Sunday, May 29, 2011

Do People Know We are Here?

This Memorial weekend I recall a book by Sebastian Junger who spent a year with 30 of our troops in eastern Afghanistan. He lived with these men from June 2007 to June 2008. That year seeing war from the inside changed his life. As he was leaving Afghanistan to come home a young soldier asked him, “Let me ask you something. Do people know that we are here?”

Those words stung me. Safe in my little house in Shelby Country I have not a single-family member in this long struggle. Like so many other Americans I have gone on with my life and my pursuits these last eight years. But that soldier’s question stays with me: Do people know that we are here?

So I decided to learn more about this war. Besides reading Junger’s book, War, I also read The Good Soldier by David Finkel. He spent fifteen months with the troops in Iraq. While Finkel was there 14 soldiers were killed, another 75 were wounded and many of those were broken for the rest of their lives. The average age of those young men was 19 years.

Finkel’s words are haunting. “Eleven dead now. Another forty-four injured. Gunshots, burns, shrapnel. Missing hands, arms, legs, an eye. Ruptured eardrums, a mangled groin, gouged-out muscles, severed nerves. One guy took it in the stomach as he waited to use a pay phone...and a rocket landed nearby. Rockets, mortars, RPG’s, sniper fire, The Lieutenant said all this as he prepared to telephone the war’s newest widow who lived with two tiny daughters in a house in Kansas. When it was done he said, ‘That’s probably the saddest woman I’ve talked to yet.’”

The soldier’s question “if the folks at home remember our troops”, led me down another road. I discovered that CNN keeps a tally of all those who have been wounded and killed in this war. In Iraq since the war began 4,773 troops have been killed. 32,000 have been wounded. In Afghanistan 2,458 of our troops have lost their lives and 11,411 have been wounded. To date, over 6,000 coalition troops from 20 countries have died. None of these figures include all those citizens in these two countries who have lost so much. Estimates of Iraq-Afghan dead are somewhere between 250,000 and 600,000. This total does not reflect the broken land, the bombed-out houses—the crying children. I couldn’t get the soldier’s question out of my head. Do people know that we are here?

So I began each month to post on my blog the names of those that have died. CNN lists most of their pictures and information about every soldier. I sat at my computer and studied the names, the faces, the ages—so many were only 18 years old. In that long list were the towns and cities these men and women came from. That list is a slice of America: Caucasian, Hispanics, African-Americans and Asian Americans. Among those could be found among all faith groups. No state has been immune to the grief of this war. Month after month the names kept coming.

And so on this Memorial Day weekend the old question keeps coming back: Do people know that we are here?” Memorial Day is an appropriate time to answer that question. The day has a long history. Three years after the Civil War ended in the month of May 1868 the head of an organization of Union veterans named this day Decoration Day. It was a time for the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. All over the country this custom spread. By the end of the 19th century Memorial Day ceremonies were being held on May 30 throughout the nation. But it was not until after World War I that Memorial Day became a national holiday by act of Congress. Since the 1950’s 1200 soldiers in the U.S. infantry have placed flags on 260,000 gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery on this weekend.

This weekend the grief for many of our citizens will be heavy as lead. Wives, parents and children will stand by some gravestone and remember. Thousands of others will stay close to home tending their wounded from this war. Let us not forget those who have served for us. Pause some time weekend and call to mind the fallen, the broken and all those who minister to their wounds day after day. And if we keep remembering that soldier’s question, in time it might just change this whole sad picture.

(This article appeared in the op-ed section of The Birmingham News,  May 29, 2011.)

