Wednesday, July 31, 2013

A Movie Worth Seeing: "The Way Way Back"

"Lying, thinking
Last night
How to find my soul a home
Where water is not thirsty
And bread loaf is not stone
I came up with one thing
And I don't believe I"m wrong
That nobody,
But nobody
Can make it our here alone.
 --excerpts from "Alone,"
      by Maya Angelou

Remember being fourteen? Awkward age. You didn’t seem to fit anywhere. You looked in the mirror and all you saw were zits and maybe braces and ugliness filling the reflection before you. You were struggling with identity, sexuality, friendship and just about everything. Your parents drove you up the wall and you certainly wouldn’t tell them or anybody else how you felt.

So when I saw the movie, The Way, Way Back it was a trip down memory lane for me. Almost anybody who has been an adolescent could identify with Duncan the main character in the film. The movie begins in the 1980’s in a station wagon. Duncan and his mother, her mean-spirited boy friend and his daughter are on their way to a vacation. The mother’s boyfriend yells to the back seat and asks Duncan what does he thinks he is on a scale of one to ten. Duncan doesn’t answer.  Because the boy-friend keeps pestering him he finally says: “I think I’m a six.” The mother’s companion yells back: “You’re not a six—you’re a three. What do you know? What can you do? Nothing. You’re a three.” That’s the opening scene of the movie.

Duncan is miserable. He misses his absentee-divorced father. He despises the mother’s caustic boy friend that keeps badgering Duncan to be normal. The poor boy wishes he was anywhere but on that vacation. Maybe, Duncan muses, his supposedly surrogate father is right: Maybe he really is a three. How does he survive? Duncan begins to sneak away to an adjoining water park called Water Wizz. There he meets Owen who gives him a secret job at the water park. In an off-the-wall way Owen helps bring the boy into the circle of the water-park staff. I won’t give away the rest of the movie—but in Owen, a sort of loser in life who works at the water park—I saw a Christ figure. If you have seen the movie you might think I’m crazy—but Owen does for the boy what Jesus did all the way through the Gospels. In a roundabout way, Owen changes the boy’s life.

Some reviewers say this is a totally a sappy movie. I don’t think so. Other reviewers have said it might be one of the best movies of the summer. Every fourteen year old needs an Owen. Somebody who will take them seriously--let them know they count as human beings and give them a vision of possibility for the future.

For years I have tried to find the Spanish-Journalism teacher who taught me so much when I was fourteen and beyond. She listened to me, made me feel important and put dreams in my head. I never did find her—but I wonder where I would be without her nudging and patience with me and a great many others.

So I recommend the film. It is a study of relationships and lack of relationships in a family setting. Out there, all around us are fourteen year olds who are desperate for someone to care for them and teach them that they really are important. They’re in our churches, our schools and the live down the street from us. This film has helped me once again to open my eyes to some pretty important people who never say a word. And, as Maya Angelou reminds us: “But nobody can make it out here alone.”

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Seeing What's There

The great thing about a vacation is that it nudges you out of your comfort zone. All the wonderful things that you pass by daily you get so used to that you really don't see them.

I've been reading one of Richard Rohr's books during the last few days at the beach.  This particular book is called, Everything Belongs. It really  is a book on prayer--on being a contemplative person.

He says that one of the problems of our society is that we have mass produced what he calls: luminoid experiences--as opposed to luminal experiences. Luminal experiences enlighten and help us see what is really there. Luminoid experiences really put blinders on our eyes and we don't see really what is out there. We have a multitude of gadgets and gimmicks that are mass produced that really put blinders on our eyes. On the Beach this morning everybody seemed to have a cell phone. Those not talking to somebody were texting. A few had their ipods out and others were surrounded by books and magazines. But the funniest sight I saw was this couple--I assume married--walking down the beach both had their ear phones on and holding their ipads. Togernesss 1a. Ever wonder why there are so many Outlet Malls so close to the Beach?  Hmm. The problem is that we really don't get away from it at all. We make sure that we have enough diversions with us that we really won't be able to experience the wonders that are out there.

Of course I read at the beach. Of course I opened my i-pad and, of course here I am writing about seeing when I ought to be out in the sunshine just being and experiencing the wonder of it all. See--we are all guilty of putting blinders on just like we put our sunglasses on. The great religions seek to stab us into awareness and full consciousness.

Rohr, a Catholic priest says that God is just waiting for us everyday to lookout and stop and look and listen long enough to hear what God has to say this day. Elizabeth Elliot once said that the problem with living sacrifices is that they keep crawling off the altar. Sound familiar? Yesterday's vision is not enough. We've got to crawl back on the altar and see what God has to say today.  We don't have to take a vacation to do this. All we have to do is to turn off the TV and bury the telephone under some pillows and just be quiet. And--most of all: open our eyes.

