Monday, May 25, 2009

A Memorial Day Sermon

Seventh Sunday after Easter
First Presbyterian Church
Saint Helena, California

The scriptures today [texts below] focus on the appointment of another apostle to replace Judas and, in the Gospel, a prayer by Jesus to the Father on behalf of those left behind to do his work, namely his disciples then and all the disciples to come. These are appropriate scriptures for Memorial Day, a day set aside in this country to remember those who served in time of war. They are also appropriate scriptures to help us remember and give thanks for all those who came before us, all the saints of our by now extremely long Christian history, those people who have made our gathering this morning possible.

2,000 years ago Jesus, the carpenter from Galilee, the son of Mary, the son of God, commissioned his first disciples and sent them into the world. Of course he did many other things. He healed the sick, he preached, he told little stories, he multiplied loaves and fishes, he was crucified, died and was buried. On the third day he rose again. Etc.

We all know this story, know it so well that we can recite it. Oftentimes in church we do, in the form of the Nicene Creed or something like it. If it were not for the witnesses, we would not know this story; we would know nothing of Jesus of Nazareth. We are here this morning because our parents, probably, taught us to pray, brought us to church or Sunday School or both. There is probably more to it than that. We probably received some instruction or inspiration as young adults and adults, from a teacher, from a chaplain, from an inspiring minister and congregation, whether early in life or later, and so here we are.

In an even wider picture, long before we were here and well beyond the relatively small circle of our families, other witnesses have made us possible, literally some 2,000 years and hundreds of millions of people worth of Christian experience and in the US of A, roughly 200 years of national experience. We are Christians and we are Americans – most of us, I presume – if there is a foreign national among us this morning, I hope you feel welcome on this Memorial Day Weekend, which we began to celebrate a few years after our Civil War, which officially ended exactly 144 years ago. It effectively ended with the surrender of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia in early April, but it took a few weeks more to wrap things up. President Andrew Johnson declared hostilities at end on May 10th, whereupon planning began for the Grand Review of the Armies, which turned out to be the biggest parade that has ever taken place in Washington. It took two whole days to parade roughly 150,000 soldiers from the Capitol to the White House reviewing stand; one day for the armies of the eastern theater and another whole day for the westerners, and that parade took place on May 23rd and 24th, 1865. My great grandfather, Hiram Young of the 88th Indiana Infantry, was part of General Sherman’s Army and took part in that parade.

Likewise World War II came to a conclusion in May of 1945, 64 years ago; at least fighting stopped in the European Theater in early May after Hitler shot himself on April 30. Various German commanders tried to surrender to the British or the Americans and not to the Russians. Cease-fires were agreed to but General Eisenhower insisted that the surrender be unconditional and complete to all allied armed services simultaneously (as had been agreed by Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin) and this finally happened on May 8th. There were victory parades of course, in Moscow, in Berlin, in London shortly thereafter. The official American parade took place in New York in January of 1946.

This shows you how much the world had changed in a mere 80 years. In May of 1865, the soldiers marched to Washington. It took a week or two, they camped along the banks of the Potomac, had their parade and went home. That was that. In May of 1945, soldiers still had to disarm millions of enemy soldiers, occupy and police hostile territory, set up a government, feed millions of hungry people and by the way, get ready to invade Japan. The war in the Pacific continued. I’m wearing a little replica of my Dad’s theater ribbon today, the Chine-Burma-India Theater, where the war continued and where my Dad continued to serve, in Calcutta, India, until 1946.

Memorial Day took place officially first on May 30, 1868 to honor the Civil War dead. It had its beginnings of course all over the United States – some time in May around the anniversary of the end of the war, and has evolved into a day to honor all of those who died in all of our nation’s wars. How could we not set aside some time to remember our great Civil War and the great, in effect World Civil War and those who brought these wars to a conclusion? And further, to think about the causes of wars and what we the living must do to avoid them in the future? Thus I placed the quotations from two great Americans in the bulletin this morning [texts below]. More on those quotations in a minute, but first let me add a contemporary quotation to our meditations this morning.

