Want Greatness? Don’t Let Your Past mistakes Define You
Deut, 34 : 1 _ 12
One of my favorite movies is the Pursuit of Happyness staring Wills Smith. It is a movie portrayal of the story of Chris Gardener. Raised in the United States foster care system because his mother was in jail, he struggled as a salesperson trying to make a living as a medical equipment sales person but that went nowhere. He became homeless when he could not afford to pay for the motel room he was staying and with a child to take care of when his girlfriend left, he slept in night shelters, public bathrooms and at train stations. Despite all these setbacks, Mr. Gardner did not give up and under night lights or anywhere he could find shelter, he studied for the finance brokerage licensing examination which he saw as a ticket out of homelessness. Did I tell you that Mr. Gardener is black and also had seen his share of discrimination and racism? Yes he saw it all but he also believed that there is goodness in the human heart and that others seek for us when we have something to offer. He knew he could offer his services and hard work if he could just get the license despite his skin color and so he pursued this dream. In 1982 his dream came true and he passed the licensure examination and with the license in hand, he found a job with the brokerage firm of Dean Witter. Others could have given up or rest because now they have a job and a place to live. This was not what Mr. Gardener did. Five years later, in 1987 he opened his own brokerage firm. Nine years later in 2006, he sold the firm he founded in a multi-million dollar deal. Today Chis Gardner is worth more than $60 million according to the website celebrity Networth. Think about that, from homelessness to being a millionaire. Mr. Gardener has told his story all over the world and those who have not heard him speak have seen the movie about his life. He is a failure in marriage because his marriage broke because of infidelity in San Francisco. He grew up in a foster care because his step father was abusive and his mother was in jail. He is today one of America’s success story because he has one thing: he did not allow failure to define him.
Today I invite you to look at another individual who did not allow failure to define him. Turn with me to the book of Deuteronomy chapter 34 : 1 – 12. I want to take as our text verse 10 “Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face”.
This last chapter of the Pentateuch or law tells the story of the death of Moses at the age of 120 years. The author tells the story of Moses being taken up on an elevation to see the panoramic view of the Promised Land. He is standing and looking at the northeast and then is shown west and south looking at the coast of the Dead Sea. He saw “the plains of Jericho, the city of palm trees, as far as Zoar” (v.3), the editor noted. Then the Lord reminded him that it is the land promised to his ancestors but added: “I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not go over there” (v.4). After seeing the land, the narrator said Moses died and was buried at an unknown location though the general area is known (land of Moab). There was mourning for the beloved leader and Joshua took over, yet we know unlike Moses, Joshua needed help from others in order to know the will of God. He never communicated directly with God (Num. 27 : 21). Our editor, like most editors do added something to the narrative to help the readers in v. 10, “Since then”, since the death of Moses, from this time in history and since that age, “no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses”. The description along with certain details in the story makes Moses super human. Moses is even buried by God (v.6). Yet looking back at his life he was not that different from other humans in fact, he was quite the contrary and went through so much hardship and failures. Yet the editor, at the end of his life praised him for “all the signs and wonders which the Lord sent to him to perform (v.11) and “the mighty power” (v.12. Moses endured and overcame so much to win praise at the end. Like everyone else he saw his share of failures, foibles and human brokenness.
Perhaps you have forgotten some of what he went through let me summarize them for you. He was born at a time when Pharaoh was killing infant boys and he had to be abandoned at a river bank and so he grew up away from his parents. He murdered someone and fled from Pharaoh (ex. 2 : 15). He tried his hand as a shepherd and that did not go so well and despite being a murderer, God called him. With the power of God in the form of a staff in his hand he was still easily frustrated and was not kind to criticism. His leadership skill was not perfect, but despite all that he went through, he pushed on and refused to allow failure to define him. He organized a band of people as they wandered from Egypt to Canaan and provided laws that defined the people as the people of God. At the time of his death, he had worked so hard such that the editor noted that no prophet had risen to such prominence.
What can we in our postmodern world learn about failure and greatness and how do we find the strength to get up and push forward after a disappointment?
