Sunday, August 29, 2010

What Happened on Red Hook Road

The mark of a really good novel is that you can’t quit thinking about the characters. Red Hook Road by Ayelet Waldman is such a book. I discovered this new book while I was listening to Diane Rehm on NPR. The author was interviewed and she read from her book. I was so taken with the interview that I picked up the book.

This is a strange story that begins at a wedding in Maine. The wedding has just ended and the photographer was taking pictures and getting everybody in line. It was a glorious day and everyone was happy. Then the scene shifted to the Wedding reception several miles away. People are milling around in the most festive of settings, drinking and wondering when the young married couple will arrive.

What they do not know is that the limousine that was to take them to the reception was hit by an SUV. This vehicle turned over and landed on top of the limousine crushing it. The groom’s brother was following the limousine in his car and saw the whole thing. The bride and groom and the driver of both vehicles were killed instantly. So while the friends of both families were waiting for the couple they have no idea that they will never make it to the reception.

The author when interviewed said that years ago she read in the paper about this bride and groom that were killed on the way to their reception. She said that thought stuck in her head for years and one day she sat down and wrote the story of the tragedy as she envisioned it.

So this is the story of grief and loss and relationships. The book pits one family against another as they try to hang on to life and work out their grief. We get to know the two mothers, Iris and Jane and their families.

Grace breaks through not with some kind of sappy happy ending--but how grieving people finally come out on the far side of their grief. This is not a pretty story. But it is a powerful story and the author is a splendid writer.

Just reading the first chapter or two about the wedding and those involved and the reception--is worth the price of the book. If you would like to read a story of heartbreak and grace I think you will long remember what happened that sad day on Red Hook Road.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

First Grade Teacher

"...I said to myself, the time has come. Open that tight parental hand and let her go. It's her life, remember, not yours.

I reached across her and opened the door. She got out slowly and stood with her back to me, looking up at the building on the hill. Now  I was supposed to drive nonchantly away.

'So long, Sherry,' I said.

She turned her head, and suddenly that wonderful flood of love and humor came up behind her eyes.

'Don't be scared, Daddy ' she said. 'I'll  be back.' and she went climbing up into the blue infinity of the morning."
   --Arthur Gordon, from A Touch of Wonder
Remember your first day at school? We had no pre-school program way back when--so first grade was the beginning. Getting ready for that first day was a very big deal.

Every year it would be the same. My mother and I rode the bus three miles to downtown. . She would take me and a little later my brother when he got ready for school to Metcalf’s. I think back it must have been a boy’s and men’s clothing store. She bought what they then-called broadcloth shirts. Mostly checkered--all cotton--probably three in number. She also bought me a pair or two of knickers which she thought were cool. She was always big on underwear and I am sure into that bad went a couple of pair of under shorts. I don’t know where the money came from. Maybe she charged them--maybe she had put them on lay-away weeks before and we simply paid the rest that we owed and came home with my treasures.

She would wash, starch and iron those shirts. No washing machine and certainly no dryer. This work was all done by hand. But she was determined that her boys would look nice and be clean. We didn’t have much money but we had an awful lot of pride.

So that first morning my Mother had left her job in the mill across the street to take me to school. The school was two blocks away. I as no stranger to the school because it was across the street from our church. A bell would toll and that was the signal to come to school. She took me by the hand and walked me up the street.

I didn’t know then what she probably knew. Her first bird was beginning even then to leave the nest. He would fly out into a larger world. He would be no baby anymore. Doors and windows would open and nothing would be as it was. I don’t remember her crying. I do remember her was very quiet.

We walked up the concrete steps into the red-brick building. We were met by a young woman who told us she was my first grade teacher. She smiled, knelt down and took my hand and shook it. My mother turned to go and I, in fear and trepidation was scared to be left alone. The teacher must have felt my terror because she said, “Roger, let’s go down to the classroom and meet the other boys and girls.”

I don’t remember much after that about that first day. I do recall thinking my teacher was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. Average height, freckled face, dishwater blonde hair, not very large. Betty Grable did not hold a candle to my teacher, Miss Beggs.

I hardly remember the teachers after that for several years. But I have never forgotten the woman with the kind face that first open the door to learning and education and wonder. I often thought what would have happened had she been mean or harsh. She never was.

So, as school begins I say prayer for every teacher. What a job they have. What a challenge--especially in those first tender years. They don’t get paid enough. They have problems of their own--but I tip my hat to all those who will be called teacher this year. And every September as I see the boys and girls on my street get on the school bus I remember Miss Beggs.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Is President Obama Really a Christian?

"My father was almost entirely absent from my childhood, having been divorced from my mother when  I was 2 years old; in any event, although my father had been raised a Muslim, by the time he met my mother he was a confirmed atheist, thinking religion to be so much superstition."
         --President Obama, Dreams of My Father

Now let me get this straight: Obama may not be a Christian? Says who. Well--the Internet is going wild with this rumor that the President is not really a Christian? One poll taken recently says that 1/5 of Americans believe Mr. Obama is a Muslim. Mitch McConnell, Republican Senator from Kentucky was asked on a Sunday talk show last week if he thought Obama was a Christian. McConnell simply said: “I take him at his word.” What’s wrong O Statesman in simply saying: “This is so ridiculous--of course he is a Christian.” Or he could have said, “Now, let’s get this straight, during the campaign people said because he went to Jeremiah Wright’s church he must be the wrong kind of Christian. We have now jumped from his being the wrong kind of a Christian to: he must be a closet Muslim. People like Rush Limbaugh are seriously wondering if maybe the President could not possibly be a Christian. We know better.

Speaking of knowing better Franklin Graham has added to the confusion by saying, “I think the problem is that he was, in fact born a Muslim, his Father was a Muslim. The seed of Islam is passed through the father like the seed of Judaism is passed through the mother. He was born a Muslim, his father gave him an Islamic name.” He went on to add: “Now it’s obvious that the president has renounced the prophet Mohammed and he has renounced Islam and he has accepted Jesus Christ. That’s what he says he has done, I cannot say that he hasn’t. So I just have to believe that the president is what he has said.” Mr. Graham went on to say, “The confusion is, is because his father was a Muslim, he was born a Muslim. The Islamic world sees the president as one of theirs. That’s why Qaddafi calls him ‘my son.’ They see him as a Muslim. But of course the President says he is a Christian, and we just have to accept it as that.”

So this week’s breaking news is: If the President prays and how often. If he reads the Bible--how much. Why hasn’t he joined a Church in Washington. Do his children go to Sunday School. This who argument is just another thinly-disguised racism which says, “Well, he really is different from us.”

That us/them wedge is always a powerful argument. But it is time for us that are tired of people using our faith to smear our President--or anyone else--to speak up. It is time for us to say with all the problems we face as a country we need to put aside our diversionary tactics and deal with the real issues. Let’s call this Obama bashing what it is: just that--bashing. History tells us that other Presidents faced the same kind of smearing. Lincoln, Roosevelt just to name a few. The only difference is that they did not have breaking news on twenty-four hours a day which makes things a little different.

You can be a Republican or a Democrat--but none of us have the right to lie and shade the truth to make our point or win our case. Speaking of faith, I do believe the good book says something about not bearing false witness against your neighbor. Reckon all these prognosticators about faith are really, really Christian? I wonder. 

Associated Baptist Press has a good article on religious leaders who protest this idea that President Obama is not a Christian.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

We Remember the Fallen

"Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
Ands I was fill'd with such delight
As prison'd birds must find in freedom
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark-green fields;
   on; on; and out of sight.

Everyone's voice was suddenly lifted
And beauty came like the setting sun.
My heart was shaken with tears; and horror
Drifted away .  .  .  O but every one
Was a bird; and the song was wordless;
  the singing will never be done."
  --Siegfried Sassoon , written in celebration of
  the end of the war.

Funny-I haven't heard many cries of celebration since it was announced that the war in Iraq was over for us and that our men and women would be coming home. My hometown paper consigned the news to page 6 I think the second day the announcement was made and troops were already arriving home.

The Friday New York Times quotes Master Sgt. Noel R. Sawyer as saying, "It's not going to be like V.E. Day. Rather than being a defining moment, it's going to peter out. In  a way, it sucks, but it's a good thing."

