Monday, September 28, 2009

Remembering the Fallen

“Some say God caught them even before they fell…” -- --Wilfred Owen

We don’t see as many “Support Our Troops” stickers on cars. Most of them have gotten old and peeled off. Somehow the casualties of this war have gotten lost in the shuffle of politics as usual, culture wars, president bashing and general rants which begin and end with the same words: “me…mine…us…ours.”

reminds us that there have been 4,666 coalition deaths in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. 4,349 of these casualties were American men and women. 337 others have come from Australia, Britain, Bulgaria—22 other countries in all. The Pentagon report, issued on September 25, 2009 said that at least 31,510 U.S. troops have been wounded in action since this war began. This, of course does not even begin to address the thousands and thousands that have lost their lives in their own land of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Zelma Pattillo, a good friend attends Marble Collegiate Church in New York City. Each week the names of those that have died in service are read during worship. A yellow ribbon is placed on the fence outside the church with each person’s name that has fallen in battle. Needless to say, the fence is covered in yellow ribbons. Maybe if more churches would call out the names of our brothers and sisters who have died serving us in this war—it might not be so easy to forget.

So every week I plan on listing the names and those we, their families and this nation lost this week. Read the names and whisper a prayer for them and their families and for us all.

Lance Cpl. John J. Malone / Hometown: Yonkers, NY / Age 24 years
Died Sept. 24, 2009 while supporting operations in Farah province, Afghanistan.

Pfc. William L. Meredith
/ Hometown: Va. Beach, Va. / Age 26
Died Sept. 21, 2009 in Kandalar, Afghanistan of wounds suffered when enemy forces attacked his vehicle with an improvised explosive device.

Specialist Carey J. Kowall / Hometown: Murfreesboro, TN. / Age 20 years /Died Sept. 20, 2009 in Zabul province, Afghanistan of injuries sustained in a vehicle rollover.

Senior Airman Matthew R. Courtois / Hometown: Lucas, TX./ Age 22 years / Died Sept. 20, 2009 as a result of a non-hostile incident in Abdullah Al Mubarak Airbase, Kuwait.

Specialist Michael S. Cote, Jr. / Hometown: Denham Springs, La. / Age 20 / Died Sept. 19, 2009 in Balad, Iraq of wounds suffered when the Blackhawk helicopter he was in crashed.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition...

One of the prayers that keeps popping up in times of war is Mark Twain’s War Prayer. Tongue in cheek he envisions soldiers assembled in a church while a cleric prayer for victory. Then comes a white-robed messenger from God, who interprets the unspoken meaning of the prayer.

“O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending windows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended through wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sport of the sun-flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it—for our sakes, who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask of one who is the Spirit of love and who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset, and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Grant our prayer, O Lord, and Thine shall be the praise and honor and glory now and forever. Amen.”

Soon I will write more about this war of ours that seems to have no end. Stay tuned.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Pray for Glenn Who??

Jim Wallis sent out a letter this week-end asking the pray-ers among us to pray for Glenn Beck. Now let me get this straight: Jim Wallis of Sojourners’ fame has asked his readers to pray for the enemy. Of all the ranters today probably Glenn Beck is way up there with Rush Limbaugh and may even be running a mite ahead of him. Well, I kept reading Wallis’ letter. Glenn Beck has a daughter who has cerebral palsy. When she was born the doctors told him: “She may not really have any quality of life. She may not walk or talk or feed herself. But then miracles happen.” His daughter is now 21. One of the reasons that Beck opposes the current health care proposal is that he fears government bureaucrats just might euthanize people like his daughter. And so this talk-radio host rages against abortions and death panels. Both charges are totally false when it comes to this bill. But what Beck fails to see is that if he had not had good health care for his daughter chances are she might not have lived to be 21—and that is what this health care bill is all about. It seeks to bring into the circle all those who have not had the advantages of Mr. Beck and his family.

