Loving Your Neighbor

imgresArthur Flemming had the distinction of serving every President from Coolidge to Clinton. He was, among other things, a member of the Hoover Commission, Secretary of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare under Eisenhower, and head of the Department of Aging under Nixon and Carter.

Before entering public service, Arthur briefly considered going to divinity school.  He remained devoutly religious all of his life.  For 65 of his 92 years, he attended Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, DC, taught Sunday school during the first service and sat in the same place, at the end of the fourth pew from the back, for the second service, every Sunday he was in town.

During the week, Arthur had a standing reservation for lunch at Twigs, a restaurant near his office.   Arthur held court there, entertaining a revolving cast of regulars and a seemingly endless supply of new friends.

At least once a month while he lived, I found myself worked into the rotation.  I would receive a call from Arthur’s secretary inviting me to join him for lunch, sometimes that same day, sometimes a couple of weeks in advance. I rarely knew Arthur’s agenda, but I never turned down an invitation.

We talked about health care reform. We talked about aging. We talked politics. We talked religion. We talked about life.

On one of these occasions, Arthur began a discourse on applied Christianity.  He said the most difficult theological question for him to understand and apply was the notion of loving your neighbor.

With a wry smile, he said, “As you have undoubtedly noticed there are a lot of disagreeable people in the world.  Some of our neighbors are very difficult to like.”

Arthur found the solution to his dilemma in a sermon he heard in England during World War II – a time when the consequences of loving, as well as not loving, our neighbors were abundantly evident.

The answer, Arthur said, lies in the difference between loving and liking and the reason we do one or the other or both.

“There is no commandment to like our neighbors,” Arthur said.

In choosing to love the neighbors we do not like, we separate who we are from what we do. We can love the essence of an individual without liking the choices they have made or the way they live their lives.  We can love the sinner without approving of the sin.

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God Weeps

images-1My heart is troubled by the atrocities in Paris and the storm of darkness that is brewing around the world, pitting man against man in the name of God.

Sometimes it is hard to remember that the things that unite us are much stronger than the things that divide us.

Through the generations, from culture to culture, religion to religion, Moses to Mohammed, Buddha to Christ, whenever men ask the fundamental question of existence – Why are we here? – the answer is the same.

Christians are bound to “love one another as I have loved you.”

The Torah reminds us “deeds of love are worth as much as all the commandments of the law.”

Followers of Islam are taught, “Whosoever kills an innocent human being, it shall be as if he has killed all mankind, and whosoever saves the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind.”

The religions of the East say the same thing in different ways. Buddhists are taught to “hurt none by word or deed and be consistent in your well-doing.”

Confucius said, “He who loves best his fellow man is serving God in the holiest way he can.”

There is probably no issue with broader agreement:  There is a piece in each of us that is God’s piece. It is the part of ourselves we call our humanity.

This is the piece that responds with care and compassion. This is the part of us that reaches out with kindness and concern.

This is the part that now weeps as we are again compelled to consider man’s inhumanity to man.

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imgresIn l967, John McCain, the son and grandson of prominent Navy admirals and descendent of a Revolutionary War commander, was shot down over Vietnam. He was tortured, held in solitary confinement, and imprisoned for five and a half years. Ten years later, he was elected to the House of Representatives from the State of Arizona and then to the U. S. Senate.

McCain’s run for the Presidency in 2000 earned him the affection of millions of American who came to appreciate his honesty and the strength of his character. But whenever people talk about his courage during the war, he has always made a point of telling them about Mike Christian.

“In l971,” McCain says, “the North Vietnamese moved us from conditions of isolation into large rooms with as many as 30 to 40 men to a room. One of the men moved into my cell was Mike Christian. Mike came from a small town near Selma, Alabama. He didn’t wear a pair of shoes until he was thirteen. At seventeen, he enlisted in the U. S. Navy. Later, he earned his commission and became a Naval flying officer. He was shot down and captured in l967.”

In the cell they shared, McCain watched Christian gather pieces of cloth from the care packages sent to the prisoners of war. Christen found a piece of white cloth and a piece of red cloth and made himself a bamboo needle. Over the period of a couple of months, he sewed an American flag inside his shirt.

“Every afternoon,” McCain remembers, “ before we had a bowl of soup, we would hang Mike’s shirt on the wall of our cell and say the Pledge of Allegiance. I know that saying the Pledge of Allegiance may not seem the most important or meaningful part of our day now, but I can assure you that – for those men in that stark prison cell – it was indeed the most important and meaningful event of our day.”

One day, the Vietnamese searched the cell and discovered Mike’s shirt with the flag sewn inside. They removed it and then returned that evening, telling Christian to come out. They closed the door of the cell and beat him severely for several hours, trying to make an example of him and succeeding in a way that they could not have imagined.

When they threw Christian back in his cell, McCain recalls, his comrades tried to care for him, but everyone knew there was little they could do. He was in bad shape.

“After things quieted down, I went to lie down to go to sleep,” McCain says. “As I did, I happened to look in the corner of the room. Sitting there beneath a dim light bulb, with a piece of white cloth and a piece of red cloth, another shirt and his bamboo needle, was Mike Christian.”

