Tuesday, October 12, 2010

On the Haystack by E.D. "Shinbone" Smith, Bomar Oklahoma, formerly Indian Territory, or "IT"

When I was a kid, I reckon that we had the same kind of depression and such that I hear so much about these days. People got the blues and some people was jist plain bluesy all the time. Like everthang else in a small community, these thangs was noticed and occasionally commented on, but, for the most part, people jist kept going. They had to if they was going to survive, especially during the Depression. People didn't talk about such thangs when it came to themselves. I expect that some of the women would talk to old Doc Grey, but I doubt if any of the men I knew did. I never knew a man that would go to a preacher about such thangs, though he might if it was a spiritual question. Ever once in a while, the old men would set on the porch or a river bank fishin and maybe they would mention being down or discouraged. When I was a kid, I would hear this once in a while. It always took place in the dark and they always thought that being a kid I wouldn't be interested or understand what they was talking about. Truth is, I was always listening and interested, even when I didn't understand. I can remember their chicken-billed, hand rolled cigarettes aglowing in the dark when they'd talk. I expect they eased one another in this way more'n they knew. Kindly like the "therapy" they are always talking about today. And they wasn't any drugs, except the kind that comes out of a whiskey bottle or a Prince Albert can. Sure enough, some people turned to whiskey in such times, and some of 'em, turning, never turned back. I always figured that real troubles are not drowned in that way because real ones can swim.

I expect that some wives and children and not a few horses and mules suffered more from male depression than the male himself. And a few inanimate thangs have been beaten purty bad because they was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Female depression was probably more common and more tolerated because it could be chalked up to "female trouble," and I know that some women were as addicted to patent medicines as some men were to whiskey.

We had occasional suicides, men and women. People jist wore out and there are stories of rat poison and straight razors. It didn't happen very often, but that meant that it made a big impression when it did happen.

I reckon that people had other ways of coping, hard work being the main one. My old daddy used to say if a man got up early enough and worked hard enough, he didn't have any spunk left by bedtime to fret much. But, speaking of daddy, I have known him a time or two to go out south of the barn where there was a big sandy place and fall down and wallow around for a while, jist groaning to beat the band. The first time I snuck out and witnessed this, it scared me near to death and I thought he was having a fit. When I run and told Mama, he jist said, "Don't mention this, and try not to worry. It's jist your daddy dealing with his demons," which didn't help a bit because she chucked the devil into the thang. She also said, "And don't go sneaking around watching folk's business. It won't make you happy."

I remember one situation worth mentioning, now that I'm talking about this thang and that has to do with Old Man Killigrew and the haystacks.

Old man Killigrew was of the old school and didn't take no stock in modern thangs. Refused electric lights even after the rural electric come. Wouldn't own a car, but went to Thackerville in a wagon or on mule back when he needed anything, which wadn't often. Plowed and cultivated with mules and a goose-neck hoe. You git the picture. Now, long after most everybody else got hay balers, Old Man Killgrew still ricked or stacked his hay the old timey way. We kids used to jist love to visit the Killgrews because we got to play in the hay ricks, making caves and tunnels and slides down the side.

Well, ever now and again, the Old Man would get in a state and the old lady and the kids would say, "It's about time for Daddy to go up on the haystack."

And, sure enough, he'd git him an old bucket for his thunder jug and a blanket and a ladder and would climb up on one of them hayricks and jist stay for two or three days and nights. Never took any liquor with him or reading material, jist that bucket and blanket. And he'd sit and sit until he sat it out.

The old lady was amazingly tender about the thang. She'd take him his breakfast and dinner and supper up to him three times a day. She'd take him a jug of water and empty his bucket and bring it back. The memory of that old lady makes me kindly tender, jist thanking about it.

After the second or third day, Missus Killigrew would tell the children, "Daddy's about ready to come down from the haystack," and sure'nough, he'd come down, wash out the bucket, put the ladder back in the barn, fold the blanket and put it up, and go back to work, right as rain. Had himself a little retreat from ever'thang and was fine as frog's hair for a long spell.

Human beings are copers. They find a way to cope and survive- if they survive. It's one of the thangs I have watched throughout my life, and one of thangs I have enjoyed watching and studying.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Jimmy Decker, Part III, by E.D. "Shinbone" Smith, Bomar, Oklahoma, formerly "Indian Territory" or I.T.

Well now, the next day Sheriff Clyde McGill paid visits to Jimmy and Tommy Tink. Tink by this time was sober, if hung over, and admitted to most of what he was accused of, the end result of which was that he agreed in court to pay for Jimmy's dental work instead of going to jail. Jimmy got the money, alright, but no dentist ever saw any of it.

The preacher had another "come to Jesus" talk with Jimmy and the end result of that was that Jimmy jist up and quit coming to church altogether, along with them kids. I have to admit that by then we weren't too cut up about not having Jimmy around, but them kids...them kids was something else. I'd see them once in a while down at Daughtery's grocery store in Thackerville, and would buy them candy or pop. They was always appreciative of anything you did for them. But they jist sort of disappeared little by little from our lives.

A few months later, and this didn't surprise anybody much, Jimmy was out late in that old truck of his and hit another feller east of town. Both of 'em was drunk and neither one was much hurt, but the end result of that was that Jimmy lost his license to drive, which put a crunch on him and the kids. They moved to Marietta where he worked at the cookie factory and bought an old bicycle to get around on.

That oldest girl, Hannah, got a baby with old J.D. and moved in that new trailer house down at White Rose. Pretty soon, she had another baby and then another. J.D. never had to work another day in his life, like he said, and along with the welfare and whatever they kept getting from old man Killigrew, they managed to get by. The trailer was pretty much of a mess after a couple of years and the dog population there continued to grow.

Little Jimmy got into trouble with drugs and robbery down between Gainesville and Denton, and after two or three warnings went off to "pick cotton for Uncle Bud" down at Gatesville, Texas, courtesy of the Texas taxpayers. He got out, got into more trouble, and finally ended up in the Huntsville penitentiary for stabbing somebody to death down around Mexia.

I am proud to tell you that that youngest girl, Elizabeth, turned out good. She made good grades, graduated valedictorian of her class and went off to the University in Norman on a scholarship. She married well and became a schoolteacher. We hear about her ever' once in a while, though she has never come back home, so far as anybody knows.

Jimmy continued to hang around with a rough crowd. He took up with several women in Marietta, but never for long. He let his hair grow long and got to looking kind of rusty. From time to time I'd see him peddling that bicycle down the main street in Marietta and would beep my horn or holler at him. Each time he would see me, recognize me for sure, but would never acknowledge me. I finally quit trying to get his attention when I would see him.

Well, after a year or two, he got his license back and commenced his ramblings to various joints on the River and elsewhere. He was in a beer joint up on Hickory Creek south of Ardmore around Christmas last year and got into an altercation with with an old man over a shuffleboard game. Evidently, Jimmy accused the old man of cheating and when he wouldn't admit to this, Jimmy hit him. Well, this was a tough old bird and Jimmy didn't have the sense to know who he was dealing with. The old booger gathered himself together and when Jimmy turned away, he reached around with a Case pocket knife and severed the carotid artery on the right side of Jimmy's throat. He bled to death on the nasty floor of that dive.

I went to the funeral and there wadn't nobody there but Hannah and J.D. and their babies, and Wanda (who cried uncontrollably; Hannah never shed a tear, that I could see), and one or two of Jimmy's drinking buddies. There was a preacher there I didn't know who assured ever'body that Jimmy was finally in a better place. The whole thing and all the memories it brought back depressed me for the best part of a week.

I thank alot about it all. I thank about them kids. I thank about Jimmy quoting the book of Romans with a glow on his face. I thank about that cold night before Christmas with that big barn of a moon.

And I thank about "once in grace, always in grace" a lot, too, especially when I thank about Jimmy.

When I thank about that, I don't know what to thank.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Jimmy Decker, Part II, by E.D. "Shinbone" Smith, Bomar, Oklahoma, formerly "Indian Territory" or I.T.

When we got to the front door and knocked, the youngest girl, Elizabeth, let us in. You could tell she'd been crying. The oldest girl, Hannah, was sitting on the couch encircled in the arms of a teen-aged boy with a fat lower lip. It took me a minute to recognized him as that boy of Wanda's with the steel plate in his head. Little Jimmy was standing beside his daddy holding a big chunk of ice on top of his daddy's head. The ice was melting and running in streams down Jimmy's face.

Jimmy was sitting in that armchair straight as a poker. He was holding a glass of milk in his left hand and sticking out of the very center his mouth was a nasty washrag, rolled up like an over sized cigar, half soaked in blood. When we greeted him, he removed the washrag with his free hand, curled back his swollen lips, and showed us the empty space where his two front teeth had been.

"Fonofabitch knocked my teef out" he said. "But, I safed 'em in thif milk fo they can fut 'em back in." At this, he held up the jelly glass of milk holding the missing teeth.

Well, when he displayed his mouth and the bloody rag, the girls started crying all over again.

"What happened here?" the preacher asked.

