If Failure Didn’t Matter

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.

 

 

Published in: on August 8, 2016 at 3:04 pm  Leave a Comment  
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I Just Can’t Do It All

I have been asked to write a regular column for the New Britain Herald. Here is the column that ran on November 25, 2011:

Stressed. Anxious. Worried. Overwhelmed. As a pastor, these were some of the feelings I heard expressed by New Britain residents in the days following the October Nor’easter. Most of us confronted cold, dark nights lit only by candles and flashlights. Some were trapped in their homes for days because of downed trees and branches. Many were unable to cook meals or wash clothes. Others couldn’t bathe or flush their toilets and had to stay with relatives or in shelters. This rare storm tested our ability to respond to adversity in our lives.

One comment in particular made me pause and ponder the spiritual lessons we might take from this experience. These words came from a big, burly guy, a former Marine and firefighter, who had set out early Sunday morning to plow driveways for his customers. Like all of us he was appalled by the devastation and destruction he encountered. In his younger days, he thought, he would have taken it all on. He imagined his younger-self brandishing a chainsaw and single-handedly clearing every blocked road and rescuing every trapped little old lady. But now, as he picked his way through the debris, he could only shake his head and say, “I just can’t do it all.”

I just can’t do it all. We should all pause and repeat these words; “I just can’t do it all.” On one hand, this is an honest acknowledgment of our limitations. But these words are also the first step in leading a life of faith. When we acknowledge our limitations, we make room in our lives for the divine to move.

We often associate faith with belief in a particular God, doctrine or set of values. But before we ever arrive at what we believe in, we must know how to act from faith. How will we respond when we are stressed, anxious, worried or overwhelmed, when we confront devastation and destruction in our lives? C. S. Lewis once said, “What saves a man is to take a step. Then another step.” Our first step is to simply let go and say, “I just can’t do it all,” and trust that someone or something else can and will respond. Then, in faith, we take another step.

Published in: on December 9, 2011 at 7:15 pm  Comments (3)  
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Happy St. Ambrose Day, Rod!

Today is Saint Ambrose Day.

Shane Claiborne’s Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals and its accompanying website regularly integrate reflections on the lives of saints, ancient and contemporary, into daily prayers. Today’s prayer introduces Ambrose of Milan (339-397):

A provincial governor in fourth-century Italy, Ambrose was drafted to serve as bishop before he was even baptized. Reluctant to serve the church at first, he took the task seriously when he finally accepted the call. Ambrose gave away all of his possessions, took up a strict schedule of daily prayer, and committed himself to the study of Scripture. Called from the world of politics to serve the church, Ambrose was a leader who spoke truth to power and did not back down, insisting that “the emperor is in the church, not over it.”

Addressing Roman Emperor Theodosius about a massacre he had authorized at Thessalonica, Ambrose of Milan wrote, “You are human, and temptation has overtaken you. Overcome it. I counsel, I beseech, I implore you to repentance. You, who have so often been merciful and pardoned the guilty, have now caused many innocents to perish. The devil wished to wrest from you the crown of piety which was your chiefest glory. Drive him from you while you can.”

The life of Governor (and Bishop) Ambrose stands in the sharpest possible contrast to the disgraced and ousted Governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, who was today sentenced to fourteen years in prison for corruption. Where is our Ambrose?

Pyro-Theology: Consuming But Not Consumed

Worship is canceled tomorrow because of hurricane Irene. So in lieu of a sermon, I thought I would offer a blog post. The lectionary reading this week is from the third chapter of Exodus (1-15). Moses was keeping the flock for his father-in-law when the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush. The bush was blazing but was not consumed. God called to Moses from the bush and Moses answered, “Here I am!”

Those of you who follow the South Congregational-First Baptist Church Facebook page know that I have recently become enamored with Peter Rollins. I’m not quite sure how to classify him, philosopher, theologian, new-monastic, prophetic voice in the emergent church? I know he is a beer drinking Irishman and that is good enough for me! His book Insurrection: To Believe is Human, to Doubt is Divine will soon be released, and reviews, interviews and excerpts have recently appeared on Facebook and Twitter.

In Insurrection Rollins speaks of what he calls pyro-theology. He coined the term based on a quote from a dead Spanish Anarchist named Buenaventura Durruti who said that “The only church that illuminates is a burning one.” Of course Durruti was advocating for the destruction of the church as an institution. On the one hand Rollins accepts Durruti’s critique that the church today too often fails to illuminate anything or anyone. On the other hand he appropriates the image of the burning church to demand a faith that is on fire, that is all consuming. Rollins grounds this pyro-theology in radical confession of doubt and unknowing. Doubt and unknowing should be the starting point for our prayers, our hymns and our services of worship. Only then will we make room for an authentic experience of the divine. Here is Rollins’ fellow Irishman Pádraig Ó Tuama giving beautiful, poetic expression to such a confessional, pyro-theology in his song Maranatha. Note, the song includes “the eff-word” so you may not want to play the video in the presence of young children.

We worry that if we admit our failures and limitations we will be consumed by our doubt and unknowing. In fact the opposite is true. When we, like Pádraig Ó Tuama, confess that we are weak, that we are tired and give up, that we have screwed it up again, and that we have made our home in Babylon, Holy fire will kindle within us, and the church will again blaze a path for a hurting world. Alleluia!

Wrestle With This! God, Taxes and Politics of the Apocalypse

This sermon seemed to strike a chord on Sunday and remains relevant despite the apparent deal on the debt ceiling. For those that know my tongue-in-cheek, wry, irreverent presence in the pulpit, forget that. Forget Pastor George and imagine, if you can, Prophet George. Isaiah, Jeremiah, and George. Hmmm, not sure it will catch on. Nonetheless, wrestle with this and comment.

I don’t know about you, but I find much of what is happening in the world today to be depressing, anxiety producing and infuriating. It is bad enough that we are involved in intractable wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, wars that continue to inflict death and destruction, not only on our own troops and families but also in the lives of millions of innocent people in these countries. It is bad enough that we are mired in an intractable recession that is inflicting gross hardship on millions of people. It is bad enough that we are confronted with a debt crisis that threatens entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare, leading to financial insecurity and high anxiety all the way around. Wars, recession, debt crisis and to top it all off we have these idiots in Washington D.C. who are holding the country hostage to make political points. It all makes me completely insane and I am just fed up!

Remember those commercials for Calgon bath beads. We see a harried woman overwhelmed by the chaos at home who pleads, Calgon take me away. We then see her blissfully reclining in a luxurious bath. Our temptation in the face of the chaos and anxiety that surrounds us is to call out, not to Calgon, but to God, “Lord, Lord, take us away!” Take us away to some imagined, blissful paradise.

Perhaps this is what Jacob is feeling. Jacob has plenty of chaos to deal with himself. You will remember that Jacob tricked his brother Esau into giving away his birthright. In a rage, Esau vows to kill Jacob. To preserve his life, Jacob’s mother Rebekah sends Jacob to live with her brother Laban where he marries Laban’s daughters Leah and Rachel. Many years pass and as we come to this morning’s scripture lesson Jacob is hoping to reconcile with his brother Esau. Jacob has sent a peace offering of livestock but is still terrified that Esau will destroy him and his family. Jacob sends his family ahead of him and settles down for the night. The scripture doesn’t record his thoughts or his prayers but we can imagine him pleading, “Lord, Lord take me away.”

Instead of whisking Jacob and his family away to a place free of all conflict, fear and hardship, God comes to Jacob in the form of a stranger and wrestles with him. God leaves a mark, striking Jacob on the hip that he will forever walk with a limp, but Jacob refuses to let go of God. God renames Jacob, saying “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel (which means “the one who strives with God,” or “God strives”) for you have striven with God and humans.” And God blesses Jacob.

Jacob is confronted with chaos, fear and suffering. But instead of taking him away from it all, instead of taking Jacob up the ladder into heaven, God comes down Jacob’s ladder and wrestles with him. As we face the chaos, fear and suffering of wars, recession, debt crisis and political Armageddon, a wrestling match with God is hardly the answer we seek to our plea, “Lord, Lord take us away!”

