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30GoodMinutes.org – Frederick Buechner – “What It Means to Grow Up”
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“What It Means to Grow Up”
That was how the rhyme went in my time anyway, and you used it when you were counting the cherry pits on your plate or the petals on a daisy, or counting the buttons on your shirt or your blouse. When you ended up counting was, of course, what you ended up being — rich, poor, standing on a street corner with a tin cup in your hand, or maybe a career in organized crime — who knows? What in the world, what in heaven’s name, were you going to be when you grew up?
It wasn’t just another question — it was the great question. And everything I want to say to you this evening is based on the assumption that it still is. Whether we remember to ask it or not, I strongly suspect that it may be the great question always — what are you going to be? — what am I going to be?
I’ll be sixty years old (heaven help me) on my next birthday, and I’ve been more or less in the same line of work for a long time and I contemplate no immediate change, but I think of it still as a question that is wide open — at least, I hope it’s wide open for me: for God’s sake, what do you suppose we’re going to be, you and I, when we grow up?
Something in us rears back in indignation a little bit I think that at 20, or 30, or 40, or 50, or 70, or 80, or 110, whatever we are, surely we’ve got our growing up behind us. We have come many a long mile and thought many a long thought. We have taken on serious responsibilities and made mature decisions — hoped they were mature anyway — weathered many a crisis of one kind or another. Surely the question is rather — what are we now? how well are we doing at it, if not doctors, and lawyers, and merchants, and chiefs? We are whatever we are: businessmen, businesswomen, computer analysts (whatever they are), school teachers, artists, ecologists, ministers even — we don’t have to count cherry pits to find out what we’re going to end up being because for better or worse the die has already been cast. Now we simply get on with the game. That’s what life, after all, is all about.
What then? Then maybe we have to listen, listen back farther even than the rhymes of childhood, thousands of years farther back than that. A thick cloud gathers on the mountain, as the book Exodus describes it. There are flickers of lightning, jagged and dangerous. A clap of thunder shakes the earth, sets the leaves of the trees trembling — sets even you and me trembling a little bit if we have our wits about us. Suddenly the great shofar sounds, the ram’s horn, the long drawn pulsing note louder than thunder, more dangerous than lightning, and out of the darkness, out of the mystery, out of some cavernous part of who we are, a voice calls, “Now, therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all peoples.” My s’gullah, the Hebrew word is — “My precious ones, my darlings, and ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
Then thousands of years later, but still thousands of years ago, there was another voice to listen to, the voice of an old man dictating a letter. There is reason to believe that he may actually have been the one who up to all but the end of his life, Jesus had for his best friend, Peter himself, old Peter. “So put away all malice and all guile and insincerity and envy and slander,” he says. “Like newborn babes long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation for you have tasted of the kindness of the Lord.”
And then he echoes the great cry out of the thunder clouds that Moses heard, with a cry of his own, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation — God’s own people,” he says. “That you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”
So what are we going to be when we grow up? Not what are we going to do, what profession are we going to follow or keep on following, what niche are we going to choose for ourselves, but what are we going to be inside ourselves and among ourselves?
That’s the question I think that God answers with Torah at Sinai. That’s the question that the old saint answers or tries to answer in his letter from Rome. Holy! That’s what we’re going to be if God gets his way with us. It’s wildly unreasonable. It’s going to make a shambles of all our reasonable ambitions to be this or to be that. It’s not really a human possibility at all because holiness is Godness, and only God makes holiness possible.
But being holy is what growing up in the full sense means, Peter suggests. No matter how old we are, how much we’ve achieved, or dream of achieving, we’re not truly grown up until this extraordinary thing happens. Holiness is what is to happen. “Out of darkness, we are called into his marvelous light,” Peter writes. Peter knew more about darkness than most of us, if you stop to think of it, and had looked into the very face of light himself.
