Seeking the Lost

The Ides of April has a different meaning for me than the unpleasant apprehension it provokes in most Americans. Even with a generously delayed tax-filing deadline, April 15 induces a certain panic in the hearts and minds of most people, which is far more pervasive than any virus. For no one is immune and no one can remain asymptomatic when it comes to confronting the taxman.

For me April 15 is a date sadly noted for a far more compelling reason. It is and will always remain the anniversary of my father’s passing, now approaching 30 years in memory. I was with him when he died and the sightless gaze of his spiritless body mimicked our relationship. The silence in the room where I stood at his bedside affirmed how little I knew of the man who said little and revealed less about his life. What I did know is that he was a union man to the very marrow of his being and his singular pursuit of securing for his fellow union members a fair wage for honest labor brought him into a brief period of prominence and a confrontation with one of the more notorious characters in the history of organized labor.

The Netflix movie, The Irishman, with its focus on what happened to Teamster president Jimmy Hoffa, reminded me of a story my mom once told me about dad’s encounter with this infamous union leader. The extent of that story, or the extent of her willingness to tell it, is that 1) Hoffa was trying to bring the Bakery and Confectionary Worker’s Union, of which dad was an officer in Local 37,  into the fold of the Teamsters and 2) dad, along with his allies, took a stand against that maneuver.

There was one very distinct element of her story that I do vividly recall. She said that dad called Hoffa at an airport and told him not to catch his flight to Los Angeles for a meeting about the takeover. Dad’s defining statement during that call was to inform Hoffa “There’s nothing for you here in LA.” Hoffa consequently cancelled his trip and the Baker’s union kept its independence. Mom, on the other hand, worried that a bomb placed under our family car would be Hoffa’s definitive response.

All the hype surrounding the release of The Irishman, particularly its questionable reliability in terms of historic accuracy, garnered my interest. The Hoffa name has that affect given the story my mom told me all those years ago. Fortunately a little research revealed the nearly simultaneous publication of a new book by Jack Goldsmith entitled In Hoffa’s Shadow. In his book the Harvard Law School professor tells his own story, which involves a difficult relationship with his step-father, Charles “Chuckie” O’Brien, Hoffa’s one-time driver and close friend. Chuckie really did have the personal relationship claimed for the character of Frank Sheeran in The Irishman. He also became one of the FBI’s top suspects as a willing participant in Hoffa’s disappearance and likely execution.

Goldsmith’s book is a fascinating, well researched account of Hoffa’s rise to power and its personal impact on Goldsmith’s family. The reliability of his story impacted mine as well. First he gave credence to another one of my mom’s abbreviated comments about my dad’s career. This one involved his trip to Washington D.C. to testify before a Senate committee of which then Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy was a member.

Mom merely mentioned this episode in passing when Kennedy was elected President in 1960. I guess Kennedy’s new-found celebrity seemed to burnish dad’s reputation as a union leader of a reform movement. Goldsmith affirmed her vague comment with his account of Arkansas Senator John L. McClellan’s chairmanship of the Select Committee on Improper Activities in Labor and Management, formed in 1957. Senator Kennedy was a member of that committee and his younger brother, Bobby, was its chief legal counsel. Hoffa and the Teamsters were their principal target, but dad’s union, the Bakery and Confectionery Workers, came under scrutiny as well due the corrupt practices of its own president.

The second affirmation Goldsmith unintentionally bestowed upon my mother’s minimal comments about dad’s work was his reference to Hoffa’s tactics of organizing the various shops the Teamsters served, which at that time was any business that received goods or sent products by truck. This put the bakery and confectionary trades in his sights and, by mom’s account, the Secretary of Local 37 in Los Angeles – dad.

In one way we were very much like a mafia family. We were taught not to ask questions. It was a rule of our house to never ask dad about his work and he, in turn, never volunteered anything to us. But mom did manage to leak a modicum of information, probably because she could never keep a secret for very long. Still, she managed to divulge these two insights into my dad’s career without revealing the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Her brevity, not to be confused with discretion, had to be enough to satisfy any curiosity we may have had – at the time. Now is different.

