The questions that those around Jesus asked of him are the well from which we draw a great deal of his teaching and the source of lots of wonderful thought and consideration for the church. They are often, of course, our questions, the same questions we would ask him, and we identify with them. I remember preaching a series of sermons in my church a while back about some of those questions. Questions that people asked Jesus. And I included some of those that come so readily to mind:
- "What must I do to inherit eternal life?"
- "Who is my neighbor?"
- "Are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for another?"
- "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?"
- And the one asked by the demoniac in Capernaum, "What do you have to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?"
On the last Sunday in the series I read today's scripture from Luke and included it in the great questions asked of Jesus. The inclusion is technically incorrect, of course, because the question never gets asked! And what a wonderful moment for it! Jesus admonishes the frustrated brother who wants Jesus to intervene in the distribution of the estate (and everyone else within earshot) to "...be on guard; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions." Then he tells the parable of the rich fool. Oh, I wish the brother or maybe someone else in the crowd would have raised a hand and asked the question that is crying out to be asked. The great question, the follow-up question to what Jesus has just said. "Uh, sir," he might have said, "if life does not consist in the abundance of possessions, then in what does life consist?"
That's the question I get most often from my congregation and from the people who come through our doors or into my office. They ask it in a hundred different ways, but it's the same question. It is the question about depth and breadth and meaning in life. In all honesty, almost no one has ever come into my office concerned about going to heaven or hell. Not many have asked questions about creationism or evolution. But they have asked about meaning in their lives. They have asked about getting on top of their problems or dealing with a challenge or living down a tragic mistake. They have asked about direction and purpose after a divorce or after having been betrayed or after having had their shame made public. They have asked about being creative and finding hope when all hope is lost. By the time they come to their minister asking the questions, they are in full agreement with Jesus. They know by that time that the meaning they seek is not in what they own and have stored up. It is not in their possessions. So they ask their minister and the church and the stars, Where is meaning? In what does life really consist?
I can think of a thousand things that bring meaning to life, moments in which we find our best selves and live in harmony with the world around us. And I can think of a good number of people who manage to do that, to live hopeful and creative lives. Are there some common characteristics of these people, characteristics Jesus might have mentioned if the question had been asked?
The people whom I know who live the most abundant lives are people of faith. Somehow and somewhere in their lives they connect to the God who made them. They know and remember that "This is my Father's world." They know and remember that "It is he that has made us and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture." And they remember "...for Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory."
The Wall Street Journal reported recently on a survey from the World Health Organization and the Harvard Medical School indicating that we in the United States are the most depressed people in the world (1)! Just under ten percent of us suffer from some sort of bipolar disorder or from chronic minor depression and over eighteen percent of us suffer from some anxiety disorder. Our numbers far surpass those in other developed countries (Germany, Japan, and Italy) and some of the underdeveloped countries are far, far less depressed than we are (the Ukraine, Mexico, and Nigeria). Our great wealth isn't the answer, is it?
Of course, I believe than a major component in connecting with God and in soothing the raging of our hearts and minds is worship. And I'm not sure that the church helps with that as much as it could. I think that sometimes we do a poor job of teaching people to worship, to commune with God, to find holiness in those quiet sacred moments. And we too often ask the wrong questions about worship. We ask, "Did you like that?" "Did that get you going?" "Did that entertain you?" Instead, perhaps we should teach people to ask, "Did I worship God? Did I find something beyond and greater than myself with which to connect?" Still too many churches are divided in what Tom Long calls "the worship wars" rather than finding common ground in dignity and integrity in worship. Or as Fred Craddock reminds us, there are greater issues at play in worship than merely how we happen to feel about it at a given moment. I remember Walter Brueggemann's prayer, "We arrange our lives as best we can to keep your holiness at bay with our...doctrines, our moralities....And then you-and your dreams,...your visions,...and your purposes...We find your holiness not at bay, but probing, pervading, insisting, demanding....And we yield because...you are our God"(2). Now certainly the first question we ask about a moment like that is not, "Did you like that?"
And when we worship, of course, we engage something beyond ourselves. And the most fulfilled people I know are like that. They engage the world around them and are not so self-absorbed.
