About Timothy Brown

A pastor. A writer. A dreamer. Occasionally a beer brewer.

Mindlessness and I Miss Hugging People

So, this week’s discipline has been rough.

I mean, it’s not like it’s especially difficult to avoid processed foods. I don’t usually eat much of it on the regular.

The problem is mindlessness for me.

Like, sometimes I mindlessly eat. Especially cereal late at night.

Monday night Rhonda says, as at 9pm I’ve poured a bowl of not-bad-but-not-healthy cereal full of raisins and crunchy flakes: “Wait, I thought you weren’t eating processed foods this week.”

Fail.

It had totally slipped my mind. I mean, one of the reasons I’m doing this is to be more mindful, right? It just *literally* slipped my mind.

That’s bad enough. I learned my lesson. Not going to happen again.

Until it did: Tuesday night.

Yes, not 24 hours later I, once again, mindlessly brought in a bowl of cereal when I heard Rhonda say, yet again, “Wait. I thought you weren’t doing that this week.”

Blimey!

I’m proud to say I haven’t done that since, and I only have a few more days to go, but it just brought to my attention how often I mindlessly indulge in certain behaviors that I want to curb.

Why was I eating it?

Part of it was I think I wanted to end the night with something sweet. “Have a banana,” you might say (looking at you, Rhonda), to which I would reply, “But I want something crunchy.”

But the real truth is that it just has become routine. An unhealthy routine. A way of filling my time before bed.

I’ve heard the Japanese word, kuchisabishii probably best explains it. “My mouth is lonely.”

Or, maybe, I kind of am, if I’m honest.

I’m fully vaccinated now, and the thing that I look forward to most these days is hugging other people.

Sure, I give my family hugs. But I miss hugging other people. I miss connection and I have the sneaky suspicion I’m filling that abyss with crunch cereal at 9pm.

It’s just a hunch, but I think it might be true.

But I’m resolved to cut down on the cereal.

And, soon enough, to indulge on the hugging (when/if appropriate).

Parade or March?

This Sunday is Palm Sunday, and although most of the parishes in this country will (should?) still be pretty virtual, with just a small gathering of a few meeting in person, it’s no reason not to have a parade, Beloved!

Or, is it a march?

That’s an important distinction, actually, and one I think the Gospel reading from Mark invites us to consider.

Was Jesus having a parade or a march?

Parades are a fun show-off event, right? And certainly Mark 11:1-11 invites us to imagine that it had that sort of festiveness. “Hosanna!” they yell. “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

It sounds like an invitation to line the streets with palm branches, waving them high as the disciples throw out candy to the kids…

But maybe it’s actually a march.

Like, maybe the people thought it was a parade, but Jesus was actually on a march, on the move, interjecting himself into the proceedings of the world in a way that caused disruption.

I mean, it certainly disrupted things…

The mockery that Jesus was involved in here should not be missed. Riding in on a donkey was a plain middle-finger to the high-riding generals and politicians of the day who would enter occupied territories on their white stallions with a slew of soldiers in tow.

Jesus sits on an ass, saying (in not so many words) that those politicians were the real asses…

In the end, of course, those politicians and religious elites will try to make an ass out of him, stringing him high on a cross, bringing him up on false charges, claiming he incited an insurrection when, in reality, the conditions of the day were reason enough to rebel.

I’ll say that again for those in the back: the conditions of the day are reason enough to rebel.

It reminds me of the marches we’ve had on the streets this last year.

No, I’m not talking about the attack on the Capitol which, though it was an insurrection, was predicated on a false narrative of election fraud, outright race-baiting, and grievance politics.

I’m talking about the death of unarmed people on the streets of our cities.

I’m talking about the rise of racist violence, especially in recent days against our siblings of Asian descent.

Was this just a mocking parade Jesus was participating in?

Or was he marching for our lives?

It’s a question I’m pondering in these days…it’s probably a question I’d lift up if I were preaching this Sunday.

Does it Count as Buying If It’s Not Your Money?

The answer to the above question that I, for better or worse, arrived at is: no.

