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In 1864 President Abraham Lincoln took up pen to write a letter of consolation to the widow Lydia Bixby of Boston. It had been reported to Lincoln that she had lost all five of her sons in battle. And here is what he wrote:

Dear Madam,

I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle.

I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.

I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.

Yours, very sincerely and respectfully,

A. Lincoln


In the closing scene from Saving Private Ryan the aged Ryan, surrounded by his wife, children and grandchildren, visits the military grave of the one who came to save him but lost his own life in doing so. He stands in front of the stone and thanks him again, asking himself the hard question: Did I live a life worthy of that sacrifice?

It is a hard question for all of us. And it gets to the heart of what we do on Memorial Day.

There is nothing necessarily wrong with having a patriotic festival and re-energizing the national tribe. Healthy national pride is a good thing. But that cannot be a substitute for the more substantial question, the kind of question such as Ryan asked in front of that stone. It means asking harder questions beyond public rhetoric.

For example, how are we actually caring for veterans – not in the abstract, not in public displays, but in actual services provided to them? Are we willing to fill the available job with a veteran? Are they welcomed back into our communities? Does the VA deliver services when needed in a timely way?

One of the heartening outcomes of the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has been the identification of vast fraud committed by lenders against veterans. As a result millions of dollars have been returned by those abusing institutions. That fraud would never have been identified and prosecuted were it not for an agency charged to do only that. Citizens – in this case veteran citizens – were actively protected. As of late the standards for those lenders, the regulations, are being shelved and scaled back. The winners are predatory lenders. The losers are mortgage borrowers, just like those veterans.

Do I live a life worthy of that sacrifice? Is it a moral life? Does it overturn injustice? Do I advocate for those who have no voice?

More to the point, do I live a life that safeguards the very particular freedoms for which many died? That means honoring the Constitution and the rule of law. And the Constitution includes 33 Amendments added since 1789. Do I safeguard those Amendments?

I remember standing by a combat veteran at an event in which someone protested by not participating in some patriotic ritual. And he said, “I fought for the freedom of that guy to have free speech. I may agree or disagree with him but that is beside the point. I fought for our democracy and the principles of our Constitution. I fought for that guy.”

On this Memorial Day we will have patriotic social ritual. There may be some speeches. But the question of Private Ryan is still the one that matters. Am I living a life that will honor the sacrifice? Am I defending the democracy that gave rise to it? Democracies are fragile things. They take decades, even centuries to build but can be jeopardized in a relatively short span of time. Ours is resilient. But it is not unbreakable.

How will I honor the sacrifices?

Let us begin by reviewing our evolving Constitution and its Amendments.


I just watched the Royal Wedding live streamed from St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, Kensington Palace in England. I thought I was in for just another remarkable exercise in Anglophile pomp and circumstance. Such was not the case.

When Prince Harry and Meghan Markle tied the knot it was surrounded by the traditions of the English Anglican Church, the chapel’s boys choir, an American Gospel choir, a Black American Anglican preacher, and blessings from the ecumenical community.

This was an expression, of course, of the royal couple’s identity itself – the British prince wedding an American, a woman born of a white father and African American mother.

I cannot adequately express the subtle and powerful shift this has engendered at the place of highest symbolic ritual – a royal wedding and marriage. This was instantaneously broadcasted to the entire world. And if there is a sign that unity may take form in ways we have not yet imagined or even allowed, this was it.

Roosters Crow

Posted: April 26, 2018 in Uncategorized

Just after 4
the roosters begin to crow
in the barrio
not all at once
but politely
one at a time
then a duet or two
until the full chorus
makes its entrance
time to go, they say
and so it is
whirring down the mountain
to catch a northerly wind

At the death of a mentor

Posted: April 14, 2018 in Uncategorized

It is inevitable that the ones who have mentored us will all eventually pass away. Of course that means we are soon to follow, that in the fullness of time we will all walk the same mysterious road. A friend of mine just did. He was full of years. His name was Robert Gartman.

Bob was my pastor when I was in High school and College at South Street Christian Church in Springfield. In his own subtle and not-so-subtle ways he called me out, provoked my own sense of destiny, and plied me with barbecue when necessary. I ended up teaching Sunday School, working with the youth, and as a most important aspect of proper initiation worked during college as the part-time night custodian. I really liked running the buffer in the hallways late in the evening when no one was there. But I did not like cleaning the bathrooms. Who does?