And we’re called to have faces like the face Peter looked into — to be filled with light so that we can be bearers of light. I’ve seen a few such faces in my day, and I suspect you also have. Are we going to be rich, poor, beggars, thieves? In the case of most of us, it’s a little bit of each. Who knows? In the long run, who even cares? Only one thing is really worth caring about and it is this: “Ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
Well, Israel, as I am sure you know, was never much good at it, God knows. If anybody knows, God knows about Israel. It’s what the Old Testament is mostly about. Israel didn’t want to be a holy nation. Israel wanted to be a nation like all the other nations — a nation like Egypt, like Syria. She wanted clout. She wanted security. She wanted a place in the sun. It was her own way she wanted — not God’s way. And when the prophets, those wild men, got after her for it, she got rid of the prophets. And when God’s demands seemed too exorbitant, God’s promises too remote, she took up with all the other gods — who still get our votes, and our money, and our nine-to-five energies because they couldn’t care less, those other gods, whether we are holy or not, and promise absolutely everything we really want and absolutely nothing we really need.
And, of course, we can’t very well blame Israel because we are Israel.
Who wants to be holy? The very word has fallen into disrepute. “Holier than thou”, “Holy Joe”, “Holy Mess”. And “saint” comes to mean “Plaster saint” — somebody of such stifling moral perfection that if we happen to cross the path of such a person, we run screaming in the other direction. We are such children, you and I, the way we do such terrible things with such wonderful words. We are such babes in the woods, the way we keep getting so lost in the woods.
And yet, we have our moments. Every once in a while I think we actually long to be what out of darkness and mystery we are called to be. We hunger for holiness even so, even if we never use the word. There come moments, I think, even in the midst of all our cynicism, worldliness, and childishness — maybe especially then. And there’s something about the saints of the earth that bowls us over a little bit. I mean real saints. I mean saints as men and women who are made not out of plaster, and platitude, and moral perfection, but out of human flesh in all its richness and quirkiness, for the simple reason that there is nothing else around except human flesh to make saints out of. I mean saints as human beings who have their rough edges and their blind spots like everybody else. It was lives so transparent, something so extraordinary, that every once in a while it stops even you and me dead in our tracks.
I remember going to see the movie “Ghandhi” when it first came out. We were the usual kind of noisy, restless Saturday night crowd as we sat there waiting for the lights to dim, with our popcorn and soda pop. Girl friends and boy friends — their legs draped over the backs of the empty seats. But by the time the movie came to a close with the flames of Ghandhi’s funeral pyre filling the entire screen, there wasn’t a sound or a movement in that whole enormous theater.
We filed out of there, teenagers and senior citizens, blacks and whites, swingers and squares, in as deep and telling a silence as I’ve ever been part of or has ever been part of me.
Peter in his letter wrote, “You have tasted of the kindness of the Lord.” And we tasted it in some fashion in that theater.
The life of that little bandy-legged, bespectacled man with his spinning wheel and his bare feet, and whatever he had in the way of selfless passion for peace and passionate opposition to every form of violence, we, all of us, tasted something that at least for a few moments that Saturday night made every other kind of life seem empty. Something that at least for the moment I think every last one of us longed for in a way that in a far country, you long for home.
“A holy nation” — can a nation be holy? It’s hard to imagine it. Some part of a nation, maybe some element of a nation, some remnant or root, a shoot coming forth “from the stump of Jesse” as Isaiah put it, “that with righteousness shall judge the poor and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.”
The 18th century men and women who founded this nation, dreamed just such a high and holy dream for us too, and gave their first settlements over here — in my part of the country, to the east of here, names to match their high and holy dreams. NEW HAVEN “new hope” they called those old towns. Names that almost bring tears to your eyes if you listen to what they are saying or once said. PROVIDENCE, CONCORD, SALEM (which is “Shalom” — the peace of God). Dreams like that die hard. Please God there is still some echo of them in the air around us. But the way things have turned out, the meek of the earth are scared stiff of the power we have as a nation to blow the earth to smithereens a hundred times over, and at our failure year after year to work out with our enemies a way of limiting that ghastly power. The nation that once dreamed of being a “new hope” a NEW HAVEN for the world has become instead one of the two great bullies of the world, who blunder and bluster their way to God knows what.
