Friday, December 25, 2020

Remake or Cover?

I'll just go ahead and let you know right from the start; I have no idea what the difference is between a cover and a remake. I don't even know if there is a difference.

What I do know is that this year - 2020 - I have spent more time watching YouTube than ever before. And not watching just anything there, but covers (or is it remakes?).

(By the way, if you don't want to listen to any of the music, no worries. Don't click on any of the burgundy links and just keep reading.)

Early on in the pandemic, I discovered Foxes and Fossils, a band from Atlanta whose harmonies are incredibly tight and whose remakes (or covers), many times, are simply better than the original.

More recently, I came across Josh Turner, Carson McKee,Reina del Cid and Toni Lindgrin. Sometimes they are two duets. Sometimes they are a single quartet. Sometimes they have other friends with them. Whatever... whenever... whether it's '60's folk, '70's classic, the Beatles, or even bluegrass (I can't believe I just wrote that!), I think they are awesome!

And then, of course, Colt Clark and the Quarantine Kids. While the music isn't close to the same quality as the previous artists, it's hard not to enjoy the story of a musician dad at home with his three kids during a pandemic who decides to teach them a song every day and record it. I don't really know how many songs they have actually recorded this year - my guess is over 200 - but their videos now have almost 32 million views!

Frank Zappa once said, "All the good music has already been written."

I actually was going to say that myself, but in doing the research, I found that Mr. Zappa beat me to it. But it is true for me as well. Now it's just about who can sing the song the best!

Here's a Christmas song from each of the cover (or remake) artists...

Still with me? If so, you're probably wondering, "What does all of this have to do with a Christmas Day blog?" Good question.

Over the last couple weeks, I've written about a couple of my favorite Christmas carols - "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" and "The Coventry Carol", both in the minor key. I've saved my all-time favorite carol (minor key as well) for this Christmas blog - "I Wonder as I Wander."

Remember... all the good music has already been written. Turns out that although this carol was written and first published by John Jacob Niles in 1934, it actually had its origins in a song that he heard performed on July 16, 1933.

Here's the story from Nile's unfinished autobiography:

“'I Wonder As I Wander' grew out of three lines of music sung for me by a girl who called herself Annie Morgan. The place was Murphy, North Carolina, and the time was July 1933. The Morgan family, revivalists all, were about to be ejected by the police, after having camped in the town square for some little time, cooking, washing, hanging their wash from the Confederate monument and generally conducting themselves in such a way as to be classed a public nuisance. Preacher Morgan and his wife pled poverty; they had to hold one more meeting in order to buy enough gas to get out of town. It was then that Annie Morgan came out—a tousled, unwashed blond, and very lovely. She sang the first three lines of the verse of 'I Wonder As I Wander.' At twenty-five cents a performance, I tried to get her to sing all the song. After eight tries, all of which are carefully recorded in my notes, I had only three lines of verse, a garbled fragment of melodic material—and a magnificent idea."

So, for two dollars' worth of quarters, or $40.04 in 2020 money, Niles came away with:

"I wonder as I wander out under the sky,
How Jesus the Savior did come for to die.
For poor on'ry people like you and like I...

He later added two verses of his own to tie Jesus' birth to His death. But from those initial twenty-seven words (at almost 7 1/2 cents per word), he crafted music and words that speak both powerfully and personally to me.

There's no denying the power of the music, whether it's being sung by a Russian immigrant or played on a cello in the snow.

But the personal is even more powerful.

If you remember, I suffer from mondegreenitis. I hear things in song lyrics that simply are not there.

So, while I know that "on'ry people" is just the Appalachian contraction for "ordinary people," that is not how I sing the song.

Nope. In my head (and from my lips), it is "poor ornery people..." 

Stubborn... bad-tempered... combative people.

Like Rich Mullins sang: "I'd rather fight You for something I don't really want, than to take what You give that I need."

Ornery.

That's me.

And that's who my Savior came to die for.

You're like, "But that's not even in the song!" Yes, but it is in the Bible.

