A Large Influence for Good

Bust of Bernice MorrisonHer name was Bernice, though it seems many, including Carr Pritchett, spelled it Berenice, with an e in the middle. Is it pronounced the same? I don’t know; I assume so. I’m sticking with Bernice.

She comes from a time before the war, when Middle-Missouri had plantations and those plantation owners had slaves. Those slaves tended the tobacco and hemp fields and those crops made Bernice’s grandfather very, very wealthy. William Daniel Swinney, known simply as “the captain,” and his wife Lucy Ann (Jones), raised Bernice from a young age. Her mother had died when Bernice was just five and her father when she was just nine years of age.

Sara Catherine Swinney was Bernice’s mother and she died at the age of twenty-eight. Much research on my part has come up with nothing concerning the cause of her death. What I know for sure is that she was adored by her father. On her massive gravestone in Glasgow, MO, in huge letters, just one word at the top: “Kate.” And, doing a general web-search for “Kate Swinney” will give you numerous results for the Paddle Wheeler named for her. Also, confusing some researchers is the fact that the Riverboat Kate Swinney met with an explosive end at what, to this day, is still referred to as Kate Swinney Bend in the Missouri River. So, the Riverboat Kate Swinney gave up the ghost in an explosion, but Sara Catherine, well we just don’t know yet.

Bernice was born in 1856 in St. Louis, Missouri. Her father William M. Morrison, who had given himself the middle initial “M” just to stand out from his uncle of the same name, was much older than Kate and already wealthy. Born in 1814, his first wife was Mary Bissell, the daughter of Lewis Bissell, also of St. Louis. William’s father James Morrison had started early in the fur trading business in Missouri and built up quite a business. In 1854 he married Kate Swinney in Glasgow Missouri. He was 40; she was 21 years of age. Bernice was born two years later.

C W PritchettCarr Waller Pritchett, the second of our main characters, was born in 1823 in Henry County Virginia. He was one of ten children of Henry Pritchett and Martha Myra Waller who, in 1835, moved the family to Missouri. (Side-note: The Swinney’s also hail from Virginia and hence the Southern lifestyles and traditions which permeate our entire story. Indeed, a challenge for me has been to embrace the love and care that these pastoral Methodists exhibit, yet come to grips with the slave-ownership that made them wealthy and able to give back to their communities in such grand style.) In 1843 Pritchett attended St. Charles College (near St. Louis), then, one year later, he is ordained as a Methodist Minister. In 1849 he marries Betty L. Smith and in ’51 they move to Glasgow, Missouri, which is the locus of our story. His professional science career starts at Harvard University where he attends in 1858 and studies mathematics and astronomy.

One last character to introduce and that is Bernice’s uncle and Kate’s brother, James Oswald Swinney. He was born in 1827 and lived to the age of 93. We’ll learn about him as our story progresses.So, the main characters are set: Bernice Morrison, C. W. Pritchett and James O. Swinney.


All of them were Methodists. And, I must confess, that as a life-long Methodist myself, this was part of the attraction of the whole story for me. But, not simply: they’re Methodists; I’m Methodist, therefore it’s interesting. No, it much broader than that.Indulge me for a few moments while I relate to you a chapter in my life.Years ago I was fortunate enough to be asked to help chaperon at a unique church camp called Science Camp.  It was to be held at Central Methodist University in Fayette, Missouri. The seven summers I did this were some of the most rewarding experiences of my life. After a few years of doing the event, the director allowed me some time in front of the kids with the topic of my choice. I won’t bore you with all the details, but the focus of the camp was the intersection of Faith and Science. This was and is one of favorite topics and the kids were all smart and attentive. My pet name for the camp was always “Geek Camp,” knowing full well that I was one of those geeks. In fact, use of the word “camp” is definitely stretching the words too far. We stayed in dormitories and our exercise consisted of swimming in an indoor pool. Geeks don’t like the sun, you know.

