For coming up on thirty years I have been hauling my carcass all over the world doing mission work of one kind or another. I just love it. I have been on medical missions, construction missions, rescue missions, disaster response missions and disaster recovery missions and have been greatly blessed each and every time I have gone out. For me it’s just as natural as breathing, and I can think of no better way to spend my life than wandering the planet from time to time doing the Lord’s bidding; but I also understand that for many the allurement of mission work is more of a mystery than it is a miracle.
Someone asked me the other day what do you do when you are over there? That I can answer without so much as a moment’s hesitation. We work. We play. We worship. We live our lives with folks different and yet the same as we. We play in an expanded sand box with fellow Children of God. To the best of our ability, we fix it if it’s broken, sooth it if it hurts, bandage it if it’s bleeding, and pray over everything.
Over the past couple of years, my team has been working in the Baltic country of Latvia.
Specifically, in Latvia, we are working to help restore the Church which was devastated when the “Iron Curtain” fell upon it, crushing the institution, confiscating its wealth and property and outlawing its practice.
Through building repair and restoration, we help to rebuild the tradition of the Latvian Methodist church. As the old buildings are brought back to life, traditions, dormant for seventy-five years, have space to grow and blossom once again. Practices outlawed and oppressed for decades are given expression. Institutional memories are revived as structures revered for generations are restored and repopulated with the memories of past matriarchs and patriarchs of the Latvian Church.
Through the simple acts of pouring a concrete slab, refinishing an ancient pine floor and refurbishing a long-neglected fellowship hall, the spiritual lifeblood of the Church is replenished. The fire is fed a bit more kindling, and the Kingdom of God here on earth and in Heaven is strengthened a bit.
Will the actions of a few good-hearted South Carolinians in Latvia be of any lasting value? I honestly have no idea. I do know that whatever we build in a physical sense does indeed have a life span and that in time the floor will need refinishing, the room will need refurbishing and the concrete will become stained and cracked with age. Such is the way of things.
I also know that Christian love has no half-life, for Christian love flows from Christ, and Christ will never tire. Christ and His love are eternal, so the love shared between our Latvian brothers and sisters and ourselves will remain in place to support, nourish and enliven us all forever.
As to why some are drawn by God to exotic places while others are drawn across the street to do the Lord’s work, I have no satisfactory answer for those who question such things. I know it sounds a bit pedestrian, but the Lord has His ways; and I know without a doubt that while I cannot fully understand, He does, and that is good enough for me.
“I don’t know about you,” said the older man with the crow’s feet around the eyes and the gray feathering its way through his temples, “But I am about as tired as I can be of the morals flaming out around me. It seems to me that no matter where I turn, the rights and wrongs have gotten all twisted up. I mean, when I was a chap none of this catting around would be put up with, especially not in the high places; but now it seems that nobody cares anymore about anything or anybody but themselves.
‘If it don’t bother me, who cares?’ That’s what they say. Darn fools.”
He shifted a bit in his seat to keep this part or that from falling asleep, and then dove back into his attack.
“I think I know what the problem is. I think I know why we’re in such a fix, and I think I know how to cure it. You see it’s like this. We are all alone out there. We sit around, side by side, and don’t even talk to each other. We fuss that the morals of this great country are headin’ south, and nobody’s listening. If I’ve heard it once I’ve heard it a thousand times, ‘Those politicians and judges are taking my morals and my God and throwing Him and them in the trashcan, and I don’t know what to do about it. I try to raise my kids right, but the schools and the T.V. try to raise ‘em wrong and win most of the time. What’s a fella to do?’ That’s what I hear, and I think I know where we’re going wrong.”
“You see it’s like this. Back in my day, just before the Great War we were all doing pretty well. Yea, we heard about the war in Europe and all, but that wasn’t us. That was them and what were we supposed to do about it? Now some among us had kin over there, and they would cry out that their kinfolk were being killed and we needed to do something to help.
Now we weren’t about to go get ourselves killed for their kinfolk, they weren’t our kinfolks. They were their kinfolk, so let them go die for em, not us. But one day, December 7th as I recall, the Japanese flew into Pearl Harbor and bombed our boys. They killed our people. They attacked us. Now it wasn’t their kinfolk, it was our kinfolk being killed, and we had to do something about it.
On account of that horrible day though, something strange and wonderful happened. Because of Pearl we came to life. There weren’t no more blacks, or whites, or men or women. There was just us, and we had to do something to protect our nation and our people. In the flash of a torpedo we turned from a nation of “I” into a nation of “we.” It wasn’t "I" have had it with Hitler and his crowd,’ it was "we" have had it,’ and after that we knew we were going to win. After the “I” became “we,” we had ‘em. Multiply that "we" a million times, and there was no stopping us.”
“Now we haven’t had a Hitler to deal with for a while now and, like men have always done, we’ve fallen to our old ways. We are once again a nation of “I.” I want my rights. I want my way. I want to do whatever I dern well please, thank you, and I don’t care what you, or God or anybody for that matter has to say about it.
But, friend, my God and my morals are under attack just as sure as Pearl was and so are yours. And unless we come together, not as black men and women or white men and women, but simply as men and women all created in the image of God to fight the forces of evil which have the upper hand in this great nation of ours, it appears the United States of America will sink just as sure as did the Arizona.”
“It’s high time that we stop letting the forces which rule the airways and the government tear at the fabric of our nation and at our God."
When they take prayer out of my school, they take it out of yours. When they say that the murder of infants is ok in my town, they say it is ok in yours. When they attack me and my beliefs, they attack you and yours and until we come together as one, to stand up to the evil forces that try to divide us, the destruction will continue. Until we can stand side by side as one, against the forces of selfish desire and immorality, such things will continue to flourish. Until we link hearts and minds and proclaim in one voice, ‘We have had enough,’ this great nation of ours will continue to decay until there is nothing left but the aftermath of evil.”
