Monday, July 30, 2012

From Civil War to Civil Rights

I found the ‘history-teacher-wanna-be’ hidden deep inside me earlier this summer when I journeyed to Virginia to visit Jamestown, Antietam, Fort Monroe and Monticello, some of which I have already written about.  It was not really my intention to awaken the ol’ college years’ history nerd, but I was happily surprised that he was still in there. I had intended on making it to Washington, DC and see the Smithsonian’s National Gallery of Art. I never made it there.
But a theme of sorts has emerged in my serendipitous wanderings. I will call it “From Civil War to Civil Rights… with a Musical Interlude.” [The Musical Interlude will come later!]
Do you remember where you were on April 4th, 1968?  I was an 11 year old kid watching TV, of course, when one of those old fashioned ‘breaking news alerts’ came on.  “We interrupt this show to bring you the following news alert.”
It was the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He had been shot on the balcony outside room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. I have vague pre-teen memories of what it all meant. I was only a kid and not necessarily up on current events. But I knew the news was not good for our country.  I had youthful ‘flashback’ to President Kennedy’s assassination, when I was in the 1st Grade in Seattle as the teacher cried and tried to explain why school was getting out a little early that day.

But I also remember my mom, usually the most open-minded and welcoming role model, mumbling something  about “ a trouble maker.” It surprised me at the time, seeing as her sister had married a Panamanian man, completely dark skinned and my cousins, whom I ADORED, were ‘black’ though not technically African-American. They were my FAMILY for goodness sake!  I think it was a weak moment for Anna. She had her own inner struggles, after all.  She brought me up better than that comment illustrates.

The images from the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee flashed across the screen that day and in the newspapers for days to come. Two months later, on June 6th, similar horrible images rendered America numb when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles. It was not a good year in America.

The iconic Lorraine Motel sign was a particular image that become imbedded in my young psyche and has lingered with me over the years.  So, on a trip through Memphis I was hoping to at least catch a  glimpse of it – if it was even still there.


 Not only is it there, but it is the site of one of the most moving, inspirational and educational museums I have ever visited – and I visit a LOT of museums.  

At times I hear myself and others refer to ‘the civil rights movement of the 60’s” as if everything was accomplished in one short, tumultuous decade of American history.  Well, a LOT was accomplished 50 years ago, but the overwhelming struggle, stories, heartache, bravery, sacrifice… the day to day, life and death, success to setback, toil and triumph are chronicled here in Memphis in a much longer timeline and with more thoughtful explanation than I had ever imagined.  And it is situated in a place of tragic consequence that I think should leave every visitor breathless, pensive and prayerful.  It left me as such.

A protest sign from the Memphis garbage collecters
strike. King was in Memphis to address the
inhumane conditions of the striking workers
I hate to be a promoter of yet one more thing that “other people should do just because I did it.” But you should try and get there.  You owe it to your children to not only teach them this history, but let them see it and feel it.

Wow, I sure do get preachy. Even on Sabbatical.

Reenactment display of a
'lunch counter protest' of the 1960's

“I've seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
- “I've Been to the Mountaintop”, April 3, 1968.       He was killed the next day.

Where MLK lay daying of
an assassin's bullet. The small piece of concrete
has been removed where the bloodstain
could not be completely cleaned up.
Less than 48 hours later after leaving Memphis, I was once again on a Civil War battlefield, this time in Vicksburg, Mississippi. And there men, white AND black, laid down their lives to begin a long, long and hard fought battle for equality.  From Civil War to Civil Rights. It took one hundred years. And the struggle, actually, still continues.

My Cerebral Cortex

I heard about a recent  study that says people are more creative in an environment like a Panera or Starbucks or other public, bustling places,  because the activity and background noise stimulates the cerebral cortex.

Which is why I took THIS picture in Williamsburg, Virginia outside the Dog Street Pub! Really! I was only there for the cerebral cortex stimulation! See? I have my laptop and journal ready to go. See all the people and activity?  They are making me brilliant.


Same is true for this picture on the, um, … the beach, here in St. Pete’s. The picture does not show the kids playing nearby... or the band over in the courtyard singing some Jimmy Buffett song or the crowds walking the beach at sunset. 

