The Overwhelm comes upon us,
an angel of death coursing
through the streets like an oily snake
invented for the screen by Cecil B. DeMille.
We can’t tell if it’s real or not.
But we feel it sucking the life out of Spring.
We shut down and cower in our darkness.
Memorial Day tries to jump start Summer
but it’s another rainy day
taunting us with our dashed hopes of
a maskless picnic in the sun.
The Overwhelm rises up like a pool
of sewage in the basement.
We turn the air freshener in the socket
up to high but soon just go to sleep.
In the dark of night I rise with
outrage stuck in my throat.
I imagine ancient Roman wives with flowers
skulking out to the graves of their husbands,
his death day guarded in a private brain cell,
matrons in Charleston fighting for the honor
of inventing her son’s Decoration Day,
women wearing poppy pins from Flanders Fields
and Seeger asking where all the flowers have gone.
I have many reasons to dissociate.
The face of Trump rises like a blood moon
in the nighttime of the Empire,
the church crippled by the pandemic,
and our wan faces blearily, bravely,
weakly attending to one another on screen.
We can barely find the energy
to try a vacation on our one day off,
much less move with the impulse to be
outraged over Armed Forces Day,
Veterans Day, and Memorial Day
tromping around the calendar.
God help us, it is George Floyd Death Day!
At the same time it is San Jose Death Day,
which followed Palestine Oppression Day and
Jews beat-up-on-the-streets of New York Day,
not long after Asian woman pummeled-on-screen Day,
and police killing-filmed Day, killing, killing
at the same rate as this Day last year.
Even the Underground Railroad masterpiece
can’t shake us out of the stupor of the Overwhelm.
Oh Lord, stoke my outrage!
What a colossal waste of flowers!
My God, we are still making weapons!
The police are armed to the teeth
trying to protect our right to carry
and still formally killing the caught killers
not informally executed in the streets.
O my God, how much did they spend
in Afghanistan and on the Israelis
for rockets targeting Gaza apartments?
Jesus, I need to be flabbergasted
and all I can do is throw a poem out there
on a day when people would rather rest in their grave,
avoiding the feeling of death inside,
and just try not to remember for a moment.
Oh God, the Overwhelm is snaking through the streets
and no amount of flowers can mask the smell.
Thank God for GPS! We managed to squeeze our rental car through the medieval gates of Brugge (Bruges if you are coming from France instead of the Netherlands) and then navigate the cobblestone streets to our bed and breakfast. Every time we walked out our charming accommodation, I turned the wrong direction, but my phone delivered us. So we found our way to the significant sites where I learned a few stories of what happened in Bruges.
I am not writing this to tell you all about my trip to Europe; you can go to Brugge yourself sometime; Lord knows everyone else does. The city is so attractive, It is like Disney made Main Street, Belgium and dragooned people onto tour buses. With a chocolate store on every corner it’s irresistible.
I’m writing to tell you one little story that seems appropriate for Memorial Day, when we remember people who have died in war. Belgium has been a big battlefield for about 400 years, so it seems appropriate to include them in our remembrance. Today, many of us will remember the valor and convictions of lost soldiers and the nobility of their sacrifice. Even when I think they were deluded and abused, I still respect their honor. Others of us remember how awful and senseless war is on Memorial Day, how it is a cyclical outbreak of evil that proves how much we need a Savior. No matter what it causes, gratitude or tears, I think turning the holiday into an excuse to BBQ is debasing what it means; not protesting the wickedness it signifies undermines our credibility as Jesus-followers; and just ignoring it diminishes our love. So let’s have a moment of seriousness, my friends.
My little story has to do with the war memorialized in architecture on Burg Square in Brugge — a war between church and state in Europe that is one of the many memories that make the church seem like a thing of the past throughout most of the continent.
We stumbled out of the bed and breakfast, disputing which way to turn, until I led Gwen the wrong way and Siri rerouted us. We were headed for Burg Square, the center of ancient Brugge, where we found the landmark (above) which Rick Steves told us would be the best vantage point. I opened my big, blue Belgium book, which flashed a “tourist” signal to the others in the square and began to read. A nice man speaking Dutch-seasoned English came up to us and began to embellish stories we had just started reading. One was about the two towers we could see from our vantage point. One was the tower on the church in the opulent Archbishop’s compound. One was the municipal tower connected to the civic authorities. Word is that the bishop made sure his tower was taller. The guide kind of sneered at the bishop and mocked the civil authorities because their fighting was so absurd. The constant fighting about which power would have the upper hand is embedded into Europe’s idea of the church.
On the same square was Brugge’s medieval claim to fame: the Church of the Holy Blood, in which resides a relic a Crusader brought back from the Holy Land – a vial of God’s blood. Periodically, this treasure is paraded through the streets for general veneration. We soon suspected that our friendly storyteller was working on a commission for being our unasked-for tour guide. So we told him we needed to make our pilgrimage to the afore-disparaged church.
