January 4, 1998

Byron C. Bangert

Luke 2:41-52; Ephesians 1:3-14

One of the better movies showing in town this season is "As Good as it Gets". It is a touching movie in which Jack Nicholson plays Melvin Udall, a neurotic, obsessive-compulsive older man who is every bit as misanthropic as most Jack Nicholson characters are, and Helen Hunt plays Carol Connelly, a single mom trying to survive with an asthmatic son and a day job waitressing in a New York City café. In one particularly poignant scene, after a kind of relationship has been established between Melvin and Carol, they are having dinner together when Melvin says that he has a compliment to give Carol.

Melvin relates that he is supposed to be taking medication but, as he puts it, "I hate pills." He says it with passion. When he says "hate" he really means "hate." Then he goes on to say that after a recent encounter with Carol, he began taking his pills. That is his compliment! Of course, it requires explanation. He explains: He began taking his pills because, as he says to Carol, "You make me want to be a better man."

Is there anything that makes you want to be a better person? In this season of New Year's resolutions, we are prone to take stock of our lives and to reflect upon how they might be changed. As we file year-end reports, make strategic financial decisions, compute our taxes, put together our scrapbooks, put away our Christmas decorations, or whatever it is we do more at this time than at others, we may also have time to think, time to review where we have been and how well we have done. We may have time to consider where we are going, and how we might be better than we are.

In less than three weeks, the church session will also be on its annual planning retreat. This, too, will be a time for taking stock, for reviewing the life and work of the church, for reflecting upon who we are as a congregation and how we have gotten here and where we might be going. It, too, will be a time for reflection upon the course and meaning of our life together, and how we might be better than we are.

Perhaps we should start by asking ourselves, "It is possible to be better than we are?" Maybe the Melvins of the world can be better by taking little pills, but what about the rest of us? However, it was not the pills that made Melvin want to be better. The really crucial fact for Melvin was the desire to be better--in his case, to become a decent human being. To become a better person he first needed the desire. For him, that desire was awakened in the presence of someone whom he began to care about, someone for whom he wanted to be better.

There is a little prayer that has been making the rounds recently that goes like this: "Lord, help me to be the man my dog thinks I am." That prayer says a lot. It reminds us that the desire to be better is often related to the expectations of others. We do not want to let others down. We do not want to disappoint or disillusion them. We have a role, an image, a reputation, a perception--and consequently, a relationship--to preserve and protect. Of course, we do not want to let ourselves down either.

As few years ago the following letter from a Wellesley College alumnae was reprinted in the Phi Beta Kappa newsletter:

I want to pass on to you a remarkable story concerning my Phi Beta Kappa key . . .

In 1947, when my husband and I were living in Pasadena, California, married only three years and very broke, we pawned several items, including my Phi Beta Kappa key. I pawned that key not only because we were in need of cash but also because of my anti-establishment attitude at the time, that scorned what the key represented. (I guess college students haven't changed that much!) We moved soon after that, and I never gave my Phi Beta Kappa key another thought.

Twenty-five years later in Santa Cruz my phone rang during dinnertime. A woman's voice said, "Is your name Edith Manchester?"

"Yes," I replied.

"Was your maiden name Edith Roberts?" was her next question.


"And did you graduate from Wellesley College in 1941?"

"Yes" again. Now I was really mystified.

"Well," continued this unknown woman, "I have something of yours that changed my life--your Phi Beta Kappa key." She proceeded to tell me the following story:

She had arrived in Pasadena in 1947, depressed after a divorce, but determined that somehow her young son would have the education she had never had. As she got off the Greyhound bus and started walking down the main street of Pasadena, a little Phi Beta Kappa key in the pawnshop window caught her eye. She bought it on impulse, wore it constantly (so that no one would pick it up and look at the words engraved on the back), pretending it was hers, using it as a goal for her son to reach. To play her part convincingly, she then had to study to keep ahead of him, and thus educated herself. Eventually he graduated from college, went on to earn his Ph.D. in engineering and became a scientist with NASA in the Apollo program.

"My son has reached the top," the woman told me. "The Apollo program has come to an end, and the mission of your key is over. Your name and the name of your college are engraved on the back of the key. I phoned the College for your address, and now I'm returning the key to you. Thank you for the use of it.

The key arrived by mail, wrapped in a pretty handkerchief. I looked at it with awe. What value another woman had found in something I had considered worthless! And by the way, as the years have gone by, I have found my Wellesley education to be anything but worthless.

--Edith Roberts Manchester '41

["THE KEY REPORTER," Autumn 1991]

Edith's Phi Beta Kappa key gave the woman who wore it not only a goal, but an image and a relationship to preserve and protect. "Lord, help me to be the man my dog thinks I am." "Lord, help me to be the mother my son thinks I am." "Help me to be the woman my friends and neighbors think I am." "Help me to be the person I would like to be." Sometimes even pretending to be someone we are not can be a way to become a better person. Pretending--not in order to deceive but simply to be a better person--may actually help you to become such a person. The expectations of others may combine with your own aspirations to help you strive toward your goal.