Years ago Frances Cornford challenged all of us in her question-poem:

"O why do you walk through the fields in gloves
   Missing so much and so much?
O fat white woman whom nobody loves
   Why do you walk through the fields in gloves
When the grass is soft as the breast of doves
    And shivering sweet to the touch?
O why do you walk through the fields with gloves
    Missing so much and so much?" 

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Morris Dees--A Real Patriot

"There are three kinds of patriots, two bad, one good. The bad ones are the uncritical lovers and the loveless critics. Good patriots carry on a lover's quarrel with their country, a reflection of God's lover's quarrel with all the world."
     --William Sloane Coffin

Want to read a great book? Morris Dees’ book, A Lawyer’s Journey is worth reading .He heads up the Southern Poverty Law Center. The book came out in 2001—but I’d never read it. Morris quotes Clarence Darrow in the front of the book. “I have lived my life and I have fought my battles, not against the weak and poor—but against power, injustice, against oppression.”  This sums up the circuitous life of Morris Dees. Like most of us who have had our eyes open to injustice—it came slowly. The difference from most of us is that Morris laid his life on the line.

The book sketches how the Southern Poverty Law Center came into being. This is a man that started out with his side-kick Millard Fuller and they made a lot of money selling Birthday cakes to student’s parents—the parents ordered the cakes by the zillions. But Millard and Morris amicably parted ways—Millard to found Habit for Humanity and Morris to found the Southern Poverty Law Center. Both men believed deeply in peace and justice. They just worked at it from two different sides.

Morris slowly began to see the injustice all around him in his hometown of Montgomery, Alabama. But he also realized that the hatred and racism ripe in Alabama really encompassed the whole nation.

And so he began to take on the giants. The KKK, Militia groups, and all sorts of hate groups. I thought that most of this had subsided until I read his book. Morris’ organization sends out a Hate Watch list once a month. It is scary and incredible the groups in this country that are trying to turn back the clock. 

Morris has bodyguards. The office of his organization has been burned out. His life has been threatened numerous times. But he just keeps going. Kurt Vonnegut has written: “Morris Dees has put his life on the line again and again to win for strangers in courts of law constitutional rights...No soldier has ever been braver, more honorable and more patriotic than Morris Dees.”

The battle against injustice is not over. If Mr. Timmerman had not been carrying a gun Trayvon Martin might still be alive. With the tightening of our belts economically—the safety net has larger and larger holes. So many people are falling through the cracks. We are told that after President Obama’s first inauguration that death threats against the President just kept increasing at an alarming rate. 320,000 citizens in South Carolina do not have health insurance. The Supreme Court threw out most of the rules and regulations of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Right-wingers are working overtime to make sure they can pass rules and regulations in state after state to make voting more and more difficult. It looks like the Immigration battle is far from over—while good, decent folk and their children languish in no-man’s land.

So we need Morris Dees’ voice and organization today more than ever. Read his book—support his organization. He has always fought an uphill battle. And yet—here and there—he has helped so many and done so much to make us live up to the ideals of America. Morris Dees is a real  patriot in my book-- not the flag-waving kind--but the justice-doing kind.


Tuesday, July 16, 2013

God Has A List, Too - Luke 11.1-13

She came in and sat down one day in my office. “What can I do for you?” I said. She said, “I have this list.” “List?” “Yes, a list.” “What kind of a list?” “Well, I’ve got all these things I want to say to God.” “Yes,” I said. And so she unfolded a piece of paper and began to read.

“Well, why it is when you pray for somebody to be healed and one person is healed and ten others never got well? I don’t understand that. I want to know why the innocent suffer—little children, especially. I want to know why it doesn’t rain in some African countries for three years and everybody starves and somewhere else flood cover everything. I want to ask God about mosquitoes and alligators and cancer and rapists and mental illness and depression, especially. I want to know why God doesn’t do something about hunger or suicide bombers or all those other terrorists.” The woman continued, “ I want to ask God why God’s church acts so unChristlike sometimes. I want to ask God why it takes so long to learn what life is really all about and then about the time you’ve about got it—either you die or you are too old to enjoy your wisdom.”

Joyce, our secretary buzzed me. “There’s a man out here that says he wants to come in.” “Joyce”, I said,” I have someone in here. We’re talking”. There was silence for just a moment and then she says. “He insists on coming in. He says it has something to do with what you all are talking about.” I didn’t know what to do. I turned to my friend and said, “Shall we let him in?” She nodded: “I guess so.” And so the door opened and he came in.

