Saturday, December 26, 2015

Room in the Inn--Sorta

JrWooley6 / flickr

Maybe you read the story of the bathrobe drama at church. I think I read it first in Guideposts years ago. As Mary and Joseph stumbled to find their places on stage nobody was more enchanted by that night than little Wally. He stood in the wings waiting his turn. He was the innkeeper in the play--dumbfounded by the wonder of it all.

Joseph and Mary walked in and knocked on the door of the inn. Joseph knocked hard as Wally, the innkeeper was there, waiting. "What do you "want? Wally asked, swinging the door open. "We seek lodging," Joseph said. Wally spoke vigorously, "Seek it elsewhere. The inn is filled."

Joseph persisted, "Sir we have asked everywhere in vain. We have traveled a long way and are very weary." Wally shook his head. "There is no room in this inn for you."

Joseph was unrelenting. "Please, good innkeeper, this is my wife. She is heavy with child and needs a a place to rest. Surely you must have some small corner for her. She is so tired."  Now for the first time the innkeeper looked down at Mary. There was a long pause and the audience wondered what would come next. No one said a word.

The Prompter backstage grew nervous. She whispered, "Say: No! Begone!'  Wally said, "No!" and then added, "Begone!" Joseph laced his arm around Mary and slowly began to move away. The innkeeper just stood there watching the forlorn couple. His mouth was open but no words came.  But there were tears in his eyes.

And suddenly the pageant took a different turn. Wally spoke, "Don't go Joseph. Don't go. Bring Mary back." With a great smile Wally said,  "You can have my room." The audience broke up. Some left the program thinking the play had been ruined. Yet there were others that thought this was the best Christmas pageant they had ever seen.

As I thought about all those refugees fleeing Syria for their lives, I suddenly remembered Wally and his story. And just this morning I picked up yesterday's New York Times and read about Kamal, age 33, refugee from Syria. He is struggling to find a place for his family and himself in Texas. Read it. We Americans need to listen to the human side of the refugee crisis. Maybe if we ponder the reality of the enormous needs laid at our doorstep--we, like Wally might just begin to say: "You can have my room."

--Roger Lovette /

Friday, December 25, 2015

Christmas Musings

photo by David Wright / flickr

It's Christmas morning. My house in a nice neighborhood is quiet. Music fills my house. The Christmas trees are lighted--yes two trees I got carried away. Meanwhile outside the house down the street people with little sacks move form the grocery store down the street . They have no car. At Hardee's this morning a slender man covered in tattoos brings in a cake and gives it to one of the workers. "It's vanilla" he says as he smiles. Some of the politicians are growling, "we've got to take our country back." To where pray tell.

All this silly talk about political correctness--spoken with a sneer is strange. Worrying about Happy Hilidays and messages on Starbucks cups. Wired thinking. Last night our family sat together at our Christmas Eve service. The church was packed. On the second row was a Mother and Father that buried their thirty-something the day before. As the Bread was broken and the cup poured we one by one walked to the table. Talk about political correctness. There we were Republicans and Democrats and the who cares. There were blacks and Chinese and women with tattoos on their necks. One man hobbled to the front with his cane. Young couples with children. An old woman living alone came to the Table. The little man whose wife with Alzheimer's not knowing him made his way to the front. There were kids and proud old parents sitting with grown kids from all over. One by one we came. With a common need. We were all hungry for something. Acceptance. Love. Hoping to start over. Maybe just to get through the day without falling down.

Yes the world outside the doors was complicated and hard. So much going the wrong way. Yet we
last night like pilgrims from all over streamed down some aisle. We've been doing this for hundreds of years. One of the root words for faith is rope. I love that word. Rope. To hold on to. To pull us through. To just survive or make it. Maybe the old fashioned word save us.

The tree will come down soon. We'll consign the Christmas music to the back of the stacks. We'll put up a new calendar. We don't know what this new year will bring. But we have this slender rope. And remembering last night and the trail of need and hunger that walked to a table we will remember on the hard cold days ahead. And we will go on.

--Roger Lovette /

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

It's Christmas!

(For years I keep coming back to one of my Christmas memories. I have printed it in several newspapers and a couple of Christmas blogs.)

High up on our Christmas tree, near the top, if you look closely you may see it. If you don’t squint your eyes and look carefully you’ll probably miss it entirely. I’m talking about the star. 

It may be the tiniest ornament on the tree. The little star is probably an inch and a half in diameter. The star was made in the church kitchen by a little girl and her Sunday school teacher over forty years ago in Southside Virginia. 

