To the Grave and Beyond!

I like mottos. Here are a few of mine:

  • “Be joyful in hope.” (Romans 12:12)
  • “If you love to learn, you’ll learn to love.”
  • “It is good to be smart, but it is better to be good.”
  • “Love the sinner, not the sin.”

If you don’t have a life motto, take any of mine! Better yet, come up with your own. Or borrow one from a historical hero. Just make sure it is one worth carrying to your grave. Mottos are handles for holding on to our principles. Good ones keep us focused and on track. Yet, a motto does not make a man (or woman). First, we must have a mission. Without that, a motto is just a “muttum” (Latin for utterance).

The most famous motto ever may also be the best. Jesus said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” (Luke 6:34). Similar golden sayings are found in the ancient writings of Isocrates, Aristotle and several religions. Jesus simplified it: “Love one another.” (John 13:34).

Mottos motivate! In 1775, Patrick Henry gave the American colonies a motivating motto: “Give me liberty or give me death!” Many carried it to their graves in our War for Independence. John Paul Jones uttered some famous fighting words in 1779 when he replied to a British admiral, “I have not yet begun to fight.” The U.S. Marine motto is, “Semper Fidelis (always faithful).” The old Navy motto, “Don’t give up the ship” is taken from the dying words of Captain James Lawrence in 1813 after a skirmish with a British frigate. “Remember the Alamo!” inspired Sam Houston’s troops in 1836 fighting for Texan independence. “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead,” harkens back to Admiral Farragut’s orders at Mobile Bay in 1864. “Hit hard, hit fast, hit often” was the Halsey cry, inspired by Admiral William F. Halsey in World War II.

Where there is a mission, we usually find a motto. To better educate pastors, Harvard College was founded in 1636 with the lofty motto “Veritas” (Latin for Truth). Believing that Harvard was getting lax in her mission, some New Haven citizens founded Yale in 1701 under the expanded motto, “Lux et Veritas“ (Light and Truth). Here are a few more educational institution mottos:

  • Azusa Pacific university: “God First.”
  • Brandeis University: “Truth even unto its innermost parts.”
  • Brown University: “In Deo Speramus” (In God We Hope).
  • Montreat College: Esse Quam Videri (To Be, Rather than to Seem).
  • Pepperdine University: “Freely ye received, freely give.” (Matthew 10:8).
  • University of Oregon: “Mens Agitat Molem” (Minds Move Mountains)
  • University of Oxford: Dominus Illuminatio Mea (The Lord is My Light).

Living up to our mottos is another matter. The official motto of the United States of America is “In God We Trust.” How are we doing? Here are a few good state mottos:

  • Colorado: “Nil Sine Numine” (Nothing Without Providence).
  • Idaho: “Esto perpetua” (It is forever).
  • New Hampshire: “Live Free or Die!”
  • Ohio: “With God All Things Are Possible.” (Mark 10:27).
  • South Carolina: “Dum Spiro Spero” (While I breathe, I hope).
  • Virginia: “Sic Semper Tyrannis” (Thus always to tyrants). John Wilkes Booth allegedly shouted this after shooting President Lincoln.

Mail carriers work long and hard under the motto of the U.S. Post Office: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their chosen rounds.” The U.S. Supreme Court motto is, “Equal justice under the law.” The CIA looked to Jesus for their motto: “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:32). The Boy Scout motto is, “Always be prepared.” The Salvation Army marches to the motto, “Blood and Fire.” Even the media have mottos:

  • “Be Silent, or Say Something Better Than Silence.” Pawtucket Times (RI).
  • “Once a week but never weakly.” The Capital Reporter, Jackson, MI.
  • “Where There Is No Vision the People Perish.” Newsday (from Psalms).
  • “All the news that’s fit to print.” New York Times.
  • “What the People Don’t Know WILL Hurt Them.” Johnson City (TN) Press-Chronicle.

Back in the 1960s, the motto, “Don’t trust anyone over 30” was popular, as if nothing could be learned about life and goodness from experienced people–as if trusting one’s own heart was enough. It’s not. Bad mottos can carry you to an early grave.

Parents teach timeless truths through simple mottos kids can grasp. My mom quoted such gems as “If you don‘t work, you don’t eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10), and “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” When things got silly, she threatened; “The rod will drive your foolishness far from you!” When frustrated, she sighed, “This too shall pass.” Forrest Gump’s mom had a good motto: “Stupid is as stupid does.” I also like, “Love is as love does.” Jesus said that “wisdom is proved right by her actions.” (Matthew 11:19).

