“Self-Preservation: A Gaping Chink in the Armor to Spiritual Formation in American Christianity”

The Search for Happiness

Well for someone who had as their goal to “write one blog a week in 2018”, I have no doubt given “I suck” new meaning in terms of goal setting.  In fact, it’s been almost two months now.  And though I have a myriad of excuses the size of all my x’s who currently live in Texas, the truth of the matter is that ADHD in this above middle-aged man is the “real deal Holyfield”J.  And the irony is that as I’ve deduced lately, like most Americans, my distraction is of my own making, and not something I can blame on a “syndrome” or a culturally created “sickness”; but rather the ravenous quest built up in my DNA since my more original “sucking” at my Mother’s breast for the pursuit of some “pipe dream” called “the pursuit of happiness”.  In fact, Ruth Whippman reminds us in her best seller America the Anxious: How to Calm Down, Stop Worrying, and Find Happiness that though “Americans as a whole invest more time and money and emotional energy in the explicit pursuit of happiness than any other nation on earth”, the results of that investment has not delivered the goods in that it has instead made us the “less happiest place in the developed world”.  Yet, no one seems to be in line to request their money back!

Five Minutes of Fame

And as you look around, the results of our learning from the limitless poor investments has not taught us much I’m afraid. Today for instance, as you look around, everyone is looking for their “five minutes of fame”.  Facebook, Twitter and YouTube has made us all into stars now who otherwise would have had no chance, allowing us to “go live” in the most risqué of life’s otherwise “behind closed doors moments” by recording for us everything from our bedroom privacies; pregnant teenage Mom’s holding their child while simultaneously getting the hell beat of them on the street for only God knows what (our shock and awe I suppose); to no endless repertoire of self-authoritative opinions derived from mere regurgitation of the media spin doctors we feed on from dusk till dawn. And though the exception to the rule is some stars are truly born who otherwise would not have been given a passing glance, the vast majority are an endless upchuck of “much ado about nothing” forced into our watching eyes and mini-screens.  Who will be the next American Idol, YouTube sensation, Twitter n Chief, or Facebook phenomenon?  Only time and a whole lot of endless blushing and barfing knows!

And though the pursuit of happiness in and of itself is not a bad thing, “if” we know where it comes from and the place it should actually hold somewhere down the line in our lives; the real issue for us is our unremitting “fear of death”, which is in stark antithesis to our lofty American pursuit.  As a result, self-preservation rules the day in all of us, and has not bypassed this modern man to boot, constantly scurrying about wondering what to do about it.

The Culprit: Self Preservation

For instance, we’ve got health insurance; life insurance; flood insurance; fire insurance; pet insurance; and now identity-theft insurance, as well as any number of nuances of extra insurance as a caveat to whatever the aforementioned insurance doesn’t cover in the endless fine print.  And of course, everyone now knows that most of the food we eat and the water we drink is toxic; just one more proposed threat to our “survival of the fittest”.  As a result, other fortune hunters and equally do-gooders have created a new health and wellness industry that promises better health, more energy, a better sex life, a solution to the germaphobes in us all, and overall adds more insulation to our otherwise cushy American life.  In the aftermath, when you tally it all up, there is little left for the “giving back” part of life that supposedly delivers the real happiness according to our antiquated Savior, and not enough time in a day to barely write the skimpy check after the “necessary” precautions have been taken into consideration for our own escape from the stuff, and the people of the world crumbling all around us.

What this has done to Christianity in America and in me should be no secret for anyone who pauses for a millisecond to pay attention, or who hasn’t been sleeping under a rock with Rip Van Winkle. Spiritual formation and discipline in the areas of contentment, sacrifice and humility have already “died on the vine”, and the prospect of storing treasures in a blissful and remote heaven we’re so far removed from rarely makes it into the discussion in the majority of our homes, and now sadly (even more a travesty), in most churches that claim to be teaching us (for a small fee) how it’s all supposed to be done.

Seniors Lead the Way?

I do recall once upon a time, if anyone was listening, hearing the prospect at least, that the old men could teach the younger men, and the older women could teach the younger women how to exemplar Christ, but not to worry anymore.  The old have now by and large become even worse about their own self-preservation and the desire to live till that can’t see straight, just as long as endless surgeries and pharmaceuticals can preserve them, right up until the precipice of the injection of the final embalming fluid.  And they have become the germaphobes extraordinaire these days quite frankly.  In fact, as an ecumenist who takes it upon himself to visit and worship with the kaleidoscope of churches under the Christian rainbow, I’ve noticed lately a trend in the high churches I had not before experienced. It seems that even to them, the eucharist is not that “big a deal” I suppose, for the elderly take the bread and bypass the cup, and then whisk back to their seat, shortly after they “nod” at the “blessing of peace” to others, rather than shake someone’s “germ-ridden hands”.  After all, who the Hell knows where those hands have been for goodness sakes, and even God would want us to be cognizant of this wouldn’t he?.  And so it would seem I guess, that they too no longer believe it’s the actual body and blood of the Lord that we need to imbibe.  Transubstantiawho? In fact, I’m now waiting for the “gluten free” bread line to enter the buffet line of church options.  Hell, there’s an idea!  Maybe we could start a eucharistic gluten free church?  Oh, and bring in the organic wine without all those damn added sulfites too for goodness sakes.  Throw out the Common Cup and bring in the plastic protestant-evangelical cup thingies why don’t we?  Opportunity knocks!  But I now digress.