I had to buy something last week for work. I mean, it was for me, but it was in service of my work and I’ll be reimbursed for it, so…

With all of these disciplines I’m learning that a certain amount of grace is necessary. But when does “grace” turn into “excuse?”

It’s a fine line.

An honest wrestling with the influences that determine decisions is important. So much of our day-to-day is on autopilot. We renew subscriptions, we click “buy” on that item that we don’t want to run to the brick-and-mortar for.

I wonder if maybe the trip to the brick-and-mortar isn’t a good time to evaluate whether or not we need the item at all…

Impulse buying can be fun.

But so can an all night party.

When we do the second too much the family gets concerned. But what about the first?

Henri Nouwen wrote that we all have an “abyss” in our centers, something that longs to be filled. And like a vacuum, we will throw things in it attempting to fill it up…

But it can’t be filled, Beloved. At least, not with stuff.

Because that abyss is shaped like boredom. Things can’t cure that.

That abyss is shaped like grief. Things can’t cure that.

That abyss is shaped like existential angst and a lack of job satisfaction and unfulfilling relationships and…

What’s your abyss shaped like?

The incessant desire to purchase, with all its ease and immediacy and “at the tip of your fingers”-ness might just be a way of escaping, you know? The convenience of online purchasing has made things easier, for sure.

But it has also made it harder to realize when we’re just doing it to do it.

This last week I severed most ties with it for a good while. Most, not all, because, well, I could rationalize a work purchase.

I could rationalize it…but I didn’t like doing it.

And I’m kind of glad I didn’t like doing it. Perhaps that’s progress, yes?

This week I’m sloughing off processed foods. No chips, no cereals, no anything that took a process that I couldn’t do in my own home to make.

It’s actually not as easy as it sounds. Like, what do you do with certain kinds of bread that have more preservatives than grains in them? I’m deciding they’re out. It should prove interesting…

Join me, if you want.

When Jesus Becomes an Idol

Peter Rollins, that tortured Irish metaphysicist (all Irish philosophers are tortured in some way) wrote a book that blew up my perspective of religion, and the Divine, in all the right ways. It’s title is provocative enough to prompt a purchase, _The Idolatry of God_, but the guts of the book are even more disturbing (again, in all the right ways) than the title.

Rollins argues that the church has made God into an idol, taking the base core of a movement of spirituality, bronzing it, and setting it up as a thing which they demand others bow to instead of seeing the Divine as the blowing beauty of a wind which moves through all others.

In other words: we’ve traded imagination and mystery for certainty and legality.

The barrier-breaking ways of God were turned by the hands of a people who didn’t know how to rightfully wrestle with power and Divine purpose, and instead they created a bastardized version of God who erected walls instead of walked on water.

An extension of his argument is the one I note above: many times the church has created an idol out of Jesus, too. It’s a bit easier to do, honestly, as the historical figure of Jesus becomes the archetype of the answer to all questions.

Got problems? Look to Jesus.

Want answers? Jesus is the answer.

Got pain? Jesus heals.

Need wisdom? Jesus knows.

The issue here is that these are non-statements. Non-statements are worse than insider-speak, by the way. Non-statements avoid the question altogether with an answer that is as empty as the air used to form the words.

I recently was part of a group of people talking about stewardship, and one of them said in humility and honest devotion, “I just trust that God will provide and tell that to everyone I meet.”

The problem I see with that, though, is that it seems for many in the world God is falling short of the job, you know? Like, for many in the world God is not providing. Hope is not a strategy.

One could argue, of course, that the way that God provides for the needs of the world is through my wallet and your hands and our collective effort. That I can get onboard with. But…you see the disconnect between the first platitude and the second description?

In this Sunday’s Gospel (John 12:20-33), some Greeks come to see Jesus when he’s traveling around.

To your ears this may not be a big deal, but notice that it doesn’t say that these are Jewish people living in Greece. Greeks, Gentiles, are coming to see Jesus. And the disciples are not sure what to do about it, you know? Philip and Andrew have to convene a committee to see if it can happen. Other disciples have to get involved. And the issue, “Can these Greeks seek an audience with Jesus?” is never directly resolved.

“So what,” you might say.

