The legend of you

Fed Ex was based on an idea Fred Smith had in college. He shared the idea in a paper, which got a C because of the idea’s impracticality. Nobody thought it would work.

In the early days of the company, it looked like the skeptics were right – it wasn’t obvious they would make it.

Sometimes drivers didn’t have enough fuel to do the whole route, so there are stories of drivers pawning their watches to get cash to fill the trucks themselves, because the packages had to be delivered.

A mentor of mine who was an early executive there said that it was not uncommon for his boss to come to them and ask how much cash they actually needed that pay period, and to ask if they could take the balance of their check in stock.

And of course, it is well known that one particular week when they couldn’t meet payroll, Fred Smith cleaned out the bank account and went to Vegas and won the money to make payroll on the craps tables.

The stories are legendary. And that’s my point.

When Smith was faced with a payroll bill he had no hope of paying, I doubt he felt like a business genius. I bet he felt like a failure. If the only way your business works involves your drivers paying out of their own pocket for the gas to do their routes, I bet that doesn’t feel like a win. Looking your executives in the eye and telling them they can’t get their whole paychecks this week can’t feel good.

No, I bet none of that processed as “winning”.

The reason I am telling you this isn’t to say that Smith didn’t quit, and quitters don’t win, and rah, rah, rah.

No, the thing I love about these stories is that now, 30 years later, Fed Ex brags about them. If you go to work there, they have people come into your orientation class to tell you the stories. They brag about the early failures, the missteps, the times it almost went under.

It has become part of the legend of Fed Ex.

Legends are funny things. They exist, and they grow over time. They are stories we tell to make sense of things that happened. In retrospect they seem almost foreordained.

Like a wise old man who has been through the war and lived to tell about it, Fed Ex has scars that taught it things, and, they believe, made it better. In fact, made it who it is. They are the stories they tell themselves about themselves. 

In the moment, however, the people those stories are happening to are not processing them as history. I bet George Washington had tons of self-doubt that freezing Christmas night when he crossed the Delaware River to surprise the enemy.  Washington’s men were starving and literally freezing to death. But now? That story is legendary.

Thinking about this idea – that failures and bad experiences are the stories that will shape us in the future – has changed how I process and deal with those bad things.

When you are going through the dark times, ask yourself, “What will I learn from this? In 20 years, how will I describe this time? If I am mentoring or talking to someone then who is going through what I am going through now, what will I tell them? What advice would I give them?”

In short, ask yourself, “How will this contribute to the legend of me?”

The Bible on my desk

The Bible on my desk is nothing to look at. It’s black leather, with gilt edges and a black ribbon to mark your place. If you were looking for a generic idea of what a Bible should look like, it would look like this one.

No, this Bible is nothing special on its own, but it is very important to me. Thoreau said the value of a things lies in what of ourselves we have to give up to obtain it. By that measure, it is one of the more valuable things I own.

It’s the King James Version – a no longer fashionable version first published in 1611, with archaic language that uses thee and thou as pronouns. In my experience, two kinds of people still use the King James Version. The first is people who grew up using it, who find the language comfortable and soothing, who relish the poetic notes as the language of devotion. The second is people who are fundamentalists, who desire a scripture that is fixed in time, an immutable authority that does not change.

I am the first sort of person. Matt was the second.

He first came in my office perhaps six years ago, just off the bus from Virginia, where his marriage had ended because of his chemical addiction. He had an ex-wife and a daughter, neither of who would talk to him, and he had been raised by a grandmother, now dead. She had given him the Bible he carried everywhere, with his name embossed in gilt on the front.

Matt would come to church and lead us in hymns he knew, which were the most strict sort, involving lots of blood atonement and proclamations of our unworthiness. He believed in a wrathful, powerful God in a way I have never believed in anything. He could cite obscure scriptures to “prove” his points, and when he was sober – which came and went – he was a kind and caring guy.

He would go away (several times) for a while in rehab, and he would write me letters filled with Biblical citations and affirmations of his complete recovery when he was released. Sadly, his aspirations always exceeded his abilities, for Matt never lasted more than a month outside of rehab before he was using again.

One day he walked into my office. He looked like hell, and had his Bible in his hand.

“Preacher, this is my Bible. My granny gave it to me when I got saved at a revival when I was a teenager. I don’t want to lose it – will you hold onto it for me?”

Of course I would.

Matt began a steady descent after that day. I wonder sometimes if the responsibility of keeping track of his one prized possession hadn’t been good for him. I don’t know – I just know that after that, he spiraled down quickly.

One day he came in, relatively sober, and asked if I still had his Bible. I told him I did, and asked if he wanted it back.

“Not yet,” he said. “You keep it for me until I am ready for it.”

That was the last time I saw Matt. He disappeared, and I later learned he had died one night in a storm, drowning in a drainage ditch while high on paint fumes.

