Wednesday, December 30, 2009

After Christmas Blues

(Last Christmas when I started my blog I wrote this piece--I thought it might be appropriate as we take down all the Christmas trappings and start all over again.)

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.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Keeping Christmas

Just because Christmas Day is past is no reason for us to forget its wonder and  mystery. I remember Fred Craddock, great preacher telling about the family that spent all summer putting up vegetables: peas and corn and tomatoes and other things from their garden. Some they froze and some they canned but when winter came and the garden was long gone they would open up those cans and unfreeze those packages and enjoy a feast as if it was still summer. I think we can do that with Christmas and it may just give us light and warmth for some hard days ahead.

One of the gifts my son gave me this year was a CD he had made of some wonderful music. I will plug in my ipod (yes--I have learned how it works--mostly)--take a jog and the music I need to hear will wash over me. Leonard Cohen's "Alleluia" is something. I play it over and over. This is one way I will try to keep Christmas.

Digging through the Christmas cards we have received this year again takes me back to other times and other places. I am reminded of the people from all over who have graced our lives with their love and laughter and friendship through the years. Many send pictures and letters--but we love hearing from our friends far and near. Just rummaging through those cards is a great to keep one of the Benedictions of Christmas alive--Christmas cards.

But I also recommend Jim Wallis' great Christmas article which he reprints every year on his blog. It tells the story that comes out of World War I in the year 1914. On Christmas Eve in the middle of the war, for one night in one little place the Germans and British and French soldiers put down their weapons, crossed enemy lines and began to celebrate Christmas as if they were friends. It is a true story. In this season when we are at war we need to be reminded that we have lost 461 of our own this year in Iraq and Afghanistan. This true story Wallis tells is worth retelling in these hard days. I recommend these powerful words--for they are as good a way of keeping Christmas as anything I know.

I bumped into some words some time ago which I clipped and seem appropriate for this passing season.They were written by someone whose name we do not know. The prose-poem is entitled: "There Are Years."

"Your way through life
will not remain the same.
There are years of happiness and years
of suffering.
There are years of abundance,
and years of poverty,
years of hope, and of disappointment,
of building up, and of breaking down.
But God has a firm hold on you
through everything."

(The photograph above I took at Coventry Cathedral. The ruins of the old Church destroyed during the Second World War remain next to the new Cathedral. This picture is a wonderful scene of reconciliation which stands amid the ruins of that first Cathedral.)

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Remembering the Fallen on Christmas Day

from "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day"

"And in despair I bowed my head:
 'There is no peace on earth,' I said,
'For hate is strong, and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.'

"Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men'."
               -Henry W. Longfellow

As we gather around tables and Christmas trees, opening presents and celebrating the wonder and beauty of this day, let us remember those families who have lost loved ones in Iraq and Afghanistan particularly. Let us remember those, mostly young, who will not be coming home ever. And let us remember those who come home to us broken and wounded. Let us remember all the fallen.

Pfc. Serge Kropov / age 21 / Hawley, PA. / Die d as a result of a non-hostile incident in Helmand province, Afghanistan/ December 20, 2009.

Sgt. Albert D. Ware / age 27 / Chicago, Il / Died of wounds suffered when enemy forces attacked his vehicle with a roadside bomb in the Arghandab River, Kandahar province, Afghanistan / December 18, 2009.

Tech. Sgt. Anthony C. Campbell, Jr. / age 35/ Florence, KY/ Died of wounds suffered from the detenotation of a roadside bomb in Helmand province, Afghanistan/ December 15, 2009.

Pfc. Jaiciae L. Pauley / age 29 / Austell. GA / Died of injuries sustained from a noncombat related incident in Kirkuk, Iraq / Decemeber 11, 2009.

Pvt. Jhanner A. Tello / age 29 / Los Angeles, CAL/ died of injuries sustained from a noncombat related incident in Kirkuk, Iraq / December 10, 2009

Sgt. Ralph Anthony Webb Frietas / age 23 / Detroit, MICH/ Died as a result of unknown causes in Baghdad, Iraq / December 8, 2009.

Home for Christmas

"To an open house in the evening
Home shall men (we) come.
To an older town that Eden
And a taller town that Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star.
To the things that cannot be and that are.
To the place where God was homeless
And all men (of us) are at home."
                    --G.K. Chesterton

Every Christmas our thoughts turn toward home. And planes, trains and automobiles bring people back. To a place, a spot where the smells and sounds and even the silences are familiar. To the ticking of a clock and the barking of a dog and a street where everything is familiar.

Home to your room even though you haven’t lived there in twenty years. On the wall is that hideous picture you painted in high school. Nestled in the back of the closet is your wrapped-up wedding dress. Under one of the beds, if you looked closely, you would still find a box of your old stuff--treasures really. Old letters, an autograph book, yellowing clippings of your accomplishments, the bulletin from the day you were baptized. There are old photographs and matchbook covers and even a prom program.

And so you come back home as you sometimes come back in dreams.Home. There’s nothing quite like it. Some remember a porch where you sat watching fireflies late at night. Or the porch where you sneaked your first cigarette long after everyone else had gone to bed. That same porch where you kissed your first girl. Some remember the kitchen and a round table laden down with all your favorite foods. Others remember a bedroom where, even when the wind blew and it was dark and cold outside you felt safe under a mound of quilts and blankets. For some, home is the backyard or the garden or a garage or even an old oak tree.

And so we pack our bags, shuffle our schedules and travel long distances to come back. Back to what? A place. A time. Mostly people. We come to touch the base—to recover our identity. To be assured once more that we are connected. Linked and tied to somebody and somewhere and some time. We come back to have our names called as only they can call our names. To have someone remember our history—even the embarrassing moments. Maybe—just maybe—we come to turn back the clock to a time and place where life was simple and not so complicated. When our dreams were bright and life stretched out with such promise and possibility. We go back hauling reluctant children and grandchildren for a thousand different reasons. But mostly, I think we return to find our way once more.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Health Care and Christmas

Thinking about the Senate as we are on the cusp of perhaps doing something about helping those 47 million people without insurance, I recall the words Aristides said when he described the Christians to the Roman Emperor Hadrian.

"They love one another. They never fail to help widows; they save orphans from those who would hurt them. If they have something they give freely to the man (or woman) who has nothing; if they see a stranger, they take him (or her) home, and are happy, as though he (or she) were a real brother or sister). They don't consider themselves brothers (and sisters) in the usual sense, but brothers (and sisters) instead through the Spirit, in God."

This is a far cry from all those Christians who have raised their troubled voices these last few months about my insurance, my taxes, my rights, and on and on it goes. We may just turn a corner that no President or political group in this country has been able to do--providing health care to all--or a whole lot more than we do now. This whole effort has been attacked with a great deal of money and power. Much of what many of us dreamed about health care has been whittled down. But we have to begin somewhere--and on the eve of Christmas I do hope we will remember the One whose birthday we celebrate and the love and care he showed to all.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Where's the Star?

