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.



How Should You Give – Ask Linda

How should you give?  Ask Linda.  My friend Linda occasionally helps me with tasks around the house that I can never seem to get to.   Linda has had a hard life, working full-time for minimal wages and also taking care of her mother and another elderly man.  For almost 20 years Linda and I have talked about how dehumanizing it can be to be poor in America, to live from paycheck to paycheck without hope of ever getting ahead.  Yet when I pay Linda for her work, she often gives back part of the money, saying, “Here, give this to someone in your church who needs it.” 

It’s that time, isn’t it?  The vast majority of churches in our country are already planning for 2013.  Committees are hard at work assessing the current state of their ministries and setting goals and expected outcomes for next year.  I am not naïve enough to think that local church budgets are always built around well-thought-out ministry plans.  However, a naturally optimistic faith refuses to give up that hope.      

One of the primary responsibilities of a local church pastor is educating, encouraging, and inviting the congregation to practice joyful stewardship.  I believe that people are generous by nature, but the lures of living in 21st century America have a way of choking off that generosity in favor of excessive spending or selfish hoarding.  Most of us would be better off learning how to give from those who have less than we do. 

Linda’s benevolence is confirmed by a report recently released from The Chronicle of Philanthropy called How America Gives.  Analyzing charitable giving trends at the zip code level, the report chronicles who the most generous givers in our country are and where they live.  Consider these provocative findings using 2008 statistics.

·         People who earn less money give a greater percentage of their discretionary income to charity.  

o   Families earning $200,000 or more represent 11% of U.S. tax returns and 40% of charitable giving, but high income earners give a lesser percentage of their income. 

o   Families earning over $200,000 a year gave only 4.2% of discretionary income to charity, whereas families earning $50-$75,000 a year gave 7.6 % to charity. 

o   Likewise, rich neighborhoods donate much less to charity percentagewise than low income neighborhoods.

·         Wealthy people who live in isolated enclaves or lower population density areas give less than wealthy people who live in economically diverse metropolitan neighborhoods.

o   When wealthy people live in neighborhoods where 40% of the people earn $200,000 or more, they give just 2.8% of discretionary income to charity as opposed to 4.2% for the general population of those earning $200,000 or more. 

o   As wealth increases, people tend to become more isolated, insulated, and immune to human need, which results in limited engagement with people who have much less than they do. 

Paul Piff, a social psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, echoes these findings after years of his own research on giving, “The more wealth you have, the more focused on your own self and your own needs you become, and the less attuned to the needs of other people you also become….  Simply reminding wealthy people of the diversity of needs that are out there is going to go a long way toward restoring the empathy or compassion deficit that we otherwise see.”  How should you give?  Ask Linda.

·         Religion makes a difference in charitable giving. 

People who live in areas where religion is a core value give more.  In addition, lower income donors tend to give more to religious organizations than high income donors. 

o   Two of the top nine states in charitable giving are Utah (10.6%) and Idaho, which have a high percentage of residents who are Mormons and strongly encourage tithing.  The other top 7 states are in the Bible Belt of the south. 

o   In contrast, New Hampshire, one of the least religious states in the country, has the lowest charitable giving rate at 2.5%.   

o   If religious charitable giving were excluded from this study and only giving to secular organizations was considered, the geography of generosity would look quite different.  New York State would go from 18th to 2nd, and Pennsylvania would go from 40th to 4th.   

·         How does your state or metropolitan area give? 

Check out

o   The highest charitable giving ZIP code in the U.S. is 10021 in Manhattan’s Upper East Side.  This zip code contributed $478-million in 2008.

o   The ZIP code which gave the highest percentage in 2008 was 74103 in Tulsa, Okla., whose residents gave a generous 21.6% of their discretionary income. 

o   Nearly $1 in $8 given to charity in our country comes from California, whose residents donated more than $17.2 billion in 2008. 

Michigan ranks 13th out of 51 states (including Washington D.C) in charitable giving at 4.5% of discretionary income.  Of the 366 metropolitan areas in the U.S., my home of Grand Rapids ranks 115th with an average giving rate of 5.3%.

How should you give?  Ask Linda.  Linda is always looking to help people who have less than she has, but she soured on organized religion long ago.  She said, “My mother tolerated everything in the name of religion.  She would never confront my siblings with their inexcusable behavior and drug use and for scamming her out of her life’s savings.  And here I am, taking care of my mother now because no one else will.  I never had a chance to go to college, I hold down 3 jobs, and have no life. 

