Monday, October 10, 2011

On the American Landscape

Reflections on September 11, 2001

I spent a wonderfully peaceful day house-sitting in the Richmond Hills on September 10th, 2001. I worked on some writing projects in the morning and went for a long run that afternoon in the hills above the Bay, watched the sunset, listened to crickets, talked to some people walking their dogs.

I slept late the next day and found out from the carpenters working outside that something terrible had happened back east and I had better turn on the television.

We all have our memories of that day. Since I was by myself that day, I probably paid more attention to the television than most.

One of the commentators that day solemnly and grandiloquently claimed, as they do on such occasions, that the terrorist attacks had changed the landscape of America.

The events certainly changed the skyline of New York City. They took American policy in a new direction towards foreign intervention. History will judge how successfully. There is also a field in rural Pennsylvania that is changed forever into a site for grieving the deaths and honoring the heroism of the passengers who charged the cockpit of Flight 93.

Some three thousand people lost their lives, including a number of people from foreign countries and many religious faiths, including Muslims. The world economy took a multi-trillion dollar hit. We are still feeling the shock waves.

For Osama bin Laden and friends, it was unquestionably a good day’s work.

Did it change the landscape of America?


President Dwight David Eisenhower changed the landscape of America when he signed the Interstate Highway Act of 1956 into law. That act, the largest public works program in history, forever changed the face of America, connecting this vast land, creating the suburbs, changing where we lived and how we got to work.

Instead of the twin towers, we’ll have a park and a new skyscraper. The Pentagon, a massive brute of a building, was repaired and functioning normally within a year. The memorial park there was dedicated in 2008.

The psychological and financial impact has been far greater, but even so, the financial shenanigans that led to the meltdown in 2008 have hurt America far more. In terms of our daily lives, the only long-term impact of that terrible day is the airport security regimen that was proposed and should have been adopted in the late 90s.

No terrorist act can hurt America as much as we are now hurting ourselves with our bitter and recriminatory politics. As for those killed ten years ago, their loved ones bear a grief too deep for words. All we can do as a nation is honor their memory and take steps to make sure this sort of attack will not happen again. In time, as Robert Kennedy said on the night of Martin Luther King’s assassination - quoting Aeschylus -

“In our sleep, the pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart; and in our despair, against our will, comes wisdom by the awful grace of God.”

Friday, July 8, 2011

Fourth of July Meditation

A sermon delivered at the Kenwood Community Church, Sonoma Valley, California.
By Richard Allen Hyde

Tomorrow, of course, is Pancake Day here in Kenwood. In the rest of the United States it is Independence Day, but here it is Pancake Breakfast Day. If you are here today and somehow do not know about the Pancake Breakfast tomorrow starting early in the morning, or 5k run, or the parade, well you should.

Today I will talk about great events that have taken place around this time of year. I will tell you the story of a remarkable encounter that took place about 75 years ago and use that incident to bring our attention to Abraham Lincoln’s use of scripture in his Second Inaugural Address.

On July 4, 1776, 235 years ago tomorrow, and in the days thereafter a number of distinguished gentlemen signed a document that would have been their death warrant had events turned out differently. Our War of Independence was an extraordinary stroke of luck. General Washington almost captured several times. He came through several battles unharmed after bullets flew all around him. The Continental Army was almost destroyed in Brooklyn. If the wind had shifted and the British fleet been able to move into position, it would have been. The conclusive surrender of General Cornwallis at Yorktown was the result of extraordinarily fortunate coincidences. A British fleet did not arrive. A French fleet did and army did, and the rest is history.

As Bismarck said, “God has a special place in his heart for fools, drunks and the US of A.” The Iron Chancellor envied the United States and hoped for the South to win the Civil War so that we would not become so powerful.

55 years ago this week, June 29, 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act. It was the largest public works project in American history up to that time. Perhaps no other act of Congress within our lifetimes has had such a deep and long-lasting impact on the country, changing where we live and work, transforming, for better or worse, our cities, creating the suburbs, and, undeniably, knitting the nation together.

Eisenhower's support of the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 can be directly attributed to his experiences in 1919 as a participant in the U.S. Army's first Transcontinental Motor Convoy across the United States on the historic Lincoln Highway, which was the first road across America. The convoy left the Ellipse south of the White House in Washington D.C. on July 7, 1919, and headed for Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. From there, it followed the Lincoln Highway to San Francisco. Bridges cracked and were rebuilt, vehicles became stuck in mud, and equipment broke. The journey took two months. The fact that it took so long and the fact that from Illinois west through Nevada the roads were still unpaved, made quite an impact on the young Ike. When he encountered the autobahn in Germany in 1945 he made a vow to himself to improve America’s roads if he could, and he did.

On this date in 1863, July 3, 1863 the Battle of Gettysburg ended. The three-day battle, involved some 160,000 Americans and led to some 50,000 casualties. It was union victory and the final major Confederate offensive operation. It was as important and dramatic a battle as has ever been fought, with the fate of the nation hanging in the balance.

