Columnists > Soul Food

The price of success

What the church needs are saints willing to pay with failure

Issue: "Social Security," Jan. 11, 1997

Who would have believed it six years ago? In 1991, George Bush's near-historic approval rating was so strong and so seemingly impenetrable that the two Democratic front-runners, Al Gore and Richard Gephardt, refused to even run for their party's wide-open presidential nomination.

Their lack of fortitude allowed a small-state governor to overcome having enough skeletons in the closet to service virtually every medical school in the country, and to capture the nomination-not to mention the White House. And on Jan. 20, Bill Clinton will take the oath of office for the second time.

I was reminded of Mr. Clinton's improbable impact as I watched one of this decade's other celebrated figures-Miami quarterback Dan Marino-finish last month a disappointing season. When the season began, hopes for the Dolphins' success were high and Mr. Marino's fame was such that when GQ ran a profile on him, the writer ran out of mortal adjectives and metaphors and finally began referring to him as a &quotgod."

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Well, sorry, but this god makes mistakes.

I remember one game in particular, late in the fall. Miami played Oakland, and Mr. Marino entered the game with the most favorable touchdown-pass/interception ratio of any quarterback in the history of the NFL. But on this day, the god forgot to put on his deity. Mighty Marino threw three interceptions and then fumbled on a crucial fourth-quarter play as Miami remained uncharacteristically scoreless late into the game-against a team with a losing record.

I knew Dan Marino was having an especially bad day when even my wife-who thinks the Raiders' hometown is San Diego and that a split end is something that happens to her hair-started offering Mr. Marino suggestions through the television set.

Now, it's one thing to have a bad day at the office and feel the subtle disapproval of a boss and a few co-workers. But what must it be like to have a bad day at the office that's viewed, discussed, and evaluated by tens of millions of people?

There's a lesson here. Dan Marino's place in the Hall of Fame is about as certain as anything can be on this earth. I can't imagine a single bookie betting against Mr. Marino's eventual induction into pro football's highest honor.

But three interceptions and a fumble? Quarterbacks have been benched and even traded for less.

The lesson, however, is this: To make an impact, we have to be willing to face an occasionally awful day. People who can't throw a football 15 yards into a mile-wide pond will be second-guessing any given quarterback on Monday morning, but many of those same people have chosen safe lives in which failure (and therefore, real success) is often impossible, if not irrelevant. They never take risks and they never fail, but they also die without having accomplished anything of merit.

The fact is, we can't accomplish anything if we refuse to occasionally look bad. I've heard Billy Graham reflect on his first preaching experience, in which he had prepared two sermons for two nights and ended up preaching both of them the first night (and still ran out of material in 10 minutes!), but his unparalleled evangelistic success has been built upon his willingness to be embarrassed in that first attempt.

And Bill Clinton has proven that even a muddle-headed, frequently deceptive, and just plain misguided agenda can still succeed if you can summon the courage to enter the fray and then hang on.

What the church needs today are courageous Christians: saints who don't fear failure as much as they fear apathy, who realize that doing nothing defines failure more than does making an occasional mistake. If Mr. Clinton hasn't allowed serious moral lapses to get in the way of his mission, what excuse do Christians have not to get involved? And if even Dan Marino can mess up, then we know that occasional failure is the price of eventual success.

People who are afraid to fail will never throw an interception. They'll never fumble a football. But they'll also never make a difference.

With six minutes left to play against Oakland, Dan Marino went back onto the field and led the Dolphins from the Miami 20-yard line to the Raiders' end zone. While Miami still lost the game, Mr. Marino reminded the crowd why he's still a sure bet for the Hall of Fame.

Sure, he had a bad day. But that's much better than living an empty life.

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