Marines.Together We Served

Monday, January 30, 2006

Small Town USA

This past weekend I had the opportunity to spend some time with my oldest daughter, Laura. She and I had a major project to undertake. We would finally be tackling the garage – a project my wife has wanted me to undertake for a long time.

I confess – I’m an inveterate saver. It’s difficult for me to part with things that I haven’t needed or used in months and/or years. The garage has become a repository for all things that have no significant place in the house, while my wife’s car and my classic Volvo sit in the driveway, exposed to the elements. Go figure!

So on Friday, Laura and I spent a couple of hours at Home Depot in neighboring Manteca selecting the cabinets and hanging racks we were going to assemble, thus modernizing the interior of the garage. The goal? Put everything away neatly, and dump the rest. We’re off to a good start.

After working a while on our project, I realized I needed a few extra items. We hopped in my car and headed for our local hardware store, Schemper’s Ace Hardware. I was struck once again at how much I enjoy living in a small town. Walking into the store, I was greeted with smiles from more than one employee, and asked if I needed any help. I spoke with Bud Schemper, one of the family members that owns the store, and was given all the assistance I needed. What I was looking for were a couple of hooks to screw into the ceiling, and a work light. No problem. They had all of that. I spent extra time visiting just because these are genuinely nice people. John, one of the men who had helped me later, walked out to the parking lot with me and said as we parted, “I’m living every little boys dream – I’m working in a hardware store!”

I also needed to replace the wiper blades on my Volvo. So I stopped at one of the local auto parts stores, B&Z Auto Parts. Ray is the owner and is always very helpful. He keeps a pot of coffee on for his customers. I like to grab a cup and just chew the fat, even waiting when he has to take care of another customer who wanders in, then we resume our conversation. Ray even walks out to my car and puts the wiper blades on, an act of service I appreciate since I’ve never understood why the manufacturers of wipers make it so difficult to change the blades.

Getting a haircut is always an enjoyable experience. George has been cutting hair in town for 35 years. He always has several people sitting waiting their turn. George gives every customer the same level of attention, so don’t be in a hurry. You see, at George’s you get more than a haircut. You get to connect with others in the community. Discussions take place on any number of topics. And with George’s laid-back manner, you can actually take a deep breath and relax before heading back to work.

On Friday night I called in to Pizza Plus to order a pizza. I walked into what can only be described as booming business! There were definitely a lot of folks enjoying the evening out. Families occupied booths, while others of us waited in line to pick up our orders. On my way out I stopped to chat with folks I know.

I could share more about the folks in my small town, but you get the idea. But, perhaps it’s Ripon Drug & Gifts that epitomizes what makes Ripon, California so special. The folks who work there know you. If you are picking up a prescription, as my ninety-year-old mother did last week, they go out of their way to make sure you’re taken care of. About the same time, my wife was battling a nasty cold. The medicine she was using didn’t seem to be helping. So she called the pharmacist, explained her problem, and asked if there was something he might recommend. He reviewed her chart and suggested a different over-the-counter medicine. That did the trick!

Ripon is the Almond Capital of the World. Each January there is a banquet to kick off our Almond Blossom Festival. During the banquet the candidates for “Miss Almond Blossom Festival” are introduced and given the opportunity to speak. These young ladies are from our local public and private high schools, and one from a home school environment. They tell us why they want to be chosen as Miss Almond Blossom Festival and are loudly applauded for their presentation.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how blessed I am to be the pastor of the Ripon Free Methodist Church. These are the folks who have supported me in my ministry, and who also endured my 21 months of recall to active duty, traipsing around the world to places like Kuwait, Iraq and Djibouti.

My wife and I often look at each other in wonder, knowing that we each fully appreciate the small town community we live in. It may not be Mayberry, but it’s pretty close!

God bless America!

Monday, January 23, 2006

What Really Matters

It’s all about relationships.

I watched President Bush speak to an audience of nine thousand people at Kansas State University on Monday morning. He is traveling around the country addressing the question of wire-tapping and the War on Terrorism.

During the question and answer session, one student asked him how he is able to handle being constantly criticized in his role as the president. He gave a short but powerful response.

His answer: “Faith, Family, and Friends.” He then followed that up by giving examples of how that plays out in his life.

The question of his friendships is a matter that some have criticized. They say he’s too loyal to his friends. Too loyal? What does that mean exactly? How can you be too loyal? Friendship, if it’s worth anything at all, is all about loyalty.

He obviously values his relationship with his wife, Laura. He said to the crowd, as he has numerous times during his presidency, “I married well.” He followed that up by saying, “My daughters still like me.” That brought a chuckle from the audience.

