"I am afraid of a failure like that"

"And they all forsook him, and fled." (Mk 14.50)

I read that line again yesterday morning, and again it caught and held me. The other day I had commented on that article on the Jesus Manifesto site, closing with the words, "The cross is a much more powerful witness than the serving spoon." But it left me wondering again about the meaning of the cross. I think this line from Mark says something about the meaning and experience of the cross.

Usually we think of the cross as an experience of being persecuted or attacked, which is not so uncommon for us. Or we see the cross (or similarly, the martyr's pyre) from the perspective of history, as the sacrifice of a hero, the brief trial of one who would eventually be praised for their humility and admired for their victory over all who opposed them. We label our difficulties and setbacks as "crosses" and press on towards the success we expect for God's servants.

But I don't think it's fair to equate the cross with our temporary setbacks. In the experience of Jesus' life, the cross was not a setback. It was failure. The crowds turned against him, all his closest followers abandoned him and fled, and he was condemned and was killed. He died. That's not a setback on the path to success. In human terms, that's the end. And for everyone looking on, including Jesus (who wished not to see it, begged not to see it), it looked like complete failure.

I admit that I am afraid of a failure like that. I am afraid for the severe cost to myself and to my wife. I am afraid of how it would be such a discouragement to my friends and community. I am afraid that, because of me and my poor choices, the good things of God that I tried to share would appear to be worth nothing, the truth of God that I tried to speak would appear to be all lies. I am afraid I would utterly despair if I saw that.

And yet the failure of the cross was the way that God chose to reveal himself most perfectly.

So I must not fear even a failure of this magnitude. Somehow, it was important that Jesus fail, fail to significantly change society (or even the people of God), fail to inspire even his closest followers to stand with him at the end—fail, even though he had done everything right. Fail completely. Die. End his life a failure. So that we cannot honestly say that he succeeded in the end, eventually overcame those who opposed him. He lost. The victory that he experienced was not his accomplishment—how could it be, he was dead—it was given to him by God. After all his efforts failed, God gave the success.

So I must not fear failure. It is tremendously important that the victory, the success, be God's alone. And even when my failure comes, even utter failure, the end, that does not mean that God has failed. Only let my failure, like Jesus', be the moment for God's miraculous success.


who are the "least of these"?

I was pleasantly surprised to see this article on the Jesus Manifesto site last week: "Who are the 'Least of These?'" (That site seems to be having problems right now, so I'll quote most of it here.)

There is a judgment scene in Matthew 25 which has become a new favorite of progressive evangelicals and Christians in North America (the word ‘Sojourners’ comes to mind). Matthew recounts a series of parables Jesus told about what kinds of events his followers ought to expect at the eschatological ‘coming of the Son of Man’ (cf. Daniel 7), a series which culminates in the separation of the ’sheep’ and the ‘goats’. Contra the conservative imagination of judgment which affirms salvation by grace through faith, and not by ‘works’, the separation of sheep and the goats, in the very words of Jesus, is a function of how they have treated ‘the least of these’—presumably the poor, the outcast and the downtrodden (salvation by works?). Hurray! cry the progressive hordes, for they have rediscovered a biblical impetus for social work.

I would love to work slowly through some of the crucial concepts here: ’salvation’, ‘grace’, ‘faith’, ‘works’, and so on. I have neither the space nor the competency to do so, but needless to say, the biblical picture is far richer and more complex than its various ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ flattenings. What I want to do here is make a simple observation. The ‘least of these’, in Matthew 25, are adamantly not the generic ‘poor’, or otherwise socially disadvantaged. And since misreading (i.e. mistreating) Scripture is a recipe for a faithless Christianity, it is well worth taking a closer look at the text.

The New English Translation reads: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be assembled before him, and he will separate people one from another like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. [...] And the king will answer them [i.e. the surprised, righteous, 'sheep'], ‘I tell you the truth, just as you did it for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of mine, you did it for me’” (Matthew 25:31-40). Read closely and in context, there are four parties in this scene-the Son of Man enthroned, the sheep, the goats, and the ‘least of these’. The important point, for my purposes, is that the ‘least of these’ are the king’s ‘brothers and sisters’. And as much as we want to affirm God’s solidarity with the poor, within the context of this passage (which begins roughly at the beginning of Matthew 24), Jesus is talking about himself (the Son of Man, soon to be enthroned) and his family, his disciples, who are, or soon will be, ‘the least of these’.

