Changing Drivers, or, the Legacy of Faith

John 1: 1-3: That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.

 I don’t know if you’ve ever changed drivers while driving. Now, I’m not talking about changing drivers when you stop for a meal at a Cracker Barrel and spend about an hour eating the Southern fried special and then another hour shopping for oddments in the conveniently located store section. Nor am I talking about changing drivers at a pit stop even if you just get gas and visit the restroom. No, I’m talking about changing drivers while driving. I don’t necessarily advocate this and I don’t think I could do it anymore, but I’m here to tell you it is possible. I asked Becky if she had ever changed drivers while driving and she allowed as how the thought had never occurred to her and probably never would. But, as Monk says, “Here’s what happened.”

I spent the first two and a half years of my college career on an all-male campus. I’m not sure why I chose this option: I liked women and still do as a group of people and as individuals. I think they’re pretty cool. Anyhow, we wanted to find women to date, and it would have been beneath us to date any of the ladies in the town (affectionately referred to as “townies”) so we had to range far afield to attempt to find companions. A guy on my hall had a big old 1962 Chevy Impala with bench seats and a column-mounted automatic shift lever (These are important details in the story of changing drivers while driving). As we struck out closer to home we had to go further and further away to find new prospects. I think by our junior year we (three buddies and I) were driving four hours one way to New England women’s colleges. Probably moving in a pack like that lessened our chances but that never occurred to us. One of my buddies finally resorted to standing in the middle of a quad surrounded by four dorms at some now-forgotten women’s school and shouting at the top of his voice “Does anybody want a date?” That didn’t work either.

 As our trips got longer we had to split up the driving. Now, as guys we hated to stop until we got where we were going. Sometimes we had to for gas and a bathroom break, although I think if we could have refueled from a moving tanker truck we would have. And I’m sure we could have figured out the other part of that problem.

 For times when we didn’t have to make a pit stop we worked out a way to change drivers while driving. I’m almost appalled we did this but we were full of the foolhardiness of youth (with an emphasis on fool). We’d get to a straight stretch of road without much traffic around. The driver replacement would slide over underneath the driver who would raise up to allow his buddy to sit underneath him. It’s worth noting we all weighed about 120 pounds so this was possible then. The replacement driver would reach around and grab the wheel; at the command, “Switch,” the driver would slide to the right and the new driver would press on the gas and continue on. We got pretty good at this. It would have been easier with cruise control. The process reminded me of a double play and some snakes, beautiful but also dangerous.

 I don’t switch drivers any more but I was thinking about it on our trip a few years back to North Carolina. We went to Greenville, the home of East Carolina University where Becky went to school. A highlight of the trip was our visit to her college piano teacher, Eleanor Toll, who is 94 and in a nursing home. Mrs. Toll taught at ECU from 1942 until 1976. She met her husband there, who was also on the music faculty. Mrs. Toll taught thousands of students over the years, some of whom called her “Ma.” She had no children of her own, but thousands of the musical kind. She is still alert and active and a delight to talk to.

 We also met with Fonda Smithwick, who was Becky’s chorus teacher in high school and also taught by Mrs. Toll. Fonda looks in on Mrs. Toll several times a week since she has no relatives. Just think of a taller Wanda Boley and you have a good idea of what Fonda is like. She and her husband had a chicken farm in North Carolina until they were bought out by Frank Perdue. I think they also sheltered wolves at one point. I could envision the wolf pens next to the chicken yard as a sort of Gary Larsen “trouble brewing” cartoon. Fonda drives a great huge Cadillac at warp speeds and also pilots a Piper Cherokee. After trying to follow her to a cafeteria for dinner I think she is sometimes confused as to which one she’s in.

Sitting there in that nursing home room with those three women I was thinking about how the torch of music had been passed from Mrs. Toll to Fonda and Becky. There were three generations of a musical family present, and if I considered our daughter Amy whom Becky taught and the students in the choruses Amy sometimes accompanies and the children in the choir she works with, there is a line stretching through five generations.

This is how what is important is passed on—through hard work, dedication, passion, personal contact and a large measure of love. And if we think about it, it is how our faith is passed on—from person to person, from generation to generation. I would suggest that our faith is transmitted not so much by statements of belief or institutions or hierarchies of the church but through, as Joseph Martin says, holding the hymnal—a parent showing a child a hymn, passing on the legacy of the faith. John begins his letter this way: ”We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.” Faith is caught, not taught, passed on like changing drivers, like a love for music in those four generations of women. And may we all be instruments of God’s love, playing the sweet song of new life to a world yearning for holy music.

 

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