What Can We Say?

I finally ventured out yesterday to buy some new tennis shoes. Wearing a mask, I went to a local store and followed the rules. I was waited on by a very sweet and helpful young woman, also in a mask. She happened to be African American. As I was trying on shoes, I asked, out of habit, “How are you doing?” “Oh, I’m fine, how are you?” A typical exchange of pleasantries.

Something moved me inside to say, “Actually, my heart is broken. That horrible killing ofACHMC #1 George Floyd in Minneapolis has left me heartsick.” And like that, our conversation changed. She opened up, not angry, but surprised that a masked stranger buying tennis shoes would venture the subject, I suppose, but she spoke more frankly that she shared my sadness and a trace of exhaustion. We have to hope and pray things can get better, she said.

It didn’t last long, but it reminded me that we can live on the surfaces and not know anything about what’s underneath with each other. Something has blown open this week in the soul of our country. It is not new. It’s painful, a wound that gets better for a time but never fully heals.

Racism is not only cruel; it is irrational and ultimately brings death and destruction. It is far past time to call it out wherever it is and require our corporate life to reflect who we hope to be at our best—fair for everyone in our society, just in treatment of one another,

group of policemen on horse
Photo by Harrison Haines on Pexels.com

and fierce to speak out for our neighbor, not just ourselves.

In 1996 Alabama experienced a string of church burnings. Our church made a gift to one of the churches and I drove down to meet with one of the church leaders. Our missions committee donated to them to help rebuild. I wrote these words then, twenty-four years ago. I wish they were not still relevant now. I wish I could say, “That was then, this is now.” I wrote this after standing among the ruins of that church in 1996:

          “Racism” is a loaded word.  When it is spoken, defenses are erected almost immediately.  “Oh, no, some of my best friends are…”  Some definitions are so sweeping that they cause despair.  Often, African Americans and Anglo-Americans don’t even mean the same thing by the word. Continue reading “What Can We Say?”

Memorial Day

On Monday, Memorial Day 2007, Vickie and I went to American Village to attend the Gold Star Memorial Service in the chapel for fallen servicemen and women who have died since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have begun.  I went because my friend Marynell Winslow, with whom I collaborated on a song about her fallen son Ryan (which many of you heard last November when she and George came to our church on a Wednesday evening around Veteran’s Day).  It was sung beautifully at the beginning of the service by 800px-US_Navy_040531-N-6371Q-223_Marines_and_Sailors_march_in_the_Little_Neck_Memorial_Day_Parade_in_Queens_N.Y._during_the_17th_Annual_Fleet_Week_2004a talented young soloist from Nashville.

Later, family members or representatives of the families walked one by one to the front and laid a single rose across a pair of combat boots as a symbol of the one whose full name was called.  As the roses piled higher and higher and you heard that list of names, one at a time, there was time to think about each family, each person, and who they were—what did they dream?  What was it like for them?

Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day.  It is a day of remembrance for those who have died in the service of our nation. According to a website on its observance, how it began is mysterious.

There are many stories as to its actual beginnings, with over two dozen cities and towns laying claim to being the birthplace of Memorial Day. There is also evidence that Forgotten Memorialorganized women’s groups in the South were decorating graves before the end of the Civil War: a hymn published in 1867, “Kneel Where Our Loves are Sleeping” by Nella L. Sweet carried the dedication “To The Ladies of the South who are Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead.”

Memorial Day was officially proclaimed on 5 May 1868 by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, in his General Order No. 11, and was first observed on 30 May 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery.

                                         — http://www.usmemorialday.org/

800px-bn3q09604_candle_lightTo a mother whose son has died, nothing can give complete comfort.  To know that he died for a good cause, as a patriot, as a loyal soldier, even with the gratitude of the nation, is meaningful.  But there is still that terrible void—the child she held in her arms, taught to walk and talk and pray and play, is gone.

I think about those families during this week. However their deaths came, for each family this was deeply personal, irreplaceable, terrible and relentless.

