Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Blue Gray Game

I grew up in eastern Pennsylvania and, like many young boys across this country I spent a number of childhood years completely absorbed by the history of The Civil War. I would get lost in this oversized book my folks got me one Christmas called ‘The Civil War.’ It had paintings, maps, journals, essays, strategies, death tolls, battle details and all manner of data that kept me mesmerized for hours and days. On the occasional ‘sick day’ from school I would line up my little plastic blue and gray soldiers on the sheets of my bed and re-enact a skirmish. I suppose in my subconscious I may have been on the side of The North given the geography of my birth. But I don’t recall that being a real issue. Gettysburg was located about 90 miles to the west of my hometown and so it was that we’d board school buses and spend a day touring the awesome and now-serene battlefields. (If you have yet to set foot on that hallowed ground I would heartily recommend the experience; it is unlike any other.) I have returned there many times in my adulthood responding to some spiritual call. Soon I reached an age, however, when these sad and monumental events no longer held my fascination. Girls, sports and music made their presence known and demanded my attention.
After a late-teens/early 20’s sojourn in the East Village trying fruitlessly to become the next Bob Dylan I made the wise decision to move to Tennessee and it is here that I have remained for 31 years. Tennessee, of course, is not without it’s massive tracts of sacred ground. Shiloh, Missionary Ridge, Nashville, Franklin, Lookout Mountain – these are powerful names in the Civil War lexicon. And I have paid my respects to most of these sites as well. But I’ve noticed something not so inconspicuous here in the heart of the south – lots of these folks are still pissed off about the results of that war settled so long ago. In the 30 years I have been a citizen of this great state – a place I dearly love - not a month has transpired when I have not had someone make a snide remark about me being a Yankee. At first I thought it was a joke until I encountered a few boys who were dead-ass serious about it. They held me in high disdain and distrust for one reason – I was born in ‘The North.’ Then I began hearing slogans like ‘The South’s Gonna Do It Again’ and seeing Confederate flags flying from pickups and it started to sink in – that war was so much more part of the culture of The South than The North. These boys, at least four generations removed from the atrocities, had still not found any peace in the peace signed at Appomattox. With all due respect – are you kidding me?
Today I attended an NFL game at LP Field in Nashville and watched The Tennessee Titans handily defeat The Pittsburgh Steelers in a very significant game. Steelers’ fans are most devoted and there was lots of gold and black in the stadium. On my way to the car I saw and heard a brief exchange that went like this: Male Steelers’s Fan dressed in Pittsburgh paraphernalia: ‘Don’t worry, we’ll be back.’ Female Titans’ fan dressed in complete deer-hunting camouflage (identical to her husband:) ‘Get yer Yankee ass back up north and don’t ever come back here again, you dickhead.’
There are over 1,000,000 graves scattered across a dozen states holding the remains of the casualties of Our Saddest Moment. 143 years have passed since it was declared over. It is interesting to note that Charles Darwin published his initial version of ‘On the Origin of the Species’ in November 1859, 16 months before the Confederate guns fired on a Union installation at Fort Sumter – the official start of the Civil War. I wish he could have been at the game today.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Crop Circles

I’ve always thought rather highly of Caroline Kennedy. She has seemed so humble and modest and, to this point in time, has gone about her work and her life privately and quietly. This is a significant departure from the typical Kennedy approach. I was eleven years old when Miss Bennfield returned to our classroom at Lafayette Elementary School in tears and told us very solemnly to close our books, go into the cloakroom for our coats and go home for the day. ‘Something very sad has just happened, children. Our President has been shot. You need to be home with your families.’ As the eerie days passed it seemed to me that the world had frozen shut. The day arrived to lay JFK to rest with that eternal flame and it has been memorialized in the famous photo of John-John saluting as his father’s casket rolled by. Caroline was not in the photo. She may have been in the original but the image burned in our memories was closely cropped to include only her brother. This has always made me sad. I wonder if it made her sad, too? But this week Caroline has been in lots of photos. The one I’ve seen repeatedly was taken at a soul food restaurant in Harlem where she was lunching with The Very Reverend Al Sharpton. This also makes me sad. It makes me sad that a seemingly bright, involved, astute, generous, independent and otherwise reasonable woman – considering a bid for a U. S. Senate seat – would find it necessary to kiss the ring of such an abrasive, pompous and divisive character with a singular agenda – his own fame. Ms. Kennedy, I live 1,000 miles from The Great State of New York but I wish you well in your political pursuits. However, if things go your way and you end up representing The Empire State in the U. S. Senate your decision-making will impact my life. May I humbly request that you crop Mr. Sharpton and his hollow rhetoric out of your frame of reference?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

