Uncle Billy

It’s been a hard year for our family.   I have mentioned my uncle Warren, my mother’s brother, who passed away around New Years, and my father’s sister, my aunt Norma, who passed away in December.  My dad also lost another brother, my uncle Billy, earlier this year.

If uncle Warren was tough and strong, uncle Billy was always sentimental.  One early memory I have of him is at a family picnic.  He plucked a leaf from a tree and held it up to the sun and admired it’s intricate design.

“How could anyone say there is no God,” he marveled, “and look at this?”

We had family reunions in May or June, and a lot of my early memories run together.  It was always at a park and everything was green.

I was in elementary school and had read something in a Sunday School paper explaining the concept of the trinity using the concept of water existing in three forms: vapor, ice, and liquid.  The analogy is not very accurate, not very profound, and probably subject to heretical interpretations–and I can’t say it made a profound impression on my own life.  It was just something I had read as a child and was able to quote without investing much thought.

At one of the family gatherings Uncle Billy was in one of his contemplative moods, wondering about the mystery of the Holy Trinity.  I said, “Oh that’s easy, it’s just like water …”  It must have made more of an impression on him than on me.

That was over forty years ago, but Uncle Billy remembered it throughout the years.  He would point out to other relatives that when I was only a child I explained to him the mystery of the Holy Trinity.

Uncle Billy served a career in the army, living many years in the Philippines.

One of my other early memories–I think I was in the sixth grade at the time–was when my uncle Raymond was killed in a truck-train accident.  It was during the Vietnam war.  He was 23 years old and had been injured in combat and returned home to recuperate.  It was in May and he had gone into town with a friend to buy strawberries for his mom.  Evidently they didn’t see the train.

Raymond was a twin, uncle Robert is still living.  They were my dad’s two youngest brother, Billy was next.  He was stationed overseas when the accident occurred.  I remember standing outside the church with the family waiting for him to arrive.  The army flew him there in a helicopter, which landed in the grass outside the church.  I still remember seeing him in uniform with tear-stained face as he emerged  beneath the whirling blades.

My dad’s family were all brought up in the church and always believed in God.  A few years ago–it’s probably been twenty, time passes so fast–uncle Billy was in town and called me.  He had become convinced of his need to receive believer’s baptism and asked me to do the service.

The last time I saw uncle Billy was at a family reunion, it will be two years this June.  He was suffering from congestive heart failure and very weak at the time.  But he was glad to be surrounded by his family, and we were all glad to see him again.  He was reminiscing about his father, whom he called “the greatest man that every lived,” and about his brother and other relatives who had gone on, and about the little boy that explained to him “the mystery of the Holy trinity.”

Uncle Warren

My uncle Warren passed away on (or near, my memory is not perfect) New Year’s day this year.  He had suffered a serious heart attack a few days earlier and declined to have bypass surgery.  He died at home with his family near.  His grandson Jeffery kept a vigil at his side during his final days.

Our family always pronounced his name as one syllable–“Warn”–that is the Ozark dialect, I suppose.  I was pretty old when I realized he had the same name as president Warren G. Harding or the actor Warren Beatty.

Uncle Warren reminds me of the cowboy philosopher in Tom T. Hall’s song, “Faster Horses”–except that he didn’t care much for cows.  Or maybe Clint Eastwood’s character in “Gran Torino”–except that he didn’t use such offensive language, at least in polite company.  He was a tough man; you wouldn’t want to pull a knife on him in a dark alley.

He had faced several hardships in life.  He and my aunt Betty lost twin girls at birth and then later a son, my cousin Jeffery, who was I believe about six or seven when he died from an illness.  Jeffery’s was the first funeral I remember attending.

In more recent years Aunt Betty was disabled with Alzheimer’s disease.  She died a year or two ago in a nursing home.

I visited my cousins at the family home a day or two after Uncle Warren’s death.  He wasn’t really a farmer (or a cowboy) but lived in the country.  I noticed the absence of coon hounds, something that had always been a feature at his place.  Mary Lynn reminded me that he usually had a few beagles around as well.

He spent several hours nearly every night following his hounds through the woods.  He told me last year he thought those nightly miles of walking was probably what helped stave off diabetes–the family curse–until he was in his seventies.  (Most of us develop the symptoms much earlier.)

