Friday, January 28, 2011

The Bridge is Love

Today is our wedding anniversary. Fifty years today we stood before the altar in a Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky and said, “I do.” There was ten inches of snow on the ground. It was cold, very cold. A lot of people couldn’t get to the church because of the weather. But we drove away in my little Green Plymouth across the Ohio River to Indiana. We stayed that first night in some motel close because we were afraid the roads would be too bad to get to our honeymoon destination: French Lick, Indiana. Quite a honeymoon it was—two nights and three days. Meals included. Some time ago I ran across the receipt from that trip—I think that honeymoon cost us: $58.00 and some cents. (Tips not included.)

She was finishing the University of Louisville and I was ending my work at Louisville Baptist Seminary. We had dated for three years—mostly by bus and some friend’s car because I had no car. She was studying piano with Dwight Anderson the best teacher at the school. He loved her and thought she showed great promise. When he heard she was getting married to a Baptist preacher he exploded: “You can’t do that. You’ll throw your life away. You’ll forget your music and end up in some place like Anniston, Alabama!” Well, we never made it to Anniston but there some days I wish we had been that fortunate.

Our first church was on a side road in Philpot, Kentucky in western Kentucky. Neither one of us had lived in the country—so this was quite an experience. The Church was 75 years old and had never had a full-time preacher. They had used Seminary students through the years. And so, green and young and totally inexperienced, I became their first full-time Pastor at the age of 25. Gayle was 21. I call those years my internship. Maybe it was our marriage’s internship, too. It was a hard time. Little money. Not quite knowing what I was doing as pastor or husband. Two years later our first child came: a redheaded girl. And so to the task of being husband and wife and pastor and wise we added a new responsibility: parents.

After three and a half years we moved to Southside Virginia in the middle of very rich tobacco country and where our second child was born: a boy. I was learning a little more about church, Gayle was learning a lot about parenting and putting up with a still-young insecure husband-pastor whose ups and downs must have been a helluva ride for my wife. But she held on and helped me. In the middle of a dark time after my father died I remember a book that I read during that period. It was called Love is a Bridge. And later when I wrote my first book I dedicated it to: "Dear Gayle who has taught me best: The bridge really is love. "

I don’t want to bore you with our ministerial journey. Georgetown, Kentucky. Clemson, South Carolina, Memphis, Tennessee and then my last church in Birmingham. She stayed with me. She put up with a lot from me and churches and just having to pack and move and pack and move and pack and move.

She never loved the spotlight. In fact she never wanted a big to-do made over her. And yet at out retirement party one of our friends stood and said, “Gayle Lovette has always been my role model because she always was herself.” What a woman. She never put on airs or fitted into anyone else’s mold. She was just herself, comfortable in her own skin and has one of the healthiest self-images I know. After retirement she has followed me through seven interims. Several of these we lived away from home and going back and forth was hard for her. Yet—she stood by me.

And so—here we are fifty years later. Time sure does fly when you are having fun and when you’re not having fun. She’s a great Mother. Both of our kids have done well thanks mostly to a mother that was as good as any mother could be. Our daughter a great teacher and a good mother of two girls. Life has not always been easy for her—has it been for any of us? But she has hung in there and we are very proud of her and the girls. Our son an artist-businessman has also done well. He has found his way, too—and for all these we are very grateful.

We took an Anniversary trip in October with her twin sister, Gwyn and husband Joe. It was a River cruise on the Danube River from Budapest to Prague and was wonderful. We planned on going back to French Lick this week where we had our honeymoon. But the weather is as bad there as it was then—and so we will wait a little while.

Friends of ours were getting married weeks ago. They are about our age and have found one another after losses and grief and we rejoice in their starting over. They said they wanted to write their own vows and wondered if I had any suggestions. I sent them the words that follow.

One of favorite all-time writers is the western writer Wallace Stegner. He taught writing at Stanford for years and was a mentor for Wendell Berry and a great many others. One of his later books is called, The Spectator Bird. It is the story of old love. This couple was been married for a long time. As with most of us there were fits and starts and ups and downs and hard days and good times. And so Stegner wrote about this couple. These are his words that I sent to my friends getting married:

“It is something, it could be everything
to have found a fellow bird
with whom you can sit among the rafters
while the drinking
and boasting
and reciting
go on below;
A fellow bird whom you can look after
and find bugs and seeds for;
One who will patch your bruises
and straighten your ruffled feathers
and mourn over your hurts
when you accidentally fly into something
you can’t handle.”

I chose these words because they are as true of my feelings as anything I know.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Don't Wait 'Till Thanksgiving

I want to recommend a good book that I have bumped into lately. You wouldn’t call the book brilliant or earthshaking—but it set me to thinking about my own life. Isn’t that the mark of a good book?

365 Thank Yous was written by John Kralik. John Kralik is a lawyer who found his life in shambles a couple of years ago. It seemed that everything that could go wrong in a person’s life John was experiencing. He was struggling through a painful and complicated second divorce. He had two grown children that he had little contact with and third younger child that he was afraid the same thing would happen with her. His business had tanked because so many of his clients were just not paying in the economic downturn. He was living in a lousy apartment that was cold in the winter and hot in the summer. He was overweight and had just broken up with his girl friend. Nothing he tried seemed to work.

He began to wonder if there wasn’t something he could do in the approaching New Year that could make his lousy life better. His ex-girl friend sent him a note one day thanking him for the things she had appreciated about him. He was so moved by this note that he started to write notes of his own. He decided that he would try to write one thank-you note to someone every day of the year.

At first he kept hoping something dramatic would happen. Maybe his life would turn around and everything would be fine. That didn’t really happen to start with, but John kept at his note writing. His thank-yous were not long---usually not more than four or five lines. He wrote them by hand because he wanted them to be personal.

He wrote to loved ones—his boys that were grown. He wrote business associates and friends that had made a difference in his life. Some he had not seen for a long time. As he opened his eyes and looked around him he slowly realized that he had been showed with a great many blessings that he had just ignored.

This is really a book about gratitude. There is no quick fix here—as if there ever was. This is simply the story of a man in deep trouble that found by changing the lenses through which he looked at life completely changed him. Some of the folk he wrote to had never received a thank-you note from anyone. He discovered that a great many of us feel unappreciated and are starved for simple affirmation.

This book has forced me to think of so many along the way that have made a difference in my life. At the end of the book he did not ride off into the sunset happy and smiling—but his life was forever different because of this simple word he had forgotten. Thanks.

It reminds me of Raymond Carver’s poem, “Gravy.” Carver was a great writer but was an alcoholic that lost about everything that mattered. But the last years of his life he turned things around with the loving help of a woman. I think Carver knew he was dying of lung cancer when he wrote these moving words. They are some of my favorites.

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
‘‘I've had ten years longer than I or anyone
expected. Pure gravy. And don’t forget it.”
             --from A Path to the Waterfall

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Reynolds Price--A Profile in Courage

I heard it first on NPR Friday. Reynolds Price, age 77 had died. Reynolds Price was one of my favorite writers. He could take our language and make it sing. He wrote a multitude of books but the book I remember best was his autobiographical account of what happened to him some twenty-plus years ago. The Doctors discovered an eight-inch malignant tumor wrapped around his spinal column just below the neck. After a series of operations and radiation treatments Mr. Price was left paralyzed from the waist down. Doctors told his brother in 1984 he might live eighteen months. He died January 22 of this year.

