Of late, I have been struggling to articulate something that-perhaps-is going to be one of the great lessons of my life. I will admit, even writing that sentence down strikes me as pretentious. I can only imagine your reaction to it, as you open your browser, click to the blog or are finding this collection of my musings for the first time. Great life lessons, on the whole, tend to be identified in retrospect. Sometimes they begin with, "If I had only known then what I know now..." or some other bon mot. Well, right now, I am starting to realize that this lesson is based chiefly in that look back, but its impact is going to alter how life is lived out from this point forward for me.
For a long time, perhaps for ever, in my human existence, I have sought out the approval of others as a meter of my "success." If I am like, admired, respected, what-have-you; well, then I am doing all right. If I am making money (odd thing for a priest to say, but there it is) to the amount that I can for the most part "do what I like" then I am a success. If the church I am serving is growing (preferably in double digits), then I am a success. If the leadership I am expressing seems to inspire little conflict then I am a success. If there is harmony in my personal life, and things are pleasant indeed as well as with intent, then I am a success.
Success has a lot riding on it, but most of it is what I have been expecting the world to offer to me. Reread the above paragraph again. Most of the elements of success rise up out of the world responding to me, and yet I have done little if anything to expect a return on those expectations. Success is built, for me, not so much on what I am putting into the system, but instead on what I can draw out of it.
So, time to re-evaluate my position on success, as well as on my practice in work, life and relationship. First and foremost, it is time to embrace not just what I enjoy, what I am good at and what seems to garner people's praise in my offering of gifts to the Church and to my neighbor; it is time to look into what I am not good at-what I fail to do-and what I fall short of in terms of being the leader I would be.
This reflection is most certainly NOT self-flaggelation. It is NOT a seeking after sympathy. It is, as I said above, the beginning realization that one of life's great lessons is about to be learned. My prayer is that I can embrace and internalize it enough that I can put it into a consistent practice.
The lesson is simple: Look beyond the expectations of success or failure in life in order to embrace what the moment, the experience, can teach us. Look to how what we go through forms and shapes us in our walk with God and in our life's work. Success and failure are just the faces of a coin, and that coin is our daily wage as laborers in the vineyard of God's creation. To learn and grow in faith and wisdom. That is the chief aim. Failure and Success are just experiences that are there to teach. A simple concept, but one that it going to take me a while to learn....
I realize that I have gotten more-when I am honest with myself, my neighbor and with God-in learning from failures than I have when I have "succeeded." When a sermon tanks, when a pastoral relationship goes south, when a job goes belly-up...I learn to be a more accessible preacher, a more sensitive pastor and a more effective leader. That is, when I am willing to embrace defeat as a teaching moment. Same with success, to a lesser degree, because I find that when I succeed too often or too easily I tend to stop trying so hard.
In this morning's epistle reading, Peter the apostle writes, "For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we have been eyewitnesses of his majesty." Peter walked from Galilee to Jerusalem with his rabbi. He saw the success and the failure of his Master...and from his greatest failing-his betrayal of the Christ (3 times!)-he experienced the greatest redemption, "Feed my sheep;" and, "....you are Peter, and on this rock I will build the Church."
When it comes to learning and growing, the biggest challenge I face is learning to embrace how I have failed. It is learning how to understand rejection. It is learning to look into the mirror and honestly embrace the imperfect soul that looks back, and at the same time find the resolve to rise up, learn, change paths and patterns or response and then get on with trying again to be faithful to God, to love my neighbor and to seek and serve Christ in all persons.
So, let us fail boldly, knowing that when we do, God is present and we are given now a chance to learn from the risk taken...and to receive with gratitude the forgiveness that is always there if we are but bold enought to ask for it.....