a failure of nerve

i was driving home from jose and i’s fun getaway to lake powell catching up on emails & rss feeds (gotta love jose’s nifty internet phone connection that hooks to my computer!) and i came across something that really caught my eye & my heart & i just keep thinking about.  it was in a blog post by leon blonder, just a few short lines that for whatever reason have been reverberating in my head ever since. he spoke of a book by edwin friedman called a failure of nerve: leadership in the age of the quick fix (haven’t read it, hadn’t heard of it before a few days ago, so i can’t vouch for it in any way shape or form but it sounds really good).  blonder says:

“friedman stated that when good leaders dare to rise up and take a stand for what is right and healthy, our sick and anxious society does everything that it can to sabotage them. In order to be an effective leader, according to friedman, one must become a non-anxious, reflective presence-a voice that speaks the truth, and works to help the community, culture, society become healthy enough to fight off the diseases that plague it. a leader like this requires the kind of nerve to remain steadfast where they are called, even though it would be easier to retreat, easier to find a corner of the world where everyone tends to agree, speaks the same language…”


a failure of nerve. failure to stay the course. failure to see it through regardless of the obstacles.  failure to believe that dreams are really possible and possibly just on the other side of hardship. failure to just ignore the nay-sayers.  failure to move beyond the status quo.   i hate the word “failure”.  i try not to use it because i do believe that nothing is really a failure even though a situation or experience might look like it is in the world’s eyes.  God-always-at-work is foundational to my belief that nothing, absolutely nothing, is a total failure.  at the same time, i am honest when i say that i have struggled with a constant fear of failure almost my whole life, a nagging sense that i better pull off whatever i am doing “or else.”  thankfully, i have experienced more healing in this area than ever before but the truth is that this nagging fear is still a little more accessible than i’d like.  the risk involved in stepping up and planting the refuge and giving some of my dreams for the church a try has kept me up many a night.  everything about it, honestly, has been really good for my soul (and the hard stuff in many ways has probably been the most important).   i am on an amazing team. power and politics aren’t in the equation. i love people and seeing God work in all kinds of wacky ways.  i am thankful for the blank slate  and the creativity that has sprung forth from collaboration.   the only sucky part:  fear of failure.  especially since i have shared so much of our story here online i sometimes feel a weird kind of pressure that there’s no doubt does not come from God.  the enemy & my own messed-up-ness always does a little number on my head.   but in the midst of all my come-and-go insanity, i have been wonderfully surprised by the hope & strength that God has infused in me to go for it.  to live it.  to breathe it.  to risk it.  to sacrifice for it.  to keep moving no matter how dumb we may sometimes look.   to resist the tendency to use the sick system as our measure. to develop & cultivate the nerve to stay the course, no matter what the statistics say.

<!–[if gte mso 9]> Normal 0 false false false EN-US X-NONE X-NONE MicrosoftInternetExplorer4 <![endif]–><!–[if gte mso 9]> <![endif]–> <!–[endif]–>a failure of nerve. those words really got under my skin.  i do think it’s one of the reasons why so many people are stuck in churches and lives and careers and all kinds of things that they daydream about leaving.  it just feels too darn scary to take some of the steps that might need taking.  i so get it.  i give up my nerve all the time. i know there are so many much riskier things i’d like to experiment with:  trying even crazier things through the refuge, actually pursuing a common purse & true-blue sharing of resources, getting rid of 1/2 of our stuff, co-housing experiments, a whole bucket load of dreams for what could impact our community & people’s lives with Christ’s love & tangible hope & help.  what stops me?  well, honestly, a lot of time it’s the reality that i have 5 kids and not as much margin as i wish. but the other piece really is a “failure of nerve.”  i get scared.  i can think of all the reasons why “that won’t work.”  i worry too much about longevity & the future and forget that the current moment–the things that happen when we experiment with new ideas–is full of beauty and learning that in so many ways cannot be measured. this idea makes me think of peter, when Jesus calls him out on the water.  i think peter has gotten such a bad rap, at least in some of the bible studies i’ve been in-“he’s so impatient,”, “he lacked self-control”, “he lacked faith.”  but you gotta hand it to him, he had the initial nerve, he stepped out of that boat when no one else would.  sure, he sank.  but at least he tried.  who knows what would have happened if he hadn’t noticed the wind & freaked out?  oh i won’t chop up the story, but i do think peter’s is a faith story at the same time it’s a nerve story.   i think they go hand and hand-faith & nerve.

i don’t necessarily think failure of nerve is the same as failure of faith, and i hope you all know me well enough by now to know that i am extremely wary of measuring faith in any way, shape or form (and am i ever glad that God works despite my lack of it). but here’s where i do think they intersect:  faith & nerve require a leap across a chasm. sometimes that chasm is wider, sometimes it’s smaller.  to me, that is the essence of faith and is a reason why i believe it can’t be totally “proven” no matter how many scriptures we know or how far down we try to dissect it.  my dear friend sage suggest that maybe faith & nerve are really verbs.  faith takes a crazy leap of believing what can’t be fully and totally seen and known. “a failure of nerve” may have something to do, i believe, in not being willing to wait for or act toward something that is not yet seen. most of us are terribly impatient. we look around and grasp for something tangible, measurable, solid and sure, tried and true.  no matter how we slice it up, we are always always always looking for ways to measure stuff and make it valuable based on those measurements.   church planting, dream pursuing, career shifting, relationship creating, you name it,  we look around at the most “reliable sources” and use them as our gauge.   and i do believe that sometimes these sources are the prime culprits behind our failure of nerve.  in fact, as blonder’s brief quote suggests, sometimes these systems do everything they can to ensure that we lose our nerve.  so we get scared.  we look at “the system” for direction instead of Jesus.  we look at “the system” as the gatekeepers instead of following crazy stirrings inside our hearts. we read & listen to other people’s ideas of what works or doesn’t work and think that somehow we have to follow their formulas & advice.

