If it had not been for my performance I would have never come to know Jesus. If it had not been for my failing, I would have never come to love him. And even now I hear him calling me beyond these experiences and the inevitable feeling of being lost in so many different things (can I get an amen from the Martha Crowd?) to being lost in him.
Over the years, I have consistently performed well. Grades improved through each successive academic program. Work environments saw various promotions and new opportunities. There was always a new relationship to be explored. The church offered new appointments for my growth in ministry. My prayer life, while not exactly like Wesley’s (e.g. rating his own journal entries—a touch of performance, eh?), was set on constantly improving my time in prayer. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of the above unless we do not come to see the limits in them, in us.
There is the Good News of the Gospel and then, there is the good news about ourselves. The good news about ourselves is that we are limited. We run out. We run out of our best efforts. We have off days, weeks, months—God forbid, but it is true—years. We run out of discipline. We eat too much. We pray too little. We run out of energy. Have you ever just laid down on the floor spent from all your best doing knowing it was not going to be enough? I have. It was in a moment like this where I discovered the end of myself, my performance, my ‘me and Jesus’ spirituality. My performance had limits and I was beginning to realize them. It was in experiencing my limits that I began to know a God who in Jesus Christ has embraced limits and yet is not bound by them. This realization made way for step two: a necessary failing?
In Latin, there is a phrase, felix culpa. It literally means happy fault. I’m not sure if our failing is necessary or inevitable but I have found a God there who still loves me. My limits helped me to know God but failing into the hands of a loving God helped me realize I love Him. There’s nothing more humiliating for me, on most days, than grace. It absolutely relativizes all my best efforts making them, at best, a garnish to the feast that is God. I discovered the generosity of God precisely in my lack of generosity with others, myself and even Him. When everything fell apart, shriveled, or was taken away over the last several years, and I was still alive, I heard an even more still, quiet voice (in contrast to my inner critic who still thinks I like him) that said to me, “you are my beloved son with whom I am well pleased.” Really? Now? After all that? When I had been one of your chosen, called, committed—of the order of Peter? Me? How could it be that my fault was the occasion to grow in happiness with God? I still don’t have an answer to that question but I am growing daily (much slower than my performance based spirituality would like) in love with God.
I have begun listening more intently both to myself and others for where we are encountering our limits as a place of invitation to embrace both the good news that we are limited and the Good News that our limits lead us to a God who enters them. The irony is that in our limits we are able to enter relationship. And yet there is always more with God. It seems these days, God is calling me beyond my limits and my love for Him to a more all inclusive reality within God. I am reminded of a story from the quite early church:
“Abbot Lot went to see Abbot Joseph and said, ‘Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, mediation and contemplative silence; and according as I am able I strive to cleanse my heart of bad thoughts; now what more should I do?’ The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like lamps of fire. He said, ‘Why not become all flame?’”
*quote taken from Bakken, Kenneth L. The Journey into God : Healing and Christian Faith. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 2000.