(c) Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering, UCC, All Rights Reserved
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Jonathon Zagami is an Iraqi war veteran. At the age of 18, he signed up to join the army and eagerly went to war believing he could help change that nation for the better. He was an affable, outgoing guy who made friends with anyone. Two years later, in 2005, he returned to the U.S as an angry, profane and sullen man. He kept to himself, turned away friends, cursed others, and retreated into his own world.
As a combat engineer in Iraq, he helped to clear mine fields and demolish buildings suspected of being enemy bases. He was kicked in the head and knocked unconscious for several hours while doing Iraqi crowd control. Later, he was twice knocked unconscious as a result of being near mortar fire. He’s been diagnosed as having lasting brain injuries as well as post-traumatic stress disorder. He has suffered several strokes since his return and his future health prognosis is uncertain.
Today, however, he is a college graduate and a salesman for a national Insurance company. He’s also the founder of a veteran’s advocacy group called “No Man Left Behind” which raises money to support persons suffering from PTSD in particular. He also helped found a group on many college campuses that assists returning soldiers adjust to student life.
Jonathan’s life today is remarkable considering his serious injuries and how he acted when he returned. Much of his success is due to his hard work and determination. But a huge amount of credit also goes to his sister Jaime who has been his guardian angel and fierce advocate since he first went to war. While in Iraq, she communicated with him every day. She sent 50 pound weekly care packages to him and his army buddies – full of food, music CD’s, newspapers, magazines, and even items for female soldiers in Jonathan’s unit. Jaime never forgot her brother and made it her mission to stay in constant touch – listening to him talk about his experiences, lifting him up with jokes, and supporting him as needed.
When Jonathan returned, it was Jaime who worked to console him and help him re-adjust. Even so, he was profoundly disabled. A year after his return, she convinced him to enroll with her at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She was his constant supporter and advocate in college – helping him register for classes, reminding him of important tests and assignments, acting as a go-between when he got angry or acted strangely. Jonathan found it difficult to tolerate the typical college life of care-free students – the drunken parties, filthy dorm rooms, skipped classes and self-focused lives. He fought with many fellow students – acting out the anger and frustration that can come with PTSD. But his sister smoothed his rough edges, encouraged him, supported him, and cheered him on in his studies. Four years after enrolling, Jonathan and Jaime stood together on the graduation stage – their arms entwined. Jonathan calls his sister his hero. Jaime says it is the other way around. Nevertheless, Jonathan says he could never have attended, much less graduated, from college had it not been for his sister.
Today, they both regularly volunteer for the organization they founded – “No Man Left Behind”. It recently raised almost as much money for injured veterans as did a well known Boston Red Sox veterans charity. Along with two other siblings, Jonathan and Jamie will soon compete in the Boston marathon together – Jaime being the one to set the pace and to constantly inspire her big brother onward.
Who has inspired you in your life? Who has been someone who influenced you and encouraged you? To inspire another person is to influence, move or guide them to a newly perceived truth about themselves, their actions or life in general. The apostle Paul, writing in his first letter to the Corinthian church, said inspiration is a spiritual domain that is not of the rational mind. When we are inspired, he seemed to imply, we have reached a higher plane of awareness that is beyond thought. Our minds and consciousness are elevated and in tune with something transcendent and beautiful. It is like hearing a great piece of music or viewing a cloudscape over a set of towering mountains. We can neither articulate or analyze our feelings of awe, wonder and emotion. We are simply inspired.
Henry David Thoreau wrote that when we are inspired, we are transformed in our thinking, through both reason and emotion, to perceive something anew in a fresh and passionate manner. However it worked, the young man Jonathan that I just spoke about was obviously inspired to a new outlook on life, and himself, through the encouragement, example and support of his sister. Much like what the apostle Paul alluded to, she tapped into something spiritual in her love and support of her brother. We often do not recognize our actions as such but to inspire someone goes beyond using mere words. Indeed, to be inspired is to be touched by something other worldly, profound and deeply meaningful. Such a feeling initiates a desire to do something creative and purposeful. Inspiration is therefore not contemplative but is, instead, action oriented. It is easy to tell another what to do or how to act. It is quite another to inspire someone to act – to cast a vision of wonder and goodness that leads them to act in new and wonderful ways.
With my message series this month, I believe that one amazing gift we can offer others is the gift of inspiration. As much as we have benefitted from those people who have inspired us – perhaps a parent, a teacher, a coach, a friend, an artist, a social activist, or maybe a lowly Pastor – our calling is to pay their inspiration forward. We have the potential in each of us to cast a vision that prompts others to move beyond themselves to do good and great things. In this way, as I’ve often said, it is not a supernatural god that inspires the world to become its it’s Edenic ideal. People do that. It is we who are gods and goddesses who inspire miracles. We are the ones with the ability and potential to figuratively move mountains, cure diseases, heal broken hearts, feed the multitudes, transform hatred into love, bigotry into celebration and hopelessness into opportunity.
History is populated with ordinary, otherwise unknown women and men who have inspired millions – Rosa Parks, Todd Beamer of 9/11 heroics, the anonymous man who stood in front of tanks at Tianamen Square, Ryan White the young AIDS victim and humble advocate, 84 year old Edith Windsor whose lawsuit ended the Federal Defense of Marriage Act, Mohammed Bouazizi – the Tunisian man who set himself afire to protest injustice and thereby sparked the Arab Spring revolutions.
