Noise. Grating, irritating, cacophonous, noise. The strings sounded awful—each one seeming to play a separate tune. The brass burped out the bass clef—15 individual bass clefs that is. The woodwinds must have been playing the melody, but no one could tell it by listening. The whole orchestra was an utter mess. In fact, if this was any indication, the concert would be unbearable.
And it would have been too, because each musician focused on her own sound: each one listening for his own errors or her own expertise. Not one in the group was concerned with how they sounded as a whole. It was all about individual performance.
But then the conductor mounted his stand. The musicians silenced themselves. Maestro raised the baton. The instruments snapped to attention. With a wave of his hand, the music began. Stringed instruments lifted notes into the air as percussionists tapped out the beat. Horns came in, announcing their arrival, as the woodwinds snuck in behind them. Music floated through the auditorium, sending waves of delight through the audience. Harmony. It’s a beautiful thing: even more beautiful than the dissonance was annoying.
Here’s the thing: when the musicians’ thoughts were on their own weaknesses or their own strengths, their whole community suffered. Sound familiar? Isn’t that what it is like in the body of Christ? When individuals, persons or congregations, begin to focus on what they can and can’t do, the world hears clanging gongs and crashing symbols. To those listening, the discordance is jarring.
Yet when we turn our eyes to the Conductor of our faith, when we release our concerns and our confidences and allow ourselves to be led by Jesus, what beautiful music we make. The peaceful tones we express draw others to us and thereby to Christ.
We are called to make a joyful noise. Let us set aside our differences and sing in harmony, “Hallelujah! Lord God Almighty!”
May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Romans 15:5-6 (NRSV)
If you’ve ever been in a semi-serious car accident, you know what I mean. On the scale between fender bender and tragedy, this kind of wreck falls about midway. I’m talking about one of those wrecks that, though you walk away apparently unscathed, you realize you could have been hurt much worse if things had been even slightly different: if your car didn’t have those safety features, if you’d been going faster, if your breaks had not been brand new . . .. You got lucky this time—but just barely.
The day after, you don’t feel so lucky because you find that you hurt in places you didn’t even know you had. You turn your head in a certain way and pain shoots down your back. Automatically, your brain records this information and will not let you turn that way again. (Pain is such a good teacher, isn’t it?) That’s the way it goes for the next week or so. You keep finding new places that hurt, adjusting this way or that, to accommodate the pain. It works. Mostly.
The next time you get in your car, you realize that your physical aches and pains are nothing compared to the anxiety that washes over you behind the wheel. You are far more cautious and watchful. You hold back. You startle more easily. This new hyper-alert sensitivity, this extra hesitancy, remains. It’s the new normal.
It’s been 30 years since my brother’s life-altering wreck. He was a freshman, in his second semester of college, and it was exam season. He’d been studying at the university, so it was late when he drove home that night. Meanwhile, a 59-year-old businessman & his wife who had been visiting their grandchildren headed home--tipsy, sure, but they could still drive. They picked up a 6-pack of beer on the way.
At the point of impact, both drivers were going about 50 mph. (“That’s like driving 100 mph straight into a brick wall,” my daddy always adds.) My brother remembers bits and pieces from the scene: the flashing emergency lights, the jaws of life extracting him from the vehicle, being covered—blanketed really—by shards of glass. . ..
The grandfather died at the scene; his blood alcohol content more than triple the legal limit (this without the additional 6-pack). His wife, so intoxicated that medical professionals struggled to get a read on the extent of her injuries, survived.
My brother had what would be called a full recovery and we are all grateful. But that wreck changed him in permanent and irreversible ways. He has scars he wouldn’t have had. He has sinus problems to this day because of all the glass that was embedded in his face. Plus, he has plenty of other physical frustrations (nothing life threatening, thank God) that can be traced back to that wreck. Plus, for years—decades, actually—he would find bits of glass working their way out of his flesh. My mother suspects it’s not all out yet.
I’ve had his wreck on my mind a lot lately. Monumental anniversaries have a way of bringing the long ago into the here and now, so there’s that; but the other thing is, wrecks don’t just happen when you’re driving. I’ve experienced (and I bet you have too) painful losses that have left my heart feeling a bit like a crash site. You know what I mean, right? Maybe you’ve been blind-sided by life before as well.
Just like after a car crash, you keep uncovering fresh pain.
