Duty

The old man stood peering down orderly rows of white marble. Matching in color with the rectangular monuments, wisps of his thin, white hair fluttered in the breeze. Two birds chirped from the branches of a distant tree, and in the distance, he could hear a crow. Couching gingerly on sturdily worn knees, he read the names etched in the headstones on either side of him; one he knew, the other, based on sparse, chiseled information, he felt he could have. He stepped back, looked up and down the crisp row of stones, turned on his heel, and stepped between the two, coming to swift attention.

Passersby would have found it a strange sight; an old man, standing at attention between two graves, facing the cleanly polished, unadorned side of other headstones. He would have appeared to be facing the wrong way to read 2_Fort_Snelling_Looking_Southeastanything on them. He was not.

The idea had just come to him to stand, one more time, in formation, with comrades. He had never done, or even thought of doing it, before today, before right now.

He thought back to the fateful end of his basic training as a paratrooper, his last jump from a plane, one final practice jump before his unit was shipped out; the jump where he landed awkwardly, shattered his left leg, ending his dreams of combat, nearly ending his career in the army. Only the intervention of an influential friend of his family kept him from getting the deserved, but loathed,  honorable, medical discharge. One week to the day before his release from the hospital, his unit had jumped behind enemy lines for the first – for some, the last – time.

For three of his old unit, including his best buddy, it was their only jump that counted. Now, here they were, back in formation. It all came back to him.

Three weeks in traction, followed by grueling physical therapy, and he was bound not for discharge, but for a desk job, somewhere. A hard-to-swallow, better-than-the-alternative option. He had hoped to go back to some sort of active duty role with a combat unit, but his leg was too badly damaged for any of that.  He could walk just fine, not totally without pain, but the puzzle pieces that were his left leg would balk at much more extensive rigor. The thought of sitting behind a desk held little appeal, and there were no other logical options.  Then, nearing the end of his hospital stay, he overheard someone in the mess hall mentioning mortuary duty. Unsure of what that meant, but pretty sure it did not involve a desk,  he decided to investigate his prospects there.

The colonel in charge of the unit he was assigned to was skeptical at first; very few men eagerly volunteered for the duty, and of those that did, many couldn’t hack it. The washout rate – even more than in paratroop school, he learned – was high.  He quickly came to understand why, though he never once thought of asking to transfer out. The work was, in almost every regard, as fear-laden, emotionally controlled, as jumping out of a plane had been. Just as difficult, too.

But, more than he felt would ever be the case behind a desk, it was humbly rewarding.

On his first assignment, on a train, escorting a fallen soldier to a small town he had never heard of, he encountered a Navy Chaplain, a slightly older man than he, who was on the same mission as he, for one of his own; a seaman, killed in battle. The two men spent precious hours talking about their respective jobs – their ‘calling’ the chaplain termed. He also said it was their ‘missionary field’ – to serve, spiritually as well as militarily which took the young soldier by surprise. As a boy, he had heard stories in church and had helped collect pennies for, church members doing missionary work – carrying out their ‘mission’ – but he could not bring himself to see his new job in the same light.

Until now, meeting the chaplain, he had considered himself just a soldier, carrying out his orders.  As he was soon to learn first hand, this duty was, to be sure, not just an assignment. Where once he had dreamed of being assigned to dangerous missions, and the potential to be a hero, the young soldier eventually came to refer to his work in the same vein as did the chaplain – this was his mission, in every sense of the word.  As the train rumbled through the night, the two men found they shared many a common bond; big city boys, amused at the naivete of many of their more countrified, fellow raw recruits they had encountered, and whom they now counted as friends unlike those they would ever find in their respective cities.  They shared many of the same experiences growing up; major league baseball games, gritty neighborhoods, subway trains, and cosmopolitan outlooks. They were kindred spirits, and the young soldier laughed at the similarities the two men shared, the stories they told each other.  With the exception of one story the chaplain told him that the soldier could never push out of his mind,  even if he had wanted to.

The chaplain told the younger man of his despair in not knowing what to say to a grieving family disappointed that their son died in a simple training mission, and not in the perceived glory of actual battle. The young man had served honorably and had earned promotions earlier than most of his peers, yet the family, for some reason the chaplain couldn’t grasp, felt cheated. Though it had been a year since he had brought the sailor IMG_7637_1200home to his final rest, the chaplain was still troubled by the family’s reaction, their outright disappointment, and his lack of answers for the man’s family. He wondered, he whispered repeatedly, if time had lessened their disappointment in the fate of their son.

As he listened intently to the chaplain’s story, the young soldier thought he knew something of what he family meant about disappointment, though he could never articulate that at the time. Nor could he tell the chaplain how he came to be there, on that train, escorting home a soldier who had died in battle. Nor could he say anything of the envy he felt – had felt until that moment – until the chaplain’s story of the disappointed family. Suddenly, he felt a little guilty for his misplaced jealousy for a dead man. In the years since, he had thought often of the chaplain, and of that story.

He thought about the chaplain again, standing here, amidst the fallen, grateful for having met him when he did, the first time he had escorted a young man home. He stood there, in the breeze, and let the memories come; the chaplain, the train ride, the young corporal he brought home to his grieving, but appreciative family. The first, nowhere near the last.

Time, and the soldier’s  experiences in the graves registration unit had softened, then eventually erased, his frustrations with never having jumped in combat.

One-hundred-thirty-seven times he had escorted a fallen serviceman home to a family. He had been one only two men in his thirty-man platoon to request to stay in graves registration when his tour was up. The rest had enough after one go around – those that didn’t transfer out early; it was difficult duty, impossible to describe until you had done it – something not for anyone or everyone.  There was no animosity or derision directed towards the men who left, silent admiration for those who stayed.

Bringing the dead home was not something every man was equipped for.

One-hundred-thirty-seven times. Big cities, small towns; the Northeast, the Midwest, the south and the mountain west. He had seen it all, through train windows, and mortuary sedans.  He had stood at attention at gravesides in small family plots alongside country churches, and in obscure corners of gritty, urban cemeteries that seemed to be cities themselves. He had become well-versed in services simple and profound; high masses and elaborate, afternoon-long prayer services.  He knew of being an outsider – the only person in attendance of his skin color, the only one in the room not of the denomination, not versed in the way they sang their hymns, how they said their prayers.  He had seen somber eulogies and been an invited, at times even honored, guest,  at a variety of wakes, reviewals, and repasts.  The routine for any and all of them came naturally to him, and he was determined that every wooden casket he escorted was treated with proper respect. At every destination stop, he was the first one off the train. The short hop from top step to station platform was just like the step out of a plane as a paratrooper.

Only for this duty, he never had a parachute.

After ensuring the dignified removal of each casket from the train, he would meet with the local mortician and escort the soldier to the mortuary. Sometimes the family had gotten word of their arrival and would be at the train station; at other times he carried out his duties in anonymity, contacting the family only after arriving at the funeral home. Over time he became conversant in the routine of the local mortuary staff; identifying the remains, preparation of the body for initial viewing by the family. The decisions laid out for each situation: open casket or closed, dress uniform or favorite suit for interment. Every situation different, every situation the same. No matter where, no matter who.

