Friday, July 27, 2012

Second Baptist--Anniversary Meditation

( The church I served in Memphis just celebrated their 50th Anniversary. I couldn't attend because  our family was scheduled to be at the beach that week . I really did not want to miss this occasion--so I sent these words that were read at the celebration.)

"Why do they come?...I think they come to worship. They come with some deep longing in their hearts to hear a word they have not heard  before. Some come to receive comfort or find their sins forgiven. Others are there to discover an answer for the pressures that keep coming like the waves of the sea. They come to worship--to see in their own way and in their own time, what Isaiah saw once upon a time when he looked up through blinding tears and a broken heart. To see, above the heartaches and headlines of too much the Lord God Almighty.To know, despite what they have done, that they are loved and cared for. That they count." 
                                          --Roger Lovette, from Come to Worship   

It all began with a visit from your Search Committee. Frank, Becky, Guy, Peggy, and Jerry. David was tied up and could not make the trip. They were the finest Committee I ever worked with. Trust me, I’ve known a lot. With negotiations worked out, contracts signed, and church vote—we moved from South Carolina to Memphis on a hot August day. The year was 1988. 

You opened your arms as best you could and we opened our hearts as best we could. And it all began. Sermons, and dinners and baptisms and weddings and funerals and burdens shared and meetings and meetings and meetings. I think we had about as many meetings as sermons I preached.

We learned something of your history. Leaving Bellevue and all the memories of Doctah Lee. This was a hard break saying goodbye to lifelong friends and a place that had been home. But there was enormous excitement about that new wondrous beginning. There was Brooks Ramsey, followed by Jim Hatley. When Gayle and I arrived in 1988 you were 26 years old. Just barely out of adolescence, a young adult, with all the vim and vigor of a 26 year old. Nothing was too hard. Nothing, you thought could stand in your way. For 26 year olds the sky literally has no limits. And so a 53-year-old Preacher met with a 26 year old church –and it was quite a marriage.

You told me you wanted to flap your wings and fly a little higher. After all 26 year olds can do anything and this 53 year old bought into your good dream. We moved fast. Looking back—I probably should have slowed down—but I was trying to keep faith with your dream.  But in the mean time I think I scared some of you with my ideas and the challenges I threw out. But you were patient and wary as all congregations are of their new fireman. Looking back—we did a lot together.

We began that wonderful Habitat ministry which continues to this day. I remember that first House Dedication. The Mayor was there. And many of you were present,” The old black lady held up her new shiny keys and said, " I always wanted me a home. And I scrimped and saved just about the time got my down payment somebody got sick or lost their job and it never happened. I thought I had just about given up on my dream,” she said, “But today’s the day!” She jangled her keys as we all laughed and cried.

We started an AA chapter. We resurrected the Stations of the Cross and people from all over came in those evenings to ponder the mystery. We had ads on TV and in the paper. And one glorious Saturday we had the garage sale of all sales to send Bryan Doyle and Bonnie and Missy to Seattle for Bryan’s Bone marrow transplant. Thanks to your generosity they were able to stay there for several months. That just might be my finest memory. We supported Cindy and Mark and Charlie and Audrey our own personal missionaries with our prayers and money.  On a less spiritual note we discovered that raccoons had invaded the Annex and left their offerings behind in the attic. It was hard to tear down that beautiful old house for it held so many good memories.

Baptists were making stranger sounds than usual during those days. We heard much talk about a fundamentalist takeover. And a new Baptist thing was beginning. And many of you were scared of what the future might just hold. I kept talking and bringing you reports but many of you wondered.

After three and a half years we decided that maybe this was not our place and perhaps you needed another Pastor. So I resigned one early December Sunday morning. But despite whatever differences we may have had, you reached out and gave us a most generous settlement that lasted until we found our way to Birmingham. I will never, ever forget that generosity that came out of a very painful time for Pastor and people.

