Monday, December 31, 2012

New Year's Pondering

"Father, as the old year ends and a new begins, forgive us for the failures of the vanished days,and bless us in days that do not die. Keep us from vain regret, and let us face forward in the light of the best that we have learned. Purge our hearts both of shallow self-confidence and of cowardly fears, so that we may know that without thee we can do nothing but that in thee all things are possible; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."
             --Walter Russell Bowie

Chaim Potok the great Jewish writer once said, “I am neither an optimist nor a pessimist, I am a persistantist.” That seems like pretty good advice for a new year.

The optimists are likely to look at everything through rose-colored glasses. The pessimists are liable to see things so dark and despairing that nobody wants to be around them. Many of the situations we face are somewhere between the happy crowd and the gloom and doom brigade.  

One of the great Biblical texts cautions us not to grow weary in well-doing. The writer could also have said: do not paint the picture always sunny because that is not reality either. The people I admire most are the persistantists. They don’t let anything stop them. What would have happened if Christopher Columbus had not pleaded for eight years with the Queen of Spain to support his adventure. The Church led the fight in saying the world was flat and that Columbus was crazy. Everybody seemed to agree. But Columbus persisted and helped alter the shape of the world.

We all will bring some tough things into this new year. Very few of us are not beset with some kind of a burden or wound that just will not go away. Sometimes it is illness—ours or someone we love. Often it is a personal problem—ours or someone we care deeply about. It could be the heaviness of the world we all live in. Fear seems to lurk around too many corners.

Yet there are a great many courageous people that will not give up. Robert Louis Stevenson was ill for many years. Toward the end of his life his wife came in one morning and said, “I suppose you will tell me again that it is a beautiful day.” Stevenson replied, “Yes, my dear. I refuse to let that row of medicine bottles be the circumference of my horizon.” Hopefully many of us may be fortunate enough to face the new year untroubled. But if we bump into some difficult things that seem to have no answers—what will be our response? 

When we visited England I became intrigued with how the English people dealt with the terrible trauma of the Second World War. German bombs fell on London for 57 consecutive days. Then after the bombing ceased, the planes came back again and again.   Thousands of lives were lost, whole families and communities were destroyed. It seemed like the end of the world.  All the children from the larger cities were sent to live with strangers in the country because of safety. It was a dark and difficult time for the English people. One of the moving forces in those wartime days was Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Over and over he told his people that the secret of England’s success would be embedded in six words: “Never…never…never…never give up.” After the war ended  Churchill gave his last commencement address. He stood before that graduating class used the words that kept his country going. Three times he said:  “Never quit.” And then he sat down.

Who knows what lurks around the corner of this new year?  But if the hard times come, we need not deny them through sunny optimism or drown in a sea of pessimistic despair.  Our challenge is to face whatever comes. We will walk one step at a time. Sometimes we may reach out and grab someone’s hand so we do not stumble. Sometimes we may hold another’s hand so they do not stumble. Let us remember Churchill’s strong challenge. Never give up.
Years ago James Thurber wrote a tribute to his eccentric editor, Harold Ross of The New Yorker.
 Mr. Thurber said of his friend: "He just kept going like a bullet-torn battle flag and nobody captured his colors and nobody silenced his drums." Persistantists find a way through whatever happens. Not a bad way to move into a new year.


Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas Eve--A Memory

It’s Christmas Eve and we are moving fast toward the end of this season that I love. I don’t know where my affection for this holiday comes from. Maybe my Mother . We had so little in that tiny four-room house across from the cotton mill. Yet—Christmas was always a big deal. We’d get silver paint—in the era before spray cans—pour the paint into a fly-sprayer and spray all kinds of greenery and berries which would find their way to our mantles. And then we’d get a live tree and my Father would measure it, hack the bottom off so we could get the tree in our house. We would decorate it with whatever we could find. And after we had exhausted our lights and balls we would whip up Lux Soap flakes and drop dollops of them on the tree to look like snow.

