After Sunday Thought… I See Failure; God Sees Success

Have you ever failed at something? Made a mistake? Messed up a project?

Of course you have. You’re only human. That’s why I loved yesterday’s scripture from Mark where Jesus returns to his hometown to preach only to find that he isn’t warmly welcomed. On the surface you can say that he was a big flop.

Soon after the synagogue debacle, though, we don’t see Jesus rethinking his life’s call, giving up on the mission of radical love and welcome. Rather, we see him move forward. This time, sending out his friends, two by two, to go to the towns and stay in homes to share the good news. And knowing that sometimes life brings rejection, he tells his friends, don’t let it get you down. You have something to offer. You have been called to do a job. You are part of God’s bigger plan. Just shake off the dust from your sandals and move on. There’s no time to waste; there are others to reach.

There really isn’t time to waste wallowing in our failure or rejection, for when something doesn’t go the way we had hoped or we don’t the results of our labor, it isn’t the end of the world. In fact, it could be God’s way of redirecting us — for example, those in the synagogue won’t receive you, then go out to those in the streets.

I have a chicken coop I’ve been trying to build for a year now. My father began the project last summer, but it was put on hold in the fall because of my indecisiveness as to how to side the walls. I wanted weathered barn boards, but they are wicked expensive to buy and I haven’t come across any old barns that have fallen down lately.

During this time of searching for siding alternatives, two major windstorms blew the coop over. By the second storm, I felt crushed thinking I would probably have to give up on the dream of having chickens. I really thought about dismantling the structure, but something urged me on. Once again, I cajoled my husband into helping me hoist the sad looking coop upright. And there it sits.

Somedays I stare out the kitchen window at this “failure” and I get down about it. Other days, though, I see these delays in finishing the coop as blessings because the reality is I  don’t have time to tend to chickens. The failed chicken coop is starting to look more like a rustic shed for my garden tools.

I have always joked in my life that if Plan A doesn’t work, I am okay because there was a Plan B, a Plan C, a Plan D. I vowed I would never fret until I got to Plan Z. Why? Because I have learned that God has a beautiful way of guiding us. All the times I thought I have failed, I actually found myself stepping onto a new and better path.

And here’s the other thing with “failure.” It really isn’t what it seems to be because God sees things differently. God, who is a redemptive God, can take a mess and bless it.

I overheard a conversation on a shuttle bus to the airport recently. A woman asked a man sitting next to her what he did for a living. He led Christian retreats at a conference center. The woman was excited because she had attended that center years ago. She then went on to tell how one speaker she heard changed her life forever. It led her to give her life to Christ, to go into Christian publishing to spread the good news and, subsequently, because of the path she was now on, her sister was so inspired that she became a missionary. The woman was quiet after sharing the story and then said, “Now that I think about it, that retreat saved me.”

I was startled when I saw the man getting teary-eyed and wondered what was going on? I soon found out as he replied, “I led that retreat and I thought it was the biggest failure of my life. I was so depressed afterwards and found myself rethinking everything.”

A failure isn’t a failure — with God. Just take a look at Jesus. It seemed to everyone — even his friends — that his ministry failed that day he was nailed to the cross. But it didn’t. It was just starting.

So the next time you think you really screwed up or feel you are a hopeless cause or start believing you have no worth at all in this world, think again. God sees things differently. God sees blessings in messes. God brings holy successes out of our human failures.

Now, shake off the dust. You have a beautiful life to live — and I have a chicken coop, um, I mean garden shed, to finish.

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Failures aren’t what they seem. Take for instance, my chicken coop. Blown over by high winds twice and still not finished, the delays have made me realize, I really don’t have time to raise chickens. I do, though, need a place to store my garden tools.

 

Back Again

It’s been awhile since I have sat down at my old farm table to reflect on all the beautiful God moments I stumble upon in my daily walk as an accidental country pastor.

It’s been awhile because since taking a giant leap of faith last fall to move back home to Vermont—without a job and no clear sense of what God was calling me to do—I have been on a spiritual rollercoaster of sorts, strapped in for a ride that would take me slowly up and up and up to dizzying views of what can be only to have that view blurred by the sickening descent down to the realities of how exactly will my life play out.

Up and down. Down and up. Left turn. Right turn. Stop. Wait. Proceed. Not now. Go.

God, what are you up to?

I found myself taking refuge in my garden, quilting (my husband is wondering just how many quilts we need!) and going on daily prayer walks. I found myself being put in a place of retreat, withdrawing from not only the world, but myself. I found myself not eager to write, for I didn’t want to hear what it was my heart and soul was saying. The words—harsh or honest or inspiring and comforting—it didn’t matter, I just wanted all noise to be silenced.