What's For Dinner

"We feel a deep level of disrespect when one of the architects and promoters of an anti-gay agenda is given the prominence and the pulpit of your historic nomination," stated a letter from The Human Rights Campaign to President-Elect Barack Obama. "By inviting Rick Warren to your inauguration, you have tarnished the view that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans have a place at your table," the letter continued. A month ago it was Proposition 8. Two weeks ago ‘Gay was the new black.’ Last week was ‘Call in Gay Day.’ This week it’s that low-life, good-for-nothing, gay-bashing son-of-a-bitch Rick Warren. 
Yes, you have a place at the Obama table but there are others who are also coming to dinner. You are not the only guests. There are people who are homeless, broke, destitute, dying, addicted, uneducated, old, orphaned, diseased, beaten, trodden-down, hungry, depressed, widowed and frightened. There are also a very few who have put their lives and resources on the line to help the least of these – especially the homeless and those suffering with HIV/AIDS; people like Rick Warren. It will be a grand feast but if you continue whining like this you will have to sit at the children’s table. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

His Shoulders

When I was a child I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as child: but when I became a man I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass darkly; but then face-to-face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. I Corinthians 13:11-12

I am an untamed conservative; quiet in my resolve and certainly not a political evangelist. I got this from my dad. His perspective had a great deal to do with unions, coalmines, the production of steel and a paycheck. I am also a believer in the radical concepts put forth by Jesus Christ. I got this from my mom. Her perspective had a great deal to do with growing up poor, close proximity to alcohol abuse, tough times and human dignity. There are those who theorize that these two world-views cannot coexist; that, in fact, they are antithetical. To these folks I say…very little.
Now that we have come through almost two years of intense presidential campaigning I have a sense of calm and relief – yes, even hope. Although I was not among the millions of celebrants dancing in the streets last month I am most prepared to support President-Elect Obama in his efforts to lead our country in new directions. During the next four years it is inevitable that conservative perspectives will be challenged and, in many cases, silenced. Although my personal feathers may be ruffled by those events I have matured to the point where I realize that the cycle of politics has landed us here at this moment – and probably for good reason. During my lifetime the average margin of difference in the popular vote between the two-party presidential candidates has been 7.3 million ballots. Some races were astonishingly tight, others defined as landslides and one time (you may recall) the candidate with fewer votes was declared the winner. This year Senator Obama won by 7.2 million votes – a number both significant and…typical. (7 million citizens seems a staggering number until one appreciates the fact that 56 million Americans cast a vote for Senator McCain.) Of the 15 presidential cycles dating back to 1952 Republicans were awarded 9 terms and Democrats 6. This is all to remind us that we are a nation divided by perspective, definition, priorities and parties. But we are, indeed, one nation and I’ve seen little in my lifetime that would suggest we will not recover from the bitterness of this campaign and, once again, become a nation United. 
Oh, and then there’s this: Unless I have misunderstood Christ’s words it seems He Himself had very little to say about politics or government. His was a message of reconciliation, forgiveness, salvation and caring for ‘the least of these.’ Indeed, we may differ on how we engage in these actions but may we remain united in our devotion to Him. After all, ‘…the government shall be upon his shoulders.’ 

