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”
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. Continue reading “Love and Sorrow Mingled Down in Newtown: A Sermon Preached on the Third Sunday of Advent”
I had many thoughtful calls about Hurricane Sandy because I have a daughter in New York City and another in New York State. Both, thankfully, escaped the worst of it, neither even experienced a power outage. They had friends, of course, who did. But inevitably, an avalanche of odd theological statements come forth.
Speculation on natural disasters are not, of course, new. A few people said, “God is telling us something.” Having been through a tornado that hit my church many years ago, I wince at such statements, especially since the tornado spared every part of our proposed expansion program and hit every part that we had not considered, namely the offices and the sanctuary, where it ripped a hole in the roof right over the pulpit, which a few sawdust trail preachers in town suggested was payback for our liberalism (we ordain women and are open to all races and do not marginalize divorced persons, and have practiced these ways since the 1970s).
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
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.
…there are aspects of humanity that are not reducible to particles, chemicals and rational analysis.
In my last post, I reflected on the interesting work of Oliver Sacks on memory. A few further thoughts about the whole notion of science, faith, and humanity.
Sacks has been criticized roundly for his “anecdotes” that don’t meet all the rigor of some scientific requirement, especially by the radical reductionists. Some believe that “there is no self or soul. We are merely the product of our acculturated experiences and brain physiology and when it’s gone, so are we.”
But there is something instinctive that we know—that there are aspects of humanity that are not reducible to particles, chemicals and rational analysis. Beauty, humanity, value abide somewhere beyond all our curiosity about mechanisms. Even when the mechanisms are explained, there is yet Something.
I once asked a group of scientists with whom I meet from time to time to talk about religion and science (none of whom are six-day creationists, all but one of whom are yet theists and Christians), “My question for you is not why you believe in evolution or why even intelligent design is not logically necessary from the perspective of scientific method. It is this: you are committed scientists, are convinced of its methodology, humble about what we can know. And yet you still worship, believe in God, go to church. I am much more interested in that than boring college-dorm debates where someone has to knuckle under at the end and say, “You’re right. I give up.” Why do you do this?” What is it that you DO believe?
Then I heard something fresh. “Even when you understand these things, it causes wonder.” There is Something underneath that can be alternatively explained but it seems vulgar to do so. Wonder. Amazement. Delight. Joy. They can be explained as neurons, nerves, responses, brain centers, blah blah blah. But why do they exist at all?
On December 27, 1992, I did a funeral of a real character in the town where I lived in South Georgia. Mr. Earl “Tige” Pickle (short for “Tiger,” a peculiar name for such an outgoing man!) was a newspaper columnist, leader in the community and local radio personality. Everybody who was anybody in Early County eventually was asked to be on Mr. Tige’s radio show. Since our paper came once a week, people depended on Tige to get the day-to-day necessities. He kept us up on things like the funeral notices and what the coach had to say about the big game and how the peanut crop might do this year with the lack of rain and that terrible fungus the county agent had just identified.
Since I was the new preacher in town and he had more or less run out of interesting guests, Tige invited me to be interviewed. He was particularly interested in the fact that I was from Texas and, as people usually do, assumed that I knew all about things Texana. I didn’t know these things, of course, but like any good Texan, what I lacked in fact I simply invented, added and padded.
He was a wordsmith who appreciated a good story and a well-written sentence. He often came up to tell me how much he appreciated some joke I had told in a sermon or some point well-made. Of course, as in all lives, the day came when life began to take his gifts away, and it took them in a most cruel fashion. This dear man with a sly grin and quick wit began to lose his words. They said it was Alzheimer’s.
One day, long after the ravages of senility had begun to take their toll, I went out to the nursing home to lead a worship service. As always, Tige was present, sitting in a rocker at the back. By now he had become silent and unresponsive. This particular day I invited the residents to join me in singing “Amazing Grace.” As we began to sing, something came over Tige. He got up as though moved by an invisible and ancient force of habit and moved toward me. Now he was no longer in the day room at the nursing home. I believe he was sitting again in his mind in the pews of First Baptist Church and worshipping in his regular place.
He sang out loud and continued to make his way forward until he stood shoulder to shoulder with me. There he continued to sing as though he were leading the congregation itself until we finished the song. When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun; we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’ve first begun.
Then he went back to his seat. When nearly everything else had left his memory, the power of a lifetime of faithful worship and faith had marked his life. Though he rarely spoke those days, something raised him out of that chair and moved him to sing every word of that great old hymn. Religion has just about lost its soul in America trying to control the culture, run politics and come up with glib answers to everything. We’d do better to settle back into mystery, in my opinion. Humility is not such a bad place to be, not if you really believe in something. Especially if you think there is Something that comes from beyond us, beyond death, beyond decay and Alzheimers and suffering and loss.
Oliver Sacks’ work may also remind us that the practice of faith is deeper than what we “feel” or “decide” or experience. There is something entirely worthwhile about the practice of faith that resides at the level of gestures, behaviors and trusting actions. Liturgy, devotions, singing, and prayer become habits of a life. Theologian Greg Jones once wrote:
Two of the most powerful intellectual and social forces in our culture are the hard sciences and capitalist economics. Together they have conspired to produce images of personhood that undermine Christian understandings. According to these images, persons are defined by their rational capacities and their productive contributions.
