Wednesday, November 16, 2011

How's your work going?

Sometime a story will answer the question better than a straightforward answer.  And if a task is worth doing and you don't seem to be making progress perhaps you just have to hang in, keep at it, and wait for things to change.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Question for the Fisher King


                                                           Two men looked out from prison bars.

One saw mud, the other stars.

Two people can witness the same scene in different ways. Sometime it can really be 'the way you look at it.' Two people can hear the same story and come away with different insights: sometimes an idea the teller never even thought of himself. It can, of course, be what one chooses to hear but a good story tells us what we need to hear.

The legend of the Fisher King is one of those stories. Google it and you'll find over 7,500 presentations or adaptations of this remarkable legend. Here's how I hear/tell it.

The Prince begins his journey in search of love and adventure. Shortly after he begins his journey he attacks a pagan knight, apparently without cause and in so doing, chooses the role of a warrior. That decision will make a difference in the way he charts the course of the rest of his life. He will approach life as a battle with measurable winners and losers. His focus shifts from the soul to the ego.

In time he becomes a king, a position that, at the least, requires skill and cunning. The story is not intended to deny the ego but to give it its proper place. As Paul Tournier, psychologist, reminds us, “The hurts of the world today are so deep, the anguish of our pain so intense that only the heart can save us. And we must put at its service all the faculties of the mind.”

The wound the prince receives in his unprovoked battle with the knight, the one that doesn't heal, is a reminder of the deeper emotional wounds we often receive when we neglect the soul.

There are few who would deny that, in matters of the mind, we have excelled today. Yet as valuable as our skills are in organizing, planning, and managing our material world, in our efforts to think our way to a better day, we often remain emotionally wounded. As with the Fisher King, the key to the healing of our deeper wounds lies in the realm of the spirit.

That the pagan knight has returned from the Holy Land also reminds us that brutality and fear often occur in what are intended to be the most loving and spiritual environments—the family and the church come to mind.

Still wounded, the prince now a king, finds temporary relief in fishing. Fishing, painting, hiking, gardening, playing golf, photographing, any activity that allows one to be creative or to turn inward can give us permission to be healed. But fishing in itself doesn't do the healing.

Many of our wounds are self-inflicted by greed, mean spirited refusals to practice hospitality, and/or a violation of our own moral values. But also, often we are let down by people or institutions we trusted or by circumstances over which we had no control as when a childhood hero turns out to be unable or unwilling to help when we need him or her the most or a company that has promised security to its employees, reneges.

Angry and hurt we decide that we will never put ourselves in a position to be hurt again. We harden our hearts and, as a result diminish our capacity to express our feelings, to be vulnerable and trusting. In other words, we lose our ability to love. To put it in religious terms, we lose our ability to maintain a state of grace with others. We have lost our ability to be intimate. The wound does not heal.

Percival, the young knight, does everything right. He is, after all, one of the Knights of the Round Table. He is a good, moral, and effective defender of the poor but remains dis-eased, unhappy, unfulfilled. It is when he encounters the Grail King for the second time and asks the right question that he and the King are healed.

He asks of himself as well as the King, “What is the purpose of life?” Both lives come into focus with the answer. ”The purpose of life is to serve the soul not the ego.”

I hear the story and I think, no more hardening of my heart, no more counting the worth of my life by how much I have or don't have, no more keeping score of the wrongs others have done to me, I am free to celebrate the beauty of creation, to act compassionately, to speak for justice, to nourish my soul.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

First, show some respect

I don't know if my grandaughters will hear this, but I dedicate it to them and all young women who come to understand their inherent self-worth and who gain the courage to demand respect if and when they enter into deep and meaningful relationships. As a matter of fact, now that I think of it, its a story that my grandsons and all young men could profit from also.  Although this story at its heart, I suppose, is a love story, it points to a quality that all of us of whatever age or stage of life would do well to emulate.  I count it a privilege to be able to tell it.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Empowering children in Kenya

Twenty years ago three young Rhodes Scholars met in Oxford, England. Mary and Janelle were from Kansas, Paul from Kenya. Time passed. Paul stayed in Kenya and became active in business and politics. In time, Mary became Director of Leadership Studies at Kansas State University and Janelle the Head of the Division of Engineering, Business and Computing at Penn State.

Paul's heart went out to the abandoned and orphaned children of his country. There are more than 50 million of them. His head followed his heart and led to the establishment of the Children and Youth Empowerment Centre (CYEC) in Nyeri, Kenya.

A couple of years ago, Paul invited Mary and Janelle to join him in establishing Zawadi Fund International, a U.S. - based non-profit to support CYEC.

CYEC effectively addresses economic growth and the alleviation of poverty through a comprehensive program that includes housing, health care, education and training that transforms young victims into proud and responsible contributors to a better world.

Last year folks in Colorado Springs signed on and raised enough money to purchase material from which young girls in training at CYEC made attractive and useful carryall bags.

Last Saturday (October 22), we raised over $1,000 by selling these bags at the Broadmoor Community UCC Church's Alternative Gift Fair. See the enclosed pictures. That money is already in the pipeline to be used to enrich the program at CYEC.

