Monthly Archives: September 2011

Following Jesus From Israel to Rural Alabama

The Day After Thunder

It was truly a day beyond words in April of this year when record tornadoes tore through Alabama.  I put it on my facebook page this way:

“It is the morning after a wall of thunder ripped across our lovely state.  Time to roll up our sleeves and see what we can do to help.”

the wall of thunder

A lot of death and injury greeted us when we emerged–damaged homes, businesses gone—and we found the task of cleaning up absolutely daunting.  One family in my church found themselves in a neighborhood of felled trees, including a big one right in the middle of their den.  The husband put it this way to me on the phone, “We’re glad to be alive.”  A lot of  people echoed those thoughts.   One family in my church watched the huge Tuscaloosa tornado on television live as it destroyed the store in which their son was working.   Then, for 45 minutes, they waited for the phone call—his truck was totaled, but he and his co-workers all alive.

Many were not so fortunate.  Well over 200 died all across the state.  For months and weeks, the wounded and grieving dug out.  Volunteers poured in from everywhere, as did the government and state workers and the nation’s sympathy.  Not long after, Joplin was devastated by another killer tornado and Alabama moved off the front pages.

Walking, Praying and Learning Where Jesus Walked

Pilgrims, or, the Motley Crew

In July of 2010, I was part of a group of 18 ministers from central Alabama.  I was asked by a colleague who led the project to recruit the group.  We met in an initial retreat, then went together on pilgrimage to Israel for two weeks.  We were funded by a grant from the CF Foundation in Atlanta, Georgia in a program that has been functioning for many years to deepen and renew the spiritual lives of ministers in the hope of revitalizing churches in order to impact their communities.

Most of this group had never been to Israel before, and we committed by our participation to be an ongoing Christian fellowship, praying for each other and eventually working on a project for the greater good of our churches and the place where we live.

Most are pastors.  A few work in church-related ministries.  We were Episcopal, Presbyterian, Mennonite, Baptist, and Methodist.  We were male, female, racially diverse, geographically from many different seminaries, hometowns and experiences.  Most of us knew about one another but didn’t really know each other until we came together for an initial community building retreat in Atlanta for two days.

Praying at the Church of the Beatitudes

The trip to Israel was transformative.  We did not merely visit tourist sites—we prayed in them, stayed in a Benedictine retreat center in Galilee for a week and another Catholic center in Jerusalem for a second week.  Our days began and ended in worship.  We went to the West Bank, saw the walls and checkpoints guarded by automatic weapons and suspicion.

We lived together as a community of faith for two weeks and came back as friends.  We continued to meet monthly together, every other month in a four hour “pilgrimage” to each other’s place of service.  The highlight of these meetings was to lead us to walk together through the buildings, hear our stories, and pray together for that person at a “holy place.”

We struggled with the project, though.  What could we do?  We spent a follow-up retreat agonizing through to something.  It was organized, intentional, and lifeless.  It had all the passion of a tooth extraction.  We went home and nothing happened.

Throwing Out the Plan

Pastor Mike Oliver and his family

In April of this year, one of our group, Mike Oliver, found his community devastated by the tornado.  More than a hundred homes were utterly destroyed.  The next week my church, like hundreds of others,  loaded up a truck full of donated supplies and took it to them in Williams, AL where Mike’s church had organized..

The church instantly turned into a community kitchen, feeding thousands of meals to homeless people from the community, a daycare center, and a disaster relief operation.  They had to bury two of their own members and get back to work.

All through the summer, people worked, cleaned up and prepared for the next phase, which only now is underway in earnest.  One of the realities about disasters is that the tornado or the tsunami or the earthquake get all the publicity.  Rebuilding is harder to watch over the long haul.

Meanwhile, our ministers group kept meeting, praying, wondering about what we might do.  Mike had an idea.  He

House built by FBC Williams

invited our group to come together on building a home for a family in his community.  The church had already organized to do this as their calling.   They have already built five homes and more are on the way.

Thought all of our congregations already had multiple projects they were involved in, we all decided that we would do this one together, somehow.  We are raising money, sending volunteers, praying together, and will go on October 7, all of us who can, to work together on our house that day.

We were unanimous in wanting to do it.  Each of us, our organizations, our churches, will offer what we have to give—money, volunteers, expertise.  Somehow, together, we believed that God will provide through us enough to do the job.  We have already done some things:  our band, Shades Mountain Air, was part of a day of joy and celebration to thank the workers and lift the spirits of the community.  The clowns from Childrens Hospital came and were the hit of the day.

