“Chains Shall He Break…”

The music of Christmas has always been one of my favorite parts of celebrating this season of joy. When I was a child, I remember my mom had Christmas music playing during the entire month of December. Christmas music continues to be special to me, both the serious and the silly, the sacred and the secular. I want to tell you the story behind my favorite of all Christmas songs.

The year was 1847. Placide Cappeau de Roquemaure was the commissioner of wines in a small French village who had some local fame as a poet. Although he was not a regular church-goer, the local priest asked him if he would compose a special poem for use at that year’s Christmas service, and Cappeau agreed.

With the Christmas story from Luke in mind, Cappeau began to imagine actually being in Bethlehem and watching the events of that night unfold, and he soon completed the poem, which he entitled, “Cantique de Noel.” But Cappeau felt that the poem needed to become a song, and so he turned to a musician friend, Adolphe Adams, for help.

Adams was a Jew, but he agreed to help his Gentile friend compose a song for a holiday that Adams did not celebrate, to honor a Messiah that he did not worship. The tune was finished, and three weeks later, “Cantique” was performed for the first time at the midnight Christmas Mass. The song found wide acceptance in churches across France.

But a few years later, Cappeau walked away from the church and became part of the socialist movement, and French church officials discovered that the tune had been written by an unbelieving Jew. They denounced the song as being unfit for worship services, lacking in musical taste, and “total absence of the spirit of religion.” (Personally, I think that’s a good thing, but I digress.)

Anyway, that might have been the end of “Cantique,” except the song found its way to America a few years later, and was given new life by a staunch abolitionist, John Sullivan Dwight. You probably never heard of him – frankly, neither had I – but he prepared and published a new translation of Cappeau’s poem into English. Dwight was especially moved by the third verse of “Cantique.”

Truly He taught us to love one another,

His law is love, and His gospel is peace.

Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother,

And in His Name, all oppression shall cease.

Sweet hymns of joy, in grateful chorus raise we,

Let all within us, praise His holy Name:

Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever!

His power and glory, Ever more proclaim!

Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever!

His power and glory, Ever more proclaim!

And so, “O Holy Night” became popular on this side of the Atlantic, at first in northern homes during the Civil War, and later, throughout the country.

There is a legend that says during the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, a French soldier on Christmas Eve stood up, exposing himself to enemy fire, and began to sing “Cantique de Noel.” The Germans held their fire, and when was finished, a German soldier began to sing “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come,” a Christmas hymn by Martin Luther. The story goes that troops on both sides observed an unofficial Christmas truce.

“O Holy Night” became involved in another Christmas miracle of sorts a few years later, in 1906. Reginald Fessenden was a 33-year-old university professor and former assistant to Thomas Edison. On Christmas Eve of that year, using a new type of generator, Fessenden began to speak into a microphone: “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed…”

Across the country, and far out at sea, wireless operators who were used to hearing only coded dots and dashes over their equipment heard a man’s voice, reading them the Christmas story! It was the first known radio broadcast. When he finished reading the story, Professor Fessenden did something even more remarkable. He picked up his violin, and began to play a Christmas hymn – “O Holy Night.” And so it became the first song ever heard on the radio.

(The above material taken from “Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas” by Ace Collins, Copyright (c) 2001, Andrew Collins. Published by Zondervan.)

I love this carol, and it always moves me to tears, in part because of its soaring melody, and also in part because it answers the “So What?” question of Christmas. Jesus came to Earth – so what? He taught us about the love of God – so what? This song reminds us that we must live out the meaning of Christmas in the way that we treat others, to love God by loving our neighbors, and to join the work of Christ in breaking the chains of sin and injustice.

One of my favorite versions of this hymn is by Point of Grace. I hope you enjoy it.

From our family to yours, Merry Christmas.

Grayburg Memories

(Dear Readers – I’m taking a few days off, so with your kind permission, I’m re-running a blog post from 2013. Thanks and God bless.)

Grayburg.  That was the little community where his grandparents lived, and he loved going to visit.

His grandparents lived in a small white house on two lots, with two gigantic sycamore trees in the front yard.  He loved everything about the place, and he especially loved that during the summer, he could come and stay for a week, and have his grandparents all to himself.

His grandmother’s name was Sallie, and when the boy was little, he had a hard time knowing what to call her.  His other grandmother was “Grandma,” so he tried calling her by the name he heard other people calling her.  But she wouldn’t allow him to call her “Sallie.”  So somehow, “Sallie” became “Sa Sa.”

There was lots to love about going to Grayburg.  The boy loved walking down to see Sa Sa’s sister, Aunt Bib.  Her name was Vivian, but everyone called her Bib.  Aunt Bib was cool.  She taught him how to play dominoes, and how to do leathercraft.  And she had a BB gun he could shoot!  She also had bee hives, and always had lots of fresh honey, whipped into a creamy spread for morning toast.  And when he spent the night, she would let him get up in her bed, and they would put the covers up over their heads, and hold flashlights, and she would tell great stories.  Her version of “Three Little Pigs” was the best.

There was another sister, too – Aunt Hazel.  So Grayburg had lots of family connections.

Walking from Sa-Sa’s to Aunt Bib’s house was an adventure.  The streets were paved with old-timey blacktop, and in the summer, the sun’s heat would soften them to the point that the boy could push down into the pavement and made little dents with his feet.  He thought that was really cool.

Sa-Sa was a great cook, and his favorite was her chicken and dumplings.  The dumplings weren’t the lumps of dough that most people made – hers were more like thick, wide strips of chewy deliciousness.  She would take a hen, and put it in a pressure cooker for hours to tenderize the meat.  And she had another secret – when she was making the dough for the dumplings, instead of adding water to the flour, she would add chicken stock.  The flavor was amazing.  As was the smell going through the entire house.  And the hissing and clattering of the pressure cooker as the steam vented and did its thing.

There was a lady who came and helped Sa-Sa with her cooking and cleaning, an old black lady somewhere between the ages of 60 and 200.  Her name was Daisy, and she was wrinkled and thin with wiry gray hair, but she had a smile that could light up a room.  Daisy had been Sa-Sa’s friend and helper as far back as the boy could remember.  Farther than that – his mother said that Daisy had been a fixture in their home for almost as long as SHE could remember.

One of the boy’s earliest memories was going with his mother Sa-Sa and driving WAY back in the Piney Woods of East Texas, to an old shack where Daisy’s mother lived.  It was important to the boy’s mother, for reasons he didn’t understand.

Of course, one of his favorite parts about Grayburg was the trains.  Sa-Sa’s house was only a block or so away from the Missouri Pacific mainline between Houston and Beaumont, and on to New Orleans.  So there were lots of trains.  There was a long siding there, where trains would stop and pass each other, and a small yard where pulpwood was loaded onto flat cars, to be taken to sawmills.  And there was a small station there.  It was a sort of creamy yellow-beige color, with dark brown trim.  There was a freight deck on one side, and the station had a bay window where the agent could look down and see trains without having to leave his desk.

