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Loving through failure

For a long time, my baseball team held a significant record in professional sports, but it wasn’t a fun one.

My beloved, beleaguered Seattle Mariners did not make it to the playoffs for 21 years — from 2001 to 2022. It was the longest active playoff drought in American professional sports.

And yet the voices of Mariners radio announcers, trips up to the ballpark and echoes of “maybe this year” filled my growing-up years. We cheered on our stars, from Ken Griffey Jr. to Ichiro to Felix Hernandez, without ever seeing them win that much. Blame it on bad management, bad player investments, a cheapskate mentality among Mariners ownership. Google “long-suffering” and you might just see the Mariner Moose mascot trying to hype up a crowd.

Then came 2022 and the walk-off home run that sent us into the postseason for so much longer than we thought we’d be there. After a heartbreaking second-round exit (never talk to me about the Houston Astros), we Washingtonians entered the 2023 season full of the thing we’d hardly dared let stir for all those years: hope.

We missed the playoffs by one game.

Now it’s spring again. Baseball is back, and as of this writing, my Mariners have lost more games than they’ve won. Yes, it’s early, but my family is already having conversations about how much, exactly, we should be giving of our time and energy to this team.

After all, baseball games are long, even with the introduction of the pitch clock and other rule changes designed to make the sport more engaging to a wider audience. And not only are the individual games long; there are 162 games in the regular Major League Baseball season. Your team plays nearly every day from April through September.

We Mariners fans maybe feel a bit spoiled now, having enjoyed the sweet taste of success. So if failure is looking highly likely, why turn on the TV or the radio any more than is necessary to avoid accusations of being a fair weather fan?

Is there a limit to how much you should love something that might be a lost cause?

Yes, I know, baseball is a game. It’s grown men swinging at a ball with a wooden stick. At the same time, it is so much more.

I believe there’s a reason sports metaphors show up so often in sermons, lectures and the like. These silly games teach us something about the human spirit, and following these silly teams can too. In my case, it’s led me to some gnarly questions about what is worth our devotion. Is it OK to follow the losers?

In sports, the definition of losing and winning is straightforward: the winner is whoever has the most points at the end of the fourth quarter, the second half, the ninth inning, regulation time. The fastest time for the racer, the highest leap for the jumper wins the prize. We can check a team’s record and make instant judgments about their chances of success.

Defining “winning” in much of life apart from sports, however, isn’t quite as straightforward. Those of us who follow Jesus inhabit a faith tradition that asks us to look at the normal order of things upside down: the last shall be first, the meek shall inherit the earth, and so on. What we value can be countercultural.

I recently got to sit in on a conversation with the Rev. Dr. Edgardo Colón-Emeric, the dean of Duke Divinity School. In response to a question regarding churches that are struggling or shutting down, he remarked that failure is something that we, as Christians, should not be afraid of, because “failure is at the heart of the Christian story.”

He offered a couple of examples of this confounding heart: the comments made on the Emmaus walk (“we thought he would be the one to deliver Israel”), how the resurrection didn’t take away Jesus’ wounds.

Christianity is not meant to be showy, glamorous, triumphalist. Instead, as Colon-Emeric said, it has a built-in fragility to it, a fragility that is part of our identity. The assumption that a church’s closing means the end of that church’s story is far from true. God is still up to many things.

Can we still hope that churches stay open? Of course. Can I still hope my team can turn things around in time for some meaningful October baseball? I absolutely will. There’s a certain lovely faithfulness in being unafraid that something we love might fail.

Is there a limit to how much you should love something that might be a lost cause?

Fresh out of seminary and serving in my first ministry call, I moved three times in 18 months. That third place was a keeper. I lived there for just over two years, and one of my favorite things was watching the plants come alive in spring.

The first year was all discovery as I walked my neighborhood route each morning. “What will that bud become?” I wondered. “What is that poking up from the ground?”

The second year was like welcoming back old friends. Now I knew what that bud would become, and I couldn’t wait to see it blossom again.

I also began to learn the names of these particular neighbors. After living 18 years with a plant-enthusiast mother, I knew some already. But as a transplant to the South, I was discovering other vegetation that was completely new to me.

After Wednesday prayer meetings at church, I would ask my congregation’s resident horticulturist and native plant rescuer to name what I was watching come alive. The woody bush with unfurling fernlike leaves was an oakleaf hydrangea. The pink flowers bursting into bloom just after Ash Wednesday were Lenten roses — though, thanks to Tom, I always think of their Latin name, Helleborus, first.

