Do your best and that’s enough

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October 07, 2018

In the winter of 1863, Union troops surrounding Vicksburg were themselves besieged by high water. Rains were “heavy and continuous,” U.S. Grant remembered. Because of war, the levees had been neglected and now they failed. Grant writes: “The whole country was covered with water. Troops could scarcely find dry ground on which to pitch their tents. Malarial fevers broke out among the men. Measles and smallpox also attacked them.[i] When word of the dismal conditions reached the north, there was hue and cry. Grant had not disclosed his strategy and no one could figure out what he was up to. Now soldiers were dying in their own camp. Much of the public and many in the press demanded Grant’s removal and replacement.

This is all reported in Grant’s memoir, which many say is still the best-written memoir any president has left us. It is at this point in the book that Grant tells readers one of his beliefs about leadership. He calls it a superstition, but it sounds to me like a pearl of wisdom.

Everyone has his superstitions. One of mine is that everyone should do his duty to the best of his ability where assigned by competent authority, without application or the use of influence to change his position. . . . I had no idea, myself, of ever having any large command, nor did I suppose that I was equal to one. . . . Having been selected, my responsibility ended with my doing the best I knew how. If I had bought the place or obtained it through personal or political influence, my belief is that I would have feared to undertake any plan of my own conception, and would probably have awaited direct orders from my distant superiors. Persons obtaining important commands by application or political influence are apt to keep a written record of [their] complaints and predictions of defeat. Somebody must be responsible for their failures.[ii]

In other words: if Grant’s being commanding general had been his own idea, he would be more inclined to doubt his best judgment and second-guess his own decisions. It was the fact that others had recognized his skill and judgment and called him to high rank that added strength to his convictions. Doing what seemed right to give his army the best chance to win the battle was his duty—and nothing less, or more.

I think about that, reflecting on my decades in the priesthood. It started with a call.

Growing up, I had heard my father talk about his sense of being called, a feeling he had had in college but deferred at the time out of a sense of his unworthiness. Then it was further deferred to serve his country in World War II, then again to help build a growing family business. His story was that one day after a business trip to a wine and dine weekend at the Kentucky Derby, he and my mother were on their way back from Lexington to El Dorado. At Memphis, he pulled the car off the road and the two of them sat in silence. Finally, mother said: “What’s wrong?” “I just can’t do this anymore, he said, almost shaking, and meaning by “this” running (as second-in-command) a big company—a job he was good at and took pride in, working with people he loved and admired. “I just feel that God is calling me to be a priest.” “OK,” my mother said and that was that.

[i] U.S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant (Kindle edition, p. 161)

[ii] Gant, Memoirs, 162.

I grew up knowing that story about my father’s call. When people sometimes asked me if I was going to follow in his footsteps and be a priest, I felt that really wasn’t for me to say or aspire to. Priests were called to that rank by the competent authority—it wasn’t a job that one applied for. I had not heard or felt a call, so I made other plans and was working on a Ph.D. and looking forward to a career as an American History professor. Then, I began to feel a call. It wasn’t a voice or a flash of light, it was a persistent intuition that rather quickly turned into a conviction. And that was that.

I have lived by that conviction and been guided by those persistent intuitions. One of them sent me back to school in New York to get a doctorate (ThD), then another one sent us back from New York to stay in Arkansas. I felt called to a place: home. Later, in this place, I felt called to a job—this one. I think General Grant’s wisdom applies just as well to leading churches as it does to leading armies—thankfully, with fewer casualties.

Something I had previously suspected, and can now confirm, is that being a cathedral dean sometimes feels impossible. There is more in the job that needs doing than can be done. I am sure the same is true in many jobs. Also, I have learned, and some of you have too, that I am better at some parts of this job than I am at others. But for as long as I am giving the whole package the old college try I feel the peace about it that Grant felt at Vicksburg. If I am doing the best I know how there is a rightness in it. I am doing my duty.

My duty this time of year is to cultivate a spirituality of stewardship.

Jesus tells us of a man who went on a journey leaving his servants in charge of his affairs.[1] He was a long time gone.

Let’s spell that out. The traveler is God. His affairs mean life on planet earth—and life in the U.S.A, in Little Rock, our neighborhoods, our homes, our jobs, our selves. We have been left in charge of all of it. By God’s gift, we are free to make decisions about our lives.

When the writer Walker Percy contracted tuberculosis as a young physician, he was quarantined at a sanitarium in Saranac, New York. There, he had a lot of time to read and think. “I am probably going to die here,” he wrote a girl he loved back home. If he was going to die, he wanted to know what he would be giving up. What is the worth of a human life? He decided that it is priceless because of a secret ingredient: freedom. In a novel he would write later in life, he describes a moment of Epiphany about freedom. Why had he not seen it earlier?

Imagine being born with gold-tinted corneas and undertaking a life-long search for gold. You’d never find it. What was my discovery? That I could act, I was free to act. . . to turn right or left or sit down in the culvert.[2]

Percy decided that he would (1) give up his medical career, which had barely started; (2) go home and ask the girl he loved to marry him, and (3) try his hand at writing novels. He also decided (4) to take instruction in the Christian faith and be baptized. While in Saranac, he had read Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae from front to back and had decided he believed it.

