The Rev. Rob Merola
Let me begin with a simple question this morning: When in life do you stop learning?
When you get out of school? When you achieve certain goals? When you arrive at a given point in life?
A lot of people, myself included, approach life like a check list. There are certain things we want to accomplish, and when we’ve done so, we can merrily check them off our list.
So, for instance, my life plan included such things as graduating from college, getting a job, getting married, having kids, and so on. Then, when I actually completed these things, I felt like I could ignore them and move on to something else.
I got married. Check. Did that. What’s next?
I got a job. Check. Did that. What’s next?
Unfortunately, there is a problem with this approach. The problem is that we cannot really afford to check things off and then neglect them. After I got married, for instance, and checked that off my list, I began devoting myself to my career. But my inattention at home became the source of a lot of grief and suffering.
Or take having kids. I had my two kids. Check. Did that. What’s next? For me at that point in my life, it was to catch a big fish. I wish I was joking.
We were living in Florida at the time, and some of the best fishing in the world was right in our back yard. I considered myself a long time fisherman, and so my life goals included proving myself in this pursuit. I hadn’t done that yet, and so began to expend considerable time and energy in this direction. It makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?
But by treating having children like a goal that could be achieved and then neglected was also to neglect the hard work it takes to keep family life vibrant and healthy. This too caused a lot of grief and suffering.
What I’m describing here is something I see repeated over and over again. For instance, I can’t tell you how many times over the years I’ve seen people grow farther apart and become more distant in a marriage rather than growing closer together. In fact, I think that probably happens more often than does two people sharing life deeply enough to become one in heart and mind and soul, as is the intention for marriage.
For those of us who are married, think for a moment about the kind of things we talk about with our spouse. Are we freely expressing what we are feeling, what’s going on inside our hearts? Is there what we might call “gut level sharing”—being completely open and honest with our spouse? Do we take time to encourage our spouses, to recognize their good points and speak their praise?
Or is most of our communication mostly instrumental— deciding who goes where when, for instance. Is the pattern of our communication that one of the partners makes a demand, expressing something they wish were different, while the other partner withdraws?
The other day I was at the gym. As I was leaving, I said to the one of guys, “You going to have a good weekend?”
He replied a noncommittal, “Ah.”
I responded, “You’re going to see your girlfriend, right? Sheri, isn’t it? You gotta be looking forward to some time with her!”
“Sure,” he stated without much interest or feeling, shrugging his shoulders.
“Aw c’mon man,” I pushed. “Women like to see a little enthusiasm!”
“Aw,” he repeated once again. “I already got her. I don’t have to worry about that.”
Now most of us wouldn’t be quite so blunt (and I imagine he isn’t with his girlfriend, either!) but that is how a great many people, consciously or unconsciously, approach life and relationships. For whatever reasons, we fail to give the most important relationships in our lives the attention they deserve. We do not do the hard work it takes to keep them healthy and vibrant.
It is most interesting to me that today’s Gospel is written to people on the move. Notice the key words, repeated over and over again, translated “road, path, highway” or the like. Clearly, these are people on a journey, people who are travelling, people who are not content to stand still where they are.
The implication of this is important. In this world, at least, we can never say, “I’ve arrived.”
“I’ve arrived in my marriage. There is nothing more I need to learn or do about loving my spouse. I’m totally and completely happy just where I am.”
“I’ve arrived as a parent. There is nothing more I need to learn or do about parenting. I’m totally and completely happy just where I am.”
“I’ve arrived as a Christian. There is nothing more I need to learn or do about faithfully following Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. I’m totally and completely satisfied with my spiritual life just as it is.”
The reality is that we are never in a position to be done with what is most important to us or to stop learning. And though somewhere along the line we may stop journeying—and I think most people probably do—that does not mean our journey has come to an end.
There is still a messenger ahead of us, still a voice crying out in the wilderness, beckoning us to continue our journey and not be lulled into standing still.