I like Jesus’ mottos best, but He did not live and die to give us mere mottos. We can take a motto to our grave but it cannot take us any further. Beyond all His inspired mottos, Jesus had a higher mission which He carried it to His grave. In fact, his mission was that grave! In three days, however, He rose from that lowly grave so that we too could have a mission to take to our graves, and beyond.

That’s why I can “be joyful in hope.”

A Primer on Proverbs

“I have found that the best way to give advice to your children is to find out what they want and advise them to do it.”
Harry S. Truman (1884 –1972, the 33rd US President)

Where can you get good advice these days? Talk TV? The news? The net? Consumer Reports can advise you on buying a car. Books with advice on handling the opposite sex are falling off the shelves. Every commercial you see and hear is geared to advise you on what you need. Advertisers often target the young because they presume their advice-filters are not yet well developed. Be wise.

Harry Truman’s wit in the quote above is worth a smile but passing wisdom on to the young is serious business. Advising the young is as old as recorded history.

  • In 44 BC, Cicero (Roman statesman) dedicated his essay De Officia (on Duties) to his son Marcus. His fatherly advice became a classic of Western literature. He loved his son enough to want him to love learning and learn virtue.
  • In Shakespeare’s Hamlet (Act One), young Laertes received such fatherly advice as: “Neither a borrower nor lender be” and “To thine own self be true.” In context, however, the fictional father was more concerned with superficial appearances than character.
  • In 1599, about the time Hamlet was written, King James (of Bible translation fame) wrote Basilikon Doron (Kingly Gift) in 1599 to implant royal ideals in his four-year-old son.
  • Sir Walter Raleigh penned Instructions to His Son and to Posterity while in prison in 1611. His advice included warnings of betrayal by beauty or flattery. Of money, he wrote, “Don‘t spend it before you have it.”
  • Lord Chesterfield (1694 – 1773) wrote over 400 letters to his sons. One letter in 1748 said, “Wear your learning, like your watch, in a private pocket.” A 1766 letter said; “Be sure never to speak of yourself, nor against yourself, but let your character speak for you.”
  • In 1783, George Washington (1732 – 1799, 1st US president)) advised his nephew; “True friendship is a plant of slow growth, and must undergo and withstand the shocks of adversity before it is entitled to the appellation.”

Parents (and uncles like Washington) will never stop trying to pass on good advice to children. Much of that advice has ended up as great literature, even if the author’s own kids ignored it. In any case, wise advice needs to go beyond just finding out what they already want. Sorry Harry.

Standing above all other noble attempts to enlighten the young is the biblical book of Proverbs. It is a father’s “instructions to his sons” (4:1), written to give “knowledge and discretion to the young” (1:4). It is God’s letter to young apprentices on the art of living.

What sagely advice does Proverbs offer young people? First of all, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (9:10). Start there! Secondly, be open to good advice and shun the nonsense. My favorite proverb is: “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” (4:23). Keep your advice-filter clean and well oiled. Also, develop a hunger for wisdom and a passion for learning. Wisdom will not just land in your lap. It must be pursued. I think that’s why wisdom is portrayed (like “Liberty” on the Hudson River) poetically in Proverbs as a woman — a most worthy woman. It’s simply an ancient literary devise, so the call to wisdom in Proverbs rings loud and clear for both girls and boys. So, incline your ear to her. Set all lesser things aside and purse her as a young man would a decent woman, or a wise young woman would desire a virtuous man.

Go for it!

The legacy of Barton W. Stone

At the far end of the handle of the Little Dipper is Ursa Minor. Pilots and navigators have long called it the Polar Star. You may know it as the North Star.

While all the other stars rotate around the heavens, the Polar Star is always in the north. It is the one constant in the constellation of the northern hemisphere sky. Ancient mariners and explorers relied on it for a fixed point of reference through the night.

An artist needs a fixed reference point to establish perspective in a composition. Pitchers need a plate. Soldiers need a flag. Serious politicians need something besides opinion polls. Justices need a Constitution to trump their personal preferences. Without a reference point, we get lost.

What is your Ursa Minor?

For Barton W. Stone (1772 to 1844), it was Christian unity! His lifelong conviction was that unity among Christians could be found only through the transforming power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In The Christian Messenger (Stone’s monthly pamphlet, Dec., 1829), Barton expressed his passion for destroying “sectarian props, creeds and names.” Instead, he sought to promote “love, peace and unity among Christians.” He referred to his passion as “the polar star to which our attention and exertion shall be chiefly directed.”