 I’m attending the PCUSA’s Evangelism Conference, and trying to do some reading and writing. It’s all for the cerebral cortex, I swear. 

The tract of the conference I am attending is called, “What Are You Waiting For? Get Walking,” and is about one’s ‘walk of faith’ in transformational leadership. 

I hope my cerebral cortex is ready.

What IS MY CEREBRAL CORTEX WAITING FOR? Get walking! Get writing! Get reading! Get.... me some sunblock!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Story. History.

Tell THIS GUY your story?!
Do I just have a face that begs for total strangers to tell me their life story? It happens to me all the time. A chance encounter, a waitress, a cashier, a passenger in the next seat on a long flight. I know its partly my fault. I’m a little outgoing, I guess.  I start up conversations and don’t hesitate to ask questions. And when people DO tell me their life stories, I love it.

Fort Monroe, dating from 1819
 is surrounded by a protective moat
I had finished a brief tour of the fascinating CasemateMuseum at Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia.

The history of the place goes back to the earliest years of America and continues right up until 2011 when it was finally decommissioned as an Army base and declared one of our newest National Historic Monuments. It has yet to show the signs of a national park, literally and figuratively. There are vestiges of security gates and army storage facilities. The grounds are still used for YMCA Day Care field trips and Retirement Home picnics.

The Fort itself, the largest stone fort ever built in the United States, sits at the strategic location defending Hampton Roads Harbor and the Chesapeake Bay. And buried deep within the thick walls of the fortress, the Casemate Museum has been operational since 1951, and is the sole keeper of the story of the Fort.  And, it is the keeper of her story -- the woman behind the desk of the tiny gift shop/information center. Hardly an excuse for a gift shop, there is barely enough room for one or two customers to browse the dozen or so knick knacks and shelf of history books and maps.

I can’t remember the question I asked her, or even how we got off subject, but the next thing I know, I had heard about  her life long relationship with Fort Monroe; how she grew up in its shadow, went to school nearby, was married behind its walls and how that relationship failed. But, alas, a new one has begun and there is hope for her retirement years, but she’s just not sure how the government will change her benefits if she remarries and what about Medicare  which is looming in the next decade and don’t things always work out in the end if you don’t give up but who do you trust these days and will the children be alright? And the more things change the more they stay the same… and… it’s rather warm out there today to take a walking tour. 

Which it was.

But my abbreviated walking tour in the hot Virginia sun had a more personalized touch as I thought about how history is always a personal story wrapped inside a larger story.
Her story. His story. 
Your story. My story.
Our story.

At the end of the Civil War, Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy
was imprisoned in this cell at Fort Monroe

The Fort was nicknamed "Freedom Fort" during the Civil War
because of General Benjamin Butler's decision to allow runaway slaves
refuge behind its walls, coining the phrase 'contraband of war.'

Tuesday, July 10, 2012


One of the goals of any clergy or academic sabbatical is renewal. The Session approved a sabbatical proposal that included the phrases, “Spiritual Renewal” and “Renewed Passion.”  It’s perhaps not surprising that I’ve “discovered” that renewal of relationships is essential to any other kind of renewal, be it spiritual, emotional or even academic. 

Steve the "Elder" spins a yarn
 For instance... I posted a picture about the FOOD at the Inaugural "BRO FEST" (thank you for your votes!), but I did not mention that this little soiree was our first attempt to be together to just renew being brothers. We are the kind of siblings that call each other once a year -- or less, whether we need to or not. That happens, I think, in a family of boys (there were originally six boys and one girl).  So we told stories, mostly about growing up as the sons of Dean and Anna.  Steve and Andy are nine and seven years older than I, so our perspectives are shaped by our birth order, of course.  Anyway, we didn't DO much at BRO FEST, (we ate a lot and listened to music and talked) -- and it was renewal.


I also wrote earlier about generations and name tags, referring to the Hennesy family reunion.  These first cousins of mine have not maintained close ties over the years, but the reunions hosted by my one-and-only-fantastic sister, have helped us 'renew' a bond that, though somewhat loose, is still intact. We do the usual. We catch up on kids and grand kids and jobs... and life and death and everything in between. And the variously colored shirts were a great idea! 

