Anna Carter Florence
Associate Professor of Preaching
Columbia Theological Seminary
Last summer I witnessed a classic tale of victory and defeat at a Little League baseball game in Minnesota. I was sitting with a ten-year-old friend, watching his older brother’s baseball game on a Friday night, and by the third inning, even I could see that this was not going to end well: the score was well into double digits, parents were rehearsing their “Well, honey, winning isn’t everything,” speeches; you get the picture. When the game was finally over, our team limped off the field and younger brother and I went to wait in the car. We had to wait a long time. Older brother took it hard; he’s twelve. As his mother tried to comfort him, I said something vague about this being a tough loss. Younger brother looked at me solemnly from beneath his Chicago Cubs baseball cap. He is a deep-thinking ten-year-old. He is also, for reasons no one completely understands, a Cubs fan, by choice, from the age of three, even though he lives in Minnesota. He wears that Cubs cap everywhere. So when I made my lame attempt at levity, he just looked at me. “When you’re a Cubs fan,” he told me, seriously, “you learn how to lose.”
You learn how to lose. For some reason, I can’t stop thinking about that. My ten-year-old friend is as wise as they come, because he picked a losing team and has learned to live with it. And get this: he isn’t from Chicago. His parents and grandparents aren’t from Chicago. He’s only visited Chicago, once! And it’s not like he lives in the middle of nowhere, or has a dearth of other options, as far as baseball is concerned; the Twins’ stadium is mere minutes from his house; he goes to games all the time. Everyone he knows, including his older brother, is a Twins fan. They know how to win, or at least in recent history they did. They assume it will happen again. But younger brother? When you’re a Cubs fan, you learn how to lose.
Sometimes I wonder if I really know how to lose. And I don’t mean losing the World Series, or the Super Bowl, or my sons’ lacrosse games. I mean, really losing . . . my grip on things. What I know about myself, for example. What I know about my family. What I believe about God, and human beings, and creation and redemption. Life is a gift, yes, but it can be brutal, and complicated; my sister-in-law says, life’s not for sissies. You have to dig in and grip hard. You have to hold fast to what you believe—unless, of course, you can’t. Then, you learn how to lose.
When you’re a Cubs fan, you learn how to lose. I wish I could say that when you’re a Christian, you learn how to lose. But I’m not sure it’s true. I’m not sure the church has taught me how to lose, in the ways I need to learn. Because I don’t know about you, but life doesn’t always go the way I thought it would. Stuff happens. People break. Secrets get harder to keep, and sometimes they blow up and try to take you with them. I used to think a firm grip on God and reality was all you needed, to get through; that was seeing through a glass darkly. Now I know: sometimes you have to loosen that grip. And sometimes, you just have to lose.
Maybe it’s a biblical problem. All those texts that remind us that the victory is ours, the last shall be first, ask and you shall receive. If Christ is King, then you’re on a winning team, right? If Christ is for us, who can be against us?! The Prince of Darkness grim; we tremble not for him! For we are sure that neither death nor life nor angels nor principalities nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord. With texts like that, how can you lose?
Well, I see it happen every fall. The first year of seminary is all about learning how to lose. First we take their Jesus away. Then we mess with their Bible, and their heads. By the 1st of November, they don’t know who they are, anymore. All those foundations they thought they could count on, all that shining hope and pride in the wider Christian family: it’s very wobbly. I wish I could say that we faculty know how to teach the Christian practice of losing, but I’m not sure we do. We’re very good at deconstruction—students, texts, ideas, you name it. But the reconstruction part? Well, we leave that up to the students. We assume they’ll figure out how to put themselves back together, piece by piece, into something recognizably human, so that they can live with all this new knowledge without losing it. It’s a massive job. It’s a holy thing to witness; we know that. And we love our students; we really do. But I’m not sure how much help we give them, as they learn how to lose.
Seminarians aren’t the only ones. What about Senator Larry Craig? Do you think he knows how to lose? That seat in the Senate is only the tip of the iceberg. How does a man lose his ideal of what he’s supposed to be, and come to terms with who he is? How does he even allow the word “homosexual” to enter his consciousness, when everything he knows, everything he has been taught, tells him that this word is insupportable? In Larry Craig’s world, powerful, successful public servants are married heterosexual men of faith. How is he going to lose that world? I don’t think he has the first idea. And let’s get real: none of us are stepping up to help him do it.
What about the prime minister of Cambodia? Does he know how to lose? Listen to this excerpt from yesterday’s New York Times.
