I hope he really is a con-man . . .

. . . but not in the typical way we use that phrase. I don’t want President-Elect Trump to gain our confidence, only to use it as leverage for manipulation. I don’t want him to be shady.

But I do hope he will strive to lead us into the truest sense of that prefix con-, which literally means “together” or “with.” I know you agree that our United States feel a little less than united, a little short of together these days.

Part of the reason for that, I believe, is that we are becoming a nation of experts. In this postmodern era, there are increasingly few agreed-upon normative truths. Some describe this as an age of “self-referentiality,” in which we are losing the ability to seek the common good because we are so consumed with what seems best for ourselves. Without caution and self-awareness, we can easily slide down a slippery slope from reference to what seems best for us to reverence for what we merely like, want, or prefer.

Here’s the great danger of that: when each sees himself/herself as the moral, rational, or political point of reference, anyone who disagrees is wrong. If I am the arbiter of what is good and true, you are wrong (and perhaps evil and/or stupid) if you disagree with me. Did we not see this in the presidential election? Didn’t candidates, campaigns, and individual voters treat their opponents as if they were absolute imbeciles?

The perfect storm is that this rise of self-reference has coincided with the rise of social media. So, we can all publish our expertise via tweets, posts, and blogs. We can critique, criticize, and rate via likes, retweets, and comments.

Though it allows us to express ourselves to a larger audience, social media doesn’t necessarily facilitate better communication. Posts and tweets are not conversational. They are necessarily one-way, monological expressions. I acknowledge the irony that I’m expressing and you’re reading this thought in a blog post.

We’ve all seen the worst of social media “communication.” One person posts a rant. Another offers a rebuttal in the comments. The author of the original post responds defensively. They unfriend/unfollow each other.

That’s not communication. It certainly doesn’t build community. Tweets and sound bytes can give the impression  that we’re not interested in what anyone else might say. They can alienate us and drive us even further into self-reference.

So, when he assumes office tomorrow, I hope President-Elect Trump will use his Twitter account a little less often. I hope he will strive to be less self-referential than Presidential. I hope he will be a con-man, striving to bring us together with each other.

I hope he will enter into conversations, requiring him to be present with people and to enter into that very real form of communication that occurs only as we both express and listen.

I hope he will make a genuine effort to connect with people, whether they agree or disagree with him. I hope he will strive to lead toward what is best for all.

In his interactions, I hope he will be humble and conciliatory, believing that individual concessions are often necessary for the corporate good.

I hope he will strive for consensus, as seemingly impossible as it is in our generation of hyperpartisan politics. I hope he will lead efforts to find the wisest, best solutions for both parties and all people.

Idealistic? Perhaps, but it’s the kind of idealism upon which our nation is built. Our national motto is E Pluribus Unum, or “out of many, one.” Though we have always valued individual rights, we have equally realized that we are stronger and better when we are united than when we stand alone.

You might even say we are a nation of cons.

Our legislative branch, the congress comes together to legislate for the good of the whole.

Our constitution is the covenant (or contract) that binds us together “to form a more perfect union.”

That constitution, by the way, replaced the Articles of Confederation adopted by a Continental Congress.

I believe with all my heart that we live in the greatest nation on earth. I thank God that we will observe a significant transfer of governing authority tomorrow with no shots fired, lives lost, or battles fought. But our nation can be–ought to be–greater still. I pray and hope that President Elect Trump will be a con- man as he leads us.

Because united we stand; divided, well . . .

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Weeping for the Children

As I ironed a shirt this morning, making my typical preparations for a typical day of work, a heartbreakingly and increasingly all-too-typical news story caught my attention and gripped my heart.

Shots had been fired. Life had been lost.

Cell phone videos replayed the struggle among two Baton Rouge police officers and a civilian suspect. Broadcast journalists, experts, protesters, and family members debated whether the shooting was justifiable. They all agreed that it was tragic, and I agreed with them.

The next scene underscored and emphasized the tragedy for me. As his mother spoke to the media, fifteen year old Cameron Sterling sobbed and cried out, “I want daddy!”

There’s the tragedy.

See, regardless of our arguments over justifiability of shootings, availability of guns, culpability of suspects, avoidability of responsibility, or any other –bility we can imagine, sudden and violent deaths are tragic because they strip children of their parents, parents of their children, loved ones of their loved ones . . .

Perhaps Cameron Sterling spoke for all of us when those three words rushed and gushed up from his heart–“I want daddy!” When violence of any kind wins, we all lose something, maybe even some part of ourselves.

Though my heart and spirit were heavier, my typical morning progressed until my wife Suzanne called my attention to the atypical–tragedy had forced its way into our community. Overnight, there had been an “active shooter” even here in Bristol, just minutes from our home. As the story unfolded through the morning, we were numbed by the unthinkable, the unimaginable. The shooting victim who lost her life was our age. Her children are about the same ages as our children. Her son played on the same soccer team as our son.

Just weeks ago, we sat on the sideline with her, cheering for our children. This morning, as she made her typical preparations for a typical day of work, her beautiful life ended tragically, senselessly, violently and suddenly. At this very moment, I can imagine her son, Chauncey, our team’s goalie, crying out through his own sobs, “I want momma!”

Sadly, this isn’t the first time that tragic violence has come so close to our children’s hearts. On July 27, 2008, Chloe Chavez sat with her family when a gunman opened fire in the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville. Before he was subdued, the shooter had injured Chloe’s mother, grandfather, and great uncle and had killed a family friend who was like a great aunt to her. Only a month earlier, Chloe and my daughter Grace had finished their Kindergarten year together in the same classroom. Earlier in the year, we had enjoyed meeting all those nice people at Chloe’s birthday party.

