“I Don’t Know What I’m Doing”

Posted: June 30, 2020 in Uncategorized

Romans 7:15–25

Matthew 11:16–19, 25–30

Someone once wrote that, “the fastest way to succeed is to double your failure rate.” And others have suggested things that resonate with me. They have suggested that failure is a prerequisite of invention, which requires risk taking. Failure provides insights that aren’t normally gained from success. This is interesting in that it elevates failure from that purely negative realm to one of ambiguity, inclusivity and questions the dualistic simplicity of good verses bad. Failure can be both when one sees it in the macro or big picture.

It’s one thing for leaders within institutions and systems to address failure at the abstract level of corporate policies and these days hear of systemic failure, often as an answer to the fact that no one knows why so it has to be a systemic something. But it is quite another to acknowledge failure at the personal level. For most employees, personal failure is an enormous threat that portends embarrassment, shame, and even the loss of one’s job. Worst of all, the stigma of failure breeds fear and can be a self-fulfilling prophecy and accelerate the very thing one fears.

The quote I began with suggests that failure-tolerant peoples move beyond simplistic definitions of success and failure, where the former is always positive and the latter is always negative. Maybe there is such a thing as “successful failure.” Good leaders keep things in perspective. When one speaks with Rugby coaches, they say that they “didn’t get consumed by losses and didn’t get overwhelmed by successes.” Failure-tolerant leaders empathize with employees by sharing their own failures and by accepting the mistakes of others. Sometimes the others cant’s admit theirs and this slows the process somewhat. Finally, the failure-tolerant replaces a corporate culture of fierce competition with a culture of collaboration. We might call this humility as the transforming agent and togetherness or unity as the movement forward.

This all sounds a bit logical or ‘liberal’ and ‘new age’ and it asks what a “failure-tolerant Christian” might look like. After all, some of the most significant people in God’s story of redemption experienced extraordinary failures. Moses killed, David became an adulterer, Jesus died a criminal, Peter denied even knowing Jesus, while Paul described himself as the “chief among sinners” for trying to destroy the developing church.

In this week’s epistle, Paul describes a fierce struggle in his deeply divided self. He does things that he hates, and fails to do the good. He experiences covetous desires and sinful passions of every sort. Rather than doing the good he desires to do he commits the evil he detests. With exasperation he describes a “war” within himself that makes him a “prisoner,” and confesses, “I do not understand what I do” (Romans 7:15, 23). Paul’s struggle is so intense that some interpreters think that he’s describing his pre-conversion life rather than a Christian experience.

So; what does one do with this inner struggle that seems to be there for many of us? It seems that more people are asking these sort of questions today and that is manifest as the increased interest in the inner self. People are doing Yoga, going on retreats, taking up Tai Chi, doing meditation, exploring Buddhism and following Indian Guru’s in search of enlightenment. In the end much of this is the search for a workable spirituality.

I found a reflection on one such a journey that might be of interest in regard to our topic of failure tolerance. I will call him John as a way of relating this story.

John started reading the fourth century monastics who fled the corruption of church and society to seek Christ in the solitude of the Egyptian desert. Before he read the desert mothers and fathers, he had thought of them as Christian super-heroes. After he had read them, he realized that he couldn’t have been more wrong.

He admired the desert dwellers because they were practitioners of healing, not abstract theoreticians. They sought personal transformation, not theological information. Although the desert monastics might seem a little strange today, John saw that we misunderstand them if we construe their asceticism as a spirituality of superficial techniques.

John admired the desert monastics most of all for their profound humanity. They modeled what was called a “spirituality of imperfection” in which one is not ashamed or embarrassed to acknowledge and embrace one’s brokenness, wounds, darkness, and inner demons. For them, intense struggle is a necessary component of Christian maturity.

The desert mothers and fathers tell stories that illuminate Paul’s interior struggle. With remarkable candor, brutal realism, unqualified empathy, and wry humor, they describe how they experienced in the vast nothingness of the Egyptian desert a cacophony of voices in the interior geography of the heart. They sought wholeness but discovered brokenness. In the famous words of St Anthony the Great (251–356) considered as the father of monasticism, they concluded that we should “expect trials until your last breath.” Their reports from the front lines of spiritual battle reveal a disarming transparency about human failure and frailty.

As John reviewed (360-435) Institutes and Conferences, he found a sampling of their self-diagnosis as “lethargy, sleeplessness, dark dreams, impulsive urges, self-justification, seething emotions, sexual fantasies, pious pretense that masked as virtue, self-deception, clerical ambition and the desire to dominate, crushing despair, confusion, wild mood swings, flattery, and the dreaded “noonday demon” of acedia, Here it seemed was a ‘wearied or anxious heart” that suggests close parallels to clinical depression.

And it got worse. They seemed to admit that “there are [also] many things that lie hidden in the conscience which are known and manifest to God, even though they may be unknown and obscure to them. John read of many questions arising such as “why does a monk who joyfully renounced great wealth later succumb to intense possessiveness over a tiny pen knife, needle, or book? Why did monks give each other the “silent treatment.” What provoked a brother’s anger at a dull stylus? Or why is it “that superfluous thoughts insinuate themselves into us so subtly and hiddenly when we do not even want them, and indeed do not even know of them, and to find that it is very difficult not only to cast them out but even to understand them and to catch hold of them?” Where, in other words, was the off-switch for a psyche in overdrive?

