Monday, March 20, 2017

So Be Perfect

I’m a recovering perfectionist. I acquired that propensity naturally—through my family. As a child and adolescent, during the ‘50s and ‘60s, I went with family members to camp meetings and revival services in the American Holiness Movement. There, Christian perfection, A.K.A. entire sanctification, was the theme. As their fiery messages concluded, evangelists would invite us to the altar to receive that “second work of grace.” One more stanza of “Just As I Am” or “Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling” might draw a few more sensitive souls to receive sinless perfection.

At one Free Methodist camp meeting when I was a teenager, I was bewildered by testimonies from people who claimed to be sin-free for years. The prooftext of the belief was “Without holiness, no one shall see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). Even in her ‘90s, my mother was haunted by how she might achieve that standard for Judgment Day.

My maternal grandmother, with whom my brother and I lived for months at a time during our formative years, did her part to help us live holy lives. A practicing member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, she regularly warned us against lying, sexual sins, and overeating. Abstinence from alcohol was also a theme. She was obviously overweight, so now I wonder if she projected her own struggles onto us.

Thus, it’s not surprising that I stumbled over one of Jesus’ most difficult sayings: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48, KJV). That’s because, though I tried, I never acquired that second work of grace. I “went forward;” I asked God to give me that experience. I was earnest; yet, try as I might I continued to sin.

I would, at times, express my consternation about Matthew 5:48 with my dad. He was the one person in our family who seemed to be immune to perfectionism; though, in retrospect, I recall some telltale signs of the malady. Dad thought Jesus intended that we would be “perfectly fit” for God’s purposes. His favorite analogy was a “perfect” baby, one who arrived with all her fingers and toes, and about whom Wordsworth wrote in Intimations of Immortality, “Heaven lies about us in our infancy!” I’m sure Dad wasn’t aware of Wordsworth’s line; yet, babies exuding the glory of God was the picture he had in mind. But with all that rhetoric about sinless perfection swirling about, I wasn’t convinced by my dad’s imagery.

It’s no wonder that, as a young adult, I grabbed the lifeline of the Reformed faith at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where Jesus’ hard sayings were tempered by the theology of Paul’s letters. First there was, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9, NIV). Then, as Paul wrote to the Philippian believers, “. . . continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (2:12-13). The emphasis was upon God’s work of gradual sanctification in our lives. Our work was simply to cooperate with God. So relax!

Now, after having worked forty-plus years among descendents of the Protestant Reformation, I find myself in the Catholic tradition. Once again, I hear a greater emphasis on Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels than on St. Paul’s theology in the Epistles. Thus, Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount, “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect,” reverberate.

For example, the Gospel for Sunday February 19, 2017 was Matthew 5:38-48. The article, “While Only God is Good, Everyone Can Be Perfect” by Fr. George W. Rutler, arrived via email on Ash Wednesday. I had already read the meditation “Be ye therefore perfect” in the book Open Me the Gates by Barbara Dent, a convert to the Catholic Church.

I decided to deal with Jesus’ stunning message once and for all. So with some trepidation, I translated Matthew 5:48 from the Greek text, I reviewed those articles, and I looked at various English translations and paraphrases to see how they expressed Jesus’ message.

To my surprise, Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of Matthew 5:48 in The Message brings to light the nuances of Jesus’ directive. It reads this way: “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”

First, that paraphrase reflects the grammar of Matthew 5:48. The verb “to be” (Ἔσεσθε) and the adjective “perfect” (τέλειοι) are keywords in the sentence. The “You,” inherent in the verb, is plural. Another, otherwise unnecessary, plural pronoun “you” (ὑμεῖς) conveys that Jesus intends us to be involved. The verb is in the future tense; so we’re to begin now and continue indefinitely. “You folks are to be. . . .” is the idea. The verb is also in the “middle voice,” which implies personal involvement. Some English verbs come across that way: “Josephine bought (herself) a car” is an example. The word “therefore” (οὖν) connects this verse with verses 38-47. Accordingly, the first part of verse 48 reads, “Therefore, you folks are to be fully engaged in” that which Jesus has in mind.

