Stories and tales from a guitar-picking writer, theologian, speaker, blogger and entertainer. From small town quirks to the bizarre realities of family, whacky church life and slightly damaged kinfolk, insights from a reluctant son of the South takes you along. Never know where it’ll end up but it’s sure to be worth the trip.
Friends, I have voted. It is a precious opportunity we never miss. And tomorrow, I want you all to know that I will STILL be your neighbor and fellow countryman. I will still do all in my might for good.
Vickie and I watched Henry Louis Gates’ series “Finding Your Roots” recently. In 2021 he did a show for singer and music producer Pharrell Williams. As he discovered the pain of his slavery past he was emotionally overwhelmed.
Then he said something that knocked me over. “I love America. I just want America to love me back.” That was a powerful insight. We are a country that has been filled with glorious and terrible truths. But we keep stumbling along.
That comment touched me. I want, I wish, I hope, I pray…that we can “love each other back.” That might be a way through. We have so much to be grateful for, so much possibility, such prosperity. But it will lie unrealized unless we love each other back.
It’s incomprehensible that 325 million people can’t figure out how to keep their 18-year-old males from killing us and our children and grandchildren. We will hear a barrage of excuses, arguments, high-minded rationalizations and fatuous fears in the days ahead. I am feeling the despair I had after the massacre of babies that happened at Sandy Hook. We will pit gun rights versus safety for children, argue about paranoid conspiracy theories and generally avoid doing anything. Because that’s how we’ve turned away from the crisis.
Here’s the deal for me. You let an 18-year-old stroll in and buy body armor, unlimited ammunition, and long guns designed to kill masses of people legally. Now, would not let a five-year-old do the same. Guns are already regulated. We just debate how. You can’t buy nuclear bombs legally or bazookas or hellfire drones, so we’re simply dithering about the line.
To me, regulation and freedom cannot be separated because it is really about responsibility and freedom. Freedom can only be entrusted to people responsible enough to have it. You have to prove you’re responsible enough to borrow money to buy a house, drive a car and fly a plane. Politically we simply decide how hard or easy that is.
Cars don’t kill people, people in cars do. But we still require that you take Driver’s Ed to know what your’re doing, understand the laws, demonstrate ability to handle it and have insurance to cover liability for it. You can’t drive drunk or you will go to jail. Yes, people can ignore the law, but at least the police have the teeth to get you off the road.
When any 18-year-old male (I haven’t noticed masses of 18-year-old women doing many of these killings) strolls into a gun store and buys these weapons, I’d say red flags should go up. What to do? Ban or limit the purchases of mass-killing weapons? Limit ammo? Strengthen enforcement? Universal registration? Raise the age of ownership or put limits on it? There are hundreds of ideas out there. What isn’t out there is real leadership that refuses to do nothing yet again.
This isn’t insanity. It’s cynical and cowardly calculation. The people who can deal with this won’t. And we put up with it. And that’s it in a nutshell.
The funerals in Buffalo aren’t even finished. And now we have to bury teachers and sweet children and grandchildren. The right to life counts, too. I believe in the right to own a weapon. But I also believe in the requirement that you be responsible enough to operate it safely, with training and accountability and liability that goes with it. Until we come to terms with that, we’ll just continue offering lamentations and grief and sit helplessly by in the richest and most powerful nation on earth and wring our hands helplessly and tell our children, “That’s just the way it is.” Otherwise, Senators and Representatives, and governors and mayors and state representatives, do something new. This isn’t working.
I have come to know Hector Guadalupe through our daughter, first as a cause she believed in and now as part of our family. Hector has an extraordinary story, coming from the rough streets of Brooklyn and the world of gangs and drugs to incarceration in his twenties, to trying to create an adult life after that. It is an extraordinary story of his overcoming that world, but also a remarkable program he has created to help others coming from similar stories.
It is a familiar story, all too familiar. The “war on drugs” is, it turns out, like so many wars that begin with apparent good intentions. It ended up incarcerating millions of young people, predominantly young men, and disproportionately the poor and minorities. The laws tended to punish more severely those who did not have the wherewithal to afford and negotiate the system. When people go to prison, sadly, they lose everything. And when they return, it is all too common that they lose hope.
I have worked with many people who have gone to jail or prison through the years—both church members (in every church I have served, I might add), and members of the community. The stigma of felony records strips away voting rights, employability, and social connection. So how then do we propose that people lead a productive life that is good for society?
If you have ever walked through the criminal justice system yourself or with someone, you already know what a boulder it lays on the shoulders of a person who made a wrong choice. Hector’s story, though, is not a rehearsal of those obstacles. He created an amazing organization, Second U, to train the formerly incarcerated to return to productive citizenship and life. This weekend, CNN is running his story as a part of its CNN Heroes series. Hector trains young men and women to become, like he did, personal trainers, have their own businesses and reestablish themselves in normal life.
You may view the story here. I encourage you to watch it. It’s short, but inspiring.
Years ago, I went to the prison here in Alabama where inmates are held just before release to meet with and help a man who had been writing me from prison to ask my help in returning to life. He’d served a one-year sentence and would soon receive a bus ticket and a small sum of cash as he left. For the next months and years, I, and several of our church members, served as guides and encouragers as he put his life back together. There were ups, downs, and stumbles along the way, but he did it. At that time, I remember thinking, “If every church in Alabama helped an inmate return to life, what would that do?” I still think about that. A lot. The people in prison are, first, people, from families, made in the image of God.