Look, a big question around Jesus, and God (by association), was that old Bee Gee’s question, “How Big is Your Love?” Or, rather, “how big is God’s love?”

Were Greeks included?

Jesus answers it, of course, in the following paragraph, noting that when he is “lifted up” (an allusion to the cross, btw, not to some “throne of power” that evangelical hacks will push on you), he will “draw all people unto himself.”

All people. Including Greeks, no committee needed.

All people. Including LGBTQIA+ people. NO COMMITTEE NEEDED (looking at you, Vatican).

All people. Including undocumented immigrants.

All people. Including <insert category of people you dislike>.

Religion has turned Jesus into a gate-keeper rather than a gate; into a sheep-shearer, trimming away “sin” instead of a shepherd leading people through the valley of the shadow of death.

Religion has turned Jesus into a catch-all answer to questions that deserve real thought, you know?

And I say that with a deep love for religion…as a branch manager for so many years, I say it with deep love.

But in human hands amazing boundary-crossing Love so easily becomes border-making legality, that we must constantly be asking ourselves, “In what ways are we making Jesus into an idol, emptying the Divine of life-changing radicality?”

So…what’s your answer?

The Cost of Convenience

I remember having the thought, “Who would ever buy something over the internet? That doesn’t seem safe.”

That was, of course, when I was living largely in cash. Before college. Before my first credit card (Discover: the Cadillac of cards <insert laugh track>).

Then I figured out that I’d have to fly from University back to my parent’s house a few times a year, and online ticket engines were more convenient for a busy (translation: lazy) college kid like me.

Fast forward these twenty years since, and cash has largely disappeared from my pockets (which, in all honesty, is severely affecting the homeless population and everyone should carry just a little bit on them to help out there…seriously). I swipe a card for most everything.

Well, I used to.

But in the pandemic that swipe has been replaced by the click of a “buy now” button at the end of a long list of items available for me to purchase without leaving my couch.

I know many who used online grocery sites during the pandemic, which truly saved lives. But for those of us who still went to the physical store, albeit with less frequency, online purchasing became the entertainment portal it always thought it would become in this pandemic. It was just too easy to order a movie, a new puzzle, a new Lego set (for me, not the kids), a new…anything.

Or used. Doesn’t matter. What matters is that in the boredom of the pandemic in between yardwork and work-work, the online wormhole became an escape for itchy fingers and imaginations.

I mean, we didn’t go overboard or anything. But I noticed how quickly certain problems, like, “Hmmm…would be nice to repair the deck. Which power tool could I get to help with the project?” were easily resolved.

Actually, that’s a lie. That’s not how that inner-monologue went. It went more like this:

“Oooh…that’s a nice saw. I could repair the deck with that.”

See?

Online sales went up about 50% in the pandemic over 2019‘s spending. This undoubtedly helped, maybe even saved, many businesses (and lined Bezo’s pockets). But it also eased many into a powerful pattern of purchasing that is hard to break.

We’re not minimalists (though I do have a capsule wardrobe because, who needs another choice in the morning?), but I think we try to be mindful about our buying habits.

Well, we did…and then we didn’t for a while. It’s time to right that relationship.

But, honestly, even in non-pandemic days the escape to the coffee shop for single-origin pour-over, or the post-work-but-before-kids-come beer at the local bottle shop was just a little too regular. It was part social, yes, but also just part playing the part. It was also just part spending culture.

And that’s as much a spiritual issue as it is a financial issue.

So this week’s discipline of not buying anything (except essential groceries) is all about trying to analyze that relationship and move forward with a model that doesn’t use online click-buying as a solution for boredom, but takes seriously the “needs vs. wants” conversation we should all be having in our brains before a purchase.

Sometime we indulge wants, Beloved. And we should.

But just this morning, waiting for physical therapy to begin, I found myself browsing Kelly-green Cubs caps because, well, St. Patrick’s Day, and mine is worn and faded, and…

I didn’t hit “buy” despite the “amazing deal.”

And you know what? I got the amazing deal of saving myself $39.99 and cultivating a moment of self-awareness that I’ve missed these last 12 months.

Shiny Object Syndrome

My week of media fast is over.

