I buy lottery tickets. Not the scratch-and-sniff kind nor the daily-draw or poker-themed one, either. I’m only interested in those weekly big-money jackpots: $25 Million, $30 Million, $50 Million. And I don’t buy them every week, either, only those weeks when the jackpots have grown fat on the harvested souls of disappointed players. When the pot has grow to more than $20 Million I will buy a single ticket, fold it up, and gleefully put it my wallet between my Canadian Tire money (I’m saving up for a power tool) and the plastic money-money.
Some say “The lottery is a tax on people who are bad at math.” Not true, at least not in my case, rather, it’s a tax on people who suffer from a certain kind of aspirational thinking. I’m buying the opportunity to fantasize about what I would do with that kind of big money.
Sure, there would be a boat. Not a gaudy mega-yacht, but something classy–a sailboat designed for blue water cruising. Something humble like a Tartan 5300. The sort of boat you take around Cape Horn and the Caribbean. But you know this money would also be great for God. I would certainly pay off my church’s deficit and undertake a massive building programme. I would fund foundations to do important ministry on a whole host of issues. These sorts of fantasizes are no less vivid for me than the sailboat ones. For example, I would love to create a coalition of government and social service groups to turn the park across the street into a peace park to bring awareness to the intersection of policing and mental illness. I would fund the whole thing, of course, and my only must-have in the project would be a koi pond. I love koi ponds. I would sit in peace park stroking a white cat contemplating the awesome: helping people and stuff.
When the weekend comes and I learn that I am not going to be building any koi ponds for peace anytime soon I comfort myself with the other great panacea: technology. I turn on the AppleTV hooked up to my plasma TV and re-watch the latest Apple Keynote. I fast-forward the best part: Tim Cook saying “One more thing….” The Apple Watch.
It wants the precious. It needs the precious. Seeing it orbit above the earth it will soon dominate, the Watch promises a better life. It already has health and fitness features to gently remind you to stand more, to walk farther (I know–revolutionary). With its patented “Taptic” technology it will tap you on the wrist to tell you that a no-doubt-world-shaking tweet has mentioned you. Surely spiritual health applications are not far behind–I am positive I will be a more prayerful person, a more compassionate person, a more connected leader (and I’ll be able to control my AppleTV from my wrist).
I’m really that lustful? That idolatrous? Maybe not, but I’m not far from it. I spent months working and planning a series of initiatives hat promised to be Fresh Expressions of church and give rise to new communities overlapping our own. Mission, mission, mission. A farmer’s market, a coffee shop, and a significant renovation. My team carefully and elaborately planned a “Phase I” in which we would use a combination of grant money and the church’s own resources to start the whole thing. I started interviewing “Pioneer Ministers” and architects and potential business partners in food service. Surely the Diocese will support this, I thought. Surely they will let us use our capital (currently held by them in trust). I was making plans for money I did not have.
Then I had lunch with a Jedi–a priest from England well-known for the spiritual communities that he has founded. The sort of high-midi-chlorian priest who can do that contemplative voice that you hear on “Pray as You Go.” He did many of the exact kinds of projects I was planning with my team.
As the Jedi and I ate lunch in my favourite Toronto pub (small-batch IPA, ribs, good beer, sweet potato fries) he listened to my dreams. He congratulated my initiative and thought my planning process was great. But then gave me the reality check that I needed.
First off, he pointed out that in the current climate I was unlikely to get the support I was looking for until I had actually demonstrated success. Market studies and surveys are not enough; I would have to actually do some projects before I would get any help. He showed me the business plan for his cafe. It contained a “Phase 0”–a place to start with no capitalization at all. He talked about driving around London picking up furniture off the curb. I smacked my forehead… Of course I need to do that.
Second, he asked me about my plans. How long was I planning to stay? As we continued it became clear that starting projects of this sort requires some serious sacrifice on the part of the pioneer. It’s not enough to work late nights and ruin a few work shirts with espresso stains. You have to let go of your future plans. “This is going to take a lot longer than you ever thought possible.” You have to be willing to stay as long as it takes. You cannot put a limit on how long you will be there. So much for itinerancy. “I know,” said the Jedi, “It’s not what you wanted to hear.”
Third, he grilled me about my spiritual life. How was I praying? When was I praying? “You ignore this at your peril” he assured me before giving me some helpful suggestions.
You see where this is going. The Diocese put conditions on our access to our funds that we won’t be able to satisfy for some months in the best case scenario. Nor did we get the big grants.
But we did get one bit of good news. We got a Reach Grant for a few thousand dollars and were able to get our Farmer’s Market going. It’s harder than I thought, but it’s going, and that’s not nothing.
Manna. It’s not never what you wanted–but it’s enough for today. God’s economy is not our economy. And we can grumble about the unfairness all we want–it won’t change the fact that we get what we get.
Louis CK had a famous moment on the Conan O’Brien show in which he said, “Everything is Amazing and Nobody’s Happy.” He talked about how incredibly convenient our lives are and yet everyone continues to complain. “How quickly the world owes him something he knew existed only 10 seconds ago…. you are sitting in a chair in the sky!”
Preach the gap between our aspirations and our reality: the Gollum Gap. Gollum, the character from The Lord of the Rings who obsesses over the precious magical ring like all of us–seduced by our dreams of what we want. It doesn’t matter whether that desire is for a sailboat, a watch, a peace park, or an end to cancer. The truth is that our covetousness distorts our view of reality.
In this Sunday’s Gospel (Matthew 20:1-16) the laborers want more than they had been promised. They thought the Landowner owed them something more than the late-comers to the work.
The landowner’s question, “Are you envious because I am generous?” (verse 15), is the translation of a Greek idiom which literally translates as “Is your eye evil because I am good?” An “evil eye” (ophthalmos poneros) suggested a deeper problem than meets the eye. As Jesus taught earlier, “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy (ophthalmos poneros; so, if you have the “evil eye”), your whole body will be full of darkness” (cf. 6:22-23). In this account, the “evil eye” was the opposite of generosity (e.g., jealousy, greed, stinginess, etc.). (Emerson Powery writing on Working Preacher)
That’s the “Gollum Gap”–the dis-ease that infects our way seeing the world. An evil eye that fails to see what’s possible if we don’t get the grant or the lottery win or magic watch.
Notice that this passage was directed to the Disciples. It is sandwiched between the story of the Rich Young Man who cannot follow Jesus because he cannot let go of his manna (Matthew 19.16-30) and the request of James and John’s mom that they have a special place in the kingdom (20.17-28). “They, too, ‘have borne the burden of the day’ since they’ve been with Jesus from the beginning of his mission” (Powery). But the mystery of who will be given such honor is beyond even Jesus (“this is not mine to grant” v.23).Here comes the evil eye again–the other disciples are not pleased. But Jesus teaches them that greatness in the Kingdom comes through service (vv 25-28). These are teachings for us, about how we ought react whether we have been blessed with resources like the Rich Young Man or long such things like James and John’s mom.
How telling that the chapter ends with the healing of a blind men (vv 29-34). They seek something, too. They long for restoration of their sight, but they don’t start there. They start with a prophetic act of Jesus-seeing: “Have mercy on us, Lord, Son of David!” (v.31). Such a simple prayer. “Moved with compassion, Jesus touched their eyes. Immediately they regained their sight and followed him” (v.34).
I pray that God will fix my sight–that the Gollum Gap might be removed so that I can see more clearly and follow more nearly. I pray that you will be touched by such healing, too.