God is able

The Podcast:

Matthew 20:20-28

“We are able.” What a crazy thing to say! I can’t help but imagine the look Jesus must have given James and John after they had blurted out those words. A look of amusement, perhaps… tinged with pity. What were they thinking? Of course we, today, have the benefit of hindsight. We knowhow the story of Jesus’ ministry is going to pan out over the next few days and (maybe) weeks: the agony and betrayal he must endure… the cup he will drink… the death he must die… before his final victory over the grave. Our patron James and his brother, however, didn’t really understand what they were so glibly signing up to do. Of course, Jesus had told them exactly what was going to happen to him… three times by this point in the Gospel… but the brothers remained kind of clueless. They had stars in their eyes. Pick me! Pick me! they said. “We are able.”

It’s kind of a “human thing,” I guess. We like to push against our boundaries. We want to be able. It begins when we’re young: first, we learn to crawl… then we pull ourselves upright to a standing position… then we take our first steps. And after that, we’re unstoppable… we jump off of stuff… we balance on two wheels… we work our way up to crossing the street without having to hold someone’s hand… we get on the big yellow bus… sometimes, we go off to camp… spend a night or two away from home… and sometimes we even run away from home. Always pushing the envelope… always trying to find our limits. We are able.

And we fall. We hurt ourselves… and sometimes we hurt others, even the people we love. After we’ve gotten past the bumps and bruises of childhood, that’s when we really up the ante: in our relationships with other people, with new jobs and financial commitments, and often as new parents… we stretch our wings… flex our muscles… and do our best to soar! We learn to wring the most we can out of life. We learn to play the game… to pursue success, and win. And sometimes we do win… and sometimes we don’t. We try and learn from our failures: we get up, dust ourselves off and have another go. But it doesn’t always work out. Sometimes we find ourselves up against an immovable object… immovable for us at any rate. Sometimes we’re just hurt too badly… physically and/or emotionally. Sometimes we find ourselves at the limit of our capabilities and endurance. And then, if we’re lucky, and if we’re listening… we may come to a very important understanding… or better still, an epiphany: We don’t have to run this race on our own. That was never the purpose behind God creating us and putting us here on Earth. It was never our purpose to beat the world at its own game… a game defined by “dog-eat-dog” ethics, a game where players live or die based upon their instinct for self-preservation, a game in which only the strongest and most able survive. I wonder, sometimes, if one of the biggest reasons we’re put here on earth is to learn that we’re not able… that our real purpose in being here is to come to the epiphany that we’re dependent on God for everything.

I was pretty brash when I was young. Oh, I had plenty of ups and downs during my childhood years, but I don’t remember ever having any serious, long-term doubts about my self-worth. There were even some (who loved me very much) who might have told you that I had a tendency to be too glib… and a bit of a know-it-all. In any case, I rarely shied away from a challenge. Whether it involved learning a new skill or dealing with people, I figured I was pretty able. And I’m pretty sure that my attitude of “assumed competence” occasionally made some of my early supervisors want to pull their hair out. I know it did my parents. But that was why, way back when I was 23 years old and needed a job, even though I had never even thought about working as a police officer, when offered the chance to strap on a badge and a gun, I thought to myself, “Well, I’ve never been a cop before.” Why not? I’m able. And everything worked out fine. But it sets up a story I want to tell you… a story about limits… and about my discovering that maybe I was wasn’t as able as I thought I was.

After I had been working in law enforcement (very successfully) for about twenty years, I took on a big project… a really big one. I was actually the one to suggest it. Wouldn’t it be cool if the Kennesaw State University Police could become the first nationally-accredited campus police agency in the State of Georgia? Back in 1998, of the more than fifteen thousand law enforcement agencies in the United States, only six hundred or so were nationally-accredited… and only thirty-two of those were campus agencies. Could we be the first in Georgia? Heck yeah! We were able. And we were able, in the end, but in taking on the project, I got myself in way over my head. It was a humongous job that usually required two, or even three, full-time people to accomplish. But in this case, there was only me… working on accreditation part-time, in addition to my other duties. The University had spent a considerable amount of money enrolling our department in the accreditation process and our credibility was on the line. But I was able, doggone it, so I pushed on… and on. The three-year time frame for self-assessment was extended to four… and then five… and that was it. Ready or not, it was show time. It had to be. The onsite assessment date was set. A team of highly-trained and qualified assessors from various accredited law enforcement agencies around the country had blocked out their schedules and made travel arrangements for their three-day visit to KSU. And we weren’t ready. And it wasn’t that we weren’t worthy… we just wouldn’t have all of the “eyes dotted, and tees crossed” by the time the team arrived… and this particular accreditation process was notoriously unforgiving. I still remember the sleepless nights, the cold sweats and pounding heart, my snappishness to colleagues and the people I loved. And all for a paper project! No lives were at stake… only my pride, and the reputation of the organization I loved and had helped build. Apparently, I was not able. Despite my best efforts, my years trying to squeeze two full-time jobs into one, despite the fact that I was good at what I did… it was all falling apart.

