On Doing More For Others

I’d like to talk to you about using your gifts in the service of others. Most people hear that statement, and they start thinking about the things they do. I don’t want you to think about the things you do.

I want you to think about the things you could do, but don’t. To help go down that road, we start with this question:

Who was the luckiest person to ever live?

I’ll get back to that. Think about it while I give you a little background.

My Mom was a homemaker. I watched my Dad punch the clock for Sears. He dressed mannequins and made store displays. Neither had a high-school diploma; my Dad never finished grade school. I don’t have any brothers or sisters. My parents were 40 when I was born, and I was born Catholic. Mostly I didn’t get along with my parents, and I resolved not to be like them. They are both gone now. I left home at age 18.

I started my professional education in 1972. That would be the same year I stopped my religious education. For reasons not important to this talk I chose to learn computers before such a choice was common or popular. I worked with men who used to fix the computer by turning the room lights off, walking inside the computer, and looking for vacuum tubes that didn’t glow. I was an employee until 1982.

Now, back to the question: “Who was the luckiest person to ever live?”

How ‘bout any of the folks who beat odds of 300 million to 1 to win the lottery? They certainly qualify. Or how about the guy who got sucked into a military jet engine and lived to tell about it? He qualifies. Or maybe the successful businessperson who is worth millions of dollars, with good employees, a good family, healthy, and a solid religious faith. Maybe they all qualify.

But if you wanna know who I think was the hands down, no contest, luckiest person to ever live, that would be the so-called “good thief” on the cross, crucified next to Jesus. Just how lucky was this guy?

He says a few words loud enough for Jesus to hear--- which is not something to take for granted when you are dying while being hung from a cross, and Jesus tells him that very day he will be with him in Paradise.

That’s pretty lucky when you think about how things might have turned out.

What if the criminal had been crucified the day before Jesus? Or the day after? What if the other criminal had simply kept his mouth shut? The thing that got him talking was the other guy’s criticism of Jesus. Or how ‘bout this: What if his crimes didn’t warrant the death penalty? What if he was never crucified? What if he cruised through life under the radar, so to speak? In a paradoxical way it was the severity of his criminal life that saved his eternal life, but he was certainly not an example for living any of us intend to copy.

We don’t know much about this criminal’s past crimes, or exactly how he lived his day-to-day life. But here’s what we do know: He is labeled a criminal, so it is fair to ask, “What was his greatest crime?” Was it habitually stealing? Not to my way of thinking. To me his greatest crime before God was this:

God gave him gifts to use for good. And he did not use them for good. He wasted his gifts. He underutilized his gifts. He applied his gifts in the wrong way. His sin before God was as much an act of omission, as commission. We’re talking about the things he could have done with his life that he never did.

We are not told the specific nature of his crimes. And we don’t know the specific nature of his God-given gifts or talents. All we know is that through no merit of his own and without even planning on it, this guy (Dismas, now St. Dismas, was his name) got a chance to atone for his crimes, or at least to have the Lord's forgiveness.  Sure, he’s an inspirational character, reminding all of us that it’s never too late to be saved. But who wants to bet their eternity on being as lucky in the end as this guy?

We've all been blessed with a lot of gifts and talents, but remember we must account for their use before we die. I am asking you not to focus on what you’ve done or do with your gifts. Focus on what you could do, but don’t.

I mentioned I was an employee until 1982. IBM had just released the IBM PC in 1981. At the time I was teaching mainframes and mini-computers for Sperry Univac. I was also teaching nights and weekends at local colleges. Many of the students in my classes were only interested in learning how to use the computer somebody at work had just dropped on their desk.

Hearing this often enough from my students made me decide in 1982 to quit my job, and open my own school to teach people how to use the software running on their personal computer. To get the doors open I did what I told my wife I would never do: I mortgaged our house.

I called it, “New Horizons Computer Learning Center”. One small location in a little shopping mall, sandwiched between a Chinese restaurant and a Hallmark card store, with ten, dual floppy, 4Mhz processor, 64KB mother board, IBM personal computers, sitting on some rickety old tables bought at an auction.