Just as importantly for the course of the Civil War, the very next day, Independence Day 1864, General Pemberton surrendered the city of Vicksburg and his entire garrison of 20,000 men to General Grant, thus leaving the Mississippi River open to navigation. When he received the news by telegram, President Lincoln remarked

"The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea."

These events together marked the unmistakable turning point of the Civil War.

I promise to lead you into a study of today’s scriptures and how Lincoln used them and two others in his Second Inaugural Address. I will lead you into these scriptures and that address by way of telling you about an unusual encounter in eastern Europe in the summer of 1934, a story told by one of my literary heroes, who just died a few weeks ago at the age of 96.

Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor was born in 1915, making him a member of my parents’ generation. He was acclaimed during his lifetime as one of the finest travel writers ever. More importantly, he became a British undercover agent during World War II on the German-occupied island of Crete. There he teamed up with Cretan partisans to kidnap the German commandant and take him off the island to Cairo. It was a great adventure, which was turned into a book by one of his comrades-in-arms and eventually a movie. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order, Order of the British Empire and knighted. Always Paddy to his friends, he lived large, made friends easily and knew at least something about everything.

He began his career after being thrown out of school in Canterbury, where I also studied for a year at the local university. He then set out at age 19, in December of 1933 to walk across Europe from Holland to Constantinople, which took almost two years. Taking only a sleeping bag, the Oxford Book of English Verse and a volume of Horace, he walked up the Rhine and down the Danube, sleeping in barns and shepherd huts along the way, finally arriving at Constantinople in 1935.

The two books he wrote - there is a third, unfinished - about this experience, in prose of which John Keats would have been proud, included the meeting up with some Jewish woodcutters in the mountainous forests of Transylvania. They communicated in German. One of the woodcutters was a rabbi – I’m not making this up; this is not a rabbi joke. Together with the rabbi’s sons and assistants they stopped for the evening to study Torah. Patrick Fermor was interested in languages, had a wonderful ability to make contact with people, and recited a few lines of some familiar psalms, translating in his head from English into German as he went. The rabbi and sons then would recite the Hebrew.

It must have been quite a session there in the lamplight of a summer evening in the forests of Rumania. Here is how he describes it:

“Everything took a different turn when scripture cropped up. The book in front of the Rabbi was the Torah, or part of it, printed in dense Hebrew black-letter that was irresistible to someone with a passion for alphabets; especially these particular letters, with their aura of magic. Laboriously I could phonetically decipher the sounds of some of the simpler words, without a glimmer of their meanings, of course, and this sign of interest gave pleasure. I showed them some of the words I had copied down in Bratislava from shops and Jewish newspapers in cafés, and the meanings, which I had forgotten, made them laugh; those biblical symbols recommended a stall for repairing umbrellas, or ‘Daniel Kirsch, Koscher Würst und Salami.’ How did the Song of Miriam sound in the original, and the Song of Deborah; David’s lament for Absalom; and the rose of Sharon and the lily of the valley? The moment it became clear, through my clumsy translations into German, which passage I was trying to convey, the Rabbi at once began to recite, often accompanied by his sons. Our eyes were alight; it was a marvelous game. Next came the rivers of Babylon, and the harps hanging on the willows: this they uttered in unfaltering unison, and when they came to ‘If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,’ the moment was extremely solemn . . . After a few more moments like this, the other-worldly Rabbi and his sons and I were excited. Enthusiasm ran high. These passages, so famous in England, were double charged with meaning for them, and their enthusiasm was infectious. They seemed astonished – touched, too – that their tribal poetry enjoyed such glory and affection in the outside world . . .”

This ancient poetry truly does enjoy glory and affection in the outside world, even in these United States, and has throughout our history.

We read the Bible because it is paradigmatic. The Bible contains stories of promise and fulfillment and loss and disappointment; followed by a new promise, a new and unexpected fulfillment. This is the substance of life, as individuals, as a congregation, as a nation: promise, dreams, fulfillment, loss, disappointment, renewal of promise, another fulfillment, hope springs eternal; and so on.

So here we are July 3, 2011, Independence Day Weekend, 148 years after the battle of Gettysburg and the fall of Vicksburg, 146 years approximately after the Civil War ended, 235 years since the signing of the declaration.

The greatness of Abraham Lincoln consisted of many abilities and accomplishments, but none more important than his use of Biblical imagery, quotations, and thinking to enunciate the meaning and purpose of the Civil War and the meaning and purpose of this nation and our form of government. He did this in all of his speeches, which actually were rather few – a dozen major speeches and a few minor ones - but the two most important are the ones inscribed in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, the Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural Address.

It is to the latter speech and the Biblical quotations that we turn. Many have called his Second Inaugural Address the greatest sermon ever delivered in America. And it was only 700 words. I’ve already spoken more than that.

He made four specific references in this speech to scripture. In two places he quoted scripture word for word and in one other, two scriptures are clearly put together and quoted in part.

We’ll begin in the middle, after he has explained the cause of the war and stated
“Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.”