As for faith, the president has never been shy about his personal relationship with God. Some have accused him of forcing his religious beliefs on all Americans. I disagree. What he is doing is living his faith. That is to say, his faith is not one part of his life that only emerges on Sunday for church. His relationship with God is very deep and very personal which affects every part of his life. It cannot be separated as some have suggested. Personally, I wouldn’t think much of a person’s faith if it didn’t permeate their entire life.

Our lives consist of relationships. In the final analysis, it doesn’t matter how many toys you have, or how far you went up the ladder of success. And it really doesn’t matter what the rest of those in your world think of you. It’s what friends and family think of you, and most importantly, what God thinks of you, that matters. It has to do with the quality of those relationships.

The Bible has quite a bit to say about friends. In the book of Proverbs we read, “A friend loves at all times,” and “There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” Or how about this one, “Wounds from a friend can be trusted.” And finally this verse, “Do not forsake your friend and the friend of your father.” Sounds an awful lot like loyalty to me. But to cap off the friend part, consider Jesus’ words when he says, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” Those are the kind of friends I want to have, and that’s the kind of friend I want to be.

There is far too much written in the Bible about the role and importance of families to do it justice in this article. But in Genesis, God establishes the basic principle for all families, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.” This is a relationship of commitment. As God concluded his creative adventure with planet earth, topping it off by making man and woman, he declared it to be, “Very good.”

Now as for a relationship with God, this is man’s deepest longing. The Bible focuses totally on God’s desire to restore the broken relationship with man that sin had caused. In fact, he took all the steps necessary to mend the rift. “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” This, then, is the reason many in the Christian faith are committed to Christ, who is the one who paid the price for sin. He demonstrated in the most tangible way his commitment to us when he went to the cross. Those who embrace his sacrifice make a life commitment to him.

It is Jesus who is the one “who sticks closer than a brother.” It is Jesus who demonstrated the “greater love for his friends,” by laying down his life. Its is Jesus who “came to seek and to save what was lost.”

So, good for you, Mr. President. In that short, concise answer to the question about handling the constant abuses leveled at you, you have given the American people, and the world, the recipe for enduring the slings and arrows of life. This may well be your most lasting legacy.

Relationships – it’s what really matters.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Why Standards?

There is a curious aspect of the human species that I have always been fascinated by. We adhere to a set of standards for living. We have a clear-cut grasp of right and wrong. There is, in addition, the concept of fair play.

Our culture today has effectively challenged all of these beliefs about the human spirit. We are told that we are just hunks of protoplasm, accidentally formed by a fluke in the cosmos. Or that we evolved over time from primordial slime that took shape and left its watery home, choosing to walk on solid ground. We are told repeatedly, particularly in our educational institutions that we are nothing more than another life form, no better than any other.

Now, here’ my problem with all this: Where did mankind come up with a set of standards? For instance, if we are simply animals, expected to do what animals do, where is the logic in even the most rudimentary of values? What would be the point?
Stay with me here. I’ve been kicking this around for some time now. What brought this all to a head was something I read the other day. As a 31-year-member of our nation’s military, I have been aware of values expressed in the armed services that often far exceed those in the civilian sector. Despite the fact that soldiers train for war where they break things and kill people, they are often the most cordial and well behaved members of society. Why? Here are folks who are called upon by our nation to do the worst of acts – the taking of another human life. Yet when away from the horrors of the battlefield these warriors dress in fine uniforms and present themselves as the paragons of a genteel society.

The following is a military policy statement I read that got my thought processes working: “All military and civilian personnel have a responsibility for maintaining high standards of honesty, integrity, impartiality, and conduct.” Add to this the Marine Corps values slogan: Honor, Courage and Commitment. These sound very noble indeed! Even the Marine Corps’ beloved Semper Fidelis – or as the Marines like to say, Semper Fi – is a values-based slogan meaning “Always Faithful.”

Scandals in our military academies, exposing a soft underbelly where wholesale cheating and other unacceptable behavior has been brought to the light, have raised its ugly head at times. Typically, military careers come to an end with nary a handshake, and cadets are dismissed to return home. After all, cadets are expected to be officers and gentlemen/ladies.

So here’s my question: Where do such lofty ideals come from? If we are nothing more than accidental life forms, why do we bother with such standards and values?

The military still holds its members to a set of standards from the moment we raise our right hand to be sworn in. "I, _____, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God."

I contend that the reason we have such values as part of our culture, woven into the warp and woof of our souls, is that there is a “Holy Other” who has determined that we are to be more than biological protoplasm. Instead, we are created by a God who has infused his own character and values in us as a guiding template.

Consider, if you will, that we, as a society, will attempt to remove those who do not abide by a divine set of standards. Why? Because these people are considered to be piranhas in our midst who have abandoned any responsibility for their actions, considering themselves to no longer be answerable to a holy God. Such people frighten us because, by rejecting any set of standards to live by, they show a wanton disregard for the value of life.

The values we hold to are not arbitrarily obtained, nor are they made up to satisfy some prurient longing on the part of man. These values, instead, are a call from God to be better than what our baser nature would have us be. In point of fact, we are to be god-like.

One of the strongest arguments in favor of the existence of God is this set of standards, values and behaviors that make us unique in the world, setting us apart from the animal kingdom.

You were made in the image and likeness of God. That’s why you have standards of fairness, truth, love, retaliation, integrity, and so on. When we remove these standards we are capable of the worst of crimes. Consider the warped thinking of an Adolf Hitler who authorized the assembly-line experimentation of anyone who did not “fit” his standard.

God, who loves you completely, invites you to come up to his level. He’s waiting.

Monday, January 09, 2006

An Old New Orleans

New Orleans, a.k.a., the “Big Easy,” is in trouble.

My first reserve drill days for 2006 were in New Orleans where my command, the 4th Marine Aircraft Wing, is headquartered. When Hurricane Katrina hit that region at the end of August, the Wing headquarters folks had to evacuate. They relocated temporarily at the Naval Air Base Atlanta, Georgia. They returned to New Orleans toward the end of November.

The evening I arrived, I ran into a Red Cross worker, Ed, who has been in the area for a number of weeks, plus he was on the ground right after Katrina hit. He informed me he had also been assigned to help the Red Cross at ground zero immediately after 9-11.

We stood in the lobby and chatted for some time. I asked him about the status of the city, expressing my surprise at the absence of people in the French Quarter. This occurred because I missed a turn on my way to downtown from the airport. I wound up driving through the famous French Quarter at 6:00 pm, a time when the streets are normally jammed with people either hanging out in the bars and jazz joints, or looking for a comfortable restaurant where they might wile away the evening. Instead, what I found were streets that were deserted. And it seemed that practically all the bars and restaurants were closed for business. Trash and refuse from hurricane damage was piled on the streets. This in a city that relies on tourism and conventions for cash flow. One young man working for the Marriott where I was staying told me he was living in one of the rooms in the upper floor of the hotel. Others live 60 to 100 miles away, commuting to work every day.

Ed told me that once you drive out of the immediate downtown there are areas that are completely deserted. So after my first day of military duty, taking advantage of little light left in the day, I headed out toward Saint Bernard Parrish, one of the hardest hit areas. My friend and fellow Navy chaplain, Ben Orchard, came along, taking pictures of what we saw. Sure enough, mile after mile we witnessed homes abandoned, doors standing open, windows broken out, and trash piled high, with many of these dwellings marked for demolition. Businesses, too, were not open. Worse yet, they were gone, leaving no sign that they were coming back. Traffic signals were not working in most cases. We drove by more than one mall where big name stores were no longer open for business. The parking lots were empty – on a Saturday morning!

McDonalds of Golden Arches fame was not spared from this natural disaster either. I counted at least a half-dozen of the fast-food giant’s stores standing in silent testimony to the power of the hurricanes force. The large “M” was the first indication that damage was done. Typically I would see this symbol, recognized around the world, lying on the ground as a twisted strand of metal that is now destined for the junk heap. The bright yellow plastic used to highlight the “M,” was broken out or missing.

As I was checking out of the hotel, I asked the clerk, “What’s going to happen to this city?” He looked at me with baleful eyes and shrugged. He said, “I hope it comes back slowly.” I wanted to be of some encouragement to him, but I don’t think he believed it was going to happen. From what I had seen in and around the city, I don’t see the city coming back either.

So was it a judgment of God (as some have suggested)? Or was it simply a capricious act of nature? I don’t know. But if God was attempting to punish the city for its sin, the heart of that sin would be the French Quarter, a place notorious for all manner of decadent human behavior. Surprisingly, the Quarter probably experienced the least amount of damage of any place. There was some evidence of wind damage, but very little in the way of flooding. But with few people living in the area, the effect is the same. The place might as well be a ghost town.

Ben and I did manage to enjoy a delicious dinner at one of the very few restaurants open, the Palace CafĂ©, located on the edge of the French Quarter. I decided to have one of their specialties. It is a pork dish similar to a shepherd’s pie. In the menu’s description of this dish, it listed as the primary ingredient, pork “debris.” I looked up the dictionary definition of debris. Debris is “the remains of anything broken down or destroyed.” How appropriate! Ben and I couldn’t help but see the irony!

This historic city may still be called New Orleans. But it’s looking pretty old.