Archive for September, 2010


“The Grapevine Swing”
by Samuel Minturn Peck
When I was a boy on the old plantation,
Down by the deep bayou –
The fairest spot of all creation
Under the arching blue –
When the wind came over the cotton and corn,
To the long, slim loop I’d spring
With brown feet bare, and a hat-brim torn,
And swing in the grapevine swing.

Swinging in the grapevine swing,
Laughing where the wild birds sing,
I dream and sigh
For the days gone by,
Swinging in the grapevine swing.

Out o’er the water lilies bonny and bright
Back to the moss-green trees;
I shouted and laughed with a heart as light
As a wild rose tossed by the breeze.
The mocking bird joined in my reckless glee;
I longed for no angel’s wing;
I was just as near heaven as I wanted to be
Swinging in the grapevine swing.

Swinging in the grapevine swing,
Laughing where the wild birds sing –
Oh, to be a boy
With a heart full of joy,
Swinging in the grapevine swing!

I’m weary at noon, I’m weary at night,
I’m fretted and sore of heart,
And care is sowing my locks with white
As I wend through the fevered mart.
I’m tired of the world with its pride and pomp,
And fame seems a worthless thing.
I’d barter it all for one day’s romp,
And a swing in the grapevine swing.

Swinging in the grapevine swing,
Laughing where the wild birds sing –
I would I were away
From the world today,
Swinging in the grapevine swing.


“Autumn Fires”
Robert Louis Stevenson
(from A Child’s Garden of Verses, 1913)

In the other gardens
And all up the vale,
From the autumn bonfires
See the smoke trail!

Pleasant summer over
And all the summer flowers,
The red fire blazes,
The gray smoke towers.

Sing a song of seasons!
Something bright in all!
Flowers in the summer,
Fires in the fall!

by Edward Hirsch

Fall, falling, fallen. That’s the way the season
Changes its tense in the long-haired maples
That dot the road; the veiny hand-shaped leaves
Redden on their branches (in a fiery competition
With the final remaining cardinals) and then
Begin to sidle and float through the air, at last
Settling into colorful layers carpeting the ground.
At twilight the light, too, is layered in the trees
In a season of odd, dusky congruences‐a scarlet tanager
And the odor of burning leaves, a golden retriever
Loping down the center of a wide street and the sun
Setting behind smoke-filled trees in the distance,
A gap opening up in the treetops and a bruised cloud
Blamelessly filling the space with purples. Everything
Changes and moves in the split second between summer’s
Sprawling past and winter’s hard revision, one moment
Pulling out of the station according to schedule,
Another moment arriving on the next platform. It
Happens almost like clockwork: the leaves drift away
From their branches and gather slowly at our feet,
Sliding over our ankles, and the season begins moving
Around us even as its colorful weather moves us,
Even as it pulls us into its dusty, twilit pockets.
And every year there is a brief, startling moment
When we pause in the middle of a long walk home and
Suddenly feel something invisible and weightless
Touching our shoulders, sweeping down from the air:
It is the autumn wind pressing against our bodies;
It is the changing light of fall falling on us.

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I’ve said here a few times before that one of my must-read bloggers, Theology Div., is the Epicscopal priest, theologian and spiritual director F.W. Schmidt. He’s on the faculty at SMU’s Perkins School of Theology where yours truly never had him for a class but did sit at his feet a number of times and marveled at his endless wisdom.

Perkins has a reputation — at least among conservative evangelicals — as being a very liberal seminary, and it is very liberal. But it’s also very conservative, very evangelical. It’s also everything in between. What makes it such a respected seminary among theologians world-wide, and always has, is that it brings together very liberal and very conservative and very moderate students and teachers into some serious, respectful dialogue with one another. To label it as merely liberal (as if liberal is evil, as the now-loaded label “liberal” has come to symbolize) underscores the very point that Father Fred makes about the danger of labels in the following posting of his. He always makes me think and challenges my values, and that, to my way of thinking, is what a really great writer and teacher does.

