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The Thin Red Line

March 6, 2014 — Leave a comment

The past few weeks I suspect most people in the world had not heard about Crimea. When you read the headlines, you have to look twice to make sure you are not reading “crime” in the title. Crimea has a long history of political strife, unfortunately due to its strategic location in the Black Sea. The Crimean Peninsula is a crossroads for Europe, Asia, and the MIddle East.

When I lived in Scotland, I would visit Edinburgh Castle multiple times. There is an intriguing painting that hangs within the castle, specifically in the National War Museum of Scotland. It is The Thin Red Line by Robert Gibb.

I purchased a print of the painting, framed it, and it has hung on the walls of my offices over the years. I look to it often in wonder and strength.

Here is its story.

The Thin Red Line, painted in 1881 by Robert Gibb. Painting showing the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders in battle with Russian cavalry at the Battle of Balaklava 1854.

The Thin Red Line, painted in 1881 by Robert Gibb. Painting showing the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders in battle with Russian cavalry at the Battle of Balaklava 1854.

Military History Monthly describes the story best here,

“In November 1854, The Times war correspondent William Russell, writing from the Crimea, reported that an attack by Russian cavalry had been repulsed, having come up against a piece of ‘Gaelic rock… a thin red streak topped up with a line of steel’ – a description that would later become ‘the thin red line’. Russell was describing the heroic part played by the 93rd Highlanders in the Battle of Balaclava, probably better known as the occasion of the disastrous charge of the Light Brigade.

The 93rd Highlanders had been raised in 1799 as the 93rd Regiment of Foot, drawing its recruits mainly from the remote county of Sutherland in the far north of Scotland. In Autumn 1854, the 93rd was defending Balaclava, a small village and port being used by the British as their supply base. Balaclava was of great strategic importance, and its loss could have changed the course of the entire war.

The 93rd, made up of about 500 men under the command of General Sir Colin Campbell, was stationed between the enemy and their target, but they had taken cover from the artillery fire behind a hill and were out of sight of the Russian forces. When he saw that between 400 and 800 Russian cavalry intended spearheading an attack on Balaclava,Campbell moved his men back to the crest of the hill. For a time, there was silence. Finally, the Russians charged, determined to break through the British line and reach Balaclava.

With squadrons of Russian cavalry bearing down on them, the Turks on the British flanks fired a volley at random before fleeing, leaving two ranks of kilted Highlanders to face the onslaught. As bayonets were fixed, Campbell rode to the front and called out to his troops, ‘There is no retreat from here, men! You must die where you stand.’”

But they didn’t die.

They believed and stood their ground. 

The story of the thin red line is not one of a fierce hand-to-hand battle, and it was all over in a matter of minutes. It was an example of discipline and courage in the face of the terrifying spectacle of a massed cavalry charge.

There were more Victoria Crosses (like the USA’s Medal of Honor) presented to the Highland soldiers at that time than at any other.

The Thin Red Line reminds me every time to stand strong and hold on to my faith in the hard days.

The band, Mumford and Sons, wrote a powerful song called Hold On To What You Believe that captures this as well.

But we’re young,
Open flowers in the windy fields of this war-torn world.
And love,
This city breathes the plague of loving things more than their creators

….

But hold on to what you believe in the light
When the darkness has robbed you of all your sight

Whatever you are facing, stand on the line and look to your brothers and sisters on your right and left . You are not alone.

Hold on to your faith and stand firm in the thin red line.

Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong. 1 Corinthians 16:13

Remember Lewis and Clark?

I, like most of you in the United States read about them in American History classes growing up. I was taught a basic overview of their journey, primarily because I lived in the midwest where they traveled. It was as if they were bullet points in a textbook and I learned the following:

  • They covered a lot of ground in a boat
  • Met some Native Americans
  • Made it to the Pacific Ocean
  • Recommended to the President we go west.

Simple enough but there was little story, only bullet-points. In truth, I thought of them more as a punchline as used in the opening of the movie National Lampoon’s European Vacation (1985) in the ridiculous Pig in a Polk quiz show opening scene.

