One bright September day, those shimmering early school days: untainted notebooks, sharpened pencils, crunchy leaves and crisp air, afternoons of slanted sunshine upon porch pumpkins, yes on that type of day, our junior high class was introduced to Mr. Langley.
Seventh grade meant Latin, and I felt the twins of curiosity and nervousness flutter. I knew nothing about this language, nor the teacher. Mr. Langley, a new hire, stepped carefully into our bright classroom, and placed his slim briefcase upon the teacher’s desk.
Salvete, discipuli, he said quietly, pushing his wire rims to the top of his nose. He turned to grasp a piece of chalk, and as he began writing his name on the chalkboard, his briefcase toppled and the chalk broke, all at once.
Oh dear, he mumbled, scooting down to gather the mess of papers that had spilled. When he stood, again adjusting his glasses, I saw chalk dust streaked along his face, and on the side of his navy pants.
The boys started laughing, and when Mr. Langley did not stop them, but continued to fumble with the papers and chalk, cheeks crimson, I knew he would never be able to control our class. Our other instructors knew precisely what was what, and could cast a glance at any student and reel them in. Or else.
But he was different from the other teachers: gentle; shy. As he stood, lean and awkward, scripting his name precisely on the chalkboard, I noticed his fingernails were neatly clipped; scholarly. I could not imagine that he ever mowed the lawn or pushed a wheelbarrow or tossed a football. His aura was one of meticulous caution and forethought, a stretch when governing a junior high classroom. As the weeks unfolded, his intellect proved both humble and mighty in a way that spun impractical: an apprehensive scholar who likely poured over his textbooks line by line, perhaps by candlelight, smiling at the wonder of those mighty Latin roots, unperturbed by any other event taking place on planet earth.
Despite these inauspicious beginnings, he clearly understood Latin, and longed to share the importance of this unspoken language that had crumbled in tandem with the Holy Roman Empire some 1500 years ago. As the weeks moved along, he encouraged us with the practical benefits of the Latin language: If we memorized that pater meant father, for example, we could decipher the meanings of English words such as: patriarch, patron, patronize, paternity, patriot, and expatriate.
Isn’t this wonderful? he beamed, impervious to the disinterest of most of his pupils. Latin helps form the logical portion of your brain, he offered, pushing up his glasses with his index finger. It will help you not only in college entrance exams, but in all of life, as you read the classics and delight in learning new vocabulary. He annunciated each word thoughtfully, as he gazed absentmindedly out the schoolroom window at the majestic maple in all of its autumnal splendor; branches spreading throughout the schoolyard.
He then walked back to the chalkboard, asking us to join in the verbal chant of conjugations. Amo, amas, amat, we began. I heard a noise and peeked over my shoulder as a classmate lobbed a spitball across the room, hitting his friend’s neck. The boy retaliated in kind, and they hooted. Mr. Langley turned, oblivious to the cause of disruption, and kindly requested our full attention yet again.
As the months passed, and our Latin vocabulary expanded, Mr. Langley handed each of us a copy of Lingua Latina, and then took his seat behind his desk. We took turns reading aloud and translating.
Imperium Romanum, I read. The Roman Empire, I translated.
I heard snickering and looked up. Mr. Langley had stood and was writing Imperium Romanum on the chalkboard. Clinging to the back of his pantlegs were dozens upon dozens of white page hole reinforcements.
Had this been any other teacher, to my shame, I probably would have laughed, at least on the inside. But Mr. Langley was so kind, so gentle, such a frail bird that I felt miserable as he deciphered the trick played at his expense. His face flushed and his shoulders drooped, mumbling to himself as he exited the classroom to remove the stickers.
To my initial surprise, a pretty and popular girl laughed, claiming ownership of the prank. As she high-fived the spitball fellows, I had a flash of understanding: recalling her careful exclusion and subtle mocking of the girl with the lisp, the boy who wore the same three shirts on repeat, and the shy, smart girl who was dared to outshine everyone on exams. And now our introverted Latin teacher, brought low in humiliation while she, the self-proclaimed queen bee, rose to rule.
I am married to my pastor.
This does not make me special or remarkable. Quite the contrary. I am an average, middle-aged woman.
What it does mean is that my viewpoint from the pew to the pulpit is unique.
I drive into the church parking lot each Sunday and Wednesday, knowing.
I know when my husband is juggling six or seven weighty situations, I know of our family’s stresses and sin struggles, I know his deep longing to please the Lord. I know when he is excited in the growing discipleship of our men and women, I know when he is weary, I know the pressures of decision-making in leading a congregation and answering ultimately to the Lord. I know when a member has greatly encouraged him with a kind word, I know when he has wrestled with a difficult text all week, I know the time spent in prayer, I know the double-digit hours spent in study and preparation as he preaches verse-by-verse, and I know when he has tossed and turned all Saturday night.
But the hardest part is that I know when members are clashing for control, tossing bolts of intimidation subtly, working against unity and submission to God and his Word. It is impossible not to see, not to know, and my husband does not need to even speak a word. These things step into our home, draped over his shoulders like a cloak at day’s end. I offer to take the cloak and stuff it in the closet, but it sheds something fierce, and remnants remain on his shoulders, day after day. I vacuum them from the carpet, as they are sprinkled everywhere. This is undeniably part of his work, and by default, mine as well.
What am I to do? I have a soft heart for the struggling, the weak, the hurting of our church body. They are the image of Mr. Langley, all of these years later, and my instinct is to defend, to help, to shield. My protective instincts have always run a bit hot; it is my native tongue.
My heart’s posture towards the troublemakers? If left alone, it grows into a cold, hard stone.
Years ago, when our two oldest sons lit up the Friday night field, one a quarterback and one a tight end, my joy knew no bounds. Jacob threw with mighty precision, and Caleb’s soft hands caught those passes with ease.
Caleb had this thing, after catching the football, while running to the end-zone; a signature move that became known as: Caleb’s stiff-arm. His powerful arm shot forward and held, pushing down any defensive player who attempted to stop the scoring mission. They simply could not bring him down. It was incredible to watch him put points on the board out of sheer strength, and to witness the team gather around our sons, slapping backs and helmets, high-fiving, while Caleb and Jacob gave each other a quick hug. This was all so natural: they had grown up playing backyard football and with a glance, knew what the other was thinking, what play to run. They looked out for each other.
This is the picture I conjure now. I am like Caleb, pulling in the long and beautiful pass, catching the ball softly, cradling it securely, and forcing a stiff-arm to bring the play to magnificent completion. My husband is preaching the Gospel, offering the Good News and I am striving for softness, and winsome kindness, seeking determination and strength to carry it generously, and when necessary, stiff-arming in protection.
The Gospel is not only for the weak, the vulnerable, the Mr. Langley-types of this world. The Gospel is also for the bullies, the arrogant, the queen bees who must be struggling under such staggering poverty of spirit; layers of insecurity that lead them to harm and rebel.
Yes, the Gospel is for all.
The solution for both my cold heart and the bullies is one in the same: a tender work of the Holy Spirit. A repentant heart.
In weak moments, I daydream of clever loopholes, desiring a Bible verse that would permit the stony portion of my heart to remain in a perpetual stiff-arm. This is exactly why soaking up the entire counsel of God, from Genesis through Revelation, is the only way to grow in wisdom and grace as a Christian.
Away with sweet platitudes and easy, milky devotionals. I desperately require the unadorned truth: raw, complicated, meaty. Sola Scriptura: a comprehensive, exquisite, yet savage mural of the riches of God’s Rescue Story, which is living and sharp, holding the power to crush the hardest heart to bits, softening all jagged edges, filling me with compassion and kindness and patience and love. An overarching reminder that God is always working on his children’s behalf, no matter what.
Our son, Marcus, compels the piano to sing. The keys cooperate with their Master, following in obedience as he instructs the notes to unravel in beauty, but only at his bidding. It pierces an almost unreachable place in the listener’s soul: the timing, the softness of his hands as they travel up and down the keys, the flow, the tempo, the sound that sweeps gently over the listeners, falling upon them with presence. The song is not finished until Marcus, the Master Player, has said so.
As long as we have breath, the song of our life is not yet finished. Our music will fall with sweet, lasting beauty upon the world only as we bow to our Creator.