Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Stop Pulling the Covers, Billy

As a child living in a dilapidated old frame house with a coal burning stove in the center of the living room with no indoor plumbing, no running water, with two bedrooms for six children and two, sometimes three adults, with the outside temperature during the winter sometimes -15 degrees, with snow, fueled by a howling north wind blowing it through the loose window frames, my brothers and sisters and I had the time of our lives.  This was never more true than at Christmastime.

I sometimes wonder today if children in America could ever possibly visualize what it was like to play guessing games or read the Sunday “funny papers” under a mountain of covers on Christmas Eve in a freezing bedroom.  Never mind there was little prospect of any Chirstmas gifts except for the school classroom exchange (local merchants anticipated these exchanges with a good supply of sacks of marbles, dainty handkerchiefs, Big Chief writing tablets and boxes of crayolas.)  I was astonished not long ago to learn Big Chief writing tablets were no longer being made, alas, alas!  There was of course the Christmas Eve church service with children receiving sacks of candy with an apple or orange in the sack.  Later, under our mountain of covers we laughed, imagined, created wonders of our minds, thought of the unfortunate children in India and Africa, told stories, ghost and otherwise to brighten our lives with magic and wonder.  When we would finally settle down for the night it was in anticipation of knowing we had hardly begun to explore all that magic and wonder.  A whole world awaited us.

Most modern families give the best they can for one another in the family at Christmas.  There will be a young person who will receive the gift of a new car perhaps and mom or dad may find a new expensive watch under the tree.  Children will give and receive from the abundance of all the good in the stores of America. We will each celebrate Christmas as we are wont to do, sometimes frugally, sometimes excessively.  This is Christmas as we’ve learned to express it.  But for me, one of the greatest of all Christmases would be if I could have my three-year old brother back, he of the fatally ruptured appendix.  What he and I would do would be this:  He and I would turn down the heat in the house until it was freezing.  We would jump into our bed with a mountain of clothes on and a mountain of covers over us.  We would make a tent of the covers and we would tell stories, ghost or otherwise.  We would play “Three sailors went to sea, sea, sea to see what they could see, see, see.” We would laugh and be merry and would know of a certainty that to be a child in Kansas, in the winter, was the greatest of all blessings.  I like to think, my imagination is at work here, that just before we snuggled down to sleep I would say to Billy, “Merry Christmas, little brother” and he would repeat it back to me.

Such a time that was, so much laughter, so much happiness, so much pleasure, so much joy.  And here is where my spirit soars to the starry sky.  Just before sleep, from under the covers, out of the great winter night, my brother and I might hear, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, to people of goodwill.”


Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Christmas Laundry

Sometime near the end of the year l980 it was my unchosen duty to help watch over the long decline of seven year old Lizabeth Sterling during her unstoppable Hodgins Disease. As children are, by nature, optimistic and hopeful, she was surrounded daily by her family, her friends and the medical staff. She was encouraged by all these in her upward tending spirit. Children are also, by nature, clairvoyant in a way not open sometimes to adult sensibilities. She knew! No one told her, no one attempted to prepare her, she simply knew she was dying. It was she, seven years old, who brought me into the world of her dying. One day, without warning or hesitation, she asked me what it would be like to die. Her asking wasn't shaded by fear, she simply wanted to know what lay ahead. So we talked about those things that come naturally in such a conversation, God, family, joy, life, and going on to a new life. I held her hand, she watched me to be sure I was being honest with her, and she asked, "Do you think they will have clean sheets for me there?" The question obviously came from the daily condition of her bed with IV's, blood, catheter and more. I said, "Lizabeth, the sheets done in the laundry of heaven are always white as snow." On the day of her death her family asked if new linen could be placed on her bed before she was taken up from it.

Such is the form and nature of our human community. It is always the wanting of newness, the release from oldness that permeates all of Christmas. There is a cleanness somehow buried in the carols and readings and prayers of the Christmas season and we are eager to have our children, our husbands and wives, our family and friends, experience this. I would like to feel no one is excluded by their own inflexibility from what is offered by all the season's presents. The thing about wanting life to be good and hopeful and renewing is that it's always, forever, already good and hopeful and renewing. To feel all this in our spirits we may sometimes need to change the linen. Christmas is not only a season, a holiday, a date on the calendar, it is real when we recognize what is already good and hopeful. No, I can't come and do your laundry. I can do the next best thing. I can point you to a laundromat. For all appearances you might mistake it for a manger.

Monday, October 17, 2011


In my home library of films I have one called PAN'S LABYRINTH. This movie, made in Spain, is a fairy tale/fantasy/life imitating art/real life story of a girl who in the midst of the cruelty of the Spanish Civil War (1936-40) saves her infant brother's life by sacrificing her own (the Christ theme). Her death is the occasion for her to be reborn to a new life of peace and eternal life (The Salvation theme). At the end of the movie there appears on the screen these words: "She left small traces of her time on earth visible only to those wise enough to look for them."

