Movie Review: 13 Hours [SPOILERS]

So last night, my wife and I made it out to see the movie, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. I’ve been asked by numerous people for a review of the film, so here it is. If you’ve read anything in the news about Benghazi, you know how it ends, It’s impossible to tell this story without a few minor spoilers, so while I’ve tried to keep the. to a minimum, if your intent is to go into this movie with an absolutely clean slate, this is one review you might want to skip. You have been warned.

The Film

George Orwell has been traditionally (though probably erroneously) attributed with the quotation, “people sleep peacefully in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”

Whether or not he ever said those words, I’ve never seen them more masterfully portrayed than they are in this film.

Much has been made of the politics in this movie. The events in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, are, after all, an inflection point in our history that have impacted – and will continue to impact – the legacies of one, and perhaps two, United States Presidents.

But to see this, first and foremost, as a political film is to miss the point. It is not. The only politics in the theater for this film are those you bring with you.

President Obama is never shown in the film, is never referenced by name, and is heard only once for a few seconds, providing background commentary on the events of the Arab Spring in Libya that led up to the climax covered in this film. Hillary Clinton is never shown, heard, or referenced at all. While there is definitely a political subtext, you will likely interpret it through your own personal preferences and biases, and if you enjoy this sort of film, you will likely do so here regardless of your political bent.

And what, precisely, is “this sort of film?” One thing to note is that this does not carry the usual disclaimer that it is “based on a true story.” Instead, the caveat is that “This is a true story.”

The distinction is important. The film is told from the perspective of a handful of contractors employed by the CIA to provide security for a hidden “Annex” in Benghazi, a couple miles away from the consulate where the attack began. From the perspective of those men, the events in this film are what actually happened.

The best way I can think to describe those events is as a juxtaposition of two other “true-to-life” movies: Black Hawk Down and Hotel Rwanda.

The former comparison is obvious: It is a film about brotherhood-in-arms, camaraderie, and the shared understanding that only happens between people who repeatedly and completely entrust one another with their lives. It is also apropos, in that (as characters in the film state explicitly) one of the political sensitivities around the events in this film was a government desperate to avoid another “Black Hawk Down” scenario, turning Benghazi into another Mogadishu.

The second comparison is less obvious . . . so much so that it took processing through this film with my wife for me to grasp it. She’s the one who initially drew the link for me: This is a film about what it means to be totally and completely abandoned, helpless, on your own, fearing for your life, while at the same time entrusted with protecting – as best you can – the lives of those around you who are counting on you to keep them safe.

In Mogadishu in 1993, while there was the same red tape, the same delays, and the same bureaucratic ass-covering at work, whatever else they knew, the men on the ground knew that their leadership (in particular, Major General William Garrison) would do whatever it took to bring them home (which he in fact did, sacrificing his own career in the process). The men in Benghazi in 2012 had no such assurances. The key emotion portrayed almost nonstop throughout the combat portions of this film is . . . hopelessness. From the moment the shooting starts, there is a sense that none of them are getting out alive. The fact that most of them do is a testament to the genuine heroism of the people on the ground.

The comparison to Rwanda in 1994 is more of a “what if” scenario. The heroics of Paul and Tatiana Rusesabigina, as portrayed in Hotel Rwanda, saved 1,268 of their countrymen and foreign workers at the Hôtel des Mille Collines, fearing for their lives the whole time, and assuming they’d never make it out of the city alive.

One wonders how many more could have been saved if they’d had just a half-dozen highly trained and heavily armed contract personnel protecting them, as the CIA Annex had in Benghazi in 2012.

And this is where my own political biases kick in. As I said earlier, the only politics in this movie are the ones you bring with you. Here are some of mine:

The political dispute surrounding the Benghazi attack is captured in a single, throwaway exchange between two characters that goes something like:

CIA Paramilitary Contractor: They’re saying on the news that this started as some kind of protest about anti-Islamic films?

State Department Security: We didn’t see any protest!

CIA Paramilitary Contractor: Just reporting what’s on the news, bro.

It seems important to note hear that the most full-throated case for that (now known to be non-existent) protest was made by Dr. Susan Rice – currently President Obama’s National Security Advisor, and at the time his ambassador to the United Nations.

Dr. Rice, it must be noted, was on President Clinton’s National Security Council during the events in Rwanda in 1994, and has been quoted repeatedly as urging caution and inaction from the U.S. government in the Rwandan crisis, saying, “If we use the word ‘genocide’ and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November election?”

She claimed to have learned her lesson thereafter, saying “I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required.” And indeed she did, becoming a staunch champion of intervention against the genocidal Sudanese government during that country’s longstanding civil war.

But in Benghazi, with about three dozen American lives at stake, Rice again became an apologist for inaction for the sake of political expediency. Rather than admitting that this was a meticulously-planned terrorist attack (flying in the face of President Obama’s repeated assertions that al Qaeda and its affiliates were “on the run,” and threatening his upcoming reelection bid), Dr. Rice (and her boss, Hillary Clinton, and her boss, President Obama) chose to blame a YouTube video, and chose to hang three dozen Americans out to dry.

And for being on the wrong end of the most important national security crises of the last two Democratic administrations, Dr. Rice received a promotion from UN Ambassador (which, importantly, requires Congressional confirmation) to National Security Advisor (which does not.)

