Editor’s note: The following is the sermon I gave at my church on Sunday, April 22. During the sermon, the congregation was given a hand out with some questions with the intent of helping them better absorb the message. At certain points you will see that I pause to ask them to answer those questions.
Learning to read in 1953 was pretty rough going.
Yes, learning to read then would have been horribly, tragically, ferociously, boring.
The stories were plain
And the pictures were lame
And the books’ only characters were Dick and Jane.
All right. I’m good now. Sorry about that, but you have no idea how tempted I was to write this entire sermon in rhyme. Seriously.
Moving on. Yes, learning to read in 1953 would have in fact been about as much fun as trying to zip your jeans after our church’s Thanksgiving potluck. That’s because 1953 was before Theodor Geisel wrote his first beginner’s book.
That didn’t happen until at least a year later.
The story of that book starts in May 1954, when John Hersey wrote a Life Magazine article titled, “Why do students bog down on the First R? A Local Committee Sheds Light on a National Problem: Reading.”
In the article, Hersey was critical of the stories being used to teach reading to children. He said the tales were boring and lack imagination.
After the article ran, a man named William Ellsworth Spaulding, a publishing executive, had an idea. And so, he invited his friend Theodor to dinner. As the story goes, during the dinner Spaulding proposed that Ted write and illustrate a book for six- and seven-year olds who had already mastered the basic mechanics of reading.
“Write me a story that first-graders can’t put down!” Spaulding challenged.
Then, Spaulding supplied Theodor with a list of 348 words every six year old should know, and insisted that the book’s vocabulary be limited to 225 words.
Theodor took the challenge and wrote The Cat in the Hat, under his pen name, Dr. Seuss. The book used 223 words that appeared on the list plus 13 words that did not.
It was described as a tour de force by some reviewers, because it retained the drawing style, verse rhythms, and all the imaginative power of Theodor’s earlier works, but because of its simplified vocabulary, it could be read by beginning readers.
As you probably know, Geisel went on to write many other children’s books, both in his new simplified-vocabulary manner (sold as Beginner Books) and in his older, more elaborate style. The Beginner Books never came easy for Geisel though and, like the Cat in the Hat, they all reportedly took him months to complete.
However, it’s not an exaggeration to say that his work changed the world. Or at least the world of first-grade classrooms across America. Because he cared a whole awful lot, he created works that taught generations of children to read about foxes in boxes, red fish, blue fish, and green eggs and ham.
How many of you remember reading a Dr. Seuss book when you were younger? OK, real quick, I want you to turn to the person next to you and tell them what your favorite Dr. Seuss book is and why.
Personally, I remember reading Green Eggs and Ham over and over and over and over and over and over in first grade. I was pro at that book.
Not on a train! Not in a tree!
Not in a car! Sam! Let me be!
I would not, could not, in a box.
I could not, would not, with a fox.
I will not eat them with a mouse
I will not eat them in a house.
I will not eat them here or there.
I will not eat them anywhere.
I do not like them, Sam-I-am!
He’s got quite a list of titles, doesn’t he? In fact, he actually wrote 46 children’s books during his lifetime.
For me today, it was his story about Truffula Trees, a Once-ler and a Lorax that inspired this message.
In the book The Lorax, Dr. Seuss tells the story of a Once-ler who discovers he can make a lot of money selling Thneeds made from Truffula Trees. And so, the Once-ler starts cutting down all the Truffula Trees for profit. But as he’s doing this, The Lorax, who speaks for the trees, keeps trying to warn to him to stop because it’s causing so much damage.
Sadly, the Once-ler does not listen to the Lorax, and eventually he and his family cut down every single Truffula Tree. The Lorax leaves and the forest is left desolate.
As the Once-ler explains:
“And all that the Lorax left here in this mess
was a small pile of rocks, with one word…
Whatever that meant, well, I just couldn’t guess.”
It wouldn’t be a Dr. Seuss story though if it ended on such a gloomy note. And of course, it doesn’t.
