In Praise of Character: Joe’s Perspective

Being a Character of Character

A child starts as a blank piece of paper. Things are written and erased, rewritten, crossed out, and written again.

Myths and legends, once believed as factual, are revised and sent to the basement of our memory. Childhood fantasy, innocence, and gullibility replaced by reality, reason, and experience.

Yet no matter how well these vestiges are erased or covered over, they remain embedded in our essence. They are the foundation to the genesis of ourselves as individuals. And as first impressions, they carry much sway over our lives and the character we exhibit.

An individual’s character is a blend of the earliest influences in our lives, geography, economic status, family. Later, the people we befriend or avoid, and the world situation, all blend to further refine our character.

A character cannot be labeled. Character is not conservative or liberal. Humans have this need to file everyone else under a convenient simple label. Yet preserving, for themselves, the ability to hold convergent and divergent thoughts. All the world can be divided into two groups, those who oppose my ideas in toto and those who agree with my ideas in toto.

The problem with character is we keep redefining what it means.

Character is the acting in a manner so as to benefit without causing harm. The fact that we need locks and alarms illustrates the dearth of true character within us. Our daily lives are filled with laws, regulations, and artificial controls that speak of the absence of true character in man.

As one of the greatest inspirational humans of all time, believed by many a representative of God himself on earth, Zoroaster, said,

“Seek your happiness in the happiness of all.”

Character is living this ancient golden rule. We’ve known this all along, we’ve just never embraced it.

Many would argue that President Trump is a man of good character by virtue of his profession of love for America and by invoking the name of his god. I would argue this makes my point.

George Orwell, in a book entitled “A Collection of Essays,” wrote, Political language—and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists—is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

In another essay, he added, “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.”

The political characters of today wish to portray others, immigrants or foreigners, as dangerous as a way to improve their own position. To make their character seem brave and courageous. They, to borrow a phrase from Rudyard Kipling, like to paint others as lesser breeds without the Law.”

On a hopeful note, the general character of man seems to be evolving to a higher state. Despite claims to the contrary, this is a less dangerous world than most would believe. Things are changing. But the evolutionary progress of character may take several unsuccessful turns before finding the true essence of character.

Until then, the true potential for a person of good character eludes us.

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Prayer, Fact or Folly: Kent’s Perspective

Joe has written an honest and insightful reflection on prayer.  What he thinks it is and isn’t.  He shares from his personal experience,  so I’ll share from mine.

When I was a kid growing up in Rhode Island, most of us had a brightly colored ‘Rabbits foot’ tied to our bicycle handlebars.  The idea was that the ‘rabbits foot’ was a talisman to bring good luck.

Many of us look to prayer in the same way.  It is tied in with a common construct of God, that if we say the magic words then God will answer.

But I’ve been a pastor for over thirty years.  I’ve prayed a lot of prayers for healing that have gone unanswered.   At least in the way I hoped for.  God as a lucky ‘rabbits foot’ didn’t come through.

So does that mean that prayer doesn’t work or that God is simply a figment of my imagination?  In response, I’ve found that my concept of prayer and the God to which I often pray, has evolved.

I have come to see God as a creative, loving presence whose desire is to accompany and bless.   Foundational is the Biblical teaching in the Gospel of John and 1 John that ‘God is love’.

I can’t scientifically prove, quantify or objectively measure this. But I know it to be true.  It is based on my experience many times over, of being graced with a ‘felt presence’ that brought comfort, strength and a measure of peace when I needed it most.   I’ve seen this same loving presence bless others too.

For me prayer is a means of opening up to a  holy, loving presence.  A divine presence that cannot be confined by religious dogma or by any one religious tradition.  Prayer is a portal into that great mystery we call God.

I’m a Christian and for me my path toward understanding God and learning to walk a path of faith, is in the story and witness of Jesus.  But I know the Jesus path is simply a pointer, toward that cosmic mystery which brought the world, including you and me, into being.

Prayer as a practice is a means of opening my mind, heart, hands and imagination to the gift of being alive.  And, a way during hard times to remind us that we are not alone.  Not forgotten.  Prayer also reminds me to be open to the needs of others…to be open to the pain and struggle of another.

There’s so much more I’d like to say in response to Joe’s well written and honest posting.  Perhaps we can go back in forth in a future posting.  But for the moment let me respond to the timeless question which Joe poses:  ‘Why does God allow bad things to happen?’