We are all aware that President Obama journeyed to Northern Indiana exactly a week ago to receive an honorary degree and give the commencement address at the University of Notre Dame. I followed this story with great interest for any number of reasons, not the least of which are the facts that my father graduated from the University of Notre Dame du Lac in 1935 and I spent part of a summer there in 1997 as a Pew Evangelical Younger Scholar. I grew up in the Roman Catholic Church, maintain great affection for it and am proud to be part of the extended family of Notre Dame. President Obama’s speech has received much attention, deservedly so, but let me quote from the other President on the platform that day, the President of Notre Dame, Father John Jenkins, who introduced the President of the US. He directly addressed the core issue raised by a celebration of Memorial Day or any national celebration:

More than any problem in the arts or sciences - engineering or medicine – easing the hateful divisions between human beings is the supreme challenge of this age. If we can solve this problem, we have a chance to come together and solve all the others.
A Catholic university – and its graduates – are specially called, and I believe specially equipped, to help meet this challenge.
As a Catholic university, we are part of the Church – members of the “mystical body of Christ” animated by our faith in the Gospel. Yet we are also – most of us – citizens of the United States – this extraordinary evolving expression of human freedom. We are called to serve each community of which we’re a part, and this call is captured in the motto over the door of the east nave of the Basilica: “God, Country, Notre Dame.”

There are some extraordinary phrases in these three paragraphs:

“As a Catholic university, we are part of the Church - members of the “mystical body of Christ” animated by our faith in the Gospel.”

He did not say “As a Catholic University, we are part of the Roman Catholic Church,” which of course is a true statement; he said “As a Catholic university, we are part of the Church – members of the “mystical body of Christ.”

In other words, there is one Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. They were part of it at commencement at Notre Dame. We are in it now. The Episcopalians down the street – they’re in it, too. The Catholics one street over, they, too are in it. Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, we’re all in it. All of us: we’re the church. That’s what Father Jenkins said. God bless him.

“Yet we are also – most of us – citizens of the United States – this extraordinary evolving expression of human freedom.

This young President of ND has catapulted himself into the very thick of a very important and longstanding conversation about the meaning of America. The poetic phrase, this brilliant use of assonance, three initial e’s - in characterizing the United States, “this extraordinary evolving expression of human freedom” puts him in the company of Abraham Lincoln, of George Marshall, of Thomas Jefferson – he’s with the immortals.

Then he clinchesd it:

“We are called to serve each community of which we’re a part, and this call is captured in the motto over the door of the east nave of the Basilica: ‘God, Country, Notre Dame.’”

With this introduction, President Jenkins challenged members of the ND community, members of the Roman Catholic Church, members of The Church, citizens of the United States and, in effect, citizens of the world, to respect one another despite our differences., not by ignoring our differences but by celebrating them:

God, country, Notre Dame. God, country, whatever your tertiary institution, California, Saint Helena, the Presbyterian Church, your neighborhood mosque or temple.

Our ability to listen respectfully to one another as Christians, as citizens of the United States, as citizens of the world, to be free, yet responsible people – that is the issue. As W. H. Auden put it in his poem at the beginning of World War II, “we must love one another or die.”

At only one time in our national history did we experience the breakdown of civility and we rightly call it the Civil War. A mere 80 year later the Second World War broke out, a war that threatened the existence of civility everywhere. Bearing in mind the words of President Father Jenkins, let us
ponder the quotations by Lincoln and Marshall in the bulletin, what Lincoln said in the midst of the Civil War and what General of the Army George C. Marshall said in the middle of the Second World War.

Upon the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg in November of 1863, several months after the battle, Lincoln reassured the American people, despite the carnage of this war

“ . . . that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

He could have promised better economic times or greater power upon the world stage; these things indeed came. But he promised a new birth of freedom for all Americans, and, by implication, all people on earth.

George Marshall expanded on this theme some 80 years later:

“We are determined that before the sun sets on this terrible struggle, our flag will be recognized throughout the world as a symbol of freedom on the one hand and of overwhelming force on the other.”

