Sermon: Handling Failure

Last week’s sermon focused on Isaiah 49, verses 1 to 7 and in particular verse 4.

But my work seems so useless! I have spent my strength for nothing and to no purpose!

As part of that sermon, we looked at the warning that Jesus gave the disciples on the night of the betrayal, that on this night ALL of them would desert him.  Which they did after the was arrested, in spite of Peter’s assertion that while everyone else might desert Jesus, he would be faithful.  And we watched Peter fail.

I reminded  you that Jesus expected them to fail and wasn’t judging them for their weakness.  In fact, he knew it was a lesson that they needed to learn.  I ended that sermon asking the following 2 questions, that I would like to address this morning:

How do you handle failure? What do you do in the face of fear?

The first thing I would like to remind all of us is that we don’t grow through our successes:  we learn from our mistakes and failures.  Think of Peter, and his many mistakes and opportunities to learn:

  • This is the disciple that gets out of the boat and starts sinking when he takes his eyes off Jesus and looks at the storm
  • The one that rebuked Jesus for talking about his crucifixion and death
  • Was told “Get behind me Satan” by Jesus
  • Promised that he would never desert Jesus and yet denied him 3 times
  • Even doubted when he saw the empty tomb!

Failure… and yet this was the rock on which Christ chose to build the church!  Because he got back up and learnt from those mistakes.

John Maxwell wrote a book a good few years ago now titled “Failing Forward: how to make the most of your mistakes”.  If you haven’t read it, I would encourage you to scrounge a copy and take time to learn how to make better mistakes!  Sorry – how to make the most of the mistakes you’ve made.

I would start with looking at 2 aspects of the mistakes and failures in our lives:

  1. How do you view your failure?
  2. How do you respond to your failure?

HOW DO YOU VIEW YOUR FAILURE?

There are 2 ways we can look at our mistakes and our failures.

We can react like Adam and Eve:  It was the serpent’s fault, it was the woman you gave me who caused this, and play the blame game.  Maybe it was your staff’s fault, the secretary, the economy, the supplier that failed to deliver on time. Many times, we try to hide or conceal our failures, living our lives covering up or becoming prisoners of pretense.  It’s hard to learn from something that you are hiding from!

Or we can look at it like David: “I have sinned”, with true repentance in his heart.

The second part of looking at and viewing your failure, is whether you can look at it as actions and decisions and not circumstances or part of who you are.  When David says “I have sinned”, he talking about his actions and his decisions – he doesn’t say “I am a failure, my life is a disaster”.  He takes responsibility for his his actions, but doesn’t automatically assume that this is his entire life.  He doesn’t take this on as a complete way of being:  believing that therefore he can succeed at nothing!

How do you talk about your failure and yourself?

  • I just can’t keep going
  • I’m ready to quit, walk away and not look back
  • Why are people always doing this to me?
  • Why does God allow this to happen to me?
  • I’m just such a failure, idiot, etc.
  • I’m so stressed, I just can’t handle this.
  • There’s just not enough time, there’s no way I could get this done.
  • How could I be so stupid?  Look at the mess I made!

If you heard someone else talk about you the way you talk about yourself, you would probably stand up for yourself!  But we often talk toxicly without even realizing what we’re doing.  When you beat yourself up, a blunder or a moment becomes a hurricane of failure!

How you handle setbacks in life will shape you: will you focus on the failure or on the change that you need to make?  Will you allow it to define who you are, or choose to become someone that will overcome? Like I mentioned last week, most of the so-called heroes in the Bible were ordinary people who accomplished extra-ordinary things!  They were humans who overcame their weaknesses and mistakes and went on to learn to do greater things.

It’s one thing to identify the behavior, actions, attitudes that are wrong and another thing entirely to self-deprecate ourselves.  It’s not the same to say “I’m an idiot that just ruined my career”, as saying “That was a really poor choice of words and I could have done better”.  Life is much more than just an event or a series of events:  no one is a total failure and no one falls all the time.

This season, this moment does not have to be final: if you throw in the towel, it’s final.  But a ball game isn’t over until the last man is out!

I’d like us all to try a little experiment this morning, to show you the power of your words.

 

HOW DO YOU RESPOND TO FAILURE OR MISTAKES?

If you have viewed your failure as “it was inevitable”, or “there was nothing I could do” or “it was someone else’s fault”, there’s a strong possibility that you could allow anger, bitterness or resentment to grow inside, and be destined to repeat the same mistake again.  If we live on the defensive, like King Saul in 1st Samuel, justifying ourselves and our actions, it’s hard to learn the lessons.

In particular, when we look at King Saul, we find someone who never takes responsibility for his mistakes – I didn’t keep the animals alive, the people did.  I only did it because the people pressured me to do it.  And more so, his “repentance”, if you can call it that, seems to have no interest in the cause (or why he really did it) and therefore no cure for it!  One of the beauties of poor decision making is that if you can identify the cause of your weakness, you can make better decisions in the future.

Remember this:

“A mistake repeated more than once is a decision.”

“Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

Or you can choose to learn from this, growing wiser and making better decisions in the future.  We can look at why we failed and when we failed.  We may have to follow back a chain of events to get to that first decision that set us up on the wrong path.  The decision we put off when we should have made a choice.

But when we admit our failures, we conquer pride.  There’s possibilities of change.

We read in Isaiah 9, verse 2 earlier:

“ºThe people who walked in darkness have seen a a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined.”

Now, it’s true that the process of learning, picking yourself up, dusting yourself off and getting back into the game may be painful.  I never promised that it wouldn’t hurt a little!  But I’m saying it will be worth it!  The kid on the bike may have grazed his knees, those of you who are still working out and getting fit as part of your 2017 resolutions are still feeling the pain in your muscles as you train!

Hebrews 12, verses 11 to 13 remind us:

“All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful;  yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.  Therefore, strengthen the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble, and make straight the paths for your feet…”

Become more like Christ will stretch you – and stretching will take you outside of your comfort zone.  It’s going to be uncomfortable and sometimes even painful.  God uses everything in our lives to transform us into the people He means for us to be – mistakes and failures should be responded to as learning experiences, rather than being considered character traits.  It’s not who you are – it’s what you did or what happened to you.

THERE IS ALWAYS A THIRD WAY – AVOIDANCE

Some people will do anything not to fail, even doing nothing.  The person who does nothing will certainly not fail… they risk nothing.  But there is no gain, no lesson, no wisdom to be gained in sitting on the sidelines!  They become just like the servant in Matthew 25 that hid his talents in the ground, well at least I’ll still have them!

They say that the only thing worse than a quitter is the man that is afraid to begin!  Achieving low aims, low goals, can be a greater failure than aiming for a higher target, and missing!   You will always miss 100% of the shots what you fail to take!

Have you ever heard anyone say:  “I achieved everything I have because I am a perfectionist.”?  Probably not!  That’s because it’s not until you are free to fail that you are free to succeed and do greater things!

 

I want to close this morning with the analogy of an acorn.  When an acorn looks at itself and the possibilities that life offers, it may see itself just as an acorn, or it may dream of one day becoming an oak tree.  So you take that acorn, and you throw it in the ground, maybe you put a little dirt over it.  It’s not very nice to have dirt thrown on you!

That acorn may choose that it’s not willing to change, and it’s not willing to let go of being an acorn.  But in order to become an oak tree, that acorn needs to die!  It has to die to its littleness and smallness and embrace the idea that God gave it the divine possibility of becoming a great oak.  But becoming a great oak means letting go of what it is right now.  Being willing to let God transform it into something completely new and different.

You can either choose to hold onto and embrace who you are today and your ideas of what you are, or you can embrace the vision that God has of who he would have you be, letting go of what you are today, risking failure in order to learn, moving outside of your comfort zone, and taking a chance of becoming that strong oak that God envisions you being.

Lets pray!

Sermon: Laboured in Vain

I have laboured in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing…

Over one hundred years ago, Teddy Roosevelt gave what would become one of the most widely quoted speeches of his career.  In addition to touching on his own family history, war, human and property rights, Roosevelt railed against cynics who looked down at men who were trying to make the world a better place.  People like Isaiah, trying to turn the people of Israel back to God, and yet failing miserably at it.

Teddy Roosevelt in this speech said:

“A cynical habit of thought and speech, a readiness to criticize work which the critic himself never tries to perform, an intellectual aloofness which will not accept contact with life’s realities—all these are marks, not … of superiority but of weakness.”

