Thursday, May 31, 2012

Poetry--A Love Letter

Ever since I read Pat Conroy’s My Reading Life I’ve been thinking of some of the books that have kept me going. My wife laughs and says, “You’re the only person I know who takes three books to the bathroom.” Well, it’s not quite that bad but every place I’ve ever lived the public library has become, for me, almost a holy place.

When we moved from Alabama to South Carolina I had to get rid of hundreds of books. We just had no place in our new house for all my books. And it was a grief running my fingers over the spines on the bookshelves trying to figure out what I really could part with. Some of those books I had not opened in thirty years. But once upon a time this book or that book had opened some door to a larger and more special world. Some of these books I will keep until I leave this world.

But other books keep me going just like that cereal does in the morning and my evening meal. In college I did a reading for some class and I still remember one of those lines: “There’s nothing like a book to take you lands away.” I still find this to be true. Sometimes my reading is just flat-out escape reading. It’s a way to shut out the “out there” and just forget it all. But most days I turn for just a few minutes to some wise words that set me to thinking or alters my perspective. This is not escape reading—for these books throw me back into the swim of life. They touch something deep within me and often just make me glad to be alive.

The last few years I’ve discovered some of the wonder of poetry. I love what Maya Angelou has said about poetry. “Poetry can tell us what human beings are. I can tell us why we stumble and fall and how, miraculously, we can stand up.” I have been surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. Wendell Berry...Czeslaw Milosz...Langston Hughes...Mary Oliver...Denise Levertov...Donald Hall and his beloved late wife, Jane Kenyon. I discovered Siegfried Sassoon, the English War poet, poem on the end of World War I standing in front of a plate glass window of a book shop in Oxford. It was typewritten in the window:

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And 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.”

 From there I turned to Wilfred Owens and other War poets. Bryan Turner’s Here, Bullet is a powerful statement about our war in Iraq. Raymond Carver has always moved me deeply. Ever read his poem, Late Fragment. It was the last poem published in the last book he wrote:

And did you get what
You wanted from this life, even so?
I did.

And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
Beloved on the earth.”

William Stafford, the poet from the Western part of the country is one of my favorites. And to those I would add: Billy Collins and the less-known but wonderful Alden Nowland from Newfoundland. I hope you don’t find this pretentious or name-dropping.  I am not trying to impress you with how smart I am. I simply wanted to share with you some of my lights along the way that remind me of my humanity and the wonder of life itself. 

Neil Astley’s three volumes of collected poetry have introduced me to many poets I have never heard of that are doing great work. Interested? His books are:  Staying Alive, Being Alive and Being Human. He hails from England and has compiled many books of poetry.

But maybe Mary Oliver says best when I am trying to say.

“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting,
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
   love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no mater how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting—
over and over announcing your place
In the family of things."

Not a bad  Benediction.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Memorial Day--Remember the Fallen

There is a story in Sunday's New York Times about a group of artists that recently visited Walter Reed Hospital where so many of our wounded men and women are trying to mend and begin life again after coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan. These artists had two hours to sketch and draw those who agreed to be subjects for this project. Some of their work can be seen in Sunday's paper.

 One soldier spoke from his bed: "It is important for people to really see what we go through. I have scars all over my body. I have a colostomy bag. I have one leg, and it's only about 10 inches. This is what happens when you send your men off to war."

On this Memorial Day it is time once again for us to remember our fallen. Since this war began CNN reports we have lost over 7,500 men and women. They came from 20 Countries--but most of them came from the United States. To date 4,802 US and Coalition casualties have been reported in Iraq. There have also been 16,024 wounded. In Afghanistan we have lost 2,991 in this war and 16,024 have come home wounded. The average age of these casualties and wounded were 20-23 years old. To see those portraits of war you can read the article or simply view the powerful renderings of pain and war at

The most disturbing story I have read this week-end about our troops is found in an editorial in The Times. The article reports that the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs have repeatedly promised to do a better job of handling the medical evaluations of wounded and disabled service members. Instead, the article says, they are doing worse. This is bureaucracy at its lowest level. Just the processing of disability cases has gone from an average wait period of 394 days for active duty troops and 420 days for National Guard members and reservists. In 2010 32% of active-duty troops and 37% of Guard and Reserve troops completed evaluations and received benefits within established guidelines. Last year--those figures fell to a dismal 19% and 18%. Read the story and weep. To march and wave flags this week-end is simply not enough.