That inaction is another theme that ties these three movies together. In Black Hawk Down, red tape prevents General Garrison from sending everything he’s got to support his men, and he ultimately has to rely on a UN-controlled Pakistani armored convoy to get them out. In Hotel Rwanda, again the inaction of the US and the international community is center stage, as Rusesabigina eventually has to bully a UN commander into providing a way to safety.

In 13 Hours, one central theme is “Where the h**l is the U.S. military??”

We see the CIA personnel desperately calling for support from Tripoli, from Aviano Air Base in Italy, and from anywhere else within flying distance . . . all to no avail. We see shots of F-16s idling on a runway, ready to take off, but with their pilots inside with no orders. We see Glen Doherty – a CIA contractor and former Navy Seal – arguing with his superiors in Tripoli, assembling a hodge-podge quick response team, begging, borrowing, and bribing his way into Libyan air transport from Tripoli to Benghazi, and then battling his way to the Annex to exfiltrate the embattled Americans (giving his life in the process).

We see the shots from the American drone overhead . . . always watching, but never intervening.

We see the assumptions from the men on the ground that the watching drone is armed and will provide minimal air support, and the assumption that heavier support in the form of U.S. gunships is no doubt on the way. The understanding is that this is normal operating procedure. But thanks to the dithering bureaucrats (seen only on camera, when they are seen at all), the normal rules don’t apply here.

Conversely, we see the Libyan armored convoy that shows up to finally relieve the besieged compound, and the Libyan military transport that eventually flies them out.

The juxtaposition is stark, and is duly noted by the men on the ground.

Such juxtaposition is repeatedly and masterfully portrayed throughout this film. Michael Bay is, I think, an underappreciated director. That feels odd to say, given his critical and popular acclaim, but most of his notoriety is his penchant for making lots of things go “boom” in very loud and flashy ways. There’s certainly plenty of that in this film, but it’s the little things that were most noteworthy to me:

We see State Department IT Contractor Sean Smith enjoying “Call of Duty” during his off-hours, just moments before he is thrust into real-world combat for which he is woefully unprepared. A video game, we learn, is nothing compared to the real deal.

We see the U.S. Ambassador, in Benghazi to do a very important job, but protected only by two under-armed and inadequately-trained State Department security personnel in what is described as “the most dangerous city on earth.”

We see the six “rough men” of the CIA contract security team – men who have spent most of their adult lives receiving and doling out violence – spending the brief hours between firefights musing about their loved ones, their children, and the families they just want to get home to see one more time.

We see those same “rough men” with a child in their gunsights . . . a child who is using a cell phone (likely, it is implied, to provide targeting coordinates to the terrorists who are trying to kill them). We see those men unable to shoot a kid, even one who presents an immediate and deadly threat. It is left ambiguous as to whether their forbearance cost two of those men – Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty – their lives.

We see the CIA officers belittling and grumbling about the security team that hampers their ability to do their job . . . but when things come down hard, we see those same officers – men and women not equipped to handle a full-blown firefight, doing everything they can to support the people who are there to keep them alive. And in the aftermath, one of those who complained the loudest in the beginning sums it all up in the end: “I don’t know how you made it out of there alive, but I know how we did.”

The Heroes

One of the movie’s greatest strengths, I think, is its decision to forego the casting of “A” list actors in any of its roles. That, I think, made it more powerful than the star-studded Black Hawk Down, despite both being equally poignant and important films with similar messages. It made the necessary suspension of disbelief just a little bit easier: Instead of watching Josh Hartnett, Ewen MacGregor, Orlando Bloom, Eric Bana, and Tom Sizemore, I felt like I was watching Tyrone Woods, Glen Doherty, Jack Silva, Tonto Paronto, Boon Benton, Tig Tiegen, Oz Geist, Sean Smith, and Chris Stevens.

It felt that much more “real,” and allowed me to fully and completely respect the heroism of the real people involved, rather than their portrayals by actors with famous faces.

And make no mistake, this is first and foremost a movie about heroes . . . and not just the men who gave their lives . . . and not just the men who fought.

The CIA officer who repeatedly complains that her security detail is hampering her ability to do her job, but then spends most of the attack calling everyone she can think of and begging for air support to protect the men of that security detail: She is a hero.

Another CIA officer who bridles at the need for private security guards, and then spends the whole fight talking to his Libyan contacts, trying to figure out if the Americans have any friends left in the city: He is a hero.

The under-trained and under-equipped State Department security guard who panicked, got disoriented, and accidentally placed his colleagues at risk while driving them to safety in a bullet-ridden and burning armored car: He is a hero.

Even the movie’s “villain” . . . the risk-averse CIA station chief who started out the day just wanting to ride out his last assignment and retire – the pseudonymous “Bob” who, according to the movie’s perspective, might have saved the ambassador (while placing his own people and mission at significantly greater risk) if he’d let his security team off their leash sooner: He, too, is a hero.

And of course, the men of who placed themselves between their countrymen and women and scores of heavily-armed terrorists are heroes.

And the four men who gave their lives are heroes:

Tyrone Woods – the leader of the CIA contract security team in Benghazi who spent the entire movie warning of danger, only to be proven entirely right, and to give his life to save the very people who failed to heed his concerns.

