What Do I Understand Now That I Wish I’d Understood Then?

What do I understand (or at least think I understand) now that I wish I had understood when I had began my journey through adulthood? It’s of no consequence to me, of course: it’s impossible to turn back the clock. But it might be of some help to you, Vera.

In looking back I’m struck by how naïve I was when I came out of high school and, four years later, college. I had little appreciation for what the world was really like. Growing up in a working-class family in homogenous rural south-central Pennsylvania hadn’t exposed me to much. My world was very small.

More than four decades of career experiences in law, business (CEO), government (special agent for DOD and, later, cabinet secretary), and higher ed (college president) changed that. To a degree. There is still much about life I don’t understand or, perhaps more accurately, refuse to accept. I’m still learning and always will be. Nonetheless, life has imparted a few lessons along the way.

Some of the lessons were easy to learn; some were hard. Some were moments of euphoria and left fond memories; some were painful and left scars. Others were learned merely by reading or observing. (It’s always preferable to learn from other people’s wisdom or mistakes.) I decided to compose a list of what I consider to have been some of the most important lessons.

What the list isn’t, however, is a list of rules to live by. I’m not fond of rules and would never suggest life is so easily mastered. Moreover, as I’ve mentioned before, I have absolutely no desire to tell you how to live your life, Vera. Rather, I’m simply sharing some of the things I wish I had better understood when I was young, starting out.

Some of the lessons are practical; some are of the existential variety. The list is neither complete nor final. After all, I’m still learning.

Please don’t infer an order of priority, for none is intended. “You” and “your,” below, refer to me; it is as if life is speaking to me. Occasional personal comments follow parenthetically. Continue reading

Easter Lessons from Our Christian President

The president claims to be a Christian. And a Presbyterian. What are the lessons in all of this?

  1. Labels are meaningless.
  2. It’s easy to fool people.
  3. It’s impossible to convince people they’ve been fooled.
  4. People often don’t believe what they say they believe.
  5. Nastiness pays. Depending on what your objective is.

And for a brief walk down memory lane. Here’s Mr. Trump’s 2015 Easter tweet from Palm Beach:

Jesus’ sentiment exactly. At least for some people.

Where Would We Be Without Hell?

I love this headline: Pope Francis reportedly denies the existence of hell. Vatican panics.

It made me think: Where would the world be without a hell?

I’m not sure. It’s hard to imagine. I doubt we’d kill each other in greater numbers. Or commit more atrocities. We do a bang-up job of that even while professing belief in the existence of a hell.

In fact, I doubt the world would be any different. But perhaps I’m wrong. There’s no way to be sure.

Of course, priests and other clergy would have to alter their message. Well, at least the ones who aren’t in the pope’s camp, of which there are many.

And, of course, there would be some disappointment among the people who are counting on a hell. Not for themselves. But for the people who deserve to be sent there. I can think of some people who have earned that right. I bet you have your list, too.

A word of caution though: there’s no way of knowing what the cutoff is, so it’s risky business cheering for hell. We might be surprised and fail to make the cut ourselves.

 

Rethinking Hypocrisy

My earliest recollection of hypocrisy was in church. It was there I sat and listened to the pious prayers of my father. The distinction between the man who spoke those words and the man I knew as my father was striking in the mind of his son. The son never felt loved by this man. The son experienced the coldness, the harshness, the anger. It was not all bad, of course; there were good times. But it was nothing like the love and compassion preached in the church; spoken of in the prayers. I learned what hypocrisy felt like. And I didn’t like it, not one bit.

As I matured, I realized that hypocrisy had found a home among most if not all churchgoers. They claimed to believe one thing and then lived their lives as if they believed something else. There was so much pretending.

Along the way, I realized I, too, was a hypocrite. I always fell short of the values and principles I espoused. Walking the talk was so damn hard.

And so I was hard on myself. And on others. And found I longed for authenticity, both in myself and others. I think I even desired it more than goodness.

At the same time, I recognized that authenticity could be costly. I came to realize the strong incentives for hypocrisy in the world. And came to understand just how much incentives matter. It made me less judgmental, but I still loathed hypocrisy. I saw no redeeming virtue in it. In hindsight, it’s hard to believe how naive I was.

In time, I came to accept that hypocrisy was part of our nature. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Every man alone is sincere. At the entrance of a second person, hypocrisy begins.” Every man. Perhaps it’s no one’s fault.

Something I read recently, authored by Paul Craig Roberts, caused me to question further whether I had been too hard on hypocrisy — on myself and others. Mr. Roberts wrote:

There is a vast difference between proclaiming moral principles that one might fail to live up to and proclaiming immoral principles that are all too easy to keep.

We live in an era in which the proclamation of immoral principles is commonplace. Indeed, we even elected an immoral man to be our president. I’ve tried to find some redeeming virtue in the man. But I can’t.

