July 2010


And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love (1 Corinthians 13:13).

So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith (Galatians 6:10).

I’ve loved figs ever since I was a boy. My grandma had a little fig orchard on the side of her house, and I would go out on a Sunday during the season and pick the fruit, which she would turn into delicious preserves to spread on her homemade biscuits.

So when we bought our current home, I was delighted to find it had a mature fig tree from which we could harvest and enjoy the succulent, sweet fruit. Hurricane Katrina, even as a Category 1, almost destroyed the tree, but it came roaring back, surely by the grace of God. It’s now so tall that it reaches above the roof line in one place. And we can no longer put a net over the tree to protect the fruit from hungry birds; it’s too big for that now.

The tree endured a storm and will keep on growing, I expect. As my wife pointed out, however, the fruit is fragile. It’s easily crushed. Pick it and leave it on the kitchen counter, and it will mold. Keep it in the fridge too long, and it loses its firmness. The best time to eat figs is right away, as soon as you pick them.

I think love is rather like that fig tree. It will endure all the forces that try to eliminate it from the world, because God is love. As long as God lives, there will be love in the universe. So because God was, and is, and is to come, eternally present, love will never die.

Not so opportunities to love, though. They are much like the figs themselves. We have to love now, capture the sweetness and joy of the moment that will delight like a fresh fig, or the possibility may be gone, like the fruit left out too long. That’s especially true when someone is sick or dying, soon to move away or grow up and change.

Opportunities to show compassion, to care for another, are fragile; they soon lose their “freshness” and are gone. And they may not come to us every day. The time to love is now.

© 2010 Tom Cheatham

Which of these, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” [The expert in religious law] said,“The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “God and do likewise” (Luke 10:36, 37).

You never quite know what’s going on under the hood of your car. Or at least, I don’t. Sure, I check the oil and the fluids, but otherwise, I depend on the car’s computer to light up one of those icons on the dash and alert me to trouble. And every 3000 and 30,000 miles a mechanic tells me what I need to know and do.

Murphy’s Law being a constant in the universe, it just makes sense that some recent car trouble I had was a) not something the computer would or could detect and b) happened just prior to regularly scheduled maintenance. It also struck at a very inconvenient place and time.

I won’t bore you with the details, because the specifics of my car’s ills are not the point of this post. Instead, I want to praise all the folks who were good neighbors to me in my distress. There was ever faithful and helpful Danny, from my church, who dropped what he was doing on a Sunday afternoon to come help me out and stuck with me till the problem was resolved. The lady and her son who saw me struggling with the gear shift and offered to see what they could do. The rail-thin, bearded guy in the beat-up car who both suggested a solution (“have you checked the linkage?”) and was concerned that I was standing in the heat outside of the convenience store where the trouble happened rather than going inside to cool off. And of course, the young woman behind the counter at the store, who offered to keep calling/texting her mechanic boyfriend (Sammy) until he showed up and fixed the problem (temporarily, it turned out, but enough for me to get back to Starkville). Sammy wouldn’t accept any compensation for his work; I guess the good feeling of helping out a neighbor was enough.

After being so blessed with the assistance of both a friend and strangers, I began to reflect on Jesus’ call to us all to be neighbors. The essence of neighborliness, our Lord tells us, is to show mercy. That’s easy when we encounter those in distress through no fault of their own; they were simply going about their business and were set upon by life’s troubles like robbers ambushing a traveler. When neighborliness sometimes becomes next to impossible to practice or even stomach is when we seek to help and are rebuffed or even when we become the target of hurtful words or actions. Mercy in those cases sometimes succumbs to the desire for revenge. The godly quality of refraining from giving someone what he or she deserves gives way to the thirst for retribution, a right reserved in Scripture only to God (Romans 12:19).

For instance, I heard the story recently of a teenage boy whose mom had died. Another boy, who for some reason despised the first kid, said to him: “You’re going to hell, just like your mother.” In his grief, the bereft teen wanted to punch out his cruel peer.

But what would a good neighbor do? Would he or she not refrain from violence and instead seek to understand the source of the hateful words, such as some pain in the speaker’s own life?

I wonder if it isn’t always better to show mercy. Because you never know what’s going on “under the hood.” 

