Opening lines

When I was in college, my American lit teacher told us that our final would include 50 quotes to identify. We would have read 49 of the items, but there would be one quote from something we had not read in her class–but that it would be very recognizable. It was.

“Call me Ishmael”…from Moby Dick. That’s probably one of the most famous opening lines in a book…along with “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times” from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.

Many years later I read another book that had an eye-catching opening line. The author, M. Scott Peck, received the Community of Christ International Peace Award in 1994, and I was reading his book The Road Less Traveled. The title had caught my attention because it was taken from one of my favorite poems by Robert Frost. To be quite honest, I don’t remember a lot of the book–but I do remember the opening words: “Life is difficult.” Peck went on to say

Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult–once we truly understand and accept it–then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.

Those first three words have stayed with me because there is profound truth in them. We want life to be easy…we want things to go our way without us having to struggle. Sometimes I think we envy those who seem to have no problems, no challenges–but that’s only because we haven’t walked their paths.

“Life is difficult.” That doesn’t mean that we have to give up. Far from that! But once we understand that we will face struggles…that things will not always go our way…then we can be prepared to meet those issues and challenges and be ready to find ways to get through them.

Sometimes life is difficult because of things beyond our control; sometimes it’s because of choices we have made. Yet it’s in struggling through those challenges that we have the potential to grow. I’m reminded of the story of a man who saw a butterfly struggling to get out of her cocoon. He watched for a while and then–feeling sorry for her–cut the cocoon open for her. But instead of opening her wings and flying away, she remained shrunken and shriveled, living only a short while. She needed to struggle in order to grow strong and become what she had the potential of being.

We do need support from others–and we need to be available to support others as well. Even though life is difficult, we cannot use that as an excuse to turn our backs on others in need. But in doing so, we need to be sensitive to the kind of support needed–a support that builds and strengthens rather than taking away initiative.

Powerful opening lines stay in our memory because they speak truth…because they challenge…because they can bring hope. “Life is difficult”…but once that is accepted, we can learn to live with it–and it is no longer important. It just is.

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The Bible says… (part 2)

I’ve been thinking about what I think the Bible says…and realized that in some ways it was incomplete.

What I said there is still very definitely my belief, but sometimes people end up asking, “Well, then, what do you believe the Bible says? My response in the last post was this:

God loves us–completely and fully. All God asks in return is that we love God…and our neighbors.

Obviously that’s my paraphrase…and that doesn’t satisfy some who want specific words–words from the Bible. Okay, I can understand that.

So…as I’ve listened to the debates and political “discourse” (although I’m not sure it’s been discourse as much as it’s been seeing who can yell loud enough to get their points heard), these are the words from the Bible that I believe are what the Bible says to us today. They come from the NRSV version (emphasis added by me):

Matthew 22:36-40

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Matthew 25:31-45:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’”

Praying–and working–for peace

Since December 3, 1993, my faith tradition has joined millions of others around the world who pray for peace on a regular basis. The short Prayer for Peace service has taken place every day, praying for peace in general but also specifically with a focus on an individual country each time. Yesterday I had the privilege of again playing for the service, and the hymn that we sang really spoke to me.

It was written by Geoffrey Spencer, a former leader from Australia (and a friend)…a man who in many ways spoke prophetically and was ahead of his time. His words were not always appreciated, but they were often prescient.

As I look around our world today–and especially what is happening in my own country–this is one of those times when I think his words provide a challenge for us all.

Why should the earth disclose a face
distraught by pain and anguish?
And how can hearts that beat with ours,
in tortured bondage languish?

Should men despair, or women weep,
in cruel deprivation;
or haunted eyes in children mock
the bounties of creation?

Oh, may our hearts be tuned to hear
their cries of quiet weeping,
and may the echoes of distress
disturb our restful sleeping.

The rich resources of the earth,
a table set for sharing,
are bread and wine for humankind,
a sacrament of caring.

The word made flesh in Christ declares
our lives belong to others;
so let us take our stand beside
our sisters and our brothers.

