Let It Strengthen Us

June 19, 2016 — Nancy Bancroft
Readings: Psalm 139: 1-14; 1 Corinthians 12: 12-21


At this week’s Tony Awards, Frank Langella, who won in the “lead actor in a play” category shared his response to the shooting rampage in Orlando, Florida.  He said, “When something bad happens, we have three choices: We let it define us, we let it destroy us or we let it strengthen us.” I decided to spend a good part of this week reflecting on strength, and share some of my thoughts with you this morning.

In the January 2015 periodical Psychology Today there an interesting article about personal strength.  It’s based on the findings of Martin Seligman, past president of the American Psychological Association and Christopher Peterson, professor at the University of Michigan, both of whom spent three years researching the topic of personal strength.   Psychology’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) catalogs what’s wrong with people – their psychological problems. Peterson and Seligman set out to catalog what’s right with people – their psychological strengths, specifically contrasting it with the DSM. The result is what well-known Harvard professor Howard Gardner called “one of the most important initiatives in psychology of the past half century.”

Through their research Peterson and Seligman discovered that personal strengths and virtues were more universal than they – or their colleagues – expected. In fact they were able to develop a list of personal strengths of character that can be identified across cultures and throughout history.  They grouped their list of two dozen character strengths, within six broad areas of virtue. A virtue can be defined simply as a good habit – something that when practiced over time, can become one’s natural way of behaving.

Because we are celebrating Father’s Day and because of the tragic events of last Sunday, I would like to focus this morning on one of those categories; Strengths of Humanity.  Peterson and Seligman describe Strengths of Humanity as an interpersonal virtue that involves tending and befriending others. The character strengths that they group under this broad category are love, kindness, social intelligence and justice.

Tending and befriending others: In today’s first reading we heard the author of the Psalm praising God for creating him; and not just for making him, but for constantly tending to him. The words are tender and intimate.  You know when I sit and when I stand. . . If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. The fathers and the grandfathers here who have ever taken care of young children know how you have to be aware of them every single minute.  If you look away from them at all, they’ll be in the middle of whatever is dangerous. And we’re not much different.  Psalm 139 praises God’s constancy, whether we are doing great things (If I ascend to heaven) or making bad choices, acting wrongly, (make my bed in Sheol) God never leaves us. God continues to love us and tend to us. Psalm 139 says of God, “You are acquainted with all my ways.” And despite this, and because of it, we know that God loves us. God knows us inside and out, and loves us; loves each of us; loves all of us. Strength of humanity involves tending to everyone and befriending everyone.

Love:  The authors describe love as, “valuing close relations with others, in particular those in which sharing and caring are reciprocated.” The immediate precipitous of the killings this past week seems to have been that the attacker saw two men kissing; communicating reciprocal caring.  With so many people suffering from so much hatred in the world, it’s unfortunate that anyone would limit who could love who and want to restrict how that love can be demonstrated. Shouldn’t we, as human beings foster, encourage, and support all love, and do what we can to create an environment where everyone can be open about who they love?

Probably everyone would agree that they’d like the world to be a better place – more loving, less violent.  I was reading recently about the origin of the word “sabotage.” It comes from French, where a “sabot” is a wooden shoe. It used to be that when workers in French factories were unhappy, they would throw a “sabot,” a wooden shoe, into the machinery, thus “sabotaging” it. Any form of bigotry sabotages this goal of a better world. And this seems especially so, when those discriminated against are punished because of who they love.

Kindness: We know something about kindness in this congregation. We have been supporting the Kindness Initiative and Michael Chase’s work for some time.  Peterson and Seligman state that kindness includes generosity, nurturance, care, compassion, altruistic love, or “niceness”: Doing favors and good deeds for others. Kindness is sometimes recognized, but it is often “behind the scenes” generosity. Grantland Rice, a well-known sports columnist in the first half of the twentieth century, wrote the following: “Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again. In dramatic lore they are known as Famine, Pestilence, Destruction, and Death. These are only aliases. Their real names are Stuldreher, Miller, Crowley, and Layden. They formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone before which another fighting Army football team was swept over the precipice at the Polo Grounds yesterday afternoon as 55,000 spectators peered down on the bewildering panorama spread on the green plain below.” (I wish sports writers still wrote that way.  Sometimes when I read a current sports article it’s hard for me to even understand who won!) Anyway those words were written on Saturday afternoon, October 19, 1924, and with them a legend was started, for Notre Dame football, for the team’s immortal coach Knute Rockne and, that day especially, for the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame.

The Four Horsemen, Elmer Layden, Harry Stuldreher, Jim Crowley, and Don Miller were the talented offensive backfield for the Notre Dame football team in the late 1920s. There is no doubt that they were great players. All four have been enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame.

