Caring by George Merrill

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It’s morning and I am sitting on my porch. The wind is strong, out of the south – twenty knots maybe – and the trees on one side of the cove undulate and heave as if dancing to the rhythm of a silent lullaby. A beautiful day in the neighborhood. It feels good to be alive.

It’s in odd time I confess, but I am thinking about suffering – neurological pain in particular. It has dominated my life recently. I’m thinking about pain and suffering in a general sense, too, since both have plagued humankind from the time of Adam and Eve. Why must it be? A punishment? I think not, but it is a puzzle. I imagine at times it’s a design flaw, like God didn’t think his creation project through as thoroughly as he might or maybe left a wrench in the gears. In any case, suffering is nothing new. We’ll never know why. When we are visited with pain in any of its endless forms, we suffer.

I am now coming out of three months of pain. I write not to elicit sympathy – I do that well on my own. My intent is more to explore my experience to see what it might reveal about being human, and find some meaning in what so often seems meaningless and senseless.

Suffering is a given – part of life’s package. It can be as confined as a spider phobia or a fear of flying. It can be as universal as the loss of a loved one or all encompassing like the mother with her two children living in a bomb crater in Afghanistan, seeking respite from the burning sun and foraging for food and water. Suffering attends many physical aberrations.

As I’ve thought about this in search for some meaning, I’ve found it helpful to consider what happens to us generally in any kind of pain or suffering. Might there be a ‘red thread’ common to the experience of suffering that helps us endure it although not end it?

In the last three months, I’ve had the growing sense that one of the poignant aspects of all suffering is its capacity to leave one feeling alone and vulnerable. I think of the widow finding herself in a world surrounded with couples. Grief is the suffering of loss.

Suffering is as much a part of the human condition as breathing. It’s ironic to consider that what’s so common to us all, can isolate us from one another as well as join us in solidarity. Suffering does both.

Weeks ago, I wrote some reflections about my experience with lower back pain, a common complaint, but it can be a rough one. Subsequent to publishing that piece, I received an email from a man I didn’t know – let me call him, ‘Steve ‘. He wrote to tell me that he, too, had been the victim for years of excruciating pain and like the man in the Biblical epic, “suffered much at the hands of many physicians, but it profited him naught.” He’d tried everything to no avail. After years of searching, and at the edge of despair he found healing. This man understood immediately how I was feeling and reached out.

That he took the time and the care to tell me about his struggle and eventual good fortune touched me. He thoughtfully sent documented information that I could easily access, motivated by his wish that I might find the healing he had. This is a form of compassion. It can mean so much. Compassion is a feeling (often turning to action) that suffering surfaces in others.

I received some notes from friends. They offered thoughtful reflections on my circumstances
A woman called me. I have not known her along time. I knew that she had sustained a neurological injury years ago. It never really healed and for years she has had to endure excruciating and unremitting pain. During her call she said two things, one of which I didn’t first understand. She reassured me that in time I would find the help I need. She seemed confident about that and I welcomed her words. She also said, “Don’t panic.”

I didn’t get it at first. A few days later when the pain came back with a vengeance, I understood. I felt pure panic like there was no place to hide from it. I was trapped and a despondent voice kept saying to me that this will never end. The pain did mitigate some and I then understood what she was alerting me to. There is an atavistic inclination how, when we’re fearful and vulnerable, our mind keeps insisting it will never end.

Her words were simple and direct, without any flourish. They were born of personal experience. Knowing her history, I invested her words with an authority that calmed me. It made a difference. I remember, while we were on the phone, how in my mind’s eye I kept seeing her piercing, unblinking blue eyes that always appeared serene and hopeful.

This is a long way around of sharing with readers a small incident of personal suffering. I offer it with the thought that none of us is exempt from suffering and at one time or another it will come to us. Pain and suffering come in all kinds of shapes and sizes – one size does not fit all, but the characteristics of suffering have some things in common; they often arrive with a suddenness that’s devastating, knock us off balance and leave us scrambling to find some means of equilibrium. Suffering has a way of wrenching control from our lives, leaving us with a heightened sense of vulnerability and helplessness.

I believe that the appearance of caring people during personal suffering cannot be underestimated. In the throes of pain, someone’s caring has a way of seeping into our consciousness, and it has a potent analgesic effect. Pain works to isolate us. Caring works to bring us closer. In the larger picture believe a few caring people can change the world, and have kept it from spinning out of control. Mr. Rogers immortalized just such a thought when, after the carnage at the Boston Marathon, said,” When we’re scared and feel alone, “look for the helpers, they’re always there.” And they are.

It’s now late morning. I feel good although, as always, I ache some. The wind has died down and the trees, exuberant only an hour ago, have stilled. The glory of the morning remains. As I finish up this essay, a squirrel “scampers along past me only feet away from where I sit. He stops, and for a moment looks quizzically at me as if curious about what I’m doing. He remains still for a moment. His tail quivers, he scratches his ear and then off he goes, meeting the same challenge that all of us must – the challenge of living.

Our greatest challenge living is to care for one another.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

Of Geese and Golden Eggs by George Merrill

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Early spring this year, we put in a new lawn. It lies between the porch and the creek. One morning, from the porch I saw two geese standing on the lawn just by the shoreline. They looked furtive, eyeing me sideways, like shoplifters.

I went to shoo them off. They didn’t retreat an inch, but viewed me with sidelong glances of suspicion, as if to ask just who did I think I was. They honked intermittently, their tones hushed, as if they were grumbling. Then, shamelessly, they began feeding on the grass.

Enough!

