Speech at Annual Gardner-Webb University Graduate Luncheon
May 12, 2011
Aileen Mitchell Lawrimore
I was asked to speak today about what I’ve learned in my three years at Gardner-Webb University Divinity School. And I’ve been asked to do that in five minutes. So hold on: here we go.
I’ve learned that the 77.2 miles from my house in Asheville to the Divinity School here in Boiling Springs gets longer and longer over the course of 3 years.
I’ve learned that coffee tastes better at Broadriver Coffee Shop and that the grilled chicken salad at Italian Garden is big enough for two meals. I’ve learned to eat in The Snack Shop. But I haven’t learned to like it.
I’ve learned to format my bibliography and footnotes as I do my research. I’ve learned reconstructing a bibliography after a paper is written is nearly impossible.
I’ve learned never to take Old Testament, New Testament, and Greek I in the same semester. I’ve learned you can get a lot done in the last minutes before a paper is due.
I’ve learned what the inside of an Egyptian Pyramid looks like. I’ve learned it’s a long, long, long way from Egypt to the Promised Land—even in a motor coach. And I’ve learned that skirts don’t look too bad on Docs West and Robertson.
I’ve learned that David killed Goliath. But so did Elhanan. I’ve learned that 1st Thessalonians is the oldest book in the New Testament and that the gospel writers did not have laptops or even voice recorders.
I’ve learned that God is too big for a pronoun. I’ve learned nothing is too big for God.
I’ve learned always to take extra money to buy books. I’ve learned that books take up a lot of space and may just need their very own room.
I’ve learned that Martin Luther wasn’t exactly a saint, but Oskar Romero just may have been; That the Catholics got a whole lot right in Nicaea, that the Protestants will probably always protest something, and that Jesus was Jewish, not Baptist.
I’ve learned that I’m an ENFJ and my husband is an ISTP. I’ve learned my conflict style, my ministry type, my leadership style, my communication preferences. I learned all that about me. And so infinitely more about God.
I’ve learned to sing the Hebrew Alphabet and to recite the Greek one. I’ve learned that neither language translates into American English without interpretation. I’ve learned that Jesus spoke Aramaic and I’ve learned what the Lord’s Prayer sounds like in Jesus’ own language.
I’ve learned that Jewish people leave little stones on headstones as a sign of respect and that one visit to DC’s Holocaust Museum will last me a lifetime. I’ve learned that even a fraction of 6 million pairs of shoes is a lot of shoes.
I’ve learned that Rosa Parks wasn’t so much worn out as fed up, that Martin Luther King, Jr. was an extraordinarily ordinary man and that George Washington Carver was probably a genius. I’ve learned that Denzel Washington occasionally attends commencement at Morehouse College. I’ve learned when commencement is at Morehouse College.
I’ve learned that “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is the African American National Anthem. I’ve learned to listen to U2.
I’ve learned that Roger Fuller* can drive to Alabama and back and never complain. And that he can endure unspeakable loss and still testify to God’s glory.
I’ve learned that loss lingers, that children die too young, and so do parents. I’ve learned that God remains.
I’ve learned from famous speakers: Jimmy Carter, Charles Adams, Carlotta Lanier, Anthony Campolo, William Shaw, Fisher Humphries, Julie Pennington-Russell, Marva Dawn, & Fred Craddock.
I’ve learned from books by Gustavo Gutiérrez, James Cone, Roberta Bondi, Elie Wiesel, Frederick Buechner, Glenn Jonas, St. John of the Cross, Henry Nouwen, Joan Chittister, Clarence Jordan, Barbara Brown Taylor & Joseph Webb.
I’ve learned from professors who give beyond the limits of their paychecks, love students & like them too, and read their Bibles not just for academic gain but for deeper devotion.
I’ve learned from colleagues who were raised in the church and those who weren’t, ones who worship like I do and those who don’t, ones who have pastored churches for decades and from ones just starting out; from ones who vote differently or dress differently than I. I’ve learned from colleagues who have experienced grief beyond measure and joy beyond reason. I’ve learned we often take different paths to the same destination. I’ve learned that’s ok.
