The Search for the Sacred: Sacred Stories
The Search for the Sacred: Sacred Stories
August 20, 2017
I have a friend, Harry, who is a pastor. I only get to see Harry occasionally but when I do, I always walk away feeling reassured that Harry is out there, doing the compassionate, faithful work that he does. I also almost always walk away laughing. Harry is one of those totally straight-faced, seriously funny guys.
Every pastor has spent time trying to bring a little life into the local nursing home. I’ve told you my story before about being heckled at Westmoreland by a sweet little old lady in the back row. I finished my prayer. She yelled out, “That wasn’t very good!” I read the Scripture Lesson. She declared, “That’s not what I would have picked!” I finished the service and shook her hand. She shook her head and said, “Better luck next time.” I told Harry this story. We had a great laugh. Then, he said, “I’ve got one for you…”
Harry’s friend, Brad, is a really talented musician. He’s made a practice out of trying to share those gifts over the years…yup, you’ve got it!… at nursing homes. Why not bring a little joy to the elderly, right?
Brad was getting ready to be in a show, a musical that had never played before in the United States, composed by a relative unknown by the name of Andrew Lloyd Webber—some guy from England, apparently. His show had the strange title, “Phantom of the Opera.” Brad’s friend who came with him to the nursing home was Sarah Brightman, the woman who had already been cast to play Christine when the show opened. The bottom line was that Sarah and Brad, whom no one at the nursing home had ever heard of, were coming to the nursing home to sing some songs that no one at the nursing home had ever heard before. If only they’d been coming to sing that medley of tunes from “Oklahoma!”
Brad and Sarah arrive, only to find that there is an “opening act.” In the big open room that every nursing home has that always has a couple of big rubber plants and a linoleum floor, a man and his poodles were hard at work. Several of the poodles had little skirts on. All of them were hanging on the man’s every gesture. Some of the poodles danced like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. With every trick that the poodles turned out, the elderly folks clapped with delight. Finally, the man and his poodles took a bow and headed off to a corner.
Soon, heads turned in the room to Brad and Sarah. All eyes were on them. Brad said a few words of introduction about who they were and how their dream was that one day some of the songs that they were about to hear might make it to Broadway. Then, they sang—sang like no one who has ever sung at a nursing home before. These were the songs that generations would one day sing! (My family can sing the whole soundtrack, word for word.) This is the story that would move millions!
Can’t you just imagine the tears of joy in the eyes of those sweet elderly people as their hearts soar with the notes? Well…think again. Brad’s estimate is that they made it to the third song before a man in the very back row expressed what seemed to be the feelings of the group: “Bring back the poodles!”
Of course, the story isn’t a knock on the elderly. Rather, it is the truth about human beings. So often in this life, we have no idea of what it is that we are looking at. We have no idea what it is that we are hearing. We are so drawn to what’s familiar that we miss the power of what’s new. We miss the moment that’s happening right in front of us. We don’t always pay attention.
Here’s another story. It was the week of April Fool’s Day in 1981. Mary Claire King recalls it was that Sunday night that her husband told her that he was leaving her. He had fallen in love with one of his graduate students. They were leaving for the tropics the next day. Mary Claire was blown away… Her husband left her a new vacuum cleaner as a sort of parting gift.
King was a professor at U.C. Berkley. She had a Monday class to teach. Against the odds, she woke up, took her five year old daughter to kindergarten and headed down to campus to teach. On her way there, the department chair called her into his office. He closed the door, turned and faced her and said, “Good news, Mary Claire… I just learned that you have been awarded tenure!” At which point, Mary Clair burst into tears.
In retrospect, King acknowledges that this professor was from a different generation of men, that he had raised three boys and had almost no women in his life. He had never had a young, female professor in his charge before. So, he could be forgiven for being confused: “No one’s ever reacted like that before…Sit down. Sit down. What’s the matter?” King explained that it wasn’t the tenure decision. It was her husband leaving her. The professor grabbed a bottle of Jack Daniels from his drawer and offered: “Drink this. You’ll feel better…”
Eventually, when she was sobered up, she picked up her daughter, Emily, and headed home. When they got there, their apartment trashed. Later, she would theorize that someone realized her husband, who often worked from home, wasn’t home any more. She had been robbed. An incredibly compassionate young police officer came who carefully worked through the chaos and the rubble with Mary Claire and Emily. When he left, they felt cared for but wondered, “What’s the next awful thing that’s going to happen?”
