Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Last Full Measure ..

Lincoln spoke in the Autumn of 1863 in Gettysburg these epic words:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.  Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.  But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Abraham Lincoln
November 19, 1863
That great speech returned to my brain this morning and I have read it slowly and deeply three times to feel the essence of his words against the context of his time after that great, defining battle fought just four months earlier.   Yesterday, thus why this has come to me so strongly, was a day where not until about 5 pm did the TV give me any news of the day and the world for I was part of my grand daughter's world of Disney and Hub.  Yes, those are channels she, at four years old, love so Poppy and Grammy get to watch it with her. 
As this black African child flitted around our home in comfort, love, warmth and being the queen of the roost as she so richly deserves, I was taken and shaken back to the MLK television day that was jammed with speeches, movies, memorials, etc, etc.  One of the documentaries I watched and pierced my  heart was of black soldiers returning from WWII but not yet discharged. They were on a long train ride moving to the West Coast which required overnight.  The train had to stop for some mechanical reason in a small place in a Southern state, do not recall which one and it matters not to my point.  On that same train were German Prisoners of War.  The white soldiers and the Germans were granted food and housing for the overnight stay but not the blacks.  The blacks witnessed walking into a large room white soldiers that the blacks had fought next to in Europe, lounging around playing cards and drinking beer with the German POWs but they, the blacks, were not allowed in the building where this was taking place nor were they allowed to sleep on the premises nor to be fed. In a flash the poison of racial reality hit me like a brick all over again. 
Given that last paragraph as context, I come back to my Ethiopian grand daughter bestowing joy via her energy and cuddling to her Poppy yesterday as carefree and loved as could be; a blessing. Then out of the blue the Gettysburg Address  came to my mind this morning and our nation today verse the war footing and division of the Civil War. All those points on the compass pointed me to this writ.
If you really read what Lincoln said in the framework of what he wrote and said then, how different is our nation today, really?  From my porch view in NE Ohio of our nation, the divisions and divisiveness of racism is not too far from what I could imagine it was in the slavery South. "Racism" has become a mantra and a sword point thrown at anyone that dares to question a black leader such as POTUS but at any level of government as well.  I did not vote for Obama nor would I again but not because of his skin color or ethnicity but because I did not trust him in the Senate and I have seen nothing to build that bridge of trust with me since the occupation of the White House. Personally, I believe our nation has taken a giant leap backward under his leadership but this blog is not designed to be negative about my POTUS meaning ours. I still pray for him and his leadership as I am commanded to do by Scripture though I do not agree with his agenda, his tactics nor his questionable strategies.
My greater concern with this, our nation, at the strata of racial equality for which the Civil War was ultimately fought, voting rights became the challenge of the mid 1900s during the terrible decade of the 60s with killings, lynchings, marches, seen almost as frequently as body counts from Vietnam on the evening news.  As strange as it may seem having grown up in Alabama, not until the last year or so did I come to realize the core issue in play in the 1960s was about blacks not being able to vote.  I marvel, still, in working in jails and prisons for now over a decade in seeing week after week the population of inmates be it male or female, overwhelmingly African American. Whereas in that same decade of teaching at the university level on nine campuses and teaching a total of roughly 7,000 college students, had far less that a 100 in total African American students. Do you see the correlation of concern the numbers portray?
I, like many Americans, ask publicly or privately on the matter of racism, when will this stop, what will it take, where does it end, and the questions continue to go unanswered. I watch the cable experts (sarcasm intended) ignite and energize the divide night after night. I watch and listen to people so politically devoted to the POTUS and the Party that they can do nothing wrong and anything the others do is wrong and racist ... how assinine! 
We are a nation, in my opinion, as divided in 2014 at some points of the spectrum than the one Lincoln addressed a century and a half ago and I believe worsening instead of improving.  While I did not nor do I personally care for Obama, I did have hope that his ascendancy to the White House would bring a leveling of this matter of divisive racism. Six years later I cannot escape that crawling feeling that it has worsened and become more divisive.  There are certain folks now on TV I simply cannot watch with Charles Blow, a black writer for the NYT for the racist bombs he throws around on talk shows simply baffles and angers me for with each bomb, the division widens. He is but one with Roland Martin another and not to mention Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton all of whom I believe have hurt the achievement of racial equality.  And there are still others!
We should not be a nation of Party but a nation, as Lincoln postulated, not divided after so much blood and treasure and national esteem desecrated. But here we are 150 years later and I question if, in fact, progress is being actually made.  I realize as well that racism has always been in any and all cultures but one would think and hope in our era of wireless technology, we could actually find a way to scale that awful wall but I do not see it and I am looking.  My African grand daughter has shown me so much about me; a Southern man that remembers well the hell of the sixties and the burned crosses, the KKK, the colored and white everything, the Freedom Riders, Selma, Birmingham, Montgomery, Mississippi. I am embarrassed now each time Alabama or Mississippi is spoken of about the past for we are better than this I believe.  But I also realize that division creates cash flows to the coffers of those that gain from maintaining the divide. I find that abominable but I believe it true.
I will close by believing Mr. Lincoln would be quite disappointed in his America today that so much was invested to change and prevent. It just baffles me!