High up on our Christmas tree, near the top, if you look closely you may see it. If you don’t squint your eyes and look carefully you’ll probably miss it entirely. I’m talking about the star.

It may be the tiniest ornament on the tree. The little star is probably an inch and a half in diameter. The star was made in the church kitchen by a little girl and her Sunday school teacher over forty years ago in Southside Virginia.

Every year, without fail she breezes into the house with her own two daughters. After lugging in suitcases, pillows and presents she always moves toward the Christmas tree in the corner. She asks the same question year after year. “Where’s the star?” Christmas would not be Christmas without that star. I used to think it was a foolish request hanging on to that old homemade star. But I have changed my mind.

We all need some ties to back there. We need some stack pole of remembering that sends us back, back toward yesterday and the past and our roots. What’s your star? Probably not a paste ornament. What is it that calls you back to what used to be with a tug and a pull that is almost magic? I have a buddy who keeps high on a shelf an old threadbare teddy bear. Some of the stuffing is missing and one eye has been lost. His Daddy bought it for him at the fair one time. They stood there looking at the wonderful stuffed animals and he pointed and his Daddy shook his head. The little boy burst into tears and snubbed and snubbed. Finally the Father sighed took out his billfold and handed the clerk the money. His Daddy has been dead for more than thirty years, yet that teddy bare are one of his most precious possessions. I have another friend, long gone now, that kept an old pouch of chewing tobacco pinned to the bookcase behind his desk. He told me he grew up in this little tiny cotton mill village and smoke breaks were few and far between. Almost everybody then chewed tobacco in the mill. The man has written a score of books. He taught hundreds of students. And he always kept a pouch of chewing tobacco as a reminder of how far he had come and how grateful he was. Five years ago I stopped by to see the old black lady that we would now call a Nanny. She kept my brother and me for years and loved us fiercely. As I started to leave she told me she wanted to show me something. She opened a dresser drawer and pulled out something wrapped in tissue paper. She unfolded the yellowing paper and held up a slip. “Miz Ruth give me this slip. She always gave me the nicest presents.” She had never worn it but she kept it and remembered.

Christmas is a time for stirring memories. Silver Bells. Silent Night. Santa Claus is coming to town. I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas. O Come All Ye Faithful. But this season is much, much more. The faces loom up before us. Names of those long dead get mixed up with fun-filled times from our crowded pasts. Christmas is a remembering time.

Some of us hang the symbols of our memories on a Christmas tree. Some pack them away in tissue paper. Some place these mementoes carefully in a jewelry box and open it up from time to time and just smile. Some just keep our treasures tucked away in our hearts.

“Where’s the star?” Good question. Unpack it gently. Hang it high in your own way. And remember. Remember. Remember.

(This article appeared first in the Op Ed section of the Sunday Birmingham News, 12/20/09)

Friday, December 18, 2009

Finding Christmas

"They all were looking for a king
To slay their foes and lift them high
There cams't a tiny baby thing
That made a woman cry."

One Christmas I confessed to a friend that I had the blahs. I just couldn’t get into the Christmas spirit, I told him. I wondered if my feelings might be tied to an anniversary grief for that hard Christmas I have already written about. “Maybe we all expect too much,” my friend said. “Christmas has gotten larger than life and if everything is not ‘Chestnuts roasting by an open fire and Jack Frost nipping at your nose…’ and the house filled with family and joy and laughter we begin to think maybe Santa Claus has missed our house this year.” My friend told me that a couple of years before he decided that most of the festivity we have surrounded our Christmas with had little to do with this watershed of the Christian faith. “Take one thing, he suggested, “one small thing and make it your Christmas. Build your whole Christmas around some tiny thing that takes your breath away. And if that happens, you will find your Christmas.”

Since that time I have tried to keep my eyes and heart wide open to whatever it is that God just might send my way. One year Christmas came in a darkened candlelit Christmas Eve service. The church’s Chrisman tree reached almost to the ceiling. Poinsettias surrounded that altar. The service began with a little boy walking down the center aisle with a candle and singing clear and beautiful, “Away in a manger…” As he moved toward the Advent wreath, Christmas came. One year I built my whole Christmas around a holiday letter I had received from a friend talking about the hard, hard year and how they had come through—difficult though it was.

On another occasion I always sent my old nanny-maid who kept us for years a check this time of the year. Old and crippled, living in two tiny rooms, she always called and thanked me and we caught up—and that was Christmas. Another year it was a chance encounter at a grocery store with a clerk when she told me about her family and what she would be doing on the only she got off—Christmas day. Your celebration need not be larger than life. It could be something as simple as looking through your Christmas card list and remembering a name and a face and another time and the joy they all brought you.

Who says it has to be a thousand lights and a perfect family—whatever that is. Open your eyes…look around you—who knows how God will walk down your street and knock on your door this year?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Not Missing "the Glorious Impossible"

Want to hear a funny Christmas story? When PTL was in its heyday, at Christmas they decorated every single thing that did not move with lights and garland and, of course, sexy Christmas carols sung in the background. Jim and Tammy Faye were interviewing a man who had just gotten back from the Holy Land. And they asked him how the trip was. He said, “Well, I enjoyed my trip but let me tell one thing, that Bethlehem don’t hold a candle to this place!”

Funny how our age cannot possibly imagine a Bethlehem without strobe lights, gorgeous costumes, a whole battalion of angels and a hundred voice choir singing the “Hallelujah Chorus.” When did we take a wrong turn and forget that Christmas is not an orgy of giving and getting (to each other) and outdoing our neighbors in the decoration department and gritting our teeth the closer we get to the day because we are utterly exhausted.

Don’t get me wrong—I love our tree and decorations and all the cards that come from all over, and having the old empty house full of joy and laughter yet again. But in our frenzy I hope that we don’t miss the main thing. We have so embellished the story that poor Jesus (not to speak of Joseph and Mary) have gotten smothered under the modern heresy we now call Christmas. Most folk I know are starved for a touch of wonder. Some moment when we grow quiet on the inside and begin to see and feel something powerful that we don’t feel very often. I’m not talking about sentimentality—I am talking about the kind of primal experience those old scruffy shepherds must have felt as they stood open-mouthed peering down at the baby born in a manger.

Find some moment this Christmas—church or home—with music or pondering the old story: “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world was to be taxed…”Maybe if we discover again as if for the first time a touch of wonder--maybe we might be able to plow through the chemo and the grief and the presents and the hoopla and a war that seem to have no end and so many, many people out of work.

I like the way the splendid writer Wendell Berry puts it in his novel, Hannah Coulter:

“No big happiness came to me yet, but little happinesses did come, and they came from ordinary pleasures in ordinary things; the baby, sunlight, breezes, animals and birds, daily work, rest when I was tired, food, strands of fog in the hollows early in the morning, butterflies, flowers, The flowers didn’t have to be dahlias and roses either, but just the weeds blooming in the fields, the daisies and the yarrow. I began to trust the world again, not to give me what I wanted, for I saw that it could not be trusted to do that, but to give unforeseen goods and pleasures that I had not thought to want.”

