Wednesday, November 30, 2005

'Tis the Season

“I have always thought of Christmas time as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely.”
Charles Dickens

The weather’s gotten colder here in Emporia, creating the appearance of an old fashioned Christmas season. Things are just about right, which is one of the benefits of living in a city that is tucked between two major storm routes, one to our north and one to our south. We get the cold weather, but little of the crippling snow that the folks around us do.

We spent Monday in Kansas City. Nancy and I were there looking at condominiums and apartments there. We’d been discussing this for a couple of weeks ago. Over that time our thinking, both corporately and individually, had come to a consensus. A second place was not only desirable, but also sensible. The sensibility was the most difficult hurdle for me. I’ve never been one for toys. I’ve never wanted to own a boat, especially knowing that the two times of great joy in a boat owner’s life are the day it’s bought and the day it’s sold. I occasionally see retirees tooling down the highways in motor homes, but the bug has never bitten me. The thought of something I’ve just purchased depreciating by thirty percent as soon as I’ve pulled out of the dealer’s lot or getting six or seven miles to a gallon have always been pre-emptive cures for any itch I might have.

But, a condo or a loft seemed, to us, more sensible. First, real estate appreciates in value. Second, Nancy and I occasionally get the small town blues and a getaway place has become very attractive. Third, we have friends and family who could also crash there for a day or two.

In the end, we decided on a loft in Kansas City’s River Market area. The price was right. The view of the river is wonderful, the amenities superb. So, we’re taking the plunge. We close on January 4th.

Ever since we got back from Kansas City Nancy’s been almost constantly browsing through catalogues, looking for sleeper sofas, day beds, area rugs, wine racks, ladder style book shelves, and what not. Just a while ago she got everything done. She came downstairs, proclaiming, “I know EXACTLY what I want and how I want things to look.” I’d have to say that settles it.

All of this, of course, will make cataloguers like Pottery Barn, Ballard Designs, and LL Bean very happy. For me, this will cut down on my Christmas shopping considerably. Now it’s just the kids and others on our Christmas list.

I think this will fill two needs for Nancy. She loves life here in Emporia, but there’s a considerable part of her that is a city person. I remember how, during our days in New Jersey, she loved going into New York City or our trips to Boston to visit with my brother and sister-in-law. Those trips had a way of putting her in another gear.

It’s not as though we’re abandoning Emporia. It still holds a great deal of charm for us. There are things available to us here that we know we’d never be able to find in a big city. Here in Emporia, for example, we meet friends all the time as we’re out and about. No trip to the grocery store or the Wal-Mart is complete without three or four stops to talk with friends. Here I get to do battle with folks, like Patrick Kelley, who fancy themselves great cosmopolitan crusaders. Here I have the beauty of the Kansas Flint Hills. And, here I get to hear my buddies complain about the Sixth Avenue bottleneck, which usually amounts to nothing more than having to wait in line behind four other cars at traffic lights on the way home from work. The big cities have no such charms.

The grandest sign of the season here in Emporia came last night. Along with a few thousand or so intrepid Emporians, Nancy, Bin Na, our foreign exchange student, and I braved the cold to attend the annual Christmas parade. By big city standards it would in all likelihood be a non-event, but here it’s really big. There were fire trucks, marching bands, floats pulled by farm tractors and pick up trucks, kids dressed like sheep, shepherds, or angels. Just about every float had a Christmas tree. One even had a tree with ornaments reading “Eat Beef,” with a gallery of cowboy cooks barbequing hamburgers a few feet away, at the tail end of the float. I’ll bet you big city types have never seen anything like that at Christmastime.

I don’t think there were any ACLU spies there, but if there had been they would have spent the evening grinding their teeth, in much the same way the legalists of the Apostle Paul’s day spied out Christian liberty, decrying grace and freedom. The kids on the floats kept telling everyone to have a “Merry Christmas.” There were Roman Catholic churches represented, as well as Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian. There were community groups, including a group of about thirty or forty women from the local Red Hat Society. There were lots of nativities, some in English, some in Spanish. Why, there were even some “happy holidays” floats in evidence too. In sum, there was something for everyone except the miserable among us. For them, nothing would be satisfactory. Their primary aim in life is to maintain misery, and they do it quite well. The rest of us, at least here in Emporia, just celebrate the season and allow them the liberty of their misery. That, it seems to me, is diversity practiced as it should be

As happens almost every year here in Emporia, there was a glitch. At about eight o’clock, while everyone was shivering from the cold, a large army transport vehicle broke down on the corner of Eight and Commercial. While the National Guardsmen searched frantically for jumper cables, the parade just stopped, held in a state of suspended animation. It took about ten minutes or so to get the big rig re-started and things proceeded as originally planned. At about eight-twenty Santa, who brought up the rear, passed in review and it was all over.

I capped the big night off with a big piece of fudge from the Sweet Granada and that was that.

In a month or so Nancy and I will have a crash pad of sorts, a place where we can mingle with the big city folks. We’ll enjoy the life available there, but we’ll also bring the wonder of our life here in Emporia. The result may be a renewal of the country and the cosmopolitan in both of us. Who knows, a bit of the country may rub off on the city folk we meet at the Kansas City River Market and a bit of the cosmopolitan may rub off on friends as we meet them at the Wal-Mart. What could be better?

Sunday, November 27, 2005


Luke 1:26-35 (New Living Translation)

26In the sixth month of Elizabeth's pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a village in Galilee, 27to a virgin named Mary. She was engaged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of King David. 28Gabriel appeared to her and said, “Greetings, favored woman! The Lord is with you”
29Confused and disturbed, Mary tried to think what the angel could mean. 30 “Don't be frightened, Mary,” the angel told her, “for God has decided to bless you! 31You will become pregnant and have a son, and you are to name him Jesus. 32He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. 33And he will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end!”
34Mary asked the angel, “But how can I have a baby? I am a virgin.”
35The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the baby born to you will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God.”

I went up to Wal-Mart a couple of days ago to see if the rumors were true. I’d heard that Wal-Mart employees had been instructed not to use the words “Merry Christmas.” When I was checking out at one of the cash registers I asked the clerk if she was allowed to say “Merry Christmas.” She didn’t answer. I tried putting it another way. “Don’t you think it would be good if Wal-Mart employees responded kind?” I asked. “For instance, if I were to say, “Happy Holidays,” I think it would be appropriate for you to answer, “Happy Holidays.” If I were to say, “Happy Hanukkah” I think “Happy Hanukkah” would be a fine answer. And, if I were to say, “Merry Christmas” I don’t think it would be counter-productive for you to say……” I paused, giving her time to respond. All I got was a blush.

Advent is upon us. It’s one of my favorite times of the year. The Halloween silliness has passed. Thanksgiving has now ushered in this wonderful season. The folks at Wal-Mart, Target, et all, notwithstanding, it’s a time far more beautiful, far more profound than watching news footage of people fighting over laptops or being crushed in the shopping madness.

I read yesterday that Wal-Mart was close to being ecstatic about their Black Friday sales results. The cash registers are ringing and they don’t even have to say “Merry Christmas.” By the time January rolls around, profits will soar and retail executives will celebrate wildly. But, something will be missing. While the corporate bottom lines will be bathed in black ink, the bottom lines of many American hearts will be robbed of something special, beautiful, and wonderful.

I read something this morning from Frederick Buechner’s “Listening to Your Life” this morning, and given the tenor of the times, I thought it would be appropriate to share with you at the start of this wonderful season:

“Advent” means “coming” of course, and the promise of Advent is that what is coming is an unimaginable invasion. The mythology of our age has to do with flying saucers and invasions from outer space, and that is unimaginable enough. But what is upon us now is even more so – a close encounter not of the third kind but of a different kind altogether. An invasion of holiness. That is what Advent is about.”

“What is coming upon the world is the Light of the World. It is Christ. That is the comfort of it. The challenge of it is that it has not yet come. Only the hope for it has come, only the longing for it. In the meantime we are in the dark, and the dark, God knows, is also in us. We watch and wait for a holiness to heal us and hallow us, to liberate us from the dark. Advent is like the hush in a theater just before the curtain rises. It is like the hazy ring around the winter moon that means the coming of snow which will turn the night to silver. Soon. But for the time being, our time, darkness is where we are.”

And so I wait, not for the profit and loss statements or the stock market reaction to the season. I wait like Buechner, in the darkness, knowing that the Consolation of Israel has broken into history, bringing us hope, and will once more.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Give Thanks!

The Emancipation Proclamation had been penned at the beginning of this fateful year. In July, Gettysburg, at a staggering cost of fifty-one thousand lives, had turned the tide of battle in favor of the union.

While there were still dark and difficult days ahead, on October 3, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln called upon the Union to be thankful. The proclamation issued that day has been honored ever since.

