Saturday, June 26, 2010

Homily: The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost [June 27, 2010] Christ Church Cranbrook

Last weekend Kathy and I finally got around to watching the movie, "Fantastic Mr. Fox", the DVD of which had been sitting on top of our TV set since mid-March. The movie is Wes Anderson’s 2009 stop-motion animated version of Roald Dahl’s 1970 children’s novel of the same name. It tells the story of what happens when Mr. Fox decides to go back into the chicken stealing business two years after he had promised his wife Felicity that he would give it up for good.
I mention "Fantastic Mr. Fox" because of a line in today’s Gospel. When an admirer tells Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go,” Jesus replies, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” In the film "Fantastic Mr. Fox" the protagonist has a hole, but after two years of occupying it he decides he’d rather live in a large beech tree instead. As we know and Mr. Fox has yet to learn, there are good reasons foxes inhabit holes and not beech trees. Mr. Fox’s simultaneous decisions to re-enter the chicken stealing game and to move into an arboreal environment signal both a mid-life crisis and an example of bad planning, and the rest of the story involves the dangerous consequences of these actions.
Decisions, as we know, have consequences. In the case of this morning’s Gospel [Luke 9.51-62], Jesus makes his “foxes have holes” statement as a result of a decision almost casually announced in the Gospel moments before: ”When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” In the early days of his ministry, Jesus appeared simply to be a teacher and healer. But as what scholars called his “Messianic consciousness” developed, he determined that the logic of his life and mission called him to take his cause to the center of Israel’s political and religious authority. So what we witness in this ninth chapter of Luke’s Gospel is a turning point in the Jesus story. Jesus decides that he will go to Jerusalem, and he makes this decision knowing that he will run into conflict with some very powerful forces. The certainty of this conflict means that accompanying Jesus will now be a lot more dangerous than it was before.
"Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” "Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God." "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God." If Jesus is such a nice man, you’re probably asking yourself, why is he saying these hard things about foxes and holes and the dead burying their own dead and not looking back after you put your hand to the plow?
My friend, the late Bishop George Barrett, once told me the story of being interviewed on television in its early days, when guests were asked to wear lavalier microphones, the kind you hang around your neck. During a commercial break the sound technician came to adjust his microphone: it was banging upagainst the bishop’s large, pectoral cross worn on his chest. The technician said, “The problem is the cross. It’s causing interference.” George Barrett looked up at him and replied, “It always does.”
The cross always causes interference. The people who want to follow Jesus have not reckoned on the reality of the cross as part of the transaction. Jesus has set his face to go to Jerusalem, and he knows that his critique of the Empire and the religious system that colludes with it will result in his being brought to a political prisoner’s death on the cross. Those who want to follow Jesus think that following him will be all about sitting at his feet and taking notes copying down his good advice. But Jesus knows that following him means being called into a life at odds with the forces of Empire, a conflict that will result for many of his followers in persecution, martyrdom, and death. “The problem is the cross. It’s causing interference.” “It always does.”
"Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” "Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God." "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God." When we hear Jesus say these hard things we feel he is being uncharacteristically harsh on the well-intentioned people who want to become his disciples. But if we understand these sayings in the light of Jesus’s setting his face to go to Jerusalem, these sayings turn out to be not hard sayings at all but rather kind ones. In effect, Jesus tells his would-be followers, “You think you know what you will be getting into. But you don’t. Think twice before you sign on for such a life-changing and dangerous assignment.”
To be a Christian, to live under the judgment and sign of the cross, is constantly to be a voice for interference. It means that we will always bring the Gospel values to bear upon social, ethical, and cultural problems. Because the imperial presumptions with which we are called to interfere are always centered on power, the Gospel critique of those presumptions will always promote the voices and concerns of the powerless. In Jesus’s day and ours, the consequences of that cultural critique will not always be pretty. The cross always causes interference, because in signing on to be followers of Jesus we are signing on to be fellow travelers with him of the way of the cross. And while walking that way with Jesus promises ultimate joy and peace, in the near term it often delivers suffering and loss. "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
How do we make sense of all that? In today’s reading from the letter to the Galatians [Galatians 5.1, 13-25] Paul gives us some help. When he says, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery,” Paul articulates one of the great principles of Christian ethical practice: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.” Precisely because we have been set free by the cross of Christ, we now express that freedom by becoming mutually accountable to each other. Christian freedom is not license to do whatever I might think I want to. Christian freedom is lived out in responsibility to others in the belief that one finds life’s ultimate meaning in mutuality and compassion.