Jimmy had returned the rag to the vacancy in his mouth, so Wanda's boy had to take it from there.

Seems that this Indian feller from down the street had been over, and there had been a little party, and him and Jimmy had been sharing a jug when the party turned nasty. This Indian was a rough customer named Tommy Tink. He drove a red pick up truck with a sticker on it that said, "I'm a lover and a fighter and a wild bull rider," was the truth, mostly.

"He wanted to fight me," J.D. (Wanda's boy) said. "Said he was the best fighter south of Marietta and had whupped ever'body worth whuppin' and what did I thank about that? I said I would fight him, at least rastle him, so we pushed back the furniture and went at it. Well, I pinned him to the floor and it made him mad, so when I let him go, he slapped me across the mouth. That made Jimmy mad, so he came in between us and Tommy hit Jimmy in the mouth. Jimmy jist stood there, kindly dazed, spitting his teeth into his hand, when Tommy hit him again on top of the head when he had his head down. Then he said he was going home to git his fuckin' gun and was goin' to kill all of us, including the puppy."

"Puppy?" the preacher inquired.

Jimmy took the rag the rag out of his mouth again and took up the story where J.D. had left off.

"Yeah, I waf tryin' to get the kidf a Chrifmas preffent. Tink haf thefe bull dog puppief and I traded him for one of them for the kidf."

Elizabeth went into the kitchen and brought back a little brindled bulldog pup that was yawning from being waked up.

"Ain't he purty?" remarked J.D.

Well, he was at that, but that wadn't the main thang on our minds at the moment.

"You think Tommy means business, E.D.?" the preacher said to me.

"Well, he ain't one to mess with, especially if he's had enough of that cheap whiskey."

The preacher thought for a minute, and said, "Here's what I think we'll do. We'll take the kids to the parsonage and put them to bed. I'll stay there and sit up til you get back. You take Jimmy to old Doc Grey and take J.D. home. When you get back I'll take you to Bomar. You kids, get your stuff together. You won't have to go to school tomorrow, today, that is. What do you think, E.D.?"

"That'll work," I replied.

"What about the puppy?" the kids said in unison.

"Well, J.D. can take him home with him. The missus won't mind three children and their daddy, but that pup will be pushing things."

Well, we got their stuff together and turned off the gas stove and were all going down the steps when Jimmy stumbled and dropped his glass of milk. The tumbler went tumbling and its contents were spilled in the grass. There was Jimmy on his hands and knees feeling around for his precious teeth, while the kids and J.D., along with the pup went and got into the preacher's car. The preacher got a flashlight out of the car and after a long spell, the three of us managed to find the missing enamels. Jimmy wanted to go back and get more milk, but the preacher told him that it was an old wives tale about keeping them teeth in milk anyhow. So, we all piled into the front seat to start our early morning mission.

As soon as the preacher slammed his door, the smell of dog do filled the confined space. The preacher was already wound up and that jist pushed it a little too far.

"That does it!" he shouted, "That damned dog has shat in my car!"

Well, we was all kinda quiet at this unministerial outburst, and I was holding back a grin, when in the quiet, J.D. says,

"Oh, goody! We'ved been tryin' to git him to do that all day long!"

Now, I couldn't help grinning after that.

"Well, you go in that house and git something to clean it up with!" the preacher said.

Now, we all got out of the car while we waited for J.D. to get his cleaning materials and went about his job. When he finished, he jist dropped the paper and its contents on the ground by the car and started to get back in.

The preacher said, "Boy! Were you born in a barn? Get out and take that around back to the trash can."

Maybe J.D. wadn't born in a barn, but his manners had the smell of a barn about them. He jist didn't know any better.

Well we got them kids and the preacher over to the parsonage, got Doc Grey up to look at Jimmy, (between Doc and Jimmy that little examining room smelled like a distillery), and I started with J.D. down to White Rose. The little pup jist slept on his lap.

J.D. directed me down the roads and turns and we came up to Wanda's place.

Now, instead of that old shack I had heard about, there was this brand new trailer house sitting there.

"Goodness gracious, sake's alive, boy!" I exclaimed, "Y'all surely have come up in the world! How did your mama manage that?"

J.D. jist slapped himself twice up the side of his head where that steel plate was and said,

"Old man Killibrew done that when mama threatened to take him to court on account of it bein' his mule that kicked me! Won't never have to work a day in my life, neither!" With that, he took the pup and got out of the car and went into his new home.

I jist sat there awhile takin' in all that had happened in the past two hours, finally grinning to myself. When J.D. came back to the door to see what the matter was, I waved, reversed the car, and headed back to Thackerville and the scene of the crime...

To be continued...

Monday, July 26, 2010

Jimmy Decker by E.D. "Shinbone" Smith, Bomar, Oklahoma, formerly "Indian Territory" or I.T.

One night the preacher called on the telephone and said he wanted me to go with him to the Decker place. As a matter of fact, he got me out of bed as it was past midnight when he called. I pulled my clothes and coat on and waited on the porch for him. Shortly, I saw his headlights rounding the bend down in the draw in front of the house and walked out to meet him.

Getting in the car I accepted his apology for getting me up, but he said he thought he might need me in this situation.

"Which situation?" I asked.

"Well, Jimmy came over to the parsonage about an hour ago and said he had trouble there at the house and feared for his life and the life of his kids."

Well, it was the week before Christmas and more than a little chilly and the moon was coming up late and it was one of them thangs the scientists talk about, because the moon looked like it was as big as my barn it was so close to the earth. Pretty though, and you could almost read by it it was so bright.

Jimmy Decker had moved into the community with his three younguns and started coming to the church. He was from way up north somewhere, I thank it was Minnesota of some such place. He had been a rough customer and lived for a while in the cab of his old Ford truck, til Togo Sloan offered him an abandoned chicken house on his place. This was before Jimmy got his younguns. Jimmy used to get drunk and drop onto this old pile of cardboard and raggy quilts to sleep it off. The rats had made a house up under that cardboard and he could hear 'em scratchin' under his head, whereupon he'd slam his fist down on his pillow and they'd run to the bottom of the pile for a while.

Anyhow, the Free Will Baptists was having a brush arbor camp meeting over west of the railroad tracks and Jimmy got to going on account of the singin' and he up and got saved. Purely cleaned him up, inside and out. Quit drinkin', got a hair cut ever' two or three weeks and went to work. After a while he got tired of the the doings at the Free Willers with their "in grace, out of grace," and started coming to the Baptist church where the emphasis was on "once in grace, always in grace." He was there ever' time the doors was open and he come along in knowledge in a powerful way. For instance, he got to memorizing Bible verses and before long he had the whole book of Romans down pat- could rattle it off like an auctioneer in a sweat. Ever'body jist was amazed at the way Jimmy come along, and some of 'em even thought he might surrender to preach and was prayin' that the Lord would call him.

Well, Jimmy had these three kids by an old gal over in Addington Bend. They never was married, but they was his alright, same black hair and black eyes. Well, their mama was trashy and that ain't a harsh judgment in her case. Had this old boyfriend that went to messin' with the two girls and that littlest one wadn't but four or five. So Jimmy come to the preacher and told him about the mess and they went to Marietta and talked to John Steel Batson who was a high-powered lawyer and a member of the State House of Representatives. Well, John Steel got 'em a lawyer friend who eventually got custody of them kids for Jimmy. He rented a little place over west of the tracks and folks give 'em food and clothing poundings. You should of seen Jimmy and them kids when they showed up at the church in them new clothes, all clean and shiny. It would've brought tears to your eyes. It did mine.

Well, they went along for a good while like that, regular at work and school and church. People was always doing for them and glad to do it. And Jimmy, he'd help anybody with needs, especially the old folks. He was handy, was Jimmy, and smart. The whole thang looked like something out of the book of Acts.

Now, after about a year like this, Jimmy started seeing this woman down south of White Rose, close to the River. Ever'body knew about her and she wadn't much more of a moral character than the mother of them three kids. This went on for a while without much anybody knowing about it, but in a small community like ours, people talk.

The first time Jimmy got in trouble, the preacher bailed him out of jail up in Marietta and took him to this girl friend's place because the kids was there. Her name was Wanda and she was a tragic thang-heavy set, teeth missing in front, and far from clean. She had this addled boy who had been kicked by a mule and had a steel plate in his head. The old house was a decrepit mess- when the preacher steadied himself on a porch post when he went up the steps, the post fell over and hit one of twenty or so dogs that filled the yard. The kids was all cryin' when they saw their daddy- he'd been in a fight and had a nasty black eye. Anyways, the preacher got 'em in his car and took 'em home and the next day had some kindly, but plain dealin' with their daddy. Jimmy straightened up for a while, went forward and rededicated his life to the Lord, but before long he was heard to be down on the River and staying nights in that little shack of a place south of White Rose. Those of us who watched it all happen, watched in pure grief, on account of how good Jimmy had started on the Christian way. But, mostly we grieved about them kids.

So, that's about where thangs stood on that cold night in December with that big old moon, and me and the preacher going across the tracks at Thackerville to that little rent house of the Deckers...

To be continued...

