Winners and Losers

watching Ghana play the United States, World Cup 2014

Two young soccer fans watching Ghana play the United States, World Cup 2014

“I’m glad the other team is losing,” the young soccer fan said, munching on a tortilla chip as she waited for her quesadilla. Her friend sitting next to her nodded solemnly in agreement.

I felt the pang that precedes motherly admonition, but I quickly squelched it. Yes, it is “less polite” to the point of “not being a good sport” to be glad that the other team is losing – and yet we are encouraged to cheer on our own team – to be happy that our team is winning. These seven year olds could tell you that there really is no difference between the two. To be happy that your team is winning necessarily means being happy that the other team is losing. Why is it impolite to say one, but not impolite to say the other?

I realized that I was not willing to defend this sort of polite dissemblance. I refused to insist, “Don’t say that; say this other thing [that means the same thing, but in a more oblique way.]”

I’m not a big fan of rooting for a particular team. I enjoy the game itself. I enjoyed watching Ghana and the U.S. alike. Rooting for someone doesn’t tend to increase the enjoyment for me. And so instead of correcting the girls’ “rude” but accurate speech, I tried to model delight in cunning fakes and beautiful passes and amazing escapes from seemingly impenetrable defenses. I gasped as goals were nearly made and blocked at the last minute – without regard for whose goal was being defended, much less who was ahead and what was the score.

I guess it is an Arminian way of watching the World Cup. Just as single predestination is a pedantic hedge for double predestination, getting excited about a particular team winning requires being glad that the team they are playing is losing. If you can’t stomach one, how can you stomach the other? So I, for one, am going to steer clear of speculating about who Pope Francis is rooting for, and hope that the official Vatican answer represents the Pope’s true feelings: nobody.

Happy World Cup everybody – enjoy the spectacle!

“You can do it!”

Wilma Rudolph: The fastest woman of her generation
New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection. – NYPL Digital
Accessed via Wikipedia
NYWT&S staff photographs are in the public domain per the instrument of gift. See http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/res/076_nyw.html

High school gym class was awful for me. In truth, I first noticed how un-athletic I was in the fourth grade, when it became clear that the only things I was good at in PE was dodging balls and square dancing. Oh, and the bar hang that girls used to do for the annual Physical Fitness Test instead of pull-ups – I was great at that! I just imagined that I would literally die if I let go. I failed all the other tests, but that one? Presidential, every time. But I didn’t hate gym class. It was a break from the routine, and it felt good to exercise. My elementary and middle school gym teachers accepted that, even trying my hardest, I was simply bad at every sport I tried, and none of my peers gave me a hard time about it.

My high school coaches, on the other hand, refused to “give up” on me. They really believed that I could be better if I just tried harder, and so they were relentlessly, vocally encouraging. They were especially “encouraging” about my running. Shooting baskets, or serving a volleyball, or any of dozens of other skills require some amount of practice simply to do in a mediocre way. Running, on the other hand, is something most kids learn how to do naturally before they are 18 months old, so obviously I had had lots of practice. And lots of practice meant no excuses.

Running. I wanted to believe that I was shooting off the starting line at top speed, but in seconds, I would be huffing and puffing, and by the end of the run, I had been double lapped by literally my entire class. 30 people or something, all not just faster than me, but embarrassingly faster. And to make matters worse, Coach was standing in the middle of the track, singling me out, shouting, “You can do it, Cosby! Keep going! Don’t stop now! What now? Are you going to start walking? Are you going to walk like a quitter? Keep running! You can do it! I know you have it in you!”

What exactly was the “it” that I had in me, anyway? It felt like what I had was a knife in my chest, starting as early as the 100 meter mark. And it didn’t go away. By 400 meters, my legs were like jelly. By 600 meters, I felt like I would pass out. And already my entire class had passed me – they had gone almost twice as far as I had, and they weren’t slowing down. Most of them seemed to be enjoying themselves. I, on the other hand, was going at my absolute top speed, and was sure that this was going to be the day that I died on the track. Maybe the last thing I would hear would be Coach telling me to just try harder.

Coach didn’t actually know I had it in me. He couldn’t possibly know I had it in me. I didn’t know for sure myself if I had it in me.

