After the last leaf and before the first flake falls, a moment, a very brief moment, sometimes arrives when the lawn, over which I had labored long, sweatily, and with much frustration, looks like an emerald carpet of velvet. This was the moment:
The turf wars with moles, drought, and fungus have reached a peaceable stretch. I bask in a verdict not just self-rendered but encouraged by neighbors passing by: PERFECT.
Roy Halladay has his moment of perfection on a pitcher's mound in Philadelphia in early October in front of 50,000 (not counting the millions who did so vicariously with TV) others to help him celebrate. The soloist stands front and center while the final chord fades, knowing neither she, nor anyone else, could have sung it better, and the audience rises in witness to the beauty, the unmatchable beauty, of the moment. The carpenter steps back from his creation, a dining room chair, for instance, and is pleased with what his hands have wrought, a pleasure beyond self-congratulations, issuing from the certainty even a Shaker couldn't have made it better. The high school senior gets a 2400 on his SAT's. Nadia Comaneci scores 10 across the judges' board. Mom roasts a turkey with oyster stuffing to absolute perfection and stomachs around the table churn with anticipated delight.
Perfection eludes most of us most of the time. It's good to salute it when it appears, if for only a moment. Even if it is only a swath of grass.
Methodists think a lot about perfection. I am a Methodist. When I stood long ago in front of the bishop to answer John Wesley's questions for ordinands, I and a dozen others at the altar were asked, "Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?" Some of us spoke up loud and clear, "I do!" Others, under the influence of Martin Luther, suspicious of sanctification, more sure that we humans are "simul justus et piccator" (saved and sinful at the same time) chose silence or unintelligible mumbles. You can guess my choice.
Wesley drew his inspiration for this doctrine from medieval saints and made it a central theme of his 18th Century revival of the English church. It was for him a dynamic concept, not so much a state to be achieved through spiritual rigor but a direction for that rigor. It was, perhaps, his antidote to the antinomianism of a centuries old Reformation Protestantism (write me for explanation and clarification), which (antinomianism) could be caricatured as claiming "Sin is inevitable; so relax and regret it." Wesley was far too busy a soul to sit on the sidelines when fighting the good fight was the order of the day. And dear old Mr. Wesley pretty much won that day, especially in this land where his movement prospered and expanded westward. The American society can be fairly characterized, as a friend and theologian puts it, by official optimism; unlike, say, Europe where, in this moment, even fey Ireland wallows in the doldrums.
Wesley certainly had no thought of emerald lawns or no-hitters when positing his doctrine of perfection. He, like those who preceded him in their fascination with this theme, were imitating Christ who famously and puzzlingly said, "Be perfect, therefore, as your Father in heaven is perfect." Which, in context (the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, 6, and 7), has to do with our relation to God and to each other. Not oyster stuffing or SAT scores.
But I refuse to concede so quickly. And suggest that perfection may also have something to do with well-constructed chairs, certainly in the eye of a carpenter; that perfection resides no less in a beatific soprano voice, certainly in the ears of one at whose birth angels sang; that perfection can also be found at a Thanksgiving dinner, certainly for one who paints a vision of heaven as a banquet feast; and that perfection might be measured in a child's intelligence, certainly for one who expects us to become as children if we are to enter the kingdom of heaven.
All right, all right! No lawns and no athletic feats. I, obstinate fool that I am, shall, however, continue to think of heaven (the sphere of perfection) as green pastures and running the good race.