Tag: character

Learning from George H.W. Bush

It’s easy to say we need more presidents or more politicians like George H.W. Bush. That lets the rest of us off the hook.

Joseph de Maistre famously said, “Every country has the government it deserves,” and, “In a democracy people get the leaders they deserve.”

We are not the same nation today as the one which nurtured Bush into maturity. This nation is always shifting and changing. It’s interesting that the U.S., in its 1992 incarnation, dumped this good and great man as president who had overseen the fall of the Soviet Union and led the nation to victory in a war to stop aggression — The Gulf War.

But here we are at now. We need a nation that nurtures and lifts up truly great leaders as it did with George H.W. Bush.

Whenever we learn of a person’s values, we should ask ourselves how they align with Jesus and the broader scriptural wisdom. So let’s try that with a few ideas attributed to Bush. His biographer, Jon Meacham, said Bush’s life code was “Tell the truth. Don’t blame people. Be strong. Do your best. Try hard. Forgive. Stay the course.”

Tell the truth. This is about as solid as it gets. It’s in the 10 Commandments — don’t bear false witness. Jesus said, “Let your yes be yes and your no be no.” In other words, you should be so trustworthy that a simple “yes” or “no” will do; you don’t need to swear on your mother’s grave or anything else when you are trustworthy.

Don’t blame people. The first thing that comes to mind is Genesis 3 when Adam blames Eve for his sin, and she blames the serpent for her’s. It didn’t work; God punished all three. Proverbs 28:13 says we are not to conceal our transgressions, and blaming others is a way people often seek to do that. One other thought occurs to me. Blaming others is really childish behavior; it’s immature. The Apostle Paul said, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways” 1 Corinthians 13:11, ESV).

Be strong. Paul’s words come quickly to mind. “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power” (Ephesians 6:10, NIV). To live a life of character, to live a life for God requires courage and strength. It’s throughout the Bible.

Do your best. Try hard. Colossians 3:23: “And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men” (NKJV).

Forgive. This is at the core of Christianity. The model prayer asks God to forgive me as I forgive those who wrong me. In other words, we need and want God’s forgiveness. We should be like God and be forgiving of those who wrong us.

Stay the course. This one is a little tricky. Staying the course is a good thing if you are following a good path; it’s the opposite of what we need to do when we are on a bad path. Hebrews 12:1-2 talks about the importance of following Jesus with perseverance. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross,scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (NIV).

Those are a few of the values that characterized the way George H.W. Bush lived. They are consistent with Scripture. Bush, however, was not perfect. Like the rest of us, he can be open for criticism.

As we think of the late president, we can see shortcomings in ourselves and seek to be better Americans. Better yet, we can look to Jesus and seek to be better followers of Him. As we follow Christ, chances are we will choose leaders who can someday be eulogized as was George H.W. Bush.

A version of this post originally appeared on the Texas Baptists website.

George C. Marshall & the importance of self-mastery

I wonder today how many Americans are familiar with the name and exploits of one of the greatest persons of the 20th century – George C. Marshall.

Marshall orchestrated one of the greatest military victories of history – World War II — and then shaped one of the greatest achievements of peace after the war with what came to be known as the Marshall Plan. In essence, Marshall led in the defeat of America’s enemies and then built them back into friends. Truly astonishing!

The New York Times columnist David Brooks highlights Marshall in one chapter of his book, The Road to Character. The chapter on Marshall is titled “Self-Mastery.”

Marshall did not start life well. In addition to being a poor student, he was “mischievous and troublesome,” Brooks writes. But after overhearing his brother tell their mother of his concern that the younger Marshall would “disgrace the family name,” the young man decided to take mastery of his life and seek to overcome his natural inclinations.

In the prewar Army, Marshall’s competence proved so obvious that commanding officers refused to promote him for fear of losing his services. When World War II began, competence became more important. Marshall became chief of staff in order to organize the war effort. Brooks writes:

“The quintessential Marshall moment came in the middle of the war. The Allies were planning Operation Overlord, the invasion of France, but still no overall commander had been selected. Marshall secretly craved the assignment and was widely accepted as the most qualified for it. This would be among the most ambitious military operations ever attempted, and whoever commanded it would be performing a great service to the cause and would go down in history as a result of it. The other Allied leaders, Churchill and Stalin, told Marshall that he would get the job. Eisenhower assumed Marshall would get the job. Roosevelt knew that if Marshall asked for the job, he would have to give it to him. He had earned it, and his stature was so high.

“But Roosevelt relied on Marshall to be nearby in Washington, whereas the Overlord commander would go to London. . . .

“FDR called Marshall into his office on December 6, 1943. Roosevelt beat around the bush for several awkward minutes, raising subjects of minor importance. Then he asked Marshall if he wanted the job. If Marshall had simply uttered the word ‘Yes,’ he presumably would have gotten the job. Still, Marshall refused to be drawn in. Marshall told Roosevelt to do what he thought best. Marshall insisted that his own private feelings should have no bearing on the decision. Again and again, he refused to express his preference one way or the other.

“FDR looked at him. ‘Well, I didn’t feel I could sleep at ease if you were out of Washington.’ There was a long silence. Roosevelt added, “Then it will be Eisenhower.’”

Today, we expect people of high competence to pursue great recognition, to almost demand it. Marshall did not. He had committed himself to service, and he stayed true to the commitment, even though he wanted more.

Eisenhower returned triumphantly to parades and celebrations, and the thankful people soon elected him president. Eisenhower was a man of greatness, as well, but Marshall probably had a greater impact on history, and he did it by holding his own desires and passions in check, much as did Eisenhower, who was prone to fits of anger, which does not match the public image of the man to this day.

We could use more self-mastery in this new day, but we Christians understand that true self-mastery comes only with God’s help as we listen God’s guidance in Scripture and yield to His Holy Spirit.

American culture has pretty much ignored the Christian teaching about humankind’s sinful nature. We are created in God’s image, but we, all of us, have this self-centered bent that causes others and ourselves harm. Many parents even encourage this self-centeredness, and our culture honors self-expression, even if that expression is vulgar and mean.

It might be hard for our culture today to produce a George Marshall, and if there are no George Marshalls for this new day, who will lead when humankind attempts to stem the flow of evil. If the U.S. cannot produce such persons of character, maybe some other country can – maybe Germany or Japan or Mexico or Brazil or South Africa or Israel. And in thinking in such ways, we begin to see how important the United States has been to the world and how critical it is that we return to nurturing character and doing so in a way that honors the biblical truth that we all are sinners, not angels.

(This post originally appeared on the Texas Baptists website.)

Starting the year with character

This new year is off to a very fine start. The sun is shining brightly in East Texas. I’m reading a very interesting book. And football will come into the mix when the Baylor Bears play in the Fiesta Bowl.

James Wm. McClendon, Jr.
James Wm. McClendon, Jr.

The book is Biography as Theology: How Life Stories Can Remake Today’s Theology, written by James Wm. McClendon, Jr., and published by Abingdon in 1974. McClendon, now deceased, highlighted the importance of character in the shaping of one’s life. After so much talk about how to make ethical decisions, McClendon said simple formulas could not tell the entire tale.

Without getting too deep in the weeds, I want to share some highlights from McClendon’s words first chapter about character and the convictions that form it.

Character can be good or bad, but having good character is “one precondition of making responsible choices.” (30)

“To have character . . .  is to enter at a new level the realm of morality, the level at which one’s person . . . is intimately involved in one’s deeds. By being the persons we are, we are able to do what we do, and conversely, by those very deeds we form or re-form our own characters. . . . Thus, character is paradoxically both the cause and consequence of what we do.

“It is most important here to recognize that character, though by definition deep-seated, is not necessarily rigid or unchangeable. A man’s character is formed by the way he sees things, by his vision, we say. It is shaped by the way he does things, by his style. It is coincident with his deepest and most dearly held beliefs, his convictions.” (30-31)

We must forgive McClendon the lack of gender-inclusive language because of the time of the book’s publishing, for this surely applies to all people.