Every year, without fail she breezes into the house with her own two daughters. After lugging in suitcases, pillows and presents she always moves toward the Christmas tree in the corner. She asks the same question year after year. “Where’s the star?” Christmas would not be Christmas without that star. I used to think it was a foolish request hanging on to that old homemade star. But I have changed my mind.

We all need some ties to back there. We need some stack pole of remembering that sends us back, back toward yesterday and the past and our roots. What’s your star? Probably not a paste ornament. What is it that calls you back to what used to be with a tug and a pull that is almost magic? I have a buddy who keeps high on a shelf an old threadbare teddy bear. Some of the stuffing is missing and one eye has been lost. His Daddy bought it for him at the fair one time. They stood there looking at the wonderful stuffed animals and he pointed and his Daddy shook his head. The little boy burst into tears and snubbed and snubbed. Finally the Father sighed took out his billfold and handed the clerk the money. His Daddy has been dead for more than thirty years, yet that teddy bare are one of his most precious possessions. I have another friend, long gone now, that kept an old pouch of chewing tobacco pinned to the bookcase behind his desk.  He told me he grew up in this little tiny cotton mill village and smoke breaks were few and far between. Almost everybody then chewed tobacco in the mill.  The man has written a score of books. He taught hundreds of students. And he always kept a pouch of chewing tobacco as a reminder of how far he had come and how grateful he was. Five years ago I stopped by to see the old black lady that we would now call a Nanny. She kept my brother and me for years and loved us fiercely. As I started to leave she told me she wanted to show me something. She opened a dresser drawer and pulled out something wrapped in tissue paper. She unfolded the yellowing paper and held up a slip. “Miz Ruth give me this slip. She always gave me the nicest presents.” She had never worn it but she kept it and remembered. 

Christmas is a time for stirring memories. Silver Bells. Silent Night. Santa Claus is coming to town. I’m dreaming of a white Christmas. O Come All Ye Faithful. But this season is much, much more. The faces loom up before us. Names of those long dead get mixed up with fun-filled times from our crowded pasts. Christmas is a remembering time.

Some of us hang the symbols of our memories on a Christmas tree. Some pack them away in tissue paper. Some place these mementoes carefully in a jewelry box and open it up from time to time and just smile. Some of us just keep our treasures tucked away in our hearts. 

“Where’s the star?” Good question. Unpack it gently. Hang it high in your own way. And remember. Remember Remember.

--Roger Lovette /

Open Letter to the United States at Christmas

Syrian refugee breaks out in tears of joy arriving in Greece
photo by Oguzhou Ali / flickr

"To an open house in the evening
Home shall all come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome;
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all people are at home."

--G.K. Chesterton

"In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own town to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. Hyde went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn." Luke 2. 1-7

(You might want to read Roger Cohen's splendid article in the New York Times on what Germany is doing to receive refugees from Syria.)

--Roger Lovette /

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Talking to Muslims at Christmastime

 photo by quixotic54 / flickr

After hearing all this disturbing talk directed at Muslims—I wanted to see how our neighbors of the Muslim faith felt about all this hate. Identifying all Muslims with the terrorists that have caused so much havoc in California. I wanted them to speak about this turning away all Muslims to the US. Asking visitors if they are Muslim or Christian. Closing Mosques. Monitoring services in Mosques. Refusing to take any refugees from Syria. So I scheduled an appointment with the local IMAM and the President of the local Islamic Center of Clemson.

The President of the Islamic society told me he had been in this country for 40 years. He served in the United States Air Force for 22 years. He is the father of three grown children which grew up in the United States. They are all citizens of this country.

The IMAM has been in Clemson three years. He came here from Egypt and this was his first charge in America. He has been the leader of the Islamic Center in Clemson for three years.

Roger: I want you all to know how distressed I have been over all this anti-Muslim rhetoric I have heard lately. This is not my idea of America. Our Constitution says “liberty and justice for all” and I believe that. Yet—I see certain segments of our population that are scared to death of Muslim terrorists. I can understand this fear—and yet we cannot paint all Muslims with the same brush. 

President: Thank you for coming. When we hear all this anti-Muslim talk it disturbs us deeply. What these people say is not who we are. We strongly condemned the terrorist action in San Bernardino and Paris as much as anybody. They don’t represent us or our religion. These actions by the few tarnish Muslims in general and Islam in particular. The majority of us are peace loving just like most  other American citizens.

Roger: Tell me about how many Muslims there are in the United States. And in your community too.

IMAM: We have a congregation in Clemson of 300 people. We worship on Friday afternoons. I preach a sermon and this is followed by our weekly prayer time. Sometimes we have as many as 150 people attending our services. 75% would be men and 25% women. We have been a part of this community since 2000. In the United States it is estimated that there are six to eight million members of our faith. We also have over 80 Muslim students  at Clemson University and we have a small worship place at the University.

