Tag Archives: Failure

The Unexpected Prophecy

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.
2 Corinthians 1:3 (NIV)

During the 2008 presidential election, both John McCain and Barack Obama were interviewed at a leadership conference. Both men, in turn, were asked a fascinating question. The candidates were asked to speak about their greatest failure. True to his masterful ability, I recall that Obama spoke for a few minutes in response. His answer articulately wove a beautiful tapestry of words in that graceful, assuring baritone voice. And, I have no recollection whatsoever of his answer.

Asked the same question, John McCain’s answer was immediate and simple: “The failure of my first marriage.”

I will never forget a conversation I had with a wise counselor as I was navigating the failure of my first marriage. My life was strewn in shattered pieces around me. It was the lowest point of my life, and I had been scheduled to speak with this spiritual sage. To be honest, I expected to hear more of the condemnation I felt like I was receiving on all sides. I expected a message of judgment. I expected a righteous tongue lashing and words of dire warning. What I didn’t expect was a prophecy.

Someday,” the counselor said, “you are going to be called upon to walk along side someone who is going through exactly what you are experiencing in this moment, to guide them, and comfort them, and see them through their pain.” That is all that I remember from my hour with him.

It was an Easter Sunday morning several years later that I was walking out of the annual celebration service and spied a man who I had desired to befriend for some time. Seizing the moment, I pulled the acquaintance aside from the crowd and expressed that I would enjoy getting together with him and get to know him better. I’ll never forget the puzzled way he looked at me for a long, uncomfortable moment. Then he leaned in and whispered in my ear a direct answer with the succinct clarity of John McCain: “Tom, my wife left me. Nobody knows it.”

I had the privilege of becoming a friend of that acquaintance, and walking alongside him as he traversed the same agonizing path of marital failure. I got to guide him, comfort him, and see him through that valley. I was privileged to witness, over time, God’s redemption in his story.

Along life’s journey I’ve experienced that suffering produces a common, repetitive question: “Why?”

Sometimes there  is no answer to that question, and I won’t pretend that there always is. Yet, I’ve also experienced in my own suffering that there is often purpose in my pain, just as I’ve read time-and-time again in my chapter-a-day journey. Consider these three similar messages from three different authors writing to three different audiences:

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
James 1:2-3

Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.
Romans 5:3-5

In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.
1 Peter 1:6-7

In the midst of my greatest failure, and in the deepest valley I have thus far traversed in my journey, I unexpectedly learned a valuable lesson through the words of a prophet. Sometimes my suffering, and the spiritual comfort I come to find, in Christ, amidst the agony, prepares me to someday comfort another who is making their way through the same dark valley.

Fail, Rinse, and Repeat

Now when all this was finished, all Israel who were present went out to the cities of Judah and broke down the pillars, hewed down the sacred poles, and pulled down the high places and the altars throughout all Judah and Benjamin, and in Ephraim and Manasseh, until they had destroyed them all.
2 Chronicles 31:1 (NRSVCE)

I decided to become a follower of Jesus when I was a young man. As I began to walk this new journey there were a number of behavioral patterns in my life that I knew I needed to change. There were thoughts, words, and behaviors that were incongruent with the teachings of Jesus. Just like last week’s post I felt a certain internal conviction that I needed to “carry out the filth from the holy place.”

Some of these behavioral patterns were easy to remedy. I simply willed myself to behave differently and it happened. Other behavioral patterns weren’t so easily changed. For years I had fed certain natural appetites in unhealthy ways. These behaviors gave certain levels of comfort, pleasure, and masked some deep soul wounds in ways I didn’t even fathom. With the best of intentions I committed myself to changing the behavior only to find myself, in short order, back doing the same thing I vowed I wouldn’t do anymore.

In today’s chapter we read about the aftermath of King Hezekiah’s homecoming Passover festival. He’d invited all the Hebrew people scattered in the region to return to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover feast which commemorated God delivering the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery. It was a huge success. Revival broke out. The people were humbled and recommitted themselves to the Lord. They repented of their idolatry and went out to tear down their pagan idols. They were going to change their ways!

