Failure

Grace for Ourselves and Others

By Dr. Mark Poindexter

This is a meditation on grace that I shared at our Ash Wednesday service.  It was based on Psalm 51.

Well, being from Indiana I am a basketball fan.  I’ve been a fan of the Indiana Pacers ever since they were in the ABA, used a red, white and blue basketball and played against the Virginia Squires. I also like the college teams – especially Purdue, Notre Dame, but mostly Indiana University.  IU is doing well this year – they have 19 wins and 5 losses this season and have been in the top twenty-five rankings.  And of course IU has all sorts of fans all over the state – some of them who put a lot of emotional energy into the game.

It was a couple of years ago.  IU was having an even better season than they are now.  They were standing at 20 wins and 2 losses.  They were playing Illinois.  It was a tough game but IU lost on a last second shot.  I was friends with another IU Fan on Facebook who wrote this on his Facebook page for everyone to see, “UNBELIEVABLE!!!! TOTALLY embarrassing, a NIGHTMARE – this season with the possibility of a Big ten title is OVER.  Really Guys!!!!!!!”  He used a lot of capital letters and exclamation points to get his point across. 

My first reaction to that post was that it was a lot of emotion for someone who probably never played the game at any level and doesn’t understand what it is like to compete against folks who are trying just as hard as you are to win the game.  And second the loss meant their record dropped to all of 20-3 and they were still tied for first place in the Big 10.  That’s pretty good   But here was somebody, a supposed fan, ready to write their season off because of a last second, two point loss.  Really?

Maybe one of the most important things for us to remember about life, is no single moment in our life, whether it is a moment of great accomplishment or a moment of stark failure, no single moment should be allowed to define who we are.  Life is much more complex than that.  We are much more than what we are at any single point in history.

For years, Lance Armstrong, was thought to be the ultimate champion, not only because of his seven bicycle victories in the Tour de France, but also because of his personal triumph over cancer and his Live Strong Foundation which supports those that battle that awful disease.  But then we learned because of investigations, and by his own word, that his bicycle victories included his cheating through performance enhancing drugs and his rise to the top included his willingness to lie and squash anyone who presented an obstacle to him.  Even with that information about being someone who lied and cheated his way to victory, someone who trampled on others, there were those suffering from cancer and their families who said that in spite of all that, Lance Armstrong would always be a hero to them for what he has done to help further cancer research and to inspire and support cancer patients.  So which is Lance Armstrong then - liar, cheat, manipulator or hero, inspiring champion?  Is he just one or the other or both and?  Does it depend on whether you were one of his bicycling competitors or whether you are one the cancer patients who have been inspired by him?

In the Psalm we have read today we have King David confessing profound sinfulness.  The result of being confronted by the prophet Nathan.  David had committed adultery with Bathsheba and when discovered he conspired to have Bathsheba’s husband Uriah killed.  Imagine if David was our political leader and such a scandal broke out. There would be no stone unturned in getting that guy out of office and putting him behind bars, because no one is supposed to be above the law,  King David, corrupt, adulterer, murderer – yet the scriptures say that David was also a man after God’s own heart.  We still use the story of David defeating Goliath to inspire us to conquer the giants in our own lives.  And David’s words are scripture, the Word of the Lord.  Psalms 23 is the most often cited as one to be read in the most difficult time of the human journey the journey of death and grief.  “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want, . . .” Aren’t those beautiful words – some of the most beloved in the whole Bible?  Well who wrote them- David the corrupt adulterer and murderer or David a man after God’s own heart?   One or the other, both/and.

What about Paul?  When the church was starting he was violently opposed to it.  When Stephen was stoned for proclaiming the gospel, the first Christian martyr, Paul was there and he did nothing to stop it.  In fact, the scriptures say that he approved of the killing.  It also says that he breathed “threats and murder” against those who followed Jesus. But then Paul himself became a follower and he ended up writing quite a bit of the New Testament and writing those powerful words about “clothing ourselves in love which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”  Which was Paul – the one who approved of the stoning of Stephen, who breathed threats and murder against the church or the one who wrote about the importance of love?  Well he was both wasn’t he?

