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What do you think about buttons? Probably nothing at all, unless you’ve lost one and are searching for another to match. I’m confident you think even less about buttonholes.

But consider: someone, somewhere, sometime had to invent buttons. In Western Europe buttons have been around at least since Roman times but back then there was a problem. Although buttons had been invented, buttonholes hadn’t! Buttons were attached to loops of material. It was difficult to achieve a close fit this way, so tailors and dressmakers didn’t use them much. Then, around the middle of the thirteenth century (imported from the East, we think) the reinforced buttonhole arrived, transforming the fashion industry. Suddenly buttons were big business. We can imagine a conversation at the castle gate.

“My dear, what are you wearing?” “What, this simple frock—it’s nothing special.” “But how is it fastened together—what are those round things on the bodice and sleeves?” “What, the buttons? You push them through these little slits called button holes.” “But don’t they pop out again when you move or stretch?” “That’s why the button holes are stitched all round, to keep their shape. But surely you know about buttons and button holes. Everyone whose anyone is wearing them now, it’s the latest thing from Paris.” “Really? Excuse me, I must rush off to see my dressmaker.”

That, of course was two ladies of the court chatting. It wasn’t until the days of mass production that buttons became available for common people like you and me. The point is, buttons aren’t nearly so useful without buttonholes. At the same time, buttonholes are useless without buttons.

The same principle applies in many of life’s challenges and solutions. I’m great at coming up with really great button ideas that unfortunately need a buttonhole idea to work. I thought about writing a best seller so I could be rich and famous but discovered I needed imagination and a good plot. I got together all the stuff to build a gas & oil fired pottery kiln, optimistically thinking that living in a smokeless zone wouldn’t matter. I notice others wrestle with similar issues; life and politics are full of the unintended consequences of good ideas that needed the right buttonhole to work.

It seems to be a spiritual principle too; the scriptures are full of examples.

“though I have all faith . . . and have not charity, I am nothing” And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor . . . and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.” (1st Corinthians 13:2-3)
 “a man being evil cannot do that which is good; for if he offereth a gift, or prayeth unto God, except he shall do it with real intent it profiteth him nothing.” (Moroni 7:6)

Notice that if the evil man genuinely wants to change (real intent) his gift or prayer are accepted. In other words, the action button needs the right motivation buttonhole to work. In fact, the relationship of motive and action turns out to be fundamental in the gospel of Jesus Christ and spills over into ordinary, everyday living. Christ reserved his greatest condemnation for a specific class of people: hypocrites—those who outwardly pretend to be one thing but in attitude, aims and attributes are something entirely different.

This seems particularly relevant for the times we live in. There are increasingly sharper divisions between competing opinions, increasingly shrill demands that one particular course be followed. So many groups demand acceptance on the grounds of tolerance yet are completely intolerant of anyone who thinks differently. We desperately need more civility, respect and kindness for those who feel differently than ourselves. And it begins with ourselves: our response and dialogue should never adopt the same character of intolerance we receive. We cannot request tolerance from others if we don’t extend tolerance to them. One of the hardest teachings of Jesus is this:

Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you . . . . . . For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? (Matthew 5:44,46,47)

The button of effective social dialogue requires the buttonhole of love as motivation, no matter how the opposition behave. There is an alternative, of course. We can hide in a bunker and refuse to engage in the war. But that was never an option for a disciple of Jesus Christ, who asks us to raise our voice and teach his gospel.

But always remember, if you miss the first buttonhole, you’ll never be able to button up!


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