Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Lint and Apartments

We start in apartments, and we end in apartments, and along the way we leave lint.

Lint is one of those things I never thought about much. It just is. You have to get rid of it, especially from the dryer.

Doing laundry this week, I noticed - as if for the first time - that lint is not random. If you are doing a load of whites, the lint will be white. If you are doing a load of jeans, the lint is blue. I know ... not very profound.

But to me, it was jarring to realize that lint is not simply dust and junk from the air - lint is actually a little bit of the clothes that is a lost during the drying process. I suppose, if I dried my jeans enough times, there would be nothing left but the button and the zipper.

If you have been reading my blog, you know that my Uncle Charles died a couple of weeks ago. For the last few years of his life, he lived in a two bedroom apartment. Come to think of it, he lived much of his life in an apartment - they call it a "flat" in London - but the last one was smaller than where I lived during law school. He had sold much of his stuff and moved into a small place that he could manage in his advancing years.

I remember how proud I was of the first apartment Gena and I lived in as a married couple. It was just a two-bedroom apartment, but it had big closets and a "dining room," and we thought it was cool.

We start in apartments, and we end in apartments, and along the way we leave lint. Here is what I mean. Since that apartment, Gena and I have lived in a couple of houses. They hold more stuff, more people, more memories. Along the way, we have left little bits of ourselves in neighborhoods, in towns, in jobs, in churches, hopefully in friends. While we have no plans to do so now, we may well end up in an apartment again some day, just enough for us to manage in our advancing years. Between now and then, we will leave a lot more of ourselves around. Some of our lint will be white, some blue, some dusty, all of it a part of ourselves.

There has been some great lint left in my life. Uncle Jerry left a wry wit mixed with a love of writing. Granddaddy left his smell when I hugged him. Great Uncle Sam left the joy of giving small treasures. Mavis left the model of what a friend is. Della left her song. Jenny left her resolute goodness. Jimmy left the sparkle in his eye. My father-in-law left a quick smile at a quiet joke.

Many of you, still living, have left your lint with me too, little parts of you that stay with me even when you are far away.

I think ending up in an apartment is the right thing to do. I think that means that you don't carry all your stuff with you. It means you have left things as you have gone. It means you have focused on leaving little bits of yourself in your world.

We start in apartments, and we end in apartments, and in between we leave lint.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Father, Pastor, Teacher, Friend... and Uncle

My Uncle Charles Wellborn died on October 1, and his funeral was today. What a man.

The short version - national champion debater, decorated ski troop soldier, featured presenter/personality on "The Baptist Hour" radio program, leader of Texas youth revival movement, pastor of Seventh & James Baptist in Waco, the "most outstanding graduate student ever" at Duke University, university chaplain and religion department chair at Florida State, director of FSU overseas programs, multiple-publication author, actor/director, preacher, teacher, speaker, football fan, joke teller, world traveler, philanthropist, Christian, father, brother, uncle.

His last book is called Grits, Grace, and Goodness. It is primarily a collection of some of his previously-published essays and sermons, but the last section, called "Credo," is a combination personal testimony/autobiography that is one of the most transparent and inspiring pieces I have ever read.

He asked that his tombstone bear the words "Father, Pastor, Teacher, Friend." His pastor used those words today as the basis for the memorial message in Uncle Charles' honor. I will not try here to duplicate that sermon. Suffice it to say that those words - and many more - cannot do justice in trying to encapsulate Uncle Charles.

As is often true for me at funerals, I found myself wishing that I had taken more advantage of the days - in scriptural language, I would say that I should have better "redeemed the time" - that I had with him. Our relationship was largely one of typing - letters, emails, reading things that each other had written. I should have called him more often. I particularly should have called him more during his last months when he was sick. Hearing from his best friends today what he thought of me made me wish all the more that I had called him more often.

And yet, I am happy with the relationship we had. Of course I wish I had known him better. Of course it is my fault that I did not know him more. Still, I knew him, and I think I understood him.

Our politics were not identical - often not even closely related - but I believe we both brought the same idea from our debate lives to our politics. That is, he modeled for me how to listen to the opposition with all the kindness in the world without sacrificing personal conviction.

Our religion was - I hope - very close to identical. There is very little of what I know of his spiritual life to which I do not ascribe or hope I follow. He lived his life in certainty of the victory that was gained on the cross.

