Unexpected Gifts: Discovering the Way of Community
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Failure

The Patches Make It Beautiful

The spiritual journey is not a career or a success story. It is a series of humiliations of the false self that become more and more profound.

—Thomas Keating

Lots of communities talk a good game about grace and acceptance, but when one of their celebrated members messes up, you find out how much they really understand grace. How a community handles failure—the failure of the group or the shortcomings of an individual member—demonstrates more than anything the strength of that community. And nothing can destroy a community faster than a spectacular failure handled poorly.

BRING ON THE PATCHES

My favorite part of every Sari Bari blanket is the patches.

Sari Bari is a small-business initiative that seeks to secure freedom and restoration in the red-light areas of Kolkata, India. It offers dignity-ascribing employment opportunities to women exploited by the commercial sex industry.

The name Sari Bari comes from two symbols. A sari, the traditional garment worn by Indian women, seen by some as oppressive, is an image of what can be reclaimed in a new way. In Bengali, the word bari means “house” or “home.” Sari Bari is a safe home where women who have been exploited in the sex trade can find their humanity restored and experience a new life in the making.

Something that appears used up, discarded, valueless is artfully transformed into something beautiful—even more, something valuable.

Women are trained to make beautiful quilted blankets, scarves, and purses and then offered jobs in the Sari Bari community centers as a way out of prostitution. The products they sell are made from old, recycled saris, a symbol of restoration. Tossed-aside or thrown-away saris are recovered and cleaned. Something that appears used up, discarded, valueless is artfully transformed into something beautiful—even more, something valuable.

These products symbolize restoration. The process is a prophetic image of what the Sari Bari community is doing within the sex trade—allowing women who have been victimized and abused to recover their true identity.

A common psychological coping mechanism of those who experience prolonged sexual abuse and trauma is creating false identities, or alter aliases, that they hide behind. Most of my friends who are forced to sell sex usually use a false name when they are working, names such as “Pinky” or others that clearly aren’t the names they were given by their families. As a form of self-preservation, they externalize those aliases so that the abuse and exploitation they experience happen to their alter personalities and not to who they truly are.

In the early stages of Sari Bari’s development, Sarah Lance, the project director, gathered all the women together to admire the beauty of their work. She held up some of the blankets and drew attention to each as an exquisite piece of art. Explaining that artists sign their name to their work, Sarah asked the women if they’d like to begin sewing signature tags on each of the blankets they made. The women agreed. When asked what name they’d like to use, in a surprising eruption of grace, nearly every woman chose her real name—the precious name given to her as a baby girl.

Reclaiming their names is a significant component to the slow and patient work of healing, to the journey toward true identity.

A few years ago, Louie Giglio, Chris Tomlin, and others involved in the Passion Movement included Sari Bari in their “One Million Can” campaign. They identified eight organizations they thought were doing important justice-related work in the world, and while on tour, the Passion musicians invited one million college students to give at least one dollar each to make the world a better place. Chris Tomlin had a tour stop in Omaha, so we took him out for lunch.

Our community gave him a Sari Bari blanket as a thank-you gift for the advocacy work he had done on behalf of the women. He was kind enough to invite me to his show later that night. The energy was great—an electrifying light show with huge video screens and amazing music. Toward the end of the night, Chris dialed things down and set aside his guitar. He stood alone center stage, with a single spotlight shining on him. Behind a microphone, he gently held up his new Sari Bari blanket and began telling the sold-out arena the story of the Sari Bari women. He shared about the aliases the women took as means of coping with the horrific abuse they experienced every day. As he reflected on how the women each had chosen her given name to put on her work, he searched for the signature tag on his blanket. Upon discovering it, he said, “And this one, this blanket, was made by a woman named Mukti.”

Surrounded by thousands of people in that packed auditorium, I suddenly felt alone.

I began to sob.

For much of her life, Mukti has been held captive in the small prison of her brothel room. Forced to have sex with as many as ten to fifteen men a day, she has been called awful, unspeakable things. But that night, somewhere in mid-America, her name was spoken of with honor and respect. Love was extended to her, and her story of grace and restoration was an invitation to worship.

A few weeks later I was back in Asia and recounted the story for the Sari Bari project director. She told me that in Hindi, mukti means “freedom.”

Mukti, a woman named “freedom.” We fight for the freedom of our friends enslaved in the sex trade, and Mukti’s namesake inspires us to carry the struggle forward, especially when life gets difficult. Especially when the unexpected happens.

Freedom is beautiful, but, like all things, it has a dark side. Though hard to believe, some of the women we’ve worked with end up going back into prostitution. This is often the case with those who have been institutionalized, incarcerated, or systematically held in bondage for long periods of time. Their captivity ends up becoming an experience of security. In such situations, we all desperately need one another.

Freedom is beautiful, but, like all things, it has a dark side.

