April 28, 2013
Rev. John Watts
NEVER WASTE A GOOD FAILURE
You probably wouldn’t think of Thomas Edison as a failure.
He invented many things we take for granted, including the microphone, the phonograph, the motion picture camera, and the incandescent light bulb. You would think of him as one of history’s greatest successes. Yet he said this of himself: “I have failed my way to success.” And in the middle of the process that led to his best known invention, he famously said: “Now we know 1,000 ways no to build a light bulb.”
He also invented the storage battery. He probably would have been a great consultant for the Boeing people to help them solve their recent problem. He’d been working for ten years on this battery. His finances were strained. But he wouldn’t give up. Then one night the building where he was working burned to the ground. Everything he had been working on was gone. The damages were two million dollars. He was vastly underinsured. He was 67 years old. His family was very worried that this set-back might break his spirit. They didn’t need to worry. Because the next morning as he was looking over the ruins, he said: “There is great value in disaster. All our mistakes are burned up. Thank God we can start over again.”
From the ashes of our failures, with God’s help, we can all start over again! Simon Peter is but one example in the Bible of someone who had failed spectacularly but whose failure was not the final verdict on his life. We mentioned a few weeks ago how he was one of the disciples Jesus asked to pray with him in theGardenofGethsemane. Peter couldn’t even stay awake. But now Jesus has been arrested. And again, Peter lets him down. Three times, he’s recognized as a disciple of Jesus. Three times he says, “You have the wrong man. I don’t even know him.” Our scripture ends with Peter weeping bitterly.
Hard to believe this is the same Peter who 50 days later is preaching one of the most powerful sermons ever preached! It’s Pentecost, the birthday of the Church. Three thousand new Christians respond to his altar call. He was a coward who had failed miserably in his moment of truth. But that was not the last thing we remember about Peter. He is remembered not for his cowardice, but for his courage. He is remembered not for denying his Lord, but for boldly proclaiming his Lord. And yes, doing so meant that his fate was the fate of Jesus. Tradition has it he too was crucified, but that he insisted on being crucified upside down. He said, “I am not worthy of dying the same way my Lord died.”
This raises an important question about success and failure. How do we define it? Thomas Edison and Simon Peter both lived successful lives, but they were successful in very different ways. There is no single way to succeed in life. We all are different people with different gifts who are called to serve God in different ways. Here’s one definition of success: It is the progressive realization of a worthy goal. It is progressive. That is to say, it takes time. And since it takes time, it requires patience. You are making progress, slow but sure progress toward your goal. And it’s not just any goal. It needs to be a worthy goal. A goal worth reaching. A goal worth your sacrifice. A goal worth waiting for. Notice this definition does not specify what that goal needs to be. That’s up to you, with a little help from God and the people in your life you most love and most trust.
A few years ago a man named Ralph Waldo Emerson said this is what success meant to him.
To laugh often and much, to win respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.
I encourage you to write down your own definition of what success means for you. Not in general terms, but specifically. What is the worthy goal or goals that you are working to progressively realize? It helps to know where you want to go. That’s the only way you will know whether or not you get there.
So why bring up the subject of failure when what we all want is success? Because there is no such thing as success without failure. We tend to think negatively about failure. It’s something to avoid. It’s something to be ashamed of. But it can’t be avoided. So it’s nothing to be ashamed of. And the paradox is that the harder we try never to fail that more likely it is that we will never succeed.
A generation after Thomas Edison there was another great scientist, Thomas J. Watson. He was the president of IBM. He said, “If you want to succeed, double your failure rate.” He wasn’t afraid of failure. He was in favor of failure! In fact, at IBM he went to great lengths to create a culture where failure wasn’t punished, where people were encouraged to try new things with no guarantee whether or not they would work. That’s how we learn. That’s how we grow. That’s how we ultimately succeed.
So if we define success as the progressive realization of a worthy goal, here then is a definition of failure: It is a temporary but necessary set-back on the way to success.
The book of Proverbs is a treasure trove of wisdom, and here is one of its jewels: “Even if good people will fall seven times, they will get back up, but when trouble strikes the wicked, that’s the end of them” (24:16 CEV). We all fall down in life. That’s a given. What separates winners from losers is whether you get back up each time you fall. Whether you get back up a little wiser and a little humbler than you were before. Or whether when you go down you stay down and you give up.
Every so often I’ll take a fall when I am running. Usually it’s when I’m on a trail and I’m not paying enough attention and there’s a root or a rock I didn’t notice. When I hit the ground, the first thing that flashes through me mind is not, “Am I hurt?” The first thing that flashes through me mind is, “Did anyone see me?” In fact, if it came right down to it, I think I would rather get a little bloodied up with no one watching than to bounce back up without a scratch in front of an audience!
It’s important to get back up when we fall. But it’s also important not to get up too soon. We tend to want to get up before anyone notices we are down. We want to create the illusion that we never fall in life. We never fail. Our lives are just one uninterrupted series of successes, each one more spectacular than the one before. Who are we trying to kid? Denial is not just a river inEgypt. I found this word puzzle that expresses the denial many of us have about our failures:
L Lying (to myself)
Next time you fall down, don’t get back up too quickly. Stay down there for awhile. While you are down, there is some important work you can do. Ask yourself a few questions. How did I get here? What happened? What can I learn from what just happened? How can I turn this set-back into a stepping stone on the way to success?
A winner’s attitude is this: I win either way. Either I succeed or I fail. If I succeed, I win. And if I fail, I learn a lesson that will help me succeed next time. So I’m a winner even if I lose.
