February 16, 2003
Girdwood United Methodist Church
The Rev. Dianne O'Connell
II Kings 5:1-14
I Corinthians 9:24-27
The Type A Personality
Good morning. It is good to be back with you folks this morning. For those of you who subscribe to Time magazine, you will know that this month is the fiftieth anniversary of the discovery of "The Secret of Life" - James Watson and Francis Crick discovered how a long, unpronounceable word - deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) - carries our genetic code, the key to our heredity, from generation to generation. Watson explained the process of their discovery and its implications in the 1968 best seller "The Double Helix".
Since that time, we have moved from the discovery of the gene responsible for Downs Syndrome (1959) to the possible birth of a human child through the cloning process (January 2003). Incredible progress and incredible ethical dilemmas. It took a short ten years from 1990 to the year 2000 to complete the international effort to map and sequence the entire human genome. Along the route, came breakthroughs in cancer research, the production of human insulin, genetic fingerprinting through DNA, the development of a bland tasting, high priced Flavr Savr tomato, and a cloned sheep named Dolly and a cloned cat named CC. Dolly died this week, at age six.
As I read the magazine article about scientists James Watson and Francis Crick, I was reminded of the Corinthians passage this morning. This passage is no admonition to "stop and smell the roses". It doesn't smack of today's psychology of "be good to yourself", "take it easy", and "everything in moderation."
No, Paul tells his readers: "All the runners run, but only one wins. Run to win. Train to win. Don't get disqualified. Don't lose. For heaven's sake, win!"
Sounds like a Type A personality to me. Win at all costs. And if you go back earlier in the chapter, you'll find that Paul can become defensive, hostile and surly in the process. Read from the top of Chapter 9 and you'll see what I mean. Speaking of himself and his disciplines, he complains, "Don't we have a right to food and drink? Don't we have a right to have our families with us? Don't we have a right to be paid - or at least a little bit of support?"
Paul's ministry has not been easy and even he can find himself in a mood of self-pity and hostility. Definitely grumpy. But on he goes. He is running the race of life - totally absorbed in his ministry and evangelism - to the exclusion, it would seem, of everything else. And Paul was a successful man. Without him, most of us would not be in this sanctuary today.
But, successful people aren't always the easiest to be around. "You have to be obsessive", says Watson of his and Crick's success in cracking the secrets of DNA. "People said we didn't deserve to solve it - and it's true we were lucky." But the men DID deserve to win the race, he says, because they understood the long range significance of the problem; they had each other to share their insights with; they were willing to ask for help, and they were obsessive.
"Jeff Goldblum played me in a BBC movie, says Watson, and he was really unpleasant. But people told me, 'You WERE unpleasant.' It goes along with obsession." Their sometimes collaborator Rosalind Franklin was equally prickly and difficult.
I'm not here to preach a sermon on the virtues of being an obsessive, arrogant, self-centered grump. But I do think such people have their place. And sometimes, we need to be thankful for them as well as be a little critical of their approach to life. Sometimes Them is Us.
I'm sure no James Watson or Francis Crick - but obsessive, I can be. And sometimes, I find that this is good. When it's good, I think we call it "focused." Sometimes I can really FOCUS. And sometimes I slip into Obsession.
I became so focused on the question of whether or not Paul was a Type A personality and whether or not that was okay - that I did a little research on the subject.
Type A personalities are not a healthy thing to be apparently. Such a person is aggressive, involved in a chronic, incessant struggle to achieve more and more in less and less time. Competitive, which is usually good, but also often hostile, angry, and negative. Tough-mindedness is right up there and an inability to relax - even when one wants to relax.
Paul sure seems like a Type A. So do Watson and Crick. Wonder if any of them ever wound down? If we don't, sometimes life winds us down for us. Which brings me to the Old Testament lesson for today, from II Kings.
Naaman was a great Army commander, a valiant soldier, no doubt a genuine Type A. But Naaman's old immune system - well it just finally failed - and Naaman contracted leprosy. In good old Type A fashion, Naaman's going to beat this problem - he travels far to Israel, uses his political connections to hook up with the Prophet Elisha through the King of Israel. Naaman is sorely disappointed in the simplicity of the instructions - go bath in the River Jordan and you will be cured. No pageantry, no hocus-pocus - just go bath - seven times in the River Jordan.
