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The Virtue of Integrity

By Charles Rush

September 27, 1998

Proverbs 20: 7-19

have been thinking for some time about the virtue of Honor and the fact that Honor as a moral concept almost seems to have fallen out of our lexicon of spiritual values.

      A couple years ago my son was learning to drive. In order to get his license, he had to take some driving lessons and in New Jersey, rather than do this through the schools, we have handed it over to these private companies that charge a pretty good rate for their teaching.

      One day, I asked my son what exactly it was that he was learning. 'Nothing' he said. 'You just get in and drive with this guy.'

      I'm a little incredulous. Teenagers love to talk like this. 'Where did you go today?'

      'Today?' he asked. 'Today' I said.

      'Well, he was hungry today and wanted to get some chicken so we drove to Newark. That's where he lives and he only likes the fried chicken from this one place so we went to pick up a bucket'.

      'What did you do then?'

      'Well, we drove over to his girlfriends house because he had to see her.'

      'And what did you do?'

      'I waited outside in the car.'

      'For how long?'

      'For about half an hour?

      'What did you do?'

      'I just listened to the radio.'

      'Then what did you do?'

      'I drove home.'

      I have no idea if even half of this story is true but at the time, it sounded pretty straightforward. Here is a guy that doesn't take himself seriously, doesn't take his job seriously, so he uses his job as a personal limo service to take care of a variety of personal needs from eating to, what shall we say, meaningful expression with his beloved...

      Or how about the papers last week covering baseball. There was all the speculation about whether the guy who caught the 62 nd home run off the bat of Mark McGwire would give the ball back or try to cash out for $500,000. When the groundskeeper caught the ball, he gave it back without a moments hesitation saying 'A deal is a deal'. Apparently there was a rule that prohibits the groundskeepers from keeping home runs and foul balls as part of their contract. A deal is a deal.

      But when Sammy Sosa hit his famous 62 nd blast, passing Roger Maris, it didn't work out like that. One guy caught the ball in his hand. Another guy, envious we presume, reached over and bit him on the hand until he dropped the ball. Mr. Biter then grabbed the ball and ran out of the stadium. There was no shame in Mudville that night.

      Dishonorable behavior appears to be a greater temptation today. Under challenged, underachieving, overly cynical, aimless. These are the symptoms of a life without honor. I suspect that it is wider temptation than we generally like to acknowledge. We are tempted to just get by, that seems like enough. And if we are high functioning and can hide behind the power of our position in life, we can develop the same dishonorable existence, even if it is only apparent to ourselves.

      By contrast, I happened to read a speech given by Marine General Charles Krulack this summer. He shared the example of an ordinary soldier who embodied the simple, yet profound virtue of honor. The soldier was Pharmacist Mate 2 John Bradley. You've probably seen a picture of him. He was one of the five men in the most famous battle photograph ever taken the raising of the American flag on Mount Surbachi in the battle for Iwo Jima. The photograph was later commissioned by the Marine Corps and cast in a granite monument, all five of them raising the flag. Beneath the monument the words are inscribed 'Where Uncommon Valor was a Common Virtue'.

      The battle for Iwo Jima was one of the most intense of the 2 nd World War. "It is a hot, bubbling volcanic atoll that to this day, still has active sulfur vents. During February and March 1945 during a 36-day campaign to take the island, a Marine fell to Japanese fire every two minutes every two minutes for 36 days a Marine was killed or wounded. It was the only battle in the history of the Corps, where Marines suffered more casualties than the enemy.

      If you go visit the war Memorial, you will be able to recognize John Bradley; "he is the one with the empty canteen pouch. When the sculptor of the Marine corps War Memorial, asked John Bradley what had happened to his canteen- John could even remember in the heat of battle, he had completely forgotten. But, the surviving Marines of Bradley's unit knew and they remembered and they told the sculptor the story.

