According to business consultant Cassie Parker, the current trend in our country is that fifty percent of all small businesses fail within their first five years of operation. That’s not the best news I might have shared with you today, but it is useful as a jumping off point. Listen to this. Many hugely successful business owners had at least one failed business before becoming seriously successful. It is really easy to say what I’m about to report AFTER one has become wildly successful. Out of mouths of many who made it: “Failure taught me essential lessons for later success in a way that nothing else would have done.” It all boils down to a process of refocusing.
Individuals must refocus. Organizations must refocus. Churches are among those organizations that need to refocus consistently. I don’t have to tell you what happens to those who won’t or don’t, or do I? Hymn words by Fred Pratt Green:
The church of Christ in every age,
beset by change but Spirit-led,
must claim and test its heritage
and keep on rising from the dead.
Thom Rainer is a church consultant. He helps churches grow if growth is possible. He helps churches heal. He helps get churches get out of ruts. He helps churches refocus.
In the process of refocussing, there are easy-to-neglect items that must be embraced or re-embraced if the church will do well:
1) There must be a passion to draw newbies into the church and all the church offers.
2) There must be genuine concern for what others want for their church and not just any one person’s pet programs. With this, the caustic must be replaced with the conciliatory.
3) There must be clarity as to why the church exists. This means vision, mission, and purpose.
4) The future longed for cannot be the return of an idolized earlier era.
If we are failing in any of these ways, then we must refocus, try again, try it a new way.
Gertrude Stein submitted poems to hosts of publishers over a 22-year period before having one accepted. John Grisham’s first novel was rejected 25 times before he got an acceptance letter.
Jack Canfield’s and Mark Victor Hansen’s Chicken Soup for the Soul received 134 rejections before it found its now filthy rich, visionary publisher. Beatrix Potter had so much trouble publishing The Tale of Peter Rabbit, she finally self-published the first edition. Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, received 121 rejections of his book proposal before it was published and quickly became a best seller.
“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,” is one of several ways to refocus. Don’t let the W. C. Fields version influence you initially: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. There’s no point in being a damn fool about it.” Sometimes, a refocussing process will lead us to see that going back to the drawing board over and over and over again is not working for us. There are times when success means letting go of a cherished project altogether and recreating from scratch.
Bottom line, refocusing is for health, and it is a discipline of looking at life through positive lenses rather than through the more readily available negative ones. It is absolutely possible for someone in the best of circumstances to focus only on the negatives. But in contrast it is equally as possible for someone either in challenging circumstances or someone who has recently gone through something powerfully negative to see the possibility for good in the big picture–and I don’t mean playing mind games of trying to talk yourself into seeing a negative as actually positive. What do we choose to focus on, however? And even if we had to focus on something sad or emotionally debilitating, can we now refocus? This is what all of us have to require of ourselves from time to time in order to be worry-free as well as emotionally healthy.
What I’m talking about here is exactly what one of the collected proverbs in Hebrew Scripture is talking about, namely this one: “For as people think within themselves so they are.” As people think within themselves so they are.
So am I going to focus on the negative? Is that what is within me? Is this what I will preoccupy myself with? If so, that will tell you a good bit about my level of emotional health, and it will tell you a good bit about the kind of person I am to be to hang out with. If that’s the kind of person I am, then you can expect me to be bleak and suspicious and anxious and critical. And if that’s the kind of company you’re looking for then I would be the kind of guy you’d want to hang out with.
On the other hand, let us say I learned some lessons about positive thinking from Marion Symonds or from Norman Vincent Peale or from Captain Kangaroo. And having learned these lessons about positive thinking, those are the possibilities on which I choose to focus. Sometimes it requires refocusing. No question about that. There are experiences in everyday experience that can pull me away from positives so I have to refocus; this is a conscious effort, and it takes emotional energy to maintain. As far as health goes and as far as overcoming worry goes it is the best tool out there.
Among the many stories about Jesus healing people who were suffering from various infirmities comes an odd one. Jesus has a blind man brought to him with friends of the blind man begging Jesus to touch him so that he could be healed. Jesus, instead of operating with a crowd as was his pattern, takes the man outside the village and has a private healing ceremony. It is a little-odd sounding, perhaps, that Jesus’ means of healing this man was not just to lay his hands upon him in a healing manner but first to spit on the man’s eyes. After spittle and touching, Jesus expects the man to be jumping for joy, and when that doesn’t happen Jesus asks the man, “Don’t you see anything?”
