Saturday, November 29, 2008

Christmas Shopping

"The Season is upon us now, a time for gifts and giving; and as the year draws to its close, I think about my living." So writes John Denver in an ode to his children, A Baby Just Like You. Yesterday was Black Friday, the ominous-sounding beginning of the Christmas shopping season. Though it's hardly the "beginning" anymore -- Christmas candy lines the shelves the day after Halloween and television ads try to induce sentimentality long before the final shiver of Dance Macabre has drifted away.

This year, however, Black Friday lived up to its name as a crowd of shoppers straining and shoving their way into a Long Island Wal-Mart, trampled an employee to death. Very likely no one knew what was happening until it was over or if they did, they couldn't stop or slow down because of the pressure of the mob behind. You know what it's like: you're standing at the gate of a rock concert, the gates open, and then God help you, you're carried along like a twig on a wave. But this time it wasn't Jon Bon Jovi or Cold Play waiting on the other side, it was "buy one, get one free" and "60% off while supplies last."

Has the economy gotten so bad that you take your life in your hands going shopping? Where is our perspective? It seems to me that people become easily impatient lately. You're driving down the highway and someone pulls up behind you. There's plenty of passing room yet they ride close to your bumper and when they've decided you aren't going any faster, swing round, and leave you contemplating a hateful glance or a single-fingered salute. One driver cuts off another, they pull over, fists fly, a gunshot is heard.

Yes, many times alcohol is involved but not every time and not by everyone. I doubt most of the people in the crowd Friday morning had been drinking. A man left his house and went to work, no doubt earlier than most days, and was simply unlocking the doors of the store. He didn't have time to get out of the way.

Crowds do strange things. It's one reason I don't particularly care for them. Whatever factors combined to result in the death of the man on Friday, we do him honor if allow his death to remind us that no one should be simply "in the way." In this season of thinking about our living, thinking about his dying may be one of the more meaningful things we can do.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Little Things

Thanksgiving is here again and no doubt from one end of the country to the other, in all four directions, someone will say something about being "thankful" tomorrow. I'm thinking about a comment made to me a number of years ago by a minister I knew who said, "We ought to cultivate an attitude of gratitude." Ministers are known for a fondness for alliteration; they say it helps folks remember the main points of the sermon. That I recall this little tidbit after more years than I'm willing to admit is testimony to the effect of alliteration on my memory at least.

The whole idea of gratitude implies that I'm not the only, or even the ultimate, source of those things I appreciate in my life. Something or someone has entered my sphere of experience and bestowed upon me that which I did not have before. Furthermore, they've done this out of no desire or need to obtain something from me in return. There's been no transaction or exchange of goods for service or remuneration. It might not even be demonstrable that they are directly responsible for that which I enjoy.

I'm talking, of course, about grace. But not the grace of the magnanimous or spiritual. I mean the grace of presence: the grace that surrounds and penetrates us like the air we breathe, and is most frequently outside conscious awareness. You have to think about grace in order to notice it. Most of us are too busy to notice anything ordinary. We're busy looking for things that are extraordinary. Grace is everyday, plain, simple, interactive. Grace is waiting for us to see it and be grateful.

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Saturday, November 22, 2008

What does it matter?

The title of this blog derives from a metaphor a friend once shared with me. He said, "Christianity is like one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread." I've always liked that because it highlights one of the key facts of life, i.e. that we are all indebted to someone. None of us has all the answers and the truth be told, maybe there are very few to be had afterall -- at least on this side of eternity. So, we turn to each other and ask our questions.

There was a time when I thought mine had changed, depending on time, place, and situation. Now I'm coming to realize I ask the same questions again and again, hopefully getting better each time with their framing. Ultimately, I think that's critical because the answer we derive depends on the character of the question, not to mention that of the questioner. It isn't enough, for example, to simply ask if life has any meaning at all. That's far too general. The real issue is, does my presence on earth render life more significant. How do I meaningfully contribute to life?

I'm reminded of a wonderful tale about a businessman who decided to go on a long journey. Maybe it was one to find himself -- who knows? In any case, he left his resources in the hands of three trusted individuals. To one he left a great deal of money, to another he left property, and to the last, he left his collection of art and antiques. To each he said, "Increase my value. Invest, develop, sell -- do whatever seems best to you. Whenever I return, if you have done well, I will repay you in ways you cannot imagine."

Years past and with them any expectation that the businessman would return. Then one day, to the surprise of everyone, he reappeared looking hale and hearty. He called his friends together and asked for their reports. The first said, "I invested all you gave me in stocks, bonds, and new business ventures. You were wealthy when you left but now you are exceedingly so." The businessman praised his ingenuity and resourcefulness and gave him authority, second only to his own, in his organization.

The second reported, "I took your real estate and divided it into portions. In your name I built housing for the poor, set up hospitals for the underprivileged, and created open space for all to love and enjoy. Your reputation as a humanitarian in this country has grown beyond all expectations." Overjoyed, the businessman made his friend chairman of his foundation promoting humanitarian causes throughout the world.

The third, however, seemed less than enthusiastic. "I knew you were a self-made man and took advantage of whatever opportunities you had in life. But I decided worked that if I sold your property and invested the proceeds, I could have made a mistake and lost it all. So, I locked them up in a vault and waited for you to come back." To this man the businessman said, "I gave you complete freedom with my resources -- you could have done incredible things. Instead, you've done virtually nothing because you were afraid to try."

The moral of the story is, it's not so much what we have as what we do with it that counts. Meaning is not so much discovered as it is created. The question of life's significance is best answered by acting significantly. On January 20, 2009, we will inaugurate President who has challenged us to do just that. Everything we do, from the smallest daily task to saving a life, is filled with potential. One might seem more dramatic than the other, but it all matters.

(Creative Commons image by Moyan Brenn via Fkickr)

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