Sunday, July 8, 2018

Is it Time to Cut your Losses and Move on?

My old high school building is no more.  The city of Akron tore it down several years ago and rebuilt it.  A group of us got to take a tour of the new facilities the day before our class reunion.  The main entrance is a three-story atrium and contains an alumni Hall of Fame – about a dozen or so graduates who went on to do notable things, such as becoming rock stars, Olympic champions, an astronaut, a TV star, a Blue Angel pilot, a concert pianist, and a world renowned expert in microbiology.  Generally speaking, we Americans are proud of our local kids who make good.  If you drive into most any small town in our country, chances are good you will see a sign reading something like, “Welcome to Walton, the childhood home of the inventor of the Slinky.”     

Today’s reading makes it abundantly clear there will be no sign reading, “Welcome to Nazareth, the hometown of Jesus the Messiah.”  The people who watch Jesus grow up have heard about his recent exploits in other parts of the region and are not impressed.  When he teaches in his hometown synagogue those who hear him are “astounded” and take “offense.”  “Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary?” – because it does not mention the name of his father, this question indicates the locals believe Jesus to be illegitimate.  That they refer to him as “the carpenter” suggests they want him to remember his role and station in life.  Apparently the Senior Class did not vote him Most Likely to become the Savior of the World.

As a result, the person who has been so effective in his teaching and healing in other places is rendered largely ineffectual in the town where he grows up.  Jesus is stunned in the face of their unbelief.  It has to be one of the real low points in Jesus’ ministry.  And it reminds us how there is a dynamic relationship between the setting and a person’s ability to function at a high level.

Think about the pitcher who wins twenty games, signs a huge contract with another team, and then can barely keep a .500 record.  Or think about the actress who stars in a blockbuster movie with one director only to bomb in another with a different one.  I have known countless clergy who struggle in one parish and then move on to another where their ministry thrives.  Productivity and the lack there of is tied to setting.  Even Jesus cannot rise above the unbelief of those around him.

But here is what he can do and here is what he does:  he moves on.  He has too much respect for himself and what he is doing to accept the way he is being treated.   He determines his mission is too critical, too important, and too necessary to waste even one single second in a place not open to it or to him.  So, as I say, he moves on. 

It is easy to say, but usually not easy to do.  Economists talk about something called “sunk costs” and how they play an important psychological role in our aversion to letting go of something no longer working, be it a business project, a relationship, or an endeavor in the community.  Sunk costs include the time and energy and emotional resources you have invested in the thing you are struggling to let go of.  They are what you have given that will be lost if you walk away.  

Jesus has thirty years invested in his relationships with his hometown people.  That is a lot of sunken cost.  Still, he knows enough to know when he has had enough.  He knows enough to know there is no point investing another word or action in Nazareth.  He knows enough to know opportunities abound elsewhere, new life awaits, and a greater purpose is on the horizon.

In fact, the possibilities are so great Jesus cannot possibly tend to them alone.  He sends out his followers with instructions to travel light, to invest themselves in those who welcome them and their mission, and to move on quickly when they are not wanted.

If you Google the question “when it is time to cut your losses and move on” you will be led to manifold websites telling you the 5, 7, 9, or 12 signs it is time to move on from a project, a job, a friendship, or a marriage.  Here is a sampling:

When your priorities change and you need to shift your focus on other things, QUIT.

When it no longer brings you happiness, why prolong the agony?  QUIT.

When your current job doesn’t offer you any more growth opportunities and you dread every minute of it, QUIT.

When you are dirt poor because you’ve invested all of your life savings and [are] deep in debt trying to bring your business back to life, QUIT.

When you think you’ve reached the dead-end of your relationship, QUIT.

When you believe you have done everything humanly possible and have exhausted all of your efforts in trying to make something work, QUIT.

I like how these statements recognize and affirm there comes a time when it is time to move on.  Still, the formula for making this determination is far from straightforward.  In fact, often times it is agonizing.  We have been raised in a culture telling us winners never quit and quitters never win.  As John Rector pointed out to me, the reason the cleaning product is called Formula 409 is because the first 408 formulas didn’t work.  We have been raised in a faith tradition promoting the ideal of “until death do us part.”  We people of faith sense a moral imperative to love unconditionally and infinitely, as we hope and pray God loves us.  As a result, most of us – if we are healthy and stable people – are not wired to quit, to walk away, and to move on.

Here is a question to ponder:  What in life is giving you energy and what in life is draining you?  Perhaps you will recognize some of the most draining things once were sources of great energy, but everything runs its course.  If Jesus asked himself this question, his answer might be “I am energized by going from town to town preaching and teaching about the Kingdom of God and I am drained when I go back to my hometown and experience their unbelief.”  What is giving you energy?  What is draining you?  When something does nothing but drain you, perhaps this is a clear sign you need to engage some real discernment.  

In talking with several of you about cutting your losses I have come to learn we have all been there, we have all found the discernment process to be extremely difficult, and self-doubt still can linger even as new life emerges.  I wonder how many times after today’s reading Jesus contemplates going back to Nazareth and giving it another go.

The decision to cut your losses and move on should never be made in isolation.  It is not a brash, knee-jerk reaction to resistance or something you don’t like, but a fundamental question of your personal value, self-respect, and your sense of calling and purpose.  If you are going to move on from all the resources you have sunk into something, you want to do it prayerfully and thoughtfully.  You had better have a good reason for why you are letting go and at least a passionate hope for what might be ahead.  

You will need the thoughts and feedback of someone who is close, wise, and trustworthy – a spouse, a friend, a colleague, a therapist, a spiritual advisor.  You will need a person who can affirm the difficulty of the moment, and can reassure you of your competence, your goodness, your dignity and worth, and God’s promise of a better day to come.  You need a person who can say, “It is OK to shake off the dust on your shoes.  God will give you what you need and I will walk with you to the place where your will be welcomed, embraced, and affirmed.”

Here is my final thought: Life is not for sissies.  For most of us it is a challenge much of the time.  The good news is twofold.  First, God is with us.  What more can we ask for?  Second, God seems to delight in working through those near to us.  We are here for one another and together we will make it.