Remembering Abraham Lincoln

I’ve had the opportunity to visit the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. as a child and as an adult, to climb the stairs and gaze up at the giant sculpture and to read the words inscribed on the walls. The words from the close of his second inaugural speech remain among the most powerful words ever spoken by a U.S. President:

“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

Meaningless comparisons are often drawn between Lincoln and modern presidents. The comparisons are meaningless in part because the circumstances are so different. The name of Abraham Lincoln is often invoked to justify a particular behavior or action of a sitting president and when this occurs it is almost always done in such a way as to trivialize the contributions of our nation’s 16the president.

Abraham Lincoln was president during what may have been the most divided time in the history of our nation. States literally took up arms in an attempt to divide the nation. Brother fought against brother in a bloody violent war that left scars that still are evident in our nation to this day. It takes more than words to heal, but inspiring rhetoric can call people to elevate their actions and aspire to a more just and equitable society.

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with fairness in the right, as God give us to see the right . . .”

I watched a dozen or so folks with their pickup trucks assemble at the Trump shop last evening as I drove home from work. They were shouting and gesturing and preparing for another evening of attempting to stand off against the much larger group of demonstrators who peacefully gather each evening in our city. It isn’t necessary to take sides or to have a publicly-expressed opinion in order to see that this is a group that could benefit from taking Lincoln’s words to heart. They definitely were not feeling “malice toward none.” They had no intention of expressing “charity for all.”

I quickly drove by, headed for a walk in the park with my wife before heading home for a late supper on our deck on a beautiful calm evening. “Malice toward none,” invites me to closely examine my feelings and reactions to people with whom I disagree. “Charity for all,” includes charity for those whose actions and words are offensive to me. 155 years after he spoke those words, Lincoln’s legacy continues to play out in our world today.

We are a nation divided. And there is no shortage of politicians who are willing to exploit those divisions for personal gain. With money and power at the center of American politics, those who lack both often feel that their voices are not being heard. But it is hard to ignore nightly protests in virtually every city in our nation. It is easy to see that our system has left a large number of people who feel that they don’t have a voice in everyday conversations of government.

Politicians spout rhetoric about economic recovery when wage earners see year after year of declining wages. What is a recovery to someone who is working 60 hours a week and cannot make rent and groceries? What is a recovery to a person whose retirement was forced by the pandemic and a lack of income for businesses and public services agencies? What is a recovery to students who are shut out of classes into a learning environment where the person with the most money and technology has the most access to teaching and learning? Arguing about the numbers and counting the unrealized gains of a volatile stock market do little to “bind up the nation’s wounds.”

Here in the Black Hills we have a different monument. Mount Rushmore is a huge mountain carving that was directed by Gutzon Borglum and his son Lincoln, completed in 1941. It depicts George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt all together and just a short distance, set apart, is Abraham Lincoln. There are structural and engineering reasons for the arrangement of the faces. They aren’t exactly as originally envisioned by the artist, but when you look at the giant faces, you can’t help but have a sense of awe and notice how Lincoln is set apart from the others.

Comparative greatness is meaningless. All four contributed to the nation in many different ways. All four deserve to be remembered. But whenever I visit the monument, I admit I take a bit of extra time to stare into the face of Lincoln. He was a moody man, prone to bout of depression, having experienced more than his fair share of personal tragedy. He was a humble man, at times self deprecating and plagued with self doubt. He was not at all sin the style of contemporary politicians who seem unable to admit mistakes and whose advertisements claim perfection, who surround themselves with admirers and distance themselves from all criticism. They say Abraham Lincoln was his own worst critic. The manuscripts of his famous speeches, including his second inaugural address, are filled with strike-throughs and re-writes. He was constantly editing himself and questioning his words. But the words he left behind are worth noting.

In a month there will be a carefully orchestrated rally as part of the campaign for the fall election of the president of the United States. The event will not be aimed at creating unity. It will not be undertaken with malice towards none. It will not be a charity event in any sense of the word. Crows will cheer. Fireworks will be displayed. Security will be tight.

And, as is the case with history, Lincoln will rise above it all.

