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

Monday, June 25, 2012

Driving On a Mission From God

If this little blog entry has no meaning for you,I beg your forgiveness. But if you 'get it' then you are familiar with a classic movie called “The Blues Brothers.”  Please note, I did not say it was a GREAT movie or even a GOOD movie – I said “classic” as in: taking its place in the line of farcical, memorable and nostalgic movies, from which quotes and scenes will live on in the American psyche as long as people like me still laugh at how goofy it all is.

Anyway, this truck driver thought so, too. Because the shield-thingy on the back of his cab (does it have a formal name?) sported this oft-quoted saying from the above mentioned movie.   Do not dismay, I was not driving unsafely when I took this picture.  I was stopped-dead in traffic on the infamous Indiana portion of 80/94.  

By the way #1… another classic line from the movie, is “We are on a Mission from God.”  I use THAT one all the time!  

By the Way #2:  I received a birthday present of two tickets to see Dan Akroyd and Jim Belushi as the “Blues Brothers” at Ravinia.  Wooo hooo! 

So, put on your sunglasses.
Now “Hit It!”  

Happy driving.  But be safe -- you're on a mission from God.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Just sayin'...

Nothing profound here, just a quick contrast... and perhaps we should take a vote.

I am at my brother Andy's lakehouse in Iowa.  Brother Steve is also here.  We are calling it the inaugural Hennesy "Bro Fest." We talk. Listen to Music. Tell stories. And EAT.

Here is what we eat at Bro Fest: 

Colleen is home in Oswego.  Granddaughter Annika hangs out with her from time to time.
Here is what THEY eat:

Which meal would you rather have?  Vegans need not reply.

I'm just sayin' ...

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Missing Generation

First let’s talk about Nametags.  I’m not sure how many families need nametags at reunions, but we are a disparate group, scattered from California to Colorado to Texas to Illinois. And we are large. My Dad was the oldest of eight. And each of those eight had between seven (us) and three children… making a total of…
....  a bunch!

So, at the Hennesy family reunions, we need nametags. But not just nametags, numbertags! Some genius in our family (and we are ALL in that category) came up with a system for identification that designates each relative with a number.  My Dad, being the eldest child of Esther and Willard Hennesy’s eight offspring was…“1”  His eldest child, my brother Steve, is 1.1.  And so on… I am 1.7. – seventh and most handsome son of the Dean the “first.” Carson, my grandson, is, being my second born’s second born – each more handsome than the previous.

 Terry Hennesy 1.7                                                           Carson Hennesy

Last weekend the Hennesy family reunion was held, as always, at my sisters ‘chicken farm’ near Ames, Iowa. We usually gather only once every three years, but after my Dad Dean’s death in 2010, some OTHER genius decided it needs to be more often. I’m not sure why.  All remaning six of the “orginal eight” were there (see pic: gathered at the table).

Twenty of the next digits were there. (see pic: lined up in color coded family shirts, yet another brilliant idea)-- those are me, my brothers and sister and our cousins. I think there were originally 35 of us.  

 It’s the next digits that went missing.  My children. My siblings’ children  and their generation. (other than my sister’s seven children who helped host the event). I need to emphasize that this is not a chastisement. I just noticed that there few of them were there.  I don’t blame them at all. They are at the busiest time of their lives, working stressful jobs and raising young families. And there isn’t really much to actually DO at these Hennesy gatherings! We eat, we sit, we talk.  But I don’t think those are the real reasons they go missing from these events.  I think it’s because we did not gather them together enough when they were young. My brothers and sister and I did.  We have loads of pictures of smiling, sweaty, goofy little kids lined up on the couch to prove it. But not with their second cousins. Not with the extended family.  We lost track of each other for the usual reasons. Time and distance.... plus there were just so many of us.  Where could we all fit? Certainly not on one couch!

The fourth-digit generation (those born in the 21st century) was there because we BROUGHT THEM.  We took them off their parents hands for a weekend and enticed them with swimming pools and with farm chickens (that’s another story).

And perhaps if we keep dragging them along with us, even long after the years when chickens and pools are tempting forms of entertainment, they will then have the desire and motivation to be together. To keep telling their cousins stories. To stay connected.  We may not have much in common, other than a name (with ONE " S" and that is a whole OTHER story), but that might be just enough.