President: I was in the service for 22 great years. The Armed Forces, especially the Air Force is the ideal place for acceptance and equality. Discrimination is against the law and is not tolerated by any member of the Armed Forces. Those who discriminate would be punished. I really wish our whole country had the same attitude, understanding and acceptance for all its members.  It is estimated that we have about 10,000 Muslims in the different branches of the US Military. Many of them gave their lives defending the United States in the Afghan-Iraqi wars.

Roger: We have had all this talk about Muslims and terrorists. How has this affected your people?

IMAM: Our people are afraid. Muslim ladies especially.are very scared to go shopping by themselves like they used to do. They are afraid that someone might act violently due to all the rhetoric and hate statements from our presidential candidates. I would like to convey to the general public the words from Luke 1:13: “But the angel said, “ Do not be afraid, Zechariah! God has heard your prayer.” The American people should not fear us; we all stand together to defeat this atrocious enemy. 

Roger: What the children in school? Have they felt this animosity too?

President: There have been incidents when some students will say to our children:  “Why don’t you leave? You’re not a real American. We don’t want you here.” It just breaks our hearts and the hearts of our children to to hear such statements; we are all Americans, ISIS killed more Muslims than all other religions combined.

Roger: This is appalling. My whole understanding of America is a place where people are safe. So many have fled so many places because they lived in danger. Many students and families come here seeking a better life. And for good, decent people to feel afraid and uncomfortable in the United States  is just heart-rending. These terrible attitudes do not reflect the American way. But I would remind you that America being a democracy where all can speak has has some bad days in our history. Native Americans, slaves, Irish, Poles, Jews, Italians have all felt the sting of our prejudice from time to time. But we have come a long way. Now it looks like the Muslims are our target.

President: I know that the actions of some Americans do not reflect the feeling and attitude of everyone. It is hard for many of us to live up to our ideals our faith. But we must respect the law of the land; the Constitution; we must never forget the words engraved at the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses, yearning to breath free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, Send these, the homeless, tempest toss’t to me…” These are the words that they were dreaming they would hear when they reach the safety of our shores.

Roger: I’m wondering about ISIS. Beheadings, terrible treatment of women, destroying whole cultures. Forcing people into a narrow kind of servitude. Killing Christians. What do you say to these?

IMAM: We decry ISIS as much as you do. You know there are groups that bend the faith and distort its teachings until it is hardly recognized by us Muslims. Their actions are not part of the teachings of Islam. Their hatred and destruction is not part of any faith and shouldn’t be condoned by any human beings regardless of their faith.

Roger: Tell me the essence of your faith. You say you totally disagree with ISIS and terrorists. What do you believe? 

President: The essence of Islam is obeying God., the Prophet Muhammed, the law of the land, and respect for human lives.

IMAM: The essence of our faith is Glory to God. The great words of Islam are Peace and love and submission to God. God says in the Quran chapter 49 verse 13:” O ye men! surely We have created you male and a female, and made you tribes and families that you may know each other; surely the most honorable of you with Allah is the one among you most careful (of his duty); surely Allah is Knowing. Aware.”

Roger: If you had a microphone and could speak to all the people in our area—what would you say?

President:  I would say Fear God. Do not give in to hate. Treat us in the Christian way “treat us the way you want to be treated.” the way you want to be treated”. Remember the words of your Jesus: “Inasmuch as you do it unto the least of these you do it to me.” I would say: Follow your wonderful Constitution. Love and respect all people.

Roger: I want to thank you both for taking this time and especially opening up your hearts. When people begin to realize that we are all just alike with the same hopes and dreams maybe that peace we all long for will become more of a reality.

(You might want to read Samuel Freedman's article in the NYTimes on how one Muslm woman has faced bigotry in New Brunswick, New Jersey).

photo by vipez / flickr

--Roger Lovette /

Friday, December 18, 2015

Christmas Comes to A Prison

photo by sushieque / flickr

We sometimes forget that Christmas can come anywhere--especially in those unexpected places where God sometimes does His best work. This story was told to my Liz Smith years ago. It his about her experience in a woman's Prison in Columbia, South Carolina. Liz left us almost two years ago and I miss her much. She was a Mama. A wife. A Grandmother. South Caroolina Teachere of the year--in Art no less. And a whole lot more. 

Liz Smith lived in Columbia, South Carolina for a while.  It seems that her Sunday School class decided to do something for the prisoners at the Harbison Women's Prison outside Columbia. So Liz got her Sunday School Department to buy, wrap and label all the presents according the prison regulations. She decided to deposit them to the prison authorities and be on her way. But the Warden suggested that she stay a few minutes and meet the prisoners. The gifts would be given to those who received no mail or presents. She was searched and then the great iron doors admitted her and closed behind her.

