Failure and forgiveness: a graduation speech – graduation address to seminary students – Editorial
James M. Wall
A few months back, when the snow and the temperature were both falling, I wrote an editorial about what Michael Jordan had told sportswriters who were skeptical about his decision to try to make it in professional baseball. Instead of returning to the Chicago Bulls basketball team after three NBA championships, Jordan started over in a new sport. “I am not afraid to fail,” Jordan said, and I commented that this remark should be cited in graduation speeches. While putting the finishing touches on that piece I got a call from the president of a local seminary asking me to give a commencement address in June. I told him I was under both conviction (it’s a United Methodist school, so he was familiar with the term) and moral obligation to follow my own counsel.
As I started to write the speech, however, I found that there is a problem with using Jordan’s comment. The seminary graduates will be working in a society in which failure and success are measured in terms of money, power and glory. The text “I am not afraid to fail” raises the question, “Fail at what?” So I began by reminding my hearers of Jordan’s remark, and then I said:
We can’t really speak of failure unless we define failure in terms appropriate to a community of faith, and not in the secular understanding of success as measured by riches, rank or a resume. Speaking of resumes, William Broyles, former editor of Newsweek, had an astute comment on his experience of climbing a 23,000-foot peak in the Andes: “You can’t show a mountain your resume.” The huge challenge we all face every day of our lives is not one that will yield before a resume; nor will it respond to our superior physical or mental prowess. The challenge is to determine which perspective will govern our lives – the success-oriented, achievement-driven, judgment-rendering perspective of modern society, or the mysterious God-centered worldview of a religious faith governed by love, forgiveness and understanding.
There are many ways to illustrate the nature of modern society with its obsession with win-lose, succeed-fail measurements. We need only point to media reports on “who’s ahead” in the world of movies. Box office numbers are dutifully reported to tell us what we should regard as the superior product. Which film made the most money this week? Newsweek looked at the summer movies and asked, “Will they sizzle or will they fizzle?” Quality is less important than quantity of ticket sales.
How does this standard of “Who wins? Who loses? Who succeeds? Who fails?” apply to the members of this graduating class? There is nothing inherently wrong in wanting to excel. You have spent three or more years equipping yourself to be good at what you do. You know the scripture, tradition and experience of a community of believers out of which you are now called to exercise leadership. You are expected to be better trained than others.
But no matter how much you excel in your work, it will not matter one whit unless you approach your various assignments from the perspective of a Christ-centered existence. We are called into the ministry because we are capable people; but far more important, we are called to see the world from a different perspective, a perspective that testifies with joy that “once I was blind and now I see.”
Joseph Conrad, a Polish-born author who disciplined himself to write in English, summed up his writing goal as being, “before all, to make you see.” He was referring, of course, not just to the vividness of the storytelling, but to “seeing” existence at its deepest level. The greatest failure we face is not the failure to carry out whichever tasks of ministry we assume; it is to fail to make others see the world from the perspective of the God who calls us to a Christ-centered existence. No doubt we will often fail at this; but we must never be so afraid to fail that we don’t try.
Karl Barth’s famous advice about approaching ministry with a newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other has two dimensions. One aspect of this balancing act is to allow the newspaper to keep us attuned to daily life while the Bible reminds us of the One who provides us with the focus with which to approach every decision of life. But there is a second aspect to Barth’s admonition: the newspaper is a daily reminder that the world measures achievement by standards of power and success, while the Bible presents the story of a life that began in a stable and ended on a cross.
Living and working within the religious community will not allow us to escape the temptation to abide by the standards of secularity. We are constantly tempted by the lure of title, salary and location. We want the satisfaction of knowing that our church budget is higher than that of our neighbors, and that our annual salary exceeds that of our most competitive classmate. We are tempted to measure success by the number of new members we add to the church rolls and not by the unrecorded saving of a single soul.
We have all experienced both the temptation and the sin of jealousy, envy and greed. I am still jealous, for example, of that fellow who made a fortune telling us that “all I really need to know I learned in kindergarten.” I knew that; why didn’t I put it into a book?
He was only partially right, however. In the sandbox we learned what to do to get along with one another. We did not learn how to do it. That is where you come in.
I began with a sports story. Let me close with another. In case you have been so consumed with final exams and plans to move to your next assignment that you haven’t kept up with the sports news, let me tell you about Scottie Pippen of the Chicago Bulls, who labored for years in the shadow of Michael Jordan but who emerged this year as the team’s leader. At a crucial point in the final two seconds of a play-off game against the New York Knicks, Scottie refused to go back on the court. The play that coach Phil Jackson had designed for the final seconds put the ball in the hands of rookie Tony Kukoc, not Pippen.
Why did Scottie refuse to join his teammates on the court? Certainly Pippen was frustrated; his team had lost two previous games by giving up big leads, and in this, the third game of the series, a 22-point lead had dwindled to a tie. Pippen had just missed a shot, in part because Kukoc had failed to set a screen. The season appeared to be over for the Bulls. Scottie wanted to take that last shot. Maybe he was remembering Michael Jordan’s statement, “I am not afraid to fail.”
Refusing to play was, as he admitted later, a stupid act on his part. The sportswriters were almost unanimous is condemning him. Trade him today, was one bit of advice from a particularly acerbic Chicago writer. A National Public Radio commentator compared Pippen’s mistake to two notorious sporting blunders: Bill Buckner’s error that allowed the Mets to beat the Red Sox in the 1986 World Series, and Roy Riegel’s wrong way run against Georgia Tech in the 1929 Rose Bowl. This was a rather silly mixing of apples and oranges that I trust that commentator now regrets.
Throughout all this, Pippen’s coach stood by him. Jackson, whose father was a conservative Protestant minister and who recently described himself as a “Zen Christian,” said, “It was not a time for anger. It was a time for understanding and forgiveness.”
Therein lies the basic difference between the secular law of success and failure and another worldview which has a reason to believe in understanding and forgiveness. That reason comes from the one who asked, “Who among you is without sin?” and then turned to the woman the crowd had wanted to stone and said, “Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more.”
We might easily overlook the importance of forgiveness. We need to look to locations where religion is less socially acceptable to grasp something of its power. Consider the scene in Russia after the unsuccessful coup against President Boris Yeltsin in August 1991. Three young men were killed during the attack on Yeltsin’s White House. At a burial service the president spoke to the parents of the three young men: “Forgive me, your president, that I was not able to protect and defend your sons.”
Describing this scene, James H. Billington, writing in the New Republic (May 30), observed, “|Forgive me’ is what Russians say to each other before taking communion. They are the last words uttered by in earlier Boris in Russia’s greatest national opera, Boris Godunov. |Forgive us’ were the words on many of the bouquets sent to Andrei Sakharov’s funeral in December, 1989. Almost with those words alone Yeltsin seemed to reinvest power with higher authority. Someone blameless was assuming responsibility in a society where people in power never used to accept responsibility for anything. And he did it in the language of faith.”
This institution has prepared you to function as a professional in ministry. But it will be your personal faith that will determine whether you will be driven by a quest for power, glory and prestige, or, because you have first been understood and forgiven, you will understand and forgive. So my word to you is, Go in peace, in the confident knowledge that because we are forgiven for both our sins and our failures, we need have no fear of failure. Our only fear should be that we won’t try hard enough.
COPYRIGHT 1994 The Christian Century Foundation
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group