We’ve made it to May, the official door to summer, picnics, swimming pools, backyard cookouts, and slower paced lives. Or so we hope, as the temperatures warm and the pandemic wanes. Of course, this last is dependent not just on our individual responses, or even on our citizens’ cooperative actions, but it also depends on the developed nations of our world sharing our expertise and resources with the larger world’s need. If we ever thought we could build a wall and isolate our people and economy from the outside, our need for imported goods and our desire to travel on cruise ships seems to trump our need for isolation. India’s ongoing coronavirus catastrophe results from an inadequate health care system and a lack of vaccines, oxygen, and PPE. Less than 10 percent of Indians have gotten even one dose, despite India being the world’s leading vaccine manufacturer.
As we come out of our enforced hibernation, like bears we shed our winter coats and start foraging for foods in an ever widening territory. We’re looking for reasons to celebrate and tantalizing foods to taste. The yum factor and new environments suddenly become sirens singing irresistible songs, which have the opportunity to dash our small bark against the rocks if we’re not careful. Like Ulysses, the ancient Greek hero, we travel between Scylla and Charybdis, hoping not to wreck.
Fictional heroes make a big splash in May. On May 1, 1939, Batman, the caped crusader, made his first appearance in Detective Comics Issue #27. Star Wars Day is “May the 4th be with you.” On May 5, 1895, Richard F. Outcault published the first ever cartoon, The Yellow Kid. Since all those years ago, cartoons have seeped into our lives through every media outlet possible. If it weren’t for The Yellow Kid all those years ago, we probably wouldn’t be watching Iron Man and Captain America slugging it out on the big-screen. May 25 is a tribute to author Douglas Adams, who wrote the famed novel, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
It’s a rather easy day to celebrate and it’s done by taking a towel with you wherever you go: to work, school, or just to the shops. This way you can celebrate such gems of wisdom as, “Nothing travels faster than the speed of light with the possible exception of bad news, which obeys its own special laws.” The only thing that’s truly important on this day is you don’t forget to bring a towel!
Oh, and the answer to the “Great Question of Life, the Universe and Everything” is “forty-two.” In the 1979 novel, the supercomputer Deep Thought takes 7.5 million years to calculate the answer to this ultimate question. The characters tasked with getting that answer are disappointed because it isn’t very useful. Yet, as the computer points out, the question itself was vaguely formulated. To find the correct statement of the query whose answer is 42, the computer will have to build a new version of itself. That, too, will take time. The new version of the computer is Earth. To find out what happens next, you’ll just have to read Adams’s books. For a math geek discussion of the significance of 42, read the link “For Math Fans” below.
Having dispensed with heroes, we can move onto the significant May Days that truly appeal to me. “April showers bring May flowers” is a saying I’ve heard since my childhood ever so long ago. Historians believe this phrase may date back to a 1610 poem, which contained the lines, “Sweet April showers, do spring May flowers.” A longer phrase, “March winds and April showers bring forth May flowers,” has also been traced back to 1886. Of course, this tidbit of wisdom depends upon your geographic location, for folks inland and north may wait until what we southern folks call “early summer” before they get their “springtime.”
“The month of May was come, when every lust heart beginneth to blossom, and to bring forth fruit,” wrote Sir Thomas Malory in Le Morte d’Arthur. The early Greeks called this month Maia, after the goddess of fertility, many of the early May festivals relate to agriculture and renewal. May Day, celebrated on the first with the Maypole, is one such festive event that was more debauched in earlier times, but now survives as a chaste minuet of colorful ribbons woven around a tall pole by children dancing in an interweaving circle below it.
Other modern May festivities include No Pants Day on 5/1, originally an end of the college year prank at the University of Texas, Austin, which spread to other realms needing release, and World Laughter Day, celebrated on the first Sunday of May. This holiday helps raise awareness about the benefits of laughing and promotes world peace through laughter. Laughing can instantly help reduce stress and brings us closer to other people, as we share our happiness with them. Those who take part in World Laughter Day can help spread positivity and cheerfulness to help change the world for the better. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “What potent blood hath modest May.”
No Diet Day is May 6, a good day to remember our good health isn’t based on a scale number or a pant size. Instead, our health is dependent on nutritious foods, adequate exercise, and sufficient sleep. Extreme weight loss, except under a doctor’s supervision, usually leads to yo-yo weight gain, with the body gaining back the lost weight and more after severe deprivation. Slow, long term, weight loss is more likely to be permanent loss, since we aren’t “dieting,” but changing our habits. May 11th is Eat What You Want Day. I suggest we don’t follow Oscar Wilde’s habit: “My doctor told me to stop having intimate dinners for four, unless there are three other people.”
