Tag Archives: J. Vernon McGee

Americans should quit dreaming and change the way they think

I was raised in the South. When I was a kid there were still remnants of the War Between the States around. (We southerners preferred that moniker for the American Civil War.)

I recall for example a couple of bumper stickers I saw as a youth. One said “Hell no, I ain’t forgettin’.” Another exhorted, “Save your Confederate money. The South rise again.”

The Confederate battle flag, known as the “Stars and Bars” was prevalent in my area. Vestiges of Jim Crow still lingered.

As an adult I became a Civil War buff. Living in Virginia I could tour numerous battlefields where Union and Rebel soldiers laid down their lives.

I enjoyed going to reenactments, where people dressed up in the blue and grey. There were even “civilians” who took part in the living histories. They came costumed as sutlers, camp followers and even ministers of the Gospel.

In the 90s I worked for a small college in South Carolina. In their main parlor the most prominent painting was of Confederate general Robert. E. Lee.

Fast forward about 20  years. General Lee is now a controversial figure. A statue of him in Charlottesville was this summer the catalyst for a confrontation in the streets between white supremacists and so-called anti-fascists.

This week the general’s descendant, Rev. Robert Wright Lee, denounced his own great uncle.  He told the press that he felt shame at General Lee’s role in the Confederacy.

There is now an outcry from some to do away with any and all memorials to American heroes who owned slaves. The most prominent Founders now being maligned include George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, both slaveholders.

In his will Washington freed his slaves. Jefferson did not.

Yet, Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. He even included in one of the early drafts a condemnation of slavery.

Yet, 15 years ago historian Stephen E.  Ambrose published a piece for the Smithsonian that was highly critical of Jefferson. He wrote:

Jefferson knew slavery was wrong and that he was wrong in profiting from the institution, but apparently could see no way to relinquish it in his lifetime.

Ambrose didn’t stop at these unflattering comments. He was even more condemning:

Jefferson owned slaves. He did not believe that all were created equal. He was a racist, incapable of rising above the thought of his time and place, and willing to profit from slave labor.

When I have thought of the Founding Fathers who owned slaves, and of the southerners who fought in the Civil War, I have tended to excuse them. “They were men of their time,” I think. “Everybody thought like they did.”

Ambrose did not excuse Jefferson . He saw him as a hypocrite who espoused equality for all, but did not express it in his own behavior. Ambrose said:

Few of us entirely escape our times and places. Thomas Jefferson did not achieve greatness in his personal life. He had a slave as mistress. He lied about it.

As a man with southern roots, and someone who considers Virginia his native soil, I find Ambrose’s comments deeply troubling. I also recoil at attacks on men like Robert E. Lee,  a revered son of Virginia. It is as if he is attacking my own personal world view.

However, I have now come to the conclusion that Ambrose is correct.  While I still consider Jefferson and Lee great public figures, I cannot excuse their racism.

How could these bigger-than-life figures have been so wrong? I think it might have something to do with our human natures.

The Bible portrays us all as sinners, i.e. people who are in rebellion against God. It describes us as people with corrupt natures who do corruption.

Yet, the Scriptures also call on us to master our sin. For whatever reason, men like Jefferson and Lee did not master theirs when it came to racism and bigotry.

Ambrose wrote that Jefferson had a “great mind and a limited character.” I think this was probably true of a lot of mythological characters in American history.

It is also true of many of us in modern life. I am not an intellectual by any means, but I do like to think and analyze. Unfortunately I tend to “overthink.”  This leads me to indecisiveness.

Like Jefferson I muse and write on subjects, but take little action in my own personal life.  I have recently thought that this is due to a lack of faith in God and His Word, the Bible.

I have for  most of my life agreed with the truth that Jesus died to pay the penalty for my sins and rose again from the dead to reign over me. I have also espoused intellectual assent to the truths of Scripture.

The reality though is that my life does not reflect these beliefs.  I have not done what the Bible has told me to do.

I have a myriad of excuses for this neglect, but the crux of the issue is that I have preferred doing things my way, perhaps out of convenience, or perhaps out of lust of the eyes, lust of the  flesh or pride of life.

