Invasion of abundant grace

The Toronto Maple Leafs are a playoff team. They have been for a while now. In fact, they’ve occupied the third seed in the Atlantic Division for months. And, lately, regardless of how many games they’d lose or win, it wouldn’t change their place in the standings for the playoffs, which begin this coming week.

The Leafs’ success has a lot to do with the stellar play of their number one goaltender, Frederik Andersen. At least how he played early in the season when he was sporting an impressive .923 goals against average (that’s very good). He was, some argue, the main reason the Leafs were able to climb in the standings and secure their playoff destiny. That is, until recently.

As some of you may know, he’s been kind of faltering a bit in the last month — letting in just a little too many goals, and losing just a bit too many games. As of last week, the Leafs had lost five of their last seven games—two of them here in Ottawa against the Sens. His lackluster performance has been enough to cause some to wonder whether Freddy will be able to hold up during the playoffs, especially against their arch rivals in the first round: the Boston Bruins.

An article in the Toronto Star recently caught my eye about this funk Andersen is in, and what he’s doing about it.[1]

Anderson speaks of dealing with all the downward-spiraling statistics — an embarrasing .890 goals against average (that’s bad) — all the anxiety-producing pressures to perform and succeed and chalk up more wins than losses — all the negative, worrisome scenarios that might play out for his whole team if he doesn’t stop more shots on net. Dashed playoff hopes. Disappointed fans. Negative publicity in the media. Downward career trajectories. Worry. Worry. Worry.

Indeed having success doesn’t mean being in a good head space. True, when the stakes are high, when it’s all on the line, when the vice grips of life’s important events tighten—it’s very difficult, maybe feels like it’s impossible, to keep calm, walk lightly, and breathe deeply through it all.

That’s the measure, that’s the key. Not when there’s nothing on the line. When you have little or no investment in the outcome. When it doesn’t matter and you don’t really care.

Rather, when what you are passionate about, what you care about, what you believe in, your most sacred values—when those things are on the line, when the stakes are high, how do you respond?

In the Lent book study, “Being Mortal” by Atul Gawande[2], we have been exploring many questions about the last chapter of one’s life. We’ve been talking about how to navigate the medical culture and what we want when time is short. You could say, the end of life conversations and thoughts are the ultimate ‘high stakes’ decisions:

How do you want the last ten years of your life to look like? What do you want for yourself? What trade-offs are you willing to make in order to achieve your final wishes? Whom do you need to include in conveying those decisions? Are those closest to you aware of your thoughts? Why or why not?

Most of us avoid having these conversations. We dread not only those situations but those conversations. We don’t want to think too far ahead. We don’t want to think about next year. ‘It’s too depressing’ we say. ‘I just want to think about next week, or just tomorrow, or just today.’

As Atul Gawande writes in his book, “It’s the route people the world over take, and that is understandable. But,” he continues, “it tends to backfire. Eventually, the crisis [you] dreaded arrives.”[3]And then what?

When the stakes are high, what does Mary do? Oh, and if you think the stakes aren’t high, let’s take another look: Why does Mary spill on Jesus’ feet a year’s worth of wages in perfume made from pure nard?[4]There are two uses in ancient Israel for pouring expensive oil on someone: First, in a coronation of a king; and, second, for the burial of that person.[5]

This was a costly oil with a sweet smell, imported from northern India. Scholars estimate that the “pound” referred to was nearly 12 ounces, or 324 grams. Many typical flasks of anointing oil would contain only a single ounce. So, Mary has a lot of this stuff, and pours it all out on Jesus’ feet!

“Money going down the drain!” eh?

Yet, Mary was anoints Jesus, the true King, and Jesus who will soon die. This extravagant act of love and adoration conveys Jesus’ purpose, publicly for all to see and read for all time to come. While everyone else around Jesus does not want to talk about it even though they might feel it, Mary does everything but avoid, deny and shove under the carpet what is obvious. What needed to be done.

