Saturday, October 23, 2010

Final Exam

(Getting ready for my  trip and cleaning out my office I re-discovered this wonderful quote that I had stolen from my friend's sermon and forgotten. Worth reading.)

In Gail Godwin's novel, The Good Husband, there is a conversation between the main characters Magda, who is dying of cancer, and her friend named Alice. Magda says to Alice, "One does know, eventually. I am beginning to know." Alice then asked, "Know what, Magda?" "What matters and what's ...garbage. Lots of garbage,"  Magda answers. "And what does matter," Alice pressed her. "Things you've loved. People...some you never met. Ideas. You love certain ideas. What finally matters is...ordering your loves." "Ordering," responded Alice. "Not like you order someone around," Magda tells her."The other kind...putting things in order...Mark my word, it will be the big question on the final exam."

Presente--An All Saints Meditation

This stained glass window can be found in the Princeton University Chapel. It is one of The Four Great Windows which can be seen clearly at the extremities of the building. This is the great north window which depicts endurance. As in each of the four windows, Christ is the central figure. In this window the Lord is shown in martyrdom. The figures surrounding Christ represent martyrs of the Church. In stone beneath the window is carved: "He that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved."

(The text for this sermon can be found in Ephesians 1.11-23)

Before his assassination Archbishop Romero of El Salvador had a practice of reading at the Eucharist the names of members of his church who had either ‘disappeared’—or died the previous week. As the prayers of the community were spoken—the names were be lifted up one after another. The congregation would respond after each name was called out: “Presente.” Present. Here--with us today.

Presente I do not know a better word for All Saints Day. And we join with churches around the world in remembering that great cloud of witnesses that have gone before us. We have called out some of their names. And even now some face rises us before us. Presente. They are always with us. Our lives have been touched. I love the way Stephen Spender put it when thinking of what he called “the truly great.” “Born of the sun they traveled a short while toward the sun, And left the vivid air signed with their honor.”

When Paul wrote to the little house church in Ephesus he wrote, interestingly enough, “to the saints who are in Ephesus and are faith in Jesus Christ…”(1.1.b) And so in that first chapter he gives us a prayer of what he hopes will happen in their lives and in the life of the church. Unless I miss my guess it was a prayer for his life, too. All the best prayers are. That in the ragged edges of his life which he knew all too well—he prayed for himself, too. E.F. Scott, one of the finest New Testament scholars of his day, has said that this particular prayer is decisive to the letter. For all the main sections of what will follow in chapters two and three flow out of these words here. This is prelude or overture in which the themes will be played out are first sung or played. Only in this text they come to us in the form of prayer. Here we find a definition of a healthy church or a healthy Christian. But more than that here we find a proper definition of sainthood. For what does he pray?

The Wise Ones

“I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him…”(1.17) Who are the saints? They are the wise ones.

This wisdom is not particularly book learning or education. It could be. We are never, ever to leave our brains outside the doors of the church. Education should open doors and windows on vistas we’ve never seen. But we all know some of the most unwise people are the most educated. The wisdom Paul talks about here is not facts or technological expertise. Fred Craddock says that the longest journey any of us will ever make is from the head to the heart. From “I know” to “I know.” Paul said that saints were people that were truly wise.

The Ones That See Clearly

 Paul prayed that “the eyes of your hearts will be enlightened.”(1.18a) Moffett translates these words: “that the eyes of your heart will be flooded with light.” Saints are not only wise but they see with a clarity that others do not see.

W.O. Carver has said that with openhearted clarity we know how significant we are to God. All our lives most of us are like that blind man Jesus touched and gave sight to. The healed man said he saw men as trees walking. He could not make out their faces—everything was still blurry. He saw through a film. But Jesus touched him a second time and maybe a third and fourth time. And he saw clearly faces, everything—the world around him. And this is what conversion truly is. Sometimes we get discouraged because we keep on breaking our resolutions. We keep on lapsing back to old and destructive patterns of living and thinking. We wonder if we are making any progress whatsoever. And God comes and touches us again. And sometimes again. And we begin to grow and see things we never, ever saw before. The reason that Paul prayed that the eyes of your hearts would be enlightened was so they could see the world and our own lives through the eyes of God. Saints learn to do that.

