A Movie of Immense Power

Not that it needs anything from me, but I just wanted to add my voice to the chorus of praise for Spielberg’s “Lincoln.”

It is a movie of immense power.

First of all, a couple of notes.  This is NOT a movie for people who go to the show to see special effects, or to see stuff blown up.  There’s an actual story here.  Second, if you don’t like movies where you have to pay attention to dialogue, save yourself the $8 and stay home.  If you didn’t like “The West Wing” on TV, you almost certainly won’t like “Lincoln.”

But: if you enjoy history, if you like movies where words matter, if you enjoy seeing incredible actors at the top of their craft, then you owe it to yourself to go see this.

Here’s the story: It is January, 1865.  The American Civil War is in its fourth year, and Lincoln has just been reelected.  Two years earlier, he had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, but now he is seeking to abolish slavery once and for all through the proposed 13th Amendment.  The amendment has passed the Senate, but does not have the necessary two-thirds majority to pass the evenly-divided House.

They say there two things you never want to watch: one is how sausage is made, and the other is how legislation gets passed.  Make an exception in this case.

Daniel Day Lewis is simply phenomenal to watch, and he is surrounded by incredible talent – Sally Field, David Strathairn, Tommie Lee Jones, Hal Holbrook, just to name a few.  When his advisers are whining because they’re still two votes down, Lincoln thunders,  “I am President of the United States, clothed with great power. The abolition of slavery by Constitutional provisions settles the fate, for all … time, not only of the millions now in bondage, but of unborn millions to come – a measure of such importance that those two votes must be procured.  I leave it to you to determine how it shall be done, but remember that I am President of the United States, clothed with immense power, and I expect you to procure those two votes …”

It’s an actual quote, as cited by John B. Alley, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln, ed., Rice, 1886 ed., p 585-6.

And then there’s Sally Field.  The fact is, Mary Todd Lincoln had battled mental illness for much of her life, and when their middle son died, she never fully recovered from the loss.  The scene in the privacy of their bedroom, when she and Mr. Lincoln have a screaming fight, is in my opinion, one of the most powerful ever put on film.  Watching her and Daniel Day Lewis go at each other is like watching Frazier and Ali trading punches.

And I don’t have time to tell you how amazing Tommie Lee Jones is here.

I love the way Spielberg structured the storytelling here.  The movie opens with remembrances of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and closes with his Second Inaugural.

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

I’m telling you, words matter, and they absolutely shine in the hands of this director, this script, and these actors.  “Lincoln” is a gem.

Come Before Him with Thanksgiving

“Come, let us sing for joy to the LORD;

Let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.

Let us come before Him with thanksgiving

and extol Him with music and song.” – Psalm 95:1, 2

I hope Thanksgiving today finds you happy and well, and surrounded by family and friends.  This is one of my very favorite holidays, for a variety of reasons and sweet memories.

Some of my earliest memories of this day go back to my grandparents, Archie & Sallie McMillan.  When I was a young child, for some reason, I wouldn’t call her “Grandma.”  I heard other people call her, “Sallie,” which I tried to do, but she didn’t like that.  So, I started calling her “Sa-Sa,” and the name stuck.  So we would go to Sa-Sa & Pa-Pa’s house.

I don’t really remember usually having turkey for that meal – it seems that she usually fixed a big hen, and usually in a pressure cooker to make it fall-off-the-bone tender.  But what I REALLY remember about Thanksgiving at Sa-Sa’s house was her fruit salad.  It had lots of big chunks of apples and bananas and fruit cocktail, along with chopped walnuts and coconut.  Of course, we had lots of other stuff to eat, and plenty of desserts, but I always loved her fruit salad.  What was especially great was, if there was any left over, she would freeze it, and we would eat it at Christmas.

Pa-Pa died in 1969, and Sa-Sa passed in about 1988, but I still remember them both, especially today.  I have taught some of the kids in my after-school program how to make her fruit salad, and I tell them about her as we make it.  And I’m thankful for her, and for such sweet memories.

