Sunday, December 31, 2017

If I Were a New Pastor--This is What I Would Need

photo by waterboard / flickr
(I preached this sermon at the Mount Zion Presbyterian Church, Sandy Springs, South Carolina December 31. They will welcome a new Pastor next Sunday.)

I had thought about using that wonderful text in II Kings. The prophet Elisha was walking down the road one day and some mean boys came out of the town and made fun of him. “Get out of here Baldy!” They said it more than once. Well, the prophet put a curse on them in the name of the Lord. And two bears come out of the woods and ate up the boys. So—you better be careful. No telling what might be out there in those woods. 

Seriously—next Sunday you will have a new Pastor. And today I would like to give you some hints from this side of the pulpit. 

A Human Being

So our text is found in John 1: 6. Early in the story—the writer says: “There was a man sent from God whose name was John .” So our first point is: There was a man…” Really what John  is saying is that First, there was a human being. We’ve already seen it in the Christmas story. The real actors in the drama are not angels—they are real folk like you and me. Who? Well, Elizabeth who finally found out she was pregnant. Zechariah her husband who had almost given up hope. There was little Mary, not even married and her intended: Joseph. And there were Shepherds and Wise Men and even a Herod. Real people.  Not just plaster saints we put in books on our coffee tables. 

So when Paul wrote to one of the messiest churches in the New Testament. What did he say? “We have the treasure in earthen vessels…”Paul  wanted that troubled, troubled church to know that God works, if he works at all , through earthen vessels…clay pots. 

And one of the great surprises when you call a new Pastor is to discover they all have defects—just like you. Sometimes church members just write their Pastors off because they discover they have clay feet. The Billy Graham-Joel Osteen-Charles Stanley they thought they were calling was nothing like that. And if you were to take the makeup off the Grahams and the Osteens and the Stanleys—you’d find the same thing. Earthen vessels.

So you have called a real live human being—just like yourself. The only way the light shines today is through somebody just like you. I have a slogan I hold on to a lot: “There’s not but one Jesus” and sometimes my wife will remind me…I’m not it. And she is right. So when your new Pastor arrives next week—don’t be surprised when you learn one day that you have called a human being. 

God Calls

Second hint. There was a human being sent from God. God calls all sorts of people. Sometimes the most unlikely ones.  Moses who had murdered a man…a sheep-herder—God called him. And Moses said: “Me…you want me?” Why I can’t even speak in public” and you know the rest of that story. We could tell a zillion stories just like that from the Bible. Did you know the first European convert was, guess what: a woman. Her name was Phoebe. Did you know that Jesus leaned on people like Mary and Martha even though he was supposed to only spend time with men. Paul often mentions people we never heard of like Claudia and Euodia. When we started struggling in the Baptist church about the role of women—people said: “Oh we can’t do that…not only will people be upset—but the Bible said men are in charge.“ And I always would say: Have you read Romans 16. 1? “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon in the church at Cenchrea.” And sometimes they would say: “Well, you know how these modern translations are.”

In1840 someone named Lottie Moon was born. in Virginia  And as she grew older she thought she heard the call of God. Calling her to China as a missionary. And the officials in the Baptist church said: “Well, that’s nice but we don’t call women.” That didn’t stop her. She raised her own funds and headed for China. And she worked there until 1912 when she died. But when word first came back to headquarters that she was preaching and baptizing—they sent word that she couldn’t that. She was a woman and had not been approved. She wrote back: “When you send a man to do the preaching and the baptizing—I’ll stop. Well—they never sent anyone and she kept on preaching. 

So God calls—and his call is not particularly to the male population. Women preachers have taught me a lot. Sometimes they open the  Bible and take a text and see things I never thought of. They see the words through the eyes of women that God called. And they see it differently. 

One Sunday I visited a Disciples’ church and it was Christmas and they had communion. And the woman who was Minister came down front…took the wrapped bread for Communion and picked it up gently, cradled it like a baby and moved through the congregation saying: “The word became flesh…” What male would have even thought about that.

You’ve called a woman to be your Minister. I would just remind you that God can work through her just like he can work through some men. Listen. Support her…and remember God’s call is never selectively male. 

His Name Was John

Third hint: Thou shall not compare her to other preachers. “There was a man sent from God whose name was John.” John ? Wild. Needed a haircut. Dressed in strange clothes. Nothing like Moses. And nothing like Elijah. And nothing like Luke or Mark or any of the others. God called a man with a specific name. John. You’ve called Alison. And she will be different from any other minister. She will be Alison.