Speaking of breaking a fast, May 12th ends the month of Ramadan, the holy month of observance for Muslims. It was during Ramadan Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, received the revelations from angel Gabriel that allowed him to compile the holy book of Quran. Upon arriving in Medina, Muhammad announced Allah had established two days of celebrations for Muslims, Eid Al Fitr and Eid Al Adha. The purpose of Eid Al Fitr was to commemorate the end of the fasting of Ramadan, and mark the start of the Shawwal month, as well as to thank Allah for giving Muslims the perseverance to fast during Ramadan. The customary feast day greeting is “Eid Mubarak,” which translates to “blessed celebration” or “Happy Eid.”
The dessert of May is apple pie. Originally invented in England, the earliest apple pie recipe dates all the way back to 1381. The original recipe is very similar to the one we currently know, but it also included figs, raisins, pears, and saffron. The Dutch also created their own version of the apple pie, and the first recipe was published in a 1514 cookbook. This recipe is very similar to the apple pie we know and love today. Apple Pie Day is May 13th.
English and Dutch settlers brought the apple pie recipes into the colonies of what would become the United States, during the 17th and 18th centuries. They had to wait until the apple trees they planted grew and bore fruit, so at first apples were mainly used to make cider. It was only in the 18th century, when the first apple pie recipes were printed in America, that the dessert quickly grew in popularity. Following this came the 19th century Legend of Johnny Appleseed, whose real name was John Chapman. He crisscrossed the expanding American frontier to bring seeds for apple orchards for homesteaders. He also brought news and the gospel for fifty years.
Chapman, or Appleseed, lives on as a barometer of the ever-shifting American ideal. Some see him as a pacifist, others as an example of the White Noble Savage (so remembered long after the settlers drove indigenous peoples from the land), and others see a mere children’s book simpleton. Some see him as a frontier bootlegger, since he helped expand the hard cider industry. Others see Johnny Appleseed as the patron saint of everything from cannabis to evangelical environmentalism and creation care—everything, that is, but the flesh-and-blood man he really was.
Our heroes are too often cardboard cutouts, and we don’t spend much time reflecting on their shadow sides. Of course, much like a Flat Stanley, a two dimensional character doesn’t have enough density to cast much of a shadow, unless the light is just right. This is why continuing Bible study is so important: most of us stop in grammar school and never get an adult insight into the scriptures. When we meet grownup problems, we have to wrestle the questions of faith that we once easily accepted trustingly. Or we walk out the door and never come back.
One of the most difficult sermons I ever preached was on the first Mother’s Day after my mother died. One of my best clergy pals, who was a mentor in my ministry, had arranged for a single rose to be on the pulpit beside me on that morning. It was a gift of grace and an empowering symbol, for roses were my mom’s favorite flower. Every time I thought I might cry, I held on tight to the polished oak wood and inhaled the fragrance of the rose. Even now, nearly two decades later, I can clearly see this rose and pulpit, and while I remember where I was, I recall the congregation’s faces were a blur on that day. It’s always the second Sunday in May.
I talk about my fresh grief from years ago, for during this current Pandemic too many of us have had present grief and stress, but either have no words for it, or perhaps have no safe place to express it. Then again, we may be “managing the grief of others,” and don’t have time for caring for our own needs. I call this Deferred Maintenance Grief. If you have an old, leaky faucet, you can keep turning the handle tighter for only so long. You can keep the leak stopped for a while, but soon you’ll strip out the insides of the faucet. Once it’s stripped down, it both streams steadily and needs a completely new fixture to replace it, instead of a minor repair.
I experienced this DMG once after a spate of ten deaths in a week, or maybe it was seven in ten days, followed by the death of one of the old, beloved black clergymen in my community. As I lay on the parsonage couch watching a rerun of Babylon 5, I was crying as if old E.D. were my own daddy. I then realized I’d been too busy caring for others and doing the “work I was called for,” to do the grief work I needed to do for myself. I needed to honor my loss and give myself dedicated spaces to deal with my feelings, so I could be present for others. That’s Deferred Maintenance Grief in a nutshell. If I were eating Cheetos by the bucketful, I’d be in a deep hole of DMG and digging it deeper!