Glen Doherty – the leader of the CIA contract security team in Tripoli who spent the entire movie cobbling together a rescue force and somehow managing to get it from Tripoli to Benghazi, only to be killed at the tail-end of the fight before he could see his efforts succeed.

Sean Smith – the State Department IT guy who was sent into the most dangerous place on the planet, unprepared and unequipped for what he would find there, and who went anyway.

And Ambassador Chris Stevens – the dedicated public servant with a vision for a better Libya, who voluntarily put himself in harm’s way in an attempt to make his vision come true, and who gave his life in the process.

Those are the names we know. But for me, the unsung and unappreciated hero of the film was a Libyan translator named Amahl. Amahl regularly places himself in harms way to help the Americans, going with them on dangerous operations despite having no combat skills or training. He’s there solely because he’s the only one fluent in Arabic. When the fighting starts, he’s “volun-told” to travel with the CIA contractors from the Annex to the consulate, because without an Arabic speaker there is no way for them to navigate the dangerous roads controlled by several hostile factions that stand between the two locations. He’s given a helmet, body armor, and a pistol . . . none of which he has the slightest clue how to use, and with the team makes his way to the compound, frequently under a hail of bullets. As they pile into the armored vehicle, one of the CIA contractors upon seeing Amahl in the ill-fitting protective gear, trying to figure out which end of the pistol to hold onto and which end goes “bang,” remarks to his buddy, “Welp . . . he’s not coming back.”

And yet, he does.

After returning to the annex, when the Libyan security forces charged with protecting the compound have all fled in anticipation of the coming attack, Amahl stays. In one of the film’s most poignant scenes he is told to get himself safely home, out of harm’s way, “We’re not going to need a translator any longer.”

“No!” he says, incredulous that the suggestion would even be brought up. “I’m with you guys.”

And he is. Completely.

And in a scene that left me with tears in my eyes, as the survivors are finally evacuated to the airport, they tell Amahl to get in the truck and come with them to safety.

“I’m going home,” he says.

And he does . . . in one of the film’s penultimate shots, we see Amahl shambling off down the street to his house. The American heroes get to retreat, to evacuate, to retire to lives as insurance adjustors with their wives and their children, with the hardest and worst night of their lives behind them, haunting their dreams and their memories.

Amahl, though, walks home past still-burning vehicles on bullet-riddled streets, back to his house in the most dangerous city on earth . . . back into a life with neighbors who, moments before, were trying as hard as they could – fighting and dying – in an attempt to kill him.

It’s an obvious truth, but one that bears repeating: Heroism is not a uniquely American trait.

The Takeaways

I said earlier that this is not a film about politics. And yet, for me, it was. As someone whose education and interests delve deeply into the national security realm, I’ve followed news of the story of Benghazi closely ever since it occurred. But this film drove home several things for me – things that seem much clearer now that I’ve seen them from the perspective of those who were there that night.

The Obama Administration’s Difficult Position: First off, I understand now that the administration’s decision to obfuscate the origin of the attack was not entirely political. Yes, as I noted above, politics was indisputably a factor. But in the immediate aftermath there was an urgent need to protect as much information about the CIA’s operations in Benghazi as possible. That played into the CIA station chief’s “stand down” order, as well as into the administration’s “You Tube” misdirection. You see, the movie makes clear that the CIA was there to interdict a very specific, and extremely deadly threat: specifically, the proliferation of “Man Portable Air Defense Systems” (MANPADS). These shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles are the sorts of things that literally keep people up at night, because they’re everywhere on the international arms market, and if someone can manage to smuggle one of these things into a Western country, one guy planted at the end of some runway at a major airport could start bringing down civilian airliners at will.

As Vice President Biden might say, that’s a Big F-ing Deal. And so it’s at least understandable why the administration adopted the posture it did for as long as that mission remained secret. What’s inexcusable is the fact that they stuck with that story after it was disproven, for the sake of political expediency and in order to win an election, even to the point of demonizing and discrediting the families of some of the victims.

The Democratic Legacy of Failure:
Second, this movie is just the latest chapter in a very long list of democratic inaction in the face of foreign policy crises. Democrats rightly criticize Republicans for often being too quick to act in the national security realm without an adequate plan for doing so. But the Democrats’ failing is the opposite one . . . time and again they would rather take no action at all, than risk taking one that might put their personal positions at risk. Action without regard for the consequences can be dangerous. But inaction without regard for the consequences can be just as dangerous.

Contractor Love: One of the most pleasantly surprising things, for me, was the fact that this movie focused heavily on paramilitary contractors . . . and for once they weren’t the film’s villains! As a government contractor myself, one of the things that irks me about Hollywood is how often they resort to the easy trope that contractors – being mostly American males employed by the for-profit private sector – are easy to demonize, and are thus often painted as the “bad guys.” I know first-hand the value of contractors: we are flexible – easy to hire, fire, and move around – and we often provide skills that can be difficult to find or efficiently allocate among the federal workforce.

