A sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on August 7, 2016.
Bible scholar and pastor David Lose writes: One of my favorite questions to ask in counseling sessions is: “What would you love to try if you knew you couldn’t fail?”
This is a provocative question, meant to help us get beyond the ways we sometimes avoid trying new things out of a fear of failing. It prompts us, Lose writes, “to cast our gaze beyond our present circumstances and challenges, elements in our lives that, while perhaps real, often cast a larger than necessary shadow.”
While Lose’ question suggests a useful exercise, the author of The Letter to the Hebrews takes this approach to achieving our hopes and dreams a step further.
Faith, says Hebrews, is the assurance of things hoped for; the conviction of things not seen. The writer seems to promise success, if only we believe. Like a high-powered motivational speaker, they say, we cannot fail to achieve all our hopes and dreams if only we have faith!
Hebrews then lifts up Abraham as an example of just such a faith. Abraham obeys God’s call and God delivers on His promise, providing Abraham descendants, as many as the stars and as plentiful as grains of sand at the seashore.
This idea that our hopes and dreams can be realized through faith is comforting to many, and we often look to Abraham as an example of such fealty. But to tell you the truth, I worry when I hear this perspective on faith. Saying faith equals success implies that failure results from a lack of faith. It follows that we call successful people “blessed” and blame people who fail. This could have the effect of making God small, reduced to picking life’s winners and losers.
Lose seems to recognize the limitations of this perspective, and revisits and reframes his original question.
“While it’s important to free folks to dream of life without limits,” he writes,” it’s also important to equip us to live with the very real challenges in front of us.” He then asks, “What would we do or dare, not if we knew we couldn’t fail, but rather if we believed that it is OK to fail?
Lose refers back to Abraham who fails, at times spectacularly, but maintains his relationship with God throughout.
Over the years, as he responds to God’s call to move his family to the land of Canaan, Abraham twice, in order to save his own life, passes off his wife Sarah as his sister, in effect prostituting her, first to Pharaoh then to King Abimelech. Giving up on God’s promise of descendants with his wife, Abraham bears a child, Ishmael with his wife’s servant Hagar, then, when Sarah does bear him a son, sends Hagar and Ismael off into the wilderness to die. Yes, Abraham was faithful, yet he failed spectacularly. In this respect he makes an interesting example of “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for.” Abraham most certainly did not live the “happily ever after” life he hoped for.
I got this far in my thinking about this text and I got stuck. How can we understand faith in a way that doesn’t focus on the realization of all our own hopes and dreams? When I get stuck like this nothing I think seems inspired; I hear my own preaching voice in my head and it sounds like this, “Blah-blah-blah-blah.”
I felt a case of the blah-blahs coming on so, needing to hear voices other than my own, I posed Lose’ question on Facebook. I wrote, “Help! I’m really struggling to get started on my sermon today. Given the Bible texts, I’d like to explore what it means to have and act with faith in a way that doesn’t imply everything will turn out “happily ever after.” I am intrigued by the question one writer asks, What would you do or dare if you knew it was OK to fail? Anyone want to respond to the question, or more generally on faith (beyond, “don’t worry, be happy”)?
Well, many, including some of you, provided great responses. Here were some of the answers to Lose’ question, “What would you do or dare if you knew it was OK to fail?”
I would be braver – be more willing to go all in for creative endeavors. I think I’d probably be willing to love myself more, disregard judgement more. The fear of failure holds me back a lot.
I would be more willing to take risks like starting my own business or moving different places. It is easy to get stuck in a comfort zone. But some of my best moments have been from pushing myself outside of it.
What could you do if failure didn’t matter? Everything, take the jump from comfort and ease. If failure doesn’t matter then judgements don’t either because failure and judgements go hand in hand. And I don’t mean judgment from God I mean judgements from others and ourselves. If the judgements weren’t there many more people would be ok with being who they are and walking closer to God without fear of others eyes.
