Thursday, July 24, 2014

'THE NAKED PUBLIC SQUARE'









The decision in the Hobby Lobby/Conestoga Wood cases has been rendered by the Supreme Court and the petitions for the Little Sisters of the Poor, the Catholic broadcaster EWTN, and Wheaton College are in the wings. While the rulings/injunctions pleased conservatives, they infuriated the Obama administration, Democratic Party loyalists, and progressives, particularly women.

In a July 5th op-ed, Des Moines Register columnist Rekha Basu observed “The ironic result of this wrongheaded ruling may be that business-owners of every faith will claim a religious right to discriminate, in decisions from health coverage to employment to buying, selling and accommodations.” A few days earlier, Emporian Janet Brassart called the decision “another crack in the Constitutional wall between Church and State that sets a very dangerous precedent.”

Unfortunately, that’s the tenor of our times. We’re living in an age when more and more of us are abandoning religious faith. The result is a public square that’s increasingly “bristling with hostility” toward religion. For example, in her dissent Justice Ginsburg basically told people of faith they should just shut up and sit in the pews. Others are parroting the “religion isn’t important to me, therefore I will not allow it to be important to you” mantra.

While it may seem that this hostility is recent phenomenon, the historical record reveals that it’s not. In 1980, Francis Schaeffer (“A Christian Manifesto”) described the growing fault line between historical Christianity and Secular Humanism. In 1984, Father John Neuhaus wrote about what he called “The Naked Public Square.” He asserted that the public square without religious influence was a vacuum, “begging to be filled.” He further asserted that in an environment where religion is viewed as something detrimental to the public square, “a perverse notion of the disestablishment of religion leads to the establishment of the state as church.” This may make secularists feel they’ve set things in order, but “having cast out the one devil, they unavoidably invite the entrance of seven devils worse than the first.” (see Matthew 12:43-45)

About a year before he died, Pope John Paul II wrote a wonderful book titled “Rise, Let Us Be on Our Way.” In a section titled “Caritas” (virtue/charity), he described the essence of the Christian life as “the mystery of evangelization through love of neighbor springing from love of God.”

I believe that mystery is meant to be expressed to humanity’s most vulnerable and needy, including the unborn. As a practicing Christian I’ve tried to think of how I can possibly be true to my faith in our current political and social environment. How can I express “caritas” when it’s deemed by many of society’s movers and shakers to be detrimental?  How can I fulfill my obligations as a citizen without compromising deeply held principles in the process? Is accommodation the price I’m now being asked to pay as a condition of my citizenship? If so, I’ve concluded that the differences are irreconcilable, like trying to square the proverbial circle.

This wrestling with accommodation has been going on for thousands of years. The cosmic contest between Moses, God’s representative, and Pharaoh, began with blunt words. Moses told the king that the children of Israel needed to go into the wilderness to worship God. Pharaoh’s response?  “Shut up and keep working.” “More bricks; less straw.” When the blunt words failed, Pharaoh tried accommodation. “You can go, but don’t go too far.” “The men can go, but the women and children can’t go with them.” “You can all go, but you can’t take your possessions with you.”

Every accommodation was rejected.

I think this is where we are today. People of faith are being told, “Don’t get too carried away with this religion business.” “You can do as you like, but we get to take your kids under our wings.” “You can all do as you please; all we want is your money.”

I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’m certain today’s accommodations must be rejected. If our faith is to be lived out meaningfully, it must be lived out in the face of rejection, intimidation, or loss of societal privilege.

Over time, people of faith face the very real possibility that our political system will become increasingly adversarial to us and that the public will be less and less in tune with the language and life of Zion. We may find ourselves cut off from meaningful participation in the public square. There will be a temptation for us to find avenues of accommodation, but we must stand fast. We must remain faithful to the first principles of our faith.

The attitude that people of faith must cultivate today was expressed beautifully in Saint Augustine’s “City of God,” written during the dying days of the Roman Empire - “So it falls out that in this world, in evil days like these, the Church walks onward like a wayfarer stricken by the world's hostility, but comforted by the mercy of God.”

