In mid-October we gathered to celebrate Tierra Nueva’s 30-year anniversary. A few weeks before that celebration I was fretting in the middle of the night, wondering: “why celebrate?” I experienced feelings ranging from ambivalence to disappointment to outright grief. Perhaps mourning our many setbacks and outright failures would be more appropriate, I thought.
We’ve had so many losses and disappointments these 30 years: We’ve poured time and resources into projects that haven’t always born fruit; we’ve raised up leaders who have left us; people we’ve led to Jesus and seriously advocated for have relapsed, re-offended, grown cold or been killed. We’ve started and lost agricultural committees, Bible study groups and churches. Truth-be-told we don’t know what’s happened to most of the people we’ve ministered to in Skagit County Jail or in the Honduran countryside.
I lay there feeling discouraged, thinking how successful other ministries and churches seem to be in contrast. I struggled to believe that it’s not too late for us. I found myself surrendering myself as fully as I know how, crying out to God to have mercy on us and to work with us and through us more effectively. As I lay there praying I think God spoke to me.
I found myself thinking about God’s own ministry experience promoting salvation/liberation. I thought back to the first humans in the garden, who distrusted God’s goodness and chose death, rapidly– in spite of the most ideal beginning. My thoughts moved to God’s failed efforts to prevent Cain from murdering his brother or getting humans to fill the earth and subdue it rather than starting from scratch after the Flood.
Jacob’s family came to mind. I remembered Simeon and Judah who killed all the men in a city to retaliate for one man raping their sister Dinah; the ten sons of Jacob who threw their brother Joseph into a pit to kill him, selling him to the Midianites instead; 400 years of slavery in Egypt; Moses who murdered an Egyptian, fled his people and then 40 years later reluctantly responded to the call.
I thought of the Israelites making it out of Egypt only to be disgruntled and rebel, worshipping a golden calf. None of the original escapees from Egypt made it into Canaan but died in the wilderness.
Then when God’s people do make it to Canaan they blow it over and over, turning to the gods of the land, being carried off into bondage, crying out and God showing mercy on them… many times (see Judges 10:6-16).
Then the monarchy– a bad start with Saul; David’s life of violence and adultery; a seriously-broken royal family; the kingdom dividing; lots of kings that did what was evil in the sight of the Lord; the people and leaders ignoring the prophets, or killing them; the Assyrians carrying off the 10 northern tribes after they spurned God’s prophets; the Babylonians destroying the temple and carrying off the cream of the crop into exile; returning to the land and rebuilding the temple, only to mess up again, and again.
When Jesus is born Israel is under Roman occupation. He embodies God’s total presence to heal, deliver and in every way save. But religious leaders reject him, the Romans crucify him, and his disciples abandon him. The church is birthed into this mess and we keep making similar mistakes.
As I thought through the history of God’s people I felt strangely comforted– like maybe I was feeling the paternal heart of God, the feelings Jesus must have felt and still feels (though I don’t think God is anxious or depressed). Yet it seems God hasn’t been totally successful yet, or has he?
God hasn’t managed full-on global revival through all the myriad of efforts to call, disciple, equip and mobilize. God hasn’t succeeded in weaning his church from their current idols (money, politics, violence…). Jesus and his disciples haven’t stopped global warming, human trafficking, mass incarceration, school violence, drug addiction, at least not yet.
I’ve concluded that I still like the way our great God goes about ministry and invites us to join. God is kind, persistent and never gives up, in spite of human frailty, unreliability and outright rebellion (mine included). Jesus shows us a God who reigns by serving, exercises power by emptying himself, wins by losing, and saves the world by dying. God lets us fail and fall and learn hard lessons, but he is with us through it all. The Spirit brings comfort and reignites faith, inspiring and mobilizing us anew. I feel mobilized and grateful to be part of his messy (bloody) body of Christ.
We ended up having a rich and encouraging 30th anniversary. Gracie and I are grateful to be seeking Jesus’ kingdom in the company of 20 committed colleagues who now make up our staff.
We value your prayers and friendship as we end this year and continue into our 31st. May the Spirit comfort, encourage, strengthen and inspire you this Advent season.