Tuesday, September 27, 2011
The biggest challenge I face are my books. When I retired I had to clear out a lot of books and bring the rest home from my office. Our house is filled with books cases and books.
But standing before my books shelves I found grief washing over me. I look at the shelves and shelves of books that have changed the course of my life. I think Kafka was right when he said that a book should serve as an axe for the frozen sea within us. Many of these dust-covered friends have opened windows, stretched my horizons or just provided countless hours of sheer joy in reading.
I still have a Hardy boy book or two from my early years. There is the old Lincoln Library that gave me so much information back there. I cannot part with it. I found one of my first Bibles and my mother’s handwriting inscription that she left. I picked up a Psychology book that I read my first year in college that opened a door of understanding myself that continues to this day. I found my Selected Poems by T.S. Eliot that my friend introduced me one evening. “Remember the faith that took men at the call of a wandering preacher...Ours is an age of moderate virtue and moderate vice...” After all these year I can still feel the excitement I first felt when I heard those lines. As Martin Luther King marched in Montgomery I read Cry the Beloved Country and learned about an injustice I had been blind to all my young life. As a young preacher I read Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship and began to reckon on how this really was a hard and unending journey. I have a multitude of books of sermons by Fosdick and Speakman and Scherer and Luccock and Buttrick who stretched my understanding of what a sermon ought to be. While still in my first little church a friend from Yale sent me The Magnificent Defeat by someone called Frederick Buechner. Little did I know this new friend, Buechner would teach me much about writing and sermons and the wonders of life itself. I have about every book he ever wrote. There are Commentaries and Bible Dictionaries that helped me in sermons. And Reynolds Price, John Updike, Wallace Stegner, Wendell Berry Mary Oliver, Raymond Carver and that almost unknown Alden Nowlan, poet from Nova Scotia—all of these and more have stretched me and made me laugh and cry and just be glad that I am alive.
I don’t want to bore you. And I don’t write these lines to let you know “how smart I am.” I simply want to write a tribute to all these old friends I must box up and give away. Of course I will keep many until that day when my children will riffle through the volumes and never know how much some of these books changed my life. C.S. Lewis once said: “We read to know we are not alone.” And I think I have found this to be true. Not only have the books provided an axe to hack away at so much I did not know—but I have also discovered how many others have walked this same way that I now walk. I am surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.
Tuesday, September 20, 2011
So she came and joined. Weeks later her son, Kevin moved into her house so she could take care of him. He visited church one Sunday and it was very clear that he was sick. I wondered how people would respond. Well, they rose to the occasion. They welcomed him as they had his mother. A Sunday school class took him in and he became a part of their class.
He lived less than a year. Slowly he began to slip away. The church surrounded this family. We prayed for them, took food, sat with Kevin so his mother could take a break. When he was so very sick his Sunday school class visited around his bedside on a Sunday morning. They brought communion with them—little tiny wafers and a vial of wine. Kevin had eaten very little those last days. But he asked for Communion and the class gathered around his bed and they took the Lord’s Supper. It was the last food he ever had by mouth. A day or two later he slipped away.
At his funeral our church was there in full force. Little blue-haired ladies surrounded the mother and wiped away their tears. There were a lot of gay folk that attended that service. They whispered to one another: “Is this a Baptist church? It couldn’t be.” Weeks later some of those same people appeared on a Sunday morning. They kept coming back. And one by one they joined our congregation.
This was a sea change for our little church. Some began to mutter, “Is this going to become a gay church?” One family walked into my office, stuck their fingers in my face and said, “What are you going to do about these homos?” I told them I was going to treat everyone the same and we would turn no one away. Our church pulled out of another Baptist church years before because that church refused to receive black people into their membership. So I told this irate family, “If we don’t keep these doors open for everyone—we will be dead in five years. A church of open doors is who we are.” We lost a few members at this hard time—yet the church kept welcoming all that came.
One of our Choir members told about the promise he had made to his dying mother. He told her he would sing, “Amazing Grace” at her funeral. When she died the woman’s pastor told this son because he was gay he could not sing at that funeral in that church. So they moved the service from the church to a funeral home and the young man kept his promise to his mother. I heard heart-breaking story after heart-breaking story.
Our church formed Care teams and took meals on wheels to people with AIDS. We welcome a little black baby with AIDS into our nursery. Slowly the church began to see that our gay members were just like everyone else. Several congregants served on boards that dealt with gay concerns.