      Prior to climbing Mount Surbachi, Corpsmen Bradley gave the last of his water to a dying Marine On the hot bubbling sulfur island, John Bradley would go the next 24 hours without water. That afternoon, he and the other soldiers were struggling to climb the fire swept heights of Mount Surbachi. The next day, he braved enemy fire to aid to wounded soldiers. A few days after that he rushed to the aid of two other wounded Marines, and then shielding them with his body, he tended to their wounds. This second time, General Krulack noted, he didn't exactly rush, he hurried. Actually, he crawled because minutes before he had been shot through both of his legs.

      John Bradley was later awarded the Nation's second highest medal for bravery- the Navy Cross. And this is the point that the General made. 'What I want to talk to you about goes beyond bravery goes beyond sacrifice I want to talk to you about selflessness. John Bradley was a brave man and he sacrificed greatly, but most of all, he was selfless. His brave acts were not done for any reward nor were they intended to be captured by NewsCam 4 or CNN There was no public glory in what he did. In fact, men under fire rarely speak of glory instead they speak of 'who can be counted on and who cannot.' Above all, they speak about and remember the small individual acts of selflessness. Selflessness is unforgettable even small acts of selflessness are unforgettable.

      "Over the chapel doors at the United States Naval Academy is a simple Latin inscription- Non Sibi Sed Patria- 'Not for self, but for country.' Simple, but powerful. Selflessness takes time to develop. Rarely does a man or woman develop on a battlefield (or wherever they happen to be serving). Rarely does a person develop a sense of selflessness in a single moment in time. Spontaneous selfless acts rarely happen. Instead they are built on a strong moral foundation and then carefully layered by doing the right thing time and time again.

      "All of you possess a strong character strong morals and a strong sense of duty. Let me encourage you to add o those strengths a spirit of selflessness. That spirit is within you now draw from it.. and us it and encourage it from others. Use it to lead to build your team and to serve those you know and those you do not."

      Ask yourself, who benefits from the choices that I am making, just me, or does this benefit those that I am called to serve, the people that I come in contact with each and every day? What is the honorable thing to do?

      I suspect that it is a temptation for us to beg off responsibility for acting honorably and thinking about it because we are not in the heat of battle and we could not say what we would do. I have never been in battle but I suspect that line of reasoning is faulty. I suspect that dramatic crisis and stress merely focus the virtues and vices of our character. No, I suspect that John Bradley did not think of himself as heroic, which is probably one of the several reasons that he hardly ever spoke of the battle, even with his family and friends.

      The point is not even where we are at the moment. I merely want to lift up the direction towards which we should be growing. A student was sitting in a garden with his grandfather. 'I am getting excellent grades', he said 'and all of my professors see a great future for me. And yet I am miserable.'

      'A happy and wholesome life is like a perfect circle,' his grandfather replied, picking up a stone and a small tree branch. He placed the stone on the ground and, using the branch as a compass, drew a perfect circle with the stone at its center.

      'When you have a fixed and steady center, then your circle will be perfect,' the grandfather said. 'However, if the center is constantly shifting, you will never be able to draw a circle. Today, many people receive a good education and establish a successful career, but never establish a spiritual center around which their life's activities orbit. Especially in these turbulent times one needs such a center. When you establish a center, my son, and it is clear, all else will follow.'

      Jesus taught us much the same thing. In one of his parables about investing ourselves, he has the Master say to the man who invested his ten talents and made ten talents more, 'well done my good and faithful servant, you have been faithful over little, I will set you over much, enter into the joy of your Master.' It is not important what is at stake because the honorable woman will be honorable in either situation. Pressure only magnifies our essential character. That is why small things matter. The hope is that we are moving, both in big and small things, towards an integrity in our lives that comes from practicing what is honorable.

