We grow accustomed to each other in a peculiar way, beyond excellence or inadequacy or anything else. God brought us together in the exemplary and characteristic way God acts in the world–through the ministry of the Church–and that forges a unique bond. Rupturing it, and forming it anew with new people, is a much weightier task than I’d been able to imagine when the bishop laid his hands on me and I knew only the pure and shiny farewells of the perennial student.
That is what I have hoped to impress upon you over these years of being together face to face around the words of our faith: Your very presence here is a victory. It infuriates the demons and thrills the saints and angels. Your very presence here puts you in the path of grace that you cannot earn and yet that claims all of your life. Your very presence here brings you to the throne of God, whether the sermon is memorable for two seconds after it ends or the hymns take off or you’re sad or angry or just not feeling it today. Christ has brought you home through danger and temptation and opened your voice to praise. That in itself is a victory. That is the resurrection from the dead.
On Sunday you paid very moving tribute to my work here. For the last six weeks, in fact, you’ve been telling me what I’ve meant to you, in cards and conversations and kind messages on Facebook. It’s been overwhelming. So it’s only fair that I acknowledge what you have meant to me. Not just that you were gracious and kind and receptive, to me and to my family, but that you were, in fact, the difference between continuing to answer my vocation to ordained ministry and quite possibly washing out of that ministry altogether.
As a society, we seem to have over-learned Jesus’s lesson about leaving the ninety-nine to find one who is lost. Or maybe it sounds more familiar than it really is. The stories that attract the heaviest tears and the loudest applause in our society are not stories of steadfast virtue. They are stories of ruin and redemption, of being lost and found. Think about it: would anyone have watched VH1’s series ‘Behind the Music’ if it featured a musician who stayed true to his wife, drank iced tea, and read books while he was on the road? Probably not.
So something really strange started happening to me after the birth of our daughter. I would be out with her somewhere, usually with one or both of the boys, and I would become obsessed with the thought that I had left her in the parking lot before we went home. And it was crazy, because I had just buckled her in. But your mind plays tricks on you.
If I’d been given advance knowledge of how this would go–all the medical stuff, the sick nights, the background hum of destruction–when we were asked to take her, I honestly don’t know what I would have said. So it’s a mercy that I didn’t know, because as hard as it’s been, I don’t regret it. She is barnacled to me for everything from bedtime to bathroom trips to doing kitchen chores. I can’t pretend that I don’t sometimes resent this, especially now as I am trying to make my peace with her departure from our home. “Please don’t need me like this,” I mean to say when I just get frustrated.
Of all the Ten Commandments, this is probably the one I’m worst at. I’m going to go home tonight and work on my book manuscript. And Jewish interpreters insist that studying the Scriptures does not count as working, so maybe I could get off on a technicality. But I know better. I’m working. Working to feel useful, working to make money, working so that I know I am making the best use of my time. Working because I think of time as my tool, not as God’s free gift to me.
I think I had almost as much fun playing these games last Monday as I ever did as a kid. One of the joys of parenthood is letting yourself regress to childhood now and then without feeling too self-conscious about it.
But it feels different, as an adult, too. Zooming Ms. Pac Man around the maze, staying one step ahead of the ghosts, eating all the pellets you can get while you delay the inevitable “game over”—that’s a little too real life. That’s a little too close to home.
I’m going to pause here and admit that I preached the heck out of this story back when I was an intern making $500 a month on the Southside of Chicago. I could really hear Jesus then. Now, I have a real job, and I have two kids, and I get pension contributions from the church. And this text hits me harder. Because I am torn, as many of us are, between wanting to faithful to what Jesus says here and throughout the Gospels, and wanting to make some provision for my own and my family’s future.
So would you conclude from this fact, if it’s a fact, that all of our ideas about altruism are just a bunch of unrealistic religious mumbo-jumbo that we’d be better off without? Altruism is really hard, after all. We’re not very good at it. So maybe it’s best to forget the whole thing and live the way evolution made us to be.