It Is Time to Look at Your Faith Failures

When there are long days and dry spells, coming home to face reality can sometimes be too much. I miss many of the greatest truths because the lesson is right in front of my face. They are in the mirror looking right back at me or found in words I'd just rather ignore than own up to.

It has been panned now by many, but I am one who finds “The Last Jedi” to rank up as one of my favorite Star Wars movies. It carries with it the wisdom of Empire Strikes Back, the surprises of Return of the Jedi and at least one scene reminiscent of Phantom Menace (and it makes me cringe). It wasn’t perfect but neither are any of us and it has great moments too.

When Yoda’s force ghost appears, he does what Luke cannot, burn down the tree with the ancient Jedi texts. When Luke returns to pouting as he did when he was younger, Yoda challenges him, “Heeded my words not did you? ‘Pass on what you have learned’...strength, mastery...hmm...but weakness, folly, failure, also. Yes, failure most of all.”

Damn, I hate the way our society has managed to destroy or white wash important truths and how popular Christianity practices are complicit in the same for the Church! I cannot go into “Christian Bookstores” anymore because of the way marketing has put “Jesus” on everything from silverware to drawer pulls to make a profit. Is toilet paper next?

In the end, slick marketing becomes of more value than relationships. The idea is perpetrated that only churches that make one “feel good” (the band was awesome playing that current worship song!) or “meet a need” (thank goodness there is a children’s program and paid people so I don’t have volunteer and so drink my latte in peace), are the ones where the Holy Spirit is “moving.”

Where is the mess of the New Testament??? Come on! Where is Jesus saying, “Oh ye of little faith!” Where is Paul calling out Peter? Where is Barnabas calling out Paul? Where are there churches like the one at Colossae or Ephesus? It happens all the time. We struggle to believe. Disciples and church leaders disagree. Churches close their doors. It happened in the beginning and it still keeps happening.

We are a Church of failures. We are people of weakness and folly, too. We are a Church needing to own up to what we have failed at doing and being...and MOVE FORWARD. Not “move on” and forget but move forward, seeking to follow Jesus as best we can. We need to move forward and burn some of our “sacred writings” that don’t serve us well any longer (I am NOT speaking of the Bible but other authors and teachers and teachings and yes, United Methodists especially, we need to look at this).

“Walk with the wise and become wise, for a companion of fools suffers harm,” says the writer of Proverbs 13:20. How do you gain wisdom? As the country song goes, “How can I be old and wise, if I ain’t ever young and crazy?” Wisdom is often gained from our errors. When I look back at what I have done in ministry and in life, the failures pile up. The follies usually occur when I repeat the mistakes failures should have taught me. As my wife reminds me, “if you know better, you can do better.”

It is time for the Church, for Christians, to not be so uptight about our failures and follies. It is past time for some of you to GET OUT OF THE BOAT and learn the lesson Peter did for yourself. It is past time for some of you to GO INTO ALL THE WORLD and leave your annual conference and pastor somewhere else OR go visit a bar and meet some heathens OR try visiting some churches with a different view of God than yours.

Some days I get tired of failing. But then I have to admit, I am not tired of learning. I am not tired of growing. I am not tired of loving. I am also not done following Jesus. So for what it is worth, I am going to try and pass on what I’ve learned...all of it.

Will the United Methodist Church Be A One Wing Phoenix?

There is an ancient teaching that suggests, “there are two wings by which we rise, one being personal piety and the other community charity. No one can fly by flapping only one wing. It is impossible to be sincere in our worship of God without expecting to do the will of God. It is equally impossible to do the full will of God without the guidance and empowerment of a vital personal relationship with God.” (Harvey and Lois Seifert).

What really strikes me about this observation of the Christian faith, is the varying understandings and interpretations of the meaning and experiences of people of faith leading up to the formulation of those meanings. Think about it this way, my sister and I grew up in a nuclear family. We grew up with the same two parents who have now been married for over 50 years. But we each experienced that home in two very different ways and look back on it differently. My two young children have expressed the very same things about our home too.

The same is true for faith and church.

As much as there are similarities, there is not one wholly and normative experience anyone has regarding their journey to faith in Jesus Christ. Looking at Scriptures, would we say a person isn’t “real” Christian because they didn’t encounter Jesus like Saul did (Acts 9)? Or what about the Ethiopian (Acts 8:26-40)? And what about the 3,000 in Acts 3:40-41? Would we just shutter all the churches that don’t have that happen in their community?

