In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us live to make men free,
While God is marching on!


Thursday, October 29, 2009

I'll Fly Away

And so I shall, in just a few hours--to my family down in Florida, joined by my brother Steve and his wife Linda, from Norfolk. At least, that's where I plan to go (for a one-weekend mini-reunion), unless the Lord has other plans for me tomorrow morning. As much as I hope to return to Him someday, I hope that's not quite yet--I love my family too much, and this beautiful world too much, and there's still so much I need to say and do.

I HATE flying. Call me a wimp, a worrywart, a man of little faith. On top of all the aggravating (if necessary) security, the overcrowding, the delays, the cancellations, lost baggage, being marooned in strange places among stranger people, etc.--there's (for me) the constant reminder of my helplessness and mortality while suspended hundreds or thousands of feet in the air. Maybe I need that reminder, but it isn't pleasant. I always take God's Word with me on airplanes, and actually read it--and find great comfort in it.

So I will indeed fly away, but hopefully fly back here Monday afternoon. Till then, I'll be singing to myself that wonderful old gospel song I'll Fly Away--which has such a positive, joyful message about passing. Please share it with me! The version below is by the popular contemporary Christian group Jars of Clay--I couldn't find a good bluegrass rendition, which I prefer, but this one is clearly and compellingly sung, and has an uplifting video to go along (and the lyrics are set out below the video). God willing, I'll be back in a few days and we can all sing it together!

Some bright morning when this life is o'er, I'll fly away
To a land on God's celestial shore, I'll fly away

When the shadows of this life have gone, I'll fly away
Like a bird from these prison walls, I’ll fly, I'll fly away

I'll fly away, oh glory, I'll fly away (in the morning)
When I die, hallelujah by and by, I'll fly away

Oh how glad and happy when we meet, I'll fly away
No more cold, iron shackles on my feet, I'll fly away

I'll fly away, oh glory, I'll fly away
When I die, hallelujah by and by, I'll fly away

Just a few more weary days and then, I'll fly away
To a land where joy will never end, I'll fly away

I'll fly away, oh glory, I'll fly away (oh glory)
When I die, hallelujah by and by, I'll fly away

I'll fly away, oh glory, I'll fly away (oh glory)
When I die, hallelujay by and by, I'll fly away

I'll fly away.... I'll fly away..... I'll fly away

Thursday, October 22, 2009

My Shepherd Will Supply My Need

One of the most wonderful things in life is stumbling upon something inexpressibly beautiful and uplifting, that you didn't know before was there. This happened to me today at work while listening to some instrumental music on my iPod, from a CD collection of old English hymns set to strings and woodwinds. A selection came up entitled My Shepherd Shall Supply My Need, with which I wasn't familiar. Struck by the quiet, lilting melody, I went looking on YouTube for a choral rendition, and found a breathtaking one by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. I was moved to tears by the beautiful singing and video, the latter featuring lovely artwork depicting the Savior's life among us as well as the words to this incomparable hymn. Based on the Psalm 23, the text was written by the "Father of English Hymnody," Isaac Watts (1674-1748), and set to music in 1863 by William B. Bradbury (1816-1868) (composer of such popular old hymns as He Leadeth Me, Just As I Am, Without One Plea, and Sweet Hour of Prayer).

So relax, close your eyes (well, after you've watched the video), and let the comfort and hope of this precious work flow over you! (text appears beneath the video)

My Shepherd will supply my need:
Jehovah is His Name;
In pastures fresh He makes me feed,
Beside the living stream.
He brings my wandering spirit back
When I forsake His ways,
And leads me, for His mercy's sake,
In paths of truth and grace.

When I walk through the shades of death
Thy presence is my stay;
One word of Thy supporting breath
Drives all my fears away.
Thy hand, in sight of all my foes,
Doth still my table spread;
My cup with blessings overflows,
Thine oil anoints my head.

