Failure to Freedom

Failure to Freedom

• Be praying for Presbytery which meets here (CPC) next Thursday and Friday. We have a couple of difficult discussions facing us, so prayer is genuinely appreciated. Also, Andrew Perkins will face his final set of oral exams for ordination at this Presbytery. Please pray for that. We don’t really have any doubts that he’ll do well, but oral exams are always challenging. Then be sure and join us for Andrew’s ordination at 5pm on Sunday, May 23. By later this afternoon you can sign up for that service on the website under “Upcoming Events.”

• As announced, we will resume Prayer Meeting when regular outdoor evening worship resumes on June 27.

• One of the most frustrating aspects of walking with God comes through how we understand commitment. Bear with me while I try to set this up. This one won’t work for everybody.

• Depending on the Church culture we were raised or converted in, most of us were prepared for lives of significant service from our earliest years in Christ. We sang, “take my life and let it be, consecrated, Lord, to thee,” and understood more or less what that meant. We admired, maybe even longed for, the absolute abandonment to Christ so evident in Paul and John and certain missionaries we had heard about. Then came that spiritual-renewal camp in high school or college, the one with the really good speaker, that sealed the deal: we were going to offer ourselves as living sacrifices all our days. We never suspected that even in our mid-40s that moment might still stand as the spiritual high-water-mark of our lives.

• All around us in those early years were more mature Christians who had obviously negotiated terms with God. Compromise is an art form and the Church is filled with artists. We got old enough to recognize the compromises our parents were making. We could see the lukewarmness in certain leaders. At first we thought, “we will never be like those people.” We were all in. We went on short-term missions to sketchy places our parents had asked us to avoid. No fear. We were keepers of the fire.

• But there were unseen counter-measures. Certain unshakable patterns began to emerge in our lives, patterns of self-service, self-congratulation, self-love. A quiet disillusionment began to attach itself to us as we saw more honestly, more deeply into our own character. As questions punctured our piety, social and political issues became more interesting to us than spiritual power. We didn’t really understand in those years that hope could never be built on the strength of our commitment to Christ, but only on the strength of his commitment to us.

• Practically speaking, it didn’t matter. The circumstances necessary for compromise had already erected themselves on every side, like scaffolding around a chimney. We were so much busier. We had so many more real responsibilities. We had made grown-up promises to other adults who had legitimate claims on our lives. Absolute abandonment to Christ became an aspect of childhood that reality had rendered impossible. No sane person could expect us to adhere to it.

• This is where the frustration begins. We’re adults now, we’ve moved on. When we’re at church, we intuitively gravitate toward those people who have made the same compromises we’ve made. We vacation with them because it’s just so much easier. And we’ve adopted new narratives. We explain away Christ-passionate people as naive or stuck in a fundamentalism we’ve (thankfully) left behind. When we’re forced to engage them we feel a combination of boredom and contempt. Yet there is also sorrow. Somewhere in those people is an echo of something that still evokes longing, if only we didn’t know better.

• This may sound odd at first, but the majority of disillusioned, compromising Christians are the result of a misunderstanding. We started out wrong. We started out, like Peter, believing we possessed within ourselves the ability to pull it off. We had no real tools to deal with abject failure. And no one (except the cynical) had the integrity to tell us the entire “priesthood of believers” was a radically failed population. So once we grew up and could no longer believe in ourselves, we simply no longer believed. At least not fully.

• Some of this is autobiographical. Many years ago I had real doubts if I could continue in ministry; I certainly wondered how I could preach having failed almost every text I was required to proclaim. Once I knew I was a moral failure, I tried to continue on the basis of my own earnestness and sincerity. But in the moments that I realized I had neither of those, I was entirely bankrupt. It took some time to see this. I was rescued by 2 Cor 1:9 where Paul, in a despair all too familiar to me, realized he was unable to rely on himself but only on “God who raises the dead.” You have to be dead for that one to sink in.

• I can say this more simply: all hope is in Christ. It always was. It always will be. We tend to get confused in a tangled despair that is really just the death-rattle of the self. May God hasten that death in all of us that we might behold the beauty, the joy, the freedom of a Redeemer who loves us and doesn’t simply tolerate but delights in the use of failed servants. You’ll never really understand Paul until you understand how clearly he sees this death-to-life passage: “we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies” (2 Cor 4:7ff).

• We are weak, feeble failures. It literally doesn’t matter. Christ is gracious, glorious and victorious. All that he is he wraps around you like a mantle, then he sets you on your feet and says, “never will I leave you, never forsake you.” You are part of the Bride that Christ loves, cherishes, and nourishes. It’s Peter the miserable failure, Peter the man known publicly as a coward when he stands to preach at Pentecost (how naked he must have felt!), Peter the flawed leader who speaks of us as “a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God” (1 Pet 2:9). We are all these things, all that Christ needs us to be, because he has accomplished what was necessary himself. May we, the born-again, be born again into this life of failure and victory.

Pastor Eric