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November 6, 2011–What Makes Success?

Contributed by Brian Hiortdahl, Chicago, IL

Warm-up Question

Who do you admire and why?

What Makes Success?

The recent death of visionary Apple, Inc. co-founder, chairman and CEO Steve Jobs has spawned a national wave of mourning and reflection, not to mention iPhone sales. Consultant Carmine Gallo has identified “seven secrets” to Jobs’ success, summarized in an article from ABC News:

  1. Do what you love no matter what it happens to be.
  2. Put a dent in the universe.
  3. Say no to 1000 things.
  4. Kick start your brain by doing something new.
  5. Sell dreams not products
  6. Create insanely great experiences
  7. Master the message.

It is natural and common for us as mortal human beings to reflect at times of death on the significance and meaning of life, whether one individual’s story or the collective experience.  Deaths of public figures enlarge the conversation, especially figures who are young and creative–who appear full of life, making their death feel like a surprise, even though we know that, ready or not, death will come at an undisclosed time for us all.   For some, the dread and certainty of death provides motivation for living life to its fullest and/or chasing after success while there is still time.


Discussion Questions

  • How do you define success?
  • Which of Jobs’ “seven secrets” most resonates with you?  Which one would you like to emulate more, and why?
  • Have you experienced the death of someone significant in your life?  How did you and others react?  What meaning did you make of their life?
  • What do you hope will be written about you after you die?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, November 6, 2011 (Twenty-First Sunday After Pentecost)

Amos 5:18-24

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

Matthew 25:1-13

(Text links are to Oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year C at Lectionary Readings.)

For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.


Gospel Reflection

The parable in this week’s gospel looks forward to a decisive ending.  Jesus changes his standard introduction “the kingdom of heaven is like…” to “then the kingdom of heaven will be like…” so that the disciples gathered around him will know that now he is talking future, not present.

The story focuses on readiness for the coming of the bridegroom, which the disciples would recognize as a symbol for God’s Messiah, the one for whose arrival Israel waited eagerly.  By presenting ten bridesmaids instead of one, Jesus shifts the focus from the community as a whole to individuals, who might (and do) prepare and respond differently.  Five bring extra oil along with their lamps, five do not.  The bridegroom is so delayed that all of them fall asleep.  A shout comes at midnight that the bridegroom is coming, so everyone scurries to light their lamps.  The five without oil ask for help from the five with oil, but all they get is bad advice:  “go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.”  In the frenzy of excitement, nobody stops to consider that the streets are dark and the dealers are probably closed, so the five “foolish” bridesmaids miss the bridegroom on their frantic wild goose chase for unavailable oil.

The first three of Steve Jobs’ seven secrets give us an interesting lens through which to look at the success or failure of our bridesmaids.  A heart (and a vision) clearly set on the bridegroom, even if not prepared with extra oil, would not settle for chasing after supplies or anything else when what it most truly wants is at hand.  And it is the wise bridesmaids, not the foolish ones, who say, “no.”  They are the ones who are ready for the “insanely great experience” of the wedding banquet, the kingdom come.

Yet this story doesn’t only teach us about ourselves, but also about the bridegroom for whom we wait and hope.  For one thing, our bridegroom doesn’t come on our terms or timetable.  Jesus is certainly taking his sweet time to return and end the human story, and most Christians in history will see death before they see Him.  With such a long wait, even the wisest of us fall asleep.  The story ends with a true warning that “you know neither the day nor the hour” (there are so many things we don’t get to know!), but it does give us a valuable clue about Jesus’ arrival.  The bridegroom comes at midnight, an hour of darkness when it is nearly impossible to see.  Two weeks from now, we will experience another story from Matthew 25 in which Jesus is hidden from view, and neither of its two groups (sheep nor goats) see him hidden in “the least of these.”  Could it be that the bridesmaids need the oil not so that they will see him, because they won’t, but so that he will see them?  (Notice how the foolish bridesmaids know the bridegroom, but he says he doesn’t know them…even though they were invited!)  Could it be that our hope is ultimately not in our hands, but in Christ’s eyes?

Discussion Questions

  •  Where, when, and how do you see Christ?  How does Christ see you?
  • Do you see other connections between Steve Jobs’ secrets for success and the behavior of the ten bridesmaids?
  • To what requests and suggestions should you say “no”?
  •  How does thinking about the fact that life and history will have an end make a difference for your life in the world right now?


Activity Suggestions

  •  Ask a signficant, trusted older adult in your life (a parent, a grandparent, etc.) to share with you about preparations they have made for their death.  Have they written a will?  Have they made arrangements for a funeral?  Who and what have they identified as important after they die, and why?
  • Write your own epitaph.  Assume that your gravestone is small, so your epitaph will have to fit in a Twitter post!

Closing Prayer

Come, Lord Jesus.  Focus us on what is most important, prepare us for your appearance, find us wherever we are, look upon us with compassion and understanding, and bring us at last into your joy.  Amen

October 13-19, 2010–Into the Wind

Contributed by Bill King, Blacksburg, VA

Warm-up Question

What challenges have you faced which required a great deal of determination to meet? 