It was Bob who helped guide my pathway toward seminary. A discriminating theologian and pastor, he knew what kind of education was most suitable depending on what direction one was heading. I ended up choosing a school that combined serious scholarship with real-world preparation for ministry, Brite Divinity School in Ft. Worth, Texas. I remember him brokering relationships with pastors and professors for me. He was probably the main reason I ended up doing a seminary-long internship at First Christian Church, Arlington, Texas, because his friend, Art Digby, was one of his good friends. In fact, Art became another mentor to me during that time. After interviewing me Art invited me to play tennis with him. I found out later this was more than recreation; he wanted to interact with me in that way to better gauge my real personality. Art is gone now, too.

In Bob I observed a seasoned pastor lead, teach, challenge, make mistakes, deal with unfair treatment and demonstrate spiritual resilience. Those are many of the same things I have done and passed through myself. It was a great gift to have someone do it first and with grace.

Bob always kept up with me no matter where I was living or what church I was serving. He read and listened to my sermons, writings, and books. On occasion he offered sage suggestions. But most of the time he simply expressed appreciation, much as a father can for a son. I knew that because during my own necessary losses and suffering he suffered with me. I will never forget that.

We all sport a certain denial that what we have pushed off into the indefinite future will never come to pass. But it does. We all lose our mentors. And perhaps that is the point, that we must lose them, perhaps by stages.

The first loss is direct mentorship; we move away, things change, and there is no daily direct influence. This is similar to leaving home and allowing our relationship with our parents to change. In time we even experience some role-reversal, the nurture heading back the other way, the insights of the young Spartans shared with the old dogs. For that to work humility is required on both sides.

And then, in the winter of it all, we place them into the arms of the great mystery which we cannot understand but which we trust. We give thanks, like I am now. This is not the deep sadness of personal loss as much as the somber reminder that all things are temporary, even those who have provided the interwoven story lines of our biography.

Thanks, Bob.



Many biographies of the Vietnam era have been written. However enlightening they are most have been written by Americans. One of distinctive exceptions is When Heaven and Earth Changed Places (Doubleday, 1989) written by Le Ly Hayslip, a Vietnamese woman. Le Ly lived through the unimaginable life of a peasant caught in the worst animosities of war, the most recent incursion of foreign powers into her country (what the Vietnamese called “The American War”).

After a long absence she returned to find her father at their ancestral home where he decided to stay when others left. What she found was a broken man barely clinging to life. But the conversation between this father and his struggling and traumatized daughter brought clarity and wisdom that would help her go on with her life.

My father stopped eating and looked at me intently. “Bay Ly, you were born to be a wife and mother, not a killer… You and me — we weren’t born to make enemies. Don’t make vengeance your god, because such gods are satisfied only by human sacrifice.”

“But there has been s much suffering — so much destruction!” I replied, again on the verge of tears, “Shouldn’t someone be punished?”

“Are you so smart that you truly know who’s to blame? If you ask the Viet Cong, they’ll blame the Americans. If you ask the Americans, they’ll blame the North. If you ask the North, they’ll blame the South. If you ask the South, they’ll blame the Vietcong. If you ask the monks, they’ll blame the Catholics, or tell you our ancestors did something terrible and so brought the endless suffering on our heads. So tell me, who would you punish? The common soldier on both sides who’s only doing his duty? Would you ask the French or Americans to repay our Vietnamese debt?”

“But generals and politicians give orders — orders to kill and destroy. And our own people cheat each other as if there’s nothing to it. I know — I’ve seen it! And nobody has the right to destroy Mother Earth!”

“Well then, Bay Ly, go out and do the same, eh? Kill the killers and cheat the cheaters. That will certainly stop the war, won’t it? Listen little peach blossom … Don’t wonder about right and wrong. Those are weapons as deadly as bombs and bullets. Right is the goodness you carry in your heart — love for your ancestors and your baby and your family and for everything that lives. Wrong is anything that comes between you and that love…that is the battle you were born to fight. That is the victory you must win.”

The Monday after Easter I walk the snowy stillness of a path beside the river, the tracks revealing only a solitary two-legged creature and an assemblage of deer preceding me since snowfall. There is not a stick of wind and the birds of spring have the sound of betrayal in their calls, the falling temperatures having disrupted all expectations.

I pause on the return leg and place my gloved hands on the sheer cliff, the rock formed billions of years before me. It is crumbling slowly, as all things do, but its ancient face holds a big story, bigger than my own. I listen. It says, “What is your hurry?”

And then back to my little shelter, the warmth, stretching cat and hot coffee.  J.S. Bach is playing in the background, Sheep Shall Safely Graze. My mind floats to Robert Frost, his own winter walking, and the verse that always haunts, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.