Skip to content

Month: April 2014

Facing the F-word

fail_stencil2It’s been a couple of weeks since David C Cook went live with the official Losers Like Us webpage. I’ll admit, seeing my book on websites like Amazon is a bit surreal, and I am very grateful for the opportunity.

But I also must admit, I cringe every time I read the first sentence of the book’s description: “After permanently failing his PhD…” There it is: the “F” word. I am a failure.

Of course, I can’t complain too much. This is the book description I provided. But it still stings.

I could have sanitized the word choice. I could have softened it to: “After not receiving his Ph.D…” Or I could have played the victim card: “After getting robbed of his Ph.D…” After all, there may be some truth to that.

But I went with a powerfully ugly word — a word filled with humiliation and finality, like a tattoo on my forehead: FAIL. And now I am forever associated with that word on websites all over the world — Amazon and Barnes & Noble and David C Cook and many more — for any and all to see.

This probably won’t look too good if it comes up in a job interview.

However, even though claiming failure brings up so much shame, I chose to go with it. Intentionally go with it. Deliberately associate with it. I have spent so much of my life running from failure, always trying to dodge it and start over elsewhere with a somewhat-clean slate.

But now I can’t run from failure; I’ve gone public with it. God in his divine ingenuity is forcing me to face it, accept it, deal with it, and above all seek the Great “I Am” from within it.

Likewise, the Bible never sanitizes the failures of biblical “heroes.”  Instead it exposes them, in all their ugliness, for billions to see.

For example, when David glimpses and falls for Bathsheba, the Bible could have omitted the fact that she had a husband, Uriah. Without that part, at most David would be guilty of royal voyeurism, unable to take his eyes off the beautiful woman on a nearby rooftop. Heck, since his feelings were returned, the story might even be considered romantic.

But the Bible includes Uriah — the husband David had to eliminate in order to get her. Now David is no longer just a palace peeping tom. He is an adulterer, a conniver, and finally a murderer. In today’s degrees, what he did to Uriah would be classified as murder in the first degree, willful and premeditated. (Adding extra punch to David’s sin, the name of Bathsheba, the woman whose marriage he destroyed, means “daughter of the oath.”)

Likewise, David’s son Solomon is famous for requesting and receiving great wisdom from God. If the story stopped there, it would be a wonderful narrative — all warm and fuzzy. But it also describes how Solomon foolishly marries pagan wives and forces the people into servitude, fulfilling God’s warnings about all of the misfortunes a king would bring upon them (1 Samuel 8:10-17, I Kings 5:13). Despite his wisdom, Solomon too was a failure.

The list goes on. Abraham is a compulsive liar. His immediate descendants are so dysfunctional and manipulative, they could star in a sitcom. Rahab is a prostitute. Moses and Paul are both hot-tempered murderers. And the disciples…well, we’ll talk about the disciples in Losers Like Us. The Bible just doesn‘t hold anything back.

Failure is an ugly, humiliating word. But the gospel is about redemption, which only works in the context of failure — not in the context of those who think they have their crap together.

I am not being hard on myself by acknowledging my failure. Instead, I am acknowledging the power of the gospel in my failure through a journey that has taken, so far, six long years since then. The more I try to sanitize my failures, the less powerful the gospel.

In 2001, I thought my life story would be about overcoming my past to finish a bachelor’s, a master’s, and a doctoral degree. In 2008, when that last one went down in flames, I thought my story was over for good — I had failed, and that was the end of it. But now, in 2014, I find my story is about failure redeemed. Yet I am not the one doing the redeeming; I am the failure. The redemption comes from my Savior, whose resurrection and ultimate redemption of humanity we celebrated just last week, on Easter Sunday.

Yes, failure is an embarrassing word. However, the darker the failure, the more magnificently the redemption shines through.

Leave a Comment

Saturday in limbo

rainAs I write this, it’s a gray Saturday morning, with the rain pounding against my window. Today is very different from yesterday, which was a sunny Friday. Specifically, it was Good Friday.

Just hours ago, I attended my church’s Good Friday service. As always, it was an unsettling time. A time to do three things: Remember Jesus’ death. Eat the elements. Go home.

There was no message about the resurrection. No announcement about Easter Sunday activities. No promise of coming hope.

Not that I’m complaining. In fact, I think Good Friday should point to the cross, not the resurrection. Because Jesus’ death is too important to forget. And it’s only bearable because in hindsight, we know it wasn’t the end. When Jesus spoke his last words – “It is finished” – he meant his work on earth in the flesh, not his whole story.

But back then, no one knew that.

Good Friday leaves Jesus’ followers – both then and now – walking away from  a bloody corpse and wondering what just happened, yet knowing deep down that we are somehow responsible. You know: Jesus is dead. Because of me. Have a nice day.

And after yesterday’s Good Friday service, although I walked out into bright spring sunshine, I felt only that raw blackness of death – the emptiness of limbo – with no ray of hope.

