When I was fresh out of seminary, and was wrestling with the steep learning curve of ministry, I reached out to a pastor who had meant the world to me as I grew up in the church. I told him of the struggles and the loneliness and the uncertainty. Was I any good at what I was doing? Was I cut out for the ministry? Had I heard God’s call on my life incorrectly?
What he said shocked me. He told me that his first ministry position was short-lived and ended badly. People had told him he had no business being a minister. He felt crushed by the experience. But, afterwards he examined what ministry meant and what his gifts and calling really were. He – with great trepidation – took a call as a minister in another church, stayed for many years, and accomplished wonderful things.
I can’t speak for anyone else’s experience, but I can say without a doubt that his ministry sparked within me a love for God, a desire to study the Bible, and it was his compassionate and pastoral spirit that helped me to grow up seeing the church as a safe place where people are loved – where I was loved.
How could he – this pastor I admired so much – how could he have found such resistance and opposition and even failure in his first church?
Even though it shocked me to hear about the struggles he had experienced early on in his ministry, I resonated with what he said. Knowing that things hadn’t always been easy for him (and probably never were!) made me realize that perhaps my struggles didn’t have to define my journey either.
I’m not sure why it is – though I know in my heart that it is true – but failure has a way of teaching us things that success never could. Though climbing the ladder of success is appealing, it seems that nothing speeds up our learning like slipping down a rung or two. Or as Fr. Richard Rohr once wrote, “Most often we don’t pay attention to that inner task until we have had some kind of fall or failure in our outer tasks.”
I’m not sure why this is, but I know it has been true for me.
One thing I love about the Gospel of Mark is how the disciples behave. They don’t get it. They mess up. They have to learn the same lesson multiple times in multiple different ways. They are afraid – of people who are not like them, and even of what Jesus teaches them. I like the disciples in Mark because even though they fail a lot, they continue to be disciples. Even though they miss the point time and again, they are still invited to eat with Jesus in the upper room. They fail, and yet remain disciples. This gives me so much hope.
In Mark 7, Jesus journeys to the far northern towns of Tyre and Sidon. These were the northernmost points of Jesus’ travels, and after this point, Jesus begins to move south. In Mark 9, Jesus comes to Capernaum, which is just to the north of the Sea of Galilee, and as he continues to journey farther down geographically, he begins to teach about suffering. He talks about weakness, and being betrayed, and about being killed.
The disciples are shaken by this. They’ve watched Jesus feed multitudes of people. They’ve seen healings, and learned unexpected lessons in unexpected ways. They had seen Jesus surrounded by crowds, and maybe they thought they were climbing to the top. The disciples had come from a variety of backgrounds, had walked away from everything they had, and perhaps they thought those sacrifices would all be worth it in the end. Perhaps they would be headed for greatness.
Right before Jesus’ hard teaching on suffering, death, and resurrection, the disciples encounter a boy with a spirit that made him unable to speak. We do not get the details of this encounter, but we see that the scribes were arguing with the disciples, and a crowd was gathering to watch. When Jesus arrives, we quickly learn what has happened. The father of the boy who was suffering had brought his child to the disciples, but the disciples were unable to heal him. They had failed. They were not following in the footsteps of Jesus, and they had had an audience who watched them fail miserably.
On the heels of this failure, Jesus does not teach his disciples how to succeed; instead, he tells them that he is making a downward journey – one that will culminate in an upward journey, to be sure, but a downward one nonetheless. His ministry will look like a failure when he is betrayed, deserted, and killed. But it is through what seems to be failure that resurrection is possible.
We don’t like to fail.
We talk about climbing the ladder of success, and we dream about how to make it to the top. We want to do well, and I think in many ways that is part of our human nature. Here in Mark 9, Jesus teaches about a different way, a way that intentionally moves downward rather than upward.
