Saturday, December 31, 2011

The New Year--a Chance to Do it Right

"O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
   Missing so much and so much?
O fat white woman whom nobody loves,
Why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
When the grass is soft as the breast of doves
    And shivering sweet to the touch?
O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
   Missing so much and so much?"
--Frances Cornford, To a Fat Lady Seen From the Train

New Year. Strange to even write: 2012. For months I will have to check myself. How in the world did we ever get to 2012? Who knows? My wife and I have been surrounded by boxes, trying to figure out what should go where in this new house. Discovering after more than twenty years away—that the little old town has changed—much. But haven’t we all. I expected the people at church to look the way they did twenty years ago. And, I am sure they have expected me to look much different that this bald headed old guy.

Stopping for a respite of trying to organize, celebrate Christmas, say goodbye to a multitude of friends and painfully adjusting to a new place—I have been reading a novel. The Postmistress by Sarah Blake. The title sounded a little corny—but I finally picked it up the other day and discovered that this woman can write.

She tells the story of a Postmistress in a tiny place called Franklin—but there’s a war going on and so she keeps skipping from the safety of the United States to London and Europe and the bombs that just kept falling. In London there is a war correspondent that works with Edward R. Murrow. Her words cross the ocean to the people back home. She’s good at what she does and she interviews people scared and wondering what the future will hold. She tells that when she was at Smith College that a noted reporter, Miss Martha Gellhorn came to speak. She talked about the Depression and she told heart-wrenching and riveting stories of the pain and suffering of so many people during those hard days. After listening to her very dark address one of the girls sarcastically asked, “What are we to do about all that?” Miss Gellhorn took her time to answer. “Pay attention,” she said, “For God’s sake, pay attention.”The correspondent never forgot those words and she had her eyes open to people and tragedy and triumph in this terrible days. I cannot get those words out my mind, “Pay attention.”

Remember that wonderful line in the play, Our Town when Emily who has died is given a chance to return home. She chose her 12th birthday. They can’t see her but she can see all that is going on. And finally she cries out, “I can’t take it anymore. It’s too painful. All that was going on while I was there and I didn’t even notice. Does anybody really ever see what is going on?” And the Stage Manager who is a character in the drama answers, “Yes, some do. Poets and a few others. Not many.” I’m paraphrasing the writer’s words but it seems to me that a good resolution for all of us would be to pay attention to what is going on around us.

I confess that many days I have just been sleepwalking through so many important things. So I want to open my eyes and see what is going on around me a little clearer. Sometimes it isn’t a pretty sight—take the Republican candidates that are beginning to spit and claw at each other. Look around you—the checker at the grocery store—your postman—the woman across the street trying desperately to move on after her husband’s sudden death this year. We had four movers working hard to move us out and then to move us in. I did something I hardly ever do. I asked them about their lives, their families, how long they had been in the moving business. When they finally got everything placed in our new home they lined up and hugged us. We should have been hugging them.

Pay attention folks. If we pay attention we might be able to help somebody down the road who needs a hand or maybe a hug. If we pay attention it might just save us from this self-centeredness that infects us all. If we pay attention I have a feeling that we will be warmer and kinder and somehow, for better or for worse, this New Year may be far richer than any of us really envisioned.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

It's Christmas--And even the Poor and Minorities get a Present This Year

The Obama administration left a huge Christmas present under the tree for 81,938 minority citizens in South Carolina. These citizens had already registered to vote but lacked a Photo-identification card. Thomas E. Perez the Chief of the Civil Rights Division was referring particularly to a driver's license issued by the state Department of Motor Vehicles which is the most common form of photo identification.

In the wake of immigration fears many states have enacted new laws that tighten the rules for voting. John Lewis, no stranger to discrimination has said that this law was "a deliberate and systematic attempt" to prevent millions of elderly, low-income and minority Americans from voting.

This pathetic law reminds me of the old poll tax in the South--you had to pay to vote. Of course it kept many poor that were black and white from the polling places. This law also reminds me of all the obstacles that many states used to block mostly black citizens from voting in the sixties and before. Demanding that they quote huge portions of the US Constitution, answering trick questions that almost no one could answer, threatened with loss of job and sometimes life if they did not go home and keep quiet.

This has been a wearying year for many of us as we have looked at the fear in the eyes of so many Hispanics. Perhaps this is the first step in righting a very great wrong. David Savage, in the LA Times has written a great article on this issue that you might want to read.

At Christmas we remember again that little couple hunkered down in a drafty barn feeling left out of so much in their world. And yet this holy day above all else reminds us of that wonderful Lukan passage that Jesus read when his first public statements in his home-town synagogue. It was a Prelude of all he would ever do. He carefully unrolled the Isaiah scroll that had been written to another group of disenfranchised--Jews who were returning home after years in exile.

"The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord." (Luke 4.18-19)

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Eve--And Lost

It's Christmas Eve in South Carolina and the weather is balmy outside. Wal Mart was crowded this morning as we desperately searched for a star on top of our tree. The other one died. All of us need a star to guide us all through this circuitous path.

We're been here a week now. Most of the boxes are unpacked...but underneath the surface it is chaos. If you come don't look too hard in  the closets and please, please do not look under the beds. My wife looked at me this morning and whispered, "I feel lost." Moving from Birmingham after twenty years is none too easy. If I had time and would not bore you with a cadre of stories that would make your hair stand on end...that is if you have any. Buying a house in Foreclosure--new though it is--there were no phone jacks. And how can you talk on your new phone without a place to plug it in. Then we were told by ATT that the only Internet service available here was dial-up. Everybody on the street, by the way, has DSL. So--after multitudinous calls to somewhere over the rainbow, communicating with computer voices and answering questions that would be asked yet again and again and finally--talking to people I could not understand (Having a hearing problem does not help.)  I was getting a little edgy. Constantly hitting dead end streets. Continually asked, over and over, "Now if I understand you--you want to move your phone from South Carolina to Birmingham, Alabama?" "No, no" I frantically yelled. It didn't help. Finally in desperation I went to the local ATT office and poured out my heart to a real person and got on the list for a Internet hook-up. The problem was that in issuing a new order they gave me a second phone number! Which I discovered days later. Now we had to try to straighten that out. I could go on and on but by this time you probably are asleep.