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Jesus is coming soon--Look Busy

If you were raised in the South you would not be surprised at all this end-time talk we’re hearing lately. As a little boy sitting in church or in tent revivals I heard a lot of talk about Jesus coming back. For a child it was scary. One day, mighty soon, the clouds would open and out of the blue Jesus would come floating down. The preachers kept saying over and over, “What will you be doing when Jesus comes back?” It was the scariest thing I could imagine. I don’t know how many nightmares I had over the Second Coming. My little-boy sins loomed large and shameful. Lying to my principal about dumping all the newspapers I was to deliver into the Chattahoochee River. And telling her I had delivered every one. Hoping that I would not be caught reading that porno comic book that my neighbor had filched from his Daddy’s collection. Just knowing that if I went to the picture show on Sunday or smoked a filthy cigarette—that I would be doomed forever. And I had done both. This was pre-pubescent time before the specter of sex and booze and rock and roll would sneak into the picture. I just knew that we might not know “the day nor the hour” but surely if I was doing something I had no business doing—Jesus would catch me and I would be zapped. We would sing lustily,

“ Jesus is coming to earth again, What if it were today?
Coming in power and love to reign, What if it were today?
Coming to claim His chosen Bride, All the redeemed and purified,
Over this whole earth scattered wide, What if it were today?”

That gospel song only heightened my anxiety. So much of my childhood was spent trying as best I could to avoid all those nasty things that would send me into perdition. If Jesus did come back I did not want to be left behind. Why if you weren’t ready—those left would be subjected to months and months of torture. Not to speak of plagues, pestilence—whatever that was—earthquakes and stalking everywhere the Mark of the Beast and the Great Whore of Babylon. Nobody back then set the date--we just knew that we better watch out, we better not cry-- Jesus, and not Santa Claus was coming to town.

This was followed, of course with The Late Great Plantet Earth whose author predicted the imminent return of Jesus. At the same time he was grinding out his book he was investing in long-term real-estate projects. Go figure. There were a few church members in every church I served that would sidle up to me after the service and whisper, “When are you going to quit preaching about these so-called social issues and warn us about what Hal Lindsey says in his book about the coming apocalypse. I forget what I muttered but I escaped as soon as possible. But this was followed by the plague of the Left Behind series. Thinly disguised ultra-right-wing politics—we us in book after book that if we were not “ready” and probably politically on the right side—that we surely would be left behind. A friend of mine who was battling cancer asked me, “Have you read the Left Behind books? That’s all I’m reading since I’m taking chemotherapy.” I told him, “Why would anybody scared to death of dying wade around in all that depressing “Jesus is coming soon and I just might be left behind stuff.” He looked at me like I had struck him.

So here we are on May 22, 20l1. Harold Camping, civil engineer turned Biblical scholar has set the date for 6:00 PM. I’m not sure if that Eastern Standard or Central Standard Time or what. Based on his calculations this day is 7,000 years since Noah’s flood. Believers will be transported up to heaven while all the others will endure terrible suffering and general torment. Here and there a few folk have quit their jobs, cashed in their savings and just sit waiting for the Rapture to come this afternoon.

Now let’s be clear. Most of the creeds of the church say: “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead...” One of the doctrines of the church has always been the Second Coming of Jesus. When our Lord was asked when he would come he said, “No one knows the day nor the hour but the Father.” Somehow Mr. Camping missed that verse. The Bible sets no timetable for Christ’s return.

How do we prepare for such an event today or any other time? I love the story that one day St. Francis was digging in his garden. A man came up and said, “Francis, if Jesus was coming back today—what would you do?” Without looking up St. Francis said, “I would continue to hoe my garden."

Doomsday talk for me is really an escape from reality. Seems like we Christians have been called to hoe whatever gardens we have. Lord knows we have enough weeds to go around. If we do our work the world will be a much better place and if Jesus decides to come in our lifetime he will find us doing the work that he called us to do. I remember hearing Tony Campolo saying one time that Jesus left no one behind. Jesus puts his arms around us all and we do not have to fear.

(The stained glass window can be found above the altar of the Methodist Church which is one block from Coventry Cathedral. It is a beautiful representation of the Christ who comes for a second time.
The second photograph is a picture of the huge tapestry of the Triumphant Christ which hangs over the altar and is the centerpiece of the new Coventry Cathedral which was built after the first Cathedral was destroyed by bombs in World War II. )

Friday, May 20, 2011

When the Doctor says "I'm Sorry..."

