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New Wine in New Skins

Over the years I have kept a few things as reminders of people and events – nothing that would mean much to anyone else, but things that help me trace my footprints back over the years.

In my box of memories I found an audio tape Ann had sent me while I was in Israel during the summer of 1972. I stuck it in a tape player and listened to the voices of our four children; they sounded so much like our grandchildren now. Their voices were not the only ones on that tape. I heard my mother (who died in 1983) say that she was praying for me every day. Then my father (who died in 1974) said a few words. Before he began to speak, I could already anticipate his first two words: “Hey, boy….” That’s the way he began every telephone conversation with me.

I could not hold back the tears. Those voices recreated for me scenes that are a precious part of who I am and brought back feelings that neither time nor change has been able to obliterate. As long as I live, they will always be a part of me.

As I put my treasures back in the box, I thought of the words of Jesus in Matthew 9: “People do not put new wine into old wineskins – otherwise the skins burst, the wine is spilled and the skins are ruined. But they put new wine into new skins and both are preserved” (v. 17).

This verse had come to mind because of something I’d read in a book by Donald Bloesch, The Crisis of Piety. In introductory comments to his second edition Bloesch had written: “The question remains: Can the new wine of the gospel be poured into the old wineskins of the institutional churches? It may be that the hope of the church lies in the movement of the Spirit raising up new forms of Christian witness and service that do not negate the wider church but serve to reform and purify it.”

In regard to a contemporary worship service, I have not wanted to see us lose the heritage of our hymnody. To do so seemed the same as throwing out the box where we have kept the precious memories not only of our past, but of what has made the church the church over the past 300 or, for that matter, the past 2000 years.

However, those who have not shared our past want newer wineskins; and why shouldn’t they? They would not have wept with me at the sound of my mother’s and father’s voices, so why should they have deep feelings for those things not belonging to them? They have only to remember that it was the wineskins that were to be new. For centuries the wine, though newly “vintaged,” is still being produced the same way. In a sense, the wine was the same; the containers needed changing.

I am not the only “foot-dragger.” Nor is it only those of us who are older. Some of us are hanging on to old ways, even those that may not be that old. Our ways are familiar. Our hanging on may simply indicate that it’s easier to keep the old skins rather than make new ones; or because we would be inconvenienced. In other instances, we may have sanctified the old skins and declared them to be God’s own – anything else would be against God!

We all need to heed Bloesch’s observation: “It may be that the hope of the church lies in the movement of the Spirit raising up new forms of Christian witness and service.” It will mean putting away (not throwing away!) our box of precious memories and moving on. That’s what I had to do that afternoon. We all have to. ~William B. Coker, Sr.

Missing Mom x4

I once stopped at a book store in Indianapolis on the way to see my daughter Becky. She ended up calling the police about her missing mother. It was so unlike me not to show up at the expected time, and my delayed time of arrival must have been hours. I had no cell phone and it was thoughtless of me not to ask the use of a phone at the store. When I arrived at her house, I popped open the trunk to show her the books I’d purchased for Christmas presents. She was less excited about the books than she was to see me, safely there.

Shopping in a Sears & Roebuck, I had my pre-school son Tommy beside me. All of a sudden he was not there. I searched among the racks of women’s clothes, and he did not answer when I called for him. How long he’d been missing, I could only guess. Before too long I heard on the loud speaker: “We have found a little boy who is missing his mother. Come to the home appliance department.” As I neared the area, I saw Tommy perched on top a washing machine as he licked on a lollypop. The salesman asked me for my son’s name. I said, “Tommy.” He answered, “That’s not what he told us.” “Okay,” I said, “what did he say?” His reply: “Hambone.” Smiling at Tommy and the salesman, I explained that name was given to him by his uncle who chose nicknames for each of our four children. They believed me, so I got to take Tommy home, but without purchasing anything.

