Read the previous letters:
Mama’s Boy, Vol. 1
Mama’s Boy, Vol. 2
Mama’s Boy, Vol. 3

Dear Mama,

I wore flamingo socks today, and I thought of you all morning.  Years ago, you jokingly bought two plastic pink flamingos for the front lawn. Dad and I thought they were just ridiculous, but how you loved them!  And over the years, somehow, they became your spirit animal. If we lived in the world of Harry Potter, I’m confident a flamingo would’ve been your patronus.

We buried you with a flamingo broach. I’m not sure if you were tickled or mortified. I tend to side with tickled. Even your obituary mentioned your love of the famously pink birds:

She was a beloved mother, wife, sister and aunt who carried a passion for baking cookies and visiting old friends. She loved her husband and son, her sister, her church, pumpkins and flamingos.

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It’s my fourth year sitting down at my keyboard only to find myself torn about today. I just pulled up Alan Jackson’s album of old hymns on my computer and hit play. I remember you bought that album, one of the last you purchased.  You told me when you bought it how sweet it was of him to make that CD–that you’d heard he made it for his mama, who loved all those old songs as much as you did.  He grew up just a county over from where I did and so, somehow, we all felt connected to him and our little corner of Georgia.

Speaking of our little corner of Georgia, I’m headed that way in a couple of weeks to see cousin Olivia graduate from High School. Do you remember when she was born? You were so excited. You loved her ever since you knew she was coming into this world, and I know you’re proud of her now. She has such fond memories of you–of crafts and adventures and little baked treats called Orange Blossoms.

A few years back, after her own mother had passed away, Nelanie [Olivia’s mama] called me, and began, “I know your mama and I didn’t always see eye to eye.” Well, that wasn’t any secret! There were a couple of tense years in there somewhere. “But,” she continued, “I want you to know just how sorry I am that your mama died.” And I stood in the kitchen of my old condo in Atlanta, holding my phone to my ear, shocked and moved and not quite sure what to say. So we cried–cried for both our own losses and for each other’s. Nelanie and Jeff and Olivia, they’ve adopted Dad and me. And what a gift it’s been to have them in our lives. You’d love it. We sure do.

Things are going splendidly at Westfield. We’re growing–over 100 almost every week, 130 just this morning. I’m not sure what we’re doing differently, but we’re certainly connecting to folks. And it’s great. What a joy to be part of a place that’s so vital and kind and filled with love. And we just installed these awesome lights that we can change to 16 colors with a remote!

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Speaking of love and joy in our lives, Greg and I are still going strong. Since I last wrote, he graduated with a second masters degree, and now he’s working on his Doctorate of Ministry (I told you he’s smart).

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Thanks to the generosity of so many people in our lives, we went to Rome. It was the very definition of “once in a lifetime.” We spent an entire two weeks living in a little apartment just blocks away from the famed Spanish steps. And we explored.

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We saw it all, Mama–the Colosseum, the Forum, the Palatine Hill. We wandered the Vatican and got lost in the back streets of Rome. We threw coins into the Trevi Fountain and walked alongside the Tiber.  We visited countless churches–each filled to the brim with beautiful works of art that were masterpieces in their own right.

I remember being in one church, looking at what we thought was the masterpiece in a particular side chapel, when someone dropped a coin in an obscure box that switched on a light illuminating the other wall. What was hanging there? A Caravaggio. Obviously.

You know we’re total church dorks. And so, while we aren’t Roman Catholic (much to some of my church members’ disbelief!), we relished the beauty, the architecture, the art–all of it. The thing that lingers with me nearly a year after returning was the history of it all. We’d walk into these ancient churches, built in 500 or 600 C.E. Generation after generation would build onto it, making the building what they thought it should be–prettier, more functional, bigger–leaving their mark.  And I think about who those people are–about how they’re forgotten to time. And yet some part of them remains, some bit of their life, their presence, their faith endures in the Eternal City even after centuries.

 

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It reminds me how important storytelling is–and how quick we are to forget the stories that shape us. Last October, October 19th to be exact, Westfield celebrated its 300th birthday. To celebrate we told the stories, stories of our church–of it’s founding in 1715, of how it came to be where it is today, of how it’s changed over the last 50 years, of how it’s thriving today. As part of that celebration, we toured some historic sites connected to our church–the site of the first building, the grave of the first pastor. All of it part of the story of my church.

I think about how we tell stories in our family, and I realize that so many of my memories of you, so much of my story–our story–are connected to music–to hymns. One of my clearest memories of being with you at church was standing beside you at Fairburn United Methodist in the Spring of 2003, singing.  You stopped so you could listen to me, savoring what you knew would soon wind to a close due to the call of college and adulthood. I looked at you, and you smiled at me. We sat back down and I held your right hand, the one with your fancy ring, and twisted it around your finger just like I would when I was a child trying to pass time during the sermon. I traced your hands with my fingertips.  I didn’t know it at the time, but that moment holds a lifetime of our stories. I envision you doing the same thing to your mama decades ago, when her Alzheimers had set in and you and Aunt Virginia had to make the impossible decision to move her to a nursing home.