      How do we do that? Aristotle used to distinguish two types of knowledge. One is theoretical knowing, understanding a schematic or a mathematical equation or a vast body of management principles or law. The other was a practical knowledge that came from doing something over and over. Anyone who plays golf or ski's or rides horses or plays basketball knows the importance of grooving a technique. You can watch a hundred 'how to videos' that will give you the theory but they are useless without massive practice. Air Jordan didn't get that lilting ballet quality to his slam-dunk without years of concentrated focus.

      Part of spirituality is like that also. You can become attuned to the spiritual light or the spiritual energy that is at the center of your being. It is possible to begin to recognize the divine in the most mundane of actions. I'll give you a couple of examples that sound a little far out and flaky but they are not really as far out as they sound. The Dali Lama says that when we look at the world, there is a spiritual way of looking at it so that we begin to realize the divine purpose that thing have in themselves. They are not simply put here to fulfill our needs. Certain orders of Catholic monks have a passage of something that is edifying read at dinner and a discussion follows because they see the table and fellowship as not merely entertainment but as a vehicle for the infusion of meaning and purpose in our lives. Orthodox Jews are taught to think of their jobs, not simply as a place that they earn their living but as a place to introduce ethics into the world.

      Try looking at the world from the outside in rather than from the inside out. The next time you take a business trip or a vacation, do not become preoccupied with the trivial or external aspects of the people you meet or the things you see. Instead, examine your life at a new level or reality and ask yourself: Why has God brought me here? What are the deeper lessons that I am to learn from this encounter?

      I understand that many of us have a very difficult time thinking like that or staying in that mode for any length of time. I understand that a spiritual perspective on the world is often an impediment to us functioning in our jobs the way that we regularly function in our jobs. But it is also true that opening ourselves to the presence of God stuff just happens that will make you stop. It is also true that when you look for meaning and purpose, your life will become more meaningful. It is the practical way that we begin to develop the habit of honor and integrity.

      A businesswoman who works downtown told me that she had just gotten off the subway at Penn station and was heading toward the train. It was on the late end of rush hour and people were still fairly thronged about. In the distance she was struck by the appearance of a man who looked just like her brother. Actually, she said that she thought it was her brother, but it couldn't be her brother because he lives hundreds of miles away. She stared harder, tried to get closer. It was uncanny the resemblance.

      He was leaning against the wall on the stairs going up stairs. She got closer and she noticed that he looked worried and sad. He was running his hand through his hair. At that moment, she had the oddest sensation. The movie shot of her life panned out and back and the background noise of the rush hour faded away. She felt like a great company of people were watching her from a distance, wondering how she was going to respond to this man. She felt this strong conviction that she should somehow do something to make him feel better. At the same time, she was talking to herself, saying 'I'm sure you don't know this man. This could be dangerous. He could interpret this the wrong way.' This is crazy. And for a minute, it was like time was standing still and she was suddenly the only person on stage that mattered to the audience. No one was paying attention to the thousands of people around her.

      She saw that he had begun to cry. She felt that she was supposed to give him a hug or somehow take care of him but she was afraid. So she walked over next to him. He was still crying, didn't notice anyone or anything. She stood there for a moment and she reached out a hand and put it on his shoulder. Almost instinctively, he put one of his hands on hers in gratitude. And she just stood there for about a minute with her hand on him in solidarity.

      He stopped crying and he said 'I'm better now'. He wiped his eyes, she withdrew her hand, and they just stood there in silence for a couple of seconds. He said 'thank you', turned, and walked away. And that was it.

      She said to me "Reverend, all the way home, I couldn't think of anything else except 'what was that?' I have thought more about that incident than anything else in the past month It was like time stood still."

      Authentic spiritual moments are like that. All of a sudden we get a glimpse of the world from the outside in and we can be filled with a haunting wonder, what the bible means when it speaks of the awe of the Lord, unfortunately translated as the 'fear of the Lord.' It is an awe in the presence of a wonderful mystery.

      This woman had one more cute line. She said, 'you know Chuck, it made me think.' Brothers and sisters 'keep on thinking. Open yourselves to honor. Practice the wonder of integrity.



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