BlackImagine Jesus’ followers on this same Saturday back then, locked away in a dark room, listening for footfalls outside that might be coming to take them. The previous three years with Jesus must have seemed so remote, so unreal. By now, Judas is rotting in a lonely field, and Peter is haunted by a rooster’s crow and the now-hollow words of the one he had called “Lord.” Maybe Thomas is picking at a thread in his robe, wondering how even he, the skeptic, could have been taken in. On this Saturday, their great leader, the one they trusted, is dead. Obviously he must have been a fake.

Yes, the disciples had seen his “miracles”. They had seen him heal the lepers, walk on water, and bring the dead back to life. All trickery? Wishful thinking? Dumb luck? How had this now-lifeless body fooled them so badly? Had they just wanted a messiah so much that they settled for the one with the coolest tricks? Were they really that desperate? I’m sure they asked themselves all of these questions and more.

And now it’s Saturday. Life goes on, and they must live with the consequences of their choice to follow him. They must not only watch their backs lest they too be killed, but they must also, I believe, face the torment inside their own heads: “What happened? How could I be so gullible? What now?” They must live with the regret of falling for Jesus’ scam. He’s gone, and with him the hopes and dreams of the last three years of their lives. Until they die, they will be perpetually stuck in limbo.

I understand the limbo of Saturday. I have lived in that limbo for six years. My postgraduate work died a permanent death, and there was no CPR or shock treatment that could jolt it back to life.

In this limbo there is no direction, no vision, no purpose. Like the disciples, I have locked myself away, paralyzed by fear and shame. Like them, I have sat in silence and replayed the past, trying to determine where it all went so wrong, where I missed the signs that should have told me to stop. And there’s no glimmer of resurrection because I can’t yet see Sunday, when the empty tomb is exposed, when the women come running and shrieking that he is alive.

So here’s my question: On that Saturday, why did the disciples hang around? Why didn’t they scatter in all directions? After Jesus’ death on Friday, the Jewish leaders who killed him would have been home celebrating the sabbath. A perfect chance for each disciple to flee the city and escape with his life.

But they didn’t. On Saturday, in the stunned silence after Friday, some crazy, inexplicable thing kept them in Jerusalem, gathered together.

What was it?

I think it was hope. A deep, unspeakable hope. Something inside each one made them stay.

Once, Peter even voiced this subconscious hope. Jesus had just given the hard teaching that his followers must eat his flesh and drink his blood (John 6:53-58), causing many to feel so confused and creeped out that they left him. So Jesus turned to those who remained and asked, “You do not want to leave too, do you?” (v. 67). And Peter’s answer betrays both uncertainty and conviction: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God” (v. 68).

On this Saturday, after the horrors of Friday, I believe those words are still ringing in Peter’s ears, piercing through the pain and bewilderment of Jesus’ death.

I so desperately want to jump ahead to Sunday – knowing, as the disciples didn’t, that Jesus does rise again. But more often I must live in the limbo of Saturday – with Jesus still dead – and echo Peter’s words through the darkness.

Tomorrow, on Sunday, I can shout, “Jesus is risen!”

But today, on this rainy Saturday, I can only say: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Leave a Comment

“Friends” on Facebook: To stone, or not to stone

stone in handI have finally come kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century: I am now on Facebook. I have resisted social media because: 1) I find the interaction to be somewhat superficial, and 2) I’ve never heard of journalists or potential employers checking a person’s social media and finding anything which raised their estimation of him/her. However, due to the upcoming book launch, my publisher asked me to start a Facebook page. So I pulled the trigger.

One important part of setting up a page (other than figuring out how to get the stupid thing to work the way I want it to) is to find “friends.” But that’s a broad term. On Facebook, sometimes getting “friends” feels more like feeding a narcissistic urge to see how many people remember me.

The first set of friends was easy: people in my family and church. The next was trickier: people from old jobs, alma maters, and other past chapters of my life. During this phase, I saw many “friend” names which stirred wonderful feelings and waves of nostalgia.

But a few names evoked memories which are not fully healed – memories of that spring when I lost both my PhD and my teaching job, each time suffering the “walk of shame” as I left. Those names remind me of painful days when I wished the ground would swallow me, of sleepless nights when I was wracked with humiliation and rejection.

Frankly, when I see those names, I’m overwhelmed by memories of feeling kicked when I was down. When I see those names, I don’t want to be their “friend.” No, what I want is to keep judging them for what I deem to be their sins, ranging from passive-aggressive manipulations to backstabbing to betrayal. What I want is to sit high atop my throne and watch them take their own “walk of shame” out the nearest exit. What I want is to blame them, hold them in contempt, make them feel the agony I felt.

But scripture has an annoying habit of holding up a mirror to the ugliness in my own life. I so badly want to judge others; like the Pharisees in the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:3-11, NIV), I find myself on the side of those just itching to cast stones.

Then Jesus’ words kick me in the teeth: “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone….” And with that simple statement, Jesus indicts me. My role suddenly changes from that of the Pharisee who cannot see his own guilt, to that of the woman “caught in the act” who knows her guilt all too well. Those names on my Facebook page, which bring to mind the supposed sins of others against me, now reveal my own passive-aggressive maneuvering, my own backstabbing and betrayal toward them.

“Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone….” Perhaps others have committed sins against me. But what about my own sins? I’ve sinned against them too. And not only against them, but against everyone from innocent bystanders to my strong supporters. The mirror of scripture broadens to reveal my sins against all of them. Jealousy toward those who, in my view, have never deeply suffered (why should they get off so easily?). Envy toward those who have achieved more than I, especially in academia (why do they get to have what I couldn’t?). And self-centeredness: when someone else mentions a personal tragedy, usually I’ve managed to turn it around to mine. After all, there’s only room for one in the pool of self-pity.

“Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone….” One by one the woman’s accusers leave her; I can see them unclenching their fists and dropping their stones to the ground as they walk away. And when they are all gone, he tells her: “[N]either do I condemn you….Go now and leave your life of sin.” With those words he redirects the focus from her past to her future.

Which brings me back to Facebook. On my homepage, the names keep coming at me. Occasionally I see one that gives me pause. At that moment, I have a choice to make: Will I take the part of the Pharisee, who sits in judgment because he sees only the sin of others – or the part of the woman, who bows in brokenness because she sees her own?

Each name brings hesitation, then reflection on which role I will play. And each click on the “friend” button is, hopefully, another stone falling from my hand.


Spoiler alert: Noah survives the flood


I know it’s been discussed to death, but I finally had a chance to see Darren Aronofsky’s movie “Noah.” I love the story of the Bible and I love epic movies, so I was looking forward to seeing this one.

On one hand, I enjoyed the bigness of the story. I’m a guy who enjoys good visual effects, so for me this movie was a fun – though very loose – interpretation of a familiar story. It was sort of “Genesis meets Lord of the Rings” – with giant stone people (Watchers) instead of Tolkien’s tree people (Ents). And it did agree with the Bible that the Creator sent the flood because of humanity’s great sins.

On the other hand, in this movie those sins seemed to be limited to eating animals and hoarding natural resources to build cities. The implication was that if people stopped doing those two things, the Creator might be appeased, no matter what other horrible crimes or sins they committed against him or against each other.

Also, I thought the Creator’s role was too passive. I try to seek God’s role within a story even when he is not overtly mentioned. I did see God’s intervention, but it was too subtle. For example, when facing a vast army by himself, Noah states, “I’m not alone.” That sounds like a statement of faith in God; but then the Watchers rise up around him, implying that Noah’s support comes not from the Creator but from them.

However, I appreciated Aronofsky’s and Russell Crowe’s interpretation of the man Noah. As in the Bible, this Noah is righteous, and the Creator does give him an important task. But this Noah is not a Sunday-school Dr. Doolittle who loves animals and faces the coming apocalypse with a kindly smile. Instead, he is a receiver of prophetic visions, overwhelmed by the foreknowledge of global annihilation. He foresees that there will be a rebirth of life after the flood as part of the Creator’s plan, but he also foresees the end of all life that existed before the flood. To any human, seeing such visions – and then living through their fulfilment – would be horrific.

Further, the movie is scriptural in that it shows an awareness of wickedness not only in humankind, but also in Noah and his family. According to scripture, Noah is righteous; but he is also a human, born of Adam and full of sin. So he is righteous not because he is perfect, but because God declares him so (as with Abraham – Roman 4). He is a finite man trying to wrap his mind around a divine revelation that includes the destruction of all life on earth. Who can approach such a concept without terror and dread?

I believe “Noah” shows the horror of this historic event. The divine command, the enormity of the task, and the catastrophic nature of the event must have weighed heavily on Noah’s mind. But he persevered and carried out God’s instructions, while at the same time he had to hear the desperate screams of drowning masses in his ears. Long after the waters had receded, and even after God’s new covenant and the promise of the rainbow, he must have experienced survivor’s guilt.

After all, he did get blitzed, winding up drunk and naked for his sons to see – but the Bible never explains why. How could—why would—a righteous man do that, after God spares his life and establishes a new covenant with him? For that matter, why was this tidbit even included in scripture? It seems the author just wanted to let us know that Noah got drunk. And naked. What made him strip off his clothes? Was it just to show grief, as elsewhere in the Old Testament (Genesis 37:29; 44:23; Esther 4:1)? Or perhaps the author simply wanted us to know that Noah, though righteous, wasn’t perfect.

We don’t know.

But this is one thing the movie does extremely well. Russell Crowe portrays Noah as a conflicted, flawed human who is still considered righteous by the Creator. That tension rings true to me.

So what exactly is this movie? You could say it’s just a very loose adaptation of the Bible story in that it is about a man named Noah, a big boat, and an even bigger amount of water. It goes wide in the area of poetic license, and I would have liked to see a more active Creator and a more complete definition of wickedness. But overall, I believe Aronofsky treats the story with respect.

And Russell Crowe’s portrayal of Noah as a fallen, righteous man is precisely how Christians should view the people we read about in scripture – the ones God counted as righteous. Every single one of them had faults and sins, just as we do. For them and for us, the only hope is God’s grace and redemption. I see that truth in the movie “Noah”– and I appreciate the honesty.

Leave a Comment