Gettysburg — Why They Fought

Another excellent piece by David Brooks in The New York Times today. It is a reflection on the difference in soldiers from the Civil War to today. The language, the letters, the thoughts, are so completely different. We look so small today in comparison.

In our current era, as the saying goes, we take that which is lower to be more real. We generally believe that soldiers under the gritty harshness of war are not thinking about high ideals like gallantry. They are just trying to get through the day or protect their buddies. Since World War I, as Hemingway famously put it, abstract words like “honor” and “glory” and “courage” often seem obscene and pretentious. Studies of letters sent home by soldiers in World War II suggest that grand ideas were remote from their daily concerns.

But Civil War soldiers were different. In his 1997 book “For Cause and Comrades,” James M. McPherson looked at the private letters Civil War soldiers sent to their loved ones. As McPherson noted, they ring with “patriotism, ideology, concepts of duty, honor, manhood and community.”

The mentality of the soldier in the Civil War era was not only different, but their language was different. Nothing was short. No “text” language. And they were not afraid of their feelings.

One of the most famous letters was written not at Gettysburg but on July 14, 1861, on the eve of the First Battle of Bull Run. It was written by Sullivan Ballou, an officer from Rhode Island. Ballou had lost his own parents when he was young and, having known “the bitter fruit of orphanage myself,” he declared himself loath to die in battle and leave his small children fatherless.

“My love for you is deathless,” he wrote to his wife. “It seems to bind me to you with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence could break; yet my love of country comes over me like a strong wind and bears me irresistibly on with all these chains to the battlefield.”

It’s not just love of country that impels him, but a feeling of indebtedness to the past: “I know how strongly American Civilization now leans upon the triumph of the Government, and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us through the blood and suffering of the Revolution. And I am willing — perfectly willing — to lay down all my joys in this life, to help maintain this Government, and to pay that debt.”

Truly a different era. Our era of special interest politics looks pathetically small to the thoughts of these young men in these letters.

Language Shifts Indicate Cultural Shifts

David Brooks has a column today reflecting on language shifts over the last 50 years. His observations are interesting. 
Usage of humility words like “modesty” and “humbleness” dropped by 52 percent. Usage of compassion words like “kindness” and “helpfulness” dropped by 56 percent. Meanwhile, usage of words associated with the ability to deliver, like “discipline” and “dependability” rose over the century, as did the usage of words associated with fairness. 
And this:
On the general subject of demoralization, he finds a long decline of usage in terms like “faith,” “wisdom,” “ought,” “evil” and “prudence,” and a sharp rise in what you might call social science terms like “subjectivity,” “normative,” “psychology” and “information.” 
Brooks has some interesting conclusions on this matter:
Over the past half-century, society has become more individualistic. As it has become more individualistic, it has also become less morally aware, because social and moral fabrics are inextricably linked. The atomization and demoralization of society have led to certain forms of social breakdown, which government has tried to address, sometimes successfully and often impotently.
Those are his observations, and certainly can be argued. True or not in the culture, those are things that should be of concern in the Church. Cultures shift and moral awareness does shift and even fade. This is a place where the Church should be different. The sad news to me is that we are often as unaware as the culture.  We too often seem to be drifting along. 
Brooks makes some conclusions as to what this means for conservatives and liberals in politics. That may all be well and good as well, but the conclusions for the Church need to be considered as well. In my opinion, we SHOULD be doing better.  

The Oppressed and Spree Killers

The shootings in Aurora, CO, shock us once again. It is absolutely horrifying that someone plans that much detail just to kill as many people as possible. We will keep asking “Why” and the “why” may never come.

We will have conversations about gun control and violence and so many more things. Well, we won’t actually have any real conversations on those things… but we’ll fake it for a few weeks.

David Brooks in his column today tackles these types of conversations. Then, he aims deeper. He’s good at that. There are things I don’t agree with him on in this column (which is rare for me), but his main point is very… um… convicting. The need is for every one of us to pay attention to people around us. Not only pay attention, but respond to other people.

I think of Aurora, CO, and other spree killings. The response of people who knew the killer is almost always the same: They were quiet. They kept to themselves. They seemed pleasant.

We are reading the Gospel of Mark this week in our church as part of our “Eat This Book” project. There are two episodes that stand out as I think about the Aurora shootings and how we react. Both of them deal with men who were demon possessed. One was in the synagogue (Mark 1:21-28) and the other was the Gadarene demoniac (Mark 5:1-20). These stories always intrigue me… and they always convict me.

