Thursday, August 28, 2014

"I Gotta Be Me?"

photo by Ferda Hejl / flickr

 Ever heard this story—it’s priceless. The preacher Tom Long told it first. After church was over and everyone was filing out a little boy looked around at all the empty space. He started running all over the room and then ran up on the platform—saw the mike—said something and discovered the mike was still on. He began jumping up and down and yelling into the mike, “Mommy, Mommy—look at me. Look at me!” One member standing in the back observed, “ I think I’ve heard this sermon before.”

We’ve all heard this sermon before: “Look at me! Look at me!” Sometimes the “I’s” just take over the preacher. We minister-types know all about the spotlight—every Sunday we mount the platform steps and stand before the mike and begin to talk. Those of us reverends that are retired miss those Sunday mornings. I laugh sometimes and say: “God only calls ego-maniacs.” But deep in our hearts we know that if we enjoy the spotlight too much—it really spoils what we are trying to say. They don’t want to know about our family, our dog, our vacation or any story that makes us the hero.

We’ve all heard this sermon before. “Look at me! Look at me!” Maybe those of us that focus on the “I’s” are simply reflecting the rest of the culture. Christopher Elliott of USA Today tells about a recent flight that was diverted because someone on board suffered a severe asthma attack. After making an unexpected landing, an irate passenger made a beeline toward the flight attendants treating the sick passenger, demanding the plane take off immediately. “This is ruining my vacation,” she screamed. Because the woman refused to return to her seat she was expelled from the plane. Most of the other passengers cheered as she was dragged her off the plane.

 Experts say in times of high anxiety selfishness seems to be worse. And we are living in a time when the thermostat had just about gone off the charts. “Me first” seems to be everywhere. Unmannerly drivers, honking the horn and cursing at some other driver out there. Parents demanding that Johnny and Suzie have special privileges. Church members who tell the Pastor that if the church doesn’t do something they want—they are out the door. They are simply trying to hold the church hostage. Ever heard anyone say: “My needs are just being met.” Chances are that marriage or any other relationship is on shaky ground. Whatever happened to commitment?

Years ago Harry Golden wrote for the Carolina Israelite. Wonderful writer. One column was called: “Was isn’t Johnny happy?” The whole article was about parents who worried about little Johnny wasn’t happy.” Golden went on to say little Johnny is not the center of the universe. He needed to realize there are other
Lawrence OP / flickr

people in the world—and that scowl or those pursed lips won’t get you to the head of the line. At home. At school. Church. Anywhere.

Watch the pronouns. If we hear “I” too, too much—most of us tune them out. But when some one says: “You”, or “We” or Us”—we perk up our ears.  Maybe John the Baptist loved the spotlight as well as anybody. But when people came clapping and cheering him on he reminded the crowd, “He (Jesus) must increase—I must decrease.” Maybe that’s why he occupies such a prominent place in the New Testament. He got out of the way and let the light shine where it should.

We’ve all heard the sermon before:” Look at me! Look at me!” So let’s watch our pronouns wherever we go—they might just save the day and make our little circle a little better.

                              --Roger Lovette /

Thursday, August 21, 2014

College Begins

Morningside Baptist Church / flickr
Parent overheard son as he packed for college, "Goodbye God I'm going to college!"

The following letter was sent by a college student to her parents, "Dear Mom and Dad, I'm sorry it has taken me so long to write, but my stationery was destroyed the day my dorm burned down. I'm out of the hospital now, and the doctors said my eyesight should be back to normal--sooner or later. That wonderful boy, Bill, who saved me from the fire, kindly offered to share his cozy little apartment with me until the dorm is rebuilt. He comes from a good family, so you shouldn't be too surprised to learn we're going to get married. In fact, you always wanted grandchildren, so you should  be happy to learn you're going to  be grandparents--next month."

P.S. MOM AND DAD, there was no fire, I haven't been in the hospital, I'm not pregnant, and I don't even have a boyfriend. But I did get a D in chemistry and an F in French, and I wanted to make sure you received this news in the proper perspective. Love, Mary."

Emerson College flickr

(Don't remember where this came from but I thought it was great.)

