Grandma

There are lots of stories about people who overcame some bad things in life but the one that I know best is the story of my grandmother.  When grandma was born in 1905 her father was in charge of running a logging camp.  Her mother took care of all of the cooking for the camp as well as taking care of her own family.  Grandma loved school but, when she was still in High School, her father died.  Her mother had to take over the day to day business of the logging camp management and that meant that grandma, as the oldest child, had to quit school and take over the cooking and looking after her younger brothers and sisters.  Grandma eventually found her way back to school and, when in her 80’s, grandma dressed in a cap and gown and proudly marched up to get her diploma.  Every one of her kids and most of her grandkids were there to cheer her on.

 

Grandma got married and had children.  She lost her youngest daughter as a baby and then, when grandma was 94, she lost her oldest daughter who was my mother.  In between, grandma and grandpa made a modest living until grandpa died when grandma was 61.  In order to pay the bills grandma worked fulltime as a housekeeper at the local hospital.  Eventually she worked her way up to be a nurses aide but not before she lead a difficult fight to get the housecleaning workers organized into a union.  Grandma was in her 70’s when she retired from fulltime work at the hospital but she continued doing volunteer work there for another 20 years because she just liked helping people.

 

Grandma got a little slower with age but she was still very active and mentally sharp into her late 90’s.  She collected family stories and pictures and put them into a family history.  When I would visit her she would tell me wonderful stories about how life was lived long ago and the interesting characters who were my ancestors.  Unfortunately, all of that came to a sudden end when grandma had a stroke at age 98.  The stroke caused grandma to lose her ability to walk and to talk and even to swallow.  After being so active and helpful she ended up bedridden, with a feeding tube, and only able to make sounds that couldn’t be understood as words.  But grandma was still there inside of that broken body and people say that her face lit up with joy when her many friends threw her a 100th birthday party.  Grandma had another stroke a few months later and was finally released from her earthly prison.

 

I read somewhere recently that life can only promise us pain so it’s up to us to create the joy.  When I think about that I’m reminded of grandma.  She endured what life threw at her and still managed to thrive and to be someone that made people feel good.  The Bible also tells us that we are certain to have suffering in our lives.  And, unfortunately, good people sometimes suffer more than bad people because life is not fair.  But the Bible also tells us that we can take joy and comfort in a life lived in Jesus.  And we can take joy and comfort in knowing that there is a better world after this one.  I know that grandma believed that.  And I think that’s what got her through the last year and a half of her life.

One Parade Too Late

He remembers watching the faces on T.V. as the tears began a salty cascade down their cheeks.  He cried as they cried, their impending separation ripping through more than twenty years of psychic dust and debris to lay open the feelings of a 19-year-old kid.  The feelings that came as he turned away from the girl he loved and marched across the tarmac toward the plane that would deliver him into the military and the uncertainty that surrounded the Viet Nam war.

He also remembers the faces on T.V. as they returned to an overwhelming display of yellow ribbons, smartly flapping flags, and old-fashioned victory parades.  Some of them reveled in the triumph of the moment, and some flushed with embarrassment, but all were thankful to be home.  The Gulf war was over and they were all treated as heroes.  And he cried again.

The year is 1971.  The 19-year-old kid is now 22 and he is sitting in the squadron commander’s office.  Quietly, but with a slight waver in his voice, he explains why his roommate has wandered off toward the ridge that overlooks the base.  A few months later the young man heads home before reporting for his next assignment.  Disappointment sets in when his young wife does not meet his plane.  It grows as he unlocks the door to her empty apartment.  It turns to crushing despair when he wakes the next morning and finds that he is still alone in bed.

This is one fragment of the era covered by what PBS describes as the “10,000-day War”.  It was a war that recorded tens of thousands of American names in black granite and altered the lives of so many others.  Those who answered the call of their country in the face of political divisions.  Those who, at worst, were reviled for their efforts and who, at best, were ignored.  Years later they shared, vicariously, in the celebration bestowed on the Gulf War veterans.  Ultimately, however, they realized that, for them, it was one parade too late.

No Country for an Old Man

Strife in politics is nothing new but the division in this day and age has grown so hardened that there appears to be no common ground for compromise.  Terms that used to convey philosophical leanings have now taken on the status of derision and expletives.  I’m talking about words like “Conservative”, and “Liberal”.  We have become so polarized that it has literally become a “my team versus your team” mentality with no handshakes after each contest.  Worse yet is the fact that each side continues to push for more and more ideological purity, thus terms like “RINO”.

Some of us may think we have an open mind to other political stripes so let me provide a little test.  I will list the attributes of two individuals and you can decide how to categorize them.  The first is a white male in his late 60’s.  He is a military veteran, having served during the time of the Viet Nam war but not in the war.  He is most comfortable in jeans, tee shirts, and cheap sneakers, all purchased at Wal-Mart.  He owns several guns, mostly of the handgun variety.  He thinks there should be some limits on abortion.  He has always worked to live within his means and believes that the government should too.  He attends church on a regular basis.

The second individual is also a white male in his late 60’s.  He went to high school and college in Southern California during the 1960’s and 1970’s.  He holds three degrees in all – Psychology, Sociology, and Computer Science.  He was opposed to the Viet Nam war.  He believes that a woman should have the right to an abortion.  He believes that those who have much should help those who don’t.  He believes that there should be better screenings for gun ownership.  He thinks that those who believe that the Universe came about exactly as it is stated in the Bible are intentionally ignorant of scientific facts.

So, what do you think?  Number 1 sure sounds like a “Conservative” and number 2 sure sounds like a “Liberal”, don’t they?  At this point, however, many of you may suspect that this is a trick and you would be right.  Both descriptions fit the same individual.  Before you write this individual off as some sort of Schizophrenic oddity let me assure you that he is a happily married (47 years), middle-class individual who is well within the norms of sanity.  I should know because he is me.

So what is the point of this exercise?  Simply to show that there are many individuals who don’t fit the constricting molds that have become the new world views of “Conservative” and “Liberal”.  Moderates of both parties are an endangered species and any hint at compromise is seen as a betrayal of one’s political tribe.  I wrote a letter to the editor one time in which I decried the language of a local party boss who berated those of his own party who were not “pure enough”.  He also filled his commentary with plenty of invective for those of the other party and peppered it with lots of usage of the terms “Conservative” and “Liberal”.  A big part of my argument was that the use of labels in general was a lazy way to avoid making the effort to see other points of view.  In some ways it harkens back to what Sociologists like Erving Goffman called “Labeling Theory”.  The danger here is not only do we too easily reject those who do not fit the label but we also too easily help in the very creation of our own enemies.

So what is an old moderate to do?  Well, first and foremost is to not stoop to the levels of mudslinging that are so common today.  Second is to call BS when alternative facts are espoused by anybody of any political stripe.  But to do so requires that you have the actual facts at hand as proof.  It may not (and probably won’t) change the mind of the person or persons touting the alternative facts but it’s still somewhat comforting to know what the truth is.  Third is to stand up for people who need a voice or a hand.  There are those who get disenfranchised from not only the political process but from society as well.  I have worked hard for what I have but I know many people who have worked hard and have very little.  As someone who tries to follow the example of Christ I know that I should do what I can with what I have to help people who need it.  But I can’t help everyone and sometimes that breaks my heart.  I’m not saying you have to be a Christian or even believe in God to be part of the solution.  Your motivations may be different than mine and your resources may be different than mine but the results will be the same – someone who needs it will be helped.  Last is to vote.  For about ten years my wife and I lived in a state where our votes almost always went opposite of the majority.  But we voted anyway because we view voting as not just a right but a responsibility.  Besides, I always say that if you don’t vote then you have thrown away your right to complain about the results.

The United States is the greatest nation in the history of the world in terms of wealth, opportunity, and personal freedoms.  To have been born here is a stroke of fate for which I am eternally grateful.  The fact that I feel like an outcast from both political parties does not change that perspective.  But I hope, and pray, that I will live long enough to see reason and civility return to our political process.  Maybe then there will once again be a country for this old man.

The Search for Intelligent Life

I have always had a pretty firm belief that not only does life exist elsewhere in the universe, but that somewhere there are sentient life forms.  I have to admit, though, that I’m getting a little impatient waiting for unimpeachable evidence.  My belief was somewhat buoyed when NASA scientists reported that they had found evidence that indicated that primitive life may have existed on Mars billions of years ago.  The evidence they presented was based on analysis of microscopic fossilized remains within a rock.  Unfortunately, the biggest leap of scientific faith in this revelation was that the rock, found on Earth, originated on Mars.  It sort of reminds me of the “Far Side” cartoon that illustrates the theory that dinosaur remains are really just the “chicken” bones cast off by groups of giant aliens who stopped by Earth for a picnic.

