Sunday, November 30, 2008

Advent: An Ending and A New Beginning

The new year cycle of seasonal observance for the Church begins anew today with four weeks of Advent.  The word derives from the traditional phrase: "Adventus Domini", "the coming of the Lord".  Occuring just prior to Christmas, it's a reminder of the centuries' long wait for the birth of the Messiah, the Anointed One of God, realized, according to Christian belief, in the birth of Jesus (Yeshua bar Joseph) of Nazareth around 6 B.C.E.  It also refers to Christians' current expectation of the Christ's second, definitive coming at the future conclusion of human history.

According to the Scripture readings assigned for this particular liturgical year, Year B in the Episcopal Church, it's clear that Advent doesn't begin on an "up" note, a celebration, or a shopping spree.  The three readings for this first Sunday are from Isaiah 64:1-9a; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; and Mark 13:24-37.  The Isaiah passage, particularly, emanates from a community of hurt in a time of occupation and exile, people who know pain, who articulate it, who let it show.  This community of hurt is quite aware of the Holy One when it speaks of its suffering, knowing that ultimately it is God who will end the suffering.  Based on their people's past experiences, God's reign is not in doubt, and so this community is also a community of hope.  It passionately hopes for and believes in the coming reign of God.  Its hope is as concrete as its hurt, both of which go together in human life. Many in contemporary society disdain speaking of their hopes and hurts, especially the latter.  Yet it's the reality of humanity's present hurt which can be a motivating basis for ultimate hope.

Isaiah pictures his waiting community as a child abandoned, but not orphaned.  In Chapter 63:16 he says: "For you are our father", and again in 64:8: "Yet, O Lord, you are our father".  These are Advent's parameters: we, too, begin and end knowing whose we are.  Between these two assertions Isaiah explores what it means to look to an abiding Father in the midst of stark suffering.  He boldly accuses God of abandoning, misleading, hiding.  He begs God to return: "O that you would tear open the heavens and come when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil..." He reminds God of previous interventions when God took the people by surprise and shattered the known order of things. For Isaiah and the people it's been far too long: a time during which, unfortunately, they've fallen through their own human inadequacy, they've succumbed to weakness and selfishness, and have flaunted things of which they're not at all proud in God's face.  

"YET," Isaiah says, "you, O Lord, are our Father."  That's the assumption of Advent: a "yet" in the face of all present evidence, a "yet" based only in God's own person, the One in whom they hope and to whom they belong.  God's past fidelity assures the community that God continues to work for those who wait in hope and faith.

An anonymous poet has written: 
"I saw the sign on the highway:
'Prepare to meet thy God.'
But when I got a little closer
There were no further instructions."  

In our culture we find "end time" talk embarrassing or irrelevant.  Yet that's exactly what Advent is about: the eschaton, the end times, the end of the known world of abandonment, sorrow, alienation, and injustice.  That world will, at some point, surely end.  And it is the task of each human being to be ready.  Advent is not a business-as-usual festival of things we now know and possess. The coming of King Jesus, traditionally referred to as Christ the King, isn't just a gentle baby who comes to fit into our preconceived world, but rather a Divine Being who breaks into our human situation and shakes up the known order of this world.  Advent is the symbol of this shattering of all the false ideals and idols which we mistakenly treasure.  In the Christ's coming there is clearly devastation and loss, something to which we're not strangers.  We know about dread and fear, about inhumanity, and the terror of war, about financial anxiety and desperation.  

But the shock of Advent isn't just about devastation; it's also about liberation: a shattering of forms restricting us, of shapes oppressing us, of paralysis which shuts us down.  Don't be surprised if you find this difficult to accept or understand.  This is a hard message for what we presume to be our "settled" world.  We live, especially in this country, by a psychology of exaggerated autonomy in which we credit no outside agency, in which we're accustomed to buying our way into and out of everything.  Advent is meant to teach us that this way of thinking and living is in jeopardy. Whether Christians are willing to admit it or not, they often imagine God as a "Daddy" who benignly presides over this predictable world to keep it friendly toward them.  They seduce themselves into believing that, if they only work at it with cleverness, they can have the world on their terms.  Scripture scholar Walter Brueggeman observes, however: "Well, that is conventional.  But it is not biblical, not Christian, not news."  

What we await and prepare ourselves for in Advent is the sneaking suspicion, the growing awareness that our world of prestige and power and security is on the way out, if, indeed, it ever really existed.  Advent shatters our presumed world. It intersects just where our hurt and our hope converge, in the person of Jesus the Christ.  Are you and I bold enough to voice the pain that is ours and the world's? Are you and I open enough and ready for newness to be given us? Can we trust God enough to lean into an ending that is also a new beginning?  If so, we'll undoubtedly encounter the One who works for us who wait.


Saturday, November 29, 2008

My Beautiful Boy

My son, the producer.  He's 34 today.

Andrew was three weeks overdue; I think my late wife, Mary, had an inkling as to about when he'd arrive.  After a long, sumptuous, late evening Thanksgiving dinner with Joe and Fran Arce and their family, who lived just across the street from us in Alameda, we slept well, if briefly, that evening.  Mary, somewhat reluctantly, woke me around 6:30 the next morning to say that it was probably time.  The adrenalin kicked in, despite the early hour, and we were on our way to Alameda Hospital, all of seven blocks up the street.   Within the half-hour we were standing at the admitting desk, and Mary was whisked off to a room.  There we watched the baby's movements on a monitor, but couldn't determine if it was a boy or girl.  Mary and I were both open to either, though we thought it'd be nice, since we had our daughter, Nicole, to have a boy.  

Dr. Payne had given me the OK to be present at the delivery.  I vaguely remember getting "suited up" and escorted into the delivery room around noon.  I remember Dr. Payne pulling Andrew out at 12:29 PM, all 9 lbs., 1 oz. of him -- this big, somewhat purplish looking baby.  It's ironic that in his late twenties Andrew adopted the nickname "Moose"!  His first response in coming into this new, uncertain, and cold world was to pee all over the doctor and nurses: a long stream, that I remember, and then scream his protest at being there!  After placing him in a small crib, I noticed some concerned looks among the doctors and nurses, then Dr. Payne asked that I step outside.  Immediate panic! They kept reassuring me that everything was OK, but that they needed to deal with a slight breathing difficulty.  Whatever it was, they dealt with it in short order.  My panic subsided and soon Andrew and his mother were resting comfortably.

Within the first year of his life Andrew had severe colic, was hospitalized for a short time with pneumonia, and scratched the cornea of his eye.   He had to wear an eye patch (a true challenge for parents with a wiggly 4-month-old!), which occasioned a number of family jokes and comments, especially on account of the way his diaper also sagged over his flat behind.  Also, except when tickled, he didn't smile much, thus earning himself the title of "The Judge".

In the years that followed, oh, too quickly from my perspective, Andrew was a short, skinny, klutzy ball of energy.  He wore glasses and braces, appearing to be a dead-ringer for Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley) in the 1983 classic, A Christmas Story.  His plain exterior, however, veiled a truly guileless, generous, and courageous soul: "my beautiful boy".  He began ballet classes at age 12 (a story in itself) and transformed over the next twelve years into a handsome, muscular, six-footer.  In his 20+ year ballet career he danced with seven major companies, including the Joffrey, and was an original cast member of the Broadway musical, Movin' Out, choreographed by Twyla Tharp, with music by Billy Joel.  He's always been a commanding presence onstage, and many times wowed audiences with incredible jumps and turns.  He himself would never tell you that, of course, but as his most ardent fan, I unabashedly would! And that's not even counting the innovative teaching and choreography which he's continued to the present.