In my case, the skills I bring to the table are a combination of solid writing, editing, and communications expertise, combined with a deep knowledge and understanding of national security strategy and policy. In this movie, the skills brought to the table by the film’s featured contractors were highly trained tactical expertise and weapons training unparalleled even by the military’s elite special operators or the security personnel employed by the government. When one of the CIA officers complains about being “handled” by her security contractor, saying that she knows what she’s doing because it’s her fourth (I think it was?) tour in-country, the security contractor protecting her laconically replies, “It’s my twelfth.”

And the film very accurately captures the disparity with which contractors are sometimes viewed by government personnel. I’ve experienced it both ways: I’ve had government clients who viewed me as an integral and valuable part of their team and didn’t care that I drew my paycheck from a private company. I’ve also had clients who thought that my contractor status made me a second class citizen – one whose presence they had to tolerate because they were told to do so, but one who couldn’t possibly be as valuable as a “real” government employee.

This film captures both perspectives . . . sometimes within the same characters, who grow to appreciate the presence and abilities of contract personnel over the course of the movie.

And the movie blows one all-too common misperception about contractors completely apart: Patriotism doesn’t necessarily draw a government paycheck or wear a uniform (or even, in one scene, pants). Despite being employed by a for-profit company, the contractors portrayed in this film were every bit as patriotic and dedicated to serving (and if need be, dying for) their country as were their colleagues serving in the military, the State Department, and the CIA.

I’ve never been called upon to risk my life for my country, but I’ve known contractors who have. And let me assure you, that portrayal is entirely accurate.

Hollywood Sea Change: Fourth, while it showed up only in subtexts, it was refreshing to see a film that was so unabashedly pro-American, and that didn’t tiptoe around political sensitivities. This was the movie about Benghazi that I wasn’t sure it was possible for Hollywood to make. But they did, and they did it right.

When I see a film that touches on politics, I’m used to leaving the theater feeling “lectured at” . . . either the film implicitly criticizes beliefs I hold dear, or implies villainy in people I support, or treats aspects of my worldview as inexcusably misguided and beyond the pale of a reasonable belief system. This is particularly true where the military and national security are concerned. One great example is “Lions for Lambs,” which I loved in spite of its overt and intentional “preachiness” in service to a pacifist worldview with which I mostly disagree.

It was nice to be on the other side for a change, and this seems to be a more and more frequent occurrence in Hollywood. It’s a welcome shift to observe.

Those Emails: Finally, there is one important tie-in to the ongoing scandal around Secretary Clinton’s exclusive use of a private, unsecured email system to receive and store sensitive (including highly-classified) information. At one point, the team assembled by Glen Doherty in Tripoli is joined by two Delta Force special operators, who tell Doherty that their mission is “classified document retrieval and destruction.” That is: two men voluntarily dove headfirst into the most serious firefight faced by American personnel in years outside of an actual war zone, for the sole purpose of protecting with their lives some of the same information Hillary Clinton was cavalierly storing on her private, unsecured email server. To my mind, that fact alone – and her casual disregard for it – should forever disqualify her from the role of Commander in Chief.

And speaking of Hillary Clinton . . .

To me, this felt like the biggest absence of the film – and it was an intentional one. This was the story of the men on the ground, and while we know in retrospect the names and faces of the people making the decisions that impacted their lives that night (among them President Obama, Secretary Clinton, Under Secretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy, and AFRICOM Commander General Carter Ham), the men and women in harm’s way at the time did not. Turning this into an explicitly political film would have detracted from their story, and I’m glad Bay chose not to do so.

But in my own mind, I can’t help but add in the roles Bay left vacant.

This election season has been a tough one for me. I’ve long been a “political junkie,” and have been looking forward to this election for a long time, due to the incredible stable of political talent on the Republican side of the aisle. At present, of the candidates still in the race, my personal preference lies with Marco Rubio. But more significantly than that I’ve been drastically disappointed by the role Donald Trump has played in this election. I think he’s a horrible person, makes a cartoonish candidate, and would be a dangerous President.

And yet . . . and yet . . .

I’ve long taken the position that if it came down to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, I would likely vote third party or cast no vote for President at all. I haven’t seen this matchup as a choice between the “lesser of two evils,” but simply a choice between “two evils.”

After seeing this movie, I’m not so sure.

First off, we know that the people on the ground – to include Ambassador Stevens, who was handpicked for the job by Clinton according to emails recovered from her server – warned that security in Benghazi was sorely lacking, and that the threat level was incredibly high. We know that his concerns went unheeded by State Department leadership, and were retroactively (and speciously) blamed on Republicans in Congress to score political points.

Second, we know that Clinton and others knew almost immediately that this was a premeditated assault that took a great deal of advanced planning. Their immediate concerns with protecting the CIA’s presence and mission in-country are, as I noted, perfectly understandable. But we know (again from Clinton’s emails) that much of their concern was with protecting her political future. To that end, she persists in lying about the nature of the attack to this day.

Finally, we know Clinton doesn’t take seriously any criticism of her role in the attack response or her handling of emails regarding that attack or any other sensitive information in her possession as Secretary of State. She stated as much explicitly on ABC News just a few days ago, when she told host George Stephanopoulos, “This [the latest revelations about highly classified information in her unsecured emails] is very much like Benghazi . . . Republicans are going to continue to use it, beat up on me. I understand that. That’s the way they are.”

She’s right. The two scandals are very much alike, but not at all in the way she thinks.

Earlier, I called the events of Benghazi in September 2012 an “inflection point in our history.” And so they are. And for me, this movie served as a personal inflection point as well. For the first time, this film had me wondering whether a President Donald Trump might just be a slightly less worrisome proposition for the security and future of our country than a President Hillary Clinton. Trump expresses a lot of ideas I find disturbing to the point of being dangerous. But Clinton has actually held the reins of power herself, and has already proven herself a danger to the security of this country. We now know from her emails that her intent was to use her involvement in Libya’s transition away from Qaddaffi as one of the “crown jewels” in a resume carefully calculated to commend her for the Presidency. Obviously, that didn’t work out so well, and the events of September 2012 are just one of many strands in her effort to paper over a disaster that is, at least in some part, of her making.

I’m as yet unresolved as to whether or not I could actually bring myself to vote for Donald Trump in order to keep Clinton away from the Oval Office . . . and I still have hope that I may never have to make that choice . . . but for the first time I am seriously considering it.

As I said, though, that’s my own political filters and biases talking. As far as the movie itself, do yourself a favor and go see it. And as my wife says, “bring Kleenex.” Regardless of the way you feel about this nation’s national security and intelligence apparatus (military, civilian, and contractor alike), you will come away with a newfound respect and regard for those rough men who stand, at this very moment, ready to do violence on your behalf.

Planned Parenthood: The Enemy of both Life and Choice

I’ve been waiting to comment on the recent drama surrounding Planned Parenthood until more information became available, but with the release of the fifth video this week, there’s not a lot more that can be said. The Center for Medical Progress (CMP), the group behind these videos, says it has released less than half of the videos the organization has in its possession, and in fact some of them may never see the light of day given that a LA County Superior Court Judge and a Federal Judge who bundled $230,000 for President Obama’s last campaign have both issued temporary restraining orders against releasing videos involving certain Planned Parenthood business partners, based on the time-honored legal standard of: “you can’t do that because it might make the people I support look bad.”

These orders have not, though, prevented the group from releasing footage of Planned Parenthood staff themselves. Perhaps there’s worse footage waiting in the wings, but it seems as though any additional footage can only confirm what we already know from these first five releases.

And what, precisely, is that? In the interests of full disclosure, I’ll note here that I haven’t gotten through the several hours of unedited footage yet. I tend to be Boehner-esque in my lack of control over my lacrimal glands, so watching things like this make me start bawling, not to mention turning my stomach and just being flat out horrifying. I also have young kids at home, including a 9 month old baby, so my already-weak stomach is considerably more so when violence against small children is involved. What I have seen is incredibly difficult to watch, and would be even without a baby of my own at home. Watching it while thinking of her sleeping upstairs is next to impossible. So I haven’t watched everything. But what I have watched thus far is bad enough.

Here’s how bad . . .
Continue reading Planned Parenthood: The Enemy of both Life and Choice

The Day I Met My Daughter

I had a brand new experience this past Friday. I met my daughter for the first time. It was exhilarating . . . unbelievable . . . mind-blowing. It was a thousand different adjectives for which the English language doesn’t have words.

When Heidi was pregnant with Tristan, we decided to be “surprised.” We never had an ultrasound and didn’t know whether he was a boy or girl until he was in our arms and we could check all his parts for ourselves. We never regretted that decision, but this time we decided for a variety of reasons that we wanted to know in advance, and seeing that little girl on the screen this morning, I’m so very glad we did.

Continue reading The Day I Met My Daughter

How Far Fallen?

Any “regular readers” here will know that I’m a graduate of Patrick Henry College, a small, Christian liberal-arts college here in Northern Virginia. Since my time at the school, they’ve established the Faith & Reason Lecture Series, described on the school’s website as a semiannual, “day-long shared experience that involves a presentation by a faculty member or guest, lunch with the speaker, small-group discussions, and an afternoon question-and-answer session with a faculty panel.”

The most recent such lecture occurred on Friday, September 13, 2013. It was given by faculty member Dr. Stephen Baskerville, and was entitled Politicizing Potiphar’s Wife: Today’s New Ideology. I was not present at the initial lecture (though I plan to attend a follow-up session for alumni later this week). However, after reading the content of the lecture, I am left with grave concerns about the state of education at my alma mater.

It’s long, but if this is a topic that interests you and if you have not already done so, please read the above link before you proceed. I fear what follows will make little sense otherwise, and I dislike presenting only my perspective on an issue without the reader having an opportunity to become familiar with the other side. If a discussion of academic rigor, logical argumentation, and what it means to have a “Christian education” does not interest you, you probably won’t care to read further, though you’re certainly welcome to do so.

Continue reading How Far Fallen?

Where we are. Where we’ve been.

I woke up this morning deeply discouraged about the future of our country. Conservatives like to say that we are a “center-right nation,” but in a country where the challenger can win independents handily and still lose the election that is clearly no longer the case. Many, myself included, thought the polls showing Obama ahead based on 2008 demographics couldn’t possibly be right . . . that 2008 was a historical anomaly centered on the man himself, and that after the pendulum swung the other way in 2010, everything would revert to the norm in 2012. We were wrong. I was wrong. 2008 was a realignment, and the face of the country changed. That being the case, it’s worth looking back at the country we left behind us four years ago.

