Remembering Martin Luther King

Fifty years ago this week, Martin Luther King’s life was frozen in time for the whole world. His words keep living, his story keeps being told, and the events of his life are examined again and again.  It is not that time any more. The pain is more diffuse, spread into new struggles for equality and justice.

It is worth marking the remarkable changes that have happened in that fifty years. We can go to any restaurant and drink from the same fountains. A lot of things are better, much better. But the pain he saw is still in the world–the pain of something not finished, a hope not yet realized, a brokenness needing mending.

The deepest wounds heal from the inside out, and only with the greatest of care. There will be setbacks and infections and discouragements, but there is still much reason to hope and keep trying.

I once attended the Unity Breakfast on Martin Luther King day here in Birmingham and heard Diane McWhorter, whose book Carry Me Home  recounts the impact of those momentous days of the Civil Rights struggle on the world.  Whenever someone “remembers” how something was, it invites us to remember it from where we were at the time. I remember the civil rights era in the South, but it was not from the vantage point of an adult in the middle of Big Issues, but as a child growing up in the South.

I remember going on a hot Sunday afternoon with my father to the home of an employee.  She happened to be African American.  Her family member had been killed in a train accident, and my father believed that the proper and respectful thing to do was to go by to see the family.

I remember waiting in the car while he went in, a little boy watching out the window to see people who also lived in Clarksville, Tennessee, but a very different Clarksville than the one in which I lived.  I had never noticed that their children didn’t go to school where I did, or that we never ate in the same restaurants, or that we barely came across one another.  This separation  made my trip all the more startling.  It was as though I had stumbled onto a hidden cave where an entire civilization hitherto unknown to me had taken residence.

I watched people come and go, just like in my community, bringing food, dabbing their eyes, dressed in their finest.  Men tugging at their collars in the hot summer air opened the door for their wives in hats to go in with the bowl or dish.  It was impressive, this little world to which I did not belong.  People laughing, people smiling, people crying, just like us.  But not with us.

I took in the strangeness, but something stirred even deeper in me.  I saw my father speaking to them, as he did to everyone, with respect and courtesy and manners.  I hear people telling tales from the sixties about marching and protesting.  I have no tales like those.  I was young and oblivious to the invisible walls of separation.  But I do remember my father treating everyone the same, kindly, decently.  His employees seemed to think they all counted the same with him.  He never lost his temper that I knew of, or swore or cursed at people.  Just treated them alike.

My examples were different from those dramatic and provocative ones.  My family mostly watched the struggle on nightly television with the rest of the world.  We worried, shook our heads, weren’t too sure how it would go.  We were not allowed, though, to use epithets and inflammatory words about other races.

It takes struggle and often conflict for change to begin.  But there is also the task of taking change in and absorbing it, making it livable and practical and something that can happen every day without incident.  It is one thing to change laws.  It is another to elicit the consent of people to those laws.  And quite another to live out their spirit every day. It means using words carefully, for the purpose of telling truth, not perpetuating our own version of it.

The whole world was changing before my eyes, in ways I did not understand and would not understand, but the example of my father’s kindness did sink deep in me.  And I wonder about the eight year old boys and girls among us.  What are they seeing?  How are we doing?  Is there something impressive enough in the way we are living life to sink deep in their souls and stay with them until they are adults?

In something as simple and apparently random as going by someone’s house to pay respects, in doing what is decent and right and good, you may be causing a quiet revolution in someone who is watching not only what you do, but how you do it.  Someone is watching, always.  So write the script you want remembered.  It will live on after you for a long time, for good or for evilI was one of those little white children that Martin Luther King dreamed about.

So I am going to do every little thing I can to not be afraid, to make friends, to pay my respects, and teach my children and grandchildren that there’s room for everyone at God’s table.  Everyone.

