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Archive for December, 2007

Ever get flustered by watching National Geographic, The Discovery Channel, or The History Channel explain away the burning bush, the parting of the Red Sea, Jesus’ walking on water, or the resurrection with a scientific explanation for each? I also sigh when I hear people say that the birth of their child is a “miracle,” even though I know they mean miraculous in the sense of the wonder that it is to have a child.

Let’s start with this definition for “miracle” (my italics for emphasis): (n.) an effect or extraordinary event in the physical world that surpasses all known human or natural powers and is ascribed to a supernatural cause. Therefore, if every supposed miracle can be explained away scientifically, miracles cease to be possible. It takes the suspension of a law of nature in order to have a miracle by something supernatural or other worldly. A child being born is not a miracle. Because it breaks the course of nature, a child being born to a woman who had never lain with a man is a miracle!

C.S. Lewis wrote the following on miracles which I think is helpful for our skeptical age:

The idea that the progress of science has somehow altered this question is closely bound up with the idea that people “in olden times” believed in [miracles]”because they didn’t know the laws of Nature.” Thus you will hear people say, “The early Christians believed that Christ was the son of a virgin, but we know that this is a scientific impossibility.” Such people seem to have an idea that belief in miracles arose at a period when men were so ignorant of the cause of nature that they did not perceive a miracle to be contrary to it. A moment’s thought shows this to be nonsense: and the story of the Virgin Birth is a particularly striking example. When St. Joseph discovered this his fiancee was going to have a baby, he not unnaturally decided to repudiate her. Why? Because he knew just as well as any modern gynecologist that in the ordinary course of nature women do not have babies unless they have lain with men. No doubt the modern gynecologist knows several things about birth and begetting which St. Joseph did not know. But those things do not concern the main point–that a virgin birth is contrary to the course of nature. And St. Joseph obviously knew that. Read on… 

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Ernest Grant

So TIME Magazine chooses the former KGB member Vladimir Putin as man of the year. Wow. Instead of choosing someone who has uplifted, inspired, and helped to mold this country, TIME chose a snake-like, duplicitous man who has seen some of his most courageous rivals disappear. Granted, TIME says that it does not choose the person to necessarily praise them but to show what an impact the person has had. The Weekly Standard chose David Petraeus, a quiet, well-spoken giant of a man who has led America’s finest in a battle surge that is changing the face of the entire Iraq conflict.

For my own part, I choose a man who most of you have never heard about and who worked most of his life in Sioux City, Iowa–Ernest Grant. I had spent only an hour of my life listening to him, but what I heard, I will not soon forget. It is my hope that after reading this, you will not soon forget this man, Men Like Trees Walking’s Person of the Year.

At North High School, I have tried with some hard-working teachers to present our students to the Greatest Generation, American servicemen and women who fought in WWII, the Vietnam and Korean Wars, and in Afghanistan and Iraq. We have introduced students to 11 WWII vets, Col. Bud Day (the most highly decorated living soldier and John McCain’s cell mate), and several different soldiers who brought gear and pictures of Saddam’s palaces. As a whole, not all North High students are known for their rapt attention and respect. But our expectations on those special days–dressing up, listening well, helping to honor the men–has resulted in the most satisfying days of my teaching career.

So it was that a student last year told me that Ernest Grant had fought in World War II. I called him to ask if he would be willing to speak. He started to tell me, “I don’t know if I’m much of a speaker. You know. It was really difficult–it’s a difficult thing to talk about it.” I told him I understood and anything he could tell our students would be great. I looked at the clock because I had five minutes before an especially rowdy class would be in my room. “It all started when our plane was shot down…”

The next few minutes were like a haze in my memory. Fragments and pieces of the story, every man dead beside him except one…a farmhouse…German Nazis below him…a French family…worry that he wouldn’t be interesting or able to tell everything perfectly. I assured Ernest that he would do fine.

The day arrived, and Ernest came, thin and frail, donning a sweater, a man who must have been singularly handsome in his day. We had asked our veteran speakers to speak twice, but his daughter told us that he hadn’t spoken about his ordeal like this. One could tell that she was unsure of how he would do. He came to the front of the classroom. 36 students looked at him. One’s eyebrows raised. I breathed in, and Ernest started.

What followed was a perfectly lucid recount of perhaps the most amazing story I have ever heard. Ernest was born in Somerville, Massachusetts in 1922 and was a star baseball player in high school. After playing on a state championship team, the Japanese attacked at Pearl Harbor and the next thing he knew, Ernest was flying over France as a 20-year-old when his plane was shot down.