"In the past you were dead because you sinned and fought against God." (Ephesians 2:1 CEV)

"When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners." (Romans 5:6 NLT)

"No one is really willing to die for an honest person, though someone might be willing to die for a truly good person. But God showed how much he loved us by having Christ die for us, even though we were sinful." (Romans 5:7-8 CEV)

Jesus died for an ornery person like me, and in doing so, He covered my sins (Psalm 32:1) and he remade and renewed my heart (Ephesians 4:22-24).

That's what Christmas is about, especially for ornery people like me.

And, I'm guessing, ornery people like you.

Thank you, Jesus.

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

The Sufferer's Holiday


Can you relate to the meme?

And who knew? There is actually a word for it!

mondegreen [mändəɡrēn]
noun
"a word or phrase resulting from the mishearing of another word or phrase, especially in a song or poem"

It's that song lyric that makes total sense to us in our heads but is not even close to what was originally written or is being sung.

So...

  • Jefferson Starship didn't build a city on sausage rolls (although I would move to a place like that in a minute! It was rock and roll!)
  • Abba could probably care less if Jackie Chan ever reconsidered ("If you change your mind, Jackie Chan...")
  • Guns N' Roses wasn't asking for a ride to Las Vegas ("Take me down to the pair of dice city...")
  • The Monkees weren't planning on ditching their girlfriend after finally meeting her ("Then I saw her face, now I'm gonna leave her!")
  • And CCR never gave anybody directions to the restroom, at least not in a song! ("There's a bathroom on the right.")

To be fair, mondegreens aren't really my issue when it comes to song lyrics (although I will admit, for years I was confident that Lucille left her husband with four hundred children and a crop in the field!)

No, my problem is that I just don't pay attention. (I'm sure my wife loves me admitting that!) Many times, I hear without listening, especially when it comes to music... which means I end up doing my fair share of making up words, or just simply humming through them.

You don't believe me? Ask my family sometime what song I'm referring to with the 'lyrics,' "Bangkok, city do-do-do!"

It's no wonder, then, that when I finally learned (and really not all that long ago) what the lyrics were referencing in one of my favorite Christmas carols, I was a little taken aback!

As I've said before, some of my favorite Christmas songs are in the minor key. I wrote about O Come, O Come Emmanuel last week, but today, I want to focus on The Coventry Carol.

Here's a link to the song performed by Alison Moyet. This has been my go-to version ever since I purchased the "A Very Special Christmas" CD over thirty years ago. If you prefer instrumentals, here's a wonderful arrangement by Don Gillis, performed by Carolina Brass (the brass quintet featuring, for many of us, our favorite trombonist!). If you don't own their Christmas album, buy it! This time of year, for me, would be almost incomplete without listening to it and Andrew Peterson's Behold the Lamb.

If you're like me and you tend to hear without listening, you might have missed the carol's lyrics as well.

Herod the King, in his raging / Charged he hath this day
His men of might in his own sight / All children young to slay.

That woe is me, poor child, for thee / And ever mourn and may
For thy parting neither say nor sing / "Bye bye, lully, lullay."

Or to quote last week's blog, "Have a Holly Jolly Christmas it's not."

It's referencing the Massacre of the Infants from Matthew's gospel, where King Herod ordered the execution of all male children in Bethlehem under the age of 2.

Now, I can probably guess the question that some of you are asking right about now, because I've asked it myself: "How is that a Christmas carol?"

Well, originally it wasn't. Written in the 16th century, it was not popular in December, but rather in the summer as part of a "Mystery Play" called "The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors." The carol was sung in the play by three mothers of Bethlehem, who come onto the stage with their children immediately after Joseph was warned by an angel to flee and take his family to Egypt.

Tim Stafford, in his article "Violent Night, Holy Night" for Christianity Today, wrote:

"Like many American boys, I learned about Jesus' birth while wearing a bathrobe. Each Advent season I got a part in the Christmas pageant, generally as either a shepherd or a wise man. At the appropriate moment, I shuffled into place and said my line - usually only one, occasionally two.

We worked from original scripts, the accounts in Luke and Matthew, portraying the Incarnation as a real event involving real people. The idea was to show Jesus' birth as history, just as Scripture does. The effort at historical authenticity never went too far. An unusually faithful reproduction would include live sheep.