What does he have in mind? The adjective “perfect” conveys fulfillment of one’s intended purpose. That is, if we progress through all the stages of development, we become full-grown, mature. Jesus’ concluding phrase, “just as your heavenly Father is perfect,” reminds us that we were created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27). As a result of Adam and Eve’s Fall, God’s image in us was marred. So in Matthew 5:48, Jesus calls each of us to cooperate with God to ever more perfectly bear His image.

Peterson’s paraphrase also reflects the context of verses 38-47. There, Jesus tells us to act graciously and generously toward everyone: When slapped on one cheek, offer the other one; if someone sues for your shirt, give up your coat as well; go the extra mile; give generously to all who seek help. Love your enemies! The supreme example is our heavenly Father, who generously doles out sunshine and rain—to good and bad folks alike.

How then, do we fulfill Jesus’ mandate? How do we grow up? St. Paul tells us that Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15). We most fully bear God’s image as Christ dwells in our hearts through faith (Ephesians 3:16-17). Christ’s life and ministry included suffering and death on the cross. Thus, Jesus tells us to pick up our cross and emulate him (Matthew 10:38; 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23).

The articles by Fr. George W. Rutler and Barbara Dent explain how we acquire God’s perfection. Rutler writes that true goodness is divine; but perfection comes when we partake of the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4). A perfect man is not a perfectionist: “Perfectionism is a neurosis based on the confusion of goodness and perfection. The perfectionist tries to defy mortality without the help of God who alone is immortal.” Rutler says that we become God’s work of art when we allow the divine sculptor to remove that which does not belong in our lives. “It is said that Michelangelo explained to a child that he sculpted Moses simply by chipping away from the marble all that was not Moses—but Moses had been there all along.” That brings to mind the metaphor St. Paul uses in Ephesians 2:10: We are God’s work of art, His masterpiece (NLT).

In her article “Be ye therefore perfect,” Barbara Dent emphasizes God’s persistent artistry in our lives.
God sends us, each second, precisely what is most needed for our sanctification, so that by lovingly accepting the present moment as his will, and abandoning one’s own will second by second in favor of his, one achieves union with him, which is, of course holiness.

A key phrase is lovingly accepting the present moment, whether joy-filled or sorrowful. Indeed, that’s the emphasis when I sit with folks as a spiritual director. The question, “Where is God in this?” is implicit in every conversation. As we explore what’s happening in the directee’s life, we seek to discover how the divine sculptor is shaping the person. Thus, spiritual direction promotes spiritual formation.

I’m still a recovering perfectionist; but now I’m more aware that my loving heavenly Father is shaping me into His perfect work of art, chipping away all that doesn’t belong.

© Stan Bohall

Monday, February 20, 2017

Lectio Divina: Praying the Scriptures

On Saturday March 4, 2017 members of Saint Theresa of Lisieux Parish in South Hadley, MA will embark on a four-week pilgrimage with the Scriptures called lectio divina. Guided by the Holy Spirit, we trust that our time together will stimulate a lifelong engagement with the Scriptures. Those who have practiced lectio divina can attest to its influence in their lives. We hope that those who haven’t practiced it will embrace it as a rewarding way to spend time with God.

I have included an outline below of how lectio divina usually works and an example of my insights.

1. Lectio: Read Aloud

Read or listen to a passage of Scripture and notice a word or phrase that stands out to you.

For example, the Old Testament reading at the Mass on Tuesday morning February 7, was Genesis 1:20-2:4a, the account of the fifth and sixth days of creation—and the seventh day when God rested. The sentence Evening came, and morning followed lit up. That’s because I was accustomed to the more literal, There was evening, and there was morning. Through this translation that was new to me, I saw the beauty of that line for the first time.