While such persons literally inspired others to change history, we have that same power to change lives – to be people who don’t merely speak of social justice, who don’t occasionally perform acts of charity, but who act and speak in ways that inspire those in our spheres of influence to passionately embrace change for the better. We inspire others by being people of action – people who are living examples of serving and caring. It is said that St. Francis of Assisi uttered the famous words that people should spread the teachings of Jesus as often as possible – and only when necessary to use words. We inspire others less with what we say than with what we do.
Inspiring people first and foremost show others that they care. They are passionate about what they do and passionate about serving and elevating those around them. The old adage also applies here in terms of actions versus words – other people don’t care how much you know, they care how much you care. If I even hope to inspire someone, he or she must intuitively know that I am invested in their well-being, that I have shown through my actions that I want them to thrive and that I am concerned about their well being.
Second, inspiring people encourage others with praise. They see the good in others and they are not shy in saying so. They are cheerleaders who lift up and never tear down. In order for any of us to be able to go out into the world to love and serve others, we must first love ourselves. Therefore, to inspire others, we must help people love themselves in such a way that encourages their self-confidence and action.
Third, inspiring people cast wonderful and beautiful visions of what can be achieved. An inspirational person is an effective vision caster. He or she sets challenging but realistic goals that others want to attain. When we inspire others, we figuratively paint a picture of possible greatness that people passionately want to achieve. While it is often said that inspiring people are eloquent and capable communicators, that is a fallacy. We can be inspired by persons who love what they do, who are excited and eager to create change, who model the kinds of behaviors and demeanors that are kind, generous, purposeful and humble. Beautiful words are helpful. Beautiful actions are essential.
Fourth, those who inspire others are not arm-chair generals who rest behind the front lines and merely tell others what to do. Such people are never willing to ask others to tackle a challenging task that they are not also willing to tackle themselves. They have the courage to stand in front and beckon others onward. Indeed, the symbolic analogy is one of a leader who points to a mountain and asks others to join him or her to climb it and plant a symbolic flag on its summit. People are inspired by such a person, and his or her passion, to then also climb that mountain no matter the cost. This task, this mythic mountain – is for humans to be builders of a new creation, a new and better Earth.
What grand visions have animated this congregation? We began as a group of people determined to be a place of respite and care for those who support and embrace diversity – who defy the bigots of the world. That vision became one where we sanctified our ideals by establishing a new and progressive version of what a church should look like. Since then, we have continued to evolve that vision of ourselves. We are no longer content to simply talk about changing the world but instead seek to be a church that is actively doing something to create it. We see ourselves as a place where members sacrificially join together to improve the lives of homeless youth and break the cycle of poverty. It’s a vision where we commit to self-improvement by listening to and following messages of change so that we are practitioners of peace, diversity, humility, and empathy.
And this vision does not rest. Our vision is one with a lofty goal – to firmly establish the Gathering as a progressive change agent in our community for decades to come – one that is growing, vibrant and active. Our task is not to gather into a holy huddle, to comfort ourselves with smug assertions of how good we are, to turn into a place that excludes others, to become another man-made spiritual bureaucracy that is tired, outdated and worthless. Jesus condemned people who symbolically lose their saltiness – who become bland. Instead, he inspired us and others to be defiantly non-religious, defiantly diverse, defiantly anti-bureaucratic, defiantly willing to change, defiantly affirming of any person – especially those on the margins of life and society.
To keep ourselves inspired and evolving, we will continue to set annual goals – to expand how we learn and serve. This past year we added to our outreach efforts by tutoring in our neighborhood elementary school, working with Habitat for Humanity and serving a community Thanksgiving meal. We will work to expand those efforts in the next year while dreaming of and adopting new ways to stir up change. We will not rest, we will not stagnate, we will not console ourselves with what we have already done. Instead, we will be an inspirational place and one that progressively looks to the future. We will continue to ponder and explore questions about ourselves and our world that expands our spiritual awareness of how to act, speak and care for others. We will grow in how we practice with one another the ethics of empathy, understanding, and service. We will grow as models of humility and gentleness. We will each be doers and not just talkers. We will not grow weary when our work seems fruitless, when we are low in funds, when our impact seems small. We will be people who inspire those around us – our families, our colleagues, our circle of friends – sharing with them visions of what motivates us.
Each of us has valuable visions of what the world should look like. We can either spread the gospel of our personal visions by talking about them. Or, we can instead spread them by our example. We can be people who collectively come together to both inspire one another as we work to inspire our community.
The amazing gift we have at the Gathering, the amazing gift we have in ourselves, is the spark of inspiration that not only dreams of a better world but actively works to create it. This spark of inspiration is a gift we want to give away. That spark ought to ignite us every Sunday to go out and do the work we are called to do. To paraphrase the apostle James – one who I believe spoke the true heart of Jesus – let us not be hearers of the word only, or speakers of the word only, but doers of the word – people who actively give away the gift of inspiration with our love…and our work.
I wish you all much peace and joy.
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