All the years I have been an ordained minister I have had this feeling that perhaps--there is really no way to know, so I say "perhaps"--it has made me a better person. Perhaps it has made me a better person because of all the expectations I have had to try to live up to. When people trust you, you want to be trustworthy. When they confide in you, you want to keep their confidence. When they love or respect you, you want to be loving or to merit their respect. It is not always possible, hardly even advisable, to try to live up to everybody's expectations all the time. But having some expectations to live up to is surely one way in which the desire to be better is awakened in each and every one of us.

I suppose we could even go so far as to say that the church is not doing its job unless it helps to make people want to be better. This does not happen in every congregation. It is a question of what kinds of expectations and aspirations mark the life of the congregation. In some places those expectations have a great deal to do with status. In some they have to do with conformity to particular social or cultural values. In some they have to do with other kinds of conformity--to narrow moral regulations, to strict doctrines or teachings, to prejudices of one sort or another. In some, relationships are established or broken primarily on the basis of judgments regarding adherence to external standards. In others, however, relationships are negotiated primarily on the basis of love and grace. One of our tasks as a Christian community is to have expectations of, and aspirations for, one another, that help make each of us want to be better, and then to relate to one another as if we truly love and desire the good of the other.

That brings us to the question, What is our good? What does it mean to be better? What is life all about? How are our lives to be? Also making the rounds these days is a statement about "Life in General" that goes like this:

Life isn't about keeping score. It's not about how many friends you have. It's not about if you have plans this weekend or if you're alone. It isn't about who you're dating, who you used to date, how many people you've dated, or if you haven't been with anyone at all. It isn't about who you have kissed, it's not about sex. It isn't about who your family is or how much money they have, or what kind of car you drive, or where you went to school. It's not about how beautiful or ugly you are, or what clothes you wear, what shoes you have on, or what kind of music you enjoy. It's not about if your hair is blonde, red, black, or brown; or, if your skin is too light or too dark. It has nothing to do with what grades you get, how smart you are, how smart everybody else thinks you are, or how smart standardized tests say you are. It's not about what clubs you're in or how good you are at sports. It's not about representing your whole being on a piece of paper and seeing who will accept your application.

But, life is about who you love and who you hurt. It's about who you make happy or unhappy purposefully. It's about keeping or betraying trust. It's about friendship used as a sanctity or a weapon. It's about what you say and mean, maybe hurtful, maybe heartening. About starting rumors and contributing to petty gossip. It's about what judgments you pass and why. It's about who you've ignored with full control and intention. It's about jealousy, fear, ignorance, and revenge. It's about carrying inner hate and love, letting either grow to fruition. But most of all, it's about using your life to touch or poison other people's hearts in such a way that could have never occurred alone. Only you choose the way those hearts are affected, and those choices are what life is all about. [cited by Roland Wiederaenders on PresbyNet, 12-2-1997].

In my more critical moments, I could find reasons to quibble and quarrel with some of the assertions in this statement. But taken as a whole, it does remind us rather emphatically that life is primarily about relationships, not outward accomplishments. To be a better person is not to acquire more, or to reach some arbitrary standard or level of success. To be a better person is to relate to others in a more loving, helpful, or encouraging way. It is to touch others in a way that enables them to grow, and to become better themselves. Melvin's compliment, "You make me want to be a better man," is really a tremendous compliment, when we think of it in these terms. It is a way of saying, "there is a goodness in you that calls for a greater goodness in me."

This brings us perilously close to the Christian gospel! Christians affirm that there is a goodness in life, in the world, in our midst, that calls for a greater goodness in ourselves. This goodness is more than the occasional goodness we experience in the best of our friends, the finest of our companions, the most admirable of our colleagues or fellow church members or respected leaders. It is a goodness that infuses all of existence, and sometimes comes to fruition in the most unlikely of circumstances. It is the goodness of an unmerited and imperceptible grace that sustains us even when we seem otherwise surrounded by nothing that would make us want to be better. It is the goodness that we occasionally see in the life of the saint, the individual who rises above earthly circumstance, who embodies those qualities of compassion and generosity and truthfulness and justice and kindness and love that are almost universally recognizable as a grace of God.

The Christian faith affirms that some such possibilities for goodness reside in every human soul, that the Spirit is at work in every life, that God is "with us" in our human flesh. In Jesus Christ, the favor of God has been revealed and made manifest to us. This favor is made accessible to us as a resource of grace, a spiritual blessing. To encounter this presence of grace in our midst is to recognize a goodness that is not our own. To be responsive to this divine goodness is to want to be made better than we are.

We do not own the Spirit of goodness. It is not ours to control. But it is ours to discern, to cherish, and to nurture in ourselves and in each other--"to the praise of God's glory" [Eph. 1:14]. AMEN.