Advance Virtue

What is it about a crisis that so charms us?  Fire, flood, storm, acts of madness.  If the morning news is to be believed, devastation brings out the best in us.

Let me be clear from the outset: I am not making a judgment nor voicing a criticism.  I am asking a question, which probably—truth in advertising—also advances a suggestion.

This week has brought news much like that of all too many recent days.  Something awful, this time something evil, has happened.  And bystanders became heroes.  One by one, men and women rushed toward the suffering and offered acts of generosity and courage that rightfully warrant recognition and gratitude.  They were not posturing for praise.  They were simply, sincerely doing what was right.

But my question is this: Why wait?  Why wait until after the hurricane hits, after the storm swamps, after the bad actor revels in all the blood he lusted for?  Why delay doing what is right until wrong has taken the lead?

It is certainly magnanimous and praiseworthy for individuals to run toward calamity—wading through the “acts of God” and the malice of men to save and succor others.  And I am certainly not suggesting that any human action can thwart divine will or completely prevent human evil.  Still I wonder: What if our society—parents, schools, churches, politicians, the media, you and I—focused as much on advance virtue as responsive heroism?

Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary (2nd edition) defines “hero” as “any man [let’s say “any person”] admired for courage, nobility, or exploits.”  In part, that fits the much-used word.  Heroes are those who respond to danger with courage and receive honor in return.  But if you and I have not yet made that cut, must we wait until the next catastrophe to show our colors?  Look closely, there’s a third descriptor: A hero is admired for nobility as much as for acts of bravery.

What is nobility?  A word not much in use these days.  Back to the dictionary.  “Nobility” is “the quality of being noble in character, mind, birth, or rank; nobility is virtue, goodness, honor, decency, integrity.”  Since ancient days, nobility has been won not merely through acts of courage but also through acts of virtue: wisdom, justice, self-restraint, faith, hope, and love.

When did we stop admiring heroes for their wisdom?  Why don’t we praise the heroism of self-restraint—modesty, chastity, sobriety?  Why don’t we these days beat the drum and march in parades for heroes of justice, faith, hope, love?

In the Holy Bible, David, the shepherd boy who became king of Israel, is described as a “man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14).  But David did not earn that title by killing the lion, the bear, or the giant.  David was not God’s hero because of his physical bravery or reaction time.  God denounced and dismissed David’s predecessor and put David on the throne because King Saul had not kept the Lord’s command but had instead acted in his own best interest.  David was a man after God’s own heart in the mold cast by Jesus: “If you love me, you will show it by doing what I have told you” (John 14:15).  That is God speaking.

And what does God say?  “[W]hat does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8).  And the New Testament quotes Jesus in the same vein: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:36-39).

Faith, love, kindness, justice, selflessness, humility—heroic qualities.  And qualities that can be exercised before, during, and after crises.  Virtue in advance means sharing resources and shaping relationships to show love for God and for others.  It means praying for others before we know their needs.  It means reaching within ourselves to sacrifice for others nearby and far away; others who are just like us and others who really are “other”—who look, think, and act other than we do.  That is not suspect, simpering, or self-righteous.  That is the shape of a better world.

I honor those who put aside their own safety to rescue those suffering from hurricanes, earthquakes, forest fires, and mass shootings.  And I honor too those who deny their own comforts and exert themselves on their knees, extending their hands, withholding judgment, embracing contradictions, and saying “yes” to the Spirit of God, who prompts and empowers virtue in advance.

Advertisements

Why I Won’t be Campaigning for Candidates from the Pulpit

The Johnson Amendment (proposed by then-Senator Lyndon Johnson as an amendment to H.R. 8300, which was enacted into law as the Internal Revenue Code of 1954) reads as follows:

“In order to keep its 501(c )(3) status, a charitable organization may not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statement/s) any political communication on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for political office.”

 In other words, if charitable organizations want their donors to be able to get tax deductions for their contributions, those organizations must not advocate for or oppose any political candidate.  

