Words, I Think

Mandi recently graduated from high school. She’s a lover of Shakespeare and a bright young lady with a promising future as an educator. Yet I remember a time when her verbal abilities far outshone her literary skills. It was her third birthday, and she sat next to her dad as she opened a card from Terri. Mandi’s eyes shone wide as three one-dollar bills fell out, and she immediately dropped the card to collect the money. Her dad said, “Well wait, Mandi—you didn’t even look at the card. What does it say?” With great disinterest she glanced at the card which was laden with Terri’s neat handwriting—she’s an amazing and encouraging note writer!—and said dismissively, “Words, I think.”

Words. As a high school English teacher, a former preacher, and a newspaper reporter before that, words have always been the tools with which I ply my trade. I believe in the power of words. I love how the Bible refers to Jesus as “the Word”—He is God’s way of communicating most clearly and effectively with human beings. (For a vivid example, see the first chapter of the Gospel of John.)

That’s why I froze a couple years ago when we were studying Romeo and Juliet and Aaron, one of my all-time favorite students, quipped, “Why does Shakespeare use so many extra words?” I froze because dozens of possible replies jammed in my mouth all at once. Simply put, Shakespeare uses “so many extra words” because his desire is to communicate.

My fear is that today we don’t use enough words. And when we do, we often use them to confuse rather than clarify. I’m continually affronted because of this particular deep conviction of mine: Words mean something!

Rather than using words to communicate—which is their most basic intended function—we hide behind words. Too often we don’t say what we mean or mean what we say. This is especially true in the public, and particularly political, realm. Before an issue comes to a vote, we see signs with messages like “Proposition 7: Vote Yes to Education for Your Community!” Or on the other side: “Proposition 7: Vote No to Prostitution in Your Community!” When in reality, Proposition 7 on its surface is not about education nor prostitution, but the simple question as to whether or not a community should allow a casino to be built in its midst. Wait, what? Why not just say that?

Words are symbols. They’re letters representing sounds which, strung together, convey meaning. But symbols only work if they’re understood. If different people have differing understandings of what a symbol means, communication breaks down completely. For example, look at the commotion surrounding kneeling during the national anthem. A few months ago kneeling meant you were a traitor. Now not kneeling means you’re a racist. How did this happen? The national anthem, and the American flag, are symbols that have varying meanings. The young widow whose husband was killed in combat is livid at the sight of the millionaire athlete taking a knee; meanwhile the millionaire athlete whose cousin was a victim of police brutality is livid at the young widow for not supporting his just cause. Who is right? Who is wrong? Is it possible that the athlete is not a traitor and the widow is not a racist? Is it possible that maybe they both support veterans and both oppose racism? Then what’s happening here? What’s happening is that two people are attributing entirely different meanings to the same symbol.

Now multiply that scenario by 350 million people, and welcome to the “United” States of America in 2020.

The beauty of symbols is that they can communicate complex ideas instantly and simply. It’s the idea behind the old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words. But if the image is not clear, then we need those thousand words.

This is how we got to the point that saying something as plainly virtuous and true as “All Lives Matter” can cost someone their job. We need to use more words, not less! A perfect illustration of this is the picture floating around the Internet of a little girl holding a sign that reads:


That is perfectly clear. Simply throwing around phrases like “Black lives matter” and “All lives matter” and pitting them against one another is an exercise in totally missing the point. A conversation that goes, “Black lives matter.” “All lives matter!” is absurd because it ends up with two sides engaging in an emotional dispute over an issue that they probably both agree on! Borrowing a few of Shakespeare’s “extra words” would go a long way toward aligning our energies for the common good rather than pitting us against one another on issues that we don’t even truly disagree about.

Just yesterday a debate raged on my Facebook page about what people mean by “defund the police.” In comments and private text messages, this common phrase was explained as meaning abolish, dismantle, reform, or reallocate. Notice that we actually have words to convey the meanings of abolish, dismantle, reform, or reallocate. Here they are: abolish, dismantle, reform, and reallocate. Defund means to defund. Why can’t we all just say what we really mean? That would help us get quickly to the heart of issues so that when we truly disagree, we can at least understand each other and know at what point we disagree; and it would also help us to reach consensus on important topics about which we do agree, but don’t realize it because we use different terms—or misuse terms—in our discussions.

