Monday, October 31, 2016

Honor


 

I don’t recall much about my days as a boy scout but I do remember quoting the “oath” often. One part of it that still stands out to me is the phrase, “On my honor I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country.” I am not sure any of us in my troop knew what honor meant at that time. I think I assumed it meant that I was serious about God and country. Now, perhaps I have a more mature understanding of the concept.

Honor means integrity in beliefs and actions. In other words, when we act with honor, our actions line up with our beliefs. There is a section of scripture in James that admonishes people to be doers of the Word and not hearers only. That’s it: allowing our inmost convictions to inform our actions and words consistently, regardless of the circumstances. So, honorable people live lives not necessarily to please others but to align with inalterable principles. Thus, I believe that to be honorable, we must have a sense of the absolute, a sense of Truth underlying all that can be known and experienced.

One notable American writer of the 20th Century, William Faulkner, had, in his art at least, a sense of the absolute that registered in his aesthetics as “the old verities of the human heart.” He even went so far as to list those old truths of the heart as love, honor, pride, sacrifice, pity--you know, those attributes that set us humans apart from other creatures on the planet. Here is a section of Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech that is to the point: “[A writer] must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed--love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.”

Even though the Mississippi genius was writing specifically about the art of storytelling, it seems to me that his admonition fits other aspirant activities as well. A politician, for example, deeply motivated by these principles would not alter views for expediency, right? Similarly, leaders who feel compassion for those they lead will not take chances on damaging their followers in any way. In fact, I believe true leadership sometimes calls for self-sacrifice for the benefit of others.

Self-sacrifice leads to my final point about honor. Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch told Scout that one must walk around in someone else’s skin in learning to be merciful and just. Charles Chestnut’s powerful tale “Mars Jeem’s Nightmare” is about a plantation owner who is miraculously transformed into a slave on his own plantation, thus learning what it means to honor others. Could it be that true honor is defined by the Golden Rule? Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Monday, October 24, 2016

What's Wrong with Bicycling?


Bicycles have been important my whole life, especially from the time I was seven. Mother and Pop bought me a rebuilt one for my birthday, a hybrid, from a man in El Dorado whose place of business was advertised by reconstituted Cities Service sign. It read in awkward lettering: I fix Victrolas and Bicycles. (I later got to know that old man. He told stories about his early “boom town” days in such a way as to make me see pictures in my head. He was a true narrative artist.)

Because I was a growing boy, Mother and Pop went ahead and got a 26-inch bike with wide handlebars that stretched a kid’s arms out significantly. My two older brothers taught me how to ride it by pushing me off down a major hill and yelling, “Ride, Danny, Ride.” That was similar to the way they taught swimming as well, throwing me into the deep, yelling, “Swim, Danny, Swim.” Great teachers, right? Well, it worked on both accounts. The best education is self-education. Or, as country comedian Dave Garner used to say, “It is always best to self-educate you own self.”

I kept on cycling as I grew to maturity. My first job, in fact, was that of bicycle messenger for Western Union. I wore out two bicycles and several sets of tires doing that. During and for a while after the military, I abandoned that avocation, but after marriage I managed to procure and maintain a good bicycle. And, when I became a professor and rode my bicycle back and forth to work, it was considered a non-blameworthy eccentricity by students and faculty alike.

Once when my nephew was visiting, I happened to have two bicycles and invited him to go on a ride with me. Gliding through the college farm road, we came upon a man cutting up a tree that had been hit by lightning. He admired our bicycles and mentioned the he was an avid cyclist. It was the college archeologist and after that encounter, I started riding daily with him, receiving advice as to cycling equipment from him. He subscribed to the cycling magazines and eventually, so did I. We joined the Arkansas Bicycle Club and put in many miles riding with that group.

Now that I am approaching the threshold of old age, I have a mountain bike, not a racer. It is well-equipped with lighting, reflectors, a speedometer, a tool kit, a frame pump and other needful accouterments. I do not ride long distances any more, but there are some good hills around here for aerobic fitness. I especially like going downhill—I mean on a bicycle.