At various times since its passage, churches and other organizations wanting to support candidates have opposed the Johnson Amendment, insisting that it curtails their freedom of religion or speech, or both.  In 2008 the Alliance Defense Fund began and promoted the Pulpit Initiative, urging pastors/preachers to violate federal law and virtually daring the IRS to revoke their privileged tax status.  These and other opponents of the Johnson Amendment make essentially three arguments:

  1. Opponents of the Johnson Amendment argue that it violates the constitutionally protected right to the free exercise of religion.

However, in the 1990 case of Employment Division v. Smith, the United States Supreme Court held that the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment is not implicated by a law that burdens religious practice, so long as the law targets religious and non-religious conduct alike.  The exercise of religion is not addressed or affected.  The US Constitution does not guarantee the right for individuals or organizations to make a profit from the exercise of religion.

  1. Opponents of the Johnson Amendment argue that it violates the constitutionally protected right to free speech.

However, in the 1983 case of Regan v. Taxation With Representation (TWR), the Supreme Court upheld Section 501(c)(3), as applied to a secular organization. The Justices reasoned that a 501(c)(3) organization’s ability to receive taxpayers’ tax-deductible contributions (per Section 170) is a form of subsidy by the government to that organization. However, the government need not subsidize political activity–in that case, lobbying–because it may make the judgment that most taxpayers do not want to subsidize lobbying for causes and candidates that they do not support.

 Opponents of the Johnson Amendment argue that it constitutes an entanglement of government with religion that is prohibited by the U.S. Constitution (thus, violating the so-called “separation of Church and state”).

 However, the relevant legal principle forbids excessive “entanglement” between church and state, but the principal entanglement cases involve challenges to public subsidies of religious organizations. The government is permitted to fund the secular, but not the religious, activities of these organizations. However, where the secular and religious activities are too closely intertwined, the courts have struck down the underlying subsidy for fear that otherwise government officials will become too closely involved in the affairs of religious organizations, as they monitor the use of public funds.  The Johnson Amendment demarcates a fairly bright line, and the IRS has sought to investigate only clear violations.

The fact is that the First Amendment of the U. S. Constitution secures the right of individual American citizens and their organizations to engage in political activity so long as they are organized under Section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code. That provision also confers tax-exempt status, but donations to 501(c)(4) organizations are not tax-deductible under Section 170.  Otherwise, if a group wants to engage in both charitable good works and political activities, it must form two separate organizations in order for donations to the charitable arm of the organization to be tax-deductible.

 I would not ask other taxpayers to support my political opinions with regard to candidates for office, no matter how godly I believe those opinions to be.  Nor do I choose to support the opinions and preferences of others.  To do so would place an unfair burden on all taxpayers and would be a confusion between God and “Caesar” that Jesus’ teachings do not warrant.

________________________

Arguments and responses are quoted and paraphrased from Michael C. Dorf’s article:
http://supreme.findlaw.com/legal-commentary/why-the-constitution-neither-protects-nor-forbids-tax-subsidies-for-politicking-from-the-pulpit-and-why-both-liberals-and-conservatives-may-be-on-the-wrong-side-of-this-issue.html

 

A Call to Prayer

The urge to write this post has come unbidden to my mind so frequently in recent days that I believe it is God’s idea.  So I’m doing as I’ve been told.

I’m writing to call for prayer, specifically, prayer for God’s intervention against the scourge of drug abuse.

We are all affected in one way or the other—relationally, emotionally, physically, financially, spiritually.  Even if you don’t know anyone who is addicted; even if you’ve never felt the tug between helping and hurting; even if you’ve never lain awake, crying dark and bitter tears, or stood beside a casket with your insides cauterized by anger at your own powerlessness and the senseless tragedies that drug abuse causes—even if you cannot draw a straight line between yourself and the scourge, you are affected.

Every taxpayer pays the price for health care required by drug abuse and the drain of resources into services for individuals and families falling apart because of unemployment, incarcerations, and violence.  Every citizen bears the burden of the diversion of law enforcement and the justice system to drug-related crimes.  Addiction is never victimless.  Our national tax base cannot possibly serve society equitably when a growing minority absorbs an undue share.