We’ve heard a lot lately about all the marchers, the birthers, all those that have screamed out at rallies where there is supposed to be dialogue. Lately many pundits have said that racism lies behind most of this rage and anger. There is some truth to this. But I think much of the anger and fear out there comes from people who are having a very hard time in their own lives. Glenn Beck struggles every day with a daughter with cerebral palsy. That is hard indeed. Could not a great deal of his spiteful and dangerous commentary flow out of the fact of his very sick daughter?

Through the years I have observed that many of those that came to church with their angers and frustration pointed their fingers at the preacher and the church. But behind their fury were broken homes, children that disappointed, jobs that were dead-end streets and homes they could not pay for. Racism may well be in the picture with so many frustrated people today. But I still say many of those that carried signs of hate toward the President and the government brought with them things in their own lives that were out of control.

This does not take away from the demagoguery of people like Glenn Beck. But it does make me wonder if there is not more to today’s furor than just a black President. It doesn’t make our task any easier. But not to demonize the enemy—but to try to understand what Glenn Beck finds at home every night somehow humanizes him and, I think his followers.

So I will pray with some reluctance for Glenn Beck. And I pray for all those others whose rage could do for us what, once upon a time, it shamefully did for a country called Germany.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Caring for Those that Need

The current health care debate takes me back through the years when I was a young, green Pastor. Occasionally someone would knock on my door. “Preacher, the baby’s sick. We need to get to the Doctor.” They had no car. They had little money. And so I would pick up the Mother, Father and the baby and take them downtown to a Doctor I knew. Dr. Newman never turned anybody away. His office looked like something out of the 1920’s. Big mohair sofa. Not so comfortable folding chairs. His wife was his receptionist and nurse. So the old Doctor came out and said, “Bring the baby on back.” He saw the baby was dehydrated. “We must start the IV immediately.” He shooed us out of the room and in a few minutes he called us back in. “Look, look,” he said. “It’s a miracle,” and be began to chuckle. “Look at the baby’s color—life is coming back. If you had not brought your baby in when you did she might not have made it.” He gave the family a sack full of medicines and specific instructions of how to take care of their baby. He asked for no money—he knew they could not afford to pay. But whenever someone who had little money needed a Doctor I always knew where to go and they were never turned away.

Occasionally some letter-writer suggests that Doctors could pick up the slack of the poor if they would. Sometimes the same folk say churches should certainly provide the support. They say this is not the government’s business. Most of the Doctors I know are overworked and harried as it is. Many give free services and medicine samples out generously but the problem remains. Most of the churches in this country have small congregations. They certainly cannot attend to the health care of the uninsured.

Even though churches could never pick up health care for the millions that are uninsured, I keep wondering why the church has not spoken out more on this crying need. The stories of Jesus’ reaching out to the sick are sprinkled all the way through the gospels. People flocked to him because they knew he cared and he would help and not judge. The Great Physician simply healed those in need.

Jim Wallis, an Evangelical social activist has stated that there are three moral issues involved in the health care debate. 1) We need to tell the truth. We must not over inflate the figures in this debate. We do know countless millions have no health coverage. Neither are we to fall victim to scare tactics like: death panels, loaded words like Nazi, Fascist and Socialists. But we must clear away the smoke and seek the truth wherever it leads us. 2) Every citizens has a right to health care. Wallis says that 30-46 million of our citizens have no adequate coverage for medical needs. It is estimated that 18,000 die each year in our country unnecessarily because they lacked health insurance. The poor should not suffer because they are poor. 3) We have to look at what our inaction already costs. 60% of the bankruptcies this year have been caused by medical bills. 75% of those bankruptcies had medical insurance which did not cover their situations. One has only to look at the long lines of people in Tennessee and Inglewood, California weeks ago that came from long distances to receive free health care for one week. The lines reminded me of a third world country. The most prosperous country in the world can do better.

Health care is not only a moral issue but also a justice issue. Every human being matters. Every citizen counts. Not just the well-heeled and the well-connected. Every person deserves the right to quality health care. After all these years I keep remembering that little baby in Virginia as the color came back in her cheeks. That is the task before us right now. One of Jesus most popular parables was the story of the Good Samaritan. Two very important religious figures did not have time to stop and help a wounded man by the side of the road. Yet a Samaritan, despised by many in that time, stopped and attended to the man’s needs. Jesus asked his audience who was the real neighbor? There was only one answer to Jesus’ question: the one that showed mercy. I wonder if we set down this old parable before the current debate on health care what we might find.

