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Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Honor in Asking and the Art of Standing Still

 
   Matthew 20

If we get one shot at life, how do we know if we're doing it right?  How do we know when we're wasting our time?

Existential angst can be wearing.  And it makes for heavy conversations at lunch when your husband just wants to grab a sandwich and catch up on NBA news and instead he has to comfort you at the kitchen sink because you feel like maybe you're doing it all wrong and somehow, with all of your work, your life still adds up to nothing.  And after an hour of this he has to go, so he grabs a banana and runs out the door and you think he'd have had a better lunch alone in his office with just a few phones ringing and the swish of passing cars.

It's embarrassing to ask that question: what is the meaning of life?  Which really means, what is the meaning of my life?  Which no one wants to answer over lunch.  But how do you stop yourself?

One version of this question has to do with "greatness."  What is it?  How do we pursue it, and how do we recognize it?  I ask that a lot lately.  In fact, I am becoming expert at simply asking.  But it's in this very book that Jesus says "Ask and ye shall receive."  Here's what I've found he says about greatness:

1) It isn't in acclaim.  The kingdom of heaven is so hard for us to understand, Jesus has to constantly describe it to us.  It's that foreign.  At the beginning of this chapter, the mother of James and John (the already favored 2 disciples) comes to Jesus asking him to put her two sons on the left and on the right of him in his kingdom.  Now, this is a mother who loves her sons and who clearly believes in Jesus, but it makes one wonder where the rest of the disciples are supposed to fit in. (Not to mention the "multitudes.")  If James and John are poised to the left and right of him, where is everyone else sitting?  Behind?  In the nosebleed section of heaven, furiously waving their arms so their less zealous mothers can spot them?    

So Jesus takes this perfect opportunity to teach this mother and his own disciples (who were, understandably, pretty irked by this) a great principle.  (Which, by the way, seems to be the norm for him.  Every situation we read of in Jesus's ministry turns out to be the perfect opportunity for something.  Could it be that this is true for everyone?  Is every situation ripe for some kind of understanding?  How much are we missing on a daily basis?)

He goes to what they already know: those Gentiles have princes who "exercise dominion over them" and "they that are great exercise authority upon them."  Then he quickly follows up with a strong command: "But it shall not be so among you."  Instead of the chief being great, it's actually the servant.  As always with Jesus, everything in the kingdom of heaven is opposite from what we do.

So I have to ask: am I great yet?  I'm a servant at our house.  Sometimes I even feel like a prisoner. Are these existential traumas really the pains of advanced learning (the PhD program for "greatness") where it looks like I'm cleaning up spilled Cup o' Noodle soup (again) but I'm really practicing self-restraint, patience, forgiveness, faith and hope (after all, one of these days that styrofoam cup will stay upright)?  And the best part is that this is miles away from any kind of acclaim.  I get to do it without any thanks or recognition.  If I'm any kind of chief, my tribe is small and prefers crawling on me to clapping for me.

As with everything in Jesus's ministry, this teaching isn't simply one person's definition; it is a law of nature. Ironically, it is introduced by a concerned mother, someone who, without having realized it herself, has lived this law all of her life.  

2) Home trumps Harvard.  (Okay, he didn't say it like that exactly, but bear with me.)  If anybody gets the principle of the greatest being the servant, it should be parents. Deeper than any set of taught beliefs is the law of sacrifice for one's children. Generally speaking, babies come to parents who are the mature, independent version of the species.  However, rather than the newest members of the species serving the adults, it is the adults who must (tirelessly) serve the newbies, a system that looks backwards in every other social setting in the world.  It is not a coincidence that the law of nature stands in complete contrast to the law of mortal hubris.  It's not like the parents can try other methods either; this is it.  The child's life depends on this work. And if the parents' makeup follows the general laws of nature, their own happiness depends on it too.  After all, this is the work of the ages.

For some reason, we tend to celebrate greatness everywhere but at home.  But it's hard to see it there because the work it does looks so ridiculously commonplace, which, I think, is actually the point.  While Jesus didn't specify what kind of "ministering" he meant, work, in the sense of what servants do, is so basic that it is beneath most people.  It is the cutting and hauling of wood.  It's feeding the animals or tending the fire.  Or, to put it into a contemporary domestic context, changing diapers, making meals, cleaning the house.

To combine my last post with this one, maybe greatness starts to come into clearer view.  The definition of greatness, then, is one who is humble (like a small child) and who works their pants off helping other people (like a parent).  So greatness is largely learned (and largely displayed) at home.  Where else do you generally find small children and parents?

3) Sometimes, it stands still.  We live in a state of high volume at our house right now.  If Cooper (1) isn't screeching for something - a sippy cup, a ball stuck under the couch, my phone - then Beck (4) is hollering "Mom!  Mom!" so that I can watch him climb up the wall for the 20th time or jump from his giant cushion onto his bed or listen to him practice saying "Star Wars" without a lisp, again. Even Cael (7) still hollers "Mom!  Mom!" when I'm in the other room and he randomly remembers something funny from recess that day or when he finds a funny part in Junie B. Jones and just has to have me read it that second.  Some days I feel like I'm being pecked to death by tiny demands - Listen!  Read this!  Watch!  Get that!  Hold me!  And the most common: Help me! (wipe, tie my shoes, get the ball out of the street, eat, read this word, find my sandals, reach the cups, pull apart microscopic Legos, etc.).

The wonderful part about it is that, for now anyway, they want my help.  The problem is that, amid all of the other demands, I don't always pay attention to them the way I should. I zone them out.  I'm busy cooking dinner or trying to take a 5 minute power nap or for crying out loud using the bathroom.

In verse 32 of this chapter, Jesus passes by two blind men "by the wayside" who call to him for help.  There's a multitude, as always, and no doubt everyone wants something from him.  But these men call out incessantly.  The crowd tries their best to shush them, but something happens to silence everyone.  In verse 32 Matthew says, "Jesus stood still."

Up to this point there is no indication that Jesus even notices them there.  But once he stands still, he immediately calls to them and asks what they want from him.  Like everyone he heals, they leave the periphery and come center stage, and once they tell him what they want (sight), he gives it to them, freely and almost effortlessly.  Then they all move on.

This is the way we speak to each other, all kinds of children to all kinds of parents.  At the heart of it, the blind men were saying: we have a need and we know who you are.  The two are perfectly matched.  What they needed, he had.  They honored him by asking.