I remember those times with a song I did on my first CD, “Lorraine.”  It was inspired by my first visit to the Civil Rights Institute in Memphis, which ends at the balcony where Dr. King was murdered by fear and hate.  But I like to remember what outlives fear and hate: hope and kindness and the hope of a better day.

Buy the song here

 

Lorraine

Gary Furr

An unfinished cup of coffee

By an unmade bed

Near the concrete balcony

Where a man of God is dead

Looking through an old window

See the painful past

Forever frozen at the last

Down the corridors of time

Different town, same old sign

Still bearing all the pain

In the halls of the old Lorraine
 

The sound of women weeping

The trickle of my tears

Join the moan of gospel singing

Wailing hope amid the fears

Looking through new windows

for possibilities

In spite of everything we still believ

 

Down the corridors of time

Different town, same old sign

Still bearing all the pain

In the halls of the old Lorraine

 

Driving through the city

With memories of that place

In that part of town that’s really gone down

I lock the door just in case

Looking through my car window

At a man who looks back at me

After all we’ve been through, we still can’t see.

Down the corridors of time

Different town, same old sign

Still bearing all the pain

In the halls of the old Lorraine

 

Reality

Someone asked me for this short paragraph from my sermon yesterday. I thought I might as well share it with you all, for what it’s worth. I was focused on the 23rd chapter of Jeremiah, which speaks of the challenges of leadership and the power of the Living God to help us.  I said, toward the end, these words:

“There is always hope, but it never comes without cost or pain or struggle. There is always a future, but never at the expense of our past. There is always Presence, but it is not always comforting and pleasant. There is always a way forward but it is never found by evasion or running away from the hard places.”

Chesterton
G. K. Chesterton

They are my words, not a quote. They come from my experience of life, both the good and the disappointing parts of myself I’ve known. I hope they help you. Two other great quotes I used:

I heard an ad executive on Ted Talks say this:  “Poetry makes new things familiar and familiar things new.”

And this one from G. K. Chesterton,  The Everlasting Man  “Christendom has had a series of revolutions and in each one of them Christianity has died. Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.”  Don’t worry so much when things get torn up.

Or, as Leonard Cohen said in his wonderful lyric, “Anthem,”

Ring the bells (ring the bells) that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything)
That’s how the light gets in

Leonard Cohen

In Memory of a Dhogg

My kids are headed our way from NY for the holiday, but had the sadness of the death of their beloved dog, Mara. Mara had lived a good, long life, and like any family pet, had the run of the house. When our oldest granddaughter was born in Seattle five years ago, I was given the couch as my sleeping quarters, and she slept next to me on the floor, licking my hand regularly through the night, which, if not a regular experience, is a bit of a start for a sleeping person. Burglar or beloved, a licked hand is terrifying.

Mara D Dhogg, late of upstate New York.
Mara D Dhogg, late of upstate New York.

Eventually over those happy days we became friends and I would return the greeting in my sleep with a perfunctory half dozen strokes. These creatures who live with us accompany us in life, become part of the furniture of our homes. We miss them when they are gone.

It was time, as that time always comes, and Mara had no regrets. I reminded my daughter that marah could be taken as the Hebrew word for “bitter,” but Mara seemed remarkably sanguine toward the discomforts and outrageous fortunes of human beings and their ways. And she had it good–her own facebook page as Mara D Dhogg, the run of the house, better medical care than any except Continue reading “In Memory of a Dhogg”

Where Were You When President Kennedy Was Shot?

 It rolled at you across the land at 1800 miles per hour, hauling darkness like plague behind it….we saw the wall of shadow coming, and screamed before it hit.   

Annie Dillard, in her book, Teaching a Stone to Talk, said that she and her husband once drove across the mountains of central Washington state to a place that would put them in the path of a total eclipse of the sun.  Early in that morning in 1979 they pulled off the highway and waited.  She said: 

The deepest and most terrifying [memory] was this: I have said that I heard screams….people on all the hillsides, including, I think, myself, screamed when the black body of the moon detached from the sky and rolled over the sun.  But something else was happening at that same instant, and it was this, I believe, which made us scream.  The second before the sun went out we saw a wall of dark shadow come speeding at us.  We no sooner saw it than it was upon us, like thunder.  It roared up the valley.  It slammed our hill and knocked us out.  It was the monstrous swift shadow cone of the moon….it was 195 miles wide.  No end was in sight—you only saw the edge.  It rolled at you across the land at 1800 miles per hour, hauling darkness like plague behind it….we saw the wall of shadow coming, and screamed before it hit. Continue reading “Where Were You When President Kennedy Was Shot?”

Remembering 9-11and 9-15

1963 cover
1963 by Barnett Wright

So now here it comes again.  For many, a very painful day, still and always.  For all of us who were old enough to witness it live, a memory permanently engraved, an ugly tattoo over scar tissue.  Yet with time, inevitably, the intensity is not the same.  This is an odd week for those of us in Birmingham.  Sunday, we will have a painful memory remembered from fifty years ago.  The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church was bombed just before services began.  Barnett Wright has written a wonderful remembrance in words and pictures of that fateful year, 1963, that changed America forever, and Birmingham with it.  Those painful memories still rankle or stir devotion and sadness, depending on the person you talk to about it. Continue reading “Remembering 9-11and 9-15”

Love Lifted Me: a 9-11 Story

Sometimes hope only bubbles up in the small delicate places

that are almost unnoticed among the debris of history

 What do 9-11, a pregnant woman, an orphan immigrant from Burkina-Faso, and a store specializing in Afro-pop music have in common?   And on a day of such sadness, are there flickers of hope to fasten to?

Sometimes hope only bubbles up in the small delicate places that are almost unnoticed among the debris of history and humanity’s terrible bent to self-destruction.  If we cannot always fathom the great purposes of God in the

Ken Braun

rumblings of nations and enemies, we can listen to stories.  My daughter Katie is a member of Metro Baptist Church in Midtown Manhattan, a thriving small congregation with dynamic social ministries and a loving fellowship.  Last year, one of their members, Ken Braun, shared his story of that day.  It was about his friend and colleague, Alberto Barbosa.  “Berto,” as Ken calls him, was born in a  poor village in west Africa.  Orphaned, he made his way as     a teenager, first to Portugal and then to New York.

Ken met Berto when he first came to New York and when Braun   started a company dedicated to African music, Berto was his first employee.  The business was located just a few blocks from the World Trade Center.  Eventually, they both moved their families to New Jersey and would meet in Newark and commute on the Path train every morning to the World Trade Center terminal and walk to work from there.

On September 11, Braun says he had some errands to do, so he didn’t take the Path train, instead taking the bus to the Port Authority.  He never made it to work, and we know why.  Braun said, “The bus route takes an elevated highway over the Meadowlands, and from there you can see almost all of Manhattan, especially when the sky is a lucid blue like it was that day.  I saw the flames and smoke from the North Tower.  I had no idea what was going on.”

Traffic ground to a halt above the Lincoln tunnel and as they stared out the windows, they had a panorama seat to see the South Tower impaled by the second plane.  They could get no closer, and chaos ensued.   It took a long time for Ken to make his way home and he spent the rest of that day calling friends, leaving a message at the school for his children, and following the unspeakable horror.  He was particularly eager to contact colleagues because they all would have been going to that part of the city that morning.

He heard from everyone but Berto was the last.  He was anxious, worried about him taking the train right into the station under the buildings.  Finally, Berto called, and Braun anxiously sputtered, “Where the hell have you been?  And he said, “Well…hell.’   I’ll let Braun himself tell the rest.

He had been on the last train to come into the World Trade Center, and when he exited into the underground terminal, people were shouting and running in all directions, so he thought, “I better get out of this and get to work.”   So he went up to the ground level and exited the building and walked into pandemonium.  Debris was falling and fireballs were falling, and he said, “Some I the things I saw, I didn’t want to look at them, I don’t want to know what they were.  I just wanted to get out of there.”

So he kept walking toward the office, but he didn’t get far, because he came upon a woman, a very pregnant woman, sprawled out on the sidewalk, and he knelt down beside her.  She was gasping for breath.   He thought she was having her baby.  He tried to motion for a policeman or a medic, and there were many, but they were all rushing toward the fire, and no one noticed him or the pregnant woman on the ground.

So he picked her up in his arms and he carried her as far as he could and then he set her down in the shelter of a doorway, and took out a bottle of water and gave it to her.  And when she could finally catch her breath, she said, “I’m not in labor, I’m just terrified.”  And he said, “Don’t worry, we’ll get through this together.”

And when she had enough strength, he helped her to her feet, and he put his arm behind her waist, and they walked.  They walked north, and whenever she needed to rest, which was frequently, they would stop and then keep going.

It took them seven hours to walk seven miles.  She lived in New Jersey, so they went to the Hudson River Ferry crossing on West 33rd Street, and there were masses of people there because that was the only way to leave Manhattan.

Berto found a bench for her to sit on, so he went to find a person of authority to help her get on this ferry ahead of all the people who got there first, so eventually he found somebody and they escorted her up the ferry.  She said, “I will not go without this man,” so they brought him and he went with her.

When they got to Hoboken, there were masses of people there, too, but had no place to go because the buses and taxis were full.  But someone with a car saw how pregnant she was and said, “I’ll take you wherever you have to go.”  But there wasn’t room for Berto, so he said, “You’ll be okay now.  Good night.”  Then he made his own way home, which took another two hours.   He got home at 9:00 that night.

In 2009, Berto was shopping and a woman bumped into him and said, “Alberto!”  he recognized her and said, “I know you.  Where have we met?”  And she identified herself as the pregnant woman and told him he had saved her life.  Berto said, “Ah!  I didn’t save your life!  You were strong.  We helped each other.”

She said, “Alberto, when death surrounded me, I prayed to God that He would spare my baby, and when I opened my eyes, there you were.  And you lifted me up and carried me away from danger.  You saved me and my baby.”

What  moment that had to be!  He asked how the child was and she said, excitedly, “Wait here.”  She ran off into the store and returned with a smiling man and young boy in tow.  The husband threw his arms around him and a party broke out.

The woman said, “Every night I thank God for you and pray that we will meet.  I want you to meet our son.  Alberto, this is our son.  His name is Alberto.”

Berto, still uncomprehending, said, “Oh!  Is that a name in your family?”

And the father said, “It is now.”

Listen to Ken Braun tell the story on the Metro Baptist Church website.

A New York Times piece about Ken Braun’s love of African music.

Grief Work in the Basement Garden

This blog is drawn in part from some chapters I’m writing for a forthcoming book on prayer from Insight Press.  I’ll announce it when it is available for purchase on this site.

Moments of sensitivity to God’s presence happen in the oddest places—foxholes, pinned in a car wreck, hospital waiting rooms, lying in bed when you can’t sleep.  People report God’s presence when life is unraveling, but also sitting on the porch on a quiet afternoon.  Holding a baby.  Counting blessings.  Waking up and drinking coffee.  Chance encounters.  Prison cells, torture rooms, earthquakes and financial ruin.  A meal with friends, a good book, listening to a hymn in church and singing to yourself.  God can show up anywhere, unannounced.

I had one of those moments in a basement laundry room in a retreat center just before worship.  I had spent a great deal of time alone that day, thinking, praying, and resting.  That evening, we were scheduled to have communion in the chapel before dinner.By the SS

During free time that afternoon I took some laundry to the basement and sat there, alone, except for my old twelve

Grandpa and me, February 1956. I was the same age that my Granddaughter is now, 18 months.

string guitar, which I had owned since the age of sixteen.  I took along a hymnal to play and sing some songs to pass the time, and did a wide variety of songs.  After a while, I stumbled upon an old favorite, “In the Garden.”  Theologically sophisticated people do not generally like this hymn—it has no sense of the social or community, no ethics, no grand sweep of history or lofty notion of God.  It is all personal and private.

