Do Something Great

It’s a messy thing, this democracy of ours.  Government of the people, by the people and for the people is beautiful yet fearsome to behold.  When a country is founded upon freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and equality for all, fierce disagreements, chaos, confusion, political posturing, and down and dirty fighting are inevitable.

That’s why I love Presidents’ Day, a federal holiday honoring the birthday of our first President, George Washington.  It reminds me how precious our freedom is, especially when we are not of one mind.  The first Presidents’ Day was celebrated on Washington’s actual birthday, Feb. 22, 1796, during the last full year of his presidency.  Today the holiday honors George Washington and Abraham Lincoln in particular as well as all of our other presidents.

“I am keenly aware of my aloneness.”  In the movie Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln thus describes to his wife a dream he had in January 1865, shortly before his inauguration for a second term.  The number of dead continued to mount in the Civil War where 750,000 people died, which was almost 2.5 percent of the U.S. population at the time or the equivalent of 7.5 million people today.   The pain of every death weighed upon his heart.


The toll of this brutal war would not be redeemed unless slavery was ended, but it was not assured simply by a military victory for the North.  Lincoln was committed to keeping the Union together as well as abolishing slavery, which was deliberately omitted from the U.S. Constitution a century before as an unsolvable problem.

Lincoln had declared that all slaves were free in his January 1, 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, but it was merely a proclamation.  If the13th Amendment to the Constitution were not passed before the Civil War ended, Lincoln would no longer have the authority of War Powers, in which case the Emancipation Proclamation could be declared illegal, throwing the country back into the abyss.

Abraham Lincoln was a mysterious, complex man: private, intuitive, politically shrewd, and profoundly relational.  Unlike George Washington, who was one of the richest men in America, Lincoln was a most unlikely president, pulling himself out of poverty by his proverbial bootstraps.  Lincoln had almost no formal education, mourned the death of his first love, failed in business, and had bouts of melancholy.  Only one of his four children lived to adulthood.

In Lincoln we see one of our greatest presidents lead this country through one of our darkest moments by allowing his God-given gifts to guide him.  First, Abraham Lincoln was a man of acute emotional intelligence.  He was the quintessential non-anxious presence who virtually always remained calm and centered even when the storm raged around him.

Much of Lincoln is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography, Teams of Rivals; The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.  Goodwin writes that when Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 presidential election he appointed to his cabinet three men who had competed with him for the Republican presidential nomination: New York Senator William H. Seward, Ohio Governor Salmon P. Chase, and Missouri’s distinguished elder statesman Edward Bates.  There was rivalry, competition, and outright fighting among Cabinet members, but Lincoln managed the intensity of his team with kindness, an open mind, encouragement, and gratitude for the skills each man brought to the table.

Although the decision to seek passage of the 13th Amendment was his alone, Lincoln knew that without input and counsel from others the goal could not be accomplished.  Lincoln had an uncanny ability to individually connect with his cabinet and lawmakers from both ends of the political spectrum.  Because he was not threatened by a variety of perspectives, Lincoln was able to build trust and form coalitions that accrued political capital.  Whether in politics, business, the church, or our families, it’s always about relationships, isn’t it?

Lincoln’s “Honest Abe” reputation did not put him above the nitty-gritty of cutthroat politicking, however.  Republicans constituted 56% of the House of Representatives, but they needed a 2/3 vote.  Lincoln’s team did whatever was necessary to win, including arm-twisting, bullying, offering patronage jobs to Democrats, or threatening other lawmakers if they were resistant.

A second gift of Abraham Lincoln was an inner moral compass that pointed him toward true north.  Thaddeus Stevens was by most accounts the fiercest opponent of slavery and had the sharpest tongue in Congress.  Because Lincoln was committed to both ending slavery and preserving the Union, he planned a careful strategy to pass the 13th Amendment.  However, by 1865 Stevens described Lincoln as “the capitulating compromiser, the dawdler.”

In a memorable scene between Stevens and Lincoln, Stevens argued eloquently that all men and women, whether in the north or south, should listen to their inner moral compass.  That compass, Stevens continued, points toward True North, to the truth that all people are created equal and slavery should be abolished.

