Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Starting Over

(Several years ago I published this New Year's piece in the Birmingham News. It is my hope that you and yours will have a great New Year.)

You discover all sorts of things when you move. Back in October I retired from the church I served. Eight years of accumulation in an office is quite a job to sort through. High up on a shelf, back in the corner I found a brass bowl which contained a mound of ashes. It was sealed with plastic wrap. I remember thinking--ashes? Why would I save ashes? Suddenly I remembered. Surrounded by files and books and eight years of memories it all came back. Standing there packing suddenly I was transported back in time.

The bowl and the ashes began with a woman with a turban wrapped around her head. She came up just before the year had ended. "Have you ever had a Burning Bowl service?" "A what?" I said. "A Burning Bowl ceremony. I've seen it at another church. You give everyone a piece of paper and they write down something they want to let go of. And there comes a time in the service when the people come forward, bring their paper and light it. They place it in a bowl and watch the fire take it away." She said, "It is a powerful service. I hope you'll think about doing this."

This woman had had a hard year. She had been diagnosed with cancer. Rounds of chemotherapy had left her weak. Her hair had fallen out. She word a turban to cover her baldness. Emotionally and physically she was depleted. The future looked scary. "I want," she said, "to write the word cancer down on my paper. I want to burn it up and let it go."

So the first Sunday of that year we had a Burning Bowl ceremony. We gave everyone a moment in the service to write out the things they wanted to release and let go. Then they were asked to come forward and bring that scrap of paper. At the altar, one by one, they lit their paper from a lighted candle. Each person placed their burning paper in a bowl and watched the fire consume what they had brought.

Mary, still wearing her turban, came and touched the lighted taper with her paper. She held it until the flames almost consumed it. Then she dropped it into the bowl where so many others had already left their offerings. Tears ran down her face as she watched her paper crumple, turn black and disappear. I remembered what she had said: I want to release the power that this old cancer has on me.

She was only one of a long line that came to the altar that New Year's Sunday. Later some of our members told me some of their scribbled-out offerings. One woman said: "I wrote the name of my mother. She died this year and the grief has been so hard." Another said: "We broke up at Thanksgiving. It just killing me. I wrote his name down. I want to say good-bye." A mother confessed: "You know my son has AIDS. I can't deal with this. It is all I think about. I want him to live so bad. I wrote down his name and HIV. I hope God will take it away or give him a lot more time." "I lost my job," another shared. "I feel so scared and so hopeless. I wrote my fear down. I want God to take it away. As my paper burned I prayed that I might find hope." These were only a few of so many who came with their wounds, their shames and their fears. They hoped, in writing down their needs and burning up what they brought that somehow they would release the power of some hard thing in their lives.

Years later, standing in my office packing boxes and wrapping up my treasures, I rediscovered the bowl full of ashes. Then I remembered why I had kept them all these years. Faces loomed up before me of people who shared with me the things they had signed that long-ago Sunday. I remembered most the woman in the turban who told me of the ceremony in the first place. She has moved far away She has gotten married again. The turban is long gone. Her hair has come back. In a Christmas letter she recently wrote: "It's been over five years now. The Doctor says I am cancer free."

I stopped my packing. I took the old ashes outside. I gently took the plastic cover off the bowl. I lifted up the black, charred remains of all those hopes and dreams. Even after all these years I offered them up to God. "Lord--release us from all the hard things we wrote down and we still carry. Make this a better time for us all." And then the wind caught the ashes and they flew in every direction.

Life is often hard. We all have our lists. As a New Year begins release whatever it is that makes life scary and difficult. Remember the woman with the turban. Move into this new year unafraid.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

America's Shadow Side

One of the best books I have read lately is Jane Mayer's, The Dark Side. In this book she outlines how we slowly began to embrace torture as the stated policy for our country. The subtitle of her books states her thesis: "The inside story of how the war on terror turned into a war on American ideals."

Following September 11th our whole country was gripped in fear. Never in our history have we been attacked as we were that sad day. In a fever of fear and anxiety, followed by Anthrax scares, constant Orange alerts our national leaders responded with a new plan to combat our enemies. If we could squeeze information out of those captured our country would be safe from attacks.

