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Monday, January 25, 2010

The Serendipity of Failure

A few years ago, James Burke noted in TIME magazine that Alexander Graham Bell invented an instrument to inform people of the arrival of telegrams. He did not realize it would become the telephone.

Alessandro Volta devised a eudiometer for exploding bad-smelling gases with electricity. This became the spark plug.

In the late 1800s, aniline dye accidentally fell into a German researcher's petri dish that contained a bacterial culture. He discovered that the dye “preferentially stains and kills certain bacteria.” This paved the way for chemotherapy.

Serendipity intervened: in London summer of 1928, an open window in a hospital lab let in a spore that settled on a staphylococcus-culture dish left unwashed. A mold grew and contaminated the staphylococcus. The lab user returned. Hence, because his lab had not been cleaned, lab user and bacteriologist, Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin.

An Italian explorer sailed across the Atlantic Ocean hoping to find a new route to India and enrich himself trading for spices. Christopher Columbus instead discovered a new world, which literally led to seismic shifts in geography, world power, and, literally, world view.

By its purest definition, all of these inventions and discoveries were failures. They did not meet their original objectives. However, the successes of the byproducts of these “failures” have been staggering.

All of these serve as a nice metaphor for the Christian’s walk with God. Whether they are true failures or unplanned directional turns, Scripture teaches us God can work through both. This truth lends an atmosphere of excitement to the Christian journey. As my colleague, Tim Henderson, put it in one of his blogs, “It is better living to be watching for the unexpected than expecting the living to follow our plan. May you enjoy a life of watching God do more than you can explain or imagine.”

Tim’s words remind me of some of Paul’s, “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen” (Eph. 3:20-21.)

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