And, at that reunion, I got a chance to renew with my sister's oldest son, Joel, who just graduated from Gordon-Conwell Seminary in Boston.  Though I didn't keep track of his studies, I did notice that he has taken up the true Theologians stance on pipes.  They help us contemplate and be, like, smart or something!

Meet Howard and Linda Soehl. We've know the Soehls for over 30 years. Howard and I were Seminary classmates and he learned a lot from my brilliance as a theologian during those years!  Seriously though, we watched each other's kids grow up, from a distance and kept track of our respective ministry challenges as well. We've sometimes gone years without contact for no other reason than busy-ness.  But do you have the kind of friend that when you do see each other after months or even years, you can start up a conversation where you left-off and it comes naturally and effortlessly -- including the humor?  It works.  And the renewal works, too.

I was at the General Assembly of the PCUSA in Pittsburgh as an observer for just a few days. I wondered if my new-found colleague friend, Bill, might be there too.  He serves a church in Eastern Pennsylvania and he loves to go to Presbyterian 'stuff.'  In fact, that is where I first met him a few years ago -- at a church event, and we seem to have landed at the same events periodically.  So, I used the modern version of 'find-a-friend.' I texted him.  He texted back that yes, indeed, he was in Pittsburgh, at one of the opening dinner/speaker events (there are dozens).   I texted that I was at one, too, maybe we could link-up later.  He said, 'which one?'  I said, 'Blah-blah' event. He said he was at the same oneI said, 'where?'  He texted, 'in the back.' 'Me too'         We were twelve feet from each other.  
Bill tried to steal my official Sabbatical hat, but I got it back.

Oh... and is renewal with grand kids on Sabbatical okay, too?  Because it seems like there is never enough time for that in 'real life.'  Here, Effie and Carson and grandpa are getting ready for the 'Geluba" whales, otherwise known as Beluga, at the Shedd. They look happy. They'd better, it cost me and arm and a leg! (not literally).

And then, there is this absolutely crazy bunch. The Fitzgerald Family Reunion is like non-other that I know of. It lasts about four days, no matter where or when it is held.  It is filled with laughter and teasing and talent shows and games and singing ... along with some good Irish conversation and bickering.  My wife is also from a family of seven, the biggest difference between her family and mine being they were mostly females -- five of seven. A renewal/reunion in a family such as that has a different feel to it than the family I grew up in -- they are NUTS and, like... CLOSE. It's soooo annoying!

 Renewal... it works.  It's mostly about relationships. As is life itself.

Monday, July 9, 2012


Higgs Boson: Physicists See Best Proof Yet of 'The God Particle'

I was following the news about the announcement of the Higgs-Boson particle, not just because it’s called the “God Particle” (although that is kinda cool) but because I try to keep up with science’s search for the truth, believing it parallel’s theology’s search for the truth.  And even though I know that Jesus is the “way, the truth and the life;” I also know he himself asked: “What is truth?”

[wait, this is getting a little preachy, isn’t it?! must be sabbatical’s fault]

So I was following the Higgs-Boson announcement on twitter/ Internet/ TV/ newspapers and found this quote:

"This is just the beginning," says James Gillies, a spokesman for CERN. Scientists will keep probing the new particle until they fully understand how it works. In doing so they hope to understand the 96 percent of the universe that remains hidden from view. This may result in the discovery of new particles and even hitherto unknown forces of nature.

Did I read that right?  96%? Hidden? They think we’ve only discovered 4% so far?

And I love that phrase, ‘hidden from view.’  It makes me think of the world I live in as both mysterious and yet ascertainable… as if all we have to do is KEEP LOOKING! Look closer. Look longer. Keep looking!

Holy moly, time’s a-wastin’! Let’s get going, people, there is so much to discover. We’ve hardly scratched the surface.

And here I thought I knew just about everything.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Makin' Copies... or... "Is It the 4th?"

There are 19,000 documents, mostly personal letters, in Thomas Jefferson’s handwriting that are extant (which means “in existence”).

Let me tell you why…

but first…

I’m old enough to remember carbon paper. Are you?  Back in the day, ‘carbon copies’ were made of letters or documents by placing a flimsy sheet of black carbon paper between the original and an additional sheet of paper, either by hand or in a typewriter.

