Friday, January 30, 2009

It Don't Get No Better

A friend of mine always wanted a baby. But not only was she not married but she was fast approaching the big 4-0. So she went through the artificial insemination process and ta-dah she has this beautiful baby boy. I don't know any Mama that loves their child more. She lights up like a chandelier every time she says the baby's name.

She was at a shopping center the other day. Leaving the store, getting ready to put the baby in his car seat, she stopped long enough to kiss him and kiss him again. A lady walking by said, "Honey, it don't get no better than that!"

Somewhere along the line most of us got lost. We forgot what really is better and what is truly important. I wonder if this economic downturn could help force us back to the basics. We are painfully learning that most of the stuff that we think is absolutely necessary to our survival is not quite as important as we though. Tony Campolo talks about rearranging the price tags. You really can't put a price on personal relationships. That little one that keeps you awake many nights. That teenager who drives you crazy much of the time. That parent who, even after all these years can still push your buttons. Maybe the woman pushing that cart hit on something important. Perhaps it really doesn't get any better than some of the simplest of things.

Many of us have spent far too much time on the inconsequentials while missing the things that truly matter. Take a little inventory of your priorities. Look at your own life. Now you fill in the blanks: It don't get any better than _________ .

Thursday, January 29, 2009

John Updike: In Memoriam

Driving home yesterday, I heard the talk-show host on NPR say that John Updike was dead. I couldn't believe John Updike was gone. His books have opened doors and windows for me for a long time. I feel like I have lost an old friend. He must have written around sixty books. But my favorites were his Rabbit books, Rabbit being Harry Angstrom. Updike takes Harry from a young fellow just barely married, from book after book through the stages of his life until finally Updike's last book in the series is called, Rabbit At Rest.

In this last volume, Harry has retired and moved to Florida. But he is not well and old age is creeping up on him. Once a year usually around April when the town is beginning its spring blossoms, he and his wife travel back North to Brewster. This is the town where he was raised. Where he lived most of his life. Arriving in his old hometown, he gets in his car by himself and drives around his old haunts. He sees the basketball court he played as a boy. He finds the house where he grew up. He remembers his bedroom and its yellow wallpaper. He drives by his old school, the church where he was christened as a baby and married for the first time. He passes the house he lived in with his first wife. The little house where they lost the baby. It is a journey down memory lane.

That night he tells his wife, "I saw the most beautiful sight today. I went down this street and on both sides there were these magnificent flowering trees with the whitest blossoms. They were in full bloom. I just stopped and looked and looked." He continues, "I never saw anything like it. It broke me all up." And his wife says, "Harry, don't you remember reading that when the old elms and buttonwood trees were dying off about ten years ago? They planted these Bradford pear trees. They have been there all along. You've driven by them I don't know how many times." And then she says, "You've seen them, it's just you see differently now." She means that he doesn't look at things quite the same since his heart attack when he almost died. Harry simply responds, "Oh..."

John Updike was a Christian and went to church week after week. I end this memory with a Benediction that comes from the Roman Catholic Mass for the dead. I lift it up for my good, good friend whom I did not know.

Into paradise may the angels lead our brother John, at his coming may the martyrs take him up into eternal rest and may the chorus of angels lead him to that holy city, and the place of perpetual light. Amen."

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Least of These...

Often I read something I wish I had written. My friend Bob Shrum in South Carolina talks about a couple of people who knocked on their church's door lately. It is a hard time for a lot of people. As we move through cut-backs and lay-offs and our own worries about 401K's--we need to remember the human faces of where we are. My friend observes:

"She is a grandmother who just got laid off from her job. She came into our offices a week ago...and was embarrassed to be here. Living in her house with her was her daughter who had, also, been laid off from her job and her granddaughter. She was caught in a place where many have been caught. She had always worked, but they had to live from paycheck to paycheck, and there was no money. She was not getting unemployment (there's this process you have to go through) and she had not yet qualified for food stamps. In addition to food and keeping the heat going, they needed toilet paper and feminine products neither of which you can get with food stamps even if she had them. She apologized over and over for being here.

Then there was the young lady from Charlotte who had just moved to these parts from Virginia. She and her sick husband were living in a motel. She did house cleaning and a couple of folks had promised her some work, but it hadn't started yet. She just didn't want to get kicked out on the street because she was two days behind in her rent. Could we help, she asked? She had called several churches in the Charlotte area, but no one had returned her calls she said."

