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The Human Search for Intimacy #6

A note to my loyal readers: this will be my last sermon post for awhile. We have a new preaching minister coming to Woodmont Hills, so I'm unsure at this point when I'll be doing this again on a weekly basis. Thanks so much for reading and listening....I am deeply honored.


The Human Search for Intimacy #6

Life after Failure

Reading: II Corinthians 12:1-10

Introduction: First, this morning, on behalf of my wife Anne and our family I want to say thank you for the outpouring of love and support this week following the death of Anne’s father, George Cooper. The last several months have been an amazing journey for us as both of Anne’s parents have needed assisted living care in Albuquerque, New Mexico. George was 98 years old, one of those few remaining people who had lived in every decade of the 20th century and almost 6 years of the 21st. Your prayers and cards and flowers were a great blessing to us as our week was transformed by his death and a trip to New Mexico. This coming week, we go from mourning to celebration as our son Matt gets married in the state of Washington. So our emotions are on a bit of a roller coaster ride. Again we appreciate you kindnesses and prayers on our behalf.

It’s been two weeks since I was listening to some of my students preach in a graduate class that I teach. One of the students chose a text that led him to personally reflect on God’s design for the marriage relationship. He used the household code that I had just spoken about the day before, only he did something completely different from my sermon. He talked about what happens when people make a mess of God’s ideas about relationships. From his own experience of divorce, he shared these words about the aftermath of failure in marriage and the search for relationship with your children as an absent father and what it means to have “quality time” with your children.

“Quality time is where a father gets to see his children every other weekend. You have two days into which you try to cram two weeks of living. You do the best you can; however, the entire time you have your children there is this little clock ticking in the back of your mind. Sunday afternoon comes and time is up.
It’s time to take the children home. Whether you live 400 miles or 4, it will be one of the hardest trips you have to make. Because you know that every mile you drive is one mile closer to them being out of your life for half a month.
As you drive, you think back on all the things you could have done differently. It was your place as the Christian husband and father to lead the family. But what’s done is done. You now are left to deal with the pain. The pain in your chest – it’s your heart breaking. Long past excuses and blame, your heart no longer cares where the fault lies, all it does is ache.
You pull into the driveway – go around and open the truck door. You take the older daughter by the hand and carry the young one. You grab the Little Mermaid suitcases and walk up the sidewalk, up the two steps onto the porch and knock on the door.
While you are waiting for the door to open you hold your children. As they cry, you hold them tight – because if you hold them tight enough they might understand that you never meant to hurt them. IF you can hold them tight enough, they’ll understand how much you love them. And so you hold them.
The door opens. They go into a world where you cannot go. When their faces light up with a smile – you won’t see it. When they laugh you won’t hear it. When they hurt and all they want to do is to crawl into your lap and have you make things better…. it won’t be your lap they crawl into – because when they really needed you to make things better – you didn’t.
All these things go through your mind. The door closes and you are alone again. You walk down the steps, down the sidewalk and get into the truck. You drive off into the night knowing that every mile you drive is one mile farther away from them. Knowing that in two weeks you will do this all over again.
Interesting thing though - where your heart was breaking on the trip down, it no longer hurts. The pain is replaced with a feeling of numbness – a void. But if you think about it, that makes sense…..
You left your heart back there on the porch….”

With or without forgiveness, life has consequences. We don’t need to rehearse Paul’s oft quoted line to the Romans that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Nor do I want to rehearse this morning the normal two options that seem to be offered in the wake of failure, of sin that leaves relationships destroyed and notions of intimacy in relationship more myth than reality. It’s the two G–words that grab us, that we pit against each other and hope that the less painful one wins. Guilt or Grace. We are left with self-loathing and remorse and shame, longing for some kind of escape that will allow us to get on with our lives again. Or we grab hold of grace, God’s promise of forgiveness and relief from the guilt that will release us back into some meaningful life again. For most of us here this morning, that word Grace has saved us – more than once. God’s gift of freedom from ourselves and our behaviors that have been less than human, less than the divine image-of-God existence we’ve been called to live.

There are other options to guilt and grace, of course. One option is numbness and paralysis in which the guilt and shame lead to further issues of acting out. That can lead to an apparent loss of conscience altogether, I suppose – sometimes addictions seem to work that way. Another option is to see oneself as innocent victim, and thereby find justification not through the activity of God’s steadfast love and pursuit of us but through cries of innocence and anger and separation. Doubtless there are times when human beings dehumanize others without cause. Either of these options leaves us playing “name and blame” games, pointing to the flaws and failures of “those” people.

But no matter which option we choose, we find ourselves left with some residuals that neither forgiveness and grace nor claims of innocence – true or false – still must face. Life on this planet has consequences. My student who talked about quality time didn’t have the sense that he was not forgiven by God, that he didn’t live now by the grace of God. When relationships are wounded and broken by us living in less than fully human (God imaging) ways, neither guilt nor grace nor shame nor blame nor innocence nor ignorance can eliminate the consequences.

Some people try to solve the question of sin and failure by making grand generalizations about human nature. In Christian circles since at least Augustine, one way of dealing with all of human existence is simply to say that we are by nature evil creatures – we are born in sin. Christ’s work on the cross can save us from our sins and get us into heaven, but we never get past our fundamental nature. We can become sinners who have been saved by the grace of God. Some people will then achieve better behaviors than others. Paul’s words to the Romans in chapter seven then become the mantra of the Christian life – I know what is right; I want to do what is right, but sin always lies close at hand….wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of sin and death. Thanks be to God in Christ Jesus…..There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ.” Even though we are by nature evil creatures on this planet, God saves us by grace. The problem is that we tend to spend our lives repeating chapter seven over and over again, hanging on to 8:1 by a thread of insecure hope (or arrogant consumption!).

