Seventy-Six Trombones and Why We Celebrate All Saints Day

It was hot, as hot as it gets in Florida in the month of August. During the morning I conducted worship services and taught Sunday School. At noon there was a quick lunch with the family. During my time and tenure as a local church pastor, Sunday afternoons were always reserved for naps and crawling into the fetal position and sucking my thumb. I always felt spent on Sunday afternoons. There was rarely anything left, like Old Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard, not even a bone left for the dog, and I was the dog.

On this Sunday afternoon at 2:00 p.m., a graveside service had been scheduled for a church member who had been the financial secretary for 28 years. She didn’t want a big service, just something short and sweet, and now I was driving in the funeral procession and following the hearse. I thought of Sylvester Stallone in Rocky, going to his corner after the 14th round, telling his manager to "cut me" so he could see out of eyes nearly swollen shut. Rocky had to get off the stool when the bell rang and go after Apollo Creed in the final round. I needed to do something to summon the energy necessary to come off of the stool and give this dear soul the send off she deserved.

I was driving the family Dodge Caravan. The only redeeming value this behemoth had was a 10 speaker custom Bose sound system. I fiddled with the dial until I found what my children would have called elevator music. What I stumbled on was not the theme song to "Rocky" but rather the original version of “The Music Man” and “Seventy-Six Trombones.” As the trombones were added into the score I turned the music up and up and up. By the time we pulled into the cemetery it was going full blast. We pulled to a stop. I stayed in the van to hear the last of the song. I looked to see if the mourners were gawking awkwardly at me. I quickly discerned they couldn’t hear the music that was bellowing from the speakers and pulsating through my veins. The song ended. I was renewed, rejuvenated, and my energy had returned. I was ready for the 15th round. When I got out of the van and stepped into the sweltering heat I immediately felt stunned as if I had been hit in the face with a stinging jab. How could I put on my “funeral face,” appear somber, and put on a mask to hide this renewed energy that had awakened my soul?

It was one of those rare moments when I was able to pull off what was going on with me in “real time.” I read the opening scripture sentences, went through a few prayers, and then began to explain what was going on with me. I spoke about being spent, about finding the radio station, and about being revitalized listening to Seventy-Six Trombones. This funeral, and every one I have conducted since that moment, all of the sudden made perfect sense to me. We march into graveyards with trombones blaring, all Seventy-Six, and all graveyards, because we follow the one who marched out of one.

And so on this day for all the Saints, who from their labors rest, who surround us "like a great cloud of witnesses" (Hebrews 12:1) we offer you, not twenty-one guns, but rather this Seventy-Six trombone salute. We march triumphantly into cemeteries and graveyards because you first marched out of one

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A Leap Day Parable: The Ice Cream Truck

The mechanized repetitive song played a calliope of bells and droned on over and over again. It was a familiar children’s song, so familiar that I can’t remember the tune, but I can remember the repetitiveness. I guess the reason I couldn’t remember the tune is because the repetitiveness was annoying. It was sort of like that Salvation Army Bell ringer that plays outside of Wal-Mart at Christmas time. I know the bell is supposed to be musical, but it is only repetitive. I can’t quite hear the music for the annoying repetitiveness of the bell. Do you remember the sound? It goes like this: Guilt-a-ring a guilt-a-ring a guilt-a-ring and on and on and on until you can pass by and put some change in the kettle in order to keep the ringing of the guilt from getting any louder, which generally tends to go away once you get inside the store. And when it is time to leave, the ringing is there to greet you again.

The repetitive ringing I heard was not about guilt. It was about joy. It was a strange sound to hear only because these are the sounds associated with summer. Baseball bats zing in the spring. An oak log crackles in a winter fireplace. The repetitive bells of the ice cream truck are usually reserved for summer. It is February 29, 2004.

When the ice cream man came through the neighborhood, time would standstill. No matter what we were doing, building forts, playing ball, or just sitting on the porch and wagging out tongues, all activity stopped. Children would freeze in place. We would hold up our heads, raising an ear, like a beagle hearing a distant train before anyone else would. Hearing the bells of the ice cream truck meant two things. It was time for ice cream, and it was time to beg.

