Monthly Archives: June 2010

In Which I Gain Some Fatherly Perspective…

Most of us have heard our parents say, at some point, that they’ve tried their best to do better for us than their parents did for them.  Most of us that are parents have figured out that they really meant it when they said that.  It’s far too easy, though, to focus on where our parents have fallen short, and miss their sometimes herculean efforts to be better parents than their own.

My parents separated when I was 15.  The ugly reality of divorce is that no matter how well all parties involved handle the aftermath, it’s still an aftermath!  Take the classic teen-know-it-all-hormone-induced-confusion-and-angst of most 15-year-olds, couple it with a divorce and constant conflict with your father and what you get is a recipe for long term negative focus, to put it lightly.  Complicating things, I misread my father for several years.  You see, we have a lot in common – shared interests, personality traits, values, habits, vocal inflections, etc.  It’s easy to assume you know the other person’s motives and intent when you have so much common ground.  About ten years ago, one of my sisters had us take the Myers-Briggs assessment and I was amazed that my father and I both weren’t “ENTJ”.  That was a critical moment for me, after which I really began to pay more attention to who my father was – and respect our differences.  Gone were the arrogant presumptions – now replaced with at least some humility.  Over the last two decades – and as a result of moments like those – my relationship with my father has improved beyond my expectations and hopes.

This year, my father’s birthday coincided with Father’s Day, and I took my oldest son with me to visit him for the weekend.  I found myself thinking back over the stories he’s told me of his childhood.  The youngest of 7 children – over 20 years separating him and his oldest sister (a sister who was more a mother to him than sister, and more grandmother to me than aunt).  His mother died when he was 14.  His father was, by all accounts, a good man, but strong on discipline and sparse with praise and emotional connection.  I learned this weekend that his father never took him camping or canoeing – something he did with me for many years when I was young.  And it occurred to me that those weekend trips (and many were week-long trips) that my dad took with me cost him real vacation time & rest.  Canoeing 50 miles, while tons of fun, isn’t terribly relaxing or easy on the muscles and back!  Many dads simply want to sleep on the couch during a football game, rather than in a tent in a south Georgia swamp, cooking cheap hot dogs over fires made with wet firewood.  What 42-year-old wants to don a backpack and hike sections of the Appalachian Trail with a bunch of 12-year-old boy scouts?  My dad did.  He made the choice to do something with me that I loved, something his father never modeled or did for him.

Our parents are children, too, just like us.  They carry their own set of hopes, fears and disappointments which they shared with their own parents.  I am tremendously fortunate that, regardless of all the ‘aftermath’ of coming from a broken home, both of my parents have fought hard to give me a better life than what they had.  I’m not dismissing or trivializing the challenges – don’t get me wrong, divorce sucks.  There are years we can’t get back, and words all of us wish we could forget having ever said.  But then the picture of redemption arrives.  Maybe at first it’s just fragile ‘green shoots’.  But it grows up in the presence of – in spite of – the pain, difficulty and scars, almost as if to prove to the hurt that it can’t be stopped or overcome.  Redemption, by its very nature, not only rescues us, but laughs in the face of our former captor.  “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies…” (Psalm 23: 5)


Chain of Command

General Douglas MacArthur is arguably one of the most accomplished military officers in American history.  His resume boasts having lead troops into battle in World War I, superintendent of West Point, Army Chief of Staff under two presidents (Hoover and FDR), World War II Pacific commander, presided over Japan’s surrender in 1945 as well as the military occupation of Japan following the war.  When conflict erupted on the Korean peninsula in 1950, MacArthur pulled off one of the most daring and brilliant invasions in modern history, choosing to land troops at Inchon in order to divide and route North Korean forces (who had pushed South Korean forces to the tip of the peninsula) – eventually forcing the North Korean army to retreat to the North’s border with China.  China – claiming the fear of invasion (a matter the students of history will continue to debate for decades to come) – joined the North Korean forces and pushed MacArthur back to the 38th parallel.

MacArthur had urged President Truman to take the fight to the Chinese.  Just as Patton, in many ways, foresaw the Cold War with the Soviet Union, MacArthur believed China needed to be confronted, and fast.  Frustrated that Truman saw things differently, MacArthur publicly announced his dissatisfaction, ultimately leading to his dismissal by Truman in 1951.  MacArthur was – and still is – celebrated as a hero, and he should be.  What should not be celebrated, however, is his public insubordination to the President.  It’s a difficult position to reconcile for many of us who felt Truman should have taken a different road – possibly even taken MacArthur’s advice.  Truman did the right thing in dismissing MacArthur, even if we disagree with Truman’s choices on the war.  The same goes for President Obama’s dismissal of General McChrystal.  McChrystal’s complaints should have been fully and bluntly discussed, in private, with the President.  If he still felt, after all that, that the President was not giving him what he needed to fight the war, then he should have resigned, retired and taken his case to the public.  Most Americans would have listened, politics aside, to a man who’d served his country honorably and respected the chain of command enough to not publicly denounce the President while actively wearing the uniform.

