Once upon a time, in a packed concert hall where Paderewski was to give a performance, the audience began to hush itself in expectation. That wonderful tension that all of us feel for the beginning of things, was clotting the air and stopping the breath. The lights went down and like a punctured tire losing its air, the illumination died and drained off through the orchestra pit. A single powerful beam of light shot from the third tier of the balcony and fell with power upon a long, long, long black piano. Concerts are places for long, long pianos with long, long names like Steinway played by people with long names like Paderewski, playing composers with long names.
Into this world of “long,” Jimmy jumped up. He was short, obscenely short, but he jumped so fast he was able to escape the clutches of his horrified mother and ran up on the stage, seated himself at the piano and placed his left index finger on the “F” key and his right index finger on the “G” key and began to play Chopsticks. On he played while his horrified mother hurriedly asked God to make birth control retroactive by six years.
The audience began a kind of hypocritical sniggering. Why would I say hypocritical? Because every boy and girl knows this odd anthem. Every piano in every church, which may play Bach on Sunday, has known this defilement when the youth have slipped in and played this great leveling theme of all elite musicians. Here on the F and G keys, the artist and the hack have met.
Perhaps for this reason, when Paderewski entered, he lifted Jimmy up and set him on his lap. He placed Jimmy’s little hands upon his own, and beginning with the F and G keys the concert began, and the master’s hands thrilled the audience where the amateur’s hands could not. Great living is never a solo.
Neither is life a solo when it comes to marriage. Madeleine L’Engle tells us the moment of her proposal:
On the second of December, I took Mother to Penn Station and saw her onto the train. It was a Sunday morning. Hardly had I got in the door of my apartment when the phone rang and it was Hugh. He was in New York for the night. Could I have dinner?
I told him that I had just put my mother on the train and yes, I was free. We went to one of our favorite restaurants in the Village, and after dinner he came home with me. We talked. About this, about that. He suggested that we play records, and chose Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.
He picked up a book of poetry off the shelves and began leafing through it, and then read me Conrad Aiken’s beautiful words:
Music I heard with you was more than music,
And bread 1 broke with you was more than bread.
And then he said, “Madeleine, will you marry me?”
For the most of us “it is not good that a person should be alone” (Genesis 2:18). So Sarah and Abraham are trying (Genesis 18:1) to make a duet of the whole affair. They were old when we first meet them in Genesis 12. They seem to be Moonworshippers in Ur of the Chaldees. This was not so unusual. Everybody in Ur of the Chaldees was. But they had already celebrated their fiftieth anniversary. None of their kids came home for their anniversary. It wasn’t that their kids didn’t like them. It was just that they had no kids. And it was too bad if you didn’t have kids in those days. To be barren was a curse, for lots of reasons. Dr. Ruth wasn’t on the air telling couples how to make conception work, and oriental adoption — like the orient — had never occurred to anyone.
Into this unhappy childless estate, Abram and Sarai (for that was their names for all the years they were moon-worshippers) finally gave up. They kept their barren routine in place. They got up once a week on Moon-day, went uptown, climbed a ziggurat and sang a few moon-hymns, and prayed the great moon prayer and gave five good Babylonian bucks to the moon priest and said “Praise be the the Moon” and went home.
Across the years, as Sarah neared seventy years of age, it got harder to climb the ziggurats. Her lumbago kept her from the climb. Besides, she didn’t believe her Lunar Lord had any real power over empty wombs. She finally got to the place where she just sent offering to the ziggurat with Abraham and said, “Tell the priest I’ll be back to church when I get some pictures of the grandkids I’ll never have.”
Well, somewhere in their barren rituals of life, Abraham met God. God told him to go to a land He would show him. So Abram came home and said to Sarah, “How would you like to go west?”
“Beats Disneyland,” she said, and they walked out of Ur and into biblical history. Here they come! History’s dynamic duo! Old crusaders! They finally have their AARP cards. Just when they were “senior” enough to get into the movie for $3.75 and have half a waffle at Denny’s for $2.99, “Whammo!” they’re off to Canaan. Several times along the way Sarah turned to Abraham and said, “Why — when most of our friends are moving to Ft. Lauderdale — are we moving to the Mojave?”
