This article is condensed from a sermon preached at the Walla Walla University church on June 12, 2021, during graduation weekend. It retains the oral style of the original presentation.—Editors.
I’ll start with a hard truth, but don’t be discouraged. There will be some encouragement from Jesus and some good news at the end.
We live in a society that actively fosters optimistic expectations. It’s socially acceptable (and even considered wise) to regularly inform people of their limitless potential. I’m especially reminded of this societal emphasis on affirmation every year at graduation time. If you browse the Internet for sample graduation speeches or products, you’ll find many examples of this unbridled optimism. Here are just two:
Example One: “I hope that all of us here today can take this personal accomplishment as an example of how anything is truly possible when we put our minds to it.”1
Example Two: “It is after your graduation that you spread your wings wide and fly out to explore the world around, in pursuit of your goals.”2
These are happy quotations, to be sure. But there is a problem. First, the bold claim that “anything is truly possible when we put our minds to it” is clearly and demonstrably false. And the second quotation? If you imagine that you will “spread your wings wide and fly,” brace yourself for some sad news. You may be fit, smart, hardworking, and persistent, but you will not fly, because you are not a bird.
In so doing, she stands in a long line of Bible characters with limited options, but who also did what they could.
In a culture that says, “You can do anything,” there is a hard truth that must be acknowledged. Humans are amazing, but there are some things we can’t do.
Our limitations are evident in several areas. First, we all have physical limitations. As a man in his 50s with bowlegs, I will never be able to give birth to a child or become an Olympic sprinter. Through diet, exercise, and training I may be able to improve my physical capabilities, but there are some thresholds I cannot cross. The same is true for all of us. We are differently abled physically, and we can’t do everything.
We also face mental limitations. Some of us quickly grasp math formulas but struggle to understand poetry. Some of us can learn languages easily but can’t play the piano by ear. Some of us read books, while others of us are better at reading people. Once again, we can study, learn, and improve, but we are differently abled mentally and emotionally.
We are further limited by our society. We may have the necessary abilities, but because of our age, gender, race, religion, appearance, or mistakes we’ve made in the past, society will close some doors of opportunity in front of us. It’s not fair, but that’s what happens in a broken world.
We even face spiritual and moral limitations. Scripture tells us that the followers of Jesus receive unique spiritual gifts, but these are distributed as the Holy Spirit determines. This means that some people will be able to serve God in ways that we can’t.3 Additionally, our moral convictions may not allow us to pursue certain lucrative careers.
Finally, the sad reality of life is that even our limited abilities will almost certainly diminish over time. Our aged selves can’t run as fast, work as long, or learn as easily as our younger selves could. In our later years society may view us as increasingly insignificant and obsolete. Disease and chronic pain may limit our activities and diminish our own sense of worth. So time will tend to lengthen the list of things we can’t do.
This harsh reality hurts. Our pain is heightened when we compare ourselves with others who don’t seem to be facing the same limitations and constraints. Our anguish often turns to anger and resentment, then discouragement and despair. We may accuse God of being unfair. We may even give up. When we’re kept from doing something, we sometimes settle for doing nothing.
No, we are not birds, and we can’t do everything. So how should we respond? How should we live in a world like this? Jesus has an answer. It comes to us in a single sentence, tucked away in a rather famous Gospel story in Mark 14.
Bethany was a small town less than two miles from Jerusalem. Just days before His crucifixion, Jesus enjoyed a banquet there at the home of Simon the Leper. During the meal a woman4 approached him with an alabaster jar. It contained pure nard, an exquisite perfume extracted from a plant that grew in the distant Himalayan region. She broke the jar and anointed Jesus with the perfume. It isn’t surprising that onlookers protested at the wastefulness. The perfume was worth tens of thousands of dollars! Shouldn’t the money have been used for the poor?
Then Jesus spoke. “ ‘Leave her alone,’ said Jesus. ‘Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you. . . . But you will not always have me. She did what she could’ ” (Mark 14:6-8).5
“She did what she could.” This affirmation from Jesus gives us a way forward in a world where not everything is possible for us.
