Sunday, October 30, 2011
Robert Fulghum, is one of the great storytellers of our time. He tells a very funny story about one evening when he volunteered in a weak moment to watch the children at church while the parents went on what they called “Parents Night Out.” He said eighty children showed up. He didn’t know what he was going to do. So he decided to break them up into teams so they wouldn’t kill him or each other. And he said, “OK, you're either a Giant or a Wizard or a Dwarf.” After he said that, he felt a tug at his pants leg and he looked down and there was a little girl standing looking up at him. “Where do the Mermaids stand?” He said, ”There are no such things as Mermaids.” “Oh yes there are,” she said. “I are one. Now where do the Mermaids stand?” Well, he said he didn’t know what to do or say. Then he said, “The mermaids stand right here next to the King of the Sea!” And he grabbed her hand and they stood back and reviewed the troops as the Dwarfs and the Giants and the Wizards came slowly by. Fulghum said he learned something from that experience. The little girl had taught him something he had never known before. That mermaids really do exist. After all, he said, he had personally held one by the hand.
I think Jesus would have loved that story because it is in the spirit of what he said at the very beginning of his ministry in Luke 4. His baptism was over. He had wrestled in the wilderness with the evil one. The temptations were behind him—temporarily. Then he returned to his hometown, Nazareth. Luke says, “As was his custom” he went on a Saturday morning to the synagogue with the people he had known all his life. During that service they asked him to read. Luke says that he opened up the papyrus scroll and turned to a passage which would become an overture for everything he would ever do. Opening that scroll, his finger ran down the papyrus until he found his place. It was that exile passage from Isaiah 61.
“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 that are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”
What is he saying here? I think what he is really saying is that he is giving Mermaids a place to stand. For you see, since its beginnings the temptations of faith has been to categorize, pigeonhole, or put people into little boxes. There are Wizards, There are Dwarfs, and there are Giants. The saved and the lost. And we really don’t know what to do when some Mermaid comes along and says, “Where do the Mermaids stand?”
Charles Talbert who is a graduate of Samford and a very fine New Testament scholar has said that what Luke does here is to define the scope of Jesus’ ministry. For the conflict which runs throughout the Gospel and spills over into Acts and in every part of the church’s life begins in Luke 4. That struggle is: Will this be a tiny, hometown outfit or a worldwide movement? Will it be for some or will it be for all? Will the Gospel be a Nazareth thing for only the respectable people like Giants and Wizards and Dwarfs—or will it encompass everyone—even the Mermaids of the world?
This was his audience: the poor, the destitute of the world, the brokenhearted, which meant the shattered and the disintegrated. The captives who were prisoners. The blind that could not see. Even those who rant on the Paul Finebaum show. The bruised who were the oppressed. And the downtrodden and the victims and those crushed by the tyrannies of a world gone wrong. And this magnificent overture we find in Isaiah 61 and Luke 4 would play out a splendid theme. For all the marginalized people of the world—the great horde who do not fit into the categories or the pigeonholes or the boxes, he comes for these too.
You know them. That woman at the well with so many men in her past she could not even remember their names. And Zaccheus, that insider turned outsider because he was a cheat and a liar and had made all of his money in payday loans. And the lepers? The unclean ones that nobody was supposed to touch because you might catch something. And remember what he did? The children always giggling and squirming and coloring outside the lines and how he opened up his arms and took them in, and nobody had ever done that before. If that was not enough, think of the women he reached out to and lifted up to a higher level that had never been done in society before.
Once upon a time we Baptists were really off on the edge of things. We couldn’t even get in the back door of the country club. We had not come to town and been baptized into respectability but we were mostly on those side streets, across the tracks where the illegal immigrants lived. But we had faith. And we sang with gusto. We turned from hard, hard weeks at work to the meeting where we were met and graced and loved and affirmed and felt important. And for some it was the only place in their lives where they felt like they were somebody. The Mermaids, swimming against the tide of an established church. Their preachers were put in jail in Holland and in England and in this country. Some were killed. They were the first civil libertarians because they believed in liberty and justice for all—not just for their own kind—why even the Mormons. And when the Constitution and the Bill of Rights of the United States came into being, they helped to stitch somehow into the fabric of those document that wonderful, wonderful phrase: “all are created equal.” All. And they continued to write, “Congress should make no laws pertaining to the establishment of religion.” That’s a long way from school tax vouchers for the important people and tax breaks for people who have plenty. So the question really is this: Where do the mermaids stand?
