Wednesday, April 28, 2010

What are we gonna do with the Immigrants?

Emma Lazarus' poem is etched on a tablet on the pedestal where the Statue of Liberty stands.

"Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
  with conquering limbs astride from land to land;
 Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
a mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
 is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

'Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!' cries she
wih silent lips. 'Give me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of yor teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!'"

Elie Wiesel, no stranger to the Holocaust, has said that there are no such things as illegal immigrants. Such talk, he adds is the first step that finally leads to the gas chambers.” I think he is right. Alabama Gubernatorial candidate Tim James said in an advertisement: “Why do our politicians make us give driver’s license exams in 12 languages? This is Alabama. We speak English. If you want to live here, learn it.”

They come to us south of the border. Most of them come here seeking work, seeking a better life. They come for the same reason that all our forebears came years ago—looking for a better life for ourselves and our children.

When the Italians, the Irish, the Asians, the Jews and others first came through Ellis Island and filtered into the country they were not exactly received with open arms. Many apartments had signs that said: No foreigners—no Jews apply. The same message was in the windows of many business establishments.

The arguments that they are taking our jobs, they come with diseases, crime-ridden and they are putting a burden on our hospitals, our schools and our whole way of life is not a new message. This is an old story of suspicion, fear and racism dates back for several hundred years in this country.

Arizona is not the only culprits. We have to do something about our borders to the South. But we do not solve this problem by making people feel unwelcome and less than our own citizens.

Who are there people? I am sure Mr. James, running for Governor, must know first-hand. They probably cut his grass and tend his garden. When his roof had to be replaced nobody asked those with dark skins about their understanding of English. When he goes to a restaurant he never asks the concierge about the credentials of those that work in the kitchen or clean off his table after he is gone. When he added a new room on his house—dark skinned people hung his sheetrock and did a good job.

I am told that getting a Green Card often takes years. It is also costly—no wonder many do not apply. It reminds me of the poll tax we used to keep black and other poor folk from voting in many states in the South. We have to make citizenship easier for those that come here.

I have no identification card except a driver’s license and credit card. Why should we ask for other papers from people that seem unlike us? People should not be afraid to walk or drive down the streets. I asked a Hispanic friend of mine who has not been in this country very long, if he is ever treated poorly by some folk. He said about 25% of the time. Most folk, he said treat me good. He’s a hard worker and sends money faithfully back to his poor family in Mexico.

I remember those words of Emma Lazarus’ on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired…” They say nothing about being white, well-heeled and speaking impeccable English. Of course we do not want people here who would undermine our freedom. But we do not need to undermine our own freedom with barriers, attitudes and laws that pit people against people.

Jesus once said, “I was a stranger and you took me in…” I wonder if we lily white folk who worship mostly with our own kind ever ponder the meaning of these powerful words. I also wonder if they might just apply to us and our time.

(On Ellis Island I saw this replica of a plaque that once stood in Los Angeles. In 1924 a wave of hatred toward
Japanese immigrants spread through Hollywood and all of L.A. This placard was one of many signs that could be found at that time.)

The Southern Poverty Law Center keeps up with the trouble spots in the nation. You might want to read Heidi Beirich's take on the roots of the Arizona Anti-Immigrant Law. Scary.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

A Shepherd and a Sheep

"It always is...however much we try to say it was."
   --Thomas Mann

Several years ago I had an opportunity to study at the College of Preachers in Washington, DC. The College of Preachers is housed on the grounds of the Washington Cathedral. After studying hard all week I decided my last morning there to visit the cathedral. It was early morning and I just wanted to walk around and soak up the splendor.

So I went up the hill to the cathedral and found the building locked. I walked all the way around the huge structure. Every door was shut tight. I could not get in. I had come too early and the cathedral was not open. After trying every door and saw a little sign that read: "Chapel of the Good Shepherd”—open 24 hours every day.”

So I thought, “Well, I can sneak in the back way. I can go through the basement and I can find an opening and get upstairs and I’ll find a way to get into the building before anybody else gets there!” And I went in through the entrance in the basement, walked down a long hall and turned right. The doors were locked. I could not get in. So I turned around and walked back down the hall and started to leave the building when I saw the sign: “The Chapel of the Good Shepherd.”

I found myself in a little room about the size of a large closet. I think there were four or five tiny benches. There was a small stained glass window off to the side. In the center was a tiny altar. On that stone altar—which was just a ledge—I looked up at this beautiful carved, sculptured piece. It was a Shepherd holding a sheep in his arms. Underneath that piece, somebody had placed a sprig of forsythia.