Together we plowed some new ground. Together we moved some rocks out of the way. And together we discovered there were some rocks we just could not move. In a tiny way I look back and would like to think that we helped pave the way for the good days that have followed. A 26-year-old Church and a 53-year-old Pastor found their marriage harder than any of us had envisioned.  

Gayle and I are very sorry that we couldn’t be with you today to help you blow out those fifty candles. But our family set its vacation this week-it was the only time everyone could be there. But I want you to know that all day long I will remember this day and the faces and friends and challenges we faced on that special spot of holy ground at the corner of Walnut Grove and Perkins.

Dostoevsky, the Russian writer has written some words that express what I feel as I write these lines: “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 than we are.” God bless us all.


Thursday, July 26, 2012

Michelle Bachman--Religious Spokesperson?

One of the most frustrating things about being a Baptist minister is that when you tell someone what you do many times they just back away like you've got some kind of catching disease. You have to try to redeem yourself by saying,"There are Baptists and there are Baptists." There are a whole lot of Baptists I wouldn't be paHave these people ever really read the Bible? Have they ever looked closely at what Jesus said? The point of John 3.16 passage which fundamentalists like to wave around  seems to have been totally missed: "God so loved the world..." Now that takes in a lot of territory.Everybody EVERYBODY!

I have worried about the growing tide of atheism which seems to have swept across our culture. As I look at so much of what goes on in the name of religion--I can see why atheism has taken hold in so many quarters. Just like there are Baptists and Baptists--there are Christians and Christians. Remember Holden Caufied in the Catcher in the Rye. He said, "If Jesus came back today he'd puke." This was written fifty years ago maybe. Wonder what Holden would say about the current religious climate? I guess Jesus would have a stroke!

This is why I almost stood up and applauded Frank Bruni's great article on Michelle Bachman and her kind of Christianity. Bruni takes aim at the religious right and puts them in their place. If we had more people understanding the real meaning of the Christian faith I doubt atheism would be growing as it is. Faith matters. Read Bruni's article. It's great.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

JOHN 6.1-21 Sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

One of my favorite stories in the Bible is the story of the little boy with a sack. You know this story. Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee and the crowds followed him. His reputation was growing and they followed him everywhere. They saw his miracles and they came the sick, the troubled and the curious. They filled up the whole mountainside. John's gospel says there were five thousand of them. Toward evening they grew restless. They had no food. And the disciples began to wonder what in the world they would do. He turned to his disciples and they just threw up their hands. We don't have any money. Even if we had a lot of money it would not be enough to feed all these people. They did not know what they were going to do. And then Andrew, God bless him, saved the day. He didn't know he was saving the day. But he told Jesus there is a lad here he has a sack. Inside the sack is his lunch: five loaves and two fishes. I hate to mention it. It is so little. It's just a tiny, tiny sack--but he says you can have it if you wish. Andrew adds: "But what are they among so many people?" 

The little boy came with his sack. Jesus took it. Opened it up and saw five little barley loaves his mother had packed. Two fish--well, not really fish as much as a little relish for the bread. It wasn't much--just a sack. Bread and fish. A little boy's lunch. And Jesus told the disciples the strangest thing. He told them to have the crowd to sit down. 

Loaves and fishes--but what are they among so many people? That's always the question, isn't it? What you and I might just do with our own sacks. Does it matter what I do with the stuff I lug around? Does what I have really matter or count?

In the story the crowd sat down. Jesus opened the boy’s crumpled sack. Took the bread and the little fish relish. Jesus closed his eyes and blessed what he had. And then the gospels say he broke it and gave it. And the strangest thing happened. What Jesus had taken out of that little tiny sack was enough. In fact there was so much left over that it filled twelve basketfuls.

What We Have Matters

All four gospels tell this story. Matthew and Mark tell it twice. I think I know why they kept telling. I think they told it and kept telling it, the gospels and the church, because it matters what we do with what we have in the sack. We all have a sack. If you were to open it and peer down into the inside—what would you see? The Gospel says it is a great mystery. It matters what we do with what we have in our sacks.

