Monday, November 29, 2010

This is not a Football Game

E.J. Dionne's great article about Blaming Obama for everything is worth reading. I recommend it highly. Dionne He says that it looks like the newly elected Republican power base will try to block everything that Obama brings up. This way he will look like a failure and they will "take their country back" (whatever that means) in the next Presidential election.

It is high time for politicians to remember they represent their constituency and the best interests (not of getting elected)  but of helping this country with its enormous problems. Some of the Republican leadership says that if "he will work with us" we can get things done. Interpretation: If he gives in to our demands--this will be bipartianship. Hmm. Case in point: Turn down Unemployment benefits for millions who cannot find work--five people for every job. Then keep talking about giving a tax cut to everybody (meaning keep the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.) How can we do this in good conscience?

Years ago a wise counselor told me in marriage you can win the argument and lose the war. He said that any husband or wife may be able to beat the other down with arguments but this solves nothing. It only brings resentment and frustration. You may win the battle--but nothing has been accomplished. Marriage is give and take from both sides--it is consensus. It is respecting opposite opinions even when you think they are wrong. In the country Democrats and Republicans need to remember there is something bigger at stake for our nation than winning some election or getting your way. This is a whole lot  bigger than a football game.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Ponderings for the First Week in Advent

This Advent I am going to do something (or at least try) to write a Devotional every day from this first Sunday in Advent until Christmas Day. I love this season…and will be using one passage from this year’s Lectionary reading day after day.

O God, thou who art "untamed and perilous,"
who dost "deal in every form of danger, and many
modes of death," strip us from our pretensions and
vanities; expose to the strong his weakness, and
to the wise his folly but set in our hearts an unconquerable
hope, and in thine own way fulfill it.
Through Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Amen.
--Paul Scherer

Sunday - November 28 – Matthew 25. 1-13. We have dusted off the Advent wreath…we have placed the candles in place. And we light the first Candle of the season. Today’s Gospel lesson is about the Wise and foolish maidens or virgins. Five did not have oil in their lamps and when the Bridegroom came they were left out. Seems like Advent is a time for lamp trimming. For checking the oil, not in our cars but in our lamps. Do your resources, like mine, run low? Does your well get empty too? Light the first candle. Sit quietly and pray the Jesus prayer: “Jesus remember me.”

Monday – November 29 – I Thessalonians 1.3. Paul writes to the church at Thessalonica. He had established this church and set them on a course of faithfulness. But the world pressed in on them, culture tried to remake their values. So Paul’s letter is first an epistle of encouragement. In this verse he talked about: their work of faith, their labor of love and the steadfastness of their hope. Elton Trueblood once a book called The Encourager. I wonder if we spend some time today encouraging somebody it might just come back to us. Store clerks, especially this time of the year, Pharmacists, that server in the restaurant. Who knows what that smile or kind word or silent prayer might just do to help somebody along?

Tuesday – November 30 – Psalms 5, 6. Carlyle Marney used to say when he got into trouble he always turned to the Psalms. He must not be alone—in the worship of the Synagogue and the Church the Psalms has always formed the centerpiece of our meditations. Psalm 5 is a prayer—“Give heed to my sighings,” the writer prays. Psalm 6 reminds us that “the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping.” If God hears our sighs and weepings we can make it. Lift up your sighs…the things that make you weep this day. You will be heard.

Wednesday – December 1 – Isaiah 2.1-11. Isaiah’s book was written before, during and after the Exile. It must have been a scary time waiting, just waiting to be attacked. Israel’s enemies were brutal. And what we have here is this wonderful prayer-longing:“They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up word against nation, neither shall they learn war no more.” Someone said that through the years we reversed the order: plowshares into swords…pruning hooks into spears. O Prince of Peace make Isaiah’s dream come true in our hearts and in our time.

Thursday – December 2 – I Thessalonians 3. 1-13. In Thessalonica’s hard time Paul must have worried about their discouragement as they faced so many difficulties. He challenges them particularly in verses 11-13 to remain faithful. I have been struck by the utter courage of the English people during the Second World War. German bombs fell on London alone over 70 consecutive days. How did they stand it? Churchill, after the war said there was one secret: “Never, never give up.” Maybe Jesus’ prayer to “give us today our daily bread” really should be translated: “Give us what we need to get through this day.”

