Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Dr. King's Dream for Us All

"Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now.  Because I've been to the mountain top...and He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the Promised Land."
--(The last words from the last address Dr. King gave in Memphis on the night before his death.)

This Sunday Washington will be crowded with millions who come to dedicate the national monument to Martin Luther King. Of all the monuments along the Tidal Basin this will be the only monument honoring a private citizen. This honor is a long time coming.

I was a student at an all-white college in Alabama when Stride Toward Freedom came out. This book told the agonizing struggle of the Montgomery Bus Boycott and the man at the center of it all. From those tiny beginnings of a lone black woman on a segregated bus we have come a long way and it would never happened without Martin Luther King.

I only met him once. He spoke at my Seminary and as he spoke I was moved by his words and his vision. He pointed toward the far horizon and told that mostly white preacher-audience we had some serious work to do as minister of the gospel. After his address I went forward and shook his hand and told him how much I had been touched by those words of Amos: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

At the center of his life was this incredible faith that God really was in this thing called history. He reached back to Moses and the Exodus from Egypt and the prophets and the nonviolent words of Jesus. Taylor Branch tells in one of his books on the civil rights struggle about the incredible courage that Dr. King exhibited time after time in moments of terrible anger. A reporter asked him one day if he was not afraid of all the hatred and venom he found everywhere he went. He said, “Of course I’ve been afraid many times.” And then he told the story of those early beginning days of the bus boycott in Montgomery. His house was bombed but he and his family miraculously escaped unharmed. He said, “When I get afraid I remember the words of an old gospel song that came to me that night when our house was bombed. It was the song, “No, Never Alone.” And he said when I have grown afraid the words of that song have come back to me again and again.” These are the words he remembered:

“I’ve seen the lightning flashing, I’ve heard the thunder roll,
I’ve felt sin’s breakers dashing, which almost conquered my soul.
I’ve heard the voice of my Savior, bidding me still to fight on.
He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone!”

No never alone, no never alone,
He promised never to leave me,
He’ll claim me for His own;’
No, never alone, no never alone.
He promised never to leave me,
Never to leave me alone.”

He died much to soon at the hands of an assassin. And we wonder what would have happened to history had he been able to live and work longer. But in a time when racism still runs wild in this country toward our first black President and toward all those un-white Hispanics that many despise—it is time to ponder Dr. King’s words and his dream for us all.

As I wrote this piece I remembered some words from Frederick Buechner who was at the March on Washington. They are fitting to read on this weekend.

“A few summers ago I went on that famous March on Washington, and the clearest memory that I have of it is standing near the Lincoln Memorial hearing the song “We Shall Overcome” sung by the quarter of a million or so people who were there. And while I listened, my eye fell on one very old Negro man, with a face like shoe leather and a sleazy suit and an expression more befuddled than anything else; and I wondered to myself if, quite apart from the whole civil-rights question, that poor old bird could ever conceivably overcome anything. He was there to become a human being. Well, and so were the rest of us. And so are we all, no less befuddled than he when you come right down to it. Poor old bird, poor young birds, every one of us. And deep in my heart I do believe we shall overcome some day, as he will, by God’s grace, by helping the seed of the kingdom grow in ourselves and in each other until finally in all of us it becomes a tree where the birds of the air can come and make their nests in our branches. That is all that matters really.” (from Frederick Buechner’s, The Magnificent Defeat, New York: The Seabury Press, pp. 122-123

(You may want to read Cornell West's article in the NYTimes in response to the Dedication. Article entitled, "Dr. King Weeps From His Grave." Though I do not agree with Cornell West about his views of the President--he raises some good points. We have much work to do.)

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Labor Day, Retirement and Unemployment

"And what do you do?"  he asked. Hmm. I wondered what I should say. I am seventy-five years old. What am I supposed to be doing?

Well, I worked in the yard. For hours and hours in the hot sun. I clipped some bushes in the front of my house. I watered a yard that is beginning to look like the Sahara. I read much of the paper. I dipped into a few pages of a novel. I tried to wade through my magazines that are piling up. I feel like I am fighting a losing battle. I talked to a friend and some family members far away. I, unfortunately, plowed through my email. I tinkered with my blog. We took a friend to lunch. I worried about my friends and family members who live in the path of the hurricane. I worked out at the Y for an hour and a half. I snoozed in a chair for about fifteen minutes.

The folk that asked this question about what am I doing are smart people. But, like most of us, they confuse being with doing. I’ve done the same thing much of my life. I’m sure I’ve walked up to people who were retired and said, “Uh, what are you doing now?” There are days when I feel funny without a business card. Shoot, I don’t even have a business! Does this make me less than a person? I hope not. We really are more than the sum total of what we do.

Take that checker in the grocery store. Is she only a checker? Nah. There are layers and layers of her life. Like most of us she is like an iceberg. You don't see most of what she is. She’s got a family. She’s worried about her boy. She found a lump in her breast and is terrified. She goes to church when she can and most Sundays the singing touches something deep down. Her varicose veins are giving her trouble as she stands  behind that counter eight hours a day. Yet she smiles and asks what kind of a day you are having and makes you feel better as you wheel your cart out to the car.