Even as I chased them, they’d move slowly, waddling away with an air of defiance. It was the way pedestrians, who like to stick it to drivers, saunter at a snail’s pace making street crossings.

Geese have no business here. If they were behaving properly like Canada geese should, they’d be long gone along with their kin, off to northern climes. Instead, these two settled for the land of pleasant living, where the green grass grows all around, offering succulent fare to sate their insatiable appetites. Incidentally, this amounts to putting away a staggering 10 percent of their body weight in grass daily. And then, too, when compared to goose poop, human waste smells like Chanel. A muddy field chock full of goose droppings is the stuff of nightmares and even Rotor- Rooter, no stranger to unsavory challenges, wouldn’t touch the stuff with a ten-foot pole.

With regard to a goose’s characteristic ‘honking,’ seasonal changes and numbers can affect their repertoire. In the summer, the population is sparse and so we have mostly solos, a few duets, and occasionally, but rarely, small ensembles. There aren’t that many choristers around. In fall and winter the populations swell so we hear choral extravaganzas, geese performing in casts of hundreds. Just who is on key and who’s off is hard to tell. Individually geese sound binary – as though there were only two tones in their vocal range; a preliminary warm up and then a sort of vocal crescendo, as if successfully expunging a hairball, or in this case, a feather ball. They repeat it over and over again. It’s hardly melodic. Some Shore hunters, even if they can’t hold a tune, may grow remarkably proficient in imitating the ‘honk,’ even snookering some geese into thinking he’s the real McCoy.

Honking is distinctive if not alluring. Oddly, the phenomenon of honking earned recognition as an expression of piety some years ago. I began seeing bumper stickers that read, “Honk if you love Jesus.” This was a strategy of identifying the faithful while driving cars. In the absence of any other identifiable qualities like faith, love, patience, kindness, long suffering, forgiveness and the like, by just leaning on their car’s horn, believers could proclaim their faith. If one driver’s horn became too insistent, his piety could be misconstrued as road rage. Whether for man or beast, a honk is more than just a honk.

But to return to the two geese feeding on my new lawn . . .

The geese presented a moral dilemma for me, a challenge to my core beliefs. I say I believe in the sanctity of the natural world and all its creatures, whether I like them or not. I like to believe I do unto others as I would expect from them and offer hospitality to the stranger. I have helped others in trouble, and, at least on a few occasions loved others as I knew I was loved.

No matter what I tried with the geese, nothing worked; they might waddle off after I fussed at them, but only to return a few hours later and eat the grass. I was furious. My wife and I erected dowel sticks and stretched strings along the shoreline – surely the string would prohibit their huge bodies getting through. They simply flew over it.

I knew of a man in the neighborhood who loves guns. We call him Rambo because he relishes shooting at whatever moves . . . or doesn’t. One day in a snit about the intransigent geese, I caught myself engaged in an imaginary conversation with Rambo about dispatching these geese. I really got onto it; How much per goose? What about the carcasses? What about DNR’s legal restrictions? What if a neighbor saw it? What about anonymity? In this imaginary conversation, not once did I feel shame.

In a moment of truth, my imagination exposed me to the superficiality of my own moral pretentions; an imaginary gun had stripped me of any moral pretensions, and it was still smoking. I was settling for cheap grace, by practicing a morality of my convenience.

I want to make a point: morality is not a sound bite. It’s an inner conviction of value, an innate understanding of what is worthwhile. It’s like a GPS; it shows the way but I still have to make the choice.

Sure, I could contract with Rambo at 100 dollars per goose. If the geese could not be persuaded otherwise, and if I decided to go with Rambo to solve the problem, I’d dodge the expense of planting a new lawn – a formidable sum – for the cost of roughly two hundred dollars.
It is not on earth as it is in heaven. On earth two-hundred dollars is good deal, but in heaven’s exchange, the sum is valued only at thirty pieces of silver.

Making boundary violations for birds and animals an offence punishable by death, is morally bankrupt. It betrays what I ultimately value, the truths I wish live by. It also betrays a failure of imagination. Belief and action aren’t necessarily the same. The exercise of moral courage is never convenient. It’s not popular because when seriously practiced, it comes with personal cost.

Circumstances, not moral courage, got me off the hook. I was not forced to make a decision about the trespassing geese. They had stopped showing up and so I never had to contend directly with my darker side.

Moral concerns like these, in far greater magnitude, are being savaged in today’s political climate. The Environmental Protection Agency has been put in the service of Mammon, not the environment for which it was founded. The agenda is being driven by power and profit and few seem to exhibit shame, and worse yet, even care. ‘Losers’ (the vulnerable, like the environment and its inhabitants) don’t have a voice. I know this will sound naïve, but imagine if we (I) could consider matters of our mutual life together with greater imagination. Imagine we could explore boundaries as ways to include and not alienate or get rid of. Imagine that we could explore gender differences with humility without fear and retribution, all with the ultimate objective of understanding and acting wisely as members of a shared creation.

One of America’s great environmental visionaries, Aldo Leopold, once wrote: “Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them. Now we face the question whether a still higher ‘standard of living’ is worth its cost in things natural, wild and free.”

In the human story, our fatal flaws keep haunting us; we manage to kill the geese that lay the golden eggs.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

Hug An Evangelical Today by George Merrill

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In a TV clip I watched recently, a reporter is at a barbeque somewhere in the western U.S. It’s an assembly of evangelicals. The camera pans the scene. We see a burly man in a ten-gallon hat with others around him standing in front of a grill. Steaks are on. The men look rugged, outdoor men like farmers or cattlemen. The camera points to the waist of one man showing that he’s packing a gun.

