Monthly Archives: December 2009

Year’s End

The end of a year is a time of reflection. We remember the highs and lows, the blessings and tragedies of the past while looking forward with hope to a new year. My mother sent me the words of a German hymn yesterday written by Eleonore, Princess of Reuss (1835-1903). You can read the full text in the original here.  I’ve pasted a translation of the first and last verses below. I hope you like it.

Silently The Year Comes To An End

1. Silently the year comes to an end,

Be therefore still my soul.

Into God’s faithful hand

I lay my pains of old,

And ev’ry thing this year encumbered,

Griefs only my God has numbered,

The tears I long to weep,

The wounds still burning deep.

6. Help us through these troubled days

And let our hearts be strong,

Walk beside us on our ways,

Keep us from doing wrong.

And it is here below

So desolate, so alone,

O grant us in your peace

To be blessed now here at home!

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So Blessed

People are especially generous during the holidays. I know this from being on both the giving and the receiving end. Ten years ago I left active duty to begin graduate studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. That November we had our fourth child, Mark, and were living in a tiny, two-bedroom apartment on campus. Money was tight, very tight, and we didn’t know how we would scrape together enough for a Christmas dinner, much less presents.

A social worker at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, where our son Mark was born, asked us if we would allow them to sponsor our family for Christmas. Although it was the first time we were on the receiving end of charity, I didn’t feel any shame or embarrassment, as I thought I might, only a deep sense of gratitude. The good people who work at Goleta Valley Cottage Hospital, the branch closest to the university, brought piles of toys and goodies on Christmas Eve—so much, in fact, that our little living room was overwhelmed. Our hearts were too. Not only did they bring enough Christmas cheer to set our tiny tots’ eyes aglow, but they also gave us $500 in gift cards from local stores. I still think back on this outpouring generosity with thankfulness a decade later.

This year, when so many are struggling, I am again marveling at how much I have to be thankful for. Not only do I have a good job doing something I love (teaching), but our family is getting something we did not expect—housing on the campus of the Naval Academy, affectionately known as “The Yard.” And not just any housing. After Christmas we’re moving into quarters normally reserved for “key and essential” personnel. (I’m neither key nor essential, but I am a commander with four kids still at home.) To say the home is nice would be an understatement. It’s a newly renovated, historic home with six bedrooms, three floors, two staircases, and a kitchen that would make Mario Batali proud. (It’s going to be sparsely furnished for a while, since only five months ago we were living in a 1,400 square foot apartment in Alexandria, VA.) Our new home overlooks College Creek where the crew teams practice rowing, and my office in Sampson Hall is just 200 yards from our front door. You could say we’re moving into the ultimate gated community.

While I’m deeply grateful for all the material blessings I have been given (and I know I have a lot more than most), I realize these things are nothing compared with the intangibles of family, health, and most of all, the love of God in Christ, whose birth we Christians celebrate this time of year. Merry Christmas!

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The Other Casualties

We often hear of those who give their lives for our country. Less frequently do we catch a glimpse of the ones who are left behind to mourn for them. I worked at the Navy Annex in Washington, DC for almost a year. Although the building is adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery, I never attended a funeral there or even thought about the services except when I was outside and happened to hear a gun salute. They take their toll on the members of the U.S. Armed Forces who perform dozens of funerals daily, not to mention the grieving loved ones. One of the midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy shared with me the following, first-person account of a funeral he participated in at Arlington. Have your Kleenex ready!

We finally arrive at the site, place the casket down, and wipe off as much rain as we can from the ensign as we prepare to start its final folding. Three volleys are shot off in the horizon and their echo lingers in the background as a solemn rendition of taps is played through the apologetic crying of God through the clouds. The folding commences and I run through the remorseful speech in my head as the time to hand off the flag draws near. I reach the final fold, and I can barely see my white gloves as the rain pummels my face at the head of the casket.  I take a breath and compose myself in preparation for the speech I have rehearsed, praying that I can execute it perfectly.