I’m going to close with three illustrations. Starting with the present day and then going back in time. It was July 10, 2011. A batter stepped to the plate. He was given a standing ovation. He hadn’t done a thing except to plant his spikes in the batter’s box. The cheers were almost deafening. The pitcher, James Shields of the Tampa Bay Rays, wanted to wait until the cheers died down before he pitched. He finally realized they weren’t going to die down. So he proceeded to strike out this particular batter.
Even as this batter walked back to the dugout, a failure, the cheers continued. No one sat down until he did. What was going on here? This particular batter had just made the 6,584th out in his major league career. It would take over ten years of batting four times every game and making an out every single time you went to bat to make that many outs. So how did he even make the team? And why in the world did the fans still love him?
Because his name was Derek Jeter. And in the previous day’s game, he got five hits in five at bats, his second hit, a home run, the 3000th hit of his career. In all the years they’ve been playing major league baseball, only 27 players before him had accomplished that. He was the first New York Yankee to do it. Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Roger Maris, and Mickey Mantle all fell short.
Baseball is a lot like life. To fail more than you succeed does not make you a failure. The greatest players to ever play the game have failed their way to success.
And then there is the man whose resume would definitely not impress a prospective employer. At age 22, he had failed at business. At age 23, he ran for the state legislature. He lost. At age 24, he made another try at business. Again he failed. At age 25, he did get elected to the state legislature. At age 26, his girlfriend died. At age 27, he had a nervous breakdown. At age 29, he ran for speaker of the legislature. He lost. At age 31, he sought to become an elector from his state. That’s one of those who votes when the electoral college votes. He didn’t get it. So at age 34, he decided it was time to run for the United States Congress. He lost. At age 37, he tried again. This time, he was elected. At age 39, it was time to run for re-election. He lost. At age 46, he ran for the U.S. Senate. He lost. At age 47, he was considered for vice president. He didn’t get the nomination. At age 49, he ran again for the Senate. Again, he lost. At age 51, this was the resume he presented to the American people in the election of 1860. And the American people elected Abraham Lincoln president of theUnited States.
Incidentally, one of his rare victories was his election in 1846
to theUnited StatesHouse of Representatives. He defeated a Methodist circuit rider named Peter Cartwright. There’s the famous story of Cartwright attackingLincolnfor his perceived lack of faith.
At a debate, Cartwright moved close toLincoln, looked him in the eye, and asked that question evangelists love to ask: “Do you know where you are going?” AndLincolnanswered, “Yes, I’m going to Congress!” He was right.
But more often than not, Abraham Lincoln was a failure, not a success. He too, we might say, failed his way to success.
We’ve already mentioned Simon Peter. We read his story from the Bible today. We read part of his story. The low point of his life. We ended our reading with him weeping bitterly. He had failed and that failure felt final. I think we’ve all been there. He had fallen, fallen hard, and it seemed pointless to even try to get back up.
We’ve already mentioned that he did get back up. That this man who had failed his Lord in so public and humiliating a way turned out to be Peter the rock on whom Jesus built his church. And like a rock, he was solid. He was fearless. He was anything but a failure.
So we’ve told the failure part of his story. And we’ve told the success part of his story. But the story that connects these two stories still needs to be told. It’s one of the most touching stories in the Bible. (It’s told beautifully in Alan Walker’s, Life Grows with Christ, pages 6 and 7.) How Jesus reached out to Peter after he had failed.
This story begins on Easter. The angel at the empty tomb tells the women to “Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you toGalilee” (Mark 16:7). Why mention Peter by name? Why not just say, “Go, tell his disciples.” That would have included Peter. But Peter is mentioned by name. Maybe because Peter may have concluded that he had forfeited his right to be a disciple. He was no longer worthy because he had denied his Lord. Maybe because Peter especially needs to be there atGalileeto meet his Risen Lord.
Galileeis where it had all begun. That is where Jesus had said to Peter and the other 11, “Follow me.” The symbolism here is so obvious you might miss it. They go back to where they began. It is a new beginning.
And then there is a detail in the passage we read that you may not have noticed. It didn’t sound very important. It’s the mention of a charcoal fire (Luke 22:55). People were warming themselves around this fire. Peter sat down to join them. And that’s where the maid recognizes him in the light of that fire and asks if he is a disciple. He denies it, the first of his three denials.
The Risen Christ is reunited with his disciples, and Peter, at theSea of Galilee, where it all began. And what is there? A charcoal fire (John 21:9). Only twice is such a fire mentioned in the New Testament. Seeing the fire we can imagine Peter remembering and feeling ashamed over the memory of his denial.
They eat fish cooked over this charcoal fire. And the story ends with Jesus asking Peter three times, “Do you love me?” Three times he had denied his Lord. Three times he is given the opportunity to make amends. To say, “Jesus, you know that I love you.” At that moment Peter knew that Jesus loved him, too. All was forgiven. His failure had not been final. Jesus then speaks two words. The same two words he had spoken three years earlier at this same place. “Follow me” (John 21:19). Peter followed. To the end of his life, he followed.
Failure is part of life. Little failures and big failures. Sometimes it feels like a huge fire has destroyed everything you’ve been working on, everything that matters to you, and there is nothing left but the ashes. Remember what Thomas Edison said when that happened to him. “There is great value in disaster. All our mistakes are burned up. Thank God we can start over again.”
We thank you, God that we can start again. We confess that our fear of failure sometimes controls our lives. We want you to control our lives. So we pray for faith where there is fear. We pray for your spirit of boldness and daring to replace our spirit of timidity and caution. For it’s not those who make the fewest mistakes who succeed in life, but those who learn the most from those mistakes. Those who know that success is not final, failure is not fatal, and the courage to continue is what counts. Grant us that courage in Jesus’ name, Amen.