by Elaine Maust
printed in Timbrel, November/December 2003
I did not set out to be a lifelong failure. In fact, I intend to be successful. But failure has come upon me in every stage of life, as predictable as losing my baby teeth or the graying of my hair.
I have, at separate times, mortified both my children and my parents. Once, during our 25 years of marriage, I nearly sent us to the matrimony mortuary. I know the heartache of disappointing God.
I have humiliated myself by offending unintentionally, saying the wrong thing, wounding a friend. As a competitive businesswoman I know the distaste of botched sales. I have killed several plantings of tomatoes in one season. I once prepared a lovely squirrel stew for a vegetarian. I cannot operate a CD player successfully two times in a row. I failed third grade math.
And likely I have done annoying or detestable things of which I am unaware. You might say, I am a professional failure. A perfectly qualified expert, able to address this subject in print.
Could a new beatitude be written for folks like me? Something that begins, “Blessed are the failures, for . . .”—for what? Could failure bless?
Failure, like pain, is a common denominator. When I admit my failures, I rejoin the human race instead of pretending to supercede it. In fact, embracing failure liberates. It relieves me of needing to be more than I am, an ordinary human being. I am an average mother, pastor, wife, friend, and person. And behold, average is acceptable.
Psalm 103:14 describes God’s opinion of humans with, “He remembers that we are dust.” Thank you, God! On my worst days, I pray, “Hey, God. Remember me? I’m dust.” Expectations of dust are utterly unimpressive. What a relief.
Failure reminds me that I need to be forgiven. I want to be the forgiver, the great hearted, the generous one. But I am the one who must ask for the gift of forgiveness and wait to see if those I have offended will grant it.
But the moment immediately following a failure is most crucial. Will I deny my mistake? “I have no idea how that dent got into the car!” Or will I admit and embrace my mistake? “I’m so sorry. I dialed your number by accident. I’m embarrassed.” At those moments I remind myself that this is a path to grace.
The Bible says, “Humble yourselves before the Lord” (James 4:10a). Fortunately, we do not need to strain to become humble. Our humiliations will do that for us, easily enough, if we allow them.
Bernard of Clairvaux wrote, “Great graces cannot be obtained without humility; so those who are to have them must be humiliated. . . . When you yourself experience humiliation, you should take it as a sure sign that some grace is in store. . . . The humble person is he who has turned humiliation into humility.”
Failure also calls. I do not understand this, but I have seen it over and over again. One of my most profound moments of call to ministry came as I drove down a sweltering Mississippi highway sobbing out my regret to God at being a failure at bringing people to him. The Holy Spirit told me to pull off the road and called me to be a minister.
When others are searching for their callings, I invite them to listen not only to their successes, but also to their failures. If God calls a runaway prince to become a liberator for a nation of slaves and a murderous religious zealot to become a missionary, maybe God can use our deepest failures to call us, too.
One day I sat at the kitchen table and prayed for mercy for my mistakes. Not the silly ones, like the time I went to the wrong appointment, and kept it, or the time I inadvertently seasoned pot roast with cinnamon. What plagued me that day were big failures. Like being a pastor responsible for someone leaving the church hurt and angry. I asked Jesus, “What do you say to me about all this?” I waited.
I imagined Jesus walking across the kitchen and putting his hand on my shoulder. He addressed my accusers and the self-accusations in my own heart. He said words that still stop my heart: “Leave her alone. Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. . . . She did what she could” (Mark 14:6, 8).
Given my propensity to fail, one might safely ask how I get myself out of bed in the morning. Probably again today I will forget the name of a child at the church’s tutoring program. Likely I will make an expensive mistake on a bid at the cabinet shop. Who knows, I might even create a fresh and very entertaining vehicular disaster.
But knowing I will fail, I give the day to God. Again today I will do what I can for this God I adore. I move ahead with joy on my path of grace. For I am one of the blessed. I have failed.