Sermon Illustrations on Achievement
The #1 Disciple
Harold Kushner wrote about a very bright, driven pre-med student at a very competitive college. While traveling in the East the summer before his junior year, he met a guru who said, “Don’t you see you’re poisoning your soul with this success-oriented way of life? Your idea of happiness is to stay up all night studying for an exam so you can get a better grade than your best friend. Your idea of a good marriage is not to find the woman who will match your soul, but to win the girl everybody else wants. That is not how people are supposed to live. Come join us in an atmosphere where we all share and love one another.”
He was ripe for this. He called his parents and told them he was dropping out of school to live in an ashram. Six months later, they received a letter from him:
Dear Mom and Dad,
I know you weren’t happy about my decision, but I want to tell you how it has changed me. For the first time in my life, I’m at peace. Here there is no competing, no trying to get ahead of anyone.
This way of life is so in harmony with my inner soul that in only six months I’ve become the #2 disciple in the entire community, and I think I can be #1 by June.
Ceaseless Motion and a Sense of Achievement
Thomas Merton describes those who never experience the gift of a contemplative life. His explanation for why some people never experience this can be found in his book, New Seeds of Contemplation:
[These people] are attached to activities and enterprises that seem to be important. Blinded by their desire for ceaseless motion, for a constant sense of achievement, famished with a crude hunger for results, for visible and tangible success, they work themselves into a state in which they cannot believe that they are pleasing God unless they are busy with a dozen jobs at the same time.
Sometimes they fill the air with lamentations and complain that they no longer have any time for prayer, but they have become such experts in deceiving themselves that they do not realize how insincere their lamentations are. They not only allow themselves to be involved in more and more work, they actually go looking for new jobs.
Christian Love: the Antithesis of Envy
The Christian’s self-understanding is that she is precious before God—however much a sinner, however much a failure (or success) she may be by the standards of worldly comparisons—and that every other person she meets has the same status…This vision is not only one that levels every distinction by which egos seek…glory…This vision, when appropriated, is also the ultimate ground of self-confidence.
For the message is that God loves me for myself—not for anything I have achieved, not for my beauty or intelligence or righteousness or for any other “qualification,” but simply in the way that a good mother loves the fruit of her womb. If I can get that into my head—or better, into my heart—then I won’t be grasping desperately for self-esteem at the expense of others, and cutting myself off from my proper destiny, which is spiritual fellowship with them.
Robert C. Roberts, Spirituality and Human Emotion (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 69. See the updated chapter in his Spiritual Emotions: A Psychology of Christian Virtues (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007).
Driven by Demons
Brett Favre was a driven man. He explained to USA Today that his father’s message that he was never good enough drove him to become one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history…His dad had also been his high school coach. He demanded excellence from Brett, and he didn’t accept any excuses. When Irv Farve died at age fifty-eight from a heart attack, Brett “lost his biggest fan-and most vocal second-guesser.” His father was tough on his son. Brett remembers, “if you grew up in a household with a football coach who looks like a drill sergeant, you would think you would be tough. Anytime I was hurt…his advice was, “Get your a** up.’ Never did he say he loved us…
Favre had two ways of coping with the pain of his childhood: he was driven to be the best, and he used alcohol and prescription drugs to numb the pain. Throughout his career, Favre continued to hear the voice in the back of his mind, the critical voice of his father that drove him to be the best. In the year he came out of retirement to play again, he explained, “Part of my success always has been that I felt I had something to prove, even after I won three MVP’s. That has not changed today. If I am going to play, I’m going to be the best and have this chip [on my shoulder].
Excellence, the Jeremiah Way
In Jeremiah it is clear that the excellence comes from a life of faith, from being more interested in God than in self, and has almost nothing to do with comfort or esteem or achievement. Here is a person who lived life to the hilt, but there is not a hint of human pride or worldly success or personal achievement in the story. Jeremiah arouses my passion for a full life. At the same time he firmly shuts the door against attempts to achieve it through self-promotion, self-gratification or self-improvement. It is enormously difficult to portray goodness in an attractive way; it is much easier to make a scoundrel interesting…
How do I stimulate an appetite for excellence without feeding at the same time a selfish determination to elbow anyone aside who gets in the way? Insistent encouragement is given by many voices today for living a better life. I welcome the encouragement. But the counsel that accompanies the encouragement has introduced no end of mischief into our society, and I am in strenuous opposition to it. The counsel is that we can arrive at our full humanness by gratifying our desires. It has been a recipe for misery for millions.
The Fundamental Very-Goodness of Creation
After finishing a major project, have you ever stood back, taken in what you have accomplished, and said to yourself, “That’s pretty good”? I’ll admit that I have on numerous occasions, especially after mowing the lawn.