I used to think it was a cruel pursuit–hunting animals for their fur–though I did tag along one night years ago and can testify to the thrill of following the bay of the hounds through a moonlit woods.  I changed my opinion somewhat when Margaret (our friend who keeps us supplied with fresh eggs from happy, free-range hens) told us about a coon that got into the chicken house and tore the heads off of a dozen or more hens.  Raccoons can be pretty cruel themselves.

I did enjoy some good conversations with uncle Warren in the last few years.  He always enjoyed kids (he showed it by teasing us when we were young), especially his grandchildren.   He remained close to his sisters and his kids, my cousins, Charles, Mary Lynn, and Rhonda.    I regret that he won’t be able to take our grandson Elijah fishing some day.

Fathers and Sons

The readings for this Sunday include the parable of the Prodigal Son, which along with the Good Samaritan, is one of the two best known parables in the Bible.  These two short stories are part of the greatest story ever told, the story of Jesus.

Together these two parables sum up what Jesus was all about–reconciliation between father and son, brother and brother, sister and sister, national enemies, and all broken human relationships–and at the same time reconciliation of sinners to God, the hope of unconditional love–and the life of love, showing compassion for a stranger, taking a risk to show compassion to one in need.

One thing puzzles me.  These two stories are found only in the Gospel according to Luke.  How could the other two evangelists have missed them?

I don’t have the answer, but maybe the other evangelists knew of the stories and understand them better than we do.  Maybe they found them too shocking.

Scholars tell us the cultures around the ancient Mediterranean were “honor and shame” cultures–as if there are any cultures that are not motivated by honor and shame.

(Maybe we are getting close to it–the deposed governor of Illinois was not bashful about appearing on David Letterman last week.)

It is plain enough that the prodigal son had disgraced his family.  He forced his father to liquidate the assets of the family farm so he could travel to a far place to find himself.  And when his money and friends ran out he found himself feeding pigs–some job for a nice Jewish boy–and lusting after the pods they fed on.  So when he gets desperate enough, he remembers his father is a generous man.  He’s willing to go home on probation, work as a hired hand.

Hadn’t the father ever heard of tough love?

Instead of accepting the offer of probation, the father loses all his dignity, runs to meet his son, and throws a party for him like he is some kind of conquering hero returned from war.  Can you blame the older brother for resenting the whole scene?

I think of another father in the  Bible who had two sons.  David’s son Amnon developed a sick obsession with his half-sister Tamar, lured her into his room, and raped her.  Then he hated her and sent her away.

Absalom, her full brother, waited to see what the king would do.  David evidently felt he had forfeited  any moral authority with his sons.  He was furious–but did nothing.  Absalom let his outrage simmer inside for two years.  Then he invited all his brothers to a sheep-sheering festival, where he had Amnon murdered.  David was again furious and Absalom went into exile for three years.

David was finally persuaded to allow his son to return.  He was allowed to live in Jerusalem, but David refused to see him.  Finally after another two years David allowed a formal reconciliation with his son.

The formal reconciliation was not enough for Absalom.  Again he allowed his rage to simmer until he found the opportunity to lead a rebellion against his father.

Our children break our hearts.  A broken heart can heal by hardening or by remaining tender.  People who have been deeply wounded can become bitter or sweet.  Most fathers are more like David than the father in Jesus’ parable.

Aunt Norma

Our family lost my aunt, my father’s sister, Norma Snowberg, passed away this week.  The family has asked me to have the services Tuesday, December 22.

Aunt Norma was a strong woman.  There was never any doubt as to where she stood on any issue.  She grew up in the depression, the oldest sister in a large family.  She learned responsibility early, taking care of her younger sisters and brothers.

She married young; she and uncle Monty were both teenagers.  In fact, he told me they had to drive to Missouri for the wedding, because he was too young in Illinois.  I can imagine if you asked her why they married so young, she would have said,

We were in love, we had found our life partners, and we didn’t have any reason to wait.   When you find the love of your life, you get married.  When you get married you stay married.

