The story is told of a highly competitive and much scrutinized race for the position of arch-bishop over a prosperous diocese. Several bishops were vetted and interviewed by senior officials and religious leaders.
Everyone knew the stakes. This position was both a great responsibility and a great honour. People would look up to the new arch-bishop and follow his lead. Many privileges would come by the successful candidate. People would listen to what he said.
It all boiled down to the last interview. Two finalists met individually with the senior official who would make the final recommendation and appointment. The first candidate responded to a question by saying that the very best part of himself aspired to this position and therefore he would do a great job.
Later, the second candidate responded to the same question by saying that the best part of himself didn’t want the esteemed position; rather, the worst part of himself coveted it.
Guess who got the job?
In the logic of the world, success is defined by having more — that the only way to find security and happiness is through possessions and power. In the logic of the world it is only by satisfying all our wants that we can be content. It is an energy of acquirement based on the notion of absolute scarcity.
Therefore, we live according the winner-takes-all idea where we compete not only for goods, material things and political power, but also for meaning and love and relationship. Winning and losing takes on a whole new dimension when we figure into it our religious values.
What does it mean to follow Jesus, take up your cross, and lose your life for the sake of God and God’s mission? If we are going to take the words of Jesus seriously, well, what’s your life going to look like?
Should you pursue a job promotion, or be content with where you are? What about expensive theatre or ice-level tickets at Scotiabank Place or the Air Canada Centre? If you buy a pair of those, is that gross self-indulgence? Or, if your house is full of all sorts of material possessions, what will happen to your soul the next time you pass over a person in need?
We can worry about gas prices and argue over who holds the TV remote control. We can get all fussy over keeping neighbourhood kids and their skateboards off the church parking lot, even if we don’t give a whip about the inner or outer states of their lives. But for the life of us, we struggle to keep focus during even the briefest of prayers.
What does it mean to follow Jesus in your life?
When we boil it down to making good choices, are we not still operating in the logic of this world, which suggests that “it’s all up to us” and “what you make of it”? Are we still not acting on the presumption of acquirement (of good, righteous living)? Are we still not presuming that by our own strength we can make it right? Do our ego compulsions make any room at all for God?
We can sympathize with Peter’s objections when he confronts Jesus against the notion of a Messiah who must suffer and die (Mark 8:27-38). We can understand Peter’s confusion and rebuke — because like most of us he, too, must confess his entrapment to the popular notions of power, possession and security in the world.
Have you heard the joke of two people who died around the same time — a Lutheran pastor and a New York City taxi driver? Both approached the gates of heaven and were met by Saint Peter. Immediately the angelic hosts — singing a joyous chorus — surrounded the taxi driver, embraced him and ushered him with pomp through the gates and into the glories of heaven.
The pastor was left at the gates while Saint Peter had to check the heavenly files. It was some hours before the pastor finally asked, “Why did the taxi driver get to go through so quickly and I — a servant of the Lord — must wait in line so long to enter?”
“Well, you see,” replied Saint Peter, “When you preached the people in the church fell asleep; when the taxi driver drove, the people in his car prayed earnestly!”
Anne Lammott just published a book entitled: “Help. Thanks. Wow: The Three Essential Prayers.” That title suggests that real, authentic, heart-centred prayer is simple. Martin Luther said about prayer that fewer words make a better prayer. In the Psalm for today (116) we encounter a phrase often mentioned in scripture: “I call on the name of the Lord”.
We can take that meaning plainly to say, simply the name of the Lord: Jesus. In ancient tradition this was the Prayer of the Heart: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner” — and this was the simple prayer repeated over and over again during a short period of silence and stillness in the midst of any circumstance of life.
So, what does prayer have to do with “losing our life”? For one thing, prayer forces us to experience the living Christ, not just talk about Jesus.
I don’t know about you, but I have found in my own life that sometimes I am more comfortable talking about Jesus. But caring about Jesus with the insight of my mind or through the books on my shelf is not the same as giving over the full allegiance of my life and simply being in Christ.
It’s a little bit like the difference between talking about a loved one and actually picking up the phone or looking them straight in the eye and telling a person you really love them.
When Jesus asked his disciples that day, “Who do people say that I am?” they had no trouble answering that question. As many prominent names as they could pull out of their Bible or from their community, they offered up. It was a nice objective question to which they could give nice objective answers.
When Jesus changed one word, however, it became a bit more difficult: “Who do YOU say that I am?” Suddenly their confidence and investment in him, and all that he was, was being tested. This was a much more difficult question to answer, because they had to answer it with their lives and not just with their brains.
The minute we hear this question posed to us, we do have a choice. We can either hold back and talk about this Christ figure whose sayings and deeds are written down in a precious ancient book. Or, we can decide to open up to the fullness of our lives by using the language of love.
Have we at times noticed, for example, that when we give a gift to another we recognize how much we receive in return? (recent studies indicate that the only way money truly makes us happy is when we give it away) Or, have you discovered on occasion that only by loving another do you feel yourself to be loved? Have you ever gone without, in order that someone could have more — and then felt intensely richer as a result? Or, that there’s no better way to find a friend than first to be a friend, and that unexpected rewards come through sacrifice?
C.S. Lewis wrote, “Give up yourself and you will find your real self. Lose life and it will be saved. Submit to death – the death of ambitions and secret wishes. Keep nothing back. Nothing in us that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for Christ and you will find him.”
In the world’s logic, we don’t want to lose because losing leaves us alone, forsaken, abandoned. In the recent ‘Dr. Seuss and the Lorax’ movie, the main character, the Once-ler, achieves great success selling his Thneebs by cutting down all the trees. But his greed and ambition to acquire more without recognizing any limits — leads to failure. And in the movie you see how when his kingdom comes crumbling down, everyone abandons him: His forest friends and the Lorax — because they no longer have a place to live without the trees, his family because he disappointed them. Losing meant abandonment.
But in the losing we experience the grace of God. It is in the loss where and when we find Christ. Jesus experienced the ultimate loss and then exposed the false logic of the world on the Cross and out of the empty tomb.
Therefore we are not alone when we lose. Because Someone who loves us will find us. And give us another chance, a new beginning, and a new life.