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I have played the lottery for many years. I always play the same numbers, my kid’s birthdates, even though the experts tell me that is the wrong way to play. Actually, the experts, those who I ought to be listening to, tell me that the lottery is hopelessly stacked against the average player and that the system preys on the poor who see this as a hope to change their lives. They would be better off the experts tell me to invest that money in a money market account. And that is true.
But playing the lottery is more than what makes sense. Its cheap hope. It cheap hope that for a couple of dollars you have a shot at the big win. Those who play often imagine what they would do with that money. Most of the time it is to pay off debt and then to help their family and then to give to charity in that order. And you know what? That is exactly what most winners do.
Most prizes are not the big one, most are under a thousand dollars, and many under ten thousand dollars. I have won about a thousand dollars over the years. I am still spending more than I am winning but that’s not the point. The point is believe in something more than what we often see. The problem with betting of course is that you have to know when to stop. Otherwise it’s an addiction.
I have given a lot of thought to the shootings in Florida. I might have said this tragedy was a chance, and in one sense, it is. But if we do nothing to change our gun laws in this country, these tragic chances become more and more inevitable. This is an evil for our time. A madness really, and this Purim I am recommitting now more than ever our focus on ending gun violence. This is insanity. Our real courage, our real perseverance will be in how we continue to fight this evil and make our world safe for our children, our teachers, our nation.
What is it that gives us the strength to take a chance and act on nothing but hope? What is it in us that helps us come back from the edge and start again? I will tell you: It has something to do with faith. A faith that against all odds we can start again. I remember working with a couple who were having a terrible time. They had little kids and the strain was hard. They separated for a time. I was counselling the woman and trying to help but she seemed lost. She was wandering in her wilderness. She stopped coming to church, so did her husband. And then one Easter morning, lo, they both found themselves sitting in the third row. They both had this feeling that they needed to come to church that morning. And there they were, back from the edge. The die was cast. They began again.
Let me say that like Esther all of us need to take a chance. Sometimes it won’t work. Until it does. Eisenstein, Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey, and J.K. Rowling, all took chances, many chances and came back to try again and again. Rowling who wrote the Harry Potter series started writing on the back of paper napkins and single almost homeless mother who tried 12 times to find a publisher until Bloomsbury snatched her up. Heroism is not a one off conditions. Many, no most heroes are the ones who came to and back from the edge time and time again. Like Esther, like this couple, like those who work to end gun violence, we must embrace the paradox of suffering and hope. Neitchze said “What makes Heroic? To face simultaneously one’s greatest suffering and one’s highest hope”. (From The Gay Science) Courage is most often found at the crossroad of perseverance and hope.
But in order to persevere, to come back from the edge of oblivion, we must wander in the wilderness. Wandering in the wilderness is a part of every hero’s journey, Jesus wandered, Buddha wandered, Mohammed wandered, Moses wandered, Luke Skywalker wandered, and in fact he was born in the wilderness. In a way Esther wandered through her fear. Perhaps we are wandering through the wilderness politically now. What does the wilderness represent? The wilderness represents our need to connect again with our deepest nature, the call of the wild, the still small voice within that counsels us to take the right path, despite our fears. We find our way back from the edge by wandering through the wilderness.
Towards the end of my ministry in Frederick, MD I met Wil and Ophelia. Wil was an electrician and Ophelia was a hair stylist. They were two of the kindest and warmest people I had ever known. And they were dedicated congregants. Every week when we were meeting in a college auditorium, Wil would set up and break down the worship space. Ophelia taught in religious education. They had two kids who they just adored but Ophelia’s ex-husband was a violent man and he had threatened her with law suits if Wil and her married. She needed to hire a lawyer to win sole custody but didn’t have the money.
One day Wil came into my office beaming. “We won!” he said. “What?” I asked. “We won the lotto, $100,000!” I held him as he cried with joy and relief. Their gamble to stay together held strong. Two months later I officiated at their wedding in ballroom of a Holiday Inn. During the toasts, Walter turned to me and said “Sometimes, Rev. John, dreams do come true.” And sometimes they do, as we learn to step bravely back from the edge.