*A word for those only in the Colorado Springs area: To arrange a program for your group, to order more bags, or to make a tax deductable contribution, contact Maurine Hale,, or 719-488-1974.

But anyone can make a contribution to Zawadi Fund International by contacting Janelle Larson, or

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Woodcutter

If my grandson, whom I affectionally call Alexander the Great, happens to see this, I hope he will find it interesting and, perhaps, helpful. I happen to believe this is a good story for all young men as they prepare to make their own way in the world.

Friday, October 7, 2011

In Memoriam

Two great men died Wednesday. Of the two, the notice of Steve Jobs passing eclipsed that of Fred Shuttlesworth. Jobs revolutionized communication technology. I know, I have an ITOUCH, my wife an IPAD and while neither of us tweet, we do Skype our grandchildren. I understand that Jobs was not all that easy to get along with, but no one disputes his brilliant contribution to the technological revolution.

Fred Shuttlesworth was not all that easy to get along with either. In 1963, The Rev Fred Shuttlesworth, a Baptist preacher, orchestrated and led the mass marches in Birmingham that ended in a showdown between the Civil Right's Movement's child demonstrators and the city of Birmingham's fire hoses and police dogs and led directly to the passage of the Civil Rights Act.

I never met The Rev Shuttlesworth but I did meet his nemesis and arch rival, Eugene “Bull” Connor, the Police Chief who turned the dogs on the children. I was serving as pastor of a small rural church in south Alabama. Mrs. Connor's mother, a one-time member died and I officiated at her funeral. I exchanged but a few words with the “Bull.” That was enough. But, that's beside the point.

The Civil Rights Movement is the point. That's what Fred Shuttlesworth committed his life to and we are all the better for it. He was often the lonely pioneer as he led the way of nonviolent direct action. Although his enemies bombed his house, constantly harassed him, and had him arrested often, he kept the faith. The purpose of The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, founded by Shuttlesworth and two other black ministers, was to “redeem the soul of America.” He will be missed.

I cannot afford not to mourn the loss of Steve Jobs. His pioneer spirit and technological skill has contributed to the things we will use to face and shape the future.

I cannot afford not to mourn the loss of Fred Shuttlesworth. He demanded and persuaded society that humans—all humans—must not be treated as things.

I can only add that our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to use the tools that Jobs fashioned and the vision that Shuttlesworth lived to make a truly better world.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Where the Gold Is

I Know Where the Gold Is

I would have heard “Goin' up to Cripple Creek” seventy years ago, no doubt played by Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys on the Grand Ole Opry. I'm sure that, at the time, I would not have known if there was a real Cripple Creek, nor would I have been interested. But just this week, my wife and I made our annual visit there. Our excursion was, for me, a moveable feast of colors and memories, both of which I experienced against the remembered mandolin of William Smith Monroe.

In 1941, my mother and I were living with my Grandaddy in south Alabama. We lived comfortably with no electricity or indoor plumbing. Our evenings were lit by an Aladdin lamp. The radio was the source of our entertainment and was our window to the world. Saturday evenings it carried us to Nashville, Tennessee—that's where I would have heard Bill Monroe.

Cripple Creek, Colorado, a cattle pasture in the old days, turned gold mining camp, now a legalized gambling town, sets just below tree line at around 10,000 feet altitude and is about an hour's ride up the mountain from our house. A hundred years ago, tens of thousands were there seeking their fortunes in gold dust. Today 1300 folks call it home but many more come every year, seeking their fortunes in one or more of the casinos.” That part of Cripple Creek has little appeal to me; buying a hot dog and losing five dollars in the slot machines is enough to satisfy my gambling urge for the year. I should note, however, that last week I came away with a dollar twenty-five in winnings.

The gold that draws me back year after year is in the leaves of the Aspen trees, not in the gold dust, some of which still lies a thousand feet below the surface, nor in the “loose slots”. The video shorts I took, before my camera crashed, tells that part of the story.

This awesome blast of color comes just before the leaves die and the trees goes to sleep—I know that. But put the beauty of the moment together with the buoyancy of the mandolin and I hear a call to the future. At eighty I have the freedom to contemplate what has happened during my lifetime. I will do that. I believe it is good to visit the past, I just don't want to live there—not when there's gold out there.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

I Could Quit, But...

My story begins with my working for Sug Woodall for a dollar a day, draining lakes and collecting minnows at his fish hatchery. I'm not particularly proud of walking off the job the way I did but it was, as they say, an important learning experience. I thank my Dad for making me apologize for my behavior and defending my right not to work for a man for whom I had little respect. Walking out of that minnow pond cost me a dollar a day for about a month. What I learned from my Dad is priceless.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

John Lennon and I met on a park bench in Cuba

The Day I Met John Lennon

In July, 2007, 130 of us, mostly nortamericanos, loaded 100 tons of humanitarian aid onto a freighter in Tampico, Mexico bound for Cuba. Then, defying the US imposed embargo, we boarded an Ilyushin 62 Russian-built jet, operated by Cubana Airlines, and made a quick flight across the Gulf of Mexico to Havana where we spent nine days exploring the Cuban psyche and culture. The freighter would unload the aid later at the Martin Luther King Center in Havana and the aid we had collected would be distributed to those most in need. After a three-day visit to the Sancti Spiritu Province, I was in Havana strolling through a public park in the El Vedado section when I came upon this bronze statue of John Lennon. I was a little taken aback because I had remembered that the Beatles were persona non grata, at one time, in Fidel's revolutionary Cuba. A friend took this picture of me pretending to be in conversation with Lennon and we moved on.

