Failing upwards

The longer I live… and I know that sounds like a very old woman, but I think my soul is pretty wrinkly… the longer I live, the more ways I find to fail. Also, the longer I live and more ways I find to fail, the more ways God shows me He will bless my failures, and if anything, appears to prefer them, to my over-planned, over-thought, highly polished and mediocre achievements. I’m beginning to realise perhaps I am like the clown, who styles herself a tragic hero and keeps practicing heroic stances and actions whilst unwittingly setting up for accidents and pratfalls. Unlike that clown, whose actions in reality are planned and highly skilled, I genuinely can’t seem to recognise the value of my own foolish actions until I look up from another spill and feel the divine gaze smiling down on me with benevolent approval.

striped clowns

Though I never seem to spot the custard pies coming, this is not a new revelation to me – God’s apparent preference for failure – nor do I resent it: I remember when I first started to learn it though, that big silly, sensible, peaceful truth emerging from the grim fog of my tense anxiety like a marvellous lolloping pantomime horse. I wrote a poem back in theological college the first time (or more likely the fifteenth or twenty-fifth time) that I made what I felt was a big obvious public mistake… I don’t recall it all now, and can’t find it in my messy office, but it began, “I thank the Lord that I will always fail,’ and ended, “We live by Grace and not by Providence”. 

What do I mean?

Well providence is the things – gifts, talents, materials, support – all that we are given in this life, which ALSO comes from God more or less directly. But Grace… is not a thing at all, it is the miraculous gap which, by the workings of the human heart, and the immeasurable power of love, does more to transform worldly events on the big and small scale, than any amount of income, ability or material wealth. And God’s Grace seems to work best of all in circumstances of apparent failure.

But Grace is also acutely humbling… because by it we no longer stand on our own strength or merit. It pulls the rug out from underneath our feet, often when we thought we were already at rock bottom. Grace trips us up when we thought we had nowhere left to fall. It’s like an overwhelmingly generous gift given to a miser, that belittles all he had horded for himself and makes him see himself anew and more accurately. At least that’s how it feels to me – kind of deservedly embarrassing. But at the same time it is so KIND, so loving, that we have nowhere to go with that embarrassment – like a much needed hug from a great big loving relative,  which overcomes our self-righteousness when we feel we ought to be shouting crossly.

Well as usual I’ve been doing a lot of failing, small and big- and God has been generous in his Grace- so I feel pretty silly but also, as always, surprised and thankful.

One of the silliest failures I made in the last couple of weeks was that I sent a lovely book to some people I don’t know personally, just because I felt strongly moved to do so. And I thought I had done so in complete anonymity. I had certainly made every effort to make it anonymous: I sent it half way across the world via a third-party. I did so anonymously because there was no earthly reason for my action, it seemed almost presumptuous in its warm-heartedness and I felt that what I was doing was, in mortal terms, total foolishness – but as I followed the urge of the Holy Spirit to be bold and silly – I reconciled my embarrassed inner critic with the comforting thought that a) no-one would ever know that it was I who had done that peculiar thing and b) I need never know how strangely or indifferently my unexpected ‘gift’ had been recieved.

But this morning on the doormat there was a card from half way across the world – with a thank you note

Dear Revd J J SandersHeys, what a gift to receive the book from you! It means so much as it directly connects with one of our upcoming projects called 40 Days & 40 Nights. It will be truely valued.”

Oh no!– I thought, and in fact I said aloud, repeatedly, and at varying pitches, to my laughing husband, how embarrassing to be found out! How had I managed to lose my protected anonymity and reveal myself in all my odd impulsive spirituality and randomly directed and socially inappropriate fondness. But whilst I still remain pretty embarrassed now (You can probably see I’m trying to own the accidental lack of anonymity by thinking about it publicly here – like the clown bowing politely at the applause after a pratfall) I hope perhaps that their words are sincere as well as gracious and polite, because that would be a kind of miracle of grace in itself – I had no idea what artistic project they were working on- only that I, a foolish stranger, had received from them a creative gift that moved my heart and spirit and after thought I wished to respond in like blessing.

It shook me, being named when I thought I was hidden, and made me think, as I walked the dog along the beach in the low winter sunlight, of how impossible it can ever be to deserve all the gifts one receives from others, and how very thankful we human beings should all be for one another,  and I wondered how our small liturgical acts of thanksgiving make God feel… I hope they don’t make him feel embarrassed.

I think because of Jesus, they don’t – after all the omnipotent stuff, which one assumes is so easy for God that our thanks might feel silly – still that sacrifice on earth – his life and love and death with and for us was truly humanly painful and costly and loving. Jesus was always really reticent, almost shy, about people telling others when he had helped and healed them, though they usually couldn’t be stopped, and look at the thanks he received at Golgotha. Without the cost to the Beloved, it might be hard to thank God sincerely, as he made everything out of nothing… we might feel like a pauper receiving tuppence from a King… as it is, Jesus changes everything…

God’s gift cost him everything, everything of himself, he gave us – and he came to deliver it in person.

Anyway though I felt more than ever like a bit of a fool this afternoon, still that distant exchange of kindness made me wish to live up to the unnecessary and unexpected thanks a bit, and try harder to be the kind of person I only am occasionally.

Either that or confess openly to my nature and start wearing a round red nose.

 

 

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About Jemma

Learning to be both a priest and a human being in the Anglican Church
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