Leaving Prayers
My Life in Books

Danny's Magnificent Defeat

In college I knew an upperclassmam named Danny. Danny was an amputee, having lost part of one arm above the elbow. Sometimes I met him on Hillsborough Street at Baxleys where he sat with his back to the wall having lunch and reading his Bible. He was always reading his Bible, on a first name basis with the women who served (only women then, all ancient), and always ready to talk about Jesus.

One day Danny gave me a small booklet on self-denial, on living unto Christ in all things. I could read down its short paragraphs and tick off my failures. Yet I carried it with me that freshman year. It was in my shirt pocket, a prickly reminder of my self-love, or laid on the corner of my desk in the evenings, whispering “conviction.” I can’t remember what it said, but I remember its feel, and it haunts me like a tactile memory.

Frederick Buechner once spoke in a sermon of the “magnificent defeat.” I think that’s what Danny was onto. Speaking of how Jacob wrestled with God, Buechner said “God is the enemy whom Jacob fought there by the river, of course, and whom in one way or another all of us fight — God, the beloved enemy. Our enemy because, before giving us everything, he demands of us everything; before giving us life, he demands our lives — our selves, our wills, our treasure.” I’m still learning that, but 39 years ago, Danny started me on that path to surrender, of laying down my life. I’m not very good at it, but it’s one battle I’ll be glad to lose.

Buechner leaves his parishioners with this: “Remember Jesus of Nazareth, staggering on broken feet out of the tomb toward Resurrection, bearing on his body the proud insignia of the defeat which is victory, the magnificent defeat of the human soul at the hands of God.” One day maybe we can say that losing our lives is wonderful. For now, it’s hard.