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Presidents and Truth

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Parson_Weems'_Fable.jpg

Grant Wood; “Parson Weems’ Fable”; 1939; oil on canvas; Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas; 1970.43

The first story I ever learned about George Washington ended with “I cannot tell a lie.”  He had chopped down a cherry tree, the story goes, and when his father confronted him, he told the truth.   The first story I ever learned about Abraham Lincoln ended with him chasing down a customer whom he had accidentally short-changed, so that he could pay her what he owed, thus earning the name “Honest Abe.” These stories, whether true in detail or not, reflect an important value: Presidents who tell the truth, Presidents who are honest, are to be honored.

On this day when the U.S. celebrates Presidents’ Day, honoring Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, I find myself musing on Presidents and truth.  In this “post-truth” era, with a current President who offers “alternative facts,” I’m reflecting on how we got to where we are now.

Our Presidents reflect who we are.  The “post-truth” era started long before the campaign and election of the current U.S. President.  Ken Wilber’s excellent analysis in Trump and a Post-Truth World” traces the development of post-modernism, pointing out its important strengths, as well as pointing to how its shadow, narcissism and nihilism, has led us to where we are today.

If our Presidents reflect who we are, how can we more fully become who we want to be? Where do we go from here?  I believe that the philosopher/theologian Bernard Lonergan can provide us help.  Lonergan calls humans to “authenticity,” which he defines as openness, questioning, honesty, and good will.  He unpacks those elements of authenticity by focusing on the operations of consciousness within us that result in our knowing what we know, and the inherent norms accompanying those operations. Lonergan demonstrates how the fruit of authenticity is objectivity.  He agrees with post-modernists that there are no “already-out-there-now” facts that we can simply take a look at and know. Rather, all information that comes to us is interpreted through the lens of our identity and experience, in other words, through who we are.  However, Lonergan believes that this reality doesn’t imply relativism and nihilism.  As we move closer to becoming authentic subjects, objectivity results.  Objectivity is the fruit of authentic subjectivity.

If we want our leaders to be authentic human beings who honor truth-telling, we can begin by becoming more authentic ourselves.  Furthermore, we can create communities of authenticity that call our institutions and our leaders to higher standards.

The hard work of moving out of narcissism and nihilism begins with us.  And when we have blazed a trail and created a path, others will follow.  People yearn for authenticity.  Let us take the lead and challenge our leaders to follow.

Spiritual Foundations of Racial Justice

Photo credit: the.urbanophile via flickr

Photo credit: the.urbanophile via flickr

At this time of bitter political division around the world, in this time of rising racial tensions, I find myself asking, “Who will bring healing to us?  Who will bring us together?” As we approach Martin Luther King Day in the U.S., I wonder, “Where did Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. find his strength?  Where did he get support? How would he guide us in these times?”

Lerita Coleman Brown recently reminded me that Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman served as a spiritual guide to King.  Thurman helped King stay spiritually grounded in the midst of his struggles for racial justice.  King carried a copy of Thurman’s groundbreaking book, Jesus and the Disinherited, wherever he went.

Moreover, Thurman served as a spiritual guide for many others in the Civil Rights Movement.  He advised James Farmer, Sherwood Eddy, Pauli Murray, and A.J. Muste.  He reminded leaders that, like a tree, their strength and reach went only as far as the depth of their roots.

Howard Thurman was born in 1899 in Daytona Beach, Florida. He experienced God in nature and was profoundly influenced by his grandmother, a former slave and a person of deep faith.  After graduating from Morehouse College as valedictorian of his class, he was ordained a Baptist minister and went on to study at Colgate Rochester Divinity School. Eventually, he became Dean of Rankin Chapel at Howard University and then Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University.

In 1935, Thurman traveled to India, where he met Gandhi.  The two conversed widely and deeply and Gandhi questioned Thurman closely about racial injustice in the U.S.  Gandhi opined, “It may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world.”

Thurman viewed his calling as being a spiritual support to the leaders in the Civil Rights Movement, and as helping them learn a nonviolent approach to working for racial justice.  He knew that the success of the movement depended upon its spiritual foundation.  He prayed deeply and worked tirelessly to build that foundation and nurture the leaders.

If we could ask Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King how to face the challenges of our time, I’m convinced he would point us to God.  He would remind us that we need to draw on our spiritual foundations to face the challenges of these times.  Racial justice will come only through deep spiritual transformation.  The healing of our political divisions, likewise, requires spiritual grounding.  King would urge us to seek wise leaders like Thurman to guide us in developing our spiritual foundation.  May we draw on the inspiration of King and Thurman and deepen our spiritual roots to face the challenges of our time.