In the synagogue is a man who had been tormented by demons for who knows how long and no one had done anything about it until Jesus showed up. They had tolerated the man. He probably wasn’t as demonstrative as the Gadarene demoniac. You know… he was quiet. He kept to himself. He was pretty introverted. He was quirky.

Something like that.

The Gadarene demoniac was another story altogether. Yet, the people were more afraid after Jesus healed him. They wanted Jesus out of their territory. They recognized something more powerful was in their presence and they preferred the crazy man they could contain somewhat to the Savior who was not going to be controlled by them at all.

The conviction in my own heart out of these stories, especially in the first story is that someone who was tormented was among “the people of God” and they did nothing. It was only when Jesus walked in that things “got out of hand,” but then the man was healed.

Brooks’ point at the end of his column is something we need to hear as the Church today. Pay attention to people. That means it’s not about us! That means we find out what is going on in the lives of others and respond to their presence in our lives.

In other words… we ARE our brothers’ keeper.

And that makes us uncomfortable.

I will bet money everyone who knew of James Holmes was just fine with him being quiet, keeping to himself, and being a little quirky. It meant it required nothing of them. It meant they could go on with their lives while he went on with his life.

I know that’s how I feel too much of the time. I have to confess my own laziness here. There are times when I need to be stretched. I need to reach out to someone. I need to have them tell me their story. But I want to be alone, or I want to keep moving on in my own life. I am too content to simply pray for them quickly as  I think of them while I’m driving. The answer may be that I need to pick up the phone and call them. I may need to spend a few minutes listening to their story.

It’s not to stop a spree killer. It’s to let someone know that Someone is watching over them. Someone knows they are there. They matter.

If we will just pay attention, we may save someone from the silent torment they face every day. It won’t make headlines. It won’t be a great Facebook posting. It will simply matter in the Kingdom of God.

The Dangers of Thinking of Ourselves as Basically “Good”

There is hardly a David Brooks column I wouldn’t recommend. He is one of the most even handed columnists I can find anywhere. His column today, however, is simply exceptional. He usually is worth reading, so I would say if you have a chance to read a column of his, do so.

With today’s column, I would say, “READ IT!”

“READ IT, and pass it on! READ IT, pass it on, digest it, and pass it on again!”

He tackles the issue of being basically good in our own eyes. The basic thought begins with what we know: pretty much everyone cheats, but only a little. The illustrations are very poignant. He hits too close to home for me!

How many times have I thought about saying I looked a little better on something. Not by much. Just a little.

I can remember a few years ago watching a teenager I was buying for ask for a cup for water in a fast food restaurant, then go over to the soda machine and just start pouring out any soda their little heart desired. I went back to the counter and paid for a cup and brought it back to them.

“Why?” was the question. “They can afford it. It’s just soda.”

We basically think we’re good, and if we cheat, we cheat just a little. I may have hit a “9” on that hole on the golf course, but the temptation is to say “8.” (Hey, guys! I know you’re reading this, so notice I said temptation.)

…most of us think we are pretty wonderful. We can cheat a little and still keep that “good person” identity. Most people won’t cheat so much that it makes it harder to feel good about themselves.

We try to measure our “goodness.” The problem there is we don’t have an “official scale.” When we try to morally justify our goodness, the scale keeps sliding. I teach an Old Testament survey class. One assignment I give them for the semester is to read the Old Testament and give me a list of what books they completed at the end of the semester. I leave them to their own honesty and talk to them about integrity. The reality? If they didn’t read the entire Old Testament rarely will they put down that they read the entire Old Testament. However, I have no doubt that if they read 25 books, they might put down 27 books they read. I truly believe some are dead honest and put the actual number as well. We’re “good,” but that scale keeps sliding.

Your moral standards will gradually slip as you become more and more comfortable with your own rationalizations. So step back. Break your patterns and begin anew. This is what Yom Kippur and confessionals are for.

Brooks’ contention is that we should quit shooting for “goodness.” We should aim for “rectitude.”

Our mistake in our current culture, and unfortunately among Christians, is we are settling for “good enough.” We are settling for mediocrity.

The Rage Against Religion While Thinking You Are Spiritual

David Brooks is one of my favorite columnists. He hits it out of the ballpark again on THIS COLUMN.

He took the viral video of the guy raging against religion and got into the why, and then the results of the video. Challenged with the exact words of the video, the young man actually realized he needed to learn to say some things differently.