It’s not a measly drop, offered in secret. It’s a whole flask, and the aroma fills the entire house!

Jesus and to an extent Mary know what is going to soon happen. The writing is on the wall, certainly since Jesus recently raised Mary’s brother Lazarus from the dead. From that point on, the religious leaders began plotting Jesus’ death.[6]The way to the cross is becoming clearer and clearer. There is no turning back. There is no avoiding this outcome if Jesus chooses to continue in his mission and divine purpose.

It is worth it, even though the stakes are high.

How do we find the courage to rise above our tendency to avoid and deny reality when the stakes are high? Can it have something to do with our purpose and mission? When you know what it is you are all about in life? Maybe, then, good things can happen.

In his book, Gawande mentions an experiment which compared two nursing homes. After the study, in one the number of prescriptions required per resident fell to half, psychotropic drugs for agitation decreased, total drug costs fells to just 38% of the comparison facility; and deaths fell by 15 %.[7]

What made the difference? In the test facility, residents began to “wake up and come to life” when animals and birds were brought into their environment. Not just one or two creatures. But a whole bunch of them. They experienced a “glorious chaos” at the beginning of the experiment.

Because no one knew what they were doing, everyone—staff and residents included—had to drop their guard and pitch in, to help. Residents forgot themselves and were immersed in an environment that gave them purpose and meaning. In the process they started having a little bit of fun. There was lots of laughter and frivolity reported in response to the invasion of all the animals and birds.[8]

This is just one small example of how connecting to a meaning and purpose in life, however trivial, and at whatever stage of life—can do miracles.

For goalie Frederik Andersen, it means no longer obsessing about the data and numbers, good and bad. He has to trust his teammates and play as part of a team rather than an individual obsessed with personal stats. He has to free himself from micro-managing his technique because he realizes his primary challenge is not his ability or capacity to do great things in the net, but the mental, emotional and yes, spiritual, part of his game.

In short, he simply needs to find joy in playing again. That’s spiritual!

As the playoffs begin, Fredrik Andersen is on a journey to reconnect with the purpose of what he was about on the ice. He is looking to discover ‘fun’ in his game, and enjoy every minute he has the privilege of playing it at that level.

We, too, are on a journey in Lent. Mary’s action in the Gospel reminds us that on this journey, there are times God calls us simply to be extravagant in our giving born of devotion and thanksgiving to God. Mary’s action reminds us that sometimes God calls us to breathe deeply and savor life’s good things.

As we ourselves work on the important question of the church’s mission and ministry, and how that again can take expression in the here and now, let’s remember in the midst of all that, to take the time, to give ourselves the permission, to lavish upon God our love, our attention, to rest in God’s presence.

And, in that holy act of devotion and love, be renewed for life and joy.

 

[1]
https://www.thestar.com/sports/leafs/opinion/2019/03/28/the-joy-of-hockey-could-save-andersen-and-the-leafs-season.html

[2]Atul Gawande, Being Mortal: Medicine and what matters in the End (Anchor Canada: Penguin Books, 2014/2017).

[3]Ibid., p.57

[4]John 12:1-8, Gospel text for the Fifth Sunday in Lent according to the Revised Common Lectionary, RCL, Year C

[5]Lindsey Trozzo comments on the Gospel reading (John 12:1-8) at http://www.workingpreacher.org

[6]John 11:45-53

[7]Gawande, ibid., p.123.

[8]Ibid., p.120-121.

There’s a hole, PART 1: Meant to be

The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” Genesis 2:15-17).

“There is a hole inside you. It’s been there a long time. Longer than you even knew. But chances are great these days this hole reappears on almost a daily basis, reminding you that something is missing in your life.”

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, really, to say that there is lots that’s wrong with the world. We don’t have to look far and wide to notice the brokenness in our lives, the violence in creation and in relationships of all kinds.

Christians have pointed to the creation stories in Genesis — in the Bible — to locate the beginnings of all that has gone wrong in this world. “The Fall” we have called it.

