Thursday, April 30, 2009

April 30, 1975

Or as the military formatted it, 30 April 1975.

I fell to my knees and screamed at the little black-and-white TV in our house in Fremont, Nebraska. That last TV news pictures were coming out of South Vietnam as the capital, Saigon, finally fell to the advancing forces of Ho Chi Minh. Huey's were plucking people from the rooftop of the U.S. embassy. Many, piloted by high level officers of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), flew family members to safety by landing on the decks of aircraft carriers of the U.S. Navy. These ARVN officers would be shot quickly if they didn't flee. With no room aboard ship for more helicopters enroute, most of these perfectly good, low-hours rotorcraft built in Ft. Worth, Texas were rolled off into the South China sea.

But back at the embassy, things were more dire. People were kicked off the stairs attempting to reach the hovering freedom birds. Some hung onto the landing skids as the craft lifted off, only to fall to their deaths. Others attempted to climb the walls of the embassy, to break down the gates, to haul in family members still stuck outside. Some mutiliated themselves badly trying to cross the razor wire atop the walls. It was dog eat dog. It had all come down to this.

I screamed at the TV, "For this? My generation just went through all of that--for this?" The "that" was the 16 years leading up to 4/30/75. Over 57,000 Americans were already dead, and the toll of war dead would soon climb to over 58K. Among returning vets, the divorce rate would rocket to over 90%. Many had lost limbs, multiple limbs. There would be alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence, homelessness. And more.

Suicide. Three times as many vets would die by their own hands as died on the battlefields or in hospitals. They would simply choose to bear the pain no more.

It was a far cry from the vaunted fight for freedom, the "if we don't stop them over there, they'll be on the beaches of California before we know it." The Domino Theory it was called. No question that if stacked right, falling dominoes will knock others down. But who the hell ever established beyond a reasonable doubt that if the corrupt and segregated government of South Vietnam fell it would cause the USA to go commie within in a year? Silence. And that's the only answer there can ever be to that question of an analogy that does not hold. Note to country: ask much better questions next time.

The opposite was closer to the truth, however. Attempting to keep the government of South Vietnam in business came closer to toppling our system than its fall ever dreamed of. It cost us dearly. It cost us badly. And the dollars that it cost us are only the pocket change of what it really cost us.

A month and a day ago my great uncle Narvin O. Wittman died. He retired from the Navy as an Admiral, but not before serving in a capacity that supported the maintenance of all the U.S. Navy aircraft in the Pacific Fleet--including the one a young Lt. John McCain ejected from over North Vietnam. Narvin, Sr.'s son Narvin Jr. died as a U.S. Marine in Vietnam in August 1967. And my friend Wes gave his life on April 5, 1968 attempting to save a wounded, perhaps already dead medic he did not know. Wes' death dealt a severe blow to his large family in Nebraska. His mother died in her early sixties. Primarily of a broken heart.

These are only two families out of hundreds of thousands or millions. And there were the deaths of Asians, perhaps as many as 1.5 million. How did they feel on 30 April 1975? Can we ever know their grief and anguish?

For this? We just went through all of that--for this?

Someday U.S. troops will leave Iraq. They will. What happens then is uncertain. About the only thing we can be sure of is that it won't be what we were told several years ago was the aim and the lofty goal requiring the shedding of American blood and treasure. The sectarian and ethnic rifts in the society are centuries, sometimes millennia, old. Experts tell us they are certain to erupt. There are the old sectarian and tribal scores from the Saddam days and before. And there are plenty of new ones from the current Al Maliki days. A recent audit by the U.S. Army finds Iraq very poorly prepared for maintaining, supplying and repairing its military and their equipment once we leave. Baghdad is a segregated, "ethnically cleansed" city living behind 30 miles of blast walls--the squalid version of the vaunted "gated community". Other military and political experts say a civil war there is likely, nearly inevitable. Not hard to imagine.

Pent-up demand, it would be termed, to use market vocabulary. We'll see. I hope not.

One day the reckoning will come. Americans will once again get to say, "We just went through all of that--for this?" Some of us will. Far too many Americans have absolutely no ownership of this war and the way it was waged. That's true on both the left and right sides of our political polarity once known as a spectrum.

I hope with all my heart I am wrong and that things in Iraq turn out and remain much better than the best dreams. But we had also better be prepared for them to be considerably less than we wanted, were promised or had envisioned.

God help the families, and especially the parents, spouses and children of all who have bled on our behalf--not only the red kind but also the invisible kind of the spirit and the heart and the soul.

One thing is for sure. You and your descendants for generations untold will live with the fiscal damage done to our country by what I will go to my grave believing was a reckless, foolish misadventure that did not have to be. There were other ways to respond to 9/11 besides the mythical cut-and-run scenario that we were derisively told so often was the only alterantive to what we were doing. We haven't really had that conversation, have we? Not as a nation and not as Christians. When we really needed it, just as during the war in Vietnam, the church was by and large silent. DOA. Or worse yet, an enabler. A justifier. That's worth a ponder or two as well.

