Let me tell you about Kevin Kelly. Kevin was the editor and publisher of Whole Earth Review and he helped launch a magazine called “Wired.” Kevin has always been intrigued about long term trends and the social consequences of technology.
He is also a bona fide free spirit. He used to hitchhike to work every day—from New Jersey into New York City. “Somebody ALWAYS picked me up and I was NEVER late. Each morning I counted on the service of ordinary commuters who had lives full of their own worries and yet, without fail, at least one of them would do something generous, as if on schedule. As I stood there with my thumb outstretched, the only question in my mind was simply, ‘How will the miracle happen today?”
Kevin goes on to say he has a belief about what happens in these moments. Kindness and generosity are like a breath—they can be squeezed out or drawn in. To solicit a gift from a stranger requires a certain openness. Embracing extreme generosity requires some preparation. He learned to think of it as “an exchange”—during the moment the stranger offers his or her kindness, the person being aided offers degrees of humility, indebtedness, surprise, trust delight, relief, and joy to the stranger.
One year Kevin rode his bicycle across America. In the evening, he would scour houses for a likely yard to camp in. He’d ring the doorbell and ask if he could pitch his tent. He’d say he had just eaten dinner and promised he’d be gone first thing in the morning. He was never turned away—not once. And there was more; he would frequently be invited into the house.
“My job at that moment was clear: I was to relate my adventure, and in the retelling of what happened to me so far, they would get to vicariously ride a bicycle across America with me—a thrill many of them confessed they secretly desired but would never do. Many times, I’d also get a bowl of ice cream.”
Kevin remembered that when the miracle flows, it flows both ways. With each gift the threads of generosity are entwined and both the giver and the recipient were captured. He learned that good givers are those who learn to receive with grace, as well. They radiate a sense of gratitude.
He concludes by saying, “As with my hitchhiking rides, the gift is an extravagant gesture you can count on. No matter how bad the weather, how soiled the past, how broken the heart, or how hellish the war, I believe all that is behind the universe is conspiring to help us—if we will humble ourselves enough to let it.”
This Sunday will mark the first of two “Commitment Sundays”—November 1 and 8. You have received your “Estimate of Giving” cards by now. I would be less than candid with you if I didn’t report that our giving dipped last year. There could be many reasons for that. I am more concerned that there was a dip in the number of Estimate of Giving cards turned in. Our goal this year is to receive an Estimate of Giving card from every family/member of the congregation.
The second goal is to encourage you to remember that all that is behind the universe is conspiring to help you—and all you have to do is be generous in your life.
David Brooks, a well-known columnist, wrote an essay several months ago in which he talks about the difference between the “resume virtues” and the “eulogy virtues.” The resume virtues are the ones you list on your resume, the skills you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success. The eulogy virtues are deeper. They’re the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being—whether you are kind, brave, honest and faithful; what kind of relationships you formed.
Most of us would say that eulogy virtues are more important than resume virtues, but—as Brook also confesses—how many of us spend much more of our time thinking about the latter rather than the former?? Most of us have clearer strategies for how to achieve career success than we do for how to develop a profound character.
Brooks helps us to understand that we have conflicting energies operating inside of us. The culture we live in nourishes and rewards the resume virtues, but gives little encouragement to the eulogy virtues. This story plays out perfectly in the account of Jacob in the Old Testament. Jacob, who would become Israel, is shrewd and conniving and manipulative—and above all else, a winner. He gets everything he wants by the sheer force of his will and cleverness. However, in the end he can’t manufacture the one thing he wants and needs more than anything else—the peace of a reconciled relationship with his brother, Esau, within himself, and with God.
Listen to how Brooks describes himself and see if you can find a piece of yourself there:
“I was born with a natural disposition toward shallowness. I now work as a pundit and columnist. I’m paid to be a narcissistic blowhard, to volley my opinions, to appear more confident than I am, to appear smarter than I am, to appear better and more authoritative than I really am. I have lived a life of vague moral aspiration—vaguely wanting to be good, vaguely wanting to serve some larger purpose, while lacking a concrete moral vocabulary—a clear understanding of how to live a rich inner life, or even how character is developed.
“I’ve discovered that without a rigorous focus on the eulogy virtues side of our nature, it is easy to slip into a self-satisfied mediocrity. We grade ourselves on a forgiving curve. We follow our desires wherever they take us and we approve of ourselves as long as we are not hurting anyone else. We figure if people around us like us we must be good enough. In the process we end up turning ourselves into something a little less impressive than we had originally hoped. A humiliating gap opens between our actual selves and our desired selves. We realize the voice of the resume virtues is loud but the voice of the eulogy virtues is muffled. The life of the one is clear, but the life of the other is fuzzy. One is alert, the other is sleepwalking.”
