Kids and parents arrive for a new and exciting Advent Workshop that’s been promoted and advertised. But what they find is not so exciting—only a couple of tables with craft projects set on them. Along the walls of the room are boxes full of other materials.
Whoever initiated and advertised this project forgot something pretty essential: planning. Many of us who have found ourselves in similar situations have learned pretty quickly how important it is to create an overall plan, a list of supplies, a cohort of volunteers, and a careful timeline. In this case the mistake is obvious, the fix is easy, and the learning immediate.
Other mistakes may take a longer time to discover. In the first church I served, one of my goals was to visit all of the youth and their parents in their homes. The youth group leaders and parents were enthusiastic. “Just drop by anytime,” many of them said to me. I was sure that no one meant that literally, because in the region of the country where I had been raised, no one ever “dropped in” unannounced. So, I set about making phone calls and setting up appointments.
The visits went reasonably well, but conversations seemed stiff. I finally asked one leader for some feedback. “Well,” she said, “around here, people like it when you drop by. That’s what neighbors do. When you make an appointment, it feels like you aren’t one of us.” The problem was that I didn’t understand the culture of the community. Instincts that served me well in other settings didn’t work in my new community, and I needed to learn new ways. I also needed to get past my embarrassment and start over.
Learning to identify our mistakes or failures is a mark of growing maturity in our professions. What we thought at one time was an acceptable level of performance may turn out to be less than adequate as our understanding grows over time. As we learn how much more is possible, we set higher standards and more ambitious goals. As we work with others and let them mentor us, we learn better ways to communicate and more effective ways to build relationships.
Often a bigger challenge than identifying our mistakes is moving past regret and shame. It’s so easy to list all the things we wish we had done differently, the things we overlooked or neglected to do, the serious errors in judgment. What is not always so easy is accepting forgiveness and moving on.
Each week in most Presbyterian and Reformed congregations, the order of worship includes a corporate prayer of confession and assurance of pardon. As we prepare to hear God’s Word, we are invited to examine the things we have done and the ways of the world in general that separate us from God. Then, we are invited to hear and believe good news: in Jesus Christ, we are forgiven! When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we ask God to forgive our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Being forgiven and forgiving are at the core of Christian worship and our relationship with God.
Presbyterians and other Reformed Christians also emphasize that the forgiveness we receive from God is a free gift. We have done nothing to earn it–in fact, we cannot earn it. We don’t have to prove that we have rid ourselves of a sin in order to be forgiven of it. We confess and put ourselves at God’s mercy. But God’s mercy is already there even before we ask for it. Indeed, because it is God’s nature to be merciful, slow to anger, and full of steadfast love, we are able to admit where and how we are broken.
The problem is that sometimes church professionals have a hard time trusting this or believing that it applies to them. Many of us repeat the maxim: “Pray as though everything depends on God. Work as though everything depends on you.” The problem is, we forget the first and live the second. We do not always trust God’s mercy and grace, and we hold ourselves completely responsible for all outcome–especially when things don’t go well.
Trusting in the grace and mercy of God does not eliminate the negative consequences of mistakes, especially the serious ones. If we have violated a confidence or played favorites or lashed out in anger at someone else, there are consequences, and we need to make amends. But we do this not in order to earn God’s forgiveness; we do this in response to divine mercy.
To learn from mistakes (especially big and consequential ones), we first of all need to know deep within that we are forgiven and that God accepts us just as we are. Then we are free to accept the consequences, to do what we can to make amends and set ourselves on a new and different path. New life in Jesus Christ is a lifelong journey of learning, and it begins with accepting the fact that God in Jesus Christ has accepted us–has reconciled us, has made us new people.
We are not yet perfect, but we are becoming who God intends us to be as we receive the gift of grace every day. Letting go of those things for which we have already been forgiven is the first step to genuine learning.
Cynthia Campbell is the pastor of the Highland Presbyterian Church, Louisville, Kentucky, and president emerita of McCormick Theological Seminary, Chicago. She currently serves on the Commission on Ministry for the Presbytery of Mid-Kentucky and as a member of the Board of the Presbyterian Publishing Corporation.