Archive for September 4th, 2009

Winners and Losers

September 4, 2009

Winners and Losers in Medicare Drug BenefitWe are a great society for competition – and America is not unique in this. What America thinks is competitive in her “Super Bowl,” pales in comparison to the frenzy engendered elsewhere by the “World Cup.” Several years ago I was in London when England was playing Ecuador in the World Cup. It was a Sunday afternoon. With my companions we walked across London heading to the museums, assuming that the afternoon of a World Cup match would be a quiet time elsewhere. We were correct. On foreigners (like us) were collecting at the British Museum. But we had an experience as we walked across town that taught me a lesson in world competition. A pleasant Sunday afternoon – it seemed every window in London was open. At one point as we walked along, we heard a cheer go up that had to be the collective voice of all London. “England scored,” one of our group remarked. Indeed it was the case. No touchdown in a Superbowl was ever greeted by such a roar.

Our competitive nature (and this is nothing new or modern) inevitably prepares us for a scenario of “winners and losers.” “To the victor goes the spoils,” the old proverb says. It is as if Darwin himself had hard-wired our brains. We understand the nature of competition – and since the winners write most books and almost all of history – little is made of this aspect of our lives.

The great contradiction comes in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. God has no categories of winners and losers. God has no competition and does not set His creatures in a competition. St. Paul uses the image of competition (“the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus”), but he competes only with himself. Should he win – no one else loses. As the Scriptures tell us, “For all the promises of God are ‘Yes’ and in Him ‘Amen’, to the glory of God through us” (2 Corinthians 1:20).

A spirit of competition can easily enter into our activities as a Christian. Church growth can feel like a competition (“my church is the fastest growing…”). The same spirit of competition can erupt between Christians in the midst of serious discussion of doctrinal or other concerns. The result in this latter case can simply be the desire to win and not to serve the gospel. Who wins an argument is not the determination of the truth. It may say nothing more than that one person is more facile in argumentation. There are no prizes in heaven for argumentation.

There is a more important and more fundamental reason why “winners and losers” is not a category within the Kingdom of God. Properly speaking, our lives are united one to another. Christian with Christian, and Christian with all. Each of us is united to all of us. Your loss is my loss and my gain is your gain. This is part of the mystery of our existence as creatures who were made in the image of God.

St. Paul takes this understanding to its most extreme point during a reflection about the salvation of his kindred Jews:

I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises; of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Christ came, who is over all, the eternally blessed God. Amen (Romans 9:1-4).

Such is his understanding of union with his people. He does not say that his condemnation would mean their salvation, but he nowhere sees himself as the “winner” and his kindred as “losers”. Such a spirit is not within him.

By the same token, such a spirit should not find a place in any of us. Salvation is never merely individualistic. I have not come to know Christ except through the mediation and kindness of others. Their lives and prayers are mystically united to my own life and prayers (or lack thereof) and I find myself saved only in the context of the Church. As I have stated elsewhere, “The Church is what salvation looks like” (as disturbing as such a statement may be to some).

But the heart that has placed the spirit of competition away from its spiritual concerns is the heart that understands that if one loses, we all lose. If one wins, we all win. Such a heart will pray with compassion for even the greatest of sinners. We should not gladly see the condemnation of anyone.

Such an understanding undergirds our prayer for enemies. I should not wish my enemies to lose – only to lose their sin and to gain Christ. Such a prayer within me is itself to gain Christ – who for the sake of losers such as myself, became man and suffered the loss of all – the He might gain all. To Him be glory.

My Sins Pour Out Behind Me

September 4, 2009

MonkAbba Moses [one of the desert fathers] hesitated to accept a summons to be part of a council that would pass judgment on a brother who had committed a sin. A delegation approached him insisting that all the others were waiting for him. Reluctantly, he got up and went with them. He took a jug of water that leaked all along the path.

The council came outside to greet him. Puzzled by the water jug, they asked for an explanation. Moses said, “My sins pour out behind me, and I have the audacity to come here today to judge someone else’s errors.”

Hearing this, they forgave the sinful brother and sent him on his way.