In Search of the Spirit

The truth of the matter is, that self-preservation has infiltrated the one last beacon of hope (the universal church), while the self-proclaimed “frozen chosen” all across the Christian landscape in America hasn’t much left at the end of the church ledger sheet to tip the poor and send those called to proclaim the good news to the rest of the world as to what makes for real happiness and joy in both this life and the next.  And unless the Spirit comes and engulfs all of us by surreptitiousness, none of our money, reason or logic will budge the thinking and shoes of the vast majority of those who still as of yet aren’t paying us even a smidgeon of attention.  And the crux of the matter to be sure is, that enduring hardship as a good soldier sounds like something synonymous to old fashioned rubbish even to the Christian masses, and thus the chink in the Christian’s decrepit armor takes center stage!  Ho Hum.

But at least lately, as I look at myself in the mirror, I doubt that until I’m willing to die in some form or fashion again, or volunteer occasionally to become our Lord’s court jester, that a world and a church now going head-first after whatever spirit of the age is willing to lift up its dress and show its new world to us, that anyone will pay much bloody attention. Sniff, sniff.

Selah

Why Some Of Us Find Community Almost Everywhere but Church

A Caveat

 

I know at the outset, the words in the title above before good and noble churchmen and practitioners teeter-totter on the precipice of sacrilege. In fact, if you have spent more than a day exposed to your version of Christendom, a sort of immediate gag reflex kicks in based either on what we’ve heard in those circles; what we’ve been taught; or even more subtly, what we have come to fervently believe and teach ourselves. But what of experience of the “some of us” in my title we might ask? What of the pew jumpers, church hoppers and those who choose to do some form of church almost anywhere but the building on main or church street in your given town or city square? Does that count for something to get at a broader picture of the truth? Or, is their experience totally suspect here, and more akin to some sort of blasphemy worthy of contemptible discounting, or perhaps just shy of inquisition-like reactions?

 

Now before I attempt to explain briefly what I mean by my subject this morning, let me also blurt out an agreed upon qualification to those well-meaning keepers of the magisterium who stoically and eternally disagree, or who would claim to have the opposite experience, and of course a church or two to in their experience toolbox to prove it. And to that I would say, “I understand”. I also appreciate the disclaimer and the modicum of truth that it has to add to this discussion. There is no argument here, except to say that perhaps our disagreement, belief, or experience is well known only to us: the faithful; the paid players; or those who tend to have learned to sort of…fall in line with it. However, equally plausibly perchance to everyone else outside the fold, is that it is not that cut and dry, and also to an increasing amount of church ragamuffins like me who would wish they were found holding different cards.

 

In fact, there has not a day gone by in the last 20 years of my life that I have not wished to become permanently apart of a communal sheep fold that I could bring my Socratic inquiries and still graze in, only to have been increasingly set out like a goat on my own often lonely path–just left of the right side of the Lord to many I’m sure. And though I’ve longed to bring my honest questions and concerns to the Eucharistic table, and to the potluck or small group meeting, I’ve mostly been met with those who would simply wish that I would finally get the memo, kiss the ring, and drop my 10% premium in the offering plate and shuffle along. Well perhaps more later. For now, let me share just a couple of reasons why goats like me with sheep-like dreams never find that sheep-connection that they long for, but who are still very much trying.

 

Some Reasons Why

 

            The Church with a Big C Instead of a Little c

The first reason that I have observed, is not only why I and countless others find it hard to uncover real community in the church, but also relates to why it is no surprise that I also hold to a much looser view as to the scope of the church’s authority in my life–which has to do with the church’s continual bargaining to the broader culture for it’s importance as a Big C instead of a little one. Again, I can feel the knee-jerk reaction to that statement; and to many, they would surmise it is due to my left over 60’s rebellion, or the spirit of the narcissistic cultural age of which we are all immersed in. But please hear me out, and for a moment, I’ll let someone like Paul F.M. Zahl with church “street creds” add to my introductory commentary, and to what many other beleaguered Christian nomads along the church path have felt for sometime now where he writes:

 

 