I turn around and to my surprise there was not a married woman awaiting me, nor a sad sibling facing the loss of their bloodline. No, it was not as simple as that. There stood this man’s daughter, waist high, gripping an action figure that resembled the life her father once lived. I dropped to one knee and held the ensign, dripping wet at the little woman’s chest.  I proceeded with my speech and watched as she gazed at her father’s casket being lowered, dumfounded that he wouldn’t be there to simply tuck her in at night. As I neared the end of the speech she yelled out for her father and jumped at me crying tears of sheer pain. I held her tight and told her it was going to be ok as the rain surrounded us in the puddle just to the right of her father’s casket. As I held her, I glanced at the small crowd gathered for his reception and quickly realized that he was all she had, that the rest in attendance were his men from his ship. I swallowed hard as I tried not to choke up, and I knew I had to be strong for the little woman as she was about to embark on a life I dare not imagine. I handed her to one of the fellow sailors in attendance, and formed up alongside my brothers for the march off to the next funeral, leaving with her a piece of my heart and soul. Thus was the start of my day that early spring morning.

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Vive la Révolution!

Maria could have gotten an abortion. Even in the days before Roe v. Wade made it legal women had alternatives to going through with an unwanted pregnancy. In her heart she knew she had done nothing wrong, but that wouldn’t take away the shame or stop the raised eyebrows in her small town. It would have been easy for her to rationalize ending her pregnancy. After all, no one would know . . . no one except her. She would know, and so she decided to keep the baby and deal with the judgmental looks and behind-the-back whispers. Besides, her fiancé José said he’d stick with her no matter what. He was a good guy. Somehow they’d make it through this crisis.

Of course, we know Maria as Mary and her fiancé as Joseph not José. Mary was indeed in a crisis—an unexpected pregnancy followed by a shotgun wedding. And there was that angelic vision. Or was it a dream? She must have questioned at times whether her mind made it all up—that business about giving birth to the son of God. In the end Mary accepted her situation gracefully. What else could she do? So she went to live with her much older cousin Elizabeth, who was also expecting. Her situation seemed even more miraculous, since she conceived after being childless for a long time. When the two pregnant cousins met, Elizabeth felt the baby kick in her womb and sang Mary’s praises. Mary sang too.

The Magnificat, Mary’s song in Luke 1:46-55, is surprising. It was not a lullaby, as one might expect, but a revolutionary march, a musical manifesto—like La Marseillaise for the French or the Germans’ Deutschland über alles. According to William Barclay, the Magnificat announces a threefold revolution—moral, political, and economic. First is the moral revolution in which God exalted the humble (Mary) and “scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts” (51). The political revolution comes next. The lyrics say God “hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree” (52). Finally, there is an economic revolution in which God “filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent away empty” (53). The Bible presents this future state as if it were already reality. God’s promise to turn society on its head is presented as if the world were already upside down. It’s not a very comforting message for those who are proud, powerful, or wealthy. Such people cause much pain and injustice in the world (and we have all been those people at times), but they will get their comeuppance.

There is an interesting irony in the story. God caused Mary’s pain and disgrace. It was necessary for her to endure both physical and social distress to bring the savior into the world. The good news is that one born long ago in this crazy, mixed-up world began a revolution—a revolution of hope. Vive la Révolution!

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Godric

Some books are to be gulped down like cold water on a warm summer’s day. Others should be sipped like a cup of hot tea. Frederick Buechner’s novel Godric is the latter. At times profound, at times bawdy, always beautiful on its metrical feet, this work of historical fiction about a medieval English hermit both charms and troubles the reader, alternately plunging to the depths of human depravity and then surging to lofty spiritual heights. Here’s one of my favorite passages, on prayer:

What’s prayer? It’s shooting shafts into the dark. What mark they strike, if any, who’s to say? It’s reaching for a hand you cannot touch. The silence is so fathomless that prayers like plummets vanish into the sea. You beg. You whimper. You load God down with empty praise. You tell him sins that he already knows full well. You seek to change his changeless will. Yet Godric prays the way he breathes, for else his heart would wither in his breast. Prayer is the wind that fills his sail. Else drift with witless tides. And sometimes, by God’s grace, a prayer is heard.

