Thursday, December 8, 2011

Batteries Included
Once upon a Christmas dreary
while I pondered, weak and weary,
what bolt to fasten to what nut
or gizmo with a gadget put-
instructions scattered everywhere
my troubled fingers filled with care
for Santa Claus must come that night
his inept “elf” was filled with fright
that nothing that he did was right.
Then all at once I heard a tapping
as of someone gently rapping,
rapping at my kitchen door.
It’s but a trance I surely felt
like sun on snowflakes, it would melt,
but continued sounding without pause
begging me to cease my cause
and from my labors go and seek
the tapping noise and grab a peek
at whom was knocking on my door
at such an hour when many snore,
or wait with senses that do hum
expecting Christmas soon to come.
Could it be Santa at my door
with toy pieces on my floor?
Alas, it was not the jolly elf
but my neighbor all by himself.
An older and a wiser friend
he offered me a twinkling grin. . .
a paper sack he handed me
which was fraught with mystery:
“Been there done that,” he smiling said
“Batteries not included. . .
finish up and go to bed.”
“Merry Christmas, Ho! Ho! Ho!”
into the blowing snow he did go.
On memories such do I now dwell
like stars they gently cast their spell
of loving gestures given with care
by those who loved and did not spare
gifts transcending words of grace
with acts of kindness held fast in place.
These Christmas feelings still enthrall
and bind me back with memory’s call,
so even now my heart oer’flows
as tinsel in the firelight glows.
Santa comes despite ourselves
and fills our life worn, barren shelves
with batteries new which tend the soul-
Christmas comes to make us whole.
Phil Leftwich
Christmas 2011

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Sunday Morning

Sunday Morning

            “It’s time to get up,” my mother would say in a gentle voice nudging me awake.     I would roll over and bury my face in the pillow because it knew it was Sunday morning.

            “Hurry or we’ll be late,” she would speak in a louder and sterner tone.

            “I don’t want to go,” I’d complain with my face still buried.

            “Now, Phil,” she would reply. “You know we have to go to church. You’ll feel bad all week if we don’t.”

            Going to church, which the majority of people did right after World War II, was a requirement. The consequence of not going was feeling guilty.

            Well. . . at least it was for my mother and probably a number of others. For a child of four or five it was like taking a weekly whipping, or a tonic that would fix what ailed you. Church was supposed to be good for you.

            I confess I don’t have many memories of what happened when we got there. My father, who was a Deacon for a while, didn’t want to be there any more than I did. He could find excuses like needing a last drag on a Lucky Strike right before we went in, or finding that the car mysteriously wouldn’t start. The second resulted from pulling off the black cable on the battery which worked fine as an excuse if it was raining. Unfortunately, it didn’t work on sunny days because we were only three short blocks from the Columbia Theological Seminary chapel which was home to a Presbyterian new church development that would build its first unit during my childhood right across the street from the campus.

            Oh, I remember a few scattered funny things about worship like the Sunday morning an Irish Setter wandered into worship right in the middle of the minister’s pastoral prayer and sniffed his rear. Since our pastor’s prayers were spontaneous and unscripted he would lean forward on the pulpit with the fingers of his right hand pinching the bridge of his nose as if to keep his eyes shut. It also meant his hand was in the way of his mouth and you could hardly hear what he was mumbling to God. The Irish Settler got a whooping, “Oh my Lord! Amen.” That made for a quick end of what was normally about a ten minute prayer.

            I also remember a Pentecost Sunday that was unusually hot where the windows were opened and right a cue as the preacher was talking about the Holy Spirit being like a “heavenly dove” a flock of pigeons flew in and perched on the rafters. It bordered on some of the best staging I’ve seen before or since as if the pastor and the pigeons had rehearsed the whole thing. There was a good bit of ducking and dodging going on, or using the fans from the local funeral home to shield one’s head. Pigeons tend to be messy birds.

            Other than that I don’t remember much except that I liked the minister because he was a warm, friendly, and caring man who knew everybody by name, rank, and serial  number. He was a wonderful pastor who could preach an intelligent sermon, though I can’t say I remember sermons even now very well which leads to the comment that though most of us don’t remember a sermon, or even the text ten minutes after we’ve left the church building, preaching does have a cumulative, teaching effect on shaping moral values and theological reasoning.

