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.
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.
I recently met an elder whose faith brought him great distress. Three years ago, his small but growing church received tithes that exceeded two hundred thousand dollars, for the first time ever. But this is the rest of the story.
After seeking God, the pastor, elders, and deacons collectively felt led to invest in their youth. In faith, they unanimously decided to increase their 2014 budget by thirty-five thousand dollars to hire a youth leader. But the next year’s donations only increased by a thousand.
The following year they again they sought God, and again in faith set a budget with the extra thirty-five thousand dollars. But giving increased by only two thousand. Last year, in faith they repeated the process, and last year’s offerings decreased by three thousand.
I met that elder a week after the board saw last year’s final numbers. He said, “I have never had so much faith in my life. The entire board had faith. Jesus said that if we have faith the size of a mustard seed, we could move an entire mountain.”
“Well, we had faith the size of the Mt. Everest, and we couldn’t move a molehill.”
For the last forty years, my prayer time has started with the Psalms. And for forty years they have alternately given me hope and then pulled that rug of hope from beneath me. They make great promises, but when I pray them with honest self-reflection, the promises fade away.
Look at the hopeful assurances offered:
Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear. (Ps. 27:3)
The Lord preserves the simple. When I was brought low, he saved me. (Ps. 116:6)
The Lord is my Shephard; I shall not want. (Ps. 23:1)
The problem is simple: these promises seem reserved for Saint Francis, not me:
The Lord dealt with me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he rewarded me. (Ps. 18:20)
Give ear to my prayer from lips free of deceit! (Ps. 17:1)
If I have repaid my friend with evil … let the enemy pursue my soul and overtake it, and let him trample my life to the ground. [YIKES!!] (Ps. 7:4-5)
When I try to pray phrases like, “I have trusted in the Lord without wavering,” the words dribble out of my mouth and splatter on the floor.
A few years ago, a twenty-eight-year-old woman shared with me what she called her “unseemly struggle:” she was dissatisfied … with most everything. Growing up, she had simple desires for life: a decent husband, a nice family, and a moderate house.
Soon after college she married a good guy; they both found jobs in their fields; they bought a nice house; and within a few years they had a healthy baby boy.
She had every significant aspiration she had ever desired. Yet she was restless.
So they bought a new car, repainted the house, added granite countertops and stainless steel appliances. They were promoted. Her husband got an MBA. She quit her job to become a full-time mother. It felt good. For a bit.
Soon she felt restless all over again. “Is this all there is?” She saw the same unease in her friends, pursuing raises, cars, promotions, and kids. Then she heard an Einstein quote,
Insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result.
She said to me, “I wonder if we’re all spiritually insane.”
When my family moved to Detroit, the summer between my first and second grade, Tommy was the first friend I made. He too was the son of a pastor—so we had that in common—but his mother hated the idea of punishment.
Tommy’s mother caught us smoking cigarette butts behind their church which was right next door to their house. (How could we have been so stupid?) She explained that the butts have other people’s germs. When that insight failed to motivate him, she offered a pack of gum for every day he didn’t smoke.
Instead of obedience, Tommy’s mom favored explanation, “Do you really want someone’s butt in your mouth?”, and bribery. (My own mother’s response was more pointed and painful.)
Reasoning and bribery didn’t stick. The pleasure of sex and drugs made more sense (and paid better) than his mother’s urgings and graft. By the time he was twenty, Tommy had been arrested for drugs that he sold to support his pregnant girlfriend.
[This article is about obedience not about parenting—though there are implications for parenting as well.]
Tommy’s father favored stricter discipline but his mom’s philosophy was, “I don’t want to crush his spirit.” She let him crush his own.
Last weekend my wife and I attended two weddings. Both couples used traditional vows:
To have and to hold, from this day forward, For better and for worse, for richer and for poorer, In sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, Forsaking all others, as long as we both shall live.
My wife and I got married thirty-three years ago, but our church met in the YMCA, so we asked another local church to rent their building. They required, however, that we receive premarital counseling from one of their staff.
The pastor they provided encouraged us to write our own vows, but he disliked our traditional ending. He suggested we change the last clause to read,