The sure provisions of my God
Attend me all my days;
O may Thy house be my abode,
And all my work be praise.
There would I find a settled rest,
While others go and come;
No more a stranger, nor a guest,
But like a child at home.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

When the Frost is on the Punkin

Yep, it's that time of year! Crisp, spicy air; expanses of red and gold leaves everywhere; Indian corn, squash, and pumpkins abounding; the pungent aroma and sweet taste of apple cider. Even the sun shines occasionally here in western New York! Nothing better captures the sights, sounds, and spirit of the fall season than the poem When the Frost is on the Punkin by American folk poet James Whitcomb Riley (1849-1912). So, to brighten your day, here's the next best thing to visiting a farm in harvest!

WHEN the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock,
And you hear the kyouck and gobble of the struttin' turkey-cock,
And the clackin' of the guineys, and the cluckin' of the hens,
And the rooster's hallylooyer as he tiptoes on the fence;
O, it's then's the times a feller is a-feelin' at his best,
With the risin' sun to greet him from a night of peaceful rest,
As he leaves the house, bareheaded, and goes out to feed the stock,
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock.

They's something kindo' harty-like about the atmusfere
When the heat of summer's over and the coolin' fall is here--
Of course we miss the flowers, and the blossums on the trees,
And the mumble of the hummin'-birds and buzzin' of the bees;
But the air's so appetizin'; and the landscape through the haze
Of a crisp and sunny morning of the airly autumn days
Is a pictur' that no painter has the colorin' to mock--
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock.

The husky, rusty russel of the tossels of the corn,
And the raspin' of the tangled leaves, as golden as the morn;
The stubble in the furries--kindo' lonesome-like, but still
A-preachin' sermuns to us of the barns they growed to fill;
The strawstack in the medder, and the reaper in the shed;
The hosses in theyr stalls below--the clover over-head!--
O, it sets my hart a-clickin' like the tickin' of a clock,
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock!

Then your apples all is gethered, and the ones a feller keeps
Is poured around the celler-floor in red and yeller heaps;
And your cider-makin' 's over, and your wimmern-folks is through
With their mince and apple-butter, and theyr souse and saussage, too! ...
I don't know how to tell it--but ef sich a thing could be
As the Angels wantin' boardin', and they'd call around on me--
I'd want to 'commodate 'em--all the whole-indurin' flock--
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

150th Anniversary, Harpers Ferry Raid

“Here before God, in the presence of these witnesses, I consecrate my life to the destruction of slavery.”

Thus declared John Brown (1800 – 1859), a local farmer and tanner, at an 1837 memorial service in Hudson, Ohio for Illinois abolitionist Elijah P. Lovejoy, who was killed when a mob destroyed the offices of his newspaper. Certainly no one present when Brown stood and uttered those words could have imagined how prophetic they were, or how devastating and decisive would be their consequences for America more than 20 years later.

This weekend marks the 150th anniversary of one of the most bizarre, yet important, events in American history: John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia), a picturesque little town at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers.

After sundown on the evening of Sunday, October 16, 1859, Brown led a group of 16 white and 5 black men (three of whom were left behind as a rear guard) across the Potomac River from Maryland, where they had been holed up in a remote farmhouse for weeks, and into the town of Harpers Ferry on the Virginia side. Their aim was to capture the thousands of weapons stored at the federal arsenal in Harpers Ferry, distribute them to legions of runaway slaves that they expected would flock to their banner, and commence a "long march" south through the Appalachian Mountains that would lure slaves away from surrounding plantations and shatter the South's "peculiar institution" once and for all. The raiders took control of the arsenal in the dead of night, almost unopposed--but from there, their fortunes declined rapidly. Brown allowed a train to pass through town, which alerted federal authorities down the line several hours later. By Monday morning October 17, local residents and militia had organized and began a siege of the small brick engine house at the armory where Brown and his remaining party and hostages had holed up. The area became a war zone and more and more of Brown's men, including two of his sons, were shot and killed. Monday afternoon a detachment of U.S. Marines was dispatched from Washington to Harpers Ferry under the command of Colonel Robert E. Lee of the 2nd U.S. Cavalry. After Brown refused a surrender demand on Tuesday morning by Lee's aide-de-camp Lt. J.E.B. Stuart, the Marines battered in the engine house door and violently overpowered the occupants, badly wounding Brown in the process. Brown was later taken to the court house in nearby Charles Town for trial, was found guilty of treason against the commonwealth of Virginia, and was hanged on December 2, 1859.

