The Best Worst Thing

This Sunday we explore the monthly spiritual theme of "Story." Rev. Peter and Worship Associate John Davies reflect on the "plot twists" of our own personal stories by considering "the worst best things" that have happened in their own lives, and by inviting you to consider times in your life when something that appeared to be terrible actually turned out to be positive. 

Reading: Alyssa Monks:  Summary of Ted Talk - IndianaUniversity - November 2015

Here’s what I learned.
We’re all going to have big losses in our lives.
Maybe a job or a career, relationships, love, our youth.
We’re going to lose our health, people we love.
These kinds of losses are out of our control.
They’re unpredictable, and they bring us to our knees.
And so I say: Let them.
Fall to your knees. Be humbled. Let go of trying to change it
or even wanting it to be different.
It just is.

And then there’s space.
And in that space, feel your vulnerability,
what matters most to you, your deepest intention.
And be curious to connect to what and who is really here,
awake and alive. It’s what we all want.
Take the opportunity to find something beautiful
in the unknown, in the unpredictable, and
even in the awful.

The complete transcript can be read or the video watched by clicking here.

Sermon - "The Best Worst Thing"

I want to begin this morning by offering up a long-overdue expression of gratitude to Ned Gordon. You don’t know Ned, nor should you have any reason to. But Ned Gordon is perhaps the one person who is most responsible for getting me into the ministry. This is not to belittle all the support and encouragement I received from so many others along the way, most importantly my wife Irene, but what happened between Ned and I set me on the path that led me to where I am today.  Here’s the story:

Back in the late ‘90’s, I was working for a supermarket company in their development department. It was my job to find possible locations for expansion, sites where we could build new supermarkets. I also had to negotiate the terms under which the company could either buy or lease the land where the new store would be built. It was fairly common for outside developers to bring us potential locations and to try and court a supermarket to their development sites, since supermarkets are considered “anchors” for any shopping center. They’re a draw for other stores.

Ned Gordon was – and probably still is – one of those developers. The company had done business with Ned in the past, so when he came to us with a new property to consider, we took a good long look at it. And we decided that it would fit in well with our other locations. So I was authorized to go ahead and negotiate the terms by which we could buy the land from Ned and his company. Now, I don’t want to go into too much detail about how this all works, but it’s important that you know that when you make a deal like this, it’s not like buying a house. You don’t just say “Here’s the price, we’ll pay it in 90 days as long as the roof doesn’t leak.” Because it takes a long time to get permission from the local authorities to build a new supermarket or shopping center. So, what you do is you make an agreement with the developer that says you’ll buy the property IF you get approval to build. In the business, it’s called an “Option to Purchase.” Most options require you to pay the developer a fee – sometimes it’s monthly, other times it’s quarterly or semi-annually – to keep the property off the market while you’re working to get the permits you need to build. This is what I negotiated with Ned. We had an option to buy the land, pending receipt of the permits.

Permitting for a supermarket can take a long time. It can take years, and permitting for this site was no different. In fact, it took a lot longer than anyone expected it to, so Ned and I had to extend the option several times. As you might guess, working with someone over the course of a couple of years, you develop a relationship of sorts. And Ned and I did. We had kids who were about the same age. We liked the same kind of music. Ned and I would talk and sometimes meet socially when I was in his neck of the woods, even when we didn’t need to discuss business. We went to see U2 together at the Boston Garden. We weren’t best buddies, but we got along well.

So, the permitting process dragged on and on. And, one day, I realized that the expiration date for the option had passed, and we hadn’t agreed to extend it. But since Ned and I had been working together for so long, and we were friends as well as business associates, I figured I could fix this with a phone call. Well, suffice it to say, I was wrong. When Ned saw that the option had expired, and he now was the owner of a piece of land that was almost fully permitted for a supermarket, he seized the opportunity this presented. “We need to renegotiate the terms,” he told me. He wanted a lot more money for the land, and he now held all the cards. I was stunned. And I was mad. And I was afraid. I was the one who was supposed to keep track of the dates and the terms and make sure this exact thing never happened. My employer was deep into this project, having invested more than half a million dollars already. And now Ned had us over a barrel.

To keep a long story from going on longer, the bottom line is that my boss took over the deal. He negotiated new terms with Ned that cost the company a lot more than the deal I had made. And I was fired from my job for my mistake. On a purely practical level, with a kid in college and another headed there soon, getting fired was just about the worst thing that could happen. On an emotional level, it was devastating. Peter Friedrichs doesn’t make mistakes, much less monumental ones like this. Peter doesn’t fail. Peter doesn’t put his reputation and livelihood at stake. This was an emotional and spiritual crisis of the highest order. And it was just what I needed. And this “worst” thing turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to me. Because it – together with a host of other things – led me to ministry and it led me to be here with you.