Remembering is a holy act.  Death is a doorway into that mystery called eternity—a door that opens only one way for us.  In the anguish of loss, we search for meaning, for hope, for comfort.  At the very least, to be remembered is a moment of relief.  It is good for us to place a hand on the parent of a son or daughter who died and say, “We remember.  And we are sad, too.”  Death is terrible enough, and grief is its horrid companion.  At the least we should not have to bear it alone or without a sense that our loved one’s life really mattered.

Memorial Day was a time for me to reflect, not just on this war, but on all wars we have endured.  The price is always enormous.  I miss my World War II veterans and Korean War veterans. If they had seen these angry people walking around our streets with guns, threatening one another when we should be pulling together.  They would have shaken their heads. They knew what it is really like.

The toll is deeper than we know.  It is good to pause and remember and count the cost.  It is good to understand that in all that we do, there are those from among us who cannot sit comfortably and do it.  They carry a heavy load.

I am reminded to pray a little harder for peaceful solutions, to be slow to anger and quick to forgive, to pray for safe returns, for just outcomes, for intelligence to prevail over impulse and rage against each other, for healing and effective grief, for a more thankful heart, for emotional restoration.  And to appreciate those who do the hard part of democracy.

But most of all, I have been pondering about widening out Memorial Day this year a little more to include a different war, against an invisible virus, taking some of our brightest and best and too many people who are loved from us. It makes no distinctions at all as we do with one another. And most of all I think of the soldiers in this war, doctors, nurses, dedicated researchers and healthcare professionals, farmers and ordinary truck drivers and workers and factory employees risking themselves to feed us, retail workers who have to ask us too much to abide by some simple courtesies, a little irritation and inconvenience, just for the privilege of shopping for what we need in a world where even now we have ten times what most others in the world could dream of.

I hope we’re up to it. But it may require, as Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman said, that we first grieve our losses before we can be sane about resuming life. I hope we don’t skip over the remembering, as painful as it might be. Because there is also joy in the remembering. And you don’t get the joy without the sorrow. If there are no parades this year, let it not keep us from remembering, honoring, mourning, and giving thanks. Be grateful for every act of sacrifice for the greater good, no matter how small.

New Ways for a New Time

Gary Furr PRThis is a time of many “firsts.” I suspect this is true of everyone. Our church staff, like all congregations and organizations, are having to ask, “How will we do this now that we cannot do it as we once did?” “Touch,” connection, and being together is so crucial to the existence of any organization, but there are peculiar ways that we do church. Communion, literally “in common” is ideally done with shared loaf and common cup. But we have done our first “virtual” Maundy Thursday and Easter, too.

As the mind anticipates the weeks ahead, it has raised a lot of interesting challenges. How do we ordain without the laying on of hands? How do we have Sunday School for children and Vacation Bible School without being in the building? Should we take temperatures and administer tests before baptism? A lot to think about.

This is not without precedent, of course. The church has been through all sorts of times in history when gathering was difficult or even temporarily impossible. And innovation always results from such times. These become the new “rituals.” Ritual is necessary. It is the way we negotiate passages in life. So, we’re having to reinvent them. What they become are our “rhythms” of life. You can’t work all the time, play all the time, or heaven forbid, be online all the time. You have to do other things. Some carry on as is, others have to be reconceived. People are figuring it out, more or less.

On Monday, of course, we did our first online memorial service for Dr. William Poe. The only live event was the graveside service in Tuscaloosa with eight of us present–three caregivers, his son Allan and daughter Jody, Cherri Morriss and two funeral directors. It was a beautiful day and we stood round the outside of the green awning over the grave. Everyone was masked except me. The Lord’s Prayer by Malotte and Amazing Grace were sung acapella.  I read a selection from a little book Dr. Poe had written, a memoir. The Continue reading “New Ways for a New Time”

Grandfather Hopes

This is a pretty serious moment in our country and the world, for so many reasons. Most of us are trying to go on with life, attend to the people we love, and do our work. Chaos is transmitted through social media, television and the news day by day.  My friend, Roger Bates, sent this to me the other day, related to something else. They are the words of a dying great-grandfather who had served as a leader in our state. They are words worth sharing.

I am sending below a quote from my friend and former Congressman Jack Edwards that I thought you might appreciate. Jack was asked shortly before his death a few weeks ago what he desired for his great grandchildren. His response was:

“My hope is that my great grandchildren will grow up in a country where civility will have been returned to common discourse and to the efforts to  solve the country’s problems. My hope is they will be a part of a process of coming together rather than pulling apart. My hope is that they will understand that the real answers are found through compromise and cooperation and not at the extreme edges of human thought.

“That is my hope for the future. This is my hope for the great grandchildren, for the country and for all who exist in it, that we will come back to a time of civility in peace in working together for the good of mankind.” Continue reading “Grandfather Hopes”

Remembering 9-11

[Now it has been many years since I first published this piece. It remains one of the most read pieces I have ever written on here, not because of any brilliance on my part, but because of the solemnity of the event and the somber reality of loss. Since the original 9-11, the world has only underlined the pain, conflict and brokenness embodied in that day. Walter Brueggemann once wrote that before Israel in ancient times could hear God’s word of hope they had to grieve in order to understand what they had lost. Forgetting 9-11 dishonors that day. It was a terrible day, not in the way the deluded anarchists intended, but a day that caused the world to stop and reconsider itself. We should never forget the dead, one or three thousand. They have much to tell us, if we will listen. I hope this might speak to you, to all of us, as we remember today. I have edited the original to a shorter version, but it is important to me to remember.]

In 2009, I saw Washington, D.C. for the first time in my life.   I was truly inspired by the experience.  In these cynical times, it is hard to find places to connect to a larger sense of e pluribus unum anymore, but looking at the Lincoln Memorial , close to the spot memorialwhere Martin Luther King called us to our better selves, I felt something powerful in my heart.  I looked up at the tragic, larger than life statue of President Lincoln, and read the two inscriptions on either side of him—one of the Gettysburg Address and the other the Second Inaugural Address.  I felt a sense of the “hallowed,” one of the few spaces where I have seen public and religious come near one another without either losing itself.

So as we mark yet another anniversary of  9-11, we truly need public places to come and remember together.  I wonder what our remembering will be?  Now the years are passing, and the anguish and fury and violation have dulled into annual observances. We have found a whole new litany of grievances and sorrows to lament. An 18 year old having their birthday today was born on that day.

Remembering matters, but it also shifts and changes with the years.  Remembering in the sense I speak is not sugarcoating or forgetting the pain, but neither do we let the loss become the entire narrative of a lost life.  If there is value in living with the end of our lives in view, it is also necessary that we not merely remember lives by the way they ended.

I once shared this perspective with a friend whose dear aunt had been murdered by a yardworker she had hired, a drug addict who broke into her home at night and stabbed her to death.  She was a caring, devout Christian who taught literacy, helped the poor and gave her life to the unfortunates, only to have one of them take her life.  My wife, a friend to his wife, went over and cleaned up the terrible scene once the police had finished, and it haunted us all.  I said to my friend, “I hope you will be able to not merely remember this terrible end.  However long it went on, whatever horror she went through, it was over in a while.  But her life of more than eighty years far outweighs those few terrible moments.”  He was comforted by this. To be remembered and not forgotten is to continue to be loved.

firemen_flagWe do not have forever freeze the dead of 9-11 in those burning buildings, or falling to their deaths, or the horror of crashing planes.  To do so is to provide the psychopathic fanatics who did it their hollow little victory.  Remembering must stretch out, farther and deeper and wider, to remember all that those 3,000 lives meant.  Neither do we have to sink into endless rage against the sinners.  They’re God’s problem now.  I remember an extraordinary quote from Elie Wiesel, the Nobel prize winning writer who survived Auschwitz.  He said something to the effect that “it is a greater sin to forget our sins than to have committed them.”  Remembering is the path to forgiveness, ironically, not forgetting.  Forgetting is denial and it’s not the same as choosing to relinquish our right to hold on to our resentment.

