Friday, May 28, 2010

Decoration Day

Thoughts from last year... This is Memorial Day weekend. My daughter is two years out of high school, but I've fond memories of her participation, as a member of the high school band, in the Copley, OH Memorial Day parade each year. The parade ended at the Copley Cemetery and its impressive veterans' monument. The cemetery was bright with flowers and American flags. In my hometown, Vandalia, Illinois, the "avenue of flags" is a striking reminder of veterans' service.

When I was a kid, the holiday was always “Decoration Day.” We picked up Grandma at her old farmhouse then backtracked on Route 185 to the turn off to the Pilcher Cemetery. I was told that one ancestor, Winslow Pilcher, had owned the land first but that another ancestor, Josiah Williams, formally deeded the property as a cemetery. The graveyard was located in a bright meadow surrounded by thick timber. A single massive oak stood in the clearing. We saw no houses and heard nothing except sounds of nature, our own voices, and the slam of the trunk as the grown-ups removed the “decorations” and then placed the flowers on the grave of my grandmother and other relatives.

My grandfather’s red granite stone read, CRAWFORD Josiah 1886-1954 Grace 1890- . To each side of the stone are the graves of my great-grandparents, John and Susan Crawford and Albert and Abbie Pilcher. Grandma and my parents decorated these graves. I was usually more interested in the older section of the cemetery. A new stone, so plain and solid, seemed less interesting to me than an old, leaning marker which carefully tallied the person’s exact age at time of death and contained odd names like Comfort, Alonzo, Mortimer, Elvina, Reuben, Ulysses, Tabitha, Jahiel, and Eudoxy. A few of the old stones had fatalistic inscriptions, like the epitaph of Moses Cluxton, Sr.:

Remember, friends, as you pass by,
As you are now, so once was I.
As I am now, so you must be.
Prepare for death, and follow me.

Others had more explicit promise of Heaven:

The rose may fade, the body die,
But flowers unmarked bloom on high
Beyond the land of sinful powers
Our son is safe in Eden’s bowers.

The stones had extremes of brevity and wordiness, from the most basic inscription (“J A T 1835”) to a hymn carved upon my great-great-great-uncle David Washburn’s stone:

When Jesus comes to reward his servants
Whether it be noon or night
Faithful to him will he find us watching
With our lamps all trimmed and bright
Chorus [sic!]
O can we say we are ready Brother
Ready for the soul’s bright home
Say will he find you and me still watching
Waiting waiting when the Lord shall come.

The cemetery was a place of lonely peacefulness. Each year, the adults interrupted that peace with remarks about the peacefulness, about how long that tree must have been growing there, about how badly Cousin So and so misses his wife (who’s buried over there) when we last saw him at the grocery, about why Cousin Such and such hasn’t been out with flowers because she’s usually decorated by now, about how old Grandpa would’ve been (“196- minus 1886 is ___ so he’d be ___”). Sometimes we’d arrive in time for a trustee’s meeting beneath the oak and the grownups would talk about how much mowing costs had been last year, what kid was going to be around this summer who could be counted on to do trimming and … on and on. Mourning doves made their haunting call.

We weren’t the only “decorators” of course. Someone usually placed flags on the graves of veterans. Two were Civil War veterans (one a casualty at Vicksburg according to his stone). Josiah Williams was a Mexican War veteran. On the east side of the meadow, a small flag decorated a plain rock. “So and so knew who that soldier was,” a cousin told us wistfully—“so and so” being another cousin who had long since passed away.

My mother is very elderly and in a nursing home. She wonders who is decorating at the cemetery. Albert and Abby Pilcher had only one child, and so they’ve not many descendants in the area. With such mundane things as a bouquet of artificial flowers or a $1 American flag, we could show departed loved ones that we still cared and remembered. Decorating was no casual thing.

Here are my relatives buried in Fayette County, IL who were war veterans. Off the top of my head:

My dad, buried in the South Hill Cemetery in Vandalia, in World War II.
My great-uncle Ed Strobel, buried in the Ramsey Cemetery, in World War I.
My great-great-grandfather George Washburn, buried in the Bolt Cemetery near Ramsey, in the Civil War.
My great-grandfather John Strobel, buried in the Ramsey Cemetery, in the Civil War.
My great-great-grandfather Josiah Williams, buried in the Pilcher Cemetery near Brownstown, in the Mexican War.
My great-great-great-grandfather Winslow Pilcher, buried in the Winslow Pilcher Family Cemetery near Brownstown, in the War of 1812.
My great-great-great-great-grandfather James S. Carson, buried in an unknown location in Fayette County, in the Revolutionary War. His name appears on the bicentennial monument, honoring him and other Revolutionary veterans, at the Fayette County Courthouse.

