Many years ago, I met with a Christian leader who had influenced me in my youth. As we talked, he offered to give me input on a recent sermon series I had preached. A month later, he shared a few positive comments, and then he added this critique: “I think you share your weaknesses too much. People need to hear our victories more than our struggles.”
I think he is mistaken.
The gospels overflow with the deficiencies of the disciples who act like puppies that aren’t housebroken: they fail to understand the parables of Jesus, they argue about which of them is the greatest disciple, they cannot cast out an evil spirit, they correct Jesus for predicting his own death, they miss the meaning of the transfiguration, and they abandon and deny Jesus.
And remember, the gospels were written by these very same weak disciples or by people who heard them tell their stories. The gospel writers hid nothing of the failures of the disciples.
And those struggles encourage me. I don’t need leaders who tell me of their great victories; at least I don’t need them as much as I need leaders who share God’s great victories even when they themselves are clueless.
In the spirit of those “gifts of victory,” let me share (again) of my failure in a current struggle.
My leadership at my church feels fruitless and my last few sermons stank; in the first 34 weeks of this year, I published only 25 “weekly” articles; and all my service to a partner charity feels last minute, like I’m doing everything in the nick of time.
Recently, I spend less time with my wife than I want; my brother (who lives in Australia) is visiting for two months and I’ve only met with him once; I’m having far fewer one-on-one meetings to care for acquaintances; and I’m falling behind in paperwork, housework, and email.
Bilbo Baggins once reflected, “I feel like butter scraped over too much bread.”
My heart says, “Me too.” I have too much to do and too little time to do it. My activities suffer from inadequate attention because I’m off to the next thing, which I’ll also do badly because something else (or someone else) cries out for attention. This morning I read this old quote:
God created the world out of emptiness, and as long as we are empty, he can make something out of us.
I once visited an executive at a Christian publishing house. He wondered aloud how he should counsel an employee of his who was pregnant out of wedlock.
While he was “wondering,” the woman herself burst into his office in tears. She had shared her situation in confidence with the executive, and then she discovered he had asked several people for their “wisdom” in counseling her (just as he was asking me).
And now her secret was public knowledge.
He apologized to the woman and they agreed to talk later. After she left, he said to me, “I just hate secrets. I’ve always identified with Nathaniel in Scripture, ‘A man in whom there is no deceit’” (John 1:47).
This morning I read this quote in Flannery O’Conner’s Mystery and Manners:
To know oneself is, above all, to know what one lacks. It is to measure oneself against Truth, and not the other way around. The first product of self-knowledge is humility.
My executive friend may have hated deceit, but it felt like he was full of self-deceit.
A couple years ago, I experienced a growing concern for a friend of mine. Something in his ministry approach seemed discordant with its purpose. I waited a few months before talking with him. (Who knows? Maybe my observations were wrong.) When a perfect example finally arose, I shared my unease.
But to say I “shared it” exaggerates my graciousness.
Instead, I bluntly confronted him. When he resisted, I pressed harder. Something inside me shouted “Stop!” while something else inside me desperately wanted to express my convictions, no matter the consequences.
I bulldozed aside objections, I plowed under every denial, and I railroaded home my points. And of course, the message was lost in its offensive delivery.
Two years later, I’m still working on repairing that relationship.
In 1975, three friends and I participated in a 200-mile bicycle marathon on Belle Isle, an island-park owned by the city of Detroit. The course was a five-mile circuit which you circled forty times. Every time you passed the “finish line,” someone stamped your plastic vest. The race lasted twenty-four hours and the goal was to get forty stamps, representing 200 miles.
My friends and I were foolish high school boys (pardon my redundancy) and not one of us trained for the event. I had to borrow an “English racer” (with its tortuously narrow racing seat) because I didn’t even own a bike. Nevertheless, we decided to ride forty-one circuits (sort of a biker’s-dozen of 205 miles) just to say we did.
The race began at noon on a Saturday. We rode at a reasonable speed, and by midnight, we had biked 180 miles. We were ahead of schedule, a bit tired, and didn’t want to finish at 1:30 in the morning, so we decided to take a sleep-break.
The ground was wet and we hadn’t brought sleeping bags, so we found four plastic trash bags and curled up fetal-style for a nap. (Did I mention we were foolish high school boys?)
When we awoke, our legs had stiffened into baked pretzels; we could barely straighten them much less pedal a bike. One of us decided 180 miles was good enough and quit; two of us wobbled our way the final 20 miles; and one of us went the extra lap for 205 miles.
Later, the “biker’s-dozen” boy casually critiqued our failure by observing that we “just didn’t have the willpower” that he has.
Several years ago I met with a woman distraught over her son’s rejection of Christianity.
She said, “I did everything I could to raise him right. I taught him to be like the ‘heroes of faith,’ with the faithfulness of Abraham, the goodness of Joseph, the pure heart of David, and the obedience of Esther.”
When I was twenty years old, I wanted to spend a summer abroad, but as a college student I could barely afford ramen noodles. I found work on a communal farm in Israel. For a bit of manual labor, they provided me food, a room, ten dollars a month, and a pack of cigarettes a day. (It was the cigarettes that sold me.)
The weekend before I departed, I heard my first talk ever on being a man. On the way to Israel, I stopped in London to visit some friends. With the talk on manliness ringing in my ear, I swaggered, spat, and unsuccessfully tried to play the man.
During a two-hour dinner party in London, I was introduced to a young woman who promptly deemed me shallow, insincere, and stupid. (I skipped dessert so I could quit while I was ahead.)
A few years later she married a friend of mine, but her opinion of me was chiseled in stone. I once loaned her husband ten thousand dollars; and she suspected me of manipulation. But if I forgot to send him a birthday card, she felt my true colors were revealed.
To her, I was a jerk. And everything I did or said reinforced her judgment.