Every man was killed except one. Wide-eyed, with measured pace, but recalling the thing, the emotion seemed raw as if he was recalling last week’s heavy heartedness. Imagine Ernest losing every person he had been closest to–guys he joked with, smoked with, talked with of dreams of marriage, jobs, and new cities upon returning home. Except that in a flash, the pain of his broken body and bloodied face subsided into the searing pain that none of those boys would have a single one of their dreams fulfilled. In a smoke-filled France, Ernest Grant realized for the first time that he was alone. Until the thought struck him, there were those who would be by his side in a minute–the Nazis of now German-occupied France.

What makes Ernest Grant’s story so remarkable is a story of sacrifice that runs counter to our culture today. A French family took Ernest in. Maybe there was a kindred connection that America and France were staunch allies. Maybe they had pity on this boy who hardly knew a word of French, lost and alone.

The stakes could not have been higher. Just a kilometer away, a French Catholic bishop was housing 10 American soldiers in the back of his cathedral. When the Nazis discovered who the bishop was hiding, they made sure that a ghastly spectacle made it clear that their expectations were to hand over any enemy to the new state. All 10 of the soldiers were marched into the street in front of the cathedral. Each one was shot in the back of the head. Then the elderly bishop looking on in horror was dragged in front, pleading for his life until a bullet stopped short his pleadings. Such was the danger that this French family faced who held a boy with a Boston accent atop their lodgings–for over a year.

There is a silence that communicates more than words. When Ernest Grant spoke of this family, a distance showed in his eyes. Something of gratitude–not the kind that you give for a material gift–that cannot be expressed for laying one’s life on the line is apt to be expressed by earnest eyes and awestruck dumbness. So it was with Ernest Grant.

Ernest Grant survived over four dozen Nazis raiding the French family below him for supplies, the taking of six Nazis he ended up handing over to the French Underground, the American occupation and liberation of France, stints with semi-pro baseball teams, an accident at Swift Packing Plant in 1949 which, in a sad repeat of the earlier memory, killed 21 of his co-workers, the death of his wife in 2002 after 56 years of marriage, and stood to tell it all to 36 freshmen. The French family sent their son to visit Ernest and America upon the son’s graduation from high school. Their sacrifice would indelibly be etched in Ernest’s memory until he passed away–two weeks ago–on December 10, 2007. Upon reading his obituary, the thought struck me. The French family risked their lives for Ernest’s.

And so Ernest Grant did for his fellow American and millions who were enduring the nightmare of the evils of Nazism, Fascism, and Imperialism. As the French family did not know Ernest Grant, so Ernest did not know every person he fought for. And he stood in front of us at our high school at 83 years old. What seemed to be frailty and weakness were transformed into hardy grit and weathered battlewounds making me realize that there are very few people like the French family or Ernest Grant in the world.

We are a little less today because a hero has passed from us, quietly, without great pomp or ceremony. If my son were to have met this man, I would have said, “Son, stand up. Ernest Grant is passing by.” But I will tell Ernest Grant’s story. Such men are the kind a father wishes a son to be.

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One of the frustrations of parenting is having a child listen to you the first time. My mom recently came up with a good little song which summarizes the way we wish for our two kids to obey–“All the way, right away, with a happy heart.” Therefore, the request to pick up toys should not end with half of the toys picked up, nor should it take 15 requests, 32 minutes, or the I’m-sizing-up-your-body-to-see-how-big-a-hole-to-dig look of spite. 

I am finally taking a page from Shepherding a Child’s Heart by Tedd Tripp wherein Tripp makes the case that the most important aspect of discipline is the child’s heart and that we spank because we try to rescue the child from the dangerous place of disobedience. While I am not an absolutist that every disobedience should result in spanking, all parents can take heed to the idea that when we warn, ask the child if s/he wants to be disciplined, plead, beg, bargain, etc., we are really inviting the child to live on the dangerous ground of constantly waiting to be pleaded with. I see the results as a high school teacher in children who have been “trained” to disobey until the age of 14.

In our culture, we use the excuse of the teen years, something foreign to my wife who is from Vietnam. There, 18 means nothing. American culture, however, attaches such significance to 13, wherein we give leeway for disobedience as “those teenage years,” and 18 as the magical number where one flies the coop and becomes magically independent and mature. The reality is that teenagers are no less rebellious than two-year-olds, those “terrible twos.” The consequences are just that much bigger.

The tantrum that we let stand, the giving into the pleading, the shrug of the shoulders to a refused request are small in consequence at age 2: embarrassment at the store, a bit of a stomachache, a few toys on the floor we begrudgingly pick up. Consider the consequences at age 14: family ties severed for good, driving with a drunk friend who couldn’t see the light turn red, the application for college that never gets completed.

