Saturday, February 6, 2016

Bringing home the Yellow Ribbon: When Failure Brings Epiphany (The word “study,” part 5)

Anyone involved in the Wisconsin Association of Christian Schools’ (WACS) academic and fine arts competitions during the 1990s remembers the yellow ribbon.  This was the consolation prize most dreaded by all participants—the one essentially proclaiming, “You came, but your rating wasn’t good enough to earn a blue (Superior), red (Excellent), or white (Good) rating.  This yellow ribbon stated merely: “Participant.”  From my perspective as a student, it meant that the recipient had failed and would be remembered for years afterwards (at least by himself) with this blot.  The yellow ribbon provided for many moments of jocularity at school as kids mentioned the upcoming competition, hoping and praying that they would not receive the dreaded consolation prize.

I brought home only one yellow ribbon, and I usually choose not to think about it.  While I earned many blue ribbons along the way, a few first place ratings, and no white ribbons, but my worst competition fears were realized during my freshman year of high school.  I had assumed that I would perform well on the academic history test, since history had always been one of my favorite subjects.  But this test, which was written for an essentially AP, upper-class audience, stumped me by its many trivia-style questions.  Needles to say, I missed the blue ribbon by a long shot.  

Nobody wanted a yellow ribbon.  By the time I became a teacher and began entering my own students into the WACS meets, the yellow ribbon was a thing of the past—a choice, I felt, that had been very well made.  No student wants to consider himself a failure.

Right about now, students around the nation are in high gear preparing themselves for academic and fine arts competitions.  From speech meets to music performances to piano auditions—young people’s nerves race in high gear as they focus on competition.  Hours of instruction, preparation, and rehearsal combine for that ultimate performance of what is often twelve golden minutes at most.  Those performances crystalize into a memory bank, with all the focus of the precious performance wrapped into a package ever to live on, often shaped by the final words delivered about that particular presentation.  From the judge.

The judge clarifies weaknesses, encourages strengths, and provides direction for future instruction.  In the spiritual realm, believers daily face such a Judge.  In the future, He will judge every word, deed, and motive before a grand audience.  With the rulebook of God’s Word at our fingertips and the Instructor of the Holy Spirit within us, our judgment day should bring no surprises.  Too often, though, we fail to consider the need of being regularly judged and the reality of future judgment.  Actually, we can daily ask God to judge us, helping to clarify what exactly in our lives need changing, so that judgment day brings no yellow ribbons.  In fact, Jude makes it clear:  God is able to keep us from falling and to “present us faultless,” having won the prize. 

David prayed for this Judge to examine him: “Judge me, for I have walked in mine integrity: I have trusted also in the LORD; therefore I shall not slide.  Examine me, O LORD, and prove me; try my reins and my heart.  For thy lovingkindness is before mine eyes: and I have walked in thy truth"   (Psalm 26:1-3).

Approaching the great judgment hall, David prays a request I’ve paraphrased this way: 

Judge me.  You’ve seen how I’ve behaved at all times.  Because my trust has been in You, I’m confident I’ll make it through this adjudication.  You’ve been the ultimate Source of my trust, so my foot won’t slide.  You can take my heart and my motives and put them through Your magnifying glass.  What will come forth is purity, because my focus has been right.  Every day I’ve walked, looking at Your mercy, living by every word of Your truth.

What an astounding testimony!  David was ready for judgment day, because he had kept his focus.  And so often, focus is what differentiates the second place from the first place in those golden moments of adjudicated performance.  Who gave the most attention to focusing in his practice time, completely obeying his instructor’s direction—that one often walks away with the top prize in his category.

Because we are to vie (the word translated study in I Thessalonians 4:11) for a quiet spirit, would we not do well to examine our own focus?  Daily occurrences prompt reactions and reveal who we are in the performances of life, sometimes to our own surprise.  Those minutes or seconds of failure or success provide reason to pray as did the psalmist.

After a significant number of poor performances in the Christian life last year, I began to realize that my own journey into the realm of a quiet heart was bringing home a surprisingly large number of yellow ribbons.  All I could see on the trophy wall of my spirit were gleaming golden ribbons saying, “Participant.” To me, that looked far too close to failure.  So this past summer, I spent hours reading, praying, asking God to restore the quiet spirit I had once enjoyed in my relationships with others and with Him.  I desperately needed my Judge to deliver specific criticism to my heart to lead me in His way of a meek and quiet spirit, which had become, in many ways, lost to my reality.

Always good to keep His promises, God began to show me the reason I was experiencing frequent defeat:  I had lost my focus.  Daily, I had failed to acknowledge Him and His truth as my reality zone.  I had begun to think too much about my audience instead of focusing on my Judge.

Specifically, I had forgotten that nothing could separate me from God’s love.  I was acting as if little, puny things of no significance—say, a bad attitude from someone under my authority—could zap out God’s love, which never dies, or could somehow make Jesus, Who is real, and God, Who is good, vanish into thin air.  Romans 8:38-39 is clear:  Nothing can separate me from God’s love.  This truth must be my heart’s focus if I am to live successfully!

God’s love is like air—everywhere, constant.  As long as I have breath, His love permeates my world.  And when I die, His love permeates my world.  I begged God’s forgiveness for thinking that failure—my own or others’—could in any way separate me from His love.  His love, my reality zone, is bigger than life itself, absolving all else.  In all actuality, God is bigger than all, better than all, more enduring than all, greater than all.  And, with Him as my focus, my love, an infinitesimal miniature of His, can reflect this constant.  No matter what happens, God’s love can meet all in my circle of influence, because Jesus controls my reality. 

Only as God’s merciful love is before me and as I walk in the reality of Scripture’s truth can I confidently pray, as did David,

“Judge me, for I have walked in mine integrity: I have trusted also in the LORD; therefore I shall not slide.  Examine me, O LORD, and prove me; try my reins and my heart.  For thy lovingkindness is before mine eyes: and I have walked in thy truth.” 

Only then can the blue ribbons of “Superior” greatly outnumber the yellow ones of mere “Participant.”  For with Christ, I am not merely a participant in life, I am a victor.

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