Thursday, February 28, 2013

A Wee Canto on a Life: Mourning the Death of Abu Hani

I only just now learned that Abu Hani died in December.  He was headed home to Baghdad.  It was a car accident.  A car accident.

Abu Hani was our landlord in Baghdad.  He survived Saddam Hussein, car bombs in his neighborhood, a mortar falling on his apartment building, thieves, and the day-to-day of dodging, weaving and dancing that was and has been life in Iraq for so long.

He and his family survived what we call the first Gulf War, hiding in a barn outside Baghdad.  They survived sanctions.  They survived escaping from Baghdad and the threat of the Jordanians to return Abu Hani to Iraq by force.  That may be my favorite Abu Hani story of all.

Along with millions of Iraqis, he finally fled his beloved Iraq to come to Amman.  His wife Um Hani was already there.  When he arrived, Jordanian officials told the passengers they would have to turn around and fly back to Iraq.

Time passed; Abu Hani argued and stalled long enough to ‘miss’ the return flight and as it got later in the day and into evening, he went to the hamam (the restroom) and changed into his pajamas, rolled out a blanket on the airport chairs and proceeded to make his place for the night.  When the officials challenged him, he calmly told them, “What do you mean I cannot do this?  I live here now.  This is my home.  From now on, I live in the airport because you won’t let me enter and go to my apartment in Amman with my wife.  So this is now my home.  I am very tired; I think I’ll get some rest.”

He rolled over and made as if to go to sleep.

Finally, the officials, mortified by the situation they had created, relented and agreed that Abu Hani could enter, but made him promise to tell none of his friends who had also come.  Of course he swore and of course he told them all.

On election day, Abu Hani took us walking around the neighborhood in Baghdad to various polling places showing everyone’s purple finger.  We sat many evenings around their table, eating, laughing, sharing stories.

He and Um Hani made us welcome.  They prayed for us and worried over us like mother hens.  They kept us safe as much from ourselves as from others.  They bade us welcome at their table in Jordan as well as in their apartment building in Baghdad.

Baghdad killed Abu Hani, finally.  He loved Baghdad.  He was Baghdadi through and through.  And so when the violence would calm, if only for a little bit, he would go back to oversee his investments as well as those of his friends and family.  And he survived.  Until the day when he did not.  And it was a car wreck.  In Jordan.  He was headed home again.  And none of the other passengers were even scratched.  And he is dead.  And it breaks my heart.  

You do not survive in Abu Hani’s world by being a fool.  And Abu Hani was no fool.  He was friend and protector, wisdom giver, proud father and husband, business man and consummate broker, witty and urbane, a Christian for whom the sands of Iraq ran in his blood.  And I mourn his passing with fond memories and a broken heart.

Oh, and I miss his laugh - the laugh of an Iraqi man - a laugh that contains the knowledge of fertile crescents and hanging gardens and wonders of the world and deserts and riches and poverty all beyond imagining – the laughter of one who knows much but tells little.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Are There Couches in Heaven?

Some years back, Kevin Costner’s movie Dances with Wolves made a big splash.  The title, if I remember rightly, was taken from the Native American name given to Costner’s character.  It’s a lovely name, isn’t it?  I like its resonance, the image it invokes, and that the name includes a verb.

The other day, I thought that if I had a Native American name, I’d like it to be Walks with God.  But I had to quickly admit that if the name were to reflect the reality of my life, the more accurate name would have to be Sits on Couch or Stares at Screens or Phone Talker or maybe even Time Dawdler.

In that elevated place I inhabit within my mind, Walks with God so appeals – for do not we all walk with our God?  And isn’t that a lovely image of movement and being?

But in the daily reality of my life lived, I have to admit I spend far too much time on the couch and I am (not so slowly) starting to resemble that tuberous veg we call the potato, more’s the pity.

Maybe I could combine the two – reality and imagining – which leaves me with Sits on Couch with God, which sounds a bit weird, I have to say.  I know the Genesis account reminds us that God, even God, rests.  But it’s far from my imagining of God, this sitting, frittering, way of being.  God, in my mind’s eye, is purposeful, moving.  God, you see, as I would understand God, is a verb and not a passive one at that.

Maybe I’m just too Calvinist to imagine God in repose on a couch, watching silly television, passing the time.  But I don’t think so.  I think that while God’s movement is filled with stillness, God’s stillness is filled with movement.

So are there couches in heaven?  Somehow, I don’t think so.

Guess I better get walking.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Belching, Scratching and Farting Our Way to Jesus

I’m betting all those folks Jesus hung out with – you know: the sinners, the NOKP*, the dirty and unkempt ones, the mean ones and the sly ones, the showing-too-much-in-that-dress ones – yeah, those folks – well, I’m betting that even when they came into the ‘fold’ by following Jesus, they were still who they were before in many ways.

I’m betting they still belched and scratched and farted at the dinner table.

I’m betting they still got told that ‘we don’t wear that kind of dress here, dear.’

I’m betting they still drank too much from time to time.

I’m betting that all in all, they remained a pretty ragtag profane bunch.  And I’m betting that some, if not most, folks who considered themselves part of the in crowd still cringed when they saw them coming.

Why am I so sure?

Well, the truth is I’m a pretty profane gal, all things considered.  I still laugh too loud and get too mad and point my finger and want to, even if I don’t, wear that slutty dress.  And every now and then, under the robes, I still belch and fart and scratch.

But now I know Jesus.  I may not know you, but I know Jesus.  And yes, that has made me a better person than I was, but that’s almost beside the point, except to the extent that it helps or hurts you to know Jesus too, because while I’m better, I am far, far, far, from perfect.  And I’m okay with that.

So to all of you who think you might like to get to know Jesus too and that maybe you could do that in a church, but aren’t sure (or more sadly, are sure) of the welcome you’ll receive there, all I can tell you is this: come belching and scratching and farting and drinking and laughing too loud and wearing your favorite slutty dress . . . and . . . and . . . and be kind enough in your coming to realize that if you get dirty looks from some, that’s just our way of belching or farting a greeting your way.  And try not to mind too much – we just don’t know any better.