“Rejoice in the Lord always.  I will say it again: rejoice!  Let your gentleness be evident to all.  The Lord is near.  Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:4-7

Thanksgiving also means football, of course; in our family, that meant the Cowboys.  The greatest one was Thanksgiving, 1974, when George Allen’s “Over the Hill Gang” laid a vicious 3rd quarter hit on Roger Staubach and knocked him out of the game.  The Skins were up 16-3 at the time, when an untested rookie from ACU came into the game as the Cowboys’ backup quarterback, Clint Longley.  He had earned the nickname of “The Mad Bomber” from his teammates, because of his default tendency to throw deep in practice.

What happened next, Cowboys fans still talk about.  And Redskins fans have never gotten over.

This rookie put together what might be the most improbably comeback in team history.  After leading the Boys to two other touchdowns, with just 35 seconds to play, Longley found a streaking Drew Pearson racing down the sidelines, and he scored.  We won 24-23.  It’s still one of the greatest wins in Cowboys history.

Four years later, Kathy and I were celebrating our first Thanksgiving as husband and wife.  I was a senior at Dallas Christian College, and she and I were in a singing group known as “Revelation.”  Thanksgiving weekend, 1978, we were in the recording studio, cutting a record.  (Do I need to explain what “records” were for any of the under 40 crowd?)  Since we couldn’t go anywhere for the day, Mom & Dad came to Dallas, and we had Thanksgiving in our tiny apartment.

Fast forward to 2010.  My mom had passed away just two months earlier, and we were sharing our first holiday without her.  My brother David and his wife Gina hosted the whole wooly bunch of us at their home in Spring.  He fried a turkey, my nephew made some amazing cranberry dressing on the stove, and everybody fixed their favorite recipes.  I made one of my Jack Daniels Black-Bottom Pecan Pies.  We shared the day and the warmth of shared memories as we surrounded our dad and comforted each other and gave thanks for the legacy we shared and the sweetness of her presence still in our midst.

As I write this, Kathy is busy in the kitchen, finalizing meal preparations.  We’re a turkey, cornbread dressing, green beans, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn casserole, pumpkin pie, pecan pie, and more.  We have invited several neighbors to come eat with us.  Then later, we’re going to the new restaurant where Drew is working, to have a meal there.

I am thankful for family, for friends, for sweet memories and for wonderful times together.  I am thankful for my job, for my neighbors, and for all of the blessings we enjoy.  I am thankful for Jesus.  And I know that the blessings I have received, are not mine exclusively to enjoy, but have been given so that I can in turn be a blessing to others.

I hope your day today is filled with everything wonderful, and that whatever your circumstances, you can give thanks with a glad and sincere heart.  Happy Thanksgiving!

“Enter His gates with thanksgiving,

and His courts with praise;

Give thanks to Him and praise His Name.

For the LORD is good and His love endures forever;

His faithfulness continues through all generations.”

Psalm 100:4-5

The Magic Carpet Made of Steel

The next time your travel plans call for a long-distance trip, let me suggest that you take a page from the past, and go by train.  In my opinion, traveling by Amtrak is one of America’s best-kept secrets.  And most of the time, it absolutely beats flying as a way of getting from here to there.

I have had the pleasure of taking the train on several overnight trips, and it’s a wonderful experience.  Some trips I’ve had a private roomette; other times I’ve gone the cheap route and just gotten a seat in the coach car.

Riding in coach is a pleasant surprise for anyone used to flying.  The tickets cost about the same as taking the bus, but it’s a much more comfortable way to go.  The seats are roomier, and there’s a LOT more leg room.  There are also electrical outlets at every seat where you can plug in and recharge your laptop or cell phone.  You can easily get up and walk to stretch your legs, go to one of the several restrooms on each car, or go to the lounge car.

If you do go to the lounge car, you’ll find lots of very comfortable seats and ginormous picture windows for looking out on the passing scenery.  You’ll also find a snack bar selling heat-and-eat meals, soft drinks and adult beverages, as well as sundries like playing cards, post cards, toiletries, and other items for sale.

My friend Phil Stallings – a retired airline captain – likes to say, “It only costs a little more to go first class; you just can’t go quite as often.”  That’s true of Amtrak, and if you can at all afford getting a roomette or a bedroom, I would highly recommend it.