“Ecclesiology (the study of the church) is an actual ill! By definition it places the church in some kind of special zone—somehow distinct from real life—that appears to be worthy of study and attention. The underlying idea is that the church is in a zone that is free, or at least more free from original sin and total depravity than the rest of the world, but the facts prove otherwise. The facts of history run counter to ecclesiology. They reveal a grim ersatz thing carrying the image of Christ but projected onto human nature and therefore intrinsically self-deceived. The gospel of grace, based on relational love that is entirely one-way, is at odds with ecclesiology…Because we believe in the depth of sin and in the impossibility until death, of any “original sin-free zone” in the world, we are skeptical of any church idea that ascribes to church a distinctive authority that it must be obeyed. A systematic theology of grace is, in respect to the church, irreducibly Protestant. The Protestantism of grace’s church idea, which is church by negation and church from suspicion, is important for all Christians to come up against, because it delivers them from the skepticism and finally the voluntary abandonment to which all church fealty finally leads when the lights go on…I can write this in my own blood. Disenchantment with my own branch of the institution has not affected my conviction that Christ is the light of the world and that God’s grace is the way of human freedom. Had the ecclesiology of grace been higher than the anthropology of original sin and totally depravity permitted it to be, the result of the loss would have been a loss of a hope in God. The negation of Ecclesiology from grace permits the survival of faith in Christ as the Wound of the World to heal the wounds of the world”[1].

 

In essence, Zahl reminds us that to not have an ecclesiology is actually to have one, but it’s not what we expect, or perhaps want to hear. Yet our new ecclesiology puts first things first.  In other words,

 

“It puts Christ over the human church. It puts what Christ taught and said over the church. It puts grace over the church. It puts Christ’s saving work and the acute drama of the human predicament over the church. It puts the human hope of change over the church. It places the Holy Spirit over the church”[2].

 

These are words of fresh air for both weary church neophytes and aficionados alike who are constantly on probation in their mind, and perhaps in the minds of other good church goers pertaining to the fact that the church struggle is real–particularly evidenced by a theologian and churchmen of high rank who has also experienced the struggle acutely on the inside. It is at least one of the reasons, that though we know we are to be with the people of God regularly somewhere, we hold up a Great Wall to block us from conceding to a popular view of church (Protestant or Catholic) that shuns or disregards our voice and questions as valid to the church conversation and participation, without it being a mere apostate affront to the institution itself.

 

            A Lack of Grace That is Palpable, Yet Also Underground

 

The second reason most find community almost everywhere but church is because grace, the thought that changed the world (Bono), is oftentimes the missing ingredient in a church service setting, the potluck or the small group—and it doesn’t really matter which. For instance, as soon as a question is asked; a taboo broken; a snotty nose kid goes unattended; or a pregnant teen emerges, all bets are off! We drop what we were doing to answer; to repair; to wipe; and instead are more prone to pass judgment before offering graceful love. I can’t explain it in others and much less myself, but it is further proof that though the church is comprised of good that we all need to be apart of, it also; when it begins to see itself beyond the humble and broken stewards and faithful sowers of it’s gospel truth, to instead titles of spiritual fathers who know best–it oftentimes throws the possibility of real community amongst the broken and spiritual misfits out the door. This is especially so for those who not only do not know what a good Father is, or a family; but who come from a lineage and a past or present for whom life may have dealt very different cards—or for whom there are no simplistic answers for the realties that are their constant companion. The church often cannot make room for unsuccessful Christians for whom the victorious Christian life constantly escapes them, even though they follow silently, yet unwaveringly—and often even more so than the ones with standing white-picket fences.

 

I can remember years ago the theme song from the hit TV show Cheers, whose line added, “everyone wants to go where everyone knows your name”. I thought it ironic then that the bar behaved much like a family–a dysfunctional one, but a family nonetheless. Fast-forward many years later, I too more often found solace in a bottle or possibly a friend (Indigo Girls) at the local saloon than anywhere else. The truth is, community is difficult in an age when individualism runs amuck, and “me, my and I” have taken precedence over the others found in community, and to be sure I can be part of the problem. But it should also then be no surprise that we reproduce that spirit in the church when it engulfs the broader culture of which we are also many times brazenly apart of as well. For just as the church affects culture, it is also affected by it; much as we would like to think we are exempt from the disease our culture oozes in flickering pixels across our screens of various shapes and sizes.