I sat down and looked up at the statue. And I don’t know exactly what happened. But something gripped me as if for the first time in my life. I understood the meaning of the first words of the 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd.” As I looked at the stone carving, I saw the kindness and the tenderness in that face that looked down at the sheep in his arms. I noticed how that shepherd held that lamb so close and so tender. As I looked at the sheep, I saw myself. And it hit me with a freshness I still remember. He was my Shepherd. I had preached on that text a hundred times. But suddenly I saw with new eyes that I was kept in those arms and I was loved and cared for. I don’t know what happened but it’s one of the peak experiences in my life in which the story was more than a story. The words had walked off the page and touched me at some deep level. The Lord was my shepherd and I was kept.

That afternoon I wanted something to mark the occasion and I went up to the gift shop. I found a little silver cross and I wore that cross around my neck as a sign of the fact that he is my shepherd and he keeps me safe and secure. Sometimes when things have been hard and life has pressed down on me, I have felt that cold metal cross on my chest and I always remember.

Wherever we go and whatever we do we need to remember that we are loved and we are kept. And so as the Preacher read the lectionary text from Isaiah 40—that day in Washington came back as if it was today. “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.” Thanks be to God.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Let's Quit Giving the Tea Party so much Power

E.J. Dionne whom I respect wrote this morning that he thinks we are making too much of the Tea Party movement. In fact his caption in The Birmingham News was “Tea Party: A media tempest in a teapot” He said this is the first “populist” movement ever driven by a television network. He’s talking, of course, about Fox News. I would say let’s just don’t pick on Fox—I’d say all our media is spending to much time on this group. We already know they are in the minority. We have discovered they mostly are Republican, white, male, married and older than 45.

I don’t know what they mean when they talk about “taking our country back” unless they mean getting rid of a black President, putting Republicans back in the White House and running all the immigrants out of town. Did I miss something? I thought President, yes he is President, Obama won the election by a decisive majority. The American people wanted to go in a different direction and he has tried to change the course.

As I look at the Tea Partiers it reminds me of my forty years (not in the wilderness) but as Pastor of a local church. In every church I ever had there was a little cadre that tried to stir something up. Usually, of course it was mostly directed at the Pastor. But they were at all the meetings when anything was discussed. They screamed, wrote letters, sometimes petitions—held secret meeting and usually got nowhere. Meanwhile the church got really scared that this tiny minority was the majority. The minority, of course, talked to nobody but themselves and so they were sure they represented everyone. Most of the time some old wise sage would stand and put out the fire. He or she would put things in perspective. They’d talk about the traditions of the church. They’d even sometimes quote the Bible about how people were to behave. They would point out reality and the troubled waters would settle down. What usually happened was that this group of dissenters would leave when they didn’t get their way and go somewhere else where they would start their campaign all over again.

The point? I think it is that the Tea Parties only talk to themselves. They listen to those commentators who agree with them. They think they are the majority. They’re not. Most folk know that we have to have a government. Somebody asked the little boy if the rules in his family weren’t kinda strict. He said, “There are ten kids in our family and one bathroom—you gotta have rules.” There are a whole lot of diverse people in this country—if we don’t have some standards and rules this place will disintegrate into utter chaos.

Let’s put things in perspective. The Tea Party folk are mostly decent folk that are scared about change and their kids and their pocketbooks and where we’re going. There are some toting guns and waving Hitler-Obama signs and a lot of other ugly things. But they are not the majority. But I know this—if we keep giving them too much exposure—we are giving them power they do not deserve.

Remember the story of the old farmer that went down to the Court House to hear the local politicos try to get the crowd to vote for them. The old man stayed for a while and he punched the man next to him and said, “What do you think?” The man said: “Think? I didn’t come here to think. I come here to holler.” It is time for us to once again remember the difference.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Sometimes the Organist saves the Day

Yesterday at church we honored our Organist, Dr. Ted Tibbs who has been playing at our church for 50 years! That must be some kind of a record. He is a splendid musician and has studied, literally here and abroad. I began to think about sitting in that spot for fifty years. FIFTY YEARS?? After serving as Pastor almost that long I know the ups and downs of church. From his perch he must have seen more things than he would like to admit. Fuming, fussing, fighting. Church splits. Church take-overs. Boring sermons, sometimes terrible. He was there during the segregated days when Ushers stood at the door and nodded their heads at the black folk. And he was there when the Ushers didn’t do that shabby deed anymore—and the doors swung open—wide open to everybody. He played for baptisms, funerals and weddings—and worship when once in a while God really did walk down the aisle and come to his church. He stayed on the high holy days and the low Sunday after Easter and after Christmas. I don’t think we appreciate the work and faithfulness of our musicians. Even the Director gets more accolades than the organist. But at this church—and so many others-- the thread that ran through it all was the splendidly-played music that was played and sung and meditated on year after year.

When E. Power Biggs the great Organist died, a cousin of Biggs read these words at his Memorial event. They come from the writer, Ray Bradbury. “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 hand 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.” I tip my hat to our Organist. Fifty years of touching those keys Sunday after Sunday. Making a difference. More than any of us realize.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Holocaust--Could it happen Here?

Last night I heard a Holocaust survivor speak at our church. Max Steinmetz is now 86 years old and told his story for forty-five minutes. When the Nazis came to his town he, along with his brother and his mother and father were placed in a crowded cattle car for a three-day journey. Before they left the Nazis emptied the hospitals and crammed even the very sick into those railroad cars. He told us that thirty-per cent of those in most of the cars died during that journey. They had no idea where they were going.

After three days the doors were opened and they found themselves in a place called Auswitz. As they stood in long lines the soldiers came by and pointed to the left and right. His mother and father were sent to the right—he and his brother were taken to the left. He said this was the last time that he saw his parents. Days later he learned they had perished in the gas ovens and their bodies incarcerated.

He and his brother worked in hard labor with only a little food every day. He told of the electric fence that surrounded the place. Prisoners would throw themselves on the fence knowing they would be electrocuted. The next day, he said, the bodies would be removed and another group would take their place. There were four gallows near the entrance and daily people were hanged as a warning to all the others.

He and his brother were transferred to Buchenwald which was another terrible place. And from there they went to another prison camp where his brother died. He told of foraging through garbage cans trying to find something to eat. He told of unbelievable brutalities. Little children placed in boiling or freezing water as a scientific experiment to see how long they could take it. Babies were thrown into the air and shot like birds. He told us about horror after horror.

He escaped on a march, was taken in by a German family who fed him and gave him a bath. He said he could not remember the last time he had bathed. The father in the family was a German soldier but not a member of the S.S. One day while he was there Americans soldiers came to that farmhouse and took him to a hospital. He made his way finally to America and eventually found himself in Birmingham, Alabama where he met his wife and raised his family.

He told us of speaking all over and being besieged by Holocaust deniers who swore that his testimony was exaggerated and untrue. At the end of his talk, someone asked him how he felt about the political climate in our country today. He said this was a dangerous time for America. He said we might not think it could happen here—they never thought it could happen to the six million Jews and Gypsies and homosexuals and the old and infirm. But he said the hate talk today is dangerous. This is how it started in our country, he told us.

Today was another Tea Party celebration around the country. Did you see the signs showing President Obama and Hitler side by side. Pictures of the President portrayed as a monkey. Placards saying that Obama was not born in the United States and is a secret Muslim.

There is crazy talk in the land. Michele Bachman (R-Minn) proclaiming that the President is building political reeducation camps for our children. Glenn Beck and others fan the flames with talk of conspiracy theories and how our President is anti-white racist.

Many think our President is the Anti-Christ. One group called on citizens to stand up against health care by targeting those Democrats that voted this bill into law. They were encouraged to smash windows; one gas line was cut at what was thought to be a congressman’s house. Family members of Senators and Congressmen have received death threats. Death threats on our President have escalated at a frightening pace.

Fearful people do strange things. Race, fear of immigrants, financial woes—these are some of the fears of some of our people. A changing country terrifies many. I asked Mr. Steinmetz, the Holocaust survivor what should we do. “Be vigilant,” he said. “Speak up. Raise your voice.” And then he read that powerful quote by Martin Niemoller, German Luther Pastor who stood up to the Nazi regime:

      “They came first for the Communists,
       and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.

      Then they came for the Jews,
      and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.

     Then they came for the trade unionists,
     and I didn’t speak up because I was not a trade unionist.

    Then they came for the Catholics,
    and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant.
    Then they came for me
    and by that time no one was left to speak up.”

