Lessons from Detroit: Fail Frequently

“Lessons from Detroit: Fail Frequently
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
May 22, 2022

Exodus 3:9-10, 4:1-9
God said, “The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”
Then Moses answered, ‘But suppose they do not believe me or listen to me, but say, “The Lord did not appear to you.” The Lord said to him, ‘What is that in your hand?’ He said, ‘A staff.’ And God said, ‘Throw it on the ground.’ So he threw the staff on the ground, and it became a snake; and Moses drew back from it. Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Reach out your hand, and seize it by the tail’—so he reached out his hand and grasped it, and it became a staff in his hand— ‘so that they may believe that the Lord, the God of their ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has appeared to you.’
 Again, the Lord said to him, ‘Put your hand inside your cloak.’ He put his hand into his cloak; and when he took it out, his hand was leprous, as white as snow. Then God said, ‘Put your hand back into your cloak’—so he put his hand back into his cloak, and when he took it out, it was restored like the rest of his body— ‘If they will not believe you or heed the first sign, they may believe the second sign. If they will not believe even these two signs or heed you, you shall take some water from the Nile and pour it on the dry ground; and the water that you shall take from the Nile will become blood on the dry ground.’

John 16:23a-27a from The Message
“This is what I want you to do: Ask God for whatever is in keeping with the things I’ve revealed to you. Ask in my name, according to my will, and God will most certainly give it to you. Your joy will be a river overflowing its banks! “I’ve used figures of speech in telling you these things. Soon I’ll drop the figures and tell you about God in plain language. Then you can make your requests directly to God in relation to this life I’ve revealed to you. I won’t continue making requests of God on your behalf; I won’t need to. Because you’ve gone out on a limb, committed yourselves to love and trust in me, believing I came directly from God, God loves you directly.

– – –
How many of you like to fail?

Our society is allergic to it!

Think about, for example, the way we tell stories about our careers, relationships, personal achievements – we tell the highlights and often skip right over the detours and obstacles.

When someone asks you about your path to your current job, you likely won’t tell them about the summer you worked at a bakery and never once got the cake recipe right.

When they ask you about how you met your spouse, you won’t tell them about the series of awkward Match.com dates you went on with people trying to impress you with their fancy car or how many oysters they could eat.
When you tell people that you ran a marathon, you might tell them that you were slow, but you don’t tell them that you stopped training the last month and just winged it the day of the race.

We do this with churches, too. If you read a book on how to revitalize a church or a news blurb from the denomination about the great disability ministry a church has built, or their great ministry working with refugees or providing mental health services, they will share all the brilliant and innovative things their church did to get where they are, but they tend to skip over the ideas that were utter failures and the years of scratching heads, trying to figure out “what next?”

When my husband Chris and I were leading a church start in Atlanta prior to coming up here to New England (which is a whole failure-as-success story in itself!), one of our core values as a congregation was service in the community. So for one of our service activities, we reached out to a local men’s homeless shelter and said, “Hey, how can we help?” “Churches often come and cook a meal for us,” they said, “so why don’t you try coming on Wednesday nights and cooking dinner?” Well, Chris and I were vegans at the time, and many folks in our congregation were vegetarian or had some dietary restrictions, and so we came all ready with our best recipes that we had tried out at our dinner church format, and we made vegetarian chili.
And nobody was excited about it. All the gentlemen we would later get to know as friends were polite, but they wanted to know, “Uh, where’s the meat?” In Atlanta you don’t get away with meatless chili very easily. So the next week, we thought, “Okay, we’ll do spaghetti!” And we got there and we had our sauce, and our pasta, and we realized no one had brought meatballs, and that was going to be a problem with this crowd. So someone had to run across the street to the Kroger to buy a bunch of frozen meatballs, and we had to thaw them and cook them as fast as we could. And after that, we decided that maybe cooking at the shelter was not going to be our particular gift to share.

