Monthly Archives: May 2019

The Teacher

IMG_0452“I had my first racial insult hurled at me as a child. I struck out at that child and fought the child physically. Mom was in the kitchen working. In telling her the story she, without turning to me, said, ‘Jimmy, what good did that do?’ And she did a long soliloquy then about our lives and who we were and the love of God and the love of Jesus in our home, in our congregation.  And her last sentence was, ‘Jimmy, there must be a better way.’ In many ways that’s the pivotal event of my life.” – Reverend James M. Lawson

It took me nine days to read a 700+ page book from cover to cover. The bulk of that was made possible by a cross-country flight that included an unexpected six-hour layover, but it was the captivating story and skilled story-teller that really did the trick. I would steal a few pages when I awakened each day, and at bedtime, and any time possible in between.

When we accepted the opportunity to move to Nashville, I stumbled across The Children and purchased it immediately. I am fascinated/humbled by the civil rights movement and wanted to know the history of my new community, of course, but more than that, Halberstam wrote one of my all-time favorite books (October 1964), and I could not believe that he was a young reporter for The Tennessean assigned to cover this story when it happened.

The book cover states, “On the first day of the sit-ins in Nashville, Tennessee, eight young black college students found themselves propelled into the leadership of the civil rights movement, as the movement—and America—entered a period of dramatic change. The courage and vision of these young people changed history.”

Our move has been hectic but good, and I had been simply intimidated to open the cover and start on such a hefty book. But wow, all it took was reading the first page. I was immediately embarrassed not to know the significance of what occurred in Nashville. I knew of the horrific murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi, of Rosa Parks in Montgomery, the Little Rock Nine, Freedom Riders, the Selma marchers, and the murder of Dr. King in Memphis, among other famous events, but I was stunned to discover that what took place here in Nashville was at the heart of it all—because “the children” (aka college students)—were the heart of it all.

I knew some of Diane Nash’s heroism but had no idea that John Lewis started his amazing journey in Nashville, and I was especially shocked to know that the infamous Marion Barry was a part of that early group. I somehow knew nothing of Jim Bevel or Bernard Lafayette, Rodney Powell or Gloria Johnson, Curtis Murphy or Hank Thomas. But I will never forget them now.

However, what may have had the greatest impact on me was not one of the children—but their teacher, Jim Lawson. Lawson is now ninety years old and lives here in Nashville. Some of my new friends have met him, and though I am envious of that honor, it is almost too much to imagine.

Lawson grew up and attended college in Ohio as a young man with deep faith and convictions. Lawson was fascinated by Gandhi and conscientiously objected to serving in the military, which for his time in history, sent him to prison for two years. Afterward he was a Methodist missionary in India where he studied Gandhi more deeply and then returned to pursue graduate work in religion at Oberlin College. It was at Oberlin in 1957 that Lawson met a like-minded (and aged) visiting speaker in Martin Luther King, Jr. He told Dr. King of his plan to pursue graduate degrees and then come to The South to work for reconciliation, but Dr. King told him that he was needed now and not to wait.

So Jim Lawson moved to Nashville, where he started teaching nonviolence training workshops to a small and eclectic group of college students—who changed the world.

There are a thousand things to note about Jim Lawson’s life, not the least of which being that he was the Memphis pastor that hosted Dr. King’s fateful trip, and I am sure that many have wildly different opinions about the stances he has taken along the way. But what I will never get out of my mind is Lawson teaching that group of young college students there in Kelly Miller Smith’s church in Nashville. He absolutely knew the dangerous road these “children” were embarking on—and did not hide it from them. How did it feel to know that? But it was the road to a better way, so he taught them anyway.

I live in a different Nashville today because of Jim Lawson’s courageous teaching. But Nashville, as with any other city, is nowhere near what Lawson described as the “beloved community” that inspired his teaching. With his example forever imprinted on my mind, I hope in some small way to teach courageously, too.

Hand in Hand

Mother's Day

My wife has long claimed that she lacked the natural maternal instinct other girls seemed to have as she was growing up in Arkansas. I am in no position to question her inner feelings, but I sure can note the irony. Through her incredible life as a mother, I met a phenomenal little girl who changed my life forever. And just over a year after our marriage, Jody accepted the challenge to stand in the place of mother for many teenagers with unfair early challenges in life and spent the next three years (and beyond) loving those sweet people with ferocity and grace. While there she gave birth to our youngest daughter and glided through her days seemingly able to mother the whole world.

