Saturday, September 3, 2011

Jack Layton: A spirituality of service

Jack Layton touched a lot of Canadians. In the tough gig of politics, earning the respect of so many people, regardless of their political affiliation, is no easy task. That Layton did so, speaks volumes about him.

Layton’s personal charisma played a determining role in the NDP success of the last federal election. He was able to convince voters, particularly in Quebec, that he had a vision for Canada that was achievable. Even those who did not buy into his vision, or into the policies that he proposed, would admit that they liked the man.

I think what touched Canadians about Mr. Layton was his quality of authenticity.  His smile, his sense of humor, his endless optimism, and the genuineness of his concern for people were refreshing.

Layton on the role of faith
The last line of Layton’s letter to Canadians made me think of a frequently quoted scripture passage. In Saint Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he writes, “And now, faith, hope and love, abide. These three: and the greatest of these is love.”

Paul’s letter to the Corinthians addresses a number of problems. One of the major problems was that social divisions based on wealth threatened the cohesiveness of the community. In this context, Paul wrote about love, and urged the community to infuse itself with the kind of love that looks to the needs of others.

Layton concluded his letter to Canadians with the lines, My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.” 
Those who knew Layton described him as optimistic, hopeful and caring. Because these traits are so closely connected to the theological virtues of faith, hope and love, defined in the writings of Paul, I began to wonder about the influence of Christianity on Layton’s ethic of service.  I didn’t have to look far for an answer.
In 2008, Listen Up, a program that looks at current events from a Christian perspective, asked politicians about their faith. Layton described faith as playing an active role in his life.  In that interview, Layton spoke about the influence of the youth movement of the United Church on his life.  As a teen, he recalled telling his father that they needed to make Bible Study more relevant if they were to attract other young people. They changed the name from the “Bible Study Class” to “The Infusers.” “The idea,” Layton said, “was that you could infuse your ideas, and your work, and your enthusiasm into the community.”  The experience of community involvement nurtured through the Infusers was formative to Layton’s commitment to service. (Access the clip on YouTube,
"Well done, good and faithful servant."
At Layton’s funeral, Reverent Brent Hawkes spoke about the conversation the two men had when it became obvious that death was imminent. Hawkes recalled saying to Layton that soon he would hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” The quotation is from the parable of the talents related in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25.

Parable of the Talents
Courtesy of
Briefly, the parable goes like this. The master entrusts three servants with a sum of money to invest in his absence. He praises the servants who invest wisely. He chastises and sends away the servant who does nothing with the talent entrusted to him. The parable is usually interpreted to mean that individuals have a responsibility to use their gifts to serve God.

The parable leads into a discourse that suggests a proper use for an individual’s gifts. Principles of social justice are at the heart of this discourse.  Justice and love are expressed in the concrete ways we care for those who are less privileged and more vulnerable. Individuals are to use their gifts to create and sustain a more just society, to change the world. For many Christians, this section of Matthew, with its ethic of service to others, is the essence of the teaching of Jesus.
(Click the link below to read Matthew 25. The parable of the talents begins with verse 14.

Spirituality informs a person's life
Hawkes described Layton as a man who was private about his spirituality. But, a person’s spirituality can never be totally private. Spirituality manifests itself in the person’s choices and actions. It informs the person’s life.
There are different ways to live spirituality. Layton demonstrated a spirituality of service, nurtured in the crucible of the Infusers. The question for us is, “How does my spirituality infuse the world?”

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