And as the test of this freedom, Paul gives us his famously enduring list of the fruits of the Spirit. Since Christ has set us free from enslavement to the Law, we are now free to live by the Spirit. But what does life under the guidance of the Spirit look like? Here his is answer: “[T]he fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”
When Jesus set himself to go up to Jerusalem he decided to stand with the nameless, powerless, voiceless people of the world and against the religious and political forces that would enslave them. So his going to the cross was not only an act of self-sacrifice. It was an act of self-sacrifice in the service of a vision of the preciousness of every individual human life. The decision to follow Jesus is always a costly decision. Globally and locally, socially and personally, you and I face challenges that will only be addressed when we decide to walk with Jesus toward Jerusalem, to stand under the sign and judgment of the cross that always causes interference. Our social and personal problems will only begin to be addressed by our willingness mutually to subject ourselves to each other. I am not free if you are not free. And neither of us is free until everyone—even people we disagree with and don’t like very much—is free as well.
“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Following Jesus always takes us someplace we hadn’t counted on going and gives us more than we bargained for.
In the end, “Fantastic” Mr. Fox decides both to retire from chicken stealing for good and to return to living underground. But in the process he has learned something both about the world and about himself. The call to follow Jesus as he turns from the comfortable world of Galilee toward the conflict and struggle of Jerusalem is a similar call into greater depth of awareness of ourselves and of the world and its pain.
A life lived with Jesus on the road to Jerusalem is never easy. “The problem is the cross. It’s causing interference.” “It always does.” Such a life always brings us into conflict and tension with the prevailing values of our world and culture, values that diminish human beings and destroy the soul. But if we put our hands to the plow and look forward with Jesus and not back, if we go with Jesus to proclaim the kingdom of God, the benefits will outrun the cost from the moment we say yes. And though like Jesus we may have to look around for a place to lay our heads, our new life will bear new and abundant fruit, and the signs of that fruit in our lives will be these: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”. Amen.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Homily: The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost [June 20, 2010] Christ Church Cranbrook

“Society,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson, “everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.” [“Self-Reliance”] When Emerson wrote his essay “Self-Reliance” he was thinking primarily about the way in which the social world seems to squelch the individual. What is true for larger society is true for smaller groups as well. While Christians always live in the creative tension between community and individuality, we all have experienced the pressure to conform, sometimes in ways which are toxic to everyone’s interests. Have you noticed that when one member of a family becomes healthy, the other members of that family often become sick? The same can be said about other social groups, too.
Today’s Gospel [Luke 8.26-39] relates the story of Jesus’s journey to “the country of the Gerasenes”, an area near Galilee populated more by gentiles than Jews. In this story, Jesus heals a demon-possessed man by casting the “legion” of demons out of him into a herd of swine who then drown themselves in the lake. The story is saying two theological things about Jesus: first, that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. It’s no accident that the demons recognize his divinity before regular people do. Second, the story emphasizes the way Jesus’s power extends even beyond the Jewish community. As a good Jew, Jesus probably had few compunctions about drowning a herd of pigs in a lake. But that there are pigs in the story at all shows that we are watching something happen outside the friendly confines of the Jewish world.
