« Benedictine spirituality and the parish church | Main | Two misleading mental models on leadership »

Independence Day 2013: Piety and the Unfinished Work

               the unfinished work 

It’s a phrase from President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address[i]—“the unfinished work.”

The work is this – “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”  It was about the survival of the nation, but not just that it would survive; it was about the expansion of freedom and a form of government that was of, by, and for “the people.”

All of these died in faith without having received the promises,

but from a distance they saw and greeted them.[ii]

Piety is one of the traditional virtues. It’s among the Gifts of the Holy Spirit along with awe, knowledge (the kind of knowledge that accepts paradox), courage (including fortitude), openness to the Spirit in silence and by listening to others, and wisdom. All comes together in wisdom—it’s wholeness, spiritual maturity.

Piety[iii] is the recognition of our obligation to God, our country and family. It’s really more than just recognition. It suggests feelings of gratitude and affection and acts of respect and duty. It’s tribal. It’s particular.

On Tuesday I was walking along 15th Ave on the corner where there is an entrance to Safeway. As I came to the light there was a man with his arms raised above his head – in surrender or praise?

Then I heard, he was singing –

This is my story, this is my song,
praising my Savior all the day long;
this is my story, this is my song,
praising my Savior all the day long.[iv]

Was it an act of piety or maybe of madness? It’s not always easy to see the difference. I stood back waiting for the light to change. 

Piety is expressed in behavior. In religious ceremonies we kneel, bow and cross ourselves. We hang pictures of saints, family and friends in their homes.  We stand when the judge enters the courtroom and reporters stand when the President enters for a press conference. In the military there are courtesies such as saluting. And when the national anthem is played people stand.

These are artifacts, ways of doing things, that are related to values we hold and deep underlying assumptions about the nature of things.

The behaviors are outward and visible actions that are connected to inward realities. An outcome of piety is warm duty rather than cold duty. Things visible related to things invisible. They express a stance and attitude. Richard Holloway, one-time Presiding Bishop of Scotland, saw piety as,  “A kind of fondness or love, a recognition of what you owe the land that bred you.”[v]

The unfinished work 

My college textbook for American History was “The United States: Experiment in Democracy.”[vi] The writers had a view of the nation that was positive about the impact of the mix of founding groups, African-Americans, and later immigration.

It affirmed the spirit of individualism and innovation that emerged; as well as values about giving people a chance, a suspicion of special privilege, and fairness in our dealings with one another.  And it noted that over time in response to contextual needs and our own values we expanded the franchise, separated church and state, protected basic freedoms and enlarged our understanding of the common good.[vii]

The idea of there being an “American experiment” seems to have come from Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America”, written in the 1830s. It’s a phrase used on the left and the right. Sigmund Freud thought it grandiose.[viii]

I think that American piety about the nation is strongly connected to this idea that we are in the midst of an experiment. In Lincoln’s phrase there is an “unfinished work” we are called to complete.

Martin Luther King said, “The Arc of the Moral Universe Is Long, but It Bends Toward Justice.” I would hope that is true. I am more certain myself that something similar is true -- that the long-term tilt of America is toward increased liberty. 


The legacy of slavery

The most concrete and persistently avoided “unfinished work” is the legacy of slavery. Think on the Supreme Court voting rights decision last week. I wonder if we are now moving past a half century of consciousness in a return to our long-term pattern of neglect and avoidance. Yesterday NPR reported a story on the visit of American Presidents to Gettysburg. President Wilson stressed reconciliation between North and South. FDR did the same. Both Democrats in need of the votes of southern Democrats.

In 1963, then Vice-President Lyndon Johnson, spoke at Gettysburg.[ix] Hs theme was that the battle one hundred years before was about slavery, race, and now civil rights. He was a Southern Democrat. He also had won his elections with the votes of other southern Democrats. He said,

“One hundred years ago, the slave was freed. One hundred years later, the Negro remains in bondage to the color of his skin. The Negro today asks justice. We do not answer him — we do not answer those who lie beneath this soil — when we reply to the Negro by asking, ‘Patience.’ It is empty to plead that the solution to the dilemmas of the present rests on the hands of the clock. The solution is in our hands. Unless we are willing to yield up our destiny of greatness among the civilizations of history, Americans--white and Negro together--must be about the business of resolving the challenge which confronts us now. Our nation found its soul in honor on these fields of Gettysburg one hundred years ago. We must not lose that soul in dishonor now on the fields of hate.”