Another danger of substituting slogan-slinging instead of actually communicating with words is that we can easily communicate the opposite of what we intend. Let me give you an example: Another post making the rounds in social media references Jesus’ parable in Luke 15 about the missing sheep. One version of this post condescendingly says to “crack open your Bible” and read about how Jesus left the 99 sheep to go after the one, and this one missing sheep is then understood to be black people. But if you do actually crack open your Bible and read the parable, you’ll see that Jesus concludes it with, “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7). When we take Jesus’ words out of context and misapply them, it backfires; it ends up equating black people with sinners and white people with “righteous persons who need no repentance.” How racist is that? Is this what Jesus meant? Of course not. (Jesus is not even discussing race relations in this parable.) Is this what people mean when they share that post? Of course not, they’re actually trying to convey an entirely different message. But when we speak through misappropriated sound bites rather than well-developed thoughts, the fruit is miscommunication.

And that doesn’t even begin to touch on how it seems everyone is taking snippets from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to try to support their point of view….

Words can be used to communicate. That’s actually why we have them. Words exist not to blur the truth but to express the truth. We have words to shine light on reality, not to obscure it in shadow.

Let’s bring back some of those “extra words.” Let’s drop the whole façade of slogans and clichés and half-truths and deliberate misdirection. If we set aside our mottoes and catch phrases that we wield to win arguments, and instead seek to understand and to be understood, we can once more communicate clearly with love and mutual respect.  How do we do this?

Words, I think.

Published in: on June 9, 2020 at 11:19 am  Comments (2)  

Don’t Stand By Me, Tony Danza

Last month my 10th-graders were given an assignment to write about an experience they still carry with them.  One of my students challenged me to do the assignment, so here it is:

Some people possess a mesmerizing ability to sing.  I am not one of them.  When Rosele came onstage at last year’s talent show, her voice exploded across the auditorium and kept the audience hypnotized.  When Erin sang her duet with the lieutenant in South Pacific, I felt myself pulling for them and hoping they would get their happily-ever-after.  When Tiara’s lungs carry her voice through a chapel service, I feel like the barrier between God’s throne and me is but a bride’s veil.  But when I take a deep breath and belt out the loveliest tones I can muster, it sends people running and screaming.  While some sing like the proverbial canary, I sing like a chicken with its head cut—well, half cut off.  I learned this the hard way.

When I was in my twenties, my dad worked as a television producer in Washington, D.C.  Twice a year the company he worked for staged live TV performances on the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol.  These shows happened every Memorial Day and Fourth of July.  At each concert the National Symphony Orchestra would perform, along with an assortment of actors and musicians.  Sometimes these celebrities were in their prime, such as when they had George Clooney and James Earl Jones.  Other times the names were either up-and-comers like Faith Hill, and yet other times they were people that I didn’t even know were still alive, like Ray Charles or Ossie Davis (and others who really are no longer alive).

One year when I was about 25, they had a bunch of musicians that were oldie rockers.  These were the guys and gals that helped shape rock-n-roll back in its primitive days.  I can no longer remember who all was there, but I know it included the doo wop group Sha Na Na and Lesley Gore, who sang, “It’s My Party”(“and I’ll cry if I want to, cry if I want to, cry if I want to—you would cry too if it happened to you!”).  Oh yeah, and there was Tony Danza.

All the “talent,” as they called the performers, stayed at the Washington Court Hotel.  After the concert and reception at the Capitol, I went back to the hotel with the “talent.”  We went to the bar, where they had a piano, and stood around the piano loudly singing the oldies.  As loud as we could, we gleefully sang out “Hound Dog,” “Stand By Me,” “It’s My Party and I’ll Cry if I Want To,” “Rock Around the Clock,” and “Earth Angel.”  Whenever the singing started to slow down, someone would call out another request and we would regain our momentum as everyone loudly chimed in.

And then it happened.  As one song slowed down and no one suggested any other oldies, the piano player turned to me, standing next to him at the keys, and told me to name a song.  The first oldie that popped into my head “In the Still of the Night.”  At the time it was my jam.  I still love the song.  The problem was that in this situation, apparently I was the only one who loved the song enough to actually know the words.

It started out well.  Everyone loudly sang, “In the still of the night/ I held you, held you tight/ ‘Cause I love/ Love you so/ Promise I’ll never/ Let you go/ In the still of the night.”  It was great right up until we got to the first verse.  As I burst out with, “I remember/ That night in May,” I noticed that my voice was the only one I heard.  Everyone was looking at me, literally at a loss for words because they didn’t know the next part.  My voice fizzled out with, “The stars were bright above.”  But then the piano player looked at me with great urgency and shouted, “Sing.  SING!”

