To Work for God’s Good Pleasure

The theme verse for this year’s Every Member Canvass, which culminates on Loyalty Sunday, November 13, is Philippians 2:13, “For it is God who is at work in you, enabling you to will and to work for God’s good pleasure.”  St. Paul’s claim always reminds me of the fantastic 1981 film “Chariots of Fire,” and especially about the real-life Olympic runner whose life the movie portrays: Eric Liddell, known in his day as “The Flying Scotsman.”  Liddell was the son of Scottish missionaries in the early twentieth century.  He was made famous at the 1924 Olympics, when he refused to race in the 100 meter prelims, because they were scheduled on Sunday, and he would not break the Sabbath.  Liddell’s entire life was formed by his relationship with God.  And he experienced a connection between his running and the faith in God in which he had been formed.

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Eric Liddell, the “Flying Scotsman”

At one point in the movie, Eric Liddell’s sister asks him why, after winning so many medals, he still runs.  Liddell’s response is an epiphany.  He says, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast.  And when I run, I feel his pleasure.”

That sentiment sets Eric Liddell apart from all the other runners in “Chariots of Fire.”  They run for the medal, for the trophy, for what they get in the end.  But for Eric, the purpose, the meaning, the victory is in the running itself.  Eric runs not to win; running is winning.  In the movie, the difference can be seen in Eric’s final Olympic race by the rapture on his face as he makes the last turn.  Others have looks of pained desperation, of darkness across their brows.  If they fail to finish—or if they come in second—they’ll feel lost.  But in the home stretch, Eric has already won.  The prize is his as surely as he lives and breathes.  Because he runs for God’s pleasure, Eric experiences victory in his races and in his life.

That’s what St. Paul means!  “For it is God who is at work in you, enabling you to will and to work for God’s good pleasure.”  And, in all my experience of churches, across states and across denominations, that’s what sets Christ Church Cathedral apart.

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Ian Charleson portraying Eric Liddell in “Chariots of Fire.”  The ecstasy on Liddel’s face reveals that he has already won, simply by running for God’s pleasure.

I don’t believe that we worship, or serve those on the margins, or fight for God’s justice in the world, or study, or engage in fellowship with darkness across our brows.  I don’t believe we do these things because of grim duty or obligation that feels like drudgery.  I believe we do this work, and I believe that we financially support this work generously and, in many cases, sacrificially, because we feel God working through us, and we feel God’s pleasure.  What deeper joy could there be?  None of it happens—not the worship, not the service, not the justice, not the pastoral care, not the fellowship—without our financial support.  I have made my pledge, and I pray you will to, as we continue to will and to work for God’s good pleasure in downtown Houston.

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Thinking about death

After a long and wasting sickness, a man lay dying in his bed.  He hadn’t been the best of husbands.  He’d been an inattentive spouse, and his relationship with his wife often had been rocky, but as he lay dying the man suddenly smelled the aroma of his favorite chocolate chip cookies wafting up the stairs.  Smiling faintly, he gathered his strength, lifted himself from bed, and slowly made his way out of the bedroom.  With great effort he climbed downstairs, gripping the railing with both hands.

With labored breath, the man leaned against the door frame and gazed into the kitchen.  He thought he might already be in heaven, for there before him on the kitchen table were dozens upon dozens of his favorite chocolate chip cookies.  Was this heaven, or was this an act of heroic love from a devoted wife, determined to coax her husband back to health and life?

Mustering one final effort, the man threw himself toward the table and reached weakly for a cookie.  Suddenly, his hand was smacked with a spatula by his wife who said, “Stay out of those—they’re for the funeral!”

I’m going to tell you a story.  At the outset, I’ll say that I am fine.  I don’t want you to think there’s some sort of awful punchline at the end.  I am fine.  But two months ago I experienced, in a day, three spells of intense lightheadedness, in which I thought I would pass out.  Within a couple of days after that, I developed a persistent, throbbing headache behind my right ear, accompanied by what was, by then, a continual haze of lightheadedness.  It felt as if I had a concussion.  As the days wore on, I had trouble concentrating.  I’d forget a word here and there, or I’d lose my train of thought.  I was mildly worried, so I visited my doctor.  He was more than mildly worried.  After examining me, my doctor said without hesitation that I needed an MRI to rule out a brain tumor.  Only after he had left the exam room did it occur to me that it was a bit ominous he never even broached the subject of what our next steps would be if the MRI were clear.

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That was a Monday.  The MRI was on Wednesday, and I learned the results—that it was, indeed, clear—on Thursday afternoon.  My headache and concussed experience lasted another ten days, most likely related to the nerve of the inner ear, but for those four days, between the first visit to the doctor and the results of the MRI, I walked through the world assuming that I might well have a brain tumor.

