There’s a Light Beyond These Woods

Thirty-five years ago my brother and I fell in love with the same woman.  She was between our ages, closer to mine, but he had seen her first.  My wife didn’t mind because I loved her “From a Distance” – as I first heard Nanci Griffith introduce Julie Gold’s song to the world.  

The songs Nanci wrote and those from other artists that she brought to our experience are the perfection of graceful simplicity.  As my wife Nancy & I shuffle through our ITunes library, any of Nanci’s songs are forbidden to be skipped.

Nanci died last Friday.  Twenty years ago, I inherited from my brother 4 VHS tapes of Nanci’s concerts or specials.  Wonder if I can dust off an old player as I grieve those who dance a little closer to me tonight.

……..I was a child in the sixties
Dreams could be held through TV
With Disney, and Cronkite, and Martin Luther
Oh, I believed, I believed, I believed
Now, I am the backseat driver from America
I am not at the wheel of control
I am guilty, I am war, I am the root of all evil
Lord, and I can’t drive on the left side of the road

It’s a hard life 
It’s a hard life 
It’s a very hard life 
It’s a hard life wherever you go 
If we poison our children with hatred 
Then, the hard life is all that they’ll know……

“It’s a Hard Life Wherever You Go” by Nanci Griffith, 1989 

Cotillion

Prior to Dancing with the Stars and Miss Manners, there was Mrs. Burke’s Cotillion of Louisville. After the Great Depression, Mrs. Burke had been a ballet dance student and instructor in New York City before coming home to teach ballroom dancing in the 40s. For four decades, she annually enrolled an equal number of boys and girls in Cotillion (her former assistants currently continue the tradition).

Unlike the legend, I was not put on the waiting list at birth, but I went to Cotillion from 5th-8th grade at the Louisville Country Club. Over a hundred of us would gather every other fall Friday. Chairs were lined up along the wall on each side of the ballroom’s polished wood floor. The girls sat on the left “with both feet on the floor” and their white-gloved hands in their laps. I took a seat on the right in my sport-coat and tie; suits were not required due to the financial strain of growth spurts.

We learned a lot about manners along with the waltz, fox-trot, and jitterbug. More than manners, she taught me about treating others like I’d want to be treated with more practical examples than my church’s golden rule. In the midst of my body’s and society’s changes from ’68-71 I was placed in a bubble of consistency for a few months a year.

My most comforting consistency was Ruth. Dancing began when the boys were all told to “walk” across the room to ask a girl to dance. While I dreaded the risk of taking the initiative, I was relieved I wasn’t a girl who was asked last. After a few sessions, I asked Ruth to dance. We became dance partners for four fall seasons, except for the one time a guy made the mistake of beating me across the floor to ask her.

Our familiarity enabled us to dance really well together; our pact assured us of a partner we liked. Her flowing red hair enabled me to easily find a seat directly across before my run for the roses. By the third fall, her newfound height made the twirls challenging but we carried on. I never saw Ruth outside of cotillion but I thought of her in college the night a tiny dancer and I took second at our bar’s disco contest.

How were you initiated into treating others with decency and respect? In choosing a partner for the dance, do you appreciate consistency or seek variety? Who teaches you to treat others like you’d want to be treated? How do you put those lessons into practice?

Unworthy

I’m a disciple of Jesus and a part my lifelong church community because I was raised that way.  If I were raised in a different faith, nation, or culture, I sense my faith, life, power, and perspectives would be different today.  Although I have helped others to do so, I never married into a different denomination or religion…… but I did date one briefly.

I recall sitting on a bus going to a Baptist revival with a girl I recently met.  I have no idea how I came to be with her on that bus, but I’m sure it had more to do with hormones than theology.  I do remember it was 1973 because we were laughing and singing “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealers Wheel on WAKY radio.  Since then when I hear that song, I’m on that bus.

As we sorta dated and I had several conversations with her and her friends, I became convinced that I knew a lot about God, but I wasn’t sure I ever really felt God’s love.  They taught me that in order to feel God’s love in my heart, I would need to recite a certain list of scripture verses, say a particular prayer, and be baptized by immersion.  My study Bible still has the list of verses marked in red they recited as the one way to be saved.  Like an auto assembly line, I followed their rules, culminating in my putting on a white robe and being dunked in a Pentecostal church on a Friday night.

When I came up out of the water, I felt…. nothing.  Even after trying to fake my own speaking in tongues to show I had the Holy Spirit, I felt nothing different.  A few years before Morales sang it in “A Chorus Line”….  I felt nothing.  I was devastated and frightened.  After doing exactly what I was supposed to do, I was afraid I was unworthy of God’s love.  If I had no Holy Spirit emotional confirmation that I was saved by Jesus, then my teenage present through my after-life were in dire straits.

