Erica, Phillip and I were in our hometown of Moore County the past weekend. It was eventful. We celebrated Phillip’s one year birthday with family and friends at Chic-fil-A! We made an unanticipated visit to the ER for a stomach virus that Phillip caught. Then we discovered later that over half of the folks from the party also had it, including my mom, dad, sister and one of my best friends. Then I caught it too. Eventful … is an understatement. By the end of our trip I had experienced my share of surprises. I wanted everything low-key and slow; just rest and relaxation. So I went to visit my paternal grandparents. Their home screams predictability and rest! At least it usually does…
Some things were the same. I brought my grandparents breakfast from Hardees. I sat my grandpa’s on the table for him to eat later. Grandpa likes to eat alone.
I took my grandma’s biscuit back to her room for her to eat and talked to her for a bit. The usual – sit her bed up a tad, remind her of who I am, sit and watch her watch me for a bit and then try to answer some of the memory questions she asked. Grandma has dementia.
Then I spent the rest of the time with my grandpa. Grandpa loves watching TV in his over-sized chair. He’s usually watching the news – weather, sports or something. And so we did the usual – TV, chat, TV … in that order. You don’t talk when it’s TV time. And grandpa always gives the cues. Sometimes he’ll even stop himself or stop you mid-sentence to check back in to something of interest on the tube. It’s funny! After a little TV he asked me about the family, especially Phillip. He reminded me – like he always does – how special Phillip is because he’ll carry on the family name. We watched some more TV. Then he asked me if I’d been keeping up with WWE and how corrupt wrestling has become. We talked about the mountain weather, about his garden, his health and mine; and then, more TV.
Then things changed a bit.
Grandpa asked me about my “line of work.” I was used to him asking me about school. I don’t recall him ever asking me about my career. But it was also strange because pastors tend to always feel awkward telling people that worship is their profession. It’s just odd. These conversations almost always begin and end awkwardly. Not with my grandpa. He didn’t miss a beat. He asked me about a typical work day. He asked me whether I enjoyed the work. And then, as if we both knew that this was coming: he asked me about the folks in the town and the congregation.
“So, are the people nice?” (I’m thinking: “this is a weird question.”)
“Yeah grandpa they are!”
“And do they receive you well?”
And then I knew where he was really going with the conversation.
“Well grandpa, there aren’t a lot of us where I live.”
“Yeah, I know … so are they nice to you?”
“As far as I know, they are.”
“Well, you know folks can be nice to you in your face, but be real mean when you’re not around?”
“Yeah, grandpa … I know.”
It felt like a scene from the 1985 hit film Back to the Future. For those unfamiliar, Michael J. Fox playing Marty Mcfly gets transported back in time. While there he manages to unintentionally set history off course. And so his objective is to set things back on track, to interrupt the results of his missteps so that the future will unfold as he knows it should be. If not, his story and the stories of his closest friends, family and even the whole world are at stake.
My grandfather pointed to a story of fear, deception and hate between black and white folks in this country – a story all too familiar. A story in which my mother schooled me from the time I could talk. What made this moment so different, so fresh was the way in which grandpa pointed to the story. Grandpa was deeply concerned about me, about my family, about our safety. But he didn’t come right out and say that. He spoke in code. I followed suit. This is a code language motivated by fear, born out of 19th and early 20th century race relations. All of a sudden we were there. It was as if my grandpa were not talking to his grandson, but his son. It was clear that I had triggered something in him that threw us off course from the present.
And so I shifted.
“Well, grandpa … there might be some folks like that, but if we keep on eating together, and singing together and just being around each other at least we’ll know each other … maybe we’ll become friends?”
“Yeah … that’s right … well, you know what they say, don’t ya’? … Kindness can kill a snake!”
“Huh? What do you mean grandpa?”
“Well, if you can get up enough courage to feed ’em a bug or two, then you feed ’em again … if you feed ’em enough times the snake will become quite friendly too!”
Fighting back tears, I responded, “Exactly grandpa!”
I interrupted the direction in which I had been leading us, of following the story of separation and fear. This story which claims that my family and I don’t belong here. This story which claims that differences are a refusal to intimacy and friendship. We interrupted this story. And in that moment my grandpa and I were able to imagine a future story altogether different. A story which says that kindness can overcome … can kill those barriers – fear, deception and hate – which bring separation.
There are stories here, in the Blackburn House, in Blackburn’s Chapel, in Todd, of separation … of neglect, of exploitation, of pain. My grandpa’s story is relevant. And yet his story – this business of humans becoming friends with snakes – reminds me of another story about friendship, a fuller one, one that doesn’t say that kindness can kill the barriers to peace and reconciliation. This story says that kindness already has and will overcome them. And as far as I can tell, part of what we’re trying to do here, in this place is interrupt those former stories. Interrupting them so that we might together imagine this latter story, this fuller, future story which has already been promised and for which we all long:
6 The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
7 The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
9 They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.