Thursday, March 15, 2018

Surely The Lord Is In This Place And I Did Not Know It

        What is it about this place that pulls us into its presence?  How do we explain this mysterious force that draws us, this mystical call that beckons us, this ethereal conviction that persuades us to go to a country where there is a constant travel advisory and family and friends worry about our safety?  Why do we pay thousands of dollars to fly 6,000 miles to a troubled land full of jagged rocks, barren wilderness, and intense political division?

        Of all the places on the face of the earth, why this land?  The answer is found not in where we go, but why we go; not in our destination but our determination, for we go not as tourists, but as pilgrims, we are not on holiday but on a holy journey.  We travel to Palestine, not because it is the nation of Israel, but because it is the Holy Land, the land of the Bible. 

        To understand the power that draws us to the distant land, we must understand the nature of holiness.  We stand on the Mount of Olives not merely to marvel at the beautiful vista, but because the crucible of the Passion is played out before our very eyes.  Our physical eyes see the glowing Dome of the Rock, but our spiritual eyes see the majestic Temple of Jesus’ day.  We can visualize the palm fronds and hear the shouts of “Hosanna” as the humble man from Galilee rides a donkey through the Golden Gate into the Holy City. 

        We walk into a Byzantine church, stand in a menagerie of jostling humanity, listening to a cacophony of languages, all clamoring to reach one spot that rests down steep steps through a narrow door in an ancient cave.  We kneel down to touch a slimy rock as millions have done before us, touching the rock in Bethlehem where God knelt down to touch the earth 2,000 years ago.  And when we do—we feel the power, we are overcome with the mysterious presence and we know why Simon Montefiore wrote that this land has become “the essential place on earth for communication between God and man.”

        Isn’t God everywhere and can’t we communicate with God anywhere we may be?  Of course we can.   And for that very reason I resisted traveling to the Holy Land for many years.   But when I did make my first journey over 20 years ago, I experienced the reality of “Sacred Space,” of what Montefiore calls “Holiness.”  

        As we sailed in a little boat on the Sea of Galilee a gentle breeze caressed my face and suddenly I was overcome with a powerful sense of contentment, fulfillment, and peace—what the Bible calls “Shalom.”  I had the strange sensation that I had been there before.  Then I realized that indeed I had been there on the Sea of Galilee my entire life.  From the time I was a small child in Sunday School, to a teenager on a mission trip, to a college student studying religion—this was my spiritual center.  I had traveled half way around the world to come home. 

        Montefiore wrote:  Many atheistic visitors are repelled by this holiness, seeing it as infectious superstition in a city suffering a pandemic of righteous bigotry. But that is to deny the profound human need for religion without which it is impossible to understand Jerusalem. Religions must explain the fragile joys and perpetual anxieties that mystify and frighten humanity: we need to sense a greater force than ourselves.”

        And that is what two dozen of your friends and neighbors recently experienced; “a greater force than ourselves,” as we traveled to the Holy Land on a pilgrimage of faith.  From a stirring sunrise over the Sea of Galilee, to the cold waters of the Jordan River rejoicing in baptisms, to the lonely and chilling pit where Jesus was held at the house of Caiaphas hours before his crucifixion, to the tomb that remains as empty today as it was 2,000 years ago, the force of life and light inspired and illuminated our dynamic pilgrimage.  And we echoed the proclamation of Jacob centuries ago, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.”

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Help Us Jesus! They're Killing Our Children!

        Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.  Some of the harshest words Jesus ever uttered were in response to someone who would hurt a child: “It would be better for a millstone to be tied around his neck and be hurled into the sea.”  Help us Jesus!   Our children are being killed and wounded in their schools, a place that used to be a safe sanctuary. 

        Yes, we do need divine help—but we need more.  We need human action!   We need elected leaders, community leaders, educators, clergy, parents, and everyday citizens to be bold and courageous by taking a stand.  And please!  For once, please!  Can we leave politics out of this?  Can we make decisions based on common sense and reason, rather than political posturing?  My God people!   They’re killing our children!  Don’t you have the guts to take off your political lenses for once and see this clearly for what it really is---cold bloodied massacres by disturbed people who have no business possessing guns.

        No parent needs to hear the news that their precious child has been shot and killed in a classroom.  No teacher needs to be forced to barricade the door and hide their class in a closet.  No coach needs to become a hero by standing in the line of fire to protect the children. 

        We live in a world full of evil and dark forces—we know this is true.  There are times that regardless of what we do, the powers of evil and darkness will result in destruction and despair.  But the light is always greater than the darkness and while we cannot eliminate the darkness we can expose it.  The greatest tragedy is that many of these senseless killings could have been prevented if the darkness had been exposed when the opportunity was there.   A depressed, confused, and dysfunctional young man should never have been able to purchase a weapon.  The fact the shooter in Florida was able to do so tells us our system is not just broken, it is in shambles. 

