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A Prayer for Parents and Children

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.

Amen.

Standing Up for Children in Birmingham, Alabama

Several years ago, Dr. Penny Marler approached me about participating in a program where pastors might become

Rev. Arthur Price

Rev. Arthur Price

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.

kthompson_PKDHAZ6R

Rev. Keith Thompson

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

Love and Sorrow Mingled Down in Newtown: A Sermon Preached on the Third Sunday of Advent

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.

Today is the Sunday of Joy in the Christian calendar

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

Keeping Children Safe in a Dangerous World

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

Thank You, Ella Jones: Churches, the Arts and Why They Matter

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

Birmingham News/picture by Jeff Roberts

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.