Big Plan, Small Man

gigspots smApril is a big month in my life but last week made me feel very small.  I celebrate four years of Gigspots this month with both pride and trepidation.  Am I making a difference and can I sustain it?  Am I brightening lives, fostering culture and saving the economy one gig at a time?  Am I creating opportunities for young people, acting locally and thinking globally?

Meanwhile, Islamic terrorists were slaughtering Christian school children in Africa.  Diplomats were negotiating over who can or cannot have nuclear weapons.  My daughter was packing for a trip to Germany when that Germanwings pilot crashed his plane full of people on purpose.  My mother fell ill and wouldn’t be able to celebrate Easter with the whole family.

Meanwhile, America obsessed over The Voice contestants and their March Madness brackets.  As an American, a Christian, a son, a father and a businessman, it seemed the world was spinning faster than usual.  Could I stay grounded while not letting the gravity of it all crush me?  I wondered for the billionth time if one man’s thoughts, beliefs or actions really made any difference.

Then I remembered being a teacher.  I didn’t have all the answers then any more than I do now.  But I felt like if I asked the right questions, or provoked a few new thoughts, maybe the next generation could come up with an answer or two.  Those young people never let me down!

So I revisited my lessons this week.  What follows are two essays I used for years as examples of crisp, poignant writing and thought-provoking analysis framed within classic religious literature: the Bible and the Bhagavad-Gita.  You don’t have to be religious, political or an English teacher to enjoy them.

If you’re about to click off, let me preface the essays this way.  The first, “Fear and Faith,” was published September 12, 2001, while I was teaching freshman English and the World Trade Towers were still smoldering.  The second, “You’re In Here Too,” was published in The Sun magazine the day my father had open-heart surgery after surviving cancer and a stroke.   I felt pretty small on those days too.

Fear and Faith

By John Wimberly

Western Presbyterian Church

September 12, 2001

To some, the World Trade Towers were a symbol of an economic system that works.  To others, they were symbols of an economic system whose success is built on exploitation. Regardless of where one stands in the debate about the causes of wealth and poverty, Tuesday’s terrorism leaves us no choice but to admit that fear, hatred and violence increasingly define the relations between the rich and poor.

Those who don’t have wealth fear that their children’s lives will be worse than their own.  Anger grows as they watch their loved ones die of diseases that disappeared years ago in developed nations.  Leaders who foster hatred of the developed nations suddenly sound reasonable.

Those who have wealth grow increasingly fearful of the masses of poor people.  They become resentful that their wealth does not give them the freedom and safety they once assumed it would create.  Leaders who tell them that the poor are a threat to their well-being suddenly sound reasonable.

It is a recipe for madness. A blue print for mutual self-destruction.  Where does it end?  The world’s major religions all agree that it is the responsibility of those who have to help those who do not.  Jesus, for example, talked about financial stewardship more than any other single issue.  What we do or don’t do with our money is an issue of profound spiritual significance.  The strong are supposed to help the weak.

And isn’t the well-being of others an important aspect of good economic policy as well?  Impoverished people don’t buy products.  Uneducated people don’t constitute a good workforce.  Strong economies produce jobs that can enable the poor to build a better future for themselves and their families.  Long term economic self-interest requires attention to the needs of others.

If both economists and the world’s religions agree that self-interest and the interest of all are inseparably intertwined, what is the problem?  The problem is fear, fear that morphs into hostility…that morphs into a willingness to fly a plane into a skyscraper; or fear that turns into a vengeance-filled cruise missile flying through the night with hopes that it will hit an enemy.

The opposite of fear is faith.  Our daily lives are built on hundreds of large and small acts of faith.  We have faith that when we get on a plane, it will take us to the scheduled destination; that when we sit in an office, we are safe; that the sun will set tonight and rise tomorrow.

What is at stake today is whether we will live lives of fear of lives of faith.  We live in a national and personal moment of truth.

In Washington, this is John Wimberly for Marketplace on NPR.

Did you notice that Pastor John Wimberly was writing for Marketplace on NPR, a show about economics?  Did I mention that on September 11, 2001, it was Yearbook Picture Day in my school?  Smile for the camera and never mind that there are still 1,600 planes in flight in America right now or that you have family and friends in DC and Manhattan…

You’re In Here Too

Jim Ralston

The Sun July 2006

It’s morning but still dark out.  It’s also raining and cold.  I’m walking out of a twenty-four-hour fitness center, on my way to the all-night Waffle House, when a woman hails me from her car.  She has just run away from her husband, she says, and needs gas money to get to her mother’s.

Gas money now, is it?  Who doesn’t need gas money to get to their mother’s these days?  Probably drug money she’s really after.  I hate being panhandled.  But a softer voice inside me says, Hey, wake up.  Here’s a human being in distress.  This is an opportunity to be of help.  It’s not your concern what she does with the money.

