Reflection on Afghanistan, COVID and Leadership

Everything about Afghanistan has confirmed my strong conviction that sacrifice, duty, and leadership count. God bless the families of fallen service men and women who have made the supreme sacrifice and those who have paid the last full measure of devotion. The latest casualties strike at the core of what makes America great because their mission was humanitarian. They were there in Kabul to rescue and evacuate. May their memories encourage us, and inspire us to be like Jesus who gave his all so that we might live, and in life itself was willing to wash the disciples’ feet.  Lord, have mercy, we plead and pray.

Lord, give strength and comfort to all those who have given of themselves in all of our battles, especially against illnesses like COVID, injustice, terrorism and every infraction against the Golden Rule. Help our teachers, parents, nurses, doctors, caregivers, hospice workers, firefighters, police, EMS, first responders, last responders, and, of course, our brave service men and women who serve in harm’s way. All of these are for whom the words of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade,” are eerily appropriate today.

That charge at the 1854 Battle of Balaclava in the Crimean War by the British was heroic, but disastrous because of miscommunication, but they did their duty nevertheless. It reads:

Theirs was not to make reply,

Theirs was not to reason why,

Theirs but to do and die.

Into the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.

Duty, honor, and sacrifice are the by-product of leadership in families, schools, churches, and town halls on up to the highest reaches of government. We are a chain, only as strong as the weakest link, and the crucibles we’ve been facing have proven the mettle of our leaders and found it either worthy or not. The history books are the final arbiters. There will be applause and pundits in the meantime. The best leadership is gauged not by polls, but purpose.

For instance, I have been reading about Brigadier General Teddy Roosevelt, Jr., often called, “The Toughest Man in World War II.” He and his family were keen on purpose. His father was President Theodore Roosevelt of San Juan Hill and Roughrider fame who proposed that prudence demands that freedom-loving people, “Speak softly, and carry a big stick.” President Teddy Roosevelt’s youngest son, Quentin, was shot down and died in World War I. Another son, Kermit, served in World War I and II. Son, Archie, retired from the military after being shot in the knee in World War I, but insisted on coming back for World War II. He served in the Pacific Theater, was wounded again and received the Silver Star with three oak-leaf clusters. Ted, Jr. led the D-Day invasion as a part of the first wave at Utah Beach.

Why so much dedication to fight for their country? Their father, President Teddy Roosevelt, modeled and instilled a mindset of duty and military obligation. So, no wonder Ted, Jr. was the highest-ranking American officer on the invasion beaches. He was warned against it, but he replied that his troops needed him.

One author, K.S. Bruce, sums it up with this account: “Imagine it is D-Day, June 6, 1944, and you are a young private hitting Utah Beach in the very first wave, into the teeth of the German army, against a rainfall of enemy gunfire, artillery shrapnel and gore. You are filled with fear, and there on the beach in front of you, stands an old man. An American brigadier general – bull-frog voiced, pop-eyed, 5-foot-8 inches tall and directing the troops with his cane. Calm as a man can be in combat, he is Ted Roosevelt, Jr. At age 56 with bad arthritis, he had volunteered to be on the landing boats in order to give the young troops reassurance and to arm them with his same fortitude and courage, and he did exactly that. When he realizes he and his men are a mile from their designated drop-off point, he calmly looked at a map while dodging bullets and opined, ‘We’ll start the war from here.’”

Now, how’s that for leadership? In 5 weeks, he would be dead from a heart attack, but not without first leading his men ashore. His own son, Quentin, named after Ted, Jr.’s brother who was killed in World War I, was also in the first wave on D-Day, only to die some time later. How many invasions had this privileged son of a President been in that he, no doubt, could have escaped? Basically, all of them. As a combat officer in the 26th Regiment of the First Division (The “Big Red One”) during World War I, Ted, Jr. helped lead the Americans into France. In 1941, he was back again to help lead the same regiment in the amphibious invasion of North Africa in World War II. He battled into Sicily, and he was with the Fourth Division at D-Day.

