The Myth of Independence

Lady Liberty may stand by herself, but she doesn't stand alone. None of us do.

No, that’s not just a “pee in someone’s Cheerios” blog title, cynically posted to stir up traffic on the most sacred of our secular American holidays. It’s a legitimate thought that I can and will back up in my post.

But – it certainly got your attention didn’t it?

Such is the power of the greatest of the American myths – the myth of independence. We have spent 235 years building this myth into an unquestioned ideal that the entire world not only knows but actively believes. Immigrants still flock to our shores in large part because they believe with all sincerity that in America, a person is free to live as they please. To live life on one’s own terms. To make something of oneself with hard work, grit and a little luck.

It’s a nice myth. Certainly better than what some other nations are putting out there (“Come to Afghanistan, where if you’re lucky, you won’t be killed by a deranged suicide bomber!”). It’s got a fair amount of truth to it, and there’s more than enough anecdotal evidence in the volumes of American history to provide support. Our past is littered with men and women and children who, because of the freedom and independence guaranteed by our nation, raised themselves up from unfortunate circumstances by determination and sheer force of will. These stories are placed before us as glorious reminders of the need for individual ethic and drive, the proof in the American pudding.

My family has many of these stories. My uncle, who opened his own tire and battery shop and has thrived as an independent businessman for over thirty years. My father, who turned an entry-level computer programming job into a 30 year career as an executive at a Fortune 500 bank. My father-in-law, who took his B.S. in chemistry to two different companies and cranked out over 42 U.S. patents.

But let’s not be sexist. I know a young woman who turned her passion for helping women and children in need into an international humanitarian agency that transforms thousands of lives annually. I know another young woman who turned her passion for singing into a career on Broadway and stages across the nation. And I know of other, quieter female heroes who realized that the role of mother was the best way to shape the future of the free world.

Each of these people were individuals who took their freedoms and independence as valuable gifts and made best use of them. Each of these people can be hailed as examples of the myth of independence.

And yet none of them truly are.

For all of their success, these people are not independent. Not a single one of them made their lives better on their own. Regardless of how hard they worked and how much of their own spirit they put into their efforts, each one was utterly dependent upon others to achieve all they did.

Because that’s the nature of humanity. We rely on one another. We’re not really independent creatures, free to do whatever we wish. Everything we do resonates within a larger context, a larger community. Whether its family, or neighbors, or friends, each one of us is who we are because of the people around us.

And this is not a bad thing. Dependence upon others is not a weakness, it’s not a blight on the soul. It’s a hallmark of maturity and wisdom. My son and I visited my grandfather today, and when we arrived my father was sitting, ever faithful by my grandfather’s side while my grandmother shelled beans she had just picked from her garden. There was nothing bombastic about the scene – I’ve probably seen something similar a thousand times before – but given my grandfather’s health, the interconnectedness of the moment made me realize just how much we are indebted to other people. And how much we should cherish that indebtedness.

I hope that my son grows up to be whomever he wishes to be (as long as it’s not a career in reality TV). I hope that my daughter goes on to be an icon of femininity in all of its fullness. Both will be free to be themselves as long as I’m their father. Yet both will owe profound debts to their mother, their grandparents, their cousins, their Sunday school teachers, their pastors, their public school teachers and countless other people for helping to shape and mold and drive them towards whatever they might become. Such is the nature of life, especially this American life.

Heck, even if my children decide at an early age to run away from civilization and live on the backside of some God-forsaken mountain in the New Mexico desert, they will still never escape their dependence upon other people. Because even if you go Tim McVeigh and live in a van down by the river, the freedom you have to be “independent” comes courtesy of some Marine or Sailor 0r Grunt or Airman or Coastie who took up arms to keep you free.

In a way, I suppose today is the ultimate irony: a nation of people stand together and celebrate their collective independence en masse. We’re all in this together. Thank a soldier, thank a cop, or just walk across the room and hug that person sitting on the couch, because it takes all of us to make this nation what it is. And maybe in doing so, we’ll reflect and think about one of the most powerful truths of our great nation:

The myth of independence belies the truth of community.

Or as some of our forebears so wisely put it: E pluribus unum.

God bless America, and God bless you my friend. Thank you for what you’ve contributed to my life.

Dancing In The Light Of Fireflies

Hope like firefly light - the gift of my grandfather's generation.I’m going to spend a lot of my time going to funerals over the next five years.

A lot.

I said as much to my brother, Ryan, yesterday before the funeral of one of our former pastors. He agreed with me. And as we looked around the church where we found ourselves, we could count at least four or five likely candidates. It’s not morbid – it’s life.

