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When Seeming Failures Are the Opening for Grace

Those of you who have read previous blogs or Facebook postings know that the keyword for describing my 9 weeks in Britain was … magical. Magical, just magical.

But, in many ways, the sabbatical was marked by failure. First was the failure to get the Lilly Foundation grant that would have made it much easier for the church and for me. Then, in the last Church Council meeting before heading off, I shared my three goals: to finish Circling, begin research on Returning, and lose 20 pounds.

I failed – and yet the sabbatical still was magical.

And now I wonder: is there a connection between seeming failure and undeniable magic? Was there something that God was trying to teach me? Have I focused too much in life on success? Might I have tried so hard to accomplish the goals that our culture identifies as the hallmarks of success that I overlooked the less obvious and more tender qualities of God’s ever-present grace?

I’ll let you ponder that as I give you a brief chronology and overview of the people and places that have caused me to rethink my life…

First of all, there’s Maurizio. Some of you have heard me talk about him before, and most everyone was skeptical. It’s wonderful when you get to a certain age and your children begin to worry about you (nice switch from those decades where parenting was just a synonym for worry and guilt). And so my daughter is on the phone hearing about my plans and asking, “So how do you know him, Mom?” I explain his email connection with the family when he was researching the role of my grandparents in improving the lives of the Sardinian villagers 100 years ago. To which she says “Yes, but …” She then asks how old he is, what he does for a living, whether he’s married or not …” I don’t have answers to any of those questions. Fortunately she’s gracious enough to simply admonish me to be careful rather than call me a blooming idiot.

My plans were just to meet Maurizio in London over lunch or dinner. We had occasional email conversation over the last seven years, but that was all. When he asked where I was staying, I replied that I was looking for an inexpensive hostel or Air B&B because, after all, I did not receive that wonderful grant that would have paid for nicer hotels. He found a convent that had been converted into a B&B, but it was still 125 pounds – or just shy of $200 / night (this was before the Brexit vote) and I was hoping for something cheaper. So I kept looking and then got an email that his good friend Patrick, a chamber orchestra conductor who lived two blocks from Westminster Abbey, would be happy to host me for a week. Magic.

Patrick was delightful and so were all of the assortment of young international musicians who came over to party, practice, and plan their next two concerts. The flat was filled with laughter and music. Another woman staying there was going through some challenging emotional stresses, and she liked to hang out with me and unload. And Maurizio, who had decided to end his work as an economics researcher and concentrate on renting two flats and doing professional tourism, became my personal tour guide for all of the highlights of London. He knew everything and everyone, it seemed. Magic.

We took a four-day trip to Sardinia where I met his family and an elderly couple that had been married at the church that my grandmother helped establish. Everywhere I went, there were hugs and thanks – along with free cappuccino or a glass of wine. They all professed knowing about my grandparents, although – quite honestly – I think they were just being nice to Maurizio and me. Magic.

Maurizio went back to London as I headed for Northumbria, in northeast England, where I stayed in the manse where another new friend, Dave Herbert, lived. Dave was a friend of a friend of a friend, who learned of my appeal to find inexpensive lodging in exchange for helping in whatever way possible. He was going on vacation, and I agreed to manage the garden, preach twice, and deal with any pastoral emergencies. This never would have happened if I had been awarded the Lilly Foundation grant.

Yet I failed here as well. My intention in staying two weeks at the quiet manse was to finish the first book Circling. But I had lost my laptop on the airplane and with it, the latest draft. I had a copy on the desktop but that was a continent away. So I read and walked and watched sheep and played a few too many computer games. I spent time with several women who were part of the associated parishes; one was considering ministry and the others just enjoyed chatting about issues with their churches or life in general. I didn’t accomplish my three goals, but enjoyed the way we each became agents of grace for each other. Magic.

Spending two weeks on Iona with Philip Newell and a bunch of other new friends, I was filled with new ideas and great excitement. But while there was lots of reading and walking, there wasn’t much writing and no dieting. I had become a happy failure. I returned briefly to Northumbria for another preaching opportunity and visits with my new friends before returning to Argyll (the western isles of Scotland) to research ancestral history. And then came what I later realized was a watershed moment.