Inside one of the first people she gave a gift to a black woman named Geneva. Geneva right off the bat asked Liz to be her invited guest at the annual Christmas pageant that would be held the next week. Liz didn't want to go. She was busy. And her shopping was not done. And she was having drop-in and it just wasn't a good time. But kept looking at Geneva knowing the woman had no one else. And she nodded that she would be there.

And so, on the Sunday before Christmas Liz found herself in a long line of cars that had turned into the prison gates. Showing her pass, she was led through several doors and corridors and then into a small auditorium . She looked around at the strangest assortment of people. Old, wrinkled family members. Middle age people. Some very young. There were little children, and of course, some crying babies. A few were dressed in fur coats and some in overalls. They were white and black. And Liz said the smells were what she remembered. Loud, cheap perfume, some expensive stuff and the odor of the human body. On the stage there was a makeshift cardboard stable decorated with pine boughs. In the center there was a manger made from an orange crate nailed to wooden legs. 

Suddenly, a large black lady, enveloped in a white choir robe and a red bow appeared from the side door and went to the old upright piano at stage left. She began to rustle through the music and the crowd began to quiet down. All talking stopped as the pianist began to play "Away in a Manger" with a real gospel beat. A host of black and white angels dressed in white sheets with coat-hanger wings came and took their places behind the manger. They began whispering and then suddenly gathered together around the manger.  One angel flew offstage and returned quickly. After circling the manger once, they returned to their original positions. Later Liz said she learned that somebody had forgotten to put the baby Jesus in the manger. An angel had been sent to get the baby doll.  The others were trying to act cool and cover it up.

Mary and Joseph came on stage and positioned themselves and Liz said she was in shock. The pretty little blonde teenager that looked so much like Liz' own daughter was playing Mary. Liz remembered Mary was serving time as an accessory to the murder of a highway patrolman in Myrtle Beach. Joseph, with a fake beard, was another one of the female prisoners.

The strains of "While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night" came loudly from the piano. And the white-sheeted shepherds with walking sticks as crooks came down the aisle to worship the Christ child. They knelt with great dignity in front of the manger.

There was a pause in the music and everybody could hear the sound of turning pages. Finally, the piano started again, "We Three Kings of Orient Are." They marched down the aisle bearing perfume bottles and a small jewelry box. In the very middle was Geneva--who found Liz and gave her a big smile and wave as she found her place. A child on the front row stood up as the wise men took their places and yelled: "There's mama."

After they had presented their gifts and the angels sang, lustily, "Joy to the World," the formal part of the pageant was over and the audience clapped loud and long. Then the program director came up to the stage and asked everybody to stand and sing "Silent Night." And they all began to sing. But by the middle stanza--there wasn't much singing. Everybody was crying. Holding back the tears. Wiping their eyes as the pianist played on and on.

Why were they crying? Why do you think they were crying? Prisoners and matrons, invited guests, family members and old people. Why were they crying?  I think I know. I think I know. 

And in the region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by      night
And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear.
And the angel said to them, "Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people..."

I remember what Liz said as she finished her story: "And that's why we were all crying."

photo by Mary Constance / flickr

--RogerLovette /

Monday, December 14, 2015

Christmas Cancels Fear

This Christmas comes at the right time. There was one theme running through that first Christmas. Zechariah heard it. Elizabeth heard it. Mary heard it. Joseph heard it. Shepherds on windy hillsides heard it. Wise Men from far away heard it. Two little words: “Fear not.”

Sometimes it was three words: “Be not afraid.” That was the essence of that first Christmas. Strange words. The world was awash in hatred and injustice. Rome ruled their land with an iron hand. Every male child under two was murdered by Herod’s command. There was no room in any inn unless you were wealthy. It was a dark time. And it was a hard world. And this was the setting of those unlikely words: “Fear not.”

Our country needs to her those words. “Fear not.” Someone has said there is more fear among us than there was after September 11th. Strange. Gun sales are going through the roof. Assault rifles especially. Political candidates are fanning the fear flames. Pundits on TV of all persuasions tell us over and over that this is a troubled time and we are besieged. The social media whether it be Facebook or Twitter and all those others have not helped. They keep saying: Everything nailed down is coming loose. Fearful people need a scapegoat. Yesterday it was the Samaritans and other outsiders. It was the Jews, not once but again and again. It was the Indians and the Irish and the Italians and people from the Orient. It was Yankees or Southerners—take your choice. Sadly now it is still the poor and the gays and the non-Christians, the Hispanics and a multitude of refugees. Towering above them all are those hated words—Muslim and ISIS. As if they were synonymous. Churches as a whole have sung carols and told stories about no room in the inn—not even thinking about the implications today. Those politician that yell the loudest and spew out the most hate seem to be drawing most of the crowds. Have we lost our minds or our courage or especially our faith? Dangerously these rivals for President are fanning the flames of hate and many have bought into the message.

