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Hot and dry. More so than usual, that August, along Campbell’s creek in the isolated mountains of eastern Kentucky,which undoubtedly added to the uneasiness among its inhabitants. Already, the drum beat of war was being both heard and felt and the inability to cope with the alarming rumors of a coming catastrophe weighed heavily on the minds and hearts of young and old alike. They spoke little about this to others, hoping by their silence that what they feared would not come to pass.
So it was that one very clear evening toward the end of the month that a brilliant and unusual display of the Northern Lights unveiled those fears so that they now too joined the beating of the drums of war.
“It’s the end of the world,” some cried, while others proclaimed it was the American flag waving in the sky, a dreadful omen of what was to come.
War did come, the end of the world did not and the American flag remained in place. The fears of that generation faded as resolve replaced panic and leaders of integrity with a coordinated purpose , stood firmly together to drive away the noise of the drums.
But not forever. Once again the drums of fear beat loudly across the land. They are heard in a multitude of ways, fanned by the divisiveness of hate and blame and perpetrated by a new kind of leadership that seeks to exploit rather than calm their unsettling sound. So fear now well fanned, like fire licking its way along a hot August day, must find where to land and whom to blame. Conspiracy theories straight out of science fiction and a “deep state” that is waiting to consume us all are fueled by this unfettered fear. Racism abounds, the poor are maligned, armed vigilantes assume the role of “defenders of freedom,” walls are constructed to keep out “freedom seekers” and defenseless children are thrust away, under cover of darkness, from any compassion that would save them all because the drum beat of fear has grown louder and louder.
A deep seated part of the human journey, driven by the conviction that good overcomes evil, is the belief that the ethics of concern for others along with justice and mercy are what binds together the elements of our souls and is the light that returns fear to the darkness from which it came. We must hold to that belief and stand firmly against those who would rather beat the drums of fear than be gifted by the brilliant display of light in a clear night sky.
That is the hope that will drive away the drum beat of fear and keep us securely on the side of the angels.
The 40’s and 50’s were times when Western Ballads and Trail Songs enjoyed popularity as they spoke about iconic themes of the ever present need to act with courage, honor and integrity, else the persistence of evil ways would lead to tragic consequences.
With that courage, Marty Robbins “Arizona Ranger with the Big Iron on His Hip,” dispatched the notorious outlaw “Texas Red” and brought justice to the mythical town of “Aqua Fina”
In a different scenario, like an ancient morality play, Burl Ives gave voice and song to the chilling ballad “Ghost Riders in the Sky” that warned an errant cowboy to “change your ways” else he too would would join the awful band of riders forever “chasing the Devil’s herd across the endless skies”
These ballads were meant to entertain but nevertheless they carried the powerful message that evil ways must change or the consequences would indeed be graphic and forever.
So what, one wonders, would the future generations, the likes of Burl Ives and Marty Robbins, make of today’s evil ways that must be changed? Will they give words and song to the tragic tearing of children away from parents whose only crime was trying to seek a better and safer way of life? Or what about the stifling pollution and change of climate of the planet by forces driven by their economic greed? Will they sing of the massacres of school children, worshippers and those who are just going about their ordinary lives because “the right to bear arms” is more precious than human life? And there is the blatant racism and the hatred spewed towards those who have a different gender orientation and the sexual exploitation of young girls and women of all ages. Will these be the ballads sung around a campfire of the future that tell of the need to change such evil ways or else generations yet to come may also end up chasing the Devil’s herd across those dark and endless skies?
What should be known however is that humanity cannot thrive , or even survive ,where the message is hate and the actions are destructive and where leaders of nations are concerned only with themselves and not the people they are called to serve. Perhaps they should heed the warnings of those “Ghost Riders in the Sky” else they too will ride forever the consequences of their own destruction.
In the early 1950’s a new movie, “Quo Vadis” was released. It was a somewhat romanticized version of real events that took place in the Roman Empire at a time when Christianity was emerging and political intrigue was deepening.The title of the film, loosely translated, means ” where are you going?”