Another November: 1999, 25 years after Dr. Payne delivered Andrew. 

I receive a call which is every parent's nightmare.  They tell me that my son, three weeks after closing in the lead role in Ballet Memphis' Dracula,  rated one of the year's six best artistic events in Memphis, has collapsed, can't walk, sit up, or support his head.  The diagnosis (given after literally many months): a rare form of brain-stem disease affecting the muscles, Bickerstaff's encephalitis.  That sickening panic roils in the pit of my stomach again!

Two months pass in a blur of frantic air flights back and forth to Memphis, worried huddles with doctors, calls back and forth, hopes raised one day and dashed the next.  In early December Andrew's condition worsens and they rush him to Vanderbilt University Hospital, Nashville.  In real panic now, I take an emergency flight and find my beautiful boy intubated, hooked up to a ventilator, his breathing so shallow that he's close to dying.  At his side again, I spend a week trying to fake it as the cool, strong dad.  Inwardly I scream with alarm and fear, refusing to even dare think "What if...?"  He and I communicate by notepad through his medicated haze and pain, and through the labyrinth of daily tests.  "This is all so traumatic, " he scribbles.  "I want to give in to one understands me anymore...I just want to give up...too much."  I clutch his hand, fight back the tears, and try to quiet him by reading from Anne LaMott's book, Travelling Mercies (he especially loves her quote about having thoughts that would cause Jesus to drink gin from a cat dish!), and from the Psalms.  

Lonely and helpless, I sit on the sidelines 2000 miles away for the next four months as Andrew moves in and out of the hospital and, eventually, to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.  I am bereft.  Glancing often at a desk photo of the smiling young man in a wheelchair, I weep, the awareness sinking in that it's "my beautiful boy", doomed to endure another day of tremors, memory loss, and humiliation by insensitive, staring people, who see only someone who's "different". Slowly I succumb to the growing possibility that Andrew may never dance again, or perhaps even walk.  Staring into the eyes of my own inner mistrust and despair, I ache and hurt down to the roots of my soul.  

Six and a half months of time pass.  It's June 22, 2001.  Tears of unutterable joy well up as I watch my "Lazarus" walk to me across the green courtyard grass of my apartment complex, smiling and confident, with only a slight limp.  A few months later he reawakens more of his body's muscles through Tai Chi and intensive Feldenkreis therapy.  Through the help of family and friends he emerges from a long bout of depression with a determination and resilience of spirit which leaves me breathless.  He's anxious as he approaches the ballet studio barre, privately in the off-hours, in September to see if his body remembers even the basic steps.  Two months later he soloes in a minor part in The Nutcracker.  By the next spring a New York Times review acclaims the "sizzling pas de deux" to B. B. King's recording of The Thrill is Gone in which Andrew performs on the Danny Kaye Theater stage in New York.

On Father's Day, 2000, Andrew wrote to me:  "I see myself in you, my only living parent...I share your best and your worst...You gave me this chance to live not once, but twice...let me tell you...I have no regrets about the past."

Nor I, my beautiful boy, nor I.  Happy Birthday -- and many more!

(Andrew, president of Andrew Allagree Productions LLC, is in the preliminary stages of producing the national tour of  Anne: A Dance for Humanity.  One story.  11 million voices.  The project is designed "to present an unmatched dance and theatrical performance experience through acclaimed choreographer Mauricio Weinrot's moving contemporary ballet Anne Frank...With its message of tolerance, anti-hate, and Holocaust education, Anne is both an artistic as well as a humanitarian endeavor."  The production, with a 14- member dance troupe, will travel nationwide presenting a multi-media dance/lecture format, in six major cities: Memphis, Chicago, Washington, D.C., New York City, Ft. Lauderdale, and San Francisco, between October and December, 2009.  For further information or to make much-needed donations, contact: Andrew Allagree Productions LLC, 901: 275-8042.  There's also a blog site: The Anne Frank Project: Andrew's Diary at    


Thursday, November 27, 2008

A Day of Thanks Giving

the blessing that you are in my life
reached my inner core today.

My heart ran over with gratitude
and I felt helpless with thankfulness.

There was nothing left to do
but smile
or cry,
So I did both
and felt immensely blessed some more.

Thank you seemed inadequate
so I said nothing
and melted into the terrible blessing 
of being.

For all of this 
you have
my very best

- Author unknown

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Little Things For Which We Can Be Thankful

Melba and I have this quiet understanding between us.  Maybe because she and I are both "silent types".  This morning as I was grabbing a bite at Oliver's Market, in Cotati, where she works and where I live, she looked over and there was this silent acknowledgment of a brief wave and smile between us.  It all started many months ago when Melba's husband, who was a cook at Porter Street Barbeque, just across the parking lot from Oliver's, died suddenly.   I became aware of it through the local weekly, the Community Voice, but never really had an opportunity to talk with her afterwards.   Until several months ago when I caught her by herself, without customers, at her checkout stand.  I told her that for a long time I'd wanted to let her know how sorry I'd been to hear of her husband's death, and that I'd offered prayers for her and her family during the time after his death, but never had the opportunity to tell her.  She expressed warm thanks.  I asked how it was going, and she said overall it was okay, but sometimes it was still tough.  Ever since then we've exchanged silent smiles and occasional conversations.  It's one of the many things for which I can be thankful.

I spend a good bit of time at Oliver's, mostly to do necessary grocery shopping.  But, living as I do on my own, I need the stimulation of people's company, even if I don't really know them or often engage them face to face.  So, many times I go there just for coffee and to work my daily crossword puzzle.  There's also a lot of time there and at other places for observation of humanity at its best, and sometimes at its less desirable.  What has struck me over the year and a half in which I've be a patron of Oliver's is the atmosphere of teamwork -- bosses, checkout staff and baggers, deli and meat department workers, wine department coordinators, the organic products' experts -- as well as respect for customers and one another.  I've seen employees go far out of their way to accommodate shoppers.  What's amazing to me is that this is so noticeable, whereas other places are notoriously unlike this.  Example: during and after my last minute Thanksgiving shopping this morning, I could count at least a half dozen or more times when workers made it a point intentionally to say "Have a happy Thanksgiving".  It's another of the many things for which I can be thankful.

I've noticed this spirit at one other place (at least) in recent months: at the Black Bear Diner in Rohnert Park.  It's listed in the phone book without any special ad.  For awhile after I moved here, I didn't even know it existed.  Virtually every time I've eaten at the Black Bear Diner since then, I've been amazed at the full parking lot outside and the line waiting inside the door to be seated.  I learned early on that sitting at the counter was the way to go, because you can generally always get a seat there.  Sitting at the counter gives one the advantage of observing the cook staff and their interaction with the constantly busy servers and managers.  Just as at Oliver's, they each have one another's back.  When a server gets overwhelmed, another steps in voluntarily to help.  It's fascinating to watch the amazing and intricate choreography as the cooks go back and forth between grill and counter, and as servers weave in and out between the booths, the counter, the preparation area, etc.  The diversity reflected both at Oliver's and at the Black Bear Diner is also refreshingly amazing.  Employees are Caucasian, African American, Hispanic.  One can witness moments of clever humor, gracious compassion, and, yes, occasionally differences of opinion with a customer over service.  But the general atmosphere, though hectic at times, is one of even pace, respect, even gracefulness.  

Black Bear Diner is a favorite of mine because it has a juke box, and a good variety of tunes: strains of old romantic ballads and some good ole country music, most by more "classical" C & W artists, emanate from it.  It just seems to make the 7-grain almond pancakes and eggs with hot coffee go down so much smoother.  Coupled with the courtesy and good service of the waitresses and waiters, it's one of the many things which periodically warms my heart and makes me very thankful.

