Blog | Lindsey Smallwood

Trying Again

When Learning Looks Like Failing

Best of...Lindsey Smallwood

Over at Middle Places, we're thinking about learning this month. Turns out, my own learning hasn't been pretty lately...

Learning looks a lot like failing right now.

Like when I tried to teach a new song to kids at our church's VBS program last month. I hadn't practiced the motions before I started and ended up tripping myself and tumbling dramatically to the carpet. Much to the delight of the assembled four-year-olds watching my slow motion dance-tastrophe. 

Or the long strange silence reverberating through the sanctuary on a Sunday in June. The room should have been filled with the sound of the congregation reciting the Apostle's Creed. Except I assisted in worship and forgot what came next. Just totally forgot, even though I held the program in my hand. The silence might have gone on forever had the choir leader not stood up from his seat in the loft and prompted me that now would be a good time to affirm our faith together. In my flustered state, I called for the offering instead.

Nothing like standing up in front of 500 people and getting it all wrong.

Sometimes the failing looks less embarrassing and more endearing. Like this picture I snapped of my two-year old last month. Those sweet little shoes are on the wrong feet, but they’re on at all because he did it himself. He’s learning, figuring out a new skill one piece at time.

That’s the thing about learning anything that matters. Most of time making mistakes is part of the process. Experimenting and trying and failing and trying again.

I didn’t know this when I was younger. A lot of things came easily to me, especially academics. In fact, school was so easy for so long that when I began to struggle with upper level math and science courses in high school, I just assumed that those were beyond my abilities, that I wasn’t a science person. The truth is I hadn’t yet learned to persevere when things didn’t come easy to me.

But God in his great grace has given me a lot of opportunities to learn to persevere since then, challenging jobs, a long-term relationship and especially parenting  have all been spaces of learning how to fail — and try again. In all of these contexts and more, I’ve noticed the best and most important things in my life require carrying on even when it’s hard, even after you fail.

In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he reminds them of the calling to grow in our understanding and bear with each other. He writes:

Let us not become weary in doing good,

for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.

Galatians 6:9

 

Don’t give up! Keep on doing the right thing even when you’re weary, even when yesterday you made a spectacular mess of things. When we’re building toward what really matters, we keep our eyes on the final result, the harvest God has planned, not the ways we get tripped up on the way there.

Like the sweet VBS kids who managed to learn God’s truth through music despite my terrible dance moves. Or my son, who’s continuing to build skills allowing him to fulfill God’s purposes in his life someday.

And me. I’m signed up to assist in worship again next week. You better believe that I’ll be practicing in front of the mirror in hopes of avoiding another thundering silence. But ultimately I know I’m learning to lead, that the opportunity to work on a church staff and serve our congregation is a way that God’s growing me in this season.

Learning sometimes looks like failing. But as we persevere, even when we’d rather sit in the back row and not risk embarrassment, we move closer to the good things God called us to do.

This post originally appeared at Middle Places. 

Opening the Thin Envelope

Lindsey Smallwood

It is such a pleasure to write with my friends over at Middle Places. If you haven't taken the time to read some of the other bloggers there, I encourage you to poke around. This months theme of being (re)Routed has lead to some really great writing. I'm sharing a story about dreams and rejection today - and praying you find hope to take your own brave steps. 

No one wants to get the thin envelope.

You've been there. Checking the mailbox everyday, hoping and dreaming and planning for the future, and then it comes, addressed to you. The return address is right, it's the school you want to get into or the company you hope to work for. But the slim profile betrays the news hidden inside.

"We regret to inform you..."

Rejection. Hopes deferred. Dreams stopped in their tracks. Usually softened by language about the talented applicant pool or hopes that you will reapply in the future. But the disappointing view of a longed-for possibly closing it's doors is never easy to take in.

In my final year as an undergraduate, I applied to a national teaching program. Honestly, I was not sure what I wanted to do. I clerked at a law firm as a part time job during college and considered law school. I found community in a campus ministry after I returned to campus from treatment for an eating disorder and thought about working in ministry as a full time job. One of my classes required community service hours tutoring at an elementary school and I'd enjoyed working with kids, which lead to my application to the teaching program.

It wasn’t just paperwork, I prepared a lesson plan and taught it to the interview panel. I answered questions based on case studies. I sat before a group of current teachers and responded to their queries about my experiences and motivations. I left the interview day tired and confident; going through the process left me sure that I would be a great teacher and optimistic that I would be selected.

Until the thin envelope came.

“Dear Lindsey, We regret to inform you…”

For a few days, I felt deep disappointment. I knew my application hadn’t been lost in a pile; they had really looked at me, asked me personal questions and watched me teach, and had decided I didn’t make the cut. I wasn’t sure what to do next.

My pastor encouraged me to consider ministry again, reminding me of how my gifts of teaching and connecting with people could be useful in that setting. I prayed for an open door, and, finding one, decided to pursue vocational church work. That opportunity lead to another and then another and for six years I worked in full time ministry.

As that season drew to a close and I was trying to decide what to do next, I felt drawn again to classroom teaching. But, having already applied and been rejected many years before, I was afraid to pursue that dream again. The door had closed. It seemed foolish to bring that hope back to life.

Heeding the counsel of some close friends and family, I decided to face the possibility of rejection and go through the process again. The pre-tests, the lesson plan, the group interview – I did it all. And six weeks later, to my surprise and delight, a big fat manila envelope filled my mailbox, welcoming me to the program and outlining my next steps.

My dream of teaching wasn’t lost when I was rejected from that program in college. It was rerouted. I just didn’t know it at the time. But in order to find the way back to my dream, I had to take a risk.

Most things worth doing are scary. Our dreams are worth risking rejection and failure. If you’re in the middle of a reroute in your own life, I challenge you to think about what brave steps you might need to take to find your way back to a dream long dreamt. Remember sweet friends, this is still just the middle of our stories.