Category Archives: Children
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
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’ll admit it—I long for Mayberry and simpler living.
Maybe it never existed, but something in us says, “It ought to.”
Andy Griffith died today on the Outer Banks of his native North Carolina where he lived. A few years ago, I took my senior adults to the Outer Banks, and, other than seeing the place where “Nights of Rodanthe” was filmed and hearing about how one native got to be examined by Richard Gere as a bit part, the biggest thrill was hearing that Andy
lived there still. “You can still see him in the grocery store and he is an active part of the community,” she said solemnly.
We were the Baptist version of medieval pilgrims tracing the steps of a saint. Andy Griffith, though Moravian, taught more Baptists their character virtues than almost anyone I knew.
Being a native of North Carolina, I fastened onto the Andy Griffith Show at an early age. I was in elementary school when the show was on the air. Andy, Aunt Bee, Otis Campbell, Thelma Lou and Helen, Goober, Gomer, Opie and Barney Fife were childhood friends. I know a lot of the bits by part—I’ve watched and re-watched the reruns my whole adult life. “Why do you watch the same shows over and over?” my wife asks. But even she will watch “Aunt Bee the Warden” (she has a secret desire to imprison lazy men and beat them with a broom) and “Class Reunion,” and “Mr. McBeevy,” and all the others over and over.
It has been analyzed to death, of course. From its lack of diversity to its nostalgia overdoses, the show has taken its share of hits. And we all keep watching. Having lived in small towns, of course, I can say “The Andy Griffith Show” was half of the equation—the ideal, good half. Andy did capture the foibles, silliness and pettiness, but missing was meanness, racism and evil. Read the rest of this entry
There were times as a young man when I complained to myself
A memory of Dad…where do you start? I have pictures in my mind. First, of looking up at this tall, silent man. Looking up in fear sometimes, in awe most of the time as he went about life. He was strong, good, quiet, rarely angry with us. I looked up when I read his scrapbooks, hook shots flying through the air, frozen forever as the ideal athlete. Playing catch in the backyard or playing basketball while he watched, always the same. You were the mount Everest of my childhood.
I have pictures of you with tools, hammering, sawing, sweating, up on ladders, on the roof, in the garage, in the yard. You weren’t still very much. I wanted to be like you. When I got married and got desperate enough, I got a job pulling nails and then driving them. You gave me my first hammer. I still have it, by the way. I barely knew which end was which, but I always watched you as a boy, so I tried to draw on that and learned enough to do for myself and become a certified carpenter, which convinced me that preaching and air-conditioning was a pretty good way to go. But still, you showed me how to use my hands.
Pictures of you at the store, day in, day out, working long days, all day, nearly every day, and never really griping about it. How tired you must have been! But, come the next day, up you got, out the door and on about your business. It was a mystery until we all did our time on the McCrory’s Christmas chain-gang in the toy department. Then we wanted it to be a mystery again. But I would watch you, handling things, helping people find what they wanted, setting up displays, really enjoying it, to tell you the truth.
I have pictures in my mind of you at my wedding, at my ordination, reading my charge, coming to see us. You stood around at the edge of all the noise and stories and excitement and grinned, taking it in, feeling no need to say much, but delight shining from your eyes. My girls adore you for your sweetness and gentle spirit.
Oh, and what would I do without those images of you sitting in the bedroom in the evening, by yourself, plucking that black Sears Silvertone electric guitar, singing, “I Want to Go Home” and Hank Williams. You gave me bluegrass and my first guitar and the love of music. Mother gave me method and lessons, but I have you to thank for playing by ear and the instinct for improvising. The joy of your retirement years has been sharing music together, rediscovering the music you knew as a young man. How I wish Uncle Paul were still here when I could really enjoy it!
Hear Gary’s song, “Daddy Never Said” from his permanent world of pretend album [clilck here to listen]
And I remember some pretty short but wise proverbs you gave me. “We’ll be there when we get there.” “People do what they have to do.” Lots of stories. And as far as jokes, some of the worst groaners I’ve ever heard. Corny, but we told them to our kids anyway.
There were times as a young man when I complained to myself that you were so busy and I wished I could have had more time with you. But now I look back and see that my life is full of images you gave me. Work, family, music, faith. Plenty of good things for life. And I realize what a big, cool shadow you cast over my life in the heat of growing up. You were always there to provide for us, show us, and delight in us. I am grateful and I love you.
