In the back yard of the house next door to the one I grew up in Fieldale, there was a magnolia tree. We have a picture of my mother holding me on the day I was baptized 55 years ago with one of the neighbors under that magnolia – fairly small at that time, but so was I! All of these important issues – where acts of faith and witness were needed – first came into my life in the community around the magnolia tree. It was faith taken from the pews of the church and put into action around that tree.
No matter what time of the year, you could look out the windows on the side of our house and see signs of life in the magnolia tree – from the birds that roosted there to the evergreen leaves. The smell of those large sweet scented flowers filled the air around our house when they were in bloom and when they were not blooming, you could see those hairy flower bulbs which are borne at the tips of the twigs and know that they would blossom again.
Living in that particular house was a family whose only child had come back to live with them in her middle age following a mental health crisis. I grew to love and care about JoAnn because my mother and father set the example. Even though she had some rather unusual ways of doing things and preferred to stay in the house alone, she was loved and cared for as part of our neighborhood. We looked in on her for many years after her parents’ died and until her death.
Jack and Clara Norris opened their house to me when I was 6 weeks old and cared for me while my parents worked until I finished elementary school. Mr. Norris was very involved with the Lions Club. He is the first person I knew who talked about organ and tissue transplants. He worked hard to make people aware of the need for corneas for transplants. And as I grew, in the community around the magnolia tree, came the need for bone marrow, kidney, and tissue transplants due to illness and injury.
That magnolia tree saw my brother go off to the Vietnam War and was there when he returned. There are pictures of our family under or near that tree on both those occasions, one in particular with my brother in his dress blue Marine uniform with a tiny little sister holding on to his leg.
Families not far from the reach of that magnolia tree lost 4 sons to AIDS in the 1980s. Two of whom I went to school with, one who was the first boy to walk me home from school. Of course, we were in the second grade and it was only a short distance! But in a small town, 4 men dying of AIDS is a tremendous number.
Some of my fondest memories of Thanksgiving and Christmas are of our large extended family gathering for dinner. I remember one Thanksgiving when my mother and one of my aunts decided to take meals to a couple of the neighbors who were alone. I vividly remember my mother coming back one Thanksgiving in tears. They found one of the neighbors lying on a mattress in awful surroundings, having drank everything he could find. He had not eaten in quite some time. That Thanksgiving meal has been a lasting example to me of giving with open hearts.
That tree stood tall as friends and neighbors cared for one another with compassion during times of grief, addiction, abuse, racial turmoil, cancer, injury, and a host of other events. That tree was a part of celebrations of home comings, weddings, graduations, family gatherings, Halloween shenanigans and so much more.
There are many other stories of how our community cared for one another. But each one centers on strong faith put into action – sort of like the trunk of the magnolia tree – standing firm, deeply rooted in the teachings of Jesus and an ever-present faith in God. A faith that has been passed on from generation to generation. But without the outstretched branches that tree couldn’t show life – there would be no evergreen leaves or flowers, no birds singing. Faith cannot stand by itself. Like the branches of the magnolia, it is when the faith reaches out in into the community that it blossoms. Remember that the magnolia flower is at the very tip of the twigs on the branches.
The lessons I learned from around the magnolia tree were about an active, working faith. As John Wesley wrote, “Faith hath not its being from works, (for it is before them) but its perfection.”
The magnolia tree had to be cut down back in 2002 because of disease, but it keeps on giving. I have several bowls made from its branches, a rolling pin, and a hand mirror. When I look in that mirror, I see the legacy of that living faith. For as James wrote, “If you keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right.”
So why am I headed to Portland on Sunday for the 2016 General Conference of The UMC? If you read closely, you understand why. If you read between the lines, you know where I stand on most social justice issues – and why. If you want to do anything in response, pray. Pray for courage. Pray for transformation. Pray for me and all the other 853 delegates…and look in the mirror for your own lessons.