The reporter asks someone in the crowd if, in his Christian faith, he sees any moral conflict supporting a president who is unfaithful in his marriages. The man shakes his head solemnly and says to the effect that nobody is perfect and Christians don’t condone extra-marital affairs. However, he said emphatically that’s a different thing than being homosexual. I understood his point to be that being unfaithful may be sinful, but a misdemeanor compared to being gay.

Even though I’m a life-long Episcopalian, I’m here to say some evangelicals deserve a break today. Since Trump’s ascendency to the presidency, they’ve gotten bad press. I’d like to affirm some of my kinder and gentler evangelical brothers and sisters. If you say there are not any left, you’ve been looking in the wrong places.

Turns out secular evangelicals are less tolerant than church going evangelicals, according to Emily Ekins, researcher at the Cato Institute. Church going Trump voters have more inclusive attitudes toward African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Jews, and immigrants compared with secular evangelical Trump supporters. Seeing one evangelical is not like you’ve seen them all. Technically speaking, evangelical refers to a person, church, or organization that is committed to the Christian gospel message that Jesus Christ is the savior of humanity.

Evangelical writer and pastor, Ed Stetzer, writing in Christianity Today, says emphatically, “No! Evangelical does not mean just ‘white Republicans who support Trump.’”

There are African-American evangelicals, Hispanic evangelicals and other church going white evangelicals – many of whom believe that God likes loving us more than judging us. You can tell by how they behave. They seem less strident.

One example is how the National Association of Evangelicals urged Trump to create a better U.S refugee resettlement program and end family separation at the border because it was traumatizing children.

The Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution urging Trump to consider pathways to citizenship and keeping families together at the border because of the biblical mandate to “act compassionately toward those in need.”

The Mormons, perhaps the most conservative of all evangelical bodies, although don’t consider themselves such) expressed alarm at the harm the administration is doing to immigrant families.

There are evangelicals who have a heart.

To define ‘Evangelical,’ Stetzer says we need to think theologically, not politically. He identifies four religious tenets to which evangelicals hold. They are the following:

The Bible as the highest authority.
Faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
Christ’s sacrifice on the cross removes the penalty for our sin.
Only through Jesus can one gain eternal salvation.

The National Association of Evangelicals was formed in 1942. It was a loose coalition, but became organized enough to agree on the four-point definition.

In 1978, some evangelicals took a more aggressive political direction, establishing a movement called the Moral Majority. Founded by televangelist Jerry Falwell the movement was political from the get-go, promoted with a veneer of religious piety. The movement aligned itself intentionally with the Republican party. It foundered over time. In 1989, Televangelist Pat Robertson hoping to revive it, organized the Christian Coalition that was committed as much to serve the Republican party as to serve God. Both movements were considered evangelical.

The movements had a hard edge to them and communicated an uncompromising moral superiority that energized some evangelicals but appalled others.

Jimmy Carter’s ascendancy to the presidency is significant in any discussion of American evangelicals. He put the word evangelical in the public mind as it had never been. Carter spoke of his Baptist faith unashamedly and said he was a confirmed “born again Christian.” I don’t believe any of our presidents made such transparent or intimate disclosures about their religious convictions in such a sectarian way.

I think President Carter brought an inspiring witness to what some evangelism is all about; he practiced evangelism capturing the heart of its spiritual message, one far different from the kind demonstrated by televangelists.

Sadly, Carter had a controversial presidency. On the other hand, he demonstrated what an effective humanitarian heart looks like. He is a model Christian, different from any of our nominally Christian presidents. Most ex-presidents wrote autobiographies, dedicated libraries and made a bundle in speaking engagements.

Carter wrote many books and never worked the speaking circuit. He returned to his roots, in Plains, Georgia, to do works of charity. He lives modestly. His humanitarian efforts working with Habitat for Humanity are well known and, as of the year 2013, the organization (ministry) had built 800,000 homes world-wide for the poor who’d never be able to afford one otherwise. He also has been a tireless advocate for reconciliation and world peace.

Interestingly, he and Rosalynn live in a two-bedroom rancher assessed at one hundred and sixty thousand dollars. Each of the three last ex-presidents have cost the American taxpayers roughly one million dollars a year. A one term president, the Carters cost Americans, less than half as much.
Carter is a principled man. A life-long Southern Baptist, and Sunday School teacher, he could not go along with his denomination’s most recent teaching on gender. He left in protest when the denomination voted to support the biblical and Pauline exhortation that wives should remain subject to husbands.

One of Mother Teresa’s favorite texts in the Bible, which she often quoted to describe her ministry to the poor, is: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine (the poor and marginalized), you did for me” (Matthew 25:40, 45).

Carter is an evangelical. However, he doesn’t just talk the talk, but walks the walk.

It’s heartening these days to think of a president, maybe a born-again evangelical Christian like Carter, as the kind of president my grandchildren (some Catholics in the mix) might look up to one day and be inspired to greatness.

Know any real evangelicals like Jimmy Carter – Democrat or Republican, it doesn’t really matter?

Make sure you hug one today.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

It’s a Real Pain by George Merrill

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I have been thinking about that day I walked to my mailbox. Iwrote about it recently. I called it ‘Back Talk.” I was fussingabout unruly back pain that returned with a vengeance

I’d found consolation in my neighbors that day, one of which turned out to be a turtle. If my pain made me feel useless, thisturtle offered me an occasion to feel helpful. Another ‘neighbor’ was a conifer tree. Its bark enthralled me enough so for a moment I hugged it. It was my first hug . . . of a tree, that is. I needed to feel close. It worked. Then there was a plain looking butterfly which my presence wasn’t able to scare off. That made me feel, in my unhappy state, that I was still an easy guy to hang out with.

