April 7, 2019
Fred Craddock, a renowned preacher, tells a story about his friend Rachel. At the time he first told the story, Rachel had recently entered a retirement home where others could be to her a family that she never had. Rachel had taught for forty years in the grade school of a small town. By the time she retired she had taught boys and girls, and their boys and girls, and even some of their boys and girls.
Over the course of her tenure, she had threatened to retire many times, but every one knew that threats from Rachel were as likely to come true as were threats from little children to run away from home. No one took her seriously spring after spring when she said she was too tired to continue teaching.
What really bothered Rachel about springtime was that she felt pained at the loss of another class of her beloved boys and girls at graduation. Though she dared not admit it, she was pleased sometimes to see one of her favorite students, as she called them, detained for another year. She simply adored introducing children to art and music and books. So her summers and weekends were spent gathering objects to help her children learn. Year after year she pasted flags, turkeys, valentines, bunnies, and Santa Clauses on her classroom windows.
Rachel was at a loss for words when the chairman of the school board told her that the superintendent was giving her early retirement. She knew she was a good teacher, a wonderful teacher, so she did not take the action as a criticism. She did not find fault with the board for letting her go. She simply felt sadness that they hindered her from pursuing further the one ambition she treasured in life: namely, to become a child.
Not that she had a desire to become childish. She was old-fashioned in that regard, no tolerance for trying to navigate adult life with childish reasons and foolish behavior. She desired to become like a child in that she wanted their laughter, delights, fears, joys, pains, games, and friendships to become hers. At Halloween, at Christmas, on Valentine’s Day, she was caught up in being a child—full of giggles, play, and wonder.
She was shocked at the board’s decision because after such a long time, her passion had come true. She had finally done it! She had entered her children’s world. No more air of importance, no more sense of being different, no more using big words. She was lost—no, she was at home—in her pupils’ world. Without pausing to analyze what changes overcame her, she smiled, danced, and sang from among them, not from above them.
The adults, who had once been her pupils, but were now responsible adults, repeated to one another: “Poor Rachel, poor Rachel.” They had so completely moved out of the child’s world that they did not recognize in Rachel the full flowering of those childlike qualities they had so loved in her when they were in her classroom years ago. They did not see that Rachel had become what they once were: free to be carefree, happy to be awed. After forty years, out of her desire to reach children, and in her mind for the sake of the children, Rachel had become one with them.
“She will have to be retired,” muttered the school board. “For the sake of the children, we will have to let her go. We cannot have someone like this teaching our children.”
None of the parents, none of her former students who had known her in years past as their favorite teacher, none raised an objection. They accepted the decision as necessarily right. Only one person raised a question. A newcomer, with more curiosity than history, asked, “Why are you getting rid of this teacher?”
“We had to let her go because she had finally become like the children,” chimed the grownups.
After finishing the story, Craddock adds: “And He [God] became in every way as we are. Of course, we had to get rid of Him.”
For reasons all his own, God wanted to be with us and wanted us to want to be with him. That desire put God in a bind. It is often a bind when you want something or, to be precise, when you want someone, because that person may not want you. As the saying goes, “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink it.” You can’t force a horse to drink and you can’t compel a person to love.
How to make us want to be with God put God in a bind. On top of that problem, how to make us fit to live so close to God put God in a bind. One problem is that God lives forever, but, as we all learned from Puff the Magic Dragon, not so little boys, or little girls. For we all grow up and worse than that, we all pass away. So God was in a double bind: how to make us want to live with God as much as God wanted to live with us, and how to make us fit to live with God for as long as God will live.
One way God saw to resolve the first dilemma was to come as close as possible to us, so we could realize how much God wanted us close to him. Maybe showing how much God thirsted for human companionship could stir our hearts to reciprocate in kind. So devoted was God to the cause that God took the resolve to the extreme. More than simply coming to be with us, God decided to became one of us. God acquired a new thirst, to become a human. Somehow, mysteriously, this pursuit might resolve the two-fold dilemma. By being just like us somehow God might prompt us to like God, which would go a long way in making us fit to be with God. After all, there was no sense being with someone forever if you do not like them in the first place. And, if you like them that much, you might find a way to make it last forever.
