Christmas is over…. And the best thing about that for longsuffering husbands is that we no longer have to watch the Hallmark Channel. This cannot be just me. Show of hands?
They have one plot, developed in 500 different story lines… High powered woman from New York or LA, doesn’t have time to smell the roses because she is working her way up the ladder. Some accident takes her to small town where the whole focus of the month is finding the spirit of Christmas, volunteering to help others, and make our world a better place.
Oh, and one of the leaders for the town is a single, hunky, super, good looking guy, just her age, with an even bigger heart than his rugged good looks, perhaps a cute puppy named Max, or an adorable niece named Buffy. She finally has an epiphany, ditches her New York job, and we cut to people hugging in the snowfall with the Rocky Mountains in the background.
For those of us overwhelmed by anxiety and stress at the end of the year, who need to see a happily ever after ending. It is just the elixir.
A tad too sentimental? Sure. But the genre is addictive to our overworked, overstressed culture because it reminds us that there is something more.
That hope is why we come to church. We just know that there is something more, something deeper that Jesus was onto.
You will get to this point in your life where that need for ‘something more’ starts to predominate. We all do. I think of one of my good friends from college.
Just after we graduated, he wanted to be a big success. Went to Wharton Business School. Got into the gravy train track as a newly minted MBA, was lucky enough to make a big pile of money taking a start up public in the 90’s, parlayed that into an incredible array of connections. If we’d had Facebook back then, his feed would have featured pictures of him at lunch with a host of powerful people during the year, including the President of the United States.
He built a big house, had frequent flyer miles to take his family on vacations to the Seychelles. He was one of those guys that had a T-Shirt that said, “Money is how I keep score”. He knew all the best restaurants, was invited into these really cool social circles with powerful and famous people.
He was really great at reputation management. The psychologist James Hollis says that during this phase of our life, we are always asking ourselves, “How do I measure up? Where do I rank? In this phase of our life, we largely think of ourselves as “I am what the world says I am” and we want to be well thought of.
There is nothing wrong with any of the quest. We need to demonstrate to ourselves that we are competent, that we can become great at what we do. It is pride in the good sense of that word.
Other people think well of us, they respect us. We want that. Maybe our fraternity brothers even envy us… one of the real markers that we made it. These bastards think we have. Right?
The best thing about hitting a hole in one in golf is having your buddies sign the card to attest to it. For just a moment, you are the man… They have to put their names in ink on your scorecard. You live for that.
But something happens along the way of this ascent towards career success. Sometimes you just get near the top and you think to yourself, “Man my life has the greatest perq’s but… now that I’ve done them… is this it? Is this all there is?
Sometimes your luck turns against you. You get fired. Or Amazon comes along and ruins your whole brilliant business plan. The Market knocks you off your perch.
In his case, his daughter got a terminal disease, a life threatening disorder. It was a really rare disease, incredibly lethal. What he and his wife loved most in life was under threat and there was almost nothing he could do about it.
Sure, he made calls. Friends connected them with the best medicine in the world. They tried one new procedure, another clinical test trial. It was a fantastic display of cooperation among our friends. But no matter what they did, the best medicine we had going, he couldn’t control this like he wanted to. He couldn’t keep his daughter safe.
He went up and down, up and down, raging, depressed, hopeful, determined, envisioning the impossible. Weeks, months, years…
Internally, in his soul, he wasn’t just frightened, although he was. He wasn’t just anxious, although he was. He became lost and lost to himself.
He was spiritually stymied. If his daughter was dying. If his wife and he were carrying around this huge burden together, both anxious and nervous all the time… He couldn’t remember why he should live. He couldn’t find meaning.
He was going through the motions of his job, his life, but at night, nothing really mattered to him suddenly and he couldn’t make the old things matter even when he tried.
It was really scary and he felt like he was no longer piloting the boat of his life. He was just bouncing on the deck as waves pushed the boat this way, then that. And he was just trying to find some balance.
He called me to let me know that he was going on a three day spiritual retreat, a silent retreat. He took with him one book, “The Spiritual Exercises” by Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits.
For all of his vaunted success as an athlete, as an entrepreneur, as a power broker, as a purveyor of the finer things of this life (wine and cigars). He needed something new, something that transcended himself. He needed something more. Real faith… real hope.
He couldn’t articulate it then, but he wanted to become spiritually whole. He no longer wanted to be a consumer of what our world has to offer. He wanted to be consumed by something deeper, by a moral cause, by a spiritual quest.
He couldn’t care about conquest after she became so sick. He wanted to become interdependent with other people through their suffering. He met so many other families that were going through what his family was going through in getting his daughter went through. And they started forming much deeper relationships with them than he had ever experienced. He was ready to trade his independence for intimacy with other people that were suffering, for responsibility, for commitment. He wanted to become a ‘person for others.’
He was ready to trade all the happiness and glamour of his old life for a deeper sense of purpose, for a sense of caring, involvement.
