Monday, August 4, 2014

Failure - The Sequel: a Sermon Dialogue with Dr. Fred Lang and Pastor Tom Frost (August 3, 2014)

Failure—the Sequel
A Sermon Dialogue
with Dr. Fred Lang and Pastor Tom Frost
August 3, 2014[1]
Tom:         This morning, we offer something a bit out of the ordinary.
                  Some of you may remember that on July 6th, we talked about the subject of failure.  We had read Paul’s lament that he wanted to do good, but couldn’t; and he wanted to avoid evil, but he did it any way.  In agony, he cried out, “What a wretched man I am!  Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24).  He then answered his own question:  “Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! ...  [There] is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 7:25; 8:1-2).
                  A pastor can often tell when he has stumbled upon a sensitive nerve in people’s lives.  It can be quite evident in the way people greet the pastor when they leave the service.  It was clear when Fred Lang came through the line that he had some thoughts on his mind!  As we talked, it became clear to me that there was more to be addressed on the subject of failure.  So I asked Fred if he would help me this morning to address some of these issues.
                  Fred, can you tell us first about how you became so interested in this topic of failure?
Fred:          One of the things that I did when I worked in Washington, D.C. was to work with the US Department of Commerce and the White House in training senior leaders and executives in the federal government.  The subject of failure often came up.  As we began to create leadership development programs, I tried to convey to these executives how important failure is. If you don’t fail during your career, you cannot succeed.  It is through failure—because we are imperfect people—through failure we learn what we can do differently.  That is the lesson we learn as we grow up and as we stumble—that person that reaches out beyond their grasp—beyond what they think they can do--is the person that can risk failure and become successful.
Tom:          But I have to tell you—I don’t feel very good when I fail.
Fred:          No one does.  No one feels good.  But let’s examine failure from a different perspective. When we fail, we learn what will not work then you reflect on your failure and you realize, “Hey, you stepped out, you tried something differently and that gave you more confidence to try it again.’
Tom:          I take it then, that you don’t view failure in itself as a bad thing.
Fred:          Failure is a stepping-stone to where you want to go.  From a business perspective, it’s where you want to go with your career, where you want to go in life.  Failure is OK.  But I caution these executives to fail earlier in their career rather than late in their career when the decisions they make are so monumental that they can cause harm to many people.  But failure in the training stage is a way to try things that you have never tried before so you can step out and learn from that failure.
Tom:          The Bible gives us a lot of material to reflect upon when we think about failure.  We can especially find examples of failure in the life and journey of the Apostle Peter.  Let’s listen to this story.
First Lesson:   Matthew 14:22-33
                  22 Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd.
23 After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone,
24 and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.
25 Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake.
26 When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.
27 But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”
28 “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”
29 “Come,” he said. Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus.
30 But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”
31 Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”
                  32 And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down.
                  33 Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”
Tom:          Fred, when you hear this story, do you think of Peter as a good guy or a bad guy? 
Fred:          I think he’s a good guy.  The words that you mentioned that Jesus Christ spoke to Peter, “Why do you doubt?”—everyone of us at some point doubts our ability to accomplish a task that we haven’t tried before.  It is those self doubts that can hold us back, as it did for Peter.  Peter suspended logic and he moved out on a path.  He stumbled when he began to believe those doubts in his mind.  We are no different than that.  We have doubts.  We experience failure.  But Peter learned from that, as we can see through the rest of the dialogue with Peter.
Tom:          Do you see Peter as a failure?
Fred:          No.  I see Peter as having the same ability to fail as all of us.  But he was one of those who took a risk and followed Jesus Christ, and stepped out, without “seeing” where he was going.  Peter stepped out as all of us must do if we are to grow.  We must have many failures in life before we can grow. 
                  Let take a look at a few people that with whom we are all familiar:
                  1. Walt Disney -- Today the Disney Corporation has made billions from merchandise, movies and theme parks around the world, but Walt Disney himself had a bit of a rough start. He was fired by a newspaper editor, earlier in his career, because, "he lacked imagination and had no good ideas." After that, Disney started a number of businesses that didn't last too long and ended with bankruptcy and failure. He kept plugging along, however, and eventually found a recipe for success that worked.
                  2. J.K. Rowland -- Rowland wrote the very popular Harry Potter stories and she has made a lot of money from the books and the movie rights, but before she published the series of novels she was nearly penniless, severely depressed, divorced, trying to raise a child on her own while attending school and writing a novel. Rowling went from depending on welfare to survive to being one of the richest women in the world in a span of only five years through her hard work and determination. This brilliant and imaginative author could have quit after her first failure, but she didn’t and, as a result, we have stories that have delighted all ages.