Light in the Darkness

Photo Credit: Per Ola Wiberg via FreeStockPhotos.biz

Photo Credit: Per Ola Wiberg via FreeStockPhotos.biz

At this darkest time of the year, both Jews and Christians celebrate holidays of light. Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, commemorates one of God’s miracles: the long–burning oil that allowed the Jews to rededicate their holy temple in victory over foreign oppressors. Hanukkah celebrates the light of religious freedom after dark oppression.

Christmas also celebrates the triumph of light over darkness: God’s entering the world in Jesus, and the light of Christ overcoming the darkness in the world.  Both religions exhort the faithful to remember that the night is darkest just before the dawn, that we must not lose hope but that we must trust the God who has the power to deliver from even the darkest night.

Great spiritual teachers throughout the millennia have taught that any spiritual journey consists of ups and downs, and that sojourners on the spiritual path can experience a personal dark night of the soul. If the faithful persevere, they will discover that the personal dark night, like the historical darkness commemorated by Christianity and Judaism, is darkest just before the dawn, and the breakthrough to the other side is worth the walk through the darkness.

In institutions and societies, as in personal lives, the deepest darkness comes just before the dawn. If an institution or society perseveres, it can experience the great power and light that come with breaking through to the dawn.

At this time of bitter political divisions in the U.S. and around the world, of rising racism, terrorism, and scapegoating of minorities, of environmental degradation, and of wars and genocide, it’s easy to wonder where the light is.  

One guide for me in this time of darkness is St. John of the Cross. John describes the personal dark night as a time of necessary self-emptying, not of our choosing. We fill ourselves with knowledge and accomplishments and loves and allow these to define us. Yet growth involves emptying. Constance Fitzgerald summarizes John’s understanding of the process of emptying:

“Only when one becomes aware of the illusory and limiting character of this fullness in the face of the breakdown of what/whom we have staked our lives on, the limitations of our life project and relationships, the irruption of our unclaimed memories, and the shattering of our dreams and meanings, can the depths of hunger and thirst that exist in the human person, the infinite capacity, really be experienced.”

John claims that this deep hunger and thirst, this infinite capacity for love, cannot be fulfilled by our human loves and accomplishments, but only by the transcendent.

Constance Fitzgerald extends John’s work to the societal level.  In this time of societal impasse, when it seems that our human attempts to figure out solutions to our overwhelming problems only run us into brick walls and tempt us to cynicism and despair, John, Fitzgerald claims, offers a way forward.  Fitzgerald claims that “paradoxically, a situation of no potential is loaded with potential, and impasse become the place for the reconstitution of the intuitive self.”

Fitzgerald believes that the insoluble crises we face are signs of transition in societal development and in the evolution of humanity.  These crises provide an invitation for us as a society to empty ourselves of rationally constructed answers that no longer work.  The crises invite us to humble ourselves and seek deeper wisdom, wisdom that emerges from letting go, from our collective intuition, from prayer.  In the words of II Chronicles 7:14, “If my people humble themselves and pray and seek my face. . .”

Fitzgerald challenges us to bring our societal impasse to prayer.  It is only through letting go and seeking God’s perspective and God’s way forward, she claims, that society will be freed, healed, and brought to paradoxical new vision.  Only in this way can we be set free for selfless action.  “Death is involved here – a dying in order to see how to be and to act on behalf of God in the world.”  Dying leads to new life.  Out of the darkness comes light.

In this season of darkness, let us respond to the invitation to let go of our egos and preconceived notions, and seek the deeper wisdom that emerges when we become empty.  And may our society humble itself, recognizing the limits of human understanding and effort, and seek a way forward guided by the emergent divine.

Deep Listening

Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture

Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture

Three weeks ago today I learned the result of the U.S. Presidential election.  I was devastated.  My candidate had lost, and to someone I thought was dangerous for my country and the world.

My stomach in knots, I talked with a friend and had a good cry.  I turned to wise leaders for a way forward.  Still wrestling with my emotions, I sought words of guidance and hope.

I found those words of guidance and hope in several places: Constance Fitzgerald, Elizabeth Warren, Cynthia Bourgeault, and a colleague at work.  While the importance of standing up for those who are vulnerable in this present climate was reinforced, I also learned the importance of listening.  And I learned the importance of humility.

For the past three weeks, I have been seeking to live into this wisdom.  It’s harder than I thought it would be. It’s hard to listen.  It’s hard to see self-righteousness in myself, and to let it go.  It’s hard to stand up for what I believe in the face of opposition.

The words of Steve Garnaas-Holmes resonate with me, as he reflects on how to turn swords into plowshares post-election:

“I bear them into conversations, my swords.
I hide them in my dark.
I launch them at the news, these spears.