The whole country was electrified by the Harpers Ferry raid and Brown's subsequent trial and execution. Brown was lionized by northern abolitionists, and used his notoriety before the trial to issue a torrent of propaganda for the cause. After his execution Brown continued to inspire people in the north and was regarded by many as a prophet, a martyr, and a saint. Others, especially in the south, regarded him as a ruthless terrorist. The Harpers Ferry raid was what finally convinced many in the south that they could not remain in the Union and live secure from the depredations of abolitionists and rebellious slaves. Thus, historians now generally agree that through his raid Brown did more than any other single individual to spark the wave of secession and civil war that overtook the country less than two years later.

The whole story of John Brown and his campaign against slavery cannot be told or even summarized in a blog post. But it is among the most fascinating and momentous sagas in American history, and I highly recommend it to my readers. There are many misconceptions about Brown, mostly that he was crazy, a lifelong failure, and an obscure loner. It's probably true that he was mentally "imbalanced" to some degree; he was never able to provide his family with a secure or comfortable living (though he always tried), and he rarely let others' counsel get the better of his own. However, a careful study of his life suggests that Brown was not quite the twisted, hell-bent fanatic or loser that many people think he was. He loved and cherished his family. He was a man of sincere religious conviction who felt himself humbled by God and called by Him to a great work. He was also a man of indomitable energy, unshakable will, considerable organization and leadership skill, and great personal charisma. Several years before Harpers Ferry, he led volunteers in "Bleeding Kansas" confronting pro-slavery invaders from Missouri, and thereby helped secure the territory (and future state) for the free-soil cause (although part of that effort was his leadership of the Pottawatomie Massacre, in which five pro-slavery settlers were hacked to death). His work in Kansas propelled him to national prominence in the abolitionist movement, and he was closely acquainted with its most prominent leaders, including Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Gerrit Smith, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Theodore Parker, George Luther Stearns, Samuel Gridley Howe, and Franklin Sanborn (excluding Douglass and Garrison, these men comprised the "Secret Six," who provided financial and material assistance to Brown in his preparations for the Harpers Ferry raid, and risked prosecution for treason as a result). He met with Harriet Tubman in Chatham, Ontario (home to 2000 free and fugitive American slaves) in 1858 and helped draft a new constitution of government for the United States that included African Americans as full members of society. For more than two years before the Raid, he criss-crossed the country raising money and recruiting men for his venture. Brown's plans may have been grandiose and unrealistic, but his work to realize them hardly reflected an irrational, incompetent, or withdrawn individual.

After his death, Brown's wife took his body for burial to the family homestead in North Elba, New York, which Brown had bought from Gerrit Smith in 1849 with the intent to assist African American farmers that Smith had helped settle in that area. Several years ago Melany and I visited the place now known simply as "John Brown's Farm." Nestled in the Adirondack Mountains, it is beautiful and very peaceful. Over the years it has come to be the final resting place for many of the men who stood and fell with Brown at Harpers Ferry. At the Farm, one gets the impression that these men still stand together on the other shore.

"I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. . . "

Brown wrote these words on the day of his death. How sadly prophetic they were, for the Civil War he had helped touch off would claim two-thirds of a million lives before his dream of an America without slavery was finally realized.

To learn more about John Brown and the Raid on Harpers Ferry, read Stephen Oates' excellent To Purge This Land With Blood; a Biography of John Brown.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Zero Tolerance Gets a Zero

You've probably heard of the most recent horror stories:

A six-year-old first-grader and new Cub Scout, Zachary Christie of Newark, Delaware, was recently suspended from school and threatened with 45 days in the district’s reform school for violating the district's "zero tolerance policy" against weapons by taking to school a camp-style folding knife-fork-spoon to eat his lunch with. According to a story in the New York Times, school officials had no choice but to take the action because knives are banned by the district's code of conduct “regardless of possessor’s intent.”

In the same district two years ago, a third-grade girl was expelled for a year because her grandmother had sent a birthday cake to school, along with a knife to cut it. The teacher called the principal, but not before using the knife to cut and serve the cake.

And just a couple of weeks ago, 17-year-old Eagle Scout Matt Whalen of Lansingburgh High School in upstate New York was suspended from school for 20 days for keeping a 2-inch pocketknife, which his police chief grandfather had given him, locked in a survival kit in his car (another student had told a school employee that it was there). Reportedly, the initial suspension was for 5 days but was then lengthened to 20 in order to be "consistent" with the penalty imposed in other cases for violation of the school's "zero tolerance policy" against weapons on school grounds. The young man has had to be tutored at home during the suspension, and fears that the blot on his record will prevent his admission to West Point after graduation.

Other incidents stretching back more than a decade include:
LONGMONT, CO (April, 1999) -- A 10-year-old student was expelled when she turned in the small cutting knife her mother had placed in her lunchbox to cut her apple. (USA TODAY)

ALEXANDRIA, LA -- A second-grader was expelled for bringing her grandfather's gold-plated pocket watch to school because the watch had a tiny knife attached. (USA TODAY)

NEWPORT NEWS, VA(October, 1996) -- A kindergartner was suspended for bringing a beeper from home and showing it to classmates during a field trip. (CNN)

FAIRBORN, OH (October, 1996) -- A 13-year-old honor student was suspended from school for 10 days for accepting two Midol tablets from a classmate. (CNN)

FORT MYERS, Fla. (May, 2001) -- An 18-year-old senior and National Merit Scholar was suspended and charged with a felony count of possessing a weapon when a kitchen knife was found on the floor of her car while she was in class. (FOX NEWS)
Check here and here for more lists of zero-tolerance outrages.

Originally enacted in the mid-1990s in response to notorious incidents of school violence, such as the Columbine High School massacre, had the noble purpose of preventing such incidents and keeping students safe. But a problem was soon perceived. According to the Times story:
Education experts say that zero-tolerance policies initially allowed authorities more leeway in punishing students, but were applied in a discriminatory fashion. Many studies indicate that African-Americans were several times more likely to be suspended or expelled than other students for the same offenses. “The result of those studies is that more school districts have removed discretion in applying the disciplinary policies to avoid criticism of being biased,” said Ronnie Casella, an associate professor of education at Central Connecticut State University . . .
Ah, there's the rub! If school officials are allowed to use judgment and discretion, some students might be subjected to undue harshness. The obvious solution is to remove any opportunity for judgment and discretion, so that all students are equally subject to undue harshness--right?

But the absurdity of "zero tolerance" goes even deeper than that. It's part of the whole statist mindset that the best, the only, solution to any problem is overwhelming official force. Criminalize everything. Show everyone within your jurisdiction that they are at your absolute mercy, and terrify them into submission. No student, no citizen, is any less suspect than another--they're all presumed miscreants who must be cowed and controlled for the greater good of whatever community you preside over. This attitude is related to the "Nanny State" malignancy I recently explored, in which government agencies invoke vague and overbroad "licensing" laws to bully ordinary citizens and take control of essentially private matters like routine child care, in the name of protecting children and society from "irresponsible" people (i.e., anyone who doesn't have a state license). That children themselves might be damaged by the mindless enforcement of such policies is beyond acknowledgment by their proponents, since such policies are ostensibly intended to protect children.

As one commentator on the Zach Christie case has observed:
Zero-tolerance rules were created specifically to not allow common sense to come into play. They are inflexible by design and proponents argue that this is exactly how it is supposed to work. Punishing students for innocent mistakes acts as a deterrent to those who might have more nefarious ideas.
As anyone of much life experience knows, of course--and quite aside from the cruelty and uselessness of inflicting severe punishment for innocuous or well-meaning behavior--a child actually bent on harming another with a real weapon isn't going to be deterred by threats of suspension or expulsion from school. Only the innocent are likely to suffer much in this Draconian regime.

Given widespread criticism of zero-tolerance policies by groups as diverse as the American Bar Association, the American Psychological Association, the National Education Association, and the CATO Institute--not to mention the embarrassing publicity that their ruthless enforcement often produces--one might think that state legislatures and school officials would all be hurrying to amend such provisions and allow the responsible personnel more room for common-sense judgment and sound discretion in dealing with students who have things that might hurt themselves or others on school grounds. But as yet there doesn't seem to be a tidal wave in this direction. Why not?

Perhaps it's because many school officials don't want to use common-sense judgment and discretion. That's the way school problems were handled in the old days, before education became a "science" for which advanced university degrees were required. Besides, "common sense" implies being held to an informal and somewhat subjective (though commonly recognized and held) standard that the officials themselves didn't write. "Judgment" and "discretion" involve the making of often difficult choices according to such external moral and ethical conventions, which may leave one's decision exposed to question or challenge as "discriminatory," or otherwise incorrect. Zero tolerance protects the official's hindquarters by allowing the defense of "I was just following orders"--or in this case, "the rules." In other words, it enables the official to avoid all personal responsibility while maximizing his or her power.

Not all school personnel would eschew being able to exercise more responsibility and common sense in school disciplinary matters, but enough probably fear such exposure that the pace of reform may be very slow and uneven. A web site set up by Zachary Christie's mother states that following publicity about his case, the local school board voted unanimously to amend the district's Code of Conduct for the 2009-2010 school year to allow individual schools and school administrators more discretion when deciding disciplinary actions for students in kindergarten and first grade. That's a positive beginning, but it leaves all older students at the mercy of "zero-tolerance" rules. If you have children in elementary, middle, or high school, it would be wise to familiarize yourself with the school's policies before trouble happens, and press officials for any necessary changes to make sure that your children are governed by people who can and will exercise common sense and good judgment, rather than arbitrary power.

One last thing: I don't think we should be conditioning our children to regard as "normal" or beneficial an environment governed by arbitrary and absolute power. If we want them to learn how to do justice in their own lives, now and when they're grown, they need to see it modeled by their teachers and school officials. "Zero tolerance," as applied in cases like Zach Christie's and Matt Whalen's, makes that impossible.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Peace At Any Prize

I know the world is now awash in commentary on the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to President Obama this past Friday. And no wonder--when was the last time something so illogical, so improbable, and so far beyond belief happened on the world stage? Even so, I'd like to add my two cents' worth to posterity and share a few thoughts on this surreal and singular event.

When I first heard that the President had been awarded the Peace Prize, I thought it was a joke. So, apparently, did some White House aides ("It's not April 1, is it?"). But upon checking the report I found that it was all too true--too awfully, pathetically true. If it weren't, the whole affair would make a hilarious skit on Saturday Night Live. Had this happened to George W. Bush instead of Barack Obama, a whole new comedy industry would be spun out of this one incident (but since it happened to the entertainment industry's darling, it won't be).

My incredulity first centered on the the Nobel Committee's action in awarding its most prestigious prize to a national executive who hasn't been in office long enough--less than nine months--to have had even a chance to accomplish anything concrete or enduring for peace. He has had (arguably good) ideas and has launched initiatives, but these are just starting to get off the ground, if they ever really do--we'll have to wait and see. Much time and work lies ahead before anyone is in a position to assess whether the President's plans were wise and his actions more likely to produce good than harm. So far, all one can really credit the President with is (a) not being George W. Bush and (b) resolving to go in different directions than Bush did. But to say that that's enough to earn the world's most prestigious international award is ludicrous on its face, and cheapens the honor to the point of worthlessness. Why did Mother Teresa bother to spend all those agonizing years in the slums of Calcutta, toiling over the world's most wretched, when the mere idea and intent to do so apparently would have been enough to merit the Nobel Peace Prize (as if she would have cared)? The Nobel Committee took a Peace Prize already regarded by many as debased (Yasir Arafat) and corrupted (Al Gore), and turned it into a mere laughingstock. What a sad fate for something once viewed as among humanity's highest honors, and what an insult to everyone who actually accomplished something toward world peace.

What was even more astounding to me was the President's decision to participate in this charade by accepting the Prize. Given that the deadline for Peace Prize nominations is February 1--meaning that the President was nominated after only 11 days in office--the patent absurdity of the award should have been as obvious to the President and his advisers, as it was to observers here and even overseas. Had he any sense of the proper dignity of his office, the President could have noted the incompleteness of his work for peace, thanked the Nobel Committee for its vote of confidence in his administration and its endorsement of his new directions in policy, and gracefully declined to accept the Prize in deference to others equally or more deserving of it at this time. In doing so, he could have reaped all the political benefit of the award while distancing himself from the presumptuousness of its bestowal upon him. He would have emerged as a monument to chivalry and immeasurably enhanced his stature and moral authority. By accepting the tainted award and the million-and-a-half dollars that go along with it (he'll give that to charity, but of course charities of his choice--and will he claim the tax benefits of doing so?), he instead reinforces the impression so many people have of him as a self-glorifying narcissist. Like his last-minute, comic-opera grandstanding before the International Olympic Committee a few days ago, he seems to believe and bask in his own personality cult, and is determined to feed it. I don't like feeling this way about the President of my country, but he never misses an opportunity to dispel those feelings.

More distressing yet is the impression that the Peace Prize was extended to the President, and that he will accept it as such, "on credit"--as an inducement to continue pursuing policies favored by the Nobel Committee and its internationalist, socialist, global-warming-alarmist fellow travelers. Can President Obama now be trusted to make hard choices to protect American and free-world interests if they happen to conflict with the preferences of the United Nations or the Nobel Committee? Or will he be tempted to sacrifice our security, freedom, and well-being on the altar of his own glory and the demands of foreign interests jealous of our blessings and determined to end them?

If he had only declined this award, the President could have avoided feeding such suspicions. Now, they'll haunt him and his policies. I believe that Mr. Nobel's Prize, like Mr. Nobel's dynamite, will only explode in his face.

UPDATE Oct. 12, 2009 - Obama fails to win Nobel prize in economics

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Abide With Me, 'Tis Eventide

It's been far too long since I posted anything here--over a week! I have been working on another in-depth post on religious expression in the public schools, but need more time to lay my thoughts out properly. In the meantime, I want to share with my readers another of my dearest treasures--a beautiful hymn!

Three weeks ago today I presented Abide With Me, a hymn especially beloved in the United Kingdom. Tonight, I'd like to present this beautiful rendition of a very similar work, Abide With Me, Tis Eventide by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The text was written in 1884 by American minister M. Lowrie Hofford (1825-1888), and was set to music composed by Harrison Millard (1829-1895). The two hymns both express how very much we need the Lord as a guide, a comfort, and a protector every hour of every day--and how we're filled with light and confidence when that closeness is achieved. Even the music to both hymns is quiet and poignant.

So, if you need a balm for your soul tonight, here it is! The text follows the video below.

Abide with me, 'tis eventide!
The day is past and gone;
The shadows of the evening fall;
The night is coming on!
Within my heart a welcome Guest,
Within my home abide.

O Savior, stay this night with me;
Behold, 'tis eventide!
O Savior, stay this night with me;
Behold, 'tis eventide!

Abide with me, 'tis eventide!
Thy walk today with me
Has made my heart within me burn,
As I communed with Thee.
Thy earnest words have filled my soul
And kept me near Thy side.

O Savior, stay this night with me;
Behold, 'tis eventide!
O Savior, stay this night with me;
Behold, 'tis eventide!

Abide with me, 'tis eventide!
And lone will be the night,
If I cannot commune with Thee,
Nor find in Thee my light.
The darkness of the world, I fear,
Would in my home abide.

O Savior, stay this night with me;
Behold, 'tis eventide!
O Savior, stay this night with me;
Behold, 'tis eventide!