Marines.Together We Served

Monday, February 26, 2007

A Force of One

I went to the movies last Friday night with my wife, mother, and friends. This is a rare excursion for us, so you know the movie had to be highly recommended. What we discovered was more than an excellent movie, and more than a true story (which is my favorite kind). This is a story of one man’s faith in Christ and his belief that with God’s help he could actually change the world.

The movie is entitled, “Amazing Grace.” It is the story of the tumultuous ordeal endured by William Wilberforce, an English parliamentarian, who single-handedly brought an end to the hideous practice of slavery by Great Britain. The opposition he faced over a lifetime of protesting this barbaric institution would have crushed a lesser man. Wilberforce proved not to be a lesser man because he believed that God specifically appointed him to see this endeavor through. The movie opens with a letter from reformer John Wesley encouraging Wilberforce to press on in his efforts to end slavery in Britain.

The abolition of slavery came about simply because this lone, single, solitary man would not take no for an answer. Each year he would introduce legislation before Parliament seeking to end this blight on humanity. For more than forty years he would force the leaders of Britain to look at this ugly affair, not allowing them to rest comfortably while African men, women and children were sold on the open market like so much cattle.

This was during an era when Great Britain was regarded as the most powerful nation in the world. Their ships sailed the seven seas, colonizing areas all around the globe. During this period Great Britain’s reach around the world was so extensive that it was said that the sun never set on the British Empire. It was also during this time when the fabled Lord Admiral Horatio Hornblower ruled the seas for his beloved Britain. A few years ago a series of movies came out chronicling the legendary life of Admiral Hornblower, played by the brilliant British actor Ioan Gruffudd, who also plays William Wilberforce in “Amazing Grace.”

As a young boy, Wilberforce came under the preaching and teaching ministry of John Newton. It is Newton who penned the famous hymn, “Amazing Grace,” which has become a beloved hymn of the church for the ages. John Newton had been a slave trader, trafficking in human cargo between Africa, England and the Americas. It was during a fierce storm at sea that he cried out to God to save him. This began an awakening in Newton’s heart, gradually revealing that his participation in the slave trade was evil. To now call himself a Christian while still trafficking in slavery was a violation of God’s intended purpose. In submitting to God’s will, Newton studied the Bible in its entirety, eventually being ordained a minister of the gospel. Newton never felt himself worthy of God’s forgiveness and grace, but he faithfully preached with such passion and conviction that young William Wilberforce felt compelled to trust Christ in bringing about change in the world.

As a young man serving in the Parliament, Wilberforce was undaunted in his loud protestations concerning the practice of slavery in Britain. Frequently he was shouted down by his fellow Parliamentarians. Yet, he was tireless, though he did pay a heavy price in his body which frequently drained him of energy. He was eventually diagnosed with colitis, a condition characterized by inflammation of the colon, accompanied by lower-bowel spasms and upper abdominal cramps, usually frequented with diarrhea.

Actor Albert Finney plays John Newton and does a masterful job. He’s a crusty, tough old man who has seen more than his share of human misery. He lives with the knowledge that he was responsible for transporting more than twenty thousand slaves on the coffin ships, as they were called. Typically, half or better of the slaves who were chained into cramped quarters on a ship, died before reaching Jamaica or the United States.

While in college I signed up for a class in African-American History, taught by Dr. Malcolm LaPlace. Dr. LaPlace had written a book about Black History which outlined in graphic detail the inhumane treatment of Africans sold to slave traders who then shipped them to strange places on the other side of the world. I became friends with Dr. LaPlace and his wife, learning much more from him over the next two years. He had served as one of the first African-American commissioned officers in the United States Army during World War Two. Even though he was wearing the uniform of our country, he was still treated as a second class citizen, required to sit in the back of the bus, eat in black restaurants only, and called “Boy” while fighting for our nation against the likes of Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Hirohito’s Imperialist Japan.

William Wilberforce died in 1833 after finally bringing about the end of slavery in Great Britain. With God’s help, he succeeded in dramatically changing the world. He was a force of one. What he never realized is that his actions in England began a tidal wave that ultimately crashed on the shores of America, emboldening the abolitionist movement in these United States. His actions forced the issue of slavery to take center stage, bringing about its eventual repeal through our own bloody Civil War. My church denomination was officially formed in 1860 as a result of the slavery issue. One of the reasons we call ourselves “Free” Methodists is based on the premise that, “No man has a right to own another man. Every man has a right to be free!”

“Amazing Grace” is a must see movie.

But let me ask you: Do you believe that God wants to use you in some way that is beyond your ability? Is God big enough for the task to which he has called you? You’ll never know until you step out in faith – like William Wilberforce did.

Monday, February 19, 2007

In Defense of our Defenders

I have been wrestling with writing this article for some time now, but as I watch the lunacy of talking heads parade around the media stage, I can’t help but reflect back to the same sort of behavior we were subjected to in the later years of the Vietnam War.

Let me make this statement right out of the chute: You cannot, in the same breath, be opposed to the War on Terror, and be for the troops. This is nonsense.

When a person, be they Joe America, a politician, or a media type, utters critical remarks about our war efforts, or makes disparaging comments about the president, they strike at the very core of the military. Our service men and women are intelligent people, contrary to the remarks made by certain congressional leaders. They read the news; they watch CNN, NBC and the like; and they discuss the political pettiness that supposedly passes for standing on one’s principles. For those of us who are a bit long-in-the-tooth, we’ve seen all this before. Disappointed would probably categorize our reaction. But for the young troops who haven’t been exposed to this soft underbelly of America’s schizophrenia, they are simply stupefied. They wonder what happened to the flag waving, the tearful goodbyes, the sense of national pride, and the 90% support numbers for the troops marching off to war?

Now in fairness, there are indeed folks who are continuing to show tremendous support for our warriors. A news program the other night had a lengthy segment highlighting dozens of patriotic Texans getting up early every morning, seven days a week, in order to be at the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport to greet returning military units. These folks stand in line waiting for the warriors to walk by so they can shake their hand, pat them on the back, or give them a hug, all while speaking words of thanks and encouragement. It brought me to tears.

This Saturday I have been asked to speak to a church men’s group. My talk is entitled: “Today’s Military – From Where I Sit.” This church in Sacramento is one of those seemingly rare congregations that got on board with troop support from the outset of the war. It has been my pleasure to work with them. They faithfully collect boxes of supplies and goodies which they mail to our troops along with cards and letters of support and encouragement. But more importantly, they make it their purpose to hold our troops up in prayer, along with our president and the Congress. When they asked me to come and speak, it was easy to say yes.

One of the freedoms we enjoy, as well as abuse, is the freedom of speech. We are that rare nation in the history of the world that allows its citizenry to be openly critical of its leaders. Our military members gladly defend this right, along with all the other rights we enjoy as a free people. But there’s something you need to know.

Some of the same rights our military defends are not rights they can personally exercise. When a service member raises their right hand and swears an oath to “Support and Defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” that they “will bear true faith and allegiance to the same,” they also swear to “obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers” appointed over them. Being obedient within the military infrastructure helps maintain “good order and discipline,” an ingredient of military training essential to winning America’s wars and maintaining a strong standing army.

Please note, that when the president is criticized, ridiculed, vilified, pilloried, or in any other way targeted for abuse by Americans, the military takes it personally. Military members expect this from America’s enemies and critics – but not from our countrymen.

The president is not only the president – he is something different for the military. He is their Commander in Chief. Personal party affiliation or philosophical differences must take a back seat for the service member. They are not to speak against the president or the members of Congress because these are the individuals we work for. This is another historical anomaly: The United States is set up in such a way as to have civilian leaders exercise authority over the military. Why? Because, as the Founding Fathers knew from history, this approach to governance would significantly reduce the likelihood of a military coup. How many nations in the past hundred years saw their governments destroyed by a popular military leader who decided to take over? This is one of the reasons President Harry Truman called General Douglas MacArthur on the carpet for his publicly critical remarks about the president. In essence, President Truman as the Commander in Chief, fired his most senior military commander. And the president had every right to do so. Believe me – as a nation, we are unique in this.

