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July 2011
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revd burgess Living with failure
By Revd David Burgess

In my first couple of years here I was involved with others in a situation where a mistake had been made. These days it would be called a ‘systemic’ or ‘corporate’ failure; it was quite a blunder and had inconvenienced a number of people but it had actually harmed no-one. I suggested that a simple public acknowledgement of the mistake and an apology for it would go some way towards alleviating any damage it might have caused. “Oh, no,” I was told. “That would be a sign of weakness.”

Nearly thirty years ago, we were living in the Portsmouth area when the wreck of the Mary Rose, King Henry VIII’s flagship, was raised and saw the light of day for the first time in centuries. In fact, the Mary Rose was a total failure – poorly-designed, overloaded and with the floating and steering qualities of a brick. It sank on its maiden voyage. Nevertheless, the ship has now been made into a museum. It’s a museum to failure – and there’s nothing wrong with that.

If you live long and attempt much, you will run up against failure. People fail every day. They suffer from failed relationships, failed marriages, failure at work and failure in health. Most of us can identify with failure and we know from experience that it’s hard to cope with in a world like ours. We see it as the one aspect of life from which there is no reprieve and no reversal.

Even Jesus was familiar with it – not failure in his overall mission, but frequent failures to convince others of the truth of his teaching or of the validity of the miracles and healings he performed. He knew frustration and distress as much as we do. His own family tried to claim that he was mad and prevent him from preaching; he met with rejection in his home town; he met with hostility and hatred from the teachers of his own faith.

On a positive note, failure can lead to better things; when one door closes, another opens. Failure can be creative; our desire, perhaps born out of desperation to cope with failing, can lead us to try all sorts of unconventional routes, one of which might just succeed. And, from a Christian point of view, failure can be failure for God. What could be more humiliating in Jesus’s time than the thought of dying on a cross? But look what it accomplished.

If these positive things are true, why do we sometimes come down so hard on those who we perceive to be failing? In a community such as ours, where so many of us have so much and demand perfection in our lives, we seem at times almost to have built a culture where mistakes equate to failure – hence my experience described at the top of this article.

If you’re ever tempted towards that mind-set, think about who’s gone before you; those with huge accomplishments who have known error, despair and failure in their lives – and remember that, whatever we may think of others and their mistakes, God loves them, as he loves us, beyond measure – and that’s the best cure for our failures that there can possibly be.
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