Inside, the station was painted in a tired ivory color, that might have been pretty at some point, but now was just dull and sad.  There was a potbellied stove for the occasional cold days, and a ticket window with an iron grill where you could buy passage to all points.  And there was a single small restroom in the corner.  Over the restroom door was a small metal sign.

Whites Only.

One time, the boy asked his dad about it.  “But, if Daisy were here and needed to go, where would she go?” he asked in all childhood innocence.

As it turns out, there was an outhouse out in the weeds and mud at the edge of the railyard.  His dad pointed out to the old privy and said, “I guess she would have to go there.”

The boy just looked at his dad.  He didn’t say anything else.  But all he could think about was how unfair that was.

EPILOGUE: This story takes place in about 1961 or 62.  And it’s a true story, because I was that little boy.  And what I remember was how many people seemed content with things as they were, and seemed not to notice unfairness.

And I guess my point is this – Jim Crow segregation laws are long since a thing of the past, thank God.  But unfairness and prejudice are still with us.  In society.  In our churches.  And in our hearts.  Jesus told us to pray for God’s Kingdom to come.  Surely the first place it must come is to our own hearts and our own lives.  And that means being willing to notice unfairness wherever it is.  And to work to change it.

No matter how uncomfortable it might make us.

Lessons from Gardening

I am blessed to work with some amazing people at Connecting Caring Communities.  One of them is my friend, colleague and fellow Friendship House coordinator, Janet Mendenhall.

Janet and her family live in the Valley View Friendship House, and part of her work in that neighborhood is a community garden.  Recently, she shared her thoughts on what she has learned from tending her garden.  I really appreciated what she had to say, and wanted to pass it on to you.

Lessons from Gardening
Janet Mendenhall

 

I have been gardening lately. Actually, that is too lofty a description for what I do. That conjures a picture of someone outfitted with a proper gardener’s hat and gloves and maybe even one of those expensive long-sleeved shirts that protect you from skin cancer and keep you cool at the same time. Or just the right tools from Smith and Hawken. Or maybe even some new, hip, organic way of growing food and raising fish and recycling your rain water all at the same time. I am doing none of this.

I found an empty lot, convinced a man with a tractor to till it, went to the local feed store and bought some seeds. My rows aren’t even straight; my tomatoes are neither subdued by stakes nor carefully caged. My honeydew is too close to my zucchini and despite my daily rerouting is a bit clingy to its neighbor. I battle weeds with an old hoe found in our ancient garage, owned by the ancient man who preceded us. I am clad in old tennis shoes and a pair of my son’s old soccer shorts and a T-shirt. My ungloved hands are calloused. It is far from glamorous. Or hip. But some days, it is good.

Gardens are spiritual places. God chose to begin life there. And it was good. New life arising from the garden soil. And God chose to redeem life there. And it was good. New life rising from the garden soil.

They are places of hope. And growth. And nourishment. Mouth-watering food on my plate just months after dropping two dollars’ worth of tiny seeds into a hole. It is almost that simple. Well, except for the weeding, and watering. And the dirty hands. And the weeds. And the ants. And the weeds.

Gardens are places of learning, too. Down-to-earth lessons, like calculating the potential sprawl of indeterminate tomatoes, and just how big a red squash can actually grow, and making sure the bean seeds your neighbor gave you aren’t the kind that need a trellis constructed for their upwardly mobile tendencies.

And spiritual lessons, like people are more important than pumpkins, when a passerby prematurely plucks the single surviving pumpkin you have been pandering to for months. And how, like relationships, you can’t help anything grow without being intentional. Or nurturing. Or providing refreshment. Or getting your hands dirty. And how our own lives need careful cultivation to produce good fruit. And how they need little or nothing to produce weeds. And how quickly weeds grow. And how difficult it is to remove those weeds. And how quickly they come back. Without even trying.

It is often in gardens that we make connections: to other gardeners as we work the ground together, to the earth as we recognize its richness, and especially to our Master Gardener, who does good things everywhere, but is especially handy in the garden.

A Morning in Jerusalem

A disclaimer to begin: I realize this post is longer than I usually write – a LOT longer. A word of explanation is in order.

A few years ago I was preaching through the Gospel of John, always on the lookout for fresh ways of retelling familiar stories. One book I had read on sermon writing suggested telling a story as if you were describing a movie. How would the shots be set up? What would the dialog be like? How would the music sound?

So I decided to give that approach a try, and here is the result. Our class at Beltway will be dealing with this story this coming Sunday (Aug. 4), so I thought I’d pull this out and share it. Like I said, I know it’s longer than my other posts, but I hope you will find it encouraging and thought-provoking.

A Morning in Jerusalem
(c) Dusty Garison, 2004, 2013
John 7:53-8:11

We fade in on a gray screen. We can see movement and shades within the gray, but we really can’t tell what we’re seeing. Then, as the screen gradually continues to lighten, we can tell that it is dawn, and that we have been looking at gray clouds moving against the lighter gray sky, just before sunup. We hear the main title music playing, a haunting and beautiful melody, led by strings and flutes. The sky grows steadily brighter and brighter, changing in colors from gray to pink to rose to orange, until finally the sun breaks over the horizon and it is day.

Cut to a hillside view, overlooking a city in the Middle East. As the camera pans across the view, we can see hundreds of small, white homes and other buildings, crowded so close together it seems they are almost built on top of each other. Dominating the scene is a magnificent structure we recognize as the temple. It is truly an amazing building, with stones as large as school buses. Its courtyards and connecting spaces cover an entire section of the city. At the bottom of the screen, superimposed over the picture, are the words that tell us where and when our movie is taking place: “Jerusalem, AD 30,” and below that the explanation, “The Last Year of Jesus’ Ministry.”

The words fade out, the camera zooms in, and we are heading up and down the narrow, twisting streets and alleys of the city. It is still very early in the morning, and not many people are out yet. We see a woman stirring a small cooking fire next to her one-room house; we pass another woman carrying a jar of water. Finally, the camera takes us into another house. It is almost too dark to see, but there on the wall, we can just barely make out the faint shadows of a man and woman, locked in love’s embrace.

Suddenly, there is a noise and a commotion. The music changes from the sweet, soft melody of the flutes to a blaring cacophony of brass instruments and drums. A dozen or more men come bursting into the room as the lovers try to escape. There are temple guards and other officials among the men, and they are led some from the group known as the “Separated Ones;” Pharisees, they call themselves. They grab the woman and begin to drag her from the room, allowing her just enough time to grab a robe for her to partially cover herself. In the confusion, the man escapes – or did they let him go?

The music continues to build, louder and louder, as the group heads back up the street, pushing and shoving the half-dressed woman in a makeshift parade. They are yelling obscenities and curses at her, making sure that they attract a crowd to follow them. The discordant, glaring music holds a long note, then abruptly shuts off as we…

Cut to a much more peaceful scene, back at the Temple. Instead of the shouts and curses of the previous scene and the glaring trumpets, now we hear only soft footsteps. We see a group of a dozen or so men walking through the outer courtyard area. The footsteps we’re hearing come from them. They are a diverse lot, ranging in age from about 20 to perhaps 50. The camera tracks with them as they enter the courtyard. At the head of this motley group is a rabbi. We can tell he is the teacher, because draped around his neck is a long prayer shawl of the type some rabbis wear. It is so long, it nearly touches the ground. It is white with blue stripes, and tassels at each end. The young rabbi is in his early thirties.

