Never Disqualify Yourself (Sermon 3 in Series: Pathways to Personal Fulfillment)

I.

The little engine who could.  “I think I can.  I think I can.  I think can.”  He could, and he did.

The little church who could.  “Oh yes we will.  Oh yes we will.  Oh yes, we will.”  They did and prevailed.

The countries with the healthiest economies in the world right now are not the larger, historically richer and more powerful countries.  The world’s top three healthiest economies at the moment appear to be:  Singapore, Hong Kong (one of China’s two Special Administrative Regions, but given tremendous autonomy), and New Zealand.  They thought they could.  They thought they could.  And they did!

There may be a hundred reasons why logic or repetitive patterns of the past or the attitudes of others about your capabilities push you to disqualify yourself when faced when a substantive challenge, but my word of encouragement to you today is, “Never disqualify yourself!”  When presented with a challenge or when pondering something you’d like to achieve, never disqualify yourself.  The world would be in much better shape today if more people like you believed the world could be changed for the good and set out to make that happen, even if in small steps.

Michael Korda says what should be self-evident, but it must not often be:  “In order to succeed, we must first believe that we can.”  If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.  No one said success was typically or frequently achieved on the first try.  If you have tried something and have not succeeded, I still say to you, “Never disqualify yourself.”

The noted “Power of Positive Thinking” preacher, Norman Vincent Peale, world famous for his consistent encouragement of those who heard and read what he said about keeping positive thoughts in the forefront no matter what, wrote:  “Believe in yourself! Have faith in your abilities! Without a humble but reasonable confidence in your own powers you cannot be successful or happy.”

Coming from a very different theological and social perspective than Peale, Henry David Thoreau sounded very much like Peale when he said:  “Live your beliefs, and you can turn the world around.”

Jesus tied a belief in what one could accomplish to faith, which for him was a combination of trust in God to support us in trying to accomplish the good mixed in with our willingness to use our skills with gusto.  To illustrate that point, dramatically, he once said to his disciples, “You know, if you had the faith of a mustard seed, you could tell a mountain to jump into the sea, and it would.”    He didn’t mean that literally as far as actual mountains were concerned; instead, he meant to instill confidence in people who had disqualified themselves spiritually and otherwise largely because of holier than thou Pharisees who made a career of bragging about their own accomplishments while overtly reminding non-Pharisees how pathetic and unaccomplished they were in the faith department–so inadequate, in fact, that they couldn’t accomplish anything worthwhile.

Jesus routinely addressed crowds of people who thought they had to have faith as big as a mountain to effect even a little, bitty change, symbolized by a mustard seed, which historians and archaeologists specializing in everyday life in the Holy Land during the time of Jesus, tell us would have been the smallest seed Jesus or any of his followers would have known about.  This parabolic saying stressed dramatically that you don’t need a mountain to move a mustard seed; it’s the other way around.  Just a tiny bit of faith can move a mountain.

Sometimes the world has been changed for the good by the efforts of a single person who would never have tried to do what became so significant without the encouragement of one person, just one person, who said to her or him, “You can do this; I know you can.”  The power of the encouragement of one person!  Even so, until you believe in yourself the way she or he believes in you, that great encouragement is nothing more than a mantle piece.  It’s just something to get off the shelf now and then to polish up and brighten a day, perhaps.  Until you believe you can accomplish whatever you set out to accomplish, though, nothing much will happen.

Dr. Benjamin Spock, the pediatrician who wrote books for  parents rearing children in my generation, and yes I was a child once, said and not just to parents trying to raise kids:  “Don’t limit yourself. Many people limit themselves as to what they think they can do. You can go as far as your mind lets you. What you believe, remember, you can achieve.”  Of course, if you do believe in yourself, but you make no effort to achieve your dreams, you will still get no where.

I like what the controversial Irish novelist, James Joyce, said in this regard:  “I am tomorrow, or some future day, what I establish today. I am today what I established yesterday or some previous day.”  Passivity will keep you from reaching your potential whether you are someone who believes in yourself but is too lazy to work toward your dream or someone who makes no effort because she or he has already pronounced failure on most every project before it is even attempted.

Back in the summer of 1968 about this time of year, as I recall, I preached my first sermon.  I was 14 years old and had, earlier in the year, told my pastor and my home church that I was drawn to the preaching ministry as my career aim.  The time for Youth Sunday rolled around, and the pastor, Jerry Hayner, asked me to be the preacher on that Youth Sunday.  I had no idea what I was doing when it came time to begin preparing the sermon; with my pastor’s help I pieced together a poor excuse for a sermon, but maybe acceptable for a first sermon prepared by a 14 year old boy.  The title of that sermon was “Youth in the Bible.”