I didn't think any more about it until I looked at my pictures when I got back home. I was right about Fidel and the Beatles. In the early days of the Revolution, he had declared the Beatles to be symbols of Western decadence and had forbidden their music to be played in Cuba. Years later, he came to see John Lennon as a true revolutionary and so identified with him that in 2000, he dedicated this statue.

I decided to return to El Vedado in my mind and imagine what a conversation might have been like, if, in fact, he were alive and the two of us could have shared a few moments on that park bench.

For one thing, I would have asked him to say more about his song, Imagine. I would also have asked what he thought of Fidel dedicating his statue and claiming a visionary kinship with him.

I suspect he might have been a little uncomfortable claiming kinship with the belligerent and, at the least, one-time violent leader of the Revolucion. Maybe, I'm wrong but it would have been interesting to hear his response. Fidel is on record as regretting his persecution of gays and lesbians. That's something. And he credits Imagine with impacting his life. I would like to have a heart-to-heart talk with Fidel about that but I think I there's about as much chance of that happening as getting a response from a bronze statue.

Speaking of a response from Lennon, since it really did stretch even my imagination to have him sing, I found this rendition on YouTube and downloaded it for your reflection.

I resonate with the idea of Living for today. Somewhere in the Book of Proverbs there is the phrase, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” In our efforts to envision a future of a peaceable kingdom, it is so easy to put it all in the future. Living for today, pulls us back to the idea that we can begin living the vision in the here and now. Peter Drucker once wrote that the best way to predict the future is to create it.

John Lennon opens the dreaming to everyone who chooses to walk the path and share the work and wonder of a better world. One of the compelling reasons I chose to join with Pastors for Peace in their efforts to lift the economic blockade of Cuba is that I resent efforts by both governments to keep their respective citizens apart. I am committed to doing whatever is within my resources to make friends beyond borders.

I enjoyed my visit with John Lennon. I hope you will do the same.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Narrow Width
Posted By Yoani Sánchez On 9 Agosto 2011 @ 19:54 In Generation Y | 45 Comments

Image taken from Diana Nyad's Internet site:

I felt a shock on learning that Diana Nyad would make an attempt to swim across the Florida Straits. I recalled the days in 1994, when my neighborhood of San Leopoldo was swarming with people building improvised rafts on which to launch themselves into the sea. I especially remember one group that left, during that period in which the Cuban authorities stopped preventing illegal departures. A craft armed with pieces of wood, plastic tanks serving as floats, the image of the Virgin of Charity, and a patched flag that no longer knew to which nation it belonged. But the most striking thing turned out to be that on that flimsy raft were only the elderly. There was a very black lady with a colorful straw hat, a flowered dress and a smile, thanking in both Spanish and English the boys who helped her to set sail. I never knew if that rickety expedition made it to its destination, if all those seniors disposed to start again got the opportunity.
Seventeen years later, I hear the news that an American wants to try the same route, but this time protected by divers, a pair of kayaks and even a medical team. Her laudable intention was to highlight the closeness between the Island and its neighbor to the north, to help reconcile both shores. But the Straits of Florida is also part of our national cemetery, the graveyard where lie thousands of our compatriots. The omission by the athlete of such an important characteristic did not appeal to me. Nor the fact that with her nautical feat she would highlight the twentieth anniversary of a most exclusive club, the Hemingway Marina, where a Cuban, even today, cannot board a vessel and may not enter — on his own — such a beautiful landing. I would have preferred that the Gulf currents would be swum by someone who knew the pain sheltered in these waters and who would dedicate their gesture to the “unknown rafter” who died in the mouth of so many possible sharks.
When I learned, on Tuesday, that after a 29-hour effort the swimmer was unable to achieve her objective, my superstitions were confirmed. There are certain spaces, I thought, that need more than strokes or sports records to seem less sad. State television said succinctly that “insurmountable obstacles had emerged, among them winds of more than 12 miles per hour.” I can imagine Diana fighting against the waves, the sun gaining strength overheard, the intensely salty sea flowing into her mouth. I am going to go further and fantasize about the inexplicable detail of a straw hat, the colorful sombrero of woman who passed close to her, making her think herself delirious in the middle of the Florida Straits.

Article printed from Generation Y:
URL to article:

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Just Over the Hill

Although my Dad has been dead for several years, I'm still learning from him.  In this story, I am revisiting one of those few rare  moments when we were together without any outside distractions.  Dad was a carpenter by trade and a teacher by profession.  I didn't take to woodworking and I don't remember anything he taught me in school, but as I recollect this experience, I now know he taught me more about life than I realized at the time.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Hannah's poem

My granddaughter, Hannah, gave me permission to share this with you.  I think it's pretty good.

Emotion in Text

Crying is italicized.
Laughter is bold.
Normal speech is auto-corrected.
Anger is two sizes larger.
Fear is a size smaller.
Demanding is underlined.
Snobbery uses correct grammar.
Goofy uses a different font all together.
Life is a combo platter of emotions. 

Monday, May 9, 2011

Lucius Walker and Cuba Friendshipment Caravan

The Rev. Lucius Walker, a Baptist minister, was the guiding star of Pastors for Peace Cuba Friendshipment Caravan. He died of a heart attack last September but his spirit lives on through the Caravans that continue to travel to Cuba without the required license to protest the US blockade of Cuba. The Caravans take tons of humanitarian aid and expose the caravanistas to the human side of Cuba. Walker once said, ''The Bible says feed the hungry, clothe the poor, it doesn't say to starve the Communists.'
In 1988, Lucius was on a fact-finding trip in Nicaragua where rebels were battling the American-backed government. Their riverboat was attacked by government soldiers and he was wounded. His first thought, he said, was that he was hit by a bullet paid for by his own country. He called his second thought a prophetic vision: he would form an organization of pastors to fight, or at least clean up after, what he called American imperialism.
That organization, Pastors for Peace, has now sent hundreds of tons of aid, including medical gear and roofing material, to Latin American countries. Of its 40 missions so far, 21 have been to Cuba, which under a 1963 law is off-limits to American trade.
When Granma, the Communist Party newspaper in Cuba, announced his death, it said Cubans ''don't want to even think of a world without Lucius Walker.''
I met Lucius in 2007 when I traveled with the Caravan to Cuba. I invited him to Colorado Springs where he met with folks who were supporting efforts to lift the embargo. Loring Wirbel interviewed him in this video.
In 2007, under the leadership of Rev. Faye Gallegos, Christ Congregational UCC, Pueblo, initiated efforts that resulted in over $50,000 worth of humanitarian aid which was loaded on one of the Caravan's buses bound for Cuba. Since then we have bought and equipped three buses, one of which was mostly paid for by First Congregational Church, Colorado Springs, and sent them to Cuba. The latest one, shown here, is now being used by an orthopedic hospital in Havana.
In these pictures you see the caravanistas being briefed by Rev Walker as they prepare to cross the border back into the US after a tiring but exciting trip. Having defied the embargo/blockade we would soon face US Customs officials and possible penalties. As it happened, we returned to the US without incident. You also see one of the caravanistas making friends with one of the Cuban children. The embargo still exists but the hope is that, one day, Americans and Cubans will be able to travel legally to visit one another as friends beyond borders.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Cuba Today
In 1960 I met a fishing boat captain who had, that day, brought 40 people out of Cuba shortly after the Revolucion. He invited me to go with him to Cuba the next day to get more refugees. I declined but the notion of visiting Cuba one day was conceived. Forty years later I went as a tourist on a nine-day bicycle trip through the province of Pinar del Rio. The Russians were gone, times were hard, and the misguided U.S. trade and travel embargo remained in place. Seven years later I traveled to the island nation with a US/Cuba Friendshipment Caravan of Pastors for Peace. We took tons of humanitarian aid and traveled without the required license in protest of the unjust US embargo. We went as friends to make friends. Pastors for Peace has made 21 such trips and hundreds of friendships have been forged as a result, but the US-imposed blockade is still in place.
For good and/or ill, Cuba has been ruled since by the Communist Party. The people have enjoyed a certain level of health and security but have remained poor. Today, Cuba is changing. Julia Sweig, Senior Fellow on Latin America is with the Council on Foreign Relations. She gives her insights in this short video.
The larger issues, of course, include the health and welfare of our neighbors to the south and a hopeful healthy relationships between our two governments. But I also take it personally. Over eight hundred years ago, the Magna Carta gave my ancestors the right to travel freely to any place in the world. I should have the same right from my government today. Cuba is changing. Our government must do the same. My two trips to Cuba were transforming. As citizens we should have the right to travel freely and legally and make friends beyond borders. Pastors for Peace will be making its 22nd Friendshipment Caravan this July on our behalf. Check out the link on this blog.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Mardi Gras and the Day After