Life is made up of challenges – for each one of us they are different!  And there is always going to be someone on the sidelines criticising your performance, as you struggle to be “wonder woman” or “super man”.  And that intimation of failure often causes us panic, even despair.

Failure is considered an unpardonable sin in a world where we sanctify the successful and worship winners.  Everybody wants to succeed – no one wants to be considered a failure!  How many people do you know whose life goal is to fail?  But this emphasis on success can put an enormous stress on us.  No one wants to be called a failure.  If I fail, what will happen to me? What will others think?  Will they reject me?  Are they going to think I’m worthless?   And yet, our responsibility is to rise from mediocrity to competence, from failure to achievement.

Simply put:  your task on earth is to become your best version of you.  You are unique.  God made you specially just like you – there is no one else exactly like you – and you have a special purpose on this earth, otherwise God would not have made you and put you here! And if you haven’t done it already, you need to take a day or two and sit and medidate (in silence – and for pity’s sake, stop talking and turn off the mobile devices!), and listen to hear what that purpose is.  The Bible of full of examples of ordinary people who did extraordinary things. We’ll talk more about that next week!

The world has a few examples of failures that went on to do some remarkable things:

  • I’m sure you’ve all heard of that guy Henry Ford, bankrupted 2 automobile industries and ruined all his chances of good investors.
  • Or maybe that guy Fred Astaire.  His first screen test didn’t go so well: “Can’t sing. Can’t act. Slightly balding.  Can dance a little.”
  • Then there’s that guy that had trouble adjusting to the culture and classes at Yale, so he dropped out.  He went back again later, and it still wasn’t for him, so he dropped out again.  His name’s Dick Cheney.  Never going to amount to anything!
  • Or there’s that single mother on welfare who was trying to write.  I think her name was J.K. Rowling or something.
  • Or that kid whose teacher told his mother he was “too stupid to learn anything”.  He was unfortunate enough to be called Thomas Edison.
  • And there’s that guy who was so frustrated trying to write his first novel, that he threw away the entire first draft!  His wife found this manuscript for a book “Carrie”, and rescued it from the trash.  You might have heard of him – Stephen King.

There’s a reason you are in church this morning – maybe you are stuck in a place of despair, ready to give up, not sure how to keep up the good fight. But men and women can change: once again we have a Bible full of examples of people who stopped in their tracks and had a heart change, which became a totally new person.  To mention a few of the better know examples from the New Testament:  Saul who became Paul; Simon who became Peter; Jonah (in spite of his best efforts to the contrary); Levi the tax collector who became Matthew the disciple.

But on the road to that transformation, there are holes.  And if we’re not careful, that hole becomes a rut.  And before you know it, you’re stuck in that rut, and your following that rut instead of the path that you’re supposed to be on, because it’s much more comfortable to stay in the rut than to try to get out of it.  And let’s be honest, sometimes getting out of that rut looks impossible!  You tell yourself, it just can’t be done! This is is – the best I can do, the most I can be.

Isaiah is in a rut (and feeling sorry for himself), in verse 4 of our reading this morning:

“But my work seems so useless! I have spent my strength for nothing and to no purpose.”

This is the same servant that said:

“Before I was born, the LORD called me:  from my birth he has made mention of my name.”

He knew what his calling was! He was predestined to do God’s work!  There’s an amazing amount of expectations upon him! And God gave him all the gifts and tools he needed for the task.  Remember verse 2:

“He made my mouth like a sharpened sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me:  he made me into a polished arrow and concealed me in His quiver.”

I was MADE for this.

But his progress report in verse 4 is not very encouraging:

“My work  is so useless! I have spent my strength for nothing and to no purpose.”

Probably a good time just to go back to bed! The task is too great!  I’m inadequate.  I can’t do it!

Now the whole book of Isaiah can be divided into 2 principle sections:

  1. Part one is chapters 1 to 39, which address Israel’s continuing sin and rebellion, where their hearts are so hardened that no matter the strength of Isaiah’s tone and words, nothing will turn them. They became self-centered and inward-looking; they forgot their covenant.  They forgot they were a people belonging to God. Finally, Isaiah brings a message of judgement and exile – the Old Jerusalem is condemned and will be no more.
  2. Part two, chapters 40 to 66, opens with words of consolation “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God”.  It finishes with the emergence of the NEW Jerusalem.