The great theologian Karl Barth wrote his first book of sermons called, Deliverance to the Captives. These sermons by this brilliant man had been preached in Basel, Switzerland to prisoners behind bars. What did he tell them? Eyes could now see, some for the first time. Liberty to victims in a world gone wrong. They would somehow find that the chains that bound them down would be broken all would be free. He preached an acceptance for Dwarfs and Wizards and Giants and even Mermaids—but maybe not in that order. “Whosoever will may come!” Not just the special and the privileged and the beautiful and the saved and the heterosexuals. Everybody. And if it isn’t for every body—it isn’t for anybody. After two thousand years the words are still revolutionary. They leap across the barriers like geography and culture and race and class. “Across the crowded ways,” the song goes, “We hear his voice still.”
But he wasn’t done. Is he ever done? He wasn’t done. For he told them two stories that got him into trouble; The first story was about Elijah. Three and a half years there had been a famine in the land. People starved and babies and old people died and the wind blew across a parched land where nothing could grow anymore. No rain. God’s prophet came to a widow in Zerephath—Sidon. Now where was that? Well, he breezed passed the Giants and Wizards and the Dwarfs and kept on going until he came to a place where he looked on the door and the sign read: “Mermaid’s House.” Elijah knocked on the door. And it made Jesus’ congregation in Nazareth restless because they couldn’t believe God’s prophet passed over all the good people and went down the road to a woman whose family had been on food stamps for three generations. And probably did not have her papers. Who would have believed it? How dare he? That was his first story.
But he wasn’t finished. He told a second story to his congregation about Elisha who was Elijah’s successor. He told about a place Syria—which should have given them a clue of where he was going. In Syria there was this leper colony. A place where nobody would go because you might catch something. It was an awful place. Outside the gates of the city. And there was a man named Namaan—a non-Jew. Not one of God’s chosen. He was healed. This foreigner was healed. And it was just too much for the people of Nazareth. “And when they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath and rose up to put him out of the city”—talking about Jesus—“and they led him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built, that they might throw him down headlong; but passing through their midst he went away.”
Fred Craddock, A very fine preacher has said the people in that synagogue room were furious because Jesus had used their own story to make them feel uncomfortable. Why isn’t Holy Scripture supposed to make you feel warm and squishy and happy? Like Joel Osteen. Craddock says it is not the Scriptures we don’t know that give us trouble—but the Scriptures we know and have just tip-toed over and domesticated until they mean nothing. Consequently people come up to preachers and ask, “Preacher tell us what Ezekiel means?" Or "Let’s study Revelation and find out who is the mark of the beast. Could it be Obama?" Or maybe they ask what Danny Ford asked me one day when he was Coach at Clemson, “Preacher did that whale really swallow Jonah?” Why do we get off the track? We might as well be talking about Chinese calligraphy. None of those questions will get us in trouble.
But what about the texts we all know. Abraham. A light to all the nations—how did they forget that? Or Jonah, ignore the whale for a moment and ponder its meaning which is that the Lord God of Israel reaches his arms out and takes everybody in. Or what about Micah: “Let justice roll down like waters. Kindness, Walk humbly. Everybody. For when the text arrives in our mailbox with our name on the envelope we open it up and we are stretched and we see dreams and visions that are sometimes scary. But it’s our letter. Robert McAfee Brown called it unexpected news—news we do not expect.You see, it is always revolutionary. It is always the heart of the matter. And Jesus said all God’s children can find a place. He makes room in his house for every person. It is a love that transcends everybody and everything.