 
Many scientists have claimed for years that the universe has no shortage of life form friendly planets (a.k.a. ‘M’ class planets to Star Trekkers).  This, plus the improbable odds that Earth is the only one of these places where life has flourished, form the basis for many people’s belief in extra-terrestrial life.  In a long-time quest to find support for this belief, scientists with the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project have been scanning the heavens with huge radio telescopes for traces of signals that appear to be purposely generated by some intelligent life form.  It is rumored that a first contact claim was recently filed by a SETI scientist, but that it was dismissed by the rest of the scientific community because the received signal sounded vaguely like country music.

 
Perhaps venting his own frustration, Enrico Fermi once asked a simple question that has since come to be known as Fermi’s Paradox : “If life is common in the universe, why haven’t they shown up on Earth yet?”  In response, many scientists have postulated theories to address the paradox and  three of them are summarized here.  The first I call the “We’re number one!  We’re number one!” theory.  The second I call the “E.T. phone home” theory.  The third I call the “Noah’s Ark” theory.  Now it’s time for you to make the call.

1.  We are the first or one of the first intelligent life forms to evolve anywhere in the galaxy. In support of this theory, it is estimated that as many as 50 billion species have come and gone since life started on the Earth, yet only the humans have acquired technology.  If dolphins are so smart, how come they didn’t invent the Thigh Master?

2.  Space travel is difficult, expensive, and time consuming so we are more likely to receive radio contact than a direct visit. This theory was offered by, big surprise, a SETI scientist.  A corollary to this theory might be that the aliens got lost and the most male-like alien is too macho to stop and ask for directions.

3.  Earth is considered by other intelligent life forms to be a nature preserve and they have chosen not to interfere with our development. Perhaps wars, plagues, and natural disasters are their ways of “thinning the herd”.  Then again, maybe we are more like a farm than a nature preserve.

All of this theorizing aside, perhaps the most intriguing question is the one that typically remains unasked: “Why are we searching so hard for other intelligent life forms?”.  Not only are we searching hard for extra-terrestrial life, we even seem to personify the behavior of terrestrial animals such as apes and dolphins.  The answer to this question most certainly varies from person to person.

 
For many people it may be a conscious or unconscious search for God.  In that light, manned expeditions may be the modern equivalent of the building of the tower of Babel.  Consider that in the vast majority of stories about aliens, they are generally portrayed as having far superior physical, mental, and/or technological capabilities.  Fortunately, we Earthlings almost always figure out how to defeat the “bad” aliens.  Even on “Star Trek”, where we occasionally get to see beings less advanced than us, the crew still encounters beings like “Q” who are so advanced as to appear god-like.

 
Another possible explanation, and one that could even include the search for God, is that there is some sort of genetic loneliness that drives us in our quest.  Cavemen probably had better things to worry about at the time, but maybe the yearning has been there all along.  Perhaps, then, our more recent scientific enlightenment and self-realization simply brought it to the surface of our collective consciousness.  Maybe we, as a species, feel like we are trapped on a desert island (nature preserve?).  Are space probes then the equivalent of a note in a bottle that we cast out to drift on a vast sea of stars, hoping against all odds that “someone” will find it and rescue us?

 
As a final thought, consider the interesting contrast put forth in Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” series.  Asimov portrays Earth as the mother planet, humans as the only sentient life forms, and “aliens” as descendants of ancient human colonies.  Maybe Asimov is right.  Maybe in all of our searching we will only find ourselves.  Is that “New Age” thinking or what?

Sticks and Stones

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”

 

Every one of us is living a piece of history.  In many cases we don’t realize the impact of it until much later.  In my case, history began as one of the first Baby Boomers after World War II.  My father died the month after I was born and my mother re-married three years later.  My step-father served during World War II but was one of the rare individuals who spent his entire time stateside.  I was alive during the Korean War but was too young to know it, so my first real contact with the impact of war came in the late 1960’s.  I’d like to share a bit of that history with you now.