Thus 425 years after Martin Luther propounded his views on Christian freedom, which sowed the seeds of the American Revolution, the American Army liberated Luther’s homeland from anti-Christian Nazism. Shortly thereafter the United States of America issued billions of dollars worth of loans and aid to ensure that the new Germany would not fall under the sway of another tyranny. After World War II, we did not create a desert and call it peace. This is what Marshall meant by saying that our flag would be recognized as a symbol of freedom on the one hand and of overwhelming force on the other.

This marked the entrance of America on to the stage of world power; and there we have been, for better or worse, ever since. To still say today that our flag is a symbol of freedom on the one hand and of overwhelming force on the other . . . well, that is audacious to say the least, but that is a good characterization of what we are attempting.

Now if we are to have any hope of effectively wielding power throughout the world, we have to model the civil exercise of freedom at home. Not that we agree about everything, but that we can decently agree to disagree. A week ago, the Notre Dame community modeled this behavior. I don’t see how any university could have done any better. I assume that there were a few arrests of a few rumbustious souls, but acts of incivility were minimal. Those who disagreed with Presidents Jenkins and/or Obama were allowed their say. Some 2,000 people held their own exercises in one of the university’s quadrangles. Alumni threatened to withdraw their contributions. Bishops wrote him nasty letters. Well, such is the life of a university president.

The way President Jenkins endured the heat for extending his invitation and the way the student and alumni body at the Commencement responded to both Presidents made the University of Notre Dame an example for all of us to admire this Memorial Day Weekend.

Has this sort of thing happened before? One other example of surprising hospitality occurred a while ago when Jerry Falwell, the sort of clergyman we liberal Protestants love to hate, invited Ted Kennedy to the campus of Liberty University.

When have we liberals exercised this sort of hospitality? Well, yes, but I think we all could do this sort of thing more often. Yale, of course, invited alumnus George Bush to campus a few years ago, early in his presidency, igniting some sort of uproar. For my favorite case of liberal magnanimity I have to reach back in my memory to over forty years ago when the Harvard Lampoon invited John Wayne to Harvard at the height of the Vietnam War. The editor of the Lampoon drove John Wayne into Harvard Square on top of an army vehicle, where he was pelted with snow balls. He laughingly threw them back; gave a speech, took questions and made clever and funny responses. I don’t think anyone had any idea that the Duke had this sort of skill set in him. It did not affect the war, but comic relief in the gray February of 1967 was most welcome.

I am open to further education on the matter, but I fear that we theological liberals have not been as magnanimous as we could be and we have not had much sense of humor.

This memorial Day we ponder being Christian and being American. We ponder remarks by the now famous President Jenkins of Notre Dame, Abraham Lincoln, George Marshall, and, of course the words and example of Jesus. What can we conclude?

Whenever I am at a loss for a conclusion when the topic is the meaning of America, I usually turn to our own Walt Saint Paul Whitman. Listen to the following words from Leaves of Grass in the context of everything we have thought about this morning having to do with presidents and Americans and how we behave towards one another and how we act in the world:

“Other states indicate themselves in their deputies . . . . but the genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives or legislatures, nor in its ambassadors or authors or colleges or churches or parlors, nor even in its newspapers or inventors . . . but always most in the common people. Their manners speech dress friendships -- the freshness and candor of their physiognomy -- the picturesque looseness of their carriage . . . their deathless attachment to freedom -- their aversion to anything indecorous or soft or mean -- the practical acknowledgment of the citizens of one state by the citizens of all other states -- the fierceness of their roused resentment -- their curiosity and welcome of novelty -- their self-esteem and wonderful sympathy -- . . . the air they have of persons who never knew how it felt to stand in the presence of superiors -- the fluency of their speech. . . their good temper and open-handedness -- the terrible significance of their elections -- the President's taking off his hat to them not they to him -- these too are unrhymed poetry.

The Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth have probably the fullest poetical nature. The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.

It awaits the gigantic and generous treatment worthy of it.”

