends dignity. Jesus acknowledges personhood 

Zaccheus, we read, was a man “short in stature.” He may have been a little person, a human with dwarfism. Zaccheus was small, and for whatever reason, he was in a very unpopular profession. He risked ridicule by climbing up a tree to see Jesus. In the middle of the shoving crowds, Jesus looked up and made eye contact. He saw Zaccheus, he didn’t see through him. He didn’t avoid him. While Jesus is the star of the day, the big news in town, whose house does Jesus decide to go to? “Zaccheus, get down from there. I’d like to come to your house for dinner, is that okay?” The small man’s life was changed. 

There is no “life unworthy of life” in the Kingdom of God. In the Gospel of Matthew we read about Jesus saying, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.” 

One of the sisters of Mother Teresa’s Order commented on the value of disabled children a few years ago “Each life ought to be lived,” Sr M. Infanta said, even if it does not meet utilitarian criteria or is not “productive” according to today’s models. “These children have been created to love and be loved. They are a unique source of blessing for us, society and the whole world,” she said. 

Similarly, a few years ago a movie called “The Drop Box” was released about a Korean pastor who takes in otherwise abandoned infants, many of whom are disabled in some way. (At the time of publication, “The Drop Box” is available to view on Instant Netflix.) 

What a diametrically opposed view Christians are called to embrace in contrast to the concept that there is, “life unworthy of life.” But more than a viewpoint or a concept is the challenge of practice.  

In a subsection editors titled “The Judgment of the Nations,” we read these words from Matthew 25:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

An Icelandic mother of a child with Down’s Syndrome posed this question in the news story referenced earlier: “what kind of a society do you want to live in?” 

I don’t know about you, but I want to live in one that looks more and more like a place that welcomes people Jesus loves. I want to live in one that looks more and more like the Kingdom of God, where we make eye contact, where we smile, where we kneel down, where we reach out and touch, where we embrace, where we see what we have to learn from people who are different than us. 

Churches can become beacons of this merry, determined band of disciples that doesn’t leave anyone behind. The question is whether you will.

Picking up mentally handicapped adults in a church van for Sunday services isn’t glamorous. Pushing a heavy person in a wheelchair uphill with an oxygen tank banging into your shins doesn’t readily come with an apt hashtag. Learning how to serve a family with special needs kids might not headline any popular ministry conferences. 

But Jesus made eye contact. Jesus knelt down. Jesus reached out. Jesus went out of his way. And we cannot ignore that Jesus made eye contact with us. Jesus knelt down for us. Jesus reached out to us. Jesus went out of his way for us.  

A convenient time will never arrive. But if you look for them, beautiful moments will. There is no life unworthy of lifeLife is beautiful.

Andy Stoddard ~ Keep on Moving: Perfect in Love

One of the things that I know most about faith is that we are going somewhere.  We are on the move.  We have a direction and a purpose.

Now that somewhere, in time, is heaven. One day, for those of us that believe, we will cross over into eternity and we will forever be with the Lord.  That’s something to hope in, believe in, and rejoice in.

But that’s not just what I’m talking about it.  Listen to what we read today in Hebrews 6: 1-3:

Therefore let us go on toward perfection, leaving behind the basic teaching about Christ, and not laying again the foundation: repentance from dead works and faith toward God, instruction about baptisms, laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And we will do this, if God permits.

We are going on to perfection.  That’s scary.  We don’t like the sound of that.  Perfection?  None of us are anywhere near that!

And you know what?  That’s exactly true.  None of us are anywhere near perfection. But just because we aren’t anywhere near it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be moving towards it.  We aren’t perfect.  That’s right.

But you know what?  We are working to be faithful.  And that’s always the first step, the first key.

And second, we have to understand what it means to be perfect.

Let me ask you this: what is the aim or goal of our faith?  What are we after?  What are we doing?  We are seeking, by his grace, to be more like God.

And what is God?  Holy and Love.  That’s his character.  So how does Jesus tell us to be like him? He says the greatest commandment is to love the Lord our God with all that we are, and love our neighbor as ourselves.

That’s what true obedience looks like.

That’s what true holiness looks like.

That’s what perfection looks like.  John Wesley didn’t talk about perfection in action.  He talked about perfection in love.

That’s what we are chasing. That’s our aim.  Perfect in love.

Today, let’s keep moving.  Let’s keep being faithful.  Let’s keep working.  Let’s keep growing.  Let’s move toward being perfect in love. And let’s see what God does with it!

Read more reflections at www.revandy.org.