Christmas calls us back to a better way. ”Fear not” the angel said over and over. What can those simple words from a far-distant time and land teach us? Someone has said that Paul talked about faith and hope and love—and love was the greatest thing in the world. No, someone else wrote: Hope is the greatest thing in the world. She may be right. Hope shatters fear. But so does faith and love.

Let us recover from amnesia. We are not the first people who have faced hard times. In fact, looking back at our own history we have been here before. Coming across the water hoping to find freedom and safety. Wars with England. Slavery. The Civil War leave 500,000 dead. Lynchings. Incarcerating Japanese. Segregation with our dogs and water hoses and billy clubs. War over and over. Deacons standing in church doors and shaking their heads to blacks. Let us remember that, as the old song goes, we really have come “through dangers, toils and snares.” And we must not forget that there really is a grace that is amazing for any  age—and that grace can still led us home. 

So this Christmas let us listen closely to what the angel said: “Fear not.” “Be not afraid.”  No Pollyanna talk. No evading the harshness of our world. No sunny optimism. Just knowing that in the middle of a trying time—fear really is not the answer. 

Last fall my family and I wandered into a restaurant in downtown Philadelphia. There was a room with a fireplace and a bar. And over the mantle these words were carved in wood and painted a golden color. They read:

                                       “Fear knocked at the door
                                       Faith answered. 
                                       There was no one there.”

I like to think that someone sitting there trying to drown their sorrows looked over their shoulder at these words. And I hope that all those servers with sore feet working mostly for tips would stop long enough from their busy-ness to ponder the words. And I can even envision the hungry customers, coming in out of the cold, warming their hands at the fireplace and reading the hopeful words: Fear knocked at the door, Faith answered, There was no one there.” 

And I would like all of us to remember the message is still “Fear not.” Which means it isn’t guns and it isn’t money and it isn’t some political candidates spewing out words of hate. No. It is faith. A very stubborn faith that remembers a harsh world and a dark night and a mad King. But more. A light that shone in the darkness. A light that the darkness can never put out. Then or now. Is it any wonder the angels said over and over: “Fear not.” “Be not afraid.”  

--Roger Lovette /


Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Christmas in the real Bethlehem

Lighted candles in Church of Holy Sepulcher - Jerusalem
photo by ilirjak rrumbullaku / flickr

(Jim Pitts, good friend and colleague has written a sermon about his experience in Bethlehem at Christmas. With a group of Furman University students. This is a fine sermon and I recommend it to all. Far cry from our Christmas cards--well, so was the first Christmas.)

Our plan was to spend the evening in Bethlehem.  Gifts from America for our Palestinian hosts had been purchased and packed.  We would travel by taxi the winding five miles south from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.  An evening of animated conversation, trays of sweets and Middle Eastern coffee, were waiting in the community of our Lord's birth.  

photo by Rusty Stewart / flickr
In a land where the normative word for tourists is "No Problem!”, Usami and Maged reluctantly told me that our simple evening out with friends and relatives was proving difficult and possibly dangerous.  As you are aware, their land has been embroiled in a protracted protest by Palestinians of Israel's military occupation of the West Bank.

Young Palestinians are no longer willing to be submissive and second-class occupants of their former homeland.  They have taken to the streets, armed primarily with rocks, to challenge a military Goliath.  Travel to Bethlehem was problematic, if not impossible.  Not wanting to endanger our friends or ourselves, we agreed that Bethlehem would have to wait for another time. 

However, an alternative was possible on the other side of the old city. Should we be
photp by Rusty Stewart / flickr
agreeable, we could have dessert and conversation with believers at a nearby hotel in East Jerusalem.  Boarding a bus in the winter night, we rode around the walls of the old city, crossing a few blocks from west to east.

Inside a small conference room, our Furman travel study group crowded together with a half dozen or more Palestinian youth to listen and learn of their hopes and fears.  To facilitate our conversation, there would be a brief presentation to the entire group and then we would break up into small groups for discussion. 

A professor, whose university had been closed by the Israeli government, agreed to speak and visit with us.  He shared with us that he was a Christian, his mother was a Moslem, and that he had friends who were both believers and non-believers, Arab and Jew. 

