Monday, May 25, 2009

Graduation Time

It’s that time of the year. Almost every day another invitation comes from someone graduating from high school or college. Nieces, neighbors, and friends are letting us know that they have finally made it across the finish line. I wish I had time to sit down and write every one who has sent me an invitation but I can’t do that. But there are some things I still would like to say to the graduates.

Get a life. I don’t particularly like that expression—because you already have a life. As you graduate a door closes but another very heavy door opens. And when that door opens you will find a vast array of choices. Remember the old story of the two boys that went to see the old man everyone said was very wise. They knocked on his door and he answered. They said, “Old man, we have a bird in our hands—is it alive or dead.” They had him either way. If he said it was alive—they would squeeze it to death. If he said it was dead, they would open their hands and let the bird fly away. They old man said, “It’s whatever you want it to be.” The future really is in your hands. What do you want it to be?

Every battle is not Armageddon. Armageddon in the Bible was a big whoop. The battle of all battles. You don’t haul out your big artillery for every fight. You must choose your battles. Some are worth fighting—sometimes you just need to walk away. Don’t overreact. Take the long view—day after tomorrow that crisis back there may not look quite as important as it did yesterday.

What happens in Vegas never stays in Vegas. That’s about as dumb an idea as we have floating around today. The ripples you make in the stream go on and on. Everything is connected. There is no place to hide. If you break it—you own it.

God don’t make no junk.
There is so much around us that tells us we don’t matter--that we’re not important. Forget it. Every person has infinite worth. That’s why I love the song: “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine…” We really can do that. Light your candle—it will make a difference. Yo-Yo Mah once told a young man just learning to play the cello, “Nobody else can make the sound you make.” It was a compliment. Everyone is unique.

Say thank-you. I know your Mama used to say this a hundred times a week. But it’s true. To be grateful is a wonderful trait. Nobody likes an ingrate. Did you know that the root word thank and think come from the same source? If you stop and think you will walk through your life a grateful person—and you will bless those around you.

Put screens on your windows. Don’t believe everything you hear. The average American watches 24 hours of TV a week. That’s four hours a day. Get up out of your chair. Change the channel. Or even better turn off the set and pick up a book—or anything that will give you another point of view. Without screens the woolliest things fly through your windows.

Don’t be afraid to fail. It goes with the territory. The only people who do not fail are the people who do nothing. You are going to fail--I guarantee you. But what happens when you get up and dust yourself off is the telling point. I think I have learned more from my failings than I ever did from my successes. Winston Churchill was asked once after World War II what was the most important thing he told the British people as the bombs fell. He said, “Never, never, never give up.” What happens after failure is the acid test.

People who need people really are the luckiest people. The relational side of life is the most important part of any of our lives. Mr. Rogers of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood used to say, “Anyone who has ever been able to sustain good work has had at least one person who believed in him or her.” We really do rely on one another to make it down the road.

Color outside the lines. Take risks. Be bold. Allow yourself room for what you cannot see or hear or touch or control. The great artists know this. You will be surprised at what you learn or do.

The greatest of these is hope. Frederick Buechner, the writer has said if Paul were writing today he would say: “The great of these is hope—not love.” Why? Because without hope we’re not going to make it to the finish line. Keep working on hope and it will pay off great rewards.

Dr. Seuss wrote this great book that is as hopeful as anything I know. He calls it, Oh, the Places You Will Go. It’s a wonderful idea about life as a journey with ups and downs and scary places and wonderful times. And that is my wish for you as a graduate. That you will open that new door and stand back and look in wonder and proceed with all you’ve got.

(The above article appeared in the Viewpoints section of The Birmingham News, 5-24-09 under the title, Get a Life.)

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Bible Tells Me So

A great preacher of another era was Halford Luccock. He used to tell the story about his father who was a Minister in Saint Louis. One day the preacher looked out his study window and saw a little boy with a drill trying to bore a hole in a telephone post. Next he nailed a nail on the post and hung a little bucket on the nail. The preacher was so intrigued he left his office and asked the boy what he was doing. The fellow explained that he had been on vacation in maple syrup country and he decided to get sap out of the telephone pole. The preacher told him that telephone poles were not put up to give sap but to carry messages.

