Memorial Day

On Monday, Memorial Day 2007, Vickie and I went to American Village to attend the Gold Star Memorial Service in the chapel for fallen servicemen and women who have died since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have begun.  I went because my friend Marynell Winslow, with whom I collaborated on a song about her fallen son Ryan (which many of you heard last November when she and George came to our church on a Wednesday evening around Veteran’s Day).  It was sung beautifully at the beginning of the service by 800px-US_Navy_040531-N-6371Q-223_Marines_and_Sailors_march_in_the_Little_Neck_Memorial_Day_Parade_in_Queens_N.Y._during_the_17th_Annual_Fleet_Week_2004a talented young soloist from Nashville.

Later, family members or representatives of the families walked one by one to the front and laid a single rose across a pair of combat boots as a symbol of the one whose full name was called.  As the roses piled higher and higher and you heard that list of names, one at a time, there was time to think about each family, each person, and who they were—what did they dream?  What was it like for them?

Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day.  It is a day of remembrance for those who have died in the service of our nation. According to a website on its observance, how it began is mysterious.

There are many stories as to its actual beginnings, with over two dozen cities and towns laying claim to being the birthplace of Memorial Day. There is also evidence that Forgotten Memorialorganized women’s groups in the South were decorating graves before the end of the Civil War: a hymn published in 1867, “Kneel Where Our Loves are Sleeping” by Nella L. Sweet carried the dedication “To The Ladies of the South who are Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead.”

Memorial Day was officially proclaimed on 5 May 1868 by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, in his General Order No. 11, and was first observed on 30 May 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery.

                                         — http://www.usmemorialday.org/

800px-bn3q09604_candle_lightTo a mother whose son has died, nothing can give complete comfort.  To know that he died for a good cause, as a patriot, as a loyal soldier, even with the gratitude of the nation, is meaningful.  But there is still that terrible void—the child she held in her arms, taught to walk and talk and pray and play, is gone.

I think about those families during this week. However their deaths came, for each family this was deeply personal, irreplaceable, terrible and relentless.

Remembering is a holy act.  Death is a doorway into that mystery called eternity—a door that opens only one way for us.  In the anguish of loss, we search for meaning, for hope, for comfort.  At the very least, to be remembered is a moment of relief.  It is good for us to place a hand on the parent of a son or daughter who died and say, “We remember.  And we are sad, too.”  Death is terrible enough, and grief is its horrid companion.  At the least we should not have to bear it alone or without a sense that our loved one’s life really mattered.

Memorial Day was a time for me to reflect, not just on this war, but on all wars we have endured.  The price is always enormous.  I miss my World War II veterans and Korean War veterans. If they had seen these angry people walking around our streets with guns, threatening one another when we should be pulling together.  They would have shaken their heads. They knew what it is really like.

The toll is deeper than we know.  It is good to pause and remember and count the cost.  It is good to understand that in all that we do, there are those from among us who cannot sit comfortably and do it.  They carry a heavy load.

I am reminded to pray a little harder for peaceful solutions, to be slow to anger and quick to forgive, to pray for safe returns, for just outcomes, for intelligence to prevail over impulse and rage against each other, for healing and effective grief, for a more thankful heart, for emotional restoration.  And to appreciate those who do the hard part of democracy.

But most of all, I have been pondering about widening out Memorial Day this year a little more to include a different war, against an invisible virus, taking some of our brightest and best and too many people who are loved from us. It makes no distinctions at all as we do with one another. And most of all I think of the soldiers in this war, doctors, nurses, dedicated researchers and healthcare professionals, farmers and ordinary truck drivers and workers and factory employees risking themselves to feed us, retail workers who have to ask us too much to abide by some simple courtesies, a little irritation and inconvenience, just for the privilege of shopping for what we need in a world where even now we have ten times what most others in the world could dream of.