One of the many things I have found helpful in my faith and United Methodist Church, is the tension created by having a “big tent” denomination. Because of our Open Table, all are welcome to come and receive communion without there being a litmus test other than repentance. We do not prevent children from coming to Jesus anymore than the worst sinner or the most prestigious clergy. This has meant we have had to also face issues of justice within a culture and world that is always changing and our foundations shifting.

Having made the move from the southern U.S. to the pacific-northwest has allowed me to look beyond my own understanding of the differences we U.S. Americans have, both in our culture but also our faith. Like many of the biases we create, we do so when we don’t actually take the time to get to know our neighbor. It still remains easier to craft a “strawman” over sexual issues and gender identity than to get to know someone just as it is easier to do so with Republicans and Democrats or Cowboys fans and Redskins fans.

We UMC folks need to walk carefully and humbly in these days. History is always more complicated than we often learn at first. But we UM folks need to be wary as we take steps forward. Coming as we do as a renewal from the Church of England, our “mother church” was formed when Henry VIII didn’t get his way regarding divorcing Catherine of Aragon. Not having male heirs and wanting a divorce is pretty poor reason to start a new church. And lets just name it...the Pope was right to challenge the king. No one was fighting for justice for Catherine (or any of the wives/concubines of Henry VIII either).

We can’t fly as long as our faith is more about pie than piety. Nor can we fly when our focus is just caring for society and not really caring about justice. Whatever phoenix rises from the ashes, may all be found having both wings and not floundering, one-wing birds.

Forward Toward Grace

You can move forward in your life. It may come at a price, in fact, it will, it always does. But, you can move forward. I think I’ve been learning just a little bit more about how grace works in that way.

A typical baby is born with the same anatomy and feature of a full grown adult. However, the typical human baby has a long way to go in terms of physical, emotional, and moral development in order to become that full grown adult human. Even if all things progress as we hope they would and a baby reaches roughly age 25 and the frontal cortex is finished “baking,” a human being can still develop and learn and grow.

What is also part of our growing and maturing is our spiritual development. This is much more individualistic. One may even consider it optional as some people do.

One thing I think we need to name though is that our understandings of spiritual formation are all imperfect. Even for those of us who identify as Christian, we need to step back and own up to the reality our faith understandings are imperfect in their own ways. The glut of denominations and sects within the Christian tradition are testimony to this. As a United Methodist clergy, whose denomination is on the verge of breaking apart, I have watched as the journey to schisms has inched closer over the last few decades. And why? In part, I think we have failed again to acknowledge the true nature of our imperfect spirituality.

A few weeks ago I got an anonymous note after our worship from someone who was offended by our prayer of repentance at Communion. They were turned off by it and said other people would be too. It goes like this:

Merciful God,
we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart.
We have failed to be an obedient church.
We have not done your will,
we have broken your law,
we have rebelled against your love,
we have not loved our neighbors,
and we have not heard the cry of the needy.
Forgive us, we pray.
Free us for joyful obedience,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

I found it interesting this person would share their feelings in the way they did. You see, I once had someone profess faith in Jesus Christ who had left church years ago precisely BECAUSE of this prayer. For him, it was because ALL the people, including the pastor, were willing to own our imperfections and confess them.

Simon Tugwell writes, “The first work of grace is simply to enable us to begin to understand what is wrong. It is only when God, in his mercy, gives us knowledge of the truth by means of the scriptures that we can even begin to struggle against evil. Grace does not immediately drive out sin, as we have seen, neither do our sins drive out grace, at least as long as we are in this life.” (50. “Ways of Imperfection”).

We human beings have struggled with power grace has allotted to us. Why do I say that? Because we seem to so selectively apply it. We give plenty of it to ourselves and those of like mind but fail to offer near so much to those who we deem to be our enemies even when the Scriptures make plain our fight is in the spiritual realm (Ephesians 6).

While I grew up in the UMC, what kept me here was a deep and rich theology of grace, that God was - is - and will always be - on our side in the war for our souls. As John says, “The light keeps shining in the dark, and darkness has never put it out. (JOHN 1:5,CEV)” We must not be confused by the appearance of outward virtuous words and actions in some who may be inwardly corrupt than those who struggle with outward sinfulness but who are inwardly repentant, humble, and trusting. Beware those whose cup is clean on the outside only, warned Jesus (Matthew 23:25-26).

Each of us walk with wounds and weaknesses. I’m convinced we all belong in some 12 step program because we all need to admit we are helpless and in need of a higher power. The church of Jesus Christ needs to get back to that - back to grace. We need ,a spirituality in Christianity that gets back to greatest commandment, to love Jesus first and love others always. And the world needs the message of grace that the Wesley’s so ardently preached because it is that grace that believes we actually can love Jesus and others, even if we do it imperfectly.

Getting back to grace is our way forward.

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