I opened the doors and never looked back. I never looked down, either, because I had no safety net. Everything I had and everything I earned was put into New Horizons. Notice I said everything. I didn’t just put my sweat and profits back into the business, I put my soul into it, too. Here’s the tip for today: Do not attach your soul to your business. Your soul doesn’t belong to your business; it belongs to God, because God said so. It’s not that God will interfere with where you want to take your soul. You can take it anywhere you want. You can put it all in one place, or treat your soul like a piece of property and subdivide it.

In 1992 I started franchising New Horizons around the world. We leveled the competition. I was Entrepreneur of the Year in 1994, the year I sold New Horizons. I was not evil in the sense that I cheated my way to the top; I didn’t. I worked my way there. But at the same time, I was not the father I should have been to my three children. Notice I was not named “Father of Year” in 1994. Drug use, alcohol abuse, and a broken marriage are thankfully not a part of my story, nor do they have to be. You can be a completely lost soul without being a murderer. In a nutshell, what I was at the time was this:

I was a giant gift waster, just like the thief on the cross. Oh, I did a few things here and there to help other people. But if I consider what I could have done with my gifts, instead of the little I did do, I give myself a grade of “F.” The only slack I’ll cut myself is this: I was ignorant. I already told you I stopped my religious formation in 1972. Any notion of using my gifts for the good of others was a very dim bulb in my mind.

I don’t know exactly where you sit on the company org chart, but I do know this:  No matter where you sit you have to push yourself. And no doubt you have learned to self-motivate in order to be where you are. But what about pushing yourself to use your gifts for others?

In his letter to the Romans, Chapter 12, St. Paul states:

We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man's gift is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently.

Why did he pick these gifts to highlight? I’ll tell you why:

Because they are not tethered to any specific discipline. It does not matter what trade or profession or position or calling or apostolate you are in, you have an option to use these gifts. Certainly some gifts are personal and can’t be shared, but notice Paul didn’t say, “Share the gift of throwing your fastball 95mph”. Paul didn’t ask you to share gifts that can’t be shared.

I doubt there is anybody who can’t use more of their gifts, in more ways, more of the time, for more people, in more places, if they put their mind to it. But you have to be motivated to do it.

Like I said, in the past I was basically not interested in using my gifts for anyone but myself. I was just bumbling along with my life until 1996, two years after I sold New Horizons. That’s when I met a Norbertine priest. I was just going through the mechanical motions of my faith, which meant I knew next to nothing about my faith, but I went to church on Sunday to keep everyone happy. Like so many others, I was just a fake.

One Sunday in 1996 this Norbertine priest, Fr. Vincent, said Mass. In his Homily he talked about how his car broke down four times in the same day, but there was always someone there to help him. When I heard this I’m thinkin’, “Man, this guy could have gotten mugged four times just as easily as he was helped.” So used a gift that I had an excess of anyway; on Monday he got a new car. As I’m ready to say good-bye and go back to life as usual, Fr. Vincent says to me, “I think there’s a weekend retreat you should go on. It’s called Cursillo.”

Now let me tell you something. Before Fr. Vincent mentioned Cursillo I had never been on a retreat, and I had zero interest in ever going on a retreat, I had never heard of Cursillo, and I wasn’t going on any Cursillo retreat. Period.

So I said to Fr. Vincent, “OK.”

The details of what happened to me on that retreat in March of 1996 are not important, but the end result can be summed up this way:

Before I went to Cursillo my license plate used to read, “SLFMD”. I used my license plate to proudly proclaim that all my gifts were of my own creation, for my own use, and good luck to the rest of you. So what’s relevant here is not what happened during the retreat weekend. What’s relevant is what I did after the retreat. This is what I did:

I changed.

How did I change? In ways relevant to this discussion I changed by realizing I was not the owner of my gifts. My eyes and ears are mine; my gifts are not. We are all temporary holders of our gifts, trusted by God with their custody until in a position to use them for the good of others. So when I heard this truth proclaimed, what choice did I have? I changed.

But why did I change?

I know this comedian. He says;

“Philosophy + Magic = Religion”

What happened to me that weekend sounds a lot like magic; I’m one sort of person for the first 42 years of my life then, “Poof!” I go on a weekend retreat and now I’m a new creation in Christ? To the people that knew me best, that qualified as the biggest magic trick they had ever seen.

So, if it wasn’t magic that changed me, what was it? Why did I change?

