Sunday, December 30, 2007

Failure, the Teacher

Yesterday I was able to learn from, and to teach from, failure.

Personal, humiliating, embarrassing, failure. Failure spelled with a capital "F".

The male members of my extended family embarked on a quest this past weekend to climb the highest peak in Texas, at 8,749 feet elevation, at Guadalupe Mountains National Park. I last visited this park and successfully hiked to the top at age 19 (more years ago than I wish to reveal). The plan was that our generation of dads was going to share the hike with our sons and then commemorate their achievement at the top. Since my brothers-in-law are dedicated Christians (two of us are pastors and a third is also ordained and serving as a Bible College professor) we had intended this commemoration to accomplish several goals, to include:

a) forging a stronger bond with our sons and nephews, and they with their fathers, uncles, and cousins.
b) an opportunity to pass on a legacy.
c) a chance to share some guidance and truth.
d) an occasion to support one of our nephews who had lost his father this past year.

For this short service each one of us older men was assigned a topic. Mine was to talk about the fact that we don't remain on top of the mountain, and that coming down represents life, and its attendant failures and difficulties.

Things started out well as we had dinner together the previous night, and then set out for the park early Saturday morning. Everyone had the right clothing and gear, plenty of water and trail provisions, and a good attitude. The weather was colder than expected, the winds were higher than previously forecast, but we were raring to go, and off we went.

Well, it wasn't long before we encountered a potentially serious problem. One of my brothers-in-law started to experience dizziness and problems seeing. We had not gone very far, and we did not want to have a casualty on our hands. While the main group went on two accompanied him back to the visitor's center and planned to rejoin us. I was in the lead, trying to keep a sane pace (about 1.6 mph), but almost half way through, just below 7,000 feet, I realized that I was almost at my limit. Sharp stabbing pains were felt in my thighs each time that I climbed over a step or boulder, and I realized that if I was to continue I would become a liability for the group. It was amazing just how much steeper this mountain had become since the last time I climbed it! I pressed on a bit further until both my GPS and my barometric altimeter indicated that I had exceeded the 7,000 ft level. I then bid goodbye to the group and began a slow, contemplative, journey back to the parking lot. Going down I passed the other two members of our party returning and apprised them of my condition.

At the bottom I discovered that my oldest brother-in-law was feeling better, and we kept each other company the rest of the afternoon. The rest of our group returned in two groups between 4:15 and 5;00 PM. We then had our ceremony at the bottom, which was best due to the fact that the winds were howling up above and conditions only allowed them enough time to look around and snap some pictures.

When it was my time to share I began with a completely different demeanor than would have been the case if I had been one of the victorious ones. I believe that my modeling failure was every bit as important as talking about it.

What did I tell them? Basically the following:

a) Failure is inevitable.
b) When failure is the result of bad choices or bad behavior it is imperative to repent of them, confess the failure, and receive God's forgiveness.
c) When failure is not due to one's actions there is a need to trust God and cling to Romans 8:28. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. (ESV)

Did I wish that I had been able to achieve the top? You bet. I am a normal red blooded guy and the fact that I failed was embarrassing. It will probably result in my receiving some good natured teasing in the future. However, I can see the "good" that God has orchestrated out of it. Here are a couple of the resulting "goods";

a) I was able to engage my brother-in-law (the other failure) in very satisfying and productive conversation as we awaited the return of the group. He has been my brother-in-law for almost 30 years but I now know him better than ever before.
b) I was able (just barely) to make the 6 hour drive back home last night so as to be able to preach today. I don't know what I was thinking when we planned this trip, but if I had completed the climb I would not have been able to safely travel afterwards.
c) I was able to model in a productive manner (I hope) the proper attitude towards failure before my peers, my son, and my nephews.
d) This trip, even with its failure, was most profitable due to the quality of the conversations that I had with my 26 year old son during our drive and at other times. I believe that our father-son bond is stronger than ever.

Failure? I hate it. Always have, always will. Yet, I realize that it is inevitable as long as I inhabit this body of flesh. It can either destroy us or it can be channeled to improve us and give God more glory. It is not fun, but it can be directed positively. After all, we don't get to live on the top of the mountain every day.


Bob said...

There'll be no teasing, Jerry. We admire your being humble enough to bow out for the benefit of the youngsters.

joyce said...

Great post and blog ! Thanks !

ShalomSeeker said...

I've only heard bits and pieces of this story, and mostly as it related to my father's (frightening) health episode! I'm really glad that I came across your account in order to see a bigger...or should I say Bigger...picture.

Thanks for sharing. :-)

--Your oldest brother-in-law's oldest :-D
aka, your niece
aka, ShalomSeeker