        Do we have a problem with guns?  Well . . . yes!  And our lawmakers need to finally have the courage to make some common sense changes to our gun laws.  Listen to the young people from Parkland High School.  Listen to the parents from Newtown.  Only responsible, stable, and mature citizens need to possess guns.

        Do we have a problem with mental health?  Well . . .yes!  We have a mental health crisis in our country that combined with the opioid crisis results in people who are walking time bombs.  This is a critical need that will require significant action.

        But the problem that we face is much greater than guns and mental health.  We have a spiritual crisis in our nation.  We have evolved into a society of winners and losers.  We speak despairingly of those who are different.  We espouse language of hatred and intolerance toward those of different faiths.  We proudly display symbols of hatred and racism.  We claim divine authority in condemning the LGBT community.   We judge the poor and needy.  We bully the weak and lonely.  We claim absolute truth while lacking compassion and mercy.   We bask in spiritual arrogance without a hint of justice or righteousness. 

        Look at the profile of these shooters.  What do you see?   Loners who have been bullied, ostracized, and rejected.   Wounded and broken people who have felt unloved and misunderstood.  Maybe if just one person had reached out . . . if one person had shown compassion, then maybe . .    .

        Help us Jesus!   They’re killing our children.  But we all must share in the blame and we all must come together and work together to find a solution.

        “If my people who are called by my name, shall humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”  2 Chronicles 7: 14.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Blessed Beyond Measure

     Through the years, I have been blessed to receive many more honors and awards than I deserve.  Each one has been special and I have always been humbled and grateful.  But two weeks ago, I received one of the greatest honors of my life when I was asked to speak at the annual NAACP Freedom Fund Banquet. The NAACP went “outside the box” as President Elder Gloria Cross stated by asking a white person to speak.  That in itself was humbling, but the greatest blessing was experiencing the power of love, acceptance, and equality that permeated the packed YMCA Banquet Hall on this memorable night. 
        I have tried to be an advocate for racial equality throughout my ministry.  But I have always realized that while I can sympathize with minorities and people of color who continue to experience discrimination and oppression, I cannot truly empathize with them, because I am a white man.  I cannot know what it is like to be black. 
        I grew up in a nice brick house on Main Street, a street two of my best friends were not allowed to walk on because it wasn’t “proper” in our little Alabama town.  My two friends lived on the other side of a path that cut through some bushes on the backside of our property.  The bushes served as a dividing line between the white side of town and the black.  At the banquet I shared what it was like to grow up “on the other side of the path.” 
        I recalled how scared I was as an 8-year old boy who witnessed people filled with anger and hatred being worked into a frenzy by George Wallace with his venomous and vitriolic rants on segregation.  I told about a store owner who grabbed me and shook me, demanding to know what I was doing with two black boys, my two good friends who lived on the other side of the path.  I remember sitting in a barber’s chair while the barber bragged about carrying a gun to church to keep the blacks out.   And then there was the school principal.
        In an effort to circumvent the federal mandate on integration, the state offered what they called “freedom of choice” to students.  Ostensibly, the student could decide where he or she wanted to go to school.  I decided I wanted to attend the “Training School” on the other side of the path.  My friends went there and it was a short walk from the path behind my house.  I confessed I failed to tell my mother about this and when I came home from school that day she was shaken, but not from my wish to attend the black school.  The principal had called her up and chewed her out, asking if she had lost her everlasting mind wanting to send her son to a ---- school!
I shared these experiences and more that night at the banquet.  I concluded by telling about standing at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. one morning.  As I reflected on the 58,000 names in front of me, my first thought was “but by the grace of God.”  Yes, my name could have easily been on that wall if I had not gone to college.  But then it hit me that it wasn’t just the grace of God that spared me; it was because I lived on the other side of the path.  My family could afford to send me to college which deferred my being drafted.  When I finished college the draft had ended and the war was winding down.  
But my friend James, who lived on the other side of the path—he could not afford college.  He went to Vietnam.  His name is on the wall.
I shared these life experiences from deep within my heart.  As I did, an amazing thing happened.  I don’t know that I have ever felt such a dynamic connection with an audience.  As I was speaking from the raw pain of my experience, people were responding from the raw pain of theirs.  The atmosphere was electric and powerful as God’s Sprit descended with love and grace and God’s people were lifted up with hearts of healing and redemption. 
I was truly blessed beyond measure!

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Other Side of the Path

            On Saturday, January 13, 2018, I received one of the greatest honors of my life when I was invited to speak at the 33rd Annual Freedom Fund Banquet of the NAACP.  In addition to honoring me as the speaker, the NAACP also presented me with a Shoaf-Crump Award for Community Service. 