Enticed by the publicity surrounding Martin Scorsese’s questionable account of Hoffa’s execution and the in-depth reporting by Goldsmith for his book, In Hoffa’s Shadow, I did what any red-blooded American son would do. I went on-line to do my own research. This took me, by way of Wikipedia, to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) website. I honestly didn’t get very far on my own, but the opportunity to query a NARA staff member and solicit her professional help produced an initial favorable response about the existence of the McClellan Committee’s records. But then the shutdown came as part of the attempt to slow the spread of the Covid-19 virus, which in turn paralyzed my effort at discovering further evidence about dad’s role in the Committee’s investigation and potentially his confrontation with Hoffa.

The occurrence this past week of April 15 on the calendar served as a sad reminder of personal loss of a kind, which is greater than any tax liability. The prospect of lifting a corner of the veil surrounding my father’s career in tandem with observing the anniversary of my father’s death was tantalizing, but apparently futile. The lock-down will pass. So if I am patient my search can resume whenever the backlog of NARA’s caseload allows. Until then I must content myself with what I know thus far thanks to the creative genius of others entwined in the Hoffa tale, as am I.

Next Week: An Unexpected Find

Resolute

I would have faith to keep the path Christ trod

This week’s quote is the twelfth and final line from the poem I have relied on to discuss a collection of character traits identified by the poem’s author, Harold Arnold Walter. He was a divinity student at Princeton University, whose 1905 poem written to his mother as a Christmas present became the source of my pirated inspiration.

I learned about the poem when I found it nestled amongst songs of praise in a Christian hymnal. It struck my fancy as the content was something of an outlier; focusing on self and the internal qualities one hopes to possess like some virtuous miser. Its compatriots in that collection of songs were distinctly outward looking; songs of praise and adoration of another transcending one’s self.

Walter’s poem became a popular hymn thanks to the musical talents of Joseph Yates Peek, a Methodist lay-minister, but only after the content was altered by a Congregational Minister, Ralph Harlow, who claimed that the deceased Walter visited him in a dream, beseeching him to finish the poem.

My aspirations as a wannabe historian rejected Harlow’s alterations in preference for working with the original material. If I have shown the attribute of being faithful, it is only evident in my presentation of the poem as written, one line at a time.

Walter divided his poem into three stanzas of four lines each. With these twelve lines, he made what are in essence twelve pledges to his mother, each line highlighting a specific character trait and its significance in his life. Actually he specifically mentioned only seven traits, those of being true, pure, strong, brave, friendly, giving and humble. He also listed five commitments he would always undertake in how he lived his life. These five I have liberally interpreted as also requiring him to be optimistic, faithful, devout, persistent and now resolute.

Unless you’re Nicolas Cage citing HMS Resolute as holding an important clue in the discovery of hidden wealth (see his movie National Treasure: Book of Secrets), you likely have never used the word resolute in a complete sentence. It is a once popular word that has fallen out of favor, but that is the common trend with most aspects of character. Personality prevails in our postmodern world.

When we do use words like optimistic, faithful, devout, persistent and resolute there is an obvious overlap in their meaning. The more nuanced concept of being resolute, however, can be seen in Walter’s stated commitment to keep the path Christ trod. That path has one singular destination. We call it Calvary. Walter’s pledge entails doing the charitable services Jesus performed with the understanding that such actions can prove to be fatal.

Whether we literally become martyrs to the cause or simply make personal sacrifices in denial of self, there are potentially negative consequences to our actions, no matter how good and compassionate our intentions may be. Being resolute means pursuing the goal despite the cost. The life-long commitment means not to turning back, giving up or giving in.

I dwell on such things because I think character is key to a life well lived. And for me it reveals an exquisite irony. For while the pursuit of character requires constant self-examination in order to hold ourselves accountable to our pledges and commitments, the end result tends towards a life of service to others Internally strengthened, we use our gifts for the benefit of those we encounter be they family, friends, colleagues, teammates or strangers in need.

