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Thursday, February 27, 2014

Entry 6: Overcoming Tobacco Road

February 26, 2014

Dear Friends:

Re:  Entry 6

We had a word, more like a phrase, we used in my town, a particular word to describe people that were dirty, or unkempt, or more to the point: Slobs.  Invariably, upon encountering a person or group of people who did not meet the prevailing ethical and/or cleanliness standards, someone would shout out:  “look at those no good filthy tobbacoroaders”.  That was the word:  tobbacoroaders.  Tobacco Roaders: Those persons who live in the condition of the residents of one Tobacco Road, a mythical place no doubt, somewhere in the south, populated by filthy children who left their toys in their yards  and did not wipe their feet.  Adults of this ilk have low morals, consume copious amounts of National Bohemian and generally lie about, avoiding work.  My entire childhood I encountered this word.  I swear I was nearly twenty years old before I realized that it was an actual English word (or words) and not some mix of Serbian and West Virginian, sort of like the old country with a hillbilly accent.  People wouldn’t say it as much as spew it from their mouths, as in “looka those nogood filty tobbagaroadas….  (try it, you have to say it rather quickly with the words all slurred together to get the full effect) Often, in fits of rage, one would only have to hear that collection of syllables…tobaccoroader…and it was all it took to understand the meaning of the sentence.  I have tried to use the word myself, mostly in reference to my children, but I find myself annunciating the syllables to the point that they actually make sense and it sounds more like a place than a curse.  It was only later, when the internet came around, that I realized that phrase came from a book about people in the south.  Yet it was, and remains-- among a dwindling number of eighty-year olds-- a mumbled, yet curiously descriptive, curse.  Unfortunately, once labeled as such, you practically had to move away to lose the label.  Sad indeed, in that in a state often the butt of national jokes we had our own caste system.  We still do, I would imagine.

One of the reasons I stopped watching the news—most TV news—almost two years ago, was that it was one thing to grow up in West Virginia, but it was quite another to be continually exposed to the national perception of the way things are (or are portrayed):  to be the national tobaccoroadder.  Part of the reason the news is so infuriating is that, depending upon the political sway of the commentator, we are either a group of blissful, ignorant, gun-toting hill people, frolicking across a bucolic mountain landscape swigging moonshine, or we are a racist, immoral backwoods band of obese chain-smoking, coal-burning, outlaw-dancing, meth-lab hiding inbred illiterates; there apparently are no other alternatives.  In January it was actually a national joke by a Detroit newspaper reporter that after the Charleston water disaster we could get back to stopping incest; she was roundly condemned (and shockingly stupid for putting it on the internet) but nonetheless the stereotype lies just under the surface.  I will give you that most West Virginians tend to stereotype as well, with Detroit being viewed as a collection of crack houses out of which come rental car fleets of Chryslers; Detroiters may view most of us as living shoeless in a land of quarter-moon outhouses; the painful reality for this country is that the crack house analog, although quite incorrect, is closer to the reality.

Which brings me all the way around to my point:  When Gideon was hiding wheat in a wine press (because, I assume, he was a terrified teenager in the midst of a national invasion), the Lord called him a Mighty Warrior. Not a dirty, skinny, scared, unknowing youth, but a Mighty Warrior.  There being no tobacco in the Middle East at the time, there were no roads named after it and therefore those roads contained no residents who could be easily categorized, stigmatized and then dismissed.  Gideon was a Mighty Warrior because the Lord saw him for what he could be and not what he was, not his background, not his race, not even his religion (yes, go back and read it in Judges, it is a little more than surprising).   The challenge I have always felt West Virginians have had to overcome is the simple fact that the accent with which we speak is equated to ignorance and the affability and kindness we exhibit in our dealings with each other is equated to weakness.  Neither of those are necessarily true but are hurdles nonetheless.  

I want to be a Mighty Warrior. I believe you become what you think you are.  Don’t become as others type you to be.  The Lord sees your potential, not your present condition.

I remain,


Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Entry 5: The Shoe

Dear Friends

February 18, 2014

Re:     Entry 5

I often tell a tale of my childhood in Appalachia, which while no doubt wholly true, has softened—or has at least been burnished—through the years.  It begins when I was nine years old, and had received just after Christmas, a pair of shoes that my older cousin had outgrown.  In that pre-Nike era, every boy I knew wore either shoes that buttoned or zipped, or boots that tied.  These were ankle-high side-zip brown shoes with a low heel.  I have no idea how anyone ever played in things like that but we did.  Anyway, about a month after this, the bottom of my right shoe developed a hole.  Now I remember it was my right shoe because I always get a hole in my right shoe, even today.  If you don’t get holes in your shoes, you are wasteful, have too many shoes, or don’t walk enough.  That is what they have always told me, at least.  