            A number of people have asked me for a copy of my speech.  I don’t always use a manuscript and when I do, what I say is never exactly what is on the paper.  The stories that I share of growing up in Alabama are stories that I share from my heart and experience.  I have tried to write down the essence of the story so the reader will at least have an idea of what I was talking about.

            A manuscript cannot begin to do justice to the excitement, energy, and enthusiasm that filled the large YMCA Banquet facility that night.   For the first time ever the banquet was sold out.  When Bishop Green prayed so eloquently and powerfully for the Lord to send his Spirit—He did!  It was electric and dynamic.   The response I received from God’s people who were filled with His Spirit that night was amazing. 

            Here is a copy of my speech:

      To Elder Gloria Cross and the officers of the NAACP, to Mayor Clark and all the elected officials who join us here tonight, to Banquet Chair Lula Hairston and all the members of the Banquet Committee, to members of NAACP who are gathered here, to members of the clergy, I want you to know that from the moment Elder Cross called me months ago and extended this gracious invitation to be your speaker tonight, you have bestowed upon me one of the greatest honors of my life.  I am deeply humbled and eternally grateful.

            My friend Rosa Terry shared an overly generous and gracious introduction for which I was deeply humbled.  I wish my mother could have heard it because she would have believed it!  Rosa is always so wonderful to work with.

            I acknowledged the members of my church who were in attendance.   I was grateful for their presence.  Also, to my son, Ray Nance, my daughter-in-law Sang, and my wonderful wife Joyce of 40 years who is always by my side and I could not do the things I do without her. 

   Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God.

            It started with a pilgrimage.  Ninety-four years ago a Baptist minister named Michael went on a life-changing pilgrimage with a group of ministers to the Holy Land, where they walked in the footsteps of Jesus.   On the way home they went to Germany where they attended the 1934 meeting of the Baptist World Alliance. 

            They took a side trip to the city of Wittenberg.  There they walked in the footsteps of the great reformer of the 16th century, Martin Luther.  Michael was so deeply moved, so inspired, so convicted by the example of the great reformer who stood before the authorities and the governmental and the ecclesiastical powers and when told he must recant his views he responded.  “My soul is captive to the Word of God.  Here I stand, I can do no other!”

            This experience had such a powerful impact on Michael, that when he returned home he changed his name and the name of his 5 year old son from Michael to Martin Luther.  He was no longer Rev. Michael King, Sr, but now he was the Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr. and his son, his son Martin Luther King, Jr. became the greatest reformer of the 20th Century. 

            In a small town in Alabama in 1962 a little 8 year old boy rode his bicycle down to the L&N railroad depot to meet the afternoon train as he often did.  This afternoon the street behind the depot was packed with hundreds, maybe thousands of people.  That little boy watched as a short man in a blue suit stood up on a platform and as he started to speak people shouted and cheered and whistled.   But his words were chilling and caustic.   His words were vicious and vitriolic, they were full of anger and hatred, words that were evil and malicious, words that incited the crowd, striking the deepest recesses of their souls and appealing to their darkest fears and insecurities---

            As the people screamed and whistled and stomped their feet and pounded their fists, the little boy was scared.  He witnessed a mob mentality.  He had never seen people so angry, never seen people that vindictive, never seen people so full of hatred.  He could see the darkness enveloping him; he could feel the hatred pounding him.

            He got on his bicycle and rode away as fast he could, as he did he could hear that short man who was running for governor, a man named George Corey Wallace shouting:  “Segregation today, Segregation tomorrow, Segregation forever!”

            I was that little boy. 

I rode my bicycle back to my house.  We had a nice brick house on Main Street.  Behind my house we had a big back yard with two huge pecan trees, with a field where we played ball, and then there was a path and that path led through a lots of trees and bushes, a path that led to a different world, a path that I would often take, to the African American community in my hometown. 

            My topic this evening is “The other side of the path”  

            I would go down that path to see my dear Bess, Mabell Johnson.  I remember one hot summer day that Bess and I were sitting in the back yard shucking corn.  Bess was doing most all the shucking, and I was listening to Bess talk about life.  My mother had gone to visit somebody who had a new baby and Bess told me that people had it all mixed up.  She said we should be rejoicing when someone dies because all of the pain, the heartache, the tribulations and suffering were finally over.   That’s when we should rejoice.  She said, when a baby is born we should weep—because that child is born into a world of injustice, and trouble, and heartache, problems and pain. 

            I didn’t know what Bess was talking about.  Not then, anyway.  There were a lot of things I didn’t realize back then. I never thought about the fact that Bess was black and I was white.  I never pondered the inequity of the fact that she lived on side of the path and I lived on the other.  Even though we said she was like a member of our family, I know now that wasn’t true.  She didn’t sit down to eat with us like a family member would.  Bess didn’t go to the movies with us, she didn’t go to church with us.  I didn’t realize that it wouldn’t have been “proper.” Or in some cases illegal.  Even though my parents would never tolerate any racist remarks, Bess was still “the help.” 

        She never graduated from high school because she left school to work for my grandmother. Bess couldn’t walk down Main Street.  She couldn’t eat in the same restaurants, drink out of the same water fountain or even ride in the same seats on the bus as white people. I was welcomed at Bess’s church, but there was a man who carried a gun to our church to make sure Bess and any other person of color knew that they were not welcomed there. I remember the well-worn path behind her house that led to the outhouse.  We had two indoor bathrooms at our house before she even had one.

           In spite of all of these differences, Bess loved me and cared for me like I was her own.  And in many ways, I was.  I loved Bess and looked up to her.  She had a way of putting everything in the right perspective.  She taught me so much about life, about forgiveness, and about faith. I remember walking down to the other side of the path to visit Bess at her little house.  There were three pictures hanging on the wall:  Jesus, John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr.  I didn’t understand why she had those three pictures, but I do now.  Three men who believed in justice.  Three men who believed in equality.  Three men who gave her hope.   

       I remember a hot August day in 1963 and Bess and I were watching a special on my grandmother’s TV.  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, the man who was named for the great reformer, was speaking from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.  My small heart soared with his eloquent words of justice and equality. I remember so well Dr. King saying, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

        I wanted his dream to become my dream.  I wanted to live in a world where all the paths led to equality and not disparity, where justice rolled down waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.  I wanted to live in a nation that would live out its creed; We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.  And one day we will be free at last, free at last.   I remember Bess watching, but not saying much. 

 It was like she knew more trouble was to come.

        And that trouble came just three weeks later on a Sunday morning.   I got up and put on my little suit and went to Sunday school, where we sang Jesus loves the little children.   Four of those precious children that Jesus loved were also getting ready for church that day not far from me.   Denise, Addie Mae, Carol and Cynthia had beautiful dresses that they wore to Sunday School where their lesson was titled the Love that Forgives.  In the middle of their Sunday School lesson a bomb exploded at the 16th Street Baptist Church taking the lives of those 4 little girls. 

            In 1956, when Dr. King was pastor in Montgomery, he was at a meeting one night and someone threw a bomb into his house that could have easily killed his wife and baby.  Dr. King arrived at the house there was a huge crowd ready to burn Montgomery to the ground.  But Dr. King spoke words of calm and forgiveness.   He said, We must love our enemies.  We must meet hate with love.

                        "Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that." 

            One day I went to the other side of the path to play with my good friends Herman and James.  We always had the best time playing together.  

            One day we decided to go to town---they couldn’t walk down Main Street. It wasn’t proper.    Store owner grabbed me and shook me and shouted in my face, “Little Howell, what are you doing hanging around with those little N boys. Wait until I tell your father—he will straighten you out!”   

            Barber Shop---the barber bragged about caring a gun to church to keep the N out, since he had a straight razor at the back of my neck, I just listened, but I could see the darkness enveloping   me, I could feel the hatred pounding me.   I knew it wasn’t right---We welcomed missionaries in our church who took the Gospel to Africa, but a man had a gun to keep African-American citizens out of our church—that is not right.  

            Freedom of Choice—In 1964 in an effort to circumvent the federal order to desegregate the schools, George Wallace instituted a “freedom of choice” program where each student could decide where he or she wanted to attend school.  According to historical reports, only a handful of black students requested a white school and no white students wanted to attend a black school.  But that was wrong.

            There was one.

            The day they handed us the paper I started thinking about where I wanted to go to school the next year.  It made perfect sense to me to attend the “Training School” that was black.  My friends, Herman and James, went there, Bess was next door, it was a short walk and I would not have to ride the bus.  To me it made perfect sense.

            There is one minor thing I should mention.  I forgot to get my mother to sign the form.  The next day I turned it in, signing her name on it.   When I got home that afternoon my mother was shaken—but not because of what I had done.   She had received a phone call that day from the principal asking her if she had lost her everlasting mind!   “What do you mean sending your son that that N school!”  he screamed.  He can’t get an education there!”  He went on to chew her out in royal fashion and told her there was no way I was going to attend that N school.  (She did tell me I should have told her what I planned to do.)

            April 9, 1968 was the only time I ever saw Bess cry.  Sitting in front of the TV at my grandmother’s house—watching Dr. King’s funeral.  I watched Bess use her apron to wipe her tears and I thought about those 3 pictures, three men who fought for justice, freedom, all three dead---and I watched Bess wipe the tears than ran down her face.  And then she walked home to the other side of the path.

            Our high school eventually integrated but we did not have an issue, primarily because we won the state basketball championship.  Everybody was happy!