Friday – December 3 – Psalm 18. This is a long and wonderful prayer. I love the way it begins by giving us some qualities of the Lord God. Strength…Fortress…Deliverer…Rock…Refuge…Shield…Horn of my salvation…Stronghold. Verse sixteen continues this meditation on the wonders of our God. “He reached down…” “He drew me…” “He delivered me…” “He confronted me…”He brought me…” And then once again in case we forget: “He delivered me…”
“Strong deliverer, strong deliverer, Be Thou still my strength and shield, Be Thou still my strength and shield.”

Saturday – December 4 – I Thessalonians 13-18. Paul must have been quite concerned for this little church he had founded. Again he comes back to the theme of encouragement. Nothing stays won. Maybe we need a continual reminder not to lose heart. He challenges them to: “aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands.” A missionary served in a village of much despair. He taught the natives a chorus to sing over and over again: “Go on! Go on! Go on! Go on! Go on! Go on! Go on! Go on! Go on! Go on! Go on! Go on!” I loved the way James Thurber described his friend Ross who worked with him at The New Yorker. “He just kept going like a bullet-torn battle flag and nobody captured his colors and nobody silenced his drums.”

Getting Ready for the Advent journey

 And so with joy
we rise to set aginst the darkness,
the terror of our times and the
  shadows of our personal lives
the glory of Your love made plain
  in Christ.
May our lives point the way
to him who points with all his life
to you and
to Your lordship over all creation.

Sunday we begin the Advent journey again. I love this season of the year. As the days are shorter, darkness comes early. As the wind begins to blow and the trees lose their leaves and winter is here before we know it--Advent always come.

Advent is expectation—it is getting ready. It is reading those old texts about the moon turning to blood and the end of the world coming and virgins scurrying around for oil for their lamps. It reminds me, really that it is time to get ready for something momentous is going to occur.

This year I am going to post a devotional every day during this Advent season which begins Sunday. Why and I doing this? It gives me a chance to look at the lectionary texts and ponder the mystery. If you decide to join me maybe something in the text or the season or even the silence will touch something deep within you and this holy season might just become the holiest you have ever seen.

Do you need an Advent as much as I do? Politics in Washington is maddening. I thought the Republicans for the last two years have been very poor losers. (Maybe we all are.) But since this mid-term election it seems like the Republicans are poor winners too. (Maybe we all are.) The war in Iraq is dwindling down but our boys and girls still come home in boxes. We keep being told that we must push the timetable for the Afghanistan conflict further into the future. The longest war looks like will be much longer. My computer helper this week was from Haiti. He was most helpful. “How are things there?” “We’re still having a terrible time.” He talked about how hard it was. When you put a voice with a place of great suffering it changes the picture. So many places in our world people are suffering.

Someone down the street just packed up and left their house abandoned. They couldn’t make the payments. We all know somebody that needs a job and can’t seem to find one. To date the politicians refuse to extend the unemployment benefits for another nine months—while determined to give a tax break to the wealthiest in the country. Does this compute?

Christmas first came to those with little means. A poor mother and father. A mute priest and his wife. Innkeepers who tried to eke out a living and Shepherds—not exactly candidates for tax breaks. It was a world where Rome ruled and injustice was everywhere. This was the setting for that first Christmas.

As the Advent hymn goes:

Come, Thou long expected Jesus, Born to set Thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us; Let us find our rest in Thee.”

Join me every day this advent if you wish. May the dayspring on High visit us one and all.

(The beautiful angel pictured above is over one of the doors of St. Mary’s of the Highlands, Birmingham, Alabama. You may not be able to make out the message the angel bring. But it reads: Do not fear.)