Four years ago, I wrote a post on this blog intended to calm the fears of readers on the right who were worried about the fate of the nation in the face of what everybody knew would be an overwhelming victory for Barack Obama. It’s never as bad as it seems, I wrote, and the election of a staunch far-left liberal masquerading as a post-partisan moderate is not the end of the world.

I will not be writing any such comforting words this time. This time the electorate’s rose-colored glasses were off. The far-left liberal ran as exactly what he is. He ran a small, vicious and mean campaign based on character assassination, and was reelected anyway. It really is as bad as it seems. It may be worse.

Continue reading Where we are. Where we’ve been.

Things my son is teaching me about my Father
(Parts 6 & 7)

Read Introduction & Part 1
Read Parts 2 & 3
Read Parts 4 & 5

(6) What matters is not where I am, but which way I’m facing.

Tristan loves to lie on the bed and play . . . he’s at that stage right now where he wants to be mobile, but is still trying to figure our how. On the bed, though, he can roll over more easily, he can grab hold of things and pull himself forward, or brace his feet against something and push off.

That means, of course, that I have to be more careful about where he’s able to get to than when he’s just sitting on his playmat or on the floor and can’t get anywhere else.

It also means that in one instance he can be sitting on the bed and I have to be worried that he might fall off the edge, but in another instance he can be sitting in exactly the same place, and I don’t have to be concerned because he’s facing (or moving) in a direction that is safer – toward the middle of the bed, for example.

I think I’m coming to find that it’s the same way with God. The entire story of the Old Testament is how impossible it is for us to actually DO everything God laid out that His people were “supposed” to do. That being the case, it seems as though the message of the New Testament – between James’ definition of “true religion,” Paul’s discourses on eating meat offered to idols, and John’s discussion of what it means to truly love God, is that what He really cares about most is not that we’re “doing the right thing” at any given moment, but that we’re gradually drawing closer in relationship with Him . . . i.e., it’s not where we’re sitting, but which way we’re facing, that matters most. Even the Old Testament hints at this in the writings of the prophets, when God tells the people that He’s sick of their sacrifices (you know, all the ones He told them to make . . . ) and just wants them to turn back to relationship with Him . . . to change which way they’re facing, so to speak.

(7) It’s ok if our relationship isn’t perfect right now.

I have a confession to make. I’m somewhat neurotic. (Those who know me are looking at their collective screens right now and thinking, “well duh!”) Part of the way that manifests is wanting to do well at everything I try . . . I don’t want to put in the work of trying and failing ten thousand times before I get it right. I don’t want to practice (badly) until I’ve done something enough to actually be good at it. I want to be good at it now dangit!!

And I see the same thing with Tristan. He wanted to roll over before he was capable of doing so. Now he clearly wants to be crawling . . . wants to be mobile and able to go get toys and other things by himself . . . but he can’t.

And that’s ok. He’s not developmentally ready for that yet, and I have no qualms against dropping everything and helping him with something he needs, until he’s developmentally ready to meet that need himself.

And I think if you read the sweeping story that is Scripture, that’s what you find as well. From the Garden with Adam, to the supper table with Abraham, to the tabernacle with Moses and Aaron, to the temple with Solomon, to the rebuilt Temple with Ezra, to the synagogues with the exiled Jews in Babylon and Persia, to the upper room with the disciples, to Pentecost with the aposltes . . . God’s relationship with us is constantly growing, maturing . . . changing. That’s a daunting concept, to realize that an unchanging God nevertheless changes the way He interacts with us, based on our own growth in our limited ability to comprehend Him.

Just as my feeling for Tristan will never change, but the ways I interact with him will constantly be growing and maturing.

Things my son is teaching me about my Father
(Parts 4 & 5)

Read Introduction & Part 1
Read Parts 2 & 3
Read Parts 6 & 7

(4) I can do something He doesn’t like, and it doesn’t change how He feels about me one bit.

As one of my favorite authors puts it, there’s nothing I can do to make God love me more, and nothing I can do to make Him love me less. Because it’s not about *doing*! He just loves me. Period.

Lots of parents reassure their kids that they are loved even when they misbehave, but so often we here parents say things like “I love my kids, but sometimes I just don’t *like* them very much!

I don’t get that. I’m not sure how it’s possible. If I don’t like someone, how capable am I of being particularly loving toward them?

And even if it IS possible, how can a child comprehend that distinction?

I’m so grateful God doesn’t distinguish like that. He doesn’t “like me” when I behave well, and “dislike me” when I behave badly. He just flat out doesn’t value what I DO (even the good stuff I do is like “filthy rags” to Him) . . . Instead, He values who I AM. He just rejoices in my existence, regardless of whether I’m doing what He wants at any particular moment in time.

(5) He does things just to delight me.

This one has been quite the experience for me to figure out. The more I hang out with my son, the more I realize that I want to do things for him – not to prove a point, or teach him something, or help him with something, but just because it will make him happy.

I remember a conversation with my best friend growing up, where we realized that the logical conclusion of everything we had been taught was, “if I want it, it must be wrong for me to have it, and therefore wrong of me to want it.” We’re taught that our own desires are wicked and deceitful . . . and sometimes that’s even true. It’s incredibly seductive, and dangerous, to believe something just because I WANT it to be true . . . whether it actually IS true or not.