This is the path that Christ trod, all the way to Calvary and consequently an empty tomb. May you be blessed as you ponder the significance of this week’s Easter observances.

Persistent

I would be strong to follow where He leads me

One of the challenges we face in life is coping with a sense of futility. No matter how hard we work or what we accomplish with our work, it is never enough. Goal setting is a must to be a competent manager of people, processes and events. But achieving the goal is a temporary state, leaving us with a dispirited sense of what now? It is especially troubling when you are young and have many more career years ahead of you.

For myself, I know that I am prone to depression after each success. The passion one feels in the pursuit is absent once the goal is attained. There is a definite high for me in working the process; intermediate steps change the conditions, which in turn require continued analysis and adjustments in tactics to fulfill the strategic purpose. Tension and stress can be ironic indicators of a vibrant life in all its exhilarating glory. Hence the definite low once the process is concluded and the stress is relieved. Emptiness follows.

I know of others who suffer the same fate, but for a different reason. All their hard work never completely solves the problems they’ve attempted to remedy. Not everyone can be cured or fed or housed or clothed and the task becomes an endless echo of rolling one’s mammoth stone up a steep hill. They can never solve all the world’s problems and reach a point of bliss in the ultimate completion of their work. There is always another mouth to feed or a homeless soul to shelter.

What is needed for psyches like ours is a change in focus, the development of a trait which finds contentment within itself. Persistence may be that trait. Not giving in or giving up is the antidote for the dispirited attitude which follows the realization that the hoped for destination is merely a way station on the path of life.

Persistence is what I have labeled this week’s character trait, inspired by the 1905 poem written by Howard Arnold Walter. His line about having the strength of will to follow another without fail is what I regard as the strength to persevere despite the difficulties encountered. The ideal is to allow persistence to be its own perpetual reward, transcending accomplishments as merely the evidence of a character trait immune to failure.

Walter’s poem was divided into three stanzas of four lines each and we are now in the third line of that third stanza. What he proclaims in this final act of his composition is to be faithful and devout, to which I am now adding the concept of being persistent. It’s a sequence of related parts, one building on another to craft a self-sustaining quality of dependability we all can emulate. But Walter, the Princeton divinity student held to one further feature we must acknowledge here. His faithfulness, devotion and persistence focuses on the God of the Bible; the One who is omniscient (all knowing), omnipotent (all powerful) and immutable (unchanging). Walter’s course was thereby set by the One who can see eternity and is never subject to our frail encounter with the fleeting nature of success.

Walter’s worldview represents a true change of focus in which purpose without end ensues.

Devout

I would constantly be in touch with God

Last week I wrote about the attribute of being faithful. The theme applies this week as well, but with a more poignant purpose behind it. The quote I am addressing this week is about the character trait of being devout, which stems from one person’s faithful devotion to God.

If you have been following this series of messages, then you know I am using the lines of a 1905 poem, written by a Princeton divinity student, Harold Arnold Walter. His twelve-line composition highlighted those traits he thought essential to a fully developed character. And since they were presented one per line, it seemed like a viable crutch to help me stay current in my writing exercises by prompting me to express my own thoughts, one trait per week. It didn’t work as there was a sizeable gap in time between lines eight and nine. But now we are back on track, fully devoted to finishing this series.

The traits I have written about thus far have included being true, pure, strong, brave, friendly, humble, optimistic and faithful. Now it is the quality of a devout spirit.

Our devotion can apply to any relationship. We can be devoted to others, who share our mortal nature, but we tend to reserve our concept of devotion to being solely or primarily related to our reverence to a higher power of whatever spiritual construct you prefer. Proof of this viewpoint, if there is any, can be found in Merriam Webster’s on-line dictionary, which defines devout as being 1: committed or devoted to religion or to religious duties or exercises or 2: expressing piety or religious fervor.

This is the perspective in the heart of the author I have relied on to supply the inspiration for this series of messages. His poem, which became the basis of a Christian hymn, was written as a Christmas gift for his mother. His devotion to her exemplified by the pledges made in his poem serve as an example that such a trait as being devout can be focused on another human. Moms seem to excel as the recipients of this type of adoration.

