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Make the Priorities of Jesus Your Priorities

Make the Priorities of Jesus Your Priorities

Jesus had something radical and controversial to say about those who are “active” in their faith.  And so do I.  Look closely at this painting of the famous story–The Good Samaritan by Pelegrin Clavé y Roqué:

The Good Samaritan

Where do you see yourself?  Are you the one beaten and broken on the wayside?  Are you the priest down the road with his back turned to the wounded?  Are you the Levite in the right foreground with his nose so buried in the scriptures that he fails to see the needs of the injured?  Or do you see yourself as the Good Samaritan?

Before you decide, you need to remember something about the role each played in Jewish society and culture.

The essential idea of a Hebrew priest was that of a mediator between his people and God by representing them officially in worship and sacrifice. By virtue of his office he was able to draw nigh to God, while they, because of their sins and infirmities, must needs stand afar off. The priest exercised his office mainly at the altar by offering the sacrifices and above all the incense (Num. 16:40; 18:2–3, 5, 7; Deut. 33:10) but also by teaching the people the law (Lev. 10:10, 11; Deut. 33:10; Mal. 2:7), by communicating to them the divine will (Num. 27:21), and by blessing them in the name of the Lord (Num. 6:22–27).  The work of the Levites was to assist the priests (Num. 3:5–10; 18:1–7). They acted as musicians (1 Chr. 6:16, 31; 15:16; Neh. 11:17, 22); slaughtered the sacrifices (2 Chr. 29:34; 35:11; Ezra 6:20); and generally assisted in the temple (Neh. 11:16, 19).  (Taken from LDS BD.)

In contrast to the pure and pious priests and Levites of mainstream Judaism, the Samaritans were a racially mixed society with Jewish and pagan ancestry. Although they worshiped Yahweh as did the Jews, their religion was not mainstream Judaism. They accepted only the first five books of the Bible as canonical, and their temple was on Mount Gerazim instead of on Mount Zion in Jerusalem.  Because of their imperfect adherence to Judaism and their partly pagan ancestry, the Samaritans were despised by ordinary Jews.  They were the “apostates” of their day.  They were unorthodox.  They didn’t believe the right things.  They certainly didn’t support the culture or leadership of mainline Judaism as authentic or authoritative.  They were therefore deemed unrighteous and “unsaved” by the Jews.

So when Jesus made the Samaritan the hero of this story (and made the “righteous” establishment figures his villains) it was a radical critique of contemporary Jewish culture and belief.  Jesus was being outrageously controversial and openly criticizing the mainstream culture and belief systems of his own religion.  This attack on Jewish authority, the culture of the temple and the culture of scripture was a brave thing to do and ultimately got him killed.

Jesus seemed to be saying that orthodoxy (teaching and believing the right things and the right people) does not produce orthopraxy (correct practice).  In fact, as Jesus points out, the orthodox and observant–the “active” or “righteous” temple goers–can be some of the most cruel and neglectful people there are.  Throughout his ministry Jesus repeatedly pointed out the evil of allowing orthodoxy to trump orthopraxy.  In fact, his greatest frustration with the Pharisees was that they thought orthodoxy was orthopraxy.  Teaching and believing the right things became righteousness, itself.  This perversion, making the means an end in itself, was deeply disturbing to Jesus.  Yet it was just as culturally pervasive and diabolical as it is today.

Having had occasion to be beaten, battered and left along the wayside of life by gastroparesis, EPI, degenerative disc disease and a host of other health problems that have left me to subsist on a feeding tube for 15+ hours per day, all of which was preceded by lung disease and a tragic accident that left my father paralyzed, people often ask me about the help I have received from my own faith community–the archetypal “priests” and “Levites” of our day.  I wished my typical response was more optimistic than what Jesus offered two millennia ago.  But, unfortunately, it is not, which is precisely why I wrote Built to Love and used this painting for its cover.

Praying.  Reading the scriptures.  Going to the temple/church.  Believing the right things.  Saying the right things.  Believing the right people.  Did all of that orthodoxy really impress Jesus?  If it did, then why did he make someone who wasn’t doing all those things the hero of his story?