The loss of reverence and respect for human life and human bodies, whether they retain capacity for memory or not, is the result of our obsession with reason and the GNP. But institutional religion can commit the same sin. People can be valued only for being young, for the contributions they make to the community or for their sameness to us. This is as far from the religion of Jesus of Nazareth as can be. The One who welcomed lepers, outcasts, children and the sick reminds us that pragmatism is a useful tool but not a way of life adequate to all things.
I find it frankly puzzling to meet conservative Christians who effusively praise Ayn Rand. In the words of Liz Lemon, “What the WHAT?” We can love, value, care for people poorer than us, less fortunate, weaker or damaged. This is not misguided but actually a humble bowing before mystery. There are yet things in a silent woman sitting in the activities room of the nursing home unknown to us. And so we care for her, not only for her past, but for the simple fact of respect and care for her deep fellow humanity. That is enough. To learn this is the beginning of wisdom.
Video still suspended on the internet, weathermen almost screaming fear and warning,
Maps lit up with horrible storms, bright, rotating monsters
And the skycams filming it
Dark rumbling cone of cloud, wider and firmer, roaring down,
Swallowing places we all recognized, this street corner, that road, this hospital and the University itself
Gobbled into darkness
We sat watching helplessly in what passes for our safe place
Terrified for people we know and can’t call or get to
Just sat there, watching, listening, praying in a basement or a closet
Now it lives on YouTube and in children’s nightmares
Fear comes out of nowhere, rumbling into a sunny place and wipes it out
We still remember . How can you forget 63 tornadoes,
Taking down a state a town at a time? Houses blown apart, unglued matchsticks
Flying everywhere. That was the picture everyone shared
But it’s the million snapshots, most of them not taken
Sagging shoulders of an old man and his wife looking at the wreckage of sixty years
A family crying over photographs and precious pets and dead neighbors
Burying the body of a son or a mother or a friend
Who committed no crime against nature that took their life.
The foolish weakness of our lives pitted against something so vast that we shrank away
Our hearts melted, our schedules crashed, our computers went dead with no grid to hook to
Agendas changed, all the foolishness swept away into immediate priority
Only holding the people we love, finding the body of a lost daughter
Feeding a neighbor who was hungry and broke
Losing a job that blew away in a second. Going to church when it mattered
Listening for God when God seemed gone
Oh, we remember a million snapshots, of a child calling, “I’m okay,” of a house that used to be
Where a neighbor and his wife died, their bodies snapped like twigs and tossed into an undignified heap
Diapers and receipts and toys and furniture, curtains and unrecognizable slivers, trashbags and deck chairs
Wood and metal and rope and canvas, slung in no pattern, no priority and with no respect for their value
Gone, gone, gone, a house, a town, a store where we shopped, a friend we knew,
A way of life we lived, a sense of safety with which we deluded ourselves
But some things still didn’t blow away—faith and hope and love survived
Love for strangers fired up strong and woke us up to one another.
But we stood for a moment, blown away like the pieces of our lives and our world
Dazed, disbelief, daunted, discouraged, disheartened, darkened in soul
For just a moment, to take it in. We will never forget if we rebuild it all again
What happened that April day, when Alabama almost died.
Whitney Houston made your heart soar with that magnificent voice. You kept hoping for her—so lovely, so achingly vulnerable, so fragile. “Come on back, girl,” you hoped. In the end, she didn’t. There will be moralizing—drugs, bad choices, all the rest. But such times are wrong for moral lessons. There is a time to criticize, and a time to refrain from criticizing. A time to learn a lesson, and a time to let the dead alone and mourn.
The story of Whitney Houston makes me think how hard it is to care for one’s own soul when there are so many other agendas vying for us.
Diane Sawyer recounted on the news last evening about that famous interview in 2002, when there was so much speculation about how thin she was and wondering about her condition.
Sawyer: If you had to name the devil for you, the biggest devil among them?
Houston: That would be me. It’s my deciding, it’s my heart, it’s what I want. And what I don’t want. Nobody makes me
do anything I don’t want to do. It’s my decision. So the biggest devil is me. I’m either my best friend or my worst enemy. And that’s how I have to deal with it.
I respect her right to assess her own life. But to take it a little deeper, I would add that it is important to understand what it means to genuinely accept the responsibility to care for oneself. If that sounds easy to do, it is not. We are stewards of our lives. A friend of mine told me of a seminary teacher colleague who used to say, “The first spiritual law is this: God loves you, and everyone has a plan for your life.”
Whitney said on the interview played on the news that the most terrible sound in the world is the sound of 10,000 disappointed fans. That in my opinion is the demonic temptation of being an entertainer or for anyone who works with people on a large scale. Preachers know: one or two venomous critics can cancel 100 who are blessed by us—if we give them that power.
But why would we? And then there is that restlessness in oneself. I asked an ambitious classmate of mine, who was never satisfied that the current church he was in was not a “good fit” for him, “How many people will it take to tell you how wonderful you are before you can be happy?” That’s the question you have to answer before you can do this work. That was three churches ago for him. Hope he finally found the grass above the septic tank.
A pastor friend put it this way wants: “I’m not bothered by what the critics said nearly so much I am bothered that I let it bother me.” THAT is the place where the devil does his best work.
Rest in peace, Whitney. Sing with the angels, and fear the critics no more. In heaven, every judgment heals and purges, and there are no more tears or pain, for the former things have passed away.