Monday, July 27, 2015

Storms

Usually it is when a loved one dies that I feel the storms of life bearing down upon me. Sometimes, though, I feel those storms when someone ascribes motives to me that I did not have or when someone misunderstands my words. “That’s not what I meant at all, not at all!” At other times, those unhappy winds blow when I have trouble forgiving myself. It always gets stormy when you realize you cannot go back and undo what has been done. With the guidance of Christian writer Timothy Keller, I took a look at some literal storms in scripture and discovered some metaphorical things.
Jonah knew he was the cause of the great storm at sea as he napped below deck. You can run from God but you can’t hide. I suppose we can assume that he was self-sacrificial when he told his shipmates to quell the storm by throwing him overboard, but we can also read it as a death wish. At any rate, when the sailors threw Jonah into the moiling deep, the waters suddenly settled down and they were then scared sure enough: killing a prophet of a God that powerful was dangerous stuff.  What would the consequences be?
There is a parallel to that Old Testament story in Mark. Jesus was dosing in his companions’ boat in a wild windstorm. The frantic disciples got him up saying, “Don’t you care if we perish?” Questioning their faith, Jesus simply rebuked the wind and everything suddenly settled down. Then the disciples were scared sure enough: what kind of man is this that can command the wind and the waves? They thought he had gone to sleep on them in the hour of their great need when it is they who, a little later, went to sleep in the garden during the hour of his great need.
Both of those stories give me a bit of comfort as I look back at the storms of my life. They pale by comparison to the great one at the cross. I have tried to run away from God a time or two in my life. He never sent a big fish to the rescue, but he did find ways to get me where he wanted me. It reminds me of a conversation between Hamlet and Horatio. The former said something like this: Horatio, there is a plan for our life, rough hew it how we will; to which his companion replies, something like, Hamlet, you got that right! There are many detours but one destination.

I do not know whether or not the Gospel writer had Jonah in mind when presenting the story of Jesus calming the storm. He does use similar language. I do know that many figures in the Old Testament prefigure, represent, or typify Christ. Jonah was thrown into the storm and “resurrected” out of the big fish just where God wanted him to preach repentance. Jesus was thrown into the storm and resurrected so that all who turn to him in repentance can be counted as children of the Most High.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Watchman

I just finished reading the newly released novel by Harper Lee, Go Set a Watchman, and the cultural differences between regions of our country were borne in upon me once again. While “Watchman” is not as intricately plot-driven as Lee’s masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird, it is a carefully compiled string of intellectual and emotional growth spurts Jean Louise Finch, a.k.a. Scout, experiences. In “Watchman” she is a twenty-something lady returning to her Alabama hometown for a visit after a long stint in New York. Like Southerners we have known who have moved away and returned she has a bit of a judgmental attitude and an expectation of stasis. But nothing remains the same and you can’t go home again.
Since I don’t want to ruin the novel for you, I won’t go into a lot of detail about Scout’s expanding understanding of herself and her region, but I will say that bigotry wears many disguises and Lee shows us how subtly our judgment of others saps moral powers in so many ways. One of these ways includes the beautifully drawn contrast in the novel between the Calpurnia, sweet and stern maid of her childhood memories, and the stoically isolated and somewhat embittered Calpurnia of Scout’s return from up north. But her confusion concerning Calpurnia is dwarfed by what she discovers about her boyfriend and her own sainted father.
Perhaps the most interesting way she comes to understand the ugliness in her own heart is through her playful-yet-serious relationship with her uncle, Atticus’ brother Jack. He is a physician, esoterically in love with Victorian literature, especially the obscure or little-known authors. Apparently he had led Scout into studying and even appreciating some of these when she was a child, and he forms arguments based upon literary allusions and what he knows of Scout’s dual “citizenship” in New York and Alabama. He makes her face the fact that her attitude towards the South is as corrupt as what she loathes about the region. The culminating scenes of the novel when Uncle Jack forces the issue are not pretty.
The dialogue between Scout and her uncle reminds me of a conversation in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! in which a northerner asks his roommate, a Mississippi native, why he hates the South. “I don’t hate it,” he replies, “I don’t hate it…I don’t!” In a way, I see that same love-hate relationship in Scout in this newly released novel. “Watchman” was said to have been written before “Mockingbird,” but I believe it was wise to save its issue until now.

I say that because we are currently embroiled in yet another regional misunderstanding. And it is not just about the folks way up yonder being dead wrong about the South. It is not about Confederate flags. It is about many of our best Southern people misunderstanding each other and even themselves. The ugliness of our past is inescapable. History is history and we have to live with it because aspects of it will not go away. The modern way to deal with such issues seems to be through slogans and bumper-stickers and shallow Pinterest aphorisms. So, I will here offer a slogan dedicated to Harper Lee. It is as old as the Lord God Himself: “Love one another.” That is a tough one, but it is the only solution.

