how to fail

espresso banana muffins

There are failures in life, and there are failures.

I consider a minor failure the time I planned a campus-wide film showing that eight people came to, including the other planner, the professor we had invited to reflect on the film afterward, three of his students, the video technician, and me. Our third planner had some other commitment that night and couldn’t make it. To make things worse, a deep gouge cut from the center of the disc to the edge, interrupting the film at regular and frequent intervals with minute-long silences, sputtering, and abrupt scene changes. Later, when people asked me how the showing went, I tried to change the subject. It pained me to recall the way I sat there in the dark, feeling the rising anxiety in the room each time the disc caught, sensing the disapproval of the people who were there and were almost certainly judging me for being so ill-prepared and unprofessional. Despite our lack of publicity (and there you have the major problem), I was sure that the rest of the college was looking through the windows and mocking the pathetic turnout.

But I’ve gotten over my embarrassment and realize it’s hardly worth losing sleep about. Life will present itself with plenty of opportunities to fail, and I’ll probably take it up on more than one of those. Sometimes dinner will burn and set off the smoke alarms just as the guests arrive. Other times it will be tremendous, horrendous failures, the sort of relational failures that hurt like the dickens. If I’m to endure those, I need to learn to keep my wits.

toasted walnuts

Failure has been on my mind because its opposite, success, has too. By success, I mean something like everything running smoothly and everyone getting along perfectly harmoniously. Extrapolated, it looks like shalom and the kingdom of God.

My foolproof method for success comprises nothing more nor less than clear communication. I am convinced that everything—really, everything—can be fixed by speaking honestly and thoroughly. Resentment festering between you and a friend? Just talk about it! Things going awry at work? Talk it out with your boss! Film fail to get publicized? At least clear the air with the other planners!

My belief is not unfounded. Nine times out of ten, the central conflict in a movie arises from poor communication. (And it irks me to no end: Just talk to each other! I hiss at the screen.) Generally, the conflict is solved once the characters have a heart to heart and quit assuming they know what the other is thinking. Likewise, the majority of books on marriage stress the importance of patient communication to strengthen the relationship between husband and wife. I’ve seen simple conversation work wonders in my own marriage, in familial conflict and friendships, in minor misunderstandings with fellow church members. In other words, there are worse things I could believe.

muffin batter

Yet, in the past year, I’ve seen the limits of communicating. Twice, talking actually aggravated the conflict. Privately, I swear that the solution will be more talking. I just need to talk with that person! One more conversation and we’ll have it figured out! But these relationships are not improving. We’ve pressed our confusion and bitterness and hurt just below the surface, but they’re there all right.

It has become clear that talking will not solve everything for me. Communicating is not leading to success. Heck, it’s barely fending off failure. Suddenly, I have to reassess my whole M.O. As I do, it occurs to me that maybe I’ve unwittingly substituted communication for Christ’s salvific work. Who needs Jesus Christ when you’ve got clear conversation? Precise, self-aware discourse resolves nearly everything, or so I’ve thought. I’ve believed that, given enough time and honesty, I could get to the heart of every conflict and overcome it by removing all misunderstandings and patching everything up with good old-fashioned forgiveness.

In my words-fix-everything world, there’s no real sin. There are only misunderstandings, poor self-knowledge, and undeveloped ability to articulate one’s own feelings and motives. Clearly, this is problematic. Sin is real and we are utterly powerless to overcome it, no matter how exact our words and how long our conversations. Neither pure intentions nor a sincere desire for reconciliation make a difference. In the world of sin, communication just doesn’t cut it. Sin will have its way, turning all of our efforts to solve relational conflict into failure.

This, I think, is an important thing for a would-be pastor to remember. While continuing to affirm the usefulness of straightforward conversation, I have to relinquish my belief that reconciliation is within my power. In all of these instances, I have to hand over the success of the relationship to the only one who can do and has done anything about it. In Christ by the power of the Spirit, I have the potential not to fail. But getting there takes confessing that I will fail and then shutting up. Talking, as I’ve learned, can make things worse.

cooling

Make-Up Muffins

adapted from Super Natural Cooking

If talking doesn’t work, maybe muffins will solve it? Sometimes, they help. With these, though, it was the thought that counted. They’re not awful if you like the taste of damp banana. I post them as another example of a failure.

2 cups spelt flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 1/2 cups walnuts
2 Tbsp. coffee beans, finely ground
6 Tbsp. unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
2 large eggs
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup plain yogurt
3 large bananas, mashed

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Line 18 muffin cups with paper liners (or do it in two batches).

Spread walnuts on a rimmed baking sheet and put in the oven while it preheats. Stir every 5 minutes for about 10 or 15 minutes. When they’ve begun to brown, remove them from the oven, let cool, and chop coarsely.

In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, salt, half the walnuts, and the coffee grounds.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream the butter until fluffy. Beat in the sugar and then one egg at a time. Mix in the vanilla, yogurt, and mashed bananas. Add the dry ingredients and stir until just combined so you don’t end up with tough muffins.

Distribute the batter evenly among the muffin cups, topping with the remaining walnuts. Bake about 25 minutes, until the nuts are toasty and the tops golden. Remove the muffins from the tin and cool on a wire rack. Forgive each other and find a different muffin recipe. (These ones will do quite nicely.)

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9 thoughts on “how to fail

  1. You didn’t like these muffins? They sound very yummy!

    Your post reminds me of myself and my own desire to want to work everything out, to confront problems and get to the center of the problem to find a solution. I often think that it is within my power to talk, influence, and suggest my way out of arguments and struggles… it seems to be my (or perhaps our) default… to try harder.

    You’re right though. We cannot do anything without the work of Christ and the Holy Spirit. It is not without our power to reconcile, it is only in Christ that we experience true reconciliation and only through the overflow of His love that we can find it in ourselves to be reconciled with others as well! Sometimes through good communication… and sometimes through humility and asking for forgiveness (hard as that is to swallow).

    Thanks for this post!

  2. Is it okay that your post made me laugh out loud ?? The discomfort of the film and the disappointment of the muffins both resonate :). But I appreciate your insight here. And sometimes I find it hard to ask Jesus for his help when I know _I’m_ the one who messed up so badly (with communication). In fact, I could easily have been part of one of those two difficult instances you refer to above. Yikes.

  3. Your posting reminded me of something I learned in a college class (way back in the day). “It is better to understand than it is to be understood.” Not an easy thing to do on our own. We have to ask the Lord to show us our own heart and to give us ears to “hear” the other person. Enjoy reading your posts. I’m reading the book you referenced in an earlier post, Lost in Transition.

  4. Pingback: homesick | Forsythia Root

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