To some extent the world we live in, and the world that has always been as far back as the one we see in the movie 1,000,000 B.C., has been a world where the traces of our having lived in that world are sometimes hard to find. Who in this year 2011 can tell us who Amico Bignami was or Elijah Lovejoy or Vaclav Havel or Lucretia Mott or Leonidas La Pucelle D'Orleans or Hugh Latimer or William Rontgen or Charles Dodgen are or were? The perplexing thing about these persons is, they made the world healthier or richer or more beautiful or more liveable because of their small traces. Yet in this age of our knowledge of nuclear power and complicated mathematics and science that boggles our mind these living souls are unknown to most of us even though their traces leaves to us more than any science will ever do.

Well, lest we find it difficult in our busy lives to look up Lucretia Mott or Vaclav Havel to see the effects of their footprints in our lives and our world perhaps we can take one moment each day to be wise enough to look for traces within our own households. To look is to see the traces left by our own children, traces we seldom acknowledge or even recognize, the traces of our husband or wife which are left in our lives every day, the signs of our parents which we sometimes eulogize at their funerals but seldom during their life's journey with us, a neighbor perhaps, or someone in our community, that person who has touched our lives, or perhaps tried to, while they and we were still living. How many times have we said to ourselves, "O, I wish I would have told her (grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, cousin, brother, sister), how much I loved them? The fact that we feel this debt to someone from our past is witness to our sometimes delayed acknowledgement of the traces they left in our lives.

Today, perhaps, or tomorrow at the latest, we may leave off the TV, the newspaper, a few minutes from our job, and create a few traces of our own in the sands of this human community. Then, perhaps sometime in the future, others will be wise enough to look for the traces of love and patience and courage and kindness and forgiveness and generosity which we have planted in and for them.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Why Tooth Fairy Must Thrive

I've been reading in Harper's Index that according to surveys taken by VISA, the average donation to Tooth Fairy in 2010 was $3 and has declined so far in 2011 to $2.60. What? What has happened to human decency anyway? What's a respectable Tooth Fairy to do these days, go on welfare? Tooth Fairy is an American invention and institution. Can any of us imagine what our lives would be like if Tooth Fairy emigrated to Monaco? Where will the hopes of children with their precarious front teeth find a new source of inspiration by which to endure the pain and humiliation of a jack-o-lantern face? What will happen to the factories that make the little white boxes in which Tooth Fairy hides extracted teeth until morning? In fact, will there even be a morning for millions of children who know they will wake up to a Tooth Fairyless world? How can this present civilization survive with such hopelessness among our children when the main gift of those children to us has been hope itself? Never ask me to live in a world where an empty gum socket is symbolic of the cruelty and dishonorable penury of the Tooth Rich.

The times call us to arms! Ring the bells, sound the tocsin, cry out a new world crusade for the restoration of benevolence and empathy from those of us who have reaped the joyfulness of Tooth Fairy's gifts and have sown nothing but childhood despair in its place. To arms, all who love children! Let your own memory of 'The Morning After' $3 in the little white box be your guide to a new economic age of Tooth Fairy.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

We shall overcome!

The 1960's and 1970's were years of great change in America especially in the area of race and social change.  In some of those years I worked as pastor in the Inner City of Omaha, Nebraska.  In those days the Inner City anywhere in America was a place of danger and violence.  Parts of Omaha were burned down following the assassination of Martin Luther King.  Those years were also years

of challenge for people everywhere in America who ventured out into society with words and actions of reconciliation and creative relationships across racial lines.

A week ago I watched and listened on PBS an entire program, rich in memory for me, of nearly all the folk singing groups that flourished during those years.  Peter, Paul and Mary, The Limelighters, The Kingston Trio, Pete Seegar, The New Christy Minstrels, so many others.  Their music enriched and encouraged, challenged the status quo in America.  Last evening, also on PBS, I watched a program of some of these musical prophets.  There was Peter, Paul and Mary again, and my mind went back to those times in the Inner City when, with others in different forms of ministry, we gathered in churches, community halls, back rooms and even vacant buildings, talked together, prayed together, and above all sang together the songs of faith, protest, affirmation and hope. There were times when these small clusters of workers with their prayer and song, were about the only voice of hope there was to be found.

So, in letting these two programs wash over my spirit with their memories, I sang the songs as they were being sung by the groups. I sang the song which was really the theme song of the whole protest movement in those years, "We Shall Overcome".  I can never forget in those halls and churches and community buildings standing in a circle, holding hands, often with tears on our faces, letting the world know of our hope:

We shall overcome, we shall overcome, we shall overcome some day,

O, deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome some day.

