Monday, April 20, 2009

To Lend a Hand

Several years ago, going through a hard time, I began to tinker around with calligraphy. Like any other hobby when you focus you can’t really think of anything else. Time would stand still while I was working with letters and words. One of my own pieces hangs over the desk in my study. These are the words: “To lend each other a hand when we are falling perhaps that’s the only work that matters in the end.” Frederick Buechner has one of the characters in one of his books to say this to someone. When I first read the words they struck me like lightening.

One of the things that got me through that dark time was people. First my family that stood by me patiently. And sometimes it took a lot of patience. And there were members of the church I had served that came through when I needed them. And here and there were friends who helped make that hard time bearable. I wonder if I would have made it alone—toughening it out—just charging along gritting my teeth. Healing doesn’t usually happen that way. Often we some doctoring and we need some medication. And those great hearts that reached out to me kept me going and helped me mend.

Of course I forget these words often now. But I keep this phrase close to remember that: “Inasmuch as we do it unto the least of these…we do it unto him.” There is a lot of mean-spiritedness all around us. Hatred toward our President. Gay-bashing. Trouble almost in every family. Certainly in most churches I know. The letters to the editor these days detect a lot of rage and frustration. That tea party business the other day was not really about taxes as much as it was about a people mad and scared of many things.

I have been reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s splendid history called Mayflower. It is a good book to read in these stormy days. 102 folk spent two months on that voyage they thought were never end. But they learned early that they had to rely on one another. And when they finally landed they needed each other even more—especially since half of them died the first few months. Isn’t that where we are today? It hardly matters what our political persuasion may be—but the truth of the matter is that we need each other. Maybe, just maybe lending a hand might just get us through this dark and scary time.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

( The following article appeared Easter Sunday, April 12, 2009 in the editorial section of the Birmingham News, Birmingham, Alabama.)

Every year for over forty years I sat down the week before Easter and wondered what to say when I preached on Easter Sunday. The Resurrection is the watershed of the Christian faith. The Open Tomb tells us that Christ has risen. Without this day the church would not exist. We would have little hope and would only stammer at funeral services. For 2,000 years the church has tried to capture in words the wonder of this day. What in the world could any preacher say on such an occasion? This Easter I won’t be standing in a pulpit but this is what I would say if I preached on this special day.

I would tell of my experience of visiting Coventry Cathedral in England. I had heard about this Church for a long time and finally my wife and I finally got there. The church had a long history. They first called it St. Michael’s church. It was largely constructed between the late 14th and early 15th centuries. But its roots go all the way back to 1138. It was one of the largest parish churches in England.

On the evening of November 14, 1940, 500 German planes began dropping bombs on that industrial city. The raid continued until 6:00 the next morning. More than a thousand people lost their lives. Many thousand more were wounded. 60,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed. There were 41 raids on the city before the war ended.

Coventry Cathedral, like most of the city was severely damaged by the fire of that November raid. Nothing was left but a bare shell of a church—some of the bricks dated back to medieval times. Church officials met the next morning to survey the terrible damage. That day they determined to rebuild Coventry. In a place of ruin they wanted to build a place of reconciliation and forgiveness. What was left of the old Cathedral was not torn down but left as a testimony of destruction for all to see. And so in 1962 a new Cathedral was consecrated.

The remains of the old church now hold a garden. Birds fly in and out. People walk quietly and stare at the spot where people had once worshipped for 900 years. As you move from the charred remains you enter a breezeway which leads to the new sanctuary. After the bombing someone discovered two charred embers that formed a cross. Surrounded by bombed out windows, these two beams were tied together and hang over the stone altar. Underneath are the words: “Father Forgive.”

The new structure is modern and breathtaking. Over the baptismal font are two hundred glass panels symbolizing the light of truth breaking through darkness and confusion. My eyes were drawn down the long aisle to the central altar where hangs a huge tapestry of Jesus 70 feet tall. This is one of the largest tapestries in the world. The work is simply called: “Christ in Glory.” It took 12 weavers in France three years to create this masterpiece. I was told by the tour guide that the tapestry weighs a ton.

