Checking Your Premises

Last week’s main event included an odyssey on my part of finally reading the novel Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. This 1100+ page monster took a good portion of my week to slog through—not entirely due to its length—but for the most part revolving around having to pay close attention because of the language and grammatical style of the book. It was released back in the 1950’s; a lot of nomenclature has changed since then. I was drawn to the book by the things I had read describing it over the years, and the sudden influx of its popularity due to the current economic conditions we are faced with as a nation and as a people. Pundits (Conservative) advertising that the book would ‘change my life’ also caught the lion’s share of my attention because, well, you never know…

So did this epic cause a change in my thought process, now that I’ve completed and relegated it to the shelf of books I’ve read and have not yet decided whether or not to pass along to someone else? Did I learn or gain knowledge that was unknown to me beforehand? And finally, who is John Galt?

First off it did not change my life. But I already knew that there is only one book that can truly change anyone’s life, mine included. The book was a tough read, but not as bad as say, War and Peace by Tolstoy. It had a happy ending, as most books do, and I can consider it among the list of 20th Century Classics. But what, if anything, did I learn from the book?

Ms. Rand broke society down into three classes in her epic tale; on one hand were the looters and moochers of the world. Across the aisle she placed the producers of our civilization. And she was graphic in her presentation of each, more so when you consider this novel was penned during a ten-year span between 1946 and 1956. I see a lot of what she represented in our present world, but walked away with a different take than most readers normally would. Please allow me to explain...

The looters (government) and moochers (entitlement recipients) are both alive and well in this enlightened age we live in. A liberal veil has spread across the hallowed halls of our congress and our court systems, using tax money to blatantly purchase votes from the moocher class. The moochers of our nation are the same today as they were in the book; dependent upon federal assistance and making no move at all to help themselves in any attempt to better their very own lives. Meanwhile the producers (the heroes of the book) complain of unfair taxes and too many regulations placed upon them by the same government in the name of ‘fairness’. Yes, Ann sort of hit it on the head—even back in the carefree days we normally associate with the 1950’s.

But the heroic figures she uses in her novel to represent the producer class have their own share of the flaws and patent fallacies I already knew of in my own heart as I read the book. In their zeal to work and create wealth, they become victims of much more than regulations or increased taxes. Their lives are fraught with disappointment, failed marriages, unloving/uncaring families, and sordid adulterous affairs (and these were the heroes!) in a search for a happiness that even by the end of the book—it was hard to comprehend if they had, in fact, actually attained it. In a Christian slant (which is what I do) I compare them to the people of Nimrod when he said, “Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven.” Happiness can never be found in material possessions and wealth, despite the spin of words graphically presented by a fifty-year-old novel.

From the lawless violence and thanklessness of the moochers, through the self-immolating corruption of the looters, to the unattainable dreams of the producers—one thread remained clear to me throughout the book. It was the words Paul penned in his letter to the Romans, which he in turn quoted from David: “As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one:”

Yes, we can point our fingers of perceived righteousness at each other till Judgment Day carries us away into the damnable eternity we all assuredly deserve—despite our status in society. In the meantime we can attempt to live an unlivable life by the morals contained within the book of someone said so. But in the end, we will all still miss the mark, we will all fail to make the grade, and we will all stand naked in what is left of our self-righteous rags of good intentions before a Holy G_d on that great and terrible day which is to come.

We must arrive in that place with something better. We need to be fully dressed in His righteousness alone, faultless to stand before the throne. Regardless of where we stand in the mix of her characters, in the end this is the only truth worth mentioning here.

It was still a good read, almost (almost) prophetic for her time. But the devil remains in the details once you—as she states—check your premises.

The Blind Spot

I talk about my motorcycle a lot these days, both in this blog and in my basic, random, day-to-day-trivial conversations. It’s because she’s not doing so hot, and that can be a problem on those early morning rides I make in to work each day. I’ve scheduled her for a visit to the shop this afternoon, and it can’t happen soon enough for me. Is it running that bad, you ask? Well… no. The gas mileage is great and her reliability at getting me from point A to point B is very sound; it’s the little glitch in her carburetor that bothers me. Please allow me to explain.

