“Just Getting By”
It’s often surprising, and sometimes hard to explain, what we remember from the past. Things we thought were important at the time vanish from our memories; something we thought was trivial may stick like a burr. Here is an odd recollection that gets me into today’s topic, based on a single remarkable sentence spoken by a young Jewish rabbi named Jesus: I was not quite sixteen and I should not have dared to preach to anyone, but the only requirements in my boyhood church were the boldness to do it, a few sermon outlines, and a handful of people willing to listen — and I had found all three. So during a Spring too long ago to identify I drove a ‘29 Model A Ford down 20 miles of gravel road from the Oklahoma town where I lived to a crossroads hamlet so far off the beaten track that when I saw it again one day, a lifetime later, it hadn’t changed a bit. It had a cramped little one-room schoolhouse on one corner and a small grocery store with a gas pump in front on the other. Since the kids were not using it on Sundays, a congregation of about 35 or 40 people met in the schoolhouse.
I remember only a single name from that faroff time, and I also remember a simple country girl, wise beyond her years or her circumstance in life, who on the day I preached my last student sermon in that obscure place said to me with deep and solemn sincerity: “Don’t ever lose the common touch.” It was a more valuable piece of advice than I realized at the time. But the most vivid memory of all would be too trivial to mention except that it relates so well to this morning’s sermon topic. There was a woman who always arrived at that schoolhouse before I did on Sunday mornings. She may have been only in her 50’s but her face was worn and weathered, as ageless as the scrubby land she farmed. Each Sunday she and I acted out the same drama. I would walk in 20 or 30 minutes early to fuss about and get ready for my juvenile performance, and she would be sitting there squeezed into one of those schoolroom desks with the writing top. She always wore the same huge floppy hat, perhaps to hide her face, because if you happened to see beneath it there would be a thin brown line running down her chin from one corner of her lip. She dipped snuff — Skol or Red Man or whatever they had in those days. I would walk down the aisle between the desks to get to the front, speaking to my early-bird parishioner as I passed. “Good morning, Mrs. Riley. How are you?” And like clockwork, as predictable as seedtime and harvest, she would tip her head up very slightly from under that hat and say, “O, tolable, jes’ tolable.”
And for some reason, just as predictably, out of the small arsenal of Scripture texts that were in my head for sermons, there would leap that wonderful remark of Christ’s which you heard a few minutes ago: “I am come that you may have life, and that you may have it in all its fullness.” (John 10:10). Not just a tolerable existence, marginal and precarious, but full and abundant. Not a specific Jesus word about salvation, or about eternal life hereafter, but a glorious declaration that what his generous heart wanted for all of is a good and abundant life. And I would think, Something is wrong if this woman’s life is just tolerable.
Then later in that same week, in the furniture store my father owned, I would watch him greet some of the blue-collar working people who made up a sizeable part of his clientele. “How are things today, Mrs. Martin? How are you folks doing?” And so many times there would come back the cautious reply, “O, we’re just gettin’ by, Mr. Meyers, just gettin’ by.” And it was probably true, although even if it weren’t and things had started to pick up, they preferred not to admit it, because then my Dad might want them to catch up on the installment payments they had missed for the last few months. But the point is that we were not meant to just “get by.” We were meant to have life in all its fullness. Not just its fears and frustrations, but its triumphs and joys, its sunlight on water, its moments of transcendent confidence and peace.
Perhaps that farm woman’s summation of her life as just tolerable, and Mrs. Martin’s description of existence as “just getting by,” are really signals being sent, whether consciously or not. People often send us messages in curiously indirect ways. Somebody comes up, remarks on the weather, and all we hear, or let ourselves hear, is someone making a remark about the weather. “Looks as if we might get some rain” is all that gets through to us, when what is really being said may be, “I’m lonely like most folk, so let’s be friends for just a moment, and speak to each other.” If we cannot hear what is not spoken, if all we hear is a passing comment about the chance for rain, then our only response is to say, “Well, we certainly could use it,” and turn back to whatever it was we were doing.
The truth is that if we really listen to one another, what often becomes clear is that behind the mundane remark is the impulse to touch another life, to share more than a passing bit of trivia about weather or politics — to say “Know me for just a moment — and the loneliness will lift.” Most of the time we prefer to hear only the words actually spoken, because this is safer and non-obliging, but once in a while by the grace of God we hear scraps at least of what people are feeling behind their words.
I was in a grocery store once, with my daughter, picking up the items on a list we’d been given, and I reached for some cookies that were not on the list. She laughed and reminded me I had just sworn off sweets, and I said: “O well, you only live once.” And then one of those things happened that broke through deafness for a moment. The store was nearly empty and the woman at the checkout counter could hear us. It was almost closing time and she had worked hard all day. She looked weary and flushed there behind her cash register and the racks of batteries and lifesavers and chewing gum and TV guides, and when I said, “O well, you only live once,” she broke into our conversation and what she said was, “Don’t you think once is enough?”
