Euphoria by the Bay

I am remembering one of the best evenings I've had ever.  Maybe it was because it had rained for two days.  Maybe it was because I was tired and hungry from our church work day today but a wonderful euphoria set in on Marc Leverett at about 7:45 Central Time.

Carolyn and I joined her mom and dad and her sister and her husband for a sea food meal at a little back porch place called Nan's Seas.  It's the kind of place where no one goes for the fancy atmosphere but for the absolute best and freshest sea food anywhere, period.  I got the hungry man's fried shrimp, all 12 of them were big, breaded just right and cooked perfectly.  The cocktail sauce was home made.  I like really good sauces.

After the meal we went and just sat looking over Mobile Bay.  I saw the glass-like water broken only now and then with a mullet jumping and landing on its side with a little slap of water.  There were brown pelicans gliding two inches over the surface in a primal scene that has been the same for hundreds of years.  The sky was alight with the fading hues of sunset, pink, vermilion, purple and blue.  I could barely make out a rainbow on the right as the air is still heavy with vapor.  It was beautiful.  I had what could be called an epiphany.  God nudged my heart and reminded me that life's most precious things have nothing to do with men or what men do. 

Nature is a great equalizer.  It is a binder to all hearts who can allow themselves to look at God by looking at what he has made and feeling small and large at the same time.  It occurred to me that just about anybody else could sit with me on that sea wall and share the wonders of God’s creation as children of the same Father, with no strife, conflict or discord.  The only music would be that of the laughing gulls.  The only awareness would be this display of God's wonders.  I began to long for heaven. Earth isn't heaven but sometimes heaven seems to visit for a time.

All of us on earth have way more in common than not when heaven visits.  We may not agree on some things but I value my shared humanness with others more than to allow my disagreements to blind me to our eternal brotherhood. 

Jesus taught us to love others, even our enemies, even those who mistreat us.  When we love as we ought, we become conduits for the same kind of heaven-come-to-earth experience I enjoyed one blissful night on Mobile Bay.

An Old School Paddling

Back in the early 70s in May Eanes Jr. High, Mobile, Al. There was this boy in junior high school who held the record for the most paddlings.  He was the most paddled 7th grader, the most paddled 8th grader, and the most paddled 9th grader, that is up until the second semester.   That record was not just for those years but was an all-time record for the school!

Now this boy was not really all that bad.  He did have a rebellious streak to him but the real problem was that he enjoyed his misbehaving so much that the paddlings, even though unpleasant, were worth the fun he had cutting up. Added to this was the street cred he enjoyed from his reputation as a tough guy who couldn't be broken.  Paddlings had become his "claim to fame".

Well one day he went little too far in giving a certain lady teacher a hard time in class.  Right about that time Coach McCrory was walking by the classroom door.  Now this man was a lesson in masculine engineering.  His arms were large and his neck was thick, and he sported a neat flat top crew cut.  He was small at the waist and never said more than two words at a time but you better believe he really meant those two words.

This lady teacher teacher looked out the door and saw the coach walking down the hall.  She got his attention and complained about this boy for about 30 seconds.  He looked at the boy and said, "Outside."  He happened to have his planed down baseball bat with him.  He took this guy over to a 56 Chevy parked around the corner, pushed him toward the hood and said, "bend over."

All it took was two full swings to reduce this tough street punk into a sobbing spectacle of complete contrition.  Today he might have been arrested for child abuse as he actually made twin bruises, one for each cheek, on that boy’s rebellious backside.  Back then it was just another day in the public school system when a misbehaving student crossed the line and needed to be given a wake-up call.

Well that boy went back to class, apologized to the teacher, and changed his ways.  That was the last spanking I ever got in my life and it probably did more to form my character than any other single event.  I finally had to learn that there was something and someone bigger than myself and the law did really have some teeth!

I ran into Coach McCrory 11 years later when I was pastoring a new church in Mobile.  He still had that same flat top and that same imposing physique.  I don't know if he even remembered that incident but there was a look in his eye that made me think that he did and he was proud to see that I wasn’t in jail but was wearing a suit and buying tires for the family car.  I should have said “thank you” but the silent nods from each to the other was enough.  With guys, sometimes no words are really needed.

The Dual

The Dual   (OK It was actually a footrace)

Duals are part of the masculine mindset.  It is primal to the products of testosterone to settle some things with some contest of skill or display of aggression.  Southern men grow up with a pecking order of who can “beat up” who.  The Southern “alpha” male may not be the biggest or even the strongest, but the one who has the most fear inducing ability.  As one old saw puts it, “It ain’t the size of dog the in the fight but the size of the fight in the dog.” 

