Sunday, February 27, 2011

Must Be Nice

Commentary on the Sabbath School Lesson for 3.5.11

I remember saying that phrase when I was a teenager and young adult.  Maybe you did too.  Somebody would tell me about something great that had happened in his (or her) life, and I’d say, “Must be nice,” with as much barely controlled jealously as I could manage.  It wasn’t until years later that I really thought about that phrase.  I’m not really sure when I realized that “must be nice” is just part of a longer thought:  “It must be nice…for you, that this good thing happened to you, but I wouldn’t know, because it hasn’t happened to me.” 

Jealousy is a terrible, terrible emotion.  It causes people to do crazy things.  It can ruin the lives of everybody it touches, both the person who is jealous and the person who is the subject of the jealousy.
If you ever saw the movie, Amadeus, you’ll remember how powerfully it illustrates the destructive power of jealousy.
 “… Salieri was the court musician in Vienna. He worked hard at his craft, writing melodies that were nice and choral pieces that were fine and instrumental works that were good. He knew that God had blessed him.
As a young man he had prayed fervently to God, ‘Let me make music that will glorify you, Father. Help me lift the hearts of people to heaven. Let me serve you through my music.’
“Then came the boy wonder, the child prodigy, young Mozart. He dazzled the crowds, playing music as if it was second nature to him. … songs that soared till they seemed to bring heaven right down to earth.
“Here's the catch: Mozart was such an obvious sinner. He was immature, vulgar, and obscene. He made off with the ladies every chance he could get. Salieri grew green with envy. How could life be so unfair. He was the servant of God. Why should Mozart be blessed with such talents? Salieri lived a pious and obedient life. Why should Mozart traffic in all these worldly pleasures and still get ahead? …
“The story continues until Mozart dies a mysterious death. Salieri's eyes gleam. And in the dramatic climax, Salieri sits in an insane asylum, where he curses God for denying him the kind of talent that blessed young Mozart. ….”[1]
At one point in the film, Salieri makes a chilling vow to destroy Mozart:
“…From now on we are enemies, you and I. Because you choose for your instrument a boastful, lustful, smutty, infantile boy and give me for my reward only the ability to recognize the incarnation; because you are unjust, unfair, unkind, I will block you. I swear it. I will hinder and harm your creature on earth. As far as I am able, I will ruin your incarnation.”[2]
Now, probably (hopefully) most of us have not experienced that depth of jealousy, but is it really any different when our noses get out of joint when someone close to us gets a promotion at work and we don’t?  We might even feel jealousy/envy toward people we don’t even know, like celebrities and movie stars…even just regular people who happen to have more money than we do.

This is true confession time.  I spent a very short time, one summer, doing data entry for the IRS.  We would take stacks of income tax returns from all over the country and type the information into the computer.  I saw hundreds of people’s taxable income (nobody I ever heard of), and realized an awful lot of people make a whole lot of money.  And as I typed, I felt myself getting very bitter, at people I had never heard of.  I also got more and more upset with God.  I’d pick up each return and find myself thinking, “must be nice.”

Thankfully, the Holy Spirit jabbed me and showed me a way to soften that hard knot that was growing in my heart.  Every time I caught myself thinking, “must be nice,” I would pray for the family represented by that tax return.  It wasn’t easy, but the Holy Spirit sat right next to me with minute by minute help.

Harboring jealous feelings is like saying to God, “You messed up.  You should have given that to me.”  Henry Nouwen describes how all that bitterness keeps us from praying.  
“You still feel jealous of the fellow who is better paid than you are, you still want revenge on someone who doesn't respect you, you are still disappointed that you've received no letter, still angry because she didn't smile when you walked by. You live through it, you live along with it as though it didn't really bother you ... until the moment that you want to pray. Then everything returns: the bitterness, the hate, the jealousy, the disappointment and the desire for revenge. But these feelings are not just there; you clutch them in your hands as if they were treasures you didn't want to part with. You sit rummaging in all that old sourness as if you couldn't do without it, as if in giving it up, you would lose your very self.”[3]
What’s the answer?  How do we let go of all the things that are destroying us?  James shares his solution:
“Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such ‘wisdom’ does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.
“But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.”  James 3:13-18
I grew up in San Antonio, so the Spurs have a special place in my heart.  David Robinson explains how he
“learned to share the limelight with … his teammate Tim Duncan. … In Sports Illustrated, Robinson reflects on what that was like for him.
“I can't overstate how important my faith has been to me as an athlete and as a person. It's helped me deal with so many things, including matters of ego and pride. For instance, I can't deny that it felt weird to see Tim standing on the podium with the Finals MVP trophy. I was thinking, Man, never have I come to the end of a tournament and not been the one holding up that trophy. It was hard.
“But I thought about the Bible story of David and Goliath. David helped King Saul win a battle, but the king wasn't happy because he had killed thousands of men while David had killed tens of thousands. So King Saul couldn't enjoy the victory because he was thinking about David's getting more credit than he was.
“I'm blessed that God has given me the ability to just enjoy the victory. So Tim killed the tens of thousands. That's great. I'm happy for him.”[4]
Hmmm … must be nice …

[1] Wayne Brouwer, "Taming the Beast," Preaching Today, Tape No. 118.
[2] Amadeus (Orion, 1984), rated PG, written by Peter Shaffer, directed by Milos Forman
[3] Henri J.M. Nouwen, Leadership, Vol. 3, no. 1.
[4] "Mission Accomplished," Sports Illustrated (7-5-99), pp.36-40

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