Category Archives: Prayer
2013 Holy Week Services Special Musical Guests for Holy Week: This year we have some wonderful musical guests who will come to offer their gifts in our journey to Easter. The great Eric Essix, Birmingham’s own jazz guitarist, will join us for Monday’s service to play in the service for us. Our own Bill Bugg will sing on Tuesday. On Wednesday we welcome Alabama bluegrass legends Three On a String. Then, on Maundy Thursday evening, we will be honored to have Angela Brown, one of the world’s great opera sopranos, as our guest to sing in our communion service. Angela came to a great crisis of faith in hier life when her brother died at age 20 and ended up at the great Oakwood college in Huntsville, originally majoring in biblical studies and minoring in music, but was persuaded that she had great gifts to offer God through her voice. She made the long climb in the world of opera and in the 2004-2005 season, made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in the title role of Verdi’s Aida to critical acclaim and made the front page of the New York Times with her performance. She has traveled the world since then, but will be in Alabama during Holy Week and is coming to sing for us and offer a Master Class for our Betty Sue Shepherd Scholars.
This promises to be a powerful and meaningful week of worship, devotion and inspiration as we all “turn our eyes upon Jesus, and look full in his wonderful face.” Put the dates on your calendar and plan to be here. Bring your heart and hopes with you.
the One whom we follow disappointed every false expectation
placed on Him, and purposefully,
for the larger call of what God wanted of Him.
That is and always will be enough.
Associated Baptist Press carried a piece Monday by Elizabeth Hagan entitled,“I Left the Church. Don’t Hate Me.” I recognized all the responses she received when she left the pulpit that five years before had become hers with such celebration. I do think in the Baptist world that women in senior pastorates must face some pressures that a man in his 50s can’t comprehend. Then again, I think we live in a time when expectations, opinions and reactions travel so fast and far.
I would like to offer a little perspective and help to all young ministers in this time. In a religious world that is so fast-changing and tumultuous, and in an information age in which every event feels global, I do not think these reactions are new at all, nor are they unique.
A chaplain once said in my hearing, “Jesus just kept defining himself and letting others bump up against that.” I have found this to be true, again and again. Everyone in your life has an opinion about what you ought to do with it. Many are good opinions, most are rooted in their own perspectives and interests. Expectations of us aren’t necessarily bad, but finally only God can tell us what to do with our lives and be 100% correct.
Pastoral ministry is not a “cause,” it is a call. The call to go there is the call to do what ministers always have done. When you are led to another place and work, then we should bless you in that. I cannot know what it feels like as a woman in the work, but disappointment with us somewhere along the way is pretty much par for the course. Yours seems to be a little more high profile, but don’t worry about it too much. It will pass.
Anger is also pretty well par for the course when you leave anything like pastoral work, even to go to another church. The euphoria of a new calling, messiness of leaving and the grief and rage stirred up in people is pretty amazing to see the first few times. Eventually you come to expect it will be there. The hurt when people think, “Oh, no, what will happen to us?” is always there. I will never forget being told by a beloved deacon when I tried to help the church I had just resigned to get organized for the interim, “Now, Preacher, you’ve done resigned and left. Why don’t you just let us tend to the church?” I was hurt. Now I get it.
In another church, my young chair of deacons made me resign on a Wednesday instead of Sunday. He was obviously angry, but under it, deeply hurt, feeling somehow that I had rejected him and the church by leaving. I hadn’t. He felt differently in time, and so did I. I was hurt, too.
Everyone has something they need from us, but only letting that go brings freedom, and it is hard to let go, for sure. Maybe it takes a lifetime. So, if you’re telling me that you have met the public disappointment of those who once lauded you, don’t worry with it too much. There will be plenty of other agendas and other people you will be privileged to disappoint before it’s over. Sometimes you just need to do what you need to do and let the rest of them deal with it. They’ll survive. And so will you. Those of us who get it don’t need an explanation and those who need an explanation will never get it.
