Getting an A
Eph 2:8-10 It is by grace that you have been saved, through faith--and even that is not of yourselves, but the gift of God. Nor is it a reward for anything that you have done, so nobody can claim the credit. We are God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus to do the good things God created us to do from the beginning.
There’s a teacher named Ben Zander who works with anxious, perfectionist music students at the New England Conservatory. These students believe the stakes are extremely high as they seek careers as professional musicians. Tired of his students’ chronic state of anxiety and unwillingness to take risks, Ben came up with an experiment. At the beginning of a school year, he told his musical performance course, “Each student in this class will get an A for the course. There is one requirement: in the next two weeks, write me a letter, dated next May, which begins with the words, ‘Dear Mr. Zander, I got my A because…’ and in this letter tell with as much detail as you can, the story of what will have happened to you by next May that is in line with this extraordinary grade.”
This is before the first assignment – well, this is the first assignment – and they already get an A if they can just imagine the course has ended and they have earned that A. He asked his students to put themselves in the future, as the student, musician, person they long to be, and look back on the school year to imagine how they got there. Don’t use phrases like “I hope” or “I intend,” he told them, just fall in love with the person you will be in May and declare how you became that person.
The experiment was an absolute success. One student wrote to Ben as her future self, “I got my A because I had the courage to examine my fears and I realized that they have no place in my life. I changed from someone who was scared to make a mistake in case she was noticed to someone who knows that she has a contribution to make to other people, musically and personally. I have changed from desiring inconsequentiality and anonymity to accepting the joy that comes from knowing that my music changes the world.” She hadn't even done the work yet, but the freedom of being given an A was all she needed to see the change she longed for, and then live into that change.
The experiment was a success for the students, and also for Ben. A classful of A students – that’s a teacher’s dream! Giving an A from the very beginning brought out the best in the students, and the class became a place and time of respite, risk and reward. A classful of A students encouraged one another. Without the competition of more traditional grading systems, the students came to trust one another and contribute to each other’s growth.
Getting an A from the start is grace. What fears could we release if we had the gift of getting an A? Of knowing that the one who walks alongside us through this life has given us an A, has created us and called us “good,” has delighted in the fullness of who we are? “If you knew Who walks beside you on the way that you have chosen, fear would be impossible,” wrote Helen Schulman. Maybe the One walking beside you is God. Maybe you call on the name of Jesus. Maybe the spirit of an ancestor or a guardian angel journeys with you. Maybe the One walking beside you is a living person who loves you unconditionally, truly, who loves you with absolute grace. It’s all God, we just have different ways of finding, feeling and naming God at our side. “If you know Who walks beside you on the way that you have chosen, fear is impossible.”
Paul understood that One to be God, revealed in Jesus. He wrote “It is by grace that you have been saved, through faith--and even that is not of yourselves, but the gift of God. Nor is it a reward for anything that you have done, so nobody can claim the credit. We are God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus to do the good things God created us to do from the beginning.” It’s like getting an A, from the beginning of the class, not as a reward for something we have done, but because we are Divinely created works of art. Our very nature and being get an A.
The gift of grace, of getting an A, is a paradox. Just like the students in Ben’s class, when we know we have an A we have the confidence and creativity to beam our A selves into this world. As Ben’s students imagined and put to paper the details of their own beaming – as musicians, students and people – they invited their own glory into the world.
Who or what has been the Ben in your life? Who has given you permission to see yourself as excellent? Who urges you to believe in your own worth? For many people, God is the giver of grace, the unconditional lover. The irony is that we’ve also turned God into the ultimate judge, the ruthless punisher, the One to fear. We gather here to resist dangerous and damaging theology. We gather here to cultivate the witness and wisdom of liberation and healing. As we seek to love ourselves and one another as best we can, let us celebrate a loving God who delights in our beings, who lavishes us with As, who graces us because we are worthy, not because we earn it. We are wholly beloved without lifting a finger, uttering a word, or making a choice.
This love and this grace, we read in Ephesians, is not a “reward for anything that you have done, so nobody can claim the credit. We are God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus to do the good things God created us to do from the beginning.”
And the story doesn’t end there. Just like Ben’s students joyfully do excellent, A-level work in the musical performance class, we respond to God’s grace by becoming the best of ourselves. We get grace even when we aren’t our best, but our natural response is to be what we’re expected to be, to meet our own expectations and others’ expectations of us.