Why I’ve change my mind on the death penalty

In honor of my good friend Mark, who, I’m pretty sure is the only person who checks my blog now and then, I write this, my first post in almost a year. He called me one day a few weeks back to let me know that my blog had been hacked. So, I finally got around to fixing it and in honor of this new, clean, web-log and a good friend noticing, I write this post.

I, like Mark, though we be on different sides of the political spectrum, care not what others think if we dare to think openly and change our mind on something. Believe it not, “changing one’s mind” is not a crime. I’m not running for office, though, even if I were, I’m not sure it should matter much. There’s such a false stigma associated with it as if it were actually important what I thought in the first place. This is, of course, why we think it matters if a candidate changes their mind, in that they, unlike you and me, actually could affect some changes in the law based on their changing their minds. This is true, no doubt, but I see no evidence that it is somehow dangerous or even prevalent. So, friends seem to somehow hold other friends accountable on the big issues. This is what I’m claiming just doesn’t matter much.

The topic is the death penalty; capital punishment.

I’ve change my mind on capital punishment. I used to support it, now I don’t. Here’s why:

It all started when the introduction of DNA evidence began uncovering innocent people being wrongly incarcerated, some on death row. I’m sure there are many other Christians such as myself who had managed to convince themselves that a small number of mistakes were inevitable and acceptable. But, they kept coming, more and more. I soon supported the calls for a moratorium on all executions. We were in uncharted territory with DNA evidence and it was time to just stop until society could catch up with the science.

Well, in the meantime, I continued to reflect on capital punishment. My Bible is full of ideas and concepts about punishment. I’m sure you’re aware that the Old Testament prescribes the death penalty for all kinds of things that we would never accept in today’s society. But, it’s also full of ideas about the concept of punishment in general. We Christians use words like Grace and Mercy and have a little saying to help us keep it straight: Grace is receiving something you don’t deserve and Mercy is not receiving something that you do deserve. Our God is both full of Mercy and full of Grace.

That being said, we don’t believe in sin without consequences. In fact, we believe that consequences inexorably follow sin. (Look up Jonathan Haidt’s talks for a good secular explanation of this. Especially his Bill Moyer interview. He uses the word Karma, or “what goes around, comes around.”)

But, these consequences come along with the Mercy and Grace; so, one can be both guilty and forgiven. The Bible is full of these illustrations too: Jesus interfering with the capital punishment of the prostitute; he did not claim she was innocent, but forgiven, and she was shown mercy.

So, let us consider a person incarcerated in our country today and on death row. Let us also consider him guilty. The reason for this little thought experiment is to turn the corner from the above mentioned moratorium to the final abolishing of the death penalty. So, our hypothetical person is indeed, very, very guilty. He’s a monster. He’s confessed. The DNA evidence is in and convincing. Whatever you need to conclude that he’s guilty, there you go. Why shouldn’t he receive the death penalty?

The fact is, he should. Rather, he deserves it.

And, this is how I turned the corner on this issue. Since I actually believe in a loving and just God, I actually believe that his sin has consequences for him personally. So, I’m convinced that he really does deserve the death penalty. I no longer need to jump through moral hoops to says that. He really does deserve it.

If you’re a Christian, I’ve got some bad news for you: you deserve it too. Furthermore, you’re gonna get it. You’re going to die. Your Bible tells you why in Romans 6:23: “For the product of sin is death…..” And don’t act like your shocked by all this; the very earliest parts of the Bible tell us we’re gonna die because we disobeyed God; commonly referred to as “The Fall.”

A note to my secular friends who may be put off by all the religious-speak: if this is something you’re actually interested in, as in, why the Bible says things like this, you cannot dismiss it easily as outdated crazy-talk. Very learned and experienced people throughout all of history have contemplated and written on these subjects, and continue to do so today. If you start with the assumption that it can’t mean anything for you today, then I can’t help you understand it. A better starting place would be: that all sounds like crazy-talk, I wonder if it mean anything to me today? If you sat in on one of my Bible studies, we would acknowledge that it sounds like crazy-talk, but since we know it’s not….thus begins the study.