The logic behind this ambitious plan may not seem apparent, but the intent was clear. God would become like us so that we could like and become like God, wanting to live with the divine being and fit to live close to divine perfection happily forever after. I can’t explain the mechanics of this divine plan, nor has anyone else satisfactorily. Even if we cannot explain the mechanics, we can readily appreciate God’s desire. God would become like us so that we could like God and become like God.
For that purpose, God became a human being, and people called that unique person Jesus. Mingling deity with humanity, God shrank to our size. God desired to become like a human. God wanted our laughter, delights, fears, joys, pains, friendships, and struggles to become his. Over time, over thirty years or so, he pursued his thirsting desire.
Deities, like magic dragons, may live forever, but not so little boys and little girls. Boys and girls grow up. All finally pass away. Thus, to become one of us, totally one of us, in every way one of us, Jesus finally had to pass away. Dropping the euphemism, Jesus had to die. The selfsame God who gave the breath of life to humankind had to breathe his last. For his lifelong thirst was to become one of us, at which time his thirst would consume him.
At the end, at death’s door, his passion had come true. Thus near his end, Jesus utters his parting word, “I am thirsty” (John 19:28). All his life he had long been thirsting to become one of us. Even at the very end it was still his passion. Every step of the way he had complied with God’s plan in completely becoming one of us. To his dying breath or, more precisely, in his dying breath he finally became one of them. Ironically, for Jesus, death became the final step in sharing life with us.
Long ago in Hawaii there was a place on the island of Molokai where people went if they had a disease called Hanson’s disease or leprosy. In those days doctors did not know what caused leprosy or how to treat leprosy, so they quarantined victims of the disease on a deserted island.
Leprosy is a dreadful disease. It attacks the nervous systems and erodes a person’s ability to feel pain. Without feeling pain, people are prone to injure their hands, bruise their feet, cut their skin and not realize that they need medical help. Sores fester on the skin, and in worse cases, skin, fingers and toes turn gangrene. Out of fear and ignorance, lepers were ostracized and confined on the island of Molokai.
A priest from Belgium, Father Joseph Damien de Veuster, felt such deep compassion for the lepers that he decided to move onto Molokai. His friends thought he was crazy, thought that he had a death wish to settle there. They warned him that he would catch their disease.
“But they need me,” was all Father Damien said. Since he was not a doctor, he could not treat their disease, but he could stay with them and befriend them. In the course of his service among them, he came to love the residents of Molokai deeply.
One morning Father Damien was pouring some boiling hot water into a pan. As he poured the water, some of it splashed onto his bare feet. He was astonished, for he did not feel any pain. Then he realized what had happened. He had caught leprosy. He knew his health was doomed, for there was no cure for the disease. But, in a strange way, he felt happy.
Father Damien ran to the church building and rang the steeple bell. Alarmed by the incessant clanging, people came to see what the problem was. Father Damien motioned for them to sit in the sanctuary pews, and then he mounted the pulpit. He silently spread his arms out, as if to embrace the people, and said, “Fellow lepers—my fellow lepers!” The lepers understood instantly Father Damien’s words. He was one of them.
Father Damien loved the lepers on Molokai so much that he thirsted to become one of them. Now they could grasp how much he he loved them. Becoming like them in every way, of course, meant the end of him. But Father Damien did not look at catching their disease in that way. Since his passion was to be with them, becoming one of them meant he came closer to them.
Rachel thirsted to become like her students. She wanted their laughter, delights, fears, joys, pains, games, and friendships to become hers. Father Damien thirsted to befriend the outliers in the leper colony. He felt complete when their suffering became his. Jesus thirsted to become in every way as we are. God had planned it that way. Somehow God figured that by the deity becoming one of us, we finally could become at-one with God. Although the mystery may baffle me, let us embrace it as a way to assuage our thirst for being close with God.