But all the doctrine-making explanations do not take away the problem.

All that’s not right, all this reminds each of us that something is missing in our lives. Like a hole right at the bottom of your heart.

One of the first camp songs I learned was one that’s called: “There’s a hole in the bottom of the sea.” Right off the bat, that image suggests permanence, because a hole at the bottom of the sea has likely been there a very long time.

But the song goes on in repetitive fashion: “There’s a log in the hole … there’s a log … there’s a bump … there’s a frog … there’s a wart … there’s a fly … there’s a flea — all in the hole in the bottom of the sea.”

So even though that hole is an integral and permanent part of the landscape, it’s fun to imagine that hole filled! From a young age we learn that having a hole is not good. It’s better to have it filled, somehow. What is the hole in the bottom of your heart? What is missing in your life?

“It may involve a relationship. It may involve a yearning for intimacy in the relationships you have. Maybe it’s an issue related to health, a problem that has become chronic. Maybe it’s a loved one who died and left a huge hole in your heart.

“Maybe the thing that’s missing has to do with being fulfilled in your life’s work, or vocation, or job. Or, maybe the hole has to do with a dream that has been just out of reach.

“If we had time and courage, we would turn to each other and share what is the hole in our lives. And we would have to listen, because all the holes are different; they’re not quite the same.

“The only thing that is the same, is that everybody is missing something.

“As Christians, we would pray about it. So we claim such verses as: ‘Ask and you will receive, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be open unto you’ (Matthew 7:7, Luke 11:9). Over the years, there has been plenty asking, seeking and knocking … and still this thing that is missing persists.

“Oh, we learn eventually to cope with it. Our favourite coping mechanism is to rush back to work and get busy enough to not have to think about it. Others prefer to distract themselves through entertainment. Some of us come to church precisely in search of spiritual distraction from the hole that remains in our hearts.

“But at the end of the day, when you are too tired to remain distracted, when you are trying to get to sleep, the pain of this hole returns. Maybe the pain is so great you well up with tears, and you can’t sleep. You think about all the choices you’ve made in your life and you wish you could do it all over again.

“There is nothing that will keep us up at night like fear. We try to talk ourselves out of anxiety with rational reasons why we shouldn’t be afraid. But as soon as we figure out why what we fear wont happen, we find three more ways it will happen. If only I had ….

“Some will say that God does not desire this for us. That God doesn’t desire us to live with any holes in our lives at all. That God wants us to be complete, whole.

“I’m not sure about that, actually.

“The opening of the bible is very important for us. It gives a short glimpse into what God had in mind for us. It’s only two pages in my bible. That’s all we get, in terms of what God had in mind from the very beginning. The entire rest of the bible is … the recovery plan.

“We cherish these first two pages. They’re critical to us. In these brief glimpses into what God had in mind for us we’re told we were created by God — which means we are creatures, not the creator — we were placed into a garden. And we were told that we could freely eat of almost every fruit of this garden. (Genesis 1-3)

“Because it was given to us by God. Even in taking the fruit we are partaking in doxology — we are saying, “Thank you” to God because it was given to us. We didn’t create the fruit, God created the fruit. We receive it. We receive all of this out of the bounty of God’s goodness to us. So, it’s not just thanksgiving for the knowledge of God, it is thanksgiving for being in this spectacular garden, to being able to work in it, be stewards of it and receive its fruit.

Almost all the fruit. But there was one tree whose fruit was forbidden. Fruit that was not given to us by God. And to desire this fruit is to desire it for its own end. Not as a means for saying thanks to God because God chose not to give us this fruit.

“Do you remember where that tree was planted in the garden? Right slap dab in the middle. The exact same place it is planted in your life. Right in the middle of your life. This meant, as the narrative goes, every day Adam and Eve had to walk past this thing that they did not have. A reminder that something was missing in the garden of their lives. Just as there is in ours. That it wasn’t all for the taking. And, that they were not supposed to have it.