He works as an Air Conditioner repairman. He told me he worked all night last night. He didn’t complain—he just stated the fact. He was the second man to work on our unit this week but this man got it fixed. He never saw the inside of a college, he doesn’t read much. He watches TV and can tell you all the stats of Alabama and Auburn. He’s got a wife that doesn’t work outside the home. He says it with pride. He has two grown kids he worries a lot about. His Mama died last year of lung cancer. Smoked too many cigarettes too many years. He told me, “You know so many people don’t think I’m important. When I come to fix their air conditioner they tell me to come in the back door. They stare at me like I’m a nobody. Yet I fixed their air conditioner when it didn’t work.”

Labor Day was declared a national holiday in 1894. It was first called a “workingmen’s holiday.” It was to celebrate all “that vital force of labor" without which we could never have made this country great. With 25 million of us either without jobs or working without benefits—this holiday and our labor force is threatened. Somehow those who supposedly govern us must help get us out of this grotesque situation. I wonder how our politicians really sleep at night knowing that out there just beyond their gated houses there are families suffering simply because they cannot find a job.

Maybe we ought to celebrate Martin Luther's King's dedication with another March on Washington. We need to remind those whom we have elected that there is more to their jobs than keeping the well-heeled happy so they have enough money in their coffers to keep their own benefits coming. And so on this approaching Labor Day I think of that Grocery store checker and that good man who must walk through too many back doors to keep us cool. I think of all those others who would work if some door opened and someone invited them in, not only to fill out an application but to help them do what they would give anything to do once more. Labor Day is more than saying Rah-Rah to the working force—it should be a commitment from all of us to change this lop-sided way we have of doing our business.

What do you do? They asked. Well, maybe not much. But if enough of us raised our voices and really cared about those not as lucky as we have been maybe, just maybe,  we could change this sad picture.

If you did not read Nicholas Kristof's splendid article in the Sunday New York Times on unemployment--I recommend.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Rick Perry and Evolution

Altternet's Web site featured a great article today dealing with Rick Perry's disbelief in evolution. Richard Dawkins, Oxford Evolutionary Biologist (Retired) is irate at Governor and would-be President Rick Perry's anti-science stance. This scientist is furious at Perry's refusal to look at the facts dealing with evolution. Perry claims to be a Christian. Dawkins is an atheist and humanist and is especially known for his book, The God Delusion. Mr. Perry doesn't get the point that sometimes you are a poor witness for the faith when you refuse to deal with the theory of evolution. Most scientist agree that evolution is a hard fact. When we leave our brains at home when we go to church we always get into trouble. I remember reading that when LBJ (also of Texas fame) was interviewed for his first teaching job the Principal asked him his views on evolution.
Johnson is said to have replied, "I can teach it either way." Mr. Perry says that both theories: creationism and evolution are taught side by side in Texas schools. Does this equal time business bother you? You don't give equal weight to every issue. Or shouldn't.

Lloyd Douglas had a friend who was a violin teacher who was not very successful. But the old man had a good deal of wisdom. Douglas called on him one day and said, "Well, what's the good news today?" The old music teacher went over to a tuning fork suspended by a cord and struck it with a mallet. "There is the good news for today," he said. "That, my friend, is 'A'. It was 'A' all day yesterday. It will be 'A' all day tomorrow, next week, and for a thousand years. The soprano upstairs warbles off-key, the tenor next door flats his high ones, and the piano across the hall is out of tune. Noise all around me, noise; but that, my friend is 'A"."

There are some things that you just can't have both ways. When Christians get a handle on this--those on the outside looking in, might just come on in just long enough to see you really can have a brain and be a Christian at the same time.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The President's Vacation--Just Thinking

Are you surprised that a lot of people are howling about President Obama taking a vacation? The big howl is: Should Mr. Obama ditch his beach plans and focus on the economy. In a way it does seem in these dog days of sweltering heat and so many without jobs and the economy going crazy—that the President would be lounging at pricey Martha’s Vineyard. If he had stayed home many of the complainers would probably have said, “Why doesn’t he just take off and be with his family—are the Obama’s having trouble?” Or “He could go to some place like Panama City, Florida or maybe Branson, Missouri like reg’lar folks.” Or “Why do these uppity blacks have to rub it in?” Whatever this President does—some folk just will not be pleased. Setting the record straight someone has calculated how many days off the Presidents took at this time in their administration. The results are interesting.

Mr. Obama—61 vacation days
George Bush – 180 vacation days
Ronald Reagan – 112 vacation days
Bill Clinton – 28 days

I remember the tut-tut’s when every other President spent any time away from his desk. Isn’t it a mite unfair to think that anybody can work constantly without a break? A friend of mine, Ed Bratcher says that ministers in trouble work 25% longer with half the results.

Dr. Wayne Oates struck a chord years ago in his book, Confessions of a Workaholic. He stated that it was foolish and poor stewardship not to take time off from your job. The workaholic does not do his or her best work—not to speak of their inattentiveness to their families.