I could have downloaded an app, but playing the guessing game with Tom and learning any bonus facts he shared was much more fun.

Getting to know my plant neighbors in this way came at the price that any relationship costs, however. As the seasoned Mr. Joe teaches the young nurse Jenny Lee in an early episode of the BBC series “Call the Midwife,”“If you open yourself to love, it follows you open yourself to heartache.” Loving makes us more vulnerable to pain when the person or thing we love is hurt.

And so I gasped with sorrow the first time I saw that a sturdy bystander to my evening commute, the big oak, had been cut down. The block looked so exposed now, a lonely stump the only reminder of what had grown there. I missed the unruly fig tree that had sprawled haphazardly next to an abandoned apartment building. The bees and I had shared in its sweet fruit each summer. In some small way, I felt the pain of the land when a starter home on a corner lot was demolished and replaced by a massive house with a much larger footprint.

We live in a time when the earth is crying out in pain, and the accompanying grief is real.

It can be difficult to know how to respond, our feelings of helplessness compounded when we see our carefully curated recycling comingled and trucked away with the questionable contents of a neighbor’s bin. We may feel overwhelmed in the absence of infrastructure changes that are desperately needed. Some of us may feel paralyzed. Others may teeter on the edge of despair.

Yet the gospel, the good news, never comes in general. We serve a God who is insistently particular. Out of all the people in ancient Mesopotamia, God called a particular person — Abraham. Out of all the moments in history, God dwelled among us in the flesh at a particular time — for only a few short decades. God counts the hairs on our heads (Luke 12:7) and the months until the doe gives birth (Job 39:1-3).

Those neighborhood walks — in contrast to the ineffectiveness of fear-based arguments — have made me wonder what it might look like to follow God’s example of attending to the particular as we seek to care for creation.

What if, today, we are not being asked to save the world? What if, today, we are simply being invited to learn the names of our rooted vegetable-, fruit-, and flower-bearing neighbors?

Go outside. Look around. What do you see?

Depending on where you live, there might be acres of land to explore — or a single weed in a crack of concrete, stubbornly declaring its will to live.

Either way, take a moment to meet your vegetative neighbor. Download an app. Ask a friend. Find your local arboretum.

As you come and go, begin calling your neighbors by name. Notice what happens to them as the seasons change. Offer gratitude for the oxygen they are producing and the beauty they bring.

I have a hunch that when we engage in this practice over time, something in us will begin to shift. These neighbors will become part of our realm of care and concern. We might pull back the invasive vine threatening to suffocate a friendly bush or impulsively prune a fruit tree in an abandoned lot. We might notice how the warm winter day that boosts our mood also coaxes flowers to bloom before the pollinators are ready.

As we begin to love what God loves, we begin to act in ways that seek more than our own good. Not because we are afraid. Not because we feel guilty. But because our lives have become entangled with what grows up around us. We realize that our comfort is no longer the sole objective.

With our lives and our well-being bound up with the plants that surround us, we might decide to use our voices to write our representatives or leverage our purchasing power to invest in less-wasteful products. We might spill a bit more sweat or spray fewer chemicals because our practice of noticing and naming our vegetative neighbors has reminded us that God’s work in the particular has a tendency to reach to the depths of the soil and the ends of the earth.

We live in a time when the earth is crying out in pain, and the accompanying grief is real.

As a clinical psychologist, I spend much of my professional time helping make sense of what happens when things go wrong. Anxiety, depression and other struggles can dominate conversations with my clients.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where the same can be true for many of us. Wars are raging around the globe. Here, in one of the world’s richest countries, millions live in poverty. Our government seems to be in a perpetual state of chaos. It is easy to reside in a kind of existential dread that permeates our hearts, minds and souls.

While it is important to reckon with the reality of the suffering that exists in the world, it is also important for us not to become overwhelmed by it. Joy is an essential antidote in a suffering world.

Proverbs 17:22 (ESV) tells us, “A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” For believers, joy is not just a perk of the Christian life; it’s a spiritual resource that helps us carry out our work in the world.

A dictionary might define “joy” as a state of happiness in response to external circumstances. But our kind of joy is one that rests in the knowledge of what God has done and will continue to do. Our kind of joy is not dependent on what is happening in the world; it is a commitment to see good and recognize the presence of good in the world and in ourselves, regardless of our circumstances. Joy is the product of our ever-present knowledge of God’s movement and work in our lives.

