‘Being Good Enough’
One of the problems with writing a sermon is that sometimes there are several different interpretations of the readings and a decision has to be made as to which way to go!
So with today’s lectionary. On the one hand, we have Jeremiah and Peter not seeing the world as God sees it. Jeremiah feels God has abandoned him and we have Peter’s horror at the idea that the Messiah might face execution. They are both showing how vulnerable and human they are in their vocations as prophet and disciple – doubt, despair and self pity are all apparent here. Yet they realise that God is calling them to follow Him in spite of their human limitations and how He will sustain human beings to achieve more than that of which they believe they are capable. Discipleship is not for the fainthearted, but it will be rewarded.
God says to Jeremiah:
‘I will deliver you out of the hand of the wicked, and redeem you from the grasp of the ruthless.’
Jesus says to Peter;
‘For the Son of Man is to come with His angels in the glory of His Father, and then He will repay everyone for what has been done.’
Paul, in his letter to the Romans, gives some very practical advice on how to live the Christian life. Bridget Nichols writes that this is ‘as good a list as any. In the aftermath of more terrorist attacks on European cities, the imperative to “overcome evil with good” is not a pious platitude, but an obligation to be seriously pursued.’
You have probably heard of the saying, what has almost become a cliché now, that evil flourishes when good people stand around doing nothing, but it is so true and has been proven to be so on countless occasions.
Paul is talking here about putting Jesus’ commandment of loving God and loving our neighbour into practice, both to our friends, strangers and our enemies. We are told clearly that judgment is reserved for God.
I remember some time ago now,( having looked it up it was in 1989) taking an assembly on Tianamen Square, where you may remember peaceful protesters, mainly students, against the repressive Chinese regime were massacred ( hundreds if not thousands of them) or captured and imprisoned for wanting ‘democracy’ and ‘human rights’ in their country. I was trying to convey the injustice of this and the outrage that this had caused around the world and really what could we do about it practically, while trying to be as objective and as realistic as possible in explaining the situation. As I was coming to the end, very unusually, the voice of the Headteacher, who was a Quaker, from the other side of the stage, added;
‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ – which brought the assembly to its conclusion!
In other words, Christians have no need to seek revenge or repayment of wrong. That is God’s prerogative and God’s alone!
Rather than seeking revenge, Paul encourages the doing of good to the enemy, for the impact of that good promises to be far more humiliating, far more effective, than the sheer repayment of evil. To ‘ overcome evil with good’ is not to lie down before evil, so it simply has its way, but to conquer it by the skilful use of good. Evil therefore need not be passively accepted, nor need it be avenged, when we finally understand that God is the one who judges all humankind.
Overseeing evil with good, can be seen in the various reactions to the refugee crisis of recent years. Those who welcomed e.g the Syrians escaping from evil in their own country, bombed and traumatised in some cases by their own government or by the terrorism of Isis; those doctors who continued working in the midst of the fighting to bring what help they could to those who had nothing, often with virtually no resources left; those who seek to put a stop to human trafficking in an attempt to give the victims back their lives are all examples of this.
Then, yesterday, I read the following in the paper which I felt I just had to include. The headline was:
‘ Coptic bishop tells terrorists they are loved.’
The article went on to say that in a startling example of forgiveness, the head of the Coptic Church in Britain has told the Islamic extremists, who have killed more than 100 Egyptian Christians in the past year, that they are loved. He said that although their crimes were abhorrent and detestable, they were loved by God their Creator for He created them in His image and according to His likeness and that He placed them on earth for greater things. The bishop said that they were loved by him and millions like him because he believed in transformation. He said that the Christian message was ‘to look at our world as through the eyes of God.’ He hoped that, even if his message wasn’t fully embraced, ‘it might create at least a shadow of doubt in the minds of those intent on inflicting harm and pain.’
What more amazing example could there be of attempting to overcome evil with good?
But, what does it take to even come close to St. Paul’s list of Christian attributes?
At the LLM Conference this summer, we had a series of lectures on the theme ‘Being Good Enough’ by Emma Percy who is a chaplain at one of the Oxford colleges.
These were fascinating. The underlying theme was that we should aim at being good enough for the task in hand but that aiming for perfection in everything can be damaging and destructive. She talked about counselling students who were high flyers and who eventually came up against challenges that made it difficult for them to achieve 100% in everything they did. This could be very difficult for such students to accept and it was important to help them to see that life should be more balanced and what they were achieving was certainly good enough.
She said we live in a society shaped by myths of perfectionism and control; that the commandments are not a checklist but pointers to living out the fundamental commandment ; Love the Lord your God and love your neighbour as yourself. Paul reminds us that keeping the rules can be deadening and that it is only God’s grace that makes the impossible, possible.
She talked about being a mother. The three demands of mothering being preservation, fostering growth and acceptability. These needs are both practical and universal. They are all good but are often in conflict. Being a good enough mother is to be a good mother, whereas the attempt to be the best will guarantee that you won’t be, indeed you might be a highly damaging mother as a result! Being good enough means developing a right balance between intrusive care, micro-management and domination on the one hand and passivity, voicelessness and neglect on the other.
Doctor Percy then went on to consider being good enough in loving God. She based this on the Parable of the Good Samaritan and talked about paying attention to God, trying to see and hear what God is saying to us rather than fantasising about this.
‘God knows us but in prayer we need to learn to allow ourselves to accept and explore that sense of God’s knowing.’
The third lecture was entitled ‘Being Good Enough – Loving your neighbour.’
Paying attention to each other is so important. Again, we read the parable of the Good Samaritan. She talked about the importance not only of empathy in human relationships but also of compassion and quoted Simone Weil:
‘Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them their attention.’
Many of us need to learn empathy and compassion through trial and error until we are ‘good enough’
Finally, we looked at ‘Being Good Enough – Fit for Heaven.’ This was based on Matthew Chapter 6 about not storing up our treasures here on earth but rather for heaven and trusting that God will provide what we need.
In this context, Being Good Enough means letting go of the wrong kind of measurements and learning how to value the less tangible aspects of human activity. It is about building relationships and enabling individuals and communities to grow. It requires trust and forgiveness.
‘The birds and the flowers are not doing nothing, they are busy being flowers and birds!’
We need to recognise our weaknesses and let others help us out. To see their needs and respond to them is what it means to be humane. Kindness is derived from kin ship, from relatedness, from being fellow human beings, for recognising that it is in the interactions with others, be they present or absent, that the true meaning of life is discovered and we taste something of the realities of heaven. In caring, we learn what it is for another to trust us. In allowing others to care for us, we learn to trust them. We develop a true sense of humility and a right sense of ourselves.
You will see that there was a lot to absorb – but this phrase ‘being good enough’ has stayed with me and led me to reflect differently on various aspects of life.
On a more lighthearted note, it amused some of us at the Conference that the cardboard sign that we could hang on our door if we didn’t require new towels each day was not that ‘I am good enough’ but that ‘ I am clean enough.’ I hadn’t seen that before!
So, returning to the beginning, i.e. Paul’s list of what it takes to be a Christian, perhaps we can take heart from the fact that we can strive to be ‘good enough’, ‘fit for purpose’ rather than for perfection and that we cannot be responsible for everything. We have to put our trust in God.
As we prayed at prayers on Friday evening:
You gave us a special and privileged role in the world:
Help us to fulfil that responsibility.
Let us rejoice in You who made us,
And become the people You created us to be.
Gillian Gyenes LLM