Reflection: Betting on God

Published August 17, 2011

“It is the biggest risk any of us will ever take-to believe there is a God and that God loves us.” Photo: LNC

Jeff Bezos had it all. He came from a fine family, graduated from Princeton University, married his Princeton sweetheart and eventually rose to vice-president at Bankers Trust. Later he worked as a financial analyst at D. E. Shaw, a firm specializing in developing computer science applications for the stock market.

That was in the early 1990s, when the neophyte World Wide Web was increasing 2,300 per cent a year.

Jeff Bezos understood the disruptive nature of the Internet and that change was going to be rapid. He developed a vision of an Internet company selling books at discount prices. He said, “I told my wife…that I wanted to quit my job and go do this crazy thing that probably wouldn’t work, since most startups don’t, and I wasn’t sure what would happen after that.” His wife said that he should go for it, because she wanted him to follow his passion.

Bezos typed a business plan while his wife drove to Seattle. He candidly told his original investors there was a 70 per cent chance they would lose their entire investment, but his parents signed in for $300,000, a substantial portion of their life savings. “We weren’t betting on the Internet,” his mother said. "We were betting on Jeff.”

In 1995, Bezos opened The rest is history. If you had invested with Jeff Bezos at the company startup, your investment now would be worth hundreds of times its original value. Today Amazon is a multi-billion dollar company-one of the great business success stories of the last 20 years.

It happens, doesn’t it? People develop a passion in life for which they’re willing to do anything, sacrifice everything. Sometimes it makes no sense, but people will step out of their comfort zone, abandon their security and make that leap of faith, for a prize beyond all imagining.

One thinks of great leaders, entrepreneurs and inventors throughout history for whom this is true. But it is especially true in the church, among Christians who have given up everything and gone anywhere to follow Jesus.

“The kingdom of heaven," Jesus says, "is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13:44).

And to drive home the point, Jesus goes on to say, “The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it” (Matthew 13:45).

Can you imagine doing something like that? It’s crazy, isn’t it? Who would ever want to take such a risk? It is the biggest risk any of us will ever take-to believe there is a God and that God loves us and that we should respond to that love with everything we are and everything we have.

The amazing thing is that people take that risk all the time.

St. Ann’s Episcopal Church in the South Bronx of New York City is located in the heart of the poorest area in the United States. The church was once a prestigious place of worship founded by a family that included a governor of New York. But through the years the church had fallen onto hard times, struggling to finance its ministries, pay staff and maintain its buildings. Officials in the diocese of New York expected St. Ann’s to be closed. It was an impoverished church, after all, serving an impoverished neighbourhood.

Enter the Rev. Martha Overall. She is just as much a risk-taker as Jeff Bezos. She left a lucrative career as a lawyer at a prestigious Wall Street law firm to become a priest, and then rector of St. Ann’s Church. She chose a downwardly mobile career path, taking a substantial salary cut to work long hours in a highly difficult position. It was stressful, arduous work, but it paid off. The parish turned around, ministries expanded, the church became a centre of hope for the community, and writer Jonathan Kozol even wrote about it in his bestselling book Amazing Grace.

Yes, ministry at St. Ann’s demanded a great deal from Martha Overall, but she stayed with it, not for the money but for God. It didn’t make any sense to her Wall Street co-workers or even to some of her friends. Why, on earth, would she want to spend her life in the slums of the South Bronx, ministering to some of the poorest people in the country? Well, Martha Overall found that pearl of great price-that treasure hidden in a field-for which she was willing to sacrifice everything and do anything to obtain.

People who have never really believed in God to the point of letting God into their lives can hardly be expected to understand what motivates people like Martha Overall. To them, belief in God seems like pure fantasy, so how can they be expected to understand?

But people of faith know that you have to risk jumping into the water before you can experience the joy of swimming. You can’t stay on the sidelines and learn how to swim. So it is with belief in God. You have to make the leap of faith-dive in-to experience the joy of God in your life.

Don’t think that because I am a priest I see it this way. It is because I see it this way that I became a priest. It is not my vocation that makes me talk about God; it was talking about God that led to my vocation. Like Martha Overall, I had big dreams as a labour lawyer and litigator, but the “hound of heaven,” to use the poet Francis Thompson’s phrase-would not let me go until I knew there was nothing else for me to do but become a priest.

Yes, there have been times when I have wanted to quit and go back to law. I have met few priests who haven’t been tempted with such thoughts on occasion. But not many of us quit, for we really believe in the God we talk about. We believe in God so deeply, so completely, so irrevocably, that nothing is able to stop us from talking about this God.

And the truth is: many in our church share this experience. At some point, God has called them, hounded, beckoned. They heard that call and responded with their life.

When I was in San Diego, I met a missionary couple who had served in Uganda, living in the most squalid conditions. They didn’t have to go-they were both superb teachers who could have gotten jobs at an elite Anglican prep school in the diocese. They didn’t have to do missionary work in such miserable conditions-except for the fact they believed God had called them to that ministry.

This is what Jesus was talking about-selling everything for the treasure found in a field. If we really believe in God and listen to the demands of that belief, it may cause us to do strange things. We may not become a billionaire like Jeff Bezos, but in our own way, through countless acts of faithfulness, we may help change the world-one life at a time. That’s what happened with Martha Overall. That’s what happened to a missionary couple who left the safety and comfort of San Diego to live in a developing country.

And it is what happens to a lot of people who somehow get this crazy notion to serve God in ministry of all kinds.

Be warned: it might have that effect on you, too.

The Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi is the rector at St. James Westminster Anglican Church in London, Ont.


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