I guess this is my prayer for you and me and the whole world. A glimpse of what Madeleine L’Engle called “the glorious impossible.”

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Almost Missing Christmas

Have you ever missed a Christmas? Chances are if you have lived very long there has been a Christmas that came and went and you hardly recognized it. The signs of Christmas were all around you. The stores had been telling you Christmas was coming even before Halloween. Everywhere you went you bumped silver bells, sparkling lights and Christmas bargains galore. Santa Claus definitely came to town—but somehow he lost your address.

There are many reasons why Christmas slips through our fingers. Sometimes it is sickness or the anniversary of some hard grief. It may be loneliness or just looking around at all the families that supposedly are having a good time. It could be too little money, too many expenses or a child in Iraq or Afghanistan.

One year our family missed Christmas completely. I had resigned a church three weeks before Christmas without a place to go. It was the first Christmas I had not preached or been part of the festivities. Without a job for the first time in my life, I dreaded Christmas.

My wife’s mother had been ill with Alzheimer’s for several years. Christmas week word came and it looked like the end was near. All Christmas Eve we called back and forth to Florida where she lived. How is she doing? we kept asking. Not very good—she’s mighty low, the answer kept coming back. Late that night the word came: “Mother has died.”

We drove all Christmas Day to get to Kentucky where the funeral would be held. So the day after Christmas we gathered at the funeral home to say goodbye to my wife’s mother. Because of the holiday there was no way to get word to the paper about her death. Few of her friends or neighbors had heard about her passing. So a little tiny circle of grievers came together to listen to the old words, hug one another, and then move on to the cemetery to say our final goodbyes.

Two days later, heading home our son told us that our daughter had asked her husband to leave. She didn’t want us to know with all the other things going on. But this was the beginning of their divorce.

It was Christmas and we were sure had missed it all. No job, an uncertain future, the death of a parent, and the crumbling marriage of a daughter with a two-year-old—it was just too much. Back home we took down the sagging Christmas tree, placed the ornaments back in their boxes and wondered what the New Year would bring.

Since that painful season I have read the Christmas texts with different eyes. Christmas came to an occupied land where the people were held captive by Rome. It was a place of terrible poverty and injustice. The Christ child would be born to peasant parents in a drafty barn surrounded by scruffy shepherds and animals and steaming dung. So Joseph took his little family and fled one night to Egypt to protect the new baby. Herod’s soldiers had threatened to kill every male child under the age of two. Much like Iraq, blood ran through their streets that first Christmas. This was the setting of the prophet’s words: “Unto us is born, unto us is given…” Despite the darkness, the terror and injustice of it all—I have discovered a powerful truth: Christmas came. Indeed, Christmas always comes at the darkest time of any year when the days are shortest and the nights are coldest and the world’s troubles pile up like winter leaves.

So every Christmas season since then I re-discover the miracle of this holy season. Our family did not miss Christmas after all. Maybe Christmas always speaks to the hardest and most difficult things that any of us face. That next spring after that difficult time I found a job. We moved to a new place and started life over again. Grief, hard and long, began to slowly lose its power. Our daughter patched up her life and moved on.

This holy season does not depend on circumstance or mood or condition. So this Christmas let us lift up your hearts, troubled or not. The power of this season will touch and change us not only during these days but also in all the days yet to come. No wonder Christmas never grows old. “Fear not,” the angel said to poor shepherds. It is a word for us all.

When the lights come on again all over the world...

I grew up in Columbus, Georgia which is the home of the largest infantry center in the world: Fort Benning. And as a little boy I remember a few things about the Second World War. I remember the soldier boys that would come to our church from far away places. They would be with us a while and then they would leave and many would go off to the war. Some would not come back. It was a scary time. Over 60 million people died in the Second World War. But one day the fighting ended and the boys came home. One of the great songs of that homecoming was: “When the lights came on again all over the world…”

I keep thinking of that song as the war rages in Iraq and Afghanistan. Christmas is a hopeful season. We celebrate the coming of the Prince of Peace. And we read the old words like: “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light…” We turn to John’s promise: “The light has come into the world and the darkness cannot put it out…” Christmas reminds us that the lights really are coming on again all over the world.

One of my favorite scriptures comes from that Thanksgiving Psalm 116: “For thou hast delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling…” We all need a delivering. If we hang on to this promise—who knows we might just make it through whatever it is that the world throws our way. The light really has come and no darkness anywhere can put out. Light a candle. Sit in the darkness before the twinkling lights of your tree. And remember. Remember. God is with us all. And that will be enough.

Remembering the Fallen

As we move our decorations out of the attic, address Christmas cards and shop for our loved ones--this is a good time to stop and member all those that have fallen in this sacrifice-less war. Nothing is demanded of us--we simply keep sending off or mostly young boys and girls to fight. The rest of us--except the grieving, fear-ridden families--trudge ahead as if nothing was wrong.

For a great understanding of the so-called Surge I would highly recommend Tom Englehard's article which is found on TomDispatch. At this holy season let us ponder the great mystery--the Christ child came to the poor, the dispossessed and to a chaotic world that knew little peace. In the setting of candlelight and festivity, let us pause to remember the fallen.

Cpl. Xhacob Latorre / age 21 / Waterbury, Conn. / Died of wounds sustained while supporting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan / December 8, 2009.

Staff Sgt. Dennis J. Hansen / age 31 / Panama City, FL / Died at Medical Center in Landstuhl, Germany, of wounds sustained when insurgents attacked his unit with a roadside bomb in Logar province, Afghanistan on December 3 / Died December 7, 2009.

Sgt. Elijah J. Rao / age 26 / Lake Oswego, OR / Died of wounds suffered when enemy forces attacked his unit with a roadside bomb in Nuristan, Afghanistan / December 5, 2009.

Sgt. Kenneth R. Nichols, Jr. / age 28 / Chrisman, IL / Died of wounds suffered when enemy forces attacked his unit using small arms and rocket-propelled granade fires in Kunar province, Afghanistan,/ December 1, 2009.

Lance Cpl. Jonathan A. Taylor / Jacksonville, FL / died while supporting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan / December 1, 2009.

Pfc. Derrick D. Gwaltney / age 21 / Cape Coral, Fl / Died of injuries sustained from a non-combat related incident south of Basra, Iraq / November 29, 2009.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Christmas--It's Worth It


"It really is a chore.
Cleaning off the mantle—
stripping the coffee table, making room on the book shelves,
and the dining room table.
Putting away all those more-than- you-need treasures.
This is not the worst.
It’s hauling old dusty boxes out of the attic.
It’s cluttering up the living room with beads
and trinkets and lights that do not burn and candles
that should have been thrown away years ago.

But here and there amid the boxes
you stop and find an ornament that takes you back.
You hold a child’s crude decoration and laugh.
You walk down memory lane
and meet loved ones of long ago.
Yesterday’s music comes back slow and then strong
and sure.

