Sunday, November 30, 2014

People walking in darkness have seen a great light . . .

It's the first Sunday in Advent.  In the traditional Christian church calendar it begins a time before Christmas for preparation, for expectation, and for waiting.  Today in many churches there will be wonderful, visible, symbolic elements of this season, based on centuries of tradition.   The first candle of the advent wreath, the prophecy candle, will be lit as the story begins again, probably echoing the ancient yet contemporary words of Isaiah to "Prepare the way of the Lord."  and the prophecy that  "the people walking in darkness have seen a great light." . Perhaps tonight there will be the hanging of the greens in sanctuaries, cedar for strength, pine for eternal life, and holly and ivy for the passion and suffering of Christ.

Thursday I was driving home late after a full day of eating and being thankful (thankful to as well as thankful for the cooks and food respectively).  As I approached my driveway I saw a great light.   The lights could be seen in the dark night sky long before I got there,  the lights of Wal-Mart and the headlights and tail-lights of hundreds of cars of those that had been drawn there  For a moment I was concerned that the place was on fire. So I turned in there instead of to my home on the hill.

There were lines of cars the likes of which I had never seen, lined up to receive the blessings of the night, flat screen TV's, computers, bicycles, bags and boxes of all shapes and sizes,  all being fitted into back seats and trunks in a manner that would make the best Tetris champion proud, until there was no room to fit anything else in.  There were no parking places anywhere in the huge parking lot.

Mesmerized I parked on the edge of the lot and went inside. Christmas music was playing.  Bright strands of Christmas lights and garlands of evergreen highlighted the aisles full of bargains, marked with signs clearly declaring the way to savings.   There were hundreds of folks inside the store. Every check-out was open.  The way for the early Christmas shopper had been made straight. And the prices made low.

And all were exalting.

We were all exalting. Yeah. I bought something.

There were thousands of people in Bethlehem when Jesus was born. Every house, room and inn were full of people gathered by family name. But there was no room to fit Him in anywhere.

And very, very few noticed the true Light in the dark that night.

The true white hot blue light special. The Perfect Gift. Unimaginable saving.


Saturday, November 29, 2014

Just waiting on kick-off . . .

Saturday. Sofa. Gameday. RTR. Coffee.

I won't be going to Tuscaloosa today unless a ticket just falls into my lap, which is highly unlikely here on the sofa. .  The last time I paid more than full price for a college football ticket (more than full price for a good used car) was in 2010.  It was a great first half for Bama.   The last thing I remember is going to get a hot dog at half-time. I have a hazy recollection of fumbling the hot dog on the way back to my seat.  Cam Newton ran up into the stands and ate that too.  So I don't pay too much for tickets anymore.  Bad karma.

The first UA-AU game that I remember attending was in 1967.  I was a schizophrenic fan at the time, having been an Alabama fan for all of my 12 years, but now facing the troubling fact that my brother and my future brother-in-law now stood on the Auburn sideline.  But it didn't really matter too much that day.  My nerdy attention was more directed to the airline jets flying low over Legion Field in their approach to the airport.  They seemed to be flying sideways like  wild geese in a hurricane.  Great moves were not limited to the gridiron as the huge crowd was forced to avoid umbrellas that had been ripped inside out by vicious wind gusts and converted into lethal missiles.  It was a miserable day.  I was watching the field, however, as Kenny Stabler slogged through the mud for the winning score for Bama.   7-3.

I was an Auburn fan for five years after that  It was hard for a Junior High guy to resist the perks of  having a brother and future brother in law on football scholarship.  Hanging at the athletic dorm, practice footballs with the AU branded on them. Auburn swag.  And lots of  games on Saturdays.

 When I was in ninth grade I broke my leg in early November.  My brother got me a sideline pass to the Auburn Alabama game that year.  I was standing on the sideline at about the 35 yard line when Connie Frederick ran right by me as he took a fake punt around right end about 99 yards for a touchdown. Auburn won handily.

I was there in blue and orange when Alabama with Johnny Musso trounced Auburn and recently annointed Heisman winner Pat Sullivan in 1971   I was there yelling War Eagle, actually mostly bored, then stunned,  for Punt Bama Punt in 1972.

But the next year I went to Tuscaloosa as a UA student and my birthright was restored for life.  My timing was great.  Bama won the next decade.