(The above article appeared in the Viewpoints section of Sunday's The Birmingham News, Sept. 20, 2009, Section F)

Friday, September 11, 2009

September 11th--a Meditation

On this September 11th I do what I have been doing on this day for years. After that terrible day when the Towers fell and Washington and the Pennsylvania landscape were so scarred, The New York Times—began to publish “Portraits of Grief.” Each day for fifteen weeks they published miniature profiles of people who died in the hijackings and the destruction of the World Trade Center. They published 1,910 stories and pictures of many that had died that sad day. After that project was finished they bound all the stories and pictures into a large volume called, Portraits 9/11/01. And so every year I take down this book and look through its pages and remember.

Lost that day was Neil Levin, executive director of the Port Authority. There was Roko Camaj, an Albanian-born window washer just back from vacation. There was Heather Ho, a famous pastry chef; and David Alger, Harvard-education chief financial officer. And there was Tawanna Griffin, a cafeteria cashier. There were also traders and brokers in their thirties and early forties. Batallion chiefs, newlyweds, aging basketball stars, fiancées, doting fathers and loving mothers were found on those pages. People from over 80 countries lost someone that day.

Alongside these perhaps we need to publish two more volumes. The names and faces of all the young men and women and all those not-so-young who have died in Afghanistan and Iraq. Maybe we need a third volume of all those “over there” whose countries have been irreparably destroyed. That book would show names and faces of all the innocents that have died because of this war.

What an ugly, ugly time we live in. After September 11th we came together briefly. We huddled as one. We were afraid and we began to love or re-love New York. We viewed the American flag with different eyes. But our unity did not last long. Soon we were back to our old ways of grumbling and bickering. Now it looks like the divide has grown wider between the us’s and the them’s. Screaming at rallies that were to evoke dialogue. Guns coming out of the woodwork and appearing at political rallies. Talk show hosts that are determined to undermine and spread their poison everywhere. We are afraid. Of our jobs, our mortgages, of our safety. We are afraid for our own little half-acre. We mistrust one another. Who would ever have believed that parents would keep their kids home to protect them from the words of the President of the United States?

Osama ben Laden must chuckle as he reads the reports that trickle back from America. Surely we can do better than spreading chaos and suspicion everywhere. Surely we can provide health care for all our citizens. Surely we can treat one another, despite all our differences as the brothers and sisters that we truly are. Surely we could rejoice that despite our tortured racist past that we finally have elected a brilliant black man to serve the highest office in our land.

Not long ago I read David McCullough’s 1776. It tells of the heroic struggle of a people who broke away from a constricted system that gave them only a partial freedom at best. They wanted more. They dreamed of a place where liberty and justice could be established for all. Their war with England was long and difficult. Many died. Some ran away and joined the enemy camp. They gave General George Washington a hard time. One dark evening, McCullough notes that Tom Paine sat down after the American troops had to retreat by campfire and wrote: “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldiers and the sunshine patriots will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.” Remember what happened? They banded together to forget a new dream for a new day. They did not all agree—far from it. But they joined hands with a common purpose and a common enemy.

We can do better in our time. We can recommit ourselves to a more perfect union, as our President reminds us. We can seek to make that word, United States more than a title. We will live up to our name. We will find a common good that brings all into the circle. As I riffle through the pages of Portraits and read some of the stories—I pray for us all. God bless America—but only us. Everyone. The whole wide world.

(I took the above photograph in NYC as I started to board the ferry for Ellis Island. It portrays a sailor reaching out to rescue a fellow sailor. This seems to be an appropriate symbol for today.)