Maybe we have forgotten how to celebrate. We seem more concerned with if our President really is a Christian or a Muslim, if we should let the Muslims build a Community Center two blocks from Ground Zero and why President Obama doesn't stay home from his vacation when everything seems to be going down the tubes? Can't we let it all go and just celebrate the fact that part of this war in the Middle East really is coming to an end. Can't we share in the joy of the troops as they get off those planes and get hugged by wives and children and Mamas and Daddies?

I know 50,000 troops will remain as some kind of peace-keeping effort--unfortunately we always do this. And I know the war in Afghanistan rages on and we wonder if it will ever end. But I think about Siegfried Sassoon who wrote the celebratory poem at the beginning of this piece. He had left behind a multitude of friends who had died and he was going home to a land that was bombed out and in terrible shape. And yet he paused to celebrate the power of a very great moment.

Over 4,415 American troops have been killed in Iraq since this war started in 2003. 44 American soldiers have died this year in that country. And yet even with all this pain-- we need to pause a moment and do two things: celebrate the fact this war really does have and ending and few others will die on Iraqi soil. But then I want you to join me in remembering those who have died in June, July and the first part of August in Iraq.  The homecoming of those who get off the planes must be bittersweet for those who know their sons and daughters will never be home again. And so--even as we celebrate let us remember these who have fallen for us in Iraq as this war winds down.

Pfc. Francisco Javier Guardado-Ramirez / age 21 / Sunland, NMex / Died of injuries sustained from a non-combat related incident in Baghdad, Iraq / June 2, 2010.

Sgt. Steve Martin Theobald / age 53 / Goose Creek, SC / Died of injuries sustained in a military vehicle rollover near Kuwait City, Kuwait / June 4, 2010.

Sgt. Israel Paul O'Brien / age 24 / Newbern, TN / One of two soldiers killed when insurgents attacked their unit with a suicide car bomb in Jalula, Iraq / June 11, 2010.

Cpl. William Christopher Yauch / age 23 / The second soldier killed when those insurgents attacked his unit with a suicide car bomb in Jalula, Iraq / June11, 2010.

Spc. Christopher Wesley Opat / age 29 / Died of injuries sustained from a non-combat related incident in Baquba, Iraq / June 15, 2010.

Capt. Michael Paul Cassidy / age 41 / Simpsonville, SC / Died of injuries sustained from a non-combat related incident in Mosul, Iraq / June 17, 2010.

Spc. Jacob Parke Dohrenwend / age 20 / Milford,  USA / Died of injuries sustained from a non-combat related incident at Balad, Iraq / June 21 ,2010.

Pfc. Bryant Jamal Haynes / age 21 / Epps, LA. Died of injuries sustained during a vehicle rollover in Diwaniya, Iraw / June 28, 2010.

Spc. Morganne Marie McBeth / age 19 / Died in Asad, Iraq of wounds sustained July 1, 2010 in a non-combat related incident in Khan Al Baghdad, Iraq / July 2, 2010.

Sgt. Johnny Wayne Lumpkin / age 38 / Columbus, GA / Died in Balad, Iraq of wounds sustained July 1, 2010 in a non-combat related equipment incident in Taji, Iraq / July 2, 2010.

Sgt. Jordan Elias Tuttle/ age 22 / West Monroe, LA / Died of injuries suffered in a non-combat related incident in Baghdad/ July 2, 2010.

Ist Lt. Michael Louis Runyan / age 24 / Newark, Ohio / Died in Balad, Iraq of injuries sustained when insurgents attacked his convoy vehicle with a roadside bomb in Muqdadiya, Iraq / July 21 2010.

Spc. Faith Renee Hinkley / age 23 / Colorado Springs, COL/ Died  in Baghdad, Iraq of wounds suffered when insurgents attacked her unit in Iskandariya,  Iraq / August, 7, 2010.

Spc. Jamal M. Rhett / age 24 / Palymyra, NJ / Died of wounds suffered when insurgents attacked his vehicle with grenades in  Baquba province / Iraq / August 15, 2010.

Prayer for Peace

"May the memory of two world wars strengthen our efforts for peace,
 May the memory of those who died inspire our service to the living,
 May the memory of past destruction move us to build for the future,
O God of peace,
O Father of souls,
O Builder of the Kingdom of Love."
    --George Appleton

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Muslims and Ground Zero

The latest brouhaha--and it looks like there is a new flavor every day--is about: Should the Muslims build a community center two blocks from Ground Zero? Of course the Republicans led by self-imposed spokesperson, Newt Gingrich has played the Nazi card. We’ve heard this convoluted thinking before. Would we allow the Nazis to build some sort of monument near the Holocaust Museum? Mr. Gingrich the Nazis were not a religious group and the Muslim community Center would fall under the umbrella of a religious institution.