Here in Alabama, To Kill a Mockingbird is one of our great treasures. You can still go to Monroeville, Alabama and see a live re-enactment of the story every year by the local citizenry. You start out in the yard, then move inside the courthouse, and it is eerily reminiscent of the movie because Hollywood built a replica of it for the film. When I went with friends a few years back, I felt a flash of shame and pain when the n-word was uttered while African American locals up in the balcony were in our presence. I was embarrassed. So we’ve made some progress, I guess. As a child in North Carolina the word was uttered around me thoughtlessly, as a part of an unquestioned culture of resentment and vulnerable entitlement. 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
Watched “Moneyball” Sunday night. I liked it. It surprised me. I wasn’t sure that it could be faithfully made into a film worth watching, but, as usual, I know little about the art of that. Brad Pitt is a great actor, all of the fluff of paparrazinsanity aside, and he hit a homer again. It’s an interesting story about baseball, change, and the resistance to new things that always comes. It doesn’t end with exploding lights, a la, “The Natural,” but with the gentle irony that success leads Billy Bean to a fateful choice between one vision of “success” and family–even though his is broken.
I was in the mood to think about all of that, since my granddaughter just turned a year old this weekend. She has changed our lives and our priorities. I care much less about a great many things. I declined an opportunity to be part of a panel on religious responses to immigration law in Alabama, a topic I feel strongly about, but I’m going to see that little girl for a brief visit, and, as I explained to friends, this is even more important than securing the borders of the United States.
Tony Giles, a friend who works in financial services, said yesterday that he is hopeful about the economy, even if worried, because, “Prosperity always climbs a wall of worry.” His idea is that as long as we are worried about our world, there is still a chance it can get better. I like that. Jesus told us not to be anxious, which is one of the strangest and hardest of all of his sayings, for what else motivates humans beyond anxiety? I know there is a way to not react to anxiety without eliminating it, and that is the best I can do.
Don’t worry about my granddaughter? Might as well tell me to quit breathing. I will worry about, at, and just plain worry this world until it provides her the kind of planet little children deserve. If I had continued down midlife without her, I might have been able to unwind myself from caring a little more, retire, play golf and croak. But I can’t. It matters too much now.
Thing is, I don’t mind minding so much. She’s worth it. If a smile can make a person feel that good, you can cruise on it all day long. The other day, our band, during practice, recorded “You Are My Sunshine” for my baby, recorded on an iPhone. (click to play it). Grandparenting will make a fool out of you–I’ll testify. One that will keep caring, no matter how bad they say it is. God send us some more fools. We might balance some budgets, stop a lot of stupid wars, work harder, save more, and give our egos a rest. All you need is one baby.
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.
Napoleon Dynamite. It’s been seven years and I still laugh at this movie. I have it on DVR so I can speed through to favorite moments. A friend and I were laughing as we sent quotes back and forth this week.
- Napoleon Dynamite: Do the chickens have large talons?
- Farmer: Do they have what?
- Napoleon Dynamite: Large talons.
- Farmer: I don’t understand a word you just said.
His dialogue is so painfully true to life. I knew kids just like him, and he talks like them. The humor is not cruel, slapstick, humiliation or vulgarity–it’s recognition and insight into irony. You feel the pain and wince because you’ve been there as one of the characters in that movie.
- Napoleon Dynamite: Stay home and eat all the freakin’ chips, Kip.
- Kip: Napoleon, don’t be jealous that I’ve been chatting online with babes all day. Besides, we both know that I’m training to be a cage fighter.
- Napoleon Dynamite: Since when, Kip? You have the worst reflexes of all time.
- Napoleon Dynamite: Well, nobody’s going to go out with me!
- Pedro: Have you asked anybody yet?
- Napoleon Dynamite: No, but who would? I don’t even have any good skills.
- Pedro: What do you mean?
- Napoleon Dynamite: You know, like nunchuku skills, bow hunting skills, computer hacking skills… Girls only want boyfriends who have great skills.
It’s the little details–Don the Jock, mocking and threatening but never actually doing anything but sneering and shaking his head; the bully who kicks Napoleon’s pants to mash his “tots” when he refuses to share them; the kids in the bus screaming when Lyle shoots a cow without thinking about who’s watching; the town rich girl who always wins everything because she was entitled from the get-go and the faceless mass of kids who never have a chance. Then the principal—lecturing Pedro for his “cruelty” for mocking his opponent with a piñata and later leering at the Happy Hands dancers do their skit bare-footed at the assembly. I could go on.