With no further of that old ado. . . read on.

Years ago I had a life-changing experience in a nursing home. I was visiting an aging parishioner and, as is so often the case, she was sharing her room with another resident. Both ladies were out having tests run, so I was left on my own to wait.

While I did, I noticed that my parishioner’s roommate had a photo on the dresser. Given the vintage of the picture, it was clearly a picture of my friend’s roommate, but what was captivating was the subject matter. Taken when she was a young woman, it included her twin sister.

Both women were clad in leotards and hung by their legs, side by side on a flying trapeze.

That image has stuck with me for over thirty years. It taught me to never make categorical assumptions about people, never assign behaviors or perspectives to them, and don’t ever fail to honor the individual pilgrimages they have made through life. Not everyone with white hair is a grandmother or grandfather. No one who is can be reduced to that role. Each is a real person with hopes and dreams — some of which were realized, some of which were not.

The same could be said of endless numbers of other groups. Labels simplify life, but they are as dangerous as they are convenient. Texans, Bostonians, gays straight, conservative, liberal….these and many other labels may lend simplicity to the world, but none of them capture the totality of the life that each bears and none of the labels possess definitive, predictable content.

I have conservative and liberal friends, old and young friends, friends who have a considerable amount of education and those whose education was shaped by experience —- the differences and complexities are endless. More to the point, each of their pilgrimages are singular, undermining the value of the labels.

Yet, far too often we prefer the self-righteous and smug value of labels to the richness of the conversation about our respective journeys.

Why does it matter spiritually to resist that kind of labeling?

One, it is a flight from love. Too much of the labeling that we do is rooted in a desire to establish what we do or don’t like about someone and then dismiss them.

Two, it feeds arrogance. To label someone else is to say, “I am the arbiter of good and evil, right and wrong, sophisticated and clueless. I stand in the right place, you stand in the wrong one.” We can and should engage in critical dialog about what we think, but labeling has nothing to do with being critical. Labeling should alert us to the sin of self-righteousness — and sloth — because labeling people is not simply a function of arrogance, it is the child of laziness.

Three, labeling closes you off to what God can teach you through others, foreclosing on the stories of spiritual pilgrimage that can enrich our own. Labeling has a way of narrowing the permitted story lines in life, refusing to be surprised, educated, or broadened.

Where is this in Scripture? In the Book of Jonah, in the calling of Jeremiah to be a prophet to the nations, in the teaching of Jesus, in the churches of Paul as they spread out across what was an alien world to the fledgling faith. It always has been the invitation of a church that preached the gospel to whosoever will and who found a place for people – even those who persecuted her.

When I listen to boomers talk about inclusion and diversity as if we are the generational originators and guarantors of something new, I am always a bit bemused. The church has always been inclusive and diverse. Oh, there have been those who were forced to the margins and refused entrance, but that has always been at odds with the Gospel and those who closed the doors on others were never as like-minded as they supposed.

And then there are those who freely wield the language of diversity, who, in truth, are prepared to embrace only a few, preferring the love of categories to the embrace of real people.

The fact of the matter is that Scripture has always preferred the language of reconciliation to the language of inclusion — and for good reasons:

Our end lies not in the special character of our journeys, but in God

God does not just invite us, God invites us with conditions.

God does not simply include us, God includes us with an eye to changing us.

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It’s sort of weird to see Dallas Cowboys actually having fun with each other, something they haven’t done for about a hunnerd years. The local as well as national sports media are having fun with this story too, of rookie Dez Bryant getting stuck with a huge dinner tab, although a lot of skeptical fans are contending that it was impossible for the Cows to run up a dinner tab that big.

