in Failure

Acknowledging My Failure

If we wait for the ‘right moment’ to start a revolution, this moment will never come — we have to take the risk, and precipitate ourselves into revolutionary attempt, since it is only through a series of ‘premature’ attempts (and their failure) that that (subjective) conditions for the ‘right’ moment are created.
~ Slavoj Zizek, The Puppet and the Dwarf, 133.
Nevertheless, of course, the cruciform Church will fail, and each of us who aspire to cruciformity will also fail — again and again. Even here, however, the cross is the answer. When we fail, we return to the cross, the symbol and means of forgiveness and reconciliation.
~ Michael Gorman, Cruciformity, 400.
The last six months have been quite difficult.
Just over a year ago, four of us came together to explore an alternate way of living, and we began an ‘intentional Christian community’ in Vancouver’s downtown eastside. I was quite thrilled with what happened in the first six months of our journey into life together — we developed a pattern of praying together; some of us started reading in the park as a way of getting know our neighbours; others of us started walking the streets at night, getting to know the working girls; we (occasionally) invited homeless people to sleep on our couches or in our rooms if some of us were away; we celebrated a ‘community dinner’ once a week that was open to friends, co-workers, people living in our neighbourhood, others who were passing through town, and, really, pretty much anybody (those dinners were delightful and we hosted anywhere from five to twenty-five people per week).
But then, about six months ago, everything started falling apart. One of us moved to Honduras to pursue a teaching job there, and nobody ended up coming to join us to fill the empty spot (it was an odd series of events, as multiple people appeared to be close to joining — or even committed to join — but then backed out at the last minute). Also, unresolved tensions and conflicts between community members piled up, and we realised we had invested too much energy early on into engaging ‘missionally’ with the people around us, instead of taking the time to invest in the relationships that needed to exist amongst the community members. So, we scaled back our ‘missional’ activity and began to spend more time with one another. An important step, but one that took us away from the people around us. Then I began to burn-out physically (I had been working full-time overnights shifts for about three years, while also doing my Masters). I was regularly so exhausted that I had no desire to go out into the community around us. Simultaneously, another community member became so involved in various other commitments that that member was hardly present in the house at all. Likewise, the third member began to burn-out emotionally. Consequently, our times of prayer became more sporadic and we lost our routine of praying together. Our community dinners also suffered and we went for about four or five months without hosting a single dinner. Instead, we found ourselves just inviting friends over for dinner or drinks, and we became something of the ‘host house’ for our friends — but not for people in our neighbourhood. Finally, a few weeks ago, we had a big house meeting to address a lot of these things and we started up our community dinner once again. However, the community is still far from what it could be, or even what it used to be.
Now granted, this community was not intended to be a long-term community. It was only supposed to last for about 18 months — although it looks like it will be drawing to a close in a little less time than that. Realistically, without a fourth member, the rent is too expensive for us to be able to stay here much longer, and we still have one member who is burned-out and another who, despite good intentions, has too many other commitments to be able to fully invest in the community here. Consequently, even though I finally got off of my night shifts a few weeks ago and find myself reinvigorated, I am bracing myself to say goodbye to this place and move into some sort of limbo state until my wife and I can figure out where we are going from here. To make matters worse, the people with whom my wife and I had planned to begin a long-term community, ended up backing out on us.
So, as I look back on the time in this community, I can’t help but feel saddened and ashamed. Saddened because we failed to be what we could have been. Ashamed because I think that many assume that we were what we were not. Whenever a person expresses any sort of admiration for what we do, I cannot help but feel like a poser and a hypocrite.
Of course, even in our lowest moments, there were still good things that happened. Even when we were failing to be a community, we were still there for a friend who needed a safe place to be to ‘come down’ after relapsing, and we were still there for another friend who needed a safe place to be after having a ‘bad date’. The shame of our failure becomes bearable when I remember such moments — but it does not change the fact that we have, by and large, failed to embody much of any sort of real alternate way of sharing life together.
Consequently, as I think about moving on from here (as we plan to do at the end of January/start of February ’08), I do get scared. The idea of moving from here to some sort of apartment (hopefully in this neighbourhood) with just my wife and I, scares me because it holds the potential to be a first step in a trajectory that travels in a very different direction than the way we hope to go. It makes me remember the many voices that have told me that what we hoped to do was a figment of a young and foolish imagination. It makes me worry that those voices were right.
However, there is hope. In our failure, we have learned a great deal about the ways in which a group of people should go about learning to journey together (i.e. we made a lot of mistakes, but such mistakes may prove to be quite useful for future attempts at intentional Christian living). Furthermore, limbo states can be fruitful. The wilderness — the place that intervenes between one’s departure point and one’s destination — although a place of trial and testing, is also a place where one encounters, and is nourished by, God. And so, as I brace myself for the wilderness that is looming on our horizon, I hold onto the hope there there is One who has gone before us, and prepared a way for us, through the dry places and beyond into the land that flows with milk and honey. Milk and honey not just for us, but for all who are hungry, for all who are thirsting, and for all who desperately need a community wherein they can be known as beloved children of God.
Lord, have mercy. On all of us.

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  1. my first posts to a blog, all 3 here, amazing. Well I read your first post on failing and I was taken back to so many of our own ‘failures.’ My wife and i were directly involved in many ‘intentional communities’ and ‘missions’ (sorry for all the ‘quotes’),stayed in contact with many others over the years. I could have written your post almost word for word 30 yrs ago! We are still friends with and keep in touch with many of the folks from the old days. We also worked with homeless, drug abusers, sex workers, teen runaway shelters, Catholic workers, native american children, and for a few yrs i was the social therapy co-ordinator for the black prisoner caucus in a Wash, St. prison. I couldn’t begin to recount all the mistakes and failures! Now my wife and i are in our late 50’s and still keeping an eye for where we might be of service. And we still keep in touch with some of the successes. Well i won’t be presumptious enough to offer any advice and i apologise for the length. so blessings to you and your wife and if we get up to Vancouver we will send you a note and if your ever dn here by whidbey isle be sure and look us up! best, daniel


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