Archive for March, 2018

My book The View From Down in Poordom* includes a chapter titled “Regarding Joy and Happiness in Poverty.” (Scroll to the bottom for purchase information.)

Here’s an excerpt for your consideration on this day in which Jesus remains in the tomb–and the disciples surely feel entombed themselves!

Here’s a photo of the back cover of my book, which includes two thumbs up by the Rev. Susanne Johnson and Father Frederick W. Schmidt.

    Imagine how the eleven apostles felt after their teacher and healer, Jesus, who so often confounded them with his teachings while also instilling hope in their dreary lives, died and was entombed. Imagine how entombed they must have felt in their sorrow, some of them with a twinge of cynicism thrown in perhaps (the doubting Thomas), some entombed by nagging guilt and shame (Peter), and all in fear of an uncertain future without that charismatic man around. Imagine how anguished they felt with all those raw, dark emotions to process.

    Of course, we have the benefit of knowing the rest of the story, which they didn’t see coming despite the clues and forecasts that Jesus gave. We know how these pitiful, guilt-wracked men were transformed by an event that lifted them so high out of the pit of sorrow and guilt and shame that they were overwhelmed by joy—so much so that observers wondered if they were drunk! (See Acts 2:5–21.)

    It’s a hard thing for us to know sometimes that God is with us in those cheerless times when we’re so entombed by the darkness that it feels like God has left us. But let’s consider how our deep-seated joy that comes from our Lord endures through our times of great sorrow.

    Of the nine fruits of the spirit cited by Paul in Galatians 5:22-23, joy is second only to love, which understandably comes in at number one, since love and joy are so closely connected. Jesus himself mentions the connection between love and joy when, in speaking of himself as “the true vine,” he notes, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be made in you, and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:10–11 NRSV).

    It makes still more sense that joy would rank near the top of Paul’s list of fruits when we consider that the first miracle Jesus performed was his turning the water into wine (and the finest wine at that!) at an event as joyful as a wedding (John 1:1–11).

    Jesus frequently enjoyed a good meal with good wine, more often than not with sinners and outcasts who took such joy in His having liberated them from the sickness of sin. The reason Jesus drew such massive crowds was that joy is contagious—the joyless people slugging through miserable life conditions wanted to see this man who had had such a transformative effect on people who had previously known only misery.

    Paul’s epistle to the Philippians is sometimes called “The Joy Book.” It includes the words “joy,” “joyous,” or “rejoice” sixteen times. That is all the more extraordinary because Paul wrote it while chained in a cheerless Roman prison. People can chain you, beat you, and hurt you, but they can’t snuff out the joy within you. That joy abides within anyone who loves God and others as himself or herself in good times and horrendous times, in all circumstances and in all kinds of places—even in the grim poverty of a jail cell.

    Yet joy is not the same as happiness. It’s been said that happiness is external, subject to situations and circumstances, while joy is internal and abiding, a gift from God. Joy is God’s Spirit planted and rooted deep within us, regardless of situation or circumstance. Joy, unlike happiness, is the flip side of sorrow; the two are always connected. Without experiencing sorrow, we could never know joy. Happiness is fleeting, never quite filling our cup to the level of contentment.

    Money ensures us a certain amount of happiness, but how easy it is to get stranded on the merry-go-round of desire and dissatisfaction. The more money we make, the more we want. The more we want, the more we spend.

    Round and round we go, never satisfied with the thrill of more money coming in, new and cool stuff being acquired, and the fleeting happiness that comes with every new dollar made and spent. Enough is never enough. The thing about the fast-moving merry-go-round of desire is that there’s no way to step off and settle down and rejoice.

    “Joy is that warm, deep-seated glow of a heart at peace with itself.” — from The View From Down in Poordom: Reflections on Scriptures Addressing Poverty, available online at Amazonbooks.com, Barneandnoble.com or Westbowpress.com. I hope you’ll check out what I have to say.

    Joy is that warm, deep-seated glow of a heart at peace with itself. That’s what Paul implies when, after imploring the Philippians to “Rejoice in the Lord always!” he goes on to say, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:4, 6–7 NRSV).

    In the purity of their spiritual poverty, the poor know what real joy is about and often gladly express it—even when their underlying sorrow is not so obvious.

*The View From Down in Poordom is always available for purchase online at Amazonbooks.com, BarnesandNoble.com here, and Westbowpress.com. Available in hard cover, soft cover and, of course, Kindle or Nook.

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Yesterday I posted some thoughts here about how uncomfortable many Christians — even many preachers and priests are — with foot washing on Holy Thursday.