On this week when we remember Holocaust Remembrance Day—it is a time to ponder and pray and work. And-- God bless America.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, located in Montgomery, Alabama keeps its hand on the pulse of our time. You might be interested in what they say on the Fifteenth Anniversary of the Oklahoma City Bombing.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

What does Bill Maher know about Religion?

I finally got around to watching Bill Maher’s 2008 film, "Religuous"  last night. Sometimes I find Bill Maher funny—not last night. Bill’s church would look something like this picture I have posted. He took almost the lowest common denominator in every religious group for his standard of attack. He interviewed one preacher who wore $2,000 suits. (Wonder what Bill pays for his wardrobe?) In forty years I don’t think I have ever met anybody that wore that pricey of a suit. Of course he had to show clips of the Anti-Gay Baptist church in Topeka, Kansas that has, by the way, about 32 members. Most of those who attend, I understand are family members. He had shots of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson.

The person that made the most sense out of the whole thing was some priest—not a Vatican official. Bill couldn’t resist talking about the whale swallowing Jonah and how dumb it was for people to believe that. He took a tour of the Holy Land replica in Florida and sneered as people wiped away tears in the crucifixion scene there. In fact he sneered at just about everyone who believed anything. He didn’t particularly picking on Christians—he included Jews and Muslims in his tirade. I guess you might call that politically correct.

Where was the Metropolitan Community Church that provides love and support for gay folk all in the name of Jesus? Or—the Bishop of the Episcopal Church who resides in California who has taken a great many attacks for her support of gay priests. And she is a woman. Not a single reputable Biblical scholar was interviewed. They could certainly set the record straight by telling him the Bible is made up of history, myth, parables, poetry and doctrine. Maher kept talking about Adam and Eve as if all of us swallowed that story as literally as he assumes we do the Jonah story.

There was no mention of Mother Theresa and the countless missionaries who have poured their lives into making the world better. Dorothy Day, Catholic regenade who kept her Church honest about what mattered was not mentioned. Cetainly the Catholic Church has handled this sexual abuse of children by priests terribly. And yet—the 6,000 nuns who courageously stood up for Health Care for the poor lately—saying loud and clear that abortion is not the issue: people are.

If we took away all the schools and hospitals and nursing homes and caring that the ever-so-human church has sponsored—it would be a pretty destitute society. And the mystery, not everything can be computed or reasoned out. Who wants to live in a world without stained glass windows and great art and music that was written specifically for the church?

I grow weary of all those who throw rocks at the church lately. Quite a few have gotten on the bandwagon. There are two kinds of knowledge: head and heart. Sometimes the church errs on one or the other—but often, very often we can find intellect and feeling on the same page. We do have the treasure in earthen vessels. This will always be the case—but don’t forget the last part of that part: The treasure comes in earthen vessels to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us. After those words Paul says “we are afflicted, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down but not destroyed…” (II Cor. 4.7-10) I’ve seen those folk march for civil rights and women’s rights and gay rights and care of the earth. Not all, of course—but enough to make me proud to be a member of this club.

Carlyle Marney, a great Baptist preacher once said that when he received his doctor’s degree in theology, his major professor W.O. Carver told him: “I am glad that you have achieved this great honor. It is well deserved. But do not ever forget all those out there, little people, with little of the world’s good and little education who live by their faith. Some that believe every word of the Bible is literally true. Never sneer or put them down—they are as important as anybody with a Doctor’s degree.” I paraphrase his words, but why would anyone want to strip hope, faith and bed-rock beliefs away from anybody—even if we think some of their ideas are wrong?

Maybe I’ve strayed too far from Maher’s film. I simply say he has missed most of the story. And I wonder what kind of world would it be if Mr. Maher could stamp out religion which he thinks is behind most of the trouble in the world?

Judge everything by its best standards. Great cathedrals, great art—great minds—those that love and care and selflessly give themselves. And all those little ones who pray for their neighbors and the world and take casseroles and give their dimes and dollars to make the world, they hope, a better place. Of course it’s an-all-too-human institution—but there are a great cadre of us through the centuries that have found something that has kept us going.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

