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!

Just Do It!

Lectionary Readings:  February 2, 2014

  • 1 Corinthians 1:18-31
  • Matthew 5:1-12

As many of you may be aware, since November I have been participating in coaching seminars (once a month).  These seminars focus on increasing effectiveness, especially with relation to your goals and relationships.  One of the purposes of participating was to “stop procrastinating”.

I’m one of those people that when I read on someone’s CV “works well under pressure”, my automatic assumption is “this person is just like me – they procrastinate”, otherwise that wouldn’t be in their CV.
Of course, as I was finishing preparing this sermon last night (yes, you heard right… last night, after I put Isabella to bed), it struck me “so how have these seminars helped me? It’s the night before, and here I are, finishing up again at the last minute”…

But I did notice a big difference – on Thursday, when I was busy doing other things, I thought to myself – you should be preparing your sermon – and then I decided that I needed to do that instead.  Conscious decision.

Friday I was busy with the house and paediatricians appointment – once again, I realised I could be preparing my sermon, but chose not to.

Saturday morning – I chose to participate in the Patio Sale here at church, knowing that it would without a doubt mean that on Saturday night I would be at the laptop, finishing off my review of my sermon and putting my thoughts together.

So, what is different?  What have I learned after almost 120 hours of seminars and coaching?
The value of my decisions and choices – that I own them.  The results are completely mine.  Over the next 15 weeks I have given myself what I consider to be some extraordinary goals – not because they require me to do something extraordinary today, but rather because they require me to be consistent every day.  There’s not a single day that I can just tune out and say – “not today.  Today I’m not responsible…”

I remember as a kid, we always used to joke “the Devil made me do it”… like I had no say in the matter… It is about as effective as “if I was really filled with the Spirit, I wouldn’t sin anymore”.

Really? Why am I still waiting for that “magical” moment when suddenly I will be a new person and magically stop doing what I know to be wrong?  Why am I waiting for the Holy Spirit to do the job for me, when I already know what I’m supposed to do?

How many times have I given myself the excuse – I’m going to love my neighbour when the Holy Spirit fills me with Christ’s love?  That unknown moment in the future – that lets me off the hook today.
How many times will I continue to excuse my behaviour, because I have that perfect excuse?

This morning we read the beatitudes – which like Paul mentions in Corinthians, differ completely from the wisdom of man.

  • Blessed are the poor in spirit – those who are truly humble before God. This means to be free of arrogance, self-righteousness and self-sufficiency.  To be poor in spirit gives me the freedom to be completely available for God.  It’s when I acknowledge that bring nothing of my own: power, possessions or merit – that’s when I gain the kingdom of heaven.  Being poor in spirit doesn’t mean that to get in I am humble and then as soon as I have entered I become self-sufficient:  it means that I live in a state of humility.  It’s a way of being – consistently humble before God and others.  Constantly being available to others.
  • Blessed are those who mourn – we often look at this as being those who have lost a loved one: but I think it’s more than this.  How many of us see another person with problems and think “that’s their problem”?  I have enough issues of my own – I don’t need to take on anything else.  But when we read this passage of Matthew, it’s as if there is a mourning for the loss of another.  What if I opened myself up to feeling another person’s suffering?  What if I was open to making myself available and feeling empathy with their pain?  How much more could I achieve in “loving my neighbour” if I took it upon myself to feel his or her pain and not simply write it off as “their problem”?
  • Blessed are the meek – the meek in the Bible are those who have a spirit or gentleness and self-control.  This means to be free from malice and a condescending spirit.  The meek don’t exploit and oppress others – they are not violent, and they don’t seize power for their own ends.
  • Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness – not just their own righteousness (of doing what is right in God’s sight), but the righteousness in terms of justice throughout the nation.  These are people who are concerned about social justice and ensuring that the law is followed and due process is given to all.  They are crusaders in their community for what is right – not silent bystanders watching as injustice happens around them.
  • Blessed are the merciful – showing mercy to others means both compassion to the sinner, as well as compassion for the hungry and needy.  It means that I will show kindness and heal wounds.  It is only if I shun that place where I think I deserve the grace that I have received and avoid becoming intolerant of others or judgement, that I can show mercy to others.
  • Blessed are the pure in heart – this describes not only inner purity but singleness of mind.  This is where my will and choice come into play.  To be pure in heart means that my desires, thoughts and intentions are aimed at pleasing God.
  • Blessed are the peacemakers – When my effort is to strive to establish a peace that embraces God’s provision of peace, where everyone around me is in harmony, because we are all at peace with God.  This is a spiritual state of peace, not a political one.
  • Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness – if we start to promote peace or champion righteousness, or live a life of gentleness and meekness, we will find opposition.  And that may get nasty.
  • Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Jesus.  What if I would really stand up for what Jesus taught us and refused to live in the grey area?

