Psalm 23; Matthew 9:36
The Rev. Tom Herbek
April 17, 2016
There is an old legend that says that there once was a group of foreigners who came to a certain land, determined to accomplish many things and travel many important places in this land. The foreigners hired native people, paying them to make sure they got where they were supposed to go, and on schedule. One day the foreigners woke up after sunrise and were aghast to find that the native guides were asleep or lounging by the campfire, even though they always left at dawn each day, to make as much progress as possible. They angrily confronted the native guides, ordering them to get ready and chastising them for their laziness. But the native guides remained calm and they replied: “Not today, for today we must allow our souls to catch up with us.”
Today it actually feels like spring is here, and in a month, most colleges will be out, and in two months, all of the younger students will be finished with their grades, and we all will be looking toward vacations. But our life remains hectic, even in the summer. We all need times to let our souls catch up with us, and not just for a few days in the summer.
As Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote in his beautiful book on the 23rd Psalm:
“Goodness and mercy shall follow me…” The force of the original Hebrew is even stronger: “goodness and mercy shall pursue me…” That is, they will not only accompany me and bless my life. They will run after me and find me wherever I am.
It calls to mind the story of the rabbi who stops a prominent member of his congregation in the street and says to him, “Whenever I see you, you’re always in a hurry. You’re always rushing somewhere. Tell me, what are you running after all the time?” The man answers, “I’m running after success, I’m running after prosperity, I’m running to make a good living.” The rabbi responds, “That’s a good answer, if you assume that all those rewards are out there ahead of you, trying to elude you, and you have to run hard to catch up to them.
But what if the rewards are behind you, looking for you, but they can never find you because you’re running away from them? What if God has all sorts of wonderful gifts He wants to give you, but you’re never home when He comes looking for you so He can’t deliver them?”
There are some blessings that will be ours only if we work hard to earn them. But then there are other blessings that will be ours only if we stop chasing after them and let them come to us.
–The Lord Is My Shepherd
Some people go through their entire lives without understanding the compassion of God, the desire of God to be a shepherd to us. We have the sense that we have to earn God’s goodness, and not make any mistakes along the way.
Joan Chittister describes a painful, isolating loss in her life as a young girl. It seems that she accidentally let her pet bird fly away out of her family’s apartment in a large city, never to be seen again.
“But when the house was safely dark, I let the pain pour out, not simply for the loss of my dearest possession but also in sorrow for my own carelessness in his regard. Then, suddenly, I felt the covers around me tighten. My mother had gotten in on one side of the mattress, my father on the other, and together they held me all the long and empty night. I learned then that being human meant to enter into someone else’s pain.”
Sometimes, in the midst of their great pain, we are able to enter into someone else’s pain and it is then that they experience the companionship that is what being pursued by goodness and mercy can bring. Sometimes it take great pain for us to allow goodness and mercy to catch up with us.
A man named George, the CEO of a company that manufactured a unique medical device came to see Dr. Rachel Remen:
Six months before he first came to my office, George had discovered that he had lung cancer. His cancer was widely metastatic at the time that it was found, and his physicians had told him that he did not have long. He told me this during his first visit to my office.
His diagnosis had shaken George badly. I had expected that he would be depressed about the hopelessness of his situation, but this was not the case. There was a lot else on his mind. “I have wasted my life, Rachel”, he told me flatly. “I have two ex-wives and five children. I support all of them but I don’t know any of them. I never took the time to know them or anyone else. I have spent my life doing business, building my company from an idea in my basement to what it is today. I do not think they will miss me. I’ve nothing behind me but a lot of money.” He looked away and shook his head. “What an old fool,” he said. “A stupid old fool.”
The thing that George invented and that his company manufactures is a part of a medical device that has enabled people whose chronic disease was previously unmanageable to live almost normally. Another of my patients uses this device. It has changed her life. Before it was available, she had been severely limited by her disease and almost housebound. Controlling her physical symptoms had occupied most of her time. She had been unable to work, unable to have any sort of normal life among people.
Soon after she was fitted with this device, she had gotten a job for the first time. There she had met people and begun to have friends. In time she had met and married a fine man and had a child. “The day they gave me this device, I was reborn,” she had told me. And so she was.
It is a breach of privacy to give one patient’s name to another, but I thought that perhaps Stephanie might be willing to write an anonymous note about her experiences and I could give it to George. I resolved to ask her if she might be willing to do this.
When she discovered I knew the man whose invention had made her device possible, Stephanie was speechless. She sat thinking over my request that she write to him to tell him about the difference his work had made in her life. Shyly she asked me if I thought he might be willing to come to her home for dinner so that she could show him the life he had made possible for her. I said that I would ask.
George was surprised that I knew a patient who used his invention. He was very touched that she might want to meet him and readily agreed. He offered to take her and her husband to dinner at one of our most elegant and expensive restaurants. “I don’t think so,” I told him. And so, an evening was found, and George went to dinner at Stephanie’s home.
The week after this dinner, he sat in my office shaking his head in wonder. He had expected to have dinner with this young couple, but when he had arrived, George was welcomed by Stephanie’s whole family. Her mother was there, her three brothers and sisters, several of her aunts and uncles, and a crowd of nieces, nephews, and cousins. Her husband’s parents were there, too, and many of her friends and neighbors – the whole community of people who had sustained her in the years she was an invalid. They had decorated the little house with crepe paper, and everyone had cooked. It was an extraordinary meal and a wonderful celebration.
“But that was not the important part, Rachel,” George told me. “They had really come to tell me a story; they had each played a part in it and had a different side of it to share. It took them over three hours to tell it. It was the story of Stephanie’s life. I cried most of the time. And at the very end, Stephanie came to me and said, ‘This is really a story about you George. We thought you needed to know.’ And I did. I did.”
I had tears in my eyes. “How many of these things do you make every year, George?” I asked him. “Close to ten thousand,” he said softly. “I just knew the numbers, Rachel. I had no idea what they meant.”
–My Grandfather’s Blessing
Goodness and mercy are pursuing us. Yet, no matter what our age, or our place in life, we may not have paused long enough to let them catch up with us. The Lord who is our shepherd is concerned about us when we seem to be unaware that God is the shepherd who is there for us. When we act like sheep without a shepherd, expecting to be responsible for our pain, believing we have done something to cause it to happen to us, then we need to know that God companions us in our pain.
God, the good shepherd, also calls us to be his hands and feet and voices, bringing comfort to those who believe it is not possible to find comfort, and that they do not deserve it if they ever find it.
We have each touched other people in ways that might surprise us. We have each encouraged growth and healing in ways that we did not realize.
Especially in the days and weeks to come, may we allow God’s goodness and mercy to catch up with us.