“All Things to All People”
The day after tomorrow will be the twenty first anniversary of my mother’s death. It has put me in a reflective mood and I want to take some time this morning to share a very treasured story and memory from the time of her dying. My wife, Dadgie, wasn’t able to go, so I flew down alone as our family gathered in Arkansas for my mother’s final days. We were all there together when she breathed her last. It was an intimate and sacred moment that none of us will ever forget. We sang, and prayed, and read scripture, and cried and laughed, and shared in a wondrous sense of release when it was over. It had been coming a long time, and it was truly a blessing.
That was all on Thursday evening. She died at about twenty minutes after seven. It was then that things started to get a little strange. I want to tell you the story of how I managed to become a basket case in a matter of three or four hours, and how my 38 year old nephew became a pastor to me.
It all started when we got back to my father’s house and I phoned my son, Eric, in Colorado, to begin letting my children know that the end had finally come for their grandmother. As soon as I told Eric the news, he informed me that he and his brother, Drake, and sister, Nichole, had already been talking to each other about coming out to Arkansas to be with me. I thanked him much for the thought, but obviously it was not feasible at that point because we were going to have a memorial service the very next day (Friday), and I would be leaving to return home on Saturday morning. He made it clear to me, that feasible or not, they had already decided to make the trip – to drive from Denver, Colorado to northwest Arkansas to be with me and the rest of the family. I then explained that we had just had a snow and ice storm there and the roads were treacherous, and that my father had been in touch with his brother in Kansas who said that it was the same there. It was not only unrealistic to try to drive about a thousand miles in sixteen or seventeen hours, just to turn around and drive home again, but that it was unsafe on those roads. He thanked me for my advice, as grown children do, and informed me that they would see me on Friday afternoon. That’s when my worry set in, and my nerves started to unravel.
Those nerve endings frayed even more when, the next morning, I received a cell phone call from my son, Drake, on the road. They were running behind schedule and didn’t expect to be there until about 7:00 PM on Friday, the same time we had scheduled the memorial service for. He said they were just entering Texas. I said, “Texas? Why would you be going through Texas?” He said, “Well, it’s just the northern tip of Texas.” I decided not to press the issue, because there was nothing to do about it at that point, but I knew they would have had a much shorter trip coming the northern route through Kansas.
My family had asked me to conduct the memorial service for mother, and I was happy to oblige. I spent the afternoon on Friday preparing for the service. As the time drew closer and we hadn’t heard from my children, I began to get more anxious. Then came the cell phone call. They were approaching Fort Smith, still an hour and a half to two hours away. Eric said, “I don’t think we’re going to make it, we’re not going to get to Little Rock until maybe nine o’clock. I said, “Little Rock!? Why would you be headed to Little Rock? We are nowhere near Little Rock!” He said, “Well, it is in Arkansas, isn’t it?” That’s when it dawned on me that he had no idea where he was going. He then informed me that their cell phone battery was running low and they didn’t know how much longer it would last. We started to give them directions to get there, but their phone died, and we lost them before we could finish.
The family huddled and started trying to think of contingency plans. Several members of the family favored delaying the memorial service until they could get there. I was starting to lose it, though, and I said I thought it would be unfair to the people coming from the community to ask them to wait indefinitely for the service to start. At the same time, I couldn’t imagine those kids driving what was going to amount to about twenty hours across country just to miss the service. Mostly, I kept imagining them driving all over northwest Arkansas all night unable to find us, and finally running out of gas in the middle of nowhere on a freezing winter night.
By now, I was coming unglued. I threw my jacket down on a chair and headed for the kitchen to try to find a way to get my wits about me. What would happen to my children? Why did they take off on this insane trip to begin with? Would they get there for the service? Would they get there at all? How in the world was I going to conduct a memorial service for my mother under these circumstances? I could barely think straight.
