Saturday, December 31, 2011
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
Saturday, December 24, 2011
Friday, December 23, 2011
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
Friday, December 2, 2011
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
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.Under another "Wish I Had Said that..."
Saturday, November 26, 2011
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
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.”
Monday, November 21, 2011
Monday, November 14, 2011
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
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.
Thursday, November 3, 2011
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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,
tolling bells have rung:
I still will be debtor
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.)