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.
If any of Eden remains, it can be found in the western quadrant of the Smoky Mountains somewhere along the hiking trails that hover above a place that goes by the name of Cades Cove. As a child my family would make the trek up to the Smokies every other year or so, and the high point of every trip was a ride around the Cades Cove loop.
The loop is an eleven mile long ribbon of single lane blacktop which follows the boundaries of this magical place filled with wildlife unafraid of humans and fields filled with wildflowers unnumbered. The beauty of the place is breathtaking and a drive around the loop will leave the passerby filled with inexpressible awe at the loveliness produced by our Creator’s hand; but if the peace of Cades Cove is to be found, one must rise above. If a quiet soul is what you seek, then you have to take a hike.
As you ascend the northern slopes of the mountains surrounding the Cove and gaze down onto the fields of bachelor buttons and sour weed, then look up and out beyond the poplar and pine windbreaks that trace their ordered way across the fields; the distant mountains appear dreamlike through the ever-present mist. When you reach the place where the mountains begin to melt into the clouds, the white noise of life slowly fades away until nothing but the frantic sound of your heart beating, the rustling of the leaves above and the still small voice of God comes to your ear. It is then that the peace of Eden can be found. For me at least, a hike through the Smoky Mountains is a quiet walk hand in hand with my Lord in cool of the evening.
Yes, if any of Eden remains, it can be found along the hiking trails above Cades Cove.
My mom, Bobbe Jean by name, loved this place more than just about anywhere else in the world, save the back roads and black waterways of the Florida panhandle, her home. The otherworldly wildness of the place seemed to fan an ancient fire within her Native American roots that simply smoldered at other times. Her emerald green eyes would dance with excitement, and her voice would take on a lilting quality as she told us kids of the history of the place. You couldn’t help but fall in love with the Cove when mom spoke of it, for her love was contagious.
Mom did have one strange peculiarity when it came to this place. Like a mother with a favored child among many, she loved one particular tree in the cove over and above all others. It was a massive cedar standing alone and proud in a field on the northernmost border.
The tree had a presence about it that drew your eye and a quiet solitude that threatened melancholy if you looked upon it too long, not unlike my mother in many ways. There was a connection there, mystical and mysterious.
Just before her death, mom asked me to take some of her ashes and place them at the base of that tree. So on the summer after her passing I did just that. Veering off the trail, I stealthily made my way through the field in which that tree stood until I was beneath that venerable old cedar. Mom’s law and order child breaking the rules to fulfill her final wish. I bet she wondered if I would do it; but love compelled me on, only to discover her final wish was for me.
As I turned up and tapped the bottom of that old Ball Mason jar, a fitting container for a country girl, the continuity of life became clear to me. My Native American roots found voice, and somewhere within my spirit the mystical harmony of life and death and earth and Heaven softly soothed my soul, and I was finally at peace with mom’s passing.
My Lord promised her eternal life. I knew she was at peace and content, and I was okay.
My Dad passed away several years after mom, and being a romantic at heart, I decided to place a portion of his ashes beneath that same old tree. So later that summer, in the midst of a rain storm, I retraced my steps and found myself beneath that old cedar once again. Sheltered from the rain by the outstretched limbs, I turned up and tapped the bottom of the little ornate urn, a proper container for a city boy, and mom and dad were reunited once again.
My folks loved each other passionately and with passion comes fire, but little did I know how enduring that fire could be.
I returned to Cades Cove the very next summer to rekindle my memories and to find the peace, once again, that I had allowed to fade. My heart longed for that tree somehow; it had come to represent my folks, their relationship and their love to me.
As Mary and I followed the loop, my anticipation grew. After what seemed like ages, I could at last see the afternoon sunlight slanting across the blacktop indicating that the meadow was just up ahead.
Mary was the first to see it and she fell silent, wondering no doubt what my reaction would be. As I recall, through my astonished haze, a laugh, a deep and satisfying belly laugh, rumbled up and out of me for all the world to hear.
