WHEN I LOST COUSIN BOB

“In the first place God made idiots. This was practice.
Then he made school boards.”

Mark Twain, Following the Equator, 1897

My cousin, Bob, would have loved Twain’s quote. He joined the Navy before finishing high school. He was tough, sharp, and my idol. Bob was a boxer, bartender, carpenter and a car dealer with a monstrous tattoo eagle on his chest. I joined the Navy because of him but skipped the eagle display. While in the Navy, Bob was often in the brig for fighting with sailors on board. His mother was in prison for most of her life.

We had numerous cousins but Bob chose me for his best friend. My Mom said to me “He’s an amazing guy most of the time but he can push you to the edge at times. He may drop you as a close friend before you know it.” “Ah, Mom, he wouldn’t do that to me.”

up in school I always felt like I was the dumbest student in the room and it made me angry. I sensed that ire all the way through college, and my low grades showed it. When I decided to go to seminary the Dean looked over my under grad grades and said sadly, “You will have to at least hold it to C’s in every class and if you drop below it, you’re out. Good luck.” The seminary was known as the ‘Harvard of the West.’

I made it to my last 3-hour final in Ethics before graduating the following week with two one-page questions done out of three. I was in the middle of the last question when I looked across to see my classmate had about ten pages and I only had half the answer of the last question. I froze and sat there for an hour realizing I would have to try another profession. My anger escalated. I think I hated the school and me. I waited until the day I thought the professor had graded the papers and lied to him by saying I would be leaving town soon. I did not want my paper shown in class. He picked up the pile of papers and pulled mine out and said, “You nailed the first and second questions but you didn’t finish the last one. I had to give you a C!”

When I got my doctorate in seminary, I could not wait to tell cousin Bob. His response was “So what!” He walked off and devastated me. Mom was right, he dumped me from then on. I never quite got over that. I sensed later he was more hurt than angered over it. Maybe I just hoped he was hurt by it.

Donald Trump came on the scene and captured 40 percent of his backers in the country who were mostly uneducated and/or broke. He didn’t start the hatred but he managed to fuel it. There would be lots of angry Bobs on his side. That’s when I began to realize that cousin Bob, if he were alive, would have voted for Trump in a heartbeat.

It’s like a war zone and Trump’s Surrogates seem to feel good about life by having that attention. Is that all bad that the Bobs may have needed to let off some steam?

Why did behavioral psychologists like B.F. Skinner miss discovering the anger that erupted for decades over education and jobs in the culture? Maybe because Skinner was on the other side of the fence by being a Professor of Psychology at Harvard.

Did anyone in our nation manage to detect the blistering frustration that has continued for so long?

I think Mark Twain might be rolling over in his grave and letting out some steam about idiots who don’t know hurt from hate.

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LIVING WITH A PILE OF CLAY

Dear good friends,

Ignacio Castuera, a long-time seminary friend, sent the following message to me on New Year’s Day:

“Buzz, 39 years ago my daughter, Marisa and I, attended your church in San Diego where you preached on the text from Luke 2 where Jesus was “lost and found’ in the Temple. You shared your anxious times at Disneyland where you lost four-year-old, Sonja, only to find her in the ‘lost parents room’ in the Magic Kingdom.

You proceeded in your sermon to share a concept in developmental psychology which stated that as parents we dare not believe we can control how our children perceive us, the best we could do was to be aware that we are constantly making impressions on our kids by falling on them as they were a pile of clay.”

I started my sermon back then with Mary, the mother of Jesus, walking alongside another mother. The companion, a super-mom type, turns to Mary and asks smugly “Have you hugged your kid today?” “Are you kidding,” Mary replies nervously, “he’s been missing for three days. I can’t even find him, let alone hug him!” And finally, Mary approaches the temple where she finds her twelve-year-old son. What might Mary say to Jesus after she had been frantically looking for him for such a long time? She has to be a little hysterical at the moment. The writer of Luke account has Mary saying, “Son, why have you treated us like this? Behold, your father and I have been looking for you in great anxiety.” Keep in mind, Mary has looked for him for days. With all due respect to Luke I prefer to believe that before she asked that question she began with a few exclamations, out of fear and compassion. Mary and Joseph may have just stood there in a pile of clay for the first time.

I got Ignacio’s message while in a hospital room in Flagstaff. Sonja was having a hysterectomy. After her surgery, her blood pressure dropped extremely low. The doctor had to go back to deal with the internal bleeding and Sonja needed to stay in the hospital for several days. That’s when our family members in the room began to feel like we were just going deeper into that clay.

How much of a load of clay falls on the doctors and nurses in their work? Sonja’s surgeon felt badly to have to go back in again. The doctor said she had done hundreds of such surgeries and only two have had to be repeated. The doctor may have felt that clay pulling her down on that occasion.

All we could do was sit in her room, pray a lot, smile to her and maybe tell a few jokes that were not all that good. It was mostly dark in the room and that’s when we loved ones feel we are falling more into that pile of clay. We can’t do much about it but we can be fully present like never before in our lives in those moments.

GO AHEAD AND COUNT YOUR BLESSINGS, PREACHERS

“To die is poignantly bitter, but the idea of having to die without having lived is unbearable.”
Erich Fromm, Man for Himself 1947

When a clergy dies the front office sends out a nice announcement and lists the churches where they had served. In my young and middle pastoral years I liked reading about those colleagues up until I hit my eighty-year-old years. That’s when those ominous notices started to alarm me. I now get George Burns joke, “At my age flowers scare me.” Do many retired secular workers our age have those chilling notices coming at them from their front offices? Why not just send out a good bottle of wine for the family? When we were young preachers we were not to imbibe but we had a few bold elderly preachers who sipped their wine in coffee cups. I miss those guys who are now not with us, but I digress.

I receive a death notification about once a month and many of the deceased are often relatively young. I worry that one of those announcements will pop up on my pc while I’m still alive. When I die my hunch is the front office will remind my colleagues and family members that I did not always make my apportionments. If you don’t know what they are you will probably not get the stress that goes with getting them paid in our churches. In the olden days of Methodism if pastors didn’t meet their apportionments it would come out of their wages. I’m rambling again.

A colleague in California said recently he has begun to feel pensive about his aging. He’s not depressed but when he learned recently that three of our close clergy friends died suddenly within a few weeks he dropped into a brooding mode. It has to be natural but when we are retired, and out of work, we are bound to fall into a pensive mood.

And, by the way, why do women get to live longer than men? Whose idea was that? On my office wall I have 25 pictures of colleagues and eight have died in the last few years but the women clergy photos are still holding forth. Is it smart to keep looking up at those friends? Does it deepen my pensiveness when those notices bombard me?

Here’s another sad situation. A long-time pastor in our conference died and only six clergy attended and merely 30 church members were present at his memorial service. Another parson who died had more than 500 in the sanctuary with a few dozen preachers at his service. OK, I’ll have to admit, I would like to have over 1000 at my memorial service. Is that asking too much? Would it matter in my next life? You bet! Why not? Just the thought that I might make it over there with a thousand in the pews cuts down on my pensiveness in this life.

So, this is my take on Erich Fromm. “To die is poignantly bitter, but the idea of having to die without having a great send-off might be unbearable. So, if we clergy don’t have a lot of colleagues and friends at the end of this life we might have more on the other side. The women, of course, will always be coming later.”

YIKES, IT WAS MY 65TH HIGH SCHOOL REUNION

“It’s all that the young can do for the old, to shock them and keep them up to date.”
G.B. Shaw, Fanny’s First Play, 1912

In Ralph Keyes book titled ‘Is There Life After High School?’ he admits he was rather short and shy and had a hard time getting along with his classmates. He let them know it in his popular book. When he decided to attend his first reunion he wrote “I was convinced that at least one of them would be waiting inside the door of the American Legion hall to hit me in the nose.” He was shocked and admitted he had a great time. It just brought him up to date.