So we asked Gad, the director, “What else do you have going on that we could help with?” And Gad said, “Well, we have a bunch of old, junky computers that people donated but they’re not really in working order, so the guys can’t use them to get online to email family or apply for jobs.” Well, Chris was working at the time as an IT consultant for churches, and he could put together a computer with tape and spit, and so he got all those computers up and running for not very much money. And every Wednesday our group would come and help the guys at the shelter apply for jobs, navigate difficult websites to access benefits, put together resumes. After that spectacular failure of our trying to cook dinner, we just came and ate dinner some other church had provided, and then, we figured out what *our* thing was. We figured out the gift that we had to give there, and the gift that was getting to know and love the men at this shelter.

At NGLI, the leadership program I attended recently in Detroit, we spent time talking about the concept on the front of your bulletin: “Fail Frequently,” which is short for “Fail frequently to succeed sooner.” Some of you may have heard about this – it’s a business leadership concept that’s been around for awhile. At first glance it seems flippant, like you’re playing fast and loose with your resources and that you don’t really care about the outcome.

But what I learned as we explored it over the weekend was that “fail frequently” is more a mindset of experimentation, like we read about with our young people this morning. If you work in or studied science, you know that very, very rarely does someone “discover” something on the first try. The vast majority of the time, you start with an educated guess, you test that guess out with an experiment, and when it fails, you don’t just give up, and you don’t just blindly try something completely unrelated – you learn from why it failed and you adjust your hypothesis and you try again. That’s what gets you to the answer – not always quickly, but definitely much faster than trying willy-nilly or giving up at the first sign of failure. In science, you actually cannot succeed without getting very comfortable with failure.

– – –
Moses, suffice it to say, was not a scientist. In this morning’s Hebrew Bible scripture, he was clearly uncomfortable with, even afraid of, failure. Moses starts off by asking what will happen if the people do not believe God sent him, and God – actually expecting that he will fail – gives him not one, not two, but three different miraculous signs to convince the people that God is with Moses and he is truly on a divine mission. (Not to mention that later it will take 10 different plague-filled tries to actually succeed on that mission.) But God’s comfort with failure doesn’t reassure Moses – right after our scripture, he protests, “But I’ve never been a good public speaker. Surely someone more eloquent would be a better fit.” When God has an answer for that too, Moses finally just breaks down and says, “O my God, please send someone else.”
I think most of us can identify with Moses in some way – we have felt unprepared for a task set in front of us, maybe burned by past experiences of failure, or just not sure where to start, and it makes us question whether the whole thing is even a good idea at all. I imagine the disciples – who so often misunderstood what Jesus was trying to teach them, and who during his ministry failed at everything from healings to exorcisms to welcoming outcasts to loving your enemies – probably feel similarly during this morning’s scripture when Jesus is preparing to leave them. After the resurrection, they as good as give up, in fact, and go right back to fishing because they could imagine nothing but failure without Jesus there to guide them.

And yet Jesus knew they – and we – would feel this way, because Jesus tells them, in this “farewell discourse” not long before the end of his time with them in the Gospel of John, that when things get sticky, they can ask God for what they need – that they don’t have to rely on him as the go-between but can go directly to the Source. It’s such a tender moment – Jesus tells them that God doesn’t love them because of Jesus or on his behalf, but that God loves them – loves us – directly, and so God will give us what we ask when we’re up against it and not sure how to do this discipleship thing without Jesus here in person to show us.
– – –
I have to admit that in some ways I’ve felt like a failure here at Park Avenue. Now please, hear me very well – the point of my sharing this is to shift how we think about failure, and not to have everyone reassure me I’m doing a great job. You all are already so wonderfully generous with your love and with your words, and I do feel, for lack of a better term, like a success – like our ministry together is so fruitful in so many ways that really matter.

But there is one area where I haven’t quite been able to figure out how to succeed, or rather, haven’t quite been able to figure out how to help us succeed. We are so gifted at caring for one another, and during the pandemic, I’ve come to see even more clearly how vital that is, and how few places offer the kind of crucial, life-sustaining community that our church does. And with the news of so many diagnoses and ongoing struggles this morning, we’re definitely going to need to rely on that strength God has given us.

But I think we have struggled a bit more with looking outwards towards our community and finding concrete, life-giving ways to serve those in need around us, not just with our dollars, which we do, but with our relationships and our solidarity, in ways that don’t just change others’ lives but that change our lives, too – to live as true neighbors, belonging and caring for others as our own, as we read each week in our Why statement. It’s a huge part of the Gospel and it’s one of the things the search committee explicitly called me here to do; yet even when I remind myself that two of my four and a half years here have been pandemic years, I still feel like I’ve let us fail at it; I feel this niggling, won’t-go-away sense that God has so much in store for us if we could only figure this out.