At the end of the tale, the Once-ler gives a young boy the very last Truffula Seed, thereby giving him the power to re-grow the forest.
Now that you’re here,
the word of the Lorax seems perfectly clear.
UNLESS someone like you
cares a whole awful lot,
nothing is going to get better.
Let me just repeat part of that.
UNLESS someone like you
cares a whole awful lot,
nothing is going to get better.
Maybe it’s the rhyming, maybe its the simple message, or maybe it’s just the fact that it’s only 16 words long, but it’s the kind of quote that sticks with you.
It’s the kind of quote that can haunt you in the middle of the afternoon when your tongue is dry and your eyes are tired and your brain is fried. It’s the kind of quote that wakes you in the middle night like an earthquake. It’s the kind of quote that can ring like a bell in your brain when you’re ready to quit something you know you shouldn’t.
And for me, at least, it’s the kind of quote that clearly demonstrates our calling as Christians. Our calling to live different and to be a light in the world.
UNLESS someone like you
cares a whole awful lot,
nothing is going to get better.
Jesus tells us in Matthew 5:14-16 (and you can follow along with me in your bulletins or on the screen) he says,
“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”
The thing about the word “light” though is that sometimes I think it gets tossed around so much in Christian culture that we start to forget how radically important it is. We forget exactly how extraordinary light can be in darkness, and how much power we ourselves have to shine.
But when you really think about it, being a “light” means we can offer hope. It means that if we live as we are called to live according to Christ’s teachings we can do something radical, we can bring Heaven to Earth now. The light is the love we are called to show because we are so moved that Jesus showed it to us first.
And of course it means, that if we care a whole awful lot, things can actually get better. The world can be a better place.
All that can sound pretty overwhelming though, especially if you can’t even figure out how or where God wants you to shine.
So it’s important that we’re all constantly praying to figure out exactly what kind of light God wants us to be. Personally, my favorite way to think of this is summed up well by the Christian Band Hillsong United in the song Hossana.
During the song, the group prayerfully asks God, “Break my heart for what breaks yours.”
Let me say that again.
“Break my heart for what breaks yours.”
How simple and yet how powerful.
The words seem inspired by God’s repetitive command to the Israelites throughout the Old Testament. After he sends the plagues to help them escape from the Pharaoh, he’s constantly reminding them of their past, so as if to help them live better together in their future.
“You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you,” God says in Deuteronomy 15:5
He reminds them that their hearts were broken when they were slaves, and thus, they should do their best to not go around breaking other people’s hearts with their actions.
And, in fact, God reminds the Israelites where they came from at least 30 times throughout the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
While I was never personally a slave in Egypt, I have endured my own share of sorrow. My heart has been broken, and sometimes it’s even been shattered. And much of happened during my high school and college years.
Beyond the awkwardness that comes with wearing braces for seven years (true story), and being so clumsy that I literally fell off a sidewalk and sprained my ankle. On more than one occasion. (Also, a true story) I also was faced with a slew of other trials.
Between the ages of 14 and 21, the list of things I encountered included: my father’s mental illness episodes, a suicide attempt by a loved one, my parent’s divorce, and my high school boyfriend’s death after a drug overdose. Also, we were financially broke more often than not.
All this isn’t to say woe me by any means, but to point out where my passion for youth work came from. My own personal youth years were devastating and at many times hard to navigate, but they shaped my heart for youth and their struggles.
So, right now, I want you to think about the things that have broken your heart. The things that have left you feeling desperately alone in the middle of the night, the things that have led you to question God, and the world and whether or not you will ever smile again. The things that made you cry and the things that made you yell. And I want you to take a minute and write down one or two of those things.
And, underneath each thing, I want you write down something you’ve done to help others in a similar situation, and/or something you can do to help others in a similar situation. Go ahead and take a second to do that.