"Lead kindly light, amid th' encircling gloom
The night is dark, and I am far from home;
Lead thou me on: Keep thou my feet;
I do not ask to see
The distant scene--one step enough for me."
    --John Henry Newman

We’ve been emailing back and forth for months now. She went to the doctor some time ago and the nightmare began. First, one diagnosis then another. Brain tumor. Multiple Sclerosis. Cancer. On and on it went. They put her on a roller coaster that seemed to be endless. After months, tests, rounds of specialists they marked off one terrible disease after another. Yet she still suffers. Her time line may not be as long as she thought it once was. So, taking pills, going to this doctor and that specialist she lives a more constricted life. She has a lot of spunk and is determined to fight all the way to the finish line. She wrote me the other day and I replied at the end of my email: I will be praying for you.

She wrote back days later: “Glad you are praying for me, but what do you pray? What should I pray? I don’t believe God zaps some of us with cancer and strokes and other with car accidents and tornadoes. Does he? Then if he doesn’t choose to move us around like chess pieces, what do I pray for? Healing? Sure wish He would. I find I’m spending more time trying to find meaning in the suffering instead of getting out of it with a miracle healing. I’m trying to find way to use whatever time/years I have left serving others cause that is what I think we are here for. I’m not angry but I’m probably not going to live as long as my Grandmother or my Dad or even maybe my mother but I’m sad for my husband, children and grandchildren who want me around. I’m just confused about how to pray.”

Whew! That’s a lot of questions—most of which I have no answer. Here is what I wrote her back: “I know this must be a frustrating time. How do I pray? 'Lord helps Helen. Be with her. Touch her body. Her spirit.' Maybe you will get healed. Probably not. We’ve had this tornado here. Many people lost their lives. Some say I think God he spared me (for a purpose). What about the couple next door that got blown away? This is random stuff. Chaotic. God stands with us, I think. I think his presence is always with us whether we know it or not. The Spirit of God will give you strength to do whatever you have to do. There are no answers to human suffering. From Job on everybody has raised this question. We just have to slosh along in whatever stuff we have to contend with. I don’t believe we are alone. I love that quotation which I sent you some time ago by Jessica Powers: “I came upon earth’s most amazing knowledge: Someone is hidden in this dark with me.” I think to focus on using the time you have left is just about the best advice for all of us. Hang in there. And—you are prayed for. I think God takes our heart-felt thoughts and understands the deep yearnings of our hearts. So it doesn’t matter what we pray for—or how we say it—like a good parent God understands where we are coming from—or trying to. This may not help—but this is my Benediction for you and for all of us."

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Iraq and Afghanistan--We Remember the Fallen

"Cure thy children's warring madness,
Bend our pride to thy control;
Shame our wanton selfish gladness
Rich in things and poor in soul."
      --Harry Emerson Fosdick

Not long after I started this blog I began to report on the coalition deaths and wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. month after month.  Several months ago I stopped writing this report. Why? Each month the list seemed to grow longer and longer. I did not have time to list all the women and men who had died for us in the longest war in our history.

With Osama bin Laden's death  last week I began to think about September 11th and all those casualties and all the fallen since that time.Somehow I could not get caught up in the celebration of the death of this terrible man. His stated goal was to bring down, not only the Twin Towers, but the United States as well. I am glad he is gone. I appreciate the efforts of the Navy Seals and all those that brought us to this point. I thank both President Bush and especially President Obama for making this possible.

My hope is that with bin Laden's death that we, and the rest of the world, will be safer and peace will eventually come to those war-torn countries of Iraq and Afghanistan. You may want to pull up the CNN website that reports on the wounded month after month and year after year. It is a long and sad list.

We must not forget the fallen from our country and the coalition forces that have helped in this effort. As our May 8, 2011 these are the facts.

