A Sermon Given at the First Universalist Parish in Chester, Vermont, October 22, 2017
There is a saying that we are made strong not by winning easy battles, but by losing hard-fought ones. Failure can be an opening to the grace of personal growth.
There is a famous line in a Robert Burns poem, written in November 1785, that goes, “The best-
laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley,” or as it is usually translated, “The best laid plans
of mice and men often go awry.” The line comes from Burns’ poem, To a Mouse, on Turning
Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough. The context, as the poem’s name suggests, is that he is
apologizing to a poor field mouse whose nest he inadvertently plowed up when turning the soil
in his garden on the heels of winter. Seeing the destroyed nest, he realized that the poor
creature would be unlikely to survive the coming cold weather, despite all the time and effort she had expended in preparing her nest. Her work has been in vain, and she will be forced to
accept defeat. It is a harsh lesson in the cruelty of circumstance to be sure.
All of us may have to face such a harsh lesson in the face of failure someday, but fortunately,
the numerous failures we encounter in life’s journey rarely result in such dire consequences.
Most of the time, the worst we are likely to face is disappointment, frustration, anger, and
perhaps a sense of guilt or shame. When we fail to achieve our goals, we might suffer
financially or professionally in some way, but life usually allows us the grace to recover and
move on, though it may take tremendous effort and considerable time in some cases. It is
simply a fact of being human that our best laid plans will indeed often go awry. After all, who
among us has not failed to achieve some goal in life? But, unless it is a truly fatal turn of events,
the lessons we learn can help us understand what it means to be human.
There are many kinds of failure, but I want to broadly divide them into two categories. There are incidental failures, which may be quite significant or very small, in which I include any failure to complete plans or reach goals due to obstacles or circumstances which may or may not be under our control. There are also failures of character, a category that is uniquely human so far as we know, which are moments when we act in willful opposition to our better selves – what we might call “sin” in traditional theological language. While there are differences between the two kinds of failure, they can sometimes be bound together around a single event, and how we react to both kinds of failure can be very similar. Both can produce very negative emotions, especially fear and shame, and we may find ourselves dwelling on these negative feelings for a substantial amount of time. Even relatively trivial failures can leave us ruminating for days on what we should have said or done differently in some situation, and some deeper feelings may stay with us for a lifetime. It is important that we process our feelings and integrate our failures into the narrative of our identity without simply denying them or forgetting the lessons learned, but we must be careful not to allow our failures to define us.
In the reading this morning from my favorite spiritual writer, Belden C. Lane, he uses the idea of
the “unclimbed mountain” or the unfinished trail as an example of a real incidental failure on a small scale, which can be seen as a metaphor for the more significant failures we experience. It
comes from his book, Backpacking with the Saints: Wilderness Hiking as Spiritual Practice, so
from the title you could anticipate he would draw on the experiential spirituality of nature.
Anyone who likes to hike or climb mountains can easily appreciate that sometimes reaching our objective is just not in the cards. Weather, fatigue, or simply overly ambitious plans will force us to turn back or alter our plans on occasion. Just think of the many people who have attempted to climb mountains like Everest, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars and making every preparation they could imagine, only to turn back before reaching the summit. I haven’t experienced something quite so expensive, but my wife and I did once travel all the way to Alaska’s Denali National Park for a planned multi-day backpacking trip only to spend one long day hiking in the wilderness before bugging out. For a number of reasons, mostly involving our comfort zone within an unfamiliar landscape, we decided to radically change our plans and return to civilization. We still had a good trip, but it was not at all what we had planned.
I can think of many unclimbed mountains and unfinished trails in my life, both real and
metaphorical, and I’m sure all of you can too. What Lane is trying to say in his book is that
these are useful gifts for helping us see our inherent value and authentic selves, “failure points
us back to the true measure of our worth, to something grounded in nothing that we do, but only what we are.” Who we really are is not diminished by failing to climb the mountain, but this can be hard for us to see sometimes. It is easy to dwell on the failure and imbue it with more significance than it deserves. External factors and our own psychological constitution can also leave us trapped in a persona that makes it hard to admit defeat. We can create unrealistic
expectations for personal perfection, and we can crash very hard when we fall short. As Lane
notes, “In our consumer-driven society, an image of flawless proficiency is crucial to success.
To admit failure in a world that judges value by polished surfaces is to lose your edge as a
commodity in the marketplace. This is as true, sadly, in higher education and religion as it is in
business, sports, and politics.”
Even just the fear of failing to live up to our expectations can evoke strong feelings of shame, or leave us paralyzed and filled with dread. As we learn in his book, Lane’s personal struggles
with feelings of inadequacy as a graduate theology student at Princeton even evoked thoughts
of suicide at one point. He describes how ignorant he felt the first year among the professors
and other students who discussed unfamiliar topics, and how he would run to the library to try to keep up. He felt like a fraud and doubted his own abilities. And, as a theology student
struggling with the search for truth and meaning, he felt unworthy in the eyes of God. He might
have dropped out, or worse, were it not for a candid discussion with a fellow student who
admitted feeling the same way.
