Going on after failure
I’ve been caught by a story told by theologian and author Suzanne Stabile sharing that one of the most difficult lessons for humans to learn is that our deepest understandings most often come through failure. The paradox of that, of course, is that few if any of us ever want to fail. She chuckles and goes on to say that whether we want to or not, whether we’re prepared or not, whether we think we can manage it or not, it does happen . . . failure. The only question is how we go on from whatever that failure looks like in each of our lives.
We might call them defining moments. While I can’t shoot a basketball to save my life in these aging years, that game was my passion in high school and I had a bit of an aptitude for it. How shocking it was when my basketball coach, also one of my academic heroes, told me I would be a better basketball player if I was on the track team. Wait, what?!? I did not care for any of the jumping, the throwing, or the running, and how any of that was going to help my basketball was beyond reason. But he said it, I believed it, and the suffering began. I was good at NONE of it. Bless the heart of the coaches, they put me in the shortest races possible so the pain and embarrassment wouldn’t last long. I think it’s not possible to get lapped in the 100 yard dash, but I think I probably came close. Understand I was pretty much a straight A student, did well in volleyball and basketball, held my own with clarinet solos and could bang out a pretty mean ragtime piece on the piano, but track? Miserable, utter, embarrassingly awkward failure. And I wanted to quit. It made complete sense to quit. It was logical, reasonable, and would not have made one bit of difference to anyone . . . but that coach.
He came out to track practice one afternoon and wanted to walk some laps with me to “talk”. My memory isn’t good enough to remember exactly what he said, the part I do remember is his admonition that quitting wouldn’t solve the challenge of persisting with something you weren’t good at doing. That somehow something good would come from sticking with it, continuing to try, and being a good teammate. So I stayed out, kept running during all those stupid practices after school, and lost every. single. race. I ran during the season.
The following year, I think in frustration and maybe even pity, the coach or assistant coach told me to go and run a couple of miles out into the country and back. Practicing for the dashes simply wasn’t working. And remember this was Almena, Kansas, the country roads were right there. So I did, and I got back faster than they imagined, reasonably they thought I hadn’t gone as far as they asked. The next day the same, and the day after that, and the day after that and one day one of them ran with me. What we figured out is that while I couldn’t run dash fast, I had a pretty decent pace with distance, and somehow I simply never slowed down. I began competing in the mile and two mile, and I started placing, and every now and again, winning. No broken records or drawers full of gold medals, but a sense that something foundational had happened.
High school basketball was my forever favorite sport and remained a passion through college. And I still rather enjoy watching high school and college games. But do you know what has continued far beyond any skill I ever had at playing a game with a ball and a basket? Running. I know, right? Running. I think my high school basketball coach who remains one of my heroes and whose impact lasted far beyond his years on this earth, must laugh and laugh from whatever heavenly point of view he has when he sees me putting on my way too expensive sneaks, (with age comes foot and ankle challenges) and VOLUNTARILY and sometimes even happily, going for a run. Who’d-a thought.
The movement of the week before Easter, the week we call Holy, looks for everything like Jesus has lost, maybe even failed. The religious authorities want him dead. The Roman politicians want him dead. And finally even when given a choice from Pontius Pilate to let him go, many who have been following him yell for his death rather than his release.
Pastor Robb McCoy says it this way:
“For the criticism and the invitation and the healing and the challenge he represented to the comfortable and powerful – he knew he was going to the cross. He knew if he stood up for all that he lived for, for all that he believed, for all that he held dear, he would be killed. He knew that if he followed God’s will it would lead to a cross. Not because God needed him to die, but because humanity could not allow him to live. We would not allow him to live . . . We can follow the way of the world – we can be selfish, look out for number one, work hard to get what we deserve and acquire more stuff. We can ignore the outcast, condemn the poor, tread on the orphan and the widow. We can judge the sinner and build nice comfy walls which no one will breach except those we deem worthy. Or we can follow Jesus. We can pray to God, ‘not my will but yours be done,’ and mean it. We can fail from time to time, but we can know that we are always struggling, like Jesus, to do God’s will. And we can know that as we struggle, as we are mocked, belittled, and fail; as we triumph, and suffer, and celebrate, Jesus is with us. Jesus is always with us.”
I don’t know if I knew Jesus was with me as I slowly ran that track to a fully losing season, but I knew one of the people to whom I looked for guidance, in whom I trusted to have my best interest at heart, walked with me – literally one day around the track, and figuratively in every race I ran whether finishing last or first. He remained a trusted mentor, and many years later, I officiated his celebration of life in a church full of former and current students, colleagues, and a spouse and two daughters he loved more than anything. None of us were ready for his too-early leavetaking because of disease, yet his wisdom has had lasting power far beyond his span of life. We never won a state championship for him, but somehow I think the impact he had on countless students and players over the years was way more valuable.
I think Suzanne Stabile is right – some of our deepest understanding comes from what looks for all the world like failure . . . but it never has the last word. The cross never has the last word. Death never has the last word. Love, and life, and the grace of God always, always wins.
Happy Easter dear friends!
Link to video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nD9L4p6rT_w