The “To Be” List
Matthew 5: 1-12
As I was driving last week, I was introduced to Claudia Folska, a blind dual doctorate student at the University of Colorado in Denver. She is studying urban design and cognitive science, which she is putting to use in proposing ways that the city of Denver can make life more navigable for people who are blind. She suggests, for example, that public emergency phones might emit audible signals so that everyone can find them when needed. It was a fascinating interview on the NPR show “Talk of the Nation” and I recommend it to you. But the part I found most interesting – and refreshing – was her response to one of the questions the host asked her. After a 20 minute or so conversation in which she offered innovative ideas and talked about projects she is working on, on top of preparing to defend her dissertation, the host asked her what else she is working on. She answered, “Isn’t that enough?” (“Talk of the Nation,” 10/19/11, http://www.npr.org/2011/10/19/141514387/blind-student-helps-make-denver-navigable-for-all )
Isn’t that enough? I was driving alone in my car when I heard this. I laughed out loud and said, out loud, “Good for you!” What a great way to turn the question on its head, to illustrate the problem with the question itself, to refuse to take it on its own terms. That’s creative thinking. And oh so refreshing. When’s the last time you heard anyone do this?
I wonder if Claudia Folska might be a patron saint for college students. She combines innovative, community-minded thinking with the wisdom and the self-assuredness to say, basically, “back off” when someone tries to steer her off course or pile on irrelevant extras. Isn’t that enough?
I’ve also been reading a book by Tom Montgomery-Fate, called Cabin Fever. Montgomery-Fate muses about Henry David Thoreau, the author of Walden, that American classic about living alone in the woods, experimenting with self-sufficiency and supreme attention to the natural world. Montgomery-Fate calls Thoreau’s philosophy the “gospel of the present moment” and comments that he “can’t imagine [Thoreau] ever writing out a to-do list. Maybe a to-be list? And what would he put on that? Maybe ‘Awestruck’ or ‘Amazed’ or ‘Bedazzled’?”
What’s on your to-be list? Do you have one? Maybe writing one out is on your to-do list?
UVA students are familiar with the to-do list. I noticed on Facebook that Annie Thompson listed at least part of her to-do list for this chocked-full weekend, which had everything from studying for multiple exams to attending Halloween parties. You are used to being asking what you want to do: what are you majoring in? what do you want to do with that? You are used to saying things like “I want to be a lawyer” …or a homeowner or a CEO or wealthy enough to travel. You are used to saying things like, “I want to be married and starting on a family before I’m 30.”
I’m a big fan of the to-do list. It can really help me focus on the next steps I need to take. But I wonder how much good the “to-do’s” are without a companion “to-be” list. If the to-do list helps me accomplish the tasks I have before me, what helps me take the steps I need to take to become more of the person God created me to be?
This is why I think college students need Claudia Folska. Enough is enough. Next time someone says, “English major, huh? What are you going to do with that?” what if you replied, “Besides reading great literature, I hope to be more compassionate, with a greater understanding of the breadth of human experience and emotion”? When someone asks what you plan to do after college, what if your answer was, “I hope to be more humble”? What if you said, “I want to live in a just manner, and practice generosity”?
Today we’re celebrating All Saints Day, which falls on November 1st. All Saints Day is a celebration of all Christians in every time and place, and uses “saint” in the New Testament sense, to refer to all Christians. It’s a celebration of the solidarity of the living and the dead, understanding that there are already times – like our Supper at this table – when our voices and spirits join the closer harmonies of heaven. The blessing of this annual Feast Day of All Saints is that it gives us a yearly moment to pause and remember and give thanks and draw inspiration from all the saints who have traveled with us this far.
It’s a good day to consider the possible patron saint status of Claudia Folska and to hear Jesus gather the disciples and begin preaching the Sermon on the Mount. It’s important to remember this – that Jesus is speaking to his disciples when he unleashes the Beatitudes. He is talking to the ones who are already following him. He is talking to us. He is talking to us, disciples – which, as you may know, are the raw materials out of which saints are made.