Fans of the late J.D. Salinger may recall that today’s Gospel is the only Bible passage mentioned in "The Catcher in the Rye". Here is how Holden Caulfield touches on this story:

I like Jesus and all, but I don’t care too much for most of the other stuff in the Bible. . . I like almost anybody in the Bible better than the Disciples. If you want to know the truth, the guy I like best in the Bible, next to Jesus, was that lunatic and all, that lived in the tombs and kept cutting himself with stones. I like him ten times as much as the Disciples . . . ["The Catcher in the Rye", p.99]

I quote this passage because our friend Holden can point us to something happening in this story that we might not see at first glance. Holden identifies with this demon-possessed man. He sees something of himself in “that lunatic and all, that lived in the tombs and kept cutting himself with stones”. Holden, of course, has run away from prep school. Yet he still wants to be connected—to his family, to his friends, to the vulnerable children of the world. Holden Caulfield is sensitive to the way in which emotional disturbance lives within a social and family context.
After Jesus casts the demons out of the demoniac and into the pigs, he does not exactly receive the thanks of a grateful nation. The swineherds would be understandably unhappy: Jesus has just destroyed a large assortment of their finest pork products. But the Gerasenes, the townspeople, react neither with gratitude nor with rage but with fear. “Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear.” Jesus has come among them, performed a unique and nearly impossible act of healing, and the people respond as if he were radioactive.
What this tells me is what I already know from the experience of my own extended family life and other groups: it tells me that health can be more frightening than illness. Some families, some communities, are held together by pathology. And when one of the members of the family begins to get well, to move out of pathology and into wholeness, from illness to health, the reaction of the household is one of panic. Somehow Dad’s alcoholism or Mom’s depression or Junior’s Vampire fixation served as a unifying force for the family system. When Dad joins AA or Mom gets psychiatric help or Junior discovers lacrosse, when in other words the individual begins to heal, the family doesn’t always send them a thank-you note. Their newfound health disrupts the equilibrium of the system. Because all systems always favor stasis, one member’s move into health and wholeness can threaten to swamp the whole enterprise. We see this tendency act itself out today in the country of the Gerasenes. This crazy naked demon-possessed man was carrying all the pathology for the whole town. He was what family systems psychologists call the “identified patient”. When Jesus took that identified patient away, the community had no further reason to stay together. So he effectively scared the town to death. Without their demoniac, what were they here for?
In curing the Gerasene demoniac, Jesus was asking the Gerasenes to grow up and find a new reason for being together. They couldn’t take it. It would not surprise me to learn that immediately after Jesus’s departure, another one of the Gerasenes was taken over by a brand new set of demons. They would then have their stasis back. Now they would be able to rest easy.
We do this in families all the time. We are often willing to sacrifice one person’s interests for the larger group’s well-being. We also do it in larger human communities. We did it, most famously, to Jesus. As Christians we live in the hope that, having suffered for us once for all, Jesus has liberated us from the need for scapegoats and sacrificial victims. But that hope always lives in tension with the realities of human sin. And if I know anything about families, it is that they are the place where hope and sin always exist, perhaps symbiotically, together.
I went to seminary at the age of 23—a more common practice in those days than it is now--and I still remember the first sermon I heard there. In it, the dean said to us, “If you want to be a Christian, you need to start by forgiving your parents.” From the perspective of my current age, I can see why a seminary dean would say that to a group of women and men in their early twenties. Especially in the 1960s and 1970s, if you weren’t having problems with your parents you weren’t alive. But the longer I live the more I understand the wisdom of that. “If you want to be a Christian, you need to start by forgiving your parents.” Over the course of my life and work I have come to know countless people of every age still burdened by childhood resentments.
One of my beliefs about Jesus’s teaching is that he always calls his followers into greater maturity. All of the systems that Jesus criticizes are structures that foster dependence. Jewish groups like the Pharisees have set up the Law as an inflexible guide to life, vainly hoping that correct, legalistic interpretation of the Torah will release them from the burdens and complexities of ethical decision-making. And gentile communities like the Gerasenes live in the vain expectation that by projecting all their sin and guilt onto one man they will be safe. In all cases, Jesus calls us to live, in Luke’s words, “clothed and in our right mind”. No legal, moral system can absolve you from the responsibility of living a just, compassionate life. No one person should carry the shadow burdens of an entire community. Children play these games, but adults must not. The call of Jesus is a call into maturity—to taking responsibility for our own lives and actions, to seeing the other not as a victim but as a companion in the quest to live a loving and abundant life.