Ritual and worship are powerful, too.  When times are hard, they can lift us and sustain us.  Many years ago in our little book, The Dialogue of Worship, Milburn Price and I wrote this:

Sometimes people are in crisis when they come to worship.  Their faith is weak, or their life is one of defeat and    discouragement.  The writer of Hebrews warned early Christians not to “neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another” (Hebrews 10:25, NRSV).  The very act of gathering is an act of mutual encouragement.  We allow ourselves into the presence of others.  We leave behind our solitary troubles and connect with like-minded believers.  We cannot overestimate the power of this fellowship.  But there are mercies of God offered to all, not merely the church.  There was a time when we talked about “General Revelation” as the goodnesses that God revealed to all people–nature, morality, and all the traces of Godself that hint at the divine being at every turn to help us find our way to grace.

I think, somehow, that on this occasion of 9-11 remembrance that we are most in need of this, too.  As a nation, perhaps we could reconnect to that deep resolve, unity of sorrow, and spirit of generosity and kindness that flowed for a while in that moment.

Some events are transcendent, even larger than the church.  They are part of the human condition and its tragic anguish in the cosmos.  God is mysteriously working in this larger picture, but it cannot be neatly explained or rationalized.  It must be simply offered to us, where we can weep, remember, and find some sense that this is not empty in the universe.

It ought to comfort, not threaten, us who are people of faith that God is not just in the place where we come every week, but here, too, and in the terrible, cruel and merciful turns of history.  We will leave our churches, synagogues and mosques, even our agnostic lake houses and condos, and gather together to weep and remember.  And the remembering will help heal our souls.

I close with this beautiful rendering of Barber’s Adagio for Strings, performed on September 15, four days after the attacks, which says what only music and tears can say.  The grief of all humankind, the follies of hate and domination and the thirst for revenge, wars and rumors of war and all the pain and suffering they bring, often to those least intended, is contained in the naked emotion of this piece.  Remember, so that we might be one day healed.

Listen

 

 

 

D-Day

I lived my third-grade year in Clarksville, Tennessee, an army town dominated then by the presence of Fort Campbell, Kentucky and the 101st Airborne Division, the Screaming Eagles, one of the most storied units in American military history. On Sunday afternoons, especially when company came into town like Uncle Vance and Aunt Hazel, we’d go out after church to the base where paratroopers would jump out of planes and land on a field where visitors could come and watch. It was cheap entertainment.

120606022639-d-day-10-horizontal-large-galleryThen we’d go to the military museum, the Don F. Pratt Memorial Museum.  General Don Forrester Pratt (July 12, 1892—June 6, 1944) was the assistant division commander (ADC) of the 101st and was in the lead glider that flew into France that landed behind the lines for the invasion.  The plane crashed and General Pratt died of a broken neck. He was the highest-ranking officer killed on D-Day.

The museum had jeeps, planes, artifacts, but the most chilling were items confiscated from Hitler’s “Eagles Nest” retreat by soldiers. We were especially terrified by Hitler’s walking cane, and by items belonging to Herman Goering. World War II was still alive in Continue reading “D-Day”

Pastor to An Aspiring Idol

Even churches, it seems, have their fifteen minutes in the social media world of fame. Through the years, that usually comes from outstanding accomplishments by our dcc11b02-024a-44ad-8d38-d692770fbac3-150660_2251members who do something that ends up on the bulletin board.  In my present congregation, having been here nearly 26 years, you eventually get a little reflection of the wonderful things your members undertake, and they are many.  We have graduated people who became ministers, doctors, attorneys, and we claim eminent Baptist historian and advocate for the poor Dr. Wayne Flynt as a former member who was here in his Samford days.  We currently have the Alabama Crimson Tide stadium announcer, Tony Giles, as a member, and in Alabama that accords near divine status for half of the church. One of our oldest members, Bobbye Weaver, was a renowned jazz drummer who played with Lawrence Welk and a host of other eminent people.  One of our late members once danced with Betty Grable and worked on the Apollo space program.  I could go on.  But every church has its luminaries.

What does this “reflected glory” mean for the pastor?  Not much.  For if we take too much credit for the rich and famous, we also must own the other side of our membership.  Let’s not go there.  Give credit where it is due—their families, but more importantly, God, who is the giver of all good gifts.

So, our church is currently agog over Walker Burroughs, who is in the final eight of American Idol.  Walker has been a member of our church most of his young twenty Continue reading “Pastor to An Aspiring Idol”