It has become an ugly word.
I have failed many times in many many ways.
I've failed to finish preparing sermons when I planned to.
I've failed to treat people the way I wanted to.
I've failed to go to meetings I said I would.
I've created programmes that have failed.
I've given sermons that have failed (the ones where you've kindly said "that was interesting").
I've failed to stop using plastic bags and to turn off lights when I leave the room.
Failing every day in big and small ways, I'd estimate that I've failed at least 20,000 times already and I hope to fail many more times before this journey is over.
And when I say I've failed at these things, nice people - nice people like you - tell me "don't say that! It wasn't a failure".
The excerpt from "portrait of a lady" describes a woman with such a tendency to reject the very notion that she might fail.
"Every now and then she found out she was wrong, and then she treated herself to a week of passionate humility. After this she held her head higher than ever again; for it was of no use, she had an unquenchable desire to think well of herself. She had a theory that it was only on this condition that life was worth living"
"Fail" and "failure" have become dirty words. This comes from a good place - there is no bad intent in it. We don't want anyone to feel badly about themselves and we think that failing is admitting something bad about yourself - therefore, we try to write failure out of the story.
Today, I'm going to ask you to embrace failure. I want to reclaim failure as a perfectly good word for a perfectly normal and useful part of life.
As Rumi said more than 800 years ago, " Failure is the key to the kingdom within"
Thomas Edison could be taken as our guide in reclaiming failure. How many different ways did Edison try to create the invention he had in his mind - the electric light bulb?
The answer is over 10,000. Edison failed more than 10,000 times before he succeeded! Imagine if he refused to acknowledge failure. What would that look like? We'd probably be sitting in a dingy room right now with ladders up to change the bulbs every two and a half minutes when they burned out - as most of his attempts did.
It was only by recognising and accepting failure as failure that the inventor could change what he was doing and finally succeed.
Failure is not shameful. It is an essential part of progress.
Laurie Anderson - a performance artist who became popular in the early 1980s - wrote a song that featured these words:
"You're walking. And you don't always realize it,
but you're always falling.
With each step you fall forward slightly.
And then catch yourself from falling.
Over and over, you're falling.
And then catching yourself from falling."
The word "fail" is derived from a Latin word meaning fall. The only way to avoid falling is to avoid walking - to avoid moving forward. The only way to avoid failing is to avoid trying.
Now, this whole story about failure is not only something that we deal with in our own individual lives - it is also something that happens to groups.
Think about the buggy whip manufacturers who kept at their business as automobiles displaced the horse and carriage. You can almost hear them saying to themselves "we're doing a good job. We make a great buggy whip - the best buggy whips money can buy. We've been successful in the past, we'll be successful in the future. We can't fail."
Those who admitted failure at the opportunity to change course and make something that people actually wanted to buy!
Most often, we admit failure eventually - but we wait until it's too late to change. When the ice industry continued to invest all its money in better and better ice harvesting equipment and nothing in mechanical refrigeration, there was no hope left for them when they finally accepted that everyone had a refrigerator and no longer needed them. They could have been the dominant sellers of ice-cube trays or ice-makers or freezers instead of becoming a historical footnote.
And so, with our newfound attitude of embracing failure, let's turn our attention to Unitarianism.
Obviously, I love this movement. It has meant a great deal in my life and in the lives of my wife and son and so many of you. It is an extraordinary faith movement that has done much very well. It is a faith that has fought for women's rights, fought for gay rights, fought for democracy, and fought against war.
It is the only faith that offers true freedom of belief - that provides an opportunity to be in a community where you can change your mind and still be accepted - where you can be welcomed as you are - even without the "right" beliefs.
And Unitarians have also failed and have failed to recognise and admit that failure. The typical Unitarian congregation in this country has a membership of 15 people. The average age is probably well over 60 - maybe over 70.
Its services are conducted much as they would have been conducted 50 or 100 years ago. They may be making very nice buggy whips, but the market for buggy whips has quite conclusively vanished.
Most people in those congregations will be quick to say this is not failure but being small - not sharing wonderful values and freedoms with the larger world is indeed failure.
And the nice people say "oh no, you haven't failed!" They say "The people who are here are the right people." They say "we are small but perfectly formed." They say "Unitarianism is only for special people."
New Unity is rather different. We have grown in a dozen years from one of the smallest Unitarian congregations in the UK to one of the largest. We have one of the youngest memberships. Our members are not "church-lovers." Many of you come here despite it being religion - not because of it.
But like any group or any person, it can be hard to admit and recognise and accept our failures. It can be hard to say "we need to change dramatically".
What if that means we have to stop making buggy whips and get into the steering wheel business?
Note that these two businesses have the same objective - they both help a driver conduct their vehicle where they want to go. This is important. Success and failure depend on the objectives - on the goals. If Edison had redefined his goal as a lightbulb that shed very little light and lasted only two and a half minutes, he might have been successful on attempt number 200 rather than trying more than 10,000 variations.
Our purposes need not change when our way of trying to meet those purposes fails. Just like buggy whips and steering wheels, failure may impel us to try a new means to our time-honoured objectives.
Our purpose in Unitarianism - to foster individual growth, community, and activism for a better world - doesn't change but maybe our means of accomplishing those objectives need to change.
Our failures can be hard to see and harder to admit. It takes a focus on our objectives and a deliberate look at how we attempt to achieve those objectives. Are we making buggy whips when we should be making steering wheels? Are we making steering wheels when we should be making virtual touchless thought-controlled vehicle directors?
I don't have the answers. I am as stuck in old ways of doing things as anyone. Together though, we have a better chance of identifying how we've failed so we can make a brighter, longer-burning Unitarianism.
Please take this time to write on the cards you were given when you came in. Write one or more things that may have failed and need to change.
You might want to write something like "we need to stop lighting candles" or "we need to have a younger minister" or whatever it is that comes to you. These will be anonymous, so please be frank.
I'll make sure that I and the leadership of the congregation take a good look at what you've written.
We have failed. And it is through our recognition and acceptance of failure that we can, at last, move forward to greater success.
May you know you have failed
May we know we have failed
May we go beyond failure to success