What is the right thing to do?

This is the third in a sermon series on Leo Tolstoy’s short story, “The Three Questions.”

In Tolstoy’s story, a certain king believed that if he knew the answers to three specific questions he would never fail in anything.The three questions were:

When is the right time? 

Who are the right (or most important) people? 

What is the right thing (or most important) thing to do?

So, he invited all the learned men to come to him and answer the questions. But they all answered the questions differently. In answer to the third question some said learning science, others said skill in warfare, and others said religions worship. Since the king was clearly much wiser than he gave himself credit for, he traveled to see the wise old hermit. There the king discovers the answers to his questions. The right time is now. The most important person is the one you are with. And, the right thing to do is to do good for the one you are with.

(For the full video version, click here.)

In how many places, and in how many ways does the Bible tell us to do what is good and what is right? 1 Thessalonians 5:15 is but one of them: “Always seek what is good for each other and all people!” Other passages include:

  • Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
  • Love your neighbor as yourself.
  • Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.
  • What you do to the least of these you do to me.
  • And then there are all the stories where someone in need runs up to Jesus and he puts everything aside to help them.

We almost always know what the right thing is to do in any situation… but what percentage of the time do we actually do the right thing?

St. Augustine, an early bishop of the Catholic Church in North Africa, and well-known for his philosophical and theological writings encouraged people to “ask God that you may love one another… you should love all people, even your enemies, not because they are your brothers and sisters, but so they may become your brother and sister.” The key here may be to “ask God for help,” because as easy as the answers to these three questions seem to be, doing them consistently is a challenge.

So, why is it so difficult? What gets in the way? How about these things:

  • Our judgments about that person… do they deserve our help? Do they look nice? Do they look like they need help?
  • Our own agendas… we’re so busy we sometimes don’t even notice the people around us.
  • Our egos…
  • Our prejudice…
  • Our fears…

Here’s a story about how this works when one can put aside their judgments, fears and prejudices. One night, at 11:30 p.m., an older African-American woman was standing on the side of an Alabama highway trying to endure a lashing rain storm. Her car had broken down and she desperately needed a ride. Soaking wet, she decided to flag down the next car. A young white man stopped to help her, generally unheard of in those conflict-filled 1960s. The man took her to safety, helped her get assistance and put her into a taxi cab.

She seemed to be in a big hurry, but wrote down his address and thanked him. Seven days went by and a knock came on the man’s door. To his surprise, a giant console color TV was delivered to his home. A special note was attached. It read: “Thank you so much for assisting me on the highway the other night. The rain drenched not only my clothes, but also my spirits.  Then you came along. Because of you, I was able to make it to my dying husband’s bedside just before he passed away. God bless you for helping me and unselfishly serving others.” Sincerely, Mrs. Nat King Cole

For that young man, clearly the most important time was the time he spent helping Mrs. Cole, she was the most important person, and what he did for her was the most important thing.

If only we could always follow hearts that are filled with compassion not contempt, justice not judgment, hope not despair, caring not apathy. If we could only cultivate that expansive, loving kind of heart and then follow it with every person we are with, how would that change our interactions? How would we treat our spouse, our partner? How would we treat our children, our parents?How would we treat the server at the restaurant, the check-out person at the store, our cleaning person,  or our lawn person? How would it change the way we interact with the person we pass on the street? Or stand in the elevator with?

It seems to me that it could change the world. “Always seek what is good for each other and all people!”

Love & Light!



The Most Important Person

This is the second in a three-part series on Leo Tolstoy’s short story, “The Three Questions.”

In Tolstoy’s story, The Three Questions, a certain king believed that if he knew the answers to three specific questions he would never fail in anything. Those three questions were:Crumpled colorful paper notes with question marks.

When is the right time? (Last week we learned that the answer is “now”)

Who are the right (or most important) people?

What is the most important thing to do?

So, he invited all the learned men in his kingdom to come and answer the questions. But they all answered the questions differently. For this second question of “Who is the most important person?” some said the King’s most important people were his counselors, some said the priests, some said doctors and others said the warriors. The king didn’t buy into any of their answers.

In this day and age, we don’t call for the learned men, we Google it. So, I googled this question… who is the most important person? Interestingly enough, Google equated “powerful” and “famous” with “important.” Here is a sampling of Google’s answers:

  • Presidents and heads of state
  • CEOs of companies
  • Famous writers, inventors and artists such as Shakespeare, Edison, and Da Vinci
  • Very few women but among them were Oprah, Melinda Gates and Marilyn Monroe
  • Spiritual leaders (mostly dead): Jesus, Muhammad, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, Pope Francis
  • Musicians: Michael Jackson
  • YOU (memes)

But the All-Knowing Google did not answer the question correctly (according to Tolstoy). At the end of the story the king learns from the old hermit living in the woods that the most important person is the person you are with.

(For the full video version, click here.)

When I thought about this question in terms of scripture, I immediately thought of the way Jesus engaged with and addressed people. For Jesus, there was no one person who was better, or more important than anyone else. We can see it in the stories of his interactions. He doesn’t turn people away when they come to him for help, even if they are diseased, or considered unclean by Jewish law (ie – women). He gave them his undivided attention and compassion.

Mark 10:17-21 is one example. A person Jesus doesn’t even know comes running up to him and asks a question. Jesus gives him his full attention and looks at him“with love.” There are many other examples where Jesus gives his full, loving, compassionate, attention to someone coming to him in need, including the woman at the well, Nicodemus, Martha after Lazarus dies, the woman caught int he act of adultery, the Roman Centurion, the blind man, the lame man, the bleeding woman, and the children. Each one, for that brief encounter, was the most important person to Jesus.