Matt didn’t make it, but I still have his Bible. It is the Bible I use to read from daily. It serves to remind me of truths I know, but that we humans are prone to forget.

The page at the front of the book where marriages are to be recorded, that has Matt and his wife’s names written in, but her name marked through and obliterated, reminds me that things don’t always go like we wish they would. The underlined verses about the wrath of God and the power of God (but never about the love of God) remind me that people like Matt, who in this life was powerless but loving, needed a God who was what he wasn’t. The embossed cover with his name on it, a gift from his Granny, reminds me that as broken as Matt was when I knew him, he was once loved and prized by his family, and that all of us have a back story – none of us are the worst thing we have done.

But mostly, this old Bible reminds me that you don’t always win. When I read from it, I am reminded that no one ever wanted to be sober as much as Matt, and that just wanting it isn’t enough.

But I really wish it was.

Our stories matter. So tell good ones.

Life is about stories. Our lives are made up of stories, and as the computer in the Spike Jonze movie Her said, the past is a story we tell ourselves about ourselves.

Because of that, I believe that stories matter.  And sometimes, the stories we tell ourselves are the problem.

In his book The Powers That Be, the theologian Walter Wink unveiled what he called The Myth of Redemptive Violence.  This myth tells us that the way you overcome evil is with violence. That violence saves us.

This myth is pervasive. Think of the Popeye cartoons. Every single episode has the same plot:

  • Life is good.
  • Bluto desires Olive
  • Bluto tries to rape Olive
  • Olive resists, but is not powerful enough
  • Popeye tries to save Olive, but is not powerful enough.
  • Popeye eats spinach, beats the crap out of Bluto
  • Life is good again.

The way we get life to be good, Popeye tells us, is we beat the crap out of oppressors. Rambo tells us that too. So does Rocky, by the way, as does many of our movies and songs.

It isn’t just Popeye and the movies. The myth is wrapped up in US history as well.

  • The British enacted oppressive taxation – so we went to war.
  • The Southern states would not quit owning and selling people – so we went to war.
  • What ended the Great Depression? – We went to war.
  • How did we tackle poverty? Or drugs? – We went to war with poverty. And drugs. .
  • When we were victims of terrorism in 2001, what did we do? We went to war with a country that was not involved in the attack. When that did not work, we went to war with another country.

It’s why, when we hear of people who do not own guns and are not afraid, they are almost always asked what they will do if someone threatens a loved one. It is almost like we don’t have any other language for how to resolve our difficulties.

The Myth of Redemptive Violence is everywhere. So what do we do about it? Wink said that we need to tell better stories. The reason we can only imagine violent responses to evil is because those are the only stories we hear and share. Those are the stories we tell, and they become normalized. So much so that when we occasionally hear of an elderly woman outwitting her attacker by nonviolent means, we discount it, and think it cute.

But violence isn’t the only place we see false myths that reside in stories, myths that reinforce the status quo.

A contemporary example:

After midnight on Friday morning, the Senate healthcare bill died. It was super close, but because of John McCain’s last minute vote, the bill was defeated, saving the Affordable Care Act and keeping millions of people insured. That is the way the story is being told.

And it’s true, as far as it goes.

But we tell that story as if it just sprung up out of nowhere, waiting for McCain to do the right thing. He is lionized for his bravery for changing sides. John McCain as the hero of the story reinforces what my friend David LaMotte, in his book Worldchanging 101, calls the hero narrative – that the way we overcome obstacles and injustice is by having a hero lead us. A hero like Martin Luther King. Like George Washington. Like Rosa Parks. A hero like John McCain.

We want a hero. We want the story to be simple – that one man (it’s almost always a man) stood up to oppression, stood up to the powers that be, and thus overcame the darkness.

But LaMotte argued that change seldom happens because of heroes. Change mostly happens because of movements.

John McCain did a courageous thing, going against his own party and voting “no” on a bill that there was tremendous political pressure to vote “yes’. But McCain has a long history of going against his party. He is one of the most senior members of the Senate. He is 80 years old and was recently diagnosed with brain cancer, so he probably is at the end of his career. He had very little risk. He isn’t going to be fired, he doesn’t need the votes to get re-elected, and is probably going to be absent from the senate for a long time going forward as he gets treatment for brain cancer.

Those of us who are glad the bill was defeated should be glad of how he voted, but I don’t know that it is heroic.

On the other hand, Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski also voted no. But they were always clear that they were voting no. Both have much less seniority than John McCain. Both are young enough to have potentially long careers in front of themselves. Both are risking a great deal. And yet they stood firm. They made it possible for McCain’s far less risky vote to make a difference.

So, why is it that when we tell the story, the idea of a man who does the “right” thing at the last minute at very little risk to himself is a powerful narrative we wish to embrace, while the story of two women who stand their ground at great political risk, whose actions enable the man to act isn’t?