We Remember the Fallen

Military Historian Andrew Bachvich was interviewed on Bill Moyers' Journal last Friday, April 9. As he talked about Afghanistan he reminded us that:
  •  We spend 31/2 billion dollars every month in Afghanistan alone.           
  • The War in Afghanistan has cost 264 billion dollars to date.
  • We are in our ninth year there.
  • This is the longest war in our history and there is no end in sight. 
  • 1/2 of 1 percent of our citizens carry the burden of this war.
  • 99.5 per cent of us go about our business as if this war did not exist. 
Weeks ago I wrote about the bedrooms of some of those killed in this War. This week's Time Magazine has a moving section called "Coming Home". The sad story of Staff Sargeant William "Seth" Ricketts, 27, who was killed by small-arms fire in western Afghanistan on February 27, 2010. He was in his fifth tour since joining the Army the day after 9/11. Time Magazine tells the story in words and pictures of his homecoming to Corinth, Mississippi where he was laid to rest. Read the article for yourself and remember all the fallen. CNN provides this service of giving us the names of the fallen every day.

Senior Master Sgt. James B. Lackey / age 45 / Green Clove Springs, FL / One of two airmen killed along with another US soldier when their aircraft crashed near Zabul province, Afghanistan / April 9, 2010.

Maj. Randell D. Voas / age 43 / Lakeville, MN / The second soldier killed in that aircraft crash near Zabul province, Afghanistan / April 9,2010.

Sgt. Roberto ED. Diaz Borio / age 47 / San Juan, Puerto Rico /  Died in Mombassa, Kenya / April 8, 2010.

Pfc. William A. Blount / age 21 / Petal, MS / One of two soldiers killed when enemy forces attacked their vehicle with a roadside bomb in Mosul, Iraq / April 7, 2010.

1st Lt. Robert W. Collins /age 24 / Tyrone, GA / The second soldier killed whe enemy forces attacked their vehicle in Mosul, Iraq / April 7, 2010.

Sgt. Kurt E. Kruize / age 35 / Hancock, MN / Died of injuries sustained in a non-combat related incident in Baghdad, Iraq / April 4, 2010.

Lance Cpl. Curtis M. Swenson / age 20 / Rochester, MN / Died while supporting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan / April 2, 2010.

Lance Cpl. Tyler O. Griffin / age 19 / Volontown, CN. / One of two Marines killed while supporting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan / April 1, 2010.

Sgt. Frank J. World / age 25 / Buffalo, NY / The second Marine killed while supporting combat opertions in Helmand province, Afghanistan / April 1, 2010.

Lt. Miroslav Ziberman / age 31 / Columbus, OH / Killed when his aircraft crashed into the Arabian Gulf / March 31, 2010.

Staff Sgt. Scott . Brunkhorst / age 25 / Fayetteville, NC / Died of wounds sustained when enemy forces attacked his unit with a roadside bomb in Arghandab River Valley, Afghanistan / March 30, 2010.

Pfc. Raymond N. Pacleb / age 31 / Honolulu, Hawaii / Died of injuries sustained from a non-combat related incident in Baghdad, Iraq / March 29, 2010.

Pfc. James L. Miller / age 21 / Yakima, WA / Died of wounds suffered when insurgents attacked his vehicle with a roadside bomb in Dashat, Afghanistan / March 29, 2010.

Lance Cpl. Randy M. Heck / age 20 / Steubenville, Ohio / Died from a non-hostile incident in Djibouti / March 28, 2010.

Lance Cpl. Ricck J. Centanni / age 19 / Yorba Linda, CAL / One of two Marines killed during combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan / March 24, 2010.

Sgt. Maj. Robert J. Cottle / age 45 / Whittier, CAL / The second of those two Marines killed during combat opeations in Helmand province, Afghanistan / March 24, 2010.

Lance Cpl. Jacob A. Ross / age 19 / Gilette, WY / Died while supporting combat opertaions in Helmand province, Afghanistan / March 24, 2010.

Sgt. 1st Class Carlos M. Santos-Silva / age 32 / Clarksville, TN / Died of wounds suffered when enemy forces attacked his vehicle with a roadside bomb in Kandahar province, Afghanistan / March 22, 2010.

Lance Cpl. Justin J. Wilson / age 24 / Palm City, FL / Died while supporting combat operations in Helmand proince, Afghanistan / March 22, 2010.

Chief Petty Officer Adam Brown / age 36 / Hot Springs, ARK / Killed in a battle with heavily armed militants in Afghanistan / March 18, 2010.

Spc. Robert M. Rieckhoff / age 26 / Kenosha, WIS/ Killed when enemy forces attacked his unit with    rocket-propelled grenade fire in Baghdad, Iraq / March 18, 2010.