But it’s not only him. It’s everywhere around us. In the corporate world, immorality thrives under cover of the principle of shareholder value, which supposedly cleanses all unclean deeds. But you find it in the nonprofit world, too. And among nations. And among religious folk. Especially religious folk.

President Trump makes my dad look really good. Yes, my father was a hypocrite. Probably no worse than me or most others, but a hypocrite nonetheless.

However, he was a man who proclaimed moral principles. And who lived up to most of them, most of the time. He didn’t love me well, but he taught me well. And probably did the best he could do.

I could have done worse. Much worse. I could have been reared by people who proclaimed immoral principles. By people whose sins dwarfed the sin of hypocrisy.

I was fortunate.

I used to think there weren’t many things worse than hypocrisy. I suppose it’s just one of many things I thought I knew that proved to be untrue.

The Day the Heart of God Was Revealed

This is what follows Christmas. According to the Gospel story, Herod sought to kill the baby Jesus. He thought Jesus would be a threat to the empire — to the systems of power that underpinned the privilege and wealth of the few. So Herod ordered all newborn male babies to be slain. And the blood of the innocents flowed.

To avoid Herod’s threat, Joseph and Mary fled with the child to Egypt. It was the day Jesus became a refugee. (Interestingly, if they had tried to seek refuge in the U.S. today, they would have been turned away.)

But it’s more than a story about a refugee. Far more. At least to anyone who believes in a god — more specifically, in a god whose nature and purpose were revealed in the being and life of Jesus.

To such people, Jesus the refugee reveals much. He reveals the very heart of God. Continue reading

It’s So Much Easier to Love the Baby Than the Man

How can you not love a baby? They’re so innocent. So cuddly. So cute. I have no idea what the baby Jesus looked like; however, I bet he was easy to love.

But then he grew up. And he wasn’t nearly as lovable. At least to some people. Indeed, to them, he was principally a threat. And the way powerful people handle threats is you deal with them.

I suppose, then, the ultimate question about this baby is, Was he someone to love or fear?

We can’t have it both ways, although we try. But, really, we can’t. We can’t truly love someone we fear.

So, was he someone to love or fear? That’s the great Christmas question in my mind.

But, to be fair, I suppose there’s another option. We can simply ignore him. We can truly ignore him, or ignore him while pretending we’re not (by claiming we love him while marginalizing him).

It seems that’s where we are in my country today. Not everyone. But most of us.

If there was ever any doubt (and, to some of us, there wasn’t), it was answered by our decision to make Donald Trump our president.

Donald Trump is the antithesis of Jesus. They have nothing in common. I’ve read articles by people around the world wondering how American Christians can embrace Mr. Trump. I find such articles amusing, for, after all,the answer is as plain as the nose on his face.

American Christians can support Mr. Trump because most of them love other things more than Jesus. Which is fine. That’s not only their right, but it’s also quite understandable. What’s not fine, however, is trying to cast Mr. Trump as someone he isn’t. By doing that, all the Christians are doing (most notably the evangelical community and the so-called religious right) is undermining their own credibility (assuming they have any left).

Some of Mr. Trump’s die-hard Christian supporters try to justify their allegiance by conceding Mr. Trump is an “imperfect vessel” (their words, not mine). They also remind us, using a well worn cliché that is always employed in a highly selective, partisan manner, that “no one is perfect.”

But of course, no one is talking about perfection. What we have here is the antithesis of all the values and principles that underpinned the teachings and life of the one born in Bethlehem more than 2,000 years ago.

Mr. Trump himself is constantly reminding us how great and successful he is, and that he’s one of the winners. He points to his great wealth as proof. He also constantly reminds us he has no time for those whom he refers to as losers. He ridicules them. Defames them. Pokes fun at them. Holds them in utter contempt.

Can there be any doubt Mr. Trump would consider someone like Jesus to be a loser? I think not. Of course, Mr. Trump won’t admit it, because he’s smart enough to know it could cost him votes.

So American elects Donald Trump to be its leader and still celebrates the baby’s birth. Go figure.

Why do we do it? I suppose it’s because it makes us feel good. Why not try to have it both ways. Moreover, how can you not love a baby?

But the baby Jesus was like every other boy born that day who managed to survive childhood diseases: he grew up to be a man. Not just any man. But a man who saw the world differently than most. A man who thought the poor were blessed. Who thought love was more important than possessions. Who rejected the way of power and domination. Who thought the manner we treated and cared for each other mattered.

Jesus the man said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

It’s so much easier to love the baby than the man.

The Sound of Silence

Quite the testimonial that there appears to be a higher degree of moral outrage among corporate CEOs than religious “leaders.”

This is just one of many statements I’ve read the past week about what many see as the transition of moral leadership in America away from religion to corporate leaders.

I’m not so sure I buy it — the second part, that is. I certainly buy the first part: the churches are largely silent. But I question whether it’s moral leadership that’s coming from corporate America. Rather, I suspect it’s calculated HR strategy by and large.

There are exceptions, of course — instances where a few corporate leaders are primary voices of morality. But they’re the rare exception.

The churches, on the other hand, are either relatively silent, at least beyond their hallowed walls or, worse yet, voices that stand in opposition to justice. Indeed, the evangelical wing of the Christian Protestant tradition doesn’t even pretend. It’s been nearly entirely co-opted by secular ideology and has become more Right than Gospel.

They don’t concede that of course. But it’s obvious, at least to anyone with a modicum of objectivity left in their bones.

As for the remainder of the religious traditions in America, prophetic voices of justice and compassion are undoubtedly still raised here and there in local congregations and, to some extent, in local communities. But the voices are either too few or too timid to join together in a way that resounds through larger communities or on regional or national stages.

But perhaps things aren’t all that different from what they’ve always been. I recall in the ’60s that most religious folk were status quo kind of people. The ones who stood with Martin Luther King, Jr. were relatively few in number. In that era, the kids and relatively few allies of Dr. King were the dominant voices of morality.

It’s been over 1,700 years now since Emperor Constantine supposedly converted to Christianity and the faith became a legitimate part of the power structure. One could argue that’s when the Christian faith embraced power and privilege over morality and sacrifice. If you ever visit the Vatican, you will understand what I mean.

There have been exceptions along the way of course. Quite notable ones. But exceptions nonetheless.

I’m not sure the situation is all that different among the Jews in our country today. Indeed, some notable people of the Jewish tradition occupy positions of power within our national government. Apparently, the faith doesn’t impede their work or trouble them enough to break their silence.

Muslims understandably are loath to speak out in our society. Our government bans many from even traveling here, and our leader constantly fuels fear and hatred that intimidates. That’s not an excuse; it’s just the way it is.

One thing has been clear for me for a very long time: given the choice of following Caesar or some other patriarch who relies on instruments of war and death, or a poor, seemingly weak teacher/preacher or tradition that inhibits the acquisition of wealth and power, the kind of person our president would  call a “loser,” the vast majority of people choose the former, even if they pretend not to. And who can blame them?

That doesn’t mean the voice of morality is silent, of course. Indeed, courageous compassion and moral people — both religious and secular — can be found in any era. Yet sometimes their voices are few in number and hard to hear.

I speak not out of a sense of condemnation for I am no better than anyone else. And I fall well short of the example of many.

The point isn’t that people are bad or complicit (although perhaps some are). Rather, the point is this thing we call morality, justice and compassion is no easy thing at all.

Risking everything — indeed, risking anything — for the sake of a stranger requires compassion and courage beyond the capacity of most of us.

At certain points in history, someone rises from our midst to provide moral leadership — a person with extraordinary abilities and courage. But most of the time, there is no such person. Most of the time, we’re left to our own devices.

It’s folly to think that moral leadership will hail from the halls of corporate America. The dominant culture of business in America surrounds money. Some founders and leaders of business have broader concerns of course. Some promote equality and justice. To an extent. But these causes will never supersede their primary mission in any large-scale way. Their shareholders would replace them first.

Which leaves us with churches and congregations and people of faith traditions. And with individuals. It leaves us pretty much in the same position we’ve always been in.

It’s not a cause for despair or reason for elation in my opinion. It’s just the way it is.

Being an agent of justice in a world that pursues power and wealth — in a world that is governed more by the laws of the jungle than the laws of justice — is not an easy thing to be, Vera. In fact, it’s so hard and can be so costly that I wouldn’t push it on anyone. In any case, I suppose it’s not something that can be pushed on anyone. For it to be true and effective, it must come from within. It must come from a heart that is different from the norm.

People will argue whether there is an external force or power that produces such hearts, or whether they’re merely a product of happenstance. You can decide for yourself when the time is right.

In the meantime, I must focus on myself and my own actions and be less concerned with the words and actions of others. For my entire life I have tried to heed the voices of both accumulation and morality. It has almost torn me apart at times.

You notice I didn’t suggest the choice was between morality and immorality. That would suggest the wrong thing as we have defined immorality more narrowly and salaciously in our culture.

I also think concepts of morality are a bit misleading. In my way of thinking, it’s more an issue of compassion.

Compassion is much easier to exhibit in private or in small groups of like-minded people. On a grander scale, in the public forum, it’s a much different matter, for there it confronts other forces, ones that are weaponized and punitive.

Sometimes, the sound of silence can be deafening.

God Approves of Assassinations (So Says Christian Cleric)

Robert Jeffress, a pastor friend of our president, said,

“The Bible gives the president the moral authority to use whatever force necessary… to take out an evildoer like Kim Jong-un.”

“That gives the government … the authority to do whatever, whether it’s assassination, capital punishment or evil punishment to quell the actions of evildoers like Kim Jong Un.”

I’ve always found such positions to be strange for a community that professes to follow someone who was executed by the state.

I’ve also found it to be strange considering all the words attributed to their professed lord, Jesus of Nazareth — words, backed up by actions, that seemingly undercut many of their claims.

In any case, it seems like the world is full of people who know precisely what is acceptable to God and what isn’t. They come in all stripes of course, but mostly Christian and Muslim.

I wonder how so many people established such deep insights into the mind of a divine being. I’m impressed.

Or not.

It’s ridiculous, of course. I say “of course,” yet it’s anything but obvious to many.

That’s the world in which we live, Vera. It’s a dangerous place, full of many people who say things that seem crazy to the rest of us.

But what seems crazy to some is holy and true to others. Again, that’s the world in which we live.

We’ll try to hold it together for your generation, although I have to confess that, on certain days, the task seems taunting. Crazy seems to have gathered a lot of steam in recent years. For heaven’s sake, crazy even occupies our White House today, at least when it’s not playing golf or throwing business his family’s way.

I like to think that crazy won’t have the last word. I like to think that violence won’t have the last word. But thinking something doesn’t make it so.

We’re teetering on the brink of war as I write this post. As with most wars, the chicken hawks who most want it won’t be in harms way, or send their sons and daughters to die in it. That’s not how chicken hawks operate. At heart, they’re cowards. All talk. All bluster. Just follow the chicken-in-chief’s tweets and public statements if you want an example. Consider how he demeaned a courageous former prisoner of war (John McCain).

Humanity has created the means to destroy itself. We live our lives believing we’ll be able to keep the lid on our nuclear and biological weapons and preserve the Garden of Eden we are creating for ourselves. And perhaps we will. Perhaps not.

What are the odds that a mistake won’t eventually happen? Or that something won’t provide a justification for an escalation that then triggers a chain of events that quickly gets out of control?

History tells us that black swans will happen. It’s just a matter of time. The only question is, how bad will it be?

I don’t know. Neither does Robert Jeffress, for despite his claims, only a crazy would believe he has some special insight into the mind of a divine being.

So how are we to deal with such realities?

For starters, it makes rational sense for humanity to rid itself of weapons of mass destruction. It’s possible. It’s doable. All that’s necessary is the will. And leadership. Today, we have neither. But perhaps we’ll have both someday.

Second, it requires an ethos that concludes that humans killing humans is an act of barbarism. You’d like to think religious folk would lead the way here. But that’s a pipe dream. Religious folk, by and large, embrace violence. And killing. They say their god says it’s O.K. Actually, it’s not only O.K., it’s condoned. Perhaps even an obligation.

So others will have to provide the necessary moral and ethical leadership if our species is to survive. It’s possible, yet part of me believes it won’t materialize until we experience an horrendous event.

In the meantime, my mission is to keep you safe. And to embrace rationality over crazy. And to take Jesus at his word.

We’ll see how that plays out.

What Happens When We Die?

What happens when we die?

No one knows.

No one.

Some of us think we know. But we don’t. We have merely chosen to believe one answer or the other.

Sometimes we mistake belief for knowledge. Or truth. But the mistake doesn’t make it so.

Some of us are concerned about the answer to the question. Perhaps worried. Maybe even obsessed.

I’m not.

Moreover, I see no value in obsessing over the question. It’s an unanswerable question. I think time is better spent pondering the ones that potentially can be answered. And make a difference.

I recognize that some people think a lot rides on the answer to the question. Indeed, some people think what happens following death depends entirely on how they live their lives.

It’s a strange way of looking at things. The idea that a creator would put a life form on a planet and then decide what to do with that life form on the basis of how that life form performed against certain criteria over an incredibly short period of time, ranging from a few seconds to 100 revolutions of the planet around its sun, is too big a stretch for me.

That’s not to say it doesn’t matter, how we live our lives, that is. It could. But not necessarily. And, frankly, the evidence that it impacts an afterlife simply isn’t there.

But each of us gets to decide for ourself.

Quite a few us would like to decide for the others. This urge is a constant source of strife and, often, worse things.

That’s too bad. That’s the power of myths. People will do just about anything to live out a story. And it’s not unusual for them to spaz out when other don’t follow.

At this point in my life, I really don’t care what others think about such questions. Generally, they’re easy to ignore.

I know the difference between an answer and a belief. There is a place for both. So long as the distinction isn’t lost.

Some people can’t stand the thought that death could be the end. I’m not sure why. It simply would revert to the way it was pre-birth.

So what happens after death?

I don’t know. And I’m not going to waste any time thinking about it.