"You've got to learn how to fall,
before you learn how to fly." - Paul Simon
before you learn how to fly." - Paul Simon
"I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat is planted in the soil and dies, it remains alone. But its death will produce many new kernels--a plentiful harvest of new lives." - Jesus
Last week, my favorite television show returned for what is going to amount to fourteen final episodes, split arduously into two more seasons. Mad Men is the show, the 1960's period piece with its sharp and clean style. Behind the slick suits and pomade, though, Mad Men is ultimately probing a profound and universal question: what happens to us as we age?
The central figure throughout the series has been a man known as Don Draper, a well groomed man who looks like he could easily slide into the role of Clark Kent. For much of the first two seasons, we followed Don as he strode confidently through life, seemingly rising in power and prestige, all while staying cooler than any one else ever to grace the same room. Sure, there were hints of his vulnerability - minor glimpses of transgressions, hidden secrets that ruffled Don's always well-pressed image. Still, even when he was clearly in the wrong (cheating on his spouse), it seemed Don stood on higher ground than the rest.
Poor Don is a long way from such great heights. His perfect family has come apart. He has forever damaged his beautiful little girl. He has even managed to derail his once promising career. And that, for Don anyhow, may be the most tragic thing of all, for his ascendency in life was always tied to his work.
In short, Don is having a mid-life crisis.
The show begins every episode with a silhouette of a man in a suit free-falling from a skyscraper, surrounded by images of sex and power and luxury - the very images Don can create with such talent and precision as an advertising executive. Now, Don is that man falling, and he's falling faster than a rock. The rest of the shows seem bound up in these two questions: Will Don kill himself? Or, will there be redemption?
Actually, the deeper question is: Will Don Draper embrace his death?
For Don, that's entirely where the struggle is, just as it is for so many of us men.
How is he going to respond to his mid-life crisis?
Of course, in our culture, the mid-life crisis is a given for men. There will come that time when a man will have to buy that car, chase that other woman, or try to undue the inevitable decline of his hairline. But, the mid-life crisis problem is no longer just a male problem. It never was, and Mad Men is very good at showing not just Don's unraveling, but also a pair of strong female characters played by Elisabeth Moss and Christina Hendricks as they battle their own creeping insecurities. The question for everyone on the show is, "How will they deal with their failures?"
Which is another way of saying, "How will they deal with their humanity?"
We've just come through the most triumphant celebration we have as Christians: the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Everything about it is has to do with success. When we say, "He is Risen!" we say it with the pride of victory.
But, to say that Christianity is about the "successful life" is to mistake it with the false gospel of American achievement. It is to paint Jesus in the same light as the early Don Draper: clean, confident, and certain.
The radical message Jesus came both to preach and then to embody is a radically different message than the American gospel. Jesus said very clearly that in order to really find life, we have to die to our own ego. That beautiful picture we have of our life? Our solid career, our perfect family, our achievements and status before others? Even our righteous self? If our hope is to secure that picture, to grasp ahold of it so that we can hold it up high for others to see ... well, let the lesson of Mad Men be ours: such a pursuit may lead us along for awhile with the delusion of success. But, in the end, such success is terrible fleeting. It can evaporate quite quickly, so much so that you won't be at all surprised to find you are free-falling in despair or distress.
So, Jesus says, the only thing left is not to fight against this death. The right path, he says, is to embrace this death of our false self, to let that seed fall to the ground and die there. Then, and only then, he says, will the life God has planned for us take root. Then, and only then, will God's abundant life begin to spring forth within us like a living well.
Then he went and practiced what he preached. "Even though he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality as something to be grasped. Instead, he emptied himself ..." (Phil. 2:5-11). He trusted in his Father's love and plans enough to completely give himself over ... even when he was dreadfully afraid of the death that awaited him.
This is the full story of Easter. Life after death. God's gift of life after Jesus' painfully releases his own life into God's hands. Jesus' glorification after Jesus embraced his humiliation.
That is the way of Christ, the exact opposite of Don Draper's trajectory.
It's so easy to see where Don is going wrong. But, can I just say how much of a struggle this is for me? I say I want to follow Christ, and I do. But, there is a lot of Don Draper inside of me. I say I am all for the humility and counter-cultural way of Jesus Christ, but watch closely and you'll see me eager for recognition. You'll see me striving in my own way for success. Sure, I've forsaken the pursuit of the CEO salary, but I'm still striving. And maybe my striving is even worse than climbing the corporate ladder, for I'm chasing religious success. "Oh to be the most popular church in town!"
And maybe that's why Don Draper is holding so much of my attention as I start into these final fourteen episodes. Will he find a way out of his downward spiral? Will he manage to let go of the image he is trying to maintain and find new life beyond his control? Will he come through his crisis?
I ask all of these questions not just about Don's character. I know I'm also wondering the same for myself. But, I can also see one last thing, the basis of my hope. For I know and trust that we do not come to crisis by accident. We come to crisis by grace. Just ask the Apostle Paul.
It is God's grace that forces the crisis upon us. Jesus speaks of it as a certainty. A truth. We never want it, and - yet - God has a purpose in it. For the crisis invites an opportunity: an opportunity to lay down our own life once again ... to let it die ... as hard and impossible as that may seem to us ... and to trust that in our dying God has already prepared for new life.
The seed has to fall. It has to go into darkness.
But on the other side is life.
On the other side is new growth.
So, maybe my prayer can become your prayer:
God, give me the grace to trust in Your plans for me, and give me the courage to stop my squirming. Give me the faith to let my life fall apart and for my own images of success to come apart.
Help me to find you here. I put my life in your hands. I trust you can bring new life out of this crisis.