Sgt. Joel David Clarkson / age 23 /  Fairbanks, Alaska / Died in Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Landsthul, Germany of wounds sustained during a firefight after his unit was attacked by Taliban fighters in Farah province, Afghanistan / March 13, 2010.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Keeping Your Head Straight

"At de feet o' Jesus
Sorrow like a sea.
Lordy, let you' mercy
Come driftin' down on me.

At de feet o' Jesus,
At yo' feet I stand.
O, ma precious Jesus,
Please reach out yo' hand."
   --Langston Hughes, The Dream Keeper

Find it hard in this crazy age to keep your perspective or your head straight? Sometimes it seems like this is a full-time job just to keep on an even keel. I've found a movie lately that have helped me refocus my vision.

Precious. Ever since this movie came out I have been intrigued by what I heard. And yet when I saw the previews of that mother screaming obcenities at her daughter...throwing a frying pan at her head--I tought this was the last movie I waned to see. Who wants to pay to be depressed?  My wife and I finally got up the courage to rent the DVD the other night and watched this movie. We were glad we did.

There is a whole lot of darkness in this film. Set in Harlem in the 1980's with crack and the AIDS epidemic in full force, this is Precious' neighborhood. Her name is Claireece "Precious" Jones. She is morbidly obese, sixteen years old and mother of one child and expecting another both by her father who raped her. Just about everything around her goes wrong. All the kids in the neighborhood make fun of her and taunt her. She is forced out of school because she is pregnant. Her life with her Mother is a living hell. The mother vents all her own anger and frustration on Precious. In the middle of the movie Precious discovers that she is HIV positive thanks to her father.

Precious escapes into fantasy-land where she sees herself as beautiful, rich, loved by the boy of her dreams. Not only is she white in her dream world but she is also thin and blonde. After she is expelled from school for being pregnant, she hears about a GED prep school for troubled girls. Her mother wants her to forget school and apply for welfare. Precious winds up in the GED program. There--with a help of a great teacher who takes so much time with her--she begins slowly to break out of he hard crust of her life and realize for the first time she is a person of worth and value.

Watching the abuse which rains down on her head is almost unbearable. Several people hel change Precious' life. Her teacher, who spends infinite hours with her. A social worker who cares about her clients. A male nurse that was in the hospital when her second baby was born.  At the end of the film you know that Precious, despite all the odds, is going to make it.

The movie taught me a lot. It was not sappy or sentimental. What about abuse or rape or HIV could possibly be mushy? I learned something about the resilience of the human spirit. I learned something once more about the power of love that comes from outside the family when nothing at home is but a hell on earth. I leaned something about hope when there are no signs of hope at all.

The author, Sapphire who wrote Push from which the movie was made, said that Precious was a composite of many young, poor black people she met as a teacher in Harlem. I'm glad I saw the movie. It makes me believe in the resilience of the human spirit. I hear that some African-Americans hate the movie because they are afraid the world will  believe one more time in the inferiority of black people. I saw the film as  hope even for those whom seem to have no options. Maybe it's our task to make sure that there really is a safety net for all those who otherwise really will fall through the cracks. Maybe we are the safety net.

I remember a line from another movie several years ago: "If you stare at some one long enough you discover their humanity." I discovered Precious' humanity and  that discovery opened my eyes once again to hope and possibility for all of us in the human family.

Does everything happen for a reason?

"By his wounds we are healed...but that are our wounds, too. The great artists have gained their wholeness through wounds..."
        --Madeleine L'Engle

A friend of mine wrote the other day asking, “Does everything happen for a reason?” I wrote him back and said that surely all the terrible things that happen do not happen for a reason. I told him that I have heard this old cliché at more funeral homes than I would like to remember. Another version of the same words is: “Everything works together for good…” which comes from Paul’s book of Romans. This is a partial truth—and partial truths are always dangerous. The real translation of that verse is that: “In everything God works together for good…” No—everything does not work together for good. All the evil in the world is surely not good by any stretch of the imagination. And yet—in the pain and suffering of life I believe we do not stand alone. I hang on to those wonderful words in the book of Hebrews: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Heb. 4.15-16)

Bono spoke at the 54th Annual Prayer Breakfast in Washington and said words that help me when I struggle with the problem of suffering. “The one thing on which we can all agree, all faiths and ideologies, is that God is with the vulnerable and poor. God is in the slums, in the cardboard box where the poor play house. God is in the silence of a mother who has infected her child with a virus that will end both their lives. God is in the cries heard under the rubble of war. God is in the debris of wasted opportunity and lives and God is with us if we are with them.”

