In the Event of a Mistake

IMG_1917A bell choir on a recent Sunday was running through its music before worship. I heard the director calling out measure numbers, a common help to keep the ringers together. She commented to me a few minutes later that they had a new member, a man who was a bit uneasy about this debut. She encouraged him by telling me, in his hearing, “I tell him, if he makes a mistake, just keep going!”

It’s good advice for all of us who dare to offer music in worship. If we make a mistake, we keep going. Beyond worship music, it’s good advice for living. I have this conversation often with my sisters in prison. “Do the next right thing.”

There’s another side to this, though. It works only—or at least most effectively—when the rest of us respond graciously to that person, glad to overlook and encourage through the mistakes. We do that pretty freely when it’s that clean-shaven bell ringer who has stepped up to an unaccustomed role. We smile and say “Thanks, Pastor,” even when her sermon is less than perfect. We’re patient—to a point—with that harried waiter who has been assigned too many tables.

But there’s a line. There are people to whom we don’t extend grace. Something about them puts us on our guard. They’ve fallen short of our expectations. We’ve extended too many chances already, and this is the last straw. We’re tired of hearing it. We want them to be better.

I sit often with women who find themselves on the far side of that line. “I’ve burned all my bridges,” one said, having forfeited the care of her family by her repeated descent into addiction. I don’t fault that family; of course they must set boundaries that protect their own well-being.

I do wonder, though, how the church can stand in that gap—for women like I meet in prison and for a myriad of others that we’re inclined to dismiss. When no one else will stand on the sidelines cheering while that sister tries again, let’s! We get to be the ones encouraging her uncertain, unsteady steps. We can’t ignore good boundaries any more than her family can, but we surround her as a whole community, and one not already worn out by past defeats. And we come with radical trust in the God who infinitely loves this precious child, and has plans for her welfare, for a future with hope (Jeremiah 29.11).

Or else we have to look in the mirror and admit that we’ll tolerate the wrong notes only until they spoil the song we had hoped to sit back and enjoy.


  1. Sharon Doolittle says:

    Our family so appreciates those that filled the gap when we no longer could. And now as things improve, it is much easier to for us to reach out! Thank you to reentry teams!

    • says:

      That’s a great example, Sharon, of the role the church can play in these situations. It does become hard for families. I’m glad we were able to offer that support in your situation and in so many others.

      In case you’re reading this and wondering, a reentry team is a program through Women at the Well that connects a woman leaving prison with teams of people from a local church (usually) that will support and encourage her during her first year after release. We have trained dozens of people and currently have about 15 active teams around Iowa. We always need more, especially in metro areas like Des Moines, Waterloo and Davenport. If you’re interested in learning more, be in touch here or through our website,

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