Nicholas Zeppos is Chancellor of Vanderbilt University. He is a US citizen. He is a lawyer. He is a professor. He is a man of letters.
His grandfather was not. He was a man of few letters. He was illiterate. He was not a US citizen. At least not originally.
But, in 1926 he petitioned for citizenship. And when he did, John Zeppos signed with an X. It was witnessed by two men, Arthur Schiefelbein and George Lang, a merchant and a molder. They testified that Mr Zeppos was a person of character and should become a US citizen.
In his speech to 2900 graduates and their families, Chancellor Zeppos reasoned that
he would not likely now be chancellor of Vanderbilt university if Schiefelbein and Lang had not vouched for his grandfather back in 1926.
“I finally came to realize that I am here because I am educated,” he said. “And I don’t simply mean ‘hear’ today as your chancellor and as a professor at Vanderbilt. I mean ‘here’ today unburdened from worry about the basic necessities of life, able to educate my children, to have good health care, to drink clean water, unafraid to vote, free to experience a broader, more diverse world.”
And what lesson was the class of 2016 to take from the story?
“Do whatever you can to lift others up,” Zeppos said. “Who knows? Someday you may do nothing more than affix your name to a document in support of someone who needs your help. And while it may take eight decades, someone, someday, may just become a college president out of this act of kindness and generosity.” (Vanderbilt Magazine, Summer, 2016)
Most of us are like Schiefelbein and Lang. We will never know what our signature will mean to someone else. That’s why we should always lift others up. Doing the right thing for people who need help is never the wrong thing. Someday, long after we are gone, someone’s grandchild might make an impact that we could have never imagined.
I have been thinking about fear. The presidential campaign seems to foist fear into our consciousness. Fear is a tremendous motivator when it comes to getting people to vote. When someone who is different from us does something that is threatening, we can get exorcized and strike out to destroy or exclude. But, if someone like us acts in a threatening way, we are inclined to ignore it or accept it as behavior that we simply have to live with.
In a recent article in Foreign Policy, David Rothkopf reflects on how odd we humans are when it comes to fear. Politicians are keen on exploiting our fear of terrorism but seem paralyzed when it comes to limiting access to guns. Mr. Rothkopf points out that between 2004 and 2014, 303 Americans were killed by terrorists. During the same period 320,000 Americans were killed by guns of family members and fellow citizens. Because of the fear of terrorism, Americans cancel trips abroad. But we seem to have no trouble passing laws for people to carry guns in public places.
Now if fear were rational, one would think that we would spend more on controlling guns in America than we would in fighting terrorism. But, we can’t seem to generate much energy for the former and have no trouble authorizing billions to fight the latter. It seems that fear of the stranger can generate millions of Americans to vote for walls to keep others out while at the same time we can’t get enough votes in congress to limit guns.
Fear indeed is powerful. Fear of the stranger seems to exacerbate it.
Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44) The book of I John says, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” (I John 4:18a) I doubt that I will ever have perfect love, but I think the world might be a safer and better place if we prayed for our enemies and grew in allowing love the overcome our fear. We might even come to appreciate the strangers more if we didn’t fear them as much.
It is amazing what gifts come to me before coffee.
I awaken, a comfortable bed and my wife breathing quietly as she sleeps. I hear a morning dove cooing outside the window. I throw back the sheet, put my feet on the carpet, stand, and can walk. I turn on the faucet and clean water comes out for me to wash my face. I wander down the hall of our little house, cool from the AC. I turn on the light over the coffee pot and take filtered water from the refrigerator which just keeps running. The water is poured into the coffee maker, sounding like a running stream. I pour the coffee beans in the grinder and as I grind them (for exactly 13 seconds) the warm aroma of coffee excites my expectations. I open the blinds and soak in the garden. I lay down on the floor to do my stretching and my body still works. I stand and stretch my muscles and sleep gives way to the energy of the day. I then go in the kitchen and pour a cup (then taste it to make sure it is good) and quietly take it in to place on the night stand next to my sleeping wife. I then go and pour my first cup of coffee.
Wow! What a life I have!! I have only been awake for 20 minutes and already I have received incredible gifts. I am alive. I can feel the carpet on my skin. I can hear the dove, the water, the beans grinding. People who have worked on the infrastructure of my city make it possible to feel cool water on my face, to have electricity for cooling the air, to provide a safe community so I can live without fear. I can be stimulated by the aroma of ground beans. My body, while having some parts that don’t work as well as they used to, still is able to carry me and hold me and nurture me.
When I think of my life before coffee, I am simply overwhelmed. For if I kept a log of my whole day, I am sure I would drown in gratitude. For the goodness that I experience is beyond measure. The gifts are innumerable.
So, for at least a while now, I am considering myself a truly blessed human being.
I heard it twice in 2 days from 2 different people.
In a men’s group, we were checking in. How are you feeling as you sit down and come apart? One friend said, “I don’t want to be here tonight, but I know that I will feel differently when it is over. This is the one place where I come that I think about what I am grateful for.”
Another friend who was a pastor for his whole life wrote a response to a question from the newspaper: “What are the Best Parts about Going to Church.” He said, among other things, “Church experiences affords participants the regular discipline of reverence as well as opportunities for usefulness through hands-on service.”
Where do you go to think about what you are grateful for—to reflect on what you reverence?
When I was a child we prayed at the table before each meal, acknowledging gratitude for the gift of food and those who had made it possible. I was taught the practice of kneeling beside my bed at night and saying a prayer. I would list the things that I liked about the day. I listed the people who had been part of my day. I named the things that I thought were good. When I was older I gave up the kneeling, but not the practice of nightly thanking the source of life for the gift of life.
It sometimes seems that there is much to stress us in our world today. Even if we are not addicted to the news feeds on TV, Computer, Tablet, Phone, Facebook, we can’t help but catch headlines that keep us exposed to difficult and painful events in the lives of individuals and the world. That can have a way of absorbing us and creating deep anxiety and stress.
That’s why I think we all need some regular place to go and think about what we are grateful for. Where do you go to be mindful of all the incredible gifts of your life?