November 12, 2015
The last time I was here to present was in 2004, when I gave a paper entitled “How Religious Language Has Been Used to Usurp the Common Good.” We were still meeting at Harvard Divinity School at the time, and it was an academic exercise with good discussion afterward. That exercise was entirely different than this one. An academic paper allows the writer to stand off at a distance to examine a subject. There is a third person quality to such a paper.
Today, however, you have asked for something far different. This is testimony time! To speak of what matters to me requires a first-person approach. You have resorted to the tactics of an old-time revival meeting! Those of us who are presenting are asked to reach way down into our gut and find out what is really behind any academic snobbery we might have, or behind any religious mumbo-jumbo clergy like me might use (or hide behind).
So let’s get started. I have a few stories to tell, which I hope will shine a light on what matters to me and why. We can start with me as a little four-year-old in a class at church called the Sunbeams. I grew up in a deep south town in Mississippi in the 1950’s. The town was Laurel, and it was located in Jones County in the southeastern part of the state. During the Civil War, Jones County was called “The Free State of Jones” because it seceded from the Confederacy. Deserters from the southern army knew that if they could make it to Jones County, they were safe.
Laurel was a sawmill town founded by some investors from Ohio who saw dollar marks in those beautiful long-leaf pines that grew fast and created beautiful lumber. Mr. Mason, who lived on the street behind and above us in a big house, had the bright idea of what to do with all the sawdust accumulating at his sawmill. He managed to find just the right mixture of glue to mix with the sawdust, and he created a new kind of board, which he called Masonite.
A few blocks from our house was the home of Mr. and Mrs. Chisholm, a wealthy white family. They had a laundress, whose niece had a beautiful singing voice. The niece’s name was Leontyne Price. The Chisholms, along with Paul Robeson, helped pay Leontyne’s expenses at Julliard, and the rest is history.
There was a warm, loving, and beautiful side to Laurel, and I benefited from that. But there was also a violent, racist side to Laurel, and no one represents that better than another Laurel resident whose name was Sam Bowers. He co-founded the White Knights of the KKK in Mississippi, and he was one of those responsible for the triple murder of Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney near Philadelphia, MS, for which he served six years in federal prison. He also was responsible for the murder of Vernon Dahmer in Hattiesburg, for which he was sentenced to life in prison 32 years after the crime. He died in prison in 2006.
I mention these things about Laurel because they illustrate the schizophrenic dichotomy of the culture in which I was raised. On the one hand, there is the picture of a group of children in church singing “Jesus wants me for a sunbeam, to shine for him.” And on the other hand there is the menacing picture of murders and bombings and lynchings of anyone who supported civil rights.
Now back to that four-year-old. They taught us little choruses that I suppose many of you also learned as children. One of those songs that took root in me was Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world; red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world. It took root, but it took a long time for it to blossom. I was busy being a kid and growing into adolescence.
Those years were punctuated by some spiritual experiences that I have for the most part kept to myself. Its not that I am ashamed of them, but that I can’t explain them in words. All I can say for sure is that I had a number of experiences in which I felt a deep spiritual presence of something or Someone both outside of me and equally inside of me. They were not scary experiences; rather, they were comforting, reassuring, strengthening. I have no doubt that those experiences can be explained psychologically as part of my transition through adolescence; or, they could be explained sociologically as part of the southern religious culture in which I was immersed. But the truth is, I DON’T CARE! They were life-changing for me, for in those experiences I felt what I believed to be the presence of God. And that presence was unmistakably nudging me toward some kind of life work that would recognize that Presence and that somehow would help people. It was as vague as that.
By the time I was in high school, my attention was not primarily on the choice of a vocation. I excelled in both academics and in sports, and by my senior year I was one of the most sought-after high school football players in America. I had full scholarship offers from nearly every major football program in America. And given the trouble Ben Carson got into last week by saying he was offered a scholarship to West Point, I can say that West Point did not offer me a scholarship, because all students at West Point have their tuition paid. Instead, I was offered an appointment not only to West Point, but also to Annapolis and to Colorado Springs if only I would play football for them.
In the end, I chose to stay close to home, where I had friends and family. I signed a football scholarship with Ole Miss. My freshman year was the fall of 1965, only three years since the infamous Ole Miss riots over enrolling James Meredith as the first black student at Ole Miss. It was like the smoke had hardly cleared. By the year I arrived there was only a handful of black students on campus, and they were largely ostracized. The history department still taught that slavery was benevolent and good for the black race. You could major in English at Ole Miss (as I did) and never be asked to read one single page of William Faulkner, who was still looked at with suspicion in Oxford, MS.
