August 7, 2011

The Magnificent Defeat
W. Gregory Pope, preaching

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Genesis 32:22-31; 2 Corinthians 12:1-10

Failure is common to the whole human race.  Sometimes the failure is of our own doing.  Sometimes we share the failure with others.  Sometimes a venture fails because we stood on principles of ethics, and in reality was no failure at all, but a grand triumph of integrity. 

Still the truth remains: we all to one degree or another fail.  What do we do when we fail?  How do we let go of a failure and move on?  To deny the reality of failure is to court disaster.

We live in a world that demands success.  We are taught to hide our failures or blame them on someone else.  But if we are going to live with integrity we must acknowledge our failures, come to terms with their consequences, and find the strength in God’s grace to move on.

Today I want to talk about failure as something that happens in our lives through which we can be offered an experience of God’s grace.  I want to share with you some gifts that failure has brought to my life.  Perhaps they can help you.

I find these gifts intricately woven into Paul’s struggle with his thorn in the flesh as well as in Jacob’s struggle by the river.

Many guesses have been made regarding Paul’s thorn in the flesh.  Personally, I’m glad we don’t know.  Because it allows us to substitute our own thorns into Paul’s words and then open our lives to the gifts he discovered.

                                                        Failure’s Gift of Humanity

One of the first gifts that can come to us through our failure is the freedom to accept our humanity and join the human race.

In his writings, Paul went so far as to call himself the chief of sinners.  He knew his own failures. All of us fail, but we do not all face up to our failures.

There are those who refuse to acknowledge their failures - you’ve met them, haven’t you? - they often appear slick, inauthentic, even judgmental of others.

For those who have been able to come face to face with their failures and embrace their humanity, there is most often an open-heartedness and compassion about them that isn’t possible without facing the truth about their brokenness.

God knows we’re human.  God is not surprised by our mistakes, God, however, wants to take our mistakes and use them in our lives to help others.  

For when we have tasted the bitter wine of defeat and failure and perhaps even embarrassment, we are better able to identify with those around us, and in humility we become more accessible to others. 

If you’ve been through a divorce you know the insufferable grief and depth of pain of those enduring the same heartbreak, and you can extend grace and understanding in ways others cannot.

If you have failed in a career or business venture you can offer support and encouragement to others who have failed in a similar way. 

If you have fought the battle with drugs or alcohol you can empower others who face the same struggle in ways no one else can.

Only those who admit their brokenness can help heal others.   Henri Nouwen called them “wounded healers.”  Only wounded healers can carry the healing balm of God to a broken world.  In acknowledging our failures we are set free to join the human family and be healers to one another.

                                                      Failure’s Gift of Community

When we come face to face with our failures, not only are we free to accept our own humanity, but we also have the opportunity to realize, perhaps for the first time, our own need for community.

One writer put it this way:  “When we cannot live with [and own up to] our failures, we limit the intimacy in our lives.”1

I have never been one to share with others the details of my life.  I prefer to keep personal things private.  And I know some of you are like that as well.  And there’s not anything inherently wrong with remaining private.  But when isolating your life from others you limit the meaningful depth of intimacy and connection with others that we all truly need.  We need those with whom we can share our accomplishments and moments of joy.  And we need those with whom we can share our struggles and failures.

Paul said he could boast about his accomplishments (and at times he does), but his aim, he says, is to boast only in his weakness.   In boasting about our weaknesses and in sharing our failures with others, that’s when community and connections are formed and deepened.

Perhaps we all need to make a commitment this week to share a personal failure with someone else.  Or if our failures have hurt others, make it a point to confess and apologize.  Do it to help restore relationships.  Do it for the sake of community and relational intimacy.

Don’t do it in the name of false humility or for the sake of beating yourself up.  Some of us beat ourselves up so badly we may need to go easy with this little exercise.  But those of us who perhaps think a little too highly of ourselves - we can help those who beat themselves up; they could use a good dose of someone else’s failures.  It may help relieve some of their shame.

Failing and sharing those failures with others can bring community and intimacy to our very human lives in ways little else can.  Acknowledging our own humanity and admitting our personal failures will remind us all that we need to go easy on each other.  Perhaps it will cause us to relate more tenderly with one another.  Because we’re all broken.  Playwright Eugene O’Neill said, “We are born broken.  We live by mending.  The grace of God is glue.”2

                                                           Failure’s Gift of Grace

And grace, a full awareness of God’s forgiveness and restoration, is perhaps the greatest gift failure can bring to our lives.  When we come face to face with our failures we open the door to the possibility of embarrassment, but we open a larger door for grace to come and live deep within our soul.  Through failure we learn, perhaps for the first time, what it means to believe in grace - the grace of others, the grace of God.

Paul prayed over and over again for God to remove his thorn, his weakness.  And God’s response was, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness.”  Failure can be a means through which grace comes flooding into our lives.

The inability to admit failure robs us of the chance to learn.  We must be willing to make mistakes, and we must be willing to own our mistakes in order to learn from them.

There is no joy in perfectionism. We will never get it all right.  We learn and we grow only by trying and failing, receiving correction and grace, and trying again.

We are who we are.  And who we are is a compilation of all our successes and all our failures.  For some of us, if we had not failed at certain points of our lives, even the great big failures, we would not be as wise and as gracious as we are as a result of those failures. 

We all have our failures: parenting errors, wrong choices, career mistakes.  But we are who we are.  And we learn.

The failure to admit failure is the greatest failure we can make.  Because without our admission of failure we will be unable to fully embrace: our humanity, our need for community, the experience of grace, and the truth about our lives.  It is at the point of failure where the healing light of God’s grace enters into what we have tried so hard to hide.

As Flannery O’Connor put it:  “You accept grace the quickest when you have the least.”3

At the point of failure, failure met by grace, that’s the place where true community can begin.

