Wednesday, May 12, 2021

The Epidemic that Saved the Nation

 In April of 1793, George Washington was just beginning his second term as President when Edmond-Charles Genet arrived in Charleston as the new French Ambassador.  “Citizen Genet” came bearing the news that King Louis XVI had been executed and France had declared war on Great Britain.   His arrival was the beginning of a tempest that would threaten the very foundation of the young nation that was still searching to find its identity. 


Genet was a charismatic, power-hungry, cunning, and narcissistic man who completely ignored diplomatic protocol and courtesy.  While George Washington was determined to keep the United States out of the French conflict, the impetuous Frenchman ignored the President and made direct appeals to the American people.  He was issuing demands to American ships to make war against British shipping.  He was espousing conspiracy theories designed to persuade the public to strong-arm President Washington to change policy.  


He knew how to fire up a crowd and by early summer of 1793 the American pot was about to boil over.  The uproar was creating a deep divide within the people and also in the government, exacerbating the already deep fissures between Washington’s Federalists and Jefferson’s Republicans.  Hundreds, and even thousands of raucous people were protesting in front of the President’s house in Philadelphia, threatening to drag Washington out of his house and start a new revolution if he did not take up the French cause.


Vice-President John Adams borrowed muskets from the War Department to defend his house amidst the turmoil and wrote: “I am really apprehensive that if our people cannot be persuaded to be more decent, they will draw down calamities upon our country, that will weaken us to such a degree that we shall not recover.”

As the protests grew larger and more violent, Washington, Federalists, and increasing numbers of Republicans were fearful that the protests were spiraling out of control.  The bold experiment in a Constitutional Republic was in danger of dissolving.  

Then came the Yellow Fever.  

The city of Philadelphia, the temporary seat of the Federal Government, lost over 10% of its citizens, over 5,000 died from this terrible outbreak.  It was one of the most severe and deadly epidemics in American history.  

No one knew what caused the Yellow Fever in 1793.  It is a repugnant and horrific disease. It would be over 100 years before Dr. Walter Reed would make the connection between Yellow Fever and mosquitos.  But what people did know was that they needed to flee the city to avoid the disease.  And that is what thousands did, including the entire federal government.  

Dr. Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, stayed in the city to treat the sick.  Even though he didn’t understand the causes of the disease (he thought it was bad air in the city), his presence gave hope and comfort to many.

The epidemic not only stopped the protests, but it did something else.  It unified the divided government.  Once cold weather hit, the Yellow Fever disappeared because the mosquitos were gone.   But the life and death struggle of the virus and the time away from Philadelphia gave all government leaders time to reflect on what was truly important.  When Congress did meet again in December, there was a different attitude of respect and trust.  

Years later John Adams reflected on the events of 1793 and wrote to Thomas Jefferson, “The coolest and firmest minds have given their opinions to me, that nothing but the Yellow Fever could have saved the United States from a total revolution of government.”

Did the Yellow Favor save our nation?  Well, if it didn’t save our nation it certainly was a wake-up call for a country that was in danger of falling apart due to intense polarization.  Dr. James Roger Sharp, Professor Emeritus in History from Syracuse University makes this observation:

“This polarization, in 1793 as well as today, rejects one essential aspect of a democratic society: a belief in the legitimacy of a loyal opposition. To view one’s opponents as disloyal and not to be trusted eats at the very heart of a representative republic. There must be an underlying consensus between the major parties that despite differences, major and minor, there is an acceptance of your opponent as ultimately loyal and supportive of the Constitution and the republic. Without this acceptance, the traditional two-party system that we are accustomed to cannot function.”

On the fa├žade of the National Archives in Washington, D.C. are the inscribed words: “The Past is Prologue.”  It is so very true.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Funerals and Sea Monsters

 Did you see the funeral?


Whose funeral?


The funeral of the late most Illustrious and most Exalted Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, Earl of Merioneth and Baron Greenwich, Knight of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, Knight of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle, Member of the Order of Merit, Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order upon whom had been conferred the Royal Victorian Chain, Grand Master and Knight Grand Cross of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, Lord High Admiral of the United Kingdom, One of Her Majesty's Most Honourable Privy Council, Admiral of the Fleet, Field Marshal in the Army and Marshal of the Royal Air Force, Husband of Her Most Excellent Majesty Elizabeth the Second by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories, Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, Sovereign of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, whom may God preserve and bless with long life, health and honour and all worldly happiness.


Ohhh!   That funeral!


Millions of people around the world were captivated by the funeral service on April 10 for the late Prince Philip with all of his illustrious titles.  The service was steeped in tradition and was conducted with great British formality and dignity by both the Dean of Windsor and the Archbishop of Canterbury who is the Senior Bishop and the principal leader of the church.  Queen Elizabeth, as the Royal Sovereign, is the actual head of the Church of England.  Her official title is the Supreme Governor of the church and as is noted above, she is also the “Defender of the Faith.”  Both of these titles date back to the reign of Henry VIII. 

