Monday, December 24, 2012


If you look at a map of southern Oklahoma and north Texas, you will see the Red River winding like a ribbon from the Panhandle of Texas towards Louisiana.  And almost in the middle of the bottom of Oklahoma you will see a little tit of land, a pure peninsula, that is the southernmost part of Love county.  That is where I was raised and there are parts of that country that I know as well as the room I am now sitting in.

My earliest introduction to that country was as a small boy in the presence of my grandfather, daddy, and uncles.  But, by the time I was ten or eleven, I was exploring it on my own, glad of my freedom and solitude.  When I was still eleven, I was permitted to carry my great-grand-daddy's shotgun on these lonely tramps.  It was an interesting gun:  a twelve gauge double-barrel with hammers, one of which was gone forever.  It kicked like a mule and would have taken off most of my head if mishandled.  The point was that, unlike a .22, it had a limited range and was therefore less likely to injure unsuspecting neighbors or stock.    I had been instructed in a stern school concerning gun safety:  where and where not to point it,  how to treat it as always loaded, and how to safely cross fences with it.

Fences were a ubiquitous, omnipresent reality in that country.  Most of the farms and ranches were only a few hundred acres in size, so fence lines had to be coped with by any budding frontiersman.  They were all "bob warr" and they were to be treated with respect.

The country itself was a mixture of cultivated land and woody hills.  The cultivated land was often scarred by deep gullies, "canyons" we called them, where mismanagement of the red, sandy soil had caused serious erosion and loss of arable land.  Some of these were forty feet deep.  The wooded hills were often rough country, and in certain locales outbreaks of limestone made them rougher.  There were creeks, spring-fed branches, and, in every direction except north, "the River."  These natural boundaries and obstacles were simply "there," and if you had good sense you treated them with a respect that was several notches higher than that shown to fences.  There were some things that you just didn't mess with.

There weren't many "posted" places in the area and you were generally welcome to cross fences and go about your business as long as you behaved on the property in a neighborly way.  There were a few grumpy old men here and there, and some were purported to warn off unwanted visitors with a shotgun blast to the sky.  But,  most of us never saw a fence we wouldn't cross if a hound went that way or if it would cut a half a mile off a tired trudge home.

The natural fences of river, canyon, thicket, etc. were a different thing altogether.  The thing was what it was and you respected it or prepared to suffer the consequences.  In this sense, the natural obstacles were "feared" in that they were deeply respected.  This fear was taught from childhood and when childish rashness tempted you to test the boundaries, you came away from the experience with a deepened sense of respect- if you survived.  Some didn't, but this only deepened that sense of reverence when a spot was marked by a tragedy, as in "that's where that Foster boy drowned," or "that's where old man Sims broke his back."

I have been thinking lately about the differences between man-made fences and creation boundaries, and I have concluded that much of the the way I think and behave ethically and theologically has to do with my early training in Love County with its fences and natural obstacles.

In my view, there are Divine boundaries that are to be feared and respected.  They are there, always there.  People who mess with them, no matter how many near misses they are accounted, finally get messed with or messed up.  This is at the core of the Ten Commandments:  they are there to protect sacred realities, whether in regard to our relationship with God and His world, or in regard to my neighbor in this world.  They are immutable and inexorable.  When respected they keep us from folly.
When violated, they expose us to endless misery.

On the other hand, there are man-made boundaries.  I honor them as far as respect  and neighborliness require.  I have a few myself, though I am careful not to impose them on others.  But, when someone attempts to put these things on par with the Divine lay-of-the-land, I just might be found climbing a fence on some dark, warm, coon-hunter's night.

Monday, June 18, 2012

A Journeyman's Training, Part II

There was a time when I would have said that the most important part of my training was books.  Books have been massively important in my life; this is obvious from what I have said in part one of this story.  But, to live in books is to live in the world of ideas, to live inside one's own head, and this is a large part of what is wrong with the Church in our time and place.  Life is more than ideas.  Life is about human beings shaped and formed by ideas.  But, more fundamentally, life is simply the gift of being in the community of others.  So while my formation has come from ideas, these ideas have most profoundly molded me from my intimate interactions with other people.  These are my friends.