To this question I don’t have a good answer.  I wish I did.   In truth the question is mine as well.

But I think there is a different but related question:  ‘Where is God when bad things happen?’.  To that question I have an answer.  It is based not on theory but as I mentioned upon my experience.  God is with me (and I believe with you).   In the midst of the hard times as well as the good.  Sometimes I sense God is even carrying me.   It is to this God that I pray.

The extraordinary and wise Elie Wiesel died at the age of 87. As a youth he was incarcerated in a Nazi concentration camp where he watched most of his family die. He was often cited as an icon of a reasonable loss of faith. There is a terrible moment in his memoir of the Holocaust, Night, when he watches a young boy die slowly by hanging and repeats the question posed by someone in the crowd: “Where is God now?” Wiesel writes, “I heard a voice within me answer him. Where is He? He is hanging here on this gallows…”

What do you think?  What concept of God do you pray?  And, for you ‘where is God now?’

May grace and peace be yours.

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Prayer: Fact or Folly?

Prayer: Fact or Folly?

There is an almost infinite number of writings, texts (in the old-school sense), books, and essays related to the power of prayer. Some of the world’s most learned theologians have written brilliant pieces on the subject.

11150923_10204938827090486_7286120596361932652_nWhich is meaningless since none offer any real proof.

Now my friend and fellow blogger, Kent Harrop, always accuses me of being enamored of science. He would say I see science as the only path to truth. In some ways, he is correct. But I would modify that position with a caveat.

I adhere to the philosophy we may not be able to explain everything. But accepting things without challenge is dangerous. To believe prayer works in the complete absence of any evidence is fraught with danger. We would not tolerate praying over a broken arm as an acceptable form of treating an injured child. Why should we accept praying for something to change as opposed to seeking to make changes happen?

As one of my favorite teacher’s often reminds me when I write these pieces,

“There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy” (Hamlet, William Shakespeare)

But our point here is the efficacy, or in my perspective the lack thereof, of prayer. I also fear the populist trend in America toward returning to a “better time” which is a smokescreen for Christian domination and lip service to tolerance. That should frighten every thinking American. Thus, my point that if you see a value for prayer in school, or in government proceedings, show me how it makes things better, or offers any beneficial effect.

Given this position, let me say this. A prayer is a powerful tool for the individual.  It can bring focus. It can bring revelation. It can bring realization.

What it cannot do is influence the physical world, never has and never will. Only human actions have ever done that, for good or bad.

Now I could spend time recounting the writings of Thomas Aquinas, Bertrand Russell, Rene Descartes, Plato, or even Paul Simon about prayer and how none ever demonstrated any measurable effect in the world.

Instead, I will offer two examples as evidence of my position. One of historical significance and one personal.

Between the years 1933 and 1945 two out of every three European Jews were killed during the Holocaust. I stood in the barracks at Auschwitz and Birkenau. I passed mere feet from the ovens used to burn millions of men, women, and children.

Acts of horror committed by people from a predominantly Christian country, people who prayed to god as well. Did their prayers for success in their actions bear fruit with God?

In the silence of the camps, next to the piles of shoes, bundles of human hair, and images of those turned to ashes by the Nazis, I heard the echoes of the Rabbi’s prayers. The pleadings of mothers. The crying of the children. The helplessness of men praying to God for help.

Obliterated by death and flames.

Unanswered prayers while 6 million Jews were murdered. Unanswered prayers while 50 to 60 million died in the war. Unanswered prayer to end the war. A war that ended with the development of the weapons of our own destruction.

Our prayers didn’t end the war. Our prayers went unanswered unless you see the answer in our discovering the power of the Gods in the form of Atomic weapons.

The Nazi’s burned the Jew in the ovens while people prayed.

The war killed millions while people prayed.

There were billions of unanswered prayers. If it took all that time for God to answer prayers, what’s the point?

Prayers rose, intermingled with the ashes of human beings murdered because of hatred, and God did nothing.

Why? For mankind to find a way to kill not just his fellow man, but to vaporize entire cities and perhaps the planet?

Where was the power of prayer then?

Now, the more personal example. Some would argue such an argument is disingenuous since I believe prayer does not work. This example is not about me, but my mother.