All it was, really, was a hop, skip, and jump through the Bible stopping off at those stories about young people called on by God to do something and how they responded.  Many of these young people, and they wouldn’t have been as young as I was when preaching that sermon, resisted and offered God various excuses including their youth and inexperience.  Some few jumped right to the task to which God pointed them, but a number of them disqualified themselves.

Moses was one of those.  Moses was called on by God to take a job that required a lot of public speaking, and he was being perfectly honest when he reminded God that he didn’t do public speaking because of his stuttering problem.  God’s solution was to have Moses’ brother, Aaron, join Moses in the task.  Aaron was an effective, maybe an eloquent, speaker.  Moses passed along to his brother the messages he believed God had given to him; then, Aaron would speak to the people.  It worked out nicely overall.  Had Moses’ initial self-disqualification prevailed, though, the Hebrews might never have escaped Egypt and the slavery in which they were held.

When I choose to press on toward the realization of my dreams, in refraining from disqualifying myself I am not claiming to know how I will overcome my own weaknesses or the pitfalls I’m sure to encounter.  Maybe I’ll be able to strengthen some of the areas in which I am presently weak, but I’ll never be rid of all my weaknesses; and roadblocks are absolutely sure to show up along the way.  Refusing to disqualify myself means that I’m aware I’m imperfect and will still be imperfect when I achieve what I’m drawn to do or make real what, at present, I can only dream about.

Gandhi had a slightly different perspective on this matter.  He surely was someone who often, as one solitary figure, accomplished much.  These are his words:  “People often become what they believe themselves to be. If I believe I cannot do something, it makes me incapable of doing it. But when I believe I can, then I acquire the ability to do it even if I didn’t have it in the beginning.”

II.

Going back to that great first sermon of mine, “Youth in the Bible,” and just so you know I don’t have a copy any more as far as I know.  I kept it for years as an odd kind of souvenir.  I don’t think I intentionally trashed it, but it was lost in one of my moves.  I still remember a few things about it.  I already told you something about the Moses part of that sermon.  I think my favorite part was the Jeremiah section, though.

These are Jeremiah’s own words, a mature man looking back on his youth and particularly to how he got into the prophecy business.

Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.” Then the Lord put out the divine hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”

I think I may have liked this passage so much because I got into the process of actually preparing the sermon and finally, weeks later, while stepping into the pulpit to deliver it, I was saying to myself, “How do you get yourself into such messes?  I shouldn’t be preaching.  I’m only a boy.”  I felt like I was kind of playing dress up in way, as if I’d gone through my pastor’s old clothing already put in a giveaway box and was wearing one his suits much too big for me.

I was there, though, and I was going to go through with it so as not to embarrass my parents, my pastor who had entrusted his pulpit to me for the morning, or myself for being chicken.  I’m aware that I might still have embarrassed myself by going through with it and trying to preach in front of a few hundred people; I’m aware of that, and I don’t have to wait until Sermon Talkback for someone to remind me of that!  I pressed on and finished that 35 minute sermon in 11 minutes flat.  Back to Jeremiah though.

Since God is speaking audible words and using the divine hands, we catch on to the fact that this episode from Jeremiah’s youth was a vision.  God begins speaking to him, lets young Jeremiah know that God knew where Jeremiah’s life would be heading even before Jeremiah was born, and with that knowledge God tells Jeremiah that God decided to lure Jeremiah toward a career in prophecy from the get go.  From a human perspective, history–whether the history of a person or the history of a nation–unfolds chapter by chapter, and while no human can know either the mind of God or how God works I think it is very plausible to conceive of God as capable of seeing the whole of human history at a single glance, so to speak.  This is not to say that God calls the shots, but rather that God sees beginnings and endings and may well intervene to lure people in certain directions that will be more beneficial for them than where they might have ended up without that divine pull.

God must see with this single glance at history unfinished business, tragedies that didn’t or don’t have to be.  What God sees as ideal, though, doesn’t always happen, and many people choose not to heed God’s luring.  None of us is obligated to do what God sees as best.  We have full and complete freedom of choice; otherwise, there would be no give and take in the exchange.

So, God says, “I knew you when you were en utero, and I saw the direction your life would go.  I saw you as having great gifts to do the work of a prophet, and I am now asking you to accept that challenge.”  Jeremiah was not obligated.  He knew that he had the freedom to say, “No,” and initially that is what he did.

I must interrupt the flow here to say that this passage of scripture is one of several used by anti-abortionists to support their claim that the Bible forbids abortion. It most certainly does not.  Neither does it speak in favor of abortion.  As with many contemporary ethical issues, the Bible simply doesn’t deal with it at all.  There may be broad ethical foundations given that could be seen by some scripture readers as addressing the principle or principles needed to make an ethical decision about something completely unknown to the biblical world, but it is inaccurate to say that the Bible has a specific answer to every problem faced by contemporary women and men.