To be clear: I didn’t give up media. Instead I just severely limited my access to it through mindfully forgetting my phone in another room, opening only one browser page at a time while working, and consuming just one morning and one evening news program.

I know…that might not sound like much of a fast to you, but in this pandemic year my access to non-stop “Breaking News” scrolls has proven a hard addiction to kick.

Why?

Because I like distraction. I have shiny object syndrome.

Actually, distraction is not bad sometimes. In my meditation practice I set aside a block of time to be undistracted. It’s taken a while to get there with ease. In the beginning I would often only clear my mind for five minutes, start to finish, and have to call that as “good enough.”

But now it’s not as difficult to do, largely because I’ve realized that meditation does not require a distraction-free environment, but rather just requires that the practitioner not fight distractions at all. You don’t fight the thoughts, you embrace them, and they go away. You don’t fight the noise, you embrace it, and it fades into white noise.

But my problem was that, because I have this meditation practice that is (mostly) daily, I count that as checked off the agenda for the day. “Distraction free time? Did that…”

This is what happens when we begin to see spiritual practices as a checklist, rather than a lens through which we live life. I knew I should be incorporating these mindfulness exercises more into my daily life, especially my work-life. I write better with browsers closed, certainly you’d think I’d know that I’d work with more clarity.

I can say with certainty that, this week, I was able to get into flow states of work more than once. It resulted in a lightness to my tasks that I didn’t realize I missed so much. Heading into Friday having accomplished most of what you’ve wanted to is a lovely feeling, and one I’d like to carry forward as much as possible.

One downside to this whole thing, though, is that on more than day I lost my phone for a bit, forgetting where I had intentionally forgotten it.

I can live with that, though…

This week I begin six days being purchase-free. No coffee, no beer, grocery store purchases are acceptable for menu items (though I think I took care of most of that yesterday). No Amazon browsing, no movie purchasing. Nothing.

Should be fun.

On Asking What You Look Up To and Quoting Shawn Mendes and Justin Bieber

You put me on a pedestal and tell me I’m the best
Raise me up into the sky until I’m short of breath (yeah)
Fill me up with confidence, I say what’s in my chest
Spill my words and tear me down until there’s nothing left
Rearrange the pieces just to fit me with the rest, yeah

But what if I, what if I trip?
What if I, what if I fall?
Then am I the monster?
Just let me know
And what if I, what if I sin?
And what if I, what if I break? Yeah
Then am I the monster? Yeah
Just let me know, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah

Shawn Mendes’s album Wonder (featuring the Bieber) holds this kind of deeply distressing song “Monster,” the opening lyrics of which kind of trip and tumble out of the artist’s mouth. Bieber’s adds the next verse, equally as pleading and ponderful, giving an honest assessment of what it’s like to be famous before you can barely tie your shoes, let alone tie responsibility to your actions.

Too much money and too little mentorship have led to some pretty tough goes at life for otherwise quite privileged people. Fame, power, and fortune do not fall upon the morally perfect (some might even say, “deserving,”) and yet Jane and Joe Public like to act as if it should.

We’re all scoffers in our corners of secret envy.

Here’s the thing, Beloved, this Sunday’s Gospel asks the brutally honest question of us and minces no words in doing so: what do you look up to?

What do you think is going to save you in the end? What do you put on a pedestal?

Your bank account?

Your reputation?

How you look in the mirror?

Your privilege? It’s saved so many people over the years…ugh…but not forever…

Your job security? Hasn’t the pandemic dispelled this myth?

Your high-placed friends and contacts that pull the strings of power?

Your charisma or ability to “always land on your feet?”

Your power, your booming economy, your superior gun arsenal that you’re so proud of?

What do you look up to?

In John 3:14-21 the Christ recounts how, when they were wandering listless in the wilderness, plagued by venomous serpents who would take their lives, Moses took the bronze replica of that thing which killed them, hung it on a pole, and placed it in the middle of them all. To be cured of the venom, all you needed to do was gaze upon that golden serpent and be healed.

But, here’s the thing Beloved: the bronze serpent didn’t do the healing.