I suspect it has to do with several things, but the hero narrative is a big part of it. And in our culture, people we laud as heroes tend to be male. And when we tell the story of McCain as a hero for his vote, we reinforce the idea that heroes are males, and that the women who did the risky work that made his act possible are not doing heroic things, and are not themselves heroes.

Both Walter Wink and David LaMotte were convinced (and they convinced me) that the way we overcome the pervasiveness of these myths is to tell better stories. Tell the stories that involve the world we wish to see. Tell stories that tell the truth, that share other ways of navigating violence, stories that share other ways of enacting social change. Tell the stories about the contributions of movements, tell stories of nonviolence.

In other words, our stories matter. Our stories change things.

So make sure you are telling a good one.

Figuring out your calling

When I am working with people who want to figure out their calling (which, you may remember, is different than your job), I will give them an assignment to help them figure out their belief system, because I believe our calling is an expression of our belief system.

Here is the assignment:

Buy a cheap notebook and pen. Carry it everywhere with you for 90 days. Every day, you have to write in it at least once, answering the question, ‘What do I believe today?” Your answer can be bullet points or paragraphs, but you have to answer the question every day. If things come to you multiple times in a day, you can have multiple entries for each day.

This is what you believe about any and everything. It can run the gamut on any given day from spirituality to parenting to Marvel vs. DC comics. The entries “I believe Batman is really about a spoiled rich guy who is stroking his own ego” and ‘I believe Pema Chodron is a brilliant writer” are both equally valid as entries.

If you are at the end of the day and feeling uninspired, writing, “I believe this is a stupid assignment” is totally valid. But it’s important you do it every day, and it’s important you do it over a period of at least 90 days. You want to capture you in different situations, different moods, different seasons, even.

At the end of the 90 days, grab yourself a cup of coffee, sit in a quiet place and read the pages. Look for trends. Everyone I have done this with, the answers immediately popped out at them.

I still do this periodically. Here is a sample of various entries I made in an early notebook that pointed me to where I am now. None of this should surprise anyone who knows me, or my vocation.

Note: My examples below tend to be spiritual in nature, but they need not be. The exercise is agnostic – it doesn’t care what you believe, but I guarantee you believe something, and that your vocation is found in that belief system.

What do I believe today?

I believe scripture is best understood in community.

I believe in prayer, but I believe it most effective in community.

I believe we resist community, which is how we know we need it.

I believe God is most perfectly revealed in relationship.

I believe that my relationships reveal not only who I am, but who I want to be.

I believe that how I love “the other” is how I love God.

I believe that any hope this world has for survival, let alone redemption, is going to come about because of our ability to love each other.

I believe we are sustained by love.

I believe that the community is the smallest unit of health, and that to speak of a “healthy individual” is to speak of a contradiction in terms.

I believe all change comes about because of our relationships.

I believe God is love.

I believe community is hard. But not as hard as not having community.

I believe in original selfishness more than I believe in original sin.

I believe an ethic based on “the other” is the single greatest contribution the teachings of Jesus has given the world.

I believe love wins.


The world as it should be

Note: The following is the sermon I delivered this past Sunday at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Raleigh NC. It is also a pretty good example of applying a Christian humanist view to Christian Scripture. 

I bring greetings of Grace and Peace to you from the worshiping community at Love Wins Ministries. I am glad to be here this morning, and glad I was able to do it and allow Sasha some time away.

This is my fourth time to be allowed to speak in this beautiful sanctuary, and I am always honored (and a little amazed) that you keep having me back.

A friend of mine is a UU minister in another state, and she heard I was preaching here again.

She asked me what my text was. I told her I was preaching on the story of the rich man and Lazarus.

The phone got quiet.

“What?,” I asked.

“Hugh. That story revolves around a guy being tormented in Hell. Why on earth are you going to preach on that text in a UU congregation?”

I told her that the last time I was here I preached on Noah’s Ark, a story where God throws a fit and destroys all of humanity except one family, and y’all handled that OK, so I figured y’all could handle this one.

But seriously, I do want to acknowledge that texts like this one have been used to perpetuate some pretty horrible ideas about the Divine – about who God is and what God is like, and it has been a tool used to harm people who were on the wrong side of power.

But I keep coming back to these hard stories, because I believe there is something there for us. After all, the impoverished colonized people who originally heard these stories did not think them hard, but instead heard them and said that it was good news, which is what the word Gospel really means.

What I love about this story is that it is really two stories: a story about the world as it is, and a story about the world as it should be. This is not a story about a literal heaven and hell, as if it is some sort of Lonely Planet guide to the afterlife. No, this is a story about power and privilege and how we use it. Or, how we don’t.

