September 21, 2020

Searching For A Community of Strugglers

Oh, my dear children! I feel as if I’m going through labor pains for you again, and they will continue until Christ is fully developed in your lives. (Paul the Apostle, Letter to the Galatians, 4:19, NLT)

This line from Paul has stayed with me for two days. It comes from a section of the Galatian letter when Paul has shifted from teaching to recounting his personal relationship with the Galatians and the love he has for them. The metaphors here are especially insightful.

Paul isn’t in labor pains for the Galatians to come to faith as new believers. That’s already a reality. No, Paul is in “labor” as the Galatians are struggling in their journey toward Christ being “fully formed” in their lives. In other words, Paul is watching the struggle of real disciples, in the growth process, and his heart is the heart of a mother in labor and a father who longs to see a healthy child.

The Galatians aren’t the Corinthians, but they are in a mess. Flatterers have taken them down the road of a false Gospel. What was a solid church plant is at real risk, but Paul is not just concerned about doctrinal correctness. He is concerned over what will be the result of moving away from Jesus and the work of the Spirit, instead encouraging a dependence on flesh and the works righteousness of the old covenant. He sees dark results ahead if the Galatians lose this battle.

Paul’s view of the Galatians’ struggle spills over into his closing exhortations. He wants them to be a Jesus shaped community, and that means accepting the reality of struggle and helping one another. Here he is in chapter 6.

1 Dear brothers and sisters, if another believer is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path. And be careful not to fall into the same temptation yourself. 2 Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ. 3 If you think you are too important to help someone, you are only fooling yourself. You are not that important.

Paul’s investment in the Galatians is a great example. They struggle to be fully formed disciples. He agonizes with them. The Galatians are going to need encouragement and help as they struggle, fail and need a hand up. Paul tells them to gently and humbly enter into the struggles of others.

I read all this with an overwhelming sense that many evangelicals have no idea what it is to “gently and humbly” be part of a community of struggling disciples in the growth process. Their orientation, approach and words reveal a different model of discipleship: Why aren’t you acting like a “fully formed” disciple of Jesus now? Why don’t you get it right the first time.

Let me be the first one at the altar here. I’m so infested with the revivalistic theology of my upbringing that I have plenty of this attitude in my own thoughts and words. I regret it, and I hope I can repent and act more like Jesus and Paul. Too many strugglers have seen me nod is supposed sympathy, but my thoughts and actions were nothing like what Paul writes here or what Jesus demonstrates repeatedly in his mission.

Struggle is annoying to the person who externalizes it and pushes away. It would be a lot more convenient, many say, if everyone in the body of Christ could do the right thing the first time and keep doing it. After all, we are Christians, right?

Of course, real Christians can’t live up to that standard, so we have to decide whether to embrace the role of encouraging imperfect people who have a messy set of problems in their journey toward Christlikeness, or are we going to remove ourselves from the potential problem with a few words of judgment?

What’s been your experience?

One of the things that changed my view of these matters was my own struggles with Denise’s journey to Catholicism. I was struggling and failing. Everyone could see it. I made the same errors over and over. I confessed them to some of my brothers. I thank God for the people who came along side of me and helped me struggle to better place. It was hard for them to see me, a leader and pastor, stuck in a ditch of bitterness and despair.

Their ministry to me was especially valuable because other believers made the other choice: they wanted no part of my struggle and found ways- personally and at a distance- to let me know that my struggle wasn’t welcome. They were shocked that I wasn’t walking in victory, whatever that means. I never felt so excluded from my fellow Jesus follower as when I was struggling with what God was doing in my family and marriage.

It was a painful lesson. I learned that the struggles of growing Christians expose the spiritual condition of the Christians around them. Something as simple as a prayer request can become an indicator of whether someone loves you and is willing to struggle, pray and invest time with you, or instead chooses to pronounce you a loser who is an embarrassment to other Christians, especially them.

