The Possible Impossibility
The question both haunts and inspires every person ordained into the Methodist ministry since Mr. Wesley: “Are you going on to perfection?”
It’s a good question for every follower of Christ in the aftermath of All Saints’ Day.
- Do we really believe that each of us, in our own very imperfect, unsaint-like lives, are, in the words of Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667) “in possibility of becoming saints?”
- Do we dare to believe that God is at work in this tragically fractured, war-torn, economically-unjust, environmentally-abused world to fulfill Jesus’ promise of the coming of the Kingdom of God?
- Can we believe that with all of our divisions and failures, our nation could actually become “a more perfect union”?
Having just returned from another pilgrimage to South Africa and dropped back into the political circus of our Presidential nominating process, it’s hard not to sometimes feel that it is downright impossible.
Is it Possible?
Looking out across the sprawling impoverished townships and corrugated steel shacks of the “informal settlements” that surround the spectacular beauty of Cape Town with its multi-million-dollar condos along the beach, hearing the way some of the hopes and dreams of Nelson Mandela that are enshrined in their Constitution have been defaced by the political corruption and financial greed that has plagued the South African government in the first twenty years of democracy (see A Rumor of Spring by Max Du Preez), listening to the stories of people who have been both afflicted and affected by the HIV-Aids epidemic…it’s all more than enough to confirm Desmond Tutu saying that because we believe in original sin, we should not be surprised, but we can be disappointed.
Watching some of the candidates for our highest office — some claiming (and abusing) Christianity as a basis for their candidacy — fuel the fires of some of the lowest, meanest, most xenophobic and racist fears and divisions within our nation is enough to make us agree with the Psalmist who said, “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.” (Psalm 146:3-4)
The Impossible Becoming Possible
But then, just before drifting into my genetic tendency for skepticism, often in places where we least expect it, in the lives of ordinary people doing extraordinary things, we catch a glimpse of what can be actually becoming a reality among us. It’s enough to confirm Jesus’ prediction that the Kingdom of God comes in things like mustard seeds planted in the ground and yeast folded into a lump of bread.
They are the imperfect people on the way to perfection; people “whose hope rests on the Lord their God.” (Psalm 146:5) They live now in ways that are consistent with the way they believe that world will be when God’s kingdom comes and God’s will is done on earth it is in heaven. They live and work in the confidence of the Psalmist:
The person whose help is the God of Jacob—
the person whose hope rests on the Lord their God—
is truly happy!
God: the maker of heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them,
God: who is faithful forever,
who gives justice to people who are oppressed,
who gives bread to people who are starving!
The Lord: who frees prisoners.
The Lord: who makes the blind see.
The Lord: who straightens up those who are bent low.
The Lord: who loves the righteous.
The Lord: who protects immigrants,
who helps orphans and widows,
but who makes the way of the wicked twist and turn!
The Lord will rule forever! (Psalm 146:5-10)
We discovered it in the joyful energy of the people who serve John Wesley Community Centre. We felt it in the warmth and hope with with Jack and Joan Scholtz look back over a long life of ministry and look forward with hope for their nation. We were inspired by it in worship with the people of Central Methodist Mission in Johannesburg (read Sanctuary: How an Inner-City Church Spilled Onto a Sidewalk). We found it in the work of business leaders who are pouring their energy into building a healthy economy.
I also experienced the depth of faith and strength of commitment in the lives of the dozen United Methodist pastors from Texas and Arkansas (all of them young enough to be my children!) who traveled together. And back home, I’ve found it in the same energy, passion and vision of young leaders within our Conference.
Living the Impossible Possiblity
In his book, Max du Preez writes:
“A century from now historians will still write about Mandela’s spectacular role in bringing freedom, stability and democracy to South Africa. They will still remind their students that he became an international icon as a man of great integrity with an enormous capacity to forgive, to heal and to bridge seemingly impossible divides.”
“No nation will ever be blessed with two or more Mandela-type leaders in succession. The present leadership of the ruling party does not, to put it diplomatically, reflect the best of our society.”
But he goes on to say that Mandela was not “a freak or a saint sent by some supernatural power.”
“We are the products of the same history and society that produced a Nelson Mandela. Above all, Nelson Mandela brought out the best in all his fellow citizens of all creeds, colours and classes.
He gave South Africans a glimpse of what they could be as a nation. He will remind them of that long after his passing.
To me, Mandela was living proof that good can prevail over evil, that there actually is something such as a shared humanity.
We’d better believe in that in years to come.”
That’s what “saints” do–they bring out the best in all of us. They give us a glimpse of “what will be” within the reality of “what is.” They dare to live their lives in ways that demonstrate that they are on the way to perfection. And amid all the imperfections of their lives and their world, they make their mustard-seed-like contribution to what God intends this world to be.
As the hymn “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God” concludes, “There’s not any reason, no , not the least, why I shouldn’t be one too.”
Going on to perfection,
3 thoughts on “The Impossible Possibility”
I will always be thankful that my daughter Mauri Arnold and her family found their church home at Hyde Park UMC. That’s how I got to know Jim Harnish: preacher, pastor, author, person. I continue to reread your sermons and your books, and now it is good to receive your blog. From this last one I learned that you were on the same pilgrimage to South Africa with our minister here at FUMCLR, David Freeman (one of those young men from AR). I am so grateful David had the opportunity to be with you; now we both want you to visit us in Little Rock. Marcia
Thanks! Please give David my greetings. It was a real joy to get to know him. He’s one of the signs of hope for the future of our church!
I enjoy the blog and thank you for it
I am so glad you were able to travel to SA again recently
I hope the event at “Love’s ” was successful and was so sorry to have missed it
Best to you and Marsha