 Or maybe Facebook has replaced family reunions all together.

We shall see.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Not in Training

“Good ride?”

He had just finished putting his bike on the rack mounted on the back of his Honda Accord, and was slipping into a seemingly more comfortable pair of shoes for the drive home.  Since I was the only other person in the parking lot, I quickly deduced that the question was directed at me.

“Yeah, it was good. Beautiful Day.” And then, remembering my manners, I returned the formality. “How about you?” 

“Just not quite where I should be.”  He shook his head, wiped his neck with a towel and threw the bicycling shoes (do they make those?) into the back seat.

And right then, I knew who I was dealing with. Or at least, with what kind of bike rider I was dealing with. Not a casual rider. Not a recreational rider. Not a once-in-a-blue-moon rider. 

He was in training.

To be ‘not where he should be’ was not a reflection on location, but a reference to endurance, or speed or mileage. It was a statement that his just completed bike ride was part of a much larger plan… to prepare for an event, or a race or some sort of achievement, of which this day’s excursion was but a precursor.

My best guess was that he was about my age. He had more hair than me, but that’s not saying much. He seemed sturdy enough, but not overtly athletic.

He went on to explain something about a triathlon or 10k or competition that is coming up in July.  He and his son versus his daughter and her husband. They had what sounded like an earnest, yet perhaps also friendly, rivalry. Or was it he and his son-in-law against his daughter and…?  I’m not sure.

Whatever it was, he wasn’t ready or in good enough shape or far enough along in his training.  And despite the fact that he also mentioned this is his favorite bike path in the area, I got the impression he just wasn’t pleased.

“You’ll get there,” I cheered him on with at least some small amount of enthusiasm. But what I wanted to say was, “I’m not in training for anything.”

No: What I really wanted to do was shout to the heavens, “I don’t want to ride in a 10k or compete in a triathlon! For crying out loud I just want to enjoy a bike ride on a beautiful day!”

I spared him the drama, and simply told him good luck.

This is the first summer I’ve ridden a bike in fifteen years. Health and time and laziness have kept me grounded. With a hand-me-down bike from my son-in-law, I took the risk of trying again and I’m glad I did.

But I don’t want to train for anything. I’m not in it to lose weight or reduce my blood pressure (they make pills for that). I’m not getting ready for an event or competition and I don’t have any expectations of achievement or success or endurance.  I just want to be outside on a bike. Perhaps like when I was a kid. Or perhaps like when I was an old man – which is now.

I’m not in training for anything. I’m just glad to be out there.

Somewhere in the Middle

At the Chicago Lit Fest, I got the chance to hear author Edith Pearlman whose latest collection of stories, Binocular Vision, has received many well deserved accolades. She became a writer rather ‘late’ in life, and found success and achievement as a writer even later. Dressed stylishly in black on a hot Chicago morning, with short cropped, grayish-black hair and a serious, but not stern face that turned easily into a knowing and wry smile, she faced a room full of admirers and would-be writers. During the audience talk-back time, the inevitable question was raised about where she “got her ideas” (as if there is an idea store somewhere for shopping: look at the bargain I found at IDEA, you mean IKEA? no, IDEA!). Then there was a two part question (which is actually cheating --look, people, one question per customer, geez)  about how she begins to write a story and how she knows when to END one. Her stories are known for  unresolved endings. Ms Pearlman, politely listened for what must have been the thousandth such query during her career, and with a twinkle in her eye, responded, “I like the middle the best.” She went on to say that she STARTS most stories in the middle.

Her answer struck a chord in me on many levels.  I realize how difficult it is for me, personally, to start any project where I should. From writing to sermonizing to household chores, I always get caught up in the midst of it before I take the time to go back and begin at the beginning or to think it through or to figure out where it’s going. I find myself in the middle a LOT… in the middle of arguments, in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of opinions, in the middle of relationships, in the middle of ideas, in the middle of sentences.  In fact, I think I was somewhere in the middle of raising our children before I figured out how I should have started.

But with Edith’s declaration, I now feel affirmed. I will no longer feel the guilt of starting in the middle of things. I will embrace the middle. I will act as if the middle IS the beginning AND the end. No more awkward introductions or heartbreaking goodbyes – we are in the middle!