The next project which went on for weeks was the cooking.  There was always a Caramel cake, a Coconut cake, and a Lane cake. The first task would be cracking coconuts and digging the coconut out of the hard edge. This would be used in our Coconut and Lane Cakes. And to make sure our Lane cake was good my mother would send the “colored woman” (her term) who worked for us to the liquor store to get the whiskey for the cake. She was instructed to only go after dark so that nobody would know the Lovette’s were buying whiskey—which was flat out against our religion. After all Baptists did not drink. Since my Mother was scared we would run out of sweets she always added a Pecan Pie and a Chocolate pie. Always there would be a fresh ham, a cured ham and a huge hen. There was no turkey in our house. My mother would always say: “You can’t make good dressing with an old turkey.” And so we get the biggest hen we would find and my Mother would always exclaim: “Um, Um ain’t she the fattest thing you ever seen.”

 On the Friday night before Christmas everyone would stream to the Baptist Church. Santa Claus would make an appearance. In the center of the Sanctuary would be a huge Christmas tree and under the tree would be sacks of apples, oranges, nuts and a little candy. This was handed out by the Big Cheese who ran the mill. We sang and sang and finally got our presents and walked home with our sacks.

Finally the big day would arrive and we would get up early, wake our parents up to see what Santa Claus had brought. We always got more than we needed which, looking back now, kept my parents in debt for months and months.

That afternoon after our finest tablecloth had been ironed and best dishes were brought out the table would be laden down with hams, chicken, dressing and real biscuits as big as your fist and dumplings and an assortment of vegetables. It was a feast. All afternoon our neighbors would drop in. Of course they protested, they could not eat another bite—but before they left there was less ham and hen and almost all the dressing would have disappeared. “Just give me a little” they would whisper. And then after they finished they would say, “That was really good. Could I have just a little bit more.” And they would fill up their plates again.

On my desk under the glass is a picture of my mother’s last Christmas. She is sitting on our sofa and she has her packages in her lap, our Christmas tree is behind her and the look on her face is utter delight. This may all be a far cry from Jesus and Mary and Joseph. After all the Preacher had preached his annual sermon always the same: Put Christ back in the commercialized Christmas. And we had already had Christmas pageant held every year in the Mill auditorium. Surely that was enough religion for anybody.

The old book says we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses and those words come alive for me particularly at Christmas. They are all there: Mother and Father and Brother and Uncle Boss and Cousin Carl and black Nancy, a dog or a cat or two and neighbors who lived all around us. And I remember their faces as if yesterday and I also recall the gift of love and celebration they gave us in that tiny little house on First Avenue in Columbus Georgia. Georgia year after wonderful year.  Is it any wonder this seventy-something-year-old still loves the Christmas season?

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Christmas is Remembering Time

"On your way to Bethlehem
may you be surprised
by some crazy angel
who has for you
good news
of a great joy
which will come 
to all the people 
and especially to you."
  --Deryl Fleming

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.  

(This is one of my favorite memories and I have shared it many times. It has appeared in The Birmingham News (AL) and The Greenville News (SC) as well as other places. I use it year after year hoping it will trigger some good memories for you this season.)

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Guns--Time To Do Some Serious Thinking

"If people want to go hunting, a single-shot rifle does the job, and that does the job to protect your home, too. If you need more than that, I don't know what to say. I don;'t want to see my kids go to schools that become maximum-security fortresses. That's not the world I want to live in, and that's not the world I want to raise them in."
  --Parent speaking outside the service after Noah DiStephan's funeral in Newtown yesterday.

Most of us have been appalled by the shootings of those 20 children in their school and the six teachers or administrators. There is an outcry that we do something about guns.

A friend of mine wrote just yesterday: "I know we need to do something to control all these guns--but it ain't gonna happen." After all the funerals and the tears have dried, parents will still have to comfort scared children in Newtown--some for years and years. And this Christmas there will be unopened presents under many Christmas trees because of what happened in Newtown. One of the fairest and most sensible article I have read was the piece by Nicholas D. Kristof that appeared in last Sunday's New York Times. I do hope and pray that this terrible incident--which follows a multitude of others--will be dealt with responsibly for a change.

Sometimes politicians and the rest of us must put our personal opinions aside and do something for the human family. Norman Rockwell's portrayal of the Fourth Freedom: the freedom from fear captures this vision beautifully. Now that would be a great Christmas present for us all.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Newtown--Will There Ever Be Another Christmas?