 

When I was in high school I played some basketball.  The star of the Varsity team was a year ahead of me and, as a member of the Junior Varsity, I sometimes got to scrimmage against him.  He had it all in high school, including the cheerleader girl friend.  But college wasn’t for him so he ended up being drafted into the Army and dying in the jungles of Viet Nam.  That came as a shock to me but nearly destroyed his younger brother who had been a teammate of mine.

 

Then there was my friend and classmate Bill.  Bill had a crush on a girl at another school and he enlisted me to help him pen love letters to her.  I didn’t know her name but, as fate would have it, I ended up meeting her at a mutual friend’s wedding.  Sometime after we became an item I found out who she was and she found out who had actually penned those letters.  I lost her when I left to serve in the military and that hurt me deeply.  But it wasn’t until my 10-year high school reunion that I found out that my friend Bill had paid a much larger price for his service.

 

These are the stories that I know about and there are thousands of others like them from every war our country has fought.  Some are stories of courage.  Some are stories of fear.  Some are stories of commitment to principle.  And some are stories of disillusionment.  But every one of them has this is common: they are all stories of personal sacrifice.  And that is what we focus on this weekend as we honor those who gave their lives in service to our country.

 

Sometime ago I was talking on the phone to my 96 year old grandmother.  During our conversation grandma said that she was flying down to Wisconsin to visit some relatives over the Decoration Day weekend.  Now I’ve got three college degrees and grandma didn’t complete her High School education until she was in her 80’s but I had to admit that I didn’t know what Decoration Day was.  Finally, sensing my confusion, grandma said she meant Memorial Day.  Now I may choose to wallow in my ignorance a lot of the time, but I figured that if I was going to talk about Memorial Day then I better find out how Decoration Day and Memorial Day came to be.

 

What I found out was that Decoration Day started in the years following the Civil War.  The first known celebrations began in various places as early as 1866.  Then, in 1868 General John A. Logan, the leader of a group of former military men, officially designated a day of observance for the purpose of decorating the graves of comrades who had died during the Civil War.  During the first celebration of Decoration Day, General James Garfield made a speech at Arlington National Cemetery and then 5000 participants helped to decorate the graves of more than 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers who were buried there.  After World War I, the observances also began to honor those who had died in all of America’s wars.  Finally, in 1971, Congress declared Memorial Day a national holiday.

 

Something else I wasn’t aware of was the scope of what Memorial Day observes in terms of the specific wars and the numbers of casualties.  It starts with the Revolutionary War which lasted from 1775 to 1783.  Between 4000 and 5000 American lives were lost.  Next was the War of 1812 which lasted from 1812 to 1815.  Approximately 2000 American lives were lost.  Then came the Civil War.  In the four years from 1861 to 1865 an estimated 620,000 lives were lost between the two sides.  The Spanish American War only lasted from April to August of 1898 but 5462 lives were lost – 90% of them to disease.  Then came the war to end all wars, World War I.  It lasted from 1914 to 1918 and 112,000 American lives were lost.  The worldwide casualty count was estimated to be 10 million.  Since World War I didn’t prove to be the war to end all wars we had World War II.  The American involvement in World War II was from 1941 to 1945 and 405,000 lives were lost.  The Korean War lasted from 1950 to 1953 and 54,200 American lives were lost.  Immediately after that we began what later became known as the Vietnam War.  It covered the years 1954 to 1975 at a cost of 109,000 American lives.  Finally, at least at this point, we have the Persian Gulf War.  It lasted nine months during 1990 and 1991 and 148 American lives were lost.  Pretty grim statistics.  But, we say, that is the cost of maintaining our freedom and our way of life.

 

When I was a kid growing up in the 50’s, I used to proudly think that we Americans had never lost a war.  That is, unless you were on the wrong side of the Civil War.  But that was in a time before I knew that the Korean War was not supported by the general population.  That it was, in fact not called a war but a police action.  And it was before I knew that we only fought to a draw.  And it was also well before the turbulent times of the 60’s when the police action started in 1954 became the War in Vietnam that finally ended in a North Vietnamese victory.  Finally, it was in a time when I thought that soldiers were heroes.  And I had no way of comprehending that the veterans of both of those wars would return to something far removed from the parades, celebrations, and yellow ribbons that marked the return of those before them and those after them.