Little things, but thank God for them!   

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

An Opportunity for Action

You won't read about it in the morning "news"paper.  It's one of those out-of-the-way places which journalists and media stars ignore because they've got more "important" breaking news.  The map to the right, compliments of, is a section of India: the state of Orissa on the east coast, reaching into the Bay of Bengal. Established in 1936 as a province of British India, Orissa covers a little over 60,000 square miles, divided into some 30 districts, with a population of 36,706,920 -- ninth largest state by area, eleventh, by population.  Oriya is the common language. There is only one accessible deepwater facility, at Paradip.  The state's interior is mountainous and largely unpopulated.

I, for one, had never heard of Orissa until this week when one of the OJN affiliates made us aware that things are not well in Orissa.  According to an email she received on November 23 from some Christian missionaries there, associated with Youth With A Mission (YWAM), a serious persecution of Christians is taking place there, and no one in the West seems to be paying any attention.

According to the report our colleague received, Orissa has a reputation of being "the most resistant and hostile State in India as far as the Gospel is concerned."  Missionaries there have apparently been aware of this, yet up until now have been pretty much able to carry on with their work. Recently, however, the report says, a militant Hindu priest and his four assistants were zealously visiting villages in Orissa, trying to re-convert people to Hinduism.  Last weekend he was gunned down by unknown assailants.  The Christian minority, it seems, then became scapegoats and were blamed for the incident.  

YWAM team facilitators Chip and Sandy Wanner relate, in the report, firsthand accounts of hundreds of churches being blown up and dozens of Christians being slaughtered there.  There are apparently 14 YWAM centers spread throughout the state of Orissa, and the Wanners are receiving updates from the directors there.  In Tihidi, just after the police arrived to offer protection, an angry crowd of 70 people showed up intending to kill the staff and destroy the home. Unable to get in, they pelted the place with rocks and stones, smashed the gate, and threatened to return and "finish the job".  The staff and children have been locked inside the compound, with doors and windows shut, for 3 or 4 days.

At the center in Kalahindi police arrived and hurriedly helped the staff and children to vacate the center, with time only to grab few, if any, belongings, as another mob descended on the building.  In both Phulbani and Balasore, when mobs came looking for Christian homes and missions, they were told by local Hindu neighbors that there were no Christians in the area, and they left peaceably.  

According to the Wanners (as of last Sunday) all the centers are in lockdown, children and staff huddled inside. Fanatics, meanwhile, are milling about outside, waiting for a chance to get at them.  Apparently, the police are continuing to serve as a buffer in the situation, at least in most cases.  However, the Wanners relate that at one Catholic orphanage the mob allowed the children to leave, but locked a priest and a computer teacher inside the house and burned them to death.  5000 Christian families are said to have had homes burned or destroyed.  The people have fled to the jungles, living in fear until peace can be restored.  They feel that within two weeks, the completion of the mourning period for the slain Hindu priest, things may begin to simmer down with help from the federal government.  But there are no assurances.

What can we do? The perennial question.  Certainly we can stand in solidarity with the Christians of Orissa through prayer.  Aside from that, it probably couldn't hurt if some e-mails were sent in their behalf, should you choose to do so. The e-mail address of the Human Rights Commission, apparently for the whole country of India, is: 

Sunday, November 23, 2008

A Year of Great Loss

1963.  45 years ago.  A year when the world and the Church lost two of their finest.

Within my final four years in Catholic seminary,  John XXIII was elected Pope (October, 1958); Fr. John Byrne, C.PP.S. was elected our Society's Provincial (March, 1959); and John F. Kennedy was elected President of the United States (November, 1960), and all three were still around, two of them at least for awhile, in 1963.  Only John Byrne survived that year, until his death 31 years later.

When John XXIII was elected, as was the common perception soon after, he "threw open the windows and doors of the Church".  Of the six Popes I've lived to see, John has always been my absolute favorite, John Paul I a close second, even though he survived only 33 days.  John XXIII was not at all the kind of Pontiff I'd expected, nor, apparently, did most of the rest of the world.  He was unconventional, to say the least.  He was short and fat.  He was extremely outgoing.  And he was "old" (77), considering the burden of responsibility which he took on.  But he communicated to the people of the world as if he were speaking personally to each one.  For him there simply were no boundaries.  A poem I ran across many years ago by Dominican Brother Denis Wiseman says it all for me:  

There was a man
sent from God
whose name was John, 
he was fat
and kind.
We found that very intriguing,
not so much the being fat
but the being kind.

Pope John took a real liking to our Precious Blood Community.  We were all blown away in January, 1963, when, on three hours' notice, the Vatican informed the Moderator General in Rome that the Pope would be arriving for a visit at St. Gaspar's tomb at the Church of Santa Maria in Trivio, just adjacent to the Trevi Fountain, which I had the privilege of visiting in 1998.  St. Gaspar (1786-1837), a Roman diocesan priest, had founded the Society of the Precious Blood after years of opposition from Vatican officials and clergy colleagues, and even imprisonment under Napoleonic rule. After his death in December, 1837, his body was eventually interred at Santa Maria in Trivio.  

When Pope John arrived at Santa Maria the morning of January 4, 1963, shortly after he had inaugurated the first session of Vatican Council II, he said to Community members and others gathered there:  "This morning I arose with the thought of St. Gaspar del Bufalo on my mind...Here is a Roman who walked the ordinary paths of life, who, I might say, followed his inspirations.  He had his own character, his own traits and temperament, [he was, it's generally agreed, extremely high-strung] and, perhaps, sometimes it had to be moderated and subdued.  But the fact remains: he was truly an apostolic soul, a man with a big heart...And this morning, thinking of St. Gaspar, I immediately said that we are at the beginning of the Year of the Council...I was just finishing a letter to all the bishops of the world...I asked them to seek all the help they can muster, from earth and from heaven...So, the first Saint who comes to mind is St. Gaspar del Bufalo.  Fine! He will be the first of all the Saints of Rome whom I intend to awaken from their tombs, so that during this year especially their intercession in heaven will be outstanding..."  He went on to say that he had great affection for Gaspar "...because he was a priest of Rome and canon of St. Mark's, my parish church when I was living in Rome [1922-1925]..."  To this day I wonder if we who were in the Community at that time ever realized how very special that loving gesture of Pope John's was to us.

When Fr. John Byrne was elected Provincial of the Society of the Precious Blood in 1959, the Community's seminarians, priests and brothers were ready for someone to lead us into the "new Church" which John XXIII was already busily trying to build.  All the C.PP.S. seminarians, priests and brothers were energized by a leader whom one could only think of as "dashing".  [An aside:  "C.PP.S." is an abbreviation for the Latin name of the Community: "Congregatio Pretiossimi Sanguinis", or "Congregation of the Most Precious Blood".  While the letters still remain today, a few years ago the Community renamed itself  "Missionaries of the Most Precious Blood", more reflective of their work and mission.  The Society, founded by St. Gaspar del Bufalo, mentioned above, is German, rural, and agricultural in its background and beginnings, having been brought to western Ohio, home at that time to many German immigrants, by Fr. Francis de Sales Brunner.  Back in our seminary days, where much of the manual labor which we did was on the seminary farm, some of the local wags referred to the meaning of "C.PP.S." as "Corn, Peas, Potatoes, and Sauerkraut"!]

