Memorial Day, Past and Present
By Nancy Arbuthnot
Eternal Father, strong to save,
Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who bidd'st the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!
In church on Sunday, in commemoration of Memorial Day, we sang “Eternal Father, Strong to Save.” The original words were composed in 1860 by British Anglican clergyman William Whiting who, having survived a storm at sea, was likely inspired by Psalm 107:
Some went out on the sea in ships; they were merchants on the mighty waters.
They saw the works of the Lord, his wonderful deeds in the deep.
For he spoke and stirred up a tempest that lifted high the waves.
They mounted up to the heavens and went down to the depths;
in their peril their courage melted away. (Verses 23–26)
By the 1870s, the Royal Navy had adapted the poem as a hymn, and in 1879, after a navigation instructor and director of the Midshipman Choir at the United States Naval Academy ended Sunday services with “Eternal Father,” the hymn was adopted by the U.S. armed services. Now it is often sung at military funerals. As a professor at the Naval Academy and also the daughter of a WWII veteran and career naval officer, I have attended several such funerals. Today I thought about those friends of my father and my former students and colleagues who died in service to their country. Today I also pictured myself at my father’s funeral—it’s something that I strangely find myself doing sometimes, though he’s still alive at 95, incapacitated by a major stroke but hanging on, I think, to remain with my mother, his wife of 70 years—tears streaming from my eyes, voice choking as I cry out the last lines.
Just a couple of days ago, I was hungrily anticipating this three-day weekend that typically kicks off summer in the United States, thankful for the extra day that would give my husband and me more hours to complete our long-delayed planting of annuals and perennials, hanging up of paintings still propped up against the wall repainted after last spring’s kitchen fire, and maybe even completing our 2016 taxes. I was also looking forward to a Monday cookout with friends. It wasn’t until Saturday afternoon, when I stopped by my parents’ house for a quick visit between errands, that I actually remembered the true meaning of Memorial Day. Memorial Day traces its roots to Decoration Day, officially established on May 30, 1868 in recognition of those who lost their lives in the Civil War, and a time for decorating the graves of the war dead with flowers. The first large Decoration Day ceremony was held at Arlington National Cemetery that year, and continued to be celebrated at local events until after World War I, when the commemoration was expanded to honor those who died in all American wars. In 1971, Congress declared Memorial Day a national holiday, to be celebrated the last Monday in May. In 2000, Congress passed "The National Remembrance Act" to encourage Americans to pause at 3 p.m. on Memorial Day for a moment of silent remembrance of the men and women who have died for their country.
So after church on Sunday, instead of our usual Sunday walk around East Potomac Park, my husband and I walked along the Potomac and across Memorial Bridge to Arlington National Cemetery. The bridge rumbled with the loud engines of the Rolling Thunder motorcycles. It started to rain. But by now we were committed. At the cemetery, heading for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, we wound up roads alongside green hills covered with row after row after row of rounded white gravestones, each decorated with a small American flag. Despite the crowds, all was quiet except for the soft thud of footsteps. At the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, it was even quieter, the mood solemn and respectful. The guard paced slowly back and forth across the front of the raised tomb. After a few minutes, the changing of the guards was announced, and the guard on duty approached from one side of the tomb, and met his relief, approaching from the other side, directly in front of the tomb. After the first guard turned and marched off, the crowd dispersed. We left too, headed towards the Eternal Flame and the grave of John F. Kennedy, whose 100th birthday we also celebrate today. A semi-circular wall of granite from Kennedy’s native New England half-surrounds the modest burial marker.
Engraved on the wall are lines from his speeches, including these:
LET EVERY NATION KNOW
WHETHER IT WISHES US WELL OR ILL
THAT WE SHALL PAY ANY PRICE – BEAR ANY BURDEN
MEET ANY HARDSHIP – SUPPORT ANY FRIEND
OPPOSE ANY FOE TO ASSURE THE SURVIVAL
AND THE SUCCESS OF LIBERTY
As we lingered at the gravesite, we heard a mockingbird trill a long, ever- changing melody from somewhere in the branches of a large ornamental tree dropping its last blossoms on the stone.