I want to be clear that I’m not suggesting that joy means we ignore all the bad. While some of us may have a tendency to use our faith to try to pretend our trials away (a process we mental health professionals call spiritual bypassing), the joy I’m suggesting does not negate the presence of evil or suffering in the world.

In fact, tapping into joy in our lives is what helps us fight injustice and work toward good for all. Joy keeps us going when we want to give up and keeps us fueled for the journey ahead by reminding us that suffering is an experience and not a destination.

As many cultures that have experienced historical violence and trauma can attest, joy is often the thing that helps us survive the unspeakable. As the proverb says, joy is a medicine and a healing balm, and when we lose it, our vitality dries up and disappears. It is no accident that we find moments of laughter at memorial celebrations, no accident that we spent the first few months of the pandemic lockdowns making jokes on the internet. Joy reminds us that we are alive when things feel perilous.

Because we live in a world that can exhaust and overwhelm us, we must be intentional about organizing our lives in a way that allows us access to the gift of joy. Ross Gay writes in “The Book of Delights” about his decision to find delights intentionally on a daily basis. He says of the process: “I felt my life to be more full of delight. Not without sorrow or fear or pain or loss. But more full of delight.” We must remember that joy and sorrow can, and will, coexist.

To be intentional about accessing joy is to make a practice of holding sacred time for the things that help us feel most content, at peace and close to God. For some, it may be physical exercise or spending time with our most beloved friends or family. For others, it might be time in nature, crafting or cooking. For others, it might be listening to music, committing to a devotional or other spiritual practice, or playing a game.

In her book “Rest Is Resistance: A Manifesto,” Tricia Hersey proclaims that resting is an explicit resistance to a capitalist society that demands we treat our bodies as dispensable and our souls as inconsequential. While joy and rest are not the same, joy can most certainly be found in rest. And rest can help us be more open to the joy in our lives.

There is no single right way. The point here is that to have joy as a resource, we must decide to make it a part of our lives. We must actively seek out joy rather than waiting for it to come to us.

When I am helping clients navigate depression or recover from burnout, I often ask them to identify the drains and wells in their lives. Drains are things that deplete and exhaust us. Wells are things that energize and excite us. Wells refill our proverbial cups, while drains cause them to empty.

Both are necessary parts of our lives. But when we are able to identify the wells, we can be intentional about having access to them all around our lives so that we never have to get empty. This is the power of joy! Our ability to access it regularly and often allows us to operate from a place of overflow rather than depletion. Simply put, joy sustains us for the journey.

For each of us, this is an individualized process. Ask yourself: What lights me up? What makes me feel most alive?

What would it be like to organize our lives around our joys, just as biblical cities were built around wells? What if those wells in our lives — those things that sustain and revitalize us — become nonnegotiables, so that all the mundane tasks of our lives have to fall into place in relation to them?

To organize ourselves around joy in this way is to participate in a reparative process, declining to sacrifice ourselves and our spirits to an unjust world, instead claiming a holy retention of our goodness and our “godness.” To recognize the reality of our goodness is to acknowledge that we are deserving of light, joyful, playful moments. Those moments can then become the home base from which we navigate the world.

Joy keeps us going when we want to give up and keeps us fueled for the journey ahead by reminding us that suffering is an experience and not a destination.

Chapter 11: Sacred Stories

The hard work of life is remembering. Remembering who you are, remembering how you want to be in the world, remembering where you last left the kids. Down through the centuries our ancestors have told and retold stories to help us find our way. Sacred stories that remind us of our true identity. Soul stories to encourage us to pursue our deepest yearnings for freedom. Told from one seeking heart to another, these sacred stories function like a lighthouse — guiding us away from the shallows, leading us toward the more gracious depths of who we are.

When asked why he spoke in parables, Jesus told his followers (as paraphrased by Anthony de Mello): The shortest distance between truth and a human being is a story. All wisdom traditions entrust stories to embody their deepest truths. The Bible is full of stories. The Bhagavad Gita is a story. The Buddha’s life teachings are embedded in story form. The life of Muhammad is transmitted through story. Jesus’s life and teachings are communicated through story.

Science is also a story that seeks to unveil reality and dispel illusion. Behind the doctrine, the rules, the rituals, and the institutions of all wisdom traditions, you find stories that not only seek to transmit teachings but invite a deeper, more liberating experience of the self and the world.

