“And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How difficult it will be for those who are rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:23)
A comment someone made about their football team recently caught my attention. “I’m so used to my team winning that I don’t really enjoy the victories. The idea of losing is horrible but it’s like winning all the time has taken a little of the fun out of it. I’ve just come to expect it.”
That comment hit home in a real way and I realize I’ve been struggling with something here at St. John’s. Things have been going so well for so long that I’ve not only come to expect it but I think I’ve become ungrateful. When I meet with other rectors, I hear of various problems they face. When I visit other parishes, I see that very few places can offer what we have. But when I’m at St. John’s, I just expect things to be perfect.
As I have taken various personality tests over the years, I’ve discovered a pretty constant theme. I’m wired to see possibilities. I’m always imagining how things could be a little better. Those tests also suggest that such is a good leadership characteristic. Systems need to be led forward into what they could be. That’s the upside of how I’m wired. But those tests also indicate a downside. They all suggest that I have a hard time appreciating what is. That makes sense. If I am always imagining how things could be better, I’m thinking that what is isn’t good enough. One parishioner who is no longer living used to tell me, “With you, Robert, it’s always more, more, more.” He actually meant that as a compliment but I’m afraid I’m so used to winning that I’m not enjoying the victories as much as I should. I’ve developed a spirit of entitlement. I’ve become ungrateful.
I also wonder if that might be going on with the parish as a whole. Maybe we all have become so accustomed to things going well that we’re not as appreciative as we could be. Frankly, I like it that our parish expects things to go well. I don’t want to lose that. But I’m beginning to see that, while I am here to keep leading us in improvements, I need to develop more appreciation for how good things are. Maybe we all do.
One of our volunteer receptionists who works on Tuesday mornings has told me several times that I need to smile. Tuesday mornings at St. John’s are crunch times. That’s when we have all our staff meetings. That’s when all that we publish in our newsletter has to be turned in. It’s hectic and crowded and I get caught up in all that. I’ve fallen into a pattern of always looking ahead which often results in overlooking the present. That’s a pretty good definition of being ungrateful.
When things are going well in life, we tend to take things for granted. When we’re healthy we rarely pause to appreciate good health. When we’ve got enough resources to handle things pretty easily as they arise, we seem to slide into thinking that this is the way life is supposed to be, at least for us. We look at those who have less and think that, if they worked harder, their life wouldn’t be so difficult. We tend to think that the “good” things in life are due to our efforts. When Jesus talks about being rich making it hard to enter the kingdom, I think he means things like this. When we’ve got enough and all is well, we tend to think we don’t really need God for anything. Most spiritual crises arise, not out of times when things are going bad, but when life is going good. We get wrapped up in all our stuff and push God to the side. Everybody hates a spoiled brat but if children have a lot of good stuff, it’s pretty hard not to be one. Parents have to work really hard to teach the art of appreciation.
For the next few weeks, in this setting, I am going to practice gratitude. I am going to name some of the things about St. John’s that I love, things that I have come to expect to be so perfect that I have almost stopped noticing. I want to remind myself, and you, of the remarkable things in our common life as a parish. I hope it will inspire you to develop your own list of things that you are grateful for here at St. John’s and in your life in general. If you’ve just come to expect things to be perfect, you’re ungrateful and not appreciating the joys of life.
Practice gratitude. Be aware of how things need to be better. But practice gratitude for how good life really is. Smile a little more. All that we have is a gift from God.
Robert C. Wisnewski, Jr.