“Incompetence is what we’re good at…”

crossAs part of my Lenten discipline this year I have been reading Christopher J.H. Wright’s new book To the Cross (IVP -2017).  This book is based on Holy Week sermons that he has preached through the years at All Souls Church, Langham Place, London.  Dr. Wright is a Cambridge University trained Old Testament scholar who is now the international director of the Langham Partnership, the successor to the late John R.W. Stott.  After reading his prophetic keynote address at the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in Cape Town, South Africa, in 2010, Dr. Wright has become one of my “go to” sources on all matters Biblical, missional and theological.

The chapter in To the Cross that has most stirred my head and heart so far is the one on “Peter’s Denial” based on Matthew 26:69-75.  This text is the familiar Gospel story of Peter’s threefold denial in the courtyard of the high priest after Jesus’ arrest in the garden.  Dr. Wright’s sermonic reflections on this text get organized under the big idea that “failure is a fact in the Bible” (37).  Quoting from his favorite book (The Book of Heroic Failures by Stephen Pile), Dr. Wright observes that “incompetence is what we’re good at.”

Bible2

He asks his readers to “think about it,” to “do a mental scan of the Bible.”  When he did this himself, Dr. Wright concluded that “the whole Bible, from beginning to end, is a story of human failure (with the single exception of then Lord Jesus Christ himself)” (38).  And the evidence that he amassed in support of this conclusion included these Biblical citations –

Adam and Eve failed, even though they were in a perfect environment. Abraham failed; he told lies about his wife and he abused Hagar. Samuel failed to get his own sons to behave properly, even though he started out his own career condemning Eli for the same thing.  Gideon failed, even after his great victory over the Midianites, when he said he wouldn’t become a king and then behaved as if he was one and made an idolatrous object.  Moses failed in the wilderness, to his own great regret.  David failed appallingly, not only in his acts of adultery and planned murder, but in failing to control his own family during the rest of his life.  Every king of Israel failed in one way or another.  The people of Israel as a whole – God’s covenant people, God’s redeemed people – failed for generation after generation through the Old Testament.  Failure runs through the Old Testament like a ragged thread.  [And] the New Testament shows us people failing all over the place as well. (37)

Failure is a fact in the Bible, and in each of our lives. Consciously following Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior now for more than 50 years now, I can tell you that much of my journey has been a matter of travelling the same ground over and over again.  The terrain of my failure is familiar.  I know the line from the poet/priest George Herbert’s poem “Discipline” by heart – “Though I halt in pace, yet I creep to the throne of grace.” In fact, I live these words.

The unknown author of the New Testament book of Hebrews wrote about “the sin that so easily entangles us” (12:1).  In the parlance of Christianity spirituality this is what’s meant by a “besetting sin.” This is the sin that just seems to have our number, it’s the sin that is our Achilles’ heel, our particular weakness.  It’s “the sin that so easily entangles us.”

Christian wisdom often pairs this notion of our “besetting sin” with that of the seven deadly sins – pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth. These seven “deadly sins” are the headings of seven broad categories under which all of the different ways that we offend against God’s holy laws, leaving undone those things which we ought to have done and having done those things which we ought not to have done” can be organized. The guide for Self-Examination in Saint Augustine’s Prayer Book: A Book of Devotion for Members of the Episcopal Church (Holy Cross Publications -1967) is a good example of how this works (pp. 112-121).  And when you undertake this spiritual discipline, a frequent discovery that people make is that while we all certainly have a capacity for the sins in all seven of these categories that nevertheless we each seem to be particularly adept at the sins in one of them – and that’s our “besetting sin” – “the sin that so easily entangles us.”   This is the sin will become our familiar foe, our lifelong struggle.

A story is told of a holy man who was dying. Satan appeared before him and, looking abject, said “At last, you have beaten me.”  And the old man, near death but still alert, replied, “Not yet!” (Alan Jones in Soul Making – Harper San Francisco – 1989 – p.98)

silence-movie-poster.pngI thought about this one evening last December when I sat in a theater all by myself watching Martin Scorsese’s lifetime project, the movie “Silence.”  Hardly anybody saw this film, and there were good reasons why.  It was too long.  It was too slow.  It was too demanding of the viewer.  And I loved it.  In fact, it wasn’t just the best movie that I saw last year, it was the best movie that I’ve seen in the last decade.