So, considering a death row inmate, they really do deserve the death penalty, if they’re guilty. For me, it’s no longer an issue if the guilty deserve to die or not; they do. But, the combination of doubt and the valid Christian debate as to whether or not the state has the right to justifiably murder a criminal has led me to change my mind on supporting the death penalty in my state.

If a truly guilty criminal is executed tomorrow, I will not shed a tear. But, we know that DNA evidence is resulting in more and more innocent people being let out of prison and the thought of a person being unfairly incarcerated for years is more than I can stand. The thought of the state executing an innocent person? That possibility has to stop.


John Wesley’s Covenant Prayer

I am no longer my own, but yours.

Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;

Put me to doing; put me to suffering;

Let me be employed for you or laid aside for you,

Exalted for you, or brought low for you;

Let me be full, let me be empty;

Let me have all things, let me have nothing;

I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal.

And now, glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,

You are mine and I am yours.

So be it. And the covenant made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.

Tropical Storm Emily

Tropical Storm Emily. Em has turned 24. Not 18; not 21, but 24. (Blog entries for her 18th, and her her 21st (graduation).

I have given this photo by Max a title. “Em looks on.”

The world is at it is. It is both beautiful and torn down; both loved and despised. Alive and full of death. The ancient towers and parapets now crumble, as the new ones will. 

What is beyond that gentle curve of the water? Where are those wild geese flying off to? What is that hippie-fellow thinking about?

Join the mystery; you are part of it, Em.

Cleveland High Jazz 1977

Cleveland Jazz 1977I’ve had the good fortune to today to reconnect with a long-lost friend through Facebook. It’s hard to describe my feelings; he and I were so close and shared so many memories. I’m sure I’ll write more as time goes on after we get a chance to meet up and talk. But, today, he was kind enough to send me this photo. It was 1977 and the Cleveland High Jazz Band had won first place in a jazz competition up in Kirksville MO at the University. (present day Truman Univ.) This photo is back in St. Louis, I think at SLU high. Honestly, that year, our senior year, we were like rock stars. We played out countless times the spring of that year; I’ve lost track of all the places we performed.

So, that’s the two of us in the bottom-right of the photo, both playing French Horns. French Horns you ask? What are two horns doing in a jazz band? Well, it was because my dear friend Don simply wanted to be in the Jazz band. I drooled with envy over the thought, but would have never had the nerve to do anything about it. Don simply asked the band director and then announced to me that he was in. “He” was in, not “we” were in. He was in because he asked. Well, back in those days I was painfully shy and rarely willing to ask for anything. But, now…well, there was no way my best friend was going without me. We were a team. I walked into the director’s office and…asked. The answer was yes.

For any of you band-score aficionados wondering where we got our charts for two horns in a jazz band, our brilliant band leader wrote them all out by hand. He loved the idea of being different. No other high-school jazz band at that competition had a horn, much less two of them.

It was, quite simply, the best times of my life. The camaraderie that we experienced as we traveled around St. Louis, setting up, performing, tearing down, getting out of class…it was indescribable.

Real Men

I saw a story listing 20 things all men should know how to do. On the list was operate a chain saw and it reminded of a story.

We had a medium-sized tree in our yard that needed to come down. I knew my dad had a chainsaw, so I called him to borrow it. He was about 75 years old at the time and legally blind, so I was a bit taken aback when he volunteered to come over and help me.

He asked, “have you ever cut a tree down before?”

“No,” I replied.

Later, I was complaining to Annette about it and she asks, “have you ever operated a chain saw?”

“No,” I replied.

“You’d better let him do it,” she advised.

Anyway, I still need to cross that one off my list.

Friday Evening with David Eisenhower

Dad, Annette and I went to hear David Eisenhower speak at the St. Louis County Library Friday night. It was very nice. Many more people than I expected. I’m guessing over three hundred. I already had a copy of his new book and was able to stay afterward to get it signed.

