Doing my best to find my way.
In the Christian community, today is Palm Sunday.
The start of Holy Week.
On one side of the city, Jesus enters Jerusalem riding on a donkey accompanied by disciples and friends waving palm branches and singing. On the other side of the city, Pilate enters Jerusalem riding on a stallion surrounded by Roman soldiers equipped for war. Ready to keep the peace.
One one side the promise wrapped up in the Reign of God.
On the other side rides the promise of the Reign of Caesar.
One one side Pax Romana.
On the other side is the peace of God.
Or, where you are right now
Which way will you look?
For the Jewish community, yesterday was the beginning of Passover.
The story of slavery and oppression in Egypt.
The story of promise and hope even if that meant the uncertainty of fleeing into the wilderness.
The story is told in the present tense.
“My father was a wandering Aramean…” (Deuteronomy 26:5)
Which makes it, forever, a story about today.
And, about you and me.
Back towards what you know?
Or forward to what might be?
Which way will you look?
Christian or not.
Jewish or not.
Which side of these stories is true?
Which one will hold sway?
Shaping who you are and how you think?
Your view of others and your vision for tomorrow?
And to add to our conversation about stories, there are these…
Grievance and Possibility by Seth Godin.
Determining America’s National Myth Will Determine The Country’s Fate by Colin Woodward.
The first is a blog to which I subscribe and which is easy to read.
The other is an article sent to me by a friend which requires a bit more time and thought.
Each, in their own way, asks the question.
What story do we tell ourselves and what story we chose to live by?
Is our story one of grievance?
Or one of possibility?
Is the story we tell ourselves one of a steady march towards increased liberty and equality and freedom for all?
Or, one of a preordained hierarchy?
I am better than you. We are better than they are.
Both touch on where we are today as a nation.
With our divisive political discourse and our fractured national identity
Each day we are left to ask ourselves
Which of these two stories is true?
And, which story will we choose?
When you are tempted to say…
I am the only one.
What can one person do.
No one will listen to me.
I am just an ordinary person.
The task is too big.
The need is too large.
The problem is too great.
It won’t make a dent.
I won’t make a dent.
No one will notice.
Nothing will change.
What difference can one person make.
One is greater than zero.
According the Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory I am an INFJ.
Introverted. Intuitive. Feeling. Judging.
One of the things which that means is I often lead with what I feel, and respond accordingly. Most of the time that serves me well, but not always. In the past it has kept me from facing difficult and complicated situations and making decisions which I knew needed to be made because I knew others would be hurt. Often all that did was prolong the difficulty. As I have grown older I have learned that sometimes I have to acknowledge my feelings, then set them aside and make decisions on what I believe or the values I do my best to hold onto or what I know is best. Today is one of those days.
I am big on gratitude.
I think an honest and sincere deepening sense of gratitude is one of the hallmarks of people of faith. Gratitude opens us to others and to the world around us and lessens the sense of “I deserve it” which is pushed into our lives in countless ways countless times each day. Maybe too often I remind others that Thank you is often our first and our best prayer. In the end, it is quite possible I am only reminding myself.
I am finding it hard to feel grateful.
I am worried about my Mom.
I am worried about my wife’s Dad.
I am worried about long time friends who are in the hospital.
And, the sky is grey.
And while I like winter, I find myself longing for sunshine and the first hint of a spring breeze which is still months away.
And, the headlines in the news…
I can’t even go there.
So, today I have to chose.
Go with and give into my feelings?
Or do my best to acknowledge and name what I am feeling and then set them aside?
Even with all I am feeling
I will do my best to chose gratitude.
One the second Tuesday of every month a group of us gather at a local restaurant to talk about the issues of the day. Sometimes local. Sometimes national or international. Most of the topics we discuss emerge from the headlines in the news, but our conversation last night was a bit different. The selected topic was the relationship of one’s faith to serving in the military. The conversation quickly expanded to include protecting oneself and protecting one’s family and the purpose and place of war and on what grounds, if any, is war justified and following orders when the orders you are given conflict with your values. None of us ever served in the military or been in any of the situations we imagined so our conversation was hypothetical as it bounced back and forth around the table. Multiple points of view were expressed with each of us saying not only what we think we might do in certain situations, but how we connected that to our understanding of God and to what we believe.
I enjoy our Tuesday evening conversations.
And, I enjoyed last night’s conversation because I walk away appreciating a point of view I had not considered before.
But, as is often the case for me, the conversation around the table lead to additional thoughts on the drive home. Last night’s after hours reflection was about the nature of faith and the place of values. What I began to put words around is that faith and values are always larger than what I am able to live out in my daily life. They are a way of living and being and treating others towards which I strive. And, around which I continually fall short. The temptation when I do fall short (which is multiple times each day!) is to justify my actions by adding exceptions what I believe.
In this case…
If they had not acted like that…
I really didn’t have a choice…
Those exceptions allow me to justify my actions and to maintain a sense of myself as a good person. But maybe leaning on those exceptions is both an excuse and a mistake. Maybe what is important is the dis-ease and the guilt and the honest realization that I have not lived up to the values I hold dear. I have compromised that which is bigger and more.
Maybe an example would help.
My faith tells me life is sacred and that God’s intention is that we live in peace.
That being the case, then war is wrong.
It is awful.
It kills people, both combatants and non-combatants.
It demonizes the enemy and sacrifices lives.