You see, between the time of the reuniting of mom and dad and my return; a well placed streak of lightening had split that tree in equal halves and burned it to the ground. “Blew it to smithereens,” as mom would say. I have to admit though, that the smoldering remains were a fitting testimony to a wonderful couple with a fiery relationship and fierce love.
I returned just a few months ago to the cove and took note of the stump. It has been years, but life remains. There was a hint of green and the beginning of a new venerable old cedar for future generations to admire.
I often wonder why the Lord draws certain memories out of me; why He wants certain things to remain between Him and me and why He wants others told. Well, this time I think I may have an inkling.
The world is in turmoil. Every day it seems that a new horror awaits us, and it fills us with dread and fear. Stability, it appears, is a thing of the past, and now even our beloved denomination has joined in the fray. The goings on as of late have left many of us concerned as to what direction things may take. The security of like minds and like spirits has vanished it seems leaving many afraid and unsure.
When I recall that old stump, I remember a majestic tree standing sentinel for decades. Countless storms assailed it. Winters too many to count burdened its limbs with snow. Untold birds raised their young and sent them soaring from its branches while other creatures sought the shelter and coolness of its shade.
Then in an instant it was gone, through happenstance or providence we will never know; but take heart for from the smoldering remains, new life emerged. Life cannot be defeated. Life will always find a way.
So take heart!
18 And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
Love Pastor Tony
I know that I am not alone in my concern for the Church of Christ, its people and its purpose.
It seems to me that the world is making inroads into the Body of Christ at break neck speed, as of late. I could describe what’s been going on, but there is no need. Even those who agree with the changes will have to admit that Christian norms are being challenged on a daily basis.
I’m not talking about the hot button topics of human sexuality and the like exclusively either.
I am talking about the popular notion that the truths of God are no longer concrete, but
rather fluid and changing. The idea that to speak of morality and following “The Way” is passé. I am speaking of the fact that in many minds social justice trumps the Holy Scriptures.
I am not a militant by any means, but I am concerned that many within the Body are constructing their theologies upon a shifting foundation. The societal pendulum swings
to and fro continually and to attach any permanence to it seems questionable at a minimum.
I fear that the attempt to demonstrate the love of Christ, no matter the circumstance, by declaring that “all is well, Christ will forgive,” or the more concerning parsing of God’s word to suit the situation at hand, is testing the forbearance of our Creator. Yes, of course, Christ will forgive, provided we accept His definition of right and wrong and then confess, and repent of the wrong doing. I love the verse from the book of Job.
21 "Stop quarreling with God! If you agree with him, you will have peace at last,
and things will go well for you.
To declare that the Holy Scriptures must play second fiddle to the whims of society simply because we disagree with what is written in them is a dangerous road upon which to travel.
There, I have said my piece, and I know that many disagree with me; and that is fine.
I am not here to judge, that’s God’s job.
Years ago, when the winds were beginning to change
and I had no idea that the Lord was planning on calling me to the pulpit ministry, I was “pulling” corn on my quarter acre plot near Gilbert. While doing so I absentmindedly pondered the changes taking place at the time and the coming changes that concerned me and a poem came to mind. I would like to share it with you.
It is entitled “The Road Seldom Traveled” and it speaks of a narrow lane. The narrow lane of following Christ no matter what winds or currents we may face in life.
The Road Seldom Traveled
Have you ever seen a byway that’s been alone too long,
with ruts that cut so deep, and weeds that grow so long?
The trees they overhang it, with shadows all around,
and you wonder, “Should I bother, or head on back to town?”
For that road is narrow, dark and long, with stones upon the ground,
and my feet are very tender, and a smooth way can’t be found.
For I haven’t had a chance you see, to toughen up my soles,
against the stones upon the ground or the thorns the weeds may hold.
‘Sides, that road is seldom traveled, and then only by a few.
Who say they met a man upon the way to help them through.
They said His name was Jesus, and strange thing I was told.
He gave them all he had for free. Not a thing was sold.