Truth be told, she confessed one afternoon that she really couldn’t mother the whole world, which launched our life together on a trajectory where instead of mothering the whole world, I have had a courtside seat to watch her love lucky kids all over the world. I watched her teach and love on children in Mississippi. I watched her informally adopt children in California and teach them how to bake cookies and homemade biscuits and the yummiest communion bread. She is sneaky with her gift-giving talent, but I have caught her enough to know that she regularly gives thoughtful and secret gifts so that children know that they are special and that she loves them. I have watched her become Mama Jody to children in Kenya and am especially moved when she gravitates to the young girls there who are also young mothers. And for someone who lacks that maternal instinct, you don’t want to get between her and a brand new baby to hold.

And the relationship she has now with our adult daughters? Wow. It is a thing of beauty.

I am fully aware that mothering is more than biology, so maybe instinct is not that important after all. Maybe motherhood is more of a posture one adopts.

Some know that Jody and I met on New Year’s Day and married that Memorial Day weekend, and those who don’t know the story might guess that our meeting was instant love. However, many don’t know about our second meeting. I tracked down Jody’s phone number but was afraid to call and actually prayed to God as I went to sleep one night that I would bump into her the next morning when I arrived at work and she dropped Erica off at school. Well, my prayer seemed a bit suspect the next morning when I slept through my alarm and made it to work just as the school bell was ringing. Later that morning, however, I turned to walk down the main hall and was stunned to see a beautiful picture at the far end—Jody and Erica walking hand in hand my direction. We stopped and talked and arranged our first real date, and we are still dating twenty-five years later.

But on Mother’s Day this year I am reminded of that early scene down that long hallway. Of Jody walking alongside her sweet girl hand in hand. The motherly posture. Today that hand-in-hand might happen across the miles via text message or phone call, but she continues to walk by our daughters (and others) day after day after day. What an honor it is simply to watch.

Names

blog pic names“Ever since happiness heard your name, it has been running through the streets trying to find you.” – Hafez

I threw out the ceremonial first pitch for a Lipscomb University baseball game last Friday, which was easily the most difficult and embarrassing thing I did all weekend. But I received far more sympathy for reading around three hundred names at the undergraduate commencement ceremony on Saturday afternoon. (For the baseball fans, the pitch was in the dirt, low and away, and the manager made the wise decision to pull me after a single pitch—no Tommy John surgery, but the trainer has me icing the old arm anyway.)

This was not my first time pronouncing names at graduation, having done so while at Pepperdine Law for three consecutive years sometime back.  My favorite memory from those inaugural years was when I announced Hillary Mace, and much to my surprise (and I’m sure the fury of the events team), she ignored our wonderful dean and president and jumped up to my podium to give me a hug instead of accepting her diploma first.  That kind of made my life.

But there are the haunting memories, also known as the attempts to pronounce the most difficult names given my cultural background.  I remember practicing with my friend, Mr. Dehbozorgi, and feeling confident and ready.  However, when it was showtime, I remember the sinking feeling when I looked at the next graduate in line and noticed Farshad’s excited face—and yet it wasn’t his turn!  Farshad’s encouraging facial expression was saying, “C’mon, big guy, you can do this!”  My facial expression was saying, “I am a deer, and I see headlights.”  We somehow survived the interminable showdown, although therapy must have helped me forget exactly how.

My first foray reading names at Lipscomb had some definite pronunciation challenges, but given my return to the American South (and that Lipscomb is a more regional university), the names were most definitely easier.  The best part was that I got to share the load with two new friends, Brian and Catherine (pictured above), so that each of us pronounced about three hundred names. Brian and Catherine are fantastic, and I was honored to be on their team.

That we have names is interesting all by itself, and the phenomenon of announcing names at formal recognition ceremonies even more so.  It is a powerful feeling to stand on stage under bright lights wearing bizarre attire and declare a name over a powerful microphone that signifies the end of years of rigorous academic study and unleash wild applause from family and friends.

What is it about hearing that name?

Maybe it is because more often than not it is the first thing we do to a human being—give it a name. We are given a miracle, and we feel compelled to identify it in some way, and we say, You are _______. There. That is who you are. With time we learn to say it ourselves: I am ______. It is our linguistic attempt to establish a foundational identity, this curious mix of sounds and syllables.

We are each somebody. Every single one of us.

If you ever doubt it for yourself, give me or Brian or Catherine a call. We are seasoned professionals who can declare your name and unleash the applause.