Children would run home at full gallop and promise anything in order to experience the sheer joy of the frozen treat. “Mom, I’ll be good for the rest of my life if you just let me have a quarter.” This was not a time for hesitation. This was not a time for debate. Hesitation meant the ice cream man was gone, and if he was gone, it felt like he would be gone forever. All of life stood in the balance in this one moment of risk. We would rush in with the full exuberance of ecstatic possibility. It was a wonder we did not become bi-polar. On the one hand was the excitement of getting the frozen treat, and joining the rest of the assembled tribe to devour the goods. On the other hand was the possibility of rejection. There were three answers I feared: “I don’t have any money. It’s too close to dinner. You didn’t make up your bed.”

I don’t have any money was the, “old mother Hubbard’s” answer which meant you can’t get blood out of a turnip. The cupboard was bare and there was no bone to give to the dog and no quarter for the ice cream man. Even though we were poor by today’s standards, I rarely believed this one because there had to be a quarter around somewhere. It’s too close to dinner meant that as children we really didn’t know what was best for us, that we would always choose to eat desert before we ate Brussel sprouts, and so I guess this was an exercise we were supposed to learn about priorities and delayed gratification. I don’t suppose I learned this one very well because I’ll choose ice cream over Brussel sprouts any day. The “you didn’t make up your bed,” meant that there was money, but I didn’t earn the right to the ice cream because I did not do my chores. Like any good attorney going through cross-examination, this was a yes or no question. “Did you, or did you not, make up your bed?” If the answer was yes, I had made up my bed, and there was money and it wasn’t too close to dinner, the quarter would be granted.

Back at the ice cream truck, the tribe was gathered to make their selections in accordance with the amount of money that had been successfully begged. Popsicles were at the low end of the pyramid. If all you could beg was a dime, then a popsicle would have to do. From popsicles there were push-ups and from push-ups there were ice cream sandwiches all the way up to the filet mignon of the ice cream truck: the Nutty-Buddy. Nutty-Buddies were wrapped in paper. The paper would be carefully peeled off to reveal a sugar cone with a crown of nuts and caramel and chocolate. An accomplished and experienced ice cream truck junkie could eat a nutty buddy like someone burning a candle at both ends. It was possible to eat the nuts and the chocolate and the caramel off the top, and at the same time, to bite the bottom off of the cone and suck out the ice cream. This feat was not to be accomplished by the novice, but only by the skilled Nutty-Buddy connoisseur.

These bells, these ringing, repetitive bells that play hypnotic children’s songs over and over again, seemed out of place because they were out of season. The bells of ice cream are reserved for summer. It is Florida, after all, but two days earlier there was 18 inches of snow in South Carolina and it’s been cold here with the wind blowing wind chills at a whopping 40 degrees!

It is the dead of winter, but even more odd, the day is February 29, 2004. Leap year. It’s an odd day, anyway. Every four years we have to make up a day because the way that we figure how the earth travels around the sun is off just a tad and so we have to tweak it in order to make it work.

Life is like that. No matter how much we try to organize it, no matter how much order we try to impose on it, every so often, and more often than not, life has to be tweaked. Life requires adjustments. And if we’re waiting every four years to tweak a thing or two, we may find that we need to be building in more tweak time. My manual on my truck indicates the oil is to be changed every 4000 miles. At Nascar tracks across America, cars come into the pits every 25-60 miles, depending on the track. Tweaking is what gets the cars from the back to the front. I’ve been married for 29 years, and if I waited every four years to “tweak” I think I know what I would be: divorced.

It seems, at times, that the repetitiveness of life often diminishes the joy. Bells are meant to awaken, not to put us to sleep. Ask any child when they hear the bells from an ice cream truck if they are feeling sleepy. Bells ringing at Christmas need to be ringing all year around. Maybe the guilt has to do with our neighbors who are in need 365/366 days out of the year. We are surrounded by phenomenal needs all the time. Is it only at Christmas that the guilt breaks through, because we know we have so much?