The Hopeful Ones

The third thing Paul prayed for was that “you may know the hope to which he has called you.”(I.18 b) Saints are the wise ones. They look at things through different eyes. And they are the hopeful ones. They keep on believing despite all the odds. Are you a hoper?
Do you know the name, Samuel Ogden? Samuel Ogden was a writer and former member of the Vermont legislature. He wrote an article in the New York Times, which was widely reprinted. He said that on one of the happiest Christmases he and his family had ever had his wife of 51 years just died there before their eyes. He said he was left alone. Not literally, he had children and many friends and associates. But he said that he just couldn’t get over his grief. For 51 years he had slept in the same bed with this woman. He said they had a wonderful relationship and at age 76 it was just more than he could take. Grief plunged him into a depression that got worse and worse. Finally, in desperation, he decided to kill himself. He rigged up a hose to the exhaust pipe of the car, stuck it though the car window and caulked up all of the cracks. But, he said for some unknown reason, maybe a backfire when the motor started, but the pipe disengaged from the exhaust. He said he did not know this. But Miss Fannie, the housekeeper saw him fooling around with the back of the car and eventually came out and discovered what he was trying to do.

He was taken to the hospital and there, he said, he made a great discovery. He said that all the values which his unbearable grief had twisted into a pattern of evil could be set right once he began to look through Mamie’s eyes. He began to do this. And so he made a new resolve. To live with as much joy as he could accomplish. To do things she would want him to do. To do work that was still left undone. He began to move out of his self-centeredness and fulfill some of his obligations to his family and community. He said that he had learned to hope again—and it was hope that kept him going. Life had purpose and he was on the road again. Could a man be a saint who has tried to commit suicide and failed? I think so. If we learn to hope we can help others become hopers, too.

Those That Know God's Power

But maybe Paul saved the best for last. He also prayed: “that (we may know) what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.”(1.19) Saints are wise. Saints are insightful. Saints are hoppers. And saints are the powerful ones.

Listen to Paul as he unpacks this: “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”(1.20-23)

F.F. Bruce asks why this attempt to exhaust the resources of language to convey something of the greatness of God’s power? Because, he answers his own question, the text is thinking of one supreme example when the power of God was exerted in a special way. When Jesus was raised from the dead. And what he says is that God’s resurrected power is available to the whole church.

This is the heart of the gospel. And the saints of God are those who have come to terms with this power. It has touched their lives and changed them forever. And they know that if he is Lord and if he really is in charge and the powers and principalities are really under his feet—that he is present and all of God’s children that ever stuck their necks out for the cause of goodness are here too. Presente. Present. Here.

God has dominion over whatever touches and cripples us all. And who among us is not crippled or broken in some way. And we have spent much of our lives trying to run away or cover over and ignore or evade or just deny that we do not yet believe in this power of God that takes the shackles off our lives. For faith is that stubborn, stubborn belief that God moves through even the worst things of our lives. So Paul said in another place: “Nothing…(no-thing) can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”

Theodore Wedel observes in The Interpreter’s Bible that the key word in this whole prayer is power. For the early church Christ was the great miracle. He was present in who they were and in what they did. And they believed in that he walked with them and was always there. Presente!

When we think about saints Mother Theresa easily comes to mind. In 1979 she was awarded the Nobel peace prize. There was a great outcry from some quarters when she was recognized. They were used to political and religious leaders like Ghandi and Martin Luther King. What in the world had Mother Theresa ever done for cause of peacemaking? And in one sense they were right. She was not a peace activist. But she had patterned her life after Francis of Assisi and devoted her whole life to the poorest of the poor. Educating children, washing the putrid sores of the dying, caring for lepers whom society shunned, taking in street urchins, giving away medicine to people with tuberculosis. She reached out to the unwanted, the unloved and the abandoned. She did not look at the big picture—Mother Theresa looked at the small picture. One baby here. One child there. One old man coughing and dying. One by one by one by one. And this is what she said about her work. “I am nothing. He is all. I do nothing on my own. He does it. This is what I am, God’s pencil. A tiny bit of pencil with which he writes what he likes.”