Such refined affection for a family member, friend, colleague or cause is how we learn what it means to be devout in any of our commitments to someone or something outside of ourselves. We practice on those we can see as the basis for forming our faith in and devotion to what we cannot. Constancy of purpose becomes the measure of our devotion in what I believe to be the pursuit of intimacy in a relationship. We need to be known as well as to know and the quality of being devout is the pathway along which this exchange takes place.

Staying connected with someone – despite divorce rates and the imposition of self-quarantine due to viruses  – is our ideal. Devotion has no obstacles as was once adamantly proclaimed … neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Faithful

How ironic for me personally to resume my web log messages with a statement about being faithful. I started a few months ago to write a message each week based on a 1905 poem, which became for a time a popular hymn. The original poem, entitled I Would be True, consisted of three stanzas of four lines each. Each line promoted a specific character trait important to a Princeton divinity student by the name of Howard Arnold Walter.

I admired the poem because it seemed out of place in a Christian hymn book. Virtually all of the other compositions were about praise and adoration for an infinite being defined in many ways stemming from his role as the Maker of the Universe. Walter’s poem/hymn was about self and listed the twelve character traits he no doubt felt essential for a follower of Jesus as the reconciler of that Universe to its creator.

I thought it advantageous to write about this list of traits one at a time, keeping me on track with my hope of maintaining some discipline with my intention of writing daily. Twelve topics conveniently provided to me through this poem would take me through three months, establishing a firm habit of committing time and talent (the latter being quite limited) in compliance with that imagined discipline.

My mission failed, however. I have not posted anything since mid-January. That is a lapse of about the same number of weeks as I had faithfully followed through the first eight messages written and posted, most without any obvious clerical errors. Now here I am writing again, but faced with the bigger challenge of sounding credible about the subject of faithfulness.

Perhaps I should begin with the honest statement that I have little of it myself. The evidence at hand attests to that fact. Second, I should also admit that I admire others who possess this trait in the same way I admire people with artistic talents; musical, lyrical and visual.

Walter wrote, I would be faithful through each passing moment. It provides an interesting contrast to consider as faithfulness is portrayed as being steadfast, while the moments are persistently pictured as being transitory. The implication is that circumstances, like the moments, persistently change as well and the quality which best addresses the good and the bad residing in those circumstances are best met with a faithful attitude. The resolve is not to change in character even when circumstances dictate that we change in the malleable aspects of our determination to be. It is an adjustment in our short-term tactics while remaining faithful to our long-term strategic purpose.

In these trying times, keep the faith. These are but our passing moments from which we should aspire to emerge faithful.

Optimistic

I would look up, and laugh, and love and lift

My weekly messages have been following the lead of a 1905 poem written by a Princeton divinity student, Howard Arnold Walter. The one-word title of each message has been based on a character trait specifically mentioned in the lines of Walter’s poem. But this week contains a subtle departure from the routine of the previous seven messages. The title this time is of my own making, since the poem has its own subtle departure from the norm. Instead of identifying a singular trait, Walter listed four actions to define the outward expression of his life; to look up, to laugh, to love and to lift.  

With this lilt of alliteration, we have what I regard to be the unstated virtue of optimism, hence the title. I base my decision on the simple premise that such actions, as the four stated here, require an intentional commitment on our part to first develop a positive attitude. Without this type of heart-felt outlook on life the many disappointments we encounter almost daily will overwhelm us before we even attempt to look up, laugh, love and lift. And while these four things can be done without any hint of sincerity, they lose their true purpose when they lack an honest enthusiasm. For while all can be faked, they will lack the power to generate a collaborative sense of trust between us and the people we seek to influence with our words and works of encouragement.