We would do well to read and talk his words to heart.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

Courageous leadership

It is not my instinct to become overtly political in my journal entries. I understand that I have chosen to publish them and therefore they cannot be considered to be private. And I understand that I serve a diverse community with many different political views and opinions. The diversity of opinion in our congregation has been a point of pride for me. With increasing polarization of our nation, our congregation remains a place where people with differing opinions can gather in peace and unity. My role is not to stir up controversy and division, but rather to bring people together.

The times in which we are living, however, are at the very least unusual. I can find no good models for life in these times. There are members of my congregation who are reaching out to other members with social media posts, challenging them to put their ideas into action. I have received requests to “take a stand” and make my position clear, which I take to mean “say that you agree with me and that the opposition is wrong.” Throughout my carer I have believed, and continue to believe, that the way the church moves forward is through worship. When we disagree, we worship together. When there are challenges, we gather and pray together. Worship is the heart of our community and the area of my ministry that receives the largest share of my time and energy.

Now that we are not able to worship in person, it becomes a definite challenge to hold the community together. These days call for courage and vision from leaders. And then there is the simple fact that our congregation is on the cusp of a major change in leadership. After 25 years as pastor and teacher of this congregation we are down to the deadline as it were. In ten days I will hand in my keys and cease to be the pastor of this church. I won’t stop caring. I won’t stop doing whatever I can to support it, but I know the rules of professional ethics and I will abide by them.

I haven’t been one to count the words in the bible, but I know that such people exist. I often refer to the results of some of their counts. One count that I have not personally made, but to which I refer frequently is that that the most common one liner in the Bible is “Do not be afraid.” According to the counters, it appears in the Bible 365 times. That’s once for every day of the year. When the Bible advises people to cast aside our fear, it is not referring to bravado or show of force. It is, rather, referring to a deep trust that one is not alone. God continues to be an active participant in human history. No matter how terrible the circumstances, no matter how deep the pain, we will not be abandoned.

It seems to me that we are enduring a period of history where there is a distinct lack of courageous leadership. In the spring of 1989, when protesters took to the streets in Tiananmen Square in China and the government responded with military force to crush the protestors, we thought of our own country as a leader in the world’s moral conscience. We would never let that occur here. Now, just over three decades later Chinese leaders point to the military in the streets of our capitol as a sign of our hypocrisy. When peaceful protestors are disbursed with tear gas and rubber bullets to make way for an expansion of the security zone around the White House, it is unclear to outside observers who is causing the disruption. It looks as if those who are supposed to be keeping the peace are the ones provoking violence. What we need in these circumstances is courageous leadership. It is not what we are seeing from our nation’s leaders.

When I talk to friends and colleagues about what is going on - something done more often over the computer than face-=to-face these days - it certainly seems like there is a lot of fear across a wide spectrum of our community. People fear the protests in the streets will get out of control and there have been cases of looting and violence. People fear that the freedom to assemble is being denied and we have seen authoritarian rule in our country. People fear that the protests are contributing to an acceleration of the spread of the coronavirus and there seems to be less social distancing than was the case in our cities a couple of weeks ago. People fear that the shut down has plunged our economy into a fall from which recovery will be a decades-long process. People fear that joblessness will increase and that homeless and hunger are not far behind. It seems as if I have heard a fear for each of the Bible’s 365 examples of “Do not be afraid” in the last week.

We are also reassured by the Bible that God will provide the leadership that is needed. Before he lead the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt, Moses wasn’t recognized as a leader. When he was called to speak words of prophecy, Jeremiah protested that he was too young. When Jesus asked John to baptize him, John said, “You’ve got it backwards, I should be baptized by you.” The stories of our people are filled with great leaders who were reluctant to assume the mantle of leadership. There have been many times in our history when we have wondered where we would find leaders for our people. God has provided the leaders.

God will provide leaders for our time as well. There may be dark days ahead. There may be more doubts and questions to arise. We, however, have not been abandoned. We are not alone. New leaders will arise. And in the meantime, we are all in this together. We can listen more carefully and offer our love and support to one another. Sometimes the best expression of courageous leadership is to simply be with those you serve.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

Integrity vs. Despair

One of the great classics in psychology is Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development. Published in the late 1950’s the theory has been an important contributor to the understanding of education and psychology for my entire career. I still refer to the book from time to time for its perspectives. Of course we continue to learn and books produced in the 1950’s and 1960’s are not the final word on any topic. One of the basic problems with developmental theory is the simple fact that it is not prescriptive. Not everyone goes through the stages at the same age or in the same order. And the stages themselves are meant to describe certain observations, not to provide a roadmap for growth. I have had more than a few conversations with colleagues who use the fact that Erikson used two poles to describe each stage of development as a kind of “pass fail” for human development. It doesn’t work that way. Rather than a conflict, each stage presents a balance.

