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?

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?

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.

Unforeseen

Paul had been my weekend best friend for several years.  His father worked for the local NBC affiliate WAVE-TV.  While I had three stations to choose from at home, only one was on at his during many Friday nights playing pool, watching Johnny Carson, and collapsing in exhaustion.  The Friday tradition was changed on one Sunday in July 1969.  While most would remember Walter Cronkite’s almost speechless “man on the moon… whew boy, oh boy”, I watched with Paul’s family Huntley, Brinkley, and McGee describe the unbelievable.

The next month, I started to attend Louisville Country Day School and lost touch with Paul — changing schools and friends.  I didn’t hear about Paul until I was in college, when mom called to say Paul had been working as a guard at a gated community when someone drove up and shot him to death.  When I came home I wanted to go see his parents, but I didn’t.  I hadn’t seen them in years, I feared feeling a tinge of survivor’s guilt around them, and I didn’t know what to say.  I regret that I didn’t offer some consolation and a few childhood memories to stand by those facing “the unimaginable”.

Years later, I helped out with Senior Night as an associate pastor.  Until Mexico built its own YMCA, we bussed that day’s graduates to the YMCA at Jefferson City or Hannibal for an all night alcohol-free party.  I helped at the roulette wheel as part of the mock casino.  The bus ride home was always quieter than the party.

One year, a graduate drove to the mall in Columbia the day he got off the Senior Party bus.  On the two-lane 54 highway home he fell asleep at the wheel and was killed in the crash.  I gathered with about 30 shocked and grieving grads, asking “Why?” and questioning a loving and powerful God when “theodicy” is no longer just a theory.  As with Paul’s parents, I didn’t know what to say, but this time I stayed, sat, listened, hugged, and wept with the others.

Even with the best of intentions, planning, and safety concerns, horrible things can happen.  The consequences we face can be harsher than our choices deserve.  The illegal or unjust actions of others can lead to suffering.  Maybe we can learn from the friends of Job in the Bible — being with others in their suffering does much more good than trying to explain it.

What areas of your life are touched by these stories?  What questions have you asked about the theodicy of God?  What answers have fallen short of God’s love you know revealed in Jesus?

Experimenting

For 5 years the Chenoweth Elementary auditorium was where we gathered many Saturday mornings to watch a Disney movie projected on a huge screen with a Slo-Pok to get us through. I now wonder if parents organized that. One Saturday I gathered there with dad and other sons and dads to watch a movie teaching us something about sex; I don’t know if the girls and moms got their Saturday.

During 6th grade science that auditorium became the lab for an experiment in education.  KET (Kentucky Educational TV) had begun broadcasting classes for Eastern Kentucky students in the Appalachian mountains.   We were the first of the state-wide classes KET would broadcast during the day.  Our entire grade of what now seems a hundred would gather in that large auditorium.  At the appointed time, our teacher would turn on 7 TV sets around the room and we’d watch science experiments from one state teacher.

After the broadcast our teacher would teach us for a short while.  She’d prepare, monitor, and grade our tests.  During TV delays or “technical difficulties” she’d keep us entertained.  She played “Feelin’ Groovy” (the 59th Street Bridge Song) so much we voted to adopt it as our class song.  She helped turn us from individuals into a community when she supervised our May Day festival.  It was our teacher, not the guy on TV that I remember because she cared about us.

I don’t know how the television broadcast classroom experiment turned out, but I don’t think it became the norm.  This past year Nancy and I’ve worshiped online with several churches each week.  The pandemic has allowed us to listen to friends from all over the country.  I’m glad for the variety of voices we get to hear and the communities each pastor personally cares for.  I don’t want to try an experiment with one state-wide or national preacher. 

What “experiments in education” have you participated in? What do you remember about your teachers…. the information they presented or the way they related to you? How do you find a variety of voices rather than one broadcast in your journey of faith?

Getting It

Almost all of my childhood and almost every Tuesday, we had a black maid named Pauline clean our home.  Mom would trade days with Pauline’s Friday employer whenever mom prepared for a big cocktail party.  I remember Pauline’s laughter, her chess pie, her discipline, her love, but I don’t remember her crying…. except once.  The second Tuesday of April 1968, I was home from fifth grade watching a long funeral procession on our color TV.    It reminded me of watching a long funeral procession in first grade on our black and white.  Pauline sat with us, shedding so many quiet tears her apron was soaked.  I remember hugging her, but I really didn’t get it.

Twenty years later, the thickest book on my shelf was “A Testament of Hope – The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr.”  Unlike too many books around it, I actually read this one — moved by poetic prophetic preaching.  During their annual meeting, the fourth week of April 1988, I was given the Mexico Missouri “NAACP Drum Major for Justice Award”.  Why me?  I didn’t deserve it and I wasn’t even a “C” (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).  When I pointed that out to the leader she said, “Honey, we’re ALL colored by God — there’s just a variety in the complexion.”  I still didn’t get it.

Four years later, the last week of April, my best friend leading youth events was my roomie at a training event at Montreat.  The fact that Keith was African American only mattered when we awoke to the news of riots after the Rodney King verdict and I experienced his reaction.  That night the Montreat community gathered to pray and watch a 16 mm projector film of a speech Martin Luther King, Jr. had given at Montreat.  Maybe I was beginning to get it.

The following December Keith and I were at a national training event in Kansas City for the new “God’s Gift of Human Sexuality” parent and youth curriculum.  After eating with a group at The Plaza, and on the way back to our hotel, I drove Keith to the Alameda Plaza, a ritzy hotel on a hill with an outstanding view of the Plaza Christmas Lights.  As we walked in I said, “We’ll just ride the elevators up to a top floor and look out at all the lights below and come back down.”  Keith said, “I don’t think we should, Wally.”  I said, “O come on, Keith.  It’s great.  Just look like you’re going to your room and catch the view.  I DO IT ALL THE TIME!”  With fear and frustration on his face and in his voice, Keith said, “Obviously you don’t do it in my skin!”  I think I got it.

What is your experience of my story?  Whatever “getting it” means to you, what has helped you or blocked you from “getting it.”