Conceptual artist Candy Chang says that “thinking about death clarifies your life.”[i]  I am here to tell you, she is right.  I would not want to relive the anxiety and worry of those four days any time soon, but, as I shared with the Friday morning men’s bible study the day after I received the MRI results, I hope I never lose sight of the clarity those four days provided.  It was razor-sharp and piercing.  It was also spiritually potent.  I’m someone who is paid to think about God all the time, and I do.  But rarely, if ever, have I so closely considered my own relationship to the God who creates me in love and to the blessed world in which that God placed me.  In those four days, there was no question about what matters and what doesn’t.  My perception of the outside world was concussed and confused, but my inner compass and center of meaning were crystal clear.

It is in similar circumstances that Paul, we are told,[ii] writes his Second Letter to Timothy.  Paul is in prison, slated for execution.  He is tired, and he is lonely, and he knows that he is about to die.  And thinking on that death clarifies Paul’s life.  He ends the letter today with a poignant and moving personal benediction: “I have fought the good fight,” he says, “I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.”

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St. Paul in prison, awaiting death

For Paul, that fight, that race, that faith has been sharing with whoever will listen the revelation he has experienced in Jesus, which midway through his life stopped him in his tracks (literally)[iii] and changed everything.  Earlier in the letter he crystalizes that revelation: “Hold fast,” Paul says, “to the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.  Guard that good treasure that has been entrusted to you.”  All the rest is commentary.

On normal days, this counsel from a dying apostle is easy to compartmentalize.  When the debit and credit ledgers of business beckon, or when personal grudges or personal desires frame our vision, or when the heat of a bizarre national political campaign brings out the worst in us, it is easy to say to ourselves that sharing the love of Jesus is a thing for Sundays.  It is also easy to excuse that compartmentalization by leaning, like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable today, on the false self of our relative uprightness compared to all those awful people we assume (or hope) must be worse than we are.

On normal days, it’s easy to set Paul’s counsel as, at best, an aspiration.  But there are no aspirations when you’re sitting in prison, awaiting execution.  There are no aspirations in the days awaiting potentially dire medical test results.  There is only reflection upon the life one has lived, on whether that life has been authentic, and on hope for our lasting influence and impact after one dies.  Thinking about death clarifies life.

The artist Candy Chang, who offers this insight, says that such contemplation is not intended to be morose.  Candy Chang says that the clarity provided by contemplating death intends to instill a deep gratitude for life.

In 2012, Candy Chang wedded this insight to her vocation as a conceptual artist.  In her New Orleans neighborhood, she painted the front face of a dilapidated and abandoned house with chalkboard paint, and she wrote across it the phrase, “Before I die, I want to…”  Candy left chalk at the site, and she walked away.

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The next day, the wall was full of writing.  Dozens of passing people had stopped in their tracks—like St. Paul on the Damascus Road when he met Jesus—and paused to contemplate death.  They wrote:

“Before I die, I want to…sing for millions.”

“Before I die, I want to…plant a tree.”

“Before I die, I want to…hold her one more time.”

“Before I die, I want to…be someone’s cavalry.”

People wrote about their regrets, their loves, their deepest yearnings.  They wrote about what was most authentic and important, and they shed all pretense to what was not.  Their sentiments were true.  They were unselfish.  They focused like a laser on what more could be given, where love could be shared, and where grace could be found.

That New Orleans wall became like a latter-day temple wall in Jerusalem, where the Pharisee and the tax collector went to pray.  But no one approached Candy Chang’s art with the Pharisee’s air of self-righteousness, or with clouded rationalization and excuse.  No one did, because contemplating death clarifies life.  All comers approached like the tax collector, in humility, in tears, and leaning on grace.  They reflected upon the lives they’d lived, and they hoped for those who would endure, and they were grateful.

Whether our time horizon is decades or days, there is piercing clarity in asking, “Before you finish the race, what do you want to do before you die?”  St. Paul says, “Hold fast to the faith and love found in Jesus.”  Guard that treasure, and share it in everything you say and do.

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[i] http://www.npr.org/2016/01/29/464424348/what-do-you-want-to-do-before-you-die

[ii] Most biblical scholars agree that Paul did not actually write 2 Timothy, but that it was, rather, written retrospectively by the Pauline community some year’s after Paul’s death.

[iii] Acts 9:1-4

Bobby Fischer, Babylon, and the Promises of God

It is 1956, and Bobby Fischer is a just a barely teenage kid who is good at chess.  In May of that year, his rating is more than nine hundred points below the best players.  Even so, in October, Bobby is invited to participate in the Rosenwald Memorial Tournament in New York City.[i]  The tournament is reserved for the top twelve players in the United States, of which Bobby is not.  His invitation is a kind of novelty.

In the tournament, Bobby draws the short straw to play against International Master Donald Byrne, a classic chess player in thick-rimmed glasses and bow-tie, with a cigarette dangling between two fingers.  Bobby is dressed in a t-shirt.

