Have you ever heard the story of Fantastic Brown? The story goes something like this. Once upon a time, there lived a man named Fantastic Brown. But his name really got to be a burden. People would ask his name. And he would reply. “It’s Fantastic.” And puzzled they’d say. Well, I’m glad that you like your name, but what is it? And again, he said. “It’s Fantastic.” And again, they’d say, ok, I understand it’s Fantastic, but what’s your name? And then frustrated, he’d say. Don’t you understand? You just said it. It’s Fantastic. And they would reply, “I know your name’s Fantastic, but what is it?” Ok, you get the idea.
And even when Fantastic Brown got through all that confusion, it still didn’t stop. People would introduce him with a joke. “Hey, you gotta ask his name. It’s Fantastic.” Or “Trust me, this guy has a Fantastic name.” By the time, he neared the end of his life, Fantastic Brown had had enough. His dying wish to his family was simply to put “F. Brown” on his tombstone, nothing more. And his family did abide by that wish, but they couldn’t just leave it there. So, they decided to put a little more. They wrote on the largest tombstone they could find. Here lies, F. Brown, a loving husband for 75 years, a faithful, hard-working father who put all his eight kids through college, and a devout Christian who sacrificially gave funds to found three orphanages around the world.” And as people wandered through the cemetery, they saw this unusually large tombstone. Then they came over to read what was written there. And after they read it, do you know what they said? They said, “Wow, now that is Fantastic!” I’ve always liked that story. But it makes a powerful point.
At the end, your life will essentially come down to one sentence. People will remember you that way. They’ll say. “Well, he was kind of a jerk, I can’t believe we put up with him all those years.” or “She never seemed all that happy a person, I don’t really know why.” Now hopefully they’ll say something more like: “What a compassionate and kind guy he was and so much fun!” Or “I just loved being around her, she always made me feel better about myself.” But in the end, with pretty much anyone who knows you, your life will come down to just that, a sentence or two they will use to summarize your life. And right now, whether you realize it or not, you are writing those sentences.
And here’s the painful truth, as much as you and I intend to live lives to reflect those last positive sentences I shared, our lives can drift towards the sadder ones I mentioned first. And that drift can happen before you even realize it. And then as you get closer and closer to the end of your lives, you realize what sentences you’ve written. And you know they are sentences you regret, but that now those are sentences it’s too late to change. Talk about a blindside, about a hit that comes at you before you realize it, that’s a brutal one.
So, how do you make sure that doesn’t happen? How can you make sure that the sentences by which people remember you will be good ones, ones that celebrate the impact you made rather than mourn the life that could have been? In these few short words, Jesus shows you the way. Let’s listen to what Jesus has to say.
Matthew 5:4 - Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
What does Jesus mean by blessed are those who mourn? Keep in mind that blessed means, fulfilled, happy. So how does mourning lead you to happiness, to fulfillment? It leads you there when you are mourning the right things. It leads you there when you are facing up to the grief that happens when you realize the gap between who you are and who you’re called to be.
Years ago, I learned the original meaning of anger. The word anger comes from an old Norse word that meant grief, a sense of loss. But it meant a particular type of grief. It meant the grief you feel when you see the gap, the gap between the world as it is and the world as it should be.
And likely in some way every day, you feel that grief. You see a story in the news about some awful thing in the world, and you feel the grief. Or you see that gap right around you. You someone being unnecessarily rude in a store. You see someone you are about struggling with an addiction and grieve the gap between what is and could be because of this drug in their life. This past week, someone I know experienced violence at the hands of a man she once loved, and I felt the gap between what that marriage should be, and the awful thing it had become.
Do you know what I’m talking about? Have you ever felt that gap? Have you ever seen some injustice, and thought, that shouldn’t be happening? Have you ever experienced some injury in your own life, and thought, this isn’t right? This is not the way it should be. And feeling those gaps has power. They can motivate you to work for change. In the case of the woman who experienced that violence, it moved her to get the help and protection she needed. People feeling gaps overturned slavery, began the civil rights movement, launched countless other movements for change in our world.
But too often folks become numb to the gap. They stop the mourning. They accept the gaps or even ignore them. And as painful and awful as that can be in the world, that same numbness can happen within. You see. Jesus doesn’t want you only to face the gaps in what happens around you or even to you. Jesus wants you to face the gap that happens within you, the gap between whom you are, and who God created you to be. And when you ignore that gap, when you grow numb to it, that’s when you begin writing the sentences that you don’t want to define you but will. And those sentences once they’re written, they can be hard, even impossible to erase.
Have you been following all the drama in major league baseball? I haven’t been keeping up with it too much. I have a six-year-old at home so right now so I’m up a lot more on transformers and Legos than baseball. But in the locker room at the gym this week, the sports channel was on, and that’s when it hit me.
Now before I get to what hit me, ff you don’t know the controversy, here’s the deal. Major League Baseball discovered that the Houston Astros, the 2017 World Series Champions, had been cheating. As a result, managers and coaches have been getting fired all over the places, not only at the Astros, but also at the Red Sox and the Mets. I kinda knew all that. But what hit me in the locker room was when I realized the sentence that all those folks who had been fired had just written. Each of them had great records as players, as coaches. But now do you see the sentence that will follow them for the rest of their lives. No matter what they accomplish, one sentence will always be there. He cheated. And in the world of sport, that’s a pretty horrible word to carry to your grave.