This memory sits in my mind like an indigestible bit of foreign food. I studied the investiture conflicts in history classes, but every time I run into the after-affects memorialized in European architecture I get a sick feeling. It is the same kind of queasiness I feel when Franklin Graham calls Trump God’s choice for president, or I hear of a white supremacist in Portland channeling the political zeitgeist by threatening Muslims on the train and then killing their protectors (about which Trump is so far silent, BTW). These kinds of actions are why people desert the church and and despise its search for coercive dominance. Gaining power does not mean justice. The only justice we’ll get is the kind Jesus distributes by the means he chose and chooses. When I remember war and the wars sponsored by the church, I get sin sick.
So, like I said on Friday, i expect to have some tears on my burger along with the ketchup today. It is a sin sick world and the leaders of the church, in general, let’s admit it, have been painfully susceptible to fighting for power in the name of Jesus while Jesus is fighting the powerful in the name of love. God help us to be the alternative.
Memorial Day is not just a day to find great sales at Home Depot! It is a day on which those who died in active military service are remembered, traditionally observed on May 30 but now officially observed on the last Monday in May.
I usually observe it with tears,
This year I can especially remember the people, mostly young men, who were in active military service during World War I. I just returned from Europe where, on a beautiful spring day, after cruising the back roads through the lush landscape of Northern France, Gwen and I made a pit stop at Verdun. We did not know there was such a beautiful museum dedicated to the long battle for the strategic territory between Germany and France.
Everyone seems to agree that World War I was one of the most useless wars ever. The curators of the collection we saw made sure we got that message.
The total number of military and civilian casualties in World War I was more than 38 million: there were over 17 million deaths and 20 million wounded, ranking it among the deadliest conflicts in human history.
The total number of deaths includes about 11 million military personnel and about 7 million civilians. The Triple Entente (also known as the Allies) lost about 6 million military personnel while the Central Powers lost about 4 million. At least 2 million died from diseases and 6 million went missing, presumed dead. Disease, including the 1918 flu pandemic and deaths while held as prisoners of war, caused about one third of total military deaths for all belligerents.
Let’s have some tears this weekend. Have a burger. Say you need to visit the facilities. Close the door and have a good cry.
The Verdun museum demonstrated, lest I forget, that the one-percent of the day got themselves into a ridiculous war, called upon the youth of their countries the serve the Fatherland, and let them die. As exhibit captions noted, once there, the soldiers knew it was a foolish, hopeless enterprise, but they had to defend their fellow soldiers. The war took on a life of its own, with little rationale except that it was being fought.
We have to note that our immense militaries, led by people like Trump, Putin and Duterte are bloated preparations longing for release. Trump berated NATO members this week for not spending at least 2% of their national income for military build up. No doubt millions more civilians will soon be forced to flee conflict, while their sons are convinced that blowing up others or themselves solves problems. It is happening in Syria, the Central African Republic and the the southern Philippines right now.
Make us peacemakers, Lord. Extract some tears from our hardened, apathetic hearts this weekend.
On the long ride to the Poconos, the only thing on NPR was the Prairie Home Companion. Normally I can only get so far with the redundancy of Garrison Keillor, but he hooked me with his broadcast for Memorial Day. He was at the Wolftrap in Virginia, near Manassas, the site for two great Civil War battles—and he referenced Antietam, the deadliest one-day battle in U.S. history (on the U.S. side, at least). The show was sprinkled with songs from the American war-song book, but Keillor was singing for peace. He was in sync with President Obama, who remembered Memorial Day by visiting Hiroshima and calling for a “moral revolution” to make a world free from nuclear weapons.
One of the songs the cast sang was a soulful rendition of The Battle Hymn of the Republic. Keillor led the crowd to join in. Everyone seemed to know it, since this very–religious song is still taught in school. It was, quite appropriately, sung at Ronald Reagan’s funeral, who I lately accused of misleading the public to think that the United States military power was God’s instrument of policing the world, right down to calling new missiles “peacekeepers
This hymn, written by a staunch abolitionist, saw the Union Army as God’s instrument of bringing about His judgment on the evil of slavery (as even Thomas Jefferson concluded was inevitable). Julia Howe’s allusions are all to Isaiah 63 and the book of Revelation, which promise that the day of the Lord will not be pretty for the disobedient. Her song assured the army that the Civil War was a foretaste of the wrath to come.
My problem is not with God’s judgment. I rely on the fact that evildoers will receive what they have been committed to achieving. My great problem is with the rest of the theology she promoted. I think if you ask a random Christian, they will, most likely (and unfortunately), still be headed in the wrong direction she was leading the troops. The problems are in every verse. For instance:
Verse 1: He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
The leaders of armies have been telling soldiers that God is on their side for as long as I can remember. Right now, Daesh is the evil. It was added on to drugs, terror etc. The Union army was told it was God’s sword.
Verse 2: I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damp
Very few soldiers saw their camp fire as one before an altar I am sure. But the allusion reminds us that Christians reinstituted an altar worship when Constantine installed Jesus at the center of every town in the Roman Empire, right where the altar to the false gods once stood, often in the same building. But, in truth, Jesus made the body of Christ the temple; altar worship is obsolete – not merely the Jewish altar, but the very idea of needing a place of mediation where men make sacrifices to please God.
