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Friday, August 19, 2016

I Don't Mind Saying...

There are many things that make me feel particularly American.  Recently, watching the Summer Olympics, visiting the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, seeing Facebook posts from others of the great national parks, monuments, architecture across these United States.  And, yes, voting.  

Quick confession:  While I love technology, I do miss flipping the lever inside an old voting machine, hearing the curtain close, and beginning to peruse the small black levers which offer me my choices on candidates and issues in any particular election.

Yet, taking that blank ballot from the poll worker and sitting at a table with the customary black marker, and then inserting my marked ballot into the "machine" still makes me feel patriotic.  Just typing I can feel the finger of the black gentleman who usually stands at the machine and thumbs that "I Voted" sticker onto my left shoulder.  It makes me proud.

In the days ahead we begin the home stretch of a national election that seems like it started about...10 years ago. :) And while this one has captured so much attention as "different," I'm not sure it's that different.  We have, again, two imperfect major party candidates and two imperfect lesser knowns competing for the office.

Facebook is a twitter (pun intended) with all sorts of praise and prosecution of both major candidates. Some people speak with almost unreserved delight or disgust about this candidate or that while many remain silent about their preferences because 1. this is our American right and 2. in this election the blowback from either side can be quite caustic and even personal.  Before I trudge further, I confess to being guilty of both.  Like Paul, I am chief among sinners.

Nonetheless, it seems this time around that there is considerably more pressure for people not to be proud of their candidate or party.  More people seem to be articulating "I'm voting for (fill in the blank), but...."  And, my greatest fear, people are being silenced in voicing their views because of their family, peer group, colleagues, etc.

In fact, this post was prompted by such an encounter within recent days with a member of our more senior generation who said explicitly that she couldn't discuss her choices with friends due to the amount of recrimination and intimidation often directed back her way.  That is not only unfortunate, it is, in my opinion, not very American.

While we respect ever person's right to keep their choices confidential, we should also respect ever person's right to publicly declare their allegiance without fear of intimidation or insult.

In solidarity with those on all sides who wish to declare their support, I don't mind saying...in November I will be voting for Hillary Clinton.  It is not an anti-Trump vote.  I chose her as my candidate long before the Republican primary was even leaning Mr. Trump's way.  In 2008 and 2012 I voted for Barack Obama and had the privilege, along with my son John and several friends, to attend his first inauguration.  It is my hope that, should Mrs. Clinton prevail, I should be able to say to my grandchildren that I attended the inauguration of both the first African American President and the first female President.  And I don't mind telling them that, at least in part, I was drawn to their candidacies by the the idea of a Presidency shaped more and more by the diverse faces and genders of the American people.  And, in both cases, I didn't consider my votes "against" John McCain, a war hero of the first order and true "maverick" in the Senate, nor against Mitt Romney, a proven businessman, capable governor, person of deep faith and ethics.

While I admit to a less favorable perspective on Mr. Trump, again neither do I vote against his personality nor peculiarities.  I have plenty of my own.   As a friend of mine says, "I'm just with the laughing woman in the pant suit" or as she might prefer, "I'm with her."

It seems to me all of us would be better to vote for someone rather than against.  If you're a Trump, Johnson, or Stein voter, be for them.  And if your friends don't agree or are voting differently, be for your friends.  That's America.  That's patriotism.

The success of our Union is not in the 43 different individuals who have served as President of these United States.  The success of our Union is in the democratic processes so ingeniously enshrined into the founding documents of our nation.   My faith is in neither Democrat nor Republican, neither Trump nor Clinton.  My faith is in the American people, expressing their thoughtful and prayerful choices in this great experience we have every four years on a national level.  And, while I always seek spiritual insight and guidance in these processes, I never assume God has given me some clear and perfect word about my choices.  That God looks down on me fairly regularly with frown and puzzlement is not lost on me.  My faithfulness as a child of God and as an American citizen often faulters.  But I'm convinced God loves me and God loves you.  And I'm convinced there's room for all of us in this great 240 year old experiment that still breathes on "from sea to shining sea."