                  3. Winston Churchill -- This Nobel Prize-winning, twice-elected Prime Minster of the United Kingdom wasn't always as well regarded as he is today. Churchill struggled in school and failed the sixth grade. After school he faced many years of political failures, as he was defeated in every election for public office until he finally became the Prime Minister at the ripe old age of 62. What he learned in his failures helped him to lead a nation.
Tom:          Let’s look at Peter’s story more closely.  Where is the risk, and where is the failure in his story?  How do the characters respond?
Fred:          Let’s start with the risk:  the seas were not calm.  He could have drowned.  That’s the risk. 
Tom:          The story says that the boat was “buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.”
Fred:          And doesn’t that happen in real life?  He could have drowned. But he suspended logic.  He refused to listen to the voices in his head that cause us to doubt ourselves when we want to try something differently.  Peter had never walked on water.  He stepped out of the boat because he believed what Jesus Christ told him.  He suspended all logic and belief in the frailty of the human being and moved forward. 
Tom:          I thought that logic was supposed to be a tool that helps us. 
Fred:          Logic is a tool that helps us.  But there is a time that the tool of logic can actually cloud our vision and prevent us from seeing the possibilities that God puts before us. 
Tom:          The key seems to lie in discerning when to listen to logic and when to ignore it.
Fred:          In the world of business, we have a tool called “regression analysis.”  We determine on the basis of the past patterns of growth whether we have a pattern that permits us to move forward.  But moving forward is all faith—but faith that is based upon past experience.  Past experience is based on logic.  You have to suspend logic up to a point.  You have to say, “here is our pattern.  It is likely that we can move forward.  We may stumble along the way.
Tom:          It sounds as though we can find regression analysis in the old hymn “amazing grace.”  It’s grace that’s brought us safe thus far, and grace will lead us home.”  The past is evidence of what has taken place; but going forward, we are stepping forward in faith, based in part on the lessons of the past, but having no assurance of what is going to happen.
Fred:          Businesses do the same thing.  They have a marketing plan but they have to have faith.  They have a mission, they have a vision of where they want to go and they have a team.  They develop a strategic and a tactical strategy, to move forward, based on their past experience. In other words, they weigh the odds and take a risk.
Tom:          So did Peter.  He was doing fine until he looks around and sees the waves. And he takes his eyes off of Jesus.
Fred:          He begins to listen to the little voices in his head—“O what am I doing?!”  I can’t walk on water.  He disbelieves.  This is why you need to believe before you see.  When you see, you look at the physical environment, and it tells you or leads you to believe that you cannot do certain things.  But when you believe in yourself—that is the quality that God gave us—you step forward using the gifts that God gave you to move forward in your life, in your career.
Tom:          That brings us back to the definition of faith that we find in Hebrews 11:1—“Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
Fred:          But the word “hope” bothers me here just a bit.  I am talking about more than just “hoping” I can do something.  The word “hope” contains within its definition an element of doubt. Substitute the word “expect”. It’s more of an “expectation” that based on what God has enabled me to do in the past, He will enable me to do something again.
Tom:          That’s right.  That is exactly what Hebrews 11:1 means by “hope.”  We aren’t talking about wishful thinking; but we aren’t talking about certainty, either.  We are talking about stepping out of the boat, just as Peter did—not because he knew what the result would be, but because he trusted in the One who invited him to walk on water.
Fred:          One thing that we cannot do is to allow our fear of failure to paralyze our expectations of the future. We must have the faith of expectation if we are going to be able to achieve goals that are beyond our reach.  It changes us as people!
Tom:          We have a second story about Peter and failure. 
Second Lesson:   John 18:15-27
                   15 Simon Peter and another disciple were following Jesus. Because this disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the high priest’s courtyard,
16 but Peter had to wait outside at the door. The other disciple, who was known to the high priest, came back, spoke to the servant girl on duty there and brought Peter in.
17 “You aren’t one of this man’s disciples too, are you?” she asked Peter.  He replied, “I am not.”
18 It was cold, and the servants and officials stood around a fire they had made to keep warm. Peter also was standing with them, warming himself.
19 Meanwhile, the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching.
20 “I have spoken openly to the world,” Jesus replied. “I always taught in synagogues or at the temple, where all the Jews come together. I said nothing in secret.
21 Why question me? Ask those who heard me. Surely they know what I said.”
22 When Jesus said this, one of the officials nearby slapped him in the face. “Is this the way you answer the high priest?” he demanded.
23 “If I said something wrong,” Jesus replied, “testify as to what is wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?”

