How can we live generously?*
When I landed in Charlotte, NC, yesterday the first email message I read on my phone said that Howard Cockrum had died. I was struck immediately by two deeply felt responses: grief and gratitude.
In life we’re sometimes lucky enough to have friends who are truly worth knowing, people who manage to love us with no strings attached, faithful ones who bless us with gifts, love and generosity, people who become family and who share without holding back. That’s what I’ve been fortunate to know in Howard and Mildred Cockrum. They have been generous with their lives in just that way.
Howard was one of the first people my dad met when our family arrived in Knoxville. I was not yet three, and my Mom was eight months pregnant with my brother. My dad did some work for Howard while waiting for a teaching job to open up. They invited us to church and when my brother was born they were there to help see us through that transition. They have never been any farther away than a hug, phone call or letter since that first month of living in Knoxville.
When I realized that I had already made a commitment to write here about living generously today, it was completely obvious that I should write about Howard. He and Mildred have lived the answer to my question. They are among the most generous people I know with their time, money and relational presence. Shortly after arriving in Knoxville last night, I said to my in-laws, “I’m going over to Howard and Mildred’s.” Hum. They have been married more than 60 years, and it is so hard to think about one of them without the other. Yet neither of them ever seemed to crowd the other out. They have been generous with each other in the long faithfulness of marriage.
Howard often called me his other daughter. He has two perfectly fabulous daughters, Charlotte and Carolyn, and one perfectly amazing son, Roy, and he clearly didn’t need any more children. But he was generous that way. His name is on my ordination certificate. If my memory is right he was the one who brought the recommendation from the deacon council to the church 15 years ago so that Cumberland Baptist Church would ordain their first woman to ministry. His leadership was generous in that way.
Carson-Newman College was not his alma mater, although he went there and then military service pulled him away. Mildred finished her degree at CN, and he flew in planes over the Pacific. He came back and finished his education at the University of Tennessee and married Mildred. They stayed in Knoxville to raise their family, invest in a congregation they helped to start and give themselves in service and time to a host of other good causes, like Carson-Newman and Baptist Hospital. Howard was generous in just exactly those ways.
Many, many days after school my mom would pick up my brother and me in the car-riders’ line and drive straight to the Cockrum house for a snack and a visit. We walked the trail through the woods, played “Gilligan’s Island” on the screened front porch, ate Charles Chips and drank Cokes in the breakfast nook. We visited Pedro the mule, or chased Alexander the white cat around the yard. I thought their house was a mansion. Mainly because it was so full of love. Howard was usually still at work on those visits, but not always, and his welcome lingered around just as patently as Mildred’s. They were both just generous with hospitality in that way.
They clearly supported their church with time and money. How do I know this? Well they never had to tell me personally. I watched their lives and saw in them the truth and wisdom recorded as an utterance of Jesus, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Luke 12:34). I saw the way their hearts were bent toward their faith community, not in some generic way, but in deeply caring relational ways. There are scores of others who could write something just like I’m writing out of a lifetime of gratitude for the way that Howard and Mildred loved them generously and unflaggingly.
Howard never failed to let me know that he was proud of me and loved me. The last time I saw him in person was the weekend following Thanksgiving. I can still see his warm crinkly eyes and silver hair, feel his soft cheek against mine, hear is gentle words “I love you,” in my ear.
He was generous in just exactly all these ways and many more. Of course there was more to his life than I can know or tell. And my grief and gratitude are more than I can know or tell. But these are a few of the treasures of his generosity that I will carry in my heart for as long as I live.
Thanks be to God.