Everyone running for office this fall has gotten on the bandwagon. Putting their ear to the ground the politicos know an explosive issue when one comes down the pike. Even Harry Reid is running scared.

What must not be lost under all the media uproar is the essential Constitutional idea that we really do believe in the separation of Church and State. Early Baptists, once upon a time before we got rich and established--died for this principle. Leaving England for religious freedom in the new world they discovered to their dismay the painful truth that a group was already here and proclaiming we had an established church. Baptists, stubborn as they were did not take that long, painful circuitous trip across the sea just to find in the new land what they had painfully experienced in the old land. They wanted to worship as they chose. They wanted to decide who they called to preach. They wanted to believe what they wished. The dark pages of history in New England and Virginia tell of all the Baptist preachers incarcerated because they were foolish enough to think they could preach as they chose. It was a mighty struggle--but they helped stitch into the Bill of Rights the incredible idea of religious freedom for everybody. Later, Roger Williams founded the free state of Rhode Island where people were free to believe or not believe--and that was their right.

This argument today goes like this: “Well, we do believe in religious freedom for everybody except…” and I will let you fill in the blanks. Richard Land, conscience of the Southern Baptists has said under no circumstances should Muslims be allowed to build a community center that near to ground zero.

In the heat of the moment we must not forget a principle. All religious groups are protected by the Constitution--even those we do not like. Even that pathetic family-church in Topeka that spews their anti-gay poison at funerals for our fallen--even they are protected. Though I do wish they would shut their mouths. Hardly a week goes back that some media group does not give them the forum to air their poison. And even they have the right to hate, unfortunately.

Back to the Muslims. The argument confuses the Muslim faith with terrorists. They are not one in the same. President Bush shortly after 9/11 reminded us that we must not hate all Muslims because of the lunatic fringe in their faith. That was one of his finest hours. Every religious group has such fanatics as do the Muslims. This is not who is trying to build a community center. Every fair commentator has said these are responsible people.

Are we going to send a message to the Muslims around the world that we do believe in religious freedom with qualifications? If we qualify our principles-who will be next--the Metropolitan Community Church--or a multitude of others that many might disagree with. Old time Baptists stood for the religious freedom for everyone and that principle still stands.

There have been times in our painful history when we have forgotten our principles. We were wary of electing John Kennedy President because he was a Catholic. Some were afraid of George Romney because he was a Mormon. Maybe the whole issue here boils down to fear. We are just afraid.

I hope when the dust settles we will stand by our principles. The Mayor of New York--and he is a Jew--has come out courageously for all his citizenry. We are told he remembers the discrimination his family faced in trying to buy a house in a neighborhood where no Jews were allowed.

I hope our Muslim friends get to build that center. It would be a beacon of freedom that says in this country all really does mean all--no qualifications allowed. The Sunday after 9/11 a Church usher told me there was a man in the back that wanted to talk to me. That dark-skinned man said, ”I just wanted you to know that most of Muslims are not like those that blew up those towers. I just hope that you Christians don’t hate us and think we are going to hell.” I told him then--and I believe now--that I knew most Muslims were not like that. And--I did not believe that we Christians really hated him and his people. The Christian God, I said, loves everybody. That was almost ten years ago--and I still believe what I told him that day.

Want to read a further word from a Baptists ethicist? I like what he said. Read Robert Parham's words from the Washington Post.

Amy Goodman's splendid article on today's Truthdig, "Mosque-MississippiBurning",  puts a human face on this whole issue. I recommend:

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Two Steps Forward...One Step Backwards

"Go on! Go on! Go on! Go on!
  Go on! Go On! Go On! Go on!
 Go on! Go on! Go On! Go on!
 Go on! Go On!  Go on! Go on!"
    --chorus a missionary taught natives

Gail Collins has written this great article in Saturday’s New York Times about the 90th Anniversary of women getting the right to vote and run for office in this country. It took seventy one years from the first women’s suffrage movement in 1848 until the Constitution was finally amended in 1919. Collins says that the great roadblock year after year was mostly the United States Senate. Sound familiar?

Carrie Chapman Catt was one of the early leaders of this movement in the 1880’s. Collins quotes her as saying it took:

                     56 referendums directed at male voters
                    480 campaigns to get Legislatures to
                            submit  suffrage amendments to voters
                   47 campaigns to   get constitutional                            conventions to write women suffrage into state constitutions
                 277 campaigns to get State party conventions to include
                       Woman suffrage planks
                  30 campaigns to get presidential party campaigns to
                         include woman suffrage planks in party platforms
                  19 campaigns with successive Congresses.

Yet Ms. Catt and Susan B. Anthony and a host of women would not be stopped. When we grow discouraged at the slow progress of health care reform and gay rights and the immigrant struggle and even the subtle racism just barely beneath the surface--we need to remember our history.

We can’t give up the fight for human rights for everyone. We are to do battle as best we can. Remember that London was bombed more than 70 consecutive nights in the Second World War. Winston Churchill had been Prime Minister during those turbulent years. Someone asked him what was the secret of England’s success. He said it was found in six words: “Never…never…never…never give up.”

Chaim Potok, the Jewish novelist said, “I am neither an optimist not a pessimist , I am a persistantist.” So maybe when we grow weary of the slowness of our progress we need to remember this story about the women who showed us--more times than any of us can name--that we must stay in the fight.

Friday, August 13, 2010

We will miss Anne Rice

"We moderate and polish the world's thinking, and name it Christian. The church embodies the upside-down kingdom. Whatever the world admires is probaby not good, according to kingdom values. The church is always anti-empire.

What the church does is provide a place where pain can be touched and where the vision for a new world can be lifted up and held before people."
   --Gordon Cosby

Anne Rice, writer of many books came back to her Catholic Church after many years of estrangement. That was ten years ago. On her Facebook page this week she writes: “Today I quit being a Christian, I’m out. I remain committed to Christ as always but no to being ‘Christian’ or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious and deservedly infamous group. For 10 years I’ve tried. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else…In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay…anti-feminist…anti-birth control…anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen.”

After more than 50 years as Pastor of churches all over the South—I could tell Anne Rice some stories that would curl her hair. If she had stood on the other side of the altar as we ministers have—she could add a whole lot more to that list of complaints. There have been days—I should say—more than days—when I have been tempted to throw in the towel. I have seen the anti-gay, anti-feminist, anti-science side of the faith. I have also wanted to run into hiding by the hypocrisy of some mega Church pastors caught with male prostitutes, anti-gay proclaimers secretly running off (they think) with some RentBoy. I have been amazed by those who proclaim every word of the Bible is literally true when they know better. I have wept at the churches that have hounded their ministers out of their pulpits on the most minor of changes. I have been heartsick at all those gays and straights that wouldn‘t enter a church again for anything—they’ve been stamped “Not OK” much too long. And yes, I have been ashamed of the many times we have wrapped the American flag around the Bible and taken it into foreign lands as if they were the same. So, Anne—I concur with you on most of your complaints.

And yet—I have stayed in this business. Not just for a paycheck—for it never was enough. Not even for the accolades—even though they did help. From earliest days my mother dragged me off to a little predictable deep-South Church. We were racist, I would imagine. We ran off preachers that didn’t suit. We had terrible business meetings. We thought our Catholic neighbors were unsaved. And yet—I felt affirmation from that little cadre of Christ’s followers. I found acceptance there during my growing-up years. And when I went away to school they passed the hat—these cotton-mill workers with so little—and helped me though school. They gathered around when I came home and wanted to know how I was. They cared and this is one of the reasons I have stayed. Because I have seen that caring extended out to others a zillion times in these years. As Lyndon Johnson once explained why he was moving back to Johnson, Texas after leaving the White House. “Because,” he said, “they ask about you when you’re sick and they come and cry when you die.”

The relational quality has been one of the main reasons I have stayed in church. I don’t want to romanticize this—because there is that other quality of mean-spiritedness and cruelty but these have been in the minority.
On my office desk behind glass are pictures of the first Habitat House our church built in the county in South Carolina. That house, because of those all-too-human Christians changed a family’s life. Under that same glass there is a picture of Dora and her family in Memphis. Our church led in the building of her house and I don’t know how many other Habitat houses. I remember one old woman on the Dedication Day of her house, holding up the keys and saying in a voice that cracked, “I been waitin’ for this day all my life. I got close so many times, but I got sick and didn’t have the money fore the down payment or the children got sick and I thought it would never happen.” But that time we were all crying as she yelled out, “Today’s the day.” The church, with all its flaws, did that.