 She looked up from the wrapping paper and bows and stacks of presents on Christmas morning and said: “Will there ever be another Christmas?” She was five years old and knew, deep in her heart, that it would never get better than this.

Little children and adults in Newtown, Connecticut are asking that question. They’ve been to too many funerals this week. They have shuffled to their children’s rooms in the dark nights and heard them crying and scared of nightmares. Some of these parents wonder what will they do with those packages under the tree—their little boy or girl is gone forever. They have cried so much that they don’t have any tears left.

People all over our town are wondering if there will ever be another Christmas. Not only because of those terrible scenes that come from Connecticut. Somebody lost a loved one this year and they dread the thought of Christmas day. Somebody lost a job and this whole festive season has had a hollow ring. Somebody’s marriage is falling apart. Somebody woke up yesterday morning and the house was like all the other days of the year: empty and cold.  Somebody nurses a hangover so severe that they couldn’t get out of bed until the next afternoon. Somebody will not be home from Iraq—her orders were extended. Somebody lies in a hospital bed scared of the future. Somebody finds this season cruel—there is not enough money for the kids’ presents.

Will there ever be another Christmas? We all ask it when tragedy walks down our street and knocks on our door. If you study the old story closely you will know that we have glossed over the dark side of the real Christmas. Herod, the old mad king was consumed with jealousy when he heard of the birth of the Messiah. He ordered every male baby two years and younger killed. Blood ran through the streets that Christmas time as it has run this year in Newtown. We forget the manger was not like our crèches in our homes and churches. The manger was where the cattle were fed and the not-so-holy family had to step around steaming dung as they shivered in that drafty barn on that back street. When the family took Jesus to be circumcised on the eighth day, old watery-eyed Simeon addressed the young mother. He told Mary that this baby’s coming was not all joy. Old Simeon said that a sword would pierce her soul before it was over. Later Joseph, the young father, was so frightened that the baby would be killed that he took his little family and fled to Egypt one dark night.

This was the soil out of which the first Christmas came. Hard days, dark days. Days of trouble and misery. This was the setting of the greatest story ever told. Our trouble is that we have tried to gloss it over with silver bells and endless shopping. But the real Christmas takes us all in—those children in Afghanistan huddled in some corner. They have never known anything but war and destruction and death. It takes in all the brokenness in our lives and those around us.

 Nothing stops the power of Christmas. No pain is so great, no difficulty so cumbersome that we need miss the wonder of these days.  The Christmas story says that the shepherds returned, praising God for all they had seen and heard. As we move closer to Christmas day some of us might find it hard to sing the carols and enter into and the wonder of the season. Yet perhaps we shall find what others have found. That the old book is right after all. There is darkness aplenty—yet at the heart of it all is this incredible light which nothing can ever put out. And that’s why there will always be a Christmas. 

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Connecticut Shooting - A Prayer

"When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old
or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

'A voice was heard in Ramah,
  wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
  she refused to be consoled,
because they are no more.'"
   Matthew 2.16-18  

Lord God—We come into your presence bringing with us many things.
We love the lights and the parties and the sheer wonder of this season. And yet—once again—the world intrudes on our Christmas.
We think of those in Connecticut who have lost so much.
They bring to mind all those other shootings.

Help us also to think of all those children in Iraq and Afghanistan and other troubled  places that have known nothing their whole lives except fear and death and destruction.

We also think of all those in this congregation who have lost someone and find Christmas hard and we often wonder will there ever be joy again. And yet, Lord—we remember at your son’s birth Herod killed a multitude of little children and blood ran through their streets, too. There was weeping that first Christmas and there was great fear then too.And yet all this agony and pain and grief did not stop your coming.

Jesus grew up in a hard, hard time. We forget that sometimes.
He did not take away all the pain—we forget that sometime.
But he reached out and touched and wept and grew angry at so much that he saw.
He was one with them. We forget that sometime.

So here help us to remember God is here with us too.
Pain cannot stop his coming—we forget that sometime.
Sin or madness cannot stop his coming—we forget that sometime.
You are here, Lord stopping at every pew—the light still comes to us all—and the terrible darkness can never, ever put it out.

