Asbury First United
Text: Exodus 32:1-14,
Failure is a part of life.
If you play, you will lose. If you bat, you will strike out. If you keep your clubs and use them, you will put a ball into the sand trap. If you participate in life, you are surely going to fail…That anniversary date just slipped your mind…oops…Your husband’s birthday—that was last week…oops…
The rightwing of faith, of which Paul speaks today, brings the power to face failure: to admit it, assess it, and accept it, and then live with it. The question is not whether we will fall. We will. Trip, stumble, and fall—the fate of one and all. The question is how we live after the fall.
Like the cascading falls in Ithaca, beautiful they are, Taughannock, Treman, Buttermilk, and like the descending poetry of Ecclesiastes, soaring it is, life keeps the evening and the rain before us. “Evening”—such a multilayered, meaningful word. The Psalms and their cadence of movement from lament to thanksgiving do as well.
I missed the chance to cause our children to memorize Ecclesiastes. Pity. It is worth remembering that….all the rivers run to the sea…the sun also rises…in much knowledge is much sorrow…better is the beginning than the ending…do you see something that is new? It has been before…vanity, vanity, all is vanity…what gain has the worker from his toil?...the race is not always to the swift…time and chance happen to all
1. Admit It
We have a harder time speaking about failure than we do about money or sexuality. Yet failure is a part of life, like sunset and rain. We should be quite doubtful that we necessarily know, by the way, when we have failed. Unamuno wrote so long ago: “Truly I tell you, you do not know when you have succeeded”. Or failed, for that matter, we could add. Failure is something about which we all have direct knowledge.
It might make our children more open to their own true selves and actual experience, if we did not always expect that they be practically perfect in every way. They are human beings, not human doings, human beings, not divine. To err is human. To fail is too.
One of our less loquacious children decided, some years ago, to enroll in a high school photography course, on the mistaken information that it was an easy A. This misinformation, it happened, was powerfully mistaken in every direction. The teacher was a Prussian martinet, demanding to the nth degree. The syllabus had Latin subheadings. The reading list went nine pages. The papers were two a week and the projects two a month. There was no mercy, no forgiveness, nor grace. Only sweat, blood, and, subsequently, some tears.
Of course we knew none of this at the time. “How is your photography course?” O, fine. Good. Really. The teacher neglected to submit a midcourse grade. So, we just asked again. O, fine. Good. Really. Then the report card came, as it does, like autumn, like the stewardship appeal, like age itself. Relentless. And guess what. We had the experience of seeing the 6th letter of the English alphabet affixed under the name of one of our children. His first non A or B.
I was my usual, calm, phlegmatic self. F! HOW CAN YOU GET AN F! WE DON’T GET F’S IN THIS FAMILY! HOW COULD THIS HAPPEN! WHAT WERE YOU THINKING! THIS IS ROCHESTER, YOU CAN’T FAIL PHOTOGRAPHY HERE! IT’S LIKE FAILING BASEBALL IN COOPERSTOWN, BASKETBALL IN SPRINGFIELD, BOXING IN CANASTOTA, FOOTBALL IN CANTON, PHYSICS AT LOS ALAMOS, WIND STUDIES IN CHICAGO, SURFING IN MALIBU, THEOLOGY IN TUBINGEN,RELIGION AT THE VATICAN, SKIING IN THE VAIL, POLITICS IN WASHINGTON…(you begin to get the idea).
This helpful parental counsel was less than cheerfully received. As it turned out, the poor kid did have reasons not entirely of his own causation. We negotiated and moved on. But it might have been better for all involved, if the good news of the Christ who lives past failure had been more centrally on our minds. We all fail. Failure is embedded in life. If you choose to play, you will lose some. If you swing the bat at all, you will strike out. If you pay the greens fees, someday you will put one in the sand. If you decide to participate, you will fail at some point. You can bank on it.
And while our dear child may have failed, we also could truly see that we too had failed him, as had others. In hindsight. Failure, like success, is a team sport. It takes a village--to fail.
2. Assess It
One great advantage of failure admitted, is that once admitted it can teach us. We learn most from our failures.
Groups help us find the far side of failure.
We have a hard time admitting failure. Men in particular so struggle. We are quiet about our hurts.
After men’s group one morning a fine soul stepped over to me and said "Bob...your car...the Sebring...uh...did it...I mean did it, uh, die?..."
"Yah" I said...."jeez" he said..."Yah" I said...
It helps to have a small group with whom to share and consider loss, disappointment, failure. We love to succeed and we are in a success culture.
Yet our best moral exertions can, like over exercise, cause injuries, if our very noble and well chosen interest in success makes us fear, and fear failure, which is inevitable to some degree in every life.
Nothing succeeds like success.
If at first you do not succeed, try and try again.
Come back with your shield or on it.
Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.
Work conquers all.
I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
I think I can, I think I can, I think I can….
But some measure of failure touches every one of us. And we learn some lessons:
*You will fail.
*It will not kill you.
*It will hurt, bad.
*You may learn from it.
*It may help to talk about it.
3. Accept It
The grace of failure admitted and assessed is the power to accept the past and move on. In a way, this is all that Paul is saying in Philippians 3. What he thought was success was not. What he thought of as worthless was priceless. What he once valued has been discarded. He now can rely on the health that comes from the faith of Christ. He has been set right. We may live on the basis not of what we have achieved but what we have received, not on the basis of what we have done but what God has done, not on the currency of religion but on the down payment of the spirit in faith.
Many of Flannery O’Connor’s stories make this strong point.
So, too, the great poets of our time. We just so reluctantly admit it. Here our reluctance, about unfortunate endings, hits its crest:
When to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things
And yield with a grace to reason
And to bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season (Frost)
In similar fashion, this great church stands, daily, as a powerful influence upon women and men who want to admit, assess, and especially accept failure. One comes after years of mixed experience, to return to the pew of this strong church, and to be strengthened by your strength. Another comes at the end of life, to sit in worship underneath the great pillars of the church, and to be strengthened by your strength. Another comes after abject failure, to be take a photograph in front of the great spire of the church, to be strengthened by your strength.
As your nave is like that of Yorkminster, your spirit is that of the York Anglican priest who, when asked what he would do if all the people finally left and the church collapsed, said, “Well, we would get a table and a loaf of bread and a chalice of wine and start all over again”.
That is the power that Christ gives, to live by faith, after the fall. It is the acceptance that allowed Paul, and allows us, to sing, this one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind, and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus my Lord.