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Dora and the Military Parade, by E.D. "Shinbone" Smith, Bomar, Oklahoma, formerly Indian Territory, or IT

Dora Wood was not the most pleasant woman I ever knew. In fact, Dora could be down right unpleasant. Her preacher once visited her while her younger sister (they was both old as the Territory) was present, and when he complimented the sister more'n he did Dora, she began to pout. Well, this preacher was young and kindly brash, so in his prayer he prayed that Dora would be more thankful for her blessings and be kinder to the younger (old) girl. Whereupon, Dora interrupted the praying and chastised the preacher for praying such.

Not always pleasant, was Dora.

Now, she had had a good bit of bad luck. Her husband up and left her during the Depression with a little girl child to care for. If it hadn't been for a Widows' Home taking her in, she would have had it rough. Never got over that, being abandoned and left with the child and having to live in that Home. You know how it is with some folks, the bitterness of thangs jist sort of stains them like dye does cloth. Cain't never get it out, it goes so deep. That girl grew up and sorta left ever'thang about her former life, including her Mamma. Went off to Washington, D.C. Got a college education and married above her former station in life. That'ud kindly embitter anybody and it did Dora. Jist made a bad thang worse.

Well, anyhow, Dora finally had to go into one of them Nursing Homes and little by little lost her mind. Nobody came to see her but the preacher and me. That girl would send her money on her birthday, which she didn't have any use for (and, to her credit, payed the bills), but she never did come around and I think that jist made Dora go off into the past even faster. Humans survive in lots of ways, and I ain't one to be much critical about the ways and means they manage to do so.

So, one Saturday, I drove over to see Dora in the Home (Come to think of it, pore thang, she'd spent most of her life in Homes of one kind of another besides her own, and if that ain't another reason to have pity on the pore old thang, I don't know what it would take.) Anyhow, I went in and found her dozing in a wheel chair in the hall in front of her room; they'd sorta tied her in the damn thang, so she wouldn't fall out. I gently woke her up and said,

"Dora, what are you doing out here in the hall? Why aren't you in bed?"

"Oh, E.D.," she said, I ast them to put me out here so's I could see the parade."

"Parade? What 'parade'?" says I.

"Oh, the military parade. They's going to be a big military parade. And Papa, and Uncle Job, and a bunch of other people are going to come marching by anytime now."

Now, her Papa had been in the Spanish American War and her Uncle Job had been in France in 1917, but they both was dead and buried in a little cemetery down in Leon. So, I thought it best to get her mind off this nonsense and cheer her up.

"Why don't we go down to the singing? There's a Gospel group from the Free Will Baptist Church down there with a guitar and a piano. You know how them Free Willers can sing."

Well, Dora purely loved singing and Gospel singing was her favorite. I could see by her furrowed brow that she was torn and tempted. I let her worry that thought for a while by keeping my silence.

Finally, she said with a sigh, "I'd purely love to..."

"Okie-dokie, Mizz Wood," I said with relief, "Mr. Smith will be your chaperone." And I began to wheel her down the hall.

"I'd purely love to, E.D.," she repeated, "but then I might miss the parade!"

A Balm in Gilead

Some times I feel discouraged
And think my work's in vain.
But then the Holy Spirit,
Revives my soul, again.

There is a balm in Gilead...

Negro Spiritual, 18th and 19th Centuries

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Levi and Vlurma Ponder by E.D. "Shinbone" Smith, Bomar, Oklahoma, formerly Indian Territory or "IT"

Old Levi Ponder lived to be one hundred and two. So when I call him "old" I don't jist mean that he was dear to us, but that he was jist that- old. His wife, Vlurma, was ninety-two when he died. They had been married seventy three years. They lived on a little place they worked south of Thackerville jist west of the White Rose schoolhouse. They never had no children neither, which led some of the folks to wonder why.

Part of the answer, and maybe all of it may have been revealed in old Levi's last illness. I was standing there in the bedroom when this young doctor says, "Vlurma, Did you know that Levi had this horrible hernia?" As he asked this, he held his hands about a foot apart, and all of us was afraid he might throw back the bed covers so that we could see the real thang. "Yes," Vlurma replied with her customary shyness. "How long has he had this thing?" the doctor pressed. "Jist after we married. He was pulling stumps in the north field when it came. It jist kindly got worse and worse over the years." "Well, why didn't he get it fixed?" said the young feller. "Levi never took much stock in doctors," says Vlurma. "Besides," she added, in what was for her an unusual commentary, "one of the things I was able to do for Levi through the years was to help him fold that thing ever' morning into his underwear." You could tell that she thought of this as an act of wifely affection, and I was kinda moved by it.

Well, after Levi died, Vlurma stayed on the little place in that little house of theirs for a year or eighteen months, but ever'body knew she was in bad health and couldn't take care of herself rightly, so some of us who was close to her (she is distantly kin to me) persuaded her to go into a nursing home down in Gainesville. It nearly killed her to do it, but she was kindly lost after old Levi died, so she resigned herself to go.

I used to go down and see her about ever' week, beings as how I was partly responsible for her being in that place. I purely hate them places and hope I die before I have to go to one myself, so I guess out of loving her and feeling guilty about putting her in there, I tried to go see her ever' week. It ain't too long a drive from Bomar down there anyhow.

Well, ever' time I went, there Vlurma would be settin' in this rocking chair and lookin' out the window. Always the same. She was always glad to see me and we would visit, and talk about news in the community, and the weather, and old times, and such like. Sometimes I would roll her around the place in a wheelchair.

One day, as I was rolling her down the halls, I says to her, "Vlurma, they's singin' in the big room today. Would you like to go hear the singin'?"

"Levi never took much stock in singin'" she replied in her quiet way.

After a while, I tried again. "Vlurma, would you like to git a book out of the library? They's lots of nice books in there."

Quietly, she says, "Levi never took much stock in reading."

In the silence that followed, I took another stab.

"Vlurma, honey, would you like to go watch the television in the television room?"

"No, thank you, E. D.," she says, polite as can be, "Levi never took no stock in television."

Well, I was getting kindly flustered by then and I says,

"Well, Vlurma, what did Levi like?"

In a big voice that I had never heard her use in all the years I had known her she said

"Levi liked to work!"

The Holiness of Everyday Stuff

I believe in the holiness of everyday stuff. That is, I believe that the stuff, the matter of our daily lives is good and holy, that it is sacramental. From the toast we butter every morning to the soft beds we lie upon every night (if we are so blessed to have bread and beds!), and everything in between, we are touching the stuff that God has made, given, and blessed.

I believe this because the Holy Scriptures, the Bible, declare it to be so. St. Paul, writing late in his life, says, "For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected..." I Timothy 4:4. Paul is engaged here in commentary on the first chapter of Genesis. God created all things. God created all things good. God created all things to be received and enjoyed by the acme of his creation, man.

Stuff is not, in and of itself, bad. Those who teach that it is are teaching the doctrines of demons and deceitful spirits, as Paul says in verse 1 of the same passage. In particular, food and marital sex are singled out as good, because then, and throughout the history of the Christian Church these have been hot points of controversy. To the Jews, who had been reared in a tradition of kosher food laws, this was a serious departure from the faith of ancient Israel. But, Paul, an orthodox Jew often insisted upon this change in God's program, see Romans 14 and I Corinthians 8-10. In doing so, he was following the lead of Jesus in Mark 7:14-23. Furthermore, Paul is following the Old Testament on the question of marital love. The Old Testament often celebrates this gift and devotes an entire book to it in the Song of Solomon. Food and sex are good, as is everything else that God has made. It is the goodness, the appropriateness of these things that enables us to say of them, "They are sacramental."

This view of life opens life to a whole new way of living. It takes us back to the origins and to the purpose of things. It tells us why the world and all that is in it is. It gives a basis for probing and understanding what things are for. It gives us direction and purpose and boundaries for our lives. It tells us that, as great and wonderful as human beings are, we are inadequate and clueless in understanding the whys and the wherefores of things apart from Divine Revelation. If the stuff of this life-all of it- is made by God, then we are in a position to seek from God, the Maker, insight and understanding as to the purpose and use of these things. Christians, thus believe that life, including marriage, food, work, and everything else is defined and delimited by God. This leads, even in the delimitations, to a life that is potentially full and, in a healthy way, safe. The modern view is that man himself defines and delimits all of this. There are no limits, except those posed by the experts. This is because the modern rejects the idea of a Divine origin and regulation of stuff. The Christian Gnostic, because he believes that stuff is bad or questionable, places himself in a position similar to the modern secularist. He must determine and set the limits of life from inside his own head and from his own experience.

The Christian, by accepting the Divine origin and regulation of all reality, is in a position to live fully, joyfully, and safely in the world (though, God knows, it is a scary place!). He is in a position to live sacramentally.

The key to this, according to Paul in the Timothy letter, is found "in the word of God and prayer." We "gratefully paticipate" in all these things as those "who believe and know the truth." "We receive them with thanks." Verses 3,4. In this way, "they (the stuff of life) are sanctified (made holy, consecrated to God) by the word of God and prayer." Verse 5.

