Failures Wanted

I don’t like to fail; in fact, I work hard to succeed and to do things right so I won’t fail. I suspect I’m not alone.  I especially don’t like failing with devices in “record” mode nearby.

Twenty-first century Americans applaud success and put video of failures in loop mode.  Perhaps it makes us feel superior as we laugh at someone else’s failures and smile with relief our failure isn’t on YouTube. Each time a political candidate utters a blooper while being recorded, I think of my many verbal miscues that day and am relieved the blogs aren’t skewering me for them.

Whether or not Thomas Edison (who didn’t invent the light bulb by the way) said, “I have not failed 10,000 times. I have successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work”, I would still love to have his attitude.  I would like to see a failure as proof I tried something new and different rather than sticking with the tried and true.  But I’m not there yet.

Thankfully Jesus is not surprised by my failures; in fact he knows they will occur.  Last fall I studied the book of Mark in a seminary class devoted solely to that text.  Dr. Grant Osborne stressed the importance of Jesus’ predictions of his death in chapters 8, 9 and 10.  Each of these teachings is given only to the disciples though “they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it”.  (Mark 9:32)   He knew they were clueless, yet continued to instruct them and tell them he would rise after three days.

After the Last Supper, Jesus and the disciples head to the Mount of Olives (Mark 14:26).  Jesus tells them they will all fall away, “But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee”.  With his usual bravado and self-confidence, Peter denies he will fall away even when Jesus replies and tells Peter his denial will happen that very evening.

Jesus knew the disciples would fail and fall away, yet he still wanted to meet them in Galilee for he had a mission for them to accomplish. He said so before his death and afterwards. The young man in a white robe confirms Jesus’ desire when he speaks to Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome at the tomb on resurrection morning,  He instructs them to tell the disciples and Peter, “He is going ahead of you into Galilee.  There you will see him, just as he told you”.  (16:7)

Failure, even epic failure such as Peter’s, doesn’t surprise God nor does it drive him away from wanting relationship with us. Jesus still wanted to see his rag-tag band of disciples and his plans for Peter to be a leader in the church still stood; nothing had changed.

These vignettes give me a new perspective on failure.  I doubt I will ever grow to like or relish it, but I can have confidence Jesus isn’t laughing at me or removing me from his list of usable disciples. He knows full well my humanity and weaknesses and future failings, but he still wants to meet with me.  He still wants to meet with you, too.

What challenge does failure present in your life?  How have you dealt with failure?

Those Aha! Moments

If you’re anything like me, and I’m going to bet that you are, you experience Aha! Moments. To make sure we’re on the same page and clear with each other, let me clarify what I mean.  I consider Aha! Moments to be moments of  major new understanding, realization or insight.

I’m not talking about those everyday moments when you figure out how the food processor goes back together or the batteries fit in the mouse or how to get to a live person on a customer service line.  I’m talking about those moments which in retrospect mark turning points in your life.  Those are Aha! Moments.

One such Aha! Moment came when I took a Myers Briggs test during a Sunday school class some 20 years ago. I had always known I wouldn’t be considered the life of the party nor invited to perform such duties. I had long recognized I would rather have a serious conversation with a few people than small talk my way through the evening with a group of people I didn’t know and would likely never see again. But now this characteristic had a name — introversion– a description, and could prove useful in a variety of settings.

Aha! Moments of self-understanding such as this one have been some of the sweetest and most challenging moments on my life path. The sweetness comes as I understand better the person God has created me to be.  I can rest assured these characteristics and personality traits have purpose and value, and thus I feel affirmed.  The challenge comes with the awareness of the weaknesses and downsides associated with this trait. I could permit the negatives to reduce the positive effects of the affirmation, yet I find awareness of the  downside brings me to a place of humility and a realization of my dependence upon the triune God.

When I find myself in a conference room filled with people I don’t know, or have a calendar filled with lots of people activities and little “alone” time, or with plans to attend a meeting with extroverts where I will need to interject my opinion , I know I will feel uncomfortable and out of my zone.  Yet these challenges are places of opportunity – if I can make that my perspective rather than focusing on my discomfort.

I imagine more Aha! Moments are headed my way.  What have been Aha! Moments for you?

 

Asking Better Questions

questionsTwo years ago I began working toward a Masters in Christian Studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.   When classes began, I hoped and expected to find answers to questions of theology and biblical meaning.  Instead of finding answers, I’ve learned to ask better questions.

Where before I asked, “What does this passage say to me today?” Now I ask questions such as:  Who was this addressed to?  What would the first recipients of this book/letter have heard and thought?  How was their culture different from mine in 21st century America? How does this passage fit into the overall theme of the book and what issue(s) was being addressed?  Rather than pulling the verse out of its environment and sticking it in mine, I want to gain an appreciation for the context and seek for understanding first before moving to application.

