Thanksgiving, 2015. 

Thanksgiving is almost upon us although if you were to believe all of the hype on television you would think that Christmas is already here. This tendency to view Thanksgiving as just an excuse to over eat and watch football has minimized the importance of this day. Giving thanks, even for the little things in life, helps us to see our world with different eyes. Sure, it has been a rough year, globally we have witnessed the rise in terrorism, from Africa to Europe. It seems that no one is immune from this scourge. We witness the tragic shootings that happen way too often, in movie theaters, malls and in the streets. Lives taken way too early and we stand by feeling helpless. Let alone the political mess that we call the campaign season where the rhetoric is one of fear mongering rather than seeking any true solutions. There is no longer dialogue only who can shout the loudest amongst within the midst of the crowds.
 Personally, I have had a rather difficult year both in my vocation and life in general. Being struck down by someone who wasn’t paying attention, breaking my hip and the resulting surgery, left me wondering and confused. Although I am doing better, I still have those moments of deep melancholy, we don’t want to call it depression as that denotes a weakness, so it’s just melancholy, a simpler, easier condition to deal with. Next week it will have been six months since that day in June, and though the physical part is slowly coming back, my interior self still needs time to work things out. Vocationally, as a priest in this time and place, I find myself struggling against the tide of religious indifference. Like a salmon struggling upstream, I seem to be battling against forces well beyond my spiritual strength and that is tiring as well as demoralizing.

 Yet, in spite of these struggles, the physical, emotional and spiritual, I do give thanks for all that I have been blessed with this past year. This time of thanksgiving is one in which I can step back and see the bigger picture as well as focus on those small moments of grace. I survived that crash, yes my hip was broken but I wasn’t crippled or worse. I slowly got back on my feet with the love and support of Jane, who in this time has been my rock as well as a loving spouse. I give thanks for those in the world of medicine, the EMT’s, surgeons, nurses, both in the hospital and those who visited, and to the physical therapists who pushed me so that I could walk and ride my bike again. I give thanks for my family, my sons and their support, my two daughter-in-laws and of course, the grandkids. 

 Life this past year has been a long, and at times, grueling marathon but that has only strengthened me in my daily life. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that our lives are best lived in the moment, caring, loving and living. It is so true that all of the anxiety and worry about the future only makes our present miserable and doesn’t add any minutes to our lifespan. Thanksgiving reminds me of God’s grace and deep compassion and what greater gift can any of us expect and receive. 

Truth?

 I always remember where I was and what I was doing when I first heard the album, Jesus Christ Superstar. At that time I was a young, just turned 19 year old, standing guard one night in guard shack #1 on the very edge of the perimeter on Vung Chua Mountain in Vietnam. A dark night looking out into the perimeter, lit up with lights, the perimeter itself a wasteland of burned up jungle so that no enemy would find refuge in the tall grasses. Along the plot of land and rocks lay claymore mines, pointing out into the darkness that lay beyond the lights. Just within hand reach was a row of special plunger triggers, each one connected with a long thin wire to the various mines. Some of those mines were set at particular angles so that anyone foolish enough to come into that space would be instantly sprayed with a deadly hail of small, projectiles designed to rip human flesh to shreds. Looking out I could see the gatehouse that stood at the entrance to our small, mountaintop compound. At night the gate is closed and several of the claymore mines are wired up, just in case Charlie decides to do what they did during the infamous Tet offensive of 1968 where they used the gatehouse as a springboard onto Vung Chua, killing several of our troops during that fateful week. Next to that row of claymore triggers laid my weapon, a M-16 assault rifle, my particular one was made by GM, you know the folks that brought you Chevy in which you can see the USA. Now it lay there, ready for action, with a full clip of ammo ready to be locked and loaded. I peer out staring into the darkness that lay just outside, my hand on the M-60 machine gun that stands ever ready, and next to that an M-79 grenade launcher with its small but lethal shells sitting all in a row. Just in that one guard tower I had enough weapons and ammo to carry out my own deadly war, to send to our enemy a clear message of our might and power.  Now, on this dark night, as a cool wind blowing up the valley knocked down the heat of the day, I sat listening to the noises of the world around us. Across the valley, on another remote mountain the now familiar crack-pow of an AK-47, to be answered by the sound of an M-16, red and green tracers can be seen flying across the darkened background. Our own mortar crew begins to launch high explosives into the dark sky, the projectiles falling onto some unseen target. The constant thump of the mortar as the crew works to fine tune the the weapon so that the shells fall in the correct place. As quickly as this moment of chaos started, all becomes eerily quiet again and I go back to staring out into the dark listening to the rats as they run around inside the lower part of our guard shack digging through our refuse of empty “C” ration cans. In this lull of the night one of our buddies came up to our guard post, “Hey!” In that kind of loud whisper using lots of throat so as not to startle anyone, “Hey, man. I’ve got something you got to listen to, just got this cassette tape from my sister. It’s so cool.” 

 “Come on up”, we call down into the lower part of the guard shack. He scrambles up the ladder, I tell him to watch out, the rats have been pretty active tonight. “No problem, man. I’ve come to figure that they are here, and if I don’t bug them, they won’t bug me.” 

