This week I had the privilege of being away for most of the week to attend a conference at Princeton Theological Seminary. Last year I had to cut my trip short due to pastoral concerns, so this was this was the first time I’ve been able to attend the entire conference.
First, a word about Princeton. I’ve only been able to visit this storied place in recent years, and it is a feast for the eyes. This time I was accompanied by my dear wife, Vickie and our friend of many years, Pam. We decided to take a guided tour, which has always been my practice the first time I’ve been to a place. Self-guided tours are okay, but I prefer a local guide when first I explore a new place.
I have written elsewhere about a time years ago when I persuaded a group of fellow ministers to hire a tour guide of our own city of Birmingham, Alabama. We hired a young man who knew the city well and set out in the church bus to see the place where we lived. It was amazing how many significant places and stories we’d never seen in our own city.
Back to Princeton. I had read some background of the University and through my studies in history and religion of course, knew many of the great names not only of the seminary but of the early days of university itself. I set all that aside and we booked a walking tour with The Princeton Tour Company. As it turned out, we were fortunate to get the owner,Mimi Omiecinski, to walk us through. Mimi is a transplanted Southerner so we all lapsed into our native dialect. What followed was a two hour walking tour of the city and university that was as memorable as any tour I’ve ever taken. We made our way through the history and through the campus and explored its spectacular features. We heard about the people who have been shaped and molded by Princeton University through the years and who have shaped our nation to the present day. Read the rest of this entry
“If I spend all day reading Facebook and social media and rant mindlessly over things
about which I know almost nothing and over which I have even less control,
I will either get off Facebook so I can keep my job or seek professional help.”
After what has been pretty much a media-frenzied locust plague over the last three weeks, I began to think, “Hey, what will happen after the election? We’ve been told that if we choose wrong, the apocalypse will come, the sea will turn red and the zombie-takeover will begin. Don’t get me wrong, it matters, but a lot of nutty people have access to the media. I’m at the beach at the moment, and I try to remember that the water is only as sanitary as the least sanitary person sharing it with me. The pool is pretty polluted at the moment with Chicken Littles, convinced that they, alone, know how dire things are if we don’t think just like them. Whew.
A friend sent me a pretty good picture from Oregon. I’m guessing it was a church sign, but I don’t know. Unfortunately, my fellow preachers are all riled up at the moment, apparently having taken care of local sin and now ready to wipe it out globally. I myself resist this, since I’ve been around to watch a good bit of human foolishness. There’s plenty to take seriously, but there’s so much chaff out there that you need a microscope to find some wheat. Well, this picture inspired me, so I created my own pledge. I decided to make a pledge for AFTER the election. When we have to carry our shame for all the stupid and ignorant things we’ve believed, forwarded, said and argued. Unfortunately, most of us will NOT get appointed to a new job or, like consultants, get a big fat contract out of it if their guy wins. We have to go back home and eat dinner with Uncle Ernie, who thinks your views are sending America straight to hell. And you yelled at him that he was a racist neanderthal and he looked wounded and looked up “neanderthal” on the web and then stopped speaking at dinner.
And people will have to get offline, and go back to work. And congresspeople will have to do whatever it is they are doing up there, or not doing. So here is a pledge for all of us. I call it the BOTH AND PLEDGE. I am the first signer. Read the rest of this entry
Civic prayers are perilous, and yet unless we would make the exercise completely a matter of private preference, we venture with trembling now and then out into the public square. As a Baptist I am squeamish about these places, sensitive to the realities of those gathered, but also to the potential to trivialize prayer (“so we can get started”). Still, there is something about the heady moment of freedom to act in public, understood or not, to call out to that which is deepest within and among us. I write prayers because there is nothing particularly more virtuous about an unthought about prayer that makes it superior. If anything, our “spontaneous” prayers can be crippled by the habits of mind that tend to bring the same structures and words about without careful reflection. A good editor doesn’t diminish words but strengthens them. I always try to think carefully about what I say about God, representing God, and to God that it be the best I have in that moment. I offered this prayer at the Vestavia Hills Chamber of Commerce, before busy people who all needed to be somewhere next pretty soon.
