Carlos Wilton, September 16, 2012 – 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B; Mark 8:27-38
“For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”
“The world breaks everyone,” writes Ernest Hemingway in A Farewell to Arms, “and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”
Imagine a teacup — a delicate, bone-china teacup — sitting on a shelf, a cherished family heirloom. Someone bumps into the shelf. The cup teeters. Then, in one of those agonizing, slow-motion moments, it tips off the shelf and falls.
It breaks: a single, jagged fissure running from one end of the cup to the other.
There are several choices, when such a thing happens.
You can — with wistful sadness — drop the two pieces of the cup into a trash can.
You can do what my dear wife often does: you can take the two broken pieces and place them back up on the shelf. (It will never hold another cup of tea, but it is a family heirloom, after all.)
Or, you can take the two pieces, pick up a tube of the strongest super-glue you can find and, ever-so-carefully, lay a delicate ribbon of the adhesive along both sides of the break. Press the two pieces together. Hold them for as much time and with as much force as it takes for the glue to bond. If you’ve done it correctly, the cup is useful once again.
But, it’s not as strong as it once was. It never is. The claims of certain glue manufacturers aside, I don’t think an adhesive has ever been invented that makes a broken teacup stronger than it was before. Repeated heating and cooling of the china will, in time, weaken the bond. Sooner or later, the break will recur. And the place where that’s going to happen is along that jagged line. For that is the broken place: and it is weak.
So, what does Hemingway mean, by saying many become “strong at the broken places”? It defies logic (not to mention our everyday experience of broken things).
I’m not sure what it is he meant. I don’t know much about the quality of Hemingway’s personal religious faith, though it would seem — from the fact that he ended his own life with a shotgun barrel in his mouth — that he was himself broken, in more ways than his tough-guy exterior would suggest.
But I have an idea of what this famous line of his probably means. Perhaps — as a result of his own experience driving an ambulance in the Spanish Civil War — Hemingway had the opportunity to witness a larger-than-usual amount of human suffering. As he carried one wounded boy after another from a place near the thick of the fighting to the field hospital at the rear, he noticed (as do all who ply that grim trade) a subtle difference between them.
Some gravely-wounded soldiers called out plaintively for their mothers. Others railed at their fate, cursing the heavens for disfigured faces, and missing limbs. But others — the ones who most interested him, as a novelist, and filled him with awe — faced their dilemma with a quiet resolution. Hemingway could discern — in a barely perceptible spark in their eyes, in the quiet-but-focused way they spoke of their condition, in the way they marshaled their inner resources for the challenges ahead — an unaccountable determination. Those who could call forth this inner strength were the ones most likely to make it.
Were you to drive an ambulance across one deeply-rutted battlefield after another, and were you to have the opportunity to follow the progress of any of those wounded warriors from triage to treatment and into recovery, I expect you’d gain a certain skill, in time. You’d gain the ability to guess, with a fair degree of accuracy, which of these patients was most likely not only to survive, but to thrive.
These are the people who become strong at the broken places.
It’s Rally Day, the day we kick off our fall Christian Education programs. Amidst all the fun and games, I have a question to ask each of the parents — or grandparents — who bring children to learn of Jesus Christ and to study the Bible: “Is it not true that one of the things you most fervently wish, for the members of the upcoming generation under your care, is that they would become strong at the broken places?”
There are lots of things we can do to help young people grow strong. We can feed them nutritious food. We can get them away from the computer screen at regular intervals and into physical exercise. We can sign them up for soccer or gymnastics or dance. All these activities build physical strength — and, to the degree they push these young athletes or artists beyond the limits they’d otherwise set — they not only build muscle mass and coordination, but also cultivate that inner spark of determination.
Yet, when it comes to the serious struggles of life — the struggles few of us, during the sheltered years we live under our parents’ roof, have reason to experience — there’s only one thing I know of that imparts that kind of survivability: and that’s faith in God.
