How to Handle Failure and Loss

July 28, 2015 our sweet black Scottish terrier, Maggie, slipped through the fence and was gone…forever. She was a hunter and loved to chase jackrabbits. That’s all it would have taken. We scoured the property and the surrounding desert. We left her bed and a dish of water at the place someone said they saw her. We took her picture to all of the neighbors, local businesses, and the post office. We checked in with the animal shelter day after day, but she was gone.

maggie-and-molly
Maggie (left) and Molly (right)

If you love a dog you understand what we’re going through. You’d think we’d be over it by now. After all, it wasn’t a child (thank God). We still look for her and can almost see her trotting back proudly from dispatching a jackrabbit, her tail in the air and her pink tongue hanging out. We think of her every day when we feed Molly, our little white dog. Yesterday, we talked again, Karon and I, about how much we still miss Maggie. As an experiment, I called Maggie’s name. Molly immediately jumped down from my lap and looked in every corner of the yard and then in the house. She misses her too.

I don’t think we’ll get over it.

Every loss is significant.

Mom and Dad lived into their nineties. Dad died at 93. Mom lived until 97. They lived wonderful lives and were citizens of the world, missionaries to the Caribbean and equatorial Africa. If you’ve read my other blogs, you know that as I grew older abandonment issues and many other things distanced me from them emotionally to the extent that when they died, my overwhelming feeling was relief.

To my surprise, I feel a greater loss as the years go by. I especially miss my mother and our first thirteen years in our West Indian home (when I knew her best). I see her hanging out the wash, her arms tanned from the tropical sun. I see her playing the piano and watch her keeping books for the mission. I remember when she picked me up from school and I shocked her with, “We’re going to have to hurry like hell!”—a phrase I obviously picked up somewhere other than the staid Shultz residence. We shared a deep love of color and beauty, so profuse in the tropical flowers with which she surrounded us. And I understand her so much better now at this stage of my life, a woman transplanted far away from her family that she never saw and separated from the two children that she loved because of duty and obedience to God. I would like to ask her about all of that, and, perhaps in heaven, she will again remember the things that I remember, and we can enjoy those memories together.

Many of us grieve fractured relationships. People we loved and trusted have disappointed us. Grown children live irresponsibly and discard our most deeply prized values. We mourn relationships we have lost or have been unsuccessful at saving, and we still remember the good times with those people or with those children when life seemed simpler and our world seemed safer. We remember the dinner table when we all laughed when one of the children passed gas. We can see the sunlight in their hair and hear they innocent chatter as they play on the monkey bars in the back yard. We remember family get-togethers when there were no political issues to separate us or illnesses to leave empty chairs where smiles used to be.

We mourn the loss of bodies that moved easily or without pain, and yearn for the days when getting dressed in the morning took five minutes instead of forty-five minutes. We miss the “good old days,” days perhaps different for each of us, but remembered in a golden glow of nostalgia.

 How to handle failure and loss.

 1. Remember and enjoy the good things.

Last night we saw the 1951 movie David and Bathsheba and I found it surprisingly moving and insightful. When David was confronted by Nathan and the full realization of his failure and sin was overwhelming him, he collapsed in prayer. In those moments, God reminded David of the good times in their relationship: when God called him by Samuel’s anointing, when he saw God in every star, lily of the valley, and care of his sheep, and when God helped him, not the least of which was killing Goliath. We cannot bring back the one who has died, but we can find joy in recalling the laughter and joy we shared together. We cannot undo the time we failed, but we can remember the hundreds of times we did not fail!

2. Remember that everyone deals with loss, even Jesus.

Madeleine L’Engle, in Walking on Water, describes the first time this realization hit her.

 “One time I was talking to Canon Tallis, who is my spiritual director as well as my friend, and I was deeply grieved about something, and I kept telling him how woefully I had failed someone I loved, failed totally, otherwise that person couldn’t have done the wrong that was so destructive. Finally he looked at me and said calmly, ‘Who are you to think you are better than our Lord? After all, he was singularly unsuccessful with a great many people.’

“That remark, made to me many years ago, has stood me in good stead, time and again. I have to try, but I do not have to succeed. Following Christ has nothing to do with success as the world sees success. It has to do with love.

Jesus’ losses and disappointments were massive: (a) the loss of divinity and heaven during the Incarnation; (b) the death of Lazarus; (c) the intense humanity of the disciples (“Couldn’t you watch with me even one hour?  [Matthew 23:40]); and the failure to succeed with many people: the Pharisees, the rich young ruler, and Judas, to name just a few. But Jesus did not allow his losses to define him.