When Suzanne and I learned that she had sat there among her family members–splattered in their blood as they were wounded and killed–we could imagine six year old Chloe’s screams . . .

Today, as young Chauncey and his family cry out in grief, I remember the familiar words of my Judeo-Christian faith tradition, “How long, O Lord?”

But as a follower (and a father), the primary scripture-image that comes to my heart and mind is, “A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more” (Jeremiah 31:15).

In Jeremiah’s prophecy, the image is of Rachel in her tomb in Ramah, crying for the children of Israel as they are taken away into exile. In Matthew 2:18, the gospel writer suggests that Herod’s massacre of infants is the reason for Rachel’s weeping.

Today, whether from her tomb in Ramah or from her place in God’s eternal presence, I believe with all my heart that our ancestor Rachel weeps for her children like Chloe, Cameron, and today, Chauncey, as they cry out primally for the ones they’ve loved and lost.

Our hearts weep with yours Rachel. We weep with you.

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United Methodists, Please Don’t Lose Our Witness!

Dear Fellow Followers of Jesus in the United Methodist Church,

One year from today, the 2016 General Conference of the United Methodist Church will have concluded. One year from today, people I dearly love will breathe a sigh of relief that it’s all over for another quadrennium. One year from today, people I dearly love will be heartbroken, perhaps to the point of leaving our church. One year from today, people I dearly love will be elated and filled with joy and hope.

I can’t foresee how the debates will proceed about human sexuality and other topics that are highly charged–emotionally, spiritually, missionally, and otherwise. Nor do I know how our church’s Book of Discipline will change, if at all. But I feel certain of this–one year from today, some United Methodists will feel that they’ve won, and others will feel that they’ve lost.

One year from today, people who outwardly consider themselves brothers and sisters in Christ will leave Portland, Oregon, feeling that they have either triumphed over or been defeated by their opponents. I find that heartbreaking, and I can’t help but feel that God finds it heartbreaking too.

I have seen the divide very clearly in my own circle of friends and sphere of influence in just the past few days. When United Methodist Communications released the story on Monday about our Connectional Table’s proposal to remove the Book of Discipline’s prohibitive language about sexuality, my Facebook friends were seemingly equally divided and equally convicted in their responses. Some were exuberant. Others were disgusted. Some derided the Connectional Table for sounding another peal of our church’s death knell. Others praised the Connectional Table for offering our church a new potential route toward vitality and life.

I have no problem with my friends’ differing perspectives. We will always have differences of opinion and conviction. God made us, and God made each of us differently and uniquely. What causes my heart to ache is when we Christians vilify and demonize the people who don’t share our perspective, when we view a person as an opponent to be out-argued, out-maneuvered, and ultimately out-voted.

We let ourselves off the hook because we convince ourselves (seemingly regardless of our perspective and conviction), that we are taking a stand, making a case, winning an argument, and maybe even fighting a fight in the name of God. When we understand ourselves to be the ones who are standing up for God, it’s fairly easy for us to believe that anyone who disagrees with us ultimately disagrees with God. Since we see ourselves standing on the side of God, and therefore on the side of good, the one who opposes us must be standing on the side of evil, or at least on the side of something less than holy.

At worst, sometimes very subtly or almost even imperceptibly, our vision becomes impaired. We lose our ability to see fellow children of God, fearfully and wonderfully knit together in his image in our mothers’ wombs. We lose sight of fellow lambs of the Good Shepherd’s flock. We can no longer see fellow members of the Body of Christ or fellow neighbors to be loved as we love ourselves. We become blind to the reality that we are all fellow sinners of God’s redemption.

Instead, we see adversaries, opponents, even outright enemies to the redemptive work of Jesus Christ in the world.

Adversary. Opponent. Enemy. Any one of these is an acceptable translation of the Greek word/name satan. God forbid that we see or treat each other as adversaries!

There, my friends, is the danger. Regardless of our place on the theological spectrum, it’s awfully easy to fall into a polar worldview, in which we see ourselves as the defenders of the cause of Christ, and we see others as, well, other.

How does that happen? Again, I believe it’s a matter of vision. We become so focused on principle that we fail to see people. In our zeal to glorify God by embracing, espousing, and arguing a cause, we overlook the one commandment that Jesus says is comparable to loving God–the commandment to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

Notice the emphasis in that last sentence. Christians, that’s what’s different about us. As Jesus said, everyone loves the people who love them back. What sets apart followers of Jesus is our love for those who disagree with or even persecute us. Jesus commands us to love. It’s a requirement.

Jesus ups the ante even further. Not only does he expect us not to see the other as an adversary, not only does he command us to love the person with whom we disagree, but in his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, he warns us about our very attitudes toward each other:

21“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”

That tells me loudly and clearly that we should be very humble in our praying, discerning, conferencing, debating, and voting. To see the person who may stand on the other side of the issue as a fool is to imperil our own souls.

Humility is the key, isn’t it? It’s humility that allows us to embrace and be embraced by God’s saving grace. It’s humility that enables us to see others as our neighbors, equally lovable as ourselves. It’s humility that enables us to realize that we need the other members of the body, and furthermore, that we just might grow from hearing their perspectives. It’s humility that enables us to love them (as we love ourselves) enough to really listen to them.

What if we really believed that the people with whom we disagree really meant what they said when they stood in front of a congregation–just as we did–and renounced evil, rejected wickedness, and confessed their faith in Christ? What if we believed that they were striving to love God and to follow Jesus just as fervently as we are? What if we were humble enough to ask ourselves, “What if I’m wrong?”

