Saturday, December 21, 2013

Practicing the Fundamentals

I'm dismayed by the amount of bigotry that surrounds me. Everywhere I turn, I see people, many of whom I generally respect and admire, judging, condemning and attacking those whose world doesn't fit neatly into theirs. Making it worse is the fact that so many of them do it not for themselves, but because their boss, or their buddies ... or their pastor say they should.
I struggle with this last one mightily. You see, I believe there is room for everyone at God's table, regardless of their lifestyles, beliefs or religious practices. It's our actions and treatment of others that determine whether or not we will celebrate eternal life in Paradise, much more than our blind devotion to following an interpretation of rules in a book.
I realize that I hold these values because my family, my teachers and my church all drilled them into me from a young age. They taught me to recognize that our individual paths to salvation are paved with our kind words, our charitable deeds and our treatment of others as equals; not with our outward piety and certainly not with our knee-jerk condemnation of anyone who believes or acts differently than us.
And I'm stressed about it. My daughter is almost four, the start of an impressionable period where every word I utter in her presence shapes her values, her beliefs and even her personality. Will I be able to teach her the right lessons while also shielding her from, or at least helping her understand, all the unfounded hatred that she'll encounter every day? I know she'll grow up surrounded by the same love that I was, but will she embrace it?
All I can do is try to lead her down the right path, so I’ve laid out a few key personal tenets that I hope will result in a little girl who grows up into a well-rounded and thoughtful adult:

Love and respect your neighbors. In life, you will cross paths with people from all walks of life – different races, different cultures, different intellects, different sexual preferences, and so on. You’ll meet them in school, in church, in your neighborhood and everywhere else you choose to venture. Some of them will be like-minded with you. Some of them will not. Love them either way. Greet them with a smile. If you have a disagreement, don’t be afraid to debate, but always do it with courtesy and civility. And afterwards, shake hands. If your neighbor won’t reciprocate that respect, take the moral high ground. Don’t retaliate. Walk away.

Be open-minded. Don’t stereotype. People’s life choices don’t define their worth as human beings. Don’t jump to conclusions about anyone based on their skin color, manner of dress or personality traits. Get to know them first. In some instances, you’ll find out that a person is simply a jerk, and that’s fine – you needn’t have a soft spot for everyone. But you should never hate somebody without getting to know them, and certainly not because of what some book or talking head says you should think about them or their “type.”

Choose your words carefully. What you say, and how you say it, can have consequences. Your right to speak freely doesn't absolve you from responsibility for what you say. It can impact, for better or worse, your ability to lead a productive life. It can also have a profoud effect on your ability to develop and maintain meaningful personal and profssional relationships. Follow a simple rule - if you wouldn't want people to say it to, or about you, you probably shouldn't say it to, or about them.

Give freely and willingly. When you see a Salvation Army bucket, drop in some change. If your school or office has a food drive, bring in a few cans of beans. Volunteer. And when you feel like you’ve given enough of your time and treasure, consider giving just a little bit more. There are many people in the world who are struggling, and there is always someone whose needs outweigh your desires. Our society will collapse on itself if the mighty are unwilling to lift up the weak. And never forget that although today you are mighty, tomorrow you may be weak.

Absorb as much religion as you can. Regardless of how you ultimately feel about organized religion, it’s still important to understand it. Living in my house, you'll be primarily exposed to moderately liberal Protestantism, and I hope you find value in it. But I also hope you'll find opportunities to branch out. Visit a synagogue. Check out a mosque. Attend Catholic Mass. As a society, we divide ourselves by our religious differences. Wouldn’t it be better to discover all that we have in common as a community of faith? Won’t you feel more complete as a person if you can comfortably celebrate your convictions with those who express theirs differently rather than segregate yourself from them?

Most significantly, be prepared to fail in all these things – repeatedly. You’re human. Over the course of your life your behaviors will often fall short. You’ll be stubborn. You’ll scream. You'll be selfish. You’ll pre-judge others – for their appearance, for their mannerisms and for any number of other superficial characteristics. What’s important to remember is that each time you fall, you must get up, dust yourself off and commit to trying harder the next time.

My faith teaches me that at the end of our lives, we are sent to be judged before God. Our worthiness to enter his kingdom will be determined not by how hard we prayed, and certainly not by how hard we fought against those who prayed differently than us. We will be judged by how graciously we lived our lives, how willingly we put the needs of others above our own desires, and how we never stopped – not until our dying day – striving to do better.