When we lived in Texas, our house was surrounded by more than two acres of turf. (Land is gloriously inexpensive in Texas because they have so much of it there!) Several times during the spring and summer, I’d get on my riding mower and spend a couple of hours cutting the grass, not to mention plenty of weeds, wildflowers, fallen branches, and pesky rocks. After I finished, I’d gaze upon what I had done and feel a peculiar sense of accomplishment.
My formerly shaggy lawn looked like a well-trimmed carpet. Plus, the smell of freshly cut grass reminded me of summer afternoons in days gone by, when my dad and I would work in the back yard together. Seeing what I had accomplished, my heart exulted, “That’s pretty good!”
When creating the universe, God did something like that. In Genesis 1:3, God created light. In verse 4, God “saw that the light was good.” Several times throughout Genesis 1 God saw the goodness of his creation. The earth and seas were good (1:10). The vegetation was good (1:12). The celestial bodies were good (1:18). The creatures of the sea and air were good (1:21). The land animals were good (1:25). Finally, after creating human beings, “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” (1:30).
Notice, according to God, everything was not just “pretty good,” but “very good.” The fundamental very-goodness of creation is a reality that must not be ignored. It provides a sure foundation for fruitful living, not to mention an essential basis for a right understanding of life and its meaning. Affirming the basic goodness of creation does not deny the brokenness that comes from sin. We’ll get to this in Genesis 3. But, all too often, Christians think and act as if Genesis 3 reveals the fundamental nature of all things, thus neglecting the goodness of God’s original production. Whatever else is true of the world, God made it good, good, good, good, good, good, and, indeed, very good.
Identity and Achievement at L’Arche
All of us struggle with our own desires for accomplishment and ambition. Christians especially find it difficult to discern their own worldly ambitions vs. following Jesus’ comand to seek first the kingdom of God (Matt.6:3). The author and scholar Henri Nouwen documents his own struggle with this tension after leaving the lofty ivory towers of academia to work in a house for mentally disabled adults. He describes this struggle in the book “In the Name of Jesus”:
The first thing that struck me when I came to live in a house with mentally handicapped people was that their liking or disliking me had absolutely nothing to do with any of the many useful things I had done until then. Since nobody could read my books, they could not impress anyone, and since most of them never went to school, my twenty years at Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard did not provide a significant introduction. My considerable ecumenical experience proved even less valuable. Not being able to use any of the skills that had proved so practical in the past was a real source of anxiety. In a way it seemed as though I was starting my life all over again.
In his early days at L’Arche, Nouwen struggled with his identity and vocation as he made the transition from teaching to working among some of the “least of these”. How have you managed your own sense of call, seeking God’s kingdom, and your own worldly ambitions?
Stuart Strachan Jr. with an excerpt from Henri Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership, The Crossroad Publishing Company.
The Indispensable Journalist
The Newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst once offered columnist Arthur Brisbane a six-month vacation with full pay as a reward for his dedicated and successful work. Brisbane ultimately turned down the offer, which prompted Hearst to ask why. Brisbane gave two reasons:
“The first is that if I quit writing for six months it might damage the circulation of your newspapers.” He paused for a moment; then said: “The second reason is that it might not.”
Adapted by Stuart R Strachan Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr. on Achievements
Not long before his death, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke to the congregation at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church:
If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. Every now and then I wonder what I want them to say. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize; that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards; that’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school. I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King Jr. tried to love somebody.
The Patterns of Our Achievements
People don’t rise from nothing. We do owe something to parentage and patronage. The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all themselves. But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantage and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot. It makes a difference where and when we grew up.
The culture we belong to and the legacies passed down by our forebears shape the patterns of our achievement in ways we cannot begin to imagine. It’s not enough to ask what successful people are like, in other words. It is only by asking where they are from that we can unravel the logic behind who succeeds and who doesn’t.
Paul’s Achievements Today
Paul give us an excellent example of what looking at people from a worldly point of view looks like in Philippians chapter 3:
If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.
So Paul has his version of worldly accomplishment, if he were an American he would probably say something like this: If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in themselves, I have more: I was born a Roosevelt on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, Baptized in the Episcopal Church, I attended Phillips Exeter Academy, before matriculating at Harvard, my IQ is 150, my G.P.A a 3.99.
My first job was a consultant and then I became a hedge fund manager in New York City, with an apartment Uptown and a summer home in the Hamptons, I’ve been an elder at St. Luke’s, ran a capital campaign, been on the board of various philanthropic organizations…
That’s how it would go today, but listen to what Paul says next:
“But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ”
Stuart Strachan Jr.