On Wednesday, Mary Claire was supposed to deliver a speech about a research project that she was doing. This was a crucial piece of securing funding for her research for the next five years. The plan had been for Emily to stay with her dad (who was now in the tropics) and for her grandmother, Mary Claire’ mother, to fly in and help out. Now, on Tuesday morning, Mary Claire drove to the airport to pick up her mother who had no idea of anything that was going on.
As soon as her mother heard what had happened, she blamed Mary Claire: “How could you let your family fall apart? I can’t believe Emily will grow up without a father. How could you not put your family first?” Her mother got more and more agitated. This made Emily more and more agitated. This just wasn’t going to work. Her mother decided to fly back to Chicago. Mary Claire decided to cancel her trip. She called her mentor to let him know. Her mentor convinced her, instead, to bring Emily with her: “Everything will be fine! I”ll watch her…” He also took care of getting Emily a ticket.
The next morning, her mother had a ticket back to Chicago. Her daughter had a ticket to Washington, D.C. to fly with her. Mary Claire’s head was spinning. And they were all on the way to the airport—except for the traffic jam on the Bay Bridge. They ran their luggage to the boarding area. (It was 1981. There was no TSA.) However, her mother’s gate was on the other end of the terminal. Mary Claire realized that she was going to have to leave Emily and run at adult speed with her mother. Her mother yelled, “You can’t leave Emily here all alone!” That’s when the man behind her said, quietly, “Emily and I will be fine.” Mary Claire turned to the man and said, “Thank you!” Her mother just tried out, “You can’t leave your daughter here with a perfect stranger!” And Mary Claire said, “Mom, if you can’t trust Joe DiMaggio, who can you trust?” The man looked at Emily and said, “Hello, Emily…I”m Joe.” Mary Claire said, “Mom, let’s go!”
Mary Claire King is now the American Cancer Society Professor in the Department of Medicine and the Department of Genome Sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle. The research proposal that she made it to D.C. to pitch that week was the first research done on the genetic inheritance of breast cancer as the result of a gene mutation that she found and named BRCA1.
Sometimes, you have no idea what you are seeing or hearing so you just cry out, “Bring back the poodles!” or some variation, thereof. Sometimes, everything feels like it is falling apart until it suddenly dawns on you that things are actually conspiring to work out, against all the odds, until, shockingly, Joe DiMaggio or someone equally trustworthy offers to watch your child. Even though it seems like everything is falling apart it turns out, looking back, that things were being held together, every step of the way.
Then, there are the moments when you think you know for sure what’s about to happen and something shocking unfolds. A lawyer asks Jesus to give him the secret to eternal life. Jesus asks the man what he’s read. The man gives a great answer, quoting Scripture about love God and neighbor and self. “Great answer!” Jesus says—“Now, go do that!” The man asks one more question, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus tells a story.
A man is assaulted. He’s stripped and beaten and left for dead on the side of the road. Along comes a priest—whom every listener would expect to do the right thing because he surely knows the right thing to do—but he passes the man by. Along comes a Levite—a man steeped in the law and doing the right thing—but he passes the man by. Finally, a Samaritan—a despised foreigner—comes down the road and makes a bee-line to the man. He cares for the man, arranges for accommodations and commits to coming back to check on him later. Jesus looks the lawyer in the eye and asks, “So…who was the faithful person?” “The one who showed him mercy.” The one who cared… And when ask ourselves, “When was I the man in need? When was I the one who passed him by? When was I the one who cared?”
Stories inspire us. They give us a fresh perspective. They challenge our assumptions. They remind us that there is almost always more going on than meets the eye…if we can keep looking and listening and laughing and caring. “Bring back the poodles!” “Hello, Emily…I’m Joe!” “The one who showed mercy…” Gather the stories that you hear in this life and retell them until you finally can tell the most important story that you will ever tell: the story of your life.