            One week before my HS graduation, the short man who spoke words of evil and darkness was shot, he was paralyzed and in pain the rest of his life.

            I graduated from HS and went to college.  James graduated from HS and went to Vietnam. 

            Working in a church in LA (lower Alabama)  A lady told me one day she wanted to talk to me about her father.  I did not know she was George Wallace’s daughter.  She said the man who shouted those words about segregation and the man who spoke such evil was not her father.  Deep down inside he is a good man, a loving and forgiving man, she told me.   George Wallace actually ran for governor in 1958 with the endorsement of the NAACP.  Then he sold his soul to the devil.   She told me about that Sunday in 1963 when the little girls had been killed.  About how deeply that affected him—but he did change.   The next year he stood in the schoolhouse door to prevent a black student from enrolling in the University of Alabama. 

Words are nothing more than words, until they are incarnated into action.

            But then he was shot, then he was in pain, then he was suffering.  And he found his soul that he had lost years before for political gain.

            Suffering from his assassination attempt, George Wallace spent every Sunday going to churches asking for forgiveness.  1982 he was elected Gov of the State of Alabama for the final time.  The racists, the segregationists, the haters, the bigots, had all turned against him.  But George Wallace received over 90% of the black vote and was elected Governor for a fourth term.

       In 1995 on the 30th anniversary of the Selma march, he welcomed the marchers to Montgomery with open arms, and one by one as the marchers came and they hugged the former Gov. he whispered, please forgive me, please forgive me, I love you.

               Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.

            A number of years ago I went to DC for a conference.  I got up early in the morning and went to the Lincoln Memorial.  I stood on the very place where Dr. King with power and eloquence articulated his dream for all to hear. 

            Then I walked down to the Vietnam Memorial.  I stood there, all alone, looking at the 58,000 names on the wall.  My first thought was, but by the grace of God. . .   my name could have easily been on that wall.  If I had not gone to college after high school graduation, I would have been drafted.  But then I realized that it wasn’t just the grace of God that kept my name off of that wall, it was because I lived on the other side of the path.  You see, my friend James, his name is on that wall, because he lived on the other side of the path.  James could not afford to go to college, he went to Vietnam.  He could not walk down Main Street in his hometown but he could give his life for his county.  He died for his country because he lived on the other side of the path.

            As I was standing there I recalled the words of Dr. King, “            In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”

I made a commitment that day—a commitment to God, a commitment to justice and righteousness and a commitment to my friend James, that I will not be silent.  I will not be silent until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

I thought about that frightening scene when I was 8, I cannot be silent.

 I thought of Bess wiping her tears with her apron and I knew I could not be silent. 

   I thought of that school principal who asked my mother if she had lost her mind, and I cannot be silent.

    I thought of that usher who carried a gun to church to keep people out of the house of God and I cannot be silent. 

       George Wallace’s daughter remained quiet, in the background, until one day she was in Atlanta with her young son and she took him to the King Center, he was looking a pictures of the racial unrest of the 60s.  He saw pictures of men and women being beaten by police, of dogs and fire hoses turned on innocent citizens and he looked at his mother and asked, “Why did Papa do those things”  

            She looked at her son and said, “Papa was wrong.  But we must work to make it right.”

    Last year, much publicized 50th anniversary of the march, when the marchers reached Montgomery, George Wallace’s daughter and there holding hands with MLK’s daughter Bernice to welcome the marchers.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.

            Dear friends as long as there is injustice, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  We cannot be silent.

            As long as we hear words from our elected leaders that are chilling and caustic, vicious and vitriolic: words full of anger and hatred, words that are evil and malicious—we cannot be silent.

            Let us open our mouths and speak up! 

            We cannot be silent.   

   Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God.

   Here is the report of the event in the Dispatch:   

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Let's Keep Christmas All Year!

Think Christmas is over?  I hope not.  

        We landed in Athens, Greece one year on January 6.  We had heard stories of traffic gridlock in Athens, but on this day the streets were almost empty.  What was going on?  It was Christmas!  Greece and most of the Eastern Orthodox countries don’t observe Christmas on December 25, but January 6 or 7.   

        The birth of Jesus was not even observed in the early church.  The focus was on his death and resurrection and with good reason.  The gospel writers devoted approximately one-third of their writings to the final week in the life of Jesus.  The cross and resurrection are at the very heart of our understanding of the Christian faith.  Two of the four gospels say nothing at all about the Nativity.  Since the crucifixion occurred during Passover, the church knew when to observe it each year.   No one knows when Jesus was actually born, but it wasn’t on December 25 or January 6.  No good shepherd would have his flocks abiding in the fields on a cold winter night. 

        When the Roman Emperor Constantine became a Christian, the date of December 25 was selected to celebrate the birth of the savior.  The Romans already had a big celebration named Saturnalia (for the Roman God Saturn) that was held to celebrate the Winter Solstice that they thought was December 25.   It became a natural time to celebrate the birth of God’s only son.

        When the Gregorian calendar was developed, Orthodox churches refused to change from the old Julian calendar.  December 25 on the old Julian calendar is January 6 or 7 on the Gregorian calendar, which is why Christmas is celebrated later in Greece and other Eastern countries.  Hence we have the 12 days of Christmas with a partridge in a pear tree.

        Why stop with 12 days of Christmas?  What if we kept the Christmas spirit of love, kindness, and giving all year?  One of the greatest preachers of the 20th Century, Dr. Peter Marshall, suggested keeping Christmas in a 1950 sermon that we would say today, “went viral.”

        Dr. Marshall with his spell-bounding Scottish brogue proclaimed:  “I thank God for Christmas.  Would that it lasted all year!  For I have observed that at Christmas all the world is a better place, and men and women are move loveable.  Love itself seeps into every heart, and miracles happen.” 

        In this epic sermon Peter Marshall addresses the “sophistication” that says Christmas belongs only to children.  He says, “The older you get, the more it means, if you know what it means.  Christmas, though forever young, grows old along with us.” 

        He concluded his powerful sermon with the challenge to keep Christmas all year.  “So we will not “spend” Christmas or “observe” Christmas.   We will “keep” Christmas in our hearts that we may be kept in its hope.”

        That may be the best New Year’s resolution of all, to keep Christmas all year.  Keep the spirit of generous giving, keep the spirit of kindness, keep the spirit of peace and reconciliation.  My prayer for 2018 is that the spirit of Christmas, the spirit of Christ, will fill us with faith, hope, and love.   Let’s keep Christmas all year!

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Called To Preach: Forty Years and Counting

        Forty years ago this month I listened to the words from the prophet Jeremiah: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you to be a prophet.”  From the time I was sixteen years old I never had any doubt that God was calling me to be a preacher.  People have asked me how I could know, how could I be certain.  Did I hear a voice? 

        No, I never heard a voice.  It was much louder than that.  It was in my DNA, it is who I am. 

        This calling became official in December of 1977 when my first church ordained me to the Gospel ministry.  Rev. Donald Myers, the retired longtime pastor of the Reidsville First Baptist Church who had been instrumental in my calling to the Pollocksville Baptist Church, delivered a heartfelt sermon in which he told the congregation not to expect me to hit a homerun every Sunday!

        I asked my father to deliver the “charge to the candidate.”  I can’t remember anything he said, but the fact my father was there was all I need to remember.  The church presented me with a Bible and congratulated me on my ordination.  I was a now a bona fide, certified, card carrying, genuine preacher!

        Four decades later with over 2,000 sermons and 500 funerals, plus hundreds of baptisms, weddings, baby dedications, hospital visits, invocations, Bible studies and blessings—I’m still going. 

        As a preacher there are a lot of things I do, and to be honest, a lot of things I could do without.  As in any job or profession there are tedious tasks that come with the territory.  I could do without a lot of the administrative work, meetings, scheduling, and especially listening to complaints.  But I cannot do without preaching.  It is who I am. 

        A lot of people, my family included, told me I should not preach the Sunday before Thanksgiving.  They were concerned with good reason because I had just had gall bladder surgery three days before.  But I told them I could not miss Thanksgiving Sunday.  I had even more reason to be thankful and I wanted to deliver a sermon on gratitude, and that is exactly what I did.  I wasn’t trying to prove a point or be heroic—take my gall bladder out but don’t take away my preaching!   That is who I am!

        I find complete fulfillment in sharing good news.  The word “Gospel” means, “good news.”  When I was in college I had a kindly religion professor, Dr. Mabry Lunceford, who constantly reminded us that “preaching is good news!”  We have the greatest possible news to share:  hope in the midst of despair, light in the midst of darkness, and even life in the midst of death.   “Why should you be negative,” Dr. Lunceford would ask, “when the Gospel is good news?” 

        In most denominations there is an ordination council that determines whether one can be ordained or not.  There was one member of my ordination council who voted against me.   This old Baptist preacher was an advocate of closed communion.  He believed in an exclusive Gospel and asked me if I thought Baptists should share communion with other denominations.  The question seems tame today, but it was a highly charged issue for him 40 years ago. 

        My answer was that it is the Lord ’s table, not mine, and I would be honored to share communion with whoever the Lord invites to his table.  Well, he didn’t like it and pitched a hissy fit right there in front of God, me, the entire council and the heavenly host.  They finally asked me to leave the room so they could calm him down.  He voted against me, but the rest of the council voted in the affirmative.