To the best of my memory, Herod's Slaughter of the Innocents was never included."

With good reason too! I mean, we certainly don't want to put a little boy up in front of the church, wearing a Burger King crown, and watch him swing a cardboard sword, slaying baby dolls.

But it's in the story.

It really happened. (Many would disagree, but I'm not going to get into that right here.)

It happened, and it only reminds us of the darkness of our world that Jesus entered as the Light.

Paul David Tripp says it so much better than I ever could hope to. From Surviving the Holidays:

“If there weren’t pain, suffering, sin, destruction, discouragement, and death, there would be no need for Christmas. This holiday is about suffering. This holiday is about pain.

Now, what we’ve done – and it’s right to do that – we’ve made this a holiday of celebration, because we celebrate the coming of the Messiah. But in so doing, we forget why He came. He came to end suffering. He came to end death. He came to end sin, end brokenness, end pain, and destruction, and discouragement.

And, so, this is the sufferer’s holiday. Rather than the holiday to be avoided, I ought to run toward Christmas! Because what Christmas tells me is, ‘There’s hope for people like me.’ Christmas guarantees that God has, will, and will continue to address what I’m going through.”

Don't miss it.

There is hope for people like you. 

Which means there is hope for people like me.  

So, will you join me in running toward Christmas, and singing the good news:

"Glory in Aunt Chelsa's stable!"

Check that. Let's make sure we get the words right on this one, at least.

"Glory in Excelsis Deo!"

Or "Glory to God in the highest," because... 

"The true light, which gives light to everyone, [has come] into the world." (John 1:9 ESV)

Monday, December 7, 2020

Cheer Our Spirits


Pop quiz, Hotshot! (That's my homage to the trivia podcast Good Job, Brain and the movie, Speed, where the quote comes from.)

Question: What do the following have in common?

  • Slimy River Bottom
  • Never Hit Your Grandmother with a Great Big Stick
  • Dirty, Dirty Me I'm Disgusted with Myself
  • Will You Love Me When I'm Old and Ugly?

Answer: They are all songs that Charlene Darling told her Pa that she didn't want to hear sung because they made her cry. (from The Andy Griffith Show, for those of you who are too young to remember or not from the South!)

I don't really know what it says about me, but unlike Charlene, I don't shy away from music that produces tears. Instead, I tend to gravitate toward it.

Don't get me wrong. It's not that I search for songs that will cause warm, salty fluid to flow down my face. But whether it is the voice, the harmonies, the instrumentation, the arrangement, the lyrics, or the worship, music is a powerful emotional catalyst for me.

It should come as no surprise, then, that some of my favorite Christmas songs are in the minor key, songs like O Come, O Come Emmanuel.

(Do yourself a favor. Take five minutes to listen to Margaret Becker's haunting version, dry your eyes, maybe even wipe your nose, then come back and finish reading.  And for those of you who prefer instrumentals, here is a recording of my son, Wyatt playing the song last December.)

O Come, O Come Emmanuel is the oldest song that any of us have ever heard. The hymn, originally composed in Latin, was written in the twelfth century, based on an even older set of prayers, and probably sung by monks as a chant.

The tone of the music is obvious, but if you listen closely, you will realize that its lyrics are also far removed from our "normal" joyful celebrations of Christmas.

As we sing...

  • We put ourselves into the place of captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here.
  • We pray to be set free from Satan's tyranny and to be saved from depths of Hell.
  • We ask our coming Lord to disperse the gloomy clouds of night and death's dark shadows put to flight.

I mean, Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas it's not.

Some might consider the words to be too glum or depressing for the season. But the reality is that even in Christmases that are filled with joy and health and plenty, there can still be difficulties.

But this is 2020, the year that Time magazine this week will declare to be "the worst year ever."

It's probably not, by the way. I'm pretty sure 536 A.D., when a dense fog, believed to be caused by a massive volcanic eruption, plunged half of the world into total darkness... for eighteen months - I'm guessing that was worse!

But 2020 is the worst year of most of our lifetimes.  As I have already said many times this year, "All of us have lost something, some much more than others." And so, this Christmas, the hymn's words only seem apropos.