Lyndon Johnson understood “the unfinished work.”  He asked for perseverance

In Tuesday’s New York Times, David Brookes did an op-ed about Civil War soldiers writing letters home from the battlefield. He wrote of one soldier who sent this home,

I know how strongly American Civilization now leans upon the triumph of the Government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution. And I am willing — perfectly willing — to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt.

Brooks comments:

These letter writers, and many of the men at Gettysburg, were not just different than most of us today because their language was more high flown and earnest. There was probably also a greater covenantal consciousness, a belief that they were born in a state of indebtedness to an ongoing project, and they would inevitably be called upon to pay these debts, to come square with the country, even at the cost of their lives.[x]

It’s the same idea isn’t it?—“an ongoing project”…”experiment” .. “unfinished work.”


A better country

The Daily Office readings for Independence Day include one from Revelations 21. “I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven … I am making all things new.” Words, that when read in relationship to this day and this nation, will bring mixed feelings to many Americans on the left and the right. We more "progressive” souls might be comforted if when we hear about the "new Jerusalem” we think less of ideas like exceptionalism and destiny and more about what the content might be of such a new Jerusalem. Why not hope for such a thing? Certainly for all nations. But also certainly for the United States. 

My American piety, my patriotism, is directly connected to this idea of there being an “unfinished work.” That the nation itself, and most certainly our long struggle to come to terms with race, are worthy “ongoing projects” and involve a debt we are to pay in each generation.

                                      they desire a better country[xi]


Particularity and Catholicity  

Ben Franklin wrote, “It is a common observation here that our cause is the cause of all mankind, and that we are fighting for their liberty in defending our own.”[xii] It’s an expression of the relationship between particularity and catholicity.

For many of us our inability to enter into a fruitful piety around our country is related to our not having created a synthesis of particularity and catholicity. How am I to love my country and also love humanity?

For many people it’s a silly dilemma. They may be right about that. Maybe it’s that the idealistic progressive expects such perfection from the nation that we have conjured an impossible dream. When we allow this pattern of thinking to shape how we approach family and friends—well, we end up lonely. There’s that relationship among loneliness, hostility and illusion.[xiii]

I believe the task is to find the synthesis. Doing that requires us to set aside our tendency to take a non-appreciative stance toward our own country. It also means letting go of , in this instance, the search for “balance.” It’s not about having just enough negativity that is balanced by just enough appreciation.

Balance at its best seeks harmony.  Synthesis seeks unity.  A lack of balance creates instability.  A lack of synthesis creates division.

Synthesis is bringing particularity and universality together into a new creation. It is making one thing out of separate elements, integration.

Balance is something that allows you to go forward, something you live with even if it’s always a tension. Synthesis is friendly and pleasing. It’s a “real life.”

The stuckness of us progressives

If conservatives tend to be uncritical lovers of the nation those of us that are more liberal are frequently the unloving critics.[xiv]  Both set up their straw men with statements and images showing how out of touch the other side is.

Even the wise Frederick Beuchner has done it. In a piece called “Wishful Thinking” he sets up the straw man beginning with, “If patriots are people who stand by their country right or wrong, Germans who stood by Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich should be adequate proof that we've had enough of them.” It’s our big gun—suggest that they are Nazis. The right starts with the assumption that President Obama is a socialist. Beuchner goes on to mention Joe McCarthy, “Better Dead than Red,” and Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He goes on to explain that as that side of the argument is so clearly morally defective we are all called to be “champions of the Human Race” and to defend not the homeland “but the planet Earth as Home.”

Obviously this is about the destruction of the other side. There’s no seeking balance let alone synthesis. But what will he do with the people who are patriots, whether they use the term or not, and love both their country and the earth?

When challenged often both parties will back up a bit—“yes there's much to be improved” or “yes there's something to love.” But why is it that those of us that are more progressive have such a hard time owning a flag. I don't mean wearing a flag on your lapel or dress. I mean having any kind of representation that expresses a visible loyalty toward our country that might also be a symbol available to those we disagree with.

