No Matter Who Won...We Lost

   By the time this little essay gets published, the 2016 U.S. presidential election will have been decided, and half of the country will be elated while the other half will be dismayed.  Peace and prosperity…or apocalyptic doom…will be the mantra for the day depending on one’s political outlook.  The truth of the matter, however, is that no matter who has won, we citizens of this great nation have lost.  The choices we had in our quest for a new leader were abysmal, to say the least.
    Donald Trump, the standard bearer for the Republican Party, proved to be the ultimate carnival huckster…a re-embodiment of the notorious used car salesman we all dread to come across.  Promising the moon to weary Americans, he even drew the enthusiastic support of allegedly religious conservatives, who tossed their own apparently not very deep convictions aside in order to support “anyone but Hillary.”  Trump embraced the evangelicals with the all the sincerity of a poker player, while they blindly ignored the facts that Trump has never seen a reason to repent about anything, has never felt a need for a relationship with a supreme being, has always been extremely liberal in his approach to social issues (“Katlyn Jennings can use whichever bathroom she wants in my building!”), and considers marriage vows to be like any other contract to be broken at will.  An equal opportunity insulter, he was able singlehandedly to lower the political discussion in the United States to a fifth-grade level…except fifth graders don’t usually get up at 3:00 a.m. and tweet insults to their enemies.  You have to wonder what Trump would do if early one morning about 3:00 a.m. Russia’s Putin were to tweet a derisive comment about the United States.  Would Trump lob an insult back to Putin…or a missile?
    If a potential voter was repulsed by the likes of Donald Trump, he or she was left with a single choice.  I know there were third and fourth party candidates who were playing the game, but their possibilities and probabilities in achieving the presidency were far less than remote.  Like it or not, the United States political machinery runs on a two-party system.  So we were left with Hillary Rodham Clinton.  One fact I found interesting about Clinton:  Though she has been reviled by religious conservatives, she personally is deeply religious.  Few know that she receives daily Bible readings from her pastor, attends church on a regular basis, and can quote scriptures probably far better than some of those Pharisees who are throwing stones.  The difference with her is that she considers religion a personal matter and does not use it as a political weapon to gain votes.  All of these items make no difference to the anti-Clintonites, however.  Because she openly accepts alternate lifestyles, embraces the liberal social agenda, and dares to suggest that the country should insure that gun owners are responsible American citizens, she is a far-left wing, gun grabbing liberal, and that’s that.
But Clinton’s Achilles tendon is that she is the consummate politician, with one hand in the governmental money jar and the other outstretched to whoever wishes a favor to be done.  The last thirty years of the Clinton family history has been one of financial scandal, and they have spent countless hours and fortunes putting out legal and moral fires of their own making.  The Clinton Foundation, an organization which has done a great deal of good around the world, has become the latest source of embarrassment because of the Clintons’ penchant for taking more than their fair share.  Couple this fact with the other Clinton penchant for peddling their influence to the highest bidder, and what one has created is a recipe for scandal.  The Clintons have baked this cake over and over. 
    The canvas that covers this whole pile of political scandal (and probably acerbates it) is the Clinton’s obsession with privacy.  Faced with a prickly situation or caught in an uncompromising act, the kneejerk reaction for the Clintons is to throw up a cloud of lies to wiggle out of the situation.   When it became clear she was carelessly using her computer and private email account, rather than admit to the error and correcting the problem, she swore that no messages she transmitted or received contained classified information, and continued to state the same line even after the real facts were exposed.  In that vein, Trump and Clinton are similar…neither can admit a mistake.  Thus, we can look forward to a litany of litigation in the coming months.  Should Trump become president, he has already stated he is going after Hillary Clinton and whomever else he considers enemies.  Should Clinton become president, it will the Bill Clinton Presidency, Part II, as she defends her foundation shenanigans while trying to serve the office of the presidency.

    However, if there is any saving grace to this sordid election campaign, it is that equally divisive political wars have been waged in the past, and somehow America has survived.  I am convinced we are still the greatest nation on the planet, Trump’s opinion notwithstanding.  Once the political dust has settled and the victor has moved into the oval office,  we citizenry can only hope and pray that a wave of civility and common sense will sweep the country, and that…in the immortal words of Abraham Lincoln…”this government, of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.” Missouri

Noel, the good days
    Southwest Missouri has always been a sentimental vacationing grounds for the Downing family.  I guess it is because in the early nineteenth century my great grandparents and earlier generations of Downings lived in the area.  My great grandfather was a circuit minister who traveled the area by horseback preaching in various small congregations, eventually building a small country church just outside Noel, Missouri.  Noel in later years, due to its scenic location and the picturesque Elk River meandering through the town, became a vacationing spot for many, until the main highway was rerouted around the city, and the tourist industry vanished.  Around 100 years ago, my grandparents moved for an undisclosed reason to Western Oklahoma, near Mangum, Granite, and Altus, Oklahoma, where they were able to operate a farm and help feed their fifteen children.  My dad was the fourteenth child born to the family and the first (I think) born in Oklahoma, but he always stayed aware of his roots in Southwestern Missouri. 
    When I was around seven years of age, my dad decided to go back to Noel, Missouri, to retrace his ancestry, thus beginning a long Downing tradition.  We were able to locate the grave of his grandfather (my great grandfather, the preacher) and several other early ancestors.  Much to his delight, he found cousins he had lost track of and met people in stores who actually remembered his father and grandfather.  For the better part of 30 years, a couple of weeks per year were spent in Noel, Missouri.  It was heaven on earth for us kids (read my blog “Paradise Revisited…Noel, Missouri.”)  It was heaven enough that Noel, Missouri, was where Shirley and I spent our honeymoon.
    To fast forward to the present, my sister, Kathy, and her husband, Leroy, have lived in Grove, Oklahoma for several years.  Grove is only twenty miles or so from Noel, but it’s a different world.  Where Noel is gifted with the Ozark hills, Grove is relatively flat farm land…not nearly as scenic as Noel, but a more bustling community situated on the banks of the Lake of the Cherokees.  Kathy and Leroy have yearned for a little more breathing space for gardening and whatever and a few months ago purchased a five-acre plot of land in Anderson, Missouri.  Situated about ten miles north of Noel, Anderson, like Noel, is not far from Elk River and benefits from the Ozark hills ambience.  Although the property was a little neglected when they moved in, it is now a showplace of neatness and organization thanks to their hard work and meticulousness.
    Shirley and I, along with my two other sisters, Mary and Judy, made our annual trek to visit our distant relatives in June, and learned that when Kathy and Leroy say they are “away from it all,” they really mean it.  Had we not had an up to date GPS, we probably would still be looking for their home.  As we approached Anderson from the east on Missouri 76, we turned right onto a narrow asphalt road which quickly became a dirt (actually, mostly rock) road which in a couple of miles and a couple of turns became what appeared to be a single lane rocky driveway.  My GPS said keep going, so we did, and in a half mile or so, in the midst of rocky, wooded, and overgrown terrain we came upon a plot of ground that was neatly mowed, trimmed, and accentuated with bordered trees, a garden, and a neat home.  “Knowing Leroy and Kathy, this has got to be the place,” we said, and we were right.
     For the next few days, to be totally honest, we did very little except visit, eat, drink coffee, hit antique stores, and hibernate, so this little essay is not about all the wild things we did on our visit.  In fact, I am sure that if anyone under the age of 50 reads this, he or she will instantly think, “These poor people have no lives!  They didn’t do anything exciting, active, or fun!”   Au contraire, my hyperactive friend.
     One of the first things that Leroy built after moving onto the property was an approximately 50’x15’ porch attached to the home facing the evening sun (sunsets, you know) and overlooking a majority of the property.  Although approximately half the property has not been cleared yet, what is cleared is beautifully maintained with an abundance of deer, rabbits, and other creatures which we saw only occasionally.  What strikes you first upon sitting in the comfortable porch furniture and looking over the landscape is the total lack of any sound of civilization.  The noisiest sounds come from the hummingbirds which dine at the several bird feeders Kathy has placed along the porch’s edge. The other birds sort of chime in when the urge hits them, but if there is no breeze blowing, bird noises are the ONLY sounds to be heard.  The nearest neighbor is down the road and completely out of sight; yet when a neighbor kid hollers, he/she can be faintly heard from Kathy and Leroy’s porch.  Well, we did hear one more sound...occasionally off in the distance we would hear the braying sound of an upset mule.
    One evening, in the depths of our relaxation (or stupor, the youngsters may assert), we noticed a spider busily building a web on one of the porch’s posts.  It became fascinating to watch this little creature spinning string after string of webbing to create his trap for some poor, unsuspecting gnat or insect.  All the evening hours as we visited, Mr. Spider worked feverishly, never resting, and as we retired for the night, he was still working frantically.  The next morning, believe it or not, we checked on him, and his web was complete, and he was resting comfortably (probably from exhaustion), no doubt satisfied with his night’s work.  I could not help but comment how that little spider was indicative of the instinct that is in every creature to survive.  A great majority of the youngsters of today with their electronic gadgetry and tendency to panic if they are not “connected” are missing out on the lessons of the world around them, and their negligence will be their loss.  But I digress.
    Don’t get me wrong, I am not anti-electronic. We travel by GPS and I have a dash cam in my car, and while we were visiting I was frustrated with limited phone service and dutifully packed my tablet…and in my heart thanked Kathy and Leroy for having good internet access through their cable modem.  However, I found out after a couple of days, the fact that I didn’t know what was happening around the world every five minutes seemed less stressful, and the fact that I was missing phone calls…mildly concerning but not a reason for panic.  Truth be told, it was a good place to lower your blood pressure.
    Not being one to rest on his laurels, Leroy put in a garden (see photo below) which was still in its embryonic stage, but we still enjoyed lettuce, strawberries, and whatever else.  In a few weeks all their friends and neighbors will be avoiding Leroy and Kathy because they will be flooding them with surplus vegetables and fruits.   Wish we lived next door.
    The weather turned hot, and the early evening sun made sitting on the porch a little warmer than desired, but about sunset, the western sky would turn aflame with a palette of colors.  The cool of the evening would see us drifting back to the porch, coffee in hand, to enjoy another evening of camaraderie and remembrance.  In time darkness would set in, and the sky would become “a thousand points of light,” as some famous politician once said.  The stars at night may be big and bright deep in the heart of Texas, but they ain’t bad in Southwestern Missouri.  We would visit and talk until bedtime, and then the next morning the cycle would begin again when, by the time 6:00 a.m. rolled around, coffee was already on and the birds were a-twittering.
    Just as an aside, my sister, Mary, is a cat lover (choke.)  No, more than that…she seeks out cats to pet them, coddle them, feed them.  Well, Kathy and Leroy have this old tom cat which I’m sure thought he had died and gone to heaven when Mary came along.  Mary latched onto him, snuck him food, held him, caressed him to the point that his purr sounded like a Harley-Davidson motorcycle at idle.  In gratitude, the old cat would bring Mary an occasional dead (or barely alive) mouse to share with her.  No doubt the cat was disappointed with Mary’s response, but continued to bring mice to the porch to share with whoever desired a fresh entree.  If there were no takers (and there weren’t) he would eat them himself.  But we had our chance.
   The only downside to the whole trip was when we took our annual pilgrimage to Noel.  Because of the memories there, anytime I am in driving range I have to go back and at least drive through the little village and reminisce of days gone by.  Regrettably, the Noel of my youth is gone.  Our government has deemed it a good place to transplant refugee Somalians, so now on the streets of Noel, one can see women shrouded in yards of cloth, and it is possible to eat at a “genuine African cuisine” restaurant.  Years ago Tyson Foods (the chicken people) built large chicken processing plants in Noel and began importing many people whose citizenships were in question, and so now the home town, relaxed, Americana of Noel is gone.  Sad.  But the memories of yesteryear still remain as fresh as ever. 
    It is probably good that we headed back to Houston when we did.  Kathy had told us we could stay as long as we wished, and I was drifting toward seriously considering the proposal.  I decided, however, not to mess up a good thing and remembered the axiom…” Leave before they want you to go… not after they want you to go.”   We said our goodbyes and made our promises to visit again next year.  All in all, a trip almost devoid of activity…but crammed with loads of relaxation.  Isn’t that what a vacation is supposed to be?
Leroy and Kathy Boatright
The Porch
The Garden

Memorial Day, 2019

     To many, Memorial Day is the unofficial beginning of summer.  The three day Memorial Holiday is a time of relaxation with family gatherings, barbecue on the grill, civic parades and celebrations, and, if one is a race fan…the running of the Indianapolis 500, which has been run during every Memorial Day weekend since 1911 with the exception of the WWII years.
     West Berlin, 1965               My dad, R.L. Downing, 1945
    However, the true purpose of Memorial Day is much more somber.  It is a day and a moment in which a grateful nation pauses to remember the men and women who have died while serving in the U.S. military defending our country against those who would do us harm.  The holiday is not to be confused with Veterans’ Day in November which is meant to honor all military personnel, both living and dead.  On Memorial Day, we give special honor to those who have paid the supreme sacrifice that we may enjoy the freedoms we hold dear today.  There was a time when churches across the land on the Sunday before Memorial Day paid special homage to our fallen heroes with songs of patriotism and pledges to the flag; this year at my church there was barely a mention of the day of remembrance.  Commitment and sacrifice to our country are foreign concepts to those who have never been called to serve.

   Memorial Day began as Decoration Day in 1868 after the American Civil War.  It was first commemorated at Arlington National Cemetery when 5,000 volunteers decorated the graves of 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers who are buried there.  At that time, the nation was still reeling from the effects of four years of civil war, which to this day is the most devastating war in our history.  There were more casualties in the Civil War than in all other wars the U.S. has fought from that time to the present, and tragically, in many instances, it was brother against brother.  Of the 1.1 million casualties the U.S. has suffered since 1862, 600,000 were lost in the Civil War alone.
As the twentieth century wars took their toll with World War I and World War II, the Korean Conflict, the Vietnam War, and now our present struggle against terrorism, Memorial Day, as it has come to be known, has evolved into our honoring all military personnel who have died while in service of their country.
     For the first 100 years, Memorial Day was observed on May 30, but in 1968 Congress changed the date to the last Monday in May to allow the public to enjoy a three-day holiday.  Many states resisted changing the date at the time because they felt it would undermine the meaning of the day, and time has proven that the three day holiday has contributed to the public’s somewhat nonchalant observance the day’s purpose.
     There are still some traditional observances which occur on Memorial Day.
(1)            At most military cemeteries and federal office buildings on Memorial Day, the flag of the United States is briskly raised to its topmost position on the flagpole, then slowly and solemnly lowered to the half-staff position only until noon, at which time it is again raised to full staff the remainder of the day.  The half-staff position is to honor the more than one million heroes who have given their lives in service to their country.  At noon, the flag is raised to honor the living who have resolved not to let the sacrifices of the fallen be in vain, but to rise up in their stead to continue the fight for liberty.
(2)           In the shadows of the nation’s capital in Washington, D.C., the National Memorial Day Concert takes place.
(3)        At exactly 3:00 p.m. local time across the nation, citizens are encouraged to pause for a moment of silence and remembrance for our fallen soldiers.   
          1965                                       2015        
On May 3, 1915, Colonel John McCrae, an officer with the Canadian army in the Flanders area of Belgium during the First World War, observed after months of fighting that poppies seemed to grow well around the graves of young fallen soldiers.  He was inspired to write this poem which is written from the viewpoint of the dead and speaks of their sacrifice and serves as their command to the living to press on:
                                                In Flanders Fields.

                   In Flanders field the poppies grow
                   Between the crosses, row on row
                   That mark our place, and in the sky
                    The larks, still bravely singing, fly
                   Scarcely heard amid the guns below.

                   We are the Dead.  Short days ago
                   We lived, felt dawn, saw sunsets glow
                   Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
  In Flanders field

  Take up our quarrel with the foe
  To you from failing hand we throw
  The torch, be yours to hold it high.
  If ye break faith with us who die
  We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
  In Flanders fields.

In 1918, inspired by the poem, a woman named Moina Michael attended a memorial wearing a silk poppy pinned to her coat and distributed over two dozen to others present.  Within two years the poppy had become the official symbol of remembrance.
   We who live in this country today enjoy spiritual freedom because of the sacrifice of our savior.  As we enjoy our families and celebrate over this holiday period, may we also give honor to those who also made the supreme sacrifice to make our country’s freedom possible. In the words of Abraham Lincoln…

          ”May we resolve that these dead shall not have 
          died in vain---that this nation, under God, shall
          have a new birth of freedom---and that the 
          government of the people, by the people, and
          for the people, shall not perish from the earth."  
 May God bless the United States of America.

More God? No, Thanks!

    In religious circles, the start of a new year brings the same emotions to individuals as in any other organization, be it business, personal, or otherwise.  A new year brings a time of reflection, perhaps regret, but always a determination to make the new year better than the one before it.  Another year of experience hopefully brings a higher level of wisdom and increased ability to handle what life throws at us.  New goals are determined, bad habits are put away, and sights are set on higher aspirations.  We as mortal humans always want to think that we are getting better and better.
    Recently, our pastor delivered a stirring sermon with a simple title, “More!”  In his sermon, he asked us to not merely desire more in our relationship with God, but to realize that to receive more, we had to be willing to give more…not in money, but in consecration, prayer, and time:  consecration in the way we live our daily lives, commitment to communication with our God through prayer, and time to the church through faithful attendance. The next Sunday the same theme was emphasized with his sermon “Activate the Promise!”  He reiterated that God has made many promises to those who are faithful to Him, and the way we activate those promises is through our rededication of our faith, prayer, and time.
    If you have attended church for several years, you would probably agree that none of what we heard in the sermons of the last few days was new material.  But the message of rededication is always timely and effective; we as humans need to be reminded on a fairly regular basis of what is really important in life and where we should be placing our priorities.  Our pastor is very effective in taking a sermon the theme of which we have heard many times and make it seem as fresh as today.
    But it was last Sunday morning as he was concluding his “Activate the Promise!” message that I realized that we as a group of people have a way to go before we reach that euphoric state of higher blessing.  The pastor preached his heart out for nearly an hour, and as he was ending his sermon, a spirit of dedication seemed to settle over the congregation.  He then asked those who were willing to offer more to the service of God to come forward to pray as a sign of rededication.  That was the moment when it became abundantly obvious where the interests of many alleged members lay.
     In my position as an usher, I sit near the rear doors of the auditorium.  As the pastor gave his call to come forward, there were many who began their walks to the front…but I was shocked at the mass exodus of probably 75-100 persons.  You would have thought that the pastor had dismissed the service instead of given a call to come forward.  With quiet music playing and audible prayers coming from the front, these people chatted and smiled as they blithely strolled out of the church…completely untouched by the sermon.  The somewhat telling fact of this situation was this:  our church prides itself in being a “diverse” church…whatever that means.  It is a contemporary philosophy which has no basis in scripture, but it makes us feel good. Regardless, it was noteworthy to me (and mentioned by more than one other person) that ninety percent of those who headed for the door at the first opportunity were all members of a single group.
    The conclusion has to be reached that there are many church attendees who, if they honestly answered the question, “Would you like to have a better relationship with God?” would answer politely, “No, thank you.”  These are the attendees who limit their church time to a 45-minute session per week and then call themselves “faithful Christians.”  These are the attendees who come to church to groove and sway to the music and jump up when the preacher’s preaching and yell, “Amen! Preacher!”...and then split for the door at the first sign of a call to prayer.  These are the ones who talk like the world, dress like the world, think like the world, and live like the world…but want to be called “Christian.”
    The church has always had “hangers-on.”  People who come to church, not to be guided, blessed, or saved, but just to gain the sensation of church so that they can profess to be church goers.  They are in every church.  They are the ones who come to receive only and never to give.   If the church is offering a free dinner after a church service, they are the first in line.  If the church is having dinner after a church service as a fundraiser and is charging $10.00 per plate, they are nowhere to be found. 
    When I witnessed the mass exodus from our church last Sunday, I was embarrassed for our church and for our pastor.  I honestly hoped at that moment that he had not noticed all those exiting souls who were rejecting what he had so eloquently preached.  But at the same time, I was reminded of the parable of the wheat and tares.  Rather than tear out the tares (weeds) from the wheat and perhaps damage some of the wheat, the farmer determined to let both grow side by side until day of harvest.  On the day of harvest, the wheat would be separated from the tares…the wheat going to a good purpose and the tares into the fire.  So it will be on the day of judgement.
     I am reminded of Elijah when he came to the people and asked, “How long halt ye between two opinions?  If the Lord be God, then follow Him; but if Baal, then follow him.  And the people answered him not a word.” (I Kings 18:21)  Last Sunday, there was a group of people who were, in effect, given that very same challenge, and, just like the children of Israel, they “answered not a word.”  But their actions spoke louder that any words, anyway.