By Neil Joiner
During my early childhood at Harmony Baptist Church, Mrs. Ilene Mashburn was my Sunday School teacher. She used a felt board to help tell Bible stories, pressing on figures to go with the scenes she compellingly described.
I saw Noah standing at the entrance of the ark while the animals peacefully boarded, guided by an unseen Shepherd. I watched Moses lead the children of Israel as they walked on dry ground between towering walls of water in the Red Sea. And I was amazed at Daniel who showed no fear as he sat on a large stone in a den of lions.
It was hard to imagine having the courage of those Biblical heroes, yet I believed it was possible by choosing faith over fear. My belief is unchanged, yet making that choice remains a challenge.
Another vivid memory from those early days in Sunday School is from a few years later. Mrs. Betty Calhoun was our teacher by then. A recollection that still causes me to smile is from our time of reciting verses.
Memorization has never been my strong suit. I could learn something well enough to usually make a good grade on tests at school, but the information dissipated as soon as the bell rang. It was the same with memorizing Bible verses. A few have stayed with me, but I generally look them up for accuracy. I’ve found that my paraphrasing is too heavily influenced by my opinion.
My go-to scripture during recitation time was, “Jesus wept,” from John 11:35. It was also, however, the highly preferred option of my cousin, David Dunaway. We sat beside each other and would scuffle over who went first in the rotation.
As soon as Miss Betty said it was time to recite verses, we quickly raised our hands. From the front edges of our seats David and I waved aggressively while trying to restrain one another. We competed with feigned desperation for the privilege of quoting the shortest verse in the Bible.
I didn’t understand much about that brief scripture at the time. It’s likely I had heard a sermon on it at some point, but I don’t remember one. To me it was simply a ticket to go to the front of the line. Lately, however, I’ve been thinking more about Jesus’ weeping.
Covie Langford called me in early April to tell me his first cousin, Jimmy, had died. Jimmy Langford and I grew up about two miles from each other. We started first grade together at Pinehurst Elementary. As adults we worshipped in the same church. For the past ten years we lived just a few hundred yards apart.
Jimmy was one of the most kind-hearted and humble people I’ve ever known. He had a Christ-like demeaner that I aspire to emulate but fall dreadfully short. He didn’t make speeches or do other things that garner attention or yield applause, but his servant’s heart was a wonderful example for all who knew him. Jimmy preached a daily sermon in how he lived.
I didn’t know Jimmy had been sick for a week or so before he died. Maybe that’s why Covie’s phone call brought tears to my eyes. The tears only lasted a moment, but as I’m writing this story on Easter Sunday my eyes have turned red. I’m sad because a gentle man with an easy smile is now among the COVID-19 losses. Statistics are more troubling when they wear a familiar face.
An unexpected death of a lifelong friend seems more tragic than usual during this pandemic. Virtual embraces aren’t the same as real ones, yet that’s the world we must live in for a while.
Perhaps it would have been better if I had written something humorous this week. Melancholy topics are already far too common. But I wanted Jimmy’s wife, Kay, and their son, Kyle, to know what was in my heart. Writing a column is not like giving them a hug, but it’s all I can do for now.
It’s a little embarrassing to admit I’ve been crying, but I think it’s helped me understand something better than I did before. I’ve heard several explanations as to why Jesus wept, yet I’m still unsure of all the implications. I’m confidant, however, that he shed those tears to tenderly teach us a lesson. By Jesus’ example we can know one thing with certainty. Sometimes it’s okay to cry.