Fortnight – Day2: Virtue

Fortnight – Day2: Virtue

October 21, has been designated Global Ethics Day by the Carnegie Council for International Affairs. It’s a good and timely thing to give attention to virtue as we approach the selection of leaders in our nation. In this fortnight we reflect on virtue or ethics. What is “the best” way forward? What values, principles, intentions should be reflected in our personal and corporate actions? Where do we see evidence of the good, the true and the beautiful?

Virtue is born of our deepest beliefs, values, attitudes and desires. It finds expression and shape in our habits, our learned behaviors as these are repeated over and again until they are taken-for-granted as the “right” way. In this second fortnight post, we focus on the care that needs to be given in challenging what some believe is to be normative. I would ask, where is the virtue of immigrant children who have been separated from parents? What is valued in the denial of climate change? Should wearing a mask be a political statement when others may face harm by a neglect? Can any ethical person, let alone a Christian person, ignore the value of the health and well-being of another?

Aren’t these critical questions for all persons of faith — who is my neighbor? — how shall I therefore live my life? Will deception or lie be seen as normal? Will perpetual shading or spinning of the truth, or “gas lighting” (offering false stories) become appropriate for our leaders?

Aristotle offered four virtues: prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude. These have become known as the “cardinal virtues.” The church later added the three “theological virtues:” faith, hope and charity (from I Corinthians 13). These became “the seven virtues.” Others have said virtue is evidenced in that which is good, true and beautiful. Okay — nice overview — but how will we therefore live? And what is the test for these seven virtues or this this triad? How will we know the good, the true, the beautiful?

Few ethicists have shaped my thoughts more than Glen Stassen. He spoke of the guidance offered in the Sermon on the Mount where over and again Jesus points to the fruit borne in lives well-lived. In his work Living the Sermon on the Mount he writes: “I am suggesting that even though we do not know all there is to know, and we do not have the certitude of a universal viewpoint, we can see within our own history what kind of ethic comes through, which is truer because of the fruits it bears.” The theme throughout the Sermon on the Mount is “doing,” “producing,” “acting.” Here is joy and deliverance from deceit. (See Living the Sermon on the Mount, pp. 192-199).

Ivan Illich spoke of virtue as the “habitual facility of doing the good thing.” With a sharp and critical eye on our institutions (schools, hospitals, church and our politics), Illich notes a failure to accomplish primary stated purposes. Other values, he suggests, are given preferred over that which is truly the good. The love of neighbor is somewhere lost in the maze of social interaction. Some are excluded. “No category, neither law or custom, language or culture can define in advance who the neighbor might be.” (see David Cayley’s The Rivers North of the Future, p. 30). Illich often points to the parable in Luke’s Gospel spoken of as “The Good Samaritan.” It is the “expert in the law” who says he has kept all the customs and rules who challenges with “And who is my neighbor?” There is a rupturing of traditional categories in the answer Jesus gives. There is a call to conversion, to change.

Theologian Nancy Bedford calls on Christians “To Speak of God from More than One Place.” When leaders are reluctant to speak against White Supremacy or suggest that other nation’s and peoples are to be disrespected, there is an effort to link God’s purposes to my small, small world of my self interest… to my unwillingness to share. There is a signpost along a country road not far from my home. I chuckle each time I pass. It simply reads “Entering-Leaving Gatesville.” A single sign, same message, front and back, all on one post. For many, the reach of virtue, of ethical concern, begins and ends in one place.

The folks of Gatesville are lovely people I suspect. They clearly have a good sense of humor an perspective. This is important. Sadly, when awareness and care for the neighbor is lost, when our beginning and ending is at the edge of our own skin and ego, then we lose an ability to know the gifts we are offered in community, in diversity, in journeying to new understandings.

When thinking about practical virtues of in daily life, I am also helped by folks like Shirley Duncanson, a retired United Methodist pastor in Minnesota. Her posts in “A Pastor’s Heart: Thoughts on Life and Faith” offer clear and practical assistance. Writing on “Recovering Christian Ethics in an Age of COVID-19,” Rev. Duncanson offers cites the work of Barbara Brown Taylor’s pastoral experience in wise counsel: “The only way out of a pandemic is by all of us working together . . . Each of us doing our part . . . Each of us caring for people around us . . . Each of us using the means available to us to protect one another . . . Each of us holding tight, (in our hearts) to one another . . . And all the while, making sure that no one, but no one, is left behind.” (see: https://shirleyhobsonduncanson.com/tag/barbara-brown-taylor/).

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“Love does no wrong to it’s neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law.” Romans 13:10.