All right. So, this is all to demonstrate that although the things your heart has endured were tragic, they also shaped you into who you became. And beyond that, they have given you your own unique skill set ready to use as a light for others. From you pain, you’ve gained an understanding of how to help others dealing with the same problems.
Again, we look to Romans for encouragement here. Paul tells us,
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. — Romans 8:28
Beyond the fact that we each can be a light in the dark, it’s also important to remember that we each are called to shine as a unique light in the darkness, making our callings all the more urgent.
As Dr. Seuss tells us in, “Happy Birthday to you!”:
“Today you are You,
that is truer than true.
There is no one alive
who is You-er than You.”
Or, as the bible teaches in Ephesians 2:10,
For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. — Ephesians 2:10
Did you hear that? God Prepared good works for each of us to do. That’s powerful stuff.
It’s at once exciting — we are each able to make the word a better place! — and scary — If we are each able to make the world a better place, then doesn’t that mean we should be doing just that?
Then, in Horton Hears a Who!, we find words that challenge us to really follow through on our faith. To take seriously the radical way of life God shows us throughout the Bible.
# “I meant what I said,
and I said what I meant
An elephant’s faithful,
One hundred percent.”
But, what exactly does 100% looks like for Christians? Well again, Paul offers us guidance. In Romans 12, he says,
Love in Action Romans 12: 9-21
Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Now I’m guessing that at least one thing in there stood out to you; that at least one thing is tugging at your heart.
And, let me say that last part again.
“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
In other words,
Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot,
Nothing is going to get better.
Now, I want you take a second and write down at least one way you think your life would be different if you were a faithful Christian 100%.And then, I want you to write down at least one way the world would be different if all Christians were faithful 100%.
So great! Now you’ve nailed down some ways you can be “caring a whole awful lot.” Maybe they are new things, and now you will have an opportunity to pray over them and seek God’s path for you. But maybe they are things you already knew you “cared a whole awful lot” about and you were already working to shine light into the darkness in those areas.
Either way, there’s one more thing we need to talk about it.
In The Places You’ll Go, Dr. Seuss points out that even when you’re following the right path, bad things will probably happen.
“I’m sorry to say so
but, sadly it’s true
that bang-ups and hang-ups
can happen to you.
You can get all hung up
in a prickle-ly perch.
And your gang will fly on.
You’ll be left in a Lurch.
You’ll come down from the Lurch
with an unpleasant bump.
And the chances are, then,
that you’ll be in a Slump.
And when you’re in a Slump,
you’re not in for much fun.
is not easily done.”
Those words highlight one of the scariest parts of Christianity — following Jesus and his calling for you doesn’t mean your life is going to be easy.
All you have to do is ask that guy Paul the Apostle.
Sure, his calling led him to spread the gospel to the far reaches of the earth and write like half the new testament, but along the way he was literally blinded by God during his conversion, he was stoned and left for dead, and he endured multiple stints in prison. And for his efforts? He was eventually beheaded as a martyr.
Of course, as we just talked about, it’s those very bang-ups and hang-ups that can lead us to shine as an even brighter light in the world.
In Romans 5, Paul writes about this cycle, saying,
“But we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. — Romans 5:3-5
So, even as our sufferings can help us be a light in the darkness, they also, remind us that we know how this all ends. We can hold steadfast to the hope we have in Christ, because at the end of the day, even if we are blinded, stoned and left for dead and then beheaded as a Martyr, we know we will have eternal life. So, the question you have to ask yourself is, why am I am not shining as bright as I possibly can during my time on earth?
For me, at least, I pray I will be able to genuinely speak the very words Paul did as he neared the end of us his life.
“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” – 2 Timothy 4:7
So, I pray you be inspired to live out your life with child-like faith, and to offer a light as magical as any flicker on a birthday cake, and as brilliant as any shooting star in the night sky.
In the words of Edward Everett Hale:
I am only one
But still I am one.
I cannot do everything,
But still I can do something.
And because I cannot do everything
I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.
So go forth and be a light in the world! Amen.