Wednesday, July 11, 2018

We Witnessed Human Compassion at Its Very Best

        The news flashes came quickly last Tuesday.  It was the Breaking News the world was anxiously waiting to hear that rapidly became headlines in papers, large and small, around the globe.  It had nothing to do with politics, or NATO, or war, or natural disasters, or the naming of a Supreme Court nominee.  Twelve boys and their coach were miraculously rescued after being trapped in a cave for almost three weeks.  And the world rejoiced!

        Seldom has one isolated event brought the entire world together with such unifying passion.  The first we heard of this incident was when the news came that a youth soccer team from Thailand had become lost in a cave and it did not look like they would be found.  Immediately our hearts went out to those boys and their families.  We could only imagine how frightened they must be in that dark, desolate world.  We felt the overwhelming sense of panic and loss that their parents must be experiencing.  Then came the amazing news that all of the boys had been found, alive!  But the celebratory mood quickly faded when we heard that getting them out was going to be next to impossible. 

        What happened over the next few days has been described as a miracle, as “Mission Impossible, as the “Apollo 13 of Cave Rescues.”  Officials said the complexity, scale, and risk of the operation was unprecedented.  It involved hundreds of experts from all over the world.  Dozens of courageous Navy SEALs risked their lives and one former Thai SEAL died.  Billionaire Elon Musk sent an engineering team and even offered a mini-submarine.  The rescue effort drew on global expertise in areas ranging from diving, to medicine, to logistics, to child nutrition.

        Isn’t it amazing that the entire world was willing to come to rescue these boys?  No one seemed to be counting the cost.  No one was concerned about the boys’ religious faith, their ethnicity, or their parents’ political views.  We witnessed human compassion at its very best.  The writer Frederick Buechner said, “Compassion is the feeling of what it is like to live inside somebody else’s skin.  It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.”  

        When we heard this troubling news, we put ourselves in the cave with those boys.  Our hearts were beating with those parents’ hearts, even though we live half-way around the world.  And we were praying for a miracle.

        I assume these boys are Buddhists.  In one of the early reports, I read that a group of Buddhists Monks were at the cave, praying for the boys. But they were not the only ones praying.  Prayers were offered in evangelical churches, in mosques, in synagogues, and also by the Pope.  With the entire world of faith, every faith, united in prayer, a true miracle was the result.  The predicted Monsoon rains held off, the divers and rescue workers accomplished the impossible, the water levels in the cave remained low, and every boy and the coach came out alive.  And just as the last boys were carried out of the cave, the pumps failed and the water levels rose dramatically to add an Indiana Jones type ending to this riveting drama. 

        A miracle?  I would say so.

        But the greatest lesson is what this tells us about ourselves.  We really do care about our fellow human beings.  In a world that is full of hatred, intolerance, and division, most people have a sense of compassion and decency deep within.  If only we could see all the children who are in danger with the same compassion—those who are hungry, those who are victims of abuse, those who are neglected, and those who are not loved. 

        Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: “We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”  When we learn to do this, we become more like Jesus.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

My Father's Sermon

        Every now and then someone will ask me if my father was a preacher.  No he wasn’t—he was a Sunday School teacher, a deacon, a faithful church leader, but he was not a preacher.  However, my father did preach a sermon one time and I remember it well.

        Our church had an annual Layman’s Sunday.  The men led the worship service, filled the choir, offered prayers and Scripture readings.  One man was selected to preach the sermon.  They asked my daddy to preach one year on that special day.  Even though I was very small, only seven or eight, I remember the sermon very well.  I remember it because he talked about me!

        He told the story of taking the family to an amusement park in Birmingham.  As we were leaving the park, I got lost.  I vividly remember that frightening experience.  I recall realizing that I was lost and crying hysterically.  A kind lady saw me and tried to calm me down, telling me not to worry because she would stay with me until I found my family.  My sister found me.  While I was fearful I would be in trouble for being lost, I remember my daddy picking me up and squeezing me with delight because of his joy. 

        When daddy told this story as part of his sermon that Sunday, I wasn’t very happy.  I was embarrassed by the incident and never expected it to be broadcast to the entire church.  I told my daddy I didn’t like him telling that story, but he said he did so to show how happy God, our heavenly father is when he finds his children who have lost their way. 

        The story had become a distant memory until last summer.  My mother is confined to a nursing home and my brother and I were cleaning out her house.  My brother found some old notebook paper and said, “You might be interested in this.”   There were sixteen handwritten pages, held together with a rusted paperclip.  I was holding the manuscript of my father’s sermon that he had written in cursive with a pencil. 

        My father started his sermon by calling out the men who convinced him to preach saying, “They will probably have to hold me up because I’ll be so afraid.”  He went on to talk about how he became a Christian saying, “I was brought to Christ through the influence of my Christian parents.”  I found this statement fascinating because daddy’s father died when he was six and he was raised by his aunt and uncle.  But he called them “his parents.”  He also shared what a positive witness the church had been in his life,  “This church has given me the opportunity to do something for God and thereby to grow as a Christian.” 

        He gave several examples of laymen who had made significant contributions for the cause of Christ.  Then, as his sermon came to a close---there it was---the story that I didn’t want my father to tell.  The story was almost exactly as I remember after all these years, but there was something in the manuscript that I did not remember at all.  I’m Ray III.  My daddy was Ray Jr.  But he often called me Buddy or Buddy Boy.  No one else ever called me by that name.  When my daddy called me Buddy, I knew that everything was all right.  It was a name of love and endearment. 

        When he told the story in his sermon, he called me Buddy.  He told the church that when they found Buddy, “I can’t describe to you the joy we felt. We were all tremendously happy.”  He closed his sermon by inviting people to come to Christ saying, “He will be even happier to have you come to him than we were to get Buddy back.”

        Daddy died 20 years ago. Sunday is Father’s Day.  I miss him.  But I know one day I will experience indescribable joy when I find him in heaven and hear him say “Buddy Boy” welcome home!  I know because I heard a sermon many years ago—and my daddy was the preacher.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

They Deserve Better

         This past Wednesday approximately 20,000 educators from across North Carolina gathered in Raleigh on a rainy day for a “March for Students and Rally for Respect.”  This was the largest political rally by teachers in North Carolina’s history.  The importance of education was proclaimed loud and clear.  I applaud their actions. 
        The story of our nation’s founding is filled with many recognizable names:  Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Patrick Henry, George Washington, John Hancock, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, and many more.   But mention William Small and most Americans don’t have a clue who you are talking about.  He didn’t serve in the Continental Congress or write the Declaration of Independence, but his student did.  And Thomas Jefferson was quick to say that it was Dr. William Small, his mentor and professor at William and Mary, who “probably fixed the destinies of my life.”  He said Small was like a father to him and for “his enlightened and affectionate guidance of my studies while at college I am indebted for everything.”  
        For every Thomas Jefferson there is a William Small.  For every great leader there are dedicated teachers who have been influential and transformational; teachers who have recognized great potential, providing affirmation and guidance as they have gifted their students with the resources to discover their God-given greatness.
        I probably would have never been a public speaker without the persistent guidance and encouragement of my 3rd Grade teacher along with my grandmother and great-aunt, both of whom were retired educators.  They drilled me on the art of public speaking, helping me to work through a speech impediment, instilling confidence and courage with each speech I delivered to my class.  Even though I was assigned an inordinate number of speeches compared to the rest of the class, those 3rd Grade orations provided the foundation of every speech and sermon I have ever delivered.
        I am grateful to my 6th Grade teacher for helping me to believe that I could be anything I wanted to be.  My 10th and 12th Grade English teachers opened the doors to creativity in writing and speaking.  My New Testament professor in college opened my eyes to a new world of Biblical interpretation as I came to realize that I didn’t learn everything there was to know about the Bible in Sunday School.  My Philosophy professor taught me that a minister of the Gospel should be filled with kindness, humility, and respect for all.  My seminary professors challenged me and demanded more of me than I thought possible.  I learned how to love God with all of my mind.  The intellectual disciplines were liberating, and the truth did indeed set me free.
        The eloquent wordsmith of the Declaration of Independence was convinced that the education of the common people was foundational to the security of a free society—and not just the education of the wealthy and the elite.  He believed that nothing was more important in government than providing an education for all citizens, “from the richest to the poorest.”  I have no doubt that Thomas Jefferson would have approved of the rally in Raleigh on Wednesday.  
        The Apostle Paul said we must “study to show ourselves approved of God.”  But how shall we study without a teacher?  And how shall they teach unless they have adequate resources?  And how shall we provide the resources unless we are committed to education?
        Public education must be a top priority for our state and our nation.  It is not right that teachers have to pay for classroom supplies and snacks out of their own pockets.  Teachers are gifted professionals who have answered a calling to lead their students on a pilgrimage of truth and discovery.  They deserve better.  