But even if you are not financially affected or if that seems a crass motivation for prayer, obeying God in this effort makes sense otherwise, because every individual is a part of the human race, and when one suffers, all suffer. “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main” (John Donne).  None of us can claim never to be a part of the problem and not the solution.  One swift glance in the mirror shows us that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).  So maybe it’s simply a matter of putting oneself right with the rest of humanity.  Jesus commands: “Love one another” (John 13:34).  Prayer is identification and obedience, and surely it is love.

So today I began praying intentionally and fervently for those who are addicts, those who are becoming addicted, those who are tempted to addiction, and those who are struggling to overcome it.  I prayed that God would grant them vision to see the ends of their actions and strength to hold out against temptation; that God would satisfy their cravings with His calm and peace.

I prayed, too, for those who are struggling to love addicts: that God would empower them against enabling, by showing them how their behaviors might stop the cycles of addiction and how their behaviors may encourage addiction by forestalling consequences.  I prayed for families and friends suffering from loneliness, poverty, and fear caused by drug abuse—that God would provide their needs and comfort them with His presence.

But my prayers don’t stop there. I feel compelled to pray also for those profiting from drug abuse: not only the ones selling on the street and running crack houses in bad sections of town, but also those who head pharmaceutical companies that aggressively market opioids and other drugs so easily misused.  I asked God to speak to them and to doctors heedlessly over-prescribing addictive drugs, to convict them of the evil resulting from their behaviors, whether legal or not.  Bring them to their knees, I prayed, and after their repentance, give them strength to change through the power of Your Holy Spirit, transforming them from the business of death to a love of life.

I prayed today for first responders—paramedics, firefighters, police officers, medical professionals in emergency rooms and trauma centers, rehab specialists.  I thanked God for each and every one, and asked that He strengthen them and grant them patience and hope as they battle what seems like a swelling tide and an endless river.
And lastly I prayed with wider horizons—for politicians and for the public at large.  That we the people would call for and vote for funding for rehab research and programs, effective innovations in law enforcement and justice, improved opportunities for employment and education, and public policies that affirm the worth of every human being.

Perhaps the gift of God in all this is that drug abuse is not a racial problem nor a problem exclusive to one socio-economic class.  It forces us to acknowledge our common humanity, our self-insufficiency, and our utter dependence on the One who is greater than we.  Therefore, the call to prayer.  As the old Gospel song says, “When we have exhausted our store of endurance, when our strength has failed ere the day is half done, when we reach the end of our hoarded resources, our Father’s full giving is only begun.”  May it be so.

The Contest: Life and Death

The following essay was my submission to a recent magazine contest about my most significant life change.  I didn’t win the contest, but writing the essay was cathartic and reminded me of a life-changing lesson this life change taught me:

“So now, I have you with the doctor at 2:00 p.m. next Tuesday.  And what could I say would be the purpose for your visit?” the receptionist waited for my reply.

“Well, I don’t know that I could put it all in just a few words, but according to the stress test in the back of Glamour magazine, I’ve already committed suicide.”

Of course that wasn’t exactly true.

I did have a vague memory of having taken one of those magazine tests that assign numerical stress-equivalents to life-changing events.  As I dialed the counselor’s office and recalled the past eight months, I calculated that I had almost certainly maxed out the numbers.

Of course I hadn’t committed suicide yet, or even tried to.  But I would have said anything to get an appointment with a counselor.  I was desperate.  I knew I was in trouble.

My life that day by the numbers: In the previous eight months, I had completed my master’s degree (not a bad thing, but still a stressful thing); I had finally gotten pregnant after years of infertility diagnoses and treatments (a wonderful thing); my husband had died, and I had moved from the house in the woods where I had been blissfully happy into a small apartment with hear-through walls and day-glo orange carpet, where I sat day after day waiting to give birth.

Yes, there was a black hole in the middle of that time.  My husband—my gorgeous, charismatic, charming, genius husband—had died.  Driving in the dark, he had missed a curve and stopped head-on into a tree.

In the frame of my memory, on that sparkling September day with its autumnal sun and pellucid sky, I was carrying a big yellow bowl and heading out to pick jelly grapes.  I heard tires on the gravel driveway, and when the car came into view, I saw my friend in the back seat and one of my husband’s law partners in the front beside a policeman.

