THE POWER OF “I FAILED”
When is failing a gift?
We’re all about winning. At least that is the way it sometimes seems in the world in which you and I live. A few seasons ago a school in the Big Ten fired a football coach who “only” went 9-3. Now and then I speak with graduate students and hear how overwhelming it can be to try to “win” your way up the academic ladder. A popular political figure almost brags about the fact that he never admits failure. The other day I sat in a circle with some wonderful colleagues, and we didn’t tell failure stories: we told success stories.
There is a lot of pressure that comes with living in a culture where there is so much emphasis placed on winning, or having the right answer to every question, or handling every situation correctly.
On Monday and Tuesday of this week, more than three hundred United Methodist pastors gathered at something we call “Our Life Together” in Indianapolis at St. Luke’s UMC. There were times of worship, small break-out sessions, and meals. Mike Coyner, who has been the Resident Bishop in Indiana for the last twelve years, spoke as “keynoter.” In one session he talked about his failures. He said he had failed to help turn around the membership loss in the UMC in Indiana, and he had failed to lead us towards a more robust stewardship (giving) life.
The Best Part
A friend I respect very much came to me and said (referring to Our Life Together), “Do you know what my favorite part of the time together was?” I thought it might have been the amazing worship sessions led by Travis Jeffords and our Open Door praise team. Or, perhaps seeing colleagues. Or, one of several passionate, thoughtful sermons preached by colleagues. No, her favorite moment, the moment of blessing, was when the Bishop said, “I failed.”
She told me what it had meant to her to hear the Bishop say, “I failed. I didn’t get it right. I couldn’t do it.”
It was a blessing. That moment of candor, that moment of humility, was a blessing! It’s amazing how we can grace other people when we admit that we messed up, missed the target, or mishandled a moment.
Saying “I’m Sorry” Can Be a Gift
One of the ways I have failed is to hesitate to say “I failed” or “I’m sorry.” I’m not sure why saying “I failed” or “I’m sorry” is such a hard thing. Maybe we think that to admit failure or weakness is a sign we are damaged goods. Our value, our worth, we think, has to do with our ability to handle all things well. Have all the answers. Never make a misstep.
When we get to the point where we say, “I’m sorry” or “I failed” or “I got it wrong,” we almost always experience grace. That comes in several ways. We can set down the weight of pretending we always said the right thing and did the right thing. Trying to be perfect is exhausting, especially when no one else is fooled. So being honest about our failures sets us free from the pressure of pretending.
And when we say “I’m sorry” or “I failed,” then we set others free from the pressure they may feel to look and sound as if they were an example of flawless perfection. When we dare to be real, when we dare to say “I’m sorry” or “I failed”,” then we give others room to be real. Our honesty sets in motion grace for others. People who have been walking around holding their breath, pretending, can stop pretending if we dare to be real. If you have ever been in a 12-step program or group, you know the power of honesty. The power of admitting your humanness and need and failure and faith.
Finally, when we stop pretending, when we admit our failure or confusion or sin, then we open ourselves up to the experience of God’s undeserved love. We are loved, we matter, not because we have all the answers, not because we always win or are always strong, but because we are loved: because God has chosen to love us!
Paul, in 2nd Corinthians 12:9, says that God’s power is “made perfect in weakness.” In fact, the apostle goes on to say that he will brag—brag!—of his weaknesses so that the “power of Christ can rest on me.”
David, in Psalm 51, admits his sin and weakness before God. He stops pretending. In verse 17, he says this: “A broken spirit is my sacrifice, God. You won’t despise a heart, God, that is broken and crushed.”
Our Best Moments?
Maybe one of the best moments in our life together is to become more and more a place of such grace and love that people feel free to say “I failed.” In a culture that seems to value winning at all costs, in a culture where people spend millions of dollars on plastic surgery to look as perfect as possible, God calls us to be a community of grace where people can stop pretending.
Where it is okay—in fact, more than okay—to say “I failed.” Or, “I got it wrong.” Or, “I’m sorry, I didn’t get that done.” Or, “I’m sorry, I hurt you…I should have loved you better.”
“I failed.” Who would have thought that kind of statement would have turned out to be such a gift…such a blessing?
Who needs to hear your “I’m sorry?” Who would be graced by your “I failed?”