It’s What We See That Counts

January 31, 1999

Summary

It’s What We See That Counts

On my tenth birthday I bought a tree to plant in a sunny place my father had given me out of his large garden so I could have what I was pleased to call my “orchard.” For some reason I had decided pears were more exotic than apples or peaches, so I bought a tree tagged with a color picture of a luscious pear. For what seemed an eternity I watched that tree patiently until it finally bore fruit — and I realized that what I had was a peach tree. It gave new meaning to a scripture I had heard our preacher use in sermons: that the one sure way of knowing what people are is by seeing the kind of fruit they bear in their lives.
I realize that this sounds almost embarrassingly naive, but the truth is that nothing brings a sharper or more incisive judgment against our lives than a verse that says we are to be judged not by what we profess or promise but by what we do. Our discovery that “talk is cheap” was put another way once in the Sermon on the Mount: It is not the person who keeps saying the right things but the one who actually does them who wins approval. Jesus had obviously met too many who in modern slang “talk the talk” without ever getting around to turning words into deeds. Those of us who go to church, and especially the ones of us who speak, are at special risk because the vocabulary of piety so easily becomes a substitute for the cost of actually doing good things. Thomas a Kempis, medieval author of the most famous devotional book ever written, understood this perfectly. In The Imitation of Christ , he summed up this entire sermon in these few words: “Truly, at the day of judgment, we shall not be examined on….how well we have spoken, but how religiously we have lived.”
The man in my office years ago insisted, “I love my wife and children; my family comes first, I can tell you that!” — but he was away from home most of the time, and distracted by other concerns when he did come through the door. By saying the right thing over and over he had seduced himself into believing it, but his wife and two sons only smiled sadly when I shared what he had said. Unexpressed love really doesn’t count for much, which is why we so often hear the devastating indictment: the road to hell is paved with good intentions. As it was with my tree, the proof of what we are is in the harvest, not in the advertising tags we wear.
I remember an essay I read years ago, written by a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, which began by recalling how Father Flanagan of Boys Town fame once said he had “never met a bad boy.” The professor says, “Having, myself, met a remarkable number of bad boys….I suspect….that the Father was appraising the ‘inner man,’ while I, in fact, do not acknowledge the existence of inner people.” He intended to shock, of course. He knew we have some kind of inner life, but he also knew that the only way others can know for sure what we are is by seeing what we do. Many of us are romantic enough to believe that old chestnut about all those prostitutes with hearts of gold, and to convince ourselves that a film like Pretty Woman proves it, but it’s mostly nonsense — as any pimp can tell you.
What we fantasize about ourselves may bear little resemblance to what people see coming from us. And it can work both ways: we may be worse than we think we are, or we may be better. The truth is discovered by what we do. As you know, it’s popular at a certain stage of growing up to have an “identity crisis.” You’ve heard the egocentric song: “I don’t know who I am. I’m trying to find myself” — as if identity were something pre-existent, needing to be found, when in fact identity is built, minute by minute, day by day, by the myriad choices we make. Not by what we say or feel or wish, but by the things we do. Listen carefully to talk about an identity crisis and what you usually get is a picture of someone peering through a microscope to examine every little thread in the hidden fabric of a precious inner self. Do you want to discover your identity? Know your true self? Make a list of what you do, what you actually do, each day — and you will know. You may not like what you find out, but you will have discovered your real self. Not the self you wish you were, not the self you advertise, but the real you.
I have kept in my files for years a quote from an extremely intelligent woman named Margaret Halsey, hoping to find a use for it some day — and today I’ve finally gotten around to it. She says, “The ‘self’ is not a handsome god or goddess waiting coyly to be revealed….The current glorification of self-love will turn out in the end to be a no-win proposition, because in questions of personality or ‘identity,’ what counts [are you listening?] is not who you are, but what you do. ‘By their fruits, ye shall know them,’” she finishes. “And by their fruits, they shall know themselves.”
According to the sermon title, it’s what we see that counts, and I remind you of that one more time as a kind of prelude to a remarkable little story — a true story — printed not long ago in a national religious journal. It was written by a minister who became dean of a theological seminary in San Francisco, and you will quickly guess that he wrote it about himself and his own daughter — but you will know at the end that it is about all of us. Here it is, in his words:
“There is a certain man who lives in a seven-room parsonage with an attached garage in a middle-class American suburb. He lives there with his little girl who is an ornery and difficult little girl. For instance, she is always wanting ‘things,’ everything that is bright or pretty or expensive. Now little children always want lots of things. That is part of being a child. A visit to a toy store with one is impossible and it takes foreve and you might as well plan to make a day of it. All that is not unusual, and it is to be endured. But this little girl wants ridiculous and impossible things. Most of all she wants a horse — not a hobbyhorse, or a stuffed horse, or one you pull across the floor on a string, but a real live horse. There is not room in that parsonage for a horse, and the elders would not permit one even if her father and the town authorities would, which they won’t. There is a law against horses in that town.