Monday, January 18, 2016

Albert, Martin, Jim......and me

I was born in 1962.  My childhood memories of the Civil Rights Movement and MLK are vague, if they exist at all.  Though born in St. Margaret's Hospital, about 4 blocks from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, and raised in Wetumpka, only miles north of the Alabama Capital, I simply was too young to know much at all about the tumultuous nature of events in Marion, Selma, Montgomery, Birmingham in those days.  Even now, when I travel to Montgomery and walk along Dexter Avenue, it's hard to imagine the struggle of those days in any visceral manner...try though I may.

I wish I had one single story...of seeing him on Dexter Avenue where I shopped often with my grandparents, or of hearing him - if only briefly - in some public setting.  Mostly, for me, MLK is a figure of history...and a great deal of malicious gossip.  In fact, the whole Movement was a distant concern or area of interest for at least the first half of my life.  Said with no pride, it's the simple truth. I didn't know much and didn't know to care much.

How all that changed is a longer story, but on MLK Day I am grateful for two happenstance friendships that brought me as close to the man, the movement, and all the conflicting forces that surrounded it.  My two friends were literally and figuratively on opposite sides of each other...and thus on either side of Martin Luther King, Jr.

In the Spring of 1999 a group of black and white people of faith began conversations in Marion, Alabama, about how we might work together to help nurture hope in Perry County - some would say the "capital" of the Alabama Black Belt.  The group of 15 or so included Albert Turner, Sr., a life-long Perry County resident.  Albert, a bricklayer by trade, was in the "thick" of the activities of the SCLC, MLK and called the "Night March on Marion," which probably saved the life of imprisoned minister James Orange, but also led to the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson, the "straw that broke the camel's back" and led to the Selma to Montgomery March.

It was Albert who, after hours of meeting and discussing with black leaders our hopes, looked across the table at Dr. Wayne Flynt and said, "You know, Dr. Flynt, I've always wanted to work with you on something."  I was the convener, but Wayne was the man of gravitas, the historian with the soul of a prophet, the white face and voice of social justice so often seen on Alabama television and in other media.  And it was a huge step for Albert Turner, who spent most of his life deeply ensconced in the belief that no plan hatched by white people could be expected to serve the Negro cause.

And, it was Albert nearly a year later - when months of arduous gestation seemed about to birth Sowing Seeds of Hope and official roles were necessary - it was Albert who looked across the table at me and said, "Mr. Gray, you've led us this far.  I think YOU should be our president."  It's hard for me to describe what that moment meant to me.  Not because of the position.  There were a number of people in the room capable, probably more capable that I to fill the role.  But because of the friendship, the genuine friendship that had grown across age, across race, across time.  I always called Albert "MR. Turner" because, despite my early protest, he refused to call me "Mart", instead smiling and greeting me "MR. Gray."  By Spring 2000 we had shared many hours together and had several ex parte conversations about any number of subjects.  We liked each other.  We REALLY liked each other.  Each time we met, he always wrapped my small white hand with both of his and greeted me joyfully.  And each time we parted, he patted my shoulder with a paternal word to "drive carefully" on my way home or "go find something good to eat."  And always, always smiling.

It was THAT Albert Turner who I looked forward introducing to my son Will on April 14, 2000...the day before "tax day."  Will was in 4th Grade and studying, at least in part, the history of MLK, the Movement, the March.  As we pulled onto US Highway 80 that afternoon, I talked with Will about the march, the route, and what few stories I had garnered along the way.  "Will," I said, "there are people in Perry County who know this history, who lived this history.  And they won't be around forever.  I want you to meet them in the months and years ahead.  I want you to get to know them, to hear THEIR stories."  Soon we were passing over and beyond the iconic Edmund Pettus Bridge. Will's eyes got big at the sight, almost as if seeing the Brooklyn or Golden Gate bridges for the first time.  As we continued through downtown, NPR news played on the radio.  Unbeknownst to me, Albert had been hospitalized a few days earlier with an abdominal bleed.  I nearly froze as the commentator said with little animation, "In late breaking news, Albert Turner, Sr. - long-time Civil Rights Activist and lieutenant to Martin Luther King, Jr., died in a Selma hospital today."

I couldn't believe it.  I really couldn't believe it.  Will didn't understand it all, but he knew Dad went from being chatty and excited to strangely silent...in just moments.  Though Albert's efforts and enthusiasm were already too strongly woven into the fabric of our efforts to be broken by his sudden death, the silence of his loss still impacts me today.  God bless, Mr. Turner, God bless!