William Damon makes the same excellent point from an educational perspective in Greater Expectations,  a must-read for lax (most) school administrators, teachers, and parents.

One last point: I believe that we should avoid spanking, not because we avoid giving consequence but because we teach and frontload how to obey so that the offense is never committed. One good strategy? I just learned that if I ask my daughter to repeat my request, she is clear, has no excuse, and can ask if she doesn’t understand my request. This is only fair. Before, I might have hurriedly asked her to pick something up and become frustrated that she did not follow through. Now, she is clear on my expectation. I wait for her decision as to whether or not to praise her or lovingly teach her in discipine.

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As you may know, I rarely read a Mark Steyn piece without having the Diet Coke–or more recently–egg nog go up the nose in wheezing laughs and end, after recovering myself, much more educated. You almost wish that Steyn could have been your history teacher from the 8th grade through graduate school: one minute your sides are splitting in hysterical laughter, the next you are deadly serious with the fresh perspective and pithy knowledge of the world.

So it is in Steyn’s “Huckabing Crosby,” wherein Steyn describes the folly of multiculti, insipid “holiday” greetings and the new trend of political Christmas commercials.

This guy Huckabee is some kind of genius. A week ago, you had to be the pope or the queen to do your own big televised Christmas message. But now, since Huck climbed into his red sweater and hired George Lucas to do the notorious “floating cross” effect, every single-digit nickel’n’dime presidential candidate is donning his gay apparel and trolling the ancient Yuletide carol. I haven’t seen so much festive knitwear since The Andy Williams Christmas Show 1973.

In seasonal market-share terms, the former Arkansas Governor remains the Huckabing Crosby, the pioneer in whose footsteps all others scamper to play Perry Como and Harry Belafonte. Barack Obama’s message is warm and fuzzy and carefully poised, with one of his kids saying “Merry Christmas” and the other “Happy Holidays.” If he had a third, she’d presumably be wishing you a hearty Kwanzaa or hailing Bob Kerrey with a cheery “Allahu Akbar!”Read on…

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Michael Medved, perhaps America’s most reasoned, conservative voice weighs in on the dynamism of Mike Huckabee’s campaign and says that Huckabee’s drive helps the GOP (and the country, too.) Medved states that:

1. HUCKABEE’S COMPETITIVE STATUS PROVES THAT MONEY ALONE CAN’T BUY A PRESIDENTIAL NOMINATION.

2. THE HUCK-A-SURGE GIVES THE LIE TO THE CLAIM THAT THE GOP IS CONTROLLED BY OUT-OF-TOUCH ELITES.

3. HUCK’S CAMPAIGN DEMONSTRATES THAT THE SO-CALLED “CHRISTIAN RIGHT” IS MORE COMPLEX AND DIVERSE THAN COMMONLY ASSUMED.

Despite his current standing in the polls, Mike Huckabee remains an under-funded and chronically disorganized long-shot when it comes to actually winning the GOP Presidential nomination. While easily the most gifted TV communicator in the field, the former Arkansas governor displays some serious vulnerabilities as a candidate for the White House and his innumerable critics and rivals have attacked these weaknesses with gleeful ferocity.

Even if he fails to win a place on the national ticket, however, Huckabee’s startlingly strong campaign provides potent benefits for both his party and his country. In the two weeks remaining before the Iowa Caucuses it’s worth considering how the Man from Hope 2.0 has already strengthened the GOP.

Read on…

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December 16, 2007

So there’s this older Vietnamese couple and my wife cut their hair in her salon and did the same for this couple’s two daughters and son. The kids went to the same high school I teach at, and the youngest daughter graduated and went off to school in the middle of Iowa. All the details aren’t important, but the long story short is that she ended up on the East Coast against her parents wishes. This past weekend, she was on her way back home when her car smashed through a siderail and she met her death at the age of 20, a week before Christmas.

This morning, my eyes were opened to a new perspective on the Christmas story with its opiate of a little baby, a manger, prepubescent shepherds, cardboard glitter stars, Ralphie, the Abominable Snowman, and the cartoon that we make of what we sometimes consider a non-serious subject. However, today, our pastor’s message gripped me–the whole thing is about a fallen world subjected to futility, wretched sin, a covenant, dark angelic powers, and death.

Joy to the World. How? Because tonight I felt the awkwardness of an elderly Vietnamese man seeing through red eyes as he poured 7-Up into a mug and, hands shaking, placed it politely on the table in front of me, me hating him serving me. He spoke measuredly and quietly, “I’m so sad. My daughter in now lost.”