I asked him to sit down. He told us he was God. I would never have thought it. In fact, I thought maybe he was delusional. Or maybe I was. He smiled at us and said, “I have this list, too.” How did he know what we had been talking about? And he pulled out from his pocket a piece of paper, unfolded it and asked if he could read it. I looked at my friend. My friend looked at me. I nodded.

“I have this list,” he said again. “It’s found in two of my gospels, Matthew and Luke. The church used to use it when people wanted to be new disciples. They felt like it was that important. It is found in the Lord’s Prayer that you say every Sunday. Luke thought it was so important to pray this prayer was be a disciple. But it is really my checklist for praying and for living. Once, years ago, the disciples came to my son Jesus and asked if he would teach them to pray. They had seen it happen a hundred times. Jesus pulled and pushed by too-many concerns would go off into the hills alone slump-shouldered and weary. And they saw him come back ready to face whatever there was with courage and dignity and power. And so they asked him his secret. And he gave them a prayer that the church has been praying ever since.

“Embedded in that prayer” he said, “is a list. “Do you mind if I share it with you?” And that is just what God did. 

Number One

 “No.# One.” Do you ever pray for my kingdom to come?” He looked us both in the eyes, which made us both a little nervous, and said: “Can you see around you little places where his kingdom has come? Sure, the TV blares, CNN and Fox News and all the others keep grinding it out, the newspapers can’t talk about anything but scandals, the movies are filled with violence and four-letter words. The world was a mess when my son, Jesus lived too. But,” he asked us, “can you see, embedded in your life and world God’s kingdom? One time Jesus talked about a treasure hid in the field. One man called it acres of diamonds. Like, underneath the surface was oil that could make a millionaire if you just drilled down a little. It’s all around us, this kingdom. Can you see it—or do you just see the dark side of everything?

Do you see the coming Kingdom? For, you see, with the world as it is, there is still so much that is yet-to-be. The rapists you talked about. Depression. Afghanistan and Iran. Cancer. Can you see in the little children out there with smudges on their faces and sometimes their souls—the possibilities that I have held out for us all? Look at your city, “ he said, “Where are the places where my work is far from finished? Birmingham is on my list—Do you see the kingdom of God here at all?” 

                                                                      Number 2 

His finger moved down the page. He looked up and said: “No.# Two: Do you pray for my will be done in you?  It’s part of the prayer, you know, thy kingdom come—thy will be done in us. It’s on the list. Are you helping bring heaven to earth or just whiling away your time? Remember the man with the talent Jesus talked about. One talent. Precious and rare. He was so scared he buried it in the sand. Buried the only precious thing he possessed. He was to use it. Let my will flow through you. Are you giving back or just taking in? 

Number 3 

“No.# Three”, he said: “Do you pray for daily bread? Somebody translated these words: Give us dependable bread, bread for the morrow. It’s a lot like that manna I sent when my people were in the wilderness. It’s like that for you, too. You get up every morning, put your clothes on, drive to work, open the door and begin the day. Or you get out of bed if you can , retired, no place to go and everything hurts. Daily bread means you will receive what you need—the necessary and the dependable. You will find if you really pray the prayer that out there when it’s hard and confusing that the Shepherd I talked about really will supply your every need. The Christian believes there really will be resources aplenty when they are needed. The manna still comes.

But God went on. “But not only for today—bread for tomorrow, too. You lay awake at night thinking, thinking about the future. Worrying about everything. Sometimes you get up at two o’clock in the morning and just there thinking. Can’t sleep—for so much crowds around you. And part of my list,” he says, “can you pray that in the not-yet—God will meet you and there will always be bread aplenty for whatever it is you face.” 

Number 4 

I thought maybe God was through, but he wasn’t. He kept his finger on his list. “Next, No.# Four,” he said, "You pray: Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Do you really mean that?” He explained. “It takes the whole world in, you know. Have you noticed the pronouns? Us and we. Forgive us all—help us everyone to forgive. At the hart of my list,” he says, “is forgiveness. Have you been able to let it go—all the stuff you’ve been ashamed on? Have you been able to let it go? One version calls all these things debts. Somebody translated them trespasses. Another translation is sin. Pure and simple. You know about debts. Too much. Visa, Mastercharge, Parisians. Lowe’s and Sams. You know about debts. College loans. Braces. Groceries. New transmissions. There are debts on the inside too. “ He said. “Hurtful things we do to others and ourselves. Missing the mark of your intentions—this is not what you intended to do, was it? But don’t forget the pronouns I have sprinkled through this whole prayer. Our Father. Give us…forgive us…as we forgive…do not bring us to the time of trial…but deliver us from the evil one. I put those pronouns in there intentionally. The early church would have never added them in a million years. That was my doing. And do you know why I put them in there? When you realize that the whole human family is flawed to the core—and you are part of that family—that we-have-all-sinned business—it makes you more human and less judgmental and more understanding of the weaknesses and stupidities of others. And the weight of so much just falls off. 