I’ve learned that God keeps calling. I’ve learned the joy of answering. I’ve learned that God’s calling may not make good sense. I’ve learned not to question someone else’s calling. I’ve learned people will often question mine.
I’ve learned that three years is a long, long time. I’ve learned graduation really is bitter sweet. And I’ve learned that God was right: GWU really was the perfect place for me to become.
*Roger Fuller graduated a semester or two ago. My first semester at GDub, his beloved son, a college student himself, died suddenly, tragically, of an undiagnosed illness. Roger is one of my heroes.
It can be so sneaky.
I know because recently it snuck up on me. I never saw it coming.
There I was, sitting in Jan Davis Tire Store (time to get the tires rotated), minding my own business, when in walks (I kid you not) Osama Bin Laden’s nephew. Olive skinned and bearded, with a pill-box shaped hat perched on his Middle Eastern hair, he wore billowing britches, a flowing blouse that reached his knees, and a long linen vest draped over the whole ensemble. He approached the counter; I didn’t hear what the clerk called him, but I think it was Mr. Bin Laden.
Now, it would have been bad enough having a terrorist’s blood kin walk into the place of business I was patronizing had I not been studying (you guessed it) biblical Hebrew, of all things. And I was sitting right by the door, practically in the doorway.
So I think to myself, Well now, Osama Bin Laden’s nephew has just walked into Jan Davis Tire Store and I’m sitting in his pathway reading Hebrew. How very nice is that. Well. Hmm. How should I handle this situation since I know I’m not an over-reactive person and I’m certainly not a racist for heaven’s sake!
About that time, the fella turns around and before I realize what I’m doing, I smile and say hello (because I smile and say hello to everyone—it’s a habit). He smiles back, says hello, does not pull out a machine gun, and proceeds out the door. Then he stops, noticing my book, and comes back inside the store.
“You’re reading Hebrew?” His eyes are kind.
Stupid racism! I mentally slap myself for slipping into the stereotypes that are based on the tiniest minority and are so unfair. I know better. But knowing and doing have never been the same. This person is a potential friend, regardless of his religious or political background. Shame on me for missing that, if even for a moment. Ugh! I can't stand racism! Especially when I find it in my own self.
“You don’t see many people reading Hebrew in Asheville.” He smiles, chuckles a little.
I smile back and explain. “No, I guess not. I’m in divinity school. I’m taking Hebrew and I have a test next week.”
He asks where I go to school and then where Gardner-Webb is and we talk about that for a minute or two. The conversation turns back to Hebrew.
“I read Hebrew,” he says, “but only about as well as a third grader.” His countenance is warm, open.
“That’s great. I’ll have to learn a lot more to get to the third grade level.” We both laugh a little.
“Well, good luck on your test. Have a great day.”
“You too,” I say and I really hope that he does. I hope, I pray, that throughout this day, Godly people will treat him the way they would want to be treated.
“It was nice meeting you,” I say, and I really mean it.
"Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Matthew 7:1-2 (NIV)
Sometimes I pull older posts back up and promote them to new readers. I was about to do that with this four-year-old post, so I thought I would add a picture. I googled "Trailways bus, Georgia, Country roads." In seconds (amazing!) I had pages of photos that matched or almost matched my search criteria. Though I hadn't put the date in the search string, the pictures were mostly illustrating events from the forties, fifties, or sixties. Perfect! Except not really. The top ten or fifteen returns did include buses on country roads; the problem was, each depicted some form of violence: buses burning, riots, people being beaten. Hideous.
And from the midst of all that comes this story about my daddy, on a back road in Georgia, riding a Trailways™ bus.
It wasn’t something a boy got to do every day you know: taking the Trailways™ bus from his home to his grandparents' place 20 miles away--especially by himself, seeing as he had half a dozen siblings who would have loved to have joined him. But that’s just what my daddy did one Georgia day some decades ago.
“Was it 1947 or 1948?” Daddy asked himself, folding his napkin in half, then into fourths, then eighths before unfolding it only to repeat the process, this time on the diagonal. “Well let’s see. I know I’d been baptized.”