And so Lord—through music or silence or stained glass or tears or through laughter of little children—come to us once more.
Forgive our sins and wrongs—
Love us as we are.
Yet show us, even in this world, what we might yet be.
O Light of the world—be our light, too. AMEN.

(This Morning Prayer was offered at the First Baptist Church, Clemson South Carolina, December 16, 2012)

(The photograph of the sculptured piece was given to the Abbey of Gethesemani (Bardstown, Kentucky) in memory of Jonathan M Daniels, Episcopal Seminarian martyred in Alabama, August 20, 1965.)

Friday, December 14, 2012

Christmas--A Tree Full of Memories

"Dear Lord, don't let
The glowing tree, 
The gleaming candles,
The blaring music
Keep us from seeing One Star,
From hearing One song,
From finding One Child.
Within the hectic season we have made,
Let us find that quiet hilltop,
Hear the angel voices,
Bow before the manger,
And celebrate Love's birth."
  --Joan Eheart Cinelli, Christmas, 1984

Just last week we went through our annual ordeal of putting up the Christmas tree. This season has a way of reorganizing our priorities. We found ourselves moving furniture around, rearranging plants, and digging through our peculiar Christmas treasures in the attic. Dusting off boxes of all sizes, hauling balls and ribbons and lights and finally the bits and pieces of what would be our seven-foot Christmas tree.

Next came the ordeal of trying to decide what piece of the artificial tree went where.  But that was not the hard part. Connecting the lights on the tree took some time. When we thought we were finished we turned on the tree—and half the lights did not work. We crawled around looking for loose connections but realized half the bulbs on our supposed tree-with-lights were burned out. So—off to the store I went twice to get lights to string on our already semi-lighted tree. After the new lights were in twisted around the tree we began to open the boxes. It was like a treasure hunt for what we discovered in box after box were bits and pieces of our lives.

We were in a time warp. Not just this dull-grey morning but way, way back to other times and other places. Some of those boxes unearthed balls and trinkets that our parents had carefully placed on their trees some before we were born. And then came the little ornaments our children had made when they were young. A tiny star fashioned out of dough made by a then four-year-old. An ornament of birdseed and ribbon he brought home one day from his pre-school. We unpacked the early days of our marriage really. The K-Mart nativity figures. Mary with a hole in her back. Our son would run through the house with the tiny flying Jesus swooping up and down in his hands. The decorations of our over-fifty years. The beautiful hand-made ornaments by the kind lady who hobbled across the street one day and handed us this package. “When you place them on the tree,” she said, “remember me.” Oh, Jeanette you are still remembered. My wife held us this beautiful golden ball—and recalled that one of her piano students had made it for her. We found the beautiful birds, some almost as big as your hand that we had bought in the after-Christmas sale. We unearthed the silver bells our good friend gave us year after year. And though he died much too soon—we treasure his gifts and his memory. On and on it went—box after box, tissue paper flying. These are the tiny fragments of our lives.

Finally we were through decorating the tree. And so after the boxes were put aside and the tissue paper was consigned to the attic—it was dark when we turned on the lights. And what we saw before us was wonderful and breathtaking. A tree full of memories that took us back to other times and other places. As the tree just shimmered we thanked God for it all—the places, the faces—the times of our lives—memories, precious memories.  One day before too long it will all come down and we will get the house back to normal. But right now, at this Christmas stopping off place—we remember as we stand before our tree—and we are glad.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Christmas--Is it Worth It?

It really is a chore.
Cleaning off the mantle—
stripping the coffee table, making room on the book shelves,
 and the dining room table.
Putting away all those more-than- you-need treasures.
This is not the worst.
It’s hauling old dusty boxes out of the attic.
It’s cluttering up the living room with beads
 and trinkets and lights that do not burn and candles
 that should have been thrown away years ago.

But here and there amid the boxes
 you stop and find an ornament that takes you back.
You hold a child’s crude decoration and laugh.
You walk down memory lane
  and meet loved ones of long ago.
Yesterday’s music comes back slow and then strong
 and sure.

And when the almost empty boxes are out of sight—
The left-over tissue thrown away—
You look around at the mantle, the tree—the table—
And you know once again why you do it all.
Over and over—season after season—year after year.
                                                   --Roger Lovette

(Ordinarily I do not repeat my blog writings--but this still expresses my feelings about Christmas.)

