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!


Sunday, February 28, 2010

Winter Wonderland

For he saith to the snow, Be thou on the earth . . . ~ Job 37:6

And so it was--by the foot! This weekend saw the biggest one-storm snowfall total in the Rochester area in three years: depending on your precise location, 12 to 18 inches (I think we had about 16 inches in Brockport), and more in the hills. Of course, that isn't nearly what our neighbors to the . . . south have had in the last few weeks! Go figure. And my wife Melany is talking about someday moving south to avoid all the snow! She might want to rethink that one.

Anyway, once it stopped falling and blowing around, and we were able to drive Bigfoot up and down the driveway a few times, the snow made for some beautiful pictures. The one below was taken beneath a canopy of snow-covered branches on the tree that overhangs our driveway, just in front of the garage.

And here's a closeup of the fascinating lattice-work formed by those branches:

There is a race that suffers in winter far more than we do: the deer. They're a more common presence in these parts than rabbits. The woods, and even the nearby college campus, seem to be teeming with them. Backyards adjoining wooded areas are regarded by them as mere extensions of their feeding grounds. It's like living amidst herds of wild horses galloping about everywhere.

How do animals that big run so fast through the thickly tangled undergrowth? I've seen them leap over fallen trees and hang almost motionless in midair. Many people consider them pests, and they can be a danger running across roads or, every once in a while, into a house. I, however, look on them as beautiful, gentle creatures just trying to survive and provide for their children in a difficult world. It's a breathtaking delight when they wander into our back yard and come right up to our house to nibble on the bushes.

I guess I should be angry about the damage they sometimes do--few things are uglier than denuded bushes in the springtime around one's house--but I can't help feeling sorry for these noble animals. It's sad to see them pawing through the snow on a frigid, windswept day trying to find a few dead leaves or sticks to eat.

Just this afternoon Melany and I watched a young doe struggle from the woods through heavy, wet snow up to her shoulders to reach a bare spot under a pair of pine trees in our back yard. There once was a blanket of dry leaves and small branches under there, left over from fall raking, but the deer pretty thoroughly consumed that before this one arrived. Then she forlornly dragged herself back through the snow and into the woods. Melany had me take a panful of cracked corn out to the trees after she left, in hopes that she and her fellows could reach it again. Within the hour, they were back!

Is this not an allegory for all life in this world, including our own? The deer have only the generosity and providence of God to sustain them, and humbly endure whatever challenges come their way. We "higher" creatures, on the other hand, take great pride in our own ingenuity, and many dismiss the whole idea of God as unnecessary and irrelevant to their lives. That is, until some disaster strikes, like one of the earthquakes that have recently devastated Haiti and Chile. Then they rend their garments and moan in sorrow, or even in anger at God (whom they just yesterday forgot or disdained) for the "injustice" of it all. Perhaps we should be more mindful of the wild creatures with whom He's blessed our lives, and remember from Whom we really receive life and all our bounty.
These wait all upon thee; that thou mayest give them their meat in due season.

That thou givest them they gather: thou openest thine hand, they are filled with good.

Thou hidest thy face, they are troubled: thou takest away their breath, they die, and return to their dust.

Thou sendest forth thy spirit, they are created: and thou renewest the face of the earth.

Psalm 104:27-30
Special thanks to my daughter Donna for taking the stunning picture above and the "chow line" photo above that, while she was here visiting in January!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

We Will Have a King Over Us!

I did something last weekend that I haven't done in almost 40 years: buy a Bible. For many years I relied on the big, hardbound Scofield Reference Bible that I bought in high school, until (and beyond) the point that it was literally falling apart. During most of those years I wasn't much of a Scripture reader; I had my favorite passages, but for the most part used the Bible like people use dictionaries. Some time during the 1990s my wife Melany gave me her softcover Bible, which was a perfect size and weight for carrying about, albeit the print was rather small. I started really reading the Scriptures again, and had this volume all marked up with the passages that most impressed me--until I carelessly left it in a rental car when we went out to Idaho in 2003 for my daughter's wedding. My elder son Robert then gave me a Bible he no longer used. I started over and had that one nicely marked up, and still have it, thank goodness. It has larger print, but is kind of chunky and heavy, and in the last couple of years I fell out of the habit of carrying it with me to work. So, I recently decided to find a Bible for my birthday (55 this week) that has easily readable print and is a good size and weight for carrying. Melany and I dropped into a Christian bookstore last Friday, and I found one! I felt like a kid who's just been given the key to a candy store! Only this is REAL food, for the soul--and infinitely more satisfying than anything one could put in his mouth. There is more wisdom in this book than a human being could digest in a hundred lifetimes--and especially in the King James Version (in my humble opinion), the most beautiful poetry and most moving prose ever written. No wonder it's the foundation of all English literature!

So you're wondering what all this has to do with the title of this post. Well, the first opportunity I had to spend some real time with my new "toy," and not sure exactly where to start reading, I randomly stuck my finger into the pages and just commenced. Where I happened to wade in was 1 Samuel, ch. 8. What a sobering place to begin! I'll set out the chapter in full below--with the most telling portion in bold--as the Word itself is far more effective than any summary I could give:
[1] And it came to pass, when Samuel was old, that he made his sons judges over Israel.
[2] Now the name of his firstborn was Joel; and the name of his second, Abiah: they were judges in Beersheba.
[3] And his sons walked not in his ways, but turned aside after lucre, and took bribes, and perverted judgment.
[4] Then all the elders of Israel gathered themselves together, and came to Samuel unto Ramah,
[5] And said unto him, Behold, thou art old, and thy sons walk not in thy ways: now make us a king to judge us like all the nations.
[6] But the thing displeased Samuel, when they said, Give us a king to judge us. And Samuel prayed unto the Lord.
[7] And the Lord said unto Samuel, Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee: for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them.
[8] According to all the works which they have done since the day that I brought them up out of Egypt even unto this day, wherewith they have forsaken me, and served other gods, so do they also unto thee.
[9] Now therefore hearken unto their voice: howbeit yet protest solemnly unto them, and shew them the manner of the king that shall reign over them.
[10] And Samuel told all the words of the Lord unto the people that asked of him a king.
[11] And he said, This will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you: He will take your sons, and appoint them for himself, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and some shall run before his chariots.
[12] And he will appoint him captains over thousands, and captains over fifties; and will set them to ear his ground, and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and instruments of his chariots.
[13] And he will take your daughters to be confectionaries, and to be cooks, and to be bakers.
[14] And he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your oliveyards, even the best of them, and give them to his servants.
[15] And he will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give to his officers, and to his servants.
[16] And he will take your menservants, and your maidservants, and your goodliest young men, and your asses, and put them to his work.
[17] He will take the tenth of your sheep: and ye shall be his servants.
[18] And ye shall cry out in that day because of your king which ye shall have chosen you; and the Lord will not hear you in that day.
[19] Nevertheless the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel; and they said, Nay; but we will have a king over us;
[20] That we also may be like all the nations; and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles.
The people of Israel were discouraged with the corruption into which their Judges--men theretofore distinguished by their godliness and wisdom--had lately fallen. They imagined that having a hereditary kingship like other countries would bring them greater happiness and glory. So, they appealed to the last Judge, the prophet Samuel, to name a King to rule them. Samuel knew that this would displease God and eventually lead to much misery for the people, and asked God what he should do. God confirmed that the Israelites were rejecting His leadership in favor of an earthly monarchy, but told Samuel to give them what they wished for anyway, after making clear to them the kind of government they could expect from a king.

Might God and Samuel have a message here for our time, too? What happened in the months leading up to the 2008 Presidential election, and what have we seen since? Didn't millions of Americans tire of the Republican establishment's bankrupt (and largely corrupt) leadership, and find themselves captivated by the charismatic young man with the regal voice, hosts of acolytes, and aura of destiny? Weren't they yearning for the maximum government of a "king" (like they have in Europe, Venezuela, China, and elsewhere) who would "fight their battles" and fix all their problems for them? And in the little more than a year since his coronation, hasn't King Barack I done what a few sage observers warned he would do--take far more than a tenth of our wealth, given it to legions of government workers and his political followers, and done everything he could think of to make us all his servants? (he's certainly put enough "asses" to his work in Washington!)

As the old saying goes, "Be careful what you wish for--you just might get it." Now that we've gotten it, will God turn a deaf ear, as Samuel warned, to our cries for deliverance from the oppression we've brought upon ourselves? Stay tuned . . .

Saturday, February 13, 2010

High Flight

Many of you are probably too young to remember when television programming ceased at 1 o'clock in the morning (on some stations, midnight), and didn't resume till 6 a.m. or later. That was way back in the mid-1960s before cable television, when there were only three broadcast networks rather than hundreds of 24-hour channels, and programming was (or at least seemed to be) dominated by local stations and their markets. People who worked at TV stations in those days actually quit work at night and went home to bed! A few minutes before the screen and sound went to plain static, you'd see a short film clip of a Boy Scout or soldier lowering the flag while the Star Spangled Banner played in the background. And in many local areas, one more thing: a sonorous voice reading the beautiful poem High Flight, as a sleek fighter aircraft banked and soared through the clouds. The few times I saw this as a lad, having stayed up late babysitting when my parents were out or snuck back to the living room to watch TV after everyone else had gone to bed (OK, I confess), I was always awestruck by it.

I hadn't seen or thought about that in many, many years, until I stumbled upon a copy of the film clip on YouTube the other night while looking for something else. And it touch me deeply again. Just reading the poem is a moving experience:

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of—wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air....

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark nor even eagle flew—
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

There is a sad, moving story behind the poem, too. It was written by John Gillespie Magee, Jr., who was born in Shanghai, China in 1922 to an American father and a British mother who worked as Anglican missionaries. His father came from a wealthy Pittsburgh family and his mother from Suffolk, England. John, Jr.'s early years were spent in China with his parents; from age 9 through 17 he attended school in England, graduating from the Rugby School in 1939. He earned a scholarship to Yale University—where his father was then a chaplain—in July 1940, but did not enroll, choosing instead to enlist in the Royal Canadian Air Force in October of that year, with England the the German Luftwaffe then being locked in the Battle of Britain. Shortly after being awarded his wings in June 1941 and being promoted to Pilot Officer, Magee was sent to Britain and to train on one of the most famous aircraft of WWII, the Supermarine Spitfire. It was while in that training that Magee wrote High Flight, while making his seventh flight in a Spitfire to an altitude of 33,000 feet. He completed the poem soon after landing and sent it home to his parents with a letter dated September 3rd, 1941.

Only three months later, while flying a Spitfire on a training mission, John was involved in a mid-air collision with another aircraft over the village of Roxholm, Lincolnshire, and died on impact with the ground. On his grave in England are inscribed the first and last lines from his poem: Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth -- Put out my hand and touched the Face of God. John had written several other beautiful poems during his brief military career, which he sent home to his parents.

Supermarine Spitfire

Today High Flight serves as the official poem of the Canadian Forces Air Command and the Royal Air Force, and it is required to be recited by memory by fourth class cadets (freshmen) at the United States Air Force Academy, where it is also depicted in its Field House. An excellent web site devoted to Magee and High Flight can be found here.

And now what you've all been waiting for: the High Flight film clip that closed the broadcasting day for television stations across America back in the 1960s! This film features the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter interceptor, one of the most beautiful aircraft ever produced (in my humble opinion), and one of my all-time favorites!

But wait--there's more! I didn't realize that later versions of High Flight were made with more advanced aircraft, also used at signoff until TV stations stopped signing off altogether. Here's one featuring another of my favorite aircraft, the Northrop F-5E/F Tiger -- simple and graceful!

Wouldn't it be wonderful if one could again watch television, go to the movies, or otherwise regularly see things in the media that acknowledged and honored God? These films, and the fact that they were once aired to all viewers every day as a matter of course, reflect a little bit of what our country used to be. And what of John Magee, Jr.? Do we still have young people like him who could fly a fast aircraft, defend our country, and write immortal poetry all at the same time? I'm sure there are more than a few, in our service academies and in the field. God bless and protect them, and bring forth their poetry in time to inspire the rest of us to soar as high as did Pilot Officer Magee.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Quarterback for Life

That was quite a Super Bowl game the other night, wasn't it? Competitive, frequent lead changes, even interesting side-stories like the New Orleans Saints' quarterback (Drew Brees) who played college ball in Indiana (Purdue University), while the Indianapolis Colts' quarterback (Payton Manning) grew up in New Orleans.

Yet, perhaps the most significant moment of the evening didn't happen on the field, but on your TV screen during a "commercial" break. And quite possibly you missed it completely, even if you were watching the commercials. I'm talking about the "Celebrate Life" ad sponsored by Focus on the Family (FOTF) and featuring Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Tim Tebow and his mother Pam. For weeks the Tebows and CBS were excoriated by the "pro-choice" lobby--Planned Parenthood and its allies, "feminist" activists, "progressive" Democrats, mainstream media and academic types, a legion of "comedians," and even some athletes--for having the audacity (only liberals can have audacity, right?) to present an advertisement promoting life during the telecast of a major sports event. Outrageous! It went without saying that the Tebows and Focus on the Family are a gaggle of Neanderthal bigots who have no right to air such socially irresponsible ideas in public. What was even more inexcusable was that a once-reliably-liberal major television network--the home of Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, and Katy Couric, for crying out loud!--would give (well, sell, for 2.5 million dollars) them a platform from which to present those pernicious ideas in front of impressionable women, a few of whom might see the ad, go to the FOTF web site, read what it had to say about family and reproductive issues, and discover that "choice" actually includes the option to give birth. Such behavior threatened the "right" of women everywhere to a "safe, legal abortion," and would thereby force them back into the clutches of coathanger abortionists! At least one "feminist" attorney has threatened to sue CBS for misleading advertising.

Having heard that the ad was going to air during the first quarter of Sunday's game, I kept my eyes peeled--and almost missed it anyway. If you missed the ad, here it is:

If you're saying to yourself "is that all there is?", so did I. Only 30 seconds long, and the word "abortion" is nowhere to be found in it. About all the ad consisted of was Pam Tebow reflecting on how she "almost lost" Tim and giving thanks that he's still around, and Tim pretending to tackle her and the two of them hugging. And the words "Celebrate Family. Celebrate Life" under the FOTF web site address. Pretty shrill and divisive, eh? I've seen more provocative commercials for Cheerios.

CBS certainly needed and wanted the millions that were ponied up for the brief time the ad ran, but also took an enormous risk that it would alienate a substantial portion of its viewership--and struck a blow for free speech by doing so (for which I commend them). If "pro-choice" advocates came up with the money to buy some air time and presented a similarly sensitive, restrained ad, I'd have no objection, disagree with their position though I might. It would be healthy indeed for our polity if opposing points of view on controversial subjects could be aired in this way on major networks.

That so many influential people sought, and apparently still seek, to stifle such debate is shameful. I guarantee you that some of them (the older ones, anyway) were out on the streets back in the late 60s marching with their hippie friends for freedom of speech. I guess only they have that freedom. Where were the howls of protest from feminist groups at the sexually explicit, female-exploiting commercials for (which shocked and disgusted me)? Where were the screams of outrage from socialists and pacifists at the dozens of Super Bowl commercials that celebrate crass materialism and violence? It would appear that to them, sexual license and irresponsibility are the most sacrosanct all values--to the point not only of snuffing out the lives of helpless children, but denying freedom of speech to any and all people who espouse a different view.

Drew Brees and Payton Manning will be great quarterbacks for years to come. Right now I'm most thankful for Tim Tebow, Quarterback for Life, and the courageous lady who dared to bring him into this world. Every woman who makes that choice should be in a Hall of Fame somewhere!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Movie Review: The Blind Side

I suppose this is a late review for a movie that's been in theaters for more than two months, but the Oscars are coming and we just got around to seeing it this past weekend: The Blind Side, starring Sandra Bullock. If you haven't yet seen it, this is an excellent movie and well worth the time and admission!

The film presents the story of Michael Oher (as played by Quinton Aaron), a physically immense but shy and depressed black teenager from "the projects," drifting in and out of foster families and homelessness in Memphis, Tennessee. A man with whom he's living gets him admitted to a private Christian high school as an athletic prospect, but he's withdrawn and dysfunctional in classes and has nowhere to go at night. An affluent white family, Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy and their two children, see him wandering on campus one evening and take him into their home so he has a place to stay. Michael seems grateful but unsure what to make of the Tuohys' generosity, and is painfully awkward at school and in the Tuohys' home.

The "temporary" arrangement grows more permanent as the Tuohy parents and children try to penetrate Michael's abiding sadness, and help him feel loved and accepted in their family. Leigh Anne decides that the only way to secure their relationship is for her and Sean to become Michael's legal guardians, which launches Leigh Anne on a harrowing journey through the family protection bureaucracy, into the drug- and violence-infested world of the projects from which Michael came, and eventually to the squalid apartment of his drug-addicted mother. The scene in which the two women meet and try to understand each other is exceedingly touching.

The other great challenge the Tuohys face is helping Michael to feel capable in school and to find his hidden talents. He's helped by the Tuohy children and by a caring, determined woman (played by Kathy Bates) whom they hire to tutor the boy. At first, Michael's progress on the football field is as slow as in the classroom, but his confidence builds with his own persistence and that of the Tuohy family--spearheaded by the salty-tongued, irrepressible Leigh Anne, who shows teachers and coaches how they need to work with him to bring out his best.

And out it eventually comes, in football and (if just barely) in academics. Michael becomes a highly-recruited college football candidate--a source of great pride for him and his family, as well of the film's climactic challenge when NCAA investigators shake his confidence in the family by suggesting that the Tuohys' objective all along was only to prep him for attendance at their alma mater, the University of Mississippi. Michael wanders back to his old "home" in the projects to find his mother and himself, in the mirror of his past--and makes a decision with explosive, but positive, consequences.

That's the central point of the film: Michael's struggle to find out who he really was and could be. What the Tuohy family gave him was not just a safe and comfortable home, help with school, or coaching at football--but a chance to trust others, to believe in himself, and to be everything that God enabled him to be. The movie also highlights the miracles that can be wrought by faith and unconditional love. Some have criticized the film as too "feel-good," avoiding the tension and conflicts that they suppose "must" have existed between the Tuohy spouses and children, and between them and Michael. Probably, only the Tuohys and Michael Oher will ever know that full story. But the filmmakers chose to focus on Michael's inner struggles--can I trust these people? why are they doing this? how can I fit into this white, wealthy world? don't I really belong back where I came from? what am I good for? --and how he surmounted those challenges with the Tuohys' help. Indeed, it will be ironic if Sandra Bullock wins an Oscar for her performance, because The Blind Side is at least as much about Michael Oher as it is about Leigh Anne Tuohy.

Near the climax of the film, it develops that Michael can raise his high school GPA high enough to qualify for an athletic scholarship only by writing a good essay for his English class. He chooses to write about Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poem The Charge of the Light Brigade, which explores how men can valiantly charge into mortal danger prompted even by a leader's mistake:
Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
'Forward, the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns' he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

'Forward, the Light Brigade!'
Was there a man dismay'd?
Not tho' the soldiers knew
Someone had blunder'd:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
(read the entire poem here)
Sean Tuohy explains the poem to Michael as a metaphor for the game of football, with the players as the cavalry and the coaches as the generals making the wrong decision and "dooming" them--and still they play their best, together. This prompts a remarkable essay by Michael highlighting the meaning of courage and honor:
Courage is a hard thing to figure. You can have courage based on a dumb idea or a mistake, but you’re not supposed to question adults, or your coach, or your teacher because they make the rules. Maybe they know best but maybe they don’t.

It all depends on who you are, where you come from. Didn’t at least one of the six hundred guys think about giving up and joining with the other side? I mean, Valley of Death, that’s pretty salty stuff.

That’s why courage is tricky. Should you always do what others tell you to do? Sometimes you might not even know why you’re doing something. I mean, any fool can have courage.

But honor, that’s the real reason you either do something or you don’t. It’s who you want to be. If you die trying for something important then you have both honor and courage and that’s pretty good.

I think that’s what the writer was saying; that you should try for courage and hope for honor. And maybe even pray that the people telling you what to do have some, too.
In the end, Michael Oher achieved distinction (All-American at Ole Miss and being drafted in the first round by the NFL Baltimore Ravens) through his own courage and honor--qualities that even the Tuohy couldn't give him, though they showed him what they meant, and that he was thoroughly capable of them.

Pictured above are the real Sean, Michael, and Leigh Anne at Ole Miss.
The Blind Side isn't all serious; in fact, it's bursting with humor--the gentle, humane sort. Where else can you see a good half-dozen real college football head coaches, including Lou Holtz and Nick Saban, stumbling all over each other (literally) in pursuit of the same recruit and being lectured to by a middle-school kid (Michael's diminutive "brother" S.J. Tuohy) and a middle-aged woman? But you'll also come away with damp eyes and a deeper understanding of how people can transform their own lives and help others do so, too.