Now this road that I’ve been travelin’ down is wide and often trod,
by folks somewhat like me, in search of a lesser God.
A God who won’t require restraint, or ask us to obey;
we want a God to save our souls, for something we can pay.
“I’d like two pounds of Jesus please, not enough to weigh me down,
just enough to help me make it through, till I reach another town.
Any less of Him won’t fill the void; any more might make a change.
I like my life the way it is. I don’t want to rearrange.”
So we travel down our roads in life with hope that at the end,
the little bits of good we do, will counteract the sin.
But we could work both day and night, with all the work in vain.
For the only way to reach the light,
is down that narrow lane.
Matthew 7: 13-14 - John 10: 7-9
Many years ago I was driving down an old dirt road in Lexington County when I noticed what appeared to be the nose of an old Carolina Jon boat winking at me from underneath a tattered tarpaulin behind a dilapidated outbuilding; so I pulled to the side of the road to take a closer look. Afraid somebody would call the cops if I lingered too long, I made the quick assessment of the boat’s nose and its’ tail, which was sticking out of the other end of the tarp, and headed on down the road. From what I saw the paint was all but gone; the transom was rotten; the bottom had some suspicious cracks in it; the seats were mildewed to within an inch of their lives; and from the evidence at hand, it appeared that a large bird had been nesting in the tree above it. Basically the thing was a lost cause. Nonetheless, being the eternal optimist, I decided then and there that if I could figure out a way to sell the idea to Mary without an excessive amount of shuckin’ and jivin’, I wanted that thing.
As many of you know, in my previous life I was a cabinet maker; and I just knew that if I were to gain that prize I could make it into something. I had dreams of restoring that neglected old boat and once again making it the fine watercraft I knew it to be.
To my surprise Mary didn’t object too much. She figured it would keep me out of the house, I suppose. So the next day I went back and knocked on the door like I owned the place, and when an elderly gentleman came to the door, I made him an offer that he could have easily refused, but didn’t. So for the sum of fifty bucks and a smile, I brought home my prize.
Well, that fifty bucks grew as I began the work, but it was worth it. I turned that fourteen foot disaster area into a thirteen foot beauty. She sported a new transom, new seats, beautifully restored woodwork, and a nice paint job. The bottom was repaired and strengthened with fiberglass. A depth finder, compass and other neat gadgets were installed and the icing on the cake was a brand new Mercury 9.9 outboard motor perched on the new transom.
I stepped back when it was finished and knew that my Grandpa Tharpe would be proud. His imagined pride soon worked its way into my chest, which puffed out a bit, and head which grew a bit; and for a while there, I was a mess.
Finally the day came when I was to take the boat, now christened the “Margaret Jane” after my Granny Tharpe, up to the river to try her out. I headed up to the Little River Landing just past the traffic circle in Saluda County. As I drove in I noticed that heads turned as she passed by, and I was fit to be tied. I was ready to bust, as my Granny would say. You would have thought that boat was the head cheerleader, the homecoming queen and valedictorian combined, I was so proud.
So I strutted in, paid my two dollars, made sure the seats were set right, the trolling motor was secure, the battery was hot and the Pepsis were cold. I backed her in, and she sure was a sight. As she came off of the trailer she sat high in the water as pretty as you please for about thirty seconds and then with the sun glinting off of her bow, she went down like a lead weight.
To my dismay I watched as she quietly settled down into the water. Time tends to slow down at times like that. Your blood turns to molasses in your veins, your feet become lead, your mind struggles to take it in, and you just stand there stunned. My stupor was short lived though for with a muffled thump, a slight grating sound, and a satisfied gurgle or two she settled to the bottom and came to rest.
When the buzzing in my ears subsided, I noticed sounds behind me and as I turned around, I discovered I had an audience. Five or six fellow fishermen were behind me watching the travesty unfold with what appeared to be expressions of detached curiosity on their faces. When they noticed that I had noticed them, however, they being fishermen and boat lovers themselves sprang into action, and within just a few minutes my soggy masterpiece was back on the trailer.