 Scrambling up the narrow ladder way, he finally makes it up to where we are overlooking the perimeter, trying to keep our eyes open. “Well, what you got that’s so damned important that you have to show us so badly”, asks Mike who was on guard with me that night. “Man, it’s called Jesus Christ Superstar, it’s all music and it’s kind of cool. I mean, if church was like this I’d have gone more often.” 

 “Well, let’s have a listen,” and so we hunkered down as he pushed the play button on his well used cassette player. Soon through the small, tinny sounding speaker we heard those first words, “What’s the buzz, tell me what’s happening,” and began to listen. It was if we were playing a surreal soundtrack in the midst of the chaos that lay just outside our little home. The music drew us in, we could see in our minds eye the disciples not quite getting it, Judas struggling with his demons, Mary Magdalene she sings her song, I don’t know how to love him, all through to that final confrontation with Pilate and his question, “What is truth?” 

 Sitting up there, listening, watching and waiting, these words, “What is truth?” echo in my mind. What is the truth behind what we were doing here at this time and in this place? I look down and see the lights in the city of Qui Nhon, I can see the medivac choppers flying in and out of the airfield, their cargo of broken bodies being taken to the hospital. I think of those Vietnamese families, most poor villagers displaced by the war and now trying to eke out a living, some selling pot, some selling their bodies, some just too broken to do anything but beg along the dusty streets. What is truth, as I see children running through the small village at the bottom of our mountain, half naked, dirty, their faces covered with sores and snotty noses. They live in homes built out of our trash, cans of Coke, Bud, Miller and other such companies mashed flat and then spot welded together to create a wall or roof. What is truth in the midst of this poverty and despair, the old man or old woman carrying the scars of so many years of war, old mama sans teeth stained red from years of chewing betel nuts, squatting at some doorway, and again the question, what is truth? 

 The years have passed, I sit here now with these memories shrouded in mist and shadow. Our current world is sitting in a quagmire of our own making, truth is being exploited in all of its various definitions. Terrorists strike in Paris, young students are massacred in Kenya, a child escaping the violence in Central America is exploited while another child drowns in the sea fleeing from the violence in their land, and we ask what is truth? Politicians offer easy, quick fix answers, they play on our fears and anxieties as they parade around the country seeking power. All the while people cry out for justice and peace, the widow and orphan beg for the breadcrumbs that fall from our tables as we sleepwalk through life, focused only on self and our own needs. The low hum we hear in the deep recesses of our minds, that still small voice that speaks to us in the quiet and stillness of night calls us to seek that truth, the truth that is in the voice and heart of Jesus. Truth, not of power or control, but the truth of Gods love, of peace and of hope. 

160 Days

 I can’t quite believe that it has now been 160 days since I was hit by that car door. In reflecting about that day there are times that I still want to think that this was nothing but a bad dream and soon I will wake up get on my bike and shred a good 50-60 mile ride. Then, the ache in my right hip reminds me that this is no dream and any idea of getting out and doing anything beyond 35 miles is pushing my limits. I have watched the seasons change around me, going from trees that were in full, bright green foliage to those same trees now shedding their, dry, brown leaves leaving the branches bare and cold. The debris of those trees strewn along the roads and yards a testament to the cycles of life, our own movement from the early blush of spring into the last gasps of a dying winter.  I’ve been reading a book by Siegfried Sassoon, it’s the first in a trilogy of books he wrote about his life starting in the English countryside of Edwardian times, into the horror that would become known as the “Great War”. The first book is almost idyllic in its description of a young man living the idle life of a country gentleman, fox hunting in the late fall and winter, rounds of cricket in the sultry summer months, along with occasional trips to London to purchase the required uniform of the fox hunt. Throughout the book, as far as I have read, Sassoon seems almost wistful, he is remembering a time before the mud, blood and destruction he would witness in the trenches, seemingly longing for a return to that innocence. Yet, there is that occasional sentence, his remembering of an acquaintance who has been to South Africa, thrust into the colonial struggle of the Boer War. It is a distant place, far away from the sound of the horns and the howls of the dogs of the fox hunting community. Theirs is a world of tea tents, pubs and the rituals of the upper class removed even from the reality of the slums and poverty just outside the windows of the slow moving trains on the way to London. 

 The familiar ache in my hip brings me up short, a reminder of my mortality, a vision of the future in which I am not ready to concede to just yet. Maybe like Sassoon, I’m looking wistfully at a time, that is now past, a slowly dissipating mist never to be recovered, only dimly remembered. As I look down the road, a road strewn with unseen obstacles, it will require a new way of thinking and living. Yet, I can’t isolate myself from the world outside as everyday it crashes into my life, the daily struggles of those seeking to find peace and a place away from their own horrors. Each day I fear the inevitable end of what was once sure and certain as we move slowly, like one of those ancient trains to London, into an abyss that we might never recover from. I look out of the windows of my own mind and see the slow, almost suicidal death of those who refuse to look up from their own cup of tea.