Today is Father’s Day, and because contemporary life is the way it is, many fathers and children do not get to spend as much time together as they would like. The American work week continues to expand, and so do the academic and athletic expectations we place on our children. It's a wonder families have any time together at all these days. The most common complaint about fathers in this culture is that we are absent. But I know many fathers who find the time to be present to their children, and I know how grateful all of us are to the example of parents who have worked to balance career, family, and social responsibilities. So let's hear it for fathers and mothers and all the generous adults who give of themselves so that their children may become secure, grounded, mature human beings—the very kind of people Jesus calls us all to become.
“If you want to be a Christian, you need to start by forgiving your parents.” In healing the demon-possessed man, Jesus called the Gerasenes into maturity. They didn’t get it, but you and I can. It may be temporarily satisfying to lay all of our adult troubles at the feet of our parents or someone else, but ultimate health and wholeness consist in taking responsibility for our lives and our selves. There is no system, no relationship, that can absolve us of Jesus’s call to live free, compassionate, abundant lives.
Your parents did the best they could. You can, too. On this Father’s Day, let us resolve to love them, forgive them, accept them, and do for each other the best we can. If we are faithful in at least giving that a try, we will with the healed man in today’s Gospel, return to our homes and declare with grace and joy just how much God has done for us. Amen.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Homily: The Second Sunday after Pentecost [June 6, 2010] Christ Church Cranbrook

As the husband of a woman of Scottish descent—Kathy’s maiden name is Matheson, a Highland Clan whose ancestral seat is Eilean Donan Castle near Kyle of Lochalsh—I hesitate to venture an opinion about a Sunday entitled “Kirkin o’ the Tartans”. While I believe that it is important to celebrate all cultural traditions, my enthusiasm for scratchy plaid wool fabric would be greater around St. Andrew’s day (November 30) than in the early onset of Michigan summer. I once worked at a school where we observed a seemingly endless weekly parade of cultural heritage occasions, dressing up alternately in serapes, lederhosen, kilts, and yarmulkes. When a colleague asked me about my own heritage, I said it was a a mix of Irish and Norwegian. She asked, “And what are your cultural rituals?” I thought for a minute and said, “We drink, fight, and cry, usually in that order.” Luckily for me, some other ethnic groups are pretty practiced at that sort of thing, too.
As important as it is to celebrate our particular cultural heritages, though, we always must be careful to see that our own ethnic identities are part of a larger comprehensive fabric of human identity. Especially for those of us who are of European descent (and by that I mean us white people), it is vital that we remember that no one particular human identity is normative. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” [Galatians 3.28] Scottish clans were as famous in their heyday for their territorial warfare against each other as they are now for their colorful kilts, bagpipes, and fuzzy sporrans. One of the Scots traditions I like best has it that when a person is ordained to the ministry in the Church of Scotland, he/she gives up their own clan tartan and takes on the clergy tartan. Symbolically, the cleric belongs to no one but to all clans and is thus free to move among and minister to all the various groups. At home I have a Matheson clan vest and a clergy tartan vest, (neither of which you will see until the fall) and both remind me of how my identity is tied both to my own family and to the wider human community. Our true identity has finally little to do with the accidents of our genetic heritage; it has everything to do with our status as people baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus and the universal fellowship which gathers in his name.
We are now entering the season of the church year called “Ordinary Time”—the long stretch of Sundays between Pentecost and Advent—and the focus of our attention thus shifts from the faith about Jesus (his birth, his resurrection) to the faith of Jesus—what he actually did and taught during his Galilean ministry. The other seasons of the year recall big events in the Jesus story. This period of Ordinary Time gives us a chance to experience the historical Jesus as healer, teacher, companion, and table host.