So much of what was believed in that time has come to pass.  But the message remains.  There is still much to overcome in our society and of course always in our personal lives.  Singing and believing, and acting on that singing and believing with creative and courageous action, is an everyday event in lives everywhere.  In the midst of fractured families, breaking or broken marriages, children losing their way, dealing with our own personal demons,

We'll walk hand in hand, we'll walk hand in hand, we'll walk in hand some day,

O, deep in my heart, I do believe, we'll walk hand in hand some day.

When that walk is one of freedom from bitterness, freedom from strife, freedom from selfishness and hardheartedness, we can come to that freedom and let it wash over us like the Balm of Gilead.  O, deep in my heart, I do believe!

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Law of (Endless) Probability

In a blog I wrote that appeared on 12-17-09, I told the true story of a little boy who once rang my doorbell. He had a ball and mitt. On my answering the doorbell he asked, "Can you come out and play?" I answered, "Absolutely!" Yesterday, I answered the doorbell to a little boy about the size and age of the first one who, holding a smaller boy by one hand and a soccer ball in the other, asked me, "Can you come out and play?"

What are the odds for such a thing as this happening twice? They are astronomical at best. Yet in the world of Mathematics there is something called the Law of Probability. By virtue of this law one can predict the odds of such and such happening. One uses ratios, accumulated data, time factors, then poses a hypothesis as to an event occurring or reoccurring. I am confident in utilizing the Law of Probability in making the following predictions:

God will be good
A mother will be cured of breast cancer
An alcoholic will find new and sober life
An errant child will rediscover his or her family
A husband/wife will forgive his/her husband/wife
Someone will find laughter after a season of grief
The sun will shine
God will be good
O, and lest I forget, sometime another little boy will come and ask me if I can come out and play. I count on it. It's the Law of Probability.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


I don't know if the daily soap opera "As The World Turns" is still running on television.  My mother heard (on radio) then watched (on television) that program while she did the ironing and rocked her babies.  But there is a real life world that turns and it turns every day, every hour of the day and every minute of every hour of every day.  I can see this world turn from my study window, from my living room windows, from long walks through the community, from the newspaper and radio and television, from hospital visits and conversations with friends and strangers.  As the world turns on its daily appointed rounds it exposes to us the violence, the sorrows, the greeds, failures and grinding pains of daily life.  The daily turning of the world in which we live, the ambitions, the emptiness which pervades so many lives, is shown to us as clearly as if we were watching it in 3-D.

But 3-D of course is an illusion, it enables us to see what isn't there.  So, I say, off with the 3-D glasses!  Only then can we see the beauty of the trees along those walks, parents loving their children, people doing impossible things and overcoming improbable odds.  In looking at life as it turns we know the blind "see," the deaf "hear" and the beauty of things that so boggles our minds we want to break out in some Te Deum of praise.   Just now the world is turning and so can we.  So, excuse me now, I've got to go sing a duet with Luciano Pavarotti from the DVD "Rigoletto."  He needs me to sing the bass part.  Besides that, before the world turns too far today, I'll go say "Good Morning" to the priest across the way who lives with an oxygen tank. So many blessings, so little time to be blessed, how fast the world turns.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Whatever Happened To Christmas?

Mark Twain, especially in the later years of his life, became increasingly disillusioned about American politics. Once, when he was writing about such things as political parties and political figures, he wished them all to the Devil. Being in Tucson, Arizona, during the week of the recent shooting there, listening, watching and reading the editorials, speeches and interviews with all kinds of prominent Americans, I found myself asking: whatever happened to Christmas? Whatever happened to all that peace and goodwill to men (and to women) (and to children such as Cristina Taylor Green)? Whatever happened to angels singing sweetly o’er the plain, to joy to the world, to love that came down at Christmas? Didn’t we listen for the Child who shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace? One of the starkest symbols of all that was lost from the Christmas Promise was putting the district of Congresswoman Giffords in crosshairs as a potential target. Whatever happened to Isaiah’s prophecy that in the spirit of the Lord’s Day we would beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks?

Christmas is still here of course and will likely come again. But as I watched and listened and read the deluge of animosity, diatribe and accusation from all along the political spectrum, I thought: at the dedication of the Gettysburg battlefield in 1863, the orator Edward Everett spoke for two hours; he spoke of conflict. Abraham Lincoln spoke for seven minutes; he spoke of reconciliation. Who remembers Edward Everett? Abraham Lincoln is immortal.

My unasked for advice to politicians, and to myself, comes from the first two words of one of Theodore Roosevelt’s most famous lines, “Speak softly……” As far as the next five words are concerned, “…..and carry a big stick,” we would do well to wish those five words to the Devil in American life.