The stranger among us

art 03Mistakes can teach some of life’s greatest lessons. Without mistakes, I think life could not be perfect. In the book The World According to Mister Rogers, Fred Rogers illustrates that point in the story of a young apprentice who applied for a job with a master carpenter. During the job interview, the older man wanted to know how well the young carpenter knew his job.

“Have you ever made a mistake?” the older man asked. “No, sir!” the young applicant replied. The young man was probably astounded when the master carpenter said to him, “Then there’s no way I’m going to hire you, because when you make a mistake you won’t know how to fix it.” I hope he came to realize the truth in what the older carpenter said. Mistakes are essential training for life.

I’ve earned degrees from Southeast Missouri State University and Drew University, and I’ve done graduate studies at the University of Missouri. But the education that best equipped me for life, I think, has come in the University of Hard Knocks. Some of my most influential and lasting lessons in life have come in failed attempts and bad decisions and wrong turns and in the emptiness of loss.

Thomas Watson, founder of IBM, saw mistakes as a great benefit. “Double your rate of failure,” he advised. “Failure is a teacher – a harsh one, perhaps, but the best. You’ve got to put failure to work for you. You can be discouraged by failure or you can learn from it. So go ahead and make mistakes. Make all you can. Because that’s where you will find success – on the far side of failure.”

The value – this is true of all kinds of losses in life – is not in failure itself; the value is in how we deal with failure, how we wrestle with our mistakes, how we struggle to understand and comprehend life in the face of great loss. What I’m discovering is that the more I suspend my judgment about what is good or bad, and the more openly and authentically I engage with life’s challenges, the more likely I am to discover the treasure hidden in that field or to find the pearl of great price among life’s cheaper trinkets.

Take those two disciples on the road to Emmaus that first Easter evening. They were struggling mightily to figure out what had just happened. Things looked so promising a week before when they entered Jerusalem to cheers and praises. Then things went so wrong on Thursday night when Jesus was betrayed by one of their own, led out of town, and executed as a blasphemer and insurrectionist, leaving his band of disciples to scatter in fear into the night.

In their labored, grieving discussion with each other on the road, and with a stranger who joined them as they walked along, they began to understand; sense began to emerge from senselessness; the murky waters of their minds began to clear; and broken hearts started to be mended and warmed again to life. Only later did they know the stranger among them was the risen Christ.

“There is no normal life that is free of pain,” Fred Rogers wrote. There’s no one free of mistakes and failures. “It’s the very wrestling with our problems,” Rogers wrote, “that can be the impetus for our growth.”

As those two disciples wrestled with the problems of how to rebuild their lives and their understanding of life, they discovered a life that could not be defeated by the problems they had endured. As they wrestled with their lack of understanding and mistakes in judgment and with their disillusionment and loss, they discovered a more profound understanding, a clearer judgment, and a greater vision of life that was no illusion.

That’s the challenge of life, I’m discovering: to choose not to turn away from the darkest, hardest parts of life and instead to turn into them, to face them squarely and struggle with them persistently, like Jacob wrestling with the stranger that dark night at the river Jabbok, until they bless us with a new identity and a new name, because we have struggled with God and with humans and have prevailed (Gen. 32:22-32).

The longer I live, the more difficult life’s questions become and the more elusive their answers seem. At the same time, I find myself in the embrace of a mysterious fullness that makes answers unnecessary and unwanted. And in this all-too-brief life, I find there is a stranger who comes among us to bless this journey with a gift of life that has no limits.

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