God bless all the people out there that are hurting and help us to keep our eyes open to them as we move through this day. Amen.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

One Book--Two Movies

The mark of a good book and I guess a good movie is that you keep remembering the characters and the stories. At the oddest of times you think of him or her or them--the good things and the shadow sides, the heartbreak and the wonder. Sometimes late at night I find myself wondering: "I wonder what happened to..."

Marilynne Robinson's book Home moved me greatly. I had tried to read her previous novel, Gilead and finally got through it. I found it hard to follow and painfully slow. The ending was wonderful but the book I did not like even though it won the Pulitzer Prize. But her latest book, Home gripped me from the start. Some of the same characters found in her previous novel appear in this book. There is the aging-preacher-father whose daughter Glory comes home to look after her old father. And the preacher's son who has been gone for 20 years and did not even come home for his mother's funeral suddenly appears. Like Gilead before it, the book moves slowly--maybe as slowly as all our lives move most days. We all wonder if these days or months are going anywhere or if anything of consequence is really happening. This book is like that. Glory and her wayward older brother reconnect and the book is the story of that reconnection. It is also the story of family secrets and relationships and love and death and faith. As I read it I kept thinking of the prodigal son in that other story. Jack is a modern-day prodigal who comes back home to confront his old father and the sister, Glory whom he hardly knew when he left. Home made the think about many people and my own home back there and my home now. I recommend it highly.

I have seen two movies back to back. Doubt is an incredible film about a priest played brilliantly by Phillip Hoffman. The old Mother Superior, played by Meryl Streep is unforgettable. She suspects that the priest has seduced one of his altar boys and confronts the priest. The movie moves back and forth never really answering if the priest is guilty. But the relationships in this movie are strong and gives us much to ponder about faith and betrayal and doubt.

The other movie I saw was Revolutionary Road. It is a fifties story about a couple and two children. They have moved to a house in the suburbs. He is a commuter. She is a housewife. They both feel stuck and spin a wonderful dream of leaving it all behind and moving to Paris. Leonardo DiCaprio plays the husband and Kate Winslet plays his wife. You don't easily forget these characters who are struggling with their lives and their relationships and meaning in life. We have all felt trapped from time to time in some job or some place. The movie clearly outlines the frustration of a woman who had few options in her life. Thank God there are more avenues for fulfillment now than in the fifties--but in a sense this story is still with us. Perhaps one of the reasons for so much anger in our time is the desperate feeling of having few options. Just today I read where two of Alabama's Senators would not vote for this new bill which promises equal pay to women who do the same jobs as men. Couple this reality with a world of foreclosures, job layoffs and shaky economic times for everyone--this film is worth seeing.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

What the Bishop Prayed

A lot of us watched the moving "We Are One" concert that HBO sponsored on Sunday just before the Inauguration. . I missed part of the concert--I hope they will make a DVD because it was a great introduction to our time of celebration. What I missed was Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson's prayer just before the event. Joan Walsh (Editor of Salon) on her blog published the prayer and I think it is worth reading and worth praying, too:

"O God of our many understandings, we pray that you will bless us with tears--tears for a world in which over a billion people exist on less than a dollar a day, where young women in many lands are beaten and raped for wanting an education, and thousands die daily from malnutrition, malaria, and AIDS.

Bless this nation with anger--anger at discrimination, at home and abroad, against refugees and immigrants, women, people of color, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.

Bless us with discomfort at the easy, simplistic answers we've preferred to hear from our politicians, instead of the truth about ourselves and our world, which we need to face if we are going to rise to the challenges of the future.

Bless us with patience and the knowledge that none of what ails us will be fixed anytime soon, and the understanding that our new president is a human being, not a messiah.

Bless us with humility, open to understanding that our own needs as a nation must always be balanced with those of the world.

Bless us with freedom from mere tolerance, replacing it with a genuine respect and warm embrace of our differences.

Bless us with compassion and generosity, remembering that every religion's God judges us by the way we care for the most vulnerable.

And God, we give you thanks for your child, Barack, as he assumes the office of President of the United States.

Give him wisdom beyond his years, inspire him with President Lincoln's reconciling leadership style, President Kennedy's ability to enlist our best efforts, and Dr. King's dream of a nation for all people.