Our Gospel today gives us a first glimpse into what spending this time with Jesus will be like by recounting Jesus’s visit to the widow of Nain and the restoring of her son to life. You and I tend to think of Jesus primarily as a teacher, but the earliest Christians understood him both as teacher and as healer. To them, the sayings of Jesus had authority because they were validated by his powerful acts of healing. Wherever Jesus goes, health, wholeness, life, and blessing seem to follow. This is what he means by proclaiming the “Kingdom of God”. In Jesus’s presence, there is a place or space or zone of what Jews would call in Hebrew, Shalom: peace, wellness, right relationship. In Jesus’s presence the blind see, the deaf hear, even the dead come back to life. This is what we encounter in this morning’s Gospel.
“When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’”[Luke 7.13] Jesus approaches a town and sees a dead man being carried out through its gates. We learn that the man was the only son of a widow, and widows in Jesus’s day were at the bottom of the social ladder. They had no status, no money, no power. They were dependent on their children for whatever livelihood they could get. So it is no accident that Jesus has compassion on a widow who has lost her only son and thereby her means of living. He realizes how destitute she will now be. He acts toward her with empathy and compassion.
When we hear stories like this one (or like the corresponding story today in 1 Kings 17 about Elijah raising the son of the widow of Zarephath) our first tendency is to focus on the miracle. How did it work? Was the man really dead or in a coma? These are important questions, but I think the texts of both stories direct us not to the mechanics of the miracle but to the underlying human process. In both stories a prophet raises the son of a widow to new life. These stories are not primarily about resuscitation of the dead. These stories are about grief and about God’s helping us make our way through it.
Grief is a universal human experience. This past week I have been reading a new book of poems by the Canadian poet Anne Carson, who teaches Classics at the University of Michigan. The book is called "Nox" [Night], and it is an extended free-form elegy for her dead brother. The book begins with Carson’s own translation of the Roman poet Catullus’s great Latin elegy [Catullus 101] which is itself a lament for his own lost brother.* She placed the translation in a book which is more of a craft project than a volume. "Nox" is a collage of sorts, reproducing postcards and letters from her brother, photographs of her family, her own drawings. She made the book originally as a box, and the only way the publisher could reproduce that boxed collage of a poem was to print it on one big page that folds out accordion-style so that one can view all its contents simultaneously.
I heard Anne Carson interviewed on a radio book program last week, and she explained that she made this poem/box/book as a kind of “grief project”, a way of organizing her feelings so that “order can arise out of it.” Here is how she put it:

Because I think that the first experience for a long time of grief is that it’s chaos. There’s no map, you bump into it everywhere you go, it’s always seeping up through things. And the effort of making a book out of it is gradually a process of seeing what do I have here in the way of raw materials, how can I make it into a thing that’s got a beginning, middle, and end and will seem beautiful or pleasurable to somebody else to look at. And that takes you beyond the grief because you’re making something already that is ordered and that is to be given to somebody further.—Anne Carson, "Bookworm", May 20,2010

Now I’ll include the text of the poem in the printed version and on my blog, but I want this morning to talk about Carson’s project for three reasons. The first is that the depth of pain with which the Roman poet or his Canadian translator speaks gives us a glimpse into the reality of the loss experienced by the widows of Zarephath and Nain in today’s Bible readings. The deaths to which Jesus responds are real deaths. The women who grieve are real people, and they have feelings just as you and I have feelings. We are better at feeling our own pain than at imagining others’. One of the things that makes Jesus “Jesus” is that he experienced no boundary between other people’s suffering and his own.
Second, I share this with you because Anne Carson gives voice to that experience we all have of grief as chaos. “There’s no map, you bump into it everywhere you go, it’s always seeping up through things,” as she says. When my father died a decade ago I felt for a year or so the way I had when I quit smoking: disorganized, dazed, confused, disoriented. When someone we love dies a big part of us—shared experience, shared vocabulary—dies too. We not only lose them. We lose a large part of ourselves. The loss of that much life makes our mental and emotional world chaotic. Well-meaning people always tell you to move on and get over it, yet you still can’t make sense of life in the aftermath. This was the poet’s experience, it was my experience, it was the widows’ experience, and I am sure it has been or will be your experience.