Let me tell you another story. Ever heard of Rigoberta Menchu? She tells her story in a book called, I Rigoberta. She was a Guatemalan woman. Poor. Dirt poor. Couldn't read or write. A member of a tiny little Indian group that had nothing. Watched her brother's stomach swell and finally he died of malnutrition. Watched another brother get sick when the pesticides they sprayed the fields with came over while he worked and he died of poisoning. Watched her father and mother and brother killed by the soldiers because they were trying to organize. She had never been to school. She taught herself Spanish. She helped organize her people for their rights. Just to stay on their land and work and have some simple dignity. She kept working. She speaks for the voiceless all over the world. In 1992 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her work with her people.

Now what about your sack? The one you have. It’s different from everybody else’s. I don't know what is inside. Only you know that. Some of you may say oh, I don't have anything worth giving. Just a lot of pain and disappointment and suffering. I have a friend who felt that way. One day his wife just left him and his children. Just left. Many reasons as there always are. But he was just devastated. But he has gone on and raised his kids and pastored his church and kept going. And people come in droves when they have troubles. He counsels a lot of couples with troubled marriages. And he tells them there is nothing more important in your life than you relationships. He tells them do whatever you have to do to make it work. It is just too painful to split and sort and parcel out the kids and your stuff and your life. He has taken the painful stuff and God has used it wonderfully. We all have something in our sacks. The youngest and the oldest. Take your sack and remember the power of those things nestled down in your sack.  It matters what we do with what we have in our sacks. 

God Can Use What We Have 

The second point is that God dignifies whatever it is we bring and always works a miracle. The little boy's gift of his sack opened the way for a miracle. John Belushi said in "Animal House": "Nothing is impossible for the person who will not listen to reason."

From time to time I spend five days working with a group of ministers and their wives and husbands. Each one of them has been terminated from their church. Statistics say that every week that over 1500 ministers in some church somewhere will go through a forced termination. And these are just the ones we know. This problem is epidemic. And so our organization tries to help, as best we can. One young couple, co-pastors had four children. Another minister was 60 years old and wondering if anybody would have him. Another had been in his church for ten years and it had grown and grown. And the people were so worried about all the “new people” until for three years they made things so hard for this man he finally just resigned in frustration. And to sit there and listen to their stories would just break your heart. Almost of them were on medication because of depression. But one of the things that stood out was when they began to tell what kept them going. A little lady would come by the office every week, knock on the pastor’s door and say: “Pastor, I want to pray for you. I know being Pastor is hard.” Someone else told of a leader that stood up at church and said: “This is a Christian church and this is a good, good man and we are not going to do this to him.” And the point:  you can take what you have in your sack and use it in your own way to enable your minister to make it. Everybody can do something. And listening to those stories I was struck with the power of a word or a prayer or an affirmation that kept these people going in a hard time.

John Sanford has written books on spirituality and one of those books is called The Kingdom Within.  He tells about an old well on their family farm in New Hampshire. Over the years the house was supplied with water from that well which stood just outside the front door of the house. The water was unusually cold and pure and a joy to drink—and even in the driest of summers the well never ran day. Later, the family got a little more affluent and decided to modernize their house. Electricity replaced the old oil lamps. There was a new electric stove where the old wood stove had been. And they installed an indoor bathroom and running water. So they had to drill a new well, a deep artesian well. So the old well near the door was sealed over and kept in reserve in case something happened to the new artesian well. 

Years later the author said he went back to the old home place and remembered the old well. He removed the cover and expected to see the same dark, cool depths he had known as a boy. He looked down and the well was bone dry. He couldn’t understand it and so he began to ask around from people who knew something about wells. He learned that a well of that kind was fed by hundreds of tiny underground rivulets and brought in a constant supply of water. As the water was drawn more and more water moved in along the rivulets and these tiny apertures were kept clear and open. But since the well had not been used and water was not regularly drawn, the tiny rivulets just dried up. The well which had never, ever failed was now dry because it had not been used.