Back to the lost feeling. Reckon Mary and Joseph didn't feel more than a little lost that windy night in Bethlehem? Reckon they wondered what in the world they had done and what would it mean to be parents--not knowing much of anything about babies. They knew the Romans were after the Jews and that crazy Herod would have their heads if he could find them. Mary was much too young for parenthood and Joseph was not much better. And the tiny, tiny baby must have felt troubled too,  hurled out into a world that seemed strange and insecure.

We all are a little lost this Christmas. Constant rants at our President and ugly remarks at his wife. Will it ever end? The Republican candidates trying to one-upmanship each other and not doing a very good job of it. Well-heeled politicians squabbling over money for the unemployed and the poor. Down this beautiful new street where I live the houses on both sides of me beautiful homes are in foreclosure. As you enter the subdivision our new neighbors have moved out bankrupt and broken. I watched the faces at Wal Mart this morning. There was weariness and touchiness in many faces. But children ran up and down the aisles touching wonderful treasures and breathless in anticipation. They saved the day as they did once a time years ago.

Lost. We've all been there before and we lived through it. Maybe this new tiny infant who looks so much like our little children when they first came realyh is the answser. Maybe the late Paul Scherer, my favorite preacher was right when he said , "On that night of nights God came down the stairs of heaven with a child in his arms." I am counting on that promise that child-turned man kept saying like a mantra: "I will be with you...let not your heart  be not afraid...I will be with you."

And after Christmas day is over and we have settled back into abnormal--let us remember that we do not go alone. There is embedded in this life of all of us a God-power that moves us one all on. The old song goes: "Once I was lost but now I'm found..."may there be a finding in your life that flows out of this good  and holy season.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas--Remembering Time

High up on our Christmas tree, near the top, if you look closely you may see it. If you don’t squint your eyes and look carefully you’ll probably miss it entirely. I’m talking about the star. It may be the tiniest ornament on the tree. The little star is probably an inch and a half in diameter. The star was made in the church kitchen by a little girl and her Sunday school teacher forty years ago in Southside Virginia.
Every year, without fail she breezes into the house with her own two daughters. After lugging in suitcases, pillows and presents she asks the same question year after year. “Where’s the star?” Christmas would not be Christmas without that star. I used to think it was a foolish request hanging on to that old homemade star. But I have changed my mind.

We all need some ties to back there. We need some stack pole of remembering that sends us back, back toward yesterday and the past and our roots. What’s your star? Probably not a paste ornament. What is it that calls you back to what used to be with a tug and a pull that is almost magic? I have a buddy who keeps high on a shelf an old threadbare teddy bear. His Daddy bought it for him at the fair one time. They stood there looking at the wonderful stuffed animals and he pointed and his Daddy shook his head. The little boy burst into tears and snubbed and snubbed. Finally, the Father pointed to the bear, took out his billfold and handed the clerk the money. He has been dead, my friend said for forty years, yet that teddy bear is one of his most precious possessions. I have another friend that kept in his office pinned to his bookcase a pouch of chewing tobacco. He grew up in this little tiny cotton mill village and smoke breaks were few and far between. And so he took up Red Man. The man has written a score of books. He has taught hundreds of students. And he keeps that pouch of chewing tobacco as a reminder of how far he has come and how grateful he is. Several years ago I stopped by to see the old black lady that we would now call a Nanny. She kept my brother and me for years and loved us severely. Finding her tiny apartment, she told me she wanted to show me something. She opened a dresser drawer and pulled out something wrapped in tissue paper. She unfolded the paper and held up this slip. “Miz Ruth give me this slip. She always gave me the nicest presents.” She had never worn it but she kept that gift my long-dead mother had given her. She remembered.

Christmas is a time for stirring memories. Silver Bells. Silent Night. Santa Claus is coming to town. I’m dreaming of a white Christmas. O Come All Ye Faithful. But much, much more. The faces loom up before us. Name and those long dead and fun-filled times from our own crowded pasts. Christmas is a remembering time. Some hang the symbols of our memories on some Christmas tree. Some pack it away in tissue just because. Some place it carefully in a jewelry box and open it up from time to time and just smile. “Where’s the star?” Good question. Unpack it gently. Hang it high in your own way. And remember. Remember. Remember.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Moving Is Still Not for Sissies

Strange Christmas. The lights are going on up and down our street. My neighbor has a huge Christmas wreath shining over his garage. Across the street the little girls are jumping up and down as they decorate the outside of their house with lights.

Finally tomorrow we will sit down in a lawyer's office and sign a multitude of papers, hand the new owner the keys and the garage door opener. We've left her a huge folder that explains who, what, where, when, why. And we are frantically trying to squeeze our Christmas wreaths into boxes, make sure our old artificial Christmas tree is ready to move.

Even in our desperation we had a moving sale yesterday and nobody bought our big pieces--but they walked away with our trinkets and little things that hardly matter. A rake, a leaf blower, a shrubbery cutter, some stakes for tomatoes, plastic bottles of sprays and garden supplies. They took away a lamp, some candlesticks and even a pair of crutches.

What they couldn't see or get are the memories this house we have lived in for thirteen years still hold in our hearts. The day the washing machine flooded the floor as guests from out of town were walking in the door. The upstairs attic that we turned into three wonderful rooms. That large upstairs corner, overlooking the garden where I have worked and prayed and thought. The dining room  that we filled with food and laughter with family and friends. All the work we did on this house. The painting, the purchases--TV's and refrigerators--yes--more than one when the first died on us much too soon. The new stove and the garbage disposal and the dishwasher. A new roof and heating system. The day we stripped the wallpaper off the guest bathroom and re-did the whole thing for my wife's birthday.  The day we left the faucet running in our bathroom and how it flooded everything and what a mess it was cleaning out and throwing away and mopping up. The wrinkle in the garage door when I slowly backed the car out and the door was still down. The two windows that would not close all the way and the time I spent running all over town looking for the tiny pieces to shut them tight.

But there are other memories. The camellias and gardenias that bloomed. The daffodils that always came up much too soon and promised us that spring really was on the way. The hydrangeas and the hostas we sprayed continually so that the five deer that occasionally wander into the yard would not completely devour. The daisies, white and wild yellow that spread all over the whole back yard. I will remember the kousa dogwood that blooms late and the phlox that come back bigger and heartier year after year.

