Coming to terms with failure

I sat down, depleted, after preaching on Sunday, promised myself a nap that afternoon after getting the kids down.

But it wasn’t just the exhaustion. My failure consumed me. How many points had I forgotten? Where had I glossed over something that should have been highlighted? Normally I don’t worry about these things, but this time, I felt fragmented, and some of those points and glosses meant something.

Here’s the thing: I had preached on failure. “The kingdom of God starts in unexpected, powerless places on the cusp of failure,” I had said. I talked about the hidden kingdom of God. I talked about the disciples confronted with the reality that instead of glory and power in their lifetime, Jesus asked them to go through hell on earth. I talked about a missionary, Maude Cary, who moved to Morocco in the early 1900s and faithfully served all her life despite personal and professional rejection, despite a lack of visible fruit.

I went home, and during a tickle fight, my son bit my daughter. Hard. Left teeth marks and a bruise and a mommy’s broken heart. This was a first.

Last minute, after taking the kids for ice cream for a special treat, I remembered a free piano concert with childcare at our old church, and we packed our sugar-laden kids into the car (because yes, I am that mom), rushed to the church and followed the lines of Mozart and Borodin and Bolcom, and on our way home, with Annie crying because it was late and she was tired, I wondered what would’ve happened if I’d had the guts to join the studio of the more challenging piano teacher when we moved to Texas. I wondered where my music would be. And I felt sad, toyed with ideas of regret.

Then we came home, and while getting ready for bed, Annie attacked Keegan to zerbert him, and he bit her again.

Later, my husband and I fought (so there it is–Chris and I love each other, we’re committed to each other, and we fight), and I went to bed and tried to read and cried instead because here, too, failure creeps in along the edges.

As you read this, I’m at the hospital with my mom as she’s getting her port placed and her second round of chemo, and isn’t this failure because if the time is fulfilled and the King has come, then where is this peace on earth and goodwill toward men? Why isn’t disease and death and pain eradicated?

I consider the obscurity and, yes, meaningless, of so much of my writing, this thing that I offer God again and again.

I realize that all of this sounds so small because Christians in Syria are being hunted down and killed and women in Dallas are kidnapped and sold into sex slavery and mobs lynch each other in Central African Republic, and in all these places, it appears that the kingdom of God has failed.

But I know that God is sovereign, that he delays because the world rejects Christ, and this is grace because when he comes in glory, he comes in justice, and are we ready to come to terms with that, with our own culpability?

And I know that in all these apparent failures, God is working, healing, redeeming, restoring, and he calls his people to do his kingdom work. He calls me and I offer everything, but the work is not mine. Even this sermon on Sunday is one sermon, and that is not the whole–or center piece–of the worship service. In this, I trust my sovereign God.

So I strain toward the day when God unleashes his power and heals cancer and frees the slaves and reigns in justice and peace and beauty, and meanwhile I take another step, just one, because I know that even in these small things, God’s grace is sufficient.

Church 101: Can’t Go Over It; Can’t Go Under It; We’ll Have to Go Through It

This is my last post in the Church 101 series, a series in which I consider how we as the Church–one global, historical community made up of believers saved by grace through faith in one Christ and indwelt by one Spirit–continue Christ’s work to redeem and restore humanity and, in fact, all of creation; how we serve a Warrior God who saves and chooses for his kingdom the fallen, the hurt, the poor, the slave, the misfit, and the outcast; how, empowered and guided by the same Holy Spirit who empowered and guided Christ, we overcome racial, socioeconomic, and gender barriers as we embody God’s kingdom.

So we come to the post that I dread, because we serve a king who, overturning worldly wisdom and the expectations of the religious leaders, humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death–even death on a cross! We serve a crucified Christ, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. Our king pursued his journey to Jerusalem, despite the warnings of the religious leaders and his own disciples, to his rejection, suffering and death, and he told his followers to expect the same.

When he tallied those who should consider themselves blessed, he finished his list with those who are hated and excluded, those socially ostracized because of their allegiance with Christ, those who would be considered traitors to their nation, those who would find their reputations ruined, their businesses boycotted, their families hostile toward them because of their identity in Christ. Blessed are you, our king said, because this means you’re on the right journey–my journey–and God will reward you for it.

When his followers recognized him as king and Messiah, he corrected their understanding of kingdom politics–that redemption and divine vindication travels through suffering. He called them to a life rejected by the world but embraced by God. Deny your own rights and desires, your ethnic, family, political and religious communities, and construct and new identity, community, and life in Christ, he said. Live dead to this world and its values, risking your reputation and even simple rights in order to live in submission to God. This is the nature of God’s kingdom, our king taught, and as we refuse to engage in worldly power games, selfish ambition and material gain at the expense of others, God’s kingdom will spread.