I don’t think she would say people who have made a terrible mistake should stay married.  But she and uncle Monty were both committed to the marriage and to each other.  They loved and respected each other.  They moved forward and never looked back.

He was drafted within a few months after their marriage.  The expected draft was another reason for their early marriage.  If he didn’t come back, they would rather have a few months together than nothing.  They had 65 years together.

She found a church and became an active member wherever she lived.  I think she might also say,

If you believe in God, you go to church.  If you go to church, you support the church and do your part.

My cousins say there mom liked order and rules, but she also believed in freedom–she never liked to see an animal in a cage or in chains.  She was a housewife, homemaker and mother.  She enjoyed those roles and put all her energy and creativity into fulfilling them.  She was a modern woman, though, she would never expect the younger generation to be confined to traditional roles.

Uncle Monty was a home builder.  Aunt Norma took an active interest in his business.  When they came to visit us in Memphis about ten years ago, she had me drive her around the new construction sites to check out the work there.

I always enjoyed hearing stories of my elders and ancestors from her.  I will have to call on my cousins now to fill in any of the stories I have missed.

More than a Peck

I think I picked quite a bit more than a peck of peppers to pickle and freeze.  Our chili pepper patch was pretty prolific this summer.  They are still coming on strong, but we just missed a hard freeze last night and may have one tonight, so I went out today in the chilly wind to pick chili peppers.  I picked more than three bags full, leaving just a few small ones in case it doesn’t freeze and we have a few more days of warm weather.

It’s satisfying to enjoy the year’s final harvest, but  sad too.  This marks the official end of summer for me.

I would have posted a picture, but Sonja has my camera in Arkansas.

By the way, I’m still buying Iwig milk.  If you live in NE Kansas and drink milk, look for it.  It’s worth it and the dairy needs the help.

Separated by Circumstances

Sonja has gone to take care of her mother in Arkansas.  She took a leave of absence from job here; she is working part time, two days a week, there.  She is also enjoying spending time with our niece and nephew, Kayla and Justin.  Sonja and I are separated by circumstances, not separate in our affection for each other.

I keep thinking of the Ray Charles song–it has nothing to do with our family; this is not our story–but still the words come back:

Tell your mama, Tell your pa,

Gonna send you back to Arkansas,

Hey, Hey, tell me what I say . . .

I am going to see her, and my mother-in-law and other relatives, this weekend.  I have a day off Monday.  Tuesday I have only one class and I will conduct it online this week.

I haven’t posted in a while because I have been otherwise occupied.

I have been listening to the debate about health care–well, I would like to call it a debate; a conversation would be better–but really it has been mostly name calling and finger pointing.  But that’s a different story.  The issues that should be being discussed are not just abstract issues for us.  We are confronted with them every day.  We are making real-life health care decisions based on medical, economic, and family realities.

Haskel’s Passing

My father-in-law Haskel passed away last night around midnight–the same night Senator Ted Kennedy succumbed to his illness.  I will be traveling to Arkansas for the service this weekend.

Haskel was Sonja’s step-father.  Actually Maxine and Haskel started dating about the same time Sonja and I did.  They were married a few months before we were.

He had been advised of his choices for care in his final days, and he received good care.

Sonja and her sisters are with Maxine now.  I will be traveling with our two daughters to the memorial service.  Our youngest daughter Heidi was able to see Haskel this past weekend.  She had made the trip with Sonja, and they returned back in the wee hours of the morning Monday.

End of Life Choices

My mother-in-law and father-in-law both have chronic lung disease.  They smoked during all those years when the big tobacco companies were able to produce scientists who denied any link between smoking and lung disease.  My mother-in-law doesn’t always get her medical terminology right (my parents don’t either–they are from a generation that left those things up to the experts).

Recently she told my wife, her daughter, “I’m in the hostage program.”

Sonja corrected her, “You’re in the hospice program, Mom.”

When I saw Maxine last month she told me,

“The doctor gave me two years.  But the good Lord will take me when he’s ready.”  I agreed with her on that.

Maybe my wife is being optimistic, maybe she’s in denial, maybe it’s her experience working in medical records and her familiarity with how medicare works–but she doesn’t take the two years too literally.  She says that prognosis is routinely given for patients needing hospice care, because it is required by medicare.

