March 4, 2012
“The Myth of Mastery” by Rev. Stacy Swain
One of the things that David, one of our trip leaders, told us over and over again in the months leading up to our time in Nicaragua was that when we were there, we would need to be flexible. We would need to be willing and ready to set down all of our expectations about how we thought things should be in order to experience what was.
And he was right. On more than one occasion, we came expecting one thing but finding something quite different. Whether it was showing up at the community baseball clinic expecting to be meet a local partner only to realize that we were on our own and would have to figure it out ourselves, to arriving at a work site gloves on and ready to go only to discover that the materials needed to do the work were nowhere in sight. At first when this happened we were a bit frustrated and perplexed asking each other “what in the world is going on, This wasn’t the plan.” But as the trip unfolded we saw over and over again how things had a tendency to come together, different than what we had thought but that they worked all the same and often times for the better.
I think that this experience of having our best laid plans turned upside down is a large part of what makes traveling outside of our comfort zone, whether to Nicaragua or Zambia or Dorchester so valuable. For those of us who are used to being in control — used to having clear expectations and seeing those expectations play out according to our plan, it is tremendously formative to have an experience of being out of our element and having to try out new ways of being and interacting with what is unfolding around us.
But being flexible, being ready to set down one’s expectations and take up a new reality all together can be difficult. Just ask Peter. This talk of Jesus suffering, this talk of picking up our cross was the last thing in the world that Peter expected. Peter was expecting that the redemption Jesus would bring for the people would be one won with the sword. A military and political victory, the tumbling of Roman rule to finally take back the kingdom of Israel. Peter thought they were all headed down that road, and then Jesus said,” no if you are going to follow me you must walk in this new way.” The way defined not by the powers of the world, but by God.
So if we are to follow Jesus and step off into this way of God, if we are going to set down the sword and take up the cross, what exactly does that look like? What new ways of being and acting does taking up one’s cross and following Jesus require?
In his book, Lighten our Darkness, Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall sees the way of the cross requiring three movements. The movement from mastering to serving, from grasping to receiving, from independence to interdependence. (183
Now when I read Halls work this week, I was particularly struck because these three movements characterized much of what we experienced in our week in Nicaragua.
The first, the movement from mastery to service is that of setting down a way of being that sees competition not collaboration at the heart of human interaction. We are conditioned to a culture of rivalry where we have to look out for number one and think strategically about how to best advance our own interest; how to get ahead. Moving from such a mind set of mastery to one of service requires thinking as much of others and of our selves. Of seeing the benefit to ourselves not of guarding our own but of freely giving of ourselves in service to others.
Nicaragua gave us that experience. There on the worksite we were equals, shoulder to shoulder with our new friends learning how to use a matchete to cut bark off trees for ceiling rafters; learning how to mix a manure into a compost rich enough to sustain newly planted fruit trees through the dry season. Having no investment in what we were going to get out of the project but only in what we were able to give.
The second movement that Douglas John Hall sees in the way of the cross is a movement from grasping to receiving. Another way of saying this may be the movement from fear of scarcity to confidence of abundance. Much of our consumer culture here in the states, I believe, is driven by a fear of scarcity. We get the message that there is not enough for everyone so you better go out there and get what you need before someone else takes it from you.
But remember the example of Jesus that day with the five fish and the two loaves of bread, how not only was everyone satisfied but that there were leftovers that filled twelve baskets? Transforming scarcity into abundance.
We had our own fish and bread moment in Nicaragua. We had brought lots and lots of school supplies down with us. Suitcases and suitcases of supplies, but after seeing the need in the schools I was suddenly afraid that it was not nearly enough. On the day we were to give out the supplies at the Azul y Blanco school, I was particularly nervous. There were lots and lots of kids and the pile of notebooks just looked far too small. What if there wasn’t enough for everyone. What if the kids all started piling over each other trying to grab a notebook before they ran out. But before I could do a thing or think of an alternative plan, the kids in our group had begun handing out the notebooks to the school children as they filed out of the classroom.
There was not havoc, no one piled over each other to grab what was theirs. Instead it seemed akin to communion as our kids and the kids of the school gave and received together. When the last child turned to go back into their classroom, I was shocked to see that there was a stack of notebooks remaining. More than enough for even those who had not made it to school that day.
The third movement writes Hall in the walk of the cross is from independence to interdependence. It strikes me that if the purpose of Jesus’ ministry was solely about salvation, solely about repairing the breach in the relationship between God and humanity with the forgiveness of sin, solely about the mystery of what happened between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, than there would have been no need for Jesus to have spent three years creating a community of disciples and followers. Jesus could have done it all on his own. For me, following Jesus is also about repairing the breach in the relationships we have with one another. Learning to see each other not as rivals but as companions, to realize our interdependence with each other and creation. Learning that all are to get gathered together in love and fellowship around the communion table where new community is forged.
Though I could go on and on I will share one final example from our trip. It was the last day. We would be getting on a plane in the morning. We were at the work site in San Antonio de Baston. We were going to make some pressed earth blocks for the walls of the new outdoor kitchen and eating area of the school. Jennifer and Darling, two women from the town who had been with us all week were working with us. I’d shovel in the dirt mix into the mold, Jennifer would set the press, David would pull down on the long metal lever that squeezed the water from the mix and formed the block, Joanie would carefully carry the newly formed block over to a drying area in the sun. We were making what would soon be a new comedor but we were also making new connections with each other, breaking down division of culture, language, class and experience and coming together not as independent isolated individuals but as new friends depending on and sharing with each other, working together to live into being a new community.
I do not think I would be overstating it to say that something redemptive happened for us all during that time in Nicaragua. I think in one way or another, each of us caught a glimpse of a way of being for and with each other that had the glow of the kingdom of God upon it.
Now it may be that walking in a new way with Jesus and with each other is easier in a place like Nicaragua where everything is already so different. But in many ways this season of Lent is itself a journey through a new land. It is a time when we are invited to a new flexibility in our walk with each other and Jesus, invited to set down expectation of how things should be and engage in new ways what is. So in the weeks to come, I invite us into these three movements from mastery to service; from grasping to receiving; from independence to interdependence and into most of all into the unexpected joys that following Jesus brings. AMEN