If the guy who wrote that weird list of Lincoln-Kennedy similarities, were to write about my next-born brother Bob and I, the list would read something like this. *Left home to go to full-time college in the same year (1980). *Graduated college two weeks apart (1984). *Both studied to be priests for the Diocese of Springfield, Illinois. *Both left the seminary within a year of one another. *Bob was married in the summer of 1994; Tom got married a month later. *Bob and his new bride were driven in a white sedan from the church to his reception; Tom and his new wife were also driven in a white sedan from the church to their reception.
Besides sharing a childhood home, a bedroom, and a significant portion of genetic material, my brother and I have traveled in parallel arcs ever since we left a common launching pad together. While neither of us had Vice Presidents named, “Johnson,” Bob and I both received graduate degrees together, had kids around the same time, and bought houses nearly simultaneously. And so, it seemed even more poignant in the summer of 2003, when Bob precipitously took a pathway that diverged dramatically from anything I would have predicted, or chosen for either one of us.
It was on a warm evening after work that summer when I pulled up to find my sister-in-law, Ann, sitting on the front porch of our new home. I didn’t think anything of her lack of a greeting, because her head was down as she apparently was trying to concentrate on a cell-phone conversation despite the distractions of two small children. It was when I walked up that I noticed the tears streaking her cheeks, neck, and chin. “Bob’s got cancer,” she croaked. I immediately remembered the Sunday evening dinner of two weeks earlier. At one point my physician/wife was staring at my brother studying him. “What’s that lump in your neck?” she asked. The un-welcomed answer to that question arrived two weeks later on the front doorstep of my new home.
I am glad that I was not a contemporary of Jesus when he traveled around Judea two thousand and ten years ago. If I were, there would have been a series of embarrassing scriptural quotes attributed to me. I can just picture myself sitting next to him during the “Beatitudes” that were read during this Sunday’s Gospel (Luke 6: 17: 20-26). In the alternate Bible where I appeared, verse 27 of that passage would read, “And then the other Apostle Thomas scratchethed his head and proclaimethed unto the Lord, “Jesus, whatd’ya mean “Blessed are the poor and hungry, and weeping”? They don’t seem especially “blessed” to me!”
The fact is, that most of us spend a great deal of our time and energy trying to avoid these states of affairs. Periodically, the hard edges of life pierce the picturesque dioramas we have constructed for our families and ourselves. Coveted jobs get taken away. Illnesses arrive uninvited, and refuse to leave on time. When they finally do exit, they frequently take a beloved family member with them. Treasured relationships frequently can get frayed around the edges and even unravel. One day we’re sitting in the pew listening to this Sunday’s Gospel selection thinking, “What is Jesus talking about?” The next day, we look into the mirror, and realize that we are in some state of poverty, possessed of a hunger that we can’t fill, weeping and mourning when we’d rather be comforting someone else. Here’s the kicker. The one that we Christians call “The Master” said that this is a “blessed” state of affairs. Some translations substitute the word, “happy,” for “blessed.”
The next several months after my brother’s news were filled with poverty, hungers, and a good deal of weeping. But in the midst of this turmoil there was a gift. The dissonance of wrestling with a cancer diagnosis at 40 years old was preventing my brother and me from sleeping. For many nights that summer, we would get together and talk into the wee hours over a beer discussing things like what we meant to each other, and what really mattered in our lives. The illness brought the community of our friends and family together to pray and even celebrate the “Sacrament of Healing” together. In the poverty of our anxiety, and the hunger for healing that developed within us, a space was created to draw nearer to one another, and nearer to God. In the midst of our poverty, hungers, and tears, there was a kind of “blessedness” that emerged.
No one would ever invite this kind of poverty into his or her life just the same as no one would ever choose to be unemployed, or suffer the pain of a disrupted relationship. Reasonable people avoid suffering. At the same time, it must be said that there can be a kind of blessedness to these times when we allow them to lead us out into the desert to kneel down before our own personal burning bush. It is in this sacred space that new priorities are hewn, and old trivialities fall away.
My brother is cancer-free today. But the journey through the poverty of cancer, with its psychological and spiritual hungers, and the weeping and mourning that accompanied it transformed so many of us into a more blessed community of friends and family. Is there some situation in your life that brings home to you the poverty inherent in the human condition? Would you be willing to hold that situation before the Lord in your empty, open hands to see if there is something blessed trying to emerge from it?