Oh, I could go on and on. The little girl in my first church who had so little. We sent her off to college with all the money we could collect, we cheered her on. We watched this little girl turn, miraculously into a beautiful, cultured young woman who went overseas as a missionary. The church did that.

I have watched, through the years those main-line churches that had Ushers to stand at the door and keep blacks out, slowly open their arms to everybody. Their dark chapters remain but they have changed. I remember watching our church take in its first member with AIDS. It was early when people were afraid they would catch it just by being around someone. But I watched little old ladies with pin curls and Mamas and Daddies come around to love and accept gay folk. They never voted on being welcoming and affirming—they just did it. And still do.I think of all the Mother Theresa’s around the world. Baptists had our own Lottie Moon who was told she had to come home to Virginia since Baptists in the 1800’s didn’t allow women to preach or baptize. She fired a letter back: “When you send a man to do this job, I’ll come home.” They never did. She died of starvation on a Christmas Eve after she had given all she had for her beloved Christ and the Chinese.Take the Children’s homes and the hospitals and the Nursing Homes that the Church has established and supported and the picture would be a great more dismal.

Paul once said, “We have this treasure in an earthen vessel to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us.” The old Apostle was right: the treasure and the vessel are not one and the same. Anne Rice has forgotten that the vessel is always flawed and always will be. But many, many of us have found in that pock-marked, flawed vessel enough grace and love to keep us going and help somebody else also.

I’ve have confused the treasure and the vessel  again and again. But come Sunday I will back in my church. I will look around at many empty pews. But my heart will stir when the old hymns are sung. Looking around at the old woman who can hardly read but puts the hymn book close to her nose warms my heart. And behind me is a tall black man in dread-locks. In the middle section is a little boy adopted from Russia with his parents and on the next row a pregnant lesbian couple. And along with them there are the straights and a few couples with 2.5 children and people impeccably dressed and a few in flip-flops. And I am very glad to be in that company. Never enough money. Never enough help. Someone often leaving in a snit. And yet—I find the treasure even though the vessel could still use a little cleaning and shining.

We will miss Anne from our company—but I think, too she will miss more than she ever knew. And that is a judgment on the church and on the Christ that we say we follow.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

This Time of the Year Brings Back Memories

The old ritual is beginning for another year. The cars, trucks and SUV’s and even a few moving vans are parked in single file outside the college dorm. Parent-types seem to be everywhere. They begin to haul TV’s, water skis and computers as big as televisions into the dorm. There are clothes and clogs and suitcases filled with all sorts of finery. Then come the pillows and bed linens and quilts and blankets. Someone drags in a rug and two people carry a huge chair. There are boxes of cassettes and small refrigerators, hairdryers and curling irons. There are tennis rackets and plastic bags of junk food. Most of the Mothers are pointing to what goes where while the Daddies either direct traffic or carry bundle after bundle inside. Many of the students just stand around greeting each other, texting or listening to their ipods. It’s that time of the year when the old ritual from home to school takes place once again.

Fifty-five years ago my own college journey began when a friend picked me up in front of my house. All my treasures were neatly fitted into a footlocker. It was heavy, but I hauled it out to his car. We shuffled boxes and suitcases around in the trunk and made room for my belongings. It was early and the Georgia morning was still cool. My Mother had left her job at the mill and come across the street to see me off. On our front porch my mother stood with her little apron, her printed dress and her hairnet to keep the cotton at bay. She didn’t leave the porch—she didn’t want me to see her cry. I threw her a kiss and got into my friend’s car.

At the time, I did not realize how hard that day was for her. Sending her oldest out of the nest into the great big world. When I took my own daughter to college and left her there waving goodbye, I felt what my mother must have felt back there standing on her porch. My mother had only finished the eighth grade. She was very proud since I was the first in our family to go to college. But she already knew what it took me years to discover. A door was closing and another opening. I was leaving home really never to be the boy with a bedroom right off the living room. She let me go that September morning. She simply stayed on the porch, waved goodbye and held back her tears.
Every week without fail in my school mailbox there would be a letter in her handwriting and a crumpled ten-dollar bill and a five. This would be my allowance for the week.

