Saturday, April 20, 2013

A Call to Failure

I had a call to a mission,
          Signed in my heart and sealed,
And I felt my success was certain,
          And the end seemed already revealed;
The sea was without a murmur,
          Unwrinkled its even flow,
And I heard the master commanding,
          And I was constrained to go.

But, out from the peaceful haven,
          There woke a terrible storm,
And the waves around were in chaos,
          And the land appeared without form
And I stretched my hands to the Father
          And cried in a chilling fear-
“Didst not Thou pledge Thy presence!
          And naught but failure is here!”

Then in the midst of the thunder
          There rose a still, small voice,
Clear through the roar of the waters,
          Deep through their deafening noise:
“Have I no calls to failure!
          Have I no blessing for loss!
Must not the way to thy mission
          Lie through the path of thy cross!”

It came as a revelation-
          It was worth the price of the gale
To know that the souls that conquer
          Must at first be the souls that fail-
To know that where strength is baffled
          I have reached the common ground
Where the highest meet with the lowly
          Where the heart of man is found

O door of the heart’s communion
          My Father gave me the key
When he called me out to the ocean,
          And summoned the storm to me;
For the wings of the storm that smote me
          Were the wings of humanity’s breast
As it moved on the face of the waters
          And sighed for an ark of rest

Years have gone by since that sadness
          And many an hour has come
When the storm in the ships of others
          Has signaled me out from home;
Yet I never can see that signal
          But I feel how much I owe
To the day that, when called to failure,
          My steps were constrained to go.

              —George Matheson 

History is unrepeatable, historians say, but it can be re-lived many times in one’s memory. Our successes we like to savor; our failures we’d rather forget. I’m gradually learning, however, “how much I owe to the day that, when called to failure, my steps were constrained to go.”

I’m learning that blunders, mistakes and missed opportunities are means of grace and great blessing if we accept them as part of our call. “Souls that conquer must at first be the souls that fail.” There is no other way.

Through humiliation our “strength is baffled,” we’re disabused of our illusions of grandeur and brought very low. There, we learn “to meet with the lowly.”[1] Our losses enable us “to find the heart of man,” i.e., to get “in touch” with others' feelings. We can empathize with those who have fallen; we can accept and love them as no other can.

But we must let go of regret. “As long as we remain [constrained] by things that we wish had not happened—mistakes we wish we had not made—part of our heart remains isolated, unable to bear fruit in the new life ahead of us.”[2] Brooding over past disasters intimidates us and turns us away from love; feelings of inadequacy isolate us. We’re afraid to venture ourselves again.

When we accept our failures as simple proof that we’re inadequate in the core of our being, God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness. We have grace to turn outward to others and to do so with greater compassion, sensitivity, wisdom and understanding. Thus our mistakes are redeemed and put to God’s intended purpose

Failure is not ruinous; we are called to failure and owe much to each day that we fail. The lessons that we learn there, “are worth the price of the gale.”


[1] Matheson is thinking here of Romans 12:16 and Paul’s admonition to “associate with the lowly.”
[2] Henri Nouwen 
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