 

The truth is that we cannot have real community until grace takes precedence over spiritual, political or social correctness that seems to be endemic among us all. For unless we are led by a starkly different kingdom value-set, we are prone to wander, and the non-going church culture feels it! In fact, we can tell a lot about who we have true community with by who we can’t wait to hang around with on the weekend, rather than who we sit behind every brisk Sunday morning. The bottom line is: We love being around people who love us back, just the way we are (Billy Joel).  And to those who expect or exact nothing from us other than our company, our being, and our mutual offertory cleansing of shared successes and failures walking along the narrow path–albeit with a distinct and communal limp. This kind of community is perhaps better shared with the real life of bread and wine, or beer and hamburgers on the grill, rather than the manufactured world of quick Sunday morning coffee and doughnuts, with three worship songs, an offering plate and an altar call–with an ensemble conclusion of “yall come back real soon ya hear”. And though I am not necessarily advocating we replace the coffee pots with cabernet or Stella on Sunday morning, what I am advocating is the necessity for church to go beyond the common call for meeting in small groups, to a more human call to living real life together in and out of the context of Bible study and prayer, yet also not to their exclusion. This will take risqué thinking that will no doubt be met by good churchmen, yet who may also look at us with frog-eyes and begin looking for new lily pads down the road. Nonetheless, it is a journey worth taking; especially as the “rise of the nones[3]” are increasingly comprised of the “Christian dones[4]”.  They are those who would rather stay at home alone rather than subject themselves to the same graceless, monotonous, and artificial activity; and yet that still expects different results from parishioners who have long shown signs of Rigor Mortis.

 

At least some of this decay in our parishioners is due to being constantly oppressed by the preaching of a law or spiritual prescriptions no one can ever keep or fill, but who get it handed to them sanctimoniously on any given Sunday. Dr. Zahl again adds keen insight here where he writes,

 

“Preachers require a history of grace in relation to their own personal sin and sorrows. Unless preachers have individual knowledge of their own form of original sin and total depravity, they have nothing to offer to which anyone else can relate. Grace has to be the core of a preacher’s own story in order for their sermons to carry any impact. If this is not so, they will preach the law and exhort. Then they will become angry at their dispirited and paralyzed listeners. Ministers who start to despise their own congregations—and many do—do so because ‘their’ people are not doing what the minister is telling them to do. The minister assumes they have ‘free will’ because he thinks he does. Therefore, when they exercise their ‘freedom’ in not doing what he preaches he starts to dislike them”[5].

 

I learned this the hard way from my own experience as a former preacher who held the law up every Sunday, although I would have prided myself as a graceful person in most other aspects of my life. I never understood why, that though people liked my sermons because of their bible saturation, three logical points and eloquent delivery; yet they also seemed to be shaking my hand every Sunday, ever so quietly whispering in my ear “Great sermon Mark, but I’m going back to sin now”. And they were, and so was I. Not always consciously, yet sometimes very much so–simply because we really can’t help ourselves without daily divine intervention.

 

I finally realized grace was the answer to all of life’s problems years ago when by happenstance I picked up the book What’s So Amazing About Grace by Phillip Yancey, and then overdosed on a follow up called The Ragamuffin Gospel, by the late Brennan Manning. Through those pages, I finally realized most find community everywhere but church and determined to change my tune and course. At that time, I never realized the cost of Zahl’s advice for a spiritual misfit like me: that of being transparent and preaching grace to religious people. Jesus results should have been a case in point! What I found out the hard way was that the Bible belt likes pastors as church mascots more than someone with a holy calling, yet who also sits on the sidelines with the rest of the sinners and shuns sitting in the “Holy man” chairs. Good churchmen also prefer being told what to do sometimes even more than being freely given the scandalous license that grace appears to provide: for others to simply be who they are–sinners, saved by the matchless grace of Jesus, and those who rest and walk in that awareness each and every day. No instead, I found that we like our preachers on pedestals rather than like the most prolific writer of the New Testament; the Apostle Paul, who said, “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness”.  For me, this proved to be rather risky behavior for the frozen chosen, but I discovered that the broken and bruised couldn’t get enough.

 

A Humble but Familiar Reminder

 

I realize that my brief musings have opened up some “cans of worms” and left some questions unanswered. And to that I would say, “This is a blog, and I don’t want to keep you too long, and I’ll be back”. And perhaps I would also say, “it’s also a lot like life, and also unavoidable in meditations about the deity”. Nonetheless, I believe these two things I have outlined this morning should be a clarion call to church leaders and good churchmen alike to take a look around and pause for reflection and introspection. It’s not because I have said it to be sure, and it’s certainly not because they are new admonitions. But rather its because it’s actually being said and has been said all around them, much like leftover landmines from a previous war that they seem to strategically still avoid. Landmines that have now erupted, resulting in an exodus from church–whose results are still mostly brushed off as a cultural problem (the world), rather than an actual subcultural one (the church). All the while, the flames and broken bodies are all around with their own fate still off in the smoky distance.

 

And yet meanwhile…the broken and spiritual misfits are still dying to get in.

 

Selah

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Zahl, P. F. (2007). Grace in practice: A theology of everyday life. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub.

[2] Zahl, P. F. (2007). Grace in practice: A theology of everyday life. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub.