I’ve had more than one church where they tried to compare me with the last wonderful fireman. When  I moved back to Clemson five years ago—the preacher of the church I served for 13 years would look at me like: Hmm. Not sure.  He’d heard all these Lovette stories that got bigger and better after I had left. I told him. Let me tell you something: When some members that hated me come running up to me telling me how great I was  and how lousy you are—I won’t buy it. Now they think I am the best preacher they ever had—past tense. I told our preacher I would support him and never talk behind his back —and if I had anything to say about him—I’d tell him. Nobody else.  No comparisons, folks, it isn’t fair.

The first church I had they talked about Brother Glenn all the time. He was just wonderful. Why one summer he painted the whole outside of the church! Could I top that. Of course not. The first Sunday we were there—my 21 year old wife was sitting on the second row. And some woman in the back yelled: “Are you going to be President of the Women’s Missionary Union.” My wife, dumbstruck said: “I don’t think so.” The women muttered: “Well, the last one did!” No comparisons. It isn’t fair. They don’t want to hear how great the church was you came from…and you don’t want to hear how wonderful their last Pastor was.

Affirm! Affirm! Affirm!

Fourth hint: Affirm! Affirm! Affirm!  I have another saying. Preachers are like dogs—if you pat us on the head we go crazy. And you can break our spirits if you choose to. We all need affirmation. Reuel Howe tells the story about a church that called a Pastor. And as he preached people would look at one another. Not too good. Sometimes downright bad. And so the Session met and said we’ve got have to do something about our preacher.  So they called him in and told him that a lot of people were muttering. They didn’t like his preaching. Silence. And then he said: Well, I’ll just resign next Sunday. And you know what they said? 

“No, we don’t want you to resign. We want you to stay. We called you and it is our job to help make you the best preacher you can be. We will stand by you, pray for you and support you  in every way we can.” And we are told that when the history of that church was written the finest days were when this man had been their pastor.

You see we are in this business together: Pastor and people. And your Pastor can help meet your needs and be with you in those crisis times and times when you need a minister.

Dr. Larry McSwain tells the story about a Christian grade school class room where the kids were already studying. And the door opened and the Principal came in with a little boy. “Class,” she said, “this is a new student. His name in Timmy—I know you will welcome him.” And the class said, “Timmy welcome.” Timmy sat down and the whispering began. One little girl whispered to another. “He only has one arm. Look.” And the girl looked and told the boy behind her, This new kid just has one arm.” The news traveled fast in that classroom. The next day the teacher said, “Class—we’re going to do something a little different today. We’re going to build a church. So put your hands together like this.” And she showed them. “Now we say:  ‘Here’s the church, and here’s the steeple—open the door and there’s all the people’.”” The minute she said that her heart almost stopped. The teacher forgot that Timmy only had one arm. She didn’t know what to do. But little Suzie saved the day. She got out of her desk and went over to Timmy and said, “Timmy and I are going to put our hands together and we will build a church.” 

Join hands with Pastor Alison, warts and all, and guess what? You will build a church.

photo by Trina Alexander / flickr

--Roger Lovette /

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Judy Bridgers: I Will Remember Her Always

"I'll be loving you always--
not for just a day, not for just a year--
but always..."

Judy slipped away from us.… It is altogether appropriate for her to leave us at Christmastime. Judy cerebrated Christmas every day!  I don’t know anyone who loved life and parties and people and entertaining and laughter anymore than Judy Bridgers.

Judy was an unframed original. I’m trying to remember when I first met her. I was Pastor in Birmingham and she began to visit our church. Not being a Baptist I think from the first she was a little wary about “the Baptists."We had been through the Gay-acceptance fight and that wonderful church stood up to the challenge. Whew! Hard struggle. But the church came out on the right side. So when she heard about this little church that opened its doors to everyone she came to check us out. She must have liked what she saw because one Sunday she walked down the aisle and joined this Baptist church. Those were hard days. It was the time when the AIDS crisis was raging and we had a lot of funerals. People were scared that they might catch this disease.

Judy and her husband Bill, who was the founding Dean of the UAB School of Public Health, were both were champions for the people with AIDS—and all gay people.  A UAB doctor, Dr. Michael Saag got interested in the AIDS challenge and became one of the international spokespersons in helping to deal with the medical crisis. We would not be where we are in having saved so many lives if it had not been for this good doctor and the work that both these Bridgers did.*

So our journey of friendship began. The Church began to take Meals on Wheels to very sick Gay folk. And gay people heard about the church and they began to trickle in and join and become a vital part of that congregation. And Judy loved the effort and supported it—and told everybody about what were were trying to do—to just accept everybody—no restrictions. One Sunday Judy brought a visiting Episcopal minister to church with her. He looked around and said, “There’s no way this group of diverse people can stay together.” But we did. And they still do.  And Judy Bridgers in her quiet way—helped make that happen.

