Friday, October 9, 2009

Playing to Lose

I've never met Otis, yet he has become one of my literary heroes. He writes well, very well indeed. In a recent blogpost entitled "Failure" he ends a paragraph with these words... "If you measure your personal worth by your professional success, you’re probably going to fail at both. It took me a long time to grasp that". I dropped him a comment immediately and have been chewing on his words ever since.

I've spent the bulk of my working life in an endeavor known as "The Church". It is a vocation in the truest sense of the words. "Vocatio" - a calling, presumably from God, to enter in to the "Missio Dei", the mission of God in the world. It is an endeavor, God's endeavor to make Godself known amongst the inhabitants of the creation. It is noble is frustratingly difficult work this handling of mysteries and pointing others toward God's work shrouded in the ethereal mist. It is a vocation in which "success" is hard to quantify. I suspect that God, infinitely wise, formed the work in such a way that we wouldn't be tempted to deem it either success or failure, just simply be content to do it.

There is something about the human animal which wants to measure, to rank, to form hierarchies, lists, and ledgers. There is something within our spirits which seeks to know how well we perform, and so we tend to want to quantify the unquantifiable. It's a trap. I've known that deep in my heart of hearts for years and years -- and yet it didn't stop me from playing "the game". "What's your worship attendance now?" "How big is your budget?" "Is your congregation growing?" These questions all are asked often within circles of clergy and most definitely on the tinted pages of the annual parochial report. It's a game that, if played, guarantees that you lose. Using a poker term, it is -EV, there is no positive expected value. I've come to know lots of clergy over the course of a 30 year career as a parish pastor, and I've seen all too often how many of us, this sorry bag of bones included, make the mistake that Otis has written about so eloquently. I've known many who have fallen into the trap of measuring their personal worth by their professional success and we appear as charicatures of ourselves -- selves which are poorly individuated and sycophantic (imagine Regis Philbin with a clerical collar).

Okay, so what's the point? There is no point....only that I get it now. Like Otis, it has taken me a long time to grasp that -- a longer time really, as I'm probably 15 years older than he is. Most days now I sit Job-like on my own personal ash heap of a life wrongly valued. On November 2nd I will find myself, once again, without an income. This gig has been great -- it has been fun and Augustana is a remarkable congregation. I filled the role adequately for 5 months without getting caught up in "the game". I was conciously aware that I needed to "check my ego at the door". I'm not sure how others view me (other than my wife who at the moment despises me), and it seems not to matter much. Jesus once said, "you will know the truth and the truth will make you free". For years I've thought freedom to be an elusive quarry, a ghost-like shape-shifter that was always somewhere around the next bend, just a few years ahead in the future. Kristofferson wrote in "Me and Bobby McGee" that, "freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose".

The losses have been many the last half a dozen years. Alzheimers claimed my mother in a most miserable, degrading way..........the business (my dream, really) never made it and went away, taking our home and a bunch of my retirement $$ with it. My own playing of the game and acting out sexually has pretty much guaranteed that my marriage will not survive and I will lose my companion of 29 years and best friend to boot. I'm sure I've lost the esteem of my daughter, though she is so shell-shocked that she doesn't give much away. We've lost a car or two.........and I ride the bus alot these days. I suspect there will be other losses ahead.

I know Jesus is right. He, more than anyone else, lived and died in total freedom. He knew the truth and the truth allowed him to be free. His living freely may have had something to do with folks wanting to kill him -- oh well, watcha gonna do?

I'm hoping Kristofferson is right that, indeed, freedom awaits all those who lose it all. Kristofferson knows Jesus well -- and knows that Jesus loses it all for our sake. Jesus, the biggest loser who never played "the game".

Otis can be found at: