Archive for the ‘failure’ Tag

Screwing Up   10 comments

Two weeks ago, having failed to find another job, I moved from a part time position in appliance sales at Home Depot to full time in the paint department.  I was stacking paint last night on a high shelf and dropped a gallon can of shellac-based primer.  It crashed to the floor, covering my shoes, my pants, a six-foot stretch of aisle, and splattering all the products on the bottom shelf.  Herbert, an assistant manager, came to help me clean things up, and as we soaked up the puddles, the rest of it dried hard.  It was well past closing time by then, so we had to stop, leaving a note for the morning crew.

I hate to make a mess that I can’t fix myself, especially if someone else is then forced to deal with my mistakes.  It’s especially hard when others are resentful or critical–their feeling is understandable, even justifiable, and I have no means of rectifying it.  Today I have a low-level hum of dis-ease as thoughts about it keep circulating up to my consciousness and then subsiding again.  It is my day off, so I can’t even apologize in person (although I did in the note).

What strikes me as especially sad is my tendency to feel bad even when the other person seems gracious, as everyone at my job has been.  I find it so hard to trust grace.  I’m sure they’re just being nice outwardly but have ticked a black check by my name.  They think, “He owes me,” or “He can’t be trusted,” or some such ungracious reaction… probably make wry comments in the break room.  I feel so much safer with others when I can skirt my need for grace and just prove myself by hard work.

But “safer” here is a feeling based on good performance reviews, which is a legalistic trap.  It means that I continue to value myself (and others) by our effectiveness and only turn to grace as a last resort, a “grace of the gaps.”  But when legalism is the daily currency, it shapes our whole mindset and relationships.  If grace is only the fall-back, we are still operating out of a legalistic mindset in which only the failing require grace.  I don’t realize how easily I slip into this mindset until I am the one screwing up and in need of grace.  My failures become an invitation into a worldview of grace.

So often I respond to others’ failures with this stop-gap grace.  I reflexively judge their failing because gracious thoughts do not come naturally to me.  So when I realize my unkind thoughts, I try to force myself to think differently, push away the critical thoughts and talk myself into being accepting of their faults.  “They don’t know any better,” I say, or “They aren’t good at planning ahead.”  The underlying assumption is that “good” people like me don’t need grace, at least not much, but these unfortunates need grace.  I only pull out the grace card when it is needed, but am quite content to otherwise live with a legalistic mindset.

But true grace knows no hierarchy or proportion, giving itself fully to everyone.  Certainly exercising grace is more difficult in some situations and with some people than others.  It is much easier to give grace to an apologetic person than an angry one, but both are in equal need of grace as is the person who did not mess up at all (though grace may present itself differently in each case).  In fact, it is the the one who rarely screws up that is probably in “more” need of grace than the others, for she is much more likely to be blind to grace and her need of it.  Either grace is the lifeboat we only use when someone falls out of the ship of a performance-based worldview, a way to accommodate misfits and failures, or grace is the ship in which we choose to sail.

I want more and more to learn to see the world with a grace mindset.  When I am challenged by my own failings or by my judgmentalism of others’ failings, I don’t want to apply grace like a bandaid to help us through that moment, but I want it to be a reminder of the worldview I wish to wholly embrace where grace is the engine and the rudder and the compass.  I have a long way to go.  May I use my blunders as stepping stones to grow in my commitment to grace and not see them as challenges to try harder to earn my worth.

Posted March 22, 2017 by janathangrace in Personal

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Failure Is a Necessary Part of Life   Leave a comment

Excerpt from Mike Mason, Practicing the Presence of People:

We should never be ashamed to return to the drawing board.  In fact all of us should return there every day like children playing on a chalkboard.  The virtue of a chalkboard is that everything drawn on it can be wiped out and begun all over again.  If we were children living in a cottage beside the sea, then every day we would rush out to the beach to play at drawing and building in the sand, and then every night the tide would wash our sandbox clean.  As adults, we might perhaps consider this a pointless activity.  But why cling so tightly to our grown-up accomplishments?  What better way to live than with a clean slate every morning?

Consider the example of Brother Lawrence, who “asked to remain a novice always, not believing anyone would want to profess him, and unable to believe that his two years of novitiate had passed.”  Even the truth, after all, is not something to be held on to doggedly.  If something is really true, then let’s learn it anew every day.  And if there’s anything we’ve acquired that is not true, that does not stand the test of heartfelt love, then let’s wipe it away with the blood of Jesus!