I want to hear the bells of the ice cream truck so that life doesn’t become so predictable, I want to hear the bells on leap day, ground hog day, the fourth of July, and Arbor Day. For that matter, I want to hear the bells on Monday, Tuesday, and all of the rest. Life is just too short to miss the ringing of the bells.

Jesse and Karen are biker friends from St. Augustine. I have known them casually until recently. The friendship has become much more intense. Jesse was diagnosed with kidney cancer last December. Cat scans revealed the cancer had spread to the liver and lungs. Last Monday Jesse was an “open and shut” case. Surgeons were to remove a cancerous kidney and when Jesse was opened, he was immediately closed. The cancer had spread everywhere. He was sent home to hospice, a condemned man sentenced to death in his own body. Alternative and holistic treatments are the last bridge spanning a diminishing hope. The countdown begins: two months and counting.

For Jesse, it’s immediate, and an “in-your-face” kind of thing. Jesse’s reality is also your reality and mine. We are all dying, or living for that matter. It’s our choice. The clock is ticking and the sand is drifting through the hourglass. We only get an allotted amount of ticks and grains of sand.

The Russian scientist Pavlov taught dogs to salivate when they could hear a bell and anticipate that food would follow. I think that is a pretty good idea. I want to salivate when I hear the bells. I want to live life with an insatiability that makes me always want to come back for more, licking my chops, making me fully aware and alive in every moment. Everything else is just plain boring. Maybe leap day is a subtle reminder that it is time to take a leap back into life!

I feel a strange stirring within. I think I’m ready to get up, fire up the Harley, head down to the grocery store, and see if I can find some Nutty-Buddies. I wonder if I still remember how to suck the ice cream out of the bottom. After all, it is burning at both ends.

Dr. Timothy L. McNeil is the Executive Director of the Genesis Counseling Center in Ormond Beach, Florida.

What Makes You So Sure? Romans 8:18-39 All Saint's Sunday November 6, 2011

If you were to die tonight, would you go to heaven? If so, what makes you so sure? If you’ve been around the block a few times, I’m sure you’ve been confronted with this question a time or two.

We’ve all had influences that have shaped how we look at this issue. Some people are extremely hostile to this approach. Others confess to being saved by it. How you look at this has something to do with how you perceive God on the continuum of justice and grace. I grew up with more of the judgment than the grace.

My mother was a “P.K.” P.K. is an abbreviation for “Preacher’s Kid.” My grandfather baptized me as an infant on his 50th wedding anniversary and he died just prior to my 2nd birthday. I guess you might say I’m still feeling the effects of that baptism. I never knew him. However, when I sensed this divine tractor beam drawing me into the ministry, I wanted to know more about my grandfather since I was following in his footsteps.

When we lived in Madison, my mother’s oldest sister, whom we called Sister, lived in Quitman, Georgia and we would occasionally go and visit. On one such occasion she gifted me with Papa’s Bible and a collection of his books and sermons. As I poured though his papers I found a sermon he preached in 1924 condemning a lynching in the community he served. There are the outlines of 66 of his sermons in this loose-leaf Bible. There wasn’t a lot of gray in his sermons. It was mostly black and white. He was in the ministry for over 20 years before he served his first station. This meant he served circuits that had two, three, or four churches all linked together and the family moved on average every two to four years. My grandmother played the piano and she was well loved. On more than one occasion I am told he was asked to move and they wanted my grandmother to stay.

When my aunt handed me these materials, she told me of a Sunday evening when she was home from college. It was the summer and one hot summer evening she was lying on her bed trying not to move in order stay cool. Papa stuck his head in and asked her if she was going to go to church that evening. Sister said it was too hot and that she thought she’d just lay there under the fan. Papa said, “It’s going to be a whole lot hotter where you are going.” Needless to say, she got up and went to church.

