We are about life, not the other way around

“By the River”, painting and frame by Lois O’Brien
sermon audio “We are about life, not the other way around” by Martin Malina

The NHL season began this past week. And the Ottawa Senators hope not to repeat last year’s start, which saw them losing all but two of their first fifteen games. Even though they ended the regular season last Spring one of the hottest teams in the league—winning ten of their last fifteen games—they still didn’t have enough points to make it into the Stanley Cup playoffs.

They say teams can lose the Stanley Cup in the first month of the season, meaning those first few games are crucial to the team’s prospect of making the playoffs. So, there’s a lot riding on each game, especially early on.

Yet the opposite is also very true: You can’t win the Stanley Cup in the first few games of the season either. Many teams have to build resiliency and overcome adversity on the road to ultimate success. And that means losing some games and surviving those slumps which inevitably come to all successful teams at some point in the season.

In other words, accepting our limits and checking our ambitions is very much integral to the overall arc of one’s life. Not just for professional sports teams.

In the Gospel text for today,[1] James and John go for it. To run this race, they are out of the starting blocks at full gallop. Believing they need to compete on the ladder of success with the other disciples, believing they need to vy for a privileged seat in some hierarchy of God’s reign, believing they’ll get ahead only by denying the other disciples this privilege—they demand from Jesus “to do for us whatever we ask of you …grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”

No wonder the other disciples were angry with James and John.

I was being opportunistic. I knew the market was hot for used canoes. So I went for it. I sold my favourite canoe for a good price. With the money from the sale I decided to buy a new kayak. They would have to build one because – you guessed it – there were none in stock. That was July 1st.

Originally they said it would take two months until I could pick it up. Ok. In September I could still get out on the water several times. In retrospect, I could have been out on the water every day this past week with the warm, summer-like temperatures we have enjoyed to date.

But in mid-August I received a letter from the owner of the canoe company apologizing and advising that my kayak’s production was running behind schedule about six-weeks. There was now very little if any chance I would be in the water in my new kayak before winter. I would likely have to wait until Spring to enjoy my new toy.

My ambition ran into a brick wall. What started out as a great plan to maximize my enjoyment of paddling, and take advantage of the resources at my disposal, ended in disappointment, you could say. I’d have to gain some perspective to keep from slipping into regret and ingratitude.

Gus, the main character in David James Duncan’s bestselling novel, The River Why, reflects on his passion and calling to be on the river and to be the best fly-fisher he could be. As you get to know this character, you very quickly realize how much his life is defined and motivated by fishing and spending time on the river.

But he soon also realizes that immersing himself fully into his passion without boundaries and without limits, and pursuing his ambition unchecked, was actually driving him mad. He had to find balance in his life. He had to find other activities and build relationships with neighbours. He had to take care of himself.

Gus muses, “The once-monthly fisherman adores his rare day on the river, imagining that ten times the trips would yield ten times the pleasure. But … I learned that not fishing is crucial to the enjoyment of fishing: fishing is a good thing, but too much of a good thing is a bad thing.”[2]

Jesus turns the tables on James and John. They expected that their ambition would be rewarded. Well, it often is in the world of purusing self-gratification, what’s-in-it-for-me lifestyles and me-first relationships. Indeed we are often rewarded by a world that values going-for-it, and looking-out-for-oneself and one’s-own, a world motivated by uninhibited, individual ambitions.

Jesus suggests another strategy, one that realizes peace and contentment through acknowledging one’s limits, a lifestyle that finds meaning and purpose by respecting one’s place in the larger scheme of things.

When Jesus talks about giving his life, what he means is that we are part of a much bigger whole. Jesus asserts not just by his words but by what he does that “life is not about us, but we are about life.” 

We are not our own. We are an instance of something much bigger than us. Life is living itself in us. This thinking is revolutionary to our brains which have been trained to believe otherwise. As Richard Rohr confesses, Jesus’ message is “an earthquake in the brain, a hurricane in the heart.”[3]

As it was, and as I waited, I still got out on the water a handful of times this summer in our other, older fifteen-footer canoe and by borrowing demo models at lakeside outfitters in Algonquin Park.  Paddling on the water a couple of times was pure joy. And enough. 

I learned that regardless of how many times I’m on the water doesn’t gaurantee a ‘perfect’ experience every time: bad weather, faulty gear, unexpected high winds. So, I discovered that not paddling is crucial to the enjoyment of paddling: paddling is a good thing, but too much of a good thing can also be a bad thing.

In the want, in the suffering, in embracing the lack of things, we learn to live in the moment, a moment still infused by God’s grace. We learn to pay attention, even in the want, to what God is bringing to you this very day, and at this very moment. Even amidst the pain, we more readily bind our hearts with others and look beyond our present circumstances.

One of the main turning points in The River Why happens when Gus, a miserable and unhealthy man, begins to emerge from his self-consumed life. He decides to meet his neighbours living along the river. 

And that is when his life changes for the better.