 But it's the people whose faces I will remember most. The kids across the street watching them run and laugh and play.The neighbor across the street who always came to my rescue when I need anything: a nail, nuts and bolts, a strong back to help me move something. Another neighbor that gave me pointers about the plumbing I could never understand and was always there to get the paper when we were gone and save up the mail and make sure the house was safe. My Hispanic friends who live down the street and have helped in more ways that I can remember. Their little boy looking up at me and saying "Senor,"  because he heard me address his father that way.

After the movers come Tuesday and all our peculiar treasures will disappear down the street. And I will walk, for a last time through every room. Remembering, just remembering. Two days later we will open the door to another house in another place--empty for the time being. But knowing full well this new place will hold new memories, reestablish old relationships, bring new friends and give us a chance, even in old age to start again.

And so we will unpack the Christmas wreaths and dig out the old artificial seven foot tree and begin to put things in place. It will never be like it was. But it will be another chapter filled with new memories and another chance to begin yet again.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Advent Two--A Word for Hard Times

"What keeps me ging is that I  believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that in the world's finale something so great will come to pass that it's going to suffice for all our hearts, for the comforting of all our sorrows, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity. And I want to be there when suddenly everyone understands what it has been for."

Months ago when my cousin took his life, following the sad path of first his father and then his brother—so many of us were in shock. He left me a note. He wanted me to have his funeral. He wanted it to be in church I had served in Birmingham. And so fifty or sixty of us gathered to weep on a sunny October afternoon. One of my cousin’s nieces told me her family wanted a particular song played at the funeral service. Having had some terrible experiences with music at funerals I was dubious. But not this song. They had chosen Stephen Foster’s beautiful and plaintive: “Hard Times, Come Again No More.” The words go like this:

“Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears,
While we all sup sorrow with the poor;
There’s a song that will linger forever in our ears;
Oh, hard times come again no more.”

And then the chorus:

"‘Tis the song, the sigh of the weary,
Hard times, hard times, come again no more.
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door,
Oh, hard times comes again no more.”

The words were written in 1854. It was a difficult time for the country. Though President Lincoln would not be elected until 1861—the war clouds that would bring on the Civil War were already forming. It was a restless time for the whole nation. And this was the setting of Stephen Foster’s song.

That song could have been a background for Isaiah 40. 1-11. God’s beloved were in Exile—at least the best and the brightest. Back home their temple had been ransacked and destroyed. Many of their old parents had been left behind. Many others had died in the wilderness somewhere between Israel and Babylon. God’s people were afraid. And one of their own, Isaiah began to speak. It was word of comfort. It was a promise that hard times would one day end. In the middle of that cursed desert, a wilderness—God would come. Valleys would be raised up, hills and mountains would be made low, the rough places—some called it rough ground—would be smoothed out. Isaiah was saying there will come a better day: hard times would come no more.

Our age is beset with negativism. The climate of our country is hostile. We are afraid of immigrants, of terrorists, of the economy. We are afraid of our pensions and health and a multitude of things. Some wonder if our best days are behind us. Ask that great horde without jobs and they will speak plainly.

And so we light two candles. Some call this foolishness and wishful thinking. But just as Foster’s song was written in a hard age, and Isaiah’s words emerged from a rocky soil—we dare to open the old book and listen closely. Even today—especially today. Could those old words do for us what they have done for so many others through the hard years of their lives?

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Obama Bashing--Is This Healthy?

For some time I have been distressed at the rage some people have directed toward President Obama. At a luncheon recently my wife reported that it was one of the ugliest encounters she had witnessed in a long time. A woman, well-heeled and angry would not quit talking about how President Obama was terrible. She even called him a bastard. She had her litany of complaints: not a real American, a Socialist at best, sorry leader, the wrong color and ruining a perfectly good country. I don't hear this level of anger a lot but I do hear many folk talk of how they despise President and can't wait until 2012 to get back to normal--well maybe I should say: abnormal. Liberals and Conservatives are jumping on the President for a multitude of reasons. Some right and many wrong.

Frank Rich's article in a recent issue of New York Magazine draws a parallel between the climate when JFK was assassinated and today's temperature. He writes that the mood of hatred just before Kennedy was killed as at an all-time high. (Just to set the record sorta straight--didn't President Lincoln and other Presidents, also face enormous hatred and disrespect?) Liberals and conservatives had a litany of complaints against President Kennedy. Rich writes: "...the vitriol that was aimed at Kennedy in life seems as immediate as today. It's as startling as that 'You lie!' piercing the solemnity of a presidential address like a gunshot--or the actual gunshots fired at the White House last week by another wretched waif. In the end, that political backdrop is what our 44th and 35th presidents may have most in common. The tragedy of the Kennedy cult is that even as it fades, the hothouse brand of American malice that stalked its hero stalks our country still." Rich does not concentrate on the assassination of President Kennedy--he talks mostly about the climate surrounding the President then and now.

Under another "Wish I Had Said that..." Nicholas Kristof  in Sunday's New York Times has a great article on "The President as Pinata." He points out many of Obama's mistakes and missteps but he underlines the point that our President has accomplished incredible things in a very chaotic and difficult time. I keep remembering how we came together for a while after September 11th. Does it take a horrendous crisis for people in this country to come to their senses? Lord knows we have crises in abundance. It's Advent for Christians--maybe our prayer ought to lift up this broken nation and the man who is trying to lead us.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Advent--A Chance to Find our Way Again

Here we are again. Dusting off the Advent wreath, collecting new candles, hoping we don’t forget the matches. Carefully examining the wicks of all five of the candles. Maybe it was last year or the year before—but into the darkened church a family walked down the aisle on Christmas Eve with a lighted candle. The daughter carried a flickering taper. At the altar, she gave the candle to her father, then it was the Mother’s turn and the son and the daughter was to light the last two candles. Except—the Christ candle in the very middle wouldn’t light. She tried everything. Nothing worked. It was a very long moment. Finally she thrust the candle lighter at her father and stalked off in a huff. No wonder we check the wicks to make sure they will burn.

But all this is window-dressing. And to the Advent wreath with all it symbolism we could add the glorious music, the splendid decorations and even the preacher’s sermons. The main point is to get us ready and perhaps all this staging really might help. But what truly matters are the old words we keep coming back to year after year. “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people...” The dayspring from on high shall visit us...””Let your face shine upon us...” Or “Behold a virgin shall conceive...” They never really grow old these words we have heard every Christmas season. Hopefully they will pry open our hearts until we really are awe-struck all over again with the wonder of it all. Madeleine L’Engle called it the glorious impossible.