When Henry VIII denounced Martin Luther as a heretic, a grateful Pope, Leo X, responded by giving him the title of “Defender of the Faith.”  As we all know, Henry VIII lost favor with the Pope when he asked for a divorce.  When the Pope denied his request, the King responded by renouncing the spiritual authority of the Papacy, proclaiming himself in 1534 as the “supreme head on earth” of the Church of England.  And he decided to keep the title, Defender of the Faith.” 


His daughter, Queen Mary, later repealed these titles, but his other daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, reinstated them.  The titles remain to this day.  


Today’s Queen Elizabeth who just turned 95 is a very devout Christian with a deep faith who takes her role very seriously.  She is a true "Defender of the Faith" and I am sure the service of hope and faith brought her great comfort. 

The music at the funeral was stunning and most of it was selected by The Duke himself.  One selection paid homage to Prince Philip’s heritage in the Russian Orthodox Church.  He was born as the Prince of Denmark and Greece and was a descendent of the Romanovs of Russia.  Therefore, he selected an ancient Kiev chant from the Russian Orthodox liturgy named “The Russian Kontakion of the Departed.”  This moving selection expresses the sorrow of grief, but reminds us of the Christian hope of everlasting life.  “In the face of sadness, we sing Hallelujahs!”

There was a beautiful arrangement of Psalm 104 that was written at the request of Prince Philip.  It is known as the “Creation Psalm” and would be especially meaningful to a man of the sea.  Verses 25 and 26 read:  “Yonder is the sea, great and wide, which teems with things innumerable, living things both small and great.  There go the ships, and Leviathan which thou didst form to sport in it.”   

The Duke served as an officer in the Royal Navy in the Second World War and was later granted the title:  "Lord High Admiral of the United Kingdom."  This was also the reason for the first Scripture lesson from the book of Ecclesiasticus (not Ecclesiastes).  Written almost 200 years before the birth of Christ by the Jewish scribe, Ben Sira of Jerusalem, the book that is sometimes called the Wisdom of Sirach was very well known in Jesus’ day and used frequently in synagogue worship.  It was not in the Jewish canon, therefore, not in our Old Testament, but can be found in the Apocrypha.   

There are some beautiful passages in this little-known book and I have used parts of the 44th chapter in funeral services.  The passage that was used Saturday is from chapter 43.  The beautiful passage begins, “Look at the rainbow and praise him who made it.”   

It continues: “Those who sail at sea tell stories of its dangers, which astonish all who hear them.  In it are strange and marvelous creatures, all kinds of living things, and huge sea monsters.” 

So, what is all this business about sea monsters? 

Look closely at the creation account in Genesis 1.  When you get to the fifth day we read:  “So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm .  . .” (Genesis 1: 21) 


The Hebrew word that is translated “sea monsters” is tannin.  It is very close to the Babylonian word for sea monster which is tiamot.   The ancient Babylonian creation account, known as the Enuma Elis (from on high) is a story of how Marduk (the good God, symbol of life and order) does battle with Tiamot (the evil God, symbol of death and chaos).  Tiamot takes the form of a sea monster.  Marduk prevails and kills Tiamot, then cuts her dead carcass in half.  Half becomes the earth and the other half becomes the heavens.  What a story!


When you consider the fact that the book of Genesis was written during the Babylonian captivity, it makes sense that there is a reference to the sea monsters.  However, in the Biblical account, God creates the sea monsters so he has power and control over them.  This is affirmed in other passages of Scripture like Psalm 104 and Isaiah 27:1 that tells us God will slay the dragon that is in the sea.  

Talk of sea monsters may sound antiquated and imaginary, but when you consider the fact that sea monsters were the symbol of chaos in ancient times, maybe they were more than mere mythology. We have been dealing with a monster known as COVID-19.  But God has control over the sea monsters and he has control over COVID-19.  He has given us a sword to slay the COVID-19 monster.  It is called a vaccine.  


I have no doubt that the quick development of the vaccines is a miracle from on high.  Now it is up to us to roll up our sleeves and get a vaccine.  It is the only way we can slay this monster!





Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Who Is Your Favorite US President?

 “And so, Gdaddy, who is your favorite President?”

       My granddaughter, Ella Rae, is learning about the American Presidents.  It is wonderful to see her so excited about this endeavor.  She taught me that John Quincy Adams once had a pet alligator in the White House.  She has read books on many of the Presidents, including U.S. Grant, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan. I told her about hearing former President Harry Truman speak when I was a child and I showed her the invitation I received to have breakfast with “The President of the United States,” when I was invited to the National Prayer Breakfast with President Bill Clinton.  When she asked me to name my favorite President I didn’t have to ponder very long: my answer is Abraham Lincoln.

       Lincoln is at the top of most people’s list and you can justify this with two words, “Emancipation Proclamation.” From the moment Thomas Jefferson proclaimed that, “All men are created equal,” slavery was the Albatross around our nation’s neck.  Our 16th President not only ended the curse of slavery, but he preserved the Union and created a “new rebirth of freedom.” 

The threat of a national Civil War surfaced as early as the John Adams’ administration, and slavery was always the underlying cause.  It was Lincoln’s incredible sense of grace and desire for reconciliation that enabled us to remain a “United States.”  Any other leader would have exacerbated the division, but Lincoln called for binding up our nation’s wounds “with malice toward none and charity for all.”  His heartfelt belief was that we were not enemies but friends.  

       Lincoln, like an Old Testament prophet, lifted us up to the “better angels of our nature.” Historian Shelby Foote said that before the war, people would say “the United States are.”  But after the war people would say “the United States is.”  He said that sums up what the war accomplished.  We were no longer a collection of independent states, but a “United States of America”—thanks to our greatest President, Abraham Lincoln.

       I told Ella Rae that we should also think about our top five Presidents, after Lincoln of course.  Here are my top five after Lincoln, and an Honorable Mention list of five more.  They are listed chronologically, not in order of importance.  

It would be almost unthinkable to have a list of top Presidents without including George Washington.  The hero of the American Revolution found it easier to lead a war than lead a nation, but as our nation’s first President, Washington adapted, learned the art of compromise and established many important precedents as our only President to be elected unanimously, not once, but twice.  

       President Washington appointed the first cabinet, established the Supreme Court, founded the national bank, instituted the US Navy, and personally supervised the building of the nation’s permanent federal capital city on the banks of the Potomac River—the city that today bears his name.   He is the only President to personally lead troops into battle while in office.  A 1790 address to a synagogue in Rhode Island established a precedent for protecting religious liberty that persists to this day.

       Perhaps the greatest gift our first President gave to us was the way he left office.  He voluntarily relinquished his great power by stepping down after his second term.  Washington’s “Farewell Address” remains one of the most celebrated speeches in American history.  The speech, which is read in its entirety in the United States Senate every year on his birthday, warned against “the baneful effects of the Spirit of Party” and called for a focus on unity, education, and morality.  

       Thomas Jefferson would be the next name on my list, but it comes with a caveat.  The greatest accomplishment of Jefferson’s Presidency was the Louisiana Purchase.  With a stroke of a pen he more than doubled the size of our nation “from sea to shining sea.”  But the Louisiana Purchase would not have been possible without Jefferson’s nemesis and political rival, John Adams.  Adams kept us out of war with France, a war that Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party advocated with ferocity.  Our young nation may well have not survived a war with the mighty French.  But because Adams kept the peace and preserved the fledgling Republic, Jefferson was able to negotiate the greatest land deal in our nation’s history.  

       Thomas Jefferson is probably the least deserving name on my list based on his Presidency alone.  Even Jefferson did not merit his Presidency worthy enough to put on his tombstone.  But I include Jefferson for the entire corpus of his life’s work.  He was the wordsmith of the Revolution, an advocate for religious freedom, a proponent of education, the minister to France in the aftermath of the war, and our nation’s first Secretary of State.  Indeed, it was Jefferson who hosted the dinner for James Madison and Alexander Hamilton that led to the great compromise establishing the national bank and securing the federal capital in what is today, Washington, DC.  

       Therefore, Thomas Jefferson is one of my greatest Presidents, riding on the coattails of John Adams, who has earned Honorable Mention status on my list.

       The next name on my list will surprise you, Ulysses S. Grant. Not only am I a son of the South, but Grant has consistently been ranked as one of our worst Presidents.  However, we are beginning to see Grant in a new light.  There is no question that Grant’s Presidency was marked by scandal, but it was simply because this great man was too trusting and a number of unscrupulous men took advantage of him.  For years the scandals have overshadowed his enormous accomplishments.  Andrew Johnson had left the nation deeply divided, but it was Grant who first started to “bind the nation’s wounds.”  He had the heart of Lincoln and extended the olive branch to former Confederate states and soldiers.  His greatest accomplishments, that have been buried for so many years, were in civil rights.  Grant pushed for the 15th Amendment that granted African-Americans the right to vote.  He used federal troops to fight domestic terrorism against Southern blacks, particularly by the Ku Klux Klan.  If Grant’s policies had been maintained, there never would have been a Jim Crow south. 

       Grant did more for Civil Rights than any other American President before Lyndon Johnson.  Historian Ron Chernow concludes that, “Grant deserves an honored place in American history, second only to Lincoln, for what he did for the freed slaves.”  

       Two more feathers in his cap:  Grant advocated for the humane treatment of Native Americans and in 1872, Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act, making Yellowstone the nation’s first national park.  

       My next great President is the Rough Rider, Teddy Roosevelt.  He is often remembered as the first conservation minded President as he expanded the system of national parks and forests, but even greater accomplishments were in breaking up powerful business monopolies and standing up for the common worker.  

       Roosevelt was one of the most active and physically robust Presidents in history.  He had been elected Governor of New York with the aid of the state’s Republican political machine.  But once elected Roosevelt proved to be his own man, unwilling to follow the party line.  The party bosses decided to sideline him by offering him the position of Vice President under William McKinley.  As Vice President he would not have any real power, only ceremonial duties.  But McKinley was assassinated in 1901, and Roosevelt became the nation’s youngest President at the age of 42.

       Roosevelt shook up everything in Washington.  He stood up to the party bosses and became the “trust buster” as he took on the big business tycoons like J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller. 

