One of the more fascinating stories to come out of this presidential election cycle is the Romney campaign’s behavior on election night.
For ninety minutes that evening, despite the fact that all the major television networks had called the race (even FOX), there was no communication from the Romney campaign.
Did he know some objective data nobody else did?
Was he assembling lawyers for a recount?
In the days after the election, CBS News had the best analysis of what happened with Romney and his closest advisors: They didn’t believe they could lose.
Jan Crawford’s story for CBS describes Romney as “shellshocked.”
But the most incredible line comes from an unnamed adviser: “I don’t think there was one person who saw this coming.”
Reports are that Romney had not written the standard “concession speech,” so confident had he been of a win.
For now, let me turn aside from political analysis of this decision…ie, a failure to read the demographics, polls, etc…
Instead, let me share why I was personally astounded by this story. I am astounded by it, because I have had the good fortune to advise several candidates for office here in Dallas over the past few years.
Any one of them will tell you that I have a simple “first-rule” of running for public office. There are certainly many other rules, and many good ones that actual political analysts give to candidates.
But this is mine:
Do not run for office if you are not prepared to lose.
Ask anybody. I say this all the time. In my book, it’s the first rule you must never forget.
Here’s how I’ve expand on it, in the few times people have asked me for political advice. I say:
“I’m not saying expect to lose. Being “prepared” to lose is not “expecting” to lose. In fact, to run successfully, you’ve got to believe you can win.
But we hold elections in America. We do not crown kings/queens who rule by right. We elect leaders, who lead by will.
It is the will of the people to, at any moment, either elect or reject them.
So, if you’re going to throw your hat in the ring –even if you’re an incumbent who’s successfully been elected dozens of times– always be prepared for the fact that you can lose. It’s always possible.”
What’s astounding to me is that at the highest level of our national politics, there seems to have been a candidate who either didn’t have anybody telling him about this simple truth; or who, in the fog of the campaign, simply forgot.
This attitude I’m describing here has nothing to do with polls, demographics, societal trends. I am describing a spiritual attitude, really.
To be brutally honest, in a spiritual sense, nothing you have now is guaranteed to you always.
As the Buddha says, “Life is suffering.”
As Slaid Cleeves sings:
“Every bond is a bond to sorrow
Every blue sky fades to gray
Everything you love will be taken away.”
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the best example of this is the story of Abraham and Isaac.
I’m not gonna try to sugar coat this. It’s a story about attempted murder. Theologians have been trying to gloss that part of the story for centuries. But –and this is the only way the story makes some modicum of sense– scholars also suggest that the story is so ancient that it dates to a time when “child sacrifice” was practiced.
The moral of the Genesis version? “Don’t do that. Don’t sacrifice your child. God doesn’t want that.”
Again, that’s the only justification for the story that gets close for me. And even if it’s true, it still rings like tinnitus on modern ears.
I’m more interested in the spiritual lesson. This story teaches a spiritual lesson that’s terribly hard to learn, that most of us avoid like the plague, but that eventually comes to each and every one of us.
And the lesson comes from first observing the point Slaid and the Buddha just made….Loss comes. Heartbreak comes. Illness comes. Death comes. We don’t get to choose the time and place of it. But it comes nonetheless.
“Everything you love will be taken away.”
So, what Abraham and Isaac teaches us is: If we are asked, could we give up the people, places, things that are most dear to us?<
It may never be asked of us. We may sail through life with little misery at all. (It happens to some) But, if the worse happens, are we ready?
Could we give it all up?
That’s what God asked Abraham to do. This child that he and Sarai had dreamed of for almost 100 years, this most precious thing in all the world to them…that is what he’s asked to give up.
And, shockingly, he was ready.
But, and this is the good news, in the end it was not required. Only the willingness was.
I have often wondered this: perhaps the very readiness to give it all up is the thing that allows us to keep our lives. Again, I don’t mean in all cases. Certainly, there are good people who hold their lives loosely, who end up suffering greatly anyway.
Suffering brings a place for joy.
Death brings life
This time of year, here’s a good way to frame it: Holding life loosely allows us to become more thankful.
One of my teachers/mentors, Thom Elliott, used to pray a prayer in memorial services very similar to the following:
“Teach me, O God, not to hold on to life too tightly.
Teach me to hold it lightly; not carelessly, but lightly, easily.
Teach me to take it as a gift, to enjoy and to cherish while I have it, and to let it go gracefully and thankfully when the time comes
The gift is great, but the Giver is greater still. Amen.”
Holding life lightly, being willing to give it up, allows us space to become more truly thankful people.
As I shared with friends at the Second Monday Series last Monday, every now and then I practice this during my prayer time. I practice/meditate on this by burning one of my business cards.
This is something I’ve done for years. I can’t even remember who taught me this idea. I’m sure I didn’t think it up on my own. I take one of my cards, I light it, and I watch it burn away. And I imagine that, with it, it’s taking away my career, all of my accomplishments, all of my “titles” and anything “honorific” that has ever come my way.
All of it is burns away, with the card.
The title “Rev.” burns away.
My first name goes.
My last too.
My title. “Senior Pastor.” Burned and gone.
The Church name.
The name “United Methodist Church.”
Early on, when I was in seminary, several mentors of mine told me something which I have always found to be horrible advice. The said “Eric, if you do anything else in life and be happy, do it.”<
I’ve always found that to be terrible advice.
In fact, I’ve found the opposite to be true.
I’ve found that the constantly willingness to imagine giving it all up is the very thing that’s allowed me to keep going.
When the institutional church is at its worse…
When burnout takes its toll…
When stress is at its highest…
It helps deeply me to remember: “You could always give it up.”
Believing anything less, it seems to me, would be terribly soul-killing. Interestingly, when I was with a group of clergy earlier this year, all celebrating our 20th Year in ministry, many of them said this exact same attitude helps them get by too.
Tex Sample spoke to some of this last weekend when he was here. We were at a dinner with him, and somebody asked him what it takes to have “institutional courage.”
He told the story of a colleague who always carried his “resignation letter” in his back pocket. That decision, he said, gave the man the courage to step out and be prophetic at important times in his ministry.
To me, that’s kind of a like a “burning” too.
Please understand, I’m not planning on going anywhere. Not planning any changes. But as we move toward Thanksgiving, I thought I’d share an inward and spiritual practice that keeps me going.
Being willing to give up, burn away, all things we believe we “must” have can free us. It can free us for a new life, where we see each day, each opportunity, as a gift.
David Wilcox once sang about this in his song, “Farthest Shore”
One verse imagines leaving everything you own on one shore and swimming to the other side. The chorus says:
“So…Let me dive into the water,
Leave behind all that I’ve worked for
Except what I remember and believe
and when I stand on the farthest shore
I will have all I need”
(Interestingly, the second verse is also about a burning!)
Yes. Exactly it.
As we enter the week of Thanksgiving, I invite you to ask yourself the deep spiritual questions:
What if you lost it all?
What if it were all taken from you?
What if all you had left was you?
If the worst did happen, this much would still be true:
You would still be God’s dearly beloved child.
You would still be alive.
You would have at least another day to celebrate the gift of life itself.
One of the greatest benefits of this spiritual insight is the ability to celebrate the gifts of life –to not take them for granted– and to enter into each new day with gratitude for what comes.
“Everything you love can be taken away. (Probably will be)
So, don’t cling to your life too tightly, and watch how life comes back to you again.<
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