The American writer, Natalie Goldberg, wrote that this life is never orderly for in the middle of it when things seems to be going alright we break a leg, fall in love or drop a jar of apple sauce. Perhaps a story will illustrate this point. Some years ago, two days before my dissertation defense, I broke my leg and had to walk with crutches. Afraid that my dissertation committee will ask me to postpone this important examination, and with a job waiting for me, I refused to call the chair and informed her of my problem; yet I was very worried about how I would stay on my feet for the three hours that the oral examination required. My worries turned out to be baseless when I limped into the room for the committee was not interested whether I stood or sat. Errors, mistakes and mishaps are all around us. From picking the wrong thing from a room to making a wrong turn on the road, from misjudging a scene to making wrong decisions we live with errors and mistakes all the time. Sometimes the mistakes are made because we wrongly predicted an outcome, at other times we trusted and hoped wrongly in what we thought was the best of choices. The fact that we make mistakes is not important, what is important is how we react and how we act within what is learnt after the fact. The question is how do we overcome the defeatist spirit and trudge on when we feel that we are failing? I have a few suggestions based on the life of Moses and what our Lord taught us:
1. Be gentle with yourself, do not blame yourself or others instead channel that energy towards correcting the problem. Someone told a story of four people that were involved in a car accident: the perfect man, the tooth fairy, the perfect woman and Santa Claus. The question was asked who survived the accident? The answer is none because none of them existed in the first place. If you want to overcome the defeatist spirit be gentle with yourself and give yourself permission to make mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes and that is why erasers are put on pencils the British satirist, Jonathan Swift, once wrote. Many people cannot forgive themselves s for a mistake they make and so they repeat that story to themselves and to friends and wonder what could have been had they not made such mistakes. The result is that you internalize such ideas and see yourself from such error. Such perspective saps your self-confidence and you think you can never ever get other things right.
2. How then do you get up after a fall? When things seems to be going downhill and you feel you are at your lowest point how do you pick yourself up? The second thing to do is pray. Prayer is not only talking to God but listening to God. What just happened may be a wake-up call. Tell yourself that you can rise up above all that is giving you trouble. Don’t feel defeated for those who are defeated are the people who remain down. Those who have a prayerful spirit and practice, several studies have shown, are more resilient and can bounce back quicker than those who do not pray. Pick a quiet time and a quiet place in your home to pray. It does not have to be a room, it can be a corner of your bedroom with just a chair or something you can kneel to pray or sit. Build a sanctuary in your home and pick a time to speak and listen to your maker. It may be that sometimes praying may be difficult but remember prayer is not only speaking to God it may be listening to God. You may choose to have a hymn before or after your quiet time, but whatever you choose, think of prayer as fuel in your engine. That is how you bounce back and that is how you refuse to allow failure to define you.
3. Talk to somebody. Do not try to struggle alone. Sometimes telling others can be therapeutic. It takes the load off of you. People around you can be a source of support, make use of your support systems. Know that, as St. Paul wrote to the church, others have been through what you may be going through and have survived. Therefore know that you will survive. Talk to your pastor, a professional or a trusted friend. Nothing is as difficult as the thought that you are all alone and that no one will understand you. Professionals are trained to keep whatever they hear confidential unless you plan to harm others or yourself. Your pastor may not break this confidentiality.
4. Above all forgive those you think may be responsible and forgive yourself so you can move on. Nobody is perfect. Know that those who fall into the stream may not die from the fall, but those who remain submerged are those who are in danger. Think about someone who falls over into a river and cannot swim. So long as the individual thrashes around and gets his or her head above the water, the chances of staying alive is better than being submerged. Forgiveness benefits the forgiver never the forgiven. When we forgive, we are clearing our minds for good things to come in and we are creating room to receive goodness. It is easy to blame those who might have contributed to our failure and to hold a grudge, but that will not help us. In the same way, if you find yourself in one of life’s difficult ways, do something, talk to someone, pray, forgive yourself, forgive those who contributed to the failure and be gentle with yourself.
Ours is a time when we deal with issues where others who lived before our time did not experience. We too must learn to be resilient since we have a God who never changes. I want to live you this morning with a story. It is a story told by Mrs. Civilla Martin about a couple they visited in New York named Mr and Mrs. Doolittle. Both had serious illnesses and Mrs Dolittle was said to be bedridden. Asked how they are doing, Mrs Do little despite her illness and suffering replied from her bed “God is watching over us, His eyes is on the sparrow and I know he is watching us.” That afternoon, impressed with such a strong faith, Mrs Martin wrote the song that we sing in church. I want you to note the lines from this song:
Whenever I am tempted, whenever clouds arise,
When songs give place to sighing, when hope within me dies,
I draw the closer to Him, from care He sets me free;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.
Yes you can get to greatness if you dust yourself up. You can live again and find strength to live if you do not become defeated by past mistakes. You can do all things through Christ who is your strength because our God is watching you. His eyes is on the sparrow and surely he is watching over you. Thanks be to God. Amen.