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Jen Pollock Michel

( author + writer + speaker )

Filtering by Tag: failure

Calling and the Art of Sandcastles

Ryan got home last night from a four-day business trip. When his plane had landed and he'd caught a taxi, he texted to say that he was on of his way. "You OK?" he wanted to know. "Today's post was a sad one." He was of course referring to yesterday's blog post where I lamented that I was a failure and nothing but a failure. I know it may have been hard to read, but that was a good post to write - as many posts are. Having to pin words onto what would otherwise remain vague feelings is a really helpful exercise. And generally the whole routine just helps me see how ridiculous I can really be.

But on one final note of the whole "performance" dimension of calling, I wanted to post an illustration from Ian Falconer's ironic children's book, Olivia. I think it depicts what many of us feel - ok, maybe only me.

Olivia's gone to the beach with her family, and her mother has taught her to build sandcastles.

She got quite good. (The illustration is of Olivia's sandcastle - which is a replica of the Empire State building.)

I sometimes think that this is how I imagine my co-labor with God. He puts a bucket and shovel in my hands, and voilà. I'm building the Empire State building.

And of course the real irony is: it may be beautiful, and it may be impressive, but let's not ignore the simple fact that it could be a sandcastle.

It will not resist the reach of the tide.

"The grass withers, the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord stands forever."

The Scripture is pretty clear about the eternality of things. Human achievement and accomplishment, apart from Christ, are sandcastles: they go the way of summer's grass and flowers when the days shorten.

The purposes of God stand. His word is eternal.

And that's something to take with me into calling.

Failure may bruise, but it could be the severest of all mercies. It may be the only thing to warn me of self-congratulations on my sandcastles.



You Suck: "Tell me something I didn't know."

“Jen, were you up late last night with a sick child?” Arthur asks me this two days ago after ten minutes of our tennis warm-up. It’s my most miserable performance yet of my (very short) tennis career. Ball after ball either smashed into the net or sent sailing out of bounds.

I explain, as I chase (and miss) yet another ball that I am tired. I tell a story too long for his initial question, that two nights ago, I had stayed up too late. And apparently, making up for lost ground this morning, I slept through my alarm, waking to the terror of 7:10 a.m.

I want excuses for this morning’s spectacle of sluggishness, and I find myself giving them. The warm-up ends, and Arthur announces that we’re doing a more competitive drill.

The points stack up against me.

I am a big zero.

And not just at tennis apparently, but at writing. Last week, I spent an inordinate amount of time on one particular essay. Back and forth, I rallied with an editor. She generously tried to nudge me into clarifying the argument that I couldn’t seem to get right. “In one or two sentences, give me your thesis statement, and then write the essay with the intent that every sentence will illustrate some aspect of your thesis.”


The trouble certainly wasn’t that I didn’t know what to do. The trouble was that I was incapable of doing it.

I sent the essay back a third time, sure that I’d repaired its fatal flaws.

Since which time I have had no response, which I can only interpret to mean that the essay has not been resurrected. It still sucks.

And so do I.

I imagine you wanting to email me right now and reassure me that this isn’t the case. (You’re good like that.) And truthfully, I know it’s not the real truth of the matter. I do suck – but probably not as miserably as I might want, if only for today, to believe.

(A tangential note: I don’t usually use the word sucks, but today, it’s the only word to suit what I’m really feeling.)

So why is failure such a threat to me? I think that’s the kind of question my dear friends, Wendy and Kiernan, would ask. It’s a great discipleship question – it carries me beyond my simple, superficial conclusions about behavior; it prompts self-reflection and forces the whys. This is what any of us must ask if we really want to make any headway with recurrent patterns of sin.

Why? Why do I continually fall into this chronic pattern? What is it that drives this reflexive response? What comfort must I somehow find in doing this that feeds the action? Because the truth is, we wouldn’t keep doing it if it somehow didn’t either feel good or feel worthwhile.

I suck. This is immediately where I want to go today (and many days besides). And from here, I want to say: I give up.