            What I do remember all too well was going to Sunday School where during my early years I was in a combined class with kindergarten aged kids through about the third grade. It must have been a prescribed practice in those days for the teacher to leave an empty child sized chair next to hers. I’ve heard others my age talk about the experience of being told that this chair was for Jesus and that he “did not like” loud, rowdy children. Some of the third graders might raise a hand to ask a question, but the rest of us sat like we were carved of stone. Even wiggling in our chairs was frowned upon. I was half sacred that Jesus would actually show up and we’d have the second coming right then because someone had been bad.

            Like going to worship, I don’t recall much of anything the teacher said who was an imposing force in her own right. I can’t say that I even remember being baptized at the age of twelve because my father had been a Baptist at some point in his life and believed in “believer’s baptism.” It would have been easier to have had me baptized as a baby since I was rebellious by the age of twelve and didn’t really care whether I joined the church, or not.

I went through a “Communicant’s Class” my eleventh year of enduring church, but what I recall wasn’t the sacrament itself, but the pastor’s constant kindness and special interest in me. He became a mentor as I worked on my Eagle Scout and God and Country awards. I spent a lot of time with him personally and knew him as an honest, truthful, loving, gentleman. I respected clergy men in general since there were no clergy women back then.

            I’ve had plenty of time since childhood to examine my feelings about the motivations of why I was compelled to go to church. It had a lot to do with social conventions in a small southern town from the 1940’s through the early 1970’s. Mostly it had to do with instilling moral values about how to live a faithful, obedient life as a follower of Christ. Church worship and Sunday School were intended to teach us basic human values like The Golden Rule, the wisdom of the Beatitudes, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Ten Commandments. All of these words of faith were memorized and nearly everyone in church could recite them by heart. We didn’t use creedal statements like The Apostle’s Creed in those days, at least not in “my” church.

            The pity of it all is that many of us, child and adult alike, went home on Sundays not feeling the “peace that passeth all understanding,” but a sense of impending doom. When we heard Calvin’s claim that we were “totally depraved” and victims of “original sin,” we felt pretty lacking in spiritual worth.

            The truth of my mother’s statement that I “would feel pretty bad all week if I didn’t go church” was way off the mark. What I felt was the fear of God. I felt even worse when I got home. Guilt would have beat the trump card of the “wrath of God” any day. Of course, we set out immediately in our Sunday finest most Sabbath days and drove down a long, winding, red dirt road to my maternal grandparent’s farm house where we had more hymn singing, praying and preaching.

            So Sunday’s in general were a bummer.

            I also had what was a precocious ability to see the raw truth about the community of faith that wasn’t always that faithful. There were married men cheating on their wives, and wives cheating on their husbands which everybody knew in a small town. There was a man my father swore pocketed a few dollars every Sunday while counting the offering. My mom, who was an accountant and did some of the taxes for church members, could figure out pretty easily who was shorting Uncle Sam. There were also the church wars over such things as changing from The King James Version of the Bible to the Revised Standard. God you would have thought that God himself would come down and strike the pastor dead for even recommending such a radical departure from what “was right.” Even though we sat nestled in the basement of our new education building while waiting on money to build a sanctuary, I heard a lot of angry chatter about the “pinko, communist, liberals” on the faculty of the seminary next door. It seemed to me that most of those horrible “liberals” went to our church! One of the professors had a reputation as a hyper-conservative, and another as being a strict Calvinist. I gratefully had neither of them to contend with as professors by the time I got to seminary, though their ghosts lingered everywhere.

            We also fought about a “new” hymnbook that was mostly a little thicker with a different colored cover, but included the same hymns we had always sung. The poor pastor labored through all of the discontentment and somehow managed to stay sane.

            And, the cheaters kept on cheating, Mr. Brown kept hitting Mrs. Brown and giving her black eyes, and the real “sinners” waged war on the more progressive thinkers. My parents, especially my father who eventually quit going to church all together, complained mightily at our dinner table about what these examples taught the children since we sort of knew what was going on. Conflicts, contradictions, and ironies abounded. No wonder I buried my face in the pillow and complained, “I don’t want to go to church!”

            The horrible truth is that we don’t seem to have moved that far in over sixty years. Only the arguments change. We moved from fighting about integration in the deep South to ordaining women to the War in Vietnam to gay and lesbian ordination. And so the story goes for those who remember their own history. And we do this in the name of Jesus?