We have to constantly stretch and come out of our “comfort zones” in our walk with the Lord. But hat does God require but that we be as honest-to-God as we can be ?

In case you missed it, here’s the link.

I shared it at a site called Progressive Methodists where it received many interesting replies in a long-running conversation.

Many opined that being uncomfortable is the whole point of the foot washing. That’s my default position, that the only way we grow and mature spiritually in our walk with our Lord is by constantly pushing ourselves out of our “comfort zones.”

Others discussed the theologies of foot washing, the theology of humility and service and more.

Still others talks about what their churches do in Holy Thursday services, and why they do it and what churchgoers think about it:

    “Our church [offers foot washing”] at one of 3 optional stations, so everyone is served. Just choose your level of comfort — washing feet, washing hands, or taking communion. It is a beautiful service.”

That struck me as a nice way to handle it, because some people really are too uncomfortable with the intimacy of washing another’s feet. I can see how it feels invasive to some folks who just are not “touchy-feely.”

All that said, my favorite reply was the one that made me laugh out loud.

    I’ve got what could only be described as an anti-foot fetish. (foot anti-fetish?) I hate feet. Hate my feet. Hate your feet. Hate everyone’s feet. If that’s the key to Heaven’s gate I’m screwed cuz it ain’t happenin’.

As funny as it is, it struck me as an entirely good, sound, legitimate response!

That’s because if God requires anything of us, God requires that we be as honest-to-God as we can be.

As the Hip-Hoppers say, “Keep it real, man!”

Keep it real, dude.

The holy man at the top of my list of faith heroes, Thomas Merton, spent his entire holy, sanctified adult life riffing on the importance of honesty, of being who and what God made us as God-loving free spirits.

That’s why it’s OK to doubt God when we’re laid low by some awful situation.

That’s why I’ve often said — and often counseled people in pastoral care — that it’s perfectly OK to be mad as hell at God.
The lament Psalms underscore this theological fact in a big way. No matter what honest, intense emotion the psalmist was feeling and expressing at God, he was still in communication (communion/relationship) with God.

I’ve always said God is a Big Boy/Girl: God can take whatever we’re feeling, even bitter anger in an extreme situation.

But staying forever stuck in anger, stewing forever in an unforgiving spirit toward God — or an unforgiving spirit toward anybody — that’s a whole other blog post for a whole other day.

Have a Good Friday.

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Our Lord washed the feet of his followers as a model for us for servanthood. And yet few people will go to a Holy Thursday service that offers foot washing along with the Lord’s Supper. Even preachers have told me that don’t feel “comfortable” washing someone’s feet.

Consider the following scripture and tell me, gentle reader: have you ever had your feet washed, and gotten down on your knees and washed another’s feet, in a Holy Thursday church service?

    So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. (John 13: 14-15)

Chances are you haven’t washed someone’s feet in church. Chances are your church doesn’t even offer the opportunity for you to do it in a Holy Thursday church service.

Even many preachers and priests have to me they aren’t “comfortable” with washing someone’s feet and don’t want to make their parishioners uncomfortable.

You probably have no qualms about taking the Lord’s Supper, and may even do it every week or every month. You may even look forward to it.

Like baptism, the Lord’s Supper makes Jesus real to us. Most of us find it likable and meaningful. Even if we just go through the motions of it without much intention, taking communion feels holy. It feels sacred.

But if getting on our knees and washing the feet of another doesn’t make Christ Jesus real — if that’s not something that feels holy — I don’t know what does.

If you’ve never done the foot washing thing, why not? What’s the excuse? You have ugly feet? It’s just not necessary?

Or is it that such a humbling — and extremely intimate act — in front of other people, no less, makes us feel uncomfortable?

I know that foot washing is not a church sacrament. The church doesn’t take it to be a necessity.

But it seems to me that when Jesus set the example for his followers then, he was setting the example for followers for all times.

As far as it being a discomfort, I’ve actually known people who don’t go to church because they say the pews are uncomfortable!

Other popes washed the feet of other clergy in their robes or seminarians. He has caused outrage by washing the feet of all kinds of people who are not very nice people.
Which is sort of Christlike.

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Into your hand I commit my spirit;
you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.

— Psalm 31:5, which were the last words of Christ

The last word (saying) of Christ was Jesus invoking Psalm 31:5. It was a saying the Jews could instantly relate to.

Everything in the Bible is like the cosmos: totally interconnected.

