SCRIPTURE READINGS: Exodus 3:10, 4:13; Joshua 1:1, 5b, 9b; 2 Timothy 1:7
Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Nick Foles shocked the world last year when he outdueled Tom Brady and led his team to a stunning victory over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LII (52). Foles was thrust into a leadership role after the star Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz was injured just weeks before the playoffs. Before that, Foles had languished in backup roles in Kansas City and St. Louis. He even contemplated retirement at age 26 before giving football another shot. A reporter asked Foles what he wanted fans to take away from his journey, and his answer is a great lesson on embracing failure:
"I think the big thing is don't be afraid to fail. In our society today — you know, Instagram, Twitter, it's a highlight reel. It's all the good things. And then when you look at it, you think, like, wow, when you have a rough day or your life's not as good as that, you're failing. Failure is a part of life. It’s part of building character and growing. Without failure, who would you be? I wouldn't be up here if I hadn't fallen thousands of times, made mistakes. We all are human. We all have weaknesses. Just be able to share that and be transparent. I know when I listen to people speak and they share their weaknesses, I'm listening. Because I can (relate). So I'm not perfect, I'm not Superman. We might be in the NFL and we might have just won the Super Bowl, but we all have daily struggles. I still have daily struggles. That's where my faith comes in. That's where my family comes in.” (quoted in ftw.usatoday.com)
So on this Super Bowl Sunday, a year after that inspirational speech, we’re going to be considering our own fears of failure, our fears of disappointing ourselves, or others, or even God. As we’ve mentioned over the past few weeks, God created us with these wonderfully complex brains, complete with the ability to alert us to actual danger, sometimes before we can mentally process the situation or physically react. And that’s a good thing, it is meant to keep us safe. But our wonderfully complex brains also have a wonderful imagination that can run away with us over things that have not, and likely will not happen. This is unhealthy fear, and it can keep us from making friends or taking risks, and can sometimes even cause us to behave in a way that is harmful to ourselves or others.
To continue our sports anecdotes for a moment, Michael Jordan, considered one of the best professional basketball players ever, filmed a commercial for Nike where he admitted, “I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot…and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” Wayne Gretzky, leading scorer for the NHL and considered the greatest hockey player ever, famously said, “Only one thing is ever guaranteed, that is that you will definitely not achieve the goal if you don’t take the shot. You miss 100 percent of the shots you never take.”
For those of you who couldn’t care less about sports, I’m not leaving you out… J. K. Rowling, author of the wildly popular and beloved children’s book series, Harry Potter, has said, “By every usual standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.” After conceiving the idea for the books, Rowling’s mother died, her marriage ended, and she was left to raise a baby with no job and no family. After struggling with depression, poverty, and numerous setbacks, she eventually finished her first novel, only to be rejected over a dozen times. Her first publication even came with a warning to “get a day job,” because no one thought she could make a living as a children’s writer. But she proved them by becoming one of the best-selling authors of all times! According to Rowling herself, “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all - in which case, you fail by default.”
So, what about you? Do you ever fear failure? What kind of impending personal defeat keeps you awake at night? In the past, when the voice in your head said that you should give up, what did you do? Did you take the risk and keep going, or turn back while you still could?
This past fall, we read through the story of Joseph in the Old Testament. One of the youngest of Jacob’s twelve sons, he was the grandson of Isaac and great-grandson of Abraham, to whom God made a promise that if Abraham would pack up everything and trust God, God would lead his family to new land, Canaan, the Promised Land. And God promised to be their God; in return, Abraham promised that his family would be faithful to God. This blessing, or promise was handed down from generation to generation. But remember that at the end of our story of Joseph, his family and all of Abraham’s descendants had been given land in Egypt to come and live in order to escape the seven-year famine that was devastating their land in Canaan.
Fast-forward about 400 years, and the Israelites are no longer guests, but slaves in the land of Egypt. And there grew to be so many Hebrew people that the Pharaoh, who worried about a possible revolt, began having their male children killed. One child named Moses, however, was hidden in the very waters where the Pharaoh’s daughter would be sure to find him, and she raised him as her own. As an adult, Moses begins to feel conflicted about living as a prince while his people are suffering. And you may know the rest of the story – he sees a fellow Hebrew being mistreated by an Egyptian, he gets mad and kills the Egyptian, but hides him, then gets caught, then flees to the hillsides of Midian and becomes a shepherd for about 40 years until one day, God calls to Moses from a burning bush and says, “I have heard the cry of my people who are oppressed in Egypt, and I’m going to rescue them and bring them out of Egypt to a land that is flowing with mild and honey. So get going. I’m sending you to Pharaoh to tell him to let my people go.” So Moses argues with God, and makes excuse after excuse about why he is not the right person for the job. God assures and reassures him that God will be with him, but Moses is consumed with fear, and finally just cuts to the chase, “Please God, just send someone else.” Can you imagine God calling you out of a burning bush, and telling you that out of all the other people on the planet, YOU’re the one person I have chosen for the job. You’re the exact right person for this plan I have, but don’t worry, I’ll be with you!