I have to be careful when I ride. Seldom will a day go by when someone is not reminding me of the latest motorcycle accident—along with all of the obligatory gory details they seemingly can’t wait to breathlessly provide. I am aware of most of those accidents in our community and I do not take them lightly. You have to use extra care when you straddle a two wheeled monster and take to the mean streets of Pearl River County. First off, people do not see motorcycles on the road, and it is not unusual as such to have someone cross the lane in front of you when they make a left-hand turn at a busy intersection. You have to be prepared at every crossing, every entrance to the highway even, for someone who is not apt to see your chrome silhouette coming towards them from a distance. I keep my eyes peeled and my head on a swivel whenever I see a car—because you can never be certain of what they are going to do.

Furthermore when I leave my house in the country, I have to watch and be prepared for dogs or possibly even a deer or two crossing the road ahead of me. It happens. I’m a veteran of a collision with a small doe in the highway while on my bike a few years back, and I definitely do not want to up the ante by taking on a larger animal. Then there is always oil, wet roads, or loose gravel to look out for. I tell ya, it can be down-right scary when I dwell on the subject of safety while riding a motorcycle in this day and age.

I digressed a little, I know, I am prone to do that from time to time—back to my engine woes. You need your equipment to be operating perfectly if you are going to ride safely. When in a precarious situation not usually of your own making, you need instant throttle response to get you out of there as soon as possible. You need good brakes, properly inflated tires, and the correct riding apparel such as gloves and a leather jacket. I usually cover those bases.

But what I have noticed lately is that with my carburetor troubles (no fuel injection for this old-schooler!), I catch myself messing with the choke on occasion—closing it at stoplights to allow the bike to idle smoothly, and opening it back up when I reach highway speeds to allow her massive engine to purr and not sputter. While concentrating on these issues, I am less inclined to pay enough attention to the hazards that are waiting for me just over the next hill or around an upcoming curve or intersection. That’s not a good situation.

Thus, the scheduled visit to the shop—to return the bike to peak performance and to prevent a loss of concentration at those times when I need it most. You see, I can do nothing about other drivers, especially if they happen to be on a cell phone or text-messaging while they drive. I have to be careful and watch out for them versus the other way around. Yet when it comes to my own driving skills and equipment, I have the sole responsibility for doing things right and making the right choices.

Hmm. I think I notice a unique similarity to my own Spiritual life as well. Peter wrote: “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour:” As I make my Christian walk each and every day, I must be careful of the things that Satan will throw in my path. He’s hiding at every intersection, camouflaged on precarious side streets, and crouching behind thick bushes waiting to jump out in front of me. That’s a given, a part of life so to speak, and furthermore there is nothing I can do to change this on my own. But when I have hidden issues in my own mind and become careless in my walk, maybe paying too much attention to things in my heart that shouldn’t be there—I become instantly at his mercy and subject to a disaster on that road not so very far in front of me.

I therefore find myself faced with two realities: I must focus on those pitfalls the world through Satan may place in my path, and I must keep my heart in perfect tune with His Will—not my own. By doing so, I know I’ll arrive at the destination He’s prepared for me, safe and sound, and definitely use a lot less gas in doing so.

In Search Of Leadership

Over the past few weeks there has been an influx of bad news throughout our world, from the earthquake/tsunami/radiation in Japan to the troubles in the Arab states, and all apparent points in between. Just for once I’d like to hear that things are getting better—somewhere—anywhere.

I bet you would, too.

Seemingly lost in the midst of these global calamities are our very own troubles at home here in the United States. The budget deficit is escalating out of control and all that our leaders seem to be able to do about it is to bicker and argue over points that are only frivolous at best. Somehow they managed to cut monetary support for Planned Parenthood and NPR, thus saving a few million dollars, while billions more in debt was fast accumulating in other areas—even as they proudly clapped each other on the back for the historic cuts they had implemented. Now they bandy around the option of increasing our taxes while gas and grocery prices go through the ceiling. Truly the inmates are in charge of the asylum, or so it seems.

Democrats refuse to budge in the area of cutting welfare and entitlements, while Republicans remain staunch supporters of fat military budgets that keep their favorite contractors in the black. We need our military to protect us from, well… everybody. We need our entitlement programs to protect us from the vast unwashed, in effect paying them to behave and not begin rioting the moment the free stuff runs out. And so they compromise—the Republicans allow yet even more entitlement spending while the Democrats give in on greater defense expenditures—meanwhile the deficit continues to escalate. There is no logic in Washington. There are no real answers to be found inside the Beltway.

