A few words on saying thanks in the midst of blessing and heartache.
The first funeral I recall attending was for the dad of a classmate who lived up the street from me. Her dad died suddenly and it scared me to learn this was a possibility. This meant my dad could die. My mom could die.
I could die.
I didn’t want to go to the funeral but my dad said I needed to go. So I went. I’ll never forget watching my friend walk into the church, her arms draped around her mother’s waist. I had never seen anyone cry so hard. Her entire body shook.
Afterward, I asked my dad why I had to go. “Because,” he said, “that’s what friends do.”
That’s what friends do.
It is, isn’t it? Friends go down to the valley with us. Friends aren’t afraid of the shadows. Friends don’t shy away from pain. They move closer to it. They make sure we’re not alone.
As I grew older I watched my father make great effort to attend funerals, sometimes for people he seemed to barely knew. I didn’t understand.
“Adults get invited to a lot weddings,” he explained. ” Someday you will, too. When that happens, make sure to go. But don’t forget about the funerals. Everyone loves to celebrate, fewer choose to mourn.”
I eventually learned my father got this from Jesus, the God of suffering. The God who hung on a cross to make it desperately clear there was no suffering he wasn’t willing to enter on our behalf.
Jesus doesn’t just show up at our weddings. You’ll find him at the funerals, too.
He is a suffering God. And this is good news because we are a suffering people.
As many of us know…when it’s our turn to pass through the valley, we need more than the alleluias of Easter. We need the cries of Good Friday.
And for that, I’m terribly grateful.
If you’re suffering today, please know that you’re not alone. And never will be.
Irvin Yalom tells a story about a man named Dave who was having trouble being honest in group therapy. The other members of the group called him out on it. Dave defended himself, saying, “If I start being honest then I’ll have to talk about how much I hate growing older, how much I fear death.”
Yalom said, “You’re not the only one who has these fears, Dave. Maybe it would be helpful to find out everyone’s in the same boat.”
“No,” Dave said, “that’s the most terrible part about dying—you’re alone in the boat.”
Another group member spoke up. “Even so, even though you’re alone in the boat, it’s always comforting to see the lights of the other boats bobbing nearby.”
Yes, yes, it is. When the darkness descends, may we fall to our knees in prayer. But don’t forget to reach out your hand and grab someone. There are lights bobbing all around you.
2000 years ago the Roman philosopher, Seneca, said, “What’s the point of having countless books and libraries whose titles the owner could scarcely read through in a lifetime?”
Oh, Seneca, what would you think of Google?
We live in the golden age of answers, but what do we really know? Do you have answers to the deepest questions of your life, the ones you can’t find on Google?
Questions like this one: What does God want?
People get mired in this question. “If only I knew God’s will,” they say, “then I’d know what to do with my life.”
But what in the world does God want? A big check? A guilty conscience? Prayer? Love? Obedience? Sacrifice? What?
Run the question backward. If God asked about your will, what would you say? What do you want?
I don’t know what you want, but I know something about it. It’s not one thing.
We want health and safety and intimacy and adventure and success. Our wills are complex and varied. And I think God’s is too. But that doesn’t mean we can’t say something about it.
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus enters the home of a woman named Martha who leaps into action, putting the house in order for him. But Martha’s sister, Mary, doesn’t. Instead, she sits down at the feet of Jesus and listens.
Martha carries on, filling drink orders, working the room. But not Mary. She just listens.
Preachers like to praise Mary and beat the hell out of Martha.
But I like Martha. I like workers.
She pokes her head out of the kitchen and yells at Jesus (which is kind of awesome), “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her to get up.”
“Martha,” Jesus replies, “Martha, you’re anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken from her.”
One thing is needful.
Notice Jesus doesn’t rebuke Martha’s work. He doesn’t say get out of the kitchen and come sit down. He says, “You’re so anxious. You’re so distracted that you’re missing the one thing you actually need. Me.”
Are you distracted and anxious in the golden age of answers? Are you drowning in the never-ending river of information?
How often do you listen for answers instead of search for them?
I think that’s what God wants.
He wants us to listen.
It was’t Martha’s work that was wrong. It was that she had stopped listening because of it.
