Failure: A Successful step in Following Christ

By Joe LaGuardia

In the new Supergirl television show starring Melissa Benoist as the other Caped Crusader, Supergirl must prove to friends and family that she and she alone is responsible for her power and place in the universe.  Her youthful demeanor and gender work against her; everyone feels a need to protect her from danger, failure, or death.

She pushes back with ferocity and fierce independence, defying gender and generational stereotypes along the way, even when it means failing to get the job done.

The subplot expresses an important lesson to viewers: Failure is a part of the learning experience, and taking risks must include the cost of danger now and then.

This theme reminded me of a time not long ago when our young son took a test in karate.  My wife was nervous about him getting his “forms” (as they are called) right and passing to the next belt level.

Her anxiety was well-placed: We pay good money for karate; he needs to study and do well!

However, we needed to realize that even if he did not get everything right, he still benefitted from the program.  Failure is just as important a lesson as is success.

Failure is just as important a lesson as is success.

In fact, without failure, it is difficult for us to grow and learn from our mistakes.

I learned this lesson when I did my research and field tests for my doctorate, of which failure is an inherent part.  Whenever I outlined my failures in my dissertation, I was proud to contribute to my field and expose other researchers to my mistakes, lest others be doomed to repeat them.

Nevertheless, failure is something people frown upon these days.  Failed politicians refuse to apologize; failed CEOs wiggle their way out of responsibility for bad choices or moral scruples; our young people who fail time and again find adversity an impossible hindrance and give up all too easily.

It was President John F. Kennedy who once said that, “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.”

What would it be like if Jesus’ disciples saw failure as a roadblock to learning and following Jesus?  Peter, the greatest of all failures among Jesus’ followers, became the bedrock of the church precisely because of the lessons he learned.

He tried to walk on water to greet Jesus only to doubt and sink (Matthew 14:22-33).  Yet, it was Peter who took the step out of the boat in the first place, a courageous act that set him apart from the other disciples.

When Jesus foretold his trial and death, Peter rebuked him and told him that surely God’s plan was not for Jesus to end up on a cross (what Peter perceived as failure!).  Ironically, Peter failed to understand Christ’s mission, and Jesus called Peter satan, or “adversary,” who acted against the greater purposes of God (Matthew 16:21-23).

Who can forget about Peter’s failure to claim Jesus as his master when Jesus did eventually go to the cross?  On the night Jesus was tried for treason against the state, Peter denied him not once but thrice (John 18:15-27).

When the cock crowed, Peter awakened to his mistake and deeply regretted his decision.  He went on to lead the disciples and the early church, and it was Peter’s sermon at Pentecost that inspired thousands of people to convert to follow Christ (Acts 2-3).

For the Christian committed to growing in Christ, failure is a part of the equation in one’s spiritual journey, not something to avoid.  And not every failure is tantamount to sin.

Failure is just another resource in our spiritual walk that moves us forward, upward, and onward towards the heart of God.

As we journey with Christ, let us–like Peter–recognize that when we doubt, deny Christ, or mistake God’s mission in life, we are to repent and mature, not double-down in our ignorance and deny that we made a mistake, for that is the greatest failure of them all.


The Religious and the Spiritual

sacrementcommunionBy Matt Sapp

Fred Craddock quoted former Yale professor, Bill Muehl, when he taught his preaching students to “Remember, about half of your congregation almost didn’t come this morning.”

It is a great reminder for those of us who stand in pulpits, but I wonder if he’s underestimated.  I wonder if it’s only half.

Over the last decade or so, those engaged in conversations surrounding the church have focused much of their attention on the growing percentage of the population that describes themselves as “spiritual, but not religious,” or those who value a spiritual, even faith-filled, dimension to their lives, but who have no interest in connecting with the church or institutional religion.

We have been taught to see this growing trend as emblematic of the decline of the church, and it has been a useful lens through which to view the struggle of the institutional church.

But we have reached a new stage in our challenge as the church in America.  Many churches have been forced to retreat from the challenge of trying to attract the “spiritual, but not religious.”  Now we’re just trying to retain the “religious, but not spiritual,” or the half or more or our attenders who, as Fred Craddock reminds us, almost didn’t come last Sunday.

The “religious, but not spiritual” are those who were raised in church, who are familiar with our rituals, who know our hymns and have sat through our sermons, but have never found a faith of their own.   Up until now they have come out of habit, but have had very little, if any, interior spiritual activity to support the outer religious habit.   Traditionally, they have been the silent majority in many of our congregations.

Here’s my contention about this growing group of people.  It’s not that they don’t WANT to be spiritual—even if they don’t know that’s what they want.  It’s that the church has been stifling their spirituality without knowing it for quite some time.

We don’t mean to stifle spirituality, but we do. In an effort to attract the “spiritual, but not religious” we have stifled the spirituality of all but the most committed Christians sitting in our pews!  We stifle spirituality by avoiding the big questions of our spiritual lives and we do it for one reason—to avoid controversy.  We avoid the big interior questions of spiritual faith out of fear that we’ll turn off the “seekers” in the world that we’ve desperately been trying to reach for several generations.

Instead, we’re answering questions that people aren’t asking and refuse to address the questions that they are asking—questions about faith and culture, sexuality and marriage, conflicts between national and religious allegiances, war and peace and the sanctity of life, economic justice and care for the poor, and questions about ultimate meaning and purpose in a culture increasingly divorced from faith traditions.

