SCRIPTURE – John 19:25-27 – Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.
Live Like You’re Dying sermon series
#4 – Stay Connected
March 30, 2014
For our Lenten sermon series, we’ve been looking at the lessons to be learned from Hospice patients as they reflect back on their lives. Knowing their days are ending, what do the wish they would have done differently? So far, we’ve learned they would have taken more risks, they would have focused more on enjoying the present, and they would have forgiven more easily. Today, as we talk about the importance of staying connected, we’ll not only hear from the voices of the dying, we’ll also see this lesson played out from a most unlikely source: a goose.
I recently read an article about the migration patterns of geese. I know what you’re thinking: “Wow, when’s the movie coming out?” But it was actually very interesting. For example, do you know why they fly in a V pattern? It’s because as each bird flaps its wings, it provides uplift for the bird immediately following it. By flying in this pattern, the whole flock adds at least 71% greater flying range than if each bird flew on its own. They’re like the Priuses of the waterfowl family.
The article also said that when the lead goose gets tired, it rotates to the back of the V and another goose takes the point. The geese are constantly honking as a way of encouraging those up front to keep up their speed, just like when we honk our car horns, it’s a sign of encouragement, as well. Did you know that when a goose gets sick or is wounded by a gun shot, two geese fall out of formation and follow him down to help protect him. They stay with the downed goose until he is able to fly or until he is dead; then they launch out to catch up with their group.
OK, so what’s with the “Animal Planet” episode? I think the behaviors of the geese teach us a very important lesson: we need each other for survival. From geese to humans, we were not created to be alone. Without each other, there’s no one to provide uplift or a honk of encouragement, and no one to take the lead for a while or to sit with you when you’ve been shot down. Even as he was dying on the cross, Jesus knew the importance of making sure his loved ones were connected to each other. We need our relationships with each other to survive.
The irony is that we live in a world that discourages deep, authentic relationships. Our methods of communication are growing more numerous and less substantial. Our technological push for convenience and instantaneous results doesn’t leave any time for actual relating to each other. We are less connected, even with those closest to us. For example, one day when I was home my cellphone rang, so I answered it. It was my wife Leigh, reminding me to give Molly her medicine. She was calling from the basement. Now, Leigh claims that she tried to holler up at me several times to get my attention, but if that were true, it wouldn’t make my point in this sermon, now would it?
So that’s the conundrum we face. We need relationships to survive, and yet we live in a world where making and nurturing those kinds of relationships is becoming increasing difficult. It takes time to do that, and that’s exactly the thing we seem to have less and less of. Painter Georgia O’Keefe once said, “Nobody sees a flower, really. It’s so small, it takes time, and we don’t have time. And to see takes time, like having a friend takes time.” Do we take the time to stay connected, or do we let others things we think are more important get in the way? The lesson the Hospice patients have to teach us is there is nothing more important than those relationships.
I’m a part of a Facebook group for baseball fans, and we spent much time analyzing and commiserating over our favorite team. There was man on the board I had never met, but felt a close connection to because of our fanaticism and our faith. He was a religion professor at Georgetown College and was a wise, calming presence in our group. I really wanted to meet him, so we set a lunch date this past January. The day before, I took a look at my schedule and just couldn’t justify taking a leisurely drive to Georgetown to spend time with him, so I wrote him and asked if we could reschedule for a time when I was less busy. He graciously agreed. Four weeks later, he died of a heart attack. And every day since then, I wonder what I missed out on by choosing my schedule over having lunch with him. Nothing is more important than relationships.
So what keeps us from starting new relationships or investing time in the ones we have? In Sermon Talkback with came up with a whole list of reasons, all of which I think are legitimate barriers to our connections. One reason is our fear of being hurt. To build a relationship, we have to be willing to vulnerable, to open ourselves up to the other person. And, as we all know, sometimes we will get hurt when we do that. The chapter in one of the books I read for this sermon series was titled, “Let your heart be broken.” In order to experience true love, we have to take the risk that love will end. Any pet owner knows this. When you get a pet, you are balancing the reward of owning the pet with the certainty that the death of that pet will be devastating. So, do you just never own a pet in order to protect yourself? Or do you take the risk in order to experience the benefits of love and companionship?
