Stories and tales from a guitar-picking writer, theologian, speaker, blogger and entertainer. From small town quirks to the bizarre realities of family, whacky church life and slightly damaged kinfolk, insights from a reluctant son of the South takes you along. Never know where it’ll end up but it’s sure to be worth the trip.
Friends, I have voted. It is a precious opportunity we never miss. And tomorrow, I want you all to know that I will STILL be your neighbor and fellow countryman. I will still do all in my might for good.
Vickie and I watched Henry Louis Gates’ series “Finding Your Roots” recently. In 2021 he did a show for singer and music producer Pharrell Williams. As he discovered the pain of his slavery past he was emotionally overwhelmed.
Then he said something that knocked me over. “I love America. I just want America to love me back.” That was a powerful insight. We are a country that has been filled with glorious and terrible truths. But we keep stumbling along.
That comment touched me. I want, I wish, I hope, I pray…that we can “love each other back.” That might be a way through. We have so much to be grateful for, so much possibility, such prosperity. But it will lie unrealized unless we love each other back.
In 2001 I was invited to speak at my college, which fulfilled a dream from my college days. It was, in fact, a “two-fer,” since I was a co-presenter with Dr. Milburn Price for the Ball Institute AND spoke in the chapel. When I was a student, I
heard speakers who impressed me mighty well—Dr. Frederick Sampson, a magnificent preacher who held us spellbound for 65 minutes one day, the great Grady Nutt, and others. I imagined that I might someday, after graduate work, be important enough to come back and be one of those speakers. Now it was at hand.
I sent biographical info about me ahead of time. The conference was great, the college incredibly gracious and welcoming, and the terrain churned up wistful memories and nostalgic longing for a good and simple time in our lives. Here is what I wrote:
As a matter of information, Vickie and I met and married while at Carson-Newman. We lived in the little house behind the infirmary. Our neighbor and dear friend during those lean and happy years was Mrs. Henrietta Jenkins. You may also be interested to know that in my senior annual, while in a flippant mood, I listed my extra-curricular activities as President of Omega Omega Omega (non-existent) and captain of the Curling Team. Another bit of CN irony is that I am now pastor to Dr. John Fincher, retired President of CN, and his dear wife Ruby. The last time I saw Dr. Fincher before they visited our church was on the graduation stage in 1976!
My professors at Carson-Newman, especially Ray Koonce, Walter Shurden, Bill Blevins, L. Dan Taylor, J. Drury Pattison, Don Olive, and Ben Philbeck, had a happy and permanent effect on my life and thinking. I will always be indebted to them and to Cn for shaping our lives forever. We remember very happy days together at Carson-Newman.
Miss Jenkins, in fact, was most special to us. We took her classes while there, including Shakespeare, Milton and probably something else. Shakespeare was 8 a.m., and Henrietta had this lilting, mellifluous voice, really quite beautiful. It was always a little on the edge of singing it, although not like a hefty operatic diva. More like your grandmother singing to you while you were going to sleep, which we sometimes were at 8 am. I was married at 20, had a new baby 14 months after marriage, and working 3 jobs and going to school trying to get educated enough to come back and speak in chapel for the spellbound students.
My teachers changed my life. Years later, even though my head nodded in “Shakespeare for Dummies,” which it should have been called, given her audience. She would have been proud to see us in London years later laughing our heads off at the Royal Shakespeare company as they gave us “Twelfth Night” through their acting gifts, or when we visited Stratford upon Avon.
Henrietta loved her subject. She would stop and recite poetry in the middle of a lecture from memory, long and gorgeous passages. “By heart” was an apt discussion. When she wandered over into the bawdier passages, she would be matter-of-fact, but would get that twinkle in her eye and blush at the same time, letting us in on something terribly funny but not for polite company.
But she was more. Henrietta was our neighbor. We lived in the little house behind the infirmary, which rented for less than $100 a month. A few doors down lived “Miss Jenkins” as we always called her. She would bring us things, sometimes, and we would go “hang out” with her. She loved our new baby (who turned out to be an outstanding English major, reader and writer). And we would talk to her poodle, Porky.