The power of stories to free us, whether religious or secular, depends on the integrity and compassion of the tellers and the openness of the listeners. The sacred stories of religion are often at first glance amusing relics, utter nonsense, even potentially destructive — unless they are shared by people who are knowledgeable and trustworthy. Only within the sacred bond of compassionate teller and seeking listener can we know a story’s worth. It is within that trusting container where we can give ourselves to the story. There we can expose our hurt and longing to its plotlines and allow the story to read us. There we can allow ourselves to enter the story. Not as fact. More than fact. As a way of seeing, as a gateway to peace, as a pathway home.

There we can allow ourselves to fall into the story’s rhythms and feel its truths. The same way we might give our body to the steps of a dance in order to feel its joy. Slow, slow, quick-quick, slow, quick-quick, slow, slow.


I was in a lost, longing-for-meaning place in my midtwenties. For about six months I could hardly sleep more than a handful of hours. All the repressed wounds of my childhood were radiating out from me like a high-grade fever. There was a terrifying emptiness gathering within me, a gnawing sense of worthlessness, and the only way I knew to address it was to stay busy and distract myself from the anxiety by working and working and working. I became mindlessly driven, physically ragged, deeply sleep deprived. My marriage suffered and my health deteriorated. I began to obsess about finding a new job, certain that different employment would give me some sense of peace.

It took a good friend and colleague to recognize my crisis was more than vocational. Tenderly, persistently, he convinced me to join him on a contemplative retreat at a Franciscan convent. I agreed — but only under the ridiculous stipulation that I could commute home each night to catch up on work.

There are parts of ourselves that can’t be known, places within us that can’t be accessed without a story. The week at the Franciscan convent was destabilizing. Full of silence, prayer, long periods of solitude, I was forced to feel the stark, despairing state I was in. I was lost and hurting and had no idea what to do. Every morning the retreat teacher gave a talk and then offered a spiritual practice. Each talk was based on a story that sought to uncover our deeper nature.

One morning he told us the story of the prodigal son, one of the parables of Jesus.

A man has two sons. The younger son is restless, impatient. He goes to his father and asks for his half of the inheritance. The father agrees. The son takes the money, heads into the nearby city, and eventually spends it all on parties, prostitutes, dissolute living. A famine descends upon the land. Broke, desperate, working for a pig farmer to feed himself, the young man decides to return home, apologize, and see if he might be hired as a farmhand — a much better life than his current state. While walking the road home, the father sees his son and takes off running. Before the younger son can fully apologize, the father embraces him, places his rings on his son’s fingers, and instructs the servants to prepare a celebration.

Meanwhile the elder son is out working in the fields. He hears music and revelry. He asks one of the field hands to investigate. “Your brother has returned,” the field hand reports. “Your father is throwing a celebration.” The elder brother is greatly triggered by this news. Filled with resentment, he refuses to join the party. The father hears the response of his eldest. He leaves the festivities, goes out into the fields, and begs his son to join the party. The elder son is indignant. He reminds his father of his loyalty, frugality, and hard work. How could he celebrate a son who has been so self-serving, disrespectful, and wasteful? The father feels compassion for his eldest boy. He reminds him everything else he has belongs to his eldest. The father adds, “But we had to rejoice because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life, was blind but now he sees.”

The retreat teacher invited us to personally interact with the parable. We were sent out to find a solitary place to meditate on the story, with instructions to try and see, hear, taste, smell, and feel the story as if we were there. He encouraged us to go wherever the meditation took us — allow ourselves to become one of the characters, place the story in a modern setting, or change the characters from a father and two sons to a mother and two daughters if helpful.

I found an empty basement classroom in the convent, sat alone in the dark, and as instructed, gave my imagination over to the story of the prodigal son. I saw the dust of the road, heard the goats and sheep in the nearby field. I saw the sons, the eldest responsibly and dutifully heading out to the fields, the younger son pacing, dissatisfied. As if it were an old home movie, I watched the story take place within me.

I have no idea how much time passed, but then something happened. Like a lucid dream, I fell into the story. I could smell the dry earth, feel the sun on my back, hear the distant laughter and music from a party. I was the elder brother. I felt depleted, isolated, hopeless, full of resentment — and then surprisingly, in the midst of this story-dreaming, I felt a visceral sense of overwhelming welcome, a sense of being held. An unburdening, a release, a compassionate embrace. I wept, and the aloneness and fear and sense of failure I had been carrying dissipated.