I’ve shared with you that it took me many years to believe what I thought God was calling me to do when I began to feel a call to pastoral ministry. I still had a lot of those tapes playing in my head that we’ve talked about in this series. Those voices or messages from my childhood, from the church I grew up in, and from the culture I lived in that made me believe I wasn’t the right person for the job – because of my gender, because of my age, because of my past. I let those false messages get tangled up with my imagination, and it made me afraid. So I took the long road; instead of jumping all in, I tried a year-long Bible study, and then a three-year school for lay ministry, and then I stepped into more leadership roles in ministries in addition to the worship ministry I was leading, and finally, after eight years, I heard more and more of God’s voice of assurance and less and less of those voices and messages that had held me back with fear. Sometimes, instead of saying “no” outright, try a “maybe.” And then engage in prayer and other spiritual practices until you can hear can claim for yourself God’s “yes.”
Last week, we talked about our fear of loneliness and how it can sometimes lead to even more isolation. And we talked about how those between the ages of 11 and 25 are the loneliest generations in American history. There are many things that I think this generation is struggling with today that none of us in previous generations had to deal with; but I’ve noticed that in addition to technology that seems to interfere with personal connections, they also seem to be struggling with unrealistic expectations.
My 18-year-old daughter was willing to share some of her own thoughts about the fears that she and her peers struggle with today. She says that she feels a lot of pressure to not only succeed in her academic work or extra-curricular activities, but to excel! She thinks that there is an unspoken expectation for young people her age to do everything perfectly, so they are chronically worried about making mistakes, or being average. She also says that there is just as much social pressure to meet expectations of others. She explains that there seems to always be a standard of excellence set by the most popular group of peers, and that it is not okay to stand out or be different than the standard that everyone expects. So that leads to an increasing need to change who you are in order to fit in, and a fear that if you are too different, too vulnerable or too much "yourself" that you won't be accepted by your peers.
She also gave me permission to share that in her own life, these pressures led to anxiety, depression, a significant change in sleep, and such a paralyzing fear of failing in school that she began to avoid homework and assignments to the point that she almost did fail. Based on the conversations I've had with other parents, I know that she is not alone.
I asked her what she most wanted us - the parents, grandparents and members of this faith community - to know about how we can be a source of encouragement and strength for young people. She says the first thing is just to show empathy. She says it helps just to know that there are adults who will say they care about you, even when it feels like you are disappointing them. She also says that young people are already very aware of the ways they are failing, so they don't need more people telling them they are messing up. Instead, she says they need to hear that they are not alone, and that they are still loved in spite of whatever mistakes or struggles they are dealing with.
I think that we as the church can certainly find ways to show empathy and encouragement to the young people in our midst! And as I said a few weeks ago, all those who are present in our community of faith - including the children and youth - are not the church of tomorrow... they are the church of today! One of the great gifts of a faith community is that we can come together as people of all ages who are all on the same journey together. Some of us may be farther along in our life journey but not as far along in our faith journey, or vice versa. But we have the blessing of finding relationships and courage when we share our experiences with one another.
You know, Moses eventually did say Yes to God, and went on to become one of the greatest faith leaders of all time! And he had a hand in raising up the next generation of leaders. Joshua had the role of leading the people into Canaan after Moses died. And as he and the Israelites were camped out on the banks of the Jordan river just across from the Promised land, they were very much aware that the people on the other side were much stronger and better protected than their rag-tag army. But in their moment of fear, we read these words, “After the death of Moses the servant of the Lord, the Lord spoke to Joshua son of Nun, Moses’ assistant, saying, '… As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you… Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.'" (Joshua 1:1, 5b, 9b)
Be strong and courageous. The Lord your God is with you wherever you go. We all need to be reminded of these words. We have such a great opportunity to be encouragers to one another. I’ll leave you today with one other quote. The apostle Paul also felt a need to help raise up the next generation of faith leaders, and he wrote to a young disciple named Timothy, “God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” (2 Timothy 1:7) This is good news for all of us, and even better news for those outside these walls today, who are living in fear. So who will go tell them? Maybe God is calling you….