Yesterday I listened to an NPR story on the radio in my car about Noel Anaya. According to the piece on their website Anaya
was just a year old, he and his five brothers and sisters were placed in the California foster care system. He has spent nearly all of his life in that system and has just turned 21. In California, that’s the age when people in foster care “age out” of the system and lose the benefits the system provides. That process becomes official at a final court hearing. Anaya, along with Youth Radio, got rare permission to record the proceeding, where he read a letter he wrote about his experience in the foster care system. (to listen to his letter, go to NPR
While the news is filled with hearings and floods, refugees and wars, this touched me. This young man now launches, out on his own, still searching for a family to love him. Today, I was reflecting on families in pain, intact and broken, and penned this prayer.
God of night and day, dark and light, Lord over joy and pain,
Holder of nations and blesser of babies, witness of Creation and the fall of a single sparrow,
This day, we are comforted that you see the brokenness of your children,
And the brokenness of our children.
In this moment where the road is uncertain, the way unclear
The fog seems to never end, and the light fades ahead,
The path littered with human pain and the wreckage of sorrow,
Help us to look up from our stumbling,
Into the face of Christ,
Who alone knelt in the night of the Garden and remained awake
Who knows what we suffer, for he himself has suffered,
Who was betrayed by his own, hauled away by conspirators of hate and fear,
Tried by those who loved only their own places of entitlement and safety
And condemned by the ignorant and the powerful alike
To die alone with the burdens of the whole world on Him,
And in that face to hear those blessed words,
“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.”
But he also looked into the face of his anguished mother
And his beloved disciple and made them into family.
“Mother, behold your Son.”
“Son, behold your mother.”
Give us ears attuned to the cries of the ignored,
Eyes to see the invisible ones,
Hearts to understand and welcome the lonely.
Show us the way,
Hold our hands,
Sturdy our resolve,
Settle our doubts,
And empower us to trust that we can keep walking forward
In our own Gethsemanes and Calvaries of the soul.
Several years ago, Dr. Penny Marler approached me about participating in a program where pastors might become
friends across differences—race, age, denomination—and learn from each other. Rev. Arthur Price and I decided to make that journey together. He is the pastor of historic Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where, 50 years ago this fall, people driven by hate and fear set off a bomb that killed four little girls who had just prayed together. The episode set off a national revulsion to the radical racists and helped put America in a new direction.
Over the course of that few years, we became friends, Arthur much younger, a different personality, a native of the North, me a son of the South. It was one of the richest experiences of my life, and it is documented on the website of the Resource Center for Pastoral Excellence. (For more information about the project Rev. Price and I did together, click HERE)
One of the side blessings of that friendship was connecting our churches. We visited each others’ deacons meetings, had our congregations together for fellowship, and continued our friendship by having breakfast together regularly over the years. Last year, we began to talk together about doing something positive that would mark this anniversary by affirming that we are in a new day and that the faith community is part of that. We were joined by another friend, Rev. Keith Thompson of First United Methodist Church downtown.
After the massacre at Newtown in December, our sense of commitment was heightened. Whatever strikes at our Read the rest of this entry
A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.
Friday morning, I got up early. I had a doctor’s appointment later, then a short appointment at the church and then the rest of the day I took off, as it was my normal day off. I’m an early riser, and a lot of time I take time early in the morning and late at night to indulge myself in music, one of the places, along with my family, of deep joy for me.
Greg Womble and I sat weeks ago and recorded a little improvised song with drum and banjo, a somber, modal-blues piece. Friday I decided to finish it early in the morning, so I listened, feeling the mood and ideas that suggested themselves. I heard bass and light guitar lines in it, so I recorded them, then sat back to listen. The result was full, dark, somber, sad—perfect Christmas song. What on earth should I name it, since there are no words?
A Bible text bubbled up that fit the mood. I took the title, and sent a little email to Greg with the finished product. And here is what I wrote:
“Greg: I edited the song you and i did and added bass and light guitar. The mood suggested a title for the piece: “Weeping in Ramah” CLICK TO LISTEN from Matthew 3:18, after the slaughter of the innocents What do you think?
“A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”
Then out into the day, doctor, a meeting at the church, then home. Only then did I hear the terrible news about Newtown, Connecticut, a town not all so different from ours. I had a weird feeling—I looked back at the email I sent, read online what time the events of Friday morning transpired. The moment when the verse came to mind was the same moment the deranged young man began his short day of darkness.
I was struck by the weirdness of that juxtaposition. Me, sitting in comfort and safety and boring routine, even Christmas shopping, and at that very moment, something unearthly, unimaginable. Read the rest of this entry
Last weekend, our family gathered in Stone Mountain, Georgia, to celebrate my parents’ 60th wedding anniversary. I must hasten to add, my folks are still relatively young—they married right out of high school, had me by age twenty, and the avalanche of four kids and their spouses, twelve grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren, along with spouses, dogs, cats, and horses. We spent the weekend sharing a Holiday Inn Express breakfast area and their home—telling stories, laughing late into the night, and torrid games of Uno at the hotel with three of our aunts who came to help and their spouses.