In fact, I’d say that the serpent mocked the whole thing, kind of like all of our idols end up doing in the end.

The bronze serpent is an idol of their fear, and like the hangover sufferer who still has a day of vacation left, the idea that some “hair of the same dog” will cure the ill plays into their desire to grab on to relief of any kind.

Enshrine the thing we fear, and we will bow to it.

Enshrine the economy as the thing we have to worry about the most, and who cares if the wages suck for the workers just scraping by.

Enshrine our weapons above everything else, and sure food stamps can be cut, but not that military budget.

Enshrine our power on a pole and sure, we can make sexist remarks or grab women anywhere we want because treating others isn’t the point, power is the point.

All idols are bronze. Hollow not hallowed.

The bronze serpent didn’t heal the people; the Divine promise did. A promise that they didn’t trust in the first place, which is why they were suffering in the wilderness and wandered into snaky territory!

And look: I get it. Divine promises are hard to trust.

It’s hard to trust that you will be OK when it feels like everything is falling apart. It’s hard to trust that you’ll live through the pain when it feels like you’re in a desert of a world and all you want is some reprieve. It’s hard to trust that you are loved and perfect as you are when it feels like everyone is rejecting you for being who you are.

Divine promises are hard to trust.

And so we set up other things on poles and bow down to them: fame, fortune, money, power, celebrity, economy, keeping up with the Joneses, the latest-and-greatest, the most…

Hollow. Not hallowed. Shawn Mendes and Justin Bieber, those erstwhile prophets who we figure think mostly about profits, are probably right.

Most of what we bow down to in these days are just monsters of our own making. Hollow like that bronze snake.

And so what does the Divine do?

In the Jesus story we see that the Divine takes our violent propensities, our desire for rock star saviors, our need for power, fame, and fortune and kills it to prove how impotent it all is in the end.

And then takes the one thing, love and companionship, and raises that after three days to say that that…that love, that never-ending presence of Divine love and companionship…that cannot die.

Look up to that kind of Divine love. That kind of Divine “not-leaving-here-without-you”-ness.

Look up to that, Beloved.

So, the question remains: what do you look up to, Beloved?

Video Killed the Radio Star, and Media Kills My Deep Work

illustration by Mark Armstrong

In my mind and in my car (and, quite literally, everywhere else), screens dominate my attention.

Sure, I’m not always looking at them, but more often than not they are facilitating my activities.

Podcasts on my drive and on my run.

News in the morning and the evening.

Social media breaking up the work day.

Even, this: my writing is more electronic than long-form most days.

I don’t say any of this as a grumpy “get off my lawn” rant about how it was better in some yester-year. Honestly, I have no idea if it was or not because while I certainly had an analogue childhood, my adulthood has been all digital.

But I know I consume too much media these days, and it affects my attention span.

Humans are certainly evolving. I can feel myself changing (though, I’m compelled to point out, that is not the same as evolution). My attention span is shorter. Long-form anything seems like an uphill battle most days. And despite my meditation practices, it still takes me a good while to sink into a space of non-thought. This has always been true, but I’m finding it takes longer, even though my practice has remained relatively constant.

Some of this is the pandemic, of course. Screens have become our life-line to an outside world that we see largely through a window pane (unless you live in Texas or Mississippi, and there you’re likely to see it through the pane of a Covid-ward…please wear your masks!).

But even before the pandemic, before all of this, the constant media feed has prevented me from doing something that I find supremely productive, integral even, to quality output: deep work.

I stumbled upon deep work through a podcast, ironically enough, because podcasts occasionally keep me from entering into deep work. It is essentially a state of non-distraction, and this term coined (I think) by writer and researcher Cal Newport is really descriptive of what the state is trying to achieve: a deep productivity.

And I know…I can feel it…the constant media consumption, day in and day out, moment by moment, prevents me from getting to that deep, imaginative attention that I long to put into my work.

So this week will be kind of an extension of last week’s discipline (coming to a new negotiation with my phone usage), only this week I will attempt, more of than not, to enter into some meaningful moments of deep work, to turn off the screens in the evening, and though I won’t be divorcing myself totally from media consumption, I’ll be sampling from a lighter menu of it.