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

We Remember the Fallen

In the middle of all our merriment we need to pause and remember all those that will find this  Christmas difficult. Especially those that have seen their family members and friends killed in this war. Thank God it is winding down. But let us ponder the hard truth which CNN continues to lay before us.

Iraq--4,803 US troops and coalition forces have died since the war started. 32,330 have come home wounded many totally disabled.

Afghanistan--3,215 US troops and coalition forces have died in that country. 18,071 have come wounded.

As of June 3, 2012 (the latest figures I could find) the Pentagon in the first 155 days of the year suicides of army active-duty soldiers  totaled: 154 personnel. In the same period last there there were 130 suicides.

An American soldier dies every day and a half in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Veterans kill themselves at a rate of one every 80 minutes.

Charles Bukowski's, moving poem "the con job" is worth pondering.

"the ground war began today
at dawn
in a desert land
far from here.
the U.S. ground troops were
made up of
Blacks, Mexicans and poor
most of them had joined 
the military
because it was the only job
they could find.

the ground war began today
at dawn
in a desert land
far from here
and the Blacks, Mexicans
and poor whites
were sent there
to fight and win
as on tv
an on the radio
the fat white rich newscasters
first old us about it
and then the far rich white 
told us
and again
and again
on almost every
tv and radio station
almost every minute
day and night
the Blacks, Mexicans
and poor whites
were sent there
to fight and win
at dawn
in a desert land
far enough away from
--Good Poems For Hard Times, p.120

Monday, December 3, 2012

Advent and the Wilderness

"The desert is not remote in southern tropics,
The desert is not only around the corner,
The desert is squeezed in the tube-train next to you,
The desert is in the heart of your brother."
 --T.S. Eliot, Choruses from the Rock

Deserts come in all shapes and sizes. It was a cool Sunday afternoon. I drove up to the Funeral Home and the parking lot was filled with cars. Good crowd, I mused as Preachers do. When I fund my way into the Chapel it was beginning to fill up with people. This was the annual Memorial service for those who had died in our area during the year. The pain in that room was palpable. I looked around the room. A lot of hard-living people. One or two men in overalls.  Some dressed in their Sunday best. It was a mixed crowd—and not all of them were white. On the screen at the front there flashed the names and pictures of those who had died during the year. Most of them I did not know—but almost all of them I did know. They wee members of the human family. Somebody’s Mama. Someone’s brother. A husband or a wife or a grandfather. I kept watching the screen. A young man in a baseball cap. An old woman with a wrinkled face. One face I remembered—he had suffered from Alzheimer’s. There were few baby pictures—I guess it was just too hard. But their names appeared on the screen. Date of birth—date of death.

As the service began a little boy about eight was hugging his grandmother tight as she quietly cried. Some held their babies close and most just sat stone-faced.  Not a lot of tears—and there were no sobs but across the room you knew they carried in their hearts something broken—enormous pain.

Someone said it takes nine months for a baby to be born and it takes more than nine months for us to let someone we have loved go. After the music and the Meditation we filed out into the darkness. Each family member was handed a white balloon. Balloons everywhere. And then we were told to let the balloons go. Slowly they moved upward filling the sky.

How does anyone stand it—this death business—this letting go—this missing a face and name we have loved all our life? How do we do it? I do not know. Family helps. Friends help if they don’t say too much. Casseroles help. Cards, letters and phone calls help. Tears help. Church often helps. And one day we get up and put our clothes on and look out the window at the bright, sunshiny morning. We smile. We haven’t done that in a long time. And guess what? We begin to pass on what was passed to us—love and grace and casseroles and cards and phone calls and hugs and visits where we have learned first-hand not to say too much.  And in ways none of us can ponder—our losses somehow become more bearable and we find ourselves choosing again. Leonard Cohen wrote: There is a crack in everything God made—that’s how the light shines through. We grievers are well acquainted with those cracks and found them hard and scary—wonder of wonders we begin to see a flicker of light—and in its light we go on.