Isn’t that what Jesus meant when he said, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me. He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captive, recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”
Prayer after the Sermon: Lord, it’s a bigger gospel than any of us imagined. It’s a bigger church than we intended to join. Stretch our hearts until we can take in all the children of the world, till some how in our love and missions and evangelism and caring, the kingdoms of this world really do “become the kingdoms of the Christ.” Help us as we do it. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Friday, October 28, 2011
the lone remaining bill is paid,
every IOU is cancelled,
payment on accounts is stayed;
When the parting farewell is uttered,
the ending stanza sung,
tolling bells have rung:
I still will be debtor
Not all the gold in banks
fulfills my debt of thanks."
--Thomas E. Corts
(Tom Corts, retired President of Samford University left us
in February 2009. His brother Paul Corts has collected essays in a beautiful book honoring his brother called, Thinking Christianly. I wrote a chapter in this book of my personal feelings toward this good man. At a Colloquium held at Samford University, October 27, 2011--I made these remarks as part of the program.)
I cannot speak about Tom Corts’ academic experience as it relates to the church. And I cannot speak about the qualities that he may have possessed in character or skills to be an effective leader in higher education. But I can speak of my own experience with Tom Corts as it relates to church and as it relates to something of the depth of his personal life.
We are all many-sided persons and no one dimension can really capture the essence of the man we come to remember. He was more than an academic and he was great in this role wherever he went. But he was also husband, son, father, brother, friend, colleague and churchman just to name a few of his many sides.
So I cannot speak from an academic perspective but I can speak as one who he was once his Pastor and always a friend. Our paths intersected first in Georgetown Kentucky where he was Chair of the Search Committee of the Faith Baptist Church. I never will forget that first visit to the Corts’ house on Pocahontas Trail. Rachel was in an infant seat—Jennifer was playing on the floor and bored with the family’s new visitor. Chris was not yet born.
Tom Corts was a Churchman. He was always there when he was not preaching or representing Georgetown College. He believed in Church and he believed in Pastors which is one of the reasons for that gorgeous dome and Beeson Divinity School.
I followed his journey from Georgetown to Wingate and then to Samford. We kept up loosely during those years. He preached the Installation Sermon at three churches I served. He asked me to have the Invocation when he became President of Samford. And we celebrated birthdays and other special events. So I saw him up close and he was, as I entitled my chapter in this book, Great Tom. He really was great. He was there on my last Sunday at Covenant when I retired and gave this beautiful moving prayer which I have included in my chapter. And when he retired I returned the favor and gave the Prayer at his retirement party. And when he left us that sad day in February 4, 2009 I was asked to say some words at his funeral. I still miss him.
So I spoke and speak about the human side of Tom Corts. I have a multitude of stories I could tell about this good man. When we were in Georgetown at the Faith Baptist Church—we needed desperately to build an addition to our building. Most of the congregation were poorly paid academicians—and we did not think we could do this. But there was a layperson in that congregation. Never been to college—meat and potatoes man. Had been in the service and worked for a Construction business. We dealt with a lot of issues in that church in the late sixties and early seventies. We had a lot of kids and they talked about war and burning drafting cards and protesting the Viet Nam war. Some of our more vocal professors pontificated on this subject and this veteran’s blood pressure surely must have gone up many times. But this layman in our church with perfectly trimmed short hair kept coming to church every Sunday. And so Tom, Chair of the Building Committee—why are you not surprised--saw something special in this man who had never been to college. He saw that this man could use his gifts like no one else in the church could. Tom asked him to help draw up plans for this new addition and then asked him if he would supervise the project. Some of our Professors raised their eyebrows—what training did he have? Some whispered what were his credentials? Well, Hallie Hymer pulled off the project and saved the church a lot of money. And Tom insisted that when we dedicated the building that we put up a plaque in appreciation for Hallie Hymer for the work he did on this addition, which would not have happened, without his work and commitment. Some of those in academics raised their eyebrows again—but the Plaque is there to this day. Why do I tell this story? Because his was a larger circle than just the college. He looked around and saw some qualities in folk they didn’t even know they had. Hallie Hymer grew and grew as a person because of that experience. How many times through the years did he do that? Ask Eric Motley or Theolophilus Akande from Nigeria to Georgetown. Ask the late Laverne Farmer. Ask Joe Lewis. And how many more in this room. Our lives are immeasurably different because great Tom helped to stretch us.