This makes every bush a "burning bush" and every parcel of ground "holy ground." It means our work, play, worship, sufferings, joy, and all else are holy things. This gives our lives significance, safety, and satisfaction, because it gives to all of it a real sanctity. This is a sanctity guaranteed by the Real Presence of Christ. He who became flesh is with us in our fleshly lives. He who ate bread and fish, who drank water and wine, is with us in the mundane realities of our quotidian existence.

Not bad. Not bad at all!

Queen Elizabeth I on the Lord's Supper

'Twas God the Word that spake it,
He took the bread and brake it;
And what the Word did make it;
I believe that, and I take it.

(A form of the same thing is attributed to John Donne.)

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

"The Thespians Come to Town" by E.D. "Shinbone" Smith, Bomar, Oklahoma, formerly, Indian Territory of "IT"

You young people won't have known this, but way back before the War and in the worst part of the Depression, they used to be these traveling actors that would come into county seat towns and put on plays. Sometimes they'd come of a Friday and put on shows on Friday and a couple of shows on the Saturday following, but sometimes they'd just come and do two or three shows on a Saturday. Of course, Saturdays was the day when we all come to town, to get groceries and feed, go to the picture show, and just visit and catch up on the news.

Well, this traveling troupe of "Thespians" as they called theirselves come to Marietta and set up to put on a play in the courthouse there. Word had got around in the weeks before and they was a mess of people in town on the day of the play. They was all over the place. The courthouse square was covered with people and the streets were lined with cars, wagons, and horses. It was like a county fair. Folks was selling popcorn and boiled peanuts and fried pies. This preacher was holding forth on the corner in front of the First National Bank. He had a little group of people with him to sing and a fat lady to play this little pump organ; she was twice the size of that little pump organ, and that was a funny sight. The old men were sitting in front of Sprouse's hardware store, whittling, and talking, and chewing tobacco, and watching the good looking women- and some that wadn't so good looking. The cafes and saloons was making a killing. And everbody excited about this play, which was called, "Murder at Midnight." Everthang was set to start at one o'clock.

Now by twelve noon they had opened up the main court room, turned on them big ceiling fans, and opened up the tall windows on on either side to get any breeze they could. People had rushed in to get the closest seats on the main floor and in the balcony. It was hot as Dick's hatband and the ladies was fanning themselves with Dodson Funeral Home fans with pictures of the Good Shepherd on them. The men was jist sweating through their overalls and shirts, tugging at their collars buttoned up to the top. They young'ns was restless and whiny like they was in church, saying out loud ever once in while, "How much longer, Mama?" They had shifted the judge's bench and witness stand and other furniture to the side of the main floor and set up their props and furniture for the play. You could almost smell the excitement over the sweat and cheap perfume and pomade.

Well, unbeknownst to the paying crowd there in the main court room of the Love County courthouse, they was this crisis going on down at the Excelsior Hotel. The second main actress had come down with laryngitis and could barely make a squeak. She wadn't the main actress, but she was important to the story of the play, so the troupe was in a state of pure anxiousness- and I do mean anxiousness. They was thinking about all them dimes and quarters they was going to have to refund these people. They was three or four civic leaders with them and they was worried about that bunch of hot, excited folks in the courthouse and what they might do even if their money was refunded.

Finally, (and it was getting on toward 12:30) the head Thespian says, "Is there a woman here in town that could stand in for Eugenie? Somebody with her looks and maybe with a little sassiness that wouldn't mind being in front of a crowd? We could cut the script so she wouldn't have to say but a few lines."

Well, the city fathers got their heads together and finally said, "How much would you be willing to pay?"

"Three dollars. A dollar for each of the three presentations."

Well, that nearly took all the air out of the room as most of them men in the courthouse was working in the fields for a sight less than a dollar a day.

So somebody says, "Go see if you can find Ruthie Fulks."

Well, before long they come back with Ruthie. Now Ruthie was a character and her looks showed it. Lots of makeup, Marcel wave hair do that was a little out of style, and a slinky shift of a dress that covered a fine, if kindly plump, figure. She had a bought cigarette in her hand and the nails were fire engine red. She also had a way about her that kindly made everbody set up and take notice when she came into a room.

So they made her the proposition and she asked, "How much?" When they told her, her eyes got big and she nearly tripped over her own tongue accepting. So the main Thespian starts to tell her what few lines she had to say and when to say them and what else she had to do. The civic leaders left the Hotel and went and got their seats in the courthouse that their wives had been saving up on the front row of the main floor. They set there wiping sweat from their worried brows with starched linen handkerchiefs.

Directly, jist after one o'clock, the main Thespian comes out of the Judge's Chambers behind the stage and the people started to clap and hoot like they was at a New York opera house. He raised his hand and silenced the crowd and explained the emergency that they had jist resolved and told em about Ruthie Fulks and her gracious willingness to help out. Now, at the mention of Ruthie, the crowd sorta sighed and began whispering to each other and the wives of the City Leaders cast some dark looks out of the sides of their eyes at their husbands setting there. But after a short spell and the assurance of the main Thespian that "The Show Must Go On!" they all settled down for the first act, fanning and fidgeting, but trying to behave like the upper crust down at the front.

Now, the first act, went well, and the second. Ruthie made a brief appearance in the second act and had an even briefer set of lines. The third act was where it got interesting.

The scene is a hotel room with a bed and a davenport and such. (They had to move thangs around between acts with the people watching, because that's the best they could do.) The main Thespian is sitting on the davenport with his head hung down, sighing and muttering to himself. Then, in comes Ruthie in a robe and slippers.

"You have wronged me, " says the main Thespian.

"I have not. I have been true," says Ruthie. (The people was quite impressed because she seemed to be a natural actress.)

"I don't believe you anymore. I cannot trust you!" says the main Thespian. Then, he pulls a revolver out of his jacket. The crowd gasps. The women clap their hands over their mouths. The men scoot out on the edge of the pews they are setting on. Several of the smaller children cover their eyes with sweaty, grubby hands.

"Oh, John, no! Please! No! No! No!" says Ruthie, with such conviction that the women have tears in their eyes and some of the men have to swallow down hard.

The main Thespian aims and fires. The shock of the gunfire and the smell of the smoke jist ratchets up the tension. Ruthie slaps her ample bosom and blood starts to come out through her spread fingers, blood the color of them little pretty fingernails of hers. The crowd gasps- I swear you could of hear it out on the courthouse lawn. One old lady began to sob and somebody, a male, was heard to mutter, "Well, I'll be damned." You could cut the tension in that big room with a knife.

The main Thespian drops the revolver as Ruthie drops to the floor and begins to tear at his long, fine hair with both hands, all the while pacing back and forth across the stage. He is saying, over and over again, and each time with greater dramatic effect

"What have I done? What have I done? What have I done?"

By now, they's lots of the women weeping, even some of those grand dames down on the front row. Everybody is tense and kinda cut up. They have forgot that this is a play and have been carried away by the story and the acting. They've even forgot that that is Ruthie Fulks layin' down on the floor there in a pool of blood. The main Thespian continues to pace and to cry out

"What have I done?"

Well, between one of them "What have I dones?" old Grover Daugherty, who has been sucking on his second half pint of Bourbon since his drinking day began earlier that morning, stands up in the balcony. He is not steady on his feet by a long shot, and he is not only drunk, he's tore up and cryin'. Grover wipes his runny nose on his sleeve and hollers out,

"I'll tell ye what ye've done, you Thespian son-of-a-bitch! Ye've done killed the only whore in this town, that's what ye've done!"

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Are All the Nuts in Church?

I sometimes think that all the nuts are in churches. But, then, I go to an occasional rock concert, flea market, or Wal-Mart, and realize that nuts are everywhere.

What makes church nuts even nuttier is their piety, intensity, and general humorlessness.

Here is the most recent example of church nuttiness I have come across.

My mother and sister-in-law attend a Baptist church in Oklahoma City. Last Sunday, as they went around greeting and welcoming people, they came upon a stranger visiting the church for the first time.

As my mother-in-law offered her hand in greeting, the female visitor tendered a piece of white bond paper, approximately two inches square, upon which was printed the following message:

"Let me extend to you a WORD
of greeting rather than shaking
hands. In the interest of Public
Health, we have decided to
avoid the practice of public
handshaking. We prefer the
Biblical method of greeting
people, by 'Saluting' as
described in Romans 16:1-16."

Never mind that Paul in Romans 16 says in verse 16 (part of the suggested proof text offered above), "Salute one another with a holy kiss" (KJV).

Oh, well... as they say in Yorkshire, "There's nowt so quair as folk!" (There is nothing so queer as folk!)

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A Part of a Family, Part III

So, who was this boy the Wynn's invited into their home, into their family? What did they find when they began to discover who I then was?

Ken and Bettye Wynn were in their late twenties at the time. They were idealistic, devout, and committed to their sense of Christian calling. They were loving, self-sacrificing, and generous. I never knew for sure what their income was, but I know that they were living on a very constrained budget. With their talents and education they could have easily had careers where they were making a great deal more money than they would in a second-fiddle role in a medium sized Baptist church. They had three small daughters and there would soon be a fourth. They never asked me to contribute to the family economy, and I am chagrined to say, I never offered to, though I had a considerable amount of discretionary cash because of my preaching junkets and part-time job. O the follies of youth!