I look on you parents and grandparents of this church with great admiration. All of you wish the best for the children under your care, and a great many of you follow through on that desire. It’s why you’re here today. It’s why you’re ready to make the sacrifices and give the time to transform those fervent hopes into reality.
I wish there were more of you, attending Rally Day events this month, in this and other churches. I wish there were more parents making their way up to the mark, squatting down at the starting-line in the famous runner’s stance, ready to run the race of Christian parenting set out before you.
What good does it do, asks Jesus — in Mark, chapter 8 — if young people achieve this usual sort of success: if they gain the whole world, but lose their life? He’s not talking about physical life. It’s the life of the spirit. All those Little League participation trophies, those adorable photos of the dance recitals, those high SAT scores are all good and worthy goals. Yet — and this is they key question, perhaps the most important question parents ever ask themselves — “Will these trophies make them strong at the broken places?”
None of us likes to think of anyone we love being broken: undergoing suffering and, one day, facing mortality. Yet, there’s one thing I’ve learned — especially after getting cancer in my forties. I’ve become acutely aware of one simple, inescapable truth about human existence: none of us gets out of here alive. More than that — and, here, I’m reflecting on the experience of those older than myself, who as a pastor I’ve had the opportunity to observe more closely than many of my generation — there’s no human life that’s free of a certain amount of suffering, be it physical or emotional.
Most of those activities that compete so strongly for the limited number of hours in children’s lives are intended to make them better people. Such pursuits are focused on a shimmering goal: that enviable season of life when those young people kicking a soccer ball or packing for the Scout camping trip are in their mid-to-late twenties or maybe their early thirties. It’s the time when they’ve been out in the world a little while, and have truly coming into their own. That’s the goal of all this frenetic activity, all this schooling and extracurricular activities beyond number.
It is when young people reach such milestones as these that those responsible for raising them may, with some justification, quietly congratulate themselves on having done a good job. “See,” they say to one another, “it was worth it after all — all those hours of chauffeuring, of coaching, of volunteering at the snack stand, of signing check after check to pay for those lessons. This remarkable young person, who not so very long ago was a babe in arms, has become a son or daughter any parent would be proud of.”
But that’s only the early part of life. Those twenty- and thirty-somethings have a long way to go after that. Longer, in fact – on the average – than any people who have walked the face of this earth.
Historians will one day observe – they’ve started to do it already – that one of the sheer marvels of the twentieth century is how rapidly the average life expectancy has increased, in the industrialized world. People talk today about two types of retired people: the young-old (those in their sixties and seventies, mostly) and the old-old (still active into their eighties and nineties, and even beyond). Remember how rare and unusual it used to be for someone to reach their hundredth birthday? There were letters from the President. There were parties to which the whole town was invited. On the Today Show, they used to display their photographs to an entire nation. Those centenarians were minor celebrities.
But now – now, not so much. There are so many more centenarians out there today than just twenty or thirty years ago. Some experts are actually predicting — and, who knows, they could be right — that many of the children and young people who come down here on Sunday mornings for the children’s sermon, who sing in the Dove Choir, may not only top a hundred, but even a hundred and ten. And who knows? If present trends continue, some may even hit a hundred and twenty!
I’ve been gaining a lot more appreciation than I ever had for people in their eighties and nineties since my mother moved back up here from North Carolina. She lives in a continuing care retirement community. At least once a week, sometimes more often, Claire and I (or sometimes just me) drive over there to have dinner with Mom in the facility’s dining room. Sitting there at those tables, week after week, I’ve come to recognize more and more of her neighbors.
Plenty of folks who live there are healthy and vigorous, but some make their way down the hallways ever so slowly, leaning on walkers or using wheelchairs or scooters. (I almost never hear them complain.)