*For those who don’t recognize the acronym, Not Our Kind of People

Monday, February 25, 2013

Just a Story

“Jesus is just a story” - read on a fb post this a.m.

just + story = does not compute

When it comes to story, nothing is ‘just’, diminutive, reductive, only, merely, or ‘just’.

Story continues to be the way we humans make sense of ourselves and our world.  The narrative framework sets up how we share ourselves and others with each other.

You may know my father, if at all, only through my stories of him.

Granted, that’s not the same as knowing him, but it’s as good as I’ve got, and at that, it’s actually pretty fine.  When I tell of his life-shaping trip to buy his first pair of shoes (for school), you will know some of his sadness.  When I add the context of the Depression, you will know of his shaping.  If I told you of his penny-pinching ways as an adult without adding the story of the shoes, you would know something of him, but in a very real sense, what you would know would be wrong; worse, it would be false.

So to the unknown fb commenter, all I can say is that Jesus may well be a story, but never just a story.  And what a fine story he is.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

SermonCliffNote: Geography of the Heart

Geography of the Heart

Scripture:  Luke 13.31-35 (NRSV):  Just then some Pharisees came up and said, “Run for your life! Herod’s on the hunt. He’s out to kill you!”  Jesus said, “Tell that fox that I’ve no time for him right now. Today and tomorrow I’m busy clearing out the demons and healing the sick; the third day I’m wrapping things up. Besides, it’s not proper for a prophet to come to a bad end outside Jerusalem.
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killer of prophets, abuser of the messengers of God!  How often I’ve longed to gather your children, gather your children like a hen, Her brood safe under her wings—but you refused and turned away!  And now it’s too late:  You won’t see me again until the day you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of God.’”


Jesus invokes the image of a hen protecting her baby chicks in the night as he stands on the hills outside Jerusalem and shouts his broken heart into its valley, with no answer save the echo of his own voice.

For Jesus is standing in that horror-filled moment just before the crash, screaming his terror at what is to happen to his people, his children, who, without him, careen in front of the oncoming truck of their own destruction.

We parents have all had those moments . . . car keys given with strict instructions only to spend hours in worry, knowing in our heart of hearts that speed limits are being ignored, safety warnings overlooked.

Like the girl taking the car out by herself for the first time, the people of Jerusalem don’t even have the imagination to see in dreams what Jesus knows.  And it breaks his heart.

All he wants to do is enfold them in his love and keep them safe – even and especially from themselves.  What is he to do?  What is any parent to do?

For now, he will bide his time.  He will wait.  And wait.  And wait.  And when the time comes, he will step in front of the truck for them.  But until then, he waits and hopes it will be enough, sure that it isn’t.

Jesus has come to the heart of his country, to its capital city, to bring himself and all he has to offer for her protection and well-being, but before he can even step one foot inside her gates, he’s already being sent away, because Herod would rather risk the wrath of God than hear about the coming storm.  And as Herod went, so too will Jerusalem go, sheep following the wrong shepherd, or more truly, no shepherd at all.

Jesus reacts as a panicked, broken-hearted parent, watching the inevitable unfold before his very eyes.

The hen image, then, is not a sweet mother moment; no – this is the frustrated terror of the tigress confounded by her inability to protect her new born cubs from the swooping bird of prey. It’s the prayer mantra of the father handing over the car keys for the first time – please, please, please, please.

Jesus is not speaking with the voice of the angry father when you get home too late.  This is the terrified voice of the frightened father worrying and weeping into the night.  And it, this weeping, is for us.  God has given us the car keys and is begging us, pleading with us, to be careful.

Yes, he’ll be angry if we get home late or worse, wreck the car.  But it’s the anger of love – a love that can sadly and all too easily imagine what we cannot even dream of.

Listen and hear the words of your pleading, cajoling, begging father . . . please be careful . . . please!  I know what can happen if you aren’t.  Please let me protect you . . .please listen to me . . . please.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Sapcicle Hunting

“I want to tell you what I saw yesterday,” said Laura* last night.  “You know where all the trees are down around Ramsey’s Draft?”


“Well, there were these amazing . . . well, I always called them sapcicles.”  


“Yeah – when the sap’s running in the maples and it gets cold again and where a branch has broken, little sap icicles form.  Sapcicles.”


“Yeah.  They were amazing.  There were so many.  It was beautiful.  I wish I’d had my camera with me.  But I wanted to tell you that when we used to live in the manse, we’d fight over who got the sapcicles.  They’re soooo good!”

“I can’t believe I’ve never even noticed.”  (Sigh)

“Well, if it gets cold again tomorrow, you should look for them.”

So I did.  I went sapcicle hunting today.  No luck.  Will try again later.  Still can’t believe I’ve never noticed, never reached out and tried a sapcicle.  Can’t wait for my first taste of spring.

UPDATE 2.23.13: No sapcicile sightings as yet.  Still looking.

Shout out to friend Laura LaPrade for introducing me to sapcicles.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Taking on Lent

Lent is about giving up, but this year, I think I’ll take something on.

I had already promised, half-heartedly, that I would give up sweet drinks (failed), chocolate (failed), maybe even cigarettes (not even tried).

Yesterday the thought came to me (Holy Spirit whisper?) to give up saying negative things.  That’s a good one.  I’m working on it.

But today, the thought (Holy Spirit, is that you again?  I’m already working on the negativity.  What more do you want?) came to take on something.  I’m not sure what.  But the companion thought was to move away from individual action towards the action of the gathered.

Maybe it’s prayer.  But I don’t think so: we all already pray.

Maybe it’s a project.  But that’s not it either – there are already plenty of projects.

So what is this taking on about?

What might we take on together this Lenten season?

What requires our concerted action?

