"Fear thou not; for I am with thee:
be not dismayed; for I am thy God"
Last Sunday had us all at the banks of the Jordan assessing the temperature of a willing soul. What would it take to walk into the river carrying the ark? The teacher asked, "What would you think, if that were you on the river bank? How would you feel?" The responses were cut from the same cloth: "Afraid." "I would wonder whether I was really up to the task. Whether there wasn't somebody else who could do it better." "How could I ever live with myself if the ark dropped into the water? What if I fell? Why me?"
I leaned to the young husband sitting next to me and said, "What does it matter what we feel?" He looked at me quizzically, as if to say, "You talking to me?" I sit by myself in Sunday School because Kevin's normally off somewhere, so I just chat away to whomever's next to me. But then he smiled the half-smile where the corners of the mouth rise slightly and the eyebrows lift up. Accepting the invitation, I went on: "It's not our ark. It' God' ark. If he wants it wet, it'll get wet. If he wants it dry, then it'll stay dry. Our job, if asked, is to walk into the water. I just hope that it's not too cold. I don't do cold water well."
Young husband cocked his head as if to say, "Um . . . I don't know why you're telling me this but I'm not going to shut you up." So I just went on, whispering in his ear. "We're asking the wrong kinds of questions: 'I' this, 'I' that . . . blah, blah, blah. They make us so preoccupied with ourselves, with taking our own temperature. God's made the children of Israel wander for forty years to teach them to look up, past the idol, past the leader ,up to Him. The children of Israel made the 'I' central. 'I'm hungry, I'm scared, I'm afraid.' He's trying to show them the 'I's' irrelevant. . . unless it is the I am. The I am takes care of the 'i'."
My ramblings stayed just between the two of us. It's not kosher to interrupt heartfelt sharings about personal inadequacy and about the fear of failure in comparison to others who haven't been asked to perform the task we have. (I understand why we do ask those "I" questions. Those questions keep us in the theoretical. They keep us from moving forward into failure. They also prevent us from actually finding out that we are inadequate.) But I went home thinking about fear and doubt, and about the rather irritating tendency I have to want to get it right all the time and how that hinders me.
Kevin and I have a comment we make when one of us does something that doesn't work out so well: "I was trying my best." It's funny now but wasn't always a source of humor. When we were first married, he would try and I would critique. His response to my criticism was "I'm trying my best." I would reply, only half in jest, "Well, your best obviously isn't good enough." I tried to explain that I wasn't saying he was a deadbeat, I was just saying that "that best" wasn't really working, so we needed to find another way to do things. He would look at me in disbelief with that hurt hardening in his eyes. What to do when your best is still not a passing grade? He struggled with disappointing me, with being found deficient in the face of his best effort.
It worked the other way as well. Morning intimacy was difficult for me. Kisses were out of the question. Nobody should want to share morning breath. No lover should realize the other produced morning breath. That sort of revelation is close to insurmountable. How can morning breath be loved? Nobody loves morning breath. It is fundamentally, at its very core, unloveable. To know that your body can produce such a smell and a taste and a furry sensation, and then to willingly pass that information along to somebody who's supposed to find your body pleasurable. Well . . .that whole concept was almost beyond me. I also didn't want to be measured, tasted, and found lacking.
It's that fear of failure, of being less than we dreamed we would be that stops us at the riverbank and makes us hesitate. What if, what if, what if?
Anne Lamott, one of my favorite voices, writes of giving a large, televised, presentation with Grace Paley, one of her mentors and role models. Anne suggested a more informal presentation style, sort of like a fireside chat, instead of the conventional reading of prepared speeches. The presentation failed spectacularly. Grace Paley's husband called it "a disaster." Anne felt the lifelong, deep fear of failure rise up to overwhelm her. After all, "if you are what you do--and I think my parents must have accidentally given me this idea--and you do poorly, what then?" In her hotel room after the presentation, she felt "stricken, and lurky and dark." She cried a little, then closed her eyes, bowed her head and whispered, "Help."
I'll let her her tell the rest in her own words:
Out of nowhere I remembered something one of my priest friends had said once, that grace is having a commitment to--or at least an acceptance of--being ineffective and foolish. That our bottled charm is the main roadblock to drinking that cool clear glass of love. . . . I do not understand the mystery of grace--only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us. It can be received grudgingly, in big gulps or in tiny tastes, like a deer at the salt. I gobbled it, licked it, held it down between my little hooves.Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies, pages 142-144.
The review in the newspaper the next day was not very good. But by then I'd figured out the gift of failure which is that it breaks through all that held breath and isometric tension about needing to look good: it's the gift of feeling floppier. One of the things I've been most afraid of had finally happened, with a whole lot of people watching and it had indeed been a nightmare. But sitting with all that vulnerability, I discovered I could ride it.
I do not know why life isn't constructed to be seamless and safe, why we make such glaring mistakes, things fall so short of our expectations, and our hearts get broken and our kids do scary things and our parents get old and don't always remember to put pants on before they go out for a stroll. I don't know why it's not more like it is in the movies, why things don't come out neatly and lessons can't be learned when you're in the mood for learning them, why love and grace come in such motley packaging. But I was reminded of the lines of D.H. Lawrence that are taped to the wall of my office: "What is the knocking?/What is the knocking at the door in the night?/ It is somebody who wants to do us harm./ No, no, it is the three strange angels./ Admit them, admit them.
And by the time I arrived in the second city where Grace and I would perform, I understood that failure is surely one of these strange angels.
I suppose one of the most liberating truths to settle into my life is the idea that despite my efforts, I will fail. Despite my very good intentions (I do have a good heart I've come to recognize), there will be days where it does not work as I had imagined. I will not be good at what I do. I will offend. I will tell one of my best friend's mother that her quote "big hair" unquote is blocking her husband's face in the family picture I was taking of them. And I will realize that this comment was probably quite rude, but only the next day, when Joyce is on her way back to Idaho without my apology. Despite my failure, I would never intend to offend or to drop the ark. It's just that sometimes, I do. Joyce knows that, and so does He.
If, as I stand at the river's edge, I acknowledge the odds are 2:1 I will slip in the silt that lines the river, or that my arms will cramp and I might drop the handle despite my best efforts to cradle it in the crook of my elbows, then I have no arm of flesh to rely on. My eyes and heart have to rise up past the handle, past the river bank, past the horizon stretching out toward the Promised Land. If I acknowledge I might/will fall, then the only place I can look is away from myself, up and out--where, we are promised, there will be a shadow by day and a pillar by night.
Having the certainty of failure fall into place in my personal theology allows for grace to become a part of my everyday life. Knowing that I will fail frees me up to act, to just walk forward--ineffectively perhaps. But, because I have moved, God can step in to close the gap between my intentful stumblings and His desires. Ultimately, the whole point of the Jordan River crossing is not that the ark get to the other side. He has wings of angels for that. The point is that I walk into the water. The ark is God's ark. The river is His river. If it matters to Him that the ark stay dry, He will take whatever measures He needs to make me--the imperfect vessel--capable to the task. If He doesn't care whether the ark is dry or wet, He'll keep me company, standing on His promise that "when thou passeth through the water, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee"(Isaiah 43:2) while I thrash around, flailing and failing my way to the other side. But I won't know that, I won't know that He does come to attend, until, hefting the weight of the wooden handles and feeling it settle into my shoulders, I step into the cold waters of my River Jordan.
Title: adaptation of Eric Hutchinson's, "Okay, It's Alright with Me." (I don't hear lyrics very well, so when I heard this song I thought he was saying Okay is alright with me. I'm keeping the malapropism for the title.)