We cut to a close-up of this man. We can see his hands are callused; he may be a teacher now, but he is no stranger to hard work. The camera cuts to his feet. He is wearing sandals, and his feet show the dirt of the road he is walking. Cut to his eyes. Even in his young face, we see the beginnings of laugh lines around his eyes, and in those eyes burns an intensity that startles us – a mixture of joy and seriousness, pain and humor.

He is talking with the men in his group as they walk along together, and although we can’t make out what they’re saying, it’s obvious as we watch that they have been together long enough to be comfortable with each other. He is their teacher and they are his students, but they are also friends, and it shows in their manner. They are heading for a particular corner of the courtyard; they’ve been there before.

The scene shifts from them to others in the courtyard. In a series of rapid cuts, we can feel the excitement building as people point and comment as the group walks by. “There he is,” we hear one man say. “What story do you think he’ll tell today?” another man asks. “Who is that?” asks a third. His companion answers, almost in a whisper, “That’s that teacher everyone is talking about – Jesus of Nazareth.” Meanwhile, the rabbi leads his little group to the spot he has in mind, and as is the custom for teachers of that day, he sits down. His disciples gather around him, and the lesson begins.

We cut back to the woman; the men around her are still shoving and pushing her, cursing her to hurry up. She is desperately trying to hold her robe together and preserve some shred of dignity and modesty, but she isn’t having much luck. The camera pans from the woman to a group of three of the leaders of this group, walking behind. We listen in on their conversation.

“Look, it’s just like I was saying the other day,” one them declares. “There’s no way he can get out of this.”

“Yes,” says a second, “but nobody has been executed for adultery in as long as anyone can remember. Good thing too, for some of these guys. Besides, he’s going to know what this woman is, and that we set this whole thing up. How else could we be witnesses, if we hadn’t hired her in the first place and told her what house to go to?”

“That doesn’t matter,” answers the first. “We’ve got her, dead to rights, and the law is still the law. It says she must die.”

“But the Romans would never let us execute someone for something like this; you know it, I know it, and he knows it,” his friend protests.

“You just don’t get it, do you?” the first man says. “If he says we should just let her go and forget about it, we can accuse him of being a lawbreaker and overlooking a capital crime. The people will turn against him. But if he says to carry out the death penalty, then we can accuse him to the Romans of usurping their authority.”

“Yes,” chimes in a third man, “but more than that, he’ll lose the support of that rabble that follows him. He can’t very well talk about forgiveness and mercy on the one hand, and executing her on the other. They call him, ‘The friend of sinners’ – some friend! No matter what he says, we can discredit him publicly.” The camera stays on this man’s face, and we see the triumph in his eyes. It is a thoroughly unpleasant look. The camera stops moving as we watch the group continuing marching through the street; just ahead of them is the Temple gate.

The scene cuts back to Jesus and his listeners. Many from the crowd have wandered over to hear him speak. It is early autumn, during the feast of Tabernacles, and there are a lot of folks here who have heard about this rabbi from the Galilee. He is retelling a story that some have heard before. The camera tracks across the scene, to give us a chance to see both Jesus and his followers, listening with rapt attention.

“Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep,” he tells them, “and one of them turns up missing. Won’t you leave the ninety-nine sheep someplace safe, and go look for the missing one? Of course you would.” At this, the camera focuses on some in the audience who are nodding their heads in agreement. Jesus continues, “And when you find it, wouldn’t you joyfully pick it up and put it on your shoulders, and carry it back home? Of course you would. You might even throw a party when you get there, because you were so excited that you had found your lost sheep. I’m telling you the truth: there is more excitement in heaven over one lost person who repents, than over ninety-nine righteous persons who don’t need to repent.”

He pauses for a moment, to let them think about what he’s just said. He is about to continue, when heads in the crowd begin to turn. A mob is heading for him. “What’s going on?” some in the crowd ask. They grasp in shocked surprise at the sight of the indecently-dressed woman, so obviously a prostitute. More and more people hurry over to the corner of the courtyard where Jesus is sitting. After all, excitement is where you find it, and suddenly, this day just became much more interesting.

The crowd in front of Jesus moves aside, and up walk the leaders of the mob, with the guards dragging the woman along. For a long moment, no one says a word. During this silence, we have a series of quick camera changes, as we see first the Pharisees and teachers, staring angrily at him – cut to some of Jesus’ disciples, puzzled by this interruption – cut to the woman, bruised and scraped at the rough treatment she’s been receiving, and bleeding from her knees and elbows, embarrassed and humiliated at what is happening – cut to Jesus, still sitting on the ground, looking up at the ringleaders with a sort of a sad, resigned look in his eyes. We watch as he slowly stands up.

The camera cuts back to the scribes, as with a jerk of their heads, they motion to the temple guards, who give the woman a final shove. She tries to hide, but there is no escape. They are enjoying her shame, and they make her stand there. The camera moves to one of the Pharisees, dressed in his robes, proudly wearing all the badges of his office and symbols of his heritage. He is proud and sure of himself, and his pride can be seen in the way he is dressed, and heard in the way he speaks.

“Teacher,” he says, in a voice loud enough to be heard by all the crowd, “his woman was caught in the act of adultery – in the very act!” He pauses to make sure everyone has understood him. The crowd is murmuring among themselves for a moment. He looks around, nodding approval at the crowd’s gossip, before he raises his hands for quiet and continues. “In the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. Please give us the benefit of your special wisdom,” he says, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “What should we do with her? What do you say?”

The camera holds on him, as he looks around at the audience. He is sneering with obvious pleasure. This is his moment of triumph: all the planning, all the preparations, all of it for this very moment. At last, he looks back at Jesus.

To this man’s very great surprise, Jesus doesn’t say a word. He doesn’t try to say anything, doesn’t try to get away, doesn’t try to explain his way out of an obviously put-up situation. Instead, the teacher just bends down, sort of sitting on his haunches, and begins to write in the dirt.

The noisy crowd has grown completely silent. Jesus’ disciples are also silent. In fact, we don’t hear anything except the wind blowing. What is he writing in the dust? We can’t tell. Is he just doodling, to give himself time to think? Or is he writing something – a verse of scripture perhaps? Perhaps a verse like, “Do not share in the iniquity of evildoers”? Or maybe, “Do not conspire with those who tell lies”? Whatever he’s writing, it takes a long moment, and the silence grows.

While this is going on, the camera moves in a circle around Jesus, always focused on him. His face is calm as he continues to write. We see his hand, drawing in the dirt. We cut back to his eyes. They turn one way to look at the woman, and we look at her, too. She sees him look at her, but she can’t bear to look back, and she stares at the ground. Then we see his eyes look over at the scribes, and we look at them. Their eyes are hard, bright and shining with anger. He looks at his disciples, and we see their concern. They know the master is in trouble here.