I didn’t even have to ask.  But I did.  “Is he dead?”

“Yes.”

I turned away, opened the screen door, and stepped into a house that would never be my home again.

We had been together twelve years, married for nine.  We had experienced so much with each other—finishing college, his studying law while I taught school, and the early years of making our home in a house we bought almost exclusively because it had fireflies in the front yard.

After the first few years, when we had our home and money in the bank, we began to want a family.  More specifically, my husband began to want children.  Charles loved children.  He attracted them like a Pied Piper.  In earlier years, he had loved leading his younger brothers in adventures, camping, hiking, exploring, just boys together.  I knew that’s what he wanted again.

He and I never talked about whether we would have children; we simply assumed it would be foundational in our real, adult lives.  After all, that’s why I had faithfully taken birth control pills for years—to manage when, not if.

So when it didn’t happen as expected, we wanted answers.  I cannot count the number of times I drove back and forth to my gynecologist’s office, to be prodded and tested.  There was no consideration that the problem might be my husband’s.  I knew it must be me, and I felt I was failing him.

Then joyously, thermometers and charting and fertility drugs and double vision and an ovarian wedge-resection later—my husband announced to me that I was pregnant the morning after.  With his melting smile, he said, “Last night I heard one of them say, ‘Boys, I finally found it!’”

Some time around Valentine’s Day, I pushed my car out of a snow bank, drove to the doctor’s office, and heard the good news confirmed.  We were ecstatic; he for the son he longed for, I for pleasing him.

All summer we waited and I expanded.  Cautioned against car travel, I rested the days in a big brown leather lounge chair, nestled like the child in my womb, doing what my faith tradition calls “devotions.”  For hours every day, I read and memorized Bible verses, and prayed for my husband, myself, and our child.

In late August Charles went to the beach and came home wearing a yellow beanie with a top propeller.  “For him,” he said, still with that smile.  And he told me about sailing a red kite out over the ocean.  “We must have had a mile of string on that thing!  And then the line snapped, and it just disappeared.”

If I had known, I might have heard that as a warning.

But I didn’t know.  So the crash, and the gravel, and the door slammed, and there was no going back.

Since then I have experienced other losses and other griefs, but none like that.  In the counseling sessions I now lead, I sometimes try to help others by giving them this image: Learning of the unexpected death of the person you love most in the world is like having your best friend walk up and hit you in the stomach with a baseball bat.  Your vision goes black. You feel pain.  You feel nausea.  You feel betrayed.  Then you feel nothing.

My friend was afraid the news would induce premature labor, so she called the emergency squad right away.  Neither my heart rate nor my blood pressure showed any sign of the trauma.  She was amazed.  I wasn’t surprised.  Life as I knew it had come to end.

In the two-dimensional reality of early grief, at my next appointment with the obstetrician, I asked him to deliver the baby by Caesarean.  He declined.  I replied, “Well, you’ll have to, because I’m not having this baby.”  Why struggle to realize a dream once you’re cold awake?

But even when the mind can no longer imagine and the heart can no longer engage, cells keep dividing, blood keeps flowing.  Life will go on.

Thirty days after my husband died, our son insisted.  My water broke and very slight pains began.  My sister drove me to the hospital.  I lay in the birthing room all night and the next day, wondering why it wasn’t hurting more.  Was the baby as numb as I?  Hour after hour, I sucked ice and prayed.  And when my words dried up, I recited the one Bible verse I could remember now in this barren place: I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

I was no longer aware of the clock ticking or the people coming and going around my bed.  I simply said those words over and over, silently in my mind, hissed between clenched teeth, half the words with an in-breath and the other half breathing out.  I had no answers for the questions.  I had no regrets or expectations.  I felt alone in the world with only those words.

Nearly twenty-four hours later, when the doctor came to check, even after a labor-inducing injection I had dilated only one centimeter.  He should have believed me.  So soon after death, I could not will myself to give birth.

I was wheeled into the operating room for a Caesarean, and I saw the anesthesia mask being lowered.  I remember thinking, “I have to say it one more time. ‘I can do all things . . . .’”  Then the picture went black.