Judy was a cook extraordinaire.  Every Monday night for I don’t know how many years she had open house—I mean open. For dinner! And I’m not talking about pinto beans and cornbread. It would be a spread—and the house—which was beautiful anyway—always looked festive for those dinners. A whole bunch a gay guys were there every Monday night. Many would not have missed it for they knew when they walked into the door of that house in Birmingham they would find acceptance and love. Bill and Judy both made sure that would happen.

Judy knew many gay people and she was fiercely in their corner. And she became surrogate Mama and counselor and friend too so many. Some of those guys were turned away from their homes when the families found out they were gay. Some had a lot of problems—but never mind—Judy opened the door and her heart to them all.

She was one of the best cooks I have ever known. She often made me Pimento Cheese and I called it: “the Judy Bridgers Memorial Pimento Cheese.” On Monday nights she would spread out all that delicious food on her big dining room table ands we would have feast after feast.

She was from Selma and never let anyone forget it. Deeply, deeply Southern—she had all the good graces that Southerners can possess—and not many of our faults. Well, maybe some. 

After her husband, Bill died Judy continued to love and care for so many. She moved from her big house in Mountain Brook to a fine condo in downtown Birmingham. And when my wife and I moved away—Judy made sure when we came back that there would be a dinner in our honor and she would invite some of our favorite people.

I still remember the day Bill died I was there and she and I walked into his hospital room which was quiet and sad. Bill lay there and Judy said her goodbyes. They loved each other fiercely and that passing was hard, very hard.

How strange it seems that when I go back to Birmingham that Judy will not be there.  To Jana and family I simply say: You will miss her always. But how fortunate that she was your Mama. And though the days ahead will be hard indeed for Jana and all those of us that she loved—our lives are better, stronger and maybe more faith-full too, because of Judy Bridgers. 

"Into paradise may the angels lead
dear Judy, any her coming
may the martyrs take her up
into eternal rest,
and may the chorus of angels
lead her to that holy city,
and the place of perpetual light."
--from the Roman Catholic Prayer for there Dead

(These two photos I think express much of who Judy was. She loved her boys...and my, my there were many, so very many whose lives will be forever different because of Judy.)

*Bill and Judy Bridgers Endowed Scholarship:
The Bill and Judy Bridgers Endowed Scholarship was created to honor Dr. William (Bill) Bridgers and his wife Judy for their outstanding service and commitment to public health.  Bill was the driving force behind establishing the UAB School of Public Health and served as its founding dean.  He devoted his career to improving the lives of all Alabamians and his work on the front lines of health care helped to combat emerging infectious diseases, to make workplaces safer, and to protect the health of the most vulnerable in our society.  Judy has demonstrated her strong support of public health issues through her active and tireless volunteer efforts for a variety of health causes, especially the fight against AIDS.

--Roger Lovette/

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Christmas: The Baby

photo by Amy the Nurse

Every Christmas I remember a TV special from years ago. The man was trying to help a woman about to have a baby. The man was stranded with this woman and her two other children in a terrific rainstorm. The lights and telephone were knocked out. The woman had had her other two children by natural childbirth and she told the man there wasn't much to fear--but he did not believe her. His attempts to be helpful were just pathetic. He offered to boil some water. And she laughed. He lit candles everywhere. He tried to smile at this woman in labor but he wasn't very reassuring.  He ended up just standing there helpless swinging his arms in the air.

The mother survived. The baby came and the man thrilled by the wonder of it all, walked out into the rain and with a voice colored with many meanings, simply kept saying over and over, "A baby! A baby! A baby!"

Christmas is the time amid power failures and rain in our faces we remember once again the heart of it all. "A baby! A baby! A baby!"

photo by Gang Zhao / flickr

--Roger Lovette /

Friday, December 22, 2017

Christmas: Laughter

photo by Todd Huffman / flickr

I think one of the great things about Christmas is the joy that it brings. Not joy from the big, big things of the season--but the tiny things that truly matter. Like the black man in front of me yesterday who got out of his car and gave this white man holding a sign: "Homeless Veteran Hungry" a dollar. As we waited for the light to change he got back out of his car again and picked up the man's water bottle cap that had fallen down on the curb out of the veteran's reach. As he handed the bottle cap to the homeless man--the man's smile was enormous. Somebody the old veteran did not know had given him a great gift of Christmas by simply seeing him, acknowledging him and treating him for a brief moment like a human being.