                “He’s a bastard,” she tells me.

Peering into my wallet, I see that my smallest bill is a twenty.  Ouch.  I was thinking of a couple of dollars, five at the most.

“Here,” I say, handing her a twenty.  “This won’t get you very far these days.”

She thanks me profusely.  I can see that she is crying.  She waves and honks another thank-you as she drives off.

An hour later, my own gas tank topped off, I sit down to prepare my classes over a double espresso at the Daily Grind.  I’ve only just begun working when my laptop crashes and won’t restart.  Now I’m the one who feels like crying.

OK, I tell myself.  That’s the way today is going.  Close your eyes.  Take a couple of deep breaths.  Disappointments are there to remind us of the big picture: Everything that’s created also falls apart.  This machine is like my body, which will crash too one day.  Both machines are far from new.

Or big picture number two: For most of the world, a sudden fifteen-hundred-dollar setback would be heart-stopping.  I can pay for this.  I have a credit card.  By world standards I’m economically privileged.

Finally the coffee and sugar start to kick in.  Dawn is breaking.  The rain has stopped.  I try my computer one more time, to see if a miracle has happened.  It hasn’t.

In my world-literature class this morning, I am teaching the Bhagavad-Gita, a Hindu scripture written in the fourth century B.C., in which the god Krishna takes human form as the charioteer of the warrior Arjuna.  Krishna presses upon Arjuna that the attention we pay to particular outcomes in life, be they good or bad, should be minimal.  Fortune will change like the weather:  Now you have fallen ill.  Now your illness has been cured.  Now you have gone broke.  Now you have inherited a stash of money.  Now somebody has put a ding in your new chariot.  Now you have fallen in love.  Relinquish attachment to outcomes, Krishna advises; be equally indifferent to success and failure.  The real value of what happens “out there” in the ever-changing world (and, from Krishna’s perspective, “out there” includes your own body) lies in the opportunity to see anew from “in here” – from the perspective of the eternal soul.

In the afternoon I’m coming down pretty hard from my morning caffeine trip when I learn by phone that my book has been rejected by a university press that held the manuscript for longer than two years.  In a recent conversation, the press director told me he was optimistic.  I close my eyes and suffer this rejection for a few minutes.  Why me?

Then a little voice inside me says, Why don’t you ever ask, “Why me?” when something good happens?  Did you utter, “Why me?” when your daughter was born healthy?

After my three-hour night class, I circle the residential streets looking for an inconspicuous place to park my van and sleep in it.  It’s been a long day.  I don’t feel like driving an hour and twenty minutes home just to drive back again in the morning.  A spot beside a church is always promising.  Even better if the church is a little run-down and offbeat, like the Free Methodist, or God’s Love, or the Unitarian Universalist.  Karate clubs and yoga centers are also good – if they’re in a part of town where an aging Dodge conversion van doesn’t appear out of place.

Tonight, though, like last night, I end up in the Wal-Mart parking lot.  It’s open 24/7, and there’s a restroom.  Plus I can buy a bedtime snack.  I steel myself before I go inside.  Watching people mull over their purchases in a Wal-Mart late at night can put me in a mild depression.  You’re shopping here, too, the little voice whispers as I stand in line to purchase a sack of peanuts so I won’t wake up hungry at 1 A.M.

Back in my van, satisfied that I’m unobserved, I pull down my bed in the back and slide into my sleeping bag.  The traffic along Interstate 81 is a dull roar, but a steady one, so it won’t disturb my sleep.  The traffic never stops.  It goes all night.  I try to think of it as a distant wind.

I’ve aligned my bedside window to a parking-lot light to illuminate the pages of my book.  Outside, some kids are skateboarding.  A couple walks by pushing carts full of groceries.    I hear them talking two feet away, on the other side of my tinted window, as if they were alone: about how long the day has been; about how tired they’ve been feeling lately.  The window at the foot of my bed perfectly frames the big red letters of the Wal-Mart sign: AL-MART.  The W has burned out.  I notice the R and T are starting to flicker.

After half a page, I’m falling asleep.  Wisdom doesn’t come easily, Krishna teaches Arjuna.  It takes practice to develop a mind quiet enough to hear life’s deeper truths.  It takes discipline.  It takes lifetimes.

So…I’m practicing.  I can’t control what thoughts pop into my head.  I can think and organize beliefs.  I can choose to act based on fear, or faith, or greed, or kindness or hundreds of other motivations.  I can do my best and hope I leave the world a bit richer than when I found it.  Let us proclaim the mystery of our faith.  Cue the music!  Pack a bag!  We’re not small; it’s just a big world out there…and in here.