Each woman who lives into the gift of her freedom needs the others in her community. Every day the Sari Bari community comes together to create beauty. The blankets they stitch are vibrant, colorful works of art. I’m always drawn to the blankets that are saturated with oranges and reds, but regardless of the color of the blankets, the delicate little squares of sari material sewn on each quilt never fail to catch my eye.

Stitched onto every blanket, if you look hard enough, you’ll discover tiny patches cut out of the same material the sari quilt is made from. Some of the little patches are intricately sewn so that the pattern of the quilt lines up perfectly with the pattern on the patch. Other times, the patches stand out, a bold statement of color that enhances the quilt’s design.

Generously added to some, sparingly on others, these little patches add a gorgeous layer of texture.

One day while with the women, sitting on the floor of one of the Sari Bari community centers, I was admiring their work and pointing out the patches, trying to communicate how beautiful I found them. Upendra, one of the English-speaking staff, overheard my fumbling attempt to get my ideas across and helped translate. He laughed out loud when he understood what I was trying to say.

He explained that each finished blanket is washed before being packaged. After they’ve been washed and dried, there’s a quality-control check before they’re shipped. It turns out that the patches aren’t added to make the blankets more beautiful but to cover the flaws and tears on every qui< they’re an inevitable part of recycling and restoring each sari blanket.

Even more ironic, the women hate having to go back and repair their work. The patches are time-consuming and tedious. Yet it’s the patches that make the quilts so beautiful and unique.

As is the case with us. In our own freedom, we still go about making mistakes, disappointing ourselves and others, living with guilt, shame, regret, or fear that the consequences of our worst moments will catch up to us. Many of us have a hard time accepting the flawed parts of ourselves when we’re alone—a struggle that’s even more difficult when we’re in community.

SURPRISED BY FAILURE?

Every community is, at one time or another, plagued by failure. We all know that. So why are we surprised when people fail?

Why are we surprised when people fail?

In my own community we routinely find ourselves wading through the murky waters of failure, navigating our way forward in grace while trying to retain high standards. The very things that make us great at what we do often have a shadow side. Many of us find that disturbing, yet if we are to receive the gifts of our vocations and benefit from the best of what our humanity has to offer, we must acknowledge our propensity to make great mistakes.

In true community, it’s vital to create a culture that embraces failure as part of our journey. That we keep on. Stumbling forward. Knowing we’ll fail but failing toward grace. More than that, though, we need to know how to respond when failure comes. Too often in community, our response is less than grace-filled.

Usually it’s a lot more grumpy and unaccepting than we’d hope.

If we can’t give ourselves grace, we often won’t let ourselves receive God’s grace. When we don’t love ourselves, we can’t forgive ourselves. When we can’t forgive ourselves, we don’t let God forgive us.

Some of us feel that God can’t or won’t forgive us for some of our worst moments. I can’t count the times I’ve felt as though I needed to plead and plead with God for forgiveness—even when I believe that God’s already forgiven me. Painful parts of my past and present seem to haunt me, and I let myself think that God still looks on with unfavorable resentment. But it’s not that God isn’t forgiving us.

The problem is that we’re unable to accept and forgive ourselves.

Here’s the thing, though: if we’re not failing once in a while—or for some of us, all the time—odds are good that we’re not living a life that presses us into the possibilities and risks necessary to grow into the people we want to become. If we haven’t failed, we won’t know how to handle someone else’s failure, making us harder to be trusted during some of the most fragile and vulnerable periods in people’s lives.

To be in community, you must be authentically human. Being authentically human means you will fail.

FAILING WITH FAILURE

Handling failure is sometimes harder than recovering from it.

In my experience, when folks are asked if people are generally good or bad, most Christians respond “bad” while most nonreligious people say “good.” On a fundamental level, this speaks to our perspective on the nature of humanity. Our view of the inherent evil or benevolence of people is reflected in how we respond to our own and others’ failures.

These assumptions also have a great deal of power over how we accept people in their failures. Peter Rollins writes about this in terms of our trajectory from belonging to belief to behavior.

When a child is born into a family, she belongs; she is part and parcel of the home. When she is a vulnerable baby, there really is not much she can do to separate herself from the parents who conceived or adopted her. As she matures, she begins to adapt to the expectations of her family, learning to behave appropriately and live within the rules of her home. When she disobeys she may be punished, but she still belongs. It’s not until she grows up that she comes into conflict with the beliefs of her parents, grappling with those values and coming to terms with her own.

However, even the most accepting communities, especially those who use family as a metaphor for what they desire to become, turn the belonging-behavior-belief continuum around.