So listen within. Be clear. Turn it loose. The kingdom has survived worse than even us. But I want to encourage women pastors out there—disappointment isn’t just about the cause of women in ministry. It’s always part of being a minister, and you never get free of it. You just live with it and move on. Good Friday isn’t far, and it’s a good time to remember, that the One whom we follow disappointed every false expectation placed on Him, and purposefully, for the larger call of what God wanted of Him. That is and always will be enough.
Anne Lamott has written a new book called Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential PrayersI This represents a
considerable development in her theology of prayer, because she said in an earlier work that there were really only two variations of prayer–”Help me, help me, help me” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” so I look forward this expanded theology! I haven’t read it yet–I will–but “wow” seems fitting. I believe part of the artistic vision is to tromp around in those parts of reality that hunger from neglect by politicians (a finishing school for becoming a world class dullard if you aren’t careful), scientists, economists, the military and cynics.
You would think the realm of artists and mystics (really, they overlap), would be tiny and easily mapped, but you would be wrong. In this week devoted to giving thanks, counting blessings and generally being glad that we aren’t as bad off as someone else, it might do well to visit this realm. It is where beauty, mystery and wonder abide. The ancient Hebrews would be astounded by us, who surround ourselves with astonishing things and spend little time considering them.
So, I would add to the litany of Thanksgiving an apology for wonder. Thankfulness assumes an enlarged view of life. How mundane if all we were to call thankfulness consisted only of a listing of possessions and good fortune! The ocean belongs to no one, yet who can forget the first time they saw it? The excitement of a small child in a car, eagerly waiting to arrive at the beach, smelling the warm salt air long before arriving, driving along the beachfront road trying to peek between the houses and condos, the incomprehensible moment when at last the child stands and tries to take in a lake with no shoreline; that is a morsel of wonder.
Here are some others:
- the first day in a long time without the pain
- a time of laughter after weeks of draining grief
- The mystical fellowship of fellow worriers in a hospital waiting room
- The never-boring ritual of watching children, then grandchildren discover life
- Mountains, rivers and deserts, or the blades of grass in our backyards
- The good ache of sore muscles at the end of a hard day’s work now finished
- Rich memories of people and places and happy times, available at will whenever I call
- The deep silence of the universe, signifying not emptiness but a different kind of fullness from the noise and clatter of my everyday life–wherein a prayerful heart can trace the embedded pathways of God.
So, “Thanks be to God, ” not just for the relative prosperity that gives me a better chance to survive than someone in the Third World. All around are unburied treasures, opportunities to grow and see and touch and live. We are loved, we are blessed, we are alive if we so choose to be. Thanks, indeed, be to God! We have plenty of those reasons that the dullard realms of money, power and dominance recite to us, but my prayer is to discover and give the thanks goes beyond and that flows our from deep joy. Strangely, it doesn’t usually cost any more than a little time, the right attention and a bit of slowing down. Oh, and a dash of being present!
Happy Thanksgiving to all my friends and readers, even if you are not in the US for our holiday. Thanksgiving wonder knows no calendar or border.
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.
I once heard someone say that Loretta Lynn described country music as consisting of three kinds of songs: “Songs about love, cheatin’ songs, and songs about Jesus.” That may be so, but I don’t know of anything that a good song can’t touch. In my last post, I mentioned songs that had spoken to me in my own grief through the years. Usually they are songs that simply “find us,” a synchronicity of expression and need. You hear it and it unearths sorrow or whatever from the deepest part of you, puts it up where you can feel it and when it’s done, you have a sense of relief or having found a treasure.
There is no “this will speak to you like it did me” list. Maybe it will, maybe not. But I do like to hear about songs others have liked. So here is a partial “songs that touched me in the journey of grief and pain.” You probably have some great additions to this.
- Peter Rowan, Legacy “Father, Mother” This is one of the most poignant, most beautiful songs about sorrow and hope mingled. A family walks together on a cold morning to the cemetery and remembers. It is achingly beautiful with a stunning vocal ending.
- Pierce Pettis, Everything Matters “God Believes in You”
- Emmy Lou Harris, Roses In the Snow “Wayfaring Stranger,” “Green Pastures,” “Darkest Hour is Just Before Dawn,” and “Jordan.” Rickie Skaggs, and a ton of talent plays and sings on this old CD, but Emmy Lou’s voice and these haunting old gospel songs is beautiful.