[1] Mark 10:35-45

[2] David James Duncan, The River Why (New York: Back Bay Books, 2016), p.75-76

[3] “Your Life Is Not About You” Reality Initiating Us: Part One  (Daily Meditations, www.cac.org, 1 April 2020)

True thanksgiving

Oxtongue Lake, Algonquin Highlands, 24 Sept 2021, photo by Martin Malina
“True Thanksgiving” audio sermon by Martin Malina

“Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? … Look at the birds of the air …

Are you not of more value than they?” 

(Jesus, Matthew 6:25-26) 

This text is the Gospel assigned for Thanksgiving Day.[1] What I find curious is that on Thanksgiving we give thanks, normally, for the material things we have – shelter, food, and the abundance of physical blessings …

And I don’t hear Jesus saying that food and clothing are unimportant to people of faith. Jesus isn’t downplaying our material world. Jesus isn’t saying we should not pay attention to the ‘stuff’ of this world. 

Yet, Jesus seems to be saying more, here. That true thanksgiving goes beyond being grateful for what we have; that true thanksgiving is celebrating who we are: Look at the birds of the air … Are you not of more value than they?” 

In this text, Jesus draws attention to our hearts and seeks to build us up as beloved children of God, created in God’s very own image. We have, if anything, value in who we are and the faith we express “genuinely”; who we are is “more precious than gold.”[2]

I was reading about one of the quietest rooms on earth at Orfield Labs in Minneapolis. Originally these ‘dead rooms’ were built in the Second World War to test communications systems. Basically, you step into one of these rooms and it’s much more, or less literally, than getting a bit of peace and quiet away from a hectic, noisy day in the city.

A typical room you sleep in at night that is quiet measures about 30 decibels. Even when we perceive it to be quiet, there is still sound bouncing off walls and surfaces around us. But the ‘dead room’ in Minneapolis measures at negative (-) 9 decibels. In this room there is absolutely no echo as the walls of the chamber absorb any and all sound. The effect on a human being is startling, to say the least.

The longest anyone has ever lasted in this room is 45 minutes. All you will hear inside this room are your organs—your heart beating, air and blood rushing through your system. After about 30 minutes of only hearing your body normally functioning and nothing else, you will begin to hallucinate. The negative silence can drive you, literally, crazy.

When you remove any external source of sound, and only hear what’s coming from within you, it’s too much for us to handle. It’s like we cannot bear for long facing, confronting and dealing with what comes from inside of us when there is nothing coming at us from without.

It’s like at best we feel uncomfortable facing ourselves; at worst, we only see bad things inside of us—our sin. At worst, we would do harm by the negative and judgemental words we tell ourselves, and the habits we fall into that are often unhealthy. If it’s only about what’s inside of us would God take delight in us?

Living in a world where so much of who we are is defined and determined by our external circumstances presents a real challenge to our faith. Jesus knows this. If there is anything in the New Testament about which Jesus speaks harshly, or dualistically (either-or), it’s about money. “You cannot serve both God and wealth; you cannot serve two masters,” Jesus says in the verse immediately preceding the Gospel text for today. 

Jesus speaks absolutely about money because he knows what we are going to do. He already knows our natural inclination to place most of our worth and value on those external things. He already knows that we are primarily motivated by counting, weighing, measuring and deserving – these are activities whose motivation comes from outside of us. And he already knows that as long as we ally ourselves with this world of earning and losing, we’ll always be comparing, competing, envying, or climbing.[3] We will continue to be driven from without. And be continually restless and discontented. 

So, he says: 

“Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? … Look at the birds of the air …Are you not of more value than they?”

Our value, our worth, is based not on what we have, but who we are. Not on bank accounts, investments, clothes and financial portfolios. And Jesus says this not only that we would love ourselves first, but so that we would confer the same value on others. So, our love and care for others is not based on what they have earned but on who they are in God’s eyes.

So, Jesus is about re-calibrating the engine of our hearts. Contrary to the lure of material wealth, success and meritocracy, the generating motor that keeps us going in this life is inside of us, where God’s Spirit indwells. The primary engine is neither a lure or a threat from outside us. Rather, we are drawn from within, where the Spirit nudges us and strengthens us.

We are of more value than the birds of the air. God does take delight in us, as we are. We are of more value without needing to store up riches on earth. Because we know we have an inherent dignity within, a dignity shared with all human beings.

“Deep calls to deep”, the Psalmist sings.[4] Our inner source is not to be feared nor tolerated nor ignored in our externally over-stimulated lives. And if ever you find yourself twisting in the winds of material concerns and worries, just stop to listen to your heart beat. Do you hear it now? Stop to listen to the involuntary rush of air, breathing into your lungs and breathing out. Do you feel it?

Our hearts continue to beat and pump blood, faithfully, even when we don’t notice. Our lungs continue to draw air, faithfully. We don’t need quiet rooms to appreciate that. Our inner source is beloved. And it is a gift. It is at this deeper level where we find our place and our true connection with others in this world.

A cause for humble and true thanksgiving.


[1] Matthew 6:24,25-34

[2] 1 Peter 1:7

[3] Richard Rohr, “We Cannot Serve Two Masters” in What Do We Do With Money? (Daily Meditations, www.cac.org, 20 September 2021)

[4] Psalm 42:7