Prove me wrong. Please do so and soon, and I will be only too happy to admit it.

Pray for peace and for all those who know none today: 4/30/09,

Pastor Roger

Saturday, April 25, 2009


Happy Saturday!

Default. Say the word a few times and take stock of your feelings and reactions. Dread? Disdain? Fear? Whatever...?

People have defaulted on home mortgage loan payments. When that happens, they are foreclosed by their lenders. They become homeless, and they have a seriously ruined credit history. Ouch! One understanding of default.

Then there was the term "credit default swaps" that became an infamous household word over the past year. The very sound of it should conjure up something shady, something stupid, something deceptive. Something that should be illegal. Right on! Except that these house-of-cards "financial instruments" or "derivatives" seemed like the geese that couldn't stop laying golden eggs. Until they did. So long as them eggs were a-rollin', we couldn't be bothered to question how long things might last, what might happen when the bubble burst. No, our 401K's and IRA's were growing nicely and we (some of us anyway) could spend and plan like we were rich and getting ever richer. We liked that. We didn't want to hear from default.

Default. It's also on your computer with your word processing page setup options. Default is what the settings go to if you don't choose to alter them. It's the position we fall back on when we don't have another. Sort of like blackberry vines, dandelions and moss here in Portland. It's what your yard will turn into unless you work very hard to change it--every flippin' day!

Hard for us to imagine the worldview of the people in Jesus' time. We assume they were all heathen agnostics. But there probably were no such things. After all, when so many things happened around you that you had absolutely no explanation for, everything from toothaches to flu and diarrhea to lightning, thunder, earthquakes and floods, you were pretty sure that you weren't in control and something, somebody, much more powerful was. Everybody had gods, and God. Whole bunches. Greece was not short on temples. Neither was Rome.

Our default position is that everyone was hopeless, resigned to going to hell when they died or when the "end of the world" scenarios of Revelation played out--never mind the fact that John's Apocalypse hadn't been written yet, wasn't quoted by Jesus, and probably isn't about the end of the world but about an incredible restoration effort. No, there were no science fiction books or "Left Behind" Christian fiction bestsellers. There weren't even any Christians.

So everybody was obviously going to hell, right? Seems the Almighty God, Creator of the Universe was absolutely stumped. Had created laws that people violated (they sinned!) and He would just have to burn 'em all up for it. Didn't exactly like the plan but had spent at least 4K years completely stymied and stumped by the corner He'd painted himself into.

Until one day, "Eureka!" He stumbled on this never-before-envisioned plan. He'd have his Son executed by the Romans, and pile everyone's sins on him. Now God could at last forgive those scumbag sinners and save a few of 'em. Of course, for those who had already died or never heard about the plan it was too late. They were already burnin', and God couldn't change His mind about 'em or then He'd be inconsistent and therefore no longer God. And then...

Is this your default position? Then what about David's forgiveness from God? After adultery, murder, official lies and denials, and a huge a coverup. Or did God just make exceptions for a few special dudes who happened to be in the lineage? Is that your default position? It seems to be the default position of 99% of the Christian sermons I've heard over my lifetime.

What do you think the burnin' question of the day for people in Jesus' time really was? What do you think their default position was? Consider it, at last leaving your own prejudices and assumptions out of the picture.

I'd like to know...


Pastor Roger

Monday, April 13, 2009

The Giving Fire

He is risen! Risen indeed.

Last night at Operation Nightwatch worship we did the usual. Prayer, praise, the Word, the body and blood of Christ. And the offering. Ways to give back to God and to each other.

Three weeks ago we had our biggest offering ever--by far. But that included a $100 check from our tax accountant and a $100 bill from one of our volunteers. Last night there were none of those outside contributions. It all came from the worshipers themselves: a pair of twenties. And more pennies than I've ever seen.

If you have seven cents in your pocket, seven cents to your name, and you put it all in the offering basket, how much of a tithe is that? To call it a tithe would be an insult of the first order. It's giving everything one has, trusting entirely of God's providence and the ability of God to penetrate other human hearts.

That happened last night. It happened because it was Easter. People wanted to give and they had a chance. It taught me yet another new truth. We accept it as true that it is more blessed to give than to receive.

But there is something even more blessed: making a way for someone else to give.

To those givers, I dedicate this poem from 1986:

The Giving Fire

Sometimes locked within us
hidden from our vision
we are our best kept secret.
Dream afraid to be, the Spirit we fail to see
lie hidden in the puzzle that we are.

It is good that we are not alone once we begin
Once we dare to see ourselves just as we are
Afraid and needing reassurance,
guidance through the world of learning and uncertainty.

And it is good that we are alone when we begin to listen
to hear the voice inside us
tell us who we are.
As we accept, begin to love, what God and we have made.

Alone. And not alone,
How blest we are to know the human touch
The giving fire
And the breath of God in us
And in each other.

Easter blessings!

Pastor Roger

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Holy Land

Good Tuesday to ya!
Holy Week. That week when we span the Passover to the empty tomb.
Holy Land. Those words, I'm certain, are indelibly linked to Palestine and modern day Israel. The West Bank and parts of Jordan may slip into the definition just as the door of our minds slams shut. That's the "Holy Land", right?
Not for everyone. And by that I don't mean Saudi Arabia and the city of Mecca as the alternative. Know when that building above was built and what its name is?
For me, for us--Jean and me--the Holy Land has always been what is now the modern Republic of Turkey. Turkey is the land of Apostle Paul's birth. His hometown is still there and known by the same name, Tarsus, to this day. It's the land of Ephesus. The land of Nicaea and the councils that gave us a Christian creed by that name. It's the land of over half the place names in the New Testament from Acts of the Apostles to the end of the canon.

And this week our President has been there mending fences and visiting places where Jean and I walked.

Face it. After the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in AD 70 and the substantial demise of Christ followers among people of Jewish ancestry there, the church and the faith you know today came to you through the Gentile world known as Asia Minor: Turkey, the Holy Land of faith for me. How much of this Holy Land do we really know?

Pastor Roger

Sunday, April 5, 2009


A Holy Week to all!

It was a case of God's impeccable timing. It was kairos timing. That's not the chonological time kept by a calendar or wristwatch. Instead, it's the appropriate, full, correct and pregnant timing of an occurrence.

Several weeks ago I used Michelangelo's extraordinary sculpture, The Pieta, on the Operation Nightwatch bulletin cover. As we drew closer to Holy Week I'd wanted Micelangelo's 500 year-old work to introduce the more recent work of Santa Fe, NM sculptor Glenna Goodacre. Goodacre's bronze sculpture of the three women and the wounded, dying man is the Women Veterans of Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC. She was clearly inpsired by the Italian master.

How could I know that my friend Jack would die on the day I would use a photograph of Goodacre's sculpture on the bulletin?

And two weeks ago I decided to have a special healing prayer time at worship tonight. How could I have known that "B" would come in needing prayer for a brand new diagnosis of cancer? Or that "O" would come in with the hope and scary process of getting into rehab and getting clean?

If ever there were a time for healing prayer...

When isn't there?

Must have been God's kairos time, God's right time.



Saturday, April 4, 2009

4 Decades, 1 Year

Good Sunday, PDX!

Fifth of April. Fifth of April, two thousand nine.

Once it was 5 April 1968. That would have been my mother's 61st birthday, and she was still very much an active farm wife then. My Dad was only 58 then. I was 21 then. I am 62 now.
That was the day my classmate and friend, Wes Sperling, gave his life in Vietnam on a hilltop of canopied forest known as "Mile High". Wes was 21 then also. He never got any older. He never will.
Wes was serving his last couple of weeks with Echo Company. It was not his regular unit. He'd been with Alpha Company for about 11 months and had survived them all, the Tet Offensive included.
Going under 30 days made him "short". As in "short in the war". He'd been sent back to safe duty in the rear but couldn't stand, after 11 months in combat, being ragged on for haircuts, shoeshines, and rear guard military bearing. I don't know if he asked to be reassigned to combat duty to avoid an Article 15 (disciplinary action determined by commanding officer as punishment for some infraction) or whether being sent back to combat was his Article 15.

At any rate, there he was. Echo Company and Alpha Company were both in the area. The NVA engaged them. James A. Pemberton, an Echo medic, went down, mortally wounded by enemy fire. Wes went to get him, a man he likely did not know. Wes went down, too. He never got up. The NVA advanced, the Americans fell back to a position they could hold.
The NVA buried the American casualties. The bodies were in the earth for a week before the Americans regained control of the area and were able to exhume the remains and have them sent home. This was duty the survivors likely did not carry lightly or soon forget. The losses were enough, but the sight of the recovered remains... We won't go there.

May we never forget any of them. Rest well, faithful young men. Rest well!

4 deacdes and 1 year. Find him on the wall? Look at the name he's still trying to pick up, right above the first "W" in Wes' name...
Shalom, honored ones!


Friday, April 3, 2009

FM 102

A good Friday to you!
Well, not THE Good Friday; that's next week. But may you have a good one today.
On Sunday my Mom will complete her 102nd year of life. An amazing journey on this earth by any standards. All I can say is, "I wish more people half her age had half her mind and half her sense.
For Mom, Happy 102!
Roger, Jean and Hilary