Monday, February 28, 2011

Fear of the Dark

The child will fear the dark
And all the fears the dark contains.
The monsters the imagination makes,
The things unknown and unimaginable.
Such terror is real
In the presence of unreal things.

The dark holds terrors, too,
For those no longer young.
Their fears are fears of real things, things known,
Things half-forgotten and buried half-alive:
The foolish choice, the cutting word,
The act of passion or wrath.
Such terror is real
In the remembrance of real things.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Suggestions for Receiving Criticism

1. Realize that criticism is necessary for our growth as human beings and as Christians. Joe Bayley used to say, "Criticism is the manure in which the Lord's servants grow best." The Book of Proverbs is full of encouragements for us to receive criticism.

2. If the criticism is valid, then it is good for us.

3. If the criticism is invalid, it cannot harm us. Indeed, it may help us in a variety of ways. For example, Some of us are temperamentally, "thinned-skinned." This is not, in itself, a bad thing. Such people are, frequently (not always), more sensitive to others. But, to remain thinned-skinned is a character flaw. Receiving criticism, even when it is invalid, can help toughen us up.

4. Criticism helps us to see things more three-dimensionally. It helps us to get perspective. "He he trusts his own heart is a fool." "There is a way that seems right to a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death."

5. Criticism received can keep us from mistakes and disaster. There is a story told about the Indian women who were plundering the dead after Custer's defeat on the Little Big Horn. While Custer's body was not mutilated as the other fallen soldiers on the field, an old woman was seen pushing a sewing awl into the dead General's ears. When asked what she was doing, she replied, "Maybe he will listen better in the next life."

6. Develop a spirit that not only receives criticism when it comes, but invites and welcomes it as necessary for a better life.

7. Develop a spirit of self-criticism and a circle of friends who will lovingly criticize you when necessary. But, make sure these friends understand your perspective and personality. Flannery O'Conner said, "I am willing to receive criticism, but only from those who understand what I am trying to do." This is wise.

8. Do not let your own self-criticism and that of others degenerate into an unhealthy self-hatred.

9. Be slow to criticize others, but faithful to do so when it is needful and helpful.

10. Be open to the criticism of God by his Word and Spirit. "Whom the Lord loves, he chastens..." "As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten..."

11. Do what you know to be right with boldness and with little regard for the criticism your actions may generate.

Monday, February 21, 2011


My father, James Patrick Smith, died ten years ago this past Thanksgiving week. I think about him every day and, perhaps because of this anniversary, I have been thinking about him more than usual. He was an intriguing, unique, and polychromatic personality, utterly unforgettable. And this is all the more interesting, given that he acted out his three-score-and ten-years on a small and obscure stage. I have written about him before in fragments, often tragic and sad, so I thought it might be good to give a larger, less tragic and more balanced picture of him.

In the sermon I preached for my daddy's funeral, I said, "Loving Daddy was never a problem to me, but I have spent my whole life trying to understand him." The quest for understanding goes on, though not so furiously as before, even now. Love seeks understanding, especially of those we love profoundly and totally.

That love is rooted in his undeniable love for me. In the young years that I did live with him, we were almost always together. If he could have me with him, I was there. He loved me- profoundly and totally. One can love profoundly and totally without loving perfectly- or let us hope so.

As I have said, my memories of my life with him are memories of being much with him. How many country roads we traveled together. How many country grocery stores we stopped at for cheese, crackers, and cans of Vienna sausages, (cans that had to be opened with a key soldered to their tops) and bottles of grape or strawberry pop. This was lunch. The roads led to "camp sites" of American Indians in plowed fields, or creek banks, or washed-out gullies. There he would patiently scour the ground flicking bits of flint with the walking stick he carried (the stick had been brought back from France by his gas-crippled uncle Pat after the Great War), occasionally stooping to pick up a shard, rubbing away the dirt with his fingers. He was, of course, looking for arrowheads, "projectiles," he sometimes called them. I found the whole thing a bore after a while. But he was there, I was there, we were there together. Arrowheads, "points," "projectiles," "relics"- these were his passion then. I know now that the cotton-headed boy was his greater, even his greatest, passion.