For a moment, he looked a bit bewildered, then he shifted in his seat once more to relieve this part or that, and with tired eyes he stared out across the crowded Appleby’s and sighed a sigh of resignation with the shadow of fear and longing crossing his weatherworn face.
That old man and I sat next to one another waiting on a table in Appleby’s way back in 1998. Nineteen years ago. I had never met him before, but he asked me what I did for a living and when the word preacher came out of my mouth, his bomb-bay doors opened and out came his story.
I feel sure that he is long gone now, but the truth of his words remains.
I don’t know about you, but I love this country. To quote Merle Haggard, “If you’re putting down my country, man, you’re walking on the fighting side of me.”
You see, I have been blessed, as many of you have, to see a great deal of the rest of the world; and trust me, there is no place I would rather live than right here in the good old USofA.
It is truly the greatest nation to ever grace the planet; but we are in danger.
As love of God and country is being and in many cases has been replaced with love of self, the decay has indeed continued. As we near the tipping point, it is time that we as brothers and sisters in Christ and fellow Americans, stand shoulder to shoulder against the forces that would destroy this wonderful country of ours.
So, on this Fourth of July celebrate. Wear the red, white and blue proudly. Sing the anthem with enthusiasm and pride. Pray for our wonderful country and those who lead it, and do so in public. Let the world see that you are unashamedly Christian and that you are proud of the nation in which you live.
I am amazed when I think that simply writing these words of God and country will be considered radical by some; when to me they are just good old ordinary common sense. (A rare commodity these days)
Happy 4th of July Folks!!
At last I had found peace; peace and quiet and a calmness of spirit that I hadn’t felt for a long time. It was late summer back in 2006, and my ordeal of prostate cancer was almost over. At least the surgery and acclimating myself to the changes in my life were nearly over. That being said, I was still struggling a bit mentally over the physical alterations brought on by the situation, but spiritually speaking I had reconciled myself to the current state of affairs and God’s hand in all of it. The hand of God was evident in the calming of my fears and in the help received as I struggled with my all too evident mortality.
I was traipsing through one of my favorite locales and one that I had last visited the day before heading down to Charleston for the aforementioned surgery. On that day, five or so months earlier, I had gone over to one of my childhood haunts, the old Porth pond, to do a bit of illegalish fishing, a little reminiscing about the joys of childhood and to try and forget about the coming day.
The illicit fishing went well as I recall with a couple of nice largemouth and a catfish or two making their reluctant way to the shore. Being little more than a child myself, the reminiscing was pretty successful as well, but the forgetting part left me wanting.
On this day however, five months later, I was doing fine. The dreadful fear was a thing of the past. The surgery and its side effects were fading, and life was good. My heart was light, my spirit was rising, my body was on the mend and my stringer was filling up with shellcracker and bream. The nightmare was coming to a close.
There are times in this life when the Lord grants His children a glimpse of the peace and joy that awaits them over the Jordan, and this was one of those moments for me. I have always pictured Heaven as a well-stocked farm pond.
Relishing the closing of the day, I listened as the night sounds began. I heard a faint croak over to my left, deep in the reeds, and that was all that was needed for innumerable frogs to start calling to one another in the dusk. How they sort out who is who, I will never know. The crickets and other creepy crawlies of the swamp were in romantic moods themselves, and together they joined one another in their shadowy mating calls.
In some this weird symphony might produce misgivings, but in me it produced calm.
As the sun sank and the shadows lengthened, I daydreamed of summer evenings past. Other such evenings when similar sights and sounds had held me close and comforted me; and as I dreamed I cast my bait about nonchalantly in the hope that perhaps there was one more nibble to be had before the darkness drove me homeward.
All was shadows and silhouettes when to the right and a little behind an old stump the water swelled, wrinkling the surface and sending out the telltale concentric rings which indicate prey. With a stutter step to the left to clear the pathway and an instinctual movement of the wrist I sent my deep blue 6” Culprit rubber worm sailing through the night air with pinpoint accuracy toward the center of those rings. As it took flight, however, an uneasy feeling of impending doom filled my breast for as I moved, a silhouette, previously hidden in the shadows, emerged from the darkness.
The ominous form of a feathery dreidel was hanging from a low lying branch. In slow motion I watched as my projectile entered one side and exploded out of the other. In an instant that silhouette, so peaceful a moment before, shattered into a thousand pieces, all angry and searching for a place to vent. It took a moment, but as one those hornets, now homeless by my hand, discovered the fishing line and following it to its origin, they set their affections on me.
Over the years I have faced black bears, razorback hogs and belligerent parishioners with an aplomb envied by many, but when those enraged hornets balled up and headed my direction, any pretense of confidence, manliness and macho I may have once possessed vanished in an instant. Throwing my Zebco 33 to the side I hiked my skirts and headed for the water just as fast as my legs would carry me. I just about made it too, but when salvation was at hand my foot happened to land on a snake. As the startled snake proceeded to dance about under my feet, and I did all but levitate trying to get off the thing, my mind quickly assessed the situation and realized that this particular snake was harmless. It was just a big old brown water snake.
While all of this was going on, the hornets had paused to watch the show; but just as soon as the abovementioned snake broke free and slithered into the pond, they renewed their advance. As they made their final approach and got into attack formation, my mind said “Jump in. They can’t get to you there,” while my fear said ‘Say what? There’s a snake in there.” “It’s harmless!” shouted my mind. “Don’t care!” countered my fear.