Stone was born on Christmas Eve in 1772 in Maryland. His family moved to Virginia in 1779 after his father died. People lived close to nature then. As a boy, Barton learned early how to use the North Star to find his way home at night. At 19, he converted to Christianity and dedicated himself to ministry. He was soon called to Kentucky where he ministered at the Cane Ridge Presbyterian Church. At his ordination in 1798, he was asked if he accepted the Westminster Confession of Faith. He replied, “I do as far as I can see it consistent with the word of God.”

He was already realizing that creative creeds are not the key to unity.

At Cane Ridge, he was “alarmed” (his word) to find such a low level of interest in faith on the frontier. The time was ripe for what is now known as the Great Awakening. In 1801, he organized a revival meeting at Cane Ridge attracting 25,000 seekers over five days. It famously featured such exciting phenomena as jerks, shouts and faintings. But there was much more. Denominational lines blurred as, according to Stone, “all united in prayer [and] all preached the same thing.”

The Presbyterian hierarchy was not amused. Their critical stance deepened Stone’s desire to be free from Presbyterian strings while remaining subject to God‘s Word. He wanted to “just be Christian” as did others in his circle. They were losing confidence that denominational ties, terms or creeds could guide Christians toward unity. They began to see a return to simpler yet deeper conviction rooted in God’s Word as the key to unity.

Seeking freedom from sectarian pressure, Stone and some kindred spirits, drew up The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery, in which they said, “We will that this body die, be dissolved, and sink into union with the Body of Christ at large; for there is but one body, and one Spirit, even as we are called in one hope of our calling.”

This established Stone as one of the founding fathers of the Restoration Movement.

Years later, Stone saw his famous handshake in 1832 with “Raccoon” John Smith as the noblest act of his life. It merged the “Christians,” represented by Stone, with the “Disciples,” those in the sphere of Alexander Campbell’s influence (represented by Smith). Stone’s preaching increasingly zeroed in on the need for believers to promote the unity and purity of the church through humility. Over the years, he learned how selfish pride was the bane of union in all ages.

At the Disciples of Christ National Historical Society in Nashville, Tennessee, there still stands a statue of Stone (yes, it’s carved out of stone) with the oft-spoken words of Brother Stone inscribed on it: “Let the unity of Christians be our Polar Star.” That’s his legacy in a nutshell.

Mariners watch the Polar Star for guidance with a destination in mind. Barton Stone watched for the unity of Christians through the Holy Spirit. “To this let our eyes be continually turned,” he wrote in 1832.

Stone was a first-things-first kind of guy and for him, unity came first.

In Their Shoes

If you had been a Pilgrim in 1621, would you have been thankful?

That year, Gov. William Bradford chose a day for giving thanks to God and he invited local Indians to their humble celebration. Chief Massasoit came with 90 Indians to feast on fish, berries, watercress, lobster, dried fruit, clams, venison, and plums. To strengthen their resolve, they cited King David’s words in the 92nd Psalm: “It is good to give thanks to the Lord.”

This goodness is what Thanksgiving is about. To cultivate gratitude, we annually recall this 17th century account of Indians and Pilgrims bringing food to a common table, or blanket. That story took all sorts of turns and tumbles from there, but that moment in time remains worth celebrating.

Like most holidays, Thanksgiving turns our attention toward the past. After all, we cannot be grateful without a memory. There is so much from the past that needs to be remembered and celebrated, even your birthday! Like history, Thanksgiving carries good memories, values, ideals and traditions into our hearts and our culture. But honest history also carries some bad memories, dragging serious human vices and hardships into view. Still, the reality of human vices and hardships throughout history should not keep us from celebrating the virtues and blessings.

Consider the Pilgrims. Their 65 day trip across the Atlantic (“a sea of troubles”) was cold and damp. Aiming for Virginia, the Mayflower was blown north to the unknown land of Massachusetts. Scurvy, typhus and personal loss followed them all the way until they landed at Plymouth on December 11, 1620. Thankfully, they did not give up.

Chew on this: Would you have been thankful in their shoes?

Their troubles were just beginning. The colony record keeper, Nathaniel Morton, wrote that they had “no friends to welcome them, no inns to entertain or refresh them, no houses, or much less towns, to repair unto to seek for succour; and for the season it was winter… What could they see but a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wilde beasts and wilde men?”

Would you have been thankful?

Of the 103 who boarded the Mayflower, only 55 souls were still alive after their first winter in the new world. Almost half of them perished. 12 of the 18 married women perished. Those who remained barely had the strength to put in the next year’s crop. Supplies soon ran out. The seeds they brought from Europe for growing wheat wouldn’t grow in the stony soil. The flour was gone so there was no bread or pastries. There was no milk, cider, potatoes or domestic cattle.

