“If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” President Obama lit up the ratio and TV talk shows a while back with this statement because 60% of Americans believe that hard work brings success more than lucky breaks, inheritance, or connections (2012—What Americans Believe: American Values Survey by the Atlantic/Aspen Institute). Not even a prolonged and hobbling “recovery” that still seems like a recession to those of us used to fatter times seems to shake this idea that the virtue of individual hard work will prevail.
Yet I am noticing a culture change among athletes, especially those who play team sports, but even among those who are individual “players” but have a support team of coaches, trainers, nutritionists, equipment handlers, bus drivers and press people or agents. In these lean times, when sponsors are most appreciated and not taken for granted, the athletes are thanking them for their support, and not just for the financial gifts, but also for the emotional assistance a name brand brings to their effort. When they begin to look beyond themselves, they realize how many people give their time and energy to help make their individual achievement a success. This is a humbling moment for sure. Neil Armstrong, who passed away this week and was the first man to walk on the moon, said as he touched that alien soil, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind!” Yet he never took the sole credit for his efforts, for he knew he only went as part of a giant team representing a great nation that willed him forward by adding its corporate strength to the thousands of gallons of rocket fuel that powered his tiny capsule into the highest heavens.
Indeed, an athlete, an artist, a writer, an engineer, an astronaut, or a mechanic doesn’t get to the top of his or her field without dedicating their heart, mind, soul and body to the perfection of their craft. We each have a calling to our work, a desire to be the best or to give our best every day, and this attitude gets recognized by the masters of the generation before us. They share their knowledge with us, like Obiwan shared his with young Skywalker. If we are given to wisdom, we will remember our old masters and give them credit when we surpass them, for if we say, “I did it all by myself,” we are showing our two year old brain to the world.
The culture change of which I speak is the value of the community over the individual. When I was young, boys were expected to work and girls were expected to marry. It’s no wonder that 61% of Americans aged 65+believe our “free enterprise system contributes to America’s having stronger values than other places in the world.” Only 36% of our 18-29 year olds think this way, for freedom of speech ranks highest with them (64%) (2012—What Americans Believe, p. 15).
When older people say, “Kids don’t know how to put in a full day’s work anymore,” I wonder if we taught them the meaning of hard work or if we wanted to spare them the pain of our struggling. We no longer teach cursive writing in schools anymore because almost everyone uses the computer. I’ve noticed that some seven year olds can barely write their names legibly in print, so they aren’t teaching basic writing skills in schools either. When I came home with my puny first grade letters, I asked my mother how I could make them better. She said, show me how your teacher told you to make the letter. I said, “The form of b is a stick with a ball.” Yes, so got to your desk and fill a whole page of paper with b until you can make a good straight stick and a nice round ball. My mom knew that practice makes perfect and training my little hands was training me to have a work ethic.
In the same manner, when cursive came to town, I already knew my task. If I wanted pretty handwriting, I needed to fill my pages with theses newfound shapes until my hand automatically produced perfectly formed script. I was developing my small motor movements and my hand eye coordination both. I thrive on details, but I’m not good at yanking heavy weights up and down. We all have our callings!
When seven-year-old “Alberto” says he can’t write his name on his artwork, I look at him and say, now is the time to learn! What letter does Alberto start with? “B?” Al? Does Al sound like B? “A?” he says. Yes, so write A. Now what? “L?” Yes. And so on we go, sounding out his name letter by letter. I am sad that his parents and teachers and the many people in his community haven’t taken the time to make him successful in the one place that has real meaning: his unique name that identifies him. The struggle to learn and to achieve is something each of us must undergo if we want to be the best, for we will all hit a wall of defeat or failure to improve at some point in our lives. All learning involves a certain amount of failure, for we have to discover what we don’t know so that we can reteach/relearn that area. In this sense, learning is just a “going onto perfection” or a smoothing out of the imperfections/failures along the way to our destiny of greatness! We all need to use our gifts of hard work and our Spirits of courage to fail over and over until we succeed. For people like us, we will climb over, tunnel through, or redefine (Kobayashi Maru maneuver) all the obstacles in our paths.
We all would do well to understand what this scripture means: “To each is given the Spirit for the common good.” We each receive spiritual gifts from God, but not because we are hard working and have earned them. We each receive unique gifts from God, but not because we are already born into a spiritually wealthy family and therefore we too participate in our family’s blessings. God chooses freely to whom God will give the gifts of wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment of spirits, various kinds of tongues and the interpretations of tongues (vs. 8-10). These gifts aren’t for the purpose of an individual’s success (one doesn’t make a living by healing or divining the spirits), but the gifts are for the common good of the body of Christ, the church that gathers in his name. Some of the gifts are more exuberant and “flashy” so they brought more attention to the recipient, who began to claim more status and success in the body. However all these gifts are equal and all are useful. We need them all to succeed as a whole, so we need to not only credit one another, but also the give of all good things, our God who activates these gifts in us by his Holy Spirit.
As creative people, we have many people to whom we owe our lives. As I list mine, you should think about listing yours in your journal this week. My grandmother DeLee was a portrait and still life painter, so I wanted “to be an artist when I grew up.” I don’t remember my teacher’s name at the Shreveport Parks and Recreation Saturday Art Classes, but as soon as I could write my name in cursive, I could enter her class and learn the secrets of light and shared, color and value, and begin not only to draw but to paint in various media. I’m thankful for my parents who encouraged me and paid for my art lessons all those years. I give credit to my crazy college professors who pushed me and the agents who worked with me in the first stage of my art career. The twenty years I spent in ministry prepared me spiritually for the work I’m doing now: how many lives, deaths, joys and griefs are there in those 7,300 days? Words will not express these feelings, but the power of the visual image will unpack the potency of the unspoken cries of the heart.
As I think about a visual image to express this image of the community supporting the individual’s success and the individual’s gifts supporting the community, I think that if God’s light didn’t shine into the world long ago, we might still be looking for a savior. If the sun didn’t rise each day, we would know the beauty of God’s world. If we didn’t paint or draw this world as God gives us the gift to see it, then the world would be a duller place indeed. Bring to life with God’s gift to you, your vision of God’s light breaking into the world. This may be a sunrise or a sunset, or a scene with light and shadows. Share it with someone who has helped you along the way.