As We Think

Directing our emotions, our thoughts, our words, and our actions…to be who we were created to be.

The Economist is no fan of Donald Trump. The October 27 to November 2, 2018 issue featured a column by the editor Lexington describing the foreign policy failures and successes of the President. It was accompanied by the picture noted here, which shows Trump as an archer rejoicing over a single bulls-eye while quivers of arrows are far off the mark. He seems to be ignoring his many failures and raising his arms in triumph over one, perhaps random, success. Maybe Lexington sees Trump as an incompetent egomaniac who sometimes gets lucky. Certainly, other people do. While catchy, this illustration is a snowflake in an avalanche of political cartoons criticizing the US leader.

In my primary care medical practice, I encounter dozens of patients every week who, if they were featured in the same picture, would be sad. The context wouldn’t be foreign policy, but might be success at work, a loving family, new hobbies, losing weight, quitting smoking, or any of a hundred other things.  Rather than looking out of the illustration at the reader with upraised arms and a self-satisfied smile, their eyes would be downcast. Their brows would be furrowed and the corners of their mouths drooping. Instead of more than 30 arrows there may only be 10, or 5, or 1, because the person would have given up. He or she might tell a bystander “this is a stupid sport anyway. I have better things to do.” Just below their level of consciousness, they might get a queasy feeling – “why show my failures to the public, and to myself? How much better would it be to stay home alone with my screens, my games, and my programs? That way I cannot fail.”

There is danger in an excessive focus on our successes, but likewise danger in an excessive focus on our failings. The best focus is outside ourselves – at the problem to be solved or the grace to be enjoyed.

A focus on failures is not only a problem for patients, but for all of us. How do we regard each moment of our lives? Do we ruminate on our regrets? Do we marinate in our missteps? Do we refuse to forgive those who hurt us? Do we choose to take offense at the clumsy words and actions of others? Do we reject others for what they are, and reject ourselves for what we are? Do we put ourselves and others in the worst possible light? Do we cut others out of our lives when they don’t consistently meet our expectations and fulfill our wishes? Do we withdraw into a cave of confusion, sit down in den of darkness, and finally lie in a coffin of loneliness?

Conversely, do we bounce back after our blunders? Do we stand up after we fall? When faced with a seemingly impossible task, do we act as the inventors did in The Roses of Success, from Ian Fleming’s children’s musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang:

Every bursted bubble has a glory!
Each abysmal failure makes a point!
Every glowing path that goes astray,
Shows you how to find a better way.
So every time you stumble never grumble.
Next time you’ll bumble even less!
For up from the ashes, up from the ashes, grow the roses of success!
Grow the roses!
Grow the roses!
Grow the roses of success!
Oh yes!
Grow the roses!
Those rosy roses!
From the ashes of disaster grow the roses of success!
(spoken) Yes I know but he wants it to float. It will!
For every big mistake you make be grateful!
Here, here!
That mistake you’ll never make again!
No sir!
Every shiny dream that fades and dies,
Generates the steam for two more tries!
(Oh) There’s magic in the wake of a fiasco!
Correct!
It gives you that chance to second guess!
Oh yes!
Then up from the ashes, up from the ashes grow the roses of success!
Grow the roses!
Grow the roses!
Grow the roses of success!
Grow the roses!
Those rosy roses!
From the ashes of disaster grow the roses of success!
Disaster didn’t stymie Louis Pasteur!
No sir!
Edison took years to see the light!
Right!
Alexander Graham knew failure well; he took a lot of knocks to ring that
bell!
So when it gets distressing it’s a blessing!
Onward and upward you must press!
Yes, Yes!
Till up from the ashes, up from the ashes grow the roses of success.
Grow the ro… (continue)

To succeed after failure, we must control our emotions. Years ago a young woman told me of a time when she felt awkward. I replied, “Awkwardness is a choice. If you chose to not feel awkward, you will not feel it.” She paused, a look of realization crept over her face, and she smiled.

Offense, discouragement, and every other emotion is also a choice. We cannot control the initial flush of feeling that we get from any situation, but we can control what we do with that flush of feelings. Emotions roll over us like a wave for the first few seconds, but then we must decide whether and how to redirect the waters.  We can nurture resentment over an injury or to forgive it. We can see any circumstance as a defeat or a victory. We can dwell in the prison of our fears or dance in the pastures of our joys. We can consider that both compliments and criticisms say more about the giver than the receiver.

The Bible tells us again and again to control our thoughts and our emotions and channel them toward success. We are to “Fear not!” (Isaiah 41:10) and “Not let our hearts be troubled (John 14:1).” Day by day success is performing the tasks which He has given to us with all our might (Ecclesiastes 9:10, Colossians 3:23). Ultimately, success for the Christian is loving, glorifying, and enjoying God.