But would it be like to listen for Jesus’ voice in your customers this week? What if you saw His face in that co-worker you can’t stand to be around? What if you asked Jesus to be present with you during your sales pitch?
Work can be work. Or it can be something entirely God infused.
I think Mary knew that. That’s why she listened before she worked. She wanted to know what God wanted so she could then know how to work.
Be honest. When was the last time you sat still and did nothing? When did you last pray and wait for God to speak first? When did you last listen — really listen?
I know it’s awesome that we have Google to answer our every query.
But I’m drowning in information, desperate for that one needful thing, and missing it.
I want to know God’s will, but I hardly listen.
In Kindergarten, I made a pledge with a kid named Cameron to be best friends. We shook on it.
Over the years we have shared a lot. He sees me for who I am. He knows my good and my very bad. Today we’re 33 and still the best of friends. How?
I’ll tell you.
He listens to me. He always has. Because of that, he knows me. He knows my hopes, my fears, my dreams. That kind of knowing produces a deep, deep bond.
It’s been said that we have to know someone before we can love them. I say we have to listen before we can know.
Do you want to know what God wants for your life?
“Jazz class,” she said to me. “Intermediate Dance. It’ll be fun.”
She was my college sweetheart, and the jazz class she spoke of represented the final credits I needed to graduate.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Will there be actual dancing involved?”
“It’s a dance class.”
I should have shut it down. I didn’t need this headache. I needed one class. But you know how love works. She batted her eyes.
“Well,” I said, “maybe we should sign up for Beginner’s Jazz. Intermediate sounds serious.”
“Are you calling me a bad dancer?”
“No,” I said. “I’m calling me a bad dancer.”
Her eyes stopped batting.
“I thought it’d be special to take this class together. But if you feel differently, that’s fine.”
A week later I found myself in Intermediate Jazz.
The professor handed out the syllabus. I read my execution orders. FINAL EXAM: EACH STUDENT WILL CHOREOGRAPH AND PERFORM A SOLO DANCE.
My very first panic attack.
I tried to walk out, but you know what happened. Those eyes started up again. So I stayed, hid in the back row, and tried not to think about stepping out from the group and dancing on my own.
In the Gospel, Jesus constantly asked people to step out from the group.”Follow me,” he said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” In other words, “Come with me and I’ll teach you the ways of God.”
And people did. And they changed the world.
What I love is that it was never supposed to happen.
Jewish Rabbis didn’t go looking for students. Students went looking for a Rabbi. And only the best were allowed to follow. A Rabbi recruiting random students was ridiculous.
It’d be like Harvard Law admitting the first 50 people who liked their Facebook page. It’s not how these things work.
But it’s how Jesus worked. And it’s how he works today. He calls everyone and accepts anyone who’s interested.
The great Irish theologian, Bono, said, “It used to shock me that the Scriptures are brim full of hustlers, murderers, cowards, and adulterers. But now it’s a source of great comfort.”
Me too, Bono. We should hang out.
What a relief that the Bible isn’t about perfect little angels who do everything right. If it was, I couldn’t read it.
Thank God it’s about people—damaged, guilty, scared—whom God sweeps into His arms, heals, and uses to change the world.
Jesus wasn’t turned off by the rap sheets of his first disciples, and he isn’t turned off by yours either. One of the more destructive lies we tell ourselves is that we don’t deserve to be used by God, that something in our past disqualifies us.
No. We serve a God of second chances, a God who uses broken things to make the world whole.
I was talking to a young girl who’d been called some ugly things. I tried to tell her about the good I saw in her, but she stopped me and said, “If you knew the things I did, you wouldn’t like me.”
It hit me: that’s how we feel about God. We believe He loves us, but we don’t believe He likes us. At least not enough to use us. He has priests and missionaries for that, people who aren’t quite so broken.
But it’s not true. Jesus used regular, flawed people to set the world on fire with love.
God doesn’t just love you. He likes you. He chose you. And He’ll use you. The only question is whether you’ll let Him.
Following Jesus doesn’t mean abandoning your life and moving to Calcutta. It can be done right where you are.
“But I don’t know how,” you might say.
Me neither. That’s why Jesus said, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” That’s the good news. We don’t do it on our own. We can’t, which is why we follow.