Ten years ago, I read Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage (Simon & Schuster, 1997), the epic narrative about the American explorers Merriweather Lewis and William Clark. I loved studying history and even minored in it in college, but I had never read any book that was written more as a story prior to this one. It was as if the Lewis and Clark’s almost mythological story finally made sense and I could get the accurate picture of these two explorers as if they were in a movie. I could visualize their adventure, share in their ambitions, trials, frustrations, hunger, fears, joy, and even sadness. History became alive to me in their story.

Their story resonates with me today and is pushing me to ask my question,

“What do I need to discover?”

Last month I read a BBC article titled What Adventures Are Actually Left?. It was about how we may be approaching the end of “discovery”.  According to the article, genuine firsts are hard to find these days. The mountains have all been summited. With GPS, it is hard not to easily discover remote islands in the Pacific or visit Antarctica in the winter with modern technology. It seems as if the ocean and space are the last frontier and are largely undiscovered.

While there less “firsts” for man to discover, the battle for discovery of the heart is at stake for each individual. It is the never-ending adventure of man. We as man are not meant to give up so easily because we are made to reach for the next thing. Discovery-adventure is needed to grow culturally and spiritually. Each person has their own reasons and they real what is true to their heart. Here is one of my favorite.

March 18, 1923 issue of the New York Times. The headline was “Climbing Mount Everest is Work for Supermen.”

Why did you want to climb Mount Everest?” This question was asked of George Leigh Mallory, who was with both expeditions toward the summit of the world’s highestmountain, in 1921 and 1922, and who is now in New York. He plans to go again in 1924, and he gave as the reason for persisting in these repeated attempts to reach the top, “Because it’s there.

We may never know exactly what was at stake personally for Hillary but his tenacity to achieve such a feat shows that something deep within him was stirring.

I can come up with excuses all day long about why I don’t have time for this adventure and how there is never enough money. My wife and I don’t want to live life with any regret. I think that is why the Pixar movie, Up (2009), resonated so much with me. You watch the main character as a boy growing up to become an old man in the movie. His life, much like yours or mine was not easy and complete with all sorts of unexpected twists. It shows that all we have in life are excuses unless we move our lives into the intentional mode.

My wife and I have realized that if we don’t show our two daughters how to be adventurous, we will all get lost in life’s busy shuffle.

Lewis and Clark, Mallory, and the movie Up, all remind me to not to just “do things” but to do them with a purpose bigger than me. Do them because it matters. Not just to cross it off like a simple bucket list but for the purpose of a story to tell that matters for the ages. After all, God knows what true adventure is and his adventure flows from his story in The Bible. Our real adventure is with Christ and without his purpose, all of this is meaningless, a mere earthly thrill.

What is the adventure in your life?  

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite songs about adventure. My daughter’s faces were lit up when first hearing the song, Learn Me Right, by Mumford and Sons (featuring vocals by Birdy) in the movie, Brave (2012), It later became a sister song called Not With Haste in their new album, Babel, as well. I may even add it to My Funeral Mix.

This week I listened to August and Everything After this week. It takes me back to 1993 when the album was released by Counting Crows. I remember that album and putting it on repeat for most of 1993-94. Although I had been to other concerts, I remember vividly my sister taking my friend Rick Ewing and I to see Counting Crows at American Theater in St. Louis. Later that next year, I listened to album on the 12 hour bus ride to Young Life camp in 1994 when I became a Christian. The album never gets old and when I play it, it brings great memories with a smile to my face every time.

In High School, it was hard to escape Dave Matthews Band’s Under the Table and Dreaming. It was a fun album with a unique sound that all of my friends could agree on. There became so many DMB haters in the following albums but the real sound of the band in this album is what defines them. High school was memorable because of an album like Under the Table and Dreaming.

Oasis’ (What’s The Story) Morning Glory? makes me laugh every time. For me, it fits into an era of high school into college in the 90s because my great friend Heath Hildebrandt and I would always have it blasting loud at home, in the car, and in the dorm. We would drive around playing Rock n’ roll Star and laugh to the lyrics of She’s Electric. I still get the lyrics messed up singing Wonderwall but it remains to be one of the greatest songs of the 90s.