In short, as awareness of the natural world impinged on me, my pain mitigated significantly, at least for a time.

Reassurance is helpful when you’re not feeling good. Never be fussy about where it comes from.

This led me to thinking about comfort and solace amidst suffering. What graces are always available to us in times of woe? There are two that are well established and verifiable: family and friends. Personal presence is a healing and consoling mechanism. There is a power to presence; just showing up can be healing. But what about nature, the kind always surrounding us; the nature still remaining of the created world that we have not yet destroyed?  Its mantel is woven from the fabric of our own lives. Nature’s got to be more than just a prop, some stage dressing for showcasing ‘man’.  We’re part of the tapestry, threads in the fabric. What about the natural world whose existence is inextricably bound to you and to me?

In my personal struggle with pain, recently it’s been with the more aggressive kind. It seizes my attention. Neurological pain has a way of making its presence known by doing what it does best; striking like lightening, demanding my attention and then sustaining it by making me unable to think about anything else.

That’s when I’ve noticed the healing dimension of the natural world becomes significant. It, too, has a way of making its presence known, not aggressively, but subtly, the way we notice sounds carried great distances over water.

The sounds are hard to distinguish at first. I listen more intently. The sounds begin taking on audible formsperhaps words, tones or leaves rustling. It might be twittering (the bird or bugkinds). It can be the gurgling of small brooks or the cascade of breaking waves on a beach. It might seem like music.

This phenomenon occurs visually, too. Some motion may arrest my attention. I may notice how the breezes make the crowns ofthe conifers wag and sway in broad swaths across the sky, as if singing jubilantly. In any case my attention is engaged, but not invasively as pain does, but more like hearing a whisper in a crowd; it invites my attention irresistibly, but not doesn’tdemand it.

Nature is always there; pain just makes her hard to heed.

Psycho-spiritual pain is equally as debilitating. It arrives more insidiously; not usually sharp and piercing. Psycho-spiritual painpermeates our environment the way atmospheric inversions trap smog, keeping it close to the ground. In conditions like that, just breathing the surrounding milieu feels like suffocation. I’ve heard this psychospiritual pain described as a kind of heaviness that sets in after the nightly news is over.

Pain performs a critical function. Truth be told, none of us willget through life without pain. Its absence is not always desirable. Take the problem of leprosy; it’s lethal because the limbs it is destroying register no pain at all. Pain signals that something is wrong and needs our attention. Without pain, we’re left unawareand vulnerable. This is the problem with insidious cancers and strokes that give us no clue they’re about to do us mischief.

So, I cannot reasonably protest pain.  I can only complain about my own even though it makes me look like a wuss.

My pain behaves like guerilla fighters concealed in my neural transmitters or like snipers hiding in bushes. After making that fatal decision to move my butt this way or that, or suddenlybend forward backward, the snipers open fire on me. In the case of lower back pain, most rounds hit me below the belt. A few strays will land above it along the spine.

Do I feel sorry for myself? You bet. Sometimes I shake my fist against the universe long enough to blow off steam and let God know I’m not a happy camper. I don’t worry about God; he has a thick skin and, since the creation of Adam and Eve, has taken more heat from his children than hell generates, or is ever able to. The only thing my snit earns me is more spasms along my back. Eventually I calm down enough to be, if not happy, at least reflective. In reflecting on my misadventures in personal pain management I’ve had some recurring thoughts. Pain is, after all,part of being human. It goes with the territory and it wears a million different hats, customizing itself to individual circumstances.

Do I know what pain others are suffering?  The more humanely we treat our own suffering, we will treat others accordingly.Personal suffering can leave us angry. I can’t really say I know what others are suffering. That kind of knowing is best understood from the inside out. Even though I may have walked in the same moccasins, and since there are no two feet exactly alike, the suffering I incur has its own personalized contours. With regard to suffering, I can be compassionate, and be moved to help in some way, but can only imagine what others are goingthrough.

But, enough about me.

The matter of pain goes far beyond my aching back. St. Paul makes a remarkable statement about suffering, not only human but global. He sees both as inextricably connected. His comment suggests that human suffering is linked to nature’s. Both visibly bear the scars from the pain we have inflicted on one another and have visited on our sacred spaces, specifically, the streams, the air and forests of our planet. Living life informed by the bankrupt vision of consumerism, we behave like the malignant cells that can’t seem to do other than consume the body on which they depend. In his letter to the Romans, Paul puts it this way:

For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth together until now. And not only they, but ourselves also . . . even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body

Paul understood the church to function like a human body, cooperatively, and that if one body part presumed to be better than another, it was talking nonsense. Each has its place and functions for the good of the whole.

As of the moment, I pray that my back would heed St. Paul’s counsel and start doing what it’s supposed to; helping the rest of me function properly. After all, an entire body gets up and goes best when its chassis is sufficiently lubricated and well in place.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

The Paths of Glory by George Merrill

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With a friend, some years ago I visited war memorials in Washington, D.C. The morning was gray.  Overhead, clouds sped by chased by an easterly wind, while off and on light rain fell. Looking up at the clouds my friend commented, “Sky’s weeping.” The sky, perhaps, and God, too, I thought.

I wondered if the memorials to our past conflicts would perhaps suggest hints of change in the American psyche regarding war and violence.  Why, for something that causes so much suffering to the human race, for something that is regarded almost universally as madness, does war remain so intoxicating that one war follows the next one, as lemming follows lemming.

