Carl Edwards did everything right this season and seemed to be a shoe-in for the NASCAR championship, dubbed the Chase. A week ago Edwards and Tony Stewart competed fiercely as they went head to head at the season finale at the Homestead-Miami Speedway. Edwards had won the pole for the race and led for the most laps, yet he came in second to Stewart. Although both drivers finished tied in the Sprint Club series standing, Stewart won based on his five victories versus Edwards’ one victory.
I am not a fan of race car driving other than to admire anyone who risks life and limb by driving at incomprehensible speeds. What caught my attention, however, were the words that Carl Edwards spoke after the race. “I knew that this (losing) was a possibility, though, and I was prepared for this. And I told myself—I told my family—that the one thing I’m going to do is I’m going to walk back to that motor home, win, lose or draw, and I’m going to be a good example for my kids and work hard and go be better next season.”
Then this great race car driver surprised everyone by quoting Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem If, penned in 1895. “There’s Kipling’s poem—I can’t remember the title of it—but when he said, ‘You have to meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same,’ that’s the truth.”
Surely, Carl Edwards was heartbroken after losing this final race by the smallest of margins after an outstanding season. He said, “My true feeling right now … my gut feeling in my heart is that I’m just … I’m obviously disappointed we didn’t win. That would have been a spectacular result, OK? But I’m very proud. Some of the best races I’ve run in my life were this Chase.”
Carl Edwards and Rudyard Kipling agree on one of life’s greatest secrets, that both triumph and disaster, success and failure are imposters. The imposter of success is the belief that we deserve it and earned it and that our success is all about us. The imposter of failure is the belief that losing forever defines both our competence and our character. In reality, success and failure are simply labels used by the world to explain one moment in time and are not able to encompass the totality of a person’s life and contributions to our world.
The season of Advent invites us to reflect on the meaning of Christ’s coming for our individual lives and for our world. The greatest gift of Advent may be that we are exposed for who we are: imposters. We are not who we say we are, we are not who we think we are, and we are not who we pretend to be in the presence of others. We are simply human beings who are made in the image of God and are attempting to be faithful.
In the world’s eyes Jesus was a failure from the get go. Born into a poor family from “Can anything good come out of Nazareth,” Jesus had no credentials and an undistinguishable childhood. With the dawning awareness of his call from God, Jesus was nurtured by his parents, stayed behind in the temple to learn from the Jewish leaders, and grew in grace and truth. When the time was right Jesus set carpentry aside and was sent by the Spirit into the wilderness to discern the shape of his call. Jesus did battle with the imposter Satan, faced his own demons, and emerged with a clear mission first stated by the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” (Luke 4:17-21)
The gift of Advent is the opportunity to grapple with our imposter status in light of God’s gift of the Christ child. Advent has exposed me as an imposter for most of my adult life. When our children were growing up, I felt an impending dread whenever Advent approached. I made my list of all the tasks that needed to be done: put up lights, prepare a Christmas card, decorate the house, host church Christmas gatherings, bake cookies, and make sure the children had plenty of presents – yet my heart wasn’t in it. I was an imposter, but I could not resist the world’s expectations of Christmas.
My deepest yearning was to hole up in solitude, ponder the mystery of the true light coming into the world, and wrestle with the biblical texts of judgment and waiting. Yet I ended up an imposter, wandering the stores year after year looking for gifts that no one wanted or needed as my spirit withered on the vine. My low point came in the mid-1990’s when I was so preoccupied during December that Christmas Eve arrived, and I had no presents for Gary. Panicked, I made a quick trip to the mall on Christmas Eve when I should have been preparing to preach that night. Who should I run in to in the men’s department at Hudson’s but the spouse of a fellow pastor, a busy professional herself, who was doing the exact same thing I was. I remember thinking on the way home, “You imposter! Have I lost my soul?”
The clash of commercialism and the celebration of Christ’s birth is only the tip of the Advent iceberg, however. Each phase in Kipling’s poem begins with the word “If,” but it’s not until the very end that the poet completes the phrases, “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, And treat those two impostors just the same… Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!” In other words, we become truly God-breathed, truly human, truly ourselves, when our lives are authentic.
The reason that Jesus was such a threat to power from babyhood to adulthood, from Herod the Great to Herod Antipas, was that he could see through people and detect imposters. Jesus had especially harsh words for those who abused the power of their success and did not practice what they preached. “Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.” Mt. 23:25
Triumph is an imposter because as leaders we can easily lose our grounding, become disconnected from reality, impose our will on others, and refuse to engage in honest dialogue. By replying on external gratification rather than internal satisfaction, we also lose the capacity for self-reflection and ignore that deep God-breathed desire to serve something greater than ourselves.
At the same time Jesus knew that failure can also become an imposter when we cannot see the opportunity that failure offers to become all that God created us to be. Failure knows no boundaries. At some point in each of our lives, we will be sorely disappointed and crushed by poor choices, manipulation by others, or events beyond our control. Rather than allow failure to define us, God challenges us to view our disasters as occasions for personal and spiritual growth. Failure often reveals weaknesses, which helps us to become stronger and more humble. Failure can expose a lack of preparation and monitoring, which leads us to improve processes and procedures.
Failure also reminds us of that delicate balance between risk and overconfidence. Most great leaders in our world fail as often as they succeed, for whenever we move into uncharted territory, we open ourselves to the possibility of failure. The honest assessment that results from failure gives us the courage to persevere and get it right next time. Those who refuse to acknowledge failure, blame others, or rationalize their own behavior become the imposters.
How might the growth of the early Christian church have been affected had Jesus not kept mentoring Peter and encouraging him to learn from his failures? How would the poor, the downtrodden, the persecuted, and those who were falsely accused have experienced fullness of life had Jesus not encouraged them to see blessing in their misfortune? How could the disciples on the Emmaus road have shared the good news of Jesus’ resurrection if the apparent disaster of the crucifixion had blinded them to the presence of the risen Christ?
As we enter the season of Advent, we would do well to acknowledge that we are not defined by either triumph or disaster, success or failure, for they are both imposters. Advent reminds us that Jesus entered this world as a nobody and never attempted to become a somebody. He was simply who God called him to be, an authentic, self-integrated, fully human being who remained faithful through all the circumstances of his life.
- If, like Carl Edwards, we can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two imposters just the same;
- If we can engage the voices clamoring for our time, money, and attention this Advent without shutting out the inner voice which directs us to the poor, the homeless, and the helpless;
- If we can surround ourselves with people who will support and hold us accountable when we succeed as well as fail;
- If we can sing with joy and hope, “Come, thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free; from our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in thee;”
… Then the kingdom of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord and He shall reign forever and ever.