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An article caught my attention in the paper last week:-
'Give all pupils an A grade and never a fail, teachers told.'
According to a study by the Royal Society of Arts teachers should not mark exams with 'fail' and instead should write 'not yet' to help motivate pupils better. Every student should start the academic year with an A grade, so that they will work harder to keep it.
The suggestion caused widespread criticism and was in stark contrast to remarks made by the lyricist Sir Tim Rice, also reported last week, when launching his autobiography that failure is the best thing for some people, and he felt a degree of failure in his own early career had been important in teaching him a lot: he said he was worried these days when he sees young people brought up in a world where everyone has to pass and people aren't confronted with failure.
In our sermon series this Lent my subject this morning is 'Confidence in Living the Gospel' and I started with that story about failure for a reason I will come back to.
Confidence in living the Gospel - I could just point you to Chapters 5, 6 and 7 of St Matthew's Gospel, the Sermon on the Mount, because that discourse of Jesus is all about Christian living and Jesus confronting people with the sovereignty of God, and calling them to a life of self-giving, service, and love, worship and prayer. It's all there. If you want to know about Christian living those chapters are a good starting point. But where does the motivation for all that come from? What will enable us to be the kind of people and live the kind of lives to which Jesus is calling us.
Surely our motivation comes from a deep conviction that we are loved absolutely and unconditionally, by God - a love which hopefully we have found reflected in our experience of human relationships, through our parents, family, friends, and partners and through our church community. Such love is crucial to our ability to gain emotional and psychological stability, so that we can look outwards beyond ourselves and our own need, to embrace the needs of others. If we haven't experienced at least a little of that kind of self-giving unconditional love as we have grown up, it's much harder to be open-hearted and generous to others in our turn: not impossible. People can conquer the most amazing circumstances, and one of the lovely things about a good marriage or a good partnership or a close friendship is that they can bring real healing for those early hurts and emotional damage we all suffer as we grow from childhood to manhood. Love is the key, and God's love is truly unconditional in its scope and power.
A couple of things flow from this. Firstly, the Christian life is not an exam we have to pass, but an adventure that we embark on. God doesn't ask us to reach a certain standard, he asks us to launch out and follow in the way of Jesus. We don't have to have read ten books of theology or done twenty good deeds before we can become a pilgrim.
To love God with our whole heart means saying a wholehearted yes to life and all that life brings. It is to make our own the words made famous by Dag Hammarskjold:-
'For all that has been, thanks,
For all that shall be, yes.'
Counting our blessings, opening our arms to the future, saying 'yes' to what is to come, knowing that, come what may, we are loved and valued, for ourselves, by God and by others. These are the things that give us confidence in our Christian living and help us to look at ourselves and others both realistically and positively.
And, if we are able to look at ourselves realistically and know we are truly loved, that gives us a number of freedoms, especially the freedom to fail, which brings me back to my opening remark. We need to know that in life we can fail, make mistakes, and that, in spite of that, we are still loved and valued. If children are always told they are wonderful even if they are not very good at something, they will never confront the truths that come from failing, and learning and picking yourself up, and starting again. Because that is what the Christian journey is all about, learning that we are broken but beautiful.
And that is at the heart of the Christian life, and the church above all should be a place where we can be ourselves, where we all are equally valued, where we can take ourselves lightly and where we have freedom to faith - and then to carry on.