I hope we’re up to it. But it may require, as Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman said, that we first grieve our losses before we can be sane about resuming life. I hope we don’t skip over the remembering, as painful as it might be. Because there is also joy in the remembering. And you don’t get the joy without the sorrow. If there are no parades this year, let it not keep us from remembering, honoring, mourning, and giving thanks. Be grateful for every act of sacrifice for the greater good, no matter how small.

Two Poems for the Pan*****

I agree, but am wearying to say, “we’re in it together,” since we didn’t get a vote. I’m sick of “pandemic” (so I turned it into faux profanity–pan*****),”Covid-19,” coronavirus,” and “webinar.” I don’t like where we are, but left that emotion aside in the press of survival. I did a series of “Pandemic Haiku” earlier, but turn today to a bit of escapist verse. Among my Christian friends (most of mine are of the less literalistic and more reflective types), it is helpful to find Biblical imagery–the exile, an apt one, with its sense of jarring losses and displacement. It’s too simplistic to go straight for the apocalyptic–apocalypticism was a minority tool in the ancient box that people take out in times like these. Dystopian imagery, though, is like a long train ride with Obadiah in the Hebrew scriptures (it’s short, give it a read). We yank it out of the box the way my Dad used to call his hammer a “North Carolina screwdriver” and cram every disaster into the Rapture box. It may get the job done, but leaves holes in the wall. Humor, though, is of great use for this moment. Just as it is in grief–without stories that make us smile, or fond memories, the waves of sorrow would drown us. In grief as in life, it not a straight line of morbidity, but the ocean of feelings, good, bad and otherwise. So, two more little poems. I can’t help it. They just pop out. Whether they spread uncontrollably is, well, not up to me.  Maybe a smile amid the little glimmers of loss that intrude on the day. There’s so much to grieve, so maybe a little dark humor helps.

Poor Virus

Imagine!

Everywhere you go, even though you affect everyone around you

and millions of people fear you and know your name,

that the whole world hates you and wants you to die.

It’s not like you had a great start—born of a bat-bite

In a filthy wet market.

You were bound to be wild.

 

You make people sick.

Your existence is one relationship to the next

And everything you touch is diminished or dies.

Continue reading “Two Poems for the Pan*****”

Good Friday

Morning coffee comes to our cells,

We are not in jail, we are monks of the pandemic

“Go to your cell. It will teach you everything.”

This time can teach us, too.

We can go to Good Friday here.Jerusalem

 

 

By three o’clock, the world shaken,

The darkness a shadow across our souls,

the failures and oblivion of us all fully revealed and judged.

By three o’clock, the thieves will have died, too.

The crowd dispersed, the disciples disheartened,

His mother and the Beloved Disciple,

Having to keep their distance, wait to receive His body.

All will descend into silence.

 

Even Easter will begin with a graveyard disruption

A woman alone

And disciples hiding behind locked doors.

We can do this.

The Grief Among Us

 

My daughter is an executive coach and a counselor and sent me an article this week in the Harvard Business Review titled, “That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief,” by Scott Berinato. It is well worth reading because it connects to something around the edges of this pandemic that we bypass in the adrenaline rush to survive and find answers. Meanwhile, fear and panic, the threats of economic ruin and the very real terror of possibly passing a disease on unwittingly to others has weighed on us all.

Business owners who were riding a wave of prosperity a short time ago now sit at a social distance, wondering how long they can hold on to see things going again. Doctors and nurses and hospital workers live under the constant strain of a new “abnormal.” The public at large is being asked not to touch, to hug, to embrace their newborns and grandchildren and one another. Rationally, we know we’ll get through this particular iteration, but something deep and irreversible has come one us. I think of my own grandchildren, wrenched away from classmates and the love of a teacher and suddenly, inexplicably, sent of spring break without end.