Another fear we named was the fear of not feeling good enough to be loved. What if I’m not able to make the other person happy? What if I’m not able to be the relationship partner they want me to be? What if they reject me? All of those are realistic fears. But they also give a lot of power to the other person to define our worth. And as long as we let someone else dictate our happiness, we’ll never be happy. I have never been in a relationship in which I was happy 100% of the time. If you have, please write a book, because a lot of people are looking for that magic elixir to fix their lives. What if love isn’t making someone happy? What if love is simply being there, during the happy times and the sad times and the I-want-to-wring-your-neck times? Love is not defined by a single event – an argument, a hurtful word, a moment of neglect. Love is patient and kind and all those other things Paul says in I Corinthians. Love is defined by a constant presence, a consistent connection through the mountain tops and valleys of our lives together.
Another fear we named is the cost of relationships. As Georgia O’Keefe noted, staying connected takes time, and that seems to be the scarcest commodity these days. Because of this, a couple things happen. First, we begin to see our relationships for their utilitarian function. What’s our return on the investment of connecting to someone? We often are loved for what we can do, not for who we are. So we put conditions on our relationships. If you have something to offer me, then I will stay connected with you. I have a number of friends in ministry who I only call when I need something, the name of a book or a curriculum suggestion. I so rarely call just to catch up. Why? In my task-driven mind, that’s a waste of precious time.
The other thing we do when we start counting the costs of our relationships is that we measure their value with the wrong criteria. One Hospice nurse wrote of visiting a man’s home as he was dying. He lived in a lavish house, filled with trinkets and collections from his worldly travels. When the Hospice nurse remarked about the man’s luxurious surroundings, he scoffed and said, “Who cares? Those things don’t mean anything. I chased them all my life, and now I have a house full of possessions and I’m dying alone. Those things don’t matter. Love matters.”
In the end, when we’re facing our death, the Hospice patients tell us what we do for a living doesn’t matter. What we earn doesn’t matter. The degrees on our wall don’t matter. The stuff we have amassed doesn’t matter. In the big picture, what matters are the connections we have made and the love we have nurtured. Because in the end, that is what we will leave this earth with, and nothing more.
In her book What Really Matters, Karen Wyatt tells this story: One of my most memorable patients was Vernon, a former Baptist minister who commanded great authority with is presence. He preached thunderous sermons from the pulpit until he was diagnosed with lung cancer at age 70. Even in his illness, he always wanted to talk theology with me when I visited, and I could see the fire in his eyes as he expounded upon this or that belief. His wife Lydia said Vernon kept a notebook by his chair, and he would often write sermon notes or devotional thoughts in his notebook.
As I visited with Vernon, I watched him grow steadily weaker. The fire in his eyes dimmed. He still tried to write in his notebook, and he would show it to me as soon as I arrived, but all I saw was page after page of indecipherable scribbles. I wondered what great sermons he was composing in his mind that he would never be able to share.
As Vernon’s end grew near, he become almost unresponsive. Lydia was always by his side, but he even stopped responded to her. On her last night with him, Lydia kissed him on the cheek and before she left, wrote in his notebook, “I love you, Vernon. Love, Lydia.” She placed the book on his chest and went to her room to sleep.
The next morning, she was awakened by the nurse, who let her know Vernon had passed peacefully during the night. She hugged him and kissed him, squeezing his hands and straightening his blanket. Then she noticed his notebook sitting on the bedside table. Underneath the note she wrote to him was line after line of Vernon’s scribbles that hadn’t been there the night before. Then, barely legible, were eight shaky chicken-scratched letters that Vernon had copied from Lydia’s note that said, “I love you.”
That’s all we leave this world with. And what a shame it would be if we let some petty argument or family disagreement or self-doubt keep us from being connected. What a shame it would be if we let ourselves think we weren’t worthy of being loved, or if we let our busy schedules or inconsequential distractions take precedence over making a new friend. Staying connected takes time. Real love can hurt. But when we get to the end of our lives, that’s all we will have. That’s all that matters.