Give him a quiet heart, for our ship of state needs a steady, calm captain.

Give him stirring words; We need to be inspired and motivated to make the personal and common sacrifices necessary to facing the challenges ahead.

Make him color-blind, reminding him of his own words that under his leadership, there will be neither red nor blue states, but the United States.

Help him remember his own oppression as a minority, drawing on that experience of discrimination, that he might seek to change the lives of those who are still its victims.

Give him strength to find family time and privacy, and help him remember that even though he is president, a father only gets one shot at his daughters' childhoods.

And please, God, keep him safe. We know we ask too much of our presidents, and we're asking far too much of this one. We implore you, O good and great God, to keep him safe. Hold him in the palm of your hand, that he might do the work we have called him to do, that he might find joy in the impossible calling, and that in the end, he might lead us as a nation to a place of integrity, prosperity, and peace. Amen."

Monday, January 19, 2009

A Long Time Coming

This is a wonderful week to be an American. I am told that British TV will show five hours of the Obama Inauguration. The whole world is excited. A group for "foot soldiers" left Birmingham by bus for the Inauguration. One of the black women in that group was interviewed on NPR. "Why are you here?" someone asked her. "When I was a little girl I wanted to go to East Lake Park and see the ducks. But black people couldn't go to the white-only park. But my Daddy decided to take me anyway. We walked into the park and a policeman stopped him and beat him up for breaking the law. And so I am here today," she said, "not only for myself but for my Daddy and whole lot of other people."

Yesterday's Birmingham News had an inauguration edition for our new President. I write for the Commentary section of the paper from time to time. Here is my column from Sunday's paper.

Last spring I bumped into an old friend of mine in a restaurant as I traveled. I had not seen him in years. We talked for a while and finally turned to politics. "I'm worried about this election," he said. "Why?" "This black guy, he worries me. I hear that he may be a Muslim. He's got such a funny name." "George," I said, "I don't think you have to worry about that. He has been a member of a Church for years and is pretty active, I understand. Do you reckon some of your reservations come because he's black?" With a sheepish smile he said, "Well..."

This man has served on the Board of Trustees of a major University in the Deep South. In his day he has helped recruit a great many black athletes for his school. And I said, "Do you remember the first black student that came to our college and how he was treated? He went on to become Mayor of Charlotte. And do you remember how hard it was to welcome those first blacks onto the football field that first fall? Remember the catcalls and the boos from the stadium? Do you remember? You don't hear that now, but you do hear a whole lot of cheers for whoever wears the uniform. Maybe, just maybe Obama can do for us what the black athletes have done for schools all over this country."

We have come a long way from the back of the buses and the "White Only" drinking fountains and rest rooms. We have made enormous progress from those segregated "separate but equal" classrooms. Each victory was small and real and sure and hard. But Tuesday will be a new day for our country and for the world. President Barack Obama will stand on the shoulders of giants when he places his hand on that Lincoln Bible and accepts the challenge of this great land. He will be surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. Sojourner Truth. Rosa Parks. Emmett Till. Jackie Robinson. Barbara Jordan. Sidney Portier. Muhammed Ali. Autherine Lucy. Fred Shuttlesworth. Ralph Abernathy. John Lewis. Bill Cosby. Marian Wright Edelman. Colin Powell. Cornell West. Condalessa Wright. Tiger Woods. Martin Luther King, Jr. But we must never forget all those others. Especially those four little girls that left us one sad September Sunday morning. Denise McNair. Cynthia Wesley. Carole Robertson. Addie Mae Collins.

All over the world people will huddle around radios and televisions on Tuesday. They will look in wonder on a nation that has fought many a stormy battle and yet has come to this good place. And the people of color everywhere will wonder if maybe they too may just have a chance to pursue their dreams.

Will Campbell, the renegade Baptist preacher, told of visiting the early civil rights leader, Kelly Miller Smith, Jr. on his deathbed. Rev. Smith had been a Nashville pastor that helped desegregate Nashville and went on to become a distinguished Dean and Professor. Lying there, he told Campbell, "All my efforts have produced only a cosmetic coating over an inveterate malignancy. They still don't respect us." I wish Reverend Smith had lived to see this Tuesday. Sometimes respect is a long time coming, but thank God it really does come."

