The Very Best of the Human Spirit

 

This is adapted from a sermon preached on Sunday of Independence Day Weekend at the hospital chapel.

On July 9, 2016, 24 year-old Brian Bergkamp and four friends made the most of a beautiful summer day by kayaking on the Arkansas River in Wichita, Kansas. Brian attended my alma mater, Conception Seminary College, and there prepared to enter into ministry. I didn’t know him, as I graduated a few years before he began his studies, but Conception is a very small school, tucked away in the remote rolling hills of Northwest Missouri, and a place with a sort of distinctive and timeless character, so all of us who have called it home at some time or other over the years share a certain bond. Conception’s motto is “the love of Christ compels us,” and, every so often, one of our number stands out as having lived into that motto. When that happens, we all share in a certain grateful pride. I can claim nothing more heroic than being a typical student, managing to pry myself out of bed and make it to class, most of the time. Or, some of the time, anyway. But every so often, one of our number really does prove the power of a life compelled by self-giving love.

Young Brian was such a person. Brian Bergkamp demonstrated the very best of the spirit of our college, the very best of the spirit of this nation, which we celebrate this weekend, and the very best of the human spirit. While enjoying the camaraderie of his friends and the freedom of spirit one experiences in the great outdoors, disaster struck. The kayaks hit an unexpected patch of especially rough and rapid water, and one of Brian’s friends, a 26 year old woman, fell in without a life jacket. There she struggled against the current, vainly trying to keep her head above water. Rather than paddle himself to safety, Brian remained in the rapids, reaching out to offer his friend her life jacket. By risking his own safety, Brian saved her life. In the process, his kayak overturned, and the 24 year old was washed away and drowned. His remains would be found several days later.

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Memorial to Bergkamp by the 21st Street Dam on the Arkansas River

The love that compelled Brian Bergkamp to lay down his life for his friend, that love which is the most beautiful, most powerful, and greatest capacity of the human spirit, that love which tells us that only be giving ourselves away do we become who we truly are–this love is made possible by that same insight that lays at the foundation of our country.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The enlightened words of our Declaration of Independence, penned 241 years ago, recognize that a society in which people can live freely and happily is only possible when the equal dignity of all persons is recognized and protected. The free and happy life is the life of one who is able to look into the face of another and see, for all the differences that may separate them, someone just like himself or herself, someone of equal value. Only then is the real, self-giving love, a love that would lay down its life for its friends, that love which is the pinnacle of what it means to be human, possible.

We know all too well that between the ideal laid out in the Declaration and the reality of life, there is a wide chasm, with waters as rapid as the Arkansas River. We know that the man who wrote those beautiful words also held fellow men and women in bondage as slaves, that the nation built on the foundation of those words would enshrine slavery into its Constitution. We know that “all men are created equal” would take years to be read as including women. We know that the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness of the native peoples of this land would be treated as far from unalienable. We know, too, that for all the progress we’ve made living into these ideals, there is still much work to do, still people kept on the margins, viewed as outsiders, unloved, unwanted.

But we press on, with gratitude for the ideals handed us by our founding fathers. We press on confident that the human spirit is stronger than its weakest link, that fear, hatred, and bigotry are no match for the power of love. May this Republic, rooted in the greatest ideals of the human spirit, stand for ages to come, as a place where that love can thrive ever more fully.

 

The Gospel according to Legos

This is adapted from a sermon I preached today at the hospital chapels in Lexington.

Imagine that you’re sitting in church on Sunday morning. The preacher has just got started—you’re not even checking your watch yet—and in walks a man carrying a bucket of peanuts. He plops down next to you and starts going to town, cracking open the peanuts, gobbling them up, and tossing the shells on the floor. When I imagine this, I envision turning my head 360 degrees—Exorcist style—to give him a seriously dirty look. I can even imagine mean old Chaplain Jeff pulling him aside and explaining to him what he’s doing wrong.

And what is he doing wrong? He’s not killing anybody, of course, but we have rules, after all. They may be unwritten—there’s no stone tablets explaining that church isn’t the Lonestar Steakhouse—but we have a certain way of doing things, and this man’s behavior is simply outside of the bounds of our rules.

