Monday, February 11, 2019

True Presidential Greatness Can Save a Nation and a People

"And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand."   --Mark 3:25

What makes a President, a leader, an office holder, great?

By the time President Abraham Lincoln stood up to give his second inaugural address on a blustery and rainy Monday the 4th of March, in 1865, the Union, what was left of the United States of America, an experiment in democracy less than ninety years old--the country lay in tatters. Torn asunder from coast to coast, from North to South, between slavery abolitionists and slavery proponents. Violent partisanship and anger marked the political and civic dialogues of the day.   

In less than a month Lincoln would be dead, the victim of assassination. In five weeks, the Civil War would finally end, but not before claiming the lives 618,222 soldiers on both sides, two percent of the nation's population. Imagine 6.5 million war deaths in 2019 and the scale of that cataclysm is clear. And although Lincoln had won a second term, the vote, of course, did not include any of the secessionist southern states. His election opponents, the Democratic Party had called for an immediate peace while Lincoln insisted the war must waged until the unconditional and complete surrender of the enemy.

So on that day Lincoln might have been "right", even justified, to condemn the Confederacy in his speech. Vilify them as traitors and turncoats, seditionists to the last man. Lincoln could have used the speech to outline his plan for a harsh Reconstruction, describe how he would now punish these fellow citizens, mete out sharp justice on all those who had started the war, dared to found a new "nation" on the continent.

What makes a President, a Senator or Congressperson, truly great, the right person for the right time in history?


Lincoln, in just seven hundred words, the second shortest inaugural address ever--the man from Illinois known affectionately as "honest Abe" and "Father Abraham": the President chose to lay down his sword, unclench his fist, set aside self interest and party, and instead offered a powerful vision for peace and reconciliation.  He did so first, by reminding the country that each side imagined itself in the right. "Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other....[then] let us not judge that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered." 

What makes a President, a legislator, truly great, one who serves the common and highest good, not for personal gain or power, but instead as a servant of the people?

Instead of humiliating the South, Lincoln knew that peace would only be realized if both sides approached the other with sincere humility and honest confession before the God each claimed as their own. No one escaped the guilt and responsibility for the insanity of warfare. All had blood on their hands. For civic fractures to be repaired, for a nation to be reunited, for opponents to work together again, Lincoln knew the only path to true justice and shalom was mercy.  Was forgiveness. Was grace. Was love.

As he concluded on that long ago day, "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 lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

On this Presidents Day weekend, we are right to ask as nation, as a people sorely divided by party and partisanship and self-righteous surety, we are still right to ask. What makes a President, a leader, any candidate for high office, great?

The question still matters, 154 years after one of our greatest Presidents gave the answer and reminded America what true greatness could be and still is. Thank you President Lincoln. God help us all to never, ever forget you and your wise, wise words and great leadership.  

Happy birthday.



Wednesday, February 6, 2019

I Was Homeless and You Gave Me a Place to Lay My Head

“I have no idea what's awaiting me, or what will happen when this all ends. For the moment I know this: there are sick people and they need curing.”   
--Albert Camus, The Plague

It's something I always wonder about, even worry about, on those sub-zero frigid nights New England is known for this time of year.  Maybe I'm running out to my car from my warm workplace, a fifty yard parking lot sprint in the chill.  Or I shuffle down my driveway to get the mail and feel the icy sting of wind.  Or I awaken and see the snowflake like frozen patterns on my bedroom windows, a toasty 68 degrees inside but just 8 degrees outside.

What is it like to live on the street in such winter weather?

What is like to hunker down under a cardboard box below a Route 93 highway overpass and try and stay, not just warm, but alive? What is it like to wander the streets of the city all day, a backpack filled with your meager possessions, your route taking you to churches and shelters who can protect you from the cold--at least for awhile? What is it like to struggle with mental illness or an addiction, or both, and have those afflictions doom you to a life forever wandering in this world, never finding a stable place to lay your head?

I especially wondered about these questions last week when the mid-west (and Boston to a lesser degree) was hit with its coldest temperatures in more than a generation.  It's one thing to live on the streets when it is merely freezing. Its another when to live on the streets is a potential death sentence, as temperatures plunged in Chicago to -50 below zero.  In such extreme weather frostbite happens in minutes.  Fall into a snow bank and pass out and you could die oh so fast.

But one Chicago women, Candace Payne: she decided to go beyond asking those questions, wondering and actually did something to love and protect and care for the homeless folks in her city. On the most bone chilling of nights in the windy city last week, on the "spur of the moment" in her own words, Payne spent $4,700 of her own money to rent hotel rooms for more than 100 homeless people in Chicago. Putting out a call on social media for help transporting folks to that shelter, Payne was soon inundated: with more volunteers, and with even more donations, some $10,000! Thus those folks experiencing homelessness got to stay in a warm and safe hotel room not just for one night but for four nights. And Payne didn't stop at lodging: she also purchased and solicited donations of food and toiletries and clothes. Area restaurants brought by fresh meals.  There were pre-natal vitamins and care for two pregnant women.

It was all kind of a miracle: especially at a time when it is so tempting to see only the harder aspects of life in our country these days, or to listen only to the bullies and the braggarts, or to the folks whizzing around town in their no doubt toasty limousines, doing little or nothing for strangers on a cold winter night.             

So why did Payne act with such generosity and commitment? She was not employed by a social service agency nor for a religious organization nor is she a social worker or counselor.  Payne is actually a real estate broker.  What moved her to actually do something? What moves any person to respond with mercy to the struggles of a fellow child of God?

I think it was Payne's compassion.  That's the human ability to enter into and be able to imagine another's suffering, and then to act to alleviate that pain. Compassion remembers, "That could be me." Compassion demands moral imagination, the gift of being moved by another's plight so much that we dare to love them, even a stranger. Compassion sets aside the need to judge or worse to not even see the "other". 

Said Payne, "I am a regular person. It all sounded like a rich person did this, but I’m just a little black girl from the South Side. I thought it was unattainable, but after seeing this and seeing people from all around the world, that just tells me that it’s not that unattainable. We can all do this together.”

On a cold winter's day, when our deep freeze will settle in for at least another six weeks,   I know Payne's compassion is good news that absolutely warms me up. Reminds me that there are every day regular people doing extraordinary things each day to make this world a better and kinder place.  To live with compassion.  

Someone was cold and needed a warm place to sleep. Someone said, "I will help."  So thank you and God bless you Ms. Payne for reminding us that each of us can make a difference in this world.  We just have to wonder about another's lot in life and then roll up our sleeves and get to work.

We can all do this together.