Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Failing Forward this Lenten Season

In Mark 10, verse 26 the disciples ask Jesus, “…Who can be saved?” Jesus then says to them, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

This passage has been much on my mind as I have prepared for my own Lenten journey. I reflected on the spiritual work of Lent and realized what a miserable failure I have been when it comes to keeping my Lenten promises. Sure, I have succeeded well enough at times, but for the most part Lent has been and will be, I suspect, an exercise of failure for me. That is, if I continue to see keeping those promises as successful only if I don’t backslide for 40 days pass! For example, can I stop eating pizza and soda for 40 days? I don’t know … I might slip up. Can I stop eating chocolate or drinking wine? Whatever it is that I choose to set aside this Lent – I know I am doomed.

I believe that it is this failure that is the reason many people don’t attempt any Lenten discipline at all. Smart and successful people (people in general – in my estimation) don’t like to fail. In Chris Argyris’ book Teaching Smart People How to Learn, the author describes the stumbling block as: failure. Argyris’ thesis is that smart and successful people stop learning because they stop failing. Success, it seems, breeds an inability to experiment and fail.

Yet, it is in the failing that we learn. I would argue that as a culture we are bent on success to the point that any brush with failure cannot be tolerated. And so it comes to pass that we really don’t see any benefit from the discipline of Lent because we fail at it most times. That is, at least, my hypothesis.

So, where I have arrived on this Lenten Eve, perched at my computer awaiting my promised failure and the day of ashes, is this: failure may in fact be the point of Lent. Our season of preparation is a season in which we are invited to fail, and so be reminded that while perfect piety is as impossible for us as it was for our wandering Aramean ancestors (the Hebrews), such spiritual work is not impossible for God; for in God all things are possible.

Our Ash Wednesday Gospel lesson, and the lesson for the first Sunday in Lent this year, comes from Mark’s Gospel chapter 1, beginning at the ninth verse. In this passage we are given a vision of Jesus as “the Messiah, the Christ to lead us, through his death and resurrection, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life.” (BCP 306). He is God’s Son, his beloved and God is pleased in him – as he was pleased with the first man, Adam. God’s Holy Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness where he will thirst and hunger, where he will be tempted and where he will not fail. In fact he will burst forth into Galilee, strengthened by his journey and proclaim the good news of salvation; saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Lent is a time of sharing the good news that our salvation rests in the hand of God, in the Grace of God. Our salvation does not depend upon us. Our failing teaches us this. Our failing at Lenten disciplines is exactly what these 40 days are meant to be about. It is in attempting to succeed that we discover our minds and hearts are able to receive the message of “pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.” (Preface to a holy Lent, BCP, 265)

So I encourage you to join me in boldly taking on and setting aside through discipline those things that will challenge us and will eventually bring us to failure. I challenge you to so aim at success that your failure will be outstanding … So that you and I might, as pilgrims, make our way through a holy Lent where we will be reminded that our salvation is not in our hands, but in the hand of God and the Grace of God. It may be that if you are not failing in Lent, you may not be trying hard enough …

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  • "Christianity is not a theory or speculation, but a life; not a philosophy of life, but a life and a living process." Samuel Taylor Coleridge
  • "Most people are willing to take the Sermon on the Mount as a flag to sail under, but few will use it as a rudder by which to steer." Oliver Wendell Holmes
  • "Perfection, in a Christian sense, means becoming mature enough to give ourselves to others." Kathleen Norris
  • "Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can." John Wesley
  • "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried." G. K. Chesterton
  • "One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans." C. S. Lewis
  • "When we say, 'I love Jesus, but I hate the Church,' we end up losing not only the Church but Jesus too. The challenge is to forgive the Church. This challenge is especially great because the church seldom asks us for forgiveness." Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey
  • "Christians are hard to tolerate; I don't know how Jesus does it." Bono
  • "It's too easy to get caught in our little church subcultures, and the result is that the only younger people we might know are Christians who are already inside the church." Dan Kimball