Thursday, July 10, 2014

SOME THINGS I LOVE









I’ve been thinking about the hows and whys of we decided on Emporia as a place to retire. We’d gotten fed up with the corporate grind of Memphis and decided it was time to begin living a sensible life. After ruling out Florida (too many retirees wearing seersucker for our tastes) and Taos, New Mexico (too new age), we sank our roots down here.

Nancy wasn’t so sure of Emporia at first. In her mind, Emporia had seen better days back in the 70’s when she was attending Emporia State. But once we plunked the money down for our home/money pit, she was fine.  I think it was the challenge of making something beautiful out of nothing.

That was fifteen years ago and we’re still here, still hanging in.

There’s a lot I love about Emporia. I love sitting on my front porch in the evening and saying “Hi” to neighbors as they pass by. I love being part of a gritty, non-traditional church. I love the comfortable, protected feeling I get when I come home from Kansas City and see that Taliban vintage tank guarding exit 130. I love long morning walks with Nancy. And, I love the vastness of the Flint Hills and the sense of smallness I feel whenever I have the opportunity to stop at some strategic point on the road and ponder my place in this vast universe.

Several years ago, on my way to Wichita, I stopped and penned a bit of metered prose that expressed why I love the Flint Hills and the life Nancy and I share here. I’ll close this column with those words:

It’s the cusp of dawn.  I’m chasing Orion’s Belt and bull-haulers down the Kansas Turnpike. At mile marker 109, about a furlong or two south of the cattle pens, I stop.

The occasional rush of southbound traffic breaks the dawn silence.  Like a general poised in his appointed place, I review the early morning parade.  Saints and scoundrels, gospel singers and politicians, truckers, ranchers, engineers, doctors, lawyers, accountants, mothers, fathers, children, all pass by.  Problems and opportunities wind their way down the highway with them.

I touch the highway sign.  Mile marker 109.  I feel the bits of rust creeping up on the metal.  It’s man-made, temporal, placed on the edge of the eternal.  It speaks.  “This is where you are.”  It speaks of commerce and progress passing by.  It speaks of cattle and concept drawings on their journeys past a solitary milepost planted on the edge of eternity.

I turn, take a step, and cast my gaze across the prairie.  Like the storied astronaut of my youth, that one small step transports me from one world to another.  Thoughts pass by.  Some pass quietly, humming like the Toyotas and Fords on the highway.  Others I hear in the distance.  Their low, grinding hums become roars as they draw near, like the Peterbilts and Kenworths hauling their precious cargoes from Chicago to Dallas or the Twin Cities to San Antonio.

While the darkness has not yet surrendered to the day, there are hints of color along the rim of the eastern sky.  I sense that they carry the faint whisper of an announcement of the millennium to come.  The ageless ritual proceeds, moment by moment.  Light overcomes the darkness.  The unbroken sky and the endless sea of grass now join together in a hymn of praise.  The morning breeze caresses the tallgrass.  The blades of grass, in turn, wave gently to and fro, worshippers caught up in the glory of this moment.

Thoughts glide effortlessly through the air, then stop to gently kiss the earth.  The earth gratefully receives the kiss from above and pleads, “Maranatha…..Maranatha.” 

A hawk circles above, wings outstretched, reaching for an unseen spire.  As he circles, the dawn sun touches him, revealing his priestly robes and eyes of fire. 

I sense that I’ve entered a great cathedral.  I’m overwhelmed by my own smallness.  I fear.  The hawk descends slowly, gracefully and speaks.  “You are indeed small.  But, fear not.  You’re known…..You’re known.  This is where you are.  Mile marker 109.  This is the place where the line between now and forever is drawn.  Here you own nothing, but are given the grace to be a part of everything.  The language of the world you left is ownership.  The language here is stewardship.  This is the place where moth and rust do not corrupt.” 

His appointed ministry complete, he now lays hold of the morning currents and moves effortlessly off to the east.