Roomettes are small compartments, just right for one or two people.  In the daytime, they come with two comfortable seats that face each other, a drop-down table between them, and a sliding, locking door with a heavy curtain over it for privacy.  The rooms have electrical outlets, and adjustable climate controls, and space to store a couple of suitcases.

In the evening, the porter will fold down the seats and make them into a comfortable twin-sized bed for you.  There’s also a drop-down “Murphy” bed above the window, if two people are sharing the room.

Your first class ticket also includes meals in the dining car.  Eating in the diner has always been one of the best parts of train travel, and while Amtrak cuisine can’t quite match up to the glory days of the Super Chief or the Twentieth Century Limited, it’s still pretty good.

When you get up in the morning, the porter will bring you complimentary coffee or juice.  You can also reserve a time to go downstairs and take a shower.

Try doing that on a 737…

The last time I traveled first class, I took Amtrak from Ft. Worth to Cincinnati, via Chicago.  We left Cowtown early afternoon on the “Texas Eagle,” stopped in Dallas for a few minutes, then continued on from there.  I had supper in the diner – a really good steak, as I recall – then hung out in the lounge car and read as the night fell over East Texas.  I went back to my compartment and went to bed, “rocking to the gentle beat.”

I woke up briefly as we went through Little Rock, and then it was dawn and we were in St. Louis.  My good friend Mike Kloog lives there, and he came to the station.  I went in and he and I had a nice visit as the train was being serviced.  I climbed back aboard, and had breakfast as we went by the St. Louis Arch and crossed the Mississippi into Illinois.  Later, I had lunch near Joliet, then we were in Chicago, where I caught Amtrak’s “Cardinal” to Cincinnati.  All in all, a wonderful trip.

Let’s consider some negatives:

  • Yes, the schedules are not always convenient, and you sometimes have to drive an hour or two to catch the train.  But then, I’ve often driven to Dallas or Lubbock to catch a flight, so that shouldn’t be a deal-breaker.
  • Yes, it takes longer to get there than flying.  Sometimes when you travel, speed is necessary.  But not always.  When you have the time, you should consider the train.
  • Yes, it can be a bit pricey if you get a private room.  But that balances out when you consider the cost of gasoline, meals and motel rooms for driving across country.  And you don’t arrive feeling beaten up and strung out from the road.
  • Yes, sometimes the trains run late.  But then, so does every other form of public transportation.  And outside of the Boston-New York-Washington, DC corridor, Amtrak doesn’t own its own tracks, so it has to juggle schedules around the freight railroads whose tracks it leases.

All that said, I still think it’s well worth it to take the train.  No security hassles getting on, and no TSA agents copping a feel.  No extra charge to bring along a suitcase.  No cramped seats, or not being allowed to go use the restroom while the train circles the station.  Scenery that you can actually see, and appreciate the beauty and diversity of this great country of ours.  Food that you’d actually pay money to eat.  And wonderful people to meet, with whom you can visit and share the ride.

Whenever I talk to people about long distance train trips, I often hear, “I’ve always wanted to do that.”  Maybe it’s time to take a page from Nike’s book, and just do it.  I think you’ll be glad you did.  And you don’t have to be a train buff to enjoy the ride.

No Fear

I will not give in to fear. I refuse to give in to hate.

Do I like the direction in which the country is heading? I do not. Do I believe the current occupant of the White House shares my values? I do not.

But I will not give in to hate. I will not give in to fear.

For many though, this election was far from an easy decision. Yes, the positions of the Democratic party on abortion, on gay marriage, and on other issues, are not in line with what I believe. On the other hand, I reject the extreme greed, selfishness and materialism that seem to drive many of the Republican policies. I’m not sure Abraham Lincoln or Teddy Roosevelt would recognize what has become of the party they once proudly championed.  But John “ask not what your country can do for you” Kennedy probably wouldn’t recognize some of the Democratic positions, either.

For once, I actually found myself agreeing with Bill Clinton when he said that he preferred a national attitude that says, we need to help one another, because we’re all in this together, rather than one that says, “I’ve got mine, you’re on your own.”

