Monday, May 29, 2017

Decoration Day

My mother always used the term “Decoration Day.”  She remembered, I suppose, her childhood days when Memorial Day was primarily a time to decorate the graves of the fallen with flowers, wreaths and flags. Whatever name we use, Decoration Day or Memorial Day, it is a day for remembering those who have died in service to our country.  

On May 30, 1868, the first national celebration of Memorial Day, former General and sitting Ohio Congressman James Garfield (eventually POTUS) made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery:  “We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke; but we do know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue.”  After the speech, the 5000 participants helped decorate the graves of some 20,000 Union and Confederate  soldiers buried there.  

Approximately 1,265,000 American military men and women have died in America’s wars—620,000 in the Civil War (some say as many as 750,000) and 645,000 in all other conflicts and the number grows as the longest-war-ever in our nation's history continues. “How can you have a war on terrorism,” writes Howard Zinn, “when war itself is terrorism.” 

How I wish we  as a nation (and world) could live into that African-American spiritual, Down By the Riverside, “I’m gonna lay down my sword and shield, Down by the riverside….I ain’t gonna study war no more.”  I would think we would all consider that option (I ain’t gonna study war no more) as we observe Decoration/Memorial Day and remember the horrendous cost.  War is costly—and I don’t mean in terms of dollars—but in terms of human life.  War must never be glorified or romanticized, for war is not a Memorial Day picnic or a computer game.   War may reveal noble deeds, courage, valor, patriotism, and the unspeakable sacrifices we remember and honor today, but war also reveals hideous brutality, stupidity, destruction, and killing, not only of those in the military, but the innocents who happen to be in harm’s way.

My "Weeping Rose" on Memorial Day

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Something Is Wrong

I’ve just read Chris Hayes’ new book,  A Colony In A Nation, an “analysis of America’s arbitrary and erratic criminal justice system.”  I think Hayes accurately interprets the America we live in—where one group is treated as citizens and another group as the colonized.

Statistics alone tell the story.  “The United States is the most violent developed country in the world.”  Our homicide rate (while having fallen in recent years) is higher than that of any other developed democracy in the world!  One out of every four prisoners in the world is an American—incarcerated in our state and federal penal system—“even though the United States has just 5 percent of the world’s population.” Having spent nearly twenty years in the Yokefellow Prison Ministry, visiting prisons around the nation, I am quite familiar with this terrible dilemma. Something is wrong!

But it gets even worse.  Black men are six times as likely as all white men to be incarcerated in federal, state and local jails (2013 Pew Research Center study) and Blacks only make up 13 percent of the nation’s population!  One out of every four black males born this year (if the trend continues) can expect to go to prison/jail at least once in his lifetime.  Something is wrong!

We, as a nation and society, want to see ourselves as living in a post racial world, but Hayes suggests that by nearly every empirical measure—wealth, unemployment, neighborhoods, incarceration, school segregation—racial inequality hasn’t changed much since 1968.  Hayes’ analysis disturbs me. I thought there had been movement toward equality.  I thought things had gotten better. Hayes has convinced me that my thinking has been wrong.  But something else is wrong, too—and it isn’t just my “thinking!” We have A Colony within our nation—where one group is treated as citizens and another group as the colonized.  I commend Chris Hayes’ book to you—and, by the way, it isn’t “fake news,” though I wish it were.

"Never forget that every thing Hitler did in Germany was legal"

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Thirteenth Apostle

Everybody knows of Judas Iscariot.  Few know of Matthias.  There is only one mention of his selection to be the thirteenth apostle and that is found in the Acts of the Apostles (1:22-26). We know nothing else about him for history has consigned him to anonymity and obscurity.  Judas gets all the attention and Matthias gets none at all.  Why?

Why are Matthias’ ignored and Judas” given all the attention?  Or, as the scripture puts it, “Why do the wicked prosper?”  Why do some people receive fame and others get ignored?  Why do some succeed and others fail?  The question “why” takes many forms and echoes throughout history.  Jeremiah says, “Lord…I question you about matters of justice.  Why are the wicked so prosperous?” (Jer. 12:1).  Why do some get recognition and others do not?  

Two candidates were nominated to be the thirteenth apostle, “they proposed two men”…Joseph called Barsabbas”  and Matthias.  The eleven apostles resorted to “dumb luck” to determine which person God desired.  They rolled dice, that is, they wrote the names of the candidates on stones; the stones were placed into a jar and the jar was shaken until one stone fell out; and he whose name was on the first stone to fall out would become the chosen one.  Is this the way of life—just a roll of the dice?  Is it all summed up by just dumb luck?  