Where is your focus?  Where are your priorities?  Are you more concerned with orthodoxy or orthopraxy?  Are you, like the Levite and the priest, so immersed in the practice of your checklist orthodoxy that you forget (or don’t have time) to go visit the sick, call the weary and offer an encouraging word, mourn with those that mourn, or comfort those that stand in need of comfort?  Do you even know how to do those things effectively?  Do you study how to do those things?  Do you know how to listen?  Do you know how to show empathy?

Please listen to someone who lives in a community of believers but often feels all alone in his fight against some pretty horrible health problems.  Please listen to someone who lives in a faith community where one of its own recently killed himself.  Put down your scriptures.  Skip church if you need to.  But, please, go and visit someone today.  Pick up the phone and call that person you’ve been meaning to call.  Do something to help encourage those who need encouragement.  Do something to help the lonely not feel so all alone.  Do something to surprise someone with your kindness.  Make the priorities of Jesus your priorities.

We’ll Miss Making Him Smile

We’ll Miss Making Him Smile

We'll Miss Making Him Smile
We’ll Miss Making Him Smile

My little friend and fellow tube feeder passed away a few days ago.  His name was Gabe (short for Gabriel).  Gabe had a very difficult life.  Born several months premature, his brain didn’t develop normally.  Burdened with cerebral palsy, quadriplegia, epilepsy and a host of other major health problems, Gabe also suffered from the inability to eat or swallow food.  Hence, he was a tube feeder like me.  He was only with us for shortly beyond half a decade.  Yet, in those 2003 days, he taught us all so much.  His angel mother, noble father and loving brothers and sisters taught us even more.

At Gabe’s funeral on Friday, Nanette, his mother, told the story of how Gabe’s older brother, Samuel, said he would miss Gabe’s smile.  Nanette, trying to offer Sam comfort said, “You’ll still see his smile in our pictures, in our videos and in your heart.”  Sam replied, “No, mom, what I mean is that I will miss making Gabe smile.”

What did this beautiful family learn in the 5.48 years of sleepless nights; through all of the vomiting, retching, and convulsing; after five solid years of changing diapers; with all of the carrying, lifting, and transferring … in and out of bed … in and out of the chair … in and out of the bath … on and off the exam tables … in and out of their arms; after more trips to the emergency room, the doctors’ offices, and the hospitals … more than you or I could ever comprehend; with no rest, no reprieve, no grand vacations?  They learned the wisdom of the ages.  It’s in giving that we receive.  It’s in building others that we’re built.  It’s in lifting that we’re lifted.  It’s in giving away our love that it’s received … and retained.  This wonderful family didn’t just teach this from the pulpit at the funeral on Friday.  They have been teaching those of us who know them for years now.

Despite all of their challenges, you would struggle to find a happier family.  Rarely did I ever see one of Gabe’s brothers or sisters without a smile.  They are living examples of the thesis that our happiness depends not upon what circumstance does to us but upon what we do with our circumstances.

Gabe’s family, which includes grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc., has corroborated the thesis of the Dalai Lama, who said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.  If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”  And of Confucius, who taught, “He who wishes to secure the good of others has already secured his own.”  And of Kahlil Gibran: “I slept and I dreamed that life is all joy.  I woke and I saw that life is all service.  I served and I saw that service is joy.”  And, of course, the central message of Jesus from Nazareth is confirmed, as well:  He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.”  (Matthew 10:38-39.)

Gabe and family, thank you for reminding us that a life of suffering is not about what you can learn but what you can teach.  And thank you for teaching us all that all happiness is a choice—the choice to personify Love regardless of circumstance.

Be The Reflection of God’s Goodness

Be The Reflection of God’s Goodness

Be the Reflection of God's Goodness

Be the Reflection of God’s Goodness

Whether or not you believe the doctrine of the incarnation, one thing it clearly teaches us is that when God wants to perform his greatest miracles he does so through the instrumentality of human flesh.  This should ever remind us that we are God’s hands.  Ordinary men and women matter.  They can make a difference.  They can be instruments of kindness and generosity.  They can be the modern-day incarnation of God as they reveal his loving and abiding presence to others through their empathic kindness and thoughtful acts of service.  They can remind the world that God still exists, that there is still goodness in this world and that miracles continue to happen.