In Iraq there have been 4,771 US and coalition casualties.
In Iraq there have also been 32,079 seriously wounded.

In Afghanistan there have been 2,433 US and coalition casualties.
In Afghanistan there have been  11,191 seriously wounded.

In 11 days as many Iraqi and Afghani civilians are killed than the entire  number of  US  forces  killed since the war in Iraq and Afghanistan  began in Afghanistan in 2002 and Iraq in 2003.

In an October study 2006, 650,000 civilians were estimated killed. This varies from another study which estimates 4000,000 civilians killed and another study just 60,000. This source computes that at least 250,000 have been killed since the war began.

Tim Arango has put a human face on civilian life in Iraq with a lead story in Saturday's May 7, 2011 New York Times. He tells about a photograph that was taken six years ago. It showed a litle five-year-old Iraqi girl screaming and splattered with blood. American soldiers opened fire on her family's car in the northern town of Tal Afar in January 2005. She saw the photograph six years later for the first time even though that picture has appeared around the world since it was taken. She said, "My  brother was sick and we were taking him to the hospital and on the way back  this happened...My mother and father were killed just like that." Her name is Shamar and she is now twelve years old and lives with four other families, mostly relatives. The story could be retold a thousand thousand times. Three years after her parents were killed her brother died in an insurgent attack.  He had been severly wounded when his parents were killed and so he was sent to Boston for treatment. And now, he too is dead.

Read the whole story in The Times and weep. My hope is that with the death of Osama bin Laden that perhaps the war will slow down and finally cease. But as we remember our fallen--let us remember all those others who live in a land we know little about that continue to suffer immeasurably.

(Want to help?  Sojourners is sponsoring a campaign to write our Congressional leaders to support a bill to end the war in Afghanistan. If you want to help--you might pull up their web page. )

Thursday, May 5, 2011

A Wedding is not a Marriage

"We have not really faced up to the many conflicts between belief and experience, precept and practice, in our current, muddled style of marriage. It is not enough to say, 'Yes marriage patterns are changing.' What we have not fully realized is that we do not have to stand by helplessly while change sweeps over us, destroying our hopes for a better life for our children. Instead, we can look steadily at the changes that have brought us where we are. We can ask, 'How can we invest marriage forms with new meaning?'"
   --Margaret Meade

Over two billion people watched as Kate Middleton and Prince William walk down that long aisle is Westminster Abbey last week. You have to hand it to the English—they know how to do ceremony. Everything from beginning to end went off without a hitch. Some even called this the love story of the century. But we must remember this century is not that old.

Yet in the audience the signs of divorce were all over the house. There was Charles and Camilla after divorcing both their spouses. Camilla’s children from her first marriage were in attendance. There was Prince Andrew though Fergie was not invited. But their kids were there. There was Diana’s brother who has just announced he will be married for third time very soon. I wondered in that most distinguished crowd in the Abbey how much brokenness and heartbreak there must have been in that room.

The Bishop of London said in his address at the wedding, “This is, as every wedding should be, a day of hope.” He was right. As Pastor I have never stood at the wedding altar where the couples did not believe their marriage would last forever. Yet about 50% of those that get married today wind up in the divorce courts. The pain and trauma felt by couples and especially their children goes on and on.

We spend so much time, energy and money on weddings and parties and invitations and flowers and dresses and music and sit-down dinners and receptions. The average wedding in the United States costs somewhere between $18,000 and $30,000 dollars. The average wedding cost in Alabama is somewhere between $20,600 and $34,000. These figures do not include engagement rings or honeymoons. I’ve always had a hunch that parents or couples assume that the more we spend on the wedding will certainly secure the marriage. Not so.

Somehow the focus on relationship gets lost in the shuffle of all the wedding details. Yet—if couples would spend some time looking at how they relate and dealing with their differences it might head off trouble at the pass. Couple after couple have assured me: “Oh, we always settle our differences.” Hmmm.