The Economist probably did not mean to make Donald Trump look good in this illustration. I do not know Trump’s thoughts or his character. However, insofar as the Trump in the picture is rejoicing despite many, many failures, the British newsmagazine may be revealing a secret of his success.  

Normal Times in Life?

An examination of the dangers of trying to identify the “normal”, which often means “the best”, time in life

Imagine a conversation between a middle-aged husband and wife:

“Our family hasn’t been normal since our oldest daughter left for college in the fall of 2012.”

“No, things stopped being normal when our son developed epilepsy in November 2011.”

“That’s not right. What about when my father died in June 2009?”

“Or when mine died in August 2008?”

“I guess you’re right…things haven’t been normal for nearly 11 years.”

“But they certainly weren’t normal before our youngest child was born in September 2006.”

“Yes, except we thought that they were normal because we didn’t know that she was coming, and then we didn’t know how life would be with her.”

“But things weren’t really normal when I worked in DC and we lived in that rental house.”

“Nothing about DC is normal.”

“Perhaps the only normal time in our lives was from the fall of 2007 to the spring of 2008, about six months.”

Too strange to be true? No. Nearly everyone has some variation of this conversation, some when they are young and almost all as they grow old. In our reminiscent moments, we evaluate the times, people, and events in our lives. We pine to relive some days past and thrill that others are behind us. Calling a time “normal” really ends up meaning that it was “the best”. If the past is the best, nothing that follows can be as good.

Orson Welles captured this part of human nature in his classic Citizen Kane. The movie opens with the death of its subject, billionaire media mogul Charles Foster Kane. His last word is “Rosebud”. The story recounts Kane’s life through the efforts of reporter Jerry Thompson to discover the meaning of “Rosebud.” Thompson fails, but in the last scene a faceless worker holds up a sled that Kane used as a boy of eight, before tossing the sled into the fire. The name on the sled is “Rosebud”. The message seems to be that after a life of glamorous women, undreamed wealth, glaring fame, and exceptional accomplishment, Kane’s fondest time of life was as a child, riding on “Rosebud”. Perhaps that was his “normal” time.

The first problem with setting a “normal” time in our lives is that it is idealized. In the 1940 Christmas film Beyond Tomorrow, three elderly engineers are killed when their plane crashes into a mountain in a snow storm. One of the men, a former British major with service in India whose son was killed in World War I, was allowed to go to his version of heaven, which looked a lot like his happiest times in life, serving King Edward in antebellum India with his wife and son. The past is never the same as we remember it. Usually, the pain recedes and the glory grows. Only rarely do our sufferings look larger through the lens of time.

The second problem with setting a “normal” time in our lives is that it is impossible. In the 2008 movie Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Dean Charles Stanforth tells Indy “We seem to have reached the age where life stops giving us things and starts taking them away.” On a geriatrics rotation during my family medicine residency, a geriatrician told me that old age is a series of losses – strength, capabilities, job, friends, spouse, etc. – and then you die. But these melancholy thoughts are only partly true. Good things – grandchildren, relationships, adventures, new tasks, and wonderful experiences – also come to the old.

The couple in the dialogue above could have gone back much farther. How could our family have been normal after our grandmothers had died in the early 2000s, or our grandfathers in the 1980s? Were our greatest moments in our newly wed years, traveling around Europe as a pair? Other people could identify job gain or loss, and marriage or divorce, as their best or worst times.  

Mitch Waldman, a friend at church, served as a Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy under George W. Bush. I asked him if that was his best job. He cautioned, “I always tell the young people who work for me not to think in terms of ‘best job’ or ‘best time’. Each is different, and ‘best’ in its own way and at its time. To think otherwise is to be always dissatisfied and striving for something else.”

The Bible tells Christians that the best is still to come. This life lasts but a moment, and then those who know and love Jesus Christ will taste eternal glory. Nothing in this life is “the best”, and nothing in this life is even “normal”. Whether in days or decades, I will step off the stage of life; I will cross the Dark River. Only then will I find “normal”, and even “the best”. Long lost family members and friends will be there, as will brothers and sisters in the Lord that I don’t know, or perhaps don’t even like, now. And our bonds of love and unity will be greater than I can possibly imagine.

Lastly, He will be there – Jesus, lover of my soul. Then and only then, life will be normal, and will be best. �

Bible Lessons

This post is to provide a place for students to find lessons we have had in Sunday School/Bible Fellowship, Worship, or other studies.

