They made a movie about it; they called it, “Apollo 13.” The film dramatized the heroic and herculean efforts by the ground and space crews to get three astronauts home after a malfunction that cost the Apollo 13 crew their moon landing and had real potential to kill them outright or leave them stranded to slip into a deep and cold space death.
When confronted with the breadth of multiple systems failures, Ed Harris, portraying Gene Kranz, the NASA Flight Director, crisply insists that “Failure is NOT an option.”
Ironically, the words actually came from the “Apollo 13” script writer, Bill Broyles, and not Gene himself. Kranz later adopted the phrase (which certainly characterized the NASA mindset…and his own), and used it as the title for his autobiography.
But, with respect to Gene, it is actually the case that failure is, not only an option, but an all too frequent reality for many, many, many, maybe most, perhaps all.
I was still in high school and was, ahem, “mastering” piano playing of the: you-can-be-in-a-party-band-and-plunk-chords-but-don’t-get-any-professional-real-musician-ideas kind of way. My piano teacher had been offered a gig at a small honkytonk in Vermont. He was not available, so he offered me the gig. Problem: they did not have a piano; they had a two manual (read keyboard) Hammond B3 organ instead.
Now, I had seen Hammond organs before and heard some folks who could play really well, but I WAS NOT ONE of them. I had never, ever even actually sat down at an organ to try to play. When I mentioned this to my piano teacher (who was, in the “by the way” department) COMPLETELY AWARE of this, he said (and I quote because the entire episode is seared in that part of my memory labeled, “trauma”), “No problem; come on over this afternoon and I’ll run you through the basics and you’ll be fine.”
Assuming he knew what he was talking about, I went to his studio and sat with him for (another “ahem”) WHOLE thirty minutes, during which I apparently grasped organ playing to a degree he thought would bode success way up there in Vermont honkytonkdom. Vainly trying to adopt his confidence (but not his skill…really and truly), I got in the car for the two-hour trip to the aforementioned honkytonk.
[Aside number one: assuming you can play the organ because you play the piano and they both have keyboards is like assuming you can drive a tandem tractor trailer rig for UPS because you drive a car and the car and the truck both have tires.]
[Aside number two: this was before they had “The Voice” or any of the other searching-for-new-talent-because-there-is-a-worldwide-shortage-of-superstars shows. I suppose there could be a show called “The Organ” but I’m confident too many people would get exactly the kind of wrong idea you’re getting right now.]
I got to the honkytonk. I took my place at the organ on what passed for a stage. I went on at 8:00 p.m. I left at 8:25 p.m. During the intervening 25 minutes I slaughtered several songs–killed them dead, dead, dead–mashing them into unrecognizable pseudo zombie songs; notes falling off like appendages from the undead.
Faux music was flung from the defenseless Hammond B3 by the sad combination of my less-than-novice organ playing and my mist-like confidence that vaporized when a honkytonk patron said (upon sighting this then skinny high school kid with his BIG FAKE BOOK of music), “Do have any idea what you’re doing? We’re partial to GOOD music here. You don’t look like you know what you’re doing. Get me another beer!” [That last part was aimed at the barkeep.]
After 25 minutes of organ-based torture (since outlawed by the Geneva Conventions), the honkytonk proprietor (who was kind of nice enough but insistent…really, absolutely insistent) said (again, words seared into the previously mentioned trauma memory section), “You can go now; we’ll just drop quarters in the juke box. You wanna donate some quarters?” [I made up that bit about him wanting me to donate quarters…but with the look on his face, I could tell he wanted me to feed the jukebox on my way out.]
Failure is most certainly an option. Since the “organ episode,” I’ve had a not exceptional, but successful military career, been moderately effective in the classroom, had an advancing business-world effort as a health care administrator, and, in my primary vocation, pastored not “mega,” but certainly (except for one purposeful “church hospice” experience) churches that moved in forward directions (by those things we can measure). Some super sweet kids and a terrific wife and blessingly adorable grandkids round out the resume. [I know, these should have been first on the list…mark my list making fail as yet another, ummmm, failure.]
Now, I am beginning to feel “failure” again on the horizon. It seems tantalizingly close by. It is stalking me–I see its shadow and its reflective glimpse when I turn quickly. But this time with much bigger stakes. And it scares me…really scares me.
And it raises so many questions.
After mustering experience-based wisdom and genuinely seeking God’s heart and plans and purposes for my enterprise, what if I fail?
Or, can it not be failure and still look like failure?
And, where is God in the middle of the failures? Are they lessons in humility? If so, why do so many other people have to be affected or tainted by my failed effort? I am most certainly handicapped by lack of eternal perspective in moments of failure.
And, how much of our failures are we supposed to own? Because, honestly, my tendency is to own all of it–even those pieces well outside my illusory control. But if I haven’t purposed to fail (and who, in their right mind, would), then it seems as if failure is a divinely permitted dagger aimed straight at the core of my spirit.
And I know that God is sovereign and that we are called to live by faith and not sight. But how much faith? And is any sight permitted in the process? No sight? Never? Never ever?
And I know that conflating what we do (for good or ill) with who we are is always problematic. Lean in one direction and you get pride; lean in the other and you get despair. Traveling the road of pride is a recipe for disaster; taking the byway of despair drains one’s physical, emotional, and spiritual energy.
I could (and do) run to the scriptures in these moments…but is there anyone else who is left unsatisfied with the delayed response that they most always offer? I know I’m not supposed to think that or (certainly not) say it out loud. But there it is. How many “somedays” and “perseverances” and “patiences” is one soul called upon to endure?
And I know that this feels like a little (ok, maybe a very lot) of whining when people around the world lose their lives or their livelihoods for their faith. But it is real; it is here; it is scary.
Failure is most certainly an option, Gene. When I am on the cusp of one, I struggle with all of the above and more…and I do not know what to make of it. Do you?
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