For his bravery on Utah Beach, General Ted Roosevelt, Jr. was awarded the Medal of Honor. His father, President Theodore Roosevelt, also received one for his leadership and bravery on San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War. They, along with Arthur and Douglas McArthur, are the only father and sons to ever both win a Medal of Honor. Ted, Jr. is buried in Colleville-sur-Mer, France, alongside his younger brother, Quentin, who was killed in World War I. Leadership’s ripple effect spreads far and wide. Its lack does, too.

Oh, how we need leaders today. God help all of those trying to do their best to emulate duty, honor, and sacrifice in our battles both at home and abroad: in classrooms, boardrooms, family rooms, hospital rooms, and in the continued fight against all that is not of God everywhere. May it be said of us, we pray. Amen.

Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., seen in Ste. Mere-Eglise on July 12, hours before he died of a coronary thrombosis. Arthritis caused him to walk with a stick. The 4th Infantry Division commander described him as “the most gallant soldier and finest gentleman I have ever known.” (US Gov)

The Cowboy Code Speaks to the Church and Culture


I’ve seen bulls duke it out and butt heads. Goats, too, and it doesn’t take a genius to spot a goat in a flock of sheep, and neither species is very high on the smartness scale. Growing up with a Daddy who had enough auction barns that he ran around 4,000 head a week, plus working in those barns may not have made me a full-fledged cowboy, but it sure made me appreciate good old wild west wisdom. There are lessons to be learned from the things my Daddy used to say whether you are a city slicker or somebody from Africa.

Wisdom is wisdom even when the idiom or words change from one setting to another. What’s going on among some United Methodists who are arguing about progressive and traditional theology is a lot like watching two bulls charge each other trying to establish who’s in charge. You know, trying to establish the pecking order. Isn’t that what’s going on at a lot of levels in our world? It’s like watching a bunch of big-rig trucks play chicken, and waiting to see who blinks first. In many ways, most of this head-butting is quite comical because Jesus is already in charge no matter how poorly we use our free-will, and while we play the game of “My lawyer’s better than your lawyer,” God is either chuckling or crying over our stupidity. The end result isn’t a game of chicken, it’s a demolition derby.

Let me suggest to a COVID-weary, divided, and frustrated world that we could learn a thing or two from cowboy wisdom. For instance, I think I can hear my Daddy say about some of the people who think they know everything, that they are, “All hat, and no cattle.” They can look the part, but can’t back it up. I think there’s a bishop or two in that bunch, and more than a few CEOs, preachers and parishioners, too. A leader without followers is somebody out taking a walk by themselves. In western terms, if you’re riding ahead of the herd, you better look back every now and then to make sure it’s still there.

Only cows know why they stampede, and I know at least one bishop who has poked a bear called the laity, and the stampede is fixing to start. Talk about thinning out a crowd real quick. A lot of preachers with their highfalutin thinking are more liberal than the average parishioner, so those folks in high positions or pulpits better know and appreciate what the herd thinks before things get out of hand. Common sense goes a long way, and people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

It takes leaders, bishops, pastors and laity of every ilk to work together and do one another’s part to fulfil Jesus’ rescue mission to planet earth, but the first thing you need to do when you find yourself in a hole is to stop digging. Take a breath! If you think you’re so big and bad, try ordering somebody else’s dog around. You’ll quickly find out that you’re not as big as you think you are, so chill. In many a church’s case, most of the flock knows that they need to listen to Jesus before they listen to somebody who ain’t from there, doesn’t know the lay of the land, and has no clue what really matters to the common folk. That’s been the problem with Washington, D.C. for a long time, and too many other places. The people in charge don’t serve their constituency anymore. They are serving their own agenda, much less the Lord.

One of the primary jobs of the cowboy, shepherd or leader of any kind is to protect the herd or flock. It seems to me that the Bible has plenty of safe boundaries on what’s right and wrong. As they say out west and on the farm, “Never approach a bull from the front, a horse from the rear, or a fool from any direction.” There’s an addendum that’s just as true, “A wink is as good as a nod to a blind mule.” Because it’s a blind mule, it doesn’t matter whether you wink or nod. You have got to be clear in what you communicate, so we need clarity in this upside down world. Fences need to be horse high, pig tight, and bull strong. And, finally, remember to never squat with your spurs on, or any kind of movement is going to be awfully painful. Let’s take our spurs off, and quit hurting ourselves. Let’s honor God and the Cowboy Code.