I think that November, 2003 is in some ways like the days of Lincoln and Lincoln’s America. There is war, and there is strife. America is a nation strained.

But Lincoln’s words are as true today as they were when they were penned. There is much we need to be thankful for. God has preserved us. He has been merciful and gracious to us.

The full text of the original proclamation follows.

Have a great Thanksgiving:

By the President of the United States of America.

A Proclamation.

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consiousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the Unites States the Eighty-eighth.

By the President:
Abraham Lincoln

William H. Seward,
Secretary of State

Monday, November 21, 2005

We Gather Together

“We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing;
He chastens and hastens His will to make known;
The wicked oppressing now cease from distressing,
Sing praises to His name: He forgets not his own.

Beside us to guide us, our God with us joining,
Ordaining, maintaining His kingdom divine
So from the beginning the fight we are winning;
Thou, Lord, wast at our side, All gory be thine!

We all do extol thee, thou leader triumphant,
And pray that thou still our defender wilt be.
Let thy congregation escape tribulation;
Thy name be ever praised! O Lord, make us free!”

Traditional Dutch Hymn of Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Day is, thankfully, almost upon us. Just before the holiday recess the U.S. Congress got down right nasty. I didn’t watch any of it, for dignity’s sake, but from all the reports I’ve seen it was a real slobber-knocker. If the accounts are to be believed, the only things missing were the non-verbal brickbats, chains, and zip-guns my generation used to arm itself with back in the old days. The president’s on an international junket, shaking hands with Mongolian soldiers, doing, I think, the same sort of thing Bill Clinton used to do to escape Whitewater and Monica. Washington, despite all the decorations, is not a fun place to be these days.

The good feelings in the wake of the recess will last about thirty days or so. Maybe that’s all we have in us anymore. The mood of the country is nasty, which makes folks like Ellen Goodman, Molly Ivins, Bob Novak, Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Jon Stewart, and Patrick Kelley absolutely euphoric. By the time the holidays are over and they’re back at it again, they’ll have deposited tidy Christmas bonuses for carving up their enemies, real and perceived, like the turkeys that will be gracing millions of American tables this Thursday.

I guess a brief respite in the midst of the current storms is something to be thankful for. The legislators will be home feasting and falling asleep in their living rooms. The boys and girls from the fourth estate will be writing cheerful sermonettes or tributes to the troops, neither of which will be sincere. But, that’s alright. Thank God for the recess and the holiday truce.

It got cold for a few days here in Emporia, but the chill was short lived. According to the long range forecast it’s going to be close to sixty until the end of the month. Thank God for that, too.

The other day Nancy and I ran into Jim and Judy Kegin at Wal-Mart. Each of them was pushing a shopping cart, one of which contained a pre-lit Christmas tree. Like Nancy and me, they’re in the process of scaling back. Last year they had a nine foot tree, but this year they’ve had to step down to a new model, a seven footer, a wise concession to the lower ceilings in their new home. Nancy mentioned that we had, the day before, gone to Topeka and purchased a seven and a half foot pre-lit job at Hobby Lobby. “Got it for one-third off,” she proclaimed most proudly. “We got some other Christmas stuff at half off, too.” That, a couple of bowls of soup and a few pastries to take home with us from Panera Bread, had made it an exceedingly worthwhile day. On hearing the news, Judy’s eyes lit up. “Is the sale still on?” she asked. “Will be through tomorrow,” Nancy and I answered in unison. A trip to Topeka for Jim and Judy was in order. With that, Jim turned the cart containing the Wal-Mart tree around. As he did he made the rumbling sound of a motor and gripped the cart as if it were a motorcycle. “Rrrrmmmmmmm!” “Rrrrmmmmmmm!” “Rrrrmmmmmmm!” A few seconds later and he was on his way to return the tree to the Christmas section.

Once he was out of earshot I told Judy that Jim seemed quite alive, like I hadn’t seen him for a while. There was clearly a lot of fight left in the old dog. Jim Kegin’s wasn’t going to be relegated to sitting on the front porch, watching the world go by. While I didn’t fully understand the technical details she shared, the practical results of the changes in medication were evident. Jim was once again enjoying life. I learned that he’s now even taking walks up to Wal-Mart to have a cup or two of morning coffee with friends. While he hasn’t started to put his repository of knowledge and wisdom into writing, seeing the good signs gave me hope that all he’s learned won’t be lost. I’m thankful for all that; especially the news that Jim is having fun, being the Jim God created him to be.

There was more good news yesterday. Our worship team did a jazzed up version of “Amazing Grace.” It started out slowly, in the traditional manner, and then it took off. By the time we were half way through it I was back in the fifties. The faces of the team members were still familiar, with Ruth Clock on the keyboards, Janie Horst on the piano, Dan Gray on electric guitar, Dennis Crowell on drums, Elise Flemming on bass, and Jannie Stubbs leading, but the rhythm was definitely fifties. It was as if Danny and the Juniors had gotten religion. Being the traditionalist I am, I spent a moment or two wondering what John Newton might think of this up-tempo version of his classic. Then, Nancy nudged me. “Look,” she whispered. There, at the front of the sanctuary, for everyone to see, was Jim Kegin dancing. The best way I can describe it is to call it the neo-Pentecostal hippity-hop. By the time we got to the words, “When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun,” he was in full swing. His arms pumped up and down in time, left, then right, giving him the look of a soldier marching in review. His legs followed suit, swinging forward in high arcs, left following right, in time with the music. The joy of the moment had suspended, at least for these few wonderful moments, the ravages of Pick’s Disease. I stopped singing and watch, transfixed, as it unfolded. There was cause for celebration. As I wiped the tears from my eyes I sensed that King David, who had once danced for joy over the re-claiming of the ark of the covenant, John Newton, the citizens of heaven, and the Almighty Himself, were all caught up in the joy of the moment. They were pleased.

Earlier in the service I shared something I believed was a prophetic insight for the entire congregation. I do this infrequently, realizing that the notion of someone speaking, or claiming to speak, for God is weighty stuff, and fearing at the same time that what I sense at these times is nothing more than a passing impression that no one really needs to hear. I’ve heard it’s the prophet’s curse. But, I overcame the fear and shared the thought that the same Jesus who had descended to the depths of the earth had also ascended to the right hand of the Father, and that while we, His people, so often call upon Him to descend, He wanted to let us know that He had also ascended and that He was calling us to ascend with Him. We’d been crying “Come down” and He was saying, in response, “Come up!” I thought of that later as I watched Jim dance for joy. The message was clear. God had descended to the depths with Jim and now Jim was ascending to the heights with Him. It was something all of us needed to hear and see.

After church, Nancy and I stopped to get some of the ingredients needed for the stuffing she was going to make for the church supper later in the day. At one point I found myself wandering around looking for just the right bread while Nancy and Bin Na, our exchange student, shopped for celery, onions, and cranberries. As I approached the bread section the sight of Jim dancing came upon me once more. I must have stood in place for three or four minutes, getting misty eyed all over again. I wonderered for a moment what passing customers must have thought of me. “This guy’s getting all sentimental about bread?” “Something terrible must have happened to him.” “Do you think he’s alright, honey?” But, it didn’t matter. If the Spirit could get a hold of Jim and allow him to lose his dignity in front of 300 congregants gathered for morning worship, I could allow the same Spirit to get a hold of me in the bread aisle of the Price Chopper.

When the day was done Nancy and I gathered to feast with a couple of hundred or so of the saints. There, at an adjacent table, breaking bread along with us was Jim Kegin, dancer extraordinaire. A few rows in front of us sat Dusty Crowell, formerly one of Emporia’s most wanted. Jim Schierling, fresh from an angioplasty two days earlier, was also there. The perimeter of the room was filled with fidgety little ones and bored teenagers. Pastor Mike briefly attempted emceeing it all, telling bad Thanksgiving jokes. As soon as Jannie, his wife, gently put the hook around his neck and pulled him offstage, there was an exquisite concert performed by pianist Martin Cuellar. Above and in it all, orchestrating this fellowship of the ungainly, was the Lord of the dance Himself. The pleasure of heaven was in abundance, filling the room. All the while the glow of what I’d witnessed earlier in the day never left. In fact, as the night wore on, it grew warmer and warmer. My heart was filled with thanksgiving.

At a time when nastiness fills the air it’s powerfully refreshing to see redemptive power manifested in the seemingly small events of life – a neo-Pentecostal jig or tears shed in the bread aisle of the grocery store. In a world that is too often filled with grief and terror these days it’s good to see that the power of God to refresh and renew hasn’t been extinguished.