She smiled weakly as if it were partly her joke about life, but my grown daughter and I both sensed that it was also grimly serious — that what she was really saying was something like this: “I’m not happy about this job. People come and people go, mostly strangers who do not even see me. I’m sick of them, and I’m sick of myself, too. All the days are alike, and they’re all dull.” And the great hope and promise of Christ came to mind again: “I have come that you may have life, and that you may have it abundantly.” How strange that promise seemed in the dead air of that store with a woman saying, “I’ll live out my life to the last, and maybe there’ll be a decent day now and then, but when it’s over I won’t be all that sorry. One life will do me very nicely, thank you.”
My daughter, who radiates joy and friendship, tried to share a little of both by noticing how nice a workplace the store seemed, but the woman’s said, “Not to me. I’m just killing time until something else turns up.” I’ve always thought there weren’t many expressions more depressing than “I’m just killing time.” The time we kill, of course, is our own time, and there is precious little of it. We get one life in this interesting world, and what could be more tragic than failing to live it as fully and bravely and beautifully as we can?
I wish I could believe the woman at the counter was unique. But the world is full of people who in one way or another are merely “getting by,” killing time, living so much on the surface of things and so poor at really hearing or seeing each other, that it’s little wonder life seems dull and unexciting. They get into the habit of thinking of time not as an end in itself, something finite to be lived joyously for its own priceless sake, but more like a kind of way-station on the road to somewhere else — to a new romance, a better job, the next vacation — with all the time in-between not worth cherishing.
I once had another man give me the ultimate putdown about life: “If you just keep busy,” he said, “it will be over before you know it.” What a joyless ay to live! Here’s a better way: A teacher I know noticed one winter evening as he walked to class that a magnificent sunset was just getting under way. When he walked into the classroom the lights were already on, the students were chattering, and he was about to start his lecture when he suddenly remembered the sunset going on outside in the winter dusk, and on impulse, with no warning to the kids, he snapped off the lights. The room faced west, so when it was dark everything disappeared except what they could see through the windows, and there it was: the entire sky on fire, like the end of the world. He thought someone would ask what was up, since teachers do not usually plunge their students into near darkness, but no one spoke, no one made the almost inevitable wisecrack about how the old duck had finally lost his mind. Instead, they understood something immediately, and for the whole ten minutes it took for the spectacle to fade, no one spoke or moved. They just sat there in the dusk and watched one day of their lives come to an end. The teacher said later he did not feel immodest to claim it was a great class, since his only contribution had been to snap off the lights and hold his tongue.
But it wa great, he said, and not because of the sunset only. What was great was the sheer unbusy-ness of it. It was the taking of unlabeled, unallotted time just to look with more than their eyes at what was wonderfully there to be looked at, without any obligation to think constructive thoughts about it, or turn it to some useful purpose later, and without any weapon at hand to “kill” the time it took. His class was bound together simply by the fact of their being human, by their splendid insignificance in the face of what was going on outside, and no one was afraid of the silence or of the communion. My class, he said, “took time” — and it was a good lesson for them, because mostly we do not.
I stepped outside the other day to sow some flower seed and suddenly from way up in the sky I heard the ringing music of wild geese. I looked up and saw four separate waves of them, bearing steadily toward the north, high and remote from me but beautiful in their precision and in those ancient instincts that kept them in formation, and in that moment when nothing was happening except that I had turned my face to look, the day became richer. I wanted to share it, of course, and I did so as soon as I got a chance, because we are alive in another kind of way when we share with each other — whether in words that try to give shape to a wild singing flight, as I did that day, or in those silences behind which — if we have keen ears — we can hear somebody saying, “Know who I am, for Christ’s sake, and let us for a moment make the most of time by touching one another’s lives.”
I keep trying to avoid the word because it has gotten so threadbare in our time, but the truth is that we are really most alive when we love something, or someone. When we love the mystery and beauty that loom just beneath the air we move through, when we watch the sun flame down in the west and think how many human beings have seen it over all the thousands of years, alone and thoughtful, or else holding someone’s hand and filled with joy to be alive — having life, and having it in all its fullness. I am come, he said, that you may have life. What a strange thing to say, when you think about it this one last time today, because the people to whom he spoke were alive already. Their hearts beat, their limbs moved, they ate and worked and slept. But it is not, he thought, as he looked at someone like the woman in the schoolhouse and someone like Mrs. Martin in my father’s store, it is not life in all its fullness.
So he brought something we have ever since called the gospel, which being translated means simply “the good news.” The good news that life is meant to be more than just getting by, that instead of killing time we can “take” it, possess it, the way lovers possess each other, content for long moments just to be. If I read the Bible properly, with all its talk of meditation and prayer and waiting, that is what it tells us: to still our feet at times, unclench our fists, and let life have its chance to reveal itself. I would like you to remember that the man who said, “I have come with the gift of abundant life” said in another place, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.” But the knocking is gentle, and it may be lost in noisy places, so watch and listen and make the most of the moment.
May we leave this room, gracious God, filled with profound gratitude for
the miracle of life , and for the wonder of waking up one more time — as
we did this day — to its challenge. In the name of Christ our Lord. Amen.
(In debt to Buechner’s The Hungering Dark)