Thursday, January 31, 2013

Guns--What Would Jesus Do?

Ordinarily I do not drag in the WWJD on any argument. What in the world would a man who lived 2000 years ago have to say about this confused chaotic world we live in? Yet—as we come to talk about guns I don’t know what Jesus would say about the Second Amendment or a whole lot of other things. I do know that he would come down on the side of persons first and foremost. He always did.  More than 30,000 die each year because of gun-related shootings and there have been a million deaths caused by guns since 1960.

Would Jesus want to live in a country where innocent children are killed indiscriminately? We know the answer to that question. The real issue is not the fear that the government will take away our guns. We know that is not going to happen. But no background checks, no laws passed against these weapons so powerful that they should only be used in war. What have we been thinking?

It is time to turn down the temperature on this issue is possible. People come first. Or should. Gun manufacturers, gun sellers and gun owners come next. We need no more Sandy Hooks. We need no more Gabby Giffords struggling to walk and to talk because of a madman with a gun somewhere.

The most thought-provoking words I have read lately came from Joe Nocera writing in the New York Times. He took the week of January 21st though the 26th and told what happened day after day because of guns. Read it and weep.

What would Jesus do? We don’t rightly know. Surely he would respect those who love hunting and gun-sports. But he would draw the line, I think with all the money being made by all those who make and sell weapons which should only be used in war if anywhere. And He would weep over those who love guns more than they do all those tears shed for victims of mindless shootings across this land.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Anniversary Waltz

"To Gayle--who has taught me best: "The bridge is love."

It all began on a cold, cold night in Kentucky. 10 below zero if I remember. The church was far from packed. Many could not come but others braved the weather...tramped through the snow to the church. And so by candlelight this 25 year old green young man and this beautiful 21 year old said our vows. “For better or for sickness and in health...” That was 52 years ago. Her piano teacher was furious that she was marrying a preacher. She was a great pianist and he had plans for her. He told her: “If you marry him you will throw your life away and wind up in some ungodly place like Anniston, Alabama.”

Well, we never made it to Anniston but here’s our story. I rub my eyes and wonder where it all went. What happened? Only yesterday we were young and green and hopeful and scared. And in-between then and now so much, so very much has happened.

We were given two children—redheads that have been the great joy of our lives. Doors opened—at first I had wished they were other doors—more sturdy, well polished and impressive. But we walked through the door that stuck and looked around at pews that did not quite fit and a threadbare carpet down the middle aisle and colored glass windows that had been patched and re-patched. Down the road we settled into a four-room house ill heated with an occasional mouse. In the middle of the country—we city kids were far from home.

But she learned to put up with my ups and downs and my fears and my changing moods. She took that “for better or for worse...” seriously. She didn’t want to be a pastor’s wife because she hated the spotlight but she came along and did her part—far more than I then realized She became the best pastor’s wife I ever knew simply she was herself, comfortable in her own skin and no pretense, no piousity—just herself

She followed me through church after church. Decorating someone else’s house. Making home out of whatever she could find. Sometimes not much. Yet it was always clean and comfortable and attractive. She was her mother’s child.

She never complained about living on a shoestring. Sometimes, it seemed, just like one string—not two. She simply took care of the children, worked hard at several jobs, and stood by me and my ups and downs and the churches as well.

We’ve survived church fights, hospitalizations, teen-age children, moving and moving and saying goodbye to parents and realizing somewhere along the way—we were now the parents. And they were gone.

She had a following in every church we ever had. The women, especially loved her because she was herself and some of them stood by wishing, just wishing they could be more like their friend who never thought she was much of a pastor’s wife. She was wrong, dead wrong about being a poor pastor’s wife.

There were dark days from time to time—mine mostly—and she stood by me and held my hand and kept saying: “It’s Ok. You’re good. Don’t worry. Everything is going to be all right.” She was a true believer. And some days I thought she had lost her mind—how in the hell could this place and this time be Ok? Is it any wonder that when I wrote my first book I dedicated to her: “To Gayle—who has taught me best—the bridge is love.”