            It’s not hard at all to figure out why so many people don’t want to go to church, or worse yet, never even give church a thought. To outsiders we look like a bunch of idiots who fight among ourselves constantly, even if that’s not usually the case. We also don’t seem to offer a compelling reason to eat up half of our Sunday “day of rest” to be bored by things we don’t remember. We mostly re-cycle bulletins these days so at least we are helping replace some of the pine trees we help slaughter. But the bulletin is at least a reminder of what went on if we are forgetful and want to hold on to it for a few days..

Yet for whatever reasons some of us keep going to church and pledging our dollars to support something that seems terribly deformed in the hope that we can somehow make “the body of Christ” healed and whole.

            I hear the comment often that people go to church to experience community. I believe this to be true, but there a hundred different choices on a given Sunday morning to experience community with friends and people who think as we do. Drive by any Starbucks, or any similar high caffeine watering hole, or go golfing to see the foursomes enjoying God’s green earth chasing little white balls with chilled beer in the back of the golf cart. Cold beer and Vienna sausages make for good communion elements.

            Did I just write that? It must be some of the DNA from Grandpa Oscar leaking out. I used to privately condemn in my heart all those slackers who played golf on Sundays. Since I’m not a golfer and have spent years of my life working on Sundays I think I was really breaking the commandment about envy.  But then along came YMCA swim  meets and school soccer practices; malls and movies that opened at ten o’clock; and two worker families who needed some family time in their SUV with the Cocker Spaniel in the back with the kids. Early church didn’t fix their preference to skip church and after a while since “guilting” got unpopular as the principal method of getting people through the church door, they just quit coming. Re-branding and wrapping the Gospel in a brighter, more colorful wrapper also didn’t have much staying power. Even the Crystal Cathedral went bankrupt and is up for sale.

            So what in the name of heaven is church good for?

            The only answer I have is so apparent that it sounds ludicrous to put it onto paper. Church is about people who have been already chosen by God, even if they don’t know it yet, who will give themselves away to others with wildly, unfettered, unconditional love. Church is not about buildings at all. We don’t need buildings to gather ourselves and prepare to be disciples of Jesus, and to scatter into the world of needing, hurting people for that purpose and that purpose alone. Church is about experiencing God’s grace through someone else who cares about us enough to support us with their love even when we’re committing those sins of “commission and omission.” Once we learn that we can’t earn grace because it’s always been right in front of us we know how to give it away to others. We understand how to pay it forward even when the world seems to be falling apart, and our friends seem bound on living in hell on earth.

Sartre wrote that “hell is other people.” His play No Exit is proof positive of this supposition. I contend that “heaven can be other people.” We experience the love of God in tangible, real, emotionally charged ways through someone who cares enough to give a damn about our lives. It is then that the community of the church really becomes the church.

None of our doctrinal battles are really worth the effort to protect the purity of the church for admittedly any church where there are pews, or moveable chairs, are filled with sinners. We mostly understand that all of us sin “and fall short of the glory of God.” Those who believe they can work their way out of their guilt, or the shame we’ll talk about later, miss the point entirely. It is impossible to be saved even by the best of deeds. I believe it is equally impossible to mutter some magic words like “I give myself to Jesus” and immediately be on the path to heaven. The only way to salvation that I know and understand is the pure miracle of taking what’s already there for free and then shouting this news to someone else with a quiet talk, a handshake, a hug, or a kiss of peace. Salvation comes to the unsaved not like my Grandfather Gordon’s ravings, or his lifelong quest to be good enough to get saved, but through the healing touch of the church in the world that gives itself away completely.

            I had lunch with a friend and fellow pastor recently and our take on this is that maybe we need to sell all of our assets, quit worrying about buildings that suck the spirit right out of a church budget, and annually spend exactly every cent we take in. The heck with endowments, investments, memorial funds, and sinking funds for a leaking roof.

            Na├»ve thinking on our part?  Maybe, but maybe not. Stop reading right now and ponder this. You can come back and read the last paragraph when you have answered the question. What does it mean to go to church?

• • • •

The church is a pretty messy place. It’s often far from pretty. It’s rather imperfect. It is sometimes incoherent even to insiders. It fights a lot and contradicts itself. It is living proof that sin is real. What if, though, it’s the world’s last best hope of taking care of the earth and everybody who rides with us on this whirling orb that is like a big, blue marble? What if?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Growing Up Southern

Growing Up Southern


Black and White


Up the red dirt road

sat a small white church

at the settlement’s edge

where the woods met the clearing.