Find them among me, God of Peace. Take them:
my bitterness, my defensiveness, my need to win.
Find the hidden swords, the secret spears I cling to.

Make them red hot in the furnace of your forgiveness.
Hold them in the tongs of your truth.
Beat them with the hammer of your love.

Take the hurt I mean to project, the defeat I wish others.
Free me of the swagger of hurtfulness.
Bend my righteous little swords into tools of life.

Let me stand before enemies with pure love,
prepared to break soil, to prune branches,
to do the hard work of growing peace.

For I will need stout tools to work this rough land well,
to bring fruits of justice out of this rocky earth,
to tend the muscular trees of mercy.”

The diversity in our world is a gift.  We see it in nature.  Can we see it in one another?  Because of our diversity of experiences, we can learn from one another.  As Quakers believe, no one person holds the entirety of truth.  Each person holds part of the truth, and we must listen to one another to allow the entire truth to emerge. In a diverse nation, different people experience life differently, and these life experiences shape political viewpoints.  Can we get beneath the political views to hear one another’s experiences?  Can I ask others, regardless of their political views, “What were your hopes when you voted for the candidate of your choice?  What are your hopes now?  What were your fears, and what are your fears now?”   And once I ask, can I listen deeply, really listen with curiosity, to the heart of the person speaking to me?

I know that there is much for me to learn in the weeks and months and four years ahead.  And, more importantly, there is much for me to practice.  John Woolman, an eighteenth-century American Quaker, serves as a role model for me here.  As Woolman traveled the American colonies speaking out against slavery, he both stood strong in his beliefs and at the same time listened respectfully to others’ points of view.  He exhibited both great strength and great humility.  How can I go deep and find that place of spiritual grounding that allows me to practice both strength and humility in these perilous times?

Staying Rooted in the Storm

Photo credit: Linda Abbott

Photo credit: Linda Abbott

I’ve just spent a weekend with the trees.  At Dayspring Retreat Center in Germantown, Maryland, the trees surrounded our group and spoke to me of groundedness through storms and sun alike.  The first night, we were battered by wind and rain.  As the rain beat down on the roof, the trees stayed deeply rooted and grounded, flexible in the storm.

All around me, the political storm rages.  With nine days to go before the U. S. election, attacks sharpen, hostilities increase.  Political hostilities, possibly the worst ever, tempt me to hunker down, batten down the hatches, and wait it out.  I’m beginning to understand those Facebook friends who say they don’t want to see any more political discussion.

Yet part of me knows there is another way.

I watched the trees outside my window on my first night at the retreat.  They bent in the storm.  Their branches blew wildly in the wind.  Yet they remained strong.  Their deep roots and flexible limbs allowed them to weather the storm while standing in the midst of it.  While doing so, the trees provided shelter.  Their root systems prevented the ground from eroding.

In Healing the Heart of Democracy, Parker Palmer brilliantly delineates the political storm in which we find ourselves.  He demonstrates how consumerism, scapegoating, and the mass media which fuels their fires erode the soil of democracy.

But Palmer doesn’t stop there.  He shows us how we can be like the trees, deeply rooted and grounded, flexible, standing strong in the midst of the storm.  He shows us how we can provide shelter, how, by developing strong roots, we can be grounded leaders who prevent the soil of our society from eroding.  He explores the outward and visible infrastructures of democracy and proposes ways to make better use of them.  For example, school teachers can be grounded leaders by helping students connect history lessons to their own lives. History lessons about Nazi Germany parallel discrimination against minorities today, close to home; any culture carries within it the seeds of oppression and violence.

Furthermore, in school, students can practice democracy as well as learn about it.  Or students can engage in service learning opportunities in their communities, integrating their classroom work with the world around them.

Palmer also explores how congregations and community groups can practice deep hospitality, welcoming the stranger, engaging more fully with those who are different.  He points out how often relationships in such groups become superficial and how learning to risk vulnerability with one another enriches the soil of community.

Grounded leaders in schools, congregations, community groups, and (I would add) businesses can build the relationships and ways of being that form the foundation of a democracy.

I ask myself, “In what ways am I like the deeply rooted tree in the storm, exhibiting grounded leadership, providing shelter and preventing erosion in the political storm?  In what ways can I learn from the tree, incorporating more of Palmer’s practices into my leadership?”

May we all resist the urge to hide from the important tasks of shaping the world, instead remaining fully engaged and deeply rooted as political storms swirl around us.

(This is a slight revision of a similar article that appeared in the Executive Soul blog in October 2012, “Grounded Leadership: Staying Rooted in the Storm.”)