Daddy seemed to wander back through his memories arriving at the little Baptist church over the railroad track and down the road from his family home. “I was nine when I made my profession of faith.” (We all knew that. Daddy loved telling that story.) “But it took more than a year for the preacher to get around to my baptism.” Baptisms only happened in the summer when the creek was warm enough, but why Daddy didn’t receive the sacrament the summer after he walked the aisle is a mystery. “I reckon it was 47 or maybe it was 48,” Daddy declared this time with conviction. “Whichever it was, it was after I’d been baptized,” Daddy said, certain. “‘Cause I know I’d been baptized.”
So back in 1947 (or 1948) Daddy, soaped up and shiny for his special trip, boarded the bus. The bus was nearly full. Back then, segregation was law, and down in the Deep South Jim Crow ruled the buses with at least as much authority as he had in the classrooms. Daddy, belongings in hand, worked his way from the front toward the back of the bus looking for a seat, finally finding an empty one just inside the Whites Only section. He plopped his things down and took his seat. The bus started up again, chugging on toward Daddy’s adventure.
In those days, at least in rural Georgia, bus drivers would pull over occasionally to pick up riders. You see, folks needing a ride would wait along the side of the road, and then they’d pay a pro-rated fare for their truncated trip. Daddy looked out the windows, watching the Georgia terrain ease past. In the distance, Daddy could see a woman waiting. A child was with her: a very young child. The woman’s arms full of bundles, she still managed to keep hold of the child’s hand. The bus inched closer. Daddy’s view sharpened. The woman was black.
Daddy glanced over his shoulder. The section behind him, the seats designated for this mother and child, were all taken. The bus bumped to a stop. The woman, shifting her load to access her fare while still holding tight to her little one, climbed aboard.
“I remember deliberating on that thing, ‘Should I or shouldn’t I.’” Meanwhile, the woman got closer. “I’d been taught to respect our elders; she was an adult and I was just a kid. But mostly,” Daddy’s voice caught. He cleared his throat and gazed above our heads, “Well, I had the Holy Spirit. Because of that, I was guided, prompted. I knew what was right.”
As the woman got to his row, Daddy met her eyes. Picking up his things, he slid over to the window seat, leaving the aisle seat free. Her expression hardly changed as she placed her things on the floor, lifted her child into her lap, and took her seat: a seat in the White’s Only section of the bus, a seat given her by my daddy who was just an 11 year old boy (or maybe 12).
And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us . . . Acts 15:8 NRSV
Originally posted on March 3, 2009
I knew the day was coming; I just expected to have a little more notice. So when Baker came into the kitchen on Saturday morning, having grown overnight, and announced, “Hey Mom, look! I really am taller than you now,” it surprised me that he was indeed right. After all, Baker may be turning 13 in a few weeks, but he was just born a few moments ago.
Baker weighed nine pounds at birth and was three inches shy of two feet long. By the time he was three months old, he was in size six months clothes; nine months later, he was still wearing clothes for kids twice his age and was as tall as his three year old sister, Trellace. Over the years, his older sister caught up with him a time or two, but never for long and now never again.
From day one, Baker’s hands stretched way beyond the fingertips of the other babies in the nursery; his feet edged past the toes in other cribs. In no time, he began measuring his hands by mine, noting that his first grade fingers were nearly as long as his mommy’s. By the time he was 10, I could wear his shoes—and that’s no small feat (pardon the pun) as I’m rather sure footed myself at a size 9.5-10.
So there we were last Saturday, me, looking up at my son, his shoulders an inch and a half above mine. We stood side by side, looking in the mirror.
“Whoa. You are—no kidding—taller than your mother,” I said to my baby boy. “Come on, let’s go show Trellace.”
“Look Trellace.” Baker and I stood before her, shoulder not quite to shoulder, expectant.
She looked back, not getting it.
“Baker is taller than I am!”
She nodded, smiling a little, “Hmmm, he sure is.” She paused, knowing what a sap I am about my kids growing older, cocked her head to one side, then said with a smirk, “But don’t worry Mom, maybe you’re just losing bone mass.”