What could I do?  So with all the volume I could muster, I sang, “I’ll hope and I’ll pray/ To keep your precious….”  I scanned the room and saw everyone wincing.  They scrunched up their shoulders, just a twitch away from clapping their hands to their ears to end the misery.  My voice screeched and scraped as my vocal cords invented new notes.  And then it got worse.

In “The Still of the Night,” when the verse gets to the phrase “precious love,” the word “love” is not just one note.  It goes up and down and down and up and winds around, floating and spiraling around the musical scale like a baby bird’s feather flitting on a lazy spring breeze.  It’s beautiful—at least it’s beautiful when the Five Satins sing it.  When I sang it—if I can use the word “sang” with tremendous liberality—it was more like a baby bird squawking as a hawk bites it in half, and then that hawk develops a tuberculosis cough, and crashes into a bus, which then crashes into a honking flock of geese and causes an 18-car pileup that sets off every car alarm and horn.  Tony Danza scowled and his jaw dropped as he gave me the same look he gave Alyssa Milano on Who’s the Boss when he said, “Tuh-man-tuh!”  Lesley Gore cried.  Sha Na Na broke up.  The glass elevator shattered, the food in the restaurant curdled, and hotel guests ran screaming through the lobby and out the revolving door.  Party over.

That’s when I realized just how badly I sing.  I’m such a bad singer that I do the word “bad” an injustice by attaching it to my singing.  So now I’m the guy who lip syncs in church and at parties when everyone sings the “Happy Birthday” song.  This experience is one I still carry with me, and every time I feel inspired to lift my voice and burst into a sweet melody, I remember this mortifying experience and settle for a closed mouth and a gentle tear in my eye.  Don’t laugh—you would cry too if it happened to you.

Published in: on February 24, 2018 at 4:33 pm  Leave a Comment  

Charlottesville, part 2

Yesterday I wrote about how, figuratively speaking, our nation has always had a crack in our liberty bell.  Today I feel the need to discuss something that is rampant in today’s news, a growing tendency that is harmful rather than helpful.  That is the proliferation of the label “hate groups.”

If you’re wondering what you can do to help stem the tide of racism and violence, one step we can all take is to stop referring to people as “hate groups”—not because it’s inaccurate, but because it’s too easy.  It keeps us from engaging in discussion about underlying issues.  The KKK and its offspring are certainly hate groups, but specifically they are racist groups.  To merely say they’re a hate group is to dismiss them as bad guys; to say they’re a racist group gives us an opportunity to say why their views are wrong and discuss ways we can keep from being infected by them.  I am not arguing that the label “hate group” is always misapplied, but rather that it is insufficient.

It’s not just hate groups.  What about “hate speech”?  What is that?  Communication is impossible if we don’t define our terms.  What is hate?  What is a hate group?  Is this really the best way to categorize them?  It seems to happen way too frequently that one person says or writes something that another person disagrees with, so it’s condescendingly labeled “hate speech,” as though that necessarily means that the accuser triumphs over the hater.  It short-circuits the conversation.  When we call others “hate groups,” we deceive ourselves into thinking that’s the end of the conversation.  It’s not.  White supremacy—or any-race-supremacy—is hateful, but why?  That’s what we need to talk about.

We all belong to groups that others consider a hate group.  Whether you’re conservative or liberal, a God-worshiper or atheist, American or another nationality—someone considers you part of a hate group.  As a Bible-believing Christian, millions of people would say I belong to a hate group (a gross misrepresentation, since our founder explicitly insisted that we be known by our love).  But as a Bible-believing Christian, I don’t hate anybody.  So why am I perceived that way?  Because of the group label being carelessly thrown around.  The protesters and counter-protesters in Charlottesville both probably considered the other side a hate group.  (I’m not saying that both groups were hate groups, but that they both likely perceived their opposition that way.)  That shows how unhelpful the term is because it’s woefully imprecise.  This is how wars start: demonize the other side by dehumanizing them with a label.  And a war of some kind is indeed what seems to be brewing in this country.