I look out at the world with so many problems. All the people who will lose insurance. All those who get by on merely a pittance. All the children whose hopes will be dashed because some parent will not keep their promises. Or maybe a world of children whose governments will pass by and ignore them in their great hour of need. 

It would be easy to miss Christmas as did the innkeeper and all those crowds in Bethlehem. Remember the world was dark. Remember Caesar and the Emperor and the Governor called most of the shots. Rome--their government--was in charge.Yet John reminded his troubled readers in a dark world: "The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot put it out."

And if this is true some laughter this season is appropriate--as it is every season--but especially at Christmas. Against the backdrop of the too-muchness of so much--I dare to say don't forget to laugh your head off at something this Christmas.

I look forward to the Christmas letter from the Doctors Regina and Andy. They always remind me that little children just might lead us after all. It happened once in a manger. How about in 2017? Thanks to their three kids: Andrew, and Carolyn and Parker. Enjoy.

The Doctors write: Questions we got to answer this past year:

How do ladies know if they are pregnant or not?
Can you turn the map on in the car so I don't lose myself?
Did you know I like to make up stuff because it is more fun than 
    to think about things that are real?
Is Rose going to dog school to learn how to be a dog?
If an octopus has eight legs, does a septopus have 7 legs?
What is a phone book?
How do you walk if you have to limp with both feet?
Did you know that the sky is just blue air?
Rain makes the homes for the fish bigger, right?
Did you know our school bell is supposed to ring at 3:10, 
    but it actually rings at 3:10:43?
Do French people really kiss by sticking their tongues out all over each other?
Is it really hard to be a weatherman because you have to do all that pointing
   at the screen?
So beef isn really just a dead cow?
Why can't we have 6 fingers on each hand? It would be so
   much easier for counting."

Photo by Randy and Diana Wright (their cat)

As Tiny Tim said: "God bless us all."

--Roger Lovette /

Monday, December 18, 2017

Advent Time: The Stable

"Remembering the stable where for once in our lives everything became a you and nothing was an it."
--W.H. Auden

I stopped at an Art Gallery in Roswell, Georgia and as I walked into the shop I saw this picture. I looked at it a long time, wandered through the store, started out and stopped. I saw the picture again. Really saw it.  I don't know who the artist is but I know that stable scene captures Christmas for me. This is the picture I took that day.

Oh, there is so much wrong with this weary world. I am heartsick at watching what is happening to this nation. I talk to so many friends on the telephone and they share my misery. How can so much of the religious world these days swallow the President and all his shenanigans? How in the world can so many brush aside the lies, the arrogance, and the sheer cruelty that he displays day after day. This isn't a Republican-Democratic problem.  And this isn't a "If Hillary won..." dream. No. There is something deeper than politics: the basic human decency that ties us to one another is becoming unraveled. As the old song goes: we really are poor little sheep that have lost our way.

And so I come back to the picture. The backdrop of the stable painting was a world in disarray. I need to remember this is why he came. Because the world has always been a mess and troubled and heartsick. That stable is nothing like the wonder of our houses and our trees and gifts and looking for our loved ones to arrive. And there is nothing wrong with this. But the centerpiece of Christmas I see in this painting.

He came to all. No qualification. The old woman yesterday at the Dollar Store. The man holding a sign by the highway saying: "Help me." All those huddling in tents so far from home wondering, wondering about the future. The hungry. The dispossessed. All those who lost someone this year and they just wish Christmas would go away. But not only those. The stable is somehow also linked to the Caesars and the Roman Governors smug and comfortable and lost. It hardly matters--rich or poor--remember even then it was scruffy shepherds and rich Wise Men from the East. The manger is never either or--it is always both-and.

So I ponder the mystery--in the poorest part of town to just humble and common folk--Jesus came.  And what he brought promised hope for everyone. Remember what he said in that first sermon: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free..." The reception he got from his homeowners was to turn away furious. They even tried to push him off the edge of a cliff. This rage did not stop Jesus. Let your finger run down the story and in that same chapter we read: "As the sun was setting, all those who had any who were sick with various kinds of diseases brought them to him; and he laid his hands on each of them and cured them."

So when I look at the painting of those old red barn I remember that despite is all--the years, the wrong-headedness, the sins we are all guilty of--he is still with us and his promise was that he would be with us always.