The scripture says, “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak.” Might that not include economic failures as well? In Bible times, landowners were required to make provision for the poor, the alien, the widows and orphans. What should that provision look like for today? I don’t know the answer, but I do believe that the fact that some people abuse the system, shouldn’t mean that we refuse to help others.

Granted, we should not reward laziness, and simply throwing money at a problem – whether it’s taxpayer funds, or private donations – rarely solves anything. And yes, Jesus did say that the poor will always be with us. But I don’t think He meant that we should be content with that, or that He meant to let us off the hook from trying to help.

So I will not give in to fear. I choose to live in hope. I will “make every effort” to reach out to the poor, the lonely, the disenfranchised. What does that mean? It means knocking on some doors, offering a hug, delivering a meal or a sack of groceries. It means opening my door for some people to come eat with our family, and opening my heart to others, to build friendships with people who aren’t like me.

It DOESN’T mean just volunteering on Thanksgiving morning at some soup kitchen, or giving a few dollars for a Sunday School Christmas project, so we can have a warm fuzzy. That’s sacrificing to the LORD my God that which cost me nothing.

But I will not harbor resentment, or hate, or despair in my heart. I will not look to Washington for answers, nor wait for the election of 2016, nor put my hope in princes, of either party. The weapons that I fight with are not the weapons of this world, and my struggle is not against flesh and blood.

I will pray for the President and for Congress, because the scripture commands me to do so, and because it’s the right thing to do. I will submit to lawful authority, so long as it does not require me to disobey God, because every civil authority is established by God and answerable to Him. I will render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto to God what is God’s.

The same Roman government that Paul urged his readers to pray for and submit to, was the same government that executed him. When Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego refused to bow to the king’s statue, they didn’t question his right to exercise authority over them.

God establishes seats of power, and brings down nations, to accomplish His purposes, and He doesn’t ask my opinion. Do I like the fact that some states have legalized gay marriage? Of course not. Do I approve of the way my taxes are being spent? Certainly not, at least not in every case. Do I approve of laws making assisted suicide legal? No. (More on that later.)

But these are all symptoms of a larger problem. The human race is fallen. We need a Savior. Relationships are broken – between people and God, and among us as humans and neighbors.  Unless and until we deal with that brokenness, nothing will really change.

(By the way, legalizing marijuana is just one more symptom of that brokenness. It just shows people looking for some peace – they’re just using something that cannot satisfy.)

But I will live in hope. Not some pie-in-the-sky kind of mindlessness that refuses to recognize the seriousness of the situation, but the kind of hope that knows that God is still in charge, even when I don’t understand. The hope that comes from knowing that greater is He Who is in me, than he who is in the world.  Knowing that my God will one day wipe every tear from our eyes, and there will be no more pain, or crying, or death, for the old order of things will pass away.

And there will be no more hungry children. Or crack-head welfare mothers. Or economic oppression. Or injustice against the weakest among us. Or abuse of power. Or corporate greed. Or bloated government. Or environmental disasters.  Or any of the other things that plague us because of our brokenness.

Until Jesus returns to bring the Kingdom in its fullness, I will work to make it real in my life, and in the lives of those around me. I will share my food with the hungry, and not turn away from the stranger in our midst. I will declare good news to the poor, bind up the brokenhearted, and proclaim release from captivity for those who sit in darkness. I will work to bring justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with my God.

I will live in hope. And I will not give in to fear.

A Window into the Past

In 1947, a young Bedouin shepherd boy was in the Judean wilderness southeast of Jerusalem near the Dead Sea, taking care of some of his family’s flock of goats, when one of the goats wandered off.  The limestone cliffs there are studded with dozens of small caves, and the boy didn’t feel like climbing up there to look in every cave, so he started throwing rocks into the caves, figuring he could hit the goat and drive it out.  But he was startled when one of his throws brought a “crash” of breaking pottery.

He had just made the most important historical find of the 20th century: the Dead Sea Scrolls.

