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!