Death, especially in combat, knew nothing of the victim: black, white, rich, poor, city, country. Death was death, grief was grief. There was a finality as universal and as individual as each soldier he escorted home. The longer his mission, the deeper he felt his duty a calling.  Just as the chaplain had said that first night on the train.

He came to know intimately the unchanging, never-the-same-twice, liturgy of saying goodbye to a soldier: Protestant, Roman Catholic, Hebrew, atheist – every variation of each.  He had heard the 23rd Psalm spoken in more than a dozen native, immigrant languages, and knew who would favor lengthy oratory, who would quickly move through a few prayers and simple readings. Ironically, having no musical talent whatsoever,  for years, he could impress friends and family with his uncanny ability to recognize most any wwii imageChristian hymn by its first four or five notes.

There were standing-room-only crowds, audiences in name only and times of hastily recruited, unknown, volunteer pallbearers.

High church, tent revival, ten-minute graveside homily – he had seen them all. Men of various cloths; elaborate robes, simple, white collars, plain brown suits, and bib overalls. He knew which model rifle an honor guard was using from the clattering of shell casings hitting cemetery grass in the unison of the salute of a graveside volley, and knew instinctively when the trumpet player had never before played ‘Taps’ in public.

He remained, through his life, amazed at the gracious thankfulness expressed by grieving families.

There was often a family gratitude – a realization – that, as tragic as the situation was, at least their soldier, their loved one, was coming home. He lost count of the number of times that family members would tell of another family they knew, who received word of the death of a soldier who was now at rest on some foreign battlefield somewhere, or of a sailor lost at sea, or an airman who went down with his plane. Those families would never have the opportunity, to say goodbye, to have a place, right there in their hometown, to physically grieve.

It never ceased to amaze him that so many of these families that he met in their darkest hours, were aware that they, in a great many respects, were among the fortunate ones. That, he always felt, was the most humbling thing of all.  The wind picked up, the chirping birds had taken flight from shaking branch.  The day was growing cooler, and he smiled.

That was all a long time ago, he reminded himself. He smiled for a moment, remembering his sixtieth birthday, and the atonement gift from his wife and children; a free fall skydive, strapped to a young Marine.

He thought back to his last jump in uniform, and the excruciating pain of his rehab and shattered leg. He thought of the despair known only by a young man who had his dreams suddenly, irrevocably altered by events, and reflected with the wisdom of an old man on how those changes had worked out.

Though he had never fired his weapon at an adversary, he had fought many, sometimes brutal battles; the dignity of returning a fallen soldier was not always smooth, rarely without some sort of unexpected incident or reaction. Ill-fitting uniforms, incorrect insignia, stuck-in-traffic or lost-on-a-country-backroad honor guards were recurring obstacles. There was dealing with the pain, bitterness, or denial of families; the blank faces of young widows whose dreams and plans were now gone and the uncomprehending-the-magnitude small children, fascinated by the pomp of death, confused at the sadness displayed by the adults.

He often thought of a chaplain on a train, and myriad other travelers who, seeing his uniform, would engage him in fascinated conversation until their discomfort of his assignment came into play.

He had fought the battles as he had been ordered, emerged from them all with scars. Victorious and without regret. He had done his duty.

He came to old-man, near-parade rest for a moment, before turning to the headstone of his old friend, where he snapped off a lingering, still crisp salute. He had escorted his buddy only briefly; the walk from the front of the church to the hearse, then from hearse to gravesite.  he valued every moment as no one else could.

There was pride, and great honor in what he had done for all of those years.  No, there were no ribbons, or medals to share with children, grandchildren – none of the stories of heroism that his friends got to tell, that other children and grandchildren got to hear.  But the stories he did have to tell, that he did share with family, friends, were told with solemnity and grace. With dignity and honor. He told people, quietly, and without personal pride, how he did his duty, and why each and every soldier he escorted was deserving of all the respect he could give them in death.

He knew more about finality in all its forms than most anyone and was grateful, thankful of the opportunities he had been afforded, the chance to serve in a special, meaningful way, his fellow soldiers. His fellow man.  Hoping he had been the warrior he needed to be, at the time people needed him, he stood quietly, nodding his head. He was proud of the work he had done, he could admit that to himself. And so he did, for the first time ever.

Then, turning on his heel, he walked steadily between two rows of symmetrical marble stones, and went home.

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Making my best pitch

I have a dead file, in need of its annual updating.

The file dangles in the front of our family filing cabinet, a red hanging folder filled with all of the important stuff my family will need for when I depart this mortal coil: the songs I want played, the songs I wish to have sung – the how-I-want-them-played-and-sung at my memorial service – dead-file-e1327109698717along with the scripture, quotes and poetry I want to be read, and what I want printed on the program.

Pretty basic, but important stuff.

My wife and kids know where this file is, they know that all that key info will be right there, as I am trying to be proactive, not controlling.  They are mostly okay with this arrangement, and though they don’t know what’s in it, they figure they will deal with that if and when the time comes.

Or, hopefully, my children will simply be able to pass on the whole thing to their adult children under the banner of ‘you cousins can all take some responsibility for grandpa/great family-tree-relationship-chart-free-pdf-templategrandpa/great-great grandpa here.’

Good Lord willing, that’s the way it plays out.

As is my custom, I review the file at the beginning of the year – though not as some sort of resolution ritual, or anything like that. I am always reminded to do this by all of the year-end/year-beginning, tax-and-estate planning reminders from every direction and the television commercials featuring thought-dead-already celebrities touting ’providing for your family’ with mail-order life insurance. Though sometimes I get those commercials confused with those of some other thought-dead-alreadys and their reverse mortgage ads.

Now there is a spiritual analogy post just dying to be written.

This year, I found as I reviewed the tattered red folder that there is one key piece of information that I keep neglecting to place in my dead file: I’ve got to tell them where the baseballs are.  I also remembered I actually have to purchase, and then partially prepare said  baseballs.

Yeah, the baseballs.

Anyone who knows me and my family will attest to our love of the game. My wife Amy and I began dating late summer, 1991, as our hometown Minnesota Twins were en route to their second World Series championship, and let me tell you, World Series victories are great new-relationship aphrodisiacs. The following year we got married and had a Twins-themed wedding reception, followed up by family members and the wedding party (60 of us, all told) going to the Twins-Brewers game the next day, after hich we (just Amy and I) followed the Twins on the road to Chicago and Milwaukee for our honeymoon

So yeah, as a passionate aficionado of all things America’s pastime, baseball will certainly be as much a part of my departure from this world as it is in my existence on this rotating-like-a-fine-change-up celestial orb.  My immediate family understands that, and figures they will deal with whatever zaniness I have in that red file folder when the time comes, though the one particular aspect they do know of gets the ‘hot potato’ treatment amongst daughter Lindsay, and sons Will and Sam. (Amy wants no part of my baseball bequest and has long since informed all the kidlets that this one will be totally on them.)