A few years ago, I walked through a cemetery in England where thousands of American soldiers are buried.  Some  of the crosses marking the graves had names and some did not.  It was a very traumatic experience—reading the names, noting the ages of those men who gave their all—especially when I read my own name on one of the crosses:  “Harold Owens, 1919-1943.”  Why are some soldiers unknown and others known?  Why does Patton, Eisenhower and McArthur  receive fame, while thousands upon thousands who gave their lives remain unknown and unrecognized?

John Milton was born in 1608 and died at the age of 66.  He was perhaps the greatest poet of the English language. Milton was struck blind at the age of forty-four.  In his poem, When I Consider How My Light is Spent, Milton ponders why God would gift him with remarkable talents, only to take them back.  “Doth God exact day-labor, light denied?”  Plunged into a world of darkness, Milton wondered about the injustices of life.  In the last line of his poem he wrote:  “They also serve who only stand and wait.”  Those crosses in England echo Milton’s words.  Those soldiers were on the front line, standing, waiting, serving, and in the end, gave their lives.  History  has consigned them to anonymity and obscurity. Tom Brokaw’s attempt to give them recognition as a part of “the greatest generation” is commendable, but not sufficient.  Memorial Day is a good time to utter Milton’s words:  “They also serve who only stand and wait.”

Life is fragile.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Only Yesterday--New York, New York

My granddaughter has lived in New Jersey for about a year now, commuting to her work place in the “Big Apple” every day. Katie’s description of “New York, New York” is not in tune with the romantic song Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and others sang and which I often sing to myself when no one else is around. Her reports are a bit less romantic and much more graphic as she tells me of the crowds, the smells, the trash, and the sounds of this urban center of nearly eight and a half million people.  

Only yesterday—in the mid-1800’s—New York City had a population of about a million and a half people, plus 200,000 or more horses.  Yes, horses—and flies (more flies than horses)!  Each horse dropped twenty-five pounds of manure and several quarts of urine every day. There were 427 blacksmith shops, 249 carriage and wagon establishments and on a typical day over “8000 horse-drawn vehicles with two or more horses, passed by the corner of Broadway and Pine Street.”  New York City in that day had no sewage system, no street cleaning, and no flush toilets.  Garbage, both human and animal waste—was thrown out windows and onto city streets creating serious health issues.  “Writing in the Times of London in 1894, one writer estimated that in 50 years every street in London would be buried under nine feet of manure” (Joel Tarr, Carnegie-Mellon University).  Salvation (so-called and proclaimed) from such a hell, however, was only 25 or so years away, saving London and other cities from such an impending manure disaster. 

Only yesterday—a mere hundred years ago—a new kind of horse came on the scene.  By 1910 the “horseless carriage,” along with other innovations like street cleaning, flush toilets and sewer systems, gave promise to a new day in New York City and elsewhere.  The “horseless carriage” was touted as a positive solution.  “It is all a question of dollars and cents,” someone wrote about the transition from horse to horseless, “this gasoline or oats proposition.”  

Today the horses are gone from the city streets, but their successors, the new horseless carriage, has created new problems ranging from wars to “preserve the oil” to climate change.  The new problems may be more difficult to solve than “The Great Horse Manure Crises of 1894,” when “it seemed that The End of Civilization As We Know It would be brought about, not by a meteor strike, global sickness or warfare, but by an excess of manure, by the urban equine.”  

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

“Job-like” Questions and Anguish

I have questions this morning (and every morning and all day long)—like Job’s questions in the Old Testament—questions without answers.  These questions overwhelm me when I read or hear of incidents like that in Manchester, England,  or  the senseless murder of 23-year-old Richard W. Collins III (an about-to-graduate Bowie State University student) on the College Park campus of the University of Maryland just a few days ago.  Like Job of old, I ask, “Where is God in all of this? Why do the innocent suffer?”  

On January 2, 2006, two carts of miners entered the Sago Mine in West Virginia to begin the first shift after the holiday weekend.  A few minutes later an explosion trapped thirteen miners in the first cart two miles into the mine and 300 feet underground.  The entire country held its breath.  The little Appalachian community prayed.  Late Tuesday night, January 3, the national news services reported that twelve of the thirteen miners had been found alive.  Euphoria erupted, horns blared, sirens screamed, and church bells pierced the night at Sago Baptist Church where Governor Joe Manchin proclaimed a “miracle.”  But in a cruel twist of fate and miscommunication, three hours later the media reversed its report—twelve miners were dead and one alive, not twelve alive and one dead as earlier reported.  Pandemonium followed this announcement.  When the pastor of Sago Baptist Church urged families to look to God for help, a man shouted, “What the hell do you mean?  What can God do for us now?”  A distraught woman, her faced contorted with agony, cried out, “Where is God when we need him?  Is he really there?”