Could there be a better symbol for Easter than Coventry Cathedral? Whatever bombed-out shells we carry, whatever damage we or someone else has done, whatever shambles that may lie at our feet—Coventry reminds me that life goes on.

So Easter comes just in time. Reminding us that life is stronger than death, that light is greater than darkness and that hope transcends all the despair around us. How much we need a symbol of renewal in a time of financial ruin, rage and anger, war and injustice. Knowing that whatever it is we face or carry something good and graceful may just come out of our pain and hurt.

On the outside wall of the new Cathedral, the sculptor Jacob Epstein was commissioned to do a work for the new Church. He fashioned a huge metal Michael the Archangel with enormous wings. In his hand the holds a sword. At his feet the defeated devil-dragon writhes in pain. The force of good finally triumphs after all.

If I were preaching today I would tell the Coventry story. And I would then read the old promise from the book of Psalms: “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.”

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Easter Eggs

Not too long ago we stood in our kitchen on the Saturday before Easter. Our kids are grown and gone. We have grandchildren now and they were visiting us for Easter. And we went through the old ritual. Natalie, then sixteen and Libby then twelve--stood there in deep concentration dyeing the eggs. Natalie looked up from her task and said, "Grandpa, why are we doing this?" She had a twinkle in her eye. "Well," I said, "it's part of Easter. People have been doing this a long time. When I was a little boy we loved dyeing eggs. It was so much fun." As I told our family story the memories of a little boy in another place came rushing back. I remembered coloring eggs and putting them tenderly in my Easter basket filled with green straw. I told her about hiding the eggs the next day and all the fun we had and how weeks later we would find an old egg, left over from Easter, under the eve of the porch or out by the rosebush.

But that wasn't all I told both girls as they stood dousing their eggs in water and vinegar. "Easter is about new life," I said. Trying not to sound preachy I told them, "It's about starting over. It's knowing that after a long hard winter when things are cold and the ground outside seems dead--something begins to stir. The crocus and snowdrops come out of the hard ground. Daffodils seemed to pop up everywhere. Even the dogwoods that had looked like stick trees are turning green." Why do we do this? We do this to remember that being together and sharing a special task with one's loved ones for the sheer pleasure of the moment, really is a holy time. To see our old traditions carried forward to yet another generation has its own special holiness.

I told my granddaughters about seeing the Passion Play in Germany. I told them about how Jesus was nailed to a cross. On Easter morning in the play it was dark onstage. Everything was quiet until a group of women came to the tomb crying because their Lord was dead. While they stood there weeping the great stone door slowly began to creak open. Out of the darkness light came from that open door. The door kept opening wider until the whole stage was filled with a blinding light. The light was so strong everyone in the theatre was touched by the light. Then through the open door came this figure in white with a dark beard. Looking closely we knew who he was. The women fell down before him in wonder and awe. From every alcove hundreds of children came rushing forward on stage and hugged his legs saying over and over, "Jesus! Jesus! Jesus!" What seemed dead was not dead. What seemed finished was not finished at all. What seemed like the end was only the beginning.

And I told Natalie and Libby, still coloring eggs, "I can't quite explain it, but this is why we dye eggs." They looked at me and smiled. And I smiled back.

(This is part of an article that appeared in the Sunday Commentary section of the Birmingham News some time ago. The years have passed but the memory remains.)

Tuesday, April 7, 2009


I received an email yesterday about signing a petition giving illegal immigrants social security benefits. I have searched the bills and think this must be a hoax. I do not think we will be granting social security to illegals—unless that is, they pay into the system—and I doubt if we let illegal immigrants pay. Most of them keep their payments quiet because they might get deported if they let the government know they are around.

There is also a move not to grant amnesty to illegal immigrants. I read somewhere that Elie Wiesel said that there are no illegal immigrants. No one, he says, is illegal. He concludes that this word was the first step that led to the gas chambers.

