Advent 3 Fulfilled Time
Isaiah 11:1-5; Lk. 1:67-79
Our passage this morning is preceded by a story. Zechariah probably has more in common with us than we know. An urban Jerusalemite, he is visited by an Angel that tells him his wife is going to have a baby. He is not exactly enthusiastic. “Really?” He says. “In case God has forgotten, I’m old and my wife is old”. He starts to kvetch to God. God is used to hearing the kvetching of the Jewish people, who are not that much different than New Yorkers. It appears that God has heard this all before from Zechariah and is growing a little tired of it. The Angel says to Zechariah, “The sign will be that you shut up for the entire length of your wife’s pregnancy beginning now.” And with that he is struck mute miraculously.
9 months later, the baby is born, and another miracle happens. Zechariah starts to talk again. Only this time, he doesn’t kvetch but sings about the blessing that his life really is. Are you in need of a miracle like that right now?
New Yorkers also have carping and kvetching as their default mode. And this time of year, there are more than the usual list of things to complain about.
I remember a conversation many years ago with a guy that was processing some family issues just after his mother and father had both died. Things hadn’t gone well with his siblings around the funeral. But it was more than that. He had a lot of bitterness about what he didn’t get from his family which he described in some extended detail. He talked about how his parents should have gotten divorced but didn’t because you just didn’t do that back in the early 60’s and how his parents tension-filled relationship had almost poisoned his generation because this was the model that all of his siblings had to follow and so most everyone was divorced at least once. His parents poor relationship was really no surprise because his grandfather was distant and aloof, not really emotionally available and his grandmother was controlling. And all of these issues he had struggled with most of his life. It is the lament of a goodly portion of our cosmopolitan area, ‘why couldn’t I have just had normal people and a normal childhood?’
Almost by accident, I said to him, ‘you know what strikes me as I listen to you unpack all of this? It is somewhat amazing that you are here at all. I mean, your grandparents didn’t get along, so it was improbable that your Dad was actually born. And your parents were already on the rocks soon after their marriage, so it is even more unlikely that you would have been born.
Really, the fact that you are here is something of a miracle. And your wife is actually something of an angel because she put up with all of your handicaps and worked with you to become healed and your marriage isn’t perfect but it is pretty good seeing as how you are still married and relatively happy. So, maybe if you zoom out for a minute, maybe you’ve had about as much fulfillment in your life as you could actually have given where you started from.”
He stood up, slack jawed and said, ‘Thank you…. I’m done’ and walked out of my office with his coffee. The pity party was over before I could even adjust my little party hat. Perhaps our text this morning is encouraging all of us to zoom out for a moment on our lives and try to view them from the divine perspective.
I just got through reading a book entitled “The Paradox of Generosity” in which the authors demonstrate with statistics what we already know to be true from the teaching of Jesus that in giving, we receive and in grasping we lose. These researchers interviewed people on how fulfilled they were in their lives and then they went back and asked the same people a series of follow-up questions on how generous they were. Lo, behold, the people that were the most fulfilled were also the most generous. Likewise, there was what social researchers call ‘a statistically significant’ correlation between unhappiness and a lack of generosity.
The results of the study brought to mind the proverb of Confucius who said, “If you want to be happy for an hour- take a nap; If you want to be happy for a day- go fishing. If you want to be happy for a month-get married. If you want to be happy for a year- inherit a fortune. If you want to be happy for a life-time, help someone else.”
I was interested in their study because what they end up describing is an inner-dialogue that we all have with ourselves and it evolves as we grow through adulthood. They interviewed a couple that was less generous and less fulfilled, a couple you may recognize fairly well.
They lived in one of those new suburbs in South Carolina, probably outside Greenville. Most of them are gated or self-contained these days. This one was full of people that are transplants, having moved away from their relatives for a better job, better schools. The couple remarks that they have attended misfit Thanksgivings in their cul-de-sac because none of their neighbors have family anywhere near them.
Both around 40, the husband and wife work, supporting two children at home. When interviewed, they put a lot of stress on the importance of their nuclear family. Mom says they are always first. The Dad says “we don’t like to rely on others- I think we rely on each other and family or just the four of us. Not having family around has made us more cohesive.”
The couple gave full support to the ethic of autonomy. Like a lot of Americans, they stressed over and over that ‘there is no free lunch’, nor should there be. They put a lot of value on shouldering your own load and making your own way.
Neither one of them found their jobs particularly fulfilling but they did it because it pays the bills and allows them to live in a safer neighborhood. They socialize with their neighbors but they aren’t close to any of them particularly. At one point, they mention that there had been some tension on their block because a husband started an affair with someone else’s wife. And this couple had chosen to play the Switzerland role of neutrality, taking no sides on the issue. “Your private life is your private life” one of them explained.
They don’t actually give money to charity but they are not against the idea. They just think that it is a personal choice, whatever works for you. Neither of them felt any moral or spiritual compulsion to give.
It was interesting that they exhibited something of the same attitude when they were asked about a couple of social issues as well. Their oldest child goes to a private school because the local high school had mandated busing to integrate. When they asked Mom about why she said that she didn’t feel that her daughter should pay the price for equality and desegregation.
Likewise the subject of global warming came up in the course of conversation and the Dad remarked, “I don’t pay attention a lot to that. But in the big picture of, “Is the ice all gonna melt in Anartica? Yeah, sure, it probably is. Am I gonna be here? Probably not. Are my kids gonna be here? Probably not.”