Whatever Happened to Beauty?

A look at beauty denied, misunderstood, reviled, and ignored, in the modern world.

The other day I was driving to the Mine Academy in Beckley for a strategic planning session. Nancy called and bade me to look to the southeast, where I beheld a particularly stunning sunrise. On arriving a few minutes early at the meeting, I mentioned the sunrise to several people, but only a few bothered to look out of the window. On a hike last summer, Nancy found a tiny deep purple flower amidst dying grasses. On a different occasion, she spotted a set of intricate ice crystals astride a fallen log and a pile of snow. As with the Mine Academy example, others in the area didn’t notice, or didn’t care. Life is composed of little moments of beauty such as these – to miss the beauty is to miss life itself. Why do so few people seem to notice?

We find beauty in the natural world, in music, in literature, and in a whole host of other places. Surveying most of history, however, we find that the most compelling art, and often the most beautiful art, from Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa to Michelangelo’s David, is of humans. It is not a stretch to say that from the Sumerians to the modern world, mankind has considered the human form to be the most beautiful object of all.

Art has changed. From Pablo Picasso to Arnold Schoenberg in the 20th century, classical conceptions of beauty gave way to modern and postmodern dissonance, unnatural perspectives, and angst. Beauty is denied, misinterpreted, or reviled, but even more it is ignored, in our 21st century world.  

Beauty Denied

Philosophers have been debating beauty since the beginning of recorded history. Classically, beauty was considered objective; beauty is what beauty is, regardless of what individuals or groups think about it. People and cultures might differ about whether a particular landscape, flower, animal, or person was beautiful, or its degree of beauty, but those opinions could be measured for their degree of accuracy. Such a standard was typically “the gods” of each culture. The corollary was the assumption that my culture was better than your culture, and that my gods were better than your gods.

In the modern world, there are a variety of spoken opinions on beauty. Many revolve around the mantra that parents and teachers have told their charges “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”  Arachnologists like the beauty of spider webs while floriculturists prefer the beauty of roses. Urban dwellers may desire the beauty of city lights and country folk choose that of forests, streams, and mountains. In the past 50 years, phrases like “black is beautiful” and “full figured is beautiful” reflect views of human beauty, typically female, that users of those phrases felt fell outside the mainstream opinions of beauty.

The point is that in the classical world, beauty was largely considered objective, beauty is what beauty is, while in the modern world beauty is considered largely subjective, beauty is whatever you want it to be. Beauty could be defined as “whatever someone, or anyone, thinks is appealing.” A trouble with this more recent, even postmodern view, is that if there is no standard of beauty, in what sense does beauty exist? The same could be said for love, justice, or goodness – if there is no standard, no overriding definition, in what sense does it exist?

There is another problem with the idea that beauty is completely in the eye of the beholder – nobody actually believes it, as judged by how they live. Most people care little about whether they like a mountain scene and a friend likes a desert scene, but they care a lot more if they are wearing an outfit that they love and their friend doesn’t. How often have you heard salesmen and women confess to telling shoppers that they look great in something, even if in their opinion they don’t? The Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue and Victoria’s Secret feature roughly the same female body type every year. Mainstream magazines in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East do the same. While paintings and photographs of nudes of yesteryear were often heavier than those today, the depiction of the ideal human body hasn’t changed much since the Greeks carved Apollo and Aphrodite and the Hindus carved the statues at Khajuraho. If beauty were completely in the eye of the beholder, and if beauty was completely relative between cultures and epochs, we would see many different measures of beauty, both natural and human. But we do not.

Beauty Misinterpreted 

Nancy and I were visiting the Eiffel Tower in the early spring of 1993 and encountered a Czech couple. The woman wore a long, burnt orange coat and an interesting pin. Nancy admired her pin, and the Czech woman promptly removed it and gave it to her.
It was a gracious gesture, conditioned by her culture. But Nancy did not actually want the pin. Conditioned by our American culture, she felt uncomfortable even receiving it. The lovely couple misinterpreted Nancy’s appreciation of the pin as a desire to possess the pin.

In America, it has become taboo for a man to complement a woman’s appearance in the workplace. I have heard several reasons for this:

  1. Some believe that the man is sending the message that appearance is all that matters.
  2. Some feel that the man is trying to possess the woman.
  3. Some assume that the man is lying.
  4. Some assume some ulterior, even sinister, motive.

It is possible, however, that none of the above are true, that those objecting are misinterpreting the man’s meaning and intent. Just as it is possible to admire a coat pin and not want to have it, it is possible to admire a beautiful person and not want to possess them. Not only is it possible, it is common. After all, Nancy and I have enjoyed the beauty of the Crown Jewels of England, possessed by only a few, and the beauty of a sunrise, possessed by everyone on earth. The sunrise was far more glorious. Owning something does not make it more beautiful; it might make it less.

