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.
I hate the presidential election season, the rhetoric, emotional responses, hushed conversations, and mud-slinging candidates. I especially hate those damned, political phone polls! Don’t worry, this is not about the election. It’s about when good Christians do bad things.
And yet, weeks after the elections, the rhetoric is still meteoric and the mudslinging has not abated. Friends of mine from both political camps willingly participate in this mud bath. And it gets nasty. Winners ooze smugness and losers dribble bitterness. We all get spattered.
And both believers and non-believers, from the right and the left, hurl slurs. Their opponents are racist or communist, uncaring or unthinking, dumb or dumber.
This absence of distinction bothered me. I had hoped Christians would handle their victory or defeat with better grace. But we didn’t. Just this morning a thought raced through my mind:
A “good” Christian knows that our atheist neighbors are often better people than us.
The speaker was persuasive and moving. He asked us to hug a friend, stomp on the floor, and even pinch our own forearms. It didn’t hurt that he could have been a GQ model: six foot three, blond-haired, blue-eyed, and funny. When he looked each of us in the eye, we felt his personal care.
(This is not the actual speaker, just a photo of an unknown preacher I found on the web.)
The conference theme was Knowing God. Its most popular presenter was this man with passion for feeling God’s love:
He asked, “How can we know God’s love?”
He answered, “We feel love in the hug, we sense the solid floor in the stomp, and we experience pain in the pinch.”
He argued, “God knows our frame, our need for hugs; he longs for us to detect his touch. And that is how we’ll know his love. When we feel it.”
Carrie Koens http://www.carriesbusynothings.com
He scorned the old evangelical formula, “Fact–Faith–Feeling” with its mundane illustration of a train: the locomotive represents “fact,” the coal-car “faith,” and the caboose “feelings.”
If we put our faith (fuel) in the facts (locomotive), our feelings will follow. He snickered at its antiquated answer.
“That perversion,” he laughed, “is completely contrary to the God-man of the gospels. Jesus was a man of compassion. We know his love only when we feel it. Feelings teach us facts.”
I woke up last week to the blahs, like Marie Antoinette’s claim, “Nothing tastes.” This happens to me when I’m tired, and ten restless nights had drained me. I felt exhausted. And melancholy.
I wasn’t irritable (at least no more than usual). It was just a sense of doldrums. I tried a couple movies, but they didn’t grab me; I tried some good books, but they bored me. Nothing tasted. As a distraction, I did deskwork, but it all felt so dreary. Like doing taxes with a toothache.
I also tried praying. It wasn’t bad. I even felt a flicker of inspiration, but then it flickered out. (“Typical,” I thought.) I wasn’t particularly sad, but I did feel kind of … emotional.
How are Christians supposed to handle our emotions? It simply cannot be limited to:
The Emotional Prima Donna. EVERYTHING is SO EPIC! Like geysers they spurt tears at every Hallmark holiday. Their feelings make them the center of attention.
The Emotional Volcano. Pissed at the world, they erupt at the tiniest insult and explode at a slightest sign of disrespect. Their feelings threaten the world.
The Emotional Eunuch. Claiming to be mini-Spock’s, they stuff their feelings. But they lack his charm (and his cool, pointy ears). They seem like animated cabbage. Their lack of feelings make them alien.
Please, tell me I’m not the only one annoyed by these responses (although, come to think of it, maybe I am feeling a bit irritable).
Then—I kid you not—I read a quote by the pop star Madonna, and it began my recovery.
A few years ago a client came into town for a series of meetings. He asked for a restaurant recommendation, and I suggested my favorite restaurant, The Gandy Dancer. The next day he came to my office and raved about the restaurant. He was going to recommend it to every one of his colleagues.
I asked him what he’d ordered. “Nothing,” he said, he’d been too busy. But he had “stopped by and studied the menu, and everything looked incredible.”
I thought he was nuts.
But I’m beginning to think that most of us believers are equally “nuts.” We read the menu and miss the meal. We nourish our Christian lives by feasting on a cardboard menu of untasted truths.
The cardboard menu is a link to a spiritually nourishing banquet, but too often we simply chew on the cardboard. Is it any wonder our lives look like cardboard-cutouts?
Frankly, cardboard is neither life-giving nor nourishing. Even with a dash of salt.
In The Princess Bride, the criminal genius Vizzini repeatedly and inappropriately exclaims, “Inconceivable.” His partner Inigo Montoyo finally reflects, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Like that criminal genius, Christians use religious jargon repeatedly and inappropriately. Sometimes I want to respond, “I do not think it means what you think it means.”
I struggle with the phrase, “wrestling with God.” Christians use it to describe an intentional long night of interceding with God. The phrase refers to Jacob wrestling with God (Gen. 32:22-31). We use it the wrong way; I want to reply, “Stop saying that!”
I used to work in a ministry with a man who loved the phrase. If the finances were low, he’d demand an evening bout of wrestling with God. When the congregation failed to follow the message, he’d insist on an upper room experience battling with God.
My friend used the phrase as though we needed to get God’s attention, as though we needed to place a shot over God’s bow. We’d argue with God, make our pitch, and try to persuade him of our plans. Maybe we’d fast or lie prostrate.
It reminded me of the priests of Baal as they cut themselves on Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18). I wish I’d said to my friend, “I do not think it means what you think it means.”
It may sound noble or heroic, but an African American preacher understood it better when he preached, “Your arm’s too short to box with God!”