Ken was devout, but easy going. He was great fun and had a gentle way about him. Bettye was charming, but her piety had a tougher edge to it than Ken's. We got on wonderfully together. They had a fine sense of style and their home was filled with beautiful things, antique furniture that no one then cared about, pictures, books, and music. Bettye was a wonderful cook.

Here were two people on a limited income who had determined to fill their lives with beauty and style. The girls were what little girls are in a well-ordered home, sweet and happy.

Their taking me into the heart of this family was fraught with Christian idealism and naivete'. They would soon discover what a complex and complicated human being they had taken on. I would soon discover that living as a part of a family was radically different from the life that I had lived for seventeen years. It is a testimony to their faith, patience, and generosity that it succeeded at all, and that it succeeded over a period of two-plus years is nothing short of astonishing.

During those years, I began to learn what it is to be a part of a family. I was challenged and by circumstances, forced, to begin to live in a world where my wants and wishes were not the center of everything. Gently, the Wynns began to exert a discipline upon my life. Schedules, commitments, obligations were to be honored. Doing things with the family in mind became a solemn responsibility. There were inevitable conflicts, and some of them were sharp, but their unfailing love supported and conquered me. They were remarkably forgiving.

After a breakup with a beautiful girl in my junior year, I went into a deep depression and found solace in music. My tastes had broadened to include folk and early rock and I would lose myself in the music and lyrics of Woody Gurthrie, Dylan, and the Seekers. I decided I would go back to a life of rambling around and music, like Woody. I used to sit on the porch of his old house in Okemah and play my guitar and sing. When school ended for the summer, I packed a knapsack, took two hundred dollars from my account (I had a part-time job and preaching honoraria), grabbed my Gibson guitar, and headed to I-40 below the bluff that Okemah sits upon. I was on my way to Boise, Idaho, where my father's brother, Ken, lived. My first lift took me all the way to Gallup, New Mexico. From there I was picked up by a drunk who had been in Gallup with his mistress. He took me north to Shiprock. He kept the needle on one hundred most of the way and I was grateful for the straight highway between Gallup and Shiprock. As I walked on highway 491, I watched the morning sunlight coming down the Shiprock. A Navajo man took me across the northeast corner of Arizona and the Indian Reservation to Monticello, Utah, where I cleaned up in a Sinclair station and had breakfast in a truck stop. I was walking on clouds with happiness. From Monticello, I got a lift to the Junction of U.S. 191 and I-70. From there, a trucker took me all the rest of the way to Boise. I had made the whole trip in twenty-three hours.

I called my uncle from a truck stop there and he came to get me. He and my aunt had no idea that I was coming. When I climbed into the front seat, the first thing he said was, "Get your heart broke by some old girl?" I stayed with them for two weeks, during which time my aunt's father was dying. I had known the old man for some years as I had visited Idaho on two other occasions with my uncle and aunt. We visited him on his death bed on the sage brush flat of Orchard, Idaho. He looked at me with his rheumy eyes and said, "Don't throw your life away, Tommy. Don't waste your life." It went home like a dart through my heart. I walked out on the desert. It had just showered and the smell of petrichore and sage filled the air. I decided I would return to Oklahoma and to the Wynns if they would have me back.

The Wynns had no idea where I was. I had left no note. I had taken the things that meant the most to me and that I could carry. They were frantic with worry for these weeks. In retrospect, I cannot imagine their anxiety, anger, and fear.

When Mr. Reed died in the ensuing days, we were suddenly on our way to Fayetteville, Arkansas where he would be buried. After the funeral, we returned to the family homeplace in Thackerville, where I phoned the Wynn home. Bettye answered the phone and when she heard my voice, she began to sob. "May I come back?" I asked. "You will have to talk to Ken and he is not home right now." When I later spoke to Ken, he was gentle, but firm. I would be welcomed back, but certain things would have to change. On the next day, my grandfather took me to Marietta where I boarded a Greyhound bus for Oklahoma City and Okemah.

The Wynn's received me back like the Prodigal Son that I was. It was an astonishing display of Christian love and forgiveness. I have not forgotten this and hope I never shall.

There were new rules, new restrictions, a new insistence that I consider others as more important than myself. Little by little I began to make progress in living with others and not living solely for myself. Their love supported it all.

My senior year in high school was one of the happiest of my life. I had settled down within the Wynn family, I continued to preach, and I was in a happy relationship with a beautiful, sweet girl who was a true soul-mate. I was popular at school, voted president of the senior class, and took part in the Thespian productions of the English department. I had some very fine teachers and won the regional academic award for art history as well as dabbling in drawing and painting.

After I began my freshman year at Oklahoma Baptist University, the Wynn's moved yet again to Woodward, Oklahoma to serve in the 1st Baptist Church there. I visited them, even had a room in their home for a time, but gradually we saw less and less of one another. I had met the woman who was to be my wife in Tulsa and was spending more time there when away from school.

In the ensuing years, my ties with the Wynns slowly dissolved. There was no bitterness or conflict. I was busy with my new bride and a new career as a pastor in the Tulsa area, and the Wynns were going through some very difficult times of their own. Over the years there were occasional letters and cards, but we lost touch the way people do in this life.

Only recently have I reconnected with members of the Wynn family. I am now in touch with three of the girls and indirectly with their father.

I have written these posts in order to pay my tribute to them for their love and kindness to me. The years I spent with them were formative in making me what I have become. They taught me in a profound way what it means to be a part of a family. They, thus, enabled me to enter with greater wisdom and tact my wife's family. I have also reconnected with the various wings of my own family through the years, and they played a role in this as well. Because of their example, they have enabled me to have my own family. Ours has been a home filled with beautiful things. Ours has been a home where each was expected to consider others as better than himself. Ours has been a home where love and forgiveness are paramount.

I owe much of this to the Family Wynn. I would here offer them my profound thanks.

A Part of a Family, Part II

The summer of 1967 found me in Ontario, California with my maternal grandmother and my aunts and cousins. I had spent summers with them from the mid-fifties on. Once there, I began to haunt record shops looking for old timey music. Through one of these I connected with a man who led a bluegrass band and began playing with them at jams held in his home. This band had cut a record with a label called "Rural Rhythm Records" and was slated to do another that summer. This looked like an early break into a music career. I began playing rhythm guitar and singing lead with this group. They really were an accomplished bunch of amateur musicians. We had a fine banjo picker, a female vocalist, a dobro player, while the leader played upright bass, mandolin, and flat-pick guitar. By this time I had memorized over a hundred songs as well as writing several of my own. Don't misunderstand me, these were not great songs. They were the standard, "you, untrue, blue" variety of country songs. But, some of the melodies were unique and quirky, and this is what record producers are looking for. I met the then owner/producer of RR and performed some of my songs for him. He was mildly impressed, probably in part because I was fifteen years old.

The leader of the band was one of the most disgustingly immoral men I have ever known. He was unscrupulous and manipulative. I was always uneasy with him and this increased as the summer waned. I came to believe he was stealing my songs and promoting them as his own. When I became convinced of this, I walked away. Full stop. This has always been my way of dealing with people I am convinced have betrayed me. I walk away...full stop. In one way, it has been easy for me to do this, given my frequently interrupted young life.

This is not to say I wasn't disappointed. I was crushed. We were weeks away from doing the record which would involve our covering standard bluegrass favorites as well as including one or two of my songs. I was also embarrassed because I had told people at home that I was about to cut a record with this band.

I quit my job, bought a plane ticket (my first), and flew back to Dallas on my way home. When I got home, my grandparents were dismayed. There was no work for me there and I had left a decent job, and they had enjoyed the peace of not having to worry about me and put up with my shenanigans. This only added to my depression and sense of failure.

On the first Sunday after my return, I rose early, cleaned up and dressed in my best music playing clothes, and asked my grandfather to drive me to church. My grandmother nearly floated above the ground she was so pleased.

When I arrived at the little Baptist church there were many whispers and nods. I tried to sing the hymns, which I did not know. I bowed my head when they prayed, stood when they said stand, sat when they said sit. I endured the sermon because my friend, the Rev. Spann was the preacher. He was the reason I was there. I needed a friend. He was a friend, a true friend who could be trusted.

At the end of the sermon he gave the customary Baptist "invitation" for people to come forward "to be saved." I found myself strangely moved and with great deliberateness, went forward.

Over the intervening forty-plus years, I have looked at this experience through every lens available to me. I know it can be explained in purely psychological terms. I was a prime candidate for a "conversion." William James would have smiled wryly at it all and quietly explained it as typical. I would now agree with nearly everything he would have to say.

But, I would go on to say this: That was a watershed day in my life. It was the point from which the rest of my life would take its trajectory. I believe that I encountered God on that hot, July day. I believe he encountered me in that little village and in that ugly little building. I am what I am today because of that encounter. The rest of my life would be spent in living out that initial encounter and trying to understand its ramifications.