He continued his remarks by observing that several Furman students had said to him that this year and this place just didn't seem like Christmas.  They were reflecting on the deprivation and destruction, hardship and horror that had dimmed the festive lights and muted the advent celebrations.  The professor countered by saying that his young friends were mistaken.  This Christmas, he said, was similar to the first.  

photo by Rusty Stewart / flickr
He then proceeded to tell the gospel story and trace its parallels to the present.  I sat spell bound as the romance and fantasy of my Christmas picture were exposed as wishful thinking and nostalgic denial.  The light of scripture projects a different view of a very real world.  

Both then and now, Bethlehem is a tensile town, not one of decorative metallic ribbons, but of tension and stress.  It is a place of occupation, not of productive work, where soldiers are on patrol attempting to establish peace with weapons of war. 

The Intifada, a conflict without resolution, continues. The town of Jesus’ birth is dark and deserted – without festive streetlights, without choirs in Manger Square, without pilgrims waiting in line outside the Church of the Nativity to reverently descend the stairs beneath the altar and visit the grotto where the baby was born. The sacred place where the eternal and divine became finite and human is still and silent. 
In past months, Palestinians from the Bethlehem area have been killed in rock throwing
photo by Eneas De Troya / flickr
clashes and gun battles with Israeli soldiers. Travel restrictions keep tourist and other non-Palestinians out of biblical Bethlehem. 

A spokesman for the municipality stated, “In view of the very bad situation we are living in, it doesn’t make sense that we celebrate while there are still closures, and so many people have been killed.  Celebrations for Christmas have been canceled!” 

It’s beginning to look a lot like the first Christmas!  At the time of Christ’s birth, a foreign army occupied Bethlehem, children were slaughtered, terror was widespread, and people did not feel safe or secure.  Joseph and Mary even decided to flee the land with the baby.  

Terrible things were happening in and around Bethlehem when Christ was born.  Yet, there was also rejoicing; there was hope that life could be beautiful and that misery would end some day.  The misery caused by people, by greed and by wanting to rule others, could and should end.  

Christmas in Bethlehem on the 2000th plus anniversary of Jesus’ birth reminds us of our responsibility 
•         to try to put an end to such misery; 
•         that the world the world is still struggling for justice, for peace, for love;
•         that we should not despair, but resolve to stop this struggle.
•         and to keep hope alive!

photo by Rusty Stewart / flickr
What was true at Christ’s birth is still true today. Life is sacred.  On the one hand, life is so valuable that some are ready to give their life away so that the world will be a better place to live in.  On the other hand, life is so terrible that we have to do something to change it.  Christmas in Bethlehem embodies the same paradox that existed when Christ was born: in order to preserve life one has to be ready to give it away, a paradox exemplified by the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.

“No,” the professor protested, “it is not true that Christmas in Bethlehem does not look like Christmas.”  He went on to say, “It is Christmas as celebrated in New York and Atlanta, London and Hong Kong that does not look like Christmas.”  That is where kids are drowned with presents; where people die because of an overdose of drugs or in a car driven by a drunk; that doesn’t look like Christmas.  Where people have lost their senses, including their sense of responsibility that doesn’t look like Christmas.   It is Christmas as celebrated around that the world that is a distortion of and aberration of the real spirit and message of Christmas.  

The message of Christmas is a call for hope and action in the face of evil.  The fact that Christ was born in a cave, in a manger, is not a call to idolize the cave or the manger but a reminder to us of the absurd and evil conditions in the world.  It is a call to action so that babies will not have to be born in a cold and unhealthy cave or in a manger.  The message transcends the tribal and cultural questions of “Who is a Jew?”  Who is a Palestinian? to the more fundamental question of “Who is human?” or  “Who is a child of God?” 
photo by Tania Liu / flickr

Christmas in Bethlehem today reminds us that Christmas is not a religious observance demanded by God or in the Bible, but a reminder to us that previous to and beyond the holiness of the occasion, there is a concrete oppressive and evil reality, and that Christ did not come to celebrate that reality but to humanize it, to change it.  

In the name of the newborn baby in the stable, and the young man on the cross,   
I encourage you to remember that Christmas is a celebration of God’s reach to humankind.  
God in Christ reaching, forever reaching humanity’s feverish flight.
God in Christ touching, lifting, healing, meeting hurt with loving care.
God in Christ reaching, forever reaching, birthing hope amid despair. 

It is beginning to look a lot like the first Christmas!  
In the true spirit of Christmas, I ask, “How are you going to respond?”  

Together in God’s name and in the tradition of St. Francis,
let us resolve, beginning this Christmas, 
to be instruments of reconciling peace:
where there is hatred, let us sow love,
where there is injury, pardon
where there is doubt, faith
where there is despair, hope
where there is darkness, light
where there is sadness, joy. 