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Poem by Linda Ori, 2004

The Time of Truth

The time is now
Let change begin,
Blend heaven and earth
In an endless spin,
Wherever you're going,
Wherever you've been
Now change your direction
And travel within;

The time is now
To take a good look
Examine your life
And the roads that you took,
From cover to cover
You've written your book
Did you swim in the river
Or sleep by the brook?

The time is now
Get your head on straight
No more indecision
To love or to hate,
Since you are the author
Don't blame it on Fate,
Take control of your future
Before it's too late.

Fortnight – Day1: Leadership

Fortnight – Day1: Leadership

This fortnight, unlike any other of my lifetime, seems a good time to post thoughts on faith and human flourishing; a time to review gifts of hope, community, love, conviviality, and grace. This fortnight, as the cold wind of autumn arrives, a sharing of this folio of reflections seems apt. Why? This fortnight will culminate on November 3rd; if one counts the days, that’s fourteen. If one ponders epochs, however, this fortnight faces into a test for a nation’s soul. This fortnight culminates with a pivot point.

Samuel Johnson wrote “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully. This fortnight for me, then, is a time when the mind is wonderfully focused!

In the fortnight ahead, leadership is on the ballot in the United States. We will better know what Americans prefer in terms of a leader — not just the “who,” but the “how” of leading. What will be seen as leadership strength? What vision, language and actions are seen as most desirable?

Leadership or Connectorship?

All the focus on leadership development over the past two decades has left me bemused. One can only guess at the resources (dollars, graduate courses, research, coaching and consulting) that been given to teaching leadership. I do not doubt there is some benefit; still I am unconvinced the fruit harvested has been worth the expense.

Just as there are times when listening is more valuable than speaking, there are times when following is required in order to later lead. Jesus put it this way, “if you would be master, first be a servant.” On occasion I preached sermons suggesting follower-ship is every bit as important as leadership.

Years ago, in a visit with Robert Greenleaf, I asked if he thought leadership could be taught. He had been an executive with ATT and had written a popular book on Servant Leadership. He had consulted with a wide array of foundations, religious and civic institutions. Bob smiled at my question, paused and said he was “an institution watcher, simply a student of human behavior, noting what I see and not intending to change anybody or anything.” He went on, “Being a leader,” he suggested is “a little like playing violin. If you can’t hear the pitch you shouldn’t try to play.” [There will be more lessons from Bob Greenleaf later in these fortnight briefs].

I was at lunch with a couple of friends. One, the president of a fine academic institution; the other was John McKnight, proponent of asset based community development among communities around the globe.  The academic leader spoke in glowing terms of a new leadership development initiative at the school.  McKnight, the wise observer of institutions and advocacy efforts over the years, waited until lunch was ending to comment. With good humor and a kind smile he offered, “You know, you may want to consider giving attention to connector-ship more than leadership.”  Connecting people is likely to have a longer term pay off… and allow the new, the not yet foreseen, the leaders already present to join the effort.”

Connecting has been much in my thoughts as a critical element of community as we enter this fortnight; even more, CONNECTING is an essential in not only claiming a faith but living it. Faith as a verb, a way of life, is what is missing from so much of the religious lingo and posturing around leadership.

From the Gospel of Mark, 10:42-43 we read: Jesus got them together to settle things down. “You’ve observed how godless rulers throw their weight around,” he said, “and when people get a little power how quickly it goes to their heads. It’s not going to be that way with you. Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. [The Message].

As this fortnight continues, it is worth considering who seeks to serve and who seeks to be served? It is worth considering who seeks to connect and who seeks to divide? Even as the leaves fall from the trees this autumn revealing what has been hidden in the hills across the valley, may clarity come to our nation as to how to follow and how to lead.

Autumn Overdue

Edna St Vincent Millay’s poem “Autumn Overdue” is identified as a “Fortnight Poem“:

Autumn Overdue

Cold wind of autumn, blowing loud  
At dawn, a fortnight overdue, 
Jostling the doors, and tearing through 
My bedroom to rejoin the cloud, 
I know—for I can hear the hiss 
And scrape of leaves along the floor— 
How many boughs, lashed bare by this, 
Will rake the cluttered sky once more. 

Tardy, and somewhat south of east, 
The sun will rise at length, made known 
More by the meagre light increased 
Than by a disk in splendour shown; 
When, having but to turn my head, 
Through the stripped maple I shall see, 
Bleak and remembered, patched with red, 
The hill all summer hid from me.

The Antidote

The Antidote

Be on the lookout for this documentary film THE ANTIDOTEhttps://theantidotemovie.com/about-us/. It is opening in multiple venues this month.

It offers insight into the ways human kindness can shape our future. Do more that wait on election returns or some miracle cure. Call a neighbor today, or find a place where you can help, or sponsor a viewing of this film even if it is via an online format.