[3] White, J. E. (2014). The rise of the Nones: Understanding and reaching the religiously unaffiliated. Grand Rapids: Baker Books.

 

[4] Packard, J., & Hope, A. (2015). Church refugees: Sociologists reveal why people are done with the church but not their faith. Loveland, CO: Group.

 

[5] Zahl, P. F. (2007). Grace in practice: A theology of everyday life. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub.

Walking the Life of Faith: A Humble Corrective to the Success Paradigm of American Christianity and Ministry from the Pauline Playbook of Suffering and Failure- Part II

Well if you are still sticking around today to read this blog, either as I mentioned yesterday you are just a sucker for punishment, you can’t resist seeing a man bathe mercilessly in his misery, or perhaps, just perhaps, you’re reading because I’ve got something to say that might be good for us all to hear. I’ll hope for the latter but continue on we must.

We’ve evaluated the world, but more specifically America, and our take on winning and success and how it is deep-rooted in our psyche about what it is to have the good life, how we evaluate others as to whether they are having the good life or not, and that which drives us like the energizer bunny to always be a smashing success until death do us part. In America as well, no one wants to hear the bad news unless there is some good news lurking around the news corner. We’ve been trained in this till it has almost become innate, and we will only tolerate bearers of any type of news; be it political, religious, in regards to health or what have you, if there is of course a happy ending to be achieved around the bend. We also mentioned how this slippery slope of who we are as winners has slipped in by stealth into our view of how we do Christian ministry, and worse yet, how we view our own Christian lives in terms of whether we are doing good or bad spiritually. My brief thesis has been that this view taints our faith in such a way that we miss a great deal of what is to learn from failure and suffering continually in our lives from the playbook of New Testament, or for the purpose of this blog post, by looking at Pauline suffering and failure. To make myself feel better and perhaps you as well, I mentioned my abysmal failure in ministry and lack of consistent “happy trails” and success in my own existence. I did this as a much needed backdrop to introduce a humble corrective to the current success paradigm of American Christianity and ministry that I believe we sidestep to our spiritual impairment at best, and lack of finishing well or at all at its very worst. Also, like Paul, I am the chief of sinners and the ringleader of sidestepping lots of things spiritually, and thus feel very qualified to help souls taken in by this very faulty worldview that I believe leaves fatalities all around us.

Now before I move along, let me just say that everyone wants some good news every now and then. It certainly is not wrong to want that and of course it is very human as well. You kick a dog long enough and sooner or later he no longer wants to come out and play! Humans can only take so much before they crack and break. Having said that, I am not saying that preaching good news is bad, nor am I trying to teach Christians who should already know better that in this life we will suffer, and if you add your Christian faith to it, you “should” at least be experiencing some what more than the next guy–even within seasons of goodness, peace and plenty to balance out the seasons of little. What I am trying to do however, it get us to understand that though we oftentimes don’t realize it, we are evaluating whether or not God likes us, is working in our lives, and is pleased with us by whether or not we are financially successful, have great spouses, great kids, or plenty of this and plenty of that. As a result, a vast majority of people on the right path spiritually have come to evaluate their ministry or themselves through the lens of big mega church’s, rich and fat white people that make up those churches, and the media and the world around them based on whether or not they have been able to achieve the same great results everyone else has. In addition, this leads into a faulty theology that causes them to not have the ability to have joy and peace in their unpredictability, suffering, pain or seasons of famine. As a result, not only do people leave the fold of Christianity, but they often times project a false sense of failure in their Christian lives onto others who no longer give Christianity a second look. They do this because they surmise that if being a Christian can’t survive topsy-turvy and erratic lives such as their own, then there is no sense of them even trying. In fact, they like us, already assume God must hate them as well because of their unsuccessful lives, and so eating, drinking and being merry seems to make a whole lot more sense! I for one have experienced what it’s like to have everything going my way, seemingly on a fast track to endlessly more of these experiences, only to then find shortly around the corner that my close friend instability was just on a brief vacation and promises to be home very soon! And after all the people, including and now especially Christians, who will tell you that the victorious Christian life will be yours if you just follow their success playbook and make the right choices, good theologians of the cross know that there is always a Golgotha of some sort to prepare for at various and oftentimes continuous seasons throughout our lives, both for God’s glory and for no apparent reason at all.  Having said that, we would do well to be more prepared for it!  In essence, we have built a Christianity with a success paradigm within it that most of the riff-raff like me can’t measure up to and perhaps never will. And while successful Christians bask in being on the other side of our failure, the world by and large continues to realize that if that is what Christianity is then it clearly does not work!