Rejected, confused, and frightened, I finally talked to my associate pastor, Bill Arnold.  When I told him my recent story, he told me my greater story.  “Wallis, you don’t feel any different after asking God to come into your life, because God was already there.  Since your birth, God’s love and acceptance have surrounded your life.  When you professed your faith and joined the church, confirming your infant baptism, you didn’t feel different, because you were raised in the faith by your parents and this church.  You will have times in your life when you feel closer to God, times you’ll feel distant from God, but you will never experience feeling God’s love for the first time; it’s always been with you.” 

I can’t promise you those were his exact words, and in a few years when he became my seminary professor he didn’t remember the conversation, but I’ll never forget what it meant for me.  That day I began my journey…. not my journey of faith, but my journey of dating only girls from 2nd Presbyterian Church youth group through the rest of high school.  Also, the answer to my prayer to feel God in my heart may have been delayed for four decades.

When have you known God’s love and acceptance in your life?  Were you raised in a faith community or did you come in from the outside?  What is your experience with people who believe differently than you?  Do you remember your first experience of God’s love or did it occur before you could remember?

Nicky Cruz

Each Sunday afternoon I would ride my bike or walk to youth group in Jr. High; church was about a mile away – shorter by cutting through friendly neighbors’ yards.  For two weeks we listened to two parts of a reel-to-reel tape of Nicky Cruz sharing his testimony.  Although I couldn’t see him I was drawn to the authenticity of his voice as I was fascinated by his story.

Nicky had been a Mau Mau gang leader in New York City.  He talked about his knife fights with other gangs, and the power he commanded from those who followed him or feared him.  Ten years before, twenty something Dave Wilkerson had personally told him he was loved by God; soon that preacher trusted him with the offering at a worship gathering for gangs.  It was the first time in his life he ever felt loved or trusted.  Nicky gave his life to Jesus that night; he gave up his knife, received the Holy Spirit, and would soon become a preacher.  The year I heard his story I saw Erik Estrada portray Nicky in the movie “The Cross and the Switchblade”.

While I never experienced this style of testimony from 2nd Presbyterians, I heard it at some community youth gatherings.  People would share stories of how messed up their lives were before they were saved by Jesus.  Nicky Cruz beat them all with his “before” stories, and unlike most of the others, he even spent time telling some “after” ones as well.

As a kid, I felt left out; how could I compete with the attention all those stories brought?  I didn’t have any horrible “before” stories to tell – I was always a privileged good kid going to church.  Would I have to go on some rampage so I’d have a testimony to preach?  Since I didn’t have an adolescent rebellion, maybe I’d have a mid-life crisis.

The Apostle Paul is often portrayed as a conversion that turned his life completely around to become a Christian.  As I spend a lifetime hearing testimonies from people who have only  “after” stories to share because they grew up in the church, I wonder if Paul had a transformation to more profoundly understand the faith of his fathers and mothers in which he was raised?  Maybe not either/or but both/and.

What examples of testifying to faith experiences have you been given by others?  What do you consider to be typical?  What unique testimony of your journey do you have to share? 

Simply Different

In 7th grade my new school’s classmates were at Louisville Country Day – an all-boys college-prep private school.  Some I had known before; many started together in kindergarten; a few became my close friends.  Like most adolescents I didn’t feel I fully fit in.  My Enneagram 2 personality had interesting reactions from the boys and my 3-wing competition for success was fierce.

People at church became my people as I grew closer to my youth group friends.  I led two different lives – school and church.  Church was where I was accepted, became a leader, and met the girls I’d date through high school.

Our youth group leaders were students at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary.  One would later become my professor of New Testament Greek and preaching when I went to Union Seminary in Richmond.  Another kept me alive as he taught me about life.

When my parents traveled for two weeks, he and his wife stayed with me.  On a hike he kept me alive by seeing a resting copperhead snake in my path and throwing me over it just before I stepped on it.  They taught me about life by how they lived.  Their tiny seminary apartment, the food they cooked, and the way they lived was simply different than all the huge houses I’d visited, the feasts I’d eaten, and the country club life I’d experienced.

They introduced me to seminary debt for a career whose rewards are not financial.  Whether by circumstance or choice, they showed me how to live simply so others can simply live.  I’d overhear the gospel when friends dropped by from their caring community.  I caught a glimpse of being fully committed to something greater than myself.   As I was beginning to discover me, I lived with and learned from a couple making a path on a very different road than I’d known.

What is your experience of learning about differences in people, cultures, and ways of living?  Who showed you a road less traveled by?  When did you first learn that less is more?  How do you understand and appreciate differences in others?

Preaching to the Choir

Our children’s choir practiced and performed a Christmas Cantata with our adult choir at church.   I still can sing a song or two from “Lo! A Star” (1962) although I resisted the impulse to get the one copy on eBay this morning.  During weekly worship I would observe the choir as they sat and sang before us and behind the preachers.  Their expressions often changed but their faces remained steadfast.