I’m not going to get into a lengthy theological answer about the mysteries of grace, or divine intervention, or the workings of the Holy Spirit, or anything like that. While I do not doubt such things are true, those are mostly concepts I prefer to leave to theologians, at least for now. Besides, why make it complicated when there’s a simpler answer. This is why I changed:

Because I chose to.

If I were speaking to a group of seminary students, right now that answer would be unacceptable. They would be rolling their eyes thinking, “There goes Mike again. Taking personal credit for the work of God.” But there is no need to give a complex answer when a simple one will suffice. I listened to what was said during the retreat. I heard the absolute Truth in the material given to us. I chose to change when I heard the Truth, because I already operated that way every day at work. Perhaps I had heard similar teaching before, more or less, but I had not heard it before from people I considered my peers. When my peers left me no doubt that I was traveling down the wrong road with my eternal soul, I got on a different road. To delay would have been to simply ignore the elephant in the room.

I find the decision to hear Truth and then simply change my life to conform to it, completely consistent with how we must be in order to build and operate our businesses, or be successful at our job, whatever that job may be. What a hypocrite I would be if in my business life I reacted quickly to when I learned of new developments--- so they would benefit my pocketbook, but in my spiritual life I ignored plain Truth just because it was inconvenient for me to implement right away.

I know people who attended the same retreat and to this day got absolutely nothing out of it. People tell me it will kick in later, but they never explain how it will kick in to someone unwilling to cooperate. They use quant little phrases like, “It will happen in the Lord’s time.” For the life of me I can’t figure out how delaying for years what should have been done yesterday has anything to do with the “Lord’s time.” None of us would put off an expansion, or signing a new lease, or anything else our job or business called for and justify it with the expression, “I’ll do it in the Lord’s time.” Why do we presume to think the Lord wears a broken watch? How come people think the Lord’s time to fix what’s clearly broken in us, is any time but right now?

Or maybe the Lord’s watch isn’t broken. Maybe he wants us to change right now, and we don’t want to cooperate. I don’t know much, but I know this much:

Jesus didn’t think about consequences. Jesus didn’t hesitate to act. Jesus didn’t have to consult anyone before righting a wrong. Jesus never cared if He was outnumbered. Jesus only cared about one thing: Serving the will of His Father every moment. Whenever faced with any situation that went against the teaching of the Father, He was a man of action. To Jesus, there were no conditions whereby wrong could ever become right, by waiting. Waiting to take action against an injustice was an injustice all right; it was an injustice against God. God will always work on behalf of leaders that surrender their hearts completely to Him. Therefore, with Jesus there was never any lag between spotting a wrong and correcting a wrong. That’s why when I heard His Truth proclaimed, I knew I couldn’t sweep the call to use my gifts for others under the proverbial rug.

But you say, “Jesus was Jesus. I’m not Jesus.”

Yes and no.

Nobody was the Son of God but Jesus the Christ. But we are all members of a Church that is a part of the body of Christ on this Earth. As Catholic Christians, we often tell people that we are the hands and feet of Christ, that we are the only Bible some people may ever read, that we are to spread the Gospel message, and sometimes use words. Yet, what does all that really mean? In the face of clear need, how fast do we embrace our duty to evangelize and change our home or work environment for Christ? Is the courage to take Christian action any time, anywhere, a part of our permanent daily lifestyle, or do all the thoughts of procrastination or fear push to the front of our mind?

Since I changed, I had to take action. I learned I should help others and share my gifts. I knew I needed to get going, but let me tell you about something often overlooked until you try it: Finding someone or some group to share your gifts with is not as easy as it sounds. It’s one thing to have the gift of leadership; it’s quite another to find someone in need of leadership that is willing to listen. It’s one thing to be a teacher; it’s quite another to find students. It’s easy to find people who could use a financial donation, but you can’t go around town like a drunken sailor. Discerning where to use your gift of wealth is also a challenge. You really do have to pray to be lead, and then go to work at finding opportunities that are a fit for you.

Do you understand how blessed you are, and just how rare it is that God gave you so many gifts to use in helping others? You can freely choose to use your gifts for the sole purpose of helping yourself--- like the thief on the cross until he recognize the Christ, or follow the command of St. Paul and help others.