To look up likely had a double meaning for Walter. Up is the location we conveniently assign to the kingdom of God in the heavenly realms, which bear no relationship to the heavens of our solar system. Looking up for Walter would be to fix his thoughts and aspirations on the source of his optimism. It would also suggest the selfless nature of his purpose by indicating a hope beyond human manipulation. For some this smacks of pie-in-the-sky fortitude, a myth needed to assuage the miseries of life. For others like Walter, it is the process by which we discover the evidence of things not seen, the substance of things hoped for.

To laugh is not always an easy thing to do. Hard times can generally make it difficult to avoid sounding dismissive or derisive in our laughter. But our sense of humor need not fail us even then. One of the most pleasing and infectious things we can do is smile. This is not a laugh, but its origin is the same. And it provides a similar tonic with less noise.

To love, especially for someone like a divinity student, means the ultimate in self-denial and sacrifice. It’s most splendid definition was written by the Apostle Paul, who termed it the greatest thing in the world. His soliloquy, written to a small group of faithful in the Greek city of Corinth, is the gold standard by which we can know what it means to love. His list of love’s attributes is like an ethereal string of pearls. Love is patient, kind, truthful, protective, trusting, hopeful, persevering and more. In the Christian belief system embraced by Walter, love never fails.

To lift follows the other three virtuous actions. It is an act of service best performed when we believe in a positive source outside of ourselves, allowing us to laugh in spite of our circumstances and performed with the grace that comes from a self-denying love for others. To lift has the power of improving the physical condition of others at our own expense or to change their outlook by way of a kind, encouraging word. People need someone to help them cope with disappointments, which are pervasive in this life of ours. This relentless encounter with the demons of discouraging circumstances means that there is no end to the challenge of “lifting” the spirits of others, which fortunately has the retroactive process of lifting our own. This level of service can take us beyond the easier challenges of improving physical difficulties to the deeper challenges, when we consider what it takes to lift another’s hopes, dreams and aspirations. The burden is heavy, but the lifting is sorely needed.

Walter was not a strong person physically. He died at a young age due to a weak heart. But this did not prevent him from setting an aggressive emotional regimen for himself. His was a daily habit of looking up, laughing, loving and lifting impelled by a sense of optimism, proved to be an impressive exercise for a person frail of body, but strong of mind and soul. His legacy is intact through his written word, another exercise, though one residing outside the poetic form of his own alliterative devise.  

Humble

I would be humble, for I know my weakness

If you are anything like me then the concept of humility, the quality of being humble, has forever been made unctuous by one of my favorite authors, Charles Dickens. He achieved this less than stellar feat through the creation of his miscreant character Uriah Heep. In the book and in the many portrayals on film of the Dickens’ classic, David Copperfield, this most loathsome villain feigned humility, while all the while conniving to destroy his gracious employer, Mr. Wickfield, both financially and personally.

Heep’s actions were discovered to be all the more venal as the plot literally thickened (and sickened) through the revelation of his plan to marry Wickfield’s beautiful, pure, devoted and courageous daughter Agnes. Fortunately Dickens’ own sensibilities would not allow this to happen even in a fictional world and Uriah got his comeuppance in the end to the delight and satisfaction of us all. Still, I cannot help but envision a “humble” person as someone who presses their sweaty palms together and contorts their body when speaking like a snake in hot ashes.

If Dickens is not to your taste in wholesome entertainment, then you might still subscribe to the idea that we as a people also confuse humility with humiliation. None of us want to feel the shame of being called out by some pretentious person of self-anointed superiority. So we carefully construct our own persona of thick skinned, tough minded arrogance to prove ourselves invulnerable to the visceral destructive power of humiliation. In fact we are likely to take it to a different level entirely and regard a self-effacing person with contempt. Everyone knows that nice guys finish last and that tough guys don’t self-efface. They don’t eat quiche either, supposedly.

We are now seven weeks into a series of messages based on a poem written in the early 1900s by Howard Arnold Walter. He was a graduate of Princeton University with a divinity degree. His career goal was to be a missionary, but his poem was written while serving as a teacher in a university in Japan. His creation was a Christmas gift for his mother and reads like a son’s vow to live by the virtues learned at home and enhanced by his university education.