In every church I ever served someone would always say: “Our last Pastor didn’t take vacations—he worked 7 days a week—365 days a year. What’s with this day’s off business? I followed one guy whose claim to fame was that he spent one whole summer painting the church! Somehow I had trouble finding that in my job description. It took me a long time to learn that we all need pauses and breaks in our lives. Why even the Ten Commandments remind us that we all need a Sabbath. I was told by one of my Seminary Professors, “It would be a good thing to take your books with you on vacation and plan your preaching for the next year.” Huh? That is no vacation. Study leave maybe or Sabbatical—but not vacation.

I have jogged for years. It was the time in the day when I could forget everything and just run my frustrations off. Early on I would work out problems and plan sermons and figure out how to deal with that handful that always try to keep their Pastor humble. But I learned if I put my mind in neutral the subconscious would do the work for me. I also learned that some of my best thoughts came after a time off. Sometimes on a study leave or vacation I came back with new ideas and ready to tackle the challenges once more.

I think the pundits are wrong that say the President should stay at his job and take no vacation. Why knows, even in a pricey place like Martha’s Vineyard there may be times when the President can put his job and his commitments back in perspective. Who knows, maybe in his pauses and silence from his many demands job he might just dream some new dreams and come up with some ideas for this very troubled land?

I do hope Mr. Obama can get some rest. I do hope he plays a little golf, read something not related to work and spend some time with Michelle and the kids. And I pay that when he returns to his job that he will be ready to once again tackle the seemingly impossible problems his job and our country demands.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Sermon for 10th Sunday after Pentecost--Finding the Church

One of my favorite stories was told by Carlyle Marney one of the great preachers of the 20th century. He served a church in Austin, Texas and after many years he was called to the Myers Park Church In Charlotte, N.C. After he moved, people would come up to him and ask him how he liked living in Charlotte and how he liked his new church. And he would say, “Well, I like it just fine, but I’m having just a little trouble.” They’d perk up their ears, “Trouble?” “Yes, I having trouble finding the church. It’s just really hard to find. You know, I just keep looking and looking. I know it’s here somewhere, but I’m having a little trouble finding the church. I know it’s here somewhere—but I haven’t found it yet.”

So one of the things I have done as Interim Pastor is trying to find the church. One of the great passages of scripture is in Matthew 16. It is one of the hinge-turning moments in the ministry of Jesus. It’s the watershed that makes all the difference in the story. Scholars call it the Confession at Caesarea Philippi.

Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do men say that I am?” And they began to give the appropriate answers, right out of the book: “John the Baptists, Elijah, Jeremiah, one of the prophets. But Jesus zeroes in and says, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon, who always had an answer said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” And Jesus said, “Upon this rock I will build my church.” Then, interestingly, in Matthew 16.21 we read how serious this is: “From that time, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”

What we have here is one of the most controversial passages in the whole of the New Testament. A great many books have been written on these verses. Churches have debated their meaning. Upon what rock do we build a church? Whole denominations have started on the interpretation of what the foundation of the church really is. Is the Church built on Simon Peter, the first pope? What is the foundation of the church? What is this rock? Is it on Jesus? The testimony of Simon? Or do we build the church on anybody and everybody that bows a knee and says deep in their hearts: “We do believe Jesus is Lord.” If I had to pick and choose I think I would pick the last theory: Jesus built his church on the testimony of all those who respond to him and love him and follow him.

After I retired and before I started working as Interim, my wife and I began to visit churches—looking for a new church home. I could tell you some horror stories of what we found. Terrible music. No mystery in many of the churches. Lousy preaching. Some as cold as a refrigerator. Why, you would have thought we were invisible. One woman turned around to Gayle (my wife) during the Passing of the Peace, asked her name and welcomed her. After the service she said to Gayle: “Margie we are glad to have you here…won’t you stay for Sunday School, Margie.” I have been calling her Margie ever since. But let me tell you what I was looking for in a church. Three words, really. Rooted in the heart of the New Testament. Without these three words there is no church.


The first thing I’m looking for when I come to church is the word, kerygma. Mark was the one who wrote the first Gospel, and his book would blaze a trail for all those that would follow. He began his remarkable work by saying, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” “The beginning of the good news…” This is what gospel means. It was a proclamation. It was a good, good news of great joy. It was good tidings that the angels sang about that first Christmas. Without this good news there would have been no church.

So scholars have researched this word, kerygma and they came across several points that were made in all those early Christian sermons. This was the dawn of the Messianic age. The prophecies of the Messiah were now being filled in Jesus. Always there was a brief account of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The resurrection—the Easter story—was at the heart of that message. The coming of the Holy Spirit, of course, was there. They were reminded that Jesus would one day come again. Then they always ended their message saying everybody could repent regardless of what they had done and everybody could find forgiveness; everybody could be changed inside and out.

Old cripples lying by muddy pools for years, and little children who had little to live for, and prostitutes that all the good people hated, and tax collectors that were despised by their own kind and even the “beggars in velvet” discovered that they could find a place and they could find a power in their own empty lives. It was an inclusive message that took all in and changed all who came.

So the first word I look for is kerygma—good news. And this is one of the essences of church. In every church I have ever served, there have been people there who are having a hard, hard time with church. For, you see, all their lives they have heard bad news, not good news. They have had something crammed down their throats and somehow they still have indigestion from it. They were forced to sit on those hard benches for years and years. And they got scared of hell and the devil and punishment and feeling that God would never, ever accept them. They heard only half the message. They understood, like most us, the guilt. Most of them never heard the grace.