In one sense I don’t think we’re afraid of failure here, because we certainly have tried! We crafted our why statement, we’ve done a listening campaign in the community, we’ve started the CONNECT series, we’ve connected with community leaders and tried different things with Youth Villages or BIJAN or with the Arlington Housing Authority – but nothing has really stuck. Nothing has taken on a life of its own and lit us up with possibility and purpose, even though serving our community in mutually transformative ways is something I know many of us really long for.

But in another sense, I think each time something doesn’t stick, our enthusiasm and energy and our confidence that we can do this or that it’s really even necessary dribbles away a little bit. And I think that’s in part because I have been looking at turning outward and serving others all wrong, and I’ve been helping us look at it all wrong, too. I’ve been thinking of living as true neighbors to those outside our church as some sort of elusive test that if we research and listen and plan and strategize enough, we will get it right on the first shot – we will find our thing, that one ministry that lights us up with possibility and purpose. I’ve been thinking that way at least partially because of how church and non-profit leaders talk about how to build an outward-facing ministry that matters – that there is a “right” way to do it, and I certainly want us to do this “right” if it means we will do a better job of living and sharing God’s love.

But if I’m honest, I also know that I’ve been thinking of “finding our thing” as a series of step-by-step instructions that are guaranteed to result in success if we do it just right – because I’m afraid of failure. I’m not afraid of failure as it reflects on me as a pastor – I had better not be in this calling at all if that’s the case, because I certainly fail all the time! No, I’m afraid that if I convince you all to embrace an outward-facing ministry that serves our wider neighbors and you trust me and we pour everything we have into it and fail – that that will be it. That we will lose the willpower or enthusiasm or even desire to try again, because it failed so spectacularly the first time.

Thank goodness, then, for Damon Sidel and for the Holy Spirit.

Damon called me up last week and said “Hey, I have an idea – I want to just try out a few, low-hanging ways of getting out in the community and connecting to folks in need and just see what works. Nothing fancy, nothing high stakes, nothing high-resources – just seeing if we can do some good and if our people enjoy it. And if it doesn’t work, well, we learned that that particular thing isn’t our thing, or that we need to try it from a different angle next time, and we give something else a try, no harm done.”

He couldn’t see my face on the phone, but I’m pretty sure it lit up like a Christmas tree. “You mean,” I said, “that you want to fail frequently?” And I explained what I had learned in Detroit, and that as he was talking I realized I had been thinking all upside down about how to help us be better neighbors, trying to find the be-all, end-all, high impact solution – and that what Damon was proposing, the very definition of “let’s go see how we can fail in ways that help us ultimately succeed” – was just the opposite, and might just be exactly how we should approach this.

We laughingly decided to call this idea “Team Mission Failure,” (although maybe “Team Experiment” would be better branding), and we started kicking around some of those low-hanging ideas to see what would work. Calling up schools to see what homeless students need that we could provide. Knocking on doors at Drake Village or the new affordable housing units in PACC’s neighborhood to see what folks there need. Spending time with folks up the street at the nursing home. Having drop-in hours for teenagers at the picnic tables. There have got to be a bunch more ideas out there – some that will assuredly fail, but some that just might work, or that in failing just might point us to the next thing that will work.

Suddenly I didn’t feel like such a failure anymore.

I wonder if you’d join me in turning the way we see failure upside down – not as something to be feared, not as the way Moses saw it or as the disciples first saw it, not as something serious and high stakes and draining that makes us want to give up – but as something exciting, energizing, as an expected part of the process, maybe even as something joyful and fun, because it will bring us one step closer to where God is calling us.

I wonder if you’d join me in asking God directly – because God loves us directly – for a hint about the next failure we might try together, trusting that if we ask, we will surely, eventually, like a scientist learning with each successive experiment, discover what God has in store for us. I certainly hope you will. Because as a friend in my poetry writing group recently wrote in an uproarious poem about fixing a toilet, “Anything short of a flood is success.”