Alone Together

 

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“May I talk with you a minute?” the young man asked.

“Of course,”  the older man said. “What’s on your mind?”

“It’s about Sara. You remember, right? If she calls it off, I’m leaving the military, and moving back out west. I’ve no reason to stay here, being from Nevada.”

“Really?” the older man asked. “You mean you’d leave your unit here, these guys, your job, and pack it up…just like that? Is it that serious?”

“Yes it is,” the young man said. “You see, I’m not from here. I’m from out west. I came here, really, for her. I joined the military because her father was a vet, and retired out here. And because my father and grandfather served, and they’re here now. . . retired, too. I felt like I had to move when I was with her. But now, all I want to do, you know, if it’s over, is to leave.”

“I see,” the older man said. “Did she say it was over?”

“Well, no, but she said that we needed time to be apart.” He emphasized be apart by signaling quotation marks with his index and middle fingers on both hands above his shoulders when he spoke.

“I see,” the older man said. “Have you thought about this? Do you have other friends that you talk to, and share your life with?”

“Well, you see,” the younger man said, “we’ve been best friends for years. We share everything. She came up…well…like I did…hard…not much structure…and we’ve always promised to fight for us, you know? We didn’t want to be like what we came from.”

“Gotcha,” the older man said. “What makes you think it may be over?” he asked. The younger man never answered the question directly.

“So neither of you wanted to be like what you came from, right?” the older man asked. “Right,” the younger man said quickly.

“And you’re ready to return to where you came from, if she says it’s over, right?” “Right,” the younger man said.

“And because you feel betrayed by her, if she’s willing to call the whole relationship off, or even be apart, as she says, that’s enough handwriting on the wall for you to pack it in. Is that right?”

“Exactly,” the younger man said.

“Well, may I ask you another question?”

“Sure,” he said.

“Well,” the older man asked, “what do you do to decompress, to blow off steam? Drink? Run? What is it for you?”

“I ride my bike,” the younger man said. “It tops out at 160 mph. North Georgia’s great for riding.”

“That sounds exciting.” The older man felt that he sounded ancient to this young man who rode his motorcycle 160 mph, while the older man’s idea of decompressing was drinking black coffee and reading Dickens.

“What is it about your bike that does it for you?” the older man asked.

“Well, I can be with my riding buddies but still be alone. I’m not a crowd person. I’m not very good with people. And she always got that about me. She’s the people person. I just love her, and I love riding, but I’m not much into the crowd thing,” he said. “I just want to be with her, and it be us, you know? Does that make sense?”

“Yes,” the older man said. “It makes sense. But may we agree that you’ll take a knee for a day or two, and give her time, so you can be apart to evaluate the place of your relationship to each other? Is it all worth at least some time to slow down and think a bit, at least before you’re ready to ride to Nevada?” the older man asked.

“Yes, I can do that,” the younger man said.

The older man changed the topic to the young man’s interests, and spoke of motorcycles, running, and adrenaline life.

The younger man seemed better. He stood up from his chair, extended his hand to shake with the older man, and smiled. “Thanks,” said the younger man. “It’s good to talk to someone.”

As the younger man exited the room, and returned to his world, the older man thought how each man is alone in his own way, but how being alone together is the thing. There are levels of closeness, he thought, wherein we open the windows of our tender paranoid hearts, and look for shapes to fill them with color and warmth, or with the fragrance of knowing and being known, and yet. And yet, the older man thought.

Celebrate the Simple

What is it about imagesmen circling up, as around fire, that lends itself to speech, and even wisdom?

The kindling and sticks of firewood had not been laid out yet when some of us huddled ‘round. The purposes of gathering were for one of the young men to teach and for men to come alongside one another as part of encouragement and accountability. Men often live lives of work alone whereby their relationships atrophy.

The topic? Consistency between professed faith and practice. The Christian walk is to bear witness to the Christian message. Christians’ lives are to be marked by transformation.

One passage of Scripture the teacher cited came from James: “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22 ESV). A second came from Paul: “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who be will be justified” (Romans 2:13).

We men gathered on the upper banks of the pond. It was near dusk. A light breeze blew from the west. Clouds indicated a chance of rain. Some of our sons were downhill, fishing. The pond’s surface rippled when the winds picked up. We all looked to the teacher. He had his Bible open on his lap. Gently, he read, explained, and illustrated the multiple texts of Scripture.

When he concluded teaching, some men’s faces had changed. Spiritual realities were at work. Then some men began to speak. They spoke of how time often had found them at work for things that perish, instead of at work on themselves, and/or their loved ones. Some had neglected their families for careers. Some spoke of how grace had found them amidst busyness.  Others told of how they’d hardened themselves against some church folks’ legalism.  Some sanctimonious church attendees had deterred some men from feeling welcome. As a result, some men chose to bury themselves in work/careers. Others spoke of how we men tend to labor for acclaim rather than for truth.

Evening wore on and, eventually, darkness fell. One of the men began removing kindling from his pickup truck and started the fire. We gathered around the growing flames, as he added pieces of split wood. The flames grew orange and lengthened towards the sky. The Spirit continued to work.

My son was still downhill, fishing with some of his buddies. I called to him, telling him that it was getting late, and to start loading up the fishing tackle. My mind kept at its interior monologue: This is what matters. This is what matters. Invest in people. Don’t lose your soul. Hear, yes, but do.

 Time came to depart the campground. Neither my son nor I wanted to leave. I helped clean up the area, and shook hands with some of the others. My son and I got into my pickup. Halfway home, and without any prompting from me, my son said, “I love you, Dad.”

“I love you, too, boy.” I glanced at him quickly to see if his thoughts were with mine. He had his left elbow on the armrest. I wrapped my right hand over his left hand, squeezed it, and fought not to weep for the joy of relearning to celebrate the simple. This is what matters. This is what matters. Invest in people. Don’t lose your soul. Hear, yes, but do.

 

 

Time Steals and Reveals

Live oak, river birch, red maple, and dogwood. Canada, Egypt, Kenya, Greece, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, and England. Blond, brown, and gray. No, this is not a quiz to see if you recognize patterns. But then again, it may be. Let me explain. It’s not about trees. It’s not about countries. It’s not about hair color. It’s about time.

I don’t remember a time when I didn’t love trees. Why is a mystery. I am convinced it has to do with their longevity, their endurance, and my enduring passion for literature. I can recall passages from the writing of Cormac McCarthy, John Steinbeck, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, Faulkner, Walker Percy, Shelby Foote, Dickens, Emily Bronte, and others where trees were delineated with such beauty that they (the trees) became characters. That is, trees became important in characters’ stories. Trees sometimes served as shade, rest, respite, and shelters from storms. Other times, they served as symbols of strength. Other times, they towered with religious significance. Jesus, the most crucial man in history, was nailed to a tree in Jerusalem. Thus, trees are not always just trees in literature.

But there’s more. There is a connection to the countries and colors listed above. I’ve planted at least one tree, but usually several trees, in each place my family and I have lived over the last almost twenty years. Why? To mark time’s passage. To plant tangible signposts of where we’ve been. To remind me not to squander my life and time.

But what of the countries and colors? Recently an old Army friend emailed me some pictures of us two decades ago. Several captured us atop mountains in Switzerland and Austria during a weekend ski trip. My hair (then) was blond. Later it turned brown. Now it’s gray. Other pictures showed us deployed in Bosnia in the 1990s. My hair (then) was blond. Later it turned brown. Now it’s gray. And I understood that time’s an incorrigible thief.

Then I thought of some of the places I’ve visited or lived: Kenya, Canada, England, Belgium, Germany, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Croatia, Italy, Czechoslovakia, France, Egypt, Greece, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kyrgyzstan, Switzerland, Austria, Indonesia, Hong Kong, etc. There are other places, of course, but I walked through them again in my mind and found myself grinning at memories from each place. And I understood that time’s an incorrigible thief. I’d spent time in these places and they’d shaped me.

Time’s an incorrigible thief. That’s part of why I plant trees on each place my family I reside. They remind me that time’s an incorrigible thief who will steal if we fail to sow, water, feed, tend, and treasure what’s most important. Time steals and yet reveals our treasure. I’m no longer blond, but gray, and (hopefully) wiser, rooted in working at that which endures.

Judas Iscariot, a Perennial

Ever been betrayed? Sure. Everyone knows a traitor. The most infamous traitor in history is Judas Iscariot. Judas betrayed Jesus. Thirty pieces of silver. That was the equivalent of four months’ wages for a laborer. Let that sink in. For the equivalent of 16 weeks’ pay, Judas betrayed Jesus. But the money was symptomatic of a deeper and deadlier issue. Judas had a pagan heart. Money was the visible exchange for the invisible transaction within Judas’ soul. It would not have mattered if the amount were a thousand times that much; the amount was immaterial. What was sold was a soul. Judases are perennials; they recur with each generation. There are many who profess genuine faith in the lordship of Christ but their deeds contradict their professions.

Yet God knows all. Jesus was, and is, God in the flesh. As such, he knows all. He knew who was to betray him. Matthew illustrated it by telling of Jesus’s betrayal by Judas and his (Jesus’s) subsequent arrest. As Judas knew where Jesus’ habitual place of prayer was, he (Judas) had orchestrated his scheme ahead of time. Listen to Matthew’s account: “Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; seize him.” And he came up to Jesus at once and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” And he kissed him. Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you came to do.” (Matthew 26:48-50a, ESV) Can’t you feel the drama? God incarnate is praying in Gethsemane and he knows that one of his own disciples is a devil. And when Judas approaches him (with a kiss!) Jesus, still knowing all, says, “Friend, do what you came to do.”

Yet Jesus allowed it all. In fact, he ordained it. John’s gospel further illustrates Judas’s treachery. When the story unfolds, Jesus had just washed the disciples’ feet, and he was about to give his true followers the great commandment recapitulation (John 13:34-35). John records that Jesus began to be “troubled in his spirit” about the encroaching betrayal, passion, and crucifixion:

After saying these things, Jesus was troubled in his spirit and testified, “Truly, truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he spoke. One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was reclining at table close to Jesus, so Simon Peter motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. So that disciple, leaning back against Jesus, said to him, “Lord, who is it?” Jesus answered, “It is he to whom I will give this morsel of bread when I have dipped it.” So when he had dipped the morsel, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. Then after he had taken the morsel, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “What you are going to do, do quickly.” Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him. Some thought that, because Judas had the moneybag, Jesus was telling him, “Buy what we need for the feast,” or that he should give something to the poor. So, after receiving the morsel of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night.” (John 13:21-30, ESV)

It’s crucial to understand what’s occurring. Jesus, knowing all, had just washed his disciples’ feet. Wash the feet of one’s betrayer? Yes. Exactly. What kind of love is this? Then some of the disciples are actually listening intently to Jesus and realize that God incarnate had just told them that there was a devil in the room. And though John’s gospel does not record the facial expressions of Jesus and Judas, can’t you envision them? Perhaps Jesus spoke gently but firmly to Judas when he (Jesus) said, “What you are going to do, do quickly.” Heartbreaking. What’s more, the imagery is vital to grasp. Verse 30 says “And it was night.” Yes, darkness (evil) had indeed descended. Evil had just broken bread with the Messiah. Judas was slithering his way to damnation.

My mother is a master of the soil. She can make flowers grow in almost any soil. She taught me about annuals and perennials when I was a boy. To this day, I love flowers and spring, and things in bloom invariably remind me of my mom. The first thing she taught me about perennials is that they recur; they come back year after year. And we’d do well to learn that traitors are a lot like that; they’re perennials. Thus, we are to be wise as serpents and yet gentle as doves (Matthew 10:16). “Many a man proclaims his own steadfast love, but a faithful man who can find?” (Proverbs 20:6, ESV) There was, and is, one who is faithful. In fact, he is called faithful and true (Revelation 19:11), and he even washed sinners’ dirty feet.

If Only

If only. If only we had different political leaders. If only we had a conservative. Ith-1f only we had godly leaders. If only our side was in power. If only we had leaders who followed the Constitution. If only. Are you tempted to think and/or mutter thoughts like these? I am, but I hope that I’m learning better—and not from earning more degrees or anything like that. I’m learning that leadership begins at home. We are quick to expect more of our leaders than we do of ourselves. In 62-63 A.D. the apostle Peter wrote to Christians enduring persecution in the 1st century, encouraging them with this truth: a godly life is the best example to an ungodly world, but that is only possible if God changes our hearts/wills from the inside. External political systems cannot reform the idolatrous heart. “For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” (1 Peter 2:15-17, ESV)

If only was not the argument Peter wrote Christians should embrace about the culture that was persecuting, and sometimes murdering, them. Peter was to be martyred under Nero’s reign for his Christian witness. His letters were not platitudes. He knew what he and other believers were up against.

In sum, 1st century Christians were up against what many Christians are up against today: anger, bellicosity, and vitriol. We’re living in a day of spiritual road rage. One writer has even written an entire book (A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Today) on the subject of how acrimony and bitterness characterize much of public discourse.

Classrooms now are characterized by sound bites instead of reasoned argument. Depth has been evicted. In most colleges and universities, neither students nor teachers read the classics. Shakespeare, Milton, and Chaucer are now branded misogynists and bigots. When I went by my alma mater a few years ago to see some of my former graduate school professors of literature, I discovered that English majors could now earn degrees in literature and writing without taking courses in Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, or even Greek and Roman literature. English majors are now schooled in multiculturalism, women’s studies, gender studies, and black studies. My temptation? To mutter to myself, if only.

Earlier this week, I was able to sit down with one of our children. We were reading one of his books together entitled Farmer Boy. It’s a wonderful narrative of 19th century America on a farm in rural New York. The protagonist is named Almanzo, and he’s a typical 9-year-old boy. He likes candies more than vegetables. He likes to play in the barn loft more than to shock wheat. He enjoys irritating his older sister more than he does listening to her counsel.

As we read together, my son asked me, “Dad, why did Almanzo’s sister get him out of trouble like that? I mean, Almanzo threw a paint brush and made a mess in their mom’s favorite room.” I said, “I know. It’s because she loved him. She knew he’d done wrong, but their family was more important than for her to seek justice by telling on him.” My son looked at me and I could see the genesis of understanding in his eyes. He began to see how “love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). I almost thought for a minute that he was going to say, “If only we were more like that.”

It’s fashionable and “progressive” nowadays to scoff at old ways. Even modern parlance reflects how patronizing today’s culture is when talking about previous ideas. Phrases like “old school” and “Back in the day” abound. However, Scripture admonishes us to remember those who came before us and to reflect on why boundaries were erected in the first place: “Do not move the ancient landmark that your fathers have set” (Proverbs 22:28). If only we had a more humble and accurate assessment of our places in the world.

In politics, blood boils. Ratings go to the person with the brashest insults. If you shock the audience by virtue of your acerbic tongue, you win the poll. However, might we not be better served if cool heads prevailed? If only.

An acquaintance of mine wrote me some time back something to this effect: he does not have hope for leadership on the macro level. If there is to be any moral and spiritual resuscitation, it will be from the micro level. I think he is mostly correct. However, I would add this caveat: a godly life is the best example to an ungodly world, but that is only possible if God changes our hearts/wills from the inside. External political systems cannot reform the idolatrous heart. The if only that we’re all tempted to think, if not say, must begin in our homes, made possible through divine regeneration and sanctification.

 

It’s the Climate of Ideas, Not of Weather

Strange bedfellows? China’s president, Xi Jinping, will meet with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. Barack Hussein Obama and England’s Prince Charles, another disciple in the religion of global warming, will meet with India’s leadership, as well as with Nigerian, Indonesian, and Pakistani leadership. How can you get government leaders of countries who are, in many other ways, ideological adversaries, together? China and the U.S. are at the same table. Syria and the U.S. are at the same table. Russia and the U.S. are at the same table. You might think that they are addressing how to end religious persecution, but you’d be wrong. You might think they are assembling to solve Muslim persecution of fellow Muslims, thereby causing tens of thousands of refugees to flood Europe and the U.S. but you’d be wrong. You might think that they are in Paris to condemn Muslim terror in groups like Boko Haram, Hezbollah, ISIS, al Qaeda, the Taliban, etc. but you’d still be wrong. These government talking heads are gathered to talk about means of reducing fossil fuel emissions. The goal? That the wealthiest nations will allocate billions of dollars to other countries who promise to reduce fossil fuel emissions. We are witnessing a culture given over to idolatry; by abandoning the Judeo-Christian worldview, the culture has largely imbibed paganism. The earth and the creature are worshiped and the Creator is rejected.a culture given over to idolatry...

The fact that American law enforcement is currently besieged by thugs is less important to the current U.S. government leadership than their zealous commitment to the religion of manmade global warming. Well, it’s not global warming now. Their spin doctors have renamed it “climate change.” Even one of the self-described socialists running for America’s presidency, Bernie Sanders, says he fears climate change more than ISIS. How does one try to reason with people like this? And guess which countries will be on the hook to pay the “under-developed” countries billions of dollars to install solar panels and windmills? You guessed it, the wealthy countries that thrive on the use of fossil fuels. Are you awake yet? The heretofore wealthy West, built largely on fossil fuels, has the resources to fund poor countries. Where did that wealth creation come from—solar panels and windmills? Even Don Quixote would not charge these windmills!

Barack Hussein Obama claims that this meeting of political leaders is a “powerful rebuke” to terrorists. Folks, are you listening to this drivel? We are living in a time where committed Leftists advocate for abortion on demand, but oppose your fueling up your car, because it produces carbon dioxide. We are living in a time where committed Leftists can “gender-identify” as one sex on Monday and another on Thursday, but at the same time claim discrimination if non-Leftists posit that gender is not a fluid category. We’re living in a culture where Bruce Jenner (he now calls himself Caitlyn) is named Woman of the Year by Glamour magazine. We’re living in a world where legislators are vying for pedophilia to be inculcated as normal and healthy (http://www.jewsnews.co.il/2015/11/28/germany-and-eu-to-legalize-pedophilia-and-with-it-child-pornography-as-well/). We are witnessing a culture given over to idolatry; by abandoning the Judeo-Christian worldview, the culture has largely imbibed paganism. The earth and the creature are worshiped and the Creator is rejected.

In the biblical worldview, creation is to be cared for but not to be worshiped: “And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28b, ESV). In the biblical worldview, creation (the earth, the heavens, etc.) is designed to manifest the glory of the Creator (God), not to be worshiped as an idol: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1, ESV).

But what we are witnessing in our day is a world that largely exchanges the truth of what God reveals and replaces it via idolatry. And what we are witnessing is the natural outworkings of a pagan worldview. Again, the biblical worldview speaks to this: “Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying, “Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us” (Psalm 2, ESV).

We are witnessing a culture given over to idolatry; by abandoning the Judeo-Christian worldview, the culture has largely imbibed paganism. The earth and the creature are worshiped and the Creator is rejected.

Lest I be misunderstood, please understand. The earth is to be cared for; we should seek to tend the garden God has provided. However, we are not to worship anything or anyone but the Lord. If the pagan were consistent in his logic, he would admit that in a materialist universe, he is substantially no different from the very material he seeks to protect, but he cannot provide objective reasons for morals, only preferences. And whose preferences should prevail? In the biblical worldview, however, we are told why we should tend the earth—namely, because it was created by God for our good and His glory. Moreover, we are told that we are not to worship the creation, only the Creator.

The biblical worldview tells us that this is what we fallen creatures do (we exchange God for an idol). We worship the creation instead of the Creator: “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Romans 1:21-23, ESV).

We are witnessing a culture given over to idolatry; by abandoning the Judeo-Christian worldview, the culture has largely imbibed paganism. The earth and the creature are worshiped and the Creator is rejected.

Socialism, Leftism, the redistribution of wealth, paganism, and all the other isms will not remedy culture, folks. The nations will continue to rage until we acknowledge the truth we suppress in unrighteousness—namely, that (as Francis Schaeffer penned years ago now) God is there and He is not silent.