Several years ago I watched an excellent movie called, “Into the Wild”. Closely based on a true story, it is about a young man, Christopher McCandless, who comes from a well-to-do but quite dysfunctional family. Following his college graduation from Emory University, he attempts to cut himself off from every form of responsibility, commitment and relationship in an attempt to experience his understanding of true freedom. He becomes a wanderer and on his travels he meets many fine people who provide an extraordinary witness to the primary importance of relationship in a person’s life. One of his final friendships is with an 80 year old man, Ronald Franz. Ronald has a talk with Chris about forgiveness and “how in forgiveness we find love.” Franz continues, “and when we love, the light of God shines upon us.” But Chris is so bitter towards his parents as well as enamored with his notion of freedom and his dream of living for a few months by himself in the wilds of Alaska, he is unable to appreciate the gift of relationship offered to him time and time again.
In April of 1992, Chris hikes into the Alaskan wilderness and makes his camp in an abandoned bus near the foot of Mount McKinley. For two months he revels in his freedom, but loneliness begins stealthily creeping in on him. After reading Dr. Zhivago, he has an epiphany moment and writes in his journal, that “true happiness must be shared.” Shortly thereafter, he attempts to hike back out, but the river he originally waded through is swollen and too dangerous to cross. He returns to the bus and in August of 1992, hunters find his body in the bus where Chris had eventually starved to death just weeks earlier. Days before his death Chris writes a note for all the loved ones he left behind. “I’ve lived a happy and blessed life. Goodbye.” And in the movie, as the viewer lives with Chris in his final moments, we watch as the sun bathes Chris’ peaceful face in glorious light.
A theme deeply embedded in the Holy Week narrative is how often failure gives way to life. Young Chris McCandless - despite his great intelligence, his loving and compassionate nature, his commitment to justice, his multitude of gifts - failed. He failed to understand one of the most basic truths of all, we need one another. We are hard wired for relationship. By the time Chris recognized this truth, it was too late...…..or was it? I tend to believe that as soon as Chris was able to accept his need for others he experienced a lot of healing. He was able to love, really love people again. I also believe Chris didn’t die alone. I think during those final few months in the wilds of Alaska, Chris felt himself surrounded by the presence of God and when Chris died, the glory of God’s light shone all around him. And that most important truth Chris learned out there in Alaska, all alone save God, continues its powerful witness today through both the book and movie inspired by his life.
The Bible is filled with failure after failure. You can’t read but a few pages before you trip over someone’s mistake and most often it’s a mistake with tremendous repercussions. The Bible begins in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve failing miserably. As we continue on, we read about Noah’s failure, Abraham and Sarah’s failures, Isaac and Rebecca’s failure, Jacob’s failure, Moses’ failures, Saul’s failures, David’s failures. It’s just one after the other.
You would think this record of human limitation, our propensity to sin and doubt, would produce a hope-starved account of our relationship with God. But this isn’t the case at all. Instead the Old Testament offers us a beautiful and richly woven narrative in which the steady stream of human failures gives the whole its surprisingly pleasing texture and warmth. In essence, we find these failures transformed into an abiding testament of God’s faithfulness and love.
Yesterday in churches around the world, we celebrated Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. This is one of the most bittersweet occasions in the Bible. As Jesus rides down the street on a donkey, accepting the cheers and adulation of his followers, one hopes his increasing popularity will give him greater power and voice. Everyone seems joyful and happy. But the reader knows this story is about to take an unexpected and grievous turn. For Jesus is being set up, by the Pharisees certainly. But more especially by his own insistence on speaking hard truth. Jesus is being set up to fail. For this is what the cross represents - failure. The Pharisees fail to provide prophetic leadership. The people fail to find courage to speak truth in the face of oppressive and dangerous power. The disciples fail in their lack of vision. Peter, James and John fail to stay awake, fail to provide companionship for their friend in need. Peter fails, denying Jesus three times. And Jesus, Jesus accepts his bitter cup and with knowing intention embraces the failure of crucifixion, a shameful death on the cross. Yet in these horrifying failures, the seeds of salvation are sown. This is the scandal of the cross. The failure of all failures - the world kills the embodiment of God, the Son of Man is crucified. It is little wonder the cross has been a stumbling block for believers for centuries. Why must failure provide the context for resurrection? But it couldn‘t be otherwise, could it? Only failure truly provides the means for resurrection. Jesus’ death on the cross opened us to a whole new understanding of God's unlimited love and grace. For it is failure that gives birth to grace, always....…always.
Because Holy Week prompts reflection on our own personal failures, I look at my own life and wince at my many failures. Presently, the awareness of failure I carry most often on my emotional surface is how I fall short as a mom. No matter how hard I work to do what’s right, I am also uncomfortably aware of the many times I fail. But admittedly, it is more difficult to discern failure in the present. Hindsight is remarkably well-suited to identifying both failure and victory, when we can more clearly see how our actions reverberate through the months or years that follow.
When I look back over the course of my life, it is easy for me to put my finger on a time in my life defined by failure. My senior year in high school I started experimenting with alcohol. But what began as a curiosity soon morphed into a real problem with alcohol abuse as I drank increasingly often and in far greater amounts for the next six years. Only when I stood at the absolute brink of alcoholism was I finally able to confront my failure. I was fortunate in that I was able one day to walk away and leave that part of my life behind me. But guilt and regret became my new companions. I mourned the waste of those years, the opportunities lost I could never retrieve. And then, at some point many years ago, I began to understand and appreciate a resurrection of sorts emerging from my failures. My knowledge of addiction, my experiences with suffering opened in me a great depth of empathy for others and I began to realize the ways in which sorrow can give one a voice.
Each of our lives have been shaped to some degree by failure, our own and other’s. This is life. Palm Sunday ushers us into this uncomfortable time of reflection, but though difficult, it is also a great gift as the only way to truly appreciate grace is to experience it. As we walk through this painful week ahead and relive Biblical tales of failure which call to mind our own, may we also be aware of resurrection seeds sown, of grace which steps up to greet our every failure, of the love of God which shines around and within us always, even in the darkest of nights.