 3. Remember that God is always with us.

A secondary result of salvation—wonderful beyond description—is God’s continual friendship and presence with us. He cares deeply for us and is intensely interested in the tiniest details of our lives. Before Jesus departed this earth, he told the disciples, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Comforter, who will never leave you….I will not abandon you as orphans (John 14:16-18).

All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is our merciful Father and the source of all comfort. (2 Cor. 1:3)

A book which always encourages me is that ancient classic The God of All Comfort by Hannah Whitall Smith. The language is dated, but Ms. Smith’s insights are simple and remarkable. For example,

“A wild young fellow, who was brought to the Lord at a mission meeting, and who became a rejoicing Christian and lived an exemplary life afterward, was asked by someone what he did to get converted.

“‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I did my part and the Lord did His.’

“‘But what was your part,’ asked the inquirer, ‘and what was the Lord’s part?’

“’My part,’ was the prompt reply, ‘was to run away, and the Lord’s part was to run after me until He caught me.’ A most significant answer; but how few can understand it!

God’s part is always to run after us. Christ came to seek and save the lost….This is always the Lord’s part; but in our foolishness we do not understand it, but think that the Lord is the one who is lost, and that our part is to seek and find Him.

We must simply believe what the Bible says about God’s love for us and His determination to be with us and to help us. We don’t have to explain it, feel it, or defend it, just accept it.

4. E + R = O (Event + response = outcome)

This formula was concocted, or perhaps repeated, by Matthew Cornell, a man whose blog I read the other day. He struggles with imagining the worst possible outcome, always reacting negatively.[1] For example, when he receives a letter from his insurance company, he immediately imagines that he is being canceled or that his rates are going up, and dreads opening the mail. It’s easy to imagine the worst when we lose something important to us or when we face an embarrassing situation or failure. But such events, losses, or failures do not define us. Our response defines us. My granddaughter, Krissy Klotz posted this on Facebook recently: “There are always going to be hard days. The way you respond to them defines you.”

As I mentioned above, Jesus suffered unimaginable rejections, disappointments, and pain. But he did not let those things define him. When bad things come our way, we need to learn to respond with a childlike innocence and curiosity instead of imagining the worst right off the bat. What can we learn? What good and positive thing is God going to bring from this? (Romans 8:28)  It may take months—or years—to get to the point where we can see it, but God promises that it will come.

 

[1]  http://www.matthewcornell.org/blog/2005/10/9/e-r-o-event-response-outcome-dealing-appropriately-with-crin.html

Are You Good Enough?

.Seattle, 1958. Sunset Junior High School. Ninth grade gym class. Fresh from the West Indies and with a heavy British accent, I dragged myself to the locker room one more time for the usual embarrassment. I was 5’ 4’’ tall and weighed almost 170 pounds. My thick glasses helped me see but nothing had helped me understand American sports. My sister was sent away to school when I was seven, leaving me the only child of busy missionary parents who were always at their desks or their work. I played the piano, ate (some afternoons I consumed an entire can of Eagle Brand sweetened condensed milk), and read. It was not only American sports that confused me. It was all sports. I had witnessed perhaps one basketball game, no football games, and not even a cricket match, which would have been more likely in Trinidad.

We suited up and filed into the gym. Our ruddy-faced PE teacher hauled in a large bag of balls and shouted, “Basketball this week, fellas!” All but one of the boys were excited and were soon shouting, joking, and shooting baskets. I, the foreigner, stood against the wall trying to make myself invisible. We lined up. Two of my classmates were named captains and chose their teams—I was always last—and the game began. Of course, everyone had his turn and my inevitable moment arrived. I had watched carefully to try to learn what to do. Suddenly someone threw me the ball. By this time I had figured out that I should get the ball and shoot a basket, and so I shoved the ball under my arm and ran to the end of the court. The coach’s whistle shrilled and everybody stared. “Schlitz!” (He never got my name right.) “Don’t you know you are supposed to dribble the ball?!“ Dribble? My face crimsoned to uproarious, hooting laughter.

A Childhood Experience Grows into Dysfunction.

By my senior year things were much better. I was losing the accent and understood most idioms of American life. But the feeling of not being good enough was still lodged in my mind. Years later and in my forties with a beautiful wife and three great kids, the feeling roared back. It had nothing to do with sports now. It was my Christian faith that was the bugaboo. By this time I had a graduate degree from seminary and had been both a pastor and associate pastor in several congregations. I was supposed to have the answers, to understand theology, how prayer works, and just what to say to the parents of the dying child in the emergency room. But I didn’t have all of the answers. Some days I wondered if I had any answers.