A Moment For Mary

Theologian Peter Gomes told this light-hearted and illuminating story about Jesus receiving a Protestant minister at the pearly gates and making appropriate introductions: "Reverend, I know you’ve met my father, but I don't believe you know my mother."
Growing up Protestant in a very Catholic town I always felt uncertain about Mary. Our Catholic brothers and sisters have always held Mary in very high regard. Indeed, most of my friends had paintings of Mary on the walls of their homes, little statuettes on coffee tables and icons on the dashboards of their cars. Somewhere along the line we ‘reformers’ found all of this ‘to-do-about Mary’ inappropriate; she was, after all, a human being and even though she may have been set apart for a heavenly task she was not to be elevated to a divine level. Somewhere along the line it seems we ‘reformers’ may also have diminished the blessed role that Mary played in the history of humankind. As we enter this Advent season perhaps we do well to reflect on Mary’s unique calling.
Mary was pure enough to be chosen to bear God’s son. She was courageous enough to embrace a situation that was both humiliating and wondrous. She was wise enough to raise a child who would change history forever. She was strong enough to withstand the heartache that followed her boy from the moment he was born. She was faithful enough to accept the path he chose. 
Mary endured Gabriel’s visits and difficult conversations with Joseph; a sojourn with Elizabeth and a journey to Bethlehem; a night in a stable and a flight into Egypt; a life in Nazareth and a wedding in Cana; the jeers of neighbors and the rejection of a child. She was there in the manger, she was there at the cross, she was there in the garden and she was there when Christ’s church was formed. Mary embodied strength, faith, hope, sacrifice, wisdom, gentleness and perseverance; in other words, Mary was, above all things, a mother. 

Ave Maria, 
Dominus tecum, benedicta tu in mulieribus 
et benedictus fructus ventris tui Jesu.

Monday, December 15, 2008

A View From the Pasture

I’ve not been here long enough to feel comfortable or appreciate the lovely surroundings. I am doing my best. The older ones tell me that the hardest part is avoiding looking back into the corral. They tell me it is hard on the digestion and raises the blood pressure. They also say it is impossible to convince the hands that you should be back in among the young, vibrant bulls. Although they may be kind to you because you once were a prize, they will not open the gate and allow you to go back into the fray. They’re wild in there and you don’t have the stuff it takes to defend yourself. So be it. I will become old. But I will not do it gracefully. I’ve never been graceful so why should I do it now? I will continue to snort and rake my hooves in the dust and make loud noise. I will find another field in which I can run, explore, sniff and cavort. Screw their corral – it has already been defiled by their own negligence; it is full of bullshit. They are hollow ranchers who have not paid attention. I will produce another set of horns in my pasture years and those horns will be polished, sharp and enlightened. And with them I shall chase the young bulls. In the process I shall be scoffed at and put to shame; I will take the risk and embarrass myself. I will go down, perhaps, in humiliation. I will become an icon for the pathos in the pastures. So be it. I am a tough son-of-a-bitch and the bits of me and my friends that were left inside that corral are being unduly trampled and disrespected. Yes, I may go down. But it is exceedingly better than staring helplessly into the corral from the pasture. And some day, I know, I will sneak back in – when the rancher has no employees left and is reduced to shoveling the shit for which he was responsible. And then I shall appreciate a view from the pasture.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Goodwill Toward Men