Now, we will most likely be wrong in our predictions – the people you think are most likely to go usually hang around an extra decade or two – but it doesn’t change the fact that many of the people who populated our childhood will die within the next five years. The Greatest Generation is marching, inexorably, towards their Greatest Adventure.

We will lose a lot when they are gone. An entirely different America, in fact. The nation that they helped to shape, the nation that they represent, will vanish when the last of those WWII-era citizens passes. America as a producer. America as an industrial giant. America as an international power. America as a single nation. All of these truths that I grew up hearing about our country will go to the grave with the generation that held them closest.

Because, let’s face it, we no longer believe in that America. We believe in a nation where opportunity comes with a price tag, where the fix is in, where government, corruption, incompetence and apathy have become synonymous. We live, sadly, in an America that couldn’t rise from the ashes of the Depression and win a World War. We don’t have the collective optimism or hope that is required to do that sort of thing. We would piss and moan about the hardship and struggle, and while we would be right about the challenges, our attitude alone would doom us more than our circumstances.

Which is exactly what I never fully understood about that Greatest Generation, my grandparents’ generation: their attitude. How could they not see the things my generation sees? How could they be so naive? How could they hold onto the American myth and push so stridently for its hoped-for outcomes? It couldn’t have been stupidity – they figured out more challenging problems than that in their sleep, and if you don’t believe me, try keeping a victory garden alive and flourishing for more than three days. I mean, I can’t even keep a plastic plant alive that long.

I could never fathom why my grandparents held the beliefs they did about America. Why they could stand and sing the anthem without shame. Why they could talk about this country as if it had never done anything wrong. Didn’t they understand Watergate? Didn’t they know about Hoover’s FBI?

How could they be so blind?

I’ve been thinking about this for weeks now, as my grandfather has been suddenly confined to a hospice bed in his own home’s front room, and I don’t think they’ve been blind at all. I think they just understood that it’s better to live with hope than whimper in fear. I see this attitude at work in Pop even now.

I’ve been to visit him a few times now, and where I would feel like a fool set on display for the pitying world, he just looks out the window, smiles at the company, and sleeps whenever he needs to. He doesn’t rage against the health care system. He doesn’t rail against the government’s failure to take better care of veterans. He doesn’t even care to hear the latest news, except for weather reports – and even then, why does the weather matter to him? He can’t even go outside!

I’m living through this with him and while my heart sometimes feels like it’s going to explode from the chaos and madness and seeming inequity of it all, he’s never uttered a word of discontent.

I asked him the other day if he was ready to go to Heaven.

“Yep,” he replied. “But I’m not gonna go get a shotgun and rush the trip along.”

“Don’t you get tired?” I asked.

“Yep. But the Lord has me here for a reason. Might as well live for it.”

When he said that to me, I thought, Fatalism. Whatever will be will be. It seemed the coward’s way out, blithely just taking whatever comes your way and not expecting anything more.

But my grandfather is not a coward. You can’t be a coward when your sickbed is the center ring of your last days and everyone comes to see the show and pay their respects. It takes a courage that I don’t possess to let your brokenness be on display and to live each day for itself.

That’s the kind of spirit that overcame a Reich. That’s the kind of spirit that conquered the pitfalls inherent in the American Dream and allowed goodness to shine through. That is the kind of willpower and faith that innovates and imagines and invents solutions to problems that others would run from. That is what led Tom Brokaw and others to coin them the Greatest Generation, and they are dying, one by one.

It’s like when I was a kid, and the fireflies started blinking. You knew the evening time was near, and you only had so long to play before you had to come inside for the night. We danced in that firefly light, savoring every flicker, because we knew that when the night had reached its darkest those fireflies would light the way. As long as we could see one little light in the blackness, we felt safe.

My grandfather’s generation still lights the way, as they have for some fifty years. Long since past the events that defined them, they have been flashing reminders of what is good and beautiful in a darkened world. But soon, the last of those beacons of childhood security will go black and we’ll find ourselves alone in the dark. America will have lost her soul, her spirit, to the passage of time. We will face future events without a large part of who we were as a nation.

And what we do then will define our generation.

Questions For God (Since It’s The End Of The World)

A man in California says the world will end tonight at 6:00 PM.

As a card-carrying member of Generation X, the official generation of skepticism, snark, and relentless doubt, I feel compelled to say:


I know I’ve written about this the last couple of days, but it’s the predominant topic on everyone’s mind. Personally, I say no. One wingnut with a Bible radio network and a need for attention does not a prophet make. Historically, the kind of people God called to the role of prophet were a little more humble and a lot more credible. (Harold Camping, as we know, is 0-for-1 on the doomsday predictions. He also had Duke in his NCAA brackets, so there you go.) But thanks to massive billboards, Twitter, and the general Christian illiteracy in this nation, what should be a molehill has been backbuilt into a mountain. People, it seems, are in a bit of a panic.