I'm leaving out other uncles and cousins on both sides. John A. Wakefield, an early Fayette County pioneer who married my great-great-great-great-grandfather Henry Brown's niece, led troops in the tragic Black Hawk War of 1832 and wrote an 1834 history of that conflict. He's buried in Kansas.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Memory Lapses

Some reflections from Springhouse magazine... The other day I read an essay called “If Memory Doesn’t Serve” by the contemporary writer Ian Frazier (in Susan Orlean, ed., The Best American Essays, 2005 Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005, pp. 56-61). He writes that he confuses certain names in his memory. For instance, he thinks “Roger Moore,” the James Bond actor, when he means “Michael Moore,” the activist filmmaker, partly because Michael Moore once made a film called Roger and Me about the CEO of GM, Robert Smith. Frazier says that he confuses actors Jennifer Aniston and Sarah Jessica Parker, and also Fernando Lamas and Ricardo Montalban. He knows the difference between these people but admits that, when we’re adults, the memory is less sharp than when we were younger. Yet our memories are increasingly filled with miscellaneous information.

We all have similar memory lapses. (Frazier writes that he’s sometimes introduced as “Ian Fleming,” the James Bond author who died years ago.) Corresponding with a friend, I referred to the poet Robinson Jeffers but I wrote “Richard Jeffries,” who was a 19th century nature writer. I don’t confuse Jennifer Aniston and Sarah Jessica Parker, but I do confuse Parker and several other actors: Sarah Michelle Geller, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Juliette Lewis, and Jennifer Love Hewitt. I know the difference, but I don’t follow movie stars closely and I have to think a moment who’s who. Similarly Colin Firth, Clive Owen, and Colin Farrell. Wait … Which one was in Girl with a Pearl Earring? … No, not him, he was in King Arthur with Keira Knightley …

Speaking of … Briefly I confused Keira Knightley, Natalie Portman, and Giada DeLaurentiis. I sorted out those folks, though. Whew! I’d been perplexed why Natalie Portman of Star Wars fame was on Everyday Italian. But I still become confused which of these 1980s sitcoms is which: Family Ties, Family Matters, Full House, Facts of Life, and Growing Pains.

When I was in high school and college in the 1970s, several musical groups went by three-part names. There was the Marshall Tucker Band, Ozark Mountain Daredevils, Pure Prairie League, Atlanta Rhythm Section, Black Oak Arkansas, Ten Years After, and a few others. (I'm leaving out Grand Funk Railroad because they were a favorite and I didn't confuse them with other groups.) A song comes on the Seventies radio station…. Okay, which of those groups is this one?...I’m stumped for a while, as I am with some of the soft-rock acts of the same era, like England Dan and John Ford Coley, Hamilton Joe Frank and Reynolds, and Air Supply. Who did Don’t Pull Your Love? Who sang Love Is the Answer? Give me a minute

My daughter used to love a cereal, Kellogg’s® Honey Nut Clusters®, which features a cartoon squirrel on the box. When she was little, she referred to the brand as “Squirrel Cereal.” So one day I shopped our local Walgreen’s and realized I needed to buy cereal and other grocery-type items. As I scanned the shelves, a clerk asked me if I needed assistance. I froze, and then I laughed and explained to the clerk that my daughter wanted a certain brand but I couldn’t remember the actual name. All I could remember was “Squirrel Cereal.” Fortunately I spotted a box on the shelves, saving me a little dignity.

Sometimes I’ll stand in front of twenty undergraduates and, for fifty minutes, talk to them about, for instance, the Civil War. I do this without notes and without much previous review. I’m no expert on the war, but I’ve done this lecture enough times that the facts return to mind right away. So …why do I have to daily place my car keys in the same location, religiously, or else I’ll lose them?

Speaking of students, one time I greeted a student as she came into class. “Hi, Robin!” I said. She looked at me and said, “Professor, I’m not Robin, I’m ….” (Here we go again, I’ve forgotten her name!) I realized that “Robin” was the young woman who sat beside her. Ever afterward I can picture Robin and … Not-Robin. More importantly, now I’m always a little careful when I call on students, especially early in the semester; do I have their names right? (I’ve fifty to seventy students each semester, so the process of names-learning takes a little time.)

