You Must Own It Before You Disown It

Following was the address to incoming students at Reformed Theological Seminary Orlando on August 23, 1999. See the postscript for an update on the details.

My mother doesn’t live here, but let me tell you about her. She’s 82 years old, a widow the last 18 years. She still drives, helps with bingo at the nursing home every week, does day care at the church and takes food every time someone dies. She raised three boys, including me, and she still lives in the house in which I grew up. She’s lived there since 1950. These last two facts—that my mother raised me and that she has lived in the same house for 49 years—form an ominous picture.

You see, her house is full of stuff, basement-to-attic and every bedroom—forty nine years of stuff. And, since I believe every parent spends his life looking for socially acceptable opportunities for revenge against his children, I can see what’s coming. Her revenge is that she’s going to die some day and leave me with that whole house full of stuff. As a good detective would observe, she has both opportunity and motive.

She and I have talked about it. She admits it. Not in exactly the same terms, but she admits it. She and Dad married in the heart of the Great Depression and her philosophy of life is “keep it in case you might need it later.” Let me tell you about some of the stuff, starting in the basement.

There are shelves full of old paint cans. By the spills on the outside of them, I recognize when and where they were used. There’s the bright orange to go with the shag carpet when my oldest brother finally got his own room in the 70’s. There are two tones of gray that went on over the siding Dad put on himself after the old asbestos siding wore out.

Set on top of a broken floor lamp sits a Pinckneyville Panther football helmet with a crack in it. My head was in it when it cracked. Hanging from one of the lamp’s arms is a letterman’s jacket with a big “P” on the front and a “76” sewn on the shoulder. In one metal wardrobe is an Eisenhower jacket—those are the short World War II army uniform jackets. There’s a home haircutting kit on top of that wardrobe that reminds of talcum powder and pink butch wax.

In my old bedroom there are not only band trophies and high school graduation pictures, but there are rows of old Avon cologne bottles in the shapes of guitars, golf clubs and sports cars. Somehow these struck Mom and Dad as good birthday presents, in spite of the cologne smelling more like Pine-Sol than Calvin Klein. Somewhere in there, I’m sure, are the three bedspreads sewn into cocoon-like bags that made it possible for three boys to share a pair of bunk beds.

Dad, I’m sure now, was in on the conspiracy. He replaced the plywood access panel to the attic with a pull down stairway, providing easy and frequent access to the attic. But if you were to go up there, you would think as I do that it was a one-way stairway that would only permit stuff to be carried up, but never down. I wonder, from the volume of stuff up there, why the house hasn’t imploded. If you fished around long enough up there, you would find the old cardboard chimney that never hosted a fire, but from which hung Christmas stockings when it was assembled once a year. I used to marvel about how the hot light bulb with a convection driven wheel on the top it could create the illusion of fire when placed behind the cardboard flames.

And in every room I guarantee there are shoeboxes with pictures, mostly black and white—some Polaroids, but tin-types, too. You’re liable to find baby teeth in some of those boxes. I won’t even mention the pieces of furniture, tools and books.

And, of course, it’s all there because in Florida there are no basements and attic temperatures approach that of the sun’s surface. (The first settlers of Florida are rumored to have attempted basements, but gave up and just called them “wells.”) And one day, whether in a few years or a lot of years, I’ll have a short week or two after a funeral to sort through it all. A couple of weeks to process a century or more of my personal history.

By now you are supposed to be feeling something like nostalgia—a sentiment in disrepute among some and way overused by most. That explains, by the way, the surprising popularity last spring of Baz Luhrman’s “Everybody’s Free to Wear Sunscreen.” He defined his kind of advice as

a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it’s worth.

The MTV video of “Sunscreen” included flashes of retro images, old yearbook photos and home movies. It was over-the-top kitsch, but yet as listeners scoffed at the 50s-ish naiveté, the scoffing was not 100% sincere. In all of the campiness with which we’ve come to treat our collective pasts, there is a growing wistfulness. And the broader culture is at least beginning to wonder if we haven’t buried the best, to the extent that Tom Brokaw entitled his best-seller about the post-war builders The Greatest Generation, a title that would have been rejected as presumptuous half a generation or less ago.

“What’s the point?” you may ask. Well, I wasn’t told I had to have one. But let me try to make one anyway.

