Wednesday, November 24, 2010

thanksgiving in failure

I have been looking for work for thirteen months and have not successfully landed any steady employment. For a short period in September I had a commission to arrange Christmas music and that was a wonderful opportunity. For a short while in October I had an opportunity to do some short-term work but overall in the last year I have not managed to land much of any work at all.

Not all my friends would agree to this statement but in the last year I have lived in poverty. No, I don't mean the "poverty" that means I'm in some shanty in Africa and, yes, I'm aware that there are plenty of evangelical Christians who define American poverty as somehow not counting as "real" poverty because we're so blessed and all that. I know all that but to that I suggest, not without some hesitation, that the scriptures do not actually define what poverty is for us. Why? Well, whatever the providential reasons the Lord saw fit to not define poverty would be speculation.

Since the speculations of many brothers and sisters are presented by said-same as certain observations I'm going to speculate--perhaps the Lord does not define for us what poverty is in the scriptures so that we are not tempted to refuse helping someone in need on the thinking that since he or she isn't really in poverty I have no reason to help my neighbor. I could tell them that compared to someone else in some far off land what may seem like poverty to them is wealth and riches in, say, Africa. But, of course, poverty isn't the same in every region.

All that is to say that in the last year things have not been so great for me. I have looked for work without success. I have often felt like I have simply failed as a person. I studiously and not-so-studiously skip listening to the Peter Gabriel song "Don't Give Up". Now I've pretty much always liked Peter Gabriel's solo work even since I was a kid but that song hits too close for me these days. It doesn't just hit home, it turns out to have a key to unlock the front door, comes in, sits on the sofa, and asks me how I'm doing even though it already knows the answer. So, yeah, I don't listen to that song so much these days.

In everything give thanks for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus is both a command and an invitation. We tend to get given this verse as a kind of "count your blessings" verse, we tend to sell it to ourselves that way. I know that is how I used to interpret the verse, as a kind of "be thankful for the good things that you got" as the old song in the Christianese pep talk tradition puts it. Being thankful in the midst of persistent failure is not something that seems to preach well. It's so easy to feel as though my persistent failure must be indisputable proof of a plethora of character flaws. Well, okay, other people may see persistent failures as stemming from something ELSE, perhaps from bad people holding them back or holding them down or otherwise depriving them of much-deserved success. I, on the other hand, as I have written elsewhere, tend to internalize failure. If I have failed at something it's because there's something wrong with me.

Perhaps strangely, giving thanks to the Lord in the midst of failure seems like a reminder that even if there seems like nothing to be thankful for there is a kind of spiritual discipline involved in thankfulness. It is not as though Joseph seemed to have much to be thankful for after being sold into slavery and then wrongly imprisoned on false charges of attempted rape and years of his life being stuck in a prison with no one outside remembering him. Yet by the time Joseph is reunited with his brothers he says without hesitation "What you intended for evil God worked out for good."

To put it mildly that is not the kind of spontaneous declaration that could have been said by a man who never found reasons to be thankful to God! When you are, after years of being imprisoned in a foreign land because your brothers literally sold you out from resentment, presented with those brothers that betrayed you it's impossible to say what Joseph said if you have not cultivated a heart that is thankful in the midst of catastrophic personal failure, loss, and injustice! Joseph went so far as to say that what his brothers meant for evil God had worked out for good. If this does not reveal a disposition of thankfulness when confronted with the people who committed the first and harshest betrayal in his life I am not sure what does. Joseph had spent a lifetime paying the consequences for wrongs that were wrongly credited to him.

There comes a point in the life of every Christian where we do not have an opportunity to thank God for the abundant blessings we see that we have but do have an opportunity to practice thankfulness for whatever we have and perhaps even for whatever we don't have. Godliness with contentment, as the apostle put it, is great gain. Whether or not all American evangelical Christians I know would even agree I have spent the last year living in poverty I have a lot to be thankful for. As the book of Ecclesiastes put it it is better to be a living dog than a dead lion and as I have said before we live in a culture that prefers to celebrate dead lions and ignore living dogs. That's how people are. The scriptures would not include a reminder to us that it is better to be a living dog than a dead lion if we were not so often tempted to think otherwise.

If you are a living dog you can be thankful that you're alive and not a dead lion. Since in prosperity Israel often turned from the Lord we can even cultivate in our hearts a thankfulness that some of our prayers have not been answered. To say that the Lord always answers prayers skips the reality that we go through life with prayers that have no answers that we can discern. This is no abstraction for me. I can be thankful that, for whatever reason, I have not yet landed a permanent job. I have had friends and family praying for this job or that job to work out and those prayers were either answered with "no" in the form of my not getting the job or, at best with the "not yet" of me not getting the job.

Even so I have lived just long enough to realize that there can be times when God permits one disaster to protect you from another you couldn't have thought of. Some fifteen years ago I was in college and the professor whose work constituted 90% of what coursework I needed to get my degree resigned in a university politics dispute. My self-designed degree had finally gotten approved and the professor who I needed to keep studying with to finish the degree had just resigned! This was a disaster. How was I supposed to finish my degree?

The dean of humanities gathered us together who had this self-designed degree and had us sign contracts with him establishing that he would ensure that now that our degrees had finally been approved he would do whatever it took to see to it that we'd actually graduate with those degrees. This was small consolation to me as a couple of classes I needed to complete my degree were never going to get taught.

