(Originally written in February 2000, this column is as applicable today as then and perhaps more so. — Linda Grist Cunningham)
When I start to tell stories about my family, there’s a universal groan around kitchen tables in Iowa, Virginia and West Virginia, even Illinois and Ohio. That’s because every one of these siblings, parents, nieces and nephews claim I tend to take liberties with the way I remember things.
“Linda,” says my sister Beth, “you don’t just embellish the details for effect, you make things up out of thin air.” Personally, I prefer to call these liberties “literary license.” Anyway, the way I tell things is the way I remember them – and for today the way I remember them is the way I’ll tell you the story. Were the rest of the family on hand this morning, I’m sure they’d jump right in with their own corrected versions. You know how families are, don’t you? We’ve all got one of some description, even when we don’t exactly want to claim them for our very own.
So, take a walk with me for a moment back to the late 1950s. To a tiny town in the southeastern, red-clay, tobacco country corner of North Carolina. Red dust lies like spilled powder on tree leaves, kitchen tables, sidewalks and cars. It settles on the sheets and towels hung on the sagging clotheslines in the backyard. There’s no water in the ground, hence the dust everywhere. No, the water is in the air, heavy, sodden, making every breath a labored effort in living. And, when you can suck in one more breath, the air smells of used motor oil sprinkled on the dirt roads to cut the dust. It smells of DDT used every night to kill the mosquitoes. It smells of the neighboring paper mill, a sick-making smell my dad always said was the perfume of money.
It’s clearly summer in the South and the baritone clonging of church bells in the steeple of the First Presbyterian Church of Whiteville, North Carolina, say it’s Sunday. In the pews slump the parishioners. Shirts stick to their backs and sweat drips down stockinged legs. There are plenty of Jesus-on-a-stick funeral home fans waving in their faces. There is, of course, no air conditioning. The windows are open, a welcome invitation to the honeybees and assorted other Southern insects of the sky. The folks sing “Old rugged cross” with considerable gusto, considering the humid heat.
Outside the window, the leaves of the dogwood tree jiggle and dip – odd given there’s no breeze to speak of. As the congregational voices soar away on the final notes and the wearing someday of a crown, there comes this high-pitched order: “Mike, you get out of that tree right now before you fall and break your leg. I mean it. Get down. If Daddy sees you, he’s gonna come out here and you’re gonna be in big trouble.”
I’m the one doing the talking. Brother Mike is in the tree. We’re outside because Mike couldn’t sit still and as the oldest, it was my turn to grab my baby brother by the hand and drag him down the center aisle with everyone a-watching. We were supposed to just be sitting alongside the church, listening in through the window. Mike, however, had considerably different ideas about how to spend an hour freed from the confines of Sunday morning churching.
Fast forward, now, a half decade to Augusta, Georgia, and Reid Memorial Presbyterian Church. Steeped so thoroughly in the historical Deep South that it barely remembers its founding, Reid Memorial is a formidable edifice. You could have fit three or four Whiteville sanctuaries in that stone and mighty fortress that is Reid Memorial. Formal, high-church Presbyterian, that is Reid Memorial. There certainly were no “Jesus-on-a-stick” fans here. Reid Memorial had air conditioning.
And, in we come, all seven of us: Mother, Dad, three boys, two girls; the five of us stair-stepped across eight years. Even then we filled up most of a whole pew, two thirds of the way down front on the right-hand side. Hushed it was, this massive, soaring sanctuary. And, we were a noisy, active brood.
This, too, was the church of Dwight David Eisenhower, who when he passed on the presidential seal to John Fitzgerald Kennedy, took up his golf clubs to play the Augusta Country Club course. And, on Sundays, when others were on the ninth tee, Ike was in the pew across from ours. All alone, head bowed, looking not presidential, but exactly like my delightful Irish grandfather. Wondersome it was to us children that a president went to church. Did his mother make him come, too, like ours did?
It was particularly wondersome to Brother Mike. Now too big to be climbing dogwood trees during the service, Mike still had trouble sitting still in church. So, he’s turning around checking out his neighbors and spots Ike one row back and across the aisle. Give the kid credit: He did recognize the former president – and he did refrain from yelling out something along the lines of “Hey, check it out.”
But Mike couldn’t help himself. He just had to wave to the guy. So wave he did, disrupting the service a bit and probably creating a certain amount of angina among the Secret Service. To the former president’s credit, he waved back.
