Acts 2.1-21; Romans 8.22-27; John 15.26-27: 16.4b-15
It’s the exam season again. I feel for all the youngsters facing those hours of effort and anxiety. I was 30 years old before I stopped having a recurrent seasonal nightmare of sleeping in and missing a vital exam paper. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why failure comes so hard to me – I find it almost to contend with not succeeding. That’s why board games are so troublesome in our family – I can’t bear to lose.
They do say a fear of failure is a malaise that particularly applies to people in jobs where a person controls his or her own time and work load. Those who are really fearful chose occupations where they can really push themselves because you yourself are always so much more demanding than even the most exacting boss. The other side of the so-called ‘driven personality’ is the determination to win through because failure is so fearsome. This is a personal quality that pushes a person on when others might say, ‘Oh. it doesn’t really matter, let’s go with the flow.’
Perhaps this is especially bad news for the church because I’ve a feeling clergy tend towards the ‘driven’ end of personality types. For example, numbers often really count for those who fear failure. The church building we were married in is now a carpet warehouse. I look around at other closed churches and all the other signs of decline – and I look at the figures – Sunday attendances, numbers of ordinations, clergy retirement numbers, membership numbers, and on and on. And I say to myself, ‘This is wrong, better one person be truly touched by the awareness of God, than churches full of people there out of some sense of obligation.’ And yet still I count! I need you to be here.
Yet, of course, this isn’t just a clergy disease. For so many people life has too many failures and too many fears of failing further. Too many struggle to find a sense of their own worth, and too many are haunted by anxiety:
- the young woman who thought she couldn’t cope with her job (no one had complained). She walked out. A week later she was feeling more rational and realized she’d been foolish, but she couldn't shake off the sense of failure the episode stirred in her.
- the aged parent talking of his child who has ‘gone off the rails.’ With every insistent ‘I did my best,’ you know he is really saying, to himself at least, ‘I failed.’
- the man who feels trapped, hemmed in, by what he describes as one long series of failures – college course abandoned, job ended, marriage in tatters – ‘I can’t cope with anything, I’m such a failure.’
- a woman suddenly made redundant – years of doing a job well, years of finding fulfilment in it, years of being acknowledged as being really good at it – gone. ‘I feel such a failure,’ she said. She just couldn’t hear that its ending was nothing to do with her capabilities or efforts.
These are all real pictures of real people who in a world devoted to success feel failures. And to these people – US – Pentecost brings hope and healing.
On that first day of the week the disciples were locked in, for fear of their neighbours. Had it been worthwhile leaving so much to follow Jesus? The crowds’ adulation as he rode into Jerusalem had so soon turned sour. They had run away. Peter had tried not to, but at a crucial point he failed to stand up for Jesus too. The women’s stories of Jesus risen seem too good to be true. Surely it wasn’t only Thomas who doubted? What were they supposed to do now? Locked in for fear. It’s possible to read the story of the church as one of unrelenting triumph – and in a sense it is – but it is triumph that is born out of defeat, failure, weakness and anxiety. And I really do mean ‘born’ out of.
Or think of Paul – so powerful in his teaching, so determined in his efforts, so capable in his powers to lead, encourage and heal, and yet haunted by the same very human pains and fears – anxiety, depression, fatigue, insomnia were things he knew for himself with great intensity: ‘I came weak, fearful and trembling,’ he says to the Corinthians (1 Cor 2.3). And again, ‘The burdens laid upon us were so great and so heavy that we gave up all hope of staying alive’ (2 Cor 1.8). And yet again, ‘I was afflicted with all kinds of difficulties: conflict outside and fear within’ (2 Cor 7.5).
Stand up; take heart – failure and fear is not a condemnation of you as a Christian. Stand up; take heart – God brings new ways, new strength, new understanding out of our dismays. On Pentecost the Holy Spirit brings something to stir, encourage and renew the defeated. They communicate in ways they could not have imagined only minutes earlier. They were heard in a way they had never been heard before. They find a new hope of fulfilment; new ways to cope (at least for the time being, and the time being is enough – one day at a time). This little band that had been from triumph to despair and back again –this motley crew of labourers, quislings, would be terrorists, women of ill repute, fishermen and country traders became those on whom the Spirit was poured. And this brought amazing new possibilities – cower no longer, hide no more – stand up:
– proclaim the message of salvation
– see visions of what may be
– dream dreams of reconciliation and justice
– see miracles and wonders – even at their own hands
Within four chapters of the story of Acts it is the authorities who are fearful and afraid!
Ours is a God who finds us a way through life’s mazes; who untangles the knots of our fears, anxieties and failures; a God who opens the channels that we thought certainly blocked; who weaves a pattern of beauty, hope and meaning from our chaos. That’s what he did on Pentecost – that’s what his Pentecostal Spirit does now. Listen to the words of Leslie Weatherhead, minister at the City Temple in London 1936-60, and a great pastor to the anxious and failed soul:
‘I have frightened myself sometimes by wondering how on earth I was going to get through certain tasks lying months ahead. And yet, faithless as I was, timid and with no confidence, somehow the Lord brought me through. That sounds pious, but I mean it very sincerely ... ... I ought never to be depressed again. Yet, even now, I have dark days full of a sense of failure and sometimes I look into that black pit that is called despair, and I know that thousands of sensitive people do the same.’
So hear the wind of Pentecost as a word of assurance and make that word your own – God does not condemn us for our failures and inadequacies, our worries and anxieties. Out of those failures, worries, inadequacies and anxieties God is able to empower us by his Spirit – to un-jam the blocks.
Make this your daily task – stand up as best you may; stand up in honesty to do on this day what you believe to be God’s will; stand up and you’ll find God can use failure as well as success, brokenness as well as triumph. Stand up ‘the Spirit helps us in our weakness’ (Rom 8.26).
Maybe an anthem will help – at least with the consequences if not about the Spirit’s empowerment . Jessie J get’s it almost right ... Stand Up
If you surround yourself with negative people
You'll never feel settled in or become an equal, no
They'll suppress you of your spirit and rinse you dry of smiles
So reach deep and release your inner child, yeah, yeah
So stand up for the love, love, love
So stand up for the love, love, love
So stand up for the love, love, love
So stand up, stand up, for the love, love
'Cause you're as old as you feel you are
And if you don't reach for the moon you can't fall on the stars
So I live my life like every day is the last, last, last ....