Like Robert Rosenthal’s research in education shows us. He gave elementary school students an IQ test and then randomly selected a few from each class, not based on their scores, simply at random. He told their teachers that these students were on the verge of becoming gifted students—that he expected their IQs to jump ahead in the coming year. At the end of the year, they had! Students who had randomly been labeled on-the-verge-of-gifted had higher IQ increases than their classmates.
And it wasn’t a coincidence, he’s done this experiment many times and found the same result.
So just what happens in those classrooms because of Rosenthal’s predictions? There are all sorts of subtle ways that teachers change their behavior. Say Harry is one of the randomly assigned on-the-verge-of-gifted students. Harry’s teacher asks him a question about the homework, and he’s having trouble coming up with an answer. The week before the teacher would’ve just called on Sally instead to save time, but now the teacher knows that Harry is about to become gifted, and just waits awhile until Harry comes up with the answer. So Harry experiences success instead of failure, and comes to believe that he is gifted.
Kind of a bummer for the kids who didn’t get randomly selected, huh? Thank God it doesn’t work that way with grace, because we’re all selected by God, equally and fully, we receive God’s grace without doing a thing.
And the beauty is that since we are inclined to meet people’s expectations (whether they’re lofty or low) God’s great expectations for us mean that we become the best of who we are. It is because God loves us unconditionally, that we can never fail in God’s eyes, that God is always ready for us to be the best of who we can be and loves us through every step, that we have unlimited chances to grow into our best selves.
Who are you at your best? Who are you in the beaming love of God’s grace?
Let’s all consider that, for a minute, in silence.
God's grace is kind of like a trust fund - what would you do with your time if you didn’t need to work for money? Would you travel? Sit around watching movies? Walk in the woods? Maybe we’d do that sort of stuff for awhile, it sounds good to me right now as we’re wrapping up a busy season. But after some serious relaxing I believe we would itch to contribute, to give to the world around us. How many people retire and plan to just play a lot of golf, but find they’re busier than ever volunteering and spending time with the people they love?
God’s grace is more than a trust fund – it’s unlimited love, but also unlimited faith in us, and God’s faith in us inspires us to be our best.
Who is this congregation at our best? Who is God calling us to be?
Like Ben’s students, what would we say in a letter to ourselves, to the Stone Church of next May? How will we have fallen in love with Stone Church throughout the coming change? As we say goodbye to Christy with all the love and gratitude of these 18 good years, and send her off with hearty well wishes for the next chapter of her life? As you and I say goodbye to each other? As we have a whole year settling into rhythm and harmony with Dante. As we say welcome one – maybe even two – new pastors? What will have happened in our life in the next year for us to have done all this well?
Because we are so deeply loved, so fully cherished, so graciously gifted by God, we are called to say yes to the best version of ourselves, to say, yes, God, here I am.
Let us raise our voices in song, to claim God’s grace and God’s call.
Sing a morning song
Nan Merrill’s translation of Psalm 30, trimmed and one edit:
Sing praises to the Beloved,
O you saints,
and give thanks to Love's holy Name.
Love withdraws when we close our hearts,
yet ever awaits an open door.
Through the night we may weep,
yet joy comes with the morning.
In my prosperity, I had lost sight
I found power in my wealth.
In your mercy, O Beloved, my foundations
And, in recognizing my separation
I was dismayed.
And You turned my mourning into dancing;
You set me free and
clothed me with gladness.
Now my soul may praise You and not be silent.
O my Beloved, I will be grateful to You
forever and ever.
We’ll get to the joy, but first, think about the last time you wept all night.
To weep all night, that’s a deep loss. Death of immediate family. End of a marriage. Terrible lab results.
Maybe you don’t cry much – maybe you remember staying up all night talking to your spouse: a job loss or your child getting arrested, or one of you getting a terminal diagnosis, and all night you sat up talking, wondering, “what do we do now?”
Maybe you’re on your own or you’re a private person – have you spent a night reeling from a terrible loss, writing in a journal, or walking dark streets, wondering alone, “what do I do now?”
Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning, says the Psalmist. Do you think, if you can cry hard enough, you can work out all your grief in one night?
Joy comes with the morning, says the psalmist, but the sun doesn’t come up all at once, it shines first as a hint around the curve of the earth and appears to us in a pink glow and orange haze. We see the sunrise before the sun itself appears. The morning comes not with a clock’s tik or tok, but gradually.
The day is light before we can see. First gray, then yellow, then trees and houses appear. Similarly, we know hope before we can live into it. We know hope because we read it in our Psalms: You have turned my mourning into dancing, you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.
We know hope because we have suffered through all kinds of heartaches and loss, and we have healed from most of them. Knowing that hope is real helps, but until we can live in hope, it’s only as useful as the sun before it rises. A promise of joy, but we’re not feeling joy yet.