Thus he described war as something alien that comes upon; and that is how we usually experience major conflict. We do not expect it; we do not plan for it; and then, suddenly we’re in a raging argument. People’s voices are rising and feelings are getting hurt.

“Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding.” Afterward, we say “I got into an argument.”

And the war came

By March of 1865 the results were indeed fundamental and astounding. Slavery was over. The 13th Amendment outlawing slavery had passed. There were 180,000 African Americans in the Union Army. There were even a few hundred or maybe a thousand in the Confederate Army.

“Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes his aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces; but let us judge not, that we be not judged.” (Gen 3:19; Matt 7:1)

This irenic address does include a smackdown of slavery and for this condemnation he goes to Genesis 3:19 where the fact that we have to work is a direct result of the Fall. Work and toil are the wages of sin. Forcing others to work for us compounds the sin. Then he returns to prayer, the main subject of this paragraph, and concludes:

“The prayers of both could not be answered—that of neither has been answered fully.”

We certainly all know this by now. We do get answers to prayers, but almost never exactly what we ask for.

“The Almighty has his own purposes. ‘Woe unto the world because of offenses! for it must needs be that offenses come; but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.’ (Matt18:7 This passage in the Bible foreshadows the betrayal of Jesus by Judas.) If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through his appointed time, he now wills to remove, and that he gives to both North and South this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to him? Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’" (Ps 19:9)

God is still in charge. Offenses come. It’s a fallen world. Stuff happens. Bad stuff happens. When bad stuff happens, there is someone responsible, but more importantly, usually, a lot of people are responsible. As we sow, we reap. We created slavery and reaped the benefits. Now we pay the price. Lincoln addressed himself to all Americans, north and south. He made no mention of war reparations or anything of the sort. The war itself was the payment and everyone had to pay up. At the end of this long and terrible war, he concluded simply that somehow it had to happen. No one was to blame and everyone was to blame. There was plenty of blame to go around.


“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.”

Every single day in Washington, thousands of people, people from all over America and the world, visit the Lincoln Memorial, have their photographs taken in front of the great statue, and read the two addresses on the north and south interior walls. They read these two great American speeches based so much upon the Bible, and draw their own conclusions about their own lives and countries. Lincoln’s words are an echo in still contemporary language of that call from God to Abraham, to Moses, to Deborah, to Miriam, to Jesus, to all the saints, even to the saints here today in Kenwood; a call to live by God’s laws, to love God, to love your neighbor, to forgive, to be forgiven; and thereby fulfill God’s promise and experience the fullness of life


Genesis 3:19 In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

Psalm 19:9 The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring for ever: the judgments of the LORD are true and righteous altogether.

Matt 7:1-5
[1] Judge not, that ye be not judged.
[2] For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.
[3] And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
[4] Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?
[5] Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye.

[1] At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?
[2] And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them,
[3] And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.
[4] Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
[5] And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me.
[6] But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.
[7] Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!

Monday, June 27, 2011

Memorial Day, 2011

The following tells of a a brief ceremony that took place on Memorial Day in Washington, DC, along with a meditation on the day’s lectionary, delivered as a sermon at the Kenwood Community Church in the Sonoma Valley.

June 5, 2011
7th Sunday after Easter

Scriptures from Acts and Ephesians at bottom.

Today I will note what has taken place in history
Talk about Memorial Day
Take note of today’s scriptures
Relate the scriptures to Memorial Day and
Conclude by reading you a story

The theme of this sermon is conflict and conflict resolution, remembrance and forgetting, honoring and forgiving and moving on. It will end with the story of a baptism of sorts, a new beginning.

During this past week in history in 1941, in the Atlantic Ocean some hundreds of miles south and west of England, the British Navy caught up with and sank the Battleship Bismarck. Coming during the darkest days of World War II when Britain stood alone, it was a great morale-boosting victory.

Just to show you how quickly history moves sometimes, the Normandy Invasion took place on June 6, 1944, just three years later; one year after that, the war was over.

Looking back a bit further, our American Civil War both began and ended about this time of year, around 150 years ago. Sesquicentennial celebrations are unfolding. There will be Civil War material all over television and in bookstores for the next several years. Approximately 100 new books about the Civil War come out every year and have done so for the past 50, without end in sight. In a way, we are still fighting the Civil War, fighting over its meaning and significance and will continue to do so for a long time to come.

In the Christian calendar, Today is the 7th Sunday after Easter. The lectionary for today gives us the last words of Jesus to his disciples before being taken up into heaven. I decided to add what were the last words of Paul, these words about girding for battle and so on conclude that his letter to the Ephesians. He was tried and executed not long afterward. Then, in honor of Memorial Day, I decided to add some thoughts about Abraham Lincoln and the American Civil War to this morning’s meditations.

I just arrived here in the wine country after spending about four months in Washington, DC. You cannot escape from thinking about the Civil War in Washington. There are statues of a Civil War generals and admirals all over town, in traffic circles and parks; yet more across the river in Arlington National Cemetery, along with the graves of thousands and thousands of Civil War dead, both Union and Confederate.

At the beginning of May, on the day after the death of Osama bin Laden, I attended a lecture by Harvard President Drew Faust at the Kennedy Center. She received an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The award came with a lecture opportunity and she delivered a long meditation on the Civil War, her academic subject, and war itself. Why is war so interesting, she asked? She offered, tentatively, a variety of answers, saying essentially, as I remember, that war is a terrifying and fascinating mystery wherein people do the best of which they are capable, and the worst. And there are consequences, important world-changing consequences.

She quoted Robert E Lee: “It is well that war is so terrible, else we should grow too fond of it.” What inspired Lee was seeing all these men, I believe before the battle of Fredericksburg, advancing in lines, colors flying, subjecting themselves to severe discipline in the face of great danger. Many participants in great battles, from enlisted men to generals, have remarked afterwards on the great beauty of the lead-up to the battle. It is awe-inspiring.

President Faust could also have quoted General Sherman’s advice to the graduates of the Michigan Military Academy in 1879: “I’ve been where you are now and I know just how you feel. It’s entirely natural that there should beat in the breast of every one of you a hope and desire that some day you can use the skill you have acquired here. You don’t know the horrible aspects of war. I’ve been through two wars and I know. I’ve seen cities and homes in ashes. I’ve seen thousands of men lying on the ground, their dead faces looking up at the skies. I tell you, war is Hell!”

Of course Robert E. Lee knew this just as well. Everyone in the military knows this.

I celebrated Memorial Day by visiting the Lincoln Memorial and attending a service at the Monument to the First Division. This monument is one of my favorites: a slender eighty-foot column of pink granite surmounted by a golden angel with a flag atop an orb. A plumed helmet crowns the angel's head. One might think it is Michael, the Archangel, but the guidebooks say she is Victory. Modeled after French statue from 1830. Sculptor is Daniel Chester French, who did the statue of Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial. As the symbol of the division is a big, red numeral one, there is a numeral one-shaped flower bed at the base of the monument, always planted during the growing season with red flowers, tulips in the spring, some other red flowers throughout the summer and into the fall.

I arrived early and rested under the shade of a tree. It was already close to unbearably hot at 10:30. The ceremony started right on time at 11 with a jaunty tune played on a bugle. A few people stayed in the shade, but the sight of several dozen frail veterans, their wives and some widows sitting solidly in the sunshine made me decide to join them and in some way honor those who had endured much worse. The color guard came forward, the chaplain prayed and the speaker stepped to the podium. Retired General Ken Hunzeker promised to be brief as he mopped his brow with a towel. I chatted with him briefly before the service, a large, imposing gentleman. If he were to give me an order, it would never even occur to me not to follow it. What I remember most was stories of three of the Division’s Medal of Honor winners, one of whom fell on a grenade somewhere in Iraq to save his comrades.

The guard retired the colors. The soldiers back in the shade snapped off a twenty-one gun salute. Three quick bursts: Blam! Blam! Blam!

The sound echoed off the buildings. The bugler played taps.

Sun. Heat. Not even the suggestion of a breeze, just the wonderful stillness that follows something important. Finally we arose from our seats and sought the solace of the shade.

The military in services like this functions as a national priesthood, a religious order that connects us to Americans past, present and future. For those few moments, you are certain that you, through your nation, will live forever. God willing, this ceremony will repeat itself every Memorial Day and Veterans Day from now until Jesus comes again.

And now finally, the scriptures. The scriptures today deal with loss and promise. The disciples have lost Jesus. He was executed. Then he miraculously returned and they are about to lose him again. It’s like the last meeting of the class before the exam. Any last questions? So they ask him a huge geo-political, world-historical question:

"Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?"

This is a fantastic story; patently unbelievable in most of its details – unless you have faith - but in this one detail it is true to history as we know it: 1st Century Jews undoubtedly had this question on their minds: When are we going to get our country back?

Jesus replies: "It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."

And those are his last words. After uttering them, he takes off, literally. As we all know, the disciples fled and cowered in the upper room for a while and then the Holy Spirit came upon them and they spread the Gospel to the ends of the earth. We’re their successors and we’re still spreading the Gospel, as best we can.

Today’s letter by Paul to the Ephesians, a powerful much-quoted passage, is also a valedictory:

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord, and in the strength of His might. 11 Put on the full armor of God, that you may be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.

He uses the language of warfare to exhort his readers, then and now, to fight an even more important battle than the battles we remember on Memorial Day. He has in mind the spiritual battle we all fight within ourselves, the battle to take control of all the forces and temptations in our own minds; not just to fight the enemy without, but to fight the enemy within, namely our own selves, our own hatreds, and projections and regrets. And so on.