As the water cascaded out of the drain which I had so carefully drilled in the bottom of the transom, a fisherman by the name of Jimmy held up the drain plug and with a pleasant smile informed me that in the future it would be best to plug the drain before I launched the boat. I thanked him and muttering under my breath, headed home.
It has been about fifteen years since that incident but every now and again I run into Jimmy and his sly grin reminds me that pride does indeed come before a fall.
I tell this story to make a simple point. Namely, it doesn’t matter how pretty your boat is, or how proud you are of it, if there is a hole in the bottom, and you don’t plug the hole, trouble will soon follow.
The same holds true for the spiritual life. So check your seams. Is your spirit leaking out and letting the world in to invade your peace and tarnish your joy? If so then shore that leaking life up with prayer and study and doing the things of God. Life is way too short to spend it sitting on the bottom looking up.
The upward angle of my memories reminds me of just how young we are when our brains begin to crinkle; when thoughts, feelings and memories start slipping down into the crooks and crannies; when our consciousness begins filling the crevices of our mind.
I couldn’t have been more than three or four, perhaps younger, as I looked up into Grandma Rowell’s eyes searching for a hint of weakness, a glimmer of hope that she would relent.
The old house was large, creaky and cold: fertile ground for a young mind in search of goblins; just the kinda place where a monster could slide under your bed unseen. I had heard one breathing in the night, that soft rasping sound that only a ghoul can make, and fear had gripped me. When the breathing slowed and became rhythmic I figured he was asleep, so I climbed down as a quietly as possible and softly padded my way down the hall to Grandma’s room where the lamplight was warm and inviting as it flowed out from beneath the door.
Grandma did not believe in indulging the whims of a child, but the look in my frightened eyes must have touched something within, for her features softened a bit, and she invited me to climb up into the bed with her for a spell.
There is nothing like a feather bed. For those who have never been cradled in the arms of a hundred geese, I have pity. For those who have, then you understand the consolation that simply laying back and allowing the softness to envelop you can bring. For you see while Grandma did not believe in indulging children, she did from time to time pamper herself, and this bed was her pride and joy.
As I settled in and snuggled down, the familiar smell of wisteria came to my nostrils coupled with the ever present odor of moth balls resting alongside BenGay, added for pungency and zest. Here and ever after, singly or in combination, those odors send me back to that old house, that easy bed, my Grandma Rowell and a story.
As I sidled up beside my Grandma she reached over and switched off the lamp. There was a streetlight somewhere nearby that cast the shadow of magnolia leaves on the wall. As my sleepy eyes watched the shadows dancing on the breeze, Grandma told me the story of the Bullfight for the first time.
Grandma traveled to Mexico as a young girl, and returned with a wanderlust that you could hear in her voice and see in her eyes if you looked close enough, but no one ever did. She yearned to see the world, to visit exotic places and to live life to the fullest, but things happened. Marriage, three children and life and after a time all that remained of her longing was the story of this ancient Bullfight, but Lord have mercy could my Grandma tell a tale. She had a gift for it.
The details have drifted with time, but the images remain. As Grandma painted the story, in my young mind I could hear; I could smell; I could see the crowd working itself into a frenzy. Those pictures painted so long ago remain. As I write this I see the picadors tormenting the poor creature. Through a haze of dust I see the angry snorting bull, pawing; the matador proud with his red cape and his exaggerated machismo heaves and swells as the midday heat rises from the ring. Grandma would always pause when she spoke of the matador, and sigh. First love I suppose. His torn body carried from the field would finish her story. Fresh pain rising, Grandma teared up every time she told it.
A strange bedtime story for a frightened child to be sure, but it suited me fine. I awoke the next morning to the sound of rustling magnolia leaves just outside of Grandma’s bedroom window with a budding wanderlust newly handed down.
To this day the sound of a distant freight train or the sight of a contrail laid out behind a passing 747 awakens a yearning within me to go.