His book is entitled Going Home to Glory: A Memoir of Life with Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1961 – 1969. It’s an intimate insider’s look at the last years if Ike’s life at his home in Gettysburg. Reading the book made be very thankful to David for writing it and it was nice to able to shake his hand and thank him in person.

I have read many books on Eisenhower, but none where his title is Granddad. “Nixon said that…” or “Kennedy said this…” and then “Granddad said…”

Aside from the intimacy, there’s the look inside at the political games going on after Ike’s out of the White House. Most notably: Nixon, Kennedy and Johnson calling on Ike for various reasons. Turns out, as we heard from David last night, that Ike and Johnson were pretty close. Not surprising considering Johnson was Senate Minority and then Majority Leader during Eisenhower’s years in the White House. After Johnson became president, he looked to Ike frequently for advice, especially concerning Vietnam.

One great thing about hearing someone like David Eisenhower speak is that you have an opportunity to hear history direct from an original source.

One myth that was, for me, finally confirmed last night was President Truman’s asking Ike to lead the Democratic Ticket in 1948. Truman suggested that Ike run from President and he, Truman would be his Vice President. “If we don’t,” suggested Truman, “MacArthur will win and we can’t have that.” While Ike, no doubt, agreed about MacArthur, he declined to run. Ike’s political affiliations were unknown yet, but he declared himself a Republican soon after.

I’m looking forward to finishing the book.

A Prayer for the homeless

As I get to work each morning, I enter the Post-Dispatch and take the stairs on the south-side of the building. The stairwell includes large windows that look out towards the St. Patrick Center and Interco Plaza. The St. Patrick Center is a provider of services for the homeless and some of these homeless had taken to camping in this little plaza right outside the center.

One day last fall I stopped on the second floor window to peer out onto this sight and say a quick prayer for the people living on the plaza. As is typical of my prayers, I didn’t include any specifics, just that they would know God and see that He loves them.

Imagine my surprise when, the next morning I walked up the same steps to find that the little plaza was swept clean. It looked like no one had ever “lived” there.

“Whoa,” I thought, “…God, what did you do?”

A bit later it in the day I realized that it was all the talk on the local radio waves. Turns out, some rather insensitive park rangers had orders to move the residents out of the park and had simply thrown away all the belongings of these homeless individuals. The homeless folks were even there while the rangers tossed everything in the compacting trash truck. Well, needless to say, there was outrage across the board, including the Mayor’s office. I felt sure the outrage would turn into something positive for these people and felt confident that God was looking out for them.

From today’s Post:

ST. LOUIS — The two men once bounced from one downtown park to another, sleeping in tents or under cardboard in relative anonymity.Then last fall, Tremayne Gates and Clint Smith briefly became the center of a debate over how the city should treat its homeless and their possessions. …read the rest of the story -

Good Friday

Later, knowing that all was now completed, and so that the Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.”

“I am thirsty.” Our Lord, the creator of the universe, was thirsty. I don’t even pretend to understand the fullest meaning of that.

I do know what it’s like to be thirsty; I was thinking though, have I ever been really thirsty? I think profound thirst would be an entirely different experience than most of us have ever imagined.

But here, beaten and crucified some of Jesus’ last words were “I am thirsty?” Are those words out of place? I mean, isn’t the physical pain He’s enduring just off the charts? Well, if we could imagine some of our weakest moments, maybe some acute sickness or pain, I think any of us could see ourselves uttering what otherwise might be considered irrational statements.

But, even here, in this very human moment, in the very same sentence the Scriptures tell us there’s more. “…so that the Scripture would be fulfilled…” So, now I’m imagining Jesus rationally thinking, “Ok, now before I die, I have to remember to say ‘I’m thirsty’ so the Scriptures will be fulfilled.”


Now I realize that He isn’t fulfilling the scriptures, He is the fulfillment. His actions don’t fulfill God’s plan, He is God’s plan. He didn’t carry around a checklist: “OK, let’s see, suffering servant, check, read from Isaiah in the synagogue, check, ride a donkey into Jerusalem, check. Mutter ‘I’m thirsty’ right before I die, check!”