It is healthy to wonder if we would have been grateful in pilgrim shoes, but the better question is–are you grateful in your own?

Paying attention to the past is like traveling—it broadens your perspective on life. It builds an informed foundation for pursuing a better future. Best of all, honest history cultivates the following two virtues:

  1. Gratitude. We are inspired by the good that was done and our gratitude grows. History can shed a bright light on the pursuit of virtue. Seeking a better future, countless forebears lived out virtues like courage, patience, love, purity, hope, hard work, forgiveness and more. We benefit from their sacrifices.
  2. Humility. Studying history, we are also saddened by the bad that was done. Our humility grows under the ample evidence of humanity’s flaws.

Like most virtues, gratitude and humility can feed each other. That’s a feast worth attending! Informed gratitude for our forebears can also make us humbly thankful that we are not living in their shoes. As you enjoy your Thanksgiving turkey, don’t forget to feed your soul some nutritious servings of gratitude and humility. Read some history.

“It’s A Wonderful Life”

When it comes to Christmas movies, “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) surpasses all other favorites. Why? Because it’s a story about man’s greatest need (conversion) and the most formidable force standing against it (ourselves). It’s about the battle between virtue and vice that rages in us all.

George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart) has big dreams that repeatedly get trampled over by real life in a not so wonderful world. George’s unselfishness enables others to fulfill their dreams, like going to college, seeing the world and owning homes, but he remains stuck in stuffy old Bedford Falls.

As a boy George learns that doing the right thing can get you into trouble. When his boss Mr. Gower, the town druggist, learns that George failed to make a delivery, he slapped him so hard that his ear began to bleed. Actually, George had prevented his boss from inadvertently poisoning a customer. Mr. Gower had just learned of his son’s death and his profound sorrow led him to make an unintended but serious misstep. George understood how such grief in others calls for grace from him.

As a newly-wed, George again puts his own happiness on hold for the sake of others. On the way to their honeymoon, George and Mary see a panicking crowd making a run on the bank. They stop to deal with the problem. Then, in the bank, George shows grace and understanding to people who refuse to show it to him.

George’s virtues often go unrewarded. Instead, the vices of others eventually draw him into deep trouble and take him to the breaking point. It is at this point that we realize that even a “good” man needs conversion.

We all know what it’s like to feel overwhelmed by adversity. Under stress, we are tempted to put virtues and vices into a blender and do whatever we think will work to our best advantage. It’s called moral compromise. In a moment of weakness, George is confronted by old man Potter with a temptation to compromise. If George would just sell short his aspirations and principles a little bit, everything would work out fine. If he could just be a little selfish this one time, his problems would immediately resolve into a secure and cushy life.

When George did the right thing and turned down the cushy life, life did not suddenly get wonderful. After a long string of unselfish choices, George is blind-sided by unexpected and undeserved twists of fate and the prospect of financial ruin and scandal looms large. He goes to Mr. Potter with his life insurance policy begging for a loan and the miserly old man tells him he’s better off dead than alive. Convinced the world would be better off had he never lived, George is on the verge of suicide. That’s when an angel is assigned to convert him from a floundering failure, a dejected dad, and a hopeless husband into a confident friend, father and spouse who realizes how richly blessed he is. This will take some work.

I won’t reveal the ending here, except to say that if money is the point in life, then this holiday classic ends with Mr. Potter as the winner. Already the richest man in town, he ended up with thousands more in money he never earned. But money is not what makes life wonderful. Neither are external circumstances, be they pleasant or not. Virtue is. And virtue is not contingent on money or circumstances. As Robert Duvall said in the movie, “Broken trail,” “Never use money to measure wealth.”

The angel assigned to George did nothing to change his circumstances. He merely helped George see a bigger picture. He showed him that his life had made a far bigger difference for good than he knew. This changed him. It finally enabled him to meet a horrible fate (which nearly drove him to suicide before his conversion) head on without compromise. He found what he really needed and it was not just money or a good lawyer. That’s when his brother Harry declared poor George, “the richest man in town.”

I believe God is the ultimate source of the kind of virtue that transcends money and circumstances. I also believe that trusting in God is essential for seeing a picture big enough to offer hope in the face of wretched irreversible circumstances. Suffering from spiritual myopia, we often lose sight of the impact our lives have on others (for good or for ill). The good of our goodness can be much better than we think it is and the bad of our badness can be worse than we think it is. This truth can be life-changing.

The Best Argument Against Multi-Culturalism is…
Noah Webster (1758-1843)

When Noah Webster was born (October 16, 1758), America was by no means united in its culture, language, values, or political institutions. Colonial America consisted of competing groups that spoke various dialects of English, German, French, Dutch and other languages. Values and virtues varied dramatically across the rancorous colonial landscape. Almost since the Mayflower, earnest Puritans and mercenary materialists lived side by side. Some lived in harmony with Indians and others did not (mostly the mercenaries).