Henri Nouwen once wrote about this intentional movement in his book The Selfless Way of Christ: Downward Mobility and the Spiritual Life, and he also describes it in a brief article in the Leadership Journal called “Finding Vocation in Downward Mobility.” In his short article, Nouwen wrote this:
From the beginning of my life, two voices have been speaking to me: one saying, Henri, be sure you make it on your own. Be sure you become an independent person. Be sure I can be proud of you, and another voice saying, Henri, whatever you are going to do, even if you don’t do anything very interesting in the eyes of the world, be sure you stay close to the heart of Jesus; be sure you stay close to the love of God.
And this is the struggle we all face – the struggle between the part of us that yearns to be seen as great, and the voice calling us to be faithful whatever that faithfulness might look like.
I see three basic movements in this Scripture from Mark 9 that may be helpful for us as we think about our spiritual journeys. The journey looks, to me, something like moving through fear, moving past the desire for greatness, and opening our arms to children. On the surface, these three movements might not seem connected, but they truly are. We begin with powerlessness, forsake powerfulness, and return to powerlessness – but a powerlessness that looks more like dependence than stuck-ness.
First, the journey will involve fear. If you recall, the last time Jesus taught about suffering, death, and resurrection, Peter rebukes him. Jesus, in turn, rebukes Peter with a startling “Get behind me, Satan!” And so, when Jesus teaches again about his forthcoming suffering and death, the disciples are afraid. They don’t understand why Jesus would need to suffer, but they are also afraid to ask him. They remember what happened last time.
The first part of our downward journey is coming face to face with our fears. The disciples want to ask Jesus about his teaching on suffering, but they are afraid. Rather than coming face to face with their fears, they stay quiet. They don’t engage their fears. Maybe they thought if they said nothing, Jesus would stop talking about it. The beginning of our downward journey of faith is admitting our fears. We may not easily overcome them, but we can admit them and own them for what they are.
Seth Haines said this so beautifully on Twitter when he wrote, “Sometimes I think that having faith like a child simply means admitting that you’re afraid of the dark.” Admitting it may not make us less afraid, but in admitting our fears, we are no longer being controlled by them.
The disciples are afraid, and their fear stops them in their tracks. We may not be able to overcome our fears on our own, but we can speak them into the light so that our fears no longer control us.
Right on the heels of Jesus’ teaching about suffering (and the disciples’ fear and silence), the disciples begin arguing about who among them was the greatest. Perhaps this seems like an exercise in missing the point, but there’s more to it than that. Rather than entering into the fear and embracing the downward spiritual journey, the disciples distract themselves with what’s more comfortable – competition and climbing the ladder of success. Jesus calls us to come face to face with our fears, and he also urges us to get over our desire for greatness.
In a Charlie Brown cartoon, Linus is struggling with low self-esteem and he asks Lucy, “Why are you always so eager to criticize me?” Lucy, being very self-assured, responds, “I just think I have a knack for seeing other people’s faults.” Linus then asks Lucy, “What about your own faults?” Lucy responds with confidence, “I have a knack for overlooking them.” Isn’t that the way with so many of us?
Maybe it isn’t so much that we overlook them as it is that we are great at intentionally avoiding them. When greatness is our goal, hiding our weaknesses becomes an essential part of the game. This is a tragedy because failures are fertile ground for learning. Our weaknesses are places where we learn of our deep dependence on God, and on our need for community. Sometimes the bravest thing we can say is, “I failed.”
We have to come face to face with our fears and get over our pursuit of greatness. And then, we are ready to welcome children and learn from them. Perhaps this last bit seems the most out of place, but it completes the circle of our re-learning what power is all about. We begin with fear and powerlessness, we let go of our pursuit of powerfulness, and we rest in the powerful arms of God as God’s adopted sons and daughters.
Will you step down the ladder with me into the scary journey towards reliance on God? Will you join me in coming face to face with the fears that threaten to stop us in our tracks? May God give us eyes to see the strangeness of success that looks like failure. And above all, may we find peace, comfort, and love as we hold close to God as God’s sons and daughters.