As with all of these weekly disciplines, my goal is not to cut them out of my life, but to get in better relationship with them. And today has been a bit better, honestly: I’ve been mindful of closing tabs, of limiting social media engagement, and making a concerted effort to cultivate work windows free of distraction.

I know my attention span is evolving, and not in a way I totally enjoy. I wonder if I can retrain it, though…we shall see.

wePhone over iPhone. knowGrace over noGrace.

I didn’t hear it happen.

I saw the work out front where the city was modulating the water pressure for the neighborhood, re-chlorinating the system. Water gushed from the pipe into the cul-de-sac and, despite that volcanic water spout, it all seemed copacetic.

Until there was a frantic knock on the door. And my phone rang in the distant room. I’d been trying to live with my phone in the other room for the week, especially when I’m at work and have other screens to dull my brain wrinkles.

It’s interesting: when the phone is in the other room, I don’t feel compelled to answer it. I’m not sure if it’s just the inconvenience of getting up to get it (I haven’t felt that need since childhood and the phone anchored in the den!), or perhaps it’s because lately so many people have been concerned about my car warranty (“God bless their hearts,” as we say in the South).

But, for whatever reason, I didn’t get the phone. Or the door (it’s a work day).

Until the knocking continued, frantic.

I come downstairs to find my neighbor and her dog at my door. She’d been out walking him and noticed that our front yard had become Lake Gaston. Finn’s basketball floated in the center of it, mocking my inattention to the second largest body of water in North Carolina forming amidst our naked rose bushes.

“What happened?!” she asked.

“I’m not sure,” I said, dumbfounded at the water gushing up from the ground like “a’bubblin’ crude” just under our Japanese Maple.

And then I remembered the city doing the water work today and, through some pretty simple logic, figured the pressure modulations had burst our pipes.

I reached for my phone…but it was upstairs.

I thanked my neighbor, ran upstairs and called the city water department.

“We’ll have someone out to you soon,” she said. “Stay by your phone.”

In a week where I was practicing not staying by my phone, I was now being told to stay by my phone. And, sure, it was an emergency, but the dilemma felt real in the moment.

I took it as an opportunity to make some other calls: to my spouse and my parents. And then to Google repair cost averages. And then to Google how much selling a kidney would bring in to pay for said repairs.

I had a hunch the city would not be footing this bill (spoiler alert: they won’t because it’s on our property between the meter and our house).

I put the situation on social media in a humorous way, asking for shipments of “beer and fruit snacks.”

And then the texts started to come. I was “staying by my phone” as the city instructed, and texts of love and support and, yes, offers for beer (from our great neighbor) came in. Offers to house our children overnight if needed. Offers to get us dinner.

The offers haven’t stopped, continuing to this morning.

In the end we’re getting the water taken care of on Monday. And, though it’s an expensive repair, we’ll be alright. It did, however, bring me a renewed empathy and passion for electing officials who understand how tightly families live, and the reality that most of us are a major emergency away from having our savings wiped out.

But, more than anything, it was a moment of true grace for me. I was kicking myself for having to be by my phone in order to get this done. But in the midst of my irritation, I was getting offer after offer of grace far and wide, and I wouldn’t know that grace had I not had that blasted device in the moment.

Being addicted to the phone is bad. But, when in right relationship with it, it can be a medium of grace.

I’ll tell you, honestly, that when I left parish ministry I was concerned we were severing ties with our “village.” I really don’t know how to cultivate community except through a congregation, and we have not landed in a new one as of yet (pandemic, ya know?).

But after this I am not worried we don’t have a village. It was there all along. And in this moment of pinch, the iPhone became a wePhone, and that made a lot of difference.

Bargaining and Meritocracies Have No Place in the Kingdom of God

“Save me, St. Anne,” Martin Luther supposedly said, cowering in a lightening storm, “and I shall become a monk!”

Spoiler alert: he didn’t die. And, I guess it follows that, because he didn’t die, he had to become a monk.

