Saturday, February 18, 2012

Eating Last

A Lenten Reflection

Bill was a good kid from a fine family, but he was not terribly interested in working hard in high school. During my traditional “roast” of our seniors at his graduation, I said that " he had making C’s down to a science, except for the time he miscalculated in one class, worked too hard and made a B." He was an affable, likable young man, but slouched a bit, indicative of his disposition, and would rarely look you in the eye. I worried that his college career would be “one and done.”

But Bill chose a different path. He joined the Marine Corps.

I lost touch and didn’t see him again until our school hosted a career day four years later. When he walked into my office, I almost didn’t recognize him. He was crisply dressed in formal Marine attire, a dark navy jacket with red trim, white gloves and hat. He stood upright, the slouch gone, looked me dead in the eye, shook my hand firmly and said “Sir, it’s good to see you again.” I learned he had served two tours in Iraq, where he had received numerous commendations. He was confident, happy, and future oriented. Soon he would be leaving the Corps to join the city fire department, and he was engaged to his high school sweetheart, a lovely young lady that I once thought deserved better.

Whether we’re hawks or doves, we can all admire the Marine Corps for the remarkable job it does transforming the 18 and 19 year old “Bill’s” of this world into young men. Recently, I came upon an interview of a Marine colonel, who was asked if he could describe the secret of their success in this regard. The colonel smiled, and in the wonderful brevity that marks many of our service men, said “ Officers eat last. “

Officers eat last in the mess halls; the enlisted eat first. The symbolism of that is not lost on the men. Deep within the ethos of the Marine Corps is the principle of servant leadership: that the men matter more than the officers. The colonel went on to explain: “A rank, a uniform, deserves attention, but it doesn’t command respect. Marines will follow officers who show genuine concern for their welfare. Marines will follow officers who sacrifice. Marines will follow officers who set the example, who eat last. “

We're in a season of the year, Lent, that leads up to the ultimate example of a person who "eats last" with us. "Greater love hath no man than this, to lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13).

Lent is a time we're challenged to follow that example by doing things for others, and putting them first. But let me offer this observation, because I think something strange happens when we do. So much of what we're encouraged to do in this world of ours is aimed at improving ourselves, making ourselves feel better, taking care of ourselves. We pump iron to improve our muscles, we exercise and diet to improve our bodies, we study to improve our minds. Nothing wrong with those things, but they're ultimately self-serving--they make us better. But there's an opposite dynamic at work if we're interested in improving our souls, and I would argue, in improving our disposition and attitude about life. Following the laws of "spiritual physics," when we give to others, when we put their needs before our own, we are the ones most lifted up, we are the ones who become happy. When I was a young boy I never understood the expression "better to give than receive" (I was quite happy to be the recipient!), but as I matured, I began to understand. It's the way God made us.

In the life of a high school, February is often the most difficult month, the "dog days" of the school year. Christmas is long forgotten, Spring break is still some time far off, graduation and summer even further. We get tired, stressed, worried about our grades. It's easy to become self-centered and cranky, and our natural instincts are to draw into ourselves, circle the emotional wagons, and take care of #1. I urge you to do the opposite this Lent. If you really want to feel better, if you really want a lift, to feel liberated, even, go out of your way to do something kind to someone else. Befriend someone who needs a friend, say something kind to a classmate who needs it, write a letter to family members telling them how important they are to you, or give someone a random gift. It will make them happy, for sure, but in so doing, it will also lift you out of the doldrums.

May all of us have the grace this Lent to put others first. May we be willing to "eat last" among our fellow students, our co-workers and our friends.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Rest in Peace, Whitney Houston

Contrasting with this age of ridiculous, over the top Super Bowl musical productions, there was this transcendent moment in Super Bowl XXV, performed by the greatest female singer of our generation.

Rest in peace, Whitney Houston.