We visited three war memorials that morning. The WWII, Korean and Vietnam memorials. These wars spanned almost a quarter of this century. Total American casualties are estimated at 410, 472.

I find the Vietnam Memorial unique. People descending its depths speak in hushed tones as though at a wake.  Young soldiers, looking just out of boot camp, walked around slowly but without speaking. When we were there, half the memorial was undergoing alterations and so we saw only a part. My friend looked up in the directory one of the casualties, a friend of his, found his inscribed name and brushed his fingers across it for a moment in silence.  The memorial is remarkably unassuming, understated, humble– much of it seems bunkered underground– but it emanates more power and clarity about the realities of war than the most spectacular arches of triumph. The imaginative and creative design of the memorial exposes with quiet dignity the political sanitizing and glorifying of war by simply naming its victims. The memorial doesn’t celebrate the war nor lionize its casualties; it elegizes the victims. The ‘paths of glory lead but to the grave’ and the name of every soldier who died in Vietnam is inscribed there in dark marble for the world to see–but more painfully, for friends and relatives to see.

From the WWII memorial to the Vietnam memorial, I sense a subtle and hopeful shift in the American attitude regarding war. The WWII memorial is clearly triumphal, a celebration. The Korean war memorial is somber, like watching condemned men walk the last mile.  Finally, the Vietnam memorial, sunk in the earth like a grave, inescapably personalizes war’s carnage by inscribing on its walls the name of every fallen American soldier. It’s as though in the last twenty-five years there’s been an emerging national consciousness that waging war precipitously is the failure of imagination. War is a desperate measure yielding dubious victories at a terrible price– something one does only as a last resort.

The vision of Americas future is not nationalism, unilateralism and militarism, but mutuality and international cooperation. Leading us in national and international affairs requires flexibility, imagination, skill and compassion.

On the wall of the memorial, there are the names of at least 58,318 men and women who gave their lives to realize that vision.

 

Back Talk by George Merrill

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I can’t walk the same distances I once did. Now I take a more leisurely pace and cover less turf. When I was younger I may have covered more territory, but I saw less of it. As my perimeters shrink, my vision broadens.

This is about how my unruly back reconnected me to neighbors, some I’d met, two for the first time.

Again, as it has over the years, my perverse back is dictating the terms of my life. Of the manifold gifts with which my creator has blessed me, a strong back is not one. I can only assume I was issued a leftover, a rebuilt, but not the custom fitted kind that do well and accommodate an individual’s peculiarities. Mine overreacts. It talks back.

I really shouldn’t complain. Generally, it has worked for and with me. At times, my back has even showed a willingness to rejuvenate itself, putting me back on my feet walking with my customarily brisk pace. Not recently, however.

As a result, my awareness has shifted. Getting there (wherever ‘there’ might be) is not as big a deal as it once was. It’s what I discover along the way that’s become the big deal.

Right now, my walking consists of several trips a day from my studio up the driveway to the mailbox and back. A ten-minute walk. Once I leave the studio, I am surrounded by trees. I see some of them from the studio windows and a host more leaving the studio and going to the mailbox. Since it’s no big thing about my destination – a regular mailbox – it’s what happens on the way that’s been energizing. Noticing the trees for one thing.

Of course, living here thirty years I have seen the trees before, but in not the same way. On one trip to the mail box, I hugged a large conifer tree. I’d never hugged a tree. What I had not noticed before was how large the boles of most of the conifers were. The trees must have been there fifty or sixty years. Performing the hug, I couldn’t get my fingers to touch when wrapping my arms around the trunk.

All those years I’d driven down the driveway past the pines, I’d never noticed how, when viewed close up, the bark looks like an alligator’s hide. The bark has the appearance of an assemblage of wood chips, secured to the tree like miniature wooden shingles. Ivy makes its way up some trees, weaving its vines under the wood chips, making it impossible to pull the ivy loose.

The rough tree bark does not make a hug feel like the warm-fuzzy I might wish. I felt self-conscious, too, and looked around to see if anyone was watching. Just squirrels, some sweet gum trees, two maples and more conifers.

When I’m walking unhurriedly, I like to stop and pan the area like a cinematographer seeking the broadest view of the landscape. It also rests my back.

That’s when I saw a large clod of dirt moving across the path directly in front of me. It alarmed me at first. It was about half again as big as my open hand and its movement was slow and unsteady. Moving closer I could see that the lump of dirt was riding on the shell of a huge turtle that I assumed to be a snapping turtle. My suspicions proved correct. I tried moving him to the side of the road where he would be out of harm’s way. He was not grateful at all. As I nudged him with my foot over to the roadside, his neck shot out. Fortunately, he went for my foot which was well to his stern and out of reach even as he moved sideways to get at it. He hissed menacingly at me. Don’t tread on me was written all over him.

I found a stick and tried nudging him to the roadside. He made a grab for the stick, momentarily bit down on it with a crunch, growling and hissing and, I’m sure, if that stick had been my toe he would have had it for breakfast. I retrieved the stick, kept poking at him until he fell into the narrow culvert, shell side up. He was home free.

Despite his thankless rebuffs, I was committed to his safety. I made it to the mailbox feeling like the good Samaritan despite no show of appreciation from the turtle. Fortunately, goodness has its own rewards.

I decided to go left on the intersecting road and walk a little further to my neighbor’s mailbox. Along the road between mailboxes is a gully. It was filled with water from the rains.