Alright, people let’s get going! And we will not begin at the beginning like all the pundits recommend. We will start in the middle.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

We Is Smart

I noticed an article by Jonah Lehrer in New Yorker magazine (On-Line), mentioning, Daniel Kahneman, whose book Thinking Fast and Slow I quoted in one of my first blogs. The article is called “Why Smart People are Stupid.” 

I couldn’t resist. 
 Lehrer begins with one of those essay-type S.A.T. questions:
Here’s a simple arithmetic question: A bat and ball cost a dollar and ten cents. The bat costs a dollar more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?
The vast majority of people respond quickly and confidently, insisting the ball costs ten cents. This answer is both obvious and wrong. (The correct answer is five cents for the ball and a dollar and five cents for the bat.)

While philosophers, economists, and social scientists had assumed for centuries that human beings are rational agents... Kahneman ... [has] demonstrated that we’re not nearly as rational as we like to believe.
When people face an uncertain situation, they don’t carefully evaluate the information or look up relevant statistics. Instead, their decisions depend on a long list of mental shortcuts, which often lead them to make foolish decisions. These shortcuts aren’t a faster way of doing the math; they’re a way of skipping the math altogether. Asked about the bat and the ball, we forget our arithmetic lessons and instead default to the answer that requires the least mental effort.

Ahhh.. .the “least mental effort.” Now THAT is something I can relate to.

But more seriously, I have always wondered why we (meaning mostly ‘me’) can make so many decisions that in hindsight seem absurdly illogical.  Or why some decisions are best made by an individual and others by a group or committee of people.  I’ve seen lots of committee decisions in my time, since Presbyterians work almost exclusively through the process of what we call ‘ordered groups’ (as we remind everyone to “trust the process”).  But even with our best minds and our most fervent prayers, we often have to SLOW DOWN and let the rational catch up with the spiritual!

Thinking Fast and Slow,is the name of Kahneman’s book. I’ll keep reading it. I’m a slow reader – really! But I will let you know what ITHINK as fast as I can.
Oh... and keep praying, too! Though the Nobel Economist doesn't mention it, I still recommend it--fast or slow. 

Additional quote of the day:  “It is easier to recognize other people’s mistakes than our own.” – Daniel Kahneman.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Festival Time

I mentioned proximity in an earlier blog.  Such is the theme of this posting also.

A lot of people asked me about where I was going on Sabbatical.  Oftentimes sabbaticals involve rather extensive (and expensive) jaunts to far away places for study or pilgrimage or respite.

My response to the question of travel was twofold: some limited travel, yes. I did not apply for grant money, nor was I interested in doing so. Secondly: why travel to study or find inspiration when we have a world class city at our doorstep?

Many of us take Chicago for granted. Or we simply don’t like it because it’s congested (it is) or dirty (it’s not -try visiting San Francisco).  And Chi-town consists of a LOT more than Navy Pier, Soldier Field and Wrigley Field (what’s that other ballpark?)

This weekend, Colleen and I are going to take advantage of two of my favorite Chicago cultural traditions, Blues Fest and Printer’s Row Literary Fest.  They both take place in the Loop area. The Blues Fest is at Grant Park, Friday, Saturday and Sunday from Noon-ish to 9 p.m. and the Lit Fest runs Saturday and Sunday during the day hours and is just southwest of Grant Park , near the Harold Washington Library area called, of course, Printer’s Row.

To enjoy Blues Fest: There are four stage venues scattered around Grant Park.  It’s free. Bring a lawn chair and/or blanket.  Sit. Enjoy.  Move on when you want to hear a different style of blues: guitar based, brass driven, Mississippi style, etc. You don’t need to know a lot about the blues or musicians, you just need to know how to sit and listen and enjoy. 

Lit Fest: There are vendor tents, lecture/speaking venues and food along several blocks in the Printers Row area (Dearborn and Polk). Browse the book deals.  Sign up for an event—I’m taking in a talk by Rebecca Skloot, author of the excellent “The Immortal Life and Henrietta Lacks.”  Or just pop in on some of the other sessions with authors and publishers.  Be a Bibliophile!

Ahh... books and music all in one place. Must be Nirvana!

