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07 July 2011

Facing Failure

 Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Landscape with Parable of the Sower (1557)

Jesus said, Look, the sower went out, took a handful of seeds, and scattered them. Some fell on the road, and the birds came and gathered them. Others fell on rock, and they didn't take root in the soil and didn't produce heads of grain. Others fell on thorns, and they choked the seeds
and worms ate them. And others fell on good soil, and it produced a good crop: it yielded sixty per measure and one hundred twenty per measure.
This is the Parable of the Sower, in the form our scholars think is closest to what the crowds heard when Jesus preached; it is found in the noncanonical Gospel of Thomas. The parable's structure leads to the expectation of abundant growth as a metaphor for God's mighty activity. Yet, as is Jesus' custom, once he has drawn his hearers into the story, he throws the story world upside down, as if telling them, "You thought you knew my story, but not so fast!" 

For in the end, the harvest is rather ordinary and everyday. No matter which version you use (Thomas, Matthew, Mark or Luke), Jesus describes three scenes of what can only be described as accidents, and only one notice of success. The seed is first sown on three kinds of ground that fail to produce: the road, the rocky ground, and among the thorns. When finally sown on good soil, the seed produces yields.

While failure is inevitable in sowing, it's as though this parable draws attention to failure. What we are left with is a kingdom in which failure, miracle, and normality are the coordinates. The story Jesus tells and our disappointed reaction reminds me of the events on the cross: When he was taken to the cross, the world around him held its breath, waiting for the miracle. But then no miracle happened -- Jesus' mission to bring about the new world they all longed for had failed! -- and everyone went home frustrated, disappointed and doubtful ...

Failure. Spell the word, let it wash over you, hear it, see it, smell it ... what do you feel? Aren't you tempted to say, "I don't want to talk about it"? For most people, especially (but not only) in the corporate dog-eat-dog sort of world, failure is viewed as a threat. Fear of failure can tear your guts out, but then, if you tell someone, what will they say?

Embarrassment and shame come to mind, but so much more: losing your self-esteem, losing your job and your house, losing your marriage and your kids, losing, losing, losing. Failure is rarely ever abstract; we take it personally: we dread it, we abhor it, we detest it. We even tend to stay away from people who have failed, as if fearing that their failure could be contagious.

As corporations have begun to see the havoc fear of failure is wreaking with productivity, they increasingly send their employees to expensive courses that help them "embrace failure", "work through failure" and "fail well".

But what about us, the People of Faith? How do we respond as Jesus' life and death, and especially the Parable of the Sower, rub our noses in the thing we dread so much, failure? Before he failed to live up to the expectations of those around him, he walked around and taught about the Kingdom of God.  His Parable of the Sower is about failure, and letting failure be. 

Jesus teaches that failure is just as unavoidable in this world as is normality, aside from the occasional miracle. Failure, miracles and normality are intertwined in the new world of God of which Jesus preached. Even though everyone would like to say that God came to them with great fanfare and bombast, oftentimes the voice of God will only be the "still small voice" Elijah encountered on the Mountain of God -- and when God talks that quietly, it's time to hush up and listen!

I've heard the story of an atheist who had made a sign for one of the walls in his living room. In great big letters it proclaimed, GOD IS NOWHERE. Then his wife gave birth to a little boy. As the boy was slowly growing, he naturally learned words, and especially the words on his father's living room wall. 

"NOWHERE" was a big word for a small child. Trying to spell the three word sentence, it took him a few days to memorize the words the way they were written. Then one day he ran to his father and said, "I got it, Dad". As he wrote the words with a marker on the bulletin board in the kitchen, he spoke them. Very slowly, very carefully, and very solemnly he wrote and said the words: "GOD IS NOW HERE".

No matter whether or not this happened, humor me and think about it for a moment.  "GOD IS NOW HERE". The fact that his little boy had made two words out of the word "NOWHERE" was startling to his father. Hearing the child reading, ”God is now here,” the father experienced enlightenment. He had never thought about God that way. He had decided that God was nowhere, and that was that. Now, by making an honest mistake, his little child suggested that his decision might have been premature. NOWHERE could turn into NOW HERE! The innocence of the child became a door, an opening. As the father listened to his boy, he heard the still small voice of God.

If God is NOW HERE, enveloping you and me with his love and the values of his new world, what do success and failure in this world mean any more? Simply out of love and sheer grace, God adopted us as his children. And although we will fail to the end of our days in this world, God's love never fails. God knows no fear of failure, as the Isaiah text shows:

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10-11)

We are invited to find God's love in the normality of our everyday lives.  The psalm promises, "By awesome deeds you answer us with deliverance, O God of our salvation; you are the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas" (Psalm 65:5). When we surrender to God's love NOW HERE, we are transported from time into eternity, from this world into the new world of God. 

At that point we realize that, whether witnessing miracle, failure or normality, we belong to that new world where life and death are one and the same. At that point we will live from the knowledge in our hearts that NOW HERE we are connected with the Source of all being, from which we came in the first place.

Matthew 13:1-9, Isaiah 55, Psalm 65

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