I have through all these long years, forty-five or sixty, been surrounded by people who loved me, cared for me and shaped me.

Of course, of first importance are my family and the family I came to have because of Kathy, my wife.  I hope to write about Kathy's family, and especially about her noble father, the Rev. Paul Cooke, in a future post.  I have already written much about my own family.  Those I wish to remember in this posting are friends outside my family.

From the beginning of my Christian life and to this day I cannot adequately express my debt to the Rev. Clyde Billy Spann.  A native of West Texas, a USN vet, Baptist pastor and high school English teacher, Clyde Spann befriended me, a young, eager, and ignorant boy, from the time he met me in the mid-sixties.  His love for language and books attracted me.  (He was also a rigorous disciplinarian; he gave me the worst paddling I ever got in school, when such things were still countenanced.)  He gave me books, encouraged my writing, and counseled me in my personal life.  He also introduced me to the Christian Faith, baptized me, and gave me my earliest training in doctrine and preaching.  He used to patiently sit in the empty sanctuary of the Thackerville Baptist Church, while I, the preacher-boy, stood in the pulpit and practiced my sermons before him.  He gave endless hours to me and bought me numberless hamburgers, while talking and listening at the Curtwood Restaurant in Gainesville, Texas.  He taught me to tie a tie and gave me clothes from his own fine collection (he was an immaculate dresser).  He took me once to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and on the same day bought me the first seriously scholarly work I ever read, Shepherd's Christ of the Gospels.  When I got into some pretty serious trouble, he helped me out, restored me, and encouraged me to carry on.  (And when he went through some particularly bad times, I was there visiting him in the Veterans' Hospital in Ft. Worth.)  Some of the things I remember from him are

"Humility, Tommy, in its most basic sense, is teachability."

"The same sun that melts wax, hardens clay."

"Always stay with the (Biblical) text."

He called me, "the Poor Ignorant Soul," publicly and privately.  This reflected the tough sense of humor of his West Texas origins.  I never took offense at this, you might say, because I was too ignorant.  But, he admired my gifts and feared where they might lead me without correctives.  He would never let me read other people's sermons, because "you have the ability to develop your own style and that might be 'clipped' if you read Spurgeon and others."  He hated the Scofield Bible and when I secretly bought one, I had to sneak it around him like it was a girlie magazine.  He cautioned me about theological extremes and once when he heard me preach quite powerfully on the cry of dereliction (My God...why hast thou forsaken me?") thanked me for the sermon and then quietly said, "God was in Christ, Tommy, reconciling the world unto himself."  It was this same quiet way that he often used to correct and direct me.  He was remarkable for his learning and wisdom, highly educated for his time and place.  He, more than any other, gave me an early love for scholarship.  He also taught me to speak and write correct English.  He had a wonderful sense of humor, but could, like other West Texas Baptist preachers, cuss if profoundly provoked.  He hated pious talk and what he contemptuously referred to as "Euphemisms!"  He lived an worked in obscure and sometimes crushingly discouraging circumstances, but with an intrepid faith and wry sense of humor.

My whole life has been formed around the mold he gave me in those early years.  He had a liberal mind, though he was a conservative man, and this, too, he imparted to me.  He watched my career, loved my preaching, helped me financially, assisted at my wedding, and never did anything his whole life but encourage me.

In his last years, he enjoyed nothing more than studying the Biblical text, especially the New Testament in the Greek.  We would talk by phone occasionally and he would ask for my recorded sermons.  Years passed between our last talk and when I called him on the final occasion.  His wife, Janie, answered.  We visited a while and then I asked for "Brother Spann."  "Oh, Tommy, didn't you know?  Clyde died late last year!"  I was dumbfounded.  I still miss him.

To have had Clyde B. Spann as my mentor was one of God's finest and most lasting gifts in my life.  A blessing be upon him in heaven, his memory, and upon his living children and grandchildren.

I think that "Poor Ignorant Soul" is a good attitude for the Christian, at the beginning, the middle, and the end of our journey.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

A Journeyman's Training, Part I

So how does a Southern Baptist preacher boy become an Anglican priest?  It's a long story, as the old saying goes, a story that covers forty-five years of spiritual pilgrimage.