And, is always the result of a whole series of choices that build to that moment of the first shot or the first bomb. When we find ourselves at the moment of choosing to go to war, we attempt to justify it by resorting to something like the just war theory or saying God is on our side.
What if we were more honest.
What if we said what we are doing is wrong and lived with the weight of that.
What if we acknowledged we made mistakes leading up to that moment or we did not have the courage or resolve to find another way.
All this from last night’s conversation and the car ride home.
In the last two months I have had four funeral or memorial services.
More than I sometimes have in a year.
Such moments are not only a time to remember and to give thanks for the life and witness of the person who has died, but to step back and glance at my own life, as well. Then there was the post which Kathy DiBiasi wrote on our parenting blog about the imprint we leave on the lives of others. And, this morning there are the Bibles out on a table in Fellowship Hall. Bibles, which in a couple of weeks, we will be giving to the children who participated in our Bible class this spring. Bibles in which you are invited and encouraged to add one of your favorite verses as a reminder to them (and to you) about what it looks like to be a follower of Jesus. Finally there was the op-ed piece which a college student sent to me via Facebook along with a message in which she expressed her gratitude to this congregation for the part it played in helping to shape values which continue to be important in her life. Any time I get something like that from a college student or young adult it serves as a confirmation that we are doing or have done something right.
And, there is one more thing.
The bumper sticker I saw years ago which read:
Live so the preacher won’t have to lie at your funeral.
So, my reflection this morning is something of a fruit basket upset.
The result of a random collection of moments over the last couple months all of which lean in the same direction. Let me do my best to pull it together and put it to you this way. If you could only have three words used at your funeral or engraved on your headstone to sum up your life, what would you want those three words to be? Think about it for a moment because I will eventually get back to this question.
The op-ed piece which the college student sent me was a essay written by David Brooks adapted from his book The Road to Character. In his essay he writes:
It occurred to me there were two sets of virtues, the resume virtues and the eulogy virtues. The resume virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral – whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of great love…We all know that eulogy virtues are more important than resume ones. But our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching skills and strategies you need for career success than qualities you need to radiate that sort of inner light. Many of us are clearer about how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.
Let that last sentence sink in for a moment.
Brooks goes on in his essay and, at one point, uses a term I had not heard before.
A language we use to talk about character and virtue and morals and ethics.
A language we use often enough it becomes a normal part of our living and speaking.
A language we use so often it shapes who we are and how we act.
Which makes me wonder…
Do you have one?
Do we have one?
A moral vocabulary?
Foundational concepts or values around which we do our best to build our lives and our households and our community and our country? Foundational concepts which our children come to understand because it is just a part of who we are? Foundational concepts which our friends and co-workers know because they know us?
And, more than that, not just the vocabulary…
The words we say and understand, but the courage and the resolve to put those words into practice. To incarnate those words. To model in our lives what those words look like in ever day human interaction?
In our homes.
In our offices.
In our schools.
On the Village sidewalks and on the city streets.
Kindness and compassion and justice and peace and courage and whatever other words you might link to the essential elements of your faith or would like to have remembered about you and inscribed on your tombstone.
This is not to say resume values are unimportant. We all have a responsibility to do our best to provide for our families and to do our jobs responsibly and well. But, if we are honest with ourselves and with each other, it is easy for resume values and eulogy values to fall out of balance.
I am sure there are other ways to do it, but this place…
This particular and peculiar gathering of God’s people is one way.
Maybe that unbalance or that desire for balance is a part of the reason you are here.
Or maybe like me, you need to be reminded, again, of those words and ideas we don’t often hear in the vocabulary of the marketplace. Or, maybe there is some tug on your life or some unsettledness deep within you which tells you there is something more and this may be a place and this may be the moment for that more to move a bit closer to the surface or a bit closer to the center of your life.
Treat others as you would like to be treated.
To be with and around those doing their best to find that way which leads to Life with a capital L. A life which is meaningful and purposeful as well as successful.
That reminder we are to nurture a sense of gratitude which extends into our daily living amidst the wonder and complexity and challenge of the world as it is.
That challenge to ask and to answer that age old question, “Who is my neighbor?”
Some time ago now, as a generation was passing away, following funeral services I would walk through Bedford Union Cemetery on Clinton Rd. with those who were still alive. Marie Worden. Babe Swenson. Fanny Mazurak. Marge Hall. As we walked, they would point out the names on the headstones and tell stories and make family connections. I enjoyed those moments. But, you know what? In all my walking through cemeteries never once have I seen on a headstone inscribed with the job someone had. Banker. Broker. Carpenter. Business Owner. Millionaire. Multi-millionaire. I have only seen written in stone who they were. Father. Mother. Husband. Wife. Son. Daughter. Beloved. Loving. Giving. Kind.
Here is my suggestion to you.
In your bulletin you will find a notecard.
And, if you don’t have one, others are at either on the stand at the back or the table by the side door. here are also cups of pencils in the pew.
Today, before you go, write down the three words you would like others to use when they talk about you at your funeral. Then, take your note card home and put it someplace where you will see it each day.
Carry it around in your purse or your wallet.
So that in the midst of what you do and all you do those three words may be that daily reminder of who you want to be so you learn to live following in the way of Jesus and so the preacher won’t have to lie at your funeral.
The most critical religious question of our day is how we will answer the question "Who is my neighbor?"
That which we know and name as God is more about the connections between us than something above us.
And this, from the poet Maya Angelou...
"Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better."