Magnificent Defeats

CW Failure.jpg
Sunday I spoke at Grace Community Covenant Church in Olympia Washington.

One woman had just read my book “Too Christian, Too Pagan,” and found particular encouragement in the chapter on my failures as a witness! So here it is, and of course, if you don’t have a copy of the book, you can get one right here today for only ten bucks!

Expect Magnificent Defeats
‚© CRS COmmuncations, from “Too Christian, Too Pagan,” published by Zondervan.

“Of the making of many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of flesh.” So said the wise writer of Ecclesiastes. I am reminded of Walter Bagehot who said, “the reason why so few good books are written is that so few people who can write know anything.” We have finally arrived at a chapter I am fully qualified to write. Please don’t be deceived into thinking that this fine publisher set out on a national search to find the most successful and compelling Christian presence in the world to write about following Jesus, and that such search landed them squarely at my front door. To the contrary, though I follow Jesus into the world each day, I am confident my failures far outweigh my successes. When it comes to failure I know what I’m talking about.

For example. It was the first leg of my long journey from Chicago to Hong Kong by way of San Francisco. My travel aims were of the noble sort, for I was on my way to smuggle Bibles in China so the lost could hear the gospel. I of course, would then come home to report their need and parenthetically to receive considerable adulation for my admirable sacrifice and risk-taking. However I am sorry to say for any hoping to be inspired by missionary accounts unmatched since those of the Apostle Paul, I must confess, I was evidently suffering from the spiritually farsightedness experienced by many who earnestly desire to save the whole world.

For I was clearly not quite so keen in my compassion for the gay man sitting right next to me on the flight, because while usually gregarious, this missionary felt like being left alone. My mental calculations went something like this. He is gay. I am a talk show host on a Christian radio network. He probably despises Christian broadcasters because of a generally unloving, hostile attitude towards gays so often encountered there. Though he and I share this dismay in these hostile words and attitudes, I am really, really tired and I just lack the energy to gain his trust and show him a different kind of Christian by working through all the obstacles I know will be there. Even though I felt a clear prompting to talk to this guy, I ignored that little voice, deciding it was a situation tailor made for disaster and in my weariness, I wanted no part of it.

So I began the solitary flyer routine. Frequent flyers know the moves. You inanely focus intently on a book or magazine, gazing vacantly straight ahead, never looking to the left or right. Your demeanor becomes that of Albert Einstein, you are processing deep and important thoughts that might shape the intellectual course of the human race. In times like these, when sitting next to such a brilliant intellect, any passenger in his right mind knows you do not disturb. Soon it became apparent all my diversions were unnecessary because, to my great relief, he too seemed uninterested in conversation. He was courteous and polite, but not the least bit engaging.

However a few minutes before landing, I decided I was now ready to chat and asked him if San Francisco was home. “Yes,” he replied.
Then, “I’m returning from my mother’s funeral in Iowa. She died of cancer. It really has me shook up.” I now recognized the marks of human grief; a quiet reticence, a faraway look, an aching intonation and weariness in the voice, an uneaten meal, heavy sighs, a fitfulness when he tried to sleep. And the almost undetectable tears that had just now appeared at the merest hint of human kindness.

I was ashamed and rightfully so. The flight was ending. A fleeting and timely opportunity gone, I said I was sorry for his loss, and having secured his name told him I would pray for him for the next thirty days. He seemed genuinely appreciative. I described Nick Taylor’s book, A Necessary End and recommended he read it. Then we picked up our carry-on items and made our way into the crowded terminal where we went our separate ways, never to see each other again

I want you to understand that I am a man of magnificent failures and defeats. My shortcomings are not reserved exclusively for strangers. I spread them around generously even to good neighborhood friends. For example, allow me tell you about Rob. “So to whom does the Immaculate Conception refer?” Saturday night was the continuation of an ongoing conversation with Rob. Rob is an extremely successful consultant with a big heart and an unwavering commitment to personal integrity. He’s the kind of guy who gets mad when he sees a consultant pad a client’s bill or inflate an expense report to his own company. Honest, hard working and immensely likeable, Rob is also openly restless and a seeker. I learned this last summer at Rob’s surprise fortieth birthday party. Kathy and I were pleased we were invited, because while we always enjoyed this couple, we seldom saw them except at our kid’s soccer games.

The party began with an open bar at a popular restaurant and by the time the guests sat down for dinner, the volume had grown loud and the speech of many was considerably slurred. Rob grabbed me and insisted I sit across from him, which again, given the limited nature of our previous relationship was a surprising honor. “See this woman next to me?” pointing to his wife, “she is a real Christian, a saint,” he paused and while she covered her face in embarrassment he continued. “I on the other hand, just can’t seem to get it. I tell other people why they should believe in God, but I just can’t seem to feel I am fully there myself.” By now the buffet was prepared and we were being summoned to corral our food. Another of Rob’s friends sitting nearby leaned over and urged Rob to change the subject. “This is getting too heavy,” she said, “let’s get something to eat!”

Rob urged the others to go ahead but waved at me to follow him. We ended up in a corner of the restaurant where he pumped me with questions. I tried to answer those questions and point him to Jesus. Being held hostage by the birthday boy in private, earnest conversation while his guests banqueted elsewhere, was beginning to feel slightly rude, even to a socially obtuse creature like me, and I felt the need to deliver him back to his madding crowd.