So simple it seems ridiculous. God’s pencil. Believing that God takes what we are and uses it for his purposes to make a better world. Isn’t this really a good definition of sainthood: God’s pencil. So today as honor all those saints who have come before us—let us remember this word, presente. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. And on this special day we remember them. Thanks be to God.

Friday, October 22, 2010

50th Anniversary Trip

Friends—Romans and Countrymen…I won’t be writing for the next couple of weeks. We are celebrating our ((ta-dah) 50th anniversary. We’re going on a River Cruise (please salivate) from Budapest to Prague. At least we hope the trip makes. We go from Birmingham to Atlanta to Paris to Budapest. And—all hell is breaking loose in Paris right now over proposed retirement changes: from age 60-62. So we hope the flight is on without a hitch. (There usually always are hitches on trips right?)

We are going with my wife’s twin sister and her husband. My wife and her sister are just about as close as any sisters could be. It’s the kind of relationship we all fantasize of having with someone. So—it will be great for them to be together for these twelve days. Because they live on the West Coast and we don’t get to see them very often. Her husband—my long-time college friend for over 40 years planned the trip and asked us to go along.

So—the house has been turned into a tizzy. My wife keeps practicing packing her suitcase…we’ve traveled enough to know that you can’t take everything. We learned this the hard way. So—we both have suitcases…and she is ready and I have not yet begun to worry. She breezed in last night to tell me it was snowing in Prague and that it was down to the thirties at night in Budapest. So—this meant she had to completely alter her trousseau. Now—she said we must pack for winter.

The distance between today and getting there—we leave Sunday—is a long, long time. But this is a celebration. Any woman who would put up with her pastor-husband for fifty years needs some kind of a silver chevron. She has been a trooper…as I have dragged her from pillar to post. When we were first married and she was 21 a mean old woman in the first church—first Sunday—wanted to know if she would be in charge of the Women’s group. Puzzled, she said: I don’t think so. The woman snarled: “The last one did.” Well—how’s that for starters. She has endured being asked if she was a Bible scholar, would she pray in public, would you please give the devotional (since nobody else would do it), filling in on the Organ Bench 8 months pregnant because the Organist resigned in a huff. She has negotiated all those who try to pry into their pastor’s family life so they could spread the inside dope: What really goes on in the Pastor’s house!! She’s worked miracles in houses that belonged to the church and really needed razing. But she somehow made do with little and our habitats always looked great. She took almost no money…and made it go further than anyone could imagine. That’s what she should have told nosy church folk. But she kept who she was. They never were able to turn her into some kind of Aimee McPherson-Lottie Moon-Mother Theresa or Billy Graham’s preacher daughter. She has kept her integrity against all sorts of minor onslaughts—which any preacher’s wife knows is not exactly easy to pull off. She did it her way…and they loved her for it. At our retirement party ten years ago the President of the college’s wife stood and said: “Gayle Lovette has always been my role model because she has always just been who she was.”

Years ago I wrote the first of several books, which by the way—were not best sellers. But I dedicated my first book to her. The dedication read: “To Gayle who has taught me—the bridge really is love.” And she has taught me that and a multitude of other lessons of the heart as well as life.

So—wish us well as we try to weather the Paris strike…the snow in Prague and the thirty degree temperature in Budapest. Pray hard that she does not kill me somewhere on the Blue Danube. Looking back…I have been the luckiest of husbands. She has put up with a lot…and, as the old Simon and Garfunkle songs goes: “She’s still crazy after all these years.” Thank God.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Looking Back on 75 Years

Yesterday I turned 75. S-e-v-e-n-t-y…f-i-v-e…y-e-a-r-s… o-l-d. How in the world did I get here? Where did it all go? The years…the churches…the kids…my parents…friends either dead or just slipped away some in death and some in attrition…some, I just don’t know.