He then makes an insightful point by saying an ethic based on character is “suited” to both education and evangelism. These activities are “desirable” because “character need never be permanently fixed,” and, therefore, education and evangelism are “possible.” (32)

In other words, since character always is capable of being improved or developed then education and evangelism can indeed make a difference in lives. This is one place where the Baptist in McClendon comes out.

But he is the best kind of Baptist (or baptist, as he liked to say) because he sees beyond the individual. Character ethics does not “foster a whimsical and privatistic approach to morality.” He actually prefers to call his approach “ethics of character-in-community.” (32) Communities impact individuals, and individuals impact their communities.

Convictions are “integral to character,” McClendon said. He defines convictions as “those tenacious beliefs which when held give definiteness to the character of a person or of a community, so that if they were surrendered, the person or community would be significantly changed. . . . [W]hen we find our convictions, we find the best clue to ourselves.” (34)

I love that last sentence. The Baby Boomer generation, of which I am a part, was constantly saying we wanted to find ourselves at about the same time McClendon was writing these words. It always seemed a bit shallow and stupid to me; maybe it’s because I held to the convictions I had been taught–Christian ones–while many of those in my generation had either rejected theirs or didn’t find ones they deemed appropriate to their individual and community reality.

“Now it must be that an ethics of character will be concerned with convictions, for to have convictions is to have at least that much character. . . . For as men are convinced so they will live. And similarly with convinced communities.” (35)

Bringing virtue and piety into the public square

Nancy S. Taylor

Now may be the time to revive a tradition from the early days of the New England colonies — the “election sermon.”

“The annual election sermon was a Puritan phenomenon that lasted for well over two hundred years, from 1634 through 1884,” writes Nancy S. Taylor in the Fall issue of Yale Divinity School’s Reflections journal. It came after an election and provided an opportunity for elected officials to hear a word from the minister.

On May 30, 1694, Samuel Willard mounted his Boston church pulpit to address the region’s recently elected rulers: “His Excellency the Governor, and the Honorable Counselors, and Assembly of the Representatives of the Province of Massachusetts Bay in New England,” all of whom are sitting in the pews that day, Taylor says.

Willard’s sermon was called “The Character of a Good Ruler.” This sermon had particular significance because it came in the wake of the Salem witch trials of the two previous years. Willard had successfully stood in defense of some members of his church who had been accused. Taylor writes:

“Now, a year later, Mr. Willard preaches the election sermon to the region’s freshly elected magistrates, reminding them that ‘the Weal or Woe of a People mainly depends on the qualifications of those Rulers, by whom we are Governed …’ Surely the Witch Trials are a raw wound to these would-be rulers and Mr. Willard’s words salt. As a pastor it is the weal or woe of the people that matters to him. Will the colonists’ wants and needs be heard? Can they entrust their safety to these leaders? Or will they again be subjected to the foolishness and agony of such tyrannical injustice as blighted the years 1692- 93, leaving thirty-two dead from state execution and almost no New England town or family unscathed?”

With the injustices of the witch trials fresh in everyone’s minds, Willard “insists that civil rulers should be just men. It is not adequate that they understand the law. Surely the justices who presided over the executions in 1692-93 understood the law. That is not nearly enough. They must themselves be just.”

“Ignorance,” Mr. Willard declares, “is a Foundation for Error, and will likely produce it.” Injustice will beget injustice and ignorance will beget yet more ignorance. Those invested with the privilege and responsibility of ruling their fellow human beings “must be above Flattery and Bribery, must hate Ambition and Covetousness,” for “if these Rule him, he will never be a just Ruler.”

Finally, Willard said a ruler “must be one who prefers the public Benefit above all private and separate Interests.”

In today’s American political environment, many politicians seem more driven by ambition and covetousness than by desire for the public benefit. I use “many” and not “all” intentionally.

I wish there was a way for us to choose our public officials without allowing them to campaign for office themselves. It is impossible, I know, but it surely would be nice if we could decide who the most capable leader is and pursue him or her, rather than having ego-driven men and women decide they are the best and pursuing us. Of course, we did have that in George Washington. The first, I believe, was the best.