Unique in its history and culture, New Orleans has no rivals. And Mardi Gras? Well, there's nothing quite like it. One year, long before Katrina, Spring Break at Purdue University coincided with the Big Easy's party so we decided to check it out. Fifteen students and I, a campus minister, made the trip. I had taken another group to New Orleans on a work project the year before. We missed Mardi Gras then because our Spring Break was over before the festivities began. We worked on the Rampart Street Community Center so, when the folks there heard we were going to make the party this year, they invited us to stay at the Center. Since the center is on the edge of the French Quarter—we gladly accepted the invitation.
     We arrived on Saturday in time to see some of the parades and enjoy festivities before the big blowout Tuesday—Fat Tuesday—the last chance to party before Ash Wednesday.
The weather was warm, the people friendly, and the floats were fantastic. I didn't understand about all the U-Haul vans and trailers that were being parked along Canal Street. We would find out about that later.
     The word on the streets was that this year there would be 10,000 street people added to the guest list. They came en masse. And they brought their drugs with them. Not everyone on Bourbon Street Tuesday was on drugs or drunk that night but the sober ones seemed to be the minority. Mounted police maneuvered slowly through a crowd that was packed together like anchovies in a can. What struck me was the contrast between the uninhibited mass of revelers and the calm control of the police and their mounts as they negotiated the street. I saw one guy put his cigar out in the rump of a policeman's horse and neither the horse nor the policeman moved. That tolerance would end a few hours later.
      Our group was not there to party. We had signed up to work with the Mardi Gras Drug Coalition. Our job was to get help for those for whom drugs and alcohol had put them out of control. We were busy but remarkably there was little overt violence. The party went full blast right up until midnight. And then it stopped abruptly. At midnight mechanical street sweepers and mounted police lined up at one end of Bourbon Street. A whistle blew. The party was over. Police patience had come to an end. That's when we learned the purpose of the U-Hauls.
     Anyone left on the street who had no acceptable reason for being there, was marched, drug, or carried into the vans and trailers and carted off to a temporary compound that had been created in another part of town. Bourbon Street shut down. New Orleans went to sleep.
     Ash Wednesday dawned in silence. Our group sat at the Cafe DuMond drinking chicory coffee and eating beignets and talking about the week. The floats, the food, and the jazz were great. Too bad that the drunks and druggies missed the beauty and the joy of it. Regardless of that, however, the party was now over. Lent had arrived—time for self-denial, repentence, and identification with the hurting and the hopeless.
Of course, I can't speak for everyone who came to Mardi Gras but I can say that, without exception, our little group of Purdue volunteers took the season seriously. As we paused to confess our sin, we also made a commitment to celebrate the goodness of creation and to work for peace and justice for all of God's children.
     We finished our beignets, said farewell to the city that care forgot, and headed back to Purdue.
It was hard for even the drivers to stay awake on the way home, but we made it safe and sound and, I use the word advisedly, sober.
     That was forty years ago. I have the recipe for beignets but I've lost contact with the students. I wonder where they are today and what, if any, effect that experience had in their lives. I would like to think it made a difference to them. It certainly did for me.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Friends Beyond Borders
How Cuba Caravans are Making a Difference
and How Colorado Springs is Helping

Last July folks from Colorado bought a school bus, filled it with humanitarian aid, and joined the Pastors for Peace Cuba Caravan to Cuba. Our bus was one of twelve vehicles that carried over a hundred tons of aid to our poor but friendly neighbors who live on the emerald island. A hundred people spent nine days in Cuba meeting and making friends as an act of solidarity with disadvantaged Cubans and a protest against an unjust trade and travel blockade that the U.S. government has had in place against Cuba for fifty years. Our bus is now being used by the Julio Diaz Orthopedic Hospital in Havana. The ages of the caravanistas range from children and youth to eighty+plus year-olds and come from all faiths and walks of life. They travel without the required license as a peaceful protest against an unjust law. They share the common dream of a Cuba/U.S. neighborhood of peace and prosperity. There have been 21 such caravans over the years. The 22nd one will travel to Cuba in July of this year.
Ever since 1959 when Fidel Castro led the revolution, America has been obsessed with Cuba. Cubans are now a major ethnic group in Florida and the exiled community is so powerful that every U.S. president has been pressured by its interests. Two Cuban-Americans who serve on the House Foreign Relations Committee are now in a position to block legislation to lift the embargo. While representatives from both political parties continue to call for the repeal of this ineffective and unjust law, the Obama administration has moved ahead to make it possible for Cuban-Americans to travel freely and to send money to their impoverished family who still live in Cuba. And travel rights for educational and religious organizations have been restored. Travel agencies report that there is a surge of people waiting to travel when all restrictions are lifted and business groups are preparing for greater trade opportunities. Cuba's own economic reform is now allowing some Cubans to open their own business. And while political oppression still exists, most observers are urging the U.S. to use diplomatic and political channels to influence positive change. The embargo only hurts the poor.
As long as the embargo exists in any form Pastors for Peace will continue to advocate repeal and will travel to Cuba with people and aid to help our neighbors. There will be a caravan again this summer. Caravanistas representing Pastors for Peace will be hosted at an event in Colorado Springs on July 12th. Details will be posted later on this blog. To find out how you can be a part of the continuing effort to make “Friends Beyond Borders,” access or email Max Hale at

David Bristow records local Pastors for Peace folks as bus with aid head for Cuba

Colorado's bus prepares to leave for Cuba

Monday, February 21, 2011

One Delicious Peach!

I was once arrested for eating a peach. Do I have your attention? It was spring in Korea 1952. It was the time of the Korean War and I was a Sergeant in the U.S. Army, stationed in Taegu with the Korean Military Advisory Group (KMAG), Eighth Army. The natives who had survived the war thus far were struggling to keep body and soul together. The sun was shining but the combination of dust and the smell of the honey buckets (collectors of human excrement used as fertilizer) made it difficult to breathe.
My First Sergeant and I were walking down the street when I spied a peach. You must know that I grew up in peach country. That peach was as close as I could get to home at the moment. I paid the equivalent of $3.00 for it and had just bitten into it when I heard tires screeching and someone yell, “Sergeant, throw down that peach!” It was an MP patrolling the area in a jeep. I had an early idea of what this was about but I kept eating while Sergeant Wright confronted the MP. Because of the native practice of using the honey buckets for fertilizer, the Eighth Army Medics had placed all indigenous food off limits. KMAG medics made a distinction. They ruled that only food grown on or below the ground was contaminated. The First Sergeant's attempt to explain that made no difference to the MP but while they debated the issue, I finished the peach. The MP was angry enough about the encounter that he cited me with a Delinquency Report (DR).
A little humor from my stint in “The Land of the Morning Calm.” A break, as slight as it was, from the deadly seriousness of senseless war. There are other stories of a far different nature, many tragic. And there is,of course, the story of Kang Koo Ri, a life that defies despair and models hope. I remember them all. Oh yes, the Delinquency Report came to the First Sergeant's office. He tore it up. I kept my stripes.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Sisyphus #10

