Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A Far Away Hill

This past Sunday evening, Nancy and I watched a new HBO movie, “Taking Chance,” starring Kevin Bacon. It’s based on the true story of a twenty-year-old Marine private who was killed in Iraq in 2004, Chance Phelps, from Dubois, Wyoming. Bacon plays the role of Mike Strobl, the real-life Marine colonel who volunteered to escort Chance’s body back home for burial. The movie grew out of a journal that Strobl kept of the experience.

I had no idea what all went into escorting a slain soldier back home. If it was Strobl’s intent to educate us about what happens to all those young people who are otherwise just combat statistics he certainly succeeded, and then some!

I found myself being drawn into the deep sorrow and respect that accompanied the young Marine’s casket from one airport to another, from one hearse to another and then to the cemetery. As the movie draws to a close, there is one final, gut-wrenching scene where Bacon’s character stands alone, beside the casket at the cemetery. The twenty-one gun salute is over. The parents have received the American flag. Bacon stands there, speechless, as the casket seems to levitate over the black, hollow void of the empty hole.

The only noise is the sound of the wind as it blows a chain against the flag pole holding high the Stars and Stripes that Chance died to protect. Gray, dark clouds hang low over the wind-swept prairie. It’s almost as if nature is weeping, grieving the loss of such young life. Cemeteries have always seemed like lonely places. The wind never blows colder than it does after a funeral is over.

As we enter the season of Lent I find my mind being drawn into the dark void of the tomb that awaited Jesus and the sad irony that those who die for others often face such a dark, lonely resting place. Seeing “Chance” during this sacred season reminded me of a funeral I conducted for an old Marine almost exactly eight years ago. This is what I wrote the week after the funeral.

An old gospel hymn begins with these words, “On a hill far away.” Anyone born before 1970 can finish it from memory. Too bad those born since then cannot. As long as they know and never forget the meaning of the song, who cares what tune carries the words? As long as they never forget the meaning.

We buried Bill Curry this past week. I held my own at the funeral. It was just after the twenty-one-gun salute, when the stiffly starched Marine sergeant handed his widow, Jimmie, the neatly folded American flag, that I swallowed hard. Anyone who knew what that flag meant to Bill swallowed with me.

The evidence is in a scrapbook Bill kept. There he is, a stout and strong twenty-six-year-old Marine sergeant, standing atop Mt. Suribachi on February 24, 1945. He’d landed there, on Iwo Jima, with the 3rd Marine Division, done his job and then come home to raise a family.

On a hill far away, our Lord paid the price of our eternal salvation. On another hill far away, Bill and his comrades, many who never came home, paid the price of our national freedom. Both are hills most of us will never see. Nor do we have to. As long as we never forget the meaning.

Thursday, February 5, 2009


Only on what I consider a dare from a very close friend, who happens to be the Editor of a distinguished religious publication and whose initials are MK, do I publish the following blog. Thanks, Marv, for whatever credit or otherwise may come my way on this one. Like more and more of my blogs, it’s something of a composite of emails I’ve sent back and forth.

About a year ago, I was sitting in an airport with a friend who happens to work with the Baptist General Convention of Texas. We'd gone into a bar to get a coke. It was packed. It was humid and the air was hanging heavy. It was one of those times when, at the end of a long, hot and sweaty day, everyone was just trying to get home. One of those towns where Mexican food rules and people eat like there’s no tomorrow. While we were talking, this truly unbelievably wicked fart came wafting by. It lingered for what seemed like forever.

You know, a fart is its own form of nasty. When a fart comes along and lingers at half the speed of smell, no one has to ask, "Is that a fart?" In the real world, no one asks, “Who cut the cheese?” No one says, “Someone stepped on a duck!” No audible warning whatsoever and we were suddenly and unexpectedly overwhelmed by a biologic that could at least stun the enemy on any battlefield. No matter where you are, no matter the company or the country, when someone farts, everyone knows someone farted. For the record, elevators are the worst.

It finally got so bad that I had to say something and then tell my friend (name omitted for the sake of presumed innocence), I had to get some fresh air. As we were getting up, my supposedly innocent friend exclaimed out loud, so that the guilty party could at least know he or she had been sniffed out, "Someone ought to take credit for that one!"

Some months later, I’m sitting in a very nice restaurant after worship on Sunday. Our company included two people from our church and two distinguished (by that, I mean, really nice people) guests from out of town. It was a very nice place with well-dressed people. We were enjoying a wonderful conversation over a very nice meal. Whatever thoughts we had about dessert were soon to evaporate in a climate change that would make global warming jealous!