But Simon preached what Mark knew, that kerygma is a good news. “Behold I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall come to all peoples.” The church lost one of its finest writers when Elizabeth O’Connor died. In one of her books she said: “Go ye into all the world has two meanings, It is a missionary word—to do evangelism. The church is to take the good news to those who do not know. But Ms. O’Connor said that this go ye is also an inner word. That “Go ye” means that this gospel word is to penetrate every part of our beings also. For she says there are places that yet have to be addressed in our lives by this good, good news. That deep down within every one of us there are parts that need to be converted still. There are lost territories in all our many selves. So this good news says we can face the old sins and old habits of self-destructiveness that have haunted us all our lives.

Now I don’t know what your broken places or lost territories are. Those parts of you that have never heard the gospel. It might be unresolved grief or guilt or not being able to let something go and forgive someone. It could be sex or an obsession with money or things or bitterness or rage or guilt or the black dog, depression. Everybody in this room has some lost territory—most of us more than one. But we need to remember this morning that the good tidings and the good news is for all of us. That’s the first word I’m looking for in church—kerygma—good news.


The second thing is that when you find the church you will always find this second word, diakonia. Simon made the great confession and said, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” He learned it’s meaning later in that Upper Room when Jesus knelt with a basin and towel and began to wash their feet. And Simon protested, “Get up Lord. Get up. That’s servant’s business. You will never ever wash my feet.” But that night Jesus just took Simon’s sandals off and with a basin of water and towel taught him about the essence of the gospel. The word, Diakonate (Deacon) comes from this serving word.

Diakonia is where the word deacon comes from. Servant in another meaning. The word shepherd flows out from this word. For, you see, church is the place where you wash somebody else’s feet. And church is the place where you have your feet washed as well. And, like Simon, we don’t like that.

Several years ago a book called, The Search for Excellence, became a best seller. Do you remember what it was about? It told the stories of some of the most successful corporations in America and how they got that way. We need to read that book again today. Somewhere this word, service got lost. Greed has corrupted business after business. Service is not some CEO who makes 400 times more than his or her workers. Sometimes I wonder if one of the reasons that companies are having such a difficult time is that they have forgotten they are supposed to be in business to serve their customers.

There is no real church without this word, diakonia. We really are foot-washing people. We really do touch the wounds and heal the broken spots and we really do hug and lift one another up and bring casseroles and pray and pray and pray. And so, if I find the church there will always be a little group of foot washers with an apron and a basin and towel. Jesus said, “You save your life by losing it.” And I put that down beside, “I’m leaving because I am not being fed…” or “I’m leaving because my needs are not being met.” But Jesus said, “You save your life when you lose your life…” When you find the word, diakonia you will always find the church.


But there is another word: koinonia. Fellowship. Why has the church sung, “Blest Be the Tie that binds our hearts in Christian love” since it found its way into an English hymnbook in 1782? Why do we keep singing it decade after decade? Because without fellowship there is no church.

I love the way someone expressed it:

We meet awkwardly at first…eyeing each other…then we begin to talk about the weather…safe subjects…then family sizes: How many brothers and sisters do you have. Are you the eldest? We talk about what we have in common. As we spend more time we begin to learn how each of us has come to where we are. We are amazed at our capacity to understand one another’s pasts…fascinated by each other’s stories…human stories…of crying and growing and laughing and sighing. A strange thing happens. It is no longer us and them…but we the way God meant it to be.

So we find the church when we find this word, koinonia, fellowship. It is a place that lets us be who we are and cares for us and gives us room and helps us grow. Sometimes, like in a family, we will be told we are off the beam when we are. Sometimes we get off track and the lines get tangled—but we have to untangle those lines because without this intangible thing called fellowship—love for one another—we don’t have church. We don’t have church at all. It keeps on enlarging the circle. Taking in. And forgiving one another—which may be the hardest part. And slowly, sometimes very slowly putting all the hurt behind you and moving on.

I heard this wonderful story about an older woman whose husband had died and she lived a long way off from her only daughter. The daughter was worried about her mother. Her house was getting old and needed a lot of repair. Her neighborhood was changing and not as safe as it used to be. So the daughter kept talking to her mother about moving to the town where she lived. The woman just shook her head. But one day she decided to move. And she did. When Sunday came she put on her finery and went to the church down the street. She called her daughter that afternoon and said, “Guess what I did this morning? I joined the church.” The daughter said, “You did what? Don’t you think it is too early? You don’t know those people. Mama, you should have waited.” And you know what her mother said? “Land sakes, honey when you join the church you never have to be lonesome again.” Do you think she found the church? I think she found the church.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The book, The Help Brings Back Memories

"You just can't get good help these days."
      complaint from a white dowager

The book, The Help has made quite a splash in the literary world. Even though the book was published in 2009 it is still first on the list of The New York Times Combined Print and E-Book Best Sellers. Obviously the book has struck a chord with many people or Hollywood would have never turned the book into a movie. Though I have not seen the film, Kathryn Stockett tells a fine story about black domestic servants working in white Southern households in the 1960’s. Though the author is white she wrote the book out of her own growing up in Mississippi in those turbulent sixties.