“In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man (and woman)
 how to praise.”
--W.H. Auden, In Memory of W.B. Yeats

Advent Meditation from the First Sunday

"A king might miss the guiding star,
A wise man's foot might stumble;
For Bethlehem is very far
From all except the humble. 
But he who gets to Bethlehem
Shall hear the oxen lowing;
And, if he humbly kneels with them,
May catch far trumpets blowing."
       --Louis F. Benson

We ushered in Advent this morning like churches all over the country. Decorations are already in the making. Over in the right corner is this huge tree that will be decorated tonight when we hang the green. On both side of the front are these two huge banners my son made he was sixteen. Mary and Joseph and the baby in one scene. The wandering wise men and the star in the other banner. Now in his forties I think he will smile when he sits with me on Christmas Eve. The Choir processed this morning. As they came down the aisle we sang the old lament, “Come, O Come Emmanuel, and ransomed captive Israel/ That mourns in lonely exile here...” 

After the first candle was lit and the sermon was over we slowly made our way down the front to take the bread already broken and the cup already poured. I kept looking at the people as they trailed by. Many I have known for a long time. Since moving back here last December I see them after over 20 years. The years have not been good to some of them. The lady sitting close to the front with Parkinson’s. The old man who lost his wife this year coming forward on his cane. The young couple hardly able to keep their hands off one another. The divorced and the never married. College kids wondering why we would be singing such a dirge at Christmastime. There were some I knew who lived on limited income. There was another man just recovering from heart surgery. The little frail proud woman who worries about her husband in a nursing home. The father who wonder why his boy will never pickup the phone or answer his letters. One of the men told me just this morning that his boy was in Afghanistan and he was worried. One by one we streamed forward.

God knows we need an Advent. We need a holy reminder that what we do this day  pilgrims across the years have done. On good days and bad we have trailed to the altar rail hoping, just hoping that somehow that little piece of bread and that sip from the cup will help us as we make our way back to our pews and back into our lives.

No, we don’t believe in the magical power of the Eucharist—but we do believe deeply in our hearts in the power of the Communion Table. Jackson Browne years ago touched our needs in his plaintive song, “Looking East.”

“Hunger in the midnight, hunger in the strike of noon
Hunger in the mansion, hunger in the rented room
Hunger on the TV, hunger on the printed page
And there’s a God-sized hunger
Underneath the laughing and the rage.”

I love those old Advent words found in Isaiah 40. I claim their promise for all of us who make it to the table and even all those who wouldn’t be caught dead in any church. We all have our hungers and I do believe we find that incredible promise year after year at Advent time.

“He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
 he will gather the lambs in his arm,
 and carry them in his bosom,
 and shall gently lead those that are with young.”

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Advent--Watching Time

"A string of questions overheard at Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands in New Jersey at the start of a Giants football game, from a small boy clearly attending his first big sporting event:
'Daddy, which one is Phil Simms?'
'Is that real grass?' 
'Where is Lawrence Taylor?'
And finally, after several moments, as the players take to the field after the Cornell Big Red Marching Band to the fans' thunderous approval:
'Daddy, is this live?'"
   --from Dear Diary, The New York Times

Here we are again on the edge of Advent—four weeks until Christmas. I opened my old Book of Common Prayer to the Advent season and the first word of the first Scripture caught me. “Watch,” it said, “Watch ye, for ye know not when the master of the house cometh, at even or at midnight, or at the cock-crowing, or in the morning; lest coming suddenly he find you sleeping.” I got stuck on that first word: Watch. Hmmm. Watch—for what? The old text reminds us to keep our eyes open in the evening...or midnight...or early in the morning when the cock crows somewhere...or a little later in the morning. Watch.

Sounds so simple doesn’t it. I guess I’ve preached a whole lot of sermons from Jesus’ words in Mark. Yet, looking back I missed most of it—all that was going on around me. I was too busy writing it out for somebody else than to live it—this watch. Oh, I went from pillar to post—from hospital to nursing homes to listening to somebody’s problems or speaking at some Christmas breakfast or trying to smoothe some ruffled feathers and mostly I didn’t have a clue what I was missing.

Jesus said it doesn’t matter where you are and or even what condition you are in. Just watch. Cross-eyed in pain or pissed-off at life. Bored out of your skull or just wishing you could be somewhere else where life wasn’t so hard or complicated or maybe just winning the lottery which, if I had any sense would know really would not help.