My moment of indecision gave the hornets all the opportunity they needed, and taking full advantage, two or three drove that advantage home into one of the more fleshy parts of my anatomy while another particularly adventurous character managed to get up underneath my fishing vest and go to town. Now that the lesser of two evils had been established, I dove in hat and all.
Later, cautiously emerging, I found that the hornets had headed home to rebuild, the snake had vanished, licking his wounds elsewhere I suppose; and my hat was nowhere to be found. So, with a knowing grin, I sighed and headed home: my peace shattered, my pride tattered, and my rear-end stinging like the devil himself.
Life can be like that sometimes. To quote John Denver, “Some days are diamonds, and some days are stones.” I contend that most days are both. I suppose the key is to make all of the diamonds and all of the stones count, no matter what. They are all gifts from God above, and gifts are meant to be enjoyed. So cherish the peace and laugh at the turmoil. Enjoy the life God has given you, no matter what. You only get one chance, one life on this earth. Enjoy it, make the most of it, and make every day count. Produce no regrets, only cherished memories.
That’s just a little free advice to be taken in a time of need.
I have a short list of folks with whom I wouldn’t want to tangle if my life depended on it. There are only four individuals on the list, and surprisingly enough, they are all of the female persuasion. That being said, in all four cases, given the occasion of a confrontation, I would scream like a little girl, tuck my tail between my legs and head for the hills running like a scalded dog. I would go further in my description, but I’m running short on clichés. Suffice it to say, I wouldn’t mess with any of them, and I would advise you to do the same.
In no particular order these esteemed ladies are: my mamma, Bobbie Jean Tharpe Rowell; her mamma, Margaret Jane Jenkins Tharpe, better known as Granny; Granny’s neighbor to the left, Miss Irene (Irene stands alone in needing no further designation; Irene is just Irene); and my Great Aunt Doshey on my Grandpa Tharpe’s side.
My mamma was a 95 pound combination of angel food cake, devil’s food cake, sweet buttermilk and Texas Pete. She was the consummate Southern lady with excellent manners, beautiful features, a soft lilting voice, the memory of a pachyderm and a spine of tempered steel. My mom was a beautiful red rose nestled among thorns, where the fragrance was intoxicating, and the thorns had barbs. To love and be loved by Bobbie Jean Rowell was a gift from above, but you messed with my mother at your own peril.
My Granny was the woman who bore and raised my mom. It seems to me that should be all the description needed. Granny passed down her strength, determination and self-reliance to my Mom. Mom added a bit of spice and a pleasant refinement to the mix; but given the need to stand firm, the granite that was my Granny would shine through as the flint and steel that was my mom. I’ve said before that God gave me a jewel when he gave me my Granny, but that jewel had a sharp edge or two that were best avoided.
Miss Irene, my granny’s next door neighbor, was a sight for terrified eyes. She topped out at around 5 feet tall I figure, and trapped inside those 5 feet was 200 pounds of spring steel, raw hide and gristle. Covering her frame was a dirty gray house frock she wore day in and day out without exception. Apparently she didn’t believe in washing her hair all too often either; she figured it would mess with her mystic, I suppose.
I’m not one to dream very much, but should Miss Irene venture into my subconscious, I wake up in a cold sweat every time. That being said, on the late July afternoon when that hot grease on my Granny’s stove caught fire and burned down the kitchen, Miss Irene was the first one on the scene to help as she could.
She hugged my Granny, helped her hide the tears and took a terrified eight year old off of Granny’s hands and fed him a fine meal, as I recall. Then she stood solid and firm as a dear friend and fine neighbor to my Granny. You really don’t know a person until you live through a crisis with them.
I will always describe my Great Aunt Doshey as a high haired woman of the Old South. That woman had a jet black beehive hairdo until the day she died. I believe they had to extend her coffin a bit to accommodate the thing.
Aunt Doshey stood five feet nothing while standing on a three foot ladder; but with that beehive hairdo of hers, she could try out for the Harlem Globetrotters.
Aunt Doshey was a charter member of the local Pentecostal church, so according to her she could never tell a lie. Nonetheless she swore up and down that she never used hair color despite the fact that her eye brows were as gray as Stonewall Jackson’s uniform, while that smokestack of a hairdo was always black as soot.
Despite that trivial moral lapse, she did have a couple of redeeming qualities. She had a really nice backyard with good trees for climbing and soft dirt for digging, which was appealing to a young boy. Her most alluring quality in the eyes of a little kid however, lay in the fact that she was addicted to Coca Cola. Every now and again, when Granny wasn’t watching, she would let me sneak one. You see Coca-Cola and such frivolities were forbidden on Sunday afternoons according to my Granny’s take on the Ten Commandments.
Speaking of the Ten Commandments, Aunt Doshey was a proponent for all of them as well as the rest of Deuteronomy, Chronicles one and two and every other last ounce of the Good Book.
You see Aunt Doshey was a died in the wool, hard-shell, Bible believing, slain in the Spirit, washed in the blood, Church of God Pentecostal; and you simply did not want to cross her. You just didn't. She was unwavering in her belief, vocal in her convictions and swift in her wrath.
Now while I must admit she did scare me a bit as a child, in retrospect I truly appreciate some things about her. I respect and admire her strength of faith in Jesus Christ and His saving grace. I appreciate her fearlessness when doing battle for the Lord, and I also appreciate her total reliance on the Word of God as written in the King James Version, circa 1611.
Now considering my appreciation of the NIV, she might have a bit of a problem with me in one area. You see, to her it was King James or nothing.
She had been taught and believed that the NIV, ASV, RSV, and any other V other than the KJV were heretical, and that anybody reading them was in imminent danger of the wrath of God descending on them right then and there. After all if the King James was good enough for Jesus, then it was good enough for everybody.
