Numbering Our Days

Preparing for festivities? It is New Year’s Eve. Last night I saw a lady load a shopping cart full of liquor and roll her buggy—bottles clinking against one another—up to the cashier at the register and prepare to spend hundreds of dollars on alcohol at one of the shoppettes here on Fort Benning. No one seemed surprised. The lady was just an ordinary customer, I suppose, and this is what is expected as New Year’s Eve arrives, right? No, I’m not sanctimonious about alcohol. That is not my concern here. I am thinking more about time and how we spend it. Do we often think of our amount of time? Do we not sometimes pretend that death is something that happens to other people? Do we not sometimes distract ourselves so that we do not have to face the ultimate issues, at least not right now? But are not ultimate issues called ultimate for a reason?

Unfortunately, I will be separated from my loved ones all this week, so I am not preparing anything festive, unless black coffee qualifies. I may get a bit wild with an espresso later. But earlier today I was reading and thinking through Psalm 90.  It is one of Moses’ writings in the Psalms. Verse 12 reads this way: “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12, ESV). To number our days. In the biblical worldview, this means to live our lives with the conscious awareness that our lives are lived before the face of God, Coram Deo. It is a way of saying, live your life knowing that you are in the presence of God. Wisdom, therefore, involves our dwelling upon ultimate issues. That does not mean that festivities are by any means wrong. Scripture is replete with festivals, parties, fellowships, etc. But they are to have their places within a larger theological framework. They are not to be ends in themselves.

But to number our days, that is no small matter, right? Examples help me to think, and here are a few that stirred some reflections on this theme of numbering our days.

In 2019, I was able to take a trip with some of my family to a place near Destin, FL. The beaches are beautiful there. But to get there, we drove through parts of FL that had been devastated by a hurricane earlier. Mighty trees were reduced to sad-looking twisted and snapped timbers. Their boughs were gone. Leaves had been stripped from them during the deluge. Some roads had washed away. Entire restaurants had been washed out to sea. Just like that, as the saying goes, all was gone. And I thought, Do I have a heart of wisdom? Am I numbering my days?

A second weather-related catastrophe got me thinking, too. In the small town where my family and I lived for years, a town where I taught English and pastored, a tornado had recently struck. I viewed pictures online of the devastation. Again, trees were ripped from the earth or left bent into ghastly contortions. Rooftops had been sucked up into the sky. Just like that, gone. And I thought, Do I have a heart of wisdom? Am I numbering my days?

I saw a friend of mine undergo multiple surgeries, and still press on with his responsibilities. I saw another friend run off (that is, he was run off by an oligarchy within the congregation) from a church because of unregenerate church members, small town politics, and power struggles. I watched my wife have to raise our children while I was away in Iraq for nine months. After those nine months, I was still not able to return home to her because of an injury I sustained in Iraq that is still keeping me at Fort Benning. And I thought, Do I have a heart of wisdom? Am I numbering my days?

I have had more than enough reasons to reflect. Many will load their carts with beverages, chips and salsa, finger foods, etc. and ring in another year. That is often the plan. But I have aged some and hopefully learned a few things about how quickly man’s plans can be interrupted by bigger plans. One might even go so far as to say they are plans of the Sovereign. With a goal, too: to teach us to number our days.

 

What Is Your Worldview?

Seven questions reveal a lot … if they are the right questions. In his book Discipleship of the Mind: Learning to Love God in the Ways We Think, James Sire asks the right ones. 

 

In a world ripped apart and often characterized by (pardon the poor grammar) Us vs. Them, Sire excels in this book by demonstrating that all of us have a mental map of the world, a set of assumptions about the big questions and answers of life. We may not be conscious of our own worldviews at all times, but learning to be aware of ours and the worldviews of others—be they politicians, writers, entertainers, teachers, lawyers, philosophers and theologians, etc.—helps clarify what we think, why we think the way we do, and why we behave the ways we do. 

 

The questions he asks us to ask are fundamental questions that go a long way in revealing each person’s worldview. In a world ripped asunder via politics, race-baiting, shouting matches, and ad hominem attacks, Sire’s book may encourage you, too. 