He kept these little books where he wrote down quotations and scripture verses that meant a great deal to him. One of those quotes is most appropriate for this occasion. He took these words from Dostoevsky’s, The Brothers Karamazov.
“And even if we are occupied with important things, even if we attain honor or fall into misfortune, still let us remember how good it was once here when we were all together united by a good and kind feeling which made us, better perhaps than we are.”
(A copy of this book of essays, Thinking Christianly can be ordered from Samford University, 800 Lakeshore Drive, Birmingham, AL 35229.)
Sunday, October 23, 2011
About a week ago I wrote this piece saying it would be my last for a while. We were to move to South Carolina this past week. But nooooooooooooo. A couple of days before our last Monday closing on our house here—we got a call saying the buyer’s loan did not go through. Huh? For two days my wife and I both staggered around in deep depression. But you can’t let that black dog called deepression bite you. It could be venomous. Anyway—even after we had taken a load of peculiar treasures to South Carolina, deposited much, too much in our daughter’s house and all our great stuff was packed up—why I couldn’t even find the Tabasco sauce. We began to dig out of our self-pity hole. We had a list. We had now to contact all the people we had called to undo all our cancellations—which was as lot. Let’s see we re-called:
- The gas company
- The Alabama power
- Waste Management
- The recycle outfit
- Water works
- New York Times
- Local Paper
- AT&T which has our internet and phone service
- Several magazine subscription folk
- The Real estate agent in Clemson who had scheduled our closing there for last week
- Asked for a twenty-day extension on our new house
- Called our movers and suspended the move indefinitely
- Called the local Cable company
- Called the Cable Company in South Carolina
Finally—everything got re-cancelled except AT&T. Beware! Three days ago I had no Internet service and no landline. So—I began that long circuitous journey of trying desperately to get my phone and Internet service re-connected (temporarily.) They finally did it. Well, the buyer’s new mortgage company tells me the loan will go through about a week from tomorrow and that we have nothing to fear. It’s been a hard day’s night to put it mildly.
While I was still groveling in self-pity a good friend gave me these words from Gordon Cosby that he had used once in a sermon. Wise words from a wise man.
“If you feel you can’t tolerate the mess, the only advice I can give you is this: choose what for you is a better mess. If you can find it. But wherever you do, you go to the next mess. You may take a couple of years to find out how messy it is, but you will find it to be a mess. God has tolerated many messes for many eons.”
If we you a praying person—or merely superstitious—pray for us next Monday—or I should say the buyer-to-be of our house. If not pray—burn a candle (maybe at both ends simultaneously.) Dust off your rosary, say some strange mantra—demand of whatever god(s) you believe in to please, please let the Lovette’s house sell.
When I called our mover—I asked her, “Has this ever happened before? Someone cancelled at the last minute?” She said, “Not much until the last few months and now it is happening all the time.” Real estate folk tell me the mortgage companies are turning down a lot of people who are financially qualified. Hmmm. Maybe if this closing does not work out and we have a little more time—maybe I will take up a placard and head for Wall Street. Anybody out there want to join me?
(Would you please stand at this time, join hands with with your friends and neighbors and sing maybe quietly: "Look for the Silver Lining!")
Thursday, October 13, 2011
Saturday, October 8, 2011
Sorrow like a sea.
Lordy, let yo' mercy
Come driftin' down on me.
At the feet o' Jesus
At yo' feet I stand.
O, ma little Jesus,
Please reach out yo' hand."
-Langston Hughes, Feet o' Jesus
(My cousin and good friend took his life last week. He left me a note asking me to say some words at his funeral. The service was held at The Baptist Church of the Covenant in Birmingham where I had once served.
These are the words that came straight from my heart.)
Ray and I talked a lot. And he told me about his temptations with suicide. And I would always say: “Ray would you promise to call me if its get real bad and you are thinking seriously about doing this? And if you don’t I am going to say terrible things about you at your funeral. I lied. I could not possibly say anything bad about Ray Kelley.