Perhaps the man giving the complement simply wants to brighten the other person’s day with a word of encouragement. Perhaps he wants to recognize the work that she has done with her hair, clothing, and makeup. The most negative interpretation is not always, and often not at all, the right one. The comments above are equally true for men or women complementing other men or women as well.

Beauty Reviled

Truth and beauty are intimately and conceptually related. If beauty is transcendent, if something is beautiful simply because it is, regardless of what anyone says about it, then truth must be transcendent as well. Those who hate the idea of objective truth, especially moral truth, frequently hate the idea of objective beauty as well.

Beauty Ignored

Dr No, the 1962 James Bond movie, portrayed men and women, even extras at the airport, in dresses and suits. Casino Royale, a James Bond movie filmed in 2006, showed airport extras in jeans and casual shirts. Has the standard for appearance in public changed in the 44 years between the movies? Are people less interested in physical appearance now than then, are they more interested in physical appearance now but manifest it differently, or are people the same? If physical attractiveness can be ranked on a scale of 1 to 100, where 1 is rags and 100 is the most magnificent clothes in history, was the mean in America 50 in 1962 and 30 in 2006? Or is the standard 50 in 1962 and 50 in 2006, but jeans today are considered the same as dresses in yesteryear? Was 1962 a more conformist time, where everyone was expected to be around 50, and the deviation was small? Is our day less conformist, with a larger deviation?

I don’t know that anyone can answer these questions definitively, but they do raise interesting questions. Is beauty ignored in today’s world? If so, why?  

Conclusion

Whatever happened to beauty? There remains a widespread belief that beauty is subjective, and perhaps therefore unreal, at least theoretically. Beauty is often misinterpreted, or at least what people want from the beauty is misinterpreted. Sometimes beauty is reviled. And I would suggest that beauty is sometimes, if not often, ignored. From the Christian perspective, beauty is an inherent characteristic of God. Therefore, like truth, it is objective, regardless of what any person, or group of people, thinks about it. Followers of Christ cannot deny it, should not misinterpret it, must not revile it, and ought not ignore it. Rather, like every other good thing that our Father has given us, we must enjoy it, and glorify our Lord in it.

Deep Roots

On Thursday, November 15, a ferocious ice storm hit southern West Virginia, downing trees, knocking out power, and causing major property damage across several counties. Our family lost power for over 30 hours, and six large trees came down in our yard. The children were cross, sitting in a cold, dark house and unable to get on the internet. More importantly, they were unsettled. To them, electrical power is a fundamental fact of life. It is always there – you flip a switch and…shazam! When you need power, it is suddenly there. They could not imagine living like my grandmother, raised in rural southern Arkansas, whose only power was fire in candles, oil lamps, and stoves… or sunlight.

Our children are no longer little, and the greatest trauma that they experienced from the ice storm was the discomfort from hours of cutting, chopping, dragging, and otherwise cleaning up the mess. They have experienced far greater trauma in the past, including the deaths of family members, cancer diagnoses, financial stressors, and parental unemployment. Previous generations had it worse – my grandparents’ house burned to the ground after only six months of marriage. They lost everything. My great-grandfather died in the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, leaving behind a wife and eight children.
Unwanted and unexpected events, including tragedies, are part of life. We try to prevent them, constructing stronger buildings, improving health care, designing safer cars, and the like. These efforts are partly successful. But still tragedies come. Sometimes disasters occur due to forces beyond our control, but other times they come directly from our own actions – drunk driving, domestic violence, or a drug overdose.

The Modern Response

A culture that rejects the possibility of a loving, just, and all-powerful God struggles with the presence of suffering in the world. If there is no afterlife, there can be no hope of justice in the hereafter. Therefore justice can only occur in the here and now. If there is no existence beyond the grave, what transcendent meaning can suffering have?

It should be no surprise that many people in the current day reject anything that might cause them suffering, and do all they can to eliminate it entirely from life. Suffering of any type (mental, physical, emotional, social, etc.) is unacceptable, and woe be to those through whom it comes, whether they intended it or not. To allay someone else’ suffering is good, but only if you can do it with no harm, and minimum sacrifice, to yourself.

Forests of academic papers decry the wounds of the world and the permanent disability which they cause. Young adults refuse to have children because kids are too expensive, too much trouble, and would interfere with their personal freedom and fun. They are happy to thank others who suffer and sacrifice, but would not dream of doing it themselves.