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Easter--Bigger than you think

Easter is a whole lot more than bunnies and church-going. Steve Lopez (of The Soloist fame) writes for the L.A. Times. His article on a family who takes in special-needs children will lift up your heart and make you glad you are a member of the human family. Kinda makes me think of the real Easter. We all need this reminder from time to time.,0,680552.column

Hope in a less than Hopeful Time

Was there ever a year when we needed an Easter more? I think not. There is restlessness in the land. People are scared and many are showing their fear in terribly destructive ways. Pundits left and right say the sky is falling. You can footnote their charges in almost any direction: education, finance, health care, war on terror, foreclosures and death threats in Washington. The church—like most of our politicians are timid and cautious—and seem to have few answers. Those in Montgomery and Capitol Hill squabble like children in a sand box. The media helps little with their diversions from our own terrors with stories of Tiger, Sandra Bullock and American Idol. We say we fear death panels and Alzheimer’s. But behind our masks the real fear is our own death and those we love.

Someone has called our malady declinism. It is the pathological belief that things were once much better and our best days are behind us. Declinism says that we stand hopeless before computer crashes and the divorces of our children. Technology helps little when we try to connect a new TV to work or figure out an iphone. If you have ever been put on hold for 20 minutes, hearing terrible music, hoping to talk to a real person about your problem--you know something is wrong.

But we need to put declinism in perspective. We Americans have forgotten our history lessons. Those who talk misty-eyed about founding fathers and the real intent of the Constitution have a short memory. We forget the skeletons in our forebear’s closets and the privileged protection of white male landowners lurking behind the pages of our Constitution. The good old days were not so good when you look in any history book. FDR was called a Socialist and Communist for inaugurating Social Security, Truman was despised for desegregating the military and Reagan was almost assassinated.

And in this climate, Easter comes like the rising of the sun after a terrible storm. How much we need this day that promises hope and new life and fresh starts. In the supposedly good old days flawed patriots, all-too-human preachers and ordinary folk got back up and started again. The depression did not break their backs or spirits. Declinism did not kill them. They had a country to build.

Someone recently said that of the three basic qualities: knowledge, attitude and experience—attitude will always carry the day. Let’s put away our guns and tea bags. Let liberals quit looking down their noses at all those others. And let conservatives let their blood pressure settle down. We’re all in one big leaky boat together.

Together we can fix the leaks if we believe what we do matters. Knowing that this time is our time on stage. We need to remember that the Red Sea parted at the most unlikely of times and one morning in a graveyard a stone—impossible to move—rolled away.

Put on your duds and go to church or Synagogue or Mosque. Burn candles of hope. Smell the lilies. Teach little children. Forgive enemies. Be patient with those who are walking slowly. Send money to Haiti. Build a Habitat house. Work for a better day. Be kind and patient with one another—especially those with whom we disagree. The greatest generation may be yet to come. Wouldn’t it be something if we made that happen?
Remember the old quote:

                  Fear knocked at the door,
                 Faith answered.
                 No one was there.

The best is yet to be. I call that Easter hope.

This article appeared in the Op Ed section of The Birmingham News, Birmingham, AL., April 4, 2010.

 (The stained glass window which appears above hangs over the altar of the Church of St. Marys the Virgin, two miles up the Thames River in the village of Iffley. This church has served that parish since 1170 and is one of the finest examples of Romanesque architecture in England.)

Friday, April 2, 2010

Easter--An open door

"When the world
shakes its fist and says,
  Good Friday!
  Good Friday!
God comes back
with dogwood,
redbuds, and jonquils;
the crocuses
and butterflies of life
and says,
       --Grady Nutt

Every Easter I remember a scene from the Passion Play in Oberammergau in Germany. The play opened with Jesus riding into Jerusalem for the last time. The play ended with the Resurrection. And in-between the drama of the last days of Jesus’ life took six hours to tell.

I was not prepared for the Resurrection scene. The crucifixion had been particularly graphic. The stage went dark after Jesus was lovingly taken down from the cross by his loved ones. In the last scene of the drama the weeping women move through the darkness and stood behind these huge doors that represented the locked tomb. They knocked on the door and nothing happened. Then an angel came and without saying a word she unrolled an aisle cloth from the door down, down the steps toward the audience. As the women looked on the door slowly began to open. Light, dazzling light slowly filled the stage and bathed the darkened room where we sat with light. After a long pause through that open door and the streaming light Jesus came. He walked down the steps and from stage left and right a hundred children come running forward and grab his legs as the chorus sang joyously.

