May 26, 2024

I’d like to begin on this Memorial Day weekend by sharing with you a treasure from my computer files. It’s excerpts from an email I received from my father many years ago before his death:          “Nearly three quarters of a century ago,” he wrote, “my country needed me in its war and I spent a significant amount of time away from my wife and two babies.  As it happened I was sent to the U.S. Navy for duty in the Pacific theater.  The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor remained in the forefront of our minds, enabling us to shoot at incoming planes with no thought of the human beings flying them.  If such a thought happened to cross our minds, which rarely happened, we quickly dismissed it because we weren’t shooting at people, we were shooting at ‘Japs’ who were our mortal enemies. . . .

“When I was discharged and back home I discovered that I had become a man with a different world view.   I saw war – all war – as insanity!  The essential element in the making of a warrior is dehumanizing the ‘enemy,’ thus removing the guilt (or at least providing a self-justification) for taking the life of another human being . . .

“All this fits together and makes perfect sense to me – but there remains hidden somewhere in the back of my mind the lingering memory of my very small part of WWII, and the emotions I both carried into it and those that persisted.  The realization of this ‘moral contamination’ hit me years later.  My son, a baby I left behind, grew to be a man who chose a career as a U.S. Naval Officer.  In the course of his duties he was stationed in Japan and he served as secretary to the Commanding Officer of the Pacific Fleet.  He did such an outstanding job that he was awarded a medal by an admiral of the Japanese Navy.  He sent me a photograph of the admiral pinning the medal on him.  To say I had mixed emotions would be an understatement.  I felt all the fatherly pride one would expect but the ambiguity came as I realized that the man decorating my son was a man I would have been happy to shoot down less than three decades ago – and that he would have been delighted to blow my ship out from under me.  That’s the ‘moral contamination’ I spoke of.

“Even today, in the twilight years of my life, I carry the scar which at times only lightly covers the emotional knee-jerk . . . of [is it] racism?” he asks.

“I hope not,” he continues, “though I have come to understand that such concepts are not as clear cut as most people would like to make them. . . . I grew up in a culture which I later recognized as racist but which at the time I accepted as normal. . . . [but] the major part of my adult life has been involved with interracial activities.  I only wish and pray that before I die I might know the freedom from the intrusive remnants of my childhood.”

Well, that was quite an email.  My father has been many things to me: an authority figure, a source of dependable encouragement and guidance, even a friend.  But, in what he referred to as “the twilight years” of his life, he inspired me with his continuing quest to learn and grow.

My granddaddy used to say that if frogs had wings they wouldn’t bump their rear ends so much.  There are great numbers of us who feel like frogs from time to time, and we’re getting pretty tired of scraping our rear-ends.  We are painfully aware of the vast distance between who we are and who we wish we were – between who we have become, and who we were, perhaps, intended to be.  At times it can almost bring us to tears.

I’d like to address a question that has been on many of our hearts from time to time: Is it really possible to change when you’ve spent a lifetime being who you are?  Can something within ourselves actually call us beyond ourselves?  Can there be something in the nature of things that transcends the nature of things?

I want to stand next to Nicodemus and nod my head in impatient agreement as he asks Jesus, “How can anyone be born after having grown old?”  I’m not all that confused by what Jesus means when he says, “You must be born again,” but I still share Nicodemus’ question.  Even if Jesus is speaking metaphorically (as he was inclined to do), doesn’t Nicodemus still have a legitimate complaint?  If a change in one’s life so volcanic, so immense, as to be compared to rebirth is to come about, how can that possibly happen to someone who is old, battle-scarred, and set in their ways?  We know how it works: you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

Jesus rather artfully pushes aside our folk-wisdom, and offers a door to understanding the unimaginable through a couple of plays on words.  The first one has to do with the words “born again.”  The Greek phrase gennethe’sai a’nothen can be taken in two different ways.  It can mean born anew (as the Revised Standard Version translates it), or born from above (the translation opted for by the New Revised Standard Version).  The second play on words employs the Greek word pneuma which is regularly used to mean both wind and spirit.  Jesus says, “The wind (pneuma) blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit (pneuma).”  In both cases (“born again” or “from above” and the “spirit/wind”), a concept that transcends human experience is tied to an image that is commonplace in human experience.  Certainly, birth is a vivid and familiar image; being “born from above” is anything but!  Wind is heard and felt daily, spirit is transcendent.  These words have two meanings: one ordinary, one extraordinary.  Now, the larger point Jesus is making is that somehow the ordinariness of life can be infused with extraordinary power.  That which is above can live in us.  The transcendent power of Divinity is not under our control, but manifests itself, like the wind, if it wills and where it wills, surprises us, and transforms us.  This is elegance.  This is high poetry.  The very words chosen, and the hidden play on words they contain, carry the deepest meanings of the larger message.  In fact, that same poetry is woven into the very fabric of creation.  Life, even at its most mundane, is nonetheless infused with the miraculous ability to transcend itself.

Barbara and Bill Myers, in their book, Engaging In Transcendence, describe the first attempts of their ten-month-old daughter, Melissanne, to walk: “Grabbing a table leg [she] determinedly pulls herself upright.  Both her legs are shaking, but she won’t allow herself to slip back onto the floor.  Supporting herself as she moves, hand over hand, around the corner of the tabletop, Melissanne conveys a sense of great seriousness, even as she looks toward her mother, who is seated some distance from Melissanne’s last available handhold.  Chewing her lip, but keeping one hand upon the tabletop, Melissanne stretches toward her mother until, for the briefest of moments, she hesitantly stands alone.  Tumbling down, Melissanne chortles with glee, grabs the nearest table leg and once more pulls herself upright, ready to repeat the process.”1

Their daughter’s story is compelling because even in as simple a thing as baby steps there is a universe of wonder. What keeps us reaching for the table leg, reaching for the smiling visage waiting across the room?  What is it that tells a child to keep reaching when she keeps falling?  We have a thirst to be more than we are perhaps because we are compelled by that which is beyond us.  And perhaps in that invitation lies a power for change, for transformation, that is beyond our comprehension.

Joseph Campbell relates a marvelous story from the life of Carl Jung.  Jung was counseling a young woman who was resistant to his psychotherapeutic interventions because she was so rationalistic and “impeccably geometrical” in her idea of reality.  Jung writes: “I was sitting opposite her one day with my back to the window, listening to her flow of rhetoric.  She had had an impressive dream the night before, in which someone had given her a golden scarab – a costly piece of jewelry.  While she was still telling me this dream, I heard something behind me gently tapping on the window.  I turned around and saw that it was a fairly large flying insect that was knocking against the window pane from the outside in the obvious effort to get into the dark room.  This seemed to me very strange.  I opened the window immediately and caught the insect in the air as it flew in.  It was a Scarabaeid Beetle, or common Rose-Chafer, whose gold-green color most nearly resembles that of a golden scarab.  I handed the beetle to my patient with the words, ‘Here is your scarab.’  The experience punctured the desired hole in her rationalism and broke the ice of her intellectual resistance.  The treatment could now be continued with satisfactory results.”2

Was the beetle’s appearance at the window a “bit of good luck,” as they say, or something more?  Whether one regards it as some sort of divine intervention or simply regards Dr. Jung as one who used his powers of perception and creativity to the fullest, the truth is that a woman was there seeking to be more than she was, Jung was there reaching for whatever he could to make a difference, and something burst into this therapy session from outside and changed everything.  The truth is: something is always bursting into our lives and relationships from outside.  It might be a phone call, or a beetle at the window, or a sentence in a book, or an email from a father.  What matters is that when it comes, we are found reaching – still reaching, no matter what our age.

So, on this Memorial Day weekend I’m thinking about my father. I’m still proud of him.  He reminded me that what is glorious in a human being, at any age, is the dependably surprising “spirit-wind” that comes from – who knows where – maybe from “above,” maybe from something being “reborn” within us, but moving us forward deliberately, persistently . . . like baby steps; tumbling and falling, as we will, but always reaching – confident that that which is more than we are is reaching back.

1 Barbara K. Myers & William R. Myers, Engaging in Transcendence: The Church’s Ministry and Covenant with Young Children, Pilgrim Press, 1992.

2 Joseph Campbell, The Portable Jung, Viking Press 1971.

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