Berinato interviewed David Kessler, a colleague of the late Elisabeth Kubler-Ross who created the Stages of Grief framework for understanding what people go through as they’re dying. She and others extrapolated the five stages—denial, anger, depression Continue reading “The Grief Among Us”

Remembering Iva Jewel Tucker

Those of us who are pastors consider ourselves called into ministry, but sometimes you realize what a wonderful privilege it is to do it. You meet remarkable people, and I count Iva Jewel Tucker among them. Yesterday we had her funeral. I was her pastor for many years, and she was the light of Christ among us. Not in an ethereal, hyper spiritualized piety, but in an honest, human, incarnation of the gospel. Funny, always sharp in her observations and humor. And yet when she filled in with our office once as a temp while 88934595_10207096619529365_3686432956290695168_nwe were hiring, she came to work with a serious face on every day. I saw an entirely other side to her—no nonsense.  That’s how she was with anything to do with words or faith.

Yet as a part of this church, she attracted everyone to her—children loved her, and she adored them. If you were privileged to be one of her 23,000 closest Facebook friends, she loved your pictures and talked about what was going on in your life. She was interested in everything.

Her obituary listed a life that tires the reader to think about. By the time she died at age 93, she listed the following activities (I’ve summarized):

She graduated from Howard College (now Samford University) where she studied journalism and spent much of her life as a writer, editor, and artist working for the Baptist Sunday School Board and on the staff of the national Woman’s Missionary Union, where she was editor of Girls’ Auxiliary (Girls in Action) magazines and materials. She was an editorial assistant and later Director of the Editorial Department for The Alabama Baptist, the state Baptist newspaper. Continue reading “Remembering Iva Jewel Tucker”

D-Day

I lived my third-grade year in Clarksville, Tennessee, an army town dominated then by the presence of Fort Campbell, Kentucky and the 101st Airborne Division, the Screaming Eagles, one of the most storied units in American military history. On Sunday afternoons, especially when company came into town like Uncle Vance and Aunt Hazel, we’d go out after church to the base where paratroopers would jump out of planes and land on a field where visitors could come and watch. It was cheap entertainment.

120606022639-d-day-10-horizontal-large-galleryThen we’d go to the military museum, the Don F. Pratt Memorial Museum.  General Don Forrester Pratt (July 12, 1892—June 6, 1944) was the assistant division commander (ADC) of the 101st and was in the lead glider that flew into France that landed behind the lines for the invasion.  The plane crashed and General Pratt died of a broken neck. He was the highest-ranking officer killed on D-Day.

The museum had jeeps, planes, artifacts, but the most chilling were items confiscated from Hitler’s “Eagles Nest” retreat by soldiers. We were especially terrified by Hitler’s walking cane, and by items belonging to Herman Goering. World War II was still alive in Continue reading “D-Day”

The Valley of Hinnom

In the book of 2 Kings 23:10 we read of a defiled valley in Jerusalem where child sacrifice had been practiced through burning. King Josiah, in his reforms, declared it a defiled place.  According to 2 Chronicles. 28:1-3, King Ahaz had offered incense there and offered his sons as a sacrifice.  It was considered accursed, a desecrated place.  So, too, King Manasseh, the wicked King who turned his back on the faith by permitting the horrific practices of other religions (although leading the nation to a prosperous economy) to be allowed, including child sacrifice. occultism, witchcraft and sorcery, channeling and wizardry. This included burning his sons as a sacrifice in the Valley of Hinnom (2 Chronicles 33:6).

The prophet Jeremiah thoroughly condemned this practice in Jeremiah 7:31-32 as godless and unholy.  In his prophecy at the Potsherd Gate at the edge of this same Valley, Jeremiah stood and prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem, declaring that God would bring such evil upon them that whoever heard of it, his ears would tingle, and he linked it in part to sacrifice of innocent blood.  It would become a desecrated place where only those with no burial place, like criminals and outcasts, would have their bodies placed.  An unholy and terrifying place.

By Jesus’ day, the valley of Hinnom was still considered a cursed spot. So when Jesus described hell as a terrifying place, an “unquenchable fire,” (Mk. 9:43), the term for hell is Gehenna, which seems to link etymologically with “hinnom.”  Some scholars have said that this refers to the desecrated valley, which became a trash dump in Jerusalem in Jesus’ day.

