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Why everything in life is a ‘free lunch’

Rev. Jack Van Ens

“How much time did it take you to prepare this Jefferson drama?” she asked. Invited to a century-old suburban Denver book club, I portrayed Thomas Jefferson, showing how his westward vision culminated in the Louisiana Purchase. My inquirer wanted to learn how I go about preparing mini-dramas starring Jefferson.”How long did it take? Well, that’s hard to tell,” I answered. “Probably a lifetime, when measured by my adult years. I have read widely, researched deeply, and in my head have carried on conversations with Jefferson since my Princeton education during the Bicentennial Era of the 1970s. Not that I am blessed with a photographic memory of all the books about Jefferson I have read. My mind doesn’t act like a sponge soaking up all this history. It functions more like a sieve through which my longtime friendship with Jefferson flows.”Most Americans champion a laissez-faire mentality when sizing up how they acquired their talents, literary or not. We hear much talk about how we act like sponges, soaking up our strengths and then wringing them out through productive work leading to success.Effective workers often express their conviction that “no free lunch exists.” This figure of speech means, when expressed by those who excel at what they do, that life is not a series of handouts. We do not get to where we want to be by adopting an attitude that habitually puts us on the dole. Success doesn’t come to people who are so laid back that they assume others owe them benefits without working for them. There are no “free lunches” in life. If we think there are, we are probably lazy, shiftless and unproductive. This angle on life is similar to how I initially pictured achieving success doing Jefferson dramas. Soak up Jefferson’s creative spirit through study. Write often about him. Muse always. Then appear at a Jefferson County book club, for instance, and cash in from my memory bank a rousing drama that delights and informs listeners.Jesus never regarded life as a giant absorbent sponge in which we soak up talents catapulting us ahead. Jesus pictured life more like a sieve through which talents of those who have gone before us flow through us. Christ pithily expressed how everything we are and own are God’s gifts flowing through us. “Give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back,” Luke 6:38. Whether in art or life, the talents we employ act much like a sieve through which they pass rather than a sponge soaking up our strengths. We do not accumulate talents but let them flow through us, their source not our own.This view of life opened up for me when I recently worshipped in Manhattan. Preacher Maurice Boyd spoke of becoming “a happy plagiarist.” Boyd condemned obvious plagiarism, of course. A parishioner once mailed him a sermon that inspired and informed from another preacher. Boyd read it, stopping a few paragraphs into the manuscript. He knew this sermon by heart. Although it had a fresh title, the sermon was Boyd’s. A pulpit plagiarist had filched it.Boyd cautioned that plagiarism is not always so obvious. What of the person who writes parody? He utilizes another’s script, adding sardonic wit to the plot another writer has crafted. I immediately thought of Ben Franklin, who wanted to show King George III how he erred, with Redcoats killing and being killed by American insurgents. Franklin showed how ludicrous this “shock and awe” military strategy was by writing a parody, based on Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” Was Franklin guilty of plagiarism? Then Boyd made his masterful point. “We can’t take a holiday from history,” he asserted. Like a Shakespearean actor rousing an audience, Boyd declared, “History passes through us. We cannot take credit for insight or success as if they originated within us. Previous authors breathe the Divine’s creative breath through us. ‘Not I, but the wind that blows through me,’ poets remind us. We have been made, not that we make.” How true!”Yes!” I shouted from the pew, with a roar from within that no other worshipper heard in that Upper Eastside Manhattan church. Boyd announced, “There are no free lunches in life.” He dramatically paused. We in the pews all knew the answer. Each of us assumed that there are no free lunches because we must earn them. Isn’t this the Yankee way? Boyd corrected us, “There are no free lunches in life because all of life is a free lunch.”Portraying Jefferson, I do not pretend that what I do is born from my effort alone. I am not a sponge soaked with gifts I have invented. Those who sought Jefferson’s spirit before I arrived on earth left literary legacies. I am a sieve through which these insights pass. I inherit about Jefferson what I do not own or invent. Nature’s God writes without a pen. He needs no parchment for his work. He gave birth to all that I portray about Jefferson, filtered through the sieve of my life.If Dan Brown, author of the 2003 blockbuster “The Da Vinci Code,” gets nailed for plagiarism, all of us are mired in deep trouble. Authors of a 1982 book, “Holy Blood, Holy Grail,” accuse Brown of stealing their plot – the oft-debunked legend that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and sired a daughter from this union. Brown writes with dazzling intrigue as he weaves a murder mystery using this plot. Is he a plagiarist? If so, then we all are condemned. Life is not a sponge in which we soak up what’s unique to us. It’s a sieve through which passes the divine breath Jefferson breathed. I do not speak a fresh word for Jefferson because he speaks through me when I portray him on stage. The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries, enhancing Christian worship through lively storytelling and dramatic presentations. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.Vail, Colorado


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