Saturday, November 29, 2014

Advent--Looking For A Home

photo by Fleur-Ange Lamothe / Flickr

It’s Advent time. Early the Church set aside four Sundays to get us ready for the birth of Jesus. They realized it took some time and preparation for us in our crowded calendars to understand the mystery of mysteries. God coming to us in flesh.

This Advent I’m going to focus on homecoming. I keep remembering the Prodigal story. The boy who lost everything and wondered in his misery if he might go home. Thomas Mann said of great literature: “It is...however much we say it was.” So the Prodigal is everybody’s story. We all wander far away from what we intended back there. Somewhere along the way most of us got lost. And, like the Prodigal we long to go home.

The old man in the nursing home tugged at my sleeve, “Take me home...I want to go home.” It is a universal longing. In our dreams we keep going back. To that place where it all started. Even now you can probably remember what was in every room. Where your bed was. Where you kept your clothes. How the kitchen looked. You can describe, even after all these years, that special place.

Frederick, Buechner has said that: “I believe that what we long for most in the home we knew is the peace and charity that, if we were lucky, we first came to experience there, and I believe that it is that same peace and charity we dream of finding once again in the home that the tide of time draws us toward.”

Spend some time thinking of that tiny place most of the world never knew existed back there. A manger and a star and a mother and father and at the center of it all the one who makes it all possible.

I don’t think this is just wishful thinking, putting our heads in the sand and ignoring the convulsions of our time. Ferguson. All those frightened immigrants. The grief that seems to be everywhere. The pushing, shoving and desperation of shoppers this season. The soldier in Iraq. The family in their shell of a house in Afghanistan. And up and down the streets where we live—there is a whole lot of pain.

It was that kind of a world that Jesus first came into. And those Shepherds that traveled from afar...found at the end of their journey more than they ever dreamed. And maybe, just maybe this Christmas we, like the boy in the story or the scruffy shepherds, might arise and shake away the clutter of all our too-muchness and go to our Father. The Prodigal dreamed of a homecoming. And so do we all.  

photo from St.James Church / / flickr

Prayer for the First Sunday in Advent

"O God, thou who art 'untamed and perilous,' who dost 'deal in every form of danger, and many modes of death', strip us of our pretensions and vanities; expose to the strong his weakness, and to the wise his folly but set in our hearts an unconquerable hope, and in thine own way fulfill it. Through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen."                           --Paul Scherer

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Alzheimer's--and Birthday Time

Yesterday was her birthday. She was 88. You wouldn’t know it to look at her. Teeth pearly white. Skin smooth thanks to a lifetime of Merle Norman. She maintains at her age almost her girlish figure. She is in a Nursing Home. She has no idea where she is. She recognizes no one except my wife and me. Every time we come in, she smiles the biggest smile. And when she speaks it is only mumbling and you don’t know what she is saying. All the nurses tell us that she is always cheerful. Always smiling. She gives no one any trouble. In fact, she is a favorite of all those that work there.

When her husband died five years ago—she started drifting away. The changes were subtle but we knew something was going on. Little by little we had to make decisions. We had to take her driver’s license away. We got someone to come in the daytime and prepare meals. Then we had sitters for eight hours, then twelve—finally around the clock.

She had to leave her home and move to Birmingham. We were left with the sad business of disposing of all her treasures. Cleaning everything out. Getting her house for sale and moving her fifty miles to where we lived.

At first she hated the move. She wanted to go home. More than once she was caught, pocketbook in hand, walking down a street looking for home. We moved her five times. Each time she escaped we had to transfer her to another facility.

When we moved to South Carolina from Alabama—we brought her with us. We were scared about driving her so far—but she made the trip probably better than we did. She is two miles from our house—and it is easy to check on her.

Sometimes she mumbles, “Where Mama? Have you seen Daddy?” Not very often she looks up at us with the saddest of eyes and says, “Would you take me home?” It’s a hard journey this winding rocky road. It’s like watching someone slowly slip away on an iceberg—and you call and call but there is no turning back.

We kept asking each other, “What do you give someone who has Alzheimer’s?” The clothes we bought her are long gone—either she gave them to someone else—or just disappeared. Shoes, too. She lost her glasses over and over. We never did find them the last time. What could we possibly give her? She loved flowers so we went to the florist and got this beautiful bouquet of flowers. We drove by the facility, went through the locked doors some aide had to open. She was in the Dining Room. She had not touched her food. Her eyes were closed. She was asleep. “Dorothy, wake up. It’s your birthday.” She never opened her eyes. She kept them shut tight. We never could wake her up. We left the flowers in her room. We hope she noticed them.

