Friday, September 7, 2012

Redeeming Failure

Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the LORD,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.
The Sovereign LORD is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
he enables me to tread on the heights.

-Habakkuk 3:17-19 (NIV)

    Recently I was talking with some leaders from some other nearby churches, and the conversation turned to what was going on in our congregations. At some point during the few minutes that followed, I realized that the only thing anyone was sharing was success stories: “here’s how God’s blessing us” kinds of stories.
    Now, I wouldn’t characterize any of these leaders as big ego guys. They certainly weren’t taking all the credit for the successes. But it occurred to me that all of us - including me - were emphasizing our churches’ successes and downplaying our failures, as though failure was something none of us knew anything about and had never experienced. As though even the mention of failure was to be avoided in the tidy little worlds we had built for ourselves. As though failure was something to be ashamed of.
    It seems as though that attitude toward failure isn’t confined to the church.
    Dag Kittlaus isn’t a household name, but one of his creations is quickly becoming one. Kittlaus is responsible for Siri, the voice-interaction software on the iPhone. Apple liked Siri so much that they bought Kittlaus’ Silicon Valley company, which allowed Kittlaus to move back to his home in Chicago to do whatever a person does after Apple buys your company. In an interview with Phil Rosenthal in the Chicago Tribune this week, Kittlaus said something interesting about the attitudes toward failure that he’s found in the corporate world in Chicago, as opposed to the highly experimental tech companies in the Silicon Valley:
    “One of the biggest challenges ... Chicago has in getting a real entrepreneurial community set up (is) the culture here doesn't really allow for failure in the same way it does in the valley. People have to embrace the fact that (when) you're trying something, the reality is more fail than succeed.
    “Most people don't start new companies that hit a home run out of the gate. Most people first go through several iterations, different companies and different products, and there's a whole vernacular in Silicon Valley on not finding the right thing and changing course. They call it 'pivoting.' Companies pivot all the time because the original idea just didn't work or people didn't like it and they have to change directions. It happens all the time ... in highly innovative environments. It's crucial that failure is recognized as something that is a natural part in the innovation process.”

    That last sentence deserves emphasis” “It’s crucial that failure is recognized as something that is a natural part in the innovation process.”
    That recognition is as important in the church as it is for innovative companies. Churches are too often held hostage by tradition, by dogma, or simply by fear that “someone might leave.” That kind of thinking leaves little room for the idea that God’s work sometimes demands that we go into uncharted territory and try things that we haven’t tried before.
    And sometimes when we try new things, we don’t do them well. Or we do them well, but they’re the wrong things for the situation we’re in. Or in trying new things, we lose sight of the old ones that shouldn’t change. Or, for whatever reason, we fail. It doesn’t work.     
    We can see that failure as something to be ashamed of, covered over. We can see it as an ending. Or, we can recognize that God is powerful enough to work in failure as well as in success. We can see failure as part of the process of innovation, and let failure teach us to “pivot,” to borrow Kittlaus’ term. To change direction, ask ourselves again where God is leading us, and set out on a different course.
    Sometimes, that pivot is repentance. We have to turn from moral or ethical failures, and trust in the blood of Jesus and the grace of God to restore us and redeem us. Sometimes, it’s a direction change, a different focus of ministry, a different emphasis, or style, or way of communicating. Sometimes it’s a restoration of broken relationships. Sometimes, it’s picking ourselves up in the ruins of devastating loss, dusting ourselves off, and taking a step forward in faith that God has not left us.
    Knowing God’s grace, forgiveness, and redemption should equip us to handle failure without fear or despair - to face it as unflinchingly as the prophet Habakkuk did. “Whatever form loss and failure may take,” he promised, “I’ll rejoice in the LORD, I’ll be joyful in God my Savior.” Habakkuk knew that failure wasn’t the end, that sometimes the road to God’s new places and life takes us through what could only be considered failure.
    The fact is, there will be “no-buds-on-the-fig-tree” kinds of every human life. There will be times when prosperity seems far away and failure seems the norm. During times like that, there is something in us that rebels, that resists, that wants to move on as quickly as possible to better times. We’ll embrace whoever and whatever offers hope for improvement, convince ourselves that any path toward renewed prosperity for ourselves and ours is the right one. But shortcuts that promise to lead us around failure aren’t to be trusted, because they shortcut some of God’s best work.
    Peter could have told us all about that. On the night Jesus was crucified, he huddled in the anonymity of the crowd and claimed three times not to know him. But later, on the beach, when it was just Jesus and him, he affirmed his love three times, and three times received Jesus’s charge to take care of the people who had chosen to follow him. And not too long afterward, he looked some of the same authorities who crucified his Lord in the eye and told them that he was a new person, empowered, “by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead.”
    The difference for Peter? That phrase about resurrection. He learned through his failure that God raises the dead. And that, with a God like that, his failure wasn’t fatal.
    Neither is yours, whatever form it’s taken. God still raises the dead, and can redeem even the worst failures. Take joy in that, and move forward in gratitude and trust.  
    He’ll be your strength. He’ll help you to tread on the heights.

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