Howard Thurman’s Christmas

I’m struggling to find The Mood of Christmas that Howard Thurman (1899-1981), the prominent African American author, theologian, educator, and civil rights leader, wrote about in 1973.   

The election turmoil with its uncertain aftermath makes it difficult to focus on first things – family, hope, joy, music, giving.

I’ve quit watching TV news and only scan a few newspapers.

I need something more than Santa Claus music accompanying me while shopping for the right gifts for family members and friends.

And so I’ve returned to Howard Thurman’s The Mood of Christmas, written in another difficult time, including the poem now set to music —

I Will Light Candles this Christmas

I will light Candles this Christmas,
Candles of joy despite all the sadness,
Candles of hope where despair keeps watch,
Candles of courage for fears ever present,
Candles of peace for tempest-tossed days,
Candles of grace to ease heavy burdens,
Candles of love to inspire all my living,
Candles that will burn all year long.

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations
To bring peace among others,

Who knows what the future will bring?   Whatever it is for me I’m more concerned for my children and grandchildren.   I hope they too will find the timeless truth in these lines.

1973, the year Thurman wrote The Mood of Christmas was a difficult time as well.   I remember those days getting caught up on a cold rainy day in the anti-war demonstrations at Nixon’s second inauguration with the Watergate scandal about to erupt.

It was the year that changed the course of my life as I joined an effort to address the poverty crisis in a Washington, DC neighborhood scarred by the burned-out remains from the 1968 riots.

I’m not sure when I discovered Howard Thurman.

It may have been when I learned that Martin Luther King, Jr., carried with him a copy of Thurman’s most recognized book – Jesus and the Disinherited.   Or maybe when I first listened to his remarkable meditation on Psalm 139 near the end of his interview with Landrum Bolling – now on YouTube.

In mid-life he became a mentor I never met.   A candle in life when “darkness seems to hide His face.”


Posted in Leadership, Reviews, Serving | 5 Comments

Election Fears and Hopes

Two days after the election I joined with a group of friends, men and women, in Washington, D.C., to discuss our fears and hopes.  We were more interested in listening to one another than arguing about the uncertain future.  And we weren’t about to let political differences divide and destroy long-term relationships.   Friendship and family are too important for that.

I knew the people in the room well enough to know that we share a few common commitments that we hope will guide President-elect Trump as well.   Among them:


Shaped by ethical core values

Servant Leadership

Authority used for the collective good


Particularly for women, and all those who may differ from us


To disagree agreeably


Empathy for the poor and strangers among us


As fairness, the Golden Rule among nations and individuals


Where the majority protects the rights of minorities

Is this too much to hope for?

Will they be found in the leaders we choose to follow?

We’ll meet again in six months to see how it’s going.

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Intelligent Disobedience – Learning From Guide Dogs


In Ira Chaleff’s 2015 book Intelligent Disobedience: Doing Right When What You’re Told To Do Is Wrong, ‘intelligent disobedience’ in guide dogs is a metaphor for an important but often overlooked behavior pattern for humans.

A guide dog trainer told him that –

Most of the time it’s really important that the dog obeys human instructions. But imagessometimes it would be dangerous to do so; for example, when a man with limited sight gave command to step off a curb just as a quiet hybrid car was turning into the
street.   The dog must know not to obey a command that will put the team—human and dog—in danger.   Learning not to obey is a higher order of skill.

I was reminded of this recently listening to a young Marine officer recount how during an operation in Iraq he refused to follow an order, sure that if implemented it would lead to loss of life in his platoon.   Fortunately his senior officer commended him for his disobedience.   Both the junior and senior officers acted responsibly—the junior officer for his “intelligent disobedience” and the senior officer for recognizing that there are circumstances when obedience is wrong.

That experience is the heart of Chaleff’s book, a sequel to his earlier work, The Courageous Follower: Standing Up To And For Our Leaders.

He contends that our default response to authority is nearly always obedience, even when obedience is dangerous if not wrong.   We learn it early at home from our parents. It is reinforced in school.

Throughout our adult lives unquestioned obedience to authority becomes a cultural norm whatever the setting, blinding us to the destructive and immoral use of authority and immobilizing us even when we recognize that what we are told to do is wrong.   Seldom if ever are we taught when it is necessary to disobey authority.

Chaleff thought that if dogs can be trained for “intelligent disobedience” what about humans.   He argues that is just as important for us to know when and learn how to defy authority, as it is to obey.

Children, for instance, need to know when to refuse to go along with inappropriate contact with adults that could lead to sexual abuse.   He contends that parents and teachers need to teach and role-play “intelligent disobedience.”

The recent scandals at VW and Wells Fargo could have been prevented if lower level employees would have refused to go along with executive directives to engage in what they had to know was illegal and potentially criminal.   They probably thought they had to go along to keep their jobs.   But many of these employees eventually lost their jobs anyway.   The companies have experienced extensive losses while the executives have yet to be held responsible.

In the Nuremberg Trials after World War II, following orders was not an allowable defense for war crimes.   Likewise in any area of life we are always responsible for our actions regardless of the authorities.

Chaleff contends that leaders as well as followers need to learn ‘intelligent disobedience.’ Good leaders will tell followers not to obey when obedience would undermine the core values of the organization or violate their own morals.   A blind person expects the guide dog to refuse an order that would lead them both into harm’s way.   It takes a lot of training for guide dogs to learn that.

Good leaders know that they are not always right however well intentioned.   So they will commend followers for doing the right thing even if it is contrary to direction.

The problem is that ‘intelligent disobedience’ can be risky.   The employees at VW and Wells Fargo were understandably right to fear losing their jobs if they refused to go along.   ‘Whistle Blowers’ are more often than not denigrated rather than rewarded—thus recent laws to protect them.

Just as the marine junior officer risked his command and rank to save lives, so we all, leaders and followers alike, depend on the moral courage not to obey when to follow authority would damage if not destroy our personal and collective good.

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Living and Leading in a Tribal Way

We live in a country ‘at war with itself’ writes war correspondent Sebastian Junger in  Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging.Unknown

The battle lines are everywhere—political gridlock and the most divisive presidential campaign in modern times, the widening wealth gap, worsening race relations, irresolvable conflicts over LGBT rights and same-sex marriage, to name a few.

The alarming increase of PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder) among vets returning from Iraq and Afghanistan is for Junger the most disturbing symptom of our cultural conflicts.   Some of the PTSD increase is among vets who were never in combat. The reason, he writes, is not the trauma of battle but the difficulty of returning home where there is very little camaraderie.

PTSD, according to studies he cites, is not necessarily caused by war, but the lack of belonging when they leave the military.   In combat platoons close-knit groups of soldiers are always together looking out for one another, willing to put themselves in harm’s way and even die for one another if necessary.

It’s when the vets return home feeling alone, with few job opportunities and not much to live for that the trauma begins.

‘Humans don’t mind hardship,’ he writes, ‘in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary.   Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.’  

While tribalism is often used to describe people who—like gang members, are more loyal to their own closed group than their neighbors, friends or even family.

For Junger, a tribe is an open family, a safe place of belonging.

To act in a ‘tribal way’, he says, ‘simply means being willing to make a substantive sacrifice for your community—be that your neighborhood, your workplace, or your entire country.’

The ultimate test of tribe he suggests is – ‘who are you willing to die for?’ –something he knows that seldom if ever most of us will be forced to consider.   Short of that however, Junger describes a tribal community in any setting as –

‘a group of people you would help feed and help defend’

Not all families are tribes in this sense, but they can be and many are.   And not all churches are communities of hope, but they too can be and many are.   The workplace is seldom a tribal community.   The Wall Street Journal reports that less than half of people are satisfied with their jobs.   Does it have to be that way?

What role or responsibility do leaders have to lead in a ‘tribal way’ so that they and their followers defer self-interest for the collective good?

Near the end of the book Yunger tells of a business man who gave up his salary rather than lay off workers when his company experienced a money-losing year.   The man, he writes, “felt that true leadership—the kind that lives depend on—may require powerful people to put themselves last.”

Junger’s point is that whether alone or in a crowd, all of us need healthy tribal relationships.   Without it anyone may spiral down into trauma.

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‘The Poor Who Love Trump’

If you don’t have time to read the Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and51G93vyEl5L._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_ Culture in Crisis, I recommend Jennifer Senior’s NY Times review of J. D. Vance’s new bestseller – A Compassionate Analysis of the Poor Who Love Trump.’   I’m not sure what she means by that other than Trump draws support from people like Vance describes – hillbillies who have given in to their misfortune and given up on themselves.

In his ‘elegy’ or lament Vance attributes much of Appalachian or ‘hillbilly/white trash/redneck’ poverty on what psychologist Martin Seligman calls ‘learned helplessness’ – a ‘fatalistic belief, born of too much adversity, that nothing can be done to change your lot.’

It’s his own story growing up in a dysfunctional family network in Middleton, Ohio populated by Kentucky immigrants. However, his observations apply to urban
poverty as well.

It seems to me that in impoverished neighborhoods, whether rural or urban, three things are at work:

  • bad luck – being born into poverty
  • bad structures – sometimes the government hurts as much as it helps, and,
  • bad decisions – perpetuating what Oscar Lewis called the ‘culture of poverty’

Vance escaped the despair of those he left behind with the help of grandparents, four years in the Marines and on to Ohio State and Yale law school.   I know several leaders who, like Vance, have an affection for their hillbilly roots even while recognizing with Vance that the culture ‘increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.’

Looking back he wonders – ‘how much should he hold his hillbilly kin responsible for their own misfortune?’   The answer is ‘a lot.’

 Those who serve with compassion and justice ministries know that it is always about intervening to help people overwhelmed with bad luck, bad structures and bad decisions.     It is never about blaming the victims or separating the deserving from the undeserving poor.

Senior’s review acknowledges that ‘Mr. Vance doesn’t have all the answers.  But he’s advancing the discussion.’   I agree.   What think ye?

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“Can We All Just Get Along?” — Rodney King

a684b0359f54d73307ffb3488c1363a369 percent of Americans say that race relations are bad and getting worse according to a New York Times/CBS News poll taken immediately after the killing of five Dallas police officers.   The headline read, we “Hold a Grim View of Race Relations.”

As reported this is the highest level of discord since the 1992 Los Angeles riots following the acquittal of the officers who beat Rodney King. Later King pled for peace with his famous question, ‘Can We All Just Get Along?’

Poor race relations are one of the dominant big-picture issues of the day.   At work, in stores, at school, in public places, even in churches there is a growing uneasiness.   Across the racial divide we eye one another and wonder.

One of my black friends told me he is hearing things that he thought were long buried, things he thought he would never hear again in America. Deteriorating race relations encourage some people to voice their hostility, even to act out on their otherwise unspoken prejudices.

Following the poll I talked about it with several of my friends both black and white.   I even had a conversation with my 14 year-old grandson Luke – who told me how he came to the defense of one his black friends when he was called the “N” word. He added that his black friend defended him when someone called him a ‘cracker.’ He said, “I can’t stand racists.” Good for you Luke, stand up for what you believe!

I suspect that as I have found in my own limited inquiry, race relations between those who have nurtured friendships over the years are not suddenly threatened by public hostility.   The problem is that too few have nurtured such relationships.

Rodney King knew that rioting wasn’t the answer.   Getting along was. In asking the question he hoped the public outcry against his mistreatment would lead to better, not worse, race relations.

Mark Twain said, “When you need a friend it’s too late to make one.” Building interracial friendships is not a quick fix. It will take much more to reverse centuries of entrenched prejudice and injustice, yet without it race relations are unlikely to improve.

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We Must Not Be Enemies

“We must not be enemies” – from President Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address

Following last week’s horrific violence it seems that we are like a ship without a rudder.   There is no national consensus about what to think or to do about guns, the police and race relations.

  • Some want to believe that the sniper in Dallas, the lone-wolf killer in Orlando and a few rogue cops shooting unarmed black citizens are anecdotal and thus ignore or deny the fault lines that divide and threaten all of us.
  • Others would use the tragedies of the past week to support their own convictions as well as prejudices and ideologies: for and against the police, blacks vs. whites, nativism vs. immigrants, straight vs. LGBT, gun rights vs. gun control, for and against Black Lives Matter.
  • In this political season some candidates and their supporters would exploit suffering and grief to advance their own partisan advantage.

Here are some of the things life has taught me about – Guns, Police and Race Relations

 About Guns

I learned something last week about guns in America: that most households do not have guns – less than half, perhaps fewer than a third.   The trend is downward.   As in the headline in a Washington Post article: “America has more guns in fewer hands than ever before.”   Gun sales are increasing because the few who have guns are buying more.

The growing majority of us who choose not to own guns are not necessarily trying to prevent others from the right to bear arms.  However, most Americans with or without guns want a discussion and direction on who should and should not have guns and what kind of guns should and should not be legal.  Gun rights and gun control issues do not need to be in conflict.

About the Police

Like most law-abiding citizens I have never felt threatened by the police.   The few times I’ve been stopped for traffic violations I have always been treated with respect, even protected by the police officers.   I thought that was normal, unrelated to my white skin until I began serving in an impoverished black neighborhood in Washington, D.C.   The police there were viewed by some as an occupation force in a war zone.

One of my first activities was to convene meetings between police officers and community leaders to achieve what is now called ‘community policing.’   We learned together that the neighborhood needed and wanted the police to keep the peace and the police needed and wanted community support to do their work.  It worked!

About Race Relations

In the mid-‘90’s I organized the Institute for Racial Reconciliation to convene discussions between blacks and whites.   I learned that in spite of our differences, and there were and are many, we are more alike than different.  When we took the time to listen deeply to one another most of the time we could find mutually agreeable solutions to long-standing divisions.   The problem is that there are too few times and places where black and white people meet to have candid conversations.

I learned that racial reconciliation will not happen without racial justice.   Displays of racial harmony and claims of interracial friendships are superficial without working together for justice and fairness.

Where do we go from here?

In spite of our national divisions I hold to the truth from President Lincoln’s First Inaugural address to a divided nation on the eve of the Civil War:

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.”

Though we will not always agree with one another, the vast majority of us want to live together free from fear – as friends, not enemies.   We are urged in Scripture to pray for those in authority that we might “lead a quiet and peaceable life.” We want leaders who will help us find our way there.

As Lincoln expressed it in that address, we live in hope that eventually we will be touched by the ‘better angels of our nature.



Posted in Leadership, Trends | 5 Comments

Doing Small Things With Great Love

In response to my last blog – “The Inner Life of Leaders,” Gary Morsch posted this comment:

Your post reminds me of a quote from Mother Teresa: “We’re not called to success, but to faithfulness.” Mother Teresa will be canonized on September 4th at a mass in Rome, and, just a few days ago, I received an invitation from the Mother House in Kolkata to attend the ceremonies in Rome.

Dr. Morsch is a family practice physician, founder and board chairman of Heart to Heart International, an organization responding to global disasters with medical supplies and personnel.

Gary_&_Mother_TeresaAs a young doctor he volunteered to serve with Mother Teresa in Calcutta.   Recently I heard him tell the story of his first assignment there.   He had gone expecting to provide medical care to the dying welcomed by the Missionaries of Charity.   Upon his arrival Mother Teresa met him and after he introduced himself as a medical doctor she gave him a note to take to one of the sisters who would direct him to his assignment.

He was sent to the “House of the Dying” but not for the job he had expected. To his surprise Mother Teresa gave directions for him to haul a large pile of garbage to the city dump. He was given two five-gallon buckets and a shovel. He wondered why he was not treating patients, even angry that they were not being good stewards of his abilities.

As he was leaving at the end of that first day he noticed a quote from Mother Teresa painted on a wall:

“We can do no great things, only small thing with great love.”  

Garbage duty was her way of teaching him something essential about leading and serving.  It was then, as I heard Dr. Morsch tell it, when he realized that serving others was not about the great things he was going to do but the spirit with which he served – how much love he put into the doing.   It was a lesson she thought he needed to learn if he was to serve well.

Gary has gone on to set an example of doing small things with great love guiding thousands of volunteers and staff at Heart to Heart.

He will be in Rome in September when Mother Teresa is canonized as a Saint, a faithful servant who spent her life doing small things with great love, helping thousands of Calcutta’s disinherited die with dignity.

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The Inner Life Of Leaders

Parker Palmer’s Center for Courage & Renewal is offering a 6-month program to ‘explore the inner life of leadership.’

I have learned that in their reflective moments good leaders are more interested in their inner life or self-awareness than how to advance to the next level of position and authority.

Since leadership success is often measured by rising to the top, many, if not most leaders live with what Thoreau called ‘quiet desperation,’ never quite accomplishing or measuring up to their aspirations and expectations.

Palmer says that if ‘we want to take on big tasks we need another standard to measure our actions.’

He believes that ‘faithfulness’ is that standard.   It is more that just showing up, although there is something to be said for that.   In his brief 5-minute video he defines faithfulness as being true to one’s inner self, as in the questions:

  • Am I faithful to the gifts I possess – the strengths and abilities that I bring to the world? 
  • Am I faithful to the needs I see around me?
  • Am I faithful to those points where I intersect with the needs of the world and have a chance to serve?
  • Do I enter that opportunity or do I shy away or run away for fear that I won’t be able to serve well, or be stretched beyond my ability?

These questions point to a pathway for rewarding leadership whatever the context or outcomes.   And they suggest a profile for the leaders we choose to follow.

Palmer predicts that ‘on the day that I die,’ I will not be asking myself how effective I was, did my books sell well enough, did I make enough money, etc. Each of must fill in the blank for our own situation in life and the standards by which we judge ourselves and/or are judged by others?

Rather, ‘I think I will asking,’ he reflects, ‘was I faithful to the opportunity I had to be on earth for 70 plus years? Was I engaged as I knew how to be with my life, with the needs around me?.’

The key question for leaders then is – what’s on the inside?

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On Leaving Our Comfort Zones

During my first pastoral assignment at a rural church in Eastern Washington State we lived near a stop for freight trains.   Transients riding the rails would occasionally hop off trains, walk across the road to our house, knock on our door and ask for water and something to eat.   We would invite them to sit near the door and bring them a meal.   Our 4 year-old daughter delighted in eating and talking with them until they left to hop on another train.

I think of that often as I wonder about solutions to hunger and food scarcity in the midst of abundance.   Most people I know are generous and compassionate and would always feed a hungry person at their door.   But we don’t respond with the same urgency when human suffering is distant.

I recently drove through a busy intersection, past a dad, mom and three children huddled at the curb holding a sign asking for food.   I still don’t feel good about continuing on my way.   It was the children.   Should I have turned around and stopped to inquire and offer to help?   I don’t know.

That’s about as near many as of us come to any contact with destitute people. Most of us who care are comfortably distant from people in need.   We know about hunger and poverty yet we are not close long enough to get involved.

In his recent lament over Donald Trump’s popularity, New York Times columnist David Brooks confessed that he has been too distant from working class and poor people to understand and feel the pain and fury welling up in American society fueling the politics of resentment.

I’ve slipped into a bad pattern, spending large chunks of my life in the bourgeois strata — in professional circles with people with similar status and demographics to my own.

 However difficult, he intends to change that.

 It takes an act of will to rip yourself out of that and go where you feel least comfortable. But this column is going to try to do that over the next months and years.

 He invites us to join with him.

 We all have some responsibility to do one activity that leaps across the chasms of segmentation that afflict this country.

Years ago when I was teaching urban studies the students were required to leave the classroom and spend 24 hours in the city with no money and then submit an essay about the experience.

One of those former students, now in mid-career, told me recently how that one activity changed his life for the better.   It gave him fresh eyes to see and to respond to a world of poverty and disadvantage he had not known before.




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