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Thanksgiving Litany

(Back in November of 1982 Gordon Greer, Editor at Large of Better Homes and Gardens wrote this wonderful Thanksgiving piece after a serious medical scare. I was so struck by it that I adapted it for a litany for a Thanksgiving service. Here it is. And--special thanks to Gordon Greer I used six readers from the congregation and the choir.)

Leader: One November several years ago the Editor of Better Homes and Gardens wrote his own Thanksgiving prayer. He had just found out good news from a hospital lab report. Let us, in his words, express our own Thanksgiving. We are thankful for:

1.Sitting on the porch watching the light face and listening to the ball game on the radio...
2. The total joy on my daughter's face when she makes a nice cut on her water ski sending up a spray that shines like ten million diamonds...
3. Halloween pumpkins...
4. Fourth of July fireworks; Sunday evening cookouts under sprawling old shade trees...
5. Driving with the top down on my old Chevy;
6.  Hammocks...Rocking chairs...Bicycle rides...

Choir: We Give You Thanks.

1. Holding hands and walking down to the ice-cream store...
2. Early morning fog...a low harvest moon...
3. The scraggly little mutt we  adopted from Death Row at the Dog pound...
4.  Fireflies...Blue-jays...
5. Picking out folk songs on an  acoustic guitar...
6y. Hot dogs...Strawberries...Tomatoes from the garden...

Choir: We give You Thanks.

1. Putting together a good set of tennis, win or lose...
2. "When, in the course of human events..."
3. Stained-glass windows...Campgrounds at dusk...
4. The excitement of big cities...
5. Back roads between small towns...
6. Dahlias and daisies and even dandelions...

Choir: We Give You Thanks.

1. Doonesbury...Snoopy...Clear moonlit nights...
2. The thousands of poignant memories stretching back through four decades evoked by the playing of the   national anthem at any sports event...
3.  Late afternoon sunlight on a freshly mowed lawn...
4. The exuberance of the kids you see at high school football games...
5. "And dedicated to the proposition that all men and women are created equal..."
6. True friends...old cider beside the fireplace...

Choir: We Give You Thanks.

1. "Dearly beloved, we are gathered here together..."
2. The sounds of church bells and wind chimes and crickets and cellos and the soothing slap of waves against the sides of anchored boats...
3.  The season's first snowfall...
4. Vacations in warm places...
5. Browsing in bookstores...and smell of homemade bread...
6. Spending a whole weekend with no phone calls ...

Choir: We Give you Thanks.

1. Nature's ingenuity in never duplicating a sunset...
2. Oscar Peterson at the key board...
3. "Porgy and Bess"...
4. :"We, the people of the United States...

Choir: We Thank You God.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Mr. Lincoln and Thanksgiving

The year was 1863. For the man sitting in the White House it was a turbulent time. On January 1 of that year he had issued the Emancipation Proclamation: “All persons held as slaves…shall be then , thenceforward, and forever free.” The country pulled at him from all sides. The Abolitionists said the Proclamation did not go far enough. Many wondered how this action would affect the morale of the troops. Senators, like the newspapers, put their ears to the ground and barked out varied opinions. That year they began to talk about Mr. Lincoln’s War. The year before he had lost little Willie, his eleven year old son, and his wife would never fully recover. Many of his generals had let him down and then July 1-3 of that year Gettysburg came. It was the bloodiest battle in America history. When the fighting stopped on the third day 51,000 casualties from both sides were reported dead. One book about Gettysburg called that battle, A Vast Sea of Misery. By September of that hard year half the Northern public was against this war.

That same year there was a little known poet and editor named Sarah J. Hale. She had been lobbying for some time to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. Many states observed this special day that went all the way back to President George Washington. But Sarah Hale felt strongly that the nation needed a national day of Thanksgiving when the whole country would pause and remember.

Mrs. Hale came to see the President about her concern. If the country had a national day when all would pause and give thanks it might just do something for all the people. Lincoln listened and began to wonder if perhaps such a day might just help unite his divided nation. And so on the third day of October in 1863 Lincoln signed the national Thanksgiving Proclamation to be held on the fourth Thursday in November.