The Christian Response

In the past, parents believed, and taught their children, that hardship built character – making each individual and family stronger than they were before. Speaking often from a Christian worldview, they might have quoted Romans 5:3-5:

“Not only that, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out His love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, whom He has given us.”

In this passage, the Apostle Paul was talking about both tragedies caused by nature and those caused by others, such as persecution. Many other places in the Scripture teach that hardship, and the struggle to overcome it, is to be handled with faith, love, hope, and joy. Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus, and all of the other faithful servants of God went through intense pain. Job faced disaster, Isaiah was executed, and God told Ananias how greatly Paul would suffer for His name’s sake. The righteous man thrives because he is firmly planted by streams of water (Psalms 1:3), and this planting comes upon by a faithful study of God’s word, an intimate personal relationship with God Himself, and a good dose of suffering.

Conclusion

Alleviating suffering is noble, and is a major part of my work as a physician and minister. However, intentionally sacrificing one’s own time, talents, health, and even life to suffer for others and to give glory to God is far nobler. Just as the trees that had shallow roots toppled and died during the ice storm, so people living for pleasure and appearances topple and die. Just as the trees that had deep roots survived and even thrived during the ice storm, so people living for the glory and enjoyment of God, as manifested by their service, sacrifice, and suffering, survive and thrive through the storms of life. The greatest man, Jesus Christ, made the greatest sacrifice, suffered the most, and had the deepest roots. My prayer is that we all sacrifice a little more, suffer in proportion to our service to the Lord, and grow deep roots.

Sticks and Stones

“Sticks and stones will break my bones but words can never hurt me.” I am old enough to remember a time when parents taught this pithy little rhyme to their children, and society at large believed it. We live in a new day, in which many Americans consider emotional injury as deadly, and more enduring, than physical injury. News accounts of emotional abuse, cyber bullying, and their mental health consequences such as depression, anxiety, and even suicide, pull at our heart strings. Girls, the lonely, and the young are at greater risk. Colleges, including those which my children attend, have safe spaces, trigger warnings, and strict rules against insensitivity and inflicting emotional trauma.  

When I was bullied as a second grader at Mulberry Elementary, Mitch routinely followed me across a large grassy field to the back gate in the chain link fence. He called me bad names, of course, but what I remember was being pushed back over a kneeling co-conspirator who had slipped in behind me. My awkward, backward fall was followed by a pummel of fists, and riotous laughter. My assailants ran away, and I was left to walk home, let myself in, and spend a few hours alone thinking about what happened, and how to prevent the same fate tomorrow. Mulberry’s administration couldn’t stop it, so I learned to avoid him, and to defend myself. Eventually my parents transferred me to a private Christian school.

Bullying today can be the same, but it can also be very different. In my youth, no one had cell phones, and Mitch’s only opportunity to cause me pain was during and immediately after school. He lived only two streets away, and knew where I lived, but never followed me home. Kids today, never more than an arm’s length from their cell phones, find it hard to escape the verbal and written, if not physical, jabs of their tormentors. Ganging up on someone, at least in social media, seems easier. Further, while spoken insults fade as soon as they are spoken, because that is the transient nature of orality, hateful words on social media can be read and reread until they become nearly unforgettable.  

But this discussion in US society is about more than bullying – it is about physical and emotional injury in any context. Physical injury comes from any physical agent, such as weapons, fists, or fire, and can be intentional or unintentional. Emotional injury comes from almost anything, such as words, photographs, or facial expressions, and can be intentional or unintentional. Though anyone can cause pain, those most able to hurt us, physically or emotionally, are those closest to us – our families, friends, schoolmates, and coworkers.

The phrase “Sticks and stones will break my bones but words can never hurt me” has fallen on hard times in the 21st century. No reasonable person, past or present, seriously debates that physical agents like sticks and stones can cause injury. Why then is this phrase, so widely believed and taught two generations ago, so reviled today? Did psychologists in 2018 discover something that no one knew in 1958? Of course not. The Bible describes the power of the tongue to destroy, likening it to a roaring fire (James 3:5-8). Religions and philosophers throughout time have understood the power of words to build and to break down.

The difference between 2018 and 1958 might be how we as a society perceive our ability to defend ourselves. Mitch pushed me down and hit me with fists, but I learned how and when to run away, how and when to kick the hidden assailant behind me, and how and when to hit Mitch back. Just like no reasonable person, past or present, seriously debates that sticks and stones can cause injury, no reasonable person argues that it is impossible to defend against them. Sticks and stones may indeed break my bones, but such an outcome is not inevitable. I can block blows, dodge rocks, run away, and otherwise defend myself.

