My phone buzzed. The text was from my mother—impressive in itself as she celebrated her 70th birthday more than three years ago.
Mother: I’m getting a piano!
Me: No way!
I shouldn’t have been surprised. My mother has dreamed of playing the piano as long as I can remember. As children, my sister and I took piano lessons for years (my sister plays still; I have other gifts). We even had a piano in our home. It was no cheapo either: piano tuners still rave about the quality of it. I can’t imagine what my parents sacrificed to pay for that piano and for our lessons. Daddy was a Baptist pastor and mother, a stay-at-home mom; we had enough, but seldom any extra.
Mother loved that we took piano, even though (or maybe especially because) she never had. She could play a little, even read music in her own way. We’re not sure how she did it, because she didn’t know the names of the notes or even where they were supposed to be on the keyboard. No matter, she’d open her Broadman Hymnal, study the page, then manage a pretty good version of the song before her. Who knows?
She still has that Broadman Hymnal, but I have her piano in my house now. My oldest daughter began taking piano eight years ago; Mother couldn’t wait for her granddaughter to play on her beautiful piano (it had stood silent for so long). It’s not silent now. Both my older children take piano and they actually practice. Turns out that helps you get better. Wish I’d known that.
I called Mother after getting her text.
“I feel bad that I have your piano, Mother! Don’t you want it back?”
“Absolutely not! It belongs to your children now. I’m getting a new one.”
See, my mother, well into her seventh decade, has never given up on her dream to play the piano. So when she was walking through the mall last summer and saw that the piano store was offering group lessons for adults, she marched herself right in there and signed up. She finished the first round of lessons, played in her first recital, and was all set to sign up for the next class when she decided she would go all in. She talked to the teacher, worked out private lessons, and then set about picking out her piano.
“They are delivering it tomorrow,” she told me, grinning through the phone, “And I’ve got the perfect place for it.”
"Good people, cheer God! Right-living people sound best when praising. Use guitars to reinforce your Hallelujahs! Play his praise on a grand piano! Invent your own new song to him.” Portions of Psalm 33:1-3 (The Message)
Part 2 of a two part series on "What I Love about Religion. Find Part 1 here!
6. Hymns. I love singing songs that have been sung for decades (if not centuries) by followers of Jesus. I love the sound of all of us singing together—altos and off-tones, tenors and tend-not-to’s, soloists and the so-so-ists. I love it.
7. Tradition. These days, a lot of folks see tradition as the bad guy. I love tradition. I love that since at least the early 1960’s, my family has had country ham biscuits for breakfast on Christmas morning. I love this silly game that I played with my cousins and now my children play with theirs (it’s called “Last Tag” and it was essentially designed to delay our inevitable separation). And I love church traditions. I love that we stand when the Gospel is read or the Hallelujah chorus is sung. I love hearing the choir sing and the handbells play. I love the organ, the piano, the orchestra. I love liturgy, the Lord’s Prayer, and saying “Amen.” Maybe it seems empty to others, but to me, tradition is full of the faith of those who have gone before me. It humbles me. It blesses me. I love it.
8. Sacraments. I’m Baptist and we consider Eucharist (which we call the Lord’s Supper or Communion) and Baptism (which we usually do by immersion unless there are health restrictions) to be holy and sacred. These two practices are seriously religious. That is to say, if you are completely unfamiliar with Christianity and you observe these customs, you may think we are cannibalistic and not a little bit murderous. Let’s face it. To people who know nothing of our faith, Eucharist and Baptism are just weird. They are. And I love them. I love these representations of the life of Christ, the life of a follower of Christ. I take the bread and the cup, reminded that God became man and lived among us even until death. I watch a baptism and feel the water wash over my own seven-year-old face, hearing again for the first time, “Aileen, you are a child of God and God takes great delight in you.” I rise, again, from those baptismal waters knowing that in Christ there is always renewal, there is always resurrection. And I feel loved.