                             RogerLovette /

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

When Trouble Comes

photo by chelsearoberson / flickr

Sermons sometimes have a strange history. This one began with a book from a friend in Memphis. Well, when I got this book I was going through a very hard time. And my friend knew this and so he sent me a book. A Dr. Seuss book of all things. Not Green Eggs and Ham...not Oh, the Places You Will Go. But a book with a strange title: I Had Trouble Getting To Solla Sollew.

In typical Dr. Seuss fashion the book begins with a funny looking character that lived in a carefree world where nothing ever went wrong. Until...until one day. And it all crashed in on him. He stubbed his toe, flipped in the air, sprained the main bone on the tip of his tail.

And he writes:
   And I learned there are troubles
   Of more than one kind.
   Some come from ahead
   And some come from behind.

And so his whole book is encountering trouble after trouble. A huge big insect that bit him on the neck. He rode on this buggy pulled by a donkey. Until the donkey got sick down and he had to pull the buggy and the donkey. He tried to take a bus and it hit four nails, punctured all four tires. And so he got out and walked a hundred miles and there were all sorts of gremlins and rivers to cross and high walls to climb. He finally made it to this place called Solla Sollew—only to find that nothing is perfect. Not even there. So he made his way back home. Learning the hard way that none of us can run away from trouble. I used to think that we moved up, up, up. Like stair steps. And what I learned is what we all have to learn the journey is up and down and up and down all the way to the finish line.

photo by TARIQ-M / flickr
Israel knew this. They learned it the hard way. Maybe the best lessons always come in strange packages. After they fled from the Egyptians and the Red Sea they were sure their troubles were over. Not so.  They had to deal with the wilderness. And it took 40 years to travel 400 miles. And along the way they encountered sand and scorpions and heat and misery and hunger and thirst and warring tribes

And along the way they asked what we sometimes ask: “Is the Lord among us or not? Out of fear and frustration and long hard days in a hot sandy desert—they asked it over and over. Is the Lord really here? Is God really with us? Or is God only operative when there was plenty of water and food and no clouds in the sky and a trouble free time. No wonder they asked it—Is God in this wilderness?

Years later when some old scribe told the story of that long journey around a campfire—he said, “You know there were lessons that God’s people learned back there on that journey. Lessons that can only come from the wilderness.

The Israelites were like Dr. Seuss’ character. They thought trouble was not part of the journey and if there was trouble something had to be wrong with the leader and they took it out on Moses. Or something was wrong with God who had got them into that mess in the first place. Or there was something wrong with them—and they took it out on each other. 

We’re in a time like that, aren’t we? People are showing their teeth. Ugly, ugly talk everywhere. The President. Congress. Lousy school teachers. Pathetic parents. Officials if they had any sense could solve all these problems over there.  I don’t know a time in which I have lived where people have acted as mean-spirited as they do today.

And so they told the story back there in another hard time, and another hard time, and another time—to remind each other there are powerful lessons to be learned when trouble seemed to be everywhere.

Misunderstanding the Journey

They first misunderstood the journey idea. They thought God would lead them from oasis to oasis. From the beginning they thought their path would be straight and unencumbered and trouble-free. So the very first book of the Bible that was written down—the book of Job—asked: “Why all this trouble?” “Everything is a mess.”  One Psalmist tried to smooth over their wrinkles when he/sher wrote: “We move from strength to strength.” Well, not always. Two steps forward. One step backwards. Sometimes two steps backwards and one step forward. The Hebrews on that journey did not understand this. Forty years to travel 400 miles? And their leader couldn’t understand it either. I guess their GPS just broke down like ours does some time and just leads us down some pig-trail that is hardly a road at all. That is not where we intended to go.

It was a hard journey. The road through the wilderness is always arduous. Four times they asked the question in this passage: Did God bring us here to kill us? Did he bring us here to perish in the desert? They were hungry and they were thirsty. Never enough food or water. And the animals needed water. And their children cried out into the night with parched lips: “I want some water.” It is no wonder they kept saying: “Surely God is not in this mess!” They misunderstood the nature of the journey. “God cannot be in a place like this.” But the first lesson they had to learn from that wilderness was that they totally misunderstood this journey they were taking.

