Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Gospel According to Matthew & Elbert Hubbard

No one could accuse Elbert Green Hubbard (1856-1915) of underliving his potential.  

Having agreed to take service for my home church pastor while she's at the Diocesan Convention this weekend, I ran across a quote by Hubbard in preparing a sermon on the text of Matthew 25:14-30.  The story line is that a property owner decided to take a long sabbatical, and "entrusted" each of his three servants with what amounted to some serious cash (called "talents" in the story) in differing measures, though to "each according to his ability", then went away. Matthew relates that the ones with the biggest and the second biggest shares doubled their gift, while the third servant went and dug a hole and hid the owner's money.  At length the owner returned and "settled accounts with them".  He's ecstatic with the increased investments of the first two, and rewards them each with a handsome promotion, though it's not clear what that was.  But the last guy?  The owner's not so happy with him.  Before the owner can even ask for an accounting, the man volunteers: "Master, I knew you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed" [in my movie version of the story, I visualize Donald Trump as the owner!].  "So," the servant mumbles, "I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.  True to the description, the owner launches into a tirade, calling the servant "wicked" and "lazy" and probably some other expurgated descriptives, reminding him that the least he could've done was to invest the money with the bankers and the owner would have received the original gift plus interest.  [At this point in the movie version, Donald Trump, with a dramatic flourish of his pointed finger, shouts: "You're fired!"]

Getting back to Elbert Hubbard: he was a prolific writer and editor, among other things, and he also had the misfortune of going down on the Lusitania, torpedoed by the Germans, along with his wife.  Interestingly, L. Ron Hubbard, of Scientology fame, was his nephew by adoption.  The quotation by Elbert which I ran across is this:  "When inertia gets the better of you, it is time to telephone the undertaker."

How frequently people like the servant in Matthew's story become frozen by apathy, lack of commitment, inertia, trapped by being neither for nor against anything.  Like the servant they do nothing.  Good held back may often be as great a sin as perpetrated evil, maybe more so.  It's one thing to risk using one's talents and losing.  It's another not to use them at all, by choice.  There's a good chance that fear was at the root of the servant's inertia: fear of failure, fear that, failing, his master would think less of him, or worse.  Rather than "Nothing ventured, nothing gained", the servant's motto seems to have been "Nothing risked, nothing lost."

At the very least, the story is good psychology.  Too many of us underlive our human potential.  The real preponderance of our failings may lie in "leaving undone those things which we ought to have done", to quote the Book of Common Prayer.  

A. Bartlett Giamatti, former president of Yale and later the seventh Commissioner of Baseball, told a group of students:
"I am concerned that, confronted by problems, many of us have no faith in time or believe we have no time to let faith grow."  If nothing else, each of us has the "talent" of the present, today, the now with which to reach out to others.  We might ask ourselves if we intentionally block out time for our spouses or significant others, our children, our neighbors, the sick, the elderly, strangers.  Do we take time regularly to devote to the Divine: in quietness, in worship, or just for marvelling at the wonders of the surrounding creation? 

If I'm going to underlive life by clutching what I have all to myself, by burying it, by sticking only with what I know, by staying close only to the friends I already have, by closing off my mind to any new insight or creative vision, then it may be time to take Elbert Hubbard's advice and "telephone the undertaker".

In the U.S. today there are so many fears which grip us as citizens and cause us to hide and withhold ourselves.  Robert Bellah and his co-authors of the book Habits of the Heart speak of the fearfulness of community, of intimacy, and of commitment which our historically radical American individualism has brought upon us today, not to mention the myth of true bipartisanship in our Congress.  As far back as the 1830's, Alexis de Tocqueville, noted French political philosopher, warned that this individualistic spirit might eventually isolate Americans from one another, and thereby undermine the conditions of freedom.  

It appears that many today, especially children, live in fear of nuclear threat, of terrorism, of our worsening global ecological situation, and, more recently, of financial collapse.  We fear other nations: allies who compete with us economically, and enemies whom we believe threaten our borders.  As a nation, we've so often buried our "talents" because of this fear.  Surely, behind many Americans' insecurity is the fear of losing the comfortable standard of living for which many have scrambled and competed, and to which we feel, dare we say it, entitled, regardless of others not so blessed.  Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in his Nobel Literature Prize lecture in 1970, referred to the phrase coined back in 1938, "the spirit of Munich".  He described it as "an illness of will of prosperous people.  It is the daily state of those who have given themselves over to the thirst of well-being at no matter what cost, to material prosperity as the principal goal of life on earth.  Such people...choose passivity and retreat, anything so that their accustomed life should continue undisturbed, anything so as not to have to cross over into hardship today, while tomorrow, they hope, will take care of itself..."

As I think about Matthew's story, one message, as it relates to my own life, seems clear:  I'm not put here on this earth just to mark time, but to utilize my abilities, skills, and human potential by investing them in the service of others and in the stewardship of this earth, "our island home", to quote the Book of Common Prayer again.  To give into inertia, to withhold initiative, to hide my "talent" in the ground isn't a viable option.  

As Elbert Hubbard also said: "The only real neutral in this game of life is a dead one."  

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