The most obvious example of this is that Jesus was constantly referring back to the testament that was his Jewish bible. His last words (or saying) on the cross were:

    “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” (Luke 23:46)

Those were the words David had spoken a thousand years before Psalm 31:5:

    Into your hand I commit my spirit;
    you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.

    Those were words that his fellow Jews related to instantly because they literally said those words when they closed their eyes to sleep.

    Every night.

    So the Jews instantly made the connection.

    In the crucifixion, when daytime turned to nighttime at 3 o’clock, those were the final words Jesus the Son of David spoke in his final act of utter defiance.

    His words expressed the ultimate triumph of hope over utter despair. For us, it is a word of peace and comfort. For whatever amount of fear, suffering, humiliation or other dreadful thing we face, Jesus suffered it first — and defiantly overcame it.

    This is why Christians don’t get stuck (or shouldn’t!) in cynicism, fear, despair and hopelessness. The victory over seemingly every kind of overwhelming darkness, over every kind of evil, has been won.

    That’s not to say we live in happy optimism in the face of so much darkness and evil in the world.

    The fact is, we have something greater than chirpy optimism.

    We are grounded in the gift of hope.

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El Greco’s stylish painting of Jesus carrying the cross. Jesus was forgiveness and mercy personified, but that didn’t make him a weakling. To the contrary ….

I heard a preacher say once that if we all were vested with the power of God for 24 hours — who reserves vengeance for himself/herself — we’d all be dead before the cock crows.

Unlike God, we would be merciless in dishing a double- or triple scoop of ice-cold revenge to everyone who ever wronged us.

The great prophet Micah said:

    “Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance?

    “You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy.

    “You will again have compassion on us.” (Micah 7:18-19)

We all know it’s God’s will that we bear our crosses and seek God’s forgiveness even for those we genuinely hate. Nobody ever said it’s easy even for a devout Christian who might, say, lose a couple of children and friends in a school shooting.

“Jesus wept — another sign of his strength.”

I once heard a young woman who was a lay leader in her United Methodist Church talk in a national TV interview about the loss of her baby in the Oklahoma City bombing. Though she was not an activist against it, she had been opposed to the death penalty.

That, however, was before her baby was killed by Timothy McVeigh, a killer so cold he said in another TV interview he had no remorse at all for killing babies.

The Methodist mother did say in a number of interviews that she thought she could forgive McVeigh over time, and wanted to forgive him. She didn’t want to be in bondage to hating him.

But the wound was still too deep for forgiveness at that time.

Mindful of that sobering perspective of how our perspectives can change when evil strikes close to home, it’s as important to understand what forgiveness is not as to know what forgiveness is.

1. It does not mean that the offense we are called to forgive is insignificant, that the offense doesn’t matter, that the offense is excused.

It can’t be said emphatically enough that to forgive is not to excuse what can’t be excused.

It can only be forgiven — and again, forgiveness can be a long process, depending on how grievous the offense is.

2. Forgiving doesn’t make us weak, dumb suckers.

Forgiving even the most evil person doesn’t make us a doormat for everybody in this hard-hearted world to wipe their feet on without resistance.

Forgiveness is in fact a sign of healthy ego-strength.

Jesus personified forgiveness and mercy and loved even his enemies. Yet he passionately, strongly resisted them at every turn.

Jesus was no mushy, namby-pamby, hippie-dippie, all-you-need-is-love Tiny Tim tip-toeing around bad people through the tulips.

Jesus waged an aggressive, in-your-face resistance movement, all the way to his face-to-face meeting with “that fox” Pilate.

Pilate was the weak one in that encounter.

3. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that because you wronged me I’m now going to trust you: not if you continue to show yourself unworthy of trust over and over.

Because someone you trusted and valued as a friend says “I’m sorry I stabbed you in the back to get the promotion and I’ll never stab you in the back again” doesn’t mean he won’t stab in the back tomorrow or next year.

Thank God we don’t have the power of God to exact vengeance on our enemies.

And Jesus, by the way, never said we won’t have and won’t make enemies!

Jesus did have plenty to say about forgiveness, even from the cross upon which he absorbed the pain of all our hard-hearted sin.

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Being a jungle country as much as an oceanic nation, Belize has a kazillion varieties of trees — including her beautiful bamboo trees. (Never mind that bamboo is, technically, a grass. Let’s not get technical here.)

Every time I happen upon a riverside grove of bamboo in the bush, I think of how Jesus emptied himself of his God-self — which, by the way, he didn’t do by giving up his deity.

Our Lord emptied himself of his divine glory until his return to glorification at the right hand of the God. (See Jesus’s long discourse in John 17, especially John 17:5 here.)

