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Fools, Failures and Misfits

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If you had a choice, would you tell your twelve year old daughter to pursue a life of excellence or a life of mediocrity? Most of us would choose the life of excellence and for good reason – there us great joy in doing what one is called to do to the best of one’s ability. I wonder though about our 21st Century culture that seems determined not only to pursue excellence but to do so without a corollary appreciation for failure. To be fair, an increasing number of research articles today explore the virtues of adversity and failure. Nonetheless, distaste for failure still appears to hold a profound grip on our culture. Or said differently… the overwhelming desire to be gifted and therefore special in some way (or to parent such a child), leaves no space for normalcy much less failure or mediocrity.

The Biblical narrative apparently has no such hang ups. Quite to the contrary, we seem to encounter more fools, failures and misfits in the Bible than anything else. When I was an undergraduate student, my Old Testament professor referred to the cast of characters we encountered in these old tomes as “God’s unlikely choices” — unlikely because whether one is referring to Moses, Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, Leah, Rachel or anyone else really, each is a rather non perfect person, yet still worthy of a place in God’s covenant and plan. This record of human failure – yet value to God – doesn’t change much at all when we get to the New Testament.

What bears noting is that the failure of these persons is not simply related to a set of personal foibles; the failures of these persons is often directly related to the mission God has given them. And still God calls these people good.

Consider Moses… Moses was within reach of the Promised Land within weeks of leaving Egypt yet did not manage to get the people across its threshold – ever. Instead he led the people around the desert for 40 years. He himself never saw the Promised Land. You might argue that good things happened in the desert. Were the people not transformed over those many years of wandering? Indeed they were, but by any 21st Century matrix of success Moses doesn’t quite measure up. After all, after 40 years he still had not succeeded at achieving the goal he had set for himself and his people before they left Egypt.

Or, consider Jesus. He changed lives, absolutely. And after his death a movement was begun in his name. Yet while he was alive, Jesus never really succeeded in turning around the ship of the culture in which he was engaged. And even worse by modern standards, Jesus surrounded himself not with excellence but with failures and misfits.

It is no wonder the Apostle Paul extols the virtues of the foolish ones. Only fools, failures and misfits seem to have the capacity to keep going in the face of such disappointment. Or is it that fools, failures and misfits finally embody better than anyone else that this work is God’s work and not our own?

Some of you who are reading this are no doubt pastors, lay leaders or even CEO’s who have tried hard to turn around the ship that is your congregation or your workplace. The good news seems to be that your imperfect offering is still a worthy gift. You, like Jacob, might be an unlikely choice for the task. And, you might just happen to be God’s choice for this time and for this place. Furthermore, even if like Moses or Jesus you do not manage to turn the ship around, know that you are in good company.  Actually, the promise is greater than this. In the case of both Moses and Jesus, the seeds that these men planted bore fruit after their deaths – big fruit.

In our 21st Century environment we are easily tempted by the desire for greatness. We are equally tempted by success. In the snare of these temptations we can work so hard at creating healing, transformation and renewal we risk personal breakdown. In the end, we are forced to ask, was it their transformation we were seeking or our own success? In God’s math, the measure of success is not so much the outcome we have achieved but instead whether while creating the possibility for transformation we have been faithful in loving the people despite their resistance and surrendering the whole lot of it – both successes and failures – to God.

This post originally appeared on ARC.

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Betty Pries has more than 20 years of experience coaching, mediating, training and consulting in the areas of conflict resolution and change.   Betty's work with churches and church organizations is guided by her desire to enhance their spiritual and organizational health, and strengthen the capacities of leadership to discern a way forward.

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