But the fact is, the more our hearts are in tune with God’s heart, the more our desires reflect His . . . that is, the more we want GOOD things.

And sometimes He is in the habit of giving us those good things before we even realize we want them.

Take Solomon, for example. God said he could have anything he wanted, and all he asked for was enough wisdom to rule his people well. God gave Him more wisdom than anyone else who ever lived. Just because.

Or Adam, who couldn’t have possibly known that he was missing anything when he was flying solo . . . he was, after all, blissfully ignorant of such emotions as loneliness, loss or unhappiness.

And God gave him Eve. Because God knew it would make Adam happier . . . would fulfill a need in him that he didn’t even realize wasn’t being met. God knew that giving Adam the one thing he was missing would make the whole of creation, “Very Good.”

Of course that’s not to say that every moment of every day is just going to be complete bliss . . . God makes it pretty clear that troubles and difficulties are pretty standard features of a life spent in relationship with Him.

But those times when He just blesses us . . . just because . . . are pretty special too.

Things my son is teaching me about my Father
(Parts 2 &3)

Read Introduction & Part 1
Read parts 4 & 5
Read Parts 6 & 7

2) He’s communicating with me, even when I don’t understand it all… And that’s ok with Him.

I could sit and talk with Tristan all day long. It’s so much fun to whisper in his ear all the things I hope for him . . . that I want him to always know without question that he is loved, and that he someday understands how much that means.

He, of course, doesn’t understand a word of it. Sure, he knows (sometimes) that I’m talking to him. And he comprehends enough to give me back the biggest, most amazing grins I’ve ever seen on anyone’s face, ever.

But he doesn’t understand even the barest fraction of what I’m actually communicating.

And that’s fine. As he grows more into the fullness of who he is, part of that growth will be in his ability to communicate back with me . . . to make our relationship less and less one-way, and more and more two-way. Even in the six months since he was born, I’ve already seen that happen a little bit.

And isn’t that exactly what God says? That as we grow in our relationship with Him, we move from milk to meat? We “put away childish things”? We understand, in short, more and more of what He is constantly trying to tell us?

3) When He gets angry, it’s not necessarily at us

Thus far, the most frustrating times with Tristan have been trying to get him to fall asleep, either for a nap or for bedtime. The little guy just doesn’t like to go to sleep! (I think he gets that from his dad)

It’s incredibly frustrating sometimes, particularly after it’s been three hours of passing him back and forth between me and Heidi, rocking, bouncing, walking, laying down, nursing, and generally trying just about anything and everything to get him to nod off . . . only to have him wake up again two minutes after he’s finally conked out.

But that’s hardly his fault. It’s not like he’s somehow deliberately doing whatever he can to annoy us. He just isn’t ready for sleep.

And isn’t that how we are, sometimes? I’m not talking about those times when we do deliberately engage with things we know God doesn’t want for us . . . I’m talking about those times when I’m reading the same passage in scripture for the fifth time, thinking to myself “Ok, God . . . what’s the point of this bit here??” Or the times when I’ve had a fellow believer tell me, with utmost sincerity, what they think God’s will is in a given situation, and my only thought is “I just don’t see that!” Or the times when I can’t bring myself to listen to the truth in what someone says because of ways I’ve been hurt or disillusioned by them or others in the past.

All of that has to be intensely frustrating to God. But I don’t think He’s frustrated at us. I think, in times like those, He’s frustrated at sin . . . at the separation it introduces.

He’s frustrated, in short, at the circumstances in which our relationship exists. Just as I get frustrated sometimes at the circumstances in which my relationship with Tristan exists. I think a lot of times we parents expect things of our children for which they’re not developmentally ready. We expect them to sleep easily, to behave as we wish them to act, to comprehend things they can’t fathom yet, or to communicate their feelings and needs better than they are capable of doing . . .

Isn’t it wonderful that God doesn’t expect that of us?

Things my son is teaching me about my Father
(Introduction & Part 1)

I remember conversations with Heidi when we were expecting Tristan, hypothesizing that having him around would give both of us a lot more fodder for blogging. That’s proven much less true in my case than hers . . . until now.

Where many new parents I know worry about how they’re going to teach their kids well, I’m far more concerned over what my son has to teach me – even now, at six months old. Over the last couple weeks, I’ve been realizing that just having a son is teaching me more than I could ever comprehend before, about how God wants to Father me. I’ve always had a very intellectual view of God the Father, even as I’ve grown more in relationship with his Son . . . but that’s all changing now that I’m a father myself, and it’s really cool to look inside myself and watch it happening. Over the next several days, I’m planning to post just a handful of the things my Father has been teaching me lately about Himself . . . through the lens of my own experiences at fatherhood.

1) He delights in me. Always.

When I look at Tristan, I can’t help but take joy in his existence. He doesn’t have to be playing with me, or smiling at me, or even consciously aware of my existence at any given point in time. He might be sitting there playing with his toys, blissfully unaware that anybody else exists, and I can’t help but look at him and love him. I delight in my son. period and full stop.