It isn’t only verses in the Bible which lead me to ask questions; life’s circumstances take me there.  Whether it is a friend dying of cancer, a prodigal child, unemployment, or conflict in a relationship, there are times when God seems distant and isn’t turning out to behave the way I thought he would.  Seminary hasn’t provided answers for tough circumstances either, but I’ve learned to ask better questions.

Carolyn Custis James in When Life and Beliefs Collide claims we are doing theology “as soon as the word why crosses our lips”.  So I was doing theology before I had the formal training afforded by systematic theology studies, but the better questions I am now equipped to ask are taking me to greater depths.

Rather than finding answers, I am gaining an appreciation for layers of meaning.  I now see God as more complex, more mysterious, more wonderful than before.   As I realize there aren’t simplistic, black-and-white answers for life’s questions or for interpretation of numerous Biblical passages, I am inspired to worship and praise this unfathomable God who loves me.

This isn’t to say that God can’t be understood or that he hasn’t made himself known through revelation of his actions and character in Scripture.  Instead it’s an awareness and admission of my limited understanding and God’s incomprehensibility.

God is still the same, but my questions have changed.  And that’s a good thing.

How have your questions changed as you’ve matured spiritually?

Headed to Seminary? Pack a Box Cutter

Stack of cardboard boxesEven though I didn’t physically move locations to attend seminary, I have spent a lot of time unpacking boxes during my past two years of study.  The boxes didn’t contain books (though I could fill several with texts) or kitchen supplies or clothing, they contained my thoughts, understanding of doctrine and preconceptions about God, Jesus, Scripture, spiritual growth, heaven, grace, etc.

I can’t think of a single class where I didn’t need to pull out the box cutter and open multiple boxes to expose the contents to new perspectives, new interpretations of Scripture or to deeper understanding of the implications of a particular position.   One of the classes with the biggest pile of opened boxes surprised me.

A four credit course entitled, “History of Christianity”, is required for nearly every masters track at TEDS. After the first weekly lecture of nearly four hours, I looked forward to getting the “pegs to hang the rest of the studies from” as promised by the professor.  I wanted to understand the driving forces behind the various splits in the catholic church — East from West, Protestant from Catholic — and within denominations.

While we studied those topics, I found the story of the development of the creedal statements such as the Apostles and Nicene Creeds in response to various heresies fascinating.  In learning to recognize the heretical strains of thinking promulgated by the likes of Arius, Marcion, Sabellius, I was amazed to see trails of these lines of thinking appear again and again throughout church history and even into the twenty-first century.

What boxes did I cut open?  My “evangelicals invented the church” box; my “church history doesn’t matter today” box; my “the early church had it easy” box, my “I have a handle on the Trinity” box, my “theologians aren’t important” box, and my “you don’t need anything but the Bible” box.

I gained an appreciation for the struggles and intense effort undertaken in the first four centuries after Christ’s death and resurrection to formulate doctrine and to ensure right thinking about the Trinity in particular.  Without the efforts of Iranaeus, Origen, Tertullian, Augustine and many other theologians, heresies that weakened the divinity of Christ or disproved his humanity would have caused more damage to the church than they did.

Theologians often get a bad rap for having their heads in the clouds, wordsmithing ad nauseum, and debating nuanced points of doctrine, and often deservedly so.  But don’t disregard them entirely or think their role wasn’t important in the formation of the church and isn’t important today.

If your thinking tends to run along those lines, I challenge you to pick up a church history text and start reading.

Oh, and keep a box cutter handy.

What challenges you to noodle through issues and rethink a position?

Some recommended books:

The American Evangelical Story:  A History of the Movement, by Douglas A Sweeney.  

Introduction to the History of Christianity:  First Century to the Present Day, by Tim Dowley.

The Fathers of the Church, by Mike Aquilina.  

 

 

Clean Feet and Rejection

RejectionI’m not keen on being rejected.  As a rule, I strive hard to do the right thing and say the right thing to avoid having that not-so-pleasant feeling of hurt sweep over me. This fear of rejection motivates me more than I care to admit; and now I can worry that I will be rejected for admitting that I fear being rejected. Not a good cycle, I know, but it’s a rutted trail my thoughts know well.

Personally, I would much rather have people on my side than opposing me, but relationships don’t always work out so well.  Even saying and doing the right and perfect thing won’t prevent rejection.  For the ultimate example, look no further than the life of the only perfect person who has ever lived.

Jesus knew exactly what to say, his heart motivation was always pure, and his actions were perfectly in tune with the will of his Father.  Did this lead to a rejection-less life?  Hardly.

