Aren’t mistakes a lovely thing? They get a bad rap, probably because when we hear the word “mistake” we tend to think of the ones with dreadful consequences—after all, dreadful things do stick in our memories better than ordinary things.
Really, though, “mistake” is defined as “an action or judgment that is misguided or wrong,” which could cover anything from backing the car into the basketball hoop to knocking over a glass of milk. We learn from mistakes every day. When we back the car into the basketball hoop, we learn that we need new glasses, or that the brakes should be checked, or that we shouldn’t drive while answering phone calls; when we knock over a glass of milk, we learn not to place the milk quite so close to the edge of the table.
Many mistakes have as many positive consequences as negative ones, if we’re willing to count what we’ve learned and how we change our behavior as a consequence. Babies learn to walk by making one mistake at a time. Baseball players learn to hit the ball partly by striking out a bunch of times. And many of us have found our ideal professions by first choosing the wrong ones. These sorts of things even happen on a larger, less personal scale—for example, in the United States, one could argue that the entire purpose of the Supreme Court is to recognize, correct, and learn from legislative mistakes.
Every one of us makes hundreds of mistakes every day, most of them so tiny that we hardly even think about them. These are the moments when we’re working toward some goal—say, getting out the door with two small children—and in the course of achieving this, we drop things, we step on the dog’s toe, we leave the keys in the kitchen and have to dash back for them, and so forth. We often don’t even think about these things, consciously, as mistakes, but instead as what-happens-as-we-try-to-get-out-the-door-with-two-small-children. These little mistakes are just a given as part of pursuing a goal.
But then we walk into our Quaker meetings. And somehow, we suddenly have the idea that it’s completely unacceptable to make a mistake.
Obviously, I don’t mean the kind of mistakes like eating three extra cookies at social hour. We do that sort of thing all the time—or at least, I do. I’m talking about what happens the moment we sit down to do discernment.
Discernment is the process of prayerful listening by which we discover God’s will for us. This can and does work on an individual level in day-to-day life, but most of the time, when Quakers use the word “discernment,” we’re talking about practicing this listening as a community. This is what Quaker process is supposed to be all about. A question comes before the meeting, and we engage in a process of prayerful listening by which we discover God’s will for us.
This is miraculous when it works, and I’ve experienced it working many times. Friends take turns rising and speaking in worship, and one has one little piece of the truth, and another has another, and suddenly we hear words coming from one Friend and it’s just absolutely clear how it all comes together and what we should do, and then we affirm it and do it and—
Well. Sometimes we get stuck on do it.
I think that part of the reason we sometimes get stuck in discernment is because we’re talking about God’s will and surely God’s will is so definite, so clear, that it will be delivered chiseled in stone. Or not chiseled in stone—we’re not living in the days of Moses anymore—but perhaps God will email a PowerPoint with a detailed 27-point plan.
If it is God’s will that we should build a new building, then surely we can’t move forward until God has made every detail clear, from the financing to which plumber to hire to whether we should landscape with tulips or daisies.
If it is God’s will that we should write an epistle to the world about the movement of Spirit, then surely we can’t move forward until God has affirmed the placement of the second and third commas.
If it is God’s will that we should become a more fully inclusive community, then surely we can’t move forward until God has made our first, second, and third steps clear and has assured us beyond all doubt that taking these steps will work out in exactly the manner we’re hoping for.
Except….this is not my experience of God. One time in my life, and once only, I experienced a leading that manifested as a literal voice and provided a surprising level of detail. Other than that, in my experience, God does not send PowerPoints. God provides us with a call and, for the most part, lets us work out the details.
I can’t say for sure why this is. Maybe God is too busy to worry about paint colors. Or maybe it’s about learning from our mistakes. When a baby is learning to walk, is it helpful for someone to stand beside her and offer precise instructions for where to place each foot and exactly when and how to shift her hips? Obviously not—she’s incapable of following those instructions perfectly anyway, and it’s far more efficient to let her fall down once in awhile so she can learn from that and do better next time.
Why don’t we Friends grant ourselves permission to experiment? Initiative is not antithetical to discernment; experimentation is not in conflict with obedience. In the book of John, Jesus said, “No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you.” We’re not expected to engage in the blind, unquestioning obedience of a servant. We’re expected to do God’s will, yes, but not in such a way that we stop using the brains God gave us (as my mother would say).
It’s okay for Friends to try new things, even without making sure that this exact plan is the exact thing God wants us to do this exact second. If we have, for example, discerned and affirmed that God is asking our meeting to serve our neighborhood community, then it’s probably okay if we start by trying an open-door community dinner, and if we discover that doesn’t work (or only works once or twice), then we can move on to offering English lessons at the public library or providing peace scholarships for local high school kids. We tried something, we learned from it, we tried something else. (We took a step, we fell down, we stood up again.)
We’re allowed to experiment and learn from mistakes. We’re allowed to be dynamic, curious communities. If we outrun our Guide, our Guide will let us know, as long as we continue checking in.