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How you loved your Mama. And your sister. And Raytown–that little crossroads community in middle-of-nowhere rural Georgia. And the little church toward the end of the road that you grew up in. It was that church, and the singing there, that made you stick with those piano lessons your mama and daddy couldn’t really afford over in the bustling (not really!) town of Washington, Georgia. I remember you telling me how the whole family–you, Virginia, Moore, and Nell–would dress up and head into town so that you and Virginia could take your piano lessons.

Years later, after I was born and you realized that I could sing, you’d sit down at the piano in the Living Room–the very piano you bought after Dad told you to stop playing the one at his mama’s house. “We’re trying to talk!” he unwisely said.  (That wasn’t Dad’s best move, was it?  A month later, a delivery truck pulled down the driveway to drop off the new upright so you could play whenever you wanted–even if someone was talking!)

Anyway, you’d sit down at that piano and pull out the old Tabernacle hymnal you had swiped from the old Raytown church before it burnt to the ground because of a rogue lightening strike, and you’d open it to one of your favorites. And you’d tell me to sing.

I would stand beside you and sing all your old favorites. I’d sing of the sweetest name I knew, of going to the garden alone, of Jesus calling each of us–softly and tenderly. I didn’t realize it then, but you were doing more than just listening to me sing. You were teaching me my faith.

You might not’ve tucked me in each night with a Bible story, but thanks to you and your piano, I knew what it meant to listen for the voice of Jesus. Thanks to you, I gained a blessed assurance. Thanks to you, I knew how sweet it was to trust in Jesus. Thanks to you, I learned to love to tell the story–you know the one, of unseen things above. And you know something? I still tell it today–every Sunday from a pulpit and, God willing, every day outside of the pulpit.

And when things were their worst late in October of 2008, and we knew that your time in this world alongside us had grown short, I remembered the words of one of your favorite old hymns and did just what they told me. Do you remember?

I’d stand beside you at the piano, you would play a simple introduction, and I would start to sing: Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face. And the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace. 

I didn’t know what you were preparing me for then (and really, I’m not sure you did). But holding your hand in the hospital, I did just that–and hoped you were doing the same.

This is the eighth Mother’s Day without you, Mama. It’s the eighth time I’ve spent the week before that second Sunday in May wondering just how to hold it together when I stand in front of my church folks. It’s the eighth time, I’ve had to pray a pastoral prayer about  mothering and nurturing and hope and loss.

You want to know a secret? Preachers don’t just preach to their congregation. Most of us are preaching to ourselves, too. Sometimes, we’re just preaching to ourselves–and letting other people listen in. That’s what happened this morning. I stood behind my giant, elevated, wooden pulpit and told my congregation of the saving acts of God’s grace. Really, I reminded myself that it’ll all be OK.

You were a keyboarding teacher. For nearly 40 years, you taught kids how to type–a skill we take for granted these days. I remember so many Sunday mornings when part of our routine before church would be for me to do typing drills while you and Daddy finished getting ready. Now, I spend my Sunday mornings running different kinds of drills–ones that I hope make me a better leader, pray-er, teacher, and preacher. And almost every Sunday morning, as I’m combing my hair, I think of you calling out those mornings so far from here, prodding me along so we wouldn’t be late for Sunday School. And I walk out my front door and head down the street to my grand, old church.

And you know what I do? The very thing you taught me to do. I sing. I sing with people who love me and whom I love. And together, we sing the songs of faith that have formed generations. We don’t sing all the same songs–they’ve got their own collection of favorites up here.  But everyone once and a while we come across one that you loved. And those are the ones I sing the loudest, the one’s I sing from the deepest part of my heart. And somewhere, somehow, I hear you playing the piano–left hand pulling back and forth the way old, Southern women play in church on Sunday nights. And just for a moment, we’re singing together again.

One Sunday not too long ago, we sang another of your favorites: Standing on the Promises. You remember it, don’t you? It starts, “Standing on the promises of Christ my King! Through eternal ages let his praises ring! Glory in the highest I will shout and sing! Standing on the promises of God!” I think it was around our 300th birthday celebrations at Westfield, and we were caught up in remembering all the people who helped make the church what it is today–of that Great Cloud of Witnesses who formed us and form us still. And I remember thinking, as I looked out to all the people who’ve become family to me and Greg over the last four years, that I count you among that number. You are so much a part of who I am and how I believe and how I show that faithfulness to people I’m humbled to lead. You are one of the promises I’m standing on. Thanks for that–for the story of Jesus you faithfully handed down–and for giving me the words and songs to share it.

The words of John the Revelator often come to mind, that there’s a day coming when there’ll be no more crying or mourning or pain, for the first things will have passed away (Rev. 21).  Mama, I’m counting on it. And until that day, you keep singing. And when you have a second, listen for me–and I’ll sing with you and hope for the day when together we can do just what the words of that old, old song plead for us to do: “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face. And the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of his glory and grace.”

I love you, Mama.

Jonathan

PS-I thought you might like to hear me sing it again. So here you go, listen away:

 

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