Let heart and hand reach out across
the walls of tribe and nation,
till every voice on earth shall raise
a hymn of jubilation.

As a follower of the Carpenter who came to change the world, the fifth verse especially speaks to me. He never said that following him would be easy–in fact, he indicated it would be difficult…and many would say that what he asked is impossible. But if we want a better world for ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren…we really don’t have any choice but to see others as sisters and brothers. We have no choice but to find others who want peace as well, regardless of whether we call the Divine by the same name…or look alike…or worship alike…or have the same political beliefs.

Is it going to be easy? No. But is it possible? I believe so…because I am reminded of a quote often attributed to Margaret Mead…and because the small group that followed the Carpenter shows its truth:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

Creating a place where people want to work…

There’s a weekly column in our area Sunday paper that I’ve read with interest for a number of years. Its focus is on job-related issues, but much of what is discussed there can relate to any situation / organization in which two or more people are involved.

Sometimes the topic has been in an area of interest to me; sometimes it’s not.

But I’ve sometimes thought about what I would write–if I were ever asked to write a guest column. The chances of that happening are pretty slim, so I decided I’d do it myself!

From the perspective of a couple of different work-related experiences I’ve had, here’s what I think I would say:

Have you ever looked at those articles that list “the best places to work”? and wondered what it would take for yours to be listed there? It doesn’t necessarily take a lot of money. Money is nice, but it doesn’t solve the issues I’ve experienced.

Here’s a few suggestions:

  • Treat everyone with respect. That means everyone, from the person who is highest on the totem pole to the lowest.
  • Listen to your employees. You may not be able to do what they would like to see done, but they often have good ideas. Don’t dismiss them out of hand because you (as a supervisor) “know better.” Your employees are often the first line of contact with your customers, and they often have a really good grasp of issues and concerns that need to be taken care of.
  • Share with your employees. Yes, I know, there is sometimes information that cannot be shared; I don’t know of any employee who doesn’t understand that. But sharing as much as possible helps employees buy-in to what you are wanting (and / or needing) to do.
  • Acknowledge the work that your employees do. Yes, a monetary bonus is always nice. But when that’s not possible, there are other ways of acknowledging how important your employees are. Perhaps an extra day off…a public acknowledgement in the company newsletter…a personal letter (not a template with the name filled in)…a certificate of appreciation…
  • Work to create an environment where all are seen as essential. Too often there’s an “us / them” attitude. It can be described as “bosses / peons”, “that end of the hall / everyone else”, “us / them”…or any one of a number of ways. If that’s the feeling in your workplace, you’re missing out on relationships that can enhance your company.

There’s a lot more that could be said. But it’s not really important. It’s really kind of like what happened when someone came to Jesus and asked him what the most important religious law was. There were a lot of them that Jesus could have picked from. But he only chose two: (1) to love God with all one’s being, and (2) to love your neighbor as you love yourself. Two of the Gospels says that he continued by saying that all the rest of the law and prophets hung on those two.

My feeling is that if you look at my suggestions and work to create them in your company, you don’t need a thick employee handbook full of rules and regulations. They’ll pretty much take care of themselves.

Welcome the stranger…

Last night I sat in on a wonderful evening of story-telling from members of (and about) my faith tradition. Some of the stories were funny…some were more somber.

My faith tradition was birthed in the United States, but it did not have an easy birth or childhood. We were “different”…we challenged the status quo…and we became refugees. We were driven from place to place, and our founder was ultimately murdered. In many ways, it’s a wonder that we survived.

But the story that caught my attention last night was of one of those times of wandering. We were forcibly driven out of our homes in winter. We lost most of our earthly possessions–and many families did not know where their fathers were…or even if they were still alive. The journey was a difficult one. Sometimes we were able to find shelter–even if it was dirty and smelly; sometimes we were denied even that. Ultimately we found people who cared…people who saw us not as “other” but as human beings in need. We found a city of 1500 who were willing to take in 5000 refugees who had nothing. We found a temporary home while we regrouped so that we could go on.