Porky was a miniature French poodle, one of the most high-strung and opinionated variety. He was an ultra-soprano yipper whose barks were, Miss Jenkins swore, decipherable and intelligible. Porky could let her know what he wanted and she got it. She told us stories about how he knew things when she was talking and would start barking to render an opinion. Certain subjects stirred him into a frenzy, so she took to spelling in front of him and us to avoid the reaction, especially saying she was going to L-E-A-V-E to go to class. “I tell you,” she solemnly said a hundred times in our presence, “He is as sharp…as…a TACK!” Every day they happily walked down the street together.
We saw one another nearly every day for 2 ½ years. She was our teacher, our friend, our neighbor. Our first real neighbor as a couple. The best. And when we went back for that speaking engagement, we went to see her. Porky had passed on by then, and she was devastated by the loss. He was buried in the backyard of her home, a different house from the one we knew. We visited the gravesite and swapped stories and remembered that, yes, he was as sharp as a tack. No doubt.
But then, I can’t imagine heaven being heaven without Henrietta Jenkins, either. Kindness her way, keenness and wit her manner, love of words her craft, and a never-ending love of life and desire to learn her companions. She was a deacon in later years, active in church, a traveler and continued to know what it means to “have a life.” She was our teacher, our first neighbor, our friend.
So when we went back on the college’s dime, we had a grand time. We revisited our special spot out at the lake where we would watch the “submarine races” until the security guard shined his police light into the car through the foggy windows and send us home for the night. We sat in the parlor where we courted. And we went to see our friend, who all those years later, looked the same as we remembered—same mind, voice, twinkly smile, and gentle intensity.
* * * * * * * * *
My chapel fantasy? It was quite a letdown—like preaching and college lecturing turned out to be, too, by the way. Some students were keenly listening, some in and out, heads down, some mouths open, some secretly cramming for the quiz next period they did not prepare for, and one or two reading the paper. It dawned on me that except for Dr. Sampson and Grady Nutt, this was the fate of most chapel speakers.
Many of my teachers are physically gone—moved on in their careers to other schools, retired, or in heaven. My religion prof, Ben Philbeck died young from a brain tumor, although he came back in a dream and blessed me late one night after I co-edited my first book. Miss Mack, dictator of the cafeteria and force of nature, to whom so many owed so much, including us, was long gone. I did Dr. Fincher’s funeral as his pastor, as well as his dear wife Ruby. Life doesn’t stop. Neither does death.
People who love you even leave eventually. There is this mystery, though, about memory—Augustine mused over it considerably. It seems untouched, not altered by time. A face, a soul, a teacher and a neighbor, unchanged in us though no longer with us. How quickly these years pass and how long they stretch out sometimes. But, as Miss Jenkins’ longtime friend Shakespeare said,
‘Tis in my memory lock’d,
And you yourself shall keep the key of it.
Say hello to Porky for me, Miss Jenkins. Thank you for the keys.
Love and truth belong together. So why is it that they are so often found separated? Moral life arises from the recognition of eternal truth, the acceptance of the reality of others in that same truth, and the sensitivity to feel the connection between them. Puritan preacher Richard Baxter said love for one’s neighbor is akin to hunger and food connecting. It makes possible a new and different conversation.
One of the most-read blog pieces on here was one I did on the Hardy family of Williams, Alabama called, “Following Jesus from Israel to Rural Alabama.” As a follow up to that, I am happy to report that last Sunday evening, the Hardy family received the keys to their new home in a dedication ceremony led by Pastor Mike Oliver.
Times of crisis can certainly reveal our failings and weaknesses. But it is also true that crisis reveals character and new possibilities. one of God’s most mysterious works is bringing communion and healing from our disasters. Such times can divide, but they can also invite new re-formulations of Christian fellowship. Ordinary divisions become an unaffordable luxury in the moment of need. We come together and leave lesser things to God.