Christian’s eyes were almost swollen shut. His fingers hardly worked well enough to hold the needle. But his spirit was unbroken. He was making another flag.

Through the years, millions of men and women, like Mike Christian, have fought to maintain the liberties we enjoy.   Consider this: George Washington had a total of eleven thousand men at Valley Forge. By March, a third of his men were down with typhus, smallpox, or dysentery. Half of the living had neither shoes nor shirts. In the end, Washington was left with just over 3,000 men standing and able to fight for freedom.

Nearly five million Americans served in the armed forces during World War I. Over 100,000 lost their lives. Sixteen million Americans served in the armed forces during World War II. More than 400,000 died. Fifty-four thousand Americans died in Korea and 58,000 in Vietnam. Many more have since made the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan, Iraq, and other distant places.

In his inaugural address, President Kennedy summed up this sacrifice.  He said, “Let every nation know whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty.”

Repeatedly through the years, the valor of good men and women has proven this truth. Terrible as war is, those who defend liberty know there are many things worse, and they are heartened by the knowledge life is only worthwhile when it represents a struggle for a worthy cause.

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The Circle of Life


imagesViktor Frankl was the founder of Logotherapy and the author of 32 books, including Man’s Search for Meaning, identified by the Library of Congress as one of the ten most influential books in the English language.

After reading Man’s Search for Meaning, I sent Dr. Frankl a letter expressing my admiration.  I told him I had stumbled on his book after an extensive period of soul-searching and that I wished I had found it earlier.

Man’s Search for Meaning had a profound impact on me and I told him so. To my surprise, Dr. Frankl answered my letter with a personal note raising questions which encouraged a response.  With that beginning, we exchanged letters for some time until I found an opportunity to invite him to come to America and keynote a conference I was helping to organize.

We met at the airport and I must have peppered him with a hundred questions as we drove to town.  We had an early dinner that evening and said goodnight.  The next morning, Viktor gave a stirring speech, receiving a standing ovation from the three thousand people attending the conference.

After lunch, I walked him back to his room and thanked him for making the long journey from Vienna for one speech.  I said good-bye not knowing when, if ever, I would see him again.

Early the next morning, the phone rang at my home. When I answered, I heard Viktor’s voice.  He said his return flight did not leave until late in the day and he was wondering if I would I mind coming to his hotel and spending some time with him.

We spent the entire day together and though nothing explicit was said, I could tell he was “working on me.”   Viktor had clearly thought about the questions I had asked the night before and was trying to extend my thinking.

Over the next few years, Viktor would periodically send me the text of something he was working on and ask what I thought.  The question was always phrased as though he was seeking my opinion, but I came to know it was just one more way of extending our dialogue.

One of the last things he sent me contained a portion of a chapter he was preparing for his biography. There was little Viktor left to chance and I expect there was no chance in this.

The text described his relationship with Freud.  As a young man, Frankl said he was so eager to meet this great man that he staked out a park in Vienna that he was said to frequent, hoping to see him.  Finally, his effort was blessed with success and he was bold enough to make an approach.  He described Freud as gracious, patient, and generous.  At the conclusion of their conversation Freud was kind enough to invite Frankl to send him some of his work to review.

“Before long,” Viktor wrote, “I was corresponding with Freud on a regular basis, sending him anything I thought would interest him.  He promptly answered every letter and was responsible for publishing my first treatise on psychotherapy.”

With this I came to understand the circle of life. The only way to repay those whose footsteps we follow is by helping those whose footsteps follow our own. When we are engaged in helping others, we are not so much conferring favors as canceling debts.

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What Are You Going to Do About It?

imagesLike many others, I have been profoundly moved by the Pope’s visit to America this week. What a great and Godly man.

His homily in Philadelphia today reminded me of a meeting I had with Peter Grace some twenty-five years ago. At the time of our meeting, Peter was in his nineties. He had been a CEO longer than any man in corporate history.

The grandson of the founder of W. R. Grace, Peter had taken the helm of the billion-dollar company while still in his thirties and carried the scars of some fifty years on the public stage. Grace had been lionized and vilified, praised for his visionary leadership and denounced for his aggressive business tactics. Respected, loved, and feared by his peers, few in corporate America had as much power.

To all appearances, Peter’s life was an open book. Yet, the more I learned about the man the more I found that like an iceberg the best part of him was concealed from public view. He was the leader of an ancient order called the Knights of Malta, a group dedicated to living an exemplary Christian life. He led and directed good works all around the world.

When I asked him to tell me the greatest lesson of his life, Peter said that as a boy he was tutored by Father James Keller, founder of The Christophers.

“Whenever I came to him to describe some great horror I had heard about or some injustice in the world, Father Keller’s response was always the same,” Peter said.

“As I finished describing whatever caused my concern, he would say — ‘Well, what are you going to do about it?”

This is the most persistent question in life. As Pope Francis reminds us, the crying of a child, the homeless man on the street, the neighbor in distress are all questions to which we must respond.

Every moment provides a chance. Every situation presents a challenge. Every problem is an opportunity.

Life questions man. We must answer.

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