“Look at those stars — our descendants are going to be like that,” said Abraham.
“I don’t see how,” said Sarah, “I’m old and all dried up. I’ve got dust in my uterus and my hope of ever having children is over. Don’t you understand? My system is as dry as the sands of Canaan.”
“Speaking of sand, our kids are going to be like the sands of the seas.”
When life becomes disappointing, it is a time to really hold on. Life is a piano invention for two where you help each other thump out melodies. And sometimes, when the music is hard to come by, you sit and wait until your partner slips his or her hands under yours. And the melody you could never manage on your own becomes possible. Genesis 2:18 is the proof text for a two-part invention. It is a celebration of Conrad Aiken’s truth: The wine I share with you is more than wine.
Marriage is a two-part invention and God holds the baton. When downbeat comes, God shouts, “Get you up out of this country into a land that I will show you.” As you obey, you experience the goodness and harshness of life together.
Any two-part invention means that you count together — that you see each other in a special way. Abraham sees Sarah in this special way. He must have quoted Proverbs 5:18-19 (even though it would be years before it was written):
May your fountain be blessed and may you rejoice with the wife of your youth, a loving doe — a graceful deer. May her breasts satisfy you at all times.
“Ah, Abie, I’m old! I’m a decrepit crone, not a graceful deer. How can my breasts satisfy you at all times? Gravity, my dear, has ruined everything.”
“No, Sarah, I know what a beautiful woman you are. When the Egyptians see you they will kill me but let you live. Say you are my sister.” (Genesis 12:13).
“I’m not beautiful. I’m 70 years old.”
“So! Look at Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren. They’re all 70, too. Please say you are my sister.”
“OK, Abie: Look, everybody, I’m a graceful deer — a loving doe. I’m a living knock-out with an AARP card. I’m his sister.”
She thus obeyed Abraham by telling a little white lie, but then it’s always a joy to confess to being younger. It was how she made herself beautiful — by serving. For servants are never ugly. Servants by serving make themselves beautiful. A selfish, demanding, and arrogant woman can’t rub enough Estee Lauder on herself to make her beautiful. A man can’t put on enough “Obsession” to cover up a dour spirit.
Your beauty should not come from outer adornments such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. Instead, it should come from your inner self — the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight (1 Peter 3:3-6).
For this is the way that holy women of the past, who put their hope in God, used to make themselves beautiful — like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her master.
Thus the music flowed — a two-part invention. Sarah, I beg you, say you are my sister. Hey, everybody, I’m his sister.
The music I hear with you is more than music.
The bread that I break with you is more than bread.
— Conrad Aiken
The two-part invention is not a matter of calling anyone your mate but of calling your mate your friend, and seeing not just your mate as young but seeing the world around you as young. Leigh Hunt cried in joy as an old man:
Jennie kissed me when we met,
Jumping from the chair she sat in.
Time, you thief, who love to get
sweets into your list, put that in.
Say I’m weary, say I’m sad,
Say that health and wealth have missed me.
Say I’m growing old but add, Jenny kissed me!
But the music reaches an apex when the two can agree that God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your lives together. And it doesn’t matter how old you are, God has a plan for your lives together. In Genesis 18:6, Abraham – having met a trio of hungry angels — runs to Sarah and says,
“Honey, bake some bread.”
“Guess who’s coming to dinner?”
“Sidney Poitier? Sandra Dee?”
“No — God!”
“Oh, honey, I can’t cook for angels. I get nervous just cooking for Baptists.”
The angels start talking about God’s will and Sarah starts listening at the keyhole. It’s always the most dangerous of sports to listen at keyholes.
When God starts telling Abraham that Sarah’s going to have a son, she bursts out in laughter. Indeed, she giggled an old woman’s giggle, for she thought to herself–
“I am worn out and my master is old. I am all varicose veins and cellulite. I make Dr. Ruth look like a Dallas cheerleader. Shall I have pleasure when I am old?”
“Ah, honey, we are all proof that God isn’t through with us. Not ever!”
But the Lord said, “Why did Sarah laugh, even giggle? Is anything too hard for the Lord? Why did Sarah laugh?”
“I didn’t laugh, I didn’t giggle.”
