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Failure Isn't Final

Last week, I was listening to Kai Ryssdal interview Chris Meledandri on NPR.  Kai Ryssdal is the financial news reporter for NPR, but he sometimes goes beyond the dollars and cents into the stories behind big success and big failure.  That's what led him to talk with Chris Meledandri.  You probably haven't heard of Chris's name before, but I guarantee you have heard about the movies that Chris has helped produce.  And all I need to prove my point is one word:

Minions.

That's right.  Chris is the president of 20th Century Fox Animation studios, and in that role he has had a number of successes - none larger than the Despicable Me series that has launched a global brand and made little yellow creatures the glee and delight of toddlers the world over.  The thing is the Despicable Me series wasn't even his first hit.  He was also instrumental in getting Ice Age and Ice Age 2 into theaters and - subsequently - into the hearts and minds of children.  All told, he has easily made his bosses at 20th Century Fox Animation well over a billion dollars through the years, including the ever thrifty Rupert Murdoch himself,

However, it wasn't the discussion of Chris's successes that left an impression on me.  It was when talk turned to his failure, and boy was it a big one.

20th Century Fox Animation was entirely new when Chris stepped into the president's chair, and as such, he had a steep hill to climb.  Going up against the vastly popular films of a relatively young animation studio called Pixar and the industry's golden standard, Disney, Chris needed his first few films to make a big splash.

Well, they did.  Unfortunately, the big splash was a huge flop.  The second film Chris was involved in was something called Titan A.E., a space film full of adventure and including such marquee names as Matt Damon and Drew Barrymore.  Nothing, though, could save this sinking ship.  All told, Titan A.E. ended up costing Fox Animation around $100 million.

$100 million dollars.

Kai Ryssdal couldn't help but ask, "What was that like?"  Now, I'm certain Chris - like most of us - wanted to spin this news in a more positive way, but he didn't back away from the question at all.  Instead, he said:

It is exceedingly lonely. The best part about it is that for me, I had lived with the perception that a massive failure would actually kill me and I realized that I was still breathing in the aftermath and there was actually something strangely inspiring about that. - Chris Meledandri, from NPR's Marketplace 1/4/16

First of all, I appreciated that he didn't try to hide from the awfulness of failure.  Now well removed from the failure (again, Minions), the way Chris spoke about this failure made it clear that it had left it's mark.

But, what he learned after the failure is the true gold in this interview.  He learned that his failure didn't kill him, and that there was still ... wait for it ... life after a type of death.  The worst of his fears had come true:  inescapable failure, public disgrace, bad publicity.  Yet, his life wasn't over.

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If we are honest, a great many of us are severely worried about some type of failure in our life.  It might be directly tied to our work, some impending deadline we know we are not going to meet.  But, it can just as easily be something more abstract.  Say, for instance, a type of family expectation we carry about the type of spouse or mother we are supposed to be.  And the prospect of failing - whether we're talking about a quarterly sales report or to be good enough husband - looms like Judgment Day.  We fear it is out there.  We hope it won't be for us.

But what if it were possible to find a place where we could remember that our failures will not define us?  What if it were possible to work in an environment where a big loss does not have to mean the end of a job?  What if we could find a place where the fear of failure drives everything?

Do you know what is so sad about those last three questions?  There is a place that is supposed to be exactly like that.  In its original intent and nature, Jesus's band of followers, that group we call Church, was a group not defined by its failure, but by its ability to move forward after failure.  In fact, it's very DNA in some ways was about the "inspiration" that occurred after their individual and corporate failure.  Each and every last one of them had failed to stay by Jesus's side.  Each and every one of them flopped seriously and significantly.  But, as lonely and as awful as that time of failure and loss was, it became a preface to a whole new way of seeing their life and the world around them.

The same can be said for almost any of the major stories in the Bible.  Moses fails to live into his identity as a solid leader for his people, fails so miserably in fact that he shuffles off into the desert to tend sheep for his father-in-law.  David squanders such a promising young career.  Paul seems to waste the great education his parent's worked so hard to provide.  Failure after failure after failure.  Yet, what defines the characters of the Bible are not their flaws, but God's great desire to overcome their previous losses by bringing forth unimaginably good futures and fortunes.

In fact, as ludicrous as this is to say, so many times the best part of living couldn't even take place until after the failure.  In fact, as mysterious as it is, Jesus's own life wasn't really fulfilled until it had traveled through failure.

The Church should be the one place where we embody and keep this fresh in our mind.  No doubt, we try to keep this truth before us.  We try, but it's just so hard.  No sooner do we come through some failure and find gratefully that it is not the end of our life that we feel we've got to protect ourselves from the next failure.  We feel we've got to prove to others that we are stronger, more righteous persons now.  This is where we move out of faith and grace and into the business of religion.  Grace reminds us that our failures will not be final, but we return to religion thinking this can't be true.  We've got to show others that "last time" was just a slip-up.  It wasn't like us.  So, we strive to be successful and keep failure at bay.  What we fail to remember is that the more we strive not to fail the more we are keeping God's deeper work at arms-length.  We may not feel very inspired or take great risks in love and creativity, but - gosh, darn it - at least I didn't have a huge flop!

The New Year presents new opportunities.  Perhaps, most graciously, it presents us with new opportunities to succeed ... but also to fail!  Perhaps, this year we can begin to see failure not as our worst enemy, but as a none-too-pleasant companion of truly living.

So take great leaps in faith this year.  Take them in service to God and for others.  Take them knowing you might walk right off the ledge ... and you may fall.  It might be a spectacular and lonely thing that you do.  But, you might also find that beyond the failure, there is still life.  There is new life, a life that you couldn't have imagined without moving beyond your fear of failure.

Wes

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