About a week later I drove to Marion for Albert's Memorial Service.  The auditorium at Francis Marion High School was full as speaker after speaker shared stories - most still unknown to me - about Albert's life.  Minister James Orange.  Martin Luther King, III. Thomas Gilmore, the first black sheriff of Greene County.  The stories.  The community.  The lack of malice or grudge.  It was that night I learned Albert was the "guy under the white hat" standing right behind King and John Lewis in the Bloody Sunday photos.  It was that night I learned Albert was also a mule-handler and led the mules that pulled Martin Luther King, Jr.'s cortege through the streets of Atlanta.  It was that night I learned my friend Mr. Turner was a man of greater courage and commitment than I had ever before imagined.  And...it was that night I held hands along with the hundreds gathered as we sang "We Shall Overcome" to end Albert's service.  Never before nor since have I felt as close to the Movement - as close to Martin as I'll ever be this side of Eternity.

After that night I began to see another friendship very differently.  Not less, but different.  Just a few years prior an Elba native had returned home.  Jim Clark, who grew up just a couple of blocks from our church, came home.  I had heard people refer to the "Clark" house for years.  We do that in small towns - and large, really.  But never had I asked...and never had anybody said.

Young Jimmy Clark of Elba, Alabama, had served in the U.S. Army during WWII, came back and settled into the cattle business when another "local Elba boy", Big Jim Folsom, appointed him to fill the sheriff's position in Dallas County.  Jim Clark.  Sheriff James Clark.  The world gets real small sometime.  But now Jim was home.  And just another member of our congregation.  I can't honestly say how long he had been back in town when I put together who he was.  People give people their space.  And so they did for Jim.  Whatever he chose to share about Dallas County, Selma, and other darker times in Jim's life were his to tell - when he wanted, how he wanted, IF he wanted.

And he had no need to tell much.  Outside an occasional reference to visiting his "old friend" Jim Smitherman, then-Mayor of Selma, he didn't say much of anything to me about those days.  I read other places of his reaffirmation of politics and position in those days, but we never discussed it.  I was Jim's minister, not his prosecutor nor a journalist nor a part of the persecuted.  Jim was affable. He could be charming.  He seemed sincere, if not always completely transparent.  But in the Spring of 2000, I had been confronted with the truth.  As surely as my new friend Mr. Turner had Martin's "back," my somewhat longer friend Jim had been his antagonist.  I know for many friends who see Jim only through the lens of history, that may seem way too fair, too kind.  But Jim was a sheep in my flock.  And even if inclined, calling out "wolves" is above my pay grade.

In Jim's first years back home, we interacted often.  He was regular in church attendance and involved himself in Senior Adult activities for which I had responsibility.  In his last few years, our paths separated not by choice but rather circumstance.  But even then, I thought of Jim as friend.  Had he called, I would have answered...and done my best.

Now over a decade past both of these friendships, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day carries more significance for me.  Whether by chance or God's providence, I consider myself richer for the experience of knowing both of them....Albert and Jim.  And for having to consider all the complicated implications of two figures so wrapped around the legacy of MLK.

Theologian/philosopher/civil rights activist/contrarian Will Campbell was challenged by his calling to love the "blacks and the kluxers", his words.  He said you couldn't love Jesus and hate either.  As I think today about its meaning, its Patron King...I know there is much to be done, much to consider.
There are people, God's children, on both sides of the bridge.  Albert, Martin, Jim.  It's late in the day...but there is tomorrow.  And...there is hope.  And...there's me.  I've got some more thinking to do.

Monday, April 22, 2013

"Down to the River to Pray"



"As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good ol' way
And who shall wear the starry crown?
Good Lord show me the way!"

So sang Allison Krauss and the choir from the First Baptist Church, of White House, Tennessee, on the soundtrack for "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"  They are all inspiring to me...the movie, the song, the artist, the arrangement.

Hold that thought....

The waters were chilly as we stepped off the bank into Coffee County Lake yesterday morning, Rae Walker and me.  But the warm sun and a radiant sense of God's presence provided a beautiful counterpoint to the coolness as we waded deeper. 