 

Business Success

Photo Credit: nguyen-hung-vu, via flickr

Photo Credit: Nguyen Hung Vu, via flickr

The U.S. Presidential election has raised the question of what successful business is.  Is a business successful simply because it makes a lot of money?  What if the money comes through cheating customers or suppliers?  For example, is a rich person who runs a drug cartel a successful businessman?  Is someone who becomes rich, at least in part, through tax evasion, a successful businessman?

Business requires trust.  I pay money for goods or services because I believe in their value. I trust that what I am paying for is being represented accurately and is priced fairly.  Often I shop online, which requires the further trust that the product I can’t see is what it says it is and that it will come to me in a timely fashion.  I trust the seller’s promise that I can return anything that doesn’t meet my expectations and that my money will be refunded.

Business requires good relationships.  A businessperson develops relationships with suppliers and customers, convincing them that they can craft a win-win relationship.  Honesty forms the foundation of these relationships.  If a businessperson proves dishonest, suppliers and customers run in the other direction. As the saying goes, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”

Businesses built on trust and good relationships contribute to the social fabric of the larger society.  Businesses lacking trust and good relationships tear the social fabric.

So, what is “success” in business?  I posit that the answer is not simply “more money.”  To be sure, a business must make money in order to survive and thrive.  Yet the purpose of business is far more than money.  Saying that the purpose of business is making money is like saying that the purpose of life is breathing.  Breathing is necessary to life, yet breathing is not the purpose of life.  The purpose of life is to love and to give.  The purpose of business is similar: to give goods and services that contribute to people’s well-being.  A successful business provides useful goods and services, operates with integrity, and thrives.

For example, Wainwright Bank in Boston, under Bob Glassman’s leadership, aspired to become the leader in lending to nonprofits.  Naysayers claimed that Wainwright Bank would suffer financially for its idealism, claiming that loans for homeless shelters and food banks are risky business.  In fact, the opposite proved true: Wainwright Bank’s community development loans totaling over $700 million experienced zero losses during the time of Bob Glassman’s leadership, in sharp contrast to other banks’ loan portfolios. I posit that Bob Glassman is an outstanding example of a successful businessman, making money and serving people in his community at the same time.

Instead of evaluating the merit of a business solely on its money-making capabilities, let us hold a higher standard for businesses.  Let us assess the value of a business not only through its financial success but through its ability to serve the community, to contribute to the well-being of the world. Our time here on earth is precious, as is our opportunity to create legacies for future generations. May the businesses we create not only thrive but also embody the highest ideals of our humanity.

Heart Leadership

Photo Credit: AFGE via flickr

Photo Credit: AFGE via flickr

The month of July has seen police shootings of black men and shootings of police in the U.S., an attempted coup in Turkey, and acts of terrorism in France, Baghdad, Kabul, Nigeria, and the rest of the world, rounded off by the Republican National Convention and the Democratic National Convention in the U.S.   The world watched the conventions carefully to see how the rising leadership in each party would address the violence in the U.S. and around the world.   

An important response came from a surprising corner: the clergy.  In a party that has had a conflicted relationship with religion, Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, a self-described “theologically conservative liberal evangelical Biblicist,” spoke powerfully at the Democratic National Convention.  “I know it may sound strange,” he stated, “but I’m a conservative because I work to conserve a divine tradition that teaches us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.” Pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, NC, and the son of a pastor, Barber started the Moral Mondays movement to put his faith into action.

Barber diagnosed America with a “heart problem.”  He called his audience to “love the Jewish child, the Palestinian child, the Muslim and the Christian and the Hindu and the Buddhist and those who have no faith.”

Barber drew the analogy of a defibrillator used to shock weak hearts back to healthy functioning with the need for the weak heart of America to be shocked back to healthy functioning.  He exhorted Americans to be “moral defibrillators.” “We must shock this nation with the power of love; we must shock this nation with the power of mercy.”

Barber stands as an example of a moral leader who dives deep, beneath the superficial cacophony of voices that constitutes much of American’s political discourse.  Barber stands on the bedrock of his Christian scriptures and of prayer: “We need to heed the voice of the scriptures.  We need to listen to the ancient chorus in which deep calls unto deep.”

American culture’s obsession with consumerism, violence, and self-centeredness needs more than a Band-aid approach.  America needs deep healing.  Barber, for one, understands this need, and knows the deep well from which healing can come.  As Maggie Ross, an Anglican solitary, points out in her book, Silence: A User’s Guide, “The human race is sleepwalking into extinction.  If we are not to destroy our beautiful planet and ourselves with it, then we must learn to live more simply, more carefully, more joyfully.”  Ross calls her readers to the deep well of prayer and silence to awaken them, a well that Barber knows.

Those who have ears to hear awoke when Barber spoke at the DNC.  May more leaders arise who call us to the deep places, out of which we can exercise “heart leadership.”  Our world is depending upon it.