This year, we have caught a glimpse of Satan's tyranny, and we long for God to send away death's dark shadows. We yearn for the day when God's Kingdom will come, and His justice will prevail. Even more, we anticipate the moment when God will personally wipe every tear away from our eyes.

Advent and Christmas remind us that we don't just need Jesus' first coming; we desperately need His second coming as well.

But as we long for Emmanuel's return, there is still so much that we don't understand.

  • Why do the innocent suffer?
  • Why does evil have opportunity?
  • Why doesn't God make things better right now?

While we don't know the answers, we do know Emmanuel, which means "God with us."

And that's exactly what He promises:

"Be sure of this: I am with you always..." (Matthew 28:20 NLT)

"What's more, I am with you, and I will protect you..." (Genesis 28:15 NLT)

"Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord will personally go ahead of you. He will be with you; he will neither fail your nor abandon you." (Deuteronomy 31:8 NLT)

We mourn for the brokenness in our world. We long for God to make us whole. But we also know that this is not the end of the song. The hymn's chorus reminds us that we can rejoice. We rejoice because Emmanuel has come to us. God is with us!

And He is coming again!

So, dry your eyes... unless you're just being moved by some really good music. In that case, let it flow, let it flow, let it flow!

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
our spirits by Thine advent here! 

Friday, August 16, 2019

Big Finish!

For the record: I hate to run.

No matter what you might surmise from anything that you read me write, hear me say, or see me do... and despite what my wife might naively tell you, the truth is, I hate to run.

Maybe hate is too strong a word, since a lot of my family runs. Both of my sisters run, participating in 5Ks, marathons, and Ironman triathlons, while my nephew has competed in at least two Spartan races this year.

However, until a year ago, the only two times I had ever set out to just run - once in Georgia during my first ministry and once in Reidsville when I was new in town... so, both over 30 years ago - ended with me bent over on the side of the road, losing weight in a way that most doctors simply would not recommend.

In fact, while the header image looks much "cooler," this image is definitely more accurate:

I hate to run.

Yesterday morning, after moving my son into his college dorm the day before, facilitating a small group that evening, and visiting in the hospital that night, when my wife's alarm went off at 4:15 AM (Yes Virginia, there is a 4:15 in the morning, and it just so happens to be one of the few times in both of our schedules that is free!) ...

I digress. When the cruel alarm sounded, I can't tell you how much I hated the thought of getting up to run, as well as how much I wanted to "run over" the sick, demented individual who first came up with the idea of running for leisure/sport/exercise.

But we ran. Or rather, we walked/ran (and for the purposes of this post, run and walk/run are synonymous).

Have I mentioned that I hate to run?

And yet, I run, not because I love to run, and certainly not because I am a fast runner (although I did finish second in my age division in my last 5K. A cynic would, at this point, mention that there were only two runners in that division, but hey, second is still second!).

No, I run because I love the benefits of running, including the (hopefully) healthier lifestyle, the 5K t-shirts, spending together-time with my wife doing our "thing" (which this summer has included our son), praying for certain people as I pass their house, and of course, the numbers.

I absolutely love the numbers. And when it comes to running, there are all kinds of numbers - distance, pace, and time, just to name a few.

Now, I understand that it's simply not realistic for each run to be better, time-wise, than the previous run, but there is still that push from my competitive side to try and make it so. Which means that at some point in the last minute or two of our runs, I usually shout out to my wife, "Don't give up. Big finish!"

I tell you all that to tell you the same thing: Don't give up. Big finish!

I wrote back in January that to get the change I want for my life, I need to do something. It's not just going to happen on its own. To that end, I listed seven measurable "goals" to help get me to where I want to be.

Sadly, of my seven, I am probably only on-pace with two (numbers 2 and 4, for those keeping score).

It's almost September. Almost two-thirds of 2019 is gone, and yet I am encouraging me (and you, if you have any plans or goals for the year that are still unfinished) ... I am encouraging all of us to finish big. Rather than get lazy, or quit, or simply wait until 2020 to rehash my unrealized "goals" from this year, I need to pursue all seven as much as possible over the last four months of this year!

