In recent years there has been a program on television titled "My Name is Earl." In the show, the main character - Earl - is a man who has spent most of his life lying, cheating and stealing. Taking advantage of situations and people, without regard for the consequences. One day fortune seems to smile on Earl. He buys a winning lottery ticket, only to be hit by a car and then loses the ticket. He has an epiphany during his recovery in the hospital. He concludes this has happened to him because of "karma," that all the bad things that he has done throughout his life are now coming back to haunt him. He decides to make a list of the things he has done and the people he has wronged and sets out to make amends one by one. As he does he realizes this is not always a simple thing, because he isn't settling for just apologizing - he wants to make things right. Earl learns two things in the process. One, that his actions have often had far-ranging repercussions that he never imagined. And two, the "solution" wasn't always a simple reversal of the wrong that had been done, that to truly make amends often involved a conversion a mind and spirit as well as paying back a simple debt.
This idea of karma or fate or some other force that repays you for what you've done is certainly not a new one. I'm sure we've all heard sayings such as "You'll reap what you sow" or "What goes around comes around" and "You can fool some of the people all the time, and all the people some of the time. But you can't fool all the people all the time." Shakespeare wrote a play titled "Measure for Measure" that explores this idea that our actions and words and deeds will come back to haunt us, that regardless of how hard we try to hide or obscure our true purpose we can't escape who we are. We can't escape the consequences - consequences not always what we had hoped for.
The title of Shakespeare's play is drawn from the Gospel. "The measure with which you measure will be measured out to you..." Measure for measure. Many times I've heard threats of hell or retribution and many times failed anyway to live up to the standards God expects of me. We all fail now and then. We all fail at measuring out to others that which we would want measured out to us in return. We allow ego or weakness or desire to drive us and end not just hurting ourselves but others in the process. When we take and take and take without giving in return much will be taken from us as well.
I was talking with the young people I minister to recently about the far-reaching effects our actions have. That everything we do or say somehow affects the world we live in. An argument we may have with a friend may seem to us a simple disagreement between two people. What we don't consider is how that argument may affect each of us. Will we treat others badly because we're so upset about the argument? Will we become depressed and how will that affect the others around us? Will we break off the friendship and end up regretting it in the future? Will the argument instill in us a distrust of others, a hesitation to cultivate other relationships? By the same token, a simple kindness may grow into something wonderful that we never imagined.
I've always loved the image of a drop landing in a pool of water and the ripples slowly spreading out. Because that's what the things we do are like - drops of water that land and spread and ripple throughout everything around us. Some things we may never know how it has affected others. And sometimes we may. Recently I was visited by a young man I hadn't seen in about ten years. He had come to youth group years ago when I was a volunteer - somewhat against his will - and even though he struggled with his faith and projected an air of distrust and disassociation I always enjoyed talking with him. There was a spirituality that I sensed there that transcended the façade, and I told him that. In the years since I thought of him often, wondered what became of him and prayed for him. He visited me just before Christmas and it was a joyful reunion. He spoke of all he had been through - serving in the military in Iraq and all the horrors he had seen and how it had affected his life. Other troubles he had experienced and temptations that had been placed before him and how through force of will and character he had risen above it all. And how my interest in and kindness to him was something he'd never forgotten, how it helped him in some of his darkest hours during the war, and how he desired to come back and share his appreciation with me. It was one of the greatest Christmas gifts I've ever received.
We don't know how every word or action will affect others and the world around us. But like ripples in a pond they do. And that which we measure out to others will indeed be measured out to us in return.