Is emotional injury different? Can ridicule, shaming, and lies slip past our strongest emotional fortresses? Are we helpless against the barbs of others? Conventional wisdom, as evidenced by “microaggressions”, “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces”, seems to indicate that there is no defense against emotional injury. Anecdotes about depression and suicide reinforce our belief in our impotence. Some opinions imply that not only is there no defense against emotional injury, there is also no recovery.

Did our fathers and mothers not understand this? No, because thinkers have pondered how to handle personal offense and emotional injury for millennia. The Stoic philosopher and Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius said: “Reject your sense of injury and the injury itself disappears.” Restated, we have the power to take offense, or not to take offense, at whatever our critics say and do. Elsewhere he wrote “I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but sets less value on his own opinions of himself than on the opinions of others.” His powerful implication was that each of us has the power to accept or reject what others say about us. When we are ridiculed, shamed, or lied to or about, our initial flash of emotion may be sad or angry. But we have control over what we do then – how we process what was said. Once we choose what we believe and what we do, our emotions follow.

A coworker and I were leaving work one evening and a car passed. The passenger made a hand signal which I only barely caught out of the corner of my eye. My coworker said, “did he flip me off?” I replied, “No, I think that he was just waving.” Whether I was right or wrong didn’t matter – by assuming the best we rejected a potential injury to ourselves, and (probably) unnecessary feelings of anger towards the car passenger.

I teach my children that the statements of others say more about the others than about the children. When a professor complements my son’s work, the professor’s attentiveness, expertise, and good nature are more on display than are my son’s labors. When a schoolmate insults my daughter’s dress, the remark reveals far more about the venom in the heart of the schoolmate than my daughter’s choice in clothing. Jesus said, “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks (Luke 6:45),” and He was right. Though we can benefit from the opinions of others, we must take them with caution, carefully glean what is useful, and discard the rest.  

Therefore, just as people can defend themselves against physical injury, they can defend themselves against emotional injury. The verbal assailant has the power to attack but the intended victim has the power to defend. Does this mean that we can protect ourselves from all emotional injury? No, because some jibes, especially from those we love and respect, get through. No defense against emotional injury is perfect, just as no defense against physical injury is perfect. Are we blaming the victim for the pain imposed by someone else? No, we are all responsible for what we do, and will pay the price for our sins.  

The Bible tells us to fear God rather than man (Proverbs 29:25, Matt 10:28) – to value His opinion more than the opinions of other people (John 12:43). God loves us; each person is precious in His sight. Jesus Christ sacrificed Himself for us (John 3:16). Our identity in Him is secure, regardless of what anyone, or any group, on the planet says about us. Christians are ultimately not judged by others, and we do not even judge ourselves. Rather, the Lord judges us (1 Corinthians 4:3-4), and we stand or fall before Him. We are valuable and beautiful because God made us so. Perhaps we should write a new phrase.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but if I cling to my identity in Christ, words will rarely hurt me.”

The Rule of Law – Lincoln at Lyceum

“I hope I am over wary; but if I am not, there is, even now, something of ill-omen, amongst us. I mean the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country; the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober judgment of Courts; and the worse than savage mobs, for the executive ministers of justice.”

Lincoln spoke those words in 1837, only 24 years before civil war tore America apart. The future Great Emancipator spoke of mob justice, racially motivated violence, and attacks on American political institutions. Now in 2018, we read of racially motivated shootings at a Pittsburgh synagogue and a Kentucky store, and mail bombs sent to politicians. If 1837 seems similar to 2018, it is…and Americans should do all they can to stop it.

The ancient Romans are reputed to have said “Fīat jūstitia ruat cælum” (let justice be done, though the heavens fall). Ironically, the English Roman Catholic priest and political conspirator William Watson popularized the sentiment in Ten Quodlibetical Quotations Concerning Religion and State (1601). The idea has been that to maintain civic order, the Law must be supreme. The institutions that uphold the Law, in America’s case the legislative, executive, and judicial branches at the national, state, county, and city levels, must also remain supreme in the minds and hearts of the people. The supremacy of American law, as with the “Law of the Medes and the Persians” famous from the Bible, is a major safeguard of peace and tranquility. This is dangerous, for every type of government is better than anarchy. When the Beatles sang “You say you want a revolution” to the youth of the 1970s, even John, Paul, George, and Ringo advised restraint.

America, though, was born of revolution. We hold two seemingly contradictory values, the status quo and the change (progressive or regressive), at the same time. Lincoln himself was conservative in his aims (to preserve the Union) and progressive in his aims (ending slavery). Politics in the United States has always been an uneasy balance.