And speaking of typewriters, I’m NOT old enough to have used a manual typewriter for my college term papers, but I did own a baby blue Smith-Corona “Selectric” upon which my brilliance was disseminated to college and Seminary professors—always mere hours before the deadline.

Wasn't it so cute?
When I first started in ministry, bulletins were produced on mimeograph machines (for a fraction of the cost of today’s magnificent copy machines –progress?) For those of you who can’t go back even that far, I must ask: do you know what the little “cc:” stands for on your Email Send screen?   It’s from the old ‘carbon copy’ days (bcc is for “blind carbon copy.”) Even though it’s been generations since carbon paper was used, and there is no carbon involved in your emailing programs, we still hearken back to the ancient terminology.

Look, boys and girls! This is called a 'mimeograph'!  Ask mom and dad!

Now back to Jefferson, a man ahead of his time.  There are so many existing documents attributed to him because he wrote all his letters using his own invention, the polygraph, a sort of mechanical copy machine. He used the copy for his own records, for referral and for his personal archives. He was a somewhat egotistical and meticulous man (opinion of this writer), but we are glad he was. He left us a valuable legacy.
The "polygraph" on Jefferson's desk in Monticello.

Many of you have probably visited Jefferson’s home in Monticello, near Charlottesville, Virginia. It is not only a beautiful place in itself, but a living memorial to his genius and inventiveness. He was not just the author of the Declaration of Independence, Ambassador to France, and our third President, but a life long learner.  He built and rebuilt Monticello with new ideas in architecture that he ‘borrowed’ from France and with art itself, which he BOUGHT in France!

But he was also an enigma. He wrote the most amazing document on freedom perhaps ever written, but over his lifetime he owned over 600 slaves. He once compared the institution of slavery to holding a wolf by its ears. We can “neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other." And his relationship with slave Sally Hemmings has finally been acknowledged by the Jefferson Institute.

Did you also know that when he died on July 4th, 1826 he was $100,000 in debt!?  I can’t think of a modern president or congressman who has ever even BEEN in debt! (while our country IS – that’s another story!)
Jefferson's entire massive and impressive library was sold off to pay his debts, as was Monticello itself.

The story goes that his last words were “Is it the 4th?”  He died at 1pm, as bells down in Charlottesville were ringing out in celebration of the holiday that could not have existed if it were not for his brilliance and fortitude and, yes, inventiveness. 

Of him, another ‘copy’ will never be found.

BORN APRIL 2, 1743
DIED JULY 4. 1826

 Again: Happy Independence Day

By the People

 Abraham Lincoln’s best known speeches are his two inaugural addresses (including the beautiful phrase: “the better angels of our nature”) and the Gettysburg Address (“a government of the people, for the people, by the people…”)

But, his first submitted speech to Congress was on July 4th, 1861. In the nineteenth century, it was a tradition for Presidents to commemorate Independence Day with lengthy written speech, submitted to Congress and published in newspapers throughout the country. Lincoln had been elected the November previous, but in those days, Presidents didn’t take office until March.  So, a little over four months into his first term, with the Southern States seceded and both sides preparing for war, the unknown and unimagined carnage still in the future, the maligned and mocked ‘new’ President had to speak to volatile citizenry and a hostile Congress.

Adam Goodheart in his book “1861—the Civil War Awakening” says Lincoln, in meticulous preparation for weeks in advance, “returned again and again to the idea of ‘the people.’. He was determined to prove that the Union was not fighting against the cause of freedom, as the Confederates maintained, but actively for it… to the secessionists, freedom meant the ability to elude authority. To Lincoln, freedom was in itself a form of authority—indeed, the only legitimate form of authority…”

 Lincoln wrote:

“It presents to the whole family of man, the question, whether a constitutional republic, or a democracy – a government of the people, by the same people—can, or cannot, maintain its territorial integrity, against its own domestic foes. It presents the question, whether discontented individuals, too few in numbers to control administration, according to organic law, in any case, can always, upon the pretences made in this case, or any other pretences, or arbitrarily, without any pretence, break up their Government, and thus practically put an end to free government upon the earth. It forces us to ask: ‘Is there, in all republics, this inherent fatal weakness? Must a government, of necessity, be too strong for the liberties of its own people, or too weak to maintain its own existence?’”

