Saturday, March 7, 2020

Lent 2020: Be Perfect? Are You Kidding Me?

Think of the person you hate the most.

Now, think about sending that person your love and best wishes for a happy and contented life.

That's hard, isn't it? Whether it's Donald Trump, your ex, or that car salesman who knowingly sold you a lemon, loving our enemies is one of the hardest parts of the Christian walk.

Yet that is exactly what we are commanded to do, for acts of love -- especially for those who we think don't deserve it -- are what set followers of Christ apart from others. "If you love only those who love you," Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, "what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax collectors do that much." Likewise: "If you are kind only to your friends, how are you different from anyone else? Even the pagans do that."

And then Jesus drops the bombshell: "You are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect."

How in the world are we supposed to do that?

When I was studying Buddhism, there was a particular meditation practice designed to generate a sense of lovingkindness and equanimity toward everyone. You would start off by sending your love to someone you loved. That's easy, right? Then you send that same love to someone you're neutral toward. You might know them in passing, but you have no strong feelings about them. Again, pretty simple. But once you've done that, now comes the hard part. You're supposed to think of someone you dislike and send them that exact same love that you so generously offered to those who love you back. I tried it. It is extraordinarily difficult.

In Buddhism, you have to figure all this out on your own. The Buddha never claimed to be divine, only a teacher. So you could never really look to him for help whenever you felt like you were sinking under the tremendous weight of trying to figure everything out by yourself. Rugged individualism is great until it isn't. We all reach the end of our rope eventually, when we simply have nothing more to give. Then what do you do, if you find you're still falling short of where you want to be?

Well, one thing that brought me back to Christianity, when I was bearing a heavy load on my shoulders, was Jesus' promise from Matthew 11 that he would help us carry those loads:
"Come to me, all who are weary, and I will give you rest. Let me teach you, for I am humble and gentle of heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden light."
As followers of Christ, we can know that we're not alone in our struggles. We always have his example to follow as we strive to do better every day, even as we fall short over and over again. We may have a cross to bear as we follow in his footsteps, but he promises us that we never bear it on our own.

Again, this is the path of theosis. The practice of cooperating with God's grace to become like him. It's a gradual and ongoing process for most of us, one that's likely to occupy us for the rest of our earthly lives -- and perhaps even beyond.

Our society talks a lot about tolerance. It speaks of tolerance as though it were a virtue of some sort. But what really is tolerance? It's not about genuinely loving and accepting someone as they are. It's merely agreeing to give someone else the space to be themselves even if you don't like them. It doesn't ask anything of us but to look the other way. It seeks no transformation of heart from us.

Fortunately, the Father doesn't act like that toward us. God doesn't just tolerate us. He loves us. Even when he knows how rotten we can be, he always welcomes us back into the embrace of his loving arms. Can we do the same for our enemies?

If we are to be perfect as our Father is perfect, then we aren't called just to tolerate the Trumps, exes, and crooked car salesmen of the world, but to actively love them. Because this is how the world heals, and it's how we empty ourselves of our pettiness and our egotistical need to be right, better, superior. It helps us see that our enemies, just like us, are broken people every bit in need of God's mercy, and as deserving of his love, as we are.

For most of us, this is simply too tall of an order. Fortunately, we have help. All we need to do is humbly accept it.

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