The shock occurred when I stepped into the hall at my reunion and a classmate asked if I would sit next to him at a table. I had to glance to see his 1953 photo on his lanyard before I realized I had known him. As soon as we sat down he said quickly “Do you remember when we were on the baseball team and there were only two slots for the catcher position? You got the second spot and I got nothing!” He looked angry and suddenly burst out laughing.

He told me he dated a gorgeous classmate in our first year until a football jock took her away. In the second year he dated another beauty and the same jock picked her off. “Ah,” he said eagerly, “let me show you in our yearbook how handsome he looked.” He smiled half-heartedly and spurted, “Guess what, he’s dead!” I guess that was a shock to keep me up to date!

“It’s all that the young can do for the old” but what about the young that tend to shock the young? On a page in my yearbook a classmate wrote “To Willy, best of everything. I know you’ll get ahead in life…You need one. Dave.”
Here’s another whack. “Willard – I’ve really enjoyed your friendship, and hope you will always remember your fellow baseball player who couldn’t hit his buns with both hands. Sincerely, Gene.” He was one of our star jocks but unfortunately he’s deceased. It brought me up to date.

I had not looked in my annual book for decades. On a corner of a page Tom wrote “Brother Buzz, I hope we will remain friends through life.” Tom’s mother suffered from dementia and it took a toll on him. He began drinking booze heavily and early on in High School. I urged him to come to my home when he sobered up. My mom mothered him for over a year and he was able to quit drinking for a time. A few months before we graduated she died suddenly at the age of 38. I lost Tom, and his note in my book shocked me up to date.

On the next page of the book Ray, a baseball star, wrote “To Buzz, One of the finest pals I have ever had. Lots of luck in the future, your pal, Ray.” He lived in California when his wife died suddenly after 25 years of marriage. He often brought his RV to Phoenix and we would go to the Diamond Back games until he got cancer and died in his sixties. His family asked me to conduct the memorial service. I got there early and was not prepared to see him in an open casket before the service. He was wearing the same shirt, shorts and tennis shoes he wore at our last Diamond Back game. And yes, it was a shock!

After the service the sons and daughter stepped up to the casket with their grandchildren and placed a fishing pole in the coffer with his favorite bait and coupons for his best whiskey. I thought it might not be appropriate but the whole congregation was in tears. Another shock that kept me up to date.
One of the most shocking moments for a sister and brother in their 60s occurred when we talked about the eulogy for their grandfather who had raised them. They told me about his highly success in business, his doctoral degree at Harvard, a CEO and his high degree in the Masons. They went on and on about his achievements.

I asked them if they had any close moments with him. They looked at each other but could not come up with anything. The sister admitted he was rather stern and distant but they admired him dearly. They lived on the east coast and had their own company and their granddad was busy with his work in the west. So, they seldom got together. The siblings felt guilty for not connecting more often.

I asked the brother and sister if they could think for a few minutes to recall something that they might have overlooked. They sat there for several minutes and suddenly they beamed at the same time.

The sister said “When we were young teenagers the candy on the coffee table was off limits. When granddad started to go to bed he warned us to not get into that candy dish. Well it was a glass jar and a noisy lid but we went after it.
He had to have known we grab the candy as soon as he closed his door.”

The brother and sister were in tears. I asked if I could use that story and she said half-jokingly, “Maybe that’s all you need, Reverend.”

That awesome evoke was stuck in the past for nearly fifty years and G.B. Shaw had it right; we need to keep up to date.

FROM REASONING TO GETTING OUT THERE

FROM REASONING TO GETTING OUT THERE

“The great end of life is not knowledge but action.”
Thomas Henry Huxley, “Technical Education,” 1877

It was a normal pastoral day in my second church on the job when I decided to open a cupboard full of church archives from half a century ago. When I read a few bulletins and newsletters I was surprised, more than that, I was stunned. My bulletins and announcements were no different than what I had been putting out fifty years ago. There was little to no‘action’ beyond the Sundays in the pews.

A year or so later we provided a room with part-time nurses for the elderly in the community and supported a family from Cambodia. At my last church we were able to provide nightly accommodations for families in need. Our Parish Nurse invited doctors for a five-week series on health to deal with depression, dementia and hope. Very few church members attended but a number of neighbors were present.