Sunday nights were hymn nights

and the harmonies would spill

from the open summer windows

as rich and golden as Tupelo honey,

as if God had reached

down each singer’s throat

and pulled the music from their souls. . .

songs of faith so deeply felt

drew me to the clearing’s edge. . .

no. . . compelled me to come. . .

and I would go,

silently sneaking from my bedroom loft

shinnying down the limbs of the cherry tree

and creeping softly through the woods

to sit transmuted in the darkness

just beyond the edge of light

with my knees against my chin

rocking to the tunes of

There is a Balm in Gilead,

Swing Low Sweet Chariot, or

Deep River. . .

wading in the waters

of baptized hope,

and God’s promise of a land unknown

to those who sang. . .

words speaking of the milk and honey

of justice. . .

freedom. . . and liberation.

Oh God, what “amazing grace” was this

from the cries of simple folk

unlike myself, or

I would have rushed to join them there

to be lifted on their wings of hope.

God. . . how I wished it. . .

but. . .


We sang the song in Sunday School,

“Red, and yellow, black and white,

all are precious in his sight,

Jesus loves the little children of the world.”

Yet, we were none but white.

Red, I watched on a nine inch Admiral,

black and white TV

with a porthole screen.

They rode painted ponies,

wore feathered war bonnets,

and fought the good cowboys.

Yellow, I was reminded, at supper

 were the starving children in China, so

“eat everything on your plate.”

Black were “nigras” who lived

up the dirt road. . .

across from our house.

“Red, and yellow, black and white”. . .

none but white in sight

at Sunday School.



Two black boys lurk behind the over-grown shrubs

hiding the courthouse granite foundations.

I watch them through the plate glass window

of my uncle’s plumbing shop on the square.

The bigger boy shoves the smaller one

and keeps pointing in the direction of the

water fountain. . .a downtown shrine. . .

made of cast iron and resembling a

Corinthian column with fluted bowl 

astride the top.

The fountain is a fixture that’s been

painted dark green so many times

with lead oil paint

that nothing shows besides the

chipped places.

The treadle is worn smooth by years of use.

It’s dull, weathered brass is the same

as the drinking spout at the top.

My mind wanders and I think of all the feet

that have pressed the pedal down. . .

brown and white, open-toed, spring highs heels of

a stylish lady, or the well shined black wingtips of

a Sunday church-goer, or work-a-day businessman. . .

high top Keds. . . penny loafers. . .

and even the countless bare feet of children

like me, or some poor, shoeless adults.

The smaller boy suddenly darts from the

bushes and in a split second jams his foot

on the treadle, takes a sip of water,

and runs as fast as he can

toward his side of town.

The other boy stares in amazement. . .

horror written on his face.

He furtively walks away

watching over his shoulder

trying to not be noticed,

as though nothing had happened.

But a sacred social norm had been broken.

No black would dare drink from the fountain.

There was no need for a sign that read “Whites Only.”

It was cultural “law” and a dangerous offense

that had been committed.

No one else seemed aware of this violation.

I wonder if this was an act of angry rebellion,

or a simple dare between two black boys. . .

a rite of passage to see who was the braver.

I believe it was the latter.



First the teacher has to pray

for that is how we start our day,

and sometimes we sing Dixieland.

With hands on hearts respect demands

we pledge allegiance to the flag

and nation pure for which it stands.

The flag itself is old and gray

and shows the signs of aged decay

the stars still number forty-eight

the pledge itself is filled with weight

of what it means that we obey

and feel the pride the words convey.

“We pledge allegiance to the flag

of the United States of American. . .

and to the republic for which it stands. . .

with liberty and justice for all.”

For all?

There is no “under God,” just yet,

but with Congress there’s no bet

of when the words will soon prevail

that no true patriot dare assail

the power of God in stars and stripes

while buglers blow and fifers pipe.

The picture hangs there on the wall

the drummer’s bandages and all.

Our hearts are solemn, quiet, and still,

for we’ve been taught it is God’s will

America shall reign supreme

the envy of each nation’s dream.

But even then I wondered why

a flag should wave to testify

to some strange truth, bold and deep,

that men would pledge their lives to keep.

It troubled me both then and now

to commit to such a vow.

So as I age I ponder still

a pledge for which I bear no will.

I live my life with stern resolve

protesting wars I cannot solve.

The pledge rings empty in my head

while blood runs deep on lands we tread.


We rode the trackless trolley-

Martha and I-

to the Roxy Theater

in downtown Atlanta

for the Friday matinee showing

of South Pacific.

We skirted the protesters

lining the curb,

with our bag of M and M’s,

though one screamed at us,

“Shame on you!”

when they saw me at

the ticket booth.

We were just kids

and not supposed to watch a

movie about miscegenation

between Lieutenant Cable

and Bloody Mary’s

Polynesian daughter.

White and black. . .

black and white. . .

like many things in the South.

We were there for the music

of Rogers and Hammerstein,

the lush colors of

widescreen Cinemascope. . .

and to hold hands in the dark.

The lyrics of You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught

were not lost on either of us.

Two twelve year olds

growing up at the picture show

that summer afternoon.

We held hands in the daylight

riding home.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Selective Reading

Selective Reading

            Summer reading has long been a pastime for many of us. As a school boy I got a book list toward the end of May for keeping up my reading skills. Whether you still prefer hardcopy, or read from a Kindle or similar device, many of us are on the watch for this summer’s best “beach books.” Perhaps The Bible should be one of them.

It’s not new for Presbyterians to use scripture as a convenient way of reinforcing our personal and communal beliefs. We have a tendency to pick and choose selectively what we want to read. We also have a pre-disposition to hear what we want to hear. This is no startling observation since “birds of feather” tend to chirp together.

I attend a church that challenges my theological reasoning, but I also “like” what I hear the pastor preaching. I cast no blame at him for he is an excellent commentator on “the Word.” The problem of “selective hearing”, and biblical “selective reading” is my own. I read The Psalms very selectively, for example, but can wax poetic about The Gospel of John. There are other books of The Bible that I ignore completely, perhaps at my peril. Leviticus is one of them, but for that matter, it’s been years since I’ve read the prophecies of Jonah, or Daniel. Revelation bears little interest to me, but I don’t enjoy crossword puzzles either. I’m mostly a “red letter” Christian these days.

The question haunts me, however, of what service this does to the much debated wording “biblical authority?” That term has been thrown about continuously by Presbyterians through my lifetime as a means of justifying the sentiments that make us comfortable as Christians. In some ways we are little better than our fundamentalist cousins who get left off the invitation list for our family reunions. Granted, fundamentalism at its worst is a dangerous position for it truly does emotional and spiritual harm to those who obligingly follow it to its extremes. It’s bad theology in whatever form it aspires.

We seem as Presbyterians to possess our own style of “biblical authority.” History bears testimony to our eagerness to embrace a few texts of dubious meaning to comfort our reasoning that some races are inferior to others, women are lesser than men, war is justifiable, and that being gay or lesbian is a sin. Some are rejoicing and others weeping over the passage of Amendment 10-A. There is talk of “many” leaving the P.C.U.S.A., or at the least banding together into comfortable communions of like belief. It seems a peculiarity that we can justify any volatile topic with a very select choice of what are questionable texts to bolster a particular set of beliefs while ignoring a vast store on topics like Jesus’s many warnings about money and how it can twist one’s life into nothing short of greedy ambition, and placing self-interest above blindly not seeing others in the ditch. Priests and Levites are not labels most of us we want to wear.

Here where I live in Tennessee some are still trying to revive “The Scopes Monkey Trial” with good Christian folk wanting to promote creationism as part of our public school textbooks. I don’t question their motives since they fall prey to using “biblical authority” as their guide. I understand how they are misled and self-deceiving. But are we any better? Have we come so far as to complete our cycle of claiming every word of scripture as beyond dispute?

The examples of our biblical selectivity are so myriad and exaggeratingly embarrassing that this list could become a book. The problem with such an undertaking is would it be labeled as fiction or non-fiction?

So we continue our long tradition as members of the Reformed Tradition arguing among ourselves as to who is “right” and who is “wrong.” Presbyterians, in particular, have a checkered past of having developed our in-fighting to an art form. The hotter this summer gets the more some will get hotter under the collar and leave us behind for some other brand of religion that better reinforces their comfortable beliefs. That’s also part of our schismatic nature. “Big Tents” or not, we seek out the company of others who think, talk, and act like us. There’s still “a sucker born every minute” when it comes to “biblical authority.”

I don’t know about the rest of you who are choosing to stay with our Presbyterian “tribe,” but I think I’ll put The Bible on my summer reading list and try to be a bit less “selective” in what I choose as authoritative.

Phil Leftwich

Pastor- Honorably Retired