This memorial Day we remember with thanksgiving those who have come before us; we particularly remember those whose sacrifice has made this nation possible; we celebrate that we the people are the body of Christ and the greatest poem ever written; and it’s not fully written yet.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Washington Journal

The Torch Has Been Passed

President Barack Hussein Obama has now taken the oath of office, concluding with the words, “So help me God.” Chief Justice John G. Roberts, the first Roman Catholic chief justice, administered the oath. Forty-eight years have passed since John F. Kennedy, the first Roman Catholic president, concluded the oath of office prescribed by the Constitution, as have all presidents since Franklin Roosevelt and most before, with the words “So help me God.” President Kennedy began his remarks immediately thereafter with a specific reference to this oath, thereby reassuring Protestant America that he was no different from those who came before:

We observe today not a victory of party but a celebration of freedom-- symbolizing an end as well as a beginning--signifying renewal as well as change. For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forebears prescribed nearly a century and three quarters ago.

Religion was on everyone’s mind during the election of 1960, but race was also a decisive factor. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr. had intended to vote for Richard Nixon because, like many other Protestant clergymen of that day, he did not think that a Roman Catholic should be president. Then his son, Martin Jr., was arrested in Atlanta on October 26, 1960 at a lunch counter sit-in. After several days, the merchants involved dropped the charges and everyone, some 280 students plus Dr. King, were released.

Except that it was discovered that Dr. King had violated his parole from a previous arrest, for driving in Georgia with an Alabama license. So he was taken, in chains, to a state prison. Many feared for his life under such circumstances. This obviously came at a critical time in a close election. While Vice-President Nixon chose not to mention the matter, Senator Kennedy made a phone call to Mrs. King and brother Robert made some lawyerly inquiries of the authorities. King was released. Then Martin Senior spoke to the press:

“Because this man was willing to wipe the tears from my daughter-in-law’s eyes, I’ve got a suitcase of votes, and I’m going to take them to Mr. Kennedy and dump them in his lap.”

Forty-eight years later, that suitcase has grown to immense proportions.

President Obama’s entire life, from conception and birth to the present, has taken place in those forty-eight years since John F. Kennedy brought the nation to its feet with his remarkable address on a similarly cold and sunny winter day. The Cold War was at its utmost intensity. Only one sentence of that remarkable address dealt with domestic policy. The rest focussed on our struggle with the Soviet Union, with Marxism, international communism, the specter that had been haunting Europe for over a century. Yet remarkable changes soon swept the country unleashed by the energetic and charismatic young president.

On that January 20, 1961, I was in the fourth grade at Sanford E. Merrill Elementary School in Park Ridge, Illinois. I walked home for lunch that winter day, as did all the kids in the school. We all lived within a mile of this red-brick school with a classical portico for a front door and a framed photograph of Sanford E. Merrill, who I believe was superintendent of schools in some distant decade, in the entryway. There were two classrooms for each grade, K through Six. Mom had the television on when I walked in the door and we, along with my brother, who was in the sixth grade, watched the inaugural parade as we ate lunch. I remember images of the President’s motorcade leaving the Capitol and PT-109 on a float parading down Pennsylvania Avenue accompanied by crew members and sailors in uniform.

A child of nine today is as far removed from that event as I was then from the inauguration of President Wilson in 1913. In the following forty-eight years, the United States went from being a potential world power to being a superpower that had twice landed expeditionary forces on the continent of Europe and welcomed them home victorious. The United States had put Europe back on its feet and was unquestionably the leader of the free world yet faced a powerful and belligerent coalition of opponents led by the Soviet Union, whose massive army had crushed Nazi Germany only fifteen years before.

From 1961 until today, we have seen our old adversary, the Soviet Union disappear and Red China join the practitioners of capitalism. A new adversary, terrorist Islam, has arisen. We also find ourselves in the midst of an almost unimaginable and barely explicable economic crisis. We have made extraordinary changes in our society and culture, probably greater than those made in the previous forty-eight years. Women are working in greater numbers and higher pay scales. African-Americans are accepted at levels of society and government. The sexual revolution took off in the 1960s, and proceeds apace.

Along with the giddying pace of social change, there is great concern for the survival of local customs and institutions in the age of the internet, much argument over the role of religious figures, institutions and ideas in public life, much concern about the ability of government and education to accommodate the unceasing and vertiginous waves of technological and cultural change. At the local level, people are as concerned as ever about schools, how to prepare children for the future while giving them a sense of the nation’s past, how to achieve the appropriate ethnic, cultural, racial, linguistic and economic mix, and at what price of transporting kids to and fro, and whose decision this is, what role the courts play in deciding who decides and what.

