"A man finds room in the few square inches of his face for the traits of all his ancestors; for the expression of all his history, and his wants." - Ralph Waldo Emerson
John grew up with a very troubled childhood, sexually and physically abused from the age of four to the age of 12, when he was finally removed by the authorities. Relief came for him in the form of government intervention and caring Christian couple willing to take this troubled boy in. To see John's face in his teens would belie the terrible history he had. His face always smiled, and voice always cheerful, his countenance always lifting. John became active in their church's youth group. He did not have an easy fit, and developed only a few close teen friends. He talked very sparingly of his past, and few of his close teen friends knew his past and current struggles. Time passes, like it always does, and youth grow up and move off to college, and those friends were off to begin their own lives. All except for John. The history of abuse and an uncertain future filled with loneliness, scorn, and nonacceptance took their toll. On Good Friday, 1984, John took his own life.
Ray was the minister of education at a fairly good sized Baptist church. He, together with his wife Pat, were a young married couple planning their family and their life together. Ray is a big man, or to hear him tell it, "he grew out instead of up". His laugh was sure to brighten your day and his willingness to listen to you without judgment was self evident. His wife was equally accessible, and together they modeled humor and acceptance. It was this couple that, early in their marriage, was called to take in a young troubled boy named John, and they did it without ever a hint to others of either John's problems or any resentment of their calling to clean up this mess created by someone else. They did it with the same joy they approached every other aspect of their life. To see Ray's face was to see joy and hope in all of life's situations. Except for that night. The 15 second announcement must have seemed an eternity, and just as vivid now as the day it was made. The congregation, gathered to remember the death of Christ on Good Friday, 1984 was darkened by the untimely death of a valuable soul. The announcement added lines of sadness to that face that were not evident before.
Lelton was working class man, whose face carried the lines of many years more than his fifty some odd years. He had raised his children in Birmingham, during the height of the racially torn times of the sixties. Though he rarely talked about it, he had taken Japanese lives in the Pacific theater during World War II, and seen some of his own comrades die. He was part of the aptly named Greatest Generation. A good father, grandfather, and husband, he made a living by working hard his many years selling educational supplies to schools and libraries. Money was not always there, but being a child of the depression, both he and his wife Margaret knew the value of frugality and how to stretch every dollar to meet the needs of the day. As an educational book salesman, he knew his product, but his intellect was much higher than the educational books he sold, or the job which he worked, both of which seemed beneath a man of such intelligence. While traveling, Camel cigarettes and WAPI talk radio were his constant companions. A deacon in his church, Lelton would work his weekends repairing appliances and "piddling" on things that needed to be done for the church. It was no surprise to anyone that Lelton and Margaret took into their home a young man from 500 miles away who moved to Birmingham to go to college, giving him a home away from home.
Julian, together with his brother, owned a construction company that repaired fire damaged homes for insurance companies. There were no fish symbols on his business card, no Scripture verses on his fax cover sheet. He didn't need them, as his life spoke volumes. His face showed the humility of a man deeply committed to Christ. He enjoyed his work, and treated people ethically, modeling his business after another Carpenter who lived long ago. In and out of the church, Julian was the model of a gracious and humble man, his face always with a smile and a word of encouragement, or willing to meet and pray with anyone concerning the need of the day. When there was a need, and Julian was able to help in any way, he would quietly and unannounced do it. Julian neither wanted nor desired to be the center of attention, and shied away from it. Julian was the type of man whose face reassured you things were going to be ok, not by what he said, but just by his presence.
As I stare into my own mirror and shave each morning, I notice more and more lines appear in my middle aged face. The face I see in the mirror is not just mine, but the composite of so many people who have entered my life and impacted who I am. Those lines reflect for me the years of living that make up a life shaped by so many others, more than even mentioned here. When I look in the mirror I see John's face, teaching me the value of friendship, the need for community and acceptance despite our problems, the value of being there when people need the physical touch of our Saviour, and that sometimes the face of youth can hide the pain and fear that will surely show years later. I see Ray's face, teaching me laughter and joy, even if punctuated with pain and disappointment, and that our faith in Christ carries us even when we feel as if we have failed. Though the face of the college boy he took in has changed, I see Lelton's face, reminding me that life is more than things, it is people, family, and community. I see Julian's face, reminding me that true Christian commitment should not be confused with, nor relegated to the relatively few truly called professional ministers. I see the face of my children, who look to mine to find safety, comfort and answers to life's questions. I see a face that stands in the gap, not just for the future of those who will follow me in the faith, but in honor and memory of those who have gone before me. I see many more lines on this face than mentioned, and many more faces that have shaped my own.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. (Heb. 12:1)
If I don't wear this face well, I owe an explanation to each of these for failing the lessons their faces have given to me. More, I owe it to Christ, who put each of them in my path to shape how I look.
Thank you, Lord, for the lines on my face, and the great crowd of witnesses who put them there.