He was given to passion, my Daddy. I wonder if he ever did anything in his life without passion, except to die, and that because the tumor eating away at his brain had robbed him of his ability to do everything he loved to do. When he faced a life without work, without puttering, without thinking hard about things, he simply gave up. Not, that it mattered all that much; the tumor was more powerful than any of us, even than the doctors and the therapies.

Because of this inexhaustible passion for life, Daddy lived big, thought big, dreamed big. He gave of himself in a big way. And, as he would be the first to admit, his mistakes and bad choices were also big. That is the problem with passion. Unless it is wedded to prudence, it can lead to a big mess. And, in Daddy's case, it frequently did.

But, I want to reflect on the bigness of his soul that compelled so many people to love him. Because so many people did. The funeral home in Winnsboro, Texas was full that day, full to the point of standing-room-only. People had come from a two-hundred mile radius to be there and to honor the man in the casket dressed in a new pair of bib-overalls.

Part of the attraction was purely his physical good looks. Over six-feet, tanned, muscular, straight as an arrow, he was a presence. Strong features with a glorious smile, flashing teeth, and sparkling eyes. And a loud, friendly voice. I write in fragments-the charm, the winsomeness, the magnetism can only be caught in fragments.

And he never met a stranger, as the saying goes. He was always greeting people, introducing himself, engaging others in conversation, sometimes despite themselves. I took him to Washington once (Washington was Mecca to him, the Smithsonian the Black Stone), and as we waited in line at the Archives to see the founding documents of the nation, Daddy, in ball-cap, tee-shirt, and suspenders, engaged an, at first, dubious well-dressed couple in a conversation that ended in their telling him all about themselves. He was ebullient, effervescent, talking, shouting, laughing, teasing, and sometimes, darkly threatening. He was all over you and after you left him the fragrance of him remained. I have no doubt that the couple from the Archives still, remember, sometimes, that man from Texas.

He had a way of communicating love for people. He wouldn't have put it that way; it would have offended his sense of propriety. He would say, he "liked" people. Countless people he would describe in his highest praise, "He's a good old boy," or "a good'un," or, "a dandy feller," "She's a fine lady." And if you were his friend, as a handful of people inside and outside his family were, he would die for you-or kill for you.

He ended his formal schooling in the tenth grade to go and work in the oil fields of south Texas. But, possessed of a quick intelligence and a omnivorous curiosity, he made himself an amateur expert in the history of the American West and of Indian ways in his native Oklahoma and Texas. His love for reading was insatiable and his interest in things profound. I learned to read at his side on those country trips as he stopped to read the ubiquitous Texas Historical Markers that dotted Young and Jack Counties. One of my earliest memories is a visit to old Fort Belknap in Young County, where he read and explained the various "relics" to me-at age five. On our Washington trip, I had to pry him away from all the explanatory markers, saying, "If you do that, we'll be here for years." "Well, son, you've got to read if you ever want to know anythang," was his half-humorous reply. He taught me before I learned it again and again in the presence of the formally educated, that formal education does not make an educated person. "The educated fool was a fool before he was educated," he would sometimes say, quoting his own daddy.

He was the best early story teller I knew and one of the best that I have ever known. This was in part, because he was a natural collector of people and their tales. They relaxed with him and shared their lives. This had been true of him even when he was a boy. When his buddies would be playing ball or fishing, he would often choose to ride the old mare over to a family home-place, to eat dinner, and play cards or dominoes with the "old people," and hear and collect their stories. He also loved and collected their "turns of phrase," like the rest of our family. These enriched and colored his speech, and continue to do the same with mine. When we came together in my adult life, it was a time of rehearsing the old stories, made richer and sweeter by their re-telling. They are retold now by my own children.

Part of his genius as a story-teller was his encyclopedic, infallible memory. We would sit and revisit the old people and places and one of us would say, "What was that feller's name?" or "Where did they come from?" and after a moment, one of us would remember. Usually it was Daddy. He remembered where he found or traded for each of the nearly one thousand arrowheads in his collection. He could remember a tree in a vast woods that he had shot a squirrel from sixty years before, and could take you there. To be in the presence of this memory of place was to be on the edges of the visual memory of the plains-mountain men and scouts, red and white, that memorized the vast American West a hundred years before his birth.

