Theology of Failure, pt. 2


by Randall S. Frederick

In 2004, I was asked to take over a college ministry. After much hesitation, I reluctantly agreed with one stipulation – we needed to “let this thing die.” The goal of modern Evangelicalism is to succeed, to thrive, to recruit the masses and build empires, to build legacies and fiefdoms where we can rule and reign in Christ Jesus. This was not at all what that college group needed. It needed to die.

After two years of insulated and incestuous weekly “gatherings” with crappy music, judgmental sermons enumerating the reasons why “we” were right and “they” were wrong, I agreed to put my name down as president of the organization strictly to give it a good burial. The faculty advisor was less than enthused, but given the proper degree of willfulness, we did indeed bury the group and let the land lie fallow. I met with the members here and there, heard their concerns, and challenged them to accept the “failure” of the group as a good thing, a cleansing process where they could take control of their own spiritual development instead of marking off a two-hour block of time each week as their Christian duty. The members, much like the faculty advisor, were less than enthused and so it was that the following year, given the terrible “failure” that I had orchestrated, a campus pastor was commissioned to take over and rebuild. He did. And the group thrived. When I graduated that year, it was obvious that things were much better – just as I had anticipated. People felt closer to God. They were having fun. They looked forward to the meetings. People weren’t ashamed about inviting friends, and their friends went and brought friends.

There was every evidence that I failed at my duties as a good Evangelical – I never built the group, I didn’t raise money for a new building, and I discouraged any form of evangelism that propagated an “us/them” mentality – I feel that letting things die was one of the greatest endeavors I undertook in my college experience. Sometimes, things need to die. They need to fail.

Between 2004 and 2010, I “failed” in every area of life. From the outside, few would have noticed. I walked and talked the same, smiled politely at jokes, always had a plausible excuse for “oh no, no… that was a misunderstanding” but those who knew me were watching my life in freefall. Month after month. Year after year. An unmitigated disaster of bad relationships, failure to speak up for myself, career flip-flops, family issues, and repressed feelings paved the way for the breakdown that was to come.

After graduation, funnily enough, I was asked back to the group to speak. What should have been a singular visit turned into a weekly gig at one of the Bible studies that developed. There, someone once laughingly told me, “We only come to watch you set yourself on fire.” I’m not sure whether he meant that as a compliment, or whether he knew Jonathan Edwards once said that if a minister were to set themselves on fire, people would come from miles around to watch them burn, but his words struck something profoundly bruised inside of my soul. That was the fall of 2006 and I was secretly losing contact with everything I believed in – not just spiritually, but emotionally, professionally, relationally, the entire gamut of the quarterlife crisis. That my chaotic life was weekly entertainment for him as he loudly ate a bowl of popcorn and drank his sweating can of Dr. Pepper hurt. Profoundly.

On the third night of Chanukah 2010, I began crying and didn’t stop for almost three months. Three. Months. Can you imagine? Once released, the wellspring of delayed grief of “All That Happened” didn’t stop for three months. It still amazes me, looking back, that I was able to hit my marks, show up to work, and held down not just one, but threejobs during that time. I don’t remember really functioning as a person, much less doing my job. What I do remember is my mother coming to visit one weekend and packing up my belongings. There was a phonecall and that afternoon, my father arrived. I dimly recall a conversation with my parents about whether I needed to check myself into a mental health facility – things had gotten that bad. But these memories are spotty. The pressing thought when I look back was that I had spent the previous four years failing in every way a person could fail. I had become one of the people I had always looked down on, someone whose personal shortcomings had been their undoing. Put another way, my life became a punishment worse than death.

Last year, one of my closest friends was raped. Another friend moved 1,200 miles away from her family only to unpack and shower before she got the news that her father had abruptly died. She was just days away from starting grad school. Another friend was a pastor in West Hollywood until he was fired for being too open-minded towards gays and Muslims. One of my mentors was fired from a job she loved because of state budget cuts. With a broken heart and no means of taking care of herself or her son, she lost her home and put her disabled child into a group home. And in all of these stories, I am tempted to jump ahead, to flip to the last page of the story and let you know it all worked out in the end, to tell you No, no, you see, it’s okay! Things got better!

But that is not how it goes.

People fail all the time. Every day. Some by choice, some by chance, some by happenstance. And when someone close to us fails, we don’t know what to say because it requires us to drudge up those old wounds and events in our own lives that we swore we would never go back to or think about again. To deal with our failures, we rewrite our experiences and forget the truth. We lie to ourselves because it makes it so much easier to save face with others. We weren’t fired, we “took a year off” between jobs. We didn’tgo through a traumatic break-up, we “stopped dating to find ourselves.” But if we pause our verbal barrage of platitudes for a second, we know the truth. As we spin these yarns, there is the pressing awareness that we didn’t find ourselves. We didn’t take a year off. We failed. Big time.

Continued in pt. 3

One thought on “Theology of Failure, pt. 2

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