Of late I have worked along with the organization Faith in Action Alabama to advocate for a less onerous process of helping former inmates restore their voting rights. This made it to the House as SB 118. Sen. Jabo Waggoner was helpful to us in this process. If you can’t get a job, can’t vote, can’t rebuild your life, and give hack after you’ve paid your debt, how will you stay away from darker options?
I hope you will watch Hector’s story and think about the 25,000 + human beings currently held in our state system designed for 12,000 and ask yourself, “What can we do better for us all”” Yes, there are people whose crimes merit being removed from society, but many of these can be returned to life. The government and the prison system cannot do it all. It takes the former prisoner with a will to restore themselves and make amends, a community willing to welcome them back and a faith community that keeps sounding its own message, “There is a second chance.”
If you are interested in knowing more about SecondU foundation or contributing, go to
I wrote this to our church back at the beginning of April. I hoped, like all of us, that we’d be “back to normal” by now. But we aren’t. So in looking back at this, it’s more relevant than I thought. We’re in it for a while. Hold on.
The exile in ancient Israel was a traumatic disruption. The city of Jerusalem and all the towns of any size were sacked and burned, people scattered and all the Judaeans with any talent, leadership or education were marched across the desert to Babylon Iraq where they lived in an ethnic ghetto, not speaking the language or having any access to power, wealth and influence in their new land.
It was a time of terrible devastation. Excavations at Debir, Lachish and Beth-shemesh show enormous devastation. No town in the south escaped. Many died in the siege, many died of disease and starvation. The population decreased from 250,000 in the 8th century to perhaps 20,000 after the return .
The Exile presented many problems. First, of course, was simple survival. And how do you live in an interim? But by far the most profound was a theological and spiritual crisis. Their whole world, the one they knew, had disappeared from under their feet.
It became a profound time of spiritual change. They began to transfer and organize their scriptures from collections and memories into books. The synagogue was born, since the Temple was gone. But above all their was their shared memory. Psalm 137:5-6 comes from the exile.
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.
It was a time when they realized that only God could taken them home again–and they eventually did. At times, as in Jeremiah 29, they had premature hopes that it would happen fast, but eventually they settled in for the long haul. Exekiel 37, a vision of resurrection for the nation (from which James Weldon Johnson’s wonderful“Dry Bones” comes from), saw a return to the life they loved. But alas, not right away.
It is breathtaking how quickly our full and prosperous lives of ballgames, family gatherings and entertainment venues was collapsed by a tiny little virus. Now we sit in our homes, even unable to come to God’s houses to worship together. Hugging our friends, sitting together on the pews, choir rehearsal, Wednesday night supper, is now cut off for a little while. No ballgames, no concerts, no movies at the theater.
We’re making the best of it, and praying, helping and trying to keep the kids going, as much normal as possible. It dawns on us that this passage is going to be tough. So what to do?
We’re figuring out how to survive, how to do the interim, keep it going. We post things to lend a little courage to one another. But the spiritual crisis is also pervasive. And it’s not what self-anointed prophets of doom proclaim. I’ve been listening to those people since the 1970s, convinced that the end of the world is now at hand. Maybe, maybe not. Jesus said you and I don’t get to know that. Period. (Acts 1:7). The book of Revelation is not a how-to book of prediction for us to know ahead. It’s a promise that God will outlast evil.
Interestingly, there are people who can help us. A member of our church whose husband received a heart pump in a near death crisis five years ago emailed me this week and said, “We’ve laughed and said that actually everyone is now living our lives that we inherited five years ago — that we can never be apart from each other and we really go very few places anymore.” People in nursing homes understand, as do caregivers of the elderly, prisoners and parolees. Life is has edges that are determined by realities external to your will.
So what now? Just keep on. Live your faith, teach your children, laugh and rejoice all you can. Help out, and pray for the helpers. But above all remember that this is not the first time of crisis for the world. The spiritual opportunity is not about scaring people into faith—it’s about revealing that the way of a cross always was the way. The only way over it is through it.
As we finish this Lenten journey, the tone of our moment is matching the Jesus story in a remarkable coincidence. We aren’t just reading about disciples afraid of the unknown up ahead. It’s real. We don’t know where it’s going or how many of us will get through it unscathed. There is only surviving, holding on, trusting in faith.
There is precedent for this moment. And with that I tell you, “Hold on.” There’s always something on the other side of every cross.
At least that’s what I trust, even when my knees are shaking a little. I’ve been listening to Bob Dylan again, a lot. This one is a hard song, but still speaks to me.
It’s not social distancing. It’s just “safe distance.” One of our older ladies’ classes met with me Tuesday morning in two shifts to laugh, hear from each other, and say “See you later” to a member, Martha, who is moving to be close to her daughter and grandchildren. We ended each time with a short memorial time for Betty, a member whose whose funeral was last week. Our friendships and fellowship are alive and well.
Instead of whining about what we can’t do, put your thinking caps on and figure out what you CAN do. All the rest is just being on social media too much. Sunsets, birds, flowers and trees are still there. Books are on your shelf. There are instruments to practice, prayers to pray, money to give to good causes. Make a call to someone who is alone. Get with it!
These ladies call each other regularly for encouragement and inspiration. It’s getting to a hard time now–we’re over the short burst of crisis adrenaline and now we’re in the long haul. It requires mental toughness, selflessness, determination and regard for others. Some of us are flunking on that last one. But most people where I am are trying hard.
In my sermon Sunday I mentioned a comment by Mark Cuban who said young job applicants (after this is over) had best be ready to answer, “What did you do during the pandemic?” It’s a great question for us all. Get up off the couch, turn off the media and do something worthwhile before it’s too late. And if you’re in your teens or twenties, don’t be forced to say, “Oh, I partied like it was the end of the world.” You can be better than that.