Not a word is spoken during these cuts. Finally, the Pharisees begin to press him. “Come on, teacher,” they say. “What should we do with her? Do we stone her or not?” Again we have a series of camera cuts, from Jesus to the scribes to the woman, to Jesus, to the crowd.

Finally, in a wide shot where we can see the whole scene, Jesus stands up and looks at them. We cut to a close-up of his face. “Fine,” he says, in a quiet and calm voice. “Whichever of you is without sin may be the first to throw a stone at her.” Then, he stoops back down and resumes his writing.

We cut to the scribes, and we can see they had not expected this. Suddenly, they realize they have been trapped by their own legalism. The camera pans across the assembled crowd. The older members of the group realize the meaning of his words, and begin to leave, followed by the younger members. We listen to one conversation. “What’s the matter?” asks a young scribal apprentice. “Why are we leaving?”

His master looks at him. “The law says that when executions are required, the witnesses against the accused must be the first to cast the stones.”

“What’s wrong with that?” asks the young man. “Why is that a problem?”

“Because,” says the older man, “the law also says that those witnesses must not be guilty of any conspiracy in the matter.”

The camera now holds steady in a wide shot, as one by one, the entire crowd moves out of the frame and walks away, leaving only the woman still standing before Jesus. The camera zooms in on her, and we look at her, and for the first time, really see her as a person. Jesus walks into the frame, and looks at her with genuine kindness, so unlike the look she normally sees in men’s eyes. After a moment, he asks her, “Woman, where did everyone go? Has no one condemned you?”

“No one, sir,” she answers. The camera holds on her for a moment.

Finally, the camera cuts back to Jesus. “Then neither do I condemn you,” he says to her. “You may go, and from now on, leave your life of sin.”

We see her expression change, and she begins to smile – a real smile, not the one she uses on customers. Something has changed in her; we see hope beginning to dawn in her eyes. The camera cuts back to Jesus, the music comes up with a swell, and he smiles back at her as we fade in the words, “The End,” and then slowly fade to black.

Except it ISN’T the end. You see, I believe each one of us is somewhere in this story.

Perhaps you are like the woman in this story before she met Jesus. You may not be an adulterer, but maybe you can identify with her. Everyone she’d ever known had betrayed and used her. She had thrown away her hope, given up on life, and now she just wanted to get through each day with as little pain as possible. Sound familiar?

Perhaps, like her, you’re desperately hoping for forgiveness, but knowing you don’t deserve it. But she found grace and forgiveness from this teacher, and you can as well.

Or maybe you’re like the Pharisees here. They were so sure of their absolute rightness, and they had all the answers. They despised people who didn’t measure up to their standards of right and wrong. After all, didn’t their standards come from the law? And hadn’t Moses given them the law so they could demonstrate how righteous they were, and how sinful everyone else was?

Maybe you can identify with the Pharisees. You see, I can. I grew up in church. I knew right from wrong. I didn’t disobey my parents or do drugs or get into trouble. And I knew the rules. I knew that keeping the rules was the way to get God to love me, and for me to prove how good I was. And everyone knows, we shouldn’t associate with anybody who doesn’t measure up to how the rules should be kept. If people want to follow God, let them clean up their act and prove they’re sincere; then we can talk.

What about Jesus’ disciples? What were they thinking during all this? I’m sure they were confused, torn between knowing that you can’t just overlook sin, but also knowing that Jesus came to demonstrate God’s love and forgiveness. But they must have wondered: how far does that forgiveness extend?

I know they wondered that, because I’ve wondered that. I was discussing this with an older Christian recently, a man whom I really respect and admire in the faith. He said he had been struggling with this, and he asked out loud the question many of us have wanted to ask: are there limits to grace?

I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know this: as far as the Bible tells us, the only times Jesus ever condemned anyone, it was for self-righteousness and spiritual self-importance. On the other hand, every time Jesus dealt with people who came to him in need, sinners looking for a fresh start, every time he had to choose between showing more grace versus less grace, he always showed more. May the same be true of us.

The end. Fade to black.

Enemies, Foreign and Domestic

(Anybody else here a Mike Rowe fan?  I loved “Dirty Jobs” when he was doing that show, and the quality of his voice-over work on “Deadliest Catch” is amazing.  And today, I’m going to reblog something he wrote on his “The Real Mike Rowe” Facebook page, then I’ll make a few comments at the end.  For clarity’s sake, the quoted section is printed in navy blue, with the links presented in a lighter blue.)

Photo: [Bob Reidel: "Mike - Saw you hangin with Bill Maher. I had no idea you were a liberal. Really blew me away. Love everything you do but now that I know who you really are, I won't be tuning in to watch anything your involved with."]Well, hi there, Bob. How's it going? Since your comment is not the only one of its kind, I thought I'd take a moment to address it. Bill Maher is opinionated, polarizing and controversial. I get it. So is Bill O'Reilly, which is probably why I heard the same comments after I did his show. ("How could you Mike? How could you?") Truth is, every time I go on Fox, my liberal friends squeal. And every time I show up on MSNBC, my conservative pals whine. Not because they disagree with my position - everyone agrees that closing the skills gap is something that needs to happen. No, these days, people get bent simply if I appear on shows they don't like, or sit too close to people they don't care for. What's up with that? Is our country so divided that my mere proximity to the "other side" prompts otherwise sensible adults to scoop up their marbles and go home? Back in 2008, I wrote an open letter to President Obama, offering to help him promote those 3 million "shovel-ready" jobs he promised to create during his campaign. (I suspected they might be a tough sell, given our country's current relationship with the shovel.) Within hours, hundreds of conservatives accused me of "engaging with a socialist," and threatened to stop watching Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe if I didn't come to my senses. When I made the same offer to Mitt Romney (who actually responded), thousands of liberals chastised me for "engaging with a greedy capitalist," and threatened to stop watching Dirty Jobs if I didn't take it back. You may ask, "But what did these people think about the issue at hand?" Who knows? They were too busy being outraged by my proximity to the devil. (Poor Ed Shultz at MSNBC nearly burst into tears. "You were on the wrong stage, Mike! The wrong stage!! With the wrong candidate!!!") Oy.Here's the thing, Bob - Profoundly Disconnected (http://profoundlydisconnected.com/) is not a PR campaign for Mike Rowe. It's a PR campaign for skilled labor and alternative education. PR campaigns need ... that's right, PR, and if I limit my appearances to those shows that I personally watch, hosted only by those personalities with whom I personally agree, I might as well start a church and preach to the choir. Point is, I didn't go on Real Time to endorse BM, and I didn't go on The Factor to endorse BO. I went on because millions of people watch those shows. I approached our liberal president for the same reason. Likewise, his conservative opponent. And I showed up on Sesame Street with the same agenda that I took to Congress. Closing the skills gap is bigger than you or me or any particular venue, and Real Time gave me an opportunity to reach 5 million people. I'm grateful for that, and I'll do it again if they want me back. As for Bill Maher off-camera, you'll be pleased to know that the guy was a perfect gentleman. His staff is excellent, and his after-party included an open bar with a spread I've never seen in such a setting. Bill took the time to hang out with his guests and their friends after the show, chatting about this and that for over an hour, and taking pictures with anyone who wanted one. Trust me, that's rare. Yes, he's outrageous, inflammatory, and to many, a jagged little pill. But he's also gracious, generous, engaging, and taller than he appears on TV. Which, frankly, surprised me.
[Bob Reidel: “Mike – Saw you hangin with Bill Maher. I had no idea you were a liberal. Really blew me away. Love everything you do but now that I know who you really are, I won’t be tuning in to watch anything your involved with.”] Well, hi there, Bob. How’s it going? Since your comment is not the only one of its kind, I thought I’d take a moment to address it.Bill Maher is opinionated, polarizing and controversial. I get it. So is Bill O’Reilly, which is probably why I heard the same comments after I did his show. (“How could you Mike? How could you?”)Truth is, every time I go on Fox, my liberal friends squeal. And every time I show up on MSNBC, my conservative pals whine. Not because they disagree with my position – everyone agrees that closing the skills gap is something that needs to happen. No, these days, people get bent simply if I appear on shows they don’t like, or sit too close to people they don’t care for. What’s up with that? Is our country so divided that my mere proximity to the “other side” prompts otherwise sensible adults to scoop up their marbles and go home? Back in 2008, I wrote an open letter to President Obama, offering to help him promote those 3 million “shovel-ready” jobs he promised to create during his campaign. (I suspected they might be a tough sell, given our country’s current relationship with the shovel.) Within hours, hundreds of conservatives accused me of “engaging with a socialist,” and threatened to stop watching Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe if I didn’t come to my senses.