Number 5 

God still was not through. He said, “When come to No.# Five we come to the hard part. Forgive us as we forgive others. That’s the rub. Forgive others. If it weren’t for all those others this wouldn’t be hard at all. You’ve got to let the others go. Mothers and fathers that bruised, wounded or crippled you. Somebody at work that tripped you up and changed your life. Something that happened ten years ago and it still brings tears to your eyes. Something on that list you brought in,” and he looked at my friend sitting there, “you have to let it go. Some face, some deed, some misdeed. It has too much power over you. Remember what Paul wrote in Ephesians? I know Paul was quite a character. But listen to what he said: ‘Be ye kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake has forgiven you.’(Eph.4.32) 

Number 6

I wondered how long this list would go on. But I didn’t dare ask. But I did have other things to do. He kept reading from the list. “No.# Six”, he said, “Can you pray for your temptations and your deliverance—and for somebody else’s too? Remember the way Jesus taught them: Lead us not into temptation—to the time of testing. Matthew says Do not bring us to the time of trial. Every human being will be tested. Tested everyday. It’s part of life. You can’t escape it. For the evil one is very real. I’m no talking about a red suit and a forked tail. Remember Bathsheba bathing on that rooftop? She was the most beautiful woman King David had ever seen. And he had seen his share. Evil is sometimes like that, “ he said. “ Remember Adam and Eve in the garden? Why Genesis said once upon a time the snake was the most beautiful animal that ever was. I know you find that hard to believe. But he came and just charmed the daylights out of Adam and Eve. And often evil is like that. Who ever started out to be a monster? You keep praying this prayer that you might be spared when you are tested—for tested you will surely be. ‘Watch and pray,’ Jesus said, ‘lest you enter into temptation.’ 

Number 7 

God turned his paper over and still read. He noticed that we were getting just a little figidity. “I’m just about finished,” he said. “But we come to No.# Seven. Deliver us from evil, Jesus prayed. Do you believe that can happen to you? Break the power of evil for the things in life. All those addictions. All this hardness and leanness of soul. All this selfishness. Break its power. Deliverance for yourself and for all those others. Paul told the church one time about his thorn in the flesh which he could not control no matter how hard he tried. And he was disciplined. Dear Lord, was Paul disciplined. But he said that thorn would not go away. And so he found in his weakness, that’s how he put it, in his weakness he found God’s strength. And maybe what you have to do is to take all your imperfections—and you have them—and the rest of the world has them—and you lift them up to me in prayer. I  promise that I will listen and I will deliver you. It won’t be easy, and it will take some of you a long time. But I will break the back of evil and you will be set free.”

He looked up from the paper. Looked us both in the eyes. He told us he had another assignment. He excused himself and left. But just before he left he put his list down on my desk. It’s still there. I see it everyday. And on Sunday—when we meet here and pray the prayer I hear it over and over. Again and again. For, you see, God has a list too.

(The sculptured pieces which frame this sermon at the beginning and end are the work of Sculptor, Walter Hancock.
They are given to honor the memory of Jonathan M Daniels, Episcopalian Seminarian, who was martyred in Alabama, August 20, 1965. They portray Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemani  and The Sleeping Disciples. They can be seen at the Gethsemani Monastery, Bardstown, Kentucky.)


Monday, July 15, 2013

Hard Times Reminder--Singing in the Darkness

"Thou, in the darkness drear
their one true light. Alleluia! Alleluia!"
--Hymn, "For All the Saints"

If you were to travel to New York and move down Broadway to 43rd Street you would find the Stephen Sondeim Theater. If you bought a ticket and found your seat you would be in for a treat. The curtain rises on “The Trip to Bountiful” which is the story of an old woman who wanted to make just one last trip to her old home place in Bountiful, Texas. Her family thought her mind was about gone and they did not want her to make the trip. But she went anyway. Cecily Tyson plays the 80-year-old woman waiting to catch her bus. With the dignity of all her years she stood and began to sing the old gospel song, “Blessed Assurance.” At that moment someone in the darkness of the audience began to sing. And then the singing moved across the aisles until many of those in the theater were singing along with Ms. Tyson. The New York Times reported that this was not in the script. They wrote that this phenomenon was peculiar—because most Broadway experiences do not include audience participation. The author of the Times article called the song unheard of—and something out of the ordinary.

But anyone who has been in an evangelical church—white or black—would know this song. Why did the audience sing, night after night: “This is my story...this is my song...”. I do not really know. Except out there in the darkness the song must have touched a great many people. Some divorcee. Someone facing a bad lab report. Someone contemplating suicide. Across the aisle there might have been someone depressed. They sang because they had lost their jobs or their faith or someone they loved dearly. And there in the darkness they reached out and touched something that took them in and carried them along.