In olden times these events were a recognized part of male culture.  Some offence against one’s honor or some other kind of dispute was settled by personal combat, often with deadly consequences.  Pistols, swords, or old fashioned fisticuffs have settled such disputes and left a winner and a loser to their separate fates.

Johnny blamed me for his cousin’s unemployment.  Even though the reason Billy was fired was because he showed up for work late and hung over I was the one hired to replace him and so, in Johnny’s mind, I was the guy who pushed Cousin Billy out of his job.  Billy had a wife and kids.  They were his blood.  Now this outsider comes in and dares to work on the same machine that Billy had worked on for over two years.  The fact that I had a wife and a baby on the way was of no concern to him.  Kin is kin.

The problem was that 19 year old Johnny was so full of resentment toward me and misplaced filial devotion that he couldn’t even abide my presence.  More than once he made some snide comment; and he never looked at me without staring a hole through me.  He tried to get in my face and start a fight a few times when the foreman wasn’t looking.  Since he was single and only 19 years old he thought risking getting fired to be preferred over letting me get away with the damage done to his cousin, but if he could keep his job and still punish me all the better.

I was about 6 inches taller than Johnny and, though he didn’t suspect it, was no stranger to the art of personal combat.  In my younger years I had a reputation for being quick fisted and had never been beaten when the odds were one on one.  It would not have been very hard to give him a lesson on respect that he would never forget, but my vow as a preacher, and my desire to stay employed, kept me from becoming his schoolmaster.   I simply took it.  I took it until others thought I was a coward.  I took it until it hurt me on the inside to see my stature shrink in the eyes of my co-workers.

One day Johnny got on another tirade about why I wouldn’t fight him and accused me in front of others of being “yellow”.  I don’t know where the idea came from, but I tried to think of a way to settle this thing without violence and the only thing I could think of was to let a footrace settle it.  He was such a proud fellow that my challenge to him turned the tables completely!  Now he had to accept or reject MY challenge to HIM!  He started out by saying how stupid that was and I countered with, “What’s the matter?  You afraid I’ll beat you?”  Little did he know that I was pretty fast and had won many races as a sprinter in high school.  I was fairly confident that I could beat him and at least we could both say we had gone up against each other in some way.  I couldn’t get fired for having a “friendly” footrace on break time.

He asked me if he won what would I do, and I said that I would keep on ignoring his mean talk, but I still wouldn’t fight him and I still wouldn’t quit working there.  I said, however, that if I won that he would have to leave me alone and get off my case.  That was the deal.

The crowd had gathered by now and Johnny had to answer me.  He informed me that he was the fastest one on his football team and he could beat an old “has been” like me without even trying hard. (At twenty five I was hardly a “has been”.)  I said, “Lets’ go!”

The break horn blew and two lines were formed along the side driveway.  It was a nice level concrete drive for about 30 feet, and then it began to incline for the next 30 feet to meet with the road.  This was our field of honor.  Someone stood at the top of the drive and held a red bandana up in the air.  Johnny took off his boots, but left on his socks.  I was confident that I could beat him without risking my feet to abrasions so I left my boots on.  He looked with a crooked smile at me, and then we both fixed our eyes on the red bandana.

It was released and we both bolted at the same time.  Johnny took a quick lead, but by the time we reached the incline my longer legs had closed the gap.  Both spotters called it a draw.  We both reached the line at the same exact time.  I asked Johnny if he was satisfied, and true to nature, he demanded a rematch.  “I have to beat you” (and then he let out some profanity) “I ain’t ever been beat and YOU sure ain’t gonna beat me.”

This time I took off my boots.  The backs of my legs were still burning from the previous sprint, but the adrenaline was pumping and I was ready to show him what I could do.  The red rag dropped again but this time we started even and held even until just before the incline where I began to pull ahead.  Johnny desperately tried to close the gap, but when he hit the incline he began to lose his footing and went badly tumbling into a mass of legs and arms.  As I crossed the finish line and looked behind me I saw Johnny on the ground trying not to react to the pain of scraping his ankles, both knees and one elbow on the pavement.  His new Levi’s were torn and he was bleeding in several places. I could see the anger in his eyes, but I could also see a look of pain, the pain that comes from humiliation and defeat.  He wanted to light into me right, then and there, but everybody was watching, and since I had not laid a hand on him he knew he had no right to strike me.  He had been beaten fair and square by a man who he bragged couldn’t beat him.

For a short time after that, things were a little better around the mill.  Johnny was quiet most of the time, and when he wasn’t around to hear them, people would talk about how the preacher had beaten Johnny in that race and Johnny got himself all torn up on the pavement.  Some of the younger guys would pat me on the back and say, “That was something!  I ain’t never seen Johnny get beat at runnin’ before.  You’re one fast dude!