Yesterday was an all-round wonderful day of worship, napping, and front-porch sitting, but those brief moments lakeside fill the playback loop in my heart and mind even today.  It was as if the whole experience, lasting only a matter of minutes, was somehow framed by God's Spirit--like the trailer of a good movie--to represent the best of the day, the people gathered, the act of baptizing, and the remembrance of Jesus' own dip in Jordan's green waters so very long ago. 

To be honest, when I went to bed Saturday evening my anticipation was somewhat dampened by the forecast of a 39 degree low for the evening and a very slow warm-up to the low 70s on Sunday.  We had already put off the special day for Rae due to rainy weather the week prior and putting it off again...well, it didn't seem "right"...just because it might be rather uncomfortable in the chilled waters.

But there we stood before a company of family and church friends as Rae confessed those ancient words, "Jesus is Lord!" And on that confession, the baptism was begun and ended all in one fell swoop, literally.

As we walked hand in hand out of the waters, Rae washed from head to toe and me only wet to the waist, it all came together for me.  We had been "off road" with God...again.  Slight physical discomfort was so powerfully outmatched by the warmth of the moment, the sympathetic sensation of Jesus' baptism, the well-pleased faces of the faithful gathered on the bank and heralding, "Then sings my soul....How great thou art!"  Even the squishy sand beneath my feet just seemed...righteously affirming.  Who knew the Jordan ran through Elba, Alabama?!

Life seemed so good and God so very great.  Faith had its smooth edges scuffed by the chill and then reformed by the experience.  Baptism in "the good ol' way," lacking the creature comforts of a heat-controlled baptistery and sanctuary, but canopied by God's grand creation and a sense of being embraced by the Creator, even in creation's cool waters.

Recently someone quoted a Southern writer as having posited that "Air conditioning was the ruin of Southern literature," believing that our retreat from the front porch had so stunted the authentic, if discomforted, perspective of porch life.  I can't speak for the factual nature of the quote nor its source, but the sentiment seemed powerfully accurate to me as we emerged from the murky waters of the lake. 

To return to the more earthy practice of river/lake baptisms has been as rewarding to me as the fresh bread baked for our monthly Covenant and Communion Service, and the homemade scuppernong wine in which we "intinct" our little pinch of the body of Christ.  It leaves me longing for more imaginative, earthy, "off road" faith experiences.  To celebrate worship at the beach or in the mountains as much as the four-walled sanctuary.  To hold up faithfulness in the daily attendance of the duties to which God has called each of us as important beyond our weekly church attendance.  To believe God speaks as powerfully through the experiences of our daily lives as through Scripture. 

Thanks to Rae for insisting on baptism as soon as possible, no matter the comfort!  And to God--thanks for a community of faith willing to take to the trails in pursuit of stronger faith.  "God Lord, show us the way!"



Tuesday, April 16, 2013


MY THOUGHTS ON THE EVENTS OF YESTERDAY:

According to the US Center for Disease Control (www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/deaths.htm:) the following causes of death were reported in the United States in 2010. (2011 figures are still preliminary)  I looked this up trying to find some perspective on yesterday’s tragic bombing in Boston.  The numbers were annual numbers.  Below I have divided by those figures by 365 to determine the number of DAILY deaths by cause.  Here are those figures:

•Heart disease: 1,637 DAILY deaths

•Cancer: 1,574 DAILY deaths

•Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 378 DAILY deaths

•Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 354 DAILY deaths

•Accidents (unintentional injuries): 331 DAILY deaths

•Alzheimer's disease: 228 DAILY deaths

•Diabetes: 189 DAILY deaths

•Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis: 138 DAILY deaths

•Influenza and Pneumonia: 137 DAILY deaths

•Intentional self-harm (suicide): 105 DAILY deaths

That means the top 10 causes of death in America account for an average of 5,071 deaths EACH AND EVERY DAY.  How many of these are completely preventable can be argued, but accidents (331 deaths per day) and suicides (105 per day) account for nearly 440 deaths every day that some measure of prevention might curb.

What is my point?  Every day Americans die at a rate larger than the total number of people killed in the Oklahoma City Bombing, the 9-11 attacks, AND yesterday’s Boston Marathon bombing.  What happened in Boston yesterday was tragic.  The real loss to the families of the 3 dead and the pain, suffering and possible death of many of the wounded is human suffering at its most intense.  But….and for me this is a huge BUT…as freedom loving Americans, we simply cannot yield to the temptation to turn every one of these events – spectacular though they are – into a reason to “throw in the towel” on life as we know it. 