I have determined of late though that God means  what He says. The Scriptures say “do not be deceived; God is not mocked. For whatever a man sows that He will also reap.” In many ways I have sown the wind and reaped the whirlwind.

The Roman philosopher Seneca wrote, “Why is it no man confesses his vices? It is because he has not yet laid them aside. It is a waking man only who can tell his dreams.”

J. Vernon McGee, a popular pastor and radio personality from the last half of the 20th century said of Seneca’s quote, “A man in sin is like a person still dreaming.

He alone (Jesus) can give comfort and understanding to the afflicted as well as extend mercy and grace.”

I have now after a lifetime awoke from my dream and seen my sins. The dream is to me more of a nightmare.

I should have obeyed God and His Word and listened to the men and women over my lifetime who taught me the way to live.

There’s still time for me, though. Thankfully, I have taken a first step.

The Bible says, “Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.”

I have begun to change the way I think. I am trying these days to think about how I can please God.

That in itself pleases Him. McGee said, “God in interested in what we think when we lie upon our pillows.”

Changing the way we think would be a good start for a lot of Americans today. But first, we have to wake up from our dreaming.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Writing as therapy and spiritual healing

I’ve always loved writing. It is probably what I do best and I enjoy it.

Talking about it, teaching it, and doing it has always been fun for me. This summer It has become something more. Writing has become therapy and a source of guidance for me.

I owe a lot of that to the work of Julia Cameron, whose book “The Right to Write” has been accompanying me to Starbucks for weeks.  It contains over 40 small chapters of teaching and exercises.

Cameron begins each chapter with an “invitation”, in which she describes her own personal experiences related to writing and life. Then she provides what she calls an “initiation tool” to use to apply her thoughts.

Three of Cameron’s ideas have been of particular help to me. One has been her effort to convince her readers that writing is not some great task reserved for only the elite and talented.  This teaching literally has given me the right to write.  Because of this I have felt unchained in terms of getting thoughts on paper.

Once she freed me from my intellectual prison, Cameron gave me a couple of practical devices to unleash my own ruminations. Her Morning Pages (sometimes “mourning pages) are three pages of handwritten writing first thing before the day starts. This is “stream of consciousness” writing. Night Notes are the posing of questions right before bed for up to ten minutes.

The beauty of any teaching is that you can make it your own. I have tried to stick to Julia’s dictums despite my weaknesses. I am not a morning person and find it difficult to get going. I have found others struggle with this exercise for the same reason.

As a result, I find I don’t get these pages done every day, or that I do them later on in the morning. This would probably be fine with Cameron.  She says that Morning Pages are “not high art” and that “there is no wrong way to do Morning Pages.”

This morning I struggled to get through three pages. I found myself drawing regular and irregular shapes on the lines in my composition books just to get through. Even this strategy was helpful because it reminded me that one of the best ways to get something done well is to think outside of the box.

With Night Notes the writer is supposed to sleep on the questions and allow the subconscious to provide answers. Because I actually forgot this feature I have been answering the questions as I pose them before sleeping. Again, I have come upon some beneficial ideas although I “broke the rules.”

What I have found is that these tools have helped me to clear the deck in my mind. A lot of the baggage is done away with. One effect of this is my thinking becomes more focused. Another is that my emotions are stabilized because I have vented them on the page.

Cameron has offered to me in organized form the wisdom of the greats. For example, Bob Dylan uses similar thinking and methods as hers to get his ideas down. He was asked by interviewer Paul Zollo how he got thoughts out of his mind. He replied,

Well, first of all, there’s two kinds of thoughts in your mind: there’s good thoughts and evil thoughts. Both come through your mind. Some people are more loaded down with one than another. Nevertheless, they come through. And you have to be able to sort them out, if you want to be a songwriter, if you want to be a good song singer. You must get rid of all that baggage. You ought to be able to sort out those thoughts, because they don’t mean anything, they’re just pulling you around, too. It’s important to get rid of all them thoughts.”

When the mind is clean of garbage and issues come into clearer focus by getting them onto the page, movement can be made. Dylan says once the baggage is gotten rid of, “then you can do something from some kind of surveillance of the situation. You have some kind of place where you can see but it can’t affect you. Where you can bring something to the matter, besides just take, take, take, take, take.”