I remembered that story as I read last week about the then Secretary of Defense sending top secret daily briefings on the war to the President. The cover pages included a photograph of war scenes and Scripture verses. One picture showed the statue of Saddam Hussein being pulled down in Firdos Square. And then the caption from the Book of Psalms: “Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear Him…To deliver their soul from death.”In another briefing a US tank roared through the desert. Beneath the photograph were words from Ephesians: “Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground…” On another day Saddam Hussein was pictured in a dictatorial pose. Underneath were words from I Peter: “It is God’s will that by going good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men.” (To see these and more Bush-administration intelligence cover sheets, visit’s exclusive slideshow (

The purpose of the Bible is not to proof-text whatever we are doing—but rather to remember that this is a book of good news for all. All the way through history, people have mis-used the Bible for their own purposes. When Christopher Columbus was trying to get funding for his ships to a new world, the clerics declared that the Bible said the earth had four corners—hence his trip was in vain. Slavery was punctuated by Scripture. Women’s rights were trampled because of obscure Scriptures. And the Evolution debate that will not go away tries to use the first chapters of Genesis to prove their point. The list is endless.

There are some scary passages in the Bible. But they must all be set in context. Proving a war as a righteous cause by Holy Scripture is simply heresy. Not WWJD. Let’s change it to: WWJS. What would Jesus say?

Abraham Lincoln used to say: It is not as matter if God is on our side but if we are on God’s side. That ought to settle the matter once and for all.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Words of Comfort

I have lost several friends in the last year or so. And it is so hard to know what to say to those who have lost family members and best friends.

I have found comfort and have sent these words to several of those that have lost loved ones:

"I came upon earth's most amazing knowledge--someone is hidden in this dark with me."
--J. Powers

My favorite Benediction that I love to use at funerals comes from the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead.

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

And from John's great vision in the book of Revelation, I lift up the whole world:

"Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husand. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 'See, the home of God is among mortals, He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.'" (Rev. 21.1-4)

(The picture shown above hangs over the altar at the Roman Catholic Church on St. Giles Street, Oxford, England. This is the parish church where Gerald Manley Hopkins served as assistant curate early in his career.)

Helpin' Ain't Easy

This blog is called Head and Heart. But sometimes I write about the head stuff and sometimes the heart stuff. Occasionally about both. Hopefully this piece will be about head and heart.

Years ago as in inner-city pastor I discovered helpin’ ain’t easy. In fact, sometimes trying to help is just about the most difficult work anyone can do. One of the people that taught me this lesson was Annie. She breezed into my life after church one Sunday demanding Church’s Fried Chicken since she was hungry. She wasn’t too happy with the sandwiches we were serving the homeless but she finally grudgingly took one. And that was the beginning of a friendship.

She stuttered terribly. Little tiny bird-like African-American woman who looked older than her years. Little by little she opened the door and let me into one or two of the rooms of her heart. She first saw me as all the other softie-pastors she had tried to rip off. She told me she needed new curtains, a table and chairs, panties, bras, silverware and the list went on and on. In frustration I told her, “Annie, I’m not Wal-Mart.” But I tried to help. We helped get her glasses. I signed her up at the Dental Clinic to get her teefies fixed. I took her to the grocery store to buy what she needed. It was there I learned she could not read nor write. And shopping with someone who cannot read the labels requires enormous patience.

On her birthday and sometime around Christmas we would go to a nearby restaurant. “Reverend,” she would say of the little diner, “this is the best restaurant in Birmingham, ain’t it?” And I would agree.At Christmas I always gave her a present which she would never open until Christmas morning.

I would drive her home because she lived ten miles from downtown. She never let me in her house—and I never really knew if she needed curtains and a table or silverware or dishes. She taught me that she was a person with hopes and dreams and responded to being taken seriously. When she learned she could not con me, or at least not much—we became friends. She taught me that I had to take her where she was and that her situation would not change.

One day she looked at me kind of sheepishly and asked, “Reverend, do you and yo wife have sex?” And I knew where that was going. “Oh, all the time Annie, all the time.” She was trying to say thank you the only way she knew how. I hoped she learned she did not have to do that.

She called me continually--sometimes too often. I learned that helping is complicated and never easy. More than once I found myself asking—why am I doing this? After I retired from the church and was working out of town I lost contact with her. I have often wondered how she is and if others are treating her as a real person.

