Friday, February 26, 2010

Do What You Can

Do What You Can: A parable for our time

This morning on my “joyful” jog around Cambridge, I came upon a blue Toyota waiting at red right turn arrow. A large Mercedes came up behind the Toyota, honked loudly (is there any other way to honk?) and received from the driver of the Toyota a gesture in the direction of the red light. The Mercedes paused and then quickly pulled out of the lane and turned in front of the Toyota. At the same moment the arrow turned green giving all the option to turn right.

The moral order did not shatter. This was no occasion to invoke proletarian conflict. After all, I covet a large Toyota Land Cruiser. No clash of cultures here. The Teutonic Mercedes and Asian Toyota were oblivious of the rising tension.

Here was a parable for our time—too blind, too impatient, too rude to be civil. I am reminded of the mantra of Forrest Church, the late minister of All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in New York City. “Be content with what you have. Know who you are. Do what you can.” If we want a more civil society, we can make it happen and it begins at red no turn arrows when impatience grabs hold of us.

Robert M. Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Four Lessons

Lessons for Life
These stories have been around for quite a while. Their message, though simple, can still be a cornerstone for the way we see those around us.

Lesson 1
During the second month of a small college, a professor gave a pop quiz. One very conscientious student breezed through the questions until the last one: "What is the first name of the woman who cleans the school?" Surely this was some kind of joke. The cleaning woman was often around at the end of classes. She was tall, dark-haired and in her 50's, but who would know her name?
The student handed in the paper, leaving the last question blank. Just before class ended, one student asked if the last question would count toward the total grade.
"Absolutely," said the professor. "In your careers, you will meet many people. All are significant. They deserve your attention and care, even if all you do is smile and say "hello."
The student never forgot that lesson or her name: Dorothy.

Lesson 2
In the days when an ice cream sundae cost much less, a 10-year-old boy entered a hotel coffee shop and sat at a table. A waitress put a glass of water in front of him.
"How much is an ice cream sundae?" he asked.
"Fifty cents," replied the waitress.
The little boy pulled is hand out of his pocket and studied the coins in it. "Well, how much is a plain dish of ice cream?" he inquired.
By now more people were waiting for a table and the waitress was growing impatient. "Thirty-five cents," she brusquely replied.
The little boy again counted his coins. "I'll have the plain ice cream," he said.
The waitress brought the ice cream, put the bill on the table and walked away. The boy finished the ice cream, paid the cashier and left. When the waitress came back, she began to cry as she wiped down the table. There, placed neatly beside the empty dish, were two nickels and five pennies… She realized, he couldn't have the sundae, because he had to have enough left to leave her a tip.

Lesson 3
In ancient times, a King had a boulder placed on a roadway. Then he hid himself and watched to see if anyone would remove the huge rock. Some of the king's wealthiest merchants and courtiers came by and simply walked around it. Many loudly blamed the King for not keeping the roads clear, but none did anything about getting the stone out of the way.
Then a peasant came along carrying a load of vegetables. Upon approaching the boulder, the peasant laid down his burden and tried to move the stone to the side of the road. After much pushing and straining, he finally succeeded. After the peasant picked up his load of vegetables, he noticed a purse lying in the road where the boulder had been. The purse contained many gold coins and a note from the King indicating that the gold was for the person who removed the boulder from the roadway. The peasant learned what many of us never understand!
Every obstacle presents new opportunities.

Lesson 4
Many years ago, in a hospital, there was a little girl named Liz who was suffering from a rare and usually fatal disease. Her only chance of recovery appeared to be a blood transfusion from her 5-year old brother, who had miraculously survived the same disease and had developed the antibodies needed to combat the illness. The doctor explained the situation to her little brother, and asked the little boy if he would be willing to give his blood to his sister.
He hesitated for only a moment before taking a deep breath, "Yes, I'll do it if it will save her.
As the transfusion progressed, he lay in bed next to his sister and smiled, as did all the staff, seeing the color returning to her cheek. Then his face grew pale and his smile faded. He looked up at the doctor and asked with a trembling voice, "Will I start to die right away".
Being young, the little boy had misunderstood the doctor: he thought he was going to have to give his sister all of his blood in order to save her.

Final Thought

Akavia ben Mehalalel said, “Consider three things and you will not miss the mark. Know from where you have come, to where you are heading, and before whom you will give justification and accounting.” Pirkei Avot 3:1

Rabbi Samuel Seicol

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Jacob: On Wrestling with God

As our semester series theme asks “What about tomorrow?” I think of Jacob, spending the night alone on the bank of the river Jabbok, and wrestling; a word whose root is pronounced awback, or pretty close to that. Y’think there might be something to these words sounding similar? The irony of the man at the river’s crossing engaged in wrestling is that it befits his name in two ways. “May He – God – protect” is a dimension to Jacob’s name because even though the sound and sense of it is similar to the noun for heel, “aw-kabe,” a sense that never lets us forget that he came out of the womb holding on to his older brother’s heel, the verb means “to watch from behind,” something that God was doing through-out Jacob’s life even while Jacob was doing so himself: watching from behind. So here is Jacob, watching from behind, watching out for his family, in the fear of running into his brother Esau.