Which brings me back to love, because when you love someone you’ll follow them anywhere.
Which brings me back to Intermediate Jazz and my final exam.
I’ve never been a shy person but that day I wanted to find a rock and die under it. But I couldn’t, because I needed to graduate.
So I stepped out from the group and danced alone. And for a minute or two, it was OK. But then it happened. My ears stopped working. I couldn’t hear the music. I froze and felt so stupid.
But then someone started clapping to the music. And she kept clapping until I found the beat and finished my dance.
That may seem trivial to you, but it isn’t to me. She rescued me and I’ll never forget it.
Following Jesus will take us into uncomfortable territory. We will be stretched.
But here’s what I know. The God who calls us, goes ahead of us. And when we lose the music, and can’t find the beat, a pair of hands will appear.
And they will clap.
And they will clap.
Until we all finish our dance.
1. IT’S OK TO BE SCARED.
I was terrified when my son was born. Overjoyed? You bet. But also terrified. I was thirty, in a loving, stable marriage, employed, and scared out of my bloody mind. Who’s actually ready to be a father? Nobody. So stand up, take a deep breath, and get ready to become the man you’ve always hoped you could be. You’re not ready. Do it anyway.
2. CHANGE EVERY DIAPER.
Yes, it’s gross. Yes, it’s hard in the dark. Yes, you’ll be terrible at it. Do it anyway. Wiping a baby will forever change the way you experience love. Something magical happens when we use our hands to love. I can’t explain it. You just have to do it. You’ll never regret it. Well, actually, you might regret some of them. Do it anyway.
3. SPY ON BABY AT NIGHT.
Your wife will threaten to kill you if you wake the baby. And sometimes, you will. And she will try to kill you. Do it anyway. There is no view on earth like the one from above the crib at night. If you want a sneak peak of the Good Lord’s shore this side of a heart attack, watch your baby sleep. Then slip your finger in his hand, and try not to lose it when the warmth of his palm becomes the only thing in the world.
4. TAKE CHARGE OF BATH TIME.
Your wife will always do more than you. Always. No matter how hard you try, she’ll have you beat. More diapers, more feedings, more everything. She’ll forget more things she’s done for the baby than you’ll actually do. So in the evenings, pour her wine, kiss her, and order her to the couch. You got bath time. Your back will kill and your knees will ache. Do it anyway. It just might turn out to be the best part of your whole day.
5. GO TO DINNER, SANS BABY.
I love my kid. I also love my sanity. But I love my wife’s sanity even more. Because, as they says, if mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy. I am not rich, but I pay for a babysitter at least once a month. You can’t afford it. Do it anyway.
6. KISS YOUR BABY.
He or she will grow up. Kissing that baby face is a limited edition kind of deal. Don’t miss out. We live in a hard world. Your baby’s fat face is an oasis of innocence that will restore your soul on the toughest of days. So cup it in your hands and kiss it madly. Warning: you might weep with love. Do it anyway.
7. DON’T USE ONE OF THOSE BABY SLINGS.
You’re a dude. Carry your baby in your arms like your father did. I’m six feet tall and barely weigh a hundred and forty pounds. I can’t do ten consecutive pushups. But I can hold my baby. You will be miserable walking around the mall. Do it anyway. When you can’t take it anymore, do the smartest thing a man can do: ask your wife for help.
During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln was often criticized for not being harsh enough with Confederate soldiers; and one time, after a battle, a general from the North said,”Why didn’t you destroy your enemy?”
To which Lincoln said, “Do I not destroy my enemy by making him my friend?”
To which I say, “Damn.”
I heard of a woman who received a nice settlement from a lawsuit. Afterward, she was still furious. Her lawyer asked, “What’s wrong? What you got was more than fair.”
“What I wanted,” she said, “was for somebody to look me in the eye and say, ‘I’m sorry this happened.’”
We all know this. But saying sorry is hard, isn’t it?
In a book called Being Wrong, author Kathryn Schulz writes: “As a culture, we haven’t mastered the basic skill of saying ‘I was wrong.’”
Think about that. We fly robots to Mars. We cure disease. We’re the most advanced people in the history of humanity.
But we can’t say sorry.