So we see in Isaiah a transformation – from the old to the new:  the old Jerusalem is torn to the ground and then rebuilt as a new Jerusalem.  You see, when everything is stripped away, our spirit starts to show through, and then our relationship with God and the eternal comes clearly into focus.  Maybe right now you’re sweating and you can’t see the results of all your hard work: and instead of giving up, maybe it’s time to take a small rest and remember WHO you are and WHY you were put on this earth!

1 Peter (2:9-10) reminds us:

You are a chosen people… a people belonging to God… Once you were not a people, but now you are a people of God…”

 

And I have another little gem for you, God expects you to fail!  Yes, you heard that right: God doesn’t expect you to get it right the first time. In fact, he has an expectation that you are going to fall!

How many of you have children and have taught that child to ride a bicycle?

The first time you put them on the bike – did they get it right?  How many chances did they need to learn?  How many got it on the 2nd time? the 3rd? What do you mean it took 54 times before they learnt?

Well, why are you so hard on yourself?  Why do you expect to learn in just one go?  Let’s go back to the kid on the bike:  you have a little hill (without a main road down the bottom!), it’s a safe place to learn to ride.  So you have this kid who has finally mastered balance and steering (for the most part), and they riding down the hill now pretty well!  So you finally reach the moment when you think they are ready, and instead of pushing the bike back up to the top of the hill again for the kid, you tell, well, why don’t you ride UP the hill now?  And what’s the first thing that happens?  They fall off!  Because it’s easy to ride the bike down the hill and keep your balance when you have a little momentum!  But when you meet resistance and you have to keep your balance AND pedal hard, and you’re new at this, you fall over the moment you push too hard on the left side without adjusting your balance on the right side to counterbalance the force you’re using to get yourself up the hill!  Right?

And God knows this!  God’s been watching us since the Garden of Eden.  How many people has he seen fall off the proverbial bicycle since the world was created?

Matthew 26 reminds us that on the night of the betrayal, when Judas betrays Jesus and gets him arrested, that Jesus said to ALL the disciples (not just one of them, not just Judas):

Tonight, all of you will desert me.

We all remember Peter’s response to that, right? Oh no, not me!  I’m good.  Even if everyone else does.  I won’t.  I’ll be the man.  And in the garden, when Jesus is taken, Peter tries to live up to his word, taking out his sword and cutting off the ear of one of the soldiers.  I’m sure he’s flabbergasted when Jesus heals the ear!

But there was one lesson that Jesus hadn’t taught his disciples yet, and they needed to learn it the hard way – enough with parables and teaching. They needed to experience this first hand.

How do you handle failure?  What do you do in the face of fear?  

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what we are going to talk about next Sunday.

 

I want to leave you with one parting thought today from Teddy Roosevelt’s speech in 1910:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Let’s pray!

Sermon: Giving Generously

Lectionary:

Mark 12: 38-44

LEARNING TO GIVE GENEROUSLY

President John F. Kennedy in his inaugural address said: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

In the spiritual realm we might say to every Christian: “Ask not what God can give to you, but what you can give to God.”

I was recently rather taken aback with a University of Chicago study, which showed that secular children gave more generously than their religious counterparts (Nonreligious children are more generous), asking myself “what are we teaching our children in Church and at home?”.

The new research, done with children in six countries (Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey, South Africa, and the United States), included 510 Muslim, 280 Christian, and 323 nonreligious children. The study focused on one facet of moral behavior: altruism, or the willingness to give someone else a benefit that also comes with a personal cost.

The test revolved around that ubiquitous childhood currency, stickers. Children ages 5 to 12 met individually with adults who let them choose 10 of their favorite stickers. The children were then told that the adults didn’t have time to distribute the rest of their stickers to other kids in a fictive class. But each child was told they could put some of their 10 stickers in an envelope to be shared with other kids, who were described as being from the same school and ethnic group. The scientists used the number of stickers left in the envelope as a measure of altruism.

The children from nonreligious households left 4.1 stickers on average, a statistically significant difference from Christian children (3.3) and Muslim ones (3.2). Also, the more religious the household, based on a survey of parents, the less altruistic the child. In older children, the split was most stark, with religious youth increasingly unlikely to share.