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church, was a man of broad spirit and reconciling heart. He sought Christian cooperation in every way possible. He once preached a sermon on 2 Kings 10:15, which says, “When [Jehu] left there, he met Jehonadab
son of Rechab coming to meet him; he greeted him, and said to him, “Is your heart as true to mine as mine is to yours?” Jehonadab answered, “It is.” Jehu said, “If it is, give me your hand.” So he gave him his hand. Jehu took him up with him into the chariot.”
Wesley said “But although a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union, yet need it prevent our union in affection? Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences.”
In other words, unity of heart, spirit and love can exist even though we must have differences that will take longer to resolve. We begin with this willingness to know a fellow Christian’s heart and build upon the possibility of fellowship. It does not mean give up our convictions. But we must begin with the hardest and highest call Jesus gave to us—to love one another as He loved us. That is not what we do once we have worked out all our disagreements, our differences or
our hurts with one another. Forgiveness itself is born out of obedience to the Savior’s call to love one another.
“It is the morning after a wall of thunder ripped across our lovely state. Time to roll up our sleeves and see what we can do to help.”
A lot of death and injury greeted us when we emerged–damaged homes, businesses gone—and we found the task of cleaning up absolutely daunting. One family in my church found themselves in a neighborhood of felled trees, including a big one right in the middle of their den. The husband put it this way to me on the phone, “We’re glad to be alive.” A lot of people echoed those thoughts. One family in my church watched the huge Tuscaloosa tornado on television live as it destroyed the store in which their son was working. Then, for 45 minutes, they waited for the phone call—his truck was totaled, but he and his co-workers all alive.
Many were not so fortunate. Well over 200 died all across the state. For months and weeks, the wounded and grieving dug out. Volunteers poured in from everywhere, as did the government and state workers and the nation’s sympathy. Not long after, Joplin was devastated by another killer tornado and Alabama moved off the front pages.
Walking, Praying and Learning Where Jesus Walked
In July of 2010, I was part of a group of 18 ministers from central Alabama. I was asked by a colleague who led the project to recruit the group. We met in an initial retreat, then went together on pilgrimage to Israel for two weeks. We were funded by a grant from the CF Foundation in Atlanta, Georgia in a program that has been functioning for many years to deepen and renew the spiritual lives of ministers in the hope of revitalizing churches in order to impact their communities.
Most of this group had never been to Israel before, and we committed by our participation to be an ongoing Christian fellowship, praying for each other and eventually working on a project for the greater good of our churches and the place where we live.
Most are pastors. A few work in church-related ministries. We were Episcopal, Presbyterian, Mennonite, Baptist, and Methodist. We were male, female, racially diverse, geographically from many different seminaries, hometowns and experiences. Most of us knew about one another but didn’t really know each other until we came together for an initial community building retreat in Atlanta for two days.
The trip to Israel was transformative. We did not merely visit tourist sites—we prayed in them, stayed in a Benedictine retreat center in Galilee for a week and another Catholic center in Jerusalem for a second week. Our days began and ended in worship. We went to the West Bank, saw the walls and checkpoints guarded by automatic weapons and suspicion.
We lived together as a community of faith for two weeks and came back as friends. We continued to meet monthly together, every other month in a four hour “pilgrimage” to each other’s place of service. The highlight of these meetings was to lead us to walk together through the buildings, hear our stories, and pray together for that person at a “holy place.”
We struggled with the project, though. What could we do? We spent a follow-up retreat agonizing through to something. It was organized, intentional, and lifeless. It had all the passion of a tooth extraction. We went home and nothing happened.
Throwing Out the Plan
In April of this year, one of our group, Mike Oliver, found his community devastated by the tornado. More than a hundred homes were utterly destroyed. The next week my church, like hundreds of others, loaded up a truck full of donated supplies and took it to them in Williams, AL where Mike’s church had organized..
The church instantly turned into a community kitchen, feeding thousands of meals to homeless people from the community, a daycare center, and a disaster relief operation. They had to bury two of their own members and get back to work.
