Basic incompetence

RCL Year A, 6 Easter

This last week someone sent me a wonderful piece, a blog post by a writer for The Guardian newspaper in Britain. The title was, “Everyone is totally just winging it, all the time.” The writer, Oliver Burkeman, was reflecting on some of the terrific blunders that world leaders and large institutions have made recently – among others, a very badly handled firing of the executive editor of the New York Times, and, of course, the botched rollout of Obama’s healthcare website. These huge mistakes get a lot of attention, he noted, because those making them try very hard normally to keep up a façade of competence. And we need these world leaders and large institutions to appear competent, because we want to think that people high up in power really do know what they’re doing, since we don’t. However, Burkeman says, they don’t – because everyone is totally just winging it, all the time. And if you need examples of that, I’ll point you to a very funny thread on the website Reddit, of people confessing basic things they are unable to do – like tie their shoelaces or read a map or do math in their head. Grownup people. Maybe some of you, even.

This basic incompetence of many people could make you panic, or it could be very reassuring, depending on how you feel about yourself. As Burkeman says, we all have a tendency to compare our insides with other people’s outsides – in other words, most of the time we probably look quite competent and effective, even if inside we don’t feel it. If we compare how we feel inside with other people’s external facades of competence, then we’re bound to feel bad. But if we realize that other people are dealing with exactly the same set of feelings – shame and embarrassment and ignorance and guilt and all the rest of it – then we can be easier on ourselves. And easier on others when they fail too. Everyone has something, one of you said to me recently. Everyone is carrying something around with them that hurts – everyone.

Now I’m saying all this not because I’m trying for a good confession time of my own incompetence – I can tie my shoes and read a map and do math, but there are other things I’m not so good at (why do you think I took swim lessons last year?). I’m sharing it because it came to mind as I looked at the readings today. The one story we heard is the one about Paul giving that brilliant speech in the book of Acts. You look at him and he just looks so together, so ready to find a convincing way to teach the gospel using only the statue he sees in front of him. He talks, and people instantly get baptized. How does he do it? maybe Peter and his fellow apostles were wondering that as they listened.

But that question is exactly what Jesus, and Peter in the epistle, are answering. It’s the Spirit of truth working in Paul, the Spirit who abides in us all. It’s the eagerness and fearlessness that Paul embodies, that Peter tells all of us to have. It’s not competence – it’s not our own ability to do it perfectly all the time – it’s God acting in us, and our willingness to allow it. That’s how Paul did it – and that’s how we do it too.

In the book study we’ve been doing on Wednesday evenings, reading The Hole in Our Gospel, we’ve talked about times when we feel God’s nudging to do something, when something just seems to niggle at us and bother us into stepping out to care for someone else in need. And we’ve also talked about what keeps us from acting – our own judgments about the other person, our impatience to get somewhere else, our fear, or our longing for convenience. And often just simply our sense that we don’t know what to do, how to help with a problem that seems too big – people who live in poverty, people who are hungry or sick or suffering in some great way. Sometimes all of this can keep us from doing anything. But as Bob Pierce, the founder of the Christian aid agency World Vision, said, “Don’t fail to do something just because you can’t do everything.” We can each of us, whatever our limitations or what we think are our limitations, do something to care for another person.

It’s a reminder we need. Because sometimes the Christian life can seem like a tall order. It can look like another area we should be excellent in, fully competent, a model to others – or if not, then why bother? We can all point to people who are that kind of model for us, people in this congregation and elsewhere who seem to live out so fully the way Jesus taught us to live. They look so good at it. It seems so easy to them.

But everybody has something. Every person has their doubts, their need of repentance, their places where they wall God out and try to get along by themselves. Everybody has something that makes them feel like they’re not doing it right, whatever the “it” is. Every one of us.

So along the lines of the Reddit thread, I’m going to give you the chance for some anonymous confession. Take a card, and don’t write your name on it, unless you want to. Write something that you feel like you’re no good at, something you feel bad that you can’t do. It can be anything: you can’t read a map, you can’t forgive an enemy, you can’t stop thinking about money, you can’t sing, you can’t pray without thinking of something else to do. Just write a few words about it and then drop it in the basket – and when you leave, take a card, someone else’s card, and pray for that person. Pray for them to learn to do the thing they have trouble doing, and pray for them to find peace about not being able to do it. Pray for someone to come along who can help them. Pray whatever comes to mind to say.

Because everyone has something. But even with all those somethings, God loves us beyond our understanding, and God is always working in us to bring us to fuller life and love. God’s not done with any of us yet. May we be patient with ourselves and with others as we try and fail. Amen.