Winners and Losers then No One Wins

I enjoy watching sports as much as the next person. It’s ingrained in our culture and certainly a part of Americana. We all want to see our teams win; yet, with a win, someone else must lose and experience the agony of defeat. It was that way Saturday evening at Camden Yards, all tied up in the bottom of the ninth, Red Sox versus Orioles. It would take an extra inning, but the Orioles, with a walk-off home run, would pull one out on one of their fiercest rivals, the Boston Red Sox. It was a thrilling win and hopefully a turning point after a rough start to a season.

As much as winning and losing in sports is a part of the fiber of our being in this country, life isn’t always that way. Yet, it has trickled over into other aspects of our lives where I must be superior over the other, come out on top, be the winner despite the fact that someone then must lose. What does that do to the relationship? Can a relationship exist when it’s about winning and losing, rather than finding ways for a ‘win-win’, understanding, and reconciliation? Where does that leave the one that ‘lost’? What does it do to my own ego, the self-proclaimed winner in the face of the agony of such defeat and who else must I defeat to build on that thinking?

On Saturday evening, the winning and losing at Camden Yards was the backdrop of a larger reality that unfolded outside the stadium. Late in the game it was announced that fans must stay put in the stadium rather than venture out onto Eutaw Street to go wherever it is they were heading. Peaceful protests, regarding the death of Freddie Gray, turned sour with people injured, property destroyed, more than thirty arrested, and a city trying to grapple with a reality that, as we do so often, has drawn a line in the sand asking the wrong question of who’s the winner and who’s the loser, who’s right and who’s wrong, within the context of the death of a young man and yet problems that are much larger and deeper than his death. That’s what we like and it’s what we want, or so says our minds and our ego. It deepens divides that already exist and we never find resolution and healing. It gives one side proof that they’re right while the other is wrong and vice versa. It makes for great news drama and the way the story is spun by different broadcasts. It fuels tension and an already deep-seeded anger and mistrust which will always find a way to makes its way out into the world, often violently against ourselves and others. We find ourselves at a stalemate. We find ourselves between a rock and hard place, so wanting to choose sides, and how easy it is to do when one man is dead on one side and the “proof in the pudding” on the other as the violence erupted on Saturday evening and continues to unfold. Who am I to side with on this; who wins and who loses? Yet, I feel helpless, trying to sit in the tension of what is happening trying to make sense and peace with all of it.

If you’re anything like me, it’s hard to put yourself in the place of Freddie Gray. His life is not my own and his reality, if stories are correct, was nothing like the reality that I grew up and the reality I live in, despite living in the city of Baltimore. First of all, I’m some white guy trying to put myself in his place, which I can’t do; but I also believe it should not be so difficult for any of us to empathize with him, considering his life was cut short, and if it were someone in my family or yours, we too would be outraged. It’s safe to say, no one deserves that type of treatment and to be stripped of his dignity, regardless of his lived reality. However, ever-so subtly, lines are drawn and speculation is presented. He was dealing drugs. He was in trouble with the law many times over. The police were just trying to be preventative. The bottom line, so it is said, he was a troublemaker. All of that, begins to cloud my vision and what I see and the person I see as Freddie Gray. I begin to make judgment, no thanks to the news. Maybe he got what was coming to him? There’s one less ‘problem’ in the city. He brought it on himself. How can I even begin to think like that?!? I begin to make winners and losers in the case. It’s hard for my mind and my own brokenness not to devolve in such unhealthy ways and to react out of judgment; it happens in an unconscious way for all of us, especially if we’re not aware of it happening, and before you know it, sides are chosen, winners are chosen and resentment and anger builds and spills out into the streets.

But I also have a hard time putting myself in the place of police officers and politicians, including the mayor. I wouldn’t want any of their jobs. I can’t even begin to imagine what the roles they play does to one person. However, like Freddie, they too are human; something we can all relate to. They face a reality everyday unlike my own with much bigger problems that I would say, just as in the life of Freddie Gray, are beyond my understanding and can be extremely complex. The city faces problems that go way beyond politics, a reality that goes beyond judgment, it just is the case. Poverty, inequality, and so on go much deeper than the color of one’s skin or their mental state. Yet, that automatic pilot within me kicks in once again. I make judgments on what I have seen. If the police can break minor traffic laws that I’ve witnessed in my neighborhood, who’s to say what else is done when I’m not or someone else is not looking? Does it automatically put an element of doubt in my mind, especially after seeing the violence on Saturday evening? Maybe the police are right? What if I were in their place and pushed to such limits at times, what would I have done? Maybe they’re just doing their job and we all just have to live with the consequences and chalk the whole thing up as a mistake? Can we then live with such a reality since it then defines how we go forward in the future? How can I even begin to think like that; and yet I do, and maybe it’s my own uneasiness of such anger and the loss of control, but can’t that be said of everyone? Have I not been outraged at injustice and hurt in my own life, burying it deep within, only to have it spill out into my own life and actions? Again, sides are chosen, winners and losers are drawn; feeling helpless becomes the lived reality.

Winners and losers are great with sports, but in real life, when there are winners and losers, we all come out as losers and no one wins. No one wins when everything is kept on the surface, judged by behaviors, and within my thinking patterns and never moving below the surface because I will always dig my heels into the ground. We so often refuse to deal with the deeper issues at hand because it forces all of us to look at ourselves, no matter whether we are police or citizen, black or white, or however else we have drawn the line and split reality, because then we all are put in a position to change our thinking and our behavior and the way we respond to issues that present themselves, responding with love, compassion, and understanding. When we can no longer see each other as the same, and I’m not always sure that’s entirely possible, but when we no longer even try to see each other as the same, violence will always erupt because sides will be chosen, my position in the community will define where I stand, winners and losers will happen, resentment will grow deep within us, and a split reality will take shape, where in the end, a win-win becomes impossible, relationship breaks down, and unfortunately, no one wins and everyone loses.

