Friday, February 24, 2012

Failure Is An Option

Failure.  It's a fact of life.  Everyone fails. The young, the old, the rich, the poor.  Smart people and fools.  The famous and the not so famous.  It's like death and taxes; It's inevitable.  If you are a human being you will experience failure at some point in your life, and most of us will experience it many, many times.

Sometimes my failure is a result of not trying. Laziness, procrastination, lack of ambition.  I either set myself up to fail from the beginning, or I try for awhile, but I can't keep up with what is necessary to complete the task, so I give up.

Other times my failure comes because the task is more than I can legitimately accomplish.  I lack the skills, time, resources, brainpower, opportunity, or giftedness necessary.  Maybe I bit off more than I can chew, or maybe others place heavy burdens on me.  I give it my best effort, but my best simply isn't good enough, and failure is the result.

And then there's my favorite: Failure comes because others let me down or don't cooperate with my plans.  I'm doing everything right.  I've got my end of the bargain covered.  I've sacrificed.  I've gone the extra mile.  I've done everything I can possibly do.  But others aren't doing their part.  A failed project that needed to be a group effort.  A relationship that became one-sided.  A difficult person that is impossible to please or guide or nurture or convince.  The skeptic.  The betrayer.  The fool.  The lazy person.  The one I am trying so hard not to be!  But my efforts alone aren't enough.  It takes two, or ten, or many more to make things work, and it's not happening.

The Apostle Paul talked about failure, and he had experienced it many times.  Sometimes, by his own admission, he was the problem.  He was weak.  He was wrong.  He was arrogant.  He needed a good humbling, and God gave it to him.  Other times he was the victim of others' lack of understanding, patience, love, and belief.  Often in his letters he pleads with his readers to hear what he is saying.  To repent of their wrong thinking and wrong actions.  To remember the message they received from him at first.  To wake up and smell the coffee!  And sometimes he was downright irritated with them at their lack of belief and the behaviors they were engaged in.

Paul was honest.  He didn't hide how he really felt, and he also didn't hide the fact that his ministry was a difficult one.  He had times of joy and triumph and success.  But he also had times of failure and great hardship.  In his second letter to the Corinthian church, he writes these words: We do not want you to be uninformed about the hardships we suffered...We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life.  Indeed, in our hearts we felt the presence of death.

Failure can feel like that, can't it?  It's as inevitable as death, and sometimes it feels like death.  The life is sucked out of us to the point of utter despair, deep pain, and a lack of desire to keep going.  To give up.  To stop trying.  To throw in the towel and say, 'I'm done.'

But Paul wasn't finished.  He had more to say...Paul always had more to say...But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.  He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us.  On him we have set our hope...

Paul had realized something.  He had realized that failure was an option.  Sometimes life and ministry and people and circumstances and his own weaknesses were too much for him to handle on his own.  It was too much for his team.  It was too much for the churches he was trying to lead and encourage.  But that was okay because failure was not the final nail in their coffin.  It was simply an opportunity to be rescued.  To depend on God.  To trust Him.  To be saved once again by Jesus, the author and perfecter of their faith.

Salvation is not a one-time deal.  It's more than an escape from death and punishment.  Salvation is a daily occurrence for those who put their hope in Jesus.  We will fail.  Others will fail us.  Life is hard, and sometimes, even when we're doing everything right, failure is beating down on our door, and there is no escape.  Failure comes.  Failure threatens to swallow us up in death.  The despair is so great.  All hope seems lost.

But it's not.  Something else Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians is this: Love never fails.  I think sometimes God deliberately puts me in a situation where it is impossible to succeed.  Why?  To teach me that it's okay to fail.  It's okay if I'm wrong.  It's okay if I don't measure up.  Jesus said, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and lift up his cross daily and follow me."  What did the cross symbolize?  Death, failure, a burden too heavy to carry.  That's why He says, 'Don't rely on yourself, don't carry that burden, lift it up...that's what it means to follow Me.'  That's what freedom in God's love looks like.  Without failure, or threats of failure, I can never experience the fullness of His grace.

And when others fail me, I can extend that same grace to them, and mercy will win.  We were not created to be perfect apart from God's righteousness, and we can't expect that from anyone else either.  Trying to be perfect is idolatry because I am worshipping myself, not His holy perfection.  Part of His holy perfection is my weakness that He puts back together with grace, love, mercy, and compassion.  I may fail, but His love will never fail me.  And our love for one another (after we have first received His unconditional love) will bring hope, healing, restoration, and joy.

I wrote last week about the words of hope Jesus had for 'the 'poor in spirit'.  I believe failure is something that can empty our hearts like nothing else.  Whether it's our own failure, or how others have failed us, we will become poor in spirit, sometimes gradually, and sometimes overnight.  Am I talking to anybody here?

If I may be so bold to extend Jesus' list of those who are blessed, I believe He would say...'Blessed are those who fail, for they will be called My beloved ones...and they will believe it.'

We do not want you to be uninformed about the hardships we suffered.  We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life.  Indeed, in our hearts we felt the presence of death.  But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.  He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us.  On him we have set our hope...(2 Corinthians 1:8-10)

Friday, February 17, 2012

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them, saying: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."  (Matthew 5:1-3)

In Matthew, chapter four, we read these words: Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in the synagogues, preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people. News about him spread all over Syria, and people brought to him all who were ill with various diseases, those suffering severe pain, the demon-possessed, those having seizures, and the paralyzed, and he healed them. Large crowds (from everywhere) followed him.

