Handling Life’s Second Bests
Sunday, November 11, 2012
Whether it happens toward the end of high school, college or simply in the midst of casual conversation with family or friends, most all of us in this room at some point in our lives have answered the question, “where do you see yourself in ten years?”
The intent of such a question is to call us to talk about our dreams, hopes and goals for our lives. And, whether we have shared these aspirations in written form to be preserved over the years, articulated them verbally with those we are close to or only responded to these questions in the deep interior of our heart, all of us at some time or somewhere have expressed our longings, our life goals, our hopes and dreams.
I recall doing this at the end of high school as a part of our Senior Memory book. I don’t remember exactly what I wrote nor have I seen that booklet in many years, but I do recall sharing along with my classmates the plans at least I was making for my own life at that time.
Unfortunately, however, many of our dreams never move beyond being anything but just that—dreams. Sure, some of us do graduate from the college we always wanted to go to, some of us do grow up to build the home we long envisioned and some us spend our careers working the exact job that we always hoped for. Yet, for all of us, there are dreams, goals and plans that we carefully constructed in our minds that never really got off of the drawing board or out of the gate. In turn, a significant part of life for both people of faith and for people with no faith at all, is wrestling with the question of how we are to approach life and to live out days that are sometimes no more than a second best option—that is to say they are days filled with experiences, tasks and places that were never our first choice.
Ironically and perhaps unexpectedly, one of the very best places in the Bible to find guidance for this question is in the little read or known book of the Old Testament called Haggai. Haggai’s story is set in the days after the Babylonian exile with the Israelite people back home in Judah. They were seeking to rebuild their lives, their homes and their community after years of living in a foreign land. Yet, in the midst of their rebuilding, Haggai challenges the leaders of Judah and the common citizens as well that they have forgotten one of their top goals in the restoration process—the rebuilding of the temple. When they had first returned home the people had been faithful to working on the temple. But, in the face of opposition and in the midst of rebuilding other areas of their community and personal lives, this top priority had been pushed to the side. As a result, Haggai’s primary word is simply that of calling the people back to seeing construction of the temple as their top priority and not simply one priority among others.
As he encourages them, Haggai, in chapter two, also puts his finger on another perhaps more subtle reason as to why the people had stopped working on rebuilding the temple. That more subtle reason was that some of them were old enough to remember the former temple, that is to say Solomon’s temple that had been in existence prior to the exile in Babylon. In turn, when they had started to build their new temple and when they realized that it was not anywhere near as grand or awe inspiring as the earlier temple, they simply lost heart. This temple was nothing but a second rate version of the former. It paled in comparison. In turn, as they faced a life of “second bests” rather than a life that was always “first-rate” they lost heart, enthusiasm and their excitement. They set aside their tools and they focused on other things that took their minds off of their disappointments with where they found themselves.
In the midst of these sentiments, Haggai seems to offer some sage advice that was not only helpful to the people of Judah but that is also helpful to all of us, I think, as we all at times wrestle with life that is sometimes more characterized by the statement “second best” rather than “first rate”.
On the one hand and in a broad sense throughout the short little book of Haggai, the word is communicated that a second best life is not a bad life. Haggai was a realist I believe. I don’t think he tried to sugar coat things and act like everything was perfect or all roses. Haggai appears to have been very honest that the life that the people of Judah were given to live was very, very different from the world they had known before and likely very different from the life of which they had dreamed. But, Haggai also wanted them to know that just because it was not the best life that didn’t mean it was a bad life. No, they were back home, they were again in the land of their birth, they could again worship their God in God’s temple, they could again teach their children their faith, their culture and their beliefs. Life may not be what they had dreamed of but it could be very, very good.
We face this same challenge each day too. The all too real temptation that is often before us is the suggestion that if life isn’t exactly what we wanted it to be, then, life is bad. But, this is rarely the case. In most ever instance, a life that is less than perfect is still a very, very good life.
I remember having an interesting experience about ten years ago with a group from the church I was serving at that time. We were in Washington D.C. and we were to spend the day working with the Capital Food Bank which is Washington’s largest provider of groceries to the needy of the city. Their facility was primarily a massive warehouse with rows and rows and rows of food. As they showed us around they talked about how the food came to be in their facility. Most all of it had been donated by Washington area grocery stores. In almost every case, the items had been donated because the packaging was slightly damaged or the meat or veggies were a few days past their prime date. All of the food in this massive facility was still very, very, good but it had all been rendered less than perfect and as a result it had been removed from the shelves and given away.
A lot of us live our lives this way. When things turn out to be less than perfect or slightly different than what is ideal, we are ready to give up and suggest that we are ruined. But the biblical word of hope that permeates the Old Testament prophets is this profound reminder that when life is less than perfect it still has the amazing ability to be very, very good and that is a perspective that all of us need to embrace.
On the other hand, Haggai also challenges the people of Judah to believe that second best days can actually at times be first rate days through God’s work and presence in them. As the book of Haggai continues to unfold, the prophet makes a startling statement. Haggai actually suggests that the new temple that the people are building has the potential to one day be more significant and have more prominence than did the old one that they all considered to be so grand. Haggai’s assertion was not a suggestion that the second temple would be larger or more lavish than the first even though hundreds of years later King Herod would renovate the second temple in order that it might indeed be a more ornate and stately structure. Instead Haggai’s statement that the second temple possessed the ability to outshine its predecessor was simply a result of the fact that this was a place where God himself would dwell. Thus Haggai’s point was that when God is present, there really are no boundaries as to the work that God might do through the places or the people where God dwells. Indeed, as we know, this second temple was also the place that Jesus himself, God made flesh, would later visit and teach in an even more profound sign of God’s presence in this place.
Haggai’s word here is a profound statement of our faith and one we should live by every day. Since God is with us and since God is at work in our lives, there really is no limit to how God can use us or shape us no matter where we are. In light of this, it really is true that the second bests of life from our perspective can at times be first rate life situations if we recognize God’s work and embrace his leadership.
Do you remember John Irving’s book called The Cider House Rules and the movie that was made of the book by the same title? The setting of the story is an orphanage in Maine where children who have been abandoned are living and maturing. Each night, the staff physician and father figure for many of the boys would tell them goodnight with these words, “Good night you princes of Maine, you Kings of New England”. These were boys who were orphans. They were in a place they had never thought they would find themselves. But every night, this father figure in their lives whispered to them that where they were could actually ultimately become better and grander than even the places they longed and dreamed to be.
The Christian belief is that because of God’s place in our lives the same can be true for each of us. No, we may not be where we wanted or dreamed of being in our lives. We may not be doing the things that we had hoped and longed for. But, if we reshape ourselves into seeking out and living God’s future for our lives rather than our own, our days that feel to us like second bests can actually be first rate. Who God invites us to be, right where we are, really can be far better than where we desired to be in our wildest of dreams if we will but embrace that hope and possibility.
So I say to you, hello, you princes and princesses of the heavenly father….hello you special citizens of the Kingdom of God….Amen.