Consider that a bamboo tree is empty on the inside but more solid and sturdy than many rocks and stones on the outside. You can break a stone with a sledgehammer or even chip away at one with a hammer. Try to shatter a bamboo pole with any kind of hammer and you might knock yourself out.

The more a bamboo tree grows — and the video above gives you an idea of how big they grow — the more hollow it becomes on the inside.

Maybe a bamboo tree should be the symbolic tree of Christmas — it would be far more apropos than the trees we chop down and water and allow to die for disposal after Christmas, wouldn’t it?

Here’s Paul’s wonderful word on the humiliation and obedience of Jesus all the way to death on the cross in Philippians 2:

    5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

    6 who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,

    7 but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
    And being found in human form,

    8 he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death -—
    even death on a cross.

    9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
    and gave him the name
    that is above every name,

    10 so that at the name of Jesus
    every knee should bend,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

    11 and every tongue should confess
    that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

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In the name of God, and in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I beg you, I implore you, I order you, in the name of God, stop the repression!”

— Bishop Oscar Romero in a sermon the day before he was assassinated while he said Mass

Today for Lent I’m sharing words from the great Christian martyr Bishop Oscar Romero.

The once meek-and-mild priest who rose up to fight El Salvador’s powerful, oppressive forces after those forces assassinated his best friend who was a fellow priest fearless in opposing the government’s death squads.

In the aftermath of that killing, Romero became radicalized, in the best and holiest sense, plenty willing to die in opposition to evil men.

Romero (who is on track for canonization) was eventually assassinated himself in his own sanctuary, while serving the Eucharist, by one of those assassins who was trained by Americans on U.S. soil.

At the funeral attended by thousands, El Salvador’s army fired into the crowd of worshipers outside the cathedral, killing 30 people and wounding hundreds*

Here’s what Romero said about Lenten fasting a few weeks before his death.

    Lenten fasting is not the same thing in those lands where people eat well as is a Lent among our third-world peoples, undernourished as they are, living in a perpetual Lent, always fasting.

    For those who eat well, Lent is a call to austerity, a call to give away in order to share with those in need. But in poor lands, in homes where there is hunger, Lent should be observed in order to give to the sacrifice that is everyday life the meaning of the cross.

    But it should not be out of a mistaken sense of resignation. God does not want that.

    Rather, feeling in one’s own flesh the consequences of sin and injustice, one is stimulated to work for social justice and a genuine love for the poor. Our Lent should awaken a sense of social justice.

    Let us observe our Lent thus, giving our sufferings, our bloodshed, our sorrow the same value that Christ gave to his own condition of poverty, oppression, abandonment, and injustice.

    Let us change all that into the cross of salvation that redeems the world and our people. And with hatred for none, let us be converted and share both joys and material aids, in our poverty, with those who may be even needier. (March 2, 1980)

* Between 1980 and 1992, the United States sent more than $6 billion to the government of El Salvador, most of which was spent on direct military aid or economic support funds to bolster the war economy. More than 75,000 people were killed during the war, the great majority attributed to actions by the military. Four U.S. churchwomen, six Jesuit priests, and Archbishop Romero were killed by soldiers and officers trained by the U.S. School of the Americas in Ft. Benning, Georgia.

Read more about Oscar Romero — and the great 1989 movie about him — here.

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David saw beautiful Bathsheba and couldn’t resist.

The lectionary for this 5th Sunday of Lent includes the psalm that poured out of David after the prophet Nathan made him own up to two Whopper Burger sins: murder and adultery.

Psalm 51 begins with David’s unflinching confession of guilt:

    Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your steadfast love;
    according to your abundant mercy
    blot out my transgressions.
    Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
    and cleanse me from my sin.

    For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is ever before me.
    Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
    and done what is evil in your sight,
    so that you are justified in your sentence
    and blameless when you pass judgment.

The great spiritual writer and pastor Eugene H. Peterson says this in his book Leap Over a Wall: Earthy Spirituality For Everyday Christians:

    In the Christian life our primary task isn’t to avoid sin, which is impossible anyway, but to recognize sin. The fact is that we’re sinners. But there’s an enormous amount of self-deception in sin. When this is combined with devil-deception, the task of recognition is compounded.

    We don’t want to face sin because we don’t want to lose our god-illusions; we’re afraid that if we’re not the gods of our lives and actions we’re nothing. … We think that if our sin is taken away, we’ll be less. What happens is we become more.

