A lesson of service
The homily at the funeral service for Jim Jeffords on Friday contained a message with meaning that reaches far beyond the confines of the church in Rutland where the funeral took place and beyond the boundaries of Vermont.
It was a spiritual message with wide application to the hurly-burly of the everyday world and the world of politics. The Rev. Dr. Steven E. Berry used a text from Matthew: “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” The message of the day was that Jim Jeffords, state senator, attorney general, U.S. representative and senator, was a “servant leader,” a humble man who had no interest in exalting himself.
It is perhaps cynical to think that the message of humility and service is a fine one for a sermon in a church. We all feel better when we hear those words, but reality requires us to put aside pious sermons when we engage in the battle for survival in the worlds of work or politics. It’s every man for himself in our rough-and-tumble world, and the survival of the fittest may determine the winners more surely than the Gospel of Matthew.
Certainly, there is confirmation for that view in the way that politics has worked in the years since 2006, when Jeffords left the Senate. There is no doubt that Jeffords or his predecessor in office, Robert Stafford, would have little tolerance for the polarization and paralysis that have turned the present Congress into the least productive one in history. Both men would no doubt have cringed when the present House speaker, John Boehner, boasted that it was a good thing Congress had passed fewer bills than ever before.
Members of Congress today do not act in the manner of servant leaders. In more ways than one they are serving themselves first. They meet and conduct business on a truncated schedule from Tuesday to Thursday because they prefer to be out in their districts raising money and glad-handing constituents. They are advised by their leadership that they must devote four hours each day on the phone raising money. They operate within a world of lobbyists and high rollers that is far removed from ordinary people and who have little notion of service except to serve oneself. Their own re-election is their paramount interest, and if they believe they must abandon their posts as leaders to further their own interests, they will do it.
The eulogies for Jim Jeffords painted a different picture. It wasn’t as if he was not a competitive man. His childhood friend, George Hansen, described a baseball game among sixth graders in Rutland when Jeffords’ team won the right to bat first and proceeded to put 25 runs on the board before the bottom of the first inning, when the game was called for supper. The lesson Hansen took from it was not to let Jim Jeffords bat first.
At his funeral, Jeffords’ children, Leonard and Laura, noted that he was a fierce competitor when playing hearts or Risk or Monopoly.
Competition and ambition are in the DNA of American life, but they need not be harnessed to serve the self first. And yet that is a lesson that has faded from consciousness. Jeffords’ ambition and his competitive spirit were harnessed to serve the disabled, to preserve our environment, to foster educational opportunity. Since he left office, the corrupting power of big money has only grown, and self-interest has forced to the side servant leaders like Jeffords.
Jeffords was not slick. He was not eloquent. He was not grandiose or self-serving. His children knew him as a dad who liked to putter around on his tractor in Shrewsbury or hike the hills with his dogs. People who met him may not have felt they were able to get behind his awkward style and shy demeanor to the real person, but the person standing before them was the real person. Lack of artifice left him as the man he was.
It is important to keep in mind the enduring truth of what the Rev. Berry was saying about humility and service. Only by remembering the legacy of public servants like Jim Jeffords can we change the culture so that selfishness recedes and the servant, finally, is exalted.