        That is one negative vote I am proud to have earned.  If I want to be remembered for anything it is that I preached an inclusive Gospel of love, forgiveness, acceptance and grace.  The Gospel is good news!  For everyone!   I’ve only had forty years to share it—I hope to have many more, because I was called to be a preacher!

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Taking Care of Momma

      On a hot summer morning an old, green pickup truck pulled into the parking lot of the funeral home in LA (lower Alabama).  Larry looked out the window and said, “Well, I declare.  There’s old Chess.  I haven’t seen him in ages.”

        Chess was a tall, lanky farmer dressed in overalls.   He slowly got out of the pickup and made his way to the front door where Larry greeted him.

        “It’s a sad day, Larry,” he said.  “Momma died last night.”

        “I’m sorry Chess.  She’s been sick for a while, hasn’t she?”

        “Long time, Larry.  Long time.  It’s a blessing.  She’s not suffering anymore.” 

        Larry had known Chess for years and his compassion was genuine.  He waited as Chess pulled a red handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his eyes.  After a moment Larry said, “Chess, tell me where Momma is and we will go pick her up.”

        “I didn’t want to bother you with that,” Chess said.  “You know how far out the farm is.  I brought Momma in.  She’s in the truck.” 

        Larry and I rolled the stretcher out to the pickup and sure enough, there was Momma.  She still had her nightclothes on and Chess have carefully wrapped her in a sheet.  We gently picked her up and rolled her into the funeral home as Chess watched.

        Chess had been taking care of Momma for years as her health declined.  When she died, driving Momma to the funeral home seemed like the natural thing to do for this old, country farmer.  He took care of Momma all the way to the end. 

        Taking care of Momma is something a lot of us have been doing.  As we get older we need to be thinking about the day when our children may be taking care of us.  There are several things we can do to make this easier.

        The most important thing is to talk about these issues.  If I am incapacitated and not capable of making decisions on my own, what do I want as I approach the end of life?  Do I want to be kept alive by every possible means?  Would I want a feeding tube?  What if my heart stops?  Do I want the doctors to attempt to resuscitate me?   Do I want to donate my organs?  What would I like for my funeral?

        As my mother is suffering from Alzheimer’s, my brother and I have talked about these issues.  We have been to the funeral home and planned her funeral.  We have DNR orders (Do Not Resuscitate), and my brother is the healthcare power of attorney. 

        One of the greatest gifts you can give to your children is to make end of life decisions while you can.   These include Advance Directives, Living Will and Health Care Power of Attorney, Medical Orders for Scope of Treatment (MOST), DNR orders, organ donation, and funeral plans. 

        Many attorneys specialize in Advance Directives, but these forms are also available online.  Your doctor and our healthcare systems all are willing to talk with you about these decisions.  Our funeral homes are always ready to work with you on final arrangements.  And as a minister, I have always appreciated those who have shared their final wishes with me. 

        The Bible says there is a time to be born and a time to die.  Sadly, I see many people who are living past their time to die.  They are not really living, but their bodies are still functioning through artificial means.  I don’t think anyone wants to exist this way.  In most of these cases Advance Directives were not made and the family was left making the difficult and heart-wrenching decision of what to do with Momma. 

        Chess took care of Momma to the end.  It was the natural thing for him to do.  We can take care of Momma and take care of our children by planning ahead.  It’s the natural thing to do! 