It’s no wonder Godric was runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize in 1981.

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Anniversary!

I was so busy working on my last post, Snapshots, I almost forgot that my blog turns one year old today. It would be amiss if I didn’t do something in honor of this happy occasion. Let me begin by saying thank you to all of you who read my blog. I am honored and humbled that you want to know what I think, especially about matters of faith.

I started Salty Bread because a year ago I found myself no longer in a preaching or teaching role and felt the need for a creative outlet and a place to work though some ideas about matters of ultimate importance. I had become an avid reader of a fellow preacher’s blog, which gave me the inspiration. So with the encouragement of some of my coworkers where I used to work I started posting my musings online. One of the biggest rewards of blogging has been reconnecting with old friends and making some new ones.

Here are some milestones, both personal and blog related, from the past year:

  • First post written specifically for this blog was actually my second post, “Six Flags Over Jesus”—appropriate to read during the holiday season
  • Moved my blog to WordPress and updated the blog’s appearance (thank you, Natalie)
  • Moved from Washington, DC area to Annapolis, MD to begin a new teaching job
  • Post that was the most cathartic to write was “Where was God?
  • Most fun to write was “Lexically Discombobulated
  • Saddest was “In Memoriam
  • Post I decided not to publish, then accidentally published, then removed it was “Pastor Julie” (email me an I might send you a copy)

Please leave a comment and let me know if you had a favorite post over the past year. I’d love to hear from you!

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Snapshots

The Contact Sheet is a new book that “explores the process behind some of the most iconic photographs.” Behind every famous or infamous picture are dozens, sometimes hundreds, of images that the public never sees. The photographer’s contact sheet is a print of a whole roll or several rolls of film. In the days before digital cameras it was a cost-cutting measure that allowed the photographer or client a chance to preview many photos on one page without having them all printed out singly. A contact sheet tells an untold story whereas an individual photo is simply, well, a snapshot.

That’s got me thinking about how often we judge people based on one quick look, one passing moment. An angry driver on the roadway makes a rude gesture or panhandler asks for a dollar. We meet someone who comes off self-centered or rude. How accurate is that glimpse we get from such a brief encounter? And what about the people who get labeled based on a well-publicized but short-lived scandal? Maybe the individual is not a bad person but simply someone who has had a momentary lapse of judgment or is going through a rough time. Those first impressions are only a small part of a larger story. They are snapshots.

Last night I was at a dinner party with a group of people I didn’t know. One very nice lady came up to me with a big smile and said, “Hi, I’m Linda. Who are you and what’s your story?”

“What’s my story?” I said. “Well, that depends. How much time to you have?”

“Three minutes or less, if you please.”

How do you summarize your life in three minutes or less? Should I give her an elevator speech with all the things I’m most proud of? Do I whip out the family photos and tell about my wife and kids? I could say something funny or self effacing. There was an awkward pause as I considered my options. Fortunately, the person who brought me spoke up and gave a mini-resume, highlighting my accomplishments. Linda nodded approvingly and walked away. She got a snapshot version of who I am carefully selected from all of the available proofs.

Across from me sat Bruce. I didn’t learn until the end of the evening that he’s battling lymphoma and has been for some time. Imagine if someone had introduced him to me as “Bruce, who has cancer.” Nothing wrong with that, but it’s not usually how we want to be presented to others. Snapshots.

There’s probably no way to avoid all quick judgments of people. Fortunately, God knows us, really knows us—the good, the bad, and the ugly—and loves us anyway. We can pass on that love to others by being careful not to judge too harshly when we meet someone who is being difficult or unkind. And when we’re feeling particularly unlovely, we can remind ourselves that we are created in God’s image. We are his snapshots.

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