“She knows she can’t have a horse. Or perhaps she doesn’t really know it, but she does understand that it would be a most exceptional thing if her daddy got her one. It is not difficult to feel that a horse housed in the garage attached to the parsonage would prove a lot of exceptional things to her, things about herself and her daddy. Well, she has always wanted a horse — for years. At least she always has wanted one until one night not long ago — but that is getting ahead of our story.
“There is another difficult thing about this little girl. She doesn’t laugh very much, and she never runs and puts her arms around anyone. She plays alone in her room, hours on end, and talks quietly to herself as she falls asleep at night. She is really very melancholy, sad. She readily admits it, and that may be the most exasperating thing about her. It is one thing for a person, even a little person, to feel unhappy, but it is quite another thing to have someone answer every friendly inquiry about how she feels, or what is the matter, with the solemn pronouncement: ‘I feel sad. I feel sad all the time.’ No matter how bright the sun or how happy the prospects, there is at every breakfast in that parsonage a gloomy little voice reporting, ‘I feel sad. I always feel sad. You know that, Daddy, so why do you always ask? I have always felt sad. I wish I could be born all over again.”
“To be sure, she has some reason to feel sad; or, at least, has had some reason. Several years ago, when she was four, her mommie died. But everyone was brave about it and very Christian, very cheerful. No one let this little girl see him cry, and everyone talked about how happy a place heaven was and that Mommie wouldn’t hurt anymore. Her father thought that was the sane and sensible way to handle the whole affair….priding himself on being something of a theologian.
“This little girl’s mommie was no theologian….but she was very courageous. And part of her courage through a long and painful illness had been to help the little girl become accustomed to getting along without her. As soon as she knew she was going to die, she began inviting different friends and nursemaids to take the little girl on holidays and for long weekends. It was a hard thing for her to do, for she wanted to gather the child up into her arms and laugh with her and cry with her and tell her how much she loved her. But she knew that this little girl would soon have to learn to get along without her. Commonsense, that enemy of the New Testament, dictated that the least she could do was not to allow the child’s attachment to her to grow too strong.
“Perhaps it was then that the little girl first turned to her father. But he was organizing a committee for a new church nursery — the first one in the denomination to have infra-ray protection in the lavatory. In addition, he had lots of people to care for — and besides, his little girl was not a very lovable child, and although he thought she would grow out of it, she never showed anyone very much affection and he was being sensible about not forcing himself on her. Also, she complained that his whiskers scratched her when he kissed her, so he gave that up, too.
“All of this was before one strange night. That night this certain man was very weary when he was putting his little girl to bed, and she was very uncooperative — off somewhere in her private dream world. He felt he was rather at the end of his rope, and of his wisdom and patience too. Finally, he got his little girl tucked into bed and knelt there to hear her prayers. They were very proper ones. He permitted no nonsense about ‘If I should die before I wake.’ They were happy, sunny prayers to dispel fear and gloom, all about ‘the morning light’ and ‘until then, Dear God, goodnight.’ The rhyme was miserable, but the feeling was positive.
“However, on this particular night the tragic dimension of the little girl took over, and when the silly rhyme was through, she launched out on her own. ‘Dear God,’ she said, ‘help me someday not to always feel so sad.’ This certain man, no mean grammarian himself, didn’t even hear the split infinitive because at that moment so much else seemed to be splitting. ‘This unhappy child,’ he thought. ‘What have I done wrong? A child should not be like this. God, give me some help.
“And then, quite unaccountably, he felt a tear in his eye and another down his cheek and he was alarmed, for he thought, ‘If she knows I am crying, her world will surely tumble in. I must be composed and sure….for her security.’ But it was too late. A tear once shed cannot be recalled, and one had gone quite out of control and had fallen on the child’s face deep in her cuddly blanket. ‘Daddy, you’re crying!’ she said. ‘O no, my dear,’ came the lying reassurance. ‘Go to sleep now. Pleasant dreams.’
“‘But you are crying,’ she said, not with alarm, but with curiosity. He could keep the pose no longer. Besides, he had some respect for the truth. ‘Well, just a tear or two tonight,’ he said. And then with almost angry self-assertion he added, ‘It is just possible, you know, that Daddy feels sad sometimes, too.’
“‘You do?’ exclaimed the little girl. ‘What about? Mommie?’ ‘Yes, about Mommie sometimes. I miss her very much.’ ‘Is that what you are crying about tonight?’ ‘No, dear,’ he said, almost before he knew it. ‘Tonight I feel sad about you — about your feeling so sad. I love you so very much that it hurts, hurts awfully that you are so sad and…..’ Then he paused. He had said too much. How could he repair the damage to her security? The silence between them was awkward, and it seemed very long. Finally he stood and bent over the bed and tucked her in briskly, reassuringly. But before he could straighten up and leave the room, she reached her arms about his neck and kissed him on the most prickly part of a day-old beard and then almost at once settled down to sleep.
“And it is really rather strange,” this famous theologian writes, “but ever since that night the little girl has never again talked about wanting a horse.”
You might remember this much from that story: that the things our children talk about wanting are not always the things they really want, and that the only way to be sure of love is to see it in action: the bouquet of flowers, the visitor who comes to the nursing home, the friend who knocks at the door of your hospital room, the woman who comes to your grieving house with a freshly baked pie….or, as in our story this morning, the busy and carefully controlled father whose tears finally gave unmistakable proof. It’s what we see that counts.
Keep us mindful, gracious God, as we leave this room, that the
love and goodness we prove by our conduct is what the world
needs to be made well….through Christ our Lord. Amen.

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