Referring to certain groups merely as “hate groups” lets them off too easily—and it lets us off too easily.  I can feel good about myself because I’m not part of a “hate group”; I’m a white guy who doesn’t belong to the KKK, has black friends, and doesn’t judge people by the color of their skin.  The haters are those other people, and I don’t belong to their group.  But what about me as an individual?  Do I speak about people with political differences in denigrating terms which suggest they’re less than human?  Do I avoid eye contact with the homeless guy on the street?  Do I give the waitress a bad tip because the cook messed up my order?  Do I carry a grudge against a sibling or former friend because of something that happened years ago?  Do I avoid uncomfortable situations in which I could help people, rather than seeking out these opportunities?  Do I pretend I don’t see people and their needs all around me?  If I’m doing any of these things, who is the hater?  Am I off the hook simply because I don’t have an official membership in a club?

I went to the website of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is known—or so I thought—for tracking hate groups.  They even do a good job of defining hate crime as crimes where bias is the primary motive for committing the crime.  So I was quite surprised to see that, according to their own website, they blatantly exercise bias in determining what a hate group is; on their “Hatewatch” site, it says at the very top: “Hatewatch monitors and exposes the activities of the American radical right.”  Hold up—what?!?  Then who’s keeping tabs on the activities of the American radical left?  What about the middle?  Does this mean that if hate groups have a liberal perspective, then they’re not hate groups?  This is one extreme, yet very prominent, example of how the term “hate” is manipulated for political purposes.  It is used to bring division rather than unity.  This is not to pick on liberals, but to emphasize that hatred does not belong to either the right or the left.  It’s epidemic on both sides.  Hatred is not a political leaning, but a sickness of the heart that is manifested in harmful ideologies and expressed in violence and oppression.

Pointing fingers at other people and calling them haters is easy and harmful.  Pointing our evaluative eye inward and choosing to love others is much more difficult, but is ultimately helpful.  Instead of wasting our time accusing others of hate, let’s devote our energies to making sure that we can be rightfully accused of love.

Published in: on August 15, 2017 at 12:39 pm  Leave a Comment  

Charlottesville, part 1

Today I went to Charlottesville, Virginia.  My trip had nothing to do with recent events—we had planned a visit to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home, which happens to be a few minutes’ drive from where this past weekend’s mob violence occurred.  Our experience there was a vivid reminder that the racial tensions we’re dealing with today are nothing new.  The university in Charlottesville was founded by Jefferson, who owned more slaves than nearly anyone in the country.  Insane as it sounds, he even enslaved his own children!  (I know, I know—it hasn’t been proven; but DNA tests show a relation, and people in his own lifetime knew it.  Besides, how did Jefferson’s slave give birth to kids who had white skin, red hair, and freckles… just like him?)

In the document which marked our nation’s separation from British colonialism, Jefferson wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”  Less than 12 years later, he wrote in a letter to Edward Bancroft that “to give liberty to, or rather, to abandon persons whose habits have been formed in slavery is like abandoning children.”  But like I mentioned above, this was a man who actually did enslave his own kids, at least four of them.

Before this famous line from the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson wrote that what followed was an explanation for why one group of people must sever their political connections with a government.  Less than a century later, Jefferson’s fellow Virginians would be among those who likewise wished to separate from their government—ironically, because they would deny their fellow man those same “unalienable rights.”  Their military leader was a general named Robert E. Lee, whose statue still stands a few miles from Monticello.  This statue was the site of the racially-motivated violence that still has the country reeling from this past weekend.  When I drove past the park today, it was still full of TV crews reporting on the story.

There are some other thoughts I’d like to share about all this, but I’m going to break it up over several days to make it more readable.  I hope this first post simply helps us realize just how deeply racial conflict and prejudice is embedded in our national psyche.  Sadly, we have never been healthy as a country in terms of race relations.  My dream is that by the time my generation passes from the scene, we will have made great strides in leaving future generations a society that experiences genuine racial harmony.

Lee statue

(This is the best shot I could get from a moving car as I drove past the statue today.)

Published in: on August 14, 2017 at 9:38 pm  Leave a Comment  

Trump as Caesar: Another View

This morning I had an appointment between Annapolis and Baltimore, and everyone over there was all abuzz about the shooting in Alexandria an hour or so earlier.  On the ride back to the Shore, I listened to several radio stations to piece together what had transpired.

Interestingly, updates on the shooting were intermingled with debates about a current production of Julius Caesar which is running in Central Park.  This version of Shakespeare’s timeless (and timely) classic has created a firestorm of criticism because Caesar is portrayed as President Trump.  Apparently someone bootlegged a recording of the assassination scene and posted it online, which has caused an uproar.  Some are even saying that the public performances in New York City made it inevitable that something like this morning’s shooting would happen.