I remembered reading in Sunday school about Wilma Rudolph. That was quite the inspirational works righteousness story. She contracted polio as a child, and had been told by a doctor that she was never going to be able to walk without a brace. But she was so determined that not only did she walk, but she ran. And not only did she run, but she ran in the Olympics. She became the fastest woman alive. The moral of the story, we were told, was that we could do anything we put our minds to, as long as we didn’t give up no matter what anyone told us. (To be fair to Ms. Rudolph, she herself would likely have recognized that only one person can be the fastest in the world at a time, heroic efforts notwithstanding. She was not responsible for the way the curriculum writer had chosen to turn her life story into a morality tale.)

If Wilma Rudolph could run after having had polio as a child, certainly I could do it – I who had never had to wear a brace, who had never been diagnosed with anything particularly serious. I so wanted to be a runner like Wilma Rudolph. I didn’t want to be that slow – it had not been that long ago that I had harbored secret dreams of being the fastest woman alive, like Wilma Rudolph. Maybe Coach was right: if I kept trying my hardest, surely one day I would at least be able to keep up with my class mates.

It wasn’t long before his certainty became oppressive. I started to doubt myself – started to oscillate between rage at his certainty and self-loathing: no matter what I thought, I must not be trying if I was not getting any better. He believed, he suspected that all I needed was more encouragement, or embarrassment, or effort, and I would be as good as anyone else. But he didn’t say, “I suspect…” He didn’t say, “I believe…” He said, “I know.”

We should always be careful about our certainty about another person’s ability or potential. “I know you can do it!” is not a helpful motivator. For someone who really is trying, relentless encouragement can be discouraging.

Take addiction, for instance: when I was interning as a chaplain at a residential addiction treatment facility, I was told that only about 5% of addicts actually manage to stay clean for a full five years after treatment. So what do you say to someone who statistically is 95% likely to get back on drugs in the next 5 years? “I know you can do it?” That’s pretty cheeky – and definitely setting up the vast majority of people in recovery for a serious shame spiral down the road. You could try reverse psychology – hope that you can make them angry enough to fight with the words: “Almost everyone fails at this. What makes you think you are so special? I’m going to see you right back in here in a matter of months.” That’s rather dismal, isn’t it? But most importantly, it isn’t true. No one can tell anyone else for certain that they will or won’t be able to stay off drugs. No one can even know that for themselves. At best, it is a weekly or daily struggle. Sometimes, it’s moment to moment.

None of us can tell another person what they are able to do or likely to do. We don’t know that a person can stay off drugs, or that they will start using again. We don’t know that a person can keep commitments if they just try hard enough, or that they definitely won’t. We don’t know that a person will be able to speak more clearly, read more quickly, or jump farther if they just put their mind to it. When we say that we do know, we are being dishonest and unloving.

We can’t have perfect knowledge. At best, we can have hope: we can desire for a person to be able to do more, or to be able to take better care of themselves. At best, we can be honest enough to say “I don’t know, I hope so,” when a friend asks us, “Do you think I can quit smoking?” or “Will I ever finish this novel?” or “Will I learn how to stop getting so angry at my kids?”

Those three words, “I don’t know,” are a gift. “I don’t know,” means “there is grace for you.” It means that I will not assume that you are lazy if you fail. It means that I know that no matter how well I know you, I cannot know you well enough to peer into your future. It means that I acknowledge that no one’s will is all powerful. Omnipotence is reserved for God alone.

But the next three words, “I hope so,” these are a gift too. “I hope so,” says, “I want you to be healthy.” It says, “I love you.” It says, “I will pray for you.” It says, “I will do my feeble best not to make you stumble.”

Will I be able to remember this advice when the time comes? Will you?

I don’t know. I hope so.

Showing up for dinner

Last year, I had the privilege of preaching at the Thanksgiving eve service at Trinity UMC in Durham, NC.  Today, as so many of us in the United States are preparing once again to join with friends and family around the table, I wanted to share these words with you.

This sermon is rooted in scriptures from Ecclesiastes, Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, and Paul’s “jars of clay text” from 2 Corinthians.

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During my last year as a Divinity school student, a friend of mine who was in her first year in her first church called me after returning home from a hospital visit. It was late December. One of her parishioners had become very ill. She was near to death, and the family had been told that this might be their last chance to visit. So a carload of family and near friends got onto the highway to make their way to their hometown to stand vigil, and somewhere on the road they had been in an accident. Now there were two more family members near death, at a hospital more than an hour from their hoped for destination. This friend of mine grieved for the family in this hour, and she lamented: “How can I preach a Christmas Eve service? I don’t feel very Christmassy right now, and neither do many people in my congregation.”

