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How much do I love thee?

I have long been impressed with the slogan for Hallmark cards: When you care enough to give the very best. These nine words capture not only my thoughts about giving my best, but they strike an emotional chord about my caring.

In what at first seems to be a contradictory idea, G.K. Ches­ter­ton said: If something is worth doing, it is worth doing poorly. Chesterton was not suggesting that any old thing will do, but that whatever is worth doing should be done even if my best is only a poor second to what someone else might be able to accomplish.

Obviously, neither of these statements is Scripture. With tongue in cheek, I would say that both of them convey the truth of God’s Word. If I care enough, that concern will be manifested in the quality of my caring. And if something is deemed worthy, it demands all that I can give, even though my best may seem unworthy.

Translate Hallmark and Chesterton into our lives as Christians, and we see what a drastic difference it would make. Instead of the leftovers so often served up to God, we would begin to dip off the cream – to give God our best.

When I was a student pastor during seminary days, I received a call from one of our parishioners. She told me they had killed a beef for their freezer and wanted to give us some meat. Since we were living on a limited income, her call was welcomed.

She was cleaning out her freezer for their newly-killed beef and gave us several packages of steaks and some butter. When I got home and opened our care package, I discovered that the date on the wrapper of the steaks was almost two years old. Inside the wrapper, the steaks were yellow with freezer burn. Ann cooked the meat, but we ended up throwing it away. We could not bring ourselves to eat it. And the butter? It was so rancid we did not even try using it.

I thought, “Lord, how often have we given you the rancid leftovers – what we didn’t want?” And what if we were willing to do what we can, even if it wasn’t as good as someone else might do? Would that make a difference?

When our children were small, they gave me some of my most cherished gifts. One was a tree limb from which they had pealed the bark and written: To Dad, the champ. This was to be my bat when we played baseball (with a tennis ball) in the backyard. A second gift was another pealed tree limb (they seemed to like limbs) on which they had taped two old toothbrushes to make a backscratcher.

I still have both of these gifts. They are trea­sures, and their value lies not in the quality of the crafts­manship, but in the love by which they were given. They had given their best, poor by some standards, but precious to a father’s heart. God does not ask any more from us. But God does ask for nothing less than our best, as poor as that might be.    ~William B. Coker, Sr.

Teaching Mom

Married with four children, I started college. I asked for only one concession – not to attend Saturday eight o’clock chapel. Granted that, I did not ask to be exempt from the Physical Ed classes. After taking the general course, I had to pick two more – archery and golf seemed safe.

After finishing the golf course, our youngest son Tom had me promise to play a nine-hole round of golf with him. Sounded like fun, so with borrowed clubs we started out. Around the fifth hole it started sprinkling. This seemed, to me, a good reason to head for home. “No,” Tom insisted, “You promised nine holes. A little rain is no excuse.” Thankful we didn’t have to play in a downpour, we finished the course and Tom was ready to go home so I could start supper. Making me keep my promise was a good example, one that matched another concept: “Finish what you start.”

Playing sports is not my strong suit, so when our oldest son Bill offered to train me in a game of tennis, I hesitated but thought it worth the time spent with him. One reason I liked golf is that the ball is not coming at me, but the tennis ball didn’t seem that offensive. At least it has more bounce than a baseball. The tennis lesson was going well, or so I thought, until Bill came around the net to give a hands-on demonstration. It had to do with my elbow. He said, “See this. It bends.” When the ball came to me across the net, I’d bend at the waist with my elbow stiffly in place to meet the ball. That tennis lesson turned into an anatomy lecture, and one game was enough for me.

Now you’d think cooking would be a better activity with my daughter Becky. But when it comes to baking cakes, she has me beat. Two-layer birthday cakes challenged my skills. The top layer would always split. I did take pride in one birthday cake when I made a battlefield on top. I used my son’s tiny toy plastic soldiers and positioned them in the hills and valleys of the iced cake. Years later I watched Becky take cake layers out of her oven, grab a long knife and slice the rounded top off, even with the pan, then dump the top into a trash can. I gasped. She saw my shock and asked, “Would you have me eat all those cake tops for every wedding cake I make?” So that’s how you get layers to stack evenly.

Our second son John taught me about listening and watching, both examples of patience.  In high school one of John’s favorite singers was Elton John. I only heard the beat and volume. One day I took the time and sat with John to listen to some recordings. Above the beat I heard the words, the message Elton was sending. Some made sense, and for those that didn’t, we talked. Years later I watched John sit by his youngest son as they ate lunch. Patience was the name of the game, for his little boy’s eating habit was slow motion, waiting between bites, more interested in talking than eating. Neither were in any hurry to leave the table.

A mother is expected to teach her children, and I’m sure they caught some worthy truths. But I’m grateful for those experiences when the reverse happened, for I learned from each of my children how best to engage in the lessons of life.

Eating Out

TPittari'sRestaurant.NO.1960s

The one family event that I’ve boasted about the most was going to T. Pittari’s Restaurant on South Claiborne Avenue in New Orleans, Louisiana. Whether Dad received this dinner as a gift from work, I never knew. My memory of T. Pittari’s is based on Dad wanting his children to know how to behave in a fine restaurant. As a treat for all four of us children, Dad and Mother made reservations. The host seated us in front of elaborate table settings, including etched glassware. Before we ordered Dad had arranged to have the waiter explain the silverware and the order in which we were to use them. The waiter gave some brief instructions about proper etiquette and had us place the napkins in our laps. He also told us that it was not proper to gaze around the room and look at the other patrons. That may explain why my memory has us seated off to ourselves, like in a separate room (probably not true to facts). T. Pittari’s is no longer in operation, but its fame lingers because of the gourmet dishes of game, live lobsters kept in a tank, and the high prices. One report noted prices as “unreasonably expensive.” Because of this experience I have never been embarrassed at any formal dinner. I’m grateful to our parents for this valuable lesson and thankful to T. Pittari’s staff for allowing it to happen. ~ Ann

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.