As I write this I think about how much fun it is to remember where I was and who I was watching the Alabama Auburn game with.  Everybody can describe the great plays and the great games. Bo over the top. Wrong way Bo.  The Kick. Punt Bama Punt. The Great Camback.  Whatever we're calling last year . . .still too painful for me to talk about or listen to anyone else talk about.

Yes, everyone knows all those big games and plays.  But there are lots of other things I know. I know how hard it is for a skinny ninth grader on crutches to survive a mob on a field after an Iron Bowl.  I know how hard it is to get out of a seatbelt that is locked and will not open and you are in a hurry to get to kick-off, and why you should always carry sharp scissors or a knife in the console.  . I know what it is like to drive a car full of slightly inebriated friends through hostile crowds as they make crude proposals of marriage out of the open windows. I know how good it feels to crawl inside the fireplace at Cracker Barrel at exit 76 after an Auburn win in the frozen rain and sleet.  I know that the concentration required to watch the game on TV actually accelerates the painting of a room.  I know that it is best for me to watch the game with about 100,000 other people, or by myself (or with another who is wise enough to leave me alone while I watch).  I know that you can listen to the game in Latvia, but nobody there cares about it.  I know that after the game the bars on the strip are great if you win, and pretty good even if you lose. I know that we shouldn't act like we never won before.   I know the patience that comes after a loss, with no chance for relief for a full year.

I am sure you have also learned valuable life lessons from the Alabama-Auburn game.

It is, after all an educational experience.  It is held right in the middle of two great university campuses (I originally typed campi.  Turns out that's not correct, just another example of the educational component of the game and its extensions).

Some say college football has become too important.

Yeah, I might say that some days.

But not today.  Not about the game that has taught me so much.

And it is just too much fun.


Thursday, November 27, 2014

Give thanks to who?

The collards are cooking and the pastichio is baking and the coffee is just right. It is hard not to be thankful.

Early this morning I realized that I had forgotten to get any pork for the collards, so, much to my disliking, I girded my loins and took a trip to Wal-Mart. It was amazingly quiet there. I guess everyone else had enough sense to buy what they needed yesterday.  But as always I ran into a friend, one of those people who add color to your life. We spoke for a moment.  Then I went to the checkout where the cashier greeted me and smiled at my purchase, immediately knowing what I must have forgotten, and wishing me a Happy Thanksgiving, even as she was beginning a full day of work on the line.  In the parking lot I saw an old friend across the way, a friend who has worked there for years gathering buggies, who threw up his hand and yelled "Happy Thanksgiving."  He always greets me as he works, whether it be in the heat of summer, or the cold of winter, rain or shine.

As I left to head home I thanked God for them.  But oddly the prayer was not very satisfying. It didn't seem like enough.  Odd.

The past couple of weeks I have spent a considerable amount of time thinking about what I have to be thankful for.  The list is endless once I take a little time with the exercise and get on a roll. The collards, pistachio and coffee are just the tip of the iceberg. A really nice tip, but just the tip all the same.

But this morning I was struck with a thought.  Shocking I know.

For days, really for my whole life, in times such as these,I have concentrated on what I am thankful for and have been quite impressed with my faithfulness to the discipline.

Maybe it is time to think more about who I am thankful to.

It changes things,  this shift in focus about gratitude, from thankful for to thankful to.  My list suddenly changes from a list heavy  with things, to a list primarily of names.

To think about who I am thankful to makes me remember, maybe even admit, that the blessings in my life, the goodness that I enjoy, are grace.  They are not something I earned or deserve.  More often than not the contrary is true.  To remember who I am thankful to is humbling even as it blesses.  I cannot fool myself that I am somehow responsible and deserving of the things for which I am thankful. Someone else has offered me graces and gifts.

And that is what I am thinking about this morning.

Of course I give thanks to God.  And the truth is, it was during that early morning conversation as I was tearing and washing collards, putting stuff on to cook that God asked the question.

"It's really nice that you are thanking me, but what about those folks at Walmart, and all the other flesh and blood people, who have loved you, corrected you, taught you, listened to you,  helped you, made you laugh, or worked so that your life could be better?  When are you going to start thanking them?  They have been doing my work for me, for you."

It is not always easy being in a relationship with someOne who is always right.