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Not so thinly disguised Racism

Every once in a while I get one of these "Remember when…” emailed articles from somebody. Things like Baby Ruth’s used to be a nickel, ice-cream cones were a dime. Banana splits were thirty-five cents. Our first house cost the astronomical sum of $15,000. And our first brand new lime-green VW cost $1900.00. That’s enough of back there—except I remember when President George Washington’s picture was on most of our school class walls and we were told that he never told a lie. Unless my memory is fading there was also a picture of Franklin Delano Roosevelt—who at my house was way up there close to Jesus. As the Presidents changed the pictures changed. But these men were revered and almost considered holy. When our teachers said: “The President…” they always spoke in somber tones.

That, of course was before Nixon and Watergate and JFK and his peccadilloes that came out later. That was before Bill Clinton‘s shenanigans and George Bush’s lies about Weapons of Mass Destruction. No wonder we cast a suspicious eye. We learned painfully that Presidents, like those they serve have clay feet. Though, some are clay-er than others.And yet this campaign to smear Obama is disturbing and unhealthy for our nation.Did all the birthers really believe we elected a man to our highest office and nobody checked to make sure he was a bonafide American? This, of course has been followed with he is a Muslim, a Socialist, a Communist and a Fascist. Some fundamentalist pastors have even proclaimed that he is the Antichrist.

And now people are keeping their children home from school because the President in his address to the nation's school children may hypnotize or brainwash them or sneak in his agenda—whatever that may be. Not only is this insulting to the President and the office of the President but it sends a powerful message to our kids that our President is a creep. Have we no decency?

The Chairman of the Republican Party of Florida must be a mouthpiece for the Christian Right. He said, “I am absolutely appalled that taxpayer dollars are being used to spread President Obama’s socialist ideology. “ He went on to say that Obama would use the broadcast to the children to justify his alleged takeover of health care, banks and carmakers. He said, “Public schools can’t teach children to speak out in support of the sanctity of human life or traditional marriage. President Obama and the Democrats wouldn’t dream of allowing prayer in school. Christmas Parties and now Holiday Parties. But the Democrats have no problem going against the majority of American people and usurping the rights of parents by sending Pied Piper Obama into the American classroom.” (For a great article on this issue I suggest you read Robert Parham's, Unhinged Southern Baptists, Republicans Slam Obama’s School Speech, September 8, 2009,

The good old days were not so good. Remember segregated schools? Remember American’s forced to ride in the back of buses? Remember good Christian deacons standing at the front door of churches making sure only the right people came in. Remember the assassination of Martin Luther King? Racism is alive and well in 2009, I am afraid. I just hope that one day when our children are old timers, they will look back and remember when…America not only elected their first African-American President but learned in that hard time to get along with one another despite our differences. And, for this, I pray daily.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Labor Day Memories

Visiting my hometown in Georgia this summer, I drove up the road to my old school house. The red brick building was opened in 1915 and closed in 2001. Even though the school locked its doors for a final time nine years ago—it is still there. Two blocks away was the little four-room mill house where I was born. Across the street was the mill where my parents worked for over fifty years. In the early days they worked twelve-hour days. During the war years they sometimes worked seven days a week. Summers were unbearable, working in the Georgia heat in an unairconditioned building. So this Labor Day I remember back there and the memories swirl.

Wandering around the school grounds it all came back--teachers and a principal--whom I still believe was ten feet tall. All our teachers were women. Teacher’s faces long forgotten began to appear and sometimes I remembered a funny story. Back there I never knew they worked for a pittance. I never knew anything about their lives, their hopes and dreams. They just marched in every morning in those clean starched dresses and opened up their books and made it happen.

But the teachers are only part of my memories. There was Richard, our Janitor who swept our floors, took out the trash, cleaned our restrooms and struggled up the stairs with the heavy boxes of books. But there were other names and faces. Pastors who served in the red-brick church across the street. The woman I paid a dollar a week to teach me piano lessons after school. Mr. Jones who left his hard job in the mill to be our Boy Scout leader week after week. There were swimming instructors that taught us to swim, doctors who came and made house calls, bus drivers who would stop the city bus and take us four miles downtown.

We learned to lean on each other. We came to each other's rescue in times of trouble. We were all connected--doctors and domestics and so many in between--to a time and a place, and it mattered. This age of ours which points fingers and blames and trusts so very few has lost something basic. We still live our lives by connections. We still starve to death when those relational lifelines are cut.