While I can certainly understand why people would be disturbed by the nightly staging of our President’s assassination, I have to say that the real message being sent is exactly the opposite of what many might think.

Consider, first of all, that this play is classified as a tragedy.  The audience is never intended to laud Caesar’s murder.  Second, the conspirators kill Caesar in an attempt to protect the republic, but it backfires.  The nation erupts in war, close friends continue to betray and kill one another, and all of Caesar’s killers are dead within a few short years–many of them by suicide.  Third, in today’s political climate we like to make everything black and white, but the characters in Julius Caesar are nowhere near so simplistic.  They don’t even share the same motives with one another. And finally, the end result is exactly the opposite of what Caesar’s assassins intended and much worse than what they tried to prevent: the republic is destroyed and is replaced by centuries of powerful dictatorships.

So if you wanted to show contempt for President Trump or try to incite violence against him, portraying him as Julius Caesar would be counterproductive.  The message of this play–which, by the way, is more social than political–is that you can’t protect a democracy by using undemocratic means.  In other words, if you detest your leader and the direction he is leading your country, murdering him multiplies rather than reduces the chaos.  If we want to draw a political message from this production, it should be that presenting Julius Caesar as Donald Trump is a warning to fringe leftists that politically motivated violence is doomed to hurt rather than help their cause.

Should sponsors of the play in Central Park be shunned?  Should we be outraged that the sitting President of the United States is depicted as a slain dictator?  Has art crossed the line into political taboo?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  But one thing is clear: no one benefits from thoughtless, reactionary diatribe.  We would do well to pay attention to the message of Julius Caesar, as it is every bit as relevant today as it was in Shakespeare’s time.

(By the way, if Trump is compared to Caesar, that should not concern us nearly as much as this question: Who today would be our Mark Antony?  He was the one that Brutus & Co. really had to worry about!)

Published in: on June 14, 2017 at 9:42 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Life Stuff, Part 2

Nearly a year and a half ago I wrote this blog post called Life Stuff.  At that time I said I’d write an update once some things that were up in the air fell into place.  Almost 18 months later, I can finally write this update.

In March 2015, I was looking for a new career and a new home, and also suffering from two herniated discs that pretty much took me out of commission for a few weeks.  The back problems were fixed by prayer, physical therapy, and medicine.  In May of last year we moved to another house in Ocean Pines, only about a mile away from where we’d spent the first 11 years of our marriage.  And after a failed venture in life insurance, a part-time stint as a small groups pastor, and being hired for a chaplain position that never materialized… I’m glad to finally be able to share that God has opened a new door for me as a high school English teacher at Salisbury Christian School.  This is not where I would ever have guessed my road would lead me, but at the same time it makes so much sense and I see great ministry potential in this position.

Life is so different now from what it was in March of 2015.  But different is not bad.  It’s just different.  Anyway, I’ve been waiting a year and a half to write this post, so here it is.  Thanks to all of you who have been cheering me on along the way!

Published in: on August 29, 2016 at 10:36 pm  Comments (3)  

Marguerite Davis, Age 100

Marguerite Davis, my grandmother-in-law, turned 100 last Saturday. She was born on March 5, 1916, and spent the first part of her life in Fall River, Massachusetts, before settling in North Attleboro. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about how amazing it is that she is a century old! So I decided to share some of these thoughts with you.

When she was born, women couldn’t vote yet. That wouldn’t happen for another four years. Woodrow Wilson was President of the United States and World War I was at its height. When little Margie was one month old, the toggle light switch was invented. Around that same time, the Chicago Cubs played their first game at what would come to be called Wrigley Field. At two months, the Saturday Evening Post ran its first cover featuring a Norman Rockwell painting. At five months, the National Park Service was created.

She was nearly three years old when Theodore Roosevelt died. She became a teenager in the Roaring Twenties, and was a teenager when the stock market crashed in 1929, ushering in the Great Depression. When Margie was 14, the chocolate chip cookie was invented—also in Massachusetts. When she was in her thirties, Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier.

I find it interesting to think what the world was like when Margie was my age. At that time, Elvis Presley scandalized TV viewers with his hip thrusts while singing “Hound Dog.” President Dwight Eisenhower instituted the Interstate Highway System. The Montgomery bus boycott ended, and Yankees pitcher Don Larsen pitched a perfect game against the Brooklyn Dodgers in the World Series.

