Culture and Society Entrepreneurship Failure Spirituality in the Ordinary

On Empty Seats

I recently listened to Rob Bell’s podcast, the Robcast, and was struck by the story he told about his a very unsuccessful book tour which he made. The context was that he had recently written his very controversial book Love Wins – see here and here for a few sample reviews. In his previous book tours he had been popular and successful. This time, however,  in venues where he had had sold 1,600 tickets previously, he was speaking to eighty or fifty, clustered nervously together for mutual support in the middle of the  auditorium. It’s worth listening to the whole thing.

It made me reflect on my own experiences of doing Cafechurch. For instance, the evening last year when absolutely no-one showed up at the pub – even Anne, who is always there, was down the other end of the pub, working on a presentation. So I sat, alone, on a table for twelve, in quite a crowded pub, for an hour before I finally accepted that it wasn’t going to happen that night. Just me, and my eleven imaginary friends.

It’s risky, doing something new, untried, unsupported. You can feel like you’re out there on your own, operating without a net, and definitely without an operating manual. And, I guess, failure is an inevitable part of the experience. Rob Bell frequently points out that, if you meet a person who seems to be successfully creative, who apparently never puts a foot wrong, if you ask them about it they will be able to regale you with many, many stories of things which didn’t work. There is, apparently, no safe way to be creative, no method which will  give you guaranteed success or your money back if not completely satisfied.

I’m not sure if I find that reassuring or not. On balance, probably it is. If everyone fails, and only succeeds through perseverance, then perhaps I can feel better about my own failures – it’s just an inevitable part of the process.

At one level, I, like pretty well everyone, wish there was some way to guarantee success. A magic action I could do, a habit I could cultivate, a book I could read… or something.  Of course I rationally know that there is no such thing – even hard work is no guarantee of success, in spite of a million well meaning, innocent internet memes to that effect. I know that – there really is no guarantee. (Of course, not working hard pretty much seems to guarantee the opposite. But that’s another story.)

Deeper than that there’s a little part of me that is given to magical thinking, which is very struck by the appearance of success and is adept at ignoring all the hard work and failure behind it.  This part of me wishes that, if some people can just succeed without any apparent effort, then perhaps I could be one of those people? And, from a rather darker place, if I’m not, then that kind of gives me an excuse not to bother? It’s self destructive, but surprisingly comfortable. After all, if I’m not one of the special, blessed ones, then I may as well not bother – may as well lie on my sofa with a glass or two of red wine and watch Lost (yes, I know, but I really want to finish it this time) until two in the morning. It’s just so much easier than picking myself up again and again and trying again.

We live, I think, in a culture of despair – summed up for me in Edvard Munch’s The Scream and T S Eliot’s The Wasteland and The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock. It’s surprising how easy it is to give way to that – to think that nothing one does really matters anyway, that any action is as good as any other, and why go to all the effort of bothering with stressful activities, embarrassing public failure, and generally a high risk life?

The whole issue feels even more fraught than usual for me at the moment, ironically, because of the funding that the church has generously given me to work with Cafechurch more full-time. I’ve always had lots of excuses in the past. I’ve been ridiculously busy, unhealthily busy, trying to keep it all together to keep Cafechurch on the road, and it’s provided a sort of existential shield for when things haven’t really flown. It’s because I’m so busy, I say to myself. If only I had more resources, more time for it, then it would all be smooth sailing. Well, now I have more resources for it, and a whole category of excuses are gone. It has left me feeling quite exposed.

This morning I was doing my Sacred Space daily Scripture reflection, and the lectionary reading was Luke 5:1-11. That’s the story where Jesus amazes (even terrifies) Peter and his friends with an absurdly vast catch of fish, and invites them to leave what they are doing, and to come and fish for people. It’s a rich story (for instance, what happened to all those fish? Perhaps the wives, sisters, and mothers of the new disciples could sell enough fish (fresh, dried, etc) to sustain themselves while Peter et. al. were gallivanting around the countryside with their new friend?) but the particular aspect of it which spoke to me today was the idea of calling. Jesus called them – as he calls each of us – to follow.

It gives me such a strong picture of myself pottering about in the bay in a little battered tinny while out on the ocean the huge mega-trawlers of cultural giants (the SS Shopping, the SS Netflix, and so on) are hoovering up the catch. But, I think Jesus is saying, it’s the fishing that’s the point, more than the size of the catch.


By Alister Pate

I'm a minister in the Uniting Church in Australia, with two congregations: one in Northcote / Chalice, which now includes Cafechurch Melbourne, and one up the road in Reservoir, confusingly known as Preston High Street. I am

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