In the decades to come pastors moved, the message was reformed, but the same faithful faces remained in the choir.  While some new singers took the place of a few, and while all of them aged over the decades, the constant choir was a reassuring testament to an enduring faith in God’s love, justice, and purpose for the creation in every church I served.  

When Lynn Turnage led 6000 Triennium youth in singing, moving, and miming the Nylon’s song “Face in the Crowd” I would internally sing a face in the “choir”.  

The Moberly choir was “a fellowship group that sings.”  That was a way of practicing hospitality to anyone who wanted to join us, but it had a deeper meaning.  Like other choirs, ours was a small, supportive, and sensitive community who were committed to the church and to each other in weekday rehearsal and Sunday worship.

In various churches I’ve felt the year-long grief of life-long choir members seeking new ways to worship and support each other from a distance after we learned that “singing is like a 5-minute cough.”  (And that was not just a critique of my singing).  As with all grieving, we “grieve with hope” for something better to come that is waiting to be born.

I’ve often heard the phrase, “she was just preaching to the choir” – a preacher who invites people to be faithful followers of God when the only listeners are already faithfully leading worship each Sunday.  It seems to me that a lot of media proclaims opinions by preaching to their own choir — reinforcing beliefs and biases already held on the full spectrum of points of view.  

If one purpose of the church is to “comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable” how are you supported by or challenged by those you watch and hear?  What refrains are being repeated to you?  Are they helpful or harmful?  How do you sing your songs of Zion in a strange land? (Psalm 137)

Tenderfoot Tenderego

In seventh grade, I joined a Boy Scout Troop at Broadway Baptist Church in Louisville where my great-grandfather had been the preacher.  After several months and lots of capture the flag, I achieved the lowest rank of Tenderfoot.  We went on a group camping trip about an hour from home.

As our campfire ignited near our lean-to huts, one of the older scouts sent me to the ranger office to get a smoke sifter to keep the smoke out of our eyes.  “Make it a left-handed smoke sifter,” he added as I marched off.  I found the office and spoke to the attendant, but he didn’t know what I was talking about.  He just shook his lowered head as he stifled a smile.  On the trek back I realized I’d been had and my pride was none too happy about it.  I declined the snipe hunt invitation. 

About 2 am I awakened to a very upset stomach.  I made it away from the huts just in time to hurl the orange kool-aid, burger, and beans on the ground.  Rather than return to my sleeping bag, I walked to the pay phone I’d seen while seeking a left-handed smoke sifter.  I called my dad, told him I was sick, and spent some time convincing him to come get me.  I walked up to my lean-to, grabbed my sleeping bag and walked down to the station to await my lift home.

Around 8 my father came to my bedroom and said, “I just got a phone call and I have one question.  Did you tell anybody at the camp-out you were leaving?”  I had never considered their panic while discovering my disappearance.  I just didn’t want to bother anyone in the middle of the night – other than my dad of course.  As Jack Crabb in “Little Big Man” would say, “That was the end of my boy scouting period.”

I never surpassed being a Tenderfoot.  While I’ve taken advantage of other passive-aggressive opportunities in my life, I’m not sure I ever surpassed that one, either.  I’m grateful that out of the hundreds of youth I’ve taken on church trips, camps, and conferences, no one came close to doing to me what I did to my leaders that morning.

Over the years, I’ve experienced many people disappearing from church without a word.  Some embarrassed, some feeling unwelcome, some regretful, some passive-aggressive, some spiritual but not religious, some harmed by the church with scars that don’t heal.  People tell them the door is open; come worship with us anytime — they don’t.  

Our year-long crisis has presented opportunities.  Those who wouldn’t go to church for a variety of reasons, now wouldn’t to protect the health of others.  Walled off whispers of community preachers for those who show are available online for those who watch.  The vision of God for justice, peace, and love along with the meaning of becoming a human being are being proclaimed outside a building for those with ears to hear.

How has your pride led to your leaving?  What voices are you listening to today?  How have you been touched by the divine because of this past year?

The Bible Speaks to You

When I joined the church at 12, my parents gave me a book that had just turned 14 – “The Bible Speaks to You” by Robert McAfee Brown.  The book traveled by my side unopened on several shelves through high school, college, and seminary.  The title alone seemed reminder enough of what I needed to keep in view.

In my second year as an associate pastor, I felt a nudge to really read the reference for the first time.  A second edition had just been published so I read it while keeping the gift on the shelf.  I hadn’t been ready for the lessons when I first unopened the book; I was still in my childlike faith.  Now my growth experience was put into words with insights to the variety of voices in the stories that shaped my life.   Learning about the Bible helped enrich my interpretation of the Bible.