Life contains all kinds of wrecks, doesn’t it? And I think it is okay to acknowledge that we are changed by such things, changed in ways we never wanted to be.We wish the memory hadn’t been clouded over by future realities. We never wanted to give up our dreams, but circumstances required it. So painful, in fact, that even when we think we are completely fine and have grown beyond and in spite of the hurt, a new pain can work its way to the surface and bring it all back.
At those times, even if you are mostly fine, you might need to stop, treat the new pain you’ve found, and rest, knowing that sometimes to heal the pain, you have to spend some time feeling it first.
The card I sent Daddy this year for Father’s Day says,
Whenever I see someone with a “World’s Greatest Dad” mug, I knock it out of their hand and scream, “LIAR!
[And then on the inside] You’re Welcome.
In a world full of mediocre cards, I was delighted to find one that was actually humorous and absolutely perfect. For proof, I give you just a few of the ways my father wins at parenting.
Daddy loves our mother.
Part of why Daddy is such a great father is that he’s a wonderful husband. Every Sunday lunch, Daddy (a pastor) would proclaim, “Children, I looked around the whole church this morning and I didn’t see a woman there as pretty as your mama.” We groaned and grimaced, in part because we knew good and well Daddy only had eyes for our mama.
He’s romantic and sweet, but he is also respectful and kind. By loving our mother as a treasure and valuing her as a human being, he has taught us that marriage is more than a social contract or a religious ceremony. It’s a partnership of equals. It’s a romance that never grows old. Indeed, it’s the earthly manifestation of godly love.
Daddy brought a lot of laughter into our home.
Daddy has always been a great story teller. We had our favorites that we would ask for over and over again; he always had new ones in his repertoire to share as well. Daddy loves a good story, and he’s playful too. Some of my earliest memories are of Daddy crawling around our living room, giving my sister and me bucking Broncho rides on his back. “Hold on tight now! You can’t never tell when this horse will rear up on you!”
Plus, he’s silly. True, that silliness often came out first thing in the morning when we were not at all in the mood for such shenanigans. When we were teenagers, he would burst into our room on school mornings singing, “Oh What a Beautiful Morning!” He thought it was hilarious. Us, not so much.
Daddy had high, but reasonable, standards for us.
I can’t say for sure, but my guess is that our father was more involved in our schooling than most fathers in the seventies and eighties. Mother always helped us with school projects, homework, and such, but Daddy did too (yet another way they worked as a team). Daddy always said, “Do your best. If that’s an A, make an A. If it’s a C, then that’s fine too. Whatever you’re doing, do it to the best of your ability.” That’s good parenting right there.
Daddy is a lifetime learner
When I was 14, Daddy was awarded his Doctor of Ministry degree. He comes from a culture of perseverance; so, in 1979, 20 years after his graduation from Mercer University, Daddy walked across the stage with stripes on his sleeves to receive his final academic degree.
His last graduation, however, did not bring an end to his education. Daddy has continued learning. He reads a wide variety of books: from works by the most current theologians to ones from the NY Times bestseller list.
Daddy gains knowledge from books, but he also learns from the people he encounters. He converses with friends and strangers with ease, collecting lessons they’ve learned as he hears their stories. Consequently, he has been introduced to ideas different from his own. On more than one occasion, Daddy has changed his mind. I love that. He does (and thinks) his very best and, to paraphrase Maya Angelou, “When he knows better, he does better.”
Daddy apologizes when he makes mistakes.
Daddy, like all humans (except the one of course), has erred from time to time. Instead of sweeping mistakes under the theoretical rug though, Daddy has this radical practice: he apologizes! Because he does, we have learned that owning your actions enables you to move ahead to the next success. We’ve learned that perfection is a lie; if our Daddy messes up occasionally, we will too. No big deal. Personal responsibility: what a wonderful thing to model for your children.
AND . . .
He trusted us. Daddy knew, as I said, that we were far from perfect. But he trusted us to make good decisions and to right our wrong ones.
He dreamed with us. No dream was too big for Daddy to embrace right along with us.
He worked smart. Daddy worked a lot—long hours and nearly every single weekend. BUT, he also took a day or two off every week and two to four weeks a year we went on family vacations. Almost always, these trips were to visit family. That’s another thing Daddy did right: he made sure that we got to know our extended family.
