We had a Baptist bar mitzvah the other night. Nicholas’ parents decided that his hitting the advanced age of 13 was significant enough to commemorate with some rite of passage. They invited some men from the church and the ministers and a couple of Nicholas’ buddies for refreshments and a time of sharing. Each man addressed Nick on “what I wish someone had told me when I was 13.” Most of us can go for hours on that subject. Fortunately, we didn’t and the entire event lasted about an hour. Nicholas held up well.
I told Nick what happened my 13th year. At the lowest point in my family’s life, we received the greatest blessing, one that came disguised as a death.
My dad was jobless, the coal mines in our area of North Alabama not hiring. Our family of eight had left the depressed coal-fields of West Virginia and moved into a rented house owned by an uncle, across the hill from our grandmother’s home. Two years later, the six children had nearly worn out the clothes bought up north during better times. As the fourth child, my hand-me-down clothes grew more and more thread-bare. Either I had no coat or none I had the courage to wear, so on cold wintry mornings I stood outside waiting for the school bus in short sleeves, telling anyone who would listen that “when we lived on the mountain in West Virginia, now, that was cold!”
We grew vegetables in the field behind the house, and neighbors shared their produce. Dad joked, “We might go naked, but we won’t starve to death!” It was weak comfort to a 13-year-old.
Expectations are relationship-killers. The wife expects her new husband to be the Prince Charming of her dreams. The boss expects the new secretary to read his mind. The congregation expects the new pastor to reverse the declining attendance, preach inspiring sermons, and attend every social occasion. The pastor expects the members to support him, keep down dissension, and respond to every challenge he throws their way. I expect the 3,000 plus who read this article to click on “respond” and tell me how it was precisely what you needed today.
It sounds so noble to have high expectations. Like we believe in one another. But it’s a trap. The person who expects perfection of me has set us both up for disappointment. I am not perfect, and anyone looking my way to find it will leave in frustration. I am, however, encouraged to find Scripture dealing with this subject. Lately, I’ve been camping out in the vicinity of Luke 6 and 7, making discoveries about our misplaced expectations and the rightful place to direct them.
Peanut was crying as Bryan led him home. He had been misbehaving and refusing to cooperate with the teenagers leading the backyard Bible club — a shortened form of vacation Bible school — so as the leaders had warned, Peanut was not allowed to stay. Minister of Students Bryan Harris had him by the hand, leading him up the sidewalk toward the humble house where he lived.
“Please, Mister Bryan,” Peanut begged. “Don’t take me home. If you take me home, my mama will notch me. Please don’t take me home.”
Bryan knew Peanut from other excursions into this poor section of Columbus, Mississippi, known familiarly as Frog Bottom. The child was always in trouble, never wanted to cooperate, and caught enough reprimands for a dozen children. He was poor, but all the children were poor. Today, Peanut was wearing nothing but a pair of raggedy cutoffs that came almost to the knees.
Through his tears, he said, “If you take me home, my mama will notch me.”
Bryan said, “I don’t understand. What do you mean ‘notch me’? Whatis that?”
We are not the first to inhabit this earth. Others came before us. They left behind art treasures and air pollution, medical discoveries and epidemics, prosperity and famine, porno houses and churches.
The British architect Sir Christopher Wren designed a town hall building for the city of Windsor. Upon completion, municipal inspectors rejected it. “There are not enough pillars to hold up the building,” they protested. No amount of evidence and argument would change their minds. Finally, Sir Christopher ordered four additional columns installed, each identical to the others except for one thing: none touched the ceiling. The authorities were fooled, the lord mayor was satisfied, the bill was paid, and the four useless columns stand to this day.
Every new generation arrives with a set of blueprints in hand for its own distinctive structures. Out of egotism and idealism, but mostly from ignorance, its children search for the structures erected by previous generations to demolish in order to clear away space for their own. They may push at anything standing—“challenging authority” we call it—to see what is weak and what is strong. Like the original columns of Windsor, some of the structures they find are load-bearing and essential to the safety and well-being of society. Other structures stand like Wren’s unneeded columns—strictly cosmetic, there for appearance or pleasure or for a need that no longer exists and may be dismantled and replaced without harm to anyone.