Mother Teresa says it very simply in her advice to the group of teachers. “Smile at one another. Smile at your wives.” It is a deliberate act of meeting someone’s eye and offering a smile of kindness and friendliness. For that second you’ve put that person on the top of your list and given them your attention, maybe even lifted their spirits with a simple smile.

Here’s a wonderful story I came across that emphasizes how important each person is:

Mary was in the second month of nursing school, when one day the professor gave the class a pop quiz. Now, she was a conscientious student and breezed through the quiz until she got to the last question: “What is the first name of the woman who cleans the school?”

Surely this was some kind of joke. She had seen the cleaning woman several times. She was tall, dark-haired and in her 50s, but how would she know her name? Mary left the question blank.

Just before class ended, one student asked if the last question would count toward the quiz grade.

“Absolutely,” said the professor. “In your careers, you will meet many people. All are significant. They deserve your attention and care, even if all you do is smile and say ‘hello’.”

Mary never forgot that lesson… and she learned that the woman’s name was Dorothy.

We get caught up in our own lives, our own thoughts, our own moods, and we often are too distracted to give our full attention to the people we are with, much less the people we pass in the grocery store, or in the hallway at work. But, once again, the spiritual path insists that we recognize that we are all connected and that all people are important. But the most important person to you at any moment is the one you are with… give them your attention, your respect, your smile. Shine your light on them, even if it is only for a few seconds passing in a hallway.

Love & Light!


When is the right time?

A number of years ago I came across a children’s book that was an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s short story “The Three Questions.” I believe they are very meaningful questions for our spiritual journeys, posed by a man who went through a deep spiritual crisis that transformed him from aristocrat to spiritual leader. This week is the first in a three-part sermon series on those three questions.

(For the full video version, click here.)

In Tolstoy’s story, a certain king believed that if he knew the answers to three specific questions he would never fail in anything. The three questions were:

When is the right time?

Who are the right (or most important) people?

What is the most important thing to do?

So, he extended an invitation to all the learned men in his kingdom to come to him and answer the questions. Many came, but there was one problem… they all had different answers. And the king didn’t believe any of them.

For this first question, When is the right time? the learned men answered:time

  • To know the right time, one must have a plan, drawn up in advance and follow it strictly.
  • It is impossible to decide beforehand, but pay attention and do what needs to be done.
  • To know the right time, one must have the advice of others to help them figure it out (specifically magicians!)

Of course, as happens in these stories, the king goes to see the old hermit, who has very little to say, but helps the king to learn for himself the answers to the questions. For this first question, the king learns that the right time to do things is NOW.

I wracked my brain to try to find a Bible passage that might address this, didn’t have much luck.  Then I recalled Mordecai’s comment to his niece, Queen Esther, “Who’s to say? – you may have come into the royal court for just such a time as this.”

If you know the story, you know that Esther is the new queen of Persia, greatly favored by the king. When her people, the Jews, are threatened with annihilation, her uncle Mordecai implores her to act, even though she has kept her ethnic heritage a secret, even though she risks her life by approaching the king without being summoned. But, Mordecai says, it is this moment, NOW, that is important. Perhaps you have found yourself in this place and in this time for this purpose.

What if we adopt Mordecai’s statement just a little… what if we each come to each moment “for just such a time as this”? What if there is something special that awaits us at each moment if we’re willing to reach out and grab it, or risk, or seek? What if the Spirit is constantly nudging us toward being open to the possibilities, opportunities and experiences of each moment?

I know we’re used to hearing about living in the present moment with awareness as part of our spiritual path. And I completely agree that cultivating that awareness of life, our feelings, our reactions and behaviors is important, and is part of dwelling in the NOW. The other piece is LIVING in the now. Not letting opportunities pass us by, but rather risking, sharing, experiencing, loving, forgiving BEING all that we can be in this one wild and precious life (as Mary Oliver says) that we have.

For those of us who are procrastinators, or who like to think things to death, or those of us who are worriers or planners, this whole concept may be challenging. Eighty-five year-old Nadine Stair talks about what she’d do if she had her life to live over again.

If I had my life to live over again,
I’d dare to make more mistakes next time.
I’d relax.
I’d limber up.
I’d be sillier than I’ve been this trip.
I would take fewer things seriously.
I would take more chances,
I would eat more ice cream and less beans.

I would, perhaps, have more actual troubles but fewer imaginary ones.
you see, I’m one of those people who was sensible and sane,
hour after hour,
day after day.

Oh, I’ve had my moments.
If I had to do it over again,
I’d have more of them.
In fact, I’d try to have nothing else- just moments,
one after another, instead of living so many years ahead of each day.

I’ve been one of those persons who never goes anywhere without a thermometer, a hot-water bottle, a raincoat, and a parachute.
If I could do it again, I would travel lighter than I have.

If I had to live my life over,
I would start barefoot earlier in the spring
and stay that way later in the fall.
I would go to more dances,
I would ride more merry-go-rounds,
I would pick more daisies.

If the important time is now, then we shouldn’t waste it!

I think about my dad who is 76 and seems to spend most of his time in front of the computer.  I truly hope it makes him happy, but I am afraid he’ll get to the end of his life and say, “I wish I’d traveled more… I wish I’d spent more time with my kids and grandkids… I wish I’d painted more or had more ice cream…”

Now is the right time.

Now is the time to tell someone you love them, you forgive them, you’re sorry.

Now is the time to watch the sunset, to help your neighbor, to stand up for what you believe in.’

Now is the time to open to a process of healing yourself.

Now is the time to begin investing in your spiritual journey.

Now is the right time.

These are the questions we need to ask ourselves: If we had our life to live over again what would we do with it? What if we have come to this moment for such a time as this? What wouldn’t we put off until tomorrow? What is the Spirit nudging us to do?

Love & Light!