How are you working on your “eulogy virtues”?
We had quite a day in worship this past Sunday. We celebrated Children’s Sabbath and were blessed as our children (with a terrific assist from our youth praise band) led the service.
Celia Robertson had an amazing “Big Kid’s Message,” we had a great skit about being the light of the world, wonderful videos featuring children, and the music was awesome. There was a time that “proverbial wisdom” suggested that children should be “seen and not heard.” Nonsense. Our children have a voice and a perspective on life we all need to hear.
Jesus knew this when he emphasized the point that “no one enters the Kingdom of God unless they enter it as a little child.” And to add emphasis he added, “Beware of placing stumbling blocks in their path—it would be better for you to put a large rock around your neck and get tossed into the deep blue sea than to cause any of these small ones to stumble.”
Notice that Jesus didn’t say there wouldn’t be any stumbling blocks. Just that we should take care not to be the ones putting them out there because God knows there are plenty of them already. A parent with an addiction is an all-too-frequent stumbling block. Or maybe the stumbling block like a fancy house in a fancy neighborhood that won’t heal a broken marriage. Every day we may encounter hundreds of sudden calamities or mundane injustices that can make us fall flat on our faces, knock the breath out of us, cause us to skin our knees. We as God’s children certainly live a lot of our lives that way.
Despite it all, God calls us to live a life of filled with reckless love for each other. The Kingdom doesn’t need perfect poster children, but children with hearts held together with bandaids and duct tape, sure that if they keep hoping, the secret door to the magic kingdom will open or their pet ants will sprout wings and fly to the moon. Sure that if they keep hoping they will arrive at a tomb and find the stone rolled away. That they will hear the voice of Jesus calling them by name.
Entering the Kingdom as a child does not mean attaining some false sense of cuteness or innocence. It means living life so sure of God’s love for us that we can sing loudly and get into silly quarrels in the backseat until God threatens to turn this car around right now.
Our children exemplified God’s grace among us. They were spectacular. And so were all those adults who helped make it happen—who opened the doors through which our children could walk. THAT would be the OPPOSITE of a stumbling block. So to Joanna and all the adult helpers, you have our deepest gratitude.
Next week we will begin our annual stewardship campaign to underwrite the operating budget for 2016. As you consider the level of your support for the life of our congregation, please keep one eye on the children and youth of our church. They need the very best from us. They need our financial support. Could it be that NOT giving generously might be considered a stumbling block?
Something to think about.
It’s a little community college in Umpqua, Oregon. Chances are better than not that none of us had ever heard of it before this past week. Today pretty much ALL of us know. Another broken individual with a gun. Nine murdered, nine injured, and the shooter committed suicide.
It didn’t take long for the various ideological camps to swing into attack mode. The so-called “liberal” bunch calling for stricter gun control and the so-called “conservatives” calling for constitutional restraint with the 2nd amendment and the “right” to bear arms.
I heard the press conference of President Obama who seemed justifiably frustrated when he said, “This is the 15th time I’ve had to stand before you during my Presidency to respond to a mass killing. When will it stop?”
I wish I had a good answer for that. It seems as if these kinds of very public shootings—and their subsequent media frenzies that follow—will only serve to encourage the next broken person to do something similar.
We seem incapable of having a reasoned conversation about guns in this country. The statistics have been poured over time and time again to no avail.
It was with great disappointment when I read in the Tennessean this morning that our Lt. Governor, Ron Ramsey, was quoted as saying—in response to the Umpqua shooting—“I think serious Christians should consider getting handgun permits”. Ramsey said this in response to the report that the shooter allegedly asked victims whether or not they were Christians. It has been reported that he killed the ones who said “yes” and only maimed the ones who said “no”. Not sure if that story is true or not. However, I would like to say to Mr. Ramsey that I have grave doubts Jesus would EVER suggest that any of His followers should arm themselves as a response to a perceived threat from a broken person.
Which then leads me to ask—if we can’t have a conversation about the guns—if we might be ready to have, in Ramsey’s word, a “serious” conversation about the society we have created that seems to be breeding these broken ones in ever-increasing numbers. The disenfranchised, the hopeless, the dispossessed—all those who aren’t living the American Dream, but rather the American Nightmare. All those who used to belong to a thriving middle class in this country who have now been shoved into a lower, socio-economic reality who are now frustrated, angry and—worst of all—feel no hope and, therefore, also feel they have nothing to lose.
This is a time for grieving and for prayer—not for “posturing”. Remember this week the nine who wanted only to get their education and create a good life. Remember the wounded ones whose healing of mind may take longer than the healing of body. Remember the shooter—and remember his family that must live with the actions of their son, brother, cousin.
Pray for these things—THAT’S what serious Christians do.
Kristin Clark-Banks is the pastor of Forest Hills UMC.