I mention this because it must have been the culture my mother was familiar with. The following stories both come from my early years when I was five or six years old. The first story involved a Bible study that was conducted during a severe summer thunderstorm. How’s that for getting your attention? I had two older sisters, and my oldest sister was deathly afraid of thunderstorms. Each boom would be closely followed with a scream. Mother got out the Bible, I think, in an attempt to calm my highly neurotic sister. She had a captive audience. In between the “boom” and the “scream” I heard my mother read, “It is easier for a rich man to get through the eye of a needle than it is to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” My first grade mind didn’t understand metaphors. If someone said, “It’s raining cats and dogs,” you go look for a new puppy or kitten. “My arm is killing me.” Then you should cut it off! Mother kept a pin cushion on a table next to where she sat. I could see the needles sticking out and I remember consciously saying to myself, “I don’t have a chance.”

The second involved a science project my next oldest sister was not prepared for. She had procrastinated to the last minute and in the 11th hour she needed a cardboard box, which I happened to have one I kept some of my toys in. My sister needed my box to which I resolutely refused probably more than anything because she wanted the box. If I had been older I would have said, “Lack of planning on your part does not constitute a crisis on my part.” Exhausted with their efforts to persuade, Mother finally said,” You know Tim, one day when you die you’ll sit in front of the judgment throne of God and you’ll have to explain to God why you didn’t give your sister the box when she needed it. What will you say to him then?” She smacked me right between the eyes with the God stick. I got guilt. My sister got the box.

I mention these stories because I grew up in a culture of fear, at least as it involves the Bible, God, death, and the last judgment. It is one of the Biblical images but it is not the only one. Maybe that casts light on why there are so many heaven jokes. There was a rabbi, a priest, and a Methodist preacher that all died and went to heaven . . . The good news? Jesus is coming back. The bad news? He wants us to meet him in Salt Lake City: My apologies to Mitt Romney. St. Peter was conducting an orientation for a group of new arrivals in heaven. He toured them by the streets of gold, the mansions over the hilltop, still waters, green pastures, and then finally down a long corridor toward a break room where they could receive some refreshments. Off to the right there was one room and as they approached St. Peter turned around and “shushed” everyone to tell the new arrivals to be quiet. They tiptoed by this one room back to the break room. Finally one of the new arrivals said, “Why did we have to be quiet?” St. Peter said, “There are Baptists in that room and they think they are the only ones here.”

We tend to make jokes about the things that make us anxious, judgment and death, well, is no laughing matter. Miscarriages, stillborns, suicides, murders, accidents, and natural disasters – every tragedy you could possibly imagine. You just can’t make these things funny. Not only do we face these situations, we are also faced with the plague of meaning . . . why? I’ve witnessed these situations and attempted to absorb the anguish. I’ve been with families when loved ones have died suddenly, leaving their families in shock, and those who fought for years fighting cancers and Alzheimer’s and everything betwixt and between. One dear woman who was a member of my congregation in Daytona, fought long and hard with congestive heart disease. She had been a nurse and unfortunately she knew too much. I sat with her time and again in the hospital. The day before she died I met her in the Emergency Room at Halifax. She was drowning in her own fluids barely able to breathe. Every word was labored. Last words leave lasting impression, and I’ll never forget the last thing she said to me. She pulled down her oxygen mask and said, “You know Tim, dying isn’t for sissies.” No truer words could be said. I’ve stood at these places in my feeble attempts to offer comfort. I’ve stood at the foot of hundreds of graves as well as having conducted the funerals for my Mother, My Father, My Sister, and a Brother-in-law.

For years my sister would ask me, “Is he ok? Is Don ok? She’s not the only person who has ever asked me that question about a loved one. My attempts to reassure her never did seem to get any traction. I would tell her, “He’s o.k.” When I would say this she would get frustrated with me. In her mind my statement lacked credibility. “What makes you so sure?” It’s like trying to do a lay-up with Dwight Howard guarding the basket. I’d try to lay it up off the glass and she would just swat it away. It’s not unlike telling someone how bright, smart, pretty, handsome, insightful, intelligent, etc. If you don’t believe it about yourself, nothing I’m going to say is going to get into the hoop. I can’t download this on to your hard drive. I can’t give you a bone marrow faith transplant or a type and cross-match it in order to donate platelets for a transfusion.