It's Monday again and as our reporter shows up for his weekly interview with Sisyphus, the old man greets him with “TGIM”

R: I know about TGIF but TGIM?

S: Thank God It's Monday. It's part of the rhythm of life. Monday, so to speak, is when we get the chance to start over.

R: But you have to do the same thing over and over. Don't you ever get bored?

S: Bored people are boring people. A lot of folks have to do the same thing over and over and even though they have more freedom than I have, everyone can control the way they look at life. I find meaning in my work. I know it's hard to understand but it's the way I preserve my dignity.

R: I suppose that's true. Even retired people can find tasks, work if you will, that gives them purpose. I know of a lady who is well up in her nineties and whose health is severely threatened but who delights in discovering 12-letter words.

[The two talk a lot about work and it's meaning all the way up the hill. While the reporter does most of the talking while Sisyphus is pushing the rock, the old man has learned to pace himself and talk a little more. The scene at the top is always the same. Sisyphus tries his hardest to get the rock over the hill but, of course, it fails. So, it's back down the hill they go.]

S: Let me catch my breath and then we'll start back down the hill.

R: That's an interesting choice of words. The Hebrew word for God resting after creating the world literally means “catch my breath.”

S: Isn't that what Sabbath provides? It's the other part of the rhythm of life. One can work too hard. It has only been a few years since the Japanese created a word that means death from overwork. I stand by what I said about work giving one purpose and meaning but some people are obsessive. That's not healthy.

R: I once interviewed an eighty-year-old man who felt he had to record every activity of every minute of every day of his life for his past sixty-nine years. When I talked with him, he hadn't missed a day and had recorded over nineteen million words.

S: And you think pushing a rock is boring. It seems to me that people too often shortchange themselves by not taking the time to rest and reflect on the meaning of their work. The concept of Chi is that the body will often heal itself if we allow it to. There is a story about some who were scandalized to find the Apostle John playing with his followers. John told one of them, who was carrying a bow, to draw an arrow: he did this several times and John asked whether he could keep on doing it without interruption; the reply was the the bow would break in the end. John therefore argued that man's mind would also break if the tension were never relaxed.

R: I've heard it said that when one ceases from work, we show ourselves to be labor's master.

S: The hassidic rabbi, Zalman Schachter says the sabbath is long and full when one knows how to be beyond doing. Or, as Tilden Edwards, an Episcopal priest says, “Love in the Triune “God is open, connecting, freeing, playful, painful, transforming. Its two faces are labor and rest, ministry and sabbath. Such love is the fulfillment of all the commandments...It is a rhythm that God provides to human life for its care, cleansing, and opening to grace. This rhythm is not for one day or one week or one year only. It is for life.”

R: Once again, we've talked all the way down. I've got a deadline to get this interview in then I think I'm going to take some time off to reflect on what we've been talking about. See you next week?

S: I'll be here.

Gees Bend Alabama 1968

Monday, January 31, 2011

Sisyphus #9

[Whatever else you may say about Sisyphus, the wily mortal from Greek mythology managed to die an old man. Was he as bad as some say or just extremely clever, or a little bit of both? You'll have to decide that yourself. And did the gods get him in the end—after all he can't escape his punishment? He has to keep pushing that rock, with no end in sight. By the way, the rock he's saddled with is the size of Zeus and he was a big man, er' god. How's that for irony? Here's another question only you can answer: How much of yourself do you see in Sisyphus? In the meantime, let's listen in on another interview our imaginary reporter is conducting with our hero, or is it antihero?]

Reporter: [arriving out of breath as Sisyphus starts to push his rock] Sorry I'm running late. Traffic.

Sisyphus: No big deal, but I've got to get going. I have to wonder what you find so interesting that you keep coming back for more interviews.

R: [He talks as the old man pushes his rock.] I guess I never told you the whole story about how I got here. It was mostly an accident. I was over at my editor's house one night. We were sharing a bottle of wine and both of us were in a reflective mood. She's getting up in years, must be at least seventy-five and she's had a pretty full life, but she was wondering if it has all been worth it. I shared my feeling that, at forty-two, I've been running about a quart low on idealism and energy and it doesn't look like I'm ever going to get that Pulitzer. That's when she remembered your story. We talked about it and after I left her house, I went for a run. I jumped onto the shoulder of the road to avoid a car and stumbled, rolled down the embankment, and passed out. When I woke up I was in the underworld, saw you, and decided to try to interview you. I thought people of all ages would identify with you and I was right. You're a pretty interesting guy. So, here I am. [By this time, Sisyphus has tried, and failed, to push the rock over the hill and they are walking back down.] You're awfully quiet.