The Help is about the maids that worked for the white folk. Anybody who has lived particularly in the South would understand much of what the author tells. I was horrified by most of what I had forgotten about that time. In the book most of the maids had to use a special bathroom usually constructed behind the white folk’s house. They ate off one particular plate. They could not eat at the kitchen table and certainly not the dining room. Most of them had to come through the back door of the houses where they worked. If they were driven home by their employers they had to sit in the back seat. As maids they were to appear as invisible as possible. The suffering these women endured is spelled out in chapter after chapter. What is not told is the sexual harassment that many of these maids faced from their male employers. The presence of so many light colored children ought to give us pause. Many of these children were the result of rape and threats. To work they had to keep silent. There are so many layers to that time that was not that long ago.

The Help reminded me of my own growing up in a little cotton mill village in Columbus, Georgia. Though we have little of the world’s goods we had a maid, sometimes full-time and often part time. But our maid, Nancy came into our lives when my brother and I were little boys. Our Mother worked in the mill and Nancy kept us safe and clean. Through the years she slowly weaved her way into our lives. Sometimes even on her day off, she would appear on Saturday and announce: “This house needs a cleaning.” And so she would tear it apart and the dust would fly and by day’s end the house was clean. Even after I left home for college, Nancy kept up with me. She kept my brother’s children when they were little. She was there when I came home from college making sure the macaroni and cheese and banana pudding and the biscuits were in their place. When we brought our children home she proudly held and loved them. Years later when my mother died she sat in the family section at the funeral. After all she was a very real part of our family. As the years passed I would always call her on her birthday in late December and we would reminisce. “Roger we had us some good times, didn’t we?” “Oh Nancy, we did have some good times.”

She had eight children of her own. She would talk about each one and how proud she was of their accomplishments. I often wondered how in the world she lived with the paltry salary we paid her out of my mother’s own paltry salary. Her children stayed in Hurtsboro (AL) with family while Nancy moved to Georgia to get a job and send money back home. It must have been hard to be unable to see her own children except on holidays and weekends.

Several years ago her daughter called me late one evening. “Mama passed away last night, peaceful and without pain.” She told me the funeral would be in Hurtsboro in the little Methodist church she loved. They asked me to say a few words at her funeral service. I unfolded my notes and told those gathered that even though Nancy had only finished the third grade, she was one of the best teachers I ever had.

I told them she taught me about patience. I can remember sitting at our kitchen table many times pouring out my disappointments. She would turn and say sharply, “Roger, just you wait. Just you wait. Chile—you got to be patient.”

She taught me a lot about faith. She would say from time to time, “You got to believe. How can anybody get through this world without believing.” She never talked a lot about faith—she just lived it.

I learned about the dignity of every human being from Nancy. I did not have to remind those black folk at the funeral about how hard it was in the nineteen forties. There was a hard line drawn between white folk and black folk. I told them that I did not know many black people back then. That was one of the awful things about segregation. I told them that I knew Nancy. I trusted her. I loved her. I knew she was as important as anybody else. I told those gathered that I learned a little later how wrong the world was to black folk. I told that group gathered in that little church that when I started preaching I talked a lot about the dignity of everybody. I learned that lesson from Nancy.

Nancy taught me about loyalty and commitment. Even though we could pay her so very little, she was committed to our family. She defended us fiercely. She was there at every juncture of our lives. Births, weddings, funerals—Nancy was there. This is her picture at the beginning of this piece. She proudly held my first born in her arms.

Nancy taught me about gratitude. Born in 1909 I told her grievers that I could not imagine how hard her life must have been. Even though her life was hard she never stayed depressed very long. She was grateful. She was grateful for her children and her family. She was grateful that she had survived when so many others had not.

She had stood by my mother’s casket years before her own death. I remember clearly what she said over that casket, “Miz Ruth, you worked hard in your life. Hard. And you raised two good boys. Now it’s time for you to rest. Miz Ruth, you just rest.” And I told the mourners at her own funeral that I had come all the way from Birmingham to give her words back to her. “Nancy, you have worked hard, very hard all your life. You raised eight wonderful children. Now it’s time for you rest. Nancy, dear Nancy, you just rest.”

We buried her across the street from her church. And as I read The Help it all came back. And I wondered how many thousands and thousands of black folk whose names were never in the headlines have made an incredible difference in the lives of the white folk they worked for. So I thank the writer, Kathryn Stockett for telling the story that so many of us in the South really know by heart.

(You might  be interested in reading "Who I am because mother was a maid" appeared in The Birmingham News, August 8, 2011 Viewpoints section. It is moving and worth reading. )

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Debt Crisis--How do We Respond?