I largely suppressed those spiritual experiences I mentioned, focused on doing what college athletes do. I worked hard, and the teams we had were good—very good. It was not unusual for us to be listed among the top ten teams in America. Our leader and quarterback was Archie Manning, whose sons Peyton and Eli now play for pro teams and are each a nemesis of the Patriots.
But it was in the context of one of those football games that I was suddenly brought back to reality. I can remember the moment as clearly as if it were yesterday. We were playing the University of Houston, a home game for us in Oxford. The game was historic because in the fall of 1968 a black football player had never played on the field of Hemingway Stadium, and the University of Houston had a star running back who was black. His name was Warren McVae. He was known as “Wondrous Warren” by his fans. Playing for Houston, he earned All-American recognition twice. His specialty was running back kick-offs.
Houston won the coin toss at the beginning of the game, and they chose to receive. That meant that Warren McVae would stand back in the end zone to receive the opening kick-off. I remember being on the sideline for the kickoff because I was not on the kick-off specialty team. When Houston lined up to receive our kick, I suddenly heard behind me a chant that grew louder and louder: “Kill that nigger; kill that nigger!” I turned and looked at the stands, and it was a sea of small confederate flags, as I suppose 30,000 fans were chanting as loud as they could.
I can hardly put into words my feelings at that moment. I was stunned, embarrassed, angry, confused, and bewildered all at the same time. I remember standing there humming to myself, Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world; red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight; Jesus loves the little children of the world. At that moment I knew that I could not stay. I had one more year of eligibility on a great team, but I had to get away from that and think. I had to figure out what was really important to me, and playing on a great college football team was not a high priority.
In January of 1969 I married my wife of now 46 years. We left Ole Miss and went straight to seminary in Louisville, KY, a place I considered way up north at the time. I did the normal three-year Master of Divinity program, and then I began another four years as a Ph.D. student. During those graduate student years, George Buttrick moved to Louisville and began to teach adjunctively at my seminary. Buttrick had been Preacher to the University here at Harvard’s Memorial Church. Before that he had served the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York for 25 years. After I took one of his courses in preaching, Buttrick asked me to be his teaching assistant.
It was Buttrick who convinced me that serving as pastor of a church could enable me to respond positively to those early spiritual experiences. It was Buttrick who taught me that a courageous church can make a difference in matters of justice and compassion. He also introduced me to the writing of Frederick Buechner, who is both a novelist and theologian. Buechner was a member of Buttrick’s church in New York, and it was Buttrick who influenced Buechner to go to Union Seminary. In one of his books, Buechner said that if you can answer yes to three questions, it’s a good chance that you will be happy in your vocation. First question: Are you good at it? Second question: Do you like it? Third question: Are you helping people? When I thought about the pastorate, I thought I could answer all three of those questions with a resounding yes.
By the time I finished my Ph.D., my sights were set on serving as a pastor and also teaching. I have done both throughout my career. I have had one foot in the church and one foot in academia, and that has been good for me and I hope has served the church and academia well.
So it is clear that church is important to me. I say that even though I am aware of the failures of the church. I have stayed with it through the years because I have found that leading a diverse group of individuals to be a congregation, a gathering of people who consciously and consistently practice important rituals at crucial transitions of life, who worship and study together, who consistently give their time and money to help in matters of compassion and justice, who in short create a community that reaches out beyond itself, is no small feat in a culture of individualism.
I care about caring. It matters that when someone is in the hospital, their pastor comes to see them. I have often thought of the contrast of the medical professionals and the pastor. The doctors and nurses enter a hospital room equipped with all the instruments of technology. They have tools for which we are all grateful to measure our blood pressure, our temperature, our fat content, and a whole host of crucial things. The pastor, on the other hand, enters the hospital room with nothing but a presence and a prayer. There is a touch of the hand and a word of greeting, and before I leave the hospital room there is usually a question: would you like for me to pray? And if the answer is yes, the prayer is short and caring. There is nothing technological about it, and there is nothing magical about it, but I know from long experience that it matters.
What does not matter to me very much is any list of doctrines. I suppose that is the reason I have remained a Baptist, even though the name Baptist makes many people think of fundamentalism. But Baptists, like the UCC and the Unitarians, come together on the basis of a covenant, not a list of doctrines. That covenant, although it varies from church to church, is basically to care for one another and the world and to make difference in our communities and our larger world.