I still agree that it is in the Lord’s hands.  Maxine’s condition is serious.  She is on oxygen and breathing treatments, and she will never regain the lungs of her youth.  The home health visits, treatments, and meals provided in the hostage–I mean hospice program–are a real blessing.

At some point my in laws were counseled about their options.  A nursing home was one option; the home health care provided by the hospice visits was a better one for them.  They might have wishes for later about what type of resuscitation measures would be used when the time comes.  They will need council and advice from a health professional they can trust.

One of the many proposals that was being considered by congress in the current health care reform legislation was a provision to reimburse doctors for providing this type of counseling.  Opponents of the president interpreted this to mean that he was advocating euthanasia.

I think we do have to be vigilant and consider unintended consequences and possible misuses of any new legislation.  But there is a difference between vigilance and paranoia.  President Obama has not proposed euthanasia as a cost saving measure.  It is not part of his program of health care reforms.  (More from the NY Times.)

Nevertheless, we won’t have to worry about it.  The few senators who had suggested reimbursing professionals for end of life counseling have dropped the provision from their proposed bill.

Watching Trains

0tracksWell, we didn’t exactly pitch a wang dang doodle (lyrics to the song here), but we did have a pleasant family gathering at my house yesterday to celebrate Father’s Day and our daughter-in-law Sarah’s birthday.  Of course part of the celebration meant playing with our grandchildren.  We took them to the swimming pool, and the play ground, and we let them ride their little electric car and tractor.

But one of the kids most enjoyable pleasures is watching trains.

If you go east about three blocks from my house, the road will dead end before the railrood tracks.  Or, if you look south from my front yard through a clearing in the trees you can see the same track about the same distance as it bends around.

Elijah is three now and Ari is one.  For about a year when Elijah has been at our house every time he hears the train whistle, he will come get me and we will run out to the front porch to watch the train.  Or sometimes, if my pickup truck is parked in the right spot, we can sit on the tailgate and see both spots on the track.

I remember last summer when Elijah screamed, like it was an emergency, “Grandpa!”  and I came running from the other room to take him out to watch the trains.  He is a little more subdued now, but he still likes to watch every one.  A couple weeks ago when he was with us for the weekend, just before time to go home we heard one more whistle.  He looked at me, then thought for a moment and said, “We can just sit here in the living room and listen.”  Then he thought for a second or two more and took my hand and led me back out to the porch to watch.

Now Ari is watching the trains with us too.  If I don’t pick her up and carry her out, it will break her heart.  I can’t hear the trains whistles now without thinking of the kids.

Of course train whistles are famous in country music for having a sad lonesome sound–and sometimes I get a melancholy feeling, wondering if the day will come when the kids will lose their innocence and enthusiasm.  It’s hard to imagine a sullen thirteen-year-old getting excited about a railroad train.  But not all teenagers are sullen all the time; I’ve met a few cheerful confident adolescents.  And most of the others grow out of it.

Then I think of the day in the future, when Elijah and Ari will have children of their own.  Maybe they will come visit me; maybe I’ll be in a wheelchair, but they will push me outside to watch the trains when they hear the whistle.

In Memory

My aunt Alice pass away this morning, a few months after being diagnosed with cancer.  My mother and their youngest sister were with her when she passed.

My mother has lost three sisters younger than her (all to cancer), a younger brother and an older sister to heart attacks.  My mom herself is doing fairly well after having bypass surgery just before Christmas.

They used to all get together when one had a birthday–it reminded me of Job’s children in the Bible.   My mom now has one sister remaining in the Kansas City area, one in Chicago, and a brother in Cabool, Missouri.

Aunt Alice was unlucky in love, betrayed by two men in her life.  In between the two brief, unhappy marriages she raised a learning-disabled son, our cousin Brian.  Her life wasn’t easy; yet, she always seemed cheerful; she was always fun loving.

She was a believer and follower in Jesus.  As our family celebrates Good Friday and Easter, we will remember the promise, “This day you will be with me in paradise.”

Free TV

So, they found a way to send the television signal over the air instead of through a cable.  Who’d have thought it–wireless TV!

I’m walking through the parking lot of Big Lots and this guy steps out of the shadows beside a van and says,

“Hey buddy, let me show you something.”

