The great jazz musician Thelonious Monk once told one of his sidemen, “You’re making all the wrong mistakes!”
Monk was known as musician who did things differently, who played with a kind of dissonance that sounded like he was making mistakes, but that actually worked. He generally made all the right mistakes. I read that quote and realized there are right and wrong mistakes. It’s OK to make the right mistakes; we just don’t want to make the wrong mistakes.
I have made my share of wrong mistakes. When I was a rookie pastor, I told a parishioner that I had done something, when I really hadn’t done it. I was going to do it. I had every intention of doing it, and doing it quickly. But in the rush of all things I had to do, this fell between the cracks. The fact that I hadn’t done it was not an issue. The fact that I lied when I said I had done it was. It became a big issue. That parishioner never really trusted me again. Call it a life lesson, but it was a very expensive life lesson.
What are the right mistakes?
I helped one of the men who lives on the street and hangs out around our church into rehab. While he was there, I visited him every Sunday. When he had passes, I drove him around to run errands. I, and several other people in our church, worked on getting him housing, so he would not have to go back his old life on the streets. We invested a lot of time and energy into him.
He relapsed the very night he graduated from rehab.
He still comes by the church, and I always welcome him, but I was hurt by the process. You might say it was a mistake to invest so much time and energy into someone who had a slim chance of making it and could do nothing to return my investment. If it was, it was the right kind of mistake to make. In the mid-1990s I was offered the opportunity to leave my home state of North Carolina – where I grew up, went to seminary and pastored two churches – for the unknown wilds of Fairbanks, Alaska. Leaving my friends and relatives would be hard. There was the lingering question in the back of my head: What if this was a big mistake? What if I got to Alaska and hated it?
In the end, I decided to move from the Old North State to the North Star State. I figured I would rather do it and have it fail miserably than spend the rest of my life wondering what my life might have been like if I had taken the risk. (As it turned it, it was not any kind of mistake — but hindsight is always 20/20.)
Caring too much is the right kind of mistake. Leaving 99 sheep to go after the one lost sheep is the right kind of mistake. Of course the difference between going after a lost sheep and going after a lost soul, is that the sheep is not likely to tell you to go to hell when you find it, while a lost soul might. That’s what might make it a mistake. Our church welcomed a homeless man with schizophrenia into our warming shop, and he repaid our kindness by breaking 11 windows. Maybe it was a mistake to welcome him, but it was the right kind of mistake.
Taking risks that enhance our faith are the right mistakes. Peter getting out of the boat to walk on the Sea of Galilee was the right mistake. Sure, he freaked out and started to sink, but what if he had just stayed in the boat?
Too often our churches make the wrong mistakes. We withhold caring, in case our caring might be wasted. We avoid risks, in case the risk does not work out. We hold our cards too close to the vest when we should be open and transparent, and get all transparent about things we should keep under wraps. We brag about the wrong things (size and economic status) and downplay or ignore the things that really count (the number of people who are cared for). I have made all these wrong mistakes in my time.
But at times I make the right mistakes. Maybe they are mistakes, but at least they are the right ones. Doing ministry without making mistakes is impossible. There are just far too many variables to be right all the time. So if we are to make mistakes, at least we can make the right ones.
Murray Richmond is the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Medford, Oregon. He has just published his first book, “Wrestling with the Word.”