But wait a minute. Haven’t we read this somewhere before? The people repented of their idolatry during the reign of Asa back in chapter 15. And again during the reign of Jehoshaphat in chapter 19. And again during the reign of Joash in chapter 24. Each time they repented, vowed to give up their idols and follow God. Then they find themselves right back in their idolatrous ways.

Conviction. Repentance. Commitment. Obedience. Temptation. Disobedience.

Rinse, and repeat.

Oh man, do I get that. Along my journey I’ve battled my own demons in the form of appetites out of control. I’ve found myself cycling around and around and around with these unhealthy thoughts, words, actions, and relationships. I feel like a total failure. Here I am again. Ugh.

Looking back now from almost 40 years in the journey here’s what I’ve learned:

  • The cycle is a natural part of the journey. There are lessons to be learned in it. There are lessons that can only be learned in the on-going struggle against our own out-of-control appetites.
  • The cyclical journey and on-going struggle led me on a long slog to dig deeper (multiple counselors and mentors), search farther (reading, studying, friends, accountability, support groups), and to become more brutally honest with myself about my own weaknesses.
  • Plumbing the depths of my depravity led to a deeper understanding of, and experience with, God’s grace and mercy.
  • Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom before you’re truly ready to change.
  • With each failure, each renewed commitment, and each return to the path of repentance it was hard to see that I was getting anywhere at all but in hindsight I can see that this wayfaring pilgrim was making slow progress towards addressing the core issues that lay beneath my surface behaviors.

This morning I’m recognizing that the people of ancient Judah were a macrocosm of the human struggle against our human weaknesses and out-of-control appetites. Another call to repentance, another revival, another turn away from what was tripping them up. Somehow I don’t think this is the last time. The cycle of struggle was pointing them and me to a very important truth. I can’t do it on my own.

I need a Savior.

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Spiritually There are No Age Limits

The word of the Lord came to him in the thirteenth year of the reign of Josiah son of Amon king of Judah, and through the reign of Jehoiakim son of Josiah king of Judah, down to the fifth month of the eleventh year of Zedekiah son of Josiah king of Judah, when the people of Jerusalem went into exile.

“Alas, Sovereign Lord,” I said, “I do not know how to speak; I am too young.”

But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am too young.’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you.
Jeremiah 1:1-3; 6-7 (NIV)

While in high school I was part of an incredible church youth group. I almost typed the adjective “unique,” but to this day I don’t think there was anything “unique” about me and my peers. We were typical high schoolers with all the angst, foolishness, idealism, drama and absentmindedness of any group of teens. Our youth pastor for most of my high school years was a man named Andy Bales whose journey has taken him to do amazing things for the homeless in Los Angeles. Our church’s worship leader was a gentleman named Mike Mars.

The thing about Andy and Mike was that they believed that God could accomplish far more through us than anyone else believed or expected (even ourselves). Andy didn’t just disciple us, he taught us how to disciple others including our parents. Mike didn’t just assemble a “youth choir” to sing in front of our parents once or twice a year. Mike taught us how to put together an entire program, how to work together as a team, and then sent us on the road almost every Sunday of the school year to minister to other churches all over our state. Mike didn’t travel with us. He trusted us to do everything ourselves from making a first impression to set up, rehearsal, performance, giving the message, tearing down and loading out for the trip home. A couple of parents or adults chaperones rode along to watch, but they never had to do a thing.

Many of the “kids” in my youth group have gone on to continue in vocational ministries as missionaries, pastors, ministry directors and youth workers. I observed that most others have approached their life journeys as ministry opportunities to serve God as educators, doctors, and professionals in the business community.

This personal experience has colored my own world view. When our daughters were young people I tried to instill in them that they could be used by God’s Spirit and have an impact for God’s Kingdom right now. I’m proud of what they attempted, accomplished, and learned.