All that aside, I sure wish we had an army of Aunt Doshey’s these days.
So let me ask you. Is there an Aunt Doshey hidden deep within? Where do you stand when it comes to the Kingdom of God? Do you have the strength, compassion and conviction of my memories? I pray that you do for the world is in desperate need for the Savior you have to offer.
1 Corinthians 15:58
58 Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.
Love you, Aunt Doshey!
Love, Pastor Tony
I have never cared for neck ties. Of all the clothing in my closet, only the neck tie has nefarious intent when it comes to my personal well-being. My shoes and socks protect my feet from the pebbles of life. My shirts and pants protect me from the elements, as well as from embarrassment. The older I become, the more I appreciate clothing. Even my underwear wards off chafing; while the noble hat sheds rain and protects my noggin from the rays that would do me harm. The entire ensemble is there to protect my person and give me style; everything that is, save the neck tie.
I would be reticent to meet a mind so twisted as the one that first tied a hangman’s noose around a man’s neck and called it fashion. To say that such an action was merely passive aggressive is a gross understatement. This is just a wild guess, but I believe the individual guilty of such an odious act just may have had a problem with men.
My mother liked ties. My father, like Adam before him, dutifully wore the things with a smile on his face and a “Yes ma’am” on his lips. In me, however, that pairing produced a Cain of sorts when it comes to the neck tie. From an early aged I kicked and bucked when the reins were placed on my neck. I have always hated the things. Perhaps like Cain before me, I consider them to be a mark of subservience.
That being said, as a kid I was indeed subservient to my mother; that was back before the inmates took over the asylum, so I wore ties to church ‘most every Sunday. A nice little clip on job as a rule; but when Mom was filled with evil intent and determined to punish her little Cain for his sins, real and imagined, she would bring out the dreaded bow-tie. It was usually a light blue or green plaid.
I remember the last time I wore one of those things. I was seven years of age or so, as I recall. It was early Sunday morning in Panama City, mid-July and hot as blazes. My Granny Tharpe was on edge, borderline frantic and not to be messed with. She had just spent a good thirty minutes wrestling with a seven year old, and as I stood there dressed to the nines replete with patent leather shoes and a light green bow-tie she thought she had me cowed. So she gave me a stern look and said, “You stand right there. Don’t move. I’ll be right back.” She then went out to take care of her own ablutions and other preparations for Sunday service.
Well, while she was otherwise occupied, I took the opportunity to go out back and dig for worms under the catawba tree. I reasoned that Wednesday was on the way, the mullet were running hot and heavy, and you can never be too prepared for fishing.
Even Granny knew when she was beaten. When she found me, instead of wearing me out like I deserved, she just started laughing; one of those old satisfying deep belly laughs that were her hallmark.
When she finally caught her breath, she told me that I should be ashamed of myself; which I wasn’t, took a look at her watch and grinning said “Let’s go!”
She brushed off what dirt she could, decided to leave my hat behind, which was crushed beyond recognition, and then she asked me where my tie was. I told her that I had buried it, which was answered with a knowing grin. You see Granny preferred dungarees to dresses any day. Then Granny, with her disorderly boy and kindred spirit in hand, headed for Saint Andrews Southern Methodist Church at a good clip to catch the first hymn.
When we arrived at church, who do you think was standing, hands on hips, on the front steps? It was my Grandmother Rowell, and she didn’t share Granny’s lackadaisical view of social convention. In other words she was confounded by my appearance.
She looked at me as if I was some sort of vermin, a salamander or slug maybe, but not her grandson. I actually believe she thought that I had crawled out from under a rock or something. She gave Granny, whom she considered the responsible party, a first rate scowl which was answered by yet another grin; and into church we all went.
Grandma was righteously indignant. I mean what would the town think of her grandson coming to church for all the world looking like Huck Finn? What would they think of Bill Rowell for letting his son go out in public like that; and heaven help us what would they think of his Mother? She was horrified, and I suppose rightfully so. The optics were all wrong. It didn’t look good. People were going to talk. Reputations were on the line.
Granny, on the other hand, didn’t care. She had managed to drag a seven year old cantankerous boy to church without bloodshed; and what condition he happened to be in upon arrival, was of little or no consequence to her.
When Mom found out about my exploits; in a flash of Christ-like behavior Granny stood between me and my just deserts. Not only that but she talked Mom out of making me wear a tie, bow or otherwise, from then on. The Lord gave me a jewel when he gave me my Granny.
The lesson is pretty simple in this one. Don’t make excuses when it comes to the worship of your Lord and Savior. Christ doesn’t care about Prada, He cares about presence. So be there.
I was seven or eight years old at the time, and goodness gracious it was hot as blazes that day. Shoot, it was so warm on the Florida panhandle that Wednesday afternoon that Satan himself sought the shade of a cypress and a tall glass of sweet iced tea. The world wavered under the heat, but if you squinted just so and held your cap at just the right angle to block the sun, you could see the far off forms of two little boys through the heaving air, one with an old Zebco 33 in his hands and one with a single shot .22 caliber rifle resting comfortably on his shoulder. They were standing at the far end of the Dead Lakes dam wondering what to do next.
I held the Zebco and my companion, Roy, had hold of the .22, and at the time we were debating the best way to shoot a snake. I voted for a shotgun at a considerable distance; but Roy said the old .22 was best at any distance provided, of course, you knew what do with it. It was that last little jab that raised the hackles on the back of my neck. Eight years old or not, I considered myself a darn good shot and pretty close to fearless on top of that; and such a statement challenged both assumptions.