The tricky thing about holidays is that their season is not always our season. Thanksgiving, like Christmas, is one of the biggest festival days in our culture – it is a time for us to celebrate friends and family and good food, to give thanks for happy memories and for all of our present blessings – it is a way to mark time with a series of smiling snapshots – a time to make happy memories!

Which is great for those of us for whom this November is significantly better than last November, and not such great news for those of us for whom this past year has been lousy. For some, this will be the first Thanksgiving as a newly married couple, while for others, this will be the first since the loss of a marriage through death or divorce. For some, this will be the first Thanksgiving in a new home, while for others, this will be the first Thanksgiving since losing their home. For some, this will be the first Thanksgiving with a new baby, while for others, this will be the first Thanksgiving after having lost a child. This may have been one of your best years, or one of your worst – and let’s not oversimplify things: this may have been a year where your best gifts have come with their own burdens: a return home from deployment overseas may come with a reminder of friends who didn’t make it back. A new baby may come with a loss of time with your spouse. A new job or new town is, for both good and ill, not like the last one. It can be hard to be full of thanks if it feels like you are running on empty.

Nothing in this life is permanent, instead, as the writer of Ecclesiastes begins his book, “all is vanity” – life is fragile and fleeting – it cannot be grasped and mastered. Or as Jesus reminds us in Luke, neither poverty nor wealth, neither grief nor joy, neither famine nor feast, neither disdain nor praise are permanent conditions! Grief gives way to laughter, as surely as laughter gives way to grief.

So what shall we do? Insofar as you can, enjoy what you can for as long as you can, the writer of Ecclesiastes suggests. Remember that you carry Christ in you, Paul admonishes. Love – love everyone! Jesus tells us. None of them seems to be saying, “Smile, and no one will notice you are having a lousy time.”

If we are going to share a table with one another, we had better show up! Being real about who we are and what season we are in is a real ministry to our friends and family. We have this treasure in clay jars. Our fragile vessels are filled to the brim with God’s grace! God has poured love into us – into our fragile, fleeting, hopeful and frightened, confused happy sad selves – we are loved exuberantly and extravagantly. Not because we are perfect hosts and hostesses, not because we have never burned a pie, not because we flawlessly executed one of the menus suggested in this year’s November issue of Gourmet magazine. And not because we manage to go through the entire meal without once mentioning any feeling of loss or sadness. No – God loves us as we really and truly are without our having to prove anything to anyone.

Our dog can eat the turkey, our toupee can slip down over our eyebrows, toilet paper can stick to our shoe and trail for yards behind us, and yet we are loved. And it may make us a laughingstock. Or it may come as a sincere relief to our companions who have been trying too hard to live up to some impossible Thanksgiving ideal. And the same goes for our grief, our hunger, and our poverty. When we are honest with one another about our needs, about what we lack and what we miss and how we are hanging on by a thread, not only are our needs more likely to get met – but our neighbors are more likely to have the courage to be more fully present as well – to acknowledge where they themselves are standing in the need of prayer. It can be a great mercy to not play at being perfect.

We are coming to the thanksgiving table tonight as a family – because eucharist means thanksgiving, and God through Christ has made us all kin to one another – we are coming to the table not because we are perfect, but because we are loved. God invites us to share in this thanksgiving meal with one another because God loves us. At this table, we do not have to hide who we are, or pretend that we are more together than we really are. And having shared together at this table, we do not need to pretend with one another, either – being who we really are is a ministry to one another, and to all the world. Because it is only when we acknowledge that we are not perfect that we can stop demanding perfection from one another – it is only when we know that we are mere clay that we can love our enemies – we begin to see with God’s eyes of mercy.

This is good practice for tomorrow! My hope for each one of you would be that you would be sitting down at the table with people who love you, who are true kindred in Christ, people for whom you do not have to be perfect, but with whom you need only to be yourself. But for the many who are not so blessed to be in that situation, instead let us all pray that though you might be afflicted, you would not be crushed; though you might be perplexed, you would not be driven to despair, and though you may be persecuted, you might remember that you are not forsaken, but instead that you are a most beloved child of God. May you find pleasure simply in the preparation of the meal and the eating of the food. And in your every interaction tomorrow, may you find the strength to be merciful even as your Heavenly Father is merciful – to yourself as well as to those you celebrate with.