“Keep in mind, this is God’s idea of paradise. This is not a result of the ‘Fall’. This is the garden God created for you and called “good”. God said, “It’s all for you except for this one thing right in the middle that you’re never going to have.” Now, this drives us nuts. Just like it did Adam and Eve. We think about this thing we don’t have every day. This hole that just keeps returning. We obsess over it. We want it. Other people have. Why can’t I?

“There can be 999 spectacular trees in our garden. But where do we pitch our tent? Right underneath this one thing we don’t have. We obsess over it. We yearn for it. We think about it constantly. Let the rest of the garden go to weed, but what am I going to do about this one thing I don’t have?

“As the narrative goes, it is in reaching further than we were meant to reach that we then lose the garden. On the way out, we discover that it actually was a pretty good garden. Only now it is paradise lost.

“There is nothing and no one that can do as much damage to your life as you can yourself. When we reach for more than we were created to have.”

The real miracle, however, is that despite all the pain and suffering and confusion, there is good in the world.

Now, hear this: there is good in our lives. There is good within us. There is good within you. And good that can come out of you in word and deed.

But that good only happens, that good is there only when we trust God. When we put our trust in that which is beyond us — in the power, grace and strength that is God and God’s alone. God created everything.

When we put our trust in God …

Not in our abilities to do the good because there is always something missing in our lives.

We put our trust in God. For we can also claim these verses from the bible, the words of Jesus who said, “Pick up your cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34-35). Jesus, the God we follow, never promised to plug up that hole in our hearts.

We do have a choice. We can choose gratitude over despair. We can be thankful despite all that is wrong in the world. Despite all that is wrong in our lives. We may have pitched our tent underneath that one tree. But we can also build an altar there, an altar of thanksgiving right beside that hole in the bottom of our heart.

“Because the garden, you know, it’s pretty good. It’s not perfect. Something is missing. But we can choose gratitude, because it’s pretty good.”

Thank you, to Craig Barnes whose sermon is given, in quotations, from the Festival of Homiletics in Denver Colorado (Minneapolis: Luther Seminary Peach Media CD, 2015)

Who’s counting?

I think it was Albert Einstein who said that we can’t solve a problem by using the same kind of thinking that caused the problem in the first place. In other words, we can’t move forward with solutions into the new thing God is doing using a frame of mind that also contributed to creating the fix we find ourselves in today.

The Gospel story today (Matthew 25:14-30) is a good example of a parable that challenges a materialistic way of thinking, a mentality that has contributed to a problem we face today. It also introduces — if we pay attention to it — the Gospel way of thinking. And I believe, the Gospel way of thinking not only judges the ways of old, it paves the way for entering God’s future.

A man and his wife were having some problems at home and were giving each other the silent treatment. Suddenly, the man realized that the next day, he would need his wife to wake him at 5:00 AM for an early morning business flight.

Not wanting to be the first to break the silence (and LOSE), he wrote on a piece of paper, “Please wake me at 5:00 AM.” He left it where he knew she would find it.

The next morning, the man woke up, only to discover it was 9:00 AM and he had missed his flight. Furious, he was about to go and see why his wife hadn’t wakened him, when he noticed a piece of paper by the bed.

The paper said, “It is 5:00 AM. Wake up.”

On several levels this story exposes the kind of way we operate when facing difficulties: It’s a tit-for-tat world we live in. There have to be winners and losers. It’s really the only game we know well. When someone, or some group, or some other religion or denomination poses a threat, we respond in kind. Because someone must win and someone must lose. During the Cold War Era, we called it ‘mutually-assured-destruction’; or, as the acronym accurately suggests, when we give ourselves into this compulsive way of behaving, we are indeed MAD.

On the surface this parable looks like it contains a good stewardship message. And, admittedly, there is this theme of valuing personal industry and action as part of what it means to follow Jesus. By comparing what the three servants do — one turns five talents into ten and the other turns two into four by bold, risky investment; but the third doesn’t do anything with his talent — we may be left merely with the notion that the solution is by just upping the ante of all our spiritual work. Just do more. Work harder, and spin those wheels faster.