The uniting factor, of course, is justice. Racial discrimination and even slavery in America has always been unjust, exactly as it has been in the Africa, Asia, Europe, India, Middle East, South America, and every other nation throughout human history. However, the murder of innocents through abortion is equally unjust. Neither modern “progressives” nor “conservatives” have a monopoly on justice. Rather, we can learn from each other. The real villains are those who would destroy American political institutions and leave us with tyranny. Justice will never be perfect in any human society, and justice delayed is not necessarily justice denied. However, Fīat jūstitia ruat cælum is not a bad rule of thumb. Our society would be much better if we as individuals knew it, believed it, taught it, and practiced it. Abraham Lincoln did.

 

 

National Suicide – Comments on Lyceum

In our ongoing study of Lincoln’s words to the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, IL on 27 January 1838, we have briefly examined some of the amazing blessings of America. These include her geography, her resources, her development, and her political institutions. Most people throughout history have been crushed by the boot of tyranny, from Argentina to Japan to Zimbabwe. Even today in China, Russia, Turkey, and many other nations, the light of liberty is flickering, or has gone out. The American people, working through brilliantly conceived and enduring political institutions, have lived in freedom, limited primarily by their own industry and imagination.

We have also discussed the men and women who made the United States the amazing country that it is. As heirs to their wisdom and to their labors, we must be grateful. As heirs to their folly and mistakes, we must be humble, because it is not clear that we are any wiser, or any more industrious, than they were. Looking at the United States today, one wonders if we are not greater fools and greater sluggards. Those who cast aside the Greek democracy and the Roman Republic thought they were building better societies.

Today we must explore Lincoln’s next passage, asking where the danger to America would come.

“How then shall we perform it?–At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it?– Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never!–All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.
At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”

Lincoln’s logic is impenetrable. As a nation of the people, by the people, and for the people, the people decide if that nation will endure. Our political leaders are not space aliens who flew in from a distant planet, they are our neighbors, our co-workers, and our fellow citizens. Money and fame notwithstanding, it is ultimately we who put them in office. Does power corrupt most people? Of course. Do humans get proud? Absolutely, as almost everyone has in all of history. But unless angels rule us, and most of us wouldn’t want an angelic society because we all enjoy our personal vices, we are stuck with people to lead us in government. We can curse them, and make them worse than they are, or bless them, and make them better than they are. The choice, and the consequences, are ours.

If as Lincoln said the danger to America is not in foreign invasion, where is it? It is in national suicide. How can we kill ourselves?
1. By killing ourselves, the literal destruction of the American people by other Americans. Since 1973, over 60 million American babies have died by our own hands.
2. By killing our souls, forgetting the God who created us, sustains us, and guides us.
3. By killing our character, the loss of the values that made us great. In America, each person is created equal in value and responsibility before God; equally free to pursue their own lives and equally accountable for the consequences of their choices. Courage, industry, honesty, compassion, and a whole host of other virtues follow from this fundamental idea.
4. By killing our minds, turning us into media-dominated automatons too afraid and too confused to think, speak, and act for ourselves. By exchanging reality for fantasy, whether through the Internet, television, video games, or something else, and by preferring virtual relationships to real ones, we become less human.
5. By killing our dignity, promising income without work and vice without consequences.
6. By killing our bodies, using alcohol, marijuana, and other drugs until we waste away.
7. By killing our families, using “personal fulfillment” to separate us from those who should be our greatest support, as we are their greatest support.
8. By killing our communities, writing laws, regulations, and procedures to kill jobs, paralyze initiative, dehumanize interpersonal interactions, brainwash children, and make honest men into criminals.

The list could be much longer, and the examples legion, but this is enough for now. Americans who love their country, who abjure our ongoing national suicide, would do well to look at what a young country lawyer said to a group of other young men a long time ago…Lincoln at Lyceum.

Grateful to our Fathers – Comments on Lyceum

Showing gratitude to our fathers for American government is a good idea for us today

“We, when mounting the stage of existence, found ourselves the legal inheritors of these fundamental blessings. We toiled not in the acquirement or establishment of them–they are a legacy bequeathed us, by a once hardy, brave, and patriotic, but now lamented and departed race of ancestors. Their’s was the task (and nobly they performed it) to possess themselves, and through themselves, us, of this goodly land; and to uprear upon its hills and its valleys, a political edifice of liberty and equal rights; ’tis ours only, to transmit these, the former, unprofaned by the foot of an invader; the latter, undecayed by the lapse of time and untorn by usurpation, to the latest generation that fate shall permit the world to know. This task of gratitude to our fathers, justice to ourselves, duty to posterity, and love for our species in general, all imperatively require us faithfully to perform.”

