The Rose Bowl played on New Year’s Day, January 1, 2021, was unique, because it was the first Rose Bowl to be played in the state of Texas. And though great plays were made in that recent game, and though many great plays have been made over the course of one hundred years of Rose Bowl history, none has approached the magnitude of the most memorable play in Rose Bowl history — because it involved such a dramatic mistake. On January 1, 1929, the California Golden Bears were playing the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets for the de facto national championship, and late in the first half, even though they weren’t using the triple option, Georgia Tech fumbled, and Cal’s defensive star Roy Riegels picked up the ball. Someone bumped him in the process, and he became disoriented – and began running the wrong way, toward the Georgia Tech goal line. His speediest teammate caught him on about the one yard line and turned him around, but a swarm of Georgia Tech tacklers brought him down at the three. Cal’s subsequent punt was blocked, giving the Jackets a 2-0 lead. Riegels was so distraught that he took himself out of the lineup and headed to the locker room, not planning to return to the field. He told his coach, “I can’t do it. I’ve ruined you. I’ve ruined myself. I’ve ruined the University of California. I couldn’t face that crowd or my teammates to save my life.” But his coach reminded him the game was only half over and urged him to go out and give his best. So Riegels returned to the game and authored a terrific performance, blocking a Georgia Tech punt and making numerous tackles. Nevertheless, Georgia Tech prevailed 8-7, and the legend of “Wrong Way Roy Riegels” was born.
Maybe none of us in this coming year will make a mistake as dramatic and memorable as that committed by Roy Riegels, but we can be sure that at some point during this year every one of us will make a mess of things. We will all fail, goof up, misconstrue, miscalculate, fall short of our goals. We will all miss the mark in pursuit of some desired aspiration.
The Gospel of Mark reflects this universal human tendency. John the Baptizer said to his followers, “I am not worthy to stoop and untie the sandals of the One whose way I prepare.” We think of that statement as one of pure humility, that John felt inadequate in the presence of Christ, who represented the fullness of God’s power and purpose. But I suspect that John’s statement also reflects his awareness that he had not done his job as well as he had hoped. Yes, he had drawn great crowds to his preaching, and many of those who came to hear him repented of their lifestyle and were baptized by him, even discipled by him. Yet through his ministry he had also made many significant and dangerous enemies and engendered great controversy. He had to wonder if he had truly galvanized a nation to receive the Messiah. He had to wonder if he had truly prepared the way for the Lord and opened the hearts of Israel to receive the coming Christ. So when he said, “I am not worthy to stoop and untie the sandals of the One whose way I prepare,” he uttered not only a word of humility, but admitted that his efforts to prepare the way for the Messiah were, to some degree, a failure.
As we enter this new year we must recognize that every one of us will author some measure of failure. Every basketball player, even those in the NBA, will shoot and miss. Every hitter, even those in the major leagues, will fail seventy times out of a hundred. Every doctor will misdiagnose. Every financial analyst will evaluate some stock wrongly. We will create rigorous dietary disciplines, then ‘cheat’ a little every day. We will devise failsafe plans for physical fitness, then succumb to the snooze alarm. We will promise God utter devotion, then spend more time brushing our teeth this year than scouring our soul in prayer. We will declare our love for God, then place every other priority on our schedule ahead of our commitment to Christ and Christ’s community. We will assure our spouse that we love them, then allow every other claim upon our time and attention to take priority over our devotion to our beloved. In short, we will do, as Paul so eloquently phrased it, not the good that we mean to do, but the bad that we do not intend to do, that is what we will find ourselves doing. We are all going to make mistakes. We are all going to fail.
The truth is, failure is embedded within the fabric of life. Failure is a natural constituent of existence and experience. I spent enough time in Charlotte to know that in a few weeks the Daytona 500 will signal the start of another NASCAR racing season. Some of the best drivers in the world will be on that track. They will be driving exquisitely prepared cars. Yet, does anyone think all of those marvelous drivers will steer those amazing cars at 200 miles per hour for 500 miles and nobody will make a mistake? No. There will be wrecks. We expect wrecks. The more morbid of us may even look for wrecks! As good as they are, some of those drivers will make mistakes. It is inevitable. Mistakes are part of the race. Accidents, mishaps, miscalculations are woven into the fabric of all life. The question is, how will we deal with them? How will we respond to our errors?
When the British people were asked to vote on the best novel of the 20th century, by a large margin they selected J. R. R. Tolkien’s the Lord of the Rings. Critics and readers alike have gushed over the breadth and depth of the author’s epic imaginative powers. One would surely think that a man who wrote a several- thousand page novel must have found writing easy. On the contrary, he spent twelve years writing this novel. And though millions of readers have found his tale impossible to put down, Tolkien himself quit the project a dozen times. Every time he abandoned his quest, his closest friends, particularly C. S. Lewis, would urge him to return to his work, to not let his dryness of spirit and deadness of mind cause him to cease working on the project. On the basis of such encouragement he persevered and produced a masterpiece. How many of us in our aspirations to improve, to mature, to achieve, will encounter periods of dryness of spirit and deadness of mind? All of us. All of us will hit periods when our commitment wavers, when our confidence ebbs, when our energy wanes. All of us are going to experience times in the pursuit of some great goal when we think, ‘This is too hard for me, too high an ambition. I just need to quit.’ There are times when in the pursuit of our goal that we think, ‘I have failed in the past; what will make this time any different? I might as well give up.’ Such is the paralyzing logic of failure. But we cannot give into it.