Brooks goes on to demonstrate how it’s not a problem to have “angst” in our world. It’s just what to do after that angst is our problem.

For generations we’ve been told to think for ourselves, but all we know how to do is say what we don’t like.

For generations people have been told: Think for yourself; come up with your own independent worldview. Unless your name is Nietzsche, that’s probably a bad idea. Very few people have the genius or time to come up with a comprehensive and rigorous worldview.

Brooks’ remedy is rather interesting:

The paradox of reform movements is that, if you want to defy authority, you probably shouldn’t think entirely for yourself. You should attach yourself to a counter-tradition and school of thought that has been developed over the centuries and that seems true.

The old leftists had dialectical materialism and the Marxist view of history. Libertarians have Hayek and von Mises. Various spiritual movements have drawn from Transcendentalism, Stoicism, Gnosticism, Thomism, Augustine, Tolstoy, or the Catholic social teaching that inspired Dorothy Day.

Passion is great. Just give it some place to land. Rigorously examine what is out there. What have the ancients taught us? Where is a path we can find?

I am deeply thankful that even in my time of angst I found the ancient paths still leading to Christ. Over the years I have been so thankful to keep exploring those paths and found the richness of who he is, and realized that within “religion” there is a design that helps to truly follow Christ. It gets expressed in so many ways, and most of them awkward in one way or another. But following those paths has given me the beauty of Christ.

I don’t fly solo very well.

Blue Chips and Junk Bonds

David Brooks is one of my favorite columnists. This column discusses politics, but it reminds me of a conversation I had regarding ministry as well. Brooks’s contention is that liberals have allowed short term gains to cloud their vision for long term good.

The conversation I had regarding churches and ministry was much the same. American churches are investing in junk bonds instead of blue chips. We are going for “short term” gains that really mean nothing other than quick personal gain. We are doing things for the “quick pop” and not giving regard to long term results. Blue chip investing in the market would be looking to what is solid, what is long-term, what may sacrifice something up front to gain something later.

Junk bond investing tanked this economy. People invented investment tools made out of thin air that looked good inflated values and gave massive profits only to those who invented the smoke and mirrors then got out just in time.

Junk bond investing in the American church is trading off the long term gain of the Kingdom for the short term accolades that make us feel good, give us book deals, and allow us to speak on large stages.

Blue chip investing in the American church would be seeing the power of the Kingdom and insisting on the principles of the Kingdom to bring that power. Nothing short of that long term stability will do in blue chip ministry.

Difficult Thoughts on Penn State

While I maintain the superiority of baseball over all other sports (and have fun doing so), I do love sports in general. And I had a passion for college sports over pro sports.

There was certainly an admiration I carried for years for Joe Paterno because he seemed to do things the “right” way in football.

Of course, it has all fallen apart and it’s an incredibly sad mess on just about every level imaginable.

One writer I admire greatly is Joe Posnanski. Joe finds himself deep in this stuff because he was actually working on a biography of Paterno. Talk about “timing.” So, his thoughts are well worth reading.

Then, on another level, I am becoming sickened by my own passion for sports. When I hear reports about Sandusky and Penn State, what I am hearing more is the need to restore Penn State’s reputation. In one Today Show piece, a huge Penn State fan talked about his anger toward Sandusky. Why? Because Sandusky had dared to tarnish the reputation of Penn State.

Ummm… what about the victims?

But, our love for sports and worship of the games we love to play and watch really gets in the way. This hard-hitting article says it far more effectively than I could.

On another level is the superiority with which we think we would act in a similar situation. The young grad assistant who first reported the incident to Coach Paterno is getting grilled. To which David Brooks says, “Not so fast.”

I truly hope we don’t let this horrific incident pass us by as a culture. It says far too much about us to be left alone or shoved aside for the next news cycle.

Let’s be real, could we? Congress won’t solve any budget issues even though we are pressed “to the brink” once again.

The Minnesota Vikings will get their stadium.

All other issues that the media says are so “vital” just aren’t. At least for a few days.

Could we not stop, take a look at this train wreck not for the sake of seeing a train wreck, but to reflect? What do we honestly value as a culture? What “reputations” do we value? What relationships mean the most to us? How do we react to such stories? How do we respond in relationship to the victims?

We need to allow awfulness to shake us awake from time to time. Then, we can get back to our regularly scheduled football games.

Whiplash Politics and Microwave Christianity

David Brooks of the New York Times hits the nail on the head today. (HERE.) We think so highly of ourselves, we just think we can whip this economy back into shape without realizing the depth of the problem and that TIME will really help in pulling ourselves out of the mess.