But there’s also the whole matter of degree. In other words, when it comes to using your gifts in the service of others, how much is enough? Paul also teaches us:

Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Share with God's people who are in need. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.

How do we translate that to daily life?

For the first 42 years of my life, I couldn’t tell you.

Let me sum it up for you this way: My license plate use to read, “SLFMD”.

I was very good at pushing myself in my professional life, but did I put those same gifts to work to help anyone but myself?

Not the first 42 years of my life.

It’s very pithy to say, “Anybody can write a check.”, because in the first place that’s just not true. But more importantly, it overlooks or diminishes the fact that generosity is a gift St. Paul specifically names. When people say, “Anybody can write a check,” charitably I think what they may mean to say is that writing a check is a nice start in helping others, but it can only complement, not replace using the other gifts Paul names:

Serving. Teaching. Encouraging. Leading.

But I must report to you there was a time when I had no idea what St. Paul had written to the Romans, or anyone else. That's why I enrolled in various theology classes and Bible studies. I can also report to you--- and this is most important to understand, if you wait for someone to ask before sharing your gifts, you could be waiting a long time. Many times the opportunities to use your God-given gifts in the service of others do not find you; you must find them.

But in the face of so many, is there is a reason why God doesn't simply make your phone ring off the hook with requests for your help?

Yes, there is a very good reason and the reason is this:

You know what to do, and he wants you to do it of your own free will and on your own initiative. God wants us to demonstrate through our actions that we understand the teachings of His son and St. Paul.

God is not going to make your phone ring; you got to make it ring. For example, nobody told me to cold-call the Orange County Probation Department and tell them New Horizons would offer convicted felons on parole free computer training so they would be more employable in the job market; I just did it. And nobody told me to hire some of those felons after they were trained, but I did that, too.

Nobody asked me to volunteer inside Juvenile Hall and work in the Catholic Detention Ministry, mentoring and teaching some of our most lost and confused young boys and girls; I just did it.

When our parish was going through a multi-million dollar Church remodel, but did not have a Parish Business Manager on staff, nobody asked me to take the job. There was no ad in the bulletin. The position didn't even exist in our parish at that time. I just did it. Full-time. For years. Perhaps you could share your superior business skills on the Parish Finance Council, and maybe you are. But like I already said , do not reflect on what you do, reflect on what you could do, but don't.

When two men from a men's halfway house gave their testimony to a large group I was part of, they didn't ask me to come to their facility once or twice a week and cook dinner for the 15 men in recovery there. Or mentor them in turning their life around. But everyone in the room could hear how desperate these men were for guidance and direction. So, I literally knocked on their door and helped those men.

Nobody in this room need know what you do with your gifts, except in the context that sharing your actions may also motivate others to action. This is the only reason I share what I have told you here. All praise and thanksgiving for my gifts I give to God. The fruit of my work, should there be any, I give to God. But I must point out the common thread in these examples is that the needs were crystal clear, yet nobody directly asked me to help. Fact is, many people are too intimidated or humiliated to ask you. Or maybe nobody thinks you would be interested. Does the reason matter when the need is glaring?

Whatever the reasons people do not beat a path to you door asking for your help, does not at all diminish the fact they desperately need your help.

In one Church I often visit, there is a 3/4-scale scene of Calvary built into the Church wall. I look at the two criminals and remind myself that one of them was the luckiest guy in the world. But I also remind myself I don't want to be in need of his luck. I must not squander the gifts I have been blessed with and hope for a miracle before the taking my last breathe. And for further inspiration, God has given us the lives of the Saints to reflect upon.

I don't know much, but I know this: There is going to come a time when I will have to account for myself. I don't worry too much about my actions. But I worry about my inactions. And because of that, I don't wait for my phone to ring. I don't wait for others to open the door and invite me in. I just make using my gifts for the benefit of my family and others a way of life, and if I am no longer needed in one place, I behave like I will be needed down the street and knock on new doors until God opens one. I do this because I know many people have come before us, and many people will come after us but right now, today, this is our brief time to make a difference in the world.

I guess what I'm asking is for you to reflect on your many gifts, and ensure you are putting them all to work whenever and wherever you can. No exceptions. No delays. Even if you have to leave your comfort zone. May God bless you and the works you are doing.

And do more if you can.