 

I served in the military for four years during the height of the Vietnam War.  But I was smart and, in spite of the long waiting list, I was able to enlist in the Air Force in order to avoid being drafted.  Being drafted meant a high probability of going to Vietnam and that was in the days before you could hope for a high lottery number in the draft.  I knew that I didn’t want to go to Vietnam but I also had thoughts during basic training that, if sent, it would be the honorable thing to do.  Within two years my attitude changed about how honorable it was and I began to oppose the politics that were driving our involvement.  I wasn’t a Christian at the time, so instead of praying, I just hoped that I would never be put into a position where I would have to decide between my sense of duty and my conscience.  I may have been selfish in wanting to avoid the problem, but I also had sincere empathy for those who had faced that decision.

 

So, you may be asking, how does any of this affect our lives as Christians?  Well, as I worked on putting this together I really struggled with that.  I thought about how the Old Testament is filled with wars that I don’t understand.  I thought about how David put down a stick, his shepherd’s staff, and gained a great victory for the Hebrews by using a stone to slay Goliath.  I thought about how memorable events were often marked by placing piles of stones at the place where they occurred.  And I thought about scenes like Abraham, marching to the Lord’s orders, to a place where he would sacrifice his only son.  How his son carried the sticks that would provide the sacrificial fire and how Abraham built an altar out of stones.  But, in spite of my desire to find some clever pattern in the Bible, it really only came down to one thing.  For me, the sticks represent the cross where Jesus sacrificed his life for us.  The stones represent the tombstone that was rolled away to reveal his power over death.  And with those sticks and stones we claim victory, in Jesus’ name, in the war for our eternity.

 

When General George Washington bid farewell to his troops he told them to return home and to live free, for their freedom had been bought for a price – the lives of those who had died in the war.  As we observe this Memorial Day I would like to offer my heart felt respect for those who gave their lives in service to our country – either because of, or in spite of, the politics that drove their sacrifice.  I hope that you will do the same.  When Jesus bid farewell to his “troops” he reminded them that eternal freedom was theirs because he had paid the price with his life.  Then he told them to share that freedom with all nations.  I pray that you will do the same.

 

Please remember that the freedom we enjoy in this country cost many human lives and is fragile in nature.  But the freedom we enjoy with Jesus costs us nothing and lasts forever.

Saying Goodbye To Mom

It was one of those days that they really do make picture postcards out of – a nearly perfect slice of sunshine that warms the soul without overheating the body.  It was October 10, 1999 and our small group was gathered in a rented boat as Captain Mike guided us into the Pacific Ocean just off of San Diego, California.

As we cruised through the harbor, we caught glimpses of seals crowded together on each of the channel buoys with seagulls standing watch on a perch above them.  Hundreds of sea birds soared and swooped and occasionally dove into the water as we passed.  Some pelicans glided like prehistoric birds of prey barely above the water while others posed like statues on dock pilings.  We motored on, leaving in our shallow wake an eclectic armada of watercraft that ranged in size from a two person fishing boat to the massive gray hulk of a Navy aircraft carrier.   We picked up speed after leaving the harbor and, as the boat skipped across the top of the water, bursts of spray along the side glistened with tiny rainbows.

Captain Mike shut down the engines after we reached an uninhabited patch of ocean and we sat there and awkwardly began to share our memories.   We passed around photos and listened as Grandma added vivid color to what had been faded black and white.  She also managed to restore beauty to a poor one-eyed Teddy Bear who had most of his fur loved off by a little girl over 70 years before.  During a quiet moment, I saw a butterfly winging its way past the side of the boat.  It was a surprising sight because we were a couple of miles from land but the butterfly appeared to be unconcerned as it continued in a straight line for a distant island.  It reminded me of a poem I had written several years before – a creased copy of which was the one personal item that Mom included in the envelope of writings she left for me.  Mary later said that she felt that the butterfly was a sign of Mom’s presence – and who am I to argue?  After all, I know from personal experience that God sometimes works in mysterious ways.

When the time came for our final goodbye we stood at the side of the boat, each with a hand on the bag that contained the ashes, and slowly poured them into the ocean.  The water, which had been almost black in color, was transformed into a beautiful shade of green as the ashes, like a gentle cloud suspended just below the surface, drifted slowly toward the open sea.  Mary tossed a rose onto the water and we stood in silence for a few minutes until the cloud was out of sight.  Goodbye Mom, we love you.