It would have been a vivid metaphor in his hearer’s minds. Like most dumps, it smoldered continuously and was full of maggots (Mk. 9:48-“where the worm never dies and fire unquenched”).  It was an unholy and evil place where only the most abandoned and forlorn souls ended their lives, bodies tossed shamefully onto the refuse of the city and decaying openly.

It is interesting enough that this was the image employed for the word “hell.” It is more intriguing to consider its beginnings as an accursed location. If you take a tour in Israel today, guides will tell this story and point out where it is thought to be.

That hell began with the sacrifice of a nation’s innocents, its children, while the powers that were sat by and tolerated it is astounding. It is horrifying to think of burning children on an altar. But then, I ponder—how do I live amid so much prosperity and yet so indifferent to the value of life—unborn, born, poor, neglected and otherwise?

How have we come to a place in which yet another school shooting numbs us? The same vapid paralysis will follow—the need for gun control and why it won’t matter, and ultimately, back to the same immobilized status quo.  As my school teacher daughter sighed to me, “Dad, if we wouldn’t do a thing after a classroom of preschoolers were slaughtered in Newtown, we won’t do anything about this one either.”

And so we shrug, again. A disturbed 19 year old bought an assault rifle and did what it is designed to do—kill by the masses. And nothing will change. And some day, tour groups may stop, and the guide point to the map and say of us,

This is the valley from which the name Gehenna comes, and it first became accursed because of its association with child sacrifice. They helplessly allowed their children to be sacrificed and to live in fear of dying in their streets and at school. The economy was strong, but still, they were cursed for allowing their young to be consumed without lifting a finger. They were conquered and destroyed, but long before, they rotted from within.  And nothing good ever grew there and no one would live there ever again.


There is still a glimmer of hope. The prophets warned Israel to repent and turn, while there was yet time. This is still a democracy, not a monarchy. There is still time. There is still a nation of citizens, a constitution, waiting for the will and united resolve to galvanize us to seek our better common life and the well-being of our young. We are not yet past the point of no return. But it is getting late.

Abide With Me

Henry Francis Lyte was an Anglican priest who originally intended to be a doctor, but then entered the ministry. He was a prize-winning poet during his university years, and best known for his elegant hymn, “Abide With Me.” He continued to write religious poetry through his life.  He was born in 1793 and died when he was only fifty-four years of age. The first verse captures a transcendent and haunting mood:

“Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;

The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide.

When other helpers fail and comforts flee,

Help of the helpless, O abide with me.”

 

It is uncertain when he penned this text. It has been connected to the death of a fellow  clergyman, of which he said

“I was greatly affected by the whole matter, and brought to look at life and its issue with a different eye than before; and I began to study my Bible, and preach in another manner than I had previously done.”[1]

Regardless, it’s reflective and somber tone nearly always takes me to a melancholy mood. It is often sung at funerals.  In one of the eight original verses is the line  “Change and decay in all around I see.”

Ian Bradley, a leading scholar of Victorian hymns, names his book on this subject, Abide with Me: The World of Victorian Hymns. He notes, “John Bell, the leading contemporary Scottish hymn writer, has pointed to the damage done to the cause of reform and moving on in the life of churches by the deadening effect of [this line] from ‘Abide with me.’”[2]

Nevertheless, the end of life is a serious and inevitable matter. In the ministry, we deal with it all the time. There are other things to talk about in life, joys and pleasures, work, goodness and family. We cannot long live in the valley of the shadow. But when it comes, it is good to know that we are not there alone.

Our church sits atop a mountain, a beautiful garden behind the sanctuary perched on the edge, looking out across the southern suburbs of Birmingham. It is a view that invites meditation and deep thoughts. Once, while there with a friend, a retired missionary and a man of great kindness and compassion, I asked what he was thinking about. He pointed to the hospital below, in the valley. “I was just thinking about all the human suffering contained in that place, every single day, and that Christ dwells with them there.”

That, at its best, is what faith can do. Today, while my own dear mother is taking her second chemo for stage IV cancer, I pray for her and for the millions every day who make the journey along the cliffs of suffering and disease. Perhaps these lines sit well here for us all:

When other helpers fail and comforts flee,

Help of the helpless, O abide with me.”

LISTEN to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sing Abide with Me, arr. Mack Wilberg.

 

 

[1] Darrell St. Romain, “History of Hymns: Abide with Me” https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-abide-with-me

 

[2] St. Romain.

Death Grief and Hope: Songs for the Shadows (2)

So, then, to continue from my last post, If we are not to grieve as those who have no hope, and not to hope as those who have no grief, then only one conclusion is left to us.  We should grieve as people of hopeso what does that mean?

Here is where grace enters in powerfully.  “Grieving as people of hope” means that God’s grace is in the picture with us as we sorrow in life.  Grace does not magically take away our pain or make it hunky-dory wonderful.  I have heard preachers stand up and talk about heaven and hope in a glib and superficial silliness that emotionally slaps the faces of the grieving ones sitting in front of him or her.  If it gives them a moment’s comfort, the dark shadow will soon come.  If Jesus wept over Lazarus, there is something important in it for us as well. Whatever we believe about the life to come, it is always in faith, in part, clouded by the contrast between the only reality we know with some certainty against a promise that is yet to be.

Paul helps us in a second passage from the New Testament. In 2 Corinthians 4:7-9 he wrote, “But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; s_s_hopestruck down, but not destroyed; Afflicted but not crushed.”

  1. Perplexed but not driven to despair
  2. Persecuted but not forsaken
  3. Struck down but not destroyed

What sustains us in life is not to escape affliction, questions, persecution and suffering.  It is being rooted in the life that transcends it. This means accepting

  1. The reality of death—as well as the truthfulness of grace. It not only does not avoid the worst features of human life, it enters into them.  Grace is seeing the worst about us and still loving us. I once wrote a song to try to express the anguish of this, called,
  2. The necessity of grief— Grief is part of life just as death is on its path. If we are to imbibe life as a gift, we have also to taste its bittersweet transience.  In the nineteenth century, Ray Palmer wrote the great hymn, “My Faith Looks Up to Thee,” and penned these wonderful words:

When ends life’s transient dream,
When death’s cold sullen stream shall o’er me roll;
Blest Savior, then in love, fear and distrust remove;
O bear me safe above, a ransomed soul!

I have written about 110 songs at this point, bits and fragments of maybe 250 more, but looking over them, I realize how much time grieving has occupied in my mind. I am sure much of this has to do with my vocation–I cannot avoid walking through the valley of someone else’s shadow weekly–but I am also impressed with the massive  energy spent on avoiding the subject in our culture–and the price we pay for it. One song on this subject for today, “Trying to Remember” Continue reading “Death Grief and Hope: Songs for the Shadows (2)”

Death Grief and Hope: Songs for the Shadows

  We must face our losses.  Courage does not spare us from them. 

Courage’s work begins at the other end of honest acknowledgement.

          Grief can encompass many parts of life, not merely death.  It is, in many ways, our most universal experience.  It can be the death of dreams, grief of a way of life that ends, the end of a relationship, leaving home, moving to another town, divorce, a broken friendship.  The question is, “What are we to do with it?”

I can’t speak for people who have no faith in God, but I will admit that having faith in God doesn’t dispose of grief. It is just the same, just as overwhelming, the same disbelief followed by disintegration and despair and a long struggle to put life together again.

One verse of scripture I have found meaningful is  this one:

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.   1 Thess. 4:13

 I take great comfort that it does not say, “Don’t grieve, you’re a Christian,” but I have heard many a well-meaning minister stand up and talk about death like it was a flu shot. Death is real, it is irreversible, it is disheartening. I don’t think dismissing reality is a good idea. It has a way of showing up again with reinforcements.

The denial of death is, as Ernest Becker said, the most pervasive of human failings, and the most futile. The Apostle Paul said, very intentionally, that we should not “grieve as those who have no hope.” Instead, I would assume, we should grieve as people who DO have hope. Continue reading “Death Grief and Hope: Songs for the Shadows”