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Schilling’s Bloody Sock the Bridge to History

Due to our COVID environment and political season, there’s a wave of selfishness and pride that is running rampant across the land. COVID has us in survival mode, hunkering down in our bunkers hoarding basic necessities, or daring to claim our personal freedoms at the expense of the common good as we thumb our noses at protection protocols. The essence of many behaviors we see exhibited is unhealthy pride. Self-denial and humility have been sacrificed on the altar of the survival of the fittest. This is a scary place to be as individuals or as a society.

Jesus emptied Himself of his prerogatives. Philippians 2:5 says, “In your relationships with one another have the same mindset as Christ Jesus.” It goes on in subsequent verses to poetically state how Jesus humbled Himself, made Himself nothing, and became obedient even to death on a cross. This is so antithetical to most of our thinking. We’re so caught up in our rights, our wants, and our personal protection that we overlook what’s good for the community. Thank God for the medical personnel, educators, and every helping profession that puts aside self-preservation for the good of others.

It is true that when we take an airplane ride that the flight attendant instructs us to put our own oxygen mask on first before we try to help someone else with theirs, but if we use that as a corollary for every situation, especially during this COVID season, then we are teetering on the edge of an unhealthy focus on self-survival. They don’t pass out Medals of Honor to the selfish coward who abandons his or her comrades and runs away when the going gets rough. They give the highest accolades to the soldier who, without thought of their own safety, jumps on the hand grenade tossed into the foxhole. They give up their life to save others.

We should honor the journeyman sports player who takes a hit for the team, or, without self-regard, carries the team on their shoulders. Think Curt Shilling of the Boston Red Sox who played in Game 6 of the 2004 ALCS with his ankle skin sutured to his torn tendon sheath so he could pitch against the Yankees. Amid enormous pressure, Boston team doctor Bill Morgan made the desperate decision to suture the outside of Schilling’s ankle to the tissue surrounding the tendon in an attempt to hold everything in place long enough for him to pitch Game 6. Blood began oozing out before the first inning, visibly soaking his sock.

That bloody sock still symbolizes self-sacrifice for one’s team. The Red Sox won the series, and went on to sweep the Cardinals in the World Series. Schilling pitched one of those games, too, still barely patched together, and in pain. His “Team-First” attitude brought the world champion title back to Boston for the first time since 1918. I can hear President John F. Kennedy’s words echo, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” More importantly, we can hear Jesus’ words to deny ourselves. He did it Himself, and that should be inspiration enough for us to embrace humility and put others before ourselves.

It should come as no surprise that the words “sin” and “pride” both have “I” as the middle, central letter. It’s pride that keeps me looking down on others, and thinking I’m better than others. Have you heard about the unkempt, gruff, smelly cowboy out on the range who became a Christian? He told his bunkmates about it and they insisted that he go to church. It was miles and miles away. He went and came back. His bunkmates asked him how it went. He said that when he got there he parked in the corral. They said, “They don’t call it a corral, it’s a parking lot.” He said, “I didn’t know that.” The cowboy then said he walked up to the front gate of the church. His buddies laughed and said, “That’s not what they call it. They call it a door.” The cowboy said he didn’t know that. Then he said he walked down a long chute. They laughed again and said that church people call it an aisle. He said he didn’t know that. The he said he sat down in a little stall. His friends laughed and said church people call it a pew. He said, “Oh, I did know that because that’s what the lady said when I sat down beside her.” How often do we look down our noses at people and say “Peeww…”? How sad.

As someone aptly said, “The ground is level at the foot of the cross.” No one is better or higher than anyone else. We all need each other. A church is as only as strong if every member shoulders the cross and builds up the Body of Christ. A country, or society, is only as strong as we value what’s best for everybody over what’s best for me.