In that climate of fear and chaos, secret decisions were made at the highest levels of our government. Their conclusions took us down a road we have walked down only infrequently in our history. In fairness to the Bush administration the author points out that Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War, Roosevelt's imprisonment of Americans of Japanese descent during World War II seriously compromised our values. To these dark chapters we could also add the nation's cruelty toward Native Americans and African-Americans. The historian, Arthur Schlesinger, said of the Bush policy on torture: "No position taken has done more damage to our American reputation in the world--ever."These new actions were a dramatic break from the past. In 1775 when America was waging a war for independence against Britain, George Washington said that this new land would not follow the example of England at that time. "Treat (the enemy) with humanity, and let them have no reason to complain of our copying the brutal example of the British army in their treatment of our unfortunate brethren...Provide everything necessary for them on the road."

Since 9/11 we have turned away from the humane treatment of alleged terrorists. Mayer takes us through the horrors of rendition. Capturing suspected terrorists and shipping them to countries where unbelievable torture has been meted out hoping we could obtain information that would help us win this war on terrorism.

The author writes of Guantanamo and Abu Gharib when our government declared that we did not need to follow the Geneva Convention. Almost every country in the world has subscribed to the treatment of the enemy. "No physical or mental torture nor any other form of coercion may be inflicted on prisoners of war to secure from them information of any kind whatsoever." Since 1949 even in the most trying of times every Republican and Democratic administration has respected human rights of all. There have been lapses of course, yet the stance of this country had been clear. Even as late as March 16, 2005 President Bush said in a press conference: "This country does not believe in torture." Even as he spoke over 3,000 prisoners had already been rounded up and tortured unmercifully, some even to the point of insanity and death.

There were many in our government that protested these actions. But these patriots were passed over for promotions, quietly moved out of government positions or summarily ignored.

Read the book for yourself. Jane Mayer is a competent writer. She served as a Senior writer and front-page editor for the Wall Street Journal. She now is a Washington based staff writer for The New Yorker.

She writes that seven years has passed since 9/11. Yet the counter terrorism policies of the Bush administration remain in place. It might be well to put down this book beside those haunting words of Frederick Nietzsche. He said,"He who does battle with monsters needs to watch out lest he in the process becomes a monster himself."

It is my hope that this courageous book will give Americans much to ponder as we move into a new year and a new administration. Only those who embrace their shadow side can find health and healing from the past.

Two movies have recently told this painful story. They are not for the squeamish.
1) "Rendition"; 2) "Taxi on the Dark Side".

Monday, December 29, 2008

Christmas Card Reminders

That mound of Christmas cards still on our coffee table reminds me of something important. The value of friends in our lives. Before this week is over my wife and I will sit down and go through those cards again. That pile of cards, letters and pictures will be the last vestige of Christmas to go. I wonder why? Maybe we just like to be reminded that we are connected to a great many people in a great many places. Being a Reverend our family has moved a lot and we have friends scattered all over.

Those friends cover the spectrum. Some wear the Democrat label and some are Republicans. Some love George Bush while other friends despise him. Some of our number are deeply religious and others are pretty sure there is no God. Some are gay and a few are homophobic. And yet looking back there is something stronger than all these labels and opinions that tie us together.

Carlyle Marney was a great preacher. In one of the first of many books he wrote he dedicated that book to a friend:

To Victor--
Who agrees with me in nothing
And is my friend in everything.

Real friendship does not depend on agreement. Real friends do not try to convert you to their side. But real friends stand by you through thick and thin. You looked up from your mother's grave and over on the side were people who had driven 300 miles just to stand by you. Some things you just do not forget.

I love the poem whose author I cannot find:

"Oh, the comfort,
the inexpressible comfort
Of feeling safe with a person
Having neither to weigh thoughts
Nor measure words, but pouring them
All right out, just as they are,
Chaff and grain together,
Certain that a faithful hand will
Take and sift them;
Keep what is worth keeping
And with a breath of kindness
Blow the rest away."

Tonight when I go to bed I think I'll conjure up some faces of friends from across the years. I will thank God for the richness they have added to my life. And then I will smile and perhaps sleep will come.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

After Christmas Blues

We hear a lot of talk during the Christmas season about depression. With all the advertised joy many folk, going through a hard time wonder what is wrong with them. There's nothing particularly wrong with them. Life has just been lousy and they don't feel much like celebrating.