Please note: If  a word or phrase doesn’t come to light immediately, stay with the passage. Noticing the Holy Spirit’s prompting is a skill often developed over time.

2. Meditatio: Meditate

Sit in silence with the word or phrase. Absorb its meaning and significance in light of the whole passage.
A day or so after hearing Genesis 1:20 and following (ff), I sat in silence with Evening came, and morning followed. I kept repeating the sentence as a mantra or a prayer phrase to see how the Lord would instruct me through that short sentence. The recurring rhythm of the statement, day after day for six days of creation, conveys the cadence of time moving along and the significance of each day.

It is important to consider the chosen word or phrase in context. For example, Genesis 1:20ff expresses the days when God created creatures that live in the water and in the air (day five) and on land (day six). Ultimately during day six, “God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him: male and female he created them.” And God said to all his creatures, “Be fertile and multiply.”

3. Oratio: Pray
Consider how this word or phrase prompts you to pray.

As the adage, Evening came, and morning followed, meandered in my memory, the verse Teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart from Psalm 90 came to mind. In time, I recalled a paraphrase of that verse, Teach us to realize the brevity of life, so that we may grow in wisdom. That’s a prayer! Since then my prayer has become, “Lord, help me realize the brevity of life that I may live wisely.” That desire has become even more relevant with the recent death of my parents.

4. Contemplatio: Contemplate
Allow the word or phrase to shape your life.

Sitting with a word or phrase in the context of the whole reading makes the passage memorable. The process of contemplation has begun. I invite God to shape my life through His Word in the days ahead.

Evening came, and morning followed reminds me that in the Jewish daily cycle, the new day begins at sundown. Thus, the Jewish Sabbath begins on Friday evening. I enjoy attending the Mass near sundown on Saturday when our Sabbath begins. Receiving the Word and Sacrament as the sun sets enables me to settle into God’s presence so that I am prepared to be enriched and renewed by worship and relaxation on the day we celebrate our Lord’s resurrection.

Frequently Asked Questions
1. What shall we do with distracting thoughts and emotions?

Mark E. Thibodeaux, S.J., devotes a whole chapter to this in his book, Armchair Mystic, Easing Into Contemplative Prayer. The relevant chapter is appropriately titled, “When Things Go Haywire: Dealing with Distractions.” His suggestion is that we see random thoughts and feelings as clutter in the river of life. As we canoe our way along during contemplative prayer, notice the distractions, offer them up to God, and let them pass.

2. What are some of the benefits of practicing lectio divina?

It will enhance our understanding of the Scriptures and our practice of prayer. It will slow our minds down from the rapid pace stimulated by our culture. Practicing lectio divina as a community here on Saturday mornings will help us practice it on a daily basis, personally and with our families. It may be helpful to have a discussion at the end of this series about how this practice has contributed to the devotional life of group members.

3. What additional resources can help us pray the Scriptures?

The outline I included above was prompted by Lectio Divina: From God’s Word to Our Lives by Enzo Bianchi, pp. 103-107. The whole book is a first-rate, thoroughly readable resource for understanding the Roman Catholic teaching on the Scriptures and the practice of lectio divina. Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina by Michael Casey also comes highly recommended.

© Stan Bohall
February 20, 2017

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

A Tribute to Delphine Bohall

As I’ve thought about my mother’s life, the word courage comes to mind. My awareness of her bravery began in 1954 when polio threw her a curve. As she was being wheeled to an ambulance from Memorial Hospital in Niagara Falls on her way to Buffalo General Hospital, her longing eyes—her mother’s eyes—communicated deep sorrow over being separated from us.

There is no doubt that Delphine was courageous. Yet, she was susceptible to fear and to doubt; but courage served her well. In fact, my brother, Steve, recently discovered that those who have had polio often have a special kind of tenacity the rest of their lives. Delphine’s stamina and her fortitude allowed her to engage in her vocation as Mother. Indeed, her focus was on her family.