Somebody is going to have to put me in the baseballs.

It’s pretty simple, actually, and far more feasible than other preferred options, like a traditional Viking viking-funeral-799141funeral.  The whole ship set ablaze and afloat (with my remains on it) while  in keeping with my ancestral roots and desires, is impractical and expensive (EPA permits and whatnot) and maybe just a bit pretentious. So while the whole Viking ship thing would be as exciting as an inside-the-park home run, my baseball brainchild is an easy, knock-it-outta-the-park game-winner.

That I hope doesn’t result in me getting knocked around.

Upon my demise, after everything donatable has been donated, organ and tissue wise, the rest of me will need to be cremated. That will leave me as a nifty little pile of ashes, which will then need to be handled in some way. As I have never been one easily confined to conventional parameters (literally or figuratively) I don’t see myself as sitting in an urn or ornate box on someones’ mantelpiece somewhere.  Bor-ring.

Hence the baseballs.

It’s pretty simple, really. A set of regulation, major league baseballs will be purchased, then will official-major-league-baseballs-edbe autographed by me; some signed as ‘dad’ some as ‘grandpa.’ Then, when the time comes to stash the ash, each ball will have a small core drilled out of it, just big enough to contain some of my ashes. Once the ashes are placed in each ball, the hole will then be sealed up with the drilled-out core and some epoxy, and the baseballs will then be ready for distribution to the next generation(s).

The idea could catch on – a sort of national pastiming-on, if you will.

The great thing about me being ensconced for eternity in baseballs is not only will what’s left of me be suitable for display in a ball cube, on a mantle or in a memorabilia cabinet, I will also be able to remain part of the family in a tangible, practical way.

For years after I am gone, when my grandkids and great grandkids get together someone will baseball-ed3always be able to say, “Hey! Let’s go outside and play catch with grandpa!”

And we still can.

Ummmm….but please, no batting practice, kids.

“Because grandpa said so, THAT’S why!”

 

https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B017LALIES

 

The Christmas Pageant

Hard to believe a quarter-century has passed. Each Christmas I wonder; where are all these folks now..?

I was involved with a small, urban Minneapolis Lutheran church. We were an aging congregation with only about fifteen kids (including toddlers)  in our Sunday school on a regular basis; this included three kids from one family – one of whom was 14 and confined to a wheelchair due to Multiple Sclerosis.

What we lacked in group size we more than made up for in spirit.

When it came time to put together our annual Christmas program (the traditional Joseph & Mary story) we had very few options for Mary, as most of the girls participating were only seven or eight. Except for Sheri, our 14-year-old girl with MS, who desperately wanted to be involved with the program, which we said we would definitely make happen in some form.

Sheri was certainly capable of taking on Mary; she was vivacious, articulate, had a great speaking voice…but her wheelchair was problematic. The role required Mary to enter from the rear of the church and make her way to the front during the opening narration. Admittedly, much of this was set up by tradition and for dramatic effect, and we certainly had other options, but limited maneuvering room. While we had a ramp up the one step in front of the pulpit area (or ‘stage’) there wasn’t a lot of room for extras like a motorized wheelchair to turn or do much once you were up there.

My friend Mark Knutson and I were in charge of the youth committee, and we had given the idea some thought. When the full committee met to put together the program, the first item of business brought up was a request from Sheri and her mom to get her involved in the program, which Barb, the woman directing the program was nervous about.  One of the other women on the committee suggested Sheri would make a great Mary, noting that her motorized chair made that impractical, adding “Maybe she could sit off to the side and narrate”.

As a writer, the idea of the story being told first-person intrigued me.

Mark had a better idea.“What if we made Sheri our Mary, and disguised her wheelchair to look like a donkey”?  he proposed to surprised looks around the table. “We could cover her with blankets, and my brother-in-law is an artist, and I can get him to paint a couple of plywood donkeys that we could mount on the sides of the chair”.

After a few moments and some surprised looks,  Barb asked, “Do you think anybody would mind?”

Mark and I looked at each other and shrugged. “Who cares if they do?” And just like that, the decision was unanimously accepted. Yes, it really was that quick, that simple.

The evening of the pageant, it was hard to tell who was more excited; Sheri or her mom and dad. At least until the audience – including all four of Sheri’s grandparents – showed up. The grandparents sat in the front row, beaming with joy, as it was the first opportunity that Sheri had been given to truly participate in something like this in a major way. Mark and I had better-than-front-row-seats to it all – our own roles in the pageant: we were costumed as manger oxen, wearing homemade, long-snouted masks and kneeling in the small choir pen off to the side of the pulpit. We were there for pseudo-authentic manger atmosphere,  but also with hidden scripts handy to prompt any of our frequently forgetful young actors.

Our Mary needed no such assistance.

Sheri did a fabulous job, and between the plywood donkey cutouts, and the blankets we laid over them and Sheri, in her motorized wheelchair, it truly looked like Mary slowly moving through our candle-lit, church-aisle Bethlehem on her donkey led by Joseph; an incredibly Christmasmoving moment I remember vividly. It was a small space; looking out at the audience from behind oxen masks from our choir-manger, I could see people wide-eyed, some dabbing their eyes.  Holy Communion Church also had great acoustics; you could hear the gasps and murmurs of awe.

By the time the program drew to a close, tears were running down a lot of faces.

Sheri’s  family was so grateful, expressing their thanks repeatedly for us ‘taking a chance’ and ‘letting’ Sheri be involved. We told everyone the truth; Sheri was our first choice and only logical option. As I added with a smile, to hearty laughter from Sheri and her family, “The fact that she came with her own donkey…was just a bonus”.

‘And a little child shall lead them’.

 

Thankful, grateful, hopeful

Recent Thanksgivings have found me in this spot musing on watching my Facebook feed as people debate being ‘thankful’ versus being ‘grateful’ – a semantic back-and-forth that, due to being the writer and English I am, I have taken more than cursory interest in.

This year, as you might expect, is quite different in tone, due in large part to our recent election.

Not terribly unusual in-and-of-itself, but this year is different; the divisions and emotions are far more raw, due in large part to two very unpopular (by most everyone’s estimation) presidential candidates, and, I believe due also to the fragile psyche of the American populace. Politics has always been partisan; our reaction doesn’t have to be, and if we are being honest, should not be. – if we, as America, are who we claim to be.

This Thanksgiving, there are too many people who will not be spending time with family directly because of the way people they normally break bread with did, or did not vote this election.  Some people have made the choice to stay away on their own, others have been asked to not come, to not be part of the divisiveness, many are staying away from traditional settings to not expose their children to familial discord that, for whatever the reasons, can’t or won’t be controlled or curtailed in the name of family.

Therein lies a new, great American tragedy.

There are those of us who will not be with family today due to simple geography or finances – absent by circumstance, not choice.  Others will be missing from their spot at the table because of service to others; military personnel, first-responders, medical workers.  The list is substantial.

Those who are distancing themselves by choice because of politics may have very legitimate concerns; previous history of conflict, distrust, old wounds people do not want reopened.  Some may have underestimated the capacity of family members to not engage in dinner table divisiveness, and some are so angry they are staying away out of pure rage.

More is the pity.

Most of us who lived an appreciable amount of life have come to realize that sometimes there are no second chances, there will be no next year’ or even ‘next time’ – or even tomorrow. Nothing is guaranteed except that many of those who will not be with family this year, by choice or by circumstance, will not have another opportunity to make it up; life just doesn’t work that way.

There are no do-overs.

My family and I fall into the because-of-logistics-and-finances not-being-withfamilyy category; distance, travel time and cost are the only things keeping us from being with loved ones today, and even were that not the case, we would be with family knowing full well that the political divide would be wider than the array of foods lining the center of the table.   But we would work through it, civilly and hopefully without lasting damage.  Come Christmas, we will hopefully prove that theory.

Which brings me back to the thankful-versus-grateful issue that I first dove into a few years back.

Curiosity drove me to Merriam-Webster where I found that being thankful and being grateful have some very unique connotations, to wit:

To be thankful is to be conscious of benefit received.

To be grateful is be appreciative of benefits received.

The distinctions are important. Am I conscious of the blessings in my life? I hope so. Am I grateful and appreciative? That is something I ponder.

Consciousness is pretty straightforward, and my list is a lengthy one starting with my loving, healthy family; wife, sons, daughter, son-in-law and grandson. My extended family and in-laws. Friends old and new. Health, shelter, a full pantry and refrigerator. For a loving G-d, for a country where I can live freely. These are some of the people and things I am conscious of and thankful for, but rarely think of in such terms as thankfulness. Except on days like today.

Am I appreciative of all of these things? Probably not as much as I could or should be.

Bigger picture. There is much, as Americans, that we are conscious of, and should be thankful for, but I think take mostly for granted. In 1943 Norman Rockwell painted an iconic series of oil paintings entitled The Four Freedoms; Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear. Those are enduring things that resonate (or at least, should) more strongly today than ever.

four-freedomsThere is nothing new or unique about these musings on what to be thankful for; every fourth Thursday of the year we are awash platitudes from various points and perspectives, Hallmark cards to social media, everything in between. Hence the debate I alluded to: are we thankful, or grateful.

Thankful or grateful? We all know we should be one or the other for something or another – our culture tells us so every November.

Still, when it comes right down to it…

I am grateful today for my life, what it is today and what it was and who it was that got me here: family, friends, mentors, past and present. I am grateful today for the memories of those who have been a part of my life at every step, but who are no longer here physically. I am thankful to live in a time and a place where technology allows old friends to find me, new friends to enrich my life. The ability of all of them to reach out in support – theirs and mine. To ask for and offer advice and comfort, to share a laugh or kind word when most needed.

I am grateful and thankful for the love of family. They help teach me humility, to see beyond myself.

I am thankful for the children in my classroom, for they teach me patience and understanding.

I am grateful and thankful for friends who are hurting and who have suffered loss, for they teach me compassion, and allow me to share it.

I am grateful for the gift of discernment, which allows me to see where I can do better, understand that I always can.

Mostly I am thankful and grateful for G-d’s grace in my life, as all of the things I am thankful for and appreciative of stem from that grace. I am happy and blessed to be who I am, where I am today. Happy Thanksgiving, indeed.

Peace.

Mark,
Thanksgiving 2014, 2015, 2016

Spiritual roadie

Traveling solo for an extended period is always a bit weird; being away from my wife, sons, and dogs – my own bed. This summer found me roaming from my current base of New Orleans back to my hometown stomping grounds of the Twin Cities, as I was helping my mother get situated in a new living arrangement, and I had a lot going on. Definitely a working trip for me – six very full weeks’ worth of work

Not that there weren’t some advantages.

After eight years in the southern climes, one thing I love about the Midwest in the summer is sleeping with the windows open. Fresh air, when you can’t get it regularly, especially at night, is a true joy. Not having to work around the schedule of others made the myriad of things I pizzaneeded to accomplish a ‘my schedule, my call’ kind of deal. Same with eating. I probably had more pizza than I should have, and got to experiment with different frozen varieties while ordering a few times too many from a favorite place. There is also the fact that you never have to negotiate custody of the TV remote – which was primarily key for having as much baseball on as possible, especially my hometown Twins.

Flying solo also allowed me some Sunday flexibility in going to church – so I basically went on tour this summer: two states, four cities, six churches, one nursing home chapel. Save the chapel and two of the churches, were I visited a former pastor and his family in one case, our niece in another, I had some personal/historic ties to all the others.

Full disclosure: my list includes both New Orleans churches that I attend, and I hit them on stmark2successive Sundays before leaving town; plus, one of the Minneapolis churches on my list I made it to twice, the second go-around by personal invite from one of the pastors, our niece, who wanted me to hear her preach one Sunday. Definitely one of the highlights of my tour…

Lollapewlooza ’16.

I figure every decent band tour has a name, so that’s what I came up with: Mark’s Lollapewlooza tour. Catchy, right? I’m considering having a shirt made, though no physical Lollapewlooza 16souvenir is really needed. Barnstorming a variety of different churches helped me cope with all the craziness I was dealing with, but it also allowed me some much-needed perspective on where I’ve been, where I am, where I am headed spiritually.

My on-the-road Sundays were truly Sabbath days, for the most part. I was able to go to church somewhere in the morning, taking the afternoon to wind down and regroup a bit with a leisurely lunch and some Twins baseball, pay a visit to my mom, come back, have some dinner, and catch some Sunday night baseball. (The only real glitch there was when the Yankees were on ESPN. I don’t want to watch the damn Yankees. Ever.) I suppose I could add CHS Field to my Lollapewlooza list, as I spent a glorious Wednesday even there watching the St. Paul Saints play, but that is another story entirely.

One thing Lollapewlooza really wasn’t was nostalgic.

Even though my family and I once attended Park Avenue UMC in south Minneapolis, my visit to their ‘early riser service’ held no wistfulness. The music was great, the lay sermon was spot on, and it was nice to just see the place. I popped in, listened, contemplated, headed out to my second stop for the day, Minnehaha Communion Lutheran (MCLC, for short) just a couple of physical miles away but light years from Park Avenue in tone and style. That is not a judgement on my part. The two congregations both have a strong presence in their respective neighborhoods, but vastly different demographics and approaches to service. As it should be.

I enjoyed my visit to MCLC, and upon arrival, I was immediately met an old friend, who was passing out bulletins and had recognized me when she saw me drive up. We got to chat a bit both before and after the service, and she brought me up to date on who was still around – a lengthier list than I might have thought. All good. She also introduced me to one of the current pastors, and I was able to strike up an interesting conversation with a current board member, and he seemed to enjoy my historical take on the place – a perspective that is rather unique.

I chaired the committee that created Minnehaha Communion, back in 1994.

At the time, I was a young, brash thirty-something congregational president of Holy old HCLCCommunion Lutheran Church; a typical for the time aging (demographically and physically) financially struggling, old-school congregation. Roughly a mile-and-a-half to our south was Minnehaha Lutheran, whose situation mirrored ours. The decision to merge started out casually, then became real very quickly. I was elected as chair of the merger committee for two very obvious reasons: nobody else wanted to touch the job with a ten-foot-pole, and there were movers-and-shakers who felt I was young and malleable enough to be able to be manipulated. The former is indisputable; the latter was quashed right away, as I was young, astute, and headstrong – plus, our Holy Communion congregation was made up largely of elderly, savvy, take-no-prisoners women to whom I was a communal grandson.

The oldsters had my back.

To the amazement of everyone from the synod bishop on down, we completed the merger process (including selling the Holy Communion building to a new, just starting out congregation) in just a year – that was twenty-two years ago.

Fast-forward to Lollapewlooza ’16 and MCLC is now a healthy, vibrant member of their Longfellow neighborhood, having absorbed another struggling Lutheran church into their fold about ten years ago. I sat there in a pew at MCLC and couldn’t help but notice the large banner IMG_20160626_105432on one wall, noting the names of the two original churches, and their dates of operation, and the date of the new ‘Minnehaha Communion Lutheran Church EST. 1994.’

I felt a reasonable sense of pride in that, and not a little astonishment that the place was going strong. Pretty cool, though I will admit to a bit of angst on one point: the name. From the get-go, I thought we should go with an entirely new name for the merged entity, but that was not going to fly. And Minnehaha Communion was the least clunky combination we could come up with. One of the only battles I lost, but hey, won the war and here MCLC still stands.

The politics and mental gymnastics of pulling off the merger were draining, and after we got the job done, I had to step away for a while. That was when my wife and I started attending Park Avenue UMC – mostly as a compromise choice, as the first few years of our marriage we had been in a bit of flux, she coming from a Baptist background, me being Mr. Lutheran. In the end it all worked out for the best. So that Sunday morning was less a trip down memory lane, more a touching-base with some of my faith roots.

Gotta know where you’ve been to understand where you are.

Mill City Church is a growing congregation based in a north Minneapolis school building. They are a young, extremely active in their neighborhood, and very contemporary in mood and style.

Did I mention they were young? Not just the congregants, but the staff, of which my niece Anne IMG_20160612_110300is a part of, as the youth pastor. My first Sunday in town, I stopped in for the service unannounced and surprised her afterward. Later that week, she called and asked if I could be in attendance on June the nineteenth, as she was preaching. So that is what I did. She was wonderful. It was a personal, emotional, and exhilarating sermon.

I was drained. Fortunately, the Twins were on that afternoon, and smacked the Yankees around, 7-1. kepler-homerun-fuehrt-twins-zu-krimi-sieg-image_620x349The game and the pizza were great, then I took a nap, with the patio door open. That was about as good a Sabbath as I could conjure up.

Isanti, Minnesota is about a forty-five-minute drive from my mother’s place in suburban north Minneapolis. I made the jaunt up that way on Fourth of July weekend to visit the pastor and his family, who were our pastoral family in the small town in rural Minnesota which we lived before moving to New Orleans. A few months after my family and I left town, Jim took a new call to plant Spirit River UMC in a rapidly growing (“Are we rural or are we urban?”) area that has a lot of challenges – many related to changing demographics and growth.  We all share the ‘moving on’ experience. A few years after forming, they purchased a defunct banquet center to house spiritrivertheir congregation and outreach. It is a different worship experience to be sure: people sit at large, round tables, in comfortable banquet chairs.

Spirit River reminds me that churches are not buildings. Hope Christian Church, my non-denominational hang out in New Orleans, is housed in what used to be a theatre, in a large, century-old warehouse shared with a Hopeused furniture store and a t-shirt shop I would describe both Hope and Spirit River as funky and functional, and both are very contemporary in their respective worship styles.

The weekend I visited pastor Jim and his daughter, the congregation was having their newly-traditional, most-of-the-congregation-is-gone-for-the-holiday hymn sing; right up my alley, as while I don’t have a problem with contemporary services, and am not wedded to liturgical certainty, modern praise and worship music is not at all my thing. Give me ‘How Great Thou Art’ and ‘Amazing Grace’ on alternating Sundays, and HowGreatThouArtI’d be good. Maybe something from the soundtrack of ‘Godspell’. So my timing to go to Isanti was perfect, and after church I went to lunch with Jim and his daughter Stephanie, and got to listen to the Twins on the radio driving back to suburbia.

It was a satisfying final stop on Lollapewlooza ’16.

What have I learned from the spiritual side of my road trip summer? Not a whole lot of new insights, but a lot of reminders of how faith can be a burden lifter, mind clearer, refocusing tool. That seems pretty basic, but we frequently lose sight of that; I think sometimes doing the same thing in the same way every Sunday, faith becomes rote and oftentimes ineffectual.

I admit that there were a few Sunday mornings this summer where going anywhere was not high on my list at all, but knowing I had limited opportunities to do some things I wanted to do, I just did them. I am glad that I did. Glad I saw the folks that I did, fortunate to have heard the messages they had for me – both congregationally and personally.

This summer also helped me reconfirm what I do and don’t like in a worship service, and that I am something of an anomaly in that I appreciate and enjoy a good, spontaneous, free-flowing contemporary church service, doing so with older music (hymns, seventies folk, you know – united-methodist-hymnalgood stuff with high lyrical quality) would be my ideal – even by a funky, electric house band. That hybrid is hard to find consistently, so I go with what I have at hand. I also realized that while the off-beat (theatres, banquet centers, nursing home chapels, public school auditoriums) have their own Lutheran BOWquirky charm that can get you to think differently about the worship experience and the place in a community of the church overall, sometimes plopping your keister into a good old-fashioned, varnished, walnut pew (St. Marks, MCLC, Park Avenue) and hearing someone crank up a grand piano or an organ touches the soul a whole lot differently.

I discovered that the roots of my faith run deep and are intertwined. I left Minnesota and IMG_20160731_122320headed back to New Orleans, tired and unsettled, as I didn’t get done nearly as much as I thought I should have, but in reality, got more done than I should have logically been able to accomplish. Spiritually, I headed south feeling refreshed.

There is a lollapewlooza to be said for that.

The Christmas Pageant

Some twenty-five years ago I was involved with a small, urban Minneapolis Lutheran church. We were an aging congregation with only about fifteen kids in our Sunday school on a regular basis; this included three kids from one family – one of whom was 14 and confined to a wheelchair due to Multiple Sclerosis.

