Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Thoughts on Purity for Lent


Synonym words for pure are: authentic, genuine, bright and real. That’s what we mean by pure. Sometimes people get the mistaken notion that purity and perfectionism are synonymous. In fact, they strive for perfection in others, to the point where any slight flaw or imperfection means that the person is impure in their way of living. They do that with groups and denominations that they may wish to absent themselves from as well.

I remember as a kid, that some friends of ours were into being pure, or their version thereof (spending much too much time seeing the spec in the other’s eye, while missing the log in their own). They had left a church because it was not pure enough for their liking and joined a much more strict and straight-laced church. This happens all the time, but since these friends lived nearby we heard about it, and saw it firsthand. Purity in their way of thinking meant a kind of separation, a pulling back from what those who were less discriminating did, and refusing to do what those people might do.

For instance, television. There were commercials on television in those days for Playtex living bras. Or maybe it was Jane Russell and her fuller figure? Either way, it was terribly shocking, to the sensibilities of this particular family. I suspect they would have a much harder time with what is on the tube, today. But back then, it meant quickly turning the TV off whenever one of those offensive bra commercials aired, all in the name of purity.

Then there were movies. The strict and stringent church to which this family had decamped was utterly opposed to movies of any kind. Now both parents were musicians by vocation—the father was a band director (a very fine band director) and the mother was a church choir director. Both had wonderful singing voices. Live music was fine, as long as one was scrupulous. But movies? They never went to any movies. Until “The Sound of Music” was released. Wholesome. Filled with wonderful music by Rogers and Hammerstein. Their kind of music. What was this family to do? They wanted to see just this one film. They knew that their denomination was opposed to movie going. They knew that if they went to see the Julie Andrews feature film in their home town, they would probably run into people who knew their denomination’s scruples against going to movies. So they went to see the movie, but in a town fifteen miles away, instead…

Was doing that what one might call authentic, genuine, bright or real?

Authentic, genuine, bright and real is what is meant by pure.

Purity is Authentic – Let’s say you are going shopping. Do you want an authentic designer handbag or do you want a knock off that is sold by a shady street vendor. Just asking. And what makes the difference? Is the knock-off that has the repeated logo pattern all over it close enough for you to the authentic bag that you will continue to be happy with it over time? What about a work of art, or a selection of food. Do you want the authentic or something that pretends to be, all the while being a cheap imitation? Why have fake this or that, when you can have the original? What about authentic values? What are they, as compared with cheap imitation values? What about fake faith? What is “in” fake faith?

Do you know that before H J Heinz and some of his fellow food manufacturers, pure food was not a given in the United States. Heinz had a higher standard and lobbied Congress to enact pure food laws. He understood the difference between authentic and fake. If the label said tomato ketchup, that had to be true, not a lie. As Beethoven said: “Anyone who tells a lie has not a pure heart, and cannot make a good soup.”
Jesus encouraged almost everyone, but did you notice? He criticized the Pharisees who were good at putting on the cheap imitation label of stringent behavior when what was inside didn’t live up to it. The Lord used some of His most scathing language against them. The word was "hypocrite". The words were "whitewashed tombs". Ouch!

Purity is Genuine – Very close to authentic, is the word genuine. I recently revisited Jane Austen’s “Mansfield Park” and noticed how discerning Fanny Price was, given the expressed interest that Henry Crawford paid to her. Henry did a lot to try to convince her that he was sincere in wanting to marry her and that he could be trusted. Fanny exasperates him (and even the reader, at points), where it seems that he has proven that he is genuine in wanting to be a dependable person and therefore a good husband to her. He travels to Portsmouth to woo her. He professes his love. He goes to somewhat extravagant lengths to show it. Somehow, Fanny still knows that Henry is not being genuine. When his true colors are revealed, Fanny’s caution and discernment are proven correct. He had put on his expressed love for her, and could take it off, just as easily. Contrast that with what Nathaniel Hawthorn says: “A pure hand needs no glove to cover it.” In Jesus parable, genuine is the son who said he was not going to work in the father’s field, but then went ahead and did it. As opposed to the one who gave working the field lip-service, (hmm, think Eddie Haskell?), but who never lifted a finger to help. Purity is genuine and sincere. Not fake.

Purity is Bright – Is bright synonymous with smart? Maybe. Some people who are smart are also extremely dull, though. So there may be some shared ground between bright and smart, sort of like a Venn diagram. But the two are not equivalent. To be bright in the pure sense is more like that often used adjective in the UK: Brilliant! Meaning exactly right and more so for the need or occasion.

Purity is Real – Do you remember the term “get real”? Once when I was finding more and more about family history, I learned that Judy’s family boasts a “double signer” – someone who signed both the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution. There are only a dozen people who signed both. So this was exciting news. The kind that makes history come alive. The ancestor in Judy’s family tree was George Clymer. I was mentioning this at supper one evening, when our kids were in middle school, and quipped that had we known that at the time when our son was born, we could have named John “George Clymer Dalles”. Without missing a beat, John looked at me across the table and said, “Get real, Dad.” He knew I was kidding and, naturally, we all laughed about it. But he made an excellent point. Let's be real, shall we? Be whom God created us to be. A sea gull does not act like a chipmunk, or even a robin. A real sea gull can only be and do what a sea gull is and does. That is being real.

Somewhere Jesus says that the pure in heart shall see God. What’s that you say? It is in the greatest sermon ever preached—the Sermon on the Mount? Yes, you are correct. Maybe a good way to begin the Lenten Season is to give up the ways of the Pharisees, and their kind who are all too busy looking for imperfections. Because that is all they are ever going to see. Imperfections. Not God.

How much better to be authentic and genuine, bright and real. In a word: Pure.

Happy Shrove Tuesday!

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