The memory lapses that infuriate me are the times when I remember to do something, but at an inopportune time to write myself a note. Hey, I gotta write that person a letter … but at the moment, I’m tooling down the interstate and everyone is speeding along, and I don’t dare take my eyes off the road … maybe I should buy myself a tape recorder… or it’s three in the morning and I’m too sleepy to get up … or I do get up and write myself a note, but I can’t read what I’d written while half-asleep. Remember to [illegible] Tuesday!!!

Another thing that I do, a common lapse: I’m in one room, and then I go into a room to retrieve something. But once there, I’ve forgotten what I came for. I have to return to the other room to remember. I suppose that’s a good way to get exercise.

My cat wanders into the kitchen. What goes on in her brain? How much does she remember? She knows what the sound of a can opener means, even though we’ve not fed her canned food for a long time. Maybe cats remember very little, or a lot. They certainly don’t have much on their to-do lists. Sleeping, licking, eating, sleeping … was I supposed to sleep on the sofa before I slept on the recliner, or vice versa? I suppose the upside of faulty memory is the richness of our lives that includes many interests and experiences, even those they become jumbled in our minds.

Not only that, but what a relief we feel when the ol’ memory clicks into place! That misremembered fact, that forgotten location, bring such happiness when they come to mind! Now I can drive to work without a note pad in the adjacent seat. Now I can call that person by her correct name, and watch movies without confusion. I know I’m not senile after all. I can eat my squirrel cereal in peace.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Bible Walk Ons

Some thoughts in a similar vein as the previous two posts.

I’ve a genealogical chart, purchased on eBay® a few years ago, that is filled with biblical names. The chart is “The Adam and Eve Family Tree” published by Good Things Company (Norman, OK, 1975), published “to improve the reading and understanding of the Bible for the glory of God.” The chart color-codes all the twelve tribes of Israel. Jesus is the last name under the tribe of Judah, and Paul is mentioned with the tribe of Benjamin. Incredibly, the names are quite readable and are expertly arranged so that everyone fits onto a 24x36 chart.

I love looking at this chart and figuring out who’s who. Under the genealogy of Esau, there are listed several “dukes”: Duke Nahath, Duke Zerah, Duke Shammah, Duke Mizzah, and others. “Dukes”? That’s the KJV rendering; the RSV translates the title “chief” and the NRSV as “clans” (Gen. 36:15-19).

I call these kinds of people “walk ons.” They're the Bible people who are only mentioned once or twice, with or without an accompanying story. Hundreds of names fill the book's pages.

Not all the Bible’s walk ons are obscure. A while back, our pastor preached on Exodus 1:8-2:10; every time he mentioned the midwife Puah (Ex. 1:15) I thought he was saying hoo-wah! But those midwives (the other was Shiphrah) have a notable part in the biblical drama. We all know the story, even if we don’t recall their names.

The Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40) figures in only a few verses but he certainly becomes an example of how the Holy Spirit networks people; Philip came along right when the Ethiopian needed him—and they were near water for baptism!

Melchizedek’s original story is limited to three verses (Gen. 14:18-20), but what an amazing walk on! The author of Hebrews uses the king-priest Melchizedek (and the absence of a genealogy for him in a genealogy-filled book) to develop a theology of the eternal priesthood of Christ (Heb. 7:1-17).

The Queen of Sheba, too, has a surprisingly small role (1 Kings 10:1-13; 2 Chronicles 9:1-12, considering that she’s also mentioned in the New Testament (Matt. 12:42, Luke 11:31), the Qur’an (27:23-44), and is the subject of artwork, music by Handel and Gounod, and many cultural references. The unnamed monarch captured the popular imagination over the centuries.

You might be surprised how little a role Adam and Eve play as named characters in the Bible, although their influence is everywhere present. Unless I've missed some references, I don't think Eve is mentioned again by name in the Old Testament after Genesis 4:1; she appears in the New Testament in 2 Cor. 11:3 and 1 Tim. 2:13. Adam does figure in the Pseudepigrapha and other non-canonical writings.

Can you consider the four horsemen of the Apocalypse a “walk on”? LOL.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Open to One Another

You may be familiar with the stories of Moses’ childhood. Well, then, did you realize that twelve woman appear in the first two chapters of the book of Exodus? I didn’t, and neither did blogger Rabbi Avinoam Sharon at first. Rabbi Sharon writes that, with a moment or two of thought, he can name all twelve of Jacob’s sons from memory (which is better than I can do!). But he had never noticed these several women at the beginning of Exodus.