And so here we are fifty-two years later. We’ve been to Paris. Lying in bed high up in this tiny hotel room in Montmarte, I remember asking her: “Did you ever think we would be here—in Paris?” “I’m not surprised,” I always through we would.” We spent a summer in England with the kids before they left home. We traveled all over Europe and spent two shining months in Oxford. Every summer we loaded up and headed to Princeton. We’re planning another trip next month to France again. And if I asked her again if she really thought we would do all this—she would smile and say, “Of course I did.”

Looking back we have been blessed by a multitude of friends, people in every church I ever served that stretched us and made us believe all over again. Maybe, just maybe old Paul was right when he said: “We have this treasure...” Of course it comes in an earthen vessel—look at us. But we have known much, much of the treasure.

We have two grand children grown and beautiful. We are proud of them and every summer when we get together we have fun and we have family. Thank God for the  ties that  bind.

And so—this morning I remember back to that cold, cold evening in Kentucky when it started 52 years ago. I am greatly in her debt—she has kept that “for better or for worse...” far more faithfully than I ever have.

William Barclay wrote in his autobiography of a great friend of his, “If they were cut me open they would find your name engraved in large letters on my heart.” And so, on this anniversary this is exactly how I feel about the girl I married once upon a time on a cold, cold evening in Kentucky.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Praying for the Death of the President??

Last Sunday at church a friend stopped me and said, “You’ve seen the prayer about the President on the Internet by this Kansas politician. It’s terrible.” I looked it up when I got home. It seems that the Kansas' House Speaker, Mike O’Neal sent this email to his fellow Republican representatives just before Christmas.

O’Neil’s email began this way: “At last—I can honestly voice a Biblical prayer for our President. Look it up—it is word for word! Let us all bow our heads and pray. Brothers and Sisters, can I get an AMEN? AMEN!! 

He then quoted from Psalm 109.8, which is a prayer for vengeance and prays for the death of a leader.

“Let his days be few, and let another take his office.
Let his children be fatherless and his wife a widow."

The most damning lines in the prayer can be found in verses 7-12:

"When he shall be judged, let him be condemned and let his prayer become sin.
Let his days be few; and let another take his office.
Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow.
Let his children be continually vagabonds and beg: let them seek their bread also out of their desolate places.
Let the extortioner catch all that he hath; and let the strangers spoil his labor.
Let there be none to extend mercy unto him: neither let there be any to favor his faithless children.”

Since this prayer came out bumper stickers and t-shirts have spread across the nation reading: Pray for Obama: Psalm 109.8.

If this was not bad enough he sent out another email with a picture of the President’s wife alongside a picture of the Grinch. He subject line read: “Twins separated at birth.”

The forwarded portion of the email stated: “I’m sure you’ll join me in wishing Mrs. YoMama a wonderful, long Hawaii Christmas vacation—at our expense of course.”

Since these emails came to light in early January Mr. O’Neal has apologized. He insists that he was only referring to the president’s days in office. This is what many people who have sent the email out claims the quote meant. Yet the email continues to make its rounds. In his apology Mr. O’Neal stated: “To those I have offended I am sorry. That was not my intent.”

His communications director, Alyson Rodee defended O’Neal. “Political cartoons are part of American culture. It’s hard to see how Mike O’Neal poking fun at himself and forwarding a lighthearted political cartoon about the first lady’s extravagance spending of taxpayers funds during a time when many Americans are financially struggling is newsworthy.”

Need I say more? Not much. The Bible is not a club—ever. No real Christian would pray for the death of a President or even joke about this matter. This is racism pure and simple. So when O’Neal’s words went viral and some deranged person tries to take them seriously—I wonder if the House Speaker will feel any regret at all.

I put this email in the same category as that Preacher in Florida that burned the Koran and that Pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas that has petitioned the government to exterminate gays.

No wonder the atheistic movement has made such strides lately. But no real faith person subscribes to this madness. Neither should we judge all Republicans by the antics of this politician in Kansas. And if we are going to pray—perhaps it would be more fitting to pray that we would finally stamp out every shred of racism and hatred that still stalks so much of the land.

Monday, January 21, 2013

President Obama--Who would Have Believed it?

“On the morning of February 12, A Sunday, the granny woman was at the cabin. And she and Tom Lincoln and the moaning Nancy Hanks welcomed into the world of battle and blood, of whispering dreams and wistful dust, a new child, a boy...’What you  goin’ to name him, Nancy?’ a little boy asked. ‘Abraham,’ was the answer, ‘after his grandfather.’”