Among other initiatives it provides a view of the work of The Learning Tree with DeAmon Harges in Indianapolis.

Harvesting Surprise

Harvesting Surprise

Each autumn, as harvest-time nears, I re-live a surprise. Now, in early walks on crisp, chilled October mornings, I am reminded anew. I look to see if Jack Frost has spray-painted fresh abstract art on meadows. Recollections of other autumns come: hayrides, jack-o-lanterns, golden, maroon and salmon colored maple leaves gathered and pressed in the pages of an old encyclopedia. Or, I recall watching children “bob for apples” in an old wash tub or remember sweet, steaming cider served by a fireplace.

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As I gaze to discover if hoarfrost has tinted a field in a crystalline hue, a rime-like shadow reaches across my consciousness. Perhaps the year was 2011; or thereabouts. A lovely autumn day and I am traveling across the nation’s farm-belt from of a distant meeting to my home, several hundred miles away. It promises to be a leisurely drive.

There being no urgency, I think of long-time friends. They work a large family farm. I will pass nearby. Hospitable folks, these. We exchange annual Christmas greetings. Every few years, some special event might bring us together. Each time — scribbled on a holiday card or spoken in a face-to-face visit — is the same gracious invitation: “Please, come visit; just drop by, anytime; no need to plan ahead.” I would nod, saying I would love to see their place; and, mean it. Still, years passed and the visit was never made. This would be a day I could stop. Surprise them.

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This visit was the first of several unforeseen miscues that day! Readers familiar with the ebb and flow of agricultural life already know my error, my blunder. My surprise landed right in the middle of harvest. From sunup to sundown, and sometimes longer, combines whirled, rumbled and slashed. Farm trucks carried grain to the elevator cycling back and forth and back again unloading their bounty. This “surprise” visit was a first unforced error of the day.

When I greeted her on the phone, I should have picked up the overwhelm in her tentative voice. “Yes, so good to hear from you. Today? Well, yes, we would love to see you. The fellas will be gathering in the barn at noon. Can you make it by then? It is quicker if you take the county road over to our place. Come to the house first. You can help me carry over the lunch.”

Slow witted me! It was only as the call ended I realized I had bushwhacked them right in the middle of harvest! I was the city-slicker dropping by announced from the outskirts of hell.

I made it to the farm with a few minutes to spare and immediately offered my apologies. My friend only smiled and said, “It’s okay. You can help carry these things to the car.”

Arriving at the barn a half mile away, we pass the Pioneer Seed signs, the fuel pumps and grain storage elevator. Parking by an old John Deere we walk into a large structure with huge sliding doors at each end. It is full of implements: tractors, planters, harrows and several charts and computers along the western wall next to a small office. I am reminded that farming is an ever more sophisticated business.

We set out the lunch on a long table. Slowly others, family and farm hands, gathered. My friends introduce me as “a preacher friend who came by to pray for us today.” Okay, my turn to be surprised. So, I pray for a good harvest, for safety and well-being of all in our world during this harvest. I kept the prayer short knowing folks were eager to get back in the fields before rain might arrive.

Ample portions of chipped ham sandwiches, potato salad and iced tea are served. Some peanut butter cookies followed. There is teasing, talk about the weather, feeding the barn cats, and a few questions about mutual friends and grandchildren. Knowing the need to return to combines and trucks soon, I am amazed when my friend goes to his small office and returns handing me some papers. “Your going to enjoy this,” he chuckled.

It is a printout from an old dot matrix printer. Here before me were a collection of “jokes.” Reading the blue inked words, were some of the most offensive, racist jokes imaginable. They were about the President of the United States. Surprise hardly captures my emotions. It was closer to horror.

Still, I care for these people. My friend thought I would be amused, but this had burst across a divide in our worlds. I was confused, sad, disgusted, tongue-tied. I knew there was racial animus and bigotry toward Barack Obama, but surely not here. These were my friends, my good Christian friends.

I wish I could tell you of my courageous response, of my righteous witness. As I remember it now I didn’t say much, only mumbling “I don’t find this very funny.” A human hoarfrost was now stretching across our faces, our conversation, challenging the core of our friendship.

Soon, I was off, watching the dust of the combines in my rear view mirror. I was on my way home — back to another world, my natural habitat, an urban setting, on a university campus.

This surprising harvest occurred nearly a decade ago. Each autumn its memory returns and I realize it was a harbinger of much that has unfolded in our nation, especially in the last four years. Without any sense of irony, these are “good Christian folks,” at least in the way the see themselves and are seen by others. Even so they had burst open my easy assumptions.