When I finally pulled myself together, I immediately wondered if I was having some kind of psychological breakdown. The experience was so powerful I thought I might be losing my mind. I went to find the retreat leader, Morton Kelsey, who was not only an Episcopal priest but also a trained psychotherapist of forty years. I assumed he would offer a diagnosis and recommend medication or therapy or possibly even some time in an institution.

Troubled and disoriented, I found Morton in the cafeteria and asked if he would meet with me. After evening prayer we found a quiet place to talk. I told him my experience of the meditation, fully expecting him to become alarmed. Instead he told me a story, one about growing up with a father who could be quite remote and demanding. He then asked me about my own upbringing, my relationship with my parents. I answered as best I could.

Then he told me a story about his first job. Back and forth we went, like village bells answering one another across a valley, with various experiences from our lives. Whatever note I struck in my story, he would strike a similar note, allowing me to feel heard and understood. For almost three hours we sat facing one another, telling stories, back and forth, back and forth, until there was a deeply felt connection. Eventually the hour became late, our words spent. Morton stood to leave, and I suddenly realized he had not answered my question.

“But what about the meditation? Was it a breakdown?”

“Well,” he said thoughtfully. “What do you think? We’ve been talking for hours. You seem calm. You’re speaking coherently. Your body seems relaxed. You don’t seem agitated in any way. It doesn’t appear to me you are having a psychotic break. Maybe it was something else? Maybe it was Divine Love. Maybe it was God.”


“There must always be two kinds of art,” writes poet W. H. Auden. “Escape art, for humans need escape as we need food and deep sleep, and parable art, the art which shall teach us to unlearn hatred and learn love.” My experience at the Franciscan convent is the sacred story of how I began to live from a deeper awareness of love and truth. It was the beginning of a healing season for me that included therapy, long talks with my wife, a commitment to spiritual practice, a different approach to work.

My friends who are secular humanists would tell it another way. They might describe my experience as a breakthrough of the unconscious or of transference of care from teacher to student. I’m okay with that. But since it is my sacred story, I tell it in the way that feels most true for me.

Your sacred story may have a different setting. Maybe it takes place at a bowling alley, a community center, a mountain lake, a grandmother’s kitchen, a desert plateau, a detention center, a Girl Scout camp. Maybe your story begins in divorce, the wake of grief, the ecstasy of nature, a quest for truth, a near-death experience, a restless longing for love. And in your story you might replace the Episcopal priest with a molecular biologist, a Holocaust survivor, a cognitive therapist, a Buddhist nun, a Native American elder, the old guy who lived next door. And in your story, instead of a Jesus parable, there might be a conversation about galaxies, a pilgrimage to your mother’s home village, a letter from a trusted friend, a mindfulness practice, a month of solitude in a Minnesota cabin, a heartfelt conversation with your best friend’s father, a stranger’s confession in an AA group.

There is a depth to story that we rarely take time to ponder, let alone to tell and hear. Story is how we transform pain. Story is how we make something useful out of the absurd. A sacred story is a love letter expanding your heart with kindness. A sacred story is a treasure box filled with images of what matters most. A sacred story is a map, passed down through generations, directing you toward a fountain of truth. A sacred story is a medicine, a balm to relieve your fear and suffering. A sacred story is an angel in the night. A sacred story is a window that offers perspective. Sometimes a sacred story is a shield, a protector, a source of courage and love. Sometimes your sacred story is what gives you strength to face the real and present dangers of our world. Sometimes your sacred story spends years searching for you, trailing you through all your harried days, cornering you in some blue fluorescent rehab center, looking you in the eye, and saying, “Okay, here’s the truth.”

What are the images, the moments, the stories on which your soul meditates? What are the stories that remind you to unlearn hatred and receive love? Nigerian author Ben Okri declared, “We live by stories. We also live in them. One way or another, we are living the stories planted in us early or along the way, or we are also living the stories we planted — knowingly or unknowingly — in ourselves. We live stories that either give our lives meaning or negate it with meaninglessness. If we change the stories we live by, quite possibly, we change our lives.”

Are the stories that shape you death dealing or life giving? Do the stories you hold as sacred heal, or do they exacerbate the suffering? Do they bring out your loving nature, do they cultivate freedom? Or do they bum you out, make you more afraid, anxious, resentful, and bitter? What are the stories you hold as sacred, the ones you tell your children, the ones you want remembered at your funeral? And are they any good?

Reprinted with permission from “Between the Listening and the Telling: How Stories Can Save Us,” by Mark Yaconelli, copyright © 2022 Broadleaf Books.