Now I’m not necessarily talking about death as in what I’ve called the “Capital D Death” – when we draw our final breath and step across the divide into the Great Mystery of God. I’ve said before and will say again, I think that is the “final exam” of our lives which is preceded by a lifetime of “pop quizzes” I call “little d deaths” – those times in our lives when things fall apart, catastrophically fail. The big truth of Christianity is the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ and in that dying and rising we learn the pattern of our lives for all of the “little d deaths” we will encounter. Dying and rising is the pattern of our whole life and we have another word for those “little d deaths” – failure. Failure is another word for the smaller transitory deaths we experience throughout our lives. And let’s be honest, failure isn’t fun. It can hurt ... a lot! And we fear being hurt and want to avoid it. So I think Rose Castorini’s observation about death also applies to our fear of failure. We can state her hypothesis as a declarative: People act out in inappropriate and destructive ways because we fear failure. Now it’s clear this isn’t the only reason, but it is one reason. How many times have we seen failure coming towards us and we begin to flail about grasping at straws, often in ways that are harmful, only to succumb to failure anyway? This behavior is part of our sinful nature.
There is no doubt we are living in anxious and fearful times. I’ve been addressing that quite a bit lately because it’s pervasive in our country and our world. Fear creates its own gravitational pull into a vortex of anxiety which enslaves us and is at the root of the violence we have experienced. Fear of death ironically leads to death – it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. John writes in his first letter “perfect love casts out fear,” but I’ve experienced how our fears can block out perfect love. Biologically, fear traps our brains in a stuck loop dominated by our primitive lizard brain’s “flight, fight or freeze” mode and our limbic emotional brain. This sets off a rapid cycle of anxious fearful responses like a hamster running full speed in a wheel and getting nowhere. Fear doesn’t make much room at all for the love of Christ or the renewal of the Holy Spirit, does it?
So what do we do? Fortunately, there is a spiritual practice which can short circuit our culture’s rampant anxiety festival: prayer – and more specifically contemplative prayer. Contemplation, or meditation, pushes back the constant noise of our world to create a bubble of silence. The early Desert Fathers and Mothers spoke of silence as the native language of God. Contemplation isn’t necessarily total emptiness. Contemplation can also be focused on a word or a question. I commend this practice to you and allow me to suggest a question to take with you into your contemplative prayer in the coming weeks and months – a question having to do with our fear of failure. The question is this: If you could do anything in the world in complete confidence that you would not fail, what would you do? Contemplate that question. It’s a vision question designed to open you up so the Holy Spirit can unshackled you from the twin tyrannies of fear and reactivity. Let the Spirit and your imagination run with this: what would you do if you knew you wouldn’t fail doing it?
Would you pack up everything you own in a VW microbus and set out for parts unknown? Maybe you would … just like Abram. OK, I know he didn’t have a VW microbus, but three chapters ago in Genesis God told him “Lech lecha!” – “Get up and go to a land I will show you and there I will make of you a great nation.” You notice God didn’t say, “Get up and go to this lovely condo in Haifa. It has a great view of the ocean – you and the missus are going to love it!” No … God didn’t tell Abram where he was going, God just told Abram to go … and he did so as if failure was no consideration. Now this didn’t mean that fear didn’t creep in from time to time. Of course not and today’s reading shows us Abram is stressed out about his lack of progeny who were promised but hadn’t shown up yet. The writer of Hebrews describes Abram as one who was “as good as dead.” And in this portion, we hear God calling Abram out of his fear over lack of offspring into a contemplative space because fear limits possibility. Consider the stars, God tells Abram, count them if you can, and see through the eyes of faith what is possible with God.
Jesus is makes the same invitation to his disciples: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Wow! Wait … what? That’s right “it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” In other words, you will be given everything and failure isn’t part of God’s economy. So when you step away from the fear and contemplate not only is the kingdom being given to you, it is God’s good pleasure to do so. And if we hold to this truth, then we do not need to worry about anything – failure isn’t an issue, failure doesn’t matter. This liberates us from the shackles of greed and selfishness because you don’t have anything to fear. This frees you to be generous and give of your possessions. Jesus even goes on to use an image of slaves awaiting their master and how the master would be so overjoyed to find them ready that the master himself will serve the slaves! Imagine that: God giving abundantly to us and we need not fear failing.
Now I know that we live in a world where we will fail. But I also know our fear of failure is inflated and leads us to live lives which are small and not worthy of the kingdom. Fear causes us to contract, to color inside the lines, to be selfish and greedy, and to seek safety and security even at the expense of human dignity and even the Gospel. We were not fashioned in the image of our Creator to live small lives. So how do we put this into action? The vision question “If you could do anything at all knowing failure was not possible, what would you do?” can be tweaked into an action question: “What would you dare to do if failure just didn’t matter?” That’s right … what if failure just doesn’t matter?
If we take seriously our holy texts, there are many, many stories where God’s people failed … at least according to how we would define failure. Abram would fail along the way in his walk with God and so would his offspring Isaac, Jacob, and onward. The great kings of Israel would fail and Israel itself would disintegrate and fall into exile. The disciples would get it all wrong. And let’s be real: take a good hard look at Christ on the cross. Forget for a moment that we Christians know the rest of the story. Look at Jesus hanging on the cross as those who were eyewitnesses … ask yourself: “Does this look like success?” Of course it doesn’t … it looks like failure, doesn’t it? See the good news of God is that failure doesn’t matter. Failure … death … doesn’t get the last word. “Have no fear, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” You are given the kingdom every single time you approach the altar! Every time you receive the Body and Blood of Christ you are being given the kingdom and it is God’s good pleasure to give it to you. Remember this! Have no fear, live large for the sake of Christ and each other, and dare to risk everything because failure doesn’t matter and it is God’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.