Prime Minister Hun Sen said he planned to legally disown his adopted daughter, who is a lesbian, so she cannot claim any inheritance. Mr. Hun Sen made the revelation about his closely guarded family life at a graduation. “My adopted daughter now has a wife,” he said. “I’m quite disappointed.” At the same time, he appealed to people not to discriminate against homosexuals, adding, “Most of them are good people and are not doing alcohol, drugs or racing vehicles” (Associated Press, The New York Times, Wednesday, October 31, 2007, p. A8).
Before you gag, remember that this is the leader of the country that has experienced the worst genocide in modern history. Cambodia has lost so much that I’m amazed it’s still standing; those people have years of reclaiming to do. Meanwhile, the prime minister’s world is crashing again, big-time, and he is losing it. What do you say to a man who thinks it is better to lose his child than to lose his dream for that child? I have no idea. But I guess he still has more to learn about how to lose.
What about us, the Covenant Network? This isn’t exactly a roomful of losers, you know. Look around: this conference roster reads like a Who’s Who in the denomination. Everywhere you look, you see the best minds, the best leadership, faithfully committed to a common cause. It does a body good, to see the folk in this room. It stirs the soul, to know that this roomful of winners is working tirelessly, and I do mean tirelessly, on behalf of our lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered sisters and brothers. God calls whom God calls to serve, regardless of sexual identity, regardless of race, regardless of gender, regardless of economic or creedal or national or familial status. That’s what we’re fighting for, isn’t it?—God’s justice, for all. God’s justice, for the church we love. And it’s a battle, all right. You have to take the long view, become a student of history. Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass and Walter Rauschenbusch didn’t build Rome in a day (or Rochester, in their case). Human rights are always in jeopardy, somewhere. So today, this is our cause. We plan to fight, and we aim to win, because that was God’s call to each of us, wasn’t it? We heard it, and said, Yes, send me! Send me to fight on their behalf. Send me to speak truth to a weary world. Send me to shine light in a time of shadows. The Covenant Network is not an organization of losers, and thanks be to God for that.
But. But. How does a roomful of winners learn how to lose?
I don’t mean the cause, per se. I don’t mean the fight, writ large. Students of history know: unless a dictatorship moves in, it’s only a matter of time before justice prevails, in the realm of human rights. Think about what we in this denomination were fighting for fifty years ago, forty years ago, thirty years ago. It seems like ancient history to your confirmation class. Walk to your local college campus, talk to enough twenty-somethings, and you realize, it’s only a matter of time before all these issues that the church endlessly debates will just be historical codas in our grandchildren’s textbooks. That’s the way of things. I believe in my heart that justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everlasting stream. Even here. Especially here.
But I also believe that before we can win—whatever that means, and whatever that looks like, in God’s time and wisdom—before we can win, we have to learn how to lose. And I’m not particularly looking forward to it.
You know, it’s a lot easier to crusade on behalf of others than to face the captivities in one’s own life. I would much rather help someone else cross over to freedom than face my own personal Pharaoh. I mean, isn’t liberation a great movement to get involved in?! It’s big, it’s real, it’s dramatic, it’s got life and death consequences; I love it! It makes me feel like I’m doing something, to usher in the kingdom. There are concrete battles: get this amendment passed. There are real-live people: Chris Glaser. Erin Swenson. Janie Spahr. Lisa Larges. We know these people; we love these people. We know the church needs their gifts, so it’s so easy to fight for them! And when we lose—temporarily, of course—we tell one another, Don’t you give up, now; the church is going to change; the days are coming, says the Lord, when all of Israel shall be sacred to the Lord! When you know in your heart that this is God’s work, you find a way to keep going. To use your power on behalf of others.
But we aren’t only fighting for our beleaguered LGTB sisters and brothers. Here’s the truth I’ve come to believe: we’re fighting for them, but we all have to leave Egypt. And that means there are worlds and myths inside us that we have to lose.
I used to think Exodus was for other people, other people I was working my hardest to help. The Red Sea water is wide, you know. The wilderness is worse. And I thought my job was to support them, in their wilderness—their wilderness!—until those damned fleshpots got me. Those damned, damned fleshpots. So filled with meat, so fragrant with spices. So delicious that my mouth waters, still, to think about it. You smell those fleshpots—which are really just cooking pots, over an open fire—and you remember Sundays at your grandmother’s house; fried chicken and biscuits and lemon meringue pie. You remember better days. Just like the children of Israel did, once they’d crossed over out of Egypt and gotten a taste of the liberation in the wilderness. Suddenly, slavery didn’t seem so bad; at least you had three square meals a day. At least you knew who you were and what was expected of you. At least you didn’t have this wilderness to get across. Back in Egypt, men were men and women were women and slaves were slaves; you knew how to act! You knew the rules! You knew what you could talk about and what you couldn’t talk about! You knew what you could preach and what you couldn’t preach! You didn’t have to worry about worship wars or praise music or inclusive language or Heathers two mommies—you knew where you stood! And, okay: maybe it was Egypt, but don’t you miss it, sometime?—how much simpler it was? Oh, those damned fleshpots. They make you lose your focus.
