Winning and Losing

NWC Ad 2In my younger days, I was a good student, but an average athlete. Depending on your perspective, “average athlete” might be a charitable description. I loved football, but got hurt a lot: broken finger, sprained wrist, ruptured tendon sheath, deeply bruised thigh. Near the beginning of my senior year, the team doctor stitched up my chin, but every couple of weeks the wound broke open. I have a memory of a game during which a tall defensive tackle, who probably outweighed me by 50 pounds, hammered away at my meager offensive lineman frame. When I exited the game for the last time, blood dripping down my jersey and somewhat dazed, the coach just sadly shook his head and looked away.

At the team banquet, there were the usual awards for “Most Improved” and “Most Valuable” player. Our high school also had an award that was traditional in varsity sports. Somewhere in the mix of the event, I received the “Coaches’ Award” for leadership and character.

Then and now, I know that there are mixed feelings about such awards. I was pleased my coaches had recognized me, but I gladly would have traded a few “A” course grades for better football performance. Perhaps the award was merely a consolation prize from adults who felt sorry for a kid who tried again and again, but always left the field bloody and beaten up. Though most of my teammates wouldn’t have said it to my face, I’m sure some of them thought so. In all the years since, I’ve often thought about that experience when mulling over Jesus’ strange words about losing and winning, and what those words might really mean.

New Testament scholar Marcus Borg has described Jesus as many things, including a “subversive sage” and “spirit person.”  Nowhere do I feel that more than in passages like our text today (Matthew 16:24-28). Jesus’ teaching reminds me of Eastern religions; it sounds like some kind of spiritual judo. “You come to me wanting to save your life: you will lose it.” “You come to me wanting to gain the world: you will forfeit it.” “But, if you come to me willing to lose your life, then you will save it.” “If you come to me willing to forfeit the world, you will gain it.”

Today, it’s difficult to tune our ears to Jesus’ words. Everywhere we go, our culture is tuned to the wisdom summed up in famous quotations from the realm of sports. “Winning is not the most important thing – it’s the only thing.” “If winning isn’t everything, then why do they keep score?” Everyone loves a winner, and everyone aspires to be #1.

Theologian Brian McLaren created a post this week on his Facebook page about the downside of being #1.  “We’re #1! In locking our citizens up; in obesity; in energy use per person; in small arms exports; in per capita health expenditures; in student loan debt.  We’re #1! In oil consumption; in gun ownership; in breast augmentation; in death by violence; in anxiety disorders … in military spending.” Surely, everyone can recognize at least one area in which we’d rather not be #1, in which Jesus’ words ring true: For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?

William Willimon is one of the most interesting United Methodists I’ve ever known. In his 70s now, Willimon has served the Church for a half-century. In an article published just a few weeks ago, he characteristically took a few prophetic swings at the preserve-status-quo, save-our-own-lives mainline congregations he knows well. But he also offered direction and encouragement. The most effective clergy (and congregations) he says “are finding creative ways to start new communities of faith, to reach out to underserved and previously unwelcomed constituencies ….” He says we should focus a little less on beliefs about our gifts, and a little more on our behavior. “When is the last time you started a ministry?” “Tell us about your most recent failure in the church – and what you learned from it.” “No ventures, no leadership; no failures, no initiatives.”[1]

Willimon’s words have echoed in my mind as I’ve planned and prepared our experiment in creating a new worshipping community, a third and different kind of worship experience. Last week, we were in an urban storefront, a used bookstore with the store cat – “Truman Catpote.” Today, here we are on the second floor of the Meyer Center YMCA. As this experiment continues, I hear Will Willimon’s words: “When is the last time you started a ministry?” “Tell us about your most recent failure in the church – and what you learned from it.” “No ventures, no leadership; no failures, no initiatives.”  I hear Jesus’ words: For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?

Jim Macholz was a teacher and coach who wrote about winning and losing. I’ve combined a couple of his prayers with which I’ll close today. As I pray aloud, please pray in the silence of your minds and hearts. In the context of this place devoted to physical fitness and surrounded by reminders of athletic competition, remember your victories and your defeats, and let’s rededicate all that we are and all that we have to God.

O God, my Creator and Redeemer, I could not have played today – at life or in sport – unless thou didst accompany me with thy blessing. Let not the disappointments of the moment or present failures deceive me into a false evaluation of my worth. Let neither present exhilaration nor prosperity of my undertakings deceive me into a false reliance upon my strength. All things come to me from thee. Both wins and losses are thine to give, they are thine also to curtail. They are not mine to keep. I do but hold winning in trust with thee and am upheld by thee in losses. In thy sight, neither represents success or failure for those dost measure in different ways. Dependence upon thee and service to thee and thy children are the only true measures of success.

Let me then put back into thine hand all that thou hast given me, rededicating to thy service all powers and abilities. Seeing that it is thy gracious will to make use of weak human instruments in the fulfillment of thy mighty purpose for the world, let my conduct and performance be the channel through which some little portion of thy divine love may reach the lives that are nearest my own. O blessed Jesus, who gave no thought to ease or worldly enrichment, give me grace to follow the road thou didst first tread. AMEN.[2]


            [1] William H. Willimon, “Making Ministry Difficult,” The Christian Century, vol. 130, no. 4, 20 February 2013, pp. 11-12

            [2] modified from Jim Macholz, How to be a Winning Loser, Anderson, IN: The Warner Press, 1973, pp. 26-28.

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~ by JohnH1962 on March 3, 2013.

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