In a spirituality of stewardship, freedom is the fuel. In Jesus’ story, the traveler left some of his servants more to be in charge of than he gave others; but what Percy saw is that even a tiny bit of freedom is a fortune. A mustard seed can move a mountain.

Our Episcopal Church has not made freedom the opposite of faithfulness and duty. Rather, freedom is duty’s privilege and vice versa. In the forty years since I heard my call to ministry, our denomination has made a major change or two. I am thinking now of women’s ordination and gay marriage. Each of those changes raised its own issues for debate, but underlying them both was a big, prior question about the church’s freedom, concerning whether God has made the church free to consider changing long-established rules for living. Have we been left in charge to manage such affairs? Some of our brothers and sisters in faith have answered no.

Reading scripture, it seems to me we have, and in fact, we have been called to do so by the supreme competent authority. We have answered that call to the best of our ability, whether we felt fully adequate to the task or not.

To my eye, both of those changes have been fruitful, so I am a proud Episcopalian. I also remain a gung-ho American, because our country, despite its spectacular sins, is grounded on the truth that God has made us free. This land was made for a spirituality of stewardship. God bless the USA!

On a personal level, our affairs include our time, our talent, and our money—and our often complicated family histories; and our passions, which can be fierce; and our challenges, which are sometimes daunting. We are appointed to decide what we will do with all of that—including at times the winter rains break through the levees, when we must remind ourselves that giving our best is all we are called to do––because the competent authority has seen fit to invest us with this responsibility.

I see and deeply appreciate how much so many of you have taken on in life, and for this church. I see what has been gained because of that. God bless you!

In the Bible, the traveler returns eventually and the stewards line up to give account for how they’ve managed his affairs. With freedom comes accountability. If in a spirituality of stewardship, freedom is the fuel, accountability is the compass.

When asked at last to show the fruits of their labors:

U.S. Grant steps us and reports: “Well God, here is Vicksburg.” (It turned out he did know what he was doing in Mississippi.)

Walker Percy, next in line, show the novels he has published and the daughters he has raised as a faithful husband to that hometown sweetheart. He also has managed a terrible family burden. His father and grandfather had both committed suicides (and probably his mother had too.) The saying around town was: “No Percy man will live past the age of 55.” Imagine living with that traumatic benchmark. In freedom, Walker lived until his natural death at the age of 83. “Well done Walker!” says the Lord.

When life is over we will all step up in line and show the master how we’ve used our freedom. Doing the best we can, as best we know, is all that we can give—and God expects no more.


[1] Matthew 25:14-30

[2]Walker Percy, The Second Coming, Kindle, 700.

King David’s appetite got the better of him. What he wanted was good, but not for him.

In the Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas affirms that love was God’s reason for the making of the world and that his goodness permeates creation—but in pieces, disassembled like a jigsaw puzzle. He writes: “The perfect goodness that exists one and unbroken in God can exist in creatures only in a multitude of fragmented ways.”  

So David was drawn to a fragmentary good. His desire was one that we instinctively appreciate, because without it none of us would be here, but the wrongness of his acting on it was severe. Our appetites cause trouble when we are heedless of the good of others, and the puzzle as a whole.

What is love? “Willing the good” of another person, according to Aquinas. David’s motive wouldn’t count as love. He wanted Bathsheba for himself. Perhaps her feelings were reciprocal, but David left her husband’s good, his kingdom’s good, and other puzzle pieces, neglected on the floor. Inconveniently, a pregnancy occurred. Plan A was to give Uriah, the husband, grounds to believe he was the father. When that plan failed the king successfully arranged to have him killed in battle.

Evil, according to Aquinas, is a corruption of the good. “Power tends to corrupt,” as Lord Acton warned, and in this story we see why. Only a king could be tempted to sin like David did, because it would take a king to pull it off. David’s failure is common to men in high places, shadowing the lives and times of several of our recent presidents and even Martin Luther King. Like kings and presidents, prophets are susceptible.

When I started SUMMA, the high school theological debate camp, I named it partly for the Summa Theologiae––“the Summa,” for short. SUMMA, the camp, highlights faith’s intellectual dimension. According to the Summa, the book, our intellect is like an appetite. As David’s eye was attracted to the beauty of Bathsheba, our mind’s eye is drawn to truth. We call this attraction “reason.” Aquinas writes; “As the good denotes that towards which the appetite tends, so the true denotes that towards which the intellect tends.”

If truth is the sun, sometimes our sight of it is fogged by other appetites. David had broken three of the ten commandments (the sixth, seventh, and tenth, if you are keeping score) but he was oblivious. Nathan the prophet found a way to lift the fog. Lawyer-like, he caught the king’s attention with the case of a poor, honest sharecropper and his beloved lamb. David’s first job had been tending sheep, so he could relate. A selfish plantation owner took the poor man’s lamb to feed his party guests. The king was livid. “Is this for real?” “For real.” David’s appetite for justice burned. “That Simon Legree will pay!” he swore. Coming from a king that was a verdict, not an empty threat. Nathan had him. He drew out his mirror and held it to the king’s face. Look close, he said. You are that man. “The moment of truth.”