I see our craving for power over ourselves and others — or our fear of letting go of power — as the driving force of our “self-deceptions” and “devil-deceptions.” The fear that, as Peterson suggests, we’ll be less — nothings, nobodies.

We fear we will be — or perceived to be — (to use a word we hear a lot these days) losers!

We love us some winning, right? And winning requires power.

What could be better for a manly man than winning a hot babe like Bathsheba?

Peterson notes:

    “The subtlety of sin is that it doesn’t feel like sin when we’re doing it, it feels godlike, it feels religious, it feels fulfilling and satisfying — a reply of the episode in Eden when the tempter said, ‘You shall not die … ye shall be as gods” (Gen. 3:4-5, KJV).

    “David didn’t feel like a sinner when he sent for Bathsheba; he felt like a lover — and what can be better than that? David didn’t feel like a sinner when he sent for Uriah; he felt like a king — and what can be better than that?”

It was good to be King David: He got hot Bathsheba into his bed after all.

It’s like the hilarious Mel Brooks says repeatedly in “The History of the World: Part 1”: “It’s good to be King!”

It’s good because power is intoxicating. Having the power to summon a beautiful woman like Bathsheba over to the palace, and having the power to have her husband offed, didn’t feel like sin to David. The power of it all just felt good.

Power makes us feel like winners. Vulnerability feels a little scary, if not a lot scary.

For sure, moral consequences for David’s Double Whopper Sins dogged him the rest of his long life. (The heavy price David paid for his sexual sin seems to be lost on those who compare David’s sinful ways to a certain unrepentant American leader’s wrongs.)

But Psalm 51 was a big part of his recovery from his wrongs. It started with his recognizing and owning up to his. In his being honest-to-God to himself and to God, he found his true humanity.

David didn’t feel like a sinner when he took Bathsheba to be his. He just felt like a powerful lover. (Bathsheba holding king David’s letter by Willem Drost, 1654, Louvre Museum)

And here’s the kicker: as whopping big as they were, his sins were outdone by God’s grace.

Peterson notes that it’s always a mistake to concentrate attention on our sins; it’s God’s work on our sins that matters.

“Our sins aren’t that interesting; it’s God’s work that’s interesting. … After it (sin) has been recognized and confessed, the less said about it the better,” he writes.

This connects with what the great prophet Jeremiah said in one of my own favorite pastoral scriptures:

    The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.” (Lamentations 3:22-24)

Here is the whole of Psalm 51 (NRSV):

51:1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.

51:2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.

51:3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.

51:4 Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.

51:5 Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.

51:6 You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.

51:7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

51:8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.

51:9 Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.

51:10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.

51:11 Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.

51:12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.

51:13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.

51:14 Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.

51:15 O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.

51:16 For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.

51:17 The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

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Rembrandt’s “Return of the Prodigal Son,” which I had the deeply spiritual pleasure of seeing in The Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia. The Dutch master’s painting is every bit as powerful as its reputation.

A dear Baptist friend who is a retired minister and former boss of mine had a long and fruitful career as a hospital chaplain.

Early in that career he spent almost a full year of his life living with hardcore drug addicts in a hospital’s lockdown rehab facility.

It was quite a sacrifice for a man who was a young husband and father at the time. But he wanted to learn about the dynamics of addiction and addictive behavior in an up-close and personal way.

My friend told the story of a young addict whose life was about as messed up as one young life can possibly get. One day when my pastor friend was introducing himself to a group of addicts, he mentioned that he was an ordained Baptist preacher. The messed-up young addict thought he saw an opportunity to shock the socks off the Baptist preacher.

“I’m a devil worshiper!” the kid said gleefully.

My friend didn’t miss a beat. “Wow!” he said, feigning envy. “A devil worshiper. That’s really interesting!

“How’s it working out for you?”

So here’s your Lenten thought for the day:

    So what would your response be to someone so hostile to God and faith?

Like any good pastor providing good pastoral care and counsel, my friend was smart enough not to get on any Christian high-horse.

He didn’t get defensive about Christianity.

He didn’t freak out and evoke Jesus by shouting, “Get behind me, Satan!”

He didn’t get into a spitting match trying to get the young man’s mind right by telling him what he needed to do and not do in order to straighten out his life.

The pastor was smart enough to make him stop and think real hard about the destructive path he was on. That was the one way to make him start thinking about a more constructive path.

So again? What would your first reaction have been — and how effective might your response have been in helping one so lost?

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“There are no ordinary people.”

From C.S. Lewis in The Weight of Glory:

    There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.

    Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat.

    But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.

    This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play.

    But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously — no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.

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