That was in the mid-nineties and if you were to visit that church today you would find a great many gay folk in a multitude of leadership positions. It did not become a gay church. It was just a Church—a church with enough courage to open it’s arms to everyone. People there do not now think in terms of who is straight and who is gay. They are simply people who are struggling to find their way and help each other.
And so, on this day I remember Kevin and his mother Carole. They forced us to deal with an issue that was extremely volatile at that time. They left indelible fingerprints on that congregation. And so today as people march across this country for gay rights—I remember Kevin and the battle he waged and how he helped us open our doors a little wider.
We still have a long way to go. Much of the church still cannot face this issue of homosexuality. Yet step-by-step we are getting there. One day I hope I see a time when everyone who steps into a church and sits down will feel safe and welcomed. Kevin helped teach me and our church this lesson. And so on Gay Pride Sunday I remember.
Monday, September 19, 2011
Tuesday, September 6, 2011
Immediately after 9/11 many people sat down and wrote out their feelings. This moving poem captures for me our sentiments on the days following the September 11th attack. It was written by Cheryl Sawyer.
“As the soot and dirt and ash rained down,
We became one color.
As we carried each other down the stairs of the burning building
We became one class.
As we lit candles of waiting and hope
We became one generation.
As the firefighters and police officers fought their way into the inferno
We became one gender.
As we fell to our knees in prayer and strength,
We became one faith.
As we whispered or shouted words of encouragement,
We spoke one language.
As we gave our blood in lines a mile long,
We became one body.
As we mourned together the great loss
We became one family.
As we cried tears of grief and loss
We became one soul.
As we retell with pride the sacrifice of heroes
We become one people.
We are The Power of One.
We are united.
We are America.
I love this poem. I remember reading it somewhere right after 9/11 happened and loved the sentiment. We were in Oregon visiting relatives when the planes hit. We couldn't get home for several days because all flights had been cancelled. I missed preaching the Sunday after 9/11--but got home in the middle of the next week. On Sunday I gave my reflections of what had happened to us and what I thought it meant theologically.
After the sermon one of our Ushers said, "There is a young man back here that wants to talk to you." I saw him and invited him into my office. He was a University student from Iraq. He was a Muslim. He told me how ashamed he was because of those that destroyed the towers were Muslim. And then he said, "Does your God hate Muslims?" That was the question he came asking. I assured him that God loved everyone...and that God loved him and I hope because this had happened that he would not have a hard time in our country. I still feel that way after all these years.
Sorrowfully, our one-ness of that day did not last long. We went back to our favorite trenches, with our favorite weapons and began to fight once more. We fought a war for the wrong reasons...there were no weapons of mass destruction. Suddam Hussein, monster though he was, had nothing to do with this attack. He and Osama ben Laden hated each other. We broke our own rules with torture and rendition. We created a Department of Homeland Security that seems to cover everything. We kept spending and spending money on these wars until it has nearly bankrupted us. It takes a million dollars a year to keep one of our soldiers in this war that seems to have no end. 7,000 coalition forces have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan since this war started. Estimates are that over 200,000 locals have met their death in this war. These figures do not include the broken and wounded who will never be as they were.We elected our first black President and yet he has been more vilified that any President we ever had. Death threats on the office of the Presidency has escalated since he has come to office.
We have become a fearful and anxious people. And fearful and anxious people launched the Third Reich. Our politicians cannot get together enough to deal with this economic or jobs crisis. Many would rather the country go down the drain than re-elect a black President for a second term. Our list of hatreds seems to grow. Gays, liberals, intellectuals, mainstream Christians that do not understand fundamentalism. We are scared to death of the Muslim citizens in this country--and our resolutions and laws directed toward Hispanics shatters the intent and meaning of the Constitution.
We've have been through bad periods before. We will somehow get through this slough of despond. We have always been a resilient people. But anxious, fearing people do strange things. As the tenth anniversary of 9/11 approaches--it is a good time to ponder that one-ness we had once upon a time when the ground still smoked and the rubble was everywhere and there was weeping in the streets by people of all colors and all races.
Let us all do our parts to lower the temperature--and find some way to become the dream of our forebears: a United States.
I read a prayer-poem the other day that might be wonderful medicine for us all.
"May the pain of every living being
Be completely cleared away.
May I be the doctor and the medicine
And may I be the nurse
For all the sick beings in the world
Until everyone is healed...
May the frightened cease to be afraid
And those bound be freed..."
--Prayer by Geshe Acharya Thusten Loden
And God bless America--all America--All--ALL.
Monday, September 5, 2011
For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, 'It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.'"