Filled by these inspiring words with a renewed hope for our democracy, my husband and I headed back home in the late afternoon. In my head was the military bugle call played at dusk and at military funerals, the sound that lingered deep into my childhood evenings on California naval bases and echoed down the steps of the Naval Academy Chapel and across the Yard and, on other occasions, across the green hills of Arlington National Cemetery. Although there are no official words to the thirty-four notes of “Taps,” whenever I hear the tune, with my actual, “sensual “ear or in imagination, I unfailingly combine each note with the familiar (though unofficial) and comforting words I learned long ago:
Day is done,
gone the sun,
From the hills,
from the lake,
From the skies.
All is well,
God is nigh.
But the trumpet’s words that I want to end with are the words of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes that I just discovered. In an address on Memorial Day in 1884, Holmes asks that we hear the trumpet’s sound not only as a funeral dirge but also as offering “notes of daring, hope and will,” and that we consider how our dead “still live for us, and bid us think” not of death only but of “the great chorus of life and joy.” This Memorial Day, then, may we remember and honor our dead, but also sing of life.
Poetry Out Loud National Finals
by Gerry Hendershot.
The national finals of Poetry Out Loud are at Lisner Auditorium at George Washington University on Wednesday, April 26, 7:00-9:15. See it at Lisner--no ticket required. Or view the live webcast. For more information on the competition, go to http://www.poetryoutloud.org/
Poetry Out Loud (POL) is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), in collaboration with arts organizations in the U.S. States and Territories. High school student chose poems from a list provided by NEA, and with the help of their teachers, learn to recite them from memory before an audience.
Competitions in the States yield State POL champions, who then compete in the National Finals in Washington DC. The semi-final round narrows the field to three State champs from each of three U.S. regions. Those nine compete for the National Prize of $20,000 the next night.
I attended a regional competition in Maryland and the finals in DC. The Maryland event was held on Saturday afternoon in an austere theatrical practice space in Baltimore. The DC event was on Friday night in the DC government's snazzy cable TV center, and had a club atmosphere, complete with MC, DJ, and colored lights. In both events, the students were outstanding!
The nine finalists competing on April 26 include Amos Koffa, the New Jersey State Champion. See a video performing one of his prize-winning poems here.
Five Mystical Songs: Wiiiam Carpenter Sings
Ralph Vaughn Williams' Songs from George Herbert's Poems
by Gerry Hendershot
A highlight of the Verse and Vision Poetry Festival Concert on April 28 (www.verseandvision.org) will be William Carpenter's singing of a rarely performed piece.
George Herbert was a 17th C. English poet/priest five of whose poems sourced 20th C. composer Ralph Vaughn Williams' song cycle, "Five Mystical Songs."
The best known of Herbert's poems in the song cycle is "Love Bade Me Welcome," which can be read as an invitation to Holy Communion: "Love" (God/Christ) welcomes us, but we hesitate, feeling unworthy; God persists, gently but firmly, telling us we "must sit down . . . and taste my meat."
The text is below, and you can listen to a reading of the poem here, and view a performance of the Vaughn William's setting here.
Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lacked any thing.
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.
Herbert sometimes struggled with his faith (who doesn't?), and Ralph Vaughn Williams is reported to have been an atheist when he composed this piece—he later became "a cheerful agnostic." William Carpenter, who will perform the Herbert/Vaughn Williams piece, may also struggle with his faith, but he now pastors three UMC congregations!
William holds a degree in music education and has taught vocal music in public schools. He has performed with local and regional opera and musical theater companies for over 25 years. He is now finishing an M.A. in Theological Studies at Wesley Seminary, and hopes to combine his passions for music and social justice as he continues to follow Jesus on the Way.
Poems for Lent:
Lectionary Year A
by Gerry Hendershot
In January I attended a Murphy Writing winter poetry get-away week end at Stockton University. Knowing I would be challenged to draft several new poems under the guidance of experienced poets (including Sharon Olds!), I vowed to begin a series based on the Lectionary Gospel lessons for Sundays in Lent.
I drafted several poems that week end, and added new drafts in poetry courses I was taking with Kathy Staudt at Wesley Seminary and Jenny Pierson at American University's continuing education program for seniors. Some of the drafts I shared with adult education classes at the Church of the Pilgrims and Western Presbyterian Church. Recently I have posted some to Face Book.
Below I am sharing the complete set of poems for the six Sundays of Lent (Lectionary Year A). They are in a variety of forms and styles, in accordance with the guidance given by my teachers. They may serve to some as a status report on my journey as a late-blooming wannabe poet, and to others as an invitation to join the journey.