I thought about that experience as I have waded through the sad griefs of the support group I lead. The story brought to mind the friend who lost a daughter unexpectedly much too soon or the friend who said goodbye to her aging mother and those young parents losing their first-born. I remembered those neighbors of ours lost in that terrible plane crash in Alaska. I thought of much of the sadness out there in the darkness. Nineteen firefighters in the prime of their lives are no more. The victims of the Boston Marathon. Not to speak of our boys and girls that still come home in flag-draped boxes. We all know that the darkness is real and difficult.

All of us need something powerful to hang on to either in our own darkness or helping a friend go through their hard time. We long to get in touch with the human chord that might just make us remember again that we really are all the same. The unrelenting forces out there try to drive a wedge between us and them—but we will know better. Most of those sitting in that theater were touched by something primal and real. That’s why they sang in the darkness. For just a few hours they were one—fellow-strugglers—all on a hard journey.

Toward the end of his life Wallace Stegner wrote a novel called Crossing to Safety. It told the story of an old couple who had been married for many years. They both had physical problems and found it hard to get around. They had been through the ups and downs that life brings to most couples. They were still together, she on her walker and he on his cane.  One of the characters observed: “None of us can cross the choppy waters to safety alone—someone has to help us.”

An old hymn may help many of us. Reaching out to others sometimes does the trick. But from time to time we all need a reminder that the human spirit is resilient. Those of us that are acquainted with the darkness really can make it across the choppy waters. All the grievers who move away from the cemetery can learn that the new-fresh mound is not the end though it seems like it. Whatever life brings and often it is hellish—the human spirit can get up from the most distressing of things and move on. Not alone but with others and with a power that is unseen but very real.

There really is a Blessed Assurance. The darkness is not the end. And so when the play is over and the lights in the theater come up—people will   file out and go their separate ways. I hope they take with them the words of the old song: “Perfect submission, perfect delight, Visions of raptures now burst on my sight; Angels descending bring from above, Echoes of mercy whispers of love.” I hope they can make it. And so can we all.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Would Jesus Give Away a Motorcycle?

 Years ago I was in Cologne, Germany and sauntered into the cathedral there. In the Foyer of the Church they were raffling off a car! And the man standing next to the car, waving tickets sounded like a Used-Car salesman. I wonder what Martin Luther would have thought—fuming might not be strong enough. And so when I heard the Newspring Church in Anderson, South Carolina had given away a motorcycle on Father’s Day I was appalled. Some lucky Papa is the recipient of a new Harley. Their web site promised that all the father’s present would receive a ten-dollar gift certificate so they could buy something for their father. Reckon they gave out alternate presents for those who had no fathers or had dead-beat dads?

This church is booming. And churches all around them are threatened. Lay people are whispering—“What have they got that we don’t have?” I hate to bash another church—but if this is not entertainment I don’t what is. And the problem is that when a bigger show comes to town the crowds will flock there.

In desperation many mainline churches are shedding their hymnbooks, putting up enormous screens—sending spies to this mega-church and taking notes. Maybe we can get our Pastor to take off his tie, some say, shed his robe and get a new pair of New Balance. Maybe we need to lighten up, bring in a band--install strobe lights. 

If I were a betting man I would say you will never hear a word about immigration, about the millions out of work, the 320,000 people in South Carolina without insurance. You won’t hear anything about the tragedy when gay people still can’t be first-class citizens. Unless I miss my guess they would never ask those thousands sitting out there how they will treat that dark-skinned Muslim couple who moved next door. I am sure there will never be a word from their non-pulpit that cautions their membership about Obama bashing or asks about scared illegals in their neighborhood.  Reckon they have discussed global warming?

Time Magazine recently had a lead article on the Me, Me, Me Generation. It’s coming back around. And those leaders who hook into this me-ism business in church will starve to death. Interestingly, the longer Jesus worked the fewer they came. Maybe he could have learned something from the mega-church—he could have given away a Camel or raffled off the Donkey he rode into Jerusalem on or maybe congratulated the moneychangers in the temple as good bid-ness men. The people that flock to this kind of mega-church are desperate folk just like the people in our pews. But I am not sure motorcycles and gift cards are what Jesus had in mind. 

(The above photograph is from St. Mary's Parish Church in Iffley outside Oxford, England. It is estimated that the
church was established in 1156 AD.  The first Parish Priest was appointed in 1279. The congregation still serves that community to this day. We anxious church folk need to remember the Church of Jesus Christ has been around a long time.)