After the removal of the tumor he was left with unremitting pain. He tried many remedies but it was hypnosis therapy, which, though not resolving the pain, helped him to begin to manage his life. So he told the story of that hard and winding journey of pain and recovery in the book, A Whole New Life. Through the years I have quoted from that book in sermons many times and recommended the book to many people. It tells is story of his (his words) inch-by-inch journey back from the edge of death to a new life as a different person.

Toward the end of that book he tells what he has learned.

“1. You’re in your present calamity alone, far as this goes. If you want a way out, then dig it yourself, if there turns out to be any trace of a way. Nobody—least of all a doctor—can rescue you now, not from the deeps of your own mind, not once they’ve stitched your gaping wound waiting to give you everything on Earth but your main want, which is simply the person you used to be.

2. Generous people—true practical saints, some of them boring as root canals—are waiting to give you everything on Earth but your main want, which is simply the person you used to be.

3. But you’re not that person now. Who’ll you be tomorrow? And who do you propose to be from here to the grave, which may be hours or decades down the road?”

Price was a deeply religious man without a trace of piousity. He said that verse in Deuteronomy helped turn him around: “I have you life and death, choose life.” And he did just that. He made a commitment, hard though it was, to find a whole new life. And he did.

Since his surgery he wrote many books. He won the National Book Critics Circle prize for his novel, Kate Vaiden. He has been praised as our one of our finest authors. An hour-long documentary on his life was viewed on national television. Besides writing he also taught writing and the poetry of Milton at Duke University.

I love A Whole New Life because it is a book of hope for all of us. It is a book of second chances and future possibilities. The book tells us that our lives really are in our hands. Reynolds Price was a man of prayer and he said “that one hard night" he asked God, “What now?” And the answer came back plain and clear: “ More." And in the light of that vision he has found his way.

He ends that book with these words:

"I’ve long since weaned myself from all drugs but a small dose of antidepressant, an aspirin to thin my blood, an occasional scotch or a good red wine and a simply acid to brace my bladder against infection. I write six days a week, long days that often run till bedtime; and the books are different from what came before in more than age. I sleep long nights with few hard dreams, and now I’ve outlived both of my parents. Even my handwriting looks very little like the script of the man I was in June of ’84. Cranky as it is, it’s taller, more legible, with more air and stride. It comes down the arm of a grateful man.”

Life is hard for many people. We lose those we love. Life takes a wrong turn we did not expect nor want. People disappoint us . When we look into the mirror we know that we have disappointed ourselves. Yet—any of us despite the burdens we carry can find the way if we choose. Reynolds helped me understand this powerful truth and this is why I have passed his book to so many people. Reynolds Price—You have fought an incredibly good fight—rest in peace.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

A Semi-Hooray for Governor Bentley

Through the years we Alabamians have often said, “Thank God for Mississippi.” Well, yesterday it was our turn. I am sure Mississippi and a host of others must have said, “Thank God for Alabama.” Why? Our barely sworn-in Governor moved over to the Dexter Avenue Church of Martin Luther King fame and dropped a bombshell. Are you sitting down?

This is what he said, “Now I will have to say that, if we don’t have the same daddy, we’re not brothers and sisters. So anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I’m telling you, you’re not my brother and you’re not my sister, and I want to be you brother.”

Reaction was swift in coming. Just a few hours before Governor Bentley had placed his hand on the Bible and declared, “I’m going to be the Governor of all Alabamians.” Then a media storm descended. Jewish folk, Muslims, Christians who know better. Atheists and every other stripe of faith were in an uproar. Do you have to be a Christian to be recognized as a first-class citizen in Alabama?

This Baptist was shame-faced with the new Governor’s first response, “I was speaking as an evangelical Christian who is as Baptist to other Baptists. We use some terminology that other people of other religions may not at all times understand.” Well, this Baptist preacher is ashamed of such a statement. In a state and world as divided as ours we need leaders to learn to say all distinctly. Government should recognize everyone is to be on the same footing. Oh, I know this is idealism—but it is our standard and goal. Governor, not all Baptists would dare use that terminology.

Well, thank goodness that is not the end of the story. As the phones started ringing in Montgomery and the pundits started speaking and writing across the county, Governor Bentley had his eyes opened. Not everybody in Alabama is Baptist, and not everybody is a Christian. Some of our folk don’t believe anything and others believe it all.

This was his response, “What I would like to do is apologize. I would like to say to anyone who heard those words and felt disenfranchised; I want to say I’m sorry. If you’re not a person who can say that you are sorry, you’re not a very good leader." He continued, “I want to tell people I am sorry if I offended anyone in any way."

It takes a mighty big man to scrape the egg off his face. And our new Governor has done just that. Maybe this is a teachable moment when he realizes he is to be Governor of all and not part. Maybe in the long run this will be good for our state. We usually only talk to our own kind. That circle is never big enough for any of us. Governor, I appreciate the apology and I hope every body will drop this issue and move on. We didn’t elect a Pastor when we chose Governor Bentley—we elected a Governor. We don’t need evangelizing from the State House—we can do that in the church. But we do need somebody to work hard on a new Constitution and finally put to bed that old threadbare 1901 moth-eaten document. And we need somebody as Governor that will do something about the corruption that is only a stone’s throw from the place Governor Bentley was inaugurated.

As I read that apology I could not help but think of Sarah Palin and if...

(You might want to read Joey Kennedy's good article about Governor Bentley. He's Op Ed Editor on Sunday for The Birmingham News.)

Monday, January 17, 2011

Daybreak in Alabama and the Whole Country

"When I get to be a composer
I'm gonna write me some music about
Daybreak in Alabama
And I'm gonna put the purtiest songs in it
Rising out of the ground like a swamp mist
And falling out of heaven like soft dew.
I'm gonna put some tall tall trees in it
And the scent of pine needles
And the smell of red clay after rain
And long red necks
And poppy color faces
And big brown arms
And the field daisy eyes
Of black and white black
white black people
And I'm gonna put white hands
And black hands and brown and yellow hands
And red clay earth
hands in it
Touching everybody with kind fingers
And touching each other natural as dew
In that dawn of music when I
Get to be a composer
And write about daybreak
In  Alabama."
   --Langston Hughes, The Collected Poems

(Several years ago I wrote this piece for The Birmingham (AL) News editorial page on the week-end of Martin Luther King’s birthday. Even though this article is directed toward Alabama I thought it might say something to other folk in other states. This strange talk by the birthers and the bitterness that President Obama’s election has unearthed—says to me that we still have a long way to go.)

As a life-long Southerner, my first experience in race relations came late. I was sixteen years old and living in Columbus, Georgia. Our family did not have a car, so I rode the city bus practically everywhere I went.

On one of those bus trips downtown, the bus stopped and a black woman got on. She moved toward the back and found a seat. A few stops later a man got on and also moved toward the back of the bus. All the seats were taken and there was no place for him to sit down. He glared at the black woman sitting behind me. He kept staring while she looked at her hands in her lap. "Nigger," he said, "I need to sit down." She didn't move. Using that same ugly word a second time, he said, "Why don't you get back there where you belong--I want to sit down." The bus got very quiet. No one said a word. But something I had not felt before boiled up inside me. As a shy sixteen year old I could take it no longer. "Mister," I said, "if you would talk to her like a human being, she might get up and move." He turned his rage toward me. "Nigger lover," he spat out. Everybody turned and looked at me. The bus driver said, "Enough of that." The bus moved on toward town.