Verse 3: I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
“As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal”;
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
Since God is marching on.
I gave you the whole verse. By now, you get it. The song assumes the gospel uses violence for its ends. It teaches that violence redeems. Regardless of the Lord’s own example of nonviolence, the powers that rule the world convince noble-minded women that 13,000 men should die, be wounded or go missing in one day at the battle of Sharpsburg/Antietam and those losses should be considered holy, and even the fulfillment of the spirit of prophecy.
Verse 4 — He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat;
In the song, the “sifting” is about the latest war. It is not about being in God’s kingdom or another’s; it is about being on the right side of the nation’s history. As you notice from the most recent era of polarization in the U.S., people are still sifting and are still ready to condemn those who align on another side. But unlike what Howe teaches, in truth, Jesus is not presiding over the animosities which run the United States and which threaten to loop us all into an endless cycle of judgment. Jesus died and rose to end that cycle.
Verse 5 — As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free
This is where most versions of the song stop (even though Howe included a last verse). It is an appropriate climax for the song, and it is the apex of its wrong theology. The “sacrifice” the soldiers are preparing around the “altar fires” of their encampment is supposedly like the sacrifice of Jesus. The thought is the 10,000 casualties at Manassas will be worth it because the cause is one with the Lord’s.
The problem is that Jesus died and rose so that we would no longer be sacrificing animals or one another to save the world. The old is gone, the new has come. The very thing she is exalting is exactly what He brought down. Yet in the name of Jesus, Howe is celebrating the sacrifice soldiers make to His “truth” that is marching on – they are to believe that this war is for that truth.
Every war song since has said the same thing—dying for country, dying to preserve freedom, dying to protect your brother soldiers, dying to protect American interests, making the world safe for democracy, protecting the homeland from communism, extremism, from people who would destroy our way of life. It is always justified with the most serious, even majestic tones. I have often been told that I could not do things like write this blog unless the sacrifice of brave men had made my freedom possible. Yet I am not free from their sacrifice. I honor their courage and devotion, and I don’t think every choice we need to make is as easy as writing a blog post. But I don’t worship at their altar. They are the saviors I never asked to receive. I don’t believe my true Savior asked them for their sacrifice on the altar of preserving His rivals who continue the way of sin and death—and put it to music.
[I found out that Garrison Keillor wrote the song that moved me most in the show. It is called Argonne. Here are the lyrics.]
1) Memorial Day is a hard one. It really means something significant and is sad on so many levels.
It is sad that we ignore it as we go to the beach.
It is sad that it is “religious” and the dead are made sacred sacrifices to American “freedom.”
It is sad that Christians have no more voice in a heavily Christian country. Or that they have used their influence to justify the war machine instead of advocating “love your neighbor as yourself,” much less, “love your enemy.” I wrote a poem.
St. Brendan made a big impression on me from afar. When I visited Ireland on pilgrimage, I was impressed in person.
We made many what-we-considered-brilliant navigation decisions to find his final resting place at Clonfert Cathedral. While it hadn’t been torn down to build condos, or anything, I still found it kind of a sad place: unkept, remote, unused, perhaps mostly unknown. My memory of the time of reflection we shared there, all alone with the past, aroused this poem. I share it with you as one of the ways I want to experience Memorial Day. Some people, like Brendan, have fought hard for the faith. I haven’t forgotten.
The fly’s sporadic monotone Disturbs the still air of Clonfert Cathedral – That remote island of memory In a sea of sleepy farms On a sleepy summer day.
The dusty, unused altarpiece Cries out for the old man buried in the yard – That distant vision of voyage In a sea of sleepy faith On a pilgrim’s well-worn way.
A dazzling, sunlit Celtic cross Shines in the door and vainly warms the stones – The pavement hiding the hearty In an earth of rotting flesh And a land’s forgetful day.
A faint persistent irritant Infects the still air of silent reflection – The startled pew-creak of contempt In a tomb for caring men Shrieks the end of Brendan’s way.
A simple psalm to spur some thoughts of love on the day we mourn for all the people who have died from the lack of it.
Even in the room with the wedding
there were conflicts worthy of a Memorial Day.
The wars of the world
are personal bad blood writ large
and the blood we carry
is the war in the world writ small.
So even on the weekend of remembrance
it is not dishonoring to remember
the wars in our souls,
even though no one may spill our blood
and the injuries we cause
are hidden, internal bleeding.
What shall be our memorial?
It can certainly start with Jesus
and that should lead away
from memorializing our wars:
the slight, the snub, the stolen power,
the theft, the hate, the wasted hour,
the stealth ill-will before which we cower.
We can choose better memories,
like Jesus choosing to forgive us.
And that could lead toward
memorializing our blessings:
the hug, the laugh, the spoken love,
the gift, the note, the look above,
the moments we feel we have enough.
The toxins we carry would like to marry
each moment, until each remembers them,
and a statue to war
is on each corner of our daily path
and the blood of Jesus
is an unused way, a memory.