Sunday, November 27, 2011

Obama Bashing--Is This Healthy?

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

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

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

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Advent--A Chance to Find our Way Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Immigration Will Just Not Go Away

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 21, 2011

Thanksgiving Really is About Gravy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 14, 2011

Immigration Will Just Not Go Away

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

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

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

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Moving--Chapter Four

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Alabama's Immigration Law Makes me Ashamed

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

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

Moving is Not for Sissies--Chapter Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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