Saturday, February 28, 2009

When Plans Change

The story I want to share with you has been around since 1987. Emily Perl Kingsley is the author. She is the mother of a Down Syndrome child named Jason. Over the years she has done a great deal to improve the ways in which people with disabilities are portrayed in the media. She has won numerous awards as a writer for SESAME STREET and her work with the disabled. Her words have been reprinted in many languages around the world. This parable is so moving I wanted to share it with you. Emily said that she wanted to try to describe what it was like raising a child with disability. Like any good story her words transcend those with disabilities. They touch any grief and loss that we carry with us day after day. And this is how Emily puts it.

When you’re going to have a baby it’s like planning a fabulous vacation trip to Italy. You buy the guidebooks. You begin dreaming of The Coliseum, Michelangelo’s David, the gondolas in Venice.

After months of anticipation the day finally arrives. You pack your bags and off you go. Hours later the plane lands. The flight attendant comes in and says, “Welcome to Holland.” “Holland? What do you mean Holland? I signed up for Italy. I’m supposed to be there right now.”

Well, there was a change in the flight plans and the plane landed in Holland and you must stay there. The important thing is that they haven’t taken you to this horrible, disgusting filthy place. It’s just a different place. So you have to buy new guide books. You have to learn a whole new language. You meet a group of people you would never have met.

Holland is different. It’s slower-paced than Italy. It’s also less flashy. After you’ve been there a while you catch your breath, look around and begin to notice windmills and tulips and Rembrandts.

Everybody you know is busy coming and going to Italy. They come home and talk about what a wonderful time they had. And for the rest of your life you will say, “Yes, I was supposed to go there. That’s what I planned.”

And the pain of that will never, never go away because the loss of that dream is a powerful loss. But if you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn’t get to Italy, you may never be free to enjoy the very special, lovely things about Holland.

Thursday, February 26, 2009


Yesterday at 11:00AM I drove down to an Episcopal Church for their Ash Wednesday service. I chose a church where no one knew me. I just wanted to worship. I sat down and opened the Prayer Book until I found the service for the day. The old words stirred something in my heart. I brought with me many concerns: a brother very ill with pneumonia and staph infection, my wife’s aunt and uncle slowly drifting away from us in old age, a nation terrified of the future, and me trying to adjust to being 73 years old. These were some of the things I carried. The old words washed over me. “Almighty and Everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made and dost forgive the sins of all those who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts…” The Scriptures for the day were read and then we were called forward. A lady in a wheelchair, a teenager, a tall man sitting beside me, grey-haired ladies, well-dressed business folk, and across the aisle the only person I knew in the room. Last week we buried her husband after a sudden heart attack. We all knelt at the altar as the Priests touched our foreheads and whispered: “Dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return.” We returned to our seats and waited until all had been marked. After a time of confession we prayed together: “Lamb of God that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.” I remembered my brother and that old aunt and uncle and our nation and my friend, deep in grief across the aisle. Moments later we were invited to the altar for a second time. Like hungry children we opened our palms and took what was given: a token of that broken body and a sip of wine reminder of the blood that was shed for me and for us all. Despite our fragility and dustness—we tasted the mercy once again. Walking out into the sunlight I moved toward my car knowing that this will somehow be enough for me and for all those I love.

Sunday, February 22, 2009


Last year at this time, a woman stopped me in the grocery store. “Excuse me sir, but you have a smudge on your forehead.” She said, “It looks like dirt.” I smiled and said, “I know. It is a smudge but it isn’t dirt. It’s Ash Wednesday in my church and we have this special service where our Minister touches our forehead with soot. “Strange custom,” she said. “It’s a reminder that we are human and vulnerable and though we might live a long life, our days are still numbered.” She shook her head. “Sounds depressing.”

In some ways it is depressing. Who wants to be reminded that we really are dust and one day it shall all be over and we will return to dust? Most of us would prefer to talk about the ball game, who might be the next American idol or if the Oscar winners satisfied us.

After my conversation in the grocery store I moved on. Later in the day I looked into a mirror and the smudge on my forehead startled me. Even after I washed the soot off I couldn’t escape the truth that we are all a marked people.