O what a tangled web we weave when we try to voice what we believe!
We affirm that you are in control—and that it is all up to us.
In our political life, we talk as though our nation is falling to pieces
And it is also the greatest nation on earth and that nothing can stop us.
In our personal lives, we call out in the helplessness of crisis,
And then remember the scripture that says that through you we can do all things.
No wonder it sometimes looks odd to those who watch us without joining us.
Indians Sue for Possession of the U.S.:
Ask for Return of Lands and Deportation of
(Imaginary Press Release) The immigration crisis in the United States took an unexpected turn today when Native Americans launched a lawsuit to deport all European descendants from the US back to their homelands. Following the recent Supreme Court decision on immigration, leaders representing all the major tribes gathered together at Little Big Horn to announce an impending lawsuit. They are seeking a lawsuit to remove all European Americans whose ancestors emigrated to this country illegally during the past 300 years, claiming that they had illegally squatted on tribal land, brought a plague of drug and alcohol abuse, took jobs that unemployed Native Americans could do, like being CEOs, equipment managers for basketball teams, and investment bankers, and ruined their livelihoods by killing off all the buffalo.
They are asking the court to uphold their legal request that requires all Europeans to carry identification cards and wear moccasins except in extremely cold weather. They also have suggested that Reservation police be able to check identity and arrest Senior Adult Caucasians at Casinos if they have probable cause to think they are here illegally. The Europeans must return all stolen lands and go live on a reservation while their cases are being deliberated. If deported, they will go to the end of the line, which is said to be in Iceland and that they may come back in ten years.
Descendants of Cochise, Red Cloud, Sitting Bull and Geronimo have hired the Manhattan firm of Dewey, Cheatum and Howe, famous legal counsel for NPR’s “Car Talk,” to lead the dream team. They will be joined by lead attorney and member of the House of Representatives Chief Enormous Bull as they argue their motion.
The motion blames Squanto for helping the Pilgrims, who kidnapped him and took him to England while his tribe was wiped out by Pilgrim diseases. Squanto, they contend, did not have authorization to permit them to land in the first place. The Indians had planned to build an enormous wall around Plymouth Rock but construction had not begun when the immigrants arrived and began squatting on the land.
In a related move, the Geico Cavemen said they would file an injunction blocking the Native American motion as their ancestors likely preceded them and should also be removed. While their numbers are small, they have considerable insurance assets to leverage for a long legal fight.
Neither group has said specifically if the motions would apply to all Caucasian Americans, or would only affect those whose ancestors actually took Indian lands. Both groups said they would be willing to negotiate a settlement, and neither had interest in taking Manhattan back, and said that Arizona could remain as a reservation for whites until arrangements to move in with relatives could be made.
The American Bar Association said it looks forward to the years of billable hours that this action implies. Leaders in China said whoever wound up with ownership of the country would be responsible for its current and future debts. Europeans announced a counter-suit denying the return of the descendants until they could prove that they would be good citizens and not a threat to security. Mexican drug cartels protested the removal of their largest customers citing exorbitant shipping and transportation costs. Meanwhile, Alabama and a dozen other states said they would begin deportations immediately, whether there was a country to take them or not. In the absence of a place to go, white people will be given large flat barges stocked with bottled water, Spam and saltine crackers, cable television and country music CDs while they wait until a country will receive them. The suit has specified that those being placed on the reservation will travel by Greyhound bus along the Trail of Tears.
A spokesman for the Euro-Americans protested the move, citing the damage it would cause to families and especially children, and members of Congress met through the night and said because of the urgency of the matter that Immigration reform could be ready as early as Tuesday. The President said he would rush back from vacation to sign the bill, which would resolve the situation. “This affects millions of voters…er, people. We have to fix this.” Observers say it may be the fastest action of this magnitude that the Congress has ever achieved other than declarations of war, voting on raises for Congress, and motions of appreciation for professional athletes.
The 24-7 news cycle has changed our lives and made even
the most meaningless information a way to waste time on the planet.
A story on the morning news recentlywas about a local election in Arizona. The Arizona Supreme Court upheld a law this week that banned a woman who could not speak English proficiently from running in a local city council race. The
point of those who sued to remove her was that a certain level of sophistication in the English language was essential to being an elected official. Who in the world came up with THAT?
The woman, who spoke in elemental English, was actually given a hearing in which she was examined for her language skills. A clip on the news showed a lawyer asking the following:
Lawyer: “And when did you go to high school?”
Woman: “In the 1980s.”
Lawyer: “And where was that at?”
Excuse me? Buddy, you just dangled a participle. My old-school English teachers would be all over you. If you can be a lawyer without proficiency in grammar, it seems reasonable that you could run for office and let the voters decide.
It is the silliest of seasons, that is, an election year. Actually, “election year” has followed the 24-7 news cycle to become a 24-7 political season. Pols immediately begin re-election campaigns the day after they get elected now. Since there are only about 18 minutes of actual newsworthy occurrences each day and the major news networks only cover about 11 of that, it leaves a lot of time to fill. Fortunately, tomfoolery and goofiness fills the void.
There are now three major forms of commentators that have evolved in this present environment. First, there are the pioneers, the radio partisans and their television counterparts.
The Wingnuts of every kind dominate here. The form is simple: you go on the air/television and talk ceaselessly to an imaginary person for hours. You would never respond to an enraged man walking down the street like this, fuming and talking to an imaginary person.. You would call 911 and report him so the state hospital could come pick him up before he hurts himself or someone else.
The second form is more sophisticated. People sit together and argue about politics in front of everyone watching. There is more value perhaps, but still, not much is left to say after, oh, about four minutes on a particular item.
C. S. Lewis said in his autobiography that his father and their friends would often sit and discuss politics. He and his brother concluded that nothing very interesting ever came of these discussions. Their real passion was the world of imagination and ideas. So at least we have politics to thank for Narnia and The Great Divorce. A great thesis for some Oxford young don: “Boredom’s Contribution to the Imaginative Work of C. S. Lewis.”
The third, of course, is comedy politics. Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart have cornered the market here. Colbert is the more sophisticated—he pretends to be the very things he ridicules and takes it to hyperbolic excess. He exaggerates, too. One has to observe, this is too easy. Read the rest of this entry
I was reading about Hank Williams, went to hear Gillian Welch, and wound up thinking about Elvis Presley. Just finished the late Paul Hemphill’s wonderful biography of Hank Williams, Sr. This being “the Year of Alabama Music,” I have decided to do a study of some great Alabama musicians. It’s a pretty great list. Anyway, sometimes secular musicians, especially in folk, country and blues, are windows into what Stephen J. Nichols calls, “the gospel in a minor key” I call it, “the rest of creation that never finds its way into church.” We’re pretty long on the resurrection side of things, so that means we don’t often enough spend time down in the human soul and its perplexing alleyways.
Hank Williams knew all about those hard places of life. Dead of damage by drugs and alcohol by the age of 29, Williams was the first and arguably greatest country music star ever. A high school dropout from South Alabama who knew how to make people feel his pain and write about pain everyone feels. After his death, Williams’ popularity and legend grew, but about the time of his untimely death, Elvis arrived on the scene.
Hemphill says Elvis was almost the end of country music. Both he and Hank perfectly represented their ethos and time—Hank the rural and small town world that still lived inside most people raised in the Depression, and Elvis the bombastic musical fusion of the world that America in the 1950s began to aspire to be. Both sons of the South, about to blow wide open by the searing Civil Rights movement, all of its contradictions laid out where the whole world could see us exposed.
Last Friday, Vickie and I went with our friends Gay and Dan to hear Gillian Welch and David Rawlings at Workplay Theater on the Soundstage. If you don’t know her, you have probably heard her somewhere. She writes and sings a plaintive, almost “old time” style. Their concerts usuially only feature two guitars and an occasional frail or two on the banjo. Spare, haunting, perfectionistic, well- crafted songs and harmonies. Gillian and David joked a lot about how “down” their music is.