The opposition was loud, “Crucify him, crucify him”; religious, think of the Pharisees and Sadducees; political, Herod and Pilate; personal, his own family and disciples; and powerful, soldiers and officials.

The opposition was expected.  Three times in the book of Mark (8:31; 9:30-31; 10:32-34) Jesus predicts his coming death and resurrection.  He predicts the falling away of the disciples and Peter’s denial in Mark 14:27-31, and the betrayal by Judas at the Last Supper in John 13:21.

Yet Jesus served this opposition in love. In John 13 prior to Judas’ betrayal, Peter’s denial and his own death, Jesus washes the feet of his disciples.  A most lowly task usually handled by a slave on the bottom rung was done by the the very image of the invisible God (Col 1:15) to the very people who were going to reject him in a few hours time.

This foot washing account always blows me away.  If I think it likely someone is going to reject me, the last thing I want to do is be around them, let alone serve them.  If I know they are going to reject me, I am going to grab the armor, not a servant’s towel.  This is where I know Jesus came to teach and model a whole new way of thinking and living.

He boldly went forth and lived knowing full well the degree and extent to which he would be rejected. This is not to imply Jesus was masochistic for on numerous occasions he slipped through the crowd (Luke 4:30) or waited to go to Jerusalem because his time had not yet fully come (John 7:8).  But actual rejection or the fear of being rejected didn’t motivate him or prevent him from taking action.

My heart has a long way to grow before washing the feet of my enemies and opposition comes naturally or comes to mind at all.   If you reject me, I hope I will think first of grabbing a servant’s towel and basin, but don’t be too sure.

What do you find helpful when dealing with fear of rejection?

How do you process and respond to actual rejection?

 

No, I Don’t Want an “A” on My Final – Part 3

With the professor’s words, the full import of the meaning of grace struck me hard. I realized in a new and fresh way truths about grace I thought I had already grasped.

I can’t earn grace, I don’t deserve grace, I can only accept it.  The gift giver offers a gift because they chose to, and it is their prerogative to do so.  If I had earned something, then it would no longer be a gift, it would be wages.  I would deserve to be paid because I had done something of merit.  Here the professor was offering grace, and I was finding it difficult to accept it. What was making this so hard?

As the struggle raged within, the parable of the workers and the vineyard from Matthew 20 came to mind.  I realized I was thinking of myself as one of the workers hired in the morning who would have studied hard enough and had the writing skills to possibly have merited an “A”.  I found I didn’t want other people to be given something they might not have merited by their efforts.  Those carrying a full course load and working; those for whom English is a second language; those for whom writing is a challenge.

I could hear myself chiming in with the workers hired in the morning when they grumbled against those hired in the afternoon who received the same payment of a denarius.  “When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. ‘Those who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘ and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.”’ (v. 11,12) Those were my thoughts exactly.  I didn’t like the darkness in my heart this gift of grace was exposing.

The internal wrestling match continued as I read Scripture, prayed and re-read class notes.  Grace had been defined as, “the operation of divine love in bestowing unmerited favor.”   Grace as unmerited favor means you receive something good that you don’t deserve and didn’t earn.  People often think injustice is the opposite of grace, but it isn’t.  Injustice is the opposite of grace for justice is giving exactly what is earned, merited and owed.

I realized I wanted justice rather than grace when it came to this final exam, but the professor was offering grace. God used the experience to challenge my understanding of what grace truly entails. Intellectually I affirmed Paul’s statement in Eph. 2:8-9, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast.”  But I was living as though my works did get me someplace, that it was grace+, not grace alone. In  pride, I thought I contributed something to the process, albeit small, but God was reminding me it was all Him and only Him.

Whatever else I retain from the semester’s class will be a bonus for the fresh understanding of grace I received from the professor’s gift will stick with me for a long time. Not all lessons come with a package and a bow, but God was so gracious to bring this concept to life and  provide a good grade, too.

 

No, I Don’t Want an “A” On My Final – Part 2

Several weeks passed before the mid-term exams were graded and returned.  In the intervening time, the professor discussed the final exam and expressed frustration as to the slow progress being made through the course material.  We were in the midst of the doctrine of salvation (soteriology) with 80 pages of course notes left to cover in only weeks.

At the 8:30 am Monday start of class about 2 weeks before finals, he announced mid-terms would be returned during the usual class break and then we would discuss the taking of the final exam. We plodded through the course notes for 90 minutes making some headway through the remaining subject matter. During break,  I picked up my mid-term and felt the warm fuzzies of satisfaction as my grade exceeded all my expectations. Philosophy is not my strong suit, and this exam had called for the melding of philosophy and theology on one question I had found very challenging to answer.