All through the summer, people worked, cleaned up and prepared for the next phase, which only now is underway in earnest. One of the realities about disasters is that the tornado or the tsunami or the earthquake get all the publicity. Rebuilding is harder to watch over the long haul.
Meanwhile, our ministers group kept meeting, praying, wondering about what we might do. Mike had an idea. He
invited our group to come together on building a home for a family in his community. The church had already organized to do this as their calling. They have already built five homes and more are on the way.
Thought all of our congregations already had multiple projects they were involved in, we all decided that we would do this one together, somehow. We are raising money, sending volunteers, praying together, and will go on October 7, all of us who can, to work together on our house that day.
When Mike presented the project idea, it rang a bell. I suspect it won’t be the last one we do together. There are still needs here in Birmingham, and other places. But God has a whole church in the world that only has to harness us to one another to make good things happen.
So it was that on Monday, September 19, four of our group, along with two men from my church, went together to see our project. We were met by the leader of our Israel trip from last year, Dr. Loyd Allen, and Tom Tewell, the man who
leads the foundation program that sent us, as well as Mike and number of his church folks.
After a time of lunch and fellowship together, we rode out and toured the area. It was the first time I had seen it extensively, so I found myself deeply affected by to breadth of destruction, and by how many areas still had debris and damage evident. The hardest site was one of sorrow and joy side by side. A concrete slab, clean to the ground, lay as evidence of a place where a home had been. It was the home where two of the church’s members had died, their bodies thrown across the road, deep into the tangle of trees and debris. Next door was one of the homes the church had completed and dedicated, where recently the congregation came to celebrate a new beginning with a family.
After visiting several sites where homes had been built or were underway, we came to the site that we have committed to help together. The husband and wife came out to meet us. They have been married 38 years, have eight children and there were thirteen of the extended family together that day when the tornado roared over their little patch of land and destroyed their trailer homes. I will let you listen to Mr. Hardy’s remarkable description of what happened. It’s about 2 ½ minutes.
We were joined by the chair of deacons and we all joined together and had a groundbreaking and prayer together for the home we hope to build. Tears streamed from men’s eyes as we listened to the Hardys tell us how blessed and overwhelmed by the thought that “complete strangers” would care about them and help them. I told them it was we who felt blessed to get to meet them. I was pretty sure we were talking directly to Jesus through their faces and hearts. I felt Him with us.
When I got home, I was tired, deep tired. I began the feel the emotions of all the damage I had seen, the suffering it represented, and the power of hope in a place where people have cast aside the divisions normally among them and began to help one another. They were and are becoming real “neighbors” to one another.
I woke up this morning thinking about Galilee and Capernaum and Jerusalem—and Williams, Alabama. I thought about all the terrible divisions in that place of killing and brokenness, where walls are being built at vast expense, to keep people apart. We saw it with our eyes, together.
We came home also with memories of the place where Jesus lived and died, the water he fished in and the village where he grew up. We prayed and prayed together, and we became friends, more than ministers usually do, I am sad to say. We live in our own siloes, running our own little place, and need God’s help to get pulled out of them.
So out of nowhere, on April 27, the walls blew down and we stood there, afraid, vulnerable, dazed. We needed each other. Then gradually it has been dawning on us that these walls started blowing down a long time ago—in ancient Israel through a rabbi who told the Truth, indeed was Truth in human form. And somehow, in a journey a group of pastors who didn’t know each other took, mainly because somebody paid for most of it and gave them a gift. We went thinking, “This will really be nice. It will inspire me and give me some sermons.”
Well, we weren’t prepared for what it actually did. It knocked the walls over. We began to truly care about each other and our churches and our ministries. God connected us all through the land of Israel and that ancient story. So on the “day after thunder,” we discovered that we didn’t go to Israel just to get away from our churches or enjoy a time of respite. It was to lead us to rural Williams, Alabama, and to the Hardys, and to Pratt City and Birmingham, and down deeper into our own congregations and people, to see that this is indeed the best and most holy work of all, realizing the meaning of the words of the Lord Jesus when he said in Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” We went to Israel to find what Jesus always wanted us to find—one another.