In one particular November while I was serving as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Worcester, I was hosting an ecumenical and inter-faith Thanksgiving service. Thanksgiving, more than most of our major holidays, has kept a certain level of integrity. Halloween is a bit crazy, and Christmas, as much as I love it, has been ridiculously commercialized, but Thanksgiving for many people still maintains a level of integrity. Even those who do not choose to believe in any God can still pause and be grateful.
So I was hosting a community service of Thanksgiving, and among those I invited to help lead the service was the local Imam of the Islamic Center in Worcester. He was a nice enough follow, and he told me the week before that he would be happy to lead a prayer, but that he may have a conflict and be unable to attend himself, in which case he would send a representative. I said OK to that, and thought all was well.
On the evening of the community service, the worship leaders were all gathered in the foyer of the church waiting for the opening hymn during which we would all march in along with the choir. All the local clergy were there dressed in their finest liturgical colors, and I was nervous as could be. Why? Because the Imam had not appeared. Finally, just before time to begin the procession, word came to me that a representative of the Imam had arrived. Soon a young man was brought to me, and I said, “Are you from the Imam?” He looked at me and nodded yes. So I said, “Good—you stand right there with the other clergy and march in with them. Sit on a front pew, and when it is time for you, I will give you a signal. Just watch me.”
Well, what I did not know at that moment was that this poor fellow was not from the Imam. In fact, he had never been in a church in his life, and he had just arrived from Iraq a few days earlier. He had been an interpreter for the U.S. army in Iraq, had been threatened and shot in the stomach by another Iraqi, and had endured six surgeries before being granted asylum in the U.S. He had come to the church that night at the invitation of a friend. Now he found himself marching into an inter-faith service with the clergy, not knowing that he was to be called upon for prayer!
The sanctuary was full that night, and the service went as planned until time for the representative of the Imam to lead in prayer. I was sitting on the chancel, and when it was his time to come forward, I nodded to him and motioned for him to come up. He had a bewildered look, but I continued to motion for him to come up. Finally he come up on the chancel, walked over to my chair, and whispered, “What am I supposed to do?” I said, “You are supposed to lead us in prayer!” He said, “I don’t know what to say.” I said, “Why don’t you just say what’s on your heart.”
So, he walked to the pulpit, stood before all those people, and was silent for a while. Then he quietly said, “I have only been in this country for a few days, but I just want to say thank you.” And then he stepped down and went back to his seat. You could have heard a pin drop. It was one of the most eloquent statements of thanksgiving I have ever heard. It had nothing to do with doctrine.
It reminded me of another moment of thanksgiving that came in an academic setting. My wife is Dean of Education at Wheelock College in Boston, and therefore I sometimes attend their graduation ceremonies. One year the speaker for their graduation was Mr. Rogers, Fred Rogers of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” fame. Fred Rogers was a Presbyterian minister, and in his own quiet way he ministered to a vast congregation of children and adults alike.
That day he quietly reminded the graduates of all the people who sacrificed to enable them to be where they were that day. I’m not sure exactly how he pulled this off, but he said that he wanted to stop in the midst of his address to give those graduates a chance to think of and to be grateful for those who loved them, sacrificed for them, and influenced them for good. He said, “I’m going to stop now and let us remember them.” So he stopped speaking, and there was absolute silence in the auditorium…for quite a while. He just stood there with all those young people looking up at him, perhaps remembering the many times they had tuned in to see him on television while they were growing up. Soon, however, I could hear a sniff over to one side, then another sniff in the middle, and soon there were sniffs all over the auditorium. There was hardly a dry eye in the place!
So I suppose I can say that for me, gratitude matters. I add it to my list of things that matter: justice, compassion, authentic church that cares, and a sense of gratitude for life.
Six months this very day my wife of nearly 47 years was in the ER of Beth Israel Hospital having a stroke. She would stay in Beth Israel for eleven days and then transfer to Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Charlestown for five weeks. Her right arm and leg were paralyzed. Thankfully, her mind was fine and face was not affected. But we have spent the last six months working together in therapy and rehab.
Last week I was asked to speak at a Tuesday evening worship service at Briarwood Retirement Community, where many of our former church members and friends live. Various friends were asking me about how Donna was doing, and a friend who was playing the piano that evening asked me, “What have you learned from this experience?” The first thing out of my mouth was this: “I have learned what is important.”
Those we love, family, friends who care, people who pray for you and write cards and offer words of encouragement. Little things like this matter. There are many times when I, as a pastor and teacher, feel quite helpless to make a difference in the world. At those times I need to be reminded that there is a difference between MY world and THE world. I can make a difference in my world, and perhaps, in ways I can hardly fathom, it will make a difference in THE world.
I hope so.