I am fond of reminding my local gathering of Jesus’ followers that no where in God’s Message is there an age requirement for being a believer, being called by God, being filled by the Spirit, having spiritual gifts, or exercising those gifts for God’s Kingdom. In fact, the list of Biblical characters who were called by God as young people (without education, without training, without official institutional certification of any kind) is impressive: Timothy, Mary, David, Samuel, Joseph, Esther, and Mark.

In today’s opening chapter of Jeremiah’s anthology of prophetic messages he shares that he was called by God as a boy. As typical of young people, Jeremiah responded to God, “but I’m just a kid!” But age is not a qualification for being called by God or doing God’s work. And when young people are called by God they tend to have spiritually productive life journeys. Jeremiah himself was a prophet for 40 years during a period of time when life expectancy itself was around 30 years (if you were one of the lucky few to survive infancy).

Forgive me for sounding like an old curmudgeon, but along my life journey I’ve observed that our culture seems to expect less and less of our young people. We protect them. We shelter them from life’s natural pains. We entertain them endlessly and hover over them to ensure that they experience minimal discomfort. We build up their egos while minimizing their opportunities to experience the lessons of accomplishing things on their own and learning the invaluable lessons of failure. We keep extending childhood to the point that becoming a capable, responsible adult is a post-graduate crisis experience with its own word: adulting.

This morning I’m thanking God for teaching me as a boy that I had a role to play in the Kingdom of God and that role began immediately. I’m saying a prayer of gratitude for Andy and for Mike who believed in me and my peers more than we believed in ourselves. I’m praying for a generation of young people who will rebel against being treated like snowflakes and who will lead a spiritual storm of revival and culture change that no one expects.

The old curmudgeon rant is over. Have a great day.


The Moment

Again Peter denied [he was with Jesus in the garden], and at that moment the cock crowed.
John 18:27 (NRSV)

Of the big four biographies of Jesus, John has always been my favorite. Each one has their own style. I can appreciate Matthew for his accounting of the events. I appreciate Mark for his ability to compact so much information into so concise a retelling. I love Dr. Luke for his thorough, methodical presentation of his investigation and the minute details he includes. I love John most of all because John has a flair for writing. John is right brained. John is an artist. He is thematic in his narrative, and he has a flair for the dramatic.

Four chapters ago, John foreshadowed the events in today’s chapter when he recounts Jesus telling Peter: “Very truly, I tell you, before the cock crows, you will have denied me three times.”

As John picks up the story line in today’s chapter I, as a reader, almost feel like I’m stealing alongside Peter and “the other disciple.” (many scholars think the “other” disciple was John himself) as they covertly infiltrate the courtyard and house of the High Priest where Jesus is being questioned. They are in enemy territory. The High Priest is the one who wants to kill Jesus and squash their uprising like Michael Corleone taking out one of the five families. It did not take a genius to know that this High Priest/Godfather would relish the opportunity to kill Jesus’ followers as well. Peter is on thin ice.

John is careful to describe each denial. We learn where he was and who did the questioning. The other biographers merely relay the facts as though Peter’s denials happened in one short burst of conversation. John lays out the story. It is on their way through the gate into the High Priest’s courtyard that the servant woman checking tickets first asks Peter a question and implies a negative answer. “You aren’t one of Jesus’ followers, are you?” The denial is easy and convenient. A little white lie to ensure we get into the courtyard.

John writes out the narrative like a movie script. The scene changes to the questioning of Jesus inside the house. Time is elapsing. Peter’s denial did not come in rapid succession. There was time and space between them.

When the scene shifts back we find ourselves inside the High Priest’s courtyard. We are there warming our hands on the charcoal fire. We feel the chill in the air in the deep watches of the night. There is a crowd around the fire. This is the High Priest’s house and the crowd is full of people who could easily finger us as followers. The situation is tense, to say the least.