Lincoln’s reply demonstrated his political genius.  “The compass may point true north, but it does not warn us of obstacles and swamps along the way.  If we plunge ahead without heeding the obstacles we could sink in a swamp… and then what good is true north?”  In other words, doing the right thing is not always a straight road.  When both sides are convinced they are right, barriers will usually appear that hinder the road to True North.  If Lincoln had plowed heedlessly ahead without caution, prudent negotiation, and getting everyone on board, the path to equality might well have become sidetracked.

A third gift that undergirded Lincoln’s presidency was his deep compassion for the suffering of an entire country.  At the end of his Second Inaugural Address on March 4, 1865, Lincoln said,  “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.”

Lincoln insisted that there be no retribution shown to the South after the war was over.  In the movie, Lincoln speaks to General Ulysses S. Grant at the end of the war, “Once he surrenders, send his boys back to their homes, their farms, their shops…  Liberality all around.  No punishment, I don’t want that.  And the leaders – Jeff and the rest of ‘em – if they escape, leave the country while my back’s turned, that wouldn’t upset me none.  When peace comes it mustn’t just be hangings.”

Abraham Lincoln understood the importance of religion in public life and had considerable contact with preachers of various denominations.  Lincoln’s theology was eclectic and his spirituality authentic.  Lincoln knew who his True North was and relied on God’s power to give him wisdom and grace to lead the country.

On May 18, 1864, Lincoln wrote a letter in his own penmanship to the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore, which had passed a resolution of encouragement and sent it to Mr. Lincoln.  This was his reply,

“Gentlemen: In response to your address allow me to attest the accuracy of its historical statements; endorse the sentiment it expresses; and thank you in the nation’s name for the sure promise it gives.  Nobly sustained as the Government has been by all the churches, I would utter nothing which might in the least appear invidious against any.  Yet without this it may fairly be said that the Methodist Episcopal Church, not less devoted than the rest, is, by its greater numbers, the most important of all.  It is no fault in others that the Methodist Church sends more soldiers to the field, more nurses to the hospital, and more prayers to heaven than any.  God bless the Methodist Church, bless all the churches, and blessed be God, who, in this our great trial, giveth us the churches.”

Abraham Lincoln was a regular attender at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, four blocks from the White House.  In order to assure privacy for Lincoln during Wednesday night prayer services, Rev. Phineas Gurley allowed the president to sit in the pastor’s study with the door open to the chancel so he could listen to the sermon without having to interact with the crowd.

One Wednesday evening as Lincoln and a companion walked back to the White House after the sermon, the president’s companion asked, “What did you think of tonight’s sermon?”

“Well,” Lincoln responded, “it was brilliantly conceived, biblical, relevant, and well presented.”

“So, it was a great sermon?”

“No,” Lincoln replied.  “It failed.  It failed because Dr. Gurley did not ask us to do something great.”

The 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution passed the House of Representatives on January 31, 1865.  President Abraham Lincoln asked the House of Representatives to do something great so that our country would become something great.  Despite his assassination on April 15, 1865 Abraham Lincoln changed the course of human history.  Lincoln’s legacy will forever inspire and encourage ordinary people like you and me to discover our truest self in Jesus Christ and make a positive difference in our world.  Do something great.



We the People

What happens when organizations begin to flounder and lose their way?  They go back to basics, don’t they?  If a football team loses 5 games in a row, the coach will focus on fundamentals in practice.  If a business starts losing profitability, top management will analyze every system and process to determine what’s not working.  If a congregation loses vitality over a period of years, church leaders assess attendance and giving trends as well as spiritual health and participation in mission and outreach.  In every case, leaders of struggling organizations must start with their mission.  

  • Does their mission statement still express the core values and vision of the organization?
  • If the mission statement is outdated, how does it need to be tweaked to reflect current reality?
  • If the mission statement is still appropriate, how do current practices need to change so that all departments align their practices with the company’s mission and vision?

Did you know that a week ago today was the 225th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution?  On September 17, 1787, 39 delegates to the Constitutional Convention voted to approve and sign the final draft of the Constitution, which was then sent to the state legislatures for ratification.

Why is it important to know that bit of trivia?   First, the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution contains the mission statement of the United States.  Second, with presidential, national, state, and local elections looming, it behooves each one of us to assess candidates according to how their views align with our country’s mission statement.