So I began to think about it.  It changes everything, what God has asked this morning.  Because if I take it seriously, I know that I must be thankful to too many people, many of whom I would like to not have to thank.  Folks that are disagreeable, or that disagree with me or I disagree with them.  Outrageous people. Conservatives. Republicans. IRS agents. You get the idea. Your list of disagreeable people may be different than mine. It might even include me.  But, the idea is the same.

God wants us to find that thing in each other that is graceful, that is giving, that is good.  Because we are all creations of that loving God to whom we all give thanks. And He wants us to be thankful to them.

Even white policemen or black thugs. Muslims or conservative Christians, agnostics or atheists or Bible thumpers. . Tea Partiers or radical liberals. Felons or saints.

It is too easy to simply give thanks to God for the goodness in everyone, although that is important.  It is time to give thanks for all of God's creation.

But just as important to give thanks to that creation, human and otherwise, for as little or as much of God's grace as they have given with their existence.

How do we do that?

I don't know.

But I guess that's something I have to think about now. And I know it will change things.

Happy Thanksgiving.  Thanks be to God.

And thanks to you too.


Saturday, November 22, 2014

Get the picture?

Saturday. Sofa. Coffee.

When I was young I got my first camera.  Back then it was a big deal. Now, of course,  the common can-opener comes with photo capability.  But as a child I was excited to have my first camera.  I would take it on trips, or pull it out for the rare southern snowfall. Recently I discovered a few of those early photos.  There were about fifty shots of old faithful in different stages of faithfulness, panoramic shots of snow in the backyard, the Rocky Mountains from what seemed like about a hundred miles away, fuzzy frames of the traditional beach sunsets, and a dot in a deep blue sky which I am sure was a large bird, probably a buzzard which I had hoped was an eagle.  But from that distance it was impossible to tell.

 In those days  film had to be dropped off at the drug store to be developed.  Then there was a day or two wait  before they were ready to be picked up in sealed white packages.  Only then could you hope to see again the beauty of what you had seen in person.

 Generally speaking I was disappointed.

The photos I took never captured the moment.  I was either too far away or too close or I was moving to quickly as I quick-drew my camera, resulting in a blurry mess.

But the biggest disappointment now is that I failed to include the people around me in most of the photos.   My photos back then were all context.  All stage scenery.  But very few actors.

Things have certainly changed.  Most of us have excellent cameras in our pockets which also operate as phones.  And most of the photos stored on those phones are close-ups of people's faces, quite often including our own.  Wonderful pics of smiling faces.  Definitely better than my childhood photo archive.

But even so, the selfie explosion has also created an amusing exercise.  Was that when were were together at that concert? Or at that ballgame? Which concert or ballgame?  Or that trip? Or at that birthday, wedding, graduation, or whatever party?  Where was that taken? It's hard to tell, except maybe for the presence of sunburn or clothing or the brand of beer sitting on the bar.

I  prefer these close-ups of  faces, happy to be posed so closely together..  But still, context and scenery are important too, especially as we try to remember.  So the best are the ones that capture both.  The actors and the scenery.

I've got a bunch of favorite photos, if it is possible to have more than one favorite.  There is one that sits on my mantle made three or four years ago.  My sons Benjamin and Vann are on either side of me as we walk up the hill through the pine trees in front of my mother's house. We are all walking toward the camera, smiling the way that Bentley boys do,  each with our hands in our jean pockets.  Or a  black and white close-up of my dad and Vann sitting close on the sofa at my sister Terri's house at a holiday gathering, facing each other in deep conversation, a few months before my dad died. Another is one of those random phone pics that I took at Bryant-Denny stadium a few seasons back on a beautiful fall afternoon. I was in the nose bleed seats and noticed the Vanderbilt flag, one of the SEC banners that adorned the rim of the stadium, a scrim backlit by the sun and flapping in the breeze.  I was going to send it to Vann, who was a student at Vandy at the time..  Accidentally, and to my great fortune, the picture also captured my game companion, her face and hair shining in the sun, totally unposed and unprepared for a picture.

And of course every picture of my grandson Charlie.

And so it is with our life view.  There is value in huge, sweeping panoramic views.  And value in close up personal shots.  But sometimes both views are necessary to get the real picture. It can't always be all background. But the background is where we live and love after all, and tells a story that explains the smiles or the tears of the close-ups, and helps us to remember.