Scot Mcknight astutely points out that we have a lot of people taking the church very seriously these days, but ironically, many of them can’t find the church they need. Not because of a lack of entertaining programs and preaching, but because they are looking for a community where they can faithfully struggle alongside other strugglers in the discipleship journey.

Many of us feel that absence. We are parts of community, but we are afraid to confess our struggles. We’ve seen how others are written off, and we don’t want to risk the same kind of rejection. We want to be the kinds of persons who can pray for others as fellow pilgrims. We want to move past being the judges of those who are simply like us: broken people who need a hand.

Scripture has the Jesus shaped community in mind. We find it too risky. We want Christians to get it right the first time and keep on getting it right. When they fail, we don’t want the mess to intrude into our so-called “walk with Christ.” If we embrace a community where strugglers of every kind can find a home and help, we may be overwhelmed at what God is able to do.

Comments

  1. Chris,

    My wife supported me for a few years early in our marriage, while I began a difficult career via unpaid internships, and it was sometimes difficult for me ego, but it laid the foundation that now allows her, 7 years later, to stay home with our baby and write her novel.

    Marriage takes a lifetime. You don’t have to have it all figured out before you make yourself known.

    BTW, my wife also denied my interest 3 times before she finally agreed to date me. 54 days later, we were engaged.

    Your heavenly father cares for the birds of the air and the flowers of the field, how much more you and your flower?

    Blessings,

    Matt

  2. Christopher,

    There is more to support than just money. As far as I am concerned, emotional caring is more valuable than rubies.

    You don’t know how much at times, I’d love to have someone who cares when I get home etc.

    Since you are not called to the single life, like I am, I would go for it and risk the heartbreak.

    (If you want a good counselor, may I suggest the advice columnist Carolyn Hax. I read her daily, and she is very sensible.)

  3. there’s some good stuff here on this thread…

    it’s nice to be reminded that in the midst of my many struggles (most of which are with the hypocrisy of Christians), that i have a church that leaves room for people to struggle. there is a small percentage of people in our church who aren’t comfortable with others struggling with sin, doubt, etc., and those people can be very vocal. most of those who can’t handle other people struggling are those who can’t admit that they actually have things they need to struggle with. they really just want to pretend that everything is ok.

    special shout out to my pastor who lets me question our denomination, some of the things he says in his sermons, etc. it’s really amazing that he welcomes my voice and my opinions–especially since my little journey/crisis of denomination might lead me somewhere else. in fact, his response to me might just be part of what helps me stay.

    and, another even bigger shout out to my husband, who lets me talk endlessly about theology. he is hanging in there & letting me work through some of this stuff. when he disagrees with my take on something, he does so with grace and humility. he rocks. i can’t imagine being married to a man who couldn’t handle a wife struggling and asking questions.

  4. Martha — “As regards Purgatory – as a fisherman, you’ve got an in with St. Peter …”

    As I recall, there were a few fishermen in the “Inner Circle.” Just thought of a connection between your patron Saint and mine — Martha cleaned up messes she did not make and fishermen harvest a field they did not plant.

    And if Lazarus was a fisherman, it’s a sure bet she didn’t let him in the house with his work clothes on. 🙂

  5. Martha and Surfnetter…I am glad I came back to this topic to see if the Feed thing has been skipping giving me comments again and it did. I almost missed the fun. Martha…I love your comment about St. Peter, “If he’s inclined to get sticky about it, just do the “cock-a-doodle-doo” thing to remind him of his less than glorious hour.” Funny!

    And, Martha, can I ask you a question? (I would ask you privately, but I don’t have your email address.) You confirmed what my priest said about there being nothing against women becoming cardinals of the Catholic Church. So…since the Pope is elected by the cardinals from among the cardinals…does that also mean a woman COULD become Pope? But gee, who would want to be Pope? I know our current Pope would have preferred to remain a “lowly” cardinal and out of the “business” of having to be Pope.

  6. Martha and Joanie — The rooster call would be a really low blow. What I would do is hold up some of the day’s catch and say —

    “Hey Pete — Do you love me more than these …?” 🙂

  7. And girls — I guarantee that St. Louis will have a female Cardinal before Rome does … 🙂

    (im — they may need a bit of interpretation on that one ….)