And so as school takes up and the SUV’s and cars line the campus—the memories come back. I remember a mother who stood on our porch the morning I left home. I remember the enormous sacrifice that fifteen dollars meant that came faithfully. She was willing to send me away to experience what she had never had a chance to discover.

The goods that move into those dorm rooms today are a far cry from that footlocker that held my belongings. But the feelings of these fathers and mothers surely have a universal ring. With heavy hearts, holding back the tears they, too, will let their son or daughter go. After the dorm room is straightened up, the curtains are hung and the mother has made the bed, she and her husband will get into their empty vehicle and head home. In the silence they will know what their Sally or Junior will not know for years and years. Life will be different. Rooms at home will be quiet. The old stairs will not shake as they did when the kids ran up and down the steps. And every night just before sleep comes that Mother and Father will see a face and whisper a prayer.

Monday, August 9, 2010

When Fear Knocks on the Door

"I weave a parachute out of everything broken."
   --William Stafford

Patricia Neal has left the stage and the curtain has closed a final time. She died August 8 in Edgartown, Massachusetts. She was 84. My, my what a life she lived.

She left Knoxville, Tennessee where she had grown up and went to Northwestern University and finally made it to the New York stage. Many young folk might not remember Patricia Neal but she graced the theatre as few could do. Her story is worth telling.

In the early sixties she suffered a series of tragedies. One day in New York she was pushing her five month old son in his carriage across a street when a taxi stuck the child. He suffered severe brain damage from that accident. In 1962 her seven year old daughter, Olivia came down with encephalitis and died that same night. Finally getting back to work in 1965 Patricia had three massive strokes which left her paralyzed on one side and her speech seriously impaired. She was 39 years old. It took her a year with her husband’s coaxing to slowly begin to relearn basic skills. Patricia Neal never gave up.

In 1968 she was nominated for an Oscar for her splendid performance in The Subject was Roses. I never will forget seeing Patricia in that film. She took all her pain and fused it into a moving portrayal of a desperate wife and mother in a crumbling family. After her come back she also won three Emmy nominations.

She told her story in her autobiography, As I Am. In 1978 the Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center in Knoxville dedicated the Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center in her honor. The 72-bed facility has been nationally recognized for its rehabilitation of patients with stroke, spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries. Patricia continued to be an advocate for persons with debilitating conditions.

She was interviewed by a newspaper columnist several years ago in Windsor, England. . They sat at old inn and she talked about her life and her experiences that day. On one of the beams above the fireplace someone had carved one line in copperplate. It read: “Fear knocked at the door. Faith answered. No one was there.” She looked at the plaque for a long time and then said, “That’s beautiful. The kind of thing you hope you never forget.I guess I have faith—but I don’t think much about it.”

Nothing seemed to stop her from coming back from tragedy after tragedy. Her life taught us about the stubborn, stubborn wonder of the human spirit even after near-impossible adversity. So the curtain has come down for a final time for Patricia Neal. Don’t we all owe her a standing ovation? I think so.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Live Until You Die

"We play hard to try to forget that we live in a haunted house. "
     --Carlyle Marney

Wise preacher Carlyle Marney used to say the greatest grief is that we all run out of time. He would back up this statement with the time old Nicodemus came to Jesus one night. The prominent Pharisee came with his question: “Can a man be born again when he is old?” Marney would say Nicodemus was longing to turn the clock back, stop its movement—to find some fountain of youth. We all come to that hard place where we know there is no turning back—there is more behind than ahead. And this is a hard lesson to learn.

I woke up the other day and suddenly realized I am seventy-four years old. Why I have lived 8 years longer than my father. Not too long ago I would have sworn that 74 was not only old—but it was ancient. People at the grocery store sometimes not only talk too loud to old timers, but they talk down to you like you have lost most of your marbles.   “C-a-n.... I …. h-e-l-p….y-o-u?” Young folk begin calling you sir and policeman and doctors begin to look like high schoolers.

Having lost a couple of good, good friends to death the last few years I know now that the great grief really is that we do run out of time. And yet to fritter away what time we have left with anxiety and depression and wistful thinking seems to waste the days we have left.