No one embraced her faith with more certainty than my mom. She held onto her belief despite life’s many challenges.

She faced life-threatening health issues. She was a victim of infidelity and the breakup of her marriage. She suffered the loss of a child.

Despite it all, she held onto her religion. To the point many would find troubling. Despite my father’s infidelity, despite his taking her back to court to reduce alimony, she still kept her wedding picture on the wall. Because in her faith, marriage was forever.

My mother believed and never wavered.

Even when my father’s other wife, the woman who was the second part of the infidelity, would call and ask for help in dealing with my father’s demons, my mother never hesitated to offer her assistance.

Because her faith compelled her to.

What has this to do with prayer? Everything.

When my sister Mary was diagnosed with breast cancer, no one prayed harder or in a more sincere way than my mother. No one lived the life expected of her based on the tenets of her Roman Catholic faith more purposefully than my mother. No one held more hope in the power of prayer than my mother.

She would say God’s failure to allow my sister to live, to let her die from cancer, was a mystery of life. A mystery of faith. She would say the prayers worked because God took Mary home.

I would say God broke my mother’s heart if I thought such a thing possible. It is not, because God, in the anthropomorphic interfering in this world sense, isn’t listening.

Would I say my mother’s prayers were wasted? No, because they gave her hope in her helplessness to save her child.

What I would say is blind faith absent proof is a pox on mankind. It tricks us into wasting our time and effort.

Many would argue God answers all prayers, it is our inability to understand the answer that is the problem.

I find that sad. If ever there was a prayer that deserved God’s attention, it was one from my mother. Or, if volume matters, the mothers of six million Jews.

One of my mom’s favorite expressions was life is not fair. We shouldn’t compound that with false hopes.

“We do pray for mercy, and that same prayer doth teach us all to render the deeds of mercy.” William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice

 

 

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Character, Citizenship and Leadership: Kent’s Perspective

Growing up who were your role models?  My role models were many.  My Dad modeled a life of quiet decency.  He never raised his hand and rarely raised his voice when angry.  He was dependable and kind.  As a building contractor he was honest and set high standards as a craftsman. His faith life was foundational to how he lived and who he was.

Conversely at age seventeen I worked for a manager in a supermarket who showed me what not to be.  I watched as this manager humiliated and bullied his employees.   He wanted to make the point that ‘he was the boss’ and people should do what he wanted out of fear.   I remember thinking, ‘I’m not going to be like that’.

In these first 100 days of the Trump presidency where are the people of character?  Who are the positive role models that we want our youth to emulate?

David Brooks, New York Times columnist and conservative commentator wrestles with such questions.   In his  book, ‘The Road to Character’ https://www.c-span.org/video/?325441-1 introduces us to people well-known and little known, who exhibited positive values and qualities that we call ‘character’. He focuses on the deeper values that inform a well lived life. He challenges the reader to rebalance the scales between our ‘resume virtues’ – achieving wealth, fame and status – and our ‘eulogy virtues’, those that exist at the core of our being: kindness, bravery, honesty and faithfulness.

Brooks points out what is painfully obvious, that to often our leaders, political and otherwise, are driven by ‘resume virtues’. Such leaders are caught up in accumulating power, wealth and status and will do whatever it takes.  Character is secondary to outcomes.

In the Netflix series: ‘House of Cards’ we are introduced to Congressman Francis ‘Frank’ Underwood and his wife Claire.  These characters played by actors Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, are devoid of character and will do whatever it takes to achieve their end.  In ‘House of Cards’ the ends justify the means. http://www.netflix.com/houseofcards

In watching the Trump presidency unfold I see a president and administration who will do what ever it takes to achieve their ends… Make unfounded accusations (President Obama illegally wiretapped Trump Tower) and make unfounded statements as fact as in a recent interview in Time Magazine: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/23/us/politics/what-trumps-time-interview-shows-about-his-thinking.html

Thus far with a few notable exceptions the Republican controlled Congress has overlooked President Trump’s falsehoods to get the ends they want:  Repeal of the Affordable Care Act; overhaul of Tax Code; deregulation of environmental safeguards etc.

Is this the message we want to send to our children?  That the ends justify the means?  That you can do and say anything you want in service to what you consider a greater good?

I’m not going to be like that.  How about you?

Our nation is desperate for women and men of character.