And when the almost empty boxes are out of sight—
The left-over tissue thrown away—
You look around at the mantle, the tree—the table—
And you know once again why you do it all.
Over and over—season after season—year after year."

--Roger Lovette

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

World AIDS Day: Do Ask...Do Tell

My first encounter with AIDS came about twenty years ago. I was invited back to the first church I ever served in the early sixties. It was a rural congregation about six miles out of town, surrounded by rich tobacco land. They invited me back for a week of preaching.

That first Sunday a young man came down the aisle and joined the church. Michael had been in my youth group as a boy thirty years before. After the service he told me he had AIDS. I had never met anyone with AIDS. So I went to see him that week and he told me his story. One of nine children, he always knew he was different. Michael had a hard time finding his way and accepting who he was. And just about the time he had made peace with himself and his family he discovered that he was very sick.

He had come home from the West Coast to Kentucky to die. He was trying to work but he was exhausted most of the time. They baptized Michael the Sunday after he joined the church. I was proud of that little church that reached out and took Michael into their hearts. In less than two months he was dead. But I have thought about Michael, his mother who loved him fiercely and his family and church that stood by him to the end. I realized twenty years ago that if AIDS could come to that little rural village, on a side road, it could touch any community in America.

Healing Service
Two weeks after my encounter with Michael I was invited to participate in a healing service for people with AIDS at the downtown Episcopal Church in Memphis, Tennessee. That night, as the people streamed forward and whispered their requests for healing I was one of the ministers who heard their sad requests. It was a holy moment. One old man said, “I have a son dying of AIDS and it’s killing me.” One young man told me, “My partner died six months ago and I am very sick—would you pray for me.” A mother leaned forward and said, “My boy is very sick and I don’t know if I can hold out to care for him. It’s hard.” Person after person whispered their needs. Parents, friends, siblings—partners. That evening touched me at some deep level I cannot fully understand. I saw the human side of this disease.

The first big challenge with AIDS was when one of our members wanted to bring a little black girl named Maggie to our church nursery. Remember this was eighteen or so years ago. Everybody was scared of AIDS and infection. Here was a challenge: could we put our own children at risk? Could we possibly turn away someone who needed the church? We invited all our children’s’ workers in for a Seminar. A physician, no stranger to our church who worked with the Center of Disease Control came to talk to us about the realities we faced. We learned about Universal health precautions. We learned that with great care Maggie was no threat. Reluctantly our workers agreed and aids came walking into our church.

Months later a member came by and said, “I have this friend who goes to another church. She has a son very sick with AIDS. He is coming back from California to live with her—and she doesn’t think her church will accept him. You think we could do that?” “Hmm,” I thought, “who knows—I would certainly hope we would take them.” She joined the church weeks later. And when her son came home from California furious and angry and his life had been turned upside down. You could tell he was sick just by looking. One Sunday he came to church and people welcomed him. Months later he walked down the aisle one Sunday and said he wanted to join our church.

I didn’t know how people would respond. But my little church opened up its heart to Kevin and his mother. He would live, as I remember about a year and a half. Toward the end he was very sick. The last day of his life his Sunday school class went twelve miles stand around his bed and give him Holy Communion. It was the last food he ever took by mouth.

Since that time many gay people wandered into our church and many stayed. It was not an easy struggle. Over and over I would say that this was an integrity issue and either we welcomed all or we were not a real church. Slowly that congregation rose to the occasion. First we lost Kevin and then Charles. Karron would be next—and then Gary and dear Roy. Since those early days we have made great strides. There are over 9,000 people living with AIDS in Alabama. The University of Alabama at Birmingham has one of the great research centers for HIV/AIDS.

Since my journey with AIDS began over twenty years ago we have made much progress. Drugs have been discovered that have prolonged life. I have met many persons who are profiles in courage. I have seen the ugly face of discrimination up close. People who could not let their employers know they were sick and paid costly, costly medical bills out of their own pockets. I have heard stories of parents who turned their backs on their children—leaving them without resources to live or die alone. One prominent family told none of their friends that their son was home sick and when he died no one knew. They were ashamed. No obituary. No funeral service except the four of them. And yet I have seen some members of the most conservative churches reach out and open their hearts to families in great pain. I have seen other people change their minds and hearts. We have made great progress—though we have a long way to go.

People complain to me sometimes, “AIDS is not the only terminal disease.” And they are right. My brother has battled cancer. My mother and father both died of heart disease. My mother-in-law was taken by Alzheimer’s. There are a multitude of killing diseases out there. But we are to respond with care and love with whatever the disease and whatever the condition. I do know this—I have seen the face of AIDS a multitude of times these last twenty years and the lenses through which I see the world will always be different.

Reactions to 30,000 New Troops

Want to read how people are feeling about the President's call for 30,000 new troops to Afghanistan? I don't have a good feeling about this. What this means is that between Iraq and Afghanistan we will have close to 200,000 of our young men and women fighting in a war that is longer than World War II. This does not even touch the families, the wounded, those that have to go back into combat three, four, five times.

You might check into Jim Wallis' commentary on this added deployment found in Sojourners.
There is no easy way to disengage from the morass of this war. But somehow we must find a way home and finding it together would certainly be the best for all concerned.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

We Remember the Fallen

Tonight President Obama announced that we will send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. The escalation--to be completed by next summer--is designed to reverse significant Taliban advances as of late. The size and speed of the troop increase will put a heavy strain on the military, which still maintains a force of more than 100,000 in Iraq and 68,000 in Afghanistan.

"It was 10 p.m. back in Fort Campbell. Edward's wife answered, and after a couple of long yawns, he figured he was waking her up. He could hear
his three-year old daughter babbling in the background.
After the expected small talk, in which Edwards reminded his wife that he needed toothpaste and Handi Wipes sent in his nest care package, his wife said, "Jerry, I'm pregnant."
Edwards was stunned. "Are you sure?"
"I've taken three tests."
And then his daughter got on the phone. "Are you at work, Daddy?"
Edwards, still reeling from his wife's news, sputtered, "Yes, sweetie, I'm at work."
"Can you come home from work?"
"No, not now."
"I'm going to see Santa."
Edwards was suddenly sad he wouldn't be seeing Santa with his daughter.
"I love you, Daddy!" she cried. "I miss you so much!"
Then she handed the phone to her mother. "That's great news," said Edwards. "Really great. I'm going to be a father again. Wow."
He could barely feel his feet touching the ground.
He and Diane talked a few more minutes and looking at his watch, after exactly ten minutes, Edwards said he had to go. He hung up.
He walked back to the hangar in a daze. Man, I'm going to have a baby. It was nearly dawn. The guys inside were watching American Pie and laughing their asses off.
We have to make it out of here alive, he thought."

And so--let us remember the fallen...

Sgt. Brandon T. Islip
/ age 23 / Richmond, Va. / Islip went missing along with another soldier during a mission to recover airdropped supplies from a river in Bala Murghab on November 4, 2009. His body was recovered from the river near Afghanistan's border/ November 29, 2009.

