imgresWhat do you do when one of your heroes tells you they are dying?

Brianne didn’t put it that way, of course.  She simply called to say she was going into hospice; but she knew we had enough experience with hospice to know what that means – She has a life-threatening illness and has decided not to fight it.

That didn’t sound like Brianne.

Brianne has been fighting the odds with every breath, every moment of her life.  She was born with thirteen broken bones and diagnosed with a rare bone disease called Osteogenesis Imperfecta (OI).  They said she only had a few hours to live and called the hospital priest to give her the last rites.

But somehow, Brianne made it through the night.  She kept on fighting through seemingly endless days and nights, defying the odds, until they said she was strong enough for her parents to take her home.  She was carried out of the hospital on a pillow, popsicle sticks taped to her limbs as makeshift splints.  Her family was afraid to touch her for fear of breaking a bone.

Once she was home, her parents went looking for help and found a group of physicians starting a research protocol for children with OI.  Brianne was so fragile she could break a bone by sneezing, but they encouraged her to learn to walk and challenged her to grow. And grow she did, graduating from American University and getting her masters degree from Marquette University.

But it has never been easy.

For 36 years, Brianne has faced one challenge after another.  She has had at least one surgery for every year of her life and has had – in her words – more broken bones than Evil Knievel.  But each time, whatever the challenge, she has taken it on with courage and humor.

In the process, Brianne has recalibrated my sense of what a hero looks like.  Thanks to her I have learned it has more to do with the size of your heart than the size of your body; more to do with the strength of your spirit than the strength of your muscles.  It’s not what you have that matters but what you do with what you have.  What you give to the world is more important than what you take; how you affect others, how you make them feel, is more significant and has a more of lasting impact than any material gift you can give them.

So what now?  What do you do when the doctors say there is nothing more you can do? Where do you go when they say there is no place for you to go?  Brianne was saying she is prepared to go home.

At times like these – as I can testify from a couple of close calls – you take stock of where you are and see life as seamless.  It stretches forward into the future and back beyond the boundaries of time.  There is no beginning.  There is no end.

You realize what Einstein meant when he said matter can neither be created nor destroyed.   Something cannot become nothing.  Something simply becomes something else.  The same atoms that dance in us dance in everything else in the universe. When we die, nothing ends.  The best part of our selves just learns a new dance.

What remains are footprints in time and fingerprints on the lives of those we have touched.  As long as we are remembered, we are loved.  As long as we are loved, we are indispensable and immortal.

In my heart and head, Brianne will always be with me.  I suspect there are thousands more who can say the same.

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Our Spiritual Base

imgresMan was created in God’s image. Too often, we are inclined to return the favor and in the process limit God to our own likeness.

Whether we are engaged in a national war or at a local high school football game, we pray for victory and hope to prevail, even though we know that there are an equal number of prayers on the other side, that both cannot win, and that our victory would devastate our opponent.  Some of us are so sure of our righteousness that we are bold enough to pray outright for the devastation of our enemies.  Others take it upon themselves to correct God’s mistakes and “cleanse” the world of all who do not share their passions or beliefs.

No matter how great and grave the differences between us may appear, below and above all is the eternal fact of brotherhood.  If we believe there is one God, if we believe He is the Father of us all, then no child of God can be said to be outside the pale of human kinship and no individual can be considered less human than any other.

For de Tocqueville, this spiritual base and the desire for religious freedom was the “point of departure” for the entire American experience. “It must never be forgotten that religion gave birth to Anglo-American society,” he said.

The Founding Fathers were deeply religious. Thomas Jefferson, who some say was among the least devout, had 190 religious books in his library. The Declaration of Independence he drafted speaks of inalienable rights endowed to man by our Creator.

On the backside of the Great Seal of the United States, which Jefferson also helped design along with Franklin and Adams, is a pyramid with an eye and the words “Annuit Coeptis.” Those words translated from the Latin mean – “He has favored our undertakings.”

He, of course, is God.   The phrase refers to the Founding Fathers’ belief that God favored our nation and provided for our success during America’s struggle for freedom.  During the Revolutionary War, prayer was held daily in the halls of the Continental Congress.  To this day, that tradition continues.  Every session of Congress opens with a prayer.

George Washington in his first inaugural address – the first inaugural address of a freely elected leader of a democratic nation in the history of the world – made clear his devotion to a higher power and his belief that God controlled America’s destiny.

“No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the United States,” he said. “Every step by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency.”

To de Tocqueville the significance of this relation was as much practical as it was spiritual. He saw the faith of our fathers and the institutionalization of their beliefs in our democracy as part of the genius of America, tempering and balancing the values of ambition and enterprise.

“It must be acknowledged that equality, which brings great benefits to the world, nevertheless suggests to men some very dangerous propensities,” he said.  “It tends to isolate them from each other, to concentrate every man’s attention upon himself; and it lays open the soul to an inordinate love of material gratification.  The greatest advantage of religion is to inspire diametrically contrary principles.”

“The taste for well-being is the prominent and indelible feature of democratic times,” he continued. “The chief concern of religion is to purify, to regulate, and to restrain the excessive and exclusive taste for well-being which men feel at periods of equality.”

George Washington clearly agreed.  “Of all the dispositions and habits, which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports,” he wrote.  “Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

Every President since Washington has come from a similar place of faith. In the words of President Harry Truman, “The American people stand firm in the faith which has inspired this Nation from the beginning.  We believe that all men have a right to equal justice under law and equal opportunity to share the common good.  We believe that all men have a right to freedom of thought and expression.  We believe that all men are created equal because they are created in the image of God.  From this faith we will not be moved.”

Even Calvin Coolidge, known for saying little, had something to say on this subject.  He said, “Our doctrine of equality and liberty and humanity comes from our belief in the brotherhood of man through the fatherhood of God.  We do not need more national development, we need more spiritual development.  We do not need more intellectual power, we need more spiritual power.  We do not need more knowledge, we need more character.  We do not need more law, we need more religion.  We do not need more of the things that are seen, we need more of the things that are unseen.”

Whether or not you believe America came from God, it is clear the values that shaped our democracy were founded on religious principles and, in particular, the Christian way of life.  While it has become less fashionable to talk about the role of religion in public life, its influence is constant and undeniable.

The number of religions practiced in the United States now embraces all the known religions of the world, but these differing paths to the same end only serve to reinforce the same fundamental fact.  America is still one nation, under God.

In times like these, it is worth remembering where we began.  In the words of John Adams, “Our constitution was designed only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.”

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E Pluribus Unum

imgresOn July 4, 1776, our first Independence Day, one of the first acts of the Continental Congress was to pass a resolution authorizing a committee to research and devise a National Motto, as well as a seal for the new Nation. The task of coming up with the motto and designing the seal was given to Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams.

Two months later, on, September 9, 1776, Congress gave the new Nation a name – the United States of America. The honor of naming our country belongs to Thomas Paine, who has since been called America’s Godfather.

During that same meeting, Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams reported the recommendations of their committee. They recommended “E Pluribus Unum” for a national motto – “From the Many One.” If you look on the back of a dollar bill, you will note the American bald eagle is the most prominent feature on what is the front of the Great Seal of the United States. In its beak the eagle grasps a flowing ribbon bearing that motto.

The motto reminds us that out of many states – and many different people – one nation was born. The thirteen colonies had banded together to fight a common enemy, but they had always had a separate existence.

At the birth of our nation, the concern for unity was strong enough that Benjamin Franklin felt obliged to comment on it before signing the Declaration of Independence. “We must, indeed, all hang together,” Franklin said, “or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

Many years before, John Winthrop, the visionary leader of the Puritans, recognized the challenge of unifying people with no common history, customs, traditions, or previous connection. In a speech to his fellow Puritan colonists in 1630, Winthrop defined his vision of 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,” he 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. De Tocqueville and every observer since his time has wondered how such a union could be maintained.

Fortunately, the assembly that was given the task of structuring our national unity contained some of the finest minds and arguably the noblest characters to have ever appeared in the New World. Fortunately, the assembly had George Washington as its President.

The documents they developed – the Constitution and the Bill of Rights – defined the structure of our government, our citizens’ relationship to their government, and our relationship to each other. As Americans, we are asked to balance our individual interests with the common good, our ambition with compassion, enterprise with responsibility, liberty with spirituality.

Despite the obvious success of their initial efforts, the founders of our nation continued to express concern for our unity. “The unity of government, which constitutes you one people,” George Washington said in his farewell address, “is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence…and that very liberty, which you so highly prize.”

At his inauguration after a bitter and partisan election, Jefferson said, “Let us, then, fellow citizens unite with one heart and mind.” Playing the peacemaker, he reminded the contending forces that “every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.”

Shortly after the civil war, when the strength of the union was sorely tested, a Boston magazine called the Youth’s Companion created and published a twenty-two word recitation for school children to use to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America. Understandably, the issue of unity was very much on their minds. What they created was the earliest version of what we now know as the Pledge of Allegiance.

The pledge they developed has been revised several times through the years and was not adopted officially until 1942. It was revised again in l954 when the words “under God” were added; but the focus of the Pledge in every version from the first to the last has been the request to pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and what it represents: one nation, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.