Most of the churches I served had a “Don’t fix it unless it’s broke” policy. I grew up in a Depression Era family, so I was familiar with this attitude. However, these same people didn’t live this way in their own homes. We usually had a long list of deferred maintenance projects in the church property to finish in my time there. Then I’d go to the next place and do it all over again. “Always leave a place better than you found it, both structurally and theologically. Teach people the law of love. As we learn in Romans 13:8, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”
Most of us human beings have “deferred maintenance projects” also: days off, doctor visits, exercise, healthy meals, quiet times, and family times. Taking time for ourselves means we’re refreshed and eager to serve from the quickening power of the Spirit. Without this resting or love for our own embodied image of God, we end up working from the dying embers of our body’s frail resources—burnout calls our name.
When we get this broken, our families and our ministries both suffer along with us. We know better than to drive our vehicles with the gas gauge on empty past every filling station on the road of life. We aren’t called to die on the cross to prove our worth to Christ or to anyone else. He’s our savior and we claim his work on the cross. Anything else is workaholism or salvation by works. We need to name and claim this.
For clergy moving to a new appointment, this is an opportunity for a reset. For those who remain in place, I suggest a planning book. Mark off in advance quiet times, office hours, and visitation times. Take educational events, even if zoom is the only offering. Read for pleasure. Take a day off out of town. Don’t answer the phone after 9 pm unless it’s an emergency. Boundaries are blessings. I always told people up front, “I take my brain out of my head and put it inside a brain box at 9 pm. I put it back in at 9 am. If you call me between those hours, somebody better have died, be on the way to the ER, or the church is burning down.” They laugh, but I’ve had friends who wanted their pastor to be their bedtime Bible expositor. Boundaries keep us from burning out.
Speaking of burning, the official door to summer begins with Memorial Day Weekend. This holiday celebrates those who gave their lives in the great wars of our nation. It began after the Civil War in 1865 as a way to deal with the shared grief of a nation, which lost 750,000 people, or 2.5% of the population, in the struggle. If we were to translate this to today’s world, the number would equal 7,000,000 deaths. War is a pandemic all its own.
As a parting commentary on Memorial Day, the Pandemic, and Extreme Care Giving, I leave you with a portion of the 1865 Walt Whitman poem, “The Wound Dresser,” which he wrote after serving as a hospital volunteer in the Civil War.
But in silence, in dreams’ projections,
While the world of gain and appearance and mirth goes on,
So soon what is over forgotten, and waves wash the imprints off the sand,
With hinged knees returning I enter the doors, (while for you up there,
Whoever you are, follow without noise and be of strong heart.)
Bearing the bandages, water and sponge,
Straight and swift to my wounded I go,
Where they lie on the ground after the battle brought in,
Where their priceless blood reddens the grass the ground,
Or to the rows of the hospital tent, or under the roof’d hospital,
To the long rows of cots up and down each side I return,
To each and all one after another I draw near, not one do I miss,
An attendant follows holding a tray, he carries a refuse pail,
Soon to be fill’d with clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill’d again.
I onward go, I stop,
With hinged knees and steady hand to dress wounds,
I am firm with each, the pangs are sharp yet unavoidable,
One turns to me his appealing eyes—poor boy! I never knew you,
Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that would save you.
Remember to wear sunscreen to protect your skin if you plan outdoor activities on the first three day weekend of the summer and watch the temperature of the grill. We don’t want anything to burn if we can help it. Charred meat and burned skin are both indicated for cancer risks. Be safe and continue to mask up in public. Get vaccinated as an act of love for your family, your neighbors, and the world community. Since we’re all wound dressers, as well as the wounded also, we want to give as much care to healing our own wounds as we do to the wounds of others.
Joy and Peace,
The Project Gutenberg eBook of The Wound Dresser, by Walt Whitman.
This contains first source material from Whitman’s era as well as his works from the Civil War period.
Do April Showers Really Bring May Flowers? | Wonderopolis
As Covid-19 Devastates India, Deaths Go Undercounted
For Math Fans: A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Number 42 – Scientific American
42 Of The Best Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Quotes | Book Riot
No Diet Day (6th May) | Days Of The Year
World Laughter Day | May 2
National Apple Pie Day | May 13 – Calendarr
Johnny Appleseed Planted Stories Of Myth, Adventure : NPR
Statistics From the Civil War | Facing History and Ourselves
Chemicals in Meat Cooked at High Temperatures and Cancer Risk – National Cancer Institute