“We must no longer be children,” Paul writes to the Ephesians. “We must grow up,” he says, by “speaking the truth in love.” At SUMMA, the camp, the highest honor, “the SUMMA Prize,” is awarded to the camper who best shows us how that’s done. The prize is one thousand dollars. That is one way to make our point that truth and love are intertwined.

Often, finding truth takes expertise: science, logic, math. Aquinas’s expertise was logic and it took him years to learn. Not everyone would have the skill even if they afford the time. By God’s design, love requires no expertise. Everyone can understand and anyone can do it if they will. “It is evident,” Aquinas writes, “that not all are able to labor at learning and for that reason Christ has given a short law. Everyone can know this law and no one may be excused from observing it based on ignorance. This is the law of divine love.”

For a counterpoint, Franklin Roosevelt once compared our nation’s moral progress to our scientific progress unfavorably, which might suggest that finding truth is easier than loving. According to Jon Meacham, Roosevelt had drafted a speech to give on Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, April 13. This was 1945. The speech was discovered on Roosevelt’s desk in Warm Springs, Georgia, April 12, the day he died. This is FDR:

Today, science has brought all the different quarters of the globe so close together that it is impossible to isolate them one from another . . . Today we are faced with the preeminent fact that, if civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships—the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together and work together in the same world, at peace. . . . Let us move forward with strong and active faith.

That’s from Meacham’s book The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels. From 1776 to now, the book tracks our national ups and downs in answering to what what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” Meacham wrote the book because he thinks we need to listen much more closely to those better angels now. Who could disagree?

Aquinas and Roosevelt were both right. Aquinas, because only an Isaac Newton could discover calculus; and Roosevelt because, once discovered, truth is ours to keep. Libraries are full of it. Love is more like breakfast—we have to make it every morning. Aquinas called theology the “Queen of Sciences” because it's the science that has to reckon with both the library and the kitchen.

SUMMA, the camp, is a crash course in truth detection. I tell the students: “I didn’t bring you here to tell you what to think, but to show you how.” They learn the three parts of an argument: claim, evidence, and warrant. Claim: ‘What are you trying to get me to believe?’ Evidence: ‘What are you giving me to go on?’ Warrant: ‘How does the evidence support the claim?’

For example, claim: I say “Tomorrow it will rain.” Evidence: You ask “Why should I believe that?” I answer: “Open the window and take a whiff.” You open the window. “Oh,” you say, “the paper mill.”  Warrant: By what logic does this smell support my claim? It’s called an “inference from sign.” Does the Pine Bluff Paper Mill cause rain? No, but it lets us know the wind is from the south, and southern winds bring moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. Summer heat means afternoon convection: hot air rising from the earth. Add moisture and boom! Summer thunderstorms.

In one sentence in our gospel reading, Jesus makes two claims: (1) God sent me.  (2) Faith in me is a sign of God’s activity in the heart and mind of the believer. “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent,” he says. Again: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Smartly, people ask Jesus for evidence to support these claims. Moses gave us evidence, they remind him, out there in the wilderness. Our ancestors were hungry and thirsty. Miraculously, he gave them manna for bread and water from a boulder. So show us. “What sign are you going to give us that we may see it and believe in you?”

For John, the gospel writer, this question is like a student’s who had dozed off in class. It is summer school, the air conditioning is out and the windows are open. The air is hot, moist, and heavy with that familiar smell. The boy wakes up and asks the teacher to answer something she had just explained in detail: “So why should we believe that it will rain tomorrow?”

Jesus’ questioners had been dozing. In John’s gospel, signs followed everywhere he went. In Cana, he turned water into wine. In Capernaum, he healed a dying child; in Jerusalem, it was a sick old man too weak to walk. The latest sign had been the most spectacular so far, and these people who were asking for a sign had either seen or heard about it. From five loaves and two fish, five thousand hungry appetites were satisfied. In a fog, these interrogators fail to draw the inference from sign.

Jesus backs up and tries another tack. With Moses still in mind, he offers an analogy. Analogies are warrants that work by comparison. “This is like that.” You know what its like to hungry and be given bread? They nod, still digesting loaves that he had given. I am like that he says. “Those who come to me will never hunger and those who believe in me will never thirst,” he promises. He isn’t talking now about digestion, but about that activity of God in human hearts and minds––also called the Holy Spirit.

By this, he puts us on watch for good that answers to a longing deeper than hunger even, and more thrilling even than that dizzy dancing feeling that draws us to each other sometimes. Powerful and necessary though they are, these appetites, they point to only fragments of the good we need as human beings. We are made for more.

We don’t need faith to know this. Aristotle knew it. Reason, he taught, is like an appetite for good things greater than our emotional enjoyment and even our physical survival.

We do not live by bread alone. Reason shows us that much. Faith, hope, love—the activity of God in the minds and hearts of all believers––now show us more: eternal truth, everlasting goodness, and transcendent beauty. They are like coffee, eggs, and bacon cooking in the kitchen early in the morning, smells wafting up the stairs into the bedroom as we’re dressing, getting ready for the day.