Petty Officer 3rd Class David M. Mudge
/ age 22 / Sutherlin,Oregon/ Died in a non-hostile accident aboard USS Rentz while in Port Jebel Ali, United Arab Emirates / November 28, 2009.

Pfc. Michael A. Rogers /age 23 / White Sulphur Springs, Montana / Died of injuries sustained from non-combat related incident at Forward Operating Base Hammer, east of Baghdad, Iraq / November 27, 2009.

Sgt. Jason A. McLeod
/ age 22 / Crystal Lake, Ill / Died of wounds suffered when insurgents attacked his unit west of Pashmul, Afghanistan / November 23, 2009.

Staff Sgt. Matthew A. Pucino
/ age 34 / Cockeysville, Md/ Killed when a roadside bomb detonated near his all-terrain vehicle in the vacinity of Pashay Kala, Afghanistan / November 23, 2009.

Lance Cpl. Nicholas J./ Hand
/ age 20 / Died while supporting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan / November 22, 2009.

Sgt. Briand T. Williams
/ age 25 / Sparks, Ga/ Died of wounds suffered when insurgents attacked his unit usingt small arms fire in Nuymaniya, Iraq / November 22, 2009.

Sgt. James M. Nolen
/ age 25/ Alvin, TX / One of two soldiers killed when enemy forces attacked their vehicle with a roadside bomb in Zabul province, Afghanistan / November 22, 2009.

Pfc. Marcus A. Tynes
/ age 19 / Moreno Valley, Cal / Tynes was the other soldier killed when enemy forces attacked their vehicle in Zabul province, Afghanistan / November 22, 2009.

Staff Sgt. John J. Cleaver
/ age 36 / Marysville, Wa / One of two soldiers killed when a suicide car-bomber attacked their unit outside Zabul province, Afghanistan/ November 19, 2009.

Sgt. Daniel Frazier
/ age 25 / Saint Joseph, MO / One of two soldiers killed when a suicide car-bomber attacked their unit in Zabul province, Afghanistan/ November 19, 2009.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Brian M. Patton
/ age 37 / Freeport, Ill / Died of injuries suffered in a motor vehicle collusion near Camp Virginia in Kuwait / November 19, 2009.

Sgt. Joseph M. Lewis
/ age 26 / Terrell, TX / Died of wounds suffered when enemy forces attacked his vehicle with a roadside bomb in Kandahar, Afghanistan / November 17, 2009.

Staff Sgt. Ryan L. Zorn /
age 35 / Upton,Wy / Died of injuries sustained during a vehicle roll-over in Tal Afar, Iraq / November 16, 2009.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Wish I'd Said This

Don't know if you saw Nicholas Kristof's piece in Sunday's New York Times. He writes about the human face of this health care crisis. He tells the story of John, a sawmill worker in Yamhill County, Oregon. And the terrible time that the unemployed and the uninsured have. This story could be repeated 46 million times in this country.

I also can't help but mention E.J. Dionne's great article, "Obama's Thankless Thanksgiving" which was written November 25. It seems that the Obama critics cannot even let the President's Thanksgiving proclamation go un-attacked. He quotes: "The Gawker Web site called it an 'uninspiring first effort from our most literary president' and expressed hope that he would spend 'a lttle more time on it next year.' Politico damned it with faint analysis--it was 'basic' an 'brief' and 'tread lightly' to avoid controversy." No comment necessary--read for yourself and weep.

One of the best pulse-understanding articles on where our culture is that I have read lately I discovered in Chris Hedges' "Addicted to Nonsense". He talks about the chatter that inundates our lives. Who will replace Oprah? Will Levi Johnson appear fully nude in his magazine spread? What's wrongt with Tiger? Who are those people who crashed President Obama's first state dinner? With the problems of the world swirling around all of us--it looks like we would have more on our minds that trivial pursuit. Great read.

The Dark Season

Advent begins in the dark. When the ground is frozen and the days are short. The church year begins when the trees are bare and the wind blows until the windows rattle.

The pastor, desperate for a word for these dark days, turns to the lectionary. As she reads the text she rubs her eyes. Surely, she murmurs, there is some mistake. Maybe, she thinks, I have the wrong year. But it doesn’t matter—whether the lectionary cycle is A, B, or C. Each gospel text is essentially the same. The second coming of Christ. Apocalyptic literature. Old Noah and his family and the waters that swept everything away. Christmas, where is Christmas? She reads on: sun darkened, moon turning to blood, family members turning against family members. The preacher has suddenly stumbled on another world: the end of time, earthquakes and famine, wars and rumors of wars, people’s hearts failing them for fear. And, in the middle of it all, Jesus coming in the clouds with judgment. What, she wonders, does all of this have to do with Christmas?

As a little boy I found this talk of second coming scary. I remember the preacher saying that two would be in the field; one would be taken and one left. I always knew who would be left. The Evangelist would whisper: “What will you be doing when Jesus comes back? Do you want to be caught…?” and then it was left to our imaginations to fill in the blanks. And fill them I did.

Later, much later I discovered that the early church included apocalyptic literature like Mark 13 as a catechism for new converts. This doctrine, they felt was basic to understanding the faith journey. He who once came will come again. The Lord they served really was the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

The trouble with this doctrine of the second coming is that the church often confused the underlying theme with the window dressing. In hard, hard times the believers would mutter: “Surely he will come soon!” But the Lord did not come back in their lifetime and this became the first great crisis in the church. People fell away in droves disenchanted with disappointment.

Why do we keep reading these gloomy words like: “The sun will be darkened, the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from the heavens…?” (Mark 13.25) Maybe they kept the second coming stories for the same reason they kept those dream-like words of that first coming: angels, a mad King, shepherds tearing through the fields with joy, a tiny king born in the unlikeliest of places. Maybe first and second coming may have the same purpose. Underneath the words they try to explain the unexplainable. Both accounts may be the church’s way to try to touch a mystery that is always hard to comprehend. How does one put the glorious impossible into words?

And so the church kept these words and has tried as best they could to interpret them for their particular age. Buried underneath all the rhetoric is the admonition to watch, to wait, to keep your eyes open lest we miss the bridegroom when he comes.

So year after year, like our forebears, we light a candle when the days are shortest and darkness comes too quickly. We open the book again to pages we scarcely read any other time. Toppling kingdoms, rivers of blood, clouds and angels. We hear again the admonition to watch, to wait, to listen—to keep our lamps filled with oil, never knowing when the great Lord of glory might just walk down our street and stop at our door.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Gravy Time

(Last Sunday, on the eve of Thanksgiving this gorgeous horn of plenty covered our altar at church. I couldn't take my eyes off the lushness, the beauty and the floral piece reminded me all over again of the beauty of this thing we call life. I didn't have a camera but my friend Dr. Tom Vetter did and captured this moment beautifully. The arrangement was made by one of our members, Buddy Robbins for Southside Baptist Church, Birmingham, AL.)