  8. JoanieD – that’s an interesting question. I went hunting through the online 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia, so here’s something stitched together on that topic:

    “The title pope is at present employed solely to denote the Bishop of Rome, who, in virtue of his position as successor of St. Peter, is the chief pastor of the whole Church, the Vicar of Christ upon earth.

    The supreme headship of the Church is, we have seen, annexed to the office of Roman bishop. The pope becomes chief pastor because he is Bishop of Rome: he does not become Bishop of Rome because he has been chosen to be head of the universal Church. Thus, an election to the papacy is, properly speaking, primarily an election to the local bishopric. The right to elect their bishop has ever belonged to the members of the Roman Church. They possess the prerogative of giving to the universal Church her chief pastor; they do not receive their bishop in virtue of his election by the universal Church.

    The electoral college of cardinals exercise their office because they are the chief of the Roman clergy. Should the college of cardinals ever become extinct, the duty of choosing a supreme pastor would fall, not on the bishops assembled in council, but upon the remaining Roman clergy

    According to certain ancient canons only cardinals should be chosen pope. However, Alexander III that “he, without any exception, is to be acknowledged as pontiff of the Universal Church who has been elected by two-thirds of the cardinals.” As late as 1378, Urban VI was chosen, though not a cardinal. A layman may also be elected pope, as was Celestine V (1294). Even the election of a married man would not be invalid (c. “Qui uxorem”, 19, caus. 33, Q. 5). Of course, the election of a heretic, schismatic, or female would be null and void.

    Though since Urban VI (1378-89) none but a cardinal has been elected pope, no law reserves to the cardinals alone this right. Strictly speaking, any male Christian who has reached the use of reason can be chosen — not, however, a heretic, a schismatic, or a notorious simonist.

    If the pope happens not to be a bishop, he must be consecrated at once and, according to immemorial tradition, by the Cardinal-Bishop of Ostia. If already a bishop, there takes place only the solemn benedictio or blessing. However, he enjoys full jurisdiction from the moment of his election.”

    So a pope has to be a man, because it is only men who can receive the Sacrament of Orders. A layman (providing there are no impediments) can be elected pope, even a married man – providing he agrees to live chastely and put aside his wife. He must be ordained, then consecrated bishop, since the Papacy depends upon the Bishopric of Rome.

  9. As to Cardinals:

    “Cardinal: A dignitary of the Roman Church and counsellor of the pope.

    It is the duty of the cardinals to assist the pope at the chief liturgical services known as capellæ papales, to distinguish them from the capellæ cardinaliciæ, at which the pope is not present; also to counsel him and aid in the government of the Church.

    By the term cardinal (Cardinalis) was originally understood every priest permanently attached to a church, every clericus, either intitulatus or incardinatus. It became the usual designation of every priest belonging to a central or episcopal church, an ecclesiastical cardo (Lat. for hinge). Lastly it was equivalent to principalis, i.e., excellent, superior, and is so used by St. Augustine.

    The origin, development, and modifications of this office will be treated as follows: I. Cardinal-priests; II. Cardinal-deacons; III. Cardinal-bishops”

    So at present, the College of Cardinals (comprised of the Cardinal-Deacons, Cardinal-Priests, and Cardinal-Bishops) are the electors of the Pope because, as the Roman clergy, they have the right to elect the Bishop of Rome. (This is why anyone in foreign countries made cardinal who is not resident in Rome is named as titular to a Roman chapel.)

    There could indeed be – though not at present – lay cardinals (either laymen or laywomen) as “counsellors of the pope” and “aids in the government”, though obviously they could not “assist at liturgical services”. I imagine this means they would also not have the right to vote in a Papal Conclave, since not Roman clergy = no right to nominate successor as Bishop of Rome.