24 Then Annas sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest.
25 Meanwhile, Simon Peter was still standing there warming himself. So they asked him, “You aren’t one of his disciples too, are you?  He denied it, saying, “I am not.”
                  26 One of the high priest’s servants, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, challenged him, “Didn’t I see you with him in the garden?”
                  27 Again Peter denied it, and at that moment a rooster began to crow.
Fred:          The context seems so different from the story about Peter walking on the water.
Tom:          Yes, the context is different.
                  Peter had always been one to speak impulsively, to speak grandly about things.  He was a “big picture” guy.  It was because Peter had this gift of “seeing” who Jesus was that Jesus selected Him to lead his church. 
                  But Peter could be boastful.  He bragged about being willing to die with Jesus.  He said, “Lord, I will lay my life down for you now.”  (John 13:37).  Jesus knew better.  Jesus told him that before the rooster crowed, Peter would deny Him three times.  That is exactly what Peter did.
                  When the time came for Peter to stand up and be counted, he denied following Jesus.  He denied that he knew Jesus.  He denied that he even knew who they were talking about.  The crow of the rooster has become a symbol ever since of someone caught in denial.
Fred:          I can see a pattern in Peter’s behavior.  Peter begins with such great promise.  As you point out, he was there in the courtyard.  Except for Peter and John, the other disciples were no where to be found.  Just as Peter had the courage to risk climbing out of the boat (while the other disciples cowered in the boat), Peter also risked going to the Temple Courtyard. 
Tom:          But Peter’s faith and courage could only take him so far.  The one who, only hours before, had bragged to Jesus that he would lay down his life for the Master now was intimidated by the question of a girl on duty.  What do you think accounts for such a change in his attitude?
Fred:          He had self-doubts.  There are times that we can be courageous in life, but we also have self-doubts.  Jesus already had demonstrated the power of faith to Peter, and Peter had shown, by walking on the water, the power of faith to enable us to do something that we never imaged was possible.  But Peter looked at the risks he faced there in the Temple Courtyard, he looked at his self-doubts, and he permitted those self-doubts to limit what he could do. 
Tom:          When Peter focused on the waves raging around him, and when Peter focused on the Temple Soldiers who could arrest him, Peter took his attention, his focus, off Jesus, the One who enabled Peter to do the impossible in the first place. 
Fred:          And he failed to believe. Fortunately, this incident wasn’t the last time we heard of Peter.  He learned from this failure, and went on to become a great leader—who took this small band of followers and led them to become the Church of Jesus Christ.  Peter’s faith grew into a faith that would sustain him even at the cost of his own life. 
Tom:          Do you see Peter as a failure?
Fred:          No. Peter stumbled in life, as all of us do from time to time. Peter failed Jesus in this instance.  But there is a big difference between failing in a moment of weakness, and being a failure.  He proved himself later on.  The purpose of failure is to learn.  Failure is a stepping-stone to where we want to go in our lives.
Tom:          That is a pattern we see in the Bible over and over again.  In a way, one could look at Jesus’ own death as a sign of failure.  The One who people thought would usher in a new kingdom of Israel was executed as a common criminal.  But just when all hope appeared to be lost, God showed us that failure is not the last word.  He showed us that nothing can overcome the power of God’s love. 
Fred:          The resurrection was God’s “yes” in answer to the world’s “no.”
Tom:          Exactly.  Resurrection is the sequel to failure. 
Fred:          Resurrection is God’s assurance that no matter our circumstances, God is with us, waiting for us to reach out and take His hand, trusting that He will lead us home.
Tom:          What are the waves that are raging around you this morning?  What in your life is causing you to take your eyes off of Jesus?  Whatever they are, I invite you this morning to reach out in faith for the One who overcame death itself.  Let Him raise you up to new life.  May it be so!
Copyright © 2014 by Thomas E. Frost.  All rights reserved.

[1] Preached at Cunningham United Methodist Church in Palmyra, Virginia.

