“Learning What’s Important”Dr. Don Flowers Psalm 1; Luke 6:17-26. Year C: Sixth Sunday after The Epiphany
It is an expression that every parent hears. It is usually during homework time, or right before a test. You hear this gigantic sigh, and then the words of absolute frustration. “I don’t know why I have to learn this. I am never going to need to know this.”
What “this” is depends on the student and the subject at hand. For some it is knowing how to conjugate a verb or diagram a sentence. For others it might be how to find the cosine of an obtuse angle. For another it might be knowing when the Magna Carta was signed. For still others, it might be the atomic number of potassium. For some of us, it is all of the above!
Why do I have to know this? It really isn’t that important! We have all felt that way at some point in our lives. Bill Leonard used to give us Church History tests and had the audacity to ask us specific dates! Why do I need to know when the Council of Nicea met? I can always just Google it and find the answer, in the bizarre chance that I might need to know that. And if I am ever on a game show and asked about chemistry, I will use one of my lifelines and call Macon! After all, it’s not really that important!
But then, what is important? What is it that I really need to know? There are some things that I don’t need to know. I don’t need to know how to find someone’s spleen, but I do need to know how the difference between John Calvin and Paul Tillich. (They are theologians, but then, you may not need to know that in your everyday lives.) There are some things that we don’t need to know, but the important things, the things that make life good, that make life meaningful—those are things that we all need a grasp of.
So, what do we need to learn that is truly important? A few years ago, Furman University began a lecture series in honor of L.D. Johnson, the beloved former chaplain. Each year a member of the faculty is invited to answer the question, “What really matters?” Smyth and Helwys has put many of those lectures into a book.
How would you answer that question? What are the things that someone needs to know, not necessarily about a subject, but about life? What would you put down if you had to write down for your children, or grandchildren what really matters to you?
Robert Fulgum did just that. He gave us an idea. We have all heard it, but every now and then we need to hear it again. He writes….
“All I really need to know about how to live and what to do and how to be I learned in kindergarten. Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate-school mountain, but there in the sand pile at Sunday School. These are the things I learned:
- Share everything.
- Play fair.
- Don’t hit people.
- Put things back where you found them.
- Clean up your own mess.
- Don’t take things that aren’t yours.
- Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.
- Wash your hands before you eat.
- Warm cookies and milk are good for you.
- Live a balanced life–learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.
- Take a nap every afternoon.
- When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.
- Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the styrofoam cup: The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we all like that.
- Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the styrofoam cup–they all die. So, do we.
- And then remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned–the biggest word of all–LOOK.
He continues…Everything you need to know is in there somewhere. The Golden Rule and love and basic sanitation. Ecology and politics and equality and sane living.
Take any one of those items and extrapolate it into sophisticated adult terms and apply it to your family life or you work or your government or your world and it holds true and clear and firm. Think what a better world it would be if we all–the whole world–had cookies and milk about three o’clock every afternoon and then lay down with our blankies for a nap. And it is still true, no matter how old you are–when you go out into the world, it is best to hold hands and stick together.
That is important stuff to know. Fulghum is right! A lot of what is important we learn early in life. Other parts we just grasp as we get older. Shortly after she turned 70, Maya Angelou was on the Oprah show. She shared that at her age she had learned a few things. She said:
I’ve learned that no matter what happens, or how bad it seems today,
life does go on, and it will be better tomorrow.
I’ve learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way he/she handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights.
I’ve learned that regardless of your relationship with your parents, you’ll miss them when they’re gone from your life.
I’ve learned that making a “living” is not the same thing as “making a life.”
I’ve learned that life sometimes gives you a second chance.
I’ve learned that you shouldn’t go through life with a catcher’s mitt on
both hands. You need to be able to throw something back.
I’ve learned that whenever I decide something with an open heart, I usually make the right decision.
I’ve learned that even when I have pains, I don’t have to be one.
I’ve learned that every day you should reach out and touch someone.
People love a warm hug, or just a friendly pat on the back. I’ve learned that I still have a lot to learn.
I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.
Take a nap every afternoon.
Even when I have pains I don’t have to be one!
Good stuff to know. It is talking about the important things in life.
They aren’t specific, but they have specific implications.
Our scripture lessons this morning fall into that category. Psalm 1 is located in one of the most pivotal places in all of scripture. Psalms is where we turn for words of comfort. If someone can’t find any other book in the Bible, my guess is they can find Psalms.
So, it is interesting that when the book was being put together, the editor chose to begin not with a word of comfort, like the 23rdPsalm; not with a song of celebration like Psalm 100, but with words of instruction on how we should live our lives.
It is not a how-to manual in how to get rich. It is not a step by step treatise on how to get to the top of the corporate ladder. Too often that is how we decide whether or not someone, whether we, are successful. And yet, that is not what really matters.
No, the psalmist reminds us that the most important thing is living a holy life. That life is described by how it is lived, or even where it is lived. I love the way the King James Version translates this (You almost have to read the psalms in the King James version to capture the real poetry!)
It says, “Blessed is the man (or woman) who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in seat of scoffers.” Blessed, happy is the one who doesn’t walk, stand or sit!
We never set out to live an unblessed life. We want to be happy. Ask anyone in high school how they want their life to turn out and they have great dreams. Ask any parent what they hope for their child and they will say, “I want them to be happy.”
