Once again on Christmas I thought a little bit about Joseph, the husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus. During Jesus’ childhood, Joseph was no doubt considered his father by the people who knew the family, but two millennia of Christians have considered God to be the father of Jesus, which seems to mean that Joseph was Jesus’ stepfather.
Jesus and Mary get most of the attention at Christmas because of Christians’ belief in their direct semi-biological connections to God. I have always thought Joseph deserved more attention than he usually receives, since he was, after all, Jesus’ role model for a good human father, dispenser of encouragement, discipline, guidance, and perhaps even wisdom. Jesus apparently took up carpentry as a trade to follow in his human father’s footsteps.
Within the actual Christmas story, Joseph demonstrates courage, humility, and compassion, despite the fact that Mary is pregnant with a child who is not his own. No wonder the adult Jesus, the charismatic rabbi, was so impressed with the meek. While Jesus was still a small child, Joseph showed more courage and compassion in the family’s flight to Egypt, in an attempt to escape Herod’s decree to murder Jewish tykes like Jesus.
In Christian hymns and literature, Joseph is referred to as “Gentle Joseph.” In our current cultural and political environment, gentleness (not to mention meekness) is too often mocked as weakness, naivete, or impractical idealism. We seem to have lost appreciation for the notion of gentleness as a sign of civilized behavior, the capacity to live in peace among other civilized people, as opposed to barbarism. As the modern world dawned, people in the English-speaking world began to call aristocrats and civilized men “gentlemen,” and that meant something for a long time.
Mary’s mission to give birth to the Son of God was originally announced to her by an angel, but it’s clear to me that her legal husband Joseph was also driven and guided by what Abraham Lincoln many centuries later called “the better angels of our nature.” You don’t even have to be a Christian believer to find this story inspiring.
To paraphrase Mark Twain, reality tv is to actual reality as the lightning bug is to actual lightning.
To paraphrase that paraphrase, mere celebrity in our day and age is to real leadership as reality tv is to actual reality.
To paraphrase that second paraphrase, a reality tv audience is to the citizenry of a healthy democracy as a mere celebrity is to a real leader.
To echo my favorite scholars of leadership behavior in the modern world, the two defining dimensions of effective leadership are truth and love. The truth dimension is about reality and it includes the recognition that two plus two will always equal four and that collaboration is ultimately more productive than amoral cutthroat competition. The love dimension is about compassion and it starts with the recognition that we human beings are all – repeat all – in the same boat.
Our core values at Our Better Angels are courage, compassion, continuous learning, and community service. We fight strenuously against fear, anger, ignorance, and greed. We understand that meekness is not weakness and we realize that the meek have already inherited the earth, even if that news has not been announced on talk radio or Fox News.
We also believe that we are living in a raging cultural storm before the next era of stability and calm, and that we need effective, truthful, compassionate leaders to steer the boat we’re all in toward safe harbor. Finally, we believe that our four core values will only prevail if we remain committed to another contingent value: perseverance.
Before delivering big news to human beings, biblical angels always began their announcements with a call to courage: “fear not,” they always said. We should be thanking all the women speaking up about sexual harassment and predation. They are among the best examples of courage nowadays. #FearNot #MeToo #OurBetterAngels
As you walk along that journey of 1,000 miles, each step you take will be roughly two feet long. Thus the whole journey will take roughly 2,640,000 steps. If you take 26,400 steps and cover ten miles each weekday and take every weekend off, your journey will take 20 weeks. If you start on Groundhog Day and persevere in this schedule, you will reach your destination on June 21. You will go from the dead of winter to the first day of summer.
Along the way, of course, the scenery will change – not just every day, but every hour, and sometimes every few minutes. And a change of scenery can trigger a change of mind and a change of course, testing your commitment and your perseverance. Ascending a hill, you mostly see what’s at the top of the hill; as soon as you reach the top, however, you see for miles ahead what is over that hill. On the way up, you may be telling yourself that it’s been all uphill so far (i.e difficult), but will soon be all downhill (i.e. easy). The view from the top of the hill can be inspiring and challenging by opening our eyes to whole new vistas.
But not always. If we thought the Emerald City of Oz was on the other side of that hill but it turns out to be the Garbage Dump of Swampy County – well, what do we do then? The phrase “all downhill from here” takes on a whole new meaning. We talk a lot about being inspired and challenged to climb the hills we encounter in our lives, but we often avoid talking about the anticlimax of being “over the hill.”
Even if we find the new view just over the hill to be revolting or disgusting, we often keep on keeping on, driven not by commitment and perseverance but by confusion or faith in some misguided ideology. Or we may give up and head back down the hill we just climbed. If we’re smart, however, we will consult a reliable compass, cook up a course correction, and head for the hills on the left or the right. That may mean finding a whole new path or blazing a whole new trail.
