Learning from Failure

It's a beautiful rainy Friday morning in Parker County, Texas. My typical routine for mornings like these is something like this: drop off my son with his babysitter, and then go sit at the local coffee shop to catch up on work. Often, my time at the coffee shop includes conversations with some of the most interesting people I've ever met. At the top of this list is a guy named Don. Don is in his early-80s, and this guy has lived quite a life. Many of the coffee shop regulars know Don well, and we all enjoy listening to his memoirs over a cup of coffee.

This morning, Don and I talked about many things. But the topic that stuck out the most was the subject of failure. In his wisdom, Don told me that people have to learn from their mistakes, because we all fail at some point or another. The example he used was baseball great Ted Williams. Don recounted one of the most successful seasons of Ted's career. In 1941, Williams batted an astonishing .406! To this day, Ted Williams is regarded as one of the best ever to suit up and stand in the batter's box. I mean, who hits .400+?!? But there's an obvious truth staring us in the face here. As great as Ted Williams was at hitting a baseball, at the peak of his ability he had a success rate of just under 41%. Now, I never pride myself on my math skills--I was a religion major, after all--but I think that comes out to about a 59% rate of failure. (Caveat: I recognize there might be more nuance to interpreting the BA stat, like walks, or sacrifice plays that advanced another player, which is a whole other blog post, but I think we still need to consider this ratio of hits to at-bats.) 

When was the last time you failed at something? When was the last time you let someone down? If you have experienced the sour pain and downright embarrassment of failure, don't worry. You're in good company. Holy Scripture itself is full of stories about folks who had some pretty major failures along the way: Abraham, Moses, David, Peter, and Paul just to name a few! God's grace is there for us when we succeed, and certainly when we fail. I know, you're probably thinking right now of that one person you know who seems to succeed at everything s/he tries, who seems to win every contest or game. But let me burst that bubble: despite appearances, NOBODY succeeds at everything without experiencing some kind of failure along the way. That's just life. And if we're all honest with ourselves, we can point out better than anyone else where we have failed along the path to where we are now, even if we have tried to hide these experiences from others.

The truth is, life is full of moments when you have to risk something to reach somewhere new. And with any risk comes the possibility of failure. The most helpful question is not, "Will I fail?" Instead, ask yourself, "What have I learned from my past failures? What am I learning from my current failures? And how can I stay open to critique in the future so as to keep learning from the mistakes I haven't even made yet?"

Don told me that Ted Williams had exceptional eyesight. It was said that Ted could focus on the seams of the baseball as it made its way from the pitcher's hand to the plate. This ability, combined with excellent hand-eye coordination and a high level of athleticism, helped Ted Williams excel, to be sure. But what really set him apart was his uncanny ability to study a pitcher who got the best of him. Even when he struck out, Williams had his eyes on the seams of the ball. He wanted to know exactly how the pitcher was working the ball. Ted knew that he couldn't get a hit every time, but he also knew that paying close attention to how he could improve when he struck out would help him the next time through the order. That is what helped him hit .400+ in a game where a .300 average is considered a mark of greatness.

Hear this: We all fail sometimes. But in the midst of our failure, may we look to God, who extends the grace and mercy we need to see that our failures do not have the final word. Even in the midst of failure, God offers us hope.

But also hear this: Don't let this be just about you and your failures. There are people around you who have experienced, are experiencing, or will experience failure--and some in profound ways. How are you going to respond? There's no pat answer here. But please be mindful that God might be using you to help someone learn from failure, to help someone experience restoration and grace. It might be helpful to remember that we don't become overnight the finished product of God's grace at work in us--and neither do the people around us.

May you find encouragement, peace, hope, faith, and mostly love on your journey of learning from your mistakes.

Pastor Jon Reeves 

P.S., One more important lesson from Ted's story is this: You can't hit .400+ if you don't swing the bat every now and then. I pray that a fear of failure will not freeze you in your tracks. If God is leading you to try something new, give it a try. You never know what might happen...