Bill Coffin once said: "There are three kinds of patriots, two bad, one good. The bad ones are the uncritical lovers and the loveless critics. Good patriots carry on a lover's quarrel with their country, a reflection of God's lover's quarrel with all the world."
                       --William Sloane Coffin, Credo

Friday, May 25, 2012

Memorial Day--Bigger Than We Think

"As I sit here

in my little boat

tied to the shore

of the passing river

in a time of ruin,

I think of you,

old ancestor,

and wish you well.

--Wendell Berry, from

(As we approach this Memorial Day  I think we should tip our hats to all those brave soldiers of all walks of life that have paved the way for us all. Let us think of all the blessings that none of us really deserve. Someone cared and loved and picked us up and wiped us off--and held us close. Let us remember.)

In the state of New Mexico there is a place called Inscription Rock. It is part of a great rock formation. In the springtime, great torrents of water eat away at the base of this huge rock wall. Great piles of gravel and sand are deposited at its base. The gravel and sand formed a pass which became the old route from East to West. It led to Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and the Great Plains of the Northwest.

 History books say that by the sixteenth century the Spaniards were already using this route. When some trapper or prospector passed Inscription Rock, he would do a strange thing. He would stop, take a knife and cut his name and the date and always the same phrase: “Paso por aqui” (passed through here) into the rock.  Those words furnished a last change of address for men who would never return. Inscription Rock was a special place because it bore witness to a journey that a man had made. Juan Hernandez, in person, had “passed through here” in 1587.

 On this Memorial Sunday we are given the gift of a weekend to pause before our own Inscription Rock. We are challenged to think of all the brave soldiers who have left a mark on the wall of our lives. This holiday originated in the South shortly after the Civil War. Memorial Day became a time for honoring those who had fallen in all the wars. Through the years the day has evolved into an occasion for decorating with flowers the graves of all our honored dead. The practice remains in many places in Alabama and other states. One Sunday a year people drive back to a place where someone they loved is buried. They clean off the old graves, they lovingly place flowers. They remember and then they make their way back home.

 Whose name is carved on your Inscription Rock? My Mother’s name is written on my rock for many reasons.  She entered me in the ”Pretty Baby” Contest and was furious because I did not even place in the event. Such blind love one does not forget. On my wall are two old maid sisters who taught school was I was a little boy. For some reason they took a shine to me and kept on their dresser the picture of a little boy with curly hair named Roger. I was told that old photograph was there until the day they died. One does not forget such affection. There was our maid, Nancy who was my first counselor. She was hardly able to read or write but she listened and cared and helped enormously. How could I ever forget her? There was a Journalism teacher in High School who listened to my teen-age problems. She asked me if I had ever thought about writing. She was the first person who challenged me to go to college. On the wall of my heart there is the name of Miss Byrdie. Her eyes were hopelessly scarred because of a fire she fell into when she was eighteen months old. She saved nickels and dimes and dollars from working in a knitting mill and gave me tuition money to go to Howard College. Who could forget such a sacrifice?  Later there was a counselor who held my hand until I really did cross the choppy waters to safety. These, and a great many more, are all inscribed on the walls of my heart.

Sir Isaac Newton, the great scientist, one day said, “I could not do what I have done unless I had stood on the shoulders of giants.” There are no self-made men and women. Whatever success we have known is because of all the people who have carved their names on the walls of our lives. They diapered us and taught us to read and sing and dance and play ball and drive a car and find our way. We would never have made it through the winding path of our lives without all those who affirmed and believed in us.

Memorial Day reminds me of a scene in Bobbie Ann Mason’s novel, In Country. It is the story of Dwayne who married a girl in his hometown of Hopewell, Kentucky and then went off to the Viet Nam war. He never came back—but he left his wife pregnant. After he died a daughter was born. Her mother named her Sam. The novel is about Sam’s and her family’s grief in trying to deal with the loss of a father and the loss of a son to her Grandmother.