He also believed that America should enter the world stage as a major power.  “Speaking softly and carrying a big stick” he helped Panama secede from Colombia and started construction on the Panama Canal.  He led negotiations to end the Russo-Japanese War resulting in the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.  

       The first Roosevelt greatly expanded executive power.  T.R. explained that the President was a “steward of the people,” and should take whatever action was necessary for the public good unless forbidden by law or the Constitution.  

       The last name on my list is the other Roosevelt, FDR.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt started his Presidency at one of the darkest times in our nation’s history.  But he immediately changed the mood when he proclaimed that “we have nothing to fear, but fear itself.”  Our longest serving President led us out of the Great Depression and through the Second World War.  His “fireside chats” endeared him to common citizens who looked on him as a father figure. 

       Roosevelt and Winston Churchill were the right leaders at the right time to save the world from Fascism.  They believed in the four essential human freedoms:  freedom of speech and expression, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

I could name all of his accomplishments, but I have a very personal reason for naming FDR as one of my greatest Presidents.  My maternal grandparents were dirt poor and suffering greatly in the Depression.  But when FDR created the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) as part of the New Deal, my grandfather found a job to provide for his family.  Sadly, my mother lost both of her parents by the time she was 5, but she always spoke highly of FDR because he had given her father a job when he was in a desperate situation.  The TVA was a saving grace for her family.  FDR gave them hope.

       In addition to John Adams, I have four more Presidents in my “Honorable Mention” category.  James Madison was the Father or our Constitution and survived the War of 1812, often called, “Mr. Madison’s War.”  His wife, the vivacious Dolley from North Carolina, defined the role of First Lady with her social skills, decorating and entertaining at the Executive Mansion, promoting charitable causes, and is best known for heroically saving the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington, barely escaping the invading British.  The elegant White House china purchased by Mrs. Madison is still used to this day.  

       Woodrow Wilson receives Honorable Mention.  His racist views have recently tarnished his image, but here was a man who believed in world peace.  He is still considered a hero in Geneva, Switzerland where one of the major hotels continues to bear his name.  

       I will also give an Honorable Mention to LBJ, Lyndon Baines Johnson.  He will forever be branded with Vietnam, but his Civil Rights record elevates him to great heights.  

       My final Honorable Mention goes to Ronald Reagan.  He made us proud to be Americans again.  He was instrumental in bringing down the Berlin Wall and he knew how to reach across the aisle to achieve bipartisan legislation.  

       I have one more President that I want to include.  If we had an award for the greatest former President, there would be no doubt it would go to Jimmy Carter.  No, he wasn’t the best President, but he may have been the best man to ever occupy the White House.  His moral integrity, his sense of righteousness and justice can never be questioned.  I think he understood the dynamics in the Middle East better than any other President.  

       And one final award:  the best First Lady.  Just as there is no question in my mind that Abraham Lincoln was the best President, Eleanor Roosevelt was the best First Lady.  Remarkable on many levels, she truly believed in liberty and justice for all. 

       John Adams spent the first night in what would later be known as the White House on November 1, 1800.  That night he picked up his pen and wrote a note to his wife, Abigail, who would arrive in Washington later that month.  He pronounced a benediction on the new house, praying that “none but honest and wise men shall ever rule under this roof.”

       For the most part, this has been true.  But some Presidents have risen high above the others and in my humble opinion, the ones I have named have been among the very best. 

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

The Big Lie


I found the Inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to be an inspiring event.  The call for unity and reconciliation, the appeal to the better angels of our nature, and the sincere effort to reach across the aisle and focus on the great values we all share as Americans should speak to all of us, regardless of our political alliances.  Whichever way you voted in the election, you would be hard-pressed to find fault with what we all heard and saw on January 20. 


But it didn’t take long for the big lie to surface.  Not long after Kamala Harris was sworn in as the first female vice-president in our nation’s history, social media was buzzing with the accusation that she refused to place her hand on a Bible.  A picture clearly showed that there is an object between a large brown Bible and her hand. This plays into the myth that she is anti-religious and anti-church.  But none of that is true . . . it is part of the big lie.  


I know all about the big lie because I have experienced it firsthand.  In 1979, the year I graduated from seminary, a very well-organized group of Baptist fundamentalists started to take control of our national denomination.  In order to gain popular support for their movement, they had to create a common enemy.  Since most Baptists are good, decent people who love a fried chicken dinner, they had to come up with something big to make us look bad.  


They did, they came up with a big lie.  They claimed that there were many preachers, primarily coming out of the seminaries, who did not believe the Bible.  They were on a crusade to purge our denomination of these non-Bible believing preachers which included me.  


Now, for those friends of mine who are not Baptist, you have to understand a little about my people.  If there is one thing a Baptist loves more than fried chicken, it’s the Bible.  To say a Baptist doesn’t believe the Bible is like saying a fish doesn’t believe in water.  Indeed, one of the foundational truths of being Baptist is that our authority is the Bible itself.  