Napoleon grabs onto a new kid from Mexico in the desperate hope for a friend who might stick by him. I winced. I was that kid. I spent most of my life as an outsider, since I moved throughout childhood. I attended seven different school systems in five states before I graduated high school due to my father’s job. I get “not belonging.” I had to fit in and figure out a world others created, often obliviously, before I arrived.
I am actually grateful for these experiences. Any capacity I have for empathy and compassion owes a lot to this experience in my life. While America is throwing trillions around I think we ought to move everybody in the country at least once, some of us to a foreign country, for at least a year so we can grow up a little and have some informed opinions. The lack of imagination, openness to others and real knowledge of what it means to be “dislocated” probably has a little to do with our trivial politics and fear-based anxieties about the rest of the world. Once you’ve been the powerless, unimportant and an outsider, you never see life the same again.
I tell young couples pondering marriage that friendship is one of the most underestimated predictors of marital success. As I approach 38 years with the same woman, I credit some of it to a sense of humor and the fact that we like each other. Once when she dramatically said, “Sometimes I just want to RUN AWAY, I asked, “Can I go with you.”
My version of, “I caught you a delicious bass.”
So it is Thanksgiving Eve. If Halloween (All Hallow’s Eve) can be an elaborate anticipation of the solemnity of All Saints’ Day and Fat Tuesday a wild and wooly welcome to the austerity of Lent, there should be a similar welcome mat to Turkey Day, something to usher it in, not stomp it out a la “Black Friday.”
Thanksgiving Eve should be something of an antonym to carry true to “Eve-ness” (Christmas Eve, naturally, being the all-time great, with it’s dark sense of Herodian murder plots, shivering shepherds, and wandering wise men). It should be a day of shameful reminders of ingratitude, self-absorption and congratulations that can be followed with humble rejoicing and remembering the next day that nothing was deserved in the first place.
Any holiday that began with Europeans almost starving to death and depending on the kindness of the poor natives they would eventually wipe out or addict to alcohol on reservations should not be one in which the self-congratulating is mixed with feasts and football. It just doesn’t seem right. Better to blow out the egotism and delusions on the eve and then wake up to something like, “My gosh, we don’t have anything to eat. How will we make it?” Then have your neighbors bring something over and re-enact the whole helplessness. How did it get to be, “Boy, are we ever BLESSED.”
There is something about powerlessness, helplessness, vulnerability and fear that drive you to important truths. I think about the Greatest Generation of Tom Brokaw’s book, having endured a childhood in the Great Depression and Coming of Age on Iwo Jima or Omaha Beach. No wonder they came home and were glad just to have a little house in a new suburb and work the same job for 45 years and retire still married to the same woman. And maybe this same absence of profound deprivation has left us unable to genuinely “feel” Thanksgiving as it is meant to be.
Could be, of course, that the past few years are getting us a little closer to the truth. 9% unemployment has unleashed predictable politics–all we need is a new president, throw the bums out of congress, shoot lobbyists, and so on. What I never hear is, “Life is hard. We better pull together and help one another. Hey, I don’t have to have my whole bonus this year. Let’s figure out how to keep Jim employed–he’s got three kids at home.”
We’ve got a grand opportunity to remember something that we seem determined to forget. I think about this while I hold my nine-month-old granddaughter. She is so precious and full of life, and I am terrified for the world she is growing up into, terrified into prayers and more prayers. I am helpless to prevent that world or fix it, so I am humbled terribly on this day. I won’t be here for her whole life, God willing, so it will go beyond me. You love a grandbaby this much, and suddenly you feel this helplessness again, like you haven’t felt in forever. It drives you to a different gratitude, one not rooted in your importance or competence or being the World’s Latest Big Deal. It is purely, powerfully helplessness that does it.
So let’s consider the Wednesday Before Thanksgiving as Self-Reliance Day. We can wear giant inflated heads and have Big Shot Parades, football games and overeating as though it was our destiny. Then, as is appropriate, consider a day of forgiveness, humble gratitude, reconciliation and remembering that without the rest of us, none of us is worth a dime, and don’t forget it. So while there are some hours left in Wednesday, put on you Big Head. Thanksgiving is coming. Act like a selfish jerk for a few more hours. Then come to yourself and remember what your life is really about.