Trying not to smile or look too pleased, I returned to my seat with greater confidence and more enthusiasm for taking the final than I had a few minutes beforehand.  The professor began with an apology as to the slow progression through the subject matter.  He had not taught this class for several years since the school’s format had switched to courses being held one day per week and hadn’t adjusted to the new format.  Looking at his manila folder stacked with lined notebook paper filled with handwritten notes, I totally believed him.

He elaborated further before announcing that he was extending grace to us in regards to the final.  We had discussed the concept of God’s undeserved gift of grace now available to us through faith. Now he was demonstrating grace by cancelling the final exam and giving everyone in the class an “A” on their final exam. It wouldn’t be a perfect 100, but he would chose a number in the “A” range and average in the mid-term.  The class sat in stunned silence before being dismissed.

A few international students asked us native English speakers what the professor had said as they wanted to make sure they had understood clearly.  All were thrilled to have the final cancelled and the workload lightened.  But I found myself wrestling with mixed feelings and quite surprised by the thoughts running through my head.

I felt happy for the guaranteed grade, but also felt disappointment that it was being handed to me. I wasn’t going to earn it by hard work and study; and I wasn’t sure I wanted an “A” I hadn’t earned.  It felt like cheating; and I had avoided the temptation to cheat on the mid-term.  Why was the professor just doling out “A’s” without requiring effort on my part?  I wasn’t so sure I liked this experience of “grace”.

 

No, I Don’t Want an “A” on My Final – Part 1

Last semester in a systematic theology class, my detailed and precise professor fell further and further behind the lecture schedule outlined in the syllabus. The established date for the mid-term came and went as he didn’t want to administer the exam until he felt he had adequately covered the material he wished to test us on.

Several weeks later than planned, my professor delivered the mid-term essay questions in a sealed envelope with detailed instructions for writing the take-home exam.  While I appreciate the trust and confidence placed in seminary students to be honest, the maximum time allowance of ten non-concurrent hours over a two-week time period opened the door for tempting thoughts to sprout.  I mean, it is hard to avoid the subjects of trichotomy, dichotomy, Christological heresies and sin when studying for other classes and reading the course textbook for the classes that were held during the two-week exam window.

Who was going to know if I peeked at a page of notes or looked up a definition or “just happened” upon a website that addressed the issues in the three exam questions?  Well, I knew that I would know and that God would know that if I cheated I hadn’t deserved whatever grade I received.  Plus I didn’t want to repeat my eighth grade science class experience.

Grades were my thing; they defined my identity from eighth grade through high school.  I love to learn, to read, to study and am a very curious person, but I took these good qualities and went overboard in my pursuit of the Dean’s List and straight “A’s”.  So overboard that I created a cheat sheet for the periodic table in science class.  I didn’t really need it, but I was more afraid of making a mistake than I was of getting caught so I surreptitiously pulled out my cheat sheet to double-check my answers.

Not surreptitiously enough for I was nailed.  My teacher graciously told me I didn’t need to cheat to succeed and that he never wanted to ever catch me doing it again.  He didn’t send me to detention, didn’t rip up the quiz in front of everyone, or make fun of me.  I think he knew those tactics would have pushed the sensitive eighth-grade girl over the edge and been damaging rather than instructive.

When it came time to write the mid-term and the voices in my head asked, “Who is going to know?”, I already knew the answer to the question.  God would, and I would.  I didn’t want the cheapened version of success that comes with cheating; I wanted the full-price version that comes with honesty and integrity – even if it would mean a lower grade.  I turned in the essay responses with a clear conscience and a thankful heart that temptation had not lead to sin.  In the end, I found there’s no better way to learn than to personally apply one of the questions in the midst of taking an exam.

©2012 Kim Karpeles.  All rights reserved.

Lots of Thoughts – Now to Write Them Down

Taking the step to enter the blogging world is a daunting one, but one I am drawn toward nonetheless.  I relish the possibilities of connection and discussion that come when viewpoints and ideas are wrestled with thoughtfully and respectfully in community.    If my blog and your comments can be used as a catalyst to further my and your spiritual growth and formation, I will consider myself privileged and honored.

My story demonstrates God’s faithfulness, patience and abundant grace.  I have not found these qualities of God’s character and being easy to grasp nor easy to accept.   In fact it seems that God regularly allows circumstances and people into my life that make it challenging to hang onto these truths.   Yet hang on I do for I know that no one else will prove stable, reliable and constant in the end.  I hope to inspire you to hang on in the dark valleys and to triumph on the mountaintops because we need each other.

So here goes the maiden voyage.  The ship might sink, might need to go into dry dock for repairs, might find smooth waters, might hit an iceberg, but at least it will have left  port and sailed.

Please join me – I can’t wait to travel together.