That is the true reality of where we are at in this city, lost in the midst of a great divorce, trying to pick up pieces, not speaking to one another or simply speaking past one another, questioning the truth and lost in speculation, wondering what’s next, deciding on who’s right and wrong, what side will I choose, and so on and so on; the unending conveyor belt of questions that loom in my mind, split from my heart and quite possibly, the heart of the city. Anger, bitterness, and resentment loom on this cloudy afternoon. The city, after a tumultuous weekend and now spilling over into a new week, is left with such questions engulfed in a debate of the culture within, but also an invitation into the deeper questions on identity and who the city wants to be; can it be reconciled and healed? That can only come through honest dialogue, free of judgement and legalities, through person to person, side to side, coming to a common ground, found at its core, charm city as she’s known, a winner in my books. The city, and each of us, stands at a threshold before we are too quick to choose sides, draw lines and act out of our own judgments, a few things for all of us to ponder as we try to breathe deeply these days, trying to respond with dignity, love, and compassion. Do I go back to what has been once again and a reality that has not worked and is not working, leaving all of us lost in the end or do I use the opportunity to cross over into something new, a greater lived reality where we all come out with a win and free? It’s not just a question for the mayor or the police department or any one neighborhood; rather, it’s a question we all must sit with and reflect upon if we are to confront problems and change culture, honestly and head-on, and rise above to become what we all dream this city to be, a city that has lost a lot but lives with the opportunity for some great wins in the future.

A Greater Vineyard Envisioned

Isaiah 5: 1-7; Matthew 21: 33-43

So how about those Orioles? They’re looking pretty good these days. I remember when I had moved here back in 1999 and they were on that, well, you know, little slide of losing seasons and it seemed as if it would never turn around. Heck, I remember just a few years ago they were practically giving seats away at $1 and they still couldn’t sell them! After so many years, it seemed as if we had to just settle that this is the way it is and there’s nothing we can do about it. We could complain, because we like to do that, but settle we had to do because that’s just the way it is. Then they hire a manager that wasn’t about to settle. There was something greater to strive for than losing season after season, and now, that seems all but forgotten when new life and winning seasons have become the way. There has been no more settling for less with this team even if we may continue to in our lives and world.

It seems all too often that we are willing to settle for less, often because that’s just the way it is. I wonder what it will take to turn things around. For most of us, it takes a jolt out of the way we’ve always done it and no longer settle for less. Quite frankly, we settle for malaise, for mediocrity, and death; yet, when jolted, we don’t know what to do. It takes death, sickness, cancer, loss of jobs, a test of our mortality before we often turn that corner in life.

We have to believe that Isaiah knows what’s to come. Both him and Jesus use the same story of the landowner and the vineyard. Everything is going along just fine for people Israel. Isaiah tells this beautiful story as it unfolds, but the whole time he’s building a case against their own settledness. Despite all the care, the nurturing, the protection that has been given to this vineyard, it’s still produces something otherwise. We, as a people, become stuck in just coasting by and thinking everything is fine. He goes onto say, “he looked for judgment and sees bloodshed; justice but hark, the outcry.” As many go about their business settling for what is rather than seeking a greater vineyard, the poor, the oppressed, those that are perceived on the bottom only suffer greater. There is bloodshed and outcry for the poor, and yet, often falls on deaf ears. We’re content with the status quo rather than stepping into the unknown. We’re content and satisfied with the settling for something less, as long as it doesn’t impact my life all must be well.

Jesus takes it a step further as he again speaks to the elders of the people and chief priests as he did last week. He speaks of all those coming on behalf of the landowner only to be killed. They don’t want change. Again, as long as it doesn’t impact their lives and change things on their status quo, the get bigger and bigger and the oppressed get pushed further down. The landowner takes drastic means in sending his son, of course, Jesus. We could ask, “Why would he do that? After all he has seen done to the others, why would he risk the life of his son and His Son?” But haven’t we as well? How many of our sons and daughters, how many of our brothers and sisters have been put in the same situation and have lost their lives just so things don’t have to change? When is enough, enough?!? When are we going to confront the real problems of our community and world and I’m sure even our parish that will push us to change and to become the vineyard that God demands of us? We settle for bloodshed. We settle for outcry. We settle for the poor being poor and the oppressed being oppressed. Yet, in the end, so are we if we allow it.

God wants more out of us. God demands more out of us. We don’t have to sit through years of losing seasons of life. We don’t have to wait until it somehow impacts me personally before I take action in recognizing the wild grapes and the weeds that have accumulated. We don’t have to settle for less because God didn’t settle for less in sending his Son into the vineyard to show us a different way. God wants to do it for and to us today, jar us out of our own malaise and often apathetic ways towards politics, towards this city, and often in our own lives. It’s not, “just the way it is” because of anyone else but ourselves. We become stuck, which is our own sin, that God wants to free us from today. To prune us and trim the weeds, and awaken us from our deep sleep that we become comfortable with in order to become that great vineyard that Isaiah and Jesus speak of in caring for our brothers and sisters, our sons and daughters because that’s all of us and God wants the best vineyard for each of us, in our hearts, in our community, and in our world. Yes, it demands change, but that’s life. Yes, it demands a leap from the known to the unknown and a leap into trust, but we are guaranteed, by faith, that new life will flourish as we take these babysteps into the great vineyard of our Lord.