I shop at the Goodwill stores in Nashville. There are several reasons for this. Most significantly is the fact that my middle-aged frame rages wildly between pants that have waist sizes between 36 and 42 inches. I know that is hard to understand but it’s the truth. I can’t afford to array my closet with high-class trousers that cover my yo-yo tendencies. Secondly, billboards all over town encourage us to shop at Goodwill stores because, they claim, we are helping people sustain jobs and grow. Finally, I am always looking for some hip stuff that I can wear on stage when I sing my bullshit folk songs – something much hipper than the khakis and tee shirts that I live in. I stopped by my favorite Goodwill today and gathered a handful of things – 2 pairs of pants, 4 shirts and a sweater. It was Red-Tag Day and all of my items were half-off. I went to the counter to check out and stood behind a sweet Mexican-American couple with a young child holding a Santa doll that talked. They purchased their items but then became aware that their child really wanted this Santa doll – an item they had not purchased. The black woman behind the counter was enthralled by the young boy and laughed at his antics with the talking Santa. This went on for about 10 minutes. The young father finally asked how much it was and she said, ‘Oh, I don’t know – how about 2 dollars.’ He paid the money and left. Now it was my turn. I laid my purchases down on the table and asked her how she was doing. She looked at me as if she wished to poke an ice pick through my eye and said nothing. She rang up my items in silence, all the while looking out beyond me into the store. She finished ringing up my things and said, ’$31.42’ without looking me in the eyes. I reached into my wallet for cash and didn’t have enough. I produced a credit card that she grabbed out of my hand as if I didn’t deserve to have one. When the receipt papers flowed through the machine she laid one in front of me to sign. I did and handed it back to her and said, ‘Thanks for your help.’ She looked beyond me and said, ‘Next.’ 

Merry Christmas!


A couple years ago I joined the Internet social-networking site known as Facebook. I am employed as a youth minister at a church in Nashville and Facebook was a fun, easy-to-access vehicle with which to communicate, share news, post photos and introduce new ideas. In the past 6 months it has become a political dumpsite, a billboard for social action groups and a repository of bad music. I should not be surprised; our society is incapable of allowing innocence to flourish. One of the fascinating components of Facebook is the manner in which one goes about adding ‘friends’ to your account. It is a powerful exercise in discernment. When one signs onto their Facebook account they often encounter a notification indicating that someone has sent a ‘Friend Request.’ Typically, you will know the person (like 75 high school kids from your church youth group.) But occasionally these requests arrive from strangers or individuals you know only marginally. The first year I was a member I simply befriended everyone who wished to be my friend. It seemed the right thing to do. Then, many of these people began posting really bad music, videos of their dogs, radical political commentary, links for their commercial web sites, boring blogs, endless Obama promotions, ultra-liberal religious views, hypes for their CD’s, announcements for smalltime gigs, photos from their high school proms (from 1971) and other hideously unnecessary and aggravating crap. To paraphrase Sheryl Crow, ‘All I wanted to do was have some fun,’ and now I was sloshing around in the dark squalor of reality. And here I was, trying to be a hip youth minister (at the age of 55) and these young, impressionable kids that often went to my Facebook page were being confronted with the raging angst of my rudderless peers: ‘Abortion is a human right, Jesus probably had an affair with Magdalene, Bush is Satan, God is dead, America is the evil empire, Come to my show at 12th & Porter.’ I posted some comments that refuted these postures and only heard back from those who considered me Atilla the Hun and one person suggested that I should not be allowed around young people. I am working with Facebook to write some code in which members can post: You have an ‘I Don’t Want to Be Your Friend Anymore Request.’ Unlike me, I think it will be very popular.

Why We Love Dogs

Sarah and I have 2 dogs: Emmylou, a 3 year-old Golden Retriever, and Rookie, Emmylou’s 10-month old son – the runt of her 5-puppy litter. They sleep on our bed and rule our daily lives. Rookie sends out a sweet bark about 5:00 AM every morning announcing that he is awake. It is not so much a demanding bark as it is playful; as if to say, ‘I am awake and ready to eat, shit and smell another dog’s butt. Would anyone like to join me?’ He typically makes this announcement on Sarah’s side of the bed, as she is considerably more lovely and gracious in the morning than I. What Rookie really wants, however, is his mom’s attention – Emmylou, that is. Emmylou is not so quick to respond, wishing rather to roll over and get another hour of sleep. But Rookie persists until Sarah responds, opens the front door, lets Rookie outside, picks up the morning paper, turns on the morning news, fires up the coffee and our day begins. Emmylou and I stumble into the kitchen about 30 minutes later. Sarah and I fill their bowls with food and water. They depend on us for that. In return they lay by our feet wherever we choose to sit. They follow us anywhere we choose to go. They sit, lie down and roll over to impress our family and friends. They sound ferocious when strangers approach our home. They dance with joy when we return home at the end of the day. They follow us into the bathroom and lick the water off our legs when we exit the shower. They come when we call. They remember our children when they come home. They guard our elderly mothers when they come to town – neither of which are particularly fond of dogs. They brighten the lives of those we meet in the parks and on the trails. They wag their tails in delight. They are entirely honest – they do not beat around the bush; in fact, they smell it, circle it and then, if it meets their standards, they pee on it. They know when we’ve had a bad day or are feeling under the weather and respond by giving us our space or snuggling close. They have wonderfully bad breath and are not embarrassed by it. They roll in mud and enjoy it. They are perfectly happy to be outside in bad weather. They listen when we talk to them and no other human beings are present – and they seem to comprehend. They have no opinion when we reach for a third helping of dinner or pour the drink that will take us beyond the tipping point. They adore us, they live for us and they long for our attention. They have no idea that we are despicable, conniving, selfish, grudge-carrying people. This is why we love dogs.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Call in Gay Day

