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Being a christian has not made me a better person. My temper still rages inside me like a ready kettle and my self-righteous opinions dominate my internal monologue. Not to mention, I am snarky! (For those of you who know me and think I’m not that bad, really, you don’t live inside my head. It’s that bad).
In the late 1700’s through the mid 1800’s, the religious movement Perfectionism swept through American churches. Religious historians often refer to this new Christian thought and practice as the “Holiness” movement. Perfectionism’s chief founder was John Wesley, an Anglican minister and theologian, who is credited with the founding of Methodism. He, along with other fellow religious “enthusiasts” at Oxford, desired to not only cultivate an outward piety, but also a sincere inner holiness. John Wesley argued that Christians could achieve a state of perfection, where God’s love reigned supreme in their hearts. This Christian ideology was later named Methodism and as its name indicates, gave rise to the Methodist Church. Although the word “Perfectionism” is rarely used any longer, the legacy of the Holiness Movement and Methodism are still present in American religiosity today. Many individuals and churches still proclaim that practicing Christians can be “born-again” into a state of holiness in which believers are set free from sin.
I was raised in the Methodist tradition and wrote my undergraduate thesis on a small perfectionist community in Oneida, New York. Like John Wesley, I too have desired to be completely transformed by my faith. I am drawn to the teachings of Jesus because they require real and difficult change. I do not think Jesus was just answering the rich young ruler in jest when he said, “Sell all you have and follow me (Matthew 19).” Such a radical invitation has stirred within me a deep longing since I was an earnest 16 year old.
But I am almost 40 now. I am a mother and a spouse and a minister and I am far from reaching perfection. Ask my children. Ask my husband. Ask the folks at Grace Community. My self-proclaimed identity as a christian has not “saved me from my sinful ways.” I am still utterly broken and I face this brokenness day in and day out not just in my snarky internal monologue, but in my relationships with those I love most dearly. Yet my desire to follow Jesus and my practice within faithful community has offered me a new vision. Jesus has entirely changed the way I see and experience the world.
Recently, my family spent a long weekend in northern California celebrating my beloved college roommate’s wedding. The event was so joyful and so much fun that on Sunday morning I felt like a little kid on Christmas morning after all the presents have been unwrapped. The wonder of the weekend was over and I had to say goodbye to my dear friend and her new husband. We packed the rented minivan full of wrinkled and stained clothes and our perfect weekend ended.
On the drive back to San Francisco we rallied our exhausted children for a walk in Muir Woods, a national park that has preserved a rare old-growth coast redwood forest. As we walked among the massive redwood trees, I watched my children run from tree to tree. Their awe was palpable as all three tried to squeeze in tree hollow after tree hollow. I felt time slow down as we wandered among God’s giants. It was a perfect memory in the making.
Not long after our walk, back in the minivan, we searched for a place to eat. My daughter, sick from the winding ride, threw up all over the parking lot. Time no longer stood still. Our perfect walk was over. Yet we are veteran parents. We headed to dinner, satiating our growing boys’ appetites, sure our daughter would be fine. After dinner, we returned to our rental car to find the car window shattered. My purse and our back packs were stolen. Everything expensive we own was taken: computers, iPads, wallets, and more.
For the next few hours we negotiated police reports, TSA (how would I return to Boston with no identification?), credit card companies, and more. I was exhausted and frustrated, selfishly wondering why us now, 10 hours before we would board a flight back home? My daughter, terrified and responding to her mother’s evident anger, began to cry. I assured her everything was okay. Then my husband, whose faith seems to have made an impact on him, gathered my children around and reminded them of what mattered most; being robbed is a big inconvenience, but we were fine. In fact we were more than fine. We were all safe, we were rich (to which my children, never getting all their material desires, objected until we reminded them of our wealth in a global perspective), and we were loved. Nothing else mattered. Computers could be replaced. In a moment my perspective changed. My frustration was replaced with a deep and abiding gratitude which lasted well into the night and the flight home.
Life is far from perfect although at times we may glimpse perfection, especially as we walk among God’s giants in Muir Woods. And I, myself, an ordained minister, am far from perfect, although at times I can feel the shifting of my heart from my broken ways to a new place of gratitude and love. I disagree with John Wesley. I do not believe perfection can be reached this side of the kingdom of God. Yet I do believe, my christian faith has entirely changed the way I see and experience the world, even if it hasn’t transformed me into a reborn, perfect person. Jesus has offered me a new set of glasses through which to view life.
Rev. Abigail A Henrich (ehm!) is an ordained minister who earned her stripes at Princeton Theological Seminary and Colgate University. That said, Abby is really a mother-pastor-spouse who lives in a kinetic state of chaos as she moves from her many vocations: folding laundry, preaching, returning phone calls, sorting lunch boxes, answering e-mails, and occasionally thinking deep thoughts in the shower. Unabashedly she is a progressive Christian who believes some shaking up has got to happen in the church.