The Doctor says she is in the last stages of dementia. She doesn’t eat. It is hard to swallow. Hospice begins this week. She is in a fine place. The care she gets is excellent. She sleeps most of the time.

We keep going by. When she is awake she always knows us. That is all. And so on her eighty-eightieth birthday she keeps her eyes tightly shut. I don’t blame her. Eyes wide open—there is so little to see these cold winter days. What do you give someone with Alzheimer’s? You give them love. You give them the best care you can. You talk to her—mentioning her sisters and brothers long gone. You tell her about the dog she used to have—and the house someone else now lives in over two hundred miles away. You riffle through her photograph albums—and she recognizes no one.  And you give her flowers. Maybe flowers she will never recognize. And you pray to God that her journey will soon end and she will be a peace. Happy Birthday, Dorothy. The old promise she hung on to as long as she remembered was, “I will be with you.” Deep in our hearts we hope those old words are still true for our dear friend even though now she does not know. 

(The Healing Angel stands in front of the Nursing School at Samford University, Birmingham, Al.)

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

It's Thanksgiving--and the Room is Filled with Faces

On this Thanksgiving Day
the room is filled with faces.
Much like that scene in the book where
   there are just too many to number.
And yet I remember. Some at least.
Most have slipped away somewhere—
 But the delight they brought—those unremembered
  and remembered ones—
  the doors they opened—the fun we had—
  all those shining times when the sun really did stand still.
These remain embedded deep in my heart.
That’s why I need a Thanksgiving.
To open the door and see here and there
   those that have cheered me on—and others too.

On this Thanksgiving Day
the room is filled with faces.
The old book says we are all surrounded by a sea of witnesses...
  and this is true.
The woman who birthed me and named me
  and held me close to her breast her whole life long.
The church with its tall white columns and stained glass windows
and its picture of Jesus—
But more—all those who made faith so possible that after 79 years
  I am amazed to discover that old ragged “I will be with you” is true after all.
The schools...the books...the fun...
But more: classmates and authors and teachers
   who did more than they could possibly know.
And all those friends who walked into my life
  wherever I’ve gone.
They accepted, and affirmed and did not judge—
  they let me be--most days.

On this Thanksgiving Day
The room is filled with faces.
Dating her under a harvest day...
  seeing her walk down that aisle.
And children—my two red-heads
  and my two grand girls.
And so many more too.
The old book is right.
On this Thanksgiving Day 
The room is filled with faces.


Sunday, November 23, 2014

Thanksgiving--Where's My Watch?

Want to hear two funny thanksgiving stories? Harry was lying on his deathbed. He turned to his wife Ethel and said, “Ethel, here I am on my deathbed, and you are by my side. Remember when we got married, coming down the church steps I fell and broke my ankle, and Ethel you wife be my side. Then I went to war, got wounded and came home to months of recovery, and Ethel you were by my side. Then there was the time I invested all our savings in a new business and lost it all, and Ethel you were by my side. Now here I am lying here dying, and Ethel you are by my side. Ethel You’re bad luck!”

Sound familiar? Most of us miss the whole party. We’re too busy texting, surfing the web, talking incessantly on our i-phone, punching some keypad on our i-pad or putting in the earplugs of on our i-pod. Meanwhile we missed most of the turning leaves, forgot somebody we love’s birthday, didn’t really hear what our mate said and wonder why our spiritual gas tank is just about empty.

We’ll walk a country mile to distract ourselves and miss what is in our own back yard. Not too long ago, after a wonderful week in New York City we stood in the long line at the airport. We paced just about everything we owned in the green basket that would carry our treasures through the machine and make sure we were not terrorists. I’ve always feared that I might lose something in the process. Sure enough, as the basket finally came out of the chute I began to gather up my stuff: belt, shoes, keys, fingernail file, and even my billfold. Peering into the bend my heart skipped a beat. My watch was  missing! Where was my watch? I yelled, “I can’t find my watch!” I told my wife, “My watch is not in this bend.” I ran back to the uniformed officials and said, “Mister, I took my watch off with everything else—and it’s not there. That is my favorite watch.” The man looked at me for a long moment and said, “Sir, do you have two watches?” Irately I said, “No!” “Look on your arm.” My watch was there. I whispered to my wife, “Let’s get out of here—these people will think I’m crazy.”