Indeed, where are we going? For all of us, especially our children, how are we shaping, with our policies, beliefs, hopes and fears, a future where life can be lived in a meaningful and satisfactory way? Given the dark clouds of change that threaten access to affordable and reliable health care, draw back support for childhood nutrition and day care, turn a blind eye to the senseless killing of children by the proliferation of guns, dampen the enthusiasm and curiosity for legitimate scientific inquiry and label news that is not liked as “fake”, the answer to the question, “where are we going?’ becomes more urgent with each passing day.
But that question may be the wrong one. More importantly, it is not so much where are we going but what do we want, when and if we get there. For example, what do we mean when we speak of health care that is of high quality and accessible and affordable to all? Do we truly mean “all” or just us? If “all” does that mean a system of payment for medical care and treatment for every single individual regardless of economic status?
And of course there is gun control. Do we really want to put a stop to the killing of innocent children and the ever present fear that surrounds us all by the proliferation of assault weapons? Will we ever have the courage to admit that, yes, guns do kill people, and assault weapons do so in horrific ways and thus demand legislation that ready access to such weapons be stopped?
Do we want to stop the scourge of drug addiction and deaths from overdose by possibly bringing ourselves to think that compassionate rather than punitive ways of dealing with this epidemic might just be more productive and lasting?
With overwhelming evidence that the early years of life shape the future, do we want resources for young children that encourages their development, learning and care for each other? Are we willing to pay, through our tax dollars, generously for this to be the norm for how we value our children?
What about open spaces, clean air, woods and streams and the natural wonders of God’s creation? Do we want to preserve those places, free of exploitation and commercial use? If so, are we willing to influence policy and demand political accountability to ensure that it happens?
Where are we going and what do we want? As long as we remain suspicious of each other, dominated by fear and led by political forces that ignore the common good, we will find it difficult to answer those questions and more often will lose our way in attempting to do so.
Yet, there is hope. That hope. fundamentally, lies in how we find in ourselves the courage and ability for compassion, acceptance, respect and concern for each other and our planet. And that is the theme of the novel, Quo Vadis, written in 1895, which inspired the movie. The author captures the apocryphal story of the apostle Peter fleeing from Rome to escape persecution, who encounters the risen Christ and asks that question: Quo Vadis? Christ answers by saying he is going back to Jerusalem to be crucified again. It is at that point Peter regains the courage needed to turn around , return to Rome, and fulfill his destiny.
So Where are we going? Perhaps it is time we too, turned around and faced, with courage and conviction, the challenges before us. Only then will we define what we truly want and what our own destiny demands of us.
The young teacher stood before his class, giving them what he knew was his last lesson. Very soon, the troops of the regime would come to take him away and he would never return. His only crime had been to instill in the minds and souls of his students a desire to know the value of their being and to seek, in whatever fashion they could, the truth of caring for each other in a fragile world.
The story, titled “The Last Lesson” appeared in an elementary school reader sometime in the 1930s. Perhaps the author was all too familiar with the clouds of war gathering in Europe (for that was the setting of the story) and the repressive and totalitarian governments that were emerging. The story then becomes a statement about not yielding the strength of one’s soul to the oppressive fear created by brutality, greed, power and control. In other words, the story is a message about tending to the soul and its desire to preserve what it was intended to be.
Although written for a different time in history, it could just as easily be set in our own time and place. Throughout the world there is chaos that creates great fear, suspicion of others, a drive for self protection and by the ruthless pursuit of the gods of power. But the story, and our involvement in it, is not about the breakdown of so much in society we have come to believe was safe and permanent. Rather, it is about the resilience of the indomitable struggle of the soul to be greater than the forces that would tear down its resolve.It is about the belief that the environment should be protected, the hungry fed, that health care should be accessible to all, that individuals should be respected for who and what they are and that education should be free to open minds to explore and to think “what if!”
Somewhere in the morass of confusion and chaos that has ensnarled our nation, it is time to listen to the voice of that brave young teacher and therefore tend to the soul that reaches for a more powerful and caring way to live, a spark that cannot be extinguished, a lesson that will never end.
In the late 1950’s, Pete Seeger put words and music to a theme that became a voice for a nation struggling its way toward peace, justice and integrity.
“Where,” he sang, “have all the flowers gone?”