The woman got up, moved out of the man's way and he plopped down in her seat. She stood up, holding on to the bus strap until the next stop. The woman got off the bus. As the bus pulled away I looked out the bus window and saw her standing there with her head down, looking sad.

That day was the beginning of a long journey in understanding something of injustice. I had taken the black and white drinking fountains for granted. I had never wondered why all my classmates and teachers were all white. I never asked why only Caucasian folk attended my church or lived in my neighborhood. I did not know there were no African-American bus drivers or policeman or store clerks. Neither did I know that black soldiers at Fort Benning were kept in separate barracks and could not mix with the white soldiers. Later I would learn that blacks and whites were paid different salaries for the same work and that people of color far outweigh white folk in our prisons and on death row.

The old racist that day on the bus taught me a powerful lesson. For the first time in my life I had bumped into inequity and unfairness on a personal level. I knew something was terribly wrong that day on the bus though I could not easily put it into words.

We have come a long way since my bus ride that day in the early fifties. The progress that we have made racially has been enormous. We could not have made it without the great King and those thousands and thousands of foot soldiers that put their very lives on the line. The Birmingham community is filled with hundreds of those mostly nameless heroes.

Despite our progress we still have a long way to go. We have a bloated state Constitution that is filled with inequity and disparity on every page. Sunday may still be the most segregated hour of the week. For all of our diversity talk, we see little evidence of its influence in many segments of our daily lives. There are counties in this state whose mortality rate of infants is as low as many third-world countries. We still have not discovered a way to give a quality education to most of our children. The state of Alabama still ranks near the bottom of too many state lists.

As we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday let us remember the way we were in the fifties. Let us never forget the dark pages of our history. Let us celebrate the enormous progress that we have made. But let us recommit ourselves to Langston Hughes’ vision called "daybreak in Alabama." It is an old and a good dream. A state and a nation where all find a place at the table and what every single citizen finds on that table is good indeed.

(If you drive to Five Points in downtown  Birmingham you will find this statue. Surrounded by bars, restaurants, homeless people and churches in the center of it all you will find a man kneeling in prayer. A Presbyterian minister in Birmingham, he was known throughout the city for his love for Birmingham. He gave away almost everything he had--he never let those in need go lacking. And so, after his death the city of Birmingham erected this moving statue of Brother Bryan praying for Birmingham.)

A Sermon for the Third Week after the Epiphany

"My friend and I have built a wall
  Between us thick and wide;
The stones of it are laid in scorn
  And plastered high with pride.

We talk across the stubborn stones
  So arrogantly tall--
Only we cannot touch our hands
  Since we have built the wall."
     --Elizabeth Morrow

Paul writes in this week’s lectionary text: “I appeal to you that all of you be in agreement and there be no divisions among you.” (I Cor.1. I0-13) Was he writing to Corinth or was he writing to us? He continues: “It has been reported to me that there are quarrels among you.” Was he writing to Corinth or was he writing to us?

Charles Talbert, a very fine New Testament scholar, has said that this is the centerpiece of his correspondence to Corinth. I wonder if, of all the words Paul wrote, perhaps they speak to the heart of our time, too.Lack of agreements. Divisions. Quarrels. We know them well. My daughter, who teaches the third grade, says 75% of those in her classroom come from broken homes. And she says the parents have no idea the sad stories of their lives they bring to class. We know it at every level of society. From a Committee meeting of the PTA, to denominational struggles all the way to Washington there is a power struggle going on. And looking out on today’s scene it seems that the common good has been lost in the shuffle of special interests and private causes. But beyond our borders there is a world out there. We can point in any direction from Haiti to Afghanistan and everywhere in between and the pain is palpable.

We’ve heard a lot of talk a bout Bi-partisanship. But we know it is a word and not a reality. One political leader spoke to a member of the opposition party recently and said, “We’ll be happy to work with anyone who agrees with us.” We know about lack of agreement, about divisions, about quarrels. We don’t have to look at Washington we don’t even have to leave church. We have no unearthly idea how to handle conflict. And the Church today is broken and fragmented. Pick any issue and you can stir up a pretty good fight. Interpretation of the Bible. Abortion. Education. Gay rights. Welfare reform. Church-state issues. Multiculturalism. Worship. Women’s concerns. We have called them: culture wars. We know about lack of agreement. Division. Quarrels. It is an uncivil world and the church in Corinth was not part of the solution. They were contributors to the problem. But let me ask you: was Paul talking about Corinth or was he talking about us?

If verses ten through thirteen of that first chapter form the heart of the letter then perhaps we can find some help for these quarrels, these divisions, this lack of agreement. I appeal to you, he said. I beseech you. I urge you—one translation says. It is an old word, appeal. It is used over one hundred times in the New Testament. It means, literally, to call to one’s side. Would you come over here? I’d like to talk to you. Not an over/under conversation. But let’s have a heart-to-heart. I’m worried and I want to talk to you about it.
So their old former Pastor gives them three words of advice. Christian civility in an uncivil world. Was he talking about Corinth or us?


First, he says, Now I appeal to you…that all of you be in agreement. He pleads with them to speak the same language. You remember the Tower of Babel in Genesis. God confused the languages and no one could understand one another. That’s where we are. It is an onomatopoetic term. Babel…babel…babel. Now agreement does not mean to all sound alike, to look alike, all dress alike. But it does mean to hear one another. It does mean to respect one another. It does mean to genuinely care for another.

Can’t you just see the Samaritan stopping to help the wounded, bleeding man? Before I help you, he says I must ask you some questions. The man looks up, through bleary, blood-covered eyes: “Yes” he says. “What is your stand on abortion?” The poor bleeding man just blinks. “Whom did you vote for President?” “Do you have a job—or are you on welfare?” The man slips away while the questions are being asked. Do these questions determine the quality of our help?

Agreement is harmony. Agreement is not singing in unison. Same notes, same sound. What kind of a choir would it is if all were sopranos or all basses? Cecil Sherman, long time Pastor, had some trouble once in a church he served. And so he illustrated where they were. He has a soloist to sing and while she sang the choir talked and laughed and chatted. Nobody listened. Nobody asked them to sing a solo. Then the Director asked the choir to sing. Half sang. The other half didn’t like the music so they just sat there with folded arms and pursed lips. Half the choir was up and half was down. And then the Director was getting desperate. He asked the entire choir to sing. And they did. About four different songs. They all sang their favorite songs at the same time. And it was a mess. It hurt your ears. Pandemonium. And then the Director began to plead: I beseech you…let’s sing together. And this time they all sang the same song. There were altos and basses and tenors and sopranos and it was beautiful. It was harmonious. Not all alike. Not even the same. But a commitment to the music. Paul said: I appeal to you. Be in agreement. Was he talking about Corinth or was he talking about us?


I appeal to you that there be no divisions among you. The word is schism. One translation says that you do no allow yourselves to be split up into parties. That you do not split up into factions. That there will be no cliques in your church. Was he talking about Corinth or was he talking about us? The word schizophrenia comes from this Greek word, schismata. It means to split apart. Words from deeds. Sometimes what we say over here is not what we say over there. There is a vast difference. We call it talking out of both sides of your mouth.