I have been personally involved in three political miracles. I stood in the cold rain on the Washington Mall at the Inauguration of George W. Bush (20 Jan 2001), I was second in command of Fort Belvoir’s military medical contingent at the Inauguration of Barack Obama (20 Jan 2009), and I was the deputy commander of all Fort Belvoir and Walter Reed military medical forces on the Washington Mall at Obama’s second inauguration (21 Jan 2013). Why were these events political miracles? Because they were peaceful transitions of power. America is not like ancient Rome, which had four emperors in one year (69 AD). We are not like modern China, which has an unelected ruler for life. And we are not like most nations for most of human history, in which rulers were chosen by their “royal” blood, and the blood they spilled from others. Why do we enjoy such political miracles? Because of the work of our forebears – fathers and mothers.

I have spent many hours in Washington working with the Departments of Defense, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, and others. I have met with members of Congress and worked with their staffers on important issues. I have also studied totalitarian regimes and seen Baghdad immediately after Saddam Hussein, when some Baathists still clung to whatever they could keep. Our government is a model of stability, and even cooperation, compared to Louis XIV’s France, Frederick’s Prussia, and Stalin’s Soviet Union. Why do we enjoy such political stability? Because of the work of our forebears – fathers and mothers.

I did Christian missions work in Guatemala, and traveling in Cairo, with machine gun armed police officers and soldiers everywhere. I took Chinese Bibles from then-British Hong Kong into Red China (via Shenzhen and Quangzhou) in December of 1988 and more than once stared down the barrel of an AK-47. I traveled in Erdogan’s Turkey, where they copy the passport of every traveler every day, ensuring that the watchful eye of Big Government knows who is in their country and what they are doing. By contrast, citizens rarely experience the heavy hand of the military, and visitors to America travel freely from sea to shining sea. Why do we enjoy such political freedom? Because of the work of our forebears – fathers and mothers.

Why aren’t we grateful to our fathers for the wonderful system of government they have left us?
1. We cannot see the good in this heritage, focusing instead in what is bad, or at least what we don’t like. This blindness may in intentional or unintentional.
2. We know nothing of history, or current events in many countries of the world, and don’t care enough to find out, so we have nothing to compare our political system with.
3. We don’t like “dead white men.”
4. We are chronological snobs, believing that our era is far more enlightened than the “primitives” of the past, and that we have little to learn from them, never realizing that our descendants will think the same thing about us.
5. We live “lives of quiet desperation”, unwilling to take the time to be thankful to anyone for anything.

America is not perfect. Our transitions of power are less smooth, our politics are less stable, and our freedoms are more skewed, than they should be. Our politicians are sometimes corrupt, and institutions can be overbearing, but compared to the rest of the world, and to almost all of history, we have so much to be thankful for.
Let’s be grateful to our fathers (and mothers, of course) for the amazing land we call the United States.

American Blessings – Lincoln at Lyceum

The first in a multi-part series of commentaries on Abraham Lincoln’s speech at Lyceum.

“We find ourselves in the peaceful possession, of the fairest portion of the earth, as regards extent of territory, fertility of soil, and salubrity of climate. We find ourselves under the government of a system of political institutions, conducing more essentially to the ends of civil and religious liberty, than any of which the history of former times tells us.”
How many of us consider the blessings of being American?

Our geography, from the fertile Great Plains to the extensive and navigable river basins, is the best in the world. We are protected from potential enemies by great oceans to the east and west, broad deserts to the south, and thick forests to the north. Stretching for thousands of miles, we are a land and sea nation like no other on the planet. We were destined for greatness.

Our political institutions are the fairest in the world. For all of our complaining, we have freedom the likes of which has been unknown throughout history and across the globe:

Those who have never known tyranny long for a strong man to take responsibility for them, to give them money, and to keep them free from the troubles of life. They do not know that the government is often the biggest oppressor of all.

Those who have known tyranny long for the freedom to make their own way through their own industry, courage, and wits, helped by their families, friends, and other groups. They know that governments are often the biggest threat to the livelihoods and lives of citizens.
After long and bloody experience in Europe, early settlers built America to balance the needs of its people and to protect its people from their government. They did not try to build a state in which everyone was equal in every way, for this is impossible. Rather, they tried to build a state in which every citizen had a roughly equal chance to fulfill their needs and their dreams.

There are failings in the American political system, but as a system that reflects the will of the people, the failings are really in us. Political divisions are really population divisions. We have a beautiful democracy, but are we men and women enough to keep it?

Let us rejoice in America, her geography and her political institutions, today.