This passage has nothing at all to do with abortion or why one should avoid it or move ahead with it.  God is telling Jeremiah, in this vision, that God knew him ever since he, Jeremiah, could be known.  With that and seeing where his life would head, God lures him when he is still a lad to consider the ideal role in which God can see him, a prophet to the nations; not a prophet only to his sister and brother Hebrews, but to the nations.

This gutsy kid did not refuse God’s hope outright, but Jeremiah did disqualify himself.  Jeremiah didn’t say, “I’m uninterested.  I don’t want to be burdened with that level of piety.  I really don’t want to go to seminary!”  He said in a sincere and earnest way, though in a way by which he disqualified himself, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”

God replied, “Jeremiah, don’t disqualify yourself because of your youth.  I’m not going to send you out untrained or alone. I will tell you what needs to be said before each audience.  I will go with you, and if there are jams I can get you out of I will.”

We know that God who is spirit doesn’t have hands, but in the vision the divine hand touched Jeremiah’s mouth, a symbol of God’s having put the message Jeremiah needed to speak to the nations in the young, prophet-to-be’s mouth.  They were words that would lift up those who needed to be lifted up.  They were words that would confront those who needed to be confronted.  They were words that would inspire his hearers to uproot evil and build up good.  Jeremiah accepted the challenge and, indeed, became one of the greatest of all the prophets.  It wasn’t a requirement, though; he didn’t have to say, “Yes.”  He could have kept on living in the world of self-disqualification he seemed to be more than ready to construct.

The world of self-disqualification is a prison, a prison into which we place ourselves.  We sentence ourselves to these prisons because we refuse to believe that we are capable of making a positive difference in the world.  There are smarter people than I.  There are people who are more experienced than I.  There are those who are flat out more talented than I.  There are those with more financial resources than I.  There are those with fewer bruises to nurse than I have to nurse each day.  Yes, all of those may be true, but none of them individually or all of them taken together mean that one must self-disqualify.

  • Surely you’ve seen a runner running in a race even though one of her legs is an artificial leg made of steel to absorb the repetitive impacts of running.
  • Surely you’ve seen a blind person pushing someone confined to a wheelchair.  The person in the wheel chair is the eyes for both of them, and the blind person is the power to move them both around.
  • One of my all time favorite actors is James Earl Jones.  I got to see him perform in person in “On Golden Pond” here at the DuPont Theatre a few years ago, and hearing his magnificent voice in person was worth the price of the ticket several times over.  It just so happens that he’s a superior performer besides.  Many people are unaware that as a child, James Earl Jones stuttered so badly that the embarrassment finally got to him, and he stopped speaking altogether for a number of years.  In high school, he lucked into an English teacher who worked with him not only in written work, but also in reading poetry and dramatic scenes from literature.  Today, he performs not only in films, where a new shoot could be redone if he faltered, but also on stage where it has to be correct every time.  He rarely stumbles in front of a camera or crowd, but he still in private conversation sometimes stutters.  Someone, his teacher, made him believe that he could work around the stuttering and achieve his goal of becoming a noted actor, and that he has done.  He isn’t simply a noted actor; he’s among the best of the best, and he is what he is because an attentive and patient teacher convinced James Earl Jones that there was no need to disqualify himself.

III.

The most common reasons people in our culture give for having to disqualify themselves from meeting a challenge or realizing their dreams would be:  I’m too young.  I’m too old.  I’m too poor.  I’m uneducated and/or untrained.  Too many demands from others are placed on me, and I can’t walk away from those; in other words, I’m overcommitted, but it’s not all my doing.  Someone important to me would disapprove.

Finally, I have too many wounds; I honestly don’t have enough energy to get myself through, much less to get involved with others.  I can easily fall into depression.  Younger people didn’t used to talk disrespectfully to older people, and now that I’m one of those older people I see how dramatically that has changed.  I guess I really can’t be worth much to anybody at my age.  I’ve never gotten over the way she or he walked out on me, and those wounds leave me unable to trust anyone, anyone at all.  The teachers I had in high school successfully made me feel like an idiot; I have no confidence whatsoever in conclusions I draw, and I use every ounce of energy I have second guessing myself.

Early in my seminary master’s program, I along with everyone else who was about where I was in the process, had a required book to read.  I can’t recall if the book were a part of a course called “Formation for Christian Ministry” or not, but I think that must have been it.