Where’s the church in all of this?  All they care about is taking care of themselves or offering handouts without accountability.  Giving money to the church is all well and good, but God calls all of us to be kind, compassionate, and wise, and I don’t often see that in church folks.”

            What does The Chronicle of Philanthropy report mean for the church as we prepare for commitment campaigns and budget-building?

  1. Resist making assumptions about who the most generous givers in your church are.  Who is most generous: the family that makes $1 million a year and gives $50,000 to the church or the family that makes $30,000 and gives $3,000 a year?  Remember the widow’s mite.
  2. Knowing that we rely on more well-off members to provide a good part of the church’s budget and that the average wealthy family in the U.S. gives only 4.2% of their income to charity, gently challenge all people in your church to step up to tithing. 
  3. Be aware that the church is one of the best places for middle and upper class families to be exposed to the poor.  How diverse is your congregation socioeconomically?  Are you intentional about finding ways for rich and poor to learn from each other?
  4. Use mission trips in and outside of the country as opportunities for children, youth, and adults to expand their borders and experience different ways of living, serving, and giving.
  5. Cultivate a holistic, year-round stewardship program of prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.  Statistics show that cities with generous givers also give more volunteer time.  The spillover effect means that donated money goes further. 
  6. Debunk the claim that secular giving is other-centered and therefore more altruistic than religious giving, which is self-centered.  In forming your church’s budget for next year, avoid the pitfall of focusing on institutional maintenance rather than mission and outreach.
  7. Inspire your congregation to give as a joyful response to God’s grace by telling the story in creative and compelling ways of how lives are being transformed through the ministries of your church.

In the thick of budgets, statistics, stewardship campaigns, planning, and a maze of church conference forms, all I can think of is Linda.  I suspect that we need Linda more than she needs us, for she is the expert on generosity.  In addition to being one of the most honest, perceptive, and pointed critics of the church (and rightly so), Linda gives way more proportionally than most church people, she is more sensitive to the needs of the poor, and her grace, hope, and perseverance put me to shame.

How should you give?  Ask Linda.



Rights and Responsibilities

“As a U.S. citizen and voter I have a right to know which candidate’s views reflect my best interest. Unfortunately, all I heard during the campaign was how the other candidates were unqualified rather than what the candidates will do for me.” These sentences came from a Michigan citizen who used Facebook last Tuesday to reflect on the Michigan Republican U.S. Senate primary. Peter Hoekstra defeated Clark Durant and Randy Hekman and will face incumbent Democrat Debbie Stabenow in November.

Most Americans are already dreading the next 3 months as yet another presidential election dominates the news. Not only will the candidates go up against each other day after day, with the media recording and commenting on every word, but social networks now provide a platform for anyone to weigh in, offer unfiltered opinions, and spew venom. Politics can easily degenerate into an unfortunate game where money, power, and influence eclipse the sole purpose of government, which is to serve the public good.

That’s why I was fascinated with the Facebook posting. When candidates focus on slandering their opponents rather than offering well thought-out perspectives on the issues, the political process is diminished. At the same time, when the primary criterion of voters is how the candidates will make their own lives better, liberty and justice for all becomes a mockery.

When students receive degrees in higher education, the president of the college or university usually says these words, “I confer upon you the bachelor’s degree (master’s, doctor of philosophy, etc.) with all the rights and privileges thereof.” Rights and privileges go together and are earned as a result of achievement. Sometimes, however, we hear another word slipped in with deliberate intention. “I confer upon you the bachelor’s degree with all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities thereof.”

What a difference a single word can make. The purpose of a degree is not to receive but to give back. A degree holds little value if the recipient does not use it to make the world a better place. Likewise, a vote means nothing unless it is cast with the desired outcome of creating a country and world where every person has enough food to eat, shelter over their head, clothes to wear, and the opportunity to receive a good education and a rewarding job.

“Responsibility” means “the state or fact of having a duty to deal with something.” Public service is not about becoming rich or catering to the powerful and influential. Nor is it about increasing the already terrifying gap between the haves and the have-nots. Political leadership is a responsibility to govern in a way that levels the playing field so that all experience wholeness and shalom.

In the same way, voting is not about casting our lot with politicians who cater to our own self-interest. Voting is a corporate responsibility to select leaders who demonstrate the qualities of compassion, honesty, respect, and a passion for service.