We face limitations, but so did this woman. In her day Jewish restrictions on women were increasing. Access to education was limited. Married Jewish women could not divorce their husbands; they were segregated in worship settings and expected to spend their time at home. If they were in public, they were to be veiled and to avoid speaking to men. According to the Jewish midrash of the second century, there were certain classes of people who were not accepted as full witnesses in court. These included Gentiles, deaf-mutes, gamblers, pigeon racers, slaves, children, the insane, . . . and women.6
Yes, this woman had a long list of things she could not do. But it seems not to have led to passiveness and hopelessness. Somehow she got some perfume. And Jesus said in her defense, “She did what she could.” In so doing, she stands in a long line of Bible characters with limited options, but who also did what they could.
Rahab was a foreigner and could not show birth records proving her lineage as a descendant of Abraham. She couldn’t boast of an admirable occupation. She lived in a city where property values were about to come crashing down. But she hung a scarlet cord in her window. She did what she could.
He was only a boy named David. He couldn’t be a soldier because he was too young. He couldn’t wear Saul’s armor because it didn’t fit. He couldn’t command the armies of Israel to fight because he had no authority. But he could pray, and he could sing, and he knew how to use a sling. He did what he could.
The Bible inspires us with stories of people with limitations who did what they could. Our hearts continue to be inspired by contemporary stories of people who did what they could.
Author and speaker Barbara Glanz introduces us to one such person. Glanz had given a sales presentation at a convention for a large grocery store chain. She urged her listeners to create memorable experiences for customers so they’d want to return. Several weeks later Glanz was contacted by a young man named Johnny. He had heard her presentation and had an idea. He introduced himself by saying, “I’m just a bagger in the store and I have Down syndrome, but I wanted to think of a way I could make a difference.”
Johnny continued: “I like sayings, so each day I’m going to pick out one that I like, and my dad and I will print it out on the computer. I’ll cut out the quote in strips and sign my name on the back of each one.” When customers came through his line, Johnny’s plan was simple. “I’ll just drop a strip right in their bags and say, “I hope you enjoy my quote of the day.”7 Glanz encouraged Johnny to try it,
and thought that was the end of that.
A few weeks later Glanz received another call, this time from Johnny’s store manager. There was a problem. The manager explained that as he walked through the store, he noticed one checkout line that was three times longer than the others. He told Glanz, “I went to the back of the line and suggested that customers move to another checkout, and they wouldn’t budge.”8 Nobody moved. They were in Johnny’s line, and they wanted to see his quote of the day. Johnny couldn’t do everything, but he did what he could.
The beautiful moments in our lives are also stories of people doing what they could. Maybe it was someone who wasn’t a supermodel, but who gave us a smile. A child not named Michelangelo who drew us a picture. A teacher who will never make the news but who inspired us not to give up. A quiet friend who listened to us, cried with us, and gave us a hug. A parent who worked hard and lived simply so that we could get a Christian education. If we take a moment to reflect, we can all think of someone who couldn’t do everything, but who did what they could on our behalf.
Each one of us faces a life with limitations. We can spend our time comparing ourselves with others. We can be consumed with anger, resentment, and despair over what we can’t do or what society prevents us from doing. We can succumb to hopelessness and passivity. In this very moment there is probably an area of life where the future seems bleak and where all our efforts seem to be in vain. We may have even said, “Well, I guess I can’t do anything.”
But there is a better way. Do what you can.
Remember the woman in Bethany. Remember Rahab the prostitute and David the shepherd boy. And we also ought to remember one more.
If ever there was someone who faced limited options, it was the thief on the cross. He couldn’t change his past, and his life was ending in physical agony and shame. Death drew near. But in that helpless moment, when it seemed there were no options left, he did what he could. He cried out, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42).
Your future may not be easy. Life may present you with an unending series of challenges and disappointments. But if you ever find yourself in a place where all the doors are closed and it seems there is nothing you can do, this option will always be available to you: you will always be able to call on Jesus.
And if you do, death won’t be the end of your story. Though you die, you will one day rise. You will rise from your grave, rise up into the sky. Yes, you will fly . . . even though you are not a bird.
Paul Dybdahl serves as professor of mission and New Testament at Walla Walla University in College Place, Washington.