Success Is Not a Name of God

Many people know that Jesus taught many times using parables. A parable is a story that puts things “parallel” to one another in order to allow the space between them to illuminate what we are missing. Sort of like putting a frame around a picture. The frame is the tool the artist uses in order to show within the frame. To get focused on the frame is to miss the point of the art. Which is why we do not get hung on on the historical accuracy of the parables, we know that they are just the frame to show us something else.


Clearly I am not Jesus - on my best days I am able to be in the parking lot of his stadium. I am not a master story teller and I am working with the art form of parable, but it is not easy for me. What follows is not a parable, but an attempt to offer a frame in order to show a hyperbolic contrast in order to expose the question: What is success to God?

The frame is just two quotes. One from Dorothee Soelle’s book and the other from Jerry Falwell Jr’s twitter feed.

“Martin Buber said that “success is not a name of God.” It could not be said more mystically nor more helplessly. The nothing that wants to become everything and needs us cannot be named in the categories of power. To let go of the ego means, among other things, to step away from the coercion to succeed. It means to “go where you are nothing…” The ultimate criterion for taking action cannot be success because that would mean to go on dancing to the tunes of the bosses of this world.” - Dorothee Soelle, The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance

“Conservatives & Christians need to stop electing “nice guys”. They might make great Christian leaders but the US needs street fighters like @realDonaldTrump at every level of government b/c the liberal fascists Dems are playing for keeps & many Repub leaders are a bunch of wimps!” - Jerry Falwell Jr. via Twitter (Sept 28, 2018)

Again, I ask, what is success to God?

Marketing the Most Undesirable Thing Ever

Just after the table of contents of Richard Rohr's book Everything Belongs, we find this statement/poem entitled Inherent Unmarketability

How do you make attractive that which is not?
How do you sell emptiness, vulnerability and non-success?

How do you talk about descent when everything is about ascent?
How can you possibly market letting-go in a capitalist culture?
How do you present Jesus to a Promethean mind?
How do you talk about dying to a church trying to appear perfect?
This is not going to work
(which might be my first step).

The book is about contemplative prayer and how it is a great gift given to us but often not appreciated in the Western expression of the Church. These questions push against the temptation of the Church (and her leaders) to be more relevant and spectacular and powerful.

"How do you sell emptiness, vulnerability and non-success?" 

You can't. 

The Gospel is not something we sell. It is not something that has a slick marketing campaign and it is not something that comes with guaranteed success, wealth, and/or luxury. It is the very thing that calls us to abandon those idols and leads us to the cross. For it is through the cross, where we die to ourselves, that we place our hope. 

Success in the Church is just different. It looks like broken and contrite spirits. It looks like mercy and not sacrifice. It looks like doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.

That sort of life does not get you famous or many followers. It may even be considered unsuccessful. 

But success is not what we are hoping for. We are hoping for resurrection.

Three Temptations of Jesus - Relevancy, Spectacular, Powerful

Henri Nouwen writes in his book In the Name of Jesus there are three temptations Jesus faces in the desert with Satan. He frames them as:

  • Relevancy - turning stones into bread
  • Spectacular - leaping off the temple
  • Powerful - bowing to satan

Why is relevancy a temptation? "I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in the world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self."

He goes on to say, "The great message that we have to carry, as ministers of God's Word and followers of Jesus, is that God loves us not because of what we do or accomplish, but because God has created and redeemed us in love and has chosen to proclaim that love as the true source of all human life."

Finally he says, "The leaders of the future will be those who dare to claim their irrelevance in the contemporary world as divine vocation that allows them to enter into a deep solidarity with the anguish underlying all the glitter of success, and to bring the life of Jesus there." 

Photo by  Jordan Whitfield  on  Unsplash

As I read it, Nouwen is saying that more and more people are feeling irrelevant. People feel irrelevant as they watch automation take their manufacturing job. People feel undervalued at a their job that gives little to no benefits. People feel more replaceable than ever as the world changes faster and faster. The rise of the irrelevant is well underway and there is no place in the world that cares about irrelevance because we assess people's worth on how relevant they are. 

The Church and Church leaders are to stand with the growing number of people for whom irrelevancy is the norm. Relevant pastors will continue to peddle the wares of the culture that values relevancy. Success in the Church is not being more relevant. Success looks like being in solidarity with the irrelevant of the world. 

You know, like Jesus did. 

May we be like Jesus who resisted the temptation of to be relevant. May we be like Jesus who defined success by our willingness to follow.

The Bible is Full of Failure on Purpose

Rev. Amy Lippoldt opened worship at the South Central Jurisdictional (SCJ) Conference with a story from Deuteronomy. The main idea she articulated was tat the early people of God was to admit that their father (Jacob) was a wondering Aramean. This is important to remember not only because it reminds us of our roots, but also because it articulates a unique aspect of the Bible. 

When we read the histories of different nations, states, empires, and cultures we will find how these entities succeeded. Military victories, building accomplishments and economic achievements litter the tombs of the great civilizations of the past and present. However, the Bible is one of the few people in time that chronicles their story with stories of failure.

What does it mean to have a sacred book that reminds people of the failures and mistakes? What does it mean to pull a people together not under the banner of might and power and success but under the banner of weakness, powerlessness and flops? 

Are we a people that are willing to integrate and even, dare I say, celebrate the failures of our lives?