S: I was thinking about the first time Sir Edmund Hillary tried to climb Mt. Everest. He didn't make it but he said, “I'll be back; mountains don't grow, men do.” Actually he was wrong about that. Mt. Everest does grow a few inches every year. But that's not the point. Hillary did return and he did climb the mountain. And, of course, he felt good about it. It's not the same thing, of course, but I feel good about pushing my rock even though I know I'll never get it over the hill. The gods didn't understand that one could feel good about such things - but that's their problem. I've learned that there really is joy in the work itself.

R: That makes some kind of sense to me. I think about the racial conflicts in today's world and how every time we think we have solved the problem, it crops up again. One has to find satisfaction, if not joy, in the effort. That may not be what you are talking about but it's enough to keep me going.
S: If you want to build a bridge, you develop a plan, locate the materials, build it, and it's done. When you have people beating up on each other because they're different, you set up programs to help people learn about the other group and you pass and enforce laws to protect the innocent and you think that takes care of that. But it doesn't. Not that you shouldn't do all that, but it's never over. So you learn to stay the course and to persevere. It's not that you don't want the problem to be solved once and for all, but that's just not the way it pans out. So you learn to find satisfaction in giving it your best and let someone else keep score, so to speak.

R: Like pushing a rock.

S: Speaking of which, we're back at the bottom of the hill and my rock's waiting.

R: See you next Monday?

S: I'll be here.

Confessions of a Country Pastor

Monday, January 24, 2011

Sisyphus #8

[Most everyone knows about the man who has to push the rock up the hill only to have it roll back down forever. His name is Sisyphus and once again, our imaginary reporter is there on Monday morning, so to speak, to walk with him while he pushes the rock up and to interview him when Sisyphus can talk as they walk back down. Let's listen in.]

Reporter: brought you a six-pack of bottled water.

Sisyphus: Great. You know this whole rock thing started with water.

R: I read your file. When you were the King of Corinth, the city needed water. So when you saw Zeus taking off with the water god's daughter you swapped your information for an eternal spring. Zeus found out that you ratted him out and Bingo! Here you are.

S: That's the short of it. Good water, by the way. [starts pushing the rock]

R: You remember, this was supposed to be a one-time interview. Well, it's turned into a series and we've had a lot of mail. People are really interested in you.

S: Why's that?

R: Part of it is your colorful history. And part of it is your ability to observe from the underworld what is happening in our world today.

S: That last is your a product of your editor's imagination.

R: Sure. But the real thing is that people really resonate with what they see as endless futile labor. I've talked with people of all ages. Teen-agers, middle-age folks, and older people too.

S: And?

R: Well, they all see it from their perspective, of course. Young folks want life to always be exciting, some middle-agers want a change but don't know how to go about it, and I've talked with more than one older citizens who just wonder if it's all been worth it. A lot of folks just don't know how to change.
S: There was this painter I knew. [By this time they are at the top of the hill and, although Sisyphus has given it his best effort, the rock is on the way back down the hill.] She would see in her mind's eye what she wanted to paint and she painted it. She's a good painter and folks really like it. She could leave it at that. But it's not quite what she wants so she paints another, and another, and another. She becomes so obsessed with getting it perfect that she gets physically ill but keeps on painting. I guess it's a creative obsession. She suffers but can't bring herself to stop.

R: So is she compulsive or hopeful?

S: Both, I suppose. In my case, I don't have the freedom to let go of my rock. I can't even alter the routine. But I can make peace with it. In fact, I feel something new every time. The change is in me, not in my circumstances. I am the master of my rock.

R: So it's a matter of perspective?

S: To a great extent. Ever hear the poem, “Two men looked out from prison bars; One saw mud, the other stars.?” It's not all that neat, of course, but it is a good operating principle, don't you think?

R: Good enough to share with my readers. See you next time.

Harold Franklin integrates Auburn University

Monday, January 17, 2011

I Met Martin Luther King, Jr

Sisyphus #7

[Right on time, the reporter shows up for his interview with Sisyphus. The two have become quite close. It's hard to tell who is the most interested in their regular talks. As usual, the reporter talks while Sisyphus pushes the rock up the hill and Sisyphus, once freed of his burden, gives his take on things as they walk back down to the bottom of the hill.]

Reporter: [arriving just in time as Sisyphus begins his task.] Day in and day out, the rock stays the same size, you have to push it over the same path, and you never get it over the hill and you remain the same. Nothing changes for you does it?