Here’s what I wish my church could do. I wish my church could help me leave those fleshpots behind, because I don’t really want to live in Egypt, anymore. I don’t want to have to pretend that I come from a perfect family living the perfect myth of what Larry Craig thinks we all should be. It obviously isn’t working for him. And it isn’t really working for me. So what I wish my church could do is help me sit down with Larry Craig and the prime minister of Cambodia and Lisa Larges and Andy Cullen and my seminarians, and you, so we could just talk about it. What’s in your fleshpot, Larry? Who first fed it to you, and what did it taste like? And when did you decide that you’d rather stay in Egypt than begin a trek through the wilderness? You can tell me, Larry. I won’t laugh. I really want to know. Because my LGTB sisters and brothers—a lot of them, anyway, thanks be to God—they’re already out. They’ve already crossed over, to something, anyway. They’ve got a head start into this wilderness. But the rest of us poor slobs, the heterosexual crusaders who supposedly are in the power seat, well, we’re still in Egypt, too. And if we can muster the courage, maybe we’ll tell you what’s in our fleshpots, and all the things we want to leave behind. Who knows? We might find we have some of the same stuff cooking. Maybe we can have a big old “Coming Out of Your Fleshpot” party. And then, maybe we can hold hands and walk away from them for good, me, and Larry, and his wife, and Prime Minister Sen, and his daughter, and Janie and my seminarians and my Mom and Dad and you. All of us, crossing over to the next thing, whatever it is. That’s what I wish my church could help me do.
You know, I don’t think there’s a shortcut to Canaan. The wilderness just is: can’t go around it; can’t go over it; gotta go through it. Gotta be a Cubs fan, and learn how to lose. But I can’t do it without Jesus, and I can’t do it without you.
I guess this is where the testimony comes in. Not testimony as in, Let me tell you about me, endlessly, adnauseum; no. Testimony as in, Let me tell you where I see God in this text and in this world, and what I believe about it. Testimony is narration and confession. It is witness, come what may. The women go to the tomb, find it empty, come back and tell the disciples, The Lord is risen! and the disciples tell them they’re full of bunk. That’s testimony; that’s the logic of the thing; we’re not supposed to be believed. Resurrection is hard to swallow; if the dead won’t even stay dead, what can you count on in this world? So our testimony isn’t going to sound logical or credible or even possible. But it may spark someone to go see for themselves. It may prod someone else to go check out the empty tomb. And that’s how it starts: testimony begets testimony. One witness leads to another.
Our preaching is testimony, and I know a book that will tell you all about that, if you’re interested. Testimony can be as public as this lecture. But I have a feeling the next step facing us, in the Covenant Network, will be to figure out how to do the private work of testimony, too, the sort of witnessing that you don’t want to post on the internet. Testimony needs to happen in small groups where you can dare to tell what’s in your fleshpot, and why it’s hard for you to leave Egypt. And that sort of sharing does not come naturally for some of us. You’ll notice I’m not doing it here, because we wanted this to be a public forum. But I notice that there’s a part of me, and maybe a part of you, that is just as happy to keep my testimony in the public realm, because then I won’t have to do that other, private, messy, intimate, vulnerable work. I won’t have learn how to lose, in the way I need to learn. So I need my church to help me. Let me serve God by working for liberation, but let me confess my own complicity in this system, too. Help me recognize the myths that hold me captive. Give me places where I can be vulnerable, and share my story. Show me what real authenticity looks like. Walk with me while I leave Egypt. And then stay close, when the wilderness starts. I can do anything, I can lose anything, with the communion of saints and power of the Spirit.
So how do we start? Let me offer one suggestion. That’s what practical theologians are supposed to do, aren’t we?—get practical? Let me try.
I want to turn to the book of Ruth, that lovely, brief, four chapter interlude between the judges and the kings. I’ve always liked Ruth, for two reasons. First, it’s one of the few books in the bible that features women as main characters, and as a feminist, I have to say: I like that; those books are few and far between. Basically, you have Ruth and Esther, and then you’re left with the Apocrypha and The DaVinci Code; that’s it. So I like the book of Ruth. Second—and this is probably my favorite thing—Ruth has the all-time favorite wedding passage. Even though I have yet to officiate at the marriage of a woman and her mother-in-law.