Erikson’s first stage of development is titled “Trust vs. Mistrust.” Infants and children, however, don’t experience that spectrum as a completion or an “either or.” Rather they move on that spectrum, sometimes feeling complete trust and other times experiencing mistrust. If an infant were to never be allowed to experience any mistrust, that person wouldn’t be able to develop autonomy in the next stage of development.

So Erikson’s theory is not complete, nor is it the only way to think of human development. It is, nonetheless a very helpful tool in further developing educational throes and strategies as well as understanding the journey through life. I have kept returning to Erikson over and over throughout my career.

The eighth and final stage of development in Erikson’s theory is “Integrity vs. Despair.” I found myself thinking about that yesterday as I continued the process of emptying out the office I have occupied for a quarter of a century. It wasn’t the book that got me to thinking. I picked out my Erickson months ago and took it home to be among the books that will move with me to a new place out of boxes and boxes of books that will be passed on to others. Rather, I was simply thinking of the process. Sorting out an office at the end of a career is very much the process of continuing psychosocial development.

At the time, Erikson stood out among developmental theorists simply because he wrote about development continuing for the entire life cycle as opposed to many other developmental theorist who focused only on childhood events. The concept that aging is a part of human development was novel and challenging at the time he wrote his book. Having passed the 65 year mark myself, it makes perfect sense from my point of view.

Erikson posits that each stage of development involves a crisis that acts as a turning point. If one successfully resolves the crisis, that person develops a virtue that contributes to overall well-being. The crisis for aging adults comes with the awareness of our mortality. The awareness of mortality can come through retirement, loss of a spouse, loss of friends, facing a terminal illness or other major life changes. In my own case, my wife experiencing a life threatening drug reaction in the same year as we are planning our retirement from this job has put me squarely in Erikson’s “integrity vs. Despair” camp. There are times when I seek to deny the reality. After all, my wife has made a full recovery and is once again healthy and I keep telling myself and others that I’m not retiring and that I plan to continue working as soon as we get relocated. But the truth is that I no longer have a hot resume. I may have certain skills, but I’m not the most desirable candidate for the kinds of job that I’m trained to do. And none of us will live forever. As long and as wonderful as our marriage has been, it is a simple fact that we will oneway die and it is most likely that one will die before the other.

Erikson says that looking back is an important part of facing this crisis. My developmental task involves reflecting on the life I have lived and examining it. Do I consider mine a life well lived or do I have an overwhelming sense of regret and despair over mistakes made? Of course it is not an “either/or” situation, but rather a balance. When I look back I have fulfillment and regrets. I see successes and failures.

One of the things that Erikson doesn’t discuss is the sense of releasing some life tasks as things that won’t be accomplished. As I clean out my office, I keep discovering projects that we might have pursued that now will not be done on my watch. There are so many other things we could have done. Despite the fact that our ministry was full and busy and we did a lot of things, we had a lot more ideas than could be accomplished in the time we had. I have complete sets of curricula for courses that we did not teach. I have resources for projects that never got off the ground. I have files of notes about possibilities that have not come to fruition. Just in order to move out of my office and leave it in a condition for my successor, I need to get rid of some of those objects.

Of course there are some things I will leave behind. The next person to occupy my office will have to decide whether the past 26 annual reports are worth keeping or should be discarded. I’m also leaving behind a collection of bibles and a collection of hymnals. I found the old books to be rich resources for my ministry, but it is entirely possible that the next person to occupy my office will turn exclusively to the Internet and see no need to keep dusty old hymnals around.

My goal is to continue to seek balance between integrity and despair as I sift and sort through the collections of my life. The timing is good for me, but there is much work that remains.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

Pause to think

The BBC posted an excerpt from a press conference with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau yesterday. A reporter asks Trudeau for his comments on recent actions by US President Donald Trump and if he has no comment, why this is so. Trudeau pauses before answering. You can see him stare directly into the cameras and imagine that he is thinking and choosing his words very carefully. By the clock the pause isn’t very long - about 22 seconds. We, however, are not used to silence in a video clip. A few seconds seem like an eternity. Then he speaks very slowly, very precisely and very carefully about the realities of racial injustice in Canada. Rather than point his fingers or direct his rhetoric at another country, he speaks of changes that need to occur in Canada.