How many children today walk home from school to eat a lunch prepared by their mothers? Is this good or bad?

At this time, along with much soul-searching, finger-pointing and trepidation over said economic crisis, and other crises, and after a seemingly interminable election campaign, the American people have entrusted their leadership to this tall, handsome man from Kansas, Hawaii, Indonesia, southern California, New York City, Cambridge and Chicago, a man as close to being the American Everyman as anyone could imagine. How will a child of nine today look back on this presidency in 2056?

I have not written much about this new president because I am still having trouble believing all that has happened since he announced his campaign some two years ago. Just witnessing the transition that began in November has been unbelievable enough. Suddenly, when his eight years were almost up, here was a gracious and communicative President Bush. Where had this man been all these years? I could not help wondering about a presidency that might have been. He promised to be a uniter, not a divider, way back when, remember?

Now, several weeks after the inauguration, the focus is on the presidency that is and will be. Barack Obama looks like a president, talks like a president and walks like a president. He seems supremely comfortable in his new role, as does his family. William Kristol, a sharp-tongued conservative commentator, has written admiringly of Obama’s political talent. I do not know the story behind his departure from the editorial page of the New York Times, but he seems to be signaling that he will find other things to do for a while and wishes this president well.

There will, of course, be plenty of opposition to his policies. There already is. One cannot be successful without creating some opposition and one cannot expect a president to change the attitude and behavior of the opposition party. But by sounding a consistent theme and maintaining a consistent public persona, a president can accomplish much. There is every reason to believe that Obama is embarking on a presidency of the scale of Eisenhower’s, Reagan’s or Clinton’s in terms of consistent personal popularity.

Comparisons to President Kennedy are inevitable at this point, with Obama’s youth, athleticism, oratory, Ivy-League education and Ivy-League retainers. Back in 1993, when another very smart Democrat took office, many commentators noted the Vietnam disaster that followed the Kennedy presidency, brought on by the best and brightest of the Kennedy brain trust, the very advisers who had so admirably managed the Cuban Missile Crisis. Yet no major national disaster occurred on Clinton’s watch. He was a popular president and his economic policies worked so well that they helped him to weather the self-inflicted wounds of his personal life.

Sixteen years later similar concerns have been raised by that school of thought that presumes minimalism to be safer than bold attempts at sweeping change. It is worth noting then, that the Vietnam debacle really unfolded after Kennedy was dead and that his advisers and President Johnson were following the conventional wisdom of the day that Communism had to be met and defeated wherever it reared its ugly head. America’s entire foreign policy establishment initially supported sending combat troops to Vietnam, as did most newspaper editorials, Time magazine and many others.

As an adult now of fifty-seven, I would not trade those thousand wonderful, giddy days of the Kennedy presidency for any other time in my life, whatever came afterward. If the Obama presidency is only half as inspiring, it will be a success.

Now President Obama faces the most severe combination of foreign and domestic crises since Franklin Roosevelt. He has a faltering economy and two shooting wars on his hands and there is no consensus about how to proceed. His greatest challenges lie in countries that no one thought particularly important back in 1961. He will need all the help he can get.

Which brings me back to where I began.

Much has been made of the fact that a conservative white Christian clergyman and a liberal black Christian clergyman, both Protestants, offered invocation and benediction on January 20th, 2009. I thought they each spoke well, but could have said more by saying less. Catholics, Protestants, Orthodox and Jews have been offering prayer and benediction at inaugurations since President Roosevelt instituted the practice in 1937. Perhaps he decided that the nation could use all the help it could get in the middle of the Depression. His choice for the first invocation: The Rev. ZeBarney Phillips, Chaplain of the Senate; for the benediction, Father John A. Ryan of Catholic University.