A man, an anonymous stranger in the crowd, once again asks Peter if he is a follower of Jesus. Once again the question implies a negative response. “You aren’t one of Jesus’ disciples, are you?” Heads turn. It’s suddenly very quiet around the fire. This is not just a random question. This is a life and death moment. We are about to be found out. Peter, once again, provides a little white lie to shrug off the suspicion.

But, it just may be that the jig is up. Another member of the crowd takes a good look at Peter. This time it is not an anonymous stranger. This is a family member of the man Peter attacked earlier in the evening. When they came for Jesus in the garden, Peter hacked off the ear of this man’s cousin. Now, the question is not just about political loyalty to Jesus. This question is about blood oaths and family and vengeance. You can cut the silence like a knife. Tension hangs in the air before Peter’s denial comes swift and strong. He is preventing a riot. He is saving his own neck. He is making sure we all get out of here alive.

And then, at that very moment, we hear the cock crow.

There is a moment of realization. Peter hears it. We hear it. The words of Jesus come flooding back to mind. “Before the cock crows….” Shame and failure mix in a bitter cup.

What a moment. John is a good writer. He has a flair for the dramatic. This is Jack Nicholson’s “code red” moment in A Few Good Men. This is Michael Corleone’s “I do renounce him” moment in The Godfather. We are there in this moment. We are with Peter. We are Peter. We get it. We understand. There is not one of us who has not had a cock crowing moment in our lives. Our failure and shame crash down on our heads in an instant and we realize just how wretched we are.

Today, I am thinking about my own “cock crowing” moments along life’s journey. It’s not hard to bring them quickly to mind. There are more of them than I care to admit. I am also thinking about John and the way he weaves Peter’s personal story into the Great Story he pens. We are in the darkness before dawn. It will descend to greater darkness before its done. The story is not over, however, for Jesus, for Peter, for you or for me.

It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming.

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Blind Spots

Davids Family TreeWhen King David heard of all these things, he became very angry, but he would not punish his son Amnon, because he loved him, for he was his firstborn.
2 Samuel 13:21 (NSRV)

David was a great warrior, a great general, and a great leader of men. Evidence leads me to believe that he was not, however, a great husband or father. As we’ve read David’s story he has slowly been amassing wives like the spoils of war and the result was many children. But, an army of children do not an army make. A family system and the complex relationships between birth order and gender can be difficult enough for a monogamous, nuclear family. I can’t imagine the exponential complexities that emerge when you have eight wives, ten concubines and children with most all of them.

As I read through these chapters I’ve noticed that we never see David telling his children “no” nor do we see him discipline them for their behavior. David appears to have even had a reputation among his offspring of not refusing their requests. David’s daughter, Tamar, tells her half brother Amnon that if he simply asks Dad she’s sure he’ll let them get married. When Amnon rapes Tamar instead and then turns her away we hear of David’s anger, but he doesn’t do anything about disciplining his beloved first born son. When Tamar’s full brother Absalom plots to kill their half brother Amnon in revenge, Absalom goes to David and presses good ol’ dad until David relents and sends all the brothers on Absalom’s little fratricidal sheep-shearing retreat.

David has a blind spot. He can lead an army to endless victories but his record as leader of a family is a tragic string of failures and defeats.

I cannot point at David without three fingers pointing back at me. We all have our blind spots. Our greatest strengths have their corollary weaknesses. We cannot escape this reality, but we can escape being enslaved to it. What we can do is be honest about our blind spots. We can choose to shine a light of our time and attention to addressing them. We can surround ourselves with others who will graciously help us see them, work through them, and who will patiently love us as we do.

Today’s chapter seems perfectly timed as I’ve been made painfully aware of a blind spot in my life. If you’re reading this, and are a person who prays, please say a prayer for me as I address it.

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To-morrow, and To-morrow, and To-morrow

Patrick Stewart as Macbeth.
Patrick Stewart as Macbeth.