This openhanded, reachable attitude is what is implied in the word practice.  Inherent in this word is the freedom to experiment, to try and try again with limitless humility to fail.  Practice makes perfect, but the practice itself is not perfect.  Practice is a patient, relaxed process of finding out what works and what doesn’t.  Practice leaves plenty of room for making mistakes; indeed mistakes are taken for granted.  In practice it goes without saying that any success is only the fruit of many failures.  Hence the failure is as important as the success, for the one could not happen without the other.

Many people avoid practice because of the fear of failure.  Perfectionists have the mistaken idea that something is not worth doing if they cannot look good by getting it right the first time.  For the perfectionist, any misstep is an unpleasant and embarrassing surprise.  But for a humble person, the surprise is getting it right.  Humility expects trial and error and so rejoices all the more at success.  Humility is always being surprised by grace.

Either life is practice, or it is performance.  It cannot be both.  Do you love surprise, or do you prefer to stay in control?  Are you a professional at life or an amateur?  Do you live spontaneously and experimentally for the sheer love of it  Or are you an expert who takes pride in being right about everything?  Would you rather be right than happy?

None of us can be perfect.  But everyone can be free.  Which will you choose?

Posted August 14, 2015 by janathangrace in Reading

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I’m Mad   1 comment

Irritation has been bubbling over for the last few days, quick sparks of anger at things and people that don’t work right.  This morning I wanted to heave the piece of 2×4 in my hand through the TV screen.  I pictured Kimberly seeing the broken set and asking what happened and my anger then turning on her.  I have too much sense to actually break anything valuable or start unnecessary quarrels, but my imagination runs wild with clubs and bricks, torches and car crashes.  And my anger, bridled and checked though it is, still leaks out in an unresponsive, tight face.

Ongoing irritation is always a tell that I’ve got a burr in my soul.  Sometimes I can find it and pluck it out, but other times it is hidden down in some forgotten niche.  A sharp emotional memory was poked, some reminder of past failures or insults, and it threw me into defensive mode to parry the assault on my sense of worth… but the picture faded before I recognized it and only the feeling remains.

Lord knows I have enough failings in my past to keep me trapped in shame for the rest of my days: memories that sting every time they rise up to my consciousness–people I have hurt or ignored, good advice I scorned, blindness to obvious faults, arrogance and criticism and foolishness of a hundred kinds.  I have discovered that I can only apply grace and forgiveness specifically, a balm for a particular wound.  For best results, I need to identify the thing that is niggling my heart and bring that to be bathed in God’s love.

A parent or spouse may say, “I don’t care what you have done, I love you anyway,” but we fear that if she knew THIS evil of ours, it would create a barrier to her heart.  Something whispers inside us, “She only loves me because she doesn’t know how bad I have been.”  We need to hear the words of God’s grace applied to each individual failing, for as many times as it rears its accusing head in condemning us.  It is so reassuring to show Him that fault with our doubts, and hear his resounding, “Yes, I love you still!”  Blanket forgiveness is a weak alternative to working through the details of our wrongs both internally and inter-personally.

But sometimes like today I don’t know the cause.  Perhaps it was a slowly accumulating list of smaller incidents or a subconscious sting, a dart that zipped through my heart leaving behind only the pain.  It is hard even to love myself if I don’t know what is blocking that self-compassion, to look that specific failing in the face and say to my heart, “Yes, you are still loveable in spite of your brokenness.”  Unlike shame, grace calls us to grow better from a place of full acceptance rather than out of a striving for acceptance.

I think part of my problem is failing to deal fully with each remorse as it occurs, but instead feeling bad about it and then letting it fade into the random fog of my emotional context.  I should rather recognize the full weight of it on my soul and take the effort to deconstruct and sort out the turmoil stirring beneath.  I will take some time to do that now with the last few days cache of self-blaming, a very bad habit of mine.

Posted July 26, 2015 by janathangrace in Personal

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When Grace Exposes Our Sin   2 comments

Matthew 1:7 “David fathered Solomon by Bathsheba who had been the wife of Uriah.”

The story of Bathsheba and David is a royal cover-up that almost succeeded as they pulled all the strings in the shadows to hide their lust, betrayal and murder.  A successful subterfuge would have rotted out their own hearts as they ran from grace.  Grace can do amazing, unbelievable things, even with what is worst in us, but it must begin with the truth about us.  It cannot work with the fog of self-deception.  Whenever we do wrong and hide it from ourselves and others–make excuses, minimize it, compare it to worse sins in others–we trap our shame inside our hearts like a festering wound, and the pathogen slowly seeps throughout our souls and stains our relationships.  God rips off that wrapping, exposing the gore, not to repulse us with our wounds, but to heal us.

