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Go for the Bronze

The Olympic Games always bring us a rich televised feast of experiences ranging from athletic triumph to agonizing disappointment, fascinating personal stories of perseverance in the face of adversity, and embarrassing moments when human frailty is exposed for all to see.  We find ourselves caught up in the drama, some of us perhaps even secretly imagining ourselves among the athletes soaring majestically off the ski jump or dancing effortlessly across the ice.  (Others of us, perhaps with greater honesty, find ourselves relating to the skaters skidding along on their butts after a badly landed triple loop!  Get real.)

Along with all of this there are the countless side bar stories that fill the special sections of our morning papers.  I read one yesterday about a study conducted on silver and bronze medal winners.  The study revealed that bronze medal winners tend to fare better emotionally than silver medal winners.  This odd and relatively useless piece of information caught my eye.  Why would third place winners be happier than second place winners?  The results of the study suggest that third place winners are happy just to be on the podium.  They often have achieved their personal best speed, distance or score in order to win the bronze medal.  For them it’s not so much the medal as it is a personal sense of achievement, excellence, accomplishment, and above all participation in one of the great experiences of a lifetime.

Second place winners, by contrast, tend to be preoccupied with the fraction of a second or hundredth of a point that denied them the gold medal.  Rather than celebrating their achievement, they are disappointed with their failure.  Most telling, silver medalists are often bitter or resentful that the medal to which they feel entitled has been taken from them, either through bad luck or unfair judging (a certain Russian men’s figure skater comes to mind).  This was to be my year, my moment.  What a silver medal really means is that I have been denied the very thing I believe with all my heart I truly deserved.

Entitlement, of course, is not just a problem for athletes.  Many of us who were ordained in the late 1960’s or early 1970’s grew up in a mainline church world that encouraged notions of entitlement.  To be a minister in our mainline churches was to be entitled to a certain privileged place with lots of gold medals along the way – larger churches, more prominent pulpits, a position of high regard in the culture, influence among the decision makers in our world.  But in the ensuing years the old mainline has crumbled beneath us, a shadow of its former self, and the things to which we felt entitled often haven’t been awarded.  The tokens of cultural prominence and ecclesiastical privilege seem to be hanging around other necks, and it’s hard not to feel at least some disappointment, if not outright betrayal.  Like silver medal holders, edged off the top step on the podium, it’s tempting to grow resentful.

Few of us are immune.  A year ago when President Obama was being inaugurated, I watched from a distance and couldn’t help but think that in another context and another time, I as the head of his denomination would be entitled to be up there delivering the invocation rather than Rick Warren.  (I still think I could have given a more inspired prayer!)  But we live in different times and minister in a different ecclesial and cultural context.  “Get over it, John!”  So I watched the inauguration with a wonderful group of students in a large common room at Andover Newton Theological School where I was teaching for the week.  Not a bad bronze medal after all!

A few years ago at a United Church of Christ seminarian event, a young student at a large and prestigious university based theological school challenged me:  “Most of us have spent a lot of money on our education.  We could have gone to law school or medical school, but we chose divinity school.  Now we look at the church and wonder what kind of opportunities there will be for us.   So, Mr. General Minister and President, what do you think the career path is for clergy in the UCC today?”  She didn’t use the word entitlement, but that’s all I heard.  It reeked of another time and place, one far from notions of call and vocation.  “Where will the gold medals be for us?”  I’m not sure whether my answer was inspired or inane.  What I said was, “I don’t know what the career path is today.  What I do know is that at the end of the day none of us are going to be anything more than the funny pictures of old pastors we see hanging in the hallways of our churches.”  I worry that this young pastor will forever be frowning at a silver medal, disappointed and resentful, oblivious to the wondrous calling and transformed lives all around her.

Chicago Theological Seminary is preparing most of its students for leadership in a very different church than the one I was called to in 1975.  Our students will make a difference in the world, will serve with excellence, will transform lives and worlds toward greater justice, mercy, and peace.  But the churches and faith based organizations they serve will not be, for the most part, at the center of things the way the old mainline of my childhood was.  There won’t be a lot of gold medals awarded.  This is no prescription for mediocrity.  Only the truly gifted and most diligent in any field even get near a bronze medal.  What all of this does remind us of is that the race no longer begins on the inside lane and that our running it does not entitle us to the world’s adulation.

At his installation as General Secretary of the World Council of Churches this week, Olaf Tveit of the Church of Norway selected as his text, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified,” (1 Corinthians 2.2).  This is hardly a text for one who is simply “going for the gold, but it isn’t one for a resentful silver medal winner, either.  No, this is a text that would hang comfortably around the neck of a bronze medal winner.  I think if I had to answer that young seminarian again today, I’d skip the allusion to the funny pictures on the walls and simply tell her, “Go for the bronze!”

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