I was humbled as I listened to my elders tell stories about us, realizing how large the protective covering of love was for us. My Dad was one of nine, my mother one of eight, and one who died at birth. A large family is chaotic sometime, but as my Aunt Johnnie philosophically puts it, “Oh, we argue and fuss and get mad but we always keep getting together.”
We have known our share of heartbreaks, losses, tragedies and struggles, all of us. But we keep getting together. There is something astounding about families, something enduring, durable, that transcends politics and economics. Dirt poor was always not as poor as the people down the road, and besides, “we always had each other and enough to eat. So we didn’t think we were poor.” That despite clothes made out of anything mothers could find and food they grew themselves. Read the rest of this entry
I have not been surprised at the diverse and passionate reaction to the Joseph Kony 2012 video, viewed by more than 80 million people as of last night, with accusations of everything from overreaction to his being a “CIA contractor.” I can comprehend the anguish. When I went to Kenya in 2007, I was overwhelmed by the sight of tens of thousands of people living in the slums of Nairobi, and the complexities of a country whose history I only began to understand. I chose a humble approach, assuming I knew nothing and had few answers. I also know that only the people of a place can finally discover the answers for their nation. Read the rest of this entry
I nearly always prefer the hidden, obscure, local and unnoticed to the Big Stuff. Celebrity…zzz…even small pond big fish I find relatively uninteresting. It’s just all so predictable and often pompous. When I opened today’s Birmingham News, the top of the front page, as usual, was about Alabama and Auburn football, which is as always. You just have to understand that in Alabama, I would fully expect to see this on a front page:
TIDE LANDS FOUR FIVE STAR RECRUITS
AUBURN HOPES NEW DEFENSIVE COACH WILL “TURN THE TIDE”
NUCLEAR WAR PROBABLE IN NEXT FEW DAYS (Section B)
GOD SAYS ARMAGEDDON IS AT HAND
MARTIANS LAND ON EARTH
COACH SABAN COMMENTS ON NEW RECRUITS: “Next year looks bright,” Coach says at local Walmart.
CURE FOUND FOR CANCER (see G17)
As Bruce Hornsby says, just the way it is. But one little hidden gem was on page one, nestled among the two stories on football on the masthead and grim news about our latest number one, being the largest county default in American history, was a story about a woman who played the organ in her church for seventy-five years. Ella Jones has played since she was 12 years old, and still going strong at her church in a nearby town called Graysville.
Over the past year, while reading biographies of Elvis Presly, Sam Phillips, Hank Williams, and a host of other Alabamians, it was striking to see how powerful church music was in forming both their artistry and their musical imaginations. It took me back to all the little churches of my childhood, some great and some very, very small, but they all had a couple things in common. First, they were all Baptist churches, the Southern variety. As I heard people
say, “We were often more Southern than Baptist and more Baptist than Christian.” Who else would move to Wisconsin and plant a Southern Baptist Church because they didn’t have one? We did when I was in the sixth grade. Two families, mine and another, with about eight kids between us, launched a little church that is still there today.
Churches, for a long time, offered graded choirs, the only choirs I ever sang in, most of the musical training I received, and gave me most of the opportunities to sing in front of people regularly. Not to mention a vast collective memory of hymns.
If you knew how many of the great singers and performers in American entertainment began in the church and around gospel music, it would stagger the reader. Aretha Franklin? Started in church. I could go on but why? The entire early canon of country music was transmitted—and claimed for credit—by the Carter Family, but their musical teeth and a good bit of that canon came from the churches.
I am grateful for it all—anthems, quartets, homely sings around the piano on Sunday night. A way of life is disappearing. Church looks a lot like karaoke in too many places to me. But old hymns still take me back to a different time when we sang and played a lot. I am glad for it.
The German pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was martyred by Hitler for trying to overthrow the Nazis, came to New York and taught at Union Seminary before returning to die at Flossenburg. While here, he attended the Abyssinian Baptist Church where Adam Clayton Powell was pastor. He was mesmerized by the gospel singing and took albums back with him of the spirituals. He said that there, for the first time, religion changed for him from “phraseology to reality.” Don’t tell me the arts don’t matter.
It is a truism that when we need the arts the most we usually defund them, downsize them and de-emphasize them. When do you need songs more than during a Dustbowl, a Depression or a Great Recession? I know we need engineers and mathematicians and psychiatrists. But Lord Help us if none of ‘em can sing. Humorless and tone-deaf people create a lot of the misery in this world. So, a salute to the Ella Jones’ of the world for keeping us alive and giving yourselves to make us all better.
Some of those people who taught me how to sing, “Jesus wants me for a sunbeam” and “Jesus loves the little children” are long gone. But somewhere down in us, it is remembered after most of the sermons have turned back into empty space. It matters.
So who isn’t depressed about the whole situation at Penn State? An icon’s image trashed, a scandal seems to get bigger
every day, and the story of the events themselves alleged against Jerry Sandusky is stomach-turning. Anyone who has ever dealt with sexual abuse in any way knows how dangerous and emotionally perilous the whole situation can be.
The first abuse victim I ever knew about was a young woman who came to me more than twenty-five years ago. I helped her leave her home with an abusive father who had molested her and took her to a shelter and reported the matter to rape crisis. The laws were murkier and less helpful in those days. After the father threatened to kill me, I called and reported the entire situation to the Sheriff’s department, where I was told that all I could do is swear out a restraining order. “What will that do?” I asked. “Well, if he kills you, we can arrest him for violating the order.” So…I told my deacons to keep their shotguns at the door and come if I called since I didn’t have one.
Things have changed for the better. But this has revealed just how we may not have come as far as we thought. There are so many enormous questions—about out of control emphasis on college athletics, the corrupting power of money at universities, the conspiracy of silence in institutions devoted to higher ideals. In short, not all that different from the implications of clergy abuse scandals.
There are questions about power and priority and value at stake here. College athletics and its money and power on campuses of “higher learning” is a piece of this equation, too. When a footbal coach and program bring $100 million per year to a college, danger of compromise is everywhere. Taylor Branch prophetically has written about this entire sad mess in his book The Cartel: Inside the Rise and Imminent Fall of the NCAA This moment is but a window on our collective soul, and not merely in our worship of collegiate athletics in a way that is out of control.
There is something larger I want to think about—beyond the sad image of Joe Paterno’s legacy, the disappointment with a university that had a great reputation, even the cases themselves. It is this—what about our higher obligation to care for our young? Preachers will rail about one more evidence of a culture that does not respect life, but I think of it a little differently. In our addiction to pleasure, the momentary and money, we have sacrificed all notions of loyal obligation.
Oddly, today I was surfing news programs and listened for a while to “Morning Joe,’ which I enjoy. The Penn State story got a lot of play and discussion, but it was followed by a Veteran’s Day conversation with Jack Jacobs. According to the PBS “Stories of Valor” website, which did a story on Medal of Honor winners,
Colonel Jack Jacobs, who entered military service through Rutgers ROTC, earned the Medal of Honor for exceptional heroism on the battlefields of Vietnam. He also holds three Bronze Stars and two Silver Stars.
Jacobs was an adviser to a Vietnamese infantry battalion when it came under a devastating fire that disabled the commander. Although bleeding from severe head wounds, then-First Lieutenant Jacobs took command, withdrew the unit to safety, and returned again and again under intense fire to rescue the wounded and perform life-saving first aid. He saved the lives of a U.S. adviser and 13 allied soldiers.
As the guests on the show talked about Veterans Day, Jacobs told a story about what motivates Medal of Honor winners
to be so modest. They nearly always say, “I just did my job.” The military drills into their soldiers that duty to one another and to their service is the highest necessity for survival and success. Jacobs said that they know that absolute commitment to their duty is what all of their lives depend on. He told of one soldier who was severly wounded in a battle. A seargeant went through a hail of bullets to rescue the man, who later died. The sergeant himself was badly wounded, but he said the young man looked up when he came and said, “I knew you would come for me.”
At the heart of military duty, it seems to me, is a profound loyalty to ones fellow soldiers. It is that trust in each other on which lives depend. Jacobs has written a book on these things and extended this virtue to civilian life. Do we not need this same sense that life itself depends on our loyalty to one another and to duty and dependability?
Duty is not always glamorous. It never operates from the pleasure principle, fame, rewards or immediate gratification. Perhaps that is why it has ebbed from view in our current world. It’s all about the money, too often, for us. Being true to ourselves, each other and our obligations has been cast aside. We regularly break contracts, covenants and loyalty for some more urgent unhappiness. We reap bitterly from this harvest.
Sex abuse is failure of the most basic of duties—to protect the most vulnerable. Not only their lives, but our own and our collective life absolutely depend on it. So do all our institutions, our financial life, and everything in this world that is worthwhile. Without confidence that we will come for one another, we are utterly lost.
Bobby Horton, a musician buddy, is a Civil War buff and a musical expert on that era. He contributed to many of Ken Burn’s series, including the “Civil War.” His favorite quotation is from Robert E. Lee, who even in a lost and wrong cause, was a man admired by both sides. He said, “Duty is the most sublime word in our language. Do your duty in all things. You cannot do more. You should never wish to do less.” This may be our greatest need on Veterans Day, not the recovery of duty for our soldiers, but for the rest of us. Without doing our duty, can we long survive?