The significance of this point might be rephrased by saying that the judgment parable of Matthew 25 is a description not of a universal judgment, but rather of a judgment of the (pagan) nations, soon to be hosts of the newly exiled (from Jerusalem, because of its imminent destruction) Christians. The disciples are showing Jesus the Jerusalem Temple (Matthew 24:1), and he launches into a long diatribe against the Temple, saying, basically, that sucker’s comin’ down. Not only that, but the disciples will be persecuted and betrayed (Matthew 24:9), and things are going to get so bad, the inhabitants of Judea are going to have to flee to the hills (Matthew 24:16)-and many people won’t make it (Matthew 24:22). Which is why Jesus says: be ready! This is the point of the reference to the days of Noah (24:37ff), the reference to thieves in the night (24:43), the parable of the faithful and wise slave (24:45ff), the parable of the ten virgins (25:1ff—note the introductory phrase, ‘at that time…’), and the parable of the talents (25:14ff). It is because Jesus foresees things getting so tough for his disciples that he makes the prophetic announcement of judgment upon the nations based on their treatment of his disciples (who will be displaced and poor). Jesus cares for his fledgling family, and is promising that God will care for them, and will be with them, even as they depend upon Gentiles, upon pagans.

...The upshot of all this, beyond simply not misusing a biblical expression, is the reminder that Jesus’ first followers didn’t expect to be world-changers or world-fixers (at least, not by their own strength). Rather, they expected danger and vulnerability—in economic and political dimensions—and rested in the sovereign care of the Creator. We too often forget the humble beginnings of the Christian family.

I agree with the author's interpretation of this parable; actually I agreed years ago in the journal entries "All the Nations..." and the two that follow. The usual "serve Jesus in the poor" misinterpretation of this parable can lead to much spiritual confusion and misdirection if we actually try to apply it.

And, hopefully, we can see that it wasn't just the early followers of Jesus that he was describing as the "least of these." We should expect the same for ourselves now—both the peril and the care of God for us in that peril—as we follow him ever more closely.


like last year, but with new friends

We had thought it might be a quiet Christmas for us this year, but it was pretty lively in the end. Angela was here for Christmas eve dinner, and Tony, too, Bev's friend from Florida who stayed with us over the holiday. The church service included a reading of Heather's Mary story. We had read that together last year; also like last year, Heather made "chicken with forty cloves of garlic" and petits pots de crème au chocolat, rich dark chocolate custards with shaved chocolate on top. And we were glad that Brandon could join us for dinner, too (and our usual after-dinner theological discussion).

There weren't any presents under our perfect $1 Christmas tree (the stores were practically giving them away this year). Until Bev slipped a couple there. So Heather got to unwrap something after all, a bird feeder, something she'd been thinking she might like.

Before bed we read the passages from Luke and Isaiah that I put together last year. A good day. And there's still a couple of those custards left.



For maybe ten years now, I've been writing a haiku for Christmas (the last few are here), to share with family and friends.

This year I was thinking of Joseph, after the birth of Jesus, listening to noises on the street outside the stable. And I also had in mind our troubled times now (when most seem to be trying to find hope in larger-than-life presidents and billion-dollar bailouts).


christmas gifts

I didn't mention yet that it looks like we will be having another retreat in February. One of the pastors we have been talking with suggested that we do a mid-week retreat for people (like pastors) who can't come on weekends. So now she and another pastor friend we know from Chicago are planning to come in late February. Maybe we can get a few others to come as well. Like the retreat we are doing in January, this would be an introduction to our retreats here, for people who work with the poor and are interested in referring some of the people they serve to us for retreats in the future. We're very happy there are a few more willing to work with us.

And yesterday I heard back from a dentist in town who offered to give Heather and me a cleaning and checkup, with x-rays, for free. I had written to him after hearing he attends a neighboring church. (It's been years since either of us have seen a dentist, due to the cost.) We had been hoping that we could keep our financial needs lower by building relationships with doctors who liked what we are trying to do here, and who were willing to provide some support by their personal care. A dream of how the world might work if everyone focused on giving freely to others in need. In this case, I thought it was pretty unlikely that we would even get a response, so we were bowled over when the response was so generous. It definitely feels like the care of God.

