I remember standing on stage in the heat-filled auditorium at Lake Junaluska, North Carolina alongside the other candidates for ordination. Bishop Kammerer was going through the historic questions of John Wesley that are always asked of each person about to be ordained. Some of the questions are easy to answer and require little thought: "Have you faith in Christ?" Other questions still poke and prod me: "Will you visit from house to house?" One question continues to stand out from the rest: "Are you going on to perfection?"
As United Methodists, we are all on a path to perfection through the grace made possible through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Our understanding of grace is one of the things I love most about being a United Methodist. We believe grace is infused within us - all of us - long before we ever begin to understand who God is or how God works. When we are introduced to God, we start to respond. One of the ways we respond is by turning around, repenting of our sin. We then experience justifying grace that cleanses us from our shortcomings and enables us to start fresh. With this clean slate, we strive for holiness - seek to live holy lives - and it is sanctifying grace that accompanies us on this journey with the end goal being perfection.
Are you going on to perfection? I do not know many people who embody a life that is going on to perfection. My blemishes are far more abundant than my signs of perfection. But my friend, Howard, seemed to always be striving for perfection.
I wrote about Howard on his 100th birthday nearly four years ago. Howard was our oldest church member. He came to Washington in the 1940s after being drafted to work in a government agency. He joined our church and has spent his last 70 years faithfully supporting it. When I arrived at Mount Vernon Place in 2005, Howard was our lead usher. He was 97-years-old but still greeting people and taking the collection each Sunday. He never missed being at the church for Sunday school or worship. He also joined us for a midweek Bible study each Wednesday morning.
That midweek Bible study has continued for the last seven years. It now meets on Tuesday mornings at the Hermitage where Howard has lived for the last ten years. Each week, a small group of folks gather with me to study a passage of scripture and then answer two questions, "What are you thankful for this week?" and "How can we pray for you?"
I have a notebook filled with the answers to these questions. Almost always, Howard gave thanks for the place where he lived and the care he received. And almost always, Howard prayed that God would help him to be a better Christian.
Howard was going on to perfection. It did not matter how old he was, Howard knew that God was still actively involved in his life, and Howard wanted to serve God as faithfully as possible. He set quite an example, always reminding me that God is never finished with us. We are always a work in progress no matter how old we are.
Howard died early Sunday morning. He took his last breaths a little before 2:00 in the morning. He told me two weeks ago that he "would try to be at church on Sunday" even though his body had not allowed him to travel far in several months. His body did travel far this past Sunday, however. I believe he made it to church. And I also believe that he has finally made his way to perfection.
Well done, thy good and faithful servant. You have set quite an example for us to follow. May my prayer request be the same as yours, "God, help me to be the best Christian I can be. Show me how I can continue along the path to perfection." It has been a precious privilege to be your pastor.