One more summer . . .

.facebook_1506020408313Ernie came into our family when our girls were about 17, 15, and 10.

He grew up with them and grew old with us.

He was a perfect, gray tabby.

Early in his life, about 6 or so, he disappeared.  He dragged himself up to the house after two or three days drooping and dragging his tail.  The Vet said it looked like he may have been hit, maybe a car.  “You will probably need to put him down soon; when he loses control of his bodily functions it will be time.”  Ernie lived from then on with a droopy and somewhat unmanageable tail; but otherwise, he managed all his functions just fine.

In 2005, when Katrina hit, Ernie escaped outside.  He knew something odd was happening and I suppose his instincts told him to get outside, free to move as needed.  The security of the house appeared less secure to him than to us and he bolted through an open door.  He was missing for several days, but finally came walking up one day as if nothing had happened.  He survived 120 mph winds for hours and several days in the hurricane ravaged neighborhood on his own.  I guess those cat instincts were enough.

In 2006, he tolerated our move to Kansas City.  I am not sure he ever forgave us the winter snows, but he did very much enjoy stretching out in the hot sun through the much less humid summers KC offers over south Mississippi.  As he began to decline earlier this year, our goal was to allow him one more summer.  He took advantage of every moment, stretched out under the sun most days, moving to the shade when he needed to cool off.

In the end, his body just wore out.  His cat-ness expired.

Ernie had his last summer; dying today, the last day of summer 2017, his 18th summer.

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Arendt’s challenge to churches . . .

img_0503So I am reading a fairly dense essay by Hannah Arendt, “Reflections on Little Rock.”   While I am no expert on Arendt and the broad reach of her writings, I was not surprised to learn this was a controversial piece and was finally rejected for publication by the journal that requested her thoughts on the integration of public schools in Little Rock.  Ultimately, the piece was published in the winter of 1959 edition of Dissent.  Arendt was traversing the razor’s edge between social discrimination and political equality; the classic argument between individual freedom and universal equality.  Arendt argues the role of government is to ensure social discrimination never curtails political equality.  She argues that social discrimination, when allowed legal standing (i.e. discriminatory laws such as miscegenation, restricting voting, etc.), becomes persecution.  However, and to the everlasting frustration of some, she also argues “The moment social discrimination is legally abolished, the freedom of society is violated . . .”  In the complexity of her discourse, she is arguing that social discrimination limiting political/universal equality cannot be affirmed by the legal systems of the state, but the legal systems of the state cannot impede social discrimination as an exercise of individual freedom, no matter its disagreeable nature.  In the social setting, she sees discrimination as an unavoidable human reality; still, it should neither be affirmed or restricted by public law.  Government or, more specifically, the deliberative structures that organize the laws of the land “. . . can legitimately take no steps against social discrimination because government can act only in the name of equality . . .”.  

What?

Ironically, she offers this caveat, “The only public force that can fight social prejudice (i.e. discrimination) is the churches, and they can do so in the name of the uniqueness of the person, for it is on the principle of the uniqueness of souls that religion (and especially the Christian faith) is based.  The churches are indeed the only communal and public place where appearances do not count, and if discrimination creeps into the houses of worship, this in an infallible sign of their religious failing.  They have become social and are no longer religious institutions.”  (P 240, The Portable Hannah Arendt, Penguin Classic, 2003).  In essence, Arendt argues the social context of the human experience is always going to be subject to discriminatory tendencies of one sort or another.  Government, she argues, cannot legislate laws to change this.  On the other hand, she asserts, equality of access to the privileges of citizenship to be an existential reality that constitutes the basic law of the American way of life.  Any effort, legal or societal, to limit such equality of citizenship must be rejected.  Moreover, civil/political equality should be protected by the laws of the land.  In her construction, these two competing realities must be managed independently and without each excluding the other.   EXCEPT, as she states above, in the context of religion, where the ultimate equality of createdness by God transcends all differences that would allow for social discrimination.  Churches are the ultimate moral and ethical voice to challenge the Aristotelian accidents that vex and divide humanity in discriminatory and prejudicial ways.  Obversely, Arendt seems committed to equality as the underlying political and religious essence of the human experience.

At least in this essay, Arendt does not draw any direct conclusion regarding the role of the church in solving the conundrum.  However, she suggests clearly churches should work to reject social discrimination and affirm human equality.  Otherwise, churches should acknowledge, through their inaction or contrary actions, they are “no longer religious institutions.” Seems to me there are a lot of churches that have abandoned what might be thought of as an essential vocation of the church, at least as understood by Hannah Arendt.

Arendt never reads easy; but she always reads deep.

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Grandpa’s straw hat . . .

I never remember my grandfather Rufus in public without a straw hat. As a bald man, it was an essential part of his wardrobe as he went out into the blistering, radiant sunshine of the deep south. For him, it was always an off-white straw hat. I never remember him in a dark hat. Then again, in the deep south, with the heat and sun bearing down most of the year, perhaps straw, as long as it was winter white, passed muster year round. Unlike my grandfather, for the last few years my fall and winter look includes felt fedoras.  The Midwest cold and wind require it.  Still, my summer haberdashery is missing my grandfather’s straw look. Straw was an essential addition this year.

I bought a straw hat on the island of Mykonos this summer. While the location of the purchase may be a bit exotic, to find the perfect straw fedora was a essential goal of summer. What can I say; I happened to be in the Greek isles and there it was.

Many times I imagined the hat. Something distinctive but not as stiff and formal as grandpa’s. I wanted a strong textured hat with a broad brim and a distinctive band. As I turned the corner on the very narrow stone paved street of Mykonos with its white-washed buildings with brightly colored trim and terra cotta roofs pressing on me, I was instantly smitten. There, on the street vendor’s rack, were two, one with a black band and one with a deep, inky blue band. They were strong, durable hats, yet still a bit floppy. The hat lady thought I wanted the black band (more conventional I suppose). “No,” I objected, “I want the inky blue one, it will always remind me of the Aegean.” I asked for her best price. She stumbled a bit and then gave me a few euros off. I was satisfied (I would have paid full price; this was THE hat). My new hat made me smile and remember fondly my grandfather, the man after whom I am named. It was a perfect!

While walking about Knossos on Crete the next day, I saw a silhouette on one of the ancient walls. To my surprise and joy, it was not my shadow; instead, I say the shadow of my grandfather, hat and all, looking back at me. Walking about the ruins of this Bronze Age civilization, imaging the peoples who walked those paths 3500 years ago, it was a joy to realize my grandfather was walking with me. If I had known it only took a hat, I would have bought one long ago. On the other hand, maybe it was not just any old hat. Maybe it was this hat waiting for me to find it on an island in the Aegean.

Back in the sunny Midwest, his shadow still walks with me.  Grandpa is 117 years old this year.  I am pleased to report his shadow still has a spring in its step.

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A Baptismal Proclamation following Charlottesville

Yesterday, at the 10:30 liturgy, we baptized five children, four babies and one toddler. The sacrament of baptism is one of the most powerful liturgies of our church. In the language of the liturgy, we make a powerful declaration of our belief/faith (Credo– “I believe . . . “) in the words of the Apostles’ Creed. Such a declaration of belief of faith is an important public proclamation of our understanding of God and God’s saving message to us. But for me, while the declaration of belief/faith is hugely important, it is the series of questions in the baptismal covenant portion of the liturgy that is most profoundly important to me. In essence, this collection of questions asks us, “If we truly believe this, what will we do to make this real in our lives and in our world?” The questions of the liturgy guide us to consider elements of the Christian life and faith that call us to action or, as I so often say, call us to declare publicly we will live our baptism/faith in the world. Those questions are as follows:

Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and
fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the
prayers?

Will you persevere in resisting evil, and , whenever
you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?

Will you proclaim by word and example the Good
News of God in Christ?

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving
your neighbor as yourself?

Will you strive for justice and peace among all
people, and respect the dignity of every human
being?

Notice the action words contained in these questions: continue, persevere, resisting, proclaim, seek, serve, loving, strive, and respect. Our baptismal covenant is not a passive proposition! We are not baptized to sit quietly in our private prayer closet and blissfully ignore the challenges of a broken and sinful world. We are not called into isolated solitude, unconcerned about the challenges and attacks visited upon the least or marginalized among us. We are called, in baptism, to be the Body of Living Christ in the world.

Beyond the action words, these questions of the baptismal covenant call us into the moral and ethical community of the apostles. Baptism calls us to be a living community of grace and love in the world, making the sacrament of our faith, bread and prayers, real and available to all. Baptism calls us to reject evil and confess our failings. Baptism challenges us to evangelism, to make the Gospel, real and palpable in the world. Baptism requires we reach out to all people, standing for justice, peace, and dignity for every human being.

To each of these questions, we respond, “I will with God’s help.”

I will–This is the declaration to action we affirm every time we celebrate a baptism. I will . . .

On Sunday, five young children were welcomed into the Body of Christ. As we presented them, I asked the congregation, on behalf of Christians everywhere, “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support these children in their life in Christ?”. We replied, “We will.”

On Friday and Saturday, in Charlottesville, VA, our nation and our faith was shattered by unfettered evil, wickedness, and malevolence. The organizers of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, the neo-Nazis, the alt-Right, White Nationalists, and other related hate groups, must understand they are completely and totally rejected by the moral and ethical beliefs held by the Body of Christ—the Church. Such rejection must be clear, emphatic, and powerful. In moments like this, the faithful must be unrelenting in their public rejection of such manifestations of hate and evil. The Church has failed this challenge at historic moments in the past. We must not fail in the challenge we face in this present moment.

Five young children baptized on Sunday, with long and full lives before them, should expect us to live the faith we confessed as we presented them for baptism. God heard us when we confessed our belief/faith and responded to each question, “I will.” Each of us affirmed we will “do all in our power to support these children in their life in Christ.”

When my first daughter was born, as I reflected on the broken history into which she was born–of slavery, of the Nazi Holocaust, of the violent rejection by too many of the Civil Rights movement–I committed to never stand passively and allow such evil to progress unchallenged in her world. For each of my daughters, for all the children I have presented for baptism, and for my Lord and my God, I commit to unreserved and active rejection of those who promulgate hate, intolerance, racism, or any form of malignant, vile, and perverted evil.

The Charlottesville event and the rising, unfettered hate-movement reviving in our country is a challenge to the Body of Christ–the Church. Let us with courage, faith, and decisiveness reject the darkness of evil and hate in all its forms. Let us be the light of Christ in the world that overwhelms this present darkness. Let us make our baptismal covenant and our faith real and alive in the world.

Amen.

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Wichita Lineman

My young 18-year-old life was not going as planned in the spring of 1970.  Changing high schools in the middle of  your senior year is a sure way to make the last semester less celebratory.  Aside from leaving Germany, my girlfriend, my teammates, and a well planned course load designed to insure a fun final semester, I found myself in south Mississippi, a place familiar from previous short stays while my dad was in Vietnam, but following clearly a different cultural and philosophical trajectory.  It was not so much that the former place was inherently better, the new place was just dramatically different.  To be totally honest, I was depressed and lost as I began those last few months of high school.

Around late March or early April, Peanut and Mike, two of my new classmates, invited me to help them “load hay.”  It turns out, you could get out of school to help do essential farm work. Peanut and Mike lived on dairy farms and loading bales of hay was a very important part of their family farm enterprise.  Since I already had enough credits to graduate, getting out of school to do this hay thing seemed like a good idea.  At the very least, it would take me away from the doldrums of despair I was suffering in classes.  Of course, I had no idea what loading hay entailed.  I imagined it was like pulling watermelons, but that is a story for another day.

For the uninformed, grass fields are cut for hay several times each year starting in early spring.  The cut grass is mechanically raked into rows, left to dry for a few days, and then baled into bales weighing about 40 to 50 pounds each.  As the baler drove through the field, we followed behind in a long bed pickup truck throwing the bales up to a stacker on the truck.  Mike drove, Peanut stacked, and I was the thrower.  The first row was not so bad.  The hay would fit three across and three down the bed.  The second tier would be stacked perpendicular to the first with a center row down the middle.  This tier would hang over the side rails of the truck.  These first two tiers were basically a grab and snatch, with an underhand swing up onto the truck.  The third tier, arranged like the first was still grab and snatch, but now there was a little bit of a push to get it up to Peanut.  From the fourth tier on, it was a grab, snatch, and a full press with energy to throw the bale high enough for Peanut to grab.  It was not long before I realized I had the worst job on the team.  We got paid 10 cents a bale as a team to do this.  Our goal was to get 80 bales per load, which meant at least seven levels of hay on the truck. This meant I was throwing the last bales, from ground to stack, about 11-12 feet up to get it to Peanut.

Aside from the shock of coming face to face with the occasional snake or frog trying to wiggle its way out of the tightly compacted hay, the work was grueling but repetative.  We would do six or eight runs from field  to barn each afternoon.   Stacking the hay at the barn was a bit easier and involved all three of us throwing the hay.  Occasionally, we would swap jobs out in the field, but I was the tallest and we could load more with me throwing the hay.  My body would work to exhaustion and my mind would be distracted just trying to keep the body pushing forward.  Mike always had the radio blaring and the music of our time beat out a good rhythm for our work.  It was good therapy and I actually got in pretty darn good shape walking along side the truck and throwing those bales up to Peanut.

On one afternoon, and I remember this as if it were just yesterday, Glen Campbell’s Wichita Lineman came on the truck’s radio.  In that moment, everything for me seemed to pause.  My melancholic journey, moving from one place and finding myself in another, alone, empty, and fearful, was real.  For whatever reason, the pathos of the lineman in Campbell’s song reached into me and made me feel less alone, less despair, less fearful about my future.  Things were not as I wanted or imagined; still, this was my life and I had to keep going forward.  Like the lineman, I was “still on the line”.  In that singular moment, I resolved to live forward, to prevail over the cloud of gloom and despair that seemed to surround me.  That moment, that song, those days of throwing bales of hay altered my journey.

Campbell’s ballads are often incomplete and unresolved—like life.  Rarely do his songs offer “happily ever after” lyrics or triumphant songs of celebration.  Instead, he seemed most comfortable transforming a small slice of the human narrative into musical poetry and challenging us to imagine how the story (and maybe our own lives) moves forward.  Sometimes he embraced the paradoxical complexities of life allowing him, even at the end of his productive life, to write a song like “I’m not gonna miss you” and make it a beautiful while tragic love song.  No matter my thoughts on his art, for me, he is the person who wrote a song that reached through the airwaves in the spring of 1970 into the pained soul of an 18-year-old in a hay field in Mississippi and nudged him forward with hope.  I haven’t forgotten.

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Filed under Army Brat, Episcopal priest, farm life, Glen Campbell