We don't know how long of a timeframe was involved in all of this teaching, preaching, and healing. This could have been going on for weeks, months, or years before Jesus takes a moment to have some teaching-time with His disciples on a mountainside one day. We also don't know how many disciples were there. It could have been the twelve disciples we hear so much about, or it might have been many more. Hundreds maybe. Perhaps the size of an average congregation in the modern Christian church. But whatever the size of His audience, we do know this: His disciples came to Him. Somehow they were drawn up on that mountainside. Perhaps they noticed Him leaving when others did not. Or maybe He whispered an invitation to each person when He saw them that morning...'Meet Me on the mountain after breakfast, I have some things to tell you before we get started today.'

However they ended up there, Jesus had some interesting things to say. Personally, I have read these words of Jesus many, many times, and I'm still not certain what He meant exactly. Some of His words were pretty clear, like "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you...When you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets...When you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father...Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth...Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear...Do not judge, or you too will be judged...If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him...

But what about phrases like, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven...Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth."? Perhaps His meaning was clear to those hearing Him that day, but they aren't so clear to me. For starters, who qualifies as being "poor in spirit", and what is the Kingdom of heaven? And second, why did He want this particular group of hearers to know this? What was His motive, His purpose, and His message? And what did it have to do with the crowds of people waiting for Him in the valley?

Many different answers to these questions have been speculated about and preached on. I don't think I've ever heard the same explanation twice. And true to Jewish teaching tradition, many different interpretations are valid. Words spoken by God can have different meanings to different people. That's one of the beautiful things about Him. He is a personal God. He would much rather lead us on an individual basis than give blanket commands and broad guidelines that have to apply to everyone in every time period, in every region of the world, in every circumstance. He is much more creative, relational, and wise than that!

So why am I writing this? What is my point? I was looking at these verses this week, and I had an insight I haven't thought of before that I'd like to share with you: What if Jesus was making a comparison between the physical needs of the crowd and the spiritual needs of the disciples? We don't know a lot about the disciples, but those we at least know the names of—Peter, John, Matthew… , we know they weren't living in extreme poverty, dying of sickness, or demon-possessed. But that doesn't mean they didn't have needs. They may not have been poor in a monetary sense or suffering from illness or pain, but were they poor in spirit...searching for significance, frustrated, sad, confused, worried, having trouble with their enemies, surrounded by the religion-police, feeling distant from God, looking for a more full and meaningful life…?

"...Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.  Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth...."

I can hear a woman thinking, 'Is He talking about me? I thought He was bringing us up here to give a crowd-control training session, does He know about my private pain? Why is He saying that those who aren't usually me...have such a great inheritance? That this is my land, and I have been chosen by God to receive it, that my ancestors are just as blessed as those religious big-wigs, and it doesn't matter that I'm not a man, or that my husband left me, or I haven't done a lot of great things...'

"...Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven...You are the salt of the earth...You are the light of the world..."

'Others say I'm nothing, that I have nothing to give, nothing to hope for, nothing to accomplish, no purpose, no real importance to God, no way of overcoming my mistakes and sinful habits, no chance of...'

"...Ask, and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and it will be opened to much more will your Father give good gifts to those who ask him!"

She begins to weep. She's not the only one. She can see grown men, usually brave and stoic, beginning to break down, letting their tough exteriors crack as they drop to their knees.

'Jesus, where have you been all our lives? We've heard about the Messiah, the Promised One. Is it you? Is what you're saying true? And why are you saying it me? Who am I that I should hear such wonderful words that fill my heart with hope, peace, and joy?'

I constantly marvel that we have the words of Jesus to read for ourselves today. He came to share a message of love, peace, joy, and hope. Don't try to read it any other way.  Even the difficult passages that seem harsh or condemning or unmerciful, they really aren't. There's always an underlying message of love for those who have ears to hear them with the grace that is intended.  

I encourage you to read Matthew 5, 6, and 7 when you have the time—all in one shot, or a little each day. There's a lot to take in. There's a lot to be challenged by. There's a lot to think about and put into practice. But keep this in mind: You are loved by a holy God who wants the best for you. Those who choose to be disciples of Jesus may give up a lot to be devoted followers, but we also gain far more than we ever lay aside.

"Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and yet it did not fall because it had its foundation on the rock."  Matthew 7:24-25

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

"Yet I have this against you: You have forsaken your first love.  Remember the height from which you have fallen!  Repent and do things as you did at first." Revelation 2:4-5

A Valentine Poem for my First Love...

When I was young
I believed in Your love
I had nothing to offer You
I just knew I was Yours

You gave me a heart
To love You in return
To love others as You loved me
And I was happy

When I grew older, others said
You must give Him more
It’s not enough to just believe
You must prove your love

I became dutiful
Loyal committed and sacrificial
I was good and deserving
I was better than most

So why did I feel so bad
Why was I always sad
Where was the joy
Where was the peace

It’s in My love for you, You said
You’re not My slave
You’re My child
Be still

I stopped running ahead
I waited
You picked me up
You carried me

Back to Love
Back to Joy
Back to Peace
Back to the Truth

And it’s sweet
And it’s good
And it’s me
And it’s You

It’s the way
You always
Want it
To be

It’s the way
I know
It always
Can be