To belong to many communities, especially Christian communities, requires a commitment to belief. Though disagreeing on subjective beliefs such as issues of faith should lead us to deeper levels of trust, disagreement too often introduces exclusion in many religious communities. However, if you do happen to believe the “right” things, you are expected to demonstrate the integrity of your beliefs through proper behavior. Once you’ve believed and proven you’re able to adhere to behavioral expectations, you finally belong. So although community should be the place where we address our failures, communities often reject those who fail.

The most tragic stories of failure usually focus more on a community’s mishandling of the failure than the failure itself.

However, the most tragic stories of failure usually focus more on a community’s mishandling of the failure than the failure itself.

Shortly after graduating from college, Caleb, a close friend I looked up to, made some awfully messy mistakes. Allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced from both men and women. There were also accusations of financial misappropriation. Questions even emerged about the authenticity of his faith. People I hadn’t heard from in years were calling me, detailing shocking accounts and stories unfit to repeat. From all sorts of random places and people, his trail of shortcomings caught up to him. But the biggest failure wasn’t Caleb’s; it was that those who were hurt, disappointed, or angry didn’t approach Caleb directly. Rather, they brought their concerns to me.

How did I respond? The more information I received, the worse and worse things seemed. I didn’t know what to do. Incredibly disappointed myself, I penned one of the cruelest letters I’ve ever written in my life. I compiled the accusations, neatly structuring them in topical order, starting with the lesser sins and ramping up to a heartless crescendo of judgment toward his most humiliating failures. I signed my name and sent the letter off. Not only that, but I cc’ed copies of the letter to a number of Caleb’s closest friends (for the sake of accountability, of course).

At the time, I thought I was doing the right thing—the right thing for him and the right thing to appease my own value commitments. Now, though, I look back on that letter with profound regret. It was one of the worst things I could have done to him. I failed my friend in his failure, in his most vulnerable moment. I held my beliefs over Caleb’s belonging and used his inability to live up to my standards as an excuse to exclude him. I demonstrated fidelity to a set of behavioral expectations rather than taking the opportunity to love. If I’m honest, I had been unable to extend grace to myself for my own failures, so I wasn’t able to extend grace to him, either.

Fast-forward several years, and I suddenly found myself bumping around the bottom of my own life, my own failures. I lost my way. I lost myself. I gave up on the notions of my ideals. The standards I had held against others crashed down on my own head, and in the rubble of my life, I was broken.

Thankfully, friends rushed in to help me. People in my own community reached out, lifted me up. To my great surprise, grace was offered as I confessed my failures and did my best to find a way forward in them and through them.

In a loving response, most of my friends didn’t mash me deeper into my failures, overidentifying who I am as a person with my actions. They talked me through the pain. They offered hope. They gave me the courage and hope that I would find my way back, that even if I failed again, those things wouldn’t define me. They were patient, giving me time to grieve, confess, and mourn the consequences of my mistakes. When I was at my lowest, they climbed down with me and helped me up.

In true community, failures give us the chance to choose people over principles.

Years earlier I had thought my principled stand with Caleb was justifiable. But suffering the consequences of my own failures illuminated in deeply personal ways the real failure I had made years before, opting to cling to expectations or a love of my sense of moral conduct over the basic human call to love one another.

When I held my expectations over Caleb, I demonstrated a love of my set of beliefs and acceptable behaviors—making rules the subject and people the object, using rules as a standard for belonging.

But that’s not the way of true community. In true community, failures give us the chance to choose people over principles.

Communities don’t fail when they experience failure. The real and lasting failure comes when we use our broken and wounded members’ mistakes to control them. When we do that, we perpetuate the strangling nature of failure, using someone’s behavior to stoke the fires of shame, guilt, humiliation, fear, disappointment, or resentment.

God doesn’t use shame, guilt, humiliation, fear, disappointment, or resentment to motivate us or discipline us. Those are forms of emotional manipulation and abuse. They are punishment, not discipline.

Discipline is restorative and redemptive; punishment is dangerous and retributive. When we don’t handle failure well, we push people away. We add to the shabby scaffolding of fear that keeps those closest to us from feeling the safety of confession.

I was wrapping up a breakout session at a large Christian music festival. The venue was a large circus tent; close to four hundred people had come to hear me speak about one of my books, Friendship at the Margins. After completing my talk, I had a little time at the end of the presentation for some Q&A. The first hand that shot up belonged to a young man, probably thirteen or fourteen years old. I anticipated what his question might be, but I—along with the rest of the crowd—was stunned when he made a brief and direct statement: “I’m addicted to pornography.”

Discipline is restorative and redemptive; punishment is dangerous and retributive.

It wasn’t a question per se but a statement of confession begging for help. The vibe in the tent shifted. My talk had been on mission among populations of desperately poor people, so his confession seemed disconnected from the flow of the breakout session. You could almost hear the gasps of people who were shocked, taken aback by the young man’s statement. Side glances darted in his direction, some communicating disgust or disapproval.