Because we believe that our authority is the Bible, we do not have an official creed, or interpretation of the Bible.  Therefore, we know that people may interpret different parts of the Bible in different ways.  But that’s okay, because we also have this belief called the “Priesthood of the Believer.”  Spiritual authority does not come from ecclesiastical hierarchy, but is found in every believer’s right to interpret the Bible as he or she feels led by the Spirit.  Even though we may disagree over a certain interpretation, we continue to respect each other as valued members of the family of faith.  


The biggest problem these people had was that they didn’t like the way many of us interpreted the Bible because it wasn’t the way they interpreted the Bible.  For example, I believe in absolute equality between men and women. They don’t.  I believe that God can call a woman into ministry, just as surely as he calls men. They have a different view.


We respected their right to differ, but they decided not to respect ours . . . so they created a big lie—that we did not believe the Bible.  The big lie served them well.  


In the 1980s I was serving on the Board of Directors for our Baptist State newspaper, the Biblical Recorder.  Denominational newspapers served a much larger role in the days before the internet and social media.  Because our state paper refuted the big lie and told the truth, we were constantly under attack by the fundamentalists.  


There was a Baptist pastor in Morganton who started printing a hate-filled, spiteful paper that was full of innuendos, baseless accusations, and falsehoods.  Its sole purpose was to perpetuate the big lie.  


We were preparing for our presentation at the annual state convention which would be attended by several thousand people.  The Board asked me if I would give a historical monologue and portray our paper’s founder, Thomas Meredith.  Meredith, in the early 19th century, was fighting some of the same battles over ignorance and dogmatism that we were facing.  You probably recognize the name because Thomas Meredith was an advocate for the education of women, a truly revolutionary concept in his day.  That is where Meredith College gets its name. 


I carefully crafted the monologue to use as much of Thomas Meredith’s own words as possible.  The finished product was 85% verbatim Thomas Meredith.  I found a period costume that made me look the part, memorized the monologue, and practiced it so much that I started speaking in 19th century English.  


The monologue was well received at the convention and many people told me how enlightening it was.  But it didn’t take long for the big lie to raise its ugly head.  When the paper from Morganton came out, my monologue was the lead story.  They accused the Biblical Recorder of hiring a professional actor to spew lies and disparage their cause.  


I guess I should have been flattered that they thought I was a professional actor.  I sent a letter to the editor of the paper demanding that they print a retraction so that people would know that I was true, certified, bona fide, card-carrying Baptist preacher, not an actor.  And as far as the content, they were hearing the very words of one of our Baptist founders.  


I never heard from the editor and there was never a retraction.  I was not surprised.  When you create a big lie you keep it alive; you never retreat.  You don’t want to challenge the big lie with the facts. All of this came back to me last week when I read the accusation that Kamala Harris refused to place her hand on the Bible.  


People have been operating under the big lie that the election was stolen.  Even though 86 different judges across the political spectrum and the US Supreme Court all rejected the baseless claims, people continue to hold on to the big lie that plays out in ways large and small. 


The “object” that was between the Vice President’s hand and the big brown Bible was actually another Bible.  The large Bible belonged to the late Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American justice of the Supreme Court and Harris’s political hero.  The smaller Bible belonged to a dear neighbor, Regina Shelton, who was like a second mother to her.  Harris told the story of going to church as a child with Mrs. Shelton and sitting beside her as she opened her Bible.  She said that it was in the pages of that Bible that she learned the stories of faith. It was in that Bible that she learned about love, about forgiveness, about faith, about righteousness and justice.  


If you hear that Kamala Harris refused to place her hand on the Bible, it is part of the big lie.  The truth is that she placed her hand on not one, but two Bibles.  And as far as Harris being anti-religious and anti-church.  Her mother was Hindu.  Her husband is Jewish.   And Kamala Harris is . . . a Baptist!   


And that is the truth!







Tuesday, December 29, 2020

47 Years Ago--The Human Moment that Turned Darkness into Light

 On New Year’s Day the sports world will be focused on the College Football Playoffs.  The first game has the Number One ranked Alabama Crimson Tide playing the Number Four ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish.  I will be pulling for my native Alabama to win, but my heart and my mind will be going back 47 years to December 31, 1973 when Number One ranked Alabama played Number Three ranked Notre Dame for the National Championship in the 40th Annual Sugar Bowl Classic in New Orleans.  


The game was played in historic Tulane Stadium, the world’s largest double-decked steel stadium.  The official capacity of the stadium on the campus of Tulane University was 80,985, but on that night the venerable old stadium set an attendance record that was never surpassed; 86,598, of which I was one.  


It was billed as the “Game of the Century,” featuring two of the greatest coaches in college football history, Paul “Bear” Bryant and Ara Parseghian.  The game was so big that ABC brought in their Monday Night Football star, the legendary Howard Cosell, to help with the broadcast. It was the first time that the two legendary schools with the richest football traditions in college history ever met on the gridiron and Super Bowl tickets were easier to find that year.  Which made it even more remarkable that my Daddy was able to come up with the tickets to the biggest game of our lifetime. 


The reason that my heart and mind will go back to the 1973 Sugar Bowl has nothing to do with the game itself, but it has everything to do with my Daddy who was sitting beside me on that drizzly New Year’s Eve night in that massive stadium as we witnessed history together.  