Don't give up. Big finish!

Speaking of 2019, Reidsville Christian and Gaston Christian have been about Just Jesus all year as we've studied through the gospel of Matthew. Our churches' goal has been to know Jesus better than we know ourselves. With four months left, but almost half of Matthew remaining, there is still plenty left for each of us to learn about Jesus.

So, if you haven't read Matthew's gospel, it's not too late to start. If you've already read it a time or two this year, read it again. Using this schedule, you've still got time to read it twice.

And now that summer is over, vacations are done, and school is starting back, we hope to see you as many Sunday mornings as possible.

"Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us." (Hebrews 12:1 NLT).

Don't give up. Big finish!

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Judged by a T, Saved by a ♰

"That road you're on is crowded, boy. Do you know where you're going? You're going to Hell, son!"

It was the summer of '79 (not '69, no matter what Bryan Adams says). I was 15 years old, and I was on the beach in Charleston, S.C.

"You're going to Hell, son!"

Never mind that I was there with my church youth group, in town to attend the Southern Christian Youth Convention. I had been singled out for a verbal assault about my eternal destination.

"You're going to Hell, son!"

Now, to be completely transparent, I was wearing a black, three-quarter-length sleeve baseball t-shirt with some rock-and-roll slogan on it (sorry - it's been too long to remember. I do know that it looked a whole lot less lame than the picture above). I had seen the shirt in a bar on the boardwalk the day before and, because I wasn't old enough to go into the bar myself, had asked one of my sponsors to buy it for me.

Okay, that was pretty transparent.

But the shirt was pretty tame. I mean, I know for a fact there was nothing on it about sex and drugs. I could never have brought that home and hoped to have it washed, much less wear it again, even to mow the backyard!

And yet, the rebuke was pretty public, and pretty loud:

"You're going to Hell, son!"

Maybe you've had a similar experience. Maybe, like me, it was a street-corner (or boardwalk-corner) preacher with fire in his eyes and anger in his voice. Or maybe it was some well-intentioned (or not so well-intentioned) friend or co-worker.

Whatever your experience, it's possible that it is all brought back to the surface when you read Jesus' words in Matthew 7:

"You can enter God's Kingdom only through the narrow gate. The highway to hell is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way." (Matthew 7:13 NLT)

It certainly sounds like Jesus is talking about an eternal destination, doesn't it? But what if that wasn't His only intent?

You know, when I first had the idea for our JustJesus blog, my thoughts were that it would be a good outlet for Scott and I to dig deeper into Matthew in a way that we couldn't on Sunday mornings, or to address any text that we didn't get the chance to deal with.

It's the latter in this post, because somehow, at RCC, we completely missed teaching Matthew 7:13-14, not because it is controversial, and not for fear of offending anyone. No, we just missed it. I just missed it.

So, if you will, join me for a few moments in a study of this powerful (and maybe misunderstood) text.

I grew up hearing Jesus' words from the NIV:

"Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destructions, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it." (Matthew 7:13-14 NIV84)

Before we go any further, here's a quick original language lesson from somebody who only had one semester of Greek (and made the "Delta" Society, not in a good way).

The word Jesus uses for broad can also be translated "easy." The word narrow can also be translated "hard" or "difficult." And the word road comes from the Greek word ὁδός (hŏdŏs), which can be translated as "way."

All three of those choices were used in the English Standard Version's translation:

"Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. (Matthew 7:13-14 ESV)

hŏdŏs in the New Testament
That Greek word hŏdŏs, or way, appears exactly 100 times in the ESV. While Matthew uses it more than any other writer, the word is used in thirteen different New Testament books by at least nine different writers. In addition, for many early Christians, Jesus' teachings, including the Sermon on the Mount, were simply known as the way.

The imagery is that Jesus, as our Rabbi, is out in front on the road of life, while we, His disciples, His followers, are behind Him, staying close to Him by following His teachings. In fact, long before the church was ever called the church, Christians were called "followers of the Way." (Acts 9:2)

So, for the early Christian community, Matthew chapters 5, 6, and 7 - the Sermon on the Mount - was an important road map for them to navigate the road of life. And at the end of His sermon, Jesus says, "Okay, listen up! Don't go through the wide gate. And don't take the broad, easy way."