Strange place to be. The opportunities to do begin to dwindle. The phone doesn’t ring quite as often. Nobody seems to need you or ask your advice. That’s pretty hard for us pastor-types who may be the neediest of them all.

My body changing. I have a finger that is swollen and crippled with arthritis. One finger. I have a big toe that reminds me from time to time it is there because it hurts when I walk or try to run. Strange knots appear on my body. My hair disappeared. And the dermatologist lectures: “You have had all the sun you can ever have…” as she burns off these pre-cancerous places here and there…and there and here.

In some ways I have gotten more emotional. I find myself on the verge of tears when I think of my parents long dead. I wish I had said thanks more. I wish I had asked them about their growing up, about the early hard days of marriage. Of the interminable years they both spent locked in a cotton mill from seven until three and early on, seven until seven. During the war—seven days a week. I now want to know how they got up every working morning year after year and went to work. No vacations to dream of. No looking forward to excitement in the days ahead. Just work and cooking and eating and being. They had no car. They lived in a rented mill house. And yet—they never muttered or complained. They just did what they had to do.

I get emotional when I think about my children grown and gone. Wishing, wishing I could, like Joshua long ago, have stopped the sun just long enough to enjoy those moments when they were little and going through growing stage to growing stage. Oh, I have my memories. Trips to the Beach. Taking my daughter to New York when she was 15. Riding across Kentucky to that little tiny college in the mountains with only my son in the car…and our talk and our fun. Of course I remember the houses we lived in…and I can name every room of every house and what happened there. I remember that summer in England when I exchanged churches with an English Pastor and the fun we had and the places we visited and the terror of trying to drive on the wrong side of the road. And now my two children are grown and productive I am very proud of both of them. Not to speak of my two granddaughters who are growing up much too fast.

I am moved when I remember some of the people we met along the way. People who made the trip worthwhile by their fun and kindness and love and patience. In every church there was somebody that I still remember as if it was yesterday. My, my how blessed I have been by those colleagues I worked with…and put up with me and made it happen over and over.

Married fifty years. Why, that is almost as strange as thinking about being seventy-five. She is still as gorgeous as the day I first met her in Louisville. But that inner beauty, that stubborn goodness that goes all the way down and makes her who she is. God knows, she has put up with a lot from me. My ups and downs…crazy churches…living on a shoestring…moving again and again and making each place feel like home. If you were to cut me open and look at my heart her name would be written there in large letters.

I remember the books that have blessed me. The places that changed me. Princeton in the summers. New York City. England…and Oxford in particular. Italy…Spain…not to speak of friends we met and loved and laughed with along the way.

I am indebted to that cotton-mill church with the white columns and the redbrick school across the street. But the church took me in, made me feel a part of something special. I feel it to this day when I hear the old hymns and see beautiful stained glass and read from the old, old book that never grows old.

Maybe I’m just groveling in sentimentality…seventy-five year olds do sometimes. But I hope it is more than that. I hope it is a remembering…like William Stafford said in a poem: “By remembering hard I could startle (which means to stumble or to rush) for home and be myself again.” I am still, after all these years trying to find out who I really am. Maybe all of life is just struggling with that question.
Judy Collins still sings, once in a while, “Who Knows Where the Time Goes.” And it moves me still after all these years. Judy, I do not know where the time went or how I got here. But if I am not grateful for the ride and those along the way that made it happen I should hang my head in shame.