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Character, Citizenship, and Leadership: Joe’s Perspective

Kent and I chose to do a two-part posting on character. In this second part, we discuss how character matters in our roles as citizens and in our elected leaders.

The timing could not be better, or more desperate, depending on your perspective.

The muddled mess that is the Trump administration is a ‘character’ study in character, or the lack thereof.

For those of you who’ve been sleeping under a rock or mesmerized by the latest episodes of Basket Weaving with the Stars No One Remembers, the President has demonstrated a remarkable lack of character, Presidential or otherwise.

First, he tweets:
Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my “wires tapped” in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism! 6:35 AM – 4 Mar 2017

This, of course, ignites a firestorm of outrage by his supporters. I expected to see hordes mobbing the streets, armed with pitchforks and torches, screaming “Kill the beast.”

On the other, more rational, side were those troubled by such a serious allegation. Concerned that the President must have evidence to back up such a charge. Anyone of character would before making such a claim.

But no, there was no evidence presented. None offered to Congress, the Justice department, or Breitbart Media.

Not even a smidgen of evidence courtesy of the Kremlin.

Nothing.

A President of the United States publicly accused the former President of the United States of a crime, a serious crime, without one iota of evidence.

What does that say about the character of this man?

Character requires several elements. Embracing the truth, working for the common good, courage to face difficult situations, and a willingness to admit, and learn, from one’s errors.

The behavior of this President over these first months of his administration shows he possesses none of them.

On the other hand, former President Obama, despite being accused of a crime without any basis in fact, has remained calm and reserved. Offering a limited response to deny the allegation and demonstrating a maturity of character by not engaging in a juvenile pissing contest.

At a time in history when the character of our leaders is most critical, we are led by a man divested of character, hostile to the truth, and divorced from reality.

Now, those who support Trump, among whom I am certain are many of good character, have latched onto the statement by the Chairman of the Intelligence committee. He said that some of Trump’s associates, and perhaps Trump himself, had communication intercepted “legally” and “incidentally” in a criminal investigation.

Based on some mysterious information he and no one else on the committee received from some unidentified source.

They see this as a vindication of the President’s tweet. See, they shout, he was right. They did monitor him.

They have a strange concept of vindication. It reflects a serious flaw in character. It is as if a video surfaced of members of the Manson crime family emerging from Sharon Tate’s home, drenched in blood. Charlie Manson then announces look I told you I wasn’t there.

Strange vindication indeed. What does it say about one’s character that you would embrace a falsehood and be reassured by the existence of a criminal investigation?

One’s true character is not something you can conceal very long. It shows itself in your actions despite claims you make to the contrary.  We can only hope there are members of Congress and within the Justice department who possess a strong and honest character.

The character of the American people, while imperfect, has always found a way to face the truth. Sometimes kicking and screaming, sometimes leading the way. We can hold onto hope that soon someone of character will occupy the office of the Presidency.

Although I hoped never to hear these words in my lifetime again, we look forward to a new President say, “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over….”

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Under Penalty of Death: Joe’s Perspective

Killing our Way to Prevention

Dylan Roof, the killer of nine innocent people, received the death sentence after trial. If his case remains consistent with the national average, barring his conviction being overturned or his dying under other circumstances, he will be executed in the year 2032.

The average time an inmate sits on death row while appeals run their course is 15 years 5 months. As of July 2016, there were 2,095 inmates on death row. The number of inmates on death row, charted over time, is telling. It begs an explanation for the dramatic increase.

In 1953, there were 151 inmates on death row, we executed 62 (47.2%.) Over the next few years, the numbers of inmates began to increase, yet the percentage of executions decreased. The Supreme Court decision in death penalty cases effectively stopped executions from 1968 until 1976 (0 executions.)

1977 (1 execution)

1979 (2)

Since then, there’s been a steady increase. Our best year was 1999 with 98 executions. As a percentage of inmates on death row, the ratio of executions remains steady at 1.3 to 1.5%.  During this period, the time on death row between sentencing and execution rose.

The question some might ask is, how can we speed up the process?”

I would ask what do we get for this 15 years and 5-month investment in maintaining the life of a convicted murderer?

The answer is not as simple as most would think.

Ignoring, for the moment, Benjamin Disraeli’s admonition “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics,” let’s think about this for a moment.