The other Christmas gift came the day before that, when a woman from our church asked if we could host her friend for Christmas week. He had been struggling in Florida and she had offered to bring him back home here, to live with her for a while, but she already had many guests for Christmas. We were very impressed to hear what she is doing. So, wanting to support her, and glad for a guest for the holiday, we agreed. They came with her kids for dinner last night, and we had a really good time. I get a little intimidated by social gatherings with people I don't know, but they were all fun to be with, and I'm glad to get to know them better.


a hope dashed

It's a bit hard to believe, but I'm turning 40 in about a month. ("Nooooo!" Heather wails.) And the other day, I started wondering if I was having some sort of mid-life crisis.

I was mulling over a frustrating conversation, and I guess I began to realize that it had been a hope or dream of mine to one day be recognized as an important thinker. It's embarrassing to admit. I guess it was just that I spent so much time thinking, and came to a few conclusions that seemed pretty important and good, and perhaps I wanted someone (or lots of people) to notice. Appreciate my probing and incisive intellect. Maybe I'd argue with important theologians. Anyway. I realized that now it seems, with where I am and what it looks like I'll be doing, that that little hope will probably never be fulfilled.

Of course I know it's not a very noble hope, and I've told myself enough times that I don't really want that. And I think I really don't. But I guess there's still some emotional attachment to childish self-aggrandizing hopes.

Considering this, though, I remembered that I've often told others that if we truly have a deep understanding of something, we should be able to explain it to anyone, on their own level, in the language they understand. So perhaps the bigger challenge that is before me is to be able to share some of these good and important conclusions with the people who come here, who are very far from theologians. Who would probably laugh at theologians. Who have little patience or respect for big words and big theories that don't have much to do with the day-to-day challenges they face.

That seems to me a worthy challenge. And one that won't gratify any remaining desires for attention or appreciation by "important" people. This also seems much closer to what Jesus used his (divine) intellect for—not for impressing theologians, but for preaching good news to the poor.



"the work of God's kingdom"?

I had a heated exchange with someone long-distance the other day, and it left me feeling troubled. I had felt like I was being patronized, by someone of rising prominence in a popular Christian movement. Called him "condescending." But, afterwards, I wasn't sure if I had gotten angry because I was jealous, or my pride had been hurt, or if maybe I had some good reason to be upset.

Today I recalled his words about doing "the work of God's kingdom." It reminded me of what I've heard many others say about "building the kingdom of God," a concept I've challenged before. I suppose it's easier to get caught up in thinking you're an important part of the work of building God's kingdom when the microphone it put in your hand and so many are ready to follow you.

Looking at it from this angle, I think at least part of my anger was justified (though probably not communicated very well). As I wrote before, I believe strongly that God's kingdom is God's work and a gift to us:

God's kingdom isn't built by our work or through our struggling. It's offered to us if we will receive it as God's work, God's gift, for God's glory. "Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it." (Mk 10.15)
So presumption of being an important worker in the building of God's kingdom seems to me to be a reason for at least some righteous indignation. There are certainly celebrities and big shots in all human groups, but in the kingdom of God we are all (truly) "unworthy servants," or better yet we are all children. Receiving the kingdom as a gift. At most, announcing the great work that God has done. There are none of us who are crucially important, none upon whom the work depends. We all receive God's kingdom as a complete gift, or we do not receive it at all.

I am also led to appreciate again my place as a nobody, spared the temptations of thinking that I am important in "the work of the kingdom." Even the suggestion that such work actually depended on me is overwhelming. I am glad, like a child, to simply do what I'm told by my Father, day by day. And trust that his kingdom is present and growing, while I accept and rejoice in that, until one day he wipes away everything that is not his kingdom so that we all can see clearly what God has done.


waiting with God

I've been working on a letter to send out, an update for those interested in the retreat work here. There's not a whole lot to report, except for the waiting. So that's what I'm writing about, which fits with the season of Advent pretty well; so far it looks like this:

O my God, in you I trust...
for you I wait all the day long. (Ps 25)

The poor wait.

I often find myself thinking about waiting during this time of year. Two years ago Heather and I were anxiously waiting to come to the farm and propose a retreat house for the poor here. Last year, we had just spent months on the road, while waiting for living space to become available that would work for retreats. This year we are waiting for ways that more retreat guests can come.