To you and to all of our brothers and sisters, both near and far, Merry Christmas!

photo by Rusty Stewart / flickr

--Roger Lovette / rogerlovette/

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Advent Sermon--Days After a California Shooting

photo by le vent le cri / flickr

Little Michael was four years old. And he loved books. And every night his Mother or Father would have to come in and read him a story before he went to sleep . He had one favorite book. And every night he would want to read this particular book. And so one of his parents would begin. Page after page. He just about knew it by heart. And some nights his Mother or Daddy would be tired and try to skip a page or two. “No. no” Michael would say, “You skipped two pages go back.” Michael loved that story. Some days he would take his special book, put it on the floor and stand on it. He thought if he closed his eyes, scrunched down just a little…that he would go into that story. That he could be part of the book. One day his Mother came in and he was standing on the book. Just standing there crying. And   Mother said, “What’s wrong?” “I’m trying to get into the book. I want to be part of the story.”

And for two thousand years now on our better days—we, like Michael, open this book and are trying to get into the story. Hoping that the Bible becomes our book.  And this story somehow becomes our story.

Isaiah may be my favorite book in the Bible. It tells the story of one of the defining times in the
photo by Brian Smithson / flickr
history of Israel. They called it exile. It is found in Isaiah 40-55. That terrible, terrible time in Israel’s history when their country was invaded and they were taken captive by the Babylonians. All the sharp and talented ones were dragged 700 miles from home. They lived there against their will for 50 years. You can well imagine how they felt. Far from home. Homesick. Missing relatives and place and freedom. Missing their little garden. Despair and depression ran through their villages like a plague. Wanting to go home. Their children began to take on Babylonian customs. Older ones wanted to marry these foreigners. It was an awful, awful time. And the Psalmist captured their feelings when he wrote: “How can we sing the Lord’s song in this strange land?” And this was the context in which Isaiah spoke. He too was a captive and God used him to help his people in a hard time. 

Isaiah turned them away from their troubles, their despair and all their grumbling. He turned them toward God. “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.”(28-29) Embedded in those wonderful promises we find hope and faith and I think love, too. Look up, my friends, he said, look up. Beyond all the hard, hard things of our lives. Let us Fix our eyes on God. This is where we must hang on faith.

Verses 30-31 Isaiah spoke to his people and to their present condition. It, too was a word of faith and a word of promise. And like little Michael—I wonder if we could not stand on this book—like the old gospel song goes, “Standing on the Promises.” Making this story our story.  I don’t know a better word for the time in which we live. Listen: “Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

If we can put these words down beside our lives, our church and where we are right now. If we can these words down beside our country and the whole world—I wonder what it would mean? I think it would mean that if we can find the faith that these others have found in their hard times. And Christmas will take on a power and energy that can help us for all the days that follow. 

Exile seems to be as good a definition of where we are as anything I know. Like Israel—everything
photo by thierry hermann / flickr
around us seems to have changed. Everything. We moved back here after being gone for some 20 years. And I felt like Rip Van Winkle. I’d see somebody I haven’t seen in a long time—and I would whisper to my wife, “They look old.” And they are whispering to their wives, “He sure does look old.”  Change. Up and down College Avenue the school has bull dozers going in every direction. Why the Clemson House is coming down. Change. And the kids don’t talk any more. All they do is text. Changes everywhere. We have a black President. We have two women running for President. And we turn on the TV and hear about ISIS. And the politicians scaring the daylights out of us. We’ve been at war for 15 years and there seems to be no end.  We worry about the world we are hurling our children and grandchildren into.  We hear this terrible news from France…and Colorado and now California. The politicians seem to be all beating the fear drum. Fear, folks, is no way to run a campaign or a country—for that dog will come back to bite us. Scared people make terrible decisions. Change. When I was in Birmingham my friend Dale left the church he served and moved on. Nine months laster, on Easter Sunday—a member came to church and looked around and said, ”Where’s Dale? Where is Dale?” Dale had been gone for nine months. Change. We want it to be like it used to be. Exile is a proper word for where we are. The whole terrain of our lives has shifted and changed and some days we just don’t know.

And we come to church and it’s Christmas—and we bring with us all the troubled things that those exiles brought long ago. Wondering, wondering about the present and the future. And we open the old book and listen…much like Michael. Hoping the story will become our story.  