That may very well be an even more fitting theme today as a divided and fear ridden nation struggles once more to find its heart and soul.The question now is can we find once again the music that gave voice to the ideals of youth, and more importantly,find the leaders who will hear our ideals and desire for a democracy that does represent and respond to the needs of all of us. As we enter the final stretch of a negative, rancorous, hate filled run for the presidency of the most powerful nation on earth, the question that confronts us, echoing Pete Seeger’s refrain, is “where have all the leaders gone?”
Where are they, while blasting away at the faults of others?
Where are the leaders who are addressing the fact that 20% of our nation’s children go to bed hungry at night?
Where are the leaders who value justice enough to cry out for a national dialogue to resolve the heated racial, ethnic and gender disparities that are tearing us apart.
Where are the leaders we need who will risk political backlash in a courageous step forward to stem the epidemic of killing and challenge owners, manufactures, dealers and lobbyists of the weapons industry to remember that more guns will not protect us from poverty,guarantee justice, provide a stable and living wage, educate our children or provide safe water to drink.
Where are the leaders who will strongly support basic scientific research that will improve our environment, advance medical care and find answers for both young and old whose minds are confounded by altered thinking and lost memories.
Where are the leaders who both value and support the notion that health care is a basic right and that the strongest nation on earth should make sure all its citizens have access to the medical care they need.
Where indeed, have all the leaders gone?
Will we see our hopes realized by leaders who will re-sahpe the dialogue and turn ridicule to respect and speak loudly that democracy means everyone is welcome at the table?
In a distinctly negative and fearful season, it is time once again for words and music to emerge from the very heart of our existence and sing loudly and clearly “all over this land” that we do believe the leaders are there, willing to risk power and fame to declare justice, respect, equality and hope for all.
They are there, waiting.
It is time they heard the music and become, what they were destined to be, the leaders for whom we no longer search.
Now however, we too wait and hope and wonder. “where have all the leaders gone?”
They sat, cross legged, faces turned upward, their hands held open in front of them. The baptismal font stood above them, sheltering their presence with its invitation to belong.
One eager boy, younger and smaller than the rest, ran to join in for the children’s sermon, then turned back to his mother. Then, just as suddenly, he turned and scooted into place beside a much taller boy. Occasionally, he waved to his mother, seeking reassurance while spreading his smile for all to see. Several times he whispered to the boy next to him who, with a finger to his lips, begged him to be quiet.
The minister, to emphasize the meaning of acceptance and belonging, invited them to dip their hands in the water. Swishing the water around, splashing a bit on each other and themselves, they joined together in play and in ceremony of their own awakening faith.
All except one.
Try as he might, standing on his tiptoes and jumping up and down, he simply was too short to reach the water.
It was then, as if the world in the form of the congregation, stood on the steps of eternity, waiting for a sacred moment.
And it happened.
An older member stepped from his pew, swooped the boy up in his arms and held him so that he too could dip his hands in the water and so that he too could belong.
It was indeed, a sacred moment.
Far apart from this moment, and yet so very close, the world explodes in violence, fear, anger and hate. Political discourse in America’s election year is filled with condemnation, half-truths and spite. In the midst of it all, young children, reaching their hands eagerly to belong, are ignored, or even worse, used as tools to tout a candidates embrace of “family values!”
The real needs of children, should be apparent to all. They should not be murdered, or allowed to unknowingly kill by the ease of access to guns. They should not be hungry. They should not be deprived of day care, school lunch, a clean bed in which to sleep, a safe place to run and jump and play and always they should never be without some one to lift them up and dangle their hands in the waters of a caring world.
In this country, there are abundant resources to make all those things happen. What is lacking in the political dialogue is the will to do so. Until there comes a time when children are valued enough so that they are picked up and carried in our arms of power and concern, we will have to continue searching for the sacred moments that invite everyone to belong.
Their words bounce around, blasting the air like overinflated basketballs, exhorting all who will listen to vote! Choose me they shout, declaring that they and they alone will provide the solutions to all of America’s concerns.
America will be made great again! Our borders will be made safe! Immigrants will be kept out! Big business will be made to pay! The Constitution will be protected! No one will mess with our right to bear arms! Terrorists will be bombed into oblivion!
And so it goes. These words and many more like them, bouncing off the media walls, proclaim to represent the needs of the nation and its future.