When Mike presented the project idea, it rang a bell.  I suspect it won’t be the last one we do together.  There are still needs here in Birmingham, and other places.  But God has a whole church in the world that only has to harness us to one another to make good things happen.

So it was that on Monday, September 19, four of our group, along with two men from my church, went together to see our project.  We were met by the leader of our Israel trip from last year, Dr. Loyd Allen, and Tom Tewell, the man who

Dr. Tom Tewell

leads the foundation program that sent us, as well as Mike and number of his church folks.

After a time of lunch and fellowship together, we rode out and toured the area.  It was the first time I had seen it extensively, so I found myself deeply affected by to breadth of destruction, and by how many areas still had debris and damage evident.  The hardest site was one of sorrow and joy side by side.  A concrete slab, clean to the ground, lay as evidence of a place where a home had been.  It was the home where two of the church’s members had died, their bodies thrown across the road, deep into the tangle of trees and debris.  Next door was one of the homes the church had completed and dedicated, where recently the congregation came to celebrate a new beginning with a family.

After visiting several sites where homes had been built or were underway, we came to the site that we have committed to help together.   The husband and wife came out to meet us.  They have been married 38 years, have eight children and there were thirteen of the extended family together that day when the tornado roared over their little patch of land and destroyed their trailer homes.   I will let you listen to Mr. Hardy’s remarkable description of what happened.  It’s about 2 ½ minutes.

CLICK TO HEAR THE STORY OF THE HARDYS’ SURVIVAL

We were joined by the chair of deacons and we all joined together and had a groundbreaking and prayer together for the home we hope to build.  Tears streamed from men’s eyes as we listened to the Hardys tell us how blessed and overwhelmed by the thought that “complete strangers” would care about them and help them.  I told them it was we who felt blessed to get to meet them.  I was pretty sure we were talking directly to Jesus through their faces and hearts.  I felt Him with us.

When I got home, I was tired, deep tired.  I began the feel the emotions of all the damage I had seen, the suffering it represented, and the power of hope in a place where people have cast aside the divisions normally among them and began to help one another.  They were and are becoming real “neighbors” to one another.

I woke up this morning thinking about Galilee and Capernaum and Jerusalem—and Williams, Alabama.  I thought about all the terrible divisions in that place of killing and brokenness, where walls are being built at vast expense, to keep people apart.  We saw it with our eyes, together.

We came home also with memories of the place where Jesus lived and died, the water he fished in and the village where he grew up.  We prayed and prayed together, and we became friends, more than ministers usually do, I am sad to say.  We live in our own siloes, running our own little place, and need God’s help to get pulled out of them.

So out of nowhere, on April 27, the walls blew down and we stood there, afraid, vulnerable, dazed.  We needed each other.  Then gradually it has been dawning on us that these walls started blowing down a long time ago—in ancient Israel through a rabbi who told the Truth, indeed was Truth in human form.  And somehow, in a journey a group of pastors who didn’t know each other took, mainly because somebody paid for most of it and gave them a gift.  We went thinking, “This will really be nice.  It will inspire me and give me some sermons.”

Well, we weren’t prepared for what it actually did.  It knocked the walls over.  We began to truly care about each other and our churches and our ministries.  God connected us all through the land of Israel and that ancient story.  So on the “day after thunder,” we discovered that we didn’t go to Israel just to get away from our churches or enjoy a time of respite.  It was to lead us to rural Williams, Alabama, and to the Hardys, and to Pratt City and Birmingham, and down deeper into our own congregations and people, to see that this is indeed the best and most holy work of all, realizing the meaning of the words of the Lord Jesus when he said in Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”  We went to Israel to find what Jesus always wanted us to find—one another.

Mr. Hardy turns the dirt on his new house

Wade Mainer, Uncle Vance and This Old Guitar

Wade Mainer

Wade Mainer died this week at the age of 104.  A mountain banjo player who came out of the mountains of Weaverville, NC, Wade and his brother J. E. were part of my life even though I never met either one of them.  They split up and had separate careers after 1936, and were a big part of the foundation of what Bill Monroe fused into “bluegrass” music.  Wade became the more famous of the two, playing the White House for President Franklin Roosevelt.

Uncle Vance Furr, my Daddy’s oldest brother, died at the age of 74.  He lived, all of the time I knew him, within several miles of the house where I first lived after I was born.  He and his brothers, including my Dad, were all carpenters and brickmasons, men of the earth and builders.  They worked with their hands.  Dad built that first house we lived in himself.

Uncle Vance lived on a main road, on a corner with a long drive going to his garage and shop.  If you turned and went on down the road, there were houses where moonshine could be had if they knew you.  Uncle Vance loved to fish and he loved music, among other things.  My brothers, Mike and Greg and I had nicknames he gave us–I was “Big Mully,” and Greg and Mike were “Middle Mully” and “Little Mully.”  I think that was short for “mullet,” as in the fish.  In those days, there were no mullet haircuts, and he didn’t mean we were stupid.  It was affectionate.  We were like three little fish.

Uncle Vance, right. J. E. Mainer playing the banjo in "The Mountaineers"

Vance, Dad and all the six brothers played music.  They lived near J. E. Mainer, who came to Concord to work in Cannon Textile Mill, so he could have a steadier living than music.  Vance played in a lot of bands around Concord, and played with J. E. Mainer some, according to Dad, including on the radio.  J. E. would come around and say, “Any you boys want to go to Charlotte with me and play?”  That was the music business then.

My cousin, Vance Jr., shared Uncle Vance’s old guitar, a 1949 Gibson J45, with my Dad so he can play it and enjoy it as the last surviving brother.  He played that guitar in a band he was in, “J. E. Mainer’s Mountaineers.”  We took it to Nashville to Cotton Music, where the fine craftsman there put it back into stellar shape again.  He insisted we leave the scratches on the guitar, where apparently the fellow he bought it from had his initials scratched onto the body and Vance scratched them off.  Those are hallowed marks, he said, you leave ‘em.

It smells good and looks good–a guitar with a lifetime etched into its scars.  They are meant to be played, banged, nicked and strummed and sung with.  Remembering is important.  Someone is alive as long as they are remembered.  The Bible says that God remembers us–and that means everything about us, good bad and ugly.  But that remembering is life.  As long as we are remembered,  inseparable from the love of God, we are still around.

Uncle Vance was never famous, never moved from where he lived during my life.  He never got elected to anything, so far as I know.  But he had a story.  Some of it I know–an early marriage that ended with an early and untimely death of his wife during childbirth.  Years of work and some hard-drinking and music and fishing.  A journey back to the Bible in his later years and, I surmise, peace with God.

And then there are stories I will never know–his thoughts during the journey of grief, coming through the Depression and World War II, sitting alone with his guitar and deedling.  It doesn’t matter.  Somehow when I hold this guitar, I know those stories and those notes are nearby.

Neil Young has a song called, “This Old Guitar.”  I love it.  The lyric says, in part,

This old guitar ain’t mine to keep
Just taking care of it now
It’s been around for years and years
Just waiting in its old case
It’s been up and down the country roads
It’s brought a tear and a smile
It’s seen its share of dreams and hopes
And never went ou
t of style
The more I play it, the better it sounds
It cries when I leave it alone
Silently it waits for me
Or someone else I suppose

This old guitar
This old guitar
This old guitar    (Listen to the song)

Old-time, folk, country, blues, bluegrass, jazz all share a reverence for the heritage that helped them be born.  Somebody had the guitar before you.  Somebody played those songs their own way and gave you some ideas.  Before you change it and make it your own, tip your hat and honor your ancestors.

Aggies in the SEC? Crazy? You Bet!

The Texas A&M Aggies are coming into the Southeastern Conference.  Actually, A&M is a terrific school, great pride, wonderful spirit that borders on fanaticism, and their fans are abolute lunatics, which means they’ll barely be noticed in the SEC.  I remember as a Baylor grad student going to the games during the days of Mike Singletary and Walter Abercrombie (I saw Bear Bryant coach live one time, when Alabama creamed the Bears 34-2 at the Cotton Bowl in 1982.  It is the only bowl game I ever attended.  The next closest big game I attended live was Mexico versus South Korea in Olympic Soccer in Birmingham.