“Whatever the particulars, the definite event on that 12th of February, 1809, was the birth of a boy they named Abraham after his grandfather who had been killed by Indians—born in silence and pain from a wilderness mother on  a bed of perhaps cornhusks and perhaps hen feathers—with perhaps a laughing child prophecy later that he would ‘never amount to much.’”
      --Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln

“ 7:24 on the evening of August 4 at Kapi’olani Maternity and Gynecological Hospital in Honolulu, Stanley Ann Durham Obama gave birth to a baby boy....a mixed-race complexion of Ann Obama’s baby, who was not illegitimate, if any baby could be called such, his parents having married six months before his birth. Barack Hussain Obama ...”
       --David Maraniss, Barack Obama

Who could have believed that on Monday, January 21, 2013 on the day we celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. that some 800,000 people would have gathered to participate in the Presidential inauguration of Barack Obama. A black man, born to a Caucasian mother and a Kenyan father who already had another wife in Kenya. A boy who would be raised, without father or mother, by his white grandparents in Hawaii.

There was a lump in my throat all through today’s moving ceremony. I looked at the faces of America. All colors. People from around the world. A gay poet. A Jewish minister. A rock star. The widow of a civil rights’ worker murdered in Mississippi. Republicans and Democrats and independents. Old and young. Rich and poor and the not-so-rich. People hungry and some desperate for work. Supreme Court Justices--some gritting their teeth. Widows whose husbands died somewhere  in Iraq or Afghanistan.Some Congressional leaders wishing they were anywhere else.  As the President intoned again and again as if a litany: “We the People...We the people...We the people."

What we need now in this country is togetherness and the one-ness that the poet just hours ago longed for. We have enormous issues in America. We celebrate the ending of two wars really. We celebrate a President who had the courage to say gay people were first class citizens. A President who, for the first time in our history, has given us health care for all. A President much beloved all over the world. A President who led the charge on Osama bin Laden. A President who is such a good model not only for black families but for any family. A president who has weathered terrible hatred and lies and opposition determined that this black man in our white house would do nothing of consequence.

I took the picture at the top of this page in Philadelphia in a row house of a very mixed neighborhood. I never saw the tenants. But they probably were black. And they wanted all who passed by to know that they had a President they believed in and a President who they prayed would have a second term.

Who would have believed it? Unfortunately racism still runs like a river through every town in this country. And yet we are slowly, ever so slowly getting there. It took us a long time to begin to get over slavery. Let us hope that it will not take us that long to begin to realize that that the richness and diversity of this country is here to stay.

Who would have believed it? And yet it is true. God bless America--God knows, even more than we, how much we need it.


Sunday, January 13, 2013

Some Deacons I've Known

(I wrote these words for the Deacon Ordination Service we had today in Clemson, SC. First Baptist Church.)

I want to talk to you today about some of the Deacons I have known. I thought about talking to you about some of the Deacons I wish I had not known. In every church I have ever had there has been someone who just made things difficult. I don’t know how many hours sleep I have lost just dealing with some of these difficult people. But, you know I have discovered something in looking back. I don’t remember much about those that gave me and the church difficulty. What I do remember are names and faces of those that carried the church along and made it work. These are the ones that still stand out in my mind.

There was Mr. John in my first church. Must have been in his mid-seventies. He had worked for REA all his life and helped bring electricity to Daviess County, Kentucky. He had been a member of our church for as long as anybody could remember. He had buried two wives with cancer and he had not lost his faith. He was going steady with Miss Pauline who taught the first grade and never been married. When people asked her when they were going to get married she said: “We’re not. I’m not going to be the third wife he buries!” I was young and green and needed a lot of help. I would sit on Mr. John’s front porch and pour out my heart as he smoked his little pencil thin cigars. He was a wise old man. And he helped me immensely. “Preacher, I’ve been around here a long time and seen all kinds of crazy stuff. It’s going to be all right. We’re going to work together.” And when he stood to talk in business meetings people listened. For years I kept a picture of Mr. John underneath the glass on my desk.