    No female Popes on the horizon, I’m afraid 😉

  10. Surfnetter – anyone know what Lazarus’s day job was? Was Bethany inland? I get the impression (why, I can’t say) that the family was kind of well-off and that Lazarus wasn’t a fisherman, but I don’t know what he did.

    And why wasn’t he married? Had to take care of his two spinster sisters, I guess. Maybe he was glad to die and get away from big sister bossy Martha – “I have to wait nearly a week in the grave? Oh, don’t rush on my account – it’s so quiet and peaceful here.” 🙂

  11. Maybe that’s why Our Lord waited to go to Bethany – give the poor guy a holiday from Martha, who was going to make him take a bath and burn his gravecloths before letting him set foot back inside the house, then the lectures about “I told you you’d get your death of cold, but did you listen to me? No! Who was right, hmmm?” 😉

  12. Coming a bit late to this discussion, but its uncanny that I have been meditating upon some of these same verses from Galatians the last few days.

    A friend of mine has been caught up in an area of heavy sin lately, and another mutual friend of ours (if not Truly Reformed, then close enough) goes ballistic about it. He states that if he ever runs into our other friend, he is going to get into his face and let him have it. To which my thought is, “That’s exactly why you shouldn’t be the one to do it.” If you cannot do it gently, as the verse says, then you are probably going to end up alienating him even more. (The TR mindset fascinates me. While completely fun, loving, and gentle in most other areas of life, my friend turns into a Reformed robot when issues of religion and theology come up.)

    Christopher, you and I are in a similar boat. I am the same age, also with disabilities. It is difficult to get people to understand how hard life can be when you cannot drive, and how that limits your employment and your social opportunities. My current church is much better about the situation than my last church, but still there are times when the wall comes up, and I feel like I am shouting at a deaf person to make them understand. I especially get tired of having to repeat the details of the situation for every other new person I meet at church.

  13. Martha – “Surfnetter – anyone know what Lazarus’s day job was?”

    He probably wasn’t a fisherman. But talk about struggle — His loving Friend let’s him die when he healed others on the spot — even from long distances. Then he’s in the blessed sleep for four days after being deathly ill for a stretch. And then he gets to come back and deal with his crazy sisters and work for a living again — while the chief priests are plotting to kill him. John 12:10

    “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Matt. 11:29-30

    Sounds like the yoke was on Lazarus, alright …. 🙂

  14. Oh, we’ve descended to puns, have we? A true sign this is going too far 😉

    It is strange we don’t hear more about Lazarus, or the Widow’s Son, or the daughter of Jairus. Though I suppose what can you tell from this side of what lies beyond? Either you will be believed, or people will say you’re crazy, nuts, lying, or pulling a con.

    Like the parable of Dives – if they won’t believe Moses and the prophets, they won’t believe even if one returns from the grave.

  15. Thanks, Martha, for your research on the cardinals and the Pope. Interesting.

    Surfnetter: St. Louis Cardinals…baseball team, right? (I think)

    Thanks to Michael for letting me go “off topic.” Luckily, comments moderation was not on. 🙂

  16. Joanie — Yup — The “Red Birds” Imonk’s nemesis (I think)

    Martha – “It is strange we don’t hear more about Lazarus, or the Widow’s Son, or the daughter of Jairus.”

    I do believe these guys who penned the Gospels did it thoughtfully — prayerfully. Details are purposely included in some instances and almost completely lacking in others. Some of the most detailed accounts are during times when the author was not there — or there was nobody there but Jesus and the Father (the Agony in the Garden) or Jesus the devil (the desert temptations).

    It is all done for effect. We struggle — there’s that topic again — with what’s written to get the meaning and God’s got us right where He wants us.

    And Joanie — learn the art of the segway and you can get away with talking about almost anything, despite moderation. 🙂

  17. “Jesus AND the devil” ( big oopsy):-)

  18. Martha,

  19. Martha,

    I wasn’t happy about not knowing why Mary, Lazarus and Martha weren’t married. So I wrote my own answer, which I’ll share.

    Lazarus was a businessman, but single because he lost his beloved wife and son in childbirth.

