Winners and Losers
I was captivated by an article over breakfast this morning. It was about a kid from a small town in southern Alberta who has improbably made his way to a massive NCAA college football program. Ajou Ajou is the child of South Sudanese refugees who grew up in Brooks, a rough prairie town whose demographics have been transformed in the last two decades by virtue of a massive meat-packing plant that aggressively recruited around the world for labourers. His is, in many ways, a classic rags to riches story. A poor immigrant kid with plenty of obstacles, growing up in a strange land, whose drive and determination, and no small amount of God-given talent, have led him to the top. His future looks bright. He is, against all odds, a winner.
We love stories like this, don’t we? I certainly do. It’s incredible to contemplate the distance between a refugee camp in Africa and the doorstep of the NFL, particularly when the road runs through small town Alberta. We love to see people overcome challenges. And, even more generally, we just like winners. We like winners in sports, in business, in relationships, in personal wellness. We like to see people achieving excellence in any area of life. The self-help industry is a testament to our love of winners. Someone somewhere is always ready to provide us with ten steps to kicking that habit or transforming our marriage or climbing that ladder or getting that body we’ve always wanted. We were made to be winners and someone’s always ready to get us there!
I’ve been thinking a lot about winners and losers this Advent season. We often like to speak, in Christian circles, about the God who descends, who “comes down” at Christmas, who is somehow nearest to those on the bottom. I suspect that some of us implicitly think that all this talk about God’s joining humanity at the bottom is kind of like the charitable side of God. God is, after all, very, very big and very, very powerful and is the sovereign ruler over all that is. He’s the ultimate winner! This coming to be with us, this coming as one of the lowly ones is, we perhaps imagine, a kind of brief interlude in the life and nature of God. As if God periodically pauses from his ordinary, more God-like activities to spare a sentiment for the downtrodden before he gets back to business as usual.
But whatever else the seasons of Advent and Christmas are about, they unequivocally declare to us that this is no interlude, no temporary mode of operating for God. It is the very nature of who God is, how God loves, and what God wants. And, by implication, it says that those whose primary experience in life is of not fitting, not belonging, failing to measure up, constantly struggling and straining, and finding themselves in harm’s way—these are the ones who are, in some sense, closest to the very heart of God.
The losers and the misfits, the awkward and the rejected, the poor and the needy, the lonely, the ugly and the embarrassing, the incompetent and inconvenient. The weak, the broken, the insufficient. The ones whose primary experience in life is of being on the wrong end of the score, of being on the outside looking in, of not having enough, of being ignored and mistreated, of not being seen. The ones who don’t get any scholarships and aren’t terribly athletic. The ones who waste their talent because they never learned to care or were struggling just to keep their heads above water. These ones, the gospel of Christ impossibly says, will be first. These ones, I think, are the ones for whom passages about “good news to the poor” and “the year of the Lord’s favour” most sound like good news.
They will no longer be defined by the cruel standards of a world that doesn’t know what or how to value. They will no longer judged by what they are not or what they cannot do, or even how they have failed, but by who they are, who they were created to be. When God comes, they will be seen truly, maybe for the first time, for what and for who they are. And, perhaps most importantly, for whose they are. They will know that God is different—that God sees differently, that God values differently, that God loves differently than everything their experience has taught them about how human lives are measured.
Someone I know recently entered Alcoholics Anonymous. The first two steps demand that participants acknowledge that, a) they are powerless over that which enslaves them; and, b) only a power outside themselves can bring liberation. For anyone who has done a lot of losing in life, this is good news. Anyone who has come to the end of themselves, who has struggled with an addiction, who doesn’t know how to stop sabotaging relationships, who has run out of options in trying to help someone we love, who has tried and failed so often they’ve lost count, who has reached the end of their proverbial rope, this is the best news. God has situated himself with the losers and offered hope. He has pitched a tent in their neighbourhood. He has promised that a great levelling is in our future.
The longing of Advent and the hope of Christmas is anchored in this most basic truth. The Mighty One has done great things. The Mighty One is doing great things, even now in the dark cold of Advent. And the Mighty One will do great things. For the winners who don’t know they’re actually losers and the losers who don’t yet realize that they’re winners.