“Well, yes,” said the man half-healed. “I see people, but they look more like trees walking around.” We gather the man had to have been able to see at some point in his life and lost his vision through disease or something to that effect because he knew what objects were supposed to look like. It’s fascinating connection between trees and people. In his state of blurred vision, once again I say that in the man’s half-healed condition he saw people walking around, but given his limited eyesight along with shadows and certain lighting and maybe wind blowing he saw what looked more like trees walking around.
Now why did those who collected stories about Jesus include this one? This one does not make Jesus look very capable at least not a hundred percent. He doesn’t manage to get the guy healed on the first try. That would have been an embarrassment to the church and for many people who want to make certain statements about God based on Jesus’ capabilities. And yet the story is here and a worthwhile one. Instead of saying, “Tough luck. They’re are plenty more people who need my healing assistance,” Jesus stayed with him and tried again.
Many interpreters blame the problem on the man. He didn’t have enough faith they say and such as that. That’s nonsense; there’s nothing in the story whatsoever to reflect that kind of interpretation. Jesus didn’t get it right the first time.
So second try Jesus once again put his hands on the man’s eyes–this time evidently without spittle; and this time the man could see completely. He refocused so people looked like people walking around, and trees stayed planted as they were supposed to. Moral of the story? Getting the true view may require refocusing.
This is not far from what Paul had in mind when we was closing out his letter to the church at Philippi. In trying to give this little congregation a reminder to keep on refocussing he describes as a future challenge what he had already seen them doing–concentrating on the positive, focusing on what is good and beautiful and hopeful regardless of negativity life may have tossed their way. Once again there’s no suggestion here that anyone should try to play games about something that is negative or critical in life. Those need to be confronted with the honest emotions that go with those kinds of things. But we have the chance not to let the negatives have the last word.
Even when we have lost a loved one, as painful as that is, it remains a fact that death is not the last word about the person whom we love–either because we believe that she or he has gone to a better place or because it becomes clear to us in the midst of our grief one day that death is not the last word about our loved one; it is only part of a process that ultimately need not diminish or cloud all the joy that she or he experienced. Death cannot take memories from us, intense memories of shared experiences. This is a true sense in which our loved ones live on.
Therefore, whatever is pleasing and whatever is commendable whatever is praiseworthy, whatever is excellent–let us think on these things. If it means we have to refocus away from something negative to get to those things that is what we need to do. Good truth not negative truth. Honor. Justice. Glasses half full.
I’m sure Margery Williams’s 1922 children’s story, The Velveteen Rabbit, has visited the Silverside pulpit several times across the years. The touching tale is set around a little boy’s toy collection. The stuffed rabbit made of velveteen cloth longs to be a real rabbit instead of a toy. His companion, the Skin Horse, helps him refocus on what being real actually means:
The Skin Horse had lived longer in the nursery than any of the other toys. He was so old that his brown coat was bald in patches and showed the seams underneath, and most of the hairs in his tail had been pulled out to string bead necklaces. He was wise, for he had seen a long succession of mechanical toys arrive to boast and swagger, and by-and-by break their mainsprings and pass away, and he knew that they were only toys, and would never turn into anything else. For nursery magic is very strange and wonderful, and only those playthings that are old and wise and experienced like the Skin Horse understand all about it.
“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” the Rabbit asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
“I suppose you are real?” said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive. But the Skin Horse only smiled.
“The Boy’s Uncle made me Real,” he said. “That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.”
The Rabbit sighed. He thought it would be a long time before this magic called Real happened to him. He longed to become Real, to know what it felt like; and yet the idea of growing shabby and losing his eyes and whiskers was rather sad. He wished that he could become it without these uncomfortable things happening to him.
Kathryn Tristan of the Washington University School of Medicine came out with a book last December titled Why Worry?, subtitled Stop Coping and Start Living. She has some superior suggestions for retraining our brains along the lines of refocussing. Foundationally, she believes many of us have to redefine perfection and refocus on the result. “Most of us would love to live in a perfect world,” she writes, “where life is always fair, all people love you, good things happen and bad things do not. Unfortunately, real world always clashes with perfect world.”
Another refocussing tool she suggests is pushing ourselves to see all life experiences, even those we’d like to have skipped over, as stepping-stones rather than burdens we must carry for life. Tristan mentions a “Japanese philosophy known as wabi-sabi that describes beauty as imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It honors all things scratched, dented or worn. Based on Buddhist principles, this view suggests there is beauty in imperfection.” Without requiring ourselves to refocus, most of us would never have known.