Sometimes cliches are more than cliches. Take the old nostrum: "United we stand...divided we fall." Maybe we are in the mess we are in as a nation because we have been so busy fighting each other that we have failed to address our common problems. All children have to go to school, the able-bodied need jobs that pay enough to live on, immigrants want a slice of the American dream, old folks want to make sure they have enough to make it to the finish line. Those facing foreclosure want some help. Somebody needs to fill up the pot holes and attend to our rickety bridges. Even Wall Street and those making over $250,000 are beginning to realize that maybe just giving them their tax break might not be enough for the country. Tom Friedman, wise columnist for the New York Times wrote a piece today that  triggered this article. He entitles his words: "Win Together or Lose Together." He asks a basic question that concerns us all: Can we pull together to generate a national renewal? Some folks are saying our best days are over as a country. I don't believe that for a minute.  But I do believe that united we really do stand and divided we really do fall. Right now we are tottering. There is something more at stake here than who wins and who loses in 2012. I used to tell couples that came to me for counseling, "When you fight--winning is not the name of the game. You might be smart enough to win the argument--but you will lose in the long run. Winning is not the bottom line--it's the relationship that is healthy for both of you thaty matters. And if you don't have that everybody loses.

Reminds of the story I once heard Andrew Young tell. Remember he was a Civil Rights leader in the 60's and went on to become Secretary General of the United Nations. He said that once there was an old farmer that decided to make some extra money by getting into the cock fighting business. He bought two roosters, trained them patiently. On the day of the cock fight he put the two roosters in a cage in the back of his pick up and drove to the fight. When he got there he opened up the cage and there was nothing but feathers and blood. He said, "Shoot--they didn't realize they were on the same side." Reckon embedded in that story there is a lesson for us all?

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Sermon for 8th Sunday after Pentecost--Three O'Clock in the Morning

"Eternal Father, strong to save,
 Whose arm does bind the restless wave,
Who bids the mighty ocean deep 
 It's own  appointed limits keep;
O hear us when we cry to Thee 
 For those in peril on the sea."
  --Hymn, Eternal Father Strong to Save
      William Whiting, 1825-1878

There is no greater story than the history of how the Gospels came to be. After Jesus’ death those that had lived with him and seen his work were elevated to an important status. These were the eyewitness to the glory of God first-hand. But as the years passed and the eyewitnesses were dying off one by one. The church grew afraid. These wonderful stories and parables and miracles and all the teachings of Jesus would be lost unless they were written down. So somewhere between 75 and 80AD Mark sat down and wrote the first gospel. “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”(1.1) This was followed by Matthew and Luke somewhere between 80 and 90 AD. John’s gospel would be the last written around 95 to 120 AD. The central point of these four accounts was to answer one question: Who is he? Who is this Jesus anyway?

The backdrop of Matthew 14. 22-33 is interesting. Three gospels leave us with this account. They knew something about hard, hard times. Severe persecution broke out in AD 44. Peter, the leader of the church was imprisoned and barely escaped death. James was, one of the circle of Jesus’ three companions, was beheaded. Peter was crucified during Nero’s reign. Jesus’ brother James, one of the church leaders was put to death. In 64 AD Nero instigated a huge fire in Rome and blame the Christians which started another round of persecution. Jerusalem, their city of cities of totally destroyed in AD 70. This was the world in which the early church found itself. And so, under cover of darkness, they would close the curtains in someone’s house and quietly worship together on Sundays. And someone would say: “Elder, tell us the story again about that night on the sea…”It was a story that spoke to their hearts and lives and conditions. They knew about stormy weather. They had lost leaders and family members and friends because of their faith. Others had simply renounced their faith—one had to live after all. And when Caesar passed an edict that he was God and that all must burn a pinch of incense on the altar and say: “Caesar is Lord” many Christians followed suit to save their lives. But this little cluster remained faithful. Caesar is not Lord they said. Jesus is Lord. Jesus only.

And so the Elder would once again tell the story that everyone there knew almost by heart. Jesus had just fed the 5,000 and for a second time he tried to find a quiet place to rest and to pay. And he sent his disciples by boat across the lake which was five miles wide. This was the first time in Matthew’s gospel that he would leave the disciples alone.

The Leading Elder kept talking. "It was night. Sometimes", he said, "the dark, swirling waters look scary." And they murmured yes. He said " they rowed that little boat or tried to. Matthew said that the wind was against them." Somebody in the crowd chuckled and said: “Seems like the wind is always against us, too.” The Elder said, "Have you ever tried to row a boat with a strong wind blowing hard in your face"? "Yes", they said. "Have we ever". And then the wind got stronger and the waves choppier and those strong fisherman were terrified. Utterly terrified. They knew what storms could do. They had all lost brothers or friends or fathers on the water. It took every ounce of strength they had just to keep the boat from tipping over.
The Elder kept talking. “It was sometime in the fourth watch of the night which was between three and six in the morning. There in the dark with the waves crashing into the boat they knew any minute they could sink. Helpless and afraid—they did not know what to do. And looking across the lake they saw a figure." " It was a ghost," someone said. And you could now hear a murmur in that little house church. A chuckle really. They already knew how the story ended. “But it wasn’t a ghost at all. As he got closer one of them said: ‘It’s Jesus—guys. It’s not a ghost. It’s Jesus.’ And there on the water with the wind blowing so hard they could hardly hear what he said, Jesus spoke to them: ‘Take heart,’ he said, ‘Be not afraid’.”

