I think the fundamental morality is utter honesty with oneself about who one is. Thus, “Who am I,” isn’t merely a core philosophical question; it is also an acknowledgement of the standards by which I live–or try to. I am not only what I eat, but also what I do. I’m not talking about the magnets on my refrigerator or the bumper stickers on my car that reveal the person I long to be, the person I wish I were; I’m talking about the way I actually live. That more than anything else determines who I am, and I cannot be an authentic person until I own that reality. That reality reveals my moral standards.
My older son is someone whom I admire tremendously, which is also true of my younger son but in different ways from his big brother. Jarrett always seemed to know who he was and to embrace who he was with a level of comfort and pride. For example, from the time he was 16 until he was 18 and heading off to college, he seemed to know instinctively that he was the person in the world appointed by God or the Universe or the Karma Catchup Committee to make my life hell. He did it with ease, with dedication, with flair. I believe it became an art form for him, and he did it so well that he was widely admired by his friends for being able to make me so angry I couldn’t see straight, clearly desiring to fill the void and take over the role left when his mother moved out of our lives. He was astoundingly successful.
I have rarely felt more hopeful than I did the day he called me from Sarah Lawrence College in New York, asking me to get the train and come up for a good long talk and a nice dinner. Bronxville is about half an hour north of Manhattan on the commuter line that runs out of Grand Central Station. Brand new Silverside pastor that I was, I was on the train from Wilmington to New York the very next day.
The conversation was joyous, yet tearful, for me. He told me he loved me and that he didn’t know why he’d tried so hard to drive me crazy for those two plus years. “All that’s in the past now, Daddy,” he said. “I’m so sorry it happened, but it’s over.” Words I longed to hear, but had doubted for a long that I ever would.
Jarr gave me a big hug and kiss as he put me on the train home. I wept, and just before the train pulled out he said, “Oh, yeah. One more thing. I know you worry about some of my recreational activities, but I don’t use anything other than what grows naturally out of the good earth.” My mouth opened to say something; I have no idea what, but even if I’d been able to say it, the train was pulling away. He was waving and saying, “Thanks for coming, Dad. I love you. I’m so glad the air is clear now.” Had I been able to speak, he’d not have heard me, which I’m relatively sure, is what Jarrett intended.
He was 18 and a half back then, and he’ll soon be thirty. He didn’t pretend to be someone he wasn’t back then, and he hasn’t since. When he embraced his sexuality, he was equally as direct and matter of fact. I support him fully, and, again, I admire him tremendously. He is a person of integrity, and that is a key part to who he is. I would say that he knows who he is and that such integrity is the foundation of his morality.
His ring tone on my cell phone is a clip of a song from “La Cage aux Folles,” the original Broadway version, “I Am What I Am,” sung by memorable baritone, George Hearn.
“I am what I am;
I am my own special creation.
So come take a look,
Give me the hook or the ovation.
It’s my world that I want to take a little pride in,
My world, and it’s not a place I have to hide in.
Life’s not worth a damn,
‘Til you can say, ‘Hey world, I am what I am.’”
One of the reasons we become so angry or frustrated or flabbergasted at these big name celebrities–whether politician, preacher, performer or pro-golfer–when they are found out for some shocking faux pax is that they have pretended so hard, insisted so consistently that that is NOT who they are; yet that is exactly who they are. Maybe at moments, they wish they were their ideal selves and not their real selves. Thanks to teams of true journalists we get to find out who these women and men are who have their names and faces plastered all over the net, billboards, and four color publications.
Even so, someone else’s moral flaw or failure is none of my business. In a 1963 speech, Dr. King made these insightful comments, and we hear him in that speech not as a preacher or a civil rights leader, but as a brilliant person who earned a Ph.D. is social ethics:
“…while it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a person love me, but it can keep [her or] him from lynching me….”
Assuming that law enforcement personnel are taking responsibility for protecting each citizen and ensuring her or his safety, the only person’s morality about whom I need to be concerned as far as upkeep and adjustment are concerned is my own. Am I who I say I am? Do I live according to the pledges I’ve made to myself and not by the performance preferences that someone else has tried to force upon me? If I live only by what others expect of me, then there’s no possibility for me to have personal moral standards since I’ve taken myself out of the picture and given others control over how I will act.
As long as the candidate does in office what she or he promised to do on the campaign trail, I’d say her or his morality is in tact. The issue for outsiders is really the personal judgment of the one who has done something to embarrass self, family, nation; not her or his morality. Maybe she or he never set out to be faithful in a relationship, partnership, or marriage; maybe those were values superimposed on the person by outsiders who had a vision of how she or he should conduct personal life. I am only responsible for the moral principles I willingly embrace whether I speak them to anyone other than myself or not. I am not responsible for behaving the way others think I should behave, and, let me tell you, practically everyone in the western world even if they have nothing to do with clergypeople or with religious institutions still have a clearcut image of how a minister should behave–at church, at home, and even on an excursion to the moon.
I believe that as a clergyperson I should conduct myself in a respectable manner as often as I can; it should certainly be the norm. Chances are, though, my decorum isn’t always well decorated, and if my spouse should run outside in the middle of the night to bang the class out of my vehicle while screaming at me–therefore bringing the police and the press into the episode–chances are pretty good that I might not look so good in the news articles that are written up about the incident.
I should not be the town drunk. I should not have long hair–no wait! Strike that from the record. I should not be involved in an affair with someone who has made a monogamous commitment to another person. I should not be involved in any kind of intimate relationship with anyone associated in any way with my congregation just as a physician should not be involved in that manner with any of her or his patients; that kind of connection for me should be reserved for a Unitarian or maybe a Quaker. These are matters of morality for me (well, except for the Unitarian or Quaker thing), just for me; not necessarily for anyone else. I made these choices. No one made them for me. We must never forget that taste, style, manners, and preference are not matters of morality at all.
Some psychiatrist, who gave the impression of being psychotic, was on a tirade in a blog the other day in defense of Newt Gingrich after one of his ex-wives told the press that before asking for a divorce he had asked her to join him in making their marriage an “open relationship.” The point the psychiatrist was making (sounding very much like a paid political announcer) was that just because Newt had been unfaithful to two wives that we know of there is no proof that he would be unfaithful to the United States of America, and while I’d rather go to self-absorbed Dr. Phil for treatment than Newt’s psychiatrist friend, I agree fully with his central concern. More than a few exemplary presidents of this country have been, from what has been passed around through high class journalism, rotten as husbands and inept as parents. So, Newt, I wish you as much luck as I’m wishing anyone on either side at this point.
By the way, I’ve told some of you before that I hold the distinction of having served as pastor of the church with which Newt affiliated when he first re-embraced the Christian faith as an adult, St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans. Of course, this momentous event occurred long before I arrived in New Orleans and goes all the way back to the when he was a grad student at Tulane working on his Master’s and his Ph.D. He earned his doctorate in history and titled his dissertation “Belgian Education Policy in the Congo: 1945-1960.”
Though Dr. Gingrich had been raised as a Lutheran, he and many others found something new and freeing and refreshing in the preaching of my predecessor there, Dr. G. Avery Lee. Avery is now deceased, but as Newt became increasingly well known Avery, who remained a member of the church after his retirement and a brief reprieve to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, used to love to talk about Newt’s baptism by immersion, which he, Avery Lee, performed. Avery in his wry way, pipe in hand, would typically conclude a retelling of how Newt came to be baptized by saying, “I should have held him under a while longer!”
There are two major efforts chronicled in Judeo-Christian scripture to whittle the massive number of ancient Hebrew religious rules and laws down to a handleable few. The first of the two was the work of the Prophet Micah, and the second one was Jesus’ effort. We will not have time to deal with Jesus’ take on this issue today, but let me give you a tip as to both. They help us focus, but their reductions are deceptively simple. Micah reduces the law load down to three. Jesus reduces it down to two. Surely it’s easier to keep up with three or two than a couple of hundred. It depends on what works best for you, but not necessarily at all.
Here is Micah’s effort, and this is truly one of the most pivotal passages in the Bible, First and Second Testaments combined:
“‘With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before God with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’” God has made known to you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
I didn’t say the reduction of numbers of rules meant it would be easier; to the contrary, I gave you a huge hint that that would not be the case at all.
Be a just person; don’t just talk justice. Be just enough to DO justice. Don’t be a kind person because it seems proper or expected; be kind because you love opportunities to live out kindness that most likely can never be reciprocated. In terms of standing, sitting, or walking in the presence of God, forget about it. I learned by reading the work of Dr. John Holbert that the word translated “humbly” here is better translated “attentively.” If we are walking attentively with God, we are seeing more readily those who need our help experiencing justice and who need our acts of kindness to help them get by, maybe to help them survive. That’s all there is to it.
If only living in this manner were so easy, but it’s not; and accomplishing any of these can’t mean that we work for justice now and then, that we’ll certainly show some kindness here and there, that we’ll give up seeing ourselves as the center of the universe periodically. Micah was speaking of three lifestyle qualities. These are not descriptions of scattered behaviors; they are descriptions of how some people live hour by hour. They are true standards of morality to be embraced, worth being embraced–even though, I stress again, until you claim them as your personal standards of morality, they aren’t.
So Micah is all caught up with hoards of Hebrews who believe that the one and only way they can be in good with God is by keeping a backbreaking collection of rules that had nothing whatsoever to do with God. What to do and what not to do on the sabbath, and I assure you the Super Bowl was OFF the list! What to do with rebellious children who make it their life goal for time to drive their parents to distraction. Most significantly, which foods to place in a bowl with other foods. The perceptive prophet began to preach one day, and he began to make a little fun of the patterns he and his fellow Hebrews had fallen into regarding their religious lives–you know, the kind of humor with a point behind it.
Let me paraphrase if I can.
“So just how worried is God about our worship posture? Does God really have a preference as to whether we stand or sit or bow down before an altar that has been erected in honor of God? Do you really think that’s what God is noticing? OK. OK. So maybe God’s not concerned about our prayer position, but surely God IS concerned about what we bring as an appeasement offering. There are stories about our ancestors offering the wrong sacrifices and, thereby, irking God to the nth degree. Is God going to be tickled pink watching us slit throats and burn the blood of a barnyard full of year old calves, throwing their carcasses aside for trash? Is God going to be jumping for joy and sending us all kinds of gifts if we change animals and up the ante to, say, a thousand–a thousand rams. Wow! That should get protection for our families for years to come! Farmers, planters, who have no animals to sacrifice could get together all over the land and burn ten thousand rivers of oil and amaze God with their burning sacrifice that never seems to get extinguished. Oh wait! Do we really want to blow God’s mind? Let’s all keep the human sacrifice going by bringing our firstborn sons to sacrifice like we sacrifice our livestock. We’ll slit their throats and catch the blood in a basin to burn at God’s altar and then toss the corpses of the fruit of our bodies into mass graves. Tragically, my sisters and brothers,” he preached, “this is what it’s come to because we don’t want to be bothered with what really matters: justice and kindness in relationship to humanity and humility in relationship to God. We have come to a pathetic place, sisters and brothers, a seriously pathetic place when we’d rather kill our children than to work toward for those we don’t think deserve justice. We’d rather burn up the food supply for a few years than to show kindness to those whom we despise. We’d be fine walking attentively with God if God would just leave us alone in the religion department and let us do it the way we’ve devised it.”
God doesn’t give a holy rip whether we sit or recline in worship, and regardless of those old stories, God is not concerned with sacrifices we bring to worship no matter how grand we think they are. These are what God wants as sacrifices from us, which become strong standards of morality if we dare to make them our own. Doing justice means doing what justice requires, and that, most simply put, means bringing fairness to those who are being denied fairness. Is it right for some people to have enough animals to slaughter just to catch some blood in a basin and have everything left trashed while people are literally starving to death all around them? Uh, no.
According to Micah, God is much more pleased with meat eaters who instead of destroying a food source at the altar take some poor folks with whom they really don’t want to be associated a couple of roast beef sandwiches and make that their sacrifice. Instead of sitting around whining about what God might want us to do, we take the teachings we already have, and we get out there and demonstrate to those whom others have shown disdain the opposite: lovingkindness. That’s an emotion filled word, but it has plenty of action implied in it too. Lovingkindness isn’t patting a beggar on the head or smiling and saying, “God bless you,” to someone huddled with a cardboard box on a freezing cold night on the streets of a big city.” It is possible, you know, to look into a morality mirror and see absolutely nothing.
We cannot be attentive to God while being inattentive to people who are suffering and otherwise in need; even if we are politicians. If I have pledged to myself to live out a measure of my morality seeing about those in need, to say in the words of Phillip Landgrave, “I cannot see another’s need, and I not care,” then that must become a lifestyle pattern for me, not a seasonal ritual.
If you haven’t claimed that as one of your moral principles, then you’ve done absolutely nothing immoral when you feast while someone else starves right before your eyes. If, however, I have said that attending to such a concern is a part of the way I will live, it is therefore a part of the morality I profess to embrace; then I am living in an immoral manner when I glut up and let the hungry fend for themselves.
“Mirror, Mirror, on the wall, who’s the most moral of all?”
My dear friends, if morality matters to us at all–and I believe it does to everyone here and to everyone else in the Silverside family–then we would never be concerned about recognition and rewards for our moral standards press us to go where we must go.
We have found some gems of wisdom in A. C. Grayling’s A HUMANIST BIBLE, and though today is the last sermon in that series we will likely visit it again. In regard to what we’re thinking about together today, let me repeat the little snippet that you heard read earlier in the Gathering. This is a superior morality mirror: “Each day I examine myself on three counts: whether I am loyal to those on whose behalf I act; whether I am trustworthy towards my friends; whether I practice what I teach.”
How am I doing in the morality department today? If I have embraced these three items that the atheist Grayling lists, and I hope that I can and that you will if we haven’t already, how are we doing at living by a few significant moral standards?
The first issue to confront is loyalty. Have I been loyal today to everyone to whom I’ve pledged loyalty? My spouse or significant other, my kids, my aging parent who needs my time and attention but will never know how to ask for it, my siblings, my friends who have signaled a need for attention from me including the friend who is in prison, my parishioners who trust me to juggle what I juggle in such a way that I have time for them when they are suffering or burdened or afraid, my country who needs patriots much more concerned with the well-being of destitute citizens than with how the flag is flown, my pets who depend on me exclusively to see that they have food and water and medicine at the proper times.
Grayling’s second item is trustworthiness toward friends. If I have embraced that as part of my moral fabric I have to pause for a minute and be sure that I’m doing what I promised them I’d do for and with them, that I’m carefully guarding confidences shared with me as confidences, that I will share any burden they wish to share with me if I can help lighten their load.
To finish up my checkup in my morality mirror, I need to ask myself if I have included honesty as a principle of morality by which I’m willing to live, “Have you today practiced what you teach and preach?” That’s a tough one. Yet, the British biologist, Thomas Huxley, said: “The foundation of morality is to be done, once and for all, with lying.” This is precisely where we began today.
Notice that as you and I stand before a morality mirror, our concerns are exclusively with our own behavior, not with how anyone else may be succeeding or failing. This is a matter of self-focus. I can only know who I am by evaluating the principles to which I’ve committed AND the degree to which I am putting them into practice. Again, I am what I do.
A quote from Aristotle, the great rhetorician in ancient Greece who taught the credibility is the capstone of communication, will bring our deliberations to a close today:
“Moral virtues are produced in us neither by nature nor against nature. Nature, indeed, prepares in us the ground for their reception, but their complete formation is the product of habit….Moral excellence comes about as a result of habit. We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.”