In a few days Nancy and I will be making a trek to Kansas City, to have Thanksgiving with family there. It’s going to be at her cousin’s new home, which will make it very interesting. Judy is the perpetually late one at our family get-togethers. Five years ago, when Nancy and I began hosting the family Thanksgiving, it was a real irritation. After two years of frustration, with the rest of us sitting around waiting for Judy to appear, we learned how to cope with it all. If the feast was to begin at two, we’d all tell Judy it was going to be at noon. That seemed to solve the problem. This year, though, may be a different story. We don’t have a ruse available to us; Judy’s cooking the turkey. I think when it’s all said and done it’ll be vegetables, rolls, cider, cranberries, pumpkin pie at one and turkey at five to cap it all off.

It could be a whole lot worse, though. A late meal is a small price to pay for the privilege of family and fellowship. After all, congress could still be in session. The brickbats could still be flying. The journalists could still be seeking dirt and sniping at any moving target. The nightmare I had a few nights ago could be the real thing. But none of this, thankfully, is true. There’s a greater reality afoot in the world. Joy and grace are constantly springing up through the cracks. The Lord of the dance is still in control. The ancient words are as true today as when they were first recorded: “But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Happy Thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 19, 2005

The Beadle's Nightmare

“He talked about the brutality of the killers, but no one believed him. The Germans are human beings, people said, even if the Nazis aren’t. The more convincing Moshe the beadle tried to be, the less seriously he was taken. He has suffered too much, people said, so much that he doesn’t know what he’s saying. Then he would lose his temper. “Listen to me!” he would shout. “I’m telling you the truth, I swear it! On my life I swear it, and on yours! If I’m lying, how come I’m alone? Where is my wife and children? What about the others, your former neighbors? Where are they? I’m telling you, they killed them. If you don’t believe me, you’re crazy.” Poor guy, everyone said. Raving mad. Which only made him angrier. “You’re irresponsible, I’m telling you! What happened to us will happen to you. If you want to look away, go ahead! But if I’m lying, why do I say Kaddish morning and night? And why do you say, Amen’?” That much was true. He recited the prayer for the dead ten times in the morning and ten times in the evening, attending every service, rushing from synagogue to synagogue seeking a minyan so he could say another Kaddish, and yet another. But the people were deaf to his pleas. I liked him and often kept him company, but I, too, could not bring myself to believe him. I listened, staring at his feverish face as he described his torment, but my mind resisted. Alacia is not exactly the end of the world, I told myself. It’s only a few hours from here. If what he’s saying were true, we would have heard.”

- Elie Wiesel – From “Memoirs, All Rivers Run to the Sea”

I went to sleep when it all began; when I woke up fifty years later it was all over.

I didn’t feel like I’d aged more than a day when I woke to the new reality. But as I surveyed the landscape around me I saw that everything else had. America was old, worn, defeated. The War on Terror had ended almost five decades before, and the terrorists had won.

The vote had been taken just as I fell asleep. Then, in the night, one president’s call to stay the course had been rejected. American troops had left Iraq. The retreat was hasty, yet orderly, a masterpiece in American logistical skill. A new administration was subsequently voted into power, thanks to an alliance of militant pacifists, political opportunists, conservatives desperate to maintain their privileged positions, liberals longing to rekindle the old glory, trade unionists, feminists, career bureaucrats and civil servants, war-weary patriots, grieving mothers, secular humanists, intellectuals, journalists, preachers, philosophers, and poets. It was a powerful alliance.

For the first two years after the strategic withdrawal the decision seemed to be vindicated. There were terrorist events, but none that couldn’t be answered with a few blunt political communiqués or editorials. The occasional event became acceptable. Better, it was thought, to endure small sufferings than to expend the free world’s human capital and treasure in a protracted war. Two thousand, nine hundred and eighty six American deaths in Iraq had become the point from which no sane politician or leader would stray. The word war had itself become passé.

For fairness sake it must be said that the environment wasn’t entirely passive. The blunt communiqués were sometimes followed by elaborate law enforcement operations. They would last about a month or so, long enough for everyone to forget what had caused the carnage, and then end, without result. The strategy worked. The occasional deaths at the hands of some group of masked insurgents had lost their power to terrorize. Some, called religious fanatics, said it was the lemming effect, but in a world where almost everything and everyone had come to accept the new reality the message fell on deaf ears. People, in strange, almost un-knowable ways, seemed to feel secure. The political messages of eternal peace and prosperity resonated. No longer was there a constant drone of American casualties filling the airwaves. The “events,” as they had come to be known, found their way into the collective consciousness only by way of the back pages of America’s great newspapers, usually between the obituaries and the religion page. The nightly newscasts were entirely silent. The less said about them, the better, was the order of the day.

A new language, fashion, and set of euphemisms found its way into daily life and discourse. After a busy day at the office, for example, business executives could stop and have something old like a gin and tonic or something more potent, more up to date with the times, if the day had been especially taxing. Bali bombs they were called. There were Bali Bombs on the rocks, Bali Bombs straight up, and Bali Bombs with a twist. There was something to suit every taste. Faux suicide bomb outfits were all the rage, modeled seductively by anorexic supermodels on the runways of Paris. The designers competed vigorously for what had become an exploding marketplace of consumers. Oprah and other mega-stars devoted entire shows to the phenomenon, which had come to be known as “terrorist chic.” The terrorists and insurgents also found their way into popular entertainment, particularly movies and television. There was even a sitcom about life in a terrorist cell that skyrocketed in the Nielsen ratings. At first libertarians protested that the bounds of decency had been breached by the show’s producers, but gave up their protests shortly after being reminded that Hogan’s Heroes had been enormously popular in conservative America only twenty years after Bergen-Belsen was liberated. “It’s supply and demand,” they said. We’re just giving America what it wants. The ratings prove it.”

Lost in the tide of optimism and prosperity of the two years since the strategic withdrawal, though, was the undercurrent of events as they bubbled to the surface while the good news was being reported. The euphoria of the age was about to be shattered by a series of rapid-fire events so ferocious that the whole world would eventually be stunned into submission.

The reign of terror began when the occasional terrorist attacks around the world became daily events. It began in the middle of the night, in Iraq, during Ramadan. There, from Basra to Baghdad, the sickening sound of bombs detonating broke the silence of what should have been a beautiful new day. Thousands died. Then, the terror swept, from east to west, from country to country. Athens, Rome, Berlin, Munich, Amsterdam, Paris, London, Dublin, all of Europe was in flames. Like a prize fighter dazed not only by the suddenness of the blow, but also the heretofore unseen strength of its opponent, the continent reeled. The bombs exploded, like the anvil chorus, and desperate officials tried to respond. But it was no use. Europe was even less prepared than America to deal with such events. All that could be done was to put out the fires and count the dead, which numbered in the hundreds of thousands.

Dawn broke on America that day with officials frantically trying to shut down the major cities. The red flag was hoisted, warning Americans that risk of attack was severe and imminent. New York was virtually shut down. Attempts were made to secure Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, and other large cities. Airports were locked down. Political leaders huddled, caught between the national need for self-preservation and the pleas for help coming from Europe. Anxious minutes became anxious hours, yet nothing happened. America, it appeared, had been for some reason spared.

For the next three weeks Europe shook uncontrollably. The violent upheaval continued unabated, with no end in sight. International governing agencies were powerless to stop it. America, which had long since abandoned Europe and the Middle-East, rolled further into its defensive cocoon, believing that was its only hope. Thousands upon thousands of fires lit up the night skies of Europe’s once great cities. Plumes of smoke rose in columns reaching miles above even the wispy cirrus clouds that had been so prominent in the days before the attacks began.

While everyone knew who was masterminding the attacks, no group publicly claimed responsibility. They were too busy meting out “justice for grievances too long unheard” to negotiate. The strategy became clearer as the days of terror passed. Destroy, then negotiate for what was left. The attacks continued for another month. Casualties now numbered in the millions. Then, the ultimatum came: Capitulate or die! The details of the ultimatum were even more chilling. The terrorists warned they had far more nuclear capability than anyone had ever imagined. And, they had the human means, thousands of martyrs, willing to deliver them anywhere, any time.

And so it was that Europe fell, becoming the Federated States of the Northern Islamic Republic. Within months, with a huge stockpile of chemical weapons at its disposal and the means to deliver them anywhere in the world, the terrorists spread their tentacles to the east.

Less than a year after it all started the first nuclear attack came. Moscow was destroyed by a hydrogen bomb launched from Iran. From the west, Islamic armies swept in, from Iran. Syrian armies swept south. Six months later, with Russia and its nuclear arsenal firmly in their grasp and a monopoly on the world’s great oil fields, the terrorists set their sights to the west. “We now have thousands of warheads and we will use them unless you, the Great Satan, accede to our demands.” The nightmare scenario, the one no right-minded person ever thought was possible, was now in its final stages.

