During the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission to the moon in 1970, Flight Director Gene Kranz famously announced, “Failure is not an option.”
Don’t we like to wish it never is?
And yet failure has been my companion. Failure has defined and refined my life and faith.
I am divorced. Personal failure.
I never found a publisher for the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, or seventh novels I have written*. Failure has seven letters; one for each of my literary rejections.
I was forced from a job by a fellow pastor who casually and cunningly lied about my situation. Professional failure.
Butt on snow and with a fool’s smile, for a quick thrill I sped down a frozen alpine slope only to slam into a granite outcropping. My leg broke in several nasty places. The failure of judgment met the failure of soft tissue and hard bone.
Failure cheered at my D+ in high school biology. Failure congratulated itself when I took those incompletes in seminary. Failure elbowed me in the gut, not once but twice, when I wasn’t selected for two different chaplain job openings in two different years at a hospice. Failure applauded and sang off-tune love songs with all those first dates that never became second dates.
And then, though here I’ll embrace ambiguity because of ample doses of shame and guilt, there are my more clandestine failures. I like to pretend everyone lugs around a load of dumb past decisions and debilitating bad habits (or compulsions or addictions) that cripple the present. Then again, maybe I’m the only one with private failures.
This I’m glad about, and this I wonder about . . . wasn’t Jesus a failure?
Here I am, twice Jesus’ age, with few marketable accomplishments, a self-admitted failure, and yet labeling the Prince of Peace as a loser. How blasphemous is that?
He was alone on that cross, wasn’t he? Where were those bold, we’ll-follow-you-anywhere disciples? And after the tomb, with Mary’s eyes opening wide, and Thomas stunned into abandoning his disbelief, what happened to the hulking, horrible Roman Empire? Still there. Still conquering lands and enslaving people. The grim world remained grim.
Let’s be cynical. The Christian church has routinely failed. My conservative and/or evangelical and/or fundamentalist siblings would long to make all the world a Jesus Joint, but those persnickety Muslims and serene Buddhists and snarky non-believers keep adding to their own heathen-bound ranks. Christians keeping score might be a tad nervous. Well, at least there’s the apocalypse and an impending, angry, divine judgment to level the playing field.
But aren’t all versions of the world’s end another dismal failure?
Alas, that’s above my pay grade for any reliable answer. I’m usually wrong, anyway.
Failure has been a troubling shadow through most of my so-called adult life. And yet, and here’s where my feckless faith feels so blessed, the worst of my mistakes were also companions nurturing the best of my belief.
I am divorced. How could that have possibly led to the last three plus decades with my beloved, forgiving, joy-filled, smarter and better looking than me wife? How can a “failure” be so clearly linked to “success?”
I have been humiliated by losing a job and humbled by never getting jobs. How is it, in the final years of ministry, that I’m working in a hospice and feel upbeat every day that I stumble into the office? I have the best colleagues, and continue learning from each one. I have helped a few “grievers” burdened by sorrow that now walk a path of healing and hope.
Through bad luck or bad timing or (admit it, Larry) bad writing, I never fulfilled the dreams of my youth: becoming a published novelist. Still, I wake early in the morn, happily exploring the power of words, the glory (and grunt work) of revision, and rejoice when an occasional reader posts a kind comment at one of my webpages.
Faith I have, often in too limited a supply, in the one who shared those demanding parables. Jesus the story-teller—the Son of God who challenged listeners to trust they were children of a loving, forgiving, merciful, welcoming, the table-has-room-for-all God—continues to shape my aging soul. The Samaritan saw the near-dead enemy and through personal action helped that enemy to live again. The elderly father opened his arms to both sons, the selfish one and the angry one, and only knew that it was time for a feast. Every parable includes human failure. Every miracle story speaks to human failure. Every healing is a reminder of human failure.
And yet wholeness and community and love beckoned.
If the stories or healings or miracles didn’t change the cruel ways of an evil empire (then or now), they changed individual lives. As empires rise and fall, from Rome to Washington D.C., more individuals are transformed by Jesus’ passionate compassion.
Cranky old Paul wrote it better (I Corinthians 1:18) when stating, “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed. But it is the power of God for those of us who are being saved.” Different folks differently interpret what being saved means, but I participate in divine ongoing creation, in salvation, when helping another—enemy or friend, stranger or neighbor, believer or not—truly feel that she or he is a beloved child of God.
My life is defined by failure. The scars marking my flesh don’t begin to match the number of old and new scars on my soul. With apologies to Gene Kranz, failure seems more like standard equipment than an option.
Faith embracing Jesus’ way of unconditional love, though, is optional. With every new day, it’s an easy, or an impossibly difficult, choice.
* I list the seven, ‘cuz it was nice to recall them. While deemed unpublishable, every page contained my sweat, my blood, and my oft-revised hopes:
- Black Saturday
- Ash Wednesday
- Speed Limit
- Longest Night
- Ordinary Time
- The Gravity of Happiness