I want the FBI, our Homeland Security Personnel, Massachusetts State and Boston Officials to work tirelessly until the culprits are rooted out and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law – be they Americans or foreigners.  But I also believe we must do our part.  For me, that is an adamant refusal to live in fear or shrink my sense of American possibility.  If tragic death is our issue, let’s do more to reduce the number of preventable deaths each day.  If we just don’t like pain and suffering, life is going to be tough…because every day confronts us with painful realities of family, friends and strangers near and far.

Our Founding Fathers had far more reason to be skeptical of the independent life of a new “United States of America.”  They expressed it regularly, privately and publicly.  But NEVER did they drown themselves in self-doubt and paralyzing anxiety about the task before them.  Somehow, we seem a weaker, less hopeful lot.  And I really don’t understand.  The math doesn’t work.  The realities of the random, and frankly, infrequent nature of these senseless attacks doesn’t warrant our hand-wringing.  And, maybe most importantly, the warp and weave of American life over 230 plus years does not deposit at our doorstep such a legacy of despair.
Join me today.  Enlist.  Sign up.  Be drafted!  Let’s commit to pray for those individual families and lives that have been torn by this tragedy.   Let’s feel the power of national solidarity with the citizens of Boston and all who were in close proximity to yesterday’s event. Let’s always support resources for those who work tirelessly to protect us at the local, state and national level.  And let’s live on…free, proud, unfettered by fear!  Fly the flag.  Hum “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”   Book a trip to next year’s Boston Marathon.  Stand on the street corner and proclaim it a good day.  Help support research for heart disease, cancer, suicide prevention.  But, for God’s sake, proclaim hopefulness!  It is the Good News.  And, for the last two centuries, it has been the rallying cry of MOST red-blooded Americans!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Living Off-Road

The first vehicle I bought on my own was a 1947 Willys CJ2A Jeep. It had been painted jet black with a brush, had no exhaust system, and some kind of horrible "goo" had been spilled in the back. When I proudly drove it up into the family garage my mother was NOT impressed!

Several months and lots of elbow grease later the old Jeep had a new exhaust that purred like a kitten, and thanks to a little help from Dad, a fire-engine red paint job complete with white pen stripes. It was a thing to behold! It was even more of a thing to be DRIVEN!

On Sunday afternoons a friend and I, both who had old Jeeps, would tool off together to some wilderness landscape around my hometown of Wetumpka. No logging road, power line right of way, or open gate escaped our sojourn. With a chain for towin' and a couple of wrenches for fixin', we took to the off-road scene with delight and enthusiasm.

Seldom was the trip when either chain or wrench or both was not employed to the fullest. And many times our return trip involved one limping soldier dragging a "dead" one behind. But resurrection was always around the corner as we piled into the shop to make the needed repairs and ready for the next outting.

Now don't get me wrong, I like comfortable and dependable transportation as much as anybody. But you just can't take a Camry "over the river and through the woods," though I have a friend or two who would try!

As I think about it, much of my life has been spent off-road. No, not literally, but metaphorically...spiritually. Often God seems to delight in leading me down some low-limbed, high-banked trail with few "Curve ahead" or "Yield" warnings along the way. I'm not complaining (though God would tell you from time to time I DO)...just commenting.

Ever feel that way? Ever wonder when the road is going to widen...get smoother...be better marked? Ever wonder if you're on a road at all? If there is a purpose or plan to the dips and valleys and muddy ditches of life? I do...and often. I question myself. Sometimes I question God. I question what I thought was true about life.

When I was younger, I was taught to drive a fairly mid-sized, low-mileage, road-ready faith. But after I plowed through a few rough fields and bottomed out on a terrace or two, it seems that I needed a faith that was more off-road, more able to handle the ups and downs of life's landscape.

It's like my old Jeep...I'm always tinkering with it. Sometimes when I think I've got everything just right another wheel goes flat or I have to stop and blow the mud out of the radiator. But off-road faith just serves me better. It's a slower trip, less comfortable, and not everyone is impressed with my new "ride," but it works for me. I'm learning the idiosyncracies of shifting gears. Learning to travel with less and leave earlier. I'm learning to love life off-road...AGAIN!