Progress, the Secret of Success
The Double Helix, James Watson’s 1968 memoir about discovering the structure of DNA, describes the roller coaster of emotions he and Francis Crick experienced through the progress and setbacks of the work that eventually earned them the Nobel Prize. After the excitement of their first attempt to build a DNA model, Watson and Crick noticed some serious flaws. According to Watson, “Our first minutes with the models…were not joyous.”
Later that evening, “a shape began to emerge which brought back our spirits.” But when they showed their “breakthrough” to colleagues, they found that their model would not work. Dark days of doubt and ebbing motivation followed. When the duo finally had their bona fide breakthrough, and their colleagues found no fault with it, Watson wrote, “My morale skyrocketed, for I suspected that we now had the answer to the riddle.” Watson and Crick were so driven by this success that they practically lived in the lab, trying to complete the work.
Throughout these episodes, Watson and Crick’s progress—or lack thereof—ruled their reactions. In our recent research on creative work inside businesses, we stumbled upon a remarkably similar phenomenon. Through exhaustive analysis of diaries kept by knowledge workers, we discovered the progress principle: Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.
Teresa Amabile & Steven J. Kramer, The Power of Small Wins, Harvard Business Review.
“Remember: You are Human.”
When Julius Caesar returned to Rome after many years of fighting its battles abroad, he planned great festivities and triumphal processions to celebrate his victories over Gaul, Egypt, Pontos, and Africa. Each of the four processions took an entire day. His goal was to hold the city spellbound by his greatness.
The cavalcades wound through the streets and ended at the temple of Jupiter, displaying treasures, booty, large paintings of battles, and maps. Then came the prisoners with their barbarian kings; then the Roman officials; and then the commander himself, riding on a chariot drawn by three white horses. He wore a laurel wreath and purple toga, carried the eagle scepter, and colored his face with red lead to represent Jupiter, whose power had made the armies victorious, while over him a slave held the golden wreath. Yet the same slave also served as counselor to this demigod by repeating in his ear, “Remember, you are human.”
Some years ago an army sharpshooter was visiting a small town. He was surprised to find bull’s-eyes with bullet holes in the exact center all throughout the village. “Someone or some one’s here must be amazing shooters,” he thought, “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Finally he found the local rifleman responsible for all those holes. “I’m a pretty good shot, but I’ve never been this accurate,” he said to the man. “Oh, it’s not hard at all,” he said, “I just shoot first and draw the circles after.”
Original Source Unknown, Stuart Strachan Jr.
Three Men at the Pinnacle of Power
Months of struggle, of strategy, of sacrifice all paid off in a landslide victory for President Richard Nixon in 1972. On election night his aide Charles Colson was in the place he had always wanted to be. The picture Colson draws of that night contains three figures: chief of staff H. R. Haldeman, arrogant and sullen; Nixon, restlessly gulping scotch; and Colson, feeling let down, deflated, “a deadness inside me.”
Three men at the power pinnacle of the world, and not a single note of joy discernible in the room. “If someone had peered in on us that night from some imaginary people in the ceiling of the President’s office, what a curious sight it would have been: a victorious President, grumbling over words he would grudgingly say to his fallen foe; his chief of staff angry, surly, and snarling; and the architect of his political strategy sitting in numbed stupor.”
The experience is not uncommon. We work hard for something, get it and then find we don’t want it. We struggle for years to get to the top and find life there thoroughly boring. Colson writes, “Being part of electing a President was the fondest ambition of my life. For three long years I had committed everything I had, every ounce of energy to Richard Nixon’s cause. Nothing else mattered. We had no time together as a family, no social life, no vacations.” And then, having in his hands what he had set out to gain, he found he couldn’t enjoy it.
Taken from A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society by Eugene Peterson Copyright (c) 1980, 2000 by Eugene Peterson. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
What Drives Success?
In his book, Scary Close, Donald Miller acknowledges that over time he developed a mask, or a persona that kept even those closest to him from experiencing with him. As he began to peel back layers of his own personality, of shame and his masks, he had this moment of epiphany, although he decribes it more negative terms. Nevertheless it is an insight worth considering:
Here’s a thought that haunts me: What if we are designed as sensitive antennas, receptors to receive love, a longing we often mistake as a need to be impressive? What if some of the most successful people in the world got that way because their success was fueled by a misappropriated need for love? What if the people we consider to be great are actually the most broken? And what if the whole time they’re seeking applause they are missing out on true intimacy because they’ve never learned how to receive it?
“Why? Because it is There”
The British mountaineer George Leigh Mallory became famous after multiple expeditions on Mount Everest. On a book tour in the U.S. in 1923, people would regularly ask him the question, “why did you want to climb Mount Everest?” His answer was the same each time: “Because it is there.”
Stuart Strachan Jr.
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