My mother and I went to see a movie in 1959, Imitation of Life. I got my first glimpse into what it means to be living a Second-Line life in this movie. Although I didn’t understand it then, I did feel it.
I was more than just a little depressed over a frustrating, painful, recurring family situation. I was unable to sleep much because of this and got up early; the sun would be hours before creeping over the horizon. I made myself some coffee and sat down to think things through. After a bit, I decided that the situation was beyond my control. I remembered that this rollercoaster situation had resolved itself, at least to a degree, several times before. I concluded that it would probably do so again. I reasoned that it would do me no good, would in fact do me harm, to worry about it. So I decided to take my mind off of it. To do this, I started “Second-Line” living. I started celebrating some of the best times of my life.
“The tradition of the Second Line originated in New Orleans, dating back to the early 1800’s when slaves and free people of color created what are known as ‘jazz funerals.’ In these funerals, the ‘first line’ is made up of the family, walking slowly and mournfully to the cemetery. But when the burial is over, the ‘second line’, composed of a jazz band and friends, begin marching through the streets, joyfully dancing and celebrating the life of the deceased, and helping release his or her soul” (from Citizens of Hope, Clayton Oliphant & Mary Brooke Casad, Abingdon Press, 2016, pgs. 87-88).
I had had enough of mourning what could not be undone, what I alone could not fix. I prayed about it, then I buried it. I picked up my iPad and started making a list — counting my blessings.
The concept of Second-Line Living has a scriptural basis in the Gospel of John, Chapter 11, wherein Jesus raises his friend, Lazarus, from the dead: 38 Again feeling very upset, Jesus came to the tomb. It was a cave with a large stone covering the entrance. 39 Jesus said, “Move the stone away.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said, “But, Lord, it has been four days since he died. There will be a bad smell.” 40 Then Jesus said to her, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they moved the stone away from the entrance. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you heard me. 42 I know that you always hear me, but I said these things because of the people here around me. I want them to believe that you sent me.” 43 After Jesus said this, he cried out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with pieces of cloth, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, “Take the cloth off of him and let him go.”
The cloth in this story which bound Lazarus symbolizes that which burdens us, hinders us from living free, preventing us from seeing the beautiful things in our lives and doing good and beautiful things in compliance with God’s commandments, most particularly, loving our neighbors as ourselves.
These are a few, but only a few, of the highlights in my life so far. The list I made on my iPad went on and on and on. I’m not bragging, but I truly have lived a blessed life. The few highlights that I’m choosing to share here serve to illustrate how I focused on the positive to get beyond the pain that I was feeling. They are in order as they occurred to me for purposes of this listing (not necessarily in order of best to less than best, nor are they in chronological order):
- My second-marriage wedding day (my first marriage wasn’t so wonderful)
- Opening night of our high school operetta, South Pacific, with me in one of the leading roles, Emile DeBecque
- Holding my first grandchild who was just days old
- Being cheered by my OCS (Officer Candidate School) battery candidate contemporaries after winning an inter-battery PT competition in the horizontal ladders event
- Completing my helicopter tactical instrument check ride in the Army’s Rotary Wing Flight School with a flawless performance
- The sunset celebration of my mother’s life on a beach in California with my wife, my siblings, their spouses and children
- Being present in the delivery room to observe the birth of my second son
- Skiing in the Austrian Alps with my family
- Being asked to serve and serving for two years as Lay Leader for a local congregation of the United Methodist Church
- As mission pilot-in-command in a CH-34 helicopter, performing an emergency landing necessitated by an engine failure and avoiding any damage to the aircraft or injury to my passengers
- Teaching my first class in a public high school after becoming a certified teacher of Social Studies subjects
- Receiving many compliments after delivering the eulogy at my mother-in-law’s funeral
- Being asked to officiate the exchange of vows ceremony in Bali, Indonesia (after the official/civil marriage in Singapore) for my second son and daughter-in-law who is now best friend
People of faith, by means of their faith in Christ Jesus, can enter into a new life. The fact of physical death no longer has control over them. The Apostle Paul puts it this way, “O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting” (1 Corinthians 15:15)? The sting of death is sin and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, the victory over sin, and over all that burdens us in this life, is available through our Lord, Jesus the Christ. Jesus, in the story of raising Lazarus from the dead, is making a promise to us about how we can live our lives, not just how they will end.
All of us, to varying degrees, are limited by fear. We fear embarrassment. We fear abandonment. We fear failure. We fear death. This is what Jesus is addressing. This is from what Jesus wants us to be free. Like the First and Second lines of jazz funerals, we can grieve the loss of loved ones, grieve the consequences of failure and disappointment, grieve our limitations, but we need not allow this loss to forever hinder our lives. Life goes on with us, whether we willingly or unwillingly participate.
My mother and I went to see a movie in 1959, “Imitation of Life.” I got my first glimpse into what it means to be living a Second-Line life in this movie. Although I didn’t understand it then, I did feel it.
Launa Turner plays the part of a beautiful woman in this movie, one who was born half white and half black. Although her black half was not at all physically apparent, it was a burden to her. The reality of it, her attempts to hide from it, fear that she might be found out, was a burden, one that hindered her both socially and professionally. Worse, she allowed this fear to alienate her from her birth mother. She could neither receive her mother’s love nor express the love she felt. Her life was not free. But the movie had a tear-jerker ending. The mother gets her last wish, a lavish funeral complete with a beautiful, horse-drawn hearse and a Second-Line Jazz band. Just before the funeral procession sets off, the daughter pushes through the crowd of mourners to throw herself upon her mother’s casket, begging forgiveness. Casting off her burden of denial, she is now free to live a fuller, richer life.
Fear has been described as False Evidence Appearing Real. The false evidence is our mistaken belief that nothing can improve after a tragedy. At these times it is easy to forget that God is present and that God’s favorite thing to do is transformation – change for the better. Tragedies, like the shootings in Orlando this year, the Newtown shootings in 2012 and others, are events which need to be grieved. They speak to how fragile life really is. But this is First-Line thinking. Second-Line thinking reminds us that these things do not need to define us or limit us. We can, and should, respond by doing all that we can to prevent such senseless deaths in the future. But, politically frustrating as our attempts are to prevent or limit future such things from happening, faith in Christ and an understanding of God’s loving presence offers us hope.
Grace and Peace