When I first came to the church as Pastor a friend brought me a large manila file folder one day. "Have you ever had a gravy file?" She went on to explain, "Years ago when I taught school somebody gave me a manila envelope which she called a ‘Gravy File.’ When good things happened--notes, cards, letters--photographs or funny cartoons--you put them in your gravy file. From time to time you pull out the file, spread out the contents and remember.”

I put my new gravy file in a hanging drawer next to my desk. Through the years when I would receive something that lifted me up and make my heart sing--I would place it in the file.

The dictionary says that gravy is the juice that flows from the meat. It's the overflow that comes from the cooking. It's the succulence that adds spice and richness to the meal. No good Thanksgiving dinner would be really complete without the gravy. And no real Thanksgiving holiday will be complete unless we spend some time spreading out before us the faces and events and mementos that keep us going this year.

Most of us have a gravy file whether we call it that or not. Locked in our hearts or buried deep in some drawer or cedar chest are the symbols of the things we hold dear in our lives. The problem is that in the rush of so much, we often fail to remember these special things.

Open up your gravy file this week and so many things that you have forgotten may just come tumbling out. I found a birthday card from my ninety-three old adopted mother who was in my church years ago. There is an old fading piece of paper with the childish scrawl which reads: "Tell everybody I love you, Daddy." He left it on the pulpit one Sunday and wanted me to make that announcement over our public address system. There is a Christmas card with a whole cover filled with Santa Clauses. Opening it up there is nothing but an "X." She couldn't write but she remembered the help the church gave her all year long. Looking at her card I remember she gave me more than I ever gave her. Among that stack of treasures I pulled out a letter-sized drawing from little Callie in which she included a Poam (poem). "Roses and red, Violets are blue, You are so spechul, And your wife loves you." One of the funniest things I have kept is the Christmas card my little girl gave me one year. It said: "Happy Birthday to My Godfather." She couldn't read but she thought that card was cool. There is a photograph of the summer we spent in England before the kids left home. There is the yellowing obituary announcement of my mother's death. There is the quote somebody gave me when I left a church in her handwriting. It was a quote from Katherine Mansfield, "How hard it is to leave places, however carefully one goes. You leave bits and pieces of yourself fluttering on the fences, little rags and shreds of your very life." And those words sent me back to other places and other times.

Don't let this Thanksgiving slip by without you spending some time remembering. Turn off the television. Do not answer the phone. Sit in silence and open up your own gravy file. Let the memories wash over you.

The world seems hell-bent on crowding out all the special things that us make us healthy and keep us going. This constant barrage of terrorist warning, war talk, up and down economy and trouble everywhere makes it hard to keep our bearings .Robin Williams calls all of these: the weapons of personal destruction. Let us pause and remember that first Thanksgiving. It has been a hard year. Many of the pilgrims had lost family members and friends. They were far away from home. The crop that year was barely enough to keep them going. And they paused one day to remember the blessings of their lives. They looked back on the long hard road they had traveled. They gave a thanks that even though things had been difficult life was precious and special and never to be taken for granted.

Those first Thanksgiving kept them going through the long hard winter that lay ahead. May our own remembering fill us with courage for our own journeys.

Wish I'd Said That...

Every once in a while we all read something and wish we had written it. I feel that way a lot about the writings of Anne Lamott. Her book, Traveling Mercies just blew me away. But her last year's Thanksgiving piece is worth reading. Let me just whet your interest with her first paragraph:

"I watched 'Mississippi Burning' tonight to honor the election, the miracle. I use the word 'miracle,' because you cannot get from the South in 1964 to where we are, Thanksgiving 2008. The grace of this is amazing. Grace is when God makes way out of No Way, and it feels like that is what happened. Eugene O'Neill wrote that we are born broken, and that the Grace of God is glue. That's how it feels, this miracle--and I was for Hillary in the primaries..." Read for yourself.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Alabama's Ragtime Band

It’s that time of the year. In Alabama gubernatorial candidates are lining up at the stalls. The horse race will soon be on. Roy Moore, banished Alabama Supreme Court Justice will be dragging those poor old tattered Ten Commandments back in to the campaign. They’ve been around a long time and I didn’t know they still needed defending. Am I missing something? State Treasurer Kay Ivey intones: “We welcome people of all faiths…but only Jewish and Christian religious displays should be allowed on government property.” Even Ex-Judge Moore says that goes too far. Other candidates favored prayer in public schools, chose creationism over evolution and most proclaim that the Bible is literally true.

There is a whole lot of salivating over gay rights, illegal immigration, abortion and other hot button issues. James Potts another candidate has been quoted as saying that displays from all faiths should be allowed on government property—except, of course, if they’re Muslim. He said, “Either you accept our way of life or you go back to another country that is Muslim.” One state representative hoping to be part of the horse race. said that public school teachers should be allowed to teach the Bible. Potts said, ‘I believe in the literal interpretation, that the holy Bible is the inspired word of God. Period.”

In Alabama Jesus is high up on our list. So is the Bible. Church going is still more popular than McDonalds. Only football is still number one. The problem is that all these candidates holding up the Bible and hoping some public school teacher will teach the Holy Scriptures just like Sunday School—never do clarify what kind of Bible teaching? Mormon? Jehovah’s Witnesses? Snake Handlers? Catholic or Protestant? Unitarian or born-againers.

I remember hearing Jim Wallis of Sojourners say one time that he took a Bible and cut out all the references to the poor and disenfranchised. And he said the book was a lot smaller and had holes in it everywhere. When he spoke he would hold that book up and say: “This is the American Bible.”

Candidates—you are not running for Pastor. You are running as a leader of this State. What about our old thread-bare 1901 Constitution that was written for privileged white folks and forced on all our citizenry in a rigged election. Will any of these candidates have the guts to even suggest we ask the people of Alabama in an election if they want a new Constitution?

What about the fact that Alabama’s income tax on the poor is the harshest in the nation? We are number one in levying income taxes on single-parent family of three earning at the federal povery line of $17,165.00 I do believe Jesus talked about “the least of these.”

What about health care and the millions in this state that have no safety net? Candidates will you stick your neck out for your citizenry—especially the voiceless our there. Who stands up for the little people?

We know that Jesus and the Bible makes people feel warm and squishy. But if all this prayer-in-schools-literal-belief-in-the-Bible-send-the-Muslims-back-from-where-they-came-from is all these candidates have to offer let’s just call off the election and just have a Revival meeting. And maybe just hire some trucks and haul all the illegals back to wherever they came from so that nobody will cut our grass, hang our sheetrock, work in the back of our restaurants or pick up after us at the Y. After all we born-againers can do it all ourselves.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Remembering the Fallen

This Thanksgiving there will be empty places in many homes in this country and around the world. And other homes men and women will hobbble up to the table, if they are able and bow their heads and ponder the silence. But the war goes on...remember those that we have lost.