Well, about those Aggies, SEC fans.  We have come to be accustomed to high quality football, of course, and big ole’ universities.  I need to prepare my fans for some things about Texas A&M and their fans.  First, if you think Bama and Auburn fans are nuts, wait ’til the Aggies arrive.  They have so many traditions and fanatic fans that you’ll feel right at home.  They don’t have cheerleaders like most schools.  Sorry, but an awful lot of cheerleading today actually looks like a gymnastic meet that didn’t finish before the football games started, so it’s going on over there but no one is watching.   Not so with the Aggies–they have “yell leaders.”  Their fans (the student body, anyway) stand for the entire game.  They follow intricate hand signals by which they know to yell.  Some of their yells are described in the Wikipedia article on the subject:

  • “After the signals are passed through the crowd, the Yell Leaders give the signal to “hump it”, where the crowd leans forward and places their hands on their knees to maximize the noise.”  (This did make me curious.  If you arch your back and lean forward, what sort of noise do you maximize?)
  • “The Yell Leaders have a dozen yells that they can choose from depending on the situation. While some yells are designed to praise and motivate the team, others exist solely to make fun of the opposing side.
  • “Students practice the yells at Midnight Yell Practice. Held at Kyle Field at midnight the night before a football game, Midnight Yell is similar to a pep rally. Over 20,000 Aggies attend each session, practicing the yells that will be used in the following day’s game and generating an excitement for the game.[5][61] At the conclusion of the yell practice, the stadium lights are extinguished and fans kiss their dates. This is also done as practice, because Aggies are expected to “mug down”, or kiss their dates, every time the football team scores on the field.[61][62] Sports Illustrated named Midnight Yell as one of the “100 Things You Gotta Do Before You Graduate.” ”  Gotta admit, this is pretty great.
  • “Aggies practice their yells again after each football game. If the team is victorious, the freshmen in the Corps of Cadets capture the Yell Leaders on Kyle Field and march them across campus to be dunked in Fish Pond. The very wet Yell Leaders then make their way to the YMCA Building, where the Fightin’ Texas Aggie Band and members of the crowd join them for a short yell practice in preparation for the next week’s game. ”   Uh, well.
  • Booing is strongly discouraged, and an upset Aggie will instead hiss their opponents or the referees. If a referee call is especially egregious in the minds of the Aggies, the Yell Leaders will call for the “Horse Laugh,” a yell that ends with a stadium wide hissing.
  • “After each yell, students make a noise and a hand motion that is known as a wildcat. Each class has a separate wildcat, and students caught “pulling out,” or using the wildcat of a higher class, are often forced to do pushups as punishment.

So, it’s going to be interesting, welcoming Aggies here. They show up at games in droves, spend a lot of money when they come, and are generally great folks.  But the good part is that you will get to tell “Aggie jokes.”  These were quite popular when I lived in Texas.  Jokes like:

  • Hear about the Aggie farmer who got his tractor hung in reverse and unplowed seven acres?
  • Did you hear about the Aggie terrorist who tried to blow up the Longhorn team bus.He burned his lip on the tailpipe.
  • There was this Texas highway patrolman who saw an Aggie on I-35, hitchhiking with a pig beside him.  He pulled over.  “Son, what on earth are you doing here?”  Hitchhiking to Dallas, he was told.  “Well, it’s illegal to have animals here on the interstate.  There’s a petting zoo at the next exit.  Why don’t you take your pig there?  Otherwise, I’ll run you in.”  “Yes, sir,” he said.  Well, the next day the officer is driving by and there is the man with the pig again.  “You dimwit, didn’t I tell you to take that pig to the petting zoo?”   Oh, yes sir, he was told, I did.  “So what in the Sam Hill are you doing out here again?”  “Well, sir,” he replied, “Me and the little feller had such a good time I’m taking him up to Six Flags.”

Wait until the Aggies start gigging, hissing and dunking each other in an SEC game.  Y’all are going to fit in around here just fine.

Crazy?  Consider that the average NCAA football coach makes $1.3 million annually.  The average in basketball is $1.4 million.  An assistant coach at Tennessee averages $369,000 per year, while universities raise tuitions and cut staff elsewhere during hard times, when the average full professor’s compensation at a doctoral program public university is $115,509.  Meanwhile, UCLA will spend $185 million to renovate Pauley Pavillion, where its basketball team plays.

Nine of the coaches in the SEC make over $2 million per year.  Jeremiads about football and salaries are common, I know.  But think about this:  TEN YEARS ago, illegal betting on college sports was a $100 billion dollar industry.  Gambling addictions are now costing us about $40 billion a year in social costs.  Yet when I typed in “gambling college football” into Google, the first five pages were about HOW to gamble on football.