Elections are to be held next year for the Presidency along with a large number of congressional seats, but I’m not going to kid myself as there is no relief in sight. The Democrats will run on the platform of protecting the sacred entitlement programs, and as fifty percent of Americans now receive some form of government subsidy, they will have strong support to lobby their case. The Republicans have no one with either enough charisma or a viable enough plan to run against this platform with an actual fighting chance of winning, and if by some miracle they do, past experience tells me nothing will change anyway. It’s a depressing state of affairs if you ask me.

We need true leadership, and where will we find it? To paraphrase the ancient question of Yeats, “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Washington to be born?”

There is a leader on the horizon, and he may be closer to ascending to power than we may know. All of the major religions of the world agree on this, though the characteristics of said leader differ from each sect. The Christians believe (as I do) in the impending return of Jesus Christ. The Jews are looking for the Messiah, and have been since the days of Abraham in the Old Testament. The Muslims are anticipating the arrival of the Mahdi, who they believe will judge the world for either seven, nine, or nineteen years (depending on whether the Islamic beliefs are Sunni or Shia) before an impending Day of Judgment. Even the Buddists are not immune to this apocalyptic manner of thinking—they have the Maitreya—who is supposed to be the great teacher for all of mankind scheduled to arrive in a future near you. I can go on and on—from the American Indians to less-known sects in the backwaters of Indonesia—the world is earnestly looking for the one who is to come.

I’m no Jay Galle when it comes to forecasting the days ahead, but the thing I fear most is there is in fact a future leader coming who will be all of these things, and yet none of these things. Sadly, I believe the world in all of its wisdom will not understand this until it is much too late to realize they’ve been duped once more by a leader who promises the moon, yet in the end brings exponentially more trouble and destruction than we already face at the present. Jesus explained it this way: “For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.”

He’s out there somewhere, this much sought after leader, and his time is surely at hand. Our world is currently and spiritually ripe for the picking, so to speak. But don’t be deceived—he may not be all that he purports to be once he arrives on the scene to rescue us.

Opting Out

A side trip on the way home from the coast the other day proved to be an eye-opener for me. I found myself on a winding back road you’d probably never find on a map, further proven by the blank display on the navigation package in my truck. I like taking those forgotten paths on occasion; it helps remind me that it is not imperative for me to always be in a hurry as I travel through life.

It was a newly minted subdivision that caught my eye, replete with a fancy stone gate featuring intricate artwork. I couldn’t resist a sudden urge to drive through that beckoning gate and witness the high dollar houses sure to be viewable just beyond the ornate opening. Homes starting in the low 200’s, the strategically placed billboard advertised. Now, first off, I have a problem with that. A ‘home’ is so valuable, at least a good one is, that you cannot place a dollar amount on it. A house is just a building and that’s simply all it can ever be. But a home, ah, that takes a lot of love and work coupled with massive infusions of patience and respect. To call a nice, brand new, unoccupied house a home is one of my pet peeves—the story of that inauspicious building has yet to be told.

I’ll confess I had heard of this subdivision beforehand, but my trip had serendipitously brought me in close enough proximity to witness it for myself as to whether the rumors I’d heard were true or not. Turns out they were—to the letter to be exact. I passed several McMansions (that’s what I call them), very large cookie-cutter houses of close architectural design fading off into the distance like monoliths pining for clarity and reason. All of them were found in forgotten states of incompletion. Weeds and brush grew around piles of dormant brickwork; projects abandoned or better, aborted, before the builders were completed. They were mortal victims of a fluctuating economy and a housing crisis that reached epidemic proportions before the final tally was certified, and their fallen condition much akin to castles in the sand waiting for the tide to close their story.

I caught myself pondering on one of them in particular; the builder had meticulously worked around a century oak, taking pains to create the house without disturbing the ancient tree. It sat on the side of a hill, and although the vacant lots on both sides had faded For Sale signs rooted in the dirt, as it sat it would have been the perfect place to raise a family. Children could play in the low hanging branches of the Disney-esque tree, and her fronds would provide much needed shade for backyard bar-b-cues in a future that obviously was not meant to be—at least not in the present economic conditions. I began to wonder what I could give for the house myself; to complete it and move in with my own family. Other than the remoteness from my job and Wal-Mart, why it was perfect!