There’s the man who visits his wife every day in the Health Center – the nursing wing of that facility. Then, there’s the guy who plays jazz piano. He’s really good – I’m sure, with that talent, he must have a piano in his apartment. From time to time, during the dinner hour, you hear the most marvelous jazz start to float over the dining room. Nobody asks him to play, as far as I can tell. Nobody announces, “Tonight, ladies and gentlemen, we have a special musical treat.” He just gets up, matter-of-factly, uncovers the keyboard and starts in.
He could keep his talent to himself. He could confine his playing to that piano of his own, back in his apartment. But he doesn’t. He steps up and tickles those ivories. He makes it look so effortless, as all good musicians do. He does it as a gift to his neighbors.
I’d venture to guess that, if you went around that dining room and took a poll — asking everyone what it is, as they explore the mostly-undiscovered country of those latter decades of life, that keeps them going – I bet a lot of them would say something about their faith. These people are mostly members of the so-called Greatest Generation, or nearly so. They lived through the Great Depression, then a World War. These people didn’t have a lot of distractions, as kids. None of their mothers were soccer moms. The internet was unheard of, TV screens were tiny and black-and-white, and the only thing remotely resembling a cell phone was the wrist-radio the crime-fighter Dick Tracy wore, in the comics. Few of them entertained the notion that they would ever actually own something like that.
As for wholesome recreation, if it didn’t happen in the schools, it happened in the churches. Sunday School was a regular part of the week for a great many of them: no questions asked! The long-term result, now that they’ve hit their eighties and nineties, is that a great many of them do have spiritual resources on which to draw. They know their Bible stories. They know how to pray. If you ask them where they learned such things, they may recall the Sunday school teacher from long ago, the one who told them of Jesus with such a twinkle in the eye and such laughter in the voice that, soon, they came to know him themselves.
I wonder what it’s going to be like when today’s Church School students and Youth Connection members are in their eighties and nineties — and even one-hundreds. Will they be able to profess a personal faith that’s stood the test of time, as can their elders?
Is that something most parents think much about, as they’re frantically trying to balance all those competing demands on their children’s time? I don’t think they’re looking that far ahead. Most do those things because they’ve heard it helps their kids to build a good student resume, so they can get into a good college, and eventually make it into the promised land of their twenties and thirties. (Who could blame them for wanting such things? They’re all good!)
Yet, if church is not central to that design – at least, not the way it used to be – then, what faith-resources are these kids going to have at their disposal, when their parents are long gone and they, themselves, are living in the retirement facility? Soccer, baseball, dance lessons – these are wonderful things, in the early years of life, but they don’t last (except as memories). Lessons learned in Church School, however, are different. They remain just as vital, and just as useful, in every decade of life.
These are what will help them, one day, to grow strong at the broken places.
Yet, that’s not all. Our faith does indeed help mend what is broken. It’s faith that lays the ribbon of super-glue along the sides of the cracked vessel, and bonds them together once again.
But it doesn’t stop there. I’ve been talking, today, about this poetic metaphor of being strong at the broken places, but there are times when faith can do even more than that.
Our Christian faith is a resurrection-faith. In its best moments, our Christian faith births a new life that goes far beyond mere coping skills. If the brokenness we’re talking about is like that china teacup that fell off the shelf, then what a true resurrection-faith can do is miraculously take it back to the potter’s kiln. In the clean, restoring fire and heat, it is not only repaired but reborn: made new again, through the wonder of God’s grace!
My friends, we’ve got, in this Christian faith of ours, a precious treasure for every season of life. Too often we fail to appreciate that! The apostle Paul, at one point, calls it a treasure in earthen vessels: and that’s a wonderful image. We fail to give faith its due when we name it one of many “leisure activities,” when we lump it in together with the sports teams and all the rest. Let’s not allow this precious spiritual treasure to get lost, amidst the cacophony and chaos of busy, over-programmed lives. For those of us who are parents, or grandparents, or others responsible for nurturing the young, isn’t this the treasure we most dearly desire — not only for ourselves, but for the generations that come after?
Copyright © 2012, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.