People, I covered some college and pro sports–or tried, before I realized I wasn’t cut out for the Wide World of Sports Writing–for a couple of years early in my journalism career, and the skeptics should know that a 350-pound NFL lineman or a 280-pound linebacker or even a stout running back could eat a couple of round bales of hay for an appetizer. I have no doubt that these beasts ran up a $55K tab at a steakhouse.

Dallas Cowboys rookie Dez Bryant gets stuck with $54,896 dinner tab | NFL
Dallas Cowboys veterans stuck rookie receiver Dez Bryant with the dinner bill Monday — and it came to almost $55,000.

By McClatchy Newspapers and The Associated Press
IRVING, Texas — How much is it worth to you to not carry a pair of shoulder pads?

Well, for Dallas Cowboys rookie Dez Bryant, it was just under $55,000.

Remember the highly publicized incident in training camp when receiver Bryant refused to carry the pads of veteran Roy Williams in a traditional ritual that is an annual rite of passage on most NFL teams?

Williams promised Bryant would pay one way or another, and specifically pointed to a time when the rookie took the veterans out to dinner. Williams said he would be extra hungry and extra thirsty.

Payback time came Monday night at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse. Bryant was supposed to take a small group of offensive players out to dinner. A few more hungry souls — including defensive players — showed up.

The final tab was $54,896.

“When it started out, it was supposed to be small,” said Bryant’s adviser, David Wells. “Way more ended up going. They got him.”

The dinner was one thing. But several players walked out with bottles of wine or champagne. Bryant had no choice but to pay or wash dishes, Wells said.

“What could he say? What could he do?” Wells said with a chuckle. “It wasn’t in the monthly budget. But he had to do what he had do.”

Former Oklahoma State standout Bryant didn’t seem to mind and apparently took it all in stride.

This is what he posted on his Twitter account during the dinner: “I’m here eating, drinking with my dogs I go to war with every Sunday doing it big at pappas steakhouse!!!!”

While most media accounts reported Bryant was stuck for the entire amount, The Dallas Morning News website said, “Bryant helped foot the bill for the dinner.”

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Joni Mitchell: Ageless old Hootenanny hippie chicks we love.

And if you know what a hootenanny is, you’re getting hopelessly old.

(For Stephanie “Buddhapest” Rogers, cat lover, mighty fine writer, giver of compassionate hospice care and total Joni Mitchell freak who somehow survives life in way out West Texas. I pray for your safety, girl.)

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“Look at the birds in the sky. . . Learn from the way the wild flowers grow.”

— St. Francis

St. Francis is the patron saint of ecology and sort of the nature boy of Christian tradition.

Animal lovers know all about his communing with all God’s creatures and his celebration of the sun and moon and the entirety of God’s green earth. We tend to get images of him steeped in myth and legend that come closer to caricatures than reality. Francis set out to live a Christ-like life, and a Christ-like life requires a lot more than being at one with nature and animals in the garden where you may have that statue of St. Francis with a bird on his head. As Sister Marjorie Keenan put it:

“St. Francis of Assisi fully understood this mysterious relationship between the world and the person seized by God’s love. At times, Francis could perhaps seem to us to be too simple, too naive, to content our complicated modern minds. We pass far too quickly over his suffering, his hard and penitential life, his long hours of contemplation, his courage in face of the challenges of his time.”

As I’ve noted many times here before, the peace prayer attributed to St. Francis (see below) keeps me going some days when the world is just too much with me and I’m too caught up in the world and not caught up enough in the arms of the Almighty. The image of St. Francis stopping to kiss the poor leper keeps me inspired some nights to make one more round in the ER waiting room where there’s usually some modern version of the poor leper who may not feel like he or she has been treated like a human being for a while and just needs someone to look at him and acknowledge his existence by asking if he’s feeling bad, which he obviously is.

All that said, on a day as beautiful and glorious as this October day in Dallas, Texas, St. Francis bids me come outside and revel in the glory of the good green earth that God provided us in his loving providence.