What we lacked in group size we more than made up for in spirit.

When it came time to put together our annual Christmas program (the traditional Joseph & Mary story) we had very few options for Mary, as most of the girls participating were only seven or eight. Except for Sheri, our 14-year-old girl with MS, who desperately wanted to be involved with the program, which we said we would definitely make happen in some form.

Sheri was certainly capable of taking on Mary; she was vivacious, articulate, had a great speaking voice…but her wheelchair was problematic. The role required Mary to enter from the rear of the church and make her way to the front during the opening narration. Admittedly, much of this was set up by tradition and for dramatic effect, and we certainly had other options, but limited maneuver room. While we had a ramp up the one step in front of the pulpit area (or ‘stage’) there wasn’t a lot of room for extras like a motorized wheelchair to turn or do much once you were up there.

My friend Mark Knutson and I were in charge of the youth committee, and we had given the idea some thought. When the full committee met to put together the program, the first item of business brought up was a request from Sheri and her mom to get her involved in the program, which Barb, the woman directing the program was nervous about.  One of the other women on the committee suggested Sheri would make a great Mary, noting that her motorized chair made that impractical, adding “Maybe she could sit off to the side and narrate”.

As a writer, the idea of the story being told first-person intrigued me.

Mark had a better idea.“What if we made Sheri our Mary, and disguised her wheelchair to look like a donkey”?  he proposed to surprised looks around the table;“We could cover her with blankets, and my brother-in-law is an artist, and I can get him to paint a couple of plywood donkeys that we could mount on the sides of the chair”.

After a few moments and some surprised looks,  Barb asked “Do you think anybody would mind?”

Mark and I looked at each other and shrugged. “Who cares if they do?” And just like that, the decision was unanimously accepted. Yes, it really was that simple.

The Sunday evening  of the pageant, it was hard to tell who was more excited; Sheri or her mom and dad. At least until the audience – including all four of Sheri’s grandparents – showed up. The grandparents sat in the front row, beaming with joy, as it was the first opportunity that Sheri had been given to truly participate in something like this in a major way. Mark and I had better-than-front-row-seats to it all – our own roles in the pageant: we were costumed as manger oxen, wearing homemade, long-snouted masks and kneeling  in the small choir pen off to the side of the pulpit. We were there for authentic manger atmosphere,  but also with hidden scripts handy to prompt any  of our frequently forgetful young actors.

Our Mary needed no such assistance.

Sheri did a fabulous job, and between the plywood donkey cutouts, and the blankets we laid over them and Sheri, it truly looked like Mary slowly moving through our candle-lit, church-aisle Bethlehem on her donkey led by Joseph; an incredibly Christmasmoving moment I remember vividly, looking out at the audience from behind oxen masks from our choir-manger.  Holy Communion Church had great acoustics; you could hear the gasps and murmurs of awe.

By the time the program drew to a close, tears were running down a lot of faces.

Sheri’s  family was so grateful, expressing their thanks repeatedly for us ‘taking a chance’ and ‘letting’ Sheri be involved. We told everyone the truth; Sheri was our first choice and only logical option. As I added with a smile, to hearty laughter from Sheri and her family, “The fact that she came with her own donkey…was just a bonus”.

‘And a little child shall lead them’.

 

Thanksgiving

Thankful. Or is it grateful?

I have been watching my Facebook feed with great interest the past few days as people debate being ‘thankful’ versus being ‘grateful’ – a semantic back-and-forth that I have taken more than cursory interest in.

It is the writer and English teacher in me.

Curiosity drove me to Merriam-Webster where I found that being thankful and being grateful have some very unique connotations, to wit:

To be thankful is to be conscious of benefit received.

To be grateful is be appreciative of benefits received.

The distinctions are important. Am I conscious of the blessings in my life? I hope so. Am I grateful and appreciative? That is something I ponder.

Consciousness is pretty straightforward, and my list is a lengthy one starting with my loving, healthy family; wife, sons, daughter, son-in-law and grandson. My extended family and in-laws. Friends old and new. Health, shelter, a full pantry and refrigerator. For a loving G-d, for a country where I can live freely. These are some of the people and things I am conscious of and thankful for, but rarely think of in such terms as thankfulness. Except on days like today.

Am I appreciative of all of these things? Probably not as much as I could or should be.

Bigger picture. There is much, as Americans, that we are conscious of, and should be thankful for, but I think take mostly for granted. In 1943 Norman Rockwell painted an iconic series of oil paintings entitled The Four Freedoms; Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear. Those are enduring things that resonate (or at least, should) more strongly today than ever.

Four_freedomsThere is nothing new or unique about these musings on what to be thankful for; every fourth Thursday of the year we are awash platitudes from various points and perspectives, Hallmark cards to social media, everything in between. Hence the debate I alluded to: are we thankful, or grateful.

Thankful or grateful? We all know we should be one or the other for something or another – our culture tells us so every November.

Still, when it comes right down to it…

I am grateful today for my life, what it is today and what it was and who it was that got me here: family, friends, mentors, past and present. I am grateful today for the memories of those who have been a part of my life at every step, but who are no longer here physically. I am thankful to live in a time and a place where technology allows old friends to find me, new friends to enrich my life. The ability of all of them to reach out in support – theirs and mine. To ask for and offer advice and comfort, to share a laugh or kind word when most needed.

I am grateful and thankful for the love of family. They help teach me humility, to see beyond myself.

I am thankful for the children in my classroom, for they teach me patience and understanding.

I am grateful and thankful for friends who are hurting and who have suffered loss, for they teach me compassion, and allow me to share it.

I am grateful for the gift of discernment, which allows me to see where I can do better, understand that I always can.

Mostly I am thankful and grateful for G-d’s grace in my life, as all of the things I am thankful for and appreciative of stem from that grace. I am happy and blessed to be who I am, where I am today. Happy Thanksgiving, indeed.

Peace.

Mark,
Thanksgiving 2014, 2015

Adamantly not skeptical

‘The scientific method is a way to ask and answer scientific questions by making observations and doing experiments. The steps of the scientific method are to: Ask a Question. Do Background Research.’ – http://www.sciencebuddies.org/

Apollo11 modelGrowing up as a kid in the sixties and seventies, I was enamored with science – the space program and geology were youthful passions. For Christmas one year I got a subscription to a National Geographic space club of some sort. I got a monthly, TV Guide-sized magazine (and cool storage boxes to keep them organized in my bookcase) and once in a while I got to order a model of some sort to build: a lunar landing module was a favorite, though getting the legs glued on straight vexed me for quite some time. As for the geology part, I have always loved rocks, and would pick up cool ones, encouraged, to my parents later chagrin (ask my mom about the eleven case of rocks they had to dispose of when they sold our house) by my Gramps, who at least feigned the same curiosity as I in all things mineral, and encouraged me filling my pockets with favored specimens at every turn.

Science was cool when I was a kid.