Don't Forget the Boston Marathon Tragedy and a Whole Lot of Others

The problem with our fast moving world is that yesterday’s news is yesterday’s news.  Bill Clinton knew
that. Mark Sanford knew that. Elliot Spitzer and Anthony Weiner and Paula Deen are hoping it will be so. There’s always another crisis or titillating story out there that turns our attention away from what we are reading or seeing on TV. Months from now someone will say: “Trayvon who?” Our attention span is mighty short these days. It makes me wonder if we are learning any lessons from any of these fast moving headlines.

One story we don’t need to forget is the Boston Marathon tragedy. The heartbreak and the misery that terrible event caused will be with a whole lot of folk for a long time to come. We shouldn’t forget some events that happen. On the anniversary of the Boston bombing there will be speeches and balloons and flags and maybe even a parade. But back there on the side streets and away from town in some house or apartment someone is still trying to get their lives back together. Many lost limbs and eyes and hearing and a great number have found their lives altered in tragic ways forever.

I challenge you to read Tim Rohan’s splendid story about one of the Boston Marathon survivors. Jeff Bauman was waiting for his girlfriend to finish the race and he stood close to the finish line to catch her excitement as she ran across that last stretch. But this young man—hale and hearty lost both of his legs, much of his hearing. I thank The New York Times for giving about five pages in their Monday paper to this story. Read it and weep. Read it and remember. It is a story of courage and determination against incredible odds. And behind that story are a multitude of others we should never forget. You might want to see the video and additional pictures of Jeff Bauman as he struggles to recover. Online:  

(The moving photograph above looks almost cruciform in its shape. It is one of many pictures you can find in this story.)

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

A Hard Goodbye--Remembering Beth

                                                       In Loving Memory
                                                    Beth Bowers Rogers
                                              December 26, 1968 - June 22, 2013

We met on a sunshiny afternoon in the beautiful garden where Beth and her friends had  painted a zillion pictures. She loved that space. Beth chose that spot to be married. She chose that spot for her husband's memorial service less than a year before. And then--looking out on the stream that ran through the garden, the plants lush and green--a cluster of about twenty-five family members and friends gathered to say goodbye to Beth. They asked me to speak and these are the words I chose...

As I thought about what I wanted to try to say today I remembered a story by the great preacher, Fred Craddock. He lived for a while in Oklahoma. And there was a little town nearby named Kingfisher that had a weekly newspaper. One of the columns in that paper—and the only reason they took the paper—was by an Arapahoe Indian woman. She called herself, in English, Molly Shepherd. He said he loved reading her articles because you never knew what she was going to say. In broken English she told about tribal customs, of songs and funerals and giveaways and prizes for those who had come the longest distance to a funeral. He said that in her own broken English way she had a gift for words.

There was one of her articles that Dr. Craddock said he would never forget. It was the Friday afternoon paper after the assassination of President Kennedy. She wrote that day, “Molly has no word for you today. Molly has nothing to write today. Molly has no words today. Molly goes through the house all day saying, “Oh…Oh…Oh.”*

And that is the spirit of this afternoon. We’ve all been stumbling around these last sad days saying: “Oh…Oh…Oh.” For sometimes the anguish and the hurt are so deep there are few words to express how we feel.

Saying all that we come to remember Beth. Born the day after Christmas in 1968. And she died on last Saturday. She was 44 years old. I baptized her one evening when she was about eleven. She was a good friend of my son, Matthew and they grew up together.

Beth had two children Noah and Holden. I love that picture that Jo Carol took on a good, good day when the sun was shining and everyone was happy. It would be great if we could stop and just freeze such moments. 

She was married to Brian just over a year when he died suddenly. And they were married here where we are and when we had the Memorial Service for him—it was here in this spot. My son, who could not be here today reminded me that here he and Beth and the rest of Brenda’s art classes painted this spot, he said, from one end to the other. And Beth loved this place and it is fitting that we stand here and remember.

The Apostle Paul said, “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, what ever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

And so we do think today on these things. We are all made up of many selves and many faces. We all have a dark side and Beth certainly did. But that was only part—we remember how bright she was, how she loved to laugh, how she was a good artist and always loved art and animals and nature. She finished the Culinary School in Atlanta. She served as a chef and was a good cook. She attended the University of Georgia for two years. But one of her great contributions were her two children: Noah and Holden. Let me say to both of you that though this is a hard, hard time and it will take you a long time to untangle your feelings—remember that you have two grandparents that love you more than anything and will do all they can to help you in the days ahead. So remember whatever is good and just and pleasing…for this was part of this special life.