It’s a question that begs to be asked. Consider the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the scribes, the chief priests, the elders, the council, and the teachers of the law, and so many others in the gospel stories. In retrospect, we see them as the bad guys in the gospels, the antagonists to Jesus. Yet all of them were striving to lead Israel to a deeper devotion to God. They all had (or at least began with) very good intentions. They all were striving to make their land a little holier. They all thought they were teaching and doing God’s will.

At times, they disagreed with, argued with, and even scorned each other, because each claimed God’s endorsement. Their common ground was that they rejected and felt threatened by Jesus, ultimately to the point that they could no longer tolerate his presence in their midst or even on this earth.

Theirs is a humbling example. Their insistence that they were right led them to hate, rather than to love. In their zeal to protect and defend their corner of the kingdom of God or their part of the revelation of God’s will, they couldn’t or wouldn’t recognize the very presence of God in their midst. God save us from that kind of zeal!

Am I suggesting that we abandon our principles? Absolutely not! Any person of strong faith ought to be a person of strong convictions. Anyone with a strong faith ought to have a strong witness to share, even (and perhaps especially) with fellow followers of Christ. We help to shape each other’s convictions as we walk together in the footsteps of Jesus, going on to perfection together.

I’m simply asking that we lead with love. I’m praying that we will see the image of God, the neighbor, and the brother or sister in each other. I’m praying that we refrain from calling names, casting aspersions, lobbing rhetorical barbs, and assigning blame toward each other. We all lose when we see the adversary, the enemy, the opponent in each other.

Let’s remember Paul’s counsel to the Ephesians, “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” In other words, the real adversary, opponent, or enemy is the very one, Satan, whose name is defined by those words. When we see each other as opponents, the victory is his.

Maybe the most important consideration and realization of all is this: we get in the way of our very mission and meaning when we treat each other as opponents. Years ago, one of my mentors in the faith planted a very helpful concept in my heart and mind. He said that we Christians can inadvertently “lose our witness” when the impression that we give to others is that we’re joyless and confrontational. We proclaim love with our lips but don’t reveal it in our relationships within the church. Too often, our dialogue becomes disagreement. Our conversation becomes conflict.

We United Methodists can all agree that our mission is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” We can do neither very well when so much of our passion is consumed in an effort to remodel what we perceive to be the other side of a divided house. We lose our witness when the cacophony of our internal bickering drowns out our external efforts to tell the story of Jesus and his love. People won’t believe our message of grace if they don’t encounter that grace in us.

May I suggest this? Instead of writing off a person with whom you are at odds, write a note. Invite him or her to share a meal or cup of coffee. Instead of shaking the dust from your sandals, shake the hand of a person who doesn’t share your perspective. Sit down to a conversation about your common love of Jesus Christ and his church. Find that love that binds us all together. Let’s follow the example of Jesus and learn to love each other before we try to change each other.

One year from today, the 2016 General Conference will be history. That means we have twelve months, fifty-two weeks, three hundred sixty-five days to get it right and to show the world how brothers and sisters in Christ live in communion and community with each other even when we disagree.

Fellow followers of Jesus Christ in the United Methodist Church, the world is watching. I believe a great cloud of witnesses is watching. Above all, our Lord Jesus Christ is watching. They not only await the outcomes of the General Conference, but they watch with hopeful expectation for the love and grace we will extend to each other as we work, talk, and vote toward those outcomes.

Many people whom I love dearly have very definite ideas about where the church ought to be. I pray that we’re all equally concerned about how we get there.

One year from today, we’ll see.

We’ll see.

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Heart Rate & Heartbreak: All in a Mother’s Heart

This Mother’s Day marks the end of a full season of grief. Exactly three months ago today, on February 10, 2015, a date which will live in infamy, Suzanne and I heard the four most painful words of our lives: “no fetal heart rate.”

Only a few weeks earlier we had learned that we were expecting our (gulp!) fifth child, and we had experienced the emotional gamut in the wake of that news.

First, there was shock. After all, we are supposedly a fertility-challenged couple. Eleven years ago, when our Grace was almost three years old and we were trying to have a second child, a fertility expert told us that it would be virtually impossible for us to conceive a child without some medical intervention like in vitro fertilization. I asked, “If we’re unable to conceive, how do we explain our daughter Grace?” The doctor said, “I don’t know what to tell you. She’s a fluke.”

Fluke number two arrived nine years later when our Sage was born, but still, even after two conceptions and births, I don’t think either of us really believed that there would ever be another fluke. That’s why we were initially shocked when we learned in January that our family would grow again.

At moments, we felt overwhelmed. Our house has bedrooms for four children. How and where would we make accommodations for the fifth? I recalled the CNN story I had seen a few months earlier about the rising cost of raising a child to age 18. I had joked that we only needed a million bucks to raise four children. Now, seemingly overnight, we needed $1.25 million–and that was before college tuitions!

Our two year old Sage was just growing past the most difficult stages of infancy, and it made us tired to think of starting over again with a new child, especially at our ages.

Anticipated exhaustion gave way to laughter as our ages inspired hilarious thoughts and conversations. We calculated our ages at various milestones in the baby’s life. I joked about how people would ask me which graduate was my grandchild, since I would be sixty-two at his or her high school graduation. Suzanne imagined herself as the sixty-one year old mother of the bride or groom, if the baby married at the same age as she had. We joked that we would have children involved in the church’s youth ministries for twenty consecutive years, from Grace’s sixth grade year through the new child’s graduation.

Moments of laughter paled in comparison to the moments of outright joy! We imagined all the fun moments ahead as seven of us Jonases packed into our Honda Odyssey. We dreamed of how many grandchildren would gather at our house for future celebrations of Thanksgiving and Christmas. We felt blessed that two people who had no apparent reason to expect that they would conceive once were now expecting for the third time!