In 1776, with war looming large, Webster and other Yale students heard an emotional address from president Timothy Dwight in which they were charged to go out and lay “the foundations of American greatness.”

Young Noah took this to heart. He pursued many diverse careers but his lifelong passion was to bring unity out of national and cultural chaos in America. He graduated in 1778 hoping to study law, but money was short. To make a living, he taught school in Glastonbury, Hartford and West Hartford. In 1783, he wrote his own teaching textbook: A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, or the “Blue-backed Speller.” For over two centuries, it remained the best selling book, written originally in English, of all-time. It sold over 100 million copies even into the 1900s. It was Webster’s declaration of American cultural independence and it gained a monopoly in classrooms for over a century. It changed the course of education in America. Webster’s Speller taught children to embrace their nation and her heroes. It enabled millions of children of different nationalities, ethnicities, language groups, religions, and political persuasions to share a common language, identity and cause as Americans. It also taught children geography, politics, economics and virtue. It offered moral wisdom too; “He that lies down with dogs must rise up with fleas.”

So, by age 27, Webster had graduated from Yale, established a school, written a classic grammar and speller, met most of our nation’s founding fathers, and written a pamphlet that influenced the formation of the U.S. Constitution. During a promotional book tour for his Blue-backed Speller, he found time to lead a choir in Baltimore that greatly enriched the church life of that city. In the end, no American did more than Webster to eradicate illiteracy, something he saw as the most effective means for sustaining tyranny–more effective than prison cells, torture or murder. He unified the English language itself in a time when diverse dialects, spellings and pronunciations were rampant.

In his lifetime, Webster studied 26 different languages, mastered 12 of them and began the scientific study of etymology. He was no cultural isolationist but he understood that life together in a common land calls for shared cultural values and definitions. He revolutionized education, unified our culture around the English language, initiated copyright laws, fought for the abolition of slavery and the increased education of women, and he helped shape the abiding identity that came with the title; American.

In 1789, he married Rebecca Greenleaf who bore him eight children. He loved children visibly, carrying raisins and candies in his pockets for them to enjoy. In 1787, he wrote, “The only practicable method to reform mankind is to begin with children.”

Webster’s most famous accomplishment was his dictionary. He began this monumental task of standardizing how Americans would spell, use and pronounce words at age 43. He finished it 27 years later. Webster once said: “The lexicographer’s business is to search for truth.” To this end, he omitted obscenities and profanities and he blended scholarship with faith. Listen to part of his definition for the word Indebted: “We are indebted to our parents for their care of us in infancy and in youth; we are indebted to God for life; we are indebted to the Christian religion for many of the advantages and much of the refinement of modern times.” Defining love, he wrote, “The love of God is the first duty of man.”

Webster’s biographer, Harlow Giles Unger, concluded: “Webster’s life was not about a dictionary. It was about creating a new nation–the United States of America–and making everyone in America an American.”

Listen to Webster himself: “Every child in America should be acquainted with his own country . . . As soon as he opens his lips, he should rehearse the history of his own country.” (Webster, “On the Education of Youth in America,” 1788).

Few founding fathers had a greater long-term impact on America than did Noah Webster. He was America’s great teacher, lawyer, statesman, editor, author, lexicographer and patriot! He is America’s greatest schoolmaster.

(Voting Integrity)

Our cherished right to vote in America is under attack! President Obama issued this dire warning in a speech last April 11th, to the National Action Network (led by Al Sharpton). He vowed to stand up against this heinous threat.

Horrors! What is this country coming to? Voting is a defining building-block for freedom. What repressive force would do this? Who hates freedom that much? Who would seek to undermine the foundations upon which America stands? Tell us who these seditious enemies of freedom are, Mr. President!

He did! “Across the country,” our president warned, “Republicans have led efforts to pass laws making it harder, not easier, for people to vote.” He added that minorities, women and senior citizens are most threatened.

    Actually, he was misrepresenting what Republicans want—which is to require valid identification to vote. Republicans want to make it harder to vote illegally.

The president continued, “You would think there would not be an argument about this anymore.”

    Actually, there is no serious argument about this. It’s partisan slander. Republicans actually want every legal citizen in America to be 100% free to vote.

The president asked his audience, “What kind of political platform is that? Why would you make that a part of your agenda, preventing people from voting?”

    Actually, that’s not the Republican platform at all. The president was lying.