Forget Emperor Tiberius and Pilate, the governor of Judea and Herod who ruled Galilee and his brother Philip who ruled so much. Forget the Priests that never quite understood--Annas and Caiphas and all the other evangelicals. We hardly know their names. But we still remember an old barn with its manger and a new mother and father and lying there on that straw--the hope of the world. The old  carol goes: "let every heart prepare him room..." And somewhere between today and the coming birthday morning--let us listen closely and maybe, just maybe "heaven and nature will sing" for us as if we were the only one.

G.K. Chesterton says it for me:

"There was a Man
who dwelt in the East
centuries ago
and now I cannot look 
at a sheep or a sparrow, 
a lily or a cornfield, 
a raven or a sunset,
a vineyard or a mountain
without thinking
of Him."

photo by Megan / flickr

--Roger Lovette /

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Why Did These Women Wait So Long to Come Forward?

photo by Bob MacInnes / flickr

One of the big insults to all these women who had the courage to come forward and say: "Me too" has been all the chatter we have heard lately. Why did they wait so long? If this was such a problem why didn't they say something when it (supposedly) happened? Well, I think we have our answer without looking too closely. The way these women that have come forward at great risk have been treated speaks multitudes. Talk about abuse.

Being a man I can't quite answer the questions--but I will try. They did not come forward because they were afraid they would lose their jobs. Many had families they had to support. Many were on a career track and they were certain that if they said anything they would be in real trouble. Why didn't they do something or say something before now? They were fourteen years old and did not know what to say. They were seventeen and were afraid of what fathers, boyfriends or those at school would say. We've heard it all: They must have asked for it. Or--look at the way she dressed. Let's look at her sexual history. Hmm. It took enormous courage for these women to begin to speak out. And we should listen...and we should change this picture. 

Actress, Alyssa Milano recently used her Twitter account to encourage women who had been sexually harassed to assaulted to tweet the word, "MeToo." In the first 24 hours a spokesperson from Twitter confirmed Alyssa Milano's Tweet had been tweeted nearly half a million times. 

This whole debate by men about abortion, about contraception, about unequal pay for women who do the same job as men and a multitude of other issues reflects just how much we still need to change the picture. Abuse takes many, many forms and women know this well.

My friend in Birmingham sent me an email that his daughter had sent him. Worth pondering. Thanks Cecelia Watts.

" As a counselor,  I see women frequently that have been sexually abused and work with them on these issues.  They suffer from depression, anxiety,  PTSD,  substance abuse, trauma issues, relationship problems and other issues that are related to their sexual abuse.  Their abuse indeed has lifelong and far-reaching very harmful effects.  I could not count the times that I've been the first person these women told of their sexual abuse that many times occurred years or decades ago.  The reason they don't tell sooner is fear of not being believed and shame or embarrassment.  And many times their fears were realized because they weren't believed by their own mothers if they did tell because it was their father or their mother's boyfriend or another family member who was the perpetrator.  And they were told to be quiet and no one stood up for them.  There's therapeutic value in abused women telling their story and caution is important when deciding whether one believes them or not.  Because the next woman to come forward about being sexually abused could be that person's mother, aunt, sister or daughter." 

photo by Sudiptorana / flickr
 --Roger Lovette /

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Happy Birthday--Gayle

She came into my life I think in the fall of 1959. A blind date. We went out with her sister and my buddy. “The twins” everybody called them. I knew from that first candlelit night in Mario’s Pizza place that something special was happening on my end. I can still remember that dark green dress she wore. Her hair was in a French twist. And she was—and is—the prettiest girl I had ever seen.

She and her sister were born December 10th, 1939 in Louisville, Kentucky. Her parents were surprised when the Doctor said, “There’s two.” They did not expect that. They named them Gayle and Gwyn and from then until now no two sisters could be closer or loved each other more. 

They were both fine musicians—her sister on the viola and Gayle on the piano. They were good enough to get scholarships and they chose the University of Louisville. They still claim it was the best school that ever was. 

And after we married in 1961 and moved to this country place in the middle of nowhere—she must have wondered what she had gotten herself into. And I am sure through the years—from church to church—she must have wondered more than once—what in the world have I gotten myself into.

Two kids and many dogs and cats came into our home through the years. Leslie, a curly-haired red head came first and four years later another red-head—Matthew came roaring into the world. There never was a better Mama. And when I was off doing “the Lord’s work” she was changing diapers and wiping away spills and keeping the ship steady and making sure the kids were not naked when they left the house. 

On our first trip to Paris I asked her, "Did you ever think we we would be in Paris?" And she said: "Sure." There was no doubt in her mind that things would be good even those days when I wondered. 

I love the old quote that says: “She was the brightest thing in the store window.” Still is. 

