Oniontown Pastoral: Wearing Marc Snell on Holy Saturday

Oniontown Pastoral:

Wearing Marc Snell on Holy Saturday

March 31, 2018

I’ve never worn a compulsory smile, so I thanked a Starbucks barista a few minutes ago for the perky expression she is no doubt required to sport. “I know looking happy must be tiring,” I said, “but it really matters. I appreciate it.”

You should have seen the young lady’s wide eyes and pearly whites. No kidding, she parted the clouds on this drizzly day before Easter.

I now have in front of me another dear face, one that I have not seen for fifty years and figured never to see again. I often wear a leather bracelet bearing his name:

SP4 MARC E. SNELL

USA 03 SEP 68 SVN

This soldier, who was killed in Vietnam soon after his nineteenth birthday and a month before I turned seven, accompanies my comings and goings—not as a dark cloud, but as a ray of truth.

Marc E. Snell

The Snells lived two doors down from the Colemans for decades, and the memory of standing on our front porch when word came of Marc’s death still has ahold of me. Even at my young age, I felt all the houses across the street tilt to one side. The fair weather turned surreal, as if warmth and normalcy had no business on Wagner Avenue that day.

I ordered Marc’s bracelet a couple years back and wear him to remind me that a person can be doing nothing much, like consuming C Rations, when an explosion changes everything—fade to black.

That was the story I heard. Marc was eating lunch. I’ve always imagined him still sitting alone, leaning against a tree. His Casualty Data Report doesn’t help much:

Start Tour: Tuesday, 07/23/1968

Cas Date: Tuesday, 09/03/1968

Age at Loss: 19

Remains: Body Recovered

Location: Long An, South Vietnam

Type: Hostile, Died

Reason: Artillery, Rocket, Mortar – Ground Casualty

Strange, I can’t bring into focus a single image of the living Marc Snell. What I do recall is paying respects at Duscas Funeral Home with my family.

“Johnny,” Mr. Snell said. “Come up and see my boy.” He took my hand.

I was terrified. Marc died of a head wound—or so I believed. Would I have to look at something ghastly?

Of course, the casket was closed, and Marc’s military portrait—the very one I tracked down on the Internet—sat on top of it.

“Come up and see my boy.” Decades have passed, yet I never again expect to hear an invitation spoken so proudly. His voice was hoarse from unfiltered Pall Malls and devastation. Nineteen year olds have no business dying.

Only now, with Marc’s portrait in front of me, can I tell how much the son took after the father. In the many Septembers since the Snell’s heartbreak, I’ve held a morbid, though loving, question: “Did Mr. and Mrs. Snell have to look at their boy’s body?” The answer, either way, is too much to bear.

I shot hoops as a teenager in the Snell’s driveway and can name each member of the family: Fred (father), Lillian (mother), Marc, Alan, Mary, Earl and Jane.

Earl and I palled around some. We bought gold Stingray bikes with banana seats on the same day from Kmart. The shimmering memory of riding around the neighborhood together bumps into the wretchedness of a boy’s violent end after only forty-eight days in action. Did Marc have enough time to be afraid?

Tomorrow is Easter Sunday, when “alleluias” will ring out from Christian churches everywhere, including St. John’s Lutheran in Oniontown. You can bet I’ll be wearing Marc’s bracelet. No celebration of mine will leave Marc out in the cold. Inspired by his father’s WWII service, Marc voluntarily enlisted.

Alleluias at St. John’s Lutheran Church

Understand, I’m not gloomy. If you hear a person laughing like a buffoon in public, even-money it’s me, and I make friendly eye contact with strangers, at the risk of being called “creepy.”

The thing is, my joy doesn’t ignore artillery. In the here and now, tombs are overflowing. Marc Snell is in the ground. So, by the way, are his parents and mine.

If I forget Gethsemane and Golgotha, Easter’s “alleluia” is nothing but smoke.

So what have I got to smile about? I believe in wide eyes and pearly whites. I believe that every kid killed in Long An and every other province of Vietnam has been recovered, indeed, once and for all.

I believe that the clouds will part tomorrow morning.

Sunny in Oniontown

 

 

 

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The Counterintuitive Truth About Violence: The Day After Dallas

The Counterintuitive Truth About Violence: The Day After Dallas

Begin with speculation: Why do mass murderers often finish their missions by committing suicide, either by cop or their own hand? Various sources suggest self-loathing, hopelessness, a weird attempt at revenge, and a refusal to endure the consequences of their actions.

All of those reasons make sense, more or less, but this morning, riding out the dismay of yet another mass shooting, another explanation occurred to me.

