Learning How to Fail

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My granddaughter and I were talking about the challenges she faces going to a new school in a new town in September. She’s an excellent student but worries about keeping up her grades. I told her that once when I was her age in a new school, I got 4% on an algebra test.

I felt so devastated when I received my paper back with that incredibly horrible verdict not only including an exclamation mark, but circled in red, that I slipped out the side door at the next break and ran home, tears streaming behind me. I thought I was the biggest idiot on earth. Who gets 4%? Not even the goofy guys at the back of the remedial math class got 4%! I wanted to quit school.

One – or maybe two – “fluish” days later, when I finally dragged myself back into the classroom and had the nerve to ask the teacher why I had done so poorly, he explained I actually only made one mistake, but I made it 24 times. (I did receive credit for the first non-computation question.) He showed me that I needed to invert something in a different place and on my next test I had a much better mark.

I still remember how difficult it was to walk back into that room and ask for help. My report cards always said “conscientious worker.” I had never failed a test before. I didn’t know how to handle failure.

A few years ago I met a brilliant science teacher who inspired many students to go on into even more brilliant careers in science.

“What’s you secret?” I asked.

“I make sure they fail,” he said.

“But you teach the brightest and best students in the district!”

“And that’s why I give them a test early in the year that they are guaranteed to fail.”

“That doesn’t sound fair,” I protested with a little sympathetic whine wheedling into my voice.

“Oh, it’s not fair. I intentionally give them a test on a chapter they haven’t covered. I base questions on misleading or incomplete information. I load it with trick questions and unclear directions and then I arrange for dramatic distractions to invade the classroom and tell them to put down their pens and hand in their work before they have had time to finish. It’s definitely not fair.”

He smiled, looking proud of himself.

“At the end of the day I place folded sheets of plain paper in front of each student,” he said. Their test grade is written inside — a failing grade. I then dismiss the class and rush to an “important meeting” which involves a location where I cannot be reached until after the weekend.”

“Why would you do that?” I asked.

“To give them time to let that failing grade do its work. Because this test is not about the material. This test is about tests. This test is about learning how to fail the way a martial arts student first learns how to fall. This test is about teaching high achieving students who have probably never failed an exam in their lives that resilience is more important than a perfect academic record.”

“How do they react to that?”

“Usually poorly. On Monday morning the helicopter parents are circling the principal’s office, the budding law students are lining up with prepared arguments, and the discouraged students, at least the ones that show up, drag themselves into the classroom to the tempo of a death march.”

“Poor kids.”

“Not at all. I hand out their written tests, and lecture them on failure and recovery as a necessary part of success.”

“You don’t let them re-write for a better grade?”

“No, of course not. It’s a stupid test. I invite them to re-write the test – but not the answers. I tell them to re-write the questions. Learning is about asking better questions. The test I gave them had unanswerable questions. I tell them to ask better questions – then I show them how to look for the answers to the test they designed.”

 

I realized that what this master teacher gave his students was an opportunity to develop perseverance and endurance in a new atmosphere of confidence free from the fear of failure. I also realized he was not the first person to teach this. James wrote about it in the Bible.

Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way.

If you don’t know what you’re doing, pray to the Father. He loves to help. You’ll get his help, and won’t be condescended to when you ask for it. Ask boldly, believingly, without a second thought. People who “worry their prayers” are like wind-whipped waves. Don’t think you’re going to get anything from the Master that way, adrift at sea, keeping all your options open…

Anyone who meets a testing challenge head-on and manages to stick it out is mighty fortunate. For such persons loyally in love with God, the reward is life and more life.

(James 1:2-8, 12 The Message)

Are you facing a test in which there seems to be no perfect solution? Maybe the test is about more than filling in the blank with an approved answer. Maybe it’s about developing enduring faith and the confidence to follow the trail of better questions.

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The Struggle

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“…you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it.”