There won’t be as much ahead as there was behind and sometimes that infuriates me. And yet—when I remember, really remember I am glad. For dogs and cats—Lucy and Pooch and Jennifer and Beethoven. For places. For parents and wife and children and grandchildren. For friends. For digging in the yard and just marveling at black-eyed susans and daisies dahlias and phlox and hostas and ferns and hydrangeas not to speak of the trees that change colors. For trips and jogging and books and movies and macaroni cheese and real friend chicken and grits and eggs and country ham on Christmas morning with red-eye gravy and lasagna and a good wine or two. For the pipe I used to smoke and for the occasional cigar I still have…these and much more. Once, long ago, Ray Bradbury sent me some of his Christmas poems. I still remember one line that is probably a good way to end this 75-year-old-rambling. “Joy is the grace we say to God for gifts given.” Yes…yes…yes.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Lessons from the Darkness

"O Trinity  of love and pow'r,
Your children shield in danger's hour;
From rock and tempest, fire and foe,
Protect them wheresoe'r they go;
Thus, evermore shall rise to Thee
Glad hymns of praise from land and sea."
           --Navy Hymn

The eyes of the world have been riveted toward Chile these last few weeks. That little unknown spot in the desert called San Jose Mine has made many of us stop and think. Chilean miners were trapped for 69 long days. It looked as if they might die in those caves two miles underground. And so when word came that a rescue was possible we all gathered around our TV’s and watched breathlessly as the first worker slowly moved to the surface. We claustrophobics could not even imagine being trapped under ground for months. Wednesday evening when the last miner came out—most of us breathed a sigh of relief.

The first miner came out looking for his wife and little boy. What a reunion. The joy on his face as he saw all those gathered was wonderful. The President of Chile and his wife were there—sharing in the glory. He had used his influence to rally engineers and specialists from all over the world. That same scene was repeated all through Tuesday the night and Wednesday. Surely there are lessons to be learned from this near-tragedy.

We're All Important

It struck me as I watched this event unfold how important we all are. Those trapped were simple laborers working under terrible conditions to provide for their families. Engineers, doctors, psychiatrists, and workmen came to help from all over. Five specialists risked their lives in joining the trapped miners. No one looked at credentials or took out the predictable yardsticks we use to judge. We all can be a little prouder of the human family when we remember that once again the concerted efforts of so many caring folk made an incredible difference.

Families are Primary

As each miner surfaced I was reminded again and again of how much families matter. Being released above ground they did not see the Chilean President or all the workers that helped. Those freed workmen scanned the crowd for wives, children, brothers and sisters. They reached out to touch those they loved first. We often forget how important are the people closest to us really are. The relational quality in life can never be underestimated.

Faith Sustains

These rescued miners kept talking about how faith kept them going. They believed God was with them. Most were Roman Catholic and probably learned Bible stories, prayers and the catechism when they were children. Yet in a crisis time, they fell back on a faith that sustained them when all seemed lost.

Government is Essential

I was struck by the importance of the work of the government. Those recoveries would never have happened without the Chilean government and other countries that came to help. The cost of this effort must be astronomical. I am sure the United States has done our part—we usually do. But back at home, on the eve of an election, we debate the importance of government. And this is a necessary dialogue. But it seems to be a strange argument when we realize there are some things we do together that we can never do alone. Government is neutral—it is how we use this instrument that tells the story. Those rare moments when labels like Democrat and Republican fall away and we join hands to help people, we stand tall and come closer to the old dream of a united states.

The last miner, worker number 33 was brought to the surface Wednesday evening. Soon all the equipment so necessary to the rescue effort will be dismantled. The workmen that traveled from everywhere will return back to their own counties and jobs. Hopefully all of the miners will be found healthy. Will we remember the San Jose Mine in Chile and what happened there? If we ponder the lessons of the darkness in that Chilean mine we may just be a better people.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The word is Beloved

I just got back from preaching at Alpine Baptist Church. Never heard of it—neither had I. From Birmingham you go south to Childersburg and turn left at the first light and go about ten-fifteen miles. Didn’t know what to expect. I could tell you horror stories of some of the places I preached. Like one church where the Organist and Pianist played different songs at the same time. Now that was hard to sing. That same Church had 5 Organists—none of which could really play—but they thought they could. This is a diversion from where I started.

We drove up to the prettiest white frame church with green shutters. There were quite a few cars in the parking lot. We walked up the steps and looked up at the huge green wooden doors. They must have been fourteen feet high. Inside I learned the church dated back to 1833. It may well be the oldest standing Baptist congregation in Alabama.