As I drove away from the interrupted subdivision, my thoughts returned again and again, stabilized over the what-held-promise-to-be-beautiful-house-on-the-hill as I made my way back to McNeill. Along the way reason returned and I began to take stock in what I have. My house is small. I have no carport. I have an in-ground pool but sometimes not enough floor space when the kids and grandchildren are around. But my mortgage is meek, manageable, and doesn’t create a lot of pain when the monthly bill is due. It is conceivable that I will pay it off one day despite the economy—possibly. And I’m a lot closer to Wal-Mart as well as civilization in general.

Of course if I wanted to, I could add a concrete slab in the front or back and build an additional room or two to impress my neighbors and friends. How about a matching carport to cover my beloved Z-71 or Kim’s SUV? Maybe an additional barn with a boat in it for lazy weekend days spendable on the lake or river of my choice?

Instead I’ve opted-out. I’ll keep my smallish dwelling just the way it is, thank you very much. Boats are too much trouble and the rain makes my aging truck glisten when I remember to wax it. Family in a small room makes for a close family, and a close family in a small room goes a long way toward making that house a home. To be comfortable, on an even keel with my wife as we share that special love we began so long ago with our children and grandchildren, is worth far more than additional floor-space or marble counter tops. Two floppy-eared dogs that never do what they are told add an exclamation point to complete the picture—at least until they get into my rose bushes. Walking with G_d in the way He would have me go, knowing that a personal relationship with His Son will be all that matters on that Great Day which is to come gives me peace and a blessed hope for a future that has yet to be written.

Jesus makes an amazing offer in Matthew: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

I think I have enough these days. I’ve opted out of a broken system that only leaves me wanting more, and fills me with an emptiness that can never be fully satisfied. That system will always leave me high and dry, proverbially stuck on a desolate sand bar. Material wealth—those big houses, cars, and boats—are sad trade-offs when compared to the rest that only He can provide.

Friends With The Son

The big man dropped the tailgate on his truck and opened the box door, beagles spilling out and leaping to the ground in assertive eagerness. The crisp smell of fall with its damp morning kiss, and foliage on a fast track to becoming shades of yellow and crimson in a few more weeks met us as the aforementioned dogs scattered to various compass points.

Two teenagers checked their shotguns, the rack-rack of 20-gauge pumps providing justification that rabbit season was open and we meant business. My friend’s father had trained those dogs all summer long, and if ever there was a morning to prove them—this was it. Maybe I shouldn’t tell this story, because in McNeill, a man and his dogs abide precariously within the realm of the sacred. But it is possible he won’t read this. Maybe he won’t know. A stern man in those days, he’s mellowed over the years. But I’m wise enough not to push those proverbial buttons too hard even now.

Before he could scold us about something we were doing wrong, (we always were in those days) the dogs yelped in the distance; their voices changing in a tenor that was obvious. The first rabbit came barreling through the forest moments later. They are fast creatures when pursued, and on most days the dogs are well behind when they make their appearance. This one picked a route between me and the stern man, and I disappointed him by not taking the shot. As the rabbit sped by, he tracked it with his rifle (adults used rifles) and dropped it moments later as it crossed a fallen log. I felt bad about it for the rest of the morning—I should have taken the shot. Yet I also knew that a shotgun in close quarters can be unforgiving, and my own father had warned me incessantly about pointing one in the general direction of another human. But I always wanted to prove myself to this rough man, and wished from my silent depths that the first rabbit of the day had simply chosen another route.

He retrieved the downed animal and carried it back to the nearby truck without looking at me. Too fast! I thought. Didn’t have time to think. And finally… I let him down. I looked over at my friend, but he was shaking his head, too. I knew he was glad it was me and not him in that situation. Years later I can look back on that moment, assured in the knowledge that I did the right thing. But then as now, I know I should have tracked that rabbit and blasted him when he cleared the area between us. Instead I froze as the moment passed me by, and if I had wanted to make an impression that morning, I surely did.