That’s when it happened. My nephew, the pharmacist, walked into the kitchen behind me. He had decided in a quick instant that it was time to change our relationship. He stopped in front of me as I turned around and looked straight into my eyes. He was taking the personal risk of extending himself and relating to me in a way he had never done before. I knew what that gentle peace in his steady gaze meant, because I knew how devout a Christian he was. As he held my attention with his eyes, he said quietly, “Uncle Mike, it’s going to be alright. They’re going to be alright. It will turn out fine.” I knew that for him, this was not an idle hope. It was a declaration of absolute confidence, grounded in his faith. Being a person of faith doesn’t mean that, indeed everything will turn out fine, but it was clear that he loved me, he wanted to help me, and he cared about me. And that confident faith of his washed over me like a healing balm. I put my arms around him and said, “Thank you.” And I was in awe of this young pharmacist from California whose diapers I used to change, and who had suddenly become my pastor.
[By the way, for the record, it all did turn out beautifully. We held up the service until my children arrived. It was a deeply meaningful time, and it touched the heart of their father more than they could know that my children made that unbelievable trip.]
Paul said, “I have become all things to all people.” “To the Jews I became as a Jew. . . . To those under the law I became as one under the law . . . . To those outside the law I became as one outside the law . . . . To the weak I became weak . . .” and I would add on behalf of my nephew, Scott, “To one who is a pastor, I became as a pastor.”
I don’t know how easy it was for my nephew to do what he did, but I rather suspect that it was not at all easy for Paul to do what he did. Paul was, in my estimation, a passionate, single-minded man. I don’t think it was in his nature to “become all things to all people.” To be so open and so flexible strikes me as contrary to the man’s psychological make-up. But he says, “I do it all for the sake of the gospel . . .” He stretches himself to the point of doing almost anything for the sake of the gospel.
Would we? You and I are not inclined to go beyond our “safety zones” for the sake of most anything. When an opportunity presents itself to stick our necks out, to move beyond the familiar patterns of a relationship, and say something to a friend or a stranger who might need a word of support, when a situation arises in which we might be able to share a bit of our faith with another human being, when the moment of truth comes and we could make a difference for someone by getting beyond our limitations and fears, do we seize it, or do we tend to withdraw to an anonymous place of safety?
My late father once related to me the story of a man who attended his church in Rogers Park on the north side of Chicago about fifty-five years ago now. The man was coming home from work one day on the “el” (Chicago’s elevated commuter train). He got off at the Roger’s Park station, and headed for the stairs. But at the top, he slipped and fell all the way down that long steep stairway to the sidewalk. He found himself lying on the concrete, bruised and battered, and barely able to move. He later told my father that no one stopped or spoke to him except one woman. She came up to him and offered him a religious tract; “Are you saved?” it said. I was amazed to hear that story. Not a soul on that street, I thought, could take a chance and reach out to this injured man – not a soul. If you or I were there, we would certainly stop and help, right? Or would we find it more emotionally convenient to assume the guy lying there is simply a drunk passed out on the curb, someone to not “get involved” with?
Paul says that getting outside of himself and meeting people where they are is not an option, it’s a “necessity.” “Woe to me,” he writes, “if I do not proclaim the gospel.” And “proclaiming the gospel” does not mean simply asking someone if he’s found Jesus or sticking a tract in his hand; it means taking the risk to discover that person’s need and responding to it. We, like Paul, are not simply encouraged to extend ourselves for the sake of the gospel, we are absolutely compelled to do so. We are compelled to do so, because there is no other way to live the gospel; there’s no other way to follow the footsteps of Christ.
But, like the lady with the tract on the streets of Chicago, it’s very easy for us to fool ourselves into thinking we are proclaiming the message of Christ when all we’re doing is offering lip service. So how are we to know the difference? How are we to know when what we are giving voice to is the will and way of Christ, and when it is simply our own narrow agenda?
Well, the truth is, sometimes it’s hard to tell. But here’s a clue: if we find that what we are doing is very comfortable and easy, we just may be getting off track. We likely need to get outside our comfort zones and take some risks if we are going to truly understand others, truly relate, truly empathize, and meet them where they are.
But the rewards, as Paul suggests, can be high. To live the gospel, to embody Christ to another, to participate in another’s experience and thereby help to heal them is to, as Paul said, “share in [the gospel’s] blessings.” It is to know that there is truly power in life; it is to know that love conquers all; it is to discover the wondrous gift that is given to those who reach for it: a computer programmer can be a healer, a pipe fitter can be a prophet, a pharmacist can be a pastor.
Praise the Lord. Hallelujah.