Using the practical question and answer approach of Brown’s book, I transformed the tome into an adult class on an overview of the Bible.  That experience grew into teaching a class for 3 years at Synod School called “The Bible Speaks to You”.  Soon I was teaching workshops at Montreat and the national Youth Triennium called “The Bible Speaks to Youth”.  

Like the wisdom that reads “when the student is ready, a teacher will appear” it was not just the title, but the author that I needed to often see on my shelf.  Robert McAfee Brown inspired me to work for non-violent resistance to evil, civil rights, inclusion, and social justice because of my Biblical faith.  His books “Religion and Violence: a Primer for White Americans” (1973), “Unexpected News: Reading the Bible with Third World Eyes” (1984), “Saying Yes and Saying No: Rendering to God and Caesar (1986) along with books on Reinhold Niebuhr and Elie Wiesel were added to my shelf and my journey.  My revelation today is that “Reflections Over the Long Haul: A Memoir” was published after his death; there’s room on the shelf for that, too.

What book sat on your shelf until you were ready to read it?  What authors speak to you along your journey of faith?  Describe a time when you were ready and a teacher appeared for you.  What questions do you have about how the Bible speaks to you?

Initiation

In 6th grade I went through Communicants Class at Second Presbyterian in Louisville.  I recall having to get my beliefs correct before I could join the church and receive communion.  We used the Shorter Catechism from the Westminster Confession of Faith which was written in England in the mid-1600s; the shorter catechism was plenty long.

Our beliefs were taught through a series of questions and answers.  The first question was: “What is the chief end of man{sic}?”  The answer was: “To glorify God and enjoy God forever.”  I had a little catechism book that went on from there and would go over the questions/answers with mom and dad many evenings.

After several weeks, we were examined by the Session (the governing body of our church).  My father was one of the Elders on the Session which heightened my performance anxiety.  As was my custom, I performed well; I got to receive my first taste of the Lord’s Supper.

Years later I would come to believe that beliefs are important, but they aren’t the same as faith.  Faithfully following “the Way” behind Jesus’ lead would become more important than intellectual beliefs.  It even made more sense since that’s what Jesus talked about and the earliest followers were called people of the way (the Chineese word is Tao).

A few years later our denomination would change its mind — baptized children with instruction were welcomed to the Lord’s Table and the class name was changed from Communicants/Catechism to Confirmation — confirming for yourself the vows your parents had made at baptism, or receiving baptism when you publicly profess your own faith (if you hadn’t been baptized before).

For 30 years I used a variety of confirmation resources to help youth become adult members of the church.  When our son went through confirmation, his teacher used the New Study Catechism (1998) with questions and answers to teach the basics of what we believe and how we are called to live and love.  Everything old is new again I guess.

In what ways were you initiated as an adolescent?  What life lessons do you remember still?  How were you taught to do loving and faithful actions toward others?

Lowered and Lifted

One of my earliest memories of Sunday School was gluing popsicle sticks together to make a walled home, a roof, and a stretcher.  We tied strings to the popsicle stick stretcher to lower it through a hole in the popsicle stick roof over the popsicle stick home.   It probably took a month of Sundays for the lesson to “stick”.  We were learning about the miracle from the gospel of Mark, chapter 2 — Jesus returning home and forgiving and healing a paralyzed person.  

Mark relates to us that because of the hometown crowds gathered in and around the house where Jesus was, four friends of a paralytic tie him to a stretcher, climb to the roof of the house, dig a hole, and lower the man down by ropes so Jesus could see, touch, and heal him. 

When Jesus tells the lowered man that his sins are forgiven, the scribes — basically the religious lawyers of that day — hold court about the legality of a human forgiving sins.  Jesus gives them an object lesson that a human can forgive sins plus even more amazingly say to a paralyzed man, “Stand up, pick up your mat, and walk home.”

In childhood Sunday School, I didn’t get all the religious legalese…. guess I still don’t.  I wondered what the man would do with the mat that he would carry that was no longer needed to carry him.  I fantasized he could hang it on the wall as a memory, use it as a hospitality mat, or donate it to another paralytic.  Mostly, due to the myriad of popsicle sticks and my role of lowering the stretcher we made through the roof we made, I identified with the four faithful friends who brought the one they knew into the loving and healing presence of Jesus.

Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney published a poem “Miracle” in his final collection of poems.  He said he could only have written the poems in “The Human Chain” due to suffering a stroke in 2005.  He too focused on the friends who had known him all along and he brought to light the image of “paid out ropes” — which would come to fruition three years later when friends lowered the ropes of his coffin in faith and hope in the funeral tradition of Heaney’s Ireland.

As you support those who labor and remember those who “from their labors rest”, I  invite you to read Mark 2 and the poem “Miracle” by Seamus Heaney.