You Can Do the Right Things and Still Fail

“My farm was a little too high up for growing coffee.”

Karen Blixen (1885–1962) begins her chapter “Hard Times” with a statement of surrender. This unyielding truth had brought a life both foreign and familiar, beautiful and dangerous, wearisome yet rewarding to a punctilious end. But Blixen’s memoir Out of Africa (1937) does not wrap up at the end; it unravels. The farm, friends, efforts, and dreams woven into the landscape of the Ngong Hills near Nairobi, Kenya, are left a jumbled heap on the floor.

As she retells her story, the truth becomes obvious in hindsight. And yet the clarity does not make the truth easier to stomach—or the loss less painful. I know the feeling—we all do. As I leafed through through Blixen’s reflections the past week, her frustrations and emotions mirrored mine as I grieve the loss of my farm: pastoral ministry.

Blixen begins by explaining that several elements were outside of her control. The elevation of her coffee grove meant late frosts killed young berries each year, hamstringing their production. The farm barely survived in years of frequent rain, and a pair of years with severe drought “were disastrous to the farm.” During the same time, the market price for coffee fell. After 17 hard years of pouring her life into the soil, shareholders back home in Denmark wrote they would have to sell the farm.

[Blixen’s] frustrations and emotions mirrored mine as I grieve the loss of my farm: pastoral ministry.

In response, Blixen grit her teeth: “I thought of many devices for the salvation of the farm.” She tried planting flax to supplement her coffee earnings. She explained her scheme to a Belgian farmer. His response: “Ça, madame, c’est impossible!” She planted 150 acres anyway. With satisfaction, she watched the greasy, sky-blue fibers shoot up from the ground. However, dismay set in when processing the produce proved too difficult: “So my flax-growing was no success.”

She tried spreading manure around the coffee trees to increase production. Nothing. She thought of growing lumber, but that would supply no immediate relief. She tried her hand at keeping cattle and running a dairy. All these scramblings and stunted starts formed the tangled mess of her final years on the farm.

Farm’s Slow Death
“It is a heavy burden to carry a farm on you.”

Blixen took to wandering about the farm at night, a ghost haunting her dying landscape. Her manager, Farah, warned her about predators that had been spotted close to the house at night: “But I was too sad to get any idea of leopards into my mind.” The numbness of denial had set into her soul. Just before the coffee harvest, she left on a trip clinging to false hope that upon her return she might be surprised by their take. Her manager met her on her return. They avoided the topic all afternoon, but in the late evening she asked how many tons of coffee they had managed to pick. “Swallowing his sorrow, he said: ‘Forty tons, Memsahib.’ At that I knew that we could not carry on.”

That same year, locusts swept through the African continent. Towns sent runners to warn the next farmers of imminent attack. In the course of time, the messengers of doom came running up Blixen’s drive. She shrugged, “I have been told that many times . . . but I have seen nothing in them. Perhaps it is not so bad as people tell.”

The messenger responded, “Turn round kindly, Madam.”

Blixen beheld what looked like a long stretch of smoke, a town burning.

“What is that?”

“Grasshoppers.”

The locusts descended. Their sheer weight broke the limbs from her coffee trees. They destroyed her garden, eating all vegetation, fruits, and flowers. She describes how the hungry horde violated her farm: “They whir against your face, they get into your collar and your sleeves and shoes. The rush round you makes you giddy and fills you with a particular sickening rage and despair.”

The grasshoppers laid eggs in the soil. The next year when the rain came down, the grasshoppers came up. Again.

In the end, the money ran out, and Blixen had to sell the farm to a corporation. The new owners didn’t plan to farm the land anymore. They would pave over her 17 years of labor, sweat, and toil with roads and parcel the land for development.

It all felt like a terrible nightmare; surely she would awake soon: “During these months, I formed in my own mind a program, or a system of strategy, against destiny. . . . Lose [the farm], I thought, I cannot: It cannot be imagined, how then can it happen?”

When the Unimaginable Happens
“In this way I was the last person to realize that I was going.”

This past Thursday, I had to choke back tears repeatedly. I was teaching Blixen’s wistful tragedy in my World Lit class even as I was living my own. Her struggles, the inevitability of her failure, and the seeming futility of all her efforts hit way too close to home. The dam of emotions broke as I closed our class in prayer. I was shaking.

Lose the farm? I cannot: It cannot be imagined, how then can it happen?

And yet it has. After nine years of my toiling in the fields of Newberry County, the Lord has refused to let me stay. Moreover, it seems he is determined—at present—to prevent me from entering another field of vocational ministry.

So many seeds planted. So much fertilizer slung. So many efforts, half-starts, and stunted endeavors. Looking back, it feels like I was throwing rocks against the wall of inevitability: My farm was a little too high up for growing coffee.

A little too high. These are the challenges that are the most frustrating. The ones that feel just barely out of reach. God has been teaching me a painful lesson the past several years: With God nothing is impossible—but with Chad, some things are.

God has been teaching me a painful lesson the past several years: With God nothing is impossible—but with Chad, some things are.

We hear about the ministers who ride off in a blaze of glory or the ones who fall like lightning from heaven. We posterize the stories of those who plant multiple campuses, baptize thousands, write opuses, and build networks of international missions. The pastors who commit grievous sin, abuse, or adultery, thus forfeiting burgeoning ministries, find their way into the headlines too.

But where’s the story of the pastor who is faithful—and still fails?

I’m still trying to figure out that one.

Surrender Your Treasure
It seems our natural inclination is to dig deeper: He must have done something wrong. There must be some hidden problem. I’ve thought the same. I suspect the reason we sow these seeds of doubt is that we want to deny the existence of this category altogether: doing everything right, and still failing.

My point is not that I have done everything right in ministry—just ask anyone!—but that we want to believe if we always do the right thing, we will always succeed. Build the right ministry structures, craft the right liturgies, hold to the right confessions, attract the right families, and preach the right style of sermons, and we cannot fail.

The old hymn is true: “His kingdom cannot fail.” But mine might. The author of Hebrews talks about faithful men and women being stoned, sawn in two, and killed with the edge of the sword (Heb. 11:37–38). Sounds like losing. Sounds a lot like failure—at least in the short term. But obviously, that won’t happen to me, we comfort ourselves.

In this way I was the last person to realize that I was going. Perhaps it is God’s grace that has prevented me from succumbing to defeatism all these years—or a bullheaded personality—but I have finally come to that place of surrender.

This morning, I was reading the story of the rich young ruler. He asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” If you know the story, Jesus enumerates several of the Ten Commandments. The young man responds, “I’ve kept them all—what else?” Jesus’s response is terrifying: “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”

My terrifying moment has come. If I am truly to follow him, I must sell the treasure I have clung to these past nine years: pastoral ministry.

I pray the Lord will be kind to me one day and allow me the privilege of returning to the farm—to vocational ministry. As I follow him, perhaps what sounds a lot like “No” today will, in hindsight, turn out to have been “Not yet.”

C. Ashby

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

One thought on “You Can Do the Right Things and Still Fail

  1. I’m so sorry. “Not yet” is both the most hopeful and horrible thing to hear. It’s easier to handle “no” because there is no chance. “Not yet” means you have to keep fighting but you don’t know why you’ve been denied. Keep strong. You will find your path. We all do in the end.

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