Embrace Your Weakness. Embrace Your Failure

Dave Dunn, Intern Minister
First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh
March 22, 2015

On March 12, 2013, I traveled to Boston to meet with the UUAs ministerial committee for a preliminary credentialing review. All UU ministerial aspirants must get approval from this preliminary committee before they can meet with the UUA’s final Ministerial Fellowship Committee upon completion of their seminary studies.

Although I was a bit nervous, I was actually a bit excited and eager to meet with this six person committee. I was eager to discuss with them my call to ministry. I was eager to share with them my passion for Unitarian Universalism and what it has meant for me and for my four children that I’ve raised UU. I was learning and growing. I was enjoying my seminary experience.

I felt that I was on the correct path regarding my ministerial formation and development. All signs seemed to be pointing in the right direction. Unfortunately, this committee felt otherwise. They believed that I was not pursuing my spiritual development as I had been advised to do previously by other UUA advisors. Although prior to this meeting, I had reconnected with my spiritual practices that I had let lapse during the busy-ness of seminary but that didn’t seem to satisfy this committee. They wanted to see something different. As a result, I was what they call “Postponed”…meaning I had to come back and see them again after a year’s time.

At first I was shocked – and it bit outraged. It just wasn’t fair! I was doing the things I was advised to do yet it was not what they were expecting. “Not fair!” I shouted.

Later, I just felt hurt – “crushed” would be a good word to describe it. Damaged.

I was thrust into the fire and burning coals of Rejection and Failure. I was shown my weaknesses and flaws and shown the door. Now that’s tough for anyone to take... and something I haven’t had to face too often in my life. For the most part in my life, I’ve been blessed with fortune rather than misfortune.

I work hard. I do my best. I’m very dedicated. I’m generally “all in” with the passions that I pursue…and I’m generally rewarded with the results I seek...except when I don’t. Sometimes life doesn’t seem to care. Fate, circumstance or bad luck gets in the way and blocks my path.

I’m the only one who experiences this right? It’s just me right. You too?

So what happens when you’ve failed? What happens when you’ve crashed and burned?

I lost my job. My business failed. I had to drop out of school. My marriage fell apart. I don’t know how to be a parent. I don’t know how to be a good son. I’m in way over my head. I don’t know what I’m doing.

Writer Thomas Moore talks about failure and inferiority. He writes:

In the context of the universe and all of nature, we are in fact quite inferior. We make mistakes, misspeak and misjudge, fail, fall down and fall apart. If we habitually disown this natural inferiority of the soul, then we will be condemned to bounce back and forth between pride and self-effacement. It makes psychological sense to affirm our inferiority, thus grounding our confidence in an accurate view of ourselves. Inferiority is only part of the picture, but to deny it is to set ourselves up for a lifetime of trying not to make mistakes and denying our faults.

Trying to live a life without failure; trying to live a mistake-free life; there is something kind of sad about that; don’t you think?

Now I’m going to try to paint a picture here...

Russian folklore analyst Vladimir Propp observed that many folktales have set motifs and follow familiar patterns. For instance, take a typical hero story. Propp noted that most hero folktales involve four basic elements.

  1. The hero goes on a journey of some sort
  2. The hero faces an opponent who seeks to thwart them
  3. The hero is aided by helpers
  4. The hero, after battling the opponent, is usually left with a brand or scar that they must live with for the rest of their lives.

Sound familiar? I mean this is Harry Potter 101. Harry leaves the Dursley’s home and journeys off to wizarding school at Hogwarts. At every turn he is confronted by Lord Voldemort, the one who shall not be named (or however they refer to him). Harry has his helpers, Ron, Hermione and the rest of the Gryffindors….and of course, from his initial encounter with Voldemort, he is left with a scar on his forehead.

I think Mr. Propp is onto something here.

Let’s look at the Biblical story of Jacob. He flees his brother Esau, from whom he stole his father Isaac’s inheritance, and is helped by his mother Rebecca and later by his wife Rachel when he is running away from his father-in-law. On his journey, he is visited by an angel or demon, we’re not sure just who, who wrestles with Jacob. Jacob ends up victorious but not without injury. As a result of the confrontation, Jacob’s hip is thrown out of joint indicating that he must walk with a limp for the remainder of his life. That’s Jacob’s scar.

We can be our own heroes. We can be the heroes to our own stories by trying to do our best to lead happy, healthy, fulfilling lives. But simply trying to be heroic in this way doesn’t mean that it is simply going to happen without bumps in the road – without brokenness. Being heroic comes at a price.

