I hadn’t seen Jenny in two years, and she greeted me in the foyer of the school like a long lost friend. She was smiling.
“I’m graduating, Steve. I’ve been going to the adult high school.”
“Hey, that’s awesome!”
I gave her a hug and we chatted for a few minutes until it was time for me to get back to my students. As I walked away it was hard to keep the smile off my face. I knew enough about her difficult childhood to know exactly what she’d accomplished by finishing high school.
It was refreshing to see such fight, such willingness to slog through the difficulties of life. That she was barely twenty didn’t matter. The rate of high school drop outs had been rising for rising for years, although the public barely recognized it. Teenagers now lived in another world, a world where adolescence was prolonged and adulthood came early.
So it was with a smile and great appreciation for the human spirit that I spent the rest of that day.
Unfortunately, it didn’t last.
There were three of them sitting around the table. Women in their forties, nervously twitching and fixing their hair and sipping their coffee as they talked. I was sitting at the next table, sorting through a barrage of papers and work. Slow jazz eased from the speakers. The two women closest to me were arguing.
“I don’t know why he did it. He’s a jerk. He’s always been a jerk.”
“Yeah, but not like that. What about Tyler?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you don’t know? You have to tell him some-“
“I know! What do you want from me?”
“Look, I’m not saying it’s your fault…”
I looked over at the third woman who’d been silent through the conversation. Wisps of red hair fell in front of her face, and she brushed it aside as if unaware what she was doing. Her gaze remained focused on her coffee as she picked at the lid.
“What about you, Kat?”
“I'm not sure why you're so surprised.” She said, her voice tired.
Her gaze flicked upward as if she sensed my attention and I looked away, embarrassed. It was sad, I thought. I’d seen so many tired people lately, people completely exhausted by life, and in many ways it didn’t make sense. It wasn’t like they were going hungry, or that they worried about their everyday survival. The question wasn’t about survival, it was about living. Strange that in an educated and rich culture that we seemed unable to answer the most important of questions. For every person excited about life, I met two or three others who merely endured life as if it was a bad dream. The past two years I’d met a number of twenty and thirty year olds who spoke as if they were ninety. As if life had already passed them by. For whatever reason, they’d given up.
The women had left, and I wandered through the bookstore, sipping my coffee. I kept thinking about the redhead. A part of me had wanted to go over and give her a hug, tell her everything was going to be okay. But I wasn’t sure that it WAS going to be okay. The only guarantee life gave was that there would always be times of heartache and sorrow. That was a certainty. Contentment was not.
I strolled past a wide shelf of self help books. It struck me how polished these ‘gurus’ looked on their covers. Handsome. Distinguished. Pretty. I understood the importance of looks in marketing, but it seemed to me that something was missing. What it was, I wasn’t sure.
By the time I got back to my table, the café had nearly emptied. A college student had set up his laptop in the corner, and an elderly couple was quietly sipping their coffee on one of the couches. I sat there for a while, thinking about the redhead, thinking about the self help books and gurus and discontent of so many. Why had so many people given up on life?
It wasn’t an easy question, certainly not one you could answer in a few words, but it struck me that as a culture we were continually submitted to a barrage of advertisements. Everything was an advertisement, even the self-help books. But what were they advertising? If so many felt that life was only to be endured, it followed that something was wrong with the message itself.
It reminded me of a story I'd heard many years ago...
Back in the forties a young boy heard that the circus was coming to town. He was from a small town on the East Coast, and the circus was the biggest thing that had ever happened in his life. He was a poor boy, but he saved for weeks, doing any job he could find so he could afford to see it. Finally, the day came. He waited eagerly beside the road as the circus trains rolled in. He saw the monkeys and tigers and clowns and jugglers. He saw acrobats hanging off their swings and clowns making people laugh on the side of the road. He took it all in, the wonder of it so great he felt like nothing could ever equal his experience. He watched in wonder as the performers disappeared under a large tent on the other side of town. It was the greatest day of his life. Suddenly he realized that he hadn’t paid. He turned to an older man next to him.
“Excuse me, sir. Do you know where we are supposed to pay?”
“I’ll take it.”
The man took the boy’s hard earned quarter and the boy skipped all the way home. All that hard work was worth it. No matter what happened, he could always say that he'd seen the circus. The circus! He’d seen it all, and it was worth it.
It wasn’t until years later he learned that he hadn’t seen the circus at all. He’d only seen the parade.
The dominant advertisement in our culture is the parade, and sadly, most people don’t even realize that it isn’t the circus. We’re force fed this message of what we’re supposed to expect and what life’s supposed to deliver. After digesting this cheap substitute for so many years, we no longer know the difference.
Maybe so many people have given up on life because they are unaware of the alternative. Any alternative. When commercialism and materialism fail, when the picket fence fails to provide or fails to arrive, they are left with a wanton emptiness about what life is and what it can be.
On the flip side, religious people hear far too many messages of prosperity and God’s goodness wrapped in a package of cheap grace and Gap clothing, so many they can not comprehend a God who asks for more. And promises more.
The abundant life God promises, the reason to pursue life, is found in neither of these advertisements.
Of course, Jesus did not ask us to do the easy thing. He didn’t promise us the Disney plan for success: wealth, family and faith. Jesus, and the message of Jesus, was something different. So different, so radical, the powerful Romans had Him killed. And yet, what Jesus asked is nothing more than what we find ourselves asking in those moments of honesty that assail us every so often. He asks us if the parade is enough. He reminds us that the circus, the real thing, is something beyond our wildest dreams. He shows us that the Kingdom of God is not a Sunday or a part of life, but rather, that it is life itself. And when we discover that pearl, life becomes a dream worth living.
The stone the builders rejected is the cornerstone to our life. Maybe we need to re-examine why our lives feel so empty. Or have we become so deluded with the weakened advertisements of our culture that we no longer have the strength to even ask the question?
May God show us that He is the best reason to pursue life. May we all find the strength to take one step back so that everything around us becomes a little clearer. And may God show us who we really are, unique and treasured and loved, and who we were meant to be.