Jacob has just left town with two wives, their two servants, children he has had with all four women, and a zoo full of livestock. It has been said, unsympathetically, that the man has been living by the skin of his teeth, conniving his way through life, from his youth, like a con-man on the lam. Heel-grabber; supplanter; trickster. I respectfully disagree. But we’ll get to that. Where we find him is in anticipation of his brother Esau’s murderous vengeance for Jacob’s claiming and taking of Esau’s first-born birthright inheritances and blessings. Knowing that Esau has an army of men with him, Jacob has arranged for three overly-abundant wagon-trains full of livestock to be given as gifts to hopefully placate his brother’s wrath. Three droves of gifts have been sent on ahead a day’s journey while Jacob and his family spend the night at the river’s crossing. But Jacob spends the night alone with his thoughts. What might he be thinking?

You have to start from the beginning to know where Jacob’s coming from: how would you feel if you knew your grandfather was destined to have descendants as numerous as the sands of the sea, and your dad has only two sons, and even though it’s the oldest to whom the destiny of blessing falls, it’s your mom who tells you that you’re the one whom God told her was to receive the blessing. How would you feel? God didn’t tell that to your dad, or your granddad; He told it to your mom. But honestly, who listens to women? Well, we all should; but you, Jacob, listen to her because it’s about you! So in your youth, you try out her theory: and you watch from behind. And your mom’s right: wow, your brother really would give up the blessing of his birthright for a little stew! And then your mom deceitfully accomplishes arranging circumstances to lock your brother out of his own blessing by your father’s own hand, hijacking your father’s approval in the process. If you’re mom was right then she was right, and she wasn’t lying or deceived, why did your blessing have to come at the risk of cunning and deceit? I would imagine that you’d spend the rest of your life watching from behind, wondering whether or not it was all really true. And along the way, you may as well put God to the test, after all, it’s His blessing that you’re destined to be blessed with one way or the other! And blessings DO keep happening to you, but the strangest problems develop all along the way too! Jacob ends up sleeping with his wife’s sister – and it is such a Hollywood mess. I think he finally comes to the end of his rope: the blessings multiply, but so do the problems, and his own brother is in a position to end it all in a blood-bath. Is he really blessed?! Or isn’t he?! Here’s what I think: he’s really not sure, but he really wants to know.

So does he really wrestle with God, or doesn’t he? I think he does. It’s the strangest conclusion: he prevails against God. Now, who in the world could ever actually beat God in a wrestling match? God throws the fight and lets him win. But it’s not enough! Jacob doesn’t want a win, he wants an answer. Am I blessed or not?! I’m not letting go until I get an answer! Jacob gets his answer, and God gets His answer. This time, He knows that Jacob isn’t content to just get an earthly answer. Jacob isn’t satisfied with his brother’s consent, or his mother’s approval, or his father’s blessing. He demands, and gets his answer: from God. And now, God knows He has a man he can work through: someone who doesn’t blow with the wind: Jacob is now tuned into the approval of God, and not the approval of men.

And he’s re-named Israel: What’s that mean? Take your pick: God fights, fights with God, God fights for…hard to say. But suffice it to say, it’s no longer Jacob who fights. God touches his hip in such a way that it cripples him for life, and with that ever present reminder, there’s no more need to watch from behind. The issue is settled for Jacob. Is the issue settled for you? If you’re looking for accountability, affirmation, assurance, and approval from man, you may find it, but it will never completely satisfy. Do you need to know for sure that someone else isn’t jerking you around? You could hire video crews and private detectives and you still couldn’t be 100% sure. Do what’s right, do what’s real, and let the chips fall.

“Needing the approval of men syndrome” is a double-edged sword: not only are you insecure about yourself, but you’ll also be insecure about others. Others are a threat to you because you don’t know whether or not you approve of them! The vicious cycle of distrust ends when you trust God: if you really don’t trust God, you’ll always be insecure about yourself and others.

I think it may be routine to say that we wrestle with God: we all wrestle with God. But that raises the question: what kind of wrestling? Are you wrestling with thoughts about God, or feelings about God, or ideas about God? Maybe you are, but try this: demand to wrestle with God face to face and God will take you on: chin to chin, nose to nose, eye to eye. He is not just an idea, or a thought, or a feeling. He is not an it. Can you imagine wrestling without any emotion? Anger, joy, those things come to mind as why two persons will roll around on the floor with one another. Try it some time. God will meet your emotions feeling for feeling: reflecting your anger, doubling your joy. Jacob was fed up with not knowing, when it came to tomorrow, whether or not he was truly blessed, whether God really approved of him. He got his answer. How about you?

Chaplain Dave Thom