Shame is to sin what pain is to injury–an alarm to wake us to crippling harm and push us to act.  It is the blinking light God designed for our inner dashboard.  Unlike God, we tend to use shame against ourselves and one another as leverage to force (or stop) change just as someone might use physical pain (or threat of it) to coerce others.  In our society, shame is a weapon that parents use against children, preachers against congregants, and friends and spouses against one another to force compliance just as a bully might use his fists.  It is psychic assault.  I am often guilty with accusing frowns or glances that say silently, “You are an idiot!”  My message is “Be different so I can love you.”

The divergence between the use and misuse of shame lies precisely in grace.  We turn shame into coercion, weaponize it, by anchoring it to conditional acceptance.  I will show you love (sympathy, support, companionship) or withdraw love based on whether you yield to my expectations.  I may even get God on my side, so to speak, spiritually legitimize my demands by arguing that they are actually God’s demands and prove it through reason or scripture or a tangle of both.  But bad methods ruin good goals.  Though God has given us guidelines on how to live in healthy ways, he doesn’t force our hand and never uses love as leverage.  He loves us fully at all times regardless of what we do or don’t do, even at our worst… even when we are unrepentant, he loves us with all his heart.

The shame he built into our bodies is a warning light, not a threat–he tells us what bad things sin will do to us (tear us and our relationships apart), not what bad things he will do to us.  (Of course, in the Old Testament where law prevailed as a system, God seemed to be a punisher to force compliance while grace lingered in the shadows, but then Christ came to reveal the face of God in the full glory of grace.)  God always acts in grace, though grace sometimes is hard and painful rather than pleasant (like setting a broken leg).  He designed shame to wake us, not to coerce us.  When we use shame to drive us to change our behavior, it simply feeds legalism: the idea that if I try hard enough, I can live in such a way as to rise above shame.  God wants shame to drive us to despair in ourselves and turn instead to his grace.  The healthy remedy for shame is always grace, never more effort.  You cannot earn forgiveness, even with godly sorrow; you can only open yourself to it as it is freely given.

And so David and Bathsheba were caught by grace, their attention riveted by a dying newborn and their betrayal and murder called out by a prophet, exposing the shame that leads to salvation.  They were rescued from being lost in the darkness of hidden sin and becoming a tragedy rather than a story of redemption, actually the story of redemption through their son, the Redeemer Jesus, born many generations later.  No sin is too great for grace to resolve into beauty and goodness once it is brought into the light of God.  We avoid the light, thinking that when God sees our failures, he will love us less like others do, but it is our spiritual wounding that draws out his love and concern even more.  He cannot love us less because his love is completely independent of our goodness.  In a miraculous twist, he can even leverage our sin into greater intimacy and spiritual depth, and like Bathsheba, our darkness can be turned into light to show others the way out of the shadows for many generations to come.  Not only hers, but every redemption story of ours is inextricably connected to the redemption story, making us not only part of redemption, but of redemption history.  By receiving his grace, we become channels of God’s redemption for the world.

Posted July 6, 2015 by janathangrace in Bible Grace

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Grace Piled on Grace   7 comments

Matthew 1:7 “David fathered Solomon by Bathsheba who had been the wife of Uriah.”

The world is not halved into heroes and villains, angels and demons, righteous and sinners.  David is the truth that demolishes that lie: an adulterer with remarkable faith, a murderer specially anointed by God, a law-breaker who wrote Scripture.

“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”
― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago

Since we cannot sort humanity into upper and lower, we settle for before and after: we were all filthy rags before, but some of us have gone through the conversion wash cycle, and now we’re clean.  Except David doesn’t let us off so easily since he was “a man after God’s own heart” long before his debauchery with Bathsheba and treachery against Uriah.  We are fallen creatures, all of us, always in need of more forgiving and saving grace to redeem our fresh failures.

But we don’t need David’s example to reveal the cracks in our souls over which we daily stumble.  I know my sins, it is my acceptance I doubt.  And that is the startling truth of David’s story.  The deep failings of God’s favorites astounds me.  How can God put up with such flawed followers, not to speak of using them as his champions and spokesmen.  As the inimitable Alexander Whyte once suggested, who knows but that David wrote earnest psalms during those nine months of self deception as his illegitimate son formed inside the belly of his stolen wife until the prophet of God came to strike a blow to his bunkered conscience.

How could such a man be chosen as God’s mouthpiece?  Unless the very truth meant to be shared was of the unquenchable grace that God lavishes on us all.  If God’s central message is the gospel, that every human, however flawed, is loved forever, is offered the open heart of God in spite of repeated rebellion, then what better messenger than one who so clearly illustrates this grace in his own life?  The “man after God’s own heart” was a pleasure to God not because of his goodness, but because of his childlike faith and humble resting in God’s unquenchable love–the Gospel According to David.

