As I finish my time with the Marin Foundation, I'll be writing posts based on chapters from Unexpected Gifts: Discovering the Way of Community by Christopher Heuertz, a friend of mine and of the foundation.
How a community handles failure—the failure of the group or the shortcomings of an individual member—demonstrates more than anything the strength of that community. And nothing can destroy a community faster than a spectacular failure handled poorly.
Oh, how true this is. In my time with the church, both as a member and in leadership positions of different sorts, I've seen how well, and not so well, the body of Christ handles the reality of failure. I've seen what it looks like when communities that are supposed to be oriented around grace forget themselves and engage in ways that are cruel, damaging, hurtful, and downright ugly.
A pastor asked to resign because he supported his daughter's divorce from an abusive husband.
A youth minister forced out of his position for being too honest, too vulnerable, and too human.
For people who are supposed to be forgiving, loving, and gracious, I've seen (and experienced) how poorly some Christians respond to the faults and failures of those within their communities. In all honesty, I'm at a place in life where I'm actively avoiding being a part of the institutional church for this very reason. As someone who feels the pain of others deeply, to see how some Christ-followers handle failure, handle difference, frustrates me and has damaged my faith in the capacity of the institution to live fully into its mission. Granted, I know there are churches doing it the best they can. And let's be honest, the inability of a body of believers to respond lovingly and gracefully to failure is failure as well, one that needs to be responded to with the same love and grace as the initial failure.
Every community is, at one time or another, plagued by failure. We all know that. So why are we surprised when people fail?
I have no idea...
But we still are...
Even in my relationship with partner, knowing that he and I are both flawed individuals who make mistakes, I find myself surprised when he makes a new one... or when I do. I'm surprised by my own failure, more frequently than I care to admit. And when I fail, I have a tendency to show very little grace to myself, relying upon others to make up for my lack of self-forgiveness. Chris writes, "Some of us feel that God can't or won't forgive us of some of our worst moments... the problem is that we're unable to accept and forgive ourselves."
...Can I get an amen
There are those of us who, honestly, don't make a lot of mistakes. Generally good people whose failures, on a scale of one through ten, maybe peak at about a 2 or three. Some of these individuals are intrinsically gracious and forgiving. Others, unfortunately, are not. Having not experienced significant failure, these people don't always know how to respond when those around them fall short in ways they never thought possible. It's not that they're responding out of intentional cruelty. It's that they don't know how to respond.
Although community should be the place where we address our failures, communities often reject those who fail...
I've made some blunders in my twenty-nine years of life. Big ones. And while there were those whose responses were loving and life-giving, there were those whose responses nearly destroyed me, beating me to an emotionally and spiritually bloody pulp. Though I wish I could say I remember the loving responses, the ones that sought to restore me, I do not. I can't even tell you what they said. What I can remember are the harsh responses, the cruel ones, the ones that attacked my very worth and value as a person, as a child of God. It's those words that stick out, that have become engrained in my psyche, surrounded by scar tissue that cannot be removed. And I know others who have had similar experiences, others who will most likely never darken the door of a sanctuary ever again... all because someone responded to their failures poorly.
Late in the chapter, Chris shares the story of a teenage boy who, after hearing Chris speak about his book Friendship at the Margins, confesses publicly to an audience of unknowns that he is addicted to pornography. What was this boy's home community like that he would rather make such a pain-filled confession to complete strangers? Was there no one at "home" to whom he could turn for support? What was he afraid of?
It takes a mature community to create the safe space where a culture of confession is celebrated, where being honest is the expectation...
Chris remarks, "Confession is hard, both making it and hearing it. It requires trust. It necessitates vulnerability. It invites the possibility of forgiveness."
Several years ago, I worked for a nonprofit on Chicago's north side as staff member for a group of young adults with mental illness. At the time, I had my own struggles. I'd only begun to see my current therapist a few short months earlier. One afternoon, after an outing with the housemates, I had a pretty bad panic attack. Rather than doing the right thing, calling my supervisor, and asking if someone could cover the rest of my shift, I asked one of my clients for a dose of anxiety medication. Three weeks later, I was let go from both my job and my internship (both of which were with the same agency), all because I failed to confess.
Secrets have a price. Keeping them is costly.
The crux of Chris's chapter is this:
Failure, as an unexpected gift in community, creates opportunities to practice confession, forgiveness, and restoration. Sharing our pains and failures is a test of courage, as well as a test of the health of community. Grace reminds us that acceptance is support.
Throughout the chapter, Chris talks about Sari Bari, an organization based in Kolkata, India, where women brought out of the sex trafficking industry are given work using old saris to make quilts and other beautiful creations. If you look closely, most of these objects have patches sewn in. Not to make the quilts, purses, or bags more beautiful, but to cover the holes and tears that surface after each project is washed. To the women, the patches are tedious, annoying, and obnoxious. But as Chris remarks, the patches are beautiful.