How Names Matter
In recent days I had the great honor and pleasure of delivering the keynote address to my nephew Daniel on the occasion of his attaining the rank of Eagle Scout. Those familiar with the Boy Scouts of America and with Scouting around the world understand that earning the highest rank in that organization is no small accomplishment. In pursuing this goal to the end, Daniel, like his older brother Austin and his father, proved at an early age that he is worthy of honor and of great responsibility. That is a large part of the message I gave to Daniel and to those gathered for the occasion. I publish it here in hope that this message may be an encouragement and exhortation to others.
For Daniel Victor McCarn at His Eagle Court of Honor
February 27, 2015
Daniel, this day of recognition has been long in coming. All of us rejoice with you that it has come at last. We recognize you for your considerable accomplishments in attaining the rank of Eagle. Those accomplishments are worthy of celebration and remembrance, but I will let others speak of them. What I want to address with you is something greater than what you do. I would like to consider who you are.
By way of introducing this subject I invite you to consider three men who have become legendary in the annals of Texas history. Today the names of David Crockett, James Bowie, and William Barrett Travis exist in a space far removed from the reality these men occupied in their lifetimes. We know them as the great heroes of the Alamo, men who stood bravely against overwhelming odds in the noble cause of freedom. It is fitting to remember them at this time, the anniversary of the Siege of the Alamo which began on February 23, 1836, and ended thirteen days later on March 6 in the great battle that claimed the lives of these heroes.
Like barnacles on a ship, legends have encrusted the names of Crockett, Bowie, and Travis. After 179 years it is hard to distinguish myth from truth. Those who remember them at all remember them either as heroes or as villains, depending on the point of view. There is enough of both in each man to justify each perception. But who were they in reality? When we strip away the layers of time and legend, what do we find? We find flawed men like all of us whose ordinary lives played out in the crucible of extraordinary times.
Who was Crockett? A poor man from Tennessee, perpetually in debt, and perpetually reaching for a higher station in life. Some would say he ran from his troubles, leaving his wives and children to pick up the pieces of his broken dreams. And yet he inspired multitudes even in his day. He entered politics because he believed the United States could do better for poor families like his own, and as a spokesman for the frontier he championed land reform in the legislature in Nashville and in the halls of Congress. He dreamed of an America that treated all men as men, and thus opposed the policies of his fellow Tennessean, Andrew Jackson, who deemed that the Cherokee and other native peoples were of somewhat lesser value. In opposing removal of Indian nations from their homelands where we now stand, Crockett lost favor with his constituents, and soon realized that his dream of a better America would have to be carried by others. He removed to a new country called Texas, where perhaps he could dream anew.
Who was Bowie? Some would call him a scoundrel, a smuggler, a swindler, a slave trader. All of those descriptions echo with degrees of truth. Yet other descriptions ring true as well: Bowie the gentleman; Bowie the shrewd businessman; Bowie the fierce fighter ready to defend himself and others; Bowie the respected leader of three distinct communities in two separate nations. And who now remembers Bowie the devoted husband and father, the loyal son-in-law, and the grieving widower? When James Bowie came to Texas in 1830, he left behind a checkered past in Louisiana. He had succeeded in business, although quite often his business ventures involved a degree of illegality. While we may not excuse such actions as smuggling and real estate fraud, we should try to understand the context in which they occurred. Jim Bowie and his brothers lived on a wild frontier where the cultures of Britain, Spain, France, Africa, and North America collided. Violent men dealt violence to the weak, and law was honored only in the breach. How could a man survive in such a place, much less prosper and build something for future generations? Bowie’s quest for answers to those questions brought him to the same conclusion as Crockett: that there were no answers for him in America, but in Texas he might begin to ask the questions anew.
Who was Travis? An ambitious young man from Alabama. Some would call him irresponsible, impetuous, and unfaithful. He could be accused of abandoning his wife and children, of perpetuating the unjust institution of race-based slavery, and of fomenting rebellion against the government Mexico, his adopted country. As with Crockett and Bowie, there is truth to the accusations. When he was but a little older than you are now, Travis found himself encumbered with debt and unable to find enough business either as an attorney or as a journalist to support his family. And thus he left Alabama in 1831, one step ahead of his creditors, hoping to find new opportunity in the Mexican territory of Texas.
Texas fulfilled its promises to these fugitives from life’s hard blows. Travis became a respected attorney in the town of Anahuac. He was known as a champion of the people’s constitutional rights who did not shrink from confrontation with the authorities when those rights were threatened. Bowie married into one of the most respected and powerful Tejano families of San Antonio. His marriage secured for him a position as a leader among both the Hispanic and Anglo Texans and made him a bridge between two very different communities. Crockett, newly arrived in the midst of the Texas Revolution, brought new hope to a flagging cause and led by humble example. He enlisted as a private soldier in the Army of Texas to fight for the freedoms he hoped to fashion in partnership with others who dreamed of better things.