Let’s review the story. Naomi and Elimelech are Hebrews who live in Bethlehem. They have two sons. When their land is wracked with famine, the family decides to move east to Moab, where there is food, and life. They stay many years. During those years, the two sons grow up, and want to marry and fall in love with Moabite women, since they live in Moab, and so marry foreigners. But then disaster strikes. Elimelech dies. The two sons die. Famine strikes Moab. And the widow Naomi, who is now bereft of one husband, two sons, and any source of income, decides that there is nothing to do but for her to go back to her home in Bethelehem, where she has heard there is food, and to give her daughters-in-law permission to return to their own homes. Maybe she didn’t want to be saddled with foreign daughters-in-law; maybe she was too depressed to make a good decision. Maybe her speech is just euphemistic talk for what they know is about to happen, which is to put the old girl out on an ice floe and let her meet her Maker. We don’t really know. But it is definitely a speech whose origins are pain and devastating loss. There’s nothing like death to make you learn how to lose.
One daughter-in-law sees the wisdom in Naomi’s command. Orpah decides she has learned as much as she needs to know about how to lose. She does as Naomi commands: she returns home, to her mother’s house. The text doesn’t fault her for this. Sometimes, you’ve taken about as much as you can take. It’s time to go back and start over. That’s what Naomi is doing, after all. But Orpah is still young; she has a chance to make her life something other than one big losing streak. Let the mother-in-law and sister-in-law go. Let them find their own way, if that is what they choose. Let them figure out their own wilderness. I’m going back to your mother’s house.
The other daughter-in-law is Ruth. Ruth is not very obedient. She doesn’t do as Naomi asks; to the contrary, she argues with her. Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge;
Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.
Where you die, I will die—there I will be buried.
May the LORD do thus and so to me, and more as well,
If even death parts me from you!
Do you hear how extraordinary this statement is? Think about it. This is a covenant between two women who are as different from one another as night and day, yet who share a common identity, in that both of them are as “other”—which is to say, outside the norm—as one can imagine in this culture. But here’s the kicker. If they want to be together, they can never both be home, not at the same time, anyway. Each woman’s homeland is foreign territory for the other. So if they want to be together, they have to learn how to lose, and glean between the rows.
Naomi is old, Ruth is young. Naomi is a Hebrew, Ruth is a Moabite. One contemporary analogy for us would be to say, Naomi is an Israeli, Ruth is a Palestinian. Or Naomi is Jewish, and Ruth is Muslim. Or Naomi is straight, and Ruth is a lesbian—we could go on and on, coming up with analogies, because the point is that these two women really are coming from completely different sets of experiences. Their only connection has been through marriage, and now the men have died, the marriages are terminated, and the women are widows. Widows were widely acknowledged as the most vulnerable members of society in those days, along with orphans. To be a widow in this culture, with no recourse to any living male relative, is to be without any economic protection or security. Naomi and Ruth are living in liminal space, in every sense of that word: it is fluid, it is without shape or structure, and it is dangerous. Statistically, they have no reason to expect they will survive. It is a brief interlude between the days of judges and the days of kings, and without those structures in place, there isn’t much to hold a woman or a four-chapter book to her moorings.
Where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord do thus and so to me if even death parts me from you.
Did you notice that Ruth does not say, “Where you are at home, I will be at home”? There is no assumption of home, here; not anymore. Not when you learn how to lose. From now on, life is going to be a journey. We will be transient human beings, always moving through some wilderness. It’s either that, or return to your mother’s house, maybe eat dinner from one of your old fleshpots. You can do that, and say hello to Orpah when you do.
Did you notice, too, that Ruth doesn’t say, “If you go to Target, I’ll go to Target; if you stay overnight in Augusta, I’ll stay overnight in Augusta;” no. Ruth is saying, Wherever you choose to go, wherever you have to go, wherever you are cast out or driven to go, I will go there, too. Wherever you lodge, wherever you lay your head, whatever wilderness you have to journey through, I will go through it, too. I will go wherever you are. And I will always seek to know you where you are, from your perspective, and your location. I won’t go back to my mother’s house. I’ll stay with you, and learn with you what I need to lose.
Maybe this is a gift we can take from Ruth, for such a time as this: a time when each of us, no matter who we are, has to learn how to lose. Ruth offers us a way of reading texts with one another, and sharing stories with one another, and reorienting ourselves so as to give and receive from the other:
Where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge.
Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.
No matter where it takes us, and no matter what comes.
Because returning to our mother’s house—it’s just not an option anymore.
Time to glean between the rows.
Time to learn how to lose.
Take my hand, and let’s go.