The story of Jesuit missionary priests in Japan in an era of the violent suppression of the church and the martyrdom of Christians, Silence is a sustained meditation on the mystery and the meaning of what it means to be faithful before the silence of God.  One of the characters in the story is a Japanese Christian named Kichijiro.  He is a confusing character in the story, a jumble of contradictions – at once faithful and unfaithful, brave and cowardly, advocate and adversary.  Fr. James Martin, a Jesuit priest himself, has written about him in the magazine of which he is the editor-at-large, America: The Jesuit Review

I’ve heard that the figure of Kichijiro, initially Rodrigues’s and Garupe’s (the Jesuit missionary priests) Japanese guide, and later Rodrigues’s friend, elicited some chuckles in movie theaters. Kichijiro is, by his own admission, a sinful man. He repeatedly apostatizes and cravenly turns Rodrigues in to the Japanese authorities. Time and again, Kichijiro returns to Rodrigues for confession, and towards the end of the film, after Rodrigues’s apostasy, he seeks out the former priest to hear his confession. Some viewers have found Kichijiro’s manifold weaknesses and his repeated desire for confession amusing. I found it human. Who hasn’t struggled with a sin that comes back to haunt us? Who hasn’t felt embarrassed about repeatedly confessing the same sins? Who hasn’t longed for God’s forgiveness? Towards the end of the film, this seemingly weak man also helps to bring Father Rodrigues back to his priesthood by seeking confession. In a moving scene, Father Rodrigues places his head on Kichijiro’s head, as if in prayer. Or absolution. Kichijiro’s final scene may be the most mysterious. A Japanese authority notices a necklace around Kichijiro’s neck and rips it off. He opens the leather pouch and discovers a Christian image. Kichijiro is revealed as a Christian and is swiftly led away, presumably to die. It took me three viewings to realize something: Kichijiro would become a traditional Christian martyr. Kichijiro would become the kind of person that Catholics would later venerate. How ironic that this “weak” man becomes the inadvertent hero, while the “stronger” man, Rodrigues, whose “martyrdom” is of a different type, will not be venerated. It is a mysterious meditation on sacrifice and martyrdom. (http://www.americamagazine.org)

In Kichijiro I caught the reflection of myself.

On a webpage where Disciple ministers talk, a young colleague recently asked if any of us thought that ministers should be held to a higher standard of morality than the members of our churches. It’s the wrong question.  There’s no two-tiered morality in the Bible, one for serious Christians like ministers, and another one for everyone else.  As Gene Getz pointed out, all of the moral and spiritual prerequisites for elders found in I Timothy 3 appear elsewhere in the New Testament as moral and spiritual expectations of every believer.  No, there’s not a higher standard, and that standard doesn’t function differently for a minister than it does for a church member.

Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For “no human being will be justified in his sight” by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin.  But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus… (Romans 3:19-24)

After watching a seagull circle round and round a crust of bread floating on the water, Helen Mallon said wrote – “repentance is the stillness around which I turn; this arc is my true shape.” She said, “I will move forward, my need for grace orienting me toward the true Center.” And finally she asks, “Can I find a better name than this: to be called One Who Returns?” (http://www.marshillreview.com/menus/extracts.shtm)

And this is where Dr. Wright ended his sermon on Peter’s failure in his book To the Cross.

Have you failed Jesus? Of course you have. The more appropriate question to ask would be: When did you most recently fail Jesus?  Then the key question is: Do you still trust Jesus?

Have you let Jesus down again? Of course you have.  Of course I have.  The question is: Do you still trust Jesus?

Have you felt the shame of that failure? And the embarrassment of it?  Have you found yourself almost unable to face Jesus in prayer again because of it? Of course you have.  The question is: Do you still trust Jesus?

And this is the question that Lent comes round each year posing with a certain intentionality and urgency – Do you still trust Jesus? The answer that Easter is requires us to wrestle with this question right now. DBS +

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1 Comment

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One response to ““Incompetence is what we’re good at…”

  1. Helen Marshall

    Wonderful as always.

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