Our case in point is the Apostle Paul. Most Christians and Christian ministers tout Paul as their hero and indeed he should be. For as we read about Paul looking backward, we see a man of great success and one who planted churches all over the then known world, penned out a theology and prose that still mesmerize both Christians and pagans alike and who wrote the majority of the New Testament. Church planters as well adore him. They hold him and the book of Acts up as their model for their own success in building churches and assure us that if Paul were alive today he would wear jeans, a t-shirt and flip-flops, have an IPAD and secure a sexy building and a great rocking worship band before anything else. The church growth movement from the 70’s stemming primarily from the thoughts and words of Donald McGavran and C. Peter Wagner certainly have had their place in this collective credence, yet the overall success paradigm of Americans adds fuel to the fire and perhaps causes us to forget how Paul and others actually viewed him before he was anybody’s hero.

For instance if we look at the book of Acts alone, the historical narrative of the early church, we see Paul questioned, thrown into court, beaten, stoned, whipped, misunderstood, abandoned, shipwrecked, escaping out of windows and having years of unfruitfulness figuring out who he was as a minister of the gospel. Even the churches that Paul built were at best house churches that would not come near to rivaling the mega churches of today by a long shot, and even the more notable ones he did plant; the word success would not be what would accurately describe them. In addition, it was an early doctrine taught in the early church as a regular Sunday school class that “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). Paul would know this all too well as he would be told upon his conversion on the Damascus road that he would suffer much for the Kingdom of God that he would preach about to others. That of course was an understatement as Paul would mention almost as a badge of honor to the Corinthians, who are the most akin to the American church and who gave him the most grief in his life of ministry. He says to them in II Corinthians 11:16-33 where he writes:

I repeat, let no one think me foolish. But even if you do, accept me as a fool, so that I too may boast a little. 17 What I am saying with this boastful confidence, I say not as the Lord would 1but as a fool. 18 Since many boast according to the flesh, I too will boast. 19 For you gladly bear with fools, being wise yourselves! 20 For you bear it if someone makes slaves of you, or devours you, or takes advantage of you, or puts on airs, or strikes you in the face. 21 To my shame, I must say, we were too weak for that!  But whatever anyone else dares to boast of—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast of that. 22 Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they offspring of Abraham? So am I. 23 Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. 24 Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, 2in cold and exposure. 28 And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for pall the churches. 29 Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?  30 If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. 31 The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, the who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying. 32 At Damascus, the governor under King Aretas was guarding the city of Damascus in order to seize me, 33 but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall and escaped his hands. (ESV)

 

Notice here that Paul boasts about what the Corinthians (and us as Americans) would see as contemptible, and perhaps a sign of raving “non-success”! Paul in fact tells them that though they boast according to their fleshly accomplishments, he will boast about what their flesh would consider foolish. Now to be sure Paul was a missionary in the infancy of the church in a Roman society that did not take kindly to anything that would not allow both Caesar and Jesus to sit on the throne and thus persecuted them accordingly. However, throughout his life with the Corinthians (Read 1st Corinthians and 2nd Corinthians) he constantly battles their view of him in line with better orators such as Apollos, who was more in line with the Greek orators of their day. They also evaluated how he looked and acted, and more importantly saw his weakness and persecutions as a sign that he was not successful at all, but rather somewhat of a failure.   He would vehemently remind them of this and how their view on what Christianity should actually be characterized by was faulty quite famously in I Cor. 4:8-17 where he writes:

Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings! And would that you did reign, so that we might share the rule with you! For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men. We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.  I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. I urge you, then, be imitators of me. That is why I sent you Timothy, my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church. (ESV)

 

Here he clearly reminds them that what they think is good and the norm for the Christian such as riches, power, a life of ease, worldly wisdom and the like are not the example of what it should mean oftentimes in our walk of faith, nor what we should be evaluated by or evaluate others by if we are to truly represent what it means to be a Christian in this world.

 

And though we don’t have enough time to go through the New Testament and see case after case of things we should already know, we need to look at just a few more. We need to do as little more icing on my thesis cake to further stress that suffering and many times what the world sees as failure are those very things that should actually be some cause of spiritual joy, and the realization that we are heading in the right direction with our faith, and not proof that we suck as a Christian! The few cases in point that I will leave you with are found in several passages in 2 Timothy where Paul writes to Timothy, encouraging him to embrace suffering (II Tim. 1:8), to not give up and lose heart (1:6), but rather to keep the faith (1:12-14).   This is also at a time that most commentators believe Paul was about to die, or at least knew it was not far in the distance (II Tim. 4:7, 8). Yet even as he encourages young Timothy (II. Tim. 4:5) and the church that sufferings are the norm in the Christian life (2 Tim. 3:12). we can see signs of Paul’s own discouragement of his walk of faith and the rejection by people he depended on time and time again, and what we can expect as the church continues to marry the spirit of the age (II Tim. 1:15; 3:1-9; 13,14; 4:1-6; 9; 14-18).