As I sit here on the edge of yet another Labor Day weekend I wonder where I would be without that host of folk that kept us going. Labor Day came into being in 1882 when the son of an Irish immigrant realized the importance of the work his father and other immigrants had done and how they needed equitable wages and decent working conditions. So this Labor Day let us return to our roots. Let us think of all those who have helped make the journey far different than it would have been without them. Let us be grateful for that multitude of ties that bind us to the human family.

Once a man working on our furnace told me, "You would be surprised at how most people treat me and other workers when we come to help them out. Why, we have to come in through the back door. They look down their noses at us. They don't appreciate what we do and they gripe when we give them the bill. If I could do anything else I would. But mister, I got to eat."

Labor Day was established to force us to remember that real living is more than eating and wages. Arthur Miller reminded us in The Death of a Salesman that "attention must be paid." Every person deserves appreciation and dignity. Labor Day is more than a holiday at the end of the summer. It is a time for remembering how we are tied to one another and how this spinning globe would not be quite the same without the work of so many to whom we owe an immeasurable debt.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

What Really Matters

Sometimes in this complicated, technological world we need perspective. It is easy to lose the way barraged as we all are with so much noise and too much information. What matters? What counts? The Nova Scotia poet, Alden Nowlan answers this question beautifully. He moves me about as much as any poet these days. He died in the Spring of 1983 but not before he left us the great gift in his poetry. I promise not to push too much of my favorite things off on you—but this poem I couldn’t resist. It is my prayer that it will lift your spirit as it always does mine.

Great Things Have Happened

"We were talking about the great things
that have happened in our lifetimes;
and I said, ‘Oh, I suppose the moon landing
was the greatest thing that has happened
In my time.’ But, of course, we were all lying.
The truth is the moon landing didn’t mean
one-tenth as much to me as one night in 1963
when we lived in a three-room flat in what once
had been
the mansion of some Victorian merchant prince
(our kitchen had been a clothes closet, I’m sure),
on a street where by now nobody lived
who could afford to live anywhere else.
That night, the three of us, Claudine, Johnnie and me,
woke up at half-past four in the morning
and ate cinnamon toast together.

‘Is that all?’ I hear somebody ask.

Oh, but we were silly with sleepiness
and, under our windows, the street-cleaners
were working their machines and conversing in
Italian, and
everything was strange without being threatening,
even the tea-kettle whistled differently
than in the daytime: it was like the feeling
you get sometimes in a country you’ve never visited
before, when the bread doesn’t quite taste the same,
the butter is a small adventure, and they put
paprika on the table instead of pepper,
except that there was nobody in this country
except the three of us, half-tipsy with the wonder
of being alive, and wholly enveloped in love.”

Quoted from Alden Nowlan, Selected Poems
(Concord, Ontario: Anansi Press, 1996) p.145

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

All is not a curse word

Associated Press has just released an article stating that the top selling Bible is North America—the NIV is undergoing a revision. After 25 years in print conservative scholars have decided to change some of the gender references. Past attempts to remake the NIV more gender friendly have always met with fury from some quarters. The proposed changes are not exactly avant-garde. “Men”are still “men” and “God” is still male but gender-references like “sons of God” become "children of God". “Brothers” become “brothers and sisters.” In Genesis 1, God created “human beings” in his own image instead of “man.”

Under my “Why am I not Surprised Column” the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution saying this revision “has gone beyond acceptable translation standards.” I don’t remember any official Baptist protests over the Patriot’s Bible with its American flag cover and pictures of George Washington, Ronald Reagan and George Bush. (Reckon the RSV version of the Patriot’s Bible will add a photo of our new President Barack Obama?) Maybe if NIV goes back to the drawing board the revisers could satisfy the irate by smudging out all the “whosever’s” and the “all’s” and maybe even update John 3.16 to say: “For God to loved the USA first” and leave out “the world” or at least make it clear that we really are number 1. Surely that passage that says: “There is therefore no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female…” would have to be omitted.

I keep bumping into those beautiful words in The Book of Common Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace: So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for the honor of your Name. Amen.”