He realized that he needed to shed his old ego in order to let a new spiritual chrysalis in himself be born. St. Paul used to say that we need to ‘die to our old self to be reborn.’
The life of Jesus shows us that as he progresses through his life. He endures suffering and it could swamp him but it doesn’t.
He could have whined about what he did not get. Jesus was misunderstood, viewed as a threat rather than help to the powerful in his society.
Jesus could have become bitter about the respect that he didn’t receive. He could have been small, complaining endlessly about the unfairness of the system.
Jesus could have held onto every resentment and thrown tantrums about how others kept him back.
He could have been small. We all are, when we are weak, insecure.
But Jesus didn’t do that. And we shouldn’t either. It doesn’t work spiritually. This is the way of childish rage and it is not a profound response to the actual threats that come at us.
Ultimately, he let the suffering that he experienced in his daughter’s life threatening situation open him to the suffering of others in the world around him. He let his suffering break him open. He released his former self, his former ego to God. He shed that ego. It became transcended.
People describe it as being summoned, of being called beyond that first ego that was so ambitious, so strategic and calculating, so independent through competition with everyone around you.
It is about being called towards something more profound- something relational, something intimate. It is being lure towards moral and spiritual purpose and recognizing that we have only a limited time on this earth together and that in the limited time we have, we need to line ourselves up, guided by an ultimate good. Jesus called it the Kingdom of God.
At some point, as we go through our own valley in the shadow of death, we realize that the point of our lives is not about attaining this idealized image of success that people have told us that we need to find.
There is something beyond that. Something that is about maturing, about us changing and spiritually growing, morally growing.
Our lives are not only about acquiring. They are also about contributing. Our lives are not about being elite and avoiding difficulties that the little people have to put up with. They are also about realizing that we are all confronted with suffering and death and that through that suffering, we can connect with people around us more deeply. We can become vulnerable and open ourselves precisely through our broken places.
In the book “Practical Wisdom” exemplifies the difference with a story about a hospital janitor named Luke. “In the hospital where Luke worked, there was a young man who’d gotten into a fight and was now in a coma, and wasn’t coming out. Every day, his father sat by his side in silent vigil, and had done so for six months. One day, Luke came in and cleaned the young man’s room. His father wasn’t there; he was out getting a smoke. Later that day, Luke ran into the father in the hallway. The father snapped at Luke and accused him of not cleaning his son’s room.
Luke could have said, “I did clean his room; it is just that you were out smoking.” But Luke had become transformed in his own personal life spiritually. He understood that this was not about him, his ego- him and his job. He had come to realize that what he did in the world as serving patients and serving their families.
He looked at the Father and realized that the Father needed some comfort. Luke allowed himself to become changed by others and their needs. He took a new path now. He saw a man in crisis, hurting.
What did he do? He cleaned the room again.
When the researchers asked him about why he did what he did, Luke said, “I cleaned it so that he could see me cleaning it… I can understand how he could be. It was like six months that his son was there. He was frustrated. So, I cleaned it again.”[ii]
When we transcend our own ego, we release the transcendent spiritual power of reconciliation in simple moments like Luke went through. The New Testament describes this as a peace that pervades our world like a divine miracle. We start to see others and what they need and we meet those needs because we have an abundance of compassion and care.
When that is reciprocal. When we get into that zone with a spouse, a close friend, we unleash the most profound love we humans are given to know.
When we can extend that to a small group of people around us, when we can exhibit that compassion and care for each other, we become part of the most profound community we humans are given to know.
The New Testament describes this as upending the values we started off with in the acquisitive part of our life. It says that Jesus humbled himself even unto death and that through that humility he became the greatest… The greatest what? He embodied our most profound compassion and love.
He allowed himself to grow through the process of being broken open. And through that process, through being broken open he tapped into the more spiritually profound way of being in the world.
And I hope that for you. I wish you didn’t have to be broken open. But life being what it is, it is almost guaranteed.
But when you are broken. May it become an opening for you. May you find the more elevated part of yourself. This is not something that happens all at once. It is your whole life. And it is not something that you can simply will once and it will be done. It is a process, and some of it will just happen to you against your will.
And you will not simply stay in it. The petty and the small in us return over and over, even when we are in the divine zone of love.
But start out. Invite God into your life. Pray. Develop spiritual friendships. Form a spiritual community here. Share your lives with others that are allowing themselves to be guided by the Divine as their north star.
And may you wade into the deeper pool of spiritual joy and meaning that comes from the transcendent spiritual quest. May you stumble on something more… Amen.
[i] My colleague Michael Usey says that part of the calling of the Preacher is to become a great editor. Today, I am simply rehearsing the Introduction to David Brook’s new book, “The Second Mountain.” There is no original idea in this sermon. All of it comes from pps. Xii-xvi. I haven’t yet had the chance to read the rest of the book but Brooks does a masterful job of describing this critical axis of our moral and spiritual life. I simply put it in terms that relate to the Biblical calling.