In my state, Alabama, the average teacher makes about $46,000 a year and we’ve been cutting  funding right and left.  Crazy.  I was sitting on a bike at the gym recently and two very well-educated middle-aged men had an intense, passionate twenty minute conversation about football.  They sounded every bit like high school girls chattering about Justin Bieber.  I doubt anyone can or will change any of this.  Consider this a snapshot, or a mirror.

So why do storied universities with long traditions of being in a conference jump ship?  It’s a rhetorical question.  Same reason Arkansas jumped the same ship that A&M USED to be in.  Look, I love football, baseball, basketball, all sports.  But we’ve lost our minds.  Don’t look, but our tractor is hung in reverse.

 

Remembering What I Said After 9-11

I wondered about the things I said on the Sunday morning after 9-11.  So I retrieved my sermon from that day,  September 16, 2001 at Vestavia Hills Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama.  I am still in the place where I was on that day, still trying to preach sermons to my people.  So, I wondered, what do I remember about what I said and felt and thought.  Turns out I had a record.  Some of these thoughts still help me.  Some cause me questions about where we have come since then.  You decide.

  NRS Ecclesiastes 12:1 Remember your creator in the days of your      youth, before the days of trouble come, and the years draw near when you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”; 2 before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return with the rain; 3 in the day when the guards of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the women who grind cease working because they are few, and those who look through the windows see dimly; 4 when the doors on the street are shut, and the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low; 5 when one is afraid of heights, and terrors are in the road; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along and desire fails; because all must go to their eternal home, and the mourners will go about the streets; 6 before the silver cord is snapped, and the golden bowl is broken, and the pitcher is broken at the fountain, and the wheel broken at the cistern, 7 and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it. 8 Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher; all is vanity.

This text from the Old Testament is perplexing.  Amid this very poetic description of the decline of life, there is a reference to the almond tree blossoming.  How can hope blossom among such unpromising circumstances?   Indeed, that would be an excellent question for us today after the terrorist attack on our nation this week.  At least part of the answer is found in the first verse, when we are told to “remember.”

We all have a story that we will tell of this week for the rest of our lives.  It is about where we were when we heard about it, or what we did in response.  Most of us will tell of sitting, glued to the television, hour after hour, as the entire country shut down, first in shock, then realization and horror, and then in brokenness and grief, and finally in “cold rage,” as it was described.

You children have heard your parents and grandparents tell these stories before and they sounded dusty and old.  We tell you where we were when President Kennedy was killed, or where we were when the Challenger blew up in the sky and detonated our illusion of endless technological progress.  Some can remember when President Reagan was shot and almost died.

You may even have grandparents or great grandparents who can tell you about sitting around a radio on December 7, 1941 and hearing President Roosevelt announce the unthinkable—that the United States had been attacked and the war that seemed so far away had now come into our homes and our country and our families.  Then came stories of young men who went away and many who never came home again.

The point of those stories was this:  life will never be the same again.  This is one of those kinds of weeks.  It is a defining memory for our whole country.  Each of us have corporately grieved for people we never knew existed on Monday.  We have watched, transfixed, as the story gradually unfolded.  Some of us rushed out to do something—give blood or wave flags or pray, something

There will come a day for justice, and a day of retribution, but it is not today.  Today is the day of remembering.  But remember what?  We will remember the attack, always.  Those images, captured on video, gruesome and yet hypnotic in their horror, again and again, of one plane, then the other, penetrating a building filled with people from all over the world, like an intruder breaking into a house at night while we slept in innocence.

They were people like us, going to work, whether that work was to prepare lunch for visitors in the restaurant or insure the flow of economic possibility for the world, people who kissed their children goodbye and people who came in early to beat the traffic.  There were people with a meeting before they left town on a trip and thousands of little stories, now fused and melted into a single tragic tale of gigantic proportions.

The planes invaded the thin, trusting skin of those buildings, buildings where millions of us had gone on our trip to New York and stood on top of the world and looked down to see forever.  Ripped into them, uninvited, unexpected, commandeered by demented agents of hate and evil will.  They came will precise calculation to commit the largest mass-murder in American history.  But they did more than kill innocent human beings.  They murdered our security, our sense of safety and peace and of the troubles of the world being far away.

We will remember the extraordinary rescue effort and the thousands of heroic deeds of ordinary people who put themselves out and sometimes in harm’s way because it was the right thing to do.  People who came from everywhere.  People who died trying—police and firemen and women, even a chaplain who perished as he ministered in the name of Christ.

