Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Of Broken Eggs and Omelettes

Psalm 137:1-6 (New Living Translation)

Psalm 137

1 “Beside the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept as we thought of Jerusalem.[
2 We put away our lyres, hanging them on the branches of the willow trees.
3 For there our captors demanded a song of us. Our tormentors requested a joyful hymn: “Sing us one of those songs of Jerusalem!”
4 But how can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill upon the harp.
6 May my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth if I fail to remember you, if I don't make Jerusalem my highest joy.”

Isn’t it funny how some memories linger, waiting in the recesses of our minds and hearts, waiting for what seem appointed times to surface? I often wonder when they come if they’re just products of dated bitterness of events long since past, memories of trying times in my life. Or, I also wonder, “Are they gifts from God, given to bring an opportunity for healing?” They’re so wispy, so difficult to describe or express in words that I’m puzzled when they rise up. And, they come accompanied by a strange mix of inner music, part martial, part sweet lullaby. Perhaps there’s a middle ground, a place where God’s healing and the bitter memories collide. Perhaps there’s a cosmic battle going on here and I’m ground zero. I can’t say for sure and leave those issues as matters of faith, to be sorted out somewhere further down the road.

But I feel compelled to express what I’m feeling. It’s an imperative.

These are really good days for me. That’s part of this odd mix. For the past week or so I’ve sensed that I’m really blessed. I see that blessing in a myriad of ways. I see it in Nancy most of all, in her gentle way, in her unswerving commitment to God and to me. I see it in the little things, in the chorus of birds who have protected a wayward blue jay chick in our back yard for the past few days. I heard it in the aviary quartet singing a cappella as I worked on my masterpiece on the grille last night. Off to my right I could hear the purple martins twittering. To my left came the chipping of a wren, responding in his own inimitable way. Not to be outdone, the redbirds chirped and the mourning doves cooed, adding the perfect touch to this glad little song. As I listened I was reminded of an old tune sung by Liam Clancy and Tommy Makem, a brief sample of which follows:

“All God’s creatures got a place in the choir
Some sing low and some sing higher
Some sing out loud on the telephone wire
Some just clap their hands our paws or anything they’ve got now.”

“Listen to the bass it’s the one at the bottom
Where the bullfrog croaks and hippopotamus
Moans and groans in the big tattoo
And the old cow just goes “moo”

“The dogs and the cats they take up the middle
Where the honey bee hums and the cricket fiddles
The donkey brays and pony neighs
And the old grey badger sighs”

“All God’s creatures got a place in the choir
Some sing low and some sing higher
Some sing out loud on the telephone wire
Some just clap their hands our paws or anything they’ve got now.”

Yes, I see God’s grace extended to me at every turn. I see it in the friends who visit, like the friends who came yesterday. I hear it in the conversations that wash gently through our house on these wonderful days. I can hear Nancy in the background, proclaiming most proudly, “Phil did this, isn’t he something, isn’t he wonderful?” as I try to focus on Doctor Mac’s animated discussion of politics, religion, the state of Emporia. I’m still amused by Gerald Clock’s tongue –in-cheek description of how he sneaks up on wild turkeys, which he revealed to us as we ate. “You’ve got to disguise the rifle and make them belief it’s a rake or some other garden implement,” he declared. I can still see the bemused look on his wife Ruth’s face as he revealed his secret. I can tell that she’s heard this story, and many like it. I ask and she tells me, “Oh yes, for thirty-eight years now.”

I’m grateful for all these little signposts of God’s goodness. They’re treasures for the keeping.

Yet, even with these blessings, there are still old memories that linger, and as I said earlier, spring up in the midst of these blessed times. This weekend, in the throes of the Memorial Day festivities, was such a time.

It all started when I reread Thomas Sowell’s “The Quest for Cosmic Justice.” There, on page one thirty-eight, was the trigger, in words:

“While many opponents of the Vietnam war on humanitarian grounds (myself included) were also horrified by the vast and traumatic exodus of the “boat people” fleeing the new regime in Vietnam, and still more so by the genocide carried out by the victorious Communist regime in Cambodia, those who opposed the war from the perspective of an ideological vision created no such uproar over the sufferings of the peoples of Vietnam, Cambodia, or Laos after the Communist victories in Indochina. As with so many other issues, the fate of the ostensible beneficiaries was never an over-riding consideration, if it was a consideration at all. Long before the Vietnam war, the fates of other ostensible beneficiaries had been repeatedly brushed aside with phrases about “the growing pains of a new society” or “You can’t make omelettes without breaking eggs.” It was the vision that mattered, not the flesh-and-blood human beings who were viewed as incidental casualties in the vision.”