Fast forward a couple of years. In my last quarter the business office called me to tell me they were expelling me. This was a big shock. Why? Because I had not kept up with payments enough and they were cutting me loose. The fact that this was my last quarter didn't matter to them. I objected that my degree had been messed up by university politics and that Professor X had promised that he'd help me graduate. Was the business office saying this professor's word counted for nothing on the campus? The business office said they would get back to me and check to see if what I was saying was true.

A week later the business office got back to me. It turned out that, yes, I was telling the truth after all and that the dean of humanities really had signed a contract with me to ensure I could graduate. So, no, they were no longer going to expel me but they sternly warned me that I had better graduate! I replied that I made sure to pick the most bonehead courses possible for my last quarter and that I would definitely graduate. I did graduate with my degree. Of course I got that degree and found out that it was virtually useless in the job hunt but that is not quite the point of my story. What I am able to see now is that God used the disaster of not being able to finish my degree as a way of providentially ensuring that I could actually graduate with that degree. Even with an admittedly useless communications degree at least I have that degree. As my teachers used to tell me, by the early 1990s all an undergraduate degree really told a prospective e mployer is that you can finish what you started if you commit to a big expensive project. At any rate I ended up being thankful for the thing that, in the moment it happened, seemed like nothing less than a disaster for my academic career.

It may seem like grasping at straws to be thankful for what you don't have but there is a time and purpose for everything under heaven. In the last year I learned things that made me grateful, at least for a time, that I no longer had my old job. When I got in touch with some former coworkers earlier this year one of them told me that they got hit by a disaster in something that directly concerned my whole former job. She said that the situation was so bad that she said I could be glad I got laid off when I did because I would have been furious and miserable dealing with the problems that other people had created.

There is a bad kind of thankfulness when you thank God that you're not this or not dealing with that--we all know the Pharisee was wrong to say "Thank you I'm not like that tax collector." But there is a time to be thankful that you don't have this or that. Certainly in the last year I have become thankful that I didn't have to deal with the things my former coworker told me about. I have also been thankful to neither be married nor to have children who would be more adversely effected by my poverty than I would be by myself. If having virtually no income and only expenses for an entire year living in America doesn't cosntitute poverty we can discuss that in other contexts.

I can be thankful for things that, I admit, seem like not great things to be thankful for. When I had some significant differences with decisions made by leadership at my old church I can be thankful that I was able to find a way to express those differences without rupturing all the relationships I still have with people from there. I have also maintained friendships with people who have left, at least the ones I'm closest to, despite a period where members were told to avoid association with those people. I have lost a few friends along the way in the wake of that but those losses, sad as they are, did not come about because of that initial rupture but as the culmination of character differences. With some regret I can say that I am thankful I'm not around those former friends anymore. Not being around doggedly bitter people does make it easier to avoid a temptation to bitterness. Yet in even this I can be thankful that through circumstances and reflection on scripture God can provide lessons of observation even from these moments.

Unmet expectations and unfulfilled dreams constitute two of the most powerful roots of bitterness a person can have. There is a kind of false hope you have to relinquish before you can be truly thankful because those false hopes are what you hope to be thankful for in the future that guide you now. A man who rejects God because he doesn't have a wife ultimately put his hope in securing a wife or being the kind of man whose status would procure one.

But I am thankful for the opportunities I have been given in this year all the same. I am thankful that I got a commission to arrange Christmas music and that I got paid for that work. That constitutes my first paid gig as an arranger. I am thankful that I was given an invitation to write for Mockingbird and was more than happy to write about the Toy Story trilogy. I am thankful I was invited to contribute to City of God, which is another blog I enjoy reading. In the last thirteen months of job-seeking I have finished sixteen of twenty-four preludes and fugues for solo guitar. Of course I am likely to revise some of that work because I'm a perfectionist and a self-doubter but I am glad I have been able to have a creatively productive year. I am also thankful to have generous and generally very understanding housemates. I am thankful for the church I have been able to be part of over the last year.

None of this means I don't want a job or that I don't often feel depressed. But even in the midst of feeling like a failure and, well, being a failure where hunting for work goes, the Lord's mercies are new every morning even when I don't feel like they are.

Who is our ultimate model for thankfulness? The man who went to the cross. Who is our ultimate guide for giving thanks? The man whose prayer that the cross might not be the path he had to take and then went to the cross, scorning its shame for the joy that was set before Him. That the path of thankfulness to God ends in death for us, too, need not be a basis for despair. Christ took upon Himself our sin, our failure, and by sharing in that with us gives us the hope of sharing in His life. Trusting in the goodness of the God of Israel who made all things and trusting in Him through Christ means that I embrace a path following someone who was killed on trumped up charges of terrorism against Rome and blasphemy against the God Christ proclaimed Himself to be. A servant is not greater than his master. Even at Lazarus' tomb Jesus could thank the Father that his prayers were heard and still be angry at death. In the moments when Christ knew he was about to be betrayed he could still thank the Father those those who had been given to him had not been lost. Not for nothing does Joseph's example of perserverance in the midst of suffering and loss and the capacity to be thankful to God for a providential kindness that cannot be seen except through faith culminates in Christ Himself.

Well, that's my little Thanksgiving self-directed pep talk for the 2010 season. It may not be of any use to you, dear reader, but these are things I feel it is important to remind myself of.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Link: Practical Theology for Women: Pariahs

Generally whatever Wendy says on her blog is succinct enough and substantial enough that I feel comfortable merely linking to what she says.