I looked at the chapters and thought: What twelve women? But they're all there: Shiphrah and Puah (Ex. 1:15), Pharoah’s daughter (Ex. 2:3), Miriam (unnamed in Ex. 2:4, 7-8 and named in Ex. 15:20), Jochebed (unnamed in Ex. 2:1-2 and named in Ex. 6:20), Zippora (Ex. 2:21), and her father Reuel’s other six daughters (Ex. 2:15).

Rabbi Sharon’s point is that, just as we may not notice people in a text when we read too quickly, we tend not to notice each other because we're too busy with other things. Moses, on the other hand, noticed the suffering of the Hebrew slave, and also the injustice of the shepherds at the well (Ex. 1:1-12, 17). (Rabbi Sharon’s blog for January 2, 2005, is broken now but I accessed it in 2008 at

I’m still thinking about that. A few years ago I noticed a certain obituary in my local paper. I lived in a community of about 200,000, small enough to run into people you know, but too large to “know everyone,” as is true in smaller towns. The obituary was a man who worked at a grocery store where I shop occasionally; I’d noticed him collecting shopping carts. He wasn’t very old when he died: mid-fifties. I never spoke to him besides a hello.

I thought about how many people I pass each day who are just “hello” people: always there, sometimes acknowledged, and nameless. I’m certainly a nameless, “hello” person, too, for instance to the folks who work at my local grocery.

John 9 has a story about the man born blind. It’s a familiar story. Jesus heals him, and the rest of the chapter is exchange between the man and the religious leaders who can’t believe he was healed. Their stubborn incredulity is a kind of syllogism: Jesus is a sinner (because he heals on the Sabbath), but God would not empower a miracle through a sinful man, and so Jesus could not have performed the miracle. The religious leaders are stuck in a way that many of us are stuck from time to time: something happens contrary to our expectations and preconceived notions, and we can’t see it or make the mental jump to acceptance.

Have you ever noticed the crowd’s reaction to the healed man? “‘Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?’ Some said, ‘It is he’; other said, ‘No, but he is like him.’” (John 9:8-9). People had seen the man every day as a beggar. But even granting that miracles elicit incredulity, some of the people had not, apparently, paid enough attention to him to know. (A similar story can be found in Acts 3. The man born lame seeks financial help, but apparently he is accustomed to no one making eye contact with him, for Peter and John told him, “Look at us.”)

An indispensable outcome of Bible study is the compassion and kindness that makes us notice one another and care about each other’s pain. Bible reading is interesting and uplifting but if it doesn't help us grow in love, I think we're merely spinning our wheels spiritually. It can be a difficult journey, but we need to be able not to avoid certain kinds of people but to look at them, make human contact with them, set aside our personal pressing concerns for a moment, and inquire about their needs.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Don't Name Your Kid Phallu

An article in Yahoo News ( indicated that currently popular baby names include Cullen and Isabella, inspired by the "Twilight" series. Jacob is still a popular name, as is Emma. Emily has been a popular name, and also Matthew. Around the year 2060, the nursing homes of America will have lots of old folks named Jacob, Emily, and Matthew.

The popularity of certain names change, of course. Mildred, my mother's name, isn't typical anymore, nor the pretty names of her cousins Hazel and Lydia. And yet Emma was common in the 1800s.

If you’re a visitor to old graveyards, you’ll often see interesting names. “Tabitha” (Acts 9:36-42) has the obvious Bewitched connotations, but I’ve a nineteenth-century cousin by that name, buried in our family cemetery. You don’t see many kids named Moses (Moshe, perhaps, the Hebrew equivalent), but a blacksmith named Moses Cluxton, Sr., is interred a few yards away from Tabitha, and near both is an ancestor of mine, named Comfort. That’s a now archaic girl’s name that surely derives from a biblical notion of comfort. Also buried there is the grave of another 1800s cousin, named Cyrene, which though biblical is a place rather than a person (Luke 23:2, Acts, 2:10, and elsewhere).

(On the other hand, I know a place that was named for a biblical person: Loami, Illinois, near Springfield, named for the prophet Hosea’s son (“Not my people,” Hos. 1:8-9). A branch of my family, the Colburns, settled that town in the early 1800s.)