"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of is scientists, the hopes of its children...This is not a way of life, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron." --Dwight D. Eisenhower

Spc. Christopher J. Coffland / age 43 / Baltimore, MD / Died of wounds suffered when enemy forces attacked his unit with a roadside bomb in Wardak Province, Afghanistan / November 13, 2009.

Lance Cpl. Shawn P. Hefner / age 22 / Hico, TX / Died while supporting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan,/ November 13, 2009.

Sgt. Benjamin W. Sherman / age 21 / Plymouth, Mass. / Sherman was one of two soldiers that went mission during a mission to recover airdropped supplies from a river in Bala Murghab, Afghanistan on November 4, 2009. On November 10 divers recovered his body from the Morghab River near Afghanistan' s border with Turkmenistan. Family members said he jumped into the river to help a fellow soldier who was struggling in the water.

Staff Sgt. Stephen L. Murphy / age 36 / Jaffery, NH / Died as a result of a non-hostile incident in Anbar province, Iraq / November 9, 2009.

Chief Warrant Officer Mathew C. Heffelfinger / age 29 / One of two soldiers killed when their helicopter experienced a hard landing in Tikrit, Iraq / November 8, 2009.

Chief Warrant Officer Earl R. Scott III / age 24 / Jacksonville, FL / The other soldiers killed in that same helicopter's hard landing in Tikrit, Iraq / November 8, 2009.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Someone's hurting Lord...

As the debate on health care rages on in Washington--people everywhere continue to fall through the cracks. How long will those that supposedly represent us stand up for the people? Saturday another free clinic for those in desperate need of health care was held in New Orleans. Over 1,000 people were treated that day. Keith Oberman reported tonight that 700,000 people in Louisiana have no health care. Read some of the hard facts about those who stood in that long, long to receive some help for their ailing lives. Find out more about the Free clinic movement by checking out their web site.

Wish I'd said this. Nicholas Kristof reports in The Times that it costs 1 million dollars to keep one of our soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan for a year. Is there some connection between the aching needs at home and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Hmm.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Attention Must Be Paid

Listening to NPR Radio two days ago my ears perked up when I heard someone say that in England in the House of Parliament each week they read out the names of those that they have been lost in the war that week. What a great reminder for all those representatives to stop and ponder the sacrifices their troops had made for them and their country.

So I sat down and wrote our Senators, Sessions and Shelby this same letter:

"Dear Mr. Sessions (Shelby) : Two days ago on NPR they told of how inEngland that the Parilament each week calls out the names of those who have died in the war from England.

I have thought this would be a great practice to begin in the Senate. What would be more important than reminding those that serve us of those that have given their lives for all of us?

I know you have been greatly interested in military matters and I would appreciate some consideration on this issue. I also think it would be appropriate for the Senate to send a letter to every family of those whose name have been read."

Maybe you would like to write your Congressman or Senator if you think this is a good idea.

When we began not long ago to show the caskets of those that came home--I think it has been a good thing for us to see such sad events that touch us all.

As the play said: "Attention must be paid...attention must be paid."

Now that the Parades are over...

Now that the parades for Veteran's Day are over it might be time to do a little stocktaking. We have all been horrified by the carnage of killing by an Army Psychiatrist at Fort Hood. But the New York Times has just pointed out that this killing spree is only part of the picture at Fort Hood. The Crisis Center for servicemen reports that they are receiving over 60 phone calls a week. Since 2003 there have been 76 suicides at Fort Hood--ten this year. Read about some of the terrible fallout of this war in the Times' article.

"We are waiting for peace to break out
We are waiting for flowers to bloom
We are waiting for the moon to come
from behind the black clouds of war
We are waiting for the light
We are waiting
and as we wait we sing songs of celebration
We are waiting
and as we wait we hold out our hands in love and friendship:
white hands extend in friendship to black hands
and brown and green hands of the earth
We are waiting
and while we wait we applaud those who have gone
before us
preaching peace: all the Martin Luther Kings, all the
We are waiting for peace to break out..."
--Carlos Reyes

Want to read up to date fine poetry about the war? There is a Web site, Poets Against the War which I have found to be great. I recommend.

Monday, November 9, 2009

We Remember the Fallen

"How long, O Lord, will we sing this song? How long will we cry for peace and see only war? How long will our families be torn part and devastated by ceaseless violence? How long, O Lord? We wait on you; we trust in you. Vindicate our faith, Prince of Peace; show forth your glory in shalom. Amen

--Prayer for the Day, from Sojourners

Our troops keep dying. Read these names, look at how old--er, how young they are. Look at where they came from and ponder the families in those towns, small and large whose lives will never, ever be the same again. Let us remember the fallen.

Spc. Aaron S. Aamot
/ age 22 / Custer, WA / One of two soldiers killed when enemy forces attacked their vehicle with a roadside bomb in Jelewar, Afghanistan/ November 5, 2009.

Spc. Gary L. Gooch, Jr.
/ age 22 / Ocala, Florida / He was killed with his colleague Aaron Aamot in that same roadside bomb in Jelewar, Afghanistan / November 5, 2009.

Spc. Julian L. Berisford
/ age 25 / Benwood, WV / Died of wounds suffered when insurgents attacked his unit using small arms and rocket-propelled grenades in Paklika province, Afghanistan/ November 4, 2009.

Spc. Tony Carrasco Jr.
/ age 25 / Berino, NM / Died of a gunshot wound suffered when enemy forces attacked his unit in Ad Dawr, Iraq/ November 4, 12009.

Staff Sgt. Amy C. Tirador
/ age 29 / Albany, NYT / Died of injuries sustained from, a non-combat related incident in Kirkush, Iraq / November 4, 2009.

Spc. Jonathan M. Sylvestre
/ age 21 / Colorado Springs, COL / Died of injuries sustained from a non-combat related incident in Kut, Iraq,/ November 2, 2009.

Sgt. Cesar B. Ruiz
/ age 26 / San Antonio, TX / Died while supporting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan / October 31, 2009.

Spc. Christopher M. Cooper
/ age 28 / Oceanside, CAL / Died of injuries sustained in a non-combat related incident in Babil province, Iraq / October 30, 2009.

Pfc. Lucas C. Hopper
/ age 20 / Merced, CAL / Died of injuries sustained during a vehicle rollover southeast of Karada, Iraq / October 30, 2009.

Spc. Adrian L. Avila
/ age 19 / Opelika, AL / Died of injuries sustained in a non-combat related accident in Khabari, Crossing, Kuwait / October 29, 2009.

Lance Cpl. Cody R. Stanley
/ age 21 / Rosanky, TX / Died while supporting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan / October 28, 2009.

Frank R. Walker
/ age 66 / Oklahoma City, OK / Died of non-combat related medical causes at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan / October 28, 2009.

Spc. Joseph L. Gallelos
/ age 39 / Questa, NM / Died in a non-combvat related incident in Talil, Iraq / October 28, 2009.

Pfc. Brian R. Bates Jr.
/ age 20 / Gretna, LA / Died of wounds suffered when insurgents attacked his vehicle with a roadside bomb in Kandahar, Afghanistan / October 27, 2009.