What needs putting on rather than taking off?

What new thing might we introduce into our lives together that this thing called us might actually resemble God and God’s kingdom right here, right now?

Maybe it’s love.  Not the Hallmark card stuff (although that’s nice).  And not tough love either (sometimes necessary, but not so nice).

Maybe it’s the love of noticing.  Maybe what we can do together is notice each other better.  Maybe we can hear what’s being said behind the words.  Maybe we can respond to the unspoken – with caring action.  Maybe we can do the laundry for someone simply because we can and they can’t.  Maybe we can practice noticing, simply because when you notice things, it prompts an action and that, I think, is love at its most fundamental.

God notices us.  God takes notice of us.  And that is God’s love.

So maybe this Lent, we can band together and notice each other.


Thursday, February 21, 2013

From the Sidelines

For some reason I wake up today thinking about September 11, 2001.  It’s February, 2013 and I have no idea why this is my first thought of the day.  Yet there it is – 9/11 from my own lived perspective – at a distance, safe in Princeton, New Jersey, a seminary student with a summer semester under my belt, believing I might have something to offer into that horror, but having no way to offer it.

Feeling frustration as well as fear and anxiety, I went with some friends to Costco and we bought all we could from a list of needed emergency supplies, took them to the local warehouse drop off point and left them.  While shopping, we had the illusion of helping, but dropping off the water bottles and other sundries, we realized we weren’t even a drop in the help bucket.  We prayed of course.  And we gathered and we vigiled.  And in our hearts, we felt we did nothing.

It was our nation’s crisis, but in that safe haven so close but so far, somehow it wasn’t ours.

Why did I think of that time, that feeling, today?  I wish I knew.  I wish I knew what lessons there might be waiting to be drawn from the sidelines.  I wish there was some pithy sentiment that wrapped it all up neatly in a package marked “lesson learned”.

But there isn’t.

There’s just that feeling, that horrible feeling, of great need and the inability to meet it.

Why today, Lord?  Why today?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Does It Matter?

I play bridge and read about frog eggs acting in self-protection and wonder whether it’s all about decks dealt, decks stacked, decks cut to the good or the bad . . . or is it that we move one direction or another based on external stimuli . . . which all seems to come down to the same thing, doesn’t it?

Is life really like a bridge game, where, while skill matters, the cards are preordained?

Is life really a road map that only God (or Richard Dawkins) can see in all its fullness?

Does it matter whether I am free to choose or if I am merely enacting my own mini-drama in space and time, responding to forces external to me?

If I go inside when it is cold, does that mean that cold writes my life script?  Or does it merely mean that I’m not an idiot?

And does it matter?  Does it matter (presupposing God) whether God writes my script or I do?  Am I not, nevertheless, called, challenged, created, to live out the best me-script possible?

If I am a frog egg hanging from underneath a leaf over a pond, does it matter whether I ‘decided’ to jump to the safety of the pond when the leaf flutters (making me ‘think’ a snake is coming)*?  Is there an ‘I’ apart from my jumping?  I’m thinking not.

So does it matter?  Not so much.

How the Tree Frog Has Redefined Our View of Biology

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Where I Live 4.0

Where I live, our local Supervisor and furniture refinisher has a lamb in his shop window this morning.  I can hear her bleating for attention across the court house lawn.  And everyone at the table later will understand – she needed feeding and no one would be home enough that day to do it, so he brought her along.  It’s just what you do.

Where I live, Mark and the guys change my oil and fill ‘er up while talking about how much we raised at the latest dinner/fundraiser – this time for Emergency Shelter funds for the needy.  (Mark is the county’s go-to guy for putting together a great dinner for hundreds at the drop of the proverbial hat.)

Where I live, death is as practical as life, so we all stop on our way to or from the funeral at the Dollar General to pick up our sundries and think it no disrespect – Guy would have done the same, after all.

Where I live, Deb will follow me to the gas station to drop off the car and drive me back the ½ block to Evelyn’s for our meeting just because she knows I hate to walk in the cold.

Where I live, I catch up with friends sitting in their warm car in the church parking lot after catching them doing a drop off for tomorrow.  That’s visiting and none of us will think it odd that I don’t invite and they don’t expect to come in – we’re both kind of busy just now, but want to catch up, so car visit it is.

Where I live, many of the folks at Guy’s funeral will come up to ask me how my mother’s doing after her car wreck, because they’ve all been praying for her and genuinely want to know.

Where I live, people will tell you if it was a good funeral or not and why, because where I live, folks have lots of practice at funerals and we all know the difference between a good one and a bad one and good send-offs matter.

Where I live, lucky is scooting back across Jack Mountain into the lower highlands just in time to beat the ice and snow and we’re all happy for all the luck we get.

Where I live, a preacher of one church will borrow a congregant from another for some special service or event, because we’re just too small to think it strange to do so.

Where I live, the extraordinary blends in with the ordinary, wearing the camouflage of this thing we call life, sliding by so quietly we almost don’t even notice – almost.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Best Valentine Ever

So I hate Valentine’s Day as an event.  I’m not a card curmudgeon or some sort of purist about St. Valentine.  There’s just too much painful history there lurking in the recesses of my mind whenever February 14 rolls around on the calendar.

This year I took a different tack and sent my family Valentine gifts – something I haven’t done since the kids were kids.  It felt good and right and done in advance, I could and did retire the day from my consciousness.

So it was that yesterday I was vaguely aware of the day as I went about my pastor duties and that was good enough.

At Mark’s funeral, I mentioned the cruel irony of bidding a husband farewell on Valentine’s Day and then spoke about how life is not a Hallmark card.  That was my observance of Valentine’s Day, and that was good enough.

In the evening, I visited with Cindy and Brenda to prepare for Guy’s funeral this afternoon.  We sat at Cindy’s kitchen table and remembered Guy as Kirsten came to sit for a moment on her mother’s lap and left, returning to give her grandmother a green duct-tape purse, which I admired greatly.  Off she went again, only to return some time later with a bright pink duct-tape purse for me, which she then filled with candy from her own white paper bag filled with cards and treats from her school Valentine’s exchange.  I loved that custom when I was in school and was delighted when Kirsten shared with me, with the very special bonus of a new purse.

Coming from West Virginia as I do, I’ve long known duct tape is the solution to the world’s problems.  I’ve made an emergency belt out of duct tape, after all.  But a duct-tape purse?  Now that’s special – for yesterday, it mended a wounded heart.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Answer to a Prayer

I started to say, the answer to a prayer I didn’t know I spoke.  But that’s not quite right: I did and I do know I spoke it – I spoke it aloud.  Aloud and alone in the sanctuary tonight, reading the litanies, beholding my Lord at the empty cross, weeping my prayers – I did speak it.

I asked God my purpose here.

I wept for love of them, of me.

I shared the secret lonely places of my heart with my God.

I asked God my purpose.

I beheld my mortality, inscribed in ashes on the back of each hand.

And when I came home, there it was: the answer to my prayer – a typical (if I might be so cheeky) indirect kind of God answer, but an answer nonetheless: the blinking light and beep . . . beep . . . beep of the telephone message variety.  Sigh.  I sit down, hit the button and listen.

Barbara wants to know if I can play bridge next Wednesday.

And Will shares a need and a good deed done, prompted, he says, by asking himself what Beth would say he should do in the situation.  And he thanked me for my influence in his life.

And my prayer was answered.

I’m still not sure what it means as an answer, but I do know this: God gave me a great big hug tonight – one I desperately needed – and I am grateful.  God whispered in Will’s ear and Will called and I am grateful.

Tired and grateful.

Rent and grateful.

Lonely and grateful.

Overwhelmed and grateful.

Sore to my soul and grateful.

Filled with far too many human-exploding Dresden-burning images . . . and grateful.

It’s the smile at the gut punch – the smile that is seeing something else even as the pain spreads.

And I am grateful.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Sidelines of a Life

To stand at the sidelines of a life
to hear and know by hearing
“this is why I love him”
“this is how he made me better”
“this is who we are together”

this this-ness of things

This showing
and telling
and sharing

if there wasn’t love –
love in the telling
and in the hearing,
I’d be a voyeur

as it is, I confess –
to borrow from Merton a bit –
I am a grateful bystander
graced by their beauty,
their love, their lives,
even if only from a distance

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Phone Calls and More Phone Calls

Phone calls and more phone calls . . . sharing memories . . . laughing through tears . . . phone calls and more phone calls – what did we do before the invention of the telephone? – ash making from last year’s palms delegated . . . ashes sifted from the grainy bits and divided – one bag for Pastor Les, one for me . . . phone calls and more phone calls . . . funeral Saturday for dear Ann who died in January . . . funeral Thursday for Mark, who died last night . . . funeral Friday for Guy who too died yesterday . . . food organized and phone calls and more phone calls . . . double booking Shrove Tuesday and convincing the friend who would feed me to be fed instead – a feast of pancakes await with the Methodists . . . she, my Methodist pastor friend, will feed me on pancakes tonight and receive ashes from me and me from her tomorrow . . . and in the midst I sit down for a quick mid-day meal and watch Rev. and almost cry with him – the vicar – through his frustratingly awful Christmas (which, only on t.v., is always a redeemed thing) . . . and wonder if I’ll ever break and do a stupid dance of frustration in the midst of it all . . . phone calls and more phone calls . . . dishes washed and bulletin about to be done and phone calls and more phone calls . . .

Lord, in the hour of our need . . . 

Monday, February 11, 2013

Automatic Pilot

Yesterday a man opined on NPR that we humans are often not thoughtful, doing things by rote.  That resonates with me.  Sometimes it’s tragic, but most times (at least in my life), it’s absolutely comic, as in the other day.

When I pull into the church parking lot to make my way through towards my driveway, I will take my garage door opener (a luxury my church installed when I first came so I wouldn’t have to get out of the car to open the door in the snow) and click the button, timing my arrival at the garage with the slow opening of the door, born of well-practiced perfection – but not this day.

I hit the button, then hit it again, driving ever slower.  Nothing.  I pulled up to the garage still punching the button, now with increased pressure and fervor, as if I could will its working.

I thought many drats, thinking it was time to replace the battery.

And then I laughed – out loud.

I was sitting in front of my own garage, commanding with my genie device that the door open before me – the only problem: I was clicking on the garage door opener to my mother’s house.

Whimsically, I wondered whether my mother, 150 miles away, was wondering why her own garage door was opening and shutting, opening and shutting.

At least this time I finally became aware of my error.  Not always so, as in the time, some years ago, when I ‘lost’ my car.  At the end of the day, I went to the parking lot, but found no car.  I looked and looked, which was silly – it’s a pretty small lot.  No car.

In high dudgeon, I strode back to my office intent on calling the police to report my vehicle stolen.  Hearing my loud protests, a co-worker came out from his office to ask the problem.  When I told him that my car wasn’t in the lot and someone had obviously stolen it, he replied, I saw it earlier down at the court house.

Dead stop.  Then, red-faced with embarrassment, I had to admit that I had (out of my routine) driven straight to court that day and after, forgetting I had driven, had walked back to the office and at days’ end, gone to retrieve the car from its usual spot with no memory or thought of having parked somewhere else.

I could go on – like the time I took the side mirror off my car backing out of the garage because someone else had parked it the night before, a few inches to the left of my usual placement.  Or how my dog tried to fly one day (dogs are habit creatures too, you know) stepping out onto a stoop that wasn’t there, the workmen having not yet replaced it (they say dogs emulate their owners – although maybe it is me emulating the late, lamented Scruffy).

Routines are, I suppose, necessary things.  They keep me from having to reinvent the wheel every new day.  But I’m forced to confess that all too often, I live on automatic pilot until, every now and then, I’m brought up short and reminded that things are not always the same.

