Super-hero busted

With Marvel and DC the biggest box office attractions in recent years, the popular culture exposes our desires and fantasies. These super-heroes are really just projections of our own wants and longings. We put ourselves in these roles, vicariously living out the super-hero life.

What from the super-hero culture inform and influence our real lives, you ask? What does it mean to be a hero, living day-to-day?

Last week, we concluded our Lent book study about our medical culture. When the stakes are high and decisions have to be made about treatment of serious illness, what do we want? How do we respond? In the book aptly entitled, “Being Mortal”, author Atul Gawande writes:

“The pressure remains all in one direction, toward doing more, because the only mistake clinicians seem to fear is doing too little. Most have no appreciation that equally terrible mistakes are possible in the other direction—that doing too much could be no less devastating to a person’s life.”[1]

Being heroic means doing more, not less. More power. More strength. Super-human capacity. Fighting evil means counter punch for punch—just harder, faster. Solving problems means finding more resources, generating more capacity to meet the demands. Doing things better. This is the culture of heroism in our day. We want to be heroes.

Peter, one of Jesus’ disciples, is our biblical hero. We like him. We get him. He always wanted to be Jesus’ hero, protecting him from the suffering of which he spoke, jumping into the water not once but twice to be the first of the disciples to get to Jesus.[2]Jesus, at one point, even had to say to Peter: “Get behind me Satan” when Peter said he would not allow the suffering and death of Jesus.[3]

Even in the Passion narrative Peter is still delusional, believing he will follow Jesus, heroically, to the end. “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death!”[4]Peter is the consummate hero.

The part from the Passion narrative where he then ‘denies the Lord three times when the rooster crows’ is a turning point for him.[5]And for us.

In the Passion of our Lord, the Cross is the central image and destination. And against the Cross our truth is exposed, and we are caught in the headlights. Our true motivations are squared against the values of the kingdom of God to which Jesus bore witness in his last days and trial.

Normally, I have understood Peter’s denial of Jesus merely as self-preservation. He doesn’t want to expose his vulnerability in that situation. He doesn’t want to be considered a threat, and be arrested himself. He wants to conserve and protect himself. And so he is caught off-guard, and quickly denies his involvement with Jesus.

But what if we saw Peter’s words of denial more as a confession rather than self-seeking, self-preservation? Peter confesses, at the end of the road, that he does not ‘know’ the kingdom of which Jesus speaks. Peter confesses that he is not a true disciple of Jesus.

Even at this end, nevertheless, Jesus knows Peter better than he knows himself. “Today, you will deny me”. Hours later, Peter stares into the flames of the firepit in the courtyard of the high priest’s house, and warms his hands by the fire. Finally, Peter comes to himself in all honesty and vulnerability. “No, I don’t know him. No, I don’t know this Jesus. No, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

He is finally telling the truth, in his ‘denial’. Facing this truth is hard, and that is why he goes out and weeps bitterly at the end. Peter’s ideal image of himself—a heroic disciple of the Lord, a super-hero Jesus freak—has come crashing down. He is not the hero he thought he was. He does not have the courage to follow in the way of Jesus to the cross.

When, in the solitude of our confession, we confront ourselves in all honesty—we find ourselves at ground zero, that turning point, that event-horizon towards transformation and healing. Because further down that path of hero worship we cannot go. And, we wonder, seriously question whether we have what it takes to let go, and follow Jesus to the cross of our lives.

It is unknown territory, on the bottom. We do not know it well, if at all. We shy away from it, understandably. We are uncomfortable, here. “In solitude, we encounter our own poverty, incompleteness and brokenness. We see how petty we can be; how possessive and judgmental; how angry, resentful, and mean-spirited; how self-centered in our thoughts and actions. No wonder we are tempted to flee solitude and to lose ourselves in busyness and distractions. It takes courage to plumb the depths of our soul.”[6]

Peter in the high priest’s courtyard finds his bottom in honest confession, not unlike the Prodigal Son wallowing in the mud of the pig pen when he has his moment of reckoning.

It takes courage to come close to Jesus near the Cross. It takes courage to let go of our heroism and our compulsion to do more, to do better. It takes courage to let go being incessantly active and working harder as a way of avoiding ‘plumbing the depths of our soul’.

Are you willing to give up being a hero for Jesus? Are you still a disciple when Jesus leads you this close to the cross?[7]

Perhaps another story from the Passion narratives of the Gospels usually assigned for Holy Week can be helpful. It’s the Gospel text from last week, actually, when Mary lavishly anoints Jesus’ feet.

How does Mary respond to the reality of human limitation and vulnerability? How does she respond to the ‘ground zero’ reality surrounding her and Jesus? Remember, Mary knows what is going on with Jesus. Anointing was reserved for coronations and burials. Jesus qualifies for both. And his end was nigh. How does she deal with that?

In Luke’s version of the anointing story, Jesus tells Mary: “Your sins are forgiven.”[8]Why were her sins forgiven after anointing Jesus’ feet with costly perfume?

Not only because of her great sorrow, nor because she remembered all her sins, nor even because of any contrition she might have felt for her human weakness. Why then?

Because she loved, and loved much.[9]So, instead of sorrowing over her sinfulness, she gave abundantly and without reservation of her affection and love for Jesus.

Confronting our truth, as scary as that is, is not license to wallow in passive, self-preoccupation. Rather, this degree of self-honesty and confession leads to extravagant acts of mercy and love towards another. At ground zero, we realize that our lives are not ours, but God’s. At ground zero, we realize that we live for something and someone much greater than our individual problems and shortcomings.

The description of what God does, relating to the suffering servant in Isaiah 50:4-9 is important:

The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word …

The Lord God has opened my ear …

The Lord God helps me …

The Lord God helps me.[10]

When truth-telling can lead to acts of profound love for the sake of ‘the weary’, the Lord God helps us.

When our actions, tarnished even by our humanity, focus on love for the vulnerable and weak, the Lord God helps us.

When our limitations are offered to God in acts of love for others, the Lord God helps us.

And we are still the Lord’s disciples. Even Peter, beyond his moment not of denial, but acceptance. Jesus pronounced him ‘the rock’ upon which God builds the church.

And, we know what lies beyond this momentary tribulation. We have Jesus to thank for that. This is the promise of our journeys, rough though they may be.

And, through it all, we are still the Lord’s disciples.

 

[1]Atul Gawande, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters at the End(Toronto: Penguin, 2017), p.220

[2]Matthew 14:28-31; John 21:7-19

[3]Matthew 16:23; Mark 8:33

[4]Luke 22:33

[5]Luke 22:24-34,54-62; John 18:15-27

[6]Br. David Vryhof
Society of Saint John the Evangelist, “Brother, Give us a Word” 8 April 2019

 

[7]M. Craig Barnes, The Pastor As Minor Poet: Texts and Subtexts in the Ministerial Life  (Michigan: Eerdmans, 2009),  p.79.

[8]Luke 7:44-48

[9]The Cloud of Unknowing, ed. Ira Progoff (Delta Books: 1957), 100-102.

[10]Isaiah 50:4-9 NRSV, reading assigned by the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) for Passion Sunday.

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.