The point? We have to use what we have. And everyone here has something in your sack. And if we don’t use it we will be like that man that buried his talent in the sand. This church and this community and nation yearn for people to open their sacks and use what they have.

Remember a little boy with his loaves and fishes. Remember Rigaberta, a Guatemalan woman who is making a difference. A divorced friend who is preaching faithfully somewhere in another state after a great deal of pain. Remember those ministers who, this morning are not standing in a pulpit, they are wondering what they are going to do. But even in their anxiety they remember those who hold up their hands and pray for them and believe in them. Remember your own sack. There is something in there. Jesus says it matters what you do with what you have. Do you believe that? Do you really believe that?

(The Organization mentioned about that helps troubled minisers is Ministry to Ministers. The last few years this group has helped over 1000 clergypersons in need. Interested? Pull up their web site. )

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Psalm 23--A Sermon for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost

I love the story about little Michael who loved to read books. Every night his parents would have to read page after page and book after book. The same stories, never veering. The same order of all the stories, of course. They could never change the words. Everything had to be the same. But he loved one particular book. And one night his mother came in and found him standing on the book. Just standing there, the book on the floor. He thought if he stood there long enough and sort of scrunched down and squinted his eyes and gritted his teeth, he could enter the story and that story would become his story. So his mother found him crying and frustrated standing there on the book. He had tried to enter the story and it just did not work.

We are a lot like Michael. We really do want to believe that we can enter the story, and that it is more than just something we find in a book. We believe that Adam and Eve are people that we know. We bumped into Cain and Abel at the family reunion. Jacob and Esau may well be our brothers or our sisters. Abraham and Sarah sit across the aisle from us. And Isaac and Bill Clinton, er I mean King David and Solomon and Isaiah and Jeremiah and Elizabeth and Mary and Joseph or innkeepers and shepherds are people we know quite well.

So the writer Thomas Mann was right after all. “It is, it always is however much we try to say it was.” And this is narrative theology at its best. Theology as story. When the words leap from the page and take root in our lives.

Back in 1985 my wife and I and our two children had a wonderful opportunity to spend the summer in England. It was sort of a last hurrah for the children. Our daughter was to be married the next year. Our son would be going off to college. So we went across the sea and spent the summer. I exchanged pulpits with an English pastor. He came over and did my work, and I went over and did his work. We lived in their house, they lived in ours. They drove our car, and we tried to drive theirs. My wife, Gayle still says it was the most terrifying time of her life—and she will not get back in a car with me in England. But despite road signs we could not read and roundabouts and a shepherd’s pie or two, we had a great time. Before we left on our trip friends would come by and tell us what to see and where to go. They made long lists and gave us helpful hints. They brought along their guidebooks and left  them with us. And late at night we would study the maps and get so excited with just the thoughts of where we were going and what we were going to see.

But nothing in the maps or guidebooks prepared us for the country and the people and the experience. Every time the four Lovettes get together we remember all the funny-wonderful things that happened in the summer of ’85. We never had a lot of hot water and just about the time our daughter tried to take a bath you can imagine what happened. And I could hear her in the bathroom yelling: “I just hate England.” Or the time my son and I took a side trip over to Europe  and wound up in a Belgium hospital in the middle of the night. Or not knowing the Pastor and his wife left the meanest little Jack Russell dog at home for us to baby-sit while they were in South Carolina. But despite a few glitches—we just loved that trip.  It was nothing like the books described—it was far, far more. 

And this is what I have discovered about the Bible. It is not only a guidebook, but if it is only just a holy book we will miss the meaning of the story. Because unless we immerse ourselves, like Michael, and scrunch down and enter the story and make it our own we are going to miss the length and the breadth and the height and the depth of what God has in mind for us all.

What I want to do this morning is to take a  Psalm—a Psalm we all know and talk to you about two occasions in my own life when the guidebook became more than a guidebook and the story was more than something in a book.

