I like to sing. Always have. Especially at Christmas.
I’ve got an okay voice, although it’s not as good as it used to be. Still, I’ve not gone the way Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan have over the years. I can carry a tune in a bucket without sounding like I’m gargling a bucket of gravel at the bottom of a well. Usually.
And I'm a fan of both Dylan and Cohen, by the way.
In junior high I was in the choir. In high school I was in Madrigals and, yes, had to dress in those silly costumes of green tights and big hats with floppy feathers. Not one of my more proud memories.
In college I was in chorale and even tapped by the director to help fill in the tenor section of his church choir, and got paid for it! So I guess that means for a time I was a professional singer.
As a kid, my sister and I did duets in church. She played the piano and I hid behind her while we sang. Even if I was soloing, I’d still hide behind her. I love to sing, but not as much when I’m doing it by myself in front of people.
But I do love the “song service” portion of Sunday morning church. Well, except when it’s Christmas and carols are avoided. Or the worship leader has chosen a song better sung by pre-pubescent boys with ridiculously high voices. Or when a traditional hymn is re-cast with a “modern” or “fresh” tune that is foreign to the ear leading everyone in the congregation to hit false instead of familiar notes.
These are the times I miss hymnals.
Still, I will struggle to follow along and even occasionally manage to find a harmony to fall into.
I’m not a perfectly good singer but I do my best.
The impossible command
I think Matthew 5:48 is one of the most dreaded verses in the Bible. In it Jesus states somewhat bluntly, “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Seriously? Be as perfect as God is perfect? In this lifetime?
From my flailing experience, living a perfect life just isn’t possible. And this one verse has always given me a touch of angst.
I’m not a fan of “positive thinking” or “motivational” literature, seminars, or those who are often obnoxiously proponents of them.
Their posters shout such inanities as “Think it! Be it!” Or, “A high mountain is a molehill to the positivity minded!” Or, “Only believe your way to success!”
You know the shtick.
So, for a long time, Matthew 5:48 felt a lot like one of those absurd positivisms. But it’s not. It’s a command straight from the mouth of Jesus so it carries far more weight than a positive thinking truism on a bumper sticker.
A couple of things helped me get a better handle on how to live out this command, albeit not flawlessly.
Being perfect isn’t about being flawless
First, since context is critical, another biblical passage helped shed some light. James 1:4-5 explains, “And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.”
Here, “perfect” is used again in a more clarifying context that points to the word’s true meaning. This is coupled with the advice about going to God for the wisdom which is another clue.
In Greek, the word “perfect” is teleios which carries the connotations of completeness, maturity, and being full grown. This is unlike how we tend to think of “perfection” in terms of, say, a flawless diamond or unblemished skin. In scripture the meaning tends more toward “having all you need to do what’s required of you.”
People who are “perfect” for their jobs are equipped with knowledge, training, tools, and the like so that they are “completely” ready to do their work well. The same is true for Christians when it comes to living a godly life.
As James puts it, we are “complete, lacking in nothing,” because God fully equips us through his Holy Spirit with all we need to live out Jesus’ commands. We can also ask for what we feel we lack.
Thinking high to avoid falling flat
Second, what I learned in choir about staying on pitch was helpful.
To be the only one off-key in a choir can be devastatingly embarrassing. To be soloing and come in flat sounds way worse than being a little sharp. It was my high school choir teacher, Della Mae Tronchuk, who taught me how to hit a note perfectly.
“Think high,” she always told us. Or, rather, semi-screamed at us during rehearsals as she bounced around looking half-crazed waving her hands in perfect time.
“Think above the note,” she shouted. “You’ll be more likely to hit it!”
She was right.
The same advice -- aiming a little high -- also came on the rifle range, one of my favorite Boy Scout summer camp activities. Aiming right at the bull’s-eye on a target always put you below it. But aiming just slightly above increased your chances of being dead on.
Funny how this all works.
Resistance is not futile...it’s a process
The Apostle Paul provides even more clarification about this “being perfect” stuff when he instructs us to “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2, ESV).
Many in society eschew conformity as a bad and restrictive thing. So their response is to be non-conformist (aka “different”) by emulating those viewed as culturally hip, in, with-it, chic, trendy. Basically they trade one line of conformity for another, all of it away from godliness.
Paul says that to be “perfect” in the eyes of the One Who Matters requires going a completely different direction, being truly counter-cultural -- aiming higher -- not just being different.
You won’t hit the bull’s eye by aiming directly at it. You won’t sing on key by trying to hit the note dead on. You can’t be perfect by going with the flow.
And perfection is not a “once and done” effort. It’s a process.
Paul again notes, “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God” (2 Corinthians 7:1, ESV). Other translations replace “bringing holiness to completion” by stating simply, “perfecting.”
Cleansing, or washing ourselves off, whether it’s a shower or daily devotions in the morning, is an ongoing process to be repeated as often as necessary.
We don’t need to settle for trying to live a good life or even a best life now. By aiming a little higher, leaning on God for all we need to be complete, we can live a godly life and stay in tune.
If we do go “off key”? Fortunately, his mercies are new every morning and he allows all the do-overs we need (Lamentations 3:22-23).
Looking toward the New Year, let us all resolve to aim higher, resist, renew, be transformed daily.
After all, it’s not about being flawless, but rather, about being faithful.