The Greatest Teacher, Failure is
There is a reason why so many hit songs are about unrequited love, why we love movies about the underdog, why the favourite story our celebrities can live out for us is that of the comeback. It is because deep down, we know that our most formative experiences in life are not from our times of achievement, but rather our times of loss. One of the great quotes from the latest Star Wars installment, The Last Jedi, comes from Yoda to Luke Skywalker. Luke has holed himself up on a remote island after an epic failure as a teacher. He believes that he needs to remove himself from any other possibility of either being hurt or hurting others. Master Yoda appears to Luke and advises, “Pass on what you have learned. Strength, mastery. But weakness, folly, failure also. Yes, failure most of all. The greatest teacher, failure is.”
The greatest teacher, failure is. I am writing on the heels of a strange and vulnerable experience while the feeling of having lost something is still raw and unresolved. I am writing because our most popular stories of failure are told with the accompanying assumption that success is in the offing and that disappointment will eventually form us for an upswing in the near future. I am writing because there isn’t always a rebound on the path ahead, but still we have to figure out how to live. I am writing because in the intersection between losing and living there is grace, there is the gift of discovering our truest selves if we can accept and receive.
My story of failure isn’t really about losing. I need to clearly state a couple of caveats. I was nominated to be on a ballot for the election of a new bishop. After the voting was over, I was on the receiving end of a wonderful outcome. I get to continue serving in ministry in an incredibly fruitful community of faith. And the Diocese of Niagara has a smart, capable, imaginative and collaborative new bishop. Although I was on the ballot, very little about our diocesan vote had anything to do with me as an individual person. It was about the moving of the Spirit; it was collective discernment.
Nonetheless, I walked away from Saturday’s election feeling like I had been crushed underneath a toppled skyscraper. I felt like this because I am human and no amount of prayer or trust in God could change that my emotions told me this was personal, even as my brain understood more rational messages about what had happened. I was hurt to offer myself so publicly and to feel like that offering was rejected; I was disoriented to have invested myself in imagining a new challenge and to have that challenge not materialize; I was stung to know once and for all that the saying “it’s not about you” was absolutely true. Our Bishop-elect, Susan Bell, noted a question asked of her through the process of being in an episcopal election: “do you feel naked yet?” Naked hardly described my feeling of exposure, like all of my organs and every nerve ending had suddenly been relocated outside of my skin. I went into the election with a healthy, and I would say normal, mix of both delusions of grandeur and fear of humiliation. But until I was in that moment of watching everything that I secretly hoped might be affirmed and chosen in me overlooked, I really couldn’t have predicted how I was going to feel or cope, no matter how much I thought I had prepared myself for any possible outcome.
I also went into Saturday’s election with something more than just delusions and fear, thankfully. I went in with a visceral sense of peace that kept descending on me like a weight. I ascribed this peace to the power of prayer at work around me. I was assured at every turn by my friends and by my parish church that prayers were surrounding me. These prayers carried and blessed me every step of the way. I did know that I stood the chance of being hurt in this process. And I also knew in the core of my being that I would be okay. I would ultimately be okay.
But knowing there is resurrection hasn’t ever included a promise that there won’t be a cross.
In the aftermath of the election, I reacted to the sense of loss I felt in ways so predictable that they have been researched and documented and cemented as “The Stages of Grief” (knowing these stages and that they are normal makes very little difference in actually feeling better through them). I wanted to burn every bridge I could find. At first this instinct to destroy all links between me and the church that I felt so wounded by was about anger, and as the anger calmed down, it was about protecting myself, trying to get some of my insides out of the way of direct exposure. As I started to emerge from my cocoon, and as I realized that I would have to have a personality transplant in order to withdraw from wanting to contribute to the world outside of me, I began looking for answers. I wanted to package up my experience into some nice value-added “plan”; I wanted to explain why things happened the way that they did and why God needed all of these circumstances and outcomes in order for the divine plan for my life to be accomplished.
As I puzzled through these explanations with my Spiritual Director, he stopped me in my tracks. “Right now you are suffering,” he commented calmly. “It will take time before it is clear how that suffering can serve God’s kingdom.” He referred me to the scorched earth desolation that runs through the psalms as much as praise and gratitude for God’s provision does. My mind flashed back to Psalm 44, which had happened to come across my path the night before the election. It is a psalm of hurt, despair and abandonment. “You have rejected us,” it accuses God. “You have made us like sheep for slaughter. You have sold your people for a trifle and made us the taunt of our neighbours.” It does not rush through these very real feelings in order to seize upon answers. The best hope that the psalmist can identify is “yet not in the bow do I trust, but only You can save us from our foes.” It is the alleluia of resignation, of coming to the end of the rope and finding that still there is nowhere else to turn other than to the One who holds this life ultimately and forever. “Rise up, come to our help,” the psalm finishes, fatigue oozing out of every word. “Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love.”
I agree with Yoda that failure is a great teacher. Star Wars might rightfully take the popularity prize for telling us the underdog fairytale of our day. But there is no story better equipped to teach us our truest selves even when that self feels entirely bankrupt — in other words, to offer grace — than that of the faith of Jesus. This grace is given freely, but it costs something to receive it.
Like every person on the ballot, I had to lead worship the day after the electoral synod. I would have paid a queen’s ransom to have stayed home instead. I did not want to have to speak about the results of the previous day. I did not want to face even one member of the Body of Christ. There are not many places on earth that I could have gone that morning and received such an outpouring of faithfulness and love than St. George’s St. Catharines, and as grateful as I was for it, it was desperately hard to open my heart back up to receive it. I shared in the praise and prayer of our faith community and I had to face truths that pierced me with their Goodness. That my innermost thoughts were laid bare before God — every egotistical tendency and shattered dream. That God nonetheless chooses to walk alongside, and even inside, my fragile heart through the person of Jesus. That his heart was fragile too, and yet in him we see God’s purpose not just for him, but for every person. That when we once again bless and break the bread at God’s table, we are allowing God to gather up the broken and fragmented pieces of our lives and to see through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus a wholeness in us that we can’t see ourselves. As I gave out the broken bread to the church that morning, I unwittingly caught a glimpse of not me, but us, us as we really are, perfect and beloved and beautiful and fed, not a collection of our missteps and disappointments at all, but already fulfilling the purpose God placed as a seal on each of our foreheads when we were called by name into being.
The visceral peace that blanketed me before the election contained a promise that has proven to be true. I am okay and will be okay. It is not that I am okay because of a sure and certain rebound in my future. Rather, I am okay by virtue of the God “unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known and from whom no secrets are hid”, by virtue of the Lord revealed in a broken body and the broken bread, by virtue of the kingdom perceived as we come together to the table where our first and final stance is to open our hands, whatever the cost, and receive.