The reason it turned from the worst thing to the best is that it forced me to figure out why I’d been miserable in my work life for nearly 20 years. Ned’s betrayal of our relationship – which was perfectly appropriate and even desirable in our capitalist business system – was what it took for me to see that I am basically a trusting person. It showed me that I truly was a fish out of water. Because in law and in business, we’re taught we cannot trust the person on the other side of the table. We’re taught to believe that they’ll screw you at the earliest opportunity. And we’re taught that guarding against that possibility is our top priority. I had forgotten that lesson with Ned. When Ned took advantage of my mistake, I finally realized that I needed to find a career where trust was held as the highest value, not the lowest, and where I could allow my heart to be opened without fear of it getting stomped on. Had Ned not done what he did, I might never have learned this lesson and discovered that ministry was my true calling.

So, why have I shared this part of my own story with you today, in all its gory detail? In part, because it’s not a part of the story that I’ve shared before. It’s hard for me to admit, even fifteen years later, that I bungled things so badly and that I was fired from my job. But if any of us are going to really be in relationship, we’ve got to share our stories with each other, even the hard ones. We’ve got to be willing to risk exposing ourselves to each other. To be vulnerable and to trust each other with our stories and our hearts. So I guess  by telling you this part of my story, I’m hoping that you’ll be encouraged to share your stories with me, and with others here in the church. While it’s never possible to know each other’s full and complete story (because, after all, we always edit, don’t we? Even when we tell ourselves our own story.), sharing our stories with each other is a way to discover shared experiences and common ground. Even on the most basic level – “You grew up in Chicago? So did I!” – until we’re ready to start sharing our stories we’re basically just talking about the weather, skipping across the surface of our relationships. So by offering up this chapter in my life, I’m encouraging you to find ways to share chapters of yours.

But more than that, I have to admit that I’m intrigued by this idea of “the best worst thing.” (I suppose there’s also a “worst best thing,” but that’s another story.) I think about “the best worst thing” as those times when something which seems on its face to be horrible – possibly the very worst thing that could be – actually turns out to be a great gift. You heard it in our story today, which is an updated version of the story of the farmer who loses his horse, whose son falls and breaks his leg, etc. In each case of catastrophe, the neighbors react like the sky is going to fall in, while the farmer takes a more “wait and see” attitude. We admire the farmer for his ability to be calm and to take the long view. I don’t know, but perhaps with the election looming in three days I’m trying to take refuge in the idea of a “best worst thing” just in case the unthinkable happens. I hope this “worst thing” doesn’t come to pass, but on Wednesday morning we may find ourselves needing to pray very hard that that “worst thing,” in the long run, turns out not to be the disaster it would appear on its face. But let’s all try and avoid that by going out and voting on Tuesday.

Now, getting back to the more personal level… When a “worst” thing happens, I’m not advocating that we, like the proverbial farmer, simply wait around and do nothing but hope that, somehow, it will turn out to be a best thing. When a tidal wave strikes, we need to right the boat. When catastrophe arrives, as it often does in our lives, we need to respond. There’s an old piece of wisdom that tells us that the Chinese character for “Crisis” is made up of two other characters: “Danger” and “Opportunity.” Experts have long ago demonstrated that this isn’t, in fact, true. But that doesn’t dispel the truth of the underlying assertion. There is often both danger and opportunity in crisis, regardless of what the Chinese writing looks like. The question is this: When the worst thing happens, how do we respond? Or, perhaps the better question is: From what place within us do we respond? Do we drink from the well of danger or the well of opportunity?

One of the factors that determines our answer to this question is how we view the story of our lives. Do we see our lives as stories that are written by another author? Or are we the agents of author-ity? There’s no doubt that at times in our lives we’re not in charge of the narrative. When we’re young, and dependent on others, we aren’t the primary authors of our lives. The blank page of our personalities is filled in by our parents, our teachers, and others who try to help guide us. But at some point we’ve got to take the pen out of their hands and claim our story as our own. This transition isn’t easy, and for some of us it seems nearly impossible. But if we don’t claim our own authority- our right to be the authors of our own story – we’ll forever be the reactive victim of circumstance. The anxious neighbor of that farmer, who sees catastrophe and danger at each turn of circumstance.

The other big piece of whether we respond to crisis more like the neighbor or more like the farmer is a question of faith. I can’t pose that question any better than this: Do we believe that the universe is so ordered to support our highest hopes and aspirations? For me, it’s not about whether there’s a God up in heaven who is pulling the strings. I believe what my daughter’s t-shirt says: “God isn’t interested in your math test.” But what do we believe about the nature of our existence? Are we just a jumble of randomly-associated atoms bouncing off each other, without rhyme or reason? Or is there a purpose to our existence that, perhaps, we’re meant to explore and hopefully discover and pursue? I choose to place my faith in the latter. Which means that I see all of us not simply as the authors of our own story, working in a vacuum, but as a co-creators working collaboratively with everyone and everything around us. The elements of the narrative are available to us all, but it’s up to each of us to pull them together into a coherent, meaningful, and fulfilling story.

The best worst thing isn’t about making lemonade when life hands you lemons. It’s about challenging us to take the long view. It’s about claiming our own agency and authority. Not all worst things can be transformed into best things. Unfortunately, life doesn’t work that way. But if we trust that there is, deep down, an underlying coherence and meaning to our lives, we might write a new and fulfilling chapter and find it surprisingly satisfying . Even if it’s buried beneath a pile of rubble that we’ve got to dig ourselves out of. 

This day, and every day, I wish you peace. Amen.