So this Advent I’m trying to hang on to this tiny word: Watch. Funny word really. I am a watch (and clock) freak. I had a whole lot of watches in my dresser drawer. In every room in our house there are more than one clock—some ticking and some dead but there. They tell me the time—what time it is. Maybe my watch should be to look around me at what is happening this very minute. Not to kill time. Or to pass time. But to watch this moment.

Could it be, as old Moses sorta discovered that the place where we all stand is holy ground. Where the desert wind blows too strong and the scorpions do bite and the water is never enough and you are a zillion miles from where he promised you would be. Holy ground? Here—in my retirement years—with a shoulder that aches and feet that won’t let me run anymore. Here I am to watch. Maybe it will take some stretching for me to realize this place and this ground is holy. But maybe if I keep my eyes wide open maybe I shall see some of those wondrous things that have been there all along. Or if not see—at least try.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Friends--A Love Letter

It’s an old song but this Thanksgiving I can’t get it out of my mind. “One of these days, Neil Young plaintively sings, “ I’m going to sit down and write a long letter/ To all the good friends I’ve known...”
The relational dimension to life is primary. And, looking back on my long circuitous journey I couldn’t have made it without those along the way that loved, accepted, judged, lifted me up, laughed with me, prayed for me, and sometimes just kicked me in the butt. 

Carlyle Marney used to talk about “the balcony people”—those that sit in our balcony and cheer us on. My, my we all have more people in our balconies than we can ever remember. Parents, of course, if they hadn’t picked me up and cleaned me off and held me—where would I be? Teachers, all the way back to the first grade. I still remember that first teacher. Then there were the playmates that made the days richer simply because they were there. Being a Reverend Church folk have played a powerful part in my journey. I still remember those checks they sent when I was in college—and they didn’t have much. Or that friend who never could go to college herself. She fell into a fire as a baby and was horribly scarred. Especially her eyes. And so she worked in a knitting mill for years—sending me and another friend little checks month after month. Who can forget such sacrifices? Or that envelope that came week after week with fifteen crumpled dollars to help me through the week. And then from time to time there would be this huge box with cookies and a cake that was my favorite. 
I think of all those youth workers at church and camp and so many other places that believed in me. Like that Lifeguard that told me as I floundered in the water trying to earn my life-saving certificate—“Keep going Roger, keep going. You can make it.” That scene could be repeated more times that I can remember.

I remember that Seminary teacher that told me what my Journalism teacher had already told me in High School. “You can write. You have something to say. You must write.” They cracked a door that maybe would have not been there without them.

My best friend is my wife who has put up with me through thick and thin. She loves me unreservedly—knowing all my flaws-=-and loving me still. And along with her I would add my two children who have blessed me immeasurably and forgiven all those stupid things I did that caused them hurt or harm.

There have been people in every church I have ever served who stood beside me. Sometimes, like Moses’ friends--holding up my hands when I was too weary.
Some people who had never been out of the country and yet put up with all my immature shenanigans. They did not have to do that. People who left their own burdens long enough to help shoulder mine. Often when they never even knew it.

One of my favorite memories are those colleagues and friends along the way.
My, my they have put the sun back in my sky again and again. I have been blessed by a great cloud of witnesses, some living and some dead—that made the difference in life and half-life.

Oh, I wish I could sit down and write every one a letter. This Thanksgiving I pause long enough to remember the names and faces and occasions that have made me a much better person than I ever thought I could be.

A colleague in one church gave me what she called a “Gravy File.” It was a file folder. She instructed me, “Keep it close, put in this file all those things that have been gravy to you.” That was years ago—and my filing cabinets are full and running over with notes and photos and obits and bulletins and programs that have enriched me often.
Whether you have a file or not—take some time this Thanksgiving weekend. Remember. I guarantee if you think long enough you will be grateful for your journey. Without those along the way you and I could never have made it.  

"Oh, the comfort,
the inexpressible comfort
Of feeling safe with a person
Having neither words to weigh thoughts 
nor measured words, but pouring them
All right out, just as they are,
Chaff and grain together,
Certain that a faithful hand will
Take and sift them;
Keep what is worth keeping
And with a breath of kindness
 Blow the rest away."