I am blatantly making use of his private communications with his mother (you can blame her for outing him by having the poem published) as the means to adhere to my self-inflicted discipline of writing and posting a weekly message. The poem’s twelve lines, each advocating a different character trait, have provided me with a readymade series of subjects on which to pontificate. Humility, or the quality of being humble, is part of this sequence, along which path we have already considered the value of being true, pure, strong, brave, friendly and giving.

Walter’s motive for being humble is unique. It is not based on the external benefit of helping others, like the previous virtues in his list, but on an internal awareness of a singular weakness. His discretion, perhaps, prevented him from naming that weakness or it could be that a more distinctive revelation did not fit into the rhythm of his poetic form. Its appeal to the reader’s imagination, in this case mine, for solving the mystery of the anonymous weakness is that Walter is quite intentional in stating that his need for humility is defined by a single negative trait. And the trait he had in mind was most likely the opposite of humility, which is pride.

It goes before a fall; another cliché we often employ in our explanations of life. It retains this easy reference status because we know it to be true. Our pride leads to our downfall, if only in the form of embarrassment incurred when we obstinately hold to an opinion or task, when the evidence indicates we should yield our grasp on our private reality and accept an alternate course in our thinking. The difficulty is that we hate to be proven wrong, so pride of place wins out and we willingly accept a lesser benefit as long as it is of our own making.

In my professional career I learned to endure a number of proud, influential people. My preference, though, was to work with those who listened before they talked, encouraged ideas to be shared that were not their own, and found a way to graciously defer to others in light of a more compelling idea and line of action. In other words I preferred working with humble people. The results were often favorable and when you are sitting in the executive director’s chair, favorable results are desirable. They tend to put money in the bank, burnish your image as a leader, and create goodwill among those who shared in an organization’s success. In other words, everyone is happy except for the Uriah Heeps of the world.

I agree with Walter that the goal of being humble is desirable. My aversion to the image of Dickens’ vile villain causes me to applaud this particular character trait by other names; modest, unpretentious, respectful and unassuming. I also accept that humility has little value in a world that praises celebrity. But for those who disdain the spotlight and want to pursue the less notorious road of promoting the common good with little personal glory or fanfare, being humble is the gold standard of a well-lived life.

Giving

I would be giving, and forget the gift

During my career as a not-for-profit manager I dealt with a lot of issues pertaining to the concept of giving. This is because non-profits exist as the result of giving, both monetarily as well as in-kind. Their very survival is determined by the ability of staff to attract donors as financial partners and volunteers.

Seeking the type of person who possesses a charitable, giving spirit is likened to a courtship. It requires a slow molding of a relationship, which results its own kind of yielding intimacy. Fund raisers prefer to be called development directors because of this dynamic. It indicates the kind of process one goes through in building relationships with prospective donors, whose wealth provides the allure for engaging in such a protracted effort without the guarantee of success.

One of the first lessons you learn as a development director is what many believe to be the cardinal rule of fund raising; people give to people, not abstractions. No matter how meaningful your mission or finely crafted your vision statement, the personal relationship creates the path along which donations ultimately follow.

The corollary to this premise is that people give more to the people they know or the people they know of. The use of celebrities to endorse an organization’s program verifies the power of relationship building, even those crafted around what is in essence a business proposition. Without the ability to attract donors, the average development director’s professional life expectancy is less than two years. It is a harsh business despite its seemingly loving veneer.

My purpose in writing, though, is not to offer a crash course in fund raising. Rather it is to continue my examination of the character qualities advocated in a poem by Howard Arnold Walter, a 1905 Princeton graduate. The poem is one he wrote for his mother as a Christmas present. Its structure is something a mother could certainly love and others, like me, appreciate. For the poem’s twelve lines each espouse a character trait, whose value is seen in its positive impact on those around us. No doubt these traits were learned at home during Walter’s youth and enhanced by his university education as a divinity student.

Walter likely did not see himself as a development director, but his commitment to giving runs parallel to what I learned as a non-profit manager, who was responsible for fund raising. And our kinship in this area goes even deeper as I learned many of these same virtues at home in a caring Christian family. We are brothers in spirit if not in our career paths or other aspects of our respective lives.