One adage I grew up with went like this: “If you don’t have something good to say about somebody, then say nothing at all.” That’s good advice.

In the meantime, continue your support of both the troops and the administration. In times like these, even our defenders need defending. They’re changing history by ridding the world of terrorists and thugs. They need your strong support.

Your military will continue to be that dog that keeps the wolf from the door. And may God bless them for it.

Monday, February 12, 2007

High Flying Pennant

I was reading a book this week where the author mentioned a fact I knew, but figured it was a fairly obscure bit of knowledge unless you’re in the Navy.

The book I was reading was Tom Clancy’s “Red Rabbit,” a book about espionage, filled with danger and suspense, which is his forte. In Clancy’s inimitable way, he guides the reader into bits of knowledge and history that add to the flavor of the story.

Within his story, Clancy mentions that the American flag never has another flag fly above it – with one exception. The exception is when a Navy ship is at sea. Then, and only then, is any flag allowed to fly above the American flag.

What flag holds this unique distinction, you ask? Well, it’s the church pennant which is flown when religious services are being conducted by a Navy chaplain. The pennant is a long triangular shape with St George's Cross in blue on a white background at the wider end where the cross appears to lie sideways when the pennant is flying. The ship’s boson will blow his boson’s pipe over the 1MC (the loudspeaker system used on all Navy vessels) immediately followed by an announcement to this effect: “All hands standby for religious services. Maintain silence about the decks!” Should there happen to be a chaplain who is a rabbi on board to hold Jewish services, the same procedure would be conducted. The exception would be that the pennant will have the Ten Commandment tablets embroidered on the pennant. So then, the church pennant and the Jewish worship pennant are the only two flags that ever fly above the national ensign.

The Flag Code expressly allows an exception for the church pennant to fly above the Stars and Stripes during religious services conducted by a Navy chaplain at sea. The Jewish worship pennant was approved by the Secretary of the Navy in December 1979.

The practice of hoisting the church pennant aboard ship stems from the English and Dutch navies. This apparently originated in the 1700s, signaling a time of truce in order to conduct worship services. It’s bad form to be trying to kill each other during religious observances, don’t you know.

The U.S. Army even holds services on board their large seagoing vessels, although this is more out of tradition than based on any law. And, yes, the Army has ships – lots of them. It is said they have more than the Navy. I can’t verify that, but I’ve heard it for many years.

The use of the church pennant at sea has been challenged over the years by those who support “separation of church and state.” Another group has made the challenge that to display the American flag in a subservient position to any other flag is a sign of disrespect and dishonors our flag. Even before the Flag Code, there were (unsuccessful) attempts in Congress to prohibit the Navy by law from flying the church pennant above the national ensign.

Regardless of what your position is on the church pennant being displayed above the Stars and Stripes, there are certain things we can be sure of. First, it is never intended to show disrespect to our own American flag. Second, its historical practice has been to generate a moment of peace between nations who would otherwise be taking aim at their enemy’s flag. And third, it should be comforting to know that there are times when even the most powerful Navy in the world acknowledges that there is a God and he is worthy of our respect.

Will there come a day when those opposed to this tradition take aim at the U.S. law that currently authorizes this practice and successfully defeat it before the Supreme Court? Possibly.
But I’m thankful that there are chaplains of all faiths in the military who call us, like the prophets and preachers of a bygone era, to remember that the affairs of man are in the hands of Almighty God.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Out of the Blue

Recently, I had an angelic visitation. Well, not exactly, but it sounds good and it works for this article.