So I suggested we finish our conversation another time and advised him to read the Gospel of John. “I don’t like to read, haven’t read a book in twenty years,” he responded. We worked our way back to the table where we changed the subject and a good time was had by all. But I wondered, had I handled this right? Should I have said or done something different?

The next week in talking to friends I repeated this story to illustrate the spiritual hunger that is all around us. I fully intended to follow-up with Rob, but things got busy, he traveled, soccer season was over, and now a full year later we are sitting at his dining room table and I am being asked about the Immaculate Conception. The answer, of course, is that the Roman Catholic Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception refers to Mary. Rob was reporting that I was the first person he’d asked who didn’t think it referred to the conception of Jesus. From this doctrinal perch we moved on to his report of a conversation he had with a very religious and learned woman who was reading a book claiming that Jesus sinned like the rest of us. The book included accounts of a spiteful and youthful Jesus using supernatural powers to get even with other kids who picked on him–kind of a supernatural Eddie Haskell. I was able to parry these myths from the apocryphal gospels and attempted to steer the ship back onto a more fruitful discussion of Jesus, but then the next guests arrived and Rob sprang his Immaculate Conception story on these Catholic guests. They, of course, gave the wrong answer and the opportunity for conversation was lost for the evening and perhaps forever. I comfort myself with the knowledge that there is usually a progression of events and conversations in any person’s conversion, but I feel that I let Rob down in failing to follow up on the birthday conversation. There was a wide open door and I allowed our busy-ness to crowd it out.

My life with Jesus in the world is a succession of such failures and makes it difficult for me to try to urge others to follow Jesus into the world with a sense of personal integrity. Who am I to urge you to follow the “too pagan, too Christian route,” when my own life is littered with stories of missed opportunities?

In the eighties I was very involved in challenging Christian professionals to accept international jobs so they could gain access to people needing the gospel, but living in countries where missionary visas were not granted. At the time about 82% of the world’s “unreached people” lived in countries inaccessible to traditional missionaries. So while 60,000+ American missionaries worked abroad, most of them could not enter these restricted access countries. Meanwhile, over 3 million Americans lived and worked abroad, many of them in these restrictive countries. To me, the strategic implications were clear. We needed to help dedicated Christians get these jobs in “closed countries” and through them reach the unreached. It was exciting work and somewhat exotic given the opportunities for international travel. One of my friends, aware of my travel itineraries, believes to this day that I was on some secret mission for the CIA. Bulgaria, Romania, the USSR, China, the Middle East, my trips took me to unusual destinations and I was gone for weeks at a time.

Once, returning at 2AM from one of these long, grueling trips, I saw an ambulance across from our house. Ed’s wife, Stella, had just suffered a heart attack and was being taken to the hospital for emergency care. I realized that in all of my travels to save the world, I had abandoned my own neighbors. Another neighbor, Barry, had recently suffered the loss of his teen-age daughter, murdered by the Green River killer, who to this day remains unidentified, though responsible for a string of murders in one of America’s most terrifying unsolved mysteries.

I’m more than aware of my neighborly failings. Next week we will be moving from this neighborhood where we have lived for eight years. In those eight years I have continued to influence others to be a faithful presence for Christ in their circle of influence, but I have again failed two neighbors right here.

Jan, our neighbor to the South is a single mother of two boys who divorced her husband about three years ago. I’m friendly and cheerful enough, but I must confess, I’ve not gone out of my way to discover ways to help her and her sons through what has undoubtedly been a tough adjustment. At one time she talked of moving a caboose onto the back of her lot for her boy’s enjoyment, and I along with other neighbors registered our strong concerns. In retrospect, I realize I’ve been more concerned that she keep her yard looking good to keep property values up, then I have been in finding out who she is and demonstrating Christ’s love in practical ways. Fortunately, Ray and Debbie, Christians across the street, have been diligent in befriending Jan and showing her acts of kindness. Feels like they should be writing this book, not me.

Then there is my neighbor across the street. He moved into the neighborhood with his wife and teenage daughter a year ago August with the express purpose of getting their daughter out of a bad neighborhood situation. He works for the labor union and sports Hoffa bumper stickers to prove it, while the rest of the neighborhood is white collar Republican. Last year the night before school he came over with his daughter to ask about the school bus schedule. We chatted and he seemed eager to please and be accepted.

A few weeks later Kathy hosted a back-to-school tea for the ladies on the block and the new neighbor’s wife showed up with her own coffee which some of the other guests later insisted, was spiked with vodka. Since that time her erratic behavior has left few neighbors doubting that behind those closed curtains is a troubled woman. Just before we moved out of the neighborhood, in the early morning as I left the house to walk the dog, my neighbor was watering his lawn. I said hi, our eyes met, and I saw a sad, heavily burdened man. This is just the kind of situation Jesus loved to enter bringing restoration of individuals and familial health with him. We moved. Another missed opportunity.

Why am I telling you these stories? Because with all the thrills of occasional victories for Jesus in the world, I just like you, have had more than my share of magnificent defeats. What do I do with the knowledge of my regular failures?
I ask God to forgive me. I pray that God will consistently open my eyes to the people around me and make me receptive to his prompting. I try to learn from missed opportunities and try not to miss them today.

I close with an admonition from Wes King, who puts it this way in his album Room Full of Stories (Sparrow)
Break My Heart, open My Eyes, fill me with compassion.
Show me how to be Jesus to the universe,
Jesus to the universe next door to me.

Yours for the pursuit of God in the company of friends, Dick Staub.

PS. And remember, “these are the best of times and the worst of times, but they are the only times we have.” (For Now).

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