“We are . . . products of place. Where we grew up and how we experienced the physical environment of our formation are . . . a part of who we are.”
—Kathleen Parker, “The nominee’s gender, geography,”
Tulsa World, May 13, 2010
In my life there have been at least three events that have always seemed to me to have spiritual significance beyond their physical importance.
“You diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.”
—Jesus to religious leaders in John 5:39-40
The first of these three events actually occurred in the life of my wife as a child before I even knew her, though at the time she lived with her mother and grandparents on a farm outside of Florence, Arkansas, just a few miles up the road from my birthplace of Selma, Arkansas.
Her mother and father were married in 1941, just one week before the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, in Hawaii, which plunged the United States into World War II. Although Grover Williams tried to enlist in three branches of the armed services, he was turned down because of his flat feet. Later, however, he was drafted into the army and sent to the South Pacific. Some months after his departure, his wife Mary Elizabeth gave birth to a baby girl whom she named Marion (and whom I later married and called Mari).
Since little Marion had never seen her father (and he had never seen her), she had always been told that her father was the man in uniform in the photo on the bureau in her grandparents’ home. Needless to say, when he returned home in 1945, when she was three years old, she steadfastly refused to accept him because her father was the man in the photo.
I have always felt that there is a spiritual lesson in that incident. It reminds me of the religious leaders in Jesus’ time. They had devoted their entire lives in earnest anticipation of the arrival of the Messiah. Yet they steadfastly refused to accept Him when He came to them in the flesh because their messiah was a lifeless image in a book.
Even today many devout believers make the same mistake. They worship the Bible instead of the One to whom the Bible points. It is common enough practice to have been given a name: “bibliolatry.” That practice and this verse were the basis of one of my quotes on this subject: “As Jesus noted, as wonderful and as powerful as the Scriptures are, they are not the Savior; they are a testimony to the One Who saves.”
“He will call upon me, and I will answer him.”
—Word from God in Psalm 91:15
The second incident is actually a series of incidents that took place during my childhood in Selma, Arkansas. Directly across a tiny stream from our rural family home place, just beyond the garden, the barn, and the feedlot, stood the Selma Methodist Church.
Erected in about 1874, and later listed in the National Register of Historic Places, it was a quaint white edifice with a tall steeple (that Mama always severely warned me not to climb with the other boys) and divided pews inside, separating the menfolk and the womenfolk who worshipped there.
For the first few years of my life these worshippers, on alternate Sundays, included my family, since the Southern Baptists (which we were) did not as yet have a church of their own. That latter building would be erected during the 1940s with my mother and her father, the Rev. Willis Barrett, the church’s first pastor, among the founders.
The series of events that always seemed to have an unidentified spiritual significance was as simple as it was profound (for such a young lad as I was at the time). I would stand on our property and yell across “the branch” toward the glistening white Selma Methodist Church in the sunlight. Unfailingly, my yell would be answered with an echoing yell. It was as though someone (or Someone) in the old church was responding to my call in the same words, tone, and accent that I had used in my exclamation.
This was the basis of my self-quote composed much later in life: “When God talks to me, it is always in pure Arkansaw!”
“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.”
The third and final seemingly insignificant event with lasting importance occurred later in my young life, when I was back home on summer vacation from Ouachita Baptist College. For some unknown (or at least unremembered) reason, on the Fourth of July in 1960, four of us unsuspecting youth (two couples) decided to wade out into the middle of the Mississippi River to a submerged sandbar.
The instigator of this bit of idiocy was our mutual friend from the old river port of Arkansas City, the seat of Desha County, which borders the Father of Waters. Having spent his entire life in, on, and under the River, this young man (like all Arkansas City youth of that era) was a true “river rat.” The rest of us in that quartet were not, having been brought up ten miles to the west of the River in the more earthly environs of the Delta.
While we were playing around on the unseen sandbar, as might have been prophesied by wiser souls, one by one each of us began to lose our footing and be carried along by the surging waters. When we realized that we were off the end of the hidden sandbar, the three of us “non river rats” anxiously began trying to swim against the current.
Desperately we struggled with all our might to get back to our invisible refuge. Just when it seemed that we were about to be swept under, our feet suddenly touched solid ground beneath us. Needless to say, it was a great relief and a close call, one that we vowed never to repeat.
Just then we realized that the “river rat” was not with us on the murky sand. Anxiously we looked around, only to see him a short distance down river, standing up, the muddy water reaching only to his waist!
Once we were able somehow to gather together, our AC friend explained that he “figured” that the rushing waters had sculpted out a deep hole at the end of the sandbar and that if he just let go and floated past it, the sandbar would once again rise up and he would be able to stand up.
Quite a “step of faith”! What if the submerged sandbar had not been there, as the “river rat” had believed it would be? The cautious trio of the group felt that in that case, as in others in our future lives, “discretion is the greater part of valor.”
That incident was the basis of two my later self-quotations: (1) “It is easier to stay out of trouble than to get out of trouble,” and (2) “Faith, without knowledge, makes a poor substitute for sense!”