 Sam and that Grandmother and a friend leave the little Kentucky town where they live to visit the Vietnam Memorial for the first time. The Grandmother had hardly been out of the county. Finally they got to Washington, found the Memorial and just looked at that black mountain of marble that seemed to grow from out of the ground. They stood there, that daughter and Mother and just looked and looked at the 58 thousand names of all the men and women who had died in that war. Each name was inscribed on that monument. They went to the directory and found the name they were looking for: Dwayne E. Hughes. And then they found the section where his name was etched into the marble. The old mother couldn’t see it very well and she wanted to touch the name before she left. So one of the workers brought a ladder and with the help of her granddaughter and a friend this little old lady climbed, ever so slowly up the ladder until she found the name of her boy. She reached out and ran her fingers over the name. She stood there for a long time—and then, wiping away the tears, she said: “Help me down.”

 This is the day of touching some name and remembering some face.  We all have some Inscription Rock. And we pause to remember all those, who in passing, have made our lives forever different.

(This piece first appeared in my blog in May 2010. I wanted to share it with those who perhaps might like to read it.)

(Want to read a great Memorial Day tribute? Read Lily Burana's, "At War", published in the New York Times. It is great.)

Friday, May 18, 2012

Praying for Peace for One's Friends

Prayer For Peace

I read the Lectionary passage for the day:
“...he will speak peace to his people.”
And I turned from that verse to that
  penciled dog-eared list I keep in the back
  of my Bible.
I unfolded that roll of names and people
  from all over.
Family, friends—colleagues...
  brave soldiers in every kind of war.
Cancer. Alzheimer’s. Church fights.
  The dreaded ALS.
Some simply waiting for the other
  shoe to drop.

Desperate, courageous, frightened—
  amazingly faith-filled.
Down beside every name and
  every varying condition
I whisper one word, “Peace.”

Once upon a time our Lord whispered
  that tiny word to half-believers
  on a stormy sea.
Is it too much to believe, after all these
Down beside these familiar names
  of heartbreak and courage—
They too might find their waves
And their hearts calmed as that sea
  so long ago.

   --Roger Lovette

      Ascension of our Lord, 2012

(The moving statue above stands at a crossroads in downtown Birmingham. Brother Bryan, years ago loved this city and poured everything he had into its well being. After his death the city commissioned this statue which stands among the bars, restaurants homeless and business folk that pass that way.)

Obama and Same-Sex Marriages

Ever read, “Funny Boy?” It’s found in John Grisham’s book of short stories called, Ford Country. The narrative is set in Mississippi. Twenty-thirty years ago. Men are sitting around the barbershop talking. Somebody said, “Did you hear that Funny Boy is coming home from California?” They began to talk about Funny Boy in school, how different he was. Strange, really. Almost everybody called him Funny Boy.  Nobody said gay or queer but the words lurked barely beneath the surface. Funny Boy came home. He was HIV positive and was dying. His family turned their backs on him and finally a black family took him in where he lived until he died. There were so many layers of sadness in that story.  

When I heard that our President had announced that he was officially embracing same-sex marriages I thought about Grisham’s Funny Boy story. And I also thought about all those across the country who have suffered for years and years in closets, in secrecy, in shame or utter frustration simply because they could not be who they were. The President addressed this issue head-on: “I have to tell you that over the course of several years as I have talked to friends and family and neighbors, when I think about members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together; when I think about those soldiers or airmen or marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet feel constrained, even now that ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ is gone, because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage, at a certain point, I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.” 

In the last few years the country has moved closer toward equality for gays and lesbians. Almost every poll suggests this. Still gay rights are an explosive issue for families, for churches and for the nation. Whole denominations are split over this issue. Who knows what effect these words from the President will have on next November’s election? 

But I applaud the President’s courage. He is the President of the whole nation. Columnist Charles Blow has written that, “History will remember this president in this moment. He stood up for a personal liberty and publicly affirmed what should have needed no affirmation: that in a just society the rights of some must be the rights of all, that we do condemn those who love differently, that we are all made greater when we are all treated equally.” 

Great leaders do not do the popular thing but the right thing. That seems to be a rare quality in our time. Dr. King once said, “A genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus but a molder of consensus.”