These words of his, from his last book, are a challenge to me: "Wherever the church is, there is love. Precisely to the extent that the church does not live by love, it misses the mark of authenticity. The early church made no claims to out-organize, out-promote, out-build, out-manipulate, or even out-think anyone else. It did promise to out-love everybody else. The hostile world in which if found itself marveled that these women and men of faith out-loved the pagan world. Their love reached out to embrace those who did not accept the church's doctrinal teaching, as well as to human beings of both genders, all races, and every economic or social status."

I encourage you to read his stuff. I was lucky to know him as well as I did, even recognizing that through my own fault I did not know him better.

Rest in peace Uncle Charles. Heaven is a better place because you are there. Our lives are certainly better because you were here.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Hospitality

I have a friend who is a recent college graduate with a degree in "hospitality." That means she has learned how to run a hotel or a restaurant.

It can be tempting for us Christians to think of hospitality as a limited thing like that – you know, something like having a friend over to lunch. While opening our homes and our churches to others is without doubt a part of it, I think Christian hospitality is so much more than that – it is opening our hearts. Our word hospitality comes from the Latin word that derives from hospes - "guest." The New Testament Greek word for it - philoxenia - literally means “love of strangers.” It is extending welcome to one - anyone - who does not have what we have and inviting him or her to join us and share in what we have. The next step, then, is to invite the one who is now sharing what we have to join in what we are doing.

I have the blessing, or the curse, to be able to remember random details. Along with batting averages and the capitals of all the countries of Central America, I can recite the lyrics of way too many songs. I can wade through my memories of the Eagles and the Gatlin Brothers and the Who to find a host of songs I learned in youth choir. One song we sang on a choir tour where we did mission work among the homeless of Chicago includes these words: “Give a cup of water in the master’s name, feed the poor and needy, comfort those in pain. Clothe the naked millions, touch the sick and lame. Welcome in the stranger knocking at your door. Go to all the lonely where few have been before. Help the poor lost sinner, tell him Jesus came. Give a cup of water in the master’s name.”

Fast forward from that Chicago trip of 1978 to a moment in November of 1992 that seems to be appropriate as I ponder the virtue of hospitality – it was the night I was ordained as a deacon.

My current church, Broadway Baptist, enjoys great tradition and standing in the Baptist world. Perhaps the only church with more tradition is the First Baptist Church of Nashville, site of the founding of the Baptist Sunday School Board and widely recognized as the “mother church of the Southern Baptist Convention,” back when that was a good thing.

That description would not lead many to believe that FBC would be open to variations from the stereotypes that many who like to toss labels around would expect. Yet even that bastion of tradition and Baptist history welcomed an amazingly diverse group to its deacon body that Sunday night when five of us were ordained. Fred was the poster child for Baptist deacons – a middle-aged white man who had raised a couple of sons through the youth group of the church. But the rest of us… well, I was 27, young and brash and wet behind the ears. David was single. Danny was Hispanic. And Mavis was single and female.

And yet that high holy Baptist church welcomed us and ordained us and charged us with serving the community of grace that is that great church. We did not need to look alike or be of similar status.

I read a wonderful quote from Dieter Zander. Although I do not agree with him on everything, I think he shows great insight when it comes to hospitality: “When we moved to San Francisco, we lived on a street where our neighbors included an atheist Jewish family, a Buddhist family, an Irish Catholic family, a gay family, and a Hindu family. There was no sense of community, so we decided to become conduits of the kingdom by practicing the discipline of hospitality. We learned people's names and used them. We introduced neighbors to each other. And something began to happen. My atheist Jewish neighbor came into my kitchen once and said, ‘You know, something has happened since you all moved to this neighborhood. It's hard to describe, but it's like an enzyme has been added. Where once there was no life, now there's life. What is that?’ And I said, ‘That's the gospel of Jesus being lived out in our lives.’ "

I heard another great illustration just last night. A yourg woman meeting her future in-laws for the first time felt their love and embrace, not because they knew her well yet, but simply because she was special to their son.

I am a very “churchy” person. I take the New Testament language that the church is the body of Christ very seriously and very personally. I believe that the way Christ most often works in the world is through the church - He hugs with our arms, speaks with our voices, feeds with our hands - and I intend to be an integral part of that. My understanding of that role was heightened, if not started, by a rudimentary understanding of hospitality, in singing about the importance of a cup of cold water and an offering of welcome. My faith was heightened again, if not confirmed, by the welcome I received as a church laid hands on me as I knelt between an Hispanic man and a single woman.

There is nothing wrong with running a hotel and inviting someone in for a meal, but we Christians cannot stop there. We open our hearts to the stranger, just as God open His heart to all of us who are special to His son.