So, let me first say a little more about the way Lane’s book is structured to help you understand
where I am about to go with this. Lane’s book is organized into chapters that pair a spiritual
topic with a saint or famous historical figure from Christianity, and he then uses a personal
wilderness experience as the context for diving deeper. The chapter that inspired this sermon,
for example, is titled, Failure: Mt. Whitney and Martin Luther. The reason he chose Martin
Luther is that Luther’s great theological breakthrough was the result of his struggle with his own sense of inadequacy and sinfulness. Luther not only felt he had been a failure in the eyes of his parents by pursuing the monastic life instead of becoming a lawyer, he felt his vocation as a monk was flawed, and that he too was unworthy in the eyes of God. Then, one evening in 1512, Luther was reading Paul’s letter to the Romans, and he had a sudden realization that what he did or did not do with his life was not what mattered. What he was – a human being created in the image of God – was all that mattered, and that even serious failures of character, our most egregious sins, were not beyond the reach of God’s grace. In theological terms, he embraced a doctrine of salvation by grace, rather than the idea of salvation by works. We did not need to purchase our salvation through acts of contrition or earning merit through our deeds, in fact, none of that really mattered. We were already saved by being worthy as human beings, and with his particular beliefs, because of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. The theologian Paul Tillich called Luther’s epiphany: learning to “accept his acceptance.” This idea that we are all worthy in the eyes of God, and faith was all that we really need, resonated throughout the Protestant Reformation, of course, and it was certainly central in the theology of our Universalist ancestors. And though our tradition has become more pluralistic and less Christian in recent times, it echoes still in the First Principle of Unitarian Universalism: we affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.
No matter how broken or sinful we feel, or how much we have failed to be our best authentic
selves, we possess inherent worth and dignity. Indeed, it is often in the hearts of the most
broken among us – those whose failures are many – that we may come to see the divine light
shining the brightest. Lane recounts a wonderful Sufi story to illustrate this point:
The disciple of a Sufi master once came to his teacher, saying, “Master, I’ve done
terrible things in my life. I know Allah can never forgive me. What can I do?” “Ah, my
son,” answered the master, “Don’t you see? All of us are connected to God by a piece
of rope, one that is the same length for every one of us. When we sin, alas, we cut the
rope that connects us to the Holy One. But when we repent, God is eager to tie the
pieces together again. Every time you tie a knot in a rope, of course, it gets shorter.
Hence, those with more knots in their rope are that much closer to God. So trust, my
son, in the forgiveness of Allah, the Merciful and Compassionate One. He loves to tie
I love this image of the knots in the rope which connects us with the divine, and if the theistic
language doesn’t work for you, think of the knots as markers in our personal stories that note
times when we have experienced failures and integrated their meaning into our story – periods
in our lives when we were forced to overcome adversity and disappointment, or make peace
with great failures of character. Some knots may be much bigger than others.
Each human being is a story, and sometimes our greatest failures become the most interesting
and important chapters. They may be gateways to possibilities we never imagined. There is an
old Quaker saying, “way closes, way opens,” and sometimes it is only after the way slams shut
in front of us that we realize we can turn around and look for different opportunities. Perhaps a
layoff from employment makes you rethink your career or vocation. Maybe the end of a
relationship frees your more authentic self to explore new possibilities. The hard part can be
letting go of expectations, and being receptive to where life may be trying to lead you.
So, let the unclimbed mountains, the unfinished trails, the many knots in our ropes – whatever
metaphor you choose to use – become a reminder that your failures in life do not define you.
They may even make you stronger or wiser. We are not the knots. We are the whole rope that
remains connected to the sacred. We are all worthy and beloved beings, born with inherent
worth and dignity.
It is my hope that our faith can help others realize this, and that our faith communities will
always be a refuge for the world-weary souls struggling to find their own sense of worth.
I am thinking that one day, if I live to a ripe old age, I might reflect on the lessons of life and
write a book titled, Trails I Never Hiked to Destinations I Never Reached. I’m sure it would be a
real page-turner, filled with the wisdom that only the grace of failure can teach
“A Warning to My Readers” by Wendell Berry
Do not think me gentle
because I speak in praise
of gentleness, or elegant
because I honor the grace
that keeps this world. I am
a man crude as any,
gross of speech, intolerant,
stubborn, angry, full
of fits and furies. That I
may have spoken well
at times, is not natural.
A wonder is what it is.
Reading an excerpt from “Backpacking with the Saints: Wilderness Hiking as Spiritual
Practice” by Belden C. Lane
There are times on the trail when you have to turn back. Nothing is more discouraging. Maybe
you’ve done something stupid, like lost the map. Changing weather conditions may have made
it dangerous or foolhardy to go any further. Maybe your gear is soaking wet or the black flies
have become unbearable. Sometimes you simply don’t have it in you to go on. Whatever
brings you to that point, you admit defeat and grudgingly head back toward the trailhead.
As I think back on my failure to climb Mt. Whitney, I find comfort in the fact that John Muir didn’t make it on his first try either. On the morning of October 16, 1873, he started out for the peak, leaving his horse to graze in a meadow in one of the lower canyons. After hiking all day, he couldn’t find wood to build a fire so he continued climbing into the night, taking bearings by the stars. “By midnight,” he wrote in his journal, “I was among the summit needles [though still shy of the top]. There I had to dance all night to keep from freezing, and was feeble and starving next morning.” He finally had to turn back. But a week later Muir returned to scale the peak by a direct route from the east side. It was the first time anyone had made the ascent.
We don’t always succeed. But sometimes failure proves to be a better gift. Failure points us
back to the true measure of our worth, to something grounded in nothing that we do, but only
what we are. The cloud-covered majesty of Mt. Whitney, the mountain I didn’t climb, will always remind me of that.