People of Integrity

“What Does it Mean to be a People of Integrity?” Bob Ryder

READINGS

Matthew 5:33-37…  You have heard it was said in ancient times, “You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.” I tell you, don’t swear at all – not by heaven, for it is the home of God and his to share or not; not by earth, for it is the Lord’s garden and not for us to trade on; not by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the King and his to rule. Don’t even swear on your life – you can’t make one hair on your head grey, black or blonde. When you have something to say, don’t talk in superlatives, don’t be hyperbolic, don’t exaggerate. Just let your “yes” be “yes” and your “no” be “no.” Anything more than that makes you a liar.

Matthew 6:1-8…  Resist the temptation to practice your piety before others so as to be admired; you get no reward for that. When you give to charity, don’t make a production of it as hypocrites do, so they’ll get their name on a plaque. Truly I tell you, they’ve received all the reward they’ll get. When you make a contribution, do it anonymously.  Be so private about it your left hand doesn’t even know what your right hand is doing. God, who sees in private will be pleased with that.

When you pray, do not be theatrical like a preacher; performing on television and at the Rotary club meetings or in front of Congress to make an occasion seem more impressive than it is. Truly I tell you, public attention is all the reward they’ll get. When you pray, go into your room. Shut the door. Pray silently so nobody can hear you.  God, who hears in silence will be pleased with that. And don’t heap up empty phrases as Ivy League seminary graduates do; who suppose they’ll be heard because of their lofty words. Don’t be that way. If you have something to say to God, be yourself. God knows what you need before you ask.

Matthew 7:1-5…  Don’t judge others so you won’t be judged yourself. The standard to which you hold others is the standard to which you’ll be held. The measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you notice the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but not the tree stump all up in your face? How can you say to your neighbor, “Let me brush those crumbs off your shirt,” while your own clothes are covered with mustard and ketchup stains? Look, you have some French fry grease right there.  Don’t be a hypocrite.  First get the tree stump off your face. Wash your clothes. Make yourself presentable. Then you’ll see clearly enough to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye or brush the crumbs off his shirt.

Ralph Waldo Emerson – Who you are shouts so loudly in my ears I can’t hear a word you say.

Maya Angelou – Do the best you can with what you know. When you know better, do better.

REFLECTION

This week, at the suggestion of the Worship Planning Team, we begin a series of reflections on the topic “What Does it Mean to be a People of Integrity?”  About integrity – I begin by acknowledging I find this topic difficult, daunting, really.  It’s certainly worthy of our consideration – anyone is better off striving for integrity.  The world would be much the better off if more people actually practiced the values they claim to believe in.  But what occurs to me as I think about integrity is that it tends to lose potency when we talk about it casually, carelessly.  It’s hard to talk about integrity – or any aspect of morality for that matter – without patting yourself on the back or tearing down someone else.  As soon as that starts happening, all the value goes out of the subject.  It seems to me first and most important step to becoming a people of integrity is to make it a quiet, careful pursuit in self-examination.  It calls for discretion and honesty and humility.  So, with that reverence for the subject in mind, I’ll offer a few thoughts to get us moving in the right direction and invite your responses about what makes integrity meaningful or challenging for you after a bit.

We might as well think about the definition for a moment.  In a moral and spiritual sense, integrity suggests a state of continuity between one’s values and behavior.  It suggests that one acts in a way that’s consistent with their values and the agreed upon rules of conduct.  It implies doing the right thing because it is the right thing.  Some phrases that go along with this sense of integrity include “what someone does when nobody is looking.” “How someone treats others who can’t reciprocate or retaliate.”  Take a moment and call to mind someone in your experience who has integrity.  What gives you that impression?  What stands out for you about their words or their behavior that connotes a sense of integrity?