And so after many dangers, toils and snares she has stayed with me and been an utter delight. And on this, her birthday weekend I would stop and sing her the Doxology if I could carry a tune. Happy Birthday dear…I love you. I love you. I love you.

--Roger Lovette /

Monday, December 4, 2017

Edwina Hunter--A Tribute

photo by hehaden / flickr

(Dr. Edwina Hunter, ordaIned in the American Baptist Church, was one of the most distinguished preachers in America. After her retirement as the Joe R. Engle Professor of Preaching at Union Theological Seminary in New York City she moved back to California. She was past president of the Academy of Homiletics, the editor of a volume of women's sermons, and had numerous sermons published in other volumes. She served on the Advisory Board of "The Living Pulpit" and was a frequent guest lecturer and preacher. She is survived by her daughter, Wendy Jo Snyder.)

It’s a strange world sometimes. We bump into someone, shake their hands—get their names not knowing that in the days to come they will change our lives forever. Edwina was one of those people for me. She was one of three women we ordained as a Deacon in the little church I came to. This was the late sixties—and ordaining women to such important posts was unheard of, at least in Baptist life. In fact we were one of the first churches to ordain women as deacons in the Southern Baptist denomination. But despite all the hoopla from the Baptists—it did not change anything one whit. 

Dear Edwina was a Deacon. She would sit in the choir and see people in the congregation she did not know. And would whisper a prayer “for those troubled faces.” She would bring little explosive books to our Deacons meetings, pass them out and quietly suggest we might just find something in there that would help us along. She was right. She taught at the college—oral interpretation we used to call it. But she took a whole cadre of wild, rough long-haired kids of the sixties and formed a group called Wordmasters. She opened a larger world to these kids from tiny little places in Kentucky. She not only taught them how to speak distinctly--but the power of the spoken word. She took her touring group around the country and moved audiences with their words. She invited people like Dr. Davie Napier  to our little church. He had taught at Yale and was Chaplain at Stanford and the author of many books. 

She had married Bob and together they adopted a little girl they named Wendy Jo. She and my son were partners in crime. They went to Montessori School together. There they met Sister Margie who woud not only change their lives—but got her foot into their parent’s lives and in the church I served. Edwina introduced this Baptist congregation to this nun, this sister—Margie and we learned much from the rich wealth of her tradition. Edwina taught us the church and the world was bigger than most of us had envisioned. 

She was one of many who marched out of the church in Georgetown, Kentucky that would not allow black folk to join—and started another church. They called it Faith—and from its very beginnings they flung open the doors to whomever would come. She helped in her own quiet, strong way to keep us honest. That little building, with folding chairs looked out through plain windows into a world larger than we dreamed. Edwina and Bob helped immensely in that effort. 

Edwina helped me, her young-green pastor. She affirmed me in so many ways. She told me how we could experiment in worship and church itself. She introduced me not only to books. She taught me what prayer was all about--the utter seriousness it was to bow our heads and whisper to the Almighty. She introduced me to Lee, her well-know friend in her profession. She had gone everywhere and knew so many people and she introduced me to many of these and the windows opened even wider.

She and Bob parted ways and she moved on. If memory is correct she went back to Northwestern and finished her doctorate. And her reputation spread until she became Professor of Preaching first I think at Claremont in California and then at Union Theological Seminary in New York. She influenced so many that would scatter around the world with a news that was good. My wife and I visited her in New York while she taught there. She lived in “the Paul Tillich Apartment.” And we stayed there one weekend wondering what ghosts there may have been surrounding us. She took us downtown to the World Trade Center and we had dinner one night at the Windows of the World Restaurant overlooking Manhattan. On 9/11 it would all come crashing down. 

In her retirement years she and Wendy Jo moved back to California. About once a year we would talk on the telephone. She remembered all those days in Georgetown—and the richness we both had found there. 

Her daughter, Wendy Jo called me this last week. She told me her Mother had died in November. When the fires  were raging outside Oakland she and Wendy Jo had to flee for their lives. But the smoke from those fires did great damage to Edwina’s lungs—and she slipped into the mystery with Wendy Jo holding her hand. 

We all have people who have made an enormous difference in our lives. We never know when we shake hands for the first time with someone just where this might lead. So we need to keep our eyes and hearts open lest we miss those incredible gifts that come in the most unlikely of packages. 

And so I remember Edwina Hunter and thank God that she was a vital part of my own journey.

I give her this Benediction which comes from the Roman Catholic Mass for the Dead:

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

—Roger Lovette /

Advent Time: Home for Christmas

photo by Elvis Ripley / flickr

She sat by the door of the Nursing Home. As I came in she looked up and said, “Take me home. Would you take me home.” As I left she was still sitting there looking out the window. And she said, “Take me home…would you please take me home.”

