Sunday, April 24, 2016

Success in the Face of Failure

"The man who cannot accept the possibility of complete, radical, personal failure in the carrying out of this Christian mission is not sharing that absolute poverty of spirit which characterized the freedom of Jesus to accept the divinely appointed means for his mission." -- John Narrone, A Theology of Failure

I've been thinking about failure lately, mostly personal, repeated personal failure. It's not easy to admit that one often feels a total failure, especially when faced with the success of others but it has to be faced. The world needs failures as much as it needs successes. Somehow that's scant comfort to one of limited success to know that they are part of the balance.

I googled "theology of failure" just by chance because I wanted to see if there were such a thing and evidently there is. The quote above was taken from an entire book on the subject. It seems that there is, among the many references to "theology of failure" available online, a large number of articles, books, and references to pastoral failure (or threat of failure).

There are also many articles referring to "theology of failure" as it relates to what might be considered by some to be failed theologies--failures in feminist, black, liberation, GLBT, liberal, etc.--theologies which don't seem to match up to expectations that they will resolve conflict and ensure equality that many in the Christian religion feel is the gospel imperative. Despite years of attempts, discussions, marches, meetings, and the like, there are still ceilings that don't seem to be crackable, and gaps that seem unbridgeable. While the struggle continues, theology as a whole has attempted to move on and yet has pretty much stayed stuck in the same ruts they were when the various branches of theology shot off from the tree.

This is not a new phenomenon. It just makes me wonder if a "theology of failure" is just a rearrangement of words for "failed theology." The verse often used in discussion of theology of failure is that of Matthew 10:14, "If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town." In essence, if the venture appears to be a failure, move on and try somewhere else. Was it the messengers who failed to present the message in a way that compelled others to willingly accept it, or was the message flawed and that caused the people of the town to reject it?  Was it a theology of failure or a failed theology?

The Inquisition would probably be considered a failed theology; indeed, any theology that requires those who don't accept it, for whatever reason, to be tortured into acknowledging and accepting it seems like a theology doomed to failure even though it seemed like a good idea at the time. Even the story of Adam and Eve seems to have a built-in theology of failure in that when given free will to obey a simple command from God (or not), humankind chose to fail at the test. Or was it a test? Did God build in a theology of failure along with the components of DNA, the number of limbs and ability to walk upright?

Not everything is a success; for every success there are probably a hundred, maybe thousands or more failures. It's all trial-and-error, if-at-first-you-don't-succeed, get-out-there-and-win-one-for-the-Gipper. There are fairly universal feelings when things go sour: fear, panic, distress, sadness, anxiety, worry, shame, and anger. It's easy to blame others for the problem but like in divorce, the fault is nearly always two sided with each contributing to the rupture and failure. It doesn't take a doctorate in theology to understand that, although accepting it might be a totally different story. 

Human beings are going to continue to fail at things, whether by accident or design. Sometimes the failure will be theirs, sometimes it will be someone else's that will affect them adversely. Where is God in all this?  Did God plan it, did humans take on God's role, or was it just something that happened? Is it something that even needs to be asked, much less answered? Probably, since humankind has been asking and trying to answer those questions since the second leaf fell off the fig tree.

We fail and try to move on. But when everything and everyone else fails, we still have an ace in the hole--God loves us. Pure and simple solution: God loves us unconditionally, totally, permanently. God doesn't walk away when we fail, doesn't turn God's back, or tell us to buck up and try harder.

God loves us. No matter what. That sounds perilously like a success to me. I think I could get used to that, no matter what else happens in life.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, April 23, 2016.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

God's Gazelle

 Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, ‘Please come to us without delay.’ So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, ‘Tabitha, get up.’ Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. - Acts 9:36-42

When she was born, her father named her Tabitha. In Aramaic, her name meant gazelle, a small, slender, graceful member of the antelope family. I'm sure her father saw in her the qualities of the gazelle.

She grew up as Jewish but living in the Greek-speaking city of Joppa, she also answered to Dorcas which had the same meaning as the Aramaic. Joppa, even then, was an ancient and prominent city containing the port of Jerusalem, about 30-35 miles northeast of Jerusalem itself. It is still an important port city.

Like so many others in the Bible, Tabitha/Dorcas only comes to our notice only at one moment in her life, or so we are told. Evidently she was a great-hearted Christian woman, devoting her life to her community and those less fortunate. We don't know when she became Christian, but she embraced the teachings whole-heartedly. Her life was dedicated to good works such as sewing clothing for those in need. The poor, widows, orphans, and the sick were all part of her ministry and beneficiaries of her alms and gifts.