The snow was still on the ground, and every day for a couple of weeks before I left school, I would wad up some paper towels from the boys bathroom and stuff them in the bottom of my new, yet curiously deteriorating, cousin-donated shoe boot.  All of these points are important later on.  I arrived at home and was, as always, greeted at the door by the dog, a weird dachshund we lived with.  I took off my shoes and walked across the floor.  We had a dark red linoleum floor, sort of a brick pattern, though that fooled no one.  My dad wasn’t home yet--he was a coal miner and I remember that time period as one where he was either on strike, just off a strike, or about to go on strike. Walking on through the kitchen, with every other step I left a wet right footprint on the dark floor.  I got halfway into the other room when my mother stopped me, and, seeing the print, asked--wondering why my foot was wet?  I said it wasn’t (I’m not sure why now, but I had just assumed I would be in trouble for the hole, and I spent most of my childhood lying about something even in the face of obvious evidence otherwise).  She picked up my shoe, looked at it and, after proper inquiry, determined it had been that way for at least two weeks.  “Why didn’t you say something?”  Well,” I recall saying, “Daddy was on strike, and it’s not that bad and I can wait until spring…” and so forth, stopping only because my mother was crying.  I think of that to this day.  It still tugs on my heartstrings.

To end this poignant scene-- and further cloud forever the prior vision of tugged heartstrings-- in walked my father.   “Hey, he’s got a hole in his shoe,” my mother more accused than reported.  My dad was immediately indignant.  I had seen this often.  Normally it wasn’t directed toward me as much as around me.  I never took it personally, as I’ve inherited this trait and have to some degree, actually improved upon and perfected it.  “Get in the car,” he said. To this day I can’t remember what shoes I wore in the Chevy.

Now recall how I got those shoes.  We drove about seven miles to town to a Giant Shoe Mart, and before going in, he admonished me to not say a word.  I can’t actually recall the words he used in this directive--I probably would not write them if I did-- but I assumed I was going to get new shoes.  I was hoping for a low boot with laces, but since I had only just learned to tie my shoes (and tell time too, I know, both late of age) I thought that a bit of a stretch.  We arrived inside the store and he began to tell the manager all about this low-grade product… what kind of store was he operating here?...did they just sell junk? All along that same track for some time until: “Oh, you want a receipt?—that’s how you’re going to play it?” (I use this same tone of voice to this day).  At this point the guy caved in and said “Buddy, I don’t believe you bought those shoes here but if you can find the same pair on the rack I’ll exchange them”.  Now I have to tell you that I was astonished at (and admiring of) his boldness, but figured at this point he would be discovered, he would be arrested and I would go to the Boys Home at Pruntytown (weird, isn't it, how some of you shudder still at that word?).  Do you know those exact shoes, same size and all, were on the shelf?  It took me a year to wear another hole in them.  Going home, he actually made it sound like it was proper, that someone paid for them, and therefore they should have been compensated.  Looking back he would have made a great lawyer.

Now please, don’t think I am justifying this; I only tell it because it happened, more or less along those lines, maybe with a little more flourish as I wrote it.  If you are looking for a greater point here, I’m not sure you will find it.  I still think of my father as a hero, I never really went through a phase when I did not.  Once in college some professor asked us to write an essay on who we admired “All my heroes are coal miners," I said.

I remain,


Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Entry 4: I Am An Illegal Alien

Dear Friends

February 12, 2014

RE:           Entry 4

My wife’s family often tells the story of an uncle, born in this country to Italian immigrants.  He grew up, went to public schools and graduated just in time to be drafted into the United States Army for World War II.  He fought across the Pacific, in both the artillery and the infantry, in some of the signature campaigns of that war.  Until the end of his life it affected him, not unduly—or admittedly—so, but he would have nightmares of Japanese snipers and he would dive out of and under the bed, nearly sixty years after those snipers had long since died or surrendered.  I guess I am making the point that he, as much as any child born of Mayflower descendants, earned the right to be called an American.

After he was mustered out of the army, he returned home and began looking for work.  The story so often told begins here, as he and a few of his friends went to apply for work at a local aluminum plant that was built during the war.  Upon speaking with the appropriate personnel at the plant and divulging some of the details necessary for consideration, they were all told “We Don’t Hire Foreigners”.   So this war veteran, son of immigrants, born in America, found another job at another place and basically forced the people of this country to let him have his part of the dream he fought to preserve for the rest of them.  I only heard him tell this once and he laughed about it.

There is a debate going on in America today over immigration.  It is often couched in terms of “border security”  or “economic opportunity”, both important points, no doubt, but the same debate has raged through the history of America; as a land of immigrants-- but also subject to the injustices of human nature—the last group in seems to help bar the door to the ones who may follow.  In the age post 9/11, some arguments are valid, security concerns leading to the barring of entry to foreigners; some arguments are cynical, as politicians have now recognized a new and potentially huge voting bloc and have, if some correctly accuse, sought to debase the value of citizenship to the vagaries of politics.  Citizenship does and should have a value, and to denigrate that value does undermine all of our rights eventually.  I will leave that part of the discussion to others.