We will remember the grief and the loss, too large for even 80 channels of cable to document.  It spilled out of New York and touched every corner of our country.  Again and again we heard of last goodbyes, some matter of fact, not realizing that when they blandly kissed goodbye or left a note or said, “See you tonight.  Be sure and stop by the store on the way home” that it was the end.  We listened to a CEO, his life broken with grief over his own employees.          We saw the poor restaurant workers from Windows On the World, wandering the streets with pictures of their fellow workers, mostly immigrants from everywhere, decent, working people, Christians, Muslims, Jews, rich, poor, executives and clerks, custodians and captains of industry. We heard of cell phone goodbyes from the doomed airliners.  Fathers and mothers, realizing that they would not get out, calling to leave a goodbye on the answering machine.  We shall never forget those goodbyes.  And the unforgettable agony of those thousands and thousands of people who must wait and wait and wait to learn the likelihood that they already dread to be true but cannot begin to embrace until their broken body is found—their father, their mother, their sister, their son, their friend.

We will remember the extraordinary sympathy of the entire world.  Today, indeed, John Donne’s oft and over-quoted line, “Ask not for whom the belle tolls, it tolls for thee,” has been a reality.  Weeping across the world.  As it was rightly said, in a global economy, this was an attack on the entire notion of society in the name of an anarchist band who would renounce it to return to a medieval sectarian version of it.  The world shuddered in absolute revulsion.

This sympathy was spoken in prayer vigils, public declarations, at Friday sermons in mosques across the Middle East, in public declarations, in notes, in every imaginable way.  The world does not know much about America, but it does know about New York and Washington, and if they have been anywhere, they have probably been to New York City.  We will remember the palace band in London playing the Star Spangled Banner and flowers and cards piling up.

We will remember the surge of community and patriotism that was fired into passionate pride—we are one nation after all.  And for all those jokes about New Yorkers and the bureaucrats in D.C., when trouble comes we are one people, no matter where we came from, how rancorous our debates, how different our views, we are one in our love for this place and its heritage and its ideals.  Criticize them all you like.  We may even join in now and then, because that’s what freedom means.  But kill our countrymen and we rise up, together, to mourn and bury the dead, to clean up the mess, roll up our sleeves, and stand together.  You cannot divide us this way.  We are one nation.

And there were some sad and forgettable things, too.  People lashing out, shooting windows out of mosques, threatening strangers without bothering to know them.  If you have Arab-American neighbors and friends, this is the week to call them and reach out.  Hate is not the majority response.  I do not blame Arab Americans or Islam, any more than I want people in the world to think Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson represent all Christians, or that the Klan or militias, because they claim to be Christian, are representative of us.  But we will remember what people said and did.

The danger is not that we will ever forget this week but that it will so obsess us and fixate us in our anger or pain that we cannot see how to go forward.  Our President and leadership have had the awful task of helping us, coming together, coordinating, scrambling.  Their weight has been terrible.  This week it is not the President who feels my pain—I have felt his and prayed for him, again and again.  And they have promised us that we will again be secure, we will recover, we will survive, and that they will turn our entire focus on attacking terrorism in the world and bring the guilty to justice.

I have only told you what you have already seen and experienced.  I have added nothing new to it.  You were there.  These are your memories, too is your memory, too.  I do not need to say, “Remember.”  You will.  Always.  And you will tell your children and grandchildren and nephews and nieces and students and friends about it.  For the rest of your life.  You will remember.

            I come today not to add to the memories but to focus them.  Ecclesiastes 12 is a “summing up.”  It is told from the vantage point of old age, a man who has lived life fully and now faces the grave.  He is considering all the foolish things of life, things he himself has done and once thought to be the point of it all—eating and drinking, buying and selling, celebration and rejoicing, working and playing.  Things he once did like you and I do—with all our heart and all our soul and with all our might.

We invest ourselves in career and family, leisure and hobbies, interests and passions.  As Americans we tend to always do it with all that we are—“we’re number one!”  Life goes along, sometimes so quickly, as we find ourselves moving on a path that partly we picked and partly picked us by our abilities and gifts and talents.  We move and walk and then run, giving ourselves to them.

Because we live in a land of freedom, we can pursue those inclinations as far as our energies, opportunities and abilities will let us go.  It brings great rewards and often prosperity to us to do so.  They have created a culture of prosperity and security unprecedented in human history.  They have led us forward to developments that have made life better throughout the world by our technology and medical advances.  They have enabled us to create a society that draws people from around to world to come here.  Work, achievement, education and opportunity are the cornerstones of our way of life.