Your goodness to others reminds others that there is a God.  Be the reflection of God’s goodness.

Look someone in the eye today and tell them how much they mean to you.  Tell them why and how they have made a difference in your life.  And then say, “Thank you.”

Empathy Takes Many Forms

Empathy Takes Many Forms

Empathy Takes Many Forms
Empathy Takes Many Forms

Recently our family attended Robinhood: A Tale of Rotting Ham at the Macks Inn Playhouse in Island Park, Idaho.  If you are ever in Yellowstone Country I would highly recommend it.  The prime rib is excellent (I remember from times when I could eat and the family confirms that things haven’t changed).  And the low-brow, fun-loving mockupastiche (that’s my own word) that follows dinner is hilarious.  Think of a clean, family friendly Saturday Day Night Live skit-type genre.  Going there has now become an annual family tradition—the highlight of our annual trip to the family cabin, in fact.

As I was watching the show and thinking about how my sides hurt from laughing so hard, it dawned on me that I’ve never really told the owner (who also stars in the show) how much the show has meant to me and my family.  At the meet and greet with the cast after the show I’ve always said things like, “Great show!” or “Loved the show!”  But that’s so shallow.  It doesn’t make a connection.  It doesn’t express how much this has come to mean to me and my family.

But now that I see everyone and everything differently, I decided that this year I would let the owner know what I really thought.  I waited until all the other guests had filtered out of the theater and the meet and greet was largely wrapped up and then I pulled the owner aside.  All throughout the show I put myself in his shoes, trying to imagine the pressure of being the boss, cooking for all those people, having the pressure of entertaining them, and then cleaning up afterwards.  And he might just have to do all of this on a night when he wasn’t feeling particularly funny, when he was feeling sick, or when he was just feeling tired from the grind and trauma of life that we all experience.  I put my empathy skills to work and realized what an amazing person and performer this guy really was.

So, after the show, I told him how I felt.  I told him how hard I thought it must be to just gut it out every single night and put on a show, even when he might not feel like putting on a show.  I told him what an amazing gift he had and how much it meant to me and my family.  I told him how much I appreciated him.  He expressed some deep and sincere thanks to me.  And then I left and walked out to the parking lot to join my family.  The owner came out a few minutes later, chasing me down with some cinnamon rolls that they hadn’t been able to sell at the show.  He handed the family an entire tray of them.

As I lay in bed that night I thought about what an amazing gift of empathy this man must have.  How do you make people laugh?  You must be able to speak the language of the people.  That takes empathy.  You must find a common connection.  That takes enormous empathy.  What makes a comedian funny is that he “gets it.”  He or she hits the nail on the head with incisive, spot-on insights that tap in to our common experience.  You can’t do that without a lot of empathy.

And then I thought about how we develop empathy, and realized the eternal truth that empathy is the product of deep abiding pain, suffering, loss, hurt or grief of some sort.  Sure, with some people, it’s just a gift.  But with most, it comes the hard way.  It comes from being a single mom, being underemployed at a job where you deal with the abusive, disrespectful and ungrateful public, or suffering tragedy, illness or tremendous pain.  It doesn’t come easy.  It doesn’t come cheap.  When you think of a lot of the great “funny” people that have lived—take, for example, Robin Williams—you realize that, behind the curtain, there’s a veil of tears.  There’s deep understanding and compassion for the human condition.  And, for some, their hearts are just too enormous for the world to contain, or so it seems.

So hats off to all those of you who make us laugh!  Hats off to my friend who runs Macks Inn Playhouse in Island Park, Idaho.  Thank you for sharing your gift with the world.  Thank you for channeling your tears into a brilliant, empathic form of communication that brings us to tears, feeds our bellies, and is balm to our wounded souls.

Empathy takes many forms.  Comedy and laughter is one of the best.  Empathy is also reciprocal.  Empathizing with another person seems to provoke empathy from them.  That is how we move beyond the superficial peripheries of “polite” social discourse and drill down to the core of each other.  That is how we become built to love.  That is how we slowly and gradually build a world that is built to love.