 

Sire’s seven questions that elucidate each person’s worldview follow. Each time you listen to a politician, read a newspaper article, listen to the lyrics of a song, watch a film, ask these questions about the person’s or persons’ views behind what is being promulgated. What worldview are they operating from? How would they answer these questions?

 

1. What is prime reality—the really real?
2. What is the nature of external reality, that is, the world around us?
3. What is a human being?
4. What happens to a person at death?
5. Why is it possible to know anything at all?
6. How do we know what is right and wrong?
7. What is the meaning of human history?  

 

And perhaps most important of all, Sire’s definition of worldview: a set of presuppositions which we hold about the basic makeup of our world. 

 

One of the passions of my life is literature. Sire dedicates an entire chapter to worldview analysis of literature. In one chapter he contrasts the worldviews of the Christian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins in his poem “Pied Beauty” with the atheistic writer Thomas Hardy in his poem “The Darkling Thrush.” 

 

The worldview of each writer is manifested. Hopkins, a Christian writer, sees the world as the creation of the infinite-personal God, and beautiful colors and creatures in life as indicators and evidences of God’s nature being inseparable from the true, good, and beautiful. God exists, his creation exists, our minds exist, and we reflect God’s glory because we are created as his image-bearers.

 

Hardy, writing from an atheistic worldview, sees a bird dying along a fencerow at dusk as symbolic of man’s darkening hopes with regard to life and the future. The universe is a closed system, there’s no God beyond it, and all that exists is material, etc.—yet here we are, trying to make sense of why we feel empty and lonely in a dark world. Well, when we explore Hardy’s worldview, it’s no wonder. Why write poetry if we are just material in a material world? 

 

If you are curious about why we people think, create, and behave the ways we do, you are curious about worldviews, and an excellent place to begin is with Sire’s book.

Rereading J. Gresham Machen (& some related musings)

 

Over the last few months I have been under medical care due to a shoulder injury that called for surgery. Unable to exercise the ways I have done hitherto, I have spent more time in a recliner and/or on a bed than I would have liked. But these days healing post-surgery have not been wasted. I have been able to read more than usual. Better still, I have been able to reread some of my favorite books and writers. 

 

Last week I reread one of my favorite writers and thinkers, J. Gresham Machen. What follows are two items: 1) my thoughts on Machen’s book The Christian View of Man and 2) a short list of some books I am rereading.  

 

There are a few writers I return to again and again. J. Gresham Machen is one of my favorites. Why? In short, Machen excelled in getting to the bottom line in his books. He saw to the heart of the matter and then explored it with a keen mind and sharp pen. Okay, you might say, other writers have done that. Some have, I admit. But Machen saw the issues clearly and did not shy away from declaring them clearly. That is one way he distinguished himself. 

 

Very often I have found academic writers write largely to sound impressive. The writing contains little if anything new or noteworthy, or even particularly insightful. And often it is laden with abstruse academic jargon, as if that denoted something’s truthfulness.

 

If veracity is the goal, clarity of expression should be more prevalent. In academic writing, however, many books are never read except by committees, and then only to credential a peer.  

 

With Machen, however, we are spared those irritations. In The Christian View of Man (a book comprised of lectures Machen gave during the 1930s), Machen addressed fundamental issues with regard to the Christian worldview. The title is accurate. Machen contrasts the Christian worldview with the pagan one. He divides the book into twenty short chapters (usually five to ten pages each). And those few pages are packed with clearly defined characteristics regarding how the biblical/Christian worldview explains reality. Following is an example from Machen on how the Bible differs from secular literature:

 

     The Bible differs from human books on religion not merely in this point or that but in the centre about which everything moves. Human books are prone to find that centre in man; the Bible finds it in God.

     Men do not like that fundamental characteristic of the Bible. The prefer to think of the happiness of the creature as the goal; they wrongly interpret the text ‘God is love’ to mean that God is only love and that God exists for the benefit of His creatures; reversing the Shorter Catechism, they hold that God’s chief end is to glorify man. (50)

 

See how Machen clarifies the ways in which worldviews matter? If one comes to the Bible assuming it is just another book penned by men, (maybe even with helpful myths regarding the origin of the universe, of man, of sin, of strife, of ethics, etc.) it is still just another book. 

 

But if one takes the claims of the Bible seriously, and does the work necessary to understand the various types of literature it contains (history, law, poetry, wisdom, gospels, epistles, apocalyptic, et al.), and that it has one central theme uniting the myriad genres, and that there is a unifying storyline reaching its crescendo and fulfillment in Jesus the Christ, that would mean it’s a very different sort of book, would it not? Then it would not be “just another book.” Then there might be good reasons the apostle Paul, imprisoned for declaring the truth of the biblical worldview and Jesus as the Christ, would write to his younger child in the faith, Timothy, instructing him to do one thing above all–bring him the parchments (2 Timothy 4:13).

 

This is what I mean when I write Machen’s book clarifies what’s at stake. Here is another example of how Machen reveals the mutual exclusivity of the pagan worldview vs. the biblical worldview:

 

At the heart of everything that the Bible says are two great truths, which belong inseparably together—the majesty of the law of God, and sin as an offence against that law. Both these basic truths are denied in modern society, and in the denial of them is found the central characteristic of the age in which we are living.

    Well, what sort of age is that; what sort of age is this in which the law of God is regarded as obsolete and in which there is no consciousness of sin? 

I will tell you. It is an age is in which the disintegration of society is proceeding on a gigantic scale. Look about you, and what do you see? Everywhere the throwing off of restraint, the abandonment of standards, the return to barbarism. (189-90)

 

See the differences? On the one hand is the biblical worldview, with God and his holy nature revealed in his law. On the other hand is the secular/atheistic view, with man at the center and moral chaos as its distinctive characteristic. 

 

I was reminded today of how current—how relevant–Machen’s writing still is. Today as I went to the library, I heard the news on my radio. The story was of newborn infants left to die in a “comfort room.”

 

No, this story was not of babies under Herod in 1st century Palestine. No, it was not of babies under Josef Mengele in 1940s Nazi Germany. No, this was a story from our day, in our world, of Christ Hospital in Oak Lawn, Illinois in the U.S. Here’s a link to read about it, if you dare: https://www.lifenews.com/2019/09/10/hospital-created-comfort-room-for-babies-to-die-in-if-they-survived-abortions/

 

This is the value of rereading Machen. He clarifies the importance of worldviews. He explores winsomely the truism that ideas have consequences. And he points us to the Scriptures which are able to make us wise for salvation (2 Timothy 3:15). 

 

I am looking on my desk now at other books I am rereading. They are among my favorites: Dickens’ David Copperfield, Dostoyevsky’s novels, and the fiction of Flannery O’Connor. There are more. And they are worth our time, dear readers, as much is at stake.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

25 Lessons at 50

Turned 50 this year. Perhaps that is part of what gave rise to reflecting on some lessons from along my way. If you like lists, enjoy. If you don’t, sorry … I do. 

 

 

 

1. Cruel people are almost always more courageous than kind ones, but I still prefer the kind ones. 

 

2. No testimony is so powerful as the lived one.
3. I learned more about the value of hard work when sitting alongside my grandparents under a pecan tree, shelling butterbeans and shucking corn, than I did in any university.

 

4. There is a world of difference between Facebook friends and friends. 

 

5. There will be lots of surprises for us at the final judgment.

 

6. Beauty makes no sense as a category if atheism is true. 

 

7. The visible Christian church, though filled with sinners, is still precious, because we sinners confess our sin is the problem and the gospel is the answer; secularists refuse to admit these by insisting the world will ‘progress’ via yet another humanistic model. It wont; study history. 