Yet they are not who we are and they are not what gives us life and hope.  There is something deeper that sustains us, whether we acknowledge it or not.

On Tuesday morning, those planes slammed into the two great symbols of our national power—our economy and our military might.  It was a blow not only on a human level, but an intended damnation of our entire way of life.  “Take away their economy and their might, and there is nothing there.”  That is the belief of our enemies.  And sometimes we seem to prove them right by our moral and material excesses.

But they were wrong.  What happened after the shock wore off was that we turned to what was always deepest and near at hand.  We have prayed—on television and radio, in churches and special services.  We have turned back to God.  We have turned to one another.

Funny that we would put it that way—“turned back.”  As though we could get away from God or leave God.  But there is great truth here, truth that we should not miss, for it is the most important truth.  Life is not about what we have or who has it.  We knew it all along, but it has come forth this week and we know it to be true.  It is about the recognition that we are all God’s creation, made in the image of God.  That life is precious and fleeting.  That we are neighbors, and that we belong to one another, and that we ought to care about each other.

Has it just been me, or are people speaking to each other more respectfully and tenderly to one another this week?  I know it may wear off soon, when there is some routine again, but let’s bask in it while we can.  We are seeing the depths in one another in this crisis, and it says, “We are not an economic system.  We are a community of brothers and sisters who care about each other.”

Ecclesiastes 12:1-8 is a description of old age—the loss of strength, vitality and energy.  His point is this—better to remember it when you are young, and then when you are old it will be there for you.  Life is not about how much you have or who you are.  Life is not about admiration or wealth.  It’s about God and the people in your life.  It’s about being an honorable person who knows the truth—God is God, and we are not.  It’s about realizing that life can come to a halt, any time.  Better live every day in that awareness.

Remember.  You are not the creator.  But you have choices.  You are free.  As Jacques Ellul reminds us, free does not mean independent—that we do not need anyone else.  Free does not mean “autonomous,” that we can do as we please without regard to God or others.  Free means we have choices and that God allows us to have them.  We can build buildings or destroy them.  We can love one another or kill each other.  Which depends on our choices and our remembering who is who.

Strange that we would have to remember God.  The creation is all around.  But as Ellul also reminds us

…God does not impose himself on us.  He does not crush our humanity with his             revelation.  He is utterly discrete: ‘remember.’  You can forget him, cast him aside, fail to concern yourself with him.  He will not come to you, enraged and threatening, making            you take him into account or bend your knees, filling your view or obliging you to obey     him.  No, he remains hidden and patient.

God does not force our obedience.  He asks for it.  He permits us the high privilege of freedom and responsibility.  We can forget and destroy ourselves and each other.  Or we can remember.  We don’t have to do it as weirdly as John Donne did, sleeping in a coffin to remind himself that he would die.  But we live better in this awareness of mortality.  A woman in my last church once commented to me at the graveside of her aunt, “It’s funny, but I don’t often feel like life is real.  I go through the motions.  Standing here, today, I feel a sense of reality.”

I think I know what she meant.  It felt “alive.”  To have things in right order, to remember the Creator and that we are only creatures who will one day die, is to be alive.  In the sadness of sorrow we often redirect our lives.

That’s why, in spite of the sorrow and pain and tears, in spite of the fear and the insecurity, in spite of the anger and frustration, I feel very alive today.  In spite of the death and tragedy, I feel very alive.  I have stopped thinking about a lot of things that seemed to matter but don’t.  I have thought over and over about what does matter.

I have called on God.  Not for myself but for others.  Over and over.  I have been alive as I thought about others and cared about them.  As I have been able to forget myself and pray.  God did not cause this but God remains, waiting, for all of us to remember that we are not God, that we will die, and therefore that we should live as tender stewards of this life and of the people around us who are created in God’s image.  Through our own folly and sin, God is helping us to remember that life is precious, life is God’s, life is a gift.

In this terrible vulnerability, we have seen some things.  Terrible truths, but also wondrous opportunities.  That is the story of the cross—it declares that life begins not where we think it should, with us who are alive, but in the depths of grief and loss and darkness and despair.  Jesus died on the cross, victim of every horrible and terrible motive and perversion that we have seen in the face of evil this week.  He died at the hand of those who thought, finally, that might and power and fear and intimidation and violence were finally the answer to every problem.  And they were wrong.