But do you know what? They knew. They saw the gap. They saw the gap between what they were doing, and what they should be. But they numbed themselves to it. They ignored it. And now their careers no matter how stellar will always be overshadowed by the dishonor and hurt they’ve brought to their lives, to the lives of others and to the sport they love.
But you don’t have to be a major league player or coach or executive to ignore the gap. You don’t have to cheat in the World Series to write yourself an awful end of life sentence for people to remember you by. You can do it in far easier ways than that.
You can present one picture to the world, even as you hide the one that truly exists. So, it looks like you are so loving to your spouse or your kids in public, but no one sees the anger, the bad attitudes, the ugliness that lives at home. Or you say one thing, make a commitment, but when it comes time for action, you don’t follow through. Or you hide things, like your internet browser history or what’s really happening on your phone or how you’re really spending your time. And you can think. No one is noticing. Or you rationalize it. I need this or I had a tough day. But all you’re doing is numbing yourself to the gap. But the gap it’s still there. And the sentences, either good or bad, that will define your life they are being written, whether you want to see them or not.
But here’s the point that Jesus is making. Jesus isn’t saying. Don’t have a gap. Everyone has a gap, lots of them. No, Jesus is saying. Notice the gap. Grieve the gap. Only then, does the gap grow less. Only then, do the good sentences get written.
A book by a preacher and writer named Carey Neiuwhoff has helped me in writing these talks. In that book, which is called Didn’t See it Coming, Avoiding the 7 Challenges that No One Expects and Everyone experiences, Carey tells this story.
Carey and his wife Toni had traveled to Austin, Texas. Carey was speaking later that week, but before that engagement, they had a Sunday morning off. So, they decided to visit a friend’s church nearby. Carey’s wife, Toni took charge of Google maps while Carey drove. But Carey didn’t like being out of control. He kept making snide or irritated comments about her navigation skill. Finally, he grabbed the phone. And he said in the most condescending and frustrated tone he could muster. “I’ll just read the map myself.”
At that moment, Toni broke into tears. Carey pulled over. And he thought. I’ve gotta make this better quick or we’re going to be late. And maybe if it had been the first time, that might have worked. But it wasn’t the first time. Carey had pulled this stuff in the past, and Toni was hurt, was angry. This was going to take a while to work through.
So, what did Carey do? He faced up to the gap. Beyond working to repair the relationship with his wife, he had to let his friend Buck know they weren’t coming. What should he write? He could say, hey Buck, something came up and we can’t make it or Toni isn’t feeling well this morning, so sorry. And that would be kind of true. But Carey didn’t write that. He wrote this. “We won’t be at church this morning. I was a jerk husband today, and it’s just not a good morning for us. I’m so sorry. I’ll explain later.” A few days later when he and Toni met up with Buck and his wife later, he had to own his failure again and apologize. Now, Carey writes. It stunk to write a text like that. But it sure made him aware of the gap. And it sure motivated him to work on fixing it. He didn’t want to write a text like that again. But Carey wrote that text because he knew only facing the pain would bring the gain. Only when he faced up to how much distance lay between who he wanted to be, and who he actually was would change come.
You see. As hard as it is to feel that gap, Jesus is telling you, telling me. You need to feel it. For then, only then, can you see what you need to see. Only then will you no longer be denying the gap that is really there. And that means you can see more clearly that your life lies on the other side of that gap or at least lessening the distance between the two.
But here’s the question. Everyone, if they’re honest, sees their gaps. Now, they may ignore them. They may numb themselves to them. They may rationalize them. Maybe they tell themselves. Oh, other people’s gaps are worse than mine. Mine aren’t so bad. But why do all of that? Why don’t people, including you and I face our gaps? We fear. We fear acknowledging to ourselves, just how flawed and broken we are, just how scared and insecure. And we sure don’t want others to see that.
Recently I read an article about Joe Biden, and how he struggled with stuttering for years growing up. Now, for the most part, Biden, through a tremendous amount of work, has overcome his stuttering. But folks who stutter notice the moments he hasn’t. They see the little tricks that every stutterer knows, how to avoid an embarrassing moment, how instead of saying Obama in one interview, he said my boss. He didn’t forget Obama’s name. He just knew, in that moment, he would stutter over it. So, he switched to something he could more easily say. Yet when the writer, a stutterer himself, asked Biden about those moments, Biden had a hard time admitting he still struggled at times. And I get that. He doesn’t want anyone to see that gap, even a gap, like stuttering, that he inherited at birth.
It's hard to face the gaps. But when you do, comfort comes. Fulfillment happens. How? You realize. God already sees your gaps, even more clearly than you do. God sees your flaws, your pettiness, all the stuff you and I work to hide. And God still loves you. In fact, God so loved you that in Jesus God came and became one of you. And even when this God experienced the awfulness of the cross, that God still loved you. In fact, because of that love on the cross, you know that no gap, no matter how deep or how wide, is too wide for that love to cross. This God does love you, really love you, no matter what. That is the sentence that defines you now and forever.
And as you know that, as you experience it, comfort comes, comfort so powerful it frees you like never before. It frees you to face your gaps, to acknowledge your brokenness. And in the freedom of that love, those gaps grow less. The fears lessen. The insecurities fade. And the love and trust grow. And in that love, God enables you to rewrite the sentences, to create beautiful ones by which others one day will remember you. “He was so genuine, real, loving.” “She was so authentic and accepting, so honest and grace filled.” So….What sentences are you writing? What gaps are you ignoring? Where does Jesus need to free you to face the gaps, that his love defines you not those gaps? So, face them, and as you do, face them in the embrace of the one who loves you, who loves all of us no matter what.