While I was always inquisitive and curious and did ample scientific experimenting on my own – other Christmas and birthday gifts I treasured were my Skill Craft Chemistry set and my microscope – science was not my strong suit in school. Still, like most kids of my vintage, I soaked in every televised moon launch and landing (big, box TVs on skillcraftchemlab2rolling stands in the hallways at school for every Gemini and Apollo liftoff and splashdown, oh yeah) and just generally enjoyed exploring nature and the world around me.

Which is why I really don’t get all the folks who, vocally and publicly, shun scientific ideas like global warming and the dangers of fracking, to name two. Did these folks never get introduced to the scientific theory in school? I did and I can put it into very easy-to-understand concepts why these things don’t strike me as odd but opposition to them does.

Global warming doesn’t seem logical to you? Think on these examples for a few minutes:

So the world has been humming around for millions of years (even if you are among those of a faith-based belief that the world is just a few thousand years old, same rules will apply here) and just going about its planet thing without much in the way of human screwing around to foul it up. At least until the industrial revolution gets rolling, then we Minneapaolis 1906start digging up, pumping up and burning up more and more stuff from the earth that cities start getting bigger, and most get soot covered and grimy because of the stuff we dig, pump and burn. Pretty basic cause-and-effect stuff here, hard to deny any of that – there is plenty of historical and literary record.

So why then is the idea that after millions/thousands/a-whole-big-bunch-of-years of pristine air and water being fouled by a few hundred years of spewed gunk seem so illogical to so many?

Ahh, here is where the scientific method comes through as always! Don’t believe in global warming? Let’s gather our materials, kids! You’ll need a working stove, a frying pan, and a pound of bacon. Ready to experiment?

Here we go!

First, unwrap your bacon, put it in the frying pan. Put the frying pan on the stove, get the burner going and cook the bacon. Then keep cooking the bacon. More. Keep cooking the bacon until it can’t be cooked anymore or until your baconsmoke alarm goes off. Then keep cooking the bacon.

The soot stains and smell of burned bacon will have permeated your ceiling, and will likely remain until you repaint it. Now, multiply the same basic scenario about 986 billion times and tell me that the concept of global warming is far-fetched.

And before you even go there, don’t be the idiot who shares this post and proclaims me the idiot who blames global warming on over-cooked bacon. And for the record, I’m not big on the cow flatulence theory, but have no real desire to put that to the test.

I could also give you the details about cleaning the tar off the walls of the apartment my two-pack-a-day, widowed grandfather occupied for twenty years, but that’s probably better saved for a post on why I will never be a smoker.

Now about that fracking stuff being just hunky-dory. Kids, don’t try these at home.

People who think that there is no harm in displacing millions/billions of tons of rock by means of hydraulic pressure strike me as really naïve or else they have always lived in places with level, even sidewalks. Like in Steppford, or something.

The house I rented when I first moved to New Orleans was nice, but when they started to demolish the house next fracking4 fracking2door, cracks started to appear in the foundation. They did street work out front and the cracks got bigger. A friend of mine in Minneapolis had the city repairing multiple foundations in his neighborhood after a year’s worth of street work created small cracks in foundations and walls that then became bigger cracks and structural concerns.

My mom’s stepmother’s house was on a primarily residential street that got a fair amount of truck and bus traffic; every time a truck or bus rumbled down the block, the stuff in her china cabinet would rattle like crazy. Eventually, her house got cracks in the front steps and foundation. I can cite numerous other, similar incidents.

Full disclosure, here: I am a Christian, a man of faith, but also a logical thinking guy who doesn’t see things in terms of pure black-and-white. I know that a lot of people of varying faiths don’t believe in global warming, or the dangers of fracking, or a lot of other things that have a lot of evidence behind them; I also know of a lot of others see that these things do happen, but who say it doesn’t matter, because G-d gave humans dominion over the earth, so anything Copernicusgoes. This goes directly against the concept of stewardship (a biblical term that refers to a manager who is responsible for the goods and property of another) my readings and understanding of scripture put me solidly in the stewardship camp.

Just one note for the we-can-do-whatever-because-God-made-us-the-top-of-the-food-chain folks: ‘dominion’ is mentioned juts six times in the Bible, while stewardship is referenced over sixty.

Though this is one idea I can’t back up with scientific theory, I am quite certain that G-d meant of us to take care of the world – not obliterate it for selfish means.

Guess you could say I’m kind of a frying-pan-Copernicus.

Faith, law and compassion

This past Sunday I attended services at one of my favorite, regular church stops – a small United Methodist outpost in the French Quarter of New Orleans. The woman who gave the morning’s welcome was a lay person, not overly polished but very compelling as she relayed a personal story from the past week.

The middle-aged woman had been reading a devotional that asked her (I paraphrase) ‘what blessing would be of most use to (her) at this moment.’ She told the congregation her immediate response was to win the lottery, so she could set up a charitable foundation with the first grant going to the church.

She went on to say how she then posed the same question from the devotional to other family members, and that they gave roughly the same response as she had, until she asked her younger daughter. The daughter has struggled at times with being bullied, and other issues, and simply said, “Mom, the greatest blessing for me would be that people could just be nice to each other.” The woman then spoke about how her daughter’s answer made her proud, and how she began to rethink her own answer a bit.

Then she spoke of the rest of her week, and a real-life blessing: the announcement of the SCOTUS decision upholding the Affordable Care Act.

Her story was simple, and compelling; the ACA left standing the way it was meant that three of her children, all on their own but not making a lot of money, could now keep their affordable health care. The emotion in her voice was palpable as she related what a comfort that news was to both she and her husband, let alone the children. A simple court decision with a huge impact, upholding a law that actually plays to the narrative of America being a compassionate nation. To me it seems legally logical and socially appropriate, helping millions who could truly use it – what fair, just laws should ideally strive for. I could only imagine how many households across the country had experienced similar relief.

And yet, many of my fellow Christians remain adamantly opposed to the ACA.

The woman’s story continued with a retelling of how her excitement was compounded later in the week by the second SCOTUS ruling striking down prohibitions on gay marriage. To hear the woman speak, it didn’t seem as if this particular ruling had a deeply personal impact on her, but that she was elated “for friends, for all of us.” It was, she noted, a ‘wonderful week.’

One might say extraordinary.

Many of my fellow Christians remain adamantly opposed to this second decision, and the idea of gay marriage itself, but on this issue the Chicken Little Faithful approach (proclaiming churches will be sued, forced to do things against their beliefs) goes overboard. Truth is, every Christian denomination I have ever been around has their own will/won’t marry someone in their church reasoning, and certain things that are/are not acceptable practice in that particular congregation. They have always, and will remain free to exercise those beliefs.

Fact: the Supreme Court is not now, nor have they ever been in charge of, ruling on G-d’s law. SCOTUS rules on American civil law – the U.S. Constitution. The key part of both those entities in the ‘U.S’ for United States. We are a pluralistic nation: different states, different peoples, different ideas, one country, one set of laws. Not biblical law, not Sharia law, not Talmudic law.