The Lord is my Shepherd

Several years ago I had an opportunity to study at the College of Preachers in Washington, DC. The College of Preachers is housed on the grounds of the Washington Cathedral. After studying hard all week long I decided, since the week was running out that I wanted to spend some time visiting the cathedral. I had not had a chance to go there and I just wanted to walk around and soak up the splendor.

I chose an early morning time right after breakfast, before my classes started. So I went up the hill to the cathedral and began to try to get in. The building was locked. I walked all the way around the huge structure. Every door I came to was locked. I could not get in. It was too early. I was very frustrated so I came back around the corner after trying every door and saw a little sign that said, “The Chapel of the Good Shepherd”—Open 24 hours every day.”

So I thought, “Well, I can sneak in the back way. I can go through the basement and I can find an opening and get upstairs and I’ll find a way to get into the building before anybody else gets there!” And I went in through the entrance in the basement, walked down a long hall and turned right. The doors were locked. I could not get in. So I turned around and walked back down the hall and started to leave the building when I saw the sign again: “The Chapel of the Good Shepherd.”

I found myself in a small room.  I think there were four or five tiny benches. There was one stained glass window off to the side. There was in the center a tiny altar. On the stone altar—which was just a ledge—I looked up at this beautiful carved, sculptured piece. It was a Shepherd holding a sheep in his arms. Underneath that piece, somebody had lovingly placed a piece of forsythia. And that was it.

I sat down and looked at the statue. And I can’t tell you exactly what occurred. But something happened to me for the first time in my life. I understood the meaning of the first words of this Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd.” Because as I looked at the stone carving, I saw the kindness and the tenderness in that face that looked down at the sheep in his arms. I noticed how he held that lamb so closely and so tenderly and so strongly. And as I saw the sheep, I saw myself. And it hit me that he was my Shepherd. I had preached on that text a hundred times. But suddenly I saw that I was kept in the arms and I was loved and cared for. I don’t know what happened but it’s one of the peak experiences in my life.One of those rare times when the story was more than a story but it became my story. The Lord was my shepherd and deep down I was that kept.

That afternoon I wanted something to make the occasion and I went up to the gift shop and looked around for something to remember that special day. I found a little silver cross and I wore that cross around my neck as a sign of the fact that he is my shepherd and he keeps me safe and secure. So on one occasion the story became more than story. And a Psalm became more than a Psalm. And the words left the page and took root in my life and heart.

I Shall Not Lack

But there is another time in my life when the Psalm helped pull me through. My father had died. We had not had a very good relationship and he died before we got to finish our business. There were some troubles in the church I was serving. I was just finding life very hard. Of course. as a good Christian and was to be strong. I was not supposed to have troubles or be depressed. After all I was the Pastor. But the trouble was that I was not handling anything very well. I sealed it all off and tried to take care of it by working harder and harder. Of course this was deadly and destructive.

Finally, it got so bad and so hard that I was desperate. So I went to see an old physician in the town where I served. I had referred many people to him and we were friends. It was a time before pastoral counseling was really in vogue and not many people knew where to go for counseling, so I has sent people to him.

So I went to see the doctor and poured out my story. After I told him all I could the old doctor, in his eighties, took out a card from his desk drawer and gave it to me. He said, “I want you to read this card. “ I turned it over and the card read: “The Twenty Third Psalm” And it began: “The Lord is my shepherd.” He said, “Keep reading.” “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not lack.” He said, “Do you see it? I’ve changed a word. He doesn’t give us what we want, but he will always provide us with what we need—always. And I want you to take this prescription and I want you to live with it all day long every day.  I want you to make it your own.”

That little card became life a life raft for me. I pulled it out and read it over and over: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not lack.” And those simple words, sometimes at night when the demons would rage and the terrors were high, I would remember the words. And strangely they would, over time, calm me down. Time passed and healing happened and grace poured in from unlikely places and life moved on.  But I never forgot the power of those words. 