My flawed theology led me to label some vocations as more valuable than others. To my way of thinking, missionaries were number one and pastors were number two. Others were three or lower. I’m sure my parents made mistakes but they never shared them with me. Ours was a proud denomination certain of ourselves and our right doctrine. Everything was right or wrong. No minister or pastor that I knew ever slipped up. In fact, Every Christian was supposed to be perfect and live above sin, period. We were a well-intentioned but graceless group who defined ourselves by the things we didn’t do. We didn’t drink. We didn’t smoke. We didn’t dance. We didn’t play cards. We didn’t swear. We didn’t go to movies. You get the picture. When Christians we knew did these things, they were labeled a failure.

And now I didn’t have the answers. I struggled at times with temptation. For the first time I recognized my deep-seated anger against my parents for sending me away to school and against the denomination that sent them to the mission field. I was trapped. I was angry and Christians don’t get angry. I doubted my beliefs and Christians should have strong faith. I could no longer do the job and had never been taught it was okay to fail. I felt that I was not good enough. Especially was I not good enough to be a pastor, and way below my falsely created pedestal of missionary perfection. And so I left pastoral ministry.

When we’re not good enough.

So what happens in this environment? People pretend. We hide. We hide our true selves and display what everyone thinks we should be. People do this everywhere. We pretend we’re someone else (posting flattering photos on Facebook or dating web sites). We adopt an attitude of superiority to hide our feeling of inferiority (swaggering around in front of our friends to impress them). This is usually an unconscious response to not feeling good enough. In today’s mean-spirited society, we are particularly susceptible to bullying. We’ve all read the tragic accounts of teenagers who have killed themselves because of being labeled as losers. Our culture praises beautiful bodies and the lifestyle of the rich and famous. Who can compete? The Business world demands being super productive and twelve-hour days. It’s no wonder so many of us feel inadequate, marginalized, and useless. “I’m not good enough” becomes a lifelong personality disorder that torpedoes relationships and fractures marriages and families. It leads to depression—and even suicide.

What now?

  1. Examine your negative self-image. Where does it come from? Peers and parents are two powerful forces and either or both can make you feel wonderful or horrible. Who is telling you that you are not good enough? Is it you or someone else? If it’s you, why do you feel inadequate? What event, experience, or relationship is fueling your pain?
  2. Ask a trusted friend about your perceptions. How do they understand the triggers that launch your self-doubt? What good things do they see in you? What do they believe about you?
  3. Are you transparent? Are you real or do you put up a front that you imagine others want you to be? No one can live a lie. It’s okay to be who you really are. Jettison friends who require you to pretend.
  4. Failure is temporary. Life is a learning process and you are very resilient. Thousands of people we think of as big successes failed countless times in the pursuit of their vision. It’s okay to fail. How you respond to failure is a key to succeeding in life.
  5. Failure is not a sin. Everyone fails at some point. It’s the nature of life. Only God is perfect but He is also gracious, understanding, and loving.
  6. Comparison is corrosive. Comparing yourself to others breeds dissatisfaction, jealousy, envy, and depression. In truth, we often don’t even know the people to whom we compare ourselves!
  7. God has made you a marvelous and creative person. You are created in His image. He loves you as you are. He gave up Heaven to walk this earth in human form to teach us that He understands. He died for your sins and, if you accept him, He will live in you now and give you Heaven forever.

Epilogue

By God’s grace, my story did not end with my departure from pastoral ministry. In the months and years that followed, God revealed Himself to me with remarkable and uplifting encouragement. He immediately gave me three scriptures verses which extinguished my burning sense of ministerial failure.

  • The first was from Mark 1:11, “You are my dearly loved Son, and you bring me great joy.” I foolishly reacted with some statement about this verse being for Jesus. God said, “It is my Word and today it is about you.”
  • The second was from Haggai 2:23: “I will make you like a signet ring on my finger, says theLord, for I have chosen you.”
  • The third was from Luke 22:31-32 “Satan has asked to sift each of you like wheat.But I have pleaded in prayer for you, [David] that your faith should not fail. So when you have repented and turned to me again, strengthen your brothers.”

I have learned that God was neither surprised nor disappointed by my struggle. It made no difference to Him that I felt that I had failed. He didn’t mind that I was angry at the church or wanted nothing to do with further ministry. Nothing I was feeling disqualified me in His eyes from His original call upon my life to be his boy.

The grace that I was never taught but experienced from gracious people like my adopted parents, L. T.  and Helen Flynt, my parents-in-law, John and Florence Neal and, of course, my wife and children, has become a permanent and healing part of my life. They from the beginning have loved me as I am and their love is unconditional and forever. Thank you!

God graciously used me in other ministry positions, including two wonderful pastorates and now in retirement. He continues to heal me from my need to be perfect and reminds me not to compare myself with others.

I pray that you, too, will find His grace and peace.