They write about hard times, pregnant teenagers and careless men, broken hearts and do it in a voice she described to NPR in an interview as a “stoic” voice. Surely she and Rawlings are the only duo to emerge from the Berklee School of Music with a sound like they have. They seem to have plopped down into the twenty-first century by mistake. They should have been playing on porches in 1946. Instead, they perform for middle class lawyers in jeans and t-shirts grooving on soul music of a world they barely remember.
That was August 12, a week ago as I write. Then, four days later, came the day Elvis died. Especially here in the South, August 12 is still considered tragic because the federal government didn’t declare it a national holiday. I still remember where I was—working as a carpenter in Dunn, NC, framing a house for a rich lawyer out in the country. We listened to radio all day, the only relief to the scortching Carolina summer. But sometime in that day, the news came. “Elvis Presley died this morning.”
I was nothing like Elvis, but he was one of us. His music filled our cars on long trips, helped us date, and was the background music at Myrtle Beach. The world never understood the part we all shared with him –a Southerner out in the wider world, never really at ease with it, overwhelmed by it, ashamed of ourselves in ways we could never explain, but still having something to say. Not unlike Hank.
Maybe that’s what keeps killing people like them, I don’t know. They carry something heavy about them, something they would sing about and live out, but never could quite exorcise it. Restless, haunted by hounds of heaven and hell, searching, adored and showered with wealth but never able to carry it off. And then they were gone.
So it was good, last week, before I even knew we were about to remember that it was August 16, 1977. Elvis was dead, and I was in Dunn, NC, putting up rafters. Thirty four years ago, the King was gone. Hank abdicated his throne and Elvis took it but it took him, too. What they lived, what they sang about, what finally killed them both, is too important for us to keep out of religion or life. So I mourn these two poets, storytellers, prophets of the broken heart, laureates of human longing. If you don’t realize that there is something spiritual about Hank’s “Cold, Cold Heart” and Elvis singing the old “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” the old Carter family tune that Elvis turns into a soul shiver, or the maudlin “Long Black Limosine:”
So Hank, Elvis, it’s been an oddly moving time to be with you both. You are the troubadors of where we come from and where we tried to go. We won’t forget you. Let me end with the song Gillian and David sang from their Time the Revelator album, “Elvis Presley Blues”. Rest in peace.
I was thinkin that night about Elvis,
Day that he died,
Day that he died.
I was thinkin that night about Elvis,
Day that he died,
Day that he died.
Just a country boy that combed his hair,
and put on a shirt his mother made and went on the air.
And he shook it like a chorus girl.
And he shook it like a harlan queen.
And he shook it like a midnight rambler, baby,
like you’d never seen, never seen.
like you’d never seen, never seen.
In the theater on Saturday to see “Tree of Life,” we watched the obligatory previews and saw with interest that a film version of “The Help” is coming in August. Allison Janney was one of the actresses I recognized, and heard enough to know this would be another butchered movie attempt to capture Southern accents. Anyone NOT from the South cannot hear the hundred subtleties in Southernspeak. We do not all sound like Foghorn Leghorn (“Ah, SAY-uh, ah sey-uh Miss Priss-ay”).
In the case of Mississippi, parts of Alabama and south Georgia you would be pretty close, but a little off is worse than way off, the linguistic equivalent of losing a baseball game on a balk in the ninth. You think, “they don’t know us, don’t know anything about where we live, who we are. What’s the deal? Most of ‘em still think we’re unchanged from the barking dogs and fire hoses and Atticus Finch. It’s as though the South is invisible.
According to Wikipedia: the movie “The Help” is about Aibileen, an African-American maid living in Mississippi in the early 1960s who cleans houses and cares for the young children of various white families.” There is a storyline about a campaign to get the white residents of Jackson to build separate bathrooms in their garage or carport for the use of the “colored” help. Characters with odd Southern names like Hilly and Skeeter are here, as well as Aibileen, another maid who has been through 19 jobs because she speaks out too much. A lot more develops, but pick up the book or see the film.
I started thinking about real life versions of “The Help” many times. As a minister you go and sit in people’s homes a lot, especially when things are going badly. Death, divorce, children run amuck, that sort of thing. You go as a holy man or woman and sit there, listening, trying to lend some presence to some terrifying absence. It can be anywhere: in nursing homes, assisted living or elegant suburban homes. The help, especially down south, some long-time worker for the family, inevitably comes in and brings me a glass of tea or says hello or dusts around us.
