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Mahatma Gandhi’s encouragement for people to be the change they want to see is a good expression of his life philosophy. Humans mistakenly believe, according to Gandhi, that they have the capacity to control and change the universe in any way they please. But they have a much greater ability, he believed, to remake themselves. All people have flaws, but they also have the power to change them for the better. An important first step, he said, is for individuals to have the willingness to both admit their flaws and then work to correct them.
Gandhi therefore echoed the teachings of Jesus in his famous sermon on the mount discourse. In referring to Jesus and some of the things he is supposed to have taught, I focus not the on the divine, Son of God, Christ figure found in the New Testament, but on the historical man who most scholars believe truly lived. He was a man who so influenced his band of followers that they did not want memory of him to die – and so they created a religion centered on his ideals. For myself, I do not worship him as Savior but instead seek to learn from him as a great human prophet who spoke many universal truths found in all world religions.
In his sermon on the mount, Jesus both taught the merits of humility, gentleness, and peacemaking as he also spoke strongly against hypocrisy. Don’t pray in public as a way to show how pious and holy you are. Do it in private and thus express your true heart feelings. Don’t lavishly and openly give to charities as a way to publicly prove how kind you are. Do it anonymously and with a motivation not to boost your ego but to help others. Finally, he asked his followers to refrain from judging others. Don’t be a hypocrite, he implored, by constantly pointing out the speck of sawdust in someone’s eye when you have a whole log in your own. Employing this funny and memorable analogy to make his point, Jesus asked what Gandhi later taught. Work on changing yourself first instead of trying to change someone else or even the world as a whole. Each person has enough inner work needed to change themselves such that focusing on the flaws of others is both judgmental and hypocritical. Be the change you want to see.
For Gandhi, this meant that the problems of the world begin in the human heart. War, poverty, hate, discrimination, greed, murder, anger – they all have their roots in the hearts and minds of individuals. If each person simply focused on changing their individual flaws, the world as a whole would be changed for the better. In this regard, our desire for social justice starts with our willingness to change our personal attitudes, actions, and ways of thinking. If I decry the reality of violence and war in the world but then angrily speak to a neighbor, co-worker or family member, I have made myself a hypocrite. If I verbally sympathize with the plight of the poor and hungry but do nothing to address it by my own actions to help, I’m a hypocrite. If I envision an end to racism, sexism and homophobia in the world, I must first confront and address subtle attitudes of discrimination inside me. If I want peace in the world, I must have peace in my own heart by how I forgive others. I must be the change I want to see.
And that is the theme for my three August messages. My topic for today focuses on how we can intentionally and realistically resolve to serve the least of our human brothers and sisters – the poor, hungry, homeless, sick and marginalized. All of us would like to see a world where nobody suffers, where all have the basic needs of life provided them, where no child starves for want of food or gets sick and dies for want of decent sanitation. I propose, therefore, that each person channel their social justice hopes into personal change and personal action. I propose we each pledge to freely donate at least one year of work time – over our entire lives – to directly serve the poor.
This year of service pledge is one we can take during an entire lifetime – to literally accumulate hours of hands-on service for the poor and marginalized – equal to 2000 total work hours that comprise a year of labor. Many cultures promote this idea of civic service by the young. Mormons ask their young people to serve for two years of mission to evangelize for the faith. Young Jews from all over the world volunteer to serve on Kibbutzim – communal farms or factories where everyone shares in the work and resources. In our own nation, we have the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps and Teach America where young people sign up, for almost no pay, to serve one to two years helping the poor, underprivileged and sick. We also have almost a million men and women volunteer to put themselves in harms way to defend our country. Noting the benefits of serving others, several commentators have encouraged requiring a National year of service by young persons – in the military or in a civic organization like AmeriCorps. The goal in each case is not only to enable a large resource of able bodied volunteers for needed service projects, it is also to mature and enrich the lives of youth – in the time between high school and college. Far better, it is argued, for youth to see the world as it really is than to immediately head off to an insular college campus for study and partying.
But for most of us, as adults, it is one thing to encourage a year of service to the poor by young people – and quite another to accept the challenge for ourselves. Taking a single, entire year off to serve the marginalized is possible for only a few. But, to accumulate over a lifetime a year’s worth of serving hours – 2000 of them – that is a manageable goal for any person. It’s a goal any adult can at least begin to accomplish. It’s a goal worthy of being promoted, encouraged and transformed into a cultural norm – one that every human citizen willingly takes up. It’s a goal I have taken up – one which I began by accumulating hours of hands on service – nearly twenty years ago.
If every person across the globe were purposefully working to accumulate 2000 hours of service for the least of our human brothers and sisters, problems of poverty might be drastically reduced or eliminated. As I like to say, god is not some outside force that does good for the world. God is us. We, the human species, have the power to be the change we want to see.
That power to become a force for change is what motivated Gandhi. His life goal was to self-realize, to come face to face with the divine source of truth. Worldly pursuits for money, power and pleasure did not interest him. They lead only to emptiness and a shallow soul that never quite understands itself – much less universal truths. When we serve others, Gandhi believed, we not only self-realize by gaining wisdom, growth, discipline, humility and maturity, we connect with forces far more profound and life-enriching. To truly find yourself, he said, one must submerge in the task of serving others.