It is embarrassing that we allow political campaigns to degenerate into name calling, exaggeration, and outright lies, catering to special interest groups, and soliciting enormous amounts of money for negative advertising.  The elections on Tuesday, November 6, are not about Republicans or Democrats, left or right, conservative or liberal, Obamacare or Romneycare.  They are about which candidates will best be able to fulfill our country’s mission statement, the Preamble to the Constitution:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to:

form a more perfect Union             

establish Justice,

insure domestic Tranquility,

provide for the common defence,

promote the general Welfare,

and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,

do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Because the general welfare of our country is always in flux, the U.S. Constitution is a living document.  Over the past 225 years the Constitution has been continuously interpreted by Presidents, Congress, the Supreme Court, and ordinary people.  Although the Constitution has been adapted to changing times, it remains committed to protecting the rights of all people.

For example, the Supreme Court ruled in 1896 (Plessy vs. Ferguson) that separate institutions for black and white citizens were legal as long as the institutions were equal in power (separate but equal).  However, in 1954, the Supreme Court unanimously overturned this doctrine in Brown vs. Board of Education by declaring that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

As we prepare for the November elections, what does it mean to align our voting with our country’s mission statement as well as our Christian faith?

  • This election is not about what’s best for me or you or anyone else’s personal welfare.  It’s about the general welfare of We, the People. 

Over the past 225 years our country has moved away from an emphasis on the collective good to a focus on individual success and the acquisition of wealth.   “Pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps” has become synonymous with the American dream.  In reality, no matter how much we achieve in life, others help us along the way.  Our country’s growing edge is to move beyond entitlement, status, ego, and power to a genuine desire for all people to enjoy quality of life.

  • Will you vote according to what candidates promise to do for you or how they promise to promote the general welfare?
  • This election is not about coddling the desires of special interest groups or using religion as a weapon.  It’s about We, the People, advocating for those who do not experience liberty, justice, and tranquility.
  • In the gospel of Luke Jesus begins his ministry by preaching in his hometown of Nazareth and citing the words of the prophet Isaiah as his own mission statement, “The Spirit of the LORD is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
  •  Most of human history has been written from the perspective of those in control of the dominant institutions.   The Bible, however, is an alternative history written from the perspective of the poor, the outcast, and the oppressed.  Following in the footsteps of the prophets, Jesus spoke truth to those in power but was eventually put to death by those whose status and privilege were threatened.  Jesus always took the side of those under domination.
  • If both the Bible and the U.S. Constitution agree on the primacy of liberty and justice, how do we hold candidates for political office accountable for platforms and policies that protect human rights?   How do we need to work on ourselves, knowing that most of us are those in power?  We are those to whom much has been given.  How do we move from being the rich who are invested in keeping others under control to bringing in the kingdom of God as expressed in both Jesus’ mission and the Preamble of our Constitution?
  • This election is not about rhetoric that divides and labels that separate.  It’s about We, the People, forming a more perfect union through collaboration, cooperation, and fulfilling a common mission.

Did you know that the terms “left” and “right” originated in the French Revolution?  On the left side of the Estates General of 1789 sat the common people, and on the right side sat the nobility and the clergy(?!).   It’s most unfortunate that “left” and “right” are political terms today because the concerns of those sitting on the left or supporting those on the left go far beyond identifying with Republicans or Democrats.  The gospel of Jesus Christ is much larger, broader, and deeper than any political party.  In fact, if we follow the teachings of Jesus, we’ll be attacked by both the political “left” and “right.”

  • Are you willing to move beyond stereotypes to model civil conversation, work together to form a more perfect union, and fulfill the mission of our country by always advocating for We, the People?
  • God calls us to another way. 

The temptation is great for candidates to succumb to vitriol and damaging remarks, with the justification that it’s just politics, it’s expected.   But there is another way, and it involves you and me.  What will it collectively take for We, the People, the common people, to rise up and say, “No more outrageous lies.  No more negative commercials.   No more running against.    Only running for.”

Which candidate will one day have the courage to say, “I will not say a word against my opponent.  I will simply share with you how I intend to work toward the fulfillment of the mission statement of the United States as expressed in the Preamble of the Constitution.”   Do We, the People, have the will to break the cycle?

  • Will you pray for all leaders and candidates to promote the general welfare?

“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high places, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.  This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior.” (1Timothy 2:1-3)

We are the People.  We are the ordinary people, the justice-seeking people, the people who seek tranquility, a common defense, the general welfare, liberty, and a more perfect union.   We, the People, All the People, will vote on November 6.  May God help us all.