But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.
Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him…
Just a couple of days before Katrina’s coming, I had started a book by Melissa Banks entitled, The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing. In the preface of the book there is a most unusual poem by Elizabeth Bishop entitled, One Art. The poem puzzled me and has stayed on my mind over the past month, and has in some ways helped me through this tragic time. These are a few verses from One Art:
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is not disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! My last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went…
The art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
In some ways, this is what the book was about: lost youth, lost innocence, lost boyfriends, lost relationships, her battle with breast cancer, all that she lost in the course of a lifetime, and yet, all that she found in the process of losing. It is a bitter, sweet, and funny book, a gentle reminder that life is a long process of losing and finding, and that to be truly alive one must master this art of losing. Letting go. Not going through life with clenched white knuckles, clinging to what has been. But open, empty handed, reaching out to that new thing that God is doing in our midst.
In one chapter she mentioned something that only members of my generation might recall from high school: the “loser sign” we used to make by forming a “L” with thumb and forefinger, the “loser sign” that we would flash if we thought somebody fit that lowly category. And, if they were exceptionally lower than low, there was always the “blinking loser sign”—thumb and forefinger repeatedly touching. I had not thought of the blinking loser sign in a long, long time. I had never thought of it in conjunction with myself. Until now. How easy it is to feel like such a loser these days. After Katrina, after all that has been lost of our city, our church, sanctuary, our steeple, our neighborhoods, our schools, our semesters, our homes, our mental health, our peace of mind, such blinking losers. And then came Rita. The one-two punch. What did we do to deserve that? As a friend of mine who lives in New Jersey, in a recent email said, “Poor, poor Louisiana.” In fact, I heard a radio announcer make the comment that the rest of the country already thinks of Louisiana as—and he said carefully—“the hind quarters of the nation.” It certainly feels that way these days. That’s what happens when all the things that give a person a sense of status, success, and security in our society have been stripped away. Losers. Blinking losers.
But the Bible tells us there is a place for losers that is very near to the heart of God—a special place. That ours is a God who cares especially not for the biggest, best, and brightest in the world, but for the least, the last, the lost, the littlest, the losers of the world. Aren’t they the ones whom Jesus seemed to prefer to hang out with? And isn’t this what he meant when he said, “Blessed are the poor, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who mourn, blessed are the reviled”? Is this not what Paul meant when he said, “When I am weak, then I am strong”? For never are we more truly aware of our utter and complete dependence upon the Maker and Giver of Life, than when we have been stripped of all the things that in our society give us a sense of status, success, security.
Isn’t this something of what Paul is talking about in this passage of scripture? Remember, he is in prison writing these words. He has been stripped of all those things that are things, and he is remembering all that which had once given him so much pride and self-confidence: his ancestry, his genealogy, his pedigree, his law degree, his unimpeachable morality, his flawless religiosity, his reputation, his rank, his eminence among the Pharisees. All that was lost, gone forever. He had been pitched from the peak of his profession to a prison in Rome.
But something had happened to Paul that made all of that seem to him to be garbage: “Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ.” The Revised Standard Version says refuse. But the Greek means literally excrement. A truer translation would say something I can’t say in church: it’s all manure, Paul is saying, compared to what I have found in Christ Jesus, the unconditional love I have experienced, the abiding peace I have known, the eternal truth I have discovered, the incomparable hope that I now have, the surpassing worth of knowing him, loving him, being loved by him. It was nothing he could park in his garage or deposit in a bank or hang in his closet. It was a complete reversal of all his previous values. But because of that, his “loss was not a disaster.” For in letting go of the past, he was able to reach out for all that was yet to be. Letting go. The art of losing.
That’s what the Lord’s Supper–this broken bread, this poured cup: the art of losing. On the last night of his life, on the verge of losing everything, with one last chance to tell his followers what this life is truly all about, he told this final parable, using visible, tangible symbols they would never forget. He said, “See this bread? Think of it as me, my life. I do not think of my life as something to cling to, but rather to break open and to share.” And then he did it: he took the bread and broke it open and shared it. Then he said, “You see this wine? Think of this as me, my life. I do not think of my life as something to cling to, to preserve, to possess, to keep, but rather as something to pour out for others.” And then he did it. He poured out the wine to share with them, as if to say, this is what it means to be truly alive: it’s not to be found in the clinging, but in the letting go. And then he said something more: “I want you to do this for one another–what I have done for you. You are to break open and pour out your lives for one another. You are to love one another as I have loved you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
That’s exactly what Paul was doing: “One thing I do,” he said, “forgetting what lies behind and reaching out for what lies ahead…” This, my friends, is the art of losing, this way of loving, living, giving. This is the way that leads to to “the life which is life indeed.”