Monday, March 05, 2012

Finding Hope in Failure

A classic Peanuts comic strip opens with Charlie Brown lamenting the loss of yet another baseball game:
Charlie Brown: Another ball game lost!! Good grief! I get tired of losing... Everything I do, I lose!

Lucy: Look at it this way, Charlie Brown. We learn more from losing than we do from winning.

Charlie Brown: That makes me the smartest person in the world!!
Of course, we don't feel very smart when we lose. In fact, I imagine that most people would just as soon forget their failures. Sure, we learn valuable lessons from those failures, but the price of that knowledge is so high that few of us bear it willingly.

I'm reminded of a speech originally given by a Senior Professor in Fuller Seminary's School of Psychology, Dr. Archibald Hart, to a group of students about to graduate in 2002. I don't believe I was actually there for the speech when it was originally given (although I actually did graduate earlier that spring, I believe I had attended the previous year's Baccalaureate service), but I definitely must have heard it not too long thereafter, as it was one of the speeches I was asked by former Provost Russell P. Spittler to transcribe for Fuller Voices, which itself was published in 2004.

Hart opened his message suggesting to these students who had all but completed their formal education that there may yet be something that they need to learn: "a theology of failure." Hart was speaking from experience. Although by this time he was a beloved and respected professor at Fuller, having even served as the dean of the School of Psychology for a time, Hart had originally set out to be a civil engineer! He relates the story of how, having risen in his chosen profession fairly rapidly, he realized that he would need additional mathematical skills to go any further, and so Hart got his employer to pay for a year-long program to boost his calculus skills. At the end of the year, the time came to take the test upon which the rest of his career would rest... and he failed. Miserably.

Obviously, Hart was able to bounce back in a new career, and he also relates a few other stories of well-known people who failed, yet recovered to eventual renown. It's hard to miss the message that says "never give up!" This is a good message, and as hard as it can sometimes be to take to heart, it is one we would do well to take seriously.

But one of the important messages that Hart had for his audience of graduating students is that we need to reconsider what "success" means in God's kingdom. We tend to glorify success (and vilify failure) even as Christians. This can make it hard to consider what God might be trying to teach us through our failures, as we often stubbornly refuse to recognize them for what they are. So, before we run too quickly to the feel-good poetry and images of perseverance that we like to send each other on Facebook, I should note that the kind of success God has in mind for us does not necessarily mean that one should keep trying at the same thing again and again despite repeated failures. When Hart failed his calculus exam, his career as an engineer was essentially over. He eventually found success by trying at something entirely different.

Truth be told, I'm probably too risk-averse. When I suffer a failure, it hurts, and it hurts hard. So while this message is as much for myself as for anyone who might be reading it, I do want to share about a failure from nearly a decade ago that nonetheless did have a silver lining for me. Shortly after graduating from seminary, and while still keeping a full-time job at Fuller to pay the bills, I accepted a job as a Youth Coordinator at a small Methodist church in the area. Although this church was a predominately non-white church, I'd had some experience in non-white churches in the past that I thought would help me to navigate the cultural differences that I knew I would face. I was wrong, and ended up blind-sided by several cultural assumptions (both on my part and on theirs) that brought me to the point of leaving that job after only about six months. I have not held a church youth position since (although I have been a part of my church's Christian Education committee dealing with youth issues in more recent years). But on my last day at that church, one woman came to tell me how something I said (I still don't know what) during a children's message helped bring her to know Jesus.

For years, one of my deepest wishes as a Christian was to know that God had used me to bring someone to know God through Jesus. I imagine that this is a common desire, especially among Evangelicals. In the midst of one of my career "failures," I got to see that wish granted. That gives me hope that God isn't done with me yet.

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