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.


jesnicole said...

Dr. Reeves, reading this was such a blessing to me, in ways you'll never understand. The last fifteen months have held such heartache for me. With the tragedy that happened with my Momma, and many things that have happened since. I have had such a struggle feeling isolated, because it seems that nobody wants to hear about the pain and sorrow that have been happening around me. Nobody wants to hear about that side of God. But I have had no choice but to learn about it. And as hard, as heartbreaking, as sorrowful as this time has been for me, I have never felt closer to our Lord than through this. I have had to come face to face with the awesomely terrible side of Him that not many people ever want to talk about. I hope this season doesn't last much longer, but I never thought I'd be able to love Him, praise Him, serve Him, trust Him, and hope in Him even though everything around me says it's hopeless. But I have been able to do those things, and I will continue as best I know how. I have learned that pushing aside the brutal realities of life will never bring about healing. Thank you for sharing this. It is very encouraging.

Anonymous said...

Well, all I can say is, "amen." Love and appreciate you so much!

Darryl Schafer said...

I think you've found that balance you were looking for. Really good.

Chris Ryan said...

"For I have learned what it is to be content..."

Great post. Tonight in church prayer meeting, I heard that celebration as the pastor shared that a member who had struggled faithfully passed on. They celebrated her grace in her struggle and that her grace has been perfected. It was beautiful.

We heard about the grace God gave as a member dealt with deep psychological disturbances. It was a grace that allowed him to persevere despite despising the powers at work within him. It was beautiful.

I got to listen as a man talked with a pastor about sharing his story on a Sunday morning: a story where he watched his daughter die in a car accident right after they had a major fight. For years he hurt, and still does. And in that brokenness was a great beauty: the beauty of a God whose power is perfected by our weaknesses. Of a God who is sufficient in all circumstances.

And all that I could do was pray that God would break me so that He could shine forth.

Thank you for a post that helped me process this all the better.

Chris Dodson

Carmen said...

"(For those who have been forgiven much, love much.) But someone who has been forgiven only a little loves only a little." ~ Luke 7:47

Wonderful word of wisdom, Dr. Reeves...glad my kin introduced me (thanks Big D!).

Shalom aleichem b'Shem Yeshua Adoneinu!

JD said...

just what i've been needing to hear.

Rodney Reeves said...

thanks, everyone.

BTW, Chris, one usually hears such things at funerals, not "in church." I hope that pastor continues to affirm the weak members of the body.

Miss Fuhrman said...

wow...these are so some really good thoughts...and things I have asked myself over the past few years.
I like how you think!