See you downtown… it’s closer than you think.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Paper or Plastic

Paper or plastic? Wallet or Billfold? 

“I forgot my billfold,” I quietly commented to the teen age girl who was bagging my groceries. I was tapping my pockets, checking for any sign of the familiar shape and size of the keeper of my cash and cards.

“What?” she asked with a slightly irritated look on her face. She seemed distant and a little confused – not quite in the moment, if you know what mean.

“My billfold,” I repeated. “I might have left it in the car.”

“I have no idea what you are saying,” she shot back. 

I felt as though I was speaking a foreign language. As though I had been transported to a market in Bangladesh trying to find a familiar word in someone else’s native tongue.

“My billfold,” I repeated a third time. Then quickly added: “My wallet—I don’t have it.”

“Oh,” she said, as if a translator had shown up and negotiated a truce between us. “I’ve never heard that word before.”  

I was stunned. Irritated. Embarrassed. But mostly bewildered.

We  negotiated the end of the sale.  I went home (it wasn’t in the car) and returned and finished the transaction with the same employees a few minutes later.  This time, when I said I had my "wallet and/or billfold," for the benefit of the young  employee and to ease my own embarrassment somewhat, the woman checking out in front of me said something about knowing what BOTH words mean, and around here we say, ‘wallet’  but she knows what a ‘billfold’ is, because, and I quote: “I’m old.” Her words, not mine.

 So what is it?  Wallet? Or billfold?  Is it a regional term? A generational one? Do they mean the same thing?
The phrase “paper or plastic” is well known amongst us American shoppers.  But what about “billfold or wallet?”  “Will you be taking that debit card from your billfold or wallet, sir?”

Next time, I send the wife… and her purse.

Or is it handbag? Pocketbook?

I need a translator!

wal·let  noun

a flat, folding pocketbook, especially one large enough to hold paper money, credit cards, driver's license, etc., and sometimes having a compartment for coins.


Chiefly British . a bag for carrying food, clothing, toilet articles, etc., during a journey; knapsack or rucksack.

1350–1400; Middle English
walet < ?

bill·fold   noun

a thin, flat, folding case, often of leather, for carrying paper money in the pocket and with fewer compartments than a wallet.


wallet ( def. 1 ) .

Americanism ; bill1 + fold1

The Lake

Sometimes, we live so close to something, we don’t really see it. Proximity breeds a false sense of familiarity and in the end, leads to an unintended ignorance.  And it is with THAT sentiment that I came to cross Lake Michigan on the SS Badger.

I had heard about the last surviving car ferry across the Lake years ago and had even visited both Manitowoc, Wisconsin, and Ludington, Michigan, the embarking and disembarking ports. It’s easy enough to drive around the lake these days, other than Chicago traffic frustrations, so using a car ferry seemed superfluous. The lake trip takes four hours and I can get to either location in that time on a good day in my Chevy Cobalt on less than a tank of gas.

But having lived near Lake Michigan for ten years now, the one thing I could NOT say I had ever done was to actually cross it.  My kayaking skill is not up to the challenge. I do not know how to ‘trim a sail’ and despite the fact that the Dennis family has a nice boat in Kenosha and have graciously offered for me to step on board, they haven’t ONCE asked me to zoom all the way across Lake Michigan on her!

So, for my ‘birthday adventure' this year, we booked passage, drove to Manitowoc, and took to the historical high seas of the Lake on the SS Badger. I will let you read, if you so desire, more about the ship itself, the history of ferries on the Great Lakes and the ports of destination at www.ssbadger.com.  But if you are interested in taking the trip, and I think you SHOULD be, it was disheartening to find out that this may be the last year for the passage. The Badger is coal-fired.  Federal regulations prohibit coal burning vessels on the Lakes after December of 2012.  Unless an extension is granted, or a very cost-prohibitive conversion to natural gas or other source becomes feasible, the SS Badger will sail no more. 
I offered my wife a shovel.  She declined.

The reason the SS Badger may not last
By the way, it’s a rather expensive trip, $75 per vehicle AND per person. But in a gallant effort to economize, I offered to let Colleen shovel coal to reduce our fare, but neither she nor the company thought it a good idea. 