As the match begins, Bobby seems nervous.  (Who wouldn’t be?  This is his first time ever to compete with adults, and he’s playing against the United States chess champion!)  Bobby, a child, makes a series of child’s errors.  He moves his knight to the edge of the board, where it is boxed in and vulnerable.  Within a few moves, it’s clear that Bobby is losing.  In the seventeenth move, Bobby seems to throw in the towel.  He exposes his queen to Donald Byrne like a lamb to slaughter.  The chess elite gathered around harrumph and smugly smile.  This ending was, after all, inevitable.

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Thirteen-year-old Bobby Fischer at the Rosenwald Memorial Chess Tournament in 1956

 

In the year 597 B.C., after a period of faithlessness in Judah, the military machine of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon rolls in and devastates the tiny Jewish nation. Nebuchadnezzar knows that Jewish resistance will be impossible if the Jews are scattered across the vast Babylonian Empire, far from Jerusalem.  And so, their king deposed, their temple destroyed, the Jews are exiled.  It seems to all the world that God has abandoned the Jewish people, that God has thrown in the towel, leaving them to their fate.  Their hope sapped, separated from one another and from God, the Jews are ready, finally, to give up.

It is then that the Prophet Jeremiah sends a letter to the scattered Jewish communities across Babylon, giving them what appears to be advice detached from all evidence of reality.  Jeremiah says to God’s people today, “Build houses; plant gardens; celebrate marriages for your sons and daughters; make good in the cities in which you find yourselves.”  Live, in other words, not as defeated, despairing people, but in the knowledge of goodness and in hope.

To both the Jews and the looming Babylonians, Jeremiah is delusional.  The ending to the Jewish story is inevitable, and for the Jews the only conceivable outcome is despair and death.  It’s as if Jeremiah is reading a storyline from a different script.  He sees an alternate ending to the story, even when no one else can see it.  In the chapter just after today’s reading, Jeremiah claims that God has spoken through him, saying, “The days are surely coming when I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel and Judah…[and again] you will be my people, and I will be your God.”[ii]

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“It is as if Jeremiah is reading a storyline from a different script.”

Jeremiah knows that God’s promises are unbreakable, God’s victory assured.  And, he knows that it is often at the very bottom, the nadir of human experience —and only then—that we become vulnerable enough to perceive God at work.  It is then that we find ourselves willing to be changed, transformed, and to begin participating in new ways with God’s very work to redeem us.  When things are most dire, either due to our own lack of fidelity to God’s goodness or due to circumstances beyond us—or, as is usually the case, some combination of the two—when things are most dire we realize we can either trust in the promise of God’s presence and grace or lapse into true hopelessness.  Trusting in God allows us to listen for God, which empowers us to work with God, newly participating in our own redemption.  That is the meaning behind the Prophet’s encouragement of the Jews in exile.  Now, at the moment of seeming despair, is when they can begin to cooperate with God in the very work of moving them from darkness to light.  But that requires the Jews to trust and live in hope.

The struggle is nowhere near over.  Not until sixty years after Jeremiah’s letter does the Persian Empire defeat the Babylonians and grant the Jews permission to go home.  But when that happens, because they listened to Jeremiah and lived in hope, the Jewish people are ready to rebuild their temple and their nation, and live again into God’s great story for them.

Back in New York City, October 1956, at the Marshall Chess Club, young Bobby Fischer has thrown in the towel.  He’s a kid, outmatched, loomed over by the greatest chess players in the world.  He sacrifices his queen to bow-tied Donald Byrne.  The world spins on.

But then, in just a few moves later, Bobby captures Donald Byrne’s rook…and then both bishops…and then a pawn.  The gathered crowd gets confused.  Someone seems to have revised the script.  On move twenty-five, Bobby takes Donald Byrne’s queen.  Ten moves after that, Bobby Fischer checkmates Byrne’s king.  The ending has been rewritten.  The thirteen-year-old boy triumphs.  The chess world is stunned.  And the match becomes known as the “Game of the Century.”

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Reviewing the match, analysts soon realized that Bobby Fischer had actually won at what appeared to be his moment of defeat.  The moment his queen was sacrificed, Bobby saw the way, move upon move, to victory.  When it appeared the game was lost, it was, in fact, won.  The kid in the t-shirt saw an alternative ending when no one else did.  And the vision of that ultimate victory, sure and certain, propelled Bobby forward in hope and purpose.

No matter what defeat, despair, or darkness we encounter, no matter how surely the ending to the story appears to be written, God’s promises are unbreakable.  Though the contest may not be over, God’s victory over all darkness, in our lives and in our world, is assured.  Living in that knowledge and hope, cooperating with God’s good for us, makes all the difference now.  “I will restore you, in the end,” says the God of grace and love, “for I am your God, and you are my people.”

[i] The “Game of the Century” is chronicled in the Radiolab podcast “Games”: http://www.radiolab.org/story/153799-games/

[ii] Jeremiah 30:3 & 22