Laying the Foundation of Life
June 1, 2008
In one of his books, Rabbi Harold Kushner tells the following story:
A rabbi of a very large and influential congregation ran into one of his congregants on the street, “Peter,” he said, “I haven’t seen you in awhile. Is everything okay?”
“Oh yes, Rabbi,” the man said, “Everything’s fine but my wife and I have started to attend a synagogue on the other side of town.”
“Really,” the rabbi said, “that surprises me. I know the person who is rabbi there and he’s a fine enough rabbi, but he really is not as good a preacher or leader as I am. Therefore I’m surprised that you would leave us and go there.”
“Well,” the man said, “what you say is true, our new rabbi doesn’t have all the gifts you have. But he has other gifts. In fact, he knows how to read minds, and he’s teaching us to do the same. Let me show you. Think of something, concentrate on something and I’ll tell you what you’re thinking.”
So the rabbi decided to play along. He concentrated on a thought.
The man said, “I think that you are concentrating on Psalm 16. It says: I will set the Lord in my heart at all times.”
The rabbi laughed. “Peter, I wasn’t thinking of that at all.”
“I know you weren’t,” said the man, “that’s why we’re not worshipping at your synagogue any more.”
What we put in our minds is of utmost importance. What we set in our hearts is evident to the people around us—at times, more evident than we’d like it to be. If our primary concern is our own comfort or success or influence, it will not take long for the people around us to figure that out. They only need to look at the way we make decisions, at the way we allocate our time, to discover what rules our life. To use the image of Jesus in today’s gospel: we must choose what is at the foundation of our life, what supports everything else. This is why Jesus’ words in today’s gospel are so important. He points out that what we place first, what we lay as a foundation, will make a difference. Some foundations can support a life that is rewarding and positive, and others will only lead to a life that collapses in ruins. Some foundations are of rock. Others are of sand.
The Russian novelist, Ivan Turgenev, once received a letter from a close friend who said, “Ivan, I’ve discovered that the most difficult thing in life is learning how to place yourself second.”
Turgenev responded, “No, the most difficult thing in life is learning what to place first.” What we place first determines everything else. It is the foundation, whether for good or for ill on which our lives are built.
So what should we place first? What should we lay as the foundation of our life? Psalm 16 says we should place the Lord in our heart at all times, that’s God’s will should be the foundation of our lives. But what is God’s will? God’s will can so easily become a cliché. What does it mean to find God’s will? Finding God’s will is a process, a discernment. God’s will can change for us from year to year, even from day to day. God’s will is a moving target that we must locate.
But we can find the will of God if we answer two questions: What have I been given and how can I use it to build life? What have I been given? What are my gifts? What are my resources? Where is my sphere of influence? And once I recognize that, how can I use it to build life: my life, the life of others, the life of the world?
Now the answers to those two questions will vary widely. There will be a big difference if we ask them as the President of the United States or the minimum wage worker at Wal-Mart. But whoever we are, when we ask those two questions in sincerity and truth, they will lead us to God’s will for us, and God’s will can then be the foundation of our lives.
I think of a woman in her sixties, dying of cancer with six months to live. She decided that it was God’s will for her to try to reconcile her children to one another. She called each of them from her deathbed over and over, begging them to make peace with one another. She was not entirely successful, but her children realized her faith in a deeper way and never forgot the impact of her appeal to them.
I think of a man who owned a small machine shop and who decided that it was God’s will for him to try to find more adequate health care for his employees. He met with his accountants and business advisors. He met with those who worked for him. Over time he established a new health-care policy and built up in his company a spirit of loyalty and respect which people had one for another.
I had a conversation with a parent who had a very competitive and demanding job. But each week he would put into his Black-berry two hours that he wanted to spend with each of his two children. It was an appointment which he would cancel only in an emergency. He discerned that this was God’s will for him.
Each one of us must ask ourselves: What have I been given and how can I use it to promote life in my world? The answers to those questions will at times change, but finding those answers and implementing them will make all the difference. People around us already know what we value, what we place first. The Gospel warns us to be sure that we recognize our priorities as well. What we place at the foundation of our life will influence everything else. It will determine whether we are building our life on rock or on sand.
Building on Rock
March 6, 2011
Matthew 7: 21-27
To understand today’s Gospel you need to know something about the climate of Palestine. It hardly ever rains. Almost every day is sunny and dry. But, there is a brief rainy season and during that season the rain comes in torrents. During the dry period you can build a house anywhere you want. The ground is the packed and solid and strong. It will support any structure you put up. But in the rainy season the ground of Palestine changes. The dirt that used to be dry and strong becomes mushy and weak, and it gives way. Therefore, the only houses that remain standing during the rainy season are those houses that have been built, not on soil, but on rock.
Now, of course, the house in Jesus’ parable is meant to represent our own life. The message that comes to us in this parable is not, “Is your life standing now? Is it working today?” The message is instead, “Will your life continue to stand when the rains come? Will you survive when the ground begins to shift under your feet?” It is clear that the rainy season can be any kind of tragedy in our life: the sudden death of a person that we love, the diagnosis of a serious sickness, the discovery that someone we trusted has betrayed us, the realization that our finances have fallen apart, a decision by one of our children to make a disastrous mistake that could ruin everything. The examples go on and on. But the message is that on any particular day the rains can begin to fall and the ground can shift under our feet. Then, if we are to survive, our life must be built on rock.
But what is a rock foundation? What are the necessary things that we must have as the foundation of our lives, so that we will be able to survive when the rains come? Let me suggest three: relationships, integrity, and faith.
There is no rock foundation without relationships, because when the rain begins to fall, we need one another. When crises come, we depend on the love and support of family and friends to get us through. I often tell people who are facing tremendous tragedy that the most important thing at this time is love, remaining connected to the people who care for you. Therefore, we need to build good relationships. When we are too weak to carry on, the people who we love will carry us. We must begin today to build mutual and strong relationships that will assist us in the future. People who think that they can do it on their own, that they can live without healthy relationships, are fools. They are building their houses on sand.
We also need integrity. Integrity is allows us to live with honesty and honor. When crisis comes, we need to be able to trust that we have lived rightly, that we have not cheated or cut corners, that we have done our best. When the rains begin to fall we need the strength of knowing we have nothing to hide. Even as our world is coming down around us we cam still stand, because we know who we are. We are people who have followed God’s commands, who have served one another, who have lived with integrity.
Finally we need faith. Faith is belief that God is real, that God is greater than us, and that God cares for us. When crises hit we can very seldom see the larger picture. In those times we have little control. But faith tells us that God has control and that we can trust God. With faith we can continue to hope even in tragedy. With faith, we can entrust ourselves to God even when we do not understand. We should begin today to develop that faith, to entrust ourselves to God now so that when the rains come we can turn to God who is our help and refuge.
Only with relationships, integrity, and faith can we build a rock foundation. It is important that we begin building that foundation today. Now is the time to develop and nurture loving and mutual relationships with others. Now is the time to make choices that are honest and honorable, to live with integrity. Now is the time to build our faith and to entrust ourselves to God’s care. If we wait until the rains come, it may be too late.