In February Berkeley Breathed caught the dilemma gloriously in his "Opus" comic strip. The first panel reveals a fallen teenager, spread-eagled on the sidewalk. Around him are some electronic devises and some distraught passers-by. The alarm goes out that this young man has been "un-entertained" for twenty minutes! His IBook is dead, and his IPod. His Ipod Nano, his shuffle, his blackberry, his game boy, and his web-browsing, instant-messaging, game-playing, musical phone are all gone! Imagine! Un-entertained for twenty minutes! The friends try to connect an archaic desktop computer, but the electrical cord is too short. In a final, last-ditch effort to revive him, they put a newspaper in front of him, but, alas, the newspaper takes too much effort. And in the final panel comes the somber news, "We lost him." And we have lost a good number in our culture who have retreated into themselves and their electronic worlds, eschewing the relationships and community around them. I mentioned last week that Marva Dawn spent a weekend in our church recently. She discussed the phenomenon in our culture in which we seek a "commodity" rather than the relationships and community which surround that commodity. She referenced that family that seeks some sort of musical engagement for a child. Too often, she said, the family buys the CD player or the Ipod and PRESTO! There is music! Instead, she believes, perhaps the family should consider violin lessons. In those lessons are all sorts of relationships that might evolve-with the salesperson, the orchestra leader, the instructor, other students, composers, various genres of music, the family (especially during rehearsal time), and so many others. The Program Director in our church keeps Dr. Dawn's flip-chart sheet on which she demonstrated those relationships and possibilities framed over his desk as a reminder of what the church is supposed to do.
The obstetrician who brought my children into the world, Dr. A. C. Richardson, was a leader in the field of medical ethics in Atlanta. I remember that he had an office in the suburbs, where we lived, and another downtown on Peachtree Street in the heart of the city. I asked him about that and he said, "Everybody out here is the same. Everyone is well educated, has a loving family and a good support group, and excellent medical care. But downtown," he said, "is where I really practice medicine." He mentioned the poor medical care, poor diets, absent fathers and other family members, and the great, great need that he saw and tried to meet. Thank God that not everybody seals himself off from the rest of the world. Not everyone turns a deaf ear and a blind eye.
It was Dr. Albert Schweitzer who conceptualized the community which he called "the Fellowship of Those Who Bear the Mark of Pain" (3). Its members, he believed, were those who have learned by experience what physical pain and bodily anguish mean. These people, all over the world, are united in a secret bond. The one who has been delivered from pain must not think he is now free, at liberty to continue life and forget the sickness. He is one whose eyes are opened. He now has a duty to help others in their battles with pain and anguish. He must help to bring to others the deliverance which he himself knows. Dr. Schweitzer called it the Fellowship of Those Who Bear the Mark of Pain. You and I call it the church.
And those who live the most creative and inspired lives are somehow able to look beyond the evidence, beyond the data, and see the reality of God's goodness and God's grace. They live lives of great hope. When Chet Atkins, that extraordinary musician, died in 2001, he was eulogized by his good friend Garrison Keillor. In that eulogy Garrison recounts Chet's long life and list of accomplishments and says that when Chet was 50 he had a stroke of good luck. He got colon cancer and thought he was going to die. When he didn't, he found a whole new life. He walked away from the corporate music world and fell in love with the guitar again and went all over, performing by his own clock, so he had time to sit and talk with people, pick music with them, and have more fun (4). Some people see the grace of God in colon cancer. Some see just the sickness.
My wife Bobbi sees the miracles of God in lots of things. Last spring she saw them in a stick. I opened a package one day to learn that she had ordered a stick from a far-away nursery. It was literally a stick. No branches, no leaves, no root ball, just a stick. And it cost seventeen dollars! That's a lot of money in Marietta, Georgia, for a stick. But she insisted that we plant it in the appropriate soil in the appropriate hole with the appropriate fertilizer and water. And in a few months Bobbi's stick was covered with delightful blooms, delightful roses. Some people can see the grace of God and the possibilities of heaven in a simple stick.
There is within the people of faith an assurance that the things of God, regardless of circumstance, regardless of the vicissitudes of life, will get done. That assurance we call hope. It sees us through long nights and long days, through trials and troubles. It encourages us to wait, to watch, and to anticipate. It assures us that God is not finished yet.
When Illinois senator Everett Dirksen died in 1969, President Richard Nixon spoke at his funeral and recited some words from Sophocles, the Greek dramatist. When President Nixon died in 1994, California Governor Pete Wilson spoke at his funeral and recited the same words. Perhaps you remember them. "We must wait until the evening," he said, "to see how beautiful the day has been." People of faith know that. We know how to wait. We are a hopeful people.
Quality of life really isn't in the things we amass, but in our connection to the God who made us, and to the world around us, always in the assurance that the God of creation is still creating. The good things of God are never, never finished.
Let us pray. Hear our uncertainty, O God, how shall we live? How shall we love? How shall we forgive? Forgive our dishonesty. Forgive our artificiality. Teach us to seek the integrity and dignity of heaven in everything we are and in everything we do. Teach us to live in the name of the One whose name we bear. Amen.
- Wall Street Journal, March 9, 2007, p.W11
- Brueggemann, Walter, Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth, p. 3
- Dooley, Dr. Tom, Three Great Books (The Edge of Tomorrow, Foreword), p. 126
- Copeland, Cyrus, Farewell, Godspeed, p. 200