In Jesus' world, towns were built with walls, and in those walls were gates. Some gates were really wide... I mean hundreds-of-men-women-children-donkeys-camels-oxen-carts-wagons-all-going-through-at-once wide.

But other gates were small, and narrow, and sharp. You could only go through those gates one at a time.

Like with all of His teachings, Jesus was using imagery that made perfect sense to first-century ears.

But what was He saying?

I believe that Jesus' point was, "Don't follow the crowd. I know that everybody is going through the wide, easy gate, but there's another way to live - My way - that goes against the flow of traffic. You go through the small gate. And you walk down the narrow, hard way."

What exactly is the small gate? Or, put another way, Who is the small gate?

For those of you who aren't tracking, I'll go ahead and give you the answer (and, by the way, it's usually a good answer to give to most Bible questions):

The answer is Jesus. Jesus is the small gate.

Later, in John 10:9, Jesus flat out says, "I am the gate," meaning, "I am the entrance to life."

So, if Jesus is the small gate, what is the hard, narrow way or road? (By the way, Jesus is not a good answer to give here.)

Well, if you remember from like two minutes ago, way can mean "teaching." The narrow, hard way is Jesus' teachings, including everything that He had just taught in Matthew 5-7.

"Love your enemies."

Is that the easy way or the hard way?

Are you kidding me? There's nothing easy about it.

"Live with generosity... with open hearts, open palms, and open pocketbooks."

Is that easy?

Absolutely not.

"Put your treasure in God, not in stuff on Earth, and in doing so, be set free from your worry and anxiety."

Is that easy?

Not even on a good day!

So, Jesus says, "Every day, you have a choice. There are two roads. You can go down one, and it's really easy. I mean, it's downhill. It's paved. Everybody's on the road - just follow the crowd. But here's the problem with that: It leads to destruction."

And now, we're back to my t-shirt.

Notice how ambiguous and elastic that word destruction is. There are no time-tables. Jesus doesn't say when. He doesn't say how. Jesus simply says, "Destruction."

In the age to come? In eternity? Absolutely, I mean, I do think that's in there, but also here and now, in this life.

There are ways of living that the crowds go after that are destructive in nature. Would you agree? At first, they feel like life and freedom and fun, but at some point, you wake up and you're in chains. The next thing you know, your life is marked by pain, and regret, and shame, and consequences, and brokenness. It leads to destruction. It is destructive here and now, and into eternity.

But Jesus says, "There's another way to live... My way... My teachings... and it's really hard."

Don't you love Jesus' honesty? He would have made a lousy salesman! I mean, there's no sales pitch or gimmick - "It's a small gate, but it's cozy. It's a narrow road, but it's level. And there's air conditioning... and free iced-tea!"

There's none of that.

It's narrow. It's hard. It's difficult.

But it leads to life!

If you have followed Jesus for any length of time, you know that is spot-on! Obedience to Jesus is difficult. It takes energy. It takes time. It can be costly.

But it leads to life!

Life in the future? Absolutely! But life today as well. Joy, peace, freedom from anxiety, freedom from fear...

Jesus' way... obedience to Jesus' teachings leads to life.

Put that on a t-shirt!

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Thank You, Jimmy

It was the first time in my life that I knew there was such a thing as death.

My first encounter with death was not because of the loss of a grandparent, a parent, or a sibling, although I have experienced all of those losses in years since. It was, instead, as I remember it, because of the left-hand bottom corner of the front page of the Winston-Salem Journal, the newspaper that was delivered daily to my home when I was growing up.

I don't really know exactly when I first noticed, but at some point, almost fifty years ago, I read a list of names in that small section (that unfortunately grew over time) and asked my parents about it.

"Those are the names of local boys who recently died in Vietnam."

I honestly believe that was my first introduction to the reality of death.

Over the years, I have visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, or as it is sometimes referred to, "The Wall," on several occasions. Each time was moving, but I will never forget the emotions of my very first time. 

