Thursday, December 29, 2011


It’s 4:00 A.M., December 22nd. My post-Christmas reflections have begun early this year.
The Christmas season holds a special place in my heart. It’s the time of the year when my long journey from atheism to Christianity began.  The 1965 Christmas I experienced was anything but traditional. There were no snow covered Thomas Kinkade cottages dotting the landscape. I was in Vietnam, having been assigned as a cryptographer matrixed to 7th Air Force.
It wasn’t a particularly dangerous assignment, as wars go. I did my job and dodged the occasional mortar rounds or 122 millimeter rockets the V.C. lobbed our way. Most of the men I knew were “believers.” I practiced my atheism vigorously. I would occasionally debate them. They usually asked me how I couldn’t believe in the face of the world’s natural beauty – “The blue sky, the fluffy clouds, and the obvious design of it all.” I would ask two questions in response. “Haven’t you noticed all these mangled babies and stinking corpses around here?” “How could you possibly believe in God in the face of that?” That was as far as the debates ever went.
My duty station wasn’t far from the base mortuary. I had to pass it every time I went to work. When I first arrived in Vietnam it wasn’t particularly busy, but after I’d been there a few months it was bristling with activity every time I passed by. As I did, I was filled with a mix of emotions – anger, curiosity, revulsion.
I wasn’t involved directly in the killing and dying. I should have been content with that. But, I began to feel that if everyone else was killing people, why shouldn’t I. After all, Dostoevsky had said “If there is no God, everything is permitted.”
One of the occasional duties I had was incinerating classified trash. It was on one of those trips to the incinerator that I put Dostoevsky to the test. I walked from the duty section, bags of classified trash and an M-16 in tow. I got to the burn area, locked the gate, and proceeded to burn the trash. As soon as I did I noticed something in a clearing about fifty or sixty yards from me. It was an old Vietnamese man relieving himself. He looked world-worn. I began to make assumptions for him. “Life really isn’t worth living.” “Living is too difficult.” “I wish someone would end this misery for me.” I picked up the M16. I disengaged the safety and took aim. My heart was racing. Then, before I could squeeze the trigger I heard a voice. “The quality of mercy is not strained, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven.” I stopped and tried to re-compose myself and heard the words again. “The quality of mercy is not strained.” They were Portia’s beautiful words to Shylock from Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice.” I re-engaged the safety, dropped the weapon and began to sob uncontrollably.
In the days after I wondered whether the words I heard were the product of my imagination or if they came from somewhere or someone else. And, why those words? Was someone trying to tell me that there was truly a cosmic moral compass that must guide our actions? Was someone trying to tell me that he, or she, cared about that old man….and me?
I wrestled with those thoughts for months. My internal world was shaken to its core. I’d spent years building what I thought were walls of safety around myself. Now, slowly but surely, grace was breaking them down.
In due time I surrendered to the grace; I converted to Christianity. That was nearly 50 years ago. The experiences of those days shaped who I am today. Nothing can take that from me.
When Nancy got home from Tonganoxie last night we spent the evening talking about the current Christmas season. We came to the conclusion that, somehow, in the tangle of our culture, modern Christianity has lost its way. We spend an inordinate amount of our time trying to compel modern culture to bend to our wishes and wind up in the end being bent into the shape of the culture around us. We fight about nativity scenes or whether it should be the Christmas program or the seasonal celebration. We jockey for political control, mistakenly believing that if we control policy we can change the human heart.
As I think about it I find myself preferring the Christmastime of Vietnam to what I see today. The war that raged within me then is over. There’s no more need for fighting meaningless battles. Grace has won. As Shakespeare so ably said, “But mercy is above this sceptered sway. It is enthroned in the hearts of kings. It is an attribute to God himself.”

Thursday, December 15, 2011


The day didn’t start with a sense of foreboding, but it got that way in a hurry. I’ve never ventured out on Black Friday, but I decided, against the prompting of my inner voice, to get out and about to see what all the fuss was about. I was holding my own, wandering aimlessly from store to store at the Legends Shopping Center. Then I made my big mistake. I walked into the Gap. The place was mobbed with young people. They appeared to be competing furiously for marked-down jeans and hoodies. It was serious business. I tried to stay out of the line of fire, but the crowd was just too much. As I stood, dazed and confused, in the aisle near the sweaters, I heard a young, gruff voice directly behind me. “Get out of the way, you old buzzard.” My first reaction was to pretend I wasn’t the roadblock. But, I knew better. The bald spot on the back of my head was a dead giveaway. I thought about protesting, but decided the best course of action was to comply with the young man’s request. I stepped aside. Discretion, they say, is the better part of valor.
The rest of the day was uneventful.  I shared a quiet dinner with Nancy and Corina at the Al Dente CafĂ© and quiet conversation at our River Market loft. I went to bed about ten, with my ego a bit bloodied, but still somewhat intact. Then, at about 2:00 A.M., I felt a wrenching pain in the middle of my chest. I got up and wobbled my way to the bathroom. I looked in the mirror and felt a sense of panic grip me. Three years earlier I’d gone through double bypass surgery. I wondered to myself whether or not this was going to be the big one.
We got to the emergency room at K.U. Med Center at about 2:15. It didn’t take long at all to get me wired up to EKG’s, IV’s, and other monitoring devices. Nurses swirled around me, pumping me full of Nitro-glycerin, and aspirin. By the third tablet of nitro the pain was dissipating. I started to feel a bit giddy. I told one of the nurses if they didn’t stop poking me I was going to sneeze and blow the place up. Then the doctors started marching in, like Laurel and Hardy’s wooden soldiers. There was Doctor Singh, from India. He was followed by a young doctor who appeared to be six or seven years younger than Doogie Howser.

By 3:00 A.M. the medical staff decided to admit me for further tests. I didn’t like the idea, but knew that settling in to the routine was the best course of action.

I was taken to my room by a man named Chris. I found out that he had retired from the fire department and that he’d lost his wife a few years back. He said he still felt occasional pangs of loneliness when he thought about her. Serving others in his current capacity seemed to rub healing salve into those wounds.

Not long after I got to my room the day shift nurse introduced herself. Her name was Nina. She had an interesting accent. I asked where she was from. “Togo,” she responded proudly. She was followed by another woman whose accent was slightly different than Nina’s. “Where are you from?” I asked her as she read my vital signs. “Ethiopia,” she responded gently.
“What’s your name?”
“It’s Jerusalem.”
“That’s a beautiful name. Have you ever been there?”
She smiled. “I’ve never been, but I am going to the New Jerusalem someday.”
I smiled back. “Me too. I’m sure I’ll see you there.”

In the two days that followed I felt increasingly comforted. Everyone was so kind and so professional, from the doctors to the nurses to the technicians to the housekeeping and dietary staff. When all the tests were done I was told that my heart was fine and that the episode may have been esophageal reflux.

I’m back home in Emporia and I feel good, better than an old buzzard like me should. I feel frisky enough that I’m tempted to back to the Legends and find that young guy to let him know that a year from now his gut will be so big he won’t be able to wear that sweater he coveted.

But why bother? I came home with something far more important. My prognosis for this life and the next is really good. My faith and experience tell me this is so. I feel a renewed sense of connection to the long ago events that took place in a stable. It’s a great gift to have, particularly at this special time of the year.

Thursday, December 01, 2011


I walked downtown on Veteran’s Day to watch the annual parade. As I did I gave fleeting thought to a personal anniversary. Fifty years earlier I had enlisted in the Air Force.  Four years later I was on a Continental Airlines 707 making its approach into Saigon. One of the enduring memories of that day was listening to Bing Crosby on the P.A. system – “I'll be seeing you in all the old familiar places that this heart of mine embraces.” I thought of home and family. I reminisced about playing stickball on Chatham Street. I thought about why I’d volunteered to go to Vietnam. About the only reason that came to mind was curiosity. I’d seen a photograph of a Montagnard tribesman several months earlier and thought it would be interesting to meet one of them.   I knew next to nothing about geopolitics or the Domino Theory. Actually, things back home seemed quite safe and secure. Massachusetts wasn’t at war with New York, unless you count the Red Sox versus the Yankees. And, if that were true it seemed to me a very sane way to conduct a war. Two teams, representing their communities. Fans by the thousands paying to see the war unfold. A scoreboard. A final score. A winner, a loser, and bragging rights to be claimed. There would be very few injuries other than the occasional sprained ankle or torn ACL. There would be no body counts.

By the time I got to Fourth and Commercial, the parade was starting, with the color guard leading the way. As it has been since I’ve lived here it appeared to be the same five men as always marching five abreast. I’ve never met them, but I feel I know them. They were a year older and it showed. The limps were a bit more pronounced than they were last year. The spit and polish of short order drill seemed a distant memory. Their eyes revealed a mixture of the pain of sacrifice and loss along with the pride of having served and done their duty. Their faces were a bit more wrinkled and worn. They’re proud men and Emporia is proud to honor them every year.

That would have been enough for me. The marching bands, the cub scouts, boy scouts, girl scouts, the civic organizations, the motorcycles were fine. But for the life of me I don’t understand why politicians had to get into the middle of the festivities and muck things up. Can’t they just leave us alone to honor those who served? Can’t they just stand on the sidewalks with the rest of us and wave the flag? I’m thinking it might just be time for a city ordinance proclaiming all Veterans’ Day festivities to be pander free zones. If it were up to me I’d make it unlawful for politicians to sit in the back seat of cars and wave to the crowds on Veterans’ Day. I’d make it illegal for them to speechify. The service and sacrifice of our veterans speaks far more eloquently than the often empty words of politicians.  The penalty for breaking the law would be a six month replacement tour of duty in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Congo, or wherever else our troops will be sent next. The law-breaking politicians would go. Worthy veterans would get to come home for some much needed rest and recuperation.

If there are any politicians reading this essay they’re probably thinking to themselves “Do you really expect me to give up an opportunity to politick or make a speech?”
Here’s what I expect, and I don’t think alone in my thinking. Go back to Washington or Topeka and start shouting from the housetops, “We can no longer allow a system where our men and women serve tour after tour after endless tour in harm’s way.” How can you possibly think that such is system is fair or just? The only answer I can come up with is that you’re totally detached from reality. The numbers bear me out. Only about 20% of our current legislators have ever served in the military. Less than 6% of those in the executive branch have ever served. It’s no wonder we get the endless deployments.

I capped the day off at the U.S.O. concert. I was especially moved by the boy scouts and girl scouts. My eyes were drawn to a young scout who was fidgeting a bit. I saw that he really wanted to get his three finger salute right. There was no doubt that he had the makings of a good soldier.  In my mind’s eye I flashed into the future, wondering how many deployments this kid might have to someday endure. A lot, I’m afraid, unless our politicians leave the parades and decide to really fix the problem.