What is not being said, however, are the most important words of all. Largely ignored, except for an occasional afterthought, are those who wait in the wings for the time they will move onto the stage of the future and inherit the consequences of words unsaid. Patiently and expectantly they wait. Their hope is that they will hear, in the midst of all the rhetoric, words that will lead to a foundation upon which they may stand that will declare the world they inherit to be habitable and safe.
It is they, our children, who wait.
And why do they want to hear that which is not being said? They wait to hear words of reassurance that they will be safe from the violence of guns; they want to breathe air that is clean and refreshing and they do not want to live on a planet tormented by nature’s wrath as the globe warms to dangerous levels. As they wait to move onto the stage they will occupy, they fidget in anticipation of good schools, enough food to eat and safe and welcoming homes and neighborhoods – no mater what color of skin they have or religious beliefs they hold. When they are sick, injured or in pain, they want to be cared for by systems of care, not buried in debt.
Yes, those waiting in the wings for their time to enter the stage want to hear many things. Thus far, however, they have only heard words that are empty, devoid of substance, and designed to blame, divide and confuse. It seems time that those who seek to be the leaders of today should listen closely to the cries of those who will play on the stages of the future.
It is time to pay attention to those waiting in the wings. It is time to think of our children. For those who choose to do so, it might just be possible that from among them will come the leaders we all need.
From the piped in music at the mall to the sounds coming through the doors of places of worship around the world, the messages of the season are clearly heard. Joyous songs of faith, lilting lyrics with a holiday flair and the ubiquitous accolades to Santa and his reindeer all collide in a tumultuous, sometimes raucous, announcement that, once again, its time to celebrate.
But celebrate what?
Amid the visits with family and friends, the buying of gifts, the feasting, the holiday parties and a few days of well earned rest, is there more? What about that one commonly used phrase “……peace on earth and good will to men…..” Is there something more of the season in those words?
A small sign in the window of a seldom visited business had something to say about peace. “If you want peace,” the words announced, “then work for justice.”
Is “peace on earth” tied to a cry for justice that can barely be heard with all those competing sounds of the season filling the air? And is it just possible that the birth of a baby hailed by hundreds of millions around the world as the “Prince of Peace” in reality is an announcement that there will be no peace unless justice forces its presence into the consciousness of humankind.
Perhaps. But if one chooses to equate the two then there is plenty to do now that will address the birth of every child on the planet.
How about a safe and welcoming place to live, far from the roaring avalanche of the wars that those who never knew or understood justice heap on us all?
A community where all are accepted because that baby whose season we celebrate grew to teach that justice wasn’t selective.
Or perhaps a living wage for work well done so that those who care for the children in their lives can do so with pride and purpose.
Food to satisfy and nourish. Schools where minds are opened and questioning is encouraged. Neighborhoods free from violence and places where the sign “no smoking” is next to the one that says “no guns!” Clean air to breathe and places to run.
Yes, justice means many things for babies to grow and children to thrive if they are to be surrounded by peace.
“Tis then the season to remember once again that peace on earth begins with the children.
In 1958, Johnny Cash sang the iconic ballad, “Don’t Take Your Gun to Town ”
It was the plea of a mother to her son, who, in his bravado, ignored her warning and dies at the hand of someone who was faster on the draw. The ballad ends with the last words of the dying boy…Don’t take your gun to town.”
That was was a theme that found its home in the ’50’s a scant decade after the horrible killing fields of the Second World War as both a warning and a prophecy.
“Don’t take your guns to town, son”
He took his gun to church and nine people died. Some have said that those in the church should have been armed and killed him first.
In a place of peace, in a sanctuary of hope, at an altar of light…..Don’t take your gun to church, son”
He took his gun to school and the innocent children died. Some said the teachers should be armed and so kill him first. “Don’t take your gun to school, son”
He took his gun to the campus and his fellow students died. Some thoughtmore armed guards should have killed him first. “Don’t take your gun to the campus, son”
And so the killing goes on, the guns more easily obtained and the cries of those who mourn, m
And those who lie dying, cry out, “don’t take your guns to town, son!”
Isn’t it about time the killing stopped? Isn’t it time we called forth leaders with the courage to stand against those who live by the gun and cry out: No More?
Isn’t it time to stop taking the guns to town?