America’s first response was firm. “Americans,” the President said, “will never surrender to terror.” The answer to her terse statement came within days. Missiles, bearing megatons of death rained down. The first hit in the heartland. In a matter of minutes Chicago was gone. Then came New York, Boston, Atlanta, the cities of the west. A retaliatory strike was ordered and completed, but the terrorists continued their campaign, undeterred. Megaton was met with megaton in what became a great test of wills. Finally, after three days, fearing that all would be lost unless the terrorist demands were met, America agreed to the terms of surrender. Americans were allowed to live, as one of the Islamic Federated Republics. The Great Satan had fallen.

The inevitable purges followed. The fears that left wingers and intellectuals would be targeted proved, at first, to be unfounded. The Islamists well understood who their real enemies were and set about immediately to destroy them. Fundamentalist Christians, neo-conservatives, and “heartlanders” were targeted, then expunged. The rest of society accepted the purges as a necessary evil. The same thinking that applied to Europe in the late 1930’s and 40’s became the prevailing thought of what was once America. Survival became the order of the day.

This was the reality I woke up to almost fifty years after it all started. I’d gone to sleep, gotten caught up in a nightmare, and it clung to me bone and sinew even now in my waking hours. I felt an inner need to cry as a made my way to the living room window, but stifled it. “There’s nothing left to cry for,” I muttered. I stood, gazing through the frost on the pane, wondering if the nightmare would ever end. Off to my south I could hear the calls to prayer, emanating from somewhere down on Emporia’s Commercial Street. “Allah Akbar…..Allah Akbar…Allah Akbar.” The sound was rhythmic, belying the fury of the Islamic winter that had supplanted the nuclear winter which had been its cradle. It was all over. Nancy was gone. Jarrod, Beth, Michael, the grand-children had been purged. I’d survived by falling asleep, only to wake to a nightmare worse than any I could ever have imagined. I was alone in the world. What was I to do?

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

A Small Victory for the People

“I don't make jokes--I just watch the government and report the facts.”--Will Rogers

For the second time in the last year Emporians have voted “no.” In March, 2003 the Kansas legislature voted to: “remove its statewide ban on Sunday (liquor) sales, leaving the issue to be decided individually by smaller city and county governments.” Then, in April’s general election the people of Emporia voted down a ballot proposal that would have allowed Sunday sales of alcohol. The final tally was close, with the measure losing by 125 votes. In July, the Emporia city commissioners, in a four to one vote, decided to overturn the election results and allow Sunday liquor sales. The issue was finally brought to a head when a group of community activists, led by Jim Telfer, a mathematics professor at Emporia State University, circulated a petition to get the measure before the voters once more. The petition got more than twice the number of signatures required for consideration and a special election was held. Yesterday, by a sixty-one to thirty-nine percent plurality, the Sunday liquor sales measure was defeated.

Why it even came to this in the first place is beyond me. I spoke to one of the commission’s admin folks today and was told that the commissioners, after discussions with the city attorney, decided that the closeness of the original vote somehow gave them room to overturn the will of the people. I was told that I could speak with the city attorney about it, but I declined. I didn’t see any point in it. Any lawyer who could assume that a close vote gave the commissioners the right to overturn the results of the April election had to have been someone doubling as an ambulance chaser or related in some way to Al Gore and his legal team.

Now I could understand it all better if the people had committed a mortal sin when they voted in April. But, they didn’t. They just decided that six days of liquor sales were more than enough in a week’s time. It wasn’t as if the people had voted that Newman Memorial Hospital down the road was going to be required to euthanize inconvenient elders. Nor were the good people of Emporia voting in fascism. They were simply saying that they didn’t want Sunday liquor sales.

Lest you think that sixty-one percent of us are tea-totaling abolitionists, carrying axes a la Carrie Nation, let me disabuse you of the notion. I just had a birthday which I celebrated with a glass of Heineken and a good steak. And, I have an occasional glass of wine, for the stomach. In the summer, right after a hot afternoon of mowing my lawn, I’ve been known to sit down with a pint of the bitters. So do many of the sixty-one percent who voted against Sunday sales, I suspect.

What this was about government abuse of power as much as it was about Sunday sales, as far as I’m concerned. What right did four commissioners have to overturn the voice of the people? I suppose I could ask them and their attorney, but I suspect I’d find them reaching into the bottom right drawers of the roll-top desks to take an occasional nip from a flask of demon rum. It would be a bit like asking a drunk at the wheel why he felt the need to drive likkerred up. His answer, if he had one, wouldn’t make sense anyway.

There’s no logic that could account for what the commissioners did. I suppose, with the issue finally decided, I should just be thankful that the people have won out. But there’s a part of me that wonders what might have happened if the people had voted “no” to compulsory euthanasia for old folks at Newman Memorial and the council, in its wisdom, had decided that they had the right to overturn the vote. I suppose it could be argued that my point is based on a hypothetical, but the logic the commissioners used was the same. They somehow have come to believe, with some convoluted legal justification, that they can push the people of Emporia around. That’s what this is really all about.

I’d like to think that the Gazette is concerned about what’s going on down at 522 Mechanic. A good investigative journalist might be curious, given the state of the city and the way the commission pushes people around. But, based on their track record, I doubt it. Patrick Kelley, who fancies himself a New York cosmopolitan, has taken to writing about the troubles in France and other cosmic issues. Scott Rochat and Gwendolyn Larson are relentlessly hunting down “Emporia’s Most Wanted.” Lynn Bonney is lamenting the latest Harris poll which found journalists a notch or two below scurvy knaves. And, the White-Walkers are desperately clinging to an eighty-three year old Pulitzer Prize.

Meanwhile, here in the traffic, the rest of us are feeling the impact of the commission’s work. There are slum lords galore, plying their trade with impunity. Oh, they get fined occasionally, but that’s about it. Little or nothing is done about the problem. The really galling thing about it is that we all pay for the planned neglect. The poor, especially minorities pay. Some college students pay. Emporians who take care of their property pay. About the only people who don’t are the slum lords. In fact, they profit handsomely.

The downtown is becoming a mess. Every time I make my morning rounds I have to dodge the puke that has been deposited on the sidewalks outside the many downtown drinking establishments. Businesses are shutting down. The pawn shops make the city look like crap. But, apparently that’s alright.

And, while all this is going on, - a commission circumventing the will of the people, slum lords running free and easy, the downtown falling apart - the Gazette staff is blithely reaching for the bottom right drawer, looking for the stuff that will insulate them from what’s really happening around here.

Less than a week ago I tried a subtle hint on them. I mentioned Lincoln Steffens, hoping it would spur some ancient spark of community journalism. I doubt that it worked. The commission will, I’m sure, continue to poke sharp sticks in our eyes. The slum lords will continue to take full advantage of the government neglect. The downtown will continue to run down. And, the Gazette will continue to ignore it all.

The people of Emporia won a small victory today. Even with that, though, little else will change. The local governors aren’t responsive. Neither are the journalists. That’s one of the sad truths here in idyllic Kansas.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005


Luke 8:10 (King James Version)

“And he said, Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God: but to others in parables; that seeing they might not see, and hearing they might not understand.”

I’ve spent the morning so far giving thought to storytelling. The subject has been near and dear to me ever since we got back from Glorietta a few weeks ago.

Good storytelling is hard to come by these days. I’ve found it’s especially difficult to find stories that are complete, stories that are compelling to see unfolding, stories that, in one way or another, take a moral principle and make it come alive.

Jesus was, of course, history’s master of storytelling. Who among us, saint or sinner, isn’t familiar with the story of the prodigal son or the parable of the sower? The beauty of these wonderful stories lies in the fact that they are so easily understood by people with open hearts.

Tragically, though, the wisdom and simplicity of these stories is lost on the hard-hearted.

This morning I read, as I have many times before, Jesus’ story of the good shepherd, from John 10. While I’m not of a pastoral mindset, the story once again rang true to me. It’s not really hard, even for a retired engineer, to understand the love of someone who acts as a shepherd or a watchman over a flock, protecting it from thieves and wolves. Nor is it difficult to see that the good shepherd will lay his life down for his flock, to protect it from the thief, who “comes only to steal and kill and destroy.”