“Ah, but you did laugh,” argued the Lord. “And, Sarah, the reason you laughed is that you’re better at gynecology than you are theology. In your old calcified heart you were disappointed. You wanted a child but you prayed to the wrong gods. You climbed the ziggurats of Ur and asked the gods who were not God to give you a child. Ah, but Sarah, you never asked the Real God. I tell you, Sarah, with one foot in the grave and the other in the maternity ward, you will conceive. From all the dryness and deadness you feel, God will draw out living DNA. Sara, you will learn new words — words like ovum and spermatazoa, zygote, blastula, embryo, amniotic, umbilical, trimesters. Oh, Sarah, you have giggled at the joyous preparations of El Shaddai.”
“I did not giggle!” Sarah insisted.
Yes, you did. But relax, for there is nothing too hard for God.
And Genesis 2:13 said Sarah got pregnant. And she bore a son and named him Giggles. For she said everyone who hears of this will laugh with me.
Jim and Zetta Loria — who could forget them? They were wonderful friends who taught family planning. Alpha and Omega was all there would ever be. They were always in control — self-control, birth control, family control, number of children should be two. Then when little Omega was 15, they lost control. Zetta was with child, and for a while it was no laughing matter. It was humiliating! They gave up lecturing and called a diaper service. Which middle-aged marrieds have not awakened at midnight screaming, thinking this could happen to them?
“Ah,” said Sarah, “everyone who hears of this will laugh.” And so they did laugh.
They laughed at Abie and Sarah in the back of the Lamaze class. They laughed at her in the birth stirrups. They laughed at her in geriatrics being transferred to pediatrics and then acrobatics. They laughed when she handed Giggles over the Dutch door in the church nursery. They began laughing the day that Abraham came in from the field and found her knitting booties:
“The Peek-a-Boo Surprise.”
One night old Sarah
Looked out at the trees
And swallowed the last of her
Fig cakes and cheese,
And broke into tears,
Wailing six “dreary-meeees!”
“I’m so very unhappy!
Abraham, please
Would you pray and ask God
If maybe …. just maybe
He’d answer our prayers
And give us a baby?”
“Now, Honey,” said Abraham,
“Don’t make a fuss.
In April you’re gonna be
Seventy plus.
You’re getting so old
That you barely can hold
Your plate or your bowl
Or your saucer or cup.
It takes you an hour
Sometimes to stand up.
Forget about babies;
I’ll buy you a pup.
Anyway, why
Do you want a new baby?”
“Maybe, just maybe,
I’d like to sing softly,
‘Sweet rock-a-bye baby.
Momma loves snookums,
Kitch, kitch …. kitchie koo!
Patty-cake, patty-cake,
Peek, peekaboo!’
And I want a sweet
Little baby to coo,
‘Boo gurgeledy boo,
Be bah nah gurgle
Goo gurgle goo goo!”
Then God sent an angel
With bright shiny hair
Who came down and cried,
“Hey Abe, are you there?
I must tell you true;
God’s going to create
A great nation from you.”
Abe scratched his head
And looked rather blue.
“You’d best hurry up;
My life’s nearly through.
I’m old as the hills
And my Sarah is, too.”
“Oh, yeah?” said the angel.
“Now, listen to me.
Your grandkids will be
Like the sands of the sea —
Far, far too many
To bounce on your knee!”
“Yeah,” argued Abie,
“Just how can that be?
I’ll sure have to bounce them
On bony old knees.
Besides, my sweet Sarah
Is all wrinkled up.
She sleeps every night
With her teeth in a cup.
I tell you the woman
Is babyproof now.
She’s old — I say, old.
Her joints have grown cold.
And if she had a baby,
Then what would I do —
Play Little League ball
At a hundred and two?”
The angel just smiled.
He started to leave
And then turned to speak:
“Tell Sarah to check
With her doctor next week.”
When the angel had gone,
Sarah saw her physician,
A Mesopotamian
Old obstetrician,
And said to him, “Doctor,
I’ve been feeling dizzy.”
The doctor turned white
And then fainted away
And when he revived
He said, “My, what a day!
Sarah, believe me, you’re not going to die,
But you’ll have a baby
The eighth of July.”
Old Sarah stood gasping
With nothing to say!
