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Valerie SchultzJune 13, 2023

It can take a lot of failure to get to success. When I think back on the things I failed at in my life, I see that the failures either taught me a hard (and much needed) lesson or nudged me forward on a better path. I am only able to see the good of my failures in retrospect, but I well remember the cruel disappointments. In real time, failure is harsh, bitter and debilitating.

I am thinking about failure in the context of an immediate hurting heart: my daughter, who just finished law school and graduated with honors, has failed the state bar exam. Lots of good lawyers don’t pass the bar on their first attempt, as every sympathetic person in her life has told her. I imagine she might scream if one more well-wisher mentions J.F.K. Jr. to her. She’s had to cry buckets of tears and chew up and swallow that hunk of humble pie, and I think I am proudest of her for signing up to take it again at the earliest next opportunity. Passing that exam will taste even sweeter after failing it.

Failure makes us want to throw in the towel, give up the dream, settle for an easier life. We take it as a sign that we are not good enough, not smart enough, not committed enough, not enough. We tried, and we failed. Now we walk away.

I sometimes think the only reason our church is still around to make an effort at enkindling love and justice in this world is the Holy Spirit.

But maybe not always. Sometimes failure can motivate us to find a workaround. Or sometimes we need a brief rest, a small mourning period, before attacking a challenge from another angle. Sometimes we just have to admit that we need help. Take, for example, as we must, Jesus: What could be a bigger failure than your ministry ending with torture and crucifixion? “We were hoping,” sighed the disciples walking on the road to Emmaus after the death of Jesus, admitting the failure of their misplaced faith. Then came the resurrection, and their hope was renewed. Jesus was indeed the Messiah, the one they had been waiting for. But it took more: It took Pentecost, the breath of the Holy Spirit, to jumpstart the church we know today.

Success for the early church did not come easily or without setbacks and sacrifice. It rarely does. And it is not like our church hasn’t known failure through the centuries, huge missteps like wars and inquisitions and corrupt popes and enslaving Indigenous peoples and burning witches alive, with the worst failure in our day being the widespread and covered-up clerical sexual abuse of children. But time has shown us that, despite our worst sinful human failings, the Holy Spirit does not fail. I sometimes think the only reason our church is still around to make an effort at enkindling love and justice in this world is the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is the firepower of unconditional love. The Holy Spirit will pick you up and dust you off when you have messed everything up. The Holy Spirit will bail you out of whatever jail holds you captive. The Holy Spirit will give you a second chance. And the Holy Spirit expects us to do the same for others.

Failure is a tough and grumpy teacher. The best, most impactful teachers often are.

My husband and I, in commiserating over our daughter’s sadness at her bar exam results, found ourselves remembering the things we had each failed at, especially before we met, and we realized that, but for those failures, we might never have come across each other. That would have been a tragedy, not that we would have known it. But knowing now how close we came to stupendous failure has helped us treasure our successes—our marriage, our children, our grandchildren, our life together—and thank the Holy Spirit all the more for holding our heads up and moving us along back when we thought we were done.

Failure is a tough and grumpy teacher. The best, most impactful teachers often are. We survivors of multiple failures have to remember not to sentimentalize the very real pain and even anguish failure once brought us. While failure often turns out to be a blessing, it is more diplomatically called a lesson. My skin crawls when I hear someone say that some terrible thing is “for the best.” It is—I know it is; we all know it is—but the thing itself still takes up a lot of room with its terribleness. You have to give the thing its space before it becomes manageable. You have to grieve for what might have been, for the death of your expectations. Then you have to own your failures if they are to be of any practical enlightenment.

It is trite and maybe useless for old people to assure young people that failure in the present likely paves the way to future success. “Easy for you to say,” they think. “You don’t know what it’s like. Your time was simpler. Your life looks pretty smooth. You’ve never failed as badly as I have.” Oh, but we have. Now we have learned to smile and pat our throats like old people do and stop dispensing what we think is wisdom. Because when we were young, we didn’t listen, either. When these young people are old, their young people won’t listen, either. We won’t be around when they realize they are the old people now. But the Holy Spirit will be. Knowing that, trusting that, is enough for me.

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