Kevin Watson ~ Christian Perfection: Problem or Promise?

John Wesley believed that Christian perfection, love excluding sin, was possible in this life – by the grace of God.

At the end of his life he even wrote in a letter that he believed that the doctrine of entire sanctification was “the grand depositum which God has lodged with the people called Methodists; and for the sake of propagating this chiefly He appeared to have raised us up.”1

Is the Wesleyan understanding of entire sanctification a problem or a promise?

One of my favorite things to do as a seminary professor is talk with students and church folk about the Wesleyan understanding of Christian perfection, or entire sanctification. People often have some understanding of the role that holiness played in John Wesley’s theology. However, they also often assume that he did not really mean that Christian perfection meant “love excluding sin,” which was, in fact, one of Wesley’s definitions of Christian perfection.

When I walk through what Wesley did and did not mean by Christian perfection, people sometimes seem to recoil from the doctrine. To some it seems naïve. To others it is discouraging. For those who have a negative reaction to the doctrine, the common reaction seems to be that it is a problem. What do we do with the fact that in order to be ordained in The United Methodist Church we have to say before God and our colleagues in ministry that we “are going on to perfection,” and that we “expect to be made perfect in love in this life”?

And what do we do about the fact that many of our colleagues in ministry who have already answered this question seem to have lagged in their zeal for going on to perfection?

At maybe the most basic level, how could we ever hope to make this “grand depositum” of Methodism credible in a context where one of the most popular clichés is that “nobody’s perfect”?

Christian perfection is a scandal to most 21st century Americans.

For better or worse, the doctrine of entire sanctification is not going to be purged from contemporary Methodism. In The United Methodist Church, for example, there is an article in the “Confession of Faith,” which is one of the key statements of official UM doctrine, that is specifically focused on Christian perfection. Here is Article XI from the “Confession of Faith” in its entirety:

We believe sanctification is the work of God’s grace through the Word and the Spirit, by which those who have been born again are cleansed from sin in their thoughts, words and acts, and are enabled to live in accordance with God’s will, and to strive for holiness without which no one will see the Lord.

Entire sanctification is a state of perfect love, righteousness and true holiness which every regenerate believer may obtain by being delivered from the power of sin, by loving God with all the heart, soul, mind and strength, and by loving one’s neighbor as one’s self. Through faith in Jesus Christ this gracious gift may be received in this life both gradually and instantaneously, and should be sought earnestly by every child of God.

We believe this experience does not deliver us from the infirmities, ignorance, and mistakes common to man, nor from the possibilities of further sin. The Christian must continue on guard against spiritual pride and seek to gain victory over every temptation to sin. He must respond wholly to the will of God so that sin will lose its power over him; and the world, the flesh, and the devil are put under his feet. Thus he rules over these enemies with watchfulness through the power of the Holy Spirit.2

As we see, in Article XI sanctification is not about something that I either have to do to make myself better, or for which I have to feel guilty about not being good enough. It is a “work of God’s grace,” whereby those who have experienced new birth are “cleansed from sin in their thoughts, words and acts, and are enabled to live in accordance with God’s will.” Entire sanctification is really nothing more than sanctification happening to the uttermost. It is God’s grace freeing us from everything that has kept us chained to sin and death. It is God’s grace enabling our positive response.

Article XI of the “Confession of Faith” is solid Wesleyan theology because entire sanctification is focused on nothing more than God’s grace enabling us to fulfill the Greatest Commandment found in Matthew 22:37-38, love of God and neighbor.

The doctrine of entire sanctification is not a threat or a problem. It is a precious gift!

God has not only acted in Christ to make forgiveness and reconciliation with God possible. We are not forgiven, and still in bondage to the ways of sin and death. The Triune God has given his children everything they need to live the kind of life for which they were created, in this life.

And, as Article XI affirms, this is not only for spiritual elites or super Christians. Holiness, even to the exclusion of sin, is something that is available for every single person. If the possibility of living the life that God intends is a live option, shouldn’t we earnestly seek it? And encourage others to be made holy as well?

May the Holy Spirit renew the imaginations of Wesleyans, that we would be inspired and enlivened – not threatened – by the possibility of Christian perfection. May the same Spirit give us words to express what God the Father has done for us through his Son, Jesus Christ. May we see what is possible in this life because of God’s amazing grace. May we believe, know in our bones, that God’s grace is more powerful than the ways of sin, even death itself. May we, as a family of faith, see the promise of entire sanctification once again. Amen.