When my wife and I went to see The Soloist this weekend all the memories of Annie came rushing back. The Soloist is one of the best films. I have seen in a long time. It could have been sappy and dripping with sentimentalism. Not this movie. It is the true story of Steve Lopez. a newspaper reporter for the LA Times and his encounter with a street person. He heard music one day in the park and discovered Nathaniel Anthony Ayers playing on an old beat-up violin with only two strings. The music was beautiful. Lopez was only looking for a column and discovered a friendship that changed his life. He learned that Ayers was once a student a Julliard and a classmate of Yo-Yo Ma. But schizophrenia overtook him. The columnist wrote a number of columns about Ayers and homelessness. More than 60,000 homeless folk live in LA in old paper boxes and in the streets. I won’t tell you what happens in the movie but Lopez learned that helping is not easy. Steve Lopez first wrote the book and out of that book came the movie. Robert Downey Jr. played an incredible part as Lopez and Jamie Foxx played Ayers, the homeless man.

Good movies, like great art touches us at many levels. This film brought back memories of Annie. It made me wonder about all the people in our town and all over that live on the streets with no address at all. It made me whisper a prayer for her and Lopez and Ayers and all of God’s hurting children everywhere.

In the last scene of Death of a Salesman Linda stands by the grave of her dead husband. Nobody came to the funeral but she and her two sons. And she says, “Attention must be paid." And that is what The Soloist taught me all over again.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Gerbera Daisies

One of the pictures in my study is a photograph of two red Gerbera daisies. One is in full bloom and the other is just beginning to open. It looks like a sunshiny day. The flower’s foliage is lush and green. Occasionally someone will pick up the picture and ask, “Why do you have a picture of these two flowers on your desk?” And I answer their question with a story.

It goes back more than twenty years. Coming home from a two-week trip I began to catch up on the news with my wife. She had traveled south while I had studied up north. On the way home she had stopped by my mother’s house in Georgia and learned she was in the hospital. In her eighties, Mother’s trips to the hospital were coming closer together.

“Oh by the way,” my wife said, “your mother sent you some flowers. Gerbera daisies. Just before she got sick she told me that she found two plants at a good price. She instructed me to go by her house when I left the hospital, get the daisies, be careful with them, and bring them home to you." We were moving soon and so she told my wife, “Don't plant them now. That old red South Carolina mud won’t grow nothin’—take the daisies to Memphis and plant them in your new yard.”

When I talked to my mother on the telephone she wanted to know about the daisies. “Give them plenty of water, keep them out of the full sun until they’re planted and take them with you to Memphis. Now don’t put them in that moving van—-you put them in your car.” That was our last conversation. She died less than a week later.

I left the plants with a neighbor while we went to Georgia for the funeral. I wanted to make sure they were all right. And so we stood with family and friends in the cemetery on a hot July afternoon and said our sad goodbyes.

Weeks later we moved to Tennessee. One of the last things I did as we closed up our house was to put the daisies in my car. On a Sunday morning I planted my daisy plants in the Tennessee soil in our side yard. It was a painful time, planting those flowers my Mother had given me. Grief came surging back. As I mulched the flowers I remember praying, “Dear God, let them live. Let them live.” It was late August.

My birthday fell on a Saturday in October that year. As I went to get the paper I was dumbfounded by what I saw. One of the daisies had the prettiest red bloom and another bud was barely opening. I don’t know much about this flower except October is very late for a Gerbera daisy to bloom. I charged into the house and told my wife, “You won’t believe what’s outside. One of mother’s daisies is blooming on my birthday!”

It was her final gift of so many others she had given me through the years. Even after her death, the long arm of her love touches me still. The picture you see here I took on that birthday morning.

Frost came early that year. The flowers wilted. I hoped the daisies would live through the winter—-but Gerbera daisies don’t usually do that. The next spring the flowers never came up. But this I know: that daisy bloomed on my birthday. They did their work in a hard time. And even after all these years I look at that picture and smile. Grace, stubborn grace, comes in the strangest of ways. And so I told my friend this is why I keep this picture of that red daisy on my desk.