When they asked the Dad if he has a sense of purpose in life, he explains that he doesn’t really think much about things like that. “I don’t feel I have a calling or a drive… I don’t need to join the Peace Corps.”
They don’t support any charities but they give money away occasionally after natural disasters or when faced with someone in immediate need but they can exactly explain why they do it. They just have a soft spot.
They are starting to have a bit of that mid-life ennui. They keep it at bay by routinely having another goal out in front of them. Last year they added a new deck to their back yard. And now they are planning to add a pool in the near future. After that a beach house. That sense of moving on up, works pretty well early on, but it loses its power when you start to live the complexities of middle age. And the anxiety of that sense of ‘not having enough’ is like chimera, so that the more you have, the less fulfilling it is and the more anxious you feel.
They live on a very tight budget and when asked if they could pare down, that is rejected outright, saying that they would prefer to work more. They are living the paradox that we all know too well.
“They say they want a close-knit community but they [are not real connected’ and they are unwilling to spend much time helping their friends solve problems” nor “does their daughter attend local school”. They want to feel comfortable financially, but they stretch their dollars to the max and keep a tight budget with little room for error.”
The wife explains that she suffers from ulcers but she doesn’t see that she has set her life up so that happiness is in the future and it will remain on the horizon because the couple defines it only in terms of more, bigger, better. The researchers say that what they discovered over and over is the irony is that when your life is really about me and mine, fulfillment becomes elusive. What replaces it is different kinds of rumbling hunger. Unfortunately, this couple has no idea why they are suffering from a low-grade ennui- neither do your relatives right?
By contrast, when the researchers found a couple that described themselves as quite fulfilled, they found a decidedly different expression of values. This couple also both work and are relatively successful. They too live in the suburbs but they intentionally chose to live in one that was racially diverse. Partly that might be because the husband was the son of Polish immigrants and the wife was a daughter of Fillipino immigrants.
Also, they chose a town, not that different from Summit, where neighborhoods are the priority and the lots are all built out, so there are no little gated developments.
This couple could build a bigger house but they don’t live in as big a house as they could afford. When they were pressed to explain this, they worried about becoming shallow and materialistic. Said the husband, “I don’t think it is good for people’s souls to be so materialistic. I go to parties with my neighbors, and it they could quit talking about their granite countertops or the new SUV they want to buy, it’s like, I get it that everybody likes nice stuff, but if that is all there is, it’s unsettling to me.”
Neither one of them are active in Church, I’m sad to say, but that is because they just couldn’t “buy the whole package” of their Catholic upbringing. But both of them were moved by the Church’s teachings about the dignity of all human persons and they instill those values in their daughter as well.
Neither of them thinks of themselves as particularly generous but they do give away about 5% of their earnings every year. They saved for their child’s college. They have a retirement. They give back to the scholarship fund at their college. They are saving so that their daughter will have a nest egg. The rest they plan to put into a charitable trust.
The husband gives blood regularly and is registered as an organ donor. His wife recently purchased a benefit table for a luncheon raising funds for a halfway house. When they asked him if he’d ever done anything to really go out of his way to help others, he replied, not really, but since he was a scuba diver, he was horrified to hear about the BP oil spill in the Gulf in 2009, so he went down to volunteer with the clean-up operation. Why? Because he had some skills and if everyone would just do what they can, it would make a difference.
When asked if he could remember anything else like that, he noted that his roommate in grad school was quadriplegic. “I helped him in the morning to get dressed, bathed him when he needed it, helped him shave and fixed his hair… At night I fixed him meals and helped him to bed. I have very fond memories, he’s a friend of mine.”
I think the researchers said “Wow”. And he remarked, “sometimes it was a little tedious but I never felt put upon.” In the interview, he didn’t even mention that he also took care of his grandfather routinely towards the end of his life, driving a couple hours in both directions to sit and be with him, so his uncle could catch a break for a while and run some errands. His wife threw that in, so when the researchers asked him about, you know what he said, “It is no big deal.”
Listen, my grandfather left a small village in Poland, moved to a country where he barely spoke the language and didn’t know anyone, just so his children and grandchildren could have a better opportunity to live in freedom. Caring for him was just a token of my gratitude.
When they asked the couple if they had a sense of purpose for their lives, they both responded immediately with reference to their daughter and their community that they wanted to leave the world in a better place and give back in appreciation for the sacrifices made for them. Is that enough? One of them asked.
They both had a deep sense of fulfillment, a grounded sense of mission for their lives, and a vibrant set of friends and relationships that sustain them. The researchers said that over and over what they found is that people who live like that end up creating social clusters that are also focused on blessing other people around them and what they discovered as the positive paradox is that being focused on genuinely fulfilling those around them, they actually end up with a social world that bends back to indirectly bless them in all kinds of subtle but significant ways.
Zoom out, my friends. Your life is a miracle and you are only here because of an unlikely set of circumstances that came together in just the right inexact way. In spite of your kvetching and carping, your life really is buoyed by a sea of blessing. In this season, may the Angel come to you and shut up the Ebeneezer in you that is always lamenting what you aren’t getting and still need.
For unto you also, God want to give the knowledge of salvation for all the people. God draws near to you for the forgiveness of your short-comings. God will show you tender mercy from on high. And the light shines in your darkness. And God will guide your feet in the paths of peace.
Hard as it is for you to believe, God has a miracle in store for you. Amen.