She was beloved by members of her community, so much so that when she died, the disciples in Joppa sent word to Peter who was teaching and healing in a nearby town. To make the story short, Peter arrived, was impressed with the love expressed by the people for Tabitha, then raised her from the dead. The crowd went wild.

Something that struck me was that the raising of Tabitha was very familiar. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all report a somewhat similar incident but the one that I thought of was from Mark 5:41, "He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha koum!” (which means “Little girl, I say to you, get up!”). Both Jarius's daughter and Tabitha were beloved people who were devastated by their deaths. Granted one was a young girl while the other was an older woman, but both were loved enough to go out to appeal to a man of God, Jesus or Peter, to help those they loved.  In both of the stories, someone was told to get up; in Mark it was the little girl, (Talitha) and in Acts, Tabitha. They sound very similar but both did as they were told.

The result of both miracles was that not only were two women restored to life but that the faith of those around them grew stronger and even non-believers came to the faith. Tabitha herself has inspired countless women to take up her mission of providing clothing for the poor. Dorcas Societies still exist and the need is still there.

In Acts, Tabitha was named a disciple, a follower of Jesus and a practitioner of what Jesus taught. I wish there had been more about her, how she came to life the life and do the work she did. Like many women of the Bible, she is like a footnote, a miracle with a name attached. Yet she is more than that; she is a woman, a disciple, and an inspiration. The world could use a few more like God's gazelle, Tabitha, also known as Dorcas.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul at Episcopal Café Saturday, April 16, 2017

Sunday, April 10, 2016


‘A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me.’ Then some of his disciples said to one another, ‘What does he mean by saying to us, “A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me”; and “Because I am going to the Father”?’ They said, ‘What does he mean by this “a little while”? We do not know what he is talking about.’ Jesus knew that they wanted to ask him, so he said to them, ‘Are you discussing among yourselves what I meant when I said, “A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me”? Very truly, I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice; you will have pain, but your pain will turn into joy. When a woman is in labour, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world. So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. - John 16:16-22

Babies are among the most intriguing and delightful things in the world. Whether they gambol on four feet or walk (eventually) on two, just watching them is enough to make Scrooge smile.

One of the first  games a baby learns is peek-a-boo. The mother (or someone else) will sit where the baby can see them and then hides their face in their hands. Suddenly they pop their hands away and say "Peek-a-boo" which somehow makes the baby smile first, then giggle. Repeating the exercise makes the baby laugh which makes everyone else laugh too. The game can be played with pieces of cloth being inserted between the parent and the child and then flipped away, or a parent popping out from behind a piece of furniture or a door frame.

It's a fun game to play, but it also seems to have a secondary purpose other than just making the baby laugh. It begins teaching the child about separation from others. For a very brief time the child can't see the other person, but the person always returns. As the child grows older, more separations occur. A parent goes to work, or the parents go out for an evening, leaving the child with a babysitter. Most times, the parents return, just as their familiar faces pop up from behind a cloth, a pair of hands, or a sofa. But sometimes they don't, and the child learns a very different kind of separation.

Jesus was preparing for his separation from his disciples. Like small babies, they had to learn about separation in steps, from a very short one to a much longer one. He used the image of peek-a-boo, the "now you see me, now you don't," to introduce the subject to them, but grown men don't think of peek-a-boo. Instead they go to the adult-type questions: "Where are you going?" "Who are you going with?" "What time will you be home?" Sound familiar?

There was a warning in Jesus's message. The disciples would be in mourning while the world would be rejoicing, but those tears and that sorrow would turn to joy. It's interesting that Jesus used the image of a woman in labor. Having undergone that particular kind of experience, I can tell you it hurt more than anything in the world that I could have imagined. But once it stops hurting, it's possible to remember that it was agonizing pain, but the body (or the mind) doesn't replay the exact feeling of the pain itself, only its presence and that it was unpleasant. The disciples would remember they lost something, but they would also experience the joy of meeting Jesus again, if only for a short time.

Jesus vanished from sight in about 33 CE and we are still waiting for him to return. We sometimes get a glimpse of Jesus-like behavior.  

We still look for Jesus to come back and resolve all the problems of earth. We are often resigned to the evils of the world; after all, one person or even a thousand people can't fix them all. Every now and then, though, we see someone doing something Jesus-like, something like handing a hungry person a sandwich, filling a child's backpack with needed school supplies, bringing an elderly shut-in food, flowers, or just the gift of a human visitor. Jesus didn't just do big miracles like feeding 5,000 at a time, or walking on water, or even raising the dead; he also talked to foreigners, gathered children around him, and taught so persuasively that people were drawn to him and tried to live what he taught them.