We don't hear much talk about the after Christmas blues. Tomorrow my kids leave for Philadelphia and Atlanta. The old house has shaken for days with laughter, movement, constant eating and catching up. Tomorrow the house will be just quiet. We will look around and see that the decorations are already beginning to sag. There will be some left-overs in the fridge--but we are just tired of Christmas food. In a day or two we will begin the hard task of taking all the Christmas decorations down and getting back to what we call normal.

And we'll miss the kids and even their dog. We will miss the stairs shaking as the teenagers came and went. We will miss that wonderful feeling of having everyone under the same roof. There is a comfort in that. It doesn't happen very often these days. We are all too busy and too scattered.

Christmas Eve I served Communion in the church where I work. It was a come and go affair. In the sanctuary only lit by candles and a tall Chrismon tree people came to the altar. "What shall we pray for?" I asked. And after we prayed for family members, for health, for people they loved, for the war and many things, I held out the bread and the cup and said: "Remember." But in between their coming I sat there in the darkness. I don't do this very often. Just sit in the silence. And something good happened there. I remembered faces of so many people I love. I thought of all those who have come through a hard time and made it. Like a rosary, I thought of blessing after blessing that have come undeservedly to me this year. I hope that I can save those memories for the months to come.

W.H. Auden wrote a poem called "The Time Being." Toward the end of that long poem he wrote:
"Remembering the stable where for once in our lives
Everything became a You and nothing was an It."

So we take down the decorations and pack away all the vestiges of Christmas. Yet we can all hold on to some personal vision or promise when the light came into a very troubled world and the darkness has never been able to put it out. Even after all these years.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Where's The Star?

High up on our Christmas tree, near the top, if you closely you may see it. I am talking about the star.

It may be the tiniest ornament on our tree. The little star is probably an inch and a half in diameter. The star was made in a Sunday School class by our little girl forty years ago in Southside, Virginia.

Every Christmas without fail our daughter breezes into the house with her own two daughters. After lugging in the suitcases, pillows, the dog and presents she asks the same question. "Where's the star?" Christmas would not be Christmas without her star. I used to think it was foolish request, hanging on to that old homemade star. But I have changed my mind.

We all need some kind of a star to tie us to back there. Something that will stir our memories andl send us back to our past and our roots. What is your star? It could be anything.

I have a buddy who keeps high on a shelf an old threadbare teddy bear. His Daddy bought it for him at the fair years ago.They stood before a tent looking at all the stuffed animals and the boy pointed to a bear. His Daddy shook his head. The little boy burst into tears and snubbed and snubbed. Finally the Father pointed to the bear, took out his billfold and handed the clerk the money. That Daddy has beeen dead for years yet that old teddy bear is one of my friend's most treasured possessions.

I have another friend who kept on the bookcase in his office a pouch of chewing tobacco. He grew up in a tiny cotton mill village and smoke breaks were few and far between. Almost everybody chewed tobacco. The man has written a score of books. He taught hundreds of students in his distinguished career. Yet that pouch of tobacco was always a reminder of how far he had come and how grateful he was.

Christmas is memory time. No wonder we keep playing "Silver Bells," Silent Night," and "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas." They strike something deep within us. Faces from the past loom up. We remember and in remembering we are glad.

Some hang the symbol of their recollections on some tree. Some pack those precious times away in tissue. Others just keep their treasure tucked away in some corner of their hearts.

"Where's the star?" Good question. Unpack it gently. Hang it high in your own personal way. And remember, remember, remember.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Welcome to Heart and Home

It's Christmas Day--one of most fav-o-rite days of the year. For an old guy it brings back memories of friends and places from all over.

On this blog I will be talking about books I've read...weird ideas that come into my head--and things that concern me deeply--like how to do my little part to make the human family what God intended.

My favorite quote is from Frederick Buechner: "To lend a hand when we are falling, perhaps that's the only thing that matters in the end."

If we can all find ways to do lend that hand I think Christmas will last a whole longer than a day.