“Sorry, I don’t need any gold chains.”

“No, no.  How’d you like to watch TV free?

“No way!”

“Yea man.  You just plug your antenna into one of these little converter boxes, and you’ve got instant Hi-Def TV.  And you don’t have to pay nobody.”

“Oh sure, and next you’re gonna tell me it’s all legal.”

“Look, these little boxes normally sell for $50.00 bucks, but I’ll let mine go for $29.00.  It’s the last one, and I’m willing to take a loss so I can go home and watch I Love Lucy with my kids.”

So I tried it.   I went to Radio Shack and got an antenna and spent the day Saturday finding the best spot to place it on my roof, ran the cable into the converter box, and then into the TV–and sure enough–free TV.  My wife was able to watch the Wildcats pull off an upset victory in overtime while I was ratcheting down the final bolts for the antenna mount.

So here I am, in Wabaunsee County, surrounded by the Flint Hills, channel surfing with 9 channels and no cable bill.

Full Moon Over the Fertile Crescent


Klint sent this picture from Iraq.  The moon was the closest to earth that it has been in several years last week.  We made sure our grandson got a good look at it.  He has been a fan of the moon since he was one year old.

Two New Voices

I’ve discovered two new writers today–new to me that is, but I may be reading what they have to say.

Stephen C. Rose wrote a book in the sixties called the Grass Roots Church, and more recently Abba’s Way.  He agrees with me–or maybe I agree with him; he’s been around longer–that we need to dethrone the automobile and build liveable, walkable local communities.  He thinks we need to invest in this kind of future rather than merely rebuilding the car-co-dependent infrastructure and bailing out Detroit.  (More here)

Christen Day is the author of Democrats for Life (review here) and executive director of an organization by the same name (website).

Shameless Commerce Division

abby-set-1OK, I don’t usually do this kind of thing here–but my daughter is selling some handmade original artwork photo greeting cards on ebay.  If you are interested, visit the LINK.

Soldier and Mom

Our friend Margaret passed on this exchange of emails she had with her son Klint, who is stationed in Iraq, regarding the election of Barack Obama as our next president.

Mom to Soldier the day after the election


I got your message yesterday evening on my cell phone voice mail.  Did you send it on Tuesday?  Anyway, good to hear your voice!

Don’t know how you feel about the elections, but I am so excited, I could “pee my pants” so to speak.  I’m so tired of “Old white men” running the country  This is an incredible breath of fresh air.  Hope Obama lives up the my expectations!  What a chance for change!  Feels like the 70’s!

Love, Mom

Sweet Lectures

Soul Tsunami

Soul Tsunami

Leonard Sweet was a guest lecturer on our campus the past two days.  Last night he spoke on facing storms.  He said the only way to survive a “perfect storm” is to head straight into it; ships that hug the harbor get smashed to pieces.

He wrote the book Soul Tsunami, by the way, ten years ago–before most of us had heard of the word Tsunami.  It was before the tragic Tsunami that hit Indonesia the day after Christmas in 2004; he was not trying to capitalize on that tragedy.

Sweet also said during a storm you have to throw excess cargo and baggage overboard.

I’ve been thinking lately about excess baggage, superfluous stuff.  I have stuff that I’ve saved because I might need it, but I can’t use it because I can’t find it among all the other stuff I’ve been saving.

Of course, there are other kinds of baggage besides physical stuff.  There is emotional baggage, there are activities which may be good–but you can only do so many things without crowding out other things.

This is the year I’m trying to lighten my load.

Keeping a Perspective

In about a week I will be casting a vote that will influence this boy’s life, one way or another.  What kind of world will he grow up in?  Of course, many other factors will affect the world he grows up in, besides the election.

Hiking on the Konza Prairie

Hiking on the Konza Prairie

I may not post as often as I otherwise would, because I am trying to keep a perspective.  There are many important things in life.  Last weekend we went for a hike with our grandson on one of our favorite places, the Konza Prairie.

Taxman (Voodoo Economics -4)

No one likes paying taxes–even the Beatles had a song against the “Taxman.”