                                                         Failure’s Gift of Strength

The irony of Paul’s weakness, the irony of any failure, is that we can come through stronger because we’ve learned to live in a strength greater than our own. 

Our failures may bring difficult consequences.  But what is most important is what we do in light of our failures.  Will we in our shame give up and go into hiding?  Or will we face the truth and dare to enter life again? 

Native American poet, Oriah Mountain Dreamer, penned these inspiring words:

It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living.  I want to know what you ache for, and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart’s longing.

It doesn’t interest me how old you are.  I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool for love, for your dreams, for the adventure of being alive . . .

I want to know if you have touched the center of your own sorrow.

(I want to know) if you have been opened by life’s betrayal or have become shriveled and closed from fear of further pain.

I want to know if you can sit with pain, mine or your own, without moving to hide it or . . . fix it.

I want to know if you can be with joy, mine or your own . . .

(I want to know) if you can dance with wildness and let the ecstasy fill you to the tips of your fingers and toes without cautioning us to be careful, to be realistic, to remember the limitations of being human . . .

I want to know if you can see beauty, even when it’s not pretty everyday, and if you (see) your life (in) God’s presence.

I want to know if you can live with failure, yours and mine, and still stand on the edge of the lake and shout . . . “Yes!”

It doesn’t interest me to know where you live or how much money you have.  I want to know if you can get up, after the night of grief and despair, weary and bruised to the bone, and do what needs to be done . . .

I want to know if you will stand in the center of the fire with me and not shrink back.

It doesn’t interest me where or what or with whom you have studied.  I want to know what sustains you, from the inside, when all else falls away.

I want to know if you can be alone with yourself and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments.4

                             Failure’s Gift of Wounded Blessing, Blessed Woundedness

Jacob was alone with himself by the river that night and I don’t know, deep down, if he liked the company he was keeping. I suspect not.

Jacob’s story is the story of a con artist who became the father of the twelve tribes of Israel.  His moment of truth came one shadowy night by the river Jabbok.

When Jacob arrived at the river, he heard that his brother Esau was on the way to meet him with four hundred men.  Jacob had tricked his older brother Esau out of the birthright and blessing that was rightfully Esau’s.  So Jacob sent the rest of his party ahead with peace offerings, gifts for his brother.  Maybe they would cool Esau’s anger, or at least buy some time. 

Now Jacob is all alone.  As Jacob wades out into the stream, something happens.  Whatever happened is shrouded in mystery.  Something hit him there in the water.  There was a wrestling - fierce, agonizing, decisive, and long, all night long. 

When he went into the stream that night and was met by that force, he did not know what in heaven’s name - or hell’s - had hit him.

The narrative tells us that the one with whom Jacob wrestled was a man.  Later scripture would call him an angel.  After the battle Jacob said it was the very being of God. 

They wrestled all night.  At times Jacob thought he was winning.  Most times he feared he was losing.  Near dawn his opponent reached out and touched Jacob’s hip, wrenching it out of its socket. 

Jacob grabbed hold of this Other.  The Other said, “Let me go.  It’s daybreak.”  Jacob said, “I will not let you go until you bless me.”  The Other said, “What is your name?”  “Jacob,” he answered, meaning “Heel-grabber,” no doubt reminding him of the cheat he knew he was.  And the Other said, “Your name shall be Jacob no more, but Israel, for you have fought with God and with others and have prevailed.”

I just noticed this week that “Jabbok” is the second half of Jacob’s name transposed.  And Jacob’s name which means “heel-grabber” is changed in a river named Jabbok, which means “struggle”?

Nothing brings change to our lives like struggle, especially a struggle with God.  But when we come out on the other side we realize we are indeed Israel, God’s struggling people, wounded by blessing, blessed by our wounds.

Jacob never got the name of the Other who blessed him and departed, but he knew the One whom he held onto that night, and the One who had hold of him.  He gave a name to the place of the struggle: Peniel, which means “face of God,” “for I have seen God face to face and my life has been saved.”

The episode ends with the words, “As the sun rose he passed Peniel limping on his hip.”  He had been blessed and he had been wounded.  Something had died and something had been born.  Jacob had become Israel.

Blessing also happened the next day when the brothers met.  As Jacob hobbled to Esau, bowing seven times in humility, Esau ran to meet him, grabbed him around the neck, and kissed him.

Have you ever been wounded in a way that blessed you?  Have you ever been blessed in such a way it leaves you limping?  Some wounds in life are what C. S. Lewis called a “severe mercy.”  Buechner calls Jacob’s experience “the magnificent defeat.”5

Do you find yourself this day in the river called “Struggle”?  Who are wrestling with?  Is it another person?  An angel?  A demon?  God?  Is it life itself, with all its fierce and frightening power?  Is it death you wrestle with there in the waters?  Is it some great decision you’re wrestling with?

Like Jacob, if we hang on to Whatever or Whoever has hold of us, we may find ourselves wounded, but in the end we may just find ourselves blessed.


The gifts of failure: humanity, community, grace, strength, wounded blessing, blessed woundedness

It’s not easy to accept grace for our failures and find the strength to move on, especially when our failures have embarrassed us or hurt those we love. 

But let me ask you this: What are your failures doing to you now, this very day?  Are they paralyzing you?  Have they got you locked up in a prison of shame?  God doesn’t want you living in paralysis or shame.  God wants to take your failures and make them sacraments of grace.  Will you allow God to do that holy work, beginning today?

I invite you name your failures to God and allow the grace and blessing of God to hold you.

1. Oriah Mountain Dreamer, The Invitation, Harper San Francisco, 1999

2. Quoted in Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies

3. Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1979, 241

4. Dreamer, 1-2

5. Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat, Harper Collins, 1966