I just wish that those lessons didn’t leave me looking and acting the fool.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

How to Know a Good Italian Restaurant (in West Virginia) When You Find One

Where you just know some of your fellow diners have been coming every Friday night for years.

Where from the first bite of bread, you know you’re in the right place.

Where maybe there’s no carpet on the floor - only concrete, but you don’t notice.

Where the food is quick in the coming because taking a long time doesn’t necessarily make it better.

Where you take some of your main in a to-go box just so you can try one of those great desserts.

Where the waitress (and yes, here she’s a waitress, not a server) goes to check if they’ve got any of the wine you want only a glass of open so you can have your heart’s desire without having to buy a whole bottle of it.

Where paper-napkin-wrapped silverware banded by that brown paper band that’s like a post-it note but not doesn’t even bother you because the lack of fuss is part of what makes the food taste so good.

Where (you guess but don’t know for sure – but would if you were from here) the young man who, though not your server, comes frequently to your table to make sure all is well makes you think he’s surely part of the family who own the place and you’re glad he’s coming up in the business.


Shout out to La Trattoria in Martinsburg, WV, a new fav, joining Clarksburg's Oliverio's and Julio'sand Wheeling's Undo's on my personal list of fab WV Italian restaurants.  No offense, Olive Garden, but really, who needs your franchise when we've got these folks?

Friday, February 8, 2013

Not Much Else

Yesterday morning was largely spent blogging about drones and our failure to examine the wisdom of a policy of killing people termed enemies from afar.  It was a computer morning, with lots of research at my fingertips.

The afternoon, by contrast, was person-to-person: dropping off some food and visiting with an older couple then visiting with a family saying good-bye to a beloved dear one in the end stage of life – a life too soon taken by the vagaries and injustice of cancer.

All politics may be local, but all grief is global – none escape it.

And what occurs to me in reflecting on my day spent amidst so much grief and pain is that life itself brings so much challenge, so many tears, that I wonder that we would add to the mix with our own contribution to the grief of self and others.

Before going to seminary, a preacher I know would often say to my many questions, “It’s not a salvation issue and God will take care of it.”

She frustrated the nonsense out of me at the time, but I have grown to new appreciation of that wisdom.  So much I fret about resides in the hands of God.  So often when I want to get something ‘right’, it’s about telling another that they’re wrong.  So often when I want to ‘know’ for sure, what I really want is reassurance that in the court of public opinion, I am the winner.  So often what I worry about doesn’t matter at all.

Sitting with the dying and their loved ones reminds me of that: most of what I sweat day-to-day really doesn’t matter at all.  And God will take care.  So what does God need of me?  My helping hands, and, I suspect, not much else.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Drone Strikes & Mother Jones: When is a Radical Not a Radical?

Mother Jones was a socialist and a union organizer and odd to our ears, an opponent of women’s suffrage.  Love her or hate her, the woman was, when it came to matters of workers’ rights, a flaming anti-government liberal.  She was tried in West Virginia for ignoring an injunction from the courts banning meetings by striking miners.  She was convicted of conspiring to commit murder by a military tribunal for her activities during the Mine Wars in southern West Virginia in the early 1900's.  Released, similar charges were brought for her activities in Colorado, where she was escorted from the state.  Later she was tried for libel, slander and sedition (action leading others into insurrection or rebellion) in a civil action brought by the Chicago Tribune.*

The magazine bearing her name was founded in 1970 as an underground (subversive) publication.  Wikipedia: Mother Jones

David Corn works as a reporter for Mother Jones.  The thesis I propose is that Mr. Corn has forgotten his legacy; that he no longer speaks for the values and traditions of Mother Jones and should withdraw his association therefrom.

In a word, a radical he is not.  At least not when it comes to drones.

The exchange yesterday on Hardball, MSNBC’s purported liberal talk show hosted by Chris Matthews, was troubling, to say the least.  I have long understood that most of these shows, right and left, are little more than the personal opinions of the participants, writ large over the pages of history.  As such, they can be entertaining, but they are seldom, if ever, illuminating or beneficial.

That said, to represent one’s self as a spokesperson of a certain bent or ilk, shouldn’t one actually be of that bent or ilk?  And that is why I focus particularly on Mr. Corn, who claims to speak on behalf of a magazine, the credentials for which include its very name: Mother Jones.

To invoke Mother Jones is to invoke a radical resistance to power and dominance, and to do so vehemently.  This, after all, is the woman who organized a children’s march from Philadelphia to President Theodore Roosevelt’s home to protest child labor.

Wearing this mantel, read what Mr. Corn had to say about drone strikes, the death of civilians in the strikes, and the implications to American ‘democracy’.** While reading, bear in mind that Mother Jones’ web page today contains linked stories, such as “Obama Targeted Killing Document: If We Do It, It's Not Illegal” and “Barack Obama, Our Drone President:  How a community organizer and constitutional law professor became a robot president.”, implying, at the least, a criticism of the practice. Mother Jones Too bad Mr. Corn didn’t read his own magazine before going on Hardball.  Hard Ball: Drone Strikes

Chris Matthews as host framed the conversation thus: Today we talk about the overseas drone program and the White House justification of drone strikes on American citizens abroad. [Matthews showed a clip of White House spokesperson Jay Carney, saying that the drone program is designed to avoid civilian casualties - fewer die than in an invasion.]

Eugene Robinson said that we have to do counter-terrorism & capabilities of drones are such that this is our best weapon, but shouldn’t there be some sort of judicial oversight like a FISA court?  Especially when we’re talking about a US citizen.

Chris Matthews posited that we are limited what we can do - can either (1) use drones (2) SEAL team attack (Corn - yeah) (3) invade country (Corn - right) or (4) do nothing.

David Corn agreed with Robinson that there needs to be some oversight, such as the FISA court oversight for covert wiretapping.  Matthews then asked  do we have the right to kill?  To which Corn responded that as to an ‘active’ person, a person involved in some ‘operational way’, yes.

Matthews asked, do we have the right to kill Benedict Arnolds? to which Robinson responded, yes - the fact that he’s an American citizen doesn’t bother me.  But it does bother me there’s no structure, no process [of oversight].  Corn was not concerned over the issue of citizenship at all, calling that issue an outlyer, expressing more concern about what the next president might do.

When Matthews focused on the difference between SEAL team attacks and drone strikes, Corn opined that there is less possibility of collateral damage/civilian deaths with SEAL attacks than drone strikes and that the civilian casualties are counter-productive, saying that in Yemen, we have killed clerics friendly to the United States in the drone strikes, creating fear, hostility and blow back.

Matthews asked Corn what he would do if he were Commander-in-Chief: drone strikes or SEAL attack.  Corn’s response – it’s a damn difficult decision to make.

Matthews showed a clip of Republican Rep. Mike Rogers saying about the killing of an American citizen in Yemen by drone strike that he didn’t want his citizenship anymore.  If you join the enemy overseas, we’re going to fight the enemy overseas.  You’ve given that (protections of citizenship) up, to which Matthews commented, once you’re a turncoat, it’s easier for us.  Corn replied, It is.

Corn’s take on the whole thing: there should be “somewhat of a semblance of a rule of law”, apparently because you can trust some administrations (presumably this one) more than others.

This is not an exact transcript, but rather my notes on the video, as the transcript is not yet up on MSNBC’s site.  That said, note the repeat of the principal journalistic mistake when it comes to war and peace issues in our time: the taking of the government position as a given.

Rather than examining the government’s position to see if it has merit, journalists tend to take the government position as a given and then critique that position for its ‘workability’ (will the program accomplish the stated goal?) rather than examining the stated goal to determine whether it is even a worthy or appropriate goal in the first place.

And that, I think, is what happened here.  Mr. Corn, at least, should know better.  After all, he represents a publication that takes its name and identity from a woman who stood outside the machinations of government most of her adult life, speaking from the margins against stated governmental goals like orderliness, support for corporate profit goals, protecting property interests for the wealthy, etc.

So when is a radical no longer a radical?  When he speaks for and on behalf of a government program with no thought to those standing at the margins (always the ones most likely to be harmed by power) and has only suggestions of tweaking, to give the program the semblance of legal process.

More specifically, as a radical myself when it comes to issues of war and peace, violence and non-violence, my problems with Mr. Corn’s words (I’m just as troubled by Matthews and Robinson, but they never claimed to be radicals of the left.  Mr. Corn, at least implicitly, has) are:

1. He assumed that killing an alleged enemy of the state is the only option.  Mr. Matthews phrased our nation’s choices as limited to the manner in which we kill an enemy of the state, as opposed to even examining whether there are other alternatives.  There are.

a. Rather than killing an alleged enemy of the state, that person can be tried, either in person or in abstentia.  They can be provided due process of law.  And they can be found not guilty.  Or found guilty and sentenced to a term of imprisonment as opposed to execution.  The drone program substitutes the judgment of the Executive branch of the government for the judicial branch’s role.  The test of success for a nation such as ours is not how we behave on a good day, but rather how we behave on a bad one.  We have failed that test numerous times in our nation’s history.  Lincoln suspended habeas corpus for reasons of the nation’s security and the Supreme Court backed down.  Franklin Roosevelt created detention camps for Japanese Americans (citizens) without due process of law and for no other reason than their ethnic identity.  John Adams signed into law the Alien and Sedition Acts, used to prosecute those who spoke out freely against the actions of the government at a time when it was feared that the effects of the French Revolution would spread to the Americas.  The consequences of these choices were far reaching.  The Alien and Sedition Acts are said to have sown the seeds for the Civil War.  The problem with the war on terror is that it is not a war.  The powers that be, however, by so naming this series of conflicts ‘war’ while acknowledging that it is not a war, have gotten power’s ‘best of all possible worlds’– power unchecked – as a ‘war’, military actions around the globe that infringe on the sovereignty of other nations are justified and as a ‘not war’, behaviors even the military would not condone (drones are often the purview of the CIA rather than the Pentagon) are carried out.

b. Getting at the root causes of the conflicts.  Many of those recruited to terrorist activities are the disenfranchised, the poor, those with no hope.  It is no accident that Al-Queda provides food, health care and education wherever it sets up.  That our solution to the problem of Al-Queda is militaristic rather than humanitarian shows a short-sighted take on what is happening to real people in real time.

c. Using the United Nations Peacekeeping efforts.  It is popular in the US to nay-say the UN, but the fact is that UN peacekeeping forces are actually very successful around the globe.  And as a body, the UN actually does include humanitarian actions in its strategic plans everywhere it goes.

d. Negotiating with our enemies.  It has become popular to refuse to negotiate with ‘terrorists’.  But if we understand that (1) the nature of power is shifting away from nation states and towards other entities and groups; and (2) that negotiation only need happen when there is conflict, wouldn’t it be sensible to negotiate with those we oppose or who oppose us, regardless of whether their power structure is one we recognize or not?

e. I am sure there are other alternatives.  These are just a few.  None of them were explored in the conversation in which Mr. Corn participated, for the simple reason that the use of drones was taken as a given.  It is not.  The use of drones is neither a given nor an imperative.  It is a choice.  Another choice can be made.  Mother Jones would know that.

2. The dismissal of citizenship as important to the discussion.  Matthews actually framed the conversation in terms of citizenship and its implications in drone strike decisions.  After all, that’s what the leaked document was about, at least in part.  Yet all three participants quickly abandoned the importance of citizenship to the discussion.  Treason is an offense actually listed in the Constitution, which states in Article 3, Section 3, “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court.”

a. The Obama Administration is at the very least, implicitly following the legal reasoning (or lack thereof) of the Bush Administration, in defying our own Constitution and the laws of our nation and the world.  By calling this a war that is not a war, legal rights are suspended routinely, even the limited rights one might have in military tribunals.  Guantanamo remains open.  And now we have drones, openly killing from the sky.  And the best Mr. Corn has to offer is a suggestion of a FISA-type rubber-stamp tribunal.  An important note to remember: bodies who have pre-determined the outcome are not courts; they are inquisitions.

b. Treason is, I believe, the only criminal offense defined and procedurally established by the Constitution.  In order to be treason, by constitutional definition, not only must the offense have been committed in the way defined, but it must also be established on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act or on confession in open court.  The drone program, when used against citizens, is killing citizens for the offense of treason without any of the constitutional requirements being observed.  At least Mr. Corn will feel better if a secret tribunal inside the government rubber stamps the proposed killing of citizens for treason.  That, at least, will provide a semblance of law; and after all, it’s how things look that matters.  Shame, Mr. Corn.  A radical would know better.

3. Missing the difference between what soldiers do and what police do.  Soldiers kill people based on what they have done as well as what they’re doing or might do.  Police only kill people for what they actually are doing right now.  For what they have done already, police hand people over to courts to decide.  And for what they might do in the future, police act to prevent that, but they do not kill people for what they might do.

a. President Bush removed, almost without remark in the public sphere, the notion that we treat terror activities as police rather than military actions.  President Obama has continued, also unremarked, this dramatic policy shift.  And a shift it was.  Bush openly acknowledged that.  And 9/11 made everything we did justifiable.  But it isn’t.

b. a police action only kills those responsible, if at all.  A police action would never kill my neighbors for my deeds simply because they are my neighbors.  A military action, however, especially with the advent of technologies like drones, often kills my neighbors simply to get to me.  Refusing to acknowledge the difference, Mr. Corn, means that you take the claimed necessity of drone strikes as gospel.  Drone strikes are neither necessary nor gospel.  You, of all those speaking yesterday, should know better.

4. “Once you’re a turncoat, it’s easier for us.”  Matthews’ comment prompted Mr. Corn’s simple answer, “yes, it is.”

a. well, it shouldn’t be.  It shouldn’t ever be easier to kill anyone.  It shouldn’t ever be easier to kill one guilty man when we know for a fact that we will kill innocents to ‘get’ him.  It should be harder.  It should be harder because we should always be suspicious of our own motives, our own certainties, our own worldviews.

b. when Mother Jones walked the mountains of my home state of West Virginia, she walked the same ground of folk who would die in the struggles she was a part of.  For all I know, she attended the trials of union organizers who were tried for treason.  Mr. Corn speaks of the necessity of oversight against an overzealous government, but references only later administrations, as if this administration were somehow innately trustworthy.  But it is this administration who instituted the drone policies.  It is this administration who is killing civilians from afar and using secret justifications.  It is this administration who is led by a constitutional scholar who ignores that document when it suits him.  Power is and always has been a corrupting influence.  Pilate killed Jesus unwillingly.  Yet kill him he did.  That a leader agonizes over killing others isn’t particularly relevant or comforting to those killed or the ones they leave behind.  Because we may like or trust one leader more than another does not mean that leader is not corruptible.  We all are.  Courts aren’t perfect.  But they do bring the light of day to our collective actions.  If we cannot ‘afford’ that light of day, we prove ourselves and our grand experiment unworthy.  We don’t need enemies for that.

When is a radical not a radical?  When he succumbs, when he believes, that necessity is a virtue, for the simple reason that a radical knows that necessity seldom is (necessary).

When is a radical not a radical?  When he gives away someone else’s rights and believes it has nothing to do with him.

When is a radical not a radical?  When he wears the t-shirt of the radical while espousing the ideology of the established order of things.

When is a radical not a radical?  When he tells other radicals that drone strikes that kill innocent civilians and strip even the guilty of any semblance of due process that it’s really okay because, well, they’re just so darned dangerous.

When is a radical not a radical?  When he becomes afraid.


About the magazine Mother Jones from their own web site:

What's with the name?
Mary Harris "Mother" Jones was a very cool woman who fought for the underdog and made herself up to look way older than she was so that when she got beat down by Pinkerton agents, she'd gain public sympathy. . .  the radical reformer who'd been dubbed "the most dangerous woman in America."

So what's your value system then?
Principally we're about good journalism, following a story no matter where it takes us. We are interested in protecting the little guy and uncovering injustice. We also believe in good storytelling and coverage that surprises. We have no interest in preaching to a choir.

My brother says you're a lefty pinko rag. True?
Here's where we're coming from: We believe all people should have equal opportunity in life, that all children should be able to go to good schools, and that everyone should have health care. Call that what you will–we're not insulted by being called left, liberal, progressive, whatever. . .  Political inclinations notwithstanding, we will cheerfully investigate any people or entities of any political persuasion, right, left, or center, if their behavior warrants it.

From Wikipedia about Mother Jones magazine:
The magazine was named after Mary Harris Jones, called Mother Jones, an Irish-American trade union activist, opponent of child labor, and self-described "hellraiser". She was a part of the Knights of Labor, the Industrial Workers of the World, the Social Democratic Party, the Socialist Party of America, the United Mine Workers of America, and the Western Federation of Miners. The stated mission of Mother Jones is to produce revelatory journalism that in its power and reach informs and inspires a more just and democratic world.

*The difference between sedition and treason.  The primary difference seems to be the difference between involving outsiders in the conflict.  Sedition relates to stirring up the folks at home while treason involves betrayal and/or help from another (outsider) country.    Wikipedia: Sedition  

** I put ‘democracy’ in quotes because we are not a democracy.  We’re a representative republic.  But democracy is the word we most often use these days in referring in general to our rights and liberties as citizens of this Republic.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

A Moment Between

The snow rests
on pine branches
startling in their
greenness amongst
the white

A single crow
caws his morning
news to all who
will hear

There will be a
moment when
a wind, a breeze,
a breath in time,
will unseat the snow
to its earthbound
bidding its own
farewell to the
tree it graced

There was a moment
was it but yesterday?
when crows gathered
in the thousands
singing their settle-in-
where -- there, at
the confluence of
the rivers

In between such moments
I stand and watch and listen
and am glad to be here
to see, to hear


Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Snow Man Melting

I know he is a snow man because he’s got no curls – dead giveaway in the world of children to know a girl when you see one.

I ponder him across the street throughout the day yesterday as he gets smaller and smaller and wonder
          [is there science for this?  Surely.]
at his shrinking in the midst of such snow – for the snow kept coming all day yesterday – .

What makes him small?  Why does he shrink?  He isn’t melting – at least I don’t think so.

The morning, as usual, brings clarity – of a sort.  I see the snow man, shorter than yesterday in contrast to his pre-snow self – for the new fall added some inches around him and he became shorter only by being buried in the stuff of his existence, seeming to disappear from my eyes – with an amused snort, I return inside, mystery solved and all’s right with my world.

Monday, February 4, 2013

In the Child is the Man

I study an old photograph of an ancestor long dead as an infant, in the days when boys and girls alike wore dresses while young, and ponder that I never knew this baby . . . that I am so much older now than he then . . . that his blue-eyed genes reside somewhere inside my brown-eyed self . . . and wonder whether the old man who may have known me means his child self knew me too?

Outside I long to capture the footprints I left last night alongside the later cat prints and earlier bird prints all alongside each other, as if we three walked side-by-side in the night snow.

Time layers itself upon time – back- and forward – until I come back to the child in the photograph, so happy on Mother’s lap, looking forward into a time that is already past, and I seek out the old man the child has become and gone and wonder if his own footprints rest somewhere in time, side by side, the baby and the man.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Dinner with Friends

Last night I helped serve at the fundraising dinner for Highland County's Evangelistic Association's emergency needs funds (which provide assistance to stranded travelers and those who need help with expenses for shelter and utilities).

Organized by friend Mark Waybright at Word of Faith Church, the dinner served more than food, as these things usually do here.

With not many restaurants, the dinners that raise money also provide a space and time for folks to come together and share a meal.

People, all kinds of folk, have the chance to come together and help make a worthy cause a reality.

Churches come together in unity to serve their community.

Great food ideas (especially in the donated desserts) pop up all over the place.

Warmth for the spirit as well as the body is provided against the cold of out there.

Hours and hours of work and full bellies later, the dinner raised more than $2,000 towards the 2013 budget, which, in the absence of FEMA funds again this year, makes it possible to help those who need it when they need it.

If you'd like to make a contribution, here's what you can do:

1. If you live in Highland County, donate on your electric bill Many will have noticed that they have the option to pay extra money on their electric bill from Shenandoah Valley Electric Co-Op as a donation to emergency utility assistance.  In Highland County, the Association’s Emergency Fund receives those donations.  Individuals who wish to donate on a regular basis can very easily use this option simply by adding a few dollars per month to their electric bill and checking the appropriate box on their statement.

2. Make a donation directly to the Evenaglistic Association, c/o Don Ferrell, Treasurer, P. O. Box 143, Monterey, VA 24465.

3. If you want to make a tax-deductible contribution, make your donation to your local church to give to the Association.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Hard-Learned Lesson from Applebee’s

“I give God 10%.  Why do you get 18?”  

So someone apparently wrote on their bill at Applebee’s recently.  Referring to the tithe, it would appear that the guest is a Christian, bolstered by writing ‘pastor’ on the bill as well.  ABC News

Another waitress took a photo of the check and posted it online and it’s gone viral.  That waitress has been fired.

Set aside for the moment whether she should have been.  Set aside the reality that wait staff receive (by law) far less than minimum wage because of the tips they receive.  Set aside the report that the guest demanded that the responsible employees be fired.

Consider instead, particularly we Christians reading this, the idea of transparency in all we do.

Should not our claimed biblical model for life lead us to only think, write, say, and do, that which we would have no problem being broadcast to the world?  Should we not be willing to have our acts, our lives, written on a t-shirt and worn for all to see?

It seems that far too often, we wear our crosses and other indicia of our faith boldly for all to see, forgetting somehow that our behavior is a far more eloquent testimony to our faith and our Lord than our bling.

Don’t leave a tip or leave a mean one, for no fault of the server?  Our Lord is a cheapskate.

Complain when someone tells the truth – even a painful truth – about you?  Our Lord cannot handle truth.

Refuse tipping out of an ignorant misunderstanding of how wages work in the serving industry?  Our Lord doesn’t know anything of the real-world economic challenges of real-world people.

People of faith, it’s as simple as this: we are not to live anonymously.  We are to live loudly and boldly, proclaiming the love, mercy, understanding, compassion, justice, and even humor, of our risen Lord every second of every minute of every day of our lives.

And when we fail, as we surely will, we’re not to blame others; rather, we’re to seek forgiveness and do better the next time.

So today I am going to be a better co-driver on the highways of life – taking turns, being patient with the slower, allowing room and space for others to travel at their own pace.  I'm going to try to live my life as if the whole world is watching, because they are.

How about you?

Friday, February 1, 2013

A Smile for Today: Conversation with a 5-Year-Old

What are you doing?

Reading a book!

Reading a book?!?




So, do you know any jokes?


Can you tell me one?

Hmmm.  What do you call a dog on the beach?

I don’t know.  What do you call a dog on the beach?

A hot dog!

[Me laughing] That’s a good one!  Do you know any more?

Yeah.  What do you call a brick on the beach?

A hot brick?


[Well, we’re still working on conceptualizing humor, but hey, it’s a start!]


When you need a smile: call a 5-year old.  They will definitely have some important news, like learning to read and a ready joke to share.