President Eisenhower began his inaugural address in 1953 by asking everyone to bow their heads while he prayed aloud. He did this, astoundingly, when he was technically not a Christian. He was baptized several days later, on February 1, at National Presbyterian Church, then on Connecticut Avenue. President Kennedy’s inauguration featured no less than three invocations, led by Richard Cardinal Cushing of Boston, followed by Iakovos, Archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Church of North and South America, followed by John Barclay, Pastor of Central Christian Church, Austin, Texas. A benediction by Rabbi Nelson Glueck, President of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, concluded the proceedings. Remember it was even colder that day.

Everything that happens on inauguration day (except for the taking of the oath, which must happen) is the prerogative of the President. The President is free to say “So help me God,” or not; place his hand on a Bible, or not; pray, or not; hold a parade, or not; patronize inaugural balls, or not. Should an atheist gain the highest office of the land, (s)he is free to affirm the oath and leave the rest out. If a strict Baptist is elected president, he does not have to dance.

This first African-American president has chosen to reassure the approximately 90% of Americans who profess a belief in God or identify with a religion that he shares their faith and respects their observance.

It’s a free country.

Friday, January 2, 2009

In Search of a Sense of Place

Washington Journal

I flew to the Midwest in October for the burial and memorial service for my mother’s last surviving sister. Aunt Virginia died at 93 and had been quite active until recently. She bought a new car just four years ago, using it to drive to the Central Christian Church and to the grocery store in Seymour, a town in southern Indiana spawned by the crossing of the Baltimore and Ohio and the Pennsylvania Railroads in the mid-19th Century. I remember a thriving downtown from family visits when Eisenhower was president, but Seymour is now flanked by Interstate 65 and shopping centers and the downtown looks deserted. Nonetheless, the rest of this small city seems healthy enough with a new high school and rows of wood frame houses with front porches shaded by towering archways of trees. For me, my brother and my two cousins, it is a town full of good memories.

Virginia Green Otto was born in 1915, the second of three daughters to David Green and Nellie Humes Green. My mother was the first, born in 1911 and my Aunt LaDonna was born in 1917. David and Nellie died in the flu epidemic in 1919 or shortly thereafter. None of the girls could remember exactly. What they all remembered was their grandmother, Carrie Berkeley Humes, taking them into her house just down the road on East Third Street in Seymour and various aunts and uncles, of which there were seven, plus a great uncle or two, sending money periodically to keep the girls out of the orphanage.

Virginia married Donald Otto, also of Seymour, in the early 1930s. They had no children because Donald, whom everyone called Beanie, did not want any, or so Mom said. So my brother Steven and LaDonna’s two children, Dick and Donna, were the closest kinfolk who gathered with spouses and a couple of now grown children for the brief burial service at the cemetery, which we had all visited many times. It was a gorgeous afternoon, sunny and warm, not just sort of warm but eighty-plus degrees warm, Indian summer with the leaves turning and the fields a golden yellow.

There is something about a burial, as opposed to the increasingly popular cremation that imparts the unmistakable sense of a life’s trajectory. For Virginia, as for her sisters, life began at a small house on East Third Street. She went away to Franklin College and for a few years to Cincinnati, but for most of her adult years she lived at 215 Johnson Street. She played golf and tennis when younger and remained active in her church throughout her life. She and Beanie loved to go to the horse races. Whenever they visited us in the Chicago area, they would go to Arlington Park. By one of life’s happier coincidences, I walked in the door of her new duplex at the Lutheran Home several years ago a few minutes before the start of the Kentucky Derby. We each had a beer and watched on her little television in the kitchen.

When Uncle Don died over twenty years ago, she stayed in that little white clapboard house on Johnson Street until recently, when she moved into a duplex at the Lutheran Home on the other side of town. On family occasions she still had so much stamina that we took to referring to her as the “energizer bunny.” Immediately upon my arrival on another occasion, we set out for a brisk walk around the neighborhood. It was close to 90 degrees and humid.

She died there on October 4, and now lies here, next to her husband in Riverside Cemetery. Not scattered somewhere, but here, on this piece of land, under this stone, next to her husband, among her ancestors, where the leaves now turn and birds and insects sing. Here.