No, Jesus is, as philosophers like to say, “The thing itself.”

So, He was really thirsty, and He was the fulfillment of the Scriptures; both at the same time. That just says it all; human and divine.

Do I know what that means? No, I don’t. But, I know that these things exist. I know that humans exist and I know that the divine exists. And I know that they were not created apart from each other.

It is me that has driven a wedge between the two. It is my sin that keeps them apart. And, it is my sin that drove Jesus to this moment of agonizing thirst.

Jesus is thirsty and I can’t save him. He is up there because of me. Lord, forgive me; I wish it was just a matter of giving you some sour wine to drink. But you’re asking so much more. Tonight, I can scarcely take it in. Seeing you up there, thirsty, crying…I just want it to be over.

Dinner with my 13-year-old self

I had the good fortune of having a nice talk with my 13-year-old self. We met at an abandoned restaurant; the food and the service were terrible.

My young-self ordered pizza, of course; but some kind of strange…pizza…I guess. Cilantro? Provolone? I don’t know what that is. My older, fatter self assured me it would be fine. And, it would have been…had the restaurant not sucked! The mature-me ordered some Black Bean Dip with Tortillas. They were just bad. How do you serve bad tortilla chips?

Anyway, we wanted to talk about church and religion and stuff. Mini-me was really wondering why I should belong to the church. Or, any church for that matter. After all, I mean, you know, evolution, science, not to mention the horrible boredom! The boredom! Save me from the boredom! Big-me didn’t blame him. It can be boring.

So, I had to remember that I did feel that way at one one time and yet here I am now spending all my time and energy on this church. And, I’m asking him to belong? Why? Am I just being selfish? I “need” him to join, so there’ll be a future? No, it’s much more than that; but how to put it into words? Words for the 13-year-old.

Well, the first item was the inevitable: evolution. I guess it can’t be helped. The Theory of Evolution as taught in our schools seems to contradict the story of Creation in Genesis. When young-me said, in response to my general question as to what problems he has with Christianity with, “you know, like evolution…” – well, I smiled a gigantic smile on the inside. I felt like Michael Jordan must feel with 2 seconds on the buzzer and the ball is passed to him.

“I got this.”

I told him of my love for science and evolution in particular. How that love hasn’t waned since I was his age. How, at first, it seemed like a stumbling block to faith in Christ, but turned out not to be. I told him of the story when I prayed that God would “give me the answer.” That’s right, I wanted an answer.

I got one. An answer, however, that mini-me might not appreciate just yet. I felt it sufficient for now that he trusted that I loved both science and Jesus.

The little guy’s brain moved fast. Enough of this evolution stuff, what about Satan and Hell? Yeah, what about that?

“My Mom thinks everyone goes to Heaven,” he said.

“I know,” said I. She’s a good person.

I wanted so bad to tell him that goodness like that is very hard to find out in the world. I knew no better when I was his age. I thought everybody was good. Why not? Why shouldn’t they be? I felt sad. But, I’m sorry, at thirteen, he’s still got some kid years left and I’m not going to despoil them.

Instead I wondered aloud if he’d ever read the Book of Job. He laughed, “Job?” pronouncing it j-o-b, like going to work job. What do kids care about old names? No one is named Job. Anyway, I told him to get a paraphrase Bible and read Job, he’d like it.

He deduced on his own that if there’s no Hell, then Hitler’s in Heaven. He didn’t like that. I don’t either. See, the crack? We can handle, or prefer, that there be no Hell, but not that there’s no Heaven either. Why, that would be atheistic.

After that came the obligatory Buddhist/reincarnation/nirvana/new-age/i’m not really sure what I saying stuff. I know, I know, I get it…God I’m bored with that stuff.

I think I’ll stick with art. He says he likes art. Why did the artists of yesteryear paint people in such “primitive” ways? Well, that’s how they saw the world. Why did we used to think that the sun rose in the east? Because that’s exactly what it looks like. Why did the writers of Genesis write such a primitive story?

I’ll keep you posted….