Monday, January 15, 2007

The Content of our Character

One of my favorite works of literature to teach is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech. We usually hear all, or parts of, it at least once a year around this time—the time of his birthday. I’ve studied and taught this speech many, many times, and each time I do, I hear/learn something new and important. This year, I’m not teaching freshmen or American literature, which is where I teach the speech, and I missed it. So I thought I’d do my annual musing here this year instead. My favorite part is nestled in the several lines that begin with the phrase that gives the speech its familiar moniker: “I have a dream.” You know how it goes. King is talking about his vision for a dramatic change in the way we treat each other, the way we look for quality in our fellow human beings. He says that he has a dream that one day his four little children will be “judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin.”

The content of their character. Maybe because one of the things I try to do is teach character, but those words all but jump out at me. There are so many implications for us in that little phrase. First of all, it demands that we look beyond the surface when we look at each other. It says that superficial qualities are not what’s essential in a life. It implies that we need to be more like God, looking at the heart rather than at the outward appearance, the color of one’s skin. That much is obvious, I think. What may not be as obvious, but which is equally important, if not more so, is how imperative it is that there is something of quality inside to see if and when others get beyond the surface. In other words, Character Counts. The quality of our character counts. If we want people to see and know us for what we are inside, shouldn’t what’s inside be worth seeing and knowing? A rhetorical question, I think. The answer has to be “Yes.” But it’s not so academic or easy to actually accomplish. And yet, it’s something that we absolutely must accomplish if we want our lives to be the best of times instead of the worst of times. And we need to get it done right now.

In Chaim Potok’s book The Chosen, (another literary work I love to teach and share) Reuven’s father talks with his son about making his character count and the importance of doing it now. He says “Human beings do not live forever. We live less time than it takes to blink an eye, if we measure our lives against eternity. So—you may ask what value is there to a human life? There is so much pain in the world. What does it mean to have to suffer so much if our lives are nothing more than the blink of an eye? Actually, the blink of an eye in itself is nothing. But the eye that blinks, that is something. A span of life is nothing. But the person who lives that span—that person (you)—is something. You can fill that tiny span with meaning, so its quality is immeasurable though its quantity may be insignificant. Do you understand what I am saying? You must fill your life with meaning; meaning is not automatically given to life. It is hard work to fill one’s life with meaning.”

So. What kind of meaning do you think you are supposed to fill your life with? The Bible has a number of answers for us. You’ve probably heard them many times, in Sabbath School, in church, in worships, in sermons. Maybe even in some of the books you read. All of those answers take us back to Jesus, though, to putting Jesus first in our lives. In Matthew 10:24, 25, Jesus is in the midst of a conversation with his disciples. He’s been showing and telling them about the meaning of discipleship throughout the book of Matthew, and here, he brings us to the crux of the matter. “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for a disciple that he be like his teacher, and a servant like his master.” Jesus’ statement implies that His disciples need to be like Him. In essence, Jesus and Mr. Malther are saying the same thing, that as Christians, as disciples of Jesus, we must fill our lives with meaning, that we must make our characters count.

But it takes time and effort to fill our lives with meaning. And listening—LOTS of it. It takes doing things we may not think are enjoyable . . . but doing them anyway because it’s the right thing to do. It means realizing that we are responsible for our words and actions —that there are risks involved in being a part of humanity—and consequences too. It means being honest with others, but more importantly with ourselves. It means being vulnerable—to hurt, yes, but also to life—and to friendship and the wonderful strength that it can bring to our lives. “If you cannot do these things,” Mr. Malther tells his son, “your life has no depth, no value. Merely to live, merely to exist—what sense is there to that? A fly also lives.”

The apostle Paul has a lot to say about the meaning we should fill our lives with, about the content of our characters. In 1st Corinthians 13 he suggests that we need to be patient and kind, that we should not be envious or conceited, that we should not be rude or easily provoked. He says we should think no evil, and should not rejoice when others are in trouble. In Galatians 5 he reminds us that if the Holy Spirit is directing our lives, we will be filled with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. In Philippians, he tells us that we should fill our minds with whatever things are true, noble, just, pure, lovely, good, virtuous, and praiseworthy. And in Colossians 3, he tells us to demonstrate tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience towards others. He says we should bear with one another, forgive one another, love one another and let the peace of God rule our hearts. He says to be thankful, to teach and encourage one another, and to sing with grace in our hearts.

So, there you have it. As you go through your busy days, I would like to suggest that you slow yourselves down a minute—long enough to examine the direction you are racing in. Look at your lives. Is there quality in you that you can be proud of? Is there meaning to your present—and direction to your future? See if there isn’t anything you can do to make yourselves the best you can be. With God’s love and protection, and the encouragement of friends and family, how can you help but find meaning in your life—and add quality to all who meet you?!

To close, I’d like to go back to a quote I shared a week or so ago—I have it posted next to my computer to remind myself each day of the only way I can fill my life with meaning so that others will judge me by the quality of my character rather than anything else they may notice about me. It comes from M. L. Haskins’ book The Desert and it says this: “I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: ‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’ And he replied: ‘Go out into the darkness and put your hand in the hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.’”


Heidi said...

I saw part of a documentary last week about how the "I have a dream" portion of the speech was actually spontaneous and not planned out ahead of time. If everything was scripted in life, we would miss out on so much.

Sunny said...

Supposedly JFK said "I have dreams too" when he watched MLK give the speech on TV. Wonderful to have dreams-got to be ALIVE to dream.

I watched the whole thing on you-tube. He neve glanced at his notes during the "I have a dream" OR the "let freedom ring" parts. However, the "dream" theme appeared more spontaneous and "freedom" rang out fluent and flawless (as in possible easily memorized in advance).

Mostly I looked at that crowd of folks who were willing to really expend themselves for their cause. They had a PURPOSE! And, they really did accomplish something. Makes you wonder, "what am I doing?"