Would a politician lie? Would he or she actually tell people they could keep their health plan and doctor under a new law knowing this was not true? How about inventing a false cause for a terrorist attack to divert criticism three weeks before an election? Would a political party actually misrepresent their opponents as racists, anti-women, haters of the environment and heartless to the point of wanting grandmothers to die? Unthinkable, right?

How’s your memory? During the 2012 presidential campaign, Vice President Biden told a predominantly black audience in Danville, Virginia, that his Republican opponents wanted to “put you all back in chains.” He actually said that! Decent Americans were outraged. President Obama was not. Given a chance to pull back on this hideous accusation, he actually backed his VP with agreement. Moreover, the 2012 Obama re-election campaign repeatedly accused Republicans of waging a “war on women.” And Democrats actually used an ad that portrayed a well-dressed Republican (VP candidate Paul Ryan) throwing a helpless grandmother in a wheelchair off of a cliff.

You cannot make this stuff up. And I didn’t!

If the Obama administration felt strongly about voting integrity, then Attorney General Eric Holder’s Justice Department would not have dismissed a solid case for voter intimidation in Philadelphia against New Black Panther Party members. But they did.

An honor system for voting is not a reasonable option. Sorry. We are a culture awash in fraud–identity theft, plagiarism, performance boosting drugs, computer hackers, IRS scandals, cover-ups, legal shakedowns, infidelity, academic cheating, cheap diplomas, immigration fraud, false campaign promises, journalist forgeries, FBI leaks, “anonymous” sources, resume’ enhancement, tax avoidance, insider trading and more. We are required to show a valid ID just to board a plane, drive a car, buy alcoholic beverages, enter federal office buildings, sign up for Obamacare, receive food stamps, pick up a government check or validate a personal check. Why not for voting?

Regardless of party, race, gender, creed or age, reasonable people agree that asking citizens for verifiable identification to vote is legitimate, especially when such identification can be freely and easily obtained by any citizen prior to voting. In fact, in states that require a valid ID, those without them can still vote and are given 10 days to validate their identity. Voter impersonation is much easier where valid ID requirements are waved. That’s obvious. Yet, the president not only disagrees, he maliciously distorts the facts to outrage people on false pretenses.

In 2011 and 2012, the IRS was used to target and harass conservative organizations. Since then, an IRS official has taken the 5th, countless computers have “crashed” (all unrecoverable), two full years of e-mail communication vanished, and all back-up record-keeping systems broke down. All this at the very institution that punishes citizens like you and me if we fail to provide records. Holder’s Justice Department is doing nothing serious to seek truth or justice. This is every bit as egregious as voter fraud.

    Actually, one of the groups the IRS persecuted was called “True the Vote.” Their “crime” was to dare to work honestly to prevent voter fraud.

“Nothing But Honor”

Elevating honor as a guiding principle can yield personal and cultural greatness. However, obsessing on honor for purposes of personal pride can poison relationships and cripple a cause. The American Civil War presents us with a riveting case-study for this humbling dynamic.

First, some fiction. In the movie “Gone With the Wind,” we heard this exchange:

Scarlet O’Hara: “Take me away with you. There is nothing to keep us here.”

Ashley Wilkes: “Nothing but honor.”

Wilkes was refusing a tempting offer to leave his wife. His honor stood as the last remaining defense against indecency.

The culture that gave rise to the Civil War revered honor. Many great men and moments rose from this reverence. But it also allowed dangerous vices to thrive under a cloak of honor.

When Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860, the animosity between the North and South was epic. Did this passionate divide prevent in-fighting in each opposing camp? No. Acrimony was intense among political factions in the South and in General Robert E. Lee’s high command. The North was no different. Lincoln faced political chaos in Washington and insubordination from his high command. Many officers on both sides feuded throughout the war over questions of honor.

Union General George McClellan (1826 –1885) had an ego that far outpaced his abilities on the field. He once snubbed his Commander-in-Chief making Lincoln wait and then just going to bed. He privately referred to Lincoln as “nothing more than a well-meaning baboon,” and “unworthy” of his high position. Unduly cautious, he kept losing to inferior numbers and making excuses. Later Union generals, often under pressure from Lincoln, were reckless with the lives of soldiers, many of whom perished senselessly in a blaze of “honorable” glory. Meanwhile, tension and bitterness pervaded the Union high command as the pecking order constantly shifted. Gen. Burnside (famous for his sideburns) disliked Gen. Hooker who conspired against Burnside to replace him. General Pope sustained a serious defeat at the Second Battle of Bull Run and found a scapegoat in Gen. Porter. In the end, Lincoln went through five highly problematic military commands to finally win the war.