As for my prayers on those solitary walks on overgrown paths of wildflowers, cat tails and a rabbit or two, they were not eloquent nor were they poetically rich with meaning. They were simplicity at its best. The prayers were just one name I shouted in my heart repeatedly. A name of a friend I couldn’t find anymore; a friend I felt I had lost.

“God. God. God…”

Early morning August 1. I sat in the vintage Queen Anne wing chair (made vintage by the claws of my cats) feeling anxious. I had one more dentist appointment scheduled to finally put an end to the summer-long saga of my root canal. I wasn’t anxious, though, of the crown I was about to get. If anything, that would be a piece of cake. I was anxious because the first time since leaping in faith into the unknown, I had no work lined up for the month. No freelance stories due. No preaching gigs. I was feeling lost. I was scared.

God, what are you up to?

I was about to do what I do best. Jump into something out of fear without thinking it through. I was going to see what part-time retail jobs were available in the nearest town to our little fledgling farm.

My husband, though, talked me out of it throwing back words I have thrown at him many times.

“Wait. Be still. Trust God.”

And so, I did.

I continued my search for my friend only to discover—once again—that God was always right there with me. God was never lost in my life. I was lost from God. My anxiousness to know the future and my fear of it, stole me away from my faithful friend.

I’m back now. Back at my farm table writing. I’m still a wee bit hesitant as to what my heart and soul will say to me in the words that will be pieced together into sentences. But this I know.

The God moments—those filled with divine light and those shrouded in holy darkness—are just too beautiful not to embrace, celebrate and share.

I’m back. The calendar is full, praise God. But beyond the scheduled days is a lesson I hope never to forget. That is, never fear and be anxious when life seems empty. Just wait. Be still. Retreat a little if you must. And trust with all your might. God is at work.

Postscript

On August 21, I was named the new interim editor of my denomination’s magazine, Presbyterians Today. Great is God’s faithfulness for my prayer since coming home to Vermont was to return to my editorial roots, while still serving God. And so, I am IMG_8527 (1)working in my 18th century home here in Vermont, sharing the amazing ways God is at work in our congregations and communities. I also continue to preach in the rural churches in the area. Thank you all for being on this journey with me.

The only sad news to report is that I might have to put getting goats on hold. Not enough time for now.

Hold Loosely

I remember back in my reporter days for a business magazine hearing from a sales motivational coach who said at the beginning of his presentation that if you walked away with only one nugget of wisdom, he had done his job. Just one nugget. That’s all it took to not only make his talk worthwhile financially, but worthwhile in terms of making your business better.

That advice changed my life as I have always remembered it didn’t do you any good getting bogged down with lists of tips or bullet pointed must do’s in order to change your life for the better. All it took was one nugget—received and then acted upon.

Such a nugget recently came my way and it has made a wonderful impact on my life. Early this summer I was attending a writing symposium at Princeton Theological Seminary. I was gathered in a group of advanced writers who had the opportunity to hone our craft, share our prose and talk one-on-one with a former pastor-turned mother-turned published author of teen devotionals and other such books.

One afternoon, as we were gathered in small groups practicing and perfecting our elevator pitches to be used someday on potential book agents, the former pastor-turned mother-turned published author offered some sound advice. She said when writing a sermon, a daily reflection for a devotional, a scene to a mystery novel, whatever it is you’re writing, don’t ever be tied down to the words or ideas you are so in love with.

You might have a vision of where you want your story to go, but many times the story will have a life of its own. Let your story live. Be brutal and pry yourself away from that too long paragraph, that extra descriptive scene, that conversation between two characters that doesn’t move the story forward. Yes, you might think it is the most brilliant thing you have ever written, but holding tightly to your words doesn’t make for a delightful read. Hold loosely the words you write, she said. Cut and paste and put aside. You might eventually include what was cut. Or you might use those words in a different way. Or you might come to see they weren’t as great as you thought them to be.

It’s all okay. Hold loosely.images.jpg

Out of all the nuggets of wisdom gathered at that conference, her nugget is the one I keep hearing and applying  beyond my writing. For how many times do we find ourselves holding on to something we are so enthralled by but it isn’t moving our story forward? How many times do we refuse to edit out something that isn’t good for us? How many times do we cling tightly to something that has died a long time ago? Isn’t it true we tend to stay too long on the battlefield, bloodied and beaten down, never realizing the skirmish has long been over?

While the preacher side of me always gravitates to the message that there’s always hope for tomorrow and that God can revive all that is lagging, there’s also the reality that a seed must first die before bringing forth new life. We are to hold on to hope, but our hope is in the promise of resurrection. And resurrection cannot happen without the holding loosely—and the eventual letting go—that death asks of us.

Hold loosely—to your words.

Hold loosely—to your ideas.

Hold loosely—to your future plans.

Hold loosely—to even those you love and things you love.

Cut and paste and put aside. The story of your life will be brilliant. Just let God offer His revisions.