“What was the fruit of this life entirely given to God,” Sister Keenan goes on to ask of Francis. “A man that the animals considered their friend; a man who considered the sun and the moon as members of his family; a mendicant monk who gave all to the poor and who called death his sister. Francis dared to plumb the depths of the mystery of creation: everything was created for the glory of God; everything should render God this glory.”


The prayer of St. Francis
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy;

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

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From the sometimes tough-minded and always incisive New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman . . .

“China is doing moon shots. Yes, that’s plural. When I say ‘moon shots’ I mean big, multibillion-dollar, 25-year-horizon, game-changing investments. China has at least four going now: one is building a network of ultramodern airports; another is building a web of high-speed trains connecting major cities; a third is in bioscience, where the Beijing Genomics Institute this year ordered 128 DNA sequencers — from America — giving China the largest number in the world in one institute to launch its own stem cell/genetic engineering industry; and, finally, Beijing just announced that it was providing $15 billion in seed money for the country’s leading auto and battery companies to create an electric car industry, starting in 20 pilot cities. In essence, China Inc. just named its dream team of 16-state-owned enterprises to move China off oil and into the next industrial growth engine: electric cars.

“Not to worry. America today also has its own multibillion-dollar, 25-year-horizon, game-changing moon shot: fixing Afghanistan.”

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“Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword!”

—- Matthew 10: 34

Christians do all kinds of biblical and theological gymnastics to justify war and forceful coercion and violence, and never mind that Jesus was clearly a pacifist and that Paul and the early Christians were pacifists. In fact, it wasn’t until 300 years after Christ that Christians and Constantine merged church and state and 2,000 years of some really violent and ugly Christian history started unfolding.

All too many Christians try to justify violence and force by pointing out that Jesus cleaned out the temple and ran off the moneychangers with a whip, but nowhere in that scripture does Jesus physically hurt anyone. So when that justification for violence collapses, Christians point to Jesus saying he did not come to bring peace. But that scripture doesn’t hold up either in trying to justify a butt-kicking Jesus.

Jesus, as one of my theology profs used to say, was no Tiny Tim tipoeing through the tulips. Or as Dorothy Sayers put it, “Whatever the peace of Jesus, it was not a peace of amiable indifference.” Jesus was an activist, in-your-face pacifist for sure. No question but what he was the Prince of Peace and the sensitive soul who we see weeping with compassion in the gospel. But he was something of a man man on a mission for peace and was anything but indifferent to humanity’s inhumanity toward humanity. He never said “do not make enemies,” but rather to love our enemies.

Me, I consider myself an almost pacifist. “Almost,” because pure, unadulterated pacifism ultimately collapses under the weight of love of neighbor. Standing by and doing nothing to stop violence would be cold and cruel comfort to someone or some peoples being slaughtered. But as I always say here, I’m for war and violence as an absolute last resort, and haven’t seen many wars lately that were waged as anything like the last resort. Certainly not the invasion of Iraq, which couldn’t begin to be justified by an measure of moral or ethical standards and least of all by any traditional Christian definition of a “just war.”

The kazillion people of the world who claim to be Christians could stamp out evil with the sheer force of their numbers if they but lived by the gospels they purport to trust in. Active non-violence is hardly mushy stuff, as MLK and Gandhi and so many other aggressive peacemakers have demonstrated. But we love our war heroes. Our peace heroes, not so much.

All that said, click onto this link for more on Matthew 10:34 and the kind of sword of which Jesus spoke.

And visualize world peace, because as the Good Book says, “without a vision the people perish.”

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Secret Agent Nearne

The long life of World War II spy Eileen Nearne reads like a movie waiting to happen. This is her obituary from The New York Times, published in that great newspaper Sept. 21 . . . .

Eileen Nearne, Wartime Spy, Dies at 89
New York Times

LONDON — After she died earlier this month, a frail 89-year-old alone in a flat in the British seaside town of Torquay, Eileen Nearne, her body undiscovered for several days, was listed by local officials as a candidate for what is known in Britain as a council burial, or what in the past was called a pauper’s grave.