It was a year or so later that I was visiting the hospital one day and the pink lady at the information counter said, “Dr. So-and-So”—the doctor I had gone to see: "he’s upstairs. He’s a patient.” So I went upstairs to see him. His door was closed and I knocked quietly on the door. Nobody answered. So I knocked again and a quiet voice said, “Come in.” I walked into the room and it was dark. The blinds were closed. He was sitting in a chair with his head down. I asked him how he was doing and he said, “Not so well. I got this report and it’s not good. And I know what’s going to happen and I’m scared and I am just down.” We talked for a while.

Before I started to go, I said, “I want to give you something.” He said, “What?” And I took out my pocket a calling card and I wrote something down on it and gave it to him. He read it. Do you know what it said? It said, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not lack.” He looked up and there were tears in both our eyes and he said, “It’s right. It really is right.”And once again the old miracle took place. The words leaped off the page and took root in the human heart. And we discovered that it is more than a story. It is real life itself. “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not lack.” 

For he really does not give us all the things we want. We know that. TV preachers tell us we’ll get it all but we know better. But all of our needs, the lacks of our lives, are always attended to. It is, my friends, it is, however much we try to say it was.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

When Life is Like a Tree

(I discovered a new poet the other day and this is one of his great poems. His name is Michael Dennis Browne and his  book of poems is called, Things I Can't Tell You. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did. )

"If there were no trees
I would take my turn
And stand in the street in spring
With arms wide open
In case there were birds
Who needed a place to sing."

"He put before them another parable: 'The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.'"
(Matthew 13.31-33)

Sunday, July 15, 2012

South Carolina and Our Arts Struggle

(Our Governor in a cost-saving measure has pulled all the funding from the SC Arts Commission. She did the same thing last year and the Legislature overturned her veto. So this year the very fine SC Arts Commission has continued to operate. Now this year--the Governor is trying once more to dismantle the Arts Commission. Our Legislators vote this Tuesday on if they will override the Veto. If the Arts Commission ceases to exist--this State will be poorer than it is right now on the national scene. I wrote this article in Sunday's Greenville News in response to this sad situation.  This photo was taken when my son was 15 along with his self-portrait.)

Let me tell you an art story. When we moved to South Carolina our son was in the third grade. He had a hard time reading until a teacher wouldn’t let him get by on his personality anymore. Slowly he began to learn. He lived in Clemson and felt like he didn’t fit in because he was not athletic. But an art teacher took him under her wings and opened a door to a world he never envisioned. Moving toward High School his interest in art kept growing. The School had an excellent art program. He was interested in music and joined the High School chorale. His art teachers encouraged him to attend Governor’s School in Greenville. He began to discover some of his own gifts and won state and national awards for his work in art. The School recommended that our son apply to the Art Institute in Chicago. He received a scholarship and studied with some of the finest teachers in the country. After college he worked for a Stock Company in Chicago and managed the Getty Photograph Collection. His painting gave way to photography. Those wonderful Getty photographs must have taken root. He began to photograph Bed and Breakfasts. His business has expanded until he flies all over the country photographing Bed and Breakfasts. He has found his place—all those years of not fitting in are behind him.  

This is not simply a brag story about our son. It is a testimony that could be repeated time after time. I have often wondered where he would be and what he would be doing if it had not been for that first art teacher and his art teacher in high school who challenged him to find his way. Across this state in cities and rural areas, the South Carolina Arts Commission has been the lifeline for thousands of students. The Commission covers a lot of territory: writing, dance, theatre, visual arts, and pottery. But they also provide communities with a gathering place to discover art in all its many forms. It is also a chance for community building where people who would otherwise never meet, find each other and discover the potential that rests in all of us.  