That is what we want, but somewhere along the way we start walking with the wicked. They are having more fun, after all. They are the ones who are cutting the corners and getting ahead. We aren’t going to be like them, just walk with them for a while. But before we know it, we are there standing around with them—around the water cooler, around the bar.
We can still get out, but hey, we are just standing here. What is wrong with that? But before we know it, we are sitting right there. We are firmly planted in our lives, in our unblessedness, in our unhappiness. That is how it happens.
In his novel, “The Dream of Scipio,”Ian Pears focuses on three characters, who lived in Avignon at different times in history. Manlius lived in the 5th century as the Roman civilization was crumbling, Olivier in the 14th at the time of the Black Death, and Julien in the 20th, including the German occupation of France. Each were kindly men, who at some stage wanted to do the right thing. But the question is which of the three found happiness? Which lived a blessed life?
Well, the most successful and prosperous was Bishop Manlius, who lived in the fifth century when the Roman civilization was crumbling. He made numerous political bargains to successfully save a little of Roman civilization in his region of Provence. But to do it, he had to sacrifice many of his values, and even some of his friends. Yet he always justified his actions.
He spent the latter part of his life very rich and powerful, writing books on philosophy and praised by many. But not by his philosopher teacher whom he greatly admired. She now loathed him for what he has become. His story ends with a comfortable, but pathetic whimper.
The scholar Julien also compromised bit by bit under German occupation, holding an official post in the puppet Vichy government. Seduced by the idea that if he did not do what the Germans asked, someone more ruthless would be appointed, he allowed books to be burned, liberties to be curtailed, and Jews to be sacked from employment and later arrested. Finally, he sees what he has become and gives his life to save a friend who had misused him and betrayed his trust. His story ends, maybe not with happiness, but certainly with high dignity.
Olivier the poet starts out quite comfortable about compromising his ethics in his work as the servant of a scheming bishop. But slowly he grows in integrity and asserts his values as a Christian, over against his master. When Pope Clement VI is about to order a massacre of all Jews, blaming them for the Black Death, Olivier intervenes at great risk. He ends up stabbed and beaten, his poet’s hands crushed and his tongue cut out. Maimed and weak he lives out the remainder of his life in a monastery, attended by Rebecca, the one woman he ever truly loved.
Of the three characters, Olivier is the only one who knew in large measure the blessedness of which Jesus spoke. He discovered the happiness of personal integrity, the wealth of an inner, spiritual kingdom. From the world’s view point, his last months seemed awful. Yet he lived and died a happy person.
But it didn’t happen all at once. It took some time to come around. That seems to be the point the psalmist is trying to make. In talking about this blessed person, the image used is a tree planted by a stream. It is a gardening image.
Now Anita will tell you that “I don’t know nothing about birthing no plants.” I mow grass, and any of Anita’s plants that happen to venture into the yard. So I had to ask about planting a tree. But actually, the word that is used here is better translated “transplant.” A blessed life is like a tree that has been transplanted to a place beside a stream. It didn’t start there, but was moved.
I had the opportunity to watch about 70 trees moved to build a new golf course. They brought in the world’s largest tree spade to move these trees. What I learned is that this isn’t something that you do quickly. If you just move it all at once you will send the tree into shock and it will die. You have to root prune the tree first, digging around the tree to break it out of where it has been, but then you just leave it there for a while. After about a month you can move it to a new location.
Only a few of us are fortunate enough to be born blessed with wisdom and happiness. The rest of us are going to have to be transplanted. We have to be moved from where we are, to where we need to be.
Sometimes we want it to happen quickly, but often that does nothing more than send us into shock. So, the psalmist suggests that at first, maybe it is enough just to quit sitting with the scoffers, then to quit standing with the sinners, and then quit walking with the wicked. It will take some time, some intentionality. But it takes some time to grow something that is not going to blow away in the breeze.
Sometime this week a child will complain that what they are having to study isn’t important. They will complain that this stuff will never matter. And they may be right!
But what are the things that will matter?
What are the things that matter in your life?
Where does God fit in?
Write your own psalm, your own list.
Where do you want your life to be planted?
I pray that it will be rooted in God, for it is there that we will find the things that really matter, those things that lead to a blessed life.
About the writer: While Dr. Don Flowers is the pastor of Port Williams United Baptist Church in Nova Scotia, most people know him as the spouse of Anita Flowers, who is frequent contributor to Reflections. They are the parents of two daughters. Prior to their adventure in Canada, Don was the pastor of Providence Baptist Church in Charleston, SC. He also has served as Minister of Youth at First Baptist Church, Greenville, SC and Lenoir, NC. Don has degrees from Wake Forest University, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Candler School of Theology.
Scripture and Music:
1 Corinthians 15:12-20
Come, We That Love the Lord
Marching to Zion
Lord, I Want to Be A Christian
If thou But Suffer God to Guide Thee
A Charge to Keep I Have
All My Hope Is Firmly Grounded
Only Trust Him
Lord, I Want to Be a Christian (arr. Moses Hogan)
Blest Are They (David Haas)
The Beatitudes (Stanley Glarum)
Blessed Is the Man (Jane Marshall)
The Beatitudes (Alice Jordan)
Then Shall the Righteous Shine Forth (Mendelssohn)
Through It All (Andre Crouch)