After I retired I figured I didn’t have to be responsible for helping getting charged up in churches on community needs. Why should an 80-plus preacher even try to help? Ah, but Huxley claimed ‘The great end of life…is action.” So, does that mean we retirees have work to do beyond what we strived for in our active pastoral years? Could be.

But, but, there is very little of any deep bonding with those whom we have cared for outside of our temples. I waited for a year at one of my churches before I told about my street chaplain stint on Skid Row. I received numerous angry notes in the collection plates. One of them stated “Stop it damn it, we don’t need those people in our sanctuary.” Another read “We get enough of it in the news nightly!” It may have been more fear than hate but we need to risk to allow for those outsiders who may be frightened to even step into a sanctuary.

There was not much instructions on how to run deep with outsiders in my seminary courses. My only recall was when Professor Allan Moore risked having our class meet with gays in San Francisco for three nights in 1965 and urged us to open up with our deep feelings about the issue. It was more difficult for us than our counterparts. That class helped me realize I can engage deeply with those who may scare me. I don’t think we got enough of that in my seminary, known as the “Harvard of the West.” The courses were primarily steeped in cerebral content. It was an awesome academy and at the time I felt like I was ready for ministry after five years of academic bombardments but I should have come across Huxley’s ‘Technical Education’ courses before I graduated.

Just one more second thought. When I attended a fifty-year reunion at my seminary recently I was surprised that only six classmates attended out of thirty in our class. One of those present became an attorney and another taught at a seminary. I learned that most all of our grads chose other careers.
Why? Well, I believe there was much more outside ministries during those years. Pastors were overworked having to be in their neighborhoods and be present to their church demands and overflowing worship services.

No wonder my seminary grads chose to find a more calm and collective forty-hour work weeks. I worked in the aircraft industry for four years and enjoyed clocking out by 5 pm on those jobs.

Ah, but what if we were able to find those smart Claremont classmates who are probably retired and ask if they might want to learn that ‘The great end of life is not knowledge but action.’

HERE’S TO BONDING MOMENTS

“Family love indeed subverts the idea of what we should
feel for every soul in the world”

Steven Pinker “The Blank State: The Modern Denial of Human Nature”

Families have the potential to love lots of souls in the world by bonding momentarily with insiders and outsiders. And also, we choose to run deep over time with friends or loved ones throughout our lives way too soon.

Our country and the world are experiencing severe separations among racism, sexism, politics, and faith communities. We are now learning the turmoil is beyond the 1960s and may go way beyond the Civil War years.There does not seem to be a way to stop the bleeding and it may continue for decades. We have tried bringing groups together of all walks of life to deal with the splits, with little success.

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair was recently interviewed by a prominent journalist, Christine Armanpour. The main question was how will we turn a corner on the chaos in the world. Blair was very articulate and energized at the outset but Armanpour kept asking about how will we ever find a way to come together in the future? The Prime Minister seemed a little worn out by the end of the interview and had no real answer to the question.

Just before watching that interview I came across a quote I felt was too harsh about Americans. D.H. Lawrence declared that “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.”

Maybe there is some truth in Lawrence’s views. What if we are more hard, isolate and stoic but not so much killers? Perhaps we need to find a way to soften our hardness but it will likely continue for a long time.When I drive in my city, motorists are mostly alone behind the wheel with windows up. Impatient drivers can become hard, isolate and stoic with a tinge of wanting to kill a few Americans on occasion. What about our isolated neighbors these days compared to sixty years ago when there were numerous folks sitting on American porches? Our traffic and porch life have never yet begun to melt and the internet may keep us from it.

Have we changed much from when Lawrence observed our country in 1918? What’s the answer? When I began writing my self-published book titled, “Running Deep with Strangers: A Must for Human Survival” it struck me I wanted to convey there is a way to overcome our isolated lives and not just in our country but the world. I backed off from my manuscript and wound up with a semi memoir. I thought I was too egotistical at the time but now that I am in my 80s I figure, what’s to lose?