Bursting with the need to share that joy with the world one weekend, I put together a cute little video announcement that came closer to going viral than anything I had ever posted on Facebook. We felt warmly embraced by the congratulations, hugs, and Facebook “likes” that our friends and family piled upon us!

Just eleven days after posting that video, on a cold February Tuesday, Suzanne and I sat in the ultrasound lab as we had so often throughout two previous pregnancies. A couple of weeks earlier, she had gotten to see the tiny flicker of a heartbeat, but I had been at the pediatrician’s office with one of our other kids and had missed that ultrasound appointment. I was eager to see the tiny heart’s movement for myself.

As the technician began the scan, I knew that we wouldn’t be able to see any distinct features this early in the pregnancy, but I also knew to look for the heart flashing rapidly like a tiny computer cursor. I didn’t see it, but I didn’t worry. I couldn’t imagine there was any need to. The technician casually asked whether our doctor wanted to see the ultrasound for himself and said that she had better go invite him just in case. When they returned, he looked and listened for only a few seconds before he turned to us and said, “I’m afraid I have bad news. There’s no fetal heart rate.”

I feel certain that he said more, perhaps something about the hardest part of his job, but I didn’t really hear any of it. Once again, we were in shock, but for an entirely different reason. My mind and heart were stuck on those four words: no fetal heart rate. Just that quickly, we were no longer expecting parents. We were grieving parents.

And we have grieved.

But it’s a different kind of grief with an unborn child. There are none of the usual cultural trappings of grief–no obituary, no visitation, no funeral service. Rather than the customary surge of emotion that washes over a family over the span of one or two days with those public expressions of love and grief, we have experienced more of a tidal ebb and flow. Rather than sharing tears with a hundred people at a service, we’ve shared a hundred different moments with people over the past ninety days.

It’s a different quality of grief too. In every other experience of a loved one’s death, I’ve grieved because of a shared past. We’ve had a special bond and shared special experiences in the past, and I have mourned because there would be no more moments like those in the future. In this case, I grieve that I never got to have a past or future with our unborn baby.

In fact, for me, the mourning is best expressed in an almost endless series of we nevers. We never got to hold our baby, know if our baby was a boy or girl, know his or her hair color, smell his or her skin and breath, make comparisons of her or his physical and personality traits with other members in our family, settle on a name, and maybe most importantly, whisper “I love you” against soft baby hair or ears . . .

There are just too many we nevers. They’ve been my constant companions over the past three months as I’ve grieved my loss. What comforts me most is the image of Jesus holding my baby until I can.

But I haven’t just grieved for myself. I have grieved for my Suzanne.

Seventeen years ago, during our exactly fifty-one weeks of dating before we were married, Suzanne and I had a conversation about vocation. She was completing her preparations to be a French teacher, but she said to me that day, “What I really want to be is a mommy.”

We knew there would be fertility challenges, and because of that and her deep maternal desire and calling, we prayed and prayed for a baby. When we learned we were expecting our Grace, it only seemed natural to name her Grace, since we genuinely believed she was a gift from God. Her name became all the more meaningful when she was born two days after the 9-11 attacks. Grace became even more precious to us when we learned, in the words of the aforementioned fertility expert, that she was a “fluke.”

From the beginning, Suzanne was a natural. I’ve learned almost everything I know about being a parent from her. Sure, my parents taught me to be loving and compassionate, and my dad showed me what it means to be a nurturing dad, but Suzanne taught me the skills like diaper changing, bottle preparation, bathing, towel wrapping, and others. She’s still trying to teach me how to brush daughters’ hair and how not to be a pushover with our kids. Hey, I’m a work in progress, but she’s a natural.

When we had the conversation with the fertility expert and made the subsequent decision to adopt, she didn’t hesitate for a moment. She loved Brett before we ever saw him, and when we did see him for the first time in a hotel lobby where several adopting parents were meeting their adopted children, she spotted him across the room and said, “That’s my baby!” He has been ever since.

When our adoption agency called to let us know that Brett’s birth mother had given birth to another baby boy, she didn’t feel overwhelmed. She was thrilled! Micah bonded with her immediately and looked at me with suspicion. When I held him, he screamed, but when she held him, he was content. When we brought Micah home that December, she was the stay-at-home mom of three children under the age of five. I can imagine very few tougher jobs–and hers came without a paycheck.

When Sage (fluke #2) came along at a time in our lives when we didn’t expect to have an infant in the house, Suzanne talked about how much fun it would be to have four children in the house, and she was excited that we had greater odds of having lots of grandchildren.

You should see the relationship she has with Sage now! That two year old bundle of red-headed spirit thinks her mommy is the world’s MVP! Mommy does everything better than Daddy, or anyone else on earth, for that matter. Mommy is her security blanket, the gravitational pull at the center of Sage’s every orbit. Mommy is her best buddy.

In fact, if you’ve seen Suzanne with any of our kids, you didn’t have to hear the words. You know from watching that what she really wanted to be is a mommy.

And so, when we discovered in January that the fifth Jonas child was on the way, there were some nearly overwhelming moments at first, but Suzanne quickly started nesting. She had already made room in her heart, and she was making plans for the space this child would occupy in our family and home. No matter how early in the pregnancy, she was clearly this baby’s mommy, and this precious child was her baby.

Then four words–no fetal heart rate–broke my Suzanne’s heart.

We’ve both grieved, but her grief is different from mine. I joyfully expected a baby, but she carried our baby. She felt the changes in her body. She loved that baby right through the nausea and fatigue. She provided within her body the only earthly home our baby ever knew.

Because of that, her we nevers are accompanied by a million what ifs. She wonders what if she had eaten differently, acted differently? What if? What if? What if?