How about it, friends? Are we still journeying? Or, surrounded by luxuries and conveniences and good things, have we grown complacent and content with things just the way they are?
Traveling is also the context in which John speaks of repentance. John’s message is that we are to make the highway we are on, the paths we are traveling, straight. Far too often they are crooked and convoluted.
In other words, we need to be willing to make some changes, change being what, at its most basic level, repentance is all about. You’d think that might make repentance a very popular concept these days, since “change” is the word that is on everybody’s lips. We hear over and over again how badly we need a change. But mostly, I think, when folks are talking about change, they are talking about someone else who needs to do the changing, or are looking for someone to do the changing for us.
Repentance, however, will have none of that. Yes, change is at the very root of what it means to repent. But to repent is to acknowledge that what most desperately needs changing is myself. We need to learn new ways of living and behaving that allow us to give up our own crooked paths in order to see our way straight and walk in the paths of the Lord.
And to do that, we cannot allow ourselves to close down or shut out key opportunities to study, to serve, and to discover both the knowledge and practices we need to keep journeying as we faithfully follow Jesus and grow ever deeper in our relationships with one another. What, for instance, are we studying right now that will help us be a better spouse, parent, friend, Christian? What new practices and behaviors are we devoted to mastering so we’ll do a better job of loving God and each other? Where are we engaging in service outside our own self interest?
In closing, let me give you a very concrete, very practical way of putting all this in practice. It will take time and effort. You will have to commit yourself to it, or it will not get done. But if you are willing to do this, I promise you it will be worth your while.
To do what I’m going to ask you to do, you are probably going to have to take a few notes now, or refer back to this sermon when it is posted on line.
Ready? Here we go. We’re going to do a little studying in the school of life and relationships that will help us pay more attention to the people who are most important to us.
First, choose one or two people with whom you interact personally—that is, face to face—on a daily or regular basis. It could be a family member, a friend, or someone at work or school. Begin by thinking of something you did together recently, and write some notes about how you think they respond to you. Think of words, actions, expressions, tone of voice, and so on. What emotional reaction do you think you get from them? Do you think they were happy, sad, anxious, distant, relieved, angry, preoccupied—what?
Then, for the next week, be mindful of these people when you are together. I know this could be a little awkward, but try not to be too obvious about this as that could be rather intimidating. In subtle ways, pay attention to their eyes, expressions, body language, breathing, and so on—to the many little things that give clues to what they are thinking and feeling.
Next, at least once a day, take a few minutes to write down what you have seen. Perhaps you’ll want to start with literal observations—a smile, looking away, a pregnant pause. As the week progresses, seek to write down the name of the emotions you think you have seen. Be careful here—don’t over interpret or over analyze, and be careful not to confuse your feelings with theirs.
Finally, after a week of this, sit down with the person you’ve been observing and see how accurate your perceptions are. The idea is to initiate a conversation, either directly or indirectly, that focuses on what the other person is feeling. To do this, try joining simple observations with expressions of your own feelings and a simple, safe, non-threatening interpretation.
It might go something like this. “I notice that we’ve just grown a little quiet right now, and I’m feeling a little uncomfortable. Maybe you are too? Did something just happen?”
Or, “It seems like everyone has been in a hurry to get up from the dinner table lately. I guess I am feeling a little stressed out these days, with so much to do. Maybe you’re feeling that way too? I’d love to hear a little more about that.”
Or, “I love it when you smile. I know I’m enjoying this chance to be together. Were you thinking of something that made you feel happy just now?”
If you want to try an advanced version of this, make one of your choices for study someone who seems to be isolated and alone. Use this as a way of reaching out to someone, perhaps at work or at school, who could really use a friend.
In any event, if you do this you’ll learn more about tuning in to those around you, about understanding what is going on inside of them. And if you do that, of course, you’ll be well on your way to doing a better job of loving them as well.
May we never stop learning, friends. Because learning—the time, the attention, the investment of ourselves that it requires—is one of the clearest expressions that we continue to care, that we haven’t stopped loving those who matter most to us.