They had reached out with hospitality to me — at least before I made my raid on their assumptions and routines. Racism is not the exclusive property of country folks. Many, many rural folks do not accept such bigotry; but many do. And yes, racism is alive and well in our cities and suburbs too. Still it seems to wait along the corridors of everyday activities to suddenly startle and divide us.

I have thought much about the culture that shapes these friends and their religious and political perspectives. Through study and conversations with many farmers, I know more of the stresses on those who today seek to make a living following a plow. I better understand the racial and cultural divides that can so easily be manpulated into fearful mistrust and misinformation.

I have learned that agriculture is changing dramatically, at an ever more rapid pace. Industrial-style agriculture is extraordinarily expensive and risky. Debt is high and weather is increasingly unpredictable. It is destined to change. It will ultimately be replaced by models more attune to sustaining the land, water and soils. Efforts to farm with perennial polycultures, like those being researched at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, will hopefully offer new options.

I am sad for my friends who carry the heavy load of racism and fear (and probably economic threat) that limits their ability to see the depths of racism that damage the soul of our nation. I pray they learn — in their church or social gatherings — of the ability to see others as persons of worth and dignity. I am saddened by the urban/rural and cosmopolitan/ localist divides in our nation and world.

I suspect my farm friends think me to be a “latte drinking urban elitist.” Even though, I don’t like latte! And, I am mindful of my own limited vision and fears that shape my understandings.

Richard Longworth’s fine book “Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism” offers compelling insights into the challenges of those who currently farm in America. He notes the phenomenon of vertical integration wherein every element of farm activity, from selecting seeds to spreading fertilizer to selling in a market is controlled by a large agribusiness — and not the farmer. As Longworth puts it, “Why own the farm when you can own the farmer?”

I don’t excuse the racism of my “friends.” Not at all. Nor do I miss the reality that a deep social/cultural divide was already emerging on the day I burst in on them. I fear such racism has only taken up greater residence in the minds of good people who now share their “jokes” on Instagram or Facebook rather than on a dot matrix printouts.

Something else was harvested on that October day a decade ago. My unacceptable silence was surfaced. It is the silence of too many of our churches, too many of our cultural and political leaders. What might I do better to express theology that valued all as Children of a loving God? How might I do better at harvesting respect, hope, love for the neighbor AND the stranger?

Perhaps I am overly optimistic, but it appears a harvest is underway in our society regarding racism. In the midst of the tragic deaths of folks like Breonna Taylor and George Floyd a new awareness seems to be possible. I suspect my farm friends don’t see anti-racism activities in the same hopeful light that I do. I see these as a sign of a potential harvest of hope — a sign that increasing racial justice might some day arrive… a time when the frozen assumptions and categories of our common life are thawed. It is not easy, not for my friends or for so many others caught up in the swirl of human distrust.

As I write a national election is only days away. I pray the current patterns of racism and ugly vitriol encouraged by the current national administration will be rejected and fresh sense of respect and the valuing of our common life can be harvested.

No matter the outcome, I will plan to make another visit to my farm friends — it has been too long since I saw them. Be assured I won’t bushwhack them again during harvest!

Pride Goes Before… COVID19

Pride Goes Before…

Of course, first we pray for all of those who are infected with COVID 19, including especially the president and those around him. Sincerely, as a person of faith, my heart and prayers go out to those who have learned and are learning of their real or potential infection with this virus. We pray for Melania Trump, Hope Hicks and others around them.

Second thoughts go to lessons learned as a child. This wisdom is drawn from Proverbs 16:18 (“Pride goeth before destruction“). When did I first hear the expression “Pride goes before the fall”? I suspect it was at some point in elementary school. Over and again in life, this wisdom has been illustrated. This ancient wisdom asks us to live with humble respect for knowledge and the care of others.

Sadly the president is disrespectful of science and the well-being of others. Only a day or so before his infection was discovered, Mr. Trump said “the end of the pandemic is in sight.”

This is a tragic morality tale. I suspect Mr. Trump’s words and behaviors over the past nine months will become a core illustration of the scriptural proverb. Pride does go before the fall. Hubris, in action and/or words, can boomerang back on the head of those too arrogant to accept such a basic human reality.

Now, a proud man, a stubborn man, one who with arrogant pride ridiculed others, illustrates this truth. He who thumbed his nose at medical experts; he who spoke dismissively of others who wore masks; is coming to terms with his overblown hubris. Gallons of hydroxycloriquine can’t fix this. What a strange new test this is for our democracy that is already being severely tested. There is no bunker to protect him from his own pride.

The virus was politicized but the virus wasn’t political. This is not a reality show. Children will be learning this real-life-example of hubris and linking it to this Biblical wisdom for decades to come.

Yes, we pray for our president and for all of his maladies.