~Flannery O’Connor

I know the Bible says in 1 John to “Love not the world, neither the things of the world.” I’m not talking about loving or cherishing the things of the world or the approval of others as idols or replacements for having our needs met by God. When I talk about cherishing here I mean extending oneself to care deeply for people who don’t, or can’t, care back. I mean seeing value and the image of God in every person with an opinion, regardless of how irritating they can be at the moment.

Miracles, signs and wonders pale in significance to the wonder of the supernatural ability to love the ones whose threats strike fear or those with followers who seem to oppose everything you think or say or do.

It’s easy to become defensive or to retaliate when you are misunderstood and misrepresented. I don’t want to be identified with “them” – or “them” either. Sometimes I want to hide from conflict and leave a note on the door of my bomb shelter: Call me when you’ve worked it out.

But we don’t have that option. Love compels us to walk into the middle of the struggle, armed only with the grace we ourselves have received and the humble authority it produces.

Thank God, his grace is more than enough. It’s abundant. It’s powerful.

No Regrets

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I can’t remember a trial or a pain
He did not recycle to bring me gain
I can’t remember one single regret
In serving God only, and trusting His hand
All I have need of, His hand will provide
He’s always been faithful to me.
(From He’s Always Been Faithful by Sara Groves)

Sometimes when I run out of words, someone else will sing them for me.
I’m grateful to my daughter-in-law for introducing me to the music of Sara Groves. In my time of wordless worship, in the dark of night, I heard a voice sing the words I was searching for.

Thank you to both Sara and Sarah.

 

Breadth, Length, Height and Depth Perception

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“What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing. It also depends on what sort of person you are.”

~ C.S. Lewis

I’ve been trying to capture the sun. It’s not easy.

Smoky haze filled the valley this week. A forest fire about 45 minutes drive away closed a major highway. Massive fires that have emptied towns in the central interior of British Columbia are hundreds of kilometers away, but winds carry the smoke here. Even people in the US Pacific Northwest are complaining about air quality because of the fires.

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Forest fires are a seasonal hazard in this part of the world and, I suppose, like people who live in areas prone to hurricane, tornadoes, floods, blizzards, and earthquakes, we have learned to keep an eye on the situation and, for the most part, get on with life.

 

From our vantage point we see the sun turn an amazing neon orange red colour as it lowers in the evenings. I tried to capture it with the cameras I had available (a cell phone and my trusty Canon point and shoot) but neither could reproduce what I saw. I even tried shooting through sunglasses lens. No luck. Neither had the capacity to handle the wide contrast.

Amazingly, the image my camera registered was the opposite of what I saw. I saw a glowing orange/red ball against a pale grey/blue sky. It saw a white sun against a glowing orange/red sky. I could not see what either the phone and camera saw, nor could the man-made devices record what I saw.

 

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Other people in the valley talked about how remarkable it was. Many posted photos on Facebook, taken from their locations between the Idaho border up to Radium Hot Springs. The pictures looked dramatic and lovely but none of them looked like what I saw.

I began to think about perspective and perception. To those in airplanes flying high above the smoke the sun appears to be the same as always. Down here in the forest by our home, it shone with a strange warm diffused glow even at midday.

smokey forest ch rs IMG_9003I tried putting a sunglasses lens in front of my camera lens to see if it would change the way the camera saw the neon colours of the sun. It did, but not the way I hoped. Now the sky took on a muddy dark colour and the sun was still blown out white.sun dull sky IMG_8936Where we are positioned in time and space affects how much we see. This is perspective. How we interpret and remember what we see is perception. The lens of experience will alter one’s perception. My little camera did not perceive what my eyes perceived. It did not have the capacity.

I remember a time when experience handed me a dark lens. A group of musicians invited me to participate in informal monthly concerts. Some of these people were professionals working on new pieces they wanted to try on small audiences before they hit the road. Others were music teachers who needed motivation to hone their skills.

I had dropped out of the classical music scene about five years earlier. My babies slept poorly and I couldn’t find time or a place to practice that wouldn’t have the neighbours banging the walls.