I don’t know a time in my life when we need an Advent more. It is a troublesome time. People are hurting everywhere. Many folk do not have enough money to make it through the month. 100,00 of our men and women will come limping home from the war before the year ends. Dear God, I hope they can look around and see something that make all their efforts seem worthwhile.

Listen closely to the Advent texts this year. The I Corinthians passage (1.3-9) “He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (vs.8) Paul wrote to a troubled fussy people. Sound familiar? They seemed to have lost the way. And Paul called them back with a promise. You will be kept. He used this word nine times in this letter.

Months ago I wrote the word, KEEP and stuck the post-it next to my computer. There is so much that makes many of us wonder if the sky really is falling. Economics, meanness, greed and so much that we cannot control. It really is out of our hands. But maybe we ought to hang on to this little word, keep. Could be a life raft to keep us afloat during this very stormy time? Paul thought so.

And so we come to church. We light our candles. We hear the music and then listen to the old words. My prayer for me and mine and all of us is that in the middle of all this madness we will discover that golden word: keep. May he keep us all strong to the end. Maybe this Advent really can help us find the way.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Immigration Will Just Not Go Away

During the Second World War artist Norman Rockwell took President Roosevelt's challaenge of Four Freedoms and did a painting of each one. Freedom from Fear is one of those freedoms. I wish that every Hispanic child in this country could feel the safety of these children and their parents that we see here.

As I left my health club this afternoon I saw a Hispanic mother and three small children walking to their car. I stopped the car, rolled down the window and said, “I want you to know that I am very angry about this immigration bill. I went to the meeting downtown yesterday and just wanted to say that I am glad you are here.” Great big tears formed at the corner of her eyes. She smiled got into her car and drove away. I moved toward home thinking about that woman and her family and the meeting I attended the day before in downtown Birmingham.

Eleven Congressmen from across the country came to Birmingham to listen to the stories that immigrants had to tell. I decided to take the long trip downtown and wondered who would show up. I was not disappointed. The room at City Hall was packed. As I walked in I saw an ancient Hispanic woman being helped up the steps by a family member. There were quite a few young people. There were a great many African Americans present. Hispanics also crowded into the room. There were a good number of white folk there, too. It was an American audience—all ages, all colors, some well heeled and some poor.

The visiting Congressmen sat in a semi-circle at the front. I was afraid maybe our out-of-state guests might talk to long. Not so. They were conscious that we were all there to hear stories from members of the Hispanic community. U.S. Representative Terri Sewell, a Birmingham Democrat was there along with the Mayor and Sheriff of the county. Mayor Bell said that our immigration bill smacked of Apartheid and Jim Crowism. Sheriff Hale talked about the difficulty of trying to enforce these new laws and reminded us that his staff is seriously understaffed and not equipped to enforce this anti-immigration bill. One speaker said, “We are a nation of laws but more a nation of people.” Another person reminded us that we are a nation of immigrants and most of us came from somewhere else. We were told that there are 11 million illegal immigrants in our country and that our immigration policy is seriously broken. All these comments set the stage for us to listen to those people who were called  “the witnesses.”

Those who spoke talked of the burden of Alabama’s anti-immigration law--the harshest in the nation .So we spent the rest of the hour listening to those whose lives had been crippled and burdened by HR56--Alabama's anti-immigration law.  As I listened to the stories of the witnesses I wished that those who had written that terrible document had been present in that room. Teachers spoke of student withdrawals and parents afraid to send their children to school. A high school student told of how she continually text her parents while she was at school.  She was afraid they might be incarcerated before she got home. Another spoke of how water and lights have been turned off because they did not have the proper documentation. One person reported that they had Hispanic friends who, after working long hours, were told they had no right to be paid because they were illegal.” Another person told us of all the rumors that are floating around the Hispanic community. These people are being shut out of basic services. They cannot get a driver’s license or a car tag without proper documentation. One woman spoke in Spanish through a translator. One lady told us that her home was destroyed during the tornado and when she bought a mobile home she could not get a license because of her status. One woman who taught Sunday school said that the Sunday after HB56 was passed not a single member of her class showed up. The theme that ran through the whole afternoon was fear. Fear of deportation. Fear of the break up of families where some are sent to Mexico and some are allowed to stay. Many families stay inside their houses afraid that they might be arrested. They just do not feel safe.

As I left the room I looked up at the words that were etched over the door. They read: “The people are the city.” There were no adjectives before the word, people. All the way home I kept hearing the ugly words illegal and deportation. It reminded me of another country and another terrible time. Do we really want this kind of an America? Everyone here should feel safe and never be afraid of who they are.

Everywhere I go these days I smile at the Hispanics. I want them to know that a great number of us in this state are glad they are here. I want them to know how much we, too, despise HR56 because it is antithetical to who we are and what we stand for. Maybe we need to do some witnessing of our own. Telling everyone we see that our task is to keep faith with that tiny wondrous word embedded in the heart of the Declaration of Independence. All. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men (sic) are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” So our task in this hard age is to continue to live up to the dream that set this nation on its good course. Maybe it is always two steps forward and one step backwards—but let us not give up the fight.

(You might want to read Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson's splendid article, Immigrants: Strangers In Our Midst.  It is  thought provoking. )

Monday, November 21, 2011

Thanksgiving Really is About Gravy

"No other word will do, For that's what it was. Gravy.
Gravy, these past ten years.
Alive, sober, working, loving and
being loved by a good woman. Eleven years
ago he was told he had six months to live
at the rate he was going. And he was going
nowhere but down. So he changed his ways
somehow. He quit drinking! And the rest?
After that it was all gravy, every minute
of it, up to and including when he was told about,
well, some things that were breaking down and
building up inside his head. 'Don't weep for me,'
he said to his friends. 'I'm a lucky man.
I've had ten years longer than I or anyone
expected. Pure gravy. And don't forget it.'"
   --Raymond Carver's last poem

Moving is bittersweet. You find yourself excited by new possibilities. But wrenching yourself away from friends and a place where you have lived for over 20 years is not easy. Today I am cleaning out my office. As I look around me I am surrounded by photographs that bring back so many memories. There are photographs of my children at various stages of their lives—and beside them I have added my two grandchildren. I have before me a picture of my ninety-nine year old surrogate mother who left us three years ago. She loved us fiercely.
There are mementos from trips: a gargoyle from Paris, a tiny rock from a pebble beach in England. A photograph of a concrete Jesus with his hands outstretched from St. Andrews. Close by is my appointment book, telephone, faxes machine and computer. These keep me connected with a larger world. On every wall are books that have opened up windows and doors to something larger and better than I ever imagined. I find a dusty Christmas card, unsigned with a huge Santa Claus. The sender could not read or write and just signed an X—and that memory of that friendship keeps me warm. High up on my shelf is an anniversary card from our 50th wedding anniversary with words of love I do not deserve. There is a small picture of my mother’s last Christmas, smiling and surrounded by presents. Underneath the glass on my desk is our last dog’s picture, beloved Cleo. She still makes me smile. These tiny reminders have kept me going year after year.