Speaking of baseball, being a big baseball fan, I can’t help but think of history in baseball terms. When Margie was born, the reigning batting champ was Ty Cobb. The reigning World Series champions were the Boston Red Sox, who would go on to win another title that year against the Brooklyn Robins. In fact, the Red Sox had a star pitcher who would win 23 games that season while leading the league with nine shutouts and a 1.75 ERA. His name was Babe Ruth.

I really got into Major League Baseball when I was 11 years old, in 1986. That was the year Bill Buckner made the error and the Mets beat the Red Sox in the World Series. If Margie had gotten into baseball at the same age, it would have been 1927—the year that Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs as he and Lou Gehrig led the “Murderers Row” Yankees to a World Series title.

Something that really helps me put the historical significance of Margie’s age into perspective is to consider people that were alive at the same time as her. In addition to Teddy Roosevelt, she was alive at the same time as the inventor Alexander Graham Bell, writers Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes), Jack London (The Call of the Wild), and L. Frank Baum (The Wizard of Oz), cowboys Wyatt Earp and Buffalo Bill Cody, Abraham Lincoln’s son Robert Todd Lincoln, escape artist Harry Houdini, painter Claude Monet, musician Scott Joplin, Nicholas II (the last czar of Russia), and communist revolutionary Vladimir Lenin. Most interesting to me is that not only was Margie alive at the same time as Lizzie Borden (as in “Lizzie Borden took an ax and gave her mother 40 whacks…”), but for about 10 years they actually lived in the same town of Fall River (also known as the home of chef Emeril Lagasse and Hank the Angry Drunken Dwarf).

So far everything described is from Margie’s lifetime. But we can also work backward. For instance, remember when JFK was shot? (Before my time, but you might have been around.) That was 53 years ago. Work back 53 years from when Margie was born, and that’s when Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

One of the neat things about spending Margie’s 100th birthday with her was getting to see my daughter’s interactions with her great-grandmother. Margie is 93 years older than Laura Marie. Someone who was 93 years old than Margie could have met Beethoven and been old enough to remember him. In fact, she is closer in age to Leo Tolstoy, Billy the Kid, Stonewall Jackson—and in fact most Civil War veterans—than she is to Laura Marie. She’s even almost closer in age to Queen Victoria!


There’s an old proverb which says that when an old person dies, a library burns to the ground. I love how Marguerite Davis is a living library who is still going strong after a solid century!

Published in: on March 8, 2016 at 1:20 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Fear of the Lord is the Beginning of Wisdom

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever!” (Psalm 111:10)

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom. This means that when we give Him proper respect as the ultimate authority, we can then begin to learn what is good and right. There are two important parts of this truth that are important for us to grasp.

First is that we can never be wise if we place anyone’s viewpoint above God’s. This might seem obvious, but it’s easier to agree intellectually than to actually live it out. We might tell ourselves that God has the first and last word in our lives, but it could be that—at least in some areas—our choices are shaped more by our favorite talk show host, our spouse, our political affiliations, or our own desires. But if the starting point for our worldview is anything other than God’s Word, it can produce nothing more than counterfeit wisdom at best.

Second is that the fear of the LORD does not make a person wise—it is only the beginning of wisdom. It’s how you step onto the playing field. Right now a bunch of Major League hitters are in spring training preparing for the upcoming season. Of the millions of kids who have dreamed of playing professional baseball, these guys are the elite. And it all started the first time they picked up a bat. Of course simply picking up a bat does not make you a Major League-caliber hitter. But it’s the very first step. None of these athletes in spring training became great hitters just by playing basketball or chess or Trivial Pursuit. They had to actually pick up a bat. That is the one nonnegotiable starting point. To be wise, the one nonnegotiable starting point is humbly acknowledging that God—and God alone—is the One on the throne.

However, when it comes to living wisely, we shouldn’t settle for merely getting started. As this verse continues, it gives us clear instruction on how to grow in wisdom: practice. Back to baseball: there was a ton of time and sweat invested in the journey of every Major League hitter to progress from the first time holding a bat to smashing a 95-mile-an-hour fastball. That journey is summed up in one word: practice. Practice, practice, practice. They say that practice makes perfect. That’s not quite true. But practice does make good. Psalm 111:10 says that once we begin with the fear of the LORD, we gain a good understanding through practice. It begins with small steps, making wise choices out of reverence for God. Then we get better at it. Wisdom becomes our programmed way of thinking (which is not to say it’s easy!) and acting.

Wisdom is not something we have—it’s something we do. It’s how we live. To live wisely, we must begin with total submission to God and then let that submission dictate the direction of our lives moment by moment, day by day.

“Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom…. the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere” (James 3:17).

Published in: on March 8, 2016 at 10:04 am  Leave a Comment  

Dropping the Bomb (part 4)

War is strange, and its aftermath can be just as strange. In the case of those connected with the pivotal events of the war in the Pacific, we see a snapshot of this reality in the lives of four key players.

Minoru Genda, one of the planners of the attack on Pearl Harbor, was awarded the Legion of Merit by President John F. Kennedy in 1962. The medal was bestowed in recognition of Genda’s work on a security treaty between Japan and the United States. Twenty-one years after helping to draw the U.S. into a war against Japan, Genda was honored by an American president. To the day of his death in 1989, Genda expressed no regrets about his role in the attack on Pearl Harbor except that the attack was not repeated.

Mitsuo Fuchida, the leader of the raid on Pearl Harbor, converted from Buddhism to Christianity after the war. The only code he had known was one that dictated revenge, and he could not understand the kindness and forgiveness that he saw displayed toward Japanese prisoners of war. This led him to investigate Christianity, and after reading the Bible he became not only a Christian but a missionary. His ministry was based in Seattle and he traveled throughout the United States proclaiming the gospel.

Perhaps strangest of all are the intertwined stories of Mochitsura Hashimoto and Charles McVay. McVay was captain of the Indianapolis, the American warship that had been sunk by a Japanese submarine commanded by Hashimoto (who had also participated in the attack on Pearl Harbor). In a bizarre twist, McVay was court-martialed for neglecting his duty and Hashimoto was summoned to the U.S. to testify against McVay. Imagine being an American naval officer who survived such an ordeal, only to be blamed for it and even have your government bring in the enemy commander who killed your crew and have him testify against you! About four and a half months after Hashtimoto destroyed McVay’s ship, he testified in the sailor’s trial in Washington, D.C. McVay was demoted and his career followed the path of his ill-fated cruiser. Hashimoto went on to become a seaborne merchant, often spending time in American ports. McVay, however, never recovered. Years later, after suffering the death of his wife and having endured years of hate mail from family members of his doomed crew, he put a pistol to his head and ended his life. In 2000, due in large part to a collaborated effort between Hashimoto and surviving members of the Indianapolis, McVay was officially exonerated by President Bill Clinton.

Meanwhile, the Japanese emperor Hirohito continued to reign for four and a half decades following Japan’s surrender. His son Akihito is Japan’s emperor today.

Published in: on February 16, 2016 at 5:13 pm  Comments (1)  

Dropping the Bomb (Part 3)

The Japanese believed that the nuclear destruction wreaked in Hiroshima was a one-time event that could not be duplicated, so they persisted in their refusal to surrender. So three days later a plutonium bomb was dropped on the city of Nagasaki with similar results. This time the Japanese leaders went the other direction and thought the Americans’ ability to produce nuclear weapons was greater than it actually was. In reality, the supply of atomic bombs was very low and they could not be produced quickly. Believing otherwise, the Japanese emperor took to the airwaves and announced Japan’s surrender. His message was so convoluted that most of his Japanese hearers did not understand him to say they had surrendered—and in fact many even thought he was announcing they had won the war!

World War II—the war that showed how capably modern technology could slaughter human beings by the thousands—was now over.

Many credited the atomic bomb with ending the war, though 70 years later the debate continues about the ethics of that decision. The question remains: Was dropping the bomb on Japan the right choice?

I won’t dodge answering that question, but first I want to make sure we have a proper historical perspective. It’s so easy to impose our own opinions on people in the past without considering the very real dilemmas they faced. We don’t even have to do it consciously—it comes naturally.

This was brought to my attention a few days ago when I was talking about Hiroshima with a good friend of mine. He said, “It’s amazing how forgiving the Japanese people have been.” But to bring forgiveness into the equation of August 1945 is perhaps imposing our own contemporary view on events that took place in a time of war 70 years ago. (By the way, this guy is smarter than me and could run knowledge-of-history circles around me, so I’m not at all knocking him.) To speak of forgiveness here assumes that the actions of the Enola Gay are universally understood to have been in the wrong. However, that is not the case. The atomic bombings in Japan were not acts of terror—they were acts of war. I’m not sure that the Japanese think of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as wrongs that need to be forgiven any more than Americans think of the attack on Pearl Harbor or the slaughter of the crew of the Indianapolis as something that needs to be forgiven. War is a terrible thing, and its very essence is people doing terrible things to each other. Forgiveness is certainly a part of reconciliation, but I think it would be a mistake to isolate the bombings in Japan as something that somehow occurred beyond the scope of the atrocities of war.

