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Archive for May, 2011

Its interesting how as one ages you realize how many various cultural customs you have observed.  Years ago at the Wesleyan Church in Covina, a young man died from AIDS, for which there was no cure 20 years ago.  Jose was buried at Rose Hills Cemetery by his loving family.  After all the goodbye messages had been preached or said, Jose’s casket was lowered into the grave.  Then friends and family gathered around, picked up handfuls of dirt, and threw them down on the lowered casket.  Some threw the dirt hard like they were angry, others quietly let the dirt slip between their fingers and drift down.  No need to say, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust” here.  The message was made visible.  But I thought that only happened in the movies!

In this desert area, when a friend or family member dies and funds are limited and often insurance is non-existent, a new American custom often takes place, the Funeral Car Wash.  These car washes are very similar to the ones you see in back of high schools where football players and cheerleaders raise funds for their activities.  A couple guys stand out on the curb with big signs and give shout-outs to passing cars:  “Car wash!  Car Wash!  Car Wash!”   But here the signs can also say, “R.I.P. Pedro.”

Today on the way home from church I stopped at Pedro’s Funeral Car Wash.  Pedro died yesterday in his battery powered wheelchair when he was hit by a speeding car.  According to the Desert Sun his nephews jumped into a car and sped off in pursuit, also calling 911 for help.  Soon the perpetrator stopped his vehicle and took off running, only to be caught by the cops.  Just like in the movies.  But Pedro died later at Desert Regional from his injuries.  Just like in real life.

After leaving in my clean car, I began to reflect on what had just transpired.  Nephews and nieces, neighbors and friends of Pedro had just participated in a modern ritual.  But they came out in black t-shirts instead of wearing black arm-bands like folks did traditionally.  The Funeral Car Wash has become a way to express anger at what had happened, while at the same time giving them a chance to experience distress and loss together, in community.  Working out in the hot desert sun can drain anger away!  I am sure that those six or seven folks that surrounded my Mustang had the opportunity to tell some funny stories about Pedro and to share a chuckle.  We members of the larger community who never knew Pedro were also able to participate in a sort of wake, by getting in the car wash line.  His family must have had some moments of appreciation for all the community support.  Years from now those participants will drive by that gas station and remark, “That’s where we did the Pedro Funeral Car Wash.”  And memories about his life will live again.  May Pedro rest in peace and may God bless the Car Wash.

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I recently encountered one of the challenges of technology.  I had printed out a mapquest itinerary to the town of Encinitas, north of San Diego.  But at the last minute on the road I switched to my new built-in GPS on my Sync system.  The map and guide was telling me one thing and that voice on the GPS, coming down from the sky, was giving me another route.  I have found both to be a little off in the past but it really got confusing when I started following one and then changing to the other.  Bad decision.

I think life sometimes resembles that dilemma.  Common sense tells us one thing.  Family might tell us another.  Your pastor tells you something altogether different!  Then there is that “inner voice” out of the sky!  Just like learning to trust your GPS, is the voice reliable?  Is it right or wrong?  Is the inner voice an imposter, like the Evil One?  With good results in the past, have you learned to trust the inner voice?  If your voice is giving you a suggestion for a major life change, you might want to discuss it with someone who understands how to discern voices.  Note that insane people hear voices all the time!  If the voice is telling you to hit on your friend’s wife, you had best fall back on what you know is right or wrong and just skip the voices.

Possibly the best thing to remember is that just because one follows the inner voice doesn’t mean everything is going to be wonderful.  St. Paul followed the inner voice, only to be killed by the Romans.  St. John Crysostom preached the inner voice and as a result, he was exiled.  The idea that everything is going to be wonderful and successful and will result in you being wealthy is a modern American heresy.  Following the inner voice might be scary but it does make life worth living and a bit more exciting.

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It was an honor this morning to join 60 others on a bridge over I-10 outside Palm Springs, large flags waving, to welcome home about 250 Vietnam veterans who are participating in an annual pilgrimage called “Run for the Wall.”  Vets across the country form up in groups and head for the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington and the Memorial Day parade.  As the lines of bikes flowed beneath the overpass, I understood that for many this is their “Welcome Home” they never received, years ago.

Yesterday I went up to Ontario to find my cousin Arnie Swift who participates in this pilgrimage every year.  He rides all the way out here from Kansas City to help organize and facilitate these groups that make the journey, also serving both as a chaplain and a motorcycle mechanic.  His group of about 300 were starting in another entourage as they can’t get too large…can you imagine 600 bikers pulling into a gas station to fill up?  All across the U.S. as their bikes thunder, they are greeted by folks who appreciated their service.  Other vets join them as they come through their home towns.  Can you imagine driving under bridges across the country with folks out there cheering you on?  I understand in some mid-western towns they even fix them a lunch!  Nice “Welcome Home” but 35 years late.

You grasp the tight family these guys have formed, which is not unlike other folks who feel some kind of kinship, whether it is faith or color or ethnicity.  For these guys it is from having a shared experience.  For those of you under 50 who did not experience the national trauma during that war, it was unlike anything our history has observed.  Lyndon Johnson’s war had become increasingly unpopular as the number of casualties grew.  We were fighting in a place that few cared about, against a people who never attacked us, with a lot of troops who didn’t want to be there in the first place but were drafted.  Often the troops were the small town kids, farmers and city ghetto dwellers, since rich kids were often exempted by being able to afford college.  (That was one of the biggest mistakes this country ever made!)  The opposition was joined by the Hollywood elite, unlike World War II where many in the film and entertainment business were in the war, with some never coming back.  So on the backs of these kids, often 19 or 20 years old, rested not just the jungle fighting but the conflict tearing up the nation.  In some places when these weary kids came home, they were called “baby killers” and some were even spat on.  Though such horrible experiences maybe were not widespread, the fact that they happened are a shame on our history.  Not a great welcome home, 35 years ago.

I wanted to add a paragraph about Jane Fonda, but I get so angry even all these years later, that I don’t think it would be worth stirring up the bad taste in my mouth.  If any of you younger folks don’t know about how her actions resulted in the beatings and deaths of young Americans who were prisoners of war, let me know and I will send you the sad stories.   In the meantime, just avoid ever spending money on one of her movies.  Wars are always full of heroes and villains but the heroes are usually welcomed home.  The heroes who are getting their welcomes over the next weeks are just getting it 35 years late.  And the 55,000 names on the Vietnam Memorial Wall, of those who came home in body bags, caskets or whose remains were never found, or were “Missing in Action” are still remembered, 35 years later.  May our history books speak well of them.

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