I wonder what would happen if we took responsibility seriously in the church. What if we taught our children, youth, and adults that each one of us is a “little Christ” and therefore responsible for carrying on God’s redemptive work in the world? What if we tried to actually live as Jesus lived by pointing away from self to the common good? What if we were always conscious of how our thoughts, words, deeds, attitudes, and motives represent Christ?

What if the church insisted that everyone has a right to be loved by God – enemy and friend, lost and found, rich and poor, forgiver and forgiven, leader and follower?

Actually, becoming a Christian will not give us any rights that we don’t already have, except perhaps to vote on church business if we are a member. However, being a disciple of Jesus Christ will confer upon us great responsibility. How might our churches look if we acted upon our responsibility to throw open the doors of grace and hope to a hurting world?

• Our major focus would be to share the good news of Jesus Christ and make disciples

• We’d have as many opportunities for spiritual growth as we have committees and task forces

• The goal of every single program and activity would be to connect people with God through learning, service, community, and outreach

• Worship would become an exciting multi-cultural experience where the Spirit moves mysteriously and freely in our hearts, convicting, converting, and encouraging

• Servant leadership, rather than hidden agendas or power plays, would be the standard

• The church building would become a launching pad for outreach and mission to neighborhoods, communities, and the world

• The broken and the outwardly successful, the confused and the called, and the searching and the sure would experience healing and begin to look beyond self to a hurting world

• Pledging responsibility to support the breaking in of God’s kingdom in our world by our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness would become the most important promise we ever make

At the Yale University commencement in May 2012, President Richard Levin conferred rights, privileges, and responsibilities upon graduates by reminding them of their duty to contribute to the welfare of our world. Levin quoted a speech by Abraham Lincoln from Yale professor Steven Smith’s recently published book The Writings of Abraham Lincoln. Although President Lincoln is most often remembered for his opposition to slavery and courageous leadership through the Civil War, he was also an eloquent writer and speaker who emphasized corporate responsibility for the country’s health and prosperity.

In September, 1859, Lincoln gave a speech to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Association in Milwaukee where he made the argument that the nation’s abundant agricultural resources were one of its most precious assets. In the midst of increasing tumult over slavery, Lincoln did not lose sight of the fact that enhancing innovation in the use of our most valued resources would become a source of productivity and abundance in the United States.

Lincoln’s speech focused on infrastructure development and the education of farmers and ended with a stirring call to responsibility, “Let us hope … that by the best cultivation of the physical world, beneath and around us; and the intellectual and moral world within us, we shall secure an individual, social and political prosperity and happiness, whose course shall be onward and upward, and which, while the earth endures, shall not pass away.”

Within 6 weeks of Lincoln’s election in 1860, the U.S. moved toward civil war. Yet, as President Levin pointed out, even as Lincoln guided our country with God’s help and a steady hand, he was able to work with Congress to approve a transcontinental railroad, the Homestead Act, the establishment of farms in the western territories, and the Morrill Act, which granted land for colleges (the precursors of our state universities) that taught agricultural and mechanical arts. It was these far-sighted and responsible decisions that set the stage for the explosive growth of the United States after the Civil War.

It is not possible for the President or Congress alone to “fix” our country. Nor is it their task to act in our personal best interest. However, it is their responsibility to create systems and structures that provide sustainable foundations for individual, social, and political health and happiness through an equitable distribution of wealth and resources. Our public servants are charged with calling out the highest and best in each citizen to embrace their rights and privileges by assuming responsibility for each other’s welfare.

It is also not possible for bishops, general boards and agencies, and annual conferences to “fix” our denomination. Nor is it their task to act in our personal or local church’s best interest. However, it is their responsibility to create systems and structures that foster the health and vitality of our local churches. Our leaders are also charged with calling out the highest and best in each local church, pastor, and lay person to embrace their rights and privileges by responsibly transforming our world into the kingdom of God.

The next few months will, indeed, be interesting as we prepare for another presidential election. The good news is that each one of us has the right to let our voice be heard. But as disciples of Jesus Christ we also have a responsibility to frame political discussion in the positive light of the gospel and to act in Christ-like ways toward one another.

Remember, this election is not about what is best for us personally. It’s not about the candidates. Nor is it about our country. It’s about Abraham Lincoln’s hope “that by the best cultivation of the physical world, beneath and around us; and the intellectual and moral world within us, we shall secure an individual, social and political prosperity and happiness, whose course shall be onward and upward, and which, while the earth endures, shall not pass away.”