But the Elder leading the service was not finished. “Simon”, he said, “so glad to see you. Peter asked the Lord if he could come to him. And Jesus nodded. And Simon Peter began to walk on the water, too. But he looked down, taking his eyes off Jesus and he sank. He was drowning. Jesus reached out his hand and pulled Peter up. They both walked back to the boat and crawled in. And the strangest thing happened,” the Elder told them. Matthew recorded it later. “The wind ceased and the waters became calm and the Disciples in awe and wonder said: ‘Truly you are the son of God’.” Do you see why the early church loved that story and left it in the gospels? On a dark and stormy night when they thought all was lost—at three o’clock in the morning Jesus got into the boat with the disciples and the wind and the waves just ceased. Peace—it was so peaceful. That’s what the Elder said.

Somewhere I have heard that Scott Fitzgerald once said, “In the real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning.” I think the Disciples would understand those words. There they were alone in the middle of a storm, in a tiny, tiny boat and they were so vulnerable.

Ever had a three o’clock in the morning experience or nightmare? Something scary, something beyond your control, something that could just sweep you away. You know what I’m talking about. You’ve rowed your boat like those fisherman until your arms have ached and the wind was against you and you were exhausted. All your resources were depleted and a depression just descended on you like a fog. Or maybe it was not a depression as much as it was fear. Three times in this story the fear is mentioned. 1) Terrified in vs. 26; 2) When they thought they saw a ghost they cried out in fear—vs. 26; 3) And in verse 27 Jesus tells them: “Be not afraid.”

If we had time this morning and we had the courage I would ask you to stand and name your fear. What’s your three o’clock in the morning? Money. Worried about the Stock Market, the Dow. Banks closing. All these thousands and thousands of home foreclosures. Wondering you’ll have enough to take you all the way to the finish line? Maybe it’s health. Cancer—which we all dread. Maybe Alzheimer’s. I just had a friend that spent $2500 on a test to see if she was in the beginning stages. She didn’t have it at all. Maybe just afraid of winding up in some Nursing Home…or just getting old. Maybe you don’t worry about yourself but you worry about the kids. Grown-up children more than little ones. I heard someone say the other day: “You think they are trouble when they’re little. Just wait until they are grown—you’ll see.” Maybe you worry about some child’s divorce and living on a shoestring as a single parent with your grandchildren shuffled back and forth and back and forth. One Christmas we helped our daughter and her two girls put up the Christmas tree. And as we put the ornaments on the tree our little seven-year-old said: “Oh Mama, I wished you and Daddy wasn’t divorced.” Maybe it’s being young and seeing life stretch out there and not wanting to come back all broken or in a box from Iraq or Afghanistan. What is your three o’clock in the morning? Iraq or Iran or terrorism. OR just watching the 6:30 news and looking out a world where values are so twisted. We could go on and on. But everybody—everybody has some three o’clock in the morning.

Those little house churches in the first century told this story over and over of the stormy sea and Jesus walking on the water. It was about a dark and stormy night when they learned they were not alone. Somebody sent me a quote the other day. A Carmelite Nun, Jessica Powers, wrote it in a poem. And this is what she wrote: “I came upon earth’s most amazing knowledge: Someone is hidden in this dark with me.”

And if I understand the gospel at all it says that at three o’clock some dark night we need to remember this story. The waves were choppy. And sometimes in rowing against the wind it was just too much. And it looked like the boat would sink. And at 3:00 o’clock in the morning Jesus comes. And what did he say. What he says over and over in the Scriptures: “Be not afraid.” Someone is in this dark with us.

You may not know the name Horatio Spafford. He was a successful Chicago lawyer and a close friend of D.L. Moody the great Evangelist. In 1873 because his wife was suffering from exhaustion, her Doctor suggested a vacation. So Spafford arranged for his wife, himself and his four daughters to travel to Europe for a month. At the last minute he had in stay in Chicago and he would follow them in a few days. So they boarded the S.S. Ville du Havre in November of 1873. On November 22 the ship hit an English ship, the Lochearn and sank within twelve minutes. All four of the Spafford daughters were lost at sea. Only the Mother survived. And when she landed in Cardiff, Wales on December 1 she cabled her husband the sad news: “I am the only one left.” He left immediately to meet his wife with a heavy heart. And his ship approached that awful place where his family’s ship had gone down and taken his daughters, he sat down that night. I wonder if it was three o’clock? He sat down and wrote the words we have all come to know. They have been sung at funerals and other sacred occasions since that time. I think they have stood the test of time because they speak to our hearts:

“When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.”

So you see it is understandable that the early church, in a hard time would tell this story for comfort and strength again and again. We tell it now because it is our story too. Whatever three o’clock in the morning comes the waves may come high and the water may be cold and the night may be very dark—but Jesus comes and he says to us what he said to them: “Take heart, it is I, be not afraid.” It’s three o’clock in the morning and someone is in this dark with us. Thanks Be to God!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

More Thoughts on the Debt Ceiling-- The Poor, Poor Rich

Some wise person said not long ago, "If you came to America for the first time and looked around you would think that rich people have no money." That's the elephant in the living room. This bill that finally passed takes away nothing from the well-heeled. If I understand what was voted on--what it does do is slash benefits to those most in need. Nary a word about extending payments to the unemployed. What are we thinking? We are in a royal mess. Read Bishop Spong's succinct words on this whole issue. Seems like to me he is on to something.