It was the summer of 1986, less than two years after the memorial was completed and maybe a month after the death of my sister. My parents believed it was important that they take my other two sisters and me out of town on a trip. Not the best of ideas, but it's hard to fault them... and besides, this really isn't about my family.

I can still remember arriving at "The Wall" with my parents, and my father almost immediately going to the book to try to find the particular panel of a certain name. I almost asked who he was looking for, but then I remembered. 

Jimmy Westmoreland.

I never knew Jimmy. I'm not even sure my father ever knew Jimmy, but we began going to church with his mother and father and brother not too long after Jimmy's death. 

As I browsed the internet earlier this afternoon, I discovered that Jimmy... rather, PFC Jimmy Roger Westmoreland with the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army died on April 8, 1969, less than three months after his tour began.

Some fellow soldiers who served with him have left personal comments on the "virtual wall" through the years. One described him as a "quiet, baby-faced kid." Another wrote, "I remember the first time I saw you, I thought to myself, 'This guy should be in Junior High instead of Vietnam, but I see we were both about the same age."

Jimmy was 20 years old.

On that day with my parents, seventeen years later, as they found Jimmy's name on the wall, they wept... not because of their relationship with him, because again, I'm not sure they even knew him. Looking back all these years later, I believe that their tears flowed out of an unsolicited bond with his parents and a common grief for a lost child.

I read a statistic recently that really struck me. During World War II, 12% of our population served in the Armed Forces. However today, less than 1% of our current population is serving or has ever served in our military. 

Gala True, of the Department of Veteran Affairs says, "That small figure influences the way the general public thinks about the cost of conflict."

To be clear, this is not a pro-war post. That issue can be debated in other circles at other times by people far more qualified to do so than me.

But it is a pro-honor post.

The Apostle Paul wrote... 

"Give everyone what you owe him... if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor." (Romans 13:7 NIV84)

Tomorrow is Memorial Day, the most solemn of American holidays... a day to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice while defending our nation.

It is a day to remember Jimmy, and the more than 1.1 million other men and women who have given their lives for those who, in most-part, they didn't know either... for those who are still giving their lives for you and me.

Join me in giving to each of them what we owe them - our respect and honor. The reality is, we owe them so much more than we could ever repay.

Since that summer with my parents, with every subsequent visit that I have made to D.C., if I find myself near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, I stop and look for Jimmy's name myself.

I never knew him, but I never want to forget him.

Thank you, Jimmy.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Fire! Ready? Aim.

"How do you plead?"

Before you even start down that road in your mind, I'll go ahead and let you know - it was traffic court.

The year was 1988, I was living in Woodstock, GA, where I was serving at my first full-time ministry, and my car of choice was a real speed demon - a Hyundai Elantra. But speed was not the issue.

"How do you plead?"

In late 1987, I was driving through downtown Woodstock around 9 PM (so, I was probably "coming from church, officer") when the blue lights appeared in my rear-view mirror.

Quick side note: Is there any worse feeling... that gut-wrenching sight of the blue and/or red lights flooding the back seat of your car as you watch in your side mirror as the officer approaches your car? Hypothetically speaking, of course.

Actually, not so hypothetically.

"How do you plead?"

This particular night in Woodstock was, unfortunately, not the first time that I had the experience (I think the number is actually four, including one time when I was running on the side of the road... but that's a story for another time).

After getting my license and registration, taking them back to his vehicle, and making me wait for what seemed like an eternity while he determined that I was not "on the lam," he returned and proceeded to tell me that he had pulled me over for O.C.G.A. §40-6-49.

O.C.G.A. §40-6-49 states: "The driver of a motor vehicle shall not follow another vehicle more closely than is reasonable and prudent, having due regard for the speed of such vehicles and the traffic upon and the condition of the highway."

What? Are you kidding me? I never follow too closely!

That's not true... at all. I am, shall we say, not the most patient of drivers. My family will very quickly tell you that many times they feel like they have a closer kinship with the passengers in the back seat of the car in front of us than they do with me.

However, when I am driving, I am still the picture of "reasonable and prudent."

Okay, that's not true either... and especially not thirty years ago.