By the way #2: Lake Michigan is big, deep, beautiful, like the ocean without the salty smell.  It’s an impressive feeling to be out in the middle, and seeing no land whatsoever to imagine the ships and explorers, from fur trappers to barges that have crossed those waters.  The trip was dampered a little by a cool wind and some rain, but it satisfied an urge -- to get to know the famous Lake beyond it's shoreline and to take in its majesty from the center.

But I was probably irritating the other passengers (and Gordon Lightfoot, if he’s still alive) by humming that dang “Edmund Fitzgerald” song all afternoon.  

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

transit... Venus... Kepler

The Internet, TV news shows and today’s Chicago Tribune, are all abuzz  telling us to look skyward today when Venus passes in front of the sun (like a mini-eclipse).  It’s called a transit and here is the definition:

  1. The passage of a smaller celestial body or its shadow across the disk of a larger celestial body. As observed from Earth, Mercury and Venus are the only planets of the solar system that make transits of the Sun, because they are the only planets with orbits that lie between Earth and the Sun. Mercury makes an average of 13 transits of the Sun each century. Transits of Venus across the Sun are much rarer, with only 7 of them having occurred between 1639 and 2004.

I took particular interest because of Johannes Kepler.  As I noted in one of my blogs about sabbatical books, on my ‘to read’ list this summer is Kepler’s Witch, An Astronomer’s Discovery of Cosmic Order Amid Religious War…etc. Kepler was  mentioned in the article from today’s Trib:

“Johannes Kepler, the famed mathematician-astronomer, was the first to predict a transit of Venus, calculating correctly that one would occur in 1631, though he died a year too soon to see it. Its twin transit, in 1639, was recorded by two witnesses, and it helped scientists better understand Venus' orbit.”  --Eryn Brown and Amina Khan, Tribune Newspapers.

Today's transit, which bookends a 2004-2012 pair, begins at 5:09 p.m. CDT and lasts for six hours and 40 minutes. Times can vary by seven minutes depending on the location of the observer.

I’ll be watching… won’t you?  And I’ll be reading about Kepler, too!

Sunday, June 3, 2012

I don’t really KNOW anything about Art or Art History. Never studied it in college; don’t have a flair for painting or sketching or drawing or sculpting. When I TRY to draw or sketch, everything looks like stick figures, which is why I also gravitate to simple and humorous illustrations like those I borrowed from our Advent promotion two years ago! [left] She's called "Penny" and she looks real to me!

But trips  to the Art Institute of Chicago have become one of my true joys in life. I wander and stare and read the signs that explain to plain folk like me what the art really means.

Actually, what I DO know about paintings I learned from a board game my mother gave us when we were kids. That’s right, a BOARD GAME (do kids these days even know what those are?). A board game about ART works! How BORRRINNNG! It was called “MASTERPIECE” and it had 3”by5” cards with pictures of well-known paintings that you were supposed to bid-on in auction-like fashion. I doubt if anyone else remembers that game. I loved it. When I couldn’t get others to play with me, I simply took out the cards and studied the paintings.

What the game did for me was leave impressions in my psyche of certain pieces of art that have stuck with me my whole life.  Like Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” and “la Grande Jatte” by Georges Seurat. When I visit the Art Institute, it is obligatory to visit those paintings every time, like visiting old friends to say ‘hi.’

All of this has led to my pursuit of 40 pieces of art about the Life and Death of Christ for a 40 day devotional for Lent. Since I gravitate towards renaissance art on religious themes, I tend to spend most of my visits wandering through the European galleries and I have identified some fascinating pieces… like Italian painter Carlo Crivelli’s “The Crucifixion” [below] in which the distorted, ashen face of Jesus haunts me and makes me want to beg for forgiveness. 

I’m hoping that the Lenten Devotional can lead to a greater appreciation of not only the art works themselves, but the relationship between faith and creative expression.  I'm also hoping to organize group visits to the Art Institute to walk through the galleries and experience the Lenten themes together.
 Please take note that the paintings and pictures above are gathered from Google Images. I do not think that posting them here violates any copyright laws, but it IS one of the issues I am looking into for producing the Devotional.  On-line reproductions from Chicago's Art Institute ARE protected by copyright laws and I am investigating the best and legal way to present the pieces, via link or directly through the AI's website.  I'm working on it!

Keeping the Faith,
Pastor T.