With eyes wide open I thank God for so much that has streamed into my life. Those that stretched me in school, those that stood by me when nobody else seemed to care. Those that, by the very gift of their lives, made me feel cleaner and more decent. And of course there are the tributaries: magazines, newspapers, and cartoons that helped enormously.

When we open our eyes and look around us most of us find that the blessings have just poured in from all directions. The healthiest people I know keep their eyes wide open not just Thanksgiving Day but keep seeing the wonders around them throughout the year.

Toward the close of his career, it was reported that Mark Twain had been paid a dollar a word for a magazine article. Some cynic sent him a dollar in an envelope with a note: “Dear Mr. Twain I understand you get a dollar for every word you write. I am enclosing a dollar. How about sending me a word.” The old writer took a single sheet of paper and scrawled "Thanks" in large letters and sent it to the man.

Is there a better word for a hard time? This Christmas many of our troops will be hobbling home from Afghanistan and Iraq. Many have been wounded or broken—but all find their lives altered immeasurably. But pain isn’t confined to the war over there. Down the street the Hispanic couple fear for their children and friends in Alabama. Around the corner someone is having an estate sale and moving into a nursing home. A friend in South Carolina lies in intensive care this Thanksgiving missing his wife who was killed days ago in their accident. The Lovette’s moving saga doesn’t seem so monstrous when we put our troubles down beside so many hurting others.

It is easy to be overwhelmed. Months ago I had a funeral for a cousin who just could not take it any longer and I ache when I remember his face. The only way any of us can make it through these difficult days is to open our eyes. If we look long enough thanks may just emerge even from the soil of a very hard time.

Despite the hardship I still think the old Psalm is right. Surely goodness and mercy really do follow us all the days of our lives. Looking any direction. If you stare long enough you may find yourself surprised by joy. For with eyes wide open if we fondle the wonders of our lives much like a rosary— we will be grateful.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Immigration Will Just Not Go Away

When the State passed this strongest anti-immigration bill in the country the officials thought they were doing the state a favor. What the legislature and Governor did not factor in is the hard truth that when you make ripples in the stream they go on and on. There is no fence around this state. We are connected and we really part of the United States though a few hearty souls still try to re-fight the Civil war.

If you are interested I hope you will read Joey Kennedy's article which appeared in the Birmingham Business Journal. Not only are farmers up in arms over this bill--but the business community is beginning to wring its hands. Seems that Compass Bank had just about decided to move their corporate headquarters to our city. But they are owned by the Spanish  Megabank BBVA group. They were to build an $80 million tower for their US headquarters.But they changed their mind.  All this is past tense--our strong anti-immigration bill tipped the scales.

This issue is far from over. Recently President Obama spoke of how un-American this law really is. Maybe we have come far enough down the road that we can see not only the financial reverberations but the human side of this issue. Hispanics are scared. Scared. Nobody in the United States of America should live in fear.  Maybe the old prophet's dream, even after all these years may come true when it comes to immigration. "Everyone will sit under his (or her) own vine and under his (or her) own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid,  for the Lord Almighty has spoken." (Micah 4.4) We just have to keep working until the dream becomes a reality for everyone.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Moving--Chapter Four

Well, the Lovette's moving saga continues. We have a good offer on our house in Birmingham. If all goes well (and anybody who knows anything about real estate today knows that just about everything is tentative) we should close on Dec. 8th. So if you are a praying person please pray a selfish prayer for the Lovette family. Or alternative suggestions: burn candles...dig a hole and put a St. Joseph figure upside down in the Lovette’s yard (a friend swears this will sell a house) or you might dig out your old rosary. Other suggestions: turn flips or perhaps do a rain dance somewhere on your property where no one can see you. Anyway—we hope that this ordeal of moving will soon be over.

We are still packing. Boxes are everywhere! I feel like we live in a warehouse. But yesterday I found two huge bins in an obscure corner of the attic. Opening the cover I discovered much of my correspondence and letters I have received in my work through the years. My first thought was: “Why would I save all these letters and notes and cards?” So slowly I opened the first box of letters and I found a treasure.

These letters tell the story of much of my ministerial life. I found the letter from Tom Corts, Chair of the Search Committee in Georgetown Kentucky telling me the Faith Baptist Church would pay me $6,000 if I came. (I did.) I found a multitude of letters from churches all over where I had been recommended or lusted after. Some sent polite Dear John letters saying: “No.” Some places where I had written my own Dear John letters and said “No” to some church. I saved everything birthday cards, letters of acceptance and resignation, newspaper clippings showing the Lovette family the week we were called to a church. I showed that picture to my wife and asked, “Why would anybody call a Pastor and his family that looked like this?”

But the biggest surprise of them all was the letters and cards and thank-you notes from people across the years. They told of baptisms and funerals and dinners and a huge collection of sympathy cards when my Mother died. This is not a brag article. Any Pastor who thinks very long will resonate with what I am writing. I unearthed names and faces I had not thought about for years and years. And they took me back, way back to other times and other places. And for all the fretting I have done through the years because of that tiny cadre of mean opponents and that handful of ugly unsigned letters—these were not only in the minority—few and far between. The gratitude and thanks that poured over me as I read this multitude of notes and letters was overwhelming. People really did care. Ministry mattered terribly. Sermons sometimes, when you least expected them, really did touch someone. All those hospital trips and funerals and weddings and communion services were remembered.

Looking back I can now say this great cloud of witnesses in every church I ever had kept me going. They graced me and they loved me and my family. And whatever errors I made and stupidities I fell into—these (thank God) were mostly overlooked. Most of the folk sitting out there week after week forgave me for a multitude of foibles.

So here I sit with a lump in my throat--surrounded by thanksgiving and gratitude from these dust-covered boxes. These have made me remember names and faces and times long gone. So thanksgiving has come early for me this year. I am grateful for so many, many people along the way.

