What Is a Mistake Anyway?

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Brian R. Wallace
Associate Minister
October 31, 2019

I still remember, as plain as day, the first time I got something wrong in Kindergarten.  I don’t remember the exact assignment, but whatever it was, it was printed on a folded 8.5 x 17-inch sheet of paper that was of newsprint weight.   And I know the teacher used a red pen because I can see the checkmark next to my answer in my mind, even today.   You have to understand I had made it about a month getting everything right on every assignment in school.  But on that fateful Friday, my perfect streak was broken.   That night my parents and I made the approximately 1-hour drive to a hockey game and I was so upset, so beside myself, I clutched that stupid red-marked piece of paper the whole way.   At one point, my poor mother said to me, “Brian, it’s ok, you’re going to get things wrong,” to which I responded in my most stubborn, determined five-year-old voice, “No, I won’t!  Not if I can help it!”

I’d love to tell you that that was the last time a similar scene played out in my life.  It wasn’t.  There was a similar scene in first grade, the first time I got three words wrong on my spelling pre-test.   Another when I got a 59 on a math test in third grade.  Another one when a miscommunication with a teacher left me with a C on a 7th-grade social studies project.  Another one when I landed a D on my freshmen year mid-term essay.  Another one in college when I was awarded a C for battling my way through my 8 am upper-level Electricity and Magnetism class.  And yes, another one when I received the same grade on my second attempt at a sermon in homiletics while in seminary that I had on my first attempt, despite spending a couple of hours with my professor making adjustments.

In case you hadn’t figured it out yet, I was a little high strung when it came to grades.  And less you doubt that fact you should know that it took no effort at all to recall the incidents I recounted above.  As a kid, I hated being wrong and often reacted poorly, sometimes very poorly, when someone accused me of doing something wrong.  The problem with that, and I am still trying to learn this despite 38 trips around the sun, is that making mistakes is literally part of the human experience of life.

The bible reminds us of this simple truth over and over again.  Whether it’s the first scene from the Garden of Eden to the letters written to the seven churches in Revelation, the bible is full of people who mess up.  Even the giants of the faith all seem to make a mess of things.  My biblical hero Moses earns his notoriety by murdering an Egyptian and would later be kept from the Promised Land because he hit a rock instead of speaking to it.

We make mistakes, don’t we?  We say things we shouldn’t and we don’t say things we should.  We’re not as compassionate, kind, loving, patient, etc. as we should be.  Even on our best days, we seem to miss the mark on any number of fronts.

Two narratives run together through scripture that are interconnected: (1) people mess up (2) God is faithful.  Even amid human faithlessness, God is faithful to the end.  The Apostle Paul, citing his own experience, declares that “God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness.”  The Bible is full of stories such as Joseph declaring to his brothers that what they intended for evil God used for good or the ultimate story of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead and triumph over death.  We find a consistent theme of God taking people’s mistakes and failures and transforming them for Kingdom purposes.

In my work with teens, I was often the first adult who found out about a mistake someone had made.  And early on, I learned a magic question: “So what can you learn from this?”   More recently, I’ve started to utilize a slightly nuanced version of that question, “So what does this teach you about yourself?”  Theologically speaking, as redeemed people, the only true mistake is one that we don’t learn from and grow in faithfulness to Jesus Christ through.  This idea in no way minimizes the importance of consequences and responsibility as the learning process requires those components.  But the idea itself rests on one truth: God’s transforming grace can take huge mistakes and transform them and the people who made them into fruit for the Kingdom.

So what good came from my series of academic shortcomings that triggered meltdowns?  Well, a lot.  On the one hand, I learned to advocate for myself. I’d question the grade, make my case, and get a higher score.  On the other hand, and more importantly, I learned that I wasn’t perfect.  And most important, I learned that I didn’t need to be perfect in order to be loved.  And most important of all, I learned to learn from my mistakes and grow.  That’s a journey that one can take with boldness and excitement when rooted in a trust in God’s grace and faithfulness.

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