 What about you?  Is your heart always pure, always in the right place, you always do the right thing?  Or are there times when you have said, done or maybe even just thought, some of the things you are not proud of.

I have never been to one of my high school reunions.  I am afraid what would happen to people if they learned I was a minister.  There might be a heart attack or two – especially now that we are older. They knew who I was back then, who I ran around with, what I did, they couldn’t believe I was a minister not after those days.

We are neither the sum of our accomplishments, nor the total of our stark failures.  We are human beings, each of us, on a journey through life.  No snap shot of a single moment can define our journey, a panoramic view is a necessity for all of us.  And this is why grace is so important, not only to receive but to extend to others.

A last second, two point loss and someone is ready to write the entire season off. Have you ever done that with a person?  They fail one of life’s tests, they stumble, they fall – “Well that’s who they are, that’s all they are ever going to be, no use in wasting any time on them.”  Yet, isn’t the story of our faith the story of grace and second chances – and third and fourth chances.  This is even why we know of David, why we know of Paul.   God did not write them off nor cast them aside because of their failure.  And the same is true for so many of the biblical characters – Jacob, Moses, Peter, and Rahab.

I want to encourage you during this season of Lent to be full of grace. First toward yourself.  Your failures, whatever they may be, do not define you.  You are more than that.  I encourage you also to be full of grace toward others – their failures, whatever they may be are not what define them either.  Grace does not mean being naïve.  It doesn’t mean just allowing yourself to be taken advantage of.  It means, at least in part, that you give somebody the opportunity to get it right this time.  Peace be with you and all of us who need that additional opportunity.

Embracing Failure: Why the Church Needs to Quit Worrying about Dying


While on vacation, I thought it might be helpful to revisit this post. Enjoy!

Love,

Your pal, Derek


My Dirty Secret

I have a secret fear. I don’t like to talk about it, because I find it embarrassing.

I’m afraid of looking stupid.

I don’t like to be laughed at. As a professor, I operate with a low-grade fear that at any moment one of my student’s will pipe up and say, “That’s not correct, what you said.”

I teach World Religions–mostly the big five: Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I’m fine with Christianity, and Judaism to a lesser extent. The other three, though …

I’ve taught the course so many times that I maintain a fair comfort-level. But when I get into a tradition that’s not my own, I realize how much I don’t know. It can get pretty nervy.

I had a student one time who had been a Buddhist monk. I found that out, of course, just as we reached the unit on Buddhism.

Really? It already feels like I’m doing this without a net. Now, you’re going to tell me you know this stuff better than I do? How am I supposed to teach this stuff in front of you?

I told him to jump in if I got it wrong. (I hope my commitment to education surpasses my fear of looking incompetent.)

He was really nice about it—corrected me only a couple of times.

As a pastor, my recurring nightmare is that I show up to church on Sunday morning, everybody’s waiting for the processional—when I realize I can’t find my sermon. I look all over the place, growing more and more embarrassed by the moment. As I scramble around, the panic grows, and I can feel the disapproving looks joining together in some great meta-expression of disappointment, as if to say, “Yeah, we knew it was only a matter of time before he screwed up on such a grand scale.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had that dream. After those dreams, I realize how much I have invested in wanting to appear omni-competent. Always ready. Never makes a mistake. Mr. reliable.

Looking stupid is something I assiduously try to avoid. I don’t like to fail.

But it happens.

It’s my dirty secret.

Failing in Church

The church, which ought to be a place where the penchant for failure is readily recognized, often has the same aversion to failure as individuals. This realization seems odd, since the church has traditionally understood itself as a reception hall for failures—which is to say, sinners, those who’ve failed to hit the target. The whole concept of grace centers on the idea that when we sing “Just as I am, without one plea,” whatever else we mean, we most certainly don’t mean, “Just as I am … as soon as I get it all together.”