John seems to be onto something here about the power of failure in its effect on the human psyche or at least our inability to dislodge ourselves from its potential. Maybe we give failure too much importance or too much authority. I offer you this poem below as an example of this inner juxtaposition of failure and success in the task of loving another. I hope you might see the inner struggle with failure and success and the need for it in the successful encounter.

To Love You

To even perceive that you are there to be loved by me

Is to reduce you to the object of my affection

To trap you in a moment of objectivity that cannot be

To suppose that you are there for my affliction

Is to perceive that it is possible to remove you from the free

And hold you as the other as if you were dead.

To see my love as a condition of truth…

caught in the condition of objectivity.

is to see my relation to the ‘other’ becoming a trial aloof

and the real in relation to you as other risks becoming senility

alluding and encompassing before I have it proofed

It does not await my notarized ability.

When it comes to my theology of love

I am the bravest of hearts,

to concede the contingency and revisability of your responding dove

my real lies open to the dream of what is to come in parts

the one I have to deal with is neither here nor above

and being in love with the real is never a past.

If love is for me the precarious,

what is more precarious than the cosmic dice game

of which you and I are the outcome various

what is more precarious than the cosmic flame

when love is never for me the nefarious

contemporary cosmologist’s terrain

What is more a matter of pure chance or pure contingency,

almost of perhaps or serendipity,

than the fact that I can love with agency

I serve at the pleasure of cosmic elements and validity,

hanging on by a risk of flagrancy,

my love mere prayer dependent upon, yet free of pity.

My love is for you as the ‘other’ is not anybody for anything,

which is how deconstruction defined a literal grace

my love is the purist of gifts, gratuity beyond and description offering,

 and pure grace is the transport of love apace

my love, freely and astronomically proffering

from a heart of almost cosmic scope here in this place.

To Love You

And when we read of Paul, we see that a failure tolerant approach is a positive response to changes. Paul and the desert monastics encourage us to embrace our struggles and failures rather than to suppress or deny them. The acceptance of failure and its welcoming can be difficult when our communities don’t allow us to fail in the first place, or if they do, the price of failure is condemnation rather than consolation. Just looking at the recent changes at St David’s Khyber Pass Rd Grafton Auckland and the Presbytery Commission’s agreement with many of us that closure is a helpful option, we can see that failure here is required in the sense of a long history of a congregation in order that something new and more in tune with the needs of the day is required. The decline in membership has been going on for some 60 years and one could say in denial of the church’s organisational failure. Closure as failure is in this instance life giving, even if there is never the same sort of gathered congregation to replace it. One wonders if the attempt to start a new congregation on the premises is not another denial of failure. All this sounds defeatist does it not? But if one takes seriously the search for spirituality that exists in our society then what is being done in the name of church is failing and maybe the time has come for a change the church will struggle to make.

And while this might sound more like a last-ditch justification for failure; maybe it is not? Why? Because Christians are famous for throwing failures under the bus. Paul, writing from his own experience, reminds us that we all carry the gospel treasure in fragile vessels, and that none of us is worthy of or adequate to the task (2 Corinthians 2:16, 4:7). James says that “we all stumble in many ways” (James 3:2).

And so, Paul asks: “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24). The gospel for this week points us to Jesus: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, from I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:25–30).

In other words; why don’t you learn from Jesus. He was gentle in the face of violence, resolute about what he knew in the face of institutional and systemic success and tolerant of failure because he knew it held more. Here Paul is placing failure-tolerance as a gateway to a durable, long lasting and richer success. Not one of us are worthy so follow the Way of Jesus who has turned death and failure into success, not as a denial of or an escape from death but as a Way to live it.

George Herbert (1593–1633)

Affliction (IV)

Broken in pieces all asunder,

Lord, hunt me not,

A thing forgot,

Once a poor creature, now a wonder,

A wonder tortur’d in the space

Betwixt this world and that of grace.

My thoughts are all a case of knives,

Wounding my heart

With scatter’d smart,

As wat’ring pots give flowers their lives.

Nothing their fury can control,

While they do wound and prick my soul.

All my attendants are at strife,

Quitting their place

Unto my face:

Nothing performs the task of life:

The elements are let loose to fight,

And while I live, try out their right.

Oh help, my God! let not their plot

Kill them and me,

And also thee,

Who art my life: dissolve the knot,

As the sun scatters by his light

All the rebellions of the night.

Then shall those powers, which work for grief,

Enter thy pay,

And day by day

Labour thy praise, and my relief;

With care and courage building me,

Till I reach heav’n, and much more, thee.

For those of you who might like to see what today’s spirituality might look like or hint at, below is a video you might find interesting in relation to a contemporary search for human spirituality. And we are left with the question; ‘where is the church?’ Still denying failure? Amen.

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