The must for human survival begins when two beings choose to run deep one-on-one, that’s when the melting begins and those bonds are innate. We will have to alter the way we bond with each other. What if our young adults marry too soon and become locked in with love right away? When babies arrive most of the tenderness gets swept up too soon. By bonding too early in life we manage to use up years of empathy that may belong to friends, relatives and strangers in our midst.

Young adults are are not wanting to marry early these days or have children too soon. Some may be due to lack of funds but others may sense there is intimacy to be had in their future.

Neuroscience lab experiments have revealed that an innate tendency to trust can be triggered between total strangers in an instant. Participating scientists suggest the risk to trust immediately is “probably augmenting an extreme rich model (we) come equipped with.” (New York Times, A Study of Social Interactions Starts with a Test of Trust,” by Henry Fountain. 4/2/05.)

Socialists are discovering that married couples choose not to open up on their deepest feelings for fear they may hurt their spouses, and their friends for that matter. So, innateness is ripe for engaging with strangers. If we do choose to urge young adults to hold back on bonding early there will have to be a recruiting program and a lengthy training process for months perhaps similar to the Peace Corps model.

Shooters in schools may never have had bonding moments with parents, siblings, extended family members, classmates, friends, teachers or strangers. They may stand in a classroom with a rifle and spray bullets, and see only hollow beings. Running deep with a person, known or not, can reveal their fears, hate, loneliness and depression in minutes. It may seem like a hit and run bond but it can survive forever. There are one-sided such bonds but the best are those with both engaging.

There are 100,000 gang members in Los Angeles and likely hundreds of killers among them who have never experienced those bonding moments with parents, siblings, extended family members, classmates, friends, teachers or strangers. They were merely hollow victims that didn’t matter.

What if single bonds become the way of life on this earth and citizens choose to travel and risk revealing their deepest feelings once with dozens of strangers? Often when I have run deep with travelers and bump into them they don’t wish to meet again. I have had pastors whom I have never met open up with their feelings in a first meeting. They promised to have lunch again but they never call back.

When our family was in Paris recently we walked along the river Seine. Liv recalled the spot where I ran deep with a Frenchman on a bench nearby 10 years ago, and I had spotted it just before she mentioned it.

I still recall deep moments on Skid Row in L.A. when I served as a street chaplain 50 years ago. I remember where Lee and I sat together at the counter in a café and a guy named Ray, another transient, at the end of a bar on the corner of Fifth and Broadway. My hunch is they can recall our encounters on an occasion but if not, I feel they left me with a piece of their lives.

Lee and I were classmates in High School and became close friends but we lost track when I moved away. I learned from his parents he wound up living on Skid Row in L. A. but he refused to come home. They asked me if I might try to find him when I began my street chaplain ministry on Skid Row. I figured it would be a lost cause but one Saturday morning I did see him. I was a basket case but he turned and said “Hi Buzz.” He was poised and I wasn’t. He asked if I would like to go to a café for coffee. We sat and talked for 2 hours. I had to tell him he was an uncle and his parents were eager to see him.

Lee said, “Let me tell you why I have survived on these streets. For some reason I did not feel loved in my home. My parents and sister were nice but I like transients and I found that I need different people and it gives me hope and for some reason I don’t need to have long friendships or relatives in my life.”

Lee’s admission caused me to write my doctoral dissertation about running deep with strangers.

What if bonding moments were to be the only way to exist in the future? Marriages, children and friendships also rely on isolated bonding moments in their relationships. That’s what keeps them together.

We may feel we have never been able to know our neighbors or co-workers but we truly don’t want to have extended bonds with them. We can be nice and nod but what if we were to risk running deep with a neighbor on the block or a worker once and be honest and tell him or her that we will never go deep together again in the future? They will likely feel the same way.

I met with a sister and brother in their sixties when we talked about the eulogy for their grandfather who had raised them. They told me about his highly success in business, his doctoral degree at Harvard, a DCO and his high degree in the Masons. They went on and on about his achievements.