Well, I don't have to tell you, if you have followed this story up to this point, that I took hold of this new life the same way I had always taken hold of things: with hammer and tongs.

Soon thereafter, I would "surrender to a call to preach the Gospel," and in the tradition of earlier Southern Baptists, would become a "preacher boy." When I preached my first sermon later that summer the whole place was packed and they had to bring in folding chairs. From that point my preaching career was launched. I began to preach in some little place every weekend.

I was as ignorant as a box of bolts. I was a new convert. But, what I lacked in understanding, not to say wisdom and experience, I made up for with sheer exuberance, zeal, and personality. I had found my place and it had the commendation of God. I had also entered into a very dangerous place, spiritually and morally. It is but for the sheer and tender grace of God that I did not go down in a tragic shipwreck of faith and morals.

It was at this time that I met the Wynn family, the family I would come to live with in Okemah, Oklahoma. They saw my gifts, my potential, and came to love me. They also saw the lack of discipline and oversight in my young life. They were living in Healdton, Oklahoma at the time. Without notice of any kind, I would just show up on their doorstep, having hitchiked the fifty miles or so to get there. During this time they were "called" to Okemah and invited me to go with them. They spent an evening talking with my grandparents and receiving their permission for me to go. Mama and Papa were old and tired by this time, and, while it grieved them to see me leave, I am sure, in one respect, they were relieved to see me go. They also were hopeful that a better school and social situation could improve my future prospects. So, on that warm, sunny November morning, I loaded my rocking chair, my books, and my clothes into Ken Wynn's pickup and headed for a new life.

To be continued...

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A Part of a Family, Part I

Just after my seventeenth birthday, I was invited to live with a family that I had become friends with during the previous months. This change involved my leaving my own family in southern Oklahoma. They were willing to accede to this change because they saw in it a chance for my own improvement. I will never forget the morning I left the old home-place. I loaded my few belongings and said good-bye to my grandfather, my "Papa." He was not one to demonstrate his emotions, but his eyes were red-rimmed and full of tears when I hugged him and said, "Bye, now."

The young, for the most part, are oblivious to feelings, except their own, and I was no exception to this rule. I know now something of the pain the old couple must have endured and the loneliness of that remote old house in my absence. I now have pain and regrets over the many sorrows I caused them, including this one. But, this same oblivion is what makes the young adventurous and daring, and I was nothing if not adventurous and daring. I was ready for a new start, a new life!

The family I moved in with were a Christian couple with three young daughters. They had moved to another Oklahoma town to be the music/youth director in a Baptist church there. The plan was for me to live in a little cottage behind their church-provided home, but soon, I was ensconced as a member of the family in one of the three bedrooms in the house. This, itself, posed a hardship on the girls, who had to room together in a smallish bedroom. I mention this only to reveal yet another aspect of this family's generosity toward me.

What did they find when they began to discover who I then was? I was warm, personable, gregarious, full of fun. I was talented, gifted, bookish. I was also wild, undisciplined, impulsive, given to extreme mood swings. I could be kind and gracious one minute and carried away in a towering rage the next. In many ways, I was a mess. And, I do mean a mess!

The fact is, I had been on my own in one form or another all my life. After my mother's death, my father traveled the country with me in the front seat of his 1951 Ford sedan. I was thirteen months old. We crisscrossed the country together as he tried to literally drive out his pain and leave his grief behind him. But, pain and grief like his cannot be evaded; they met him whenever he arrived at a new place. Finally, he needed to go to work and he took me to his parent's home, the one I would leave on that November day in 1968. There I lived like a little prince for the next four years. After that, I went to live with my father and his new wife. The next years would be hell on earth, and a part of that hell would be the long hours that I spent alone, even as a small child, while my father and his wife worked. In that loneliness I developed my own inner-world, a world where I could escape, a world where I was king. I would from time to time invite others into this world, but I was always the leader, the defender of my kingdom, and the sole arbiter of that realm. This continued into my early teens.

When I reached my early teens, my life with my step-mother had become so abusive, and her marriage to my father so volatile, that my grandparents feared for my safety and sanity. They pleaded with my father to let me return to them on the pretext that my grandmother needed someone with her when my grandfather worked at his night watchman's job. My father resigned himself to this and I was back at the happiest place on earth to me!

The next two years were idyllic. I was free to roam at will the woods and hills of southern Love County, Oklahoma. I had several rifles and shotguns along with other woodsman's gear: a Hudson's Bay axe, steel traps, a backpack, knives and hatchets of all sorts. When not in school, I was in the woods and on the Red River, in all weathers and at all hours, hunting, trapping, fishing, and just being alone. I learned woodcraft from my grandfather and uncles, from books by Daniel Carter Beard and Ernest Thompson Seton, and from experience- watching, listening, smelling, tasting, touching the wild world. I shudder to think back at some of my exploits, so dangerous and daunting they were for a boy. I once made a trek, through nine or ten inches of snow, that went on for about eight or nine miles, looking for furbearers and their den-trees. I returned in the bitter cold as the sun was setting in the clear reddened sky, my pant's legs frozen like stove pipes from the knees down in the sub-freezing cold. But, I remember, too, the sense of achievement and pride I had in that trek and the joy of coming home to my Mama's hot cooking. I know now that, though they had worried about me, they were proud of me, too.

During this same period, I made friends with two brothers, Eddy and Lonnie Foster, who were also enamored of the woods and woodcraft. We were inseparable, but I was still the leader, though both were older by two or three years. Together, we hunted with hounds- coons, possums, anything with fur on it. We became accomplished at it and were admired in the community for it. Together we made a camp on the spring branch belonging to my grandfather, and at my insistence, built a log cabin on the spot from trees we felled ourselves, notched, and rolled into place. It stood for years on the spot until it rotted away. I still have photographs of it in ruins.

But, despite the friendship, I was often alone in the woods and on the River... thinking. "...and a boy's thoughts are long, long thoughts." My life, though social and in some ways, gregarious, was still an interior life, a life of thinking, reading, exploring, doing...alone. My grandparents were people of the land and of the woods, so they were content to hold their breath and pray, and let me go.

In my fourteen year, I fell in love with bluegrass and old-timey country music. At the same time, my youngest aunt had married a guitar picker who began to teach me to play. I went at it with the same savage, manic fury that I went at everything. My fingers bled from practice in those early days. Little by little I began to be proficient. When I was good enough, I began to play with older pickers and singers at home dance-parties. A child musician-singer is always a wonder to adults, especially one that can perform without nervousness before a crowd. I was such a child.

Soon I was playing at county "hootenannies" and with adult, accomplished pickers. I even started a band of my own called the "Midnight Ramblers." There were three of us, but I was still the leader. The band finally failed because of territory battles between an older member and myself. Finally, I began to play and sing with an adult group, whose leader had been a Nashville session musician. With adults, I was willing to "keep my place," so long as they did not place too stringent demands on me. During this time, my grandparents let me go wherever and whenever I wanted; they could do little else without having me incarcerated. I was willful and wild. I was also popular, with girls and with adults, especially after they had had a few drinks. My group began to sneak me into venues that were strictly adult- bars, joints, VFW clubs.

During this period, my grades suffered and I was often half-there in class because of my midnight ramblings. I adopted cocky, brash, and adult airs. Even those in my family who loved me found me insufferable. They were worried about the company I was keeping and about my time on the road. I couldn't drive and had no car if I could have, so I hitchhiked around the county and beyond. Well they may have worried, and did. They warned me, pleaded with me, and threw up their hands in exasperation. I was on my own- though they were there to feed me, clothe me, and shelter me... and, I now see, to love me. It was a horrible time for them. When I remember my treatment of them, I am full of wonder and shame. There was already talk of "going to Nashville" and making a music career. This was enhanced by the fact that I had already begun to write my own songs.

During this time, I was befriended by my high school English teacher, the Rev. Clyde B. Spann. He was intrigued with my intelligence and, I think, my aplomb. He encouraged my reading and my writing, which I had begun to do seriously. He also prayed for me and remained a true friend to me despite my arrogance and country brashness.

Things were coming to a head in my life and the result would be "wondrous strange," not just to those looking on from the outside, but, even more so, to me, myself.

To be continued...

Sunday, June 20, 2010

"Don't Worry about the Mule Going Blind" or A Life of Calculated Risk , further thoughts from Ecclesiastes

The human animal, like all animals, is beset with fears. We live in a world that can hurt us, physically and emotionally, and we learn this early on. Whether or not fear is intrinsic to our human nature or is a learned condition is something I will leave for the experts to argue about, but I know from experience that it is known early and continues unabated throughout life.

The fact of fear drives us to seek security in a variety of ways. We protect ourselves and well we might. Whether it is seen in a provident concern for financial or physical security, or the avoidance of people and things that may harm us, we spend a lot of time, money and mental energy creating safe places and comfort zones in our lives. We play it safe.

