Making sense of your life is like playing one of those connect-the-dots games.
You know the kind I’m talking about. On a sheet in front of you (sometimes on a kid’s menu at a family friendly restaurant) you see what looks like a meaningless jumble of numbered points.
By connecting the dots with a pencil in the correct sequence a picture slowly emerges: a clown, a car or some other familiar object.
The picture is in there, but you have to connect the dots to see it.
At one point or another we all want to connect the dots of our life. We want life to make sense. And so we look back on how our life has unfolded up to this point and we connect the dots, usually by telling the story of our own lives.
We might tell it to ourselves. We might share it with a friend or a counselor. But we connect the dots into a story with a sense of direction, an ending that explains everything that has happened by connecting the dots as the road that leads to here and now.
There’s just one problem. We can only connect the dots by looking backward. We live life forward. You cannot connect the dots in the future.
To do anything at all, to take the next step in life, we have to believe that all the dots we’re about to write will somehow be connected. You have to trust in something, in someone, to connect those dots.
Some people trust in their own ingenuity or intelligence. Others believe in karma or destiny or fate or luck.
None of these approaches to the future is properly called hope, at least not what Christians mean by hope. Hope is our trust in God’s promise to connect the dots of our lives through his Son Jesus Christ.
To switch metaphors for a moment, some people seem to be always on track. They seem certain of exactly where they are going and never appear to give it a second thought.
They have never been seriously off track and cannot imagine that the train they’re on could be derailed or be leading to some unexpected destination.
Their track leads straight to the picture of their desired destination, or at least that’s what they believe.
They have not had an off track experience yet. They have not had to ask: Where am I? How did I get here? Where do I go from here?
I have had such experiences. I have had one off track experience literally.
As a much younger man I spent some time studying phenomenology, hermeneutics and deconstruction with some other doctoral candidates and some professors in Perugia, Italy.
After the seminar ended, I went to the train station to by a ticket for what I presumed was a night train from Perugia to Frankfurt. Mind you, I do not speak Italian.
My garbled attempts at telling the clerk what I wanted and my complete incomprehension of what he was saying to me should have been my first clue that this was an “I Love Lucy” episode in the making.
Having boarded the train, I quickly fell asleep in a car that was surprisingly empty once the train had started rolling. Some time later I awoke to a motionless, completely empty compartment.
The car I in which I fell asleep had been disconnected at some point in the night and pushed onto a side rail. I had no idea where I was, how I got there, or how to get from there to anywhere else at all.
Sometimes life can be like that. There are lots of unexpected destinations in life: divorce, career setbacks, parents’ sickness, children’s learning or social challenges, an unwelcome diagnosis.
The road ahead is unfamiliar. It’s not just that you have to figure out how to get to your initial destination. You’re not sure that there is a destination or what it will look like. It’s hard to say what makes for a step forward and what makes for a step back.
To return to our initial connect-the dots illustration, you can’t connect the dots yourself. That’s when you need hope to move at all. A trust that what you do next will be part of a movement forward.
Steve Jobs once spoke about the importance of connecting the dots. Listen to what he said:
Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.
There’s just one problem. Jobs was not a man of faith. He was dogged in what you could call wishful thinking. And in fact, he did not really believe in an afterlife or any deity who was working on his behalf.
All that mattered for him was the strength of our belief in “whatever.” He was saying we should just go for it with all we have, because this life is all that we’ve got. Act as if what we’re about to do will work out.
Some of us may be able to motivate ourselves with what we know is nothing more than a lovely fiction: with wishful thinking. But most of us are not Steve Jobs.
For that matter, we Christians insist that it is not the strength of our capacity to hope that matters. On the contrary, we recognize that it is the strength of what we place our hopes upon that really matters.
For example, if I am dangling from a root at the edge of the cliff, I can be the strongest man in the world and will still fall if the root is too flimsy to hold my weight.
Jesus teaches us to move forward trusting in him. He can bear our weight. He will connect the dots.
He is God’s Messiah. He has come to set things right. On the Cross, he set us right with the Father. But he is not finished yet. He will return to connect the dots.
In the meantime, he tells us to be about the work he has given us to do. He says:
It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. (Mark 13:35)
In other words, we may not always see exactly where we are headed or why this or that turn in the road will really take us somewhere we want to be. Go forward anyway. Trust Jesus to connect the dots.
Jesus gives us a two-fold mission.
Make disciples in his name. That means our children and our grandchildren, our neighbors and coworkers, strangers and old friends, our spouse and our parents. Bring Christ to those who do not know him and build up those who already know him in their faith.
Serve the poor: not just the deserving poor or the honest poor or the poor who got that way in some way that we approve of. Feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the imprisoned because Jesus says so.
This may all seem secondary to you. What about advancing in your career and preparing for retirement and saving for college and all those other things we grownups worry about?
Has it ever occurred to you that we pursue these things so feverishly because we think that by getting them we will connect the dots of our own lives?
Somehow our lives will matter if we succeed in our careers or send our kids to the right college. And it’s this thinking that allows us to put serving Christ on hold. We fall asleep and he returns while we slumber.
What should we do? Quit our jobs and tell our kids to look out after themselves? Hardly!
We remember that all of these things we do on a daily basis we do in service of our master. We work, we parent, we grandparent, we study, we play sports in order to make ourselves fit for the mission that Christ has given us.
He promises us that all these small things we do will come together to make a stunning picture.
We just need to trust him to connect the dots.
(This sermon was delivered at St. Mark’s Cathedral on First Advent, November 27, 2011.)