Boy Oh Boy, That’s What I Call Really Famished!
(1st Sunday of Lent)
By Gerry Hendershot
January 15, 2017
He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. Matthew 4:1-11.
There’s a long poem by Robert Pinsky remembering a recently dead poet-friend who was famous for telling Jewish jokes, including the one about the little Rabbi who accepts a challenge to resurrect a dead Chinese man, and spends many hours praying over him, chanting his mystical names, dancing circles around him, and prostrating his body on top of him, all to no effect, and he finally collapses from exhaustion, exclaiming, “Boy oh boy, that’s what I call really dead,” which is what I wanted to exclaim after reading John’s Gospel account of Jesus fasting for forty days (and nights), ending with “he was famished”—a YHWH-sized understatement—but my version would be “Boy oh boy, that’s what I call really famished!” because although you can live for forty days without food, you can’t live for 40 days (and nights) without water, which means that Jesus must have been on a “water fast”—all the clear liquids (water, vegetable broth, pulp-less fruit juice) you can drink, but no solids, and if you’re thinking “Being divine, He could have passed on the liquids too,” forget it, because the early Christians figured out, after debating it for 300 years, that while Jesus was divine, he was also human; but all that’s just prologue to the story I really want to tell, which is about my fast at age 50-something, which goes like this: I was on a water fast for seven days (and nights) and broke it at an Asian fusion restaurant on Capitol Hill, then on the way home, waiting for a train at the Fort Totten Metro Station, I had a syncope (nice word--think “syncopate”-- that means I fainted from low blood pressure), and I didn’t just slump my legs like Raggedy Ann or melt into the floor like the Wicked Witch of the West, but toppled, rigid as a Giant Sequoia, flat on my face, after which I came to in the ER at Washington Hospital Center, where they kept me for two nights of observation and tests, one of which was an ultra-sound of the chest cavity, which was interpreted by a secular first-generation Chinese-American doctor, who scolded me when she learned I had been fasting for religious reasons—extending life being more important to her than entering the Kingdom of God--but she discharged me anyway, as an uneducable Christian fanatic, and maybe I was, judging from the selfie I took when I got home showing the whole left side of my face to be a wrinkled bruise ranging through most of the colors of the visible spectrum, which has been an effective reminder—when I needed one—that my fasting days are over, and a warning to you: follow Jesus's Way, in general, but before fasting, consult your doctor.
How We Transfigured Moses, Elijah, and Jesus
(2nd Sunday of Lent)
Suddenly there appeared to them Moses
and Elijah, talking with [Jesus]. Mt. 17:3
By Gerry Hendershot
January 14, 2017
They stood apart, the three of them,
in cabalistic tryst.
They whispered of the darker days
in each of their careers,
like former Presidents they could
not share with other men.
“The Pharoah's men were after me,
and I was on the lam.”
“And I hid out from Jezebel,
Baal's priests were on my tail.”
“The Pharisees will capture me,
if I go into town.”
Though we disciples strained to hear,
we could not make them out.
Imagining their lofty words
were filled with high intent,
that God Himself spoke through their mouths,
we built them each a tent.
He Said, She Said
(3rd Sunday of Lent)
By Gerry Hendershot
January 14, 2017
Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back
to the town and said to the people. . . John 4:28
She ran into our town that day
and told with rage about
a man accosting her.
“Despite my accent and my dress
he failed to recognize
that I’m Samaritan.
“He said he’d give me water but
but what could he draw it with?
He had no bucket there!
“He probed into my past love life--
as fresh as he could be--
as much as called me whore!
“I told him I know right from wrong,
and said that ‘No’ means ‘No,’
then turned my back and ran!”
We took her word for it, but then
went out to meet this man,
and knew him for himself.
(4th Sunday of Lent)
By Gerry Hendershot
April 2, 2017
He spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva . . . John 9: 6
I take a knee beside the marbles ring--
my Ma will yell at me about the stain.
With fingers chapped by cold of early spring,
I probe the surface, soft from last night's rain.
In cruciform the mibs at center lie--
twelve aggie prizes, multi-colored hoard.
We're playing keepers here--it's do or die.
A whispered prayer I say unto the Lord;
for extra luck I spit upon the clay.
I knuckle down, my taw in tension set.