Do we now turn our attention to the hurting needs of this country? Will we wind down these wars? Or will we simply keep on playing Junior High School in Washington. I hope the pundits are wrong...several of those columnists I respect have some pretty hard words to say about what we have just done. Some of my friends are furious at President Obama for what they call "caving in." I vacillate on this issue. In conceding so much I think he has hurt the country and the people most in need. On the other hand--maybe he knew that to default and not raise the ceiling would create havoc. Lord knows we don't need any more of that.

 On my better days I remember something of our history. Democracy has always been messy. Those who speak of the founding fathers misty-eyed forget they went at it tooth and claw. Thomas Jefferson represented states rights and Alexander Hamilton was certain we had to have a strong government in Washington or this whole experiment in democracy would fall apart. Those two strands of less and less government--relying on the states to do almost everything for us is still with us. The other strand deeply believes believes we desperately need a strong government because there are some things that smaller groups cannot do. It has most interesting in Alabama to see how we turned toward Washington during this recent tornado. There have been plenty of howls months later from the anti-government crowd that say the federal government has let them down.

We can't have it both ways. Either we keep nodding toward the rich who are pulling most of the strings in this country--or we keep moving toward "the least of these" that will fall through the cracks without our help.
You might appreciate Joe Nocera's column in today's New York Times entitled, "The Tea Party's War on America."

Monday, August 1, 2011

Wounded Ministers--A Place To Go

It was a long week. It started last Monday afternoon and ended Friday afternoon. I met with a group of ministers that were hurting terribly. Some of them had been terminated by their church. Others felt like the axe might fall on them at any time. One person had been in his church for over 15 years and was told to leave the grounds immediately and not come back. What was it—drugs, sex or other destructive behavior? No, not usually. Almost every story sounded the same. Some group in the church—usually a gang on three—would blindside the Pastor at a special meeting. They said things like: “Your ministry is not effective.” “We don’t like your preaching.” “You failed to meet our needs.” Usually the church had no idea this was happening. The self-appointed threes said, “We’ll give you three or sometimes six months if you just resign and quietly leave”.

Most in the group were shell-shocked. Those having the hardest time were the wives of those dismissed. One couple had moved across the country—bought a house and been there less than a year—and the Senior Pastor said they just were not working out. Almost all of those gathered in our little circle had children. Their lives were torn up by the roots—they had to leave friends and schools and churches they loved. They did not understand what was happening.

Now none of us are naive enough to think that all these pastors and staff people are perfect. Far from it. Almost all of them could look back and see mistakes they had made. Some very serious. To help we had a silent time every day. We told our stories to one another. We had a Consultant that talked about resumes and how to start over. We had a Pastor to discuss leadership and the potholes of ministry. We talked about the importance of a strong support system. There was a therapist that met with us all week long and was available for group and personal counseling.

Samford University in Birmingham picked up the tab for room and board and place to meet. Other colleges have done the same. We cannot do so without their generosity. Those that came to sit in that little circle of caring and grief and pain and understanding came to us at no cost. The week was free because we knew they couldn’t afford much if anything.

Leadership Magazine, a journal for church leaders surveyed 593 ministers. This is what they found.

22.8% had been fired or forced to resign
34% said their predecessor had been forced out
62% of the forced-out pastors said the church that terminated them had done 
          the same thing before to at least one other minister
 43% of the forced-out pastors said a faction in the church pushed them out,
 71% of those indicated the faction numbered 10 or less
 20% of the forced-out pastors said the reason for the real reason for 
          their leaving was made known to the entire congregation.

The group last week came from several denominations. They spanned the spectrum from young marrieds with little children to people in their late fifties. It was interesting to see the theological divide in that room. Age or theological differences did not matter. By weeks end did not matter. For in that circle we found community and love and acceptance. We discovered church as it was meant to be. Sometimes a Minister can go all his or her ministerial life and never find such grace.

Reuel Howe told the story of a church in Philadelphia which at one time had a succession of great preachers. They found themselves with a young man, who after a year had not measured up to the quality that the congregation expected. When a committee consulted with him, and he learned of their evaluation, he offered to resign. The committee refused to accept his resignation and told him that it was up to them to help him become the preacher they believed he could be. Years later when the history of that church was written one of the high water marks were the years this man had served the church. (Reuel L. Howe, Partners in Preaching, The Seabury Press: New York, 1967, p.87)

As my car pulled away Friday afternoon from that retreat I remembered that story. And I thought of those hurting faces in that weeklong circle. Remarkably, most of those ministers said they were ready to find another parish. How many vocations out there have such commitment? And my hope is that like weary Moses long ago on his hard journey, they will find some group to hold up their hands in their time of need.

(If you are interested in finding out more about Ministry to Ministers you might check our web site: Since its inception in 1994 this organization has helped more than a thousand ministers and spouses. MTM has sponsored over 100 weeklong retreats at no cost to the participants. People have been helped from 33 denominations. If you know someone in need, contact this good group.)