Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Soldier’s Bible

I recently lost another friend from my old Episcopal parish. John went home to Rhode Island nearly two years ago to look after his stepmother during her recovery from an illness or surgery or something. While he was there, he was diagnosed with cancer of the bone marrow. He went through three rounds of chemotherapy and was optimistic about his chances for recovery, but he didn’t make it. He never returned to DC.

A few months before John departed for Rhode Island, his roommate had a stroke, which left the right side of his body paralyzed. He now lives in a nursing home not far from their old apartment, which has been unoccupied for some time now. On Saturday he took me to the apartment to begin looking through John’s things. I returned on Monday and spent the whole afternoon in John’s room. At his roommate’s urging, I claimed some books, graphic novels, CDs, videotapes, and DVDs for myself (John and I had a lot of overlapping interests and tastes). I also set aside a few liturgical books for his roommate (some of them were probably his anyway). And I filled three boxes with the rest of his Bibles, books about scripture, prayerbooks, hymnals, books on liturgy, and miscellaneous books of theology and devotion. There are lots of other books, including several shelves of science fiction paperbacks, that are still there waiting to be dealt with.

One of the books I found was a 1942 Gideons’ edition of the New Testament and Psalms (KJV, naturally). It was apparently intended for soldiers. In the front, on a page facing a color image of the U.S. flag (48 stars), was this letter:


January 25, 1941

To the Armed Forces:

As Commander-in-Chief I take pleasure in commending the reading of the Bible to all who serve in the armed forces of the United States. Throughout the centuries men of many faiths and diverse origins have found in the Sacred Book words of wisdom, counsel and inspiration. It is a fountain of strength and now, as always, an aid in attaining the highest aspirations of the human soul.

Very sincerely yours,

Franklin D. Roosevelt.

On the following pages were the Lord’s Prayer, five pages of “Well-Loved Hymns” (Onward, Christian Soldiers; Jesus! Lover of My Soul; Lead, Kindly Light; Abide with Me; Rock of Ages; How Firm a Foundation; Nearer, My God to Thee; Now the Day Is Over; and the Doxology - “Praise God, from whom all blessings flow”), and two “National Anthems” (America - “My country, ’tis of three” - and The Star-Spangled Banner). At the back of the Bible was a page with this message:

Your Chaplain
Look up your chaplain at the first opportunity. Your welfare is his first concern, and you will find him friendly and helpful at all times. His counsel and advice will guide you in avoiding or overcoming difficulties. In many ways you can help him in his services for others. A close friendship between and chaplain and his men preserves and promotes a fine spirit in any service unit.

I wonder if such straightforward Presidential commendation of Bible reading would still be permitted by the courts today. Would the Gideons even be allowed to give soldiers a copy of the New Testament? When I was in fifth grade, the Gideons gave everyone in my school a copy of the New Testament and Psalms (and maybe Proverbs too). I’m pretty sure that is no longer allowed.

Friday, March 21, 2008

A River Runs Through Lent

Last week was the first week of Lent. (Those of us who follow the Julian Calendar are running five weeks behind the rest of the world this year.) All week, wherever I turned, I kept running into river imagery.

On the weekdays of Lent, the Byzantine lectionary gives us Genesis and Proverbs. On the first day of Lent, we begin with the first chapter of each, and we work our way through both over the next six weeks. I read Proverbs last year, so this year I’m reading Genesis. Once again I came upon Genesis 2:10: “A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers.” I lingered over the image, and it remained with me in the following days.

Last week’s tothesource column was a critique of Richard Dawkins’ condemnation of the politically incorrect God of the Old Testament. (Bottom line: Dawkins elsewhere describes the world as indifferent to good and evil; this leaves him no basis for condemning God or anything else.) The article cited Dawkins’ 1996 book, River Out of Eden, whose title is an obvious reference to the Old Testament he now so despises.

While doing some number crunching, I listened to The Turning, the 1987 album by Leslie Phillips (who later re-christened herself Sam Phillips). This album was her first collaboration with producer (and later husband) T Bone Burnett. The first song on the album is Burnett’s “River of Love,” which begins with the line, “There's a river of love that runs through all times.” The line itself winds through the song like a river, repeated before each verse and again at the end of the song. The song’s three verses are about different sorts of rivers – rivers of grief, tears, and fire, respectively. Each of these rivers is evoked in detail, unlike the river of love. Yet, when each verse ends, the river of love is still flowing. As if to reinforce the song in my mind, I heard it again the next day on Burnett’s own self-titled album of 1986.

The boom box on which I listened to these CDs at work is showing its age. Before I can play a CD, I need to hit the play button repeatedly for a minute or two. Recently, while waiting for a CD to start playing, I have been working my way through Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao Te Ching. Chapter 34, which I read last week, begins with the image of the Tao as a flooding river. It flows everywhere, nourishing all, yet without exalting its own role.

Upon creating man, God placed him in Paradise, which was watered by the river. After our first ancestors’ expulsion from Paradise, their descendants clung to the river, eventually spreading south into Mesopotamia along two of the river’s branches. Though they were deprived of Paradise itself, they still had the river that had sustained their life in Eden. Though fallen, they were not deprived entirely of God’s love for them. Likewise, as we work our way through Lent, continually reminded of our fallen state, we are nourished by signs of God’s love, flowing through it all.