    Martha had been betrothed to a jeweler in Jerusalem, but he was killed by a Roman soldier. He wasn’t quick enough to pay a bribe. So, since she inherited the shop, she was also a business person. (and very good at it.)

    Mary had been allowed to listen and talk about religion with men her whole life and consequently none of the men nearby wanted a troublesome wife who came from a family with a very bad run of luck.

    Also, Lazarus and Jesus had met when they were both 12 in Jerusalem. (The way I wrote it, Lazarus provided Our Lord with food and housing during the 3 days that his family was traveling and looking for him.)

  20. Anna…I love your story about what the family from Bethany was doing to support themselves! I wonder about things like that too.

    I ran across something online that was talking about Mary of Bethany pouring that oil on Jesus and Jesus saying that she was doing it as kind of an action relating to his impending death. But the author also said that kings were anointed with oil and that the aroma of the oil would stick around for days. The author say that Jesus may have smelled like that oil even as he rode into Jerusalem on the donkey. The aroma of kingship accompanied him wherever he went. The writer said that Mary knew that Jesus was the King of the universe (or something like that)and wanted the world to know it too. I liked that.

    Lately, during my private prayer time, I ask God to let me learn from Mary and Martha of Bethany, Mary of Magdala and Mary the mother of Jesus if this is something that God would like for me to do. I figure three Marys and a Martha could help me if Jesus wants them to. For all the Protestants out there…Jesus is the one I pray to and the one that answers my prayers, but in trying to be a good Catholic, if Jesus wants some of the saints in heaven to be there for me too, who I am to complain? I leave it up to Jesus as to whether this is what he wants or not.

    Hmmmm, Surfnetter, I am thinking about how I could segue to keep something about my comment on topic. Well, how about this…the three Marys and a Martha are surely Jesus-shaped folks and they surely struggled coming to understand just what Jesus would be accomplishing. (Don’t you just love it when Jesus tells Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life.”) So, between these saints who are on the other side of life and the saints online here helping one another, I have the bases covered.

    If we Catholics keep this up (Anna, Martha, Surfnetter and me…and I know there are others too) Michael will make us form our own little group! Not really. It’s too interesting here with the great mix of people that we have. I think Michael gets a smile out of us Catholics at times, too.

  21. I may know how to segway (sp) but i can’t spell.

    That’s ok, ’cause St. Catherine couldn’t read or write.

    It’s alright to talk about pre-Reformation Catholic saints, isn’t it? I mean — who else was there back then …? 🙂

  22. There’s all kinds of non-canonical legendry about what happened to Mary, Martha and Lazarus; Mary seems to be conflated with Mary Magdalene, and Martha gets to be a dragon slayer 🙂

    According to Wikipedia “According to Eastern Orthodox tradition, St Martha went to Cyprus with her siblings Mary and Lazarus, where Lazarus was appointed the first bishop of Kition. All three died in Cyprus.

    According to one legend, St Martha left Judea after Jesus’s death, around AD 48, and went to Provence with her sister Mary (potentially Mary Magdalene) and her brother Lazarus. Martha first settled in Avignon (now in France), then went to Tarascon, where a monster, the Tarasque, was a constant threat to the population. Martha managed to tame the monster and eventually died in Tarascon, where she was buried. Her tomb is located in the crypt of the local Collegiate Church.”

    That’s why the old holy picture cards show St. Martha with the cross and a dragon.

    http://www.fisheaters.com/customstimeafterpentecost5a.html

    “There was that time upon the river of Rhone, in a certain wood between Arles and Avignon, a great dragon, half beast and half fish, greater than an ox, longer than an horse, having teeth sharp as a sword, and horned on either side, head like a lion, tail like a serpent, and defended him with two wings on either side, and could not be beaten with cast of stones nor with other armour, and was as strong as twelve lions or bears; which dragon lay hiding and lurking in the river, and perished them that passed by and drowned ships. He came thither by sea from Galicia, and was engendered of Leviathan, which is a serpent of the water and is much wood, and of a beast called Bonacho, that is engendered in Galicia. And when he is pursued he casts out of his belly behind, his ordure, the space of an acre of land on them that follow him, and it is bright as glass, and what it toucheth it burneth as fire.