Sisyphus: Nope. I want to talk to you about change, but I'll save that for the trip down.
R: You know, my editor is running these talks as a regular feature and we're getting response from our readers. I've brought some of their letters with me. If it's okay with you, I'll read some of them as we walk.
S: Okay by me.
R: [reading some of the letters] Most of our readers understand your situation in terms of a loss of personal freedom and ceaseless futile labor and many of them identify with that. Several of them see your making peace with your sentence simply as a failure. One woman says the whole idea is absurd.
Here's one. Some high school kid is writing a paper of Zeus and wants to know what he was really like. Several readers want to know what you really look like and we have a few who are looking for secrets for success and happiness. Some really want to change their lives but don't see any hope in doing so. I did interview this one 90-year-old man who told me that just that day he had changed his mind about something that was important. [He finishes reading from the letters just as they reach the summit. Sisyphus gives it his best, but, no surprise, the rock falters and then falls back. Sisyphus speaks as they start back down.]
S: Speaking of change, you should have known Heraclitis
R: He was a Greek philosopher, wasn't he.
S: The world knows him as Greek. I knew him when he was just a poor little rich kid growing up in Ephesus which is now a part of Turkey. I guess Greek philosopher sounds more classy than a Turkish philosopher. He's probably known more for his observation that everything is in a state of change. He's the one who said that no one could ever step in the same river twice because the river was never the same nor is the person.
R: That's a good thing, isn't it?
S: Depends on how you look at it. Heraclitis, himself was cynical about human nature. He thought life was pointless. That's why he is called the Dark Philosopher.
R: So, why should I have know him?
S: Well, you don't have to be as cynical as Heraclitus was to accept that life is always changing, if you realize that you can choose how you change.
R: Are we talking about personal change or changing society?
S: Both. Human beings instinctively fear change. But a lot of your religious, economic and social structures, including your definitions of reality have undergone major upheavals. That's not all bad. Yours is also a time of great opportunity spiritually and materially.
R: What makes the difference anxiety and hope?
S: That would take more time than we have. You can find a good start, however, in your Christian gospel. I'm thinking of that verse in I John about perfect love casting out fear.
R: I'll pass that on, this could be the start of a very useful dialogue. Thanks.
S: You're welcome. See you next week.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Sisyphus #6
You know, the guy who has to push the rock up the hill—for eternity.

[Reporter's note: I must admit that I was, at first, reluctant to interview Sisyphus. Physical or political obstacles pose no threat, since this is a fantasy one has only to imagine them nonexistent. Of course, I had no choice since I was also a fantasy figure, subject to the wishes of the one who created me. I
had no idea that Sisyphus would have anything to say that was interesting or significant. Now, I'm not so sure. So, here goes again.]

Reporter: [meeting Sisyphus at the bottom of the hill] I've been talking to a lot of people who read my first interviews with you. Funny thing, while almost no one knew your name, when I mentioned the rock, they knew the story.

Sisyphus: That's not surprising. And I bet that almost of them see work, especially that which has to be done over and over again, as a curse. There's more to it, of course. I can talk more on the way down. Right now, I've got to push the rock.

[The two of them ascend the hill is silence. Pushing the rock takes all of Sisyphus' breath and the silence gives the reporter a chance to form his questions. It is only after the old man has to let go of the rock at the top of the hill that either one has anything to say.]

Reporter: That thing you said about work being a curse. A lot of times, I admit, I see my job as a burden. When I first read your case file and your sentence for defying the gods, I expected to find an embittered, tired, resentful old man.

Sisyphus: And now?

Reporter: Well, I knew you were crafty, who else would think of tricking death, and actually be able to do it? But I now understand you to be both intelligent and positive and I don't think you're faking it. And, of course, I appreciate your unique insights.

Sisyphus: You know, Camus, the existentialist, has helped reinvent me, so to speak. He is the one who labeled me an absurd hero. I memorized the closing words of his essay. He said, “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Reporter: I hope you won't be offended, but I had decided, before I met you, that you would be boring and superficial. Now, I don't know. You seem to have an inner peace. Something deeper than just a passive acceptance of your sentence. And I certainly don't see any signs of despair. By the way, what was that tune you were humming while we were coming up the mountain? Sounded like something Enya sings.

Sisyphus: [takes a drink of water the reporter offers him, and clears his throat] Actually, it's an old Christian hymn. Enya sings it and everyone thinks she wrote it, like the folks who think Judy Collins wrote Amazing Grace. But let me sing it for you:
My life goes on in endless song;
above earth's lamentation,
I hear the sweet, though far-off hymn
that hails a new creation.
Through all the tumult and the strife,
I hear the music ringing;
It finds an echo in my soul--
how can I keep from singing?

Reporter: I don't see how you can sing when you know your life will never change.

Sisyphus: That's where you're wrong. Sure, I can't run away from this rock—can't change the circumstances. But I am in control of my attitude—my dispositon. I control the change within myself.

Reporter: You just reminded me of a man I met recently. He told me two interesting things about himself. He said he was ninety years old and that he had just changed his mind about something important.

Sisyphus: There is a man who gets it.

Reporter: Our time is just about up. Before we get back to the bottom of the hill, I have to tell you something. I know you are not a man of faith, so to speak, but I have to tell you, I get a lot from your insights and I really appreciate it.

Sisyphus: Works both ways, my friend. Reminds me of an old Hasidic saying that when two Jews meet and one has a problem, the other one is automatically a rabbi. Storytellers, which is what you are, must learn to be storylisteners also.

Reporter: I'll remember that. And on that note, I'll have to leave you. See you next time.

Sisyphus: I'll be here. It's a sure thing that I'm not going anywhere.