All of this to get more of what we think we want; that is, more of the same thing we’ve always known. I like to joke that when someone in the church suggests we do something today the same way the church did it 50 years ago — whether it is about a strategy for getting more people in the pews, some outreach program all intended to bring people in — it’s like advising someone who has car trouble they should really trade it in for horse and buggy. It just won’t work today! The church today really needs to do something altogether different from the ways of thinking fifty years ago.

I wonder what would have happened if the first two slaves had put the money in a high-risk venture and lost it all. Jesus didn’t tell the story this way, but I cannot imagine the master would have been harsh towards them; he might even have applauded their efforts. The point here is not really about doubling your money and accumulating wealth. (John M. Buchanan, “Feasting on the Word” Year A Volume 4, WJKP 2011, p.310). The point is not about achieving a desired result, and being congratulated for your success, materially. This is not management by objective. This is not ‘the ends justify the means.’

This is about living — living in a way that demonstrates a willingness to take risks not knowing how it will all turn out. The Gospel way is not win-lose, it is both-and. Because in being faithful, we may try things, and sometimes fail in the world’s eyes. But emphasizing risk-management may sometimes impede our action to do the right thing when we have to do it, despite the sordid circumstances of life. We can’t wait until everything is hunky-dory before we take action; otherwise we never will. The reason the third slave received judgement was because he wanted to play it safe, be cautious and prudent; he wanted to make sure he wouldn’t lose anything; low risk, no risk.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that the sin of respectable people is running from responsibility. Bonhoeffer, who was a pacifist, took his own responsibility seriously, so much so that he joined the Resistance and helped plan an assassination attempt on Hitler’s life. His sense of responsibility cost him his life. (ibid., p.311-312)

We, as Christians, are not called to be ‘counters and measurers’. God knows, if we do anything well in times of institutional crisis and constriction, we count and we measure — we do this very well. But in all our counting and measuring and bottom line conversations, are we not being judged? We just need to look around and count the heads in our churches today, for that answer.

When we arranged for this pulpit swap, the purpose around doing so was to provide an opportunity to share about how we reach out. In the congregation I serve, in the last couple of years, we have done “Back to Church Sunday”. Practically, this event boils down to each member of the worshipping community being challenged to ask a friend, “Would you like to come to church with me?” And it’s not as easy as it may seem on the surface.

Success in the program is not based on how many first-time visitors walk through the door on B2CS. Success is not measured by the number of people who agree to come. No-one may show up on that Sunday. But the event could still be considered a success IF … If at least one member — one of you — actually asked someone, actually invited someone, to come. Because the result is not something we have control over. How a person responds is not in our control — it is the job of the Holy Spirit to move in the heart of the person.

Yes, we have some work to do in the process — developing a friendship with that person, praying for that person — these are things we can do to prepare ourselves for asking that question to them. And had we done all those things, culminating in actually asking that question — then we are successful.

This calls, admittedly, for a radical shift in our mentality and in our approach. It necessitates, I believe, some uncomfortable letting go of the way we have seen ourselves. But in the unravelling, discomfort and vulnerable places we put ourselves in living the Gospel way, we can be encouraged.

For one thing, in reading this Gospel text, have you ever noticed how trusting the master is with his resources. God, like the master, has faith in us. God gives according to our abilities — not more, not less. God puts no condition on what we do with this bounty. Even the one talent was worth — in those days — 15 years of wages. Converted to today’s average salaries, that would be around a million dollar value! But who’s counting?

The point is, God entrusts us with an abundance of wealth, gifts and resources. God is so generous to us. Do you see the good in your life? I hope you do, because this ‘seeing’ calls us to respond in kind. God believes in us, and will ever be faithful by God’s gift of abundant grace. Just maybe, then, we can trust God when we live boldly using those gifts in the world for good, and as we step out into the unknown, as we move out of our comfort zones to do great things that God can accomplish in us.