When I made the same offer to Mitt Romney (who actually responded), thousands of liberals chastised me for “engaging with a greedy capitalist,” and threatened to stop watching Dirty Jobs if I didn’t take it back.

You may ask, “But what did these people think about the issue at hand?” Who knows? They were too busy being outraged by my proximity to the devil. (Poor Ed Shultz at MSNBC nearly burst into tears. “You were on the wrong stage, Mike! The wrong stage!! With the wrong candidate!!!”)

Oy.

Here’s the thing, Bob – Profoundly Disconnected (http://profoundlydisconnected.com/) is not a PR campaign for Mike Rowe. It’s a PR campaign for skilled labor and alternative education. PR campaigns need … that’s right, PR, and if I limit my appearances to those shows that I personally watch, hosted only by those personalities with whom I personally agree, I might as well start a church and preach to the choir.

Point is, I didn’t go on Real Time to endorse BM, and I didn’t go on The Factor to endorse BO. I went on because millions of people watch those shows. I approached our liberal president for the same reason. Likewise, his conservative opponent. And I showed up on Sesame Street with the same agenda that I took to Congress.

Closing the skills gap is bigger than you or me or any particular venue, and Real Time gave me an opportunity to reach 5 million people. I’m grateful for that, and I’ll do it again if they want me back.

As for Bill Maher off-camera, you’ll be pleased to know that the guy was a perfect gentleman. His staff is excellent, and his after-party included an open bar with a spread I’ve never seen in such a setting. Bill took the time to hang out with his guests and their friends after the show, chatting about this and that for over an hour, and taking pictures with anyone who wanted one. Trust me, that’s rare.

Yes, he’s outrageous, inflammatory, and to many, a jagged little pill. But he’s also gracious, generous, engaging, and taller than he appears on TV.

Which, frankly, surprised me.

I like his comments.  Very much.  And I want to add a few of my own.

First of all, when and from where did we get the idea that people we disagree with politically are the enemy?  We may have a differences of opinion about what is good public policy, or how the government should or should not respond on a given issue, but that does not make us enemies.

As some of you know, I used to work for Rick Perry back when he was in the state legislature.  One of the first things they taught at orientation was that the job should not be personal.  The guy you were opposing today on issue “A” might very well be the guy whose vote you need tomorrow to help you with your bill on issue “B.”

I used to love to read Molly Ivins, may she rest in peace.  Yes, she was loud, brassy, obnoxious, and as liberal as the day is long.  But she was also outrageously funny, and she made me laugh, and and she made me think.  Molly used to love to tell a story about John Kennedy and Barry Goldwater.  They had served in the Senate together in the 50s and were good friends.  In the early 60s, when it became that Goldwater was going to be running against Kennedy in the 1964 Presidential election, they were looking forward to it, and had already begun having discussions about a sort of traveling debate roadshow.  The idea was for a series of debates, where the two of them would slug it out over public policy before the cameras, then go out for a drink together after the show.

Democrats. Republicans. Progressives. Conservatives. We need to listen to each other.  We NEED each other.  Compromise is NOT a dirty word.  It means recognizing that sometimes the other fellow also has a good idea, and maybe we are not perfect in our judgments and opinions.

Are we so afraid of the weakness of our political views that we cannot stand to have them questioned?  Are we so intellectually lazy that we can’t form a decent argument in support of our position?  Or have we just completely lost all sense of common decency and respect, so that we simply can’t talk with each other anymore?

Standing with our fingers in our ears and yelling “NO” to those who disagree with us is the behavior of a three-year-old throwing a tantrum, but we need to do better as a nation.

Especially a nation whose founders believed in the power of ideas.

Who Is My Neighbor?

I was visiting with some friends the other who knew me when I was a pastor in Haskell, and they asked, “So, what is it you’re doing now?”  It’s a fair question.

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I work for a Christian faith-based non-profit organization called Connecting Caring Communities. As our mission statement says, “Connecting Caring Communities (CCC) exists to built meaningful relationships that foster safe, caring and whole communities.”

What that means is both simple and profound. Simple, because God created humans to exist in relationship, with Him and with one another.  Profound, because it’s not easy to do.

As far back as the Garden of Eden, God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone.”  In that context, of course, He was speaking of the relationship between husband and wife, but the principle applies to life in general.  God Himself exists in a perfect relationship, the beautiful mystery of the Triune, Three-in-One Being, of God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit.  And He created us to exist in relationship with Him and with others.

Unfortunately, those relationships were damaged along with everything else when our first parents sinned.  As Christians, we would say that Jesus came to rebuild those relationships, to provide a way for us to have our relationship with God restored, and to show us how we ought to live with one another.

When Jesus began His earthly ministry, He was in the synagogue in Nazareth, and read Isaiah 61:

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,
    because the LORD has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
    to proclaim freedom for the captives
    and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor...
For I, the LORD, love justice;
    I hate robbery and wrongdoing.
In my faithfulness I will reward my people
    and make an everlasting covenant with them.

When Jesus was asked about the most important commandment, recall His answer in Mark 12: “Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one.  Love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.  And the second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.”

In other words, the most important thing is to recognize the relationship with God on a community level (OUR God), on a personal level (all YOUR heart, soul, mind, strength), and on an interactive level (love your NEIGHBOR).

Or as 1 John says, “No one can claim to love God, Whom he has not seen, if he cannot love his brother, whom he has seen.”

So at CCC, our goal is do anything and everything we can to help build better relationships with neighbors, and to help neighbors build relationships with each other.  We do that through several different strategies, including what we call a “Friendship House.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA Friendship House is just that: it’s a house where a CCC staff member lives with his or her family.  Our house is in the College Heights neighborhood of North Abilene, near Hendrick Medical Center.  CCC also has Friendship Houses in the North Park neighborhood, and in the Valley View neighborhood.  We work with our neighbors to get to know them, to help them get to know each other, and to work together to build a stronger, better, safer community for everyone.