From the vestibule we entered a small sanctuary—very clean. Someone showed me the pictures taken through the years. There was a glass case that held their first silver Communion set, a Bible and other objects. There must have been sixty people there. They were sharp, well-dressed sang like they meant it. You could tell they were very proud of their church. You could feel something solid and stable. The Pastor, on vacation, had been there thirteen years. The lady leading the choir told me she had been doing the music for 44 years.

There was a whole printed page insert in the bulletin of prayer-needs. One soldier in Iraq. A nephew in Afghanistan. They spelled out who had cancer and who was recovering from back surgery. The list went on and on. And when somebody during prayer time wanted to know if there were other requests—two or three other names were added to the list.

This was not an over-seventy crowd. There were people of all ages. One fourteen year old told me he was going to China for 17 days next summer with a group from his school. There was a new mother there with her new baby—and the Grandparents sat next her beaming.

I preached on Matthew 3 when Jesus was baptized and I took Henri Nouwen’s idea of beloved and made it my theme. Nouwen said that when God whispered: “This is my beloved” to Jesus this was the anchoring word that carried our Lord through to the finish line. I told them about that other time when God spoke on the Mount of Transfiguration and that second beloved helped move Jesus down the mountain and into a world that grew darker and more difficult.

I told those gathered that Jesus took that beloved and gave it out to everyone. Like the loaves and fishes that fed five thousand—he broke beloved up and gave it to everyone. Is this not the heart of the gospel?

I ended the sermon by telling them about Raymond Carver’s story. He was one of the great writers of the twentieth century. He was mostly a poet but also wrote short stories. His was a hard life. He battled alcoholism most of his days. He lost his wife and his children. He lost everything he had. But his last ten years he put the bottle down and with the help of doctors, groups, AA and a friend he took control of his life. He fell in love with this friend, Tess Gallagher. He went on to dedicate his last book to her. I love the Dedication: Tess. Tess. Tess. Tess.

She was his lifebuoy. With her help he found meaning and joy those last ten years. Then he discovered lung cancer and she stood with him through those awful days of chemotherapy. He fought hard for ten months until he finally lost the battle. The last book of poetry he ever wrote was called A New Path to the Waterfall. The last poem on the last page of that book could serve as a benediction for his life.

And did you get
what you wanted
from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved.
To feel myself beloved of the earth.

It’s what we all want in the end to feel beloved. I’m getting weary of all these new atheists like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins and even comedian Bill Maher who look down their noses at religious folk. They say we need nothing more than our intellect. Head is all that is necessary, they tell us. What about heart? They pooh-pooh what you can’t prove factually.

But I wish they could visit little churches like Alpine. For almost 200 years they have been opening those huge green doors and taking their places on those pews. Why do they come? They are looking for something they cannot find during the nine-to-five weeks. They read off that long list of names on their prayer list—not because they have to but because they care. Their hearts are warmed by the old songs they learned from their parents as children. They bring their Bibles and know the stories because they have discovered that embedded in that book are their stories too. They bring casseroles by when somebody is sick or dies. They told me their newly renovated kitchen was used almost every week. Around tables, breaking bread with people they know and love they find something that keeps them going that cannot be found in any test tube. Whether they know it or not I think they have discovered—and are discovering that word beloved for themselves and for everyone.

No wonder they have been in business for almost 200 years. They have found a place to stand and in this kind of a world that is no small thing. I’m glad I drove that thirty-mile trip. Maybe, just maybe they gave me more than I could ever, ever give them. For they reminded me that even preachers can be called beloved.

(This photograph was taken of a sunrise on the Sea of Galilee by a friend of mine recently.)

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Happy Birthday Daughter

People are always saying: “Everyone remembers where they were when President Kennedy was shot.” And this is true. But for most of us there are other days that are engraved in our memories forever.