The church tells us that Jesus is all around us all the time, whether we're aware of him or not. He isn't playing peek-a-boo with us--or maybe he is. Christians look for Jesus to be within them, in their hearts and minds. It's that Jesus in us that makes us want to help alleviate suffering and poverty, cure diseases, give everyone access to clean water and quality education, among other things. So why do those things still exist? Could it be we are waiting for Jesus to pop out and fix the problems for us? An adult form of peek-a-boo?

If Jesus is in us, we've got work to do. No games, no sitting and waiting, no trying to look around a piece of cloth to see if Jesus is there. When we were children, peek-a-boo was a great game (still is for grandmothers and infants), but it's time to get busy and show the world the Jesus in us all, even the most unlikely of people.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, April 9, 2016.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Low Sunday

It's been a relatively quiet week, church-wise. After the build-up of Lent, the constant quiet activity of Holy Week, and the energy and exuberance of Easter, the church may still be celebrating Easter but the people are more than ready for a bit of rest. There are still Bible studies to do, sermons to write, the church to be tidied up, flowers arranged, brass polished, and the like, but for the most part, those who have invested so much of themselves and their time in the lead-up to Easter are relaxing just a bit. It's sort of like a mini-vacation, a bit of Sabbath after the biggest Sunday of the whole church year.

The First Sunday after Easter has often been called by a number of different names. The most common is the unofficial designation of Low Sunday. You'll never see it listed that way in the newsletter or bulletin, but behind the scenes, that is how it is called.

On Easter Sunday, every pew and chair is full, the choir is in full voice, there are "bells and smells" (ringing of the Sanctus bell and thuribles full of incense marking processional, recessional, blessing the Gospel book and the whole altar in churches where such "high" touches are not usually done), the church is abloom and garlanded with decorative flowers and greens, crucifixes and crosses wear translucent white coverings, and the altar and clergy are garbed in white or gold to celebrate the occasion.

By the following Sunday, though, things have changed. Most of the decoration is gone, the choir may have taken the day off, the bulletins are a bit shorter and less ornate, and there are a lot of empty pews (the chairs having been taken off to wherever extra chairs are kept until the next big occasion). Families who spent Easter together have returned to their homes, and hostesses who have had a full house take the chance to sit down, find the last bit of fake grass from Easter baskets, and plan another meal of leftover ham or roast.

In the early church, new prospective members (catechumen) had to undergo a lengthy period of instruction before being admitted for baptism and inclusion in the Eucharist. They would attend the Liturgy of the Word but be excused before the Liturgy of the Table began. When their time of study ended, they put on white garments and were baptized at the Easter Vigil. They could then join the community for the Eucharist. At the end of the octave (Easter and the seven days that succeeded it), they exchanged their white robes for regular clothing at church, marking the end of their being set apart and the beginning of their life as full Christians.

One of the other names for Low Sunday is Quasimodo Sunday. Those familiar with the Hunchback of Notre Dame will recognize the name of the maimed character who found abandoned on the steps of Notre Dame on the first Sunday after Easter. In fact, the Introit (opening antiphon sung or spoken at the beginning of the service) for the day in the Roman Missal was Quasi modo geniti infantes, rationabile, sine dolo lac concupiscite, "Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation" (1 Peter 2:2). The reference to the catechumen is unmistakable.

However it is called, the First Sunday After Easter is a continuation of the Easter season, 50 days   that lead to the feast of Pentecost. During the Easter season, we celebrate Jesus's appearance to the disciples, Doubting Thomas being shown the wounds in Jesus's hands and side, the road to Emmaus, and the Ascension. Alleluia comes back into our vocabulary after a 40-day absence for Lent. Many churches omit the confession of sin during the season. In short, the Easter season has a lot going on.

But we have to stop a minute. We are taught that every Sunday is a little Easter, no matter at what time in the church year it occurs. People forget that quite often during Lent but a quick count the number of days in Lent comes out to 46--if the Sundays are counted in. Subtract those six Sundays and there are 40 days left. When it comes to Easter season, every Sunday after Easter itself is a little Easter, and should be celebrated as such, if not with the full panoply we reserve for the actual Easter Day.

Whether or not we call it Low Sunday, the First Sunday after Easter, or Quasimodo Sunday, it all amounts to the same thing--a celebration of Jesus's resurrection and the gathering of the community to share in the Eucharist. The newly baptized participate as well as those who were baptized decades ago or during some other church season.

So fill the pews, shout the Alleluias, and thank God for the blessings of Easter all year. Amen.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul  on Episcopal Café Saturday, April 2, 2016.