People who didn’t grow up in Alabama can’t really understand the significance of Alabama football.  It’s not just a game, not just a sporting event. . . it is a defining exercise in life that teaches the importance of dignity, respect, equality and, most importantly, relationships.  


In the 1950s and 60s, the state of Alabama was often the laughing stock of the nation.  We were behind almost every other state in education, industry, and opportunity.  We had a governor who was on the wrong side of history.  People looked down on the state of Alabama, but there was one place where we excelled.  There was one area where we were not number 50, but Number One.  


My mother dressed me in a coat and tie to attend my first Alabama football game in 1963.  When I asked her why I had to get dressed up just to go to a football game she responded, “But you are not going to just a football game, you are going to see the Bear.”


Bear Bryant brought dignity and respect back to the state of Alabama on the football field.  He was revered because he lifted us all up when everybody else was tearing us down. He did it with homegrown talent and without superstars.  His winning football teams were the product of hard work, discipline, sacrifice, and teamwork.  


Daddy was a hard-working man.  I know my parents struggled to make ends meet.  But somehow, he always managed to get us tickets to Alabama football games.  We would sit there in Birmingham, Tuscaloosa or Mobile, proud as we could be, rain or shine, as we watched the Bear take down another giant and pull off another miracle—they said he could walk on water and we believed he could—we were there. 


When Alabama won, order was restored to the universe.  Righteousness and justice were vindicated.  Losing, which didn’t happen very often, was a reminder that chaos and disorder could still invade our fragile world.  That was when we would cling to every word from the Bear who would explain what went wrong and promise that it would be corrected through hard work, pain and sacrifice, so the good guys would prevail once again.  


We looked forward each year to games with our local rivals:  Tennessee, LSU, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and of course, Auburn.  We would venture outside of our region for bowl games when we would play schools like Texas, Oklahoma and Nebraska.  All of these schools had great football traditions.  But there was one school that seemed to be beyond reach, outside of our orbit . . . and that school was Notre Dame.  If there was one school with a greater football tradition than Alabama it was Notre Dame, but the two schools had never met on the football field.  For years, Notre Dame refused to go to bowl games.  There was little opportunity to play.


For the Alabama faithful, Notre Dame was the Darth Vader of the football world.  Alabama fans were still fuming over the 1966 season when Ara Parseghian famously played for a tie with Michigan State and was awarded the National Championship anyway, even though Alabama was 11-0 and destroyed Nebraska in the Sugar Bowl.  If the two schools ever had the opportunity to oppose each other, it would be a colossal clash with apocalyptic implications.  


I didn’t miss an Alabama home game in 1973.  This was one of Bear’s best teams ever with running back, Wilbur Jackson, an African-American who was welcomed to the family by the Bear with open arms.  “I don’t have white players or black players,” the Bear said.  “I have football players.”  The Bear advanced racial equality in the state of Alabama when the Governor was trying to tear it down.  


We were on a mission as we made the long drive to New Orleans.  My brother, Robert, and I rode with my Daddy.  My sister, Nancy, was a student at the University and also attended the game.  The night before the game Daddy saw a friend, who was also friends with the Bear.  “He’s worried about this game,” his friend said.  Our anxiety increased exponentially with this revelation. 


It was one of those games we should have won.  Alabama missed an extra point, gave up a kickoff return for a touchdown, and let Notre Dame out of deep hole on a long 3rd down pass late in the 4th quarter. Notre Dame won by one point.  We were shocked and stunned.  This was not supposed to happen.  Darkness descended.  Chaos ruled. 


We drove back to Tuscaloosa in silence.  Nothing could be said that would make things right.  The earth had tilted on its axis and it didn’t look like anything could correct it.  Alabama always found a way to win games like this one.  It was not just that we lost or how we lost, it was the fact that we lost to the arch-enemy, the ever-present nemesis, the long-despised antagonist of the football world. 


We stopped in Tuscaloosa to pick up my youngest brother, Jon, who was visiting with our great-grandmother.  Daddy thought it would be good to have lunch at a steak house.  We found a booth and looked at the menu.  The mood was still somber, the atmosphere heavy with grief and regret.  A rotund waiter who called himself T-Bone came to our table and asked what we would like to order.   What happened next has lived forever in the annals of the Howell family history.  


I don’t know how to put this delicately, but there was a sound.  It could not be described as a gentle breaking of the wind, but more of a turbulent flatulence, the rush of a mighty wind.  In the words of the Apostle Paul, “For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comprehension.”  


At first, we thought T-Bone was the culprit, but then we realized it was our benevolent father.  The whole world stopped.  


Now, you must understand that we had all been schooled in our grandmother’s academy of proper decorum and table etiquette.  Such an action at the dinner table would have resulted in solitary confinement for any of us children.  My father would have been banished for an indefinite time if we had been at home.  


But it happened and just like that our universe that seemed on the verge of extinction, had come alive again in the most unexpected, improbable and serendipitous manner.  My brother and I started laughing and we couldn’t stop. T-Bone also thought it was grand entertainment.  We laughed through our meal and all the way home.  