When we live topsy-turvy as Jesus lived, we can expect isolation, conflict, social dishonor and rejection from the world as Jesus did. Will we reject the world’s comforts, though it means experiencing rejection in the world, or will we reject Christ for the comforts of this world, which means experiencing Christ’s rejection? For we know this is not the end. We know that when Christ comes in glory, God will reveal that Jesus served his purpose. And we have the opportunity to join this purpose and this kingdom now, but it means suffering. This suffering uncloaks the depth of the disciple’s love and commitment, and a proper attitude toward suffering and persecution frees us from fearing what the world can do to us and frees us from worrying over possessions so we can live generously and hospitably with our lives and everything we own.

This is our call.

Luke shows this in the lives of the disciples throughout Acts, people who leave their communities for the community of Christians, living generously and hospitably toward all even in the midst of their own need. We see James’ death because of his faith. We see Paul’s journey to Jerusalem that, like Christ’s journey, results in rejection, suffering and imprisonment.

This is not so different from any good story. The way of God’s kingdom is dangerous. The journey of a citizen of this kingdom is full of suffering. But it ends in glory.

As I sit in my comfortable suburban home in a country that teaches me to fight for my rights because I deserve a break today, or at least a Kit-Kat bar, I reflect on what this means for my life. What does it mean to deny my rights? To experience rejection? To journey through suffering?

At the very least, I believe it means treating my possessions as instruments of God’s kingdom rather than as instruments for my own comfort. I don’t mean that I can never enjoy the fruits of God’s creation and of my (and my husband’s) labor, but I am to live generously and hospitably, even if this means giving up some of my own comforts.

I believe it means refusing comforts especially when gained at the detriment of others. If my consumer habits imprison or take advantage of laborers, I must change them. If a career opportunity means throwing someone under the bus, I must skip it. If my work takes away from God’s mission rather than contributes toward his mission of restoring human dignity and redeeming creation, I must reconsider it.

I believe it means offering grace–individually and corporately–when others take advantage of us instead of fighting for our rights.

I believe it means recognizing that sometimes we’ll be seen as the bad guys, that sometimes our reputations will suffer, that sometimes even our families will turn against us when we live as Christ lived.

I don’t know what this will mean always, but maybe it comes down to expectations. Christ did not call me to pursue happiness or my own earthly rights. He called me to something far more joyful and liberating. And as I continue his work of proclaiming good news to the poor, releasing the captives, restoring sight to the blind, and setting free the oppressed, I do so hopefully with earthly ramifications but knowing that Christ’s good news, restoration and freedom is much more than we could ever expect in this life. We’ll experience the fullness of his kingdom when he returns to earth in glory. Any suffering, inconvenience, or rejection I experience now will pale compared to the joy of living in his kingdom.

Church 101: Pass the Salt

The kids sword-fight with sticks while Carlos turns the meat over the fire. He’s making a traditional Argentine meal for us. Sergei regales us with a tale of the time he accidentally drove his 18-wheeler down a private driveway into some Texan’s ranch. The Texan met him with a rifle and asked if the Cold War was still going on. We laugh at how when Sergei and Muriel fight, they can’t understand each other because he gets mad in Russian and she gets mad in French but they only share the English language. Charl shouts something to his kids in Africaans when they get too close to the edge of a ridge that drops down to the lake.

As we feast on sausage (the first of many meat courses) and wine, I think, this is a glimpse of the Resurrection: nations gathered, laughing, worshiping our Creator.

Luke gives us a view of the kingdom that is inclusive and universal. The religious leadership didn’t get it. They limited their idea of Messiah to a political leader who would free Israel from Rome’s rule, but Jesus had come to free the whole cosmos from every force of evil (hence the healings and exorcisms and raisings from the dead, which demonstrated his power over these evil forces). He wants to liberate all people for all time. God’s kingdom includes Jews and Gentiles, women and men, blue collar and white collar, homeless and patron.

Luke uses the motif of meal-time fellowship to trace this all-inclusive theme, a motif I can appreciate since I love food so much. I believe this is somewhat true of all cultures but especially true of the 1st century: meals established community and demonstrated who was in and who was out.

Think high school cafeteria.

And Jesus showed his willingness to eat with anyone. He displayed hospitality to all, not just to those who could repay him or help him attain a higher position or had good conversational skills. More than that, he taught that in God’s kingdom, we will all feast together at the same table no matter our backgrounds. The popular girl and the math club nerd (I might have participated in a math competition in junior high, but let’s keep that between us) chat it up and share make-up secrets over a pizza.

In his narrative (part 1 and 2, or, as some like to call them “The Gospel of Luke” and “Acts”), Luke concerned himself (because Jesus concerned himself) with the Gentiles, the socially unaccepted and women. I believe Paul influenced a lot of Luke’s theology, especially in these areas, since Luke was from the church in Antioch, Paul’s home base where he spent much time teaching, and traveled with Paul on some of his missionary journeys. I say this because we see Paul concerned with including on equal footing the Gentiles, the socially unaccepted and women.

photo by Bethany Nauert, orinigally used in apartmenttherapy.com

Which means that we as the Church, which is God’s mission in the world to work out his kingdom plan until Christ returns, should be concerned that all people can not only come to God on equal footing despite ethnic and racial backgrounds, social and/or economic standing, music preference, gender, political leanings, national heritage, bathing habits, baggage, dress, parenting strategies, and education, but come together now in fellowship and friendship.

