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.