We need an Ash Wednesday to nudge us back into the reality that all of us are smudged with vulnerability, finitude and imperfection. People in 2009 need a time when we can stare into the mirror and remember that even the best of us is dust and one day to dust we shall return. A healthy dose of reality might just humanize all of us that call ourselves believers. We all have a dark side and if people discovered our shadows they would turn away. Such a reminder does not excuse our sinning but it should at least remind us all to watch our steps. Paul wrote to Corinth, “So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.”

Come Wednesday we Christians will stand in a long line with people just like us. All of us are broken people, carrying heavy burdens and wishing we could forget that one day we really will return to dust. And yet we Christians kneel at some altar year after year and hear some priest whisper, “Dust you are and to dust you shall return.” But in-between that marking and the rest of our days, Lent holds out a promise. Bearing the mark of our sinning, knowing full well we are as human as any Ted Haggard or Alex Rodriguez or Bernard Meddoff, we dare to believe a hopeful word. We can be forgiven. We can move, burdens and all, back into the world working for peace and justice and trying to love one another.

Folk singer Leonard Cohen got it right, “There are cracks, there are cracks in everything—that’s how the light shines through.” Hopefully Ash Wednesday and these forty days before Easter can save us despite the cracks and help us be better bearers of the light.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Not So Old Age

I met this older guy at the Y the other day. I have seen him often working out. I asked him how old he was and he said, “87.” I couldn’t believe it. “”You are eighty seven years old?” Yeah,” he said, “and I’ve never stayed in a hospital overnight. I broke my leg once in the service and they set it and I went on back to the barracks.” I asked him how long he had been working out and he smiled and said, “Oh, forty-fifty years. Used to play a lot of sports but the only thing I can do now is play golf.” He doesn’t walk like an old man. He doesn’t talk like an old man. He doesn’t think like an old man. In fact, he is not an old man. Diane Ackerman said, “I don’t want to get to the end of my life and find that I lived just the length of it. I want to have lived the width of it as well.” I do believe my 87 year old friend has learned that you have to live all the way to the finish line.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Second Breakfast

Some time ago I wrote this poem about my prayer life. This area of my journey is nothing to brag about. But most days I lift up the names of those I love and care about to a loving God. I don't know what this does but somehow I feel the energy of God is released when we pray. I know the old line: "Prayer changes the pray-er." True. These intercessions keep me in touch with folks I care about. But I think prayer is more than this. It is a mystery to me--and I keep doing it even after all these years. Here is the poem:

"Each morning, like clockwork--I
lay it out. My spoon and knife.
The cereal bowl. I turn on
the coffee pot--I dig out
the bagels, the milk--the juice.
I butter the bread and place it
in the toaster. I pour the cereal--
and sprinkle sweet and low into
the bowl. I sit down, turn on
the TV and eat from the bowl
while the coffee readies and
the bagel cooks.

An hour later--like clockwork--I
lay it all out. My prayer book,
my Bible. A book of poems to set the
pace for the day. I read a few pages.
I pick up the prayer book--open the
Bible and find today's Psalm. Like
buttered bagel and juice and cereal
and coffee--I eat and drink. And then
I bow my head and remember Bill and
Jala and Matthew and Leslie and myself
and the day just beginning.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Daffodil Time

Outside my window my daffodils are blooming. Over to the side of my yard my camellia bush is in bloom. My neighbor's forsythia and quince are already showing their stuff. Springtime, it looks like is on the way. Deep-South folks have an early spring but I just hope another frost doesn't kill the flowers that are already blooming. I have cut the monkey grass back down to the ground. I have raked leaves endlessly until the yard is pretty clean. It's time now to tackle my crape myrtles that have to be pruned back around Valentine's Day so they will look right at blooming time. I'm already fantasizing about the patches in my yard where nothing is planted. Before long I will be pouring over the seed catalogues dreaming of what my flower garden will look like. I've about given up on vegetables--between the squirrels and the deer (thankfully the antelope are not here and do not play) and the insects and the rabbits--I have just about decided I cannot fight that battle another year.

