Letters from Prison, III: The Sacrament of Defeat
Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. —Philippians 2:4
James Fowler coined a phrase that has meant a lot to me in the 20 years since I first read it. Dr. Fowler talked about “the sacrament of defeat.” If you studied religion or psychology in college you might have read James Fowler’s 1981 classic Stages of Faith.
The sacrament of defeat. I guess it’s stayed with me all these years because it was so unexpected and counterintuitive. The sacrament of defeat. It’s not quite, but almost, an oxymoron.
St. Augustine defined a sacrament as “a visible sign of an invisible grace,” or perhaps “an earthly symbol with a heavenly meaning.” So the wine of the Eucharist, or the water of Baptism, are visible signs of an invisible grace, the commonest staples of existence given an uncommon holiness. As its name suggests, a sacrament—a sacred-ment—is a vehicle of the sacred. Can your failures be vehicles of the sacred?
This fall and winter, sports fans have witnessed a number of epic failures, especially we in the Upper Midwest. In October, Michigan punter Blake O’Neill fumbled the snap on the last play of the game and handed the game to archenemy Michigan State. I don’t know if you know this about me, but I’m a Michigan fan; that defeat did not feel like a sacrament.
After the game they asked Coach Harbaugh if he was surprised that Blake O’Neill was so unvexed by this epic mistake, and Coach Harbaugh just glared at the reporter, as Coach Harbaugh is wont to do, and said, “You don’t know Blake like we do. He kicked three punts inside the Spartan ten-yard line, and one of them went 80 yards. Adversity doesn’t build character, but it sure reveals it.” I thought Coach Harbaugh turned that defeat into a small sacrament.
Dr. Fowler says that only very mature, very wise individuals can turn a crushing defeat into an encounter with the divine.
Or maybe you’re not a Wolverine but a Viking fan. At the end of the Wild Card Playoff game against the Seahawks three weeks ago, Vikings kicker Blair Walsh missed a 27-yard field goal, which in today’s NFL is like missing an extra point, and handed the game to the Seahawks as a belated Christmas present. Mr. Walsh received several death threats.
But over at Northport Elementary School near Minneapolis, first-grade teacher Judie Offerdahl was trying to teach her class the meaning of the word ‘empathy,’ so she had every student in her class write Blair Walsh a letter, like this one: “Dear Blair Walsh, Everyone makes mistakes sometimes. One time I made a mistake doing a cartwheel. I felt embarrassed. You can help the Vikings win the Super Bowl next year. Your fan, Sophia.”
Judie Offerdahl turned that epic failure into a tiny sacrament. Ms. Offerdahl, by the way, is a Seahawks fan.
Ten days ago in a game against the Houston Rockets, Detroit Pistons Center Andre Drummond missed 23 out of 36 free throw attempts, breaking a record Wilt Chamberlain set almost 40 years ago in 1967. He was so bad at the line the Rockets would intentionally foul him every time he tried to shoot; 23 out of 36.
By the way, Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry has missed 22 free throws for the whole season (out of 237 tries). When they asked Mr. Drummond how he felt about breaking a record, and not in a good way, he just said, “We won the game.” That’s all he had to say about that.
Last Sunday, Carson Palmer had six turnovers in a loss to the Panthers in the NFC Championship Game—four interceptions, two fumbles. I can’t find any way that defeat can be turned into a sacrament. I just hope he comes back next year.
From the ridiculous to the sublime. The passage I read a moment ago might be the ultimate sacrament of defeat. In this sermon series on Paul’s Letter to the Church at Philippi, I’ve been saying that Philippians is really nothing more than a little thank-you note from Paul who is imprisoned in a Roman jail cell to his friends in his favorite congregation.
But in the middle of this little thank-you note to friends, there is this almost perfect little poem about the meaning of the life of Jesus of Nazareth that has become one of the Christian Church’s most cherished Scriptures for almost 2,000 years.
In Jesus’ life and in his death and most notably in those rumors of resurrection, Peter and Paul and their ilk discovered a life so transparent to divinity and so luminous of all that was high and noble in humanity that the only way to capture the wonder of it was to think of him as coming straight from God Godself.
His living and his loving, his courage and his compassion, his words and his deeds, were so unexpected that they were terrestrially inexplicable. The first Christians said to themselves, “Our race and our earth could not possibly have birthed a life so much higher than the rest of what we know. He must have been something else and something more before his earthly journey.”
The first Christians couldn’t find language extravagant enough to convey the meaning of who he was and what he did and what he meant to them, and the only way they could almost capture the meaning of his being was to say that this Carpenter from Nazareth shared in the plenitude of God’s own inexhaustible being.
He was in the form of God, they said. He was in the shape of God, the image of God, a reflection of Godself. That lonely birth to a stable could not have been the first chapter of his story. He came from far way, sojourned among us for a time, and returned from whence he came.
When you go home this afternoon and study this passage further on your own, as I know you will, you will discover that many modern English translations of the New Testament set the lines of this text not as prose but as poetry.
This passage is different from the rest of this epistle. It’s not a letter; it’s not an essay; it’s not a thank-you note; it’s a poem; it’s a hymn; it’s a doxology to the mystery of Jesus the Christ.
Most scholars think that Paul didn’t compose this passage himself, but borrowed a hymn already beloved among the first Christians; Paul didn’t write it; he inherited it. It may be the oldest text in the New Testament, reaching back further and closer to the life of Christ, in time and in accuracy, than anything else in Scripture.
And notice as well the shape of the hymn’s narrative. The shape of this hymn is an upside-down parabola, or, simpler still, it is U-shaped.
The story starts at height, in heaven, with God: He had “equality with God,” says the old hymn. He was in the shape of God, in form of God, in the image of God. The story starts at height in heaven, with God.
But then it dips down low: “He did not count this equality a thing to be held onto, but emptied himself.” How low can you go? asks the old TV pitchman. How low can you go?
Look at the words Paul piles up to describe the fathoms of disgrace Christ sounds to be with us—he “emptied” himself. That is, he stripped himself of glory, he shed the raiment of divinity, he laid aside the vestment of transcendent splendor which was once his as the very image of God.
He donned instead a human form, and not just the shape of a human being, but of a slave, the lowest of the low, even to the point of dying just like a slave, because the cross was so detestable a death it was reserved for those who were only half human—the scorned slaves of the empire.
The words of William Butler Yeats, crude but apt, capture the naked truth of it: “Love has pitched his mansion in the place of excrement.” That about sums up the U-shaped arc of Christ’s journey from God to earth.
He starts at height with God, falls fathoms far to depth on earth, and then returns to height: “Therefore, God highly exalted him and gave him a name above every name, that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bend, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”
Jesus took a crown of thorns and turned it into a crown of golden glory. Jesus took a cruel cross and turned it into a scepter of sweeping sovereignty. They threw his bruised, battered, broken, bloody body into a silent sepulcher but three days later he pulverized its hinges and walked straight into the palace of a prince. Jesus turned his abject defeat into a splendid sacrament, a vehicle of the sacred.
Jesus knows about the sacrament of defeat. Paul knows about the sacrament of defeat. He’s writing this letter to his friends from a Roman prison. He will never leave this prison cell alive, but what he says is, “I want you to know, friends, that my imprisonment is for Christ, and has actually helped to spread the Gospel.”
These Letters from Prison are incredible. Have you ever read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn? My wife says she read it in high school. I don’t remember reading One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in high school, and I went to the same high school; maybe I was absent that day. I wonder if they teach it at New Trier High.
I re-read it this week; it took me three hours to read it from beginning to end; it’s 157 pages long; lean, spare, efficient; Alexander Solzhenitsyn will not waste your time.
He also wrote some obese, inefficient books. The Gulag Archipelago runs on to something like 2,000 pages. I started reading The Gulag Archipelago when I was in seminary, and I’m still not finished; I’ve been working on it for 30 years.