9. Vacation Bible School. It’s true. I absolutely love Vacation Bible School (VBS). You can’t talk me out of it either, so don’t even try. When I was coming along, we had VBS for two full weeks—my very favorite two weeks of the entire summer. Now, in most Baptist churches that offer it, VBS is held for about a week, either for several hours in the morning or in the evening. Usually, programming is planned for children ages preschool through elementary school. Church members—from youth to senior adults—help plan and carry out the week’s events. I loved VBS as a child; I loved working in VBS when I was in the youth group; I have loved leading VBS as an adult; and I love directing it too. It’s hard for me to say why I love this so much. I guess it’s because all these different people come together for a common goal: to share the love of Jesus with children. We’ve got 70 year olds serving snacks to kindergartners and youth piggy-backing preschoolers. We’ve got adults singing songs, telling stories and playing games as if they themselves were kids too. During Vacation Bible School, the church turns its eyes to the children and says loud and clear, in lots of different ways, over and over again, “Jesus loves you!” I just absolutely love that.
10. Ministry. I don’t know of any other organization that does ministry as well as the church. Hear me: I worked in college administration for years and felt very much like my job was my ministry. But really, I would not have gone to that job every day, 40 hours a week, if I had not gotten a paycheck, no matter how much ministry I got to do. The church—Catholic, Baptist, Pentecostal—ministers in a zillion different ways. Sure, we minister to ourselves, that’s true. We do take care of our own. But that’s not all we do. We visit the sick, the lonely, the imprisoned. We feed the hungry, the homeless, the hopeless. We build wheelchair ramps, repair roofs, install flooring. And yes, we cry with each other, hug each other and celebrate with each other. You just gotta love that.
My church, my religion, is far from perfect. We miss the mark far more times than we hit the target. Sometimes Christians get out of hand at meetings and even at covered-dish dinners (bless their hearts). There are certainly times when people wander through traditions and sacraments mindlessly, missing the sacred altogether. Way too often, we get so bogged down in minutia we completely forget about ministry. And you won’t believe this, but not everyone loves Vacation Bible School.
We’re imperfect. We’re broken. We are the Body of Christ. We are church. And I really love that.
In response to a poem* that's been flying around the internet on youtube wings, I've been thinking about what I like about religion. My post got a little long, so I'm splitting it. Here are the first five.
1. Saying Grace. I love pausing in the midst of the rush of life and holding hands around the dinner table to say a blessing over our meal. I did this with my parents and siblings and they did it with theirs. We stop. We reach out. We look up. I love that.
2. Covered-Dish Dinners. True, I’ve had covered-dish meals outside of religious settings, but really, they just aren’t as good. Think about it. Office pot-lucks consist mostly of to-go foods or quick fixes. Rarely will you find a deviled egg at such an event and if you do it’s made with light mayonnaise which defeats the whole purpose anyway. At a church covered-dish meal, you get Miss Mary’s 12 layer chocolate cake, and Mr. Jack’s homemade barbeque. You’ll find Mrs. Smith’s homemade biscuits right next to Mrs. Jones’ and if you know what’s good for you, you’ll take one of each. There are 12 kinds of macaroni and cheese, all homemade, and that yummy salad that Mr. Johnson always brings. You can’t find this kind of food at the office picnic. Maybe at a family reunion. But that’s cause they all learned what a pot-luck is supposed to look like from going to church suppers.
3. Meetings. I don’t love--or even like--going to these. Not even a little bit. But what I do love is that we have them. We do try to make decisions as a unit. We disagree, sometimes loudly. We compromise, usually not nearly enough. But we work at it. Okay, not everyone works at it; but the intent is that we try to get along. We don’t always get our way. We often don’t get as much accomplished as we had hoped we would. But when it’s over, we hold hands, say Grace, and head out to the covered-dish supper. That’s church. Gotta love it.
