Andrew Whaley: Hope for Christian Pessimists

We are quickly approaching the climax of The Return of the King, Peter Jackson’s adaptation of the Tolkien classic. Frodo has taken the Ring of Power into the land of Mordor to destroy it in Mount Doom. But there are many enemy soldiers in the land to block his journey, capture him, perhaps even kill him. Gandalf, the wizard, frets beyond the border in Gondor with King Aragorn and others. Will the Hobbit complete his mission?

King Aragorn devises a plan, however, a diversion to draw the forces of Mordor into battle with the forces of Gondor. His hope is to distract the evil Sauron, giving Frodo the clearance he needs to destroy the ring. But the forces of Gondor pale in comparison to the power of Mordor. There is doubt in the party that the diversion will work. But Aragorn rallies his friends to his side, to take the chance, for the sake of Frodo and their future.

At which point, Gimli the dwarf pulls his pipe from his mouth and exclaims in his brogue, “Certainty of death. Small chance of success. What are we waiting for?” [Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, directed by Peter Jackson (2003: United States, New Line Cinema), DVD]

In that witty and ironic line, Gimli voices the pessimist’s commitment. It’s a willingness to forego what makes logical sense, to even proclaim that it probably won’t work, but then to make the effort anyway. The apostle Andrew gives us such an example of such pessimistic commitment in our gospel today.

His comment comes in response to a pop quiz word problem from Lord Jesus. Looking out over a large crowd that has been following him, Jesus looks to Philip his disciple and says, “There are five thousand people following the Messiah. They are hungry. They have no food with them. Where are we to buy bread for them to eat?”

Philip begins feverishly scribbling some figures while the others just cast their eyes away hoping Jesus doesn’t call on them. Finally, Philip runs his hand through his hair and declares as he throws his pencil to the ground, “Six months’ wages wouldn’t give us enough money to give people even a couple of bites.”

Andrew tries a different solution. He doesn’t consult the map to find the nearest grocery store or pull out the checkbook to see the current balance. He’s looking around, and it’s a stupid idea but the silence of the ashamed disciples feels even worse. So, he motions over to the boy he’s seen in the crowd, the one carrying some fish and barley loaves. He points him out to Jesus, but he realizes how ridiculous he sounds even as the words escape his lips. And trying to save himself from ridicule from the other disciples, he says sarcastically, “But what are they among so many people?”

“Certainty of death. Small chance of success. What are we waiting for?”

You heard the rest of the story. Jesus takes the loaves, gives thanks, distributes. He repeats with the fish. And everyone has more than their fill. Andrew pointed out a possibility. He felt stupid even in offering it. He couldn’t see what good this lunch could possibly provide a massive crowd. He was sure he’d failed the exam but just didn’t want to leave the question blank. And it turns out that’s all Jesus needs.

Jesus didn’t need the perfect mathematical formula. He’s didn’t need GPS coordinates of the nearest market to buy food. He didn’t need the most talent, the top chef, the best event coordinator. He just needed a disciple to point out a possibility, and even a pessimistic disciple was enough.

What a gift of grace! A Savior just looking for somebody to give something a shot. I don’t know, but I feel that’s rare around me. There’s pressure to buck up and be positive. Pressure to advocate for all the right stances and call out everyone on social media with the wrong ones. Expectation for career advancement, portfolio growth, parental accolades that come through our children’s accomplishments. You don’t just need to get through the tasks of the day, but you’ve got to do it with gratitude and joy and an inner peace that never fails you. And if you are failing to experience all of those virtues, then subscribe to this Instagram influencer or buy this self-help book on Amazon to help you achieve the best life. There’s no space for the person who says, “Oh well, this probably won’t work.” That’s heresy in our can-do, self-help world.

But not with Jesus. Jesus will take the cranky disciple who is willing to voice the ridiculous possibility.

I remember the Sunday Bill stood to give the Minute for Mission about tutoring at a local after-school program. Until I saw his name in the bulletin, I had no idea he did that, and I was his pastor. Bill was seventy years old, a retired financial advisor. As far as I knew, he had no background in education. And here he goes at the lectern about how he had signed up to tutor and met with two little boys each week. They’d read to him, and he to them. They’d review flashcards together. And then, lo and behold, this old man starts crying at the lectern in the middle of worship in a Presbyterian church! He talked about how the boys had nicknamed him, hugged him when he arrived. “I don’t know if I’ve made any difference in their lives, but they have surely changed mine,” he said.

And there it was. Old man, financial advisor, retired, no early childhood education degree, weeping in front of his church about what could happen with giving some time and attention and care to these at-risk elementary school students.

“And Jesus took the loaves,” John tells us.

“And Jesus took two hours from Bill’s week, and his heart, and his attention.”

Or there was John at a country church in north Georgia. he was going blind from macular degeneration. Couldn’t see the Bible or the hymnal or the bulletin but was in worship every week. I was visiting him and his wife, Edna. I asked about the struggle of losing his sight.