My watch was on my wrist the whole time—and I missed it. Where’s my happiness? Where’s my joy? Where’s all the stuff in my life that really counts.” Advertisers tell us it is out there. We’re missing a lot. And if we only buy and then we can fill in the blanks—we’ll be happy. Maybe the secret to our happiness is a whole lot closer than we realized. Back to my first story. Ethel was not bad luck. She was there all the time. And I guarantee you she put up with a lot. Her dying husband missed it all.

Let’s quit muttering about what we’ve missed. Look around you. What do we have to be thankful for? Some Ethel that is still there or was with you for fifty years until she died. What’s your watch? A child that finally made it over fool’s hill. A bill that really did get paid off finally. Still living after that scary lab report. A country—not perfect by a long shot—but a land still free with opportunities galore. A faith, even though it might just flicker low—kept you going when we thought you couldn’t get out of bed.

I’m not a Pollyanna. I know as well as you if we keep reading the headlines we really will believe that the world is going to hell. And yet—look at your wrist. Your own special timepiece. Ponder your blessings and even those of us with the most difficult of lives—have a ticking watch close at hand. Thanksgiving provides us with a time to quit
Yelling about what we don’t have—and concentrate on the stuff that comes down our particular pike day after day after day.

Now thank we all our God, with hearts and hand and voices,
Who  wondrous things hath done, In whom the world rejoices;
Who from our mother’s arms, Hath blest us on our way
With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.”

photo by dvidshub / flickr

(The photograph at the top comes from the First Baptist Church, Clemson, SC. Thanks to Evelyn Boykin our Communion table was covered with a lush reminder of all the blessings that just keep coming to us all during Thanksgiving and the whole year.) 

                                                           --RogerLovette /

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Jesus--Who is He Anyway?

"Music without bass notes is liable to just be bare tinkling stuff."

Statistics tell us that fewer and fewer people are going to church. I am told that atheism is making a strong comeback. Young people particularly find something else to do on Sunday morning. And a great many that do wander into a church expect hoopla and fun and having “their needs are met.” Look around any mainline church and you’ll likely see a whole cadre of empty spaces. Preachers and members are wringing their hands and whispering: “What are we going to do!”

Down the street there are traffic cops making sure that people don’t crash into one another trying to get into the hip, with-it new church scene. There will be colored lights and loud music and some preacher, male of course, dressed in blue jeans and a sweatshirt. Likely as not he’ll talk a lot about “Dude” this and “Dude” that. There will be nary a word about homeless folk, the ugly mood in the nation, Isis, Ferguson or the terrible gridlock in Washington. 

Somewhere churches have jumped the track. We love the Bible but we ignore the application. That’s why I would recommend Todd Wilson’s article in Thursday’s Greenville News. (SC) He writes about the sacrifices Jesus demands of his followers. He challenges us to look at the big picture of what faith people are to be about. There have been a lot of times in church history when the church has been more reflective of the culture than of its leader, Jesus.  If you read the Book carefully you’re likely to find God’s word cuts across the grain of most of our lives and most of our culture. It is no wonder that so many churches today have no Cross anywhere in their worship centers. Churches that preach a strong gospel will not have to worry about traffic cops driving its traffic.

I’d like to hear what some of you have to say about this subject.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Immigration--the Human Side

photo by michael fleshman/ flickr
 It was Halloween night. We were visiting relatives on the Oregon coast.  There weren’t many trick o' treaters that came ringing the doorbell. But we opened the door and there stood three very scary grinning children. They were dressed up as a skeleton, Spiderman and another character I could not identify. Behind them stood their parents proud and dressed-up themselves. They were Hispanic and they were friends of my relatives. Not only did we put assorted goodies in their sacks but we also invited them in.

It must have been ten years ago that they left Mexico and their families and found themselves on the Oregon Coast.  It must have been scary to leave behind all that was familiar and arrive with just a few suitcases, wondering if they could find work. The young man had finished a degree in computer programming in Mexico. Very soon he found a job on a construction crew. His wife worked as a maid cleaning people’s houses. Ten years later they had bought a house, had three boys and were very proud of their home, their children and the community they lived in.

photo by Ricardo Lopez S./ flickr
My relatives met the man and they became friends. He had all sorts of skills and so they began to call on him. It seems that he could do about anything. He refinished their kitchen cabinets. Put tile in their bathroom. He changed some light fixtures. When they called him with computer trouble—he was there. He even installed hardwood floors throughout their house. He is the kind of man every all-thumbs family dreams of. This Hispanic family sent money back home to relatives who live on limited income.