John and Elizabeth--the story of a marriage

Like many Americans I watched with great sadness Oprah’s interview with Elizabeth Edwards. Fighting for her life in her battle with cancer, she also struggles with her husband’s infidelity and all the questions that surround this whole painful issue. Trust, she kept saying, is the basis of any marriage. And trust had been shattered—and she wondered if they could mend all that was broken.

As I watched the program I remembered a monologue of Garrison Keillor’s several years ago. I tried to find it, never could—so I have pieced it together from my memory. He talked about Fred, a college professor in his middle years. His kids were about grown. He was pretty bored with his job. His marriage has settled down to a comfortable rut. But at work there was this colleague. Her name was Ann. She would drop by his office and ask questions and pick his brain on some subject. Sometimes they would have coffee between classes. She laughed at his jokes and made him feel alive.

There was a conference upstate and they both were going. They decided they might as well ride together. The meeting was weeks away but Fred began to fanaticize. What if…Maybe something might happen while they were away. Maybe they’d be on the same hotel floor. Maybe they’d eat a meal together some night. Maybe they’d order drinks and then maybe a second and a third. Of course, he muttered to himself nothing would happen. It was all very innocent. Surely two adults could share a meal and drinks—what would be wrong with that? But the fantasy tape kept running. What if something did happen while they were away?

He packed carefully for the trip. He chose his best blazer, his favorite shirt and pants. The morning he was to leave he left his suitcase at the door and had breakfast with his wife. He kissed her on her way out the door to work.

He sat on the porch waiting for Ann to pick him up. But he began to have this peculiar feeling. What if something did happen with this woman who was not his wife? Would gravity suddenly lose its hold and everything fly off in different directions?If he were to have an affair maybe an epidemic of swine flu might just break at out the school. A little boy taking a test might not know that the state of Massachusetts had moved to the Midwest where Nebraska used to be. The man at the meat market might just sell someone five-day old meat and fudge on the date. What the hell, he might say. Maybe if he got involved with this woman who was not his wife, he wondered if his son,Timmy might fall down on the running track and break his leg. Some politician in Washington might say what the hell and take that money under the table. Ann’s car drove up. Fred picked up his bag and headed for the car. Garrison Keillor left the story unfinished.

But he ended his monologue saying that actions really do have consequences. The ripples we make in the stream just go on and on. There are no isolated instances. I would add that whoever said whatever happens in Vegas stays in Vegas must have been nuts or had just a little too much too drink.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Further musings on torture

All this talk about the rule of law and if we, as a people should color outside the lines even in time of crisis--like 9/11 reminds me of a story. Lloyd Douglas used to tell about a friend of his who was a violin teacher, but not very successful. But the old man had a great deal of wisdom. Douglas called on him one day and asked, "Well what's the good news for today?" The old teacher went over to his tuning fork which was suspended by a cord and struck it with a mallet. "That's the good news for today." He continued, "That, my friend is an 'A'. It was 'A' all day yesterday. It will be 'A' all day tomorrow, next week, and for a thousand years. The soprano upstairs warbles off-key, the tenor next door flats his high ones, and the piano across the hall is out of tune. Noise all around me, noise; but that (hitting the tuning fork again) is an 'A'." All this talk of changing the rules of torture forgets that there are some things that do not change. The way we treat human beings is one of these. Just ask John McCain.

I read a great article by the Church historian, Martin Marty. Speaking of wise--he is and usually always on target. Check out what he had to say in Sightings, May 4, 2009. Writing on torture he said that in googling information about torture he found some interesting statistics. He cites the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey which says (and I want to hang my head) the more church-going people are, the more they like torture. The never-go-to-church disapprove of torture most; mainline Protestants and non-Hispanic Catholics like it least, and evangelical weekly attenders clearly favor it. Wonder how many of Jesus' sayings got lost in the shuffle? Hmmm.

Want to sign up for a great twice-a-week newsletter that deals in matter of faith in a healthy way, I recommend: Sightings which comes out of the University of Chicago Divinity School and the Martin Marty Center. Try:

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Torture Won't Go Away

When I first started my blog back in December I reviewed Jane Mayer's, The Dark Side.Since then official documents have been trickling out that point to the truth of her findings. The debate rages on.

I quote one of the memos adopted by the Department of Defense in January, 2002. This will be followed by two responses to the torture question raised by the Birmingham News' blog. After these responses you will see my Opinion piece from the front page of the Editorial section of the May 3, 2009 The Birmingham News.