4. Weddings. When I was little, I often went with my daddy, a Baptist preacher, to the weddings he officiated. I loved everything about weddings then and now—the signature attire, the music, the sweet (or not so sweet) kiss at the end. But the parts of the wedding I have always loved the most include scripture: the miracle at the wedding in Canaan, First Corinthians 13, and “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” These texts are read religiously at Christian weddings. And I just love that.
5. Sunday Morning Bible Study (AKA Sunday School). Okay so I didn’t love Sunday School when I was a teenager. My parents raised us as thinking Baptists and so we believed questions were a part of the journey of faith. Most of our Sunday School teachers disagreed. Either for the teachers’ sakes or ours (or perhaps for the sake of her husband’s career), our mother took over teaching our class. Since then, I’ve loved Sunday Morning Bible Study. I’ve taught most of my adult years (see above) and am so grateful that my class members allow me to continue doing so. I absolutely love it.
For the next five, check out this post.
* I tend to annoy both sides of issues like this. So, prepare yourself. The poem itself, I think, is well presented. I don't agree with everything he says; I like some of it a lot. I think the poem is the product of a zealous guy who loves Jesus and refuses to get caught up in unnecessary restrictions organized religions often put on people who don't fit under their steeples nicely. So, it's fine. Still, I like Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John better, and I actually do like a lot about religion. But not everything. So there you go.
"I believe in kibble and in rawhide which are brought home by my mommy and consumed by me. I believe in the suffering of squirrels, in the burying of bones, and that no canine should have to suffer the humiliation of baths or toenail clipping. I believe in naps--morning, noon, night and at all times in between--and in having nice fluffy beds in every room. I believe in treats, tummy rubs, long walks, digging in the dirt, barking really loudly, and in naps ever-lasting. Goodnight."
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.
A few years ago I was reading the Bible through and I was struggling with some of the less riveting books. You know the ones: Leviticus, Numbers, Nahum, books like that.
Anyway, I was talking about my frustrations with some seasoned church goers one Sunday morning. They were nodding their sympathies, commiserating with the woes of Bible study, when a new believer approached our conversation. This guy is not what you’d call a theological scholar; he’s a country boy who hasn’t attempted proper grammar since 12th grade English. A wild streak from earlier days left a tattoo on one arm, and a repaired tooth that glitters when he smiles. And ever since he's turned to follow Christ, he's been smiling a lot.
I filled him in on the topic of conversation then asked for his input.
“You read scripture a lot, how do you manage those tedious books that are so difficult to read?”
He scratched his chin, looked down at his feet, and then laughed a little space-filler laugh.
“Well, you see,” he said, blushing a little bit, “Ever' time I set down to read my Bible, I say a prayer before I start. I just ask God to teach me a little something from what I’m reading. And every single time, he does.”
Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete. John 16:24
My friend Traci is Catholic: Catholic by birth and by choice. She, her husband, and their third-grade daughter Audrey, live out their faith and participate fully in the life of their church. Because Traci and I are friends, and because faith is important to her, I was not surprised when her family accepted the invitation to attend my ordination as a Baptist minister held in the chapel of my home church.
Audrey, dressed in her Sunday best and seated between her parents, looked around at the growing crowd in the chapel. “Whoa. Ms. Aileen surely knows a lot of people.”
Traci is an introvert who somehow wound up friends with me, an unbounded extrovert. She shook her head sadly, as if acknowledging a personality defect folk generally try not to mention. “You have no idea,” she told Audrey, “You have no idea.”
“So,” Audrey asked, making conversation, “Is this about how many people you had at yours?”
“My what?” Traci looked at her daughter, wondering what in the world she could mean.
“When you became a pastor.” Audrey figured, I suppose, that ordination was a rite of passage all moms went through, not unlike her own first communion.
“Audrey, women can’t become pastors in the Catholic church.”
“What?” Audrey appeared astonished. Hear Audrey out though. Her shock had nothing to do with women in ministry. Nothing.
“This,” Wide-eyed Audrey went on, her hand sweeping in a gesture to encompass the whole building, “This isn’t a Catholic Church?”