And then there’s a third reason for us to share Catullus’s and Anne Carson’s way of engaging grief: in our Gospel this morning, Jesus goes right to the heart of a real woman’s pain. Approaching the town, he sees a man’s body being carried out followed by his grieving mother. Jesus has compassion on this woman, and I am convinced he goes to her because he knows what her grief feels like. He responds to her grief by giving this woman’s son back to her in a way he is uniquely empowered to do. The point of the story has to do with God’s compassion for our suffering. God in Christ knows what it is to suffer and to lose, and in Jesus’s response to the widow of Nain we see what God wants for all of us: our pain assuaged, our beloved dead restored to us. Jesus gives this woman her son and her self back. The promise of the Gospel is not that we will not suffer loss. The promise of the Gospel is that the One at the center of things knows our suffering and feels with us and wants to restore all that we have lost in new and abundant life.
We come now to gather with Jesus at his table. We are invited to this table not in spite of our losses but because of them. Try as we might, you and I cannot raise the dead. But we can be with each other in our grieving; we can help each other recover ourselves. As he does with the widow, the God we know in Jesus goes right to the heart of things. So, along with your tartans, bring your wounds and losses to this table, where they too can be held up into God’s healing light. No matter what clan or tribe you belong to, the greatest truth about you is that you matter to God—all of you, including your interior life matters to God--and that means God feels what you suffer at least as intensely as you do. If we are faithful in opening ourselves up to the divine compassion for us at the heart of the universe, we will see that all our tartans blend, finally, into one indivisible fabric of love. And wearing that universal garment, because we will have ourselves and our loved ones restored to us in hope, we will no longer feel the need to drink, fight, or even cry. Amen.

*Catullus 101
Translated by Anne Carson
Nox, 2010
Many the peoples many the oceans I crossed—
I arrive at these poor, brother, burials
so I could give you the last gift owed to death
and talk (why?) with mute ash.
Now that Fortune tore you from me, you
oh poor (wrongly) brother (wrongly) taken from me,
now still anyway this – what a distant mood of parents
handed down as the sad gift for burials—
accept! soaked with tears of a brother
and into forever, brother, farewell and farewell.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Address: Memorial Day, Franklin Village Cemetery May 31, 2010

On Memorial Day we honor the men and women who have died in the military service of our country. Sometimes, it is hard to get your mind to take in the magnitude of the numbers. The statistics vary, but according to some sources, by January, 2007, over 1,200,000 American soldiers had died in all our wars from the Revolution up to the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. We all know some of the figures: over 600,000 died on both sides in the Civil War; 405,000 in World War II; 36,000 in Korea; 58,000 in Vietnam; 383 in the Gulf War. We do not have the final tallies from Iraq and Afghanistan yet, but to date we have lost 4,387 in Operation Iraqi Freedom (Iraq) and 1,075 in Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan).
I still remember vividly the day in June of 1969 when I opened the now famous issue of Life magazine [June 27, 1969] containing a photo spread of the 242 American soldiers killed in one week of that war. The photo essay was called “Faces of the American Dead”, and by focusing on one week’s casualties it made the extent of our loss more understandable and thus more painful. Numbers were one thing. Two hundred forty-two photographs were another.
Something like that helped me understand our current losses this spring. Elizabeth Samet, Professor of English at West Point, published an article in The New Republic this March which described her teacher student relationship with one soldier who was killed in Afghanistan in February. Many military service academy faculty develop lifelong correspondences with their graduates, especially the ones who go into combat. As Samet says,

"In such correspondence, one finds, to paraphrase Wordsworth, the epic growth of the soldier’s mind when it is engaged in an unusual enterprise: teaching an Afghan unit to fire old Soviet artillery with a manual written in Russian, serving in the military police at a detention facility in the wake of Abu Ghraib, or leading a company of paratroopers on missions through Zabul Province.
"Then one day, maybe, even though you have known from the start that this is one of the possible endings to the story, you find yourself unable to compute the fact that the last message you sent will go unanswered. Several days later you sit in a pew staring at a flag-draped coffin that holds the remains of a man not yet 30. A coffin surrounded by a wife and a mother and a father and a sister, who also wears the uniform, and by a lot of other young men who aren’t yet 30. Men who call him--repeatedly and forcefully--their best friend. Men permitted to grieve unabashedly in this place as they struggle through their eulogies but who suffer invisibly terrible things elsewhere."