But there was something else that struck me in the pre-dawn quiet as I read. There are some, professing themselves wise, who harden their hearts to good shepherds. Just before He told this wonderful story, Jesus healed a blind man. The man had been born blind. Some of Jesus’ disciples thought the condition had been brought on by some sin, either the man’s or his parents.’ I suspect that they were just repeating a rumor that had been circulating about the man. In a world of cause and effect, they assumed, something had caused the blindness. Sin was as good an answer as any. Jesus, however, made no such assumption. “This happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life,” he said. Then, He did something remarkable, something I’ve never seen done in church, nor probably ever will. He spit on the ground, mixed a bit of His phlegm with the dirt, and put it on the man’s eyes. Amazingly, the man was healed. He went home and told his friends, who were skeptical. I can understand. If I heard a friend of mine describing dirt, phlegm, and healing in one breath I’d probably be skeptical too. Assuming that religious authority would have the answer, they brought the man to the Pharisees, the resident theologians of the time. The man’s explanation didn’t satisfy them. In fact it made them furious. “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath,” some said.” Not even a parade of witnesses, including the man’s parents, satisfied them. Their responses were filled, not with a skeptic’s caution, but with the arrogance of the hard of heart. “We know this man is a sinner.” “We don’t even know where this fellow comes from.” But, the man stubbornly held on to the sight he’d been given. He’d come to Jesus blind and came away from the encounter with his eyes wide open. You would think that once it was clear that what had happened was real, the authorities would have rejoiced with him, but they didn’t. In fact, they cast him out with these harsh words: “You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!”

Jesus, I think, told the story of the good shepherd on the heels of the blind man’s encounter to illustrate a point. It was a way for his listeners to ask themselves some questions, questions of caring, and ultimately of authority. Every time I read the account I find myself asking “Who really cares for you, Phil? The shepherd or the thief?” The answer is always clear. Truth, in any form, is timeless.

Over the past week I’ve been trying to acquaint a foreign exchange student from South Korea with these and other truths. On Sunday night I sat down with her and watched Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I’m sure that most reading this post have seen it before. For me it’s become an annual event, a reminder that life is really worth living. Each year, as I get caught up in George Bailey’s epic struggle, I see myself. While I’ve only done it a few times in my life, I have known what it’s like to feel the tides pounding against me so furiously that I wished I’d never been born. Each year I cry as George comes to understand that life is worth living, that each life touches other lives in ways that are often missed. Sunday night was no exception. At the end, with George’s friends singing Auld Lang Syne in the background and Zuzu telling him that every time a bell rings and angel wins his wings, I blubbered once more. Truth, in any form, is timeless.

Later that night, when Nancy and I were alone, I made the observation that Bin Na (pronounced Bean Nah) didn’t blubber along with me. Nancy laughed a bit. “She’s a bit young, Slick. I’m sure there’ll come a time when the tides of humanity go against her and she feels that life isn’t worth living, but right now she’s only sixteen. Things aren’t conspiring against her.”

I was going to try to sit Bin Na down to watch my favorite western, “Shane,” which has also become an annual event for me. But, after talking to Nancy I decided, wisely, to watch it by myself. Much better, I concluded, to leave Nancy and Bin Na, along with an extra large box of tissues, to sit together and watch “An Affair to Remember” or “Sleepless in Seattle.”

So, last night I sequestered myself upstairs and watched “Shane.” Some, myself included, believe that it’s the best western movie ever made, although there is some debate about that. I recently spoke to someone who said that “High Noon” was better. I like both films, but I’m really drawn to “Shane.” Film historians and critics have called them morality plays, with heroes caught in a moral dilemma. For Will Cain, it’s whether or not he should abandon his duty, with an entire town against him and a Quaker wife who doesn’t seem willing to stand with him. For Shane, it’s his heart’s desire to put down his gun and live a good life pitted against the plight of farmers who need him to fight against ruthless killers who want the land and homes they’ve invested themselves in. Shane struggles and sees that he “can’t break the mold.” There will always be a need for men like him. In the end, with Jack Wilson dispatched, he rides off, leaving the things he would, if he could, have embraced. Young Joey, who has come to love Shane for his decency and honor, cries out. “Shane…….Come back.” The words echo back to the boy, and Shane rides on, perhaps to another small town with sheep in need of a shepherd.

The story has always struck a deep chord in my heart. Truth, as I’ve already said, is timeless in any form.

I’ve heard some say that Shane was a cold war parable, with Shane playing the part of America. The dream of isolation, roots sunk in, families nurtured, land tilled and cultivated, neighbors in need cared for must have seemed appealing to America in the days after World War Two. But, it wasn’t to be. The world changed, and America had to change with it. We could no longer live in isolation, nor could be afford the luxury of standing idly by while mountains filled with lost sheep were left at the mercy of thieves and wolves. The post war world needed America in the same way that Joe Starrett and the farmers needed Shane.

The Cold War has been won, but the need for America to stand firm against tyranny remains.

I read an interesting piece from E.Thomas McClanahan in this morning’s Kansas City Star. It seems the president is answering his critics and Mr. McClanahan is glad for it. I am too! It’s about time. I’m one of the few who have stood with the president from the beginning and stand with him now. And, I’ve taken the stand as a Democrat. I’ve believed all along that the lives of the millions of people liberated since the War on Terror began are not political hay to be used by the president’s critics. I believe the moral case for war was compelling; in the same way I believed that our intervention in the Balkans under Bill Clinton was morally justified. Whatever else may have been wrong at the beginning, the morality of the cause wasn’t. No amount of critics saying, “But he didn’t make that case to begin with” will make it immoral. It was, and is, the right thing to do.

The critics stood with the president in the beginning. Then, like the Pharisees of old, when the going got tough, they re-read history and re-wrote what they had to say about it. There’s little I can say of it other than it’s crass revisionism built on the shifting sand of political expediency.

We’re living in a new millennium, the one new-agers promised us would be filled with peace and harmony. It would be, they told us, peace gained without a price tag. All we had to do was tune out, to isolate ourselves into some sort of harmonic cocoon and the world would be alright. I think it’s that dangerous delusion the critics are playing to now. They believed they had the issue by the jugular and came in for the kill. But it now appears that the intended victim had a lot more life in him than they bargained for. George Bush has come out swinging, like Shane facing down jack Wilson. The battle is joined. He’s come, as Mr. McClanahan noted, out of his state of political dormancy with guns blazing.

The political vipers would have us abandon the sheep to the wolves. They’re revising, lying, conniving for political gain. But, they’re now being caught in their webs of deceit. Like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day or the ruthless wolves Shane had to confront, they’ve found themselves in the crosshairs of truth, and truth, as I’ve said, is timeless in any form. It will win out!

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Conversion, Part Four

As with the previous post, this one will make much more sense if you read part one (if you haven’t read it already), and parts two and three.

The rest of my tour in Vietnam was quiet. I never did speak to Sergeant Vartenisian about the incident at the incinerator or tell him what I was thinking. I kept it all to myself. It’s something I now regret. Once I left Vietnam I never saw him again. I guess there are a lot of people like him, who pray for others and never see an answer to the prayers they make. They’re the people of faith who go about their lives quietly, believing that it’s enough for them to intercede, believing that somehow their prayer(s) will be answered.

Sergeant Vartenisian’s were, but it was going to take some time before they were fully realized.

My “deros” (rotation day) was coming up and I put in for anything near home – Hanscom Field, Otis AFB, anything in Massachusetts. When the orders came down about a month and a half before I was due to go home, I found, strangely that I had been assigned to Lockbourne AFB, which was just outside of Columbus, Ohio. It was a shock to my system and I tried to fight the assignment. But my fighting was in vain. I was going to Lockbourne and that was it. It turned out to be providential.

I got in bad with my unit right away, particularly my duty sergeant. I became uncooperative and that made me a marked man. After about eight months at Lockbourne I was assigned to a leadership school. It was the Air Force’s last ditch attempt to retrieve me before I destroyed myself.

I’ll never forget the day I arrived at the school. When I opened the door to the room that was to be mine for eight weeks I saw an eight ball sitting on the desk starting at me. That dreaded eight ball was the squadron’s way of saying, “Straighten up or ship out. This is your last chance.” I sat, somewhat amused, for a while until my assigned roommate came in. “Hey, I’m Vic Edwards.”
“Dillon…Phil Dillon.”
Vic was a round faced man, African-American. He had the proud look of a leader. I wondered if he had been assigned as my roommate to straighten me out.
“You’re the man who’s come to fix me? I asked
“Not me, Bubba. You and I are in the same boat.”
“I’m here because the Air Force is trying to purge a rebel from the flock. How about you? What’s your great sin?”
Vic laughed a bit. “I’m not exactly sure. I think it might be because I married a French woman.”
“So I’m the rebel and you’re the non-conformist. Does that about cover it?”
“That does a pretty good job of it.”
I doubled over laughing on my bunk, pulling the pillow over my head as I did. “Geeze, if this isn’t a real recipe for success.”
My cynical laughter was contagious. Vic fell back on his bunk and began to laugh along with me. “Well, Dillon, if you and I aren’t a marriage made in heaven. We are just one big roaring success waiting to spring ourselves on the U. S. Air Force.”
After about ten minutes our laughter subsided. The room became still as we privately contemplated our fates.

I don’t know why I asked the following question. Maybe it was desperation. I don’t know, but I did. “Do you pray much, Edwards?”
“No, once in a while, but that’s about it. How about you?”
“I can’t really say that I have. I’ve had a couple of strange religious experiences if you could call that praying, but other than that, no.”
Vic had been laying on his bunk until I mentioned the strange religious experiences. When he heard those words he sat up. “Strange? What kind of strange experiences, Dillon?”
I told him about the dreams I had had when I was young and about my experience in Vietnam. He listened intently. “That is strange,” he answered.
“Look, Vic, I don’t wanna’ change the subject but how are we gonna’ get through these eight weeks?”
Vic’s answer was almost in the form of a plea or a prayer. “It’ll take a miracle for sure.”

The word miracle struck a chord with me. I knew that it was going to keep me from getting drummed out of my unit. I was just too far gone. I was at the end of my rope.
My first step of faith was tentative and feeble, but I made it. “Well, then Vic, we’re just gonna’ have to pray our way through this thing. Don’t you think?”
“I’m not sure I know how to,” Vic answered quizzically.
“I don’t either, but we’re desperate, man; we’ve got to do something or we’re cooked.”
“You’re right, we really don’t have much to lose. I’ll pray for you and you’ll pray for me and we’ll see what happens.”
As roll call for the first day at the leadership school began to ring out through the barracks I looked straight at Vic and said, “Let’s do it!”

For the next eight weeks Vic and I were faithful to our agreement. Where one of us had a weakness, the other prayed and supported in practical ways. When one of us was discouraged the other prayed for strength. And so it went. For my part I wasn’t sure exactly who I was praying to, but it did seem to help. Vic and I seemed to get stronger as the days passed. Vic excelled in drill and leadership. My strength was in classroom activity and public speaking. There was never a time that either of us felt jealous of the other. In fact, we took great pride in supporting one another. What had started as a possible disaster was turning into a life-changing event.

The real epiphany in my life came when I was selected to as a finalist in a public speaking contest held by the school. Our subject was to be “the greatest leader who has ever lived.” When I first thought about it I thought of Hannibal, who I had considered to be a military genius in spite of his failures. I also gave thought to Alexander the Great, who had conquered the known world as a young man. But the more I thought about it I knew there had to be someone greater than these two men. I spoke to Vic about it and suggested, casually, that I consider Jesus as the greatest leader. “I don’t know anything about him, Vic, I mean not a thing,” I answered
Vic’s answer was right to the point. “Read the Bible. A lot of it is about him.”

Over the next week I read the New Testament gospels twice. I could hardly believe what I was reading. How could this one man, without an alternate plan, take a group of twelve men and change the world forever? How did he hold them together? How could he succeed without an army? The more I read the more fascinated I became. Hannibal and Alexander were great leaders, but as I read I saw that there was truly no one who had ever lived like Jesus.

Over that same period I called the chaplain several times. “Was Jesus really the Son of God like he claimed to be? I asked over and over. The answer was always the same – Yes!

When the competition came I spoke about Jesus as the greatest leader who had ever lived. I’ve spoken publicly many times since that day, but none have ever compared to that speech. I won the award!

I came during that week to see that it was true and that the Jesus of the gospels was the same Jesus who had been crucified in my young dreams and the same Jesus who had spoken to me in Vietnam. And he was the same Jesus who had prompted Vic and me to join in a compact of prayer for one another for those eight weeks. I came to a place where I knew he was who he said he was. I came to a place where I would be willing to not only live, but also to die for him. It was all very private, real, and intensely personal.

At the end of the eight week school Vic and I won every award that was given at the graduation banquet. There were six in all. The miracle we had needed had come!

Not long after I graduated from the leadership school I began attending a Lincoln Baptist Church in Columbus. I listened for a few weeks and one Sunday, to the surprise of the preacher I came forward to profess faith in Jesus. Most of my friends assumed it was a spur of the moment thing, that this response to the altar call was nothing more than an emotional experience. But I knew better. It was a moment that was twenty five years in the making. In fact, as I look back at it I realize that all those moments in my life that led to that day are really a part of that moment. There are people I know who point to a date and time for their salvation, and I guess they’re right. But there was more to it for me. The dreams of my youth were a part of it. My experience as a young man rejecting faith was part of it. My experiences in Vietnam were part of it. And my experiences at Lockbourne were part of it. In temporal terms it was a long moment. In the scope of eternity it was linked to the beginning of time and to a cross where the man who had revealed himself to me in my youth reconciled my life.

The final part, part five, will follow. In that piece I’ll try to make sense of how faith informs my life and, particularly I’ve embraced the compassionate conservatism that our president has also embraced.

Friday, November 11, 2005

The Crime Blotter

“Things start in Kansas that finish in history”
- William Allen White (As noted in the Emporia Gazette, November 10, 2005)

It’s Veteran’s Day. I’ve already put my flag out, said a prayer for American sons and daughters serving in far flung posts around the world.

Thanks to a September, 2003 congressional resolution, Emporia is now officially recognized as the founding city of Veterans Day. Here, in 1953, the commemoration, which began in 1919 as Armistice Day, the good people of Emporia re-named the day in honor of Emporia veterans who had, and were still, serving their country. In about an hour and a half the parade will begin, complete with grizzled old vets, young men and women on active duty, fire trucks, floats, midget cars, and so forth. At eleven there’ll be a memorial service down at Soden’s Grove. At noon the American Legion is having a ham and bean feed. It will all be capped off at 7:30 tonight with a veteran’s recognition and USO show over at Albert Taylor Hall.

It feels safe around here. There are a few dogs barking, I suspect at Maisey, our calico cat, who is making her morning rounds. Down the street from me, the flag is also flying at Terry Bassler’s place. He went to Iraq over a year ago, got wounded, came back home, and is in the process of rehabilitating a leg that got riddled with shrapnel. As I took the trash out a few minutes ago I said a little prayer for him.

About two three blocks south of Terry’s place, close to the corner of 6th and Merchant, are the offices of the Emporia Gazette, which was founded by William Allen White. Almost every day we here in town are reminded by the Gazette that Mr. White won the Pulitzer Prize in 1922 for an editorial titled “To An Anxious Friend,” a passionate defense of free speech. I think they do so to remind us that free speech, spearheaded by a free press, is the most important right we have. I’ve told them more than once that, regardless of my sense that the Gazette and its current staff are operating in the flimsy shadow of a tradition, I would be the first one down there with a blunderbuss if the storm troopers ever tried to stop the presses. It’s my duty, irrespective of my feelings. While it would be nice to have a free and responsible press here, I’ve learned over six years that I’m more than likely going to have to settle for half of what I’d like. Even knowing that, I see that freedom of the press is to be cherished and protected.

Earlier this week, Patrick Kelley’s editorial about Scruffy’s Law really put the burr under my saddle. The proposed law, which is named after a small dog who was tortured with acid by a couple of really nasty individuals here in Kansas some years ago, is aimed at protecting pets like Scruffy by criminalizing such reprehensible behavior. I’m all for it. But what really infuriated me were Mr. Kelley’s references to “biblical constructionists” in the piece. I read it a few times and saw that it was his way of linking religious folk, particularly conservatives, with the sick behavior of a few. I don’t know if I qualify under his definition of “biblical constructionist,” but I can say that I do try to construct my life according to the precepts contained in Holy Writ. I may not always hit the nail on the head, but I give it my best shot each and every day. As far as animals go, I’ve not thought about kicking a dog since my days as an atheist. Right now there are four cats roaming around our place, all of whom Nancy and I rescued from bad circumstances.

I objected to the inference and decided to respond. The text of the response follows:

It took me two or three readings to see that there was more than met the eye in Patrick Kelley’s November 7th editorial. By adding a touch of biblical constructionism, a pinch of animal torture, a cup or two of Dennis Rader, then stirring in a gratuitous helping of Jeffrey Dahmer he’s attempting to subtly promote the notion that biblical constructionists, who may not believe pets have souls, have unleashed the ghouls who have plied their grisly trade on helpless animals like Scruffy.

I’m sure he would deny the undercurrent of his little piece in the same way politicians use plausible deniability to hide their misdeeds.

There was really no need for him to include the clumsy reference to biblical constructionists, but he did it anyway. Perhaps he couldn’t help himself. Constructionists and fundamentalists seem to be the perpetual deer in his headlights, so he just put the pedal to the metal and tried to mow ‘em down. Having a daily platform at the Merchant Street gulag made it all too easy for him to succumb to the temptation, as a constructionist I know might put it, to strain out the gnats so that his readers could swallow the camels.

I’ll make a deal with you, Mr. Kelley. I’ll take up Scruffy’s cause with you if you also help try to stop the legally sanctioned skewering of innocent unborn children along with us biblical constructionists, who do believe that unborn children have souls.

Finally, I have a suggestion for the Walkers or whoever might be running the show down there. Put a muzzle on Mr. Kelley, take him to the doghouse, and close the door once he’s in.

Then, two days ago, the Gazette took on the look of a big city tabloid. The front page was covered with mug shots of twelve of “Lyon County’s Most Wanted.” Along with the mug shots there was a photo of five of Emporia’s finest who were in the process of hunting the bad guys down. I didn’t notice it at first, Nancy did. A young man we know from church was one of the twelve. I see him occasionally at our Wednesday night men’s meetings. Like a lot of young people these days he’s been on a rocky road. What had he done to make the list? He’d failed to make a one hundred and seventy five dollar payment of a fine, the penalty for an offense that took place close to three years ago. As soon as our church’s pastor found out about it he took the young man over to the sheriff’s office and had him pay the fine.

The guys in our group spent some time praying for the young man. He’s trying to turn his life around and needs all the support he can get.

That should have been it, but it wasn’t. Last night’s Gazette continued its tabloid ways. There on page one was the same mug shot of the young man that had been posted the night before. Gwendolyn Larson, playing Breathless Mahoney to Emporia’s Dick Tracys, added a colorful headline – “Tips Lead To Arrests.” I read, then re-read the headline. “I thought he turned himself in,” I said to Nancy. I called our pastor and found that he had indeed turned himself in, paid the fine, and that should have been it.

Monday’s burr became Thursday’s bramble bush. I was furious. The fury reached a crescendo when I opened to page four, the editorial page. There in the center, occupying prime space, was Lynn Bonney’s editorial “No Respect.” Ms. Bonney rambled for about a thousand words, lamenting the fact that journalists are not held in high esteem these days. She noted that a recent Harris poll put them at sixteen percent, “five notches above the cellar,” as she put it. She just couldn’t understand how something so egregious could happen. After all, she noted, “some of the best, brightest and most honorable people I’ve ever known are journalists.” She then went on to outline the long hours, the Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays worked without overtime pay.

I’m really not a heartless person, but I couldn’t find myself shedding tears over Lynn Bonney’s lot in life. In fact, her self-serving thousand words only added to the fury ignited by Patrick Kelley’s editorial, two days of tabloid, and Breathless Mahoney’s headline. Knowing that my response wouldn’t be printed on the Gazette’s pages, I fired off an e-mail to Ms. Bonney, Gwendolyn Larson, and copied Ashley White Walker, who along with her husband Christopher White Walker, editor and publisher, labors in the shadow of the Pulitzer Prize William Allen White won back in the nineteen twenties. That e-mail follows:

On tonight's editorial page there was a piece by Lynn
Bonney that I found interesting.

Quite striking to me, as it was to her, was the
ranking journalists came out with in a recent Harris
poll. At sixteen percent I suspect that even drug
dealers and used car salesmen, had they been included,
would have scored higher.

Ms. Bonney couldn't understand, given the fact that
journalists have to get up at 2 a.m., work Saturdays,
Sundays, holidays, without overtime pay, supplying
their own transportation, no Runzheimer.

I suppose I should be sympathetic to her plight. But
I'm not. I spent forty years in the workplace, eight
of them in the Air Force, serving tours of duty in fun
places like Vietnam, Newfoundland, Panama. I worked
many a twenty hour day over those years. I never got
a dime in overtime. I couldn't even afford a car.
Seventy eight bucks a month didn't go far, even back
then. When I got out of the Air Force I had to find
my way in the world. I went to college, then to grad
school. I worked 58 hours a week in a packaging plant
to supplement the GI bill I got in order to get
through school. I've spent years in world of
business, again with lots of twenty hour days, days on
the road, many of them thousands of miles away from

I also know a lot of people here in Emporia who work
long hours, without overtime, with very few perks.
Our pastor, for example, was at it late into the night
yesterday, going with a young man to turn himself in
to answer a bench warrant. The Gazette’s “Most
Wanted” piece did the trick. Congratulations! He
turned himself in (according to Gwendolyn Larson
he was arrested). We’ll see how things move from this
point on. I do know that he’ll give it
everything he has to do what is right and I know that
Pastor Mike and others who know him will work and
pray with him to that end.

I realize that stories about folks trying to redeem
their lives don't sell much copy, and that headlines
like “Tips Lead to Arrests” also sell more than “Young Man Trying To
Redeem His Life Turns Himself In.” I suppose it's the nature of the

Retirees didn't make it into the poll. Nonetheless, I
occasionally get hate mail and phone calls from folks
telling me I'm picking on Pat Kelley. Just a while
ago someone called and said some of the same things
Ms. Bonney said in her editorial. “Stop pickin’ on
Pat,” she said. But that's alright, I can take it. I suspect Pat
Kelley gets his share of hate mail and phone calls

Journalism is, as Ms. Bonney said, hard work and the
ratings are low.

I took a few journalism courses in
college, read about Lincoln Steffens and really
admired the man. I read “Shame of the Cities” and
felt it was a real public service. Few like him will
ever pass this way again. I only wish the Gazette
would do as well. There's a meat packing plant down
the road I suspect could use some attention, and I
suspect, like Hearst, that a good reporter could find
more than a little bit of graft down at city hall if
he or she dug a bit. There are slum lords taking
advantage of the poor and minorites a few blocks from
the Gazette offices. And, the
editorial page could more closely reflect the values
of the folks who live here instead of almost
invariably running counter to them. But I neither own
nor operate the presses down on Merchant Street, so
all I can do is try to act as a counterweight. That,
I can assure you, has very few of the rewards
mentioned in her piece.

Yes, Ms. Bonney, journalism and copy editing are
difficult. So's retirement. So's pastoring. So's
driving a truck or cuttin' cows down on Highway 50.
Perhaps a bit more understanding of what happens
beyond the newsroom or in the lives of folks around
here would go a long way toward improving those poll

The Veterans Day parade will be starting in about an hour. It’s in keeping with an important tradition, commemorating service to one’s country and lives lost in that service. A block away from the parade route, at the Gazette offices, Patrick Kelley, Gwendolyn Larson, Lynn Bonney, and the rest of the staff will enjoying the fruit of the service and sacrifice America’s sons and daughters have made over the centuries since we declared our independence and “conceived a new nation.” Those who served and died at Antietam, Belleau Wood, Tarawa, Pork Chop Hill, Khe Sanh, and Fallujah gave it their all. They got it all right! They served and died for, among other things, freedom of speech and freedom of the press. Down at the Gazette they’re clinging to an old Pulitzer Prize, waving it in our faces like a red flag before a bull. They exercise freely what others served and died to give them. But, unlike the veterans Emporia will be honoring today, they have it only half right. Freedom comes with the burden of responsibility. They haven’t learned that lesson yet.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Conversion, Part Three

As with the previous post, this one will make much more sense if you read part one (if you haven’t read it already) and part two.

After the accident near Corner Brook I decided to maintain a low profile. My worldview and my ego were battered and needed a rest. I did maintain my love of the stout, though, and it was that love that was to really get me in trouble.

Alcohol can do amazing things. It can lower inhibitions. It can turn a normal human body into a poor imitation of a flopping fish. And it can cause a normally sensible person to let down their guard.

That was my problem. About a month or so after the accident I struck up a friendship with a guy from my unit who I’ll just refer to by his first name, Steve. Steve had been assigned to Ernest Harmon about a year after me, which meant that he was going to be there, I assumed, a year after I was gone. I met him at the airman’s club one night and we struck up a conversation over a couple of beers. One thing led to another over the next couple of weeks until Steve decided to “open up.” It was on one of our almost nightly tours of duty at the airman’s club he confided in me that he wanted to get his wife up to Newfoundland but didn’t have enough money for a down payment on a trailer house he had looked at and decided would be good for him and his wife. I didn’t pay much attention at first, but after three or four drinks I let my guard down. “How much money do you need? I asked. He looked pleadingly as he answered, “About two thousand.”
“That’s some serious money and I don’t have that kind of cash. Have you tried to get a loan?”
He slumped down in his chair. “Yeah, I tried, but they told me I would need a co-signer.”
“Well,” I slurred, “Why dontcha’ just go get one. It couldn’t be that hard.”
Steve grinned back. “How about you? You’d do that for a friend, wouldn’t you?”
“I can’t man.”
“Come on, man, you know I’m good for it. I’d never leave you high and dry.”
“I really can’t.”
“Please, Phil, please. I’m really desperate to see the old woman.”

If I’d been sober that night my life would have been so different. But I wasn’t. I foolishly agreed to co-sign a loan and a couple of weeks later Steve had the cash he needed.

After he got the cash Steve seemed to be less of a friend than he had before. He didn’t come by the airman’s club and any time I saw him while we were on duty he found a way to avoid me. I did corner him once and asked if his wife had gotten to Newfoundland. “Oh yeah," he assured me. “Things couldn’t be better.”

Something didn’t seem right. Have you ever had that internal railroad crossing go off inside you?” That’s what was happening to me. Any time I’d get around Steve after co-signing the loan that signal would go off. “Ding ding ding ding ding ding ding. Train coming. Don’t cross the tracks.”

I found out shortly after these brief encounters that I was in the middle of the tracks and a train was bearing down on me.

I got to my duty station one night and went to look for Steve to let him know I had some misgivings about having co-signed the loan. When I couldn’t find him I checked with one of the duty section’s NCOs. Where’s Steve?” I asked
“He got an emergency reassignment stateside.”
“You can’t be serious. What about his wife?”
“He ain’t married.”
“Yeah he is. He got me to co-sign a loan so that he could get her up here.”
“Well, if you ain’t the stupidest airman at Ernest Harmon. You’ve been conned.”
“I’m tellin’ you sarge, he’s married. He got the money to get her up here.”
“If you really believe that you’re even stupider than the stupidest airman at Ernest Harmon.”

It wasn’t long till the train hit me broadside. I got a letter, then a call from the finance company. They wanted their money. I told them to get it from Steve, but they told me that they were going to get it from me. I pleaded poverty. “I don’t have two thousand dollars.” That didn’t work either. The relationship with the finance company spiraled downward. They decided the loan was in default and they wanted all their money, immediately. Worse yet, they threatened to get the Air Force involved if I didn’t pay in full.

Now two thousand dollars may not seem like much these days, but back in 1964 it was a lot. I didn’t have the money. My mother didn’t have the money. No one I knew had the money. In desperation I checked my options within the military. There was one. I had to re-enlist, which I hadn’t planned on doing. But I was so desperate that I was willing to do anything. I signed over another four years of my life and got the two thousand dollars I needed.

Toward the end of my eighteen month tour someone showed me a picture he had found in a magazine of a Montagnard tribesman. It looked to me like the pictures I had seen in geography classes when I was in school or like something out of National Geographic. “Where’s this guy live?” I asked out of curiosity.
“You mean Indo-China?”
“No, Vietnam.”
“We’ve got advisors over there, don’t we.”
“More than advisors. They’re lookin’ for volunteers.”

I didn’t know then what possessed me to do it, but as soon as I was finished with that conversation I went over to the orderly room and volunteered to go to Vietnam. Within a week I had shipping orders to report to the 1964th Communications Squadron at Tan son Nhut AFB, Vietnam.

A couple of months later found me on a Continental Airlines flight from Travis AFB to Saigon. I’ll never forget our approach into the airport. The flight crew played the 1944 tune “I’ll Be Seeing You”, then wished us well. As I looked out the window I thought it was ironic that someone like me would be serenaded with words like:

I'll be seeing you in all the old familiar places
That this heart of mine embraces all day through
In that small café, the park across the way
The children's carousel, the chestnut trees, the wishing well
I'll be seeing you in every lovely summer's day
In everything that's light and gay
I'll always think of you that way
I'll find you in the mornin' sunAnd when the night is new
I'll be looking at the moon
But I'll be seeing you

I had few familiar places, it seemed, to go back home to. There was very little that my heart embraced. No chestnut trees. No wishing wells. All that fueled me was anger and alienation.

My first on-ground recollection at Tan son Nhut was the smell. There was something ominous that just hung in the air. It reminded me of the odor of embalming fluid that lingers in the air of funeral homes.

My tour wasn’t especially dangerous, compared to what the Marines and Army were going through. About two or three times a month there would be a brief mortar attack. They’d usually last about thirty minutes or so and every thing would get back to normal.

It didn’t take me long to settle in. There was an on base beer hall adjacent to my barracks and I spent most of my off duty time there. Once I found it my life consisted of work, rotten chow, and about four hours a day of drinking.

Some of the other troops picked up on my surly attitude and tried to befriend me. The especially vulnerable of them, the Christians I met, got it full bore. They would usually start with the obligatory, “How you doin?”
“Alright, I guess, but I’d really prefer it if you’d leave me alone.”
“Why. I’m just askin’ because I care.”
“People should care about each other. I mean, God cares.”
“Let’s not go there, alright.”
“What’s wrong with you, guy, don’t you believe in God?”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Trust me, it’s true.”
“I don’t understand. I mean, look at all the beauty in this world. Where do you think it came from?”
“About the same place as all these mangled bodies we see every day.”
“I don’t understand how you can’t believe in God.”
“Well I don’t understand how you can, so we’re even. Now leave me alone.”

The conversations with Christians would almost all end that way. There was one exception, Paul Vartenisian. Paul was an NCO assigned to my duty section. He took an interest in me about six months into my tour. He seemed like a nice man to me and it seemed he really cared about me. The casual friendship went well until he came by the barracks one day. The conversation started innocently enough, then it got religious. “Phil,” he said. You’ve got to know God loves you. You really do.”
“Come on Sarge. Leave me alone.”
“He cares, Phil. He cares.”
“You’ve got to know He loves you. He died on the cross for you.”
Those words – “died on the cross” – hit home, although I wouldn’t admit it. They brought me back to my childhood and the man who was being crucified on the fence outside my apartment window. “Just leave me alone. I want nothing to do with this.”
“I can’t, Phil, I can’t. Your life is worth everything to Him.”
“Get the hell outta’ here and leave me alone.”
Fred turned to go. “I’ll go, Phil, but I won’t leave you alone. I’ll be praying for you.”
“You just go right ahead for all the good it’ll do.” I said. “Your prayers mean nothing to me.”

In the six months or so I’d been in Vietnam I’d gotten used to sleeping with helicopters constantly flying over our barracks or the sound of bombs exploding in the distance. But, after the conversation with Sergeant Vartenisian things changed. I began to toss and turn throughout the night, replaying the conversation with him over and over in my head. It really bothered me but I couldn’t make sense of it. I would lay awake at night and wonder, “What are you so worried about. He isn’t praying to anyone or anything. Just go to sleep.” But, I couldn’t. The next time I saw Fred I took him aside and told him that while I respected his rank, I would kill him if he didn’t stop what he was doing. He never flinched. “Don’t you understand, Phil, God is trying to talk to you.” He said no more.

A week after that conversation I was assigned to take care of burning our section’s classified trash. It was very unpleasant duty. I took the five or six bags we had, grabbed an M-16, and went out to the incinerator, which was about a couple of hundred feet from our building. It was a very private spot on the top of a hill covered with tropical growth. I unlocked the gate, went in, and started to work. A couple of minutes into my ordeal I heard something rustling down the hill from me. I picked up the weapon and looked into the trees. Near the bottom of the hill I saw what appeared to be an old man. He was squatting down, defecating. “Something” seemed to possess me. A thought struck me. “Why don’t you shoot him? He’s just an old man. His life is probably miserable anyway. You’ll just be putting him out of his misery. Go ahead man. Do it!”
I raised the weapon and aimed down the hill. I was about ready to squeeze on the trigger when I heard these words, “The quality of mercy is not strained, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven.” I stopped and wiped my face, which by now was sweating profusely. I raised the weapon again. And once more I heard the words, “The quality of mercy is not strained, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven.” I knew the second time I heard them where they came from. These words that pleaded with me to stay my hand came from William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. They were Portia’s words to Shylock, pleading against exacting a pound of flesh, pleading for mercy:

“The quality of mercy is not strain'd,It droppeth as the gentle rain from heavenUpon the place beneath: it is twice blest;It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomesThe throned monarch better than his crown;His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,The attribute to awe and majesty,Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;But mercy is above this sceptred sway;It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,It is an attribute to God himself;And earthly power doth then show likest God'sWhen mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,Though justice be thy plea, consider this,That, in the course of justice, none of usShould see salvation: we do pray for mercy;And that same prayer doth teach us all to renderThe deeds of mercy.”

I dropped the weapon and fell on my face, sobbing. “I don’t even know if You’re real”, I cried. “But if you are please show me. Please, please, show me.”

I look back at that day now in wonder. There was nothing else in my frame of reference that would have prevented me from killing that old Vietnamese man that day than the words I heard. I was soon to learn that they did not come by chance, but that they had been spoken to me by the man in my dreams who was being crucified on the fence outside my window years before.

That incident, which could have been a tragedy, became the starting place in a journey of reconciliation I had walked away from in my youth.

There were trials to come before the reconciliation would be complete. I’ll cover that in part four, tomorrow.