Audrey, having spent all of her nine years in the same church, had assumed that worship happened in a Catholic community. Never mind the absence of images of the Holy Mother, the Crucifix, the Baptismal font. This was church, so it must be Catholic.
In a way, though, Audrey’s question was a good one, particularly if you replace the capital letters with lowercase ones. The adjective, “catholic,” does not mean “Christian but not Protestant.” It means “comprehensive,” or “universal.” (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/catholic.)
“Isn’t this a catholic church?” That is, “Isn’t this a church for everyone?”
On the day of my ordination, the congregation included Baptists (of course), Audrey and other Roman Catholics, Lutherans and Methodists, Seventh-Day Adventists and Presbyterians. There were members of the Church of Christ, the Church of God, the Disciples of Christ, and the United Christian Church.
There were people there who believe in infant baptism, believer’s baptism, baptism only in natural running water, baptism only by immersion, or only by sprinkling. There were people there who believe in speaking in tongues and those who would rather not speak at all; those who practice foot washing, and those who find the soaking of naked toes less than sacred. (These folks clearly have never had a pedicure, but I digress.)
Yep. This was definitely a comprehensive group. In fact, this was the the church universal, the holy catholic church, a veritable communion of saints.
“Yes, Audrey. This is the catholic church. And may it always be so.”
“. . . through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.” Ephesians 3:10
In one, I’m late: late and lost. Everyone is expecting me, but I can’t find my way out of a maze of locked doors and dead-end hallways.
In another, it is exam day. The problem? The class never made it to my schedule, so I didn’t even know that I was registered for it. Now I have to take an exam on material I’ve never seen.
In my favorite recurring dream, though, people from all over the world, “children from every nation,” come together in peace. They sing. They laugh. They hold hands. Lifelong friendships form instantly. Differences are dealt with civilly. The world is at peace. It’s a great dream—one that leaves me with a wakeful longing for unity.
But this week, my 16 year old daughter is actually living my dream. She is in Nairobi, Kenya attending PassportKenya. At this camp, kids from the US and Kenyan kids, experience true cultural exchange. (Trellace’s roomie is a Kenya native.) All the kids—American & African—are followers of Jesus Christ. This is not an evangelism trip on which middle class suburbanites go into the wild to save the savage tribesmen. It is not a mission trip in the traditional sense; that is, the Westerners did not rush off to a foreign land to offer aid. This is a mission immersion trip: a time for Christians from this country to develop friendships with Christians from that country. They have worshipped together; they have ministered together; they have sung songs together—some in Swahili, some in English.
And in so many of the pictures I’ve seen, they are holding hands—white hands and brown, black hands and tan. Peace. Right here on earth. It’s like a dream come true.
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.
Originally posted July 19, 2010
You can’t miss it. If you travel that road, you will see it. Looming over the highway for all motorists to see: a billboard-sized picture of a mangled motorcycle with the ominous declaration “Death is forever.” Every time I pass it, I get the message; I never intend to read it, it is just that prominent, that unavoidable. That . . . gripping.
And every time I see that sign three faces rush to my mind: faces that are forever never-changing. Paxten, always 3 years and 7 months old—even after his younger sister turns four and then five. Matthew, staying 12 while his twin rushes into high school. Caleb, forever 11: his younger brothers eventually matriculating to grades he never got to start. And I just wonder: How can you face forever when your boy is gone?
How can you imagine a future without your child, your parents, your beloved? I gotta tell you, I wouldn’t want to face tomorrow without my beagle, much less my people, and I’m not kidding, not even a little bit. Death is forever. And it hurts. It hurts on the big days (the ones you know will be hard): the anniversaries, the birthdays, the holidays. But it hurts on the little days too: when the family gathers and one is forever absent, when you go to the restaurant that will forever be her restaurant or his, when you go to the ball field, the bookstore, the band concert. Everywhere. Always. Forever.