- Lynda Poston-Smith, Sigh of the Soul, Songs for Prayer and Meditation
- Ashley Cleveland, Second Skin “Borken Places” I had the privilege of opening for the Grammy winner a number of years ago. After a long career singing with people like John Hiatt and others Ashley went through a dark place in life, but during recovery rediscovered her faith again by remembering the hymns of her childhood.
Second Skin is a wonderful collection original songs in collaboration with her gifted husband Kenny Greenberg. is a terrific talent the song that spoke to me so much on that CD is called broken places
Chained to the past, chained to the fear
chains on the floor, broken for years
Freedom is calling me and my heart races
I feel it in the broken places.
Every diver knows there’s a lot at stake
But to the depths he goes as the water breaks.
And for every secret, well there’s a pearl he takes
- Vaughn Williams, “Five Mystical Songs” with the London Philharmonic. Based on the poems of the Anglican priest and mystic, George Herbert, the whole set of songs is worth listening to again and again, but “Love Bade Me Welcome” and “The Call” have been constant companions in my listening life.
- Hugh Prestwood, “The Suit,” performed by James Taylor. I like Hugh’s own recording of the song, about an old Nebraska farmer. The song speaks for itself. Listen to James Taylor do it here with Jerry Douglas. CLICK TO LISTEN
- Johnny Cash, American IV, The Man Comes Around. “Hurt.” I guess everyone has seen this one, but the video is one of the most overwhelming music videos ever made. It’s not his song, but Johnny sings about the train wrecks of his life and makes it his song. The moment when his beloved June looks at him with sad eyes brings me to the edge of tears every time in a genuine way.
- Andrew Lloyd Webber, Requiem “Pie Jesu,” sung by Sarah Brightman and a boy soprano. Webber wrote his Requiem in tribute to the death of his father. I listened to it again and again in the 1980s. “Pie Jesu” is so tender, and the innocence of the child’s voice in their duet conveys a transcendent feel for me. Classical music is filled with great help in this journey, too many passages to mention, but for a couple of decades I listened through the great classics just for my own enjoyment and found so many great expressions of sorrow and grief.
- Rosanne Cash Black Cadillac This makes a wonderful companion to your Johnny Cash collection and a necessary correction to the simplification of the movie, “Walk the Line.” When Johnny died, daughter Rosanne did this musical tribute to her experience of her father. Even without respect to Johnny’s life and music, it stands on its own as a great artistic accomplishmenr.
- Vince Gill, When Love Finds You, “Go Rest High On That Mountain.” Originally Vince started this song as a tribute after Keith Whitley died. It languished for a while, but then upon the death of his own brother, he completed the song. It has become one of his most lasting and loved songs. It is out of synch with the tone of the rest of the CD, mostly country love songs in vintage Vince style, but I have been asked to sing this song at more than one funeral (a half octave lower, of course!). You can listen to it all over YouTube. It continues to speak to those who grieve.
- Kathy Chiavola, From Where I Stand: A Personal Tribute. Kathy is a well-known backup singer, performer and vocal teacher in Nashville. It was recorded as a tribute to her partner, Randy Howard, a great fiddle player from Alabama who died in 1999. Randy is on part of the CD, as the album was underway when he died. My own favorite song is “Across the Great Divide,” a Kate Wolf song that describes death through the metaphor of that mystical peak in a mountain range where the rivers begin to flow the other way…
I’ve been walking in my sleep
Counting troubles ‘stead of counting sheep
Where the years went, I can’t say
I just turned around and they’ve gone away
I’ve been sifting through the layers
Of dusty books and faded papers
They tell a story I used to know
And it was one that happened so long ago
It’s gone away in yesterday
And I find myself on the mountainside
Where the rivers change direction
Across the great divide
The finest hour that I have seen
Is the one that comes between
The edge of night and the break of day
It’s when the darkness rolls away
- Could I even talk about death and grief without mentioning the hymns? They have been my companion and comfort and for countless others. Everyone has a list, but mine are often connected with memories of funerals I have conducted over the years—now in the hundreds. Singing “Victory in Jesus” congregationally years ago at the widow’s request as the recessional, while the wife, left penniless by her pastor husband, walked out with the family, head lifted up, tears streaming down her face, and defiant hope on her countenance. My other favorites (only a few!):
“The Old Rugged Cross”
“It is Well With My Soul”
“Great Is Thy Faithfulness”
“Blessed Assurance” I sang this one with a group of pastors in Israel in 1983 in Jerusalem while one of our leaders stood on a hill and wept over a loss in his family shortly before the trip. I will never forget his silhouette in the morning sun, hand braced against a solitary tree, head down, face buried in a handkerchief, while we sang, “This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior, all the day long.”