I want to tell you this morning two stories that relate to the background of our lives and our time. And I want to tie both of these to the faith-words of our text.

photo from Lake Mead Public Affairs / flickr
 The first story comes from a Pastor in Louisville, Kentucky, John Claypool. He and his wife woke up one morning to every parent’s nightmare. Their little eight-year-old girl was very sick and they took her to the Doctor. The Doctor ran all sorts of tests and then called in the parents. He told them that their daughter had advanced leukemia. There was no cure. The doctor told them that they would do all they could do but they needed to know, short of a miracle she would not make it. They went home and tried to make it through the next few days. The church gave him a month off. After he came back to the pulpit he preached three sermons on his little girl. The first sermon he preached his first Sunday back in the pulpit. He preached another sermon nine months later when she relapsed. 18 months after her diagnosis she died her room in her own bed one cold silent morning. and Dr. Claypool preached a third sermon on his loss. The sermons became a book, Tracks of a Fellow Struggler. And over a million copies have been sold. In those sermons he talked about what he had learned in the darkness. His own terrible exile. And what he said was that he found his own story in the book. He was learning that there are days when we soar like eagles. There are other days when we run and we are not even weary. And then he said but what he had experienced with his daughter was that there were some days when it took your strength just to try to walk. And even that was hard. 
photo by Atilla Kefeli

It doesn’t matter what our condition is. The Israelites, years and years before the Exile searched for a Promised Land to call home. And the book of Exodus looked back and wrote of those days: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.” (Deut. 19.4) So there are days when they soared and in their despair they needed to remember that. There were other days, Isaiah said when they ran and they were not even weary. It seemed like they could do anything. And yet there were other days when they were given just enough strength not to faint. Just enough to go through whatever it is they had to go through. Dr. Claypool said he and his wife in that hard, hard time foundjust enough strength not to faint. 

photo by Michael (a.k.a. moik) McC
That’s faith, too. Not just on the days you soar and run—but on even the hardest days in your life we really can stand on the promises. God is there and he is leading us even then. Dr. Claypool went on and served several churches with distinction. He told this story over and over and people all over were blessed by his words. He wrote a multitude of books and his last church was St. Luke’s Church in Birmingham. 

What does this have to do with the promises in the book? Or you or me? Everything. God is a God for all seasons. Even in the darkness God is there. And will lead this country and church through these hard days. And he will lead you through whatever you face. Twice in our Scripture we have the word: strength. God promised: I will give you the strength you need.  T
photo by Denish C / flickr
his word strength comes from the root-word, rope or twine. God takes the strands of our lives, weak though they may be and he weaves them together into a strength that holds us fast. That is quite a promise.

Strange footnote to this story. On the staff of that same church where Dr. Claypool served in Louisville was his Minister of Education. This Minister also had a nine-year old daughter and her name, too was Laura. His little girl played with the Pastor’s daughter and they were good friends. Not long after Dr. Claypool’s daughter died this other little girl, Laura was diagnosed with leukemia too. Weeks later she was gone and that family, too faced the terrible task of trying to pick up the pieces and move on. And the church was grieving so terribly for these two losses.  Later that year the father of this second little girl wrote a poem about his family’s trying ordeal. 

Was the grass really ever green
Were the sounds of birds really clearly heard
And did we picnic in the park just 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 that now engulfs us will subside
A word of hope will come to us
Our presumption that all is lost will be replaced 
    by a renewed expectancy.
Future will become a possibility again
The crush of demand will not dominate us forever
Out of liberation we will learn to choose
And in our choices to be secure.

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
We will laugh again
We will sing and dance
We will celebrate the life now given to us.

The conflicts now engaging our energy will be
   Worked through
No wind will sweep them from us
We will go through them
   and we will survive 
Redemption will come of our transactions
Relationships will be rescued and restored
And where breaks are too deep to be one,
Healing will come in time, though apart
The tension tearing at our being will be resolved
We will not be destroyed.

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 God is
The spring will return
And it will be green again.”*
photo by Doug / flickr

Friends, there are days when we soar like the eagles…
There are days when we run and it looks like we could run forever…
And then there are dull-grey days when we wonder if we have even enough strength to stumble along and not to faint.

Who would have ever, ever believed it? We do foolish things this Christmas like lighting candles. We sing, “Comfort ye…comfort ye…” We decorate our church and our homes. In a time of exile—our exile—we stand on the promises.

“Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”( Isaiah 40.28-31)

Maybe little Michael was right after all. We really can enter the story. Even in a time of exile. Especially in a time of exile.

photo by Denis Collette / flickr

*G. Temp Sparkman, quoted in Roger Lovette's, A Faith of our Own (Philadelphia, The Pilgrim Press, 1976) p. 125-127

(This sermon was preached at the First Baptist Church, Pendleton, SC, 2nd Sunday in Advent, 12-6-15)

--Roger Lovette /