After you kill people, you are in great measure dead already. Suicide is the end punctuation of the truth.

This basic idea—the violence you do to others returns home to you—is hardly new, but it is so unpalatable, abstract, and counterintuitive that we reject it, if we acknowledge it at all.

The Psalmist writes of his enemy, but speaks a universal reality: “He made a pit, and digged it, and is fallen into the ditch which he made. His mischief shall return upon his own head, and his violent dealing shall come down upon his own pate”(Psalm 7:15-16).

Arthur Conan Doyle certainly borrows from Psalm 7 when his Sherlock Holmes observes, “Violence does, in truth, recoil upon the violent, and the schemer falls into the pit which he digs for another” (“The Adventure of the Speckled Band”).

Buddhist teachings also acknowledge the result of letting yourself be consumed by anger and violence: “By doing [violence] you are like a man who wants to hit another and picks up a burning ember or excrement in his hand and so first burns himself or makes himself stink” (Visuddhimagga IX, 23).

The temptation is to domesticate such wisdom by restricting it only to terrorists and crazies. But anger is wild, violence a delinquent student. And, no revelation here, we human beings can all get pissed and throw haymakers. Who among us doesn’t take life from others, blood cell by blood cell, hour by hour? The unkind word recoils upon the speaker as surely as the shooter is wounded in his own crossfire.

Of course, not all violence is driven by anger. A soldier, for example, might wish to do anything rather than kill. Unfortunately, taking another person’s life, even for a just cause, can still be lethal for the most stable of soldiers. Some in military service die in battle, obviously. Others return home with beating hearts and tortured spirits. From 1999 to 2010, one veteran committed suicide every 65 minutes, 22 of them each day. In 2012, active-duty suicides ever-so-slightly outpaced deaths in engagement (177 to 176).

I regard members of the United States armed forces as heroes. They risk life and limb out of a deep, difficult calling. They carry out orders they may not like in conflicts perhaps troubling to them in hopes of defending their country.

It’s unfair that a noble person can survive a battle only to discover in the aftermath invisible, self-inflicted wounds. A glowing coal doesn’t care whether the hand about to throw it is right or wrong, good or evil. It burns whatever it touches.

I’m prepared to be corrected in my speculations. I’ve never taken a human life. But why did many veterans of my father’s generation remain silent about what they saw and did in World War II? Why was the scorn Vietnam vets endured so personally and spiritually devastating? Why are those serving in today’s military taking their own lives in record numbers?

Because killing kills. Failing that, it maims. The recoil of violence is so strong that even those of us who lash out only in insults and dirty looks bruise ourselves.

The sniper who murdered five police officers in Dallas was killed by a robot reaching toward him with an explosive—the fruit of his evening’s labors. But he was dead already.

And what about the rest of us? Is there any hope of stopping what has become our planetary routine of violence?

My kingdom for selfless love pandemic! But that wish amounts to whistling into the wind. What we have right now is rage, which, though understandable, is not inclined toward the Golden Rule.

Any suggestion these days ends up sounding impotent, but I’ll offer mine just the same: We ought to teach our children right from the start that any blood they shed in this life will generally include an equal share of their own.

TBT: So . . . Was I Right about Iraq?

I’m often slow on the uptake. Facebook friends keep posting photographs with the comment “TBT.” What the hey? Since my policy is not to put much thought into cryptic messages, ignorance has enjoyed its long day. I finally broke the code, but can’t remember how. If ever a brain needed a laxative, it’s mine. A cheap Cabernet may have cleared enough obstructions for the obvious to snap into focus, the way the Eiffel Tower or Sebastian Cabot appear in 3D glory after you zone out looking at one of those dizzying posters that used to populate restaurant waiting areas. (Mr. French may be available only through special order.)

Throwback Thursday! Of course. UrbanDictionary.com updates my revelation by noting that TBT may also indicate Throwback To . . . . So every day of the week we can gorge ourselves with impunity on grainy images of our unfortunate 1980s hairstyles. I love it.

Since I got my hair cut roughly the same way today as I did thirty years ago, I don’t have much to add to TBT in the way of embarrassing photographs. In the process of junk sorting, however, I found an opinion piece I wrote for the Erie Times-News between 9/11/2001 and the U.S. attack on Iraq on 3/19/2003.

This particular TBT is short on humor, but it is interesting to revisit old convictions.

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Sad when your throwback photograph from a dozen years ago makes people say, “Geez, he’s let himself go.”

What would Jesus say about Iraq? (This title and the paragraphing are not mine.)

For the United States, September 11, 2001, was a series of unimaginable sucker punches. In a few hours, terrorists placed on our country’s hearthrug a new reality: the “gentleman’s agreement” as to the rules of war had been altered.

The “enemy” isn’t necessarily a specific country anymore, and rather than sticking their chins out for a retaliatory punch, attackers blow themselves up.

The question is, how should we respond to this new set of rules—or lack thereof? Or more to the point for me, what is a faithful way of responding to terrorism within our borders?

President Bush isn’t hiding his take on the matter. He thinks that the United States, either alone or in cooperation with other nations, should bomb Iraq with the goal of eliminating Saddam Hussein.

I haven’t heard any of television’s talking heads dispute the Bush administration’s claims that Iraq supports terrorism, so I guess if we’re going to wage war on terrorism, Iraq is as good a place to start as any.

My concern isn’t where the bombing should begin, but when it will (or won’t) end.

I don’t pretend to know what course of action will best protect our national interests or rid the world of the fanatical inclination to fly jets into skyscrapers.

Even as a pastor, I don’t know that I could win a theological argument for peace. Many intelligent, scripturally literate people believe that the time for seeking peace with terrorists has passed.

But I do feel increasingly sure about the voice of my own conscience, and the word I’ve been hearing lately is enough.

As I write this, my kids are close by. One is tying up the phone lines by gabbing on AOL, and the other is wearing a pair of goggles and pretending to swim across my study floor. My wife is at a class on home repair. I love these three.

Here’s the deal. If we start down the wrenching, potentially endless path of incinerating the world’s sucker punchers, people every bit as dear as my beloved three would also burn because they happen to be in the way.

Enough! Enough lives lost. Enough grieving. Enough violence.

Like I said, these are only the words of my own conscience. I’m probably wrong and simplistic, but I try to imagine Jesus standing beside me. What would he say? I can’t hear “bomb ‘em” or “acceptable collateral damage” coming from his lips.

What I hear is more like “figure out something else.”

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Grizzled and pudgy, I imagine my beloved grandson under the bomb. I guess I’m parked in the same spot I was years ago.

A Prayer for God’s Children Falling from the Sky

Dear God,

I heard first that 295 of your daughters and sons were killed on the Malaysian Airlines flight shot down over Ukraine today. Now the number is 298. Ah well, three more souls, no big deal.

Gracious One, what’s happening to us? We can’t seem to stop blowing each other up. Let’s see: Amish school girls, Connecticut first graders and teachers, Colorado folks out to catch a movie, and just yesterday, four boys playing soccer on a Gaza beach.

And now, almost three hundred of your children fall from the sky. I confess, their descent haunts me. You know, I hate flying. While in flight, I imagine the plane nose down, spiraling toward the earth. On impact, my face and chest smash into the seat in front of me. It would happen so fast I wouldn’t experience any pain, but in my nightmare I feel it all.

And I’ve dreamed—many times, even safe on the ground—something like what happened today in Ukraine: the plane in pieces and me stunned in the frigid air, the ground rushing toward me. At 33,000 feet, would you pass out on your way down and die before landing? It doesn’t matter, God, I’m awake for everything, including the instant crush of death.

In an odd way, this prayer is selfish. Not everybody on that plane out of Amsterdam was blessed to die when the missile hit the plane, blessed to pass from this world to you as they slept, one head resting on a beloved shoulder or held hands or said, “You know, in Kuala Lumpur we’ll have to . . . .” Some must have shot out into the open air and at least for a couple of seconds reckoned, traveling through cloud-blindness to the sight of green fields, the immediate future.

It’s these brothers and sisters I’m praying for. I have no clue how you work and whether it’s possible to ask you for a grace whose time has already passed. Well, I’m asking anyway. This is crazy, but may it be so that you touched the wicked shock of your children’s last moments. I dream this prayer:

They soared above oxygen, but you gave them the breath of peace. They spun and somersaulted, but you spoke into the ear of their hearts: “Laugh and love the view. I’ll catch you on the ground.” They didn’t grieve what they never said to those they loved because you comforted them: “I’ve prepared a place for you—all of you.” Most of all, you helped them stay awake, free from fear, and they said, “Mercy, so this is what it’s like to fly!” Then they woke up, and you were cradling them, looking into their eyes.

“What was that place?” they asked you. “I remember loving and crying. Why were we always hurting each other?”

But since you were holding them, they forgot the question. They had flown, and you had caught them. What bomb or bullet could touch them now?

In eternity, God, may needful answers descend slowly upon all of us. And may our arms be used only for embracing.

Amen

A Syrian Invasion of Presence

Yesterday at 5:35 p.m. I lay down in my air conditioned bedroom, set the iPhone alarm for 6:30, and closed my eyes. Naps after 5:00 are rare because they can mess with night sleep, but I was tired, boss, dog tired. On top of all the usual bothers that wear a soul out, a catchy promise had been attacking me repeatedly: no boots on the ground—namely, Syrian ground. Please, enough with the no boots on the ground. Shut up! I preempted the alarm at 6:27 and got up.

© Copyright 2013 CorbisCorporation

A perfect addition to the “boots on the ground” campaign. (Credit: Catherine Leblanc)

For the record, I’m for putting boots on Syrian ground, millions of them if that would solve the toxic problem. I don’t know the specifications of combat boots these days, but let’s start with a million of those. We should also have a million of those trendy powder puff boots girls now wear even with shorts. If the ground is going to be dusty, a couple million should be cowboy boots. To jazz things up, I’d like to see 750k red stiletto boots. What the hey?

I love the idea of boots in the Middle East, but if we put any soldiers in them, I’m slipping on my old guy gardening sneakers and marching with a “Make Love, Not War” placard. No boots on the ground is horse crap for two reasons: 1.) Yes, it’s fun to say, especially if you add a cackle and W-style grin. But we’re not talking about boots; we’re talking about human beings. So stop calling them boots. It’s like calling a woman a skirt. 2.) Remember H. W.’s “Read my lips. No new taxes”? Careful what you promise. How wise is it to rain Tomahawk missiles on Bashar al Assad while assuring him that you won’t follow up with troops if he doesn’t get the message—even if you don’t intend to? In football terms, quarterbacks shouldn’t telegraph their passes.

I propose a new promise in place of the boots deal: No Tomahawks in the sky. I voted for Barack Obama and generally support him, but come on, let’s get a clue. Expecting violence to promote peace is madness. My astute ten-year-old neighbor Patrick, who has Down’s syndrome and doesn’t bother with state-of-being verbs, describes how well shock and awe ends conflict: It not working!

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Credit: blog.orlandoweekly.com

Photographs of dead Syrian kids make lots of us want to take a vintage tomahawk to Bashar al Assad and company. I can even understand those who say in frustration, “Just bomb them off the map, all of them,” though this is a curious response to indiscriminate gassing in which children are collateral damage.

Just as America’s collective outrage twelve years ago at precisely this time was warranted and righteous, so too Assad’s saran gas ought to have us bloodshot with anger. If we want to make ourselves less pissed off, then bombs and boots might do some good. But if we want to make the world more peaceful, then we have to find within ourselves forms of bravery and valor that at first glance look like impotence.

You’ll ridicule me all the way to Damascus, but I believe an invasion of presence would be a much more effective response to Assad than weaponry. Instead of launching missiles, what about sending citizens? I’m not kidding. Let’s not put boots on the ground, let’s put loafers and sandals. Instead of guns, let’s carry cell phones and camcorders. Instead of Kevlar, let’s wear luau shirts.

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Birmingham, 1963. (Credit: Charles Moore)

Our mission? If we really want to stop tyrants from massacring their people with gas and machetes—I mean want to stop them enough to risk personal harm—then I bet thousands of civilians from dozens of countries standing beside vulnerable children and their parents and grandparents would deter brutality much more decisively than military action. Obviously, the danger would be enormous, but nothing magnifies the rotten face of violence like witnesses and testimony. Remember the fire hoses of Birmingham? Or Gandhi’s march on the Dharasana Salt Works? Mindful, strategic non-violence can be effective.

The trouble is, peaceful invaders have to be willing to inhale saran gas. Or maybe we can just bring gas masks for everybody. Forgive me; I haven’t fleshed out all the details of this campaign.

A soldier from the U.S. Army's 1st Platoon, 18th Engineer Company, Task Force Arrowhead wakes from his bed on the back of an armoured truck at FOB Mizan in Afghanistan

Somebody has to wear the boots. (Credit: Tim Wimborne)

Go ahead, call me naïve, a crazy pinko. But I challenge people of conscience to speculate about the pragmatism and morality of a Syrian invasion of presence. How can the United States and other countries best demonstrate that Bashar al Assad’s use of chemical weapons on his own people won’t be tolerated? What speaks with the greater clarity and wisdom: Tomahawk cruise missiles and no boots on the ground or thousands of courageous warriors armed with their eyes and voices? My money’s on the eyes and voices.