Just say the word home and memories swirl. I can still remember what it all looked like. Little four room house. Porch on the front. You entered the front door and there was the living room. I can still remember where the couch was, where the piano was located, in the corner where the secretary-desk stood. To the right was the bedroom my brother and I slept in. I could tell you to this day where the twin beds were and the dresser and the chifforobe. Behind our room was my parent’s bed-room and behind there was the bathroom with the bathtub resting on those four claws. Across from my parent’s bedroom was the kitchen. We had a chrome kitchen table with the yellow formica top and four matching chairs. A pantry
photo by Yvonne Eijkenduljin / flickr
was in the corner…a gas stove, little sink and a pie safe which held our dishes. Say that word, home and we all are taken back to another time and another place. Do you remember?

If you turn to the book of Isaiah you’ll find some of the same memories. First Assyria had invaded their homeland and in that weakened state Babylon marched in and finished the job. They leveled the temple, they salted down the farm lands, they poisoned the wells. And then they dragged off the smartest and brightest of the Israelites. They took those captives 700 miles across the desert. They were homeless. and cut off from everything they loved and cared for. Gods's people were there for 50 years and they called it exile. The theme runs through book after book in the Old Testament. That cursed word, exile. Psalm after Psalm raised the cry: “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” Translated: How can we sing the Lord’s song so far from home. Hostages. Under the thumb of the cursed Babylonians.  And like that little woman in the nursing home they said it over and over : “I want to go home…I want to go home.”

This was the setting of Isaiah 40-55. Isaiah 1-39 was written before the exile. Isaiah 56-66 was written after the exile ended. But today we turn to that exile time which is found in Isaiah 40-55. And some lone prophet—spoke to all those held captive. What did he say to his brothers and sisters so far from home? Some days they were so homesick thought they would die. And the church has turned to these words year after year and found comfort and hope in the hardest of times. 

photo by Trish / flickr
And these are the words they turned to.“Comfort ye, comfort ye my people says your God…” “In the wilderness prepare the way  of the Lord…” Every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain shall be made low; the uneven ground shall become level , and the rough places a plain”. “They that wait on the Lord will renew their strength…” “Do not fear…I have called you by name and you are mine…” “And then those wonderful words: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers they will not overwhelm you…” Read the words yourself this Christmas.

Why has the church chosen these particular words Christmas after Christmas? Because Christians in every age have known about exile and dislocation and homesickness. We know it too. Rumors of war once again. Now there is yet another I-Phone to learn. If the other one was not enough. All this talk about sexual harassment everywhere. Have we gone crazy? My wife sent me to the store the other day to get some coffee. Coffee. Simple enough. I stood there before that long line of coffees—stretching on and on. Coffee—which one? And sure enough when I got home said, “This is not the coffee I wanted.” Everything is so complicated. Ever tried to open a jar?

I teach a grief group a couple of times a year. And they sit in a circle and tell me the loved ones they lost. A child…a husband. A wife…a brother or sister. A parent. And life for them will be forever different. People surrounded me when I lost him or her—but weeks, months later nobody comes—and life goes on for them. I tell them it is like an amputation. They say: ”I rattle around in this old house—and I’m all alone. And it is so hard. We know about exile, don’t we. 

And at Christmastime I think we all think about how it was and how everything seems to
photo by / flickr
have has changed. Isaiah spoke to homesickness and heartbreak. And he spoke out of his own heart to a people who had their own separate longings. They looked across the desert to the way it used to be and they would whisper: “Take me home…take me home.” 

And in that time of exile his words would shine like a beacon in the darkness. No darkness could ever put out that light. “Comfort ye…comfort ye my people…Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and tell her that her warfare is over…” And Isaiah told them the strangest  thing. Exile was only for a season. Babylon will not always endure. Bel and Nebo—their cursed manmade gods—would crumble and fall. Didn't look that way. Still doesn't.

And Isaiah gave those people knee-deep in homesickness two powerful images of God. One is global and one is personal. First, he says, “Your God is a conquering king.” (10) “He comes with might,,,his arms rule for him…his reward is with him…his recompense is before him.” So folks, he said, you can smooth out all the wrinkles and wipe away all your tears. These words are overture—they will form the theme for the next 15 chapters. Over and over again he will say: Your God is with you. And this is Christmas. We all need a glimpse of this vision that Isaiah saw. God really is conquering king. And we need sometime this season to move away from all the noise and hoopla and remember this is the breaking news. Not all that other stuff. God is here and he comes with power and with might.