But after the police looked through her possessions, including a Croix de Guerre medal awarded to her by the French government after World War II, the obscurity Ms. Nearne had cultivated for decades began to slip away.

Known to her neighbors as an insistently private woman who loved cats and revealed almost nothing about her past, she has emerged as a heroine in the tortured story of Nazi-occupied France, one of the secret agents who helped prepare the French resistance for the D-Day landings in June 1944.

On Tuesday, the anonymity that Ms. Nearne had cherished in life was denied her in death. A funeral service in Torquay featured a military bugler and piper and an array of uniformed mourners. A red cushion atop her coffin bore her wartime medals. Eulogies celebrated her as one of 39 British women who were parachuted into France as secret agents by the Special Operations Executive, a wartime agency known informally as “Churchill’s secret army,” which recruited more than 14,000 agents to conduct espionage and sabotage behind enemy lines.

Funeral costs were paid by the British Legion, the country’s main veterans’ organization, and by anonymous donors who came forward after the circumstances of Ms. Nearne’s death made front-page news in Britain.

The funeral organizers said that in accordance with her wishes, her ashes would be scattered at sea.

Ms. Nearne, known as Didi, volunteered for work that was as dangerous as any that wartime Britain had to offer: operating a secret radio link from Paris that was used to organize weapons drops to the French resistance and to shuttle messages back and forth between controllers in London and the resistance.

After several narrow escapes, she was arrested by the Gestapo in July 1944 and sent to the Ravensbruck concentration camp near Berlin, a camp that was primarily intended for women, tens of thousands of whom died there.

Ms. Nearne survived, though other women working for the Special Operations Executive were executed in the Nazi camps.

As she related in postwar debriefings, documented in Britain’s National Archives, the Gestapo tortured her — beating her, stripping her naked, then submerging her repeatedly in a bath of ice-cold water until she began to black out from lack of oxygen. Yet they failed to force her to yield the secrets they sought: her real identity, the names of others working with her in the resistance and the assignments given to her by London. At the time, she was 23.

The account she gave her captors was that she was an innocent and somewhat gullible Frenchwoman named Jacqueline Duterte, and that she had been recruited by a local businessman to transmit radio coded messages that she did not understand.

She recalled one interrogator’s attempts to break her will: “He said, ‘Liar! Spy!’ and hit me on the face. He said, ‘We have ways of making people who don’t want to talk, talk. Come with us.’ ”

From Ravensbruck, Ms. Nearne was shuttled eastward through an archipelago of Nazi death camps, her head shaved. After first refusing to work in the camps, she changed her mind, seeing the work assignments as the only means of survival.

In December 1944 she was moved to the Markleberg camp, near Leipzig, where she worked on a road-repair gang for 12 hours a day. But while being transferred yet again, she and two Frenchwomen escaped and eventually linked up with American troops.

Even then, her travails were not over. American intelligence officers initially identified her as a Nazi collaborator and held her at a detention center with captured SS personnel until her account, that she was a British secret agent, was verified by her superiors in London.

Asked by her postwar debriefers how she kept up hope, she replied: “The will to live. Willpower. That’s the most important. You should not let yourself go. It seemed that the end would never come, but I always believed in destiny, and I had a hope.”

“If you are a person who is drowning, you put all your efforts into trying to swim.”

Ms. Nearne was born on March 15, 1921, into an Anglo-Spanish family that later moved to France, where she grew up speaking French.

The family fled to Spain ahead of the German occupation of France, arriving in Britain in 1942. Ms. Nearne, her older sister, Jacqueline, and their brother, Francis, were recruited by the Special Operations Executive. In March 1944, Didi Nearne followed her sister in parachuting into France, remaining there, under the code name Agent Rose, after her sister was airlifted back to Britain.