The State Legislators will meet on July 17. There are a multitude of reasons why our representatives should override the Governor’s veto. South Carolina will be known as the only state in the Union without an Arts Commission. The Moore School of Business at USC has discovered that creative industries in South Carolina contribute more than $9.2 billion to the state’s economy annually and help support more than 78,000 jobs. These industries bring in over $570 million dollars in tax revenue to the state annually. Industries considering moving to South Carolina will certainly be asking about the state of the arts here. If we defund the Art Commission not only will this Commission lose 1.9 million dollars and a special one-time $500,000 grant from the state—but the million dollars the National Endowment for the Arts gives us annually will disappear. Without State funding—this money will not be available. Those 100,000 students in 338 schools that have participated in a multitude of art programs will be the losers. 

But let’s not get lost in these statistics. Let us think of all those boys and girls out there trying to find their way—who will never have the kind of support my own son found in South Carolina. The Budget needs of this state and nation are serious. But the vitality and creativity that flows from the Arts Commission is a central part of who we are as a people. If you think this program is important contact your Legislators before Tuesday.

(This article was printed in the Greenville News (SC) July 15, 2012)

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Love is Something We Gotta Do--Seriously

Weary of discord, Mark Twain wrote, “So I built a cage, and in it I put a dog and a cat. And after a little training I got the dog and the cat to the point where they lived peaceably together. Then I introduced a pig, a goat, a kangaroo, some birds, and a monkey. And after a few adjustments, they learned to live in harmony together. So encouraged was I by such successes that I added an Irish Catholic,  a Presbyterian, a Jew, a Muslim from Turkestan, and a Buddhist from China, along with a Baptist missionary that I captured on the same trip. And in a very short while there wasn't a single living thing in the cage!"

The picture above is the back of a Tee shirt. My wife went to Louisville last week and the only thing she brought me back was this lousy Tee Shirt. Well, not really lousy. I love it. Not only does it create a lot of attention—but I also think it is one of the neatest ideas I have heard lately.  

Pablo Casals once said that “the love of one’s country is a splendid thing. But why should love stop at the border?”  Jesus knew us better than we know ourselves when he said Love your neighbor. Like us, they wanted him to qualify that statement. “Jesus, exactly who is my neighbor?” They thought he would say Jews or the people of their own kind. Jesus would never let love stop at any border. And that’s the task of the Christian today—maybe every day and every age. 

We all know loving is a whole lot better written about than done. And we all have people that drive us up the wall. Sometimes it’s Obama and sometimes it is Mitt Romney. Sometimes it’s Muslims or Scientologists or  Mitch McConnell or Nancy Pelosi. It may even be Auburn if you are an Alabama fan. And if you live in South Carolina you can’t love the Clemson Tigers and the Carolina Gamecocks. You got to pick and choose. And—if you went to college at a small Baptist school surely you know that those people at Harvard really are pointy-headed and elitist. And we haven’t even begun to talk about all these Hispanics that are supposedly ruining a perfectly good country. 

Jesus knew we wouldn’t feel warm and squishy with everyone—that’s sentimentality at best. When Jesus said love your neighbor I think he was talking about doing right by everyone, making sure that everyone was in the circle, no demonizing, no looking down one’s nose, no us and them or we and they. We’re it. And—we’ve got to get along or we are going to find ourselves just like those people in the cage that Mark Twain talked about.  

Jesus got into big trouble because he never stopped at the border.  I keep thinking of those 50 million without health care. How hard it must be for them to sleep at night. I keep thinking about Mr. Romney when people sneer at him because he is rich and vacations at a  place that would not let us in the front door. And my blood pressure goes up (and I close the borders, folks) when people start talking about how Mr. Obama must be a Muslim or some kind of a secret spy from outer space or Kenya. We’ve got to turn down the temperature in this country or we are all going to burn up.  

Start small. Lord knows we all have family members it is hard to love. Look down your street at someone down right peculiar and difficult. Branch out. Your homework and mine may be a little different—but Jesus said we have to love. It really is something we do. Whether we feel all warm and palpitating hardly matters. It does matter how big our borders are. Maybe that’s the acid test. Well—enough of my rantings—I think I’ll go try on my new Tee Shirt and walk down the street and see what happens. Maybe I’ll meet that peculiar neighbor and change my ways difficult though it probably will be.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

July 4th--It's More than Flag Waving

"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.
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 for 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 family
As we cried tears of grief and loss...
We became one soul.
As we retell with pride the sacrifice of heroes...
We became one people.