I keep thinking of all the boys and girls around our country who have suffered terribly simply because of their sexual orientation. No one should be discriminated against because of who they are. We are still learning that painful lesson in our struggle with the racial issue. Maybe, just maybe in time we might conquer our fears and prejudices on this matter and move on to the next challenge. Nothing ever stays won. There will always be some justice and human right’s issue which will once again test our faith and courage and commitment to that old document which reads: “We hold these truths that all... are created equal...”

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Mother's Day Memory

One of the pictures in my study is a photograph of two red Gerbera daisies. One is in full bloom and the other is just beginning to open. It looks like a sunshiny day. The flower’s foliage is lush and green. Occasionally someone will pick up the picture and ask, “Why do you have a picture of these two flowers on your desk?” And I answer their question with a story. 

It goes back more than twenty years. Coming home from a two-week trip I began to catch up on the news with my wife. She had traveled south while I had studied up north. On the way home she had stopped by my mother’s house in Georgia and learned she was in the hospital. In her eighties, Mother’s trips to the hospital were coming closer together.

“Oh by the way,” my wife said, “your mother sent you some flowers. Gerbera daisies,” she said. My wife reported, “Just before she got sick she told me that she went to a nursery, found two plants at a good price. She instructed me to go by her house when I left the hospital, get the daisies, be careful with them, and bring them home to you. She gave me strict instructions not to plant them here.” We were moving soon and so she told my wife, “That old red South Carolina mud won’t grow nothin’—take the plants to Memphis and plant them when you move.”  

When I talked to my mother on the telephone she wanted to know about the daisies. “Give them plenty of water, keep them out of the full sun until they’re planted and take them with you to Memphis. Now don’t put them in that moving van—you put them in your car.”That was our last conversation. She died less than a week later. 

I left the plants with a neighbor while we went to Georgia for the funeral. I wanted to make sure they were all right. And so we stood with family and friends in the cemetery on a hot July afternoon and said our sad goodbyes. 

We moved weeks later to Tennessee. One of the last things I did as we closed up our house was to put the daisies in my car. A week later on a hot Sunday morning I planted my daisy plants in the Tennessee soil in our side yard. It was a painful time, planting the flowers my Mother had given me. Grief came surging back. As I mulched the flowers I remember praying, “Dear God, let them live. Let them live.” It was late August. 

My birthday fell on a Saturday in October that year. As I went to get the paper I was dumbfounded by what I saw. One of the daisies had the prettiest red bloom and another bud was barely opening. I don’t know much about this flower except October is very late for a Gerbera daisy to bloom. I charged into the house and told my wife, “You won’t believe what’s outside. One of mother’s daisies is blooming on my birthday!”It was her final gift of so many others she had given me through the years. Even after her death, her gift came alive. The long arm of her love touches me still. The picture you see here I took on that birthday morning.

Frost came early that year. The flowers wilted. I hoped the daisies would live through the winter—but Gerbera daisies don’t usually do that. The next spring the flowers never came up. But this I know—that daisy bloomed on my birthday. The flowers didn’t come back—but they did their work in a hard time. And even after all these years I look at that picture and smile. Grace, stubborn grace, comes in the strangest of ways. And so I told my friend this is why I keep this picture of that gerbera daisy on my desk.

(This one of my favorite Mama stories.  I had this piece on my blog several years ago--but I wanted to share it with those who have not read it--but might enjoy it.)

                                                        +                  +              +            +

Several years ago I attended the funeral of a very great lady in Huntsville, Alabama. At that service one of her daughter's read the following poem. I had never read this poem by Billy Collins before. It can be found in his book, The Trouble With Poetry. He has captured Mother's Day in a wonderful tribute.

The Lanyard

The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.

No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly--
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that's what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light

and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.

Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
 and here, in the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift--not the worn truth

that you can never replay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.

(In loving memory of my mother, Ruth Kelley Lovette who died in 1988.)

Just read Timothy Egan's moving story of his mother's last weeks. Quite a tribute. Quite a woman.  "The Last Mother's Day."  Worth the read.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Light--There's Nothing Like It

"Thou didst in our darkest hour
Rend the clouds and show thy light."
--St. Thomas Aquinas

We moved back to South Carolina in December. And what sold me on the house we bought was the light. The living room and my soon-to-be-study were both on the front of the house. Both rooms were flooded with morning light. There’s something powerful and healing and hopeful, too I think—to get up in the morning and see the sunlight flooding the front rooms of the house. To throw open the shutters and, literally let the sunshine in. That morning light is full of promise. There stretches before me a brand new day that, as Buechner says, is to be opened like a present.