The Gestapo had infiltrated many of the Allied spying networks, and Ms. Nearne lived on a knife’s edge. On a train journey to a new safe house south of Paris, her cover came close to being blown when a German soldier offered to carry her suitcase, which contained her secret radio. After telling him that it contained a gramophone, she hurriedly got off the train and walked with the case the rest of the way.

Describing how she lived undercover, she said after the war: “I wasn’t nervous. In my mind, I was never going to be arrested. But of course I was careful. There were Gestapo in plain clothes everywhere. I always looked at my reflection in the shop windows to see if I was being followed.”

In July 1944, the Gestapo arrived at her Paris hide-out moments after she had completed a coded transmission. She burned the messages and hid the radio, but the Germans found the radio and the pad she had used for coding the transmissions.

Parts of her story were later told in books written about wartime secret operations, including the 1966 history “SOE in France, 1940-1944,” by Michael Foot, part of a government history series by authors given special access to secret government records.

But wartime friends said after her death, on Sept. 2, that she had found it difficult to adjust to peacetime life, and a medical report in the government archives said she was suffering from psychological symptoms brought on by her wartime service. She never married, and she lived alone after her sister died in 1982.

Friends said that she withdrew into herself and shunned all opportunities to earn celebrity from her wartime experiences. In 1993, she returned to Ravensbruck for a visit, but otherwise she cherished her anonymity. As she told an interviewer several years before she died: “It was a life in the shadows, but I was suited for it. I could be hard and secret. I could be lonely. I could be independent. But I wasn’t bored. I liked the work. After the war, I missed it.”

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Annie Lennox inhabits some planet so far out there that it’s yet to be given a name. But she’s got those right amount of rockin’ chops and I like her.

Not that I’d want somebody that weird for a neighbor, mind you.

But then, I wouldn’t want ME for a neighbor.

(Warning: First vid here is so eighties— it might gag you if you hated the eighties even more than I did.)

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Another crazy, cocky American. He came. He saw. He conquered.

If China has a national hero it’s Yao Ming, the freakishly tall China boy who found stardom in the States with the Houston Rockets. His likeness is found on murals and billboards all over China where he promotes everything from insurance to sneakers. The Chinese love him for making it big in America’s NBA, but also because he’s done so much good in China with his wealth. Along with movie star Jackie Chan, Yao has been generous in giving back to China and pouring money in for disaster relief for floods and earthquakes such. And good for him, and for Jackie Chan too.

Turn me loose with a camera and I’ll take shots of tots and old folks all day. They’re always good for good pictures.

One way to cool down on a hot day in Central China. Just take your shirt off in front of God and everybody why don’t you!

Chinese will squat anywhere, any place, any time, like this cop in Kaifeng who stopped and squatted to text somebody. If I squatted like this it would take a fork lift to get up upright again.

The one vestige of the Chairman is this mighty large photo on the front wall of The Forbidden City. Yao Ming and Jackie Chan pictures–they’re everywhere. Mao, not so much. (I couldn’t get John Lennon’s line out of my head the rest of the day: “But if you go carryin’ pictures of Chairman Mao, you ain’t gonna make it with anyone any how.”)

Once in a while in Beijing you happen upon a message like this one strung across the roadway.

How many people in this country do you see using umbrellas to shade themselves from the sun. Women with umbrellas on a sunny day is like women with purses–after a while you don’t even notice them.


This young one spoke pretty good English. She’s lived in Beijing all her life and had never made the steep and forbidding climb up to see the famous and beautiful Summer Palace in Beijing till this particular Sunday afternoon. A friend I had dinner with in Beijing at his home is 40. He told me he’d been to the Great Wall once, when he was 15, and said he probably ought to go see it again some day and take his 16 year old daughter, who has yet to see it. Maybe it’s just me, but if I lived in close proximity to the Grand Canyon, I think I’d want to go marvel at it once in a while.

At the foot hills beneath the Summer Palace.

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