I don’t like failing at the things I choose to do. And why? Is it an identity thing? I’m sure that’s part of it. Yes, I want you and every other audience member to think me spectacular and impressive. But I don’t think that’s the whole of it.

I also think (foolishly) that if God is going to call me to do something, the very least He owes me is the ability to do it well. The least He could do is make the time I spend doing it worthwhile. Is it so unreasonable to think He owes me success?

I have five children. I can't afford to be wasting time. And failure, as I have apparently concluded, is a waste of time.

Or is it? Why can’t I see that the essay I wrote last week, even if it never meets the light of public readership, helped me – if only me? Why can’t I believe that failure is meant for growing what I might need most of all for calling, not the least of which is humility? Why can’t I believe that failure is meant to nourish the critical, stubborn resolve to work hard and learn and practice? Failure can make me a better writer.

And failure can drive me deep into the grace of God, revealing just how subtly and stupidly I believe “success” credits me, rather than God. Failure is meant to remind me that calling is NOT ABOUT ME and my little silly reputation – but about God and the greater cause of His fame and renown.

Failure reminds me of how small I am in this big world – and how the God of the universe declares that, “My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purposes.” My failure does not impede the progress of God; neither does my success improve it.

I want to move beyond these myths of performance.

I want to believe deeply that I can freely fail and succeed at calling – and that both may be a part of God’s beautiful purposes for my life and for the world.

I want to remember that “the righteous fall seven times and rise again” (Prov. 24:16).

I want to remember that there are many, many things to which God has called me today, and though writing is a part of that, it is not the whole of it.

One essay sucked. Get over it. Get up. Life goes on, and the laundry is waiting for me. So too is the steadfast love of my Father, who never turns away His child, even those who’ve wandered so far from home and eaten pig slop rather than princely fare.

Oh, God, how is it that You are so good? That You require so little of me? Even nothing? That the gospel is such good news for those who wake up to the pressing needs of the world and whose resolve and abilities will fail them?

I suck.

Yeah - Tell me something I didn’t know.

Thanks be to God.






Celebrate Advent: Make room for failure. (Matthew 1:1-17)

The Bible is no storybook of heroes. Sure, there are the David-Goliath kinds of moments of bravery, and there are spit-fire prophets who defy kings and call fire from heaven. But those are the exceptions.

Most of the stories of the Bible are about ordinary people.

And when I say ordinary, what I really mean is screwed up. Inconsistent. Hypocritical. Selfish and mean.

The Bible bears out God's grand and heroic story of rescue in the lives of the un-extraordinary, on the stage of the screw-ups. Those are the names that figure into Matthew's genealogy.

Abraham, liar. Jacob, cheat. David, adulterer and murderer. Manasseh, worst of all Israelite kings.

All of them, good-for-nothings.

All of them, ancestors of the King.

The genealogy reads exactly as it should, a kind of neon advertisement for God: "Wanted: men and women who've screwed it up bad."

Today's word is failure.

Failure has NOT ONCE tied God's hands, leaving him pacing the floor about plan B. No, failure is always God's invitation to show up. Failure is precisely the way God gets credit for all that He's doing. Failure keeps us hungry for grace.

This Advent, I'm giving up on perfection and performance. For if Abraham and David, Jacob and Manasseh somehow made it into God's story, then there just might be hope for me.

Today's Advent invitation is to fail. Fall face first and prove just what a spiritual clutz you are. And there find the grace of the Jesus story.

How-to Friday: Find the Courage to Fail

Blogging was a good idea. For about five days.

Only four people knew that I was at it again. When I decided to close up shop and quit this whole blogging thing, I imagined my husband and three closest friends nodding knowingly. I had a track record for flings. My momentary crushes were familiar. And so was my cheating.

Then The Nester posted this video on her site, and I watched it early one Saturday morning as I leaned against the kitchen counter, water falling on burnt toast.

I decided that the coward in me was getting way too much airtime.

So what if I failed? And what was the point really? Hadn't I committed to this whole blogging thing as a way to grow as a writer? And sure, there would be days that the ideas would shrivel up, and the words would skip town, but the real trick was committing.

Practice. Experiment. Risk.

And find the courage to fail.