What Are You Looking For?
Though there may be other things wrong with The New York Times, one major failing is that it has no comics. I suppose that's a statement about being a sophisticated paper with "all the news that's fit to print," but it seems a bit snobbish to me. I grew up with Lucy, Linus and Charlie Brown; I not only read them, I also learned to draw them. I used Peanuts cartoon characters and words to make birthday cards for my family and friends. After Hgppiness Is a Warm Puppy was published, I borrowed Snoopy to illustrate my 4-H county fair project, "Happiness Is a Good Desk Lamp." (When I shared this with seminary classmates at Yale, they were astonished that anyone would even bother working on such a project. I guess they were too sophisticated.)
But I still have a collection of some of my favorite Peanuts cartoons. In one of them, Lucy, Schroeder (the piano player), and Charlie Brown are lying on their backs looking up at the clouds. Lucy says, "When I look at the clouds I see Michelangelo's Painting in the Sistine Chapel. God is reaching out to touch the finger of Adam." Schroeder is next: "I see Beethoven, his long hair flowing, his head bent down over the keys to strike a full chord." Then they both turn and ask, "Well, Charlie Brown, what do you see?
"I was going to say I saw a horsy and a ducky, but I changed my mind.
Sometimes I feel like Charlie Brown ... Over the years, I've been in lots of groups where everyone sits in a circle. And a question is thrown out to help people get acquainted. Something like, "What was the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to you?" (I always wonder why anybody would tell a whole group of people the most embarrassing thing that ever happened.) Often, the circle has been in a church basement and the question was something like, "What is your earliest memory of God?" The leader encouraged us by saying there is no RIGHT answer, but I was always thankful not to be first. It's best to be somewhere in the middle so if your answer is really dumb, it may not be noticed. I usually think of what I should have said on the way home, wishing I had been as profound as the person to my right, or across the room.
It may seem odd to you, but I often think of that old Peanuts cartoon when I read the first chapter of John. It's not that the chapter is particularly funny -- but it seems to move from the sublime to the ordinary without missing a beat, Michelangelo and Beethoven to horsy and a ducky, all in one chapter!
You may remember the opening words of John's gospel; the Gospel for Christmas Day:
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and without him not one thing came into being."
These are cosmic words, words from the beginning of all creation. This is a picture of galaxies and light-years, of time before time. This is the Word with a capital W, far more than a little word. Yet this Word, which seems at first to be an idea or a philosophical concept, is soon identified as a person. When we get to the 14th verse of chapter 1, it is stated clearly: "And the Word became flesh and lived among us..."
. From there, it goes downhill, or rather, down to earth. John the Baptist talks about sandal straps -- now that's down to earth! He says he's not worthy enough to even untie someone's sandal straps -- the Bible says "sandal thongs." Whose sandal? According to John the Baptist, it's someone who stands among them, yet someone they do not know. (John does tell people that he saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove and the Spirit rested upon this unknown one -- now, that is not so common.) Indeed, John believes that one who stands among them is the Chosen One of God. John also calls him the Lamb of God -- and hearing that title, two of John's disciples turned. And the narrator tells us, "They followed Jesus." That must be the stranger's name: Jesus. Is He the Word with a capital W -- the one who was with God from the Beginning? (If so, how could He stand among them and not be known?)
We listen... wondering what this one named Jesus will say -- this one called the Chosen One of God.
Will we hear the power of a symphony? Will we be awe-struck as before a great painting? We listen...
"(Jesus) said to them, What are you looking for?" "They said to him, Rabbi ... where are you staying?"' "Jesus said to them, 'Come and see."'
That's it? It's not very cosmic. Then the narrator tells us that they came and saw and remained with Jesus that day. ("It was about four o'clock in the afternoon.") We've gone from the very beginning of time, back beyond time -- light-years and eons, to four o'clock in the afternoon. Human time, human scale. Look at the clock on the wall; check your watch. What time is it where you are?
What do such little words have to do with the Word, capital W? The conversation seems like small-talk: "What are you looking for? Where are you staying?" And yet ... something must have happened -- for Andrew, one of the disciples who stayed ran to find his brother Simon and said, "We have found the Messiah" (that is, the Anointed One, the Chosen). Andrew had discovered something in that stay. It was more than a street address, more than something that could be marked by looking at your watch: After 4:00 if you had asked Andrew, "Where are you staying?" he would have answered, "I'm staying with Jesus." Andrew had been found.
What are you looking for? We need to press back to that question. It sounds so ordinary -- I see myself rummaging through piles on my desk trying to find an important letter, moving frantically from kitchen to living room to bathroom to bedroom and back again trying to find my keys. Sometimes I go into a room to find something and get distracted. I end up asking myself, "Barbara, what are you looking for?" But it is such a simple question? These are the very first words Jesus speaks in the Gospel of John. "What are you looking for?"
I'm asking you, and I hear the question also come back at me. You and I may not know what we're looking for... we wait for the others in the circle to answer first. We want to say something that won't sound stupid.
In our lives, day in and day out, what are we looking for? Perhaps Jesus always meets us with this question. It is the starting point and though we may not yet have an answer, Jesus does want to know. And He will let us stay all day trying to find the answer -- until four in the afternoon or four in the morning... or a lifetime. And Jesus will let us begin where we are, with little things, if that's easiest. With things which often seem insignificant. we need not speak of Beethoven or Michelangelo. We can stand like children who dare to speak before they learn to censor themselves.
Jesus will also tolerate silence, probably more than we can, and He'll let us talk about ourselves. Preacher/novelist Frederick Buechner says that this may be the place where prayer begins ... not for everyone perhaps, but for those who cannot find other words. Buechner gives us permission to begin there...
"Talk to yourself about your own life," he says, "about what you've done and what you've failed to do, and about who you are and who you wish you were and who the people you love are and the people you don't love, too. Talk to yourself about what matters most to you, because if you don't, you may forget what matters most to you..."
We may discover that we are praying ourselves deeper into the question, "What are you looking for?" We are starting to hear an answer.
The answer will be shaped within our own skin, but it will be connected to the One who is beyond our own skin. Our small words will be heard and come to rest in the one who is the eternal Word.
I'm not speaking in the abstract - but of something real, down to earth ... something that happens in people's lives when they hear Jesus' question, "What are you looking for?" when they know the question is serious, and so is Jesus' invitation to "come and see."
There is a man who began coming to worship in our little Bennett Avenue church about a year ago. He came in through the back door, in a way, bringing his little son to the Toddler Co-op program in the gym. He always sits in the very last row. I didn't know much about his life, until he wrote me a letter. (I had invited him to be part of a membership class during the weeks before Pentecost Sunday.) His letter was very moving to me, and I asked if I could read just a bit of it to you...
He writes about his parents -- good people who believed in "the struggle for a better world," as he puts it. But he also says, "Some of my earliest memories involve my mother telling me, No, there's no such thing as God. Some people believe in God, but we don't."'
He goes on to talk about his deep respect for his parents, and his own years of reading and searching. Toward the end of the letter, he talks about his feelings toward the church: "Becoming a member of the church would be an immense step for me -- it would be far more than changing denominations or reconfirming my baptism. It would be rather the first public affirmation of religious faith that I would ever be making." He closes his letter with these words. "I mainly wanted to give you some idea what it is that draws me so irresistibly down to Bennett Avenue every Sunday, and why I timidly steal away just before communion." "What are you looking for?" Jesus meets us with this question -long before we have an answer. But that is not all: Jesus also says, "Come and see."
Does that sound too simple for you?
It's a place to begin.
Rev. Barbara Lundblad THE PROTESTANT HOUR