There are times digging holes, dragging around good dirt and compost and mulch--I completely lose myself. My wife can call and I hardly know what day it is or where I am. It's hard to focus in a world like ours. The too-much-ness of everything gets to most of us. I've lost too many good friends lately to the cemetery. I, like you, wonder if President Obama's stimulus package is going to work. If it doesn't--well...I do not even want to go there. My computer broke down this week and after making several new friends in the Philippines, I finally got a real live person to come out and fix the problem. But it took most of three days. I'm beginning to sound like some oldster who ruminates: "Remember when Coke was a drink and typewriters had ribbons..." But we can't go back. We just have to find a way to stay healthy and focus on something besides the madness out there. Someone asked St. Francis one time, "If Jesus was coming back today, what would you do?" And looking up from his gardening he said, "I would continue to hoe my garden." We don't have to dig in the dirt--but we all have to do something so that our souls can catch up with our bodies.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Remembering Tom

I was asked to speak at Dr. Tom Corts' Memorial service on February 8 at Samford University, Birmingham, AL. Tom Corts was a good, good friend and he died quite suddenly of a heart attack on February 4, 2009. The larger community has been in shock over his sudden and lamented death. Here are the words of my tribute to my good friend and his memory just as I gave them at the Memorial service.

The Apostle Paul opened his letter to his beloved friends at Philippi by saying: “I thank my God for every remembrance of you.”
And so what I want today is to open up some of my remembrances of Tom Corts. And I begin with a poem by Mary Oliver that goes like this:

Someone I loved once gave me
A box full of darkness.

It took me years to understand
That this, too, was a gift
. (from Thirst, “The Uses of Sorrow”)

We hold in our hands today a box full of sorrow. It is heavy and it is dark—could this box really ever be a gift?

Dear Tom and his family came into our lives in 1969 when he was Chair of the Search Committee of a Baptist Church in Georgetown, Kentucky. The first time I visited their house Rachel was in an infant seat on their kitchen counter—I still have that memory. Jennifer was a little older…and Chris was not yet born. But when he came along we dedicated him one Sunday morning at the Faith Baptist Church.

Tom was working on his doctorate at IU and was Assistant to the President at Georgetown College, Dr. Robert Mills. Tom cut his grass with a push mower that had no engine. I would ask him why he didn’t get a real lawn mower and he would just look at me with that Tom Corts look. So I changed the subject. But through the years I would say: “Do you remember that old lawn mower back in Georgetown? And he would say: “I loved that lawnmower.” And the subject was closed. Can you imagine being Tom Corts’ pastor? I was young and green and thought that he might be foreboding. But very soon he opened up his heart and took us in. We were there together for six good years. No one could have been more supportive or encouraging than Tom and Marla. And every Pastor here that had the Corts as members can say the same thing.

We followed Tom’s career from Georgetown College to Wingate and then to Samford. We would meet from time to time—somewhere between North Carolina and South Carolina just to catch up.

He invited me to have part in his installation at Samford that special day in 1983. Nobody knew what would happen with this new President. But those of us who knew Tom Corts did know that whatever would take place here on this spot—that it would be good and fine and rich and rare. And we were not wrong.

We moved to Birmingham in 1993 and picked up where we left off as friends. One of the many wonderful things that he did was to establish the London Centre hoping that students would learn to love the England and the larger world that he loved. I remember reading that when Sir Christopher Wren, the great English architect died also in the month of February he was buried in St. Paul’s one of the many churches he designed. And on his grave stone in Latin were placed these words: “If you seek his memorial, look about you.” Holding this box of sadness today I would ask you to look around you at the memorials Tom Corts left behind. I’m not talking about the buildings that bear his name or books he wrote--his fingerprints that are all over this campus. No, I would ask you to look around this room: for this is his real memorial: Faces from all over—a myriad of connections—Governors, College Presidents, teachers, administrators, friends and students and students and students. But most of all--his real memorial sits on these first rows: his family. My how he loved you.

He prayed a beautiful prayer at my retirement. The word master that he was—his prayer was beautiful and breathtaking. I remember one phrase even to this day. He prayed: “We offer thanks for those who cannot remember his name…but remember Yours (Lord) because of him.” Dear Tom, I give your words back to you. For in the years to come students will walk across this campus and some may not know the name Tom Corts …but they will know the Father’s name because of what he did here. And the people of Alabama one day may not ever know his name but they will know something of the Father’s love because of that new Constitution that will one day, one day bring equity and justice for all in our state. Tom worked tirelessly on this effort.