“I know that makes it hard for you in worship,” I said.

“It does,” he replied, “not to be able to say the words with everyone else. But I can still sing. Even if I don’t know all the verses, I just open my mouth and sing the tune.”

Nobody’d want a blind man who can’t read the words in Robert Shaw’s Atlanta Symphony Chorale. He wouldn’t be able to pull his weight. He’d drag down the whole baritone section.

But, “Jesus took the loaves,” John tells us.

“And Jesus took the wordless song.”

Every Sunday at a small church in East Tennessee, Ms. Jama pulls up to the front door and has to get the teenage boys to help her pull out two giant vases of flowers from her back seat. They’re filled with flowers from her farm, and from spring until the first frost her farm-to-altar flowers sit in the sanctuary. They’re wild flowers. Don’t take much tending, just kind of grow back year after year. She’s no master gardener, never been in a magazine, never made a living as a florist. Often, she complains as she trails after the boys carrying in her vases, that something didn’t come out just as she’d hoped. She’s sorry if they don’t look right. Some horticulture expert might call them glorified weeds. You can find these anywhere. Nothing special about these bouquets.

“And Jesus took the loaves.”

“And Jesus takes the flowers grown in love and committed each Sunday for worship.”

And Hunter. Hunter went to Haiti on a mission trip. He didn’t speak Creole like Rosita. He couldn’t lead a teacher training for the teachers at St. Timothee’s School like Susan and Ellen. He couldn’t do first aid instruction like Reif. He couldn’t help set up the computer lab like Fred. But when the new school desks needed to be varnished, he could do that. So, he spent hour after hour, brush in hand, playing with the kids, varnishing desk after desk in the dirt-floor sanctuary as the fumes hung on the air.

“And Jesus took the loaves.”

“And Jesus takes the varnish for the desks.”

All these folks have their reasons not to give their lives over to the story and the mission of Jesus. They could all say, “I don’t know what good this can do,” and yet they each gave what they could, their skills and attitudes secondary to their willingness to act.

Kent Haruf, in his book Plainsong, tells the story of a young woman, Victoria, who becomes pregnant while in high school. The father of the child abandons her, and her mother kicks her out of the house. Desperate, she turns to a teacher for help. The teacher, Maggie, cannot house the young girl, but she knows a place where she might go.

It’s a long shot, but Maggie finds Raymond and Harold McPheron, two brothers who live several miles outside of town on their farm. They’re older, quiet, keep-to-themselves types. When Maggie first approaches them about taking in a seventeen-year-old girl, they are dumbfounded. When they discuss it in private later, Harold asks,

“‘I know what I think. What do you think we do with her?’

‘We take her in,’ Raymond said. He spoke without hesitation, as though he’d only been waiting for his brother to start so they could have this out and settle it. ‘Maybe she wouldn’t be as much trouble,’ he said.

‘I’m not talking about that yet,’ Harold said. He looked out into the gathering darkness. ‘I’m talking about - why hell, look at us. Old men alone. Decrepit old bachelors out here in the country seventeen miles from the closest town which don’t amount to much even when you get there. Think of us. Crotchety and ignorant. Lonesome. Independent. Set in all our ways. How you going to change now at this age of life?’

‘I can’t say,’ Raymond said. ‘But I’m going to. That’s what I know.’” [Kent Haruf, Plainsong (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1999), 112.]

They do it. It isn’t easy. But slowly they figure out how to share conversation, share life. They take Victoria into town to buy a crib for the baby. When the baby’s father returns and she runs away with him to the big city of Denver, the men are heartbroken. But things fall apart again - abuse, drugs. Victoria returns, and these crotchety broken men take her in again.

When Victoria goes into labor, only two people are allowed to be with her in the delivery room - Raymond and Harold McPheron. When the doctor tells them they can go home, that the delivery may take several more hours, they refused to leave her side. And she refuses to leave theirs.

The book ends with a dinner party at the old farmhouse at the end of May. There is “the dining room [where] the table had been pulled open and the leaves put in and the white tablecloth laid on, and afterward the table had been laid with tall candles and with the old china the girl had discovered in the high shelves of the kitchen, the old dishes that had been unused for decades, that were chipped and faded but still serviceable.” [Ibid., 300.]

And there are Raymond and Harold with Victoria and the baby, her teacher and the other broken and seeking souls of the story. Kent Haruf doesn’t have them in the text of his novel, but we can see with the eyes of faith Bill and Jama there, John, and Hunter. A boy with five loaves and two fish, and the old committed pessimist Andrew. Gathered around a table where all can eat their fill, all who were insufficient in their offering but who were willing to give it anyway.

And Jesus takes the loaves.

And Jesus takes whatever you have to give.

Let us pray.

O God, receive what we have to offer. Receive it even when we give it unsure that it will do any good. For we have seen that when you take an offering, even given by a pessimist, you can multiply it to satisfy the hungers of aching souls. We praise you for that gift, and we give ourselves to you and to that mission today. Amen.