In ignoring the real spiritual questions of the people in our pews, we’ve inadvertently created a whole segment of “religious, but not spiritual” church-goers who find answers to those questions from secular sources in the media and popular culture.

But still they come to church.  At least they used to come to church, but that’s changing.  As a result of decades of less than optimal discipleship and spiritual engagement, they’re drifting away.

So what do we do now?   How do we change the reality of the “religious, but not spiritual” in our pews?  Can we somehow MAKE them more spiritual?

No, but there are a few things we can do to help.

It requires a commitment to honesty.  The only pathway to holy, healthy and whole individuals and families is honest engagement with culture and with one another. We have to be willing to address tough questions, even if they may be controversial, if we hope to have an impact on our community.

Christ and Christian tradition have MUCH to say about the leading spiritual concerns of our culture.  Honest engagement in honest community grounded in the love of God through Jesus Christ can help us address them one topic, one small group, one Bible study at a time.

The Limits of Technology and the Fullness of Faith

By Matt Sapp

By Matt Sapp

This is the second article in a new message series at Heritage Baptist Fellowship, Canton, Georgia, that focuses on finding meaning in a chaotic world.  Find the first article here.

In the 1990s politicians told us about the “information super highway.”  Most of us couldn’t understand what they were talking about then, but today we are smack dab in the middle of the Information Age.

Everything the world has ever known or experienced or discovered is at our fingertips—in our pockets, even. The thoughts and ideas and opinions and experiences of billions of people are catalogued and archived every day on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Tumbler.

So for a generation now, conventional wisdom has supported the idea that more information is the key to better living.  Today, data analysis, feedback systems and performance metrics improve products and services to make our lives better and easier—and our businesses more profitable.

Access to information also makes us more productive. The information age makes same day delivery from Amazon possible—wonder of wonders!  It holds the promise of improving the standard of living and quality of life for people all over the world.

Increasingly, though, we’re discovering the limits of information. And in places where the Information Age has fully blossomed we find ourselves binging on information to distract us from thoughts, relationships, situations, and emotions we’d rather avoid.

Unlimited access to information has some wonderful benefits, but what if we need more?  What if convenience and productivity do not translate into more us becoming fulfilled, grounded, and connected?  What if it takes more than facts and information to build meaningful lives?

Researchers are discovering that our minds and senses are so overly stimulated that our attention spans are shrinking to the vanishing point.

techAt the same time, depth is disappearing from our lives: Depth of relationship, depth of feeling, depth of purpose, just to name a few.  The meaning and rootedness that used to ground us—the physical places and spaces of community that used to connect us–are disappearing.

How can lives full of access to knowledge and stimulation feel so…empty?

Cultural observers have been openly wondering whether the church can survive the upheavals of this new era.  The shift away from physical places and space of community poses a huge challenge to churches, but we still need depth of relationship and feeling and purpose, of rootedness and connectedness.  The church can provide that kind of depth!

At HERITAGE we’re working to organize ourselves around three big ideas and needs that will help weather the Information Age.

Instead of easy answers we desperately want to find HEALTHY WAYS to understand the world and be understood. We’re discovering that answers can’t organize themselves into a coherent worldview that provides order and meaning to life.  In a world full of facts we hunger for understanding.

Instead of facts, we hunger for deeper TRUTH—a truth that’s Google proof.  Maybe even a truth that’s HOLY. There’s a depth to real truth that we often miss when we’re conditioned to search for facts that can be found with a few key strokes. We’re so used to searching for facts that we no longer even know to ask for truth. Truth is deeper than facts.  Truth has roots.  It connects at a spiritual, elemental level.

Truth is searched for, hard-earned, embodied and owned in a way that facts aren’t. Google offers facts; but it doesn’t offer truth.

As we discover the limits of knowledge, we might just be starting to rediscover the benefits of a LIFE of faith–a life that makes us WHOLE.  Knowledge might change how we think and may even change how we live; but we don’t just want to know how to live, we want to know why we live.

The bounded fields of knowledge can’t hold a candle to the unlimited landscape of faith.  Faith leads us to ask questions and a search for truth that knowledge can’t fully address. It leads us to truth instead of facts.

We want understanding, not answers. We hunger for truth, not facts. It’s not knowledge that we yearn for; it’s life! We want a new way to live.  We’ve heard the conventional wisdom. We’ve tried the easy fixes. We’ve experienced all the Information Age has to offer, and we want more.

We want lives that are holier, healthier and more complete than the lives we’re living right now. We want a chance to dream and exist and hope beyond the limits of the present reality. That’s what it means to be human. We were uniquely created to exist on more than information.

Jesus once made a claim about his identity that might be useful as we look to move beyond information. Jesus says, “I am the WAY, the TRUTH, and the LIFE.”  The WAY to understanding, the TRUTH beyond facts, a LIFE that transcends mere knowledge.

Recent experience teaches us that more access to information fails to make us more holy, more healthy, or more whole. That’s precisely what Christ promises to do as we search for truth, understanding and faith.

In a world where nothing is permanent, where even facts seem to change as quickly as you can google them, Christ offers something solid to hold onto—something that keeps us from drowning in a sea of information.