In conclusion today, as I have been thinking about these things again and again I’m taken aback about how I constantly fall into this subtle success trap and ignore the clear teaching from the Holy scriptures–that though we see the journey as a means to an end, God sees the journey often times as the end! In other words, what he is doing in the lives of the church and his people is more about the holiness, however feebly, he wants to extract from our lives for his greater purposes than about a long pedigree or resume that even the world stands up and takes notice of, mesmerized by our accomplishments and success. Though God does raise up trophies of his grace that do accomplish great things both in the eyes of the Kingdom of God and the world many times, more often than not, the rest of us are to be fools for Christ much like the apostle Paul–recognizing that the foolish things of the world really will confound the wise one day (I Cor. 1:26-29). The temptation to continue to evaluate ourselves by the success paradigm both in Christian ministry and our lives as Christians is an epidemic that is quite frankly killing the church! And the truth is, it’s not just the obvious impairment of the “Prosperity Gospel” that is killing us, though it is that to be sure–yet it’s the very subtle success paradigm that always looks to find the silver lining in what is happening in our lives when often times as of yet there isn’t any to be found. It is that which is killing the church and which is resulting in landmines of dismembered casualties all around us. No one wants to talk about longing for our eternal home because we are still so enamored with life here believing this is all there is. Yet what happens when we’re not so sexy anymore? What happens when we no longer have money in our bank accounts, we lose our secure jobs, the dog bites us, the kids no longer stop by, the bones fail, or the spouse is otherwise preoccupied; and the only thing we have left this side of heaven to sink our teeth into is the joy of knowing Christ–that for which Paul said he suffered the loss of all things and considered it rubbish compared to knowing him (Phil. 3:7-11)?

Selah

 

 

 

Walking the Life of Faith: A Humble Corrective to the Success Paradigm of American Christianity and Ministry from the Pauline Playbook of Suffering and Failure- Part I

I’ve been pondering a lot lately about what it means to live a life of faith. In my last blog post I sort of introduced that thought in saying that I believe that living a life of faith has to mean more than what we currently see of the average American Christian; including and “especially” myself. I mentioned this in so many words, piggybacking on the concept of what it means to live life “on the back 9” in response to the rite of passage of me becoming the big “50” last week. Although perhaps my title proposed to solve what that means, yet to be sure it really only posed other questions rather than clear-cut answers, and this continuation of that deliberation will surely be no different in that regard. In fact, not only do we not have enough time for serious exposition and commentary of this important and lofty idea of what it means to life the life of faith in an American context for a blog post, but quite frankly, answering the questions oneself on our individual journeys with the Master is more important than any prescribed “5 steps to living a life of faith” that I could prescribe, or that many of us increasingly fall for. The reality is sometimes the devil is in the details, and the details for all of us in living actual lives of faith is often times in feebly strapping a hold and going along for the ride that the Spirit will take us that will be many times very much “unlike” our brothers and sisters that surround us. As the purpose of my post will be to suggest, the success paradigm of who we are as Americans culturally, and what has conversely been projected onto American Christianity and ministry, I believe is to err greatly as to what “real” faith and victory in the Kingdom of God really is! In fact, out the outset, I would submit that oftentimes the word “success” is the fly in the ointment if we are to understand all that Jesus wants us to know about following him on the narrow path.

 

As I mentioned, these reflections have invaded my thoughts and dreams lately and has caused no shortage of tossing and turning into sleepless nights, only to rise to the reality that this life of genuine faith I ruminate about is the very thing that escapes my own grasp as a Christian. Though I might propose as a protection mechanism to talk about many ways in which I have portrayed a life faith, the fact is that of late I’m amazed at how much I talk about this life of faith, yet fail just about every test thus proving that my exhaustive reading of the class notes has not effected what it is to actually look like in my own life. This is especially true in terms of how I react to the reality that is my life, which is to be oftentimes more cruciform than successful, if I am to live the life of a Christian in some way close to a New Testament definition.

 

For instance, just two years ago I came off of about a 6-year extremely difficult financial tsunami that I truly thought would never end. And of course for Christians in America, finances are the primary form of suffering that we believe are a result of everything from simply sucking as a human, to not working hard enough, having enough education or ingenuity, or from flat out disobedience to God himself who surely helps those who help themselves! This concept is ingrained in us to the bloody core to the point that very rarely can we see any value in our brief or even extenuated moments of poverty and failure. From everything from securing a steady and lucrative job, thriving in our own business venture, having a smoking-hot marriage or relationship, to having very compliant and equally successful children and ongoing progeny, or to our evaluation of our life as a whole; it all stems from a success paradigm that indeed “is” who we are as Americans. And quite frankly, to be a loser is the epitome of a very “non-American” thing to do from who we are as a people, a nation and how we look to the rest of the world. This of course affects us politically as to whether we are on the right or the left or simply a messed up version of both. It affects us physically in how ourselves and others evaluate our value as being worthy of a second glance as we walk down the street, or as a derogatory reminder that we need to work out more, eat less and take fat-sucking pills that give us the six-pack abs that will be the envy of the beach the next summer season. In fact, everything that occupies our day from the time our feet hit the ground and the first cup of coffee that hits our lips, to the time our weary bodies hit the longed for bed is consumed with being a winner. We’re frenzied with being successful, having more money than the month, multiple streams of income, successful lives, successful ventures, leisure by the sea; and as echoed in our story books, life lived “happily ever after”–and oh by the way…very, very successful! Of course I’ve really just only touched the surface as to what success and winning means to us as Americans and the human race perhaps, but the real focus of my talk today is how that very same romanticism has indeed hijacked the church and Christian ministry, and likewise how it has wrongly defined what it means to be people of faith.    