Adoring the Christ Child-in July Too! (July 27, 2014)

Adoring the Christ Child—In July Too!
Luke 2:1-20
July 27, 2014[1]

I can’t claim that celebrating Christmas in July is an original idea.  I first heard of the idea at Lakeside, Ohio, where Carol and I have our summer cottage.  On a designated week, the cottages are decorated with Christmas décor.  And it culminates in a live nativity.  One year, Liz was Mary. 
It seemed like a great way to re-live the Christmas Story without the interference of commercialism.  But that balloon was burst when Carol forwarded to me an email dated July 22, 2014 from Whitehorse Gear, advertising its Christmas in July sale with a 10% discount for orders placed by July  27th.  The ad showed a picture of Santa Clause wearing sunglasses and standing on a beach someplace, sipping what I am sure was iced tea.
Stanley Steamer ran an ad announcing its Christmas in July Contest from July 21-31.  The price was a $250 gift certificate and the ad showed a Stanley Steamer truck with the Christmas wrapping partially opened, and ornamented with a border of colored Christmas lights.
Kings Dominion ran a Christmas in July promotion, offering 50% off the price of a regular pass, redeemable between July 28 and August 17th.  The idea of riding the tidal wave for Christmas was a bit mind-bending for me.
Not to be outdone, Colorful Images ran a Christmas in July special on creating a stylized canvas print of designer word images. 
And Best Buy announced a Black Friday in July sale.
We can’t even have a non-commercialized celebration of Christmas in July!
But I still think it is important to try.  Even if the stores are trying to make inroads in our July celebration!
I can’t help but note something else.  I had hoped that by celebrating Christmas in July, we would be able to get people’s attention.  You know the drill of celebrating Christmas on Christmas—from Christmas pageants to Christmas parties, from making a list and checking it twice, to finding out who’se naughty and nice, from Christmas cookies to Christmas cards, we hardly have time for a “Silent Night” when all the faithful can come and “adore Him, Christ the Lord.”  I thought that July would be different.  I can’t count how many people told me that they would be gone this week.  It seems as though the last gasp of family vacations for the summer rivals the last gasp of family trips in December.
Yet, the invitation still remains this morning:  O Come, all ye Faithful.  O Come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord!
That word “adore” intrigues me.  How do you adore a baby?
I remember when each of our three kids were born.  For each of them, the circumstances were very different.
David, was our first-born.  Like many first-time parents, we had rehearsed and rehearsed the breathing for natural child-birth.  We had the nursery all assembled.  We had read the books on how to raise a child.  We were ready, but David wasn’t.  It was at least ten days after his “due date” that he began knocking, seeking admission to the world.  We were so caught up with getting ready for church that Sunday morning that we almost didn’t recognize the signals.  But all was going well—for awhile—and then an umbilical cord wrapped around his neck signaled that all was not well.  An emergency C-section changed all our plans for the perfect childbirth.  I was glad that they acted quickly.  I don’t know if the doctors still announce an “APGAR” score for newborns.  It struck me as a bit of Olympic fever gone wild—they would rate the child’s Appearance, Pulse, Grimace, Activity, and Respiration[2] on a scale from 1 to 10 one minute following birth and then at five minutes following birth.  David scored a 3 the first time around.  After a few more anxious moments, we were quite relieved to see him bounce back to a ten.  It didn’t take long for us to conclude that he was “practically perfect in every way.[3]
When we were preparing for Liz to arrive, things were different.  Because David had been born by C-section, the doctors wanted Liz to be delivered by C-section, as well.  We were able to schedule a delivery date that would be close enough to due date to permit Liz’s tiny lungs to be ready to breathe, and yet early enough to avoid the potential risk to Carol of entering into labor.  We had a date and time for delivery.  So we dropped Carol off at the hospital the day before (insurance companies let you do that in those days), and I made my plans to be at the hospital by 11:00 am.  We didn’t count on a change in the doctor’s schedule that led to him being available at 10:00.  I walked leisurely into the hospital to find that they were wheeling Carol down the hallway.  Liz made her initial appearance early, and I almost missed it!
Margaret’s birth was different, as well.  She also was to be born by C section; but she surprised us by signaling her appearance ten days early!  In the middle of the night (after a relaxing Memorial Day dinner with our neighbors), she told us we were coming and we had to get those same neighbors to come stay with David and Liz so we could greet our newest arrival.  We were certainly joyful at her arrival.  But it was apparent almost immediately that something was different—that Margaret was born with a skin disorder that the doctors didn’t understand, at first—a disorder that would lead to untold visits to doctors and hospitals and learning through trial and error how to care for her.
Three different babies.  Three different birth stories.  None of them were quite what we expected.  But I adored each one, and I still do.
