The Meaning of Love

Kafka said, “The meaning of life is that it has an end.”

The meaning of love is that it does not.

There is a piece in each of us that is God’s piece.  This is the thing we call our “soul.”

Love is the expression of the soul.  The soul expands with every act of love, every kind word, every time we see beyond ourselves and reach out to those in needs.  It contracts every time we see and don’t say, every time we turn our backs and walk away.

“God is no White Knight who charges into the world to pluck us like distressed damsels from the jaws of dragons or disease,” Nancy Mairs said.  “God chooses to become present to and through us.  It is up to us to rescue one another.”

The prayers we send to God for answers come back as questions.  God is in the distance from what is to what ought to be.  It is His voice that tells us right from wrong, offers the judgment that “someone should do something about that,” and prompts our response.  What is disclosed to consciousness is something that is.  What is revealed to the conscience is something that should be.

The call we make to a friend in need, the smile we give a stranger, our every act of kindness are all part of God’s design.  We act for God each time we respond to a need we see or sense.  Every act of love ripples out in an endless cycle of giving and receiving.

This is how the world is changed.  It’s love that acts.

Love sustains all, transcends all, makes all things possible, and all conditions of life tolerable.  Love unites us because love alone connects us by what is deepest in ourselves.  So long as we are loved, we are necessary and immortal.

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Gettysburg

Edward Everett – not Lincoln – delivered the Gettysburg Address.

Everett was a pastor and a politician who served as a Representative, Senator, Governor, and Secretary of State.  He also served as President of Harvard University.  He was 69 years old and known for his oratory.

It was four and a half months after the Union armies defeated the Confederacy at the Battle of Gettysburg.   Through the summer, General Lee had pushed northward into Pennsylvania. General Mead and the Union Army met him at Gettysburg on the 1st of July. They fought for three days.

When it was over, the battlefield was strewn with more than 50,000 bodies. To put it in perspective, nearly as many Americans died at Gettysburg in this one battle than in the totality of the ten years we were engaged in the Vietnam War.

Twenty thousand people gathered for the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on November 19, 1863.  After a prayer, Everett spoke for two hours, delivering a 13,607–word oration.

Lincoln was invited to be present at the last moment. The words of his invitation were explicit: “It is the desire that, after the Oration, you, as Chief Executive of the nation, formally set apart these grounds to their sacred use by a few appropriate remarks.”

Lincoln felt no slight and took no offense. He wanted to be there and meant to use this opportunity.  He spoke for two minutes and in those two minutes transformed Gettysburg from a battlefield into a symbol of national purpose, pride, and ideals. It only took him 272 words.

In a letter to Lincoln written the following day, Everett praised the President, saying, “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

“Four score and seven years ago,” Lincoln famously began, “our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

In so doing, Lincoln reiterated the fundamental principles of the Declaration of Independence. He followed by proclaiming “a new birth of freedom” that would bring true equality to all of its citizens.  In other words, Lincoln redefined the Civil War as a struggle not just for the Union, but also for the principle of human equality.

A hundred and fifty four years later, we still struggle.  The two great founding principles of our nation – liberty and equality – are said to be in opposition and Lincoln’s challenge remains.  We can’t help wondering how “any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”

The best way to navigate these troubled waters is to remember where we began.

In a speech to his fellow Puritan colonists in 1630, John Winthrop set the direction for our nation by defining the vision for the society he hoped to establish in the new world.  “All true Christians are of one body in Christ,” he said; “the ligaments of this body which knit together are love.  All parts of the body being thus united…in a special relation as they partake of each others’ strength and infirmity, joy, and sorrow…If one member suffers, all suffer with it; if one be in honor, all rejoice in it.”

“We must be knit together in this work as one man,” Winthrop warned.  “We must entertain each other in brotherly affection.  We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of other’s necessities…For we must consider that we shall be as a City on a Hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.”

This is a large part of what makes the United States unique in the history of the world. America is the only nation composed of people drawn from another place.  It is the only nation whose people are not connected by blood, race, culture, or original language.

The differences between us are many, but we are united by the ability to see ourselves in others and the understanding that the most selfish thing we can do is to be selfless.  One cannot succeed without another.  Our true interest is a mutual interest.