I feel the warmth of a tear as it drifts slowly down my cheek.  My epiphany’s complete.  I turn back and take another small step, returning to the world I left moments before.  I take my place in line with my fellow travelers, the builders and dreamers, the movers and shakers, the commerce and the concepts.  Our daily procession has taken us past this sacred place…..mile marker 109.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

THAT SINKING FEELING









The news coming out Middle-East is painful to watch. As I watched the C.B.S. Evening News last night, I was stunned by what I saw. And Islamic terror group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, has taken Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, and Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s home town. The swiftness of their success was mind-numbing, but even more mind-numbing was the complete collapse of the Iraqi army. As of this writing, ISIS, armed with captured military hardware and hundreds of millions of dollars looted from banks, has vowed to march to Baghdad.

It brought back bitter memories of April, 1975 and another catastrophe.

When I arrived in Vietnam during the fall of 1965, there were less than 100,000 U.S. troops in country. When I left in 1966 there were over 200,000. By the end of the war, there were over a half a million.

During the 1968 presidential campaign, Richard Nixon pledged “we shall have an honorable end to the war in Vietnam.” When he signed the Paris Peace Accord on January 23, 1973, he declared that America had won “peace with honor.”

As I watched the reports of North Vietnamese tanks advancing south toward Saigon, with the remnants of South Vietnam’s rag-tag army fleeing ahead of them, my heart sank. I kept shaking my head in disbelief. “How could this be?” “How could it all come to this?” “How could this be considered peace with honor?”

Within days, North Vietnamese tanks were rumbling through Saigon’s wide boulevards. South Vietnamese loyalists were desperately climbing the U.S. embassy walls, hoping to escape the Communist onslaught. Then, on April 30, 1975, the last helicopter and the last Americans left Vietnam. The war was over.

For months after the fall of Saigon, thousands of desperate South Vietnamese civilians boarded flimsy junks and cast themselves out into the South China Sea. Some were rescued. Many died at sea.

My memories of the fall of Saigon go back even further, to 1965 and 1966. The human memory can retain powerful sights and sounds. I can still feel Vietnam’s oppressive humidity and smell the stench of death that hovered over my body like grave clothes. Once in a while I can hear Charley Bock, our squadron court jester, plunking away on an old beat up guitar and howling, ‘The money makers are makin’ more money all the time,” while the rest of us hooted and applauded in response. “Give ‘em hell, Charlie…give ‘em hell, buddy!” I can still see images of the 5 ton army cargo trucks carrying stacks of metal caskets and the boots of fallen Americans to a warehouse at Tan Son Nhut. As was our custom, we’d salute in homage to our fallen brothers in arms as the trucks rolled by. My daily duties would take me past the base mortuary. I remember once seeing one of the morticians standing next to the mortuary door, vomiting profusely. I remember the strange, beautiful orange glow of the napalm and the magnesium flares that lit up the night sky. I sometimes dream of listening to the kettle drum-like thumps of bombs from B-52’s raining down on Viet Cong positions to our north.

One night years after the fall of Saigon I penned a crude sonnet to commemorate the pain of loss so many of us who served in Vietnam felt. The last three lines, a few lines past the turn, went like this:
“Oh Saigon, bitter Saigon, please restore my youth unseen
For I’ve cast my life as pearls before the swine
Whose the dying now, oh Saigon, yours or mine?”

There are 58,286 names inscribed on a black granite wall in Washington, D.C. I’ve occasionally wondered how they would have felt about “peace with honor,” had they lived to see North Vietnamese tanks rumbling through the streets of Saigon.

Vietnam had its signature slogan. Iraq has also had its share – the “mission accomplished” banner, Joe Biden’s 2009 pronouncement that Iraq could be “one of the great achievements” of Barack Obama’s presidency, and the President’s declaration that we were leaving a democratic, stable Iraq.

One of the profound tragedies that came out of Vietnam and Iraq is that the sacrifice so many made in the cause of freedom was undone by the incompetence and the empty political slogans of our leaders.

I wonder how the brave men who fought house to house in order to liberate Fallujah or those who fought at Basra, Najaf, Mosul, and the Karbala Gap must now feel as they watch ISIS marching toward Baghdad in captured American tanks and Humvees. Do they see it as one of the administration’s “great achievements?”  Are their hearts weighed down by grief? How deep is the pain of loss they must feel?