They never have been able to become American citizens even though all three of their children were born here. Yet they work hard, they want the very best for their children; they pay taxes and social security. While we were there the mid-term elections were held. Oregon’s citizens voted that unless someone was a citizen of the United States, they could not get a driver’s license.

This man now must drive to work with no license and I assume no insurance. Even though he pays taxes and social security—he will see few benefits from the money he pays to the government week after week.

Walking down an Oregon street I saw an ugly sign on the front of one house. “If you can’t speak English—why don’t you go home.” That house also had a target plastered to the front door that said: “We know how to shoot!”

There is something terribly wrong with this picture. Many hope we can starve these people or drive them out of the country. President Obama has said that if Congress and the Senate cannot come to some positive conclusion about immigration he is seriously consider signing a presidential order to protect five million of these people. All this means is that those brown-skinned people like those that stood at my relatives’ door—will be political footballs. There will be no names mentioned, no children’s pictures—just them—stuck in a power play in Washington and the rest of the country.

I keep remembering that word, all, that is embedded in our Constitution and Bill of Rights. Maybe we ought to mark out that word and write in bold letters another word: some. Looks like we still have some work to do as a people.

photo by takomabibelot / flickr

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Politics and More--Winning and Losing

photo by mandarin77 / flicklr
Losing is no fun. Ask all the candidates in this off-year election that worked hard, spent too much money and still found themselves defeated. Mostly Democrats. But whether you are red or blue or striped or a thousand shades of grey losing is no fun.

But you don’t die from losing you just wish you could. We’ve all lost a whole lot. Not just some political race but more. We’ve lost health, status, money, friends, and people we loved greatly. Most of us have some place like the wistful song: “O give me a home where the buffalo roam...” In the college town where I live losing is not supposed to happen to our team. But it does. And what happens if the scoreboard turns in favor of our cursed opponents. Sometimes we feel like we are nobody, that we don’t count and that the sky is cloudy all day long. People who have never seen the inside of a college don the home teams colors and finery. Buy expensive tickets, tailgate like crazy and scream until their voices are hardly a whisper. And if the team loses they walk away as if somebody or something special has died. We put too much money and effort and commitment into something that is far from perfect. And if too much is lost we politely fire the coach and look everywhere for somebody that will win, win, win.

I hate to mention politics but I will anyway. As I have seen John McCain muttering and castigating the President daily I wonder if any of his opinions are shaped by the fact that he lost to our President. Poor losers are no fun to be around. I think the same thing—only more so—about Sarah Palin who is still smirking and sarcastically dissing the President. Some people--columnists and pundits have made a cottage industry—not to speak of zillions of dollars they have made—have never gotten over the hard fact that they lost the election to a black President twice.

But I need to be fair. Mr. McConnell has now made it to Senate Majority Leader. I do remember the first days Mr. Obama was in office that Mr. McConnell said his number one goal was to make sure that this new President failed. He has certainly done his part. I couldn’t get over an elected official of national stature saying this. I kept thinking if the President fails—don’t we all fail? Hmmm.

But now Mr. McConnell is on center stage—not as President but in a powerful political position. Should Mr. Obama have as his stated purpose to make sure that Mr. McConnell fails? Republicans will cry unfair. Democrats will lick their chops. Wouldn’t it be healthier to at least try to work with this man for the good of the country? I’m not talking about giving up principles—but I am talking about working together to get our country off the skids.

Some of us lost this past Tuesday in the election. Some of us won. Now what? Shall we rub the losers noses in their defeats—shall the losers spit and claw at the winners. We are in a hard time. We have big fish to fry. Jobs maybe first. Dealing with the unending war in the Middle East which has been going on for centuries really. But we all need to be for something not agin' something.

Maybe I’ve rambled too long. But I do remember the wonderful story of Mother Teresa. Some columnist went to India and watched her work. Picking up little starving and dead babies. Hugging, carrying them to the hospital—reaching out to what seemed like endless disease and poverty. The reporter asked Mother Theresa didn’t she get discouraged. Wasn’t what she did a hopeless task? Why didn’t she do something where she could see some results? She turned and looked at him and said, “Young man I do what I can, where I am, with what I have.”

Losers or winners—not bad advice for a country desperately in need of people who will continue the hard work of making the USA live up to its dreams and Constitution.