The whole of the universe is inter-connected, Gandhi asserted. When someone steps outside of themselves and purposely works to serve the messy needs of another, one encounters the reality that people all over the world are much the same. In that regard, those who serve the marginalized come to see the oneness of humanity – each one of the billions of people on the planet share the same impulses to find meaning, love and security.
As a lifelong advocate of ahisma – Hindi for non-violence – Gandhi encouraged peacemaking in our speech and our actions. Not only do we avoid harming others by what we might negatively do, we can promote ahisma by what we do for good. Feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, educating the poor, welcoming the immigrant – these are ways to eliminate the violence of suffering in other lives. Serving others is a direct form of non-violence.
And that practice of service or ahisma is what allows us to discover the spiritual truths we all seek. We find peace in our souls and in our hearts when we have been kind to others, when we have directly served their needs. We reach levels of contentment, joy, and, yes, self-realization by having gotten our hands literally and figuratively dirty in service. We suddenly see the world, all of creation and all people as one big, messy, constantly changing, diverse, and yet exquisitely beautiful amalgamation. Indeed, in this way we find a transcendent connection with forces greater than just ourselves – forces of unconditional love, altruism, sacrifice and humility. When we help others realize the basic needs of dignity and wholeness by serving them, we ironically find those things for ourselves.
As Gandhi believed, each person is born symbolically blind. It may take a lifetime to really see and find truth – but an important way of doing so is to humble oneself and serve. By serving we gain symbolic eyesight which is really spiritual insight. By serving others we become in tune with all of the ways humanity suffers. But we also become in tune with their hopes, dreams, joys, prayers and sacrifices. We see the pain but we also see the healing because we become a part of that healing – no longer an island unto our selfish selves but a vital part of a loving, giving, serving, and understanding One Human Family.
When Mother Teresa looked into the face of a diseased and impoverished dying man from the streets of Calcutta and said that she had seen the face of God, she was touching on this truth. When a senior woman member of the Gathering spends hours every week tutoring a young inner city youth and inwardly cries with joy every time the child successfully reads a sentence or learns a math problem, that truth is touched. When people volunteer and travel many miles to build homes, clinics and schools for the poor with their own hands, this truth is touched. When Jesus taught that those who clothe the naked, visit the prisoner, feed the starving, and welcome the stranger – that they will find the realms of heaven, he was speaking to this truth. Heavenly insight and peace are found in loving others. They are found in humbly giving and serving. They are found in being the change we want to see.
My friends, I often say in my Gathering messages that life is not just about meeting our own needs and desires. Ultimately, it is about what we have done for others. This belief of mine holds true for individuals and for churches. Our purpose for existence is not to merely suck up the pleasures of life or to sit in so-called holy huddles with an inward focus. That approach will lead to an impersonal and uninspired culture of which I want no part.
Securing happiness in life is a worthy goal but the ironic truth is that our ultimate, ultimate! contentment and discovery of universal spiritual truths lies in having an outward focus and purpose that reaches beyond ourselves, that truly connects with other people. As individuals, congregations and churches, our task is to be agents of change both for ourselves and for the world. If the Gathering or Northern Hills were to cease to exist tomorrow, we must hope the wider community would notice – that all of our efforts to change things for the better would be no longer and that we would be profoundly missed. The same, it is hoped, will be said about any of us at our passing – that the world was a better place because of us, that we changed other lives for the good, that we gave a year of our lives to offer succor and comfort to the afflicted, that we found the key that unlocks the mystery of our existence : that we touched the face of the divine and found there-on the face of a brother and sister in need.
I wish you all much peace and joy.
For our heart to heart time, or as we at the Gathering call the message talkback time, I’m interested particularly in hearing experiences you have had when serving others gave you greater insight, growth or perspective. How did an act of service change YOU for the better?
For myself, I recall a work team trip I took about fifteen years ago to help build houses for homeless families in Mexico. Most lived in what could only be described as dirty makeshift shacks of cardboard and sticks. I worked on a team that built a nice but small one room home with a foundation, a shingle roof, real windows and doors. During the week the father helped us in the construction. The woman busied herself with chores of laundry, cooking and bringing us cold drinks. Their five year old daughter was left mostly to herself by our worksite. And this young girl spent hours every day amusing herself by playing with an assortment of bottle caps and small rocks that she maneuvered through the dirt pretending they were trucks or people or whatever in her imaginary play. No real toys – just bottle caps and rocks. I was struck not only by her ingenuity but by her overall happiness playing with whatever she could find. Her example reminds me of my perspective on material things and my desire for so-called toys. I used her example with my two daughters and I still do – they like to roll their eyes at me when I repeat it. I’ve been blessed in life with so much and yet that girl with so little showed me a contentment and happiness that often eludes me.
I welcome your comments about my message or on your own experiences with serving people in need….if you would, please use the microphone here to my right for your comments so that all can hear.