Throughout her life, Mother didn’t talk about courage: She lived it. The Lᴏʀᴅ’s message to Joshua, as he was about to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land, was pertinent to Mother: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9).

So, Mother’s courage prompted creative pursuits. First, her sewing career began around 1957. I remember her telling me after school one day that she had purchased a sewing machine, from a door-to-door salesman, with some money her grandfather Stevens had given her. For many years after that, she would use that investment to make clothes for her family. The shirts and ties are most memorable for me. She even made suits for Steve and me. My wife, Judi, remembers the clothes she made for our sons, Jeremy and Jonathan. Judi still wears a sweatsuit my mother made for her.

Mother also engaged in children’s ministry in two of the churches Dad served as pastor. She told me once that it was primarily for Steve and me that she developed the Christian Youth Crusaders program at the Pendleton Free Methodist Church. Through that ministry, we learned about the Christian faith, we developed friendships, and we gained life-skills. Mother even recruited Sue Federspiel, one of the nurses who cared for her when she had polio, to came to a CYC meeting and help us earn a nursing badge. I remember Sue teaching us how to make beds, hospital style.

Delphine’s vocation as a Mother took on a new dimension in 1969 when Leslie was born. There was no doubt in Delphine’s mind that she and Dad would love and nurture Leslie in their own home. No mother was more devoted to her daughter than Delphine was to Leslie. Yet, she and Dad knew that at some point others would have to care for Leslie; so, together with other like-minded parents, they formed the Faith Foundation so that Leslie would always live in a wholesome Christian environment. Mother’s contributions to the foundation included making craft items to be sold at fundraisers. Eventually, Faith Foundation merged with Heritage Christian Services and their dream for Leslie’s future became a reality. The beautiful home on Hoover Road in Sanborn opened its doors on June 3, 1996. It took another three years for Leslie to move to Hoover.

In 1998, Leslie purchased an iMac computer. Of course, Mother had to become familiar with it to help Leslie. In time, Mother would hone her computer skills at the Senior Center in Lockport. But after Leslie moved to Hoover in 1999, it made sense for Mother to purchase her own computer. I remember helping her pick out a PC and a printer in 2001. That equipment helped Mother express creativity and commitment to her family. Over time, she would archive a pictorial family history, produce all manner of greeting cards, and stay in touch with us through Skype.

Mother’s courage also came into play again in 2011 when she could no longer care for Dad with his Alzheimer’s disease. She called me one day and said, “I can’t do this any more.” So Steve and I helped Mother and Dad move to Gerry. The tough part for them was moving so far away from Leslie. But the Lord equipped the Heritage organizations and family members—especially Jack and Esther Robson—to bridge the gap between my folks and Leslie. Heritage Christian Services has always gone the extra mile (literally) to make sure that Leslie and our parents stayed connected. Heritage Ministries lovingly cared for Bob and Delphine; they generously extended hospitality to our family on so many occasions.  

Finally, it took courage for Mother to come to terms with loss: In the last five years, she lost her home and her ability to walk. Eventually, her speech and her vision gave way. Last August, her husband of seventy-one years died. But she didn’t lose her family; and we used every means possible to stay in touch with her.

More importantly, Delphine did not lose her Lᴏʀᴅ: The love of the Lᴏʀᴅ—his mercy, his covenant faithfulness, his steadfast love—was ever-present, no matter what. And the love of her family and those who cared for her at Heritage Village was just one way the Lᴏʀᴅ expressed His love to her—even and especially during her final days with us.

Thus, this truth revealed by the Apostle Paul remained rock solid: “What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword? No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:35, 37-39, NABRE).

And as St. Paul wrote, “Our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal weight of glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Corinthians 4:17, NIV). Even the glimpses of glory Mother witnessed in this world are meager compared to those she is experiencing now with her Lᴏʀᴅ.

So, thank you, Mother, for being courageous. That was your way of revealing Christ to us.