I’ve watched the minute and a half clip several times. As awkward as the silence is, I am grateful for it. Politics aside, I hope that I can develop the same kind of thoughtfulness about what I say. Of course, I will never be put on the spot at a press conference. There aren’t that many people who are interested in what I have to say. On the other hand, I do have a small audience. According to Facebook, 277 people have watched the prayer I offered on Monday morning. They are probably the same people, but I routinely get over 100 views for daily prayer. Worship livestreams are running between 150 and 225 views. Certainly those people deserve carefully chosen words. I write out the prayers and read from manuscript for daily prayer. I do not write out my reflections and commentary. And I’ve made a few mistakes over the months that we have been live-streaming daily prayer. I had trouble coming up with the name of someone with whom I regularly work. I mis-spoke the date of a prayer once. I’ve made a few mistakes that made me wish I had better prepared.

It isn’t just the silence that is remarkable about Trudeau’s answer. After the silence he spoke carefully and deliberately about now being a time to listen and a time to learn about injustice and how persistent injustice can be in many different cultures and countries.

A colleague asked me in an email message yesterday about what we as clergy are doing in response to the death of George Floyd and the protests that are occurring across the nation. He quoted the oft-sed aphorism, “Silence is violence.” I have not yet responded to his message, though I definitely will. My initial reaction was to simply answer, “What are you doing? What have you organized?” I was a bit taken back that he was waiting for others to provide the leadership in a critical moment. But I didn’t send that note. I also thought about previous protests and actions that have addressed issues of injustice in our community and what role I played. I have tried to serve as a witness to the events in my community without becoming a direct participant in marches, rallies and protests. There are some who might say that my position is cowardly - that I should speak out and participate. And there is some truth to what they say. I am reluctant to take a stand that might stir division within the congregation that I serve. I don’t think, however, that it is just about playing it safe to preserve my job. I may be justifying my behavior, but times of social unrest seem to me to be times to nurture unity within the church and shift the focus from the immediate crisis to a bigger picture of the world.

The bigger picture is so hard to grasp in the chaos of the daily news cycle. Who would have thought just ten days ago that any news story would be able to dominate the headlines in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic? I expected that this week the headlines would be much like those of two weeks ago. I was wrong. The reporters and pundits have had their attention distracted by something else.

Some of what we are witnessing seems a bit like deja vu. The 1969 Watts riots in Los Angeles garnered national attention as frustration devolved into fires and looting and uncontrolled violence. In 1991 the beating of Rodney King sparked more protests and rioting. In both cases there were voices of calm and the majority of protesters were peaceful, but violence erupted nonetheless.

This, however, is different. It isn’t taking place somewhere else. As horrified as I am by the headlines and videos of major cities erupting in violence, it isn’t as frightening to me as watching last night as a line of sheriff’s deputies and city police officers, not in full riot gear, stood between a handful of shouting Trump supporters attempting to confront participants in a peaceful protest in Main Street Square right here in our own home town. It was pretty clear that dialogue was not possible. You can’t reason with someone who is shouting too loud to listen. I don’t think the participants or the officers were in any real danger and there were no punches thrown or property damaged that I witnessed, but the raw emotions were pretty palpable. It certainly was enough to make me sit quietly before saying or writing anything. I’m a bit speechless at the divisions that are so evident in our own community and the intensity of the words that are spoken. Frankly, I don’t use that kind of language and I’m offended by the words that get spoken, by the way that the flag is brandished as a weapon instead of honored as a sacred symbol, and by the disrespect and treatment of law enforcement officers as if they were not real people. You don’t have to ignore cops. You can talk to them.

Fortunately, it is Wednesday morning. I don’t have to preach a sermon until Sunday. I have some time to think and choose my words carefully.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!