We do many different things at the Friendship House, including an after-school program, summer activities for neighborhood kids, block parties, prayer walks, neighborhood cleanups, and more.  But these activities are NEVER done as ends in and of themselves; they are all done with the goal of meeting neighbors, building relationships with neighbors, then mobilizing those relationships to grow a better neighborhood.  We want to allow those relationships to develop naturally and organically, listening to each other and growing together.

What does this mean?

  • It means that CCC wants to work with neighbors – we don’t ever want to be a bunch of outsiders who come into a neighborhood with an attitude that says, “Hi, you’re broken, and I’m here to fix you.”
  • It means that we value relationships above things.  We believe that by building relationships, we can restore the fabric of our community, and ultimately, our society.
  • It means that we seek mutually-enhancing relationships.  In other words, we don’t want to maintain a traditional service provider – client model.  We want to walk beside our neighbors and learn from each other.
  • It means that we seek to build on the strengths inherent in every neighborhood and work with neighbors to grow and develop new strengths that can benefit the entire community.

Some people call this community development, or intentional neighboring, or missional living, but really, it’s just living out the Kingdom principle of showing our love for God but loving one another.  When we do this in gentleness and humility, we discover that we don’t have to “take God to the neighborhood” – He has been here all along, waiting for us to love people in His name.

Want to know more?  Our website is currently undergoing to a major rebuild, but you can go to WeCareAbilene.org for more information, or you can visit us on Facebook.  We appreciate your prayers, and if you feel so led, we can always use additional financial support.

Meanwhile, let me encourage you to come along beside us by getting to know YOUR neighbors, where YOU are.  Proverbs 27:10 says, “A neighbor nearby is better than a brother far away.”  Love the people God has placed near you.  It seems to me that if more of us would do this simple thing, the Kingdom of God would grow and spread beyond our wildest dreams.

The Movies, 5 x 5

It’s no surprise to anyone who knows me, that I love the movies. I like movie soundtracks. I love throwing out movie quotes at appropriate moments, sometimes just to see if anyone will catch it. And frankly my dear, I DON’T like much of what has been coming out of Hollywood lately. Not because of the content, although that is certainly bad enough.

No, my complaint is that most directors, producers and screenwriters seem to have forgotten how to tell a good story visually. Twenty-seven explosions in search of a plot does NOT make a good movie, in my opinion. CGI is no substitute for genuine character development, and SPFX cannot take the place of a good, you know, story.

I write this, knowing that I have friends in the movie business, both writers and actors. And truthfully, I don’t object to good visual effects – in fact, I love them. I think the “Star Trek” reboot movies are a good example – especially this most recent film, “Into Darkness.” I thought it had a really good story that was really well told, and for once, the effects – including the 3D – actually ADDED to the movie’s effectiveness. I saw it in both 2D and 3D, and the 3D shot of the Enterprise rising up out of the clouds was simply gorgeous.

And this from a diehard fan of the original Trek TV show, who really wanted NOT to like what these young whippersnappers were doing with my franchise.

All of that to say, I don’t think I’m just being an old curmudgeon, “they don’t make ’em like they used to,” sort of guy. I don’t hate technology in movies. I just think I have a right to expect more than that for my $12.

I got to spend some time with my brother David and his family last week, and we got on the subject of favorites movies. Actually, I like playing a little game with other movie fans. Here’s how it goes: you pick a category of movie, and list your five favorites from that category. Drama. Action / Adventure. Horror. Comedy.

Yes, I know it’s nerdy. And geeky. What can I say? I AM a nerd. And a geek. But you must like the movies too, or you wouldn’t still be reading at this point, right? So here’s how we’re going to play. I’m going to pick five categories of films, then tell you my five favorites in that category – 5 x 5, get it?

You are welcome to disagree, debate about which movies should have been listed, wonder how I could be so dense as to have left off one of your favorites from a given list, or whatever. That’s part of the fun here. And I’m not saying these are necessarily the best movies of these categories ever made, just my favorites.  If you really want to get into it, you can always sign up at IMDb.com, and create your own lists that you can post.  It’s showtime, folks! (Quick: what movie is that line from?)

FIVE ALL-TIME FAVORITES –  These are my favorite movies.  They are not all necessarily “great” films, but all them continue to touch me deeply.  Here’s a link to the complete list of my Top 25 favorites.

  • 5.  The Shawshank Redemption.  This movie meets one of my criteria for “favorite,” which is that I watch it any time it comes on TV.  Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman are a treat.
  • 4.  Tender Mercies.  Talk about redemption: at the end of the movie, when Robert Duvall is throwing the football with his stepson, you have the answer to the question, “Why?”  Incredible movie.
  • 3.  The Quiet Man.  The John Ford Company Players at their best, along with stunning Irish scenery.
  • 2.  Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  A sentimental favorite because it was the movie Kathy and I went to see on our first date.  Then 30+ years later, we went to see it at the Paramount on our anniversary.
  • 1.  Casablanca.  Is it a war movie?  Is it a romance?  Is it a character picture?  Yes, all of that, and more.  Bogart.  Bergman.  For all sorts of reasons, everybody comes to Rick’s.

FIVE FAVORITE WAR MOVIES – So-called “war” movies are sometimes accused of glorifying violence, but I think a good one has just the opposite effect, showing the waste and futility.  Here are five good ones.

  • 5.  Gettysburg.  Jeff Daniels shines as the speech professor-turned-colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain who receives the Medal of Honor for his actions at Little Round Top.
  • 4.  The Enemy Below.  Robert Mitchum and Curd Jurgens are amazing as the American and German captains opposing each other.  Who – or what – is the real enemy?
  • 3.  Saving Private Ryan.  I always wondered what it would be like to be behind a landing craft door when it dropped open.  It ain’t pretty.
  • 2.  Twelve O’Clock High.  Gregory Peck as a good man struggling under the burden what he must do to push his men and accomplish the mission.
  • 1.  The Guns of Navarone.  Another great Gregory Peck role, with another fine cast.  David Niven is terrific.

FIVE FAVORITE JOHN WAYNE MOVIES –  John Wayne is, and always will be, known for his Westerns.  But I think he was often at his best when he took that persona and translated it into other kinds of movie storytelling.  Honorable mention: Hellfighters.

  • 5.  The Shootist.  The Duke’s last movie, playing an aging gunfighter who just wants to die in peace.  All actors should go out so well.
  • 4.  True Grit.  Come see a one-eyed fat man.
  • 3.  The High and the Mighty.  John Wayne is a pilot on a doomed airliner.
  • 2.  Fort Apache.  Watching him work with Henry Fonda was always a treat.
  • 1.  The Quiet Man.  Sean Thornton, home from America, to forget his troubles.

FIVE FAVORITE COURTROOM DRAMAS – Trials naturally lend themselves to good movie making.  Life and death, freedom and imprisonment, right and wrong.  Another of the great ones (even though it’s not on this list): Inherit the Wind, with Spencer Tracy and Fredric March.