I know we have a monstrous problem on our hands. George Bush used to say why complain about them: “They are doing the work here that we won’t do.” I cringe at that statement as if we had some kind of a class system. (We really do we just don’t call it that.) But this old “us” and “them” approach is unhealthy. Lately I have gone out of my way to smile and be friendly especially to those of Hispanic descent. They are living in a foreign land, trying to learn our language better. Many are sending money back home to families that barely have enough to subsist on. Why add to their difficulties?

True, they need to be encouraged to become citizens. They came here, I think like my ancestors from Ireland and England. They wanted a better place and they wanted, as we say in the South “to better themselves.” Even the fundamentalists have a hard time getting around those haunting words of Jesus: “I was a stranger and you took me in.”

When I stood on Ellis Island months ago I was moved by the stories and pictures of all those that came here for a better life. I was also embarrassed by the rejection that so many, many Jews, Italians, Irish, Japanese not to speak of what our black brothers and sisters found here. But in Hollywood in 1922 flyers were passed out that said:

You came to care for lawns,
we stood for it
You came to work in truck gardens,
we stood for it
You sent your children to our public schools,
we stood for it
You moved a few families in our midst,
we stood for it
You proposed to build a church in our neighborhood
Until you have gone your limit

Some days it seems like we have not made much progress. But we have to keep trying to make this word, United a great and true word.

Jesus in the Garden

In the little mill church where I grew up there always hung a very nice reproduction of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. You've probably seen it because for a while it was everywhere. In homes, in Sunday School classrooms and in those tiny leaflets they gave us at the end of that long Sunday School hour. But this particular picture hung back of the choir, directly over the pulpit on the back wall of my home church. Heinrich Hofmann painted this picture of Jesus kneeling in the Garden. It is said to be one of the most copied paintings in the world. The bearded Jesus kneels with his hands folded on a rock. His face is turned heavenward and a radiant light shines from above. In the background of the original painting three disciples sleep. Further away you can make out faintly the walls that surround the city of Jerusalem. But the central focus of this painting is Jesus kneeling in the darkness.

Sunday after Sunday I would make my way up the street of the cotton mill village where I lived. I would walk pass the mill, go two blocks and turn left. I would walk another short block until I came to the steps of my church with its tall white columns. I would enter the vestibule and slip into the Sanctuary always on the left side about half-way back. And I would look up, Sunday after Sunday at that painting--Jesus praying in the Garden. I remember that some Sundays after everyone had left the church making my way up through the choir loft and just standing and looking at the picture up close. I can even remember reaching out and gently touching the painting and marveling at its wonder and strange power.

All those years, hard cotton mill years--Jesus was there in the Garden. When the war came and I had nightmares about Hitler and the Japanese and somehow the Indians got mixed up in it all--Jesus prayed in the Garden. As a teenager there were Sundays when I would giggle so hard at nothing I would have to cram a handkerchief in my mouth and hide down low so the preacher would not see me. Jesus still prayed in the Garden. I remember weddings and funerals . I remember soldier boys from Fort Benning came to our church and became our friends and Jesus prayed in the Garden. I remember the day that FDR died up the road in the Little White House. I remember hearing a newspaper boy yelling: "A-Bomb dropped on Japan." It was there that I slowly grew up. Through those painful teenage years and wondering who I was really and what I would do. And through it all Jesus prayed in the Garden.

I was asked to go back and preach in my home church years and years later. I wondered what would be appropriate. And then it hit me, I would preach on Jesus kneeling in the Garden. And I told them that sunny Sunday morning that through it all Jesus knelt in the Garden.

Mattie Mae our oldest member was there and would die within a month. Tempie who began work in the mill at age nine and could not read or write was there. Bessie, our youth leader who scandalized everyone with a divorce came back. The first girl I kissed was there. And Mary Helen near blind told me later I could not see you but I heard you clearly. Scottie came on crutches and Estelle, my mother's best friend who lost a son my age, was there blinking back the tears. And that morning I told them that through it all--the good, the bad, the hard and the ugly Jesus knelt in the Garden.

Even after all these years I now know that through all my dangers, toils and snares--that Jesus knelt in the Garden for the likes of me. And in a week we call holy I bow my head and thank God that once upon a time Jesus really did kneel in the Garden for us all.