I asked them if they had any close moments with him. They looked at each other but could not come up with anything. The sister admitted that he was rather stern and distant but they admired him dearly. I asked them if they might think for a few minutes. They sat there for several minutes and suddenly they beamed at the same time.

The sister said “When we were teenagers the candy dish on the coffee table was off limits. When grandad started to go to bed he warned us to not get into the candy dish. Well, it had a glass cover and a noisy lid but we went after it. He had to have known we did grab the candy as soon he closed his door. Maybe that’s all you need, Reverend.”

Jesus taught us how to survive in this world. He spent most of his time bonding with strangers on the road and modeled how to bond once with our enemies and neighbors. He may have also held off getting married early in order to run deep with as many beings as possible.

Here’s to all the brief moments lodged in us, just pieces, but they can become the most crucial bonds among our friends, loved ones, and strangers.

BREAKING THROUGH HATE

The most chaotic time in my life occurred in 1965 to 1967 when I was appointed as a pastor to serve my first church in Lincoln Heights, Los Angeles. It was in the midst of a civil rights battleground in the community. When we moved in and looked out our kitchen window there were about eight gang bangers sitting between our backyard chain-link fence and a Head Start bungalow on our church lot. My wife, Liv, looked out the window and said “Make them go away!” She grew up in Norway and I grew up in L.A. knowing about the Heights. I said, dumbly, “They aren’t all that bad.” She just looked at me and said something in Norwegian. I didn’t want to know.

I had to walk by the guys daily on the way to the church office. I smiled and nodded to them but they ignored me. After a couple of weeks of passing by I asked if I could sit down with them. One tough character nodded, OK. I asked how long they had been sitting there. There was a long pause and a kid said, “For a couple of months, since we have been harassed. The police often use their batons on us when they think we have drugs or not. They are just mean and are trying to get us to move out of the area and our homes.”

We talked often after that and I finally asked them if they would like some jokes. They said yes. I gave them my best puns but left out a few of them in my sermons. One day I half-jokingly said “What if my wife came here and asked you to move out.”

The boss of the group smiled and said “Hey, Father, aren’t we on church property here and if so, aren’t we able to have sanctuary here?” He had me and he knew it.

Reverend John Luce, my next door neighbor and also new on the job, was a gutsy priest by helping to deal right away with an explosive neighborhood battle on our streets.

There had been entrenched angry Hispanic gangs and deep-seated raging police officers in the community for a year or two. I learned John was a mild guy but he would risk his life to bring justice. He was always trying to get the Sheriff to meet in his church hall with a hundred or so neighbors and with a few gang members present. He was seldom in his office and mostly on the streets.

Liv and I were watching a shoot ‘em up Gunsmoke show one night and missed knowing John was getting shot at. A bullet went through his front room window where he was in his chair reading and the slug passed through his newspaper. He took it in stride, knowing it might have been a scare tactic by the police.
There was always a squad car in front of John’s house for months.

John never gave up on the meeting possibilities. One day he told me the Sheriff called him and asked if he would come to his office. The callous officer said he wanted John to climb up on the outside escape ladder to the third floor and when he gets there he will turn him around and kick his a.. over the railing.

One day John told me that the Sheriff said he was willing to meet. The hall was packed and the supreme police officer came by in a limousine with four cops in their squad cars protecting him. They circled the neighborhood two times and went away.

Eventually the Sheriff met with the community in the church hall and it went well. Our homesteaders behind our fence moved out with some pride.

We know the conflicts Martin Luther King Jr. dealt with in those years. Cecil Williams, a Methodist pastor, faced the fury in the mid-sixties between the police and the gangs and transients on the streets in San Francisco. Years later he often had police in uniform and street people on the front pews in his church.

So, we have had a Baptist, an Episcopal and a Methodist pastor that I know of in those years who faced death in their ministries to break through the hate in our culture. I don’t recall having a course in seminary that urged us to take on such wars. If there was one I missed it or I blew it off.

The awesome trio broke through the tribes and brought some peace to our country but they didn’t stop the hate that continues to erupt in our lives. It will be difficult to try to model what they did because most of us have a piece of hate in us. They too must have had some hatred but they managed to work through it.