And maybe that’s the way it inevitably is of all nations — they’re so huge and complex. By definition as nations, they’re so exclusively concerned with their own self interests, conceived in the narrowest terms, that they have no eye for holiness of all things, no ear to hear the great command to be saints, no heart to break. Nations should think of what the world could be, the friends we could be to each other as nations, the common problems we could help each other solve, all the human anguish we might join together to heal.
You and I are the eyes, and you and I are the ears and you and I are the heart. It’s to us that the old saint’s letter is addressed: “So put away all guile, and insincerity, envy, and all slander,” he says. No shofar sounds or has to sound. It is as quiet as the scratching of a pen, as familiar as the sight of our own faces in the mirror. We’ve always known what was wrong with us, the malice in us even at our most civilized, the way we focus on the worst in the people we know and then rejoice when disasters overtake them which we believe they so richly deserve. Our insincerity, our phoniness, the masks we do our real business behind. The envy. The way other people’s luck can sting like wasps. And all slander. All the ways we have of putting each other down, of making such caricatures of each other that we treat each other like caricatures even when we love each other.
All the infantile nonsense and nastiness “Put it away,” Peter says. Before nations can be holy, you and I must be holy. “Grow up to salvation.” For Christ’s sake, grow up.
Grow up? People at my stage of the game, 60 come July? For us, isn’t it a bit too late? Young people — for you, isn’t it a bit too early? I don’t think so. It’s never too late, never too early, to grow up, to be holy. We have already tasted it. “Tasted the kindness of the Lord,” Peter says. That’s such a haunting thought, I think. I think you can see it in our eyes sometimes that we have tasted this holiness. Just the way you can see something more than animal in an animal’s eyes, I think you can sometimes see something more than human in human eyes, even your eyes and my eyes. I think we belong to holiness even when we can’t believe it exists anywhere, let alone in us.
That’s why everybody left that crowded shopping mall’s movie theater in such unearthly silence, I think. That’s why it’s hard not to be haunted by that famous photograph (which I hope you have seen) of the only things Ghandi owned at his death: his glasses, his watch, his sandals, a bowl and spoon, a book of songs. What does any of us own to match such riches as that?
Children that we are, even you and I, who have given up so little, know in our hearts not only that it is more blessed to give than to receive, but it is also more fun. The kind of holy fun that wells up like tears in the eyes of saints, the kind of blessed fun in which we lost ourselves and at the same time begin to find ourselves to grow up into the selves we were created to become.
When the American novelist, Henry James, was saying goodbye once to his young nephew Billy, his brother William’s son, he said something that the boy never forgot. Of all the things he might have said, what the old novelist did say was this, “There are three things that are important in human life — the first, is to be kind; the second, is to be kind; the third, is to be kind.”
Be kind, because though kindness isn’t the same thing as holiness, kindness is next to holiness. It is the door that holiness often enters the world through, enters us through. Not just gently kind, but sometimes fiercely kind. Be kind enough to yourselves, not just to play it safe with your life for your own sakes, but to spend at least part of your lives like drunken sailors, for God’s sake, if you believe in God — or, for the world’s sake, if you believe in the world. And that’s to come alive truly. Be kind enough to others, to listen beneath the words they speak for that usually unspoken hunger for holiness that I think is part of all of us, because by listening to it and cherishing it, maybe we can help bring it to birth, both in mammon and ourselves.
Be kind to this nation of ours by remembering that NEW HAVEN “new hope”, SALEM “shalom” are the names not just of our oldest towns, but of our holiest dreams which most of the time are threatened by the madness of no enemy without as dangerously as they are threatened by our own madness.
“You have tasted of the kindness of the Lord,” Peter wrote in his letter and ultimately that, of course, is the kindness, the holiness, the sainthood, and sanity we are all of us called to, so that we may grow up to salvation at last.
We are strangers to each other, you and I. Who knows how many miles apart as I stand at the lectern and you sit there watching your screens, but the sense we have of each other’s humanity even so, the feeling that one way or another we are all of us here — you in your living rooms and me at this lectern to give each other our love and God our love. This kind of moment itself is a door that holiness enters the world through. May it enter you! May it enter me! — to the world’s saving. Amen.