Getting rid of the mud of the mind allows God to enter into our thinking. In my post about Dylan’s divine inspiration, I noted how his lyrics were influenced by the divine. I also explained that Cameron makes no bones about the benefits of listening to spiritual sources as we write.

While her writings about this are more eclectic in terms of who or what to access than I personally would prefer, I have gained by not throwing the baby out with the bath water. Applying her axioms in the context of my own beliefs about God and truth have been quite profitable.

As a Christian I seek to learn what God wants of me through reading the Bible and through prayer. Thus, I try to ask questions of Him, tell Him my own desires, and listen for His answer.

Further, I use my own God-given brain combined with what seems to be God’s leading to make decisions.  Before you claim that this is all “pie in the sky bye and bye”, I must explain how I believe the process works.

I see God’s leading as working more like a GPS device than a road map.  20th century pastor J. Vernon McGee said that God does not hand out road maps. In fact, he decried false piety in which people claimed to have a direct pipeline to the Almighty.

I recently listened  to a sermon by McGee about the story Ruth, the great grandmother of King David, from whose line Jesus would come, and how she decided to support herself and her mother-in-law Naomi when they were poor. Ruth decided to glean grain from local fields. Gleaning was a practice allowed in Israel in ancient times as a means to support the needy.

One day she came to two fields from which to glean grain. One was owned by Boaz, who was a distant relative of Naomi. Ruth had come to Israel with her when her husband, Naomi’s son, died. She did this as a step of faith and out of a willingness to follow the God of Naomi’s people.

McGee said that Ruth did not have a vision or a dream from God. He explained that she reasoned on the spot to go into the field of Boaz based on the situation before her. One thing led to another and she married Boaz, and thus became a distant grandmother of Jesus.

“God’s leading-yes,” said McGee. “But He’s leading a heart that’s willing to be led, and going step by step by faith.” Ruth was such a person.

Thus, the writing tools taught by Cameron and used by expert artists such as Bob Dylan have helped me to seek God and His leading as Ruth did.  As I write I believe He leads me step-by-step to great truths and informs decisions that have to be made.

What I have learned has given me great peace. It has also produced spiritual healing. I can live one day at a time, trusting God to communicate with me, not necessarily in spectacular ways, but through normal means of grace like the Bible and prayer, and though practical tasks such as writing, a practice I love anyway.

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Civility Involves a Change of Heart

One night recently I went to the top floor of the local university library. The sign below is next to the elevators. Beside this sign there is a huge placard as you come off the elevator that repeats the rules for using the area.

 

 

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I go here when I really need quiet and to think. However, as you can well guess, some people think the rules do not apply to them. While I was there I called people out twice.

Alas, before I get too high and mighty (that’s coming), I realize I have my own blind areas. But, basic civility would be nice in our society. We seem to have lost it, if we ever had it.

This experience in a library was annoying, but not that big a deal when compared to widespread rudeness in more important venues. The reason this little skirmish has become more pronounced in my mind is that the I think my senses are heightened to rudeness after the recent American election season and its aftermath. As a news and poltics junkie, I have seen our public discourse filled with out-of-the-ordinary base statements from political leaders, protesters and would-be amateur pundits on social media.

.I really don’t have high expectations from politicians and protesters when they open their mouths, but the things emanating from them have reached a new low. Rock bottom does indeed have a basement.

If you follow the news at all you are aware of the profanity, ad hominem attacks and even physical violence of political opponents and of youthful protesters and celebrities upset about the outcome of the vote in November.

Discourtesy and ill behavior in our society has not been limited to politics. My little library excursion example is indicative of a certain lack of courtesy on the American university campus. The squelching of dissent has led to  a Stalinistic atmosphere. Most recently I wrote about a confrontation I had with a student over her discomfort with my viewing choices in a public location at my local school. The girl took issue with a scene from a classic movie which I saw as history and she observed to be insulting. She got heated right away without any degree of politeness and shrilly demanded that I turn off what I was watching.