He listened to our questions. Poor Daddy. In my memory, we grilled him after every sermon. We questioned and probed, teasing out any theology we found absurd or unclear. Daddy, a Southern Baptist pastor, not only listened to our questions, he encouraged them. He didn’t always have the answers; in fact, he often introduced even more questions into our discussions. By showing us that our brains could not possibly negate God’s existence, he created space for us to get to know God better. Consequently, our intellectual limitations and rational objections fail to topple our faith. Without ever trying, Daddy taught us that God can handle any questions we can formulate. Until recently, I did not realize the magnitude of this gift. A Sunday dinner served with theological discussion? That was normal for me. Now I know what a privilege it was for me to come boldly to the kitchen table and to be met there with mercy and love.
My daddy. He’s a real winner.
On June 10, 1925, before God and the witnesses present, Mabel Louise Cobb, 20, and Jesse D. Martin, 23, promised to love and cherish each other as long as they both should live. And that’s what they did. For better, for worse, from Georgia to Cuba to Brazil and back to Georgia again; in sickness and in health and through the darkness of dementia. They loved (three boys and two girls; 11 grandchildren) and they lost (their oldest daughter in 1961: she was only 33 years old. . .).
By 1989, when Granddaddy’s death parted them, my grandparents had been married for 64 years. Oh, how they loved each other! Ten years earlier, reflecting on 54 years of marriage, Grandmama (then 74) wrote to my parents who had been married for 19 years at the time, and had three children of their own. She thanks them for the anniversary card they had sent and proceeds to describe what marriage in the golden years was like for them. Here is what she said.
We do feel most blessed to be as well as we are at our age. And to be as thoughtful and considerate of each other, but as the years go by, one learns that there’s much more to love than meets the eye when we start out our marriages. True love calls for lots of giving and taking. We have to learn to realize we aren’t always right. Even after as many years as you two have been married, there’s still things you probably don’t realize will draw you closer as years continue to pass until finally you become so close you can’t imagine life without one another. It’s a glorious feeling to know that there’s one who loves you and wants never to have to give you up, yet we have to realize any time after we get our age that God could call either of us any day. So, you must live each day for each other and thank Him so much for another day together.
My Grandmama wrote that in 1979, back when people worried about gas prices and the cost of long distance phone calls, and when computers were housed in large buildings rather than back pockets. But the wisdom she shares is truly timeless. When Mother uncovered this letter recently, she said to me, “It’s amazing how her letter perfectly describes how your daddy and I feel about our marriage.” (Mother and Daddy got married in 1960 and just celebrated their 57th anniversary.) Every morning, my parents have breakfast together and share a time of prayer. Every prayer begins like this, “Thank you God for the gift of a new day.”
Today is the 113th anniversary of Grandmama’s birth. There are lots of things about Grandmama that I could celebrate—her love of the color purple (my favorite too); her delicious homemade biscuits; her hearty, full-body laugh. But today I think I will celebrate by trying to apply Grandmama’s words, not just to my 30-year marriage, but to all my relationships. I will try to be thoughtful and considerate, to remember I’m not always right, and to thank God for the gift of a new day. I hope you’ll celebrate with me!
I was 22; he was just barely 24. We started dating when we were students at Campbell University and two and a half years later we said our vows. How thirty years have slipped away since that day, I could not tell you. But boy, have we made a lot of memories since then. Here, in celebration of our 30th anniversary last November, are just a sample of them.
One of my all-time favorite stories (at the end of this post) and worth a re-run.
Before I moved to North Myrtle Beach, SC in my junior year of high school, I lived in Goldsboro, NC. Back in the 1980’s when I was a student there, Goldsboro High School lacked diversity. Everyone there looked alike—at least to the few of us who were of the paler variety. Evidently we white folk couldn’t differentiate between the colors of mocha, caramel, and dark chocolate. I guess we couldn’t tell the difference in hair texture, color, and style either. And, perhaps we didn’t notice the zillions of variances in facial features, body structure, height, weight, and so on. We were, after all adolescents, and by nature not that discerning. Anyway, I don’t know the ethnic percentages at GHS, I just remember that when we saw white faces, we waved; they were probably our relatives.
When I lived in Goldsboro, I was blessed: African-American role models were the norm for me. My favorite teachers, Mrs. Delaney and Mrs. Hayes, were strong African-American women; our principal, Mr. Best remains the standard by which I judge all school administrators. He is an enormous man in my memory. “His biceps are the size of our football players’ quadriceps,” we often quipped. But it was his presence, not his size, which looms large in my recall: how he commanded the boisterous hallways by striding silently along, nodding at students, calling them by name. He died young, a loss to the community and to the world.
