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SUMWALT: Studies in perfection

SUMWALT: Studies in perfection

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Methodists, who trace their lineage back to John Wesley, are all about perfection. According to our Book of Discipline, “Sanctifying grace draws us toward the gift of Christian perfection, which Wesley described as a heart ‘habitually filled with the love of God and neighbor’ and as having the mind of Christ and walking as he walked.”

Candidates for ordination in our denomination are asked, “Are you going on to perfection?” And if they answer yes, they go on to ordination and a pretty good pension plan. I don’t know what would happen if someone were to answer, “No, I am not going on to perfection.” As far as I know no one ever has, though most of us knew when we declared we were, that we were far from it, and probably always would be.

Striving for perfection has darned near killed me on more than one occasion.

Yet I have come to understand that the grace that came to me in those painful learning experiences is what makes the very idea of going onto perfection possible.

One of those grace-filled moments occurred when I was a 28-year-old, just-graduated-from-seminary, newly appointed pastor serving a little church in south central Wisconsin. I was eager to put all of my learning to good use as quickly as possible. I tried to visit every member, started a Bible study, met with every committee, and sweated over every sermon into the wee hours of every Saturday night.

All went well for a few months until one night, as my wife Jo and I were going to bed, my heart began to flutter and my fingers started to turn blue. I feared I might be having a heart attack or a stroke.

Jo called the paramedics, who made their way with a stretcher up the twisted stairs of the little parsonage with great difficulty. They checked my vitals and strapped me onto the stretcher, which they told me, as they lowered it over the banister with ropes, was especially designed for twisted staircases in little houses. After this torturous descent they rolled the aforementioned stretcher and me onto the ambulance and whisked me off to the emergency room in a small-town hospital about 30 miles up the road. On the way I got in touch with my mortality, which is another way of saying I was scared to death.

After a thorough examination that included several applications of a cold stethoscope to the chest and an electrocardiogram, the emergency room doc announced a diagnosis. He said I had hyperventilated. He suggested I slow down, and he prescribed a paper bag and a small dose of valium, the drug of choice for every anxiety-related illness in the late ‘70s.

On the way home, I told Jo about the terrors of my ambulance ride and of the decision I had made as I peered over my specially designed stretcher into the abyss. Near-death experiences have a way of helping one to focus on what one values. I told her I didn’t want to die before we had a child. Jo nearly drove into the ditch, but she was smiling as she swerved back onto the roadway. She had been planning to go back to college that fall but was very glad to postpone college and work with me on the baby plan. Our first child was born about nine months later. She was perfect, and her daughters, our darling granddaughters are studies in perfection.

I have learned to strive for perfection at a slower pace, as the doctor prescribed, though I still carry a paper bag just in case. I don’t know if this is the kind of striving after perfection that John Wesley had in mind.

I can say that the hard lesson I learned in the days before and since that fear-filled ambulance ride can be summed up in one perfect little five-letter word: grace. By the grace of God I strive every day to be faithful to the one “who learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, became the source of eternal salvation…”

John Sumwalt is a retired pastor and the author of “Shining Moments: Visions of the Holy in Ordinary Lives.” Send email to

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