The words “I, me and my” occur twenty times by the time you sing it all the way through, most notably as, “And he walks with me and he talks with me and he tells me I am his own.”  It can be seen as a rather undeveloped view of faith, infantile and self-absorbed.

But as I sang it, something remarkable happened.  I began to think about my grandfather, a self-taught worship leader in Baptist churches in NC who taught shaped-note singing schools.  We moved from there when I has only seven.  Until then, my grandfather was nearby and always present in my life.

I am from the old school.  Because I am of Welsh ancestry, I am musical, emotional and mood-swingy passionate.  But because I am an American man, I am half Marlboro cowboy.  I only cried at the acceptable times—maybe once per grief, or, like my father in law, who said the only time he ever cried was getting kicked in the groin in football.

The only time American men can cry acceptably like little children is when their chosen sports team loses.  Then they perform tantrums.  They also cry watching certain movies and shows, but it always seems to be about something else.

Now, I sat in a windowless basement in California, singing “In the Garden,” when suddenly a vision of my dead grandfather came to my imagination, but now he was alive, singing with the hosts of heaven, and I felt the tears welling up.  It was twenty-five years after I got the news.

Not that I had failed to grieve at all.  The very first song I wrote, “The Last Freight Train,”(CLICK to listen) is where I put my loss.  I wrote it around age fifteen, and the lyrics sound like a fifteen year old, but I made it the first cut on my first CD, “permanent world of pretend,” because it was my “starting place” in songwriting.

Grief can make you crazy, or, if you handle it halfway right, it can make you well.  Up to you.  Ignore it, and you can destroy everything around you without a clue why.  Move through it and you can live for the first time like you were supposed to live.  Running away is pretty common, of course, except this is more like running away to escape a terrible tattoo.

Music is a wonderful tool to put in your “grief box.”  Since my grandfather, and my families on both sides, were singers and players, music helps me.  But if you can’t play anything except a radio, music can help.

At our church, we are blessed to have an incredible musician, Dr. Terre Johnson, who leads our music.  He is an amazing musician and minister, worked at Carnegie Hall for several years with a choral company there.  He is a terrific arranger and composer of

choral music.  He has written some astounding pieces for grief and out of grief.  One, after a tornado hit a school in Alabama years ago, has been performed at the White House, an arrangement of “Come, Ye Disconsolate.” (LISTEN-click)  He knows that the right music at the right moment can do more than soothe—it can elevate the moment above hopelessness and sorrow.

I say all of this because as a songwriter, I am always dealing with feelings of one kind or another—happiness, sadness, hope, fear, you name it.  You want to feel something in a good song, not just talk about it.  I write out of those wells of feeling.  Disconnect from them and the song never happens.

You can drown in them, of course, but that’s another blog.  The point isn’t to get stuck in sorrow, but to “man up” and stay in the room until the door opens into peace and acceptance.

I’ve met more than my share of crazy people in my line of work, and I’ve got to say many of them have some kind of terrible grief that they flounder around.  And instead of moving into it, they run the other way and make themselves and the rest of us miserable with their determination to will it out of the picture.  Too bad.  A good cry on a regular basis or a healthy helpin’ of blues, hymns, an adagio or two, and they might climb out of the tarpit.

Next time I’ll share a list of my own favorite “grieving songs” over the years.  Usually their significance has more to do with the synchronicity of occasion and song and not merely with the song itself.

Until then, don’t wait for a kick in the groin.  Grief is a powerful secret that you can’t keep down in the basement forever.  You don’t have to carry it around on your sleeve or talk to everyone.  But find your way to sit with it, feel it, and draw on your faith to outwait it.