Don’t you have someone in your family with whom you have nothing whatsoever in common? Maybe you disagree on everything politically. Maybe theologically. Maybe it is just a matter of taste. You love country music and they love opera. You are crazy about barbecue and they love sushi. But it’s like to different worlds. Two different worldviews colliding. And yet you drive 500 miles to see them Christmas Day. And you love them and care for them—and they you. How is this possible? Well, you know them. You understand their hang-ups—and they yours. And even though there are some subjects you have to tiptoe around—there are no divisions or splits or gaps really. And you wouldn’t think of talking out of both sides of your mouth about them. Why? There are no divisions about the real thing. I appeal to you, Paul, said that there be no divisions. Was he talking about Corinth or you and me?


He says: I appeal to you that you be united in the same mind and same purpose. All together—you should achieve a unity. This united is a medical term. It means to set a bone. And if you don’t set it you will be crippled for the rest of your life. Sometimes it means to put a joint back in place. But the real definition I like is that of mending nets. Take, he said, the torn, tattered nets and stitch them together back together.

When Jesus first called his first disciples they were kneeling by the sea. They were fishermen. And they were mending their nets. As they dragged the nets in they noticed the tears and the holes made by rocks and stumps and the years and the elements. They were patching the torn nets. For the nets would be of no use whatsoever without that mending. The fish would just slip through.

Be united. Paul said. Was he talking about Corinth or us? Jesus called them from catching fish to the catching of men and women and children, too. They wouldn’t do that with broken nets. And that was what the mending was all about.

John Killinger once invited his congregation to play a little game. He said: Think of five people in this church you would choose, if you had the power, to dismiss to other churches. Maybe you would choose someone because they were meanest, ugliest, most cantankerous church members you know. They are always hurting somebody’s feelings or stirring up trouble or standing in the way of progress. And then he said: What a terrible thing to even suggest in a sermon that we invite others to leave. But then he said: Now think of the five people you would hate most to lose from our church fellowship. Perhaps they are the people who always make you feel good when you meet them. Maybe they are always positive and uplifting in their attitudes. Maybe they are the people who attract others to join our fellowship and always open to new ideas and willing to risk new experiences for the good of the church. And then Killinger said: Have you made your two lists? Good. Then you are ready for the next step. Think about all the other people here playing the game with you. Imagine whether would be on one of their two lists. If you were on one, which list would it be? How does one avoid being on the wrong list?

Paul said: “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.”Don’t you wonder if Paul was talking about Corinth or was he talking about you and me? I wonder. I really wonder.

(When Coventry Cathedral was bombed by the Germans in the Second World War--nothing was left of the church but a bombed out shell. The people of Coventry decided to rebuild next to the bombed out site. They left what remained of the old church for all to see and remember that painful time.The sculptured piece in the above photograph stands in the ruins of the old Cathedral as a powerful testimony to reconciliation.)

Monday, January 10, 2011

A Time to Ponder

The horror of the shooting in Arizona ought to force us all to stop and think. Not only is Representative Gabrielle Giffords fighting for her life. 19 people were shot. One of Representative aids was killed. Arizona's Chief Federal Judge was killed. A little nine-year old girl born on September 11 was killed. 6 people were killed in all.

We are all shocked by this violent act. This is not the time to ask where her protectors? Or where the protectors for the other 18 persons that were shot. This is not even the time to get on the anti-gun bandwagon as much as I despise too many guns in too many hands. This is not the time to wage any kind of campaign. It is the time to ponder what kind of a people are we really. The political climate the last few years has gotten worse and worse. The stridency of so many voices drowns out reason. The fear of where we are going economically has seemed to make people crazy. It is time to tone down the attacks by radio and other forms of the media. Some of those that scream Constitution as if it were the Bible seem to have forgotten that the document was written to help us find our way together. Osama Ben Laden must be sitting in his cave laughing as we spit and claw and scream and hate one another.

Most folk are not like the man with that gun in Arizona. We are decent people and most of us want the same things for ourselves and for those around us. And yet we live in a climate which gets more and more toxic.

The best word I have read on this subject was written before the shooting. It came in my mail just this week from the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research. The publication of that group is called Bearings for the Life of Faith. The first article in the Autumn/Winter 2010 issue is by Parker J. Palmer. It is called "The Heart of Politics." He says ours is really heart trouble. And he writes that you can't have politics without addressing the political heart today. Read this article for yourself and ponder where we are. We've been over this violent, chaotic road many times before. When someone is public life, particularly is shot we stop and ponder and usually go back to business as usual. This could be a teachable moment for all of us. We need to learn that words matter terribly. Read Parker Palmer's article and ponder where we are and where we will end up.

A Sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany

Denise Levertov a very fine poet has a poem that talks about a wishing well. She said when she was young there was this beautiful spring--it bubbled out of the ground--it was less than three feet across. She said she and others would come there to dream their dreams. To stretch their imaginations and to warm their hearts. Nobody threw money in the pool back then. Maybe money was too scarce--even pennies. So when they made a wish they would throw a stone into the water. She said, for her, it was magical place. A place of wonder and glory. It became a launching pad from where she would journey forth into a larger world. Years later she went back home and visited the wishing well. To her horror--she found the well clogged with bottles, tin cans, paper and plastic. She wondered who would throw rubbish in such a place? Who in their right minds would destroy the stream? She wondered if the stream could be cleaned out--and if so, if it might live again. She wondered if yet another generation of children just might find some magic and wonder and hope as she too had found in that special spot.


Word came to Paul in Ephesus that the Church he had started in Corinth was having a terrible time. On his second missionary journey Paul had established a church there with the help of Priscilla and Aquila and Silas and Timothy in that port city of 600,000. In about 50 AD they built a strong church--you might even call it a wishing well. In that wildest of secular cities--where immorality was rampant--they damned up this little stream. And, in time, it became a place of healing and wholeness. Paul stayed there a year and a half before he moved on. Five years later--word came that the stream he had worked so hard to build--was clogged. The church was broken into factions. There were incredible problems. Incest, they were divided over leadership, split between rich and poor, slave and free. They were suing each other in the courts. They got drunk at the Lord's Table. They couldn't agree on anything. And so the stream once pure, fresh and magical--was clogged with the sins and debris of that age.

And so Paul wrote First and Second Corinth in the hope that they just might unclog the stream. That they might once again rediscover the wonder of the wishing well. It was a personal  word to the church. After his opening remarks found in the first three verses of First Corinthians 1 He began the letter with a Prayer of Thanksgiving. Fred Craddock has called it a Pastoral Prayer. The old first Pastor lifted up his longings for his beloved people. In the prayer he articulated the church's needs in Corinth. That prayer dealt with practical concerns. This prayer would serve as a table of contents for the whole of First Corinthians. But this prayer was more than all that. It was a careful prescription for how Corinth might carefully and tediously stoop down and begin to clean out the debris, the clutter that clogged the healing stream.

Paul gave Corinth five suggestions in his prayer. To this troubled, troubled Church, in grave danger of extinction--he writes a prayer of hope. This is what he says.