Later Johnny lapsed a time or two and tried to get me to fight him, but for the most part he left me alone.  I still like to think that God, in His heaven, sent an angel to trip that hateful young man and give him what he had coming to him.  “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord, I will repay.”  I was glad I let the Lord handle him instead of giving in to my own impulses.  I hope this story may help someone who has struggled with how to respond against an antagonist.  There is usually some way to avoid being drawn into a fight.  God will bless you if you pay attention to his leading.


A Traditional Southern Black Funeral

A Traditional Southern Black Funeral

For the benefit of those of you who have never had the privilege of participating in a traditional black service, and maybe never will, I offer the following account.

For the first time I had the opportunity to participate on the platform of a very traditional, black Baptist church.  I have attended funerals in black churches before but just as a spectator.  One of our member’s mother died and because I am a minister in the family's circle of friends I was asked to do the N.T. reading and lead in the opening prayer at her mother’s home church downtown.

To describe this church one has to picture a Deep South low income black neighborhood with old shotgun houses built so close together you could jump from one roof to the next and a church building with iron doors and a chain link fence with barbed wire on the top.  Inside there was a very high suspended ceiling with mismatched tiles.  Behind the platform was (I'm not kidding) a large home-made painting of Jesus getting baptized. Both John and Jesus were portrayed as black men with 70s style afro hair. I noted that Jesus looked very much like Apollo Creed in the Rocky movies. The chairs on the platform were of the throne type, high backed, red velvet cushions, and ornately carved wood.

There were a few "missionary women" there who were decked out in all white clothes.  They look just like nurses in uniform. They even wear the caps.  Everyone else was dressed in black. Everyone.  The men and the boys all had on suits and the women were dressed sharply with oversized broaches and hats.  My wife Carolyn and I were the only white people present in a packed house.

There were four of us on the platform. I managed to avoid sitting in one of the "thrones" by going more to the side of the platform where there was a bench similar to those on the floor.  (I just felt funny sitting in that regal looking chair.)   The choir assumed their places.  It was Tuesday in the middle of the day so it was composed of mostly women and some few men.  The organist was a pleasant looking young man who was an extremely talented musician.  He was expert at doing that unique black church organ accompaniment thing to everything that was done in the service.  For those who have never heard this it is the interpretive skill of the organist to mimic somewhat the cadence and inflection of a speaker.   This has the effect of turning a speech into a kind of song made up on the spot.  The music was mostly unfamiliar to me until they got into a snappy version of "Rough Side of the Mountain".  They really did that one up right and I found my foot tapping.  You just can't help it.  It's automatic.

I got up the read the scriptures and when I did I found myself joined with a swelling of "amens", "yeeeesss's", "uhmm hummmm's" and "that's right's".  I found myself feeling like I was preaching when I was just reading the scriptures.  It is easy to get caught up in that and I felt energized by the encouragement.  When I began my prayer, the organist did his thing.  At first I was distracted by it, but it grew on me quickly as he punctuated my voice tones with celestial riffs and heavenly harmonies from his skilled fingers.  For about 5 minutes I was an honorary black minister!

After a host of people shared memories and gave encouragements to the family, the preacher got up and preached.  In typical Deep South African-American fashion the delivery started out slow and deliberate but grew bolder and more poetic to reach a climactic plateau in which he was almost singing as well as preaching.  The organist followed and sometimes even led him as he delivered his message.  It was not a solo performance but definitely a duo.  As the speaker got to an especially intense run of speech the other men on the platform stood up and swayed forward and backward. 

At a point one of them reached out to touch the speaker on the shoulder as if the say "I'm with you brother!"  I kept my seat but felt strange about this not knowing if it might be presumptuous on my part to join them in this exercise of support, me being a visiting pastor, or if I was guilty of appearing aloof by my remaining seated.  I consoled myself that some traditions are best kept by those who have them built into their souls from childhood rather than by those for whom it is foreign and awkward.

Finally at the close we greeted the family one more time and then the most orderly "recessional" took place I have ever seen.  As if under silent direction, the flowers were all taken out by the deceased's grandchildren.  The congregation then moved out of the building in order beginning at the left rear of the auditorium moving first to the front and then along the other side to exit the door in the back.  Each row waited respectfully for the previous row to clear before moving out into the isle.  Finally all were outside where the hearse, Sheriff Deputies and long line of cars were waiting.  I have never seen such a display of order and reverence with no visible signs of direction.

I am glad that I was able to experience this little piece of Southern culture and thought maybe others might enjoy reading the report.