I was baptized into the Christian Faith by the Rev. Clyde B. Spann at the Thackerville Baptist Church, Love County, Oklahoma in August 1967.  Very shortly after that I began to speak in churches as a Baptist "preacher boy."  I was as dumb as a sack of hammers.  Dumb, but educable, as one of my friends used to say.  But, I was a winning personality, with a natural ease before a crowd and a gift of gab.  I had always been an avid reader, with a thirst for knowledge and my daddy's steel-trap memory.  Rev. Spann, who was also my high school English teacher, began to put books in my hands.  One of the most important of these was W.T. Conner's Christian Doctrine.  Little by little, I began to understand something of the Christian Faith I was trying to preach.  I also memorized long passages from the Bible.  My public speaking skills were being honed to a sharp edge.

As I entered Oklahoma Baptist University in 1970, I read myself into a very high Calvinistic theological position, indeed, an almost hyper-calvinist position.  These were the days of great foment in the Southern Baptist Convention and its institutions of higher learning, with men and women teaching in the universities and seminaries things contrary to the faith held by most Baptists.  Under this perceived attack on my own faith, I began to read the work of the founders of Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia.  This work was grounded in a high view of the Bible's inspiration, as well as a solidly Reformed theology.  This helped me to survive the subtle attacks on the Bible's trustworthiness that was the daily classroom diet at OBU at the time.

In time, I tired of the battle and decided to attend the Moody Bible Institute.  Here, I was plunged into an environment that was just the opposite I had known in Oklahoma.  At MBI the emphasis was upon evangelism, Bible teaching, and missions, all based on the unquestioned authority of the Bible.  Little by little, I began to suffer from a overload of this emphasis.  Here we were, in the middle of one of the world's great cities, a treasure house of history, art, and culture, and it was as if nothing existed but the enclave at 820 North LaSalle Avenue.

And then I discovered Francis and Edith Schaeffer.  I began to devour their books.  Here is what I had been looking for and had failed to find both at OBU and at MBI.  Here was a faith that affirmed on every hand the Bible, but simultaneously celebrated the goodness of creation and of creation pursuits.  It was only a matter of time before I had read myself out of the Bible college ethos.

But, Chicago also did something else for me.  In the loneliness and homesickness of that bleak Lake Michigan winter of 1972-73, I was broken in a way that I had never been before.  My practical Christian work assignment from MBI meant that every week I traveled on the subway to preach to the denizens of a run-down hotel on the North Side of Chicago.  Here I began to learn to love the people I was preaching to almost as much as I loved preaching.  I spent many hours at the Art Institute and began to love in a deep way the great art of the Western canon.  I began to read outside the fundamentalist box I had been nurtured in.  When I drove away from Chicago in the Spring of 1973, I was a different young man from the country boy who had arrived nine months earlier.  Theologically, I had come to understand that the creation mattered and that creation pursuits like art and work mattered as much a salvation pursuits like preaching and teaching.  More importantly, I had come to see that people matter.

For the next 33 years I would work out the implications of all this in pastoral ministry in two Baptist churches.  During the earliest parts of these years, I would be a trenchant critic of much that I have come to embrace.  But, little by little, I would come to have doubts about it all.  The doubts were the result of seeing two central things clearly:  What we were doing was not working and what we were trying to do had already been done.  All of this would be the result of two influences.

Monday, April 23, 2012

"I'm Back and Rarin' to Go!" Shinbone

Mr. Deahl and the Bees by E.D. "Shinbone" Smith, Bomar, Oklahoma, formerly Indian Territory or "IT"

J.A. Deahl was my near neighbor for over twenty five years.  He was a stocky feller with a grim face that always surprised you when it broke into a grin; you wouldn't have thought that face had a grin in it, let alone such a grin.  He had been through the worst part of the Pacific conflict during the War, so there was a lot to be grim about.  But, like most of them boys that went off to the War, he came home, married, raised a family, and went to work.  He didn't set around feeling sorry for himself and he seldom talked about his war.  But, it had marked him, for sure.  There was always a brutality about him, whether it came to raising his kids, or getting rid of a passel of cats on his place.  As a neighbor he was fine and dependable, minding his own business, and willing to do anything in the world for you, like most of us in the community.  He was shy about conflict with anybody, especially his neighbors. wouldn't want to mess with him.