Fr. Byrne was extremely articulate and was clearly a mover and shaker.  He looked as though he could have walked directly onto a Hollywood set: tall, trim, handsome graying hair, an engaging (Irish) smile, an eye just slightly off center, with a definite CEO aura about him.  We found him extremely approachable, open to ideas, and encouraging. He ended up serving as Provincial for two terms over 11 years at probably the most tumultuous time in the Church's and Community's history since the Reformation.  Under his leadership a tremendous amount was accomplished.  As seminarians we saw a new multiplex go up on the seminary grounds: infirmary/retirement center; cafeteria; and Sisters' residence.  Expansion took place in many of our parishes throughout the country, as well as in our missions in Chile and, after 1962, in Peru.  During this time our seminary, St. Charles, celebrated its centennial.  And in 1965, Fr. Byrne spearheaded the move which developed into the division of the Community in the U.S. into three separate Provinces.  Unfortunately, the number of priests and brothers has dwindled so sharply that the California Province chose to dissolve a few years ago, sending their members to either the Kansas City Province or the Cincinnati Province.

In November, 1960, John F. Kennedy defeated and succeeded the then Vice-President of the U.S., Richard M. Nixon. The nation rejoiced and the era his administration ushered in was then often referred to as "Camelot".   Who could forget his stirring inaugural speech? And his poignant address to the people of Berlin? The many heart-warming photos of Carolyn on her pony, and of she and John-John rushing to their Dad upon his return from trips? The elegance, graciousness and poise of Jackie Kennedy? I remember thinking what a curious coincidence it was that we now had three men named "John" -- all of them standing as icons of hope, vision, a new beginning.  Life was, indeed, good...for awhile.

I was on a seven-day retreat before being ordained a subdeacon when we received the news of the death of Pope John XXIII on June 3, 1963.  In his last hours, as he gave all who were near him his blessing, Pope John said: "Io soffro dolore, ma con amore...": "I suffer pain, but I do so with love."  For all of us, especially in the Community, it was like losing a best friend.  The Church lost a key leader and spiritual model.  And it is tragic to see so many of the positive advances Pope John accomplished through Vatican II being systematically retracted today.

On the afternoon of November 22, 1963, only six months before I was ordained a priest,  I was sitting at my desk studying when an announcement came over the PA system that President John Kennedy had been shot in Dallas, TX. With liberal dispensation from the usual schedule because of this history-making event, we spent most of the next four days glued to the TV in the Rec Room, soaking up the outpouring of national grief.  There were so many emotional moments on the TV screen which drove home the universal loss felt all around the world, not least the now immortalized image of little John-John giving a final salute to his father.  The most moving moment of Kennedy's funeral for me was during the procession, as soldiers led the riderless horse with shiny black boots turned backwards in the stirrups.  I doubt that I'll every forget the sound and cadence of the drums in the background as that scene played out before us.  It moved me to write a poem which I later sent to Jacqueline Kennedy, entitled November 25, 1963 (for Jackie):

The sun is low'ring at Arlington;
Last light-poured rays
Reach finger-like through tall trees,
Placing tender hands
In condescending love
On ashen, bowed heads
Of yesteryear.

Up on the knoll,
Where night already stands sentry,
The little grave-flame
(All too dim aside his light)
Gives flickering salute.
The dirging's done,
And drums no longer roll...
Today we buried John.

"Camelot", if it ever really existed, was gone forever.  A look back at what has transpired over these past 45 years, for all the truly positive and wonderful things about which the nation has cause to rejoice, is still not very comforting.  In my humble opinion, the past eight years, especially, of a corrupt, inept and the worst administration in history has left us with a shredded Constitution, unimaginable high-level lawlessness, mean-spirited party animosity (on both sides), with all its ripple effects among the populace, a pattern of malaise and fear among our people, and an economic situation which could lead us into another Depression.  Not to mention immense global human suffering and death, and the deaths and maiming, physically, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually, of well over 20,000 brave young men and women in uniform.  Yet, there are small hints everywhere that the good and true American spirit somehow survives, if often hidden and outshouted.  Dare we hope that with the incoming administration we might recapture some of the humanity, decency, "the being kind" that many of us were feeling in 1963?     



Friday, November 21, 2008


Halloween's long over: but I'm "haunted".  Haunted by a recent book and movie.  Jenna Blum, a first-time novelist, wrote Those Who Save Us in 2004, but the book has increasingly gained notoriety since then.  She has another one in the making: The Storm Catchers.  In her first novel she traces the lives of a mother, Anna, and Anna's daughter, Trudy. Anna lived through World Ward II in Weimar, and was faced with many compromises, both with her own family and the Nazis.  Out of that anguish Blum spins her story of how Anna cares for and protects Trudy at all odds, even to the point of incurring the disdain of many of her countrymen.  She is mistress-under-duress of a brutal schizophrenic Obersturmführer who uses the twisted relationship to drive away his own unspeakable demons.  There is a good bit of sex in the book, as you might imagine.  One reader on Jenna's blog objected to the sexual content and said that she'd deposited the book in a wastecan in a large European city while she was travelling.  I thought Jenna responded quite kindly and patiently, clearly explaining why she felt it was necessary.  "...Why? Because Anna is a prime example of Stockholm Syndrome--moreover, she is a sexual victim of war.  Many, many women suffered such ravages during wartime, and it would have been dishonest of me to write Anna's story without this realistic component..."   She goes on to voice the hope that, even though the person threw the book away, "perhaps another reader rescued it from the trash, picked it up, and read it...who knows? As long as the story gets out into the world, I don't much care how it does..."

The film I saw was The Secret Life of Words (2005) featuring Sarah Polley, a Canadian actress, Tim Robbins, and the great Julie Christie (whom I've idolized since her role as Lara, years ago, in Doctor Zhivago).  Sarah plays the role of Hannah, a Yugoslav nurse living in Ireland, but working in a factory.  She's kind, efficient, has had her job for four years, but is very much a loner by choice.  Tim, who plays Joseph, is part of an oil rig team out in the middle of the ocean and is badly burned in an accident where another member of the team dies.  Part of the plot is that his company has reasons for not sending him to the mainland right away.  His doctor begins to look for a nurse who's willing to take on the double challenge of living on an oil rig, as well as of caring for Joseph until he's well enough to be moved to a hospital ashore. A very jovial, "bad boy" type, for the most part, Joseph is stymied (because of the accident, he's temporarily lost his sight) by his new nurse who is non-communicative, except for basic necessities, about much of anything, including her real name.  It becomes obvious to both of them and the viewer that Hannah and Joseph are dealing with serious messy stuff from the past.  Little by little, a tenuous bond begins to grow, as they each pick up clues from one another and as each begins to take the risk of their vulnerability. Finally, Hannah becomes free enough to relate at least the highlights of what happened to her and her friend in her home town during the Bosnian crisis, and how this has brought her to where she is today.  The scene where she does this is extremely emotional and heart-wrenching, and raises many questions for viewers.  One of the questions is why do we so quickly forget?  In the movie, Hannah notes that it's only been 10 years.  

The book and the film have made me remember that time in history not so long ago.  While driving one day, I remember hearing a horrible, tragic story on NPR during the time of the conflict in Bosnia about a family whose women had all been brutally raped by a group of soldiers, one of them a young teenager.  It was hard for me as a man to relate to the horror such an experience like that would hold for any human being, much less a young woman.  For a long time after that I prayed, helplessly I might say, that in some way she might find a way through that nightmare. 

World leaders came together in September, 2000, and adopted the United Nations Millenium Goals, with a plan to implement them by 2015.  A number of mainline churches, including the Episcopal Church, have joined the effort in the years since then.  One of the goals has to do with gender equality.  If these Millenium Development Goals are to be more than "nice" things important people put on paper, then forget about, there needs to be a major effort to help sensitize people, especially us men, around the world to the shameful treatment of women and children, especially girls, in virtually every country.  

I urge you to take time to read the book and see the film mentioned above, and then to respond to the MDG's in whatever way appeals to and is most effective for you.  Consider this part of my two bits for the cause!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Ad Multos Annos

When I've used the Latin phrase "Ad multos annos" in the past, it's usually been to congratulate a colleague on an ordination anniversary.  It means "To many years (more)".  I don't remember, but I might have silently, and groggily, wished this to myself the evening of November 19, 2002.

At 8:00 AM that morning six years ago I was sprawled out on an operating table in Sutter Medical Center's cardiac unit, Santa Rosa, with an 8.5 inch incision and split in my sternum.  Dr. Keith Korver, whom I consider just a step below the Divinity Itself, and his colleagues were busily engaged doing a quadruple coronary artery bypass (originally scheduled to be a triple) on the most important organ in my body.  According to the nametags given to Dr. Korver's patients at a reunion three years later, I believe I was his 210th.  There were many other tags in the 400's! 

Keith, one of the best cardiac surgeons in the country, grew up in Susanville where I'd served as Vicar for three years. His grandfather was a Presbyterian minister and his father was doctor in Susanville, whose name I'd often heard paged while I was visiting hospitalized parishioners.  In our first interview Keith showed me the angiogram pictures of my heart, and I'm sure that my face must have blanched.  The arteries were so incredibly clogged, to the point that small new veins had developed to help compensate.  At age 65 I'd been so close to either a full-blown heart attack or possibly death! (My father had died at age 69 of a heart attack.) The surgery took 4.5 hours, and by 4:00 PM that afternoon I'd been "stabilized".  The nursing staff was simply the best; within hours I could take ice chips and sit/stand up briefly. The only problem encountered during my whole hospital stay was a leaky lung which was slow in healing, thus preventing my discharge by two days.  At the time I described it as "waiting at the station for a train and [not knowing] if it were coming".  As it turned out I was home in plenty of time for Thanksgiving, which my family and I joyfully celebrated "with all the trimmings".

During the summer of 2002, I had taken two week-long courses, in July and August, at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, while staying at our seminary, CDSP.  If you've been there, you know how hilly the terrain is.  I was amazed at how "out of shape" I was; I had, in fact, put on some weight.  It never registered in my brain that, having to stop breathlessly every twenty yards and sweating like a pig, something more serious might be afoot.  That went on until the fall.  We'd hosted an opera concert at Holy Trinity, Ukiah, and in cleaning up afterwards I was finding it hard just to carry a couple of chairs across the room.  Finally, my own inner alarm system and the insistence of my son that I see the doctor paved the way for the procedure which saved me.

The support of family and friends during that time and beyond was quite overwhelming.  An email which my son wrote for me to a priest friend in Canada a few days after the surgery sums up my feelings then and now: "Imagine me sitting here in the US with four new coronary arteries, hearing your words from Canada.  The miracle here is not only the blood moving strongly and healthily through my heart, but also the precious blood moving through all our hearts as we join together in thanksgiving for God's tender mercies..."

During the past six years I've put literally thousand of miles on my trusty treadmill and made reading Nutrition Facts labels an integral part of grocery shopping.  Each year since I've aced the annual cardiac stress test, and the nurses usually seem amazed that I use only baby aspirin and meds for high blood pressure and cholesterol.  Recently I shed nine of the ten pounds Dr. Coleman suggested I lose (mostly as a preventative to diabetes).  

My advice to you all:  take care of your ticker.  You only have one.  And please join me in a toast today: "Ad multos annos" -- for all of us.  


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Painful Graces

Last month I was privileged to attend an extremely moving reading of The Laramie Project, by Moises Kauffman and the Tectonic Theater Project, and presented by Napa Valley College in commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the death of Matthew Shepard.  A cast of 11 people spoke the words of real live residents of Laramie, WY, who were interviewed within a month of Matthew's death.  (Followup interviews with many of those same residents were also done recently.)  Matt, as his friends knew him, was a gay college student and was brutally murdered in 1998 by two Laramie men.  The well-delivered performance evoked a whole range of powerful emotions.  As someone noted in the discussion following the reading, what gives the play such impact is that the truth is spoken aloud, no matter how painful.

What made the performance a truly unique "painful grace" was the appearance of Judy Shepard, Matt's mother, and head of the Matthew Shepard Foundation.  A short, somewhat shy, unassuming red-head, she spoke briefly to the 200 or so people gathered, and concluded by graciously excusing herself from seeing the play, though she did participate later in the discussion.  She noted that she had seen the Project once some time ago, and had "fallen apart".  

During the discussion someone from the audience asked her how she and her family could continue not to hate the two young men who killed her son.  She related that the Shepard family had come together the Christmas just after Matt's death and had determined that if they responded with hatred, they would only perpetuate the ugly cycle of intolerance and violence at the root of the problem.  So, they committed their lives to "erase hate", and began the Foundation.  That being said, Judy was also candid in observing how deep the hurt still is, even after 10 years, and how there are times when feelings of anger surface.  But, she poignantly commented, "You can't teach from the dark..."

That sentiment came through loud and clear in this morning's Press Democrat, where Sara Gardner-Heart, a junior at Santa Rosa High School, wrote an amazing article in the Teen Life section, entitled "Why shouldn't my parents be allowed to marry?"  Sara notes the every day she wears a purple wristband which says "Erase hate".  I'm quite sure it's exactly the same as those advertised on the Matthew Shephard Foundation website.  She wears it, she says, to remind her of "the important battle I and millions of others face every single day: the battle for equality."  As most of you know, Proposition 8, a thinly veiled attempt to put a stop to the recent legalization of gay marriages in California, was apparently passed (although the final count is not yet complete) by less than 4.5%.   Sara notes that she has grown up in a family with two loving parents --  and "Both of them happen to be women."  

Sara goes on to describe how this was never a problem in her kindergarten days.  "That," she says, "was before we were jaded with the politics of our parents and leaders."  Knowing first-hand a completely normal relationship with her parents and an equally normal day-to-day existence, she laments the hurtfulness of mean and cruel comments which she sometimes hears regarding gay people.  "Is it really hurting others if a same-sex couple gets married? No.  It is not. It isn't taking anything away from anyone or forcing anyone to do anything..."

Given the current sentiments of many who supported and voted for Proposition 8, including perhaps parents of some of her own schoolmates, it took courage and conviction for this young woman to share her story publicly.  I applaud her and encourage her to keep speaking out in order to "Erase hate".  The testimony of people like Sara and Judy Shepard and countless others who continue to advocate for equal rights for all people are, indeed, "painful graces". Nevertheless, as Judy Shepard says, "You can't teach from the dark..."    

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Swan of Stow

Today the Episcopal Church honors St. Hugh of Lincoln.  Born in 1140 in Burgundy, he was really "Hugh of Avalon".  In his youth he joined the Canons of St. Augustine, but in 1165 he opted for a much stricter religious life with the Carthusian monks at Grande Chartreuse.  If you've seen the movie Into Great Silence you have some idea of how he lived.  Ten years later the king of England, Henry II (though one wonders how he even heard of a hermit monk stashed away in a French monastery), invited him to become the prior at the recently founded Carthusian Charterhouse at Witham, Somerset.  Apparently the English Carthusians hadn't gotten the hang of eremetical life so well because the monastery was already in need of reform.  Hugh must have shaped them up because he was still there in 1168 when he was persuaded to become the Bishop of Lincoln, then the largest diocese in England.  Hugh brought great energy to the post, though he was strict and not always easy to get along with.  He recruited able and gifted counsellors for key posts, revived the Lincoln schools, and in 1192 began the repair and expansion of Lincoln Cathedral.  He was quite visible around his diocese, extensively visiting his people and the clergy in the parishes, preaching and teaching zealously.  In a relatively short time Hugh brought efficiency and stability to the flourishing diocese.  Ecumenically, he also saw to it that the local Jewish community was spared from ridicule and persecution.

Hugh especially loved outcast and oppressed people.  Contrary to folks whom most others then, and probably we now, avoided/would avoid literally "like the plague", Hugh compassionately reached out to those afflicted with leprosy, to the sick, and to the poor.  His biographer, Adam, a monk of Eynsham, tells us that Hugh would wash and dry the lepers' feet, sit with them, teach them, console and encourage them, and embrace and kiss them one by one.  To get some sense of how repugnant this might have been, Adam, in the biography, exclaims with remarkable candor: "Have pity, sweet Jesus, on the unhappy soul of the narrator! I cannot much I shuddered not merely to touch but even to behold those swollen and livid, diseased and deformed faces with the eyes either distorted or hollowed out and the lips eaten away!..." 

Though Hugh never totally alienated the king, he crossed swords (probably not literally) many times with the monarch, as well as with other civil honchos of the realm, particularly the chief forester of the kingdom whom Hugh excommunicated. As you might expect, the king was not at all amused.  Foresters, it seems, were particularly abusive and violent towards the countryfolk, extorting and maltreating them, in defiance of the Church's opposition.  

You probably noticed the large swan in the picture above, taken at Lincoln Cathedral on a pilgrimage in 2007.  The legend goes that Hugh, good monk that he was and desirous of peace and silence, would often hang out at one of his get-aways at Stow Park, about nine miles northwest of Lincoln, where he revelled in the company of birds and other wildlife and nature.  So happens that around the time of Hugh's enthronement as Bishop, a swan -- a BIG swan -- appeared on the lake and immediately proceeded to drive off all the other lake inhabitants.  Besides being big, "Über-Swan" was also mean and ferocious.  Hugh's charges, for some reason, wanted to present the swan to Hugh (I'll leave it to you to speculate on the motives!), and for unexplained reasons Bubba Swan allowed itself to be captured. We're told that upon his arrival in Hugh's presence the swan ate bread from his hand with apparent gusto and satisfaction.  After that, the swan and Hugh were BFFsF (apologies to Paris Hilton! - Best Favorite Friends Forever). Only when Hugh would take off for his pastoral visitations would Mega Swan head back to the lake and wreak its usual havoc on others, human and animal -- except for the bailiff who brought it food! Whenever Hugh would return from his trips, there would be the swan waiting for him.  Arrogating to itself the position of Hugh's bodyguard, the swan jealously threatened anyone who came near Hugh, even his companions, with beak and wings and a shrieking cry: a constant embarrassment to the Bishop's chaplain!  If a person managed to get on Rambo Swan's enemy list, only Hugh's direct order would move the bird to tolerate that person.  

The swan apparently had exquisite long-term memory, as good or better than an elephant's.  One time Hugh had to be away for two whole years.  No one else knew when he'd return, except for ESP Swan who somehow sensed it on some inner radar, and raised holy hell just prior to Hugh's appearance at Stow Park.   He greeted his master with outspread wings, then disappeared into the house with Hugh to stay with him, munching on his daily portion of bread, cut up into a finger's length, we're told. (Finger sandwiches with afternoon tea?) Their friendship lasted for 15 years.

Apparently, six months before Hugh's death, the swan fell into a deep funk, and for the first time upon Hugh's arrival at Stow Park, the swan made no sign of recognition or greeting and stayed out in the middle of the lake.  After several days it allowed itself to be captured and brought into the house, but it stood around, listless, dejected, and, well...sad.  That visit was the last time Hugh and the swan saw one another, for Hugh died in London on November 17, 1200.

The swan outlived St. Hugh by several years, but never cozied up to anyone else as a friend.  We don't know what Hugh called the swan during his lifetime: some simply refer to it as "the swan of Stow".   Nevertheless, it has attained historical notoriety and fame, along with its master, through sculpture, painting, and writing.     

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Family That Stays Together...

Today you may have read or heard about Bishop Jack Iker and a significant number of his followers in the Episcopal Diocese of Ft. Worth who have separated themselves from the Episcopal Church.  That has happened in three other Episcopal dioceses over the past year or so.  According to the dissidents, who claim to be "purists" of the faith, their dioceses are "leaving" the Episcopal Church.  That's quite impossible under the guidelines of the Constitutions and Canons of the Episcopal Church because dioceses are created and/or dissolved only by agreement of the Church's triennial General Convention.  The situation is even stickier for the Episcopal Church in that the four departing groups have, in most cases, absconded/will abscond with church property and funds held in trust for the Episcopal Church. Any way you look at it, it's a sad debacle.  Hardly the kind of witness which a group (both sides!) purporting to follow Jesus wants to display publicly.  

Yesterday and today the Episcopal Diocese of Northern California held its 98th annual Convention in Redding, CA.  I've been a member of this diocese for 31 years and served as an active priest for 25 years before retiring last year.  Not that I'm that much less active now! This year is only the second time in 26 years that I've not attended the Convention.  I have to say that I really missed attending.  The bonds that have been forged with other members of the Diocese over these 30+ years are very strong.  We are very much like an extended family.  Convention is the one time when a goodly number of the "family" can have a reunion, reconnect, think about the "good ole days", gossip together, and share our visions and dreams for the future.  Not to say that it's all hunky-dory, by any means! There are definite polarities among our people and groups at times; we don't all see or do things the same way.  But we manage to cohere, to literally "stick together".  One reason is that we have a fairly new Bishop, Barry Beisner, who suggested a sort of healthy group mantra for us when he was first elected:  "Focus on the mission; stay together; keep moving forward together in Christ."  By and large, I'd say that most folks in the diocese are generally proceeding according to that agenda.  Thankfully, only one parish, with its clergy and most of its people, and a few other individuals in other parishes, have chosen to walk away.  

The other reason for our cohesiveness as a diocese, I believe, is our rather hardy history.  In 1975, in his booklet The Episcopal Church in Northern California - An Overview, the late Father Charles Eldon Davis, diocesan historian, described that hardiness:

"The constant continuing requirement to visit lumber camps, fishing villages, mining areas, farm lands, hamlets, villages, and occasional cities, has meant that our bishops over the years, have had to be continually 'enroute' both physically and spiritually.  One of the most urgent challenges...has been to bring, in their own person, some family identification to the many heterogeneous groups within the jurisdiction...
[They] have known the strain of trying to assimilate life styles, economic outlooks, political inclinations, and natural insularities of diverse groups into an harmonious pattern which can be known as the visible Family of God in this northern third of the state of California..."

The first bishop of what was to become the Diocese of Northern California was Bishop William Ingraham Kip (1853-1874).  He was elected in 1853 and hastily consecrated in October that year, so hastily that, as he himself observed, "...I never received any official notice of my election, nor did I in any way send an acceptance."  Behind this was an urgent need for church leadership in the expanding West.  Kip's task was indomitable: an incredibly huge area, expensive travel by land and water, make-shift surroundings for services, dealing with the expectations and feelings of many kinds of people,  etc.  Father Davis refers to one incident, only three years after Bishop Kip took charge of the area.  In 1856 a group of prominent laymen, including the then 4th Governor of California, J. Neely Johnson, left the membership of Grace Church, Sacramento, and founded their own church, conducting services in the Senate chambers! By the time Governor Johnson left office in 1858, all reference to their existence had been expunged from the district's official records, so no one really knows why they originally left Grace Church, nor what was the ultimate outcome of their venture.

Northern California was a slow starter; it was growth- and financially-challenged during the episcopate of Bishop John Henry Ducachet Wingfield (1874-1898).  He was the first missionary Bishop of the new Missionary Jurisdiction of Northern California, established in 1874.  He inherited 24 counties in the northern third of the state, an area of 52,564 miles.  Its population numbered 214,019, of which some 25,000 were Chinese and another 2500, Native American.  The Episcopal Church there had a 660 communicants, and Bishop Wingfield's salary ($2.00 per communicant, plus $3000 from the Board of Missions), about $4320, was never increased during his 24 years of service!

Son of an Episcopal priest, Wingfield was well-bred, raised among horsepeople in Virginia, a child prodigy who could read at age three, study Latin at six, and Greek at nine.  A graduate of William and Mary College and Virginia Theological Seminary, he was interested in the Oxford Movement and the challenge of "growing" the early Episcopal Church.  He also endured much personal hardship and adversity during his 24 years in Northern California.

As a young Southern priest, Wingfield had first-hand experience of the terror of the Civil War.  His parish was taken away from him and he chose imprisonment, rather than sacrificing his convictions.  Later he was sent to a rural Maryland parish, 16 miles wide, where he served his people on horseback.  The 1874 General Convention elected him Bishop as he was on his way to become the rector of Trinity Church, San Francisco.

Six years after he came to Northern California communicant strength had grown by only 103, and the finances were so desperate that Bishop Wingfield almost accepted the House of Bishops' offer for him to go to Louisiana.  Yet he remained loyal and devoted to his people, having a passion for and a commitment to missionary activity and education, despite continual frustration and even giving heroically of his own financial resources to the jurisdiction.  About halfway into his episcopate, Bishop and Mrs. Wingfield were attacked and robbed in their quarters in at St. Augustine School, Benicia, which he oversaw.  In the summer of 1889 their son, John Paige, was shot and killed in Benicia by a jealous schoolmate over the school's grading system.  Seven years later Wingfield suffered several paralyzing strokes, occasioning a two-year interregnum by Bishop Anson Graves (1897-1899), until Bishop Wingfield died in 1898.

John Wingfield was just one of a succession of Episcopal bishops who left their impress on the people of Northern California, and led Episcopalians there to reach out to people in their communities with sensitivity and compassion. Early on there were intentional efforts at inclusiveness and diversity by both laity and clergy: to women, especially under Bishop Graves; to Native American people, such as the Hoopa in Humboldt County; to the Japanese, Chinese, and Mexican populations of Sacramento County.  That hardiness of spirit has endured down to the present.  I'm proud of our diocese, if you hadn't figured that out already.  Despite our occasional differences, and they're certainly not to be minimized, it appears that we've learned how little there is to be gained by running away from one another, but a whole lot to be enjoyed by sharing the diversity and richness with which we've been blessed.



Friday, November 14, 2008

NO on H8

Earth Wisdom

Yesterday I had one of those "downer" days: you know, the kind of day where you're all sitting on the pity pot and beating yourself up? Well, this morning I read a statement by Alice Walker which blew me away: "As long as the Earth can make a spring every year, I can.  As long as the earth can flower and produce nurturing fruit, I can, because I'm the Earth.  I won't give up until the Earth gives up."  Too many of us continue to leave a big grimy footprints all over Mother Earth, and, as Gerard Manley Hopkins puts it: "...all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil; And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell..."  Yet, as Walker marvels, look at what Earth continues to do and produce, and shouldn't that give us some optimism in the human endeavor? If Earth can make a spring, and flower, and not give up, surely I, as a part of Earth, can draw from deep within the lifegiving energy to deal with the sadness of my friend's life ebbing away because of cancer, to register my outrage at the continued debasement of women as I read the news account of another rape locally, to patiently wait for the slow-moving elderly man pushing his cart ahead of me as I hurry along, to realize that my worst "downer" day has far more positive possibilities than for two-thirds of other people on the planet.

Yeah, thanks Alice!    

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Gospel According to Matthew & Elbert Hubbard

No one could accuse Elbert Green Hubbard (1856-1915) of underliving his potential.  

Having agreed to take service for my home church pastor while she's at the Diocesan Convention this weekend, I ran across a quote by Hubbard in preparing a sermon on the text of Matthew 25:14-30.  The story line is that a property owner decided to take a long sabbatical, and "entrusted" each of his three servants with what amounted to some serious cash (called "talents" in the story) in differing measures, though to "each according to his ability", then went away. Matthew relates that the ones with the biggest and the second biggest shares doubled their gift, while the third servant went and dug a hole and hid the owner's money.  At length the owner returned and "settled accounts with them".  He's ecstatic with the increased investments of the first two, and rewards them each with a handsome promotion, though it's not clear what that was.  But the last guy?  The owner's not so happy with him.  Before the owner can even ask for an accounting, the man volunteers: "Master, I knew you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed" [in my movie version of the story, I visualize Donald Trump as the owner!].  "So," the servant mumbles, "I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.  True to the description, the owner launches into a tirade, calling the servant "wicked" and "lazy" and probably some other expurgated descriptives, reminding him that the least he could've done was to invest the money with the bankers and the owner would have received the original gift plus interest.  [At this point in the movie version, Donald Trump, with a dramatic flourish of his pointed finger, shouts: "You're fired!"]

Getting back to Elbert Hubbard: he was a prolific writer and editor, among other things, and he also had the misfortune of going down on the Lusitania, torpedoed by the Germans, along with his wife.  Interestingly, L. Ron Hubbard, of Scientology fame, was his nephew by adoption.  The quotation by Elbert which I ran across is this:  "When inertia gets the better of you, it is time to telephone the undertaker."

How frequently people like the servant in Matthew's story become frozen by apathy, lack of commitment, inertia, trapped by being neither for nor against anything.  Like the servant they do nothing.  Good held back may often be as great a sin as perpetrated evil, maybe more so.  It's one thing to risk using one's talents and losing.  It's another not to use them at all, by choice.  There's a good chance that fear was at the root of the servant's inertia: fear of failure, fear that, failing, his master would think less of him, or worse.  Rather than "Nothing ventured, nothing gained", the servant's motto seems to have been "Nothing risked, nothing lost."

At the very least, the story is good psychology.  Too many of us underlive our human potential.  The real preponderance of our failings may lie in "leaving undone those things which we ought to have done", to quote the Book of Common Prayer.  

A. Bartlett Giamatti, former president of Yale and later the seventh Commissioner of Baseball, told a group of students:
"I am concerned that, confronted by problems, many of us have no faith in time or believe we have no time to let faith grow."  If nothing else, each of us has the "talent" of the present, today, the now with which to reach out to others.  We might ask ourselves if we intentionally block out time for our spouses or significant others, our children, our neighbors, the sick, the elderly, strangers.  Do we take time regularly to devote to the Divine: in quietness, in worship, or just for marvelling at the wonders of the surrounding creation? 

If I'm going to underlive life by clutching what I have all to myself, by burying it, by sticking only with what I know, by staying close only to the friends I already have, by closing off my mind to any new insight or creative vision, then it may be time to take Elbert Hubbard's advice and "telephone the undertaker".

In the U.S. today there are so many fears which grip us as citizens and cause us to hide and withhold ourselves.  Robert Bellah and his co-authors of the book Habits of the Heart speak of the fearfulness of community, of intimacy, and of commitment which our historically radical American individualism has brought upon us today, not to mention the myth of true bipartisanship in our Congress.  As far back as the 1830's, Alexis de Tocqueville, noted French political philosopher, warned that this individualistic spirit might eventually isolate Americans from one another, and thereby undermine the conditions of freedom.  

It appears that many today, especially children, live in fear of nuclear threat, of terrorism, of our worsening global ecological situation, and, more recently, of financial collapse.  We fear other nations: allies who compete with us economically, and enemies whom we believe threaten our borders.  As a nation, we've so often buried our "talents" because of this fear.  Surely, behind many Americans' insecurity is the fear of losing the comfortable standard of living for which many have scrambled and competed, and to which we feel, dare we say it, entitled, regardless of others not so blessed.  Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in his Nobel Literature Prize lecture in 1970, referred to the phrase coined back in 1938, "the spirit of Munich".  He described it as "an illness of will of prosperous people.  It is the daily state of those who have given themselves over to the thirst of well-being at no matter what cost, to material prosperity as the principal goal of life on earth.  Such people...choose passivity and retreat, anything so that their accustomed life should continue undisturbed, anything so as not to have to cross over into hardship today, while tomorrow, they hope, will take care of itself..."

As I think about Matthew's story, one message, as it relates to my own life, seems clear:  I'm not put here on this earth just to mark time, but to utilize my abilities, skills, and human potential by investing them in the service of others and in the stewardship of this earth, "our island home", to quote the Book of Common Prayer again.  To give into inertia, to withhold initiative, to hide my "talent" in the ground isn't a viable option.  

As Elbert Hubbard also said: "The only real neutral in this game of life is a dead one."  

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Salute to the Bravehearts

Loving God, we commend to your care and keeping all the men and women of our armed forces, at home or abroad, living or dead.  Bless the veterans of past conflicts, especially those suffering from the physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual wounds of war.  Strengthen them in their suffering, give them the peace of body and spirit they so long for, and help us to rid our hearts of the strife, violence, and anger which cause war.

It occurred to me today -- Veteran's Day, Remembrance Day (Canada), Armistice Day (1918) -- that 58% of my life has been lived under the shadow of war.  Born in 1937, I remember the days of blackouts for air raids and ration book stamps. My mom, single then, dated an Army Air Corps navigator during World War II.  The Vietnam War lumbered on for 15 years during the time I was completing theological studies, the time of my ordination, and the short time I was a Roman Catholic priest.  The Society of the Precious Blood, of which I was a member, was well represented with service chaplains. They served honorably, but most of them chose to leave the priesthood when they came back stateside.  A dramatic picture of an anguished Fr. Steve Almasy, ministering to a soldier, appeared on the cover of Life magazine.  In a contradiction strange to me even today, I was morally opposed to the war, yet I also volunteered to the Provincial, Fr. Dan Schaefer, to serve as an Air Force chaplain.  He refused my request, largely because my mom was seriously ill at the time; it proved to be the right decision.  Naive as I was at that time I would surely have got my arse shot off!

In 1965 I was teaching at Sacred Heart College, Wichita, KS (now Newman University).  Another priest colleague and I assisted the Catholic chaplain at McConnell Air Force Base, Fr. Tom Heffernan, celebrating Mass.  One weekend Tom invited us for dinner at the Officer's Club, and it was there, at the bar, that I met Lt. Capt. Robert E. Bush, Air Force. Bob was 37 years old; he and his wife had just adopted two little girls.  He told me he'd been to 'Nam for two tours of duty, and had just volunteered, as of November 11, for a third tour before retiring.  I remember asking him why he would do that, since he'd obviously already done his bit for God and country.  I don't remember the specifics, but his reply had to do with his genuine sense of duty to help get the mess in Vietnam over with.  

I asked Bob if he would come out to the college to speak to the students, to give them another viewpoint on the war.  I forewarned him that most of the young people were very much against the war and that he might get some tough questions.  He said he was OK with that; his quiet confidence was one of the things I admired about him.  The lecture and discussion afterwards went about as we'd expected.  They put him on the defense, but he never appeared rattled nor did he scorn their honest questions.  

We stayed in touch after that until Bob left McConnell in the late fall and returned to Vietnam to fly F-105 Thunderbirds. A few days after Christmas, 1965, I received a handwritten card from him, saying "Greetings across the miles."  He asked me to "throw in a few for me to the Man upstairs."   That was the last time I heard from Bob.  In March, 1966, I learned from Fr. Heffernan that Bob's plane had been shot down and that he was MIA.  I tried to reach his wife at the base, but by that time she'd apparently left with the kids to be with her parents, and I had no way of reaching her.  

Years later I saw a list of casualties which had been included on the wall of Maya Ying Lin's Vietnam War Memorial. Two Bushes were listed, both with the first name Robert.  I didn't know where Bob was from and there wasn't any other distinguishing information available.  In July, 2000, while surfing the Web, I happened on a newly available database listing Vietnam POW/MIA records.  Sure enough, there were the two Roberts.  This time, however, there was quite a bit more information and it took only a few minutes to determine that, indeed, Bob was one of the two.  His plane had gone down March 24, 1966 over North Vietnam.  Whether he died at that time or later is unknown.  The record gives the simple stark comment: "Died While Missing", and indicates that his "remains [were] returned as a result of negotiations" on December 15, 1988, and were positively identified on September 26, 1989.  

Three months after my discovery of the above information, in late October, 2000, a mobile replica of the Vietnam War Memorial came to Todd Grove Park in Ukiah, CA, where I was serving as Regional Missioner.  On October 30 I visited the memorial.  One of the guides kindly looked up the location of the panel where his name was and took me to it.  It's difficult to describe the overwhelming emotion that grabbed me as I saw his name etched there and ran my fingers across it.  The 35 years since we last spoke to one another disappeared as if it were yesterday.  Another opportunity for me to revisit the Memorial replica came on August 29 this year, with no less depth of feeling.  It has been good to have the chance to bid at least this brief and late farewell to my friend.

During my two visits to that Memorial replica, I also viewed and touched the name of a former fellow-seminarian. Army 2nd Lt. John James Glasper had been two years behind our class at Brunnerdale Seminary, Canton, OH, graduating in 1957.  I didn't know John well, but I remember him as a tall, thin, and shy young man.  On July 18, 1965, four and a half months before Bob left for Vietnam the last time, John was killed by hostile small arms gunfire in South Vietnam. Though he served his country for four years, he'd been in Vietnam only 22 days.  

In June, 1966, I celebrated the marriage of my cousins, Mike and Donna, at our home parish in Dayton.  Mike had just finished basic training in the Army.  Only 19, he shipped out for Vietnam 10 days later and returned over a year later severely scarred emotionally.  He'd fought at Quan Loi, outside Saigon, at Lac Ninh, Di An, and Lai Khe.  He was wounded twice, and was awarded a Purple Heart, two Bronze Stars, an Air Medal, and an Army Commendation Medal: well-deserved honors, true, but small consolation in the light of personal physical and mental trauma and the loss of his favorite lieutenant and several close buddies.  It took many years for him to adjust and heal, but remarkably and thankfully he did.  He and I have never talked about his experiences. 

There are a number of others, relatives or friends of people I knew, who have made war seem very close and real to me, as close as their memory is this Veterans' Day.  I'm sure that many of us have had similar acquaintances, friendships and experiences touch our lives.  Whatever our politics or our moral convictions, let us never forget them.