I have grown to hate the word miscarriage, and I refuse to say it. Like mistake, misuse, misappropriate, miscue, and all those other mis- words, miscarriage implies that someone did something wrong, resulting in an unwanted outcome. She did nothing wrong, and I hate that her grief is accompanied by second, third, and millionth guessing of herself. Next to God’s, our baby knew no greater love than Suzanne’s.

So, on this Mother’s Day, we’ve come to the end of a season of grief, but our grief has not ended. Suzanne no longer carries our baby’s body within her, but she still carries the love, the memories, the we nevers, and the what ifs. I suppose she always will.

Today will be a day of great joy for my Suzanne. She will be surrounded by two sons and two daughters who love and cherish her! She will celebrate that she’s living her dream and being what God made and called her to be–a mommy! But this Mother’s Day, the first since we loved and lost our fifth child, will also hold some grief.

Suzanne has adopted twice. She has been pregnant three times. And today, though she will only hold four of those precious children in her arms, I know she holds all five in her heart.

Will you please hold her in yours?

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To Be a Virginian

“To be a Virginian either by Birth, Marriage, Adoption, or even on one’s Mother’s side, is an Introduction to any State in the Union, a Passport to any Foreign Country, and a Benediction from Above.”
—Anonymous

Some call this “The Virginian’s Creed,” and though I’ve heard a couple of variations across the years, one sentiment remains consistent in every version–it’s pretty great to be a Virginian.

I can hear the ligaments popping as people from other states roll your eyes. You’re probably thinking to yourself, “Great. Here comes another arrogant, condescending, lost-in-the-glorious-past boast about the Old Dominion.” You may feel something similar to the wave of nausea I experience when my friends from Texas talk about much bigger and better things are in their “Republic.”

Hear me out, though. Even though I’m a Virginian by birth, by marriage, and on my mother’s side, my appreciation for The Commonwealth doesn’t come at the expense of your state. You live in a pretty great place, too, I’m sure. I’m certainly not saying you don’t. Nor am I saying my home’s better. However, I will venture this–your state and our nation wouldn’t be what they are without Virginia.

As a matter of fact, today is a very good example of what I mean. One hundred fifty years ago today, on April 9, 1865, Generals Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee met in the parlor of the McLean House in Appomattox, Virginia, to negotiate the surrender of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, effectively ending the Civil War. Other Confederate armies held out a little longer, but the hostilities effectively ceased with what Bruce Catton called “A Stillness at Appomattox.” I can make a compelling case that the United States were reunited at Appomattox . . . in Virginia.

It’s only appropriate that the Civil War ended in the heart of Virginia, because The Commonwealth was the war’s center stage. In fact, without Virginia, it’s very likely that there never would have been a viable Confederacy or a war of any duration. Apart from Virginia, its leaders, and its resources, the Confederacy probably would have amounted to no more than a brief, quickly crushed rebellion. Again, I’ll cite Bruce Catton, who said that the fledgling Confederacy needed Virginia as surely as a human body needs air. Virginia was key, as it always had been.

As early as the 1580s Sir Walter Raleigh launched failed attempts to establish an English colony in the Americas. He is the one who named this land Virginia in honor of Queen Elizabeth I, the “Virgin Queen.” In 1607, the first permanent English settlement on this continent began on a small peninsula up against the north bank of Virginia’s James River. A dozen years later in 1619, a handful of representatives convened in the Jamestown church for the first gathering of the Virginia General Assembly. Three hundred ninety-six years later, the General Assembly is the oldest continuous legislative body in this hemisphere. The representative government that our nation so deeply cherishes was born . . . in Virginia.

So were some of the greatest proponents and practitioners of our representative government. In the 1770s, after a century and a half of colonial status, Virginia and its neighbors along the Atlantic seaboard began to resent taxation without representation. In a session of the Virginia General Assembly in Richmond’s St. John’s Church on March 23, 1775, Patrick Henry asked a timeless question and offered his own timeless answer: “Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!”

Weeks later on June 15, 1775, the Continental Congress appointed Virginia’s own George Washington to command the fledgling Continental Army. Over the next six years, he would heroically lead the amateur army’s fights against not only the often superior British and Loyalist forces, but also against constantly expiring enlistments, stingy state legislatures, and persistent lack of food and supplies.

Just over one year later in the summer of 1776, another Virginian, Thomas Jefferson, penned some famous words of his own: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” With the signing of the Declaration of Independence he drafted, our independent nation began to come into being.

As Virginians fought under Washington on the battlefields of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, their neighbors from the southwestern part of the state headed into the war’s southern theater. Along with their western neighbors, these Overmountain Men from my corner of Virginia defeated Loyalists under the command of Major Patrick Ferguson at the Battle of Kings Mountain in October 1780. Thomas Jefferson, then governor of Virginia, called this victory the “turn of the tide of success” in the colonies’ war for independence.

Almost exactly one year after this turning point, Lord Cornwallis found himself and his army trapped at Yorktown. Before him lay the combined Continental and French armies under Washington and Rochambeau. Behind him, the French fleet filled the waters of the York River and the Chesapeake Bay. With no escape, he surrendered on October 19, 1781. The Revolutionary War effectively ended, and our independence was secured . . . in Virginia.

Throughout the 1700s, the colonies and states were expanding to the west, and Virginia’s roads were crucial to this expansion. Many immigrants to this land–perhaps most notably the Scots-Irish from Ulster–arrived in Philadelphia, migrated west through Pennsylvania, and eventually traveled south into and through Virginia’s Great Valley. The Valley Road along which these pioneers traveled is roughly preserved and/or paralleled by today’s U.S. Highway 11 and Interstate 81. There’s a good chance that some branch of your family tree includes a stop or two along the Valley Road.

