Sermon: Preparing to fail

This sermon was delivered at the First Parish in Needham, Mass., on Oct. 9.

You ever feel like a failure? I do. Every time I can’t get the blinds to go up, or I forget about something my wife asked me to do, or … well, you get the idea. These are little failures, sure, but I still wish I could get a handle on this – especially that blinds thing – we have these spring release ones, and every time it just zips out of my hand – nevermind, it’s beside the point.

I just don’t like failing. It’s frustrating to not be able to do something right the first time, and even more so not to be able to do it at all. It’s not enjoyable. But it’s my hope that all this failing I do has some greater purpose. I think it does.

I think failure is so important. There’s the obvious, in that failing can teach us a lot about what we’re trying to do, even if we’re unsuccessful. I love the story I told earlier about Thomas Edison. He was trying to make a better lightbulb – really, the first lightbulb that was in any way practical, since previous versions didn’t last more than a few hours – and so he tried over and over to find a filament that would provide a bright light when current was run through it, but would also last for a long time. He tried thousands of combinations of metals, of fibers, of you name it.

“Young man, why would I feel like a failure? And why would I ever give up? I now know definitively over 9,000 ways that an electric light bulb will not work. Success is almost in my grasp.” Thomas Edison

The solution came when he used a carbonized bamboo filament, an idea he had while fishing with bamboo poles. But it took, in the end, 10,000 failures to make one success. I totally understand that. You know where I most feel like a failure and where I most feel like failure just might be worth it? I wish it was something more profound than this, but it’s not. It’s when I play golf, something I haven’t done much of lately, sadly. I am not a good golfer. I hit 100 shots a round. Good players only hit 75 or 80. And my shots don’t go straight, usually, they don’t go far. They usually find the nearest bush to settle into and stay there, to be honest. But even if I hit 99 bad shots in a round – and I sometimes do – I have never gone an entire day without hitting at least one good shot. And oh, it feels so good. When the club hits the ball squarely and it rings through all through your body and the ball flies straight and true and goes where you want it to go, it’s amazing. It’s something I can barely even describe in words to you. Of course, the fact that this only happens once in a great while for me is sort of a shame.

This is why practice and preparation is so key. Practice makes perfect, they say. John Wooden, the legendary basketball coach, said that “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.” Preparation matters, which is probably a big reason why I’m such a terrible golfer. I don’t get much chance to practice or play. And if you don’t prepare yourself to play well by practicing, by getting better, you’re not going to play well. It’s not magic, after all. We all know this, and yet it’s so hard to convince ourselves of it sometimes. The importance of preparation hit home for me more than ever this summer, when I spent two weeks at Tsubaki Grand Shrine, a historic Shinto shrine in Japan. One of the most important rituals of Shinto is called misogi. Misogi is a purification ritual, if you have to reduce it to words. But it’s so much more than that, too. It is about preparing oneself to be purified. That sense of preparation is key to Shinto. There is a right way to do everything. One doesn’t just drink tea, one enters the teahouse in the proper way, one sits in the right place, eats a sweet cake, has the hand-prepared tea, thanks the tea house attendant, leaves in the proper way.

Misogi is no different. The waterfall is the home of the kami, Sarutahiko, the great spirit to whom the shrine is dedicated. Sarutahiko is the most powerful of the earthly kami, and he’s often depicted as a tall, powerful man with a long nose, clothed in leather and carrying a huge spear. The waterfall, whose water comes from above on the sacred mountain, is his home. As such, you have to purify yourself before you even go to the waterfall. The process is a sacred one. There are right things to wear: a loincloth for men, a simple robe for women, and headbands for both with a sacred symbol on them. A prayer of purification is performed in the shrine. After going outside, a series of physical exercises are performed, inviting energy into our bodies and cutting away impurities. My favorite part was forming a sword (the first two fingers of the right hand extended and held together) and literally cutting at the air while yelling as we removed our impurities. At the side of the waterfall, more preparation is necessary. A priest performs a ritual and prayer, then purifies the water with salt and sake (rice wine) by mixing them, then sipping the mixture and spewing it across the water. On my third time to do misogi, I got brave and asked more about this. Iwasaki-san, the priest, let me taste the mixture and spew it. It tastes terrible, believe me. But it’s a powerful gesture. Salt and sake are sacred to the Japanese, representing the ocean, food, and rice.

All of this is preparation for entering the waterfall. I stepped up into the ice-cold water, and it pounded down on me with hundreds of pounds of force. I forced my hands together, middle fingers pointed up in a sacred gesture, and shouted out the prayer: Harai tamai, kiyome tamai, rokkonshojo (roughly translated as “Purify my soul, wash my soul”) over and over, forcing the words to leave my mouth. It’s impossible not to be changed by that experience, to have the power of the water, the kami, the experience get into you. Stepping out is almost a letdown. You bow and clap to the waterfall, then bow to the shrine, and it’s done.

Shinto has something right in this. Preparing oneself is important, vital, even, to having a successful spiritual life. Too often, I have wanted to jump right into the water, so to speak, without preparing myself for the swim. We probably all have.

I have a greater fear, too, about this failure thing. I sometimes worry that I’m not prepared – and I don’t just mean about my golf game. I’m a big fan of being prepared, as I said – probably dates back to my days in the Boy Scouts, whose motto is, after all, Be Prepared. But preparation only matters if you’re preparing yourself for the right thing. It won’t help me be a better golfer to work if I’m working on my bowling skills.

The rich young man provides us a cautionary tale. In our reading earlier today, we met a rich young man who has observed all the rules and laws, done everything he think he’s supposed to do to be a good person and gain eternal life.

What must I do to inherit eternal life, he asks Jesus? I keep kosher, I honor my mother and father, I pray, I observe all the commandments, he says. I’m sure he helps old ladies cross the street, too.

Fair enough, Jesus says. There’s just one more thing. Uh-oh. I don’t know a lot, but I know that when Jesus says there’s just one more little thing he needs from you, it’s not going to be good news. So I always imagine the young man bracing himself when Jesus tells him there’s just one more thing. And he’s right to be concerned. The one thing Jesus asks of him is the one thing he won’t do – give his wealth to the poor and come follow Jesus. He goes away sad.

We can prepare all we want. We can get a job and make big money, we can buy a big house, take big vacations, buy the most expensive cars, get all the trappings of a successful life. But I wonder if we’re preparing to fail by doing so. If we’re not also caring for our neighbor, and caring for our own spiritual life, and trying to make a world that is better for all people, not just for ourselves, are we being successful? Or are we merely succeeding at the wrong things? Are we, like the young man, keeping all the commandments but not getting the real message.

We never find out the end of the rich young man’s story. There’s no epilogue that says he lived out the rest of his days with his wealth, in a mansion watching his workers bring in crops, or whatever. I like to think it goes differently. I like to think the rich young man is more like Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, billionaires who have made a pledge to give much of their wealth to charitable causes.

Maybe, just maybe, we can prepare ourselves to be successes at making the world a better place. With the right goals, plenty of failures from which to learn, and a healthy dose of determination, we can be people who make a difference in the lives of all people.

I believe this can happen, but it’s not going to be easy. We will fail. We must not let those failures deter us from what we know we must do – the work of our faith, the work of loving our neighbor and of creating the world we dream about. May it be so, and may all of us learn from our failures as we go forth in the world.

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