Saturday, December 31, 2011

The New Year--a Chance to Do it Right

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 25, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Eve--And Lost

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas--Remembering Time

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

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

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

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Moving Is Still Not for Sissies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 2, 2011

Advent Two--A Word for Hard Times

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

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

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

And then the chorus:

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

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

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

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

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