Which brings us to this video that narrates and illustrates a contemporary parable written by an Irish writer and storyteller, Peter Rollins. What do you think?

The idea of God abandoning people in heaven as a judgment on their failure to commit themselves to and engage in the hardship and suffering in this world is creative if not strictly biblical. But Rollins’ parable certainly gets at biblical concepts that are at the very heart of our faith. God’s promise is not all about some future escape to a blissful paradise. God promises to be present with us in the chaos, fear and hardship of our lives in this world, today. And God asks us to be present with, not escape from, those who suffer the most from our present tribulations.

God descended to wrestle with Jacob, wrestle with Jacob’s history of selfishness and deception, and wrestle with the fear Jacob felt as he anticipated the possibility of redemption and reconciliation with his brother Esau. If we stop reading at verse 32 as we did this morning we miss the real outcome of God’s wrestling match with God. The very next verse reads, “Now Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming.” Jacob advances toward Esau bowing to the ground seven times as he goes, (and) Esau runs to meet him, and embraces him, and falls on his neck and kisses him, and they weep.

God descends among us, wrestles with our fear and dread, our hardship and suffering, and leads us to redemption and reconciliation. Of course we know this because in Jesus Christ God didn’t just come down a ladder to Jacob, God descended to wrestle with human sin and suffering and redeem all of us. But God does more than wrestle with us and redeem us, in Jesus Christ God calls us to wrestle with and redeem all those who suffer the consequences of war, illness, poverty, and injustice.

Nothing communicates this call more effectively than the story of feeding a crowd of 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish. Note, though, that it isn’t Jesus who feeds the crowd. The disciples come to Jesus at the end of the day and say, “it’s late Jesus, send all these people away so they can buy food for themselves.” But, knowing the plight of this battered and broken rabble, Jesus responds to the disciples saying, “No, don’t sent them away, you feed them.” He blesses the bread, breaks it and gives it to the disciples to distribute to the crowd. Some scholars explain this miracle by suggesting that once the crowd saw that the disciples were sharing everything that they had, everyone in the crowd responded by sharing what they had.

How might these two stories, Jacob wrestling with God and the disciples feeding the 5,000 with 5 loaves and two fish, respond to the hell, and I mean hell, that is breaking loose in Washington? Here are a few thoughts:

God is here in our midst wrestling with us to bring redemption and reconciliation out of sin and conflict. Bearing the name Israel, we are called to strive with God and humans. We can’t hide, as people of faith we are marked by our encounters with God. Wearing the mark of these encounters for all to see, we are called to confront fear and humble ourselves before our brothers and sisters in Christ. If Jacob and Esau can reconcile, so can Democrats and Republicans. But it requires all sides humbling themselves, maybe even bowing to the ground to each other seven times. Just imagine! And Jesus commands us, you feed my hungry, my hurting, my naked, my sick; give everything you have.

This is one of the ideas behind taxation, taxes are a way of sharing our loaves and fish with seniors who have worked their whole lives trusting that they would not be abandoned when they cannot work any longer, taxes provide for those impacted by the recession, the unemployed, the homeless and the hungry, taxes provide healthcare for the sick.

Now, some say that it is not the government’s role or responsibility to care for the most vulnerable. O.K., truth be told, this libertarian perspective is not inconsistent with the Bible. There is no clear biblical mandate for government to provide for human need. So one can believe that the government is not in the best position to meet these needs, that the government is inefficient, that the government doesn’t spend tax money wisely, and still be a faithful Christian. But if we are to be faithful to the Bible, we absolutely cannot write the most vulnerable out of our lives of faith and this means challenging ourselves to give everything that we have for the least of these.

Jesus commands us to meet these needs somehow. I paid over $16,000 in taxes last year. Unlike the loaves and fish it isn’t all that I have, but it is a lot. You bet I’d like to have that money back. But if I am going to make a case that I don’t want the government to have this money, that I don’t want the government to respond to the needs of the hungry and hurting, then I darn well better be prepared to give that money and more to the hungry and hurting crowd around me.