"I give thanks to God always for you because of the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus..."(vs.1). You have been graced. As Corinth muttered and complained and fought and whined--Paul called them back. His approach was interesting. No looking over his glasses and saying: "You are wrong." No tut-tut. No shaking his head. No judgment at all. He called them back to the heart of their faith. Grace. Without this grace, this amazing grace, there would be no church and no stream.

So our binding tie is not doctrine--important though it is. Not history--rich though it is. Not culture or law. Not "Thou Shalt Not..." What keeps us together, Paul said, is this grace of God--given to you in Jesus Christ.

Garrison Keillor underlines this point in his book We Are Still Married, "To know and serve God, of course, is why we're here, a clear truth that, like the nose on your face, is near at hand and easily discernible but can make you dizzy if you try to focus on it hard. But a little faith will see you through. What else will do except faith in such a cynical corrupt time? When the country goes temporarily to the dogs, cats must learn to be circumspect, walk on fences, sleep in trees, and have faith that all this woofing is not the last word." And then he adds: "Gentleness is everywhere in daily life, a sign that faith rules through ordinary things: through cooking and small talk, through storytelling, making love, fishing, tending animals and sweet corn and flowers and small talk, music and books, raising kids--all the places where the gravy soaks in and grace shines through."
Paul says you unclog the stream when you begin with grace.


The second thing the Apostle said was "that in every way you were enriched in him with all speech and all knowledge."(vs.5) Not only have you been graced but you have been enriched. Paul wrote you begin to unclog the healing stream when you remember you are wealthy. He told that shabby little church that could hardly pay their bills that they were rich.  Now I would not have said that. That troubled fussy group. Saying nasty things about their former Pastor. Sounds like to me they needed some: Why don't you clean up your act. Change your ways. Don't you know you are tearing the church to pieces. Give them hell. Let 'em have it. Not Paul. He said if you want to unclog the stream in Corinth you must remember you are wealthy. From the words of your lips to the understanding of your hearts you are a wealthy people.

Russell Conwell was a great preacher of another day. He went all over the country preaching one sermon that made him famous: "Acres of Diamonds." Do you know what he said? In your own backyard there are all the treasures you'll ever, ever need. Corinth had forgotten that as we forget it, too. We unclog the stream when we rediscover the wealth, the riches of our lives.


The next thing Paul said was that: "You are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of the Lord Jesus Christ."(vs.7) You have been gifted. Corinth was divided over spiritual maturity. Who was a first class Christian? Those whose character was impeccable? But there were those others. Newcomers. Slaves, Poor. Not aware of the traditions in Corinth. Why they didn't know a Doxology from a Benediction. Paul says: there is no pecking order in church. Generals, Colonels, Sergeants and Privates. And Paul wrote: None of you are lacking in the gifts of God.

Isn't that what brought this church into being.? Not only was it a problem of race. It was also a problem that there was this pecking order. And their former Pastor reminded them:  Everybody has a gift. And our job is to uncover those gifts and call them forth.

At a community meeting not too long ago a black man stood up and told us that he was addicted to drugs and alcohol. He lived under a bridge. He was utterly destitute. But somebody at the Firehouse Shelter took an interest. Loved him. Listened to him. Took him seriously. Had his teeth fixed. Helped him sober up. He now runs an office supply company. He said every time I see some homeless person walking down a street I say: That could be me. But somebody believed in him. There was not a dry eye when he got through telling his story. Do you see what call said? We all have a gift.


Paul wasn't through. He had only started, really. He wrote to Corinth: "...the Lord Jesus Christ...will sustain you to the end...God is faithful...:(vs.7b-9a) Graced. Enriched. Gifted. And now: You have been strengthened by God. I love the way Clarence Jordan translated it in the Cotton Patch Version: "He will stand by you come what may." Or another translation says: "He will see to it that you will be able to hold out to the end." You want to unclog the stream and let the water flow, Corinth? Then remember God is faithful. He'll give you all you need.

You know remember the Y2K anxiety. As we approached the year 2,000 gloom and doom was everywhere. Why computers were going to shut down. Planes would fall from the sky, cash registers wouldn’t work—our Visa bills would be a nightmare. Doctors would lose your records--you'd never get your Social Security stuff straightened out. It went on and on. Put all those fears down beside the 2011 fears. The country is in a mess. The economy has tanked. We can’t seem to resolve anything in Washington. People are scared and many are saying our best days are behind us. As 2000 happened the sky did not fall and we moved into a New Year and millennium. Don’t we need a reminder for our time, too?

But down beside all this madness, Paul says: He will see to it that you will be able to hold our to the end. This was the ground of Paul's confidence. Not in some computer. Not even in the vast talent in Corinth. No. We are strengthened by the grace of God as God’s people have always discovered in hard times.


Paul said the water, the pure water would begin to return to the stream. "By him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord."(vs. 9) If the stream flows pure and clean--we will know that we have been called into a fellowship.

This is no private matter. The stream belongs to everybody. Everybody. We have almost forgotten the common good. Later, speaking of divisions, Paul would say: "The hand cannot say to the foot, I have no need of you..." If one part hurts, all hurt.

The last thing Jesus ever prayed was that they, scattered and different, would be one. That you might be one as the Father and Son are one. It means that we are all included in the family. We all have a place at the Table. It means that you and I have some responsibility to every member of the family. Anything that hurts the body is wrong. It clogs the stream. It blocks the flow of water that everybody needs. It hinders the work God dreamed for Corinth.

Let me tell you a story. It helped me see once more how vital and important this stream really is. I went back to the second church I ever served some time ago. And they had videoed the service that day and gave me a copy when I left. It was a little tiny church on a busy highway. If you were driving by chances are you would miss it. In that visit back we had a wonderful time. It was just as Baptist and predictable and country as any place you have been. A little choir of about twelve people sang off-key and loud on every song. Over the choir was the round window of Jesus praying in the Garden.  As the video started Frances strode up to the pulpit. She had been nine years old when I was there. She was raised back of the store by a mother with five children and had nothing except food stamps. She stood and talked about how the church how helped her come to know that God loved her and she was important. “I’m still here,” she said, “and I still believe God loves me.” Virl followed her and talked about how her husband would never set foot in the church. ”We had all these kids,” she said, “and nobody to help me. But one day Junior came to church and he walked down the aisle and became a Christian. Now he’s a deacon. This church changed our lives,”  Rob came and talked about how his father and mother had been charter members of that church. His Mama had been President of the WCTU and quite a force to be reckoned with. Her husband was always there fixing and helping and working and loving. Always a deacon. The video panned across the room and there was Beulah and her five children. When her husband died and she didn’t think she could make it—the church was there and helped. Roy came to the platform. He was a big road contractor who said, “During the hard days when I was shot at by the newspapers for political reasons, I couldn’t have made it without this church.” He would come by my office when I was there and say, “Preacher, what does the church need?” And I would tell him and he would take his check book and write a check, hand it to me and say, “Don’t tell nobody.” It was an all-too-human place but somehow  these people as human as you and me came togerther. And in the coming they discovered a well of water deep and pure and it kept them going.

They ended that service by singing the old gospel song, “What a fellowship, what a joy divine…” It may have been a mite off key and very loud but it brought tears to my eyes:

“Leaning on the everlasting arms.

What blessedness, what a peace is mine,
Leaning on the everlasting arms.

What have I to dread, what have I to fear,
Leaning on the everlasting arms?
I have blessed peace with my Lord so near,
Leaning on the everlasting arms.”