Now imagine that he begins to share his story. He shares that his parents died when he was a child, that he got mixed up in drugs as a youngster, that it has really messed with his head. He shares that he’s lost and lonely, that his struggles make most people want to turn the other way, and that those who do bother to speak to him mostly just give him lectures about society’s rules that he can’t quite seem to understand. Then he shares that he hasn’t been in a church since he was a child and that he thought maybe, just maybe, he might find some people here who would accept him as he is, who might welcome him and in whose fellowship he might start to rebuild his life.

Well, in this—I promise—imaginary story, guess who now feels about three inches tall? Mean old Chaplain Jeff.

Jesus gives us a mighty tall order today (Matthew 5:38-48). “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” If Jesus told me to sit at the piano until I figure out how to play the Hymn to Joy, I’d starve to death before I figured it out, because I haven’t touched a piano a day in my life. Yet I’d still knock that one out long before I began to live up to a call to be perfect if perfection is understood as following all the rules without any misstep.

Rules, laws play an important role in our lives. We often hear people speaking of us as a people of laws, a nation of laws. I’m sure they mean well when they say that, but I’d like to suggest that that’s not the case at all. I wear glasses, and my vision is so bad that I desperately need them. Without them, the world is a blur of unrecognizable colors and shadows. I’d be lost and maybe dead without them. There is a woundedness in my power of sight that my glasses help to correct, to guide me when I’m fixing to—maybe even literally—fall off a cliff. But my glasses don’t define me. They don’t make me who I am. I am a person with glasses, but I am not a person of glasses. In the same way, I’d offer that we are a people, a nation with laws, with rules that nudge us in the right direction when we’re liable to stray. But we are not a nation of laws.

Instead, as Christians, we are called to be a people of love. Rules, laws are valuable only insofar as they empower us to become just that. In themselves, they have about as much value as my glasses do when sitting unused on my night stand.

The heart of biblical law is love: love God and love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18). Jesus in the biblical story did not come to abolish the law. He didn’t come to enforce the law, either, but to fulfill it by setting the example of complete, self-giving love. Perfection is not following all the rules for the sake of rules. The perfection advocated by Jesus is being authentic, being whole, being complete persons of integrity in ourselves and among each other. We find that wholeness, not in isolation, not by ourselves, looking out for what we think is in our own best interest, but by being in a relationship of gratitude, and of self-giving love with God, with ourselves, with our environment, and with one another.

If you’ve ever had the misfortune of stepping barefoot on a Lego building block, you know that there are few greater agonies known to man. That tiny, rectangular block has the power to send inexplicable shockwaves of devastation into the bare human foot. When foot meets Lego, the result is always Lego, 1, foot, 0. We suffer, and the Lego goes on about its business like nothing happened. The simple, obvious lesson is that people aren’t Legos.

lego

Since we’re not Legos, we don’t grow just by adding pieces to ourselves. The great and beautiful mystery of this adventure we call human life is that we grow, we become more whole, more complete by giving away and sharing parts of ourselves with others.

Jesus calls us to offer ourselves to one another, to be built up and made perfect by celebrating the gift that is our life by becoming gift to others, by being people and a people that welcomes and cares for not only those we know, those we like, those who make us comfortable, but those who are different, those who are strangers, those who frighten us.

Rules, laws are there to guide us in our journey toward more perfect love, but there are merely pointers, merely signs along the way. They are not the destination. Laws cannot make us perfect, they cannot make us whole, and laws cannot be allowed to get in way of the Law, the call to be in loving harmony with all creation, with God, and with one another.

Of the four gospels, Matthew’s is the account of Jesus’ ministry that is the most inspired by the ancient Law of Moses, that values laws the most, that raises a cautious eyebrow at the more freedom-focused thought of the Apostle Paul, yet even there, in such a Torah-centered gospel, when Jesus encounters people focused on following the rules and overlooking the greater, divine Law of perfect love, he does not hesitate to say, “you have heard it said ‘so and so’—said in the Bible, no less—“but I say unto you, no. Love one another.”

This sentiment was beautifully encapsulated by St. Augustine long ago: “Inasmuch as love grows in you, in so much beauty grows; for love is itself the beauty of the soul. Once for all, then, a short precept is given thee: Love, and do what you will.”

In our imaginary story of the man with the peanuts, mean old Chaplain Jeff may have been a stickler for the rules, but in being so I fell further from the perfection modeled by Jesus, while our poor, broken guest, reaching out in vulnerability, searching for meaning and love, was well on his way.