The dogs, meanwhile, had faded in the distance. We walked silently in the last direction from which we had heard them earlier, but our trek went on a lot longer than it should have. The silence between me and my friend's father was deafening, and the day was already ruined for me. I’d like to say at this point that I got a second chance: we heard the clarion call of the dogs, a big rabbit appeared, and I put him down with a precise shot made with a skill and an accuracy that belied my fourteen years. But it wasn’t to be.

It was hours later when we found those prized beagles—asleep under a tree in the middle of a dormant soy field. The contempt for me and the shot not taken swiftly faded as his anger for the dogs he’d striven so hard and for so many months to train manifested itself. I won’t go into the details; instead I’ll leave it as he was not happy about it and we’ll go from there.

There were other hunting trips, and we took many rabbits over the years from the fields and forests around our small town. The sternness and associated agitation between he and I did not last as I grew older. He taught me many things along the way, both about the great outdoors and life in general. In the end I don’t know if he changed that much or if it was merely a matter of maturity on my part—probably a combination of the two.

We were so different, you see, and so far apart in everything. Polar opposites. So why did he accept me and befriend me in the first place—a boy with too much hair and crazy ideas that usually didn’t line up with the standards held dearest to his own heart? I guess it was my friendship and closeness to his son that mattered the most. That son and I remain close to this day, and as a result, my relationship continues with his father—and we’re on good terms.

John writes: “And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.” It is on account of my relationship with G_d’s Son, that He accepts me today despite all of my faults and misgivings. Without that personal relationship with Jesus, I’d be just another lost soul out there on the highways and byways of life who missed the mark or didn’t take the shot—searching in vain for an impossible way to make things right with G_d.

Dark Confessions

I met you on the afternoon of the day you became an indifferent witness to my fall. Under the fading aura of a bleak December, I found myself a pagan Christian at best; lost in the gray area where you find yourself too old to be a boy, yet much too immature to be a man. It was your friend you were worried about, not me, and with stoic condescension you watched as I carried the friend you loved down a careless highway of sin and lost innocence. Somehow you managed to deride me without ever saying a word. Oh, but I knew.

That friend of yours told me later of the intonated manner in which you ordered your own son to ‘make sure you do not grow up to be like him.’ That stung when I heard it, and I did not consider it justice to be used as an example in that light. What did you know? And why should I justify my behavior to someone like you? You could not understand nor comprehend the pain I was going through at the time, and my manner of coping was, well… my manner of coping. But it bothered me and most of all it stuck with me.

A few short months later I ran into you again—though we still weren’t friends. We never were. Again you watched as I took another one of your friends down roads never meant to be taken, and your silent judgment continued even as you watched us both tempt disaster. The pain. The remorse. None of it was worth it, even though now I return to those memories via a bridge whose waters have ebbed and flowed wistfully over a poignant sea known as many years passed.

A lot has changed since then. I’d like you to know that. Fate being the sometimes charitable mistress she is, maybe by chance you will read this and know that people truly can change, and the judgment you decry today can be rendered irrelevant tomorrow. But by the same token I have to admit you were right—because you were. And though you were quick to judge, at least with your eyes; you can’t honestly say you offered any guidance to the jaded soul who found himself broken and undone back then.

I met a woman. We built a family. But most of all, I found a church. Something happened, and this time it was real to me. In a brutally honest sense I had my own road to Damascus moment, and the scales certainly fell from my eyes not long afterward. The penalties for those sins from long ago have been paid in full, yet I still carry around the remorse for those vile things I both went through and performed. I’ll hold them forever in the hidden places of my heart, and like cruel scars that never fade, they will always haunt me.

The pagan Christian of that wintery day has been replaced with what I hope is an honorable one. I know my faults and I do my best to keep them at bay. I work hard to provide for my own family and I cherish them. I’ve taught my children the right path and thankfully did not have to use someone else as a toxic example of what not to be. I covered those bases with my own misgivings. Meanwhile, I pray for them. With all sincerity I do the utmost to keep them from repeating my own horrid mistakes—my sins.

I don’t know where you are today, because I only vaguely recall your name. Yet I remember your face. And all I want out of this is to say “I’m sorry” while meaning it. Once again, I also want you to know that you were right—and openly admit what I can finally comprehend on my own.

People can change. Sometimes, though time may grow short and the credits begin to roll on this earth we inhabit, the Prodigal son can still arrive safe and sound at his Father’s house.

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. I John 1:9