A Failure Story

These days, the popularity of good storytelling is on the rise. People are flocking to live story telling events, and podcasts of engaging stories are in demand. Storytelling isn’t new, of course. It probably started as soon as humans sat around a campfire and tried to make some meaning out of life. Fast forward to our very disconnected world, and people are still looking for connection and meaning through storytelling. Failure stories seem particularly popular right now. It’s strangely comforting to hear about other peoples’ failure and how they survived. It makes us feel less alone in our own mistakes. And from what I gather, there are two different kinds of failure stories. Sometimes they are success stories disguise as failure stories.Those go something like this: Here is how I failed in a big way but then turned it around into a winning business strategy or a breakthrough in leadership potential, and you can, too. But some stories really are failure stories, and I think those are the most endearing.

I have one of my own from my Catholic high school days in California. Most of my teachers there were nuns. But my religion teacher was a young, lay woman, which instantly made her more intriguing to the students. She was brilliant and kind and exotically Canadian, mysterious in the way that teachers are to their teenage students. We didn’t know much about her personal life, but we knew that she was a folk singer on the side. It was a tantalizing detail we all wanted to know more about.

One day a friend and I were hanging around after school. Several cars were in the parking lot for a few days while some teachers and students were away on retreat. We came upon our religion teacher’s vintage Volvo. Of course even her car was cool. We looked in the window, as you do, and there, on the front seat, was a cassette tape. It had her picture and her name on the cover, her very own album! She had never mentioned it. The car doors were unlocked. You can probably see where this is going. Curiosity got the best of us. In a move that, for the record, was completely out of character, we opened the door, grabbed the tape, and ran to my friend's house. We listened to the whole thing, with a mix of exhilaration and crippling guilt. I remember clearly when we heard a song we were not supposed to hear, a love song to her girlfriend. Suddenly, we understood why she had so much privacy around her personal life. That information could have gotten her fired. Nervously, we vowed to keep this new found secret, and my friend would put the tape back in the car early in the morning.

Fast forward a few days. We sat down in our seats for religion class. A friend, who was not a part of our criminal activity, prepared to lead the class in a devotion. She got a cassette player ready and hit play. I recognized the song immediately, a bootleg copy of our teacher’s love song. My mind raced and my stomach dropped to the floor. It might have even run down the hall. The teacher calmly but quickly turned the music off, took out the tape, put it in her desk, and asked to see that student after class. The next day she asked me and my accomplice to stay after class. We had been ratted out.

My stomach had not yet returned to my body. Maybe you know that feeling if you’ve ever really screwed up. I had never been in trouble at school before. I had no idea how bad it was going to be. I was a nervous wreck. If you’ve ever heard the story of how a teenaged St. Augustine and his friends stole a bunch of pears off a tree and it wrecked his conscience for years to come, I was having an Augustinian level of moral distress and shame. She asked us for the story. We squeaked out a confession and waited for what seemed like an eternity for the pronouncement of our punishment. Then, to our surprise, she forgave us. We were free to go. It was a miracle.

It was a relief, of course, but I wouldn’t call that a happy ending. This is a failure story, after all. The forgiveness was a welcome surprise, but it took a long time to mend that relationship. We had to live with what we had done for two more years in the same, small community. It was painful at times. Gradually, the intensity of the incident faded, and with her occasional reassurances, the grace of her forgiveness eventually sunk in. There was nothing quick or easy about that. Accepting a person’s forgiveness can take a long time if you’ve really failed someone. And it’s that difficult reality that lands us in the territory of the third Sunday of Easter, in the company of Peter and Jesus.

The resurrected Jesus is on the beach, cooking fish over a charcoal fire. Scholars think this scene in John’s Gospel was added on later. If so, I think it was added because of an unfinished failure story. If the gospel had ended with the risen Lord talking to Mary Magdalene in the garden, or with the disciples in the locked room, it would have had a tidy and joyful ending. Easter would be a complete success story, first disguised as a failure story with the crucifixion, but that’s really about God’s winning strategy over death. That’s a powerful story. But in its tidiness and joy, perhaps it wouldn’t be the easiest story for us to relate to or to step into and find meaning for ourselves. I wonder if that’s why someone added the lingering failure story of Peter.

We are surely meant to notice the charcoal fire with the fish. Peter’s colossal failure happened earlier in the story over a charcoal fire, the night he denied knowing Jesus three times before the cock crowed. That betrayal must have left him reeling with shame and guilt of the worst kind. Fast forward after Easter and we find him fishing. The Jesus days are over, the mission seems like a failed one, and Peter has gone back to the only work he knew before. And did you notice the strange detail about Peter being naked? When the disciples on the boat realize that it’s Jesus on the shore, Peter quickly covers himself. This sounds a whole lot like Adam and Eve covering themselves in shame after their betrayal in the garden. The very sight of Jesus would recall to Peter his betrayal all over again. Easter may have brought the miracle of forgiveness for Peter just like everyone else, but you don’t shake that kind of shame, that kind of failure quickly.

Over that new charcoal fire of Easter, Jesus sets about restoring Peter. It takes time. Three times to be exact, in the telling of this story. Jesus asks if Peter loves him. Each time, the question grows in intensity. And each time when Peter says yes, Jesus tells him to carry on the ministry. Peter, even Peter, has been forgiven for his betrayal and must learn not only to accept that grace, but to bestow it on others. That kind of healing and restoration takes time. But Jesus is patient, willing to repeat the question that will restore Peter until it sinks in. No matter how spectacular our failures, God is patient.

By all accounts, the first Easter was glorious. For Peter, it was followed by some hard work of accepting Jesus’ forgiveness and living into it. We too have some post-Easter work to do. If you happen to have a failure story, then you know what Peter was up against. The gospel tells us that it’s in our very failures that Christ comes to us and asks, do you love me? And if we manage to only squeak out a yes, Jesus offers us his ministry. Even we can carry on his work of forgiveness and reconciliation, of healing and love.

So maybe we can use the failure in our lives to know that this post-resurrection message is for us, too. Someone figured out a long time ago that we needed one more story told around the fire for the gospel to really sink in. We needed Peter’s restoration to know that ultimately, our shame is no match for God’s love.

Kate Alexander