I hurt so much for loved ones who are bereaved; my heart screams about fairness and longing. Yet if I hurt for them this much what must it be like for the childless mother, the lonely widow, the grieving child. I can’t bear even the thought of it. And that’s because, well, it can’t be borne—not by human hearts anyway.
At that thought, my soul stretches out, finding hope within reach. Because for me, on account of my faith, while I know death is forever, I also know life is eternal. I can rest in that assurance. So, I slip my hand into the nail-scarred hand and fall deep into Christ’s embrace. There, I feel the tears of Jesus mixing with my own. There I am reminded that even when I walk through valleys that are permanently shadowed by death, I do not walk alone. And somehow, because Jesus lives, I really can face tomorrow. Forever.
Guy Sayles says those words each time a new believer rises from the baptismal waters. Those of us who attend First Baptist Church of Asheville have heard these phrases many times, but never did they ring truer than they did that day.
Cameron is older than his brother Collin by several years. Yet Collin learns at a higher level, and moves with greater ease than his big bro. He’s what the world would call academically and intellectually gifted. Collin is a delightful child, interacting as easily with kids his age as with the adult friends of his parents. He’s a great kid.
And so is Cameron. But Cameron’s words are sometimes hard even for adults to understand; kids his age too often fail to communicate with him at all. His steps are slow, particularly when stairs are involved. Cameron is what the politically correct of the world would call “special.” And they would be right. They would be right in ways they can’t even imagine.
Cameron’s smile brightens the world around him. His laugh brings joy to all who hear. His ready hugs can lift the lowest of spirits. Cameron understands love. He knows his family loves him, particularly that precocious little brother who does double duty as Cameron’s best friend. He knows that everyone at his church loves him, especially the little girls in his Bible study class who rush to sit beside him and to hold his hand as he goes up and down steps. And, in a way others will never understand, Cameron knows that Jesus loves him. So Cameron, being Cameron, just loves Jesus right back.
Because he is being raised in the Baptist church, part of Cameron’s upbringing has included conversations about making his profession of faith in Jesus Christ. His parents have talked to him about what it means to join the church and have entertained his questions, helping him to understand baptism. Brother Collin had already made his profession of faith privately, but found baptism itself intimidating and therefore hesitated to make his decision public. Not Cameron. Once his mind was made up, it wasn’t long before he stepped right out into that chapel aisle and walked straight to his pastor, letting him and everyone else know that he had chosen to follow Jesus. What’s more, he wanted to confirm his decision by believer’s baptism.
Whoa. This would be complicated. Collin had not even been baptized yet and he is not even scared of water like Cameron is. In fact, just getting Cameron into the baptismal pool and back out again posed enough obstacles to discourage the whole idea.
But Cameron was determined and his courage inspired Collin who decided he was ready for baptism if Cameron was. “This is something the brothers should do together,” Collin told his mother.
Collin went first. Dripping from his dunking, he stepped out of the baptistry. It was Cameron’s turn. The pastor turned to take his hand but Cameron hesitated. (Negotiating stairs is hard enough without water underneath your feet, for goodness sake.) Slowly, he made his way toward Dr. Guy. Within reach, Cameron grasped for his pastor who lifted him into place. Now, most people who are baptized, turn to look at the congregation or gaze toward the pool’s exit. Not Cameron. He turned to face Guy, waiting.
“Cameron, upon your profession of faith in Jesus Christ,” Guy said looking into Cameron’s eager face. Cameron wrapped his arms around his pastor. “I baptize you,” Guy scooped up a handful of water and poured it over Cameron, “in the name of the Father,” another scoop, “and of the Son,” one last handful of water, “and of the Holy Spirit.”
“Cameron, you are a child of God and God takes great delight in you. God is giving you everything you need to be all that God is calling you to be.”
Cameron leaned into Guy’s embrace, and after a moment or two, Guy lifted Cameron out of the baptistry, to walk in newness of life.