Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Necessary Virtues

Blaise Pascal once observed that the truly virtuous are those who recognize both their capacity to be selfish and their capacity to help others and then try to live honestly in the space between them.  But knowing what is right from wrong is only part of our salvation, the more difficult part is to challenge the institutions that keep us from doing the right thing.  It makes a difference if we buy from Wal Mart which openly discriminates against women, it makes a difference if we cheat on our taxes, which, while disagree with our government is the foundation of our democracy; it makes a difference if we give enough to those causes in need which represents our best aspirations.  It makes a difference.  The virtues of courage, honesty, mindfulness, and generosity are not only wise but necessary.

Doing right connects the intimacy of who we are to the ultimate concerns of our lives.  Next year, our church  will once again be participating in Habitat for Humanity.  We have been asked to be part of what Habitat for Humanity is calling an Interfaith Build.  This will be a new home from the ground up.  We will have the chance to go out together on multiple Saturdays next spring and actually join with others and build a house.  Building has always been an exercise in virtue and wisdom for me, if nothing else in the virtuous people you meet.  Once such man I met this year was Norman.
Norman is a young man, late thirties, married with two kids.  He went to USC but has been doing construction for Habitat for many years.  I asked him why he did this work when he clearly could do something else and make a lot more money.  Norman shared with me that as a boy he grew up in Laos Nigeria, his father was an international oil consultant.  He went to school at a Catholic mission school.  One of the nuns taught him a lesson he would never forget:  all around you there are people hungry for work and food, many of the young people will live by stealing. What she said next surprised him: “They can’t do much to change their world, but you can.  You will have the power to help others.  That is the most honest work there is.” Then and there he decided to dedicate his life and his resources to change the world.  A holy man with a hammer.

We won’t save the world, but we can save a little piece of it, and by so doing our world is just a bit more renewed.  Renewal begins with being intentional about doing good.  You don’t have to turn your life over to God as my new friend Norman has done but you can be more intentional about living your values.  Relying on the Good of the world is necessary to put our virtue of love and courage into practice. Respond with courage and hope.  Necessary virtues all.

With Grace and Grit,  John

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Lessons From My Father

My father, Ward Ely Morehouse, died on June 30th, 2012, almost a year ago today.  I was not there when he died.  He was swimming in his favorite New England pond when he suffered a massive heart attack.  The paramedics revived his heart but he was in a coma and died twelve hours later.  I have shared with you before that I was in Yellowstone NP the day he died, and, at the precise moment he was having his heart attack I told Frances to pull over the car so I could jump bidden by some  unseen force into the glacier lake.  Only latter would I learn that the urge to jump into the water happened at the moment he was leaving this earth.

My father was a noble and complex man.  Like so many of his generation he was emotionally distant, which is not to say that he didn’t feel, he did, deeply and often with tears.  He just didn’t express those feelings often, preferring a stoic response to life.  And for good reason, a child of the Great Depression, his father was often absent as a wayward Academic and his mother, who suffered from debilitating depression, was often institutionalized.  My father learned early on that emotions were best kept to oneself.  I am not like my father in that regard.  I express myself openly – sometimes a little too openly from this very pulpit.  I have also been tempered by living with six daughters and my beloved Frances.  Secrets are not part of our family system.

But despite his distance, he gave me the wisdom of virtues, seen and unseen.  Honesty, optimism, loyalty, hard work, vision and flexibility.  In honor of my father and all fathers, those biological and those who have held the mantle, I offer these lessons to you today for your consideration.

Honesty.  When I was seven years old my best friend, Tommy Walczak and I broke into a neighbor’s house.  It was a summer cottage actually, for at the time, most of those who lived around us were only part time residents.  I don’t remember why we did it but we did.  I remember making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  We thought we covered our tracks but something about the torn screen door gave it away.  Our neighbors, Julius and Lillian Kahn (the founders by the way of Coach Leather, long before it was so high end) pretty much figured it out and came to my dad.  He called me into his study, a wondrous room in the basement, piled high with canyons of paper.  He asked me if I had broken into the house.  He looked me straight in the eye.  I thought about lying but decided that was just stupid.  He knew and I knew he knew.  After I admitted I had, he asked me why.  I don’t remember what I said, and it didn’t matter really.  He decided that I   needed to make amends. And so I had to earn money from him to repair the screen and, worse yet, I had to apologize to the Kahns.  They were so kind about it all.  They tried to look all serious and such but inside they were touched that I had come at all.  Julius reminded me of this story years later before he died. This is what my father taught me: I may be wrong.  I make mistakes.  But I know admitting those mistakes and holding to the truth is far and away the best policy.  As Mark Twain once quipped ‘tell the truth and  you don’t have to remember anything’.