Okay, the real truth is, I quit because I was discouraged. It wasn’t fun anymore.

Singers will tell you that three weeks without practice makes you feel like you have to start training all over again. Getting back up on a stage after a long absence felt like a daunting challenge. I was nervous.

I sang my first set of songs, nothing difficult, three simple Schubert lieder. Before I finished the last song, a man in the audience I recognized as the concert master of the city orchestra got up and walked out.

My heart sank. I knew I wasn’t good enough to be there.

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I had another longer aria to sing later in the program. It was all I could do to force myself to go through with it, but I did, putting on a good theatrical face. I assumed the applause was because people were being politely generous. I took a bow, but all I wanted was to dash out the door for home and go throw myself on the bed for a good cry. On the way out the concert master blocked my way.

“There you are!” he said. “Listen, I was so excited when I heard you in the first half I couldn’t wait for intermission. I rushed out and called some friends and told them to get down here. I’ve got some people I want you to meet…”

I was shocked.

Later I realized that my experience up until that point had mostly been singing for teachers, examiners, critics, and judges, in tests, auditions or contest situations. As a matter of fact, my performance had once been torn to shreds before an audience by an adjudicator in a music festival (more aptly called “music court”) on that very same stage. I won the competition, but the trophy didn’t make up for a sense of humiliation that poured liked a sweaty flush of embarrassment over my head. Up until the concert that evening, I had rarely sung for an audience who were there simply to enjoy themselves at the end of the work week. My years of experience in competitive environments formed a lens of expectation of criticism.

neon sun IMG_9056The lens was like the sunglasses lens in front of my camera. It cast the shadow of darkness that felt like rejection across my perception. What I saw when the concert master walked out was a negative reaction that pointed to to my failure. I was unable to imagine that his action was actually a sign of approval.

Music is not the only area affected by negative expectations. Past experiences of feeling condemned and unable to measure up to religious standards caused me to see through a lens that didn’t provide a capacity to imagine God could possibly approve of me. It took a long time to change that lens. I know I’m not the only one. It’s a story I hear frequently.

The idea that God considers a close relationship with us to be the reward that Christ earned is one that doesn’t register for a lot of people. We all have different ideas about the nature of God depending on our perspective from whatever point in time and space we occupy on this road. That changes as new positions add new understanding. But when our ability to perceive has been darkened, it needs healing. It needs a new lens. We need increased capacity to handle the light God wants to pour into our hearts.

Analogies break down at some point and my singing performance story runs aground here. This is not about performance. This is about seeing ourselves as God sees us and seeing who he really is and how he feels toward us without negative expectations. He loves us because he loves us and there is nothing we can do that can change that fact.

Part of Paul’s prayer for the believers in Ephesians was that they would be strengthened to have an enlarged capacity to comprehend this brilliant love, to see it as it truly is – glorious.

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:14-17 NASB)

Last night the sun peeked under a cloud on the horizon before it set and I snapped one last photo. The colour of the sun I saw was reflected on the deck railing.  Around 11 p.m. we stepped outside to say goodbye to our guests. In spite of a forecast that said there was a 0% chance, it was raining. Showers of blessing in fire season. Thank you, Lord!

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Seeds of Light

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When the preacher said,“You may kiss the bride,” the man I was marrying took advantage of that permission as if he had been waiting his whole life for this moment. He went for an enthusiastic, but unrehearsed kiss – at least unrehearsed as a staged event for the benefit of the public. We hadn’t worked out which way our heads were supposed to tilt and our glasses clashed together and sort of tangled. When all was said and done we both had a wonky view with spectacles askew.

“Amateurs,” professionals in the audience twittered.

That we were. What did we know about love or commitment or anything, really? Vows are always a gamble when you have no idea what you’re getting into. But that’s the point, I suppose. Vows are about faith and a promise to try to stay in the process as the story plays out.