Churchgoers, on the left and on the right, tend toward a form of Biblical literalism. We pick our favorite verses and toss them like grenades. One of the readings for the Daily Office for Independence Day is this:

they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
   and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
   neither shall they learn war any more; 

but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
   and no one shall make them afraid;
   for the mouth of the Lord 
of hosts has spoken.    Micah 4: 3b – 4  

Many progressives use passages like this to make a case in relation to some specific crisis in which the use of force may be involved. This obviously means we need to avoid tensions with North Korea or Iran.[xv]

How much more generous it would be, how much kinder, if we could hold in mind that many of those in the White House and the Pentagon also treasure that passage and share its hope.

I believe that our nation and our church needs more comprehensiveness in our thinking and generosity in our actions. We require a piety toward our country that might translate into living with the paradox that we are to love those we don’t know, those different from us and at the same time we are to love those nearest to us.

Both/and, not either/or,

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?

For even sinners love those who love them. Luke 6:32


Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars;

 for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen,

 cannot love God whom they have not seen.  1 John:4 20


And maybe, just maybe, if we allow ourselves to rest in God’s goodness, we may find that synthesis in which the two calls become one thing.

 Let them give thanks to the LORD for his mercy *

    and the wonders he does for his children. Ps 107: 8 From the Daily Office for Independence Day


Piety and parish revitalization

In consulting and training I’ve come across a significant number of clergy carrying a deep dissatisfaction with their parish. They may express it directly but often it shows in a kind of depressed accommodation or an indulgent paternalism.  I think I’ve known such times myself. Some are conflicted about their dissatisfaction and have feelings of guilt thinking they “should” be more positive. Some will develop a habit of emotional swings between the two. Those that have been accommodating or paternalistic are often now totally unaware of what they have done to themseves.

It hits many clergy but maybe especially those of us who see ourselves as more progressive. Being patient may be a virtue and waiting on the Lord may be an act of mature spiritual life—but it’s all a bit annoying.

We live in a world in which people increasingly seek 5 or at least 4 star coffee. Here we are celebrating the Eucharist in all these 3 star parishes (if that). My hunch is that most diocesan staffs asked to assess the parishes would see something like this—35% in decline, 45% static, and possibly 20% doing well. That’s if we say that doing well includes:

1) Effective formation in the spiritual life as lived in our tradition (in relationship to a pastoral theology model such as Shape of the Parish[xvi] I’d define this effectiveness as the parish having a “shape” that has people in all stages, includes a critical mass of people of apostolic faith and practice, and a climate and processes that both accept people where they are and effectively invites them to grow.)

2) Institutional strength and sustainability. This has to do with internal alignment.

3) Momentum in the sense that there is a capacity for development in the above two elements and that there is in fact movement toward, and energy around, those things 

Diocesan staffs may consider themselves fortunate if 20% are doing well and another 10% are showing some momentum. Of course that’s not an acceptable picture but we’ve begun to get accustomed to using measures that have to do with feelings of energy and excitement. So, if the parish is in decline or static, if they show any sign of life we try to be appreciative. 

The difficulty many parish clergy face isn't just about the decline. It’s not even primarily about the lack of momentum or our uncertainty about what business we are in as parishes and dioceses. I think it’s more immediate and day-by-day. They get dragged down by the superficialness of parish life, the investment in forms of folk religion, the images of the parish as a kind of social club or family or business or social change movement or historic society.

Some clergy deepen their problem by holding onto mental models that freeze their minds and hearts—I’m here for spiritual things not administration or leadership, if I do less they will do more, and if we can just get rid of hierarchy things will be better.[xvii]  Add your own.

We end up having a piety problem in ourselves.  Clergy can find themselves without those feelings of gratitude and affection and acts of respect and duty that allow them to live with integrity and integration. I know many who have tried to generate the feelings and engage in the acts out of a sense of duty or guilt. It has no staying power.

In many cases the problem is that the clergy simply don’t know how to address what they face. Many are doing the best they can. Many work very hard. But they lack three broad things that would give them a way forward.

1) Mental models that help them understand parish dynamics and create an effective pastoral strategy. Understanding and being able to apply just two models have helped many clergy – Shape of the Parish[xviii] offers a more realistic perspective as well as a broad strategy. The Renewal-Apostolate Cycle[xix] offers a tool to focus our primary task and suggests an approach to formation.

2) Skills and knowledge around change theory and methods[xx]

3) A systematic incorporation process for the parish to help people live as Christians grounded in the Anglican tradition.[xxi]

The last is the piece most directly connected with the piety question. The answer to what so many clergy experience as a superficial parish life is to ground that life in the deeper and broader life of the Anglican tradition. We can shape a parish life that expresses and draws us into a rich and worthy piety.