An indescribably wicked fart came wafting our way, then lingered for what seemed like forever. I put my hands up to my face, feigning a gesture of contemplation, but, solely meant for self-preservation. If a waiter had been close by with a lighter, I’m certain he could have lit the air bright orange, or worse. We all tried to carry on like nothing had happened although, unless someone was already half-embalmed, they smelled what I smelled. It was brutal. Sulfuric acid comes to mind, like in high school when we’d pour the stuff down the sink just to watch the yellow gas waft up from the drain.

Every part of me wanted to stand up and yell out loud, “Someone ought to take credit for that one!” Shouldn’t they? As Benjamin Franklin once wrote, we should “fart proudly.” Don’t do it if you aren’t willing to own it. Although, I will admit that, with older age, willing not to fart is less and less an inalienable right.

Not bad advice for this “please-bail-me-out-blame-anyone-but-me” culture. I’ve thought about asking my church to apply for federal bailout funds. I’ve told them I’d be willing to set my salary cap at $500,000. A silent but deadly response is all I've received.

The bottom line, no pun intended, is that there are too many hot-gassed fart-heads running things these days - and not enough willing to take
credit for their own stink!

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Perfect Mate

More often than not, I learn what I believe by listening to myself explain it to others. There’s almost certainly a name for that disorder, I’m just not familiar with it since I’ve never heard myself use it.

Over coffee the other day, I heard myself telling another man what may well be the most significant thing I’ve learned about marriage, indeed, about life from marriage. In our youthful days, we tend to think of marriage as a point of arrival. A point in time in which the person who will make us completely happy finally wises up and decides to share the privilege of our life’s journey with us. Therein lie the seeds of the destruction of most marriages.

In truth, marriage is not a point of arrival. It is a point of departure. The traditional wedding vows hint at that. Most of us need more than a hint. We need a two-by-four between the eyes to get our attention.

Secondly, marriage is not the completion of a journey to discover our perfect mate for life. Marriage is the opportunity, if not the commitment, to learn what it means to become the perfect mate. The reason our mates often piss us off so badly is because they’re just doing their job, giving us the chance to grow up. A process which can only begin once someone has demonstrated to us how much growing up we are yet to achieve. In time, children come along to take up any slack in the process our mates started, the process of learning to face our own immaturity and childishness. That’s another blog, though.

Most marriages won’t survive the unrealistic expectations two people carry to the altar and then spend their best energies putting on each other, starting a week or maybe two after the honeymoon. We get lots of hints throughout our lives that no other person in this world can make us happy. Again, hints rarely work. Too often, over fifty percent of the time in first marriages, even among Christians, it takes the two-by-four of watching of our mate’s butt clear the door on the way to anywhere not with us to get our attention.

Now and then, someone is fortunate enough to actually get to the altar having already learned not to demand of anyone what only God can give the human soul: joy, and its third cousin twice removed, happiness. The fact is, if we don’t arrive at the altar fundamentally at peace with ourselves, we’ll more likely than not spend the rest of our lives trying our best to make the unfortunate soul who put their clothes in our closet miserable with us. Misery doesn’t love company because misery can’t love, only destroy. Like C.S. Lewis, I think that hell will be the place where those who choose to go there discover just how alone they’ve always been. Is there any worse hell than loneliness? If we aren’t good company at the altar, there’s nothing our mate can do to change that, other than prove to us what we never could accept about ourselves, our own lonely misery.

That’s because, long before marriage exposes any weakness in our mate, it exposes us for who we are. Our mate’s inability to make us happy simply provides the best reflection of our personal misery. If, in fact, if we did make a poor choice in a life’s mate, that only tells us more about ourselves than it does the one we chose to marry.

The corollary must also be true. If our choice of mates exposes us for who we are then I must be a much better man than I give myself credit for being. My wife is the best human being, the best Christian and the best friend I know, and, as she grows older, more and more the most beautiful person I ever laid eyes on (Thanks, Buddy Griffeth!). I must be something myself, right?

Now and then, I find myself listening to what I was saying out loud at the altar. Truth is, I wasn’t listening to me. I was too busy getting a buzz out of listening to Nancy spout her undying pledge of faithfulness and love to me. Wow! What a buzz! I can still feel it when I take the time to listen again. I’ve been learning since then that I wasn’t having an out-of-body experience at the altar. I was there, too. I should have been listening to me, too!

Marriage offers a much broader life lesson, too. Life’s happiness is not shaped out of what others give us. It is shaped within, out of the unspent fuel used to give ourselves away to others. Joy and happiness are the soul energy that flow back to us as we’ve worked at being the best person we can be, no matter how truly rotten others may prove to be. God’s greatest gifts come in the form of those God sends our way who are patient enough to join our journey with us and who keep giving us one opportunity after another to grow up.