Together, the lean, spare Denisovich, and the obese, sprawling Gulag, are the two most important books of the twentieth century. I dare you: find me a more important document. Albert Einstein’s Theories of Relativity? Robert Oppenheimer’s atomic bomb equations? Alexander Fleming’s notations about the mold called penicillin? Solzhenitsyn changed the world as much as those other geniuses.
When he was a young man, Alexander Solzhenitsyn was a loyal, patriotic Communist. His young bride said that Alexander was so passionate about Vladimir Lenin she was jealous of the great ideologue.
During World War II, Alexander Solzhenitsyn was a decorated war hero and artillery captain in the Soviet Army, but then he in a letter to a friend he poked gentle fun at Joseph Stalin by referring to him as “The One with the Impressive Moustache.” For that irreverent reference, Mr. Solzhenitsyn was sentenced to eight years in the Soviet Gulag.
He survived, by the skin of his teeth, and then wrote a novel about his experiences in the Soviet Gulag, and sent the manuscript of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich to Alexander Tvardovsky, the editor of Novy Mir, the only open and progressive political journal in Russia. This would have been in 1961.
Mr. Tvardovsky was accustomed to receiving hundreds of such unsolicited manuscripts, so one evening at the end of a long day he threw the manuscript into his brief case and took it home to look at it quickly, intending it for the circular file.
Mr. Tvardovsky went home, ate dinner, got into his pajamas, took the text to bed with him, and started reading. He was so astonished by what he read that he left his bed, got out of his pajamas, put on his coat and tie, and sat at his desk to finish it. That way, he said, he paid proper homage to what would become a classic of Russian literature.
In that small book and in his larger, more detailed account of his imprisonment in The Gulag Archipelago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn tells us what he could learn about himself in no other place but here at the end of the world, in hell.
He learned to leave his youthful arrogance behind. He learned to quell the cruelty and baseness he saw in his own heart. He learned to forgive. He learned to cherish life with every last breath God gives.
At the end of that one day in the life of Ivan Denisovich, he is able to tell us that he is still here, he has survived, he is still alive: Not even the grinding wheels of the implacable Soviet machine could defeat this one man who vowed to stay alive and tell the story of the 50 million people who traveled through the Soviet Gulag, victims of Stalin’s relentless paranoia.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn was born on December 2, 1918, almost exactly one year after the Bolshevik Revolution. What would become the Soviet Union is one year older than Mr. Solzhenitsyn, who died in 2008 at the age of 89. He outlived the Soviet Union by 17 years.
His books were banned in the Soviet Union for 20 years. They stripped him of his Russian citizenship and banished him from his beloved homeland. He lived in Vermont for 20 years. Then he went home in 1994. Today, The Gulag Archipelago is part of the curriculum in Russian high schools.
In the end, Mr. Solzhenitsyn turns his defeat into a sacrament, a vehicle of the sacred. When it’s all over, he says, “I look behind me with a grateful tremor upon the life that I have lived. Though I renounced you, O God, you were always with me.”
I don’t know what life has thrown your way. It probably hasn’t always been easy. If you’re like most of us, there’ve been laughter and tears, happiness and sadness, love and loss, victory and defeat.
The wisest and best among us know that through it all, God has been speaking to us, even in the sacrament of defeat, which might enrich your understanding, shape your character, sharpen your virtue, help you to forgive those who have injured you, and amplify your capacity to love.
So may God bless you with many victories, and also with the sacrament of defeat.
James W. Fowler, Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning (New York: Harper Collins, 1981), p. 192.
Mark Snyder, “U-M’s O’Neill Makes Jokes but No Excuses for Blunder,” Detroit Free Press, 2015-10-21.
Vineeta Sawkar, “First-Graders Offer Vikings Kicker Blair Walsh Words of Encouragement,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, January 13, 2016.
Erin Flynn, “Andre Drummond Sets NBA Record with 23 Missed Free Throws,” Sports Illustrated, January 16, 2016.
William Butler Yeats, “Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop.”
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, trans. Thomas P. Whitney (New York: Harper & Row, English translation, 1975), part IV, vol. 2, pp. 614-615.