The catalyst for this conversation was swimming seventy or eighty feet, give or take a few, off to the left of us out in a little lagoon of sorts. The water was flat and mirrored in the midday lull, so it was easy to make out the markings of the moccasin as he thrashed in the water desperately tying to escape. He looked to be somewhere around three or four feet long, a little chubby on account of the ample food supply and more than a little upset with his current situation. He had recently made a decision that had not gone his way.
You see Roy and I had been fishing together all morning, and by the time noon came around we were growing a little restless and looking for some mischief to get into. Roy’s dad, whose name I can’t recall, owned the little run down motel, bait shop and pool hall located a quarter mile or so from the far end of the dam. We were headed that way in search of opportunity when Roy noticed this moccasin swimming away from the bank.
Now I was proud of my casting ability and Roy knew it, so it didn’t take much prodding to get me to see if I could hit that moving snake with the rubber worm that was on the end my line.
If I say so myself, I did pretty good. I dropped that lure right on the top of that snake’s head while he was moving at a pretty good clip. As it turns out the snake took offense at this, whipped around, sunk his fangs into my rubber worm, got one of his fangs caught in the weed guard of my number 2 Eagle Claw weedless hook and was stuck fast.
The initial debate was between cutting the line and shooting the snake, but Roy would have none of that. So without another word he ran down to his house to get a rifle. When he came back with the .22 I was a little dubious. I mean having an angry, offended moccasin on the line is bad enough, but having an injured, angry, offended moccasin on the line raises things to a brand new level.
All of that considered, the debate ended and the competition began when Roy uttered those now infamous words, “… provided of course you knew what do with it.”
Since I had the Zebco and Roy owned the rifle, he got the first shot, and up until that moment I truly thought I could shoot. As he raised the rifle to his shoulder he was transformed. He was no longer a skinny little boy with an oversized rifle in his hands. The two became one as with a single fluid motion he raised the rifle, sited his target, and relieved the tension on my line.
I was truly impressed, more so I might add than Roy’s mamma was. She came running at the report of the rifle, fully intent upon tanning our hides for scaring her to death. That being said even she had to give begrudging respect to her son for a shot that left me with nothing more than a rubber worm, a couple of fangs and a brand new appreciation for Roy.
As I finish this story I am looking for a moral in it. When I lay down to go to sleep last night, I was wondering what to write this month, and this old story came to mind. When I awoke it remained lodged there; so I figure Christ wants it told.
I will leave it to you to discover what He wants you to get out of it, but I can tell you this. I will think twice before I go to picking on a moccasin again. The next time there might not be a Roy around to bail me out.
James 1: 13 – 15 1st Peter 5:8
“Didn’t you see the signs Son? What are you doing in my yard?"
“What sign?” I stammered.
He was 250 pounds, if he was an ounce, and he didn’t look particularly thrilled at my being there.
“The sign that says, ‘Trespassers will be fed to the hogs.’”
He paused to let that sink in. His face gave a little spasm that lifted his upper lip just enough to hint at the yellowish and brown teeth behind the veil.
“THAT SIGN.” He said.
“Well, no sir, augh, ah, I didn’t. I truly apologize, but I didn’t see it.”
“Then you’re either blind or stupid. Considering you’re down this trail this late in the day all by your little lonesome, I would guess stupid.”
I had been hiking down the “River Trail” in the Congaree Swamp National Park for four hours or so. The “River Trail” is the lengthiest trail that the park has to offer, and on account of that, it is seldom used.
Most folks consider one mile or less a walk and everything beyond that a hike. Hikers consider anything under five miles to be a walk and everything beyond that to be a hike.
The “River Trail” comes in at about eleven and half miles, and since most visitors to the park either don’t have the time necessary to make the trek or the wherewithal to handle it, it is a wonderful hike for those who hunger after solitude. I fall into that category, and I hike on account of that condition.
To the best of my recollection, it was either late July or early August several years back. It may have been a bit later. On second thought it was. It was during the “Dog Days” of summer.
You know the latter days of August or sometimes just when September starts. Those cool autumn breezes have winked at you but not settled in yet, and then in a last ditch effort to assert itself, summer summons up one last hot breath that startles and stifles the world.
It was at that time that I was working my way down the trail. It was wonderfully quiet that day. Even the dragonflies and mosquitoes considered flight too much of an effort in the heat. There was a slight breeze, but other than that the world was at rest, and I was in hog heaven.
You see I spent all of my summers down on the panhandle of Florida with my grandparents when I was a kid, and the panhandle of Florida is perpetually in a “Dog Days” state. So I wasn’t hot that afternoon. I was a young’un again.
I suppose that may have been one of the reasons I wasn’t paying particularly close attention. I had been hiking for a while like I said, oh maybe six and half, seven miles before I noticed anything askew.
Now the floor of the Congaree Swamp is made up of whatever Mother Nature chooses to put there; and Mother Nature isn’t always one to keep a clean house. Basically the floor of the Congaree Swamp is a wild chaos of disorderly fallen limbs, downed trees and cypress knees, along with a wonderful assortment of roots running every which-a-way.
What I had failed to notice as I wandered through the woods dreaming of days gone by were the occasional patches of orderly chaos hidden within the regular, run of the mill chaos of the swamp.
Here and there it was kind of like somebody was looking for something. Occasionally there was dirt pushed up and scattered around with the limbs and leaves pushed to the side. Now I knew no one had done it, after all considering its condition, I had little doubt that I was the only person who had been down that particular trail for a long while.
The truth is I actually knew what it was, but I wasn’t concerned. These little patches are all over the swamp, so I paid little attention.
The increase in size and frequency was gradual, so gradual in fact that I failed to notice it until when rounding a blind curve a slight whiff of musk hit my nostrils a millisecond before that primordial sound hit my ears.