It does us little good, however, to indulge in wishful thinking, except to the extent that it reminds us that ambition and covetousness should not be the primary qualifications for our leaders. Ambition, of course, doesn’t have to be bad. For instance, ambition to pursue the benefit of all is a much higher aspiration than ambition to pursue the benefit of self and one’s friends.

As Willard said, “A People are not made for Rulers, But Rulers for a People, and just as there is a great Trust devolved on them, so is there an answerable Reckoning which they must be called unto. …”

Taylor, now senior minister of Old South Church in Boston where Willard once preached, also offered a warning to today’s pastors who desire to preach an election sermon. “[R]eligious leaders have no business holding our political leaders to moral account or challenging their characters if we have not attended to our own characters and our own moral fortitude. We, too, must be just.”

Samuel Adams came along almost 100 years after Willard and was a member of Old South Church, as well. Adams maintained “democracy depends on a common commitment to key principles,” Taylor writes.

“He conceived of these principles as an interconnected triad of virtue, piety, and love of liberty (not only one’s own liberty, but everyone’s liberty as a God-given, “unalienable right”). By contrast, when democracy is reduced to liberty alone – liberty unhinged from the rigorous disciplines and high principles of virtue and piety – everything gets off-kilter. Today’s politicians routinely give tremendous attention to liberties and liberty, but when was the last time you heard a politician wax passionate on virtue or piety? Perhaps that is where we come in – ensuring a healthy balance to that symbiotic relationship between political and spiritual leadership, each challenging and inspiring the other, each embracing responsibility for the greater good, each serving different functions in a greater whole.”

As we speak about virtue and piety, let’s be careful that we do not make the error of thinking this or that political party has the corner on the virtue and piety market. Neither does. If we let Christ speak through us into this day’s challenges, then we will be doing both His Kingdom and our nation a great service.
This is the third post related to the the current issue of Reflections.

Character, strength and maturity

“In a word, modern civilization demands character marked by a high degree of strength and maturity in those who would survive it.”

That was written 60 years ago by Lewis Joseph Sherrill (The Struggle of the Soul, p. 1), but it’s still true.

He continues with a tough diagnosis of the civilization. Remember, this was written in 1951, six years after the end of World War II and before the start of the now-storied, God-and-family 1950s.

“And yet, on the other hand, modern society is producing, in vast numbers, persons who are rendered deficient because they cannot achieve precisely that kind of strength and maturity which our civilization demands. Instead, while the civilization is requiring one thing in the character of men, the society out of which that civilization has arisen tends to produce the very opposite in the character of men.

“Moreover, this disparity between the demands upon human character and the sufficiency of human character, seems to be growing steadily as we advance further into our century.” (p. 1)

Sherrill said Americans at the beginning of the 1950s lived “in a time of trouble,” that they were “harassed by uncertainty, heartbreak and despair.” (p. 2)

But the author could see a new possibility.

“In this time of trouble many, to whom religion has been outside the bounds of personal experience, have sought to find reasonable grounds for hope, only to discover, sometimes to their frank surprise, that their quest has brought them face to face with a Reality which they recognize as God, but a God with whom they do not know how to deal. Others are discovering that religion, as they know it , is not sufficient for the new demands which life is placing upon them. Still others, already at home in the religious life, are finding in religion greater resources than they have ever known before, and are drawing more deeply upon these resources in their day of need. When all such facts are put together and carefully examined, there is much to justify those who say that we are in a time of turning to God.

“But man’s turning to God may prove to be only one side of something whose other side has an even greater significance. Is it possible that God is now confronting man, in this modern world, with deeper demand and with more hopeful promise than any of us has been able as yet to apprehend? Here again there is much to lead one to believe that this may be so.” (p. 2)

Today, we live in a new time of trouble, often harassed by uncertainty, heartbreak, and despair. Could it be that we stand at the cusp of an opportunity for renewed vigor in regard to the things of God–loving God and loving others as ourselves? And could it be, as in 1951, this represents a reaching for connection both by men and women and by God?

May we all grow in character, strength and maturity today. And may we pray that a new day of God and family may be upon us.