David Gray’s White Ladder was special to me during my last month of college because I had it on repeat when studying for a month writing my final papers and finals. It also became a motivator to get me in the mood for my move to Britain in early 2001.

U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind was a powerful album because I was always was a big U2 fan but realized that the late 90s were not very good to the band artistically. They needed an album that embraced their late 80s sound while looking ahead. I like to approach life that way and the album became one that tells a story of passion and joy through Beautiful Day, adversity through Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of, and hope through Walk On. Walk On became an anthem to answer what happened on 9/11 for most of the world and I am inspired with each listen.

Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was such a unique album to me and helped me in my early 20s to learn more about great lesser-known artists. I remember the album releasing while I was in my early years of the work life and helped me to always stay connected with good, new art in the music community. It is an album that made me love St. Louis and Chicago more with songs that told their story.

The past couple years it feels a lot like Mumford and Sons’ Sigh No More has been a thematic album. The album takes you through great joy and sorrow as the story unfolds. It is a hopeful album to me because it didn’t feel that they were writing just for singles the iTunes era. Instead, they methodically selected songs that walked the listener through their day.

We don’t listen to albums the way we used to. For better or worse, we are marketed singles today and it much too easy to evaluate music based on that alone. Albums have the ability to mirror our personal story and I’m challenged these days when I hear a great song to dig deeper and listen to an entire album. Don’t be surprised if you discover some amazing songs that you never would have heard otherwise. I look forward to each day to discover something new, perhaps ever a soundtrack for this next stage of life.

What album brings you back to a special moment in life? 

Recently Brooke and I saw Mumford and Sons at the famous Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.  I’d been a fan of theirs for a while but the experience seeing them live is something I will not forget.  There were a few things that stuck out but one in particular.

They seemed to love what they were doing and here is why:

  • There were smiles and laughter during the entire evening by all.
  • Their harmonies reinforced that they are not centered around one person.
  • They invited locals to play with them to bring connection to the community.
  • They invited the audience to be a part of what they were doing and were gracious
  • They danced, they were loud, and gave an unforgettable experience
Bottom line is that they seemed to be doing exactly what they were meant to do.

The day of the show, the band had flown to Nashville all the way from London, England. They must have been exhausted from the trip and I can imagine for any band that a live show can be a drag when you are not sleeping much. They didn’t show any discontent whatsoever and seemed incredibly excited to play at The Ryman. I learned that Mumford and Sons perform like this at every show. It is now weeks later but their joy and enthusiasm stays with me.

What if in life I approached all things this same way as Mumford? 

Life is not always the same type of art but can we aspire for that same type of joy? 

I have plenty of friends going through very difficult circumstances so a post like this could be interpreted as insensitive.  I’ve learned through time and through the Bible that I should expect trials and suffering. Personally life is not particularly easy now but compared to so many others, all is well in perspective. It is draining when you are going through any sort of pain but when you stop to look up and around you, you can see the light. I have a friend at work who said her nine-year old son was so worried about life, especially dying. I remember having strange feelings like that as a kid. It seemed irrational to me now but then it felt like the weight of the world was on my shoulders. Even with little responsibility, there is something about us that wants to worry and dwell on the negative. What does it get us?

I have noticed a common ebb and flow in life. It is an up and down of emotions and it is easy to get trapped in a valley. Just watch cable news and you’ll be never escape it. Some stay in that valley longer than others but in my experience the more I dwell on the fact that I’m in a rut the longer I stay there. James reminds us in this way in his epistle.

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters,whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.-James 1:2-4 (NIV)

It’s a reminder that we’re not meant to live an easy life.

There is a reason for our pain because God refines us in the process and shows us what joy is meant to be. I want to live with joy the way God designed me. It has caused me to listen carefully to him for when he whispers through my experiences. C.S. Lewis reminds us,

God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.-The Problem of Pain

Next time I am feeling down I will be reminded of that Mumford and Sons night, go to prayer, read God’s word and find that joy.

It comes down to a choice. Choose joy.