We both know that a gift is by definition a no-strings attached transaction. We also know that there are ways to defeat this designation. In my world you could restrict a gift or make it conditional, thereby exercising some control over its use, making control the return on what more accurately proves to be an investment, not a gift. For Walter the string he sought to avoid was the expectation of something being offered in return.

At its most fundamental level this expectation is a statement of gratitude. The misfortune here is that it puts the recipient in a subservient role. The gift becomes a wage for which an act of service is required. Higher up the scale of anticipated returns is that of a favor. The recipient earns their wage by providing a product or service as a consequence of the initial “giving”. This is an immoral exploitation of a natural response. We as humans feel an inherent debt when we receive a gift. Many fund raisers send their probing “gift” in the form of mailing labels, note cards, and even money such as a nickel for us to use in making our response; typically a cash donation to an organization with which we have no other connection but that nickel. This is the bait for them to set their hook into a prospects charitable conscience. It is manipulative. And this is the very thing Walter vowed to avoid.

True giving is done without the thought of getting something in return, even a word of gratitude. Walter’s pledge to give without thought of repayment requires this type of perspective. And for him it follows the other attributes he vowed to carefully cultivate in order to be authentic as a compassionate human being; true, pure, strong, brave and friend. It is a path worthy of our efforts to honestly follow.

Friend-ly

I would be friend to all – the foe, the friendless

Growing up I always had people my age, who I regarded as friends. Those relationships focused on one thing – play. At school or in the neighborhood, we all craved the wonderful outdoor climate of Southern California in the 50s and made the most of our free time at recess and after school. No matter the game, we had fun.

As I got older the nature of my friendships changed. My athleticism was strictly recreational. I was just as exuberant and competitive as before, just not as skilled as those who were pursuing athletic scholarships and talked about going pro someday. I might have dreamed of playing centerfield for the Dodgers, but knew that such a fantasy is what dreams are made of.

Not surprisingly, girls started to enter my friends’ network without any regard for their athletic prowess. Form and face and blonde hair topped my criteria list. A gentle spirit was appealing as well. That such a belle failed to take any interest in me meant my social calendar was fairly empty.

By the time I entered high school all of my former playground friends were gone. We were part of that generation, whose parents had moved to Southern California following World War II, bought their first home in the suburbs and then moved to more affluent neighborhoods as their fortunes improved. For me the loss was disastrous. It was essentially a blow to my identity as a rowdy, fun-loving kid, who could be found running around the neighborhood enjoying life to the max. The gang was no longer “all here.”

My own bad fortune changed one day when I saw a moving van drive by and stop about four houses down from where I lived. The next day there was a new kid in school and his presence changed my whole perception of friendship. Of the same age, we did everything together during our high school careers. Double-dates, trips to the beach with our surfboards in the back of my father’s ’63 Chevy pickup, sports and general mayhem befitting our free spirit mentality. What I remember most, though whenever I look back on those days, is the time spent just sitting and talking.

My friend was analytical in ways I had never even considered. And from my now more mature perspective on life, I would say he was also more original. It changed me simply due to the need to keep pace just as I had done in matching my skills in running, catching, throwing and batting when the game of life was defined by baseball.

I considered my friend to be the dominant partner in our friendship. I was surprised to learn many years later that he thought I was in the lead. What a hoot. The one thing we could both agree on is that our friendship spoiled us in terms of how we defined friendship during our adult years. We were neither one ever as honest and open with others as we were with each other during those crucial teen years. This for me defined friendship. I have since become cognizant of using that term minimally as I have met others, who have subsequently been relegated to the class I distinguish as acquaintances.

If you have been following this current series of messages, then you know I am relying on a 1905 poem to guide the content of what I write, while giving me a little assistance in staying on task for writing and posting on a weekly basis. The poem, by Harold Arnold Walter, is constructed as a vow to his mother about the type of Christian character he would maintain and the actions he would undertake in his relationships with both God and people.