If drove down that highway this morning and pulled into the parking lost around eleven o’clock the doors would be open and the bell would ring and church would start. And the wishing well will be in full operation. It will be far from perfect, but the well will be working. Isn’t this what Paul had in mind? There is some place where we really are graced and enriched and gifted and strengthened and called into a fellowship. That is no small thing.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Great article on the Myths of death panels

Today's Birmingham News had a superb article by Jo Alison Taylor on the myth of death panels. She tackles the subject in such a positive and helpful way I'm pushing her article if you  want to read something clear-headed about health care and this scare campaign about death panels. Some columnist said that if you write or say something in the media five times it becomes fact. Inundated as we are with more information and pseudo-information than we can possibly sort through--the crazies are having a hey-day. Forty million uninsured people in this country--we are going to have to do something! Lying simply will solve nothing.
Check out this article attacking death panels.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Pat Conroy's New Book--A Great Read

If you are a book lover I highly recommend Pat Conroy’s new book, My Reading Life. I have been a fan of most of Conroy’s books and when I saw the advertisement for this book I felt this should be a treat. I was not disappointed.

The book traces his love affair with books. It all began when his Mother, who did not have a chance to go to college, was a reader. When he was five years old his mother began to read Gone With the Wind, of all things, to him. He said early he learned of the power and authority of fiction from those early readings.

Conroy was a voracious reader but this volume is much than a-books-that-I –have-read-list. He writes about the people along the way that took the time to listen to him, to encourage him and put books in his hands. There was an English teacher, Mr. Norris who opened up a whole new world to this high school student. He took Conroy under his wing and took him to fine restaurants, taught him what forks, spoons and knives went where and how you should eat. He introduced him to Archibald Rutledge, the poet laureate of South Carolina. In 1994 when Conroy was to address the Booksellers Convention he flew Mr. Norris out to the convention first class. And when Conroy spoke he saluted his old teacher. This story might trigger something in your own imagination as it did mine. I remember some teachers in my own life that took the time to listen, that open the windows and introduced me to a world I had never known. One wonders where we would be with those who stopped and listened and cared.

This book takes us through much of Conroy’s life and how books played such a part at every junction of his journey. He writes beautifully about libraries and bookshops and people along the way. Thomas Wolfe influenced him greatly as did James Dickey and a great host of others. I had a friend that used to say there were God-guided books that came into our lives at just the right time. I’ve thought about that sentence a lot through the years because like Conroy and so many others I have found life taking a different direction because of a book that fell into my lap when I needed it most.

One of the last chapters is this moving book is entitled, “Why I write.” Conroy says that he writes to explain his life to himself. Who was it, Kafka maybe that said that a good book is an axe that chops away the frozen sea within us. Conroy says he wrote because he loved the sound of words that he first began to learn from his Mother with her gorgeous Southern accent. Early on Conroy writes that he set for himself the endless task of reading and incorporating books of great vision.

Mr. Norris, Pat Conroy’s English teacher lay dying in a Columbia (SC) hospital. The last thing he ever said to the student he was most proud of was: “Tell me a story.” Mr. Norris would have loved this book. It tells a story which takes the reader down his or her own memory lane where we just might remember our own stories, places and faces that have changed our lives. Read this good book and see for yourself.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The King's Speech--Time for Applause

The King’s Speech is a film of a most unlikely friendship. In one corner we have a stuttering would-be king of England and in the other corner a failed-actor-speech therapist barely eking out a living. The film opens as Prince Albert (Bertie) attempts to open the British Empire Exhibition in 1925. Standing before the microphone the speech was a disaster. The Prince could only utter a few words without long pauses and stutters. He left that event defeated.

The question that lurks at the edge of the story is: How can a King lead a nation if he cannot speak to his subjects and to the world at large? Radio was just beginning to make inroads in the world and Prince Albert knew he was in trouble. After many therapists his wife Elizabeth discovered therapist Lionel Logue and drags her husband to see him. One of the strands in the movie is the study in class between the Prince and the shabby unknown therapist. Sparks fly. Teacher Logue sets the ground rules. The Prince must meet on his turf—not the King’s. They would call each other first names. The King explodes: “Nobody calls me Bertie outside the palace. You will address me as Prince Albert.” The Therapist stand firm: in that room there would be only Bertie and Lionel—no pecking order.

The film reminded me of the Helen Keller-Annie Sullivan story. Slowly, after many false starts Lionel begins to break through the King’s crust and phobias. Prince Albert becomes King and Lionel is by his side. When the new King gives his first address at Westminster Abby when he is crowned—Lionel encourages and stands by him. The new King did not stumble.

One of the most serious speeches the King would ever give was when he talked to his nation and the world by radio about England’s entering the war against the Nazis. Lionel was there nudging him on. King George VI never made a major address without Lionel being there.

The film is multi-layered. There is the transcending of class, of a terrible speech problem, the formation of an enduring friendship by two most unlikely people. Moviegoers watch the transformation from a man with a terrible affliction slowly able to overcome this difficult problem. It was a moving story right out of the history books.

Why moving? Many reasons. The wonder of what one human being might do for another. The power of strong relationships. The truth that we can all overcome a great deal more than we ever imagined. The King’s young wife, Elizabeth stood by his side and helped him find his way. She would become the beloved Queen Mother England so loved. I wondered if the King would have ever been able to overcome his stuttering without the love and encouragement of his wife.

A friend told me that when she saw the movie that as it ended the whole theatre broke loose in applause. I can understand that response. As the credits scrolled across the screen and the movie’s end, I rubbed tears from my eyes. I was reminded again of what human beings can do for one another. I recommend The King’s Speech to everybody. It will lift your spirits and make you glad again that you are a member of the human family. This is a rare and wonderful movie.

Monday, January 3, 2011

A Sermon for the 1st Sunday after Epiphany

When I started working on the story of Jesus' baptism—I remembered back to one my favorite baptismal memories. The year was 1978. It was a South Carolina Sunday afternoon. We were scheduled to baptize that evening. The Lovette family had been on vacation and just got into town that afternoon because our son was to be baptized that evening. But there was a hitch. When we got to the church someone had forgotten to fill up the baptistery. There was no water. We had planned the service carefully around one particular young man that would be baptized. His father was seriously ill with cancer. We had structured this service between chemotherapy treatments which made his father so sick. We had asked that man to have the baptismal prayer for his son and the other candidates. So, as happens so often in church, we had to come up with a contingency plan. We called a family with a swimming pool as the worshippers gathered and asked them if we could use their swimming pool for our service. They reluctantly agreed. I can just imagine what frantic preparations they made getting rid of all the bottles and cans. But I was heartsick. This was a big day for my son and the man with cancer had come with great pain to see his own son baptized. I could just see people standing around that pool snickering. But that was not the case. Something happened that sunny afternoon. The grace of God moved among us. None of us present will ever forget that particular baptism. One of the things that made the evening so special was the pale, bald-headed father, dying of cancer. He pulled from his pocket a prayer he had written for his own nine-year-old son and the other candidates. This is what he prayed:

Heavenly Father, at this time we would like to dedicate these young people to You as they choose to become members of Your intimate family through the sacrament of Baptism. Remember how You led Your chosen people out of Egypt by Your show of power at the waters of the Red Sea? Please show the same power for these boys tonight and protect them as You protect all your children. Remember how You led Your chosen people through the waters of the river Jordan to let them enter the Promised Land? please lead these boys through the trials and joys of life to the heaven You promise to those who follow Your way. Remember how You gave salvation to the world by the blood and water that flowed from Your son’s side on the cross? Please give the same salvation to thee boys as they enter the waters of baptism as Your adopted sons. Remember how You sent the Holy Spirit to Your close followers on Pentecost and gave them the courage to be brave Christians in their words and actions. Please send the same Holy Spirit into these boys tonight so that they can carry out Your teachings in their lives. Be with us all, Heavenly Father, so that we can also live out the power of our baptism in our own lives. Amen.”