Friday, April 13, 2018

The Heartbeat of Lexington

Where would you think the heart of our fair city is found?  Is it the Square with the monuments and the majestic old courthouse?  Is it the business district with charming old buildings and inviting shops?  Or would you say the heart of our city is found in our spiritual homes, our churches?  Considering the fact that I am a preacher and this is my blog, you know my answer.  And if the churches are the heart of our city, where is the heartbeat? 

        Five of our downtown churches are clustered together between 3rd and 5th Avenues.  Nestled between these churches you will find one of the greatest blessings in our town, the J. Smith Young YMCA.  If our churches are the heart, the YMCA is the heartbeat—both symbolically and in many cases, quite literally. 

        I love the YMCA.  When I first moved to town I felt like God was trying to tell me something by placing the YMCA right next door to my church.  Even today when I pull into our parking lot and see that great old gymnasium, I feel a tinge of guilt if I haven’t taken time to work out at the Y in a while.  Well, it’s more than a tinge—it’s a slap in the face.  “There it is!  All you have to do is get off your (insert King James word for donkey) and walk across the street and do something about it!”  I get the message!

        Our Y is unique in many ways.  We have a huge gymnasium that used to host college basketball tournaments, Saturday night “wrastling,” and Elvis!  There is the vintage bowling alley, the food services, a beautiful event center that serves as a community gathering place, and what’s not to love about our world class natatorium named in memory of a true hometown hero, Josh Harris.   We also have first-class fitness equipment and a dedicated and trained staff eager to help us keep our heartbeats strong and sure.          

        But the Y is so much more.  When Gene Klump became the CEO he said he wanted to emphasize the C in YMCA.  First and foremost, the Y is a Christian organization.  There is a beautiful chapel when you walk into the front door, a prayer request board downstairs, an inspirational thought of the day, an annual prayer breakfast, and one of the highlights of my week is the men’s Bible Study that meets every Thursday morning at 7 a.m. 

I see the Y as an extension of our church’s ministry.  The Y provides many different programs for children and youth—after-school programs, summer day camps, teen programs, and leadership development.  No one is denied access because of financial hardship.  Scholarships are available thanks to the generosity of local citizens and the United Way of Davidson County.  

The Y enables us as individuals to keep ourselves physically fit.  Physical fitness is a spiritual discipline.  Our body is a gift from God and we have a sacred responsibility to keep our body healthy so that we can serve God with all of our heart, mind, and strength! 

Our community is a much healthier one because of the Y, and not just in the physical sense.  The Y provides the heartbeat, bringing diverse people together in community, touching the lives of children and young people, giving senior citizens the resources to stay active, and encouraging all of us to be the best God has called us to be, as we build healthy spirits, minds, and bodies.  And through our support and involvement in the Y, we help maintain this remarkable facility for everyone in our community to enjoy. 

God bless the YMCA—the heartbeat of our community!

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!