Wanting to visit the center of the Campbell clan in Inveraray, I reserved a room at a small B&B in Ford, about 8 miles away. A young family ran it; it was homey rather than fancy, and it was cheap. But driving there from Edinburgh took twice as long as I expected. It involved endless miles on small rural roads that were sometimes dirt and often one-lane roads will pullouts for cars to pass each other. Sure, it was 8 miles from Inveraray … as a crow flies. It was 50 miles and well over an hour by car. I arrived around 9 pm and discovered that there were about 5 homes and no store of any kind in this little town of Ford, in Argyll, Scotland. The owners offered to make me dinner, which I accepted happily.

Waiting, I silently chastised myself for my stupidity. In my haste, I had selected a B&B in the middle of nowhere. What an idiot! What a … failure …

Dinner came. It was delicious, and of huge proportions. While eating, I watched a young man in the small living room eating dinner from a paper bag. After finishing what I could, I offered the rest to him. And thus began an unforgettable evening.

Leon is a German working in Scotland embarking on a new career importing fine Scotch whisky into his home country. After the usual pleasantries, I learned that he had a rather traumatic background and wasn’t close to his parents, who were divorced. I also surmised that he had gone through a number of challenges in his youth and that he was now in his early 30’s and hoping for a new start. He worked at a distillery north of Edinburgh and was in Ford exploring distilleries in Argyll. He returned my kindness of sharing dinner with a lesson in how to drink whisky. The young couple and their daughter and dog came and went for the rest of the evening.

I listened as he talked about his family, his work, his love life, his dreams. He had several heart-breaking love affairs but recently met a woman who was nearly 10 years younger but they really liked each other. And, all the while, he punctuated the stories of his life with an education on whisky. Magic.

The next morning, he came down for breakfast and thanked me for our conversation. He said that, although he wasn’t sure that his new girlfriend would ever be “the one,” he realized that he was worthy and good and there was happiness in his future.

He went off to local distilleries and I took the long drive to Inveraray, coming home to another delicious dinner with Leon and more in my whisky education. This time we talked about his business plans. I asked a number of questions and made a few suggestions based on the years when I was running a consulting business years ago. Three hours later, I went off to bed, again feeling warm and kindhearted. In the morning, Leon came down and said he was totally rethinking his business plan based on our discussion. We haven’t seen each other since, but he has sent me several emails and Facebook postings thanking me for our time together and letting me know the success of his new strategy. Somehow, my “failure” in booking a B&B in the hinterlands became an opportunity to bring magic into someone else’s life. It felt wonderful!

I then headed to Leeds to pick up a colleague from the US, and we returned to Scotland to explore her family history – and again spend time with some of my new friends. After dropping her off in London, I picked up Maurizio, who decided he wanted to learn about Celtic Christianity. [This was a big and unexpected compliment because he is a good Roman Catholic boy who hadn’t had much interest in the progressive or Celtic church.] But his heart was opened – more magic.

Maurizio and I went to Lindisfarne (Holy Island) with one of the three ladies I mentioned earlier, and visited the Lindisfarne Scriptorum, where I purchased a beautiful poster. The front is beautiful script, and it reads:

“Love is always patient and kind. Love is not boastful or conceited. It is never rude, and never seeks its own advantage. It does not take offence or store up grievances. Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing but finds its joy in the truth. It is always ready to make allowances, to trust, to hope, and to endure whatever comes. These remain: faith, hope and love, and the greatest is love.”

The back reads:

“Based on 1 Corinthians 13: 4-13. A good exercise is to replace the word ‘love’ with your own name to see if you match up – not an easy task but one worthy of aspiring to.”

I tried that: “Felicity is always patient and kind. Felicity is never boastful or conceited. Felicity is never rude, and never seeks her own advantage…” Ouch! Oh yes, I am a failure indeed! I am not always patient and kind. I am sometimes boastful and conceited. I can be rude and seek my own advantage… I could go on and on.

And so it was in reading this at Holy Island that I had my epiphany on the connection between failure and magic. The failure was in the need to accomplish something; the magic was with the present and the presence. The magic was the pure and simple grace of sharing time, hearts, and minds with others. The magic was that, for two months, I had been patient and kind. I had not been boastful or conceited; I had never been rude or sought my own advantage. I had not taken offence or stored up grievances. I did not rejoice in wrongdoing….

My need to be successful had become a stumbling block to living in the present and in the presence of divine grace. My failures had nothing to do with losing the sabbatical grant or not completing my three goals. My only failure was that I had forgotten about the magic that comes when one is open to God’s grace as explained by St. Paul in this much-treasured passage.

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