I find it interesting, then, that the church often operates with such an institutional fear of failure. I don’t just mean failure in the large our-church-is-dying-and-we-don’t-know-what-to-do sense; I also mean failure in a much smaller we’d-like-to-paint-the-women’s-restroom-yellow-but-what-if-someone-feels-strongly-it-should-be-pink sense. On this account of the church, boldness and creativity emerge as threats to an ouchless existence. In fact, decisions don’t even have to be bold or creative to meet resistance, they just have to represent something different.

This paralyzing fear of failure is why the default answer for declining congregations is “no.”

“Should we launch a new ministry to homeless people?”

No.

“The largest part of our congregation works evenings and nights. Could we have a service at some other time than in the morning?”

No.

“There’s a Korean church who’d like to use space in our building. We’re not using it. Should we let them?”

No. No. No.

The interesting question is whether the relationship is causal or correlational between congregations in decline and congregations whose knee-jerk response to anything new tends to be “no.” That is to say, is continually meeting each new opportunity with a “no” a cause of congregational decline, or is it merely the case that congregations that tend to say no also tend to be in decline—but for different reasons? To put a finer point on it, is saying "no" as a default response, at its heart, a disease or just a symptom of disease?

I’m not sure I’m smart enough to untangle that knot fully, but I do think that confronting each new situation negatively suggests a persistent fear of failure. In sports, coaches call it “playing not to lose.”

I would like to suggest, however, that congregations that live with fear always gnawing at the edges hasten the very death that has them in such a constant state of panic. It’s a vicious cycle.

Get Used to It

I want to set down the paradoxical assertion that it’s only when a congregation can endure a load of small failures that it has a possibility of avoiding the largest failure—death. Conversely, a congregation that spends its life avoiding as many small failures as possible will often wind up dying earlier than it might have otherwise.

Failure is not an enemy to be avoided at all costs; it’s a guide to be embraced.

Notice I didn’t say that failure should be embraced because it feels good. I’m not saying that messing up isn’t painful; it is. What I am saying is that success only comes in the midst of a flurry of failures. Failures help you to refine the field of possibilities. This is true for individuals; it’s true for businesses; it’s true for athletes, musicians, people who play Sudoku; and it’s true for churches.

All right, so opening an ice cream store at the North Pole wasn’t such a great idea. So what? If the question is “What do we do next?” you’ve already trimmed the range of possible options by at least one.

Maybe that Death Metal service wasn’t such a good fit for your country club neighborhood. Now you know. If it teaches you something about who you are, and where your gifts lie, and what kinds of things you’re able to do in the context in which you find yourselves—you’re now a smarter congregation. But just as importantly, you also know that you can survive decisions that don’t pan out. What is almost certainly a threat to your survival, however, is having three hour board meetings in which you painfully try to head off every possible failure, then wind up doing nothing.

Sitting on your hands is an option—one that many congregations have employed. But let’s not kid ourselves that the ministry Jesus has in mind requires nothing more than locking the doors and hoping that someone will magically bulldoze the neighborhood and build a sparkling new subdivision, filled only with young professional families.

Living like Jesus, really living like Jesus, is an outrageous act no sane group of people would presume to tackle.  As a congregation of Jesus-followers you’ve already taken a precipitous slide down the ladder of common sense. Get used to it.

Live Courageously

  • Think hard. (Brainstorm. Dream. Embrace the vision of a different future.)
  • Pray ceaselessly. (Why not bring God into the whole process?) 
  • Do something interesting. (There’s plenty of mediocrity out there mass-marketed as “safe for church.” Hint: Throwing out your hymnals and getting a “praise team” was still daring in 1988. Now it just looks like you think that if you wear fishnet stockings you can be Lady Gaga.)
  • Evaluate. Evaluate. Evaluate. (This is the part where you learn from failure. If a ministry flops, factor it in as you get back on the horse.)
  • If the timing wasn’t right, but everything else seemed poised to succeed, be flexible enough to try it again under better conditions. (The same idea may work next month, in the summer instead of the winter, or next year.)
  • If a decision doesn’t work out, don’t make the mistake of automatically shutting out the person who brought the idea. (Monday morning quarterbacking that takes on an accusatory or condescending tone disincentivizes creativity . . . from everyone.)
  • Bring young people into the process. (Let them try some crazy-sounding things. They need the experience, and the church needs the life and creativity they bring.)
  • For denominations: Try letting folks who don't ordinarily get to make the final decisions, make the final decisions. (It's less than helpful to bring Latino/as, AfricanAmericans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, Women into the planning process, then just go ahead and do what you were going to do anyway.)