Obedience to Obedience 

photo by Moyan_Brenn  /  flickr
They had to learn something else in that God-forsaken place. God’s people do not move from oasis to oasis, but they are to move from obedience to obedience. When it comes to trouble—this is what the wilderness journey teaches us. Not to run away to Solla Sollew, wherever that is. The Israelites had a hard time learning that we have to give ourselves to faithfulness on the journey. This is what makes real people and people of faith. The grass is not greener on the other side. The grass is not even greener over the septic tank. The grass is greener where you water it!

Anybody who has ever been married knows this painfully. But trouble comes. Every stage has its own challenges. That first year—you remember? All that adjustment and all those conflicts and changes. Little children, up half the night, not enough money.  School. Shoes. Shirts. You can’t keep them in those. Adolescence? Remember. College. Empty nests. The middle-age crazies. Retirement. Losing someone you have grown to love with all your heart. We can’t bail out at any juncture just because it is hard. One man and his wife celebrated their 50th wedding Anniversary. Somebody asked, “How did you do it?” And he said, “The only thing that kept us going some days was the memory of a promise we made back there before the flickering candlelight. ‘For richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish.’ “Sometimes”, he said,  “the only thing that kept us going was the memory of what we had said. And around that fire, our two cold hearts warmed our lives and made it count.”

One of the lessons of the wilderness journey is that we are to move from obedience to obedience. Football fans don’t understand it, do they? In about two-three weeks it will be Alabama. The next week it will be Auburn. Prominent alumni do not understand defeat. No such thing as losing. Grief takes hold. Unfaith takes hold. Rage takes hold. Depression takes hold. We think there is no way out of this hot, blazing desert where we find so little water. And so we must leave. Or fire the coach. Or impeach the President.

Our response? We test God. Test God. The words for that place on their journey, they said, we will call: Massah—which means testing. We will also call it Meribah—a place of murmuring and contention and faultfinding. God could not possibly bring us to such a place as this. Fill in the blank for yourself. What place are you taking about? The issue here was faith or disobedience. Which way will it be? Are we going to believe and follow or are we going to turn our backs and run away to some Solla Sollew?

What did God do? He just sat there and listened. Silent. Silent. He did not jump through their hoops. He did not way a word for a while. God did not serve them—it was the other way around. 

God Spoke 

But the third lesson we learn from the wilderness is that: Finally God spoke, as God always does, in his own
photo by bthomso / flickr
time.  Old Moses was tired of that crowd that would not listen to him or follow him. The Scripture says, It was like herding cats. Old Moses was also tired of a silent God who finally said, ”Strike the rock in the middle of the dustiest desert you have ever seen.” Moses said, “Strike the rock?” And God said, “Strike the rock.” Moses thought it was the craziest thing he had ever heard. Strike the rock. He just stood there and said again, “Moses, strike the rock.” So reluctantly Moses took the staff that he had used once upon a time when he opened up a river. He struck the rock. Do you remember what happened? Water just gushed out. The purest, sweetest water they had ever tasted. It just came pouring out of the rock. Looking back they said one of the things they learned in the desert is that God speaks in his own time. God really does provide for his people—but in his own strange kind of a way.

They learned that there were no impossibles with God. In the old days in this country when there were no interstates and just a handful of blue highways and no other roads, the old road signs would say: “End of the road. Turn right.” There is always a way to go at the end of the road for people of faith and perseverance. No oasis where they were. No running water. Nothing. And God said: Strike the rock...and the water just gushed out. Just in time. Just in time.

Remember Alex Haley that wrote Roots? He said when he was a little boy he would have his head down on the kitchen table, depressed and sometimes even crying. And his Grandmother would always, “Alex, We don’t know when Jesus will come back—but he will always come on time.”

Trouble will come to us all—but God’s people learned the hard way that we don’t have to give up—God is with us every step of the way.

One of the great black poets was Langston Hughes. I love his hopeful poem, “Mother To A Son.”  Moses could have written it, too.

“Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
 It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners. And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back. Don’t you set down on the steps
‘Cause you find it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.”

