I was told this joke the other week. It was so touching. Here goes. A person received a message from God “Enter into the race and come forth (fourth) and receive Eternal Life. But he tripped, came fifth and won a toaster!”
This simple story encapsulates all the difference between what I hope life will deliver, and what I sometimes feel it actually delivers.
I remember the intensity, at nineteen, of watching ‘A Man For All Seasons’ and coming out of the movies, tears streaming down my face saying ‘We must not let this happen in our time!’ But I’m too sensitive to be a real activist. They need skins of rhinoceros hide.
Then I remember in the mid 1990’s. This is when a priest’s career either takes off toward being a bishop, or not. I used to sing the song “Rock and Roll I gave You All the Best Years of My Life” a lot. (See the You Tube Link here *). Especially the line “she tried to help me understand, I’d never be a star” I wanted to be recognised, I wanted to be a ‘star’, but ended up being a parish priest.
Then come the years of self knowledge and acceptance. Failure brought me the insight that I could not, nor did I want to be a bishop. It’s hard enough living with the disapprobation of one or two parishioners, let alone when this is projected onto the whole screen of a diocese. I learned to be happy to be a parish priest. The ‘shades of the prison house’ gather around the more, the more one has positions of power in the Church. There is great freedom and creativity in not having much power. I like that better.
But this knowledge and contentment have been won at a cost, both to me, and to those who were prepared to devote themselves to me. I have had more therapy (paid for) than hot dinners. I have had several ‘spiritual directors’, some paid for and some not. They have both reminded me of my inherent value, and reminded me of how I ‘shoot myself in the foot’. It involves the difficult process of discovering that ‘how I am put together’ is also sometimes ‘cracked’ and that this will not change.
The coming to this realisation about what I do best, and what my weaknesses are, feels sometimes like ‘getting a toaster’ instead of ‘Eternal Life’ because it involves discovering the painful truth about myself. It involves the grief that comes with the loss of some hopes.
Here I share with Jesus the thing that the writer of the letter to the Hebrews says “In the days of his flesh, Jesus* offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. 8Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered”
But at the same time, this ‘place; actually is a winning of the main prize. It is ‘the main prize’ to know that I do not need ‘external recognition’ for who I am by ‘being a star’, so that I can be content with what I am doing. “I would rather be a gate-keeper in the House of the Lord, than to dwell in the tents of unrighteousness” It is like winning the main prize to recognise the freedom there is in the creativity of being a parish priest, than to have to endure the strictures of committees and limitation in being a Bishop. I’m very grateful for the good people who can answer ‘Yes’ to the question ‘Do you believe that you are truly called to be a bishop in the Church of God?’ But I am eternally grateful to God for giving me the knowledge that I cannot and do not want to answer ‘Yes’ to that question.
So although I have, at some times thought that I have won ‘the toaster’ a truer reflection lets me see that God has been faithful. God has given me ‘Eternal Life.’
And this is where I begin to remember the stories of the Gospel.
‘So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’
And the thing is, that the best ‘main prize’ is to be given the ‘process’ of bringing myself into the company of God: of having a way, in prayer, and in Gospel Reflection Groups to ‘flow’ as a person so that the processes of continual truth telling to myself do not stop: the processes of growing do not stop. This means that I do not have to ‘reject’ all that is new or all that I do not understand, but can continually ‘life’ through the processing of what life brings. This too is an experience of ‘Eternal Life’
This is what I know to be true. Like the man in search of the pearl of great price, or the one continually knocking on the door, God has answered me: I have been given bread and fish and not stones or scorpions or toasters. In the long run, we al ‘trip over’. We all get ‘the toaster’ but look, what at first appears to be a toaster is God’s gift, to those who whom God loves.
This is the message of Advent. Learning what it means to transform what looks like ‘the toaster’ into ‘Eternal Life’ is the same process as ‘making straight’ God’s paths. It is the same as ‘making the rough places smooth’ It is the same as preparing God’s way. Then, when in Heaven we cannot hide from God’s light, we won’t be frightened of it, because we will have practised receiving it beforehand.