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.

Bread for all

After the old doctor died, his sons emptied the house in order to sell it. In the living room on the shelf above the fireplace they found a box with a slice of bread in it.

It was dried up hard and obviously had sat in the box a long time.

“He really kept every thing!” said one of the sons amazed. The doctor’s assistant who worked for the doctor for many years stood beside the sons silently. And then said: “Let me tell you the story of the slice of bread:

“You know that after the war your dad became very ill. He was weak, and near death. A friend, who had visited him told him, ‘If you don’t eat enough to regain your strength, it looks very bad for you.’ But where was one to get enough to eat? Everyone was starving. Many simply cooked potato peels and considered it a rich soup.

“The friend returned after some hours and brought some bread. Where he found it, he didn’t say. Surely he must have paid a fortune for it.

“But your dad did not eat it,” continued the assistant. “Your dad told me to take it to the neighbour; their daughter had been ill for a long time too. ‘I am an old man already who does not need the bread as much!’ your Dad said. ‘Take it to the neighbours!’

“As it later turned out, the neighbours did not eat it either, but passed it on to a family of refugees with three little children that lived in a small shack in the backyard of the neighbours’ house. They were overjoyed for they had not seen bread for more than three months. 

“But as they were about to eat, they remembered that the doctor, who had helped their children at no charge when they had been struck by a dangerous fever, was ill and weak and really needed something that would make him stronger.

“So when the bread came back after a day,” said the assistant, “we recognized it at once. Your dad was in tears, as they found out about the wandering piece of bread and where it had been.

Your Dad had said, “as long as there is love between us – I am not afraid about anything, not even dying”. So he divided it evenly and sent me out again. His share he kept; he put it in this box to always remember what had happened.”

The three children took the old bread, broke in in three pieces and decided to keep it in order to remember the story, to tell it to the next generation, and to teach them about the power of love and the wonder of sharing.

Something like this can only happen when there is a communal consciousness — more than one person that participates in a community of love and trust. That all will have enough. That all will benefit. That the needs of the whole outweigh the needs of the one.

This is the Gospel call. The kingdom call. Not for individual enlightenment or edification. Not for our sake alone. Dear Confirmands, your baptism as a baby was not valid on account of your own individual strength or decision. It was the community — your parents, sponsors and everyone in the church long ago — whose faith surrounded you at your baptism. Even your confirmation is not done for your own sake — but for the sake of others around you.

And that’s why you participate in leading and assisting in your own confirmation service: To practice this truth, that affirming your baptism is a call to deeper commitment in the life of the church. You may doubt the strength of your faith. That’s ok. In fact, I would be worried if you didn’t. God can work with just a tiny bit.

I must admit when we planted that tiny four-inch tall spruce on church grounds last Fall, I didn’t have a lot of hope that it would survive the winter. This was our first tree planted in response to the Reformation challenge for our national church to plant 500,000 trees by the end of 2017 — the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. It was a small tree. A humble start. Could it live, and even bear fruit? I had my doubts.

For one thing it was exposed, and not easily visible, to the many pedestrians that use this property to cross through and the many children who play in this space. For another thing, since receiving the sapling, I had not seen signs of new life on it. So I wasn’t sure it there was anything new to come out of it.

I was in for a pleasant surprise. Throughout the coming months, our neighbours put a tall chicken-wire type fence around it and staked it. We watered it. People walked around it. God took care of it over the cold winter. And voila, look at the new shoots of life sprouting now! There is hope.


It does take a community committed to sharing, committed to kingdom values, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Today is just as much about celebrating the church of all times and places as it is about our part in the kingdom of God on earth. We are not loners on this path. We don’t walk by ourselves. It’s not all up to us, individually. 

It’s amazing to see the fans of “We the North” cheer on the Toronto Raptors as they advance through the NBA playoffs this post-season. They are true fans who gather in “Jurassic Park” outside the ACC in downtown Toronto, even during away-games in the pouring rain. You might say, they are ‘fan-atics’ of their team. 

Yes, fans can be fanatics — exuberant, dedicated, passionate, sometimes even over-the-top. Imagine the fans in heaven — the faithful gathered as the grand host of heaven, cheering you on this day. These may be your loved ones, long gone now, or recently died. These may be the saints throughout the ages. These may be other Christians not here today yet praying for you nonetheless. These are your fans of faith. Fans. Fanatics. Fantastic!

You are not alone, making this decision today. Pentecost, and Confirmation Sunday, is also about trusting in God’s initiative, God’s work, God’s love and mercy. Through the Holy Spirit God comes to us in so many ways we sometimes don’t even recognize. 

In a few minutes, God comes to us in bread. This bread, the body of Jesus, is broken bread. It is broken from the One, so that all may eat. There is always enough for all, for the sake of our broken lives in this broken world that God so loves.