On the Confederate side, Gen. Joe Johnston (1807 –1891) was, as one historian put it, “morbidly jealous” of Lee. He was obsessed with rank and feuded bitterly with the thin-skinned Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

Gen. A. P. Hill (1825-1865) was touchy on matters of personal honor. In 1862, he engaged in public arguments with James Longstreet over who deserved the most credit at the Battle of Glendale. Longstreet placed Hill under arrest for insubordination and there was talk of a duel. Lee intervened and transferred Hill and his “Light Division” to Stonewall Jackson’s Army of the Shenandoah. Soon, Hill clashed with Jackson over marching orders and Jackson had Hill arrested and charged. Lee intervened again, trying to get his officers to see a bigger picture. Later, Hill sought a court of inquiry against Gen. Ambrose Wright. Again, Lee intervened reminding Hill that Wright was not a professional solider but a politician who left the safety of his office for duty on the field. He told Hill not to humiliate Wright and make the best with the officers he had. After all, that’s what Lee did twice with Hill.

Robert E. Lee was an exceptional leader, able to transcend the squabbling in his ranks to stay focused on the larger mission. When the war began, Lee explained his loyalty to Virginia saying: “I would sacrifice anything but honor to save Virginia.” In the end, he could not do it. He led countless young soldiers to early graves fighting valiantly for a “lost cause.” Near the war’s end, many Confederates regarded surrender as dishonorable and clamored for guerilla warfare in the hills. Seeing a bigger picture, Lee followed a deeper sense of honor and surrendered at Appomattox. Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, known for brutal tactics in war, treated Lee honorably and took care to ensure that the terms of surrender would be as honorable as possible for both sides. After the war, Confederate leaders engaged in a war of words to spin the causes and effects of the war they lost. The “Lost Cause” narrative finessed the role of slavery and focused on “state’s rights” as the primary cause. This ignores the secession speeches in 1860 claiming slavery as the cornerstone of civilization. The “Lost Cause” writers were often more concerned with the South’s honor than reporting the full truth.

Many officers cited above were the cream of the crop. Their skills and virtues distinguished them for significant service. I focused on their vices to illustrate that notions of honor can yield mixed results. It led to high levels of loyalty and courage worthy of our admiration. It also fostered low levels of folly as egos postured for glory. Most virtues rise out of a duel between competing passions and priorities. Forces inside us all are caught up in a dance for dominance. Real love must take the lead over lust, honor over pride, courage over bravado, humility over timidity, liberty over license, justice over legalism, hope for wishful thinking, patience over procrastination and so on. Every virtue has a counterfeit double that is easily mistaken for the real thing.

Fear and Faith

If Halloween is a celebration, then what are we celebrating? Judging by the cute skeletons, goblins, ghosts and grave-yard symbols on our doors, windows and walls, it’s fear and death. Maybe it’s our attempt to laugh at death. Perhaps it rose out of the homage we pay to death with winter looming near.

Either way, millions of Halloween celebrants will be looking for ways to scare and be scared—all in fun. They will decorate their homes and bodies with symbols of fear and death. Some will send their children into the streets in disguises to threaten neighbors with a “trick” if they refuse to offer up a “treat.” Again, it’s all in fun.

I support fun. I also support facing our fears head on. We should do this every day of the year, not just October 31. And the pursuit of fun should not stop us.

The Bible recognizes fear as a prominent feature of faith. The Psalmist sings:

  • “Worship the LORD with reverence and rejoice with trembling.” (Psalm 2:11).
  • “Surely His salvation is near to those who fear Him.” (Psalm 85:9)
  • “The Lord reigns, let the peoples tremble.” (Psalm 99:1).
  • “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (Ps 111:10)

Jesus recognized a healthy kind of fear. He taught, “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28).

So, God’s word faces fear head on. It affirms faith-filled fear and blasts faithless fear to kingdom come. The phrase, “fear not” pervades its pages. King David prayed, “The Lord is my light and my salvation; Whom shall I fear?” (Psalm 17:1).

Old hymns, written in tougher times, are good at turning fear into faith. In 1887, Jesse Brown Pounds wrote:

    “Anywhere with Jesus I can go to sleep,
    When the dark’ning shadows round abut me creep,
    Knowing I shall waken never more to roam,
    Anywhere with Jesus will be home sweet home.”

It was Jesus who faced death fearlessly and took the sting right out of it. Because of the cross, Paul could preach, “Death is “swallowed up in victory!” (1 Corinthians 15:54). Paul had the ultimate answer to Halloween:

    “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

Fifteen centuries later, Martin Luther echoed that theme in his song, A Mighty Fortress is Our God:

    “And though this world with demons filled,
    Should threaten to undo us.
    We will not fear for God hath willed,
    His truth to triumph through us!”