You must go on a journey. A journey could simply be a risk that you take. A metaphorical journey could be simply getting out of your comfort zone – exploring parts of yourself that are unknown to you – your growing edges. You will face opponents who will confront you….block your way. There will be people who will reject the new you – people who simply want you to be the person you’ve always been – and they’ll block your growth at every turn. And you may battle them. And sometimes you’ll lose. Sometimes you’ll be hurt. Sometimes you’ll be thrust into the fire and burning coals of Rejection and Failure. And you’ll have scars that no one can see because you’ll be cut and bleeding on the inside.

Since March 2013, not a day goes by when I don’t think about that preliminary interview. Not a day goes by. I have carried that failure, pain and rejection with me every single day. But I did something about it too. I “Cried Out In My Weakness.” I reached out to a formal spiritual advisor, Kathleen Rolenz, co-minister at West Shore Unitarian in Cleveland, who has been helping me along my path. I reached out to my former minister at Sunnyhill Jay Abernathy who coached and guided me. And I reached out to my teaching pastor David Herndon who I’ve been meeting with monthly since that time.

These three have been invaluable to me. Holding me up at times, guiding me, inspiring me to keep my eyes on the prize and that although I’d lost a battle I needn’t lose the war.

On Nov 4, 2014, a year and a half after my initial visit with the UUA’s preliminary credentialing committee, I was given the thumbs up by that same committee. Regardless of how just or unjust I felt that particular committee to be, regardless of whether or not I felt that they were right or wrong, regardless of the pain that it caused me, their initial rejection of me and the hurt that followed will make me a better minister….it will make me a better minister. That I know. That is undeniable. Since that failure, there has been a focus, an edge, I wouldn’t have otherwise.

This is one of my scars. Maybe it was meant to be this way though. Artist Agnes Martin writes:

Of all the pitfalls in our paths and the tremendous delays and wanderings off the track I want to say that they are not what they seem to be. I want to say that all that seems like fantastic mistakes are not mistakes, all that seems like error is not error; and it all has to be done. That which seems like a false step is the next step.

Yes. That which seems like a false step is the next step. And as our Share the Plate speaker said last week, “It’s not how we fail, it’s how we rise.”

I am not unique however. We all must carry our failures and pain, but what is it that makes us think that we must carry them alone? Who are our helpers? Who are your helpers? Eventually, if I am so lucky, I hope to serve a UU congregation as its called minister. It is also my hope to serve a congregation that embraces its weakness; whose members name and embrace their failures and brokenness. How can we help if you hold back? Name your weakness. Think about it this way. Do it for the person sitting next to you. Do it for me. Let me help you in your vulnerability, let me help make you whole so that when I fall, you’ll be standing to pick me up. Think of it. With that as our base, just imagine what we could build. With fear of failure and weakness removed from our way of being together, just imagine what we could build.

I was at a board meeting recently where the leadership of a particular committee came to the board and simply said, “We’re exhausted. We’ve tried everything. Nothing seems to be working. We’ve given all the blood and sweat we can give and there’s none left. We need help. We need new blood. We need to go in a new direction. We don’t know what to do anymore.”

What a refreshing admission! They’re raising a white flag. They have a sense of healthy surrender but they didn’t have to do this. They could have kept trudging along, not saying anything and their future results would likely be predictably poor.

Now, there is still no guarantee of success, but there is possibility of re-invention. We can begin to build a new way.

Baseball season is right around the corner. And I am so looking forward to watching baseball on warm summer nights while munching ona pile nachos and with tons of jalapenos. They say that hitting a 100 mph baseball that is dipping and diving is perhaps the hardest thing to do in all of sports. What the legendary Yankees manager Joe Torre said about hitting is good advice for us all. He said...

There’s a certain free-fall you have to go through when you commit yourself without a guarantee that it’s always going to be good. ... Allow yourself to be embarrassed. Allow yourself to be vulnerable.”

I heard a quote somewhere once, a quote that I haven’t forgotten, “Anything worth doing, is worth failing at.”

So, allow yourself the gift of embracing your own failure; embracing your own vulnerability. Cry out in your weakness. Let us help you…and please help me. Allow your failure and disappointment to chisel your resolve. Let it be the fiery furnace and burning coals to forge your true being and push you deeper toward your true calling. To the person you were born to be.

May it be so.

Come to be moved and held in mutual embrace. Come and be made whole.
First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh
605 Morewood Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15213
(412) 621-8008     Map and directions
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