So, as a way of honoring all those who have died in the service of our country, let us listen a bit to what one West Point professor has to tell us about the interior life of just one of her students who has died in combat this year:
“Department of Defense News Release No. 093-10, posted on February 3, 2010, announced that two soldiers, Captain Daniel P. Whitten, 28, of Grimes, Iowa, and Private First Class Zachary G. Lovejoy, 20, of Albuquerque, New Mexico, “died of wounds suffered when enemy forces attacked their vehicle with an improvised explosive device Feb. 2 in Zabul province, Afghanistan. They were assigned to the 1st Battalion, 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, Fort Bragg, N.C.” Capt. Whitten commanded C Company; Pfc. Lovejoy was one of his paratroopers.
“Dan Whitten graduated from West Point in 2004. He was my student. Together, we read everything from Montaigne to The Maltese Falcon; we studied His Girl Friday, Citizen Kane, Grand Illusion, and Night and Fog. He was a kind of student I always hope to find in class: someone who keeps the rest of us honest. He was direct, impatient with muddled thinking, yet he delivered his arguments with such wit and humor and from a place of such scrupulousness that no one could justly resent a correction. He wrote a thesis with one of my colleagues on beauty and elegance in scientific theory, but he could be equally engaging on the subject of Braveheart (a film about which we disagreed) or Billy Madison (about which we were in absolute accord). And he made me laugh, which is something I note fewer and fewer people are able to do. He was buried Friday, February 12, 2010, in the West Point cemetery.
“In the years since his graduation, Dan had become a correspondent--someone whose messages I welcomed, whose insights I valued. When I asked what he needed, he would say he needed nothing: “No specific needs or desires right now, but I’ll let you know if I lose/break anything.” When I asked him how he was, he would say, “[L]ife is good. Except the whole Afghanistan thing.”
“In one of those strange coincidences that make the Army seem small, another former student was one of Dan’s lieutenants in Afghanistan. After Dan died, the lieutenant told me he came to understand more about leadership in a few months with Capt. Whitten than at any passage in his life. Dan had shared with me his observations on the lieutenant’s progress, and I could see the care he took with him. The specificity and humanity of his observations suggested the kind of attention he paid all the paratroopers he commanded. From past experience, I knew, too, the equanimity with which Dan greeted setbacks, as well as successes. That quality must have helped prepare his men for even this eventuality.
“Dan balanced what all thoughtful officers must learn how to balance: in his words, “day to day business and improving the lives of [his] paratroopers” on the one hand, and on the other hand reflecting, in moments that allowed, “on the purpose, conduct, and endstate of this conflict.” In his last e-mail to me, he wrote of becoming “a little more restless,” as a man with an active, conscientious mind is apt to become when he finds himself in a foreign, hostile place--in what a Marine lieutenant I once met at Walter Reed called, while staring at what was left of his leg, “a sea of variability,” and tries to keep everyone else afloat and swimming. . . .
“In his West Point yearbook entry, where most cadets include a paragraph, customarily penned by their friends, full of inside jokes, struggles, or triumphs, Dan offered only one cryptic line: “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” It comes, of course, from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land--from the poem’s first section, “The Burial of the Dead.” Dan was there before us.”[ Excerpts from “Man of Letters” by Elizabeth D. Samet. TNR March 16, 2010]
Sometimes it is hard to get our minds around the numbers. This glimpse into the interior life of Captain Daniel P. Whitten should remind us that the men and women who sacrifice so much to defend us are real, complex, precious, unique human beings who sacrifice more than we can ever know. The numbers do not tell their stories. Only we can do that. Let us spend this Memorial Day remembering, honoring, and giving thanks. Let us pray:
Almighty God, in whose hands are the living and the dead: We give you thanks for all your servants who have laid down their lives in the service of our country. Grant them mercy and the light of your presence; and give us such a living sense of your righteous will, that the work you have begun in them may be perfected in us. In your holy name we pray. Amen.