Yet, someone has to pay for the services government provides.  Voodoo economics has waged a war against taxes for nearly thirty years.  It is now considered unpatriotic to pay taxes.  Taxes are called a penalty for success.

The rich should pay more taxes because they have more money.

The rich also benefit more from the services government provides.  The largest recipient of tax money is the military.  The armed services protect us all, but oil companies, power plants, and large corporations have more assets to protect than I do, so they should pay more for the protection.

A curious thing has happened over the last twenty to thirty years.  States have turned to gambling–first lotteries, then dog and pony races, now casinos–as an alternative to taxes.  Conservative, pro-family religious leaders used to campaign against gambling, but they have focused their energies on other foes while the gambling lobby has slipped in the back door.

In Wyandotte County, where I grew up, there is an abandoned dog and horse track.  When lotteries failed to raise enough revenue the state legislature bet on race-track betting.  The track is now grown up with weeds.  After the failure of the state-sponsored horse raises, a NASCAR track was built, not to bring in gambling money but to attract those who are genuinely interested in the car races.  Around the track a shopping and restaurant district has sprung up and the economy has been revitalized.

Now plans have been announced to build a casino overlooking the race track.  I am afraid the casinos will bring crime and drive out the good restaurants and shops; but maybe not.  Whether gambling brings any general prosperity or not, we know it will bring bankruptcies, divorces, and suicides. So great is the aversion to raising taxes that our leaders are willing to pay that price.  I’m betting the casinos will turn out to be a losing proposition.

Income Redistribution (Voodoo Economics -3)

In spite of the claim by advocates of Reaganomics that “the rising tide raises all ships,” the poor and middle class have seen their incomes fall during the recent economic boom.  Several policies of the “Reagan Revolution” have led to this kind of income redistribution from the poor to the rich.

The War on Unions:  Corporations are organized and the power structure is centralized; and in an economy with any substantial rate of unemployment, they have a tremendous power advantage.  Organizing and representation gave some power back to the workers.  During the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s union membership was strong enough to create a healthy middle class.  Even non-union workers benefited from the prevailing wage standards negotiated by the unions.

While many city and state governments during this period were rife with corruption, no one called for the abolition of government.  Yet anti-union forces used the fact of corruption in union leadership to discredit the concept of collective bargaining.

One of Ronald Reagan’s first acts as president was to destroy the air traffic controllers union.  Reagan had a legal and public opinion advantage in that the controllers were public employees and their strike was illegal.  Still, it was an impressive victory; people thought it couldn’t be done, because the air traffic controllers were a small corp of highly trained professionals, and the nation’s airline industry depended on their work.

The victory over this professional union emboldened private employers to break unions.  Frank Lorenzo took over Continental airlines and used the bankruptcy courts to cancel that airlines union contracts.  Now after more than thirty year of union-breaking activity, the percentage of employees in unions has fallen to 12 percent, down from 12.5 percent in 2005. Those figures are down from 20 percent in 1983 and from 35 percent in the 1950s.  (NY Times)

One union that remains strong, the teacher’s union (the NEA) is the constant target of attacks from conservatives, including candidate McCain.

Exporting Jobs. Under “free trade” agreements, factories have been closed and jobs have been shipped overseas.  According to Jim Webb of Virginia,

Because of a perverse part of our tax code, moving manufacturing plants overseas is actually a profitable exercise for companies that wish to avoid paying corporate taxes (Roanoke Times).

Much of this “free trade” is hardly free or fair.  Countries such as China are unencumbered by enforceable environmental or child labor laws.  We export jobs to China and they export smoke and smog to California.  Further, many other competing countries have national health care, in effect subsidizing one of the highest costs American manufacturers face.

The result is that the ratio of the pay CEOs receive to that of average workers has skyrocketed in comparison with our own past history and international standards.  In 2007 the compensation for top executives “averaged 344 times the average U.S. worker’s pay. Thirty years ago, the ratio was about 35 to 1″ (Kansas City Star, Thursday, Sep 25, 2008).

“According to The Wall Street Journal, in 2006, the CEO to average worker pay ratio was 11 to 1 in Japan, 15 to 1 in France, 20 to 1 in Canada, 21 to 1 in South Africa, and 22 to 1 in Britain” (Pepperdine).