“Shall We Gather At the River”
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
It is the day after Memorial Day. I get way too many emails, but I’m 57. I’m trying to withdraw from the world without getting fired or retired (sometimes you retire. Other times you GET retired. See “getting fired.”
Anyway, I find myself, more and more, saying to a television screen, “That’s the wrong question” and “neither of the above.” Since we’ve quit reading anything longer than a few sentences, ah, I won’t go there today.
Few weeks ago I went on a retreat to Cullman, Alabama. I stayed with a dozen pastor buddies at the St. Bernard Retreat Center. It was a lovely setting. The last time I “retreated” at St. Bernard’s I stayed actually in the monastery with the brothers, who treated me well, but it was not air-conditioned, and it was August in Alabama. I had a small window, a box fan to blow hot air, and the last vestiges of a stomach virus. Didn’t make it through the night and drove off in the Great Silence searching for a Waffle House or a Cracker Barrel.
Over the past few weeks, I have watched Ken Burns’ “Civil War,” all the way through. Something I always wanted to do, but never had before. So I did it. Glorious, insightful, even after all these years. And “retreat” came to be more meaningful. You retreat when your forces are being obliterated. A “strategic retreat” is one you do to preserve yourself for another fight (“He who fights and runs away lives to fight another day.”) But sometimes you just run for your life. Cannons to the left of you, cannons to the right of you, manure under your feet and bayonets coming at you. No strategic about it, just run, dummy.
Spiritual retreats, honestly, are a little like that. Living in this world is too much like Antietam and Gettysburg, to tell you the truth. There’s foolishness and then there’s what we have now. What can you do? Burns says desertion, draft-dodging by the rich, protests, all of that happened then. Lincoln was trying to get re-elected while the Confederate army kept coming into Maryland to kill him. It’s hard to run a campaign in such times.
So maybe I shouldn’t complain. But this is a crazy time, too. Just yesterday on the news, a man ate another man’s face, and it was reported that a Southern Baptist Leader announced a new coalition in which “Catholics and Southern Baptists have joined forces with Orthodox Jews and Mormons to oppose a ‘secular theocracy driven by a full-blown pagan understanding of human sexuality.’” I don’t even know how you can HAVE a secular theocracy with no Theo. And let’s not talk about the independent preacher in North Carolina and his electrified wall. A school system in New York can’t fire a teacher who couldn’t get hired to pick up road kill for the county if she didn’t have tenure. We don’t have civil war, but we don’t exactly have civil conversation either.
So, all in all, retreating is not so bad. I still know too many people looking for work. I want my grandbaby to have a decent job someday. I want homeless people to sleep out of the rain, and I want everyone to pitch in and help make things better. No one is asking me to sacrifice and telling me how. No one is saying, “Even if I don’t get re-elected, let’s fix this deficit now. Elections can wait.” No one is saying, “that’s not news. It’s stupid. Get that off there and put something better on for us to talk about.”
Sound the retreat!
As I drove into lovely Cullman, Alabama for my “retreat,” I saw the most wonderful signs here and there. They’re having an election, too, and a Judge Lust is running for re-election. Try running a campaign against lust and see how it goes. Another sign said, Unity Baptist Church. Oxymoron?
One church had one of those changeable signs that must come with a book of clever clichés for preachers. You know, PRAYER: WIRELESS ACCESS TO GOT WITH NO ROAMING FEE and THE FAMILY THAT PRAYS TOGETHER STAYS TOGETHER and WALMART IS NOT THE ONLY SAVING PLACE. This one was pretty good. It said, COME AS YOU ARE BUT BE PREPARED TO CHANGE EVERYTHING. Yeah, I thought, I like that.