Goldsboro is an Air Force town; race boundaries blurred early there. So, if I’d get off the bus to find my mother was not yet home, I’d go to the home of the African-American couple the Hightowers. Mr. Hightower had retired from the Air Force and was always home during the day, usually tending the roses in his yard. I spent many afternoons there learning about the delicate flowers he loved so well.
The Hightowers lived on one side of us in a house about the size of ours. On the other side was a house twice as big and parked out front was the son’s BMW. This family was also African-American. Sometimes I caught a ride from school with Darryl, who didn’t have to ride the bus since, well, he had the BMW and all.
Recently, chatting with a friend who coaches girls’ basketball, I got a chuckle when she told me about something her nearly-all-white team experienced. They were playing at a school that must have been something like Goldsboro High School was back in the 80’s because most of the students at the rival school were African-American. My friend’s team was not bothered by the circumstance, played a good game, and headed to the locker room. On the way, they passed a few middle-aged men from the rival school and my friend over heard a bit of their dialog. Observing the pasty skinned opponents, the men shook their heads and commented quietly to each other, “Man, look at those girls. They all look alike!"
Dr. Sheri Adams led a class on Civil Rights and Religion in May 2009 which included a tour of key historic sites from the Civil Rights Movement. One of the places we visited was the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church parsonage where Martin and Coretta King lived during their ministry there. This story comes from that experience.
I am standing in my Grandmother Martin’s kitchen. It’s true: Grandmama died nearly 14 years ago and her kitchen was dismantled long before that, but I’m telling you, this is her kitchen.
Her resin dishes are laid out on the Formica table ready for supper—though I remember them being a pale pink, not this mint green. The table setting includes a bowl of pecans. Granddaddy often collected pecans from the yard to be cracked after supper; and for the record, he and Grandmama called them “pea ca’ns,” giving equal emphasis to the first two syllables and letting the third one slip in for free. (Only those uppity carpet-baggers from the North used the term “puhcahns,” spitting out the “puh” just to get to the “cahns.”)
The ceramic napkin holder is new to me. I’m not surprised it’s in her kitchen though since it has strawberries on it; Grandmama did love her strawberries. Her oven, probably still hot from cooking biscuits, looks like it always did and her Frigidaire does too. The coffee pot—a percolator—has not changed at all. The kitchen shelves hold the usual, everything from Jewel® shortening to HotShot® bug killer in the pump and shoot tin can. Granddaddy murdered many a 6-legged intruder with that beastly weapon.
“’Get out of town within three days,’ the caller threatened, ‘or you’ll be sorry,’” The docent’s words drew me out of my reverie. “Martin knew this threat was different.”
“The call had awakened him and he could not get back to sleep, so he left Coretta and newborn Yolanda asleep, and came in here to the kitchen.”
This kitchen: this kitchen that looked so much like my Grandmama’s.
“He made himself a cup of coffee, but says he never even took a sip. And he sat down at his kitchen table. By the way, most everything in the parsonage here is authentic; however, this table is not the one that was here at that time, but it is very much like the one Martin sat at that night.”
(And it’s very much like the one my Grandparents sat at in their kitchen in Georgia during those very same years.)
My divinity school colleagues—19 of us counting students and professors—crowded into the parsonage's tiny kitchen and stood around the little table. Studying civil rights and religion, we were travelling to significant sites in the South, learning more about faith’s role in the Civil Rights Movement. Coming to the end of this tour of the Birmingham parsonage of Martin Luther King, Jr., we found ourselves spellbound by our guide’s retelling of the famous “kitchen table epiphany.”
“Martin sat here, full of despair. He thought of Coretta, and baby Yolanda. He thought of all the threatening phone calls. He thought of all he had to lose. He sat here in the wee hours of that morning and cried out to God, confessing his own doubts, his own weaknesses.
“When Martin recalled the story, he said it was at that moment of confession that he heard the voice of Jesus say to him, ‘Martin Luther stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world.’ He heard Jesus tell him he would never be alone, no matter what.” The docent looked up to heaven, lifting her hands as if in thanksgiving. Then looking down, she shook her head slowly.
“And he didn’t give up. Not even three days later when his house, this house, was bombed. You see Martin was right: the call he got that night was more than just a prank. It was a real threat. What a blessing that Martin had just reaffirmed his calling and his faith right here in this kitchen.”
