Last Thursday night, the Toronto Raptors won their first-ever NBA Championship, defeating the Golden State Warriors. Canada went wild. Even parts of Alberta cheered.
This whole business of winning and losing leaves me a little confused.
Because the only thing for the Raptors can look forward to now is losing. They can’t stay on top forever. Sooner or later, some other team will de-throne them.
Like reaching the summit of Everest, the only place left to go is down.
Years ago, when I was still a wannabe writer, I took a night-school class from Raymond Hull, co-author with Lawrence J. Peter of The Peter Principle.
Hull taught that literature really had only three plots. Because his class took place long before gender-neutral language, Hull used “man” and “he” as generic descriptions. For historical accuracy, I’ll continue with his terms.
The first plot, Hull said, was “man against nature.” Hillary on Everest. Livingston in Africa. Robinson Crusoe on an island in the Pacific. Joshua Slocum, sailing alone around the world.
The protagonist doesn’t always succeed, Hull pointed out. Scott didn’t, in Antarctica. Mallory didn’t, on Everest. But somehow, even in losing, they became heroic figures.
The second plot was “man against man.” The classic conflict of good against evil, right against wrong, underdog against entrenched power. It’s the stuff of every war story, spy story, crime story, political story, and sports story.
It works, because it forces you to take sides. It hooks you in. You may prefer the eventual loser -- the Warriors, say, or the Boston Bruins -- but you still takes sides.
Hull called his third plot “man against himself.” Hamlet, struggling with his indecision; Othello, his suspicions; Juliet, her family loyalties. Hagar Shipley facing her final days in The Stone Angel. Elizabeth Bennett finding herself in Pride and Prejudice.
This plot demands the most skill to write, because it melds winning and losing. In a conflict with yourself, if you win, you also lose. And vice versa.
A fourth option
I suggested to Hull, back then, that there might be a fourth plot -- in his terms, “man against God.” In which case, I argued, the human always loses. Because God, as I understood “Him” at the time, was omnipotent, all-powerful, un-defeatable.
That’s the theme running through most of the Bible. Humans rebel against God; God always wins in the end. Sometimes the humans are individuals, like Jacob or Saul; sometimes they’re whole tribes or nations, called to account by prophets like Elijah and Amos.
Paradoxically, the rebellious humans can only win by losing. By yielding to a greater power.
But that model presumes a God “out there” somewhere. It’s harder to apply to a God who is everywhere, inside and outside, embodied in the world and in me. What, if anything, do we humans win if we defeat nature? How does the extinction of any species make us winners?
Many of Jesus’ cryptic sayings seem to address this complexity: “What do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your soul…” “The last shall be first, and the first shall be last…” “To gain your life you must lose it…”
I don’t see any simple answers.
Basketball at least gives us a score board.
Copyright © 2019 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups, and links from other blogs, welcomed; all other rights reserved.
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Last week, I cited Coventry Cathedral’s welcome to anyone, and Bob Thompson’s counter-argument that even though all persons are welcome, some attitudes are not.
Cliff Boldt responded: “Bob Thompson nailed it. I’ll share this with my pastor. I like [the idea of] who is welcome, and who needs to leave some attitudes at the door.”
“This one caught me by surprise,” Jim Henderschedt noted, but “in a good way. Usually what is unwelcome is there, but never openly expressed. Yes, the two go together.”
Bob Rollwagen thought that inclusiveness was “a very challenging concept. All are welcome to join the group hug. No one is allowed to hurt anyone. When everyone finally realizes that freedom is everyone living in a way that respects everyone else’s humanity, we will defeat poverty and save the planet.”
Ruth Buzzard opened correspondence with this: “It never occurred to me that anything would be unacceptable in the United Church, which has pioneered inclusiveness. May I forward this column to my Trump-supporting Buddhist friend who is so anti-Muslim?”
Ruth then copied me on her email exchange with her “Trump-supporting Buddhist friend”. I can’t quote from those emails, because I consider them confidential. Still, they confirm how entrenched some attitudes and mis-information can be. And they confirm, for me at least, that if you want to be friends with me -- or, figuratively, if you want to be welcome in my house -- you have to be willing to set some attitudes aside while we are together.
Although Ralph Milton and I have worked together for almost 40 years, we don’t agree on everything. He took a contrary viewpoint: “I don’t agree that we should exclude or even discourage people who have attitudes we find repugnant. How can dialogue ever happen if we exclude them?”
Anne Hatch liked the entire mailing, including the Psalm paraphrase: “The whole message was sooo relevant to me...I have been struggling with my belief system for several years now....I've needed validation of my feelings. It was comforting for me to read your column. I find so much solace in nature and never cease to be awed by its beauty and ability to recreate in surprising ways …”
The lectionary suggests reading both Psalm 42 and Psalm 43 this Sunday. Because I grow bored easily, I’m going with only Psalm 43.
1 Skeptics make fun of my beliefs;
They scorn my convictions.
"There is no God," they say.
"Why should we care about right and wrong?"
2 They laugh at me when I turn to you for guidance.
When you do not seem to answer,
they call it confirmation of their charges.
Why do you let these things happen?
3 We need a sign
as unmistakeable as a searchlight beam sweeping the darkness;
Then all can see and follow the beam to its luminous source.
4 There we will find you, Holy One.
In the white-hot arc of your presence, all doubts will burn away.
We will be ready to serve you without hesitation.
5 With heart and soul, with mind and strength, I believe;
Strip away any lingering doubts;
Help my unbelief.
I put my trust in you;
Whatever you are, you are my God.
For paraphrases of mostof the psalms used by the Revised Common Lectionary, you can order my book Everyday Psalmsfrom Wood Lake Publishing, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Ralph Milton’s latest project is a kind of Festival of Faith, a retelling of key biblical stories by skilled storytellers like Linnea Good and Donald Schmidt, designed to get people talking about their own faith experience. It’s a series of videos available on Youtube. I suggest you start with his introductory section: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7u6qRclYAa8
Ralph’s “Sing Hallelujah” -- the world’s first video hymnal -- is still available. It consists of 100 popular hymns, both new and old, on five DVDs that can be played using a standard DVD player and TV screen, for use in congregations who lack skilled musicians to play piano or organ. The original website has been closed down, but you can still order the DVD set through Wood Lake Publications, info@woodlake,com
Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTcaHe’s also relatively inexpensive!
I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom. She also has lots of beautiful photos.
Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” -- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’s readers. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom or twatsonATsentexDOTnet
ALVA WOOD’S ARCHIVE
I have acquired (don’t ask how) the complete archive of the late Alva Wood’s collection of satiric and sometimes wildly funny columns about a mythical village’s misadventures. I’ve put them on my website: http://quixotic.ca/Alva-Wood-Archive. You’re welcome to browse. No charge.