I take my aim; I hold my breath . . . and play!
Now physics rules our destiny—and yet,
I sense some purpose in infinity
will have its say, will work its way, through me.
[About this poem. "Marbles" is played with spheres (marbles) made of stone or glass and about 0.5" to 1.0" in diameter. "Mibs" are target marbles arranged at the center of a 6' to 10' circular "ring" drawn on smooth, flat ground. A "taw" is a "shooter" marble shot from outside the ring toward the mibs. "Aggie" is short for agate or agate-like material from which some marbles are made. Mibs knocked out of the ring by a taw score points. If playing "for keeps," the displaced marbles are kept by the person whose shooter knocked them out. The person shooting must have at least one knuckle touching the ground, called "knuckling down." Expert players hold the shooter in tension between the curved tips of the thumb and index finger, then propel it by thrusting the thumb forward. Before shooting, players often say a word or make a gesture for good luck.]
(5th Sunday of Lent)
By Gerry Hendershot
April 1, 2017
Having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days
longer in the place where he was . . . John 11: 6
My father died of a heart attack.
I was thousands of miles away
on an airplane flying east toward the States
enroute to a new duty station.
My mother died in a nursing home.
I was thousands of miles away
on an airplane flying west toward the States,
completing a so-called business trip.
My dear wife died in our living room
just a few steps from where I stood in
the kitchen making an omelet for
our daughter, beside the hospice bed.
Does it matter when a loved one dies
if we're by their side or two days away?
Do Rabbits Scream?
(Liturgy of the Passion,
6th Sunday of Lent)
by Gerry Hendershot
April 1, 2017
"Why have you forsaken me? Matthew 27: 46
Below the song I hear
the sacrificial cries.
(Alone, in pain, he cried,
Oh why, my God, oh why?)
At dawn a dog's low growl,
an ice-cold child-like scream.
Caught rabbit, dying now,
in dying finds true voice.
[About this poem. One theory is that song began to mask the cries of sacrificial victims. Listening to music before dawn, I thought I heard screams beneath it, then realized they came from outside, where a neighbor's dog had caught a rabbit. When preyed upon, rabbits scream.]
Kathleen Staudt: Poetry, Scripture, and Social Justice
by Gerry Hendershot
I'm taking a course at Wesley Seminary taught by Kathleen Staudt, "Poetry as Spiritual Practice." Actually, I'm taking it for the second time. Why take it again? Because it's that good! Staudt teaches seminarians (and "special" students such as myself) to read poetry and use it for personal devotions, Bible study, sermon preparation, and pastoral care.
The featured poets in Staudt's course include such historical greats as Gerard Manley Hopkins, but lean more heavily on modern and contemporary poets, such as Mary Oliver, Lucille Clifton, Denise Levertov, Wendell Berry and Scott Cairns. Class members read and discuss these poets in class and online. They also learn some poetry craft by writing original poems.
Of Staudt's several books of poetry, I am most familiar with Annunciations, Poems Out of Scripture. These poems are based on passages from scripture which are conveniently reproduced for the reader. Staudt imagines her way into the characters of in these familiar stories, and shares the raw emotions of their experience, as in these lines from "Thomas" (the Doubter):
The waste of it, to see you subject yourself
To taunts of bigoted soldiers, indifference
Of slimy politicians.
I trusted your strength, and now I am hating,
Hating those who caught you,
Furious with you.
Staudt blogs at prophetprof, where a recent post titled "Praying in Love - a Multicultural experience the day of the Women's March" reports a prayer vigil held by her faith community, the Episcopal Church of Our Savior in Silver Maryland, which had been the target of a racial graffiti attack during the presidential campaign.
Staudt opened and closed the vigil and wrote a poetic litany or prayers inspired by the Women's March Manifesto, including these lines:
Oh loving One, who yearns to gather us together as a mother hen broods over her children: you grieve with those who are victims of violence and judge those who inflict such violence. Give us grace to work diligently for the elimination of all violence, and especially to create a world where all women and girls are safe from physical violence, rape and exploitation. Guide us and strengthen us, O God of love and justice
Kathleen Staudt is one of the featured poets at the Verse and Vision Festival of Poetry on April 28-29. She will lead a poetry workshop on the 29th at the Church of the Pilgrims. Go to the Verse and Vision web site for more information and tickets.