My sense of being sure doesn’t come from a place of certainty. Certainty has to do with logic. It has to do with reason. Certainty has to do with debate. Certainty is about being right. Certainty creates oppositional energy because if I’m right that means you have to be wrong. Not only do you have to be wrong, I generally have to ridicule you in the process. I have to undermine your sense of confidence and attack your competence. Not only do I have to make my position look superior I have to make the opposition look stupid in the process. Pick any of the Republican presidential candidate debates thus far.

Certainty gets lost in the translation when communicating to someone who has doubts, just like it did with my sister. Certainty communicates arrogance. Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Whereas certainty is about the head, assurance is about the heart. Being “sure” is in the center of assurance. The word is translated “persuaded” in the King James Version. Certainty pushes against. Persuasion pulls the other forward. Persuasion draws others in. It doesn’t attempt to fix, or change, or heal them. It allows others to be where they are. Authentic spirituality allows the other person to be where they are, in the midst of doubt, confusion, suffering, struggle, paranoia, fear, anger, or anxiety. When you have heard, valued, validated, and accepted me when I am in these dark places, I am more apt to hear what you have to say. You have earned the right to persuade me by loving me in my pain. You can persuade me because I trust you. Trust has to be earned. And trust is not a matter of the head. It is a matter of the heart.

There is a huge amount of persuading that Paul is attempting in the 8thchapter of Romans, which is a tall order, since he is writing to a congregation he has never met before. He is being trusted by reputation. That might not be so odd if you think about it. How many times have you gone to see a doctor, a dentist, a beautician, or an automobile repair shop based upon the urging of a friend? “You come highly recommended.” Paul came highly recommended.

There is a great deal of “if” and “then” logic to Paul’s persuasion. If we are suffering now: then glory will be revealed. If God gave his son then how much more will he give to us? If God is for us, then who can be against us? If we and creation are in a state of decay then God will redeem both. We sigh too deep for words. All of creation is sighing and in labor to be completed. In other words, Paul is saying because God is being faithful to us in the present we can trust God with the future. Why would the future be any more than a continuation of God’s faithfulness.

Christianity is the only faith that invites its followers to go ahead and die now and get the dying over with. Once we get the dying over with we can get on with the business of living. Some people figure this out long before their physical death.  And the more letting go we are able to do along the way the more assurance we are able to accrue for the last journey we’ll ever make.

I was driving in a procession on a Sunday afternoon on the way to a graveside service for a woman who had been my church treasurer for many years. It was a Sunday afternoon and I was spent. I had taught at Sunday School and preached that morning, had lunch with my family, and they went home. I went to conduct the funeral. Sunday afternoons are reserved for curling up in the fetal position and sucking my thumb. Preaching is the most exhilarating and draining thing I ever do. On Sunday afternoons I suffer from the NASCAR disease I call Narcalapsy. If there are no yellow flags after ten laps the hypnotic effect of driving in circles makes me fall asleep. I was drained and self-loathing because I had agreed to do this funeral on a Sunday afternoon. We had this Soccer Mom van at the time for kid hauling and transport and the only consolation to the behemoth was that it had a Bose 10 speaker stereo system. I tried to find something on the radio that would revive me when I found a PBS station playing what my kids would have called elevator music. What I found was a Boston Pop’s version of 76 Trombones. It started off with just one trombone, then more were added, until finally, I suppose, there were 76 trombones playing in the hit parade. Driving in this somber procession, I cranked it up close to full blast. By the time we pulled into the cemetery I had been mysteriously transformed into Arthur Fiedler. And as we were pulling in to park, the song was not quite over and I’m thinking, “I can’t get out now. It’s not over. And then the thought hit me, “What in the world am I going to do?? I have been conducting the Boston Pop’s Orchestra and now I’ve got to put on my funeral face and go stand at the head of the casket and say the last words to be said over Lillian’s life. I felt enormously conflicted.

As I walked to go stand at the head of that casket, the only thing I could think to do was to own it. I told the family and friends that had gathered about being tired, about the radio station, about the 76 Trombones and about Arthur Fiedler. I told them, “You know, we should play 76 Trombones at every funeral . . . we can march into cemeteries with trombones blaring away because there was another one who first marched out of one and he’s leading the way.” And that’s what makes me so sure.