Naaman is about to go home in disgust - without a bath. Surely the Rivers of Damascus were every bit as good as this river in Israel. His servants finally did an intervention - confronted Naaman on his arrogance. If the Prophet Elisha had said to do some great, difficult feat - Naaman would have strived to do it in a heartbeat. Right? Well, yes, says Naaman. But no, Elisha recommended something simple - even restful - and Naaman wasn't about to do that.
When Naaman finally calms down and does what he is told, Scripture tells us - he walks down to the river and baths seven times and his health is restored. Naaman is a convert. It's not that he doesn't return to his work, he does, but he does so as a restored and somewhat humbled man.
Many pastors when faced with the Pauline passage about running and competition write a sermon about sports. That's understandable since that seems to be what Paul did himself. Paul himself was not an athlete. He was a tent-maker, trying to use a sports metaphor to explain something else. That something else, I've decided, is life itself. How in the world to live a life? Life is sort of a game - sometimes a deadly serious game and other times a joyful, playful game.
In order to play this game in such as a way as to "win the prize" - one has to figure out for him or herself just what would be worth winning. What kind of a prize would we want anyway? I'm serious, take a second or two and visualize your prize… (pause)
Everyone who competes in the games should go into strict training, Paul tells us. And I would assume that you have to train for the WHOLE game - the opening moves, the middle plays, and the end game. To focus on just one part - even a very important part - to the exclusion of all else, would disqualify one from being a winner at the whole game. I'm thinking, for instance, that there is something very wrong about a guy who only wants to learn to fly, but not bother to learn about taking off and landing. Seriously wrong.
I think the Type A personality can sometimes be accused of only focusing on the flying part. No time for quiet preparation. No time for basic maintenance. No time to study the flight maps. No time look around the sky. No time to chat with the passengers. Certainly no time to comfort, console or really much care about the passengers. And no time to contemplate the final destination and the means by which to land there in one piece - whole, happy, even exhilarated.
No, no time. Just fly, fly, fly. Faster and faster. Angry with the distractions. Determined to reach the goal - reach the goal first - but with no real clear understanding of what the goal really is.
Was Paul a Type A personality? Yeah, I think he probably was. But did he have a clear idea of his personal goal? He certainly did. No "running aimlessly" for him. His goal was Perfection in the eyes of God, for himself and for others. Was he difficult to be around - my guess is that he was. Did and does God love the Pauls of the world? Of course. Paul was a good and faithful servant of God - doing God' will, preaching God's message, doing his part to make the world just a little bit more in the image of God.
Even though Paul did the will of God, however, I wonder if he might have missed a part of his own message. He who competes in the games, goes into strict training. True. But to play the whole game, not just a part of it.
Naaman learned that there was more to the game of life than just being the best commander around. More than just winning the next battle. More than taking on the biggest and the baddest challenge. Sometimes winning involves surrender. Taking time for the simple things. Like a walk by the river. Hey, actually going INTO the river - with or without hip boots. And maybe we should do this more than once in a lifetime.
It was simple. It was easy. Too easy to be true. And yet healing and life-giving.
Watson and Crick discovered the Secret of Life. They didn't discover the existence of DNA anymore than you or I have discovered the Existence of Life. But what they did discover was life's structure. They unveiled its simplicity, its power as well as its beauty. If you could uncoil a strip of DNA, Time magazine tells us, it would reach six feet in length, a code book written in words of only four chemical letters: A, T, G and C. Fold it back up, and it shrinks to trillionths of an inch and fits neatly into each cell of the human body. Each human being on earth is 99.9 percent the same as the next one - and not all that different from a sequoia or a slug.
Watson and Crick marveled that something so vital - such as the recipe for life -- could be so simple. If we take a look at our own lives, the recipe may turn out to be equally simple, yet powerful.
Train hard. Work hard. Stay focused. But while you are training, train for the whole shabang - the take off, the flight itself, AND the landing. Look around. Appreciate, even love, those on the ride with you. Keep your destination in mind. Always keep your destination in mind. Plan for a soft landing. Should it get a little bumpy along the way - trust in God - the answer is often that complicated, that powerful, and that simple.
That's the Secret of Life. Amen.