It’s a terrible thing to be lost. Years ago I drove around Lexington, Kentucky, looking for the school where my son John would be performing with his college Tumbling Team before a high school assembly. I tried this street and that, driving around in circles, but I could not locate the school. Finally I stopped for directions at a service station. John probably didn’t notice I arrived late for the event, but it’s a wonderful thing to find what was there all along. This missing mom found her way.

One more: this time with Bill as he drove in Nashville, Tennessee. I listened on my cell phone to our son Bill, Jr. giving directions as we tried to find his house or at least the area or a street nearby. After seeing the same streets again and again, we finally asked if he should meet us at the next service station. Arriving there we learned we were close to the turn-off and attempted it once more. As we saw Bill on the front step of his house, we felt relief and turned into the driveway. Being lost is no fun; being found is worth the effort to get there.

 

 

Junior Church Song Leader

At church everyone loved Billy Coker, especially the junior high girls. I was one of those girls. Miss Levy taught Junior Church and Billy led the music. A former missionary, Miss Levy was a good teacher. But I paid more attention to Billy, four years older than me. All eyes were on our song leader as we practiced special choir numbers.

Billy also led the song service for evening worship which followed our youth group meetings. The congregation chose several songs, calling out numbers from The Cokesbury Worship Hymnal. More than once a young boy shouted from the back of the sanctuary, “Number 216.” We didn’t have to look, for we knew it was “There’s a Song in the Air,” a Christmas carol. Billy allowed the selection, even out of season.

Because he was respected, my parents allowed Billy to visit and take me out, mainly to the neighborhood theater. To get to my house he would ride the bus to a main road and walk past numerous bars. We would then walk several blocks to the movie. Frequently on Saturdays, Billy would come for lunch and spend time with my family. He played practical jokes on my dad and siblings. Once he placed a tiny set of false teeth in the container where Daddy kept his false plate. Daddy had to phone to find out where Billy had hidden his true set.

When people ask me how I met my husband, I tell them that Bill was my Junior Church choir director. Bill smirks, because that sounds like the distance between our ages is more than it is. Years later and to my delight, I would stand in our small-town church and follow the song leader as he led worship and then preach. From Junior Church to lead pastor, he still has my full attention.

 

The Good China

In spite of all the tremendous strides we have made in science, medicine, and technology, we have watched a deterioration culturally, socially, and religiously that should disturb us far more than it does. One reason for our lack of concern is that we have allowed ourselves to be satisfied with what is convenient, what is useful, and what feels good. The price for this cheap satisfaction can be observed in what’s happening in politics, in schools, in churches, and in our families.

Something from my childhood seems to parallel what’s happening. My mother had what she called “the good china.” Though they were not that expensive, they were what she kept aside for use when a special occasion or special company called for using “the good stuff.” Our normal dinnerware was an eclectic collection of dishes that served our daily purpose.

On one occasion, when I was quite young, the pastor was in our home for dinner. Mother set the table with the good stuff. Dinner went quite well, until we had all eaten our fill. Then I sought to be helpful and announced before our guest, “Mother, I didn’t use my knife, so you can put in back in the trunk.” Mother was humiliated, and the family never let me forget it.

I also remember what Ovid Young said when he and his partner, Stephen Neilson, were at World Gospel Church for an organ/piano concert. Commenting about some of the music being produced today, he referred to it as “throw-away music.” In our desire for the convenient, the utilitarian, the feel-good, we have put the good stuff in the trunk and contented ourselves with paper plates.

What else can explain why we think the great literature and the great music of the masters are no longer relevant or worth the effort? We have lost the ability to appreciate greatness; we have discarded past values as out-of-date. Who needs good china when we have paper plates?

So I wrestle with what is happening religiously today. Religious bookstores are filled with throwaway books; sermons are supposed to be homilies, brief and not “above our heads”; and music is supposed to make us “feel” worshipful, even if it lacks quality as music and the words lack substance.