The gospel is first about failure and death—because it’s only losers and corpses who who’ve got nothing left to lose. Why a people who remember the failure of crucifixion and celebrate the victory of resurrection in the Eucharist every Sunday should have its sphincter seize up every time it thinks of death is beyond me.

Embrace failure as a road to success—even God did.

Idealized Failure

By J.C. Mitchell

Growing up in New England, I remember going to Woolworth’s counter and spinning the seats, but generally my mother would take us to a different store called Caldor.  It was a regional discount department store that originally started as a 5 & Dime.  It was where I am sure most of my toys and clothes were purchased.  I even remember the tent that I picked out when I turned ten was from this predecessor to Wal-Mart.  There were stores throughout the East, but the one in Ridgefield and Norwalk were the two I knew like the back of my hand.  

Caldor is no more than a fond memory, for the Ridgefield store is now a Kohl’s, and in Norwalk, a Wal-Mart.  Honestly the items are not very different, especially since fashion seems to repeat itself, and retro is currently quite popular.  Therefore I have been known to say to Mindi often, “Let’s go to Caldor,” referring to Kohl’s, Wal-Mart, or Freddies.  Her correction has turned to a laugh, for it is generally all the same thing anyway.  

Caldor and Woolworth’s both came to end in the same decade, but the former was the one where I had the stronger memories.  Today I compare any department stores to my Caldor.  I say “my” for it is actually an idealized memory.  Kohl’s and Wal-Mart are the successful competition, yet I can’t shake my boyhood memory.

Living in the past can keep stuck us in the present: it is not the past because you actually cannot go back, but you cannot go forward as well.  We all have our Caldors and the church is often one of our strongest.  Of course, a store is not nearly as emotional as a church, but it is easy to see how hard it is to progress when we only have the conversations that start with, “I remember….” Or “What if…”  Well, the reality is I now shop at Freddies (Fred Meyers) and I still have the essentials and some things I want and do not need. 

 So upon reflecting on my Caldor memory, I realize it was not their prices or logo, but that my mom would bring me there with my sister. That when I put on a new shirt, even if it wasn’t bought at a fancy store, I knew of my mother’s love.    I worry less about remembering the store or trying to figure out how they could have stayed competitive.  I am fine with knowing the store was for a season, but the memory lasts a lifetime, compelling me to make similar memories with AJ, my son. 

Early in this millennium the church has seen a lot of attempts of change.  We are not a business, which I cannot over emphasize, but I do believe we can learn from the reality of these “failed” department stores.  Of course I am sharing how my memory is often trapped by our idealization of our past.  This is a very real problem and we need to be aware of this when looking to implement new ways of being church, be it in worship, study, programs, or space.  The other key is to remember that we can also learn from “failed” ministries.  I put that word in quotes, because is it a failure to have served people but only for a specific time?  I do not think so.  

If we are looking to create new churches and new programs to serve people that have felt the church is not relevant, we need to understand we are not to create an institution that will last for eternity.  That is for the Divine, not us.  I want to be clear that we should not make the Gospel relevant: the Gospel is relevant.  However, the reality is there are many people that are suspicious, bored, or mad at the human institution we wrap the relevant Gospel within.  So if we criticize the traditional model and believe it must change, and even die to make room for a Resurrection--we must be ready that our new emergent programs, churches, thoughts, and ways will not last forever, either.  

Caldor Logo.gif