Love Will Be Our Judge

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Our readings this morning remind us of something we have known all along.  Love is at the heart of the Bible; love is at the heart of the Gospels; Love is what the central message of Jesus was all about.  And yet, too many people feel that they are not loved; too many find themselves in the world with too little love and too much hate. Love is all we need, sang the Beatles.  “At the twilight of our lives, love will be our judge,” wrote Saint John of the Cross.  Let us pray,

Rev. Glenn McDonald shared this story in a recent reflection, “In 1856 a young businessman named Milton Bradley hatched a plan to make his fortune. He produced an immensely popular picture of a rising politician – a clean-shaven lawyer from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln.

In 1860 Lincoln was elected president.  Good news! But then he grew a beard.  Overnight, Bradley’s inventory became worthless.

One of Bradley’s friends, hoping to cheer him up, brought over a crude board game.  The 24-year-old entrepreneur suddenly had an idea:  He would invent his own game, something highly moral that would help players grow in character and live better lives. He called it The Checkered Game of Life.

As Jill Lepore writes in her book Mansions of Happiness: A History of Life and Death, Bradley’s game presented to children the realities of virtue and vice.  Decisions are required.  Truth exists, and you can either ignore it or choose to seek it out.  You might land on a square called Honesty and go directly to Happiness.  But you might also land on Poverty and feel miserable. You definitely didn’t want to land on Disgrace.  Nor was it a good thing to land on the square by which you entered politics.  Bradley designed the game so that becoming a politician made one far more likely to commit crimes and end up in prison.

One hundred years later, the creative team at the Milton Bradley Company decided to re-invent their founder’s original board game to celebrate its centennial.  In 1960 they introduced The Game of Life.  Millions of Baby Boomers grew up moving little station wagons around the board, and herding blue and pink plastic “kids.”

Lepore points out that this new game was shamelessly cash conscious.  It was not about serving others, and it was definitely not about finding the best path to heaven.  The team at Milton Bradley felt sure that no modern child really wanted to figure out how to become more virtuous.

“You count your cash, not your good deeds,” she observes.  In The Game of Life, you never die.  You just quit working.

Then, shortly before Wall Street imploded in 2008, Hasbro (which had subsumed Milton Bradly) introduced yet another version: The Game of Life Twists and Turns. In this version, life is aimless.  Instead of following a pre-determined path, each player decides how to spend their own time.  Hang out?  Travel?  Have kids?  Whatever.

Instead of pretend cash, you get a pretend VISA brand credit card.  “We’re helping to educate kids.  It’s never too early,” explained the folks at Hasbro.  You can plunge into massive debt but still continue playing.  There was a square for this in Milton Bradley’s original game.  It was called the Road to Folly. What’s the point of Twists and Turns?  Players don’t grow in virtue.  They collect experiences.  Lepore reflects:  There are “a thousand ways to live your life… No one dies, no one grows old, no one ever grows up…  How does life begin?  What does it mean?  What happens at the end?  Who knows?  You choose.”

We’ve all been in this game of life for some time now and we all have made numbers of choices throughout the journey.  I certainly hope that we have been guided by a desire to live lives of faith, to be people of virtue and integrity.  I hope we have tried to keep love at the center of any decision we make and at the center of how we treat others.  It’s not easy and sometimes we get it right and sometimes we stray off course, but we try.

Recently, someone I’ve known most of my life passed away after a courageous battle with ovarian cancer.  Her life was no picnic.  She came from fairly humble beginnings and was twice divorced; one of her children fought her own battle with cancer as a baby only to become drug addicted as an adult.  Someone, she emerged from the darkness of many years and her life improved.  Most of the second half of her life has been about giving back, working for many of the causes that had helped her or her family.  She worked closely with the Make a Wish Fund, adopted her own granddaughter as well as cared for several foster children.  Last June, she invited a large group of us to a party so she could celebrate her life with those she loved.  She knew she didn’t have much time left, but she was upbeat and present to everyone who attended.  She was kind and she was loving and that is how I will always remember her.  

This week, we mark 21 years since the tragic date of 9/11.  We’ve heard many stories from that day and I’d like to share a special one with you today about another individual who understand the meaning of life.

                                         Welles Crowther

When the United Airlines plane struck the upper floors of the second, south tower of the World Trade Center on September 11, between 50 and 200 people were gathered in the 78th-floor Sky Lobby, waiting for an elevator to evacuate them below. Only 12 survived. They described a blast of light and heat, and then darkness, smoke, and confusion.  Surviving also was the story of a young man with a red bandanna over his mouth and nose who appeared out of the chaos, issuing crisp instructions, lending his strength, and guiding the injured to the stairway out. He spoke with confidence, but wore no official rescue gear. “Anyone who can walk,” he said, “walk down the stairs. Anyone who can walk and help someone else, help. There are people here you cannot help anymore, so don’t try to.” The young man led first one small group of injured and then another down 17 flights of stairs to relative safety. For nine months, no one knew who he was until an article in the New York Times recounted his heroics,  and he was identified as Welles Crowther ’99, a graduate of Boston College.  

Crowther worked as an equities trader on the 104th floor of the south tower. After the first plane struck the north tower, he called his mother, Alison Crowther, and left a message: He was evacuating the building. But he apparently never left. His body was not found until the following March in unusual circumstances: as one of only two civilians among a cluster of policemen and firefighters in the ground floor lobby of the south tower, a staging area for the morning’s rescue efforts.

The truth was that he was a fireman, too. From the age of 16, he, along with his father, had been a trained volunteer member of the dept Empire in his hometown of Upper Nyack, New York. And like his father, he’d acquired the habit of carrying a bandanna in his pocket; his father carried a blue one; he carried a red one.

From the testimony of survivors interviewed by the Times and by his own hometown paper it appears that Crowther got as far down as the 78th floor before the airplane struck his building.  One employee from the 103rd floor, had also made it to the Sky Lobby. The plane’s impact left her with a broken arm, three broken ribs, and a punctured lung. “We didn’t know where we were. We didn’t know what to do,” Judy Wein recalls. Then the man in the red bandanna appeared. “He was calm, he showed us where the stairs were, he found a fire extinguisher.” Crowther escorted Wein and several other injured survivors down to the 61st floor before turning around and heading back up.

Suffering from burns, another person, Ling Young, who worked on the 86th floor, was still in the Sky Lobby. She recalls hearing Crowther call out, “This way to the stairs,” and, along with another man, following his voice. As they descended together, Young saw that Crowther was carrying another woman on his back. At some point, Crowther pulled off his bandanna, and Young saw his face. When the little group neared the 61st floor, he left them and went upstairs once more. No survivor recalls seeing him after that.  When his mother spoke at a Memorial Service the following summer to honor  local firefighters who had lost their lives on 9/11, she said, “Welles must have felt hugely fulfilled that day,” she said. “He was not Welles Crowther, equities trader. . . . He was Welles Crowther, firefighter.”

Most of us will never be called to undertake some heroic act in our lives, though we are inspired by those who do.  It gives us faith in humanity, I think.  But, we can all choose to meet the moment when circumstances present themselves; we can choose to act out of love whenever and wherever possible.  Jesus told his friends before he left them, “love one another as I have loved you.”  May we respond in love when we are able; may we love the one who may feel least lovable.  May we ourselves believe in the love that our Creator feels for us such that we live with courage and live with love.  

(Written by — Tim Heffernan, Boston College Magazine, Summer 2002)