Friday, July 10, 2015

THAT GULF INFLUENCE

I was seven when I first visited Alabama. I rode over there with my half-uncle Ward. We left El Dorado so early that we were easing eastward on 82 before I woke up good. There were four or five donuts in a grease-stained sack between us. When I reached for one, Uncle Ward said, “There is some coffee in the thermos there if you want a cup.” I poured myself some in the silver lid and dipped the donut into it. That helped me wake up. I did not care for coffee unless it saturated a donut.
It was a bright blue morning and the traffic was light. I loved the Burma-Shave signs along the road, but seldom got the jokes. Ward tried his best to explain this one to me, “If these signs--blur and bounce around--you’d better park--and walk to town,” but he couldn’t. He never understood my questions. Ward’s Dodge was Fluid Drive, a nearly new ’46 model, maroon with maroon seat covers. He taught me how to shift gears in that Dodge. You didn’t have to keep the clutch in when you were stopped at a light but you did have to clutch it to change gears. It had a good radio in it, too, and a clock. Ward was going along at about 60. He said that was a mile a minute! My hair was blowing back and Ward wore his straw hat with the feather in the band pulled down tight, bending his ears out. He looked like a leprechaun. He asked me to roll him a cigarette. I tried to do so but made a big mess of it, so he waited to smoke until we pulled into a place with an EAT sign and rolled his own in the lot under a Chinaberry. He took pains to brush the tobacco out of the car. Since it was new he wanted to keep it clean. We went into the Eat place and Ward asked a rosy-cheeked lady to fill his thermos and he bought us a couple of bags of peanuts. Card tables circled the pot-bellied stove with people eating hamburgers and drinking Cokes and RCs at each. One lady complained that the pickles in her hamburger were store-bought. She said she would bring the proprietor, a plump man in too-small coveralls, some good pickles she had put up last year.
When we drove away from the Eat place, Ward said, “Danny, now my brother Futrell is rich and famous. An author, you know.  Use manners at the table and don’t talk unless they ask you something. And don’t complain about the heat. It’s that gulf influence.”

“I have seen stuff about manners and all in the movies, Uncle Ward. I know how to act. Am I kin to him?” He mumbled some words about avuncular genetics breaking down because Futrell was his half-brother on his daddy’s side and he himself was my half-uncle on the distaff, but I lost the explanation. It was worse than trying to figure out a Burma-Shave joke. I was so hungry when we got to Catalpa Place, Futrell’s ostentatious home in Pell City, I did not want to talk at the table anyway. All “Uncle” Futrell wanted to do the whole time we were out there was sit on a quilt in the back yard and read to us from scribbling on a yellow pad. A week of that was enough. He read dramatically from a novel he was writing about gangsters that talked like college professors. I lost the story every time he got going on descriptions. I now know, after having grown up and read as much of his stuff as I could stand, that he was afflicted with chronic digressivitus, a condition probably brought on by 100 degree heat, horse flies and that gulf influence. 

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Servant and Witness

Paul simply could not stop talking about his supernatural appointment as an apostle. If you have a Bible with the words of Christ in red, look at the red print in the book of Acts. In almost every case it is Paul reporting the awesome experience that knocked him off his horse, blinded him and changed him from Saul to Paul, from a persecutor of Christians to a powerful leader of the so-called sect. (As you recall, lots of people got their names changed in scripture,
Abram to Abraham, Sarai to Sarah, Jacob to Israel, Simon to Peter, etc.)
Paul’s most complete report of the experience comes in Acts 26 where he tells King Agrippa all about it. There are five main parts to the story. Jesus appears and tells him to get up and stand on his feet; he appoints Paul to be a servant and a witness; this witness includes what he has seen (the vision itself) and what he will show him; Jesus guarantees protection from his own people and from the Gentiles; and he gives the underlying purpose of the appointment, that is, to bring people to forgiveness of sins through faith in Jesus.
Jesus himself demonstrates being a servant and a witness. We see in the second chapter of Philippians that he gave up the privileges of absolute royalty and emptied himself to be born as a servant. And, his ultimate service was death on the cross to offer salvation to any who would believe in him. That foot washing episode in John’s Gospel further attests to his servant nature and he performed the act as a witness of how his followers should relate to others, in a meek and lowly fashion. In that way, the service Jesus offered became a witness to all.
Isn’t that true of all our service—that it becomes a witness to others? I heard Garrison Keillor say on the radio that nothing you ever do for a child is ever wasted or forgotten. I think that may be true for adults as well. One thanksgiving when my family and I were camping, the electric system went out on our camper so we could not prepare supper. Total strangers from south Louisiana, who just happened to be electrical engineers, came by and fixed the problem within minutes, and brought us a big mess of delicious gumbo. When we went to thank them and take the container back, they had left the park. We remember the service they offered that evening as a strong witness of generosity and unselfishness.

The way Paul’s story ends in Acts 26 is by asserting the underlying purpose of his appointment: to show people how to get forgiveness and gain a place among those sanctified by faith in Jesus. As Paul writes at the beginning of Romans 8 (NIV), “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.”