When we say that we “adore” a baby, what do we mean?  We find that the birth of a baby can take the most sophisticated, articulate adult and transform them into someone who communicates with “oohs” and “ahs” and funny gurgling noises, trying to communicate with a young life whose mind has not yet been programmed to understand human language.  We watch for signs of their bodies needs, and learn to interpret whether a cry signals hunger, sleepiness or a messy diaper.  We receive visits from family members and friends, who stop by to greet this new life.
I suspect that Mary and Joseph and their friends did all of these things.  Like all first time parents, I am sure that they thought their new baby was different, was perfect.  Did they have any clue just how different their child was?
We read in the accounts from Matthew and Luke that both Mary and Joseph had received announcements from unfamiliar guests, announcing that the child would “save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21) and would be called the “Son of the Most High” (Luke 1:32).  It is one thing to hear those words; it is another thing to really understand them.  It wasn’t until years later that an evangelist would write those immortal words that “the Word was made flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). 
How do you adore the Christ Child?  How do you adore the “incarnate one,” the God-man in infant form?
First, you go see Him.  The shepherds said “let us go now to Bethlehem and see thins thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us” (Luke 2:15).  So they traveled that night to Bethlehem.  They didn’t saunter along.  They didn’t say that they would check things out in the morning.  “They went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger” (Luke 2:16).  They didn’t say that they would wait until they were ready.  We don’t adore the Christ on our schedule; we adore Him when He is near.  The prophet Isaiah said, “seek the Lord while He may be found, call upon Him while He is near; let the wicked forsake their way and the unrighteous their thoughts and let them pray to the Lord..., for He will abundantly pardon” (Isaiah 55:6-7).  How do you adore the Christ child?  You seek, you change your ways, you pray to the Lord.  And you do it now, not later.
The shepherds weren’t done yet.  Their adoration didn’t stop there.  They returned to their daily lives glorifying and praising God for what they had heard and seen (Luke 2:17, 20).  They didn’t keep the Good News of the Gospel to themselves.  When you have seen, when you have experienced the Christ, you share the Good News.  When God has touched your life, you spread the Word, letting people know that you encountered the Holy One, that you have been changed.  As the adult Jesus later said, you don’t hide your light under a bushel, but you ‘let your let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven’ (Matthew 5:16).
Mary had another way of adoring.  She “pondered.”  Mary “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).  When you encounter the Holy One, you can’t take it all in at once.  It takes time to understand the change that takes place in your life. It can take a lifetime to be able to see in the rear-view mirror of your life the way that God, through His grace, has led you, guided you, beckoned you, saved you and transformed you.  But we get caught up in our busyness.  Have you taken the time to ponder what the almighty has done in your heart and life?
How do you adore the Christ child?  You seek Him, call upon Him and let Him change your life.  You glorify Him, and you spread the word about what the Christ has done in your life.  You ponder Him, marveling at the mystery of His love.
But the Christ child we adore has one more suggestion for us this day.  This Christ tells us not to simply tell the Good News.  He tells us to put our words into action.  He didn’t say that we would be His friends if we simply told people about Him.  He told His disciples “You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:14).  And what does He command us to do?  He tells us “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12).  Not just a casual love, but a love that runs deep, a love that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7).  Love that endures all things even to the point of giving up everything for the beloved.  Jesus said “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).  If we want to follow this Jesus, if we want to adore Him, we need to be prepared, because He, the One who is the “way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6) calls us to get in line, a line that leads to a hillside and a cross; but it doesn’t end there.  His way leads to triumph over death.  His way leads to glory.
Years later, the Apostle Paul would explain what it means to adore Christ in this way.  Paul wrote, “Let the same mind be in you that was also in Christ Jesus, who … emptied himself, … and he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”  (Philippians 2:6-8).
How do you adore the Christ?  You take up your own cross and follow Him.  What will it mean in your individual life?  I can’t answer that.  God’s call to each of us is unique, calling us to different journeys.  The specific journey will be different.  But the gift of God that we receive is nothing less than the gift of eternal life!
So “come, let us adore Him.  O come let us adore Him.  O come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord!”

Copyright (c) 2014 by Thomas E. Frost.  All rights reserved.

[1] Preached at Cunningham United Methodist Church and Hayden Chapel United Methodist Church in Palmyra, Virginia.
[2]  “About the Apgar Score” on the website Kids’ Health from Nemours, viewed on the internet on July 27, 2014 at
[3] From Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins.