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!


Monday, December 26, 2011

Adios, Mi Querido Hijo

This has turned out to be one of the most bittersweet (more sweet than bitter, really) Christmas holidays I've ever had. As I write, our youngest son Colin and my wife Melany are on the road somewhere in Ohio or Kentucky, headed for Colin's new job as a box office manager at the Performing Arts Center at Lee College in Baytown, Texas, just across Galveston Bay from Houston (according to its official web site, Baytown's motto is "Where oil and water really do mix!"). I stayed behind to mind the fort and our critters (one big dog and one small cat), and so Colin could get into the car everything he has and needs to start out on his own. It's incredibly quiet here, and rather (all right, very) lonesome. I miss Colin and Melany very much already--and they've only been gone a few hours!

Less than a month ago Colin casually responded to an ad for this job, hardly imagining that it would lead almost immediately to an in-person interview and then an offer. Work in his field (arts administration) being so hard to come by in this part of the country, especially for someone just out of college, that Colin felt he couldn't let the opportunity go by. The sudden and dramatic change of life for him and for us is a daunting challenge indeed.

It's always hard for a parent to "let go" so a child can find his or her own way, especially when the way takes the child far from home into unknown territory. Home is familiar and welcoming and safe (or so we try to make it), but who knows what threats lurk elsewhere? Our natural desire and habit is to protect our children and provide for their happiness as best we know how. So, when the time comes that the needs and opportunities--and dangers--of adulthood finally call the child away from the hearth, we are torn with anxiety, even dread. Yet, we must consciously pry our own fingers from our child's arm and let him go along life's road on his own, where his dreams and his best judgment take him. We can only pray for his well-being, and sometimes carefully and gently offer whatever advice we might have from the well of our own learning and experience. We mustn't project our own fears onto him, nor presume to make for him the decisions that rightfully, and prudently, he should make for himself, whatever the consequences. This is the only way for the child to learn responsibility, the sine qua non of adulthood. Now we must only encourage and offer help--but not "bail out"--if and when things go awry, and even if life leads them to endure suffering for a time (which we will inevitably share). It's perhaps the last, perhaps most important lesson we can teach our children: how to be free. That's the only way our children can flower and be all that God intended and enabled them to be. And it might be the most important lesson that we, as parents, can teach ourselves.

Last night, before retiring for perhaps the last time as a permanent resident under our roof, Colin wrote a Facebook "thank you note" to his family and friends here in New York and elsewhere. I chanced to read it a short time later, before retiring myself--and then had trouble falling asleep for the tears in my eyes. Colin wrote that he has "an amazing family that has provided me with opportunity, love, shelter and support at all times, without hesitation, the blink of an eye, or a thought of doing otherwise." I can't express what that means to us as his parents (and the same goes for his brother and sister, I'm sure). All I can say is that Colin is an amazing son and as fine a young man as there's ever been. Of course, we feel much the same way about all our children, but perhaps this moment is more poignant because Colin is the last to fly our "nest" and leave Melany and I entirely "on our own." Since he returned home from college this past May, we've been blessed to get to know him in an especially deep and personal way. We've delighted in the company of a sensitive and thoughtful person always ready to discuss (and sometimes cross swords on) any topic that occurs to us, from religion and politics to movies and food. His sense of humor is matchless! Even our disagreements on things are mutually respectful and loving. Harmony and love within our family is something that Melany and I have prayed for constantly over the years, and God has granted us this fondest wish!

Sometimes it's easier for me to understand and accept things by putting them into a historical context. In this case, I'm reminded of the countless times during the 19th century when young people packed wagons (or sometimes just bags) with all they had, kissed their grieving parents goodbye, and set off on a road or down a river toward a new beginning in the West. All knew that the risks were at least as great as the opportunities. But what if their parents had successfully discouraged all these young pioneers from braving the dangers of the journey? Humanity might never have known the blessings that this great country eventually brought them. So, I'm persuaded that God must have the most marvelous plans for Colin, to lead him that far away into such an alien world as Texas!

May he bless you abundantly each and every day, son, and fill your life with joy (and bring you back home safely for as many visits as we can all manage!)!

Colin and his beloved nephew, Liam

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Perfect Peace

"Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee: because he trusteth in thee." ~ Isaiah 26:3

Of all things needed and craved by mankind, none is so vital as peace: peace without, and peace within.

Because by nature we are selfish and aggressive creatures, peace among nations and neighbors is tragically elusive and, historically, seemingly impossible but for short periods and in scattered places. All too often rulers use their powers to wage war on other countries and upon their own peoples, and even the best democratic governments are incapable of preventing the mini-wars individuals make upon each other every day. Endless conflict and suffering seem to be the natural lot of human beings almost everywhere.

Peace within ourselves is even more precious than peace in the world, because it transcends the world. One can feel desperate and hopeless even when conditions about us are peaceful. But thanks to the blessed assurance that we have from our Savior, we can be at peace within even when the world around us is rent with conflict. Through repentance, faith, and embrace of His sacrifice on the Cross, His righteousness is ours. We needn't groan and fall under the weight of our sins, no matter how heavy they are; they are laid at Jesus' feet, and in His infinite love are swept away. Because we know that in Him death is swallowed up in victory (1 Corinthians 15:54), we know that we likewise shall be victorious in the end, and fear not what men can do to us.

The prophet Isaiah warned that "[m]any days and years shall ye be troubled," and that the world would become as a wilderness,
. . . Until the spirit be poured upon us from on high, and the wilderness be a fruitful field, and the fruitful field be counted for a forest. Then judgment shall dwell in the wilderness, and righteousness remain in the fruitful field. And the work of righteousness shall be peace; and the effect of righteousness quietness and assurance for ever. And my people shall dwell in a peaceable habitation, and in sure dwellings, and in quiet resting places . . . (Isaiah 32:10, 15-18)
This is the promise of Christmas, when Jesus came down from Heaven to dwell among us and proclaim the Good News of salvation, to take the weight of our sin upon Himself, and to establish the never-ending Kingdom of Righteousness that leads all sincere believers to that inner "peace of God, which passeth all understanding . . ." (Philippians 4:7). He is indeed the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6). We pray unceasingly that that peace spread among all men and women, and for the day when this world is finally and fully transformed into the quiet and beautiful Garden that our Lord always meant it to be.

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” ~ Luke 2:14

May the Peace of Christ be with you and your loved ones
this Christmas and every day of your life!

NOTE: This post was adapted from one on another blog to which I contribute, Faithful Feet. Visit that site for spiritual lessons and encouragement from people all over the world, every day!

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Book Review: The Miracle of Freedom

Individual freedom, democracy, and the rule of law are under wider assault in the West, including the USA, than at any time since at least World War II. In Europe, especially the United Kingdom (formerly known as "Great" Britain), an irresistible tide of political correctness has led to the suffocation of personal freedom under national and local laws "protecting" (read: promoting) favored interest groups such as homosexuals and atheists, as well as to a paralysis of police and the courts to deal effectively with mobs of "protesters" and a horde of immigrants demanding the adoption of "sharia law." In the United States, we have a federal administration bent on seizing and expending (directly and indirectly) unprecedented, ever-growing amounts of private wealth; requiring individual citizens to purchase products and services they do not want; extending government surveillance and control to every aspect of citizens' lives; declaring and implementing its own policies through executive order regardless of Congressional will; and going to war against the states to prevent them from dealing with critical problems of immigration, health care, environmental control, education, and threats to the family such as abortion and same-sex marriage.

These developments would be more actively resisted if citizens better appreciated how dearly bought, and how fragile and fleeting, freedom and democracy have been in history. Providing that awareness is the mission of authors Chris and Ted Stewart in their recent book The Miracle of Freedom: Seven Tipping Points That Saved the World (available from publisher Deseret Books and from, among other outlets). Released in June, 20011, the book has been as high as to No. 2 on Amazon's best-selling list and reached No. 11 on the New York Times' Top 25 best-selling nonfiction and e-book lists.

According to the authors, less than 5 percent of all people who have ever lived on the earth (and most of those being persons who are still alive today) have lived under conditions that today could be considered “free.” The "miracle" is that there have even been that many, given the terrible weight of flawed human nature throughout history.

The authors define "freedom and democracy" according to the following five criteria: self-government; fundamental rights; equal dignity and opportunity of persons; commitment to justice; and commitment to the rule of law. The authors then discern from the human record a series of critical events or "forks in the road" that, had they happened differently or not at all, would or could have resulted in the extinction of any hope that the ideals of freedom and self-government might be realized.
  • The defeat of the Assyrians in their quest to destroy the kingdom of Judah
  • The victory of the Greeks over the Persians at Thermopylae and Salamis
  • Roman Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity
  • The defeat of the armies of Islam at Poitiers
  • The failure of the Mongols in their effort to conquer Europe
  • The discovery of the New World
  • The Battle of Britain in World War II
The book describes and analyzes these events, each chapter accompanied by a fictionalized but well-written and engaging "you are there" portrait of individuals at the time--most of them common people--who might have participated in or been immediately affected by these events. In addition to a concise narration of what transpired, each chapter explores what led up to and resulted from the event, and how the future of human liberty would have been changed--or snuffed out altogether--had the outcome been different. Some of these positive outcomes were fantastically improbable, such as the survival of Judah against the Assyrian onslaught, the Greeks' defeat of the Persian hosts at Thermopylae and Salamis, and even Britain's triumph against the mighty Luftwaffe in 1941-1942. As the authors observe, "Many of these critical forks in the road occurred thousands of years before the event would bear the fruit of freedom. Some have happened in modern day. All of them were necessary for the world to enjoy the sudden expansion of free governments that we see today."

Chris and Ted Stewart

The authors' selection of these historical "tipping points" seems driven by the correct premise that the concepts of freedom and democracy--as they came down to us over the generations and as we understand and enjoy them today--sprang from the marriage of Judaic theology and Greek philosophy. Thus, the extinction of those early civilizations or of their successors in Europe would have prevented the survival and realization of these ideals in modern times. Inevitably, minds clouded by conventional and politically-correct views will complain that historical Judaism and Christianity bred regimes that made endless war and often cruelly oppressed, rather than liberated, individuals (free-thinkers, women, and homosexuals, for example) and colonial peoples as well as their own. The authors of Miracle of Freedom do not dispute the guilt of those Western "leaders" who perverted Judeo-Christian principles to serve selfish ends, but stress that the fault lay not with the principles themselves, or with the cultures that spawned them, but with the inescapable flaws of human nature:
[T]hough they may seek to represent the ideal, no nation or institution is ever pefect. All cultures and religious institutions are occupied by mere mortals, making them subject to all the frailties of men. And the simple fact that they do seek the ideal, ironically, opens them up to charges of hypocrisy and scorn. Second, often these are not only multigenerational but multimillenial institutions. Their stories may stretch over thousands of years. During the passing of so many centuries, every nation or institution will have its ups and downs, experiencing high points of moral leadership, but low points of decadence as well.

This being the case, wouldn't it be unfair--and historically inaccurate--to judge a nation or institution on only one episode in its history or during one particular span of time?

In our story, we also have to recognize the difference between the leaders or members of the Christian faith and Christian doctrine. The shortcomings of one may not accurately reflect the value of the other. Indeed, history shows that there have been times when the teachings of Christianity remained an ally to the development of freedom even when the Christian church did not.
Reading The Miracle of Freedom, one is struck by how improbable was the birth, survival, and eventual flourishing of freedom and self-government; how long that process took; how much it owed to the heroism and self-sacrifice of a relative few individuals; and how fragile those ideals are in a world ever tending to corruption and madness. As Mssrs. Stewart point out:
[D]emocracy and freedom are very fleeting—they can be possessed and then lost. A nation might be democratic for a period of time and then, through spasms of internal strife or war, revert to despotism. Over the past 225 years this has been shown again and again to be true, the tides of democracy causing many nations to sample and then lose the great gifts of freedom and democracy. The experience of Germany prior to World War I, immediately thereafter, and then during the reign of Hitler is a graphic example of this truth.
For those of us living in the United States, a nation that has experienced more than two hundred years of unparalleled liberty, it is easy to take for granted the extraordinary gifts we have been given. And for most of us, it is much easier to become lackadaisical about these gifts than it is for the inhabitants of other nations who are forced to struggle every day in their battle for liberty. In fact, unless we are serious students of world history, or have traveled extensively, we might not recognize how unique the blessings of liberty actually are.
We should all remember this lesson, in this time of grave peril to liberty here in the USA and around the world.

The Miracle of Freedom is written with the common person, not the professional historian, in mind (though it certainly can appeal to the latter). Most of it reads more like a historical novel than an analytical text. It is an absorbing and highly informative work, and would make an excellent Christmas or Hanukkah gift.