My Saturday morning routine around the house generally involves listening to some news shows while I piddle around.  This morning the news is dominated by stories about immigration and race.  Specifically President Obama's executive action regarding immigration and the anticipated grand jury report  from Ferguson, Missouri, regarding the shooting of Michael Brown..

I have my own strong feelings about both.  But for this morning I am just reminded that it is important to get the whole picture.  Panorama is important. The sweeping background of history and present context is necessary to understanding. We all choose which panorama vistas are worthy of a pic. And those choices say much about us.   But close-ups are what  make it truly personal. The things  we have chosen to get close enough to for a close-up also say much about us.

Both are necessary to make the good decision. Depending on one or the other too much can result in a lost opportunity for progress in the panoramic view, and justice for the individuals.

And of course some of our shots are blurred by our haste or by unsteady hands shaken by fear or cold. And sometimes we miss the best thing about the picture because it got in there by accident.

And sometimes we get the better view by  looking at someone else's album.

I love my pictures.  I've got thousands of them.  But they are all snapshots of a moment. There is not a one of them that explains what happened next.

I guess that is what journals and blogs are for.

Get out and find some close-ups in your panorama on this beautiful day.


Sunday, November 16, 2014

Can I get a warm up here?

Sunday. Sofa. Coffee.

 As I pour a cup of coffee and let it sit on the coffee table while I get ready to write, it is amazing how quickly it cools on this frigid morning. Meanwhile, back at my beloved coffee pot on the counter, the precious liquid is still steaming, the heat being retained by the larger body of liquid in the carafe, and continuously restored by the coffee maker,  the source of the heat in the first place.

It is perfect as it sits in the beautiful glass and stainless steel carafe.

But as I try to write, it is worthless to me over there..

For the coffee to help me it must be poured in my cup and carried out into the cold, cold world of my living room.

A dangerous thing, this separation, this pouring.  But it is necessary, even if a little chilling,  if I am to drink from the cup.

There will be thousands of sermons delivered this morning. And that is just in Alabama.  Some of them will be part of a cleverly worded series advertised and marketed on social media, church newsletters and signs,  designed to attract the faithful back into the sanctuary for another Sunday, with the hope that somehow the artwork and wordplay will attract new numbers, seekers, the curious about God, to find that church and give it a try.   Come to us, all who are thirsty, and learn to be like us. Come here to share a hot cup in the welcome center. But come to us.  We are surely not going to bring it out to you. No curb service here.

It will get cold out there.

Out there.  The world.  The evil place. Certainly no place for the church, the Body of Christ to be hanging out.  The world might rub off on us if we rub up against it.  No, it is much better, much safer, much warmer, if we stay in this place, this sanctuary, this welcome center, that God has clearly created  to set the blessed apart from the world, so that we may not become of this dirty, dirty world. Jesus wants us to stay here, stay close, where the coffee is always hot.and the filth of the world never contaminates.

There will be some in the pulpit this morning who will blame the world for the woes of the church. Attendance is in decline.  Commitment is lacking. Sin is rampant.  It is the fault of the satanic entertainment industry, or the godless government leaders. It is because of the demon possessed gays and lesbians, or the Muslims, or the outcast and oppressed others, and especially because of those so-called Christians who stand up and stand with them, apparently with no regard for what may be rubbing off on them.  Some pastors will proclaim that the world out there is the problem, the cause of our chilling cold, and we must not risk tracking the dirt inside. Close the doors, the heat might get out.  Were you born in a barn?

Some will even point out that the world is an abomination to God.

The world that God so loves.  The world that Jesus came to, rubbed shoulders with, ate and drank with, wrapped his loving arms around despite abominable sin and filthiness of body, mind and spirit.

The world that is us.

The world that Jesus came not to condemn, but to show the way to live and die.

And most importantly,  to show the way to love.

In the world. In this world.

The world is not the problem, all who are preaching and listening today.  The world is who we are to love, wherever that is, and no matter how dirty it gets.

Because that is where Jesus is.  And he is not lonely. He loves it out there with his friends.

It is so sad when the glass that we are looking through darkly has become the windows of our churches, those of us on the inside unable to see clearly Jesus loving on the world in need of love. The world He came to save, whether we choose to be with Him or not.

My coffee is growing cold and I know where to go to remedy that.