If you have never heard a full grown razor back hog with malice on his mind say grace before his evening meal ten feet from your face, then I pray you never do.
I still find it amazing, but with a herculean effort I managed to keep my wits about me and remain relatively continent at the same time. At least I didn’t scream like a little girl, pick up my skirts and run back down the trail willy-nilly.
Somehow I knew that to do so would be considered rude by the hog and with feelings hurt, he would chase me down and kill me without a second thought or the slightest twinge of guilt; so I stood my ground, weak knees and all.
Razor back hogs don’t look like regular eating hogs. They look like hogs from the wrong side of the tracks. Hogs that you don’t want to mess with. They’ve got little beady eyes, spiked hair, switchblade tusks, black leather jackets with studs and an attitude to match the outfit.
Now I had a .22 caliber pistol with me for protection, against what I don’t know. Instinctively, however, I knew that to shoot this hog before me with a .22 caliber pistol would act more as an inspiration to him than a deterrent, so I chose the middle ground and shot a tree. That hog didn’t even flinch, actually he looked more insulted than startled.
After that he looked me over a couple times, decided I was more bone and gristle than meat and not even worth the effort. So he turned away disgusted and sauntered back down the trail the way he had come, grumbling under his breath the whole time.
After he was out of sight and his grumblings had faded, I discovered that remaining upright was not an option for me at that moment. So I decided it might be a good time to sit down and rest for a spell, for a long, long spell.
I tell this little story as a simple warning for the coming New Year.
The world and the sin it traffics in can sneak up on you, if you’re not paying close attention. The changes are often gradual, barely noticeable most of the time. A little compromise here, a small compromise there and then one day you round a blind curve, and there it is: a compromised life, a witness diminished, a faith in crisis.
As this New Year dawns, keep your eyes on Christ, and Christ alone. He will keep you from falling prey to the world. He will protect your faith, strengthen your witness and make your life more wonderful, more joyous than you could have ever imagined without Him.
I sat a little back from the group, watching. My chair had one front leg a bit shorter than all of the others, so I had to lean back on two legs to keep motion sickness at bay. This set me back just enough to observe without interfering too much. It gave me the proper vantage point and just enough cover to pull out my Nikon with the 55-200 lens attached and take some sly shots of folks when they weren’t aware.
For those unfamiliar, proper photography is not a matter of ISOs, F stops and white balance. It is so much more than proper composition, lighting and lenses. True photography is greater than getting a moment in time down on film, or digitized as the case may be. Photography is a thing of the soul. A true photographer doesn’t take pictures; they capture emotions, and moods, the things of the spirit.
A posed photograph is good for posterity and remembrance, but a photo taken at the moment the mask comes down is art. Now the mask can be worn by fellow human beings or Mother Nature for that matter, but the mask, the walls we so carefully build, often hide the true beauty of the soul within.
In this particular case, my soul searching was made easier by the surroundings and the company kept.
I was leaning back in that old red leatherette chair while sitting in the upper room of the tiny Tasi United Methodist Church. Tasi UMC sits about six or seven kilometers down a dusty, dirty, shake you till your fillings fall out dirt road, way out in the countryside of Latvia.
Latvia, by the way, is an absolutely beautiful country. From the regal cities filled with architecture to dazzle the eyes, to the beautiful countryside filled with ancient farm houses, picturesque outbuildings and charming people to warm the heart; Latvia is an oasis of peace in a world filled with chaos.
Nesting in the middle that countryside is Tasi UMC. As is true of most Soviet era structures, the building which houses the church is somewhat nondescript. Intentionally built to promote sameness and discourage individuality, the old brick building projects a cool, lifelessness at first impression. That impression, however, belies the warmth and the life to be found in the upper right quadrant of the place; for it is there where a small but Spirit filled group of believers meets for worship and fellowship.
We, an UMVIM team, had come to help in any way requested. You never know on these trips what exciting treasures await you, or what type of work you will be taking on. The work is seldom what is expected and the treasures often arrive unanticipated which makes them cherished all the more.
The Tasi church has been blessed to obtain the downstairs flat underneath the current worship space. They are working toward making it a safe gathering place for the entire community. Our task was to form and pour the concrete floor to begin the process of renovation.
It was the second Sunday we were there. After a truly delightful worship service we had a lovely time of fellowship with the small congregation. The room for the fellowship was a little tight though, so it took a bit of effort for everyone to fit in. But to the sound of scraping chairs, laughter and the occasional “pardon me, are you ok?”, we all managed to get in there. A table had been set with cake, cookies, coffees and other delights. We all sat down intermingled, personal space a thing of the past. We joked and laughed together, broke cake and cookies together, drank coffee together, and together we did a creditable impression of the Tower of Babel. It was wonderful beyond words.
Due to a couple of late arrivals, and my Granny’s admonition that you always give a lady your seat; I found myself slightly out of the circle nesting in that old red leatherette chair with the bum leg. I had the prefect vantage point to witness joy and love as they emerged and formed.
The expressions and the feelings ran the gambit. The old hands, those folks who have gone with me forever it seems, were wide open with fully exposed hearts drinking in the joy, giving the Holy Spirit free reign. Others, newer to the trade, sat and pondered the emotion and Spirit filled atmosphere of that little place and wondered where they fit in. They struggled with the mask as it slipped from its moorings exposing perhaps more than was comfortable. Our Latvian friends held the same expressions as did we. Some excited, some expectant, some cautious and some pensive, but all joyous.