Clearly, it’s true that western expansion didn’t end in southwest Virginia, but it just may be true that major western expansion into Kentucky and beyond began in southwest Virginia. Remember Daniel Boone? He was a Virginian for a significant part of his life. After living in Culpeper for a while in the 1760s, Boone returned to Virginia in 1775 to carve out the Wilderness Road through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky. This road winds through southwest Virginia and northeast Tennessee before passing through the Cumberland Gap into what is now Kentucky. During those early days, however, the Kentucky settlements were considered western counties of Virginia, and Daniel Boone represented them in the Virginia General Assembly for three terms.

Meanwhile, back in the east, leaders like George Washington and James Madison recognized the need for a more robust federal government than the one created by the Articles of Confederation adopted by the states at the Revolution’s end. So, in the summer of 1787, the Constitutional Convention met in Philadelphia and promptly elected George Washington to preside. Through the preceding year, James Madison sat in the second floor library of his home at Montpelier, writing a draft that would come to be known as the Virginia Plan for a federal government. The convention edited, amended, and revised the Virginia Plan into what we now know as the Constitution of the United States of America. It was eventually ratified with a Bill of Rights, modeled on George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights.

Four of the new nation’s first five Presidents were Virginians: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe. Over the years, four other Virginians–William Henry Harrison, John Tyler, Zachary Taylor, and Woodrow Wilson–would hold the nation’s highest office. Thus, Virginia claims she is the “Mother of Presidents.”

So many Virginians were crucial contributors to our nation’s early history. When my Texas friends make me nauseous, I remind them that Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston were both Virginians.

For all these reasons and because of all these people, Virginia was key in the Civil War. When Virginia seceded, war was inevitable, and it hit Virginia hard. There were nearly as many battles in Virginia as in all the other states combined. The capital of the Confederacy was here in Richmond. Many of the key generals, like Lee, Johnston, Jackson, Stuart, and Hill were Virginians. The primary industrial and rail infrastructure was in Virginia. So, it was almost inevitable that the Civil War ended . . . in Virginia.

And so it did, one hundred fifty years ago today in Wilmer McLean’s parlor in Appomattox, just over one hundred miles up the James River from Jamestown. So many crucial moments, events, and personalities of our story share this setting.

Our society took root at Jamestown . . . in Virginia.
Our representative government took shape . . . in Virginia.
The founding documents of our national identity took form in the minds of Jefferson, Madison, and Mason . . . in Virginia.
Our independence was secured in at Yorktown . . . in Virginia.
Our nation’s immigrants traveled the Valley and Wilderness Roads . . . in Virginia.
Our union was restored at Appomattox . . . in Virginia.

It’s not just history. It’s my story. It’s your story. It’s our story, and it’s here in Virginia.

So, when I say how proud and happy I am “To Be a Virginian,” you know what I’m saying, right? Because regardless of your current address, if you’re a proud citizen of the United States of America, you have roots in Virginia . . .

. . . maybe on your mother’s side.

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The One and Only Bebo at One Hundred

Her full name was Mary Ellen Davis Jonas, but to my sister, my cousins, and me, she was always Bebo. We can thank my cousin Bill for that memorable moniker. My sister Ginger, the first of four grandchildren, originally called her Memaw, but Billy’s pronunciation came out “Bebo,” and it stuck. Everyone who knew and loved her agrees that it’s appropriate that she had such a distinctive name, because she was one of a kind.

She was born one hundred years ago today, November 20, 1914, in Ivanhoe, Virginia, and she missed living an entire century only by a handful of years. What a century she witnessed! Her lifetime spanned the administrations of seventeen United States presidents, and she approved of the Republicans. Why? Because she blamed the Democrats–Wilson, Roosevelt, Truman, and Johnson–for getting us into wars. So, she was a Republican, and she even had a poster of Richard Nixon on roller skates. “Poor old Tricky Dick,” she would say, “He didn’t do anything worse than the rest of them. He just got caught.”

To put her life in historical context, consider some of the other memorable events of 1914, the year she was born:

  • Babe Ruth made his professional baseball debut.
  • Henry Ford introduced the Model T assembly line.
  • Charlie Chaplin debuted his character The Tramp.
  • Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, beginning Europe’s downward spiral into The Great War, World War I.

Twenty-two days before her fifteenth birthday, the stock market crashed on Black Tuesday, October 29, 1929. The ensuing Great Depression coincided with her teen and young adult years. The seasons of her life that should have been the most fun and carefree were neither. I remember being surprised once when she told us that she had the opportunity to go to Radford College when she graduated from high school, but because she felt the need to help out at home, she chose to forego college. In retrospect, I’m sure that those days of subsistence and survival made college seem somewhat extravagant and fanciful anyway.

Through all the time I knew her, it was clear that the depression era had left its distinct impression upon her. She clearly remembered that time when, in her own way of describing it, “We didn’t have nothing.” Because of that lasting memory, Bebo was not a spender. She cut coupons and checked sale papers, and when she and my grandfather went grocery shopping, they visited several stores and got the things they needed where they were the least expensive. Once when I drove her to the grocery store, she picked up a canister of Morton’s salt, looked at the price tag, and put it back on the shelf with disgust. She couldn’t believe that it cost thirty-three cents, and she wouldn’t buy it because she remembered when it had only cost a nickel.

Because of her frugal nature, she was ahead of her time in reusing and recycling. That’s a polite way of saying that she was a borderline hoarder. She and Granddaddy had three outbuildings–a garage, a wash house, and a shed. All were packed to the gills with stuff she couldn’t part with and/or might need again. The stairway to their bedroom had a passageway only about fifteen inches wide because the stairwell doubled as storage area too. I never really saw the mattress in the other upstairs bedroom because it was covered with things that needed to be kept. Over several visits, I noticed that she rinsed and reused a styrofoam coffee cup from Long John Silver’s. After her Great Depression experience, she was going to be ready for the next “rainy day.”