Three years after Gettysburg, Senator Charles Sumner, in his eulogy for the slain President, said Lincoln was mistaken that “the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here.” Rather, Sumner remarked, “The world noted at once what he said, and will never cease to remember it. The battle itself was less important than the speech.”

Sumner was right.  Consider this.

Up to the Civil War “the United States” was invariably a plural noun:  “The United States are a free country.”  After Gettysburg it became singular: “The United States is a free country.”

At Gettysburg, Lincoln transformed the union from a mystical hope to a constitutional reality.  He saw beyond the moment to the spirit of America.

As we are now daily reminded, the battle continues.

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Who We Are

Last month, I said, “Heroes will rise.”

Two weeks ago, I said, “We have always been at our best when things are the worst.”

These facts were clearly evident sixteen years ago.

I still remember walking the sacred ground near the World Trade Center in the aftermath of the tragedy there. Many images were burned into my mind but the one that endures is the memory of men and women in uniform – rescue workers and medical technicians – methodically moving through the destruction, sorting through mountains of debris.

It was as if the planes that struck the towers opened a window to our soul. Heroes emerged.

All they did is what they were called to do – and what they were called to do was often nothing more than their jobs. It was the extraordinary ordinariness of their efforts that was most compelling.

They had no grand designs or elaborate plans. The scope of their effort was the length of their arms. Their long-term plan extended no further than the nearest burden. Yet, in the process of simply doing what needed to be done, millions of pounds of concrete, metal, and glass, were moved – one piece at a time.

In the months that followed, seventy percent of all Americans made a contribution to the relief effort – a response unprecedented in world history. More than 60 percent of all Americans made a financial contribution to the relief effort.  Many others volunteered time, gave blood, opened their homes, and contributed household items and supplies.

If we needed further proof of who we are, we got it last week in the response to Hurricane Harvey.  We are already starting to see it again in response to Hurricane Irma.

More than 17,000 people were rescued during Hurricane Harvey in East Texas. Significantly, many of the rescuers were neighbors and volunteers who simply did what needed to be done.  Since then, millions have been raised for the relief effort.

Hurricane Irma left some 6 million people in Florida without power.  We saw the utility trucks coming to help – some from as far away as Indiana and Las Vegas – before the storm had even cleared the state.

It will take years to recover, but we will be there for them.

That’s who we are. That’s what we do.

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Grace

Peter Grace was the grandson of the founder of W. R. Grace and Company.   Peter took the helm of the billion-dollar company while still in his thirties and ran the company for 48 years.  He was the longest serving CEO of a public company.

When I asked him to tell me his greatest life lesson, he surprised me by saying 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.  We were born, America was born to respond.

It is no accident the Declaration of Independence begins with these words:  We the people. It is a claim of right and responsibility.  We have to say something.  We have do something.

And we have the power.

Consider the possibilities of our lives:  The average life span in America today is 78.74 years. In seventy-eight years there are about 28,740 days.  If we reach out to just two people a day, each of us could touch more than 57,480 lives – that’s 57,480 lives we can improve with a kind word, 57,480 lives we can brighten with something as simple as a smile, 57,480 lives we can change with some small gift of ourselves.  And each of the lives we touch can reach out and touch a similar number – 57,480 times 57,480 – in a geometric progression without end.

This is how the world is changed.  Your smile, your smallest kindness affects the universe.

God clearly doesn’t not intend for us all to be celebrated, popular, or famous, but we are all born rich.  We are abundant in our opportunities to act on behalf of each other.

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

At every moment, we have a choice:

Do we want to add more love to the world or less?

Do we want add more honesty to the world or less?

Do we want to add more forgiveness to the world or less?

Do we want to add more gratitude to the world or less?

Do we want to add more justice to the world or less?

Do we want to be part of the community of hope or give in to fear and despair?

We shape the world by our response.   America is and always will be what we are.

 

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Brothers

My brother, Val, passed away two weeks ago.   He was my big brother, big in every sense of the word.

Val was 6 feet tall when he was 12. He finally topped out at 6’ 4”.  I was three years younger and of average height – if not a little small for my age.  I didn’t reach my full height until college.

During our early years, we tried to kill each other on a regular basis.  We fought, as brothers do, about everything and anything.