This Montgomery, Alabama kitchen that belonged to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., an African American Baptist preacher and the leader of the Civil Rights movement. This kitchen:so familiar to me that it could have been in the Albany, Georgia home of Mrs. Mabel Louise Martin, my white, Southern Baptist grandmama.
Published originally February 2009
"In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.’ " Isaiah 6:1-3
“In the year King Uzziah died. . .” Remember the year? It was an awful year. For the people of Judea, it was the year King Uzziah died. King Uzziah had been such a great king. During his reign, they were prosperous and peace ruled in their land. But when he died—well it felt like all hope died with him.
What year was it for you?
“In the year the shuttle crashed. . .
“In the year of September 11. . .
“In the year of the Virginia Tech Tragedy. . .
Or is it more personal?
“In the year my mother/father/sister/brother died. . .”
“In the year of my divorce. . .”
“In the year my favorite teacher died. . .”
It’s the year hope dies. The year that what was, is no more. It’s the watershed moment: when everything before and after is defined by that moment. Everyone get’s it when you say it. They nod, knowingly, as if to say, “Oh, that year. Yeah. That was awful.”
“In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the LORD sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple.”
I wonder what Isaiah was thinking when he went into the temple. Was he thinking, “I’m so great—righteous really—that I will lead the wretched ones out of their despair into God’s Glory. (amen)” That is, was he full of himself? Or. . .was he empty? Did he go to the temple thinking, “I’m not up for this. My hope is gone. How can I lead the people of God into his glory?”
We can’t know what he was feeling, but we know this: Isaiah went to the temple. Last Tuesday, I arrived at the divinity school to find out one of our professors, a man younger than I, had died. Soon after I learned of his death, I heard we would be having a chapel service in a few hours.
It was a terrible day. It was like the year the shuttle crashed. It was like September 11th. I felt shock, confusion, grief. It was that day. You know the one?
Like Isaiah went to the temple, I went to the chapel. By grace, I was not met by the fearsome vision that Isaiah beheld. But I did see God there. I saw God in the tear stained faces of my godly professors, struggling as we were to make sense of this tragedy. I saw God in the hunched forms of students, embraced by other students. I heard God in the stories, the testimonies, the music. God filled up that chapel last Tuesday.
In the year king Uzziah died, Isaiah went to the temple. And despite his despair, Isaiah saw God there. But Isaiah did not stop with that one visit to the temple. Isaiah kept going back. Sometimes, he surely felt the full presence of God’s glory. Sometimes, though, I bet he came away with little more than a meal plan for the upcoming week. Still, he kept going back to the temple, going back to worship. And somehow, I’d say miraculously, he found his way out of the darkness of grief; he found his way back to hope.
Original Publication: July 31, 2012
“Oh, she’ll be fine!” “She’ll love it there!” “She is so ready for this new stage!” (And my personal favorite . . .) “Honey, it will be much worse on you than it will on her.”
True. Every single statement: absolutely true. In fact, because everyone knows these things are true, you will never need to say them to another mother whose child is going away to college. She already knows this stuff. Trust me (more on this in a later post).
But NOT saying something can be so difficult can’t it?
For example, if someone has a stomach bug, it takes true restraint for me NOT to tell them to drink plenty of water. Everyone knows that gastrointestinal upset in the extreme can lead to dehydration. I know that everyone knows this. But I feel the urge to tell them, just in case they’ve been living under a rock.
Here’s another one. I’ve actually tried not to say this; I can’t do it. My kids leave this house, keys in their hands, and I’m going to say . . . (say it with me now) . . . “Drive carefully!” I can’t help myself.
There are more critical times than these though, when people seriously do not need our comments.
Like when my sister was pregnant. She had a highly uncommon obstetric liver disorder that caused her to itch constantly, from the inside out. It was miserable, plus it was life-threatening to her and to her baby. She finally got some relief from an internationally renowned specialist and both she and the baby managed just fine, but here’s the thing: long before any doctors knew what was causing her symptoms, complete strangers would come to her aid.
“Have you tried lanolin? That stuff is amazing!”
“No, go with cocoa butter. It’s better.”
“Girl you need to get yourself some hydrocortisone cream. That’ll take care of you.”
Naturally, she had tried all these things and dozens more before she got her diagnosis. She knew all that and was painfully tired of hearing such things. In fact, not only did she not need to hear their advice, she really needed not to talk about her maddening condition at all.
The truth is, people usually do not need us to correct, advise, counsel, or admonish them. They need only for us to be with them: completely—silently—with them.