But we, your friends and family--come today to speak especially to Brenda and Jim and Noah and Holden. On Tuesday evening the line was long as people stood to hug you and speak to you. The parking lot was full. They came for you and you all are surrounded—then and now--by a circle of love. Don’t forget Tuesday and don’t forget this afternoon. All the people that put aside their own sorrows and griefs to stand by you in this time. It didn’t matter really what they said—for most of it will be a blur—but you have been lifted up by friends that have come with the casseroles of love they brought and the cards and the Memorial gifts that will come in and the prayers and the tears that say over and over we love you and we stand by you. Don’t ever forget this.

But there is another reason that we come here. We all need a hopeful word on this hard day. We all need a word of grace that somehow will help you and us through the hard times and the dark days. One of my favorite lifelines are found in the words of the Apostle Paul:

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, he said. “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Jesus stretched out his arms and said come ye—all ye weary ones and all ye heavy laden ones--and I will give you rest. He took us all in. Dear Beth is in his arms—not because of what she did or did not do—but simply because those arms hold her and all of us too.

A friend of mine lost a 9-year-old daughter quite suddenly on a cold winter day. She was diagnosed with leukemia and died less than six weeks later. And in this father’s grief he wrote these words. They are for Brenda and Jim and Noah and Holden and for us all.

“Was the grass really ever green
Were the sounds of birds really clearly heard
And did we picnic in the park only six short
  months ago.
Here in mid-winter they seem so far away
The naked trees, the leaden skies seem always
to have been
And seem out ahead for all time,
Were things really ever green
And will spring come back again?

Yes the spring will return
The gray, dull days of cold will pass
The routine now imprisoning us will be broken up
A new excitement will be awakened by new possibilities.
The despair which now engulfs us will subside
A word of hope will come to us
Our presumption that all is lost will be replaced
 For a renewed expectancy.
Future will become a possibility again.
         .         .       .      .

The sadness now weighing upon us will be lifted
Joy will speak her acknowledgment of grief and
  will sound her call to us
The cause of sadness will not have vanished
But joy will come in spite of it
But joy will come in spite of it
We will laugh again
We will sing and dance
We will celebrate the life now given us.
   .       .     .     .

(And then the old griever wrote…)

Were things really ever green
And will the spring come back again
Yes, yes as sure as e’re it were here
Yes, yes as sure as winter’s here
Yes, yes, as sure as God is
The spring will return
And it will be green again.”**

This is my hope for us all. And so I close with one of my favorite Benedictions that comes from the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead. 

“Into paradise may the angels lead her; at her coming may the martyrs take her up into eternal rest, and may the chorus of angels lead her to that holy city, and the place of perpetual light.” Amen.

*Story by Fred B. Craddock,  in  Craddock Stories
**Abbreviated version of poem by Temp Sparkman 

July Fourth--Reminder of Promise and Hope For All

On the eve of July 4th the Statue of Liberty has reopened. For some time the Statue has been closed while much-needed repairs were made. So once again people can come and ponder this symbol of liberty and hope. On this July 4th where battles rage about immigration, about health care for all, about full rights for gay people it might be good to ponder Emma Lazarus’ poem which is graven on a tablet within the pedestal on which Miss Liberty stands. Let us recommit ourselves to a country which provides hope and promise for people the world over.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
‘Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!’ cries she
With silent lips. ‘Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,I lift my lamp beside the golden door.’”

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Paula Deen--Can She Be Forgiven?

Something has troubled me since the Paula Deen scandal broke. I’ve come to think that the whole world has come down on her pretty hard. Her empire is crumbling. All her sponsors are lining up to break their contracts with her. People are passing out rocks and we are throwing them pretty hard at Paula. Even Gene Robinson whom I respect immensely shakes his head and says let her go.

I know she has used the n-word in the past. Few Southerners have not. And the n-word is something that most of the whole country could be guilty of. No—it was wrong to use the word. It is wrong to demean anyone with this slur any other.

Paula Deen has owned up to what she said. She has not lied. She has taken responsibility for her hurtful words said long ago. She has apologized profusely. What more can she do?

Jimmy Carter* one of my heroes has said what I have been thinking. “She was maybe excessively honest in saying that she had in the past, 30 years ago, used this terrible word. I think she has been punished, perhaps overly severely, for her honesty in admitting it and for the use of the word in the distant past. She’s apologized profusely” President Carter says that she should be forgiven.

The former President  had pointed out Deen’s programs in Savannah, Georgia that benefit “almost exclusively oppressed and overly stricken black folk.” She has said she is not a racist and I believe her. People can change. The church teaches this.

Interestingly the Carter Center in Atlanta is hosting a human rights forum this weekend promoting the role of religion in advancing women’s rights. Reckon Paula Deen fits into this category? I think she does.

We do not trivialize the use of the n-word—but we, as Christians, take Paula at her word. We forgive. We move on. We learn from our mistakes. I’ve always been for the underdog even the rich ones with big hair and a Southern drawl. What do you think Jesus would do?