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

It's The Touching

I am working on a funeral sermon I have to give this weekend in South Carolina. The lady we honor was a champion. She lived ten years after it was discovered she needed a lung transplant. She had the transplant and lived eight more years. As I began to think of her I called my remarks: "Fingerprints." She touched many. She was a Nurse and taught nursing. She was a Mother and a wife. She was a dedicated member of her church. She touched many people. As I thought of what I wanted to say, I remembered some words from Ray Bradbury which are found in his old book, Farenheit 451. I think his wonderful observations are worth pondering:
"Everyone must leave something behind when he dies. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hands touched someway so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you're there. It doesn't matter what you do, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that's like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching. The lawncutter might just as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime." Best wishes in the touching!

Monday, January 12, 2009

The People Who Really Matter

A friend sent me Charles' Schultz philosophy. He was the creator of the wonderful "Peanuts" comic strip. You don't really have to answer these questions--just move on down after reading and you will get the point. Let's start.

1. Name the five wealthiest people in the world.
2. Name the last five Heisman trophy winners.
3. Name the last five winners of the Miss American pageant.
4. Name ten people who have won the Nobel or Pulitzer Prize.
5. Name the last half dozen Academy Award winners for best actor or actress.
6. Name the last decade's worth of World Series winners.

How did you do? None of us remember the headliners of yesterday. They were the best in their fields. Yet after the applause died down their achievements were forgotten.

Let's take Schultz' second quiz.

1. List a few teachers who aided your journey through school.
2. Name three friends who have helped you through a difficult time.
3. Name five people who have taught you something worthwhile.
4. Think of a few people who have made you feel appreciated and special.
5. Think of five people you enjoy spending time with. Which list is easier?

The people who make a difference in our lives are not those with the most credentials or the most awards. They simply are the ones who care the most.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Lazarus and Us

If you enter the chapel at New College at Oxford, England the first thing you will see in the narthex is this life-sized statue. The figure is bound from head to foot. Jacob Epstein, an American sculptor created this piece. It is called, "Lazarus." When I first saw this stone figure I was struck by its power. The head of the figure faces toward the high altar and the face is marked with fear and confusion and perhaps wonder. Jesus has called Lazarus forth. He lingers there uncertain.

I took photograph after photograph of the stone Lazarus standing there. I was so moved by the piece because I saw myself standing there bound up by many things. Since that time I have come to think Lazarus represents all of us.

I keep a picture of this Lazarus in the front of my Bible. As I stand on Sunday to preach some days the picture just slips out. Why do I keep it there? The photograph is a reminder that all of us are tied down by a multitude of things. And the Jesus of the gospels calls us to break free and find new life. I look out on Sundays on a multitude of bound-up folk. Some come angry, some afraid, some smiling, some bored or sleepy or just wishing they were somewhere else. And what I hope is that some good word will address them wherever they are.

Our sermons are filled with musts and oughts and shoulds. There are not many of those phrases, if any, used by the Lord Jesus. He did say: "Come unto me all you who are weary and heavy laden..." He came for all the Lazarus' out there.

Wouldn't it be something if we could hear the command of Jesus and let go of all those things that cripple and bind us down. I guess that's why I keep this photograph of Lazarus in my Bible.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Making It Through a Hard Time

One of my favorite times on TV is watching Bill Moyers' Friday evening program on PBS. Most of the time he takes the pulse of what is going on. He interviews people who can shed light on a variety of subjects. A few weeks ago he talked about the economy and as the program went on the conversation grew gloomier and gloomier. Bill finally said, "We need to remember that our grandfathers lived through the depression and our fathers lived through World War II and we will make it through our hard time."

I don't know a better word for this new year. Those that sloshed through the depression were never the same again. Those hard times did something to their souls. Many became frugal and wise and strong. They did more than survive--but they lived lives that were meaningful and that mattered. Those who lived through World War II were called "The Greatest Generation." Tempered by suffering and loss and disruption of lives and families, they rose to the occasion and were called great.

Now this is our time on stage. I wonder, looking back on this hard time what history will say about us. Economically so many have lost so much of their savings. Over a million families have have lost their homes in foreclosure. Unemployment is rampant. We are all being forced to reevaluate our lives and our priorities. What will they say about us? I hope Bill Moyers was right in his observation. "We will make it through our own hard time."