My heroes in living all the way to the finish line are two friends in South Carolina. After they both lost their spouses—they found each other. He was 78 and she was 70. That was sixteen years ago. When he retired from being a College Dean he went back to law school at age 65. She was an art teacher in high school, was once named South Carolina teacher of the year and continues to paint since her retirement.

Morris celebrated his 94th birthday recently and Liz is 86. For twenty-five years Morris has helped many people on limited income with legal matters. She told me he might hang it up next year. He drives a Rolls Royce and Liz still enters art contests and continues to be a recognized artist. Two years ago they built a new house—and they designed an art studio for Liz’s work. Some people thought to build a new house at 92 and 84 was a mite strange. But they did it and they love the house. She told me that the Computer man is coming this next week to set up her new computer.  Last year they spent three weeks in Italy. Later this year they are flying to Massachusetts to Morris’ family reunion. They are devoted to one another and get up every morning as if each new day is a package to be opened with joy.

None of us will get out of this life alive. I can look back and easily wish I had done things differently. And yet—Liz and Morris are teaching me what’s important. Most of us old timers are frustrated like Nicodemus that we cannot stop the clock or turn back the years. And yet the challenge is to make whatever we have left count. A friend of mine took his little girl to church one Sunday and after the sermon was over she told her father, “Daddy, that preacher finished before he stopped.” Dear God, I would like to finish and stop at the same place.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Remember the Fallen

For a year now I have been having a monthly section called Remember the Fallen on my blog. I began this for two reasons: 1) to keep me reminded of those that have given their lives for the rest of us. 2) to remind others not to forget those who are serving in the longest war we have ever fought. Month after month I have sat and read the names of those killed during the month. CNN have given us most of their faces. Most of them have been young some as young as 19 years old. Most of those killed have been from 19-30 years old. Most in their mid-twenties. Just as they were beginning adult life theirs was snuffed out. Along with the names and ages I told where they were from and how they met their deaths.

A week ago when I sat down to list these that have fallen—I discovered they were too many. There was no way I could list all these names of our service people who have been killed in the last few weeks. I would remind you that you can go to the web site where I first received my information. But to my horror I discovered that we have had 66 deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq in the month of July. This is the highest number of casualties we have had since the war began.

My eye also caught this headline from The Washington Post. “Army suicides most in more than a year.” The U.S. Army reported 32 suicides in June, the highest number for a single month since January 2009, when the suicide rate in the Army began to spike. Col. Chris Philbrick, the director of the Army’s suicide prevention task force has said that the boost in the number of suicides in June was likely driven by the “continued stresses on the force.” The Army has poured a great deal of money and other resources into getting as handle on the suicide rate and until last month has begun to see some signs of success.

How much longer we can sustain this madness? I do not know. This war has just about bankrupted this country spiritually as well as economically. We have poured millions and millions of dollars into the hands of locals with little accountability. I know there are no easy answers yet somehow we must begin to bring our troops home.

Read these figures and weep:
More than 6,000 have died in this war.
Deaths in Afghanistan – 1,941
Wounded in Afghanistan – 7,011
Deaths in Iraq – 4,732
Wounded in Iraq – 31,888
(figures through July 21, 2010)

Brian Turner, an Iraq veteran and poet helps us understand the war in his book of poetry, Here, Bullet. He served as sergeant in the Iraq War in 2003-2004. Most of the poems in this book were written while he was stationed there. Here is one of his poems that makes us stop and think.

“If a body is what you want,
then here is bone and gristle and flesh.
Here is the clavicle-snapped wish,
the aorta’s opened valves, the leap
thought makes at the synaptic gap.
Here is the adrenaline rush you crave,
that inexorable fight, that insane puncture
into heat and blood. And I dare you to finish
what you’ve started. Because, here, Bullet,
here is where I complete the word you bring
hissing through the air, here is where I moan
the barrel’s cold esophagus, triggering
my tongue’s explosives for the rifling I have
inside of me, each twist of the round
spun deeper, because here, Bullet,
here is where the world ends, every time.”

If you missed Tom Friedman’s fine Sunday editorial in the New York Times, you might want to read it—he makes us think of the consequences of this war which seems to have no end.

Remember the fallen…we cannot forget.