A news crew from Channel 31 out of Sacramento decided to pay a surprise visit to my town of Ripon. Driving to work one morning I discovered a television news truck parked on Main Street in front of the church. The news crew had heard that the church was the oldest church in town and they thought they’d stop by. While I was standing out front chatting with the news guys, a car pulled up to the curb right where we were standing. All conversation came to a halt as we each in turn made an approving appraisal of the coolest looking Corvette any of us had ever seen.

By way of background, I grew up during the hay-day of car shows in the ‘50s. My dad used to take us to see the sorts of futuristic cars that might one day be on the road. They all looked “other-worldly,” but it was always great fun. Besides that, my dad had a number of memorable automobiles over the years. Several that come to mind were: 1) a 1937 Cord with front-wheel drive, a feature well ahead of its time, 2) a 1941 Lincoln Continental with the metal-covered spare tire centered on the rear bumper, and 3) a 1948 Studebaker bullet-nose. That was the car design which left you wondering which end of the car was the front and which was the back!

So, emerging from this tangible symbol of Detroit’s most successful effort at combining brawn and beauty were Dave and Jennifer Raymond, the owners of this marvelous American icon. They, too, had hoped to catch up with the news team.

You may be wondering what was it that made this ‘Vette so different from all the others on the road? Simple: It was painted to look just like the Navy Blue Angels performance jets. I kid you not! The car was painted all blue, trimmed in the simple gold cursive writing, Blue Angels, on each door. Being that I am forever and always a lover of cars, I began to fire off questions at Dave and Jennifer. What year is the car? 2005. I’ll bet you can drive onto any military base in the country? Not really. Did you need permission from the Blue Angels to paint the car this way? No. And so the questioning went.

The car was totally customized right down to the seat covers. And, get this - they played a recording of the Blue Angels pilots in flight during a performance. Now that was cool!

Several people had gathered around by this time, which wasn’t hard to do in a town where all the action is on Main Street anyway. My secretary, Gayle Mottweiler, came out of her office wondering what I was up to this time. One of the ladies in our church, Carol Anderson, had stopped by the church. She and Gayle were “Tsk, tsking” over my obvious lack of decorum in the presence of so elegant a machine. And to do so right there in front of the church even! I carry a handkerchief just for such unexpected occasions.

Dave Kelch had come by the church to take care of our routine janitorial service. We’re pals when it comes to cars because we each own a Chrysler PT Cruiser. He was standing there with a grin on his face looking at that ‘Vette like he’d just eaten the canary!

The manager of the Bank of Stockton next door, Nancy Caldwell, came out with her camera. All I had was my cell phone camera – which is good in a pinch, but would never do for something this momentous.

I admit it. I looked pathetic, fairly drooling over this car. It had been meticulously customized down to the detail in the engine so as to totally reflect the Blue Angels image. Dave Raymond is a gracious man and asked me if I’d like to sit in the car. He didn’t have to ask me twice. This particular ‘Vette has a six-speed manual transmission. When I asked Dave about this, he said it cruises at 80 mph – no problem. And he’s not even close to getting into sixth gear. Whoa!

In the last couple of years, I’ve been asked to be a judge for the car show in Ripon during our Annual Main Street Days in October. Not only do I get to see some of the finest looking hot rods and other show cars, but I get to pick the one I like best! It’s tough duty, but somebody has to do it.

When my nephew, Josh Roots, graduated from the Naval Academy in 1998, we were able to attend the graduation held on the school grounds of Annapolis, Maryland. Among the many memorable events of graduation week was a private performance by the Blue Angels for the graduates and their family’s right there over the Severn River. It was awesome!

Now, I’ve read about angels in the Bible, and they are really something special. Abraham had his encounters with angels, as did Joseph and Mary, and did various others, including the shepherds the night Jesus was born. But none of them had an angel appear out of the blue with a 400 horse power, rear wheel drive, multi-point fuel-injected, 6 Liter “I’m gonna eat your lunch!” V 8 engine!

You had to have been there!