Spc. Robert K. Charlton
/ age 22 / Maiden, MO / Died on October 27 at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany of injuries sustained from a non-combat related incident in Wardak, Afghanistan / October 23, 2009.

Sgt. Fernando Delarosa
/ age 24 / Alamo, TX / One of seven soldiers killed when enemy forces attacked their Stryker armored vehicle with a roadside bomb in Arghandab Valley, Afghanistan / October 27, 2009.

Staff Sgt. Luis M. Gonzalez
/ age 27 / South Ozone Park, NY / One of the seven killed in the same attack as Sgt. Delarosa of a roadside bomb in Arghandab Valley, Afghanistan / October 27, 2009

Thoughts on Veteran's Day

On this Veteran's Day I remember a poem by Sigfried Sassoon. Sassoon, an Englishman was one of the great poets of the First World War. I don't know a better way to ponder the meaning of the day than the words of this poet.

"Does it matter ?-- losing your legs ? . .
For people will always be kind,
And you need not show that you mind
When the others come in after hunting
To gobble their muffins and eggs.

Does it matter ? -- losing your sight ? . . .
There's such splendid work for the blind;
And people will always be kind,
As you sit on the terrace remembering
And turning your face to the light.

Do they matter ? -- those dreams from the pit ? . . .
You can drink and forget and be glad,
And people won't say that you're mad;
For they'll know you've fought for your country
And no one will worry a bit."

Sunday, November 8, 2009

A Salute to our Troops

I’ve been on a war-reading kick recently. The Good Soldiers which I recommended in my blog week’s ago has nudged me along. I’ve followed that book with Tim O’Brien’s splendid novel about soldiers in Viet Nam. He calls it The Things They Carried. My, my what a book. He zeroes in on one Infantry Company in the Viet Nam war. He begins with the human things the soldiers carried with them. Letters from girlfriends, pocket knives, can openers, dog tags, candy, cigarettes, matches, sewing kits and canteens of water. There are photos of girlfriends and houses and cars back home. One boy-soldier carried a Bible and one night so tired opened the Bible and put his head on it as if a pillow and went to sleep.

Less than one percent of our 300 million people wear the uniform today. Without the draft we rely on those that volunteer. I wonder if we brought back the draft how long this war in Iraq and Afghanistan would last. But I want to salute all those who serve and all those veterans who have served.

Waving flags and slapping “Support our Troops” signs on cars is simply not enough. Most of us at home—except for those who sent their loved ones away—have not sacrificed one whit. Our lifestyles have changed little if any by this war.

Which leads me to Veteran’s Day 2009. President Woodrow Wilson first proclaimed Armistice Day November 11. This day marked the signed of the Armistice that ended World War I. Major hostilities ended the war at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. This is why November 11 was chosen as this time of remembering. During the ensuing years Armistice Day evolved under President Eisenhower to include all veterans of all our wars. He added the name “Veteran’s Day” in 1954.

We are told that 30% of those returning combat veterans, many having served two-four combat tours are in need of counseling for PTSD—post-traumatic stress disorder. Many returnees will never be whole again.

Let us stop and this day and remember those that have sacrificed time, energy, years and sometimes lives for the rest of us. I keep thinking of that wonderful title, The Things They Carried. Wouldn’t it be wonderful for them to know that one of the things they carried and they found when they returned was an authentic gratitude for all these service men and women have done for all of us.

Joe Galloway’s article on this year’s Veteran’s Day is worth a read.

Friday, October 30, 2009

More Schools less Guns

(I took this picture while visiting the Imperial War Museum in London. I was struck by the art work of school children which was displayed in the Museum.)

Nicholas Kistof had a great article recently in The New York Times about his suggestions for Afghanistan. He entitled the piece, "Need more schools, not troops in Afghanistan." He suggests instead of sending more troops into battle that we build more schools. He reports that the cost of a single additional soldier stationed in Afghanistan for one year could build 20 schools. He punctuates his case by talking about the schools that have already been built in that region and the changes they have brought. You might want to read the article for yourself. Makes sense to me.

The Balcony People

"We are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses..."
--Hebrews 12. 1a
Frederick Buechner in one of his autobiographical books told the story of some of the wonderful people in his life. He said that one of the reasons he did this was the hope that the reader would open up his or her own albums and remember faces and names and places.

All Saints Day has been a great day for the church because like a rosary we fondle the names of so many of those that have enriched our lives. Carlyle Marney, the great Baptist preacher of another era called these: the balcony people. He said we all have someone or ones that have stood in our balconies and cheered us on. Our lives would be forever different without those whose help along the way was—and is-- immeasurable.

So I take down my own album on the eve of All Saints Day and peer up into my own balcony and remember. Perhaps you will too.

I remember Nancy the black woman who worked for our family when my brother and I were little. My parents both worked and so, for a pittance, Nancy worked for us and loved us. One day when I was so down I sat at the kitchen table with my head in my hands. And she said, “It’s gonna be all right. God gonna take care of you.” And she was right.

I remember Byrdie. She took a shine to my friend and me. She encouraged us and believed in us. And when I started off to college and had little money Byrdie came through. She could hardly see. As a baby she had fallen into the fireplace and was terribly burned. His face and body were scarred. She never had a chance to go to college but moved to another town and worked in a mill. She had little of the world’s resources—yet knowing how strapped I was going off to school she gave me an envelope, more than once, with seventy-five or a hundred dollars. That money fluttering down from the balcony kept me going.

In my first church I remember Mr. John. Little fat man who had buried three wives. As a young preacher I would sit on his front porch as he smoked pencil-thin cigars. I would pour out my young, green frustrations about the church. And after listening he would say: “Preacher I’ve been around here a long time. You’re doing good.” He never prayed in public, but when Mr. John stood up to speak in business meetings everyone listened. Without Mr. John I wonder where I would have been.

Years later I was in a very conflicted church. Nothing that I tried was working. I was really the wrong pastor in the wrong place. The more I worked, the more resistance I found. So I was ready to throw in the towel. And one of the business men in the church came by one night. He sat in our living room and told me he knew I was having a hard time. He asked: “What do you want to do? If you want to stay—you don’t have to leave—I can help make that possible. And if you want to leave I will help you do that, too. What do you want to do?” My wife spoke for me and said: “ I want him to leave, if he stays here he will die. I can’t stand to see what is happening to him.” And I nodded my head and said that she was right. So my friend took a pencil and paper and begun to scratch down some figures. “If you are going to resign without a place to go you going to need a year’s severance. It must be hard to get another church when you don’t have one.” (I was 55 years old.) He added up all the things I would need and said he would take these figures to the church. And then he said something that I will never forget: “If the church won’t pay for this, I will pay for this out of my own pocket. I believe in you that much.” When times have been hard I have remembered those graceful words: “I believe in you…” And they kept me going.

I could go on and on. At every juncture of my life there has been some saint or saints that have stood in my balcony and cheered me on. And on All Saints Day I remember and I am glad.