I often talk to people who feel like they’re failing. Failing God, failing their kids, failing their spouses, failing their church, failing their colleagues or shareholders, failing to realize their potential, failing to optimize, prioritize, maximize. Sometimes the people I talk to about all this failing are the voices in my own head. Life is conceived of as some kind of a test or a race or contest with winners and losers. It’s remarkable how frequently people who, by all outward appearances seem to be thriving, or at the very least keeping their heads above water, feel like they’re not measuring up.
One of my guilty pleasures during this pandemic has been reading Joshua Ferris, an American author who seems to specialize in narrating some of the bleak, tedious, and darkly hilarious dimensions of modern life. He is perhaps best known for Then We Came to the End, which is an absurdly hilarious window into of a group of co-workers negotiating office life in a Chicago advertising agency. His most recent book, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, follows the life of a certain Paul O’Rourke who, according to one summary, is “a Luddite addicted to his iPhone, a dentist with a nicotine habit, a rabid Red Sox fan devastated by their victories, and an atheist not quite willing to let go of God.” He’s a character just conflicted enough to be thoroughly believable.
Ferris has also written a collection of short stories called The Dinner Party. In one story, “Life in the Heart of the Dead,” a middle-aged advertising salesman from Cleveland finds himself on a business trip in the city of Prague. Despite being in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, he is unable to muster up much enthusiasm for the sights and the sounds, the castles and cathedrals, the monuments to great historical moments and figures. He is bored out of his mind on an official tour. It all just feels a little pointless to him, a parade of meaningless events in the “continuing shit show” that is the world. He’d rather find a Starbucks or sit in his hotel room.
One day, the unnamed salesman finds himself on a bridge in Prague, looking out over the water, pondering what his life has even amounted to. The possibility of suicide briefly flickers across the screen of his consciousness, the “terror of failing to even merit attention” searing through his synapses:
What was wrong with me? Here’s what I feared would happen one day. After a lifetime spent in a hurry, I’d wake up and realize that there was never any destination, life was all tour, and in a paradox beyond comprehension, some more real destination would be revealed, one I could never have dreamed of, and at last I’d see that I’d come in dead last.
I suspect that there are few people—at least among those who reach a certain stage of the journey—who don’t at least occasionally have similar thoughts. We scurry about our days, chasing affirmation and competence, trying to prove to ourselves and others that we’re doing ok, and then one day we wake up and wonder if we’ve even understood the rules of the game we’re playing. Maybe life is about the journey, more than the destination, we say. Or some other cliché. Maybe all the worthy things I’ve been chasing after are an illusion. Or maybe it’s all more real than I imagined! Maybe I’ve missed the point! Maybe I’ve wasted too much time on what will not last! Maybe time’s almost up and I’ve been lapped by the field! God, how I hope I’m not failing the exam…
I know someone who is currently in the midst of treatment for mantle cell lymphoma. He’s grinding his way through chemo right now, and more aggressive treatments are on the horizon. His immune system will basically be wiped out and “reset.” He is facing an uncertain future with an inspiring combination of grace and determination. I told him this the other day—that I admired him, his realism, his courage, his faith in the midst of it all. “Well, it’s like final exams,” he replied. “You don’t want to take them but they’re part of the course and you can’t avoid them.” No. I suppose you can’t.
Christian faith can be a tricky thing. On the one hand, we believe that faith actually asks things of us. It matters how we live our lives. It matters whether we give ourselves over to love and to the pursuit of justice and peace or to their ugly opposites. It matters if we are oriented toward the inversion of value that the kingdom of God proclaims, where last are first and first are last, where the unlovely and broken, the poor and the needy, the ones constantly stepped on or stepped over are somehow “blessed” and reveal the priorities of God. How we choose to live and who we choose to align ourselves with matters. We believe that God is constantly calling us to become the human beings that we were created to be, to the glory of God.
And yet, on the other hand, Christian faith also speaks loudly of a grace that is available for all the failures and the screw ups, the ones who keep on making the same dumb mistakes over and over again, the reckless and wasteful, those in crisis and those leaving a path of destruction in their stupid wake. The sinners who sin in ways that we can understand and those who sin in ways we’d prefer to distance ourselves from. We believe that God shows up in all the ugly, un-sanitized corners of our world and our lives and speaks of a mercy that goes far beyond our scorekeeping. Christianity is nothing if it is not also a word of hope for those who feel like they’re coming in dead last in a game they barely understand.
Final exams do come. And they do reveal much about who we are and what we’ve give ourselves to. Perhaps the most staggering truth of the gospel—the hope proclaimed by Easter—is that the ultimate reality with which we all have to deal is not a test that we succeed or fail at or a destination that we find our way to or miss the mark entirely, but a Love that bursts out of an empty tomb, overwhelming all of our striving, redeeming all of our failures, reconfiguring the landscape of reality entirely. All shall be well, the fourteenth century mystic Julian of Norwich famously declared. And perhaps it shall. I would never bet against the possibility in the aftermath of an empty tomb.
The image above is taken from the 2020-21 Christian Seasons Calendar and is the one chosen for Easter. It’s called “Benediction,” by Brenda Strichter.