There were times when my Daddy was larger than life.  My memories of him are tied to our love for Alabama football.  But for one moment in time, my father was fully human.  Suddenly, the game that had seemed so important didn’t matter as much.  Life went on, at least for a while.


That’s why I will remember that game 47 years ago.  Football is not just a game, it is grounded in relationships.  Daddy died some 23 years ago.  My brother, Robert, is also gone along with my sister and my Mother who attended the 1948 Sugar Bowl with my Daddy.  The Bear and Ara Parseghian are now coaching on the celestial gridiron. My youngest brother, Jon, and I are the only ones left in our family.  I don’t know about T-Bone.  But 47 years ago, when we were all together, there was one human moment that turned our darkness into light.


An interesting sidelight to this story was that while the football game was the main event, it was not the only event.  The Sugar Bowl Classic included tennis, an intercollegiate sailing regatta, and a basketball tournament.  There were four basketball teams in New Orleans for the 1973 classic:  LSU-New Orleans, Memphis State, Villanova and North Carolina State University.  This was the NC State team of David Thompson, Tommy Burleson, and Monte Towe.  They would not only win the Sugar Bowl Classic, but would continue to win all the way into the NCAA tournament.  After taking down mighty UCLA in 2 overtimes, they would beat Marquette to claim the 1974 NCAA National Championship.  


Monday, December 7, 2020

Joe, Mary, the Baby and the Mall

        (This is an adaptation of a Christmas article I wrote for the Dispatch almost 30 years ago.  I wrote this a year or two after Baptist Hospital started putting the big star on top of their main building.  It is dated with the emphasis on big crowds shopping at the malls.  The Denton newspaper ran this column for a number of years each Christmas.)

 And it came to pass during the Great Pandemic that there went out a decree from the Department of Commerce that gift giving at Christmas was mandatory, even without a governmental subsidy.  Everyone was required to give expensive gifts to all family members, co-workers, delivery drivers, the family next door, the butcher, the baker, and the fake-news makers.  This decree was first made during unprecedented unemployment and a depressed economy.       

And Joe also went up from the county of Davidson, out of the city of Linwood, into Forsyth, unto the twin city, which is called Winston-Salem, because he was of the house and lineage of Old Salem, to go last-minute Christmas shopping with Mary, his new wife, who was great with child.  

And so it was that they drove around the parking lot for a long time until they finally parked in the grass, because there were no parking places in the paved lot.  After buying gifts, Mary was standing in the complimentary gift-wrapping line, socially distanced and wearing a mask, when the days were accomplished that she should be delivered and she went into labor and passed out in the line. 

Upon witnessing this great thing that had come to pass, Joe dropped the gifts and announced, “I must go, even unto the parking lot, and find our car which I pray the Lord will make the location known unto me.”  And he went with haste and found his car which was blocked in by several other cars and then, seized with panic; he sprinted back to the mall and was promptly hit by a car.  He was sore and afraid.

And there were in the same mall, security officers, who called 911 to assist the expectant mother.  And suddenly, there was in the parking lot, a multitude of frustrated drivers who also called 911 to report an injured shopper in hopes they would get his parking place.  And it came to pass that there was gridlock around the mall and the ambulances could not get through.  Joe was even more sore and afraid and he looked up and saw a star in the east at Baptist Hospital and prayed for help from above.  

Upon hearing his prayer, the helicopter from Wake Forest Baptist came with haste and found Joe in the parking lot, Mary in the mall, and the baby due any minute.  As the helicopter landed at Baptist it blew the giant star off of the hospital into the adjoining neighborhood where friendly carolers were singing Christmas carols by night, while wearing masks and socially distanced.  

 And, lo, the giant star flew over them and exploded round about them and they were sore afraid.  And suddenly there were with the carolers a multitude of police cars, fire trucks, and emergency vehicles with loud sirens and flashing lights.  And the carolers said, one to another, “Let us now go even unto Wake Forest Baptist Hospital and see this thing which is come to pass.”  And they came with haste and found Joe in the emergency room, Mary in labor and delivery, and the babe, wrapped in a hospital blanket and lying in a sterilized bassinet. 

And Joe said in a loud voice, “Here we are on Christmas Eve without any gifts!”

Just then, three wise doctors from the east entered the room and said, “But you have the greatest gift of all, a newborn baby boy wrapped in love and joy, and lying in a sterilized bassinet.”  And the carolers, socially distanced and wearing masks, joined with the doctors and nurses and sang, “Silent Night.”

And Joe, being warned in a dream not to return to the mall, took Mary and the baby and went back to Linwood on Christmas Day, where they were visited by family members, neighbors, and friends, all wearing masks and socially distanced, who celebrated this new life with great rejoicing. 

Joe and Mary apologized for not having any gifts, but everyone was so excited about the newborn baby that gifts did not matter.  It was a happy time of love and joy. 

Perhaps we can celebrate Christmas with gifts of love, happiness, peace and joy.  Could we be so excited about the baby of Bethlehem that ordinary gifts would not matter?  The greatest gift is God’s love that comes to us through the birth of his son.