This is leading to what I call “whiplash” politics. We get tired of the Republicans, so we vote them out. We give the Democrats two or four years, then get tired of their lack of “response” and vote in Republicans again. We want instant solutions when the issues are far deeper than something that can be talked about in a two year election cycle.

I have found the same fallacy in American Christianity. We don’t want to talk about time as part of the healing process. We have a problem and we want it fixed NOW. We need a good worship service… NOW. And if we don’t get “moved” by the Spirit in that service on that day, we’ll go try the next place down the road. We want microwave solutions.

Many years ago there was a youth pastor who was in one of his first churches as youth pastor. He took the kids away on a weekend retreat. The next week a mother confronted him in the church lobby because her daughter went to that retreat and nothing had changed!

“Lady,” he said, “Don’t ask me to undo in one weekend what it took YOU 14 years to do!”

We may not get out of our whiplash political mode for quite some time. As the Church, we need to get out of our microwave mode soon. We need to learn walking with Christ is, as Eugene Peterson puts it, a long slow walk in the same direction.


The Loss of a Moral Compass

David Brooks’ column in The New York Times gives a synopsis of where we have come.

Just yesterday in my Church History lecture I was talking with my students about the place tradition had in the Church for about 1700 years. While I will never argue that trusting tradition is always a good thing, I will say it is basically a good thing, and Brooks column helps explain why I believe this.

When we fail as a family, as a society, as a Church, to pass on a moral framework, we get generations that can’t define a moral framework outside their own belief of, “Well, this is what is good for me.”

When societies decided to throw off the authority of the Church in a wholesale manner, then a couple of centuries later decided to throw off biblical authority in a wholesale manner, we truly lost the ability to maintain any sense of a moral compass in community.

And now we are seeing some of those results.

The default position, which most of them came back to again and again, is that moral choices are just a matter of individual taste. “It’s personal,” the respondents typically said. “It’s up to the individual. Who am I to say?”

We can blame schools or government or some other civil order, but the Church is the one dropping the ball. When we allow a resurgence of the brand of liberal theology introduced by Schleiermacher, Lessing, and Reimarus in 18th Century Europe, we will reap rewards like this. When we, as the Church, cannot live under authority of the Word of God and church leadership, we will continue to reap these “rewards.”

Martin Luther didn’t want to throw off church authority. He wanted church authority to return to biblical authority so the people could trust the authority of the church once again.

I am not advocating for blind trust. I am saying we are too quick to put people in church leadership positions and then we watch abuses flow. We must take more care in the call of church leaders. (Which we refuse to do as a whole.) We must take more care in understanding the authority of the Word of God in our lives. (Which we refuse to do as whole.)

And we will continue to see results that Brooks describes.

In most times and in most places, the group was seen to be the essential moral unit. A shared religion defined rules and practices. Cultures structured people’s imaginations and imposed moral disciplines. But now more people are led to assume that the free-floating individual is the essential moral unit. Morality was once revealed, inherited and shared, but now it’s thought of as something that emerges in the privacy of your own heart.

We must do better.

Learn from Failure

This column by David Brooks is tremendous. His columns are tremendous as a standard, in my book.

As a culture, we have to come to a place individually where we admit our shortcomings and learn. Learn from FAILURE. But our culture has tried to shield us from failure. I am guilty of this as a parent. We all have our struggles.

The problem is that over the past 40 years or so we have gone from a culture that reminds people of their own limitations to a culture that encourages people to think highly of themselves. The nation’s founders had a modest but realistic opinion of themselves and of the voters. They erected all sorts of institutional and social restraints to protect Americans from themselves. They admired George Washington because of the way he kept himself in check.

But over the past few decades, people have lost a sense of their own sinfulness. Children are raised amid a chorus of applause. Politics has become less about institutional restraint and more about giving voters whatever they want at that second. Joe DiMaggio didn’t ostentatiously admire his own home runs, but now athletes routinely celebrate themselves as part of the self-branding process.

We have become people who prefer the melodious sound of our voice rather than a counter opinion. I have a handful of friends who are almost exact opposite of me in political views and I CHERISH their friendships and conversation. (They probably tolerate me, but that’s another issue altogether.)

When I get it wrong, I try to admit… begrudgingly… slowly… but I try!

Beneath all the other things that have contributed to polarization and the loss of civility, the most important is this: The roots of modesty have been carved away.

We need a good dose of modesty once again.