At another wedding, when the groom kissed his bride, a curious new nephew seated among the host of dearly beloved in the pews popped up with a question obviously weighing on his innocent mind, “Is he planting the seed now, Mommy?”

The rest of the witnesses twittered over that precious moment too.

I’m not sure what Mommy told him. No, not now, but then again, something important was being planted at that moment. A little bit of true love in the form of a promise that could either take root and grow beyond any definition of love that seemed grand enough at the altar or could shoot up quickly only to wither in hearts that proved too hard after trampling or too distracted by competition to water and nurture its growth.

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This morning I read about God sowing seeds of light.

Listen you lovers of God, hate evil;
For God can keep you from wrong
And protect you from the power of wickedness.
For he sows seeds of light within his lovers
And seeds of joy burst forth for the lovers of God!
So be glad, and continue to give thanks,
For God’s holiness is seen in everything he does.
(Psalm 97:10-12 The Passion Translation)

I was wondering what seeds of light and seeds of joy looked like in real life when a friend phoned. She’s a novelist of a different philosophical/religious persuasion than I am, but we learn from each other. Her character (and she is the master of creating fascinating characters) had taken the story in an unanticipated direction. (Writers will understand the demands of characters who, it seems, have developed an independent will.) Without giving too much away, he was faced with a dilemma over whether or not he (having done some very bad things) should accept a bargain of severe torment in the next life in exchange for the ability to relive one perfectly beautiful moment in this life. She wanted to know if that was consistent with Christian thought.

I explained that the picture she had of eternal punishment was the whole reason why Jesus came. He came to demonstrate his Father’s true nature in demonstrations of love and mercy and especially grace. He came to save us, not to condemn us. He didn’t come to bring judgment that requires us to pay for our sins (because who can possibly do that once the final tally of eternal repercussions has been made?) He came instead with a gift of grace that empowers us to become who we were meant to be before we comforted ourselves with the lies of the devil. He came to change the path we were on by changing our hearts to line up with his love for us and for others.

You’ll have to wait until the book is published to see where the character decides to take the story after our discussion, but she made me think (as she often does). What was this one perfect experience he had? (No, of course she didn’t tell me. I need to wait for the book too.)

Many people whose lives have been a collection of traumatic disappointments can still hold memories of perfect moments they knew illustrated the way things are supposed to be. I wonder if those moments, are the seeds of light.

Whether we experience them in nature, or relationships, or art, or music, or a perfect hand in poker, they are moments when Jesus plants a bit of himself in our hearts in the form of joy, or hope, or peace, or a sense of it’s-gonna-be-okay promises. The world can try to stomp out those tiny seeds of light, but somehow, hidden in the darkness they continue to glow. If they didn’t, we would not wish that things could be better, for we would have no concept of better.

A kind person shows us what kindness is and that kindness exists. Once we know that there is such a thing as love, the loss of it seems unbearable. Seeds of light, in the process of growing, irritate the heck out of it-is-what-is complacency, because they give us glimpses of something more. Before they pop through the soil in a dazzling display of pink blossoms (or green beans, depending on your preference) their powerful little earth-moving tendrils rearrange our foundations in a way that takes studied effort to ignore sometimes. They provoke a holy discontent. What if those seeds are watered and nurtured instead?

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When John, Jesus’ beloved friend, told the story of life on the road with the lover of his soul and the other disciples, the Holy Spirit inspired him to include this observation:

Life came into being because of him [Jesus] for his life is light for all humanity. And this living expression is the light that bursts through gloom the light that darkness could not diminish. for his life is light for all humanity. And this living expression is the light that bursts through gloom the light that darkness could not diminish. (John 1:4,5)

All life begins with a seed, a hope, a promise, an idea, an implanted word from the Living Expression that existed before time.

The Father is preparing a perfect bride for his son. Christ’s reward is the bride – the ones he came to save. In other words, you. And because of his promise, like a kiss on the day we choose to trust him, joy, inexpressible and full of glory, bursts forth in the lovers of God.

I will never leave you or forsake you.” – Jesus

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