Israel would tell their story about their ancestors and the wilderness journey over and over...year after year...decade after decade. Until some scribe wrote the words down. And in Temple or synagogue they would listen and they would marvel at the lessons God’s people had learned in the wilderness. Some Psalmist would summarize the wonder of that time when he wrote, “I will feed you with the finest wheat, and with honey from the rock I will satisfy you.” (Psalm 18.16)

Dr. Seuss character never did escape his troubles. They seemed, at times to attack him from all sides. But he found his way. As did the people of God on that journey.

And I have come all the way from Clemson to remind you. You too will find the way. Not without troubles—but you will find the way.

photo by oldmantravels / flickr

(This sermon was preached at the Southside Baptist Church in Birmingham. That church has recently lost their Pastor and are dealing with a series of issues about their future.)

--RogerLovette /

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Open Letter to My College-Bound Granddaughter

This is the fourth time we’ve done this. Sending off kids to college. I remember when our two children went away to school it was hard. I’d walk by their rooms and a wave of sadness would hit me. Some nights I would wonder where they were and what they were doing. The old question: “Do you know where your children are...” drove me crazy. It was closing chapter-opening chapter time. They were both on the cusp of adulthood and I did not like these new chapters one bit.

If that was enough we sent our first grandchild away to school and she finally made it. Amazing Grace’s “Through many dangers toils and snares...” reminds me of then and her. Now our youngest grandchild is leaving home for college. And it’s funny but the same feelings I had with my own children I now have for my grandchildren.

Of course we parent-types have to issue out advice before they leave. Not only brush your teeth, eat fruits and vegetables, wear deodorant, go to church and watch out for the boys.

But there are larger concerns. I told my granddaughter, Libby the other day, “Guess what—you are going to be homesick.” She said, ‘Nah, I don’t think so.’ Well, as she got closer to leaving day—it happened.  I also told her that everybody else who goes away to school have the same feelings. “Now,” I said, “they’re not going to admit it—but they will have the same feelings you will experience.” It goes with the territory of college—but you survive—and you are better for it.

“Remember,” I said, “when you were homecoming queen and won all those awards for running—it felt great. Well, guess what. All freshman start off on the same level. You may have been famous back in high school and somebody may even thought you were a genius. No more. You are at the starting gate just like you were when you started high school. Except—hopefully—you are older and wiser.  When you feel like a nobody all over again—remember these feelings go with the territory. But these worries are universal and they, too shall pass.

“Now to the good part. You’ve got a chance to start over. All that stuff you hated about home or school or town? You can put all those yesterdays behind you. It’s like that tablet they gave you in the first grade—no smudges, no mistakes—nothing—just a brand new tablet—and you really can decide what goes on those lines and those pages.

“You’ll meet new friends. You’ll learn some things you never knew. You’ll probably still be growing. There will be trips to take and adventures you never thought of. And you’ll begin to slowly learn that this new chapter called adulthood is not as bad as you thought. Making your own decisions—with nobody to tell you what to do—it be a mite scary—but flapping your wings just may be great.

“You’ve got a running scholarship. Remember all those races when your parents and friends stood on the sidelines screaming ‘Go...Go...Go.’ Well—they won’t be there with you but most of them are cheering you on, praying for you every night and are so very proud of where you are and what you’re doing.

“Test the water.  Then dive in. The water’s great. No sharks. No cramps to stop you. Just miles and miles of blue water and sunshiny days—maybe even a few jellyfish—but not many. You will find a whole new life. Do you know how many people out there that would give anything to be where you are?”

(Libby has just spent her first week at Limestone College in South Carolina--flap your wings and fly girl,  flap your wings and fly.)

                        RogerLovette /

Saturday, August 9, 2014

A Tribute to an Old Friend

Friday afternoon I went to a funeral for a black brother. Reverend Matthew Oglesby was a faithful minister of the gospel. He and I worked together on several important projects while I was Pastor at Clemson. His last few years were hard because he had Alzheimer’s. I saw him a couple of times—but his family kept him at home and took care of him until his death. He was 86 years old. He is survived by his wife Beatrice. They were married 64 years. She is one of my favorites. They had seven children. Cedric who now lives in London, England spoke at the service for the family.