I say a word to dear, dear Marla and Jennifer and Rachel and Christopher and all the family members who sit here today holding your own boxes full of sorrow. But how lucky you have been to be part of that family that grew up under the roof of this good and kind man. And we will lift you up often to the care of the one who said: “I came to heal the brokenhearted.” And we claim that promise for you not only today bur for the days to come.

Tom loved quotes as much as anybody I know. Years ago in Kentucky he gave me this quote. And today I give it back to him. It comes from The Brothers Karamazov:

And even if we are occupied with important things, even if we attain honor or fall into misfortune, still let us remember how good it was once here when we were all together, united by a good and kind feeling which made us better perhaps than we are.”

The old box of sorrow that we all hold in our hands is difficult and heavy today. But after a while when the tears do not come quite so quickly and the grief is not so hard—may we remember Tom Corts and his time with us and we will be glad.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Remembering Millard Fuller

Under the glass on my desk is a drawing of a little blue house on Vista Drive in Clemson, South Carolina. This was the first house Habitat for Humanity built in Pickens County. The recipients were African-Americans. He worked on a garbage truck after graduating from the Drug and Alcohol Abuse program. His wife worked as a Custodian in our church. They had never had their own house. We dedicated the house one Spring afternoon. After the Dedication their little girl with pigtails told me she wanted to show me her house. She took me by the hand and opened the front door and proclaimed, "This is our living room." She repeated that same statement when we came to the kitchen, the bedrooms, even the bathroom. With enormous pride she said, "This is our house." I cried all the way home that day. Once in a great while the church does something that is good and fine and saving. That happened one sunshiny day on Vista Drive.

There is another picture under the glass on my desk. It is the picture of Dora and her two children. They are standing in front of their new Habitat house in Memphis the first day they moved in. They were so very proud. At the Dedication service Dora spoke for her family. "I've been wanting a house for myself and my chirren for a long time. And just about the time I had enough money for a down payment something would happen. Somebody got sick. The old car broke down. Or I lost my job. And so I never thought I would be able to get my own house." She held up the new shiny keys to her house and said in a voice filled with emotion: "But today's the day!"

These stories could be repeated thousands of times. It would not have happened without a man named Millard Fuller. Influenced by Clarence Jordan he caught a vision of helping poor people become homeowners. In 1976 he first dreamed the dream of unheard of no-interest loans. Over the years he is responsible for building more than 300,000 homes. Over 1.5 million people have found shelter round the world because of Millard Fuller. I doubt if that little family in South Carolina or Dora and her kids in Memphis have ever heard of Millard Fuller. Never mind, the world is a better place for this man who died this week at the age of 74.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

You Go Girl

Ever heard of Lilly Ledbetter? Probably not unless you live in Alabama. Lilly is a seventy-year-old widow. She worked in the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company in Gadsden, Alabama for almost twenty years. Toward the end of her tenure she learned that she (and the other women) were not paid as much as the men who did the same jobs. Now Lilly could have just taken her retirement check and bowed out. But the injustice of not being paid the same thing as her male co-workers for all the years stuck in her craw. She sued the company and a federal court granted her a 4 million dollar settlement. But the Goodyear Company took the case all the way to the Supreme Court where her claim was denied.It seems there is a law which says if you are discriminated against at work you have 180 days to bring suit. This is why the Supreme Court turned down her case. Companies, of course, do not usually open up their salary scale to their workers or the public. She worked there for almost 20 years before she discovered this inequity.

Last week one of the first bills that President Obama signed was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Lilly stood just behind the President when he said that under this new law it will be easier for women and others to sue for pay discrimination. This new law does not affect Lilly personally--but women all over the country owe Lilly Ledbetter a standing ovation.

Funny how it works. You see an injustice and stand up and fight. Sometimes you win. Not often enough. But Lilly ought to be a role model for us all. Her simple act of standing up to this wrong has changed working relations from the way things are to the way they should be. Lilly, we tip our hats to you.