I looked the student in the eyes and thanked him for his honesty. And I meant it. I told him it had taken a lot of courage to share that with so many. I offered to find someone there for him to talk with, and after the session we did exactly that. But even now, several years later, my heart goes out to that kid and so many others like him. To those who feel so desperate, so afraid, that they’re compelled to confess their most intimate struggles to a crowd of strangers.

Why does it feel easier to share our personal failures with strangers rather than our closest friends? We need support in our failures, and we need our communities to be safe places in which to find it.

SUPPORTIVE, NOT SURPRISED

It takes a mature community to create the safe space where being honest is the expectation.

We’re not as bad as our worst moments, nor are we as good as our best. Those who are closest to us usually get this, so when we mess up they aren’t surprised. Yes, during the darkest moments in my life, even when surrounded by lifelong friends and tried-and-true community, I have felt the loneliest. I have felt unsupported. My deep feelings of isolation perpetuate the fear that if I share my most vulnerable struggles, be they tender wounds or rough edges of my soul, the confessions will only lead to rejection.

And yet . . .

In community, I have been surprised by grace.

Grace in community brings us closer together, not in a way that creates unhealthy fusion but in one that validates the human struggle we all face.

It takes a mature community to create the safe space where a culture of confession is celebrated, where being honest is the expectation. In those kinds of relationships we don’t have to be afraid to share our deepest struggles or tragic flaws. And we learn that confession is the first step of truth telling in that painful dance of transparency.

Confession is hard, both making it and hearing it. It requires trust. It necessitates vulnerability. It invites the possibility of forgiveness. Communities that practice failure are communities that know how to forgive. However, forgiveness doesn’t imply acquiescence. Truth telling means that we acknowledge the consequences of our mistakes. When consequences are part of our failures and accountability part of forgiveness, that takes us deeper into grace than we’ve ever been.

When we’re afraid to confess, there’s usually a corresponding fear that our secrets, our sins, and our failures won’t be forgiven but rather held over our heads. But communities that forgive work toward wholeness and restoration. This is important not only for the individual who’s fallen but for the strength of the whole group.

Restoration is one of those messy paths toward illumination. When we reduce restoration to formulas and checklists, it becomes another form of idealized failure. When we make restoration prescriptive, we simply reinforce the idea that the principle of restoration is more important than the person needing it. Instead, let restoration become a journey toward brokenness. For in brokenness, our woundedness is best addressed, our fears are calmed, our shame is lifted, and love is extended.

Of course, when relationships fall apart, moral boundaries are crossed, or laws are broken, there will be painful consequences. The fallout of these is often more than one can bear alone. That is where community can show up. That’s when failure creates a place for an eruption of acceptance and love.

Failure, as an unexpected gift in community, creates opportunities to practice confession, forgiveness, and restoration. Sharing our pains and failures is a test of courage, as well as a test of the health of community. Grace reminds us that acceptance is support.

In our failures we need to feel safe. Shock or disappointment only pushes us deeper into isolation. And the practice of some communities, in which public confessions are demanded, sometimes lacks sensitivity and understanding. There’s a huge difference between keeping something a secret and holding something private.

It’s the patches in our lives that make us beautiful.

It’s usually fair to be concerned if someone is keeping his or her failures a secret. Secrecy can lead to all sorts of additional problems—especially when we try to cover up our failures.

But as failures are exposed, an understanding of the need to keep some of these things private can be one of the most supportive responses community can offer. Privacy protects people in their vulnerability.

Failure has been the greatest gift in my spiritual journey. Failure has opened my eyes to new ways of seeing others and myself. Learning to love myself has surprised me with layers of acceptance and deeper understandings of grace than I ever imagined.

THE PATCHES MAKE IT BEAUTIFUL

Those little cloth patches on the Sari Bari blankets are actually sewn on to support each blanket and keep it from tearing even more. Rather than the whole thing being discarded, little patches are added to cover the holes. The patches are not randomly placed but intentionally woven into the blanket. The patches hold each quilt together.

It’s kind of funny that something intended to hide flaws actually draws more attention to those flaws. Even funnier, the patches used to cover up the mistakes are what make the blankets so pretty.

It’s the patches in our lives that make us beautiful.

After stumbling around in my own life, I now know the secret of the Sari Bari patches. I now see that people who haven’t explored the gift of their failures aren’t really safe yet; they’re still trying to make sure the version of themselves they put forward is perfect, and they expect perfection from others. People who wear their patches with confidence are the most beautiful—people who’ve failed, messed up, and gotten things wrong are the most accepting and can be the most loving.

Wearing our patches, the little bits of healing and restoration that cover up our flaws and holes, brings extra strength and stability to the fabric of our lives and communities. It lets the world know that we’re not perfect and we’re okay with that—even more, that our imperfections make us who we are.

Beautiful.
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