When J.A.'s kids was young- there was six of them- a feller from over around Pilot Point, Texas bought the place next to J.A.'s.  Now, this feller was an amateur bee-keeper and he placed his hives on the fence line right up next to the Deahl place.  After a while there wadn't a day went by without one or more of them Deahl kids getting stung by bees.  This went on for a while and finally Mizz Deahl laid down the law:  "If you don't go an' talk to him about them bees, I'm goin' to."  So, reluctantly, J.A. went to visit his bee-keeping neighbor.

He found him out with the bees.  He stood watching for a spell until the man noticed him, standing there.

"Howdy!  What can I do for you?"

Quietly, J.A. said, "Purty day.  Them bees is workin' fine."

"Yessir, they are.  What can I do for you?"

"Lot of blossom this year.  That'll work good for them bees and for you, I reckon."

"Yessir," said the neighbor, "it shorely will." And after a pause, he said, "Look, you can see I'm busy.  Is there something I can do for you?  I ain't got time to stand around and natter."

"Well..." drawled J.A., "actually, I was wondering if you could move them hives?  Them bees have been stinging my children, and the old lady is kinda miffed about it, not to mention the kids.  I thought maybe you could move them hives away from the property line."

Now the neighbor jist stood there for a few seconds, glaring at J.A.

"Jist who the hell do you think you are, I ask you, coming over here on my land and giving orders about my property?"

Quietly, J.A. said, "I don't believe I was giving orders.  I was trying to be polite and neighborly.  I'd jist like my kids to be able to play in their own yard without gettin' bee-stung."

"You can jist go straight to hell.  And, while you're at it, you can git off my property," the neighbor said, with husky anger in his voice.

"Sorry you feel that way," said J.A. "Adios."  And with that he turned and slowly walked back to his place.

When he got home, he went to his shop and looked around for a few minutes, then went to the house to get the keys to his pickup.

"Where're you going?" the Missus asked.

"I'm going to Marietta to see a man about some bees."

Before Mizz Deahl could say, "Do what?" he was out of the door and on his way.

When he got to town, J.A. went into Woodson's Hardware and Feed.

A young clerk asked, "What can I do for you today, J.A.?"

"I need a yard of that zinc hardware cloth, an eight foot extension cord, a roll of solder and a can of flux, and a jar of honey if you've got any."

"You will have to go next door for the honey, J.A., but I'll have these other things ready for you when you get back."

When he returned with his honey, everything was bagged and ready, the hardware cloth rolled into a tidy roll.

"Watch them sharp ends on that wire, J.A., they're boogers," warned the clerk, sucking on his thumb where one of the "boogers" had got him.

"Ain't they though," said J.A.

"What are you up to, making a chick brooder?"

"I'm a going into the bee-keeping business," said J.A., and before the clerk could comment, he had gathered his parcels and left.

When he got home, he took his stuff to the shop.  With the hardware cloth he made a cylinder approximately eighteen inches tall by twelve inches across.  He cut the female end of the extension cord  off, split and stripped the wires and soldered them to the bottom of his cylinder.  He plugged in a longer cord and carried the business end of it out to about twenty feet from the fence line where the neighbor's bee hives were.  Then he rolled a wooden cable spool to the same place.  He went and got his cylinder with its cord and the jar of honey.  Taking off the lid to the honey jar, he placed it on top of the spool and then he placed the cylinder on top of that so that the jar was in the middle of the wire cylinder.  Then, last of all, he plugged the new cord into the longer cord leading back to the shop.  He looked at the whole thing for a minute and then called the kids.

"Y'all git in the house for a while."

"Oh, Papa, do we have to?"

"You do like I told you."

"Yessir!"  And one by one they retreated to the house.

Going to the porch, J.A. told the Mizzus to keep the kids in the house.

"What are you up to?" she asked, but J.A. said nary a word.  He jist set down in a rocker on the porch and stared at his contraption.

After two or three cigarettes, the dead bees in and around the wire cylinder were about six inches deep.
Directly, he heard a shout and watched as the neighbor came and gripped the top wire of the fence, staring in horror at his dead and dying bees.