The American Civil War was, among other things, a religious conflict. The soldiers who fought were perhaps the most religiously literate soldiers ever to go into battle. Thousands of them died with Bibles in their pockets. Cease-fires were arranged so the American Bible Society could distribute Bibles to both sides. And this, I don’t need to tell you, was a great tragedy and a matter for some reflection and soul-searching, which President Lincoln provided in the greatest sermon ever delivered in America, which is known more commonly as his Second Inaugural Address, delivered just a month or so before the Civil War ended and he was assassinated.

Lincoln said, in essence, that this war was about over; the boots-on-the-ground, musket and cannon-fire war -- that was about over. But now another was about to begin, a spiritual war within every American to enable us to live as one nation again. And to win this war, this war to come, this inner, spiritual war, said Lincoln, we must confess that this shooting war was caused by all of us. It had to happen. Let there be no gloating or sulking at the outcome and move on:

“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
How do you get over disappointment, hurt, traumatic injury? No one knows for sure. You can search in the self-help section of bookstores; consult the finest psychologists, psychiatrists, clergy, healers; take workshops and seminars. The advice you will get from them is rather hit or miss and will probably boil down to what Lincoln said anyway: assume that this disappointment, hurt, conflict, war - whatever – had to happen for some reason in the divine economy that we cannot begin to understand. It is not a perfect world. Sometimes it just hurts to be alive. Let us therefore do something to make ourselves feel better and strive on to finish the work we are in.
Now I have story to read, by a great travel writer, Colin Thubron, from his book In Siberia. He traveled throughout Siberia about fifteen years ago, shortly after the break-up of the old Soviet Union. One day he found himself in Omsk, a city just east of the Urals, and was invited along to a ceremonial blessing of waters, some time in June of 1997 or so. Listen:
“Next morning, outside the big, unlovely cathedral, which in Stalin’s day had been a cinema, I found a coach-load of pilgrims setting off for a rural monastery. They welcomed me on board. The monastic foundations were only just being laid, they said, and they were going to attend the blessing of its waters. In 1987 and excavator at the site had unearthed a mass grave, and the place was revealed as a complex of labor camps, abandoned at Stalin’s death. The inmates, mostly intelligentsia, had died of pneumonia and dysentery from working in the fields, and their graves still scattered its earth.

As out bus bowled through ramshackle villages, the pilgrims relayed the story with murmers of motherly pity. They were elderly women, for the most part, indestructible babushkas in flower-printed dresses and canvas shoes, whose gnarled hands were closed over prayer-books and bead-strings, and whose headscarves enshrined faces of genial toughness. When a fresh-faced cantor began chanting a hymn in the front of the bus, their voices rose in answer one after another, like old memories, reedy and melodious from their heavy bodies, until the whole bus was filled with their singing.

We reached a birch grove. It was one of those ordinary rural spots whose particular darkness you would never guess. As the women disembarked, still singing, the strains of other chanting echoed from a chapel beyond the trees. It was the first of four shrines which would one day stake out the corners of an immense compound. Inside, a white-veiled choir was lilting the sad divisions of the liturgy. As the pilgrims visited their favourite icons, a forest-fire of votive candle-flames sprang up beneath the standing cross, and two or three bubushkas shuddered to their knees.

Towards noon a procession unwound from the church and started across the pasturelands towards the unblessed waters. It moved with a shuffling, dislocated pomp. Behind its uplifted cross, whose gilded plaques wobbled unhinged, Archbishop Feodosy advanced in a blaze of turquoise and crimson, his globular crown webbed in jewels. He marked off each stride with the stab of a dragon-headed stave, and his chest glinted with purple- and gold-embossed frontlets, and a clash of enameled crosses. He looked huge. Beside him went the celebrant and behind him tripped a huddle of young priests in mauve, and the trio of raspberry-silk deacons.

I fell in with the pilgrims following. It was oddly comforting. An agnostic among believers, I felt close to them. I too wanted their waters blessed. I wanted that tormented earth quitened, the past acknowledged and shriven. I helped the old woman beside me carry her bottles. My feeling of hypocrisy, of masquerading on others’ faith evaporated. As I took her arm over the puddles and our procession stretched across the wet grass, Russia’s atheist past seemed no more than an overcast day in the long Orthodox summer, and the whole country appeared to be reverting instinctively, painlessly, to its old nature. This wandering ceremonial, I felt, sprang not from an evangelical revolution but from a simple cultural relapse into the timeless personality of the motherland – the hierarchical, half-magic trust of its forefathers, the natural way to be.

We reached a place where a silver pipe, propped on an old lorry tyre, was spilling warm water into a pool. A blond deacon, like a Nordic Christ planted the processional cross on the far side, and the archbishop, the priests, acolytes and pilgrims, the babushkas and their bags and bottles, a few war veterans and one mesmerized foreigner formed a wavering crescent round the water’s rim.

The celebrant, clutching a jeweled cross, was ordered to wade in. From time to time he glanced up at the archbishop, who gave no signal for him to stop. Deeper and deeper he went, while his vestments fanned out over the surface, their mauve silk waterlogged to indigo, until he was spread out below up like an outlandish bird. At last Feodosy lifted his finger. The priest floundered, gaped up at us – or at the sky – in momentary despair, recovered his balance and went motionless. Then, with a ghastly frown, he traced a trembling cross beneath the water.