Next, even through still closed eyes, I could feel warm light, and I heard someone say, “You have a son.”  Charlie was due on his father’s birthday, but he took his own time.  With his birth, my heart started again.

Suffering and death cannot be stopped.  Pain cannot be avoided.  Death is inevitable.  But life is more powerful than death.

Let It Go

What does it mean “to divest”? When words or phrases begin to dominate the air around me, I get their scent and feel compelled to chase them to ground for mastery.  I’m sure the roots of that trait trace back to elementary school vocabulary lessons, but I’m not ashamed to be an aging learner.  So what does it mean “to divest”?

Research shows: Divest is a verb, an action word.  It is an old word, born in the mid-sixteenth century from the marriage of des– (meaning “away” or “removal”) and vestir (meaning “clothe” or “garment”).  The figurative sense of the word—“to strip oneself of possessions”—appears earliest in seventeenth-century English.

Divesting, then, means letting go.  And why would someone do that?  Why would someone let go of anything that is hers?

That question is answerable on several levels.  Physically, one might choose to let go of what she is holding in order to take up something else that she wants.  Hands that are already full can’t hold anything else.  That’s true in other respects, as well.  If my mind is focused on Task One but I want my mind to focus on Task Two, I will have to let go of my focus on Task One in order to focus on Task Two.  I cannot climb two mountains at once nor sing two songs simultaneously.  To put on a crown, I must take off my hat.

Everyone experiences this truth: To wed, one must let go of singleness.  To lose weight, one must let go of binge eating.  To run a company, one must let go of 9-5 commitment.  And to become a ruler, one must let go of being a commoner.

So why am I writing about letting go?  Why is the word “divesting” in the air?  Well, you know.  It’s all over the evening news.  Even now, men and women who want to become leaders are being asked to divest, to let go of their other pursuits and privileges.   So far, they have not.  They are attempting to assume the mantle of leadership while wearing other clothes.

Their desires are understandable.  Their actions are not.

Who doesn’t want to hold onto what she has?  Out of love, out of fear—whatever the motivation.  But even a child with his hands full of toys eventually learns that he must put one toy down to pick up another, lest he drop everything in the futile attempt to gain while holding.

Siddhartha Gautama, known as Buddha, the “enlightened one,” realized this truth in ancient times: “You only lose what you cling to.”  Chinese philosopher Lao-Tze also knew: “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be. When I let go of what I have, I receive what I need.”

From the perspective of my Christian faith, Jesus is the ultimate embodiment of that truth, as described in the New Testament letter to the Christians in Philippi.  The writer of that letter instructs his readers:

“Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:  Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:4-8/NIV).

Christians call these words “the kenotic hymn,” from the Greek word kenosis, which means “emptiness, emptying.”  Jesus emptied himself of his divine prerogatives in order to become a human being, and to live and die as the ultimate servant of all other human beings.   An old hymn sings it this way:

His were the planets and stars in the sky;
His were the valleys and mountains so high;
His, all earth’s riches from pole unto pole;
But He became poor to ransom my soul.

“Therefore,” the Philippian letter co Continue reading

A Shared Prayer

One of my sisters recently shared the following prayer with me.  In it, Rabbi Naomi Levy has given voice to some of my silent conversations with the Divine.

A Prayer at Retirement

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­I am scared, God.

Who am I without a title? Without a schedule?
Without my job?

Teach me, God.  Show me who I am.
Remind me that I am not my job, nor was I ever so.

Open my eyes to the beauty that surrounds me.
Open my arms to family members and friends I was always too busy to embrace.

Open my mind to the vast world of knowledge that lies before me.
Open my ears to the cries of those who desperately need my assistance.

Fill me with compassion, God. 
Calm my fears. 
Remind me that I am vital, that I am needed, that I am loved.

Teach me to embrace this precious freedom I have been granted. 

For the first time in a long time I can choose to spend my days as I wish,
to explore whatever I wish, to travel wherever I wish.

Help me live this time wisely, God. 

Lead me on the path to meaning, to satisfaction, to joy, to peace. 

Stay with me, God. Let me know You are near. 

Amen.