The greatest words in human history are “and on the third day.”  On that day, when Christ arose, we not only found a clue to hope in the afterlife, we discovered a profound spiritual reality.  It is not in strength, either of economy or might, that we find out what matters most in life.  It is in the vulnerability of love and the indestructibility of hope.  Those words, “on the third day” vindicated the cross, God’s way.

America’s tears, America’s wound, America’s concern for each other have opened a door of possibility for us this week.  It is there that we remember—there is a Creator and we, the children of that God, must remember him when we are strong if we are to understand where to turn when we are broken.

We will never forget this week—not the horror, not the sadness, not any of it.  I hope that we will remember forever.  And most of all to remember that as an entire world we have seen the futility of human will and power this week.  There is no immunity from suffering and evil.  It visits itself on us all eventually.  A malevolent evil can always have its day.

But it is not the last word.  The last word is God.  The last word is eternal love.  Force and hatred and wickedness plays itself out and causes its wounds, but it is destined for the pit of hell.  Love will swallow it whole and it shall be no more. Remember the love of this week.  Remember the vulnerable tears we have shared.  Remember neighbor love.  Remember the tolling bell.  Remember the Creator and that we are creatures.  If we do, there is hope.

Bibliography

            Ellul, Jacques.  Reason for Being: A Meditation On Ecclesiastes.  Grand Rapids, Michigan:  Wm B. Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1990.

Dreaming On


The anniversary of 9/11 is not only a marker of a terrible historical moment, it is a reminder that we have lived an entire decade in the collective shadows of fear and diminished hopes.  Our children graduating now have spent their childhoods absorbing tsunamis, wars, terrorism, hurricanes, earthquakes and economic catastrophe.  They enter a job market that will test their ability to hope.  It may be a great moment not only to remember 9/11 but also to remember how to hope.

Howard Thurman once wrote that “as long as a man has a dream in his heart, he cannot lose the significance of living.” (Meditations of the Heart, 36-37).  He went on to say that realism, daily facts, are unavoidable, but without that ineffable presence of something bigger inside us, life turns into “a swamp, a dreary, dead place and, deep within, a man’s heart begins to rot.”  This dream does not have to be some world-shaking vision of dramatic change, although moments of history sometimes require these.  Instead, “the dream is the quiet persistence in the heart that enables [us] to ride out the storms of  [our] churning experiences.”

Thurman grew up in Daytona Beach during segregation, but rose to national prominence as a preacher, writer, pastor and academician. He traveled widely and participated in many Christian missions and among his travels, spent time with Gandhi.  He was a college classmate of Martin Luther King, Sr., and was the Dean of the Chapel when King’s son, Martin, came there for study.

Thurman took the young man under wing and mentored him.  He was, in many regards, King’s spiritual director through his short life.  His book, Jesus and the Disinherited, written in 1949, profoundly influenced King.   In 1953 Life magazine) rated Thurman among the twelve most important religious leaders in the United States, but time has moved on and, outside the African American churches and historians and theologians, Thurman is not well-known.

When we think of all of these echoes of Thurman in the life of a young preacher from Atlanta, and how Thurman’s thoughts lived out through King’s life, it underlines the importance of his words about dreaming.  Our dreams do not have to be cosmic or political and yet they can roll out to change the world.  The Apostle Paul had a dream one night of a Macedonian man who said, “Come over here and help us,” and the gospel came to that place.  Peter had a vision that opened the gospel to the Gentiles in Acts 10.  Dreaming is powerful.

These dreams do not have to be world-sized.  They can be quite simple—dreaming of a better life for your children, to help a friend whose life is crushed, or as simple as “I want to be a better person than I have been up until now.”  It can be a dream to rebuild out of financial ruin or when your circumstances have taken a devastating turn.  We can dream of helping the next generation do more than we ever imagined and so give ourselves to a career of teaching and guiding.

There is something very determined about dreaming.  While “dreamy” often describes escape, inward dreams are just the opposite—they occupy our hearts and minds and drive us toward something that is ultimately better.  We imagine a future worth attaining.

Don’t underestimate the dream.  It is quite powerful.  It raised the ancient Jewish patriarch Joseph out of prison and into the Pharaoh’s court, and ultimately Israel into existence.  Thurman’s dreams lived into a young man who was part of calling America to its best self.

In these times of rebuilding, re-imagining and renewal, biblical people ought to dream.  Who knows what might come of it?  Just when life is at its worst is when dreams matter most.