Getting there has little to do with changing much of what now exists. Direct attempts to do that are potential trip wires. We need to think five years not five months.  We need to begin now not in three months. We are likely to need a good coach (so get one!) 

The task is to shape a new synthesis in which most of the parish’s current ways are grounded more firmly in the ancient practices and ways of the larger church. It’s a synthesis of particularity and catholicity. The result is something more graceful and beautiful.

In that process will some of the more questionable practices of the parish end? Yes, some will just fade away as new and more compelling ways emerge. Might there be a need for the priest to give a nudge or to refuse to save someone’s favorite activity? Yes, there’s a need for wisdom and courage.

Our task in parish development is not simply the overcoming of folk religion or superficiality. It is connecting those things to something that is broader and deeper and richer. It is connecting the ways and traditions and customs of the parish church to those of the larger Episcopal Church, Anglican Communion and the Catholic Church throughout the world and history. And as we do that we may find ourselves relaxing; better able to enjoy all of parish life.


A List of All Postings



Independence Day 2013



[i] Battle of Gettysburg took place July 1–3, 1863. While I’m often uncertain about when we are dealing with coincidence and when God’s action, I am struck by how this battle that determines the future of the American experiment takes place just before our national birthday.  The Gettysburg Address is a speech delivered by President Abraham Lincoln on November 19, 1863, four and a half months after the battle. It was at the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. 

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

[ii] Hebrews 11: 13 Propers for Independence Day

[iii] The word piety comes from the Latin word pietas, the noun form of the adjective piust (which means "devout" or "good"). Pietas in traditional Latin usage expressed a complex, highly valued Roman virtue; a man with pietas respected his responsibilities to gods, country, parents, and kin.

[iv] Based on Hebrews 10:22 "Blessed Assurance" lyrics written in 1873 by Fanny J. Crosby to the music written in 1873 by Phoebe P. Knapp.

[v] In Seven to Flee, Seven to Follow, 1986

[vi] “The United States: Experiment in Democracy” by Avery Craven and Walter Johnson, Ginn and Company, 1962.

[vii] There are many expressions of these values. I like this one by President Truman, “You know that being an American is more than a matter of where your parents came from. It is a belief that all men are created free and equal and that everyone deserves an even break.”

[viii] “America is the most grandiose experiment the world has seen, but, I am afraid, it is not going to be a success.”  Sigmund Freud

[ix] NY Times article on LBJ at Gettysburg 1963    LBJ's speech

[x]Why They Fought”, David Brooks, NYT July 2, 2013  

[xi] Hebrews 11: 16 Propers for Independence Day

[xii] Benjamin Franklin letter to Samuel Cooper, May 1, 1777. Also affirmed by others-- "Our cause is noble; it is the cause of mankind!" George Washington letter to James Warren, March 31, 1779 and "The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind." Thomas Paine in "Common Sense" January 10, 1776 

[xiii] See blog posting on “The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life” 

[xiv] The idea of the loving critic was in John Gardner’s commencement address, “Uncritical Lovers – Unloving Critics,” at Cornell University on June 1, 1968. See "An Approach to Developing a Working Theology of Organizations"   and "Ministry To and Through Institutions: The Equipping of Loving Critics" by Dick Broholm. A PDF on Gardner's "model."

[xv] Careful here. My point is that biblical passages don’t resolve complex issues. As the Bible includes both the destruction of the Egyptians at the Red Sea as well as passages such as this one in Micah maybe we’re called to be Anglicans. That’s to say be comprehensive -- Fenhagen wites, “Rather than doctrinal uniformity…being able to hold together seeming opposites. John Westerhoff wrote, “truth is known and guarded by maintaining the tension between counter-opposite statements concerning truth, …personal freedom and communal responsibility, …sacred and secular.”  This stance toward truth goes hand-in-hand with our tradition’s valuing of ambiguity and openness. We tolerate a certain kind of theological messiness as we wait to see more clearly.  We live with differences.

[xvi] Shape of the Parish model 

[xvii] See blog on “Two misleading mental models on leadership” 

[xviii] Shape of the Parish model

[xix] The Renewal-Apostolate Cycle 

[xx] The Process of Change and list of competencies

[xxi] Michelle Heyne’s “In your Holy Spirit: Traditional Spiritual Practices in Today’s Christian Life” is one resource.   There are also related resources here.