Saturday, January 18, 2014

The Power of Absolutes

I have awakened early this morning triggered, I suppose, by a FB post a long time friend posted yesterday in which he has been developing a manifesto of his life as a Southern Baptist.  I find that worthy of people that have time on their hands and a will to put to words on a screen what their heart is saying to them. The last thing I read before going to bed was a post in this manifesto on use of alcohol using well chosen words to, in essence, justify the use of liquor and wine for Christians while exempting the "sons and daughters" (of which I am one) of family alcoholics due to the propensity for they themselves to go down that same pathway.  As I rolled around my bed last night and into three or four dream-driven naps, each of the episodes of dreams took me back to far too many awful memories and events affected by said alcohol.  As I have stated many, many times, I HATE ALCOHOL.
So in getting up early on this still dark and very cold morning in NE Ohio, I went back and reread my friend's post and then my post pushing back against the baseline post along with others that commented to the base post and I realized I was apparently the only dissenter to the rationalization that alcohol is okay for Christians.  I felt the ember warm all over again in my reread thus me devoting my weekly blog to this topic.
Many of you reading this perhaps do not care or you have a fervency of rightness or wrongness on the subject. Or, like too many, you just simply do not care. I do wish I could, at times, lapse into that neutral world and simply ignore some horrific facts of alcohol in our society.  Many had much worse childhoods than I no doubt and I certainly am not intending to play the violins of my life shrouded and crowded by that elixir from Satan himself in my personal opinion.  I believe liquor in a home or a church is like grabbing a timber rattler by the tail for recreation.  You may get by with it for a while, find excitement in the grabbing, exhilarate at the snake's reaction but in the end, the snake usually wins that deathly game.  I am not immature nor am I stupid enough to believe that today, 2014, that the same snake and its gamers sit in church pews, classrooms, employers and employees, parents, children, students, soldiers, pulpits, choir, police, firemen, husbands, wives, politicians, inmates, etc,  across our world. 
In my prison work I give the inmates the opportunity to write on a prayer request furnished to them a request they wish prayer for. In the many thousands I have read and prayed for, I would easily say 80% speak to praying for deliverance from the addiction of drugs but more specifically from alcoholism.  My assessment, it is the most dangerous, easily accessible viper in our world. More traffic deaths are alcohol related than any other cause.  Most crimes are alcohol fueled. Divorce, incest, aberrant societal behaviors are all in the spectrum of what alcohol can do to a person's brain once it is pickled. Soldiers in combat, many of whom I know well, have committed admittedly to atrocities in the combat theater when seeing their fellow soldiers maimed or killed and they go on an alcohol induced killing venture. These are not rumors; these are facts of our world. Plenty of statistics reside to substantiate my strong distaste of alcohol and its effect on families, churches, leaders and worst of all, children.
I fail to see how nor why a Christian can find any space to justify use of such a devastating poison to Man and society.  It for me is the adage about putting lipstick on a pig; it is still a pig.  Many of you will think I am just old or too slanted or whatever you wish to think it your decision, not mine. But I KNOW what I have seen, experienced, see weekly, read, see in the news and as I said on the FB post to which I speak to at the beginning, fail to understand why the political forces in American have blatantly chosen to seemingly ignore this addictive poison while choosing to attack tobacco a few decades ago is beyond me.  Alcohol, guns, marijuana, and the list goes on of our rationalization or cognitive dissonance reduction that this is fine, we have the right, it is our decision to potentially wreck and destroy others by decisions of choice with more than ample evidence of the horrific results to our citizenry is simply baffling to me still.
I will close with what many of you have read from me before for it applies; Right is Right and Wrong is Wrong and there is no amount of Wrong that will ever make a Wrong, Right. I hate ALCOHOL in any form. I am supposed to hate the alcohol and not the alcoholic I have been told but as my readers, you should know that is a most difficult hurtle for me for the emotional scars still run very deep in me and my family. When will we wake up? So you can know my position, there IS NO PLACE in church pews, pulpits, choirs, Christians for the poison of alcohol.  This, for me, states an ABSOLUTE which are becoming less and less viewable and enforceable in our society meaning fewer and fewer boundaries.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Power of Humility

I believe we can all wrap our minds around the concept of power for it resides all around us. It has many faces, many sounds, many smells, many reactions, many implications but power, we understand!  The concept of humility, I believe, gets, many times, lost in the winds of rhetoric for people will tend to use the prism of weakness or ineptness when meandering down the pathway of humility. So when you link Power and Humility together in a subject of a blog, it feels strange and incongruent; and I am the one doing the writing!
In my life I have been privileged to work with some really great people and some very powerful men and women.  I have always been drawn to that turbine of energy that powerful leaders exude not necessarily to copy it but to understand it.  It is amazing!  If you have been in the presence of celebrity, a national level politician, a professional athlete, a great preacher, etc, you know that feeling of awe that consumes the air you breathe whether you wish to admit it or not.  I believe, properly aimed and channelled, that turbine can generate great change. I remember as a young second lieutenant listening to and shaking hands with General William C. Westmoreland that commanded all troops in Vietnam.  I remember having fifteen minutes in the snow in Cleveland with Doug Collins and Michael Jordan. I could expand the list to a very long list of interesting people I have met on this journey.  How does that affect me personally at the time? Most would not believe it but I find it hard to piece together tangential sentences meaning words get stuck somewhere and I babble like an idiot. that is Power and it makes each of us react in our own unique and usually out of context way reacting to it.
Then there is humility.  For me the best example that comes to my mind would be Jesus. He was meek which for me is defined as strength and power under control.  Humility, for me, is when you find yourself with absolutely no where else to turn, nobody to turn to and you have no answers; it is a sense of complete emptiness which can be devastating for many including myself.  Many of you that know me know I have worked now over a decade in jail and prison ministry.  I cannot begin to tell you how many sermons, Bible references, examples, songs sung, questions being asked, etc. I have listened to and participated it. I can tell you that what I am realizing more and more is that i am seeing more and more very real examples of true humility in the population of the inmates.
Many will scoff at that and I can understand that to a degree but in having now worked with over 200,000 inmates, I feel I have learned much about the psychology of inmates. There is no crime that will shock me anymore. There is no tattoo that will cause me to take pause. I hate the smells, the misfitting orange jumpsuits and worst of all the strange beige colored shower shoes the inmates wear.  I realized of late that I had allowed myself to get too hung up on the way things look and smell but have realized a tremendous shift in my heart for these men and women I see almost on a weekly basis.  Last night was a classic example of how this decade has changed me; at the heart!
When God's presence is there in the chapel and you are leading nearly forty men of all ages, several ethnicities, innumerable crimes, dozens of fatherless children somewhere needing their dads at home with them, it makes my heart hurt. Last night a young African-American man stood and asked if he could give his testimony which, of course, we allowed. It was touching, sincere and came from a fellow inmate. I saw a whole complexion change for I saw eyes stop wandering, I saw tears from grizzled looking men, I saw and felt humility abound in that moment.  It was amazing.
As I stood to end the service before the deputies took the inmates back to their cells, I had the group of forty to stand around me and to put their hand of a fellow inmate meaning each inmate was touching two other inmates as I held two inmates close to my sides. I prayed but it was so uniquely different in that close proximity of men that were hurting, fearful, disappointed but had been touched by the Hand of God through the songs, the sermon and the testimony! That was Power of Humility personified.  It was absolutely and uniquely exhausted when I got home after the two back-to-back services for both were powerful in the presence of God!
Most of you will never see the inside of a jail or a hospital or anywhere where people are hurting, celled and truly frightened about what tomorrow will bring.  I look at these men and women and see a future meaning a future that they have chosen through poor choices to be left behind in the opportunities of our nation.  Each time I leave the jail tired, I leave those men and those women with a sense of hope and challenge for their obstacles are myriad worse due to be incarcerated. But as I sit in my care to ready for the drive home, I realize all over again that it is I that has received the blessing for the work, the energy, the time away from family, the sacrifice but it is such a blessing. It is always my greatest hope that the seeds are planted and that God will raise the fruit for harvest; He will!

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

So What Will You Do Differently?

As we are now into the first week of January of a new year, many resolutions have been made and I learned this week that in America, less than 10% of resolutions are kept; not a surprise.  We all make them whether we put words or energy to them don't we?  My wife and I were talking about this just this morning as we are encamped another day with our five grand kids in polar conditions so given that ambiance, my mind has begun to drill more deeply into the title question.
I am one that seems to reflect on history and also have this almost manic need to understand why things happen and why people do what people do be it good or not good.  I watched Dennis Rodman and his team of former NBA players in an interview with CNN this morning that turned contentious, rightly I believe, about being in North Korea. I was amazed to watch Rodman literally incapable of articulating with any clarity his thought and answer to a direct question.  Some will no doubt think or say I am being "racist" which has become a cop out term which is a default when someone does not agree with you, your skin color, your political leaning, etc.  
Someone posted on FB a couple of days ago, no doubt being sarcastic, about some of the commercials every thirty seconds during the football games of late about black only dating sites.  I saw the commercials and found myself with this strange crawling feeling about how our world has so changed. There is a Congressional Black Caucus; why is that?  There is the NAACP so I ask why not a NAAWP in our times of tolerance and equality?  As I grow another year older in March, I see my nation drawing farther and farther apart instead of embracing each other; so sad!  As I  write this with all five our my grandchildren hovering in front of the fireplace due to the cold, I look at my beautiful African grand daughter and see how happy she is with her family which is her brother and sister and two cousins and her Grammy and Poppy. We are family so I then question from the joy this child from Ethiopia has brought to our family, why can we as a nation find a footing of togetherness?
I am about to decide that politicians, pundits, lobbyists, media really do not wish a drawing toward each other in our society for in the division and divisiveness resides funding for causes and campaigns all at the expense of harmony and true peace.  I grew up in Alabama, saw the marches, watched the coverage of dogs and bombings in Birmingham, Selma, Mississippi, the Freedom Riders, the bus burnings, the Colored and White fountains and bathrooms, back door entrances for blacks to the same doctors and dentists white people got to go into through the front door and on and one.  I wish there was some way to erase all that but that will not happen I realize.  But to continue to throw gasoline of division in the twenty-first century using the hate and hurt of a generation ago just seems wrong to me.
In my own family in the three years we have had our African queen, Ms Hope, we have seen her bring smiles to tears, joy to hurts and warmth to anger time and time again. If one black African child can bring that to a family and to a wide band of families, why could that not be caused to happen in the macro population? Answer ... too many people do not want that to happen for residing at the core of division of political power, overflowing coffers for political gains that seek to foment the age old hatreds and shreds of division maintains the means of more and more anger.  Some will say I am a Southern boy that has lived in the North long enough to be "Yankeeized." for I have heard that and read that.  Perhaps true but fact is, I have found a way to truly embrace people with vast arrays of differences from me racially, ethnically, economically and spiritually.  When I read caustic or insinuative posts on FB that are hurtful to a person or to a race, it simply angers me and frustrates me for it is ignorance that resides at the core of such actions I believe.
So what will you do differently in the days ahead is not a rhetorical question but rather a fundamental probing of why we are granted yet another day on this earth.  For me I choose to be even more open to other opinions and seek to be less judgmental while at the same time seek to understand with more clarity what the Bible instructs us to be and to do.  Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth, BIBLE, is a great description of the Holy Bible.  I will close by restating the five step platform of my view of living a life today:
  1. If you do what you have always done, you will get what you have always gotten
  2. If you do not stand for something you will fall for anything
  3. If you do not know where you are going, that is exactly where you will end up
  4. Whatever you seek in this life, you will find
  5. Stay in the fight!
So my new year resolution begins with seeking to be clearer on God's Word and direction for my life, yearning to be a better example for my grand children for they are watching and listening in a games of Monopoly, commercials, reactions to football games; every thing I do they are watching; WOW!  I want to use the talents God has granted me to His Glory only and find great joy in using that talent.  I want to find an even deeper joy of life and living.
I will close by challenging you to do what I challenged a large group of jail inmates to do last week ... take a piece of paper and write yourself a letter than nobody will ever see but you. In that letter, write your biography and in that letter list the five most important hopes for your life. Go ahead, try it!