Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Paul, the cracked pot

Since I don't seem to have the time to post random thoughts on a regular basis, I thought I'd share excerpts of what I'm writing. Currently, I'm working on Paul's spirituality. Here's a tidbit.

The cracks in Paul’s body made the glory of Christ’s light more apparent. Like a clay pot, the lantern’s imperfections were revealed most clearly by the light of the flame.

"But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing greatness of the power may be of God and not from ourselves; we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body" (2 Cor. 4:7-10).

Rather than hide his flaws or deny his weaknesses, Paul reveled in the power of Christ revealed in his “thorn in the flesh.” Of course, to the Corinthians it was sheer folly to boast about such things. Paul didn’t care. He saw the essence of the gospel in his wounds, the wisdom of God in such foolishness, the power of God in human weakness. And, where would he get an idiotic idea like that? Only one place: “Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” In what sounds like a confirmation of the cross, Paul heard God say, “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Cor. 12:9). That’s why boasting in his weakness was the same as boasting in the cross. For Paul was convinced that weak believers reveal the strength of Christ’s cross better than anyone.

The problem today is we don’t think Paul was right about that. In fact, in most of our churches we believe just the opposite: only the best and brightest are put on stage to teach the rest of us how to overcome our weaknesses. The strong, the powerful, the successful, the articulate, the chosen are the credible witnesses of what is true, what is believable, what is persuasive, what is commendable. Need to know how to have a successful marriage? Here’s a couple who’s been married for fifty years. Want your church to grow? Come hear this dynamic pastor whose church is now meeting in a basketball arena. Having a hard time overcoming your addiction? Buy the book from the Christian counselor who’s written the latest best-seller. The message is undeniable: only the healthy, wealthy, and wise have anything to say. The sick, poor, and foolish should keep their mouths shut.

“Excuse me. I’ve recently been divorced. I’d like to share my experiences at your church.”

“Oh, you must be looking for the recovery group for divorcees . . . They meet on Tuesday evenings, upstairs in the recreation room.”

“I’ve battled alcohol addiction for nearly thirty years. Recently moved to the area. Been sober going on six months now and I’d like to share . . .”

“Good for you. I’m sure someone’s already told you that A.A. meets at the community center on Thursdays.”

“I’m a pastor. Just released from prison. I’d like to offer my services to churches looking for someone to preach . . .”

“Oh, that is good news. The county jail is looking for a chaplain.”

Recently, a Sunday School class was planning their annual marriage retreat, wondering which members should give their “testimony.” A couple’s name came up and someone said, “Wait. Should they be one of our speakers? They’ve both been divorced, you know. I don’t think we need to hear from someone who’s been divorced.” Of course, their names were passed over due to the veto power of the righteous. If the apostle Paul were there, I’m convinced he would have said: “On the contrary. Divorced people are the very ones you need to listen to.” In fact, I think they could give us great advice about marriage, but that’s not why I think we need to hear from them. I want to know how God’s grace sustained them through their painful ordeal. How he helped them, surprised them, overwhelmed them by His grace. But, we’re so focused on our own definitions of success, overemphasizing results, we miss the grace of God. Instead, those who fail at marriage are marginalized in our churches, sequestered from the body of Christ in their own “divorce recovery groups.” Rather than ignore them, we should embrace their brokenness as a way of celebrating the grace of God, learning how God’s power is perfected through weakness. Because, that’s where God’s presence is most clearly seen—when everyone else thinks we’ve failed.

I’ve been to churches where miracles are celebrated with great bravado. A man stands before the congregation and testifies of God’s healing. The test results confirm the miracle: where there was once a suspicious mass clearly seen on the MRI, now it is gone. The congregation breaks out in jubilation. They prayed for this man for weeks. The doctors can’t explain it. The faithful understand it. The man boasts of God’s miraculous healing hand. All declare with one voice, “God is good.” The musicians play faster, the people sing louder, the pastor preaches harder, the Church is triumphant. Later, at the end of the worship service, an announcement is made about funeral arrangements for the woman who died of cancer. A hush falls over the congregation. There is no boast, no celebration, no declaration of God’s miraculous work. A prayer is offered for those who grieve. The piano plays a somber postlude. The congregation files out of the auditorium in silence. Passing by, one of the parishioners says, “I wish we didn’t have to end on such a downer.”

Just once I’d like to hear someone boast of the miracle of God’s grace for the one who died. Just once. Her courage as she celebrated life in the middle of dying. Her strength as she continued to serve food at the shelter for the homeless. Her grace as she puzzled over why God didn’t answer our prayers for her healing. Her grief over the “bad” days outnumbering the good days. Her pain, her sorrow, her illness, her questions, her fears, her faith, her death. I wish we could learn to celebrate all of it—every bit of life—because the grace of God runs through it all. Don't we speak of Christ's death on the cross as the place of grace? Then, why don't we boast about the believer's death as a graceful place? Paul did. For he knew that we carry around in our body the dying of Jesus that the life of Christ may be revealed.