--Exodus 16. 15
The towering mountain peak in the Old Testament is the Exodus story. That journey that led them from slavery to freedom. That winding precipitous road from Egypt to Red Sea through desert after desert to finally the Promised Land. The Japanese theologian Koyama talks about the "three mile and hour God." Three miles an hour is the walking speed which would finally take them to their destination. Did Yahweh, their God just walk off and leave them traveling that slow, slow pace? Three miles an hour. No. God was with them every reluctant step of the way. That wilderness was a place of danger. God had told them it was a place of promise. But mostly they saw the danger and they forgot the promise.
Early in their wanderings they murmured and complained because they had little water and no food. Has God brought us here to starve in this wilderness? God heard their cries and sent them manna from heaven. Manna? they said. What is it? And Moses said: "It is the bread which the Lord has given you to eat." Little, day after day the manna would come and finally they made it to the Promised Land.
For years scholars have thought that manna was a secretion from the tamarisk tree. But after further investigation, many now feel that it was produced by two tiny insects--one scale insect that can be found in the mountainous regions and another that can be found in the valleys. And the chemical analysis of those excretions reveals that they contain three basic sugars with pectin which contains a great deal of nutrition.
And in the sixteenth chapter of Exodus we have a most interesting story that clusters around this word, manna. They were told to go out every morning and gather up enough manna for the day. Day by day the manna would come. And so fresh every morning they found the sustenance they needed for that particular day. They were warned not to take more than they needed.
There is nothing new here. But these are lessons we need to be reminded of. The first lesson is this: we are dependent on God and we are dependent on one another.We are not any different from those on that first long journey. In the wilderness they learned some scary, scary things. They learned that you could die out there. Sand, heat, oppressive heat, water scarce--scorpions and disease and enemies always over the next hill it seemed. And so, out of necessity, they began to rely on God and they began to rely on one another--even some they did not like. But they needed one another.
Every Sunday we pray the same words. The Lord's Prayer. It really is the Disciple's Prayer. It is a prayer for us, not God. Once I was counseling a couple about to get married. And we were talking about church. The man was big and strong and used huge earth-moving equipment every day and worked with a very rough crew. He said: "You know what I like most about Church? The Lord's Prayer that we pray every Sunday." Why, I said. "Because there is so much in it that I need to tell God over and over again. It always sends shivers up my spine when we pray it together. It's my favorite part of church."
And you know, there are something that we need to say again and again. It's like Bach's Two-Part Inventions that people play on the piano. You never do finish. You have to keep practicing over and over again. You don't ever graduate. You've got to keep doing it over and over--again and again.
Jesus said: "Pray like this: Give us this day our daily bread." It is the recognition that we live all of our lives by the hand of God. Give us what we need for whatever it is that we must do. Give us our daily ration, somebody calls it. Enough to make it through operations and kids leaving home and life changes and family disruptions and disappointment and moving and all the difficulties the journey brings.
We really are a dependent people. When my youngest granddaughter was about four, would come up half-dressed and I say, "Let me help you." And she would exclaim: "I can do it myself!" and marched off in a huff. Two minutes later she would be back saying: "Granddaddy, could you help me with this?" You don't say: "I offered to help you a while ago." I do not say: "I helped you yesterday." No. My Granddaddy heart would just melt and I would say: "Sit in my lap and we'll tie those shoes or put that band aid on or buckle her seatbelt."
AA knows about how dependent we all are. They sit around this little table. They've all been to hell and back and there is no pretense. Their faces are lined. Some of them are beet-red. The sorrows and hurts of the years are written in their faces and on their hearts. And they have learned the hard way that it's by giving and receiving that it really does happen.
A friend of mine who is a recovering alcoholic called the other night when he heard I was retiring. He said: “I was in a mess back there years ago”. And I said: “Yes”. And he said: “Do you remember establishing the first AA chapter in our church and how furious some people were because they thought we would mess up their church? You really had to take a lot of heat”. I had forgotten all that. “Well”, he said, “it's still going. I'm still there every Monday night. We have fifty people every week. I couldn't have made it without them.” We really are a dependent people.
"In my garden, I will plant some of Daddy's things
The hat he wears for his favorite baseball team.
His special notes he wrote to me.
His favorite songs he likes to sing.
His special collect cars he bought last spring.
His favorite tie that has grease stains.
His favorite fishing pole, even though he has never caught anything.
And I'm going to plant some of my tears, these come from
Every night before I go to sleep, I will go out to my special garden
and pray over Daddy's things."