And Isaiah follows that vision with another word: If that first word is global—this second word is personal. He is not only conquering king—but he is also the Gentle Shepherd. “He will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms, he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.”

courtesy of flickr
I never really understood this Shepherd thing until I was in a hard place. And I was at a Conference in Washington for a week. It was held on the grounds of the Washington Cathedral. It was a busy week of work and I had almost no time of my own. But toward the end of that week I decided, after breakfast to visit the great Washington Cathedral which was just up the hill. It was early but I thought the Church would be open. It wasn’t. I tried door after door but they were all locked.  I turned around and decided to go back to my room—and walking by the side of the church I saw a sign that said, “The Chapel of the Good Shepherd.” So I went through that door, walked down a hall and thought maybe I could sneak upstairs and see the Cathedral. That inside door was locked. As i started out and saw the sign: “Chapel of the Good Shepherd.” It was a tiny room maybe two or three little pews. I sat down and looked up at the altar and there was this stone carving of The Shepherd holding a sheep in his arms. On that ledge, beside that stature was a tiny vase and someone had placed a sprig of forsythia there. Something happened to me I have never quite understood. As I looked at that rendering of the Good Shepherd with his arms around that lamb—I saw myself. He was the Good Shepherd and he looked down at the little sheep in his arms and I saw something I had never seen before. I had preached a lot of sermons on the 23rd Psalm. But suddenly the words came to life. Looking up I knew he was my Shepherd—and he held me in his arms—and I was safe and somehow everything would be all right. 

This is what Isaiah was saying to a troubled people. He is conquering king but he is more than that to us. He is also the Good Shepherd. And those exiles that really heard his words knew that they were kept and they would somehow make it through whatever came. Why? Because he never let them go. No wonder we call this first candle hope. For in a hard time and in a very dark place—this was not the end.

I thought about the Shepherd and the lamb in an old story that has made the rounds through the years. Three boys and three girls were on a bus, going to Fort Lauderdale for Spring break. They had left the cold and ice of New York and dreamed of sun and sand blue, blue water.

As they passed through New Jersey they noticed a man that said his name was Vingo. He was dressed pretty shabbily and they could tell by his face that life had not been too good. Outside Washington everyone got off at the Howard Johnson’s except Vingo. He just sat on the bus and the young people began to wonder about him. When they got back in the bus one of the girls sat down next to him and slowly he began to tell her his story. He told her that he had been in jail in New York for four years and now he was going home. 

She asked him if he was married and he said he didn’t know. He had been married but when he got arrested he told his wife that he was going to be away for a long time and she didn’t have to wait for him. He loved her but he knew it was going to be very hard for her and their three kids. He told her that she didn’t even have to write. So he had not heard from her in over three years. 

The girl asked, “You’re going home not even knowing?” “Yeah, I know it’s kinda crazy but I’m going anyway. We used to live in Brunswick, just before Jacksonville and there’s a big oak tree everybody could see when you come into town. And after I was paroled, I wrote my wife and said that if she’d take me back, she should put a yellow handkerchief on that tree, and I’d get off and come home. If she didn’t want me, forget it—no handkerchief and I’d go on through.” The girl said, “Wow. Wow.”

She told her buddies and as they got closer and closer to Brunswick they started looking for a big old oak tree. Vingo looked too. They were ten miles from Brunswick and then five, three and then one mile and suddenly all the young people started shouting and screaming and crying. All except Vingo. He just sat there looking out the window. Looking. The oak tree was covered with yellow handkerchiefs—there must have been 20 of them, maybe thirty, maybe even a hundred fluttering in the breeze. As the young people kept shouting, the bus stopped and Vingo got off the bus and made his way home. 

For two thousand years the church has been lighting candles and singing its songs. Why do we keep doing this? Because despite all the exiles and all the Babylons that can break our hearts there is a good news of great joy that has come to all people. We are not alone. Any of us. God is a conquering king. All-powerful. But God is also the Gentle Shepherd. He cares for each one of us. And the good news is that there is a home and we are welcomed and we are loved and we are cared for. And so we light candles and sing songs and decorate our houses. Knowing deep in our hearts that we are not alone ever, ever again.

“To an open house in the evening, 
Home shall a men come,
To an older town 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 is homeless
And all of us are at home.”

   —G.K. Chesterton

photo by Kathy Ponce / flickr

(This sermon was preached at the Mount Zion Presbyterian Church, Sandy Springs, SC , 12-3-17)

--Roger Lovette /