Friday, June 21, 2013
When I was in seminary, I was introduced to some English humor. One of the best of what I suppose we’d call stand up comics today was Peter Cook, who was the leading performer in Beyond the Fringe. He did a brief one-man skit called “The Miner”, in which an individual of limited academic achievement tells the audience that he wanted to be a judge, but lacked Latin; so he became a coal miner. In the skit, he says that when you want to become a coal miner, “They only ask you one question; they say, ‘Who are you?’—and I got 75% on that one.”
For those who want to see the entire skit of a little more than two minutes, it’s here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Grg5tULy0tY
This was more than forty years ago, and I suspect that what people think is funny has changed since then. Still, I remembered that line about getting 75% on knowing who you are, and came to realize that, taken out of the comedic realm, it can be profound.
I put it together with an odd sentence in the last book of the Bible: Revelation 2:17— “To the one who conquers I will give … a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.”
When I first read that line years ago, I wondered what good it would be to have a name that no one else will know. Aren’t names the very things we use to let other people know who we are? Of course, in this passage Jesus is not referring to a label for oneself by which others will know us, but rather it is the gift of self-knowledge that comes only when one is fully known by Jesus. Which is the only way to do it.
And later it struck me that to get the White Stone with the name, one has to “conquer”—that is, one has to endure a battle of some kind and come out triumphant. And one receives a White Stone and not a calling card or a whispered word. The stone is a sign of permanence, and it is white as a sign of purity, or perhaps joy. Or both.
As is often pointed out, the Christian life is a life of battle. We are in “enemy-occupied territory”, taught C. S. Lewis. I used to preach that the Christian life was not merely about studying, gaining knowledge, growing in maturity, and gradually becoming holier; it is about fighting and prevailing. “Whoever endures to the end shall be saved.” There are lots of other verses that say the same thing.
But if we engage in battle, do we not often fail? Are we not often defeated? In nearly forty years as a priest of traditional convictions, I think that I lost nearly every battle I ever fought in the Episcopal Church. Still, I wrote this blogpost more than six and a half years ago: Jawbone of an Ass http://johnonefive.blogspot.com/2006/10/jawbone-of-ass.html. I wrote a number of other blogposts on the same theme.
Eventually I became exhausted, emotionally, spiritually, and even physically, and I was not recovering. And I remembered that a noted psychologist/spiritual director I saw for two intense long-term periods told me once that when his mother was 84 and still caring for her family by hosting big dinners and so forth, he said to her, “Mom, there comes a time when it is okay to lay down the burden.” “Is that time now?” she answered.
My time came. But still often I feel like a failure—as if I have lost the battle. Sins, weaknesses, hurts, missteps, and all the rest of it have plagued me all my life, or so it seems. But then I realized that I was measuring my successes—and failures—by a self-oriented standard, the standard of perfectionism and trying to “do it all” myself. I know that there were many successes too. And probably a lot that I can’t even evaluate and don’t need to evaluate. I just know that I did my best.
Now that I have been retired for more than seven months, I am learning what the White Stone is about. Or at least learning it in a new way. Having been wounded and exhausted in striving for the Faith and for holiness, I am coming to learn in a new way my complete need for God and utter dependence on him, and that only in this is the way forward. And I came to see “failures” in an entirely new way. Without diminishing or belittling the reality of the failures of prominent Biblical personalities, I came to see how God uses those failures to build holiness and create triumph.
Eve failed, yet she was still the mother of all living, whose seed would crush the serpent’s head.
Noah found favor with God and obeyed him, but sinned after the ark settled down in a new world, thereby bringing sin right back into that world. And through him all the descendants of the world came to be.
Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness, and he left home for an unseen land, but failed by becoming impatient with God’s promise of a son, and fathered Ishmael; yet Ishmael also became the father of a nation.
Isaac failed by preferring one son over the other, yet held faithful as the middle of the three patriarchs, and the younger son was not thwarted in his vocation even if he was not his father’s choice.
That son Jacob failed, deceiving his father and brother, and offered a prayer at Bethel that showed only conditional faith in God, yet God continued to bless and provide for him so that he matured in his faith, and on his return home, sought reconciliation with his brother.
Joseph failed by jerking his brothers around when he was Lord of Egypt, yet God blessed him, fulfilled his dream, and ensured the preservation of the descendants of Abraham even through slavery.
Moses, though he dedicated his life to obeying and serving God and leading a very trying and rebellious people, failed to uphold God’s sovereignty and was not admitted to the Promised Land; yet he is still regarded as the great deliverer and law giver.
David, a great warrior who subdued all of Israel’s enemies and set the standard of Jewish kingship, nonetheless failed. He was called a “man of blood”, he was an adulterer and murderer, and was a notoriously poor father and dismally inept in all his family relationships; yet he established an everlasting kingdom and gave his name to the Messiah.
His son Solomon began his kingship with a prayer asking for wisdom, and he built the Temple, but at the end he tolerated the admittance of foreign deities into the kingdom, and he did not prepare his son for rule.
James and John were brothers chosen by Jesus and counted in the inner circle of the disciples, but they failed, arguing over who the greatest was, and wanting to sit at the side of Jesus in the kingdom; they were called “Sons of Thunder” for an apparent violent temper; yet one was the first apostolic martyr and the other was the guardian of Mary and the writer of the magnificent Gospel.
Peter and all disciples were chosen and called by Jesus, but failed, abandoning and denying Jesus at the time of his trial, but eleven of them became the chosen foundation of the Church which endures in power and influence and truth and love even to this day.
Paul failed as a Pharisee and a disciple of Gamaliel (the wise and tolerant), and became a rigid persecutor of the Church even violating the Jewish Law to do so; and as a Christian he broke with Barnabas over a disagreement; yet he obviously bore immeasurable fruit and closed his life as a martyr and with the words, “I have kept the faith.”
Failing in God’s service puts one in good company. Paul put it best when he related that God said to him, “My grace is sufficient for you” and he responded, “When I am weak, then I am strong.” Failure is only true failure if one gives up. Otherwise, it is woundedness in the battle.
Recently someone shared with me the theme from the movie Shrek, which I haven’t seen and was not familiar with. She especially pointed me to the third verse:
I did my best, it wasn't much.
I couldn't feel, so I tried to touch.
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you.
And even though it all went wrong,
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.
And then I read Wild at Heart, by John Eldredge. He points out that the first Biblical verse Jesus selected to define his public ministry was Isaiah 61:1— “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release for the prisoners.”
This is what I want and need. Sure, I failed sometimes, and once in a while even spectacularly. But not always. If I had hidden and protected myself, I might not have sustained the wounds that I did, but I would never have become a man, either. Becoming a man involves battle and sustaining wounds. But I still stand, and I look for the freedom that Jesus promises captives.
And the White Stone. When Jesus asks me, “Who are you?” I want to get 100% on that one. But no one can do that without the White Stone that only he can give.