In The Bleak Midwinter—Comfort & Joy

December 25th, 2017  |   

Christmas Day is about to come to an end. I had my Christmas dinner a few hours ago at the Concord Hospital cafeteria. No, I wasn’t a patient. I was eating with my daughter Deb, who was a nurse on duty there.

Last night, Deb, granddaughter Sarah, and I went to the Christmas Eve service at the local Episcopal Church. I was there anticipating the music, with familiar carols to sing.

One that pierces my soul, while penetrating my heart, is Christina Rossetti’s “In The Bleak Midwinter.” It was Judy’s favorite carol. Perhaps, in part, that’s because she grew up in Western New York where “earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone” and “snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow.”

Right now, even without snow or subfreezing temperatures, our nation is living in a bleak midwinter, a cultural, moral, and political midwinter. Bitter winds blow harshly over our country.  Shakespeare called times like this, “The winter of our discontent.” John Steinbeck appropriated those words for the title of his last novel. Steinbeck stated that he wrote the novel to address the moral degeneration of American culture, interestingly enough, just prior to Watergate.

The Christmas story tells us that Mary, “pondered’ the conception and birth of Jesus. I love the word “ponder.” It invites focusing, meditating, looking for substantial meaning into and about what goes on around us and within us. In the world of “breaking news” and broken people and systems, pondering is the prelude to cultural, moral, and political change.

Today, prior to supper at the hospital, I was alone at home. It offered me the opportunity to ponder the Christmas carols. The familiar words, “tidings of comfort and joy” captured my attention. How do I reconcile holding onto a message, a belief in comfort and joy in the bleak midwinter world where I live?

Do I live in Dr. Seuss’ Whoville,  where I join folks who sing joyously even though the Grinch has robbed them unmercifully? Is this Mean One, with a heart two sizes smaller than a compassionate person, consumed by talk of war, no more than a bully who plays his own game of Monopoly, in favor of the rich, at the expense of the poor?

Pondering past Christmas seasons, I see quite clearly that my nation has been at war against the poor, here at home and around the world, during my entire life. We have drunk from a chalice full of greed, unrestrained power, and unlimited war. I think of the Christmas I sang about tidings of comfort and joy, and heavenly angels singing while we were dropping bombs from the sky on the people of Vietnam and Cambodia. And still, it continues. And yet, we continue to sing. Is it required that we keep singing?

Ursula Le Guin writes that she has come away from musical concerts  “marveling that while our republic tears itself apart and our species frantically hurries to destroy its own household, yet we go on building with vibrations in the air, in the spirit—making this music, this intangible , beautiful, generous thing.”

So now it’s time to lay me down to sleep. Put the pondering to bed, believing in and anticipating those vibrations in the air, in the spirit, that keep us faithful in the struggle for peace, and justice, and a sturdy love in the bleak midwinter. To awaken and sing a new song in this strange land.

Add comment December 25th, 2017

Thanksgiving Reckonings

November 22nd, 2017  |   

Walking through the Charleston Mall recently, weeks away from Thanksgiving and Christmas, I had one of those thoughts I knew, even then, I’d have to rethink. A reckoning day would surely come.

I wish Thanksgiving and Christmas would just go away. That’s what crossed my mind.

Monday was my reckoning day. It came while drinking coffee with a friend. Our conversation made me come to grips with that Mall-moment. Asking him what he would be doing for Thanksgiving, he beamed. “I’ll be driving to Pittsburgh to spend the holiday with my family.” He effervesced, telling me about how much it had always meant for him to be at the Thanksgiving table with his family.

You cannot have done church work for as long as I have without recognizing that Thanksgiving, and Christmas as well, are difficult times for a number of people, for a variety of reasons. So, in the face of whatever grief or complaint lies behind the thought of wishing Thanksgiving away, it’s understandable. I get it when I hear someone say these particular holidays are the unpleasant times when cultural, religious, patriotic, and familial expectations are foisted upon her or him.

Some 60 million people have taken to the highways and flight paths for Thanksgiving. Why? Is there some lemming-like factor at work that causes folks to leap into traffic, and a gigantic sea of heart-clogging food? Like, you know, too much isn’t enough? Or could it be a deep existential longing to be gathered with people, to belong, eating at a table with others? To just plain not be so alone?

Today a friend told me that over 60 million people are polled as being unhappy with Thanksgiving. What is it that troubles them? The excessive commercialization? Could it be some annoying presence at the gathering, after a hectic, tiring journey? A wacky uncle; a family member who voted for Trump; a slobbering drunk; a couple who argue with one another at the table; a person who uses the occasion to argue that boys should go to the men’s room and girls go to the their own room to pee; a relative who brings a huge, slobbering dog to the table? It might be even more serious, like having to be around the table with someone who has been the cause of past abuse and pain. 

We certainly have the right to choose our dinner partners. We can gather with “like-minded” folks, “kindred spirits,” and enjoy a warm comradery. We can shun the superfluous indulgence that invites a gluttonous appetite. We can dine with vegetarians, vegans, or eat Tofurky with folks who wish that our president would pardon all turkeys, not just one. Or we can just eat alone.

Wherever we spend Thanksgiving, I do believe we are challenged to offer thanks. Genuine gratitude will come, as it so often does, not only in the happiest times, but also as strange as it may seem, in the rough-and-tumble realities that confront each one of us personally and in the larger world in which we live.

So, dear friends, eat well and be ready to entertain a grateful heart, finding a feast wherever you spend Thanksgiving Day.

Add comment November 22nd, 2017

A Vacuum Cleaner & Vietnam

September 20th, 2017  |   

I was awake earlier than usual. An Electrolux vacuum cleaner came to mind. With hurricanes pounded people’s lives to smithereens, talk of a nuclear war, and opioid addiction plaguing people, I’m thinking about a vacuum cleaner? What’s that all about?

I think it is directly related to the PBS Ken Burns Vietnam War episode I had watched before going to bed. It catapulted me back to the 1950s, June 1958, to be exact.

In just three weeks, Judy and I had graduated from college, were married, and moved into a tiny house located just off the Marine base at Quantico, Virginia. Our first purchase, on credit, was an Electrolux vacuum cleaner. Each month, we clipped a coupon from a payment book, and mailed it with a $10 check, until it became our property.

I was sworn into the Marine Corps right after graduation, on the Washington & Lee campus, in Lee Chapel. A Marine officer, in his Dress Blue uniform, stood in front of me and administered the oath. Just behind him was the marble “Recumbent Statue” of General Lee asleep on the battlefield. Often seen as his grave, he is actually buried directly beneath it, in the crypt.  

Fifty-nine years later, our nation is struggling with the statues and memorials that honor Robert E. Lee. The recent violence that erupted in Charlottesville, over the decision to remove a Lee statue from a park, has become one of many focal points for intense reflection about America’s original sin, racism. Washington & Lee has created a commission to address the issues surrounding its very name and time-honored, dated historical traditions. Just off campus, Robert E. Lee Episcopal Church has just changed its name to Grace Church. Washington Cathedral has removed a window honoring Lee.

I live on Lee Street. Perhaps the city council should change the name. Frankly, it’s not my fight right now. I am focused on the attempts in Congress to obliterate health care for so many people. Of equal concern to me is the announcement by President Trump at the UN that Congress is well on the way to appropriating 700 billion dollars for our military budget. Those dollars smell like more unending war.

All commitments, all vows taken, discover their validity, their authenticity, as we live into them. I found that to be true for my marriage, as well as the oath to “defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic.”

Long before the Ken Burns Vietnam War documentary, and now reinforced again by it, I am compelled to say that I was sold a bad bill of goods about the war in Southeast Asia, where I served as a platoon commander in a reinforced infantry battalion, in the first phase of what we now call the Vietnam War. You want “fake news,” it existed in the lies we were told about Vietnam and the war, as it progressed.

As for the subject of racism, our war against the people of Southeast Asia was clearly a racist war, perpetrated out of a long history of racist wars our country has waged, all the way back to dozens of Native American wars. Korea can be added to that list, as well as numerous wars fought in Central America.

In a West Virginia Public Broadcasting edition of the Vietnam War, five native participants give testimony. A friend, and comrade in peace, who lost both legs in Vietnam, and who has assisted people with their prosthetic devices, in war-torn nations, speaks truth about Vietnam when he says, “Should we have been there in the first place? Hell no.” Dave has held a similar view about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I suspect he would warn all of us, right now, about the craziness of going to war in North Korea. Take a couple of minutes to listen to Dave Evans, and prepare to resist more war.


Add comment September 20th, 2017

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Nations will hammer swords into plows, their spears into sickles, there shall be no more training for war. Each person will sit under his or her fig tree in peace.
Micah 4:3 - 4