The cousins went to dinner afterward at the Story Inn, some twenty miles north and east of Seymour in Brown County. The Inn advertises itself as being “in one inconvenient location since 1851.” It appears that the inn and restaurant actually opened for business in the old general store some thirty years ago, but who can quibble with great advertising? The restaurant consisted of two large rooms set with white table cloths and fine crystal amidst assorted junk still on the shelves from the old general store. Three college kids performed classical music inside on the flute, violin and keyboard, while outside a bar served up beer in bottles to a couple dozen bikers. Thus all generations and social classes come to the Story Inn.

After everyone else had left I sat in the foyer for at least an hour listening to the music and taking in the atmosphere. The place intensely reminded me of Vermont and New Hampshire, where I lived for about a decade. After a while I found some paper and took note of the following:
A hornet’s nest next to the door (no hornets)
Working Coke machine that delivered Coke in the old hour-glass bottles
A huge glass jar full of corks
Blackboard with dessert menu
Antique baby buggy suspended from the ceiling, below which sat two kids playing checkers with bottle caps
Working dial pay phone with slots for nickels, dimes and quarters
Cast iron letter box
Magazines in old wooden ammunition boxes
Photograph of the children of the one room Storey school, ca 1910
Old Standard Oil pumps out front, with illuminated glass crowns on top, meter reading 40.9¢ per gallon
Shelves full of old bottles, brown beer and cough syrup bottles, blue Vicks Vapo-Rub jars with faded wrappers, various indistinct green bottles; cigar boxes, more ammunition boxes; various tools and implements, more jars, gadgets, gewgaws, krimkrams, whatsits, flooglemeisers, whatchacallits, thingamajigs . . .

In addition to grief for the passing of Virginia and for the knowledge of life’s fragility and brevity, I was swept by a powerful sense of peace and gratitude for the beauty of this land, for my family, for their stories, for us the living standing under the trees, where the sunshine felt warm on dark slacks and coats, amidst rows of stones marked with family names: Green, Humes, Burkley, Schneck, Martin, Otto.

I flew back to California the next day, taking the bus from San Francisco Airport up to the Napa Valley, which became my home in the spring. I picked up the battered old Toyota pickup – 300,000 miles on it, a beaut -- I had been driving all summer and stopped at Peet’s Coffee, where a deep, dark, creamy, complex triple espresso brought me back to life, then drove up Highway 29 to Saint Helena, stopping at the health spa where I work for a swim and a hot soak. There is not a lot to do in the Napa Valley besides eat and drink, hike and bike, and drop into one of numerous of spas and health clubs that dot the valley floor along with wineries and restaurants. But one does all of these things extremely well and I have grown to love the place.

I spent much of last winter in Washington working on applications for various fellowships, networking, getting around town to attend the literally dozens of panels, lectures and presentations that take place in the nation’s capital. When it became clear in May that none of these applications was likely to yield anything soon, I departed for Napa and settled in for a good six months. It was summer when I arrived in May and still essentially summer in November when the anticipation of a new administration pulled me back to Washington for another try.

(That’s right. Those columns I wrote this summer “from Washington” were written in California. Heh-heh-heh.)

I got to know the local restaurants and some of the bartenders, who were often happy to offer a taste of whatever wine was open, and grew accustomed to a glass of red wine after work. I met a lot of people through my landlord, who became a good friend, the sort of guy whom people spontaneously call “Dude!” The dude even lent me his truck, above. I also met a lot of people through the spa, the Rotary Club, and two churches in town, where I was invited to preach a couple of times.

Most days it was more than fun to practice massage in Saint Helena. It was warm enough to be outside in an enclosed garden. The setting is not as spectacular as at Esalen, where one works on the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean, but it was very peaceful and allowed for deep and meditative work. Sometimes I describe this work as making the world a better place one body at a time, or use the Biblical concept of “tikkun olam,” – repairing the world.

Here in Washington it has been unusually cold, but the severe storms all passed to the north of us, as usual. The latest one is just giving us a dusting of snow and some freezing rain. My favorite liturgical experience of the Christmas season remains the service of lessons and carols broadcast live from King’s College, Cambridge. This year I was particularly struck by one of the prayers:

Lastly let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore and in a greater light, that multitude which no man can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh, and with whom, in this Lord Jesus, we for evermore are one.