Miss Beth was my oldest son Andrew’s first grade teacher. She ably and lovingly taught her little charges how to read and write. Increasing their knowledge base was part of her job description.
And yet like all truly good teachers she understood that her vocation included much more. Miss Beth intentionally nurtured the humanity of the children under her care by imparting life wisdom.
For years in the Owensby house we would repeat one of her practical questions for sorting out our motivations: Do you want it or do you need it?
Wants and needs are the engine that drives our lives. They are our fundamental motivators. All of us wither and fade when our needs go unmet. Miss Beth also recognized that some of us—children and grownups alike—grow frantic and miserable when we cannot have what we want, even when we don’t need it.
Her life lesson was simple but profound and fundamental. Be clear about what you truly need. This clarity can keep your life focused. Everyone will experience wanting things we can’t have. Recognizing them for mere wants we liberate us from the tyranny of perpetual dissatisfaction. After all, there’s always something to want that we don’t have.
Initially you may think that Miss Beth advocated a bottom-line existence. Many people think that our needs are very minimal: food, water, air, safety. And we do need these things.
Once we meet our physiological needs we will yearn for love and belonging. Just as surely as we need air to breathe, we need deep connection and enduring bonds.
We need acceptance and nurture from others. But perhaps more importantly, we need the sense that we belong to a group of people so dedicated to each other that each member of the group would give their lives for the sake of the group.
Some of us experience this in family or friendship or twelve-step groups. A recent TED radio hour
reported the result of research that showed that platoons actively and frequently engaged in combat develop precisely this kind of bond. When Jesus formed us into his Body the Church, he envisioned precisely these kinds of deep, enduring connections between us in him.
We also need what Maslow called self-esteem. By this he did not mean that we should all adopt an inflated sense of our own wonderfulness. Instead, we all yearn to be at home in our own skins. As Brene Brown puts it, each of us needs to say with our hearts, “I am enough.”
Even as we strive to learn and grow and improve, we need to be able to accept who we are right where we are. Too many of us reside in the misery of delayed self-acceptance. We’ll be satisfied with ourselves once we’ve lost ten pounds, reached that next career goal, or won that prestigious award. Only, we won’t be.
Finally, Maslow talks famously about self-actualization. This is easily misinterpreted to mean having it all together. Instead, Maslow’s meaning is best captured in his idea of the peak experiences that self-actualized people frequently have.
In the midst of peak experiences people lose themselves in something they love: cooking, playing with children, singing, working in the garden. In other words, self-actualization is about getting over yourself.
When these higher order needs go unmet we will wither and fade spiritually and psychologically just as surely as the lack of food and shelter will diminish us physically.
God creates us as beings with mind, body, and spirit. Our whole being requires nurture to grow and flourish. And that nourishment comes from beyond ourselves. The body, the mind, and the soul will grow or decay as our needs are met or go unmet. And we must always reach out beyond ourselves to have our needs met.
When Jesus refers to himself as the Good Shepherd, he is recognizing us as beings with vital needs and identifying himself as our indispensable help in meeting those needs. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for us, the sheep. (John 10:11-18)
Jesus came to nurture us into life. Eternal life. He is the source of unconditional belonging. His love for us makes us enough. And with his gracious help, we can follow his example in living a life surrendered to nurturing others.
The Good Shepherd gives himself away for the sake of his sheep. For us.
To use a feminine illustration, Jesus is like a mother carrying a child in her womb. Her entire body and all of her energies are devoted to sustaining the child that abides within her. Mother and child are internally connected. The mother imparts her own life to the baby so that the child can grow and mature. Jesus says something very similar later in John’s Gospel. “I am the vine, you are the branches.” (John 15:5)
Through Jesus we are growing in eternal life even now. Our full maturation will come only after our hearts have beat their last and we have drawn our final earthly breath. And our maturation itself is not a smooth progression. We sometimes move in fits and starts. We stumble and drag our feet and take a few steps back from time to time. But Jesus keeps nurturing us.
The writer of 1 John outlines some of the contours of eternal life as we can begin to know it. In a word, we are living eternal life when we lay our lives down for others. He says, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” (1 John 3:16-17)
Love is the defining shape of eternal life. Jesus himself said that the highest expression of love is to lay down your life for your friend. And we strive to make everyone our friend in Christ. (John 15:13) As the writer of 1 John puts it, “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” (1 John 3:18)
Our problem in life is not that we want too much. On the contrary, we go off the rails when what we want is small and insignificant and ultimately unsatisfying. Jesus came to help us recognize what we truly need and to want that with every fiber of our being. What we need—what we truly want—is life in Christ
The paradox that is God’s love in Christ is that we learn to want this life precisely because God is already giving it to us.
This sermon was preached at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Bossier City, Louisiana.