I’m actually kind of embarrassed to tell y’all all of this… except that this is the moment I had my epiphany. I was forty-four years old, a career police and military professional, husband, father, and all-‘round “smart guy” (I had already my first master’s degree) and yet, here I was at the end of my rope, having to come to terms with the fact that I was not able… I was going to fail. Big time. And boom, down I went, onto my knees and I prayed. Now, understand that I went to church regularly. And I’m a cradle Episcopalian, so I know how to stand, sit and kneel. But this was different. And my prayer was different, too. I was, and still am, in the habit of praying for things: please give me this… please do that for me… please take such and such away… y’all know how that is, right? We all do that. But this time, for the first time, I gave something away. I gave God my fear of failure… my pride… my insecurity about the future… and the outcome of the project… I gave all of that to God. And I’ll never forget the feeling of relief that washed over me… relief and utter peace. I knew the road ahead would be hard (and it was!) and that I’d have to walk it in its entirety, for better or for worse. And I knew the load would be heavy… that it wasn’t going away… but I also knew that I didn’t have to carry the burden alone. I didn’t need to be able. I knew that everything was going to be OK, because God was able.

And, in the end, we made it happen. It wasn’t pretty, but we did it. We were first… and lots of good things came of it. But, after all was said and done, the greatest take away for me was learning to admit that I was not able, and that I didn’t need to be able… not all by myself, at any rate. It took me way too long to figure that out. And I’m confident that the sons of Zebedee, James and John, figured it out in their own time. Despite the brashness of our patron, James, he learned the Way of Jesus and carried on, building the church in Jerusalem in spite of tremendous opposition from the Jewish religious hierarchy, before being the first of Jesus’ original twelve apostles to be martyred for the cause of Christ.

We should all strive to be more like James… though hopefully we’ll never be murdered on account of our beliefs. But we all must “lose our lives” for the cause of Christ, you know (Matt 16:25). Look around you… the world’s a mess. This country is a mess. And there’s plenty of messiness in our own community of Cedartown/Polk County. People are sick in body, mind and spirit. There are children who go to bed at night hungry. Despite our good intentions, and heartfelt promises to the least of these, the reality of “liberty and justice for all” continues to elude us. And there’s no excuse for it. We are able, after all. Right? All we need is more money… a new social program here… some income subsidies there… job training and jobs… we can do this! Except that we can’t. It’s beyond us. Obstacles exist on the giving end… and on the receiving end. Secular society is not able, on its own, to solve the problems that bedevil the world today. We’re smart, well intentioned people… most of us, anyway. If it were easy, we’d git ‘er done. But there is no amount of money… or raft of social justice programs and legislation that will cure society’s ills. Because we might be part of the cure… but the cure doesn’t begin with us. The cure is God’s love and it flows outward from God through us. That’s the only real cure.

Which puts us in a bit of a pickle doesn’t it? I mean, we value our secular-ness… our tolerance… our religious neutrality. It’s part of the ethos upon which our country was founded. And, believe me, I’m not suggesting that America become some sort of holy-rolling theocracy. No. What I’m talking about is you and me… all of us… losing our lives, a little more each day, for the cause of Christ, loving God and loving our neighbors—every one of them—serving one another and the “least of these,” just as Jesus served the world when he came to give his life as a ransom for many (v. 28). That’s what it means to lose your life for the cause of Christ. And that’s what it’s going to take to fix the mess we’re in. It’s a pretty daunting proposition, but there is no other way. There really isn’t. And here’s the thing, even though it’s something we have to take on, we don’t have to do it alone… our Creator, Savior and Redeemer will be right there beside us… and God. Is. Able.

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