It would be two more years before the war would end on April 9, 1865. Did that Thanksgiving Proclamation stop the war? No. Did the declaration change anything? Who knows? We do know that the President continued to courageously lead the nation in the hardest of days. We do know that on November 19, one week before that first national Thanksgiving that Lincoln stood at Gettysburg and looked out on a torn battlefield and gave his finest address.

147 years later on this Thursday we pause for another Thanksgiving Day. It would be great if the old dream of a united people stirred once again. Our nation has many difficulties. Some say our President has as much on his plate as did Abraham Lincoln. We do know the mood of the land has turned sour. We have come through yet another contentious election. The battle lines are being drawn while foreclosures continue, people are desperate for jobs and the economy is in disarray Anxiety settles down on us like a fog. Some even say America’s best days are over.

Our mood reminds me of the little boy that brought home from school the familiar picture of the three Patriots that marched down the road. One played the fife, another beat a drum and a third carried a flag. The little boy showed the picture to his father and said, “Daddy, the man carrying the flag looks like he has a terrible headache.” Most of us understand that picture.

Yet Thanksgiving gives us another opportunity to transcend our headaches. It could be a moment when we might just renew our faith in the old vision of the Pilgrims and George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. It might be a time to put away our weapons and labels and reaffirm our faith in this good land. We have been blessed beyond measure. We have survived so much in our history. It is high time to pause and give thanks and recommit ourselves to making this word united a reality for America once more.

This article appeared in the Op-Ed section of The Birmingham News, Birmingham, AL. November 21, 2010.

Friday, November 12, 2010

An Anniversary Prayer

The Baptist Church of the Covenant that I served for eight years in Birmingham celebrated their 40th Anniversary last Sunday. That church grew out of the racial struggle of the late sixties in Birmingham. Because the First Baptist Church, after long and heated debate refused to allow a black mother and her daughter to join over 200 members walked out and said they would never be part of a segregated church again. No church would let them meet in their facilities--but the Jewish synagogue opened its doors and they worshipped there for two years. Then they moved to an old insurance building which they renovated. Like all churches they have had their ups and downs and challenges that culture and the times bring. Yet--forty years later they are still an open fellowship--not only for African-Americans but for people of all persuasions.

They asked me to give the blessing at the dinner following the service. This is what I prayed. You will not recognize the names if you are not familiar with that church--but you can fill in the blanks for your own congregation.)

We thank you all our God with hearts and hands and voices—Who wondrous things hath done, In whom His world rejoices…We could not offer a thanks today without remembering with gladness those who really did give their hearts and hands and voices to make Covenant what it is today.

We are truly surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. Herbert Gilmore, Betty Boch, John Sims—but all those courageous others who struck out on a new path. Winifred and Twyla Bryant…Bill and Marie Rogers and Angie and Judge  Grooms…and John Whatley…and Dan Ivins…I give you thanks for my time here…And we thank you for Sarah Shelton and the gifts she now brings. Each and every one of these have given us hearts and hands…but we would be poorer indeed without the voices that helped us praise. John Sims, Paul Hall, Peggy Hall , Peg Edwards, Ken Watson, and Dan Lahon.

We cannot name all those staff persons that helped but we remember Edna Langley and John Duke and Faye Wilson and dear Sarah Wilson who kept us all straight. My, my but they really did bring here their hearts, their hands, their voices.

But we would be remiss if we did not stop and pause and think of that great number who have, in their own special way sometimes hands, sometimes hearts—and sometimes voices which made this church what it is. Let us now think of some of these who have gone on…and if you wish to call out a name…lift that name up to God right now.

Lord, like those other pilgrims on that other 40-year journey you have led us, your reluctant people through the ups and downs of our history. And yet—like those others long ago who, as best they could, really did use hearts, hands and voices and so have we. But we remember that we have found as we moved along our own pillar of cloud by day and the wonder of the pillar of fire by night.

Sometimes our hearts break in church. Sometimes our hands tremble and grow weary. And sometimes the Doxologies we claim to sing—just sticks in our throats. Lord, how long those 40 years seem…and yet we wonder how really fast they have flown. So we thank you that even in days of our unfaithfulness your grace ran and runs through this tiny, holy place and touched us all.