My good friend Tom Corts prayed at the last service I served as Pastor. His words were very moving: “We offer thanks for those who cannot remember his name...but remember yours (Lord) because of him.” At the end of this long diatribe as I wade through these correspondence files, I want to thank God for so many whose names I can no longer remember but I remember your name Lord, because of them. They kept me going—and still do.

“Now thank we all our God,
With hearts and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things hath done,
In whom the world rejoices—
Who from our mother’s arms
Hath blessed us on our way—
With countless gifts of love,
And still is ours today.”

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Alabama's Immigration Law Makes me Ashamed

One of the worst things we have done in this State in a long time is passing this Anti-Immigration law. My friend Joey Kennedy of The Birmingham News has a great blog piece today on 10 Reasons Why Alabama's Immigration Bill is Wrong. Weeks ago we stopped at a Fast Food Restaurant in Atlanta. The Night Manager was Hispanic. He came by our table to make sure everything was all right and I started talking to him. I told him how sad I was over the Immigration laws that Georgia and Alabama had passed. That casual remark opened the door. He told me how scared many of his friends were. Some had already left the State. One very sick friend, he said, would not go the Doctor or hospital because she was afraid of being deported. He told me that the officials say this law has nothing to do with racial profiling but he told me he had been stopped six times in the last few months by policemen simply because he was Hispanic, therefore he was suspect. We finally had to leave the Restaurant but I was glad that man behind the counter knew that all of us do not feel the same way as some in this country.

Carson McCullers said once that it is a sad commentary on the human race that everybody needs somebody to look down on. We dishonor our Constitution and our flag with this very racist policy.

Moving is Not for Sissies--Chapter Three

I’ve told you that moving is not for sissies. I had no idea how right that is. For a month now we have been getting everything ready for the woman who was to buy the house. We had an appraisal...and an inspection. Then we started making the minor repairs but there were several. One of our octagonal windows was frosty on the inside of the thermo pane and had to be replaced at considerable expense.

As the buyer moved closer to the closing we were told to get ready to move within three days after closing. So—we went to Clemson and found a house...went through the ordeal of getting a loan approval. The people there were great and helpful in every way. We took a load of stuff when we went and put it into a friend’s house. Next—we came back to Birmingham and interviewed movers and settled on one that could move a seven-foot grand piano. There really is an elephant in our living room! So we packed and packed and then we got the call that the woman’s loan was not approved. So—we were in shock and, surrounded by boxes we wondered how could you show a house that looked like a warehouse.

The buyer-to-be applied for another loan and we were assured it would go through. But we were cautious. Well, there was yet another inspection. The lender told me that everything was on go and continue to pack. We did. Our daughter and boyfriend came over and took a multitude of stuff to their house in Atlanta. The Goodwill folk almost became good friends. We gave a lot of stuff away. Books went everywhere—several hundred. So our date was set for closing in Clemson and here. The lender called and said everything is settled. This was two Fridays ago. We were to close last Monday and guess what—the woman did not show. We sat there in the lawyer’s office surrounded by papers for closing and she backed out.

For two days we were absolutely numb. We had to recancel utilities, paper, one of the hardest things has been the mail. I still am not sure we have that settled. The phone and internet quit working even though I had called At&T and told them to cancel my cancellation. We have talked to a zillion machines and punched hundreds of buttons and speaking with a real live person has almost been an impossibility.

We sold our washer and dryer because the woman said she would bring her own. The new house is in a natural sitting and we said goodbye to our lawn mower. We've have cancelled our contract in Clemson—we can’t buy until we sell.

So here we are with about three pots and pans. I can’t even find the Tabasco sauce. I preached a goodbye sermon Sunday in my church...and I am still here. Friends have given us “the last breakfast”...the “last lunch”...and ‘the last supper.” But we are surrounded by a multitude of friends that care and encourage us. The man who bought the washer and dryer came back with his own washer and dryer and installed it and took no money. We have moved boxes and assorted items (what’s left) and are trying to get prospective buyers to envision what this house that looks like a warehouse might look like with their furniture in it.

This has been hard on my wife and me. Yet—after two days of grief and mourning we picked ourselves up and are hitting it again. Washing windows, vacuuming the floor, rearranging what we can in the garage and trying to find much-needed items that are packed and boxed up in the garage.

Progress report will follow. I missed All Saints Day on Tuesday. But looking back we have been surrounded by saints who love us and cheer us on and do whatever they can to make this hard situation manageable. The real saints are not found in windows. They live next door and they bring back washers and dryers and they send over bread and soup and comfort food. We are grateful for all those, we call them saints because they are there when you need them.

Progress report will follow. Please keep singing or at least humming “Look for a Silver Lining” surely out there somewhere there is one to find.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

A Sermon on Inclusion--Where Do the Mermaids Stand?

(On this last Sunday before we leave Birmingham my Pastor, Steve Jones asked me to preach at Southside Church where we are members. Here is what I had to say in this last sermon. This is a summary of what I deeply believe.)

Robert Fulghum, is one of the great storytellers of our time. He tells a very funny story about one evening when he volunteered in a weak moment to watch the children at church while the parents went on what they called “Parents Night Out.” He said eighty children showed up. He didn’t know what he was going to do. So he decided to break them up into teams so they wouldn’t kill him or each other. And he said, “OK, you're either a Giant or a Wizard or a Dwarf.” After he said that, he felt a tug at his pants leg and he looked down and there was a little girl standing looking up at him. “Where do the Mermaids stand?” He said, ”There are no such things as Mermaids.” “Oh yes there are,” she said. “I are one. Now where do the Mermaids stand?” Well, he said he didn’t know what to do or say. Then he said, “The mermaids stand right here next to the King of the Sea!” And he grabbed her hand and they stood back and reviewed the troops as the Dwarfs and the Giants and the Wizards came slowly by. Fulghum said he learned something from that experience. The little girl had taught him something he had never known before. That mermaids really do exist. After all, he said, he had personally held one by the hand.