A deep, collective seemed to escape the pilgrims. Again the cavalcade unfurled around the pool, while the archbishop, grasping a silver chalice, sprinkled the surface with its own water, and the wobbly cross led the way back.

But the babushkas stayed put. As the procession glimmered and died through the darkness of the trees, and the archbishop went safely out of sight, a new excitement brewed up. They began to peel off their thick stockings and fling away their shoes. They were all ready. They tugged empty bottles labeled Fanta or Coca-Cole from their bags. Then they clambered or slid down the muddy banks and waded into the newly blessed water. At first they only scooped it from the shallows. It was mineral water, muddied and warm. They drank in deep gulps from their cupped hands, and winched themselves back to stow the bottles on shore.

Then it all went to their heads. Six or seven old women flung off first their cardigans, then their kerchiefs and skirts, until at last, stripped down to flowery underpants and bras, they made headlong for the waters. All inhibition was lost. Their massive legs, welted in varicose veins, carried them juddering down the banks. Their thighs tapered to small, rather delicate feet. Little gold crosses were lost between their breasts. They plunged mountainously in. I stood above them in astonishment, wondering if I was meant to be here. But they were shouting and jubilant. They cradled the water in their hands and dashed it over their faces. Holiness had turned liquid, palpable. You could rink it, drown in it, bring it home like flowers for the sick.

Two of the boldest women – cheery, barrel-chested ancients – made for the gushing silver pipe and thrust their heads under it. They sloshed its torrent exultantly over one another, then submerged in it and drank it wholesale. They shouted at their friends still on land, until one or two even of the young girls lifted their skirts and edged in. Bottle after bottle was filled and lugged to shore. But it was the young, not the old, who hesitated. The old were in high spirits. One of them shouted at me to join them, but I was caught between laughter and tears. These were women who survived all the Stalin years, the deprivation, the institutional suffering, into a life of widowhood and breadline pensions, and their exuberance struck me dumb. Perhaps in this sacred and chaotic water-hole the world seemed finally to make sense to them, and all this aching, weary flesh at last found absolution.”

Whatever your disappointments have been, whatever hardships you have overcome, whatever your hurts, whether they were physical, or emotional -- may this summer ahead be warm and healing; may you all find absolution.

Acts 1:6-10__So when they had come together, they asked him, "Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" He replied, "It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven."

Ephesians 6:10-20
10 Finally, be strong in the Lord, and in the strength of His might. 11 Put on the full armor of God, that you may be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. 13 Therefore, take up the full armor of God, that you may be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14 Stand firm therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, 15 and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; 16 in addition to all, taking up the shield of faith with which you will be able to extinguish all the flaming missiles of the evil one. 17 And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 18 With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit, and with this in view, be on the alert with all perseverance and petition for all the saints, 19 and pray on my behalf, that utterance may be given to me in the opening of my mouth, to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains; that in proclaiming it I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

From San Francisco to Washington

January 28, 2011

San Francisco is enshrouded in fog as my plane takes off at 10 AM on Friday, January 28, bound for Washington, DC. Only the immense television tower Mt. Sutro pokes its red and white top through the undulating gray carpet. After a gradual bank eastward, the green Berkeley Hills interrupt the expanse briefly, whereupon it continues to the Sierra Nevada, which are snowy as their name suggests. It has been a wet winter in California. The rain began in mid-November and continued with few interruptions until early January. Water courses out of vast canyons and collects in serpentine lakes behind unseen dams.

Then the mountains show themselves under a think blanket of snow. I know from experience that Yosemite Valley is probably visible from the south side of the airplane. I’m on the north. Yet the canyons and valleys I see are a spectacular sight in themselves.

After a few minutes, the Sierra slide effortlessly by and I am over the light brown and apparently lifeless expanse of the great high desert to the east. Since it is winter, this table land is now marked by what appear to be trickles of water that must be raging torrents brought to life by snowmelt. What in the summer would be dry riverbeds and mostly invisible are now dark blue or gray undulations in the earth’s surface.

We follow Interstate 80, which seems to attract secondary roads and railroads that converge and diverge from it. Then the interstate moves off to the northeast and for about half an hour there is no evidence of human habitation, not a road, not a house, not a power line. Finally a tiny smokestack appears, a single road leading to it, but there are no buildings anywhere near. Who works here? How do they get here? What do they make here - mine and refine something? What else could it be?

An occasional broad, brown valley streaked with wispy strips of snow divides the ranges of white mountains from one another. I imagine that this high desert is something like Central Asia, a territory best crossed on the back of a camel or accompanied by a caravan of yaks.

Ice crystals form on the window. The tiny television screen provided by Virgin America informs me that we are at about 35,000 feet and it is 60 below zero outside, Fahrenheit.