It is amazing and little frightening to realize just how powerful a memory, even one as early as this, can be. It is indeed a bit frightening, especially when you realize that today you are the one creating the memories of tomorrow.
The children are watching. They are listening. Make the memories count.
Let them hear of Christ from your lips and see Christ in your life. Such memories will last forever.
It was out of context, and it bothered me. Miles away from any sign of civilization, it was the last thing I expected to see as I made my way toward an obscure bend in the Congaree River, my goal for the day.
It was early spring, and I had been hiking for several hours through the Congaree Swamp National Park, the last two with no discernible trail under foot. I was relying upon my Magellan Explorist 610 to guide me to a particular spot on the map that had intrigued me. Why the spot interested me, I truly don’t know; exclusive of the fact that it looked like a place where no human had ever set foot, and I was channeling Marco Polo on this particular morning.
As I made my way through the tangle of vines, roots, and fallen branches that make up the floor of the swamp, my legs were beginning to tire a bit; and the bottom of my left foot was reminding me of a childhood encounter with a brown recluse. I must admit that it was a relief when I finally broke through the undergrowth to the welcoming sunshine of the river’s edge.
It was indeed a beautiful place. The river rolled away around a bend shimmering in the late morning sunshine, a light breeze carried the sweet smell of wisteria my way from somewhere deep in the forest, and the soft sand of the shore was inviting me to have a seat.
I accepted the invitation and reveled for a time in the peace and quiet of the place. The enchanting feeling of being totally separate from the rest of the world enveloped me as I watched a red tailed hawk come to rest in the high branches of a cypress tree on the opposite shore. The quiet was soon shattered, however by the raucous cries of a flock of crows as they attempted to dislodge the hawk from his perch. There appeared to be no malice in their efforts, just a way to fight off midday boredom, I suppose. Eventually though the hawk tired of their games and took to the air gliding effortlessly down the center of the river toward the aforementioned bend and disappearing into the mist.
As my eyes followed his progress I noticed a glimmer on the shore, well actually back from the shore in the woods about a quarter mile down river from my location. Bored with resting, I arose and walked through the woods to where I estimated the glimmer originated; and much to my surprise, I discovered the windscreen from a Model T Ford leaning against a tree. It was a deep brown from decades of weather and rust. It was hopelessly entangled by years of vine growth, and upon further examination, I noticed that the tree itself had grown around the bottom crosspiece, cracking the glass and forever locking that windshield in time and space.
For reasons unknown to me at the time, the presence of that windscreen bothered me. Oh, it was a fascination to me to be sure, but it had invaded my fanciful idea of being the first to enter this primeval forest. In so doing, it had reminded me that time and space are simply borrowed. It reminded me that we as human beings are living out our lives on a timeline that will eventually end. It left me asking, “I wonder who owned that Ford and if that old windscreen is all that was left behind to indicate that he or she walked the planet.” I tend to get a little bit morose when my fanciful daydreams are disturbed.
Morose or not, it forced me to ask myself what will be left behind after I depart. In years to come will some young man happen upon an old silver bullet of a camper, windows broken, tires flat, grown over with vines, hidden in the woods for decades and ask the same question of me?
That question ran laps in my mind as I made my way back to the trail-head that afternoon. What would I leave behind? What legacy would define who I was and /or am to those who follow? Over and above that I was forced to ask myself, is my name, or my legacy of any importance whatsoever in the scheme of things? Upon reflection I had to conclude that no, my legacy is of little importance.
The name of Anthony S. Rowell will be remembered by a pitiful few when I leave this earth. With that understood, I know without a doubt that while my legacy is of little importance, the legacy of Christ and what I can contribute to that legacy is of vast importance. For while my name will be but a fleeting memory to most, the name of Jesus Christ will live forever. With that in mind I pray that my life adds to the legacy of Christ first and foremost, for there can be no greater calling, no greater purpose, and no greater legacy than that; and I pray the same for you.