In search of humility

If it weren’t so dangerous, it would have been silly yesterday when the President ordered peaceful protesters to be attacked with tear gas and rubber bullets so that he could walk across the street to an historic church and hold up a bible for a press picture. The cordons of police keeping the street clear were necessary to provide for the President’s safety and he was allowed to walk with no one near him and the press corps in tow to take pictures. The cordon of police was, of course, not allowed such luxury of space. They had to stand shoulder to shoulder to make the stroll work. The walk followed a short speech in which the President urged governors and mayors to use whatever force necessary to dominate city streets, saying that if they did not he would impose troops, threatening a military takeover of public spaces. In his speech he mentioned the second amendment to the constitution, but seemed to have forgotten the first amendment.

I understand that peaceful protests, where there is no looting, where no one is injured and where there is no shouting and shoving don’t make for dramatic news. It is, however, a tragedy that people are forgetting that these events are occurring all over the country, including one in our city on Saturday. I don’t understand the reasons behind the looting, but I do know that there are those who are stirring up violence. It was reported that bus loads of outside “accelerators” were brought into Minneapolis and from there transported to Fargo ND on Saturday and Sioux Falls on Sunday evening. If this is true, one has to wonder who is paying for the buses.

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution prevents the government from making laws which regulate an establishment of religion, prohibit the free exercise of religion, or abridge the freedom of speech, the freedom of the press, the right to peaceably assemble, or the right to petition the government for redress of grievances. It was adopted on December 15, 1791, as one of the ten amendments that constitute the Bill of Rights.

When George Floyd died while being arrested it sparked mass protests across the country. The frustration of many people over abuse of African American citizens at the hands of those who are supposed to be enforcing the law is not just a single incident. It is part of a pattern of abuse that has occurred in many locations. Protestors have taken to the streets to speak about police brutality and abuse of power as well as systemic racism. The use of military force to deny people “the right to peaceably assemble” and “the right to petition the government of redress of grievances” will not calm the anger and frustration that is driving people into the streets.

The philosopher Socrates argued that humility is the greatest of all virtues. He observed that the wisest people are the first to admit how little they really know. A number of studies conducted over the last decade have affirmed the truth of Socrates’ observation. According to recent research, people with greater humility are better learners, decision-makers and problem solvers. One study found that a person’s humility trumps IQ in predicting performance. Humility is especially important for leaders, Humility can improve strategic thinking and boos the performance of colleagues across an organization.

The world is coming face-to-face, although not easily, with the simple fact that top-down leadership is incredibly ineffective in the face of a pandemic. Autocratic, authoritarian leadership has been ineffective in the face of the spread of the virus. Humble, collaborative leaders have been visibly more effective. Compare the rates of infection, illness and death in New Zealand to those in our country if you want a dramatic comparison.

For several decades educators and public officials have touted self-esteem and self-confidence as essential qualities for leadership. Indeed self-confidence is an important quality, though, as Socrates argued, perhaps not the most important quality. To the extent that the self-esteem movement encouraged parents and teachers to provide unconditional positivity and optimism at the expense of any criticism or doubt, it has failed. Without the capacity to receive criticism and make changes and without the capacity to experience doubt, people do not develop the capacity to collaborate well with others.

Right now in our world we are facing problems that are too big for any individual to solve. We will solve the problems we face only through the power of working together. It doesn’t matter how bold or brash or confident a leader at the top is. If that person cannot work well with others, the problems will not be solved. An out of control virus is spreading across the world. It is not possible to prevent mass infection by taking care of just one segment of the population. We will come up with solutions, but the process demands information sharing across boundaries. It requires leadership that is willing to admit that mistakes have been made and changes are necessary. It requires listening to others.

Collaborative leadership is equally essential for our country to confront and overcome centuries of systematic racism that has left people feeling powerless to affect change. The officer who knelt on George Floyd’s neck for more than seven minutes until he died, did not engage in his abusive behavior because of a lack of self-confidence. George Floyd’s death could have been avoided if he had simply asked for help from the three other officers who were standing by. The model of one officer restraining while others stand by is an example of the failure of collaboration.

Without humility, leaders become isolated and unable to govern, whether they serve in elected political office or at the top of an organization. They become dependent upon group think, where everyone in a group expresses the same opinion, afraid to stand out from the crowd. The surround themselves with sycophants who seek to promote their own advantage through imitation and false praise.

The solutions to the crises of this day will not come from the top down. Check out the grassroots. Listen humbly to the others around you. And, when things out in the streets become too crazy, turn off the TV and computer and spend some time with the ancient philosophers. There is wisdom yet to be revealed.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!