 

8. Words, though often misused, are nonetheless necessary.

 

9. Great books are one of life’s great comforts.

 

10. We have forgotten how to be alone and learn.

 

11. A hand-written letter still makes me smile. 

 

12. In a week, we won’t remember today’s headlines.

 

13. The Bible is too important to neglect; previous generations knew this. 

 

14. There are more wolves than shepherds.

 

15. Some people’s smiles reveal knives; discernment is key.

 

16. I bet Judas Iscariot had a lovely smile.

 

17. I have not fished enough, even if they’re not biting.

 

18. The apostrophe has reason to be upset. 

 

19. Grammar classes should be compulsory.

 

20. Public discourse has degenerated into verbal assassination; we have slain ourselves.

 

21. I wish I had learned to garden well. 

 

22. There are many excellent books, and Shakespeare penned more than a few of them. 

 

23. My wife loves me better than I deserve.

 

24. The arts, though largely neglected, are vital. 

 

25. 1 Corinthians 15. 

 

 

A Paean for CJ

FullSizeRenderIt was when I pulled out of the driveway that I knew. I knew I had to write it. Let me explain. She was sitting there with the dogs, watching me pull away to drive south again to Fort Benning for surgery this Thursday. I knew I had to write it. I can get it across on the page, things I don’t say as often or as well as I should—namely, that I am grateful for her, for her steadfastness, for her loyalty, for her feistiness, for her prayer life, for her deftness at organizing our lives, and on and on. I had to write it. To write what exactly? A paean to my wife who makes me better than I would otherwise be.

I learned an awful lot during my seminary years. And one of those lessons came by way of my favorite seminary professor. He was teaching us seminarians about personal discipleship. He was stressing that we could learn lots of theological precepts and still lose our marriages. Then he made this profound remark: “Don’t wait till Mother’s Day to realize if you have a Proverbs 31 wife.” Dr. Cutrer, my professor, could have ended class that moment. He was that gifted in teaching via example.

Proverbs 31:10-31 is perhaps the most obvious set of verses in Scripture where a godly wife is praised. King Lemuel uses synonymous parallelism in Hebrew poetry to make the point of how valuable a godly wife is. Here is just one example from verse 10: “An excellent wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels” (Proverbs 31:10, ESV). Pretty straightforward, right? An excellent wife, according to Scripture, is worth more than fine jewels, and this was written circa 1,000 B.C. in an ancient Near East context, so precious jewels perhaps sparkled more in people’s thinking than they might today.

But what made Dr. Cutrer’s lesson for us more poignant was that Jane, his precious wife, was in class with him. She was at his side, serving alongside him to show us seminarians what an enduring commitment looked like. In short, the precept was theological (that God created, ordained, and loves biblical marriage) but also fleshed out in real lives. Theology was not just to be cerebral but incarnational. And that is why I had to write today—not primarily about theology but about my wife. Following are three examples of why I felt compelled to share.

 Example one: I love to work outside in the yard. Where I’m from, folks call it “piddlin’.” It is a catchall phrase. In my case, it usually involves doing something in the soil. From my mom and my maternal grandfather, I inherited a love for the earth—the smell of soil, a love of colors in nature, of flora, of things growing, etc. Some guys like to peruse sports cars; I like to walk through the garden section at Lowe’s, if that gives you an idea.

When I was outside piddlin’, my wife, CJ, pressure-washed both of the decks on the back of our house. We live in the woods, and so spiders and carpenter bees and all sorts of other creatures like to try and stake a claim on the decks of the house. So while I was out in the yard, my wife had gone down to the basement, hauled up a pressure washer, and sprayed off two decks. I don’t know of many husbands who would have complained. This one didn’t. Score one for the Proverbs 31 wife.

Example two: I have a surgery this week at Fort Benning to reconstruct my right shoulder. I’ll be operated on here, and then return to my barracks room to rest and recuperate, and hopefully, return home for a few days of convalescence. No big deal, right? No need for my wife to drive three hours south. Yet when I told her that I was good, that I had a buddy down here who had promised to look after me if anything goes wrong, she got … well, feisty. “Are you kidding me?” she asked, not really wanting any reply I might have offered. “I’ll be there. You’re having major surgery. Do you really think I’m staying home? Good grief, Pirtle.” Yep, not the brightest husband moment. Score another one for the Proverbs 31 wife.

Example three: I was in a church recently where a teacher was teaching on a couple of verses from one of the New Testament epistles. As part of his lesson, he cross-referenced a passage from another letter but when he cross-referenced the second passage, he did not explain the context of the passage at all. The passage was about dietary laws, not about what he was trying to emphasize. And I was troubled because context is crucial. A fundamental rule of correct interpretation is to know, understand, and teach the correct context. Put bluntly, we are never to rip verses out of context. Anyway, I was troubled but I did not say anything until my wife and I were talking after lunch. I told her what had transpired and she asked me this: “Will you just commit to pray about it (talking to the teacher) this week?” She knows I don’t like conflict, but she was right. Not only should I have gone to the teacher, but I should also have been praying and prayerful as I did it. But I had not. My wife was right on both counts and I was wrong. Score another one for the Proverbs 31 wife.

When I pulled away today to drive back down, she was on the driveway with the dogs. She would undoubtedly go in when I pulled away, make sure the kids were okay, straighten something in the house, perhaps read the book she’s working on currently, prep for the coming week, and wait for me to call and tell her I had made it to Benning again.

I have made it here now and reflected some on how much better I am because of her, on how far I still have to go, on how humbling it is to be chastened and loved by one who loves and remains alongside me despite knowing my many weaknesses.

Her parents (my in-laws) I have grown to love and respect more with each passing year, and two of the greatest blessings they gave this world were daughters, both of whom love the Lord. They (my in-laws, sister-in-law, and wife) know, too, that Proverbs 31 is not just for Mother’s Day homilies. It’s for us stubborn, sinful husbands who don’t tell you enough that you are more precious than jewels.

Reflections on Kidd’s Biography of a Founding Father

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This week I read a history of one of the most influential men in American history, a Founding Father, printer, author, autodidact, aphorist, statesman, scientist, friend of Calvinist George Whitefield, and inveterate ambassador of discovery, education, and self-improvement. Biographies are among my favorite areas in which to read deeply, and Thomas Kidd’s bio of Ben Franklin did not disappoint.

Following is a form to provide a brief book review:

1. Overview

2 Quotation

3. Main idea

4. Questions raised/reflections

Overview:

 Kidd divides the book into nine chapters: 1) Child of the Puritans; 2) Exodus to Philadelphia, Sojourn to London; 3) Philadelphia Printer; 4) Poor Richard; 5) Ben Franklin’s Closest Evangelical Friend; 6) Electrical Man; 7) Tribune of the People; 8) Diplomat; and 9) The Pillar of Fire.

Kidd provides a clear overview of Franklin’s Calvinist upbringing and deep knowledge of the Bible; his prodigious work ethic and self-discipline; his staggering output of pamphlets, articles, ads and booklets as a printer; his deftness with proverbs; his lifelong friendship and theological foil with Christian evangelist George Whitefield; his discoveries in electricity; his educational and political honors and appointments; his government service; and his final days wrestling with the question of the exclusivity of the Christian gospel.

Quotation:

 Consider the following commentary by Kidd re Franklin’s self-help moralism:

If Whitefield preached transformation by God, Franklin advocated gradual reformation by daily effort, with biblical precepts as a guide. No internal change or divine regeneration was needed. Whatever the lingering influence of his Puritan heritage, this was a point on which Franklin clearly departed from the Puritans, and from their evangelical successors like Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards. In this focus on harnessing daily habits, Franklin was setting foundational precedents for that distinctively American, quasi-religious genre, the self-help movement. Franklin’s “The way to Wealth” and his Autobiography were ur-texts of that movement. (161)

Kidd excels in demonstrating the rich theological culture that existed in America in the middle of the 1700s due mostly to the robust evangelism of Calvinists like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield amidst the literacy rate of the nation seeking to separate from George and English dominion.

Main Idea:

 Kidd maintains his focus throughout the book on Franklin’s internal struggles. He (Franklin) was saturated with biblical knowledge but he never would concede the divinity of Christ, his virgin birth, or that salvation was by grace alone. Franklin sifted the Bible for moral precepts, acknowledging Jesus’ incomparable greatness, but would not, as far as historians can tell, ever trust in Christ and the gospel completely. Whitefield and Franklin corresponded for decades, and all the while, Whitefield pleaded for Franklin to trust in Christ alone, but Franklin persisted to trust in his own deeds as meriting favor with God, a clear indicator he had not embraced the gospel.

Questions raised/reflections:

 It is interesting to study a man as brilliant and gifted as Benjamin Franklin, one who was largely self-taught, one who explored the Greek and Roman classics, the Bible, philosophers like Locke, Hume, and Kant, theologians and pastors like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, and never seemed to lose his zeal for discovery and learning. Despite his experiences of man’s butchery in the American Revolution, the slaughter of Indians by misguided zealots, and some of America’s birth pangs, he continued a rebel soul up until his end in this life. I wish he has listened more to his friend Whitefield and believed the Scriptures, rather than just quoting them when they suited his rhetorical purposes.

Lastly, if you wish to learn of this Founding Father, this contradictory man, this gifted writer and satirist, read Kidd’s bio of Franklin. Kidd writes so well that you may wish the book had been even longer.

 

 

Thank You

Ever have a day or two in a row where everything falls into place, days when you say to yourself, “I don’t want this to end. Can’t we just keep this going, please?” Let me explain. 

 

Recently I was able to spend a couple of days with some of my family after a long absence due to my military obligations that often keep me away from home. My wife and I drove down to the lake where we live. We loaded our dogs in my truck, drove down to the water, leashed the dogs and walked some. It was evening. Some boats were on the water. We watched a girl on a float being pulled across the lake’s surface by her family in their boat. The girl laughed and then screamed seemingly simultaneously, as her father circled the boat and made his daughter jump the boat’s wake over and over. Then we watched the inevitable: the girl bounced, the ski rope was ripped free, and we saw the girl laughing and bobbing in her orange life jacket, waiting for her dad to swing the ski rope by her again for another tug. 

 

My wife had our King Charles Cavalier on a green leash by the rocks. My wife had her hair down. The sun’s last gold of the afternoon was at the western edge of the lake. Except for wake from the boats, the lake was smooth. I pulled out my phone and snapped a picture of my wife when she was unaware of my watching her. She was in one of the expressions I adore. (There’s something about her in spring/summer, when her skin has turned brown, her eyes shine as if she’s got a funny joke she wants to tell, her sandals reveal her pretty toes, and she’s unaware I’m watching … but these moments I wish I could freeze, bottle them for future openings, and so I snap a picture.)

 

The light was just right off the water. The girl out on the lake was up and on the float again, way out now on the far end of the lake, and being pulled across the water. A kayaker, nearer us, eased by silently, searching for hungry fish at dusk. I glimpsed one of the man’s rods as he paddled. Aflorescent green curly tail of a plastic worm swayed in rhythm to the man’s paddle strokes.

 

My wife comes over to me and takes our German shepherd from me so I can cast a few times. The water is crystal clear. I can see the lures I use, even several feet down. Cast, retrieve, cast. No bites, yet I see fish just below the dock on which I stand. It’s okay. This is not an evening for complaint, I can tell, but for thanksgiving. 

 

After several minutes, I pack up my rod and tackle boxes, and rejoin my wife who has been standing with the dogs on up the shoreline, and we walk back to my truck for the drive home. 

 

The next day, we go to a local restaurant where we eat raw oysters and talk and people-watch in an artsy section of a nearby town replete with great restaurants and nightlife. We go home later and watch a movie that causes us both to weep and laugh together. 

 

We talk of the kids. Our son is with friends for the weekend. Our daughter will be home tomorrow, too. We are thankful. My wife speaks of what she is singing tomorrow at church. It grows late. I take the dogs outside for a bit and hear the cicadas thrumming. 

 

And it bears upon me—that my times like these cannot be manufactured, but they unfurl as if by providence. It is enough to make me, as our dogs rustle through the dry oak leaves in front of the house, say aloud, “Yes, thank you,” and know I have been heard. 

 

Suffering, John Updike, and Doctors’ Offices

 

“We walk through volumes of the unexpressed and like snails leave behind a faint thread excreted out of ourselves.” That is a line from American fiction writer John Updike’s short story “The Blessed Man of Boston, My Grandmother’s Thimble, and Fanning Island.” I read that story, along with many other Updike stories, and even an excellent biography of John Updike, over recent days and weeks.

 

That line sounds deep chords within me because I am in a place where I have never been, at least to this degree, before—on the receiving end of medical treatment. Heretofore I have been healthy. I’ve never broken a bone, never had major surgery. My mom tells me I had tubes in my ears when I was a baby and I know my tonsils were removed when a child, but that’s it. I have been fortunate in the field of physical health.

 

But on 2 April 2019 in Iraq, that changed. My right shoulder and bicep ripped during physical training, the right shoulder dislocated, the dumbbells fell, and I collapsed onto the mat.

 

Now I am back in the States undergoing physical therapy, spending a lot of time in medical appointments and waiting rooms (where Updike’s fiction has been my companion), and I am likely looking at surgery.

 

I have been forced to slow down. It has, to return to Updike’s image, felt like a snail’s pace. But I have been able to read carefully, not just in the various doctors’ offices, but also in my room at night when the shoulder pain keeps me up. 

 

Doctors’ offices are not my preferred environments. Sitting in the cold plastic chairs, removing my uniform top, having my blood pressure taken, being asked my height and weight, being told to wait (“The doctor will be with you shortly, sir”), flusters me. I do not do well in this environment; I want to return to work. 

 

I look around these waiting rooms filled with soldiers (current and veteran) and family members. Some have black hats on advertising their wars: VIETNAM VET; KOREAN VET; and a few, WWII VET. Of course, these waiting rooms are filled with soldiers from my generation’s conflicts and wars: IFOR/SFOR in the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Afghanistan. 

 

I watch the people. The young ones have their phones out. The viewers are hunched over them, streaming videos, scrolling social media, or playing inane games that keep their thumbs and index fingers twitching. 

 

Overhead hang TV monitors. Daytime entertainers don perfect smiles, show tanned skin, and speak through teeth white as Chiclets. They blather about an Elton John movie and politics in the Middle East. They smile, give hugs to each other, clap like penguins, and smile again.

 

On cue, their audiences transition from subject to subject unawares. Yesterday, Kathy Lee and Ryan talked about dangers to dogs in the summertime, an Elton John movie, and Robert Mueller. They and their guests all smile, they hug a lot, and there are lots of ooos and ahhhs. They smile, sip coffee from giant porcelain cups, emote. The TV audience smiles, applauds, and seems so happy they are on the verge of erupting into hallelujahs. 

 

And I have lots of questions: Why this injury? Why did it occur less than two weeks before I was slated to return to the States with my unit?

 

But I know it would make more sense to ask different questions: Why not me? Why not this injury or even worse? What makes me think I get a pass? Why should I think I get a pass on suffering or hardship?

 

I return to my reading. Later in the same Updike story referenced above, the main character describes the prayers of his local pastor come to visit a family whose grandfather had just died, and Updike writes: “His prayers seemed to chip pieces from our hearts and float them away.” Yes and amen.  

 

To be snail-like and “leave behind a faint thread excreted out of ourselves” is a beautiful line, I believe. Some find their callings there—to call attention to our own and others’ plights, by expressing them through writing or ministry.

 

Paul phrased it this way: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Cor1:1-4). 

 

I admire Updike’s fiction. He does indeed “give the mundane its beautiful due.” But does not that desire need an ought, a reason, a justification? If it does, could it be that we desire to “leave behind a faint thread excreted out of ourselves” because we sense we are here as part of a greater design, one ordained even, where not even a sparrow falls to the ground except by way of the will of God?

SITREP

SITREP is Army jargon for “situation report.” It is a snapshot of current events. For those interested, what follows is a SITREP of my status since injuring my shoulder in Iraq.

 

What: Multiple labrum tears, bicep tears, dislocation, edema, and arthritis in right shoulder.

Where: Iraq

When: 2 April 2019

Options A and B: Physical therapy (A) and surgery (B)

 

I injured my right shoulder in Iraq on 2 April 2019. I have been sent to Fort Benning, GA for medical treatment.

 

I met with the orthopedic surgeon this morning at Fort Benning. The bottom line is that surgery is one of two options. The other option is physical therapy to see if I can strengthen my shoulder enough that I can soldier through. Because I’m 49, he wanted me to be aware of the risks of the surgery, if and when I opt for that. (Insert old man jokes here.)

 

I chose to try to gut it out via physical therapy, at least for now. The doctor said that if he does not see improvement over the next six weeks, surgery is then the better option. 

 

In the meantime, I am having injections in my right shoulder aimed at reducing the pain, putting fluid in the damaged areas, reducing swelling, and working with the physical therapist to strengthen my damaged right shoulder.

 

My thanks to family, friends, church, peers, and fellow soldiers for prayers and encouragement.

Thoughts on Orwell’s 1984

IMG_1995This week I read George Orwell’s 1984. Published in 1949, the close of WWII was less than four years prior. Unimaginable horrors were replete: Hitler and the Third Reich; Nazis; the slaughter of 6,000,000 Jews; President Truman’s authorizing the dropping of atomic bombs upon Japan four years after Pearl Harbor, Hawaii was attacked by Japanese kamikazes; Mussolini’s fellow fascists in Italy; Franco’s fellow fascists in Spain; Lenin and later Stalin in the USSR; Mao in China … the list of totalitarian/socialist/communist tyrants in the 20th century alone staggers the mind. And Orwell’s 1984 still retains cogent warnings.

Published in the middle of the 20th century, 1984 imaginatively concretizes the horrors of tyranny, big government, and totalitarianism/socialism/communism by focusing on an ordinary man (Winston Smith).

How will Winston (a type of Everyman) endure when oligarchy replaces republicanism? Can the human soul endure when God is jettisoned and secular power replaces him? And what of beauty? Is literature possible in a world when bureaucrats determine the curricula? Will Shakespeare and Dickens survive in 1984’s world of Telescreens and Newspeak? Short answer: no.

Governments don’t stir the soul; reading Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, however, does. When the media are merely arms of the government, and the masses (what Orwell terms the “proles” for proletariat) know only what government wants them to know, wisdom goes underground. And so do truth, goodness, and beauty.

The terms Orwell coined in 1984 endure. Big Brother, Thought Police, and Newspeak are just some of the examples. If you control the language, you control the message. And today, look at college and university campuses where Leftists demand “safe spaces,” and being called by pronouns that are in contradiction to their gender. Professing themselves to be wise, they’re fools. And it is shameful.

These examples from our day illustrate what happens when a culture abandons God, abandons reason, and abandons self-discipline. Orwell’s 1984 is still important.

First, are you paying attention to phrases en vogue today? Ever heard the phrase “safe spaces”? A couple of years ago, I was at military training with my unit and a female officer asked me if I would step out of the auditorium because she wished to speak to only female soldiers. That seemed understandable to me. But what caught my attention was when she said, “We are creating a safe space.” Huh? A space is now safe when any and all potentially dissenting views are prohibited. Verboten. Forbidden. Not tolerated. What is demanded is conformity.

Second, there is a loud and mean push in contemporary politics and discourse that demands—instead of reasons. Leftists demand a Christian baker, for example, go against his deeply held religious beliefs. If he won’t, they smear him as a bigoted moral monster. If he won’t contradict biblical morality, they set out to destroy him. So much for their so-called tolerance. In 1984, the individual is crushed by Big Brother and oligarchy. Power is stolen from the individual and reserved only for the all-powerful State. If the individual dissents, he/she is crushed via torture and/or indoctrination.

Third, Orwell dramatizes in 1984 what happens when people don’t know history. What they know is what the media have force-fed them. Instead of wisdom with regard to historical understanding, they have platitudes and bromides: WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, and IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH, for example. Clichés are not arguments; assertions are not arguments; platitudes are not arguments. But if the masses only parrot the media they ingest, shibboleths and slogans are what we get.

In 1984, a novel now 70 years old, I encountered a warning we should heed. We are drowning in information rather than standing upon wisdom.

We would do well to read deeply, to think through Orwell’s warnings from decades ago. We would do well to actually know and understand history. We might discover how we got to such a sorry place with regard to our conversations with one another. We might rediscover that masterpieces like Romeo and Juliet, David Copperfield, and 1984 were not produced by bureaucrats or governmental committees.