In addition, during warmer months on campus I have been subjected to more nonverbal effrontery. I have come close to being pummeled by passing skateboarders who speed by out of control, with little thought for the mass of pedestrians on the sidewalk. Once one of these sidewalk NASCAR wannabes silently came up from behind me and without any regard for personal space engineered a wild hop on their board in a noisy fashion. It scared the daylights out of me.

The causes of this lowering of respectful behavior towards our fellow humans are too numerous to expound on here. However, I think Rev.  J. Vernon McGee hit on something decades ago when he was discussing a passage from the Bible. In the 15th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew Jesus is having a debate with the religious leaders of his day over the importance of a rite involving the washing of hands.

Jesus said to these leaders and His followers:

“Listen,” he said, “and try to understand. It’s not what goes into your mouth that defiles you; you are defiled by the words that come out of your mouth.”

Jesus’s disciples asked him to explain what He meant by this statement.

“Don’t you understand yet?” Jesus asked. “Anything you eat passes through the stomach and then goes into the sewer.  But the words you speak come from the heart—that’s what defiles you.  For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander. These are what defile you. Eating with unwashed hands will never defile you.”

McGee said of Jesus’s words,”We are seeing that working out in our contemporary society today. We’ve come to a period of what is known a ‘New Morality’. We’ve reached the day that (the prophet) Isaiah talked about. He said the day is coming when they’ll call evil good and good evil. And they’re doing that today.”

Decades ago McGee decried the dropping of biblical standards for “freedom”.

“The lid has been taken off and man today can express what’s in his heart. What comes out? New morality? No, same old thing. Evil thoughts. Murders. Adulteries. We hear a good amount about sex today. That’s what you would expect. Fornications. Theft. False witness. Blasphemies. Great day of freedom. But my friends, if you don’t put the lid on the bucket you have opened really a Pandora’s Box  and we’re in trouble.”

McGee even in his time called for some controls on mankind’s behavior.

“Man has to be controlled,” he said. “Man is the most vicious animal on this earth and yet we put other animals in cages. And yet we’re talking today ‘man must be free to do his thing’. And here’s what he’ll do. It’s not new morality at all. Our Lord said this sort of thing was evil and these things defile a man.”

The Internet did not even exist as a public tool in McGee’s day, but he still blasted the media and schools for pushing immorality on to youth.

“These are the things that are defiling young people and yet it is all being done in the high, lofty-sounding terminology of ‘freedom of speech’ and that today ‘we must express ourselves. And this is the way we are doing it.The thing that is in the heart is now coming out.”

Solutions to the problem of incivility are not easy. As McGee noted, man does not want to be controlled. This was easy to see in the 60s, one of the most revolutionary decades in American history.

Stephen Sills wrote “For What It’s Worth” after a protest in 1966 in Hollywood. Residents were upset at the late night congestion caused by the numerous young folks who flooded the Sunset Strip area to hit the clubs and bars. So when the government put their foot down and enacted ordinances to curtail their outlandish behavior, the youth protest. This protest became civil unrest.The song opens this way:

“There’s something happening here
But what it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun over there
Telling me I got to beware

I think it’s time we stop
Children, what’s that sound?
Everybody look – what’s going down (?)”

What Sills complained about in his lyrics is that the authorities were able to tell him and his fellow “children” (how apropos) what to do for the sake of others who were affected by their actions. But I don’t see his complaint as valid. If we are going to live in a civil society, we must have some common standards of decency for the sake of all. With freedom comes responsibility to others.

When human beings don’t voluntarily submit to some sort of standards of good behavior, then I am afraid they must be provided with incentives, even negative ones. I once heard of a new prison warden who asked an aide,”How much power do I have in this prison?” He was told that he had what amounted to dictatorial powers. When he heard this, the warden issued a fiat that there would be no profanity allowed in his prison. I imagine any rule breaking was punished. Over time the enforced manners resulted in a sea change of positive behavior in this jail.

Despite a huge swing toward incivility, I’m not asking for a fascist state to control all words and actions in America. I am not in favor of, for example, extreme self restraint of the media as new White House adviser Steve Bannon suggested when he said that it should “keep its mouth shut.” The Founding Fathers allowed for a free press as a watchdog on corrupt government. In our current society, however, the more recognized media companies have tended to be selective about which party’s corruption to expose.