It wasn’t a long book, and it wasn’t an expensive book–good news for most struggling seminarians.  The author was a professor of pastoral theology at Yale Divinity School, Henri Nouwen, and the very title of the book challenged the attitude many of us had about ministry whether, deep down, we thought we measured up or not.  Most people I have known who have chosen the ministry as a vocation, in whatever denomination or tradition, feel responsible for being a step ahead of those whom they are supposed to lead.  We clergy shouldn’t have doubts about our faith.  We should have exactly the right words and other responses to those who are dealing with pain and struggle.  Most importantly, whatever we messed up in the past, before we consented to enter the ministry as a profession, had better be cleaned up and swept neatly out of sight for the rest of our lives.

The very title of the book was incongruous and disconcerting:  The Wounded Healer.  That had to be a play on words, didn’t it?  How oxymoronic can you get?  Healers aren’t wounded are they?  They have to get all well before trying to heal others, right?  Physician, heal thyself and all of that.  If we couldn’t get our own houses in order, as Paul once told those who wanted to be higher ups in the church hierarchy, we have no business trying to help people fix theirs, huh?

Thank goodness for the courage and the insights of Professor Nouwen!  His book, The Wounded Healer,  is a challenge to clergypersons and clergypersons-to-be not to disqualify themselves on the grounds that they are imperfect.  It’s a tough profession, and the only survivors are those with both a tender heart AND tough skin–two traits that usually don’t go together.  Dan Romenesko, our Deacon Chair, accused me of plotting to force the Deacons and the church leadership to see more behind the scenes pastoral realities than some wanted to see during my study leave this summer.  I confess that I did not plan or plot toward any such thing, but I do remember telling my sister that it might be good if more laypersons knew more of what goes on behind the scenes of planning a worship service or funeral service or doing hospital and nursing home visitation.

I’m too mean and tough to whine, so let me just spit out some statistics for you.  I don’t know for how long this has been true, but it’s been a while:  90% of those who begin their careers in ministry do not retire from any ministerial career.  50% of those who stay in the ministry do so only because they can’t find any other kind of job.  Sometimes there’s too much heat in the kitchen, and sometimes they botch it.   (Don’t sit there and wonder if I’m trying to work out a subtle confession to you.  I’m not very subtle.  If I had anything to confess, you know me, I’d probably send out an eblast with color pictures!) As I told you, though, a couple of weeks ago, plenty of churches fire a pastor when she or he has done nothing wrong, morally speaking.  Enough people get loud with their complaints against the pastor’s style; others hoping for peace in the church, though they have nothing against the pastor necessarily, go with the squeaky wheels.

Not all pastors wait to be canned.  As many as 80 % leave within their first five years out of seminary.  On the other end of the spectrum, Rabbi Cohn, my dear friend in New Orleans, has a life contract with Temple Sinai; they can’t get rid of him without a burial, and he can’t get rid of them unless they all move en masse to another state!

Enough about my complicated and beleaguered profession except to say that Nouwen spoke to those who might just have the grit to last, but who are so morally sensitive that they decide they must disqualify themselves because they feel inadequate in one or more ways, especially because they feel that they carry some hurt they’ve never been able to resolve.  Nouwen says that’s not a good reason because most of us in ministry are wounded types, and we entered seminary hoping to fix ourselves so we could help fix others who carried around pain similar to our own.  In one of the later editions, a new subtitle appeared:  “In our woundedness, we can become a source of life to others.”

These are Dr. Nouwen’s words:

The minister must bind her or his own wounds carefully in anticipation of the moment when she or he will be needed.  The minister is called to be the wounded healer, the one who must look after personal wounds, but at the same time be prepared to heal the wounds of others.

There are plenty of other reasons to jump the ministerial ship, but disqualifying oneself because one is wounded as many or most human beings are in some way, though you won’t hear a word of this at prosperity gospel churches, is a cop out.

The Apostle Paul often found it hard to admit, but he was a wounded healer.  He didn’t let his failures cause him to disqualify himself when he felt that he knew what God was luring him to do.  He urged the Christians at Colossae to follow suit–in their case, not to be bullied by holier than thous who were telling them that they weren’t good enough to be called followers of Jesus and should, therefore, get away and leave the few really good and worthy people alone.  There was a group there who thought one’s faith could be verified by worship patterns, one’s selection of food and drink, and approved good works.

Paul writes:

…do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Jesus. Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking, and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.

Don’t let anyone else disqualify you, and don’t you disqualify yourself in matters of spirituality or any others.  Regardless of the odds, what others have said or are saying to you; regardless of how entrenched you are in a self-pronounced years-old identity of incompetence, let it go.  A challenge to be confronted or a dream to be realized await; don’t you be your own naysayer, preventing yourself from claiming your joyful, fulfilling future.  Perfection is neither required not expected!

Amen.

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