Most people know, however, that there are eleven players on a football team. What about the other seven? Who were they; what did they do? History knows them as the “Seven Mules.” Few if anyone remember their names; only one of them, “Rip” Miller, is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame. Still, I am certain that the Four Horsemen knew them. In fact, the same Grantland Rice who immortalized the Horsemen said that this talented backfield attributed all their success to the Mules. They were the ones who stood in front, did the blocking, ran interference, and paved the way for the two halfbacks, the fullback, and quarterback to run the plays, score touchdowns, and bring victory to Notre Dame.

The Four Horsemen and the unheralded Seven Mules were a team. They knew that they needed each other. The combination of the Mules and the Horsemen brought greatness, fame, and legend to Miller, Layden, Crowley, and Stuldreher, and to Notre Dame football as well.

While the sports world may remember certain members of this fabled team, and seemingly forgotten others, the players themselves knew their need for each other. Their mutual assistance is a microcosm of how people can work together toward a common goal and a good illustration of the call of the Christian community to be teammates, working together.  Most of our acts of kindness are in the mule category.  We get little if any credit for our simple acts.

Leslie Odom Jr., on winning a Tony last Sunday  for his role as Aaron Burr in “Hamilton”, said,  When Phylicia Rashad won [in 2004], she said she wondered “What would it take?” [to win a Tony]. I wondered the same thing. And the most interesting thing was because only one person gets up to accept, I thought you get it for a solo effort. You were so fabulous on your own.  I didn’t realize what a team of people it would take and all the people that I’m leaning on.”

We may rarely get recognition, praise, and maybe not even thanks for some of our acts of kindness. People may not even notice that they have succeeded in part due to our efforts. It does take strength of character to consistently do unrecognized good whenever we can. But through those actions we are not only benefiting others; we are building up the kind of community, the culture that we want to live in, that we need to live in if we are to thrive.

Social intelligence: Social intelligence or emotional intelligence, involves being aware of the motives and feelings of other people and oneself and is also part of strength of humanity.

Pitcher Dave Bosewell tells the story of Earl Weaver who was the manager of the Baltimore Orioles and who had a firm rule: “No one steals a base unless I give the steal sign.”  Superstar Reggie Jackson wasn’t happy with that rule, believing he knew enough to judge when he could swipe a base. One day, while standing restlessly near first base, Reggie decided to steal second, even though Weaver hadn’t given him the sign. He made it easy. He smiled, very satisfied with himself. Weaver, however, wasn’t smiling.

Later, Weaver took Jackson aside and explained why he hadn’t given the steal signal. First of all, the next batter was the best power hitter they had besides Jackson. When Jackson stole second, the other team just walked the next batter so he didn’t have a chance to hit. The next batter after that had never been very strong against this pitcher so Weaver decided to send in a pinch hitter to try to drive in the two men on base. This left Weaver without bench strength later in the game when he needed it.  Jackson had only seen the game from his perspective. He had been successful in his individual endeavor, but Weaver was calling the game with the entire team’s mission in mind. (Excerpt from God’s Little Devotional Book for the Work Place”.)  Social intelligence requires attention and humility, an acceptance that everyone’s perspective has something to teach us.

The last element Peterson and Seligman include in strengths of humanity is Justice: civic strengths that underlie healthy community life.  In the field of ethics, justice or fairness is considered as the base, the floor of behavior below which no civilized society should act.  In a right world people aspire for compassion and altruism that we may or may not achieve, but we shouldn’t allow ourselves to fall below justice. The most fundamental principle of justice—one that has been widely accepted since it was first defined by Aristotle more than two thousand years ago—is the principle that “equals should be treated equally and unequals unequally.” In its contemporary form, this principle is sometimes expressed as follows: “Individuals should be treated the same, unless they differ in ways that are relevant to the situation in which they are involved.” This understanding has benefited disadvantaged people in several ways such as affirmative action and required handicap accommodations in public places.  Unfortunately, difference has been used historically as justification for unequal and even cruel treatment. Jews, people of color, Muslims and members of the LGBT community have at times been identified as people whose difference excludes them from the rights, protections and privileges of the general public.  We are all different from one another. Today’s Gospel reminds us that those differences contribute to us being one healthy body. If indeed we are strong, we have no need to protect ourselves from difference by building walls or buying assault rifles.  I believe we need to each do what we can to invite difference, to affirm and celebrate difference, building up a community in which all members of this one body can believe and praise God with the psalmist, singing, “It was you who formed my inward parts: you knit me together in my mother’s womb.  I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”

The world needs us all to grow in strengths of humanity.

“The most glorious moments in your life are not the so-called days of success, but rather those days when out of dejection and despair you feel rise in you a challenge to life, and the promise of future accomplishments.”
— Gustave Flaubert