There is a Spanish philosopher named Unamuno who said that the chief purpose of a temple is a place where people come to grieve together. We make proper use of this temple this afternoon because we all bring our griefs here and hopefully draw strength from one another and from God, too.
“Surely,” Isaiah said, “he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we did esteem him stricken by God and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.”
So, you see we are all alike. We are all wounded in one way or the other. And we all carry some sorrow or deep disappointment with us wherever we go. We learned this week that Steve Jobs died of pancreatic cancer in his fifties. He made such a contribution to our age. But you know I look at suicide as something like cancer—sometimes life presses down on some of us and it just gets to be too much.
Someone has said we shouldn’t judge someone by their death but by their life. You might find it strange for me to say that this day. For Ray was deeply, deeply troubled and many of us in this room tried very hard to help. And some of us feel guilty that we didn’t do more or say more—but I don’t think Ray would want us to do that—and I particularly don’t think that God would have us do that. For some reason Ray didn’t know deep inside how much we loved him because if he had been able to receive these very great gifts we might not be here today. But I talked to several of you about Ray. I have read I don’t know how many Facebook comments by a great number of people that have expressed in all kinds of ways how they loved Ray deeply. Here are some of the things that some of you have said:
“One of my favorite memories of Ray. We were visiting while my Dad was on leave, and I was maybe five. Ray took me to the barn and climbed into the rafters to get a pigeon egg for me. I remember being so thrilled! Ray always made time for me whenever we got a chance to visit, and exchanged letters with me on a regular basis. He always made me feel important. He was kind and caring and loving, and a beautiful person, and I will miss him greatly.”
“So long my friend, until we meet again...”
“You brought so much joy to other people’s lives. We shared so many fun times together at Auburn and beyond. I will cherish these memories and always think of you and smile.”
“Ray...from the first day I met you at an Auburn homecoming when Ed introduced us I have been one of your biggest fans. Remembering our special day at the Georgia Aquarium when we blasphemously ate at the Fish Market after our tour! Be at peace my Best Man.”
“Oh, my precious friend, I could hardly watch Dancing with the Stars tonight without your texted comments. I think you would have had a LOT to say about the outcome! I miss you!”
“ I am missing you so my precious Ray Ray!”
“My Gone With the Wind” friend. Will miss you.”
“To all our sweet memories. Peace be with you. I love you Ray Ray.”
“To a guy whose wit surpassed any other that I have met. You are truly missed and my heart is broken. Never to be forgotten, rest in peace my friend.”
So we judge him by his life and not his death. And you might find this strange because he was so troubled and had such a hard time. Judge him by his life? Yes.
He left his job at Am South bank to move back home to take care of his mother. She was beginning to experience some of the early stages of dementia and perhaps Alzheimer’s. How many sons would do that—interrupt their lives, their careers to take care of someone as Ray did. He was wonderful to Annie Jean and kept her at home until the last days when he could not care for her anymore. But anyone who has had experiences with Alzheimer’s knows what an enormously difficult work this is. Someone has called it The 36 Hour Day. If you want to judge Ray Kelley never forget the attentiveness and the love he gave dear Annie Jean.
As I thought about Ray leaving us much too soon—I remember that wonderful story that Jesus told of the Prodigal Son. The boy left home and did terrible things. He lost all he had. And when it got so bad he didn’t even have anything to eat he began to fantasize. I wonder if my Father would take me back maybe as a hired hand. Little did he know his old father—burned a candle in the window every single night—and day after day he would look down that long dusty road and hope, just hope his boy would one day come home. And the miracle happened. Was it only a mirage? Or a dream? Finally as that speck of a person moved closer the Father knew that walk and the shape of that head. And the old man ran out and ran down the road to meet his son. “My son, my son...” Tears streamed down the old man’s face. Look at the picture as Rembrandt has painted it. One sandal is missing; the other has holes in it. The boy’s robe is tattered and he’s lost a lot of his hair. His face was lined for the too-muchness of it all. And the boy looks like he is weeping and the father wraps his arms around him and looks at him with wonder and joy. No hired hand, that boy. He was taken back to the house where he was given a robe and new sandals and a ring for his hand. And they threw this magnificent party.