Wow! Beautiful, deep, heartfelt words. Notice two of these made a connection between failure and judgement. Maybe failure isn’t even a thing, maybe failure is simply a judgement made by others or ourselves.
Others responded to the question, “What does it mean to have and act with faith in a way that doesn’t imply everything will turn out happily ever after?
Several people, including our own Marge Brown, spoke of learning and growing from our mistakes.
Someone offered a variation of this, comparing living a life of faith to learning to ride a bicycle, instead of living “happily ever after,” we “earn our scars.”
But the response that really helped me get unstuck from the seeming “happily ever after” promise of Hebrew’s assurance of things hoped for came from my friend Michael. He writes: “I think of that old Franz Kafka quote, when he was asked, “Is there hope?” He replied, “Oh, there’s lots of hope. Just not for us.” Michael continues, “It often is not about us and the motivational speaker, Tony Robbins cliché that proper belief will result in our personal well-being. It might be a catastrophe for us, but good for that which we’re part of and which sustains us.”
Now, this might not sound especially optimistic, and in fact Michael isn’t always the most optimistic guy, after all he’s quoting Kafka. But there is some really deep wisdom in his words. Namely, it’s not all about us. When Michael writes about “good for that which we’re part of” he is referring to our community, our world, creation. And his reference to “that which sustains us” can be understood as God. As individuals, we will surely fail, but there is lots of hope for the Creator and Creation.
An old high school friend used more religious language to say something similar, “Acting in faith means this life is all about Christ, not me. It’s not about how things turn out for me, but for God’s glory.” And this hope is assured and worthy of our faith.
This makes sense of God’s promise to Abraham. God did not promise success and happiness for Abraham, but hope for his descendants, the continued unfolding of God’s plan for God’s people.
Let’s return to Lose’ question, “What would you do or dare if you knew it was OK to fail?” Maybe this assurance isn’t God’s to provide, but ours. How do we, as a community of Christ, create a place, not just where it is OK to fail, but where failure is valued?
Remember the way my two Facebook friends described being disabled by the judgment that defines failure? So that would be a start. Do we, can we, as a community of Christ provide a safe place to fail, a place that doesn’t judge failed relationships, lost jobs, poor grades, dropped footballs and strikeouts, DUI’s, burnt dinner and bad haircuts, bad grammar, “a past.” That would be a start, and in my experience First Church does pretty well in these regards. But what would it look like to value, even encourage failure?
In response to my Facebook plea, a seminary friend pointed me to an online TED Talk, a lecture by a man named Astro Teller. Astro leads a division at Google called Google X. Google X is a place that is meant to inspire big audacious ideas, moonshots Astro calls them. A self-driving car, Google glasses, giant lighter than air ships that would give small land-bound countries markets for their crops and goods.
Developing big ideas like this requires an environment that encourages risk taking, risk taking that often results in failure. How does one develop such a risk-taking, forgiving culture?
Astro describes standing up on stage with one of the project teams in front of all Google X employees. This was a team that had, in effect failed, despite an investment of millions of dollars the idea they were exploring just wouldn’t work. Astro told the assembled Google X employees, “This team has done more by ending their project than all the rest of you have done in the last quarter.” The auditorium responded with an uncomfortable silence. “And,” Astro continued, “We’re giving them all bonuses for having ended their project.” What? People began to murmur. Astro concluded, addressing the team, “Take a vacation, and when you get back, the world is your oyster, find some new project to jump into.”
“Everyone thinks I’ve lost my mind,” he says. “But the 10th time, no one even thinks about it. Now, those teams that fail just get a standing ovation. I don’t even need to say the speech anymore; it’s part of the culture now.”
Now wouldn’t that be something, a church that gives standing ovations and vacations in response to failure? Creating a culture where sharing failure is encouraged and even celebrated.
I think I unwittingly stumbled on to something when posting my question on Facebook. This topic of faith and failure struck a chord with people. And by coming together we modelled a response that includes both shared vulnerability and mutual support, both fear and assurance.
Shortly, I will invite you to this table (gesture to the Communion table) to continue this conversation.