I think Jesus would have loved that story because it is in the spirit of what he said at the very beginning of his ministry in Luke 4. His baptism was over. He had wrestled in the wilderness with the evil one. The temptations were behind him—temporarily. Then he returned to his hometown, Nazareth. Luke says, “As was his custom” he went on a Saturday morning to the synagogue with the people he had known all his life. During that service they asked him to read. Luke says that he opened up the papyrus scroll and turned to a passage which would become an overture for everything he would ever do. Opening that scroll, his finger ran down the papyrus until he found his place. It was that exile passage from Isaiah 61.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those that are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”

What is he saying here? I think what he is really saying is that he is giving Mermaids a place to stand. For you see, since its beginnings the temptations of faith has been to categorize, pigeonhole, or put people into little boxes. There are Wizards, There are Dwarfs, and there are Giants. The saved and the lost. And we really don’t know what to do when some Mermaid comes along and says, “Where do the Mermaids stand?”

Charles Talbert who is a graduate of Samford and a very fine New Testament scholar has said that what Luke does here is to define the scope of Jesus’ ministry. For the conflict which runs throughout the Gospel and spills over into Acts and in every part of the church’s life begins in Luke 4. That struggle is: Will this be a tiny, hometown outfit or a worldwide movement? Will it be for some or will it be for all? Will the Gospel be a Nazareth thing for only the respectable people like Giants and Wizards and Dwarfs—or will it encompass everyone—even the Mermaids of the world?

This was his audience: the poor, the destitute of the world, the brokenhearted, which meant the shattered and the disintegrated. The captives who were prisoners. The blind that could not see. Even those who rant on the Paul Finebaum show. The bruised who were the oppressed. And the downtrodden and the victims and those crushed by the tyrannies of a world gone wrong. And this magnificent overture we find in Isaiah 61 and Luke 4 would play out a splendid theme. For all the marginalized people of the world—the great horde who do not fit into the categories or the pigeonholes or the boxes, he comes for these too.

You know them. That woman at the well with so many men in her past she could not even remember their names. And Zaccheus, that insider turned outsider because he was a cheat and a liar and had made all of his money in payday loans. And the lepers? The unclean ones that nobody was supposed to touch because you might catch something. And remember what he did? The children always giggling and squirming and coloring outside the lines and how he opened up his arms and took them in, and nobody had ever done that before. If that was not enough, think of the women he reached out to and lifted up to a higher level that had never been done in society before.

Once upon a time we Baptists were really off on the edge of things. We couldn’t even get in the back door of the country club. We had not come to town and been baptized into respectability but we were mostly on those side streets, across the tracks where the illegal immigrants lived. But we had faith. And we sang with gusto. We turned from hard, hard weeks at work to the meeting where we were met and graced and loved and affirmed and felt important. And for some it was the only place in their lives where they felt like they were somebody. The Mermaids, swimming against the tide of an established church. Their preachers were put in jail in Holland and in England and in this country. Some were killed. They were the first civil libertarians because they believed in liberty and justice for all—not just for their own kind—why even the Mormons. And when the Constitution and the Bill of Rights of the United States came into being, they helped to stitch somehow into the fabric of those document that wonderful, wonderful phrase: “all are created equal.” All. And they continued to write, “Congress should make no laws pertaining to the establishment of religion.” That’s a long way from school tax vouchers for the important people and tax breaks for people who have plenty. So the question really is this: Where do the mermaids stand?

The great theologian Karl Barth wrote his first book of sermons called, Deliverance to the Captives. These sermons by this brilliant man had been preached in Basel, Switzerland to prisoners behind bars. What did he tell them? Eyes could now see, some for the first time. Liberty to victims in a world gone wrong. They would somehow find that the chains that bound them down would be broken all would be free. He preached an acceptance for Dwarfs and Wizards and Giants and even Mermaids—but maybe not in that order. “Whosoever will may come!” Not just the special and the privileged and the beautiful and the saved and the heterosexuals. Everybody. And if it isn’t for every body—it isn’t for anybody. After two thousand years the words are still revolutionary. They leap across the barriers like geography and culture and race and class. “Across the crowded ways,” the song goes, “We hear his voice still.”

But he wasn’t done. Is he ever done? He wasn’t done. For he told them two stories that got him into trouble; The first story was about Elijah. Three and a half years there had been a famine in the land. People starved and babies and old people died and the wind blew across a parched land where nothing could grow anymore. No rain. God’s prophet came to a widow in Zerephath—Sidon. Now where was that? Well, he breezed passed the Giants and Wizards and the Dwarfs and kept on going until he came to a place where he looked on the door and the sign read: “Mermaid’s House.” Elijah knocked on the door. And it made Jesus’ congregation in Nazareth restless because they couldn’t believe God’s prophet passed over all the good people and went down the road to a woman whose family had been on food stamps for three generations. And probably did not have her papers. Who would have believed it? How dare he? That was his first story.

But he wasn’t finished. He told a second story to his congregation about Elisha who was Elijah’s successor. He told about a place Syria—which should have given them a clue of where he was going. In Syria there was this leper colony. A place where nobody would go because you might catch something. It was an awful place. Outside the gates of the city. And there was a man named Namaan—a non-Jew. Not one of God’s chosen. He was healed. This foreigner was healed. And it was just too much for the people of Nazareth. “And when they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath and rose up to put him out of the city”—talking about Jesus—“and they led him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built, that they might throw him down headlong; but passing through their midst he went away.”

Fred Craddock, A very fine preacher has said the people in that synagogue room were furious because Jesus had used their own story to make them feel uncomfortable. Why isn’t Holy Scripture supposed to make you feel warm and squishy and happy? Like Joel Osteen. Craddock says it is not the Scriptures we don’t know that give us trouble—but the Scriptures we know and have just tip-toed over and domesticated until they mean nothing. Consequently people come up to preachers and ask, “Preacher tell us what Ezekiel means?" Or "Let’s study Revelation and find out who is the mark of the beast. Could it be Obama?" Or maybe they ask what Danny Ford asked me one day when he was Coach at Clemson, “Preacher did that whale really swallow Jonah?” Why do we get off the track? We might as well be talking about Chinese calligraphy. None of those questions will get us in trouble.

But what about the texts we all know. Abraham. A light to all the nations—how did they forget that? Or Jonah, ignore the whale for a moment and ponder its meaning which is that the Lord God of Israel reaches his arms out and takes everybody in. Or what about Micah: “Let justice roll down like waters. Kindness, Walk humbly. Everybody. For when the text arrives in our mailbox with our name on the envelope we open it up and we are stretched and we see dreams and visions that are sometimes scary. But it’s our letter. Robert McAfee Brown called it unexpected news—news we do not expect.You see, it is always revolutionary. It is always the heart of the matter. And Jesus said all God’s children can find a place. He makes room in his house for every person. It is a love that transcends everybody and everything.