When my wife worked in welfare reform she got to know a lot of women who worked as domestics—cooks, maids, caretakers for the elderly, sitters and raisers of babies. Often they worked for more than one family to put food on the table. And if you wanted to know what was REALLY going on, talk to these women. It helps explain reality television, I think. Often I think, “Why on earth would you say that with cameras rolling? How can you be sincere and still know your being taped?” I suppose you just forget after a while and then, out it comes.
My wife Vickie used to say, “People forget and talk in front of their maids like they’re not there, and don’t realize that everything in their house is known.” Another way to put it is that these people become invisible. We stop seeing them, being aware of them, taking account of their presence.
I wondered recently as I thought about a really BAD immigration law passed by the Alabama legislature: “WHAT were they thinking?” At first I focused on the legal, financial and constitutional issues—how will we enforce it, who will pay for it, and so on. My question was, “Am I my brother’s Big Brother?” Absurdities occurred—will we build a wall like the Israelis to keep the Floridians and Mississippians out? But there were also somber thoughts—a lot of law enforcement may ignore it, but some might abuse it on people too scared and vulnerable to speak up. And also frustration that the federal government, whose real job it is, has failed to do their job. This is not a state issue. But let’s not go there.
Mainly I have been thinking about the help. The help are people who clean toilets and wash dishes and dig gardens and mow lawns and help build houses. They mop hospital halls and work long hours without complaining. And when they work their fingers to the bone for subsistence wages, we’re only too glad to let them do it. Then, when the bottom drops out of the Dow and we’re scared, we started passing laws that have a nice, authoritative sound to them. “Let’s stand up and do something.”
I called the governor’s office before this became law and told his staff I strongly opposed this law—unaffordable, unconstitutional, unenforceable. But mostly, if truth be told, I was thinking about the Old Testament and Jesus and all those passages in the Bible about the way we treat strangers and foreigners in our midst. There isn’t one passage in the Bible that says, “When they’re down and out, draw the line and shove ‘em out.” Find it if you can. No, it says, “You were strangers in Egypt. Don’t forget it. Don’t oppress widows and foreigners and orphans.” In other words, “Don’t tread harshly on people who can’t fight back.”
I am embarrassed by this law. We can do better. Nothing in it about the people already here or treating them with respect and hospitality or how to go from where we are to where we could be or even a mere way to authorize those already here to stay as guest workers. We didn’t even offer them a ride home. Just jails, fines, and, worse, the rest of us being tattlers to pull it off. It’s not that hard, it seems to me, to figure out. But that didn’t seem to get in this law.
A lot of our newcomers pretty soon become business owners and contractors themselves. They work hard and pull themselves up. I’ve met people who were doctors or dentists in their former country but work in menial jobs here because they are not “qualified” and they don’t complain. It’s a familiar story—like the 24 million immigrants who came into this country between 1860 and the 1920s—some of whose descendants sit in nice homes griping about immigrants.
Most of all, I feel like we got in the living room and made a decision affecting our maids and yard workers and day laborers and restaurant workers and lots of women and children. Many of them are legal and sometimes their families are not. It’s a mess, I admit. But we got in the living room and came up with a half-baked solution that, like those bathrooms in the garages in The Help will look absurd a few years down the line.
We committed the two great sins for Southern Christians. We were rude to strangers and we talked about things that affected the help’s lives as though they weren’t even there. And now our teachers and law enforcement folks and business owners are asked to fix it by becoming an enforcement bureau, ratting out first graders who don’t know anything about why they are here.
I’m for homeland security—career criminals don’t belong here, terrorists need to be stopped. I hate the ocean of drugs pouring over our borders as much as Mexico hates the avalanche of guns pouring over theirs. But maybe if we stopped talking about our help like they aren’t even there we could make distinctions between people who make us better and those who don’t.
We had the wrong kind of discussion and we ended up with a Rube Goldberg law. We can do better. We should do better. I pray we will.