We are One color. One class.One generation. One gender. One faith. One language.One body. One family. One soul. One people. We are the Power of One. We are United. We are America"                               --Selected

It’s July 4th again this week. We’re celebrating the 236th birthday of our country. Nobody has expressed the essence of America more than the artist Norman Rockwell. His pictures are embedded in our hearts. He pictured the Four Freedoms: Freedom from Fear, Want and Freedom to Worship and to Speak our piece. Remember that ugly crowd in New Orleans in the sixties? Mr. Rockwell painted those ugly jeering white faces as a little black girl walked through that crowd her first day at school. He painted veritably everything. The Doctor examining scared kids...or a class celebrating their teacher’s birthday. He captured a young couple’s first awkward date. He stirred our memories with a farmer father and his boy waited with his battered suitcase that would take him away to school. But the picture that I think of this weekend was on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, July 7, 1946. The picture captured the long strong arm of the Statue of Liberty holding the torch. The artist added several workmen high up; cleaning the Statue’s torch...making sure the flame would burn brightly.

For over a decade this painting has hung in the White House. Since 1994 it has been displayed in the Oval Office and Presidents: Clinton and Bush and now Obama walk by the picture daily carrying heavy burdens. We find in Rockwell’s picture a challenge for us all.

That challenge goes all the way back to the beginning of our country. In 1787 that long tedious Constitutional Convention finally ended. As Benjamin Franklin left Independence Hall, a Mrs. Powel tugged at his sleeve,” Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” Franklin did not hesitate, “A republic” he replied, “If you can keep it.” So this July 4th we are all challenged to climb up that long heavy arm of the Statue, brush off the dirt and debris and make sure the flame still burns.

 Interestingly, the shadow of Miss Liberty falls on Ellis Island, where so many immigrants first land. The statue and her flame are often the first glimpses that many of these immigrants have seen of America. But their landing brought disappointment to many. The Irish, the Italians, the Poles, the Jews, many from the Orient were besieged by ugly signs that read: No Jews...No Wops...No Dagos or Japs apply. But despite sometimes-incredible odds, most of these immigrants stayed with it, worked hard and have added richness to the culture and life of America. So keeping the flame alive, keeping the Statue tall and strong and clean for everyone has been hard work for every age. Sometimes we have failed miserably in this task of  "liberty and justice for all...” but on our better days we have opened up our hearts and have become a better people.

Many of our citizens are frightened of the immigrants that come to us today. In 2011 Hispanics, blacks, Asians and other minorities accounted for 50.4% of the births last year. Three metro areas: Columbus, Georgia; Dallas-Fort Worth; and Vineland-Millville, New Jersey joined a growing list of places where a majority of residents are minorities.

The Founding Fathers gave us a bigger challenge than they realized. The all of the Constitution has no qualification. To work for the common good of all keeps the torch of freedom burning brightly.

A friend in Memphis, proud of her first grandchild-to-be, sent me a sonogram of her first grandchild. In that sonogram you can see clearly a tiny face, hands and feet. The eyes are shut tight. As I looked at that picture I wondered what kind of a world this baby will be born into. And if the baby was born black or Hispanic or poor or gay or disabled—what then? Will they find a place for safety for all the babies? Will this be a land where most of the people respect and talk across their divides. Will the Statue in New York burn bright and the arm uplifted, clean and strong?

This July 4th we find the possibility of a healthy country is really the work of us all.  For our task is to make sure the vision and dream of so many who came from so many places find America 2012 a place they also can call home. The old book of Micah underlines our challenge best: “...They shall all sit under their own vines and under the own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid...”  

(This article appeared in the Greenville News (SC) July 1, 2012)