Jesus tells us the story of a rich man who lives in a gated community, who is insulated by his privilege from the poverty literally at his gates.  The poor man dies and is carried off by angels, and the rich man dies and is tortured in Hades.

When they were alive, in the part of the story that concerns itself with the world as it is, the rich man was doing OK. He was rich and powerful, and wore fine imported clothes and ate sumptuous foods. We should probably point out that the story is not a condemnation of his wealth. There is no evidence that he got his money unethically. And that Lazarus went to the gates probably meant that he had been fed there before – in other words, the rich man had handed out charity in the past. He probably gave money to the PTA fundraiser at the school, and was probably a member of the Rotary club. According to the standards of the day, the rich man was a “good” man.

But the world as it is wasn’t good for Lazarus, however. He was poor. Desperately poor. And not just poor, but sick – so sick he could not keep the unclean dogs from licking his sores. And hungry. So hungry that he longed for the scraps from the rich man’s table.

Here is the truest thing I know:

When you have two groups of people – let’s call them groups A and group B – and there is a disparity between those groups, when one of those groups has more than the other, the moral and ethical responsibility for changing that disparity lies on the group with more.

Which we all agree with, right? I mean, when we look at the history of woman’s rights in the US, we don’t think that if women wanted to vote, they should have demanded it sooner. We think that it should have been put in the Constitution in the first place.  The people who already had that right should have demanded that women have it too.

Likewise, we don’t think that Lazarus should have just begged harder. No, we think the rich man should have voluntarily lifted Lazarus up. In the world as it is, the rich man had more, and should have used that excess to advocate for Lazarus in their lifetime.

But he didn’t. In the story, he isn’t in hell because he was a rich man, but because he chose to not use his excess to change that disparity.

That disparity between two groups of people – it isn’t just money we are talking about here.

Like at Love Wins Ministries, where I pastor – some six years ago, we were given the use of a building. We used it for offices and to worship in on Sunday, but most of the space sat empty during the week. And we looked around and realized that the people we knew who were homeless had no space to be during the day.

So there were two groups of people: One group had space no one was using, and the other had no space they were allowed to use. So we opened our doors and shared it with them, planting the seeds of what would become the Love Wins Community Engagement Center, a place where some 70 to 100 people who have nowhere else to go come to rest, get out of the weather and build unlikely friendships.

We don’t read this story and think that the reason Lazarus was starving was because he did not beg hard enough, or that he did not protest the injustice enough. Lazarus is not the victim of injustice because he did not speak up. No, when we hear this story, we immediately assume the rich man should have taken the initiative.

The rich man in this story is condemned because he had the power to change things, and chose not to.

So we go now in the story to the world as it should be.

The poor man is taken on the wings of angels to be with Abraham in paradise, and the rich man is tortured in hell.

The rich man is burning in hell and sees Lazarus with Abraham – apparently part of the torture is being able to see the people who are not being tortured, which is just mean, y’all – and asks Abraham to send Lazarus on an errand.  Not just once, but twice.

Do you hear that? This man, this rich, privileged man is so used to being in control that when he is being tortured in hell, when he is literally on fire, he still feels that he has the right to dictate the movements of the poor man who died of starvation at his gate while he feasted.

And in the midst of that hubris, that privilege, that power, the rich man makes demands of Lazarus, attempting to perpetuate the power dynamic. Lazarus says nothing in response to this, but Abraham does.

Abraham says “No. No, that isn’t going to happen.”

Here we again have two groups of people, and one has more than the other – in this case, more power.

And the person with more power – Abraham – sees the rich man try to use the historical systems of power and oppression against Lazarus, and he speaks out. He is a bystander who speaks out, who inserts his privilege in the gap between the rich man and Lazarus, and who, when sees an injustice be attempted, says, “No, that will not happen on my watch”.

Notice what doesn’t happen: Lazarus does not have to speak out to defend himself. It is never the responsibility of the oppressed to ask the oppressor to stop oppressing them. And in the world as it should be, they don’t have to.

No, in the world as it should be, those of us with power speak out when we see injustice happen.

In the world as it should be, those of us with excess use our excess – whether it is power or money or space or food – to make things right.

In the world as it should be, the only people punished are those who had the chance to help, but chose not to.

In the world as it should be, those who are on the side with less do not have to beg for the things they need, whether that is food or shelter or advocacy or rights, but they are given by those who have more of those things than they need.

This story presents us with two worlds: The world as it is, and the world as it could be.

And the only thing that prevents the world as it is from becoming the world as it could be is those of us with more – more money, yes, but also more power, more privilege, more time – not taking the initiative in making things right. In our not leveling the disparity.

In the world as it is right now, Lazarus is at our gates, dying of hunger while we feast. Don’t make him have to ask us. May we have the moral courage to stand up and say, “Lazarus! Come inside! Sit down and eat. We have plenty.”