The United States leads the world in rates of incarceration. We are in good company in executions. Worldwide, the leader board for executions looks like this.

1.China

2.Iran

3.Pakistan

4.Saudi Arabia

5.USA

But enough with the numbers, let’s consider the reason. More to the point the lack of reason. Here are some questions to ask yourself.

  1. Why do we lead industrialized nations in most forms of criminal violence, in particular, gun violence?
  2. Is the fact that the death penalty is a 100% effective deterrent against those who are executed yet has little measurable deterrent effect on crime rates enough to warrant its application?
  3. What of the numbers of convictions that have been reversed or vacated based on Prosecutorial or Law Enforcement misconduct?
  4. If nothing is one hundred percent correct, are we willing to accept the likelihood that we have, or will, execute an innocent person?”
  5. At what of the politics of the matter? Attorneys General, Sheriffs, and other elected officials face criticisms when they fail to solve heinous crimes. What of the potential for the politics of the matter to overwhelm the search for truth?

 

The matter is not a simple one. The pain of victims, the ruin of families, the debilitating effect of crime, the very nature of humans to seek to punish those that would harm others. These elements weigh on the matter and deserve consideration.

There are some people in the world we cannot fix. Dylan Roof is just one more example of damaged goods. But I wonder if we do more damage to ourselves by killing him than we realize.

History is replete with examples of efforts to solve problems by killing our way to the solution. I wonder if, millennia from now, scholars will look at our time of embracing the death penalty as our well-intentioned, yet equally evil, version of a final solution.

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In Praise of Character: Kent’s Perspective

In the aftermath of a contentious presidential election the bar keeps being lowered as to what is permissible. Inflated statements and unfounded accusations are dressed up as ‘alternative-facts’. Facts deemed unwelcome are called ‘fake news’. Character assassination via Twitter are considered fair game by our new President.

What are we to make of all this?

Enter the sane and measured voice of conservative commentator David Brooks. Under the category ‘everything is relative’, Brooks a long time voice of Republican moderation now finds himself painfully out of step with the excess’ of the Trump administration.

His recent book, ‘The Road to Character’ https://www.c-span.org/video/?325441-1 introduces us to people well known and little known, who exhibited positive values and qualities that we call ‘character’. He focuses on the deeper values that inform a well lived life. He challenges the reader to rebalance the scales between our ‘resume virtues’ – achieving wealth, fame and status – and our ‘eulogy virtues’, those that exist at the core of our being: kindness, bravery, honesty and faithfulness.

Brooks points out what is painfully obvious, that to often our leaders, political and otherwise, are driven by ‘resume virtues’. Such leaders are caught up in the culture of celebrity. Celebrity places the focus on oneself,  rather than on the good one can do for others.

‘The Road to Character’ reintroduces familiar names like Dwight Eisenhower and to lesser known names like Frances Perkins and Dorothy Day. Such persons were regular folk like you and me. A mix of strengths and imperfections. What unites them is an underlying sense of deeply held values that influence the choices they make and the path they chose to walk.

The source of their values varied but what unifies their story is an interesting mix of personal restraint and concern for the well being of others. Mixed in is a spirit of persistence that carries a person through times of trial and seeming failure. Simply put, a person of character is guided by  values that serve to define who they are and how they live.

I was fortunate to have a dad who was a man of character. Norman Harrop was one of five children in a family that struggled to make ends meet during the Great Depression. In World War II he was a radio man in the US Army Air Corp in India.

Returning home after four years at war, he married and raised two children. He was a small time self-employed building contractor. As a boy I remember an adult saying to my Dad: ‘Norman, your problem as a business man is you’re too honest’. I wondered then and I wonder now: ‘How can a person be too honest?’

Norman’s values were rooted in his faith:  He was gentle with his boys, kind and helpful to family and neighbors. A  generous person who didn’t draw attention to himself.

When he died of cancer at age 78,  a long line of friends, clients, family  stretched outside the funeral home and into the parking lot. We gathered to honor a quiet man of character.

David Brooks remind us that the antidote to our self centered, celebrity driven culture is to be found in revisiting and embodying time honored values. Values rooted in our highest ideals as a nation, modeled by mentors and found in the wisdom faith i.e. ‘Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you’.

We live in a time desperate for women and men of character.  What values do you hold dear?

 

 

 

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