He began in a beautiful way: “The story I tell today has already been written.” And so it is with all of us. We write our own stories—for better or for worse. And if the truth were known—most of our stories in one way or another would be the same: the hopes and dreams we have carried all our lives, the struggles we have faced, the times we rejoiced and the occasions when our hearts were broken. For those of us who have lived a long time our stories are just about competed. But I remember the story one of my good friends tells about his mother. She was in her nineties and was very sick and was in the hospital again and again. So one day her son went into the room and whispered, “Mama, I know you are tired...but it will be OK if you decide to go...” And she opened her eyes and smiled and said: “Not yet.” And so, we too can say—our stories are not over—not yet. Thank God for that. 

Cedric Oglesby ended his remarks at the funeral by telling a personal story. When he was a little boy he would write out a reminder every week for his father: “I need $2.00 for my lunch money...” No name. Just that request. He put the note next to his father’s billfold week after week. The money was always there when he needed it.

Cedric came home from England one Thanksgiving not too long ago. He stayed in the Guest Room which had once been his bedroom. He said when he got there his father was asleep. But he heard someone shuffling down the hall about an hour later. It was his father. He looked into the room and just stared at Cedric. Then he turned around and shuffled back down the hall. In a few minutes he heard his father again. He came into Cedric’s room and opened his hand and gave his son a piece of paper. It was one of the notes the boy had written over forty years before asking for $2.00. Dementia is a strange and sad disease—but even after all those years when the old father knew and could say little—he remembered. And so this son ended his remarks to a packed group of mourners with these words: “The story, you see, I have told today has already been written.”

In memory of Reverend Matthew Oglesby

December 24, 1928 - August 2, 2014

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

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

School is Starting Again--Do You Remember?

Once Bibb City School - Columbus, GA
" I have been a student of your love
 and have not graduated..."
        --R.S. Thomas, Collected Later Poems

Not too long ago I went back to my hometown and wandered around my old haunts. The house I was born in. The mill across the street where my parents worked for years and years. The store right next to our house where we bought many of our groceries. The tiny white row after row mill houses where people I knew used to live. They have all moved away or died. I looked up at the church with its tall white columns. I used to think was the biggest and prettiest church in the world. The swimming pool where we swam every summer—now concreted over. But when I stopped in front of the red-brick building which was my school for the first seven years of my schooling my, my but the memories swirled.

Bill Clinton came breezing into Greenville the other day to talk about education. He started by naming every schoolteacher he had grade by grade. Amazing. I couldn’t do that. I don’t remember many of them. I cannot see their faces. But I remember especially my first grade teacher.  Miss Beggs. I don’t know how old she was—she wasn’t married. I remember those starched dresses that she wore. I remember she had sort of blonde hair. I remember she wore glasses with plastic frames.

I remember her kindness. Grabbing my hand some day as we walked to the playground. Did she know how scared I was those first few days? I don’t remember anything she taught—I just remember her name, out of most of the others. She stands out tall and important in my heart.

I had no idea that was the beginning of a magnificent journey. She opened the door that first day and invited me in. What if that had been a bad experience? What if she had not cared for me and all the others? Would I have journeyed from there to here without that first great nudging? Who knows?

Students in my town are moving back in. Runners are everywhere. You can just feel the excitement welling up day after day. Down the street from where I live there is an elementary school. When they open their doors I wonder if there will be other scared nervous first graders especially who have no idea what to expect. But I guarantee you that many of those teachers will give their hearts away to those that have come those doors. And those that come will discover years later that their lives have been changed.

Teachers are having a hard time these days. The forms they have to fill out are endless. The interminable meetings never seem to stop. Some of the parents will give them a hard time. Some of the students will be difficult. And the pay will not be near-good enough. The world doesn’t think much of the teachers. Public education is not a high priority in most states—and most politicians have forgotten or never knew that special day when the door first opened and the wonders of the world began to unfold.

So I whisper a prayer again this year for all those that teach. I pray as those teachers wrap up their day and close the doors and head for home day after day—they will know that what they do is one of the most important jobs in the world.   