A renowned naturalist, Sir David Attenborough wrote:  “I frequently receive letters from people saying, in effect, ‘You’ve traveled around the world, you’ve seen all the marvels of nature, how could you not believe in a loving God who created the world.’  I reply to these letters by asking their authors to picture an eight-year-old child sitting by a river in Africa.  That child is guilty of nothing more than the usual childhood foolishness.  And yet there is a worm burrowing under that child’s eyelid, a worm that can only exist by burrowing under the eyelids of children, and it will cause that child to go blind and live out their life in disfigurement and pain.  How can you tell me that a loving God created that worm to do that to a child?”

Those who read this rant this morning may say, why don’t you give answers and not raise questions?  Why don’t you write about warm fuzzy things and not issues?  Why don’t you write about faith and not doubt?  Tell us about God (Love) being at the heart of all things.  But, I ask, in return, then what the hell do we do with REALITY?  What do we do with these Job-like questions and this Job-like anguish we feel in the midst of this REALITY?  Like Rilke, I live these questions awaiting  the answers that do not readily come.

Light?  Where is the Light?

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Carriers and The Carried

In Mark’s gospel we read the story of four friends carrying their paralytic comrade to Jesus.  They encounter a crowd blocking the way, but this does not deter them.  They climb up on the roof, cut a hole, and lower their friend down into the presence of Jesus.  Jesus was impressed with the carriers, especially with their bold engineering feat of cutting through the roof.  Jesus admires their determination and implies that these four friends are made of the kind of stuff that makes things happen.  Jesus also dealt kindly with the one who was carried.

Carriers do make things happen and fortunately we have all been carried.  We were carried in our mother’s womb totally dependent on our mother carrying us safely.  When we could do nothing on our own, we were nurtured and carried by those who fed us, dressed us, and watched over us.  When we could not walk, we were carried in loving arms.  When we went off to school, unable to read or write, we were carried by a teacher who taught us and inspirited us with a sense of self-worth.  Through the years of our growing up, many carried us.  A thousand impersonal forces about which we could do little—carried us.  We have been carried by many friends, circumstances, and events all through our years—a friend who prayed for us (who carried us and we did not know it), a stranger who helped us, a friend who stood by us, an event that lifted us—we have all been carried.  The idea that somehow we have carried ourselves to where we are and to what we have achieved is sheer nonsense.  All of us have been carried.

That we have been carried, are carried  and will be carried, becomes crystal clear as we become older and are no longer able to drive on our own, or walk on our own, or go to the doctor’s office, or to the grocery store.  No one wants to be dependent on somebody else, but the truth is that we are, have been, and will always be.  We are Aeneas who carried his aged father on his back from the ruins of Troy, and we are his father and we ought to be both at the same time.

Monday, May 22, 2017

On Listening To Another

Douglas V. Steere wrote a book On Listening To Another, and in the introduction he penned the following:  “In the Journal of John Woolman, there is a well-known scene which took place in an Indian village along the upper Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania.  John Woolman rose to pray in a religious meeting held among the Indians and an interpreter who stood up to render Woolman’s words into the Indian language was asked to sit down and let the prayer go untranslated.  After the meeting, the Indian chief, Papunehang approached Woolman and through an interpreter said of the prayer whose English words he had not understood, ‘I love to feel where words come from.’”

I first read Steere’s book in 1969 and have read it many times since.  Yet, I still find it a difficult task to listen.  It is a gift to “feel where words come from.” I think we all have this gift within us—the gift to listen—but we seldom exercise it.  We are so caught up in our own words, our own story, our own feelings, that we can scarcely hear the words, the story, and the feelings of another.  Someone has written that we cannot listen well because we have never had anyone listen to us.  

Years ago, I went to my bishop with a concern.  I was awed by his position and his authority.  When I walked into his office, I was nervous  and apprehensive.  I wondered if I would ever be able to speak to him.  He moved from his desk to an easy chair and asked me what was on my mind.  I began to tell him why I had come, and as I began, he bent forward and listened to my feeble attempt to express myself with patient attentiveness and concern.  He never uttered a single word, never asked a question, never interrupted, giving me space to say what I needed to say, and within  minutes I suddenly stopped talking.  I no longer needed to talk.  I knew he heard me.  He had already felt my words, understood my concern, and the meeting turned into something much deeper and significant than the small concern with which it began.  We touched holy ground.  This is what happens when someone really listens to us—we suddenly find ourselves on holy ground.

It is no easy task to listen.  It requires conscious thought and discipline and for that reason it is a rare thing in our world today.  If I cannot listen to my friend, how can I possibly listen and hear the “still small voice” addressing me from within?
My Mother's Iris in bloom