Nothing is Given?
A headline on Facebook this afternoon caught my eye. It came from one of those Christian sites that’s always hunting around in popular culture (movie stars, athletes, etc.) for any whiff of a reference to God or faith. The headline in this case was “Drew Brees Gave a Moving Interview About Faith After Breaking the All-Time Passing Record Last Night.” Brees is a quarterback who plays for the New Orleans Saints. As of Monday night, he’s also apparently the all-time leading pastor in NFL history. So, he’s a pretty big deal. The headline on Facebook was accompanied by the words, “Grab the tissues.” Against my better judgment, I clicked the link.
The interview turned out to be a 27-second clip where Brees was asked what he said to his kids after the record-setting game. And it was kind of moving, even if I had no need of tissues. It was hard not to feel some of the emotion he was obviously experiencing. He’s worked a lifetime to get to where he is. He’s small, by NFL standards, yet he’s defied the odds and become one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. You’d have to be pretty hard-hearted not to at least be a little happy for the guy.
So what did Drew Brees say to his kids? What was the comment about “faith” that was seized upon by this website?
You can accomplish anything in life if you’re willing to work for it… Nothing is given, everything is earned… God has equipped us for great works.
There’s plenty to affirm in there, right? What parent wouldn’t want their kids to embrace an ethic that says that accomplishment is tied to effort? What Christian parent wouldn’t want their kids to believe that God has gifted and equipped them for a life of contribution and flourishing? But that one line kind of sat awkwardly with me: “Nothing is given, everything is earned.” Is that really true?
It seems almost beyond question that those who ascend to the pinnacle of the sporting world are often given quite a bit, whether it’s opportunities to excel or the support of parents or expensive summer training camps or good genetics or all of the above and more. I remember talking to a fellow hockey dad on Vancouver Island a few years ago. Our sons were ten years old and while they shared the same ice at the time, he was hopeful that his would make an upper level team. They were already preparing for a $15 000/year commitment if he made the cut. My jaw just about hit the floor. Put bluntly, you had to come from a rich family (or one willing to take on significant debt) to play for this team. You have to come from money to play a great many games in this world.
Yes, there are exceptions to the rule. There are the rags to riches stories, and these are rightly celebrated. But they remain just that: exceptions to the rule. At least as often as not, excellence in sports (as in many areas of life) is the result of being given all kinds of things that other kids—kids who are grow up poor, kids with disinterested or preoccupied parents, kids who don’t have decent coaching or anyone to advocate for them—were not given. One of my son’s high school football games this year was against the team from the local reserve. I think they stopped keeping score in the second half. Was that just because the team from the reserve wasn’t willing to work as hard? How much is given and how much is earned, exactly?
Standing on national television and saying, “Nothing is given, everything is earned” might reflect the truth of the story in this or that specific case. I don’t know anything about Drew Brees’ road to the top. Perhaps he came from nothing and scratched and clawed for everything he got. But it might also be the equivalent of starting the game on third base and congratulating yourself for hitting a triple. It might, in at least as many cases where it is invoked as not, be a convenient myth and not much more.
After watching the Drew Brees interview, I clicked on the Revised Common Lectionary website to have a look at the readings I’d be working with this Sunday. The gospel reading is Mark 10:17-31, one of Jesus’ famous conversations with someone wondering what they have to do with eternal life. “Follow the commandments,” Jesus says. “I’ve done all that,” the man quickly (probably too quickly, in hindsight) replies. “Oh yeah, one more thing,” Jesus says. “Go sell everything you own and give it to the poor.” The man is, understandably, shocked. He goes away “grieving, for he had many possessions.”
I’ve often interpreted this passage in a fairly straightforward way. The man was too tied to his wealth. It’s hard to be rich and enter the kingdom of heaven, as Jesus says. And this is undoubtedly true. We who have been given much struggle mightily with reorienting ourselves according to a kingdom where last are first and first are last. We have too much to lose, after all.
But I wonder if Jesus isn’t always making a larger point about what is given and what is earned. Maybe he’s pushing back against some of our cherished assumptions about the role we have played in gaining our possessions (or our accomplishments, our reputations, our status, our _____). Maybe he’s asking us to reconfigure the borders in our mental maps around words like “gifts” and “accomplishments.” Maybe one of the reasons the man in the parable trudged sadly off was because he was fond of his possessions, certainly, but even fonder of the idea that he had earned them.
Maybe, at the end of it all, that’s the eye of the needle that we struggle so mightily to walk through, the thing that prevents us from entering the kingdom of God. The idea that we’re the ones earning what can only ever be received as a gift. .