You can’t break God–Forgiveness, Failure, and Church

I’ve been accused of being a perfectionist. Most of the time, I totally resent that. There’s nothing wrong with demanding excellence, and integrity, and follow through in one’s pastoral work. There’s nothing wrong with paying attention to the details. And, there’s nothing wrong with declaring failure and moving on.

But sometimes, when I am accused of being a perfectionist, it’s because I have forgotten one really key step in this moving on process: forgiveness.

I do think the church is failing. I do think we’ve made some key mistakes that are detracting us from who we are, and therefore causing us to crumble.

And I also think we need to forgive ourselves, so that we can let go.

We do this because we need to remember that the failure or success of the church doesn’t rely on us. It relies on God. 

To ask for forgiveness does two things: it reminds us that ultimately we’re not in charge, and it reminds us that our failures aren’t going to break God. God won’t break because there’s a typo in your bulletin.  God won’t break because your Profoundly-Important-and-Somehow-Totally-Useless Committee is mean, obstinate and unwelcoming. God won’t break because of your church’s hypocrisy.

Nothing in this world can break God–not even crucifixion.

The only thing we do when we fail is make God hard to see, but God can be seen wherever God chooses.

It’s not up to us to make God exist, it is up to us to follow God where we are called.

The early church really sucked at a lot of this stuff, too. They fought about really stupid things. They hurt each other, and they got themselves killed for lots of things that we would probably think are dumb today. Paul’s letters, these beautiful documents that we cherish now as scripture–these letters were solely because of the early church’s failures.

For pete’s sake–these guys nearly split the church in two over the issue of foreskin. I wonder if the church 2,000 years from now will see the “issue of homosexuality” as equally obscure and strange as we see the “issue of circumcision” today. 

We can say “The Church has failed!” as many times as we want, but we will never move forward into resurrection unless we can forgive ourselves, and others, who have failed.

That’s why I’d say that the Liberal Church has some work to do to reclaim the ritual of confession.

It’s really hard to forgive yourself if your rituals don’t remind you that God forgives you–if you don’t ask God to forgive you, if you don’t have the experience of offering your failures to God.

We say confession in our services for this purpose—to ask for forgiveness, because we can have God release us from the guilt of our many and varied failures as The Church.

We confess and ask for forgiveness so that our failures stop having power over us and instead have power to transform the world through us.

And, when I say “Release” I do not mean “unresponsible.” This does not mean we don’t have to do work anymore. It means that we hand our failure over to God so that God can start a much more complicated–and often more painful–process of transforming our failures into God’s own work of restoration and reconciliation.

In recognizing our failures, in asking for forgiveness, in forgiving ourselves, we can let go. We can let God take over and make the church new.

So, in follow up: forgive yourself for that dying program. Forgive yourself for bad exegesis. Forgive the meanness of the Profoundly-Important-and-Somehow-Totally-Useless Committee. Forgive yourself and your congregation for the places where you have failed. It’s really inevitable.

You can’t break your God by failing at church, so let God forgive you and focus on the task at hand.

We ask for forgiveness, we let these things go, because God is calling us to a wider task. We can’t break God, but we can cause God to lament. We can cause God to be in deep pain and suffering because of our viciousness towards one another.

We ask forgiveness for our petty failures so that, as the church, we can recognize how God is truly calling us. We ask forgiveness for our petty failures so that we can learn how to confess our failures of wider proportion.

Let us confess to God the white supremacy that kills across our country, and our impotence in the discussion on gun control, and our complacency in the drone program, and the way we ignore the poor in our midst, and the ways we have abused our power. Let us offer these things to God as our failures, and let us invite God into our midst to transform these things into new life.

As a church let us confess, and cry out for forgiveness on issues large and small. Let us hand these failures over to God and let God transform them into the energy and power that we need to work for transformation of our world.

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