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"How can he call himself an apostle? He has no papers. He has a sordid past. His ministry can't quite be called a success. Although he might be a decent writer, there's no understanding what he's actually saying, and he is inarticulate when he speaks and is weak in person. He's been ridiculed and rejected in almost every town, even beaten, whipped, stoned and imprisoned. And where is his God? He's been shipwrecked, starved, naked, cold, thirsty, bankrupt, poor and deserted by everybody! Some apostle!"Paul agrees. He in fact boasts in his weakness and seems to add more fuel to their fire. He's shamelessly open about his weaknesses, including his struggle with illness, sin, temptation, rejection, hopelessness, fear, depression and complete frustration over the apparent failure of his ministry and the obviously sparse acceptance of his gospel. He hides nothing, but is completely open and frank about his pain, suffering and defeat. This is because Paul is certain that it is in the suffering where the consolation of God is found. He is convinced that it is in weakness that the power of God is displayed. He is persuaded that it is in death that the resurrection power of God is demonstrated. This is why he says such things as he determined to know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified, or that he wants to become like Christ in his death so that he might become like him in his resurrection. This is why Paul embraces and is so open about his weaknesses, and attacks a theology of glory, triumph, ambition, success and power. It is a human attempt to shortcut the cross. It is a cowardly act of denial and escape from real life and its suffering, in the end destroying the person and communities. This is why, practically speaking, a church community ought to be a place of honesty, authenticity and vulnerability, a place where people can be open about their struggles, sufferings, weaknesses and sins... without fear of shame, ridicule and rejection. Because I believe that it is not in the denial of it or escape from it or even the conquering of it, but actually in the midst of the suffering where consolation is found. It is not the victorious, triumphant, successful types who have it all together that brings me or my friends encouragement. The posturing of triumph is a deception. It is the one who, even in the midst of her sufferings, struggles with her faith: that is an enormous source of consolation for others. It doesn't make for an attractive, presentable, successful or screen-worthy church. And there's no money in it. But it does make for a healthier community. The image is a photo taken by my friend Mark Hemmings at the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts: "THE PRODIGAL SON" - by Constantin Meunier.