When Losing is Saving (141)

So there’s this youngish British-American marketing and leadership guru being interviewed on a British show. He is asked about what companies need to do to work better with employees in the twenties and early thirties: it’s the “millennial question.” The guru responds, obviously slipping into material he knows well, and the interviewer just lets him go. The guy talks uninterrupted for about fifteen minutes. His little talk has now been watched more than 7 million times on YouTube. He made a connection.

What the guy says, if I can summarize it quickly, is that a lot of organizations just aren’t equipped to work well with a younger set of employees. The work environment doesn’t fit them. The reason is—let’s put it in the form of a little story—this cohort has been raised by parents who have convinced them that they’re special and that they can do anything they want. This is a nifty parenting idea, and it might work as long as the parent can make things happen for the child. However, it doesn’t fit with the real world of performance reviews, competitive bids and job interviews. So inevitably we find that we aren’t as all-wonderful as our parents have told us. We’re pretty average, and this is profoundly disappointing. To grow up thinking you’re going to be the next Nelson Mandela or Hillary Clinton and one day finding out that you are just another person riding the bus, watching Netflix and fighting for a job you don’t really want—this is not a recipe for happiness.

We combine that, this leadership and marketing guru says, with the coping strategy many of us have learned, which is turning to the internet for a kick of dopamine. We can’t wait for the next text, the next like, the next new friend, the next bump in page views. It’s the same thrill as gambling and the same brain chemistry. Our minds and hearts grow to need this sort of stimulation. We get jittery and anxious without it. And as if we need to crank up the pressure, we get used to all this happening in an instant. So many of us lack the social coping mechanisms that are developed through minor childhood disappointments, waiting in long lines and negotiating awkward introductory conversations. We enter the work world with the impression that the things we want will come quickly.

The problem, I’m still relating the story the cultural guru tells his British audience, is that for many of us the most satisfying things, deep relationships and meaningful work, can only be developed over time. They can only be developed through much annoying waiting and many little anxieties. They can only be developed with persistence and patience and focused attention. And even then, there are always real limits. Until we realize that we cannot be whatever we want to be, that we cannot have it all quickly, we will never experience satisfaction and joy. That’s what the guy in the interview chair says anyway.

He might be wrong . . .  maybe, but maybe there’s more than a little truth to the story. However, in the context of the Scripture reading for today (Matthew 16:21-27) what I find the most interesting is this: the only way to have a life, a career that is more fulfilling, a more emotionally resilient habitus, a more socially real day-to-day is if we give up the life we think we like. He says we have to give up checking our e-mail before we say good morning to our spouses or our housemates. We have to give up trying to do two things at once. We have to give up trying to fill every nanosecond of ‘dead time’ with the latest internet widget.

The leadership guru isn’t saying anything about Jesus. He doesn’t reference Scripture at all. The only authority he purports to rely on is science and his own wide-ranging personal experience. The point isn’t that our phones are bad or that the internet is ruining the world, it’s just that like any coping strategy we can over-do it. We can become addicted. When we do that, the things that seem essential to fulfillment really aren’t. What looks like our life, really isn’t.

The only way forward is losing our life to save it.

This is the heart of our gospel reading today: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Give up what you’re currently attached to and you’ll get something better. Jesus is speaking in terms of becoming a student of his way of life. If you want to be my disciple, he says, you need to give up what seems like the road to satisfaction and you need to follow me. What does it matter, really, if you gain what seems to be satisfying in your misguided state, but you lose what really matters? If we’ve been tricked on the road to fulfillment, then the direction we’re headed in can only lead to frustration and anxiety.

Much of this could be said by some contemporary life coach, some guru of gladness, but here’s what many of them wouldn’t say: the way of true life is typified by suffering. Look how central this is to Jesus’ ministry. In the first paragraph of our gospel reading Jesus is telling his disciples about how he will need to suffer at the hands of the religious and cultural leaders.

Peter says this, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” Peter can’t believe this is the way forward. He’s convinced that if we can avoid suffering we must. But in the face of Peter’s strong response, Jesus’ reply is even stronger: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me.” His way leads to suffering, for him and for his followers. This is so central to his mission that he identifies the temptation to avoid it as a temptation from hell.

. . . . What Jesus is describing is not three easy steps to a better life. It’s not a quick way to iron out the wrinkles. It’s not avoiding one simple food and getting a six-pack in thirty days.

Now let’s be clear: the suffering Jesus is talking about is specifically suffering for the sake of the kingdom. We take up the cross, rejecting violence and affirming self-sacrificial love, because we believe that in Jesus we see God. God—that which is the ground of all being. We follow the way of Jesus because we believe that in his life we see what truly matters and what truly counts and how things truly work. That’s what this passage is really about.

Maybe it’s already obvious to you, but I think we can take two things from this little piece of Matthew’s gospel. The first is that everyday bit of wisdom: without suffering we don’t truly live. Running from difficulty is running from the deep goodness of life. That’s a biblical principle. It’s also the general life-principle of leadership gurus who have tapped into a need felt by millions. If we are attentive we might notice places in our lives were we’re allowing ourselves to be wrongly programmed to think that easy, quick and virtual is the way to joy. If we can take that away from our reading, that’s a good thing. If we can grow in our patience and perseverance, that’s a good thing. If we can become a little more self-aware of the shortcuts we take to get that dopamine kick, that’s a good thing.

The second thing we can take from this passage is the more revolutionary and harder to stomach. And it’s this: if we aim for satisfaction in life we will probably miss. If we aim to serve others like Jesus . . . then just maybe we will find it. Let’s not make the common mistake and think this means giving up a love for the goodness of our creaturely lives. When Jesus points his followers to the way of suffering he isn’t pointing us away from the goodness of dirt and skin or ripe peaches and sweat corn or summer swimming. Not at all. As our congregation has been walking with Jesus in our summer worship series we’ve been walking with God’s great ‘YES’ to creation. The way of suffering isn’t a denial of this. Instead, it is the way in which we can enjoy our lives, our relationships, the challenge of our work and studies more fully.

Let us close by listening one last time to the words of this itinerant rabbi. He has just responded his friend’s suggestion that he avoid suffering. Picture them all, walking, maybe in the late afternoon. Jesus turns to the whole group and he says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

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