Her strict self-discipline about her own spending, saving, and keeping, did not translate to strict expectations about her grandchildren’s behavior. My sister and I loved visits to Bebo’s house because it was like stepping outside of the rules for a little while. I remember jumping on the bed in the downstairs bedroom with my cousin Toby as our mothers called from the living room for us to stop. Within the safety zone of Bebo’s house of fun, we began to chant, “We don’t want to! We don’t have to!” We knew that Bebo would come to our defense. “Let ’em have fun,” she would say, usually followed by, “poor little ol’ things don’t know no better.” At Bebo’s house, we could play in the creek all day, go without baths, pee outside, shoot guns, and raid her kitchen cabinets to make what Toby and I called “animal medicine.”

At Bebo’s house, we could say things that were off limits elsewhere. I remember sitting on the porch swing with her one day when I was probably seven or eight years old. My cousin Toby and I were shooting blooms off of  the flowers in the garden with a .22 caliber rifle when she asked us what “dirty words” we knew. The best I had was G-rated, probably things like “butt” and “fart.” She told me that those weren’t any good and shared with me her preference for “shit.” I’m sure I giggled, and if I had any sense, I realized how lucky I was to have a Bebo.

Bebo loved and was very loyal to anything that dated back to her childhood in Ivanhoe. This was especially apparent in her culinary tastes and in her descriptions of her “good ol'” favorites. She loved good ol’ country ham and good ol’ beans and cornbread. Her favorite dessert was cornbread mashed up in a cup of buttermilk. Once as we ate country ham she said, “Ain’t nothing better than ol’ hog, is there?” Without really thinking (poor little old thing, I didn’t know no better), I said, “Well, I guess there are probably some things better.” Those were fighting words. She quickly looked up at me, eye-to-eye, and demanded, “Like what!?” I changed the subject.

Her dietary rule of thumb was “Eat what your appetite calls for.” I guess that’s why I walked into the kitchen late one Thanksgiving night to find her eating some of the fat we had trimmed from the country ham earlier that evening. She was dipping that “ol’ hog” fat into horseradish and enjoying a nice little bedtime snack! I guess that’s what her appetite called for at the moment.

Speaking of appetites, you’d better have one around Bebo. She wanted you to eat, and she wanted you to look like you had been eating. We used to say that if Bebo told you that you looked good, it was probably time to lose some weight. Her habit was to put food on your plate as the meal progressed. I tried to warn my brother-in-law Wayne about that habit the first time he celebrated a holiday at Bebo’s. I told him to get only about half of what he wanted on his plate the first time around, because Bebo was going to provide the refills whether he wanted them or not. Wayne didn’t listen (poor little ol’ thing didn’t know no better), and she loaded him up with substantially more than his appetite called for.

She had a fairly unique home remedy for small maladies. As she would say, “I take me a Contac and a laxative.” I think I’ve figured out her logic–if you had some kind of germ making you sick, the Contac would help you to blow it out your nose and the laxative would help you to blow it out the other end. It’s genius, really.

One of the things that I loved most about Bebo was that she loved her sports! She loved the University of Virginia (“poor ol’ ‘Hoos”). She loved the Washington Redskins (“poor ol’ ‘Skins”). She loved Tommy LaSorda and the Dodgers. She loved any of the good guys and underdogs in professional wrestling (“poor ol’ Igor, Wahoo, etc.). On the other hand, she had no patience for their rivals. The University of North Carolina’s Dean Smith was “ol’ Schnoz” because of his prominent nose. More than once, she let us know that she “despised” the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Yankees. Once, when an announcer had the nerve to refer to wrestler Ric Flair as a “great champion,” Bebo invoked one of her favorite words and said, “Hmmph. He was a shitty champion.”

Bebo drops back to pass!

Bebo drops back to pass!

Of all the pictures I could share of Bebo, this is my favorite, taken when she was about seventy-five years old, as she prepared to throw me a pass in my back yard. How lucky was I to have a grandmother who would play football with me? Through our childhood and teen years, Bebo walked the tightrope between happiness that we grandkids played sports and fear that we would get hurt. That protective streak carried over into our adult lives. As we got ready to leave her house or to end a phone call, she often said, “Don’t let nobody run over you.”

I think she felt run over, or at least knocked sideways by my grandfather’s death in 1990. From that point on, having spent over fifty years as half of a couple, she was never content alone. In many ways, they exemplified the principle of opposites attracting. He was a quiet man. She was not a quiet woman. He was more reserved. She gladly spoke her mind. I guess they were counterweights to each other, and after his death, she was perpetually off-balance. She often talked about “poor old Payton.” She missed him, grieved him, and wanted to be with him.

On her ninety-fifth birthday, surrounded by her kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids, I tried to tease her into making a speech. “Ninety-five years,” I said, “That’s a lot of years to acquire wisdom! What do you have to tell us?” She frowned a little and said, “Well, I’ll tell you this–when I die, just have a graveside service, because I’ve outlived everyone!”

Seven months later, we gathered for that graveside service. I tried to lead the service, though my voice faltered and tears blurred my vision. Years earlier, she had come to hear me preach once, and as she hugged me at the door, she said, “J.B., you’re going to be a good preacher.” I thought I had touched her in some way until she continued, “Look, we’re getting out of here already, and it’s only 11:57!” That June afternoon in the Fletcher Chapel United Methodist Church cemetery, I wished that I could have been a better preacher. But, the tears that kept me from being good that day were tears of love. I guess their tribute was more eloquent than my words anyway.

