Category Archives: humanity

Thou Shalt Love Thy Bandmates

Anyway, riding in a van for a week turned us from “Friends

and Brothers” to angry inmates who couldn’t wait to bust out.

Fifteen Years.  That’s how long Shades Mountain Air has been together, at least the core of Greg and Nancy Womble, Gary Furr, and Don Wendorf.  We have spent a couple hours a week most of that fifteen years weekly at Greg and Nancy’s house, practicing, horsing around, composing, arranging, learning and growing from one another.  We’ve only had one personnel change in all that time–Don’s son, Paul, our outstanding fiddle player, left us to move on with wife, kids, career, to Texas, and so, we were four again for a while, then found Melanie Rodgers.  Mel has added dynamic new joy to our sound, and is now a part of our 15th Anniversary Live Album that is now available.     (Go to the website store for our new CD click here!)

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Shades Mountain Air at Moonlight, 2013

The album sounds great!  We hired Fred Miller of Knodding Off Music to record and engineer our live concert.  Fred did a fantastic job and we are so happy with the result.  He captured our live sound and energy.  It sounds like us!  There is NOTHING like live music, and though it’s fun to be in a studio and monkey around with something until you get it “perfect”, there is a corresponding loss of that spark that performers-audience and a venue provide.  We did it at our favorite gig–Moonlight On the Mountain in Bluff Park in Hoover, Alabama, with Keith Harrelson, as always, handling lights and sound.

I say all this because Shades Mountain Air is more than a band.  We have become family together.  We love playing together, singing, creating, whether anyone is listening or not.  Greg and Nancy’s kids grew up having to hear us every week in their house. We have been through life crises, griefs, and changes Read the rest of this entry

Where Were You When President Kennedy Was Shot?

 It rolled at you across the land at 1800 miles per hour, hauling darkness like plague behind it….we saw the wall of shadow coming, and screamed before it hit.   

Annie Dillard, in her book, Teaching a Stone to Talk, said that she and her husband once drove across the mountains of central Washington state to a place that would put them in the path of a total eclipse of the sun.  Early in that morning in 1979 they pulled off the highway and waited.  She said: 

The deepest and most terrifying [memory] was this: I have said that I heard screams….people on all the hillsides, including, I think, myself, screamed when the black body of the moon detached from the sky and rolled over the sun.  But something else was happening at that same instant, and it was this, I believe, which made us scream.  The second before the sun went out we saw a wall of dark shadow come speeding at us.  We no sooner saw it than it was upon us, like thunder.  It roared up the valley.  It slammed our hill and knocked us out.  It was the monstrous swift shadow cone of the moon….it was 195 miles wide.  No end was in sight—you only saw the edge.  It rolled at you across the land at 1800 miles per hour, hauling darkness like plague behind it….we saw the wall of shadow coming, and screamed before it hit. Read the rest of this entry

Remembering 9-11and 9-15

1963 cover

1963 by Barnett Wright

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. Read the rest of this entry

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.

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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

Cynicism and Forgiveness

“Forgiveness” is my wife’s favorite song on my new CD.  (Click HERE to listen to the song)  The chorus goes:

It’s impossible to give forgiveness

It’s even worse to have to ask

If letting go is the answer

Living like it’s gone is the task.

How else you going to deal with the past?

Lance Armstrong and General Petraeus in one year are maybe more than we can take, even in our jaded time.  I find myself turning it all off more and more just to preserve my soul.  Cynicism can cripple the spirit.  It can rest on the

How else you gonna deal with the past?

belief that everything is a con, everybody is out to get you, all politicians are evil, and all human beings’ motives are bad.  While Christians might be seen to have a lot in common with that, what with the fall of humanity and all, I’m here to say, “Not really.”

The Christian gospel is not as much about how bad we are as that God knows it and loves us anyway.  Sin is not what lives on at the end of the day.  Its moment is the middle of a Friday with a dark sky and a rugged cross and a man yelling, “It is finished.”  But the last word is an empty tomb, followed by a hopeful church, a Holy Spirit, and a kingdom to come.

So as Thanksgiving approaches, it might do well for us to think about how to defeat it in our lives.  I want to offer two helpful practices from our faith that can be an antidote to cynicism. Read the rest of this entry

Love Lifted Me: a 9-11 Story

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

Ken Braun

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.

Andy Griffith’s Kinder, Gentler Community

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

Andy Taylor (Griffith) with Deputy Barney Fife (the legendary Don Knotts)

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

The Songs Remember When: Part I

“The Lord…gave me these sounds.” 

Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks is a British-born neurologist whose maverick investigations inspired the Academy-Award winning movie, “Awakenings” and who gained notoriety for his book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, a collection of unusual cases of mental and emotional issues.  He is, as his website puts it, “physician, a best-selling author, and professor of neurology and psychiatry at the Columbia University Medical Center,” even being named the first Columbia University artist forhis contributions to the arts.  In his book Musicophilia, “Dr. Sacks investigates the power of music to move us, to heal and to haunt us.”

In his “Music and Memory Project,” Dr. Sacks collected and investigates the power of music on memory.  It is tempting, and I have even said this sometimes myself in thinking about identity, that when memory goes, so does our sense of identity and self.  Who am I when I can’t remember any more.  So often in my vocation I hear people say, “Mom left us long ago.”  In Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders, an individual descends into a solitary cocoon of long-term memories, and then finally into silence before death.  Where did what we knew as “the person” go?

A friend recently shared a very moving video posted on YouTube of Sacks’ project.   CLICK HERE TO VIEW    It is a remarkable record of a man named who has debilitating case of Parkinson’s disease which rendered him inert and lifeless most of the time.  They learned from his family about some of his favorite music from Cab Calloway and others early in his life and put it on an MP3 player and put on the ear phones.  The transformation is remarkable.  He is alive again, eyes bright and he begins to move to the rhythm and sing along.  A glow of life continues after the music is taken away.

He says, at the end, “The Lord…gave me these sounds.”  There is something remembered in our bodies, our minds, our selves, deep and irreplaceable.  Human beings and the earth God made are sacred, all of it.  We should treat it that way. Read the rest of this entry

To Kill A Mockingbird…50 years later

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

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