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A Letter from the Associate Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

What's Our Attitude?
September 27, 2018

I hated English class.

I hated it, I loathed it, I detested it, I...well, you get the idea don't you? I did not like English class, not one little bit (to borrow a phrase from Dr. Seuss).

And why you might ask? In short, I was a terrible writer and had been told so ever since I started high school. I was such a terrible writer that my freshmen year I received a D+ on my mid-term English essay. I distinctly remember meeting with the teacher to go over my pathetic excuse for an essay and her systematically pointing out everything that was wrong with my work. And while some of her comments and critiques I disagreed with, by and large, I couldn't argue with the evidence that was before me; I was a terrible writer. Typos, misspellings, and clunky word choices filled the paper all marked with that distinctive red pen. In short, it looked like my paper was bleeding. And so, my attitude was set. I decided I was a terrible writer and, because I was a terrible writer, I would hate English class.

Attitude is a funny thing, isn't it? My 8th-grade math teacher had a sign hanging in her classroom that said: Your attitude defines everything. It was a bit abstract for a group of 14-year-olds, but I've come to realize the wisdom and insight of that phrase. Our attitude has a lot to do with our success (or failure) in endeavors we attempt. Seldom do we go into something with a negative attitude and find great success. Seldom do leaders inspire change by saying, "We know this won't work." Seldom do people move past challenges in their personal lives by saying, "This is a waste of time."

A few years back, a dear friend of mine decided to take part in the Pittsburgh half marathon. That, in and of itself, isn't significant. The fact that he weighed 330 pounds is, however, as 330-pound people aren't commonplace at half marathons. I, being the kind and faithful friend I was, actually attempted to dissuade him from pursuing this endeavor because I knew the challenge that was ahead of him and my concern for his health and safety. Nine months later and sixty pounds lighter, we snaked our way through 13.1 miles of our fair city to the finish line. He had done it. He had accomplished his goal. But the starting point, the thing that got him headed in the right direction, was his attitude that this was something that he could do, needed to, and in fact, wanted to do.

Indeed, our attitude defines everything. This season's lectionary has taken us through the Gospel of Mark where we get a up-close look at a number of the interactions between Jesus and his disciples. As the story progressed, we see a stark difference in the aspired trajectory of the disciples as compared to the harsh reality for which Jesus is trying to prepare them. In Mark 8 and 9, two encounters bring this stark difference into clear focus. The first is the memorable account in which Jesus shares with the disciples that he will be rejected, killed, and raised from the dead. In response, Peter begins to rebuke him over this whole rejecting and dying idea and Jesus calls him Satan. The second is in Mark 9 where Jesus repeats his prediction of what his future holds, but this time the response is entirely different: "But they didn't understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him." Twice Jesus tells them the same thing and twice they're confused and perplexed. Why? Why was this seemingly straightforward teaching so difficult for them to grasp? Their struggles in comprehension were understandable when it came to grasping the meaning behind the parables, but this was about as straightforward of a teaching as one can find. So what gives?  Why don't they get it?

A giant clue comes to us in the way of v33-34 where Jesus asks them what they were discussing on their most recent journey. They are silent not because they don't know, but they know that the topic of discussion - namely which of them was the greatest - wouldn't be something Jesus would be pleased with. So again, they said nothing. Think about the contrast we have at play here. Jesus is preparing for his final days headed toward that brutal last week ending with his death in Jerusalem.

Meanwhile his disciples, the ones he chose and the one he'll entrust his mission and ministry to, are too busy arguing over who is the greatest. In short, their attitude is off. Way off in fact. They were focused on themselves and the potential for future positions of power, while Jesus was trying to prepare them for a much more difficult and challenging path. They were missing the point because their focus was on the wrong things. The problem wasn't with the teaching; it was with their attitude.

My problem with English class and writing wasn't that I was a terrible writer. It was with my attitude. My senior year, I had a teacher who recognized this, sat me down and talked me through some strategies. In so doing, he managed to convince me that, while I would never rival the likes of Shakespeare, Tom Clancy, or John Grisham, I was, in fact, capable of producing writing that was more than passable, sometimes even good. I've always needed a good proofreader, but with some good strategies, I survived college and seminary and managed to do quite well academically. All it took was some patience, determination, and most of all, a change in my attitude.

More times than I'd like to admit, I've missed things. Missed things that were right in front of my face, plain as day, because my attitude wasn't what it should have been. For three years I ducked and dove around a call to ministry that others around me could plainly see because my attitude had me focused on myself and what I wanted. Early in pastoral ministry when people expressed frustration with me, I would zero in on minor factual inaccuracies in their complaints in pathetic self-justification instead of listening to the concern that was behind those complaints. Because my attitude was off, I ended up missing the forest for the trees in being an effective pastoral leader. And in the present, it is frighteningly routine for me to catch myself thinking "What will I lose if..." when a new idea or opportunity comes along that could impact me.

The truth is that Jesus' teaching on this point is painstakingly clear: he wants us to have an attitude of love, namely, love of God, and love of neighbor. But as simple as this is, it's hard, because so often it's our attitude that we're not even aware of, that causes us to fall short in the area of loving others.

Attitude truly does define everything. Attitude gives us the lenses through which we view, interpret, and respond to the situations around us. As anyone who wears glasses will attest, sometimes you can't see as well because your glasses aren't what they should be. This begs the question, what's our attitude? Is it what it should be? What lenses are we using the look at the world around us? Lenses of bitterness? Sadness? Defeat? Hurt? Cynicism? Or, the lenses of love that Jesus calls us to every day.

May we be people who pray. People who pray for an attitude of love for all those we encounter that God's mission and ministry might go forth in our world.

The Rev. Brian R. Wallace, Associate Minister

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