I was sitting just out of the current, observing, when an older woman of the congregation caught my eye. I can’t recall her name to my sorrow, but she was the artist, the musician, the hippy of the church. Her hair was long, gray and slightly disheveled; her gaze a bit unfocused; her dress brighter than all the others and she was wise. She made space on the bench beside her and motioned for me to come and sit with the crowd. She then gently took my camera and laid it aside. What a blessing it is to be loved.
Free from observing, free from leading, free from the mask, I allowed myself to blend into that joyous group, and what a tonic it was. It was a soul freeing moment and a gift from God for which I will forever be thankful.
I wish the same for all of you.
I suppose John Steinbeck was right. Some stories can’t be told; they must be cajoled and teased into existence. To force the issue only tatters the wings and takes away the magic. Yarns are like moths and butterflies that way. Let a little boy reach out to satisfy his curiosity, let him touch a wing ever so gently and that mystical, magical covering of dust is troubled; and that luckless moth will forever be earthbound from that ill-fated point on.
To examine a moth one must induce it to crawl up on a leaf, a knife blade or a finger to be carried to the eye. The delicacy of the creature demands a gentle touch. To do otherwise is to destroy it, and that, my friend, is a sin. Stories, like moths take a bit of coaxing from time to time.
Many years ago I was a custom cabinet maker, and my workshop was housed in a picturesque old two story barn just up the hill from my home. I built my shop on the lower level. I wired it and walled it, but I left the old heart pine floor alone chiefly because the gaps between the boards cut down on sweeping and the accumulated sawdust underneath provided nice bedding for the myriad critters that shared the barn with me.
Every morning I was greeted by my menagerie not with squeaks or howls, but with a fusion of wild, exotic and somewhat organic odors. Rats and snakes, bats and squirrels and a host of creepy crawlies sought shelter and comfort in that old barn, as did I. I loved being there.
Inside the shop up against the wall was an old staircase that gave way to the upstairs. At the top of the thing was a small opening, just big enough to walk through if you ducked. I closed if off during the winter to stave off freezing, but in the summer I opened it up to enjoy the cross breeze and to air out the place. Romantic or not, South Carolina heat and the leavings of a menagerie do not make good companions.
One late summer’s afternoon I was working on a raised panel or something of that sort over at the bench when I began to feel as if I was being watched. My instinct drew my eyes to the top of the stairs where a young, adolescent cat sat placidly giving me the once over.
The thing looked like a gang member: wiry, distrustful and dangerous. He was mostly white with a few gang tats, one over his left eye, one on his right foot and the final one on the very tip of his tail, all done in prison black. He was wearing a “Well Buddy, I suppose we have to share this barn, but don’t mess with me, I don’t like being trifled with.” expression.
When our eyes met he didn’t flinch or twitch or bolt, as most feral creatures would. He held contact for a second or two, yawned luxuriously, as if to remind me that I was beneath his contempt, and then rising he ever so slowly sauntered off.
His is a story that I cannot tell. It took me a year or two just to get him to stop looking at me like that, and try as I may no matter how much I coaxed, or flattered and no matter what delicacies or delights I placed before him, that little cat shared that barn with me for years and always managed to maintain his sovereignty and distinctly haughty air.
Now while I would be hard pressed to tell his story without an excess augmentation, I can tell you of Tom.
Tom is a Latvian cat. Well, actually he is just a little kitten, pre-pubescent at most. In any case he is young enough and innocent enough to trust without question the Americans who came to visit his home country and invade his privacy and his lodgings. Tom is the house cat of the hotel Pie Jāņa Brāļa where my latest UMVIM team was housed in Liepaja, Latvia during the two weeks we remained in that beautiful and peace-filled place. I will expand upon that wonderful country later, but for now, let’s stick to Tom.
Tom is the polar opposite of his barn dwelling counterpart. Tom is everybody’s friend. He carries with him an air of love and acceptance. His default position in life is one of peace to and empathy for all creatures, no matter what their origin or attitude.
Like my friend from years past, Tom’s coat is based in white, but carries within it a smattering of various gray hues and just a hint of brown, or rather sandstone. In spite of a pair of eyes that are set just a bit too far apart giving him a slightly confused expression, he is a pretty cat, or rather a handsome cat. No, I will stick with pretty as that better describes him or rather her. You see Tom is a conflicted cat. He was given the name of Tom by a passing child when he first arrived at the hotel. It wasn’t until after the name stuck that anyone took the time to discover his true gender, which as it turns out is female. By the time of the discovery, Tom was Tom and no girly name would fit her. So Tom is it.
Tom is a people cat; and at first I thought Tom was an indiscriminate, flighty people cat jumping on any knee that would have her, but as it turned out she was just testing the waters. She was searching out a harbor, a place where she could rest safe and secure, and she found her resting place on John’s knee. Cats know cat people.
Every morning during breakfast she would cruise up and down the tables until she found John, then she would jump up on his knee, curl up in a tight little ball and drift off to sleep while he gently stroked her from head to tail.
She knew she was safe there. She knew she was accepted there. She did try to step out of bounds and steal a tidbit or two from time to time but with one quiet word from John, she would put her head back down and return to sleep.
Late at night I would wander down to the dining room, sit on the couch there and play an old guitar to sooth the nerves. When Tom heard the first note she climbed up on the back of the couch and using my left shoulder as a step, she jumped down onto the guitar, settled into the hollow and purred herself to sleep; but I played second fiddle to John. He was her favorite. She only had eyes for him when he could be found.
At first I wondered what the Lord was up to coaxing this story from me. To be honest from moths and butterflies to feral cats and knees it was a bit of a mystery. Interesting enough I suppose, but what’s the message?