That’s Easter for me.  Somehow my old nine-to-five appointment book is disturbed once more. The predictability of my days is thrown off kilter. The thus-and-so-ness of my life--worries about money or health or children or just the weary world—is suspended for just a moment.

This Easter a twelve-year old memory comes surging back. A large door, a blinding light and a figure people thought was dead now alive--and the laughter, the giddy laughter of little children. This is what keeps me going.


One of my favorite quotes are those words of T.S. Eliot:

“Remember the faith that took men from home
At the call of a wandering preacher.
Our age is an age of moderate virtue
And moderate vice
When men will not lay down the Cross
Because they will never assume it.
Yet nothing is impossible, nothing,
To men of faith and conviction…”

I was overwhelmed the other day with this display of crosses in a hobby shop.Wonder why we are so hung up on crosses today? Wonder why they are displayed everywhere? They mean many things to many people—and yet it seems like most of us have missed the point. Like Eliot said: We need to assume the cross.

But we live in a sacrifice-less age. Nobody wants to give up or pare down or cut back. Everybody wants tax cuts. We have had so much trouble with our “volunteer” army that we have employed 100,000 mercenaries. I have been told they make a whole lot more than our boys and girls who wear the uniform.

Any politician that wants to win better not talk much about giving up and taxes. Remember Jimmy Carter trying to get us to look long and hard on imported oil which was killing us then—what about now? He talked about the malaise of the American people and was followed by sunny Ronald Reagan that made everybody feel good.

But what part of life goes very far without sacrifice? Whether it is art or sports or writing a book or struggling with faith—every part of life demands hard and consistent work. Wearing a cross is not the same thing as bearing a cross. Martin Luther King and the foot soldiers of the Civil Rights movement certainly knew this. And so has every person or group who has struck out on a road to make the world different. They all did it—they bore their crosses against terrible windstorms of hate and violence and great difficulty.

So Good Friday let’s stop and ponder the mystery. “Surely he bore our pain and carried our sorrows and God has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” If we think long enough we know we have to go beyond putting a cross on the wall or around our necks. We are to bear our cross and one size never fits all.

Remember the old song:

           “Must Jesus bear the cross alone,
            And all the world go free?
            No, there’s a cross for ev’ryone,
            And there’s a cross for me.”

Thursday, April 1, 2010

It's About a Towel

This night Christians around the world will move toward a Table. Not just any table—but hungry pilgrims will come to the Lord’s Table. We will remember that “on the night in which he was betrayed Jesus took bread…and a cup…” Bread for the journey—Lord knows we need it.

But what we fail to mention is that other part of the story. Only the Gospel of John mentions what happened after the Passover meal. Jesus took a towel and a basin and washed each disciple’s feet. Peter was incensed—the Lord washing his feet.

But Simon and the others learned that night that feet get dirty and somebody has to do the task of the servant with a towel, water and a basin. The church kept the story, I think not only because of the servant lesson but because we all get dirty. The dirt of everyday collects. Someone has said that this act dealt with the sins we commit after we are baptized.

Some scholars believe that the reconciliation of the penitents always took place on Maundy Thursday evening. All those who had broken their vows and not lived up to their commitments came back on that holy night year after year for a cleansing.

Our kids used to protest loudly when we told them it was time for a bath. “I’m not dirty” they would proclaim. Whew—no one could possibly stay in the room with them without a can of Lysol spray. Twisting arms and spewing out threats they reluctantly took their baths.

Maybe we don’t focus on this text as much as the bread and the cup because we forget how dirty we get and how much we need a cleansing. Somehow the baptismal waters are not enough—we need to be washed again and again.

And so we file down the aisle on this darkened night and we take what the Priest or minister offers. Tiny reminders of his body and his blood. But as we come we need to remember that Passover night he donned a towel and took a basin and washed each disciple’s feet. We come back to remember as the prayer book says:

                 "We confess that we have sinned against you
                   in thought, word and deed,

                   by what we have done,
                   and by what we have left undone…”

If we Christians could remember that less-than-holy-water Jesus took that first night—perhaps it would spare us this insufferable piety and self-righteousness. The ashes of Ash Wednesday are long gone. But the dirt--we still have to deal with.