    To whom Martha, at the prayer of the people, came into the wood, and found him eating a man. And she cast on him holy water, and showed to him the cross, which anon was overcome, and standing still as a sheep, she bound him with her own girdle, and it then was slain with spears and glaives of the people.”

  23. Thank you for sharing this. As I’ve struggled to understand why some fellow Christians have had such a difficult time with me becoming a missionary, I believe some of it is the perfection issue that you address. It’s become obvious that many of these feel that those in ministry (pastors, missionaries, etc.) not only must always be perfect now as they serve but can’t have an imperfect history of any kind.

    Because my mother knows some of my actions when I was a child/teen/young adult were not very Christian (despite me already being a Christian at the time), I can sense that she feels I’m being deceptive to spread the Gospel now. Something like, “you did bad and were forgiven, but it disqualifies you from doing ministry now because I know how bad you were then.”

    I guess it’s being long on memory, short on grace. And I’ve been guilty of it in other areas myself. Being the focus of it has made me realise that it’s not a healthy way to grow in Christ, either for myself or for others.

  24. Martha — Thanks to you we catch those monsters all the time — make a lot of money with them.

    Go here http://www.surfnetter.com/blog/?p=49

    and scroll down to see me with one.

    Leave a comment, and I’ll be able to email you directly. 🙂

  25. Surfnetter,
    That’s one ghastly fish but at least it’s a monkfish and not a sea monk or a bishop fish.

    Yuck, I thought catching burbot was bad enough!

  26. Good grief, that’s an ugly beast.

    And the fish ain’t too good looking either 😉

    (It’s all in jest, friend!)

  27. At least you knew which was which. Sometimes it gets hard to tell — especially by sense of smell. 🙂

  28. Christopher Lake says

    To all who encouraged me to ask the woman out,

    I did, and she said, “No.” At least I tried though! 🙂

    Possibly the more important development is that as a greater number of elders become involved in advising me (as to whether or not I should express my interest to her), it turns out that more than one of them thought it was fine for me to ask her! I was definitely encouraged by that development. Thanks again for your help!

  29. Christopher Lake says

    Bill C.,

    Thank you too for your comment, brother. It is frustrating to me that the more Biblically sound churches, overall (theologically speaking), which I have been in have also been somewhat “stoic,” to a degree, in their handling of suffering.

    Of course, the elders and lay leaders would say that suffering is a reality in the Christian life and that we should feel free to express it to God and (with wisdom and discernment) to our brothers and sisters in Christ.

    In practice though, when I have really expressed deep suffering to leaders in these churches, I have not felt unconditionally accepted, in the sense that they were truly *entering into* my suffering, in an empathic way. Perhaps my perception has been wrong here. I hope so.

    About being disabled and not able to drive, and how those factors can limit one’s employment and social opportunities, you are preaching to the choir! 🙂 I’m sitting here, in front of the computer, on a Friday night, when most of my married friends are enjoying time with their families, and many of my single friends are out having fun, in areas of the city and state in which I live, that I simply cannot get to, because of lack of transportation.

    I could easily fall into self-pity (and sometimes do) if I think about my life situation too much, but I try to remember Jesus’s sufferings on the cross and how He plumbed the deepest depths of my suffering there– and went much, much further than I can even imagine…

  30. Ah, that joke of mine was a bit mean, Surfnetter. Living about six miles east of a fishing village, I know it’s a tough, dangerous job being a fisherman.

    What other species do you catch, do they all look like that, and are they for human consumption?

  31. Really off-topic stuff — post on my blog and I’ll answer in detail — I won’t email you if don’t desire that, I promise. 🙂

  32. CHristopher

    I’m sorry she said ,”No.”

    But…yay! that you risked enough to ask in the first place! And yay! that you’re getting a diversity of opinions on the matter!