lenten journal: failing faithfully


One of my morning rituals is to read the Writer’s Almanac. When we lived in Massachusetts, in played on WBUR as I was going to work; here in Durham I read the text on the website. Besides a daily dose of poetry, Garrison Keillor also mentions two or three significant birthdays or anniversaries. Today is Steve Jobs’ birthday. The short essay on his life had this quote:

Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

I smiled when I read the words because this has been one of those weeks when the theme of failure has risen back up in my life. It’s an ongoing theme, though I’m not sure of the melody. I have written about it several times — most recently here and here. A few days ago, Win Bassett pointed to the blog of one of his friends, Wil Wheaton, who is also a writer and was also hearing the same theme. He said:

. . . failing at one thing does not mean you fail at all things and that’s the end of it. Failing at something can often be the beginning of succeeding at another thing. . . .

. . . yesterday, I sat down and I plotted out a story I’ve wanted to tell for a long, long time. I sat down, thought about my big idea, and then had an incredibly fun time drilling down into that big idea to find the narrative story and character arcs that exist inside it. And the thing about doing that? It was fun. I wrote out a few mile markers to generally move the story forward, so I know what I’m driving toward, and when I got to the end, I discovered something incredibly awesome that I hadn’t even considered in the months I’ve had this idea bouncing around inside my brain. I typed it into my text document, gasped in delight, and clapped my hands like an excited child … which I guess, in that moment, I was.

This morning, I listened to the TED Radio Hour on WUNC as I drove to church, which is becoming a weekly ritual thanks to the station’s new schedule. This week’s episode asked “How Do Schools Suffocate Creativity?” The segment I heard centered around a TED Talk from a few years back by Sir Ken Robinson, a man who has spent his career looking at ways we can enhance how we learn and grow. As I was turning into the church parking lot he told a story, which a teacher told him about a little girl in her class who hardly ever paid attention. When they began drawing one day, the little girl became absorbed in the activity and more focused than she had evern been. The teacher asked her what she was drawing and the little girl said she was drawing a picture of God.

“No one knows what God looks like,” said the teacher.
“They will in a minute,” she responded.

Just as I parked the car he said,

If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.

That was my call to worship. When I took my seat in the sanctuary, I pulled out my notebook and jotted down what I had heard and, as we moved on into the service, I wrote, “Is that true about faith?”

Ginger preached this morning from Philippians and Paul’s admonition to be imitators of Christ. She talked about the television preachers she had seen this morning who were quick to say that being faithful to God meant God would take care of everything, which of course is just not true. Not only that, it’s not helpful because when everything doesn’t come up roses, we are left feeling like, well, failures. “One mistake,” she said, “can lead us down the path to self-doubt.”

I thought of what I had heard in the car: “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.” Ginger continued: “Being human means we are born to mess up,” and she encouraged us to open our hearts and our hands and say together,

In the light of the Cross, I will let go of the need to be all things to all people.

I will let myself fail in Jesus’ name — just like Jesus did. One of my favorite sermons on the Crucifixion is Frederick Buechner’sThe Magnificent Defeat” Jesus was not a success by any earthly measure: he amassed no fortune, he had a marginal following, he had no political power, he had no family or heirs, and he was executed. His willingness to live such a life is what made the hope of Easter possible.

For the benediction to our day, Ginger and I walked in the cool of the evening through our town and found our way to some Mexican food along the way. We talked through the sermon and I told her what I had heard, alongside of trying to figure out what life looks like in the days ahead. The book tours I was able to do in the fall and in February were awesome and wonderful and important and small. I am where I have been often in my life, figuring out how to fail faithfully.

Tonight, I have few answers. I just needed to say the questions out loud again and be reminded of what I know is true. I am also grateful for a friend who called to invite me to Nashville in a couple of weeks. His encouragement could not have been timed any better. Life is good and hard and also full of grace.



P. S. — (Here’s the shameless plug part: his deal is on Saturday, March 9; anyone up for putting something together either Friday or Sunday?)


  1. Milton, I just ordered your book from a New Zealand website. I’m looking forward very much to reading it.. I didnt realise you had written any books, I got to your website through the site Available Light, the blog of Rev Kelvin Wright, Anglican Bishop of Dunedin, and he lists your blog as one he reads.
    I am a widow, eating alone, and your quotation from The Buddha intrigued me.

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