I’d bet that we’ve all found ourselves at the Divine craps table before, making a wager in exchange for an ideal outcome or a blessing. That kind of bargaining is pretty normal for humans, actually. In moments of despair we’ll cling to whatever hook calls itself “hope” at the time.

Luther, though, backed himself into a tough corner there. I wonder what he would have done had he just pushed through the fear and panic without making the wager. Perhaps he would have become a monk all the same. It certainly was on his heart (much to the dismay of his father).

Sometimes we back ourselves into tough corners, too, setting the parameters for Divine agreements that we have no business setting.

I know more than a few people who asked for a miracle and, when it didn’t happen, took it as proof that there was no God. Conversely, sometimes miraculous things do happen (life in general, and biology in particular, is tricky that way…it usually follows norms but, every once in a while aberrations happen and the lotto numbers appear), and people have taken it to mean a Divine blessing has fallen their way.

The problem with both of the above scenarios is that none of that is objectively provable, Beloved. In other words: you make the meaning in both situations. The center for meaning there is not some “Divine plan,” but that “choose your own adventure” you’ve assented to in your own heart.

Humans make meaning. We have to. It helps us love and move and breathe with purpose in this world.

In other situations we do less bargaining and more earning. Through oblations, good deeds, generous donations, self-sacrifice, we secretly or not-so-secretly think we’re earning chips on the Divine poker table, increasing our chances for a nice pay-out.

We’re taught in life that we live in a meritocracy: work hard, reap the benefits.

Except, that’s largely a lie.

The world is not one where the hard-working are rewarded (cough: looking at you minimum wage) and the slackers go without. It’s one where opportunity shines brightly for some, and less brightly for others, due to a complex mix of historical racism, geography, health-factors, gender discrimination, sexual privilege, socio-economic influences, and just sheer luck (or lack of it). And, truthfully, I’m probably missing some factors there…

The tricky thing, of course, is that this “meritocracy lie” is less of an outright fib, and more of a “half-truth” parading around as the whole enchilada. Hard work does, sometimes, get you somewhere for some people. But I know folks who do all the right things and get the short end of the stick anyway. It seems their chip stack at the Divine poker table never grows, no matter how they play their hand…

This Sunday’s Gospel lesson from John’s rendering of the life of Jesus is one that, I think, encourages us to disabuse ourselves of either of the above ways of operating.

People read John 3:13-22 as Jesus writing some greedy wrongs of the Temple in those ancient days, and surely some of that might be true. This act will be, in John’s Gospel, the reason for Jesus’ arrest.

But the larger lesson here, and the one I think is more helpful in shaping our spiritual sensibilities, is the idea that Jesus is actively dispelling the notion that we can bargain for God’s blessing, or that we can buy or earn our way to the miracle-circle of life.

The hope that God provides is not one that ensures a certain outcome, but rather one that says, “No matter the outcome, I am with you.”

I think that, especially in these days of illness and vaccine, storms and cold and “why the hell are we still here a year later?!” where certainly honest prayers for help and concern have been thrown into the universe, perhaps the best thing that the church can do right now, even with all her flaws, is to reorient our people toward the deep truth that bargaining and meritocracies have no place in the Kingdom of God.

It’s natural for humans to do that kind of thing, of course, which is one of the reasons we know it can’t be God’s standard operating procedure.

Instead, God invites us to move away from the craps table and cashes in all her chips on our behalf instead, standing beside us in the lobby of life as a friend, not a dealer, having decided that the “house always wins” mentality the world uses is not only not a good way to live, but certainly isn’t the abundant life the Divine intends for us.

If you’re still not convinced, flip ahead in the story just a bit to where Jesus is praying in the garden in the wee hours before they’ll string him up. There he doesn’t bargain with God, but rather just says what he truly desires, “Don’t let this happen…” he says.

No conditions. No wagering. No, “see how good I’ve been?!”

He just says, “I don’t want this.”

But then he says (in not so many words), in a wisdom that is so instructive for me…for all of us, “But if it happens, walk with me.”

Put down your chips, Beloved. They’re not worth anything lasting, anyway. God’s not dealing out blessing and curses, aces or fives.

God’s alongside us. We don’t need to bargain. We don’t need to earn it. Hear it and live.