No one present will ever forget that special moment. After the service this man, so sick, took all the boys baptized that evening for a celebration at McDonalds. It was this man’s last public appearance. Weeks later we would have his funeral.

What God Wants Us To Be

So when Jesus stood in the River Jordan to be baptized by John—this was no small thing. The light of Epiphany shone on this incident not only letting us know what God is like, but as Kathleen Norris puts it, here we see what God wishes us to be. Matthew realized that something profound was happening that day in the water. Something momentous was taking place when John gently placed Jesus under the water. This would become the source of all that would follow.

Years later when Martin Luther would be dogged by depression and difficulty. When he found life hard and tedious he would touch his forehead and say: "Baptismatus sum"--I have been baptized. And this simple remembering would bring him back to the fact that he was God's child and God was always with him. And I wonder is there not some holy power for us too, in times of stress and difficulty, to remember our own baptisms. The vows we made. The promises we said we would keep.

Obedience to God's Will

What did the church see in this wonderful story of Jesus standing in the River Jordan and being baptized by John? Jesus said that he did this because it was what God wills. One Sunday, long ago you walked down the aisle, they were singing: "Where He Leads Me I Will Follow." Maybe they were singing softly, “Just as I am without one plea…” And you stood there with tears in your eyes knowing you would go wherever he called and do whatever he said. We meant it with all our hearts. But they did not really know all that it meant to follow him, to follow him all the way. We would learn later of temptations and doubts and days when we wondered about all of this. And sometimes for all of us the years take their toll and we forget sometimes the vows we made back there. But let us pause this morning and remember our own baptisms. The time when we first started and what it meant to us day. “Happpy day, happy day—when Jesus washed my sins away. He taught me how to watch and pray and live rejoicing every day. Happy day, happy day when Jesus washed our sins away.” So this morning I want you to remember that special time and the promises you made. But there is more to remember.

When Jesus was baptized it meant he was to be obedient to the will of the Father. It meant for him to live out the vision in the days that would follow. It isn't hard to stand at some altar and say: "Yes Lord I do love you. Yes Lord I will follow you always.” But saying and doing are sometimes poles apart. We all know that.

Don't you think it was hard for Jesus when the disciples did not understand, when his family turned away, when he came unto his own and they received him not? Don't you think it was hard that the longer he preached the fewer and fewer they came until there came that day when he was alone on a hill and the soldiers gambled and the crowds sneered. Hebrews would later say, when the church was tempted to turn away and leave: "...let us lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted."(Hebrews 12.1a-3)

What does it mean to be obedient? What does it mean to keep the vows that we made one time? We do know it means to listen, to give attention to the things he asks. It is an action word--and, as the years go by, the demands change. They do not stay the same. Someone has said that when you obey it is sometimes the only possible evidence that you believe in God.

Once James Thurber told of his friend Ross who was always there, always counted on. And he said: "He just kept going like a bullet-torn battle flag and nobody captured his colors and nobody silenced his drums." This is what it means to be obedient. Like the song the missionary taught those in the village. This was the song he taught them:

Go on, Go on, Go on, Go on,
 Go on, Go on, Go on, Go on,
 Go on, Go on, Go on, Go on,
 Go on, Go on, Go on, Go on.”

  We Are Beloved

We learn from our Lord that to be baptized is to obey on good days and bad. But there is one more thing I see in this story.When Jesus was baptized, he heard God's voice saying: You are my beloved son. And it was this memory of a voice he heard on the day of his baptism that kept him going through all the hard things of his life. When the crowds came and pressed. When Judas and Peter denied . When he hung on the cross. He remembered that voice that told him who he was. He was God's beloved.

Baptism reminds us that we are God's beloved too. He gave his only son for the likes of us. That we should not perish--that we should have eternal life. Abundant life. Remember what his disciples there toward the end. “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full.”(John 15.11) That we should not live our lives in someone else's shadow. That we need not try to be someone else. But we can simply come to terms with who we are and know that is a very good thing. We are beloved. Right now. Right here. We are beloved of God.

One of the great short story writers and poets of our time was a man named Raymond Carver. He had a hard life. Alcohol almost killed him. It did destroy his marriage, his relationship with his children--he lost years and years he could never recover. But later in life, he gave up drink, he sobered up, he met a young woman and they were married and he began to write again. And he began to discover some wonders about living and loving he had never known. But he developed lung cancer which would finally take his life. But the last poem he ever wrote was this:

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

Like Jesus, if we ever learn that we are of worth and infinite value to God it will do for us what it did for Jesus. It will take us every step of the way. And where he leads us we will follow...and we will go on and on and on because we will know it is good and right and true.

And so I would challenge you remember your baptism. Those vows you made to love him and serve him. I want you to think back on when it was. Remember your baptism. Recommit yourself to following this will of God. To learning once more what it means to obey. To discover, even as you go that you are beloved--beloved of God. And this is why, after all these years, we still baptize people when they declare their faith. “Happy day, happy day—when Jesus washed my sins away. He taught me how to watch and pray and live rejoicing every day—Happy day, happy day—when Jesus washed my sins away.”

A Word for Epiphany

I discovered this above quote some time ago and have passed it on to many people. Is there really a better word for Epiphany?

"The light has come into the world and the darkness cannot put it out."

Prayer for Epiphany

"Silently now we would open our hearts to thy presence, which is our hope, and all the beauty of life is its shadow. Teach us thy truth, and grant us to bear ourselves highly it in. Bring us to show mercy, as thou art merciful. So let thy mind be ours, through him who is thy love to us. Amen. "
                                                 --Paul E. Scherer, Love is a Spendthrift

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Could God be in our Details?

Every once in a while somebody will say: "I loved the service all except the announcements. Someone told me it was like scraping your fingernails down a blackboard. You come to church to worship. The announcements spoiled the whole thing." I understand perfectly. ''How Great Thou Art'' is light years away from ''Would those stragglers who didn't sign your pledge card pick up your card today and fill it out so the church won't go under." There have been times when I would have given anything to put a moratorium on the announcements. Do you have any idea how many people through the years have slipped me a note as I was walking into church and says, "Preacher , you got to make this announcement." And as I sit in the chair into church and says: waiting to the service to begin I read the announcement: ''Don't forget to tell everybody to save all their Quaker Oats boxes for Bible School. We'll need about a hundred. Tell them to cut off the tops smoothly and not to crush them. Bring them outside the church office and put them in the Tide box. We need them by next Monday morning at 9:00 sharp." There are a few times when you want to run outside the church screaming.