As I listened to that story, I thought about the parallels with today…with my parents’ generation and my own.

In the 1930s there were people fleeing and looking for a place of shelter. They were people who had lost everything and who were afraid for their lives–and the lives of their children. Some found shelter, but many did not and perished.

Credit Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

Today there are many fleeing and looking for safe places for themselves and their children. Some have found shelter–but many are still looking.

Yes, they are “other”…they are different.

But I am part of a country that has grown from the contributions of immigrants and refugees. I am part of a faith tradition that was welcomed as refugees. I am also part of a bigger faith tradition whose story includes both being welcomed as a stranger–and then being challenged to do the same to others. My people were welcomed…and I grew up believing this poem by Emma Lazarus:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

(AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

Compassion…to suffer with…

Sometimes there are almost no words to say. But I have to try.

Yesterday I was shocked and appalled at the current administration’s budget. But I was even more appalled to hear the budget director, Mick Mulvaney, describe it as “compassionate.” Compassionate?!?

This proposed budget includes a huge increase in defense spending–with corresponding cuts to (1) climate change research, (2) foreign aid, (3) public broadcasting, (4) national institutes of health, (5) meals on wheels, and (6) after-school programs…among others. The reasons? They don’t believe in the science that has been widely accepted around the world–and, in the case of Meals on Wheels and after-school programs, they don’t see any demonstrable benefits from them.

Really?

First of all, for many of the kids (and families) who depend on the after-school programs, they provide a safe place, food, and a place where they can get help with schoolwork. Those aren’t demonstrable benefits?

And Meals on Wheels provides nutritional meals for folks who may be on the border of having to choose between food and other necessities…folks who may not be able to get out…as well as providing a way for someone to check up on them to ensure they haven’t fallen (or worse). Those aren’t demonstrable benefits?

I said yesterday that I believe that the GOP and I use different dictionaries to find the definition of compassion. The dictionaries I use indicate that the word comes from the mid-14th century, from Latin words that mean “to suffer with.” I do not see much suffering with those who are poor…hungry…in need.

And I am reminded of what Jesus said in Matthew 25:

I was hungry and you gave me no meal,
I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,
I was homeless and you gave me no bed,
I was shivering and you gave me no clothes,
Sick and in prison, and you never visited….

Whenever you failed to do one of these things to someone who was being overlooked or ignored, that was me—you failed to do it to me.

 

“He says what I think”

For me, one of the most frightening statements to come out of this year’s election (and post-election) is this: “I (voted for/support) Donald Trump because he says what I think.” Why do I find that frightening?

Let me make a couple of things clear. I do believe that there are legitimate discussions needed about our immigration system. There are too many people caught in limbo, waiting for years for their citizenship applications to be approved. There are challenges with border security that need to be discussed–and that needs to include discussions about the economic factors that cause people to come illegally. We live in a world where there are many, many refugees–and we need to work with other countries to create a policy that acknowledges their needs and fears and tries to find ways to meet them.

However…

When I hear people say that, it usually goes along with negative statements towards those who are seen as “other” in some way. It seems to relate to demonizing others…grouping all members of one race/religion together, while seeing nothing wrong with one’s own race/religion. I hear it in reference to statements about those who are poor and who need help to get back on their feet…those whose sexuality/gender identity is not easily understandable.

And I am reminded of something in the Bible. In both Matthew and Luke, Jesus is talking to his followers. Not to them alone, but after he has been asked questions by those who didn’t believe in him…who wanted to trap him. They were religious and political leaders of their day, and they found Jesus’ teachings frightening because they challenged the status quo. Jesus taught…healed…challenged.

He told those who were listening to love their enemies…to do good to all…to pray for those who abused them…to give more than they were asked to. He told them to do unto others as they would have done to them. He called on them to be merciful…to not judge…to see the hypocrisies in their own lives before calling out others.

And then…

Then he gave this response: “…it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.”

So what do our words say about us? What do we really think?

Do Donald Trump’s words really reflect what we think? They don’t for me…