When I was a little boy growing up in Columbus, Georgia the strangest would happen in our little Baptist church two or three times a year. After we had sung the Doxology which we sang every Sunday year after year—after the prayer—down the aisle and all the way to the front Doug would shuffle in his overalls and his cap on and plop down on the front bench right in front of the preacher. Doug was the village character. Middle aged about 45 or 50 years old. He was the shoeshine man and didn’t smell too good and was downright scary looking. When we would see him on the street, we'd whisper, "There's Doug--let's get on the other side of the street." He was the central figure in a thousand children’s nightmares. But there he sat front and center at church with his shoeshine box on that front row. Of course all the parents would look straight ahead and punch their kids and whisper: “Don’t look!” The preacher would get just a little edgy because every once in a while during the sermon, Doug would let out a gasp: "Agggg...” four or five times. Nobody ever knew what to do. But he would just slouch there comfortably on that front row with his hat pulled down . About the time of the last song Doug would beat it to the door and would be up at his corner shining shoes before the postlude ended. I’ve often wondered why he came and why he was there. What brought him to church? And why did he come in his old work clothes and sit on the front row where no well-meaning Baptist would ever sit? I think he came—much like that little girl in Fulghum’s story. Deep in his heart, underneath all the pain in his broken life--I think he was looking for a place for a Mermaid to stand.

Isn’t that what Jesus meant when he said, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me. He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captive, recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”

Prayer after the Sermon: Lord, it’s a bigger gospel than any of us imagined. It’s a bigger church than we intended to join. Stretch our hearts until we can take in all the children of the world, till some how in our love and missions and evangelism and caring, the kingdoms of this world really do “become the kingdoms of the Christ.” Help us as we do it. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Tom Corts--A Memory

"When the last check is written,
  the lone remaining  bill is paid,
  every IOU is cancelled,
  payment on accounts is stayed;
When the parting farewell is uttered,
  the ending stanza sung,
  benediction's ended,
  tolling bells have rung:
I still will be debtor
  throughout eternity;
Not all the gold in banks
  fulfills my debt of thanks."
       --Thomas E. Corts 

(Tom Corts, retired President of Samford University left us
in February 2009. His brother Paul Corts has collected  essays in a beautiful book honoring his brother called, Thinking Christianly. I wrote a chapter in this book of my personal feelings toward this good man. At a Colloquium held at Samford University, October 27, 2011--I made these remarks as part of the program.)

I cannot speak about Tom Corts’ academic experience as it relates to the church. And I cannot speak about the qualities that he may have possessed in character or skills to be an effective leader in higher education. But  I can speak of my own experience with Tom Corts as it relates to church and as it relates to something of the depth of his personal life.

We are all many-sided persons and no one dimension can really capture the essence of the man we come to remember. He was more than an academic and he was great in this role wherever he went. But he was also husband, son, father, brother, friend, colleague and churchman just to name a few of his many sides.

So I cannot speak from an academic perspective but I can speak as one who he was once his Pastor and always a friend. Our paths intersected first in Georgetown Kentucky where he was Chair of the Search Committee of the Faith Baptist Church. I never will forget that first visit to the Corts’ house on Pocahontas Trail. Rachel was in an infant seat—Jennifer was playing on the floor and bored with the family’s new visitor. Chris was not yet born.

Tom Corts was a Churchman. He was always there when he was not preaching or representing Georgetown College. He believed in Church and he believed in Pastors which is one of the reasons for that gorgeous dome and Beeson Divinity School.

I followed his journey from Georgetown to Wingate and then to Samford. We kept up loosely during those years. He preached the Installation Sermon at three churches I served. He asked me to have the Invocation when he became President of Samford. And we celebrated birthdays and other special events. So I saw him up close and he was, as I entitled my chapter in this book, Great Tom. He really was great. He was there on my last Sunday at Covenant when I retired and gave this beautiful moving prayer which I have included in my chapter. And when he retired I returned the favor and gave the Prayer at his retirement party. And when he left us that sad day in February 4, 2009 I was asked to say some words at his funeral. I still miss him.

So I spoke and speak about the human side of Tom Corts. I have a multitude of stories I could tell about this good man. When we were in Georgetown at the Faith Baptist Church—we needed desperately to build an addition to our building. Most of the congregation were poorly paid academicians—and we did not think we could do this. But there was a layperson in that congregation. Never been to college—meat and potatoes man. Had been in the service and worked for a Construction business. We dealt with a lot of issues in that church in the late sixties and early seventies. We had a lot of kids and they talked about war and burning drafting cards and protesting the Viet Nam war. Some of our more vocal professors pontificated on this subject and this veteran’s blood pressure surely must have gone up many times. But this layman in our church with perfectly trimmed short hair kept coming to church every Sunday. And so Tom, Chair of the Building Committee—why are you not surprised--saw something special in this man who had never been to college. He saw that this man could use his gifts like no one else in the church could. Tom asked him to help draw up plans for this new addition and then asked him if he would supervise the project. Some of our Professors raised their eyebrows—what training did he have? Some whispered what were his credentials? Well, Hallie Hymer pulled off the project and saved the church a lot of money. And Tom insisted that when we dedicated the building that we put up a plaque in appreciation for Hallie Hymer for the work he did on this addition, which would not have happened, without his work and commitment. Some of those in academics raised their eyebrows again—but the Plaque is there to this day. Why do I tell this story? Because his was a larger circle than just the college. He looked around and saw some qualities in folk they didn’t even know they had. Hallie Hymer grew and grew as a person because of that experience. How many times through the years did he do that? Ask Eric Motley or Theolophilus Akande from Nigeria to Georgetown. Ask the late Laverne Farmer. Ask Joe Lewis. And how many more in this room. Our lives are immeasurably different because great Tom helped to stretch us.

He kept these little books where he wrote down quotations and scripture verses that meant a great deal to him. One of those quotes is most appropriate for this occasion. He took these words from Dostoevsky’s, The Brothers Karamazov.

“And even if we are occupied with important things, even if we attain honor or fall into misfortune, still let us remember how good it was once here when we were all together united by a good and kind feeling which made us, better perhaps than we are.”

(A copy of this book of essays, Thinking Christianly can be ordered from Samford University, 800 Lakeshore Drive, Birmingham, AL 35229.)