On April 1, 1966, I stepped off an airplane at the Birmingham Airport, not knowing that within a few months I would be back there as an employee of a major airline, facing another failure.
I sucked up courage as I walked with my wife and our baby girl through the concourse toward a moment I had been dreading for four months: the encounter with family members who had tried their best to persuade me not to throw away my graduate education, put my family at risk, and waste the big investment many generous people had made to help me get to the seminary I had left to take an English-language church in Nuremberg, Germany, made up of military personnel who would soon be sent to Vietnam.
But on that day, those same family members would do their best to encourage me to go forward.
I am now “hoary” with age — a term rarely used anymore. Literally, it describes a color, gray-white, like my meager hair. “Hoary” came to mean “venerable,” the definition to which I aspire at this point in life.
We are all climbing “Mount Hoary,” the massif of time. The higher you go the clearer things look — if you see the expedition up the slopes through the eyes of the Lord, and if you turn away from the gaze on failure.
If you focus on the failures of “Death Valley” all you will see from the peak of “Hoary” will be opportunities lost, advantages abandoned, and redemptions missed.
Worst of all, you will miss knowing by experience as well as faith that God really is working for good in everything — including your failures — for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. (Romans 8:28)
Through failure I learned that I shouldn’t blame “God’s will” for my mistakes, but to note especially His sovereignty over the whole of my life — failures and all.
So, from up here on “Level 8” of “Mount Hoary” I can see the road traveled, the wrong turns, the potholes, and places where I tripped and lost ground. But I can see the goodness and sweet providences of God — where He used the wrong turns to get me on an entirely new course, filled in the potholes I had dug, and reached out and with His great hand pulled me back on track when I fell and slid.
Occasionally from this altitude of age I get glimpses of where I am going, and that is truly thrilling.
Fifty-four years ago, my immediate challenge was to get a job. I figured I had thrown away my ministerial career in dropping out of seminary, and thought I had no skills in anything else. So, I went to work as a laborer in a box factory. Soon I realized I needed more money, so I signed on as a ramp agent for Delta Airlines, loading and unloading airplanes.
I quickly discovered I had no aptitude for that job and was failing — sometimes dangerously when I almost drove a luggage cart into a DC-9 jet, and on another occasion when I came too near a whirling propeller.
One afternoon I was perusing the newspaper when I saw the byline of a student I had known a few years earlier in college. I want to try to learn that, I told myself. I figured the best way was to dive in, and applied for a job at the smaller of Birmingham’s two newspapers. I fell in love with journalism. I was certain I had found my new career.
A year later I landed a job at the larger paper — in fact, the largest in Alabama at that time, The Birmingham News. I was a reporter primarily covering the religion beat but filling in for other beat-reporters. Eventually I was promoted to the editorial page staff and given my own weekly column.
Because of that work, and through circumstances too detailed to describe here, I was asked to join the White House staff of President Richard Nixon in 1970. I was certain I had arrived at the top of another mountain — the “peak of success.”
The Lord had another agenda for me in the White House. I started attending a staff prayer breakfast on Thursday mornings. Four years earlier I had given up on the Lord and a career in ministry, but now, week by week, I was inching back to the fellowship with Him that had been so special in my earlier life.
I did not know it, but a colleague, Chuck Colson, was on the same journey.
Ultimately, in 1973, God renewed my call to ministry, and now, in my late seventies, I am still at it.
The view from “Mount Hoary” is lovely. All those hard places of failure were used by the Lord of time and history to get me where I was destined to be. I understand the Apostle Paul a bit better when he said, in Romans 5:2-5,
... we exult in hope of the glory of God. And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.
Craig D. Lounsbrough put it this way: “Without mountains, we might find ourselves relieved that we can avoid the pain of the ascent, but we’ll forever miss the thrill of the summit. And in such a terribly scandalous trade-off, it is the absence of pain that becomes the thief of life.”
Don’t let the pain of your failure rob you of “the thrill of the summit.”
Wallace Henley is a former pastor, White House and congressional aide, and author of more than 25 books. His newest is Two Men From Babylon: Nebuchadnezzar, Trump, and the Lord of History, published by Thomas Nelson.