A DSS fragment of the book of Hosea

The scrolls opened for us a window into the past, to a Jewish sect known as the Essenes, who lived in the desert community of Qumran, near the NW corner of the Dead Sea.  Not as large as other, better known groups from the time of Christ like the Pharisees or Sadducees, the Essenes believed in strict personal holiness, sexual purity, and rejected wealth and worldly pursuits.  They practiced daily immersion as a symbol of purity, and lived as a separate community, calling themselves the “Sons of Light” and looking for the Messiah.

John the Baptist may well have been their most famous member.

They had a large collection of Biblical and non-Biblical scrolls, which they studied regularly.  So, when they saw Jerusalem destroyed in AD 70, they took their precious scrolls, put them in large clay jars, and hid them in the caves above their community.  They were pretty much scattered by the Roman occupation, and so the scrolls sat in those jars, in that dry desert heat, for nearly 2000 years.

The scrolls are important for Biblical scholarship because before their discovery, the oldest Hebrew manuscripts only dated back to about AD 1000 – that’s over 1400 years since the last book of the Old Testament was written.  That’s a long time, skeptics said – too long to have any faith that the Old Testament (or Tanakh, in Jewish terms) could be trusted to be reliable.

Most of the scrolls,with a few notable exceptions, had deteriorated to being no more than fragments, a few inches in size.  But scholars were still able to read them, to piece them together, and to determine which OT books they represented.  And they found parts of every book of the Hebrew scriptures except Esther.  Carbon dating and other methods confirmed that some of the scrolls were as old as 200 BC.

When they compared the text of the scrolls to that of known Hebrew manuscripts, they found, after 1,200 years of hand-copying, over 95% agreement between the documents! And a majority of the differences represented only variations in spelling or other minor changes; none of the variations involved any texts with doctrinal significance.

There is currently a major exhibition of the Dead Sea Scrolls and related historical material at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.  (Thanks to my friend James Rike for letting me know about it!)  So this past Saturday, Kathy and I were part of a group from our Investigators Bible Study class at Beltway to make the trip to Fort Worth the view the exhibit.  In my opinion, it’s well worth the $25 ticket price.

First, you go through a tour of historical artifacts from that period in world and Israel history.  There are old oil lamps, coins, ossuary boxes for holding human bones, and many other fascinating items on display.  All of these things set the historical stage for the scrolls.  Then you see several facsimiles – exact copies – of some of the scrolls, to show you what to notice in the real thing.  At this point, you’re ushered in to watch a short video, further putting the scrolls into their proper place in history and Biblical scholarship.  Finally, you’re led in to see the scrolls themselves.

Kathy pointed out that it was a good thing they had the other exhibits and videos first, to help you understand the importance of what you’re seeing, because otherwise the scrolls themselves can be somewhat – underwhelming.  For one thing, they’re not really scrolls anymore – they’re mostly fragments now, only a few inches in size.  Also, they’re kept in dark cases, with only minimal light, to prevent further fading.  But it was still fascinating; more so because many of the items on display had never been put up for public viewing anywhere before.

I’ve been to the actual museum of the Dead Sea Scrolls in Jerusalem, but I was really moved and impressed by the excellence of this exhibit.  I thought one of the most fascinating parts was to notice the wrinkling and cracking of the ancient leather parchment; it looked just like the wrinkling of an old leather glove.  Same thing with the plant fibers of those documents written on papyrus.

In addition to the DSS, they also had numerous artifacts of the New Testament and historically significant editions of the Bible – including two pages of the oldest known copy of the letters of Paul, from the papyrus p46, dating back to about the year 175.  And much, much more.

Finally, just outside the museum, you can walk through a re-creation of part of the Qumran dig site, with actual pieces of 2000 year old pottery fragments on the ground, donated by the Smithsonian Museum.  The fragments are from the Tel Gema historical site in SW Israel, and everyone is allowed to keep one piece of pottery.

If you have any interest in how we got the Bible, archeology, or world history, I strongly recommend a visit.  The exhibit continues until January 13; their website is www.seethescrolls.com.

One final thought: perhaps the single most important discovery of the DSS was a near-perfect copy of the book of Isaiah.  So hear again the words of the prophet, from Isaiah 40:8 – “The grass withers, the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.”