Portraits of Failure
A man named Asaph is believed to be the author of the Psalm. It is about his wrestling with his own failure and the near miss of being sucked into the illusion of measuring life in relation to successes and failures.
“No doubt about it! God is good— good to good people, good to the good-hearted. But I nearly missed it, missed seeing his goodness. I was looking the other way, looking up to the people At the top, envying the wicked who have it made, Who have nothing to worry about, not a care in the whole wide world.” (Psalms 73:1–5 MESSAGE)
What I like about this Psalm is that I think it gives us a spiritual roadmap for how to come to terms with failure and how to move beyond it.
[I recognize that talking about failure, naming our failures openly is really hard to do. There is a lot of pain that resides within this conversation. I hope that the discussion today will not create more shame or stigma around failure but actually open us up some to be able to talk more freely about our own setbacks, fiascos, and failed attempts.]
To start I want to share a few failure stories with you that come from the issue of Geez Magazine called “After Failure.”
“I always wanted to have an education. I finished grade seven at the top of my class when I was 14 years old. I was competitive and I worked hard. My best subjects were history and geography. I wanted to travel abroad, but when I turned 14 the law no longer required me to be in school, and so my parents kept me home to help raise my younger siblings. We were poor and I was the oldest of 15. I never went back to school. Instead, I learned to be a seamstress. I was very good at sewing and could draft patterns from a single photograph in a magazine. I read every book I could get my hands on, but I never had the education I dreamed of.”
“Growing up, I was frequently told how smart I was because I did well in school. I thought that I could do anything and wanted to be an astrophysicist. As I did my bachelor’s degree in physics, I just couldn’t understand a lot of the clases. I did my PhD in medical physics instead, but during my postdoc, I couldn’t talk meaningfully with others in the field. I often felt stupid. In the end, I decided to leave physics. I tuned to math and passed the exams required to become an actuary. Still, I don’t really understand what I’m doing. I’m hard-working and disciplined, but I’m just not that smart.”
“My failure is a failed marriage. My pattern of eight years and I failed to succeed at a married life. The depth of the impact on me is influenced by many external factors: the church’s view of divorce, society’s opinion of single motherhood, and my circle of influences’ reaction to my personal decisions. Internally, leaving my husband was the best decision I have ever made for myself and my children. However, if I cannot make a relationship work despite my best efforts, will I fail at everything: familiar relations, work relationships, a future lover, a good friend?
The perception of oneself is based strongly on the perception of one’s failures.”
These are very personal. Can you imagine having your picture taken for a magazine and telling one of your stories of failure? What would you say?
One of the things I notice about failure is that when I fail I often myself feeling alone, disconnected, and lost – even if I am not in reality disconnected, or alone, or lost.
Failure has with it a feeling of both disorientation and disconnection.
So what do we do with this?
The Sobering Moment
Once we begin to recognize our failure, our “nearly missing it,” we have what what we might call a “sobering moment.”
I think of a sobering moment a lot like this. Wylie E. Coyote constantly fails to catch the Roadrunner. But this image of running off the cliff, and then after he floats for a second or two he looks down and realizes what’s just happened. That’s a sobering moment. He has no place to stand. That’s when he falls.
When we recognize our own failure we can often have that same kind of gut wrenching feeling that I can imagine the coyote has while he’s floating there and then looks down.
Something similar happens for Asaph, our Psalmist. Something grabs his attention and he gets his own sobering moment:
“If I had said, “I will talk on in this way,” I would have been untrue to the circle of your children. But when I thought how to understand this, it seemed to me a wearisome task, until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I perceived their end.” (Psalms 73:15–17)
He says, I would have continued to live in the illusion that I was in. I would have continued to live in that marriage that was killing me, or that job that was destroying my soul, or continued to be crushed by the reality that I never had access to the kind of resources I needed in order to live out my dream, but then I realized that my life was a part of something much bigger.
I remembered that there are generations that come after me, there is a whole community, a whole tradition of which I am a part, and of which I am responsible for.
I don’t live for myself. I am not alone in my failure, and others need me to get up and try again.
This realization that your life is placed within a bigger story and that you have a role to play in community is powerful and it is filled with grace. It has the possibility to move you back into communion with God.
It reminds me of something Henri Nouwen said:
“Every time you experience the pain of rejection, absence, [failure] or death, you are faced with a choice. You can become bitter and decide to not love again, or you can stand straight in your pain and let the soil on which you stand become richer and more able to give life to new seeds” -Henri Nouwen
To wake up to failure, to have your own sobering moment where we name our mistakes, and refuse to allow them to destroy you, is to allow yourself to be embraced by communion with God.
Communion of Love
Walter Bruggemann puts it this way:
Psalm 73 moves us from questions of equity to the power of communion.
In other words, the movement might go like this: failure, sobering moment of realization that we are a part of a much bigger story, and this allows for God to “give life to new seeds” through the communion of love.
I have three short stories that follow this pattern.
Henri Nouwen is a well-known author who struggled with failure his whole life too. As a young academic he worked hard enough to secure a position teaching at Harvard. But once he achieved his dream something didn’t seem right.
“Something inside was telling me that my success was putting my soul in danger” (Geez, #35: 27).
So he quite his job and moved to a communal-living situation with people who had disabilities. This community is called L’Arche, French for the Ark. He lived there for ten years until he died in 1996. He went from a swanky job at Harvard to living in community with and washing, feeding and serving people who had no idea what Harvard is.
Martin Luther King, Jr. day is tomorrow. I have been thinking about King all week. Mostly thinking about his personal and collective failures, his self-doubts, and the many ways in which his work was left undone by his assassination.
King was a powerful leader, who challenged three key failures of America: Racism, Violence and Poverty. This is what a prophet does. They call out the failures of society and challenge them to move beyond those failures, to come back into communion with God around these matters. And as we know, not only did this cost him his life, but these three things are very much still in tact. We have more poor now than we did than. We’ve been in countless more wars. And the wedge between white and black communities today couldn’t be more pronounced.
Was king’s a failed dream?
For most of his ministry Jesus was a homeless, wandering teacher and prophet. He struggled to gain critical mass of a movement. Most of the time when he would heal someone he’d urge them to tell know one. His own disciples were not known for very the sharpest tools in the shed, and a couple of them are famous mostly for their betrayals. He failed to live up to the expectations that others had for him as the messiah. He even doubted himself and felt forsaken by God. And he was executed by the state. Not an impressive resume for a leader of his caliber.
These three portraits of failure teach us about the communion and power of love. About “standing straight in your pain and let the soil on which you stand become richer and more able to give life to new seeds.”
While each of these three people did have very real failures, they each failed in the midst of a bigger story of God’s work in this world. Their failures created rich soil for the new life of building loving communities that carry the work forward.
They were able to bear their failures in ways that actually helped to sustain and make possible the communion of love.
Nouwen, traded credentials for friendship, and success for faithfulness. His failure drove him to live within a small community of disabled people and he found profound peace and love there.
King’s dream has not yet fully been realized. We have so much of our own work to do in undoing racism, violence, and poverty in our own little neck of that woods and we too often little desire to actually do it. Yet the movement he helped to create and the dream he shared continues to inspires the rich soil of new communities that continue that work of love.
Jesus, may have little to show for himself during his life-time in one sense, built something that last. In the wake of his death and resurrection the possibility of a new, beloved community coming into existence is created. This community, we call the ekklesia or “the church,” is not founded upon violence but forgiveness. It is a community that is not predicated on rivalry and scapegoating but acceptance and love of all creation. It is a community that is guided not by rules and hierarchy but by his immediate and ongoing presence that makes possible our sharing in the communion of love.
These three, and so many others, teach us about the communion of love and that:
“There is no failure or success there is only faithfulness to God.” -Teresa Avila
So that’s what I want to leave you with today. There is no failure or success, only faithfulness in God. Let the pain of failure turn into rich soil that can actually make room for community.
Friends, we have failed and we will fail, but we must not give in. We too will find ourselves tired, beaten up, unsure, and distracted but we must not give up.
And would that we could come to pray with the Psalmist these words (pray together):
“Nevertheless I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me with honor. Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” (Psalms 73:23–26 NRSV)