We spend more energy on buying a car or a house than we do this most important relationship we call marriage. David Mace, a marriage counselor once said that every couple is given a plot of land and two deck chairs. After the honeymoon if the couple sits in those chairs and does nothing—that little plot of land will finally become a jungle. But if they decide to work the soil, prepare it well, plant seeds, tend the plants year after year—they can expect a beautiful garden. But he said the problem was that many couples just sit in their chairs and let the plot called marriage go to waste.

J. Grant Howard had some wise words for marriage: “When we think of getting married we have a picture of the perfect partner, But we marry an imperfect person. Then we have one of two choices: 1) Tear up the picture and accept the person or 2) Tear up the person and keep the picture.”

In Wallace Stegner’s great novel, The Spectator Bird he wrote of an old couple that had been married for many years. This is what the old man writes to his wife, Ruth: “It is something—it can be everything—to have found a fellow bird with whom you can sit among the rafters while the drinking and boasting and reciting and fighting go on below; a fellow bird whom you can look after and find bugs and seeds for; one who will patch up your bruises and straighten your ruffled feathers and mourn over your hurts when you accidentally fly into something you can’t handle.”

That’s my hope for Kate and William and for my wife and me and for all of us. A marriage is not a wedding. It is the first step in a very long journey.

A Mama Story--The Night Artur Rubenstein came to Town

Most everyone has a Mama story. One of my favorites must have happened when I was in the seventh or eighth grade.My mother never had many advantages in many ways. Married at sixteen, worked in a cotton mill until her retirement. Her world was small. Family, mill, church were the parameters of her life.

But she was determined her boys would have more chances than she had. Early she introduced my brother and me to books and encouraged us to read. Our little four-room mill house was filled with  books. Discovering I had an interest in music she pieced together enough money to buy a good used piano. I never thought about the sacrifices that purchase must have cost until years later. That purchase was followed by weekly piano lessons and encouragementg to practice, practice, practice.

One day the piano teacher told my mother she thought it would be a good thing for me to go a concert and to hear a great pianist play. My mother knew no classical music and knew no names of concert pianists. So she bought the tickets and waited for the night to come.

Days later, one afternoon after work she told me that was the day. After supper she put on her Sunday clothes, made sure I was presentable and we walked to the corner and waited for the bus. We rode three miles downtown and then transferred to another bus that would take us to the High School five miles away where the concert would be held.

We got off the bus and entered a crowded room.  An usher pointed upstairs to where our seats would be. We found our places in the balcony and sat down. I looked around at a sea of faces. On the stage there was a  beautiful grand piano. The lights dimmed. A small distinguished man dressed in a tuxedo came from behind the curtain and the audience began to applaud. My mother whispered, "That's Artur Rubenstein. They say he's one of the greatest pianists there is." The room was quiet and the great man began to play.

When the concert ended we walked out the door and waited for the bus. Finally the bus came and we rode to town, got on a second bus to take us home. We must have gotten home about eleven o'clock which was late for someone who had to be at work at Seven AM.

That night was the opening of a door. Maybe my mother knew there would be a great many events that would follow that special night. There would be high school and college and trips that would take me north and west and friends from all over. There would be books to read and other nights sitting in other balconies waiting for the music to begin. There would be a bride in Kentucky and two children my mother dearly loved. There would be churches and vacations and a world so much larger than she or I had never envisioned. She never complained about the sacrifices she had made or the constrictions of her hard life. What she did do was what all good mothers do--she opened a door.

After the sudden death of his little daughter, Mark Twain wrote that grief is like the burning down of one's house. It will take yeas and years to reckon with the loss. I still reckon with the loss of my mother. But I have also learned another lesson. It has taken me years and years to look back down that long road and reckon with the blessings my Mother brought my way.

(Ordinarily I do not reprint blog articles. This article appeared two years ago as a blog piece. Because it is a tribute to a very great lady--I share it with you again.)