Mom asks me, “What are we going to do with all of this stuff? You don’t know what all is here.” And when she asks, I’m thinking only of those strings of empty gallon milk jugs, bags of saved-up twist ties, the plastic dinnerware accumulated through frequent fill-ups on 2399¢ per gallon gas and an old copy of C. I. Scofield’s Prophecy Made Plain.

But she’s thinking of the splinter of wood from the train accident that killed her father before she was two, the only photo of her sister Babe who died of tuberculosis in her late teens, Babe’s coupon- earned pink depression glass that would have been part of her hope chest, the $280 Barnes-St. Louis hospital bill for the emergency and life-saving treatment of a Baby Glodo and a copy of Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress that rescued me during my first semester away from home.

I’ve realized that I don’t love the stuff enough and I don’t know enough about the stuff to do the triage of keep/sell/throw away. When the time comes, I’m just going to have to bring it all to my house and explain it to Vicki later. Because, having thought about it, now I realize that I can’t disown it until I’ve first owned it.

And here’s the point: During your time here at Reformed Seminary, we, your teachers, will commend to you a whole house full of “stuff.” The stuff of centuries of redemptive history, of church history and Reformed tradition. Some of it will be idiosyncratic, trivial and even wrong. But it will also be family history, the product of tears, of time and (although not ours) of blood.

Your time here will be the greatest benefit to you and to the people whose spiritual lives will depend upon you in the future if you will be, above all things, teachable. That you will accept everything that is offered to you and at least take it home. You’ve come here at too great a cost, in terms of money, relationships, status and other things to be selective about what you will consider. By this I don’t mean to imply you will be able to complete every class requirement, let alone optional assignments, with equal thoroughness or comprehension. You won’t always do as well as you want in school. You mustn’t neglect the more important things.

Further, you are not likely to end up agreeing with everything you are taught. In fact, that would be impossible since your teachers don’t agree with each other on everything. As a result of careful reflection and study you will disagree. You’ll be wrong if you disagree with me, but you will disagree. But don’t disown it before you own it. Don’t assume it is light and ephemeral simply because that’s the present day stock-in- trade.

Hear what Paul wrote in 2 Thessalonians 2:15 (NAS):

So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us.

This is a novel thought in a time where democracy of thought reigns in the evangelical church. One might wonder if the New International Version, a translation thoroughly by and for evangelicals, betrays our own sentiments by always translating paradosis as “tradition” when the context requires a negative connotation but opts for “teaching” (here and in 2 Thess. 3:6) when the connotation is positive. Just because it’s old doesn’t automatically mean it’s better. It just means that it’s probably better.

There’s a lot of advice you’ve already gotten, should get and will get as you start seminary. Keep your spiritual life a top priority; go to bed at the same time as your husband or wife; don’t shut the door on your children when you study at home; be humble about your learning; write down compliments to others; when giving criticism, do it verbally; never read unsigned notes unless they are encouraging; never write unsigned notes; park in the morning where there’s afternoon shade; work together in Richard Pratt’s class; work alone in Dr. Hill’s class. There is a lot of good advice. But tonight I simply commend to you teachability.

Richard Baxter could have written it for us when he said

Study hard, for the well is deep and our brains are shallow. But especially be laborious in the practice and exercise of your knowledge. (The Reformed Pastor, 112).

And don’t forget the sunscreen.

Epilogue, April 18, 2014: Mom is 97 this month, just off her first broken hip and on her second nursing home tour, widowed now 33 years. She gave up her driver’s license two years ago and my son thanks her for her 1994 Buick Century. In the 15 years since this address was given, she only slowed her accumulation slightly. But now that she’s in the home again (that’s “nursing home” where I come from; one’s real home is said without the definite article) my wonderful big brother Tom and my extra wonderful sister-in-law Brenda have been cleaning things out. Medicare may need the house sooner rather than later. Tom has been the “left behind sibling” that lets little brother move away and conquer the world and he and Brenda have done more than any adult child could ever do for an aging parent. This past week, up to their eyeballs in saved manila envelopes and thirty year old bank statements they ran across a printed copy of this little talk I had given fifteen years ago. I must have sent Mom a copy. Tom told me God had put it there for him to find. To quote the wooden-eyed pirate in Pirates of the Caribbean, “That’s what you call ironic.” Thanks for being a great big brother, Tom.






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