  • 5.  The Caine Mutiny.  Humphrey Bogart is great; Jose Ferrer is superb.  Fred McMurray is agreeably spineless and slimy.
  • 4.  The Verdict.  This was Paul Newman’s greatest role, in my opinion, as an alcoholic ambulance-chaser looking for redemption.
  • 3.  A Few Good Men.  Aaron Sorkin writes, and Tom and Demi go up against Jack.  You can’t handle the truth.
  • 2.  To Kill a Mockingbird.  All aspiring actors (and trial lawyers, for that matter) should have to watch Gregory Peck’s closing argument to the jury.  This is how it’s done.
  • 1.  Twelve Angry Men.  Oh my, what a cast.  A tense, real-time drama of a jury that votes 11-1 for a conviction.  Then Henry Fonda starts asking questions.

FIVE FAVORITE BASEBALL MOVIES –  I think it’s fair to say that there have been more great baseball pictures, than all other categories of sports movies combined.  This summer’s 42 is also really, really good.

  • 5.  The Sandlot.  Friends and summers and growing up.  And James Earl Jones ain’t bad.
  • 4.  A League of Their Own.  You know it as well as I do: There’s no crying in baseball.
  • 3.  Field of Dreams.  So many memorable lines and moments.  “No, I mean, what do you want?”  “Oh.  A dog and a beer.”
  • 2.  The Natural.  Yes, it’s cheesy and melodramatic at times.  It’s still wonderful watching Redford knock the cover off the ball.  There goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was.
  • 1.  Bull Durham.  Okay, this movie has some of the dirtiest language ever put on celluloid, and I really can’t recommend it for that reason.  But it captures the joy of the game and essence of baseball in a way few others have ever matched.  The rose goes in front, big guy.

There, see how easy that was? So now, get your Siskel & Ebert on, and come up with some lists of your own. And please pass the popcorn.

The Content of One’s Character

Today is Juneteenth. That’s not a misprint. June 19 is the anniversary of the day in 1865 when Federal troops arrived in Texas after the War Between the States to announce that slavery had officially been abolished, and all former slaves were now free. The day has been remembered ever since, and known by its slang name, “Juneteenth.”

It seems an appropriate day to reflect upon the current state of race relations in this country.

Item: Cheerios recently began airing a really cute commercial involving a beautiful little girl, her white mom and her black dad. If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s a link:

Cheerios received so much hate mail after it began airing that they had to disable comments on the YouTube page where it was posted. It’s worth noting that there were hateful comments being posted by both white and black viewers.

Item: Before a recent San Antonio Spurs NBA game, a little Hispanic boy in full Mariachi costume sang “The Star Spangled Banner.” Twitter erupted in a furious barrage of hateful racist comments. Never mind that the boy’s family are legal citizens, and that San Antonio as a city is older than the American republic, and has a long history of bi-racial culture.

These two incidents point out to me that although this country has indeed made great strides in pursuing liberty and justice for all, we still have a long way to go. Yes, America has a black president, and Texas has an hispanic senator, but we’re not there yet.

(And I should point out that simply criticizing the president does NOT make one a racist. There are plenty of people who object to his policies, not his skin color. That is not the issue I’m addressing here.)

I guess my point is that while “official” racism, Jim Crow laws, and the like are a thing of the past, racism now is more subtle and in some ways, harder to notice. And it requires a more diligent effort on the part of people of good conscience to see it and to work to eliminate it. (If you want to read more about a memory of mine about old school official racism, see my post from last week, “Grayburg Memories.”)

Fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., pointed out that the most challenging part of the civil rights struggle was NOT the vicious, hate-filled speech of the bigots; rather, it was what he called “the appalling silence of the good people” who saw what was going on, yet chose to remain silent.

It’s not enough to say, “Well, I don’t even notice a person’s skin color.” We must work to do more – even to go out of our way to help.

When Jesus was asked, “Who is my neighbor?,” He responded with the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Someone of a different ethnic background, a different social class, a different religion, yet going out of his way to reach out to another person. Note, too, that as far as the behavior of the “religious” people in the story, their response to the need in front of them was an #epicfail.

President George W. Bush and others have observed that 11:00 AM on Sunday mornings is still the most segregated hour in America. People of good will of all races must work to change that, to bring about the multi-racial, multi-lingual, multi-generational Kingdom of God. It doesn’t come by our own efforts, that’s true – it comes through the work of the Holy Spirit. But we can certainly hinder it from coming, just as the lack of faith on the part of the people in Nazareth hindered Jesus from being able to very much in their midst.

Let us have the spiritual courage to pray for God to open our eyes to whatever prejudice or hatred may be in our hearts, and for the faith to work to build bridges rather than walls. Let us seek out others of good will, that we may be a witness to the lost of the essential Oneness of God’s people, no longer slave nor free, male nor female, Jew nor Gentile, but all one in Christ.

Let there be peace on earth. And let it begin with me.

Happy Juneteenth!

Reflections on Memorial Day

(Some of you may have noticed that I have taken a break from writing these columns for a few weeks.  Well, break’s over, and it’s time to get started again.  Thanks for reading!)

This past Monday, America celebrated Memorial Day.  I’ve been thinking about that, and wanted to share some thoughts.

Memorial Day is NOT national barbecue day.  And it’s not a time for the linen sale at the mall, nor for the opening of the city’s swimming pools, nor the unofficial start of summer.  It may have taken on some or all of those meanings, but that is not why it exists as a special day.

Memorial Day was originally known as “Decoration Day,” and originated during the Civil War.  Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, claims to have started the tradition, when local ladies decorated the graves of war dead with flowers on July 4, 1864.  Unfortunately for their claim, there are several documented cases in Virginia, Georgia, and elsewhere, of similar observances in 1861 and 1862.

To further add to the confusion, President Johnson signed a proclamation in 1967, naming Waterloo, New York, as the birthplace of Memorial Day.  The truth is, it was such a good idea (and an obvious one), that it originated in several places, independent of each other, at about the same time.

Back in the days when families had private cemeteries, many Southern families would gather once a year in the spring or early summer to weed the grounds, repair any damages and place flowers on the graves.  This was often done in connection with a family reunion and “dinner on the grounds” at the cemetery – it was a way of retaining family connections with those who had gone before, and in my opinion, a lovely custom.  (My good friend Joel Fox has told me of attending his family’s cemetery get-togethers, and I always thought it was a nice tradition.)

So, it wasn’t a big stretch to go from such occurrences to placing flowers on the graves of those lost in the war.

One of biggest early celebrations of the day came in Charleston, South Carolina, on May 1, 1865, when nearly 10,000 recently-freed African-Americans came together to honor the hundreds of Union soldiers who had died in a POW camp there.

The term “Memorial Day” was apparently first used in the 1880s, and both terms seem to have been used until after World War II.  However, it was not until 1967 that “Memorial Day” became an official Federal holiday – originally set for May 30, and later changed to the last Monday in May.  Some localities still hold their observances on May 30, which is coming up tomorrow as I write this.