Optimism.  I am prone to occasional bursts of undue fatalism.  Not unlike my dear mother who lived by the proposition that if you think the worst you will either be proven right or pleasantly surprised.  But I get my normal state of optimism from my father.  Until the day he died, my father believed the world could be better than it is.  Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of times when he thought that it was going to hell in a hand basket (a curious alliterative locution, originating in the baskets used to catch decapitated heads).  But more often than not, my father saw himself tilting like Don Quixote himself at windmills.  A quaint reference to a man who dedicated five decades of his life to challenging the abuses of corporations.  On accepting a lifetime achievement award from the people of Bhopal in 1994 for his efforts to bring Union Carbide to justice for the gassing deaths of thousands, he spoke of a new day unfolding in a world where people would come before profits (see http://www.uuworld.org/life/articles/157847.shtml)

I have inherited this lesson on a smaller scale.  I have spent my career building communities of hope and change.  This is the third church I have sought to lead to a larger vision through hope and optimism.  We have had a few bumps but I contend we are better and stronger now than ever before and we are really only just beginning.

Loyalty.  I am described by those who know me as loyal to a fault.  I learned loyalty from my father.  In 1972, just as Richard Nixon was opening up relations with Red China, a scholar by the name of Jack Chen, who had written a scathing indictment of the communist party, had applied for political asylum in the US.  My father, who knew Dr. Chen from his early days working for the Asia Society, offered him a job as a consultant to the New York State Department of Education, a requirement for asylum.  Despite intense pressure from the Chancellor to fire Dr. Chen, my father held his ground.  He was accused of harboring a communist, called one himself and ultimately resigned his post to begin his full time work as a writer and activist.  I too have supported colleagues who were unpopular and stood beside staff raises often at the expense of my own.  I have turned down other churches because I felt compelled to finish the work I began.  In 22 years of ministry, I have only taken one month of sabbatical.  Ministry is our life and our calling.  When I accepted the call to be your minister I took it very seriously.  In part, this is a statement of my faith, indeed my family’s faith as a seventh generation Unitarian.  Like my father, I am bound by the covenants, the promises, I make, just as we as members of this church are bound by covenant to support the church with our time, talent and treasure.  A covenant, this bond of loyalty, as my colleague Victoria Safford puts it is “a living, breathing aspiration, made new every day.  It can’t be enforced by consequences but it may be reinforced by forgiveness and by Grace, when we stumble, when we forget, when we mess up.” (see  http://www.uuworld.org/ideas/articles/285904.shtml)

Hard work.  My father had a hand in building every house he ever lived in.  For him it was a source of pride and a hearkening to his philosophy of the Thoreauan ideal of self-reliance.  I grew up working along his side, not happily mind you, but I did.  I work a sixty hour work week and see ministry as a mission not a job.  I am mission driven.  I don’t count hours or units of time, I count lives changed.

Flexibility.  My father was always late for trains, planes, and boats, sometimes arriving seconds before the door was closing.  He had a very hard time adjusting to a post 9/11 world where so much of your transit time was taken with the theatre of the absurd we call the TSA.  I am not like him when I travel but I am trying.  I am more like my mother who wanted to be there hours before we needed to leave.  When I asked my father why he did this he told me, “there is always another plane”.  It’s a bit of wisdom that.  While inconvenient, there is always another way to get there from here.  My father taught me to experiment with truth, in the words of his hero Mahatma Gandhi.  If one idea fails try another.  This is part and parcel with his lesson to be honest.  I have been known to change my mind about what is the best direction to go as a church.  I have been criticized for that.  But what I have learned, especially in an organization as complex as a church, is that we have to be nimble and willing to change if we are to survive and grow.

Finally, I learned to have and hold a vision.  You may not always get there, in fact, we most often fail, but we need to hold up a vision, for without vision the people perish as it is written in Ecclesiastes. My father had a vision of a world of justice wherein people come before profits.  He had a vision of progress buttressed with deeply held liberal values.  When I asked him why he voted with the Green party or the Liberal Party and not the Democrats he told me that he would be betraying his vision to do so.  Having and holding a vision is matter of principle.

I miss my father very much.  But he lives on in me, my children and their children.  Lesson learned.

Happy Fathers Day,  John