There is something good about cycling that is hard to define. Maybe that “something” is keeping rhythm while at rest. You know, sitting, yet exerting. Leaning forward. Feeling the wind in your face. Sneaking up on deer. Outwitting dogs. Imagining what people are thinking, such as, look at that old dude on a bicycle. What’s wrong with him.

I often wonder that myself and have concluded nothing. Intentional ambiguity.

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Ordination


Thirty years ago, a friend of mine was to be ordained. He asked me to be a presenter at the ceremony and to read the Old Testament lesson for the day. I humbly accepted the invitation. He told me I should don my academic robe for the event, explaining that it was canonically correct to wear academic regalia in formal church services, even if it was not acceptable to be clad in ecclesiastical garb in academic convocations. So, I got out my robe and Ph. D. hood and tidied them up for the event.

When the great day came, I showed up at the appointed place, a beautifully ornate sanctuary in a large city, looking like a Supreme Court judge. The processional was long and ostentatious, the incense was pungent and the organ blared in full tremolo. I read my passage from Isaiah, emphasizing the part that says, “Here am I, send me,” from the lectern, concluding my contribution with the designated words, “Here endeth the reading.”

Then came the Gospel reading by my honored friend himself and then the sermon by a reverend professor from a New York seminary. I remember his remarks almost verbatim, notwithstanding the lapse of three decades. He said:

“Right Reverend Sir, reverend clergy, friends and relatives of the ordinand, fellow followers of Our Lord, ladies and gentlemen, I bring greetings from my colleagues on the seminary faculty and from the students studying there.

“When I was a student in that very seminary,” he went on, “I had a classmate from Texas I could not stand to be around. His accent was so very thick. He said “hep” for “help” and “wekom” for “welcome.” There was not an “L” in his mouth. And he had other objectionable speech patterns as well. I tried to avoid this Texan as much as possible.”

Since I was seated on the platform, I could see the faces of those gathered for the event, all Southern people, some Texans, and I wondered where that minister thought he was. He continued undaunted:

“I decided in my heart I never would go to Texas if I could avoid it. But, when this graduate of our seminary to be ordained here today asked me to come down here to deliver the sermon, I did not know what was going to happen. I got on the airplane at JFK and changed planes in Memphis to come to Little Rock. The weather was terrible at Memphis and worsened as we approached Little Rock. The plane was rocking and bouncing and lightning was flashing all around us. The pilot came on the p.a. system and said we were diverting to Dallas-Ft. Worth. Oh, my, I thought. This is terrible. But when we drew near to Texas, the weather cleared, the flight smoothed out. The Dallas-Ft. Worth airport came into view. IT WAS A WEKOM SITE, SO HEP ME.”

Then, he went on to preach a beautiful sermon. I thought that was a great attention-getter and a wonderful way to get into a sermon by shedding all semblance to the Pharisee.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Altruistic Team


I was a teenager when Uncle Sam paid my way for a three-year tour of duty in Germany. At first, everything seemed, well, foreign over there, but at time went on familiarity kicked in and I felt at home. That kind of familiarity did not breed contempt, though absence from my home in the states did make my heart grow fonder of it. I knew people who spent their whole enlistment bemoaning their decision to enlist. I got over that after basic training and actually enjoyed much of my time in the service.

In the states, baseball and sandlot football were our childhood sports. The rural people I met and grew to love in Germany played only one sport—soccer. They called it “foosball.” I don’t remember just how I became friends with Erich, Demeter, Wolfie, Joachim and the other guys down near Zell on the Mosel River. I do remember that I was quickly accepted into their circle of friends, which meant playing foosball with them on Sunday afternoons.

They were vineyard people, growing their crops on poles on the south side of the mountain. They had all the accouterments of farmers I had known in the states—barns, tractors, and so forth—with one addition that was unfamiliar to me: wine cellars. Each dwelling seemed to have one furnished with long rows of casks, labelled with the year the contents were deposited there. I remember seeing casks dated way back before my birth in some of those cellars.