One of my yearly privileges in my Charlotte congregation was to address our church’s young people in a Discipleship Class about what it meant to be a Christian. Every year I was asked to speak to the question of what it meant to be a disciple of Jesus. I would begin by asking the class one question: “Who was the disciple who betrayed Jesus?” Usually one of them would answer quickly, “Judas. Judas Iscariot. He sold Jesus out.” Then I would ask, “Okay, was he the only disciple who betrayed Jesus?” “No,” they would admit; “they all did at the end; especially Peter. He denied he even knew Jesus.” Then I would ask a third question: “What then was the great difference between Judas’ failure and Peter’s failure?” Every now and then some smart child would answer, “The difference between them is what each did after they messed up.” Exactly! What they did after they messed up signaled the definitive difference between their failures.
Judas let his failure define him! He judged himself a traitor, he pronounced himself a failure, and he condemned himself as irretrievably broken. He defined himself as an absolute loss to God. He quit on himself, and he gave up hope on God’s ability to use him. That was his great failure! Peter, by contrast, realized that he was greater than his weakness. He refused to let his weakness define who he was. He used his failure as grist for spiritual growth. He knew somehow that God would not give up on him, despite his denying Christ in a moment of crisis. He continued to believe that God could use him. So he employed his great failure as a springboard to future sacrificial discipleship.
Failure, my friends, is a form of knowledge. Life is a laboratory, and our failures are those experiments that yield results we don’t expect, results we probably don’t want. But our failures provide us truths that we can turn into wisdom – if we are willing to learn from them. Do you know the record for fastest flunking of a driving test? One second. That’s how long it took Helen Ireland to mistake the accelerator for the brake and ram her car through the wall of the Driving Test Center in Auburn, California. She is by no means the worst driver on record. Betty Tudor of York, England holds the record for long-term driving futility. She took 273 driving lessons over a 19-year period, employed nine different driving instructors, was banned by three different driving schools, and flunked all seven of her tests, the last by famously driving the wrong way around a traffic circle. Then she claimed that really, it was her examiner’s fault. She said, “If it hadn’t been for all those cars coming in the wrong direction, honking and such, he’d never have noticed anything wrong.” She didn’t learn from her multitude of mistakes. Some people don’t learn from failure!
Others do. After mastering Newtonian physics Albert Einstein realized that Newton’s formulas failed to provide calculations suitable for finding the planet Pluto. Einstein took that failure as a spur to devise the theory of relativity. When the Atlantic Monthly rejected an entire sheaf of his work, a young poet rededicated himself to his art and became one of our country’s most distinctive literary voices. His name? Robert Frost. A teenager peeked at his report card and saw what his teacher had written: “He will be a conspicuous lack of success.” The young Winston Churchill refused to let that pronouncement define him, and he became one of the world’s great statesmen. “Wrong Way Roy Riegels” went on to become an All-American football player, a distinguished officer in the US Army Air Corp, and a successful businessman. The Georgia Tech Letterman Club offered him honorary membership, and he graciously accepted, saying, “I think I’ve earned it.” Others might not let him forget his spectacular blunder, but Roy Riegels wouldn’t let his great mistake define him.
We have spent the last year examining Paul’s remarkable letter to the Romans, a profound theological work whose essence is expressed in one of the most remarkable verses in our Bible: “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” God knows that we will make mistakes. God knows that we will err in our judgments. God knows that we are flawed in judgment and in character. But God loves us, flaws and all! God wants us to use our failures as a spur to wisdom that propels us forward and upward. Do you not think Jesus knew that when Peter said with such vehemence, “I will not deny you,” that he was dead wrong? But Jesus also knew that Peter had the capability to learn from his mistake and use it as grist for developing spiritual maturity, so that one day Jesus could say to Peter as a spiritual leader, “Feed my sheep.”
Some years ago, as my running career was winding down because of my deteriorating knees, my physician recommended that I employ the discipline of swimming as an alternative, supplemental exercise. The only problem was, I hated swimming, in no small part because I am not very good at it. I would go to the YMCA pool in the early morning, and little old ladies would thrash by me as if to say, “Eat my wake!” I was so slow performing my laps that I wanted to quit. But one day I came across a statement by the great Christian writer G. K. Chesterton that cut to the heart of my being. Chesterton wrote, “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” Anything worth doing is worth doing badly! I realized that swimming was worth doing, even if I did it badly. Likewise, some of us say, ‘I really am no good at praying.’ But we called to pray, even if we do it badly – it is a discipline worth doing. Some of us say, ‘I am not good at sharing my faith with others.’ But that is not license not to try – it is something worth doing, even if we do it badly. Some of us say, ‘I am not good at putting God first in my priorities,’ but it is worth attempting, even if we fail time and time again. Anything worth doing is worth doing badly! I don’t know how many times I have heard people say, “Oh, I don’t want to do that. I’m no good at it.” My response is, “You won’t get any better at it by not doing it!” Anything worth doing is worth doing badly. We can all learn from the mistakes that we make this year. We can all learn from the examples of the Apostle Peter, of John the Baptist, and of “Wrong Way Roy Riegels.” We can learn that our failures are but stepping stones to greater understanding. Life is a laboratory, and our failures are just experiments that don’t yield the results that we expect or hope for. But they yield information that we can turn into wisdom under the leadership of the Spirit of God, if we are courageous enough to let God do so.