This is a second post in a row utilizing a quote emanating from the gay rights community – this one as brazen and self-serving as the last. In 2008 almost 2 million people lost their jobs in the U.S. – most of them still looking and longing for employment. This figure is increasing at an alarming rate. Do I need to mention that our economy is in the tank and the global economy has sunk just as deeply greatly reducing our ability to sell our goods and services abroad? Our government is in the process of doling out dollar bills that have no value to companies that have no leadership to save products that have little purpose. Our meager savings have all but disappeared. Those of us approaching retirement age that have counted on a bit of social security are beginning to face the hard reality that it may not be there. Millions already in retirement have been forced back to work, too often in low-paying jobs that help them put food on the table and pay for necessary medications. Tens of thousands have had to give up jobs because of a debilitating illness or to take care of a family member needing ‘round-the-clock care. All types of businesses – both large and small – are closing their doors because of rising costs and poor sales. The stock market has lost 40% of its value in the past 12 months and some sectors have been depressed at a much larger rate. So, here’s a good idea: ‘Let’s have a ‘Call in Gay Day’ to protest discrimination against homosexuals in our society! We’ll all call our employers in the morning and tell them we can’t come to work today because we’re gay! In our absence it will be clear how much we are needed and they will call us and beg us to come back to work.’ As a sensitive and supportive small businessman I would be willing to extend this protest to include ‘You're Fired Day.’

Monday, December 08, 2008

'Gay is the New Black'

The title of this journal entry is a quote from a 21 year-old protesting Prop 8 in California – the proposition banning gay marriage in that state. It passed. The good citizens of California – so ready for change in this country – rejected the legalization of same sex marriage. It is possible – likely, in fact – that state-by-state referendums in the next decade will broaden the definition of marriage thereby legalizing same-gender marriages. But wide acceptance of this dramatic change seems to stand on the far side of a moral line our citizenry has drawn in the sand. As a white, heterosexual American I have never experienced the discrimination perpetrated upon either of the groups referenced in this comment. But I do ask myself: Are the issues confronting homosexuals in our society on par with the centuries of brutal struggles experienced by our African-American brothers and sisters? By asking this question it is not my intention to belittle the genuine suffering homosexuals have encountered in our culture. I’ve seen it, stood in the midst of public humiliation, witnessed its heart-wrenching toll on families and watched as quiet fights for acceptance ended in bitterness, loneliness and banishment. There are untold, sad and ugly stories. Cruel is cruel is cruel. But on my scales of justice the gay/black analogy tips very far to one side. And if such a raw and despicable statement can be shouted angrily in CA I can certainly holler back from TN that this rhetoric is an outrage! I have been digging deeply attempting to find, in the gay plight, analogies for slave ships, slavery, sub-human definition, zero rights, whips, chains, existing as property, no vote, ‘back of the bus,’ lynching, separate bathrooms, separate drinking fountains, plantations, KKK and Jim Crow. Add to this abridged list of atrocities against African-American the following comment: ‘Gay is the New Black.’