It’s all too easy for the ‘opposition’ (in this case, conservatives) to selectively ignore the importance of our military respecting the civilian chain of command at the top when the target of the complaint is a President with whom we strongly disagree.  It’s conveniently ignored by the Left as well, when it suits them (take the treatment of Petraeus today vs. the “Betray Us” ad in 2004).  The danger would be for us, as citizens, to take the military’s respect for civilian leadership for granted, or to sacrifice that respect for the sake of politics.  The importance of this principle – and the essential truth that the office of president must be respected, even if you don’t like the man – is one of the many reasons why our nation hasn’t fallen into the cycle of “bloody coup after coup” as other nations have when civilian and military leadership come into conflict.  Our current President doesn’t seem to mind ignoring, dismissing or even undermining the institutions that have made us great, but in accepting McChrystal’s resignation, he – whether for this motive or not – helped preserve them.

From Community to Cult

This has been a difficult post for me to contemplate, not to mention for me to actually write.  It is my hope that anyone who has faced (or is facing) similar issues will find some guidance and peace of mind. 

I grew up Presbyterian, but have attended mostly evangelical/charismatic ‘style’ churches for the last 20 years (see my earlier post).  Twenty years is more than enough time for some common problems to have been reinforced:  Many evangelicals have an underlying distrust (if not disdain) for intellectual thought, and have adopted a “fortress mentality” – where they attempt to combat the difficult questions and challenges of our culture with greater religious “emotional intensity” while never actually addressing or confronting the challenges leveled at them by those of different convictions.  Nancy Pearcey, in her book “Total Truth” (a book I’ve found to be a wonderful resource on Christian worldview), writes at length on this phenomenon, since it is a common scenario in many evangelical churches.  This vein of anti-intellectualism has caused evangelicalism to lend itself to a systemic distrust of questioning.  In some cases, it’s simply a moderate fear of “will I have the answers if someone questions my doctrine?”  That can be a healthy fear – if it leads one to confront those questions in their own life head on, rather than hide behind ‘religious experience’ alone.  However, in two specific instances, I have seen the ‘distrust of questioning’ taken to an extreme that I cannot find any Biblical support for.

At the heart of this is the desire – the need – for communal bonds.  For all that good that came of evangelicalism’s early days, there was a prevailing attitude of distrust towards the ‘religious authorities’ of the time.  In Total Truth, Pearcey writes, “Taunting religious authorities became so widespread on college campuses that in 1741 the trustees at Yale University had to pass a college law forbidding students to call college officers ‘carnal’ or ‘unconverted’” (pg 271).  The point here is that while there was good that emerged from what evangelicals know as the “Great Awakenings”, at the same time the old order of strong communal bonds within believing communities was disintegrating.  You cannot assault the institutions that made those bonds possible, without also dissolving the bonds as well.

The result is a problem evangelical churches have wrestled with for decades: how to foster real community.  Pearcey explains, “In the colonial period, the dominant political philosophy had been classical and Christian republicanism, which was highly communal.  But in the new liberalism…the ethos of self-sacrifice was replaced by one of self-assertion and self-interest” (pg 280).  In describing the emerging style of preaching at the time, Pearcey writes, “Increasingly, the populist preacher became a performer, stringing together stories and anecdotes…this method engaged the audience’s emotions while subtly enhancing the speaker’s own image by highlighting his own ministry and spiritual experiences.  The outcome of all this was the rise of personality cults, the celebrity system that has become so entrenched in evangelicalism” (pg 287).

And here is where the fine and dangerous line is crossed.  This is how many evangelical congregations have moved from the desire for real community, into the territory reserved for cults: “One of the dangers in personality cults”, according to Pearcey, “is that they easily lead to demagoguery…strong-willed leaders who, ironically, ended up exercising an even higher degree of dogmatism and control than pastors in traditional denominations, whom they denounced” (pg 289).

How those leaders assert their control can vary.  However, in my experience, the squashing of dissenting opinions seems to be a common symptom.  A close companion to that symptom is that members (especially leaders) in that congregation have no qualms about severing relationship with those they disagree with, regardless of prior history.  So, here’s a short quiz for you:  If you currently attend a church, how well do they handle disagreement?  If you disagree, are you ostracized, directly or indirectly?  What about others who have disagreed?  Does your church push for “unity” by attempting to enforce “uniformity”?  If the leaders of your church show no broken-heartedness over ‘severed’ relationships with those who’ve disagreed with them, may I humbly (albeit emphatically) suggest you find a new church?  As Christians, we should be among the best examples of the power of reconciliation.  We have several Biblical examples (Paul & Peter, Paul and Mark, to name two) of Christians who disagreed and came into conflict, and yet continued to support one another in the end.  If we have a pattern of cutting people out of our lives because they won’t “line up” with our “vision”, are we not simply acting like petulant children?  To borrow a paraphrase from Augustine: “In essentials, unity.  In non-essentials, liberty.  In all things, love.