 

But before I deal with that issue, by way of reintroduction, let me first get back to my non-success story. As I said earlier, I came off of a 6-year financial tsunami that I truly thought I would never recover from. I then was fortunate enough to have a couple of really good years that miraculously at least got me back on the food chain somewhere equal to perhaps whale poop! Nonetheless, after literally losing everything that my American peers would equate to a successful life, in the last two years I was at least able to recover my home (perhaps a curse more than a blessing), and get out from under the overwhelming sense of not being able to breathe that only most poor people know anything about. Fast forward to today at 50, though I am still employed I am starting all over with no savings, in a new and perhaps chaotic job, an insecure career, college-age children who still have needs, the natural cycle of degenerative bodies and no longer being “the man”, life-altering decisions demanding to be made correctly on the horizon; and a plethora of other things that have effected my sleep quite regularly lately. Though positively I do have a pretty good resume, the benefit of having secured a great education, a beautiful wife and family behind me sink or swim; as well as the prospect of another day to make things better, the truth is–I’m not getting any younger or better looking! In addition, I’m getting somewhat weary of chasing the American dream but don’t seem to have any choice as to whether I should chase it or not. I have also given quite frankly till it hurts, as those who know me can attest to, and essentially at 50 I’m going nowhere pretty fast if you evaluate it by American standards.

 

Oh and one more thing, I haven’t been successful in ministry either. The truth is though I’ve always prided myself as being a great orator and speaker in the pulpit of Christian ministry, you wouldn’t’ know it by those knocking down my doors to invite me to lead them in the ways of God anytime soon. And to be sure it’s partly my fault. I have always been a rebel with a cause and the cause that has taken precedence as far as Christian ministry has put me as a mini Martin Luther with no Prince Frederick the III of Saxony to keep the fires from burning me at the ecclesiastical stake. The result has led me to being somewhat ecumenical as well as an evangelical critic inside the bible belt of the South with no country (denomination) to give me roots and Christian ministry job security–a path I admittedly chose as my own. And though I’ve tried to get back in Christian ministry quite frankly with no real agenda other than to serve and utilize my gifts and get people to think about all the reform needed within American Christianity, I typically have not won many battles, secured many raving fans nor have been very “successful” in ministry at all. In fact the only two full-time churches I pastored throughout my career resulted in them asking me to leave and me leaving of my own accord and Ichabod being figuratively written on the church doors with well meaning Christian pillars reminding me that at the end of the day it was probably all my fault. To add to that, I dreamt of planting a church for years, yet due to my early career stance of trying to keep a secure Christian job (which I sucked at) I bypassed that dream, and yet just a year ago decided to take the “you can do it” plunge. The result so far: you guessed it—abysmal failure by even American Christian standards.

 

Now I am surrounded and know of many Christian ministry comrades who have been “successful” and my hat is off to them. In fact in America there is no argument like success. And as a result, those comrades might even be the ones that would tell you that perhaps I’m writing about this today because I have an axe to grind, or perhaps this is a mere process of catharsis to make me feel better about my ministry disasters. Perhaps they would say it’s a way to get my point across and get people to take notice, or merely a sign of my unwillingness to submit to the church and recant of my rebellious ways so help me God! The truth is however, after some sort of all of those things perhaps being true to some degree at various points in the past, I write this more out of sadness than anger, and as an honest way to understand my own flirtation with the success paradigm and it’s daily grip on how I evaluate my success as a Christian against the roaring crowd of successful naysayers who tell me the proof is in the results whether it be life or ministry. And consequently, if that is the case, then you should disregard anything I’m about to say and pick up the latest “Six steps to this” or “7 habits to that” available anywhere you desire to look at Christian bookstores everywhere. Or, if you are a brave soul and perhaps a sucker for punishment, or just plain curious to know whether or not I know anything of which I speak that could be of some help on your Christian journey then indeed stick along for the ride. I’ll conclude my thoughts tomorrow with Part II.

 

Selah