--Natasha Flowers, 2002
(The following words were written on the Sunday after September Eleventh. We were in Oregon visiting relatives. There was a knock at our bedroom door. "New York is on fire! Come look!" And so we got out of bed and stood in shock with the rest of the country. I preached this sermon the next Sunday to my Interim congregation in Huntsville, Alabama.)
Fred Craddock tells the story about a little town in Oklahoma called Kingfisher. They have a weekly paper there by the same name: The Kingfisher, Every Friday the paper came out. There was on old Kiawah Indian woman named Molly Shepherd that wrote a weekly column for the paper. She would write about the observations of the things in her town. Simply things—customs, events—people she had talked to in the grocery store. On the Friday following the assassination of President Kennedy Molly wrote a brief article. This is what she wrote:
Molly has no article today…Molly has no words today…Molly has nothing to say today…All week long Molly walks around in the house and says, “Ooooohh...Ooooohh.” (Fred B. Craddock, Craddock Stories, Chalice Press: St. Louis, MO, 2001, pp. 90-91)
We finally got a plane out on Tuesday morning and arrived back in Birmingham late that night. But what would you say if you stood here this morning? I feel like the physician who worked in the rubble of Manhattan last week. Some reporter asked him to describe his feelings. And he simply said: “Words fail.” Oh, do they ever, ever fail. Sometimes all we can say with Molly, “Ooooohhh.” It’s just too big to describe. Too many have died. Six weeks ago Gayle and I were at the World’s Trade Center. We know it well. And it is so hard to believe that this has really happened.
Interestingly enough I was reading Victor Klemperer’s, I Will Bear Witness when this terrible tragedy happened. This book is a two-volume diary written by a Jewish survivor of the holocaust. It tells, day after tedious day, of how he and his wife lived with indignity, constant house searches, arrests, seeing neighbors and friends driven off in cattle cars never to return. Watching his whole world go up in smoke. He lost his home and his job and they had to filch for good and places to stay. The book is a record of living with terror and fear and despair day after day—year after year.
The book put things in perspective. It is possible to live through terrible times—to have awful things happen to us. Bad things often happen to the best of people. Holy Scriptures help us. Slavery, bondage, wilderness wanderings, attacks from inside and outside. War and famine and pestilence and drought and death. And through it all, out of the depths, they wrote, “The Lord is my Shepherd…” “In you, O Lord I take refuge…” “May God be gracious to us and bless us and let us face shine upon us…””The river of God is full of water…” “His steadfast love endures forever.” So what we learn from the great voices in hard times is that we can go on and we will not be alone.
I don’t know why we get our priorities so tangled. Look at all those who lifted up pictures last week. Have you seen him or her or them? Husbands, wives, children—friends—colleagues. Every one was important and special to someone. Let’s make this a teachable moment for us all. Life is a precious gift and most of us handle it as if it will last forever. I read a poem lately about a man who spoke at a funeral of a friend. He told of the year she was born and the year she died and how in-between these on her tombstone there was always this dash. 1935-2001. And he said what mattered was not the birth nor the death day—but the dash. The dash. What happened in those in-between times? And maybe if we can just learned the importance of the dash—our dash—maybe life will be different for us all.
I hope we won’t make the mistakes we’ve made before. Remember after Pearl Harbor how we rounded up all the Japanese and put them in camps. It is one of the darkest pictures in our history. And we have read of the incidents where Mosques are pillaged and Arab-Americans are insulted and spat on in the streets. These people are no guiltier than we are. I saw a cartoon from one of our papers this week. It showed a collection of Americans: African-Americans, Women, Men, Oriental-Americans, Arab-Americans, Gay-Americans, blue-collar Americans, and Professional Americans. There was a line drawn—and then another picture of the same people. But the labels were changed. The date over the picture of 9-11-01 and under every picture was on word: American. The labels did not matter.
And I would also say we are after the people who did this. We must be careful of the innocents. All this talk of bombing Afghanistan may not be as wise as we think. It is already a bombed-out country. I am told the Taliban do not represent the people there. There are 500,000 disabled orphans in that country. There is little food and little civilization. We are not after these people. We are after whomever that group was that did these terrible things.
Is there any word from the Lord this sad, sad day? Oh yes—he hears every “Ooooohhhh” that we utter. For we have reminded that we do have a high priest who really does sympathizes with our weaknesses, who in every respect has been tempted as we, though without sin. And so, one and all, we go boldly to this throne called grace with boldness, knowing full well that we will receive mercy and find grace in this time of our need. God takes the “Ooooohhhs” of our lives and hears them every one.