This tendency of the press to shut down points of view it does not agree with has resulted in a media civil war. The battle has flooded over to the Internet and its social media sites, where every Tom, Dick and Harriet can have a say. Unfortunately, as I noted at the beginning of this essay, these interactions on Facebook, Twitter and other sites are filled with meanspirited, cowardly and selfish behavior.

The consequence of all this online heat has been the fracturing of relationships. During a concise and balanced discussion on media bias on CNN this week Christiane Amanpour said,”We should be able to have a huge variety of views without calling each other and treating each other as enemies.” What Amanpour says should apply not only to media types, but to we rubes on social media and individual friends, individuals and even strangers as well.

All I am asking for is some heart change that leads to obeying the laws, rules and principles developed by those who went before us to create a civil society. In order for that to happen we are going to have to quit being so self absorbed and start thinking about the welfare of others.

In addition to looking within for refinement, there are some things we can do. We can learn to listen. We can learn to listen ro understand. We can learn how to debate logically and ethically.  We can begin each interaction with goodwill. We can be kind. We can stop assuming that those with whom we disagree are inherently evil, bigoted, and criminal.

There are those who think that there are more important things than civility. Vann R. Newkirk II in a post in The Atlantic on December 5, 2016 notes that in matters such as racism that shaming can be an effective tool toward pushing whites in America toward confronting their bias. He writes:

Civility is not the highest moral imperative—especially in response to perceived injustices—nor is hand-holding and guiding reluctant people to confront their bigotry gently. American history is full of fights, including the ongoing struggle for civil rights, that have been as fierce as they are ultimately . Civility is overrated.

With the extremely marginalized, I can see Mann’s point. I don’t imagine a Jewish politician from 1930s Germany getting anywhere in persuading a Nazi counterpart to drop their racially stained views. Sometimes there is no other resort than war.

But as General Sherman said,”War is hell.” Those “ongoing fights” Newkirk speaks of were quite costly to America and Americans at times. Real change in these United States has only come it seems from either such conflicts or from persuasion.  It would seem to me that persuasion should be attempted at all times until there is no other recourse because of the insanely damaging effects of war.

Was war necessary to free the slaves in the United States? Perhaps. But there were some who believed that America would eventually be persuaded to ditch slavery. Instead, the opponents opted for civil war. After the war, the winners eventually made a political bargain to give control back to the losers. These people instituted Jim Crow, which carried racism over for almost another century. Thus, before we go to war it would seem to me that a long-term strategy for dealing with its effects be developed.

What is telling is that Mann believes there are other goals in argument besides persuasion. He writes:

Sometimes the goal of argument is to vent. Sometimes it is to simply tell the truth. Sometimes it’s just to loudly proclaim one’s own humanity.

Mr. Mann and I could have a civil debate on such a statement. I would take the position that shouting is not an appropriate method of argument, at least from an Aristotlian perspective. Furthermore, those “telling the truth” may think they are, but like us all these folks are subject to their own limitations. What they believe to be the truth may indeed not be.

What Mann’s discussion of the goals of argument has done for me, though, and why his comments above are telling is  that it explains why there was such profanity and base statements coming from speakers at the recent Women’s March. Those speakers represent a point of view which says that their opponents will not listen to reasoned argument. Only stigmatizing the opposition will do. My one complaint of this approach is that I am doubtful that Madonna or Ashley Judd had attempted accepted modes of persuasion prior to their profane rants.

Even though I don’t agree with many of the points in Mann’s article, it is well supported with academic research and nods to the arguments of opponents. That kind of argumentation I can respect. Thus, it makes his piece well worth the read.

Abhorrent perspectives like racism are a matter of the heart. I am afraid there will always be people with evil views. Where it gets dicey for all of us is when these folks begin to act on their beliefs. So there must be some control of evil.

If we don’t transform ourselves, I am fearful that the outcry will be so great that we could lose our hard-won freedoms. If we don’t do this as individuals on a voluntary basis, then I am afraid others with powerful institutions behind them will MAKE us behave.

When they do they won’t be bringing lollipops to persuade us; they’l be sporting hammers.

 

 

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