As I was finishing the writing, the simplicity of the message became clear. That is that in this troubled world there are times when a child of God and the Church of God simply need to be a safe harbor for those seeking shelter. There is a time to offer rest and rest alone from a world gone mad. There is a time when all that is needed is a loving embrace and a place where the lost, be they barn or knee dwellers, can feel safe enough to just curl up and rest.
Of course the Word of God must be preached or the lost will never find their true home, but they cannot listen without rest.
The Holy Scriptures declare that rest is not a thing we do, but rather it is a place where we reside. Let us be that place for the lost, for the troubled and for those living in fear. Let us as the children and the Church of the Most High be a place of peace and rest.
“How can you eat with those things?” I asked.
“What things?” he queried.
“Those hands; they are nasty. Why don’t you go give them a wash before you sit down to eat dinner? There are ladies present.”
Granny laughed at that; but technically she was a lady and grand one at that and sitting alongside Granny was Joan, my Native American kin. I could never figure out the relation, but I know there was one because everybody told me there was.
Joan had the definite air of a lady about her; early forties, proud and reserved and beautiful to boot. She was part of the trio from the old green house across the street, John, Joan and Jenny respectively. Jenny was a step or two younger than me, Joan was her Momma and John Deal was her Daddy.
It was forty some odd years ago, and I was sitting in Granny’s old kitchen staring at John over a plate of fried chicken, field peas and hoe cake. His hands were all black lines and dirty fingernails and standing out in relief against the glass of iced tea he held, they looked a little dangerous to me. So being the spontaneous teenager I was, I blurted out my objection.
John laughed, “Son I have been washing these hands for over forty years, and this is as clean as they get. When you work in grease, it becomes part of you.”
And it surely had. On closer inspection his hands had a gray look to them, and the little lines running hither and thither looked like a map of one of the black water river systems in Florida’s panhandle. I can’t even begin to describe the fingernails, but he was right. All evidence to the contrary, they were clean. At least nothing had rubbed off on the hoecake he was eating.
John grinned at me and held out his hands, palms up. With the dark lines running every which-a-way they looked for all the world like a road map. The road map of a blue collar life.
As it turns out John was right about the cleanliness. He died a few years ago of a heart attack, not the ptomaine poisoning I figured would get him.
Those old marked up hands of John’s came to mind the other day when Mary and I stepped into a dilapidated old building painted like a carnival ride to eat lunch. We were down in Charleston, and Mary had read of Martha Lou’s Kitchen, and we decided to give it a try.
There is a mystical moment experienced twice a day on the waterways of the coast. It rests in between the tides. For a twinkling all is calm. The waters are still for an instant, the world is at rest, and then the relentless pull of the moon heaves the water in another direction. The magic spell is broken, and movement begins once again.
Martha Lou’s stands on that mystical spot in Charleston. On one side the tourists, the hustle and bustle and the noise of commerce and on the other side the everyday lives of the locals. In between stands Martha Lou’s, caring for both with equal care, genuine friendliness and old timey eating.
As we settled down into our mismatched chairs, the cool feel of the aged Formica table top was somehow comforting. I gazed around at what had to have been an old porch at one time in its life, but now it was closed in and filled with six or seven tables, chairs of all shapes and sizes and table cloths from different eras, if my guess is right. The walls were covered with family photos, many faded with age and spotted with who knows what. The atmosphere was filled with the aroma of what can only be described as Granny’s old kitchen.
There was hint, almost a mist of Crisco[i] in the air. Not the oil, but the white kind from the can. Floating within the mist rested the afterglow of chicken and fish and some wonderfully mysterious something that had lain for brief moment in the fryer. Cabbage and collards finished the symphony. Oh, there were other instruments, other aromas scattered about, but they all played second fiddle to the fryer, the cabbage and the collards.
I don’t know about you, but for me some foods taste better in a place that has been around long enough to have some grease up under its fingernails. I like to eat in a place that has seen something, not just heard about it. Martha Lou’s has seen some things.
As Mary’s hair danced in the box fan’s stream, I gazed down at an old galvanized pipe running along the wall beside our table. It had to be galvanized because it had enough layers of paint on it to go back to the years before pvc. I followed it as it traced its path, turning this way and that into the kitchen. It reminded me of the lines on John’s palm, and I got to wishing that that old pipe could talk.
There was a young couple there. They looked like newlyweds. At least they were friendly enough to be newlyweds; and for some reason, impetuous youth I suppose, they had stopped in to this little run down place for a bite. I bet they left with a memory.
When our food arrived, I was taken back to my Granny’s kitchen, and the memories flowed through my mind like a gentle stream. I felt comforted somehow. That old feeling of being safely wrapped in the family fold tugged at me.
I hated leaving that place. It made me feel good.
I figure there is a lesson in there somewhere. Perhaps it is as simple as remembering that for one person the past brings comfort, and for another the past brings discovery. For one person the old ways resurrect memories of the past, and for another revisiting the old ways produces memories for the future.
It seems that as of late many within the Church of Jesus Christ have decided that the past is of no use and only the future has value. Some have decided that the truths of our forefathers, the traditions of the family, the old ways are simply stains that must be scrubbed away with new thought and new theology.
What many fail to understand is that the old ways, the old traditions and truths are maps that trace the way from the Cross of Jesus Christ to where we find ourselves today. To ignore them, to discount them, to offhandedly declare them relics of little use is to display imprudence at the very least. To cast them aside is to lose one’s compass and direction.
The old and the new are not necessarily mutually exclusive. They can sit side by side and enjoy the same meal, one for comfort and rest and one for discovery and zest. The key is to sit down together and enjoy the meal.
8 Taste and see that the LORD is good; blessed is the man who takes refuge in him.
[i] The sign said peanut oil, but it smelled like Crisco to me.