Into the Wind

As part of its “30 in 30” series, which focuses on 30 notable sports stories from the years 1979 through 2009, ESPN recently premiered a new film about perseverance and hope, “Into the Wind.”  This documentary is about Terry Fox, who, in 1980, set out to run across Canada.  A lofty goal you might think, but not necessarily worthy of a feature story on the world’s top sports network.  What sets Terry Fox’s trek apart from stories about buff ironman tri-athletes is that three years earlier he lost his right leg to bone cancer and made his attempt using a prosthetic leg—and ultimately lemon-sized tumors in his lungs.  His run, “The Marathon of Hope,” was an effort to raise awareness and funds for cancer research.

He ran for 143 days, covering two-thirds of the distance across Canada, before the spread of his cancer forced him to stop running shortly before his death.  Most days he  ran a marathon, twelve miles in the morning and fourteen in the afternoon.  His run became a national phenomenon and was front page news for months.  Since 1981 the Terry Fox Run has been held annually and has raised over $500 million dollars for cancer research.

Discussion Questions

  • Why do you think Terry Fox’s story is so compelling?
  • What would motivate someone to take on such a punishing physical challenge?
  • What do you think kept him going in the early stages when nobody knew him or cared about his efforts?
  • What is the difference between pursuing noble goals and simply being foolish?


Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, October 17, 2010 (Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost)


Genesis 32:22-31

2 Timothy 3:14-4:5

Luke 18:1-8

(Text links are to Oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year C at Lectionary Readings.)

For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.

Gospel Reflection

A political ad playing in my area shows a woman posing pointed policy questions to a candidate.  As she becomes increasingly agitated, the camera pans out to reveal she is talking to brick wall.  The implication is clear; Candidate X has no interest whatsoever in what troubles her. 

The woman in the ad does not get any satisfaction from her candidate, but the widow in Jesus’ parable does finally break through the judge’s crooked contempt.  Though she feels like she is talking to a brick wall, she keeps flinging her words against the mortar until cracks appear in his stony apathy.  She does not win the day by superior logic and appeal to a sense of justice.  No, this is closer to the bratty child getting a candy bar at the checkout station by refusing to take “no” for an answer.  Just to shut her up the judge gives her what she wants.

So what are we to make of this parable?  On one level it is fairly clear. Luke even gives us the point as a preface:  “And he told them a parable, to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart (RSV).”  “Hang in there.  Don’t be discouraged.  Keeping praying and trusting God, even when the odds are long.”  That’s not always easy to do, but at least we understand the teaching.  But then we linger with this parable for a minute more and we begin to feel a little uncomfortable.  Is prayer then like laying siege to the heavenly castle; we get a response only by battering down divine resistance?  Does piety ultimately come down to being a pain in the divine neck? 

The disquiet arises because we are tempted to turn a parable into an allegory:  we mistakenly identify ourselves with the widow and God with the unjust judge.  But that kind of one-to-one correspondence is not what Jesus intends.  Rather this is a parable of contrast, emphasizing the difference between God and the judge.  The sense of the parable is more like, “If even a dirt bag of a crooked judge can be moved by persistence to act honorably, how much more will your loving Father, who longs to give you good things, answer when you call.  So do not despair; God’s care surrounds you, even when it feels like you are talking to a brick wall.  Lay your needs and concerns before the loving Father who longs to bless you.”

Whether we are Terry Fox, running in the cold to defy a faceless enemy, or just trying to master a new math concept, it can feel like we are confronting a brick wall.  In those moments, when we are on the edge of despair, we do well to remember that we are loved beyond measure.  The God who called us into being will not abandon us. 

Discussion Questions

  • What do you think is a “good prayer”?  Is anything off limits in prayer?
  • God knows our needs better than we do; so what is the point of prayer?
  • One writer has called prayer ‘wasting time with God.”  What do you think that means; what does it tell you about the purpose of prayer.
  • Most people, if they are honest, admit that their daily prayer life is confined to a few quick table blessings.  Why do you think we often resist praying?
  • How does our image of God affect how we pray and the content of our prayers?

Activity Suggestions

  • Hands Up/Hands Down—Prayer is like breathing; it involves alternately taking in and a giving out, asking and a receiving.  This exercise helps us get in touch with that spiritual rhythm.  Ask members of the group to sit quietly and close their eyes, slowly breathing in and out.  After a minute or so, tell people to turn their palms so that they are facing down, saying something like, “What is it that you need to let go of today?  Maybe it is anger at a friend.  Maybe it is fear about something.  Whatever it is, pretend it is in your hands and just let it fall on the ground.  Let it go.”  After some time has passed ask, “‘What is it you most need to receive from God to today?’  Turn your hands so that the palms are facing up and imagine God filling your hands with what you most need.”  Depending on your group you may want to talk about the experience or just let it be an experience of prayer.
  • As a group come up with a list of seven things or people for which you feel special concern.  Have members of the group to agree to make one of these items the focus of prayer each day in the coming week.

Closing Prayer

Loving God, it is not that you are reluctant to hear our prayers; we are often too busy or too fearful to lay our needs before you.  Guide our asking, that our petitions may reflect your hopes for creation, yet make us bold to believe you long to grant what is truly needful.  Give us patience to keep praying when the silence is deep, confident that we are heard and loved.  Amen.