And I’m coming to realize God feels the same way about me. Oh, it’s not that what I do doesn’t ever make Him sad. Of course it does. But that doesn’t for one second lessen the delight He finds in me. And the joy he takes in me is not dependent on what I’m doing at any given point . . . it’s not that he rejoices more in me when I’m praying, or reading the Bible or sharing my faith with someone else, or writing a blog post. Even when I’m sitting at my computer playing a stupid game, He’s watching me, loving me, spending time with me. Delighting in me.

That’s a pretty wild thought for me. I grew up with a very behavior-centric view of God. Oh, I believed in salvation through faith, of course . . . but once saved, I thought that God’s favor waxed and waned depending on how “sanctified” or “carnal” I was at any given point in time . . . and that sanctification was measured in terms of “doing the right thing.”

I was, in short, a pretty good little Pharisee.

However, I’m currently going back through the very beginning of humanity’s relationship with God in Genesis, and I’m starting to realize the truth of Romans 5:8 – that while we were still sinners, God loved us. I’m realizing how gently God treated even the most distasteful characters in His Story. Even after Adam and Eve ate the fruit, God still showed up for their daily walks together . . . it was Adam and Eve who hid in shame. And God, even while cutting Cain off from the community he’d broken by murdering Abel, protected Cain from the vengeance of those who would take advantage of his newly isolated state.

He blessed Abram even after he essentially prostituted his own wife out to the Egyptian Pharoah.

He allowed Moses, a murderer, to witness his physical presence in a way nobody else in Scripture ever did.

He blessed and communed with Jacob, a thief and a liar.

He called David, a rapist, a man after his own heart.

He gifted Solomon, a womanizer, with more wisdom than anyone else who ever lived.

He delighted in each of them. And not just when they were “on His good side.” We tend to think of Jesus as “God’s good side.” God the Father is the grumpy old man who just needs to beat on something (someone) because He’s pissed off at sin, and Jesus is the guy who steps in front of God’s big stick and takes the hit that was meant for us. More and more, though, I’m starting to realize - to really know in my heart, where it counts, rather than just in my head – that God is nothing BUT good side! I’m coming to understand that when Scripture says God hates sin, it’s because of what sin is doing to those He loves. To me.

It’s not that he has to beat the sin out of us . . . it’s that he wants to cure us of its influence. It’s as though God needed some way to make a vaccine for sin, and Christ was the only one strong enough to bear sin and all its effects without being destroyed by it. When I look at it that way . . . God the Father and God the Son collaborating together to inoculate me from the horrific effects of sin, I can finally comprehend just how God can loathe the presence of sin in the world, yet still take so much joy in the people afflicted by it.

More to come. Stay tuned!

UPDATE:

Read Parts 2 & 3
Read Parts 4 & 5
Read Parts 6 & 7

To Know You . . .

So for those of you who don’t know (assuming this blog is still lying dormant in somebody’s Google Reader after I haven’t posted anything for a year) . . . my wife and I are expecting a baby in a few short months. In fact, a big part of why I haven’t written anything here in so long is that I’ve been mostly processing lately, rather than generating any new thoughts coherent enough to actually share. I can’t really explain how excited I am about becoming a father . . . those who know me know how much I love kids, and anybody who has read a single post here knows how much I value relationships.

It’s truly amazing . . . I don’t know yet whether I have a son or a daughter (we’re going to wait until the birth to find out), but I already feel like there’s a very real relationship there. When I can put my head down by my wife’s belly and talk to my baby . . . when I can ask “are you awake in there?” and receive a kick in response . . .

. . . I can count the times in my life that I’ve been that . . . amazed . . . on one hand, and still have fingers left over. I am so looking forward to meeting my son or daughter . . .

I wrote this for them . . .

***

To Know You

I haven’t ever met you, but already know I love you
Can’t wait until the coming day when soon I’ll finally see you
To touch you and to greet you and to hold you and to meet you
Just to know you

Perhaps you are a son I’ll run and play and throw a ball with
Perhaps instead a boy whom I will read or paint or sit with
I’ll share whatever makes you come alive, the loves you cling to
Just to know you

Perhaps you are a girl who’ll love dolls and braids and dresses
Or one who roams outdoors with wind and rain upon her tresses
Wherever life brings joy and passion to you, there I’ll join you
Just to know you

I hope you’ll be a healthy child, vigorous and lively
But if affliction strikes you and you take to feeling poorly
Please know it’s not a picture-perfect life I long to cling to
But to know you

And as you grow and thrive, as you explore and you discover
The ground you want your precious life to grow into and cover
My wish is not to shape your mind and body or control you
Just to know you

And though there will be times that you’ll do things I want you not to
Know this: there’s never anything that possibly you could do
To make me love you less than in this moment here I now do
Know I love you

And though there will be times when in your life you will see vict’ry
Know too: there’s nothing you can do to earn my love or coax me
To ever love you MORE than what, right now, I feel for you
How I love you

I’ll celebrate your joys in life and grieve with you your sorrow
Recall your yesterdays; and share your hopes for each tomorrow
But I don’t want to use them to direct you or define you
Just to know you

And as a father I will make mistakes and won’t be perfect
And when I fail, I’ll need your help to make sure that I know it
I don’t want to be “always right” and hurt you or dismiss you
Just to know you

And at the sunset of my life, as scenes before my eyes flash
The things you’ve done or made or been, are not what I will rehash
Instead it’s who you ARE that I’ll take with me, may it be true:
That I knew you