"The use of stress positions...Use of the isolation facility for up to 30 days...Extensions beyond the initial 30 days must be approved...Deprivation of light and auditory stimuli...The detainee may also have a hood placed over his head during transportation an questioning...The use of 20 hour interrogations...Removal of all comfort items (including religion items)...Removal of clothing...Forced grooming (shaving of facial hair)etc...Using detainees individual phobias (such as fear of dogs) to induce stress...The use of scenarios designated to convince the detainee that death or severely painful consequences are imminent for him and/or his family...Exposure to cold weather or water...Use of a wet towel and dripping water to induce the misperception of suffocation."

Blog responses: "The president will show you all that the best ways to extract information from a terrorist is with a limp-wristed pat on the back and a smile. Show 'em the ivories, Obama."

"Our worst fears have come true. All he people we used to beat up in school are now running this country. They're trying to commit a mass murder/suicide on all of us."

And now my column from the paper...

Torture. We’ve heard that word a lot lately. Newly released documents give us embarrassing facts about how we have treated terror suspects since 9/11. We are told that a multitude of photographs documenting our government’s practices toward the enemy are forthcoming.

So the great debate is on. What do we do about what some call “enhanced techniques?” Have they helped procure valuable information that could protect us from our enemies? Have we gone too far? Or is this torture debate simply another chance for Democrats and Republicans to shoot at one another?

Jane Mayer, a writer with impeccable credentials, has written about our government’s recent policies on torture. She calls her book, The Dark Side. She connects the dots of the slow process of beginning to embrace torture as the stated policy of our country. She charges that “the war on terror evolved into a war on American ideals.”

Following September 11th our whole country was gripped with fear. In a fever of fear and anxiety the settled foundations seemed to shake. We all worried about other attacks. Strange words like Anthrax and Orange alerts slipped into our vocabulary. Rage gripped us all. Our national leaders responded with a new plan to protect us. If we could round up the culprits, squeeze information out of those captured, our country would be safer from further attacks.

So in a climate of national fear secret decisions were made at the highest levels of our government. Their conclusions took us down a road we have rarely walked down in our history. But we must be fair to the Bush administration. Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War. Andrew Jackson treated Native Americans as less than human. President Roosevelt imprisoned Americans of Japanese descent during World War II. To these dark chapters we could add the nation‘s cruelty toward African Americans. One wonders what future generations will say about our response to gays and immigrants.

Knowing all of this, the historian, Arthur Schlesinger said of the Bush’s administration’s policy on torture: No position taken has done more damage to our American reputation around the world—ever." Mayer points out that the revision of rules in our treatment of our enemies was a dramatic break with the past.

In 1775 when American was waging war for independence against Britain, George Washington said that this new land would not follow the example of England at that time. "Treat (the enemy) with humanity, and let them have no reason to complain of our copying the brutal example of the British army in their treatment of our unfortunate brethren…Provide everything necessary for them on the road.”

After the traumas of Nazi Germany were revealed the United States joined with 150 other countries in 1949 to sign the following document: "Neither physical nor mental torture nor any other form of coercion may be inflicted on prisoners of war to secure from them information of any kind whatsoever.” Even in the most trying of times Republican and Democratic administrations have stood by this pledge.

What are we to do with all this newly released information? Should we let the issue settle down and go about our work? Perhaps say that the subscribed rules do not apply in a time of grave crisis? Or should we establish some bipartisan Commission that would investigate this matter and let the American people read the findings for themselves.

Our new President has resisted appointing a commission to investigate torture. His reasoning is sound. With the problems of economy, job loss, foreclosures, war and heath care—can we add the issue of torture to this list? The rule of law cannot be trivialized or ignored.

Whatever choices we make in debating torture, we owe the world an apology for the way we have mistreated many during these troublesome days. We have not lived up to our own standards. We also need to censure whoever drafted and carried out these terrible decisions. Ignoring important documents like the Geneva Convention cannot be an option. Consequently we need to recommit ourselves to the rule of law which has been our standard since our beginnings.

Frederick Nietzsche once warned that,"He who does battle with monsters needs to watch out lest he in the process becomes a monster himself." Learning from our painful mistakes may not only make us a better people but will send a powerful message to our friends and enemies around the world.