Back in the 1980’s when he was briefly a cast member of “Saturday Night Live,” the actor and comedian Billy Crystal used to appear as a character named “Fernando.” Fernando was supposed to be this stereotypical Hollywood lounge lizard, a sort of half-baked Latin leading man, dripping with shallow smarminess and quick with a smooth word for the ladies. In fact, if like me you’re of a certain age, you might remember that for a short time, Fernando’s all-purpose greeting became something of a catch-phrase: “You know something, my dahling? You look mahvelous! Absolutely mahvelous! And you know what I always say . . . it is better to look good than to feel good!”
I’ll admit it; thirty years later that line still makes me smile! And though I would not even begin to look to “SNL” for any kind of pastoral insight, I can also say that in and through the congregations I’ve served, I’ve discovered that for many there is indeed a grain of truth in Fernando’s admonition about looking good as opposed to feeling good! Indeed, standing in a pulpit as I do Sunday after Sunday, looking out upon all of you in the congregation, it’s often very clear that there are some of you who do look a whole lot better than how you feel.
Understand that I mean no disrespect here – from my unique point of view, I can truly say that you do look mahvelous! But I’m also aware that while you might come to church dressed in your Sunday best, with hair combed and everything in order, what’s going on inside of you could well be in complete disarray; and while you’ll seek to put a good face on it, smiling and greeting others as though everything is great and wonderful, deep within the silence of your heart it’s a mess. And that maybe on that particular morning, you came to church hoping and praying that somehow in and through the hymns of praise, the songs of children and the quiet of prayer a voice will speak to you and name your pain rightly. And that you might find some comfort in God’s presence, or at the very least find the strength to cope for just a little while longer.
It’s the reality of life and the nature of the human condition, in which life’s greatest joys are undeniably intermingled with its pain – and church is often the place where both can be found behind the smiles of those sitting in the pews. Speaking as a pastor, I can tell you that to acknowledge both in the context of our shared worship is often a challenge, but a necessary one; as Dr. William Willimon, in an article directed at pastors and preachers, aptly wrote, “I would not want to preach before a congregation who measured Sunday on the basis of how good they grinned by service’s end. All it takes is one cancer diagnosis, or an anorexic child, or a pink slip from your boss, or a lousy grade in Chemistry for that jig to be up.” Simply put, life can truly be difficult, and our pain is very real. We may not even understand where that pain comes from; but we do know that we need something …someone… to move us from tears to laughter and to give us strength and hope “for the living of these days;” and so we come to church in the fervent prayer that this might happen.
It’s worth noting that the words of Jesus that are referred to as “the Beatitudes” (“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh” from Luke 6:20-22, for example) were intended as more than mere inspirational talk. For the people of Judea in Jesus’ time, the references to poverty and hunger were not at all symbolic but spoke to a true reality of life. When Jesus said to them that theirs was the kingdom of God, it was truly good news unto to a people who had no other recourse but to trust in a just and righteous God for their deliverance.
Given the harsh realities of poverty and hunger that still exist in our world today, this literal understand of Jesus’ sermon cannot be ignored; and yet, there is still room to view these verses in the context of our own spiritual poverty, and the hunger we have for God’s presence amdist the challenges of our own lives. Yes, this blessing from Jesus still holds true for all of us who would like to feel as good as we look: that God knows where we are. That God knows how we feel. That God knows when we are weeping, and why. That even as we weep we are truly blessed, because God will fill us up with his presence, and will bring us life …and hope, along with strength for times of struggle and uncertainty; comfort in our grief; peace amidst anger; and joy that will come like the morning.
Years ago when my wife Lisa was teaching fifth grade, she used to hold a poetry reading, in which each of her students memorized a couple of poems to recite in front of gathered parents, family and friends. It was a big event for her class, something that the kids prepared for all year and performed beautifully. There were occasional glitches, however; I remember one little girl who, for the life of her, could not seem to remember her poem. She’d done it fine in rehearsal; she’d probably recited this poem a hundred times. But now her mind had gone blank, probably the result of some passing stage fright; but in the ensuing moments, it was clear she was not going to remember!
So here was Lisa, standing quietly offstage, prompting the girl with her next line – which she promptly repeated, only to have her mind go blank again! To this day, what I remember is that with each line of the poem, her voice became more and more shaky; her eyes filled with tears; and every single one of us, including Lisa, just wanted to go up there and hug this child and whisk her off that stage! But, somehow, slowly and finally she did it …she’d recited her poem line by line, word by word, albeit with a little help! And when it was done, the little girl simply heaved this incredible sigh of relief, smiled a broad smile and laughed out loud, because it was over, at last! And we all laughed with her.
Actually, there’s something of a parable there. Behind the fragile smiles that the world sees, inside we’re hurting, and truth be told, it can often be very hard to get from line to line in the continuing poetic drama of life – and we’ve got the tear-stained faces and hearts to prove it. But the good news is that we’re not alone on stage; that in Jesus Christ, God is with us as our prompter. Even as we’re feeling lost and at our most hopeless, he’ll help us in our struggle to find “the next line,” all the while giving us the assurance that we’re doing well and that we can make it if we’ll just keep moving forward, ever and always wiping the tears from our eyes and shedding a few right along with us.
No, as you sit there in the pew, you might not feel good now; in fact, at the moment you might feel totally overwhelmed by the struggle of it all. But the struggle will come to an end, eventually; and with God’s “ever present help in times of trouble,” the moment will most certainly come when your smile will be real, your laughter will be strong, and dare I say it?
You’ll feel mahvelous!
Blessed are you, indeed!
c. 2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry