Monday, February 28, 2011

Remembering America's Heroes: Frank Buckles

America's last World War I vet, Frank Buckles, has died. He was 110. Over a decade ago, his nephew, Ken Buckles, started something called Living History Day at Milwaukie High School (Milwaukie, Oregon--yes, that's how we spell it here) as a way for vets to tell their stories and as a way for high school students to meet and learn the history of the vanishing heroes all around us. Ken's high school group raised more money for the WWII Memorial than any other school group in the country--by far.

I was at Living History Day in November 2007 when Frank, then 106, took his place on the stage at the USO-style celebration that ended the day's events. He was still a sharp and admirable man. Just a week ago yesterday, nephew Ken was at the annual dinner for the Vietnam Veterans of Oregon Memorial Fund and brought us the latest news of Frank who was still "with it" according to Ken. Through Ken's tireless efforts, Frank Buckles' body will lie in state at the Capitol Rotunda and be esorted by one of the longest honor guard processions ever amassed to his temporary resting place in Arlington National Cemetery. Temporary, that is, in light of 1 Corintians 15:42-49:

So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is rased a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, "The first man, Adam, became a living being"; the last Adam became a life giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will aslo bear the image of the man of heaven.

On the 19th after Ken had finished bringing us the news of Frank and what the nation's tribute to this venerable and timeless hero would be like, I asked Ken if any of us would still be alive when that day came. It wasn't any impertinent question then. It isn't one today. Are we alive in the freedom and the life we have been given by our Creator, by the work of Christ, by our founding fathers and mothers, by the once-young Americans who would not take "no" for an answer in order to serve?

My half-staff flag will go out today when the weeping skies dry out enough to allow it. I'll continue until Frank's body reaches Arlington.
And while I have lunch today I'll crank up the volume when I play that Crosby/Stills/Nash & Young song "Almost Cut My Hair". It's that one line in the song that always gets me: I feel like I owe it to someone. Yep.

Pray for peace. Work for peace. Be at peace. Thank you, Frank, and all others already gone home.


Saturday, February 19, 2011

As the Citizen Among You

The alien who resides with you in your land shall be as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord. Leviticus 19:34

President Obama was at my daughter's workplace yesterday. She took these pictures herself, the one below just after he reached out to shake her hand. The President is out acting as Cheerleader-in-Chief attempting to rally our country out of the doldrums.

Lord knows, we do need a rally.

There is a place for hoping that our high-tech sector can help put more people here back to work. That would be a mega hope.

Mini hope needs exist all around us. Here are three examples from real life of the past three days:

Tom and I met for the first time at Tuesday evening’s Bible study. We always have soup and bread before we launch into Scripture and, for the past few weeks, Rob Bell’s wonderful little short films that I just can’t diminish by calling them DVD’s or videos. He sat at a table by himself in his black jacket with extra hardware, keys, bicycle lights and jeans about 6 inches too large and bunched at the waist. Wet spot on the seat of them… Since he was new to the group, I asked if I could join him with my bowl of noodles and bread. “Sure, no problem,” he said. He had lots to say, but it came out in a kind of mumbled stream which I did my best to decipher. As we ate, a little yellow bug ran out of his stocking cap across the table at me. I smashed it as promptly as I could without making a scene. Little yellow bugs are Tom’s closest companions. He was very attentive during Bible study, enjoyed Bell’s film. After a smoke on the patio, Tom went back out into his world and I to mine.

A woman I know named L. was going to Salem this past Monday to testify at the Legislature about the need to maintain services and housing for mentally ill folks. Knowing how L. gets trapped inside of sentences that she enters but can’t seem to exit, I can only wonder what message she could have brought them, though none more powerful than her own honest presence. Intelligence and chaos rule her life.

What were Tom and L. like when they were school age? What got them to where they are now? How much money are we saving by keeping Tom homeless, and how much would we “save” if we made L. that way?

An insurance company has told a mother of two students at my wife’s school that they will no longer pay for the meds these little kids need in order to be something other than nearly asleep with depression or else unable to sit still and be quiet for more than 5 seconds. An insurance company wants to “save” money by helping to manufacture replacements for Tom and L. when they are no longer with us.

Letter after letter to the paper complains that Portland is a homeless magnet because we are too kind and the police not aggressive enough even as incidents of suicide by cop and murder by arrest are up. Stories from my writer friend Karen Zacharias affirm what we must know if we open our eyes: that people living tough lives are all around us and within us. They are still in NYC even if people who visit Disneyfied Times Square no longer see them there. They are in rural Nebraska, small towns in the South and in Eastern Oregon, in this small city we call home.
And so is the kingdom of God.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Signs of the Times

I have to hand it to the graffiti artist. He's learned how to quickly pull the spray can away from his "canvas" in order to make the paint fan out and thin while making stunningly beautiful calligraphic curves.

It's a sign of the times when such anonymous decorators are able to think more imaginitively than the highly educated, trained, experienced and so-called leaders of the world.

Sometimes, the signs of the times tell us that what we took to be the shape of things has become overgrown, obscured by having hung around long enough to deceive us into the notion of permanence.

As if the way things are is the way they always were. Or will be...

I remember when the communist regime of the former Soviet Union was falling apart under Mikhail Gorbachev. Mr. Gorbachev probably had a truer vision of real transition and change than anyone surrounding him at the time. But it wasn't speedy enough for folks. So they ran over him, and his ability to lead and influence collapsed all around him.

As things were rapidly coming apart, one of Gorbachev's one-time underlings and allies, Boris Yeltsin, had his foot on the accelerator of change without having much understanding of how to steer the democracy bus. Yeltsin was pushing things that Gorbachev thought unwise. Gorbachev pleaded with Yeltsin in the most personal way one does in Slavic tradition: by using a person's first and middle names.

"Boris Nikolayevich! Boris Nikolayevich! Boris Nikolayevich!"

Gorbachev called out again and again but to no avail. My older sister used to scold me at times when I was a youngster. "Roger Dennis," she would call. But if Gorbachev began by scolding, he ended by pleading, begging.

But he could not stop the momentum. The people were clearly with Yeltsin who would go on to become the head of a new non-communist government. Unfortunately, he hadn't a clue.

Unfortunately, most of the people were equally clueless. Given their history, how could it have been different? Many perhaps thought that simply by ending communism there would suddenly be store shelves full of STUFF like in the West. That they would have pockets full of money to buy all this stuff. That, slam-dunk!, all their problems would be solved.

It's no wonder that Russia today suffers from sham democracy, very high rates of alcoholism, drug addiction and HIV. Democracy is too weak to overcome systemic corruption in a time of shortage. There really is never the breathing room for this kind of turnaround. Corruption in Russia today has its hands on way more money than it did under communism. Way more. Most Russians today probably care not a whit for democracy. They want stability, order, a chance to grab some STUFF. Stuff motivates us, it seems. Ideals, perhaps not so much.

Egyptians are understandably euphoric. I understand. It will ebb. Reality will reappear. The economy, in all likelihood, will get worse, not better, over the next several years. Tempers may flare, patience may evaporate. And the technology for making car bombs, human bombs and IED's is now as widely known as how to rip music from CD's. It won't be smooth sailing. I pray for patience in the storms and swells ahead for Egypt and for the region.

Meanwhile, here in the USA, we'd be wise turkeys to pursue tasks we should have undertaken years ago, not only as a matter of national and economic security, but as a matter of doing the right thing for creation:


We can't get there by either of the following:

1) spending our way into oblivion


2) cutting our way back to the Stone Age.

We worship what our dollars say we do. We can't afford war. Literally. Figuratively. Morally. Fiscally. Honestly. Any more.

We can't.

And we can't afford to not help Egypt go the right way as much as possible.

These are the signs of the times. Interesting days ahead.

I call 'em as I see 'em.


Friday, February 4, 2011

When You Come to a Fork in the Road...

When you come to that fork in the road, take it!

The people of Egypt have come to that fork in the road. If only it were as simple as the the choice between these two very similar ones.

So much hangs in the balance. Nearly 40% of the people of Egypt cannot read and write. A vast number, however, are aware that life is different in some places in the world. They want things to be different where they live.

Moneyed interests will react to change with fear. Fear of losing what they have now. Fear of reduced wealth and power in the future.

Unless tamed by a humble and generous heart, such interests will be a powerful obstacle to overcome.

Corrupt elements such as the police and government bureaucrats will see change as a direct threat, not only to their income but perhaps to their very lives. They probably won't be out there saying "Yea and amen!" to the anti-government demonstrators unless it becomes the only way to save their own skins.

The now vast number of people without such power and wealth are out of patience. Food prices are outrunning them. The chance to keep up and better their lives is eluding them. They want education. They want elections. They want a job.

They want freedom. So they say. It's something we have but often can't be bothered to exercise or give thanks for.

Some know what they want. Others are just plain naive. Things are never all just one way. But changes are coming. The balance of power in the entire Middle East is in flux.

Israel is affected. Everybody is affected. There could be war, civil war, or stalemate. There are many forks in the road.

Here in the USA, we may find this new development in Egypt oddly remote from daily life and concern for our economy. But wait...! We're smack in the middle of it.

Our country had given vast amounts of military and economic aid to the government of Hosni Mubarak in order to help maintain this Arab nation that has a peace treaty with neighbor Israel. That stabilizing influence leaves our fingerprints all over a government that did not do much to trickle things down to the ordinary people. Human rights, freedom of speech and the press, freedom from torture--these things did not go forward under the three decades of President Mubarak's rule.

That's a problem for us.

I can still hear the voice of Judy Collins on a track of one of the vinyl LP records of her songs that I have from about 1969. It's the chorus of the theme song from the musical Marat/Sade. The full title of the story is something like "The Incarceration and Execution of Jean Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Prison at Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade." It's a story of the struggle of peasants and a few noble folk for basic human rights during the French Revolution, one such movement led by Jean Paul Marat who was executed:

We've got nothing, always had nothing.

Nothing but holes and millions of them.

Living in holes, dying in holes,

Holes in our bellies and holes in our souls...

Marat, we're poor, and the poor stay poor.
Marat, don't make us wait anymore.
We want our rights, and we don't care how.
We want a!

Pray for the people of Egypt. Pray for the people of Israel. Pray for the people of Palestine.

Pray for peace, freedom, justice. Pray for hope.
Pray for grace.


Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Love It Or Leave It!

Things have been in turmoil in the Arab Republic of Egypt for more than a week. Many people have said they want freedom, democracy, the right to elect their leaders.
I wonder if they have any idea how expensive that is, how confusing when campaign promises are made but not kept, when candidates will say one thing but do the bidding of those who have bankrolled the campaigns?
Bless their hearts, they want to try.
I applaud their dreams and aspirations, because some of these young voices have been clamoring for precisely the things we have told ourselves are the hallmarks of the United States of America and why we think of ourselves (rightly or wrongly) as exceptional.
But I also remember a time when a whole generation of us felt unheard and disenfranchised by the very system we would be compelled to serve through the military draft in a time of protracted war that had devolved into a horrendously costly stalemate. Sure, some protesters chanted things that sounded like anarchy. But not all. Some simply wanted the system to function in practice as it was designed and legally bound to function on paper.
80% of the 58,000+ names on the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC, "the Wall", were not old enough to vote. They could be trusted to fight and die for the flag and "freedom" (the freedom, possibly, of another nation; America's freedom was never in doubt in the Vietnam War), but they could not be trusted to vote until age 21.
My daughter's eyes bulged a couple of weeks ago when I told her that. She had no idea the voting age had not always been 18.
Some spoke out. Others watching assumed that those speaking out did not love their country, that speaking out and demonstrating were inconsistent with love of country. As though the first Boston Tea Party had never happened--or had not been illegal.
So the response of some became:
America--Love It or Leave It.
I wonder if any of the ruling class in Egypt are out on the streets of Cairo today yelling "Egypt--Love It or Leave It" at the masses wanting change.
How do we best love our country?
How do we best love God and our neighbors as ourselves?