We can’t speed up the sunrise, but we can help hope become real for ourselves and one another. Just like night and day overlap in that haze of dawn, our grief and our joy overlap, when we tell the stories that break our hearts and break our hearts open. My friends whose 9-year-old daughter died of cancer many years ago tell stories about her with joy. But in the first few years after she died, talking about her was both necessary for their survival, and painful each time. Each story broke their hearts, but broke their hearts open, so they could keep the love alive, even keep her alive in their storytelling.
“Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning!” Proclaims the Psalmist. “You have turned my mourning into dancing!” Look at the words in your Bible if you’re reading along, or picture them in your mind. Joy comes with the morning. You have turned my mourning into dancing. That little letter u!
"vacation" part 4 - the end
We sulk and then comes a break in the rain. This is our moment. We pack differently this time, stacking the quail in the back so we are closer to Hannah and can access the couch and food. Now we have a wet tent in our van. So seems like we better head home. But not without some more biking!
Hannah even came with us for a few miles!
Next tiny house?
There's no one I'd rather have a lousy vacation with than you.
P.S. Saturday morning: Phillip is sick again, same deal. Hannah (who ran with us for a couple miles and hiked, too) fell in the mud this morning at home and now she's limping. Our bad luck followed us home. That thought leads to reviewing these pictures and remembering how much worse it could be!
"vacation" part 3
Thursday afternoon: We head up to Wellsboro. Rain is in the forecast, so we might as well go to the part of the PA Grand Canyon with a funky little town, in case we need rainy day activities. We get great advice from a park ranger and head into a state park, then into the state forest beyond the park, where we get to camp for free. We set up our life: toilet has a privacy tent (it's a püp tent now), put the sink together, stove's ready in a flash, bike station, and then decide to put quail in the püp for their protection from rain and predators, so in they go with all their poop.
Evening: We're loving this spot in the middle of the woods along a stream. We're parked up a crazy steep bank but can walk 1/2 mile down the trail to an easy stream access where we fill up our sink bucket and quail water and do some laundry.
Wednesday night: We got mint chocolate chip ice cream while Phillip was sick (always good to have something taste good on the way back out) but he never felt up to eating it. Campsite set up, we crawl in bed at dusk and decide we better rescue that melting ice cream from the cooler (which has kept the meat frozen quite well). We fall asleep to rain and listen to its sweet patter all through the night. When the wind picks up and it slams on the van roof fear comes without reason, just that embodied memory of things crashing into the roof...We are safe and sound.
"vacation" part 2
Tuesday morning: Phillip removes hardware and broken things from van. Quail and poop tarp air out in empty lot by motel. Search internet and make phone calls in search of van replacement parts (highest priority read window). Motel maintenance worker recommends Harry's U-Pull and Phillip finds a couple vans on their lot in West Hazleton that might have some pieces we need.
rest of Tuesday: Drive to Harry's U-Pull in West Hazleton and Phillip searches for a couple hours through one of the largest junkyards ever. He has a semi- successful haul - no window though. It's nearing dark and we're contemplating camping but gratefully stay at a friend's house in Tamaqua instead. We cook supper on the grill and the quail and Hannah love the backyard.
Wednesday morning: Enjoy Tamaqua's downtown, go to laundromat, where Phillip works on the van in the parking lot. Then he gets sick. So he goes to bed. Anna Lisa finds a barely-used bike at an excellent local bike store.
Tuesday afternoon: Phillip gets some crackers and Sprite down and we go for a walk. Tamaqua is lovely and kind.
We head for the Allentown location of Harry's U-Pull and strike out. We try to get to the Pennsburg branch, too, but realize it's impossible. So we go to Jim Thorpe to stroll. Then back to Tamaqua for Luigi's pizza and salad, which are as good as they say! Tomorrow, perhaps, we'll camp on this camping vacation?
This is what to do with bread
They walk that dusty road for hours, seven miles to Emmaus. They speak of those turbulent political times. They don’t know which side he might be on, so they remark vaguely – “did you hear about that trouble in Jerusalem?”
What small talk would you make with a stranger on a long walk? Or on an airplane?
“See the color on that lily!” “Oh, watch the swallow dive!” “What a strange tree!”
Even their small talk reminds them of Jesus.
They arrive at the house, stomachs growling. “Come in” they tell the stranger, “the day is almost over.”
They gather at the table.
She brings the bread right from the fire, the smell of flame and hot stones clings to this bread.