© 2010 Tom Cheatham

 

This post is dedicated to the memory of my Aunt Jean (1932-2010), who joined the Church Triumphant June 30, and to my Uncle Bob and cousins Bobby, Terry, and Donna. It’s adapted from the words of remembrance I shared at Jean’s funeral.

Knowing Aunt Jean when I was a boy and a teenager expanded my world exponentially. I had never seen anyone like her: black hair, blue eyes, high cheekbones; in a word: exotic. She was from a subculture, a part of America, I knew nothing about. And then there was her manner of speaking. If I thought her looks and background were her most distinctive feature, I was wrong. Her accent was, as you know, very different. Not Cajun, exactly, not quite Francais. But it certainly wasn’t South Georgia, and that was intriguing.

When I was talking with Uncle Bob about Jean the day before her funeral, he and I both agreed that her speech, her voice, was all her own. What better thing can be said of someone than that she spoke with her own voice? And what better lesson to all of us?

Speak with your own voice. Yes, all of us are shaped and influenced by our heritage, for better as in Aunt Jean’s case, or for worse, so that we try to disown or escape it emotionally or geographically. As Jean did we can absorb those influences, but come out with our own distinctive personality, our own particular “take” on the cadences of home, the rhythms we learned to march to, the sounds that take us back to another day when we hear them.

Speak with your own voice. Not your daddy’s or your mama’s, your brother’s or your sister’s. Not the voice of the culture that wants to squeeze you into its mold or that of the corporation, to which falsehood comes easily. Not the TV and Internet ads or the homogenized affect of the newscasters. Be distinctive, be original, be your own person.

There is a cacophany of voices out there calling, clamoring for our attention. They speak on Facebook and Twitter and the chat room, coming from our peers, our social network. They assault us from the TV and the Internet, from countless advertisers who want our money, who want us to literally buy into their value system. And sometimes they drown out that distinctive voice, that accent all our own that you and I hear in the depths of our heart and soul. But we must not let them keep us from hearing ourselves, from speaking with our own dialect, no matter how different. We should be like Jean, who knew what she believed, even as a young woman, who was certain of her values and convictions, and stuck to them.

Speak with your own voice.

© 2010 Tom Cheatham

I have never been able, in any substantial way, to incorporate the traditional spiritual disciplines into my journey with Jesus. My experiences with fasting, for example, have been few and far between, and sometimes laughable. On a national day of prayer and fasting when I was a teenager, my dad and I learned that liquids were allowed, so we went and each bought the biggest peach milkshake available at a local place called “The Arctic Bear.” After going without food for 24 hours in college, my friends and I pigged out at the university cafeteria. Only during Lent one year in the early part of this century have I seriously fasted, devoting lunchtime each Friday to prayer in my congregation’s chapel.

Meditation and silence are beyond me. Walking the labyrinth, as you know from other posts, is a favorite, but I have to settle for using a finger labyrinth, since the closest path is way over in Oxford, MS at our presbytery camp. Hardly a trip I can make very often.

I love to write, whether sermons or these posts or back in the day, song lyrics. But as far as I recall, writing (other than journaling) is not considered a spiritual discipline.

That’s why I was thrilled to read this observation by Stephanie Paulsell in a recent article in The Christian Century: “It is a spiritual discipline to find the right word to set down next to another word in a way that reaches across boundaries and distances. Haunting every word is the presence of the word God spoke to reach out to us. In a culture in which words are flung out not as lifelines but as invective, it is an act of resistance to measure our words against the reconciling work of the Word that gives life and hope” (“Deep Messages,” June 15, 2010: 37; emphasis mine).

Paulsell goes on to note that “language cannot do all the work of love.” But it was nevertheless heartening to learn that, though I have failed at the classic disciplines, I do in fact practice a spiritual discipline as I set down my thoughts here or share them from the pulpit every Sunday.

Ever since I started this blog, I’ve thought of what I do as sacramental in a way, namely that I seek to find in everyday events and things clues to God’s way with us, conveyances of the grace of God. Reading Paulsell’s article has given new energy for that endeavor, fresh confirmation that I’m on the right track.

© 2010 Tom Cheatham