Our first-born, a girl, came into the world on October 9th—1963. And my memory of that night is as clear as if it were yesterday. I sat in the hospital in Owensboro, Kentucky waiting—just waiting. In those days husbands were not permitted in the labor-delivery room. This has been our second trip to the hospital that week. Two days before we rushed down to the Emergency Room to be told my wife was not ready. So two nights later we were back there—and for a while I was alone. I had brought my one-volume of Sandburg’s Abraham Lincoln and nestled in the pages of that book is the hospital booklet they gave with the dos and don’ts for patients and families. I called a preacher-friend and he came down to hold my hand. I never opened my book that night.

I remember being scared for the baby, for my wife. I wondered if everything would be OK. We didn’t have to wait very long until the Doctor came out and said, “You have a little red-headed girl.” A few minutes later they admitted me into the room and a nurse brought this little bundle in. My wife looked up and said, “Let me see her ears.” Hoping they did not look like mine. They did.

She took my breath away that late first evening—something that would happen on and off through the years. Her love for purses and shoes—even when she was tiny. Her first day of school. Playing in the band, joining the church, going off to college and leaving an empty room. That summer we spent in England and how the hot water was scarce and I could hear her from the bathroom yelling: “I just hate England!” It was the year Princess Diana was married and she loved the tiara that the Princess wore at her wedding. We found a crystal Tiara in the seaside village of Bournemoth that summer. We spent one week in England in the new Forest in what the Britishers called a “caravan.” And I remember this same redhead, then 21, proclaiming: “I can’t believe we came all the way to England to be stuck in a stupid cow pasture.” But my favorite picture of her that summer in standing in Bath with sunglasses and a green raincoat. That photograph is on the desk in my study even now.

She took my breath away when that next summer she walked down the aisle  on her brother’s arm—tiara and all. And I tried to say the “Dearly Beloved, we are gathered here…” with a lump in my throat. We were there when both her girls were born and what a good mother she has been. The tiara has outlasted the marriage and I learned that when your children hurt—there is no harder or deeper pain. We always want to keep them safe—but it isn’t always possible.

We watched her on graduation day at her school giving her special-education kids little framed pictures of each one with their teacher. On the back she had written: “I am proud of you.” My, my how they loved her. The meanest boy in her class came up with a picture he had drawn of an angel and shyly handed it to her. It read: “I love you sooo much, Mrs. Jennette.”

So today she turns 47. How could that be? 47—years crammed with memories. William Barclay wrote of a friend once, “If they cut me open and look at my heart—they would see your name written there in large letters.” Her name is inscribed on my heart. Few nights there are when, before I drift off to sleep, I whisper the prayer I have prayed through the years, “Lord, keep her safe. Keep her safe.” Happy Birthday Leslie. Your mother and I are proud of you. And when we look back over our shoulders and remember we are glad—very, very glad. You still take my breath away.

Monday, October 4, 2010

I Remember Ernie

I just read where Dr. Ernest Campbell died in July. Somehow I missed this in the papers. The Church was always better because of Ernie Campbell was a minister. He was a native of New York City and you could tell it when he talked. He never lost that sharp New York accent.

Somehow he got to Bob Jones University, the fundamentalist bastion in South Carolina. Thank God he shed most of whatever he learned there. He went on to Princeton Seminary, served four churches in Pennsylvania before moving to the Presbyterian Church at Ann Arbor, Michigan. I remember hearing a story later about that time in Ann Arbor, which captures the spirit of Ernie. After Lee Oswald assassinated President Kennedy and was killed, he left behind his wife, Marina whom he had brought to this country from Russia. Campbell and his church in Ann Arbor took her in. He saw a need of this hurting woman with few friends in a strange land. He believed strongly in reaching out to the least of these and controversy never stopped him from doing what he felt was right.

I first discovered Campbell when I was a young preacher. He was Pastor at the Riverside Church in New York City. This was during the stormy sixties and seventies. When I was studying in the summers at Princeton I always went to hear Dr. Campbell on Sundays. He was redheaded and sometimes he could be fiery. I was there one Sunday when tourists tromped in, walked noisily down the side aisle taking pictures. He stopped the sermon, turned beet-red and said, “This is a house of worship. You may worship with us or you can leave.” The tourists fled.