Their eyes follow that steaming bread, “rush this blessing” their empty stomachs grumble, and they watch him lift the bread – not their host, the head of this house – the stranger takes the bread.
He says the blessing, bread above his head, with those familiar words.
He breaks it and shares, one piece to the left, one piece to the right.
And sometime between the stomach growl and the first taste on their tongues they know he is Jesus. Their friend, their teacher, their leader, their lost one.
Why would Jesus, who loves them, who knows they are grieving and afraid, walk with them to Emmaus in secret, and then vanish as soon as they realize who he is?
I have no idea. This mysterious story highlights Jesus’ provocative nature. We read of Jesus’ tenderness in stories like the healing of the man born blind. We read of Jesus’ fierceness in stories like the overturning of tables at the Temple. We read of Jesus’ provocative nature in stories like his interruption of the killing of the woman caught in adultery, or his mysterious statement about paying taxes.
I don’t understand why Jesus’ friends don’t recognize him or why he disappears as soon as they do – but because the story unfolds this way we are directed to what Jesus does with bread.
They know who Jesus is because they know what Jesus does with bread. And even though we’ve never watched Jesus handle bread, we have some idea how to recognize him, too.
Storm (Vacation part 1)
In this van are 17 quail, our bed/couch, all the appliances: composting toilet, sink (bucket with foot pump and faucet), grill/campstove, fridge (a big cooler packed with food), even laundry (bucket with plunger). Plus Phillip, Anna Lisa & Hannah. Why are we taking these quail? Well, seems like a good way to test out living in the van for a week.
Sunday late afternoon: we get rear-ended in State College and spend a couple hours dealing with the report and then Phillip spends a couple hours repairing the hitch mount bike rack we borrowed from our neighbors. Anna Lisa’s bike is damaged. The van has new dings, we’re fine. But now it’s really late for driving another 90 minutes and setting up camp. So we have a great night with Ken Kline-Smeltzer and Hannah meets a dog she isn’t afraid of!
Monday morning: leisurely morning visiting with Ken, get Anna Lisa’s bike fixed, she goes to a meeting (in person rather than phoning in, since we’re stuck in State College) and we’re off for the Penna Grand Canyon!
We peruse the options and choose Little State Park. We find the section of sites for pets, and check in with the host. He’s sitting in a camp chair by his huge travel trailer, 3 other older guys sitting with him.
He says, “Get in before the rain.”
We say, “That’s the plan. We heard there’s a tornado watch.”
He says, “Oh, really…?” all skeptical. Well, we heard about a tornado watch for Huntingdon, and even State College. But that’s not here. We don’t quite know where we are, and we have no cell service, and only one radio station.
We choose a spot nestled under some of the tallest pines we’ve ever seen, a little wind and rain break.
We hem and haw as we pick this spot, maybe 71? Maybe 74? Well, how about 72? And then pick our view. Phillip backs the van into the long space so when we crawl back in that couch/bed we’ll gaze out on the tallest pine trees we’ve ever seen. We carry the picnic table in front of the van so we can put the quail there, sheltered from the wind by the van. Suddenly it’s pouring, so we jump back in the van to make a plan.
Gust galore. Branches pummel our roof.
“Should we go?” We watch those huge pines sway, but not a gentle sway, they are yanked from side to side.
“I’ve never seen trees do that!”
“We have to go!”
We duck under our arms like that will protect us from the trees falling. Oh!
“The picnic table!
We dash out into pouring rain and carry the picnic table to the side as a tree falls on the back of the van and destroys Anna Lisa’s bike, a window, and some brake lights.
Those huge, tall pines are falling on either side of us. This is a horror movie, but real. Phillip drives us out of the space but where is safe? We head for a parking lot by a bathroom.
We pull off our soaked clothes and cuddle Hannah who is afraid of thunderstorms. And trees falling on her. Now what? It keeps pouring. Phillip uses a tarp to block the opening the window left behind. Oh, here are pieces of that window and parts of the van in the bed/couch. Let’s not camp tonight.
We head back toward the campsites and there are trees down everywhere. The host comes by in a golf cart and says no one is injured so far. We pull branches and trees away as much as we can and Phillip drives through campsites to get us out cause the little road is blocked by trees too big to move. We see destruction all around, and nowhere as much as the campsite to our left and the campsite to our right.
It takes a few detours, but finally, in the pouring rain, we get over a mountain and fine a town and supper. Should we go a couple hours tonight and get home? Nope. Our neighbor says the road is closed with trees down, and there’s another tree down on our driveway on our power line. No power, and we can’t even get close. We’re in Lock Haven. Sleep tight.