In my own community, I’ve noticed “End of the World” inspired garage sales, an inordinate number of them to be honest. And driving by I’m thinking a couple of things:

1. If you’re a Christian having a yard sale, what’s the point? Where you gonna spend that cash – at the arcade in Heaven?

2. If you’re not a Christian, why would you shop at an end-of-the-world yard sale? If you’re patient, the same crap will be free tomorrow.

Suffice it to say, these questions have prompted more questions, questions that – if we do go meet Jesus in the air tonight – I’d like to ask God when I get a minute. And yes, I think there will be questions in Heaven; if there weren’t, it’d get awfully boring. The good thing will be that there will also be answers.

So, 30 questions that I’d like to ask God if I go to Heaven tonight:

1. Southern Baptists: were we even close to being right?

2. Who shot JFK?

3. The Middle East: what the heck was the problem there?

4. How did my Thermos know to keep hot things hot and cold things cold? Was it witchcraft?

5. Given the self-assurance of most people when making decisions for their life, did you, as the Supreme Omnipotent Being, spend most of the time laughing your butt off at our stupidity?

6. Why just the one World Series title for the Braves? Was it because of Rocker?

7. Please settle this ages-old dilemma: tastes great or less filling?

8. Why did I have to go through high school looking like a stick figure?

9. What would my kids have grown up to be like?

10. Did Pluto cry when it was downgraded from planet to orb?

11. On a scale from 1 to 10, how stupid was the battle between science and faith?

12. David Lee Roth or Sammy Hagar?

13. How did Jesus manage to live 33 years without sinning? Even with his divine nature, the temptation to smoke a couple of turkeys had to be strong.

14. Just how much did The Fall screw everything up? Can we blame it for earthquakes and hurricanes? What about genocide? The Jersey Shore cast?

15. Other than the Bible, what was the best book ever written? Best song? Best movie?

16. Since we never got to see, who was the mother on “How I Met Your Mother”?

17. Who was the funniest of Jesus’ 12 disciples?

18. Did Judas Iscariot go to Heaven or Hell? This was a big issue when I was in seminary.

19. Favorite superhero of all time?

20. Since it’s Heaven, this really doesn’t matter, but just for me: which was cooler – Star Wars or Star Trek?

21. Which team has the fewest fans here: the Yankees, Lakers, or Raiders?

22. My daughter Ruthanne got here way before me; will she know who I am?

23. Is there fishing in Heaven? Cause, if so, I know where to find about half of my relatives.

24. Which book of the Bible was the most misinterpreted? I’m guessing the Revelation of John.

25. Christianity as a faith lasted over 2,000 years; were there any doctrines that got fundamentally changed over the years? In the latter decades, what things did we over-emphasize or under-emphasize?

26. I’ve been assuming that there is a Heaven and Hell; but for argument’s sake, did all paths really lead here? If so, I’m guessing some folks will have a duck when they see Osama, Hitler and Pol Pot playing croquet.

27. Was it ever possible for human beings to NOT turn your instructions into a strictly enforced code?

28. Which Pope was your favorite? How about which preacher?

29. How delusional were we to think that America was your favorite nation of all time?

30. I’m glad to be here, but just out of curiosity: of all people in the world, why did Harold Camping have to be right?

Guest Post: A Marine On The Death Of Osama Bin Laden

Lt. Col. Karl "KJ" Johnson, Marine Corps. Semper Fi indeed.

I mentioned yesterday that I offered the blog up to two people for guest posts. One of them took me up on the offer, and I am unbelievably excited that he did. Lieutenant Colonel Karl “KJ” Johnson is a helicopter pilot in the Marine Corp and a veteran of the War on Terror. KJ has been just about everywhere the War has taken our troops, and has seen everything there is to see. If anyone can lend some perspective to the death of the World’s Most Notorious Terrorist, KJ certainly can.

I first met KJ through my work with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries. I was working a public forum at Arizona State University and KJ, who lived in California at the time, drove all they way to Scottsdale just to help work at our book table. I ended up sitting next to him at the payment table, and we struck up a conversation that lasted pretty much all night. His stories fascinating, but his insight into life – insight brought about in part by his service to our country, but mostly by his God-given gift of intelligence – made you stop and really think about issues you’d long considered resolved in your mind. He does exactly that with today’s post. Please, read it, think about it, and then pass it on to someone else.

