Friday, January 24, 2014

Flailing and Failing

Last Friday I started out running, just like every other morning.

But the wind was cold, the route was challenging, and this old body was tired. Despite great effort, my run gradually slowed to a jog, then stumbled to walk, then choked to a stop. Finally, I doubled over. Done.

I needed someone to spoon me off of the sidewalk and ladle me home.

Today was a completely different story! From the first stride to the last, I moved with strength and agility. At the end of my route I felt as though I could do it all over again.

Why do the same three miles completely exhaust me one day and barely challenge me the next?

As I ponder this question I realize that I have the same experience in ministry. One day every word that I speak rings of truth and love. The next day I struggle to find any words with meaning or significance. One day I'm doing ministry with power and impact, the next day I find myself ineffective and irrelevant. One day I'm sensing God's presence and pleasure, the next day I'm questioning his involvement and interest in my life.

How do I get off of this roller coaster?

There is an account in the gospel of Mark that speaks to this very issue. Jesus had taken three of his disciples up the mountain with him, where they saw him converse with Moses and Elijah like they were old friends. Talk about a spiritual high! I'm sure Peter, James, and John were never the same. But I wonder how the other nine disciples felt, being left to manage on their own back in the village. They weren't invited to go on this awesome spiritual retreat, they were down in the nitty gritty, still doing ministry. And doing it poorly, I might add.

As Jesus, Peter, James, and John came down off the mount, probably singing "kum-bi-yah" and glowing, they noticed the other disciples were in the midst of an angry crowd. The nine were at the center of the controversy, looking sheepish and resentful, while smug Pharisees and a frantic parent hurled insults at them.

Jesus asks, "What are you arguing about?"

The agitated parent quickly explains that he has brought his mute, demon- possessed son to the disciples for an exorcism and that the disciples had attempted and failed to cast out the demon.

So Jesus quickly assesses the situation. He deals with father's faith issue. No problem. He deals with the nasty demon. No problem. Then he sneaks away with his disciples--all twelve this time.

Defeated, the disciples ask, "Why couldn't we drive it out?"

You see, they had performed numerous exorcisms prior to this attempt. They knew the drill, they'd experienced the power, they had the faith, and yet, in this instance, they failed. While Jesus was up on the mountain with his besties, the other nine, the un-chosen, were down in valley, flailing and failing and not understanding why.

One day they were running strong, the next day they were sprawled out on the pavement.

He spoons them off the sidewalk and ladles them home, explaining, "This kind [of demon] can only come out by prayer." It doesn't appear to be a reproach, just a statement of fact.

I hate to say it, but I find his response a little, well, unsatisfying. So what? So when I'm struggling I just need to pray? If I had been one of those disciples I'd have been thinking, "Well, sorry Jesus, but while you and your select few were up there having your secret meeting we were trying our best to hold things together down here. Do you know how needy these people are? When exactly were we supposed to be getting in our devotions? And don't you think we know all about praying?!?!"

But perhaps that's exactly the problem. Perhaps the nine disciples, having been left behind, lost sight of the fact that they had, indeed, been chosen, that they did, indeed, have access to God even in the absence of Jesus, and that they could still call on his name. Perhaps, while claiming faith in the power of prayer, they had failed to pray in power. Perhaps they were relying on their past experiences and their own strength--they forgot that ministry success didn't actually depend on them.

I'm learning that in this life I'm going to have ministry failures. I'm going to hit physical walls and spiritual walls that don't seem to make sense. I'm going to feel forgotten by God, even though he's clearly chosen me. I'm going to be tempted to compare my experience with others and come to the conclusion that they've been partying on the mountain while I've been left to tend to the work. And I'm going to get disgusted by the seemingly simplistic solutions that Jesus offers. Solutions that often take me back to inadvertently overlooked basics. Solutions that actually work.

When I think back to the day when I struggled to complete my run, I realize that I had not eaten properly before setting out on my route. I was also insufficiently hydrated. On top of that, I had not slept well the night before. Honestly, I hadn't slept at all. While the route was routine, my resources were depleted. I whine, "Why couldn't I complete my run?" when the simple but honest answer is, "This run can only be completed by nourished runners."

In the same way, the further I go in my ministry and service of the Lord, the more desperate I am for the basic nourishment that comes from prayer, scripture, worship, and fellowship. I don't outgrow those things, I grow more dependent on them! This isn't a reproach, just a statement of fact.

I need thee, oh I need thee
Every hour I need thee
Oh bless me now my Savior, I call to thee! 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Jennifer, I needed this, this morning! ;)