I've found numerous interesting names from the Bible. Although biblical names like Jacob, Sarah, and Matthew are popular these days, other biblical names that you might (or might not) consider for your children include: Dodo (Judges. 10:1), Phallu (Gen. 46:9), Put (Gen. 10:6), Phuvah (1 Chr. 7:1), Muppim, Huppim, and Ard (Gen. 46:21), Anub (1 Chr. 4:8), Koz (1 Cor. 4:3), Ziph (1 Cor. 2:42), Hazo (Gen. 22:22), and Hazelelponi (1 Chr. 4:3). I used to know a girl named Hazelelponi (not really).

The Bible features a few longer names, too: Sennacherib, Maher-shalal-hash-baz, and others which don’t appear in baby name books. (There is the actor and rapper Mahershalalhashbaz Ali, however.) Two other unusual names are the artisans Oholiab and Bezalel in Exodus 31.

I was a long-time user of Aunt Jemima® products when I learned that the first Jemima was a daughter of Job—his second set of children (Job 42:13).

I knew about Salmon Chase, Lincoln’s treasury secretary and later U.S. Supreme Court chief justice, but I’d not realized his name was not only fishy (his own regretful estimation) but biblical: the original Salmon was Ruth’s father in law (Ruth 4:20-21).

If you don't have children but may in the future, perhaps these thoughts will give you some ideas for names. But if you call your kid Phallu or Dodo or Muppin, don't tell them you got the idea from me!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

God's Extravagance

I've a Bible in which I've marked, noted, and underlined different passages. Some of my underlined passages are in Ephesians.

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished upon us (Eph. 1:7-8)… the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints … the immeasurable greatness of his power … the working of his great power (Eph. 1:18-19) … the boundless riches of Christ (3:8)… the wisdom of God in its rich variety… (3:10).

And another passage:

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (3:20-21).

I’ve noted beside 2:10 that the original Greek word for “manifold” (poluroikilos) means “many-colored.” Imagine God pouring his grace, ladling his grace to us in huge, generous servings, and we come back for more and more! Alternately, imagine God splashing us, splattering us with great colorful heaps of blessing. Psalm 23 provides a similar image of abundance: the overflowing cup. What a relief that was to discover: God’s grace is so much more than a warm feeling, so much more than rules to keep. Grace is more than even the help that we seek when we’re desperate: God’s grace is abundance, riches, and excess. Similarly, Jesus promised us abundant life: excessive life, outpouring life.

I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly (John 10:10).

The Greek word perisseia means “abundance” and “overflow.” The word alludes to the feeding of the multitudes, a story which, interestingly, is the only miracle (besides the resurrection) that is told in all four gospels (Mat. 14:13-21, Mark 6:30-44, Luke 9:10-17, John 6:1-13). Other important stories—the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the raising of Lazarus, the angelic appearance to the shepherds, and others—are not similarly repeated in all four. But the prevalence of this miracle alerts us to its importance; the life Jesus bestows is never stingy and grudging, and is certainly never earned.

Part of our spiritual growth is “plugging into” the abundance of God’s grace and finding confidence in the assurance of God’s love, favor, forgiveness, and presence. Just as a child needs demonstrations of love from a parent, or a lover requires reminders from the beloved, so we need expressions of God’s love. Miracles in our lives can serve, but so can certain scriptures, like these words originally addressed to the Hebrews but applied to us, too.

Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.”
(Isa. 43:1b-2)

Here is a favorite verse in Luke:

Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not be afraid; you are you are of more value than many sparrows (Luke 12:6-7).

And these underlined verses:

Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the
child asks for a fish, will give a snake?
(Matt. 7:9-10).

Cast all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you (1 Peter 5:7)

Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Phil. 4:6-7).

For if we have been united within him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his (Rom. 6:5).

I love the story of Peter’s imprisonment in Acts 12:1-17, partly because it gives me confidence amid my own spiritual inadequacy. While he languishes in jail, Peter's friends pray for his well-being. Then Peter is miraculously released. He goes to his friends’ house, but they won’t let him in; they say he can’t be him! Apparently the friends didn’t expect their prayers to be answered! It's true that sometimes our prayers aren't answered the way we think, or we pray and things still turn out badly, or our prayers are answered, but over the long haul. But sometimes are prayers are answered, and we feel startled that God has acted so abundantly! Why would we ever think God counts on the adequacy of our prayers and motives? God can answer prayer in surprising ways in spite of the shortfalls of our belief.