As I read those words, the memories came. There was my arrival in Saigon. I remember the smell of death that lingered in the air as I stepped onto the tarmac at Tan son Nhut as vividly as I remember the sounds of the birds singing in my back yard last night. I remember the daily memorials, part of a tradition, of GI’s saluting as trucks filled with empty boots, reminders of the deadly cost of what later became a futile conflict. I remember the processions of metal caskets that often followed them. The coffins were going back home filled with the “remains,” while the empty boots headed to some warehouse somewhere back in the “world.” I remember!

I remember my first brush with the protest movement that was gathering steam back stateside. It was in a setting somewhat removed from the daily grind of the war, sitting at the U.S.O in Saigon, speaking with some Quakers who had come to protest. They said they’d come because they “cared.” To this day, with all due respect, those words ring hollow to me. I remember!

I remember the fall of Saigon in April of seventy-five. The memories of that day are very fresh to me today. I remember the genteel language of the media. When parsed it really meant that you really can’t “make omelettes with breaking eggs.” I remember!

The memories of broken eggs bring on fresh remembrances, memories that tell me even now who really cared and who didn’t. I remember induction day in 1961. At the end of the ceremony, in which I swore to defend my country against all enemies and to do my duty as an American soldier, a Salvation Army chaplain prayed for us and gave us pocket New Testaments. I never understood the value of that brief moment until years later. Who really cared back then? Well, there were no policy makers there wishing me well. There was no contingent of college students thanking me and the others who were leaving for our willingness to serve so that they could enjoy the luxury of an education. There was only a Salvation Army chaplain. Who really cared? I know the answer.

The memories go back even further now. I remember being, as the sociologists and the politically liberated left described me in my youth. “Look at this poor kid. His father’s a drunk and his mother’s a dolt. There’s no hope for him.” I think about it now and see that, from their ideological position, they were just describing another “broken egg.”

And so the memories come. The bitter mix with the sweet. They come and I wonder once more – “Is this just bitterness, old wounds, resurfacing for no reason or is this an opportunity to forgive.” “Or,” I wonder. “Is it something else?” I feel conflicted by it all, yet not abandoned. I feel anger, but I’m not overwhelmed by it. As the bitter mixes with the sweet I sense that God’s grace finds its way even to the “broken eggs” of this world. For that I am very, very grateful.

The thought now strikes me – should I just forget about all that’s passed? As I ponder that thought, the psalmist’s words come to me once more:

Psalm 137:5-6 (New Living Translation)

5 “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill upon the harp.
6 May my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth if I fail to remember you, if I don't make Jerusalem my highest joy.”

No, I cannot forget, nor should I. These bitter memories, along with the sweet, are part of me. They’ve shaped me. They’ve informed my politics, my religion, my life. I’m sure the advice will come. “Forget.” “Let go.” “Live and let live.”

Perhaps some day, but not today. Today, I’m left with the temporal reality. I am what I am; I am who I am. I am only left with the words of the poet to describe what I’m now feeling:

“I gaze into the doorway of temptation’s angry flame
And every time I pass that way I always hear my name.
Then onward in my journey I come to understand
That every hair is numbered like every grain of sand.”

“I have gone from rags to riches in the sorrow of the night.
In the violence of a summer’s dream, in the chill of a wintry light,
In the bitter dance of loneliness fading into space
In the broken mirror of innocence on each forgotten face.”

“I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea
Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other times it’s only me.
I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man
Like every sparrow falling, like very grain of sand.”

In the end I see that I, “broken egg” that I am, am also like the sparrow that falls. I’m known and remembered, even treasured. The thought overwhelms me now and I offer a prayer for those other “broken eggs,” those failed social experiments conducted by the uncaring ideologues. In the rush of experimentation and “ideas,” they’ve been forgotten. But the psalmist’s words remind me that, like Jerusalem, I cannot forget Saigon or those broken in its aftermath.

I remember!
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1 comment:

David M. Smith said...


You are an amazing thinker and writer! I am always a bit surprised by the way you tie Scripture into your stories. I am thankful for you.