In my second church Charlie was just wonderful. I never knew a man who loved his church any more. He sold insurance, or at least he went around to houses collecting quarters and dollars the way they used to do. Chewed tobacco. But he visited the hospitals more than me. He was always singing in the choir, usually a little too loud. He was always there and would sidle up to me and say, “Preacher, we’re praying for you.” I knew he meant it.

In my third church Edwina had been ordained a deacon. It was 1969 and not many women were being ordained. But I remember her because of her deep spirituality. She kept reminding the Deacons and the church that ours was a spiritual body. Kept calling us back to our true purpose. That we had to bathe everything we did in prayer. She would look out on Sunday from the choir and see what she called, “troubled faces” and pray for them. They never knew that. But she gave out church a richness without which we would have been poorer. She kept calling us back to an authentic spirituality.

Most of you here knew Ed. He was head of the local Nuclear Power Station. Had an important job with many demands. But he was always at the church when he was not out of town and you could always count on him. When I had things I could not handle one of the people I would always turn to was Ed. He never broke a confidence. He was never one to love the spotlight. But his integrity just came through and everybody respected him.  

You ordained Mrs. Sara Cooper to the Diakonate in 1973. That was two years before I came. She was the first Woman Deacon in our church—and was either the first or second in the state of SC. You chose her because she was faithful and loved this church. She had taught about every child that came through our Sunday school program. When I came as Pastor her time as Deacon was about up. But she kept coming to the Deacon’s Meeting after her tenure was over. Nobody else did that. And the men would look around and whisper: “She’s not supposed to be here anymore.” And somebody would whisper: “Are you gonna ask her to leave—I’m not.” Mrs. Sara stayed and this church was richer because of who she was and what she did.

Sam (not his real name) was President of a large corporation. You would know his family name if I told you. But he gave a lot of money to the church, supported many other good causes and never made a splash. He didn’t have to be in the spotlight. He just served. Never threw his weight around.  He built Habitat houses, he gave of himself and his means. And when I got into serious trouble, he stood by me all the way. And when I retired, 10 years later, he flew a whole planeload of my friends from that church I had once served. This Deacon helped save my life in a terribly difficult time. You don’t forget folks like that.

Bill owned a paint store. He was a charter member of our church. He and his wife opened their home to all those that moved in from somewhere else. Everybody loved them. He stuck with the church through some hard, hard days. He never gave up. When I knew him he was an old man but there every Sunday and still jogging in his eighties. The day we dedicated our new sanctuary he came out the door with tears in his eyes and hugged me and said, “I never thought I would live to see this day—it is just beautiful.” And at the end of his funeral service, a black man stood up and said: “Mr. Bill—welcomed me into this church. I never would have come without his hugs and his love.” And if you we to that church this morning this black man would be standing at the door saying: “Welcome to Church! God loves you and we love you!” That would have never happened without Bill and his love and his hugs. In Bill’s funeral service I talked about “Pillars.” Pillars that hold the church up. Bill did that. 

I could name fifty others whose lives have made an indelible impression on me. But as I thought about today and ordaining these two new Deacons: Andrea Rauch and Lana Todd. But we also set aside: Kelly Durham, Rob Hubbard, Davy McDowell, Bill Swedberg, Craig Williams Ron Young and Roy Young.  So my challenge today comes from the faces in the Albums of several the churches I served. These are the things that I think they all had in common.

They all knew what the word deacon meant. Diakonia means to serve. It does not mean to be served. The first Deacons were called out because the widows were being neglected and there was a lot of rumbling. Acts 6. Deacons solved the problem. So our model is found in Philippians 2.But Jesus did say when we give ourselves away—it comes back to us. Every one of these people, in their own way served their Lord through the church. They rolled up their sleeves and were not afraid to work. They could all be counted on. They knew to be a Deacon meant to be a servant.

They all loved their church. As I look back on these men and women every single one of them loved their church. Each one in different ways. You could count on them. There was no question about their loyalty. More than one would say, “Pastors come and Pastors go, but this is our church.” And they didn’t leave. They were all deeply committed to their local church. And what they taught me was that the more you invest yourself, the more you love something. I never heard one of them say: “If the church does not do so and so…I will leave.” They did not believe in divorce from the church. They never threatened or held their church hostage. They just kept coming and doing their part. And it always made those little all-too-human churches stronger.