Mother's china.1

My wife, Ann, and I keep our “good china” in a fancy china cabinet; and the common stuff, kept in a kitchen cabinet, serves our purpose for day-to-day usage. We use “the good stuff” so infrequently that I almost forget we have it. I wonder if we modern technocrats have already forgotten the really good stuff that has made us who we are.  Have we come to believe that all anyone really needs is a paper plate?                                                                                   –William B. Coker, Sr.

Soldier’s Wife

Years ago I penned this brief image from a fleeting dream:

“The wife saluted her husband upon his arriving home after work. The smile on her face and twinkle in her eyes showed this oft-repeated gesture was not out of duty or sarcasm but out of love for her husband and respect for his position at work and at home. Seated near the back screen door, her hair a bit unkempt, this wife anticipated the arrival of her sergeant-husband. He returned the accustomed welcome, her loving salute, with the expected  smile and first a tip then a toss of his cap to her. They never tired of this ritual which kindled their love the few evenings his rotating shift allowed them to be home together.”

I have no real connection with military life, so I cherish this dream that allows me to meet some association with how a wife and husband deal with the hard realities of service in the military. With this I give a salute to those who serve our country, our families, me.

Let the Church Be the Church

The greatest need of the day is for the church to be the Church. The Apostle Peter wrote: “You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood”; and as such a holy priesthood we are to “declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:5, 9, NIV).

Peter’s words remind us that the focus of the New Testament is not on a building, no matter how essential or beautiful such a facility may be. It is also not to focus on an ordained clergy, however well-trained or helpful they may be, but rather on people as “the priesthood of all believers,” the Body of Christ. Reread that second chapter of Peter’s letter and you will notice how significant the role of the corporate body must be if the Church is to be the Church.

If being a follower of Jesus only means going to church, we have not only misrepresented the Gospel, but we have given others little reason even to want to come to church with us.

A number of years ago, it was predicted that with technology we were going to become a nation of leisure, since we would be able to accomplish our work more quickly and more efficiently. It would be hard to convince most of us that it has. We all seem to be busier than ever, and people feel they are pushed to the limit! So who needs something else? Going to church is not, in and of itself, an attractive invitation and going with any regularity is even less attractive, as many within churches demonstrate.

However, if discipleship means being Church, and this being makes a great deal of difference in becoming the persons we ought to be, then there is reason for getting up and going. Could this not establish happy marriages and stable homes, transform society into a better place to live, and on top of all this, give us the hope of eternal life with a loving and gracious God?                                                     William B. Coker, Sr.

Unsuspected Connection

Being a member of Jerry Jenkins’ Writers Guild, I watch Master Class, taped interviews with authors and publishers. In July the author, Brandilyn Collins, gave tips about convincing characters, good teaching from her book Getting Into Character. Her genres are suspense thrillers and contemporary novels. Although I’m a non-fiction writer, I found her instruction helpful and her enthusiasm contagious.

Wanting to know more about Brandilyn, I went to her website and Facebook page. Three photos posted on FB peaked my interest, so I left a comment. Her answer confirmed my guess that I know her parents as friends and in professional service. In early 1980’s when I was managing editor of Good News magazine, based in Wilmore, KY, Ruth Seamands (Brandilyn’s mother) was our typesetter. Many times a month I would either deliver or pick-up copy at Ruth’s home where she worked. My husband, Bill, would say it was like Delta Airlines and Atlanta, for we had to stop by Ruth’s house before going anywhere else.

Seamands.Tata.Ichtus

Tata Seamands, playing cymbals at Ichthus Festival, Wilmore, KY.

We had other connections with the Seamands family. Brandilyn’s grandparents, known as Tata and Agie because of their missionary service in India, were dear to me. For a short season I went to their home and prepared lunch. That’s where I learned to cook curry dishes. During the time I attended Asbury College, married with four children, Tata was my avid encourager. I still remember his saying, “Sometimes the better of two options has to be sacrificed to reach your goal.” That came when I wanted to keep up with all my previous activities, yet studies had to be first priority. I graduated in 1977, finishing in six years, 20 years after completing high school.