1 John Wesley, Letter to Robert Carr Brackenbury, September 15, 1790; in The Letters of the Rev. John Wesley, A.M.. 8 vols. Edited by John Telford, (London: Epworth Press, 1931) VIII: 238.
2 The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, 2012. (Nashville, TN: United Methodist Publishing House, 2012), 104, p. 73.

Kevin Watson ~ Having Nothing To Do with Sin

“You can do anything you put your mind to.”

Ever heard that before? I’d be shocked if you haven’t. I know I heard it from family, teachers, coaches, and friends throughout my childhood. This phrase has been a well-intended encouragement to American youth for the last few decades.

As I have worked with undergraduate students over the past three years, I have not been all that surprised when I encounter a young adult who not only believes they can do anything (sometimes despite all evidence to the contrary), but almost seems to feel that the world is obligated to ensure that they succeed. What has surprised me, given the persistence of the “you can do anything you put your mind to” myth, is how resistant people are to the possibility of real holiness in this life.

People seem to believe that we are capable, simply by deciding with our minds that we want to do something, of being able to do it. And people repeatedly affirm this, despite a lack of equally passionate insistence that “putting your mind to” means more than a sincere desire to do something, but determined and persistent effort.

But you know what I hear even more frequently than, “You can do anything you put your mind to?”

“Nobody’s perfect.”

I have heard this repeatedly in virtually every context you can think of: private conversation, analysis from reporters/pundits on television, preachers in sermons, and from my students. You know, the ones who have been told their entire lives that they can do anything that they put their minds to.

Indeed, the impossibility of perfection is so deeply embedded in us, that even when I read Wesley on Christian perfection, or entire sanctification, with students they almost always conclude that Wesley’s definition did not mean freedom from sin, or a perfect ability to avoid sin entirely.

Instead, they redefine Wesley’s understanding of Christian perfection as a kind of love that has very strong intent and sincerity, but where abstaining from concrete sins is somehow irrelevant or not completely connected. And this despite the fact that Wesley’s understanding of Christian perfection absolutely includes sinless perfection. Indeed, Wesley’s most succinct definition of Christian perfection is “love excluding sin.” And yet, time and time again people read these words and conclude that he must have meant something else. Because, well, you know, nobody’s perfect.

What’s going on here? How can Wesley be so certain that people can be completely freed not only from the guilt of sin (forgiveness), but also from the power of sin (holiness)? Or, how can we be so sure today both that you can do anything that you put your mind to and that nobody is perfect?

One of the reasons I think so many people are instinctively resistant to the possibility of complete freedom from sin is that they were offered a superficial and unrealistic vision for so long: “you can do anything you put your mind to.” That isn’t true, and discovering that can be very painful, particularly when the people who love you the most keep telling you it is. “Nobody’s perfect” can become a very comfortable alternative, a soothing relief from unrealistic expectations. But there is a more significant problem.

“You can do anything you put your mind to” does not take seriously the problem of sin and our inability to save ourselves. A key conviction of historical Christian orthodoxy is that we are not enough. We cannot ever be the source of our own salvation. Putting your mind to being a better person, from the Christian perspective will fail every time. It is pure works righteousness.

At some level, I think we all get this, which is why “nobody’s perfect” has such compelling explanatory power in our collective conversation. In fact, by ourselves we can’t even be truly good, much less perfect.

But Christianity is not about what we are able to accomplish. It is about what Jesus has already done and what that makes possible for us. Through his life, death and resurrection, Jesus not only offers us forgiveness and reconciliation with God the Father, we are also offered healing and wholeness. The atonement is most often connected with justification or pardon, but it is also related to sanctification or our ability to be made holy.

1 Peter 2:24 provides one such example from Scripture: “He carried in his own body on the cross the sins we committed. He did this so that we might live in righteousness, having nothing to do with sin. By his wounds you were healed.”

Because of what God has done for us in Christ Jesus, we can “live in righteousness” and have “nothing to do with sin.” Through the work of Christ, healing is offered to us. Or, as Charles Wesley so elegantly put it in “O for a Thousand Tongues,” “He breaks the power of canceled sin.”

So, you can’t do anything that you put your mind to. But, by God’s grace through faith, we can be freed from sin, entirely. The good news, the gospel, is that our past sins are canceled and that the power that those sins have over us is broken. We can hope for this because it isn’t a work that we do by putting our minds to it. It is something that God does in us as we have faith in the promises of God and cooperate with the work that God wants to do in our lives.

May the Lord increase our faith in what Jesus wants to do in us by the power of the Holy Spirit, even to the point of loving God so completely, so perfectly, that sin itself is excluded from our lives.