When your days are over and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 2 Samuel 7:12-13 (NIV)

  • When I was five I intended to grow up and be an astronaut.
  • When I was seven I intended to grow up and become President of the United States.
  • When I was ten I intended to go into the navy and become a naval aviator.
  • When I was thirteen I intended to become a lawyer and politician.
  • When I was sixteen I intended to become a great evangelist like Billy Graham.

It was never  my intention to live in Pella, Iowa. It was never my intention to spend twenty years in the customer research and quality assessment business or to be a business owner. It was never my intention to be divorced and remarried.

As I look back on my life’s journey I find that there are many things I intended to do that were clearly not part of God’s plan for me. David wanted desperately to build a temple for God, but that was not God’s intention. God intended for David to become the warrior leader who would establish the throne and prepare the way for his son to build the temple. There are many things in my life I never envisioned which I now believe God both knew and ordained for me.

Just last week Wendy and I were discussing a man we have observed who is aggressively striving after his own intentions, who appears to have failed miserably on many counts, and also appears to be in denial regarding it all. Wendy remarked that the man reminded her of Macbeth who destroyed his life intending to fulfill what he believed was his prophesied path. But, that’s one of the things I love about following God: He eventually redeems even our foolish wanderings and failures for His purposes.

Today, I am reminded to be discerning between my intentions and God’s designs. I desire to lean into the plan God has for me and follow the path laid before me. I have no time to waste blazing trails that lead, at best, to nowhere or, at worst, to tragic ends. I don’t want to end up thinking along the same lines as Macbeth who concluded at the end of his tragic strivings:

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

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Time Reveals the True Measure of a Leader

English: Posthumous official presidential port...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Then the Lord said to Samuel, “I am sorry that I ever made Saul king, for he has not been loyal to me and has refused to obey my command.” 1 Samuel 15:10-11a (NLT)

On Friday the United States will mark the 50th anniversary of the assination of President John F. Kenndedy. The media has been stirring for the past week with programs and news stories about Kennedy and his legacy. On Sunday, the news magazine CBS Sunday Morning spent their entire 90 minutes exploring the life and death of the young President. Wendy and I were on the couch watching as it’s part of our Sunday morning routine.

Wendy and I discussed President Kennedy that morning and the reality that he was in office less than three years before he was shot. Kennedy inspired the nation and laid out a grand vision, but he was killed before the nation could hold him accountable for his leadership in taking us to the realization of that vision. Reading current headlines is an interesting contrast. Our current President also inspired the nation and laid out a grand vision, but five years later the nation is in an uproar over failed implementation, the President’s party is in open rebellion, the nation is more politically divided than ever, and his approval rating is quickly plummeting. We will never know how Kennedy would have fared five years into his Presidency.

Time reveals the true measure of a leader, for time will always reveals a leader’s strengths and weaknesses. Like many leaders, King Saul started strong out of the gate. He led the nation to victory while displaying humility and deference. Today’s chapter, however, reveals a steady decline of character:

  • He was disobedient, allowing his army to capture the King of the Amalekites and take some of the spoils for themselves.
  • He excused his disobedience and lied, stating that the spoils were going to be sacrificed to God so that made it all okay.
  • When Samuel sought out Saul he found Saul, in a display of arrogant pride, erecting a monument to himself (I am so tempted to make the obvious phallic joke here).
  • When initially confronted with his disobedience, Saul did the usual political back-pedaling, obfuscating, and justifying his actions.

I am thankful that I do not have to face the spotlight of leadership on a national or global scale. Nevertheless, each of us find ourselves in positions of leadership in our homes, our businesses, neighborhoods and our communities. Time will reveal our strengths and weaknesses to those who follow, even if it’s only among our children, grandchildren or extended family. And make no mistake, our weaknesses will be revealed.

I have come to believe that perhaps the real pivotal question of leadership on any scale is how we respond to our own weaknesses and failures. Do we run, hide, excuse, justify, obfuscate, stonewall, gloss over, and deny? Or, do we accept, confess, own up, reconcile, learn from, better ourselves, and make things right?