Posted June 8, 2015 by janathangrace in Bible Grace

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Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down   6 comments

My memory is like cellphone reception in the sticks–very iffy.  I am a full-spectrum forgetter, from the trivial pen to the crucial time sheet submission, and everything in-between.  I’m so good at misplacing things that I’m surprised to find them where they belong–the cupboard is the last place I look for my coffee cup.  I have a whole strategy for dealing with my incompetence–jotting myself reminders and propping them in key places (my computer keyboard, my Honda dashboard) or leaning things against the door so I can’t leave without them.  I am totally prepped for the onset of Alzheimer’s!

Along with my other inveterate shortcomings, It is my wild forgetfulness that wakens my memory, that keeps me aware of my own inadequacy.  Some folks are so successful or competent or busy or distracted that their memory needs to be elbowed into recalling their own failings.  They get good grades at work and church and family and pick up extra credit volunteering at the mission downtown.  Their lives, unlike mine, constantly point to their virtues and accomplishments, and it is their failings that they forget.  They need reminders, blacked out calendar days, time set aside to reflect on the noxious embers that still smolder in their bones.  They need Ash Wednesday.

But I need Resurrection Sunday.  I live in the ash heap of my own failures, reflecting back on them not for 40 days, but 40 years.  I don’t need reminding, I need rescuing.  What I need to remember, always remember, is Easter, the joy of forgiveness.  My hope cannot be in outgrowing my faults or in forgetting them, but in living my present messy life in the full embrace of God, the God who not only accepts me in spite of my past failures, but also in expectation of my future ones, who is not put off by my need, but is drawn to me because of it.  We all fall down, constantly fall down, but may we land in His grace, not in our own self-loathing.  And may the ashes on our foreheads be the sign of our mutual poverty as we hold one another’s hands and dance together in the glorious light of His redemptive love.

Posted February 19, 2015 by janathangrace in thoughts

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New Year’s Joys   Leave a comment

The year has passed.  Each day has died with the setting sun never to rise again, but the steps we took each day have brought us to this place.  The New Year may be fresh with potential, calling us to look back on the road we have come and consider re-directing our steps, but we rose today at the same spot we left off last night.  Flipping the page of our calendars does not create some magic door to Narnia.  We may renew our resolve, but we rose today with the same mental and physical and emotional energy that we had yesterday.  Be gentle with yourself.  Each year is a marathon, not a sprint, and coming too quickly out of the gate is sure to backfire, leaving you exhausted, discouraged, and shamed.

If this is your time for an annual audit, and you find you have come short of your own expectations and goals, perhaps the fault lies with unrealistic goals, not weak efforts.  Perhaps the voices inside your head demanded too much of you.  In that case, rather than redoubling your efforts, you might consider trimming down your goals.  But even if you did lose your way last year, you cannot “make up for it” now without straining your soul.  Leave those failings in the gracious hands of God to redeem, to re-touch with His masterful skills.  You cannot get back in God’s favor by redoubling your efforts because you never lost His favor, for His grace is unshaken by our failings.  Use those failings to call you back to His grace, to stop trusting in your own goodness and to trust more fully in the goodness of God, who loves you regardless of your shortcomings.  Perhaps this year resolve to settle more deeply into God’s grace, to be more accepted rather than more acceptable.

Let grace set the course ahead for this year.  Resolve to live more fully in the consciousness of God’s love.  Instead of harnessing your spirit to unwanted demands like a bull dragging a sledge, pursue those things that will lighten your journey, give you wings instead of weights, release your spirit to truly live.  What puts a smile on your face, bounce in your step, peace in your soul?  Perhaps those are the new year’s plans that will energize you to find delight in God.  Perhaps it is not resolutions you need–a call to the will to override your desires–so much as New Year’s Joys–a call to the heart to fulfill your deepest desires.  “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart.”

Posted January 1, 2015 by janathangrace in thoughts

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Risky Grace   6 comments

This morning I was cruising down Lakeside Drive when a pokey car from a side street turned in front of me.  That’s one of my pet peeves.  If a driver feels some aggressive need to pull in front of me, fine, just go fast enough to stay out of my way.  I stepped on my brakes and would have forgotten it, except the guy slowed down even more, creeping into a gas station.  “REALLY!?” I ranted to my dashboard, “You had to cut me off ’cause you were in a hurry to… STOP?”