This is right and good...up to a point. Where it becomes a problem is when it gets in the way of a life well lived, a life fully lived. Thus, for some, the fear of travel and of travel in airplanes is so profound that they refuse to travel. How sad this is and how impoverished their lives compared to those who have seen other lands, tasted other foods, and engaged with other peoples in their own cultures. I am glad that I grew up on the Southern Plains and on the Red River. My childhood was spent in some of the richest historical spots in the United States in terms of the saga of the American West- Young County, Texas and Love County, Oklahoma. But, I am also glad that I have walked the streets of London and Paris by myself and have seen the Southern Alps of New Zealand. I am the richer because of this. I am also less inclined to think that, as much as I love my native country, ours is the only good, beautiful, and culturally rich place on earth. It is not safe (in an absolute sense) to travel, but it does make for a richer, fuller life.

Ecclesiastes in chapter 11 urges his readers to a life of calculated risk. While the Wisdom Tradition of the Bible (Proverbs, Job, the Psalms, along with Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament, and the Sermon of the Mount and James in the New) counsels caution and safety in many areas of life, e.g., "In the multitude of counselors is safety," it also challenges us to avoid playing it so safe that we do not open ourselves to the surprises and blessings that come from taking calculated and deliberate risks.

Thus, the writer says, "Cast your bread upon the waters, and after many days it will return to you." It is generally conceded by scholars that what is being urged here is an investment in goods carried by merchant seamen. Travel on the sea has always been hazardous and risky, and this was especially so in ancient times. The land-locked Israelites seem in particular to have had an aversion to the sea, see Jonah and Psalm 107. So, such counsel as is found here is contrary to human nature and its propensity to play it safe.

Another picture from the Bible comes to mind. It is that of Jocabed, the mother of Moses, placing her endangered little son in an ark of bullrushes and setting him afloat on the Nile, only to have him returned to her as his wet-nurse. The child is risked, he is saved, and he is returned to his mother.

We must try to live our lives with such a resolve: To risk ourselves in a manner that will ultimately enrich us. This calls for a courage, a daring, that is intrepid and undaunted. Whether we think of giving ourselves in service to others who may not appreciate us and may actually hurt us, or the giving of our financial resources to worthy projects, or simply trying new things that will stretch and improve us, such action calls for courage.

The fear factor at this point is compounded by two things mentioned by the Preacher ("Ecclesiastes" means preacher or questor {Eugene Peterson}).

The first group of things are those inevitable things that take place in the world that can literally blow away or smash our lives to pieces. (This would include all the metaphorical things that can do the same.) "If the clouds are full, they pour out rain upon the earth; and whether a tree falls toward the south or the north, wherever the tree falls, there it lies. He who watches the wind will not sow, and he who looks at the clouds will not reap" Vv. 3,4. Rain, winds, falling trees... these are things that can and do happen in the world and they can wreak havoc in the lives of those who happen to be in the way.

The point is, we must never let what might happen get in the way of our living. If we do, we shall not live fully and richly. The fear of catastrophe is an impediment to a fully-lived life. Let us be undaunted in the face of storms (literal or metaphorical). Life is worth the risk. The old timers I used to know had a saying that fits this. "Don't worry about the mule going blind, just load the wagon!" Don't worry about the "what ifs," the "could happens," just live!

The second thing that may abridge a fully-lived life is speculation about the purpose of God in our daily affairs. This is a chronic problem among people of faith, especially people of Biblical faith. They are constantly wondering "What is God saying in this?" "What is God's purpose in that?" Pastors are regularly confronted with the anxiety and even the neuroses of the faithful in this regard. To this Ecclesiastes says, "Just as you do not know the path of the wind and how bones are formed in the womb of a pregnant woman, so you do not know the activity of God who makes all things" V 5. Astonishing! And, liberating!

The fact is (and this, unfortunately, is not "known" by many people of faith) we do not really know at any given moment what God's intention is in the details of our daily lives. We have some understanding of the larger, over-arching purpose of God from such texts as Romans 8:29-30 and Ephesians 1:3-14. And I want to emphasize that even this understanding and knowledge is based on faith, not on things that are provable from observation of the details of our lives. But, in terms of the daily details of our lives, we cannot declare with any certainty what God's intentions are. I lost my mother at age thirteen months. Why? Because of sin in her life or my father's life? The thought is repellent. Because God wanted to teach us a lesson? No less repellent. Because... Oh, quit! We do not know and cannot now know. My poor father wasted nearly half his life brooding over such questions. And those "church-people" who presume to declare the "whys" and the "wherefores" of such events are arrogant no-nothings who remind me of Mark Twain's censure of a certain minister, "He was waiting for a vacancy in the Trinity, that he might fill it!"

Brooding and fretting about the purpose of God in the daily troubles and threats of life will only impede daring, risky living.

What we are called to at such a point is faith in God himself. This, too, is a risky thing. Faith always is. One thinks of "Pascal's Wager." I also think of the people of faith described in the eleventh chapter of Hebrews. Here are people who risked everything because of their faith in God. They forsook their homelands, they sacrificed fame and fortune, they offered up their very lives in faith. They were undaunted, intrepid, fearless, and courageous. And all of these things were borne of their faith in God.

Jesus calls us to a such a faith and to such a fully-lived life, promising life and abundant life to those who forsake trust in themselves, their own plans, their own devices in order to trust in him.

Armed with such faith, it is possible to live a different kind of life, a life of faith that is undaunted before the "could happen" things of life, a life undiminished by fruitless, futile questions of what God's purpose is in this or that thing. This is the fully-lived life.

It is such a life that is promised in the word of Jesus, "You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free."

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Billy Carlton Overton and the Lost Cow by E.D. "Shinbone" Smith, Bomar, Oklahoma, formerly Indian Territory, or "IT"

They used to be this old boy down in Love's Valley named Billy Carlton Overton. He had lived down there all his life and was kin to old Sob Love that the Valley is named for.

Old Sob was a character of biblical proportions, and I ain't exaggerating a thang. He was married to six different women. The story goes that he would sit with a Winchester '73 rifle on the north bank of the Red River at a crossing there and when he would see a wagon coming over with a good lookin' woman on board, he'd shoot the husband and let him float down the river and take the woman as a wife. That's what they said. I couldn't say, but I do know for a fact that I have been to the Love family cemetery and seen the six graves of the wives of old Sob and ever'one of 'um said, "wife of Sob Love, aged about 33 years of age." Some folks said that "Sob" stood for "son-of-a-bitch" and that was that.

Anyhow, old Billy Carlton was a nephew of of Sob and lived his whole life out in the Valley. Farmed and fished and generally got by on a shoestring, if you know what I mean.

Well, one week a cow of Billy's come up missin' and he worried and fretted about it for a spell. Wadn't nothing he could do, either. So he decides to take matters in his own hands and go to the church to announce his loss and ask the people there for their help.

Now, Billy, he wadn't much of a churchman, if you know what I mean, so ever'body was kinda surprised to see him show up on Sunday. Some of 'em was praying for him to git saved and hopin' that the Lord had prepared his heart for the Gospel.

Now, they allus had the announcements at the end of the service, so old Billy says, to the preacher,

"Preacher, I have somethin' to say at then end. I have lost a cow and want the people to help me find her."

He said this with a loud voice, because old Billy couldn't hear hisself fart, he was so hard of hearing.

And the preacher said, "That's jist fine, Billy," and that was that.

So Billy set through the whole service, down to the altar call, and he didn't go up front either, to the consternation of several people who were praying hard for him to see the light.

The preacher finally said the last prayer and began the announcements...

"Mary Lou Smith and Glen Hutchins is getting married next Saturday in the church here..." the preacher began.

Well, Old Billy couldn't hear the details and thought the preacher was talking about his cow, so he hollers out

"Yessir, and the way you can recognize her is she has all the hair pulled outa 'er tail and one tit missin'!"

Friday, June 11, 2010

Crazy for God: How Then Shall We Live? Part III

And then Monday comes, and with it, a new week A new week with new challenges and expectations. A new march of days that will test our faith, hope and love. And with the week comes a whole new assortment of fears, anxieties, and doubts. Life is, after all, life. We are expected to live it, and we are expected to live it as Christians.

How shall we live it? And, how shall we live it without lapsing into the extreme of spiritual craziness on the one hand, or despair or apathy on the other?

Let us live in freedom. Most spiritual insanity, in my experience as a pastor, comes from guilt, fear, or insecurity. People ridden by such things live in a state of dis-ease. When the dis-ease becomes acute enough they lapse into degrees of insanity: disease. The proclamation of the Gospel in the weekly service of God by the faith community declares freedom. We are freed from guilt by the promise that Christ's blood has answered every demand posed by our sins. We are freed from fear by the proclamation of "Fear not! I am with you." We are freed from insecurity by the assurance that our lives are in the hands of a God who works all things according to the purpose of his will and, therefore, is working everything together for our ultimate good. This is a part of the freedom announced every week as the Gospel is placarded in Word and Sacrament. We live best when we live in this freedom. It is ours. It is not something that we must yet achieve. It has been given us in grace. We must affirm it and live in it.

In this freedom, let us work. "Six days shall you work" is not a sentence to drudgery, but a charter of liberty. We are made for work. We are only happy if we have good, sensible work to do. Whatever our work, be it on an assembly line, in an office, on a work site, in a study writing, or in a studio painting, we are engaged in God's own work in the world.

