Tuesday, January 21, 2014

having a cause

“A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; then work which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one's neighbor — such is my idea of happiness.”
― Leo Tolstoy Family Happiness

Today my roommate and I saw a very interesting documentary. This post isn't the place to get into what it was about, but while we were talking about the film at lunch we discovered there was one line in it that jumped out at us both. It more or less stated that whatever you think is the most important cause in the world right now is the one you should be working at (and if you aren't, why not?!) It struck us both because, while we both have strong feelings and opinions on many world and societal issues, there isn't really one grand cause in particular that we feel particularly well-suited to make much of a difference in (based on our individual abilities and influence). I don't mean this to sound defeatist. I also don't want to downplay the AMAZING work being done by incredible civic leaders and inspired activists, many of whom start out as unqualified as I am, or the need to be involved in larger community causes. I just want to explain how the limit to my influence, which limits what I am able to actually DO, actually inspires me -- but in a very different direction.

I know it goes against the assurance of the american dream that anyone can do anything they work hard for. I know it goes against the idealistic motto that with God all things are possible. It's not that I don't see the reasoning behind these ideas and agree with them to a degree -- it's just that I'm also a bit of a realist and when it all comes down to it, I understand the limits of my capacities, my context, and that God's will often involves me operating within these constraints. And I don't see this as a bad thing.

Bigger causes often seem more important than those that are on limited and more intimate scale. But but small in scale doesn't equal small in influence.

I started of this post with that quote by Tolstoy not just because it is also MY "idea of happiness"* but because it is also my idea of my cause -- of my purpose and source of satisfaction (which ultimately contributes to happiness). I don't have the ethos to affect change on a grand scale. I do have a little bit of credibility however with a few close friends and my immediate family. These are the ones I can influence for good in a just cause. Within my small circle is good I can do, unique to my abilities and the particular conditions of the situation. There is useful work that doesn't change the world at large but does affect the world of those around me. There is love to be nurtured with individuals for whom that love can be life-shaping.

I have come to the realization that limits are as God-given as capacities. Mine have placed me in a unique position to understand the beauty and meaning in serving the causes found within "a quiet secluded life" and of the special focus on intimate associations it affords.

I will always want to find ways to make a difference in the bigger causes that I care about and I hope I can find and do them. But, I also hope to never let that diminish meaning I find the modest work I do to make a difference to those few God has placed within my sphere.

*as a side note: that quote really does encapsulate perfectly my IDEAL of happiness. Beauty, culture, service, work, love -- all the BEST of this life. I feel I could devote a whole post just to expounding on how how the truth of Tolstoy's words resonates with me!

Saturday, January 4, 2014

the parable of the talents

I was discussing Matthew 25:14-30 (about the parable of the talents) with my family and we all sorta realized how little we really understood this parable -- that we had always just accepted the conventional explanations and perhaps missed its secrets for so many years… 

Consider the following questions my brother raised:

In modern english, the word "talent" has come to refer exclusively to any kind of mental endowment, aptitude, or physical ability. From the perspective of those hearing the parable (and the author of the gospel), a talent was a measurement of money. Has the modern understanding of the parable been based exclusively on the contemporary definition of the word "talent"? Perhaps restricting the parable's definition to modern english's definition of the word "talent" is too restrictive? But not including that definition in the parable's interpretation could be too exclusive as well no? Is there something else here?  
The description of the "lord" in the parable is interesting and I'm not sure what to make of it if it's supposed to be a parallel to God. The man with a single talent described his lord thus: "I knew thee that thou art an hard man, reaping where thou hast not sown, and gathering where thou hast not strewed". This seems to indicate the master enriches himself at the cost of others. The master himself admits: "thou knewest that I reap where I sowed not, and gather where I have not strewed". So he is admitting he is known to be ruthless and rapacious in business and expects the servant to have acted similarly? That doesn't seem to be a very apt description of who God is … at least not to me. 
Lastly, the amounts distributed to the slaves, at least from what I've read, are actually very large. Supposedly, a talent was equivalent to about 6,000 denarii, a denarii being equal to a day's wage for a common laborer. Thus, one talent, would be about twenty years worth of wages (no small amount). Five talents, as given to another one of the servants, would be about 100 years worth of wages. Why then does the Lord say, "Well done, thou good and faithful aservant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things"? In my mind, another way of saying this would be "you've been faithful over a little, I'll put you in charge of a lot" even though one talent is not "a little".

In consideration of these questions my dad sent us all a link to one man's interpretation of the parable -- which aptly answers these questions. I strongly urge you to read and reread this analysis of the parable of the talents. It is so beautiful and so profound, just as Jesus intended I think.

***p.s. To me this understanding of the parable is born out well with the verse (similar to the one in Matthew) in D&C 82:3
 For of him unto whom much is given much is required; and he who sins against the greater light shall receive the greater condemnation.

I always read this verse as referring to more than just talents/blessings we are given, so sinning "against the greater light" does not mean not failing to use talents/abilities, it is failing to live up to what you know to be God's will for your life -- refusing to see what has been illuminated for you, or seeing it and rejecting it. Some of us have a clearer understanding/more illumination, and so when we fail to live accordingly -- when we wrap ourselves up "with hobbies and little luxuries" and selfishness  as C.S. Lewis put it -- we fail just the way the author described in the analysis of the parable.