Memorial Day should not be confused with Veterans Day, which comes on November 11. (That was previously known as “Armistice Day,” and originally marked the end of hostilities of World War I in 1918, but that’s another story.)  Memorial Day honors those who have died in the service of their country; Veterans Day honors the service of all military veterans.  Both are appropriate, but they are not the same, and should not be thought of as interchangeable.  (Thanks to Woody Turnbow for helping me appreciate this distinction!)

Besides honoring the sacrifice of those who have died, Memorial Day has also been a time of asking the larger questions of the cause for which they died.  In the late 19th and early 20th century, for example, the day was often used to decorate the graves of the Southern Civil War dead, and to promote the “Lost Cause” of Southern independence.

The day can be divisive and hurtful to some.  For some, it is a time to mourn the waste of so many lives and the loss that represents; for others, it is a time to celebrate liberty and promote patriotic values.  So what are we celebrating?  Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism?  Or the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave?

It’s a good question, I think.

On the larger issue of remembering, here are just two Biblical truths to consider.  First, go read the book of Deuteronomy, and notice how many times Moses commands the Israelites to “remember” during his farewell address – by my count, 16 times, or about once every other chapter.  You definitely come away from that heartfelt speech with the sense that he wanted them to hold onto and cherish the thoughts of all that God had done for them, and to live accordingly.

Second, in the first chapter of Romans, when Paul is making his list of all the depravities of which unredeemed humanity is possible, notice that it all begins with the refusal to remember or give thanks to God for His many blessings.  As he says, “They did not think it was worth their time to retain the knowledge of God” – sounds to me like a failure to remember.

Draw your own conclusions, my friends.

In my opinion, Memorial Day should not be used as a way of glorifying war, or whipping up some misguided patriotic fervor for a cause some may wish to promote.  But it IS appropriate to remember those who have given “that last full measure of devotion,” who have “laid down their life for their friends,” and “who have died that this nation may live.”

It IS appropriate to ask if I am honoring their sacrifice not just with flowers or parades, but with a well-lived life.

And it is appropriate to remember the awful cost of war, and the terrible price paid by the families and loved ones.  My grandmother Sallie McMillan had a brother who was killed in Korea, and I think she grieved his loss to her dying day.

So, to honor those who have given their lives for this country, and to their families:

O beautiful for heroes proved

In liberating strife,

Who more than self, their country loved,

And mercy more than life.

America!  America!  May God thy gold refine,

‘Til all success be nobleness, and ev’ry gain divine.

The World’s Greatest Hobby

Like many little boys who grew up in the 50s and 60s, one of the earliest toys I can remember playing with was an electric train.  Unlike many others, I never outgrew the fascination.

marx-logoOther kids might have received a train by Lionel or American Flyer; in my case, it was made by Marx.  I don’t remember much about the actual train, other than playing with it until it absolutely fell apart.  Marx Toys was the same company who would later make the “Rock ‘Em, Sock ‘Em Robots” and the “Big Wheel” tricycles, but to me, they will always be a maker of trains.

tim_and_his_train_coverWhen I wasn’t playing with trains, I was reading about playing with trains.  My favorite book as a kid was Tim and His Train.  It told the story of a boy who loved trains (I could relate!), and whose dad took him to visit a rail yard.  When Tim’s birthday came around, he found a complete train set waiting for him.

I thought he was just about the luckiest boy in the world.

Like many hobbies, model trains have their own jargon.  One of the first things you learn is about scale – how large or how small are the models?  The classic Lionel trains are known as “O” scale – pronounced, “oh scale.”  O scale operates on the ratio of 1 to 48; that is, one inch on a model equals 48 inches in real life.  A man 6 ft. tall in the real world would be a model an inch and a half tall.  O scale models are big and impressive to watch as they go by, but they can also be expensive, and they can take up a LOT of room for a layout.

scale_comparisonThe most popular size are known as HO models – you pronounce the letters separately, as in “aitch – oh” scale.  The name came from the fact that it is roughly half of the size of O scale models, or H-O.  These models have a proportion of 1:87 – one foot of track equals 87 feet in real life.  You can build a decent layout on a 4′ x 8′ sheet of plywood, which is how a lot of hobbyists start out.

There are many other scales, each with their own devotees and specialties – Z (1:220), N (1:160), HO (1:87), S (1:64), O (1:48), and G (1:29).  Each has different advantages – you can built a nice Z scale layout in a suitcase, whereas G scale is often the choice for running outdoors on garden railroads.  It all depends on what you like.  I’ve played around with different scales over the years, but I’ve recently come back to modeling in HO scale.  Here’s my model of the 1950s vintage “Texas Eagle” as it pulls past the Abilene station.

eagle04aOne reason that model railroading is such a popular hobby is that it incorporates many different hobbies in one.  The hobby can involve carpentry, architecture, engineering, electrical skills, computer programming, history, research, and many other sub-interests.  You can express your artistic self with scenery for any and all types of terrain and landscapes; you can recreate a memory from the past, or come up with an original expression of things the way you think they ought to be.  You can create something out of pure whimsey – the Hogwarts Express visiting a train station on Vulcan – or produce museum-quality reproductions that are accurate right down to the number of rivets.

Some guys enjoy operating their model as a real railroad, complete with timetables and switching lists, making up trains, moving them over the road, picking up and dropping off cars along the way, and doing it all on time.  Other guys just enjoy watching their train tick off the miles as it goes by, enjoying the smooth running operation of the engines and cars.  Some enjoy reproducing modern railroading, with its double-stack container trains and high-horsepower modern diesels, while others prefer the “old timey” tea kettle steam engines and short trains.  It just depends on what you like.

One of the most revolutionary developments has been something called “Digital Command Control,” or DCC.  In the old days, when you turned on the power to a particular stretch of track, every engine on it moved at the same time.  This led to elaborate wiring schemes and dividing the track up into numerous “blocks,” each insulated from the others, so that you could turn on power to one little section of track at a time.  Obviously, not a realistic approach to running trains!

DCC has changed all that.  Now, it’s possible to install a little computer circuit on the engine, and give each engine a unique code number.  With DCC on board, your controller sends out a coded signal that is read and understood ONLY by your engine.  This allows you to run multiple trains on the same stretch of train, each independent of the others.  You can even install miniature speakers on the trains, enabling engines to operate with realistic sound effects.  All this allows for a level of realism previously unimaginable.

One thing people always want to know: isn’t it expensive?  Well, it can be (especially when you’re just getting started), but it doesn’t have to be.  In my case, I don’t have the space – or the budget – to have a big layout, but I’m a member of the Abilene Society of Model Railroaders.  The ASMR has a nice layout that the members are continuing to build.  As a member, I can run my trains on the club layout, AND even better, I can tap into the knowledge and experience of guys who are much better modelers than I.

wgh_logoIn recent years, several manufacturers of model trains and other interested businesses have formed a trade group devoted to promoting the industry.  It’s called “The World’s Greatest Hobby.”  That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but then again, maybe not.

After all, what other hobby allows you to build and operate your own rail empire, create cities to suit your taste, travel over vast distances, and even go back in time?