As I walked along I’d hear a ‘squeak’, and then a ‘plop’ as a basking frog, alarmed by my presence, made for the water. Walking further, the same: a squeak’, a couple of ‘croaks’ and ‘plops,’ frog after frog abandoned his day in the sun to take refuge in the water. I had no idea my presence could be so intrusive. After all, I didn’t even know they were there much less see them and still they were offended at my simply walking the road and minding my own business. I was beginning to feel like a pariah.

My day was redeemed when, returning to my own mailbox, I saw at the entrance to the driveway a good-sized butterfly. She was not gloriously adorned like a monarch; in fact, she was plain with her blue-black wings that had a small smidgen of white at the base of each. She was standing on the ground, her wings fluttering occasionally, as if to maintain her balance. She rocked slightly forward and then backward, as though she were trying to gain a footing to take off. I stopped close by, my foot inches from her, fully prepared for another rejection. She took wing and flew in zig zag circles, but, to my surprise and delight, quickly returned to exactly from where she’d taken flight; near my left foot. She obviously did not think I was a danger or some kind of creepy man to hiss at or flee from; for that moment, I was just a neighbor out there standing by my mailbox.

As a part of my healing I’ve found checking in with the neighbors now and then is important. It’s easy to forget they are so close and except for one turtle with an attitude, most are a comfort. In that brief walk, my world grew slightly bigger.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

Smartphones by George Merrill

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On trains, on busses, on airplanes (before takeoff), in parks and at restaurants…even in churches and at ball games, the presence of smartphones is as ubiquitous as mosquitos on a summer night. At the dinner table with the family assembled during holiday gatherings we see smartphones placed accessibly where forks and napkins once rested. Like a predatory animal, the smartphone is ready to spring, but by no means on an unsuspecting prey – this is a prey half anticipating and even welcoming the next assault. With solitary souls sitting contemplatively in their living room by a cozy fire, we can rest assured a smartphone is somewhere within reach.

For better or for worse, in sickness and in health, smartphones remain post-modern man’s constant companion. Few leave home without one.

I’ll never forget last Thanksgiving when I went into the den and found my step-daughter, her husband and four teen age grandchildren lounging in various kinds of repose; the adults typing on computers, the four grandchildren texting while the football game on TV played vainly to the den’s unheeding fans who were otherwise occupied in cyberspace.

Welcome to the digital age.

In 1654, philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote; “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in room alone,” and I would add, be anywhere without his or her smartphone.

I am not a digital junkie. I would love to brag that I was able to beat the seductions of electronics, that I was above the mediocrity that it sows and that I live my life intentionally conscious of my thoughts and whereabouts. That is not the case. I simply can’t get the hang of how to use a smartphone.

I compose essays on a computer. I send emails. I text, but I could hand deliver my message to Baltimore from St. Michaels in less time that it would take me to text it. I carry the phone with me only occasionally. I check the weather to see what to wear that day. I simply cannot manage the several digital techniques required to negotiate a smartphone’s functions much less keep abreast of the new terminology that identifies its ever-increasing applications. Even with Facebook I’m always fearful that I’ll get snagged in some advertising pop-up or press the wrong button to inadvertently become friends with someone I really don’t like.

In short, it’s not character that has kept me from being seduced by the immediacy of the digital world, it’s that I’m electronically challenged. I write essays on my computer and use the spell check so my manuscripts are mostly ‘tdypo’ free. Not always.

My wife, Jo, is a digital whiz. She’s as at home in the digital era as crabs are to the Bay. She can buy, sell, enquire, research, and do most of her Christmas shopping on line. She can stay in constant contact with grandchildren or just play games, do word puzzles and happily entertain herself for hours with her smartphone.

I am a grunt in this online world, a wayfaring stranger often lost in the wilderness of cyberspace.

St. Paul once observed that our weaknesses can be our strengths.

There’s growing concern about the effect electronic communication is having on our psyches and on our culture. What is at risk is our ability to be focused, be alert and attentive to what may be going on at the moment. In short, the digital era with all its conveniences is invasive, and like a persistent fly, constantly demands our attention. The smartphone is messing with our minds.

Georgetown computer-science professor Cal Newport is not optimistic that will power alone can easily tame the “ability of new technologies to invade your cognitive landscape.” He recommends a month long digital detox, a period of purification to declutter the mind by taking a complete break from all optional technologies. His observations parallel the process of achieving sobriety in alcohol addiction: those in recovery learn that one drink is too many, a thousand is not enough. For Newport, one technology can be too many, a thousand is not enough. Few, if any, alcoholics believe that after detox you can manage controlled drinking. Newport on the other hand, claims that after digital detox, and a period of total abstinence, one may slowly reintroduce technologies carefully, a little like learning to sip rather than gulping. He holds that controlled messaging is possible.

I confess that I am speaking with forked tongue in this matter. In writing this essay I was not sure I knew what the difference was between an iPhone, smartphone and an android. I googled my question and got an informed enough answer so I understood the general idea that they are, for practical purposes, similar although they may perform different tasks.

The glut of information immediately available to us in the digital age is both a blessing and a curse; it presents problems of its own. The ability to assimilate information is no indicator that we’ve learned anything. To “know” is more than having factual data at hand. A reflection on this very issue long before our digital era is found in T.S. Eliot’s poem, Chorus’s from the Rock:

All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

A young boy once asked his father; “Dad, where did I come from?” His father long dreaded the day, but he’d prepared himself well. He researched the data appropriate to teaching a youngster about human sexuality. He went on at some lengths with the boy, from physiology, psychology, biology and even romance. The boy remained attentive, but began to look perplexed.

“Any questions?” the father asked.

“I thought we came here from Chicago.”

Wisdom is in understanding the question first. Learning the appropriate answer follows.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

Shall We Gather At The River by George Merrill

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I’ve not sailed for several years. I miss it.

I’ve arrived at that unhappy confluence where age and agility meet to send a strong message; for my own safety, at this stage in life, I’d be wise to consider other forms of recreation. I began sailing as a boy at fourteen on Raritan Bay and later on Long Island Sound. Today, although I live up a creek, my sailing days are over.

The other day I felt nostalgic about sailing on the Bay. We’d frequently go from home on Broad Creek to the upper reaches of the Tred Avon River for overnights. I remembered one late August morning motoring down the river. It was sunny and cool that day and I was in no hurry to get home. We had anchored up the river and in the morning, it was one of those still and lazy days when I didn’t ever want the trip to end. We were going just south of Oxford and probably doing three knots. I could hear the muffled gurgling of the motor’s discharge as it merged with our wake.  It made the boat sound as if it were mumbling about how slow we were moving.

Suddenly just ahead on the starboard bow something broke the water. I couldn’t make anything of it.  The surface broke again and then on the port side the same thing happened. Sure enough, dolphins were gamboling downriver with us, finding us agreeable enough to become our traveling companions. For me it was a first. I’d only seen dolphins in pictures. There’s nothing like seeing them surface – as if they were covered all over with mercury making them appear silver and shiny.

They followed us for some distance and finally, near Benoni Point, they submerged one after the other and I didn’t see them again.

Boating on a river is magical. Unlike being surrounded by the expanses of a wide-open Bay, which is a freeing kind of sensation, like watching stars, sailing on rivers is different. The shoreline provides visual boundaries, as the lure of a changing landscape captures our attention always anticipating what’s around the bend. Rivers meander, so that we make it around one bend only to find another waiting for us. The muffled sound of the motor and the hull’s smooth transit as it slides through the still water, sooths the spirit. It’s mesmerizing. Unlike the adrenaline rush I feel on a broad reach in a twenty-knot wind, this is gentler, like gliding.

I remember the sensation from childhood on a day liner going up the Hudson.

My grandfather skippered the Clermont and the DeWitt Clinton, day liners that left the west side of Manhattan to ply the Hudson River up to Bear Mountain and back. I remember being aboard watching the shoreline steadily rise on both sides as the liner made way north. I don’t remember the water ever being turbulent perhaps because the river was sheltered from wind on both sides by hills and mountains. And too, with the river’s meandering path, the wind couldn’t find a straightaway extensive enough to build up velocity. I remember motion as smooth and calm, the rhythmic thumping of the engines sounding like a heartbeat. Sometimes my grandfather let me stand by the wheelhouse.

I suspect those of us who have motored or sailed the Chesapeake Bay over the years have probably sailed more on its tributaries than on the Bay itself. The Bay has more rivers and streams than our bodies have capillaries.

Rivers characteristically meander. They lend themselves as the perfect metaphor for a spiritual journey. Nobody travels a spiritual journey in a straight line. If it’s going in a straight line you can be sure you’ve gotten off course. In this post-modern era, we have lost the sense of the holy that indigenous people have always felt about rivers and other bodies of water. The Ganges, the Jordon and with our own Columbia River, natives venerated them as sacred. “Shall we Gather at the River” is a beloved protestant hymn celebrating our ultimate reconciliation with God. Moses may have made it to the mountain top, but he was first launched on a river.

The first time I sailed up the Chester River was in late August. We’d sailed from Broad Creek to Corsica Creek to spend the night before going to up to Chestertown. We anchored just off what was then the Russian Embassy’s retreat compound at Pioneer Point, originally the John J. Raskob estate. It was a strange sight to see this lovely mansion, a traditional piece of   Americana, with the Soviet Union’s flag, with its hammer and sickle on a red background, flying from a pole on the lawn. It seemed sinister to me. We were being invaded by commies. As we sat in the cockpit having drinks, we’d take binoculars crouch down in the cockpit and furtively spy on the Russians walking around on the property. Odd they didn’t look all that different from Americans.

As a child, my mother read me Kenneth Grahame’s classic, The Wind in the Willows. I’ve remembered parts of it all these years; the charming antics of the characters like Mole, Rat, Badger and Toad. Rat introduces Mole to the river that he lives on. Mole becomes enchanted with it and launches into a paean – lauding the river.  Grahame’s description reads like a psalm or even a canticle to the majesty of nature, something worthy of St. Francis of Assisi.

“Suddenly he (Mole) stood by the edge of a full/fed river. Never in his life had he seen a  river before – this sleek, sinuous, full bodied animal chasing and chuckling, gripping things  with a gurgle, and leaving them with a laugh, to fling itself on fresh playmates that shake  themselves free . . . all was a-shake and a-shiver, glints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble”

You can feel Grahame’s excitement.

The river is inanimate yet it’s alive; ‘this sleek, sinuous and full-bodied animal’ –  it’s beautiful. The river turns this way and that, it takes hold and lets go; it plays, romps and teases playfully like a child. It’s like a sacrament, an outward and visible sign of some inward and spiritual grace, the grace of pure joy. Its properties mediate something divine – is it the beauty of holiness? Grahame sees and hears in the meandering waters of a river, in its inexorable course to the sea, a description of the passages our own lives take.

Speaking of the mystical properties imputed to water; when the Spanish first sailed into the Chesapeake Bay, for its expansiveness and the sense of sanctuary it conveyed, they named it, The Bay of the Mother of God.