In his commentary on Matthew, biblical scholar Stanley Hauerwas calls the Sermon “the constitution of a people,” writing that “You cannot live by the demands of the sermon on your own, but that is the point. The demands of the sermon are designed to make us depend on God and one another…[it’s] not a list of requirements, but rather a description of the life of a people gathered by and around Jesus. To be saved is to be so gathered. That is why the Beatitudes are the interpretive key to the whole sermon – precisely because they are not recommendations. No one is asked to go out and try to be poor in spirit or to mourn or to be meek. Rather, Jesus is indicating that given the reality of the kingdom we should not be surprised to find among those who follow him those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn, those who are meek. Moreover, Jesus does not suggest that everyone who follows him will possess all the Beatitudes, but we can be sure that some will be poor, some will mourn, and some will be meek” (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Matthew, p. 61).
The kingdom of God has come near. This is how you will recognize it. This is what it is to be God’s people. You don’t have to try to be meek if you’re not. But you do need to hang out with this group of people, rub up against one another, and allow yourself to be changed by the experience. Allow yourself to be gathered up like this into a motley crew of disciple-saints, all expressing their unique gifts and trying to appreciate the ones others bring – all the while being saved in the process.
Don’t bother adding “poor in spirit” to your to-be list. You might add “comforting,” though and then spend some time with a mourner. Don’t set a goal to be more meek. But consider adding “listener” and then trying harder to give room and space and attention to those who are meek. Life in the kingdom of God is life in community, an abundant life with a peculiar look to it. You’ll notice when you see gathered into one place the poor in spirit, the meek, the mourners…
It’s been a good week for radio revelations. Driving to Richmond yesterday I learned a new economic term: “concentrated rewards.” The example they used to describe this is that people used to use local tax advisors to help them prepare taxes. Now it’s more common to use mass-produced software. So the money – the rewards – in this area of economic life are concentrated with the company that makes TurboTax (and particularly with its CEO) rather than being spread around amongst various tax advisors. Cornell economist Robert Frank calls this a “winner-take-all” system (Weekend Edition Saturday, 10/29/11, http://www.npr.org/2011/10/29/141816778/why-the-haves-have-so-much).
Concentrated rewards sounds like the opposite of the kingdom Jesus describes and inaugurates. It sounds like what Jesus was preaching against. And, as always, the question for us is what we will do about it. How will we live in this world, as pilgrims with passports from the kingdom of God? How do we live here but with the guiding image of another way, a more abundant life, a common-wealth?
In the same radio broadcast, the Cornell professor Robert Frank mentioned the need to make some jobs less attractive. He said, “In 2007, I think it was 44 percent of the graduating class from Princeton took jobs in the financial services industry. Really talented kids who could be doing useful things — instead they’re competing to see who can forecast what the asset price will be 10 seconds sooner than the next quickest forecast…We don’t need that many people seeking those positions” (Weekend Edition Saturday). If your aspirations are tied to how much you make and how much you impress others, you might follow along with that 44 percent. If your aspirations are tied to God’s vision for a topsy-turvy kingdom, then what?
If we don’t need 44 percent, what do we need? How could a love of economics or finance or business be employed for the good of the wider community? How could the same skills be put to use for kingdom work rather than a winner-take-all system?
Where is the inbreaking of God’s kingdom into the ordinary and routine of this world calling to you? Which saints are inspiring you and where are you being called to offer what you have and who you are? What does your to-be list say? Will you be the one to create community in your town or school, or reform in the financial sector, or preach, or make art, or teach? Who is showing you the way? Who is helping you say yes to your call and “enough” to the ones trying to veer you off track? Who do you give thanks for today?
The kingdom of God has come near. You will recognize it by the kind of people gathered together and by how they treat one another. This is what it is to be God’s people.
Thanks be to God!
© 2011 Deborah E. Lewis
30 October 2011 – All Saints Celebration