In this season of Thanksgiving, I’m so grateful to God that Mary Ellen Davis was born one hundred years ago on this day in the little town of Ivanhoe, Virginia. I’m grateful that she and Payton Jonas found each other and spent their lives together. I’m glad that she became my father’s mother and my grandmother.

I believe with all my heart that there are millions of grandmothers out there, but there was only one Bebo. I’m thankful she was mine.

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Recent Distance: Twenty Years

I drove past Tri-State Livestock Market yesterday, and I could hardly believe that twenty years have passed since I stood in its sawdust or leaned against its office counter. Twenty years–nearly half my life! It’s remarkable that I’ve been away so long simply because it was such an important place for the first twenty-three years of my life.

My grandfather, Lloyd Blair, was the market’s founder. It was his little domain, and he was the unquestioned king. On sale days, he sat in the auction box facing the buyers and sellers, occasionally turning to the full-size window behind him to oversee the action in the barn. At times throughout the day, he would walk along the catwalks over the barn–lit Pall Mall in hand–looking every bit the commanding officer inspecting the work of his troops in the pens below where they sorted and herded the livestock into and out of the sale ring.

During the week, the office was his throne room, where he held court with the office staff and with the clients and customers who came to pay or to be paid. Here at the market, he was the tough version of himself. Here, he spoke with authority and with words I never heard him use when my grandmother and mother were around. Here, everyone knew him, most respected him, and some probably even loved him. Here, he was king, and because I was his only grandson, I felt a little like royalty at “the market,” as we always called it.

In the office, I reclined, revolved, and rolled on the squeaky office chairs. I used the rubber stamps to mark dates, “for deposit only,” and “PAID,” on checks and invoices. He teased me because I couldn’t seal a pile of envelopes nearly as quickly as he could. He let me turn the dial to the last number and lift the latch to open the safe, and when no one else was around, he let me make fake announcements on the public address system. I must have put thousands of pieces of scrap paper through the time clock, just so that I could hear the “thump” of the time stamp, and I knew that I should never, ever touch the security alarm button on the underside of the office counter.

In the barn, I ran down the sawdust alleys between pens, dodging the manure piles! I swung (that really is the proper past tense of “swing”) on the heavy wooden gates. As my granddad would have said, I “clumb” (that’s not the proper past tense of “climb”) on the tall wooden fences. He weighed me on the cattle scales, and we walked along the catwalks above the pens together. We proudly called it the largest volume livestock market east of the Mississippi River.

There at the market, I got into the livestock business myself when I bought my first calf just after my ninth birthday. Granddaddy did the bidding, and I used sixty-five dollars of birthday money to buy Puddin’. Over the years after that, I bought and sold several others. In fact, I sold a calf at the market in 1991 to buy the college class ring pictured on my hand at the top of this blog. Soon after that, I worked at the market a few summers to earn a little extra for my college and seminary education. There, in my granddaddy’s kingdom, I was kicked, stomped, butted, and knocked down by nervous animals on several different occasions. I remember thinking how much easier it was in the childhood days of running, climbing, and swinging.

Once, my grandfather sent me down the hill to chase away some penhookers–people who came to buy livestock directly off of someone’s truck before they could be sold in the market, thus depriving the market of its commission. He said, “J.B., you’re the biggest employee I have, and they don’t know you’re in seminary. Go run ’em off!” I did it, but I was glad that they didn’t know I was in seminary and really didn’t want to fight!

Still, I was proud to walk down that hill both as an employee and (as I thought then) as an heir apparent to my grandfather’s life work and legacy. I walked down that hill not only because I worked there, but also because I belonged there.

Things changed, though, and the last day I worked at the market was the last time I was there. That was in the summer of 1994 . . .

 

Just before I drove by the livestock market yesterday, I visited another place that reminded me why I haven’t been to the market for twenty years. Only a few hundred yards away, on the hillside at Forest Hills Memory Gardens, my grandfather’s name is on a bronze marker right beside my grandmother’s. Under his name are two dates–January 20, 1921 and November 14, 1994. How is it possible that tomorrow is the twentieth anniversary of his death?

In some ways, nothing has changed. I can still imagine the sound of his voice. I can still smell the mix of Pall Mall and Old Spice. I can still see his face. Occasionally, he still shows up in one of my dreams.

In some ways, everything has changed. He never met Suzanne or my children. He never knew me in what I now consider my defining roles–father, husband, pastor. He never saw me with gray hair or no hair.

Though the market is still there, it has changed over two decades. The formerly blue building is now brown. Now, the insulation hangs in shreds from the roof of the huge barn. I grin as I remember the motto: “Every hoof under a roof.” Maybe it’s still the largest volume market in the region. I hope it is, but I just can’t make myself care whether it is or not.

It was easy to walk down the hill that summer day long ago because it was his market. It’s difficult to drive up that same hill now precisely because it’s not his market. His absence makes it foreign. Honestly, I don’t even go back very often to the farm where I grew up, because it just isn’t the same without him either. Lots of things aren’t . . .

2nd Lieutenant Blair, I saluted your memory this week on Veteran’s Day.

Mr. Blair, founder, manager, and king of Tri-State Livestock Market, I remembered you with pride yesterday as I drove past your domain.

Granddaddy, I loved you then, I love you now, and I’ll always love you. I wish we had gotten to spend more than twenty-three years together our first time around. I still blame and hate Pall Malls for that.

My consolation is this–as good a time as we had in twenty-three years in your little kingdom on the hill in west Abingdon, just imagine how great a time we’ll have in The Kingdom that never ends.

I’ll see you there.

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