Another approach to the human condition has actually been more popular among people of the Restoration Heritage and the Western World of the Renaissance and Enlightenment. In this view humans are basically good, given free will and the mental capacity to reason, to think logically and rationally about our choices. We can be trained to choose the good rather than the evil. There is even the optimistic belief that with every passing generation and century of human existence, we are improving ourselves and our circumstances. Yes, there is still evil out there, but it is primarily in “those people” who have not yet seen the light. Whether it is the politics of democracy or the economics of capitalism or the Christian power of positive thinking, our destiny is toward goodness and God’s grace is allowing that goodness to come to everyone.

From the perspective that we humans are born in sin, the grace of God is the welcome promise of escape even when we keep on living into our sinful nature. From the perspective that we are basically good people caught in the traps of evil on this planet, grace is God’s reminder that we really are better than that – now let’s get back to being good people!

But I wonder this morning if God’s unmerited favor that we call “Grace” is not something altogether different from either of those perspectives. Perhaps we’ve begun with some false either/or assumptions about human nature as either basically evil or basically good.

In a book by N.T. Wright entitled “Evil and the Justice of God” (InterVarsity Press, 2006, p. 43), Wright makes this statement in the opening words of the second chapter: “...we need to take seriously both the supra-human powers of evil and the fact that the line between good and evil runs not between “us” and “them” but through every individual and every society.” In other words, take seriously the fact that there are evil forces at work in our world bigger than us – whether we call them demonic or satanic or just plain evil. At the same time, in society and community and in each one of us, we are not basically good or basically evil from birth – the line of good and evil runs through us. According to the Biblical story, that is what happened when Adam and Eve ate from the tree of good and evil. To that point, humans only knew and participated in God’s good creation. In eating, both good and evil became the nature of existence on this planet.

The question is not whether we were born this way or that, whether we have free will to make good choices or only the sovereign God’s predestined will to assign us our fate as saved or unsaved. The question is, when the line of good and evil runs through every human being, through every relationship that we humans attempt, through every community like this church we call the family of God at Woodmont Hills, through every city like Nashville and every country regardless of political or economic class – how are we to live?

If it were as simple as God giving rules and people keeping the rules, Adam and Eve would still be in the Garden. Or if not then, the people of Israel would have been blessed and in turn become a blessing to the rest of humanity, or in Christ there would be no distinctions based on race or gender or age or appearance. Laws can’t legislate relationships.

If were as simple as playing the grace card, then we could relax and continue to sin that grace might abound. But the same Paul who admitted all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God was also appalled by the notion that anyone who had died with Christ would even think about choosing evil again. Grace is not what we sometimes think it is when we say things like “it’s easier to get forgiveness than permission.” Grace is not a heavenly “get out of jail free card.” Paul never intended for Christ following people to live in Romans chapter seven, forever knowing what is right, wanting to do right, but invariably blowing it. We are called to live in chapter 8, where the Spirit of God is at work in us transforming us, challenging the line of good and evil that runs through us to respond with good even in the face of evil, empowering us to live in Christ and as Christ to our world.

Sin in the life of the Christ follower is a reflection of our salvation as process, not just accomplished fact. I take great comfort in stories within THE STORY. When you read the stories, only the one and only Son of God seems to manage the line of good and evil that runs through us humans. And he does so only out of his awareness that God’s Spirit indwells and compels and empowers his journey. The life of his disciple Peter is a completely different story, full of starts and stops, triumphs and failures. But Peter also signifies the way of us all to becoming. It’s in that last supper scene in Luke when Jesus has to tell people that he will deny Jesus three times. But Jesus also tells him that he has prayed for Peter so that when he has repented he will strengthen his brothers. Confrontation is followed by repentance and restoration.
My favorite story, however, is the one told by Paul near the end of II Corinthians. Paul claims he is speaking like a fool, talking about these experiences that “someone” has had. It seems clear Paul is making a self-reference when he says:

“I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know – God knows. And I know that this man – whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows – was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell. I will boast about someone like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, or because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (II Corinthians 12:2-10).

My point this morning: if we see ourselves as people living in Romans 7 – as sinners who constantly mess up, but thanks be to God there is grace – we will tend to self-fulfill the prophecy and never become more than that, victims of sin who keep on sinning, believing that Grace truly does abound. If, on the other hand we see ourselves as somehow above that, perhaps as victims of someone else’s evil, but not with any issues of evil ourselves, we likely will be judgmental of all of those people with their problems – even as we secretly can’t tell the real truth about ourselves.

We are human beings, made in the image of God – by faith in Jesus Messiah, we are promised the indwelling presence of God the Holy Spirit. We are given the means by which even the consequences of past failure can be redeemed. Yes the answer is grace – not get-into-heaven-free grace, but transforming God-presence grace, the gift of his goodness working in the midst of our weakness.

I love the ambiguity of Paul’s thorn in the flesh – is it a physical problem? Bad eyesight? Is it a particular temptation? Sexual temptation, perhaps? Is it the allure of self-righteousness, always being tempted to think he is better than everyone else? A reminder that the line between evil and good still runs through our existence on this planet. But we have been given a promise: God’s grace is sufficient. Therefore we will boast in our weakness, because when we are weak the power of Christ.

Failure – sin – in my life invariably comes not when I feel weak but when I feel strong! When I’m in charge, when I’ve been even heroic, and I deserve a break from my spiritual labors. Failure – sin – in my relationships inevitably is tied to my need to be right, to think that evil only runs through those people, that I’m the good guy. I don’t need a band-aid called grace to salve my conscience until next time. I need the power of God’s presence to show me my own vulnerability. Only believing in that presence can there be “LIFE” after failure, consequences and all.

Delivered at Woodmont Hills, December 10, 2006.

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