Lord, do not use let our rich past or the present tense which never seems quite as special as yesterday or tomorrow be a weight that drags us down. But help us to know this really is the day the Lord God has made.
Give those who are here now and those yet to come hearts that burn and hands that work and voices that sing a live and proper Doxology.

O Pillar of Cloud by Day…O Pillar of Fire by night…we thank you for this day and all it means. And so—with hearts and hands and voices with our brothers and s sisters here we break this break and we drink this cup and we remember. Amen.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Learning from our Neighbors

Some of you have been wondering if I have dropped the ball. Nah. My wife and I just got back from this wonderful River cruise from Budapest to Prague. I promise not to bore you too much with the details. You may have the funny story of the Church Search Committee that said that they had only three requirements for their new Pastor: 1) That he had not studied Greek; 2) That his wife could not play the piano; and 3) He had not been to the Holy Land. I learned a long time ago that most folk don’t want to hear too much about your trip and they sure don’t want to see your slides.

This was an anniversary trip—and we traveled the Danube River in ten days. We touched five countries: Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, Germany and the Czech Republic. We visited I don’t know how many Cathedrals, walked on cobblestones streets until our feet ached. We saw the beauty of changing leaves in country after country. Every one of these countries has been touched by years of war and destruction. I talked to a few natives that told of how scary some of those days were and how little they had to live on. Many lost family members. They were invaded time after time. The Russians, the Nazis marched in, tore up, tried to uproot heritage and history and their put their brand on these people. It never works. 80,000 Jews in Prague alone never came back from the concentration camps. That handful I talked to were curious about our country and our politics. I had no idea how closely the world really does watch us. They found it hard to believe that our President has so much opposition. They told me they loved and admired what he was doing.

We came back three days after the mid-term elections. We missed the last ugly days when every candidate was out to smear the opposition. The Tea Party people are delirious as if they have done something good for their country. Mr. John Boehner, the new Speaker of the House sounds more like a new President than a Senator. There is talk of impeaching the President, of turning back the clock on Health care, ignoring rules and standards which have tried to keep us safe. They have already forgotten the oil spill and the damage that will be with us for years.

We’ve been over this ground more than once. Franklin Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton all had to make-do with a triumphant opposition party at mid-term also. From the pundits you would think that President Obama is washed up. In this country we have a short memory when it comes to our history. Funny now that the party that blocked every single issue that the President brought to the table is now saying they want the President to work with them.

I keep thinking of those lands I just visited and some of the folk we met. We have known so little of the destruction and the fear that the people there have faced again and again. I remember Sinclair Lewis writing a book years ago entitled It Can’t Happen Here. And he went on to talk about how freedom could be taken away from any people. Our economy is weak, our debt grows and grows. Many are without jobs and foreclosures just keep going on and on. And on the other side of the world we fight a war that seems to have no end. And we keep changing it on our credit card.

I hope we don’t listen to the snake-oil salesman that would cure our ills with easy answers. Digging out of the mess we are in will not be easy. Mr. Obama has learned this the hard way. And these new winners will find out all too soon that our problems are bigger and more complicated than they ever thought.

There is an old play by James Goldman entitled The Lion in Winter. Eleanor of Aquitaine and her three sons vie for the right to succeed King Henry. As they meet in the castle in Chinon, France and begin to plot for the prize, one of the sons, John says, “Richard has a knife.” Eleanor answers, “Of course he has a knife. He always has a knife. We all have knives. It is 1183 and we are barbarians. How clear we make it. Oh, my piglets, we’re the origins of war. Not history’s forces nor the times nor justice nor the lack of it nor causes nor killers; we breed war. We carry it like syphilis, inside. Dead bodies rot in field and stream because the living ones are rotten. For the love of God can’t we love one another—just a little. That’s how peace begins. We have so much to love each other for. We have such possibilities, my children. We could change the world.”

She makes in sound simple but we all know as Eleanor surely knew that love may be the hardest thing to do—and the best.