What does that have to do with this occasion? Everything. Ray is in the Father’s arms. It is a joyous reunion. And all the pain and heartbreak is gone. And looking around there he sees his Mama and Daddy and his brother and friend after friend. Ray Kelley is in the hands of the Father. The boy has come home.
Dostoevsky, the Russian writer wrote once, “What keeps me going 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 all been for.”
So Ray I lied when I said I would say terrible things about you if you did this. No—I cannot do that. I will remember the joy he gave us and the way he looked out after his mother. And even in our grief let us all remember that those strong arms hold him and us all in God’s great love and his care and his keeping.
I close with the Roman Catholic Prayer for the Dead: I used them at Annie Jean’s funeral and today I give them to my cousin and my friend: “Into paradise may the angels lead him; at his coming may the martyrs take him up into eternal rest, and may the chorus of angels lead him to that holy city, and the place of perpetual light.”
And to those gathered and for those that come not come I pray: “Now may the peace that passes all understanding and the love that will not let us go rest and abide with us today and forever. Amen.”
Monday, October 3, 2011
Did she wish she had never come here? I hope not. I hope she found some of her dreams coming true. I hope she wakes up with a little smile on her face. I hope she feel safe in America.
A lot of us in Alabama were holding our breath hoping that U.S. District Judge Sharon Blackburn would throw out this state's far-reaching immigration law recently. We were greatly disappointed. Months ago the State Legislature adopted the most stringent anti-immigration laws in the country. Some called this new law: “a great victory for the state of Alabama.” Judge Blackburn ruled that most of the law would stand as written. Here are some of the key provisions which now go into effect.
· Police can detain suspects to verify citizenship status.
· Public schools must check the citizenship status of enrolling students.
· Contracts knowingly entered into with an illegal immigrant are nullified.
· Every employer in the state will enroll in E-Verify to check citizenship status of all employees.
· Illegal immigrants face felony charges for applying for license plates, business of driver’s licenses.
Once again Alabama has written discriminatory policies into our law books. Many Hispanics have already left Alabama. Contractors and farmers are up in arms because many of the good workers that they counted on have just left this state. We took our lead from Georgia and Arizona’s anti-immigration laws—but Alabama goes much further than these other states.
I watched little Hispanic children holding hands at the Y in a special program we provide for pre-schoolers. These were beautiful children, well dressed and having a good time. And as I saw them walk by I wondered what kind of a future they will have in this state. How will they feel when they are singled out in schools? How do they feel as their parents have been forced to uproot them from the only homes they have known because they are not wanted in this state?
Most of us came over on a boat from somewhere else. Have we forgotten that our own forebears were once standing where these folk stand? One of the many dark days in our history when we incarcerated Japanese during the War years because of fear. It is one of the darkest spots on President Roosevelt’s tenure as President. Visiting Ellis Island some time ago I read the story of those who came here with dreams for a better life. This plaque below shows how many felt in this country at that time.
Want to read a heartbreaking story of how it feels to be “undocumented?” Last Sunday’s Birmingham News carried a lead op ed piece written by Alfonso del Carmen who shows us what it feels like to live in the United States and feel rejected and unsafe. She writes that “since the approval of this law, a racist climate has arisen...treating us as if we were criminals.” I don’t think we have heard the last of this sorry law. Many groups still work for peace and justice for all. I have written more than once about what Elie Wiesel said about this situation. “There are no such thing as any human being called illegal. No one is illegal. That word was used early on by those who opened up the gas chambers in Germany.
We’ve worked hard in this state to overcome the word, Bombingham, the pictures of fire hoses and dogs attacking protesters. We’ve come a long way in this state in many ways. But this discriminatory anti-immigration law reminds us that we still have a long way to go.
(You might be interested in the story in today's Birmingham News about 80 people who picketed the church where Scott Beason worships last Sunday. He is the legislator that sponsored the contrroversial immigration law. He was also caught saying black folk were aborigines when he thought the sound was off recently.)