<!–[if gte mso 9]> Normal 0 false false false EN-US X-NONE X-NONE MicrosoftInternetExplorer4 <![endif]–><!–[if gte mso 9]> <![endif]–> <!–[endif]–>but what if we resisted that urge to give in to the status quo and pursue some of the things God might be stirring up inside of us, no matter how big or small? and what if we actually had the nerve to see it through beyond the stage where it feels like every force was working against it? one of the things i love about the flawed characters of the Bible is that so many of them wrestled with faith & doubt & nerve in all kinds of ways.  and the beautiful thing is that God is always at work & loves us whether we act or follow through or not. but, i do wholeheartedly believe that so often we miss our on some glorious ways life now, love now, justice & mercy now, the kingdom now could be expanded if we seek God’s help to push through the resistances & obstacles to what he might be asking us to do.  and there’s no telling how much we’d learn about God & faith & ourselves & the kingdom & other people & life & all kinds of things if we resisted our tendency to play it safe & had the nerve to go places that other people might be too afraid to go, to try things that other people might be too afraid to try.

this looks so different for everyone & i think that’s part of the beauty, really.  it’s not about finding what we think we are “supposed to do” based on the world’s or the church’s or someone else’s ideas.  it’s a listening for God’s beckoning, his call to move his people to impact this world in all kinds of small & big & wonderful & potentially terrifying ways.

God, give me, us, nerve.

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar is dedicated to creating safe and brave spaces for transformation and healing in real life, online, and outside. She co-pastors at The Refuge, a hub for healing community, social action, and creative collaboration in North Denver, co-directs #communityheals, a non-profit organization dedicated to making spaces for transformation accessible for all, and is the author of Practicing: Changing Yourself to Change the World, Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.


  • Hi,

    Peter only started to sink once he took his eyes off Jesus and looked at the waves. We’ll never jump that chasm if we are looking at the gaping hole, but if we keep focused on the other side – we’ve got a better chance.

    I hope you don’t mind I quoted a little of your previous post on my blog, you put into words so much about what I feel being a mum.

  • Kathy–How about coffee sometime? WOW! I read your blog for a daily dose of YES. You are the embodiment of one of my favorite children’s stories: The Little Engine that Could! Thanks again.

  • wow… so much. my brain & heart hurt and I love it. it’s actually way above my head… but i’m trying to grasp it all. thanks as always.

  • friedman’s great. have you read or heard of his book “Generation to Generation?” it’s a book on counseling, and family systems theory, and relational dynamics, and a ton of stuff, and it sounds like this leadership book is a direct leadership application of Systems Theory. changing the system is possible, though much harder than most people credit–the system doesn’t want to be changed and will fight back. that’s part of why it’s always easier to scrap it and start something new than to try to adjust something existing

  • I think that not caving to the pressure to conform – or at least reaching a point beyond which I was unwilling to bend – is what got me in the place I am now: churchless, shunned, vilified, broken – shattered, even, examined, learning, growing, healing, breaking some more, free of bondages, recognizing new bondages – or rather deeper ones I couldn’t see before, vulnerable, hurt, and in a better place than I think I’ve ever been…

  • good words Kathy. The one push-back I would have is that the “refusal to fail” type attitude can also be applied to unhealthy systems. I worked for some of those pastors…they definitely did not lack nerve or perseverance.

    I’m obsessed with perseverance and the “see it to the end” attitude I grew up with. It’s easy for me to read something like this and immediately judge all the times I failed to stay the course and second guess if I persevered enough.

    So I guess there’s a little caution in the midst of my appreciation of what you’re saying.

  • Thanks Kathy…I needed to read that this morning.
    And coffee, I’m with minnowspeaks on that one…what are you doing next week!!! 🙂

  • melissa – nice to hear from you and yeah, thanks for the link. i think about the peter story all the time, how he looked down & took his eyes off Jesus and that was when he sunk…

    minnowspeaks – i know, i wish you lived closer! one of these days. thanks for being such a great cheerleader from afar

    brian – yeah, me, too, but i have a stack of way too many that i haven’t read yet so i am supposedly on a moratorium.

    randi – sorry to make your head and heart hurt 🙂 but i am always glad it stirs up good and challenging stuff for you. it makes writing it feel worth it.

    sara – thanks for commenting. i haven’t read that book but yeah, it is exactly that. changing the system, whether it be church or family or organizationally or ?, it will always buck and try to suck you back in to the norm no matter how unhealthy it is. the system is very, very powerful.

    katherine – i love your story, always. it is so true. you have stayed the course & had unbelievable nerve. the more unhealthy the system, the more nerve it takes. thank you God.

    makeesha – oh i hear you. that is a great point to clarify and add & a reminder how we can have undogged determination in areas that aren’t healthy and good just because we think that’s what we are supposed to do or because of our own messedup-ness or systems that don’t let us leave. i think a good sequel to this thought would be “a failure to let go”.

    donna – oh always great to hear from you here. i miss you guys. i need a pdx fix next year.


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