Then the best of all—obviously, I was lost by this time, having driven past my turnoff and into the country. But it was worth it. A glorious sign that said, “NORTH ALABAMA BULL EVALUATION CENTER.” Hallelujah! At last!
Alas, to my disappointment, it was about cattle. I turned around and headed the other way. The next morning, I was sitting in the Abbey Church listening to monks chanting and praying for the world. Not so bad.
RETREAT! RUN AWAY!
…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.
It’s become a cliche only because it is so powerful and pervasive. Your “voice,” I once heard songwriter Pat Terry say, is what makes people say, “That’s a Gary Furr song” or “that’s a (your name here) story.’ I have thought about this for thirty years, focused when I once, during a five day solitary retreat started to say a short prayer I had been using to center myself and blurted out, “Father, help me to be myself.“
If that sounds so very self-centered in our culture already so “you-can-be-whatever-you-want-to-be,” permit me to observe that despite our coaching of selves and self-focus I sure meet a lot of broken ones out there in life. People wounded and held back by a voice in their head: “you’ll never amount to anything,” and somettimes not even traumatic voices–just ones we imbibe from our world. “So many people are better than you. What do you have to offer? What’s the point?” Read the rest of this entry
A few years ago, I wrote a song as part of a sermon series on the Blues. I was inspired by a book by Stephen J. Nichols called, Getting the Blues: What Blues Music Teaches Us About Suffering and Salvation. We had a great time in church—using drama of great blues figures like Bessie Smith, Blind Lemon, Muddy Waters, Mississippi John Hurt and others, and blues songs to illuminate a lot of Bible stories.
Oddly, to listen to the sanitized Suburbianity of today, you’d think religion was all panacea and no sorrow. Nothing is more unbiblical than some of the nonsense that passes for Christianity, especially on the televised versions. Getting the victory is more about American optimism than biblical reality.
If you read the Psalms and listen to the blues, you get some balance in your soul. Throw in Job for good measure. The blues are about turning pain into prayer. One blues singer down in Mississippi said of his effort to teach the old blues to young boys, “I’m putting guitars in their hands instead of guns.” You can debate guns, but no debate about killing—killing breeds more killing. Despair leads to desperate things.
The blues is the choice to explore our pain rather than yield to it or collapse from it. It turns pain into prayer. One of the most familiar of all blues lines is a prayer found in the common Christian tradition in worship going all the way back to the first two centuries of Christianity, what the Catholics and Orthodox call the “Kyrie” for the word “Lord.” “Lord, have mercy.”
Lord, have mercy. You have to sing it right– Say it like this: “LO-rd HAAAAVE MER-cy
So I tried my hand at a blues song. I wrote “Widow of Zarephath Blues.” It was based on a simple little story in the Old Testament.
NRS 1 Kings 17:8 Then the word of the LORD came to him, saying, 9 “Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” 10 So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.” 11 As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” 12 But she said, “As the LORD your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” 13 Elijah said to her, “Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. 14 For thus says the LORD the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the LORD sends rain on the earth.” 15 She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. 16 The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the LORD that he spoke by Elijah.
Here is this widow, in Zarephath—foreigner in that time. Elijah goes to her, because Israel is devastated by drought, but even worse, by spiritual compromise and failure. Think about what she might be singing those words Elijah comes up to ask for something to eat. So I tried my hand. The song below is what I came up with.
She could have lived in North Carolina in 1931 or certain parts of any city. Back in December our church helped a single Mom make her car payment. She got evicted on December 23 with two kids. That’s blues.
Since our politicians are arguing about the 1% and the middle class, and since nobody seems to have anything to say about poor people, evicted people, homeless folks and folks on hard times, I’ll send this song out to you. Real faith is feeding your neighbor where there isn’t enough to go around. Hope we get around to it eventually. But until then, while they argue about spending money we borrowed before we made it, I’ll send this one out to the hard-times widows and their kin.
Click here to listen to“Widow of Zarephath Blues”