American civil law. The U.S. constitution.

It is striking to me that in both the case of the ACA and marriage ruling, the laws being dealt with are based in large part on not just law, but concern and consideration for all American citizens. As Christians, it seems to me that we should be rejoicing in the (sadly rare) convergence of American civil law and compassion.

Jesus calls us to be compassionate.

When discussing faith, people will sometimes get frustrated with me, as I don’t ‘cherry pick’ verses to back up my point of view, as I believe it is far too easy to take most any singular line or two of the Bible and use it in a way that fits some point we as humans are trying to make. This is mostly because people will take singular verses out of any reasonable context: the speaker, the setting, the situation at hand. Part of that is the discomfort with a lack of context is the English teacher part of me, but it is also something that disturbs me more the older and deeper into my faith I get.

My challenge to you as a Christian: grab your Bible and find a favorite verse – look for the highlighting and underlining, the pages you dog-eared. Look at where that verse lies in the chapter it is from, and see if reading the entire chapter, or passage, doesn’t at the very least give you a different perspective on what the verse you like really Finch 06 30 15says or means. Try it for three or four more verses.

You may be more than a little surprised.

Personally, I cannot boil my faith down to a solitary verse; I could when I was younger, not so much now. For the record, and for example, I try to use the book of Matthew as a life roadmap – the whole book, not just a this-verse-to-this-verse excerpt. You have to read the whole thing to get my point; there is so much more to Matthew than ‘feed my sheep.’

Hence my consternation at stray lines from the Bible used to condemn or condone much of anything. Especially the past week or so. There are a lot of strange things being said these days in the name of Christianity.

In reading and hearing all the vitriol spewed toward recent court rulings by prominent and not-so-prominent Christians, I am disquieted. As Christians, we are called to be compassionate – not called to be judgmental – that is not our job. I am trying to follow my own advice and simply point out a few things that disturb me about much of the Christian rhetoric surrounding the past week.

While not biblical, the seven deadly sins are certainly part of the Christian canon, and there are numerous takes on them, with some differences to be sure, but also with some decidedly pointed overlaps.

In Proverbs, King Solomon takes his crack at numbering and classifying sins; among the two that stand out as applicable to much of the faith-based discourse on SCOTUS and the law, Solomon’s admonitions against ‘a lying tongue’ and ‘Him that soweth discord among brethren.’ The latter is pretty obvious, as any quick perusal of a Facebook wall or various blogs will show. The former? All the nonsense about churches being forced to participate in things they don’t believe in. Again, G-d’s law, as opposed to American civil law. A number of outright lies are being told in the name of Christianity. The recent arguments from both public figures and private citizens calling themselves Christian seem rooted in one or more of the sins greed, wrath, and pride.

Not Gay pride, but Biblical, sinful pride.

Pride (hubris) as a sin is ‘believing that one is essentially better than others, failing to acknowledge the accomplishments of others, excessive admiration of personal self.’ Want to rant and rave about how you, as a Christian, are being persecuted by recent SCOTUS actions?  Think about where your pride comes into play in your viewpoint more than a specific Bible verse does. Present yourself as being above others, proclaim as a public official that you will not follow the law of the land because it is ‘against your faith’ and we can talk about where your pride fits in. Much the same goes for greed; think about what is it that makes you want to deny to others (civil rights, health care) things that you may have without question. What is it that makes you want to tell others ‘no’ besides greed. Wrath? It is hard to not see anger and rage in much of the discourse about these (and most other social and political issues). Jesus does not call us to wrath.

He calls us to compassion, with little equivocation room.

To be abundantly clear, my faith drives my political beliefs – not vice versa, and while last week’s SCOTUS rulings may not affect me directly, they did have a powerful impact on many people I know and love. It was a good week, topped off by another extraordinary event: hearing our President sing my favorite hymn at a funeral service. It was a quite a topper to a five-day stretch.

Oh, and sorry to disappoint my more conservative Christian friends here; while Mr. Obama is our president, his singing from a pulpit was not a matter of an endorsement of faith over and above anything or anyone else, he was simply exercising his faith, just in a very public setting. His personal prerogative, not a point of law.

Amazing grace, indeed.

Thanksgiving

Thankful. Or is it grateful?

I have been watching my Facebook feed with great interest the past few days as people debate being ‘thankful’ versus being ‘grateful’ – a semantic back-and-forth that I have taken more than cursory interest in.

It is the writer and English teacher in me.

Curiosity drove me to Merriam-Webster where I found that being thankful and being grateful have some very unique connotations, to wit:

To be thankful is to be conscious of benefit received.

To be grateful is be appreciative of benefits received.

The distinctions are important. Am I conscious of the blessings in my life? I hope so. Am I grateful and appreciative? That is something I ponder.

Consciousness is pretty straightforward, and my list is a lengthy one starting with my loving, healthy family; wife, sons, daughter, son-in-law and grandson. My extended family and in-laws. Friends old and new. Health, shelter, a full pantry and refrigerator. For a loving G-d, for a country where I can live freely. These are some of the people and things I am conscious of and thankful for, but rarely think of in such terms as thankfulness. Except on days like today.

Am I appreciative of all of these things? Probably not as much as I could or should be.

Bigger picture. There is much, as Americans, that we are conscious of, and should be thankful for, but I think take mostly for granted. In 1943 Norman Rockwell painted an iconic series of oil paintings entitled The Four Freedoms; Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear. Those are enduring things that resonate (or at least, should) more strongly today than ever.

Four_freedomsThere is nothing new or unique about these musings on what to be thankful for; every fourth Thursday of the year we are awash platitudes from various points and perspectives, Hallmark cards to social media, everything in between. Hence the debate I alluded to: are we thankful, or grateful.

Thankful or grateful? We all know we should be one or the other for something or another – our culture tells us so every November.

Still, when it comes right down to it…

I am grateful today for my life, what it is today and what it was and who it was that got me here: family, friends, mentors, past and present. I am grateful today for the memories of those who have been a part of my life at every step, but who are no longer here physically. I am thankful to live in a time and a place where technology allows old friends to find me, new friends to enrich my life. The ability of all of them to reach out in support – theirs and mine. To ask for and offer advice and comfort, to share a laugh or kind word when most needed.

I am grateful and thankful for the love of family. They help teach me humility, to see beyond myself.

I am thankful for the children in my classroom, for they teach me patience and understanding.

I am grateful and thankful for friends who are hurting and who have suffered loss, for they teach me compassion, and allow me to share it.

I am grateful for the gift of discernment, which allows me to see where I can do better, understand that I always can.

Mostly I am thankful and grateful for G-d’s grace in my life, as all of the things I am thankful for and appreciative of stem from that grace. I am happy and blessed to be who I am, where I am today. Happy Thanksgiving, indeed.

Peace.

Mark,
Thanksgiving 2014