They could all be trusted. Everybody in the church knew this. Even their enemies. For, you see, they lived lives of integrity. They didn’t whisper behind people’s backs. What you saw was what you got. I am told that during the Korean conflict that General Guy Dean was captured by the North Koreans and was treated unmercifully. He was in prison for a long time. One of the ways they would torture him was to say he would be killed sometime that day. They did this day after day. Week after week. One day he felt like that would be the day when they would kill him. So he sat down and wrote a letter which he thought was to be his last. He wrote it to his wife and son. Sort of a last will and testament. What would you say to your loved ones if you thought this was the last letter you would ever write? Would you talk about success? Money?  Good job? Education? Love your family? No. What he wrote to his wife was this: “Tell Bill (his son) the word is integrity.” Of all the words that good deacons leave us—the best word of them all may just be integrity. You can count on them always. Sterling silver—they don’t rust. 

As I look back on the faces of the Deacons that I remember they had another thing in common: they all loved their Lord. I don’t mean they were pious. In fact some of them were downright impious sometimes. A few of them could not even pray in public. But nobody doubted their love for the Lord Jesus. Somebody has said that the definition of a saint is someone who lets the light shine through their lives. If you want to be a good Deacon I think you have to have a faith that runs deep. This is why Paul warned the church not to call immature people to serve. They needed to be seasoned. People whose faith had been tested.

Each one of these I remember supported their Pastor and Church staff. Now these were strong people. You did not manipulate them. They could spot a phony a mile away. So none of them were yes people. Most of them crossed swords with me from time to time. They had their own minds. And when they would disagree with the Pastor, and most of them did from to time, they would come into my office or call me on the phone and we would talk behind closed doors. That’s the way it worked. Thinking back, I have never seen a church that did not stand by its Pastor or its staff that was strong. Can you think of a single one? Shoot the leaders and what do you have? A leaderless church.

As I think of those Deacons I remember they were all different. They were as different as people could be. Some were introverts and some were extroverts. Some talked continually and some were very quiet. But I Corinthians says in chapter 12 that we all have different gifts. I don’t know how many people in the church don’t think they have anything to contribute. But God uses our differences for his kingdom’s work. It doesn’t matter if you are well heeled or live from paycheck to paycheck. Somebody said there were two kinds of people the alive and the afraid. Those people who say: “We can’t do that. We can’t do that. It will hurt the church. People will leave. (Or even worse) I will leave…”  But the others would say, “Pastor, let’s try it. We’ve never done it that way—but it may work. And if it doesn’t, so what? We will try something else.” They were all different but they were all alive.

They all knew what to do with a towel. In the liturgical church the stole that goes around the neck of the minister was first placed on the arm as a symbol of the towel and service. But somewhere through the years the towel came to hang around the neck of the minister for decoration. These deacons I have mentioned all knew what you were to do with a towel. Sometimes they wiped away tears. Someone they cleaned up spills. Sometimes they helped keep things clean. Sometimes it was the church and sometimes it was to wipe the dirty smudges off people’s lives. As I think about all these, none of them were judgmental. They didn’t have the time.  They didn’t look down their nose—they just helped.

Another Deacon I remember was Louie. He must have been getting close to eighty when I first met him. He came into my office one day and said he had a problem. “They want me to serve as Deacon, and I don’t think I can do that.” “Why?” I asked. “Well, I have this habit. I know that Baptists don’t believe in dancing and Jewell and I go dancing every single week. How can I be a Deacon and still dance?” I asked him if he loved the Lord and his church. I asked him if this dancing thing was the only reason he would not serve and he nodded his head. I told him, “Louie, I think God is calling you to be a Deacon. If the only reason you don’t serve is because you dance I don’t think that excuse is good enough. I think this church needs some dancing Deacons.” The Sunday he was ordained I gave him a towel as a symbol of what it meant to serve. Several years later I moved away and his wife called and told me Louie had cancer and was very sick. He wanted to talk to me. And she put him on the telephone and we talked. And I tried to encourage him. I asked him if he remembered his towel, he said, I still have it—I look at it every day. I’m glad I got ordained.” Not long after that Louie died and they asked me to come back and have part in the funeral. I asked Jewell if she could find his towel. And I held it up that morning and talked about Louie, the dancing deacon. A wonderful human being.