Monday, July 1, 2013

Church--I Still Believe After All These Years

"In Washington, DC where I have lived most of my life, we're surrounded by death--from the handguns and knives on street corners; to the US Congress, which contracts against the poor, who vote for executions, builds new prisons and cuts health care; to the Pentagon, with its preparations for war...Death gets the last word.

And yet, and yet, in our churches, we gather in prayer; we sing; we hear the word of God; we break bread and pass the cup,; we join hands with one another; we offer a sign of peace; and we go forward into the streets to say 'no' to death and 'yes' to life."
           --Jesus the Rebel,  John Dear

Moving through the kitchen I barely picked up the TV words. They were interviewing another minister who said he just could not believe in God. He has started a church for Atheists. He even wears a clergy collar. I’ve heard most of these excuses and the funny thing is that almost any minister could agree with a whole lot he and the others say.

Carlyle Marney used to say the church has dirty under drawers. And he was right. Paul, I think would agree with this sentiment. Looking back on his up-and-down pilgrimage he observed:  “We have the treasure in earthen vessels.”

Having worked with a multitude of Pastors who have been dismissed from their churches and having encountered the dark side of church myself—I know the pain and heartbreak that church sometimes brings

There is a very sad church strand of anti-gay, anti-environment, anti-evolution, anti-abortion, anti-intellectual, anti-just about everything that people struggle with day after day. Add to this those who have jumped on the Republican bandwagon (and you can also say the same thing about the liberals and the Democratic party)—thinking that their party is the God party and the other side—well, they couldn’t possibly be real believers.

All the Christians I know struggle, as do atheists with the unfairness of the world. Too much poverty. Too many Sandy Hooks. Too many tsunamis and hurricanes. ALS. And the terrible question: why do bad things happen to some of the best of us. Who knows—the Bible itself is silent about why people suffer.

But all those that sneer at the outmoded teachings and stories of the Bible I know a whole cadre of preachers who would say: Yes...Yes. We don’t believe axe heads float, or that we should dash the heads of little children against the walls. We do not believe that homosexuals and adulterers (especially women) should be stoned. We do not believe the flat earth came into being six thousand years ago at nine o’clock in the morning.  But we do believe Jesus was the great-hearted one who reached out and took everybody in—even atheists, especially atheists.

We shouldn’t adopt a poor-you looking-down our-nose at those who cannot believe for many reasons. Let them be. This is a free country and people have the right to believe and not believe what they wish. I have known a number of atheists—many like good Christians. They are kind, open-hearted and try to make the world better. And I have known a few who think it is their calling in life to stamp out this craziness called Christianity. These are the folk that make me nervous.

But I think of that strand of kindness and love that I bump into almost every week from Christian folk—flawed but basically decent folk. Weeks ago when my good friends lost their daughter in her 40’s—the church came to their rescue. They brought casseroles. They stood in a long receiving line just to hug the devastated parents and say they were sorry. And after everything has gone back to normal for most of those folk--here and there--somebody will reach out and help those parents through their terrible darkness.

Two days later someone lost a mother. Most of us didn’t know her. But the church came to the rescue. Not the formal church—but the informal-what-really-counts-church. They were at the service. They had prayed and they were there to support and do what they could. And when the Scriptures were read: “Even though I walk through the shadows of death...” “Let not your hearts be troubled...” “Nothing can separate us from the love of God...”those gathered believed those words with all their hearts. Wishful thinking—weak folk who need crutches? I think not. Just “ever present help in time of need.”

Sitting in my Sunday school class last Sunday somebody read a text-message. The son of one of our families was having his first child. “They couldn’t detect a heart-beat.” We stopped and prayed. And when we heard hours later that the baby did not make it—love rushed out in all kinds of ways to that hurting family.

This happens in almost every community I know. And surely atheists feel and respond. But I still feel we need some structure for our love and caring. Somebody said you’ve got to have a bucket without a hole in it to carry the water. Without that bucket—dirty sometimes, rusty sometimes, not-too-pretty often—too much of the water will be spilled.

After more than 40 years of serving churches and seeing just about everything—I still believe in this bucket to carry the water that people desperately need. I’m not going to bash any atheists—but I do know that this lifeline called church helps a great many people enormously.

Ann Lamotte one of my favorite writers started attending a church and it changed her life. Someone asked her why she went and she said: “ Because a little old black lady brings me dimes week after week.” Somebody cared. Lyndon Johnson was asked after all his years in Washington why he was going back to a little town in Texas. He said: “They ask about you when you’re sick—and they cry when you die.” Not a bad definition of church—even a treasure (with a little t) in a very earthen vessel.