The example that came to mind for me is Jimmy Carter.  At 95 years old, he still volunteers many days and weeks each year with Habitat for Humanity.  He still teaches Sunday School with his church emphasizing passages of scripture that advocate for social justice.  Every once in a while, you see him on the news when he’s contending with a medical issue, and he’s always very quiet and plain spoken.  A year or two ago I saw him interviewed for a television program, and the host brought up the subject of the current president and an example of his poor behavior, giving President Carter an opportunity to criticize and ridicule.  In the most deferential yet self-assured way you can imagine, with all the composure in the world, he simply said, “Let’s not go there.” And the conversation moved on to other subjects.  I so admire that.

That brings me to what I think is the most substantial aspect of personal integrity – knowing when and how to hold your peace.  If integrity is a balanced equation between one’s words and one’s actions, and if that equation is prone to skewing off-balance because one’s words get out ahead of one’s actions, then surely part of the solution is to use fewer words.  I’m confident that were we to look at any list of people recognized for their integrity, we’d notice they don’t use their words carelessly; don’t tend to hold forth about their accomplishments or indulge in character assassinations.

I mentioned as I began that integrity is a daunting subject for me, and the reason is because even now in my late 50’s I still haven’t mastered that obvious bit of wisdom and skill.  I’m a little better at it than I was when I was younger, sometimes, but with increasing years has come a painful awareness of the damage I’ve done with careless words; the disturbance in the universe I’ve caused by blurting out something I thought was clever, trying to get a laugh or put someone in their place.  In my imagination I picture Jesus walking around with me – some current version of Jesus, clean shaven wearing khakis and a denim shirt – and through the course of my day whenever I’m about to have a go at someone, whenever I’m about to speak a thoughtless word, he’d nudge me with his elbow and shake his head, maybe saying something like, “Hey Bob, let’s not go there.  I already spoke to that person, and if they’re not listening to me, they won’t listen to you.  Let your actions do the talking.  Go put a few bucks in that collection jar for the food pantry.  Let’s go teach someone else how to train their dog gently.  That’ll make any point that’s worth making.  God isn’t handing out points for sick burns today.  If you say that clever thing that occurred to you just now, you’re just as mean and petty as the person you’re saying it about.  Now hold your peace and go be kind to someone.

This brings me to another essential aspect of integrity, which is that it’s inevitably a long-term project with a sometimes-steep learning curve.  Yet the only thing worse than damaging your integrity with a poor choice is to quit trying.  Part of integrity has to be acknowledging when we fail to maintain it.  It struck me as I was composing my thoughts for this morning that the more you’re comfortable with your skills and talents as well as with your and faults and imperfections, the less you need to compensate by promoting yourself or criticizing others.  Susan found a joke in the New Yorker magazine recently that goes, “If you can’t say something nice, say something clever, but devastating.”  It brings me back to the idea that integrity shares a symbiotic relationship with personal security.  It’s okay to let others’ moral failings and hypocrisy pass without comment.  It doesn’t cost you anything not to say something.  It’s not as if others can’t recognize poor behavior without my pointing it out, and if they’re unwilling to see it for themselves, my saying something isn’t going to make a difference.  Certainly, there are moments when it’s appropriate speak if it can be constructive – we have a responsibility to be a voice for compassion and justice.  But having integrity means learning to speak and act in a way that invites the best in others.  Learning how to advocate for a better world without succumbing to self-promotion or tearing down others is hard to do, and certainly not as gratifying as grabbing some limelight while casting shadows.  But that’s the nature of virtue – “If it were easy,” as they say, “everyone would do it.”

What thoughts and ideas occur to you about your own experience with integrity?  When has it been hard for you, if you feel comfortable sharing that?  What are some things that have made it easier?  Take a moment to consider a thought you might like to share, and we’ll pass the microphone for a few minutes.

CLOSING READING

Where the Mind Is Without Fear – Rabindranath Tagore

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high

Where knowledge is free

Where the world has not been broken up into fragments

By narrow domestic walls

Where words come out from the depth of truth

Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way

Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit

Where the mind is led forward by thee

Into ever-widening thought and action

Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake