Notes from the Scrap Heap: Blessings

Today is Easter Sunday, 2014, the most important festival day in the Christian calendar. It has been over a year since I have written to you, my readers, and I hope you all haven’t forgotten me! For most of that time I have been writing, but not for this blog; rather, I have been writing for a group of local newspapers, covering everything from township council budgets to the blessing of animals at a local church. Writing for money—however meager the amount may be—will unfortunately take precedence over one’s personal expressions. However, that chapter is over. The newspaper group, which will not be named herein, hired a new editor who proceeded to drive away nearly every freelance reporter, including myself. Who knows? Maybe that is not entirely a bad thing!

As you all will remember, I opened this electronic journal with a dedication to my mother’s father, whom I never knew. About the time of my last post to this account, on January 29, 2013, my mother, Dr. Wilma Bias, made her Transition. She was eighty-four years old and had been suffering for about a decade with vascular dementia, a condition which resembles Alzheimer’s disease but is caused by non-fatal strokes. Baroness Margaret Thatcher, the former Prime Minister of the U.K., had the same condition. Someday I will write something extensive about Mother, since she certainly deserves it. That will not be today. Today I will comment only on one aspect of her and her life, since it has to do with God’s blessings and how we (1) give thanks to God for His blessings and (2) do the work that God calls on us to do to make this world a fairer and healthier place for all of His children.

In the play “Inherit the Wind,” a thinly disguised account of the 1926 Scopes “Monkey Trial” in Tennessee, the character E.K. Hornbeck, a newspaper reporter based on Baltimore Sun editor H.L. Mencken, comments that the town is “the very buckle on the Bible Belt.” One could say much the same for the entire state of Oklahoma, in Mother’s young years as well as today. After her father died in 1943 she went to live in Tulsa with her aunt Mary P. Lee, one of Dr. A.J. McCullough’s many daughters. Aunt Mary, who was as close as I had to a second grandmother, was a Baptist and as religious as anyone I have ever met. Every other sentence she spoke was about Jesus. She kept a stack of “Make Me a Blessing” comic books for me, my siblings, and my cousins. They were published by the Oral Roberts Ministries, which was in its early years and not well known outside of Tulsa. Aunt Mary was not terribly sectarian: she gave a lot of money to the Roberts Ministries, even though he was a Pentecostal who had been ordained as a Methodist minister.

Aunt Mary’s own parents had not been Baptist fundamentalists. Mother said of her grandfather, “He wouldn’t have been caught dead in any of those churches.” Her grandmother belonged to the Disciples of Christ, a Calvinist denomination that was the Southern reflection of the United Church of Christ, the descendant of the New England Puritans. Mother revered her grandfather; when he was home from his house calls she followed him around asking question after question after question. No one was surprised when she made a career in medical research, ultimately becoming a full professor in two departments at the prestigious Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and in one department at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health.

So Mother went in a different direction in her spiritual journey. Her answer did not come from any theological or scriptural revelation, however. It came from a welcoming Episcopal priest and his wife.

Clyde C. Hoggard was the rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Tulsa. I never knew his wife’s Christian name. When Mother first started attending services at Trinity I think was already born, because when Father Hoggard baptized me at Trinity I was already ten months old. Mrs. Hoggard was my godmother. Father Hoggard “bent the rules” a little bit and allowed my great uncle to be my godfather, even though he was a Presbyterian. His name was Thomas McCoy McCullough; I was named for him, even though he was never known as Thomas or Tom: he was always Uncle Mac. He had a big horse farm somewhere northwest of Tulsa (I don’t remember where). I once asked Mother if he was able to make a living from his farm, and she told me, no, he made his living as a dentist!

Father and Mrs. Hoggard took Mother under their wings, welcoming her to the congregation and introducing her to their theological beliefs, and my always curious mother drank it in. They became like a second grandfather and third grandmother to me.

Not long after my baptism, my father, who had been recalled into the Army because of the Korean War, was transferred to Camp Edwards on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. We spent the next year between there and Fort Monmouth in New Jersey until Father was shipped out to Japan to maintain radio communications equipment as an officer in the Army Signal Corps. At that time, Mother and I went back to Tulsa. Father Hoggard had been transferred himself, to another parish in Tulsa, St. John’s. Mother and I began attending St. John’s, and some of my earliest memories as a toddler are of that church.

After my father’s return from military service, he accepted a job offer to work as an electronics engineer at the Westinghouse Space and Defense Center near Baltimore, Maryland, quite literally half the country away. We loaded up our Oldsmobile in November 1952 and made the trip. About three months after our arrival in Baltimore, Mother gave birth to my sister Nancy. We were at that time members of St. Bartholomew’s in southwest Baltimore. Father Hoggard traveled by train from Tulsa to the Mount Royal Station in Baltimore to baptize Nancy at St. Bartholomew’s. A little over a year later he made the trip again to baptize my brother George. That’s the kind of pastor Father Hoggard was.

So from 1950 on out the Episcopal Church was always a big part of our family’s life. Those street signs that you see in so many communities that have the familiar crest with the red cross and the blue background in the upper left corner and the slogan “The Episcopal Church welcomes you,” well, Father Hoggard took that seriously. He welcomed us. My father, who had been baptized in the Baptist Church, joined it and played as active a role as Mother did.

I walked away from the Church during my college years. Mostly it was because of encountering parishes that were not so serious about “The Episcopal Church welcomes you” as other parishes had been. Partly it was the Church’s inability to answer the social questions posed by the African-American urban uprisings in the late 1960s, the Vietnam war, and uprisings similar to Vietnam’s throughout the countries which had once been colonial possessions, protectorates, or “spheres of influence” of the Western Europeans, North Americans, and Japanese. Though I had great respect for some Christians, such as Dr. King and the Berrigan brothers, for their commitment to social justice and peace, I saw the organized Church failing in its responsibility. Frankly, for the most part, I still do.

Influenced by the Marxists with whom I was working at the time, I began to consider myself an atheist. That lasted maybe five years. That changed in early December 1974, in a village in Kerman province in Iran.

Shah-e Neamatollah CourtyardIn Mahan, a little town just outside of the city of Kerman, there is a famous Sufi shrine. It is the burial place of a Sufi saint named Neamatollah, so it is simply named “Shah-e Neamatollah.” It is a rather small mosque surrounded by a garden and cypress trees. Its architecture and decoration are simple by Iranian standards. Its gardens are a little wilder and more varied than the golestan-ha (places of roses) that one sees in Shiraz or Esfahan. They were tended by a kindly old woman who spoke with me in Farsi, welcoming me to the shrine and answering my questions.


Shah-e Neamatollah

Within minutes I was nearly overwhelmed by a feeling of peace and serenity the like of which I had never felt before except possibly in dreams. It was a feeling of being outside of time and freed from the cares of the world beyond the walls. It was beyond anything that could be perceived by any of the five senses, but it was nevertheless strong and unmistakable.

In I Kings 19:11, it is described as the “still small voice.” What I was feeling was the presence of God.

Since that day nearly forty years ago, I have known two things: (1) God is real. For me that is more than a matter of faith. I know. (2) God is not the “property” of any religion made by people. To try to understand God and construct a theology based on scriptures that people have written over the centuries is doomed to failure. However, one need not worry: God speaks to us in that still, small voice. All we have to do is to listen.

A dear friend from Iran—I sometimes call him my second brother—has said, “When I die I know I will go to heaven, because I have already been to hell.” It was kind of an ironic joke, of course, and I’m certainly not going to take up the question of the afterlife here and now! The previous contributions to this narrative detail most of the hell that I have had to walk through over the past twenty-plus years. But nothing, not even the worst thing, which I am not ready to share in a public record even over twenty years later, has destroyed me, and it’s time to give credit where it is due. Yes, I have been supported by family and friends who have stood with me. My wife of thirty-five years has stood with me through it all, forgiving my shortcomings and working hard for our family’s survival. Our daughter, nearly a quarter century old now, has made us proud and has kept us going through the worst. We have stayed together, under pressures that cause too many families to fall apart. My father, still with us at age 87, my siblings, my extended family in Oklahoma, all have stood with me and have done what they could to help in any way they could. They have been blessings. And where do blessings come from? To ask the question is to answer it. The strength to put one foot in front of the other and persevere from one day to the next and the help of good friends and family are the things that only God can give. And that’s why for me God is more than a matter of faith: I have seen up close and personal what God does. I know.

So I have returned to the church in which my mother had me baptized: it has nothing to do with theology or ritual, which has changed considerably since my childhood. It has to do with giving belated thanks to God for the blessings that have kept me going, especially since I was thrown onto the scrap heap nearly four years ago.

Rev. Bob Moore, a United Church of Christ minister who leads the Coalition for Peace Action in Princeton, NJ, is someone with whom I have worked for peace and social justice over the years. I expressed to him at one rally about a year or two ago, “Keep it up, Bob. You’re doing God’s work.” I believed that then, and I believe it now. The power structure that has waged class war on me and my family and millions of other working people has to be torn down. Those who, like me, have been thrown on the scrap heap need to be given back their place of respect and contribution. Furthermore, never again should people ever be treated as unwanted. This is what God is saying to each of us. We need to listen.


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