"Deahl!  D-e-a-h-l!" he wailed, "What in hell are you doing?  You are murdering my bees!"

"Deahl! Deahl!" he kept calling, while muttering to himself, "Oh, damn, oh damn, oh double-damn!"
By the time J.A. sauntered out to the bee killer, the neighbor was in tears.

"What do you mean," he sobbed, "You are murdering my bees!"

Quietly, grimly, but finally with that surprising grin splitting his face, J.A. said,

"Oh, no, this ain't murder.  Them bees is committing suicide!"

By nightfall, the hives had been moved to the other side of the neighbor's place.

I loved old J.A.  He was fine feller.  But, you wouldn't want to mess with him.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

On Writer's (Painter's) Block or On the Normality of Dormant Periods in the Creative Process

My dear friend and patron,

So, you have not yet got the painting.  Neither have I.  Nor can I promise a date.  (I shouldn't have been so optimistic when you called last month.)  I would send you your deposit back, but I don't have the money- either.

The fact is that I am in long period of creative dormancy, commonly called "block," i.e., "writer's block," "painter's block," et cetera, ad nauseum.  I have learned to avoid the term, "block," though; it sounds so much like a complaint of the lower bowel.  It is not a disease, though it causes dis-ease.  It is more like the fallowness that the earth goes through each winter.  It is part of the natural flow of things.  Or the natural unflow of things.  The river is frozen, and while the current still runs deep under the ice, the surface is lifeless and impenetrable. Sorry that you were the one to get caught on the floes.  If it is any comfort, I am here with you, trying not to mutter and cuss, waiting for the rifle-shot cracks that signal the breakup and the coming of spring.

There are plenty of reasons for this winter.  You may remember that your commission was given when I was in the midst of a turbulent career-altering set of circumstances.  These were things that I had no control over.  Believe me,  I was black and blue before I finally gave up and admitted this.  Then there was the move.  ("First, the shove, then the move," I had almost said.)  Eight months later I am still looking for painting supplies that were before so organized that I could have found them in the dark.  Then there was the "settling in"- deceptive phrase.  Who can adequately describe the fears, anxieties, four o'clock in the morning terrors, humiliations, embarassments, intimidations, and countless little daily insults of settling in to a new and strange place.  It's more like "unsettling in." Add to this the work load of my daily job, the new things and people to learn, the sheer exhaustion at the end of the day.  There is little doubt that all of this has knocked my inner-life into a bumper-car experience of disorientation.  And when the inner-life goes, the creative life goes with it.

You may well accuse me of bitching and whining.  I will not argue with you.  Though I think that I am simply trying to explain to you what I have already explained to myself:  that is, how I got to where I am and why you have not yet got your painting.   I can go on and knock something out for you,  but I won't be pleased with it and neither with you.  Be patient with me as I am trying to be with myself.  We are not talking here about laziness, or procrastination, or unethical dilly-dallying.  We are talking about creativity and the tug and tow of its tides.  As Victoria Nelson has written in her book On Writer's Block, "The creative experience can and must be guided, but it cannot be controlled" p. 35.

So, again I plead, be patient with me and try to remember how much you (used to) love me.  The painting will come.  Of that I am sure.  Unless I am hit by a bus or felled by one of the many medical foes of a sixty year old man who loves tobacco, alcohol, caffeine, and barbecue.

Cheers and jeers,

Rabbi Tbone

Saturday, April 7, 2012

In Lent

The way is long.
The climb is hard.

But pain
Pulls down-
Body and spirit
Pull down
On the upwards climb.
The summit is yet ahead.
I cannot see it.
Who have been there
Tell me it is ahead.
They tell me:
"Keep on!"

This I know:
The mists part
From time to time.
I glimpse
The landscape below.
I have inhabited
That landscape
For many years.
I have known its parts.
Parts I know well.
All its parts
I have loved.
Knowing it well
Does not mean
I know it whole.
(We can love completely
Without knowing wholly.)
Even now,
In the glimpses
Through the mists,
I see its wholeness
Without knowing it whole.

The way is hard.
The climb is long.
There is joy in the pain.
There is peace in the downward view.

Holy Saturday, 2012