Here’s a scary thought: Had Jesus bypassed the cross and lived for himself, death would still be in charge, demanding the final word over us all. Fear of the faithless kind would reign and Halloween would be all too real.


By the way, October 31st is also the day Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses (protests) to the door of the Wittenburg castle church in Germany in 1517. Happy Reformation Day this October 31st.

Resting in Peace
(Visiting Civil War Battlefields)

Civil War battlefields stir our souls, humble our hearts and muddy our minds. I know because I recently visited battlefields at Harper’s Ferry, Manassas, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Spotsylvania, Antietam, Richmond and Gettysburg. Wow!

Old battlefields are among the most peaceful places you can visit. The tall grass sways winsomely in the breeze. Rustic crooked wooden fences define the boundaries. Noble monuments stand still and silent. Old barns feature bullet and cannon ball holes forever unrepaired. Visitors are not in a hurry. The notion that we are treading on the bones of countless long gone soldiers who perished in a blaze of violence somehow multiplies that feeling of peace. The word reverence applies.

Monument to the 45th Pennsylvania Volunteers at Antietam, Maryland.
Many stone and bronze monuments dot the landscape. They tell powerful stories and stand as vestiges of a time when artists labored to portray honor rather than horror. Yet we know that both honor and horror were woven together in the tragic stories that inspired each monument. But the vast majority of stories that played out on that field long ago will never be told, heard or fully understood.

The deafening sounds of countless gun shots, bullets whizzing by, canon fire, boots on the ground (for those lucky enough to have boots), desperate commands, rebel yells and trumpet blasts have all faded into the distant past. So have the haunting moans and groans of the wounded and dying after the battle. So have most of the hopes and dreams that died here.

Yet, a patriotic visitor can still somehow hear those sounds. The peace one senses from grass swaying, leaves rustling and birds singing is unforgettable, and yet, incomplete. Questions keep ringing in your mind.

Most visitors want to hear about the troop movements, the casualty counts, the heroics, the “what ifs,” the profiles of great leaders, the blame games and more. We ask which side was outnumbered. When we learn which side won, we wonder what winning actually meant. Was slavery worth all this? Was slavery really the point? We presume to second-guess the motives of the main players. We judge the strategies in hindsight, with no bullets blazing past our heads. The horrendous statistics you hear from guides or see on plaques just cannot land in a comfortable place in your mind. Yet you want more.

You go to the Battlefield Visitor’s Center and see black and white photographs of the same fields you just toured. Instead of the beautiful green landscape that gave you such peace, you see decaying bodies piled up on each other. You cannot put those two pictures together in your mind no matter how hard you try.

You realize that statistics don’t really count. Photographs don’t tell the full story. Famous quotes and speeches inspire, but you fail to get a good grip on the real context. That entire world is long gone. You feel anger and awe at the same time. Your brain is spinning and your heart is broken for people you never knew.

Suddenly, you realize the rest of your group is waiting for you in the van and they are hungry for lunch!

Life goes on.

Editors Note: All pictures in this post are taken by Joel. Please enjoy the photo gallery below as much as I did.

Battlefield of First Manassas (Bull Run); July, 1861). Here, Union Colonel James Cameron, brother of U.S. Secretary of War Simon Cameron, was killed in action. His brother Simon was among the crowd of spectators who came out from Washington, D.C. to picnic on the high ground and witness the battle from afar.

Battlefield at First Manassas (Bull Run). Monument to Stonewall Jackson in the distance, near where he got his famous nickname for holding ground against the Federals.

The Sunken Road, Battle of Fredericksburg (Dec. 13, 1862). 3,000 Confederate infantrymen lined up here and decimated the charging Union forces who lost 8,000 trying to overtake this wall.

Burnside’s Bridge at the Antietam National Battlefield (Maryland) where some 500 Confederate soldiers from Georgia held off repeated attempts by the Federals to take the bridge on September 17, 1862. The Battle at Antietam was the bloodiest single day in American military history and much of the blood was spilled here.

Battleground outside the Dunker Church, Antietam, September, 2014.

Battleground outside the Dunker Church, Antietam, September, 1862.

Monument to Maj. Gen. Gouverneur Warren who graduated 2nd in his West Point class of 1850. On July 2, 1863, he recognized the importance of holding Little Round Top just in time. His quick action may have been the difference at Gettysburg.

1st Pennsylvania Cavalry (sculptor: H.J. Ellicott). A soldier at ready (Gettysburg).