We should be marked by our hospitality toward all.

I want to learn how to better practice this, how to open up my life and my house and my table to all, not just those whose company I find pleasant, who are easy to converse with because we have so much in common, like life stage or interests or economic bracket. I want to struggle over idioms until we figure out each others’ meaning. I want to uncork a good bottle of wine for those who could never appreciate it. If I will be eating with them at the Wedding Feast of the Lamb, I want to get to know them now.

As I continue in this series, I’ll look at the threads woven in Luke’s tapestry, at how the early church grappled with these ideas of inclusion and fellowship and unity, and at how we (really, I) can consider them in our own lives and churches.

I want to know: how do you do this? Where have you seen God’s ministry of reconciliation practiced?

Church 101: Here Is the Church, Here Is the Steeple

I have a love-hate relationship with the Church for one main reason: when I open the doors and see all the people, I discover that they’re mostly like me. Serving and selfish, loving and condescending, hurt and hurtful. Turns out, I’m not always a big fan of people like me. Worse, I’m not a big fan of people whose fallenness happens to express itself differently than mine.

But no matter what I think or how I feel about the local expressions of this idealistic, historical, universal community called the Church, God chose to establish it over 2000 years ago during the Jewish celebration of Pentecost to do his kingdom work. While the Church is not the kingdom in its fullness, it is God’s manifestation through the power of the Holy Spirit of his salvific, kingdom work on earth until Christ returns. I suppose I have to accept that.

I shared recently how teaching through Luke and now co-leading a small group through Acts and selected Pauline letters has done something to me (studying God’s word tends to do that). God put together all these things I’ve known in new ways and added a dash of salt, and now this concoction simmers in the Crockpot, the scent of the flavors filling the house with anticipation. Ah-ha, I said. This is God’s kingdom, and this has ramifications for both the Church and for the church.

I saw that Luke is the story of the Warrior God coming to earth to do his salvific, kingdom work, reclaiming his people and saving them from oppression and evil through the power of the Holy Spirit. I saw that Acts is the story of God continuing his salvific, kingdom work in the Church through the same power of the Holy Spirit. And I saw in Paul’s letters local churches struggle with what this means and how to work it out and live it out and be God’s unified people, coming together on equal terms in the face of persecution and in the midst of cultures that valued things not of God’s kingdom.

And now I take this, alongside thousands of theologians (meaning anyone, whether lay or professional, who has thought about who God is and what this means, though, for me, I mean this specifically in the Christian sense) across time and space to figure out what it means in my little suburb and in the world.

As a friend in college used to say, it’s el fuego!

Sometimes when we hear the stumblings of pastors or the missteps of churches (of which, let’s admit, there are many), we forget that God is doing a powerful work. I easily list how the church has failed me and communities of people. It’s important to address these things, but for now, I want to look at what God accomplishes through this clay jar.

Hence, this new series, Church 101. I haven’t done much in the line of series on my blog before, but these thoughts lend themselves to just such a form, and I look forward to working through them together, with the community who from time to time gather at this space called L’Chaim (or on the local Facebook expression the blog), just as I have worked out and am working out these thoughts in my local non-virtual church. Each week, I’ll take a theme or motif from Luke and Acts to explore, peppered with how we see the first churches working these out through Paul’s letters. As I learn more about the Holy Spirit (more on this in a future post) and how he’s working in churches, I’m anxious to hear about his work in your lives and in your churches, ministering to the people around you in your communities and across the globe. (If I were cool and trendy and hipster, I’d try to get some sort of hashtagged to-do around all this, but since I’m just me, we’ll see where this goes on its own.)

(Nerdy footnote: As I taught through Luke, I depended mainly on Joel Green’s commentary, The Gospel of Luke, in the NICNT commentary series [not to be confused with NCIS commentary series, which as far as I know, doesn't exist, but someone will at some point come up with a Gospel According to NCIS, I'm sure] [further proof of my unhipster status: I like NCIS, although I haven't watched it this past year because my husband is more hipster than I am and likes to discover new shows, especially ones that no one's heard of or watches because he's cool like that], with some help from Darrell Bock’s commentary on Luke. For Paul’s letters, which our small group has looked at briefly [read: one letter per week alongside our Acts reading], I’ve drawn from Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, ed. Kevin Vanhoozer; The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley; and several books and articles by authors including, but not limited to, Drs. N.T. Wright, Philip Payne, and Tom Constable. Also, my reading of A Community Called Atonement by Scot McKnight complements this study on the nature of God’s kingdom work through the Church.)

(Not-so-nerdy footnote: A great companion to this series is Belonging on Ed Cyzewski’s blog.)

Let the games begin.

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