Have you noticed that all of these refer to states of being – I am poor in spirit, I am meek, I am a peacemaker, I am pure in heart.  None of these refer to how I feel.  None of these refer to being a Christian “when the circumstances and my emotions are in the right place and it’s easy”.

Jesus was a radical – the same way that Paul said that the wisdom of God doesn’t make sense for the wisdom of man.

What do you mean the poor in Spirit are blessed?  Then, as now, most of us would have said “Blessed are the rich and powerful, for they have it all”… But that’s not what Jesus said….  Jesus bucked the establishment and focused on what really mattered spiritually.   And as a follower of Christ, I’m expected to also.

Next weekend I’m going to be back in the seminar that I mentioned, but this time as a volunteer helper in the first weekend.  The principal reason for doing this is that I want to give back to a new group of people a little of what I received.  But I will admit that there is this curiosity in me that I want to satisfy.  I want to see if Jorge, the leader, really is a sweet and loving on the first day as what he is now!

What changed? How he treated me? Or my perception and expectations of how someone that truly loves others treats me?

I have to say, I have never met anyone like Jorge and Nicholas… These two men work in black and white.  No grey areas.  I would go as far as saying for the first time I have met someone that helps me understand the Apostle Paul – I have always seen him as harsh and judgmental, not loving – but maybe the reason his letters were so well accepted among those he wrote to was that they had experienced first-hand how loving he was. Perhaps they knew that he was telling them exactly what they needed to hear – not what they wanted to hear.

Jorge and Nicholas call me out – they don’t just let me slide.  If I have said that the most important relationships in my life are my marriage and Isabella, then they expect my actions to reflect this.  That rather than giving Alessandro and Isabella the “left-overs” of my time – they are getting my prime time.  Rather than taking Alessandro for granted (because he loves me), that I am giving to Alessandro my full attention when we are together, because that is how you treat the most important person in your life.

Now, I have some great excuses about why that doesn’t happen:
1-    I had a really hard day at work;
2-    I was up at 3.00 a.m. checking on Isabella and I’m really tired;
3-    I got pounded by work today and then I had to meet with so-and-so and then I took the dogs out;
4-    You have NO IDEA how much I had to do today…

The list can go on and on… I even believe my excuses!  But Jorge and Nicholas don’t. They don’t buy into them… they question them.  They question my priorities.

And for most of us, it’s socially unacceptable for someone to call you out on these things.  When someone gives us a good excuse for why they aren’t a loving and attentive Christian, we let them off the hook – because we want them to let us off the hook when we aren’t.

But I haven’t found anywhere in the Bible where Jesus says “Love your neighbour when you’re having a good day and feel like it”.  I haven’t found “It’s acceptable to complain when you need a little self-pity”.

What we find are verses like:

•    Philippians 2: 14 – Do everything without grumbling and complaining.
•    1 Peter 4:9 – Show hospitality to one another without complaining.
•    1 Thessalonians 5:18 – Give thanks in all circumstances…
•    James 1: 2-3 – Count it all joy… when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.

There’s no getting off easy in the Bible for having a bad attitude, responding to someone with harsh words, feeling self-pity.  But would I call someone out on this?  I’m expected when someone complains about how hard their day has been to listen to them and give them that hug they need.  But is what they need really that hug and my pity?

What if I really listened to them, and rather than just accepting what they told me out of their mouth, I read their body language and listened further – and actually got to the bottom of what was really bothering them?  What if instead of buying into their words and giving them a pat on the back and “there, there, it will be okay”, I challenged them to be better than the circumstances they were facing?  Wouldn’t that be true love like Jesus showed?

I claim to love others as Christ loved us – but I only do it until it’s comfortable.  When it starts to get uncomfortable, that’s when I back off and step back into my comfort zone.

And the Bible tells us, in unequivocal form – JUST DO IT.