So far we have seen that he vowed to be true, pure, strong and brave. The quote given at the start of this week’s message begins the poem’s second stanza. His worthwhile and noble vow is to be friend to all.  But you may be able to determine from my ruminating on my own past that his is a line that I could not write let alone endeavor to follow. Not that I have an aversion to people of any caste or character. It is just that friendship is not universally applicable for me. It is simply too intense. It is something that cannot be offered wholeheartedly or indiscriminately to the foe and the friendless. But kindness can. Hence my alteration of the word “friend” in the title to advance what I believe to be true about following the Golden Rule. Kindness, and even compassion, can be extended to all. Friendship is the reserve of commitments made, which entwines us heart and soul with another.

This in no way alters our prescribed actions captured in such a phrase as giving a drop of water unto the least of our fellow beings. Such kindness is an expectation of the doctrine Walter studied as a student of theology at Princeton University. It is a reflection of the self-sacrificing love which is the character the relationships among followers of Jesus. It is what I would term being friendly, but with more depth than the casual toss of a coin or two into the cup of a homeless person.

If Walter were alive to ardently defend the face value of his words, I would admire him. But we would be at odds about the true nature of friendship. Doctrinal wars ensure over such disputes and divisions occur despite our best intentions. I am guilty in this; I make a clear distinction between being a friend and merely being friendly. Our outward actions in how we deal with the foe, the friendless may appear to be the same, but Walter and I would know that there is a chasm between our respective understandings of our motivations as different as a noun is from an adverb.

What matters most is that there is an action where need exists, to friend and foe and friendless alike.

Brave

I would be brave, for there is much to dare.

We are now in the fourth of a series of messages inspired by a 1905 poem written by Harold Arnold Walter for his mother as a Christmas present. If, by chance, you have read my previous blog posts, then you know my affinity for this poem has to do with its unusual content; a statement about character development included in a book of songs more focused on praised and adoration of the biblical God. Personal vows can be found in the hymnal’s other songs as well, but none so singularly dedicated to the concept of moral growth as Walter’s poem proves to be.

There are three stanzas to this poem, each stanza consisting of four lines and each line touting a character quality Walter pledged to keep as well as the reason for its primacy in his life. The links he built include being true because there were those who trusted him while they are apart, being pure because there were those who cared about him, being strong because there was much to endure that we must allow to take place, and now being brave, for there is much to dare.

We can easily and maybe incorrectly attribute bravery to the performance of those action heroes we see in the today’s movies. They never fear despite the life-threatening magnitude of the obstacles they must overcome, never get hurt no matter how many blows they receive, and never lose. Victory and a celluloid immortality are in the script.

Our lives, however, aren’t scripted. We can lose. We can be hurt. We can even die. All of this comes as a simple consequence of our frail nature as vulnerable human beings. There is always something at risk, even when we can muster the courage to overcome our fears. In fact that point is the essence of being brave. This character quality becomes more evident when we know we are personally vulnerable and have something to lose, but still dare to take a stance in the face of our fears.

Although Walter majored in theology at Princeton and may have found his concept of bravery in the Bible’s sacred text, my own concept is rooted in my own path as a history major. The History of Ancient Greece (course #313 for which I got an A grade) introduced me to Pericles, the Athenian general and statesman during that nation-state’s golden age. I have kept his words enshrined in a book of quotations gathered from various sources over a lifetime of study. They encourage us to consider that “The man who can most truly be accounted brave is he who knows best the meaning of what is sweet in life and of what is terrible and then goes out determined to meet what is to come.”

Walter’s own concise phrase, there is much to dare, includes this perspective; an awareness that there is much to lose that is sweet in life and that there are no guarantees of success in whatever we endeavor to accomplish. Pericles was eulogizing his soldiers as I recall. But the most peaceful of us and those of us of seemingly inconsequential status can live this sentiment as well. Threats abound without any regard for such meagre human defenses as affluence, ethnicity or nationality. Therefore bravery is not about such things. It is about a character trait worth developing for there is much in every life to dare.