And the same for my heart, despite what you may hear from a pulpit today.

Into the world. That's where Jesus is. And he doesn't just serve a drink of cool living water.

He gives warm-ups as well.


Saturday, November 8, 2014

Changes (a little political for Saturday morning, but give me a break, we got shellacked)

Saturday. Sofa. Coffee.

It has been over a month since I have been home on Saturday morning.  Way back then the leaves were still green, with a little brown, and I worried if we were going to see reds and golds this year.  On that Saturday morning I didn't have a leak in the pipe to my water heater and Bama was still undefeated, if only by a few hours. It seems that things change while I'm not looking.   On that Saturday morning in early October, the sun rose close to the middle of my bedroom window.  It rose all the way to the left this morning.

I am a wreck. I don't know what to do. First the leak in the water heater, Bama has a loss,  and now it appears that either the sun or the earth has shifted radically while I was not watching. Heaven or earth has moved.

Surely the end is near.

So I might as well not fix the leaky water heater pipe.

Other things have changed since last week..

Last week our nation was under an imminent threat of an ebola epidemic disaster of Biblical proportion. But since then the massive outbreak of ebola in the United States has been brought under control. Other than health workers who were brought home from Africa for treatment, there have been a total of four people in the U. S. infected, two while administering treatment to a patient in Texas. Two contracted the disease in Africa, one of whom died.  One doctor, Craig Spencer, is being treated in New York and is in stable condition. There has been an international effort to assist the beset countries in west Africa in bringing the ebola outbreak under control.   The United States sent military troops to construct treatment infrastructure, offered the expertise of the CDC,  and provided economic aid, supporting those countries in giving the world hope that the corner is being turned at the source of the viral outbreak.  While thousands are still infected and being infected, there is cautious optimism that the virus is being contained.

ISIS, which as recently as last week was reported to be poised on our Mexican and Canadian borders to invade our country, seems to be concentrating its activities in Iraq, and appears to be weakening. The group has been exposed for what it is and isolated when it left the confines of Syria, even among Muslim nations in the region. The international coalition, put together primarily through American efforts and which includes several Muslim nations, appears to have turned the tide against the inhumanely cruel terrorist organization.

As recently as last week the American economy was in freefall.   But miraculously changes have occurred.  The U. S. economy is humming.  Unemployment is at 5.8 percent, the lowest since mid-2008.  The economy is on track to produce more jobs than any year since 1999.  The U. S. economy has produced private sector job growth for 56 consecutive months, the longest such period since these matters have been recorded. Government employment has shrunken significantly. Inflation is minimal.  The stock market remains at record highs.  Corporate profits are off the charts. The U. S. budget deficit has declined every year since 2009.  The GDP increased by 4.6 percent in the 2nd quarter, and 3.5 in the third quarter, both much higher than expected, and indicators of a growing economy.

As recently as last week the oil industry was under attack in the United States, making it virtually impossible to conduct business.  But this week American oil production is at record levels. America exports more than it imports. Oil prices are down.  Gasoline prices are down. Russia's economy  which depends to a great degree on the sell of oil is suffering because of the falling prices.  It is the same issue that was the demise of a couple of Putin's predecessors in office.  That might be even better than cheap gas.

I can't imagine what happened, how all of these disastrous things and so many more could have changed so abruptly.  I heard and watched for myself the awful reports of a disastrous freefall economy, the ebola outbreak unchecked, the imminent ISIS takeover of our homeland, the attempt to destroy the oil industry.  It was all on video, narrated with creepy Halloweenish voices, proving that all of the assertions of doom and gloom were true. And all apparently President Obama's fault.

I was in Colorado.  And I was watching political advertisements on TV.  And every one of the assertions, and more, were corroborated by reliable Facebook posts here in Alabama.. How in the world could things have changed so quickly?

There is only one answer I guess, as much as I hate to admit it. I guess it was the Republican wave victory on Tuesday.  I just couldn't have dreamed of results so quickly.

And no doubt they will quickly correct the issue of the liberal sun moving so far to the left.

I guess I'll have to fix the water heater pipe after all.  I feel like I need a hot shower.

Just kidding. I pray for nothing but wisdom and good things for all those elected. And a return to a political environment which allows us to laugh together.  Otherwise this whole writing thing is not nearly as much fun.



Real Time Analytics