Words to Live By

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 – The 14th Sunday after Pentecost – for Sunday, August 30, 2015

“You ignore God’s commandment while holding on to rules created by humans . . .” (Mark 7:8)

High school. Circa, senior year. Note the black-rimmed glasses on geek...
High school. Circa, senior year. Note the geeky black-rimmed glasses . . .

My mother saved me.

I was a geek in high school, a guy with black-rimmed glasses more comfortable reading books than relating to people. Shy. Introverted. But occasionally, because of expectations or longing or both, I attempted to escape my geekishness. Take, for example, my high school’s Senior Ball. The “big dance” was a formal affair. I’d have to buy a corsage for a date. I’d have to . . . wait! Worse! First, I had to ask someone to the Ball in order to have a date.

Still, I thought I should attend.

Question: So, Larry how many dances did you go to in high school?

Answer: 0.

Yeah, you read the last sentence correctly. The actual, factual reality of my high school dance experience (until Senior Ball) was zero, nada, none, zilch.

Did I know how to dance? Nope. Had I ever worn a tuxedo? Nope. Would I have to ask (beg, barter, plead) to use my father’s car? Yup. Could I muster the courage to ask a girl to be my date? I recall staring at the dreaded phone, rehearsing questions while my throat filled with cotton and my armpits flooded with sweat.

Call . . . don’t call. Call now . . . call later.

I called. She eventually said yes. A tuxedo loomed in my future. Dancing beckoned. What had I done?

And yet when life is bad, it can always get worse. At some point, in the boy-girl negotiations for the date’s details, I suggested dinner at the FANCIEST RESTAURANT IN TOWN. She, of course, agreed. How wonderful Larry, she purred, I always wanted to go there.

As noted, I’d never donned a tuxedo, but was fairly confident my comfy jeans and the severely creased fancy-pants shared one thing in common: you put one leg in there, and the other leg into the other side. Ta-da. I pretended the cummerbund was a bad belt. I could survive tuxedos.

Several friends and I—all due-paying members of Geeks Gone Mild—practiced dancing. As frightened as I was of 1) touching a girl, 2) getting a left and right foot to move in unison, and 3) doing this in public . . . I’m a baby-boomer. Since the 1950s Chubby Checker had trumped Fred Astaire. We wouldn’t be waltzing. The Twist and its progeny dominated the dance floor. With a fast dance, I’d move multiple body parts as quickly and randomly as possible. If it was a slow dance . . . well, I’d offer to refill her punch. I could survive dances.

But the restaurant loomed like crossing the Pacific Ocean in a rowboat. It represented the section of the ancient maps with the cautionary, “There be dragons here.”

Not one fork, but many; spoons of myriad sizes and shapes; knives that did one job and were then whisked away by smarmy waiters.
Not one fork, but many; spoons of myriad sizes and shapes; knives that did one job and were then whisked away by smarmy waiters.

Thus, I consulted my mother. Around the family dinner table, life was simple: spoon, fork, knife. But at the FANCIEST RESTAURANT IN TOWN, there were rumors of endless and obscure utensils. Not one fork, but many; spoons of myriad sizes and shapes; knives that did one job and were then whisked away by smarmy waiters. Hors d’oeuvres. Salads. Second courses. Fifth courses. Oh my!

Mom, voice calm and reassuring, said, “Work your way from the outside.”

Words to live by! Sensible directions! A strategy!

Let’s pretend this was the place setting on the table:

111 -O- 22333

All those 1s on the left? Forks. The middle -O-? The plate! The 2s were knives and 3s were spoons. Whenever the first dish arrived—say a salad I’d never have at home—I knew a pronged utensil would be required. Who uses a spoon for a salad, eh? (Unless it was a fruit salad, but I shoved that horror from my mind.)

So, which fork for the salad that arrived first?

Work your way from the outside. (Thanks Mom!)

I didn’t fret about there being more 1s, or fewer 3s. Mom’s rules led me through the wilderness of forked paths and knife-edged precipices.

How odd humans are. No culture, era, or faith tradition is without arcane rules, the written or unwritten guidelines to determine insiders and outsiders, the experts from the dullards, the intelligent from the ignorant.

Why are your disciples “eating with defiled hands?” religious authorities once asked Jesus. They should follow the rules! The insiders know. The outsiders should conform or be humiliated . . . or worse.

So many rules! The “experts” sought to force Jesus into a box of old rules and old ways. Jesus forever danced a new step into a future without false boxes and self-serving boundaries.

What matters? Not the outer sequence or pretense, but who we are within. To this day, I hear my mother’s voice. Work from the outside. Those words—unwritten rules rooted in love—have served me well over the years when occasionally confronted by haughty waiters and a host of utensils. But there’s also the voice of the One I try to follow . . . live from the inside. Each day, that’s a faithful struggle, with unwritten guidelines calling me to see what’s truly essential.

Senior Ball was great. Well, except the rented tux pants were skin tight and had to be exchanged hours before the date began, and I got lost while driving Dad’s enormous Chrysler Imperial to the restaurant, and then there was the (not) goodnight kiss at the front door that opened and closed so quickly as my Cinderella disappeared . . .

Whew. Glad there was only one Senior Ball in my life!

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  1. Loved this article and especially the way you write. It brought back memories and made me laugh too.
    I believe that what matters most in life is to be yourself no matter what the situation is. It is a struggle some days more than others, but so worth the effort.

    1. Pam . . . thanks for reading and responding! Hmmmm . . . brought back memories, eh? Nothing like those awkward, precious days of high school dances!!!

  2. Dear Larry, ever humane, poignant and funny pointing me/us to the Jesus tradition – tq so much. I was at a wedding dinner recently and at 42 and a bit was refreshed I my bewilderment at the array of cutlery thanks for being out there.

    1. Hey, thanks Marc! Yeah, beware the “array of cutlery!” Sometimes the variety of utensils seem like a conspiracy against actually enjoying the meal.

  3. poet Robert Frost
    #3 on top 500 poets

    Poet’s Page

    Poems by Robert Frost : 136 / 157
    The Silken Tent – Poem by Robert Frost
    She is as in a field a silken tent
    At midday when the sunny summer breeze
    Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,
    So that in guys it gently sways at ease,
    And its supporting central cedar pole,
    That is its pinnacle to heavenward
    And signifies the sureness of the soul,
    Seems to owe naught to any single cord,
    But strictly held by none, is loosely bound
    By countless silken ties of love and thought
    To every thing on earth the compass round,
    And only by one’s going slightly taut
    In the capriciousness of summer air
    Is of the slightest bondage made aware.

    You are, no doubt familiar with this little shaving from Frost’s workbench.
    Your essay is a nice explication of the poem.

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