Over the years I've changed my mind about announcements in church. I'm beginning to think they anchor us. They tie the church to reality. They connect us with the world outside these doors. Somehow what we do here is linked to what happens next Friday morning at the Fire House Ministry or reminding someone that if you are going on that mission trip you have until Wednesday afternoon to sign up. Or please bring your blankets to the church and put them in the box out there for Katrina victims. And every time we make these announcements it brings us all back to the real world out there where we all do battle when we leave here.

John's Christmas story is unlike all the other stories. 'There are no Shepherds, no Bethlehem, no Herod or Wise Men. Why there is no Joseph or Mary. There's not a donkey within a hundred mites. His story goes like this: ''In the beginning was the word... '' It is as beautiful as any verse in the Bible. And in the middle of all this beauty there breaks in this announcement: ''The word became flesh '' The word became what? The word became flesh. Sarx. John did not say the word entered flesh. Like the Exorcist, some force just comes in and takes over. No, not at all. This gospel says in those first verses that the word became flesh.

The Greeks couldn't believe it. They wanted the Logos. the Word without all the embellishments. Forget the announcements. Forget the troubled world. In the beginning was the Word. isn't that beautiful? But John couldn't leave it alone. He had to spoil it. The word became flesh. Flesh was sinful. There was no way God would enter flesh, they said. So there arose in the church those that cushioned the blow. The body was evil. Everybody knew that. It was a burden. Lust, arthritis, back pains--depression-old age--weaknesses-death. How could God possibly dwell in flesh? And so they worked it all out. It was the first heresy of the church. This is what they said. Jesus appeared to be man. Emphasis on: the appear. He did not feel pain, hunger, weariness or sorrow. He was not a real bonafide man you see-he just looked like a man.

But John comes back with this announcement. He steps up to the microphone and clears his throat and says: "Excuse me but: The word became flesh." And if this wasn't enough his gospel would talk about a Jesus who got tired and sat on the ledge of a well and asked for water of a prostitute because he was thirsty. He was tempted by the devil. He would weep over the city. He got so hungry he had to eat. He would push away from the crowds because he was exhausted and had to rest. He lashed out at the moneychangers and brushed real tears from his eyes at the tomb of his dear friend the dead Lazarus. He would be hungry. And when he asked those reluctant disciples: "Will you go away?''--we see him lonely. And there toward the end he would tell the Father that he did not want to die. And then he hung on a cross and his life's blood trickled way drop by drop. Remember what he said? “My God why hast thou forsaken me?” And what John says is that this is the place-flesh--where the Holy is found. The seemingly unholy. The announcements.
Kathleen Norris moved with her husband some twenty years ago from New York City to a little border town between North and South Dakota. They moved into a small house built by her grandparents in 1923. It was the house where her Mother had grown up. It is in Lemmon, South Dakota. She said they were in the middle of nowhere. The closest Greyhound Bus stop was ninety miles away. She drove 200 miles one night to a poetry reading--and when it was over, she turned around and drove 200 miles back home. They lived a long way from a Grocery store and a longer way to any mall. She said there was a J.C. Penney's but it closed for lack of business. There is not a McDonald's or Wal-Mart in sight. And she writes about this experience in her book called simply, Dakota. In the book, over and over, she said she has learned the strangest thing out there in the wind-swept plains. She has learned that God is in the details.

Details? We talk about the big picture. Sweeping and grand. Stereophonic music in the background-or hard rock or country or elevator music or anything but quiet. And down beside our every evasion John writes in bold letters: The word became flesh. The Son of God became flesh. A particular child born to particular parents in a particular spot in a particular time. And there among the details--shepherds, animals, steaming dung, draft barn, manger in corncrib and a mean King-the light was absolutely dazzling.

Fred Craddock says that God paid us an incredible compliment. He comes as a baby. He comes in the family setting. Father, Mother, Grandparents, Cousins--the whole shebang. He comes to poverty. He comes down a side street in a town you can hardly find on the map.The result? What was the result? Most didn't get it at all. ''Sweet little Jesus boy we didn't know who you wuz." Why did so many miss it? Craddock says that God whispered and those waiting for a shout heard nothing.

It's as good a New Year's message as I know. Where shall we find him in this brand new year if we find God at all? Look close. Don't look over there. Look close. God is in the details of your life.

When PTL was in its hey-day they decorated the place with over a million lights at Christmas. People came from everywhere and drove around and just marveled at the color and the beauty of it all. Long, long lines of people just bumping into each other from everywhere--all over the whole country. And one night during Christmas, I flipped to PTL and some Preacher had just returned from Bethlehem and Jim and Tammy Faye were jumping up and down as usual. And they were interviewing this man who just come back from the Holy Land. And he told Jim and Tammy Faye, ''Now I liked Bethlehem, don't get me wrong, but it wouldn't hold a candle to this place, Jim. This is Christmas.''

And down beside that we place John first words: ''The word became flesh full of glace and truth and we beheld his glory." Not all beheld that glory. He came unto His own and His own received him not. Most of the world, like that innkeeper, did not have a clue. Truthfully, tell me the truth, would he possibly come down your street and stop at your house? Nah. Too ordinary. Nothing special about us. Not a Bible on the coffee table. And you should see the mess we left the house in to come to church. Jesus wouldn't come there. Or we hope not, not our house.

But John says: God is in the details. Your details. Mine. Our house and my house. And maybe that's what 2011 is all about. God is calling us to behold the glory. John says: we beheld the glory. Not the eyewitnesses. Not the Shepherds, not the Wise Men, not even Mary and Joseph. No. We. The Church, at least some in the early church, would write Brookwood--where we are and in what we face-we can see the glory-the glory of God. This God is not remote or far away. He is embedded in the details of your life and mine.

When I was Pastor in Kentucky there hung on the back wall of the little sanctuary we had, a very fine painting. lf you squinted your eyes and looked closely, you'd see more than a waterfall, green grass, tall trees. lf you looked closely you could see a figure. His arms were outstretched and he was hanging on a cross.

I asked about the artist. Oh, someone explained. The man that painted that picture went to school here. Good artist. Got married. They had a lot of trouble. Had a hard time with faith, just found it real hard to believe. Didn't come to church much. They had a bad experience somewhere along the way. Well, while they were there, their little baby got sick and died.

Jane Kenyon writes about this kind of grief in her poem, ''A Sandy Ho1e.''

The infant's coffin no bigger than flightbag
The young father steps backward from the sandy hole,
eyes wide and dry, his hand over his mouth.
No one dares to come near him, even to touch his sleeve.2

But in that church in Kentucky the real church did come near. They surrounded them. They brought casseroles. They cried and prayed. They lifted this family up week after hard week. And somehow the couple made it through that terrible time. And when they graduated and started to leave they left a gift for Faith Baptist Church. It was a painting that the man had done. It was a landscape. There was some darkness in the picture. A waterfall and green grass. And if you squinted and look closely there at the center of it all--buried among the details was the man on a cross. Even in the hardness of their days they had discovered what John had said years before. ''The word becomes flesh, full of grace and truth, and we have beheld his glory. ''

As so as we slowly make your way into this brand New Year let us keep our eyes wide open. Who knows? Even in the details of our lives God may be there and if we find any glory at all this year we will find it in the most unexpected of places.

1. Fred B. Craddock, John (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982 p. 13
2. Jane Kenyon, Otherwise, ''The Sandy Hole'' (Saint Paul, Minn., Graywolf Press, 1996)