But too often I ignore that light or miss it altogether. I’m concentrating on what the TV has said about Obama or Romney or Gingrich pulling out or all those BB guns aimed at the President. Why he dares to mention the death of Osama bin Laden on the anniversary of his death.  But it doesn’t matter what the President says or does—the BB guns are out and aimed toward him. I unfold the paper and read the headlines and turn to our one editorial page. More bad news. It sells papers and keeps people watching TV.

All this is diversion. I mutter about the distractions of the politicians and the pundits—but I’m as guilty as they. There is a whole lot that turns us away from the light—flooding our day with anger, fear and often hopelessness.

Why do many of us opt for these diversions when we have been given a present of this wonderful light? I do not know. The Bible talks a lot about light. Light is a powerful metaphor in the Bible.  Genesis tells us that God made the light as well as the darkness. Another writer has called this light good. Christ called himself the light of the world. In Pilgrim’s Progress Pilgrim wondered how he can keep going with the heavy burden on his back. And Evangelist told him, “Do you see yonder shining light?” Pilgrim replied, “I think I do.” Then Evangelist said, “Keep that light in thine eye, and go directly thereto, so shalt thou see the gate...”  

That light is here for all of us. The challenge is to let the beams flood us and everything we touch.  I’m going to try to not take for granted that light that comes, like manna, fresh every morning. Annie Dillard wrote: “I cannot cause light; the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of it’s beam.” Not a bad way to live a life.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Vote For Jesus--Huh?

Vote For Jesus. I saw this sign often in front of this house on a country road in South Carolina last week. Wonder what it means?  Probably implies that if we finally vote Barack Hussein Obama (emphasis on the Hussein) out of office we can get this country back the way it ought to be. Like Garrison Keillor says: “Where the women are strong and the men are good looking and the kids are above average.” Or better put” Where men are real mean and not girlie boys—women stay at home and raise babies and have supper ready when he men folk get home. Where the kids don’t get into drugs or cuss like sailors and dip into the wrong things on the Internet. Vote for Jesus and we’ll go back to a country where immigrants were immigrants and citizens were American loving countrymen. Vote for Jesus and magically the economy will turn around and the private sector—not the government will take care of all of us. 

But that’s only one side of the coin. Vote for Jesus could mean making sure the Republicans are left in the dust. That we put people like Santorum and Romney and Limbaugh and a whole lot of others in their place. And that place would be, of course the back of the line. Vote for Jesus would mean that we would bring all our troops home and we would study war no more. And—we'd all have health care and the poor would have a safety net and maybe we could secure Social Security and Medicare and just calm down. The temperature is way too high. Voting for Jesus will make sure the winds and waves really do calm down. Peace Be Still. 

Jim Wallis recently wrote that our problem is that we see politics as our salvation. That politics really is our primary idolatry. He says that our politics these days shapes our faith and the worship of God ought to shape our politics. To vote for Jesus, then is to make sure our side wins—and if that happens surely the kingdom of God will be a whole lot closer than it was before November 2012. 

Read Jim Wallis article for yourself. He says the Kingdom of God and the United States of America are not synonymous. Surely he must be a Socialist and soft on Terrorism. He implies that liberty and justice for all really does mean what it says. And that the dream of the Founding Fathers was really was for the common good—even though they missed it by a country mile. But the dream remains. 

We can tear ourselves apart. What family does not have people on the other side of the issue that are just itching to fight over this political thing? Churches are split—and some are pulling out of their denominations over this very issue. Why do we have to choose sides? We are right and you wrong. Somehow—we are going to have to get along with each other.  

Yep we can vote for Jesus but it won’t mean anybody’s side wins. It will mean we pull off the blinders and know that politics cannot bring in the Kingdom. I keep remembering that terrible verse in the Psalms: “He gave them up to their request, but sent leanness to their souls.” Voting Jesus may bring in some lean times but it would also mean that we would not kill each other off in the name of God. We have some work to do.