She, too, clapped her forehead
And fainted away.
And when she got up
She ended her stress
And bought a Chaldean
Maternity dress.
And months hurried by,
And at last came July,
And Sarah and Abie
Sang, “Rock-a-bye, baby.
Momma loves snookums,
Kitch, kitch …. kitchie koo!
Patty-cake, patty-cake
Peek, peekaboo!
And sure enough, Isaac
Said “Gurgledy boo,
Be bah nah gurgle
Goo gurgle goo goo.”
Oh, the lesson: when you think life is over, it’s not. Yogi Berra says “It’s not over till it’s over.” Because of God in Genesis 21 we can amend the statement, “It’s not over till the fat Basso sings” to “It’s not over till it’s over and God says when it’s over.”
Blanche Reed has been a life-long friend of mine. I first met her when she had a nurse call me from the hospital. She was a Baptist and wanted our special Baptist version of Last Rites. She was alone. She only had one child and two grandchildren, and survived all.
“Preacher,” she said, “I’m dying.”
“Well,” I said, “you’ll meet Jesus on the other side.”
“I know,” she said, “I just wanted a little help with the crossing.”
So I drove to the hospital and took her hand to hold till she crossed over. But soon it was three o’clock and she hadn’t crossed over. At three o’clock we both had paralysis from holding hands for four hours.
“Look, Blanche, would you mind if I go get a sandwich. Then I’ll come back for the crossing.”
After four days of holding hands, the doctor told me we could quit holding hands — she was going to live. It was then that I made a decision about Blanche. She wasn’t dying of heart trouble; she was dying of barrenness.
Remember, the word pregnant means to be full — and she was empty.
Ah, but she became full.
What made her full? Friendship! Wonderful things also happened in my life when we became friends. Her house became a stop-over for me, an oasis when life was unbearable.
I could stop by her house for a nap whenever I wanted and not even the worst gossips in the church could smear my name. And the tea she made to go with the coconut macaroons were both so wonderful. Best of all, she became full, not empty. And she laughed again and was not barren.
So Sarah becomes our mentor on the subject of barrenness: Sarah, wandering around Canaan, following her neurotic Lord Abraham, for he had the call. He had his God — a new God — but she was empty. Genesis 21:4: And the knife of circumcision touches the baby’s body as it had Abraham’s body when he was ninety-nine years old. And life was full, and she knew the wonder of what it meant to be pregnant as an old woman. She exulted in being full. She was 127 years old when she finally died, and Abraham buried her beneath the great oaks at Mamre in the cave of Macpelah. But she died smiling, full of the purpose of God.
Here is the end of Barrenness:
Ephesians 5:17-20: Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit. Speak to one another with songs, hymns, and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Apostles’ mandate on all human emptiness is: Don’t be Barren! Don’t be empty!
Rather, be filled with the Spirit. Let the purposes of God for your life carry you right on in to old age. Therefore, do not be fools, but understand what the will of the Lord is. Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. But be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing and making music to the Lord, always giving thanks to God for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Let us come to the God of spiritual abundance. Let us learn to laugh again; single or together, let us laugh for we cannot live in barrenness. For those who are single — find another life with whom you may share. For those who are married — be filled together with the purpose of God. Madeleine confesses that Hugh’s passing only reminded her of the fullness of God.
“One evening I sit in my quiet place in my room, to read the evening prayer, write in my journal, have some quiet being time. The sky over the Hudson is heavy with snow. I write in my journal that the more people I love, the more vulnerable I am.
Vulnerable — the moment we are born we are vulnerable, and a human infant is the most vulnerable of all creatures. The very nature of our being leads us to risk. When I married, I opened myself to the possibility of great joy and great pain, and I have known both. Hugh’s death is like an amputation. But would I be willing to protect myself by having rejected marriage? By having rejected love? No. I wouldn’t have missed a minute of it, not any of it.
It is good to be part of the laughter as we sit around the table by candlelight. A wood fire both lightens and warms the room. None of the fullness of life in this old house is lost. The forty years of Hugh’s and my marriage is part of the rhythm.”
Music I heard with you was more than music, and bread I broke with you was more than bread.
There is a simple prescription for barrenness: Be filled with the Spirit and know the purpose of God.

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