Holy Water is not confined to churches. God includes it as a part of nature’s largesse.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

 

Better Kind than Right by George Merrill

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“Sometimes it’s better to be kind than to be right; we do not need an intelligent mind that speaks, but a patient heart that listens.” So, said Gautama Buddha over 2500 years ago.

Buddha once said that everything changes; I believe there are a few things that don’t. Kindness is one. I learned this over fifty years ago in the school of hard knocks.

In my professional life as a clergyman and educator, I served in various hospitals as a clinical supervisor for clergy and religious professionals performing pastoral care. My task was to provide seminarians and clergy of all denominations a hands-on experience ministering to people in various kinds of personal crises. The settings I served in were general hospitals and a state-run drug dependence rehab facility.

Student pastors and clergy would spend summers as a part of a chaplaincy staff, like interns, and minister to the patents. Each encounter they had with patients would be written up and a verbatim account presented to me as their supervisor. We were exploring listening skills and helping develop a deeper sensitivity to how people behave in crisis and how we can be most helpful.

In short, these were supervised opportunities to deepen the student’s awareness of listening and how it can grow into the art of hearing.

Hearing is not as easy. In fact, many students were alarmed at the discipline required to simply hear what others were saying. In the normal course of our communications, we are typically forming what we are going to say next even while the person we’re with is still talking.

In the various kinds of psychotherapy and in the practice of spiritual direction, an expression emerged, first in psychiatry and then in general counseling; “Listening with the third ear.” It’s a special kind of listening.

The reason we have trouble hearing is fairly uncomplicated. We spend our days with an agenda. I’d go further and say, an agenda every minute. It varies with what we’re about at that moment, but once our agenda is established, we don’t surrender it easily. And then too, people in crisis often don’t get a good hearing because their suffering evokes so much anxiety in the listener that he or she can’t wait to change the subject. Perhaps the most common response to someone’s painful suffering is to issue reassurances or try to encourage the victim not to complain, but to look on the bright side of things. It’s a form of being in control.

For a person, hungry to have their struggles taken seriously, premature reassurances are the most effective ways to shut significant communication down.

Empathy and compassion are not hot items in today’s world. We’re more inclined to respond to someone’s pain with “get over it” than by just sitting still and listening.

In the modern sense, listening with the third ear is a little like Buddha’s timeless observation twenty-five hundred years ago about kindness: better to be kind than right. Folk wisdom teaches us that no one really likes a know-it-all with the exception of the know-it-all.

The various schools of psychotherapy and the disciplines of spiritual guidance require a mode of thinking different from what we are accustomed to. The end of both disciplines is not so much problem solving, but heightened awareness. The heightened awareness is only the instrument in helping to solve problems. Advice in both disciplines is used sparingly, if at all.

I have my own story going from listening to “hearing.” It was a shocker.

I am a young, newly ordained priest. I’m two years out of seminary. I want to help people. I have completed my internship in Clinical Pastoral Education and am reasonably well equipped to do good in this world. To put it more succinctly, I’m full of beans and, as beans go, they are good beans.

A woman from my parish in Connecticut was hospitalized in a psychiatric hospital called the Institute for Living. I was told she had a ‘nervous breakdown,’ the kind of catchall lay diagnosis popular during the early sixties.

I receive a notice she wants to see a priest. I eagerly go to perform my pastoral duties.

I knock on the door. The woman takes a while, but finally opens the door. I see that she looks distressed, maybe angry or depressed, but I am not certain. She is dressed fashionably and has a veneer of the upper echelon of old Connecticut families, many of whom are parishioners where I serve. I do not know her.

I introduce myself saying that I am the chaplain on call and understand that she wants to see a clergyman (it’s ‘man’ in those days.) She looks at me skeptically for a moment as if she were trying to figure out just what to say. I am a good listener, or so I think, and I give her the appropriate time to tell me more if she chooses to. I wait eagerly.

She speaks.

“You know, this is the fourth time I asked to see a priest and now you’re here, about a week late.” She is angry. I am intimidated and a little antsy about just how to handle it.

I immediately respond with a profuse apology saying among other things that the schedule at the church just before Easter was hectic and many things had been delayed and I’ve been behind for a week as a result. I assure her I came as soon as I was able.

For a moment she is silent, as if digesting what I said. She then looks at me conspiratorially as if she has a secret to reveal. With a beatific expression on her face accompanied with a steely voice she asks me if it would be all right to tell me something personal in the strictest confidence. I assure her what she says will be confidential. In a voice void of emotion, she says; “You know what you can do with your busy schedule, your church duties and your Easter obligations? Stick it up *+#@.”

How do I sing the Lord’s song in this strange land? This is alien turf for this young and unseasoned clergyman.

I am floored, completely blindsided. I momentarily freeze. My words stumbling, I offer a lame apology and suggest I might come another time. To my eternal shame I remember saying “When it’s more convenient.” She replied, “Don’t bother, you’re too busy.” I am shaken.

After I left, I wrote up an account of the visit and took it to my supervisor, Al, a kind and gentle man. We processed the interview together. He chuckled good naturedly and helped me see what had happened. I had simply not heard, or more accurately didn’t want to listen to the rage she had for feeling so discounted and abandoned by the clergy. She wanted to vent on me and I didn’t want her to. I tried to talk her out of her feelings by elaborate explanations and apologies. It was my way to be ‘right.’ To her credit, she’d have none of it.

I have no way of knowing whether the great and venerable Buddha ever faced a whopper like this. but I do believe if he did, he wouldn’t try to get in the right by justifying himself with excuses; I imagine he’d say nothing. He’d just be kind and unruffled, look at her with soft eyes, listen attentively while breathing deeply.

Always best to be kind than right.

Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.

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