But, back to foosball. Somehow the gang had flattened out a field near the peak of the mountain for a sports arena. The goals at each end were made of vineyard poles and fish nets and boundaries were marked with poles as well. I was a terrible player, but they did not seem to mind. I provided good amusement for them when I kicked at and missed the ball, falling flat on my American posterior. I got better as time went on, but those guys were downright magicians in their head, arm and foot dexterity.

Unlike sports organizations in the U.S., these individualistic vintners simply challenged other towns nearby and they met on more or less arbitrary schedules to compete. The team I was on won steadily until late one summer when they held an unofficial championship game against a little village across the river. For some reason—I will let you guess why—I never got off the bench during that game. My team lost by one goal and it was a downer. Erich, the biggest of my German teammates, took the loss very badly. He had missed a goal towards the end of the game and took all the blame for blowing the championship. My German was not very good, but I could tell his teammates were trying to tell him it was not his fault, each pointing out his own mistakes during the game.

I never saw a more altruistic group of people in my life. By nightfall, Erich was reconciled to the loss and everyone was jubilant and festive. We even went across the river to the victorious village and joined in their lively celebration. Their players embraced us and it was a happy evening.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Justice


Belshazzar was weighed in Yahweh’s scales and found wanting. He lost his kingdom because the gods he venerated were lightweights in comparison to the God above all gods. This grandson of prideful Nebuchadnezzar was such a punk that he was not worthy even to hear a voice from heaven; thus, the hand appeared and wrote on the wall in a foreign language. You might say it was “writing in tongues” that required an interpreter: enter Daniel. The weak-kneed king offered Daniel treasure and position for an interpretation of the weird writing but the honorable Hebrew refused the gifts, delivering the message clearly. “You, Belshazzar, are a lightweight. You have been weighed in the scales of justice and found wanting. Thus, your kingdom will go to the Medes and Persians.” It happened that very night.

So, what about God’s scales of justice? We see that the prophets reported God’s desire for it over and over. The famous passage in Micah 6:8 says the Lord requires justice, mercy and humble living. And we certainly see divine justice superseding man’s attempts at it all through scripture—David and Goliath, Mordechai and Haman, Ruth and Boaz, Babylonian law and the Hebrew children, Jesus’ treatment of the woman taken in adultery. What man sees as justice is often not justice at all but a desire to control others or elevate the ego.

However, I am glad to report that I saw a sincere and evenhanded desire for justice in law enforcement and the courts when I was a reporter for The De Queen Bee. The sheriff’s office, the police station and the courts exhibited real concern for fairness and objectivity in their written and oral reports to the media. I learned afresh the true meaning of the popular phrase, “It is what it is.” In other words, nothing was hidden and the desire for accuracy and completeness came through. The job of a journalist was to weigh the incidents for newsworthiness and write appropriate stories in Associated Press style.

My other profession, that of English professor, was full of concerns about justice as well. I don’t just mean fairness in grading essays but in the overriding theme of justice in the literature we taught. One of my favorite short works of literature is Melville’s “Billy Budd,” a tale about a young sailor with a speech impediment who is falsely accused by a senior seaman named Claggart. Because Budd cannot get the words out to defend himself, he strikes out with his fist, killing Claggart. Mr. Vere, the ship’s captain, is present at the fatal altercation and does not want to hang Billy Budd, but justice demands it. Just as the noose is placed around the young sailor’s neck, he utters an astounding phrase, “God bless Captain Vere.” Interestingly, Captain Vere’s last words not much later are, “Billy Budd, Billy Budd.” He could never forget how terribly much the demands of justice cost him.

Perhaps, like Belshazzar of old, we are all weighed in a cosmic scale—a fulcrum upon which our lives are balanced against the law of love and its constant companion, forgiveness. Unlike the punkish Babylonian, however, Christians have an advocate, ultimately making things even. It is what it is.