Cloud cover. I pick up my new traveling companion, Travels with Herodotus, by Ryszard Kapuscinski, one of my literary heroes and namesake, were I Polish. I bought the hard cover at Copperfield’s in Santa Rosa for eight dollars. He begins with his first brief travels outside of Poland in the 1950s, to India and to China. Only after these first chapters does he say much about Herodotus, whom he began to read when he was still at home in Poland, trying to write about countries he had never visited during those years when communist governments were loathe to allow journalists to travel abroad:

“Here are presented the results of the enquiry carried out by Herodotus of Halicarnassus. The purpose is to prevent the traces of human events from being erased by time, and to preserve the fame of the important and remarkable achievements produced by both Greeks and non-Greeks; among the matters covered is, in particular, the cause of the hostilities between Greeks and non-Greeks.”

Kapuscinski follows this with an essay on memory and Herodotus as the first journalist, who relied upon living informants, for there were almost no others: no archives, no records, no books. In those days, if one wanted to know about a distant place, as Herodotus did, one either had to go there or talk to someone who had been there. Or talk to someone who had talked to someone who had talked to someone . . . who had been there. Or so he claimed.

Land emerges from under the clouds again and I put the book down. This bleak landscape is transformed by snow into something beautiful, especially when the sun picks up the yellow, red, and orange of these canyons below. I focus on one great canyon in particular, bright red, dusted with snow, and sprinkled with tiny trees or perhaps sagebrush. The whole landscape looks like it could be bent into a Christmas tree ornament or a holiday confection covered with powdered sugar. Here and there a line or two in the snow marks a highway, a railroad, a telegraph line. There is an occasional copse of trees, a pond, an isolated farmhouse connected by a line in the snow to another line.

Meanwhile Kapucsinski, by way of Herodotus, ponders the nature of difference and conflict. Herodotus lived in the 5th Century BC, at a time when the Persians twice invaded Greece, unsuccessfully, yet remained the superpower on the Greek horizon. What caused the hostilities between Greeks and Persians? Or among the Greeks themselves, or all the hostilities since? Why do these people hate us? Why do we hate them? Why do the nations so furiously rage together? One might say that Herodotus walked to the ends of the earth to find an answer to these questions.

The Persians with whom he spoke maintained that the East-West conflict of the day was all started by men stealing women. A man stealing a woman was certainly the legendary cause of the Trojan War. Something had to start it. Someone crosses a line, sometimes a literal line in the sand, or soil and embarks upon a war of aggression; or someone crosses a metaphorical line, a line demarking decent behavior from indecent, beginning a long chain of stroke and counterstroke, aggression and revenge. Kapuscinski writes: “What happened? Simply this: that you have been revenged upon for crimes perpetrated ten generations ago by a forefather whose existence you weren’t even aware of. . . . in Herodotus’s world, (as well as in various societies today) the eternal law of revenge, the law of reprisal, of an eye for an eye, was (and remains) alive and well. Revenge is not only a right – it is a most sacred obligation.” Journalists and historians cover these stories well, for they, not to mention their readers, are drawn to the exceptional and the dramatic. War and conflict also demark both vast periods of time and huge expanses of earthly space from one another, between Persian rule and Roman, between Arab and Turk, between British and American.

Of course there are often vast periods of peace in between conflict. This vast land below, compared in terms of history to Europe, is remarkably uneventful. The conflicts of Europe have been well-chronicled for at least eight centuries and chronicled in some fashion for two millennia before that. There is no shortage of written records and old buildings and walls to sift through. The center of the American continent under the clouds below has been the subject of history for at most a few hundred years. There has been one major conflict, the Civil War. There has been essentially one government.

More clouds stretch out below. I doze off. When I awake, the rocky, arid west has been left behind and we are over the well-marked fields and roads of the Midwest. As far as the eye can see is farmhouses, roads and fields, with occasional stands of trees. We are in the east; east of the longitudinal line through the heart of North America that marks the border between farming and ranching, west of which there is often neither farming nor ranching, nor much of anything growing at all. Despite being east of this line, we call this the Midwest, the land of Central Time, where I grew up and came to manhood, the limitless grassland where, midway through Ole Rolvaag’s novels, the heroines go stark raving mad.

I poke some buttons in front of me and the little red airplane appears in northern Iowa near the Minnesota border. Usually the plane follows Interstate 80 most of the way across the country. Some weather and wind pattern must have made the pilots wander a couple hundred miles north. A carpet of clouds again gains command of the landscape. After a few minutes the first shadows of evening appear on the undulating surface as we traverse Lake Michigan, whose waters accentuate the blueness.

A few seats in front of me an infant begins to cry, gurgles, then carries on as if it were being wantonly strangled. Then just as quickly as the fuss began, it goes back to sleep and all is quiet aboard the jetliner.