The most stunning finding, for me, was that some of it was based on “who will know” – i.e. whether or not anyone would know which child gave how much.  The secular children were found to be more consistent in their acts – irrespective of whether someone would know or not that they were the one that gave – they would do good whether or not someone is watching.  As Christians, have we really taught our children to act and behave in a particular way because they think they are being watched, because they think they have to, because it makes them look good and others see them in a good light?

There’s a saying I saw on Facebook:  expectingsomething

If you’re helping someone and expecting something in return, you’re doing business, not kindness.

 

Our reading today from Mark shows a stark contrast between those who simply do good for the perceived benefit that they will receive and those who quietly go about doing good in the background.  Jesus was harsh against the scribes, as teachers of the religious law – because they should know better!

Jesus talks about the practices of the teachers of the law. These were the professional interpreters of the religious laws. They were responsible for copying, editing and studying the sacred texts and explaining them to the people. They were learned men, some of the few in society who could read and write. Having these skills gave them power over others.  They paraded about in flowing robes and were waiting to receive respectful greetings as they walked about.  They looked for the seats of honor and to be seated at the head tables in banquets.  They pretended to be pious by making long prayers in public, because they were paid  by the length of the prayers: they learned the art of making long prayers, because longer the prayer, the more money they received.

Jesus gives quite a damning indictment of the actions and words of the teachers of the law. In fact it’s probably one of the sternest remarks that Jesus ever gave. What would Jesus criticize of the pastors and teachers of today?  We may not wear long flowing robes, or prayer shawls, but I wonder if, in the church we are at times like the teachers, with a religion of show, a religion is is about the outward appearance and not living out the faith in daily life.

And yet, all the while, a poor widow caught Jesus’ eye, for her two pennies – giving everything she had to live on, and putting her trust and faith completely in God to supply her needs.   Keep in mind, that the word poor used in Jesus’ time meant pauper, destitute, in deep poverty.  No doubt her poor dress and appearance showed her desperate plight.  What she gave was a real sacrifice! What the others gave was not a sacrifice! It did not cost them nor hurt them – they gave only what they could spare!

How many times are we giving God the crumbs of the leftovers?  How many times do you find yourself talking from a place of scarcity?  I don’t have enough time, I don’t have enough money, there aren’t enough hours in the day, I’m out of energy, I’m too tired? What about your important relationships? Are they getting the best of you, or just the rest of you?  I would really like to, but I just can’t fit it in…

The law of the harvest, the law of sowing and reaping is seen in our giving and in our failure to give. Where are you sowing your time and energy?  If  Jesus spent a day watching you, what would he say about how you are spending your time, your talents and your material wealth?

2 Corinthians 9, verses 10-11 reminds us:

For God is the one who provides seed for the farmer and then bread to eat. In the same way, he will provide and increase your resources and then produce a great harvest of generosity in you. Yes, you will be enriched in every way so that you can always be generous…

Giving is an evidence of God’s providence – We are able to give because we believe that God provides.

Before this, 2 Corinthians 9, verses 6 to 8 stated:

Remember this—a farmer who plants only a few seeds will get a small crop. But the one who plants generously will get a generous crop. You must each decide in your heart how much to give. And don’t give reluctantly or in response to pressure. “For God loves a person who gives cheerfully.”And God will generously provide all you need. Then you will always have everything you need and plenty left over to share with others.

Our generosity is measured not by what others give but what you are capable and willing to give. So if you want to know if you are generous, then evaluate your capability and willingness to give. And this doesn’t just apply to your money – it applies to your time and your talents, to how you are investing every asset (material or otherwise) in your life.

This passage teaches us how much God really wants from us. This goes beyond money. The main example in this passage is money, but it extends into all aspects of our life. This relates to time, abilities, responsibilities, and money.

John Wimber says:

Show me where you spend your time, money and energy, and I’ll tell you what you worship.

If someone wrote your biography on the basis of your checkbook and your appointment diary, what might it say about you, your loyalties, your focus, and about whom you serve?

This morning I pray that when Jesus looks at us as we give – not just this morning but always – I pray that he will find cheerful, extravagant givers, who have discovered that God is able to make all grace abound to us, so that in all things at all times, we will have all that we need, abounding in every good work. Abounding in time, abounding in energy, abounding in patience and grace, abounding in love, and abounding in generosity.