Spectacular failure

Pastoral Messages | March 1, 2015

Ever since I read about a woman named Betty Tudor more than 20 years ago, I have been unable to forget her tale. Her 19-year performance deserves an Oscar in the Academy Awards of Failure.

A resident of Exeter, England, Ms. Tudor struggled to master driving an automobile.

For 19 straight years she enrolled in driver’s education, eventually completing nearly 300 separate lessons. In the course of those two decades, she burned through nine instructors, was banned from three driving schools, and handily flunked the required test for a license 11 times.

Betty’s comment after one instructor booted her for driving the wrong way around an English roundabout, and nearly taking both of their lives? “If it hadn’t been for all those cars coming in the opposite direction, honking and such, he wouldn’t have noticed anything wrong.”

We all have our failures. The most spectacular ones usually happen embarrassingly in the company of friends. A simple, two-foot putt on the green rolls past the cup.

We lose our place in speaking a wedding toast, stuttering nonsense instead. We choke multiple times while trying to parallel park, unsettled by a skeptical spouse in the passenger seat doing a poor job of holding her tongue.

Rationalizations for failure are commonplace. We speak of “broadening our experience.” Supporters refer to our “learning curve.” Kelly Clarkson sings of failure as the road to strength. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, stronger …”

I have always loved the meaningless locker room line to which many coaches inevitably turn. Never mind the players who have their heads drooping after a pathetic loss. The coach knows the day in a different light.

“I’m especially proud of you fellas. Really proud! We won a moral victory this afternoon.” Who knows what a moral victory is, except, in athletic competition at least, it appears to be connected with the team that gets thoroughly clobbered.

Election night concession speeches are their own delight. “I want to thank all of you for your part in my success. We didn’t win, but we got our point across. And, we showed a heckuva lot of character.”

We celebrate failure in our day, in part because failure motivates. We actually speak of liking failure, especially when it ends up in victory. But that begs the question: Isn’t treating failure as a valuable lesson something like crossing one’s fingers under the table and hoping one will eventually succeed? In other words, do we know what to do with failure for its own sake, independent of whether we eventually succeed?

I’m not sure we do. I’m raising these matters because of this 40-day season of faith we’re in the midst of. Have you ever heard of someone failing Lent?

If one can say that life begins the moment you fail, and the moment you admit you’ve failed, then Lent is something you cannot flunk. Not if you take God with any degree of seriousness.

The only way to fail Lent would be to refuse to engage the season. Or, to forgo honesty in your prayer life. Or, to completely ignore God.

The way I see it, if you can identify with a cause that is so beautiful and so good simply because of its enduring truth, you don’t have to fear failure.

Spiritually speaking, this means you can pray with all the honesty in the world: “God, I am wrong on many fronts, and have failed you miserably in recent days. For this, I am sorry.”

We pray this way at St. Paul during Lent for one reason alone – we are confident that the truth of Jesus Christ is so good and so beautiful that the failure of him dying alone and in agony on that cross is actually LIFE.

That cross is not success. It is not a broadening experience, a learning curve, or a moral victory. No, the cross of Jesus Christ is LIFE handed to us – a life full of so much truth that we can relax into even some of our worst failures.

Peter Marty, senior pastor

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