I can self-justify with the best, but I’m not so far gone as to equate my petty irritations with righteous indignation.  I knew I wasn’t channeling Jesus with my defensive driving.

This also suggests a serious limitation to that great advice to “be in the moment.”  Oh, I was in the moment, all right, totally in the moment, that scowling, growling, hand-clenching moment.  Sometimes you need to get out of the moment, be a little less present, to grasp the bigger picture.

So I tried to talk myself down.  I noticed that he was a geezer, and they do everything slower, everything.  But I’ve played that chess game with myself before, so I know all the moves.  I responded with, “Hey, driving faster takes no extra strength. Retirement ain’t gonna slow me down.  That’s no excuse.”  “Ah,” said my mental opponent, “And how many wrecks will your age-diminished reactions cause before you slacken your speed?”  Okay, that was a surprise, a new argument that sounded suspiciously like my wife.  How did she get in my head?  That’s totally unfair–two against one.

But her voice is the one I really want to hear, not because it is right, making me wrong and bad, but because it is gracious.  She wants to find peace through mutual acceptance of our weaknesses.  In contrast, I find that when everyone follows the rules, we all get along.  Legalistic happiness.  It’s pretty common in church.

The problem is when we screw up… and we all screw up.  The law has no margin for error, so it makes us all losers, and we scramble to escape that weight of condemnation.  Each time others break our rules, rules that ensure our safety, we feel slighted, devalued, and disrespected, and even small slights cut deeply because we already agree with them, we believe we deserve no respect.  When someone cuts me off in traffic, I feel less of a person, so I get defensive.  In my relationships I push others to change, to conform, to live in a way that does not tear open my self doubt.  Everyone, follow the rules!

The voice of grace sounds so small and useless against such visceral drives, and it calls me to abandon the very thing that is protecting my fragile sense of well-being: my ragged record of good, which is my only justification for squeezing others into line.  Grace whispers that we are loved regardless of our record, that we are valued fully even in our failures.  But I find it hard to trust.  Grace is like oxygen–once you let it in, it is available to everyone in the room.  If you allow grace to cover you as a loser, then it necessarily covers all losers, and then you have to drop your legalistic demands.  But their flawed conformity to rules is the only thing keeping me protected.  For all its defects and failures, the legal system looks pretty safe, and grace looks pretty risky.  No wonder faith is the only way into grace.

Posted February 16, 2014 by janathangrace in Personal, thoughts

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Happy Tears   9 comments

name tag“What do you do?” is the lead-off question when you’re introduced: first your name, then job title, because in this society our work defines us, and our productivity determines our worth.  I spent most of my life desperately chasing success to prove my value, and my failure drove me into despair.  So for more than a decade I have been reorienting myself, trying to settle into a worth independent of accomplishment.  It has been painful and frightening and crushingly hard, but God gave me no choice, thwarting my every attempt at meaningful work.  And I think I have finally come to the point that I’m okay with that.  He can impact this world through me or not as He thinks best.ConanTheLibrarian

Over the last dozen years my ambitions have dropped from saving the world as a missionary to saving a city as a pastor to saving an organization as a social worker to….  putting library books in call number order.  Still I was trying to eke out some sense of personal usefulness from my job.  When I was furloughed every Christmas and summer break, my depression deepened  because I didn’t even have that thumb tack on which to hang my value as a human being–my existence was pointless.  Like a drowning man clutching at flotsam, I would gasp in relief when work started back.

Yesterday my forced holiday ended, but for the first time in four years I was not flailing for some scrap of self respect from a dead-end job.  I am grateful for work, I enjoy my colleagues, and I prefer a set schedule, but I no longer feel worthless when I’m jobless.  I seem to have finally crossed a watershed in emotional freedom from this lifelong compulsion to find purpose in work.  This is huge for me.  This has been my most fundamental personal issue, and I’m sure it still has plenty of kick left, but its emotional grip has been loosened.  The arc of this healing has been so gradual that I didn’t even realize it was a benchmark until I wrote this paragraph, and as I read it back to my wife just now, I got all choked up.

happy-tears-about-3

Posted January 18, 2014 by janathangrace in Personal

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Embracing the Cactus   Leave a comment

Today I ran across this video from 2011.  It is a vignette of two famous actors who have been in the gutter more than once, but prop each other up with forgiveness and acceptance as they stumble along.  Hollywood films portray beautiful truths, but Hollywood lives rarely do.  Here is a two minute “acceptance speech” by Walter Downey Jr. that is a message of hope for those of us who are recovering sinners

EMBRACING THE FALLEN

EMBRACING THE FALLEN

Posted January 15, 2013 by janathangrace in Story

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