Those who remember him remember him as the happy, funny man. He was always grinning, always laughing, always teasing. His stories were replete with humor. This was due in part to his penchant for "collecting" odd characters, discerning the traits that made them odd, and then rehearsing these things to others with a measure of exaggeration for comic effect. Wherever he was the place would ring with his laughter.

It may come as a surprise to some, therefore, to know that he was a deeply wounded, conflicted man. He carried within himself this large hurt, this colossal pain in all the years I knew him. And in some ways he will always be to me, "the Hurt Man." I want to try to talk about that hurt, that pain.

To be continued...

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Landscape of the Soul

"You will want to come home,"
My Daddy said, just before he died.
"You will want to come back
to where you were raised."

Like other things that fathers say
I dismissed it, outright.
I pushed it away.
But, it stayed somewhere
In my head.
He was right.
I was wrong.
The way that fathers and sons

The landscape of childhood
Is the landscape of the soul.
Something like this
I had read in an old book.

And now,
I long for open country
For big skies
Where the sun
Can be seen to rise
And to set
On a horizon clearly defined.

I long for a country of extremes-
A western country where
The drawl is soft.
I crave the booted walk of men
That carries a swagger
Of self confidence
Rarely seen in claustrophobic minds
Of city dwellers
And people of mountains and hollers.
Where a smile of welcome
Not a scowl of suspicion
Meets the visitor, the stranger.
Where the wind makes a sea
Of the tall prairie grasses.
Where the hint of Indian drums
And the memory of buffalo herds
Are in the sod and brushy timber.
Where the rattlesnake is still feared
And watched for at every country gate.
Where the rivers have a muddy cast
And dark, northwest clouds adumbrate
The wrath of God.

The landscape of childhood
Is the landscape of the soul.
My daddy knew this intuitively,
And never read it in a book.
I read it in a book
And learned from life
To trust my intuitions.

Friday, February 18, 2011


When my beautiful, gracious mother died at age twenty-four of cancer, my father was swept into a vortex of pain, anger, and confusion. He lived there for the best part of the next twenty years.

After traveling with his infant son of thirteen months across the country for a while, he finally placed the child in the care of his own parents on a farm just outside Thackerville, Oklahoma. It was in that large, bustling household that I lived for the next four years. It was an environment of love and discipline and I thrived there.

Daddy worked the oil fields, fished the Red River, and, in his own words, "caroused." I have no idea where he lived at the time. There was a succession of girlfriends and working-fishing-carousing buddies. I remember him most in those years by his absences, though a child's mind has a way of distorting and exaggerating the reality of things. When he did come to the Big House, it was always with presents and exciting curiosities. I remember him coming once with a trunk load of writhing, flopping catfish, and I used to love to play with his oil field worker's hard hat. And he always brought his ebullient self, full of talk and laughter and stories.

When he left, I cried, but he always promised to see me again. "I'll see you again next Saturday."

I remember one such Saturday. I must have been three or so at the time. It was a warm day, so early in the morning I scooted my little red rocking chair out on the front porch that extended across the full length of the old house so I could sit and watch the long road for a first glimpse of his black Ford. And there I sat for the best part of the day. When evening fell, my heart began to fall with it. All day I had watched and no Daddy. After supper, I returned to my sentry post until dark, when my "Big Mamma," my grandmother, came and gently said, "He's probably not coming today, honey. Come on in." I do not remember crying or saying anything. I do remember the sense of loss and disappointment that filled my young mind. It would not be the only time that such a thing happened.

Fast forward forty years. I was living in West Virginia and literally traveling the world. My trips to see my Daddy, then living in East Texas, were infrequent, too infrequent.

On April 9th, 1998, Daddy turned seventy. I was, on that day, three hundred-odd miles north of him in Tulsa, Oklahoma, taking part in the ordination service of one of my pupils. It was an engagement that I could not excuse myself from. I had told my Daddy about it all and he was sadly resigned to the thing. I was conflicted and guilty about missing his seventieth birthday, but my sense of duty won out.

Late in the day, after the ceremony and services were over, I phoned him to wish him happy birthday and to send him my love. How was your day? How are you feeling? Who did you hear from? Were any of the family members there?

He was fine. It had been a day much like any other. No one had showed up. He had received phone calls from his brothers and sisters and some of the other children. He and his wife had eaten a dinner of catfish at home, alone. And then,

"I watched the road all day long, thinking you might come," he said.