Why? Maybe it’s because our culture is upside down on the issue. There’s a famous line from the movie, Love Story – remember it? “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”
Love means having to say you’re sorry all the time. Preferably every fifteen minutes.
There’s a thousand answers that could be given for why we don’t do it, so let me focus on one: pride.
Pride trivializes God’s mercy in our lives.Pride makes it hard to appreciate what God has done.
We’re like the young rich man who can’t follow Jesus because his heart is consumed by wealth. He’s spiritually blind to his need for Christ. Why follow Jesus when you already have what you need?
Dorothy Day said the closer she grew to God the more she could acknowledge her sinfulness because she saw that God never abandoned her to sin but repeatedly extended his mercy.
That’s the secret. Drawing closer to God allows us to see ourselves for who we are: fragile creatures in need of grace.
It’s tough to say sorry when we’re doing life on our own. Easier when resting in God’s mercy.
It comes down to pride. We don’t apologize because we see it as weakness. But it’s not.
A recent study on leadership found that admitting fault and apologizing creates solidarity, innovation, and openness to change.
So, saying sorry literally makes us more creative and successful. Sorry isn’t weakness; it’s power.
When we need to say sorry, who keeps us from doing it? Nobody.
We hold all the power. And that’s the problem, because our tendency is to address our weaknesses and struggle with them. But there is often little moral effort where we are strong.
But in scripture sin resides not so much in our weaknesses but in our strengths. Because God doesn’t kick us when we’re down. He lifts us up.
Think about Jesus with the adulteress, refusing to condemn her, daring others to throw the first stone. He whispers something hidden in her ear, then says, “Go and sin no more.”
Scripture is filled with a God who grieves with us in our weakness and offers grace to help us overcome.
It’s when we sin in our strength that God drops the metaphorical hammer. When we simply don’t bother to do what we can.
The rich man could have followed Jesus and given his money to the poor, but he doesn’t. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the priest and the Levite could have cared for the wounded man, but they don’t. In the last judgment scene of Matthew’s gospel, those who are condemned are told their fault lies in their unwillingness to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, and clothe the naked.
The story of sin, like the call to repentance, concerns those areas of our lives where we could have tried harder, precisely because we were able to do so. Christ judges not the weak heart that struggles, but rather the strong heart that does not bother.
We hold enormous power over one another. We can withhold an apology and wreak havoc. Or, we can trust God’s mercy, lay down our pride, and offer this little word of healing.
The choice is ours.
- I never wanted to shove an endless parade of facts into your brain. Instead, I hoped to kindle your heart and your mind to search for truth and beauty. I hope I did that.
- I never wanted to be another heavy-handed authority figure, but someone you could respect, laugh with, and learn something from. I hope I did that.
- I never wanted to treat you like a child but the emerging adult you are. I tried very hard to afford you the dignity, grace and respect you so richly deserve, so that you might want to treat your fellow classmates the same way. I know I did that, because you were so kind.
- I never wanted to bore you during chapel, so I weaved stories into my sermons so you might hear God’s narrative and be intrigued to dive further into the mystery of the Divine. I hope I did that.
- I never wanted to give you much homework because I wanted religion class to not only inspire your interest in God but in all of education. I wanted you to work hard in Chemistry, Math, and History because I knew your other teachers had so many rich gifts to offer you. I hope I did that. And I really hope you know how tremendously talented your teachers are and how very much they love you.
- I never wanted to be too busy for you. I cherished every time you came into my classroom just to talk. You taught me more than you know. I hope I did that.
- I never wanted you to know I was frustrated when you annoyed the heck out of me because I wanted to set an example of patience. Our hours together were short, and I wanted you to be the kind of person who always, always, always errs on the side of mercy. I hope I did that.
- I never wanted you to know how funny I thought you were or that I understood every one of your inappropriate jokes. I know I didn’t do that, because I always ended up laughing. Sorry.
- I never wanted to stop being your teacher but I knew I had to because I had to follow my own advice to you: Never, ever, ever stop chasing your dreams. Remember, the successful person is not the person with the most money, or the most resources, or the most talent, or the most beauty. The successful person is the one who gets up every day and gives it their all. I’m giving my all today, and I hope you are too.
- I never wanted to be this cheesy in front of you, so I did it on the Internet. Peace and Love, Saints.