I was so struck with his sermons that I began to get them weekly in the mail. I still remember some of those sermons after all these years. “Every Battle is not Armageddon” “The Home-Court Advantage’” One Sunday a group of militant African-Americans stormed in one Sunday and took over the service, demanding reparations. He responded days later by preaching on: “The Case for Reparations.” I remember him telling one story about visiting a prominent family who lived in a mansion outside the city. It was a beautiful place on a lake and was furnished impeccably. In the driveway were two Cadillacs. They had just returned from Europe. And they told Ernie that every Sunday night they called their daughter long-distance. “It’s our only luxury, “ they told him. You can imagine where he went with that!

He told of group of ministers about his own bout with plagiarism. When he was on the speaking circuit many weekends he would change planes in a certain deep-South city. On that strop-over he would read the Saturday paper just to see what the sermon topics were for the next day. He kept seeing titles that had a strangely familiar ring from the same prominent preacher. One Sunday he decided to visit that church and heard one of his own sermons word for word. He asked for copies of the Pastor’s sermons. For months the man had been preaching Campbell’s sermons. Ernie told the Preacher that he could expect legal action and remuneration for using his sermons without permission.

His Pastoral Prayers were memorable and some of them were published in a volume, Where Cross the Crowded Ways. Some would call those prayers old fashioned because he used Elizabethan English. “I deem it more important that God be our Lord and not our pal.” One of those prayers ended like this:

We look now to our own needs, and the wants that masquerade as needs; and pray for the wisdom to know one from the other:

Help us to accept ourselves, that we may be delivered from the need of self-promotion;
Help us to commit ourselves, that we may shake the need to be diverted and distracted;
Help us to deny ourselves; that the strident clamorings of the flesh and self may be subdued;
Help us to know ourselves, that we may neither overestimate nor underestimate our gifts;
Let Thy love so prevail in the life and ministry of this congregation that each may count the other precious, and all of us tgether erect within the
se walls, and beyond, a tstimony to the truth that sets men (sic) free. We pray to Thee, O Father, in the power of the Spirit. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."
He dedicated that book and its proceeds to the vision of Caesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers’ National Union. There is no doubt what he would have say about today’s immigrant conflict.

Somewhere along the way we became friends. “Call me Ernie,” he would say. From time to time I would receive a note of encouragement from him. He came to South Carolina one weekend and preached for us. Through his books, sermons, and personal conversations he became one of my mentors. I loved all his work but I most appreciated the time he gave to a young struggling Pastor. His social conscience taught me how important it is to speak truth to power. His faithfulness to the church through his incredible gifts long after his retirement exemplified a love for the church and a commitment to excellence to the word that God sent.

When I retired as Pastor one of the letters I always treasured came from Ernie Campbell. Along with that letter he included a poem by Barrie Shepherd who had recently retired from his parish in the city. As I read of his Ernie's death, I dug out that letter and poem. So Ernie I give bck to you this day the words you gave me several years ago.

“Carefully or not, lives lead us
towards turnings where, despite our best efforts,
and everything that can be boxed
and loaded into vans, much must be left behind,
abandoned to those shifting, was sinking sands
of time and memory.

The gifts , of course, we carry with us,
blessed tokens, symbols, talismen (and women too)
Recalling gladness, gaiety and laughter—
plus the occasional tear.

The tearing part, that shreds the human fabric,
is the parting, all the fare-thee-wells,
the separating of the self from faces,
voices, smiles and fond embraces,
And we do this—since we must—
only in the solemn trust that the One
who blessed us with these gifts will hold us
somehow in them till, at last, all turnings
are accomplished and the radiant circle
of affection and delight is sealed,
eternally complete.”
--Barrie Shepherd

Weeks from now we will celebrate All Saints Day. I will remember dear Ernie as we sing:

“And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave again, and arms are strong.
Alleluia! Alleluia!”