Compared to What

Written By John R. Claypool

I want to give you a sure-fire formula for how to be utterly miserable at the place at which you find yourself today. And that is to compare yourself to other people. Compare the amount of money you have to the amount of money Bill Gates has at this moment. Compare your athletic ability to that of the man that hit 70 home runs. Compare your mental capacity to Einstein.

You can always find people out there who have more of everything than you have. And if you're beginning point is some sense of entitlement that you earned your way in here and deserve it all, then …you can raise your fist in the hand of God and say, "It is not fair, it is not right."

But let me give you a formula that will make for joy no matter what your circumstance. I want you to compare the way it is right now with how it was a year before you were born. I came into this world December 15, 1930. When I think back to December 15, 1929, there was no such thing as John Claypool. I wasn't even a glint in my father's eye. I did not exist. I was absolutely nothing. And when I compare the wonder of being alive in this world—with my kind of body and my kind of mind and my kind of resources—with never having gotten to be at all, then the incredible grace of life comes flooding in.

It creates a sense of joy and wonder. Life is not fair, because it begins in grace, and you and I have been given a gracious chance to live utterly and completely beyond our deserving. It is forgetting the grace of birth, taking for granted the wonder of aliveness, that is the occasion of so much of our resentment.

There's a theologian named Geddes MacGregor who, when he was six years old, went with his mother one summer to visit her mother, his grandmother. And the two women were sitting out on the porch as folk do in the leisure of vacation time. And the grandmother said to the mother, "I'm so glad you decided to have little Geddes. He's been such a joy to all of us."

Well she didn't know he was anywhere around, but as you parents know, they always are, they always hear a whole lot more than we expect them to. He comes bounding up on the porch and wants to know from the grandmother, "What do you mean, I am so glad you decided to have little Geddes." At that point he learned something about his beginnings that he had never known before.

And that was that his mother was 48 when he'd been conceived. She had read all the literature about the dangers that attend to pregnancy when a woman of that age tries to give birth. There had been all kinds of discussion with the doctors and the family. Should she have a therapeutic abortion or should she go ahead and risk the pregnancy? And at the last moment, she decided on the latter course, which of course was what the grandmother was referring to.

This was a brand-new piece of news to this little 6 year-old boy. He had no idea that all this discussion had taken place prior to his being born. And so, he said, he went off by himself to assimilate this new information. He had a very vivid imagination. And he said as he sat there, there came into his mind this vision, this image. He said, "I was in a line moving step by step up to this great portal, over which was simply written the word, 'birth.' And as I made my way, suddenly a hand reached, pulled me from the line, and said, 'You have been disqualified; you can't be born.'"

And for the first time in his life it dawned on him that he might never have gotten to be, that there was nothing necessary or self-caused about his existence. It was a horrible, horrible revelation. But then that image dissolved. The same fantasy image returned. Again, he's in a line moving step by step up to the door. Only this time, he was allowed to go through. Geddes MacGregor said he has never from that moment forward ever taken his life for granted. Because realizing how close he came to not getting to be has added an incredible luster to the wonder of his aliveness.

This morning I want to suggest that if you and I have had one single day in this world, we have won the Irish Sweepstakes. We have gotten something of more immeasurable value than all of these things we tend to prize so much. There is a wonder to simply getting to be that is absolutely astonishing.…

The particular hand you have been dealt is secondary to the fact that you are in the game at all… Comparison is always, always going to get us in trouble, unless we compare our lot to what it was like a year before we were born. If you would compare to that, you have every reason to be grateful. If you compare yourself to other people, you will have every occasion to be miserable.

There's another parable … this one about a Jewish farmer who had two boys. As soon as they were old enough to walk, he took them to the fields. He gently taught them everything he knew about growing crops and raising animals. He taught them how to work together beautifully. When he got too old to work, the two brothers took over the farm. And when the father died, they found such joy in their joint partnership that, instead of dividing the inheritance, they simply stayed in partnership, each contributing what he was best at. And at the end of every harvest, each would take half of what they had produced. The older brother never married and stayed an old bachelor. The younger brother married and had eight wonderful children born to him.

Years went by, and during a particularly bountiful harvest season, the bachelor brother was thinking one night: You know I only have one mouth to feed, and my brother over there has 10 mouths he's responsible for. He really needs more of this harvest than I do. But I know, he's far too fair to renegotiate. I know what I'll do. In the dead of the night while he and his family are asleep, I'll take some of what I've already put in my barn and I'll go over and I'll slip it into his barn, so he'll have more to feed his family.

And at the very time the old bachelor was thinking those thoughts, the younger brother was, saying to himself: "You know God has granted me these wonderful children. They'll care for me when I'm old. My older brother hasn't had that good fortune. He really needs more of this harvest to prepare for the future, but I know he's too fair to renegotiate. I know what I'll do, in the depths of the night, I'll take some of what I've harvested and put it in his barn, so he'll have more for his old age."

So as you may have already anticipated, one night when the moon was full, those two brothers came face to face, each on missions of generosity. And the old Rabbi said, "Although there wasn't a cloud in the sky, a gentle rain began to fall." Do you know what it was? God weeping for joy because two of his children had gotten the point. That there is enough, always has been and always will be. And living in self-absorption is the way to misery. Living in compassion and awareness and generosity to others, that is the secret of joy, because it is the very essence of God likeness.…

My sense is that right this minute, in relation to your attitude toward your life and what you're doing, at this very moment, God is weeping over you. Now the question is: Is he weeping in sadness because you have let resentment crowd out all kinds of joy or is He weeping for joy because you have gotten the point? …The way to joy is gratitude for our birth and generosity for all the rest of creation. Joy can be yours this day. I bid you see. I bid you do.

Oh God your grace is beyond all measuring. The wonder of your love is immeasurable. Let us this day never take for granted the wonder of our birth, and may we as best we can give what we can to those we love. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Copyright ©1999 The Rev. Dr. John R. Claypool

Excerpted from Compared to What?, delivered at Calvary Episcopal Church, Memphis, TN, March 9, 1999 as part of the Lenten Preaching Series.