So friends, we come to set apart two new folk and the seven who have served us before. I challenge them ands all of us to remember that Jesus called us to serve. Use your towel well.  If you do that this will be a better church because of what you do. May God bless you in your work. And may God bless this congregation as we support what we do here.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Martin Luther King and Mrs. Robertson

When any of us move from one place to another we take with us memories that don’t always fit into a suitcase. As we come to remember Dr. King on his birthday, I recall a Birmingham memory that moves me to this day. I left Birmingham one morning on an airplane that would carry me North.  As the plane took off I began to talk to my seatmate. She was a distinguished-looking black lady from Birmingham. I asked her if she might be a member of the Sixteenth Street Church--I was to preach there soon. She told me she used to be a member of that church. I asked her if she was there when the church was bombed. And she said: “My daughter was killed in that bombing... Her name was Carole with an "e". Carole Robertson was fourteen years old, a clarinet player, lover of fancy dresses, in the 9th grade. Her mother told me that she was getting ready for church that morning when she heard the noise that would change her life forever. Her husband came home with the saddest of news: Their church had been bombed--Carole was dead.

Since that chance meeting on a plane our paths crisscrossed several times. She promised to speak in our church on Black History Sunday but her health would not permit. Through the years we talked from time to time on the phone. I would call her and sometimes she would call me.

I learned a great deal about her. She was born in Birmingham over ninety years before. Her father, John Anderson was a Postman and dealt in insurance and real estate. Her mother founded the first PTA Council for African Americans in the city. Her husband served as Principal of the Martin Elementary School.

When Thomas Blanton was arrested and charged as one of those who did the bombing, they wheeled her into the courtroom that day and she testified in the trial. “Was it hard to sit there in the courtroom and to speak?”  “No,” she said, “It was what I had to do”. She told those in the courtroom that her daughter would have been 52 years old the day she testified.

What kept her going? I asked her. “Hope, I think. That one day things will be right, not just the bombing, many things. You never know how justice is going to work its way out. But Blanton and the others”, she said, “will have to pay whether there is a conviction or not.”

Mrs. Robinson was featured several times in Spike Lee's film, Four Little Girls. The movie told the world the story of what happened that sad day in Birmingham when the Sixteenth Street Church was bombed. As the movie was coming to a close, Spike Lee asked Mrs. Robinson about what this whole terrible event did to her. I will never forget how movingly she spoke as the cameras captured her face. “I have worked very hard not to feel anger and hatred. I had to keep my spirits up so I could help my husband's spirits up and the folks around me. We had good friends and family who gave us a lot of support. But”, and her voice was colored with emotion, “ you have to work with it and pray...Gradually,” she said,” healing came about because hating people would not do me good and it would do me more harm than it would them”. She continued to speak: “I think I conquered it but every once in a while it comes out, not the hatred but anger...It comes out in different ways. I've tried to put all that behind me and go on and live. My husband is gone, three brothers, my sisters and parents are gone. I still have my son and daughter and three grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. So I have something to be thankful for after all.”

She called me one day and said, “Guess what? I just got back from the Academy Awards. Spike invited me to come and sit with him—it was wonderful. We had the best time.” And then she laughed with that deep down wonderful chuckle she had.

I called her one day and asked her if I could write a Mother’s Day piece on her for the The Birmingham News. She reluctantly agreed. She called me that Sunday afternoon after the story had run and thanked me for writing. She said, “Dr. Lovette, it was wonderful even if it was about me.”

Not long after that she died. But meeting her and that friendship has been one of the great blessings of my life. On this day when we remember the great King I remember another great one. The mother of one of the four little girls that was killed that sad Sunday morning in Birmingham. Maybe the old book is right: “Weeping may last through the night…but joy comes in the morning.”

(This stained glass window was designed for the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham after the bombing.  The children of Wales were so distressed over this terrible tragedy that they began to take up money. They were joined by the adults in that country. Thousands of their citizens participated in this project. Welch artist John Petts was selected as the Stained Glass artist to design this  window. It can be found in the front of the church facing South. It shows a black Jesus with his hands outstretched and is a powerful symbol.)