Changing your mind and changing your course can mean pioneering. It can sometimes lead to changing the world. Don’t forget Saul of Tarsus changing his name to Paul on his way to Damascus in the first century. Don’t forget Honest Abe Lincoln changing his mind about containing slavery and announcing the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Don’t forget Don Christ changing career and becoming an entrepreneur in 1955. (Sorry about that last one: Don Christ was my Pop, whose career as a jazz musician ran out of gas when Elvis Presley popped up.)
This isn’t really a story, but if it were, the moral of the story might be that the scenery on the journey often changes our minds as we move forward, then left, then right, and sometimes backward, but ultimately usually forward again. We learn as we go, and we are able to keep going only if we are able to keep learning. Perseverance is good; stubbornness is not good. Flexibility is good; aimlessness is not good.
It often seems like life is just one hill after another. And if we’re traveling with other people, which we almost always are, that complicates the journey quite a bit. But that’s a moral for another story.
Our Better Angels is devoted to education and philanthropy. We aim to help young people understand the mission and functions of nonprofit organizations, charities, and Good Causes of all sorts in our global village. We also aim to help them develop their leadership skills and values in the service of nonprofits, charities, and Good Causes.
Thus we encourage young people and not-so-young people to support the schools and colleges in their own communities and around the world by joining the Better Angels Community, choosing their school or their alma mater as their designated Good Cause, and then inviting at least two other members to join the Better Angels Community. Meanwhile, OBA will support this process through its social media, You Tube clips, Speakers’ Circle, and other channels. And our perpetual reciprocal worldwide crowd-funding system will match the first-year dues of all new members. In other words, when our new Angels pay it forward, we pay them back.
The 2010 census and the US Chamber of Commerce note that the US includes 98,000 public schools, 1,400 four-year colleges, at least 50 million primary and secondary students, at least 100 million high-school graduates, and at least 50 million college graduates. There are also 4,300 universities around the world. Our Better Angels is an infant organization right now, but we want to reach out to all those schools, all those colleges, and all those potential Angels. If we can grow the Better Angels Community to just one percent of one percent of that total population by 2020, we will be off to a good start. If you join, you can help us help others help others.
And we have a theme song for all of this: Be True to Your School
At birth, we are all tiny, ignorant, and helpless. If we’re lucky, we grow, we learn, and we gain independence. If we are really lucky and work hard, we grow stronger, gain wisdom, and live long enough to make a difference in the world.
Universal human experience and piles of psychological research indicate that the unfolding of the life cycle from infancy through childhood, youth, adulthood, and old age typically involves passages through several stages. Abraham Maslow described the stages of human need, from survival to security to belonging to ego expression to integrity and meaning. Several students of moral development have traced the journey from total absorption with self to concern for immediate reference groups like family and tribe to universal empathy and compassion for all people, all animals, and the planetary natural environment. At Our Better Angels, we just call these stages Me, Us, and Everybody.
Our Better Angels tries to reflect those natural stages of human development and respond to the human needs for individual satisfaction, tribal-national welfare, and universal compassion. We do that by supporting, promoting, and celebrating good people, good works, and good causes of all sorts. We build bridges linking all our Good Causes in a global network of perpetual and reciprocal crowd funding.
Thanks to our affiliation with the Wisconsin Leadership Institute, Our Better Angels is also devoted to developing effective and ethical leadership skills and values for the long-term future. Thus we especially welcome young people who want to develop their skills and values while learning about the nature and functions of philanthropy in the global economy. We call them Herald Angels and we help them help us help others through social media, educational video, Speakers’ Circle presentations, and special events.
For generations, American historians and American citizens have agreed that our greatest presidential leader was Abraham Lincoln, aka “Honest Abe.”
George Washington is often considered first runner-up. In a fictional nineteenth-century children’s book, Washington, as a little boy, said “I cannot tell a lie.”
Milwaukee’s Near West Side Partners, a collaborative venture among seven neighborhoods of residential, business, health-care, and non-profit enterprises, has been named the Wisconsin Leadership Institute’s 2015-2016 “Collaborative Leader of the Year.”
(This blog post is adapted from a sermon delivered at the First Congregational Church of Ripon on September 4, 2016. The title is taken from Hebrews 13:2 – “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” You can also listen to the sermon itself here.)
Today’s scripture reading recognizes that we are often skittish about strangers. Don’t they look a little different? Isn’t their complexion a little odd? Don’t they dress a little funny? And what’s with those hairdos? Can’t they pronounce words correctly? Maybe they speak a whole different language – so how are we supposed to know what they’re really saying behind our backs? Or even right in front of us? Lots of people say they practice weird religious rituals.
OK, settle down. The verse from Hebrews doesn’t suggest any of that. It urges us to look beyond the strangeness of strangers. “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
In his 2000 widely influential study, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Robert Putnam studied social capital – resources that build and support positive social interactions within a community. He compared two kinds of social capital: bonding and bridging.
Bonding social capital is generated by Good Causes – schools, faith communities, service clubs, even bowling leagues – by attracting people who bond with each other and with the purposes of the organization. Such Good Causes, however, also build bridges to other Good Causes to sustain a ripple effect of good works among a wider and wider community of good people doing good things together.