The Death of OBL

As a Marine officer of nearly 19 years of continuous active duty service and, more importantly, a disciple of Jesus Christ I am very interested in the recent turn of events involving Osama bin Laden (OBL).  In fact, I have been keenly interested since that fateful day in Sept. 2011.  Believe it or not, one of my first thoughts that day was “I wonder if anyone is praying for OBL.”  I mean, aren’t we supposed to love our enemies?  As an American citizen I have no more dangerous an enemy than OBL and those who are associated with him.  Aren’t we supposed to forego the weapons of the world, as counterintuitive as that may seem?  At that time I was getting ready to deploy, so the likelihood of going into combat was very real (remember, this was before we went into either Afghanistan or Iraq) and most of my peers were using the events of 9/11 to motivate them for (or cope with) our six-month deployment.  In fact, many of my peers were eager to engage the enemy in order to exact some revenge/justice…all in the name of patriotism.  So why was I thinking about praying for OBL?

Now, I’m not judging my fellow Marines.  A large part of me agrees with them and I certainly subscribe to the Just War Theory; I would never have accepted a commission as an officer in the Corps otherwise.  And this would certainly be a Just War.  But somehow God would not let me feel the hatred for OBL that many of my peers felt.  Oh, I was very affected by the events of 9/11.  In fact, I was very surprised by just how emotional I got seeing my beloved homeland attacked and violated.  I had friends in the Pentagon that day.  And, since I’m a pilot, I played the events of the courageous passengers in my mind over and over and wondered many times what I would have done had I been on one of those flights, or if I had been one of the pilots.  I was enraged to see what had happened.  But I did not harbor a hatred for OBL or any single person.  Perhaps it’s because my worldview accounted for the existence of evil and I recognized the dangers posed by the radical Islamic agenda.  I don’t know for sure, but I do know that God called me to pray that day.  And I prayed that God would somehow win over OBL, that somehow God would reach into his black heart and redeem it just like he had redeemed mine.

OBL deserves death and hell.  But so do the rest of us.  If God is the standard, we are all in trouble.  We all need grace.  We tend to grade one another, to compare ourselves to others.  This works for us and against us.  “Oh, I may not be perfect but at least I’m not as bad as so-and-so.”  Or how about, “man, look at so-and-so, I’ll never be as good a Christian as he/she is.”  No, there’s only one comparison to be made, the comparison to Christ.  And we all fail that test.  OBL was decieved.  VERY deceived.  But are we any better off?  Do we play games with ourselves and convince ourselves that we’re good enough or better than others?  Remember the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14?  He prayed “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.”  Or even this terrorist.  Really?  We are just like the Israelites.  We never learn, and we keep repeating the same sins.

Think maybe OBL was beyond God’s reach?  What about Paul?  Oh, but he was an apostle, a one-of-a-kind instance.  Really?  Check out the story of Thomas Tarrants, a terrorist himself, former president of the C.S. Lewis Institute (now their Director of Ministry) and good friend (I did not meet him until years after all of this).  You want a good story?  Google the CS Lewis Institute, write them a letter and they will send you a FREE copy of Tom’s testimony.  You will not regret it, and it will change how you think of others.  You will never again believe that anyone is unreachable.

So, how do I feel about the death of OBL.  Well, it certainly provides a certain amount of closure.  I was a little bit emotional because it represents bringing a tyrant to justice and the closing of a chapter of frustration; OBL had eluded us for so long and I did not want him to get away with his crimes (in this world).  And on the strategic level of warfare this represents a victory.  It will send a message to terrorists all over the globe and serve as a beacon of hope to those who live in fear of men like OBL.  Another part of me recognizes that on the tactical and operational levels of warfare this does not change a lot.  The Taliban and al-Qa’ida are still a threat and the brave American men and women in Afghanistan still face the same dangers they did on April 30.  And they are likely to see those threats increase as the Taliban steps up their efforts to avenge OBL’s demise.  But those same men and women will also find encouragement and a lift in morale to see this victory.  Additionally, those of us in uniform are not naïve enough to think that this going to topple the opposition.  This is not like taking out Hitler during WWII.  No, it’s a whole new kind of warfare.  One in which there are no front lines, no rear area, no obvious enemy.  I guess in the end, I’m a bit ambivalent.  I do not rejoice in the death of anyone, even OBL.  Instead, I am haunted by C.S. Lewis’ words: “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.”  I know which one I want to be.

The Government Stays Open!

The government has reached a deal to continue working! Isn’t that what they’re supposed to do?

After listening to all the rhetoric on both sides, I hope that a giant sinkhole opens up and swallows Capitol Hill, Boehner first. That dude is for the American people as much as the USSR was.

Which reminds me: today I saw a massive roadside banner reading, “Senator Joseph McCarthy: A Great American. He was right.”