When the Grists went to church – and we did every single Sunday of every single week of my childhood – we made an entrance. There were simply too many of us and we were far too noisy not to be noticed. The quieter we tried to be, the noisier we were. Daddy would send warning glances up and down the pew and the most troublesome among us had to sit between him and Mother. Mike was almost always the one in the middle. To this day I am sure the members of those childhood congregations gave a sigh of relief when we were on vacation and services returned to their previous Godly peace and quiet.
(When we were on vacation, we simply disrupted my grandmother’s Presbyterian Church in Pennsylvania and she herself loved every single disruption. She never glared at us like Daddy did. Grandma Pansy just beamed.)
But we were there. For the Grists, church on Sunday was the wellspring from which flowed our fundamental family values. Those were yesterday’s kids and yesterday’s families, but three lessons from those Southern Sundays resonate today.
The first is a simple truth: Jesus said “bring on the kids.” It bothered him not a whit that the children were noisy, dirty, rowdy bunch. No, Jesus brushed aside the clamoring adults and welcomed the kids aboard his knees, torn robes, bare toes, scabbed elbows, drippy noses and all. Jesus loved the little children – all the children of the world. He made no distinctions among their colors, their religions, their parentage. He simply opened his arms to them all.
Perhaps, in these days when we worry so very much about dress codes and uniforms to encourage disciplined behavior among our youth, might we not be far better off to be digging beneath the superficialities of clothing and into the hearts and souls of our children? I cannot imagine Jesus spending much time brainstorming the benefits of hard shoes over sneakers for church. Jesus would be the one among us saying simply: Better they are here in cutoff jeans than home snoring in bed.
The second value from those Sunday mornings is equally simply: Adults are responsible for children. Notice that I didn’t say parents are responsible for children. I said adults. We are what the adults in our lives have made of us. Our parents, our teachers, our aunts and uncles, our pastors, our next-door neighbors – the hundreds upon thousands of adults who enter and stay – or enter and depart – our childhoods.
As we struggle to grow up, it is the adults in our lives who shape our worlds. As adults, we must accept this God-given challenge to create for the children in our lives a world of safety, security and hope. It is our responsibility and no one else’s. We must do as the adult Jesus did: Bring on the kids. We must love them – and equally important, we must like them – all of them collectively and individually.
To do less, to turn our backs on a child, to give up – even in horrible pain – is to shun that fundamental family value: Do unto the least among us, Jesus said, as you would do unto me.
It is the third value that is most troublesome: All this loving of children is a whole lot easier said than done – especially when my family and its values are so vastly different from your family and its values. It works something like this:
We pretty much love – and usually like – our own children. And, we are pretty much comfortable with loving – even liking – whole bunches of children who live very far away and for whom we can write a missionary check and be done with our good deeds. We love the close in and the very far away.
But we have a whole bunch of trouble with the kids in the middle. The ones at the mall who hang in groups and look like hoodlums. The loud ones who make rude sounds and scare us when we walk past them. The ones for stumble and mumble because they don’t speak American very well. The ones who slouch and swear and talk back and act up. The ones who don’t study and don’t show up for class. The ones who sell drugs and the ones who prostitute themselves for enough to buy food for a baby born out of wedlock.
My mother always reminded her children how easy it was to love the lovely – and how very hard to love the unlovely. But, that’s what Jesus demands of us. We will not be rewarded for loving the lovely. Only by opening our arms, our hearts, our heads and, when needed, our check books to the unlovely will we gain the grace our God has promised.
Today is Scout Sunday and we honor the men and women who so unselfishly share themselves with our children. As the mother and wife of Eagle Scouts, I am fully aware of the time, talent and dedication that goes into Scouting.
But, it is not enough. Far too often our efforts and responsibilities to our children are limited to those closest to us and those children farthest away. We consider ourselves good Christians when we rear good children and support fine missions. If we are to meet God’s challenge, we must examine our service to the children in the middle – the almost-lost children toward whom we all too often turn an unseeing eye. The children whose lives and families – whose values, if you will – are so very different from our own.
We here today are blessed children of God. Can we offer less to the children in our world than we have been given ourselves? Certainly not. Jesus’ message is a demanding one: No child may be turned away. No child may be discarded. There must be no lost children. Jesus said so.
Linda Grist Cunningham is editor and owner of Key West Island News and KeyWestWatch Media. She and her husband are elders at Peace Covenant Presbyterian Church in Key West.