Today we are so distant from the daily realities of living in a time of war. When food and other supplies are being rationed, families broken apart, and violent deaths occurring daily by the hundreds and thousands, people grow desperate to find a way to put an end to it. American leaders in 1945 saw only two ways to do that: invade Japan at the cost of a million American lives plus a multitude of Japanese lives, or drop the bomb. They chose the latter and the war ended without the necessity of an invasion. We can question this decision throughout all the coming generations, but we need to exercise caution in condemning those who found themselves stuck in a dilemma in which we will (hopefully) never find ourselves.

Having said that, no one will ever convince me that dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a good thing. The other day I was watching my six-year-old daughter playing with her dolls. The thought struck me: How many six-year-old girls were playing with their dolls in Hiroshima that morning when their bodies suddenly burst into flames? If the answer was one, it would be too many. But 75% of the Japanese people killed in Hiroshima were civilians; of those 60,000 deaths, how many thousands and thousands were children? Babies? Of course the adult lives, and the soldiers’ lives, matter too; but thinking of it in terms of the children forces us to face the horrible reality of what those bombs did.

But it ended the war, prevented the invasion, and in the end saved thousands of lives, right?

In college I took a Moral Philosophy class. We spent the whole semester trying to figure out how we could know what is right and what is wrong. We were not allowed to bring God into it, and that’s when I discovered for the first time that without a Creator, there really can be no such thing as objective ethics. Anyway, one Godless theory for trying to discern right from wrong is utilitarianism. This view argues that the right thing to do is whatever causes the greatest good for the greatest number of people, and it is behind the argument for dropping the bomb. This idea sounds good for a split second, but you don’t have to think about it very long before you realize that it’s rife with problems. For one thing, with no other basis to go by, how do we even decide what is good? Another problem is that it lacks moral responsibility—there is no distinction between the innocent and the guilty. For example, if 10 men raped one woman and all 11 of them were taken to the edge of a cliff and told that either the rapists or the woman had to be shoved over the edge, the utilitarian view plainly holds that the 10 rapists are more to be considered than the one victim. By the way, for whatever it’s worth, utilitarian ethics is still prevalent in our society today.

And yet let’s humor the utilitarian ethicists and apply that approach to Hiroshima. Which would produce the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people: dropping the bomb or launching an invasion?

Our problem solving will be greatly helped when we learn to acknowledge that oftentimes there is a third way. Remember the computerized tests you took in high school where you had to color in the little bubble with a No. 2 pencil, and “C” was “None of the above”? Well, is it possible that when faced with nuclear warfare or a massive invasion with conventional warfare, if we’re seeking the greatest good for the greatest number of people, perhaps the answer is “C”—none of the above? Could it be that we are so committed to forcefully eliminating the problems before us that we fail to consider other, better options? When faced with the choice of dropping an atomic bomb on thousands of people or putting a million military lives on the line, maybe the best conclusion is that neither is the best course of action.

So what could they have done differently? That’s the problem with war and also the lesson that we can learn from it. The horror of war is that our national leaders got to a place where they believed their only two choices were terribly violent, lethal options. But maybe we should not have even gotten to the place where we had to make the choice between an atomic bomb and an invasion.

One time I was speaking to a group of students at a SADD meeting. (This used to be Students Against Drunk Driving but now stands for Students Against Destructive Decisions.) I asked them: What should you do if you’re alone in a car at night with a guy or girl and they want to do things you know you shouldn’t do? I was surprised that only one girl, after an awkward 10-second silence, raised her hand to answer. She said, “I wouldn’t be alone in a car at night with a guy in the first place.” Bingo. Seventy years ago we found ourselves in a dilemma where we were faced with making a choice between two hellish options. What if we had made better decisions before that point so that we never found ourselves there?

We study history so we can learn from the past. But learning from the past doesn’t just mean that dropping atomic bombs on cities full of people is bad. It means digging deeper to find out how our leaders got to the place where they thought nuclear warfare and full-scale invasion were our only viable options. How do we keep from getting to that place again? Perhaps the answer to that question is the real lesson of Hiroshima.

Next time: the strange fates of the leaders behind the attacks on Pearl Harbor and the Indianapolis.

Published in: on February 3, 2016 at 8:09 pm  Leave a Comment