By strange twists of fate, these three very different men found themselves in San Antonio, the crossroads of the Texas frontier just before President Antonio López de Santa Anna arrived with an army and a determination to crush rebellion there just as he had crushed revolts against his government elsewhere in Mexico. We know the story well enough. Crockett, Bowie, and Travis, along with over two hundred others, laid down their lives in a hopeless defense. Why did they do it? Certainly they did not have to. Mistakes were made in abundance. Wiser and more experienced military leaders would not have allowed a great part of the armed force of Texas to become decisively engaged by a professional Mexican army twelve times their number. Yet events unfolded as they did, and in time the defenders of the Alamo had but three choices: surrender, escape, or fight to the end.
We know choice they made. They remained at their posts, even when all hope was lost. What went through their minds as the Mexican siege drew to its inevitable conclusion? We cannot know for certain. Perhaps regrets assailed Crockett as he recalled poor choices and wrong turns over his 49 years. Perhaps Bowie, wracked with the pain of a consumptive lung disease, could think of nothing more than his beloved wife and daughter, long dead of cholera. Perhaps Travis realized belatedly that his impetuous actions, however well intended, carried a price of blood, both his own and of the men under his command.
Whatever their thoughts, whatever their faults, these men remained true to the end. They are rightly regarded as heroes, for when death threatened, they did not shrink from it. And thus we remember them today, not as flawed men, but as great men who redeemed their names and their honor in selfless acts of heroism for the sake of their country.
Their names. That is what I call to your attention. Crockett, Bowie, and Travis are honorable names, regardless of the fact that they did not always act honorably. We remember them for both the good and the bad. Such is always the case. When our fathers bequeath to us our names, they bestow on us the entire legacy of past generations. Sometimes that legacy is good and honorable; sometimes that legacy is wicked and shameful. We cannot hide from any of it. All we can do is take what is given us and build on it, either for good or for evil. The good our fathers have done is something we must learn and emulate. The evil our fathers have done is something we must learn as well, not only that we may avoid it in the future, but that we may make amends for the past if at all possible. And thus we learn to live in peace with all men, as much as it is in our power to do so. In so doing we build the future, a future better than this present which we have inherited. Our daughters and sons after us build on the name we leave to them, hopefully improving still more on what we have left.
This, Daniel, is the charge I leave to you. You have a name of great honor. Consider the origin of your name. Dan is the fifth son of our patriarch Jacob. His name means “a judge”, and in recognition of that meaning Jacob prophesied this about him:
Dan shall judge his people, as one of the tribes of Israel. Dan shall be a serpent in the way, a horned snake in the path, that bites the horse’s heels, so that his rider falls backward. For Your salvation I wait, O Lord. (Genesis 49:16-18)
Later, Moses said this about the tribe of Dan:
Dan is a lion’s whelp, that leaps forth from Bashan. (Deuteronomy 33:22)
I cannot say that I understand the full meaning of these prophecies, but what I do understand tells me the root of your name describes one who is wise and trustworthy to handle great responsibility, and one who is unafraid and undeterred when confronted with opposition. Those are admirable qualities, but qualities that could lead either to good or to evil, depending on the choices of the one who bears them.
Will you make the right choices? I pray so. As you move through life, consider the choices made by one who bore your name in ages past. He, too, is Daniel, the great prophet of Israel and Grand Vizier of Babylon. His name, and your name, means, “God is my judge”. Study his career and you will see the truth of this meaning. From his childhood, when the Babylonians captured Jerusalem and carried him away to a far country, all the way to his elder years, Daniel witnessed great trials and hardship, but he remained faithful to the God Who sustained him. God did indeed judge him, and found him worthy. As the Scripture testifies, when he was over 90 years old and still in service to a foreign king, the Lord visited Daniel with his greatest vision, and at that time named him a man greatly beloved.
You, Daniel, are greatly beloved by your family, by your friends, and by your God. How you respond to that love is the first of many choices you will make that determine the outcome of your life. These choices, for good or ill, will determine as well how your name is remembered, or if it is remembered at all. Fear not to make the choices; a mistake can be corrected later, but to make no choice is a choice to let others dictate your fate. In these perilous times the world needs men who can make choices, men who weigh matters and judge between them. The world today is far different, and far more dangerous, than the world into which you were born. The ground is shifting under our feet even now as what has been good is now called evil, and what has been evil is now called good. We are in need of brave men who can recognize what is truly good as our God has defined it, and who can remain true to it in the midst of trials. Are you one of those? If so, then you will be one who leaves an honorable legacy and a promising future for your children and the children of the world. I believe you are such a man. You are indeed flawed, as are we all, but like Crockett, Bowie, Travis, and countless others, you will move past your flaws and take hold of that which your God puts before you. And in the end, when you stand with our Messiah in His restored Kingdom, having done your part in this work of restoration, He will surely smile on you and say, “Well done Daniel, man greatly beloved.”