One of our on-going quarrels had to do with the light in the bedroom we shared.  I was a voracious reader.  I would start a book and stay up until I finished it, often reading far into the night.  Val complained the light kept him awake and responded by opening our bedroom window, letting in mosquitoes, moths, and half of flying creation.  I would tell him to close the window.  He would tell me to turn out the light.  Often or not, a fight would break out somewhere in between.

One night I fell asleep with the light on.  Val got up to turn off the light and noticed my mouth was open.  Out of irritation, he took the opportunity to teach me a lesson.  He caught a live moth and dropped it in my mouth.  I woke with a start and then threw up on him.

Largely, we entertained our selves by aping whatever we saw on television or in the movies. We watched wrestling with our grandfather so when my brother grabbed me by the seat of my pants and threw me into a corner bedpost, splitting my head open, I knew what to do. I hit him with a folding chair.  Chipped two teeth.

When we saw Clark Gable playing a big game hunter catch a tiger in a Burmese tiger trap, we thought that was pretty cool and had to give it a shot – never mind Burma was on the other side of the world and no one could remember the last time anyone saw a Tiger in Utah.  We dug a pit in a vacant lot between our house and the Parmaleys – our neighbors to the left – and camouflaged it with weeds and dirt.  Two days later, we were excited to see the trap had been sprung and disappointed when we found the pit empty.  We decided we hadn’t dug the hole deep enough until we found out Mrs. Parmaley had fallen in and broken a leg.

The movie Ivanhoe inspired us to organize our own jousting tournament.  We invited the entire neighborhood to compete.  We cut off the end our mothers’ brooms, sharpened the ends as best we could, and rode full tilt at each other on our bikes, trying to unseat each other.  It is a wonder we didn’t kill someone.

Westerns were far and away our favorite form of entertainment.  When we weren’t watching cowboys and Indians, we were played cowboys and Indians.  Once Val let me be the cowboy, a treat because everyone knows the cowboys always win.  My excitement disappeared with I found myself “tied to the stake” in the coal shed.  Val piled some kindling at my feet, lit a fire, and left when mom call lunch.  I wriggled free and joined him without thinking much more about it until the fire department arrived.  We burned the coal shed to the ground.

The fighting diminished as we got older and stopped when Val went off to college.  I followed him to Washington and attended GWU for no better reason than Val was there. He was a political science major.  I became a political science major.  He went to law school.  I went to law school.  And, of course, we both went to work on Capitol Hill.

Marty Walsh, our friend of long-standing, gave me his perspective on our relationship last week.  “You and Val were more than brothers,” Marty said. “You were each other’s inspiration.  He was Butch Cassidy, you were the Sundance Kid.”

In many ways, Marty is right.  When Val wanted to test the quality of care in Medicaid clinics, I was the one who led a team of investigators posing as Medicaid patients for a year while Val provided political cover for the effort.  When Val said it would be neat if we could get a look at the second set of books we knew suspect clinics kept, I was the one who found a clinic for sale in the Bronx, posed as a buyer, and tried to get a look at the real books, winding up with a mobster taking me for an enlightening ride in his car, his German Shepherd sitting on the floor between my legs, his head inches from my crotch.

At one point, we held parallel positions at the House and Senate.  Val was Counsel and Director of Oversight for the Democrats in the House.  I held the same position working for the Republicans who controlled the Senate.  A hired gun came into my office with his tail in a bunch one morning.  He said those guys on the House side were giving his client a hard time.  I asked him if the lead investigator was a big guy and he said, “Yes.”  Was he tough and aggressive?  “Yes. Yes.”   Sure sounds like my brother, I said. I wouldn’t mess with him if I were you.   We never saw him again.

When one of the six trade associations representing the home health industry approached Val looking for an executive director, he recruited me.  Four years later, when we merged these associations into the National Association for Homecare, I recruited him.  Two years later, he recruited me to run a related foundation.  In all, we worked side by side for more than 30 years.

As I think of Val now, the words of Henri Nouwen come to mind. “The great challenge remains to find the eternal in the midst of the temporary,” Nouwen said, “to touch what remains in what passes and to love the ever living God in the love of the quickly passing family of people.”

Amen to that, Big Brother.  Rest in peace.  Life pulled us apart from time to time, but we were always at our best when we were together.  We will be together again.

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