Merry Christmas!  Share the love of God and pray for peace on earth.  Remember to wear your mask and socially distance!







Tuesday, October 20, 2020

And Though This World With Devils Filled

 When Martin Luther wrote the words, “And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us . . .” he knew what he was talking about.  If the backlash from the Reformation was not enough, a global Pandemic was wrecking havoc in Luther’s world.  


The “Black Plague” that seized Europe in medieval times was much more deadly than the Coronavirus.  It is estimated to have killed up to 60% of Europe’s population.  The worst of the plague was in the fourteenth century but it continued to reappear for a long time, including the summer of 1527 when it swept into Martin Luther’s home of Wittenberg.  


At the time, Europe was deeply divided (we would say “polarized”) by the events of the Reformation.  Perceptions of the deadly disease were filtered through layers of mistrust rooted in religious difference.  Even though the disease was no respecter of religion, the Protestants regarded the plague as God’s judgment on the Catholics and the Catholics accused the Protestants of weakening the unity of Christendom in a time of crisis.  How one interpreted the plague was determined by their religious views.


While the Coronavirus is no respecter of religion or politics, perceptions of the COVID disease are filtered through layers of mistrust rooted in political difference.  Martin Luther had no patience for such misplaced logic or those who took no personal responsibility for their own reckless behavior.  He said people who downplayed the disease were not trusting God; in fact, they were tempting Him.


They are much too rash and reckless, tempting God and disregarding everything which might counteract death and the plague. They disdain the use of medicines; they do not avoid places and persons infected by the plague, but lightheartedly make sport of it and wish to prove how independent they are. They say that it is God’s punishment; if he wants to protect them he can do so without medicines or our carefulness. That is not trusting God but tempting him. . . .


Luther thought it was our Christian duty to follow every safety precaution “in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence.”


The words of the powerful hymn of the Reformation, “A Mighty Fortress is My God,” take on new meaning when we realize that when Luther wrote of “the flood of mortal ills prevailing,” he was referring to a Global Pandemic.  


It is true that everyone is growing weary of the virus, it is called “COVID fatigue.” Unfortunately, being tired of the virus doesn’t change the facts—The number of people in our country who have died in the virus would be the equivalent of over 1,000 Boeing-737 jets crashing.  North Carolina and Davidson County numbers are alarming.  We may be tired of the virus, but it is not tired of us.  


The writer of Hebrews encourages us to “run with perseverance” the race that is set before us.  (Hebrews 12: 1)   We are in a race and we cannot sprint to the finish, we must pace ourselves, running with perseverance, keeping the faith, holding on to our foundation.   


Just as Luther was frustrated by those who were careless, so are we.  But we need to set the example---don’t go out without a MASK.  Keep your distance—six feet minimum, more is better.  And keep hand sanitizer and wipes close by.  




Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Two Broken Lives Result in Most Beloved Hymn


It was not a very popular hymn when it was first published in the mid-nineteenth century.  The words seemed trite and the poetry was not very good.  The music was certainly not church music, and few thought it would be around for long.  


The words were never even intended for publication.  His mother was dying in Ireland and he didn’t have the money to cross the ocean and see her, so he wrote her a poem to bring her comfort—a poem she never saw.  


His entire life had been one tragedy after another.  He had been engaged twice, but both of his fiance’s had tragically died, one the day before the wedding.  He spent his time chopping wood for the poor and caring for the sick, but he found no fulfillment in his life.  He battled depression for years until one day they found his body floating in a river.  


The music was inspired by a man who suffered from alcoholism.  His wife had left him and he wandered the streets selling anything he could find for liquor.  He was only 37 years old and living in a slum when he fell in a drunken stupor and fatally hit his head.  


Out of these two sad, broken, and tragic lives come one of the most beloved and popular hymns of all-time, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” Joseph Scriven’s life started with great potential, but multiple tragedies left him scarred and wounded.  He had lost everything and when the news came that his dear mother was at the point of death, it was more than he could bear.  He remembered his mother’s unfailing faith and he knew that she had a friend in Jesus.  He wrote the words we know so well, ostensibly to comfort his mother, but they may have been his own cry for faith as he was “weak and heavy laden, cumbered with a load of care.”


The trials and temptations of his life had led to trouble everywhere.   But deep down in his soul he knew that he had a precious Savior who was still his refuge.  Yes, he too had a friend in Jesus.  


The music for this most beloved hymn is not church music, it is American Folk music that was inspired by the “Father of American Music,” Stephen Foster.  Charles Converse who is credited with the music simply adapted a Foster tune.  The great American composer who gave us such classics as “My Old Kentucky Home,” and “Swanee River,” died penniless and alone as a result of his alcoholism.  He too, had many sins and griefs to bear.  


Isn’t it amazing how God can use two sinful and broken lives to give us such hope and comfort?  Out of the depths of these two anguished souls come one of the most uplifting and encouraging reminders of God’s faithfulness and love.  In the midst of this long and protracted Pandemic that continues to cast a shadow of darkness and doubt, we find the promise that “In his arms he’ll take and shield thee; thou wilt find a solace there.”