Concerns for national unity remained well into the 20th Century. President Eisenhower’s second inaugural address included the hope that we “may we know unity without conformity.”  President Kennedy in his inaugural address reminded us that “United, there is little we cannot do…Divided, there is little we can do.”  President Johnson followed suit, saying, “We are one nation and one people. Our fate as a nation and our future as people rests not upon one citizen, but all citizens.”

America is a rag-tag nation, built from the flotsam and jetsam, the scraps and misfits of the world.  At times the pieces don’t seem to fit and our individual interests, our determined pursuit of success and happiness, seems to overwhelm our sense of community. But when we are tested, as we were on September 11, 2001, at Pearl Harbor, and during the Civil War, the spirit of America rises and there can be no doubt we are one people, crying with one voice: United we stand!

At times like these, we are reminded that our true interest is a mutual interest. The doctrines that would divide us, the people that would separate us, those who put race against race, religion against religion, class against class, and worker against employer are false and doomed to fail.

Everyone is needed.  Everyone can contribute.  Individually, we may only have a small piece of the puzzle but each of us has at least one piece and every piece is essential.  This is where community begins.

Community comes when people see hope where there is fear and decide to join hands, linking themselves with others in a common cause.  Community comes when people decide not to ignore a problem or run away, but to reinforce each other and take on apathy and despair.  Community comes when we realize selfishness is at the root of all moral evils; selflessness is the goal of human existence.

The path to liberty cannot be taken until we recognize the fundamental fact that serving others is our common duty and birthright.  An individual has not started living until he or she can rise above the narrow confines of their personal interests to the broader concerns of humanity.  A nation cannot survive separate and apart.

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Happy Easter

IMG_0080I was slow to marry. From an early age, my parents had told me to choose the person I would marry carefully. They said it was likely to be the most important decision I ever made and I took their advice to heart.

I was well into my forties before I found the girl who was to become my wife but she was definitely worth waiting for. The only downside was that by the time I found her both my parents had passed away. I often wish they had a chance to meet her and welcome her into our family.

Two years into our marriage, my wife surprised me with a portrait of my parents by the noted artist Simi Knox. Working from photographs my wife provided, Mr. Knox managed to capture their likeness as vividly as if they had been there to sit for the portrait. It was one of the best Christmas presents I have ever received.

This portrait has had a place of honor and prominence in every home we have owned. Our son, Will, born four years later, has grown up with it. It was always somewhere he could see it, making it easy for me to talk about them and try to describe who they were.

One morning when he was about four or five, Will surprised me by  turning away from the television and looking hard at the portrait above the sofa where we were sitting.

He said, “You know, I knew your mother before I knew you.”

His comment seemed to come out of nowhere. It caught me by surprise.

“What do you mean”? I asked.

“We used to play together in heaven,” Will said, “before she picked me out for you.”

Tears flowed. Tears flow even now as I remember what he said and think of the implications.

Happy Easter!

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What Do You Stand For?

imgresSenator Frank E. Moss brought me to Washington. He was the last Democrat elected to the Senate from Utah, serving from l959 to l977.

Moss was a liberal in the most conservative state in the union.  So when he announced his intention to run for the Senate he wasn’t given much of a chance. Even after he easily won his party’s nomination, no one took him seriously. The Democrats’ Senatorial Campaign Committee was quick to write him off as a long shot. They saw no point in supporting his effort.

But Moss was resolute. He organized a grass roots campaign, making his case door–to–door, community by community, across the state. And, to everyone’s surprise, as the election approached Moss’ determination began to pay off. He closed the gap to the point where polls showed him within the margin of error.

At that point even his biggest doubters began to realize he might win and the DNC decided they had better reconsider. The possibility of capturing a seat in Utah was too tempting to resist. They dispatched representatives of their Senatorial Campaign Committee to offer their support.

They met Moss at the hotel where they were staying in Salt Lake City. They congratulated him on the quality of his campaign and told him they were prepared to give him whatever he would need for the media buys that would push him over the top and assure his success.

But they said there was one condition.

They said the money would come through Senator Long from the oil lobby. Moss had to promise that if he was elected they could have his vote any time they needed it.

Moss said, “No.”  He refused their support and decided to stand on his own.

Moss’ meeting with the DNC was never publicized but everyone knew what had happened by the time he arrived in Washington to be sworn in.  It earned him the respect of his colleagues and a reputation for integrity.

I can’t help wondering what he would think of the current crop of  Presidential candidates and their campaigns, the bitterness and bickering, and the charges of “liar, liar” flying back and forth.

My guess is he would say, “If you don’t stand for something, you stand for nothing.”

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