My painful memories of the fall of Saigon still linger as I watch the tragedy of Iraq unfolding and I ask myself. “Are there new sonnets on the horizon for the veterans of Iraq?”

Probably so.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

LESSONS IN HONOR







Better to die ten thousand deaths than wound my honor
          - British poet James Addison




At the Sunday morning service before Memorial Day there was a brief ceremony honoring veterans for their service. Our music team led the congregation in singing “God Bless America” and the American flag was presented. Our pastor then asked all veterans to stand to be recognized. It was a kind gesture, but I felt a bit awkward about it. Nancy saw this and prodded me to stand.

Why the awkwardness? First, because I believe the altar is solely God’s domain.  I’m a loyal citizen and always will be, but I believe there are obligations that are even higher than those conferred on me by citizenship. My faith obliges me to be a good citizen, but there are times when my faith requires me to listen to a Higher Voice.

That doesn’t put me at odds with my country.  I’m very fortunate to live in a country where my rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are deemed to be God-given, unalienable rights. I’m glad our Founders had the wisdom to enshrine our most important rights, particularly our right to freely “exercise” our respective religious faiths. It took considerable wisdom and courage for them to do so. Allowing a nation’s citizens to practice their beliefs freely can sometimes be dangerous to entrenched political interests. That freedom gives us all the right to say, “No! That’s powerful stuff.  

I was awkward for a second reason. I served in the U.S. Air Force for 8 ½ years. I did my duty. I served “honorably.” I went where I was told to go. I did overseas tours of duty in Panama, Newfoundland¸ and Vietnam.  I obeyed the orders of my superiors to the best of my ability. But, I bear no lasting scars of war. I never won a Purple Heart. I simply did my duty, that’s all. I left the Air Force in 1969. I didn’t expect a lot in return. I went to college and graduate school, thanks to G.I. Bill education benefits I’d earned for my service. I bought my first home with a V.A. loan, another earned benefit for my service. Until a few years ago I’d never claimed any medical benefits for my service. Now, I get an annual physical, flu shots, and low cost medications. I’m also entitled to a limited number of medical procedures.

I don’t get to the Topeka V.A. center often, but when I do I always make it a point to wander around and see how my fellow veterans are doing. I’d like to be the bearer of better news, but that wouldn’t be true. Many of them bear the physical scars of their service. There’s an over-abundance of artificial limbs. Some walk with canes; some sit in wheelchairs. Some tremble uncontrollably. Many of them shuffle from place to place with faraway, haunted looks in their eyes. I suspect it’s because the memories of the past are so painful they refuse to go away even after forty, fifty years, or seventy years.

I get the chance to occasionally talk with them. They sometimes complain (it’s the G.I.’s privilege), but I’ve never heard one ever say he wouldn’t serve again. They never ask for much. They just want to be treated with dignity and respect.

You’d think that would be easy for a grateful nation to do. But, tragically, it’s not. We’ve all read the horror stories of secret waiting lists, bonuses for bureaucrats, and veterans dying because they couldn’t get an appointment to see a doctor.

The more I think about it, the more my blood boils. I’m angry. I’m not angry for myself. I’m doing fine. I’m angry for my fellow veterans. I’m angry with the entire chain of command, including our Commander in Chief.

The injury inflicted on our veterans has been bad enough, but events of the past week have added insult to that injury. Like most veterans, I’m glad that Bowe Bergdahl has been repatriated. Perhaps now he’ll come home and start to learn the true meaning of honorable service.

But, Bowe Bergdahl is only the tip of the iceberg.  When an administration becomes so cynical that it conducts a Rose Garden news conference with Bergdahl’s family and then parades Susan Rice before the media with the proclamation that Bergdahl has served with “honor and distinction,” it’s a slap in the face of every veteran waiting in a long, long line for treatment.  It’s a slap in the face to all those who currently serve and for those who searched for Bergdahl. It’s a slap in the face to those who died looking for him. It’s an insult to their families.

For me, the worst part of this scandal is that it appears the President did it all for the optics, hoping that the return of Bowe Bergdahl would make the V.A. scandal magically disappear. Those currently serving and the veterans who served before them deserve far better.