                                    RogerLovette /

Monday, August 4, 2014

My Pastor--A Tribute

"In the movie, Chariots of Fire all the Trainer did was prepare another man to run a race. He wasn't out in front of the crowd. In a sense, he ran his race through the other guy. That's not a bad role for a Pastor."

(My Pastor, Steve Jones has just resigned after fifteen years of ministry in a downtown inner-city church in Birmingham, Alabama. I wrote him this letter last week--because I appreciate what he has done all these years.)

August 1, 2014

My dear, dear Steve: 

Fifteen years down the Jericho Road ain’t bad. Remember one of our first meetings you had just come and we had a Maundy Thursday service and we washed each other’s feet. That was a high privilege.

You have been faithful and worked hard in a very hard place. We both know that inner-city work may be challenging and sheer fun some days but it is exhausting just to try to keep the church afloat.

When we looked for a church to join that was no question where it would be. Sunday after Sunday you stood up there with your robe on and did it. You are a good, good preacher—and that is coming from someone who is enormously picky. My wife who is even pickier says the same thing.

I was so sorry to hear about your stroke. None of us like limits—I know that well. But I have heard you have come back and that must have been hard work. So—I tip my hat to you and Libby for hanging in there.

I heard George Buttrick one day say that “all being said—I am proud to be a member of the club.” He was talking about ministry. You make me proud for being a member of the club.

God bless you both. It ain’t over till it’s over—says the theologian Yogi Bear. Gayle joins me in wishing you both the best.

Sincerely, Roger Lovette

Easter Sunday at Southside

"And even if we are occupied with important things, even if we attain honor or fall into misfortune, still let us remember how good it was once here when we were all together, united by a good and kind feeling which made us better perhaps than we are."       

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Immigration--Will We flunk the Morals Test?

Headlines are funny. Sometimes not so funny.  They only deal with the news-of-the week which raises eyebrows, making us shake our heads or clap our hands. Mostly the former, which forces people to yell: “Did you read that?”

So this week we are hearing about the sad state of affairs in Israel and Palestine. We are hearing threats by mostly Republican legislators to sue the President. Some accuse him of trying to be King—while others say he is doing nothing. Can we have it both ways? We read where the Congress-Senate has taken their five-week holiday. For $9.95 a month you can follow Sarah Palin’s rants about trying to impeach President Obama. Huh?

Whatever happened to those close to 60,000 children who have fled danger from their homeland to find a safe place in America? Did we send them all back home? Did we scatter them around the country? Have we locked them up? Where are they and are they scared of this new land that they thought would be entirely different. I have a feeling that though we don’t have room in our papers or nightly news for them anymore—they are still with us and we still have decided to do with them.

photo by southwest key programs / flickr
 Most of them never heard of the Stature of Liberty thank God! They did hear this was a safe place and so they came. Parents who paid thousands of dollars they could not afford just to make sure their children were finally safe—must be disheartened when they realize many of their children will come back home to an unsafe place once more.

I have been appalled at those who claim these children that come bring lice and tuberculosis and all sorts of diseases when they come to our shores. Seems to me once upon a time people in Germany (and other countries) claimed that the Jews were dirty, lice-infested and a threat to their nation. Does this thinking have a familiar ring? It is just about as un-American—not to speak of un-Christian--as one could get.

One of the darkest days in our history of World War II was when we sent back to Germany a whole boatload of Jewish people who tried to escape the Nazis by coming to America. We turned the ship around and sent back to their deaths. Ours is not the only time in our country when politics triumphed reason. Looks like we are more concerned with approval ratings than we are human beings.

I wonder if many of those Congressmen and Senators who are back home glad-handing,  hugging their own kids and sleeping in their own beds realize that in a place called Texas there are a whole cadre of kids frightened and wondering about their future.

photo by mlangsam 2004 / flickr

This is not a simple issue anymore than the tragedy between Israel and Palestine and the troubled, troubled Mid-east and a multitude of other problems. But still whatever decisions we make on this immigration issue, especially with the children, and other issues really does determine the kind of people we really are. And if we are becoming mean and cruel and selfish only--it is high time we dismantled the Stature of Liberty and send it back to France.