How many of the people who are raging about the government taking their money are upset because they would rather give all that money away to the most vulnerable people in their community. How many would give the $16,000 or $6,000, or $160,000 that they paid in taxes to the homeless shelter down the street, to Iraqi children who lost limbs in the war, to a neighbor who hasn’t worked in four years. I can tell you how many. Zero.

Some of the voices I hear in the budget debate cry out that the government is taking their hard earned money, money that belongs to them. Rubbish. All that we have is given to us by God, only so that we can share it. Wrestle with that!

Beyonce Spoof Reveals Bad Theology!

Beyonce Unhurt After Stray Bullet Miraculously Hits Passerby Instead

This great bit of satire from the always on target The Onion gives us an opportunity to look at ourselves when we say how “blessed” or “lucky” we are.  Beyonce, we are told, was very lucky when a stray bullet miraculously hits a passerby instead of her.  Of course the clip says nothing of the passerby’s lucky, focusing instead on a small bruise Beyonce got when the victim fell on her.  How often do we talk about how blessed or lucky we are without considering the implications for others.  Are we blessed by our comfortable standard of living if it comes at the expense of poverty inducing cheap labor in the developing world?  Does God bless some of us at the expense of others?  What does this say about God?  A great opportunity to share a good laugh and look at ourselves and our God.  What do you think?

Published in: on September 4, 2010 at 6:32 pm  Leave a Comment  
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My Imagined (Not Imaginary) Friend

I am about half way through Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s memoir, Infidel. Hirsi Ali was born in Somalia in 1969 to Muslim parents.  Her father was a leader of revolutionary forces opposing Somalia’s dictator, Siad Barre in the 70s and 80s, requiring her family to move to Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia and Kenya before she reached adolescence.  Having experienced first hand, the brutality of Islamist beliefs toward women (including the mutilation of her genitals at the age of five), Hirsi Ali has become a strong and articulate critic of those Muslim beliefs and practices that lead to the subjugation, oppression and abuse of women.

Hirsi Ali’s biography is as riveting as it is hard to read.  In addition to describing the suffering and brutality she has experienced, she provides a compelling account of her faith journey.   As a child she studies the Quran in a series of schools and works hard to submit to its teachings.  Submission, Hirsi Ali explains, is the central tenet of Islam, complete submission.  But young Hirsi Ali also loves to read, and she devours everything from Western literature to romance novels.  The values that are communicated in these stories contrast with the messages she hears from the imam and the harsh realities of her life leading her to question her faith.

I never do this, but I was so curious that I flipped to the back of the book to find out how Hirsi Ali resolves these conflicts and answers these questions.  She becomes an atheist.  “Before reading four pages (of The Atheist Manifesto),” writes Hirsi Ali, “I already knew my answer.  I had left God behind years ago.  I was an atheist.  It felt right.  There was no pain, but a real clarity.”

I confess that I felt sad when I read this.  I hope this doesn’t sound patronizing.  Hirsi Ali makes it clear that her decision to be an atheist is liberating for her, freeing her from an oppressive and violent God.  Her choice is rational and understandable in the context of her life.  I admire her courage and strength.  Nonetheless, I was very disappointed.  To me, the choice to be an atheist represents the ultimate failure of imagination and therefore, the death of hope.

This probably requires explanation.  First, I am not saying that God is imaginary.  God is not like Santa Claus or the imaginary friend, Kala, that my daughter Abigail used to have.  I believe that God is more “real” than the physical world we live in.  But just as imagination is necessary to write poetry, to make music, to play, to invent and to create, so also imagination is necessary to conceive of and live in relationship with God.  Hirsi Ali writes, “God, Satan, angels:  these were all figments of the human imagination,” as if this is a bad thing!  Of course they are.  Faith is humanity’s greatest creative act.  Faith is sacred imagination!  If we can, against all reason and experience, conceive of a good, just, loving, forgiving God, maybe we can also imagine, then live into, a world without war, racism, homophobia, hunger and poverty.  But if we give up on God, on the possibility of God, if we say our broken down, crappy humanity is all we’ve got, what, then, do we aspire to?  What do we reach for?  What do we live for?

Published in: on March 16, 2010 at 2:14 am  Comments (2)  
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