The government ‘by the people.’  The Gettysburg speech was more than two years down the road. As Goodheart points out, Lincoln was already forming his ideals, ideas and rhetoric for the long haul.  He was maligned and hated his first year in office, but by November of 1863 at a Pennsylvania cemetery, he had sculpted his first July 4th speech, “6,256 words of prose into 246 words of poetry.” And the nation, our country, is still shaped by his words.

I first read these words back in May, when the NATO summit was in Chicago and the protestors were marching against the authority figures of the nation and world – a free speech right guaranteed by our Constitution. Then I re-read them during the Wisconsin gubernatorial recall vote in June, with its divisive rhetoric.  I continued to re-visit them during my explorations of history in Virginia: Jamestown, Yorktown battlefield, Antietam, Fort Monroe and Jefferson’s Monticello. I even had them in mind at our Presbyterian Church’s national gathering in Pittsburgh, where one of the ‘hot-button’ issues is the discussion of the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict: who is free in an occupied nation?

I think about these masterful thoughts again tonight, on the eve of what will be their 151st birthday.

We are a fortunate people. We owe the world a proper respect for and protection of freedom itself. Here. Everywhere.

Shalom – Peace. May God bless us and have mercy on us.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Irony of War

It’s a mere ten mile stretch on Hwy 65 south from Hagerstown, Maryland to the Antietam National Historic Battlefield. The lush green hills and mountains of Northern Maryland present a welcome backdrop to the easy drive along the two-lane winding road. Houses of modest means and the leftovers of small farmsteads pass by quietly on either side. I had my eyes peeled so as not to miss the entrance to the Park when I  spotted a casket in front yard of one of the little ranch-style houses on the West side of the road. It was a copper hued metallic casket laying between two trees, like a hammock, but on the ground,  and surrounded by a little flower garden. I slowed, but could not stop. It would have been rude to stop and take a picture anyway, and ruder yet to knock on the door and inquire about the story behind this little shrine.

But it seemed ironic on my approach to the Civil War battlefield. One casket, unexplained; thousands of deaths explained, but unfathomable. The story behind the deaths at Antietam is well known.  On September 18th, 1862, 23,000 Americans died in the cornfields and ridges and woods near Antietam creek, north of Sharpsburg. That is more than the entire numbers lost in all the wars that proceeded it:  the  Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and Mexican War combined.  One day. One day’s toll out of the nearly four years of fighting when Americans killed Americans, sometimes literally brother against brother. 

I repeat from an earlier blog: I am not necessarily a Civil War buff. I don’t know much about the battles or military strategy or the brilliance of Robert E. Lee.  But I do have an undergraduate degree in US History and a lifelong, childlike fascination with the tragic circumstances of the world’s greatest democracy torn asunder. There are countless stories of heroism, despair and irony that fill the pages of Civil War history.

For instance, here are two stories of irony from Antietam:

Irony #1 --Monuments. Hundreds were put in place in the 19th and early 20th centuries commemorating Union officers, Armies and casualties. The irony is that Antietam was NOT a victory for the Union army.  Nor was it a victory for the Confederates. It was an all-out stalemate. A draw. Carnage and destruction, with no clear victory.  The southern states were so devastated and poor after the war ended that they had neither the will nor the means to place monuments at Antietam. So when you tour the battlefield today, it appears by the sheer number of monuments alone, to be a Union victory.  It wasn’t.
Irony #2 – The Church. Much of bloodiest fighting that day, took place in the shadow of The Dunkard (or Dunkers) Church. The Dunkers were a sect of German pacifist Christians who preached peace, love and simplicity in all things of life. They worshipped in quiet meditation. The church was damaged, but not destroyed, and continued as a house of worship for many years after the war.

It was less than a year later, in July of 1863, when Lee’s troops would once again march pass the Dunker Church at Antietam. But they did not fight there that day. They were on the way North. To a place called Gettysburg.

Here are some more images from Antietam. 

The bridge over Antietam Creek.
Later named Burnside Bridge after Gen. Burnsides

Literally: brother against brother-in-law

If there's a tower, I will climb it!

Proof that I did! View from the top. . . of Bloody Lane