Thursday, November 2, 2017

Holy Wisdom Under the Tuscan Sky

The view was stunning: the entire experience surreal.  In a moment that will be forever frozen in time, I heard words of wisdom that will last a lifetime.
        In the beautiful, rolling Tuscan hills south of Florence in Italy, there is a little town on the top a hill that looks like it belongs in a fairy tale.  The Medieval City of San Gimignano was once one of the most powerful and wealthy cities in Italy.  The walled city can be seen from miles in every direction, as all medieval cities were elevated for defensive purposes.  It rests on an ancient Etruscan road, later a Roman Road, used by Peter and Paul, and then it became one of the most important pilgrims’ roads that led all the way from Canterbury, England to Rome, the Via Francigena.
        In medieval times rich families would build towers to display their wealth, the more money you had, the taller the tower.  At one point there were 72 towers in San Gimignano, including two identical twin towers that the architects of the Twin Towers in New York City studied.  Today there are 14 towers remaining.  From a distance, the towers rising from the walled city give the appearance of a fairy tale castle. One of those towers belongs to a friend of ours, a charismatic, charming man by the name of Pierluigi Giachi. 
        A number of years ago a large group of folks from Lexington traveled to Italy.  We covered that exotic country from the gorgeous lake country in the north to the ruins of Pompeii in the south.  The trip had many amazing highlights, but no one will ever forget visiting a lovely Tuscan winery and meeting Pierluigi.  He charmed the ladies, he entertained the men, and we left feeling like family.  Joyce and I found Pierluigi when we returned to Italy in 2010 and he welcomed us like long lost friends.
        Last month with a small group of friends we reconnected with Pierluigi.  This time he invited us into his home which resides in a 1400 year old tower in San Gimignano.  After socializing on a gorgeous terrace overlooking the valley below, he invited us to climb to the top of the tower. 
        Someone has said, “Life is not measured by the breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.”  This was one of those moments.  As I stood on top of the tower, surrounded by indescribable beauty, listening as my magnanimous friend regaled us with his story, I recalled the happy experience, the laughter and delight we enjoyed the first time we met this consummate Italian.  And then I remembered three dear friends who shared that experience with us years ago:  Bob and Marge Team and Bill Delapp. 
        I told Pierluigi how special moments like this were and shared with him that three of our close friends who were with us on the first trip had passed away.  He paused for a moment as he processed my words.  What happened next can only be described as “Hagia Sophia” (Holy Wisdom).
        Looking at me with tears in his eyes he said, “Ray, we all live under the sky.  Every day is a gift.  We must “Carpe Diem” –Seize the Day!” 
        Wow!  His profound words are still reverberating through my mind and heart.  I will never forget what he said and I hope I will incarnate his words into my life each day.  I can seize the day by living a life of gratitude, generosity, and service.  I can be positive when others are negative.  I can be redemptive when others are judgmental.  I can be kind when others are cruel. 

        We are all children of God, we all live under the sky.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Like Stepping Back In Time

It’s like stepping back in time.  Back to a simpler way of life, before computers, before smart phones, before ipads and ipods and even before television.   It is stepping back into the real world with cows and horses, chickens and rabbits, tomatoes and pumpkins, pies and cakes, quilts and cross stitch, woodworking and painting.  It’s blue ribbons, drawing for bicycles, and listening to local bands.  It’s fireworks and the dazzling lights of the midway.  It’s Polish sausage with peppers and onions, country ham, candied apples, ice cream, and cotton candy.  It’s the 72nd annual edition of the Davidson County Agricultural Fair and it starts on September 18. 

        I love the fair.  Beyond the sights and sounds, beyond the enticing aromas and exciting events such as Senior Citizen Thursday, the Davidson County Beauty Pageant, the livestock shows, and the Diaper Derby, it is just the experience of returning to a simpler way of life where you greet your neighbors face to face rather than on Facebook.  It’s all about having some good, old-fashioned fun and indulging in a tempting slice of authentic Americana. 

        There is another reason, a deeper reason that I love the fair.  It’s about helping other people.  The Lexington Kiwanis Club sponsors the fair to provide the revenue to help children in Davidson County. 

        Each summer approximately 180 deserving children who have been selected by the Department of Social Services experience a week of summer camp that costs their family nothing.  All of these children will have a great week of activity and fun, but the camp means even more to some.  Kamp Kiwanis is a safe haven, a reprieve from the hard life that many of these children live each day.  These children are fed, loved, encouraged and protected at camp.  For many it is the highlight of their year.

        Kamp Kiwanis started almost 90 years ago, back in 1928.  From the beginning it was an expensive endeavor.  In 1945 the club was granted permission to sponsor the annual agricultural fair to generate the funds needed to run the camp.  Seventy-two years later we are still sponsoring the fair to provide the needed revenue for Kamp Kiwanis.

        When the members of the Kiwanis Club visit the camp in the summer, the children are eager to thank us and tell us what they love the most.  I will never forget one little boy with the biggest smile whose face was smeared with icing asking me, “Are you a Kiwanzian?”  I thought about it for just a moment before quickly responding, “Yes.  Yes I am a Kiwanzian!”  The little fellow looked at me with the most sincere expression and said, “I sure do thank you for all this good stuff.”

        One little girl told me she loved Kamp Kiwanis more than Christmas, because “I don’t get anything at Christmas.”  Another girl said “they give a lot of hugs,” (hugs she did not get at home) and another said, “I think about it all the time.  When is this day going to come?”

        But the most poignant reminders of the importance of our camp are the children who come to camp hungry.   One little boy ate three plates of food the first night at camp as he shared he had not eaten in two days.  This is why you will see the dedicated members of the Kiwanis Club parking cars and selling gate tickets at the fair.  This is why we love the fair.  

        When you visit the Davidson County Fair, step into the fair office and see a picture that was drawn by a little girl.  It is a simple drawing of a dinner plate.  She wrote, “The thing I like the best about Kamp Kiwanis is that I get three meals a day.”  Kamp Kiwanis provides food, shelter, love and encouragement to children who need it the most—It’s like stepping back in time.

        The Davidson County Fair is September 18 – 23 and I will be working the gate or I will be on the PA.  I hope to see you at the Fair!