In this freedom, let us play. The play instinct is endemic to the creation. The lambs and puppies all play. The Psalmist celebrates the play of the whales in the sea. Children play and so do their adult counterparts. God has wired us to play, just as he has to work.

In this freedom, let us engage in fellowship with others. We can never be happy or healthy if we are solitary. We are social, even as the Trinity himself is social. We must cultivate our social relationships: in talk and listening, in laughter and mutual tears, in telling and hearing stories, in acts of help and words of encouragement. And, I am not simply talking about Christian fellowship! We must cultivate fellowship (a shared life) with every human person that will permit us to do so. The human qualities of compassion, shared goals, empathy, outrage, humor, etc. are not the sole province of people of faith. Sadly, people of faith (especially the CFG types) are often lacking in these things. This is what made Mark Twain comment, "Heaven for the climate, hell for the company!" Let us nurture friendships, inside and outside of the community of faith.

A caveat here. There is a type of CFG religion that sees such relationships with those outside the faith as a means to an end. We befriend people in order to convert them. There are even books and programs described as how to do "Friendship Evangelism." This is pernicious and mercenary! Rightly, do those who unmask such motivation in Christians despise them for it. We are to love our neighbor as ourselves, not to use them or to manipulate them, but for themselves alone.

In the freedom of the Gospel, let us engage in other acts of mercy and help. Let us be rich in good works. Let us be generous. Let us act kindly and compassionately. Let us seek justice and right in our dealings with others. Where possible, let us intervene to prevent and alleviate suffering and unfairness.

In all this, let us live in an environment of prayer. Let us live in praise, for the new day, for the glories of creation, for the blessings of work, play, and friendship. Let us pray for others in their needs, weaknesses, and sins. Let us pray for ourselves in the face of the same things. Let us live in prayer. He who lives in prayer, lives in God. He has bid us come, he has dissolved every impediment to our coming, he loves our fellowship, he delights to engage with us and to answer our prayers.

Let us, in this freedom, live in wonder. "Every day is a god," Annie Dilliard reminds us. And for us who believe, every day is a wonder and a wondrous gift from the God who made it all, directs it all, and will one day redeem it all and bring it into a glory unimaginable to us now. To live in such a "theater of glory" (Calvin) and not be full of wonder is tantamount to being blind, deaf, and utterly senseless. It is one the tragedies of CFG religion that it is so self-absorbed that it cannot appreciate the dappled light upon a trout stream or the chuckle of a six-week old infant who has just discovered laughter. Shame.

Let, us, finally, live in hope. Let us live in hope of the next Lord's Day when we will again experience heaven on earth in covenant renewal. And let us live in hope of the final, great Lord's Day that will usher in an eternal state of rest and peace, unknown and unknowable to us now. In that state, sins will be forever expunged, hopes fulfilled, injustices and violations rectified, "for God himself will wipe away all tears from their eyes."

Then we shall be where we would be.
Then we shall be what we should be.
Things that are not now, nor could be,
Then shall be our own.

This, too me, is the ideal life. It is life that is alive and that lives! It is the categorical opposite of the craziness I have earlier critiqued. It is a reality to me, in that I have experienced it. It is an aspiration to me, in that I never, alas, experience it perfectly. It is a worthy life and a worthy aspiration. Won't you join me in living it and breathing out after it?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Crazy for God, the Alternative, Part II

So... What constitutes a sane Christian spirituality? How do we live lives devoted to the Christian God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and yet avoid the "craziness" I have castigated in my earlier post?

Of course, there are those whose think any religious faith, if it is a serious faith, is crazy. I know such people, know where they are coming from, yet continue in my contrarian position: that faith, serious faith, in the God described in the early Christian creeds, is credible and humanizing.

And such faith is is lived out, not solely in my own mental and emotional world. It is not a private faith. It is not a private spirituality. It is public, and that, in at least two ways.

First, it is a public faith in the Church's historical declaration of that faith in the creeds. The Church has declared from ancient times, "I believe...we believe..." What follows is a declaration of faith that is rooted in the historical reality of Jesus Christ and his works. From this historical faith we move to other articles of faith that logically follow this faith in Jesus. This is not an experience, or a feeling, or a self-generated idea. This is the ancient and timeless faith of Christians in community throughout the ages.

Secondly, the faith of Christians is a faith declared and experienced week by week in their public gatherings throughout the world. It is in community that Christians declare and experience their faith. This happens when the following elements are present.

The worship of the true and living God in liturgical sharing.

The confession and forgiveness of sins through the proclamation of the Gospel.

The proclamation of the Word in preaching.

The renewal of the covenant of grace in the sacraments.

The reunion with one another in Christian love.

The blessing of the living God upon the week to come.

Each of these and all of them together ensure a real and vital Christian faith and help to preserve us from the insanity of religious mania. Let me try to unpack each one with a few comments...

We meet for worship. We come together to share our delight in the beauty and glory of God. We come together in the presence of God to acknowledge him in his works of creation, provision, protection, and salvation. We come together to delight ourselves in his faithfulness and love.

This is a communal act. It is not an act of private devotion. It is an act of shared devotion. This is what makes the singing of hymns important. In hymn singing we are expressing our faith, love, and hope in a united act of worship. We are taken out of ourselves. We are saved from ourselves- our moods, troubles, tragedies. We are forced to consider the larger reality, not just of God, but of our being a part of a historical continuum that has existed for centuries and exists now in the worshiping community.

This same principle is what makes liturgy important. The liturgy is, once again, the community acting, speaking, thinking outside the narrow confines of personal failure and victory, sorrow and joy. It is the community joining together in all these things, and others like them, yet doing so in a shared experience of wonder, love, and praise in the presence of God. In the liturgy this shared faith and experience becomes a shared language as we speak together of God and to him.

This shared experience is never more profound and poignant than in the confession and forgiveness of sins. When we publicly and in unison confess our sins and weaknesses, our sorrow and resolve to repent, we are reminded of basic truths and experiences shared by all who join us in this act. The basic truth is we are are all a sorry, tragic mess. In liturgical, shared confession there is no place for one to consider himself better than another. And there is no room for one to consider himself worse than his brother, his sister. We are confessing together, "We have sinned." We are saying to God, to the world, and to one another, "We are miserable sinners." Though sobering, there is something profoundly joyful, even humorous about this.

When we are told in the Gospel that God has mercy on sinners, that he will forgive sin, that he has no delight in judgment, but delights in mercy, we find a corporate, communal relief and joy. Because we have been honest to God, because he has responded in an affirmative "Yes!" through his mercy in Jesus, we can, together, start over. We are, together, given a new beginning, a beginning like the first fresh day in Paradise!

In that freshness, we are ready to hear God speak and he speaks to the gathered faith community in the reading and preaching of his Word, the Bible. As forgiven souls we can hear him speak to us in correction without despair, in instruction without discouragement, in affirmation without pride, and in hope without presumption. This is what preaching is in the hearing community. It is the speech of God informing and fortifying us for a new week in the world.

Having spoken to us, God calls us to share in the mysteries, the rituals of the family. This is the meaning of the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist. Every family has its rituals and the family of God is no exception. In baptism, we are together reminded that our inception in this family is marked by this ritual. We have put on the family dress. We have been clothed with the family insignia. Being dressed for dinner, in the Eucharist we are brought to the family table for a family meal where our Lord presents himself to us as the bread and wine of our sustained life together. Both are marks and seals of his covenant of grace, his pledge to remember us in mercy and faithfulness. And these are shared mysteries. It is not just "Jesus and me," but Jesus and us, and more, Jesus and all who share our faith in heaven and in earth!

In all these acts of worship, humility, and renewal, we are aware of the persons around us. They have faces that we can recognize from a block away, they have stories that have become ours as ours have become theirs, they have graces that encourage us, and they have sins and weakness that aggravate us. But, they are our people, our family. Each time we meet together we are aware of our love for them. Each time they disappoint us, we are challenged to forgive them. When they move or die, we are grieved at our loss of them. When new people appear, they are welcomed in love and anticipation of our shared life together.

Having received our worship, having forgiven our sins, having spoken to us in his sure Word, having renewed his covenant with us in family mysteries, having strengthened us in a revisitation of love, God does more. He sends us out under his benediction of grace and peace to live like real human beings in the world and in a new week replete with possibilities! "The LORD bless thee and keep thee, the LORD make his face to shine upon thee. The LORD be gracious to thee and give thee peace." Whatever the week holds, whether triumph or tragedy, we face it together in the assurance of God's blessing, care, protection, presence, and peace! Not a bad way to start a new week!

Now, it should require no special pleading to make the case that this approach to Christian spirituality is a healthy, happy, and holy alternative to the CFG ("Crazy for God") condition I have denounced earlier. Augustine prayed, "Lord, save me from that evil man, myself!" We need to be saved from our personal evils, but we also need to be saved from our tendencies toward insanity, especially religious insanity. The weekly, communal worship of God is his most important means to effect this aspect of our salvation.