Dave Bostrom was the scheduled speaker at Semi-Programmed Meeting for Worship on August 3, 2014.
Near the end of his life, the writer William Saroyan said:
“Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case. Now what?”
I’ve heard this quote many times and it still resonates with me. Even though Saroyan may have uttered it somewhat tongue-in-cheek, it speaks to the human condition. I especially like the question “now what?” that is often omitted from the quote.
Lately I’ve been pondering what it means to be an exception or to have an exception made in my case. Sometimes this is in matters of life and death, sometimes in matters more mundane. Why do I expect this and what do I do when I discover that no exception will be made?
My daily commute takes me from south Minneapolis, across the Minnesota River, to the library in Eagan where I work – what you might call a “reverse commute.” I‘m very fortunate that the heaviest traffic is almost always going in the opposite direction. Often the cars are terribly backed up on the other side of the freeway. While I feel bad for anyone stuck in traffic, I also have to resist the temptation to feel smug about my smooth sailing. It feels like vindication, like the universe is saying that I’m living right and therefore I deserve to have the waters parted in front of me. Of course, my illusion of living a charmed life comes crashing down the next time I’m the one caught in a horrendous traffic jam. Why me? How utterly unfair! Now what?
Like William Saroyan I find it hard to feel in my gut that I will really die. I’ve always been the center of my universe as I perceive it, so it’s hard to imagine it going on without me. Of course, I do have plenty of tangible reminders of my mortality. I’m now six years older than my father was when he died. My younger brother died in January. I’m increasingly aware of the aging of my body. I’m amazed at how the people in the obituaries keep getting younger, and at how often I notice that I’m the oldest person in the room. But just when I think I’ve achieved some kind of acceptance of my eventual demise, then I find myself cycling through the stages of denial, anger, bargaining or depression.
Being brought up in the Judeo-Christian tradition I learned the idea of being God’s chosen people. Even though my ancestors are mostly Swedes and not Israelites, as a child I assumed that I was surely part of that select group worthy of God’s special treatment. And being a preacher’s kid couldn’t hurt.
I was also born into a nation that also took this idea and ran with it. As the Puritan John Winthrop preached, “We shall be as a city upon a hill; the eyes of all people are upon us.” We were to be a shining example to the world. Now there’s nothing wrong with striving to be exceptional and a good role model. But the reality has often been tragically different.
God brought us to the new world, we were told, and we had a manifest destiny to occupy it from coast to coast, no matter that it was already full of highly-developed civilizations. This idea of “American exceptionalism” stubbornly persists. Somehow we have the arrogance to think that we should be judged by a different standard than everyone else, and that we are exempt from the historical forces that brought down other civilizations. When we discover that this is not true, we need to ask, “now what?”
Seeing myself or my community or my county as an exception is really a way of making a judgment about everyone else. It seems to be saying that we deserve better, that we are morally justified and that others are not.
Jesus had something to say about this. In the book of Matthew he says:
Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. [Matthew 7:1-5, NIV]
We’re being challenged here to see ourselves through the eyes of others, to try living with empathy instead of judgment. That’s incredibly difficult! But when I try to do that, the idea of exceptions being made in my case seems a lot less reasonable.
Do I really want to be exempt from the hard requirements of life? Well, yes, I admit I often do. But at the same time I would find this very lonely. If I never had to struggle and confront my own limitations and painful vulnerability, then I wouldn’t be likely to connect with others in a deep way.
If I face my vulnerability head on, there’s a chance that I might be able to ask for help. And if I’m able to ask for help, there’s a chance I might be able to see when my neighbor is hurting and needing my help. We’re all in this together. Now what?