And I am reminded that the ones who wait the most are those who are lowest and weakest. They wait because they have to, because they have no other choice. Those who are proud, those who have other options, refuse to wait. The poor wait. Even in the ministries meant to serve the poor, where volunteers come to "wait on" the hungry or homeless, who are the ones that are actually standing out in line waiting?

I've struggled with the waiting we have had to do, felt oppressed by it at times. Waiting for God to provide or show the way, any way, and wondering why it is necessary to leave us in such helpless suspense.

But in our waiting I've been reminded that God also waits. Not because he has to, but because he chooses to wait. For us. For us to be ready, for us to give ourselves voluntarily, for us to consent to accept a gift as a gift. God waits for us.

So I've hoped to meet God in our waiting, to encounter God in our feelings of uncertain longing. To wait with God. I've sometimes wondered during Advent services, when we speak of our yearning for the coming Messiah, our longing for justice, our impatience for promises to be fulfilled, do we really now experience "God with us," who has already come? Are we waiting for God to show up? I hope we can learn to wait with God, while we wait for God to act. I hope we can encounter God in the waiting and gain some understanding of the reasons God delays, how his waiting is an act of patience and mercy for us and others. So we can wait more gently, and with confidence, that God will act and we will not be disappointed.

Please pray with us also for more opportunities to share this hope with the poor, with guests who come here for retreats. That their waiting not be an experience of abandonment, but a waiting with God, waiting close to God, waiting and depending on their God each day to provide for needs and show the next step. "O my God, in you I trust. For you I wait all the day long."


I noticed the Christmas specials are on already...


our darkness, part 2

The morning after I wrote that last entry, I had a hard time getting out of bed. Struggling with a feeling of despair. It may be true that we can find God in our experiences of rejection, but somehow it still left me feeling pretty depressed. I think it was recognizing that so much depends on the cooperation and help of others, and we so often let each other down. Sometimes due to our lack of love and sometimes just because we are limited and unable to do enough to meet all the needs presented to us. Facing that, it seemed like the work we are trying to do, the life we are trying to live, is hopeless. When others fail us, God may indeed be with us, feeling the frustration and disappointment along with us—but aren't we still left with failure?

I was reminded then of my belief that God's purposes, while they are often done through people, cannot be held back by people's faults or failings. Somehow God finds a way anyway. And our experience of the promised kingdom of God, while it certainly involves others and is usually given through our relationships with others, it is not dependent on them. Others can fall far short and God can still fulfill his promises to us. I don't understand how, but I do believe it.

That same afternoon, I got a note from one of the people we were waiting to hear from about a January retreat (trying one last time to still get the advent retreat group together, if a little late). And he said he could come, so we're going to do it after all. We're relieved and grateful. I had felt that this group had been an unexpected gift, and then had been so confused and disappointed when our weeks of trying seemed to fail; I really needed it not to fail completely.

I know this is such a small thing, and so many more unlikely steps have to happen before we actually have folks coming for retreats here regularly (and enough support to provide for their coming). I guess it still seems as impossible as it did that morning.

But perhaps not hopeless.


our darkness

For the last several weeks I've been struggling with feelings of confusion and darkness (due to our latest retreat attempts failing), and more recent apparent failures in relationships here have added to those feelings. I've noticed that these failures (when I thought I was doing what God wanted) have especially bothered me because they've left me feeling distant from God. Left alone. I tell myself that's not true, but I haven't been able to shake the feeling, which has scared me more.

This morning, though, I recalled my recent thoughts about finding God in grief. And I wondered if we could also encounter and unite with God in our feelings of failure and rejection. I guess I usually don't associate God with those feelings. Those feelings usually drive me to question my actions and beliefs, think that I have gone wrong somehow, or that what I am offering is of little or no worth. I have a hard time accepting that God would lead me to do something if it is just going to end in rejection or failure. But when I think of Jesus' life on earth, I imagine he experienced those feelings often. I imagine God must also often feel rejected now, though what he offers is true and good. Perhaps when we're trying to do the same thing and feel that rejection, we can actually be closer to God in that feeling, not separated from him. Our apparent darkness may be much closer to light.

Uniting with God in the middle of these feelings may also be the only way to find the energy and love to continue to be open and reach out to those who reject us. Their rejection need not make us feel worthless or cause us to reject them. Rather it could cause us to be and feel closer to the God who was rejected (and is still, again and again).