So, after the officer explained to me my infraction, he handed me the ticket and said that I could either pay the fine or go to court.

I was twenty-three years old - that really should be enough explanation - and I felt like I really just needed the judge to hear me out so that he could understand my situation. (Even as I write that, I realize that I'm not all that different even today).

Which is how I ended up in traffic court a couple months later, being asked the question...

"How do you plead?"

I obviously answered, "Not guilty, your honor," to which came back his reply, with no hesitation, "Guilty. Next!"

What? Are you kidding me? I just sat in a smoke-filled room (remember, it was the 80's) for more than two hours with upwards of seventy to eighty other people, rehearsing clever arguments in my head. And now, after uttering only four words, I'm dismissed without even the opportunity to speak?

I really didn't know what to say. Thankfully I didn't say anything, but apparently, I didn't move away quickly enough either, because the judge looked at me and repeated, with emphasis, "Guilty. Next!"

The thoughts rolled through my mind: "What kind of back-woods justice is this? I mean, how can he sit there and make a judgment about me and my situation without ever even hearing a single word from me? He doesn't know me. What evidence does he even have, other than the report of a single police officer?"

Another quick side note: The above is not to in any way speak disparagingly of any police officer and especially the one who issued me the ticket. While I have not really thought too much about this over the last three decades, in writing about it today, and knowing that what I wrote just a few paragraphs earlier about my patience, or lack of it, while driving, is the truth, I know that the officer had it right.

I was guilty.

But we've all been there, haven't we? I mean, even if you've never been to Woodstock, GA (or even have a clue where it's located), we have all been there. We have all made snap-judgments and decisions about an individual without giving them a chance to speak even a single word. And many times, those decisions are based on far less credible evidence than a police officer's word.

You know, regardless of which side of the political aisle you align with, I believe that most of us would admit that our media, at times, has been guilty of failing to do its due diligence on a story, ignoring the "facts" for the privilege of getting to tell the story first.

However, before we cast that stone, we probably need to look in the mirror first.

I need to look in the mirror first.

Whether it is selecting a cashier at the grocery store (and usually my only criteria is, "Will he/she be faster?" My hours spent in line only serve to show how horrible my judgment is in that area) or any number of other mundane choices, we make judgments every single day.

That's to be expected. That's normal. That's life.

But, with the increasing number of users of social media over the last decade, almost everyone has, in some way, become a journalist and/or a critic. And while it is easy to point fingers at the "media" for their failings, all of us have or know someone who has suffered because of hasty words and hurtful judgments.

Whether we are the "author" (and trust me, you don't have to be on Facebook to author a judgment against someone. It only takes being willing to share the words with another person.), or we hear/read someone else's judgments and jump on the bandwagon with either the inability or indifference to actually separate fact from fiction, we are guilty.

"How do you plead?"

I am guilty.

So, here's my commitment to you (and for "you" to be "you," we really do have to have some sort of relationship, okay?)

Maybe I should rephrase that. Here is my commitment to you, my friends and family:
  1. I will believe the best about you.
  2. When other people assume the worst about you, I will come to your defense.
  3. If what I personally experience begins to erode my trust in you, I will come directly to you to talk about it.
  4. If/when you confront me about any such areas, I will tell you the truth.
The above ideas are not original - they are borrowed, some almost word for word, from Andy Stanley - but I like them so much, I want to try to make them a part of my own relationships moving forward. I feel like I have lived some of these out in the past, but maybe just as often, I've ignored some and possibly let down people who I care about. Moving forward, I want to be intentional... and consistent.

Because the truth is, even with all of my sin and faults (yours too, but we're talking about me), God chose to see me, in His Son, as holy and blameless.

"Even before he made the world, God loved us and chose us in Christ to be holy and without fault in his eyes." (Ephesians 1:4 NLT)

And although I know it's on a completely different level, I want to make a similar choice. I want to be the kind of person who, given both options, chooses to believe the good much quicker than I believe the bad. I want to give the benefit of the doubt.

I'm pretty sure I know exactly how that can happen... where that change can come from. 

It comes from following Jesus more (not too) closely!