Of course, I responded with what felt a silly, “I’m so sorry,” not knowing what else to say.

“She was such a good girl. When we brought her here to America, she was so tiny,” he looked down into his arms as if in remembrance. I started to think of my four-year-old. “After the Communists came, I spent 7 years in the prison camp. You know, Communists no good. I always thought that I could give her a better life in America. She could do things and graduate from college. She had only one year left.” Through his glasses, his eyes fixed he looked at me as if for an answer. “Why?”

The man’s wife came and told us to come upstairs. The heavy smell of incense burned near a Buddhist shrine that held her picture. Upon seeing the picture, the father and mother began to speak to their lost daughter in Vietnamese. I understood not a word and yet understood. Later, my wife would tell me that they were asking in heart-rending gasps, “Why did you leave us, our baby? I was supposed to go before you. I have lived a full life. Your teacher is here to see you. Find your uncle and your aunt [who had passed away] so they can take care of you. We will take your ashes back to Vietnam and care for you,” and finally, “Why, O God, have you punished me?”

I could hardly swallow as they stared at the smiling picture of their beautiful daughter on the shrine. I wanted to share some hope. I hugged the man as tightly as I could and told him that I was praying for him and left wishing for words. I still hurt deeply for this man.

Death entered the world through one man and the entirety of our fallen world is subjected to painful separations, wars across Africa, child soldiers, infanticide, starvation, and misery. All of creation moans for reunion, peace, the happy laughter of children, health, and joy. More than all, Hobbes, John Owen, and Lord of the Flies all in their own way eloquently sum it up–We are the Leviathan, the monster; Indwelling sin has been woven into the fabric of our being; “What if there is no beast? I mean, what if it’s only us?” asks a bewildered Simon. Who then will deliver us from this body of death, from this fallen world?

Only the Incarnate Christ. Come let us behold Him. He holds the keys to conquer death so that a Metaphysical poet could one day write, “Death be not proud. Thou too shalt die.” And give us the hope of being reunited in the Garden from which man was once expelled. I looked at the man tonight, and I pray for a day and imagine when His creator could wipe every tear from his eyes and give him fullness of joy.

Because of Christmas.

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Got my hands on a 1927 yearbook of Central High School in Sioux City, Iowa. Looking over the pages is almost painful because it shouts everything that a school ought to be–a beautiful castle, students with decorum and respect (shirts and ties), teachers who look strict, and courses to make any academian’s mouth water: Rhetoric, Composition, Latin, German, French, Spanish, etc. Today, Spanish is so predominant that German has been dropped and French is probably soon to follow, the last dinosaur hanging on before extinction. The hegemony of Spanish can be seen in the fact that native English speakers in Sioux City are learning other subjects such as art, history, and science half-time in a pilot Spanish program on the elementary level!

If I had my druthers, I’d have my daughter study Latin. Come again? That’s right, Latin. To the naysayers who ask, “When will she ever speak Latin?” I’d respond, “Every day.” Consider that English is comprised of nearly 60% of words with Latin etymology. Therefore, Latin words like veritas (truth) gives us “to verify,” pluribus (many) gives us “plural,” deus (god) gives us “deity,” etc. (By the way, et cetera is Latin for “and so forth.”)

Even if studying a language is to not read romantic texts, to understand ancient Rome and history, and to be well-versed in etymology, consider how many Latin words we use in English today. Latin seems a prerequisite for anyone going into law or writing above the high school level. Here is a top-ten favorite list that are important:

  1. habeas corpus–“We command that you have the body” and protects against unlawful detention
  2. Anno Domini–“The Year of Our Lord” (not after death as most think A.D. means)
  3. modus operandi–mode of operating (Too many students’ m.o. is to arrive late!)
  4. Money talk–E pluribus unum (out of many, we are one); Annuit Coeptis (back of dollar bill–God has smiled on our undertaking); Novus ordo seclorum (A new order of the age has begun)
  5. cum laude (with honor), magna cum laude (with great honor), summa cum laude (with the highest honor)
  6. sic–If I quote an article in which a man said he had sex puppies because one of the seven died, I might write, “I have sex [sic] puppies,” showing it wasn’t my fault as a writer (sic means “so” or “thus.”)
  7. Semper Fidelis–“Always Faithful (or loyal); Semper Fi is the Marine Motto and why dogs throughout the Medieval period were named Fido.
  8. Carpe Diem–“seize the day”
  9. ipso facto–by the very fact
  10. I could go on ad infinitum (endlessly!) but we might get sick of it and therefore, I would be writing Latin terms ad nauseum

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