“The most important of my discoveries have been suggested to me by my failures.”
~ Sir Humphrey Davy
This quote reminds me of the thinking of Thomas Kuhn in his remarkable book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions when he comments on the fact that most scientific discoveries come about by failure, not by successes. In fact, many failures. Kuhn makes this comment within the context of paradigm shifts, and how these scientific discoveries that come about through failure, often help transition science into a new paradigm. I think this is also true of ministry!
I know that the ministry we have today is a result of our failure in many ways. But through failure, we have persevered to bring about success in many ways, and in other ways, we are still experimenting. Why am I thinking so much about failure these days? Is it some unhealthy or morbid fascination? No. I think it’s because this graduation season will mark a season in the ministry that I oversee. It marks the cycle of me watching new students come in as freshmen, and leave this year as graduating seniors. And I have recently been reflecting on this occurrence, and in hindsight I have realized how much of our joys, triumphs, succesess, have come about from previous failure.
I think failure is not something any of us want to have in our life. But how we deal with failure will often determine the future in many ways. Through failure we learn to mature, persevere, hope, love, trust, place faith in God. And these students have seen me fail in many ways these last four years. Whether it was failing at teaching and preaching, or counseling, or administratively, they have seen me fail. And sometimes they have let me know about it…and other times they have not. But they have always journeyed with me in my failure, with grace, love and patience. When times were tough, they could have bailed out at anytime. Why not? They were volunteering their time…time they often didn’t have. They weren’t getting paid. There wasn’t glory or fame in their tasks. But they were able to look beyond the failure, to something greater.
They were able to look at the task at hand, and peer into the future. They were able to grasp and understand that ministry, that being a Christian takes a lot of work, and that there is going to be failure. But it was something that was worth the risk. After all, if they didn’t seize this opportunity, who would.
I think they were able to view the situation much in the same way Jesus must have viewed the situations with his disciples. Talk about failure. Jesus was around a lot of it. From the failure of his disciples understanding things (read Mark…the disciples seem like a lot of bumbling fools). To the failure of “the three” to stay awake in the garden long enough to pray for Jesus at His time of trial. To the failure of Peter claiming that he knew Christ. Jesus was around failure. Failure at the most inimate level. But Jesus saw something that was more important. He saw people in progress. People who didn’t have all the answers, but were on their way to understanding what He had called them to.
This failure was an intimate failure, but maybe that’s what often gets us to persevere. Jesus peered into their hearts and knew that His investment in their lives was worth the risk and failure. Maybe intimate failure is more successful in sprouting success in the future, because there is a name, a face, a relationship.
My students and I are intimate friends, journeying together in what God has called us to do. When we fail, we fail together. When we succeed, we succeed together. But failure is the crucible by which our failures have been tested in, and what comes out of it is something solid, beautiful and lasting.
Ministry is full of many changes, and I am still learning and growing as a leader. I’m sure there will be many more changes that none of us can forsee, and there will be some that we know of. But I know that we are on this journey together, and that failure is part of the bittersweetness, that makes success so wonderful.
I hope that you look at failure in your own life and ministry as a step in leading you in the right direction, rather than as a wrong way. I have read before that failure and succeses are like a rug that is woven together. From the backside it looks a little rough, and uneven, and jagged, sometimes going in wrong directions. But when it is turned over, it is a beautiful tapestry. I think our lives are much like this. Our failures, wrong turns, bad decisions, come together with our successes, and joys, and weave a beautiful pattern.
Thank you students, for allowing me to fail, and for never letting me feel like I was alone on this journey.