As the clouds below carry on their dominance, I return to Herodoscinski and his Niebuhrian meditations on the nature and madness of man, about Croesus and Cyrus settling their differences and embarking upon the conquest of the Massagetae, who lived east of the Caspian Sea. Cyrus wanted to rule over this land, cooking up some story of Massagetaean trespass from generations earlier to justify his invasion. What must the two kings have talked about as they rode along in a golden carriage drawn by horses while the soldiers plodded along, often driven by the lash? Did they talk at all? This Cyrus, whom the Greeks dreaded and despised, whose son and grandson the Greeks despised even more, was nonetheless beloved by the Judeans. Isaiah referred to him with great praise and many commentators claim that Isaiah believed Cyrus to be the Messiah.

Cyrus, for all of his faults, was a monotheist and took pity on the Judaean monotheists his Babylonian enemies had taken captive. On the theory that an enemy of his enemy was his friend, he returned these captives to Jerusalem along with a check for their temple restoration and neighborhood rebuilding fund. I’m not making this up.

The years of Persian domination, roughly 500 – 320 BC, were good years for the Jews. They were good years for the Greeks as well, but in spite of the Persians, not because of them. The Persians ruled Judea benignly. It was after Alexander took over on his way to conquer the world that things really deteriorated in the lands of the Bible. Alexander died of drink – and various other excesses – before he was thirty, leaving a vast empire for his generals to quarrel over. Quarrel they did. Civil wars resulted. Nonetheless, great cultural exchange and development ensued. In the middle of it, Jesus of Nazareth lived and died. Thanks to Alexander bringing the West to the East, his message spread around the world through the common language of the day, Greek.

Cyrus’s expedition ended in disaster. He and his army were slaughtered near the banks of the River Oxus, in the heart of Central Asia, by the Massagetae and their warrior queen, Tomyris. She found his corpse on the battlefield afterward and shoved his severed head into a wineskin filled with blood, saying, “I warned you that I would quench your thirst for blood, and so I shall.”

An occasional glance at the many tiny television screens aboard reveals news of demonstrations in Egypt. Kapuscinski takes me there on a brief trip in 1960: “My initial glimpse is in the evening, as my airplane approaches Cairo. From up high, the river at this time of day resembles a black, glistening trunk, forking and branching, surrounded by garlands of streetlights and bright rosettes defining the squares of this immense and bustling city.” He explains recent Egyptian history: “In 1952, Nasser, then thirty-four, led the military coup that overthrew King Farouk; he became president four years later. For a long time he faced strong internal opposition: on the one hand Communists fought him, and on the other the Muslim Brotherhood, a conspiratorial organization of fundamentalists and Islamic terrorists. To combat them both Nasser maintained numerous police units of all sorts.”

Kapuscinsky then reports in almost magical realist fashion what it was like to live in this police state. He arrived with a bottle of Czech beer, drank it his first night there, then faced the disposal problem: what to do with an empty beer bottle in a country where alcohol was strictly forbidden? He dared not leave it in the waste paper basket in the hotel, for it would be discovered and reported. He decided to walk out in the morning, bottle wrapped in a paper bag, and drop it into the first garbage can he could find. Unfortunately, there was someone eyeing him at every corner, lurking in the vicinity of every garbage can, watching everything that moved.

“The street now turned, but beyond the turn everything was exactly as before. I couldn’t throw the bottle out anywhere, because no matter where I tried, I encountered someone’s gaze turned in my direction. Cars drove along the streets, donkeys pulled carts loaded with goods, a small herd of camels passed by stiffly, as if on stilts, but all this seemed to be taking place in the background, on some plane other than the one on which I was walking, caught in the sightlines of perfect strangers, who stood, strolled, talked, most frequently sat, and all the while stared at what I was doing. I grew increasingly nervous, and as I started to sweat profusely, the paper bag in my hand was getting soggy. I was afraid that the bottle would slip out of it and shatter on the sidewalk . . . “

Eventually, he returned to the hotel, bottle still in hand. He went out again late that night, whereupon, under cover of darkness, he quietly deposited the sanctioned bottle in a garbage can, returned to his room and fell exhausted into bed.

Why did Kapuscinski read Herodotus, whose information was so dated? He provides numerous clues throughout his journey. Perhaps the most intriguing comes at the end, when he quotes T. S. Eliot from a 1944 essay about Virgil:

“In our age, when men seem more than ever prone to confuse wisdom with knowledge, and knowledge with information, and to try to solve problems of life in terms of engineering, there is coming into existence a new kind of provincialism which perhaps deserves a new name. It is a provincialism, not of space, but of time; one for which history is merely the chronicle of human devices which have served their turns and been scrapped, one for which the world is the property solely of the living, a property in which the dead hold no shares. The menace of this kind of provincialism is, that we can all, all the peoples on the globe, be provincials together . . . ”

He traveled in order to escape the provincialism of space and read Herodotus to escape the provincialism of time.

The sky fills with color as we approach Washington. We descend through the clouds and the lights of suburban Virginia appear below. There is snow on the ground. The streets glisten, framed by bare trees. The plane makes one big turn as it approaches Dulles Airport, once considered impossibly far from Washington, and we feel at last the reassuring impact of the runway beneath the plane. We have traversed in five hours what Herodotus in his day could not have completed in a lifetime.