My concern is the role of Christians in this debate. I suppose it is fairly obvious that I have a bias in this argument, that being a bias in favor of the individual immigrant.  A little simplistic I admit, but it is a considerably more difficult to homogenize one person, to demonize one person, to so group one person into some amorphous lump that they lose their identity and become easier to hate, fear or otherwise type. Why is it that some as Christians love the mission field and yet fear the same people living among us?  Is it politics?  Does “conservatism” or political party trump the great commission? Or is the great commission only effective at a safe distance? I have found it fascinating how many good and true Christians are against any type of immigration (or “immigration reform” whatever that means).  I have been conducting a rather unscientific poll, asking people randomly for several months, or otherwise engaging them in conversation on the subject.  And I would say the matter is fairly settled, at least in my poll, is that it is variously (a) wrong, (b) illegal, (c) dangerous, (d) unfair to those already here and (e) un-American.  Very, very few speak of it in positive terms.  Here comes the fascinating part:  many of those people cannot put together a coherent set of arguments as to why they believe what they do, basically restating cable news or talk radio points.  Yet those believing, practicing Christians are willingly supportive of missions, personal evangelism, personal salvation, and the preaching of the gospel to the individual.  I can’t seem to reconcile in my mind how we can keep two sets of life books—one spiritual life set where we are compelled to go into the streets and drag people into the feast and the other personal, economic, ethnic, [fill in the blank] set, where we are forced to view every stranger as an interloper.  I truly believe what we may call “illegal aliens” the Lord may call “the mission field”.   I want to view my brothers and sisters this way as well.

I often use Hebrews Chapter 11 as a filter, more for prosperity gospel than anything as this subject (another Entry, no doubt) because I often say “reconcile that for me to Hebrews Chapter 11”.  I think I sound like a broken record.  But another part of that book highlights the fact that as a Christian, we are all strangers, aliens, sojourners, looking for something not of this earth, not always finding it here, dying “without receiving the promises” and ultimately “seeking a country of our own”.  Abraham was one of those people—a stranger in a strange land.  He was the original illegal alien.

If only I had the courage to look at it differently, to challenge the conventional wisdom, to ask someone every time they talk about “illegals” that I could realize and tell them that I too am a spiritual stranger in a strange land, I wonder if I could with that knowledge and the gospel help change the world?  Thank the Lord that those who came before me “hired” foreigners, illegal, gentile, or otherwise. 

I remain, 


Saturday, February 8, 2014

Entry 3: Jonah, The Dollar General, and the Whale

Dear Friends

February 8, 2014

Re:  Entry 3

I had an odd occurrence recently.  The local electric utility announced a power outage, temporary, but lasting several hours.  As I would normally be working, I planned meticulously:  cell phone Wi-Fi, IPad with that citrix thing, laptop batteried up, coffee in a thermos and, just in case, a Little Debbie Nutty Bar I bought at the Dollar General just before the end of the world (because, I suppose, I did not want to go into eternity hungry).  I picked a corner office on the south side of the building affording more light exposure in winter-- as every prepper knows.  I wore thermals (forget that it was 35 degrees), layered clothing and what I like to call “Oliver Twist” gloves.  I was prepped, ready.  Those other poor unknowing, hapless, fellow shoppers at the Dollar General, unlike me did not have a clue about real survival, planning, preparation, articulation for the conflagration to come.  I was locked, loaded, and…

It didn’t happen.  They never turned the power off.  At least they didn’t during the time that I sat there (all of thirty-five minutes) before I got bored and abandoned the Apocalypse.  I left weirdly disappointed.

I can’t help compare my little dilemma to the book of Jonah.  You know the book, Jonah and the Whale, three days, the prophetic parallel to Jesus.  He, Jesus that is, in fact referenced Jonah.   When asked for a sign, by some clown in the crowd, Jesus gave a response that many of us interpret, correctly based on his latter explanation, to parallel the crucifixion and resurrection.  He then uses the example of Jonah in another context, when he is explaining that the men of Nineveh will rise up and condemn this generation (whether Jesus meant that generation of his hearers or a future one, or both, is debatable).  He said that the men of Nineveh clearly interpreted the “sign” of Jonah and repented.  He doesn’t say they knew anything about the Whale, and there being no Twitter at the time, it was perfectly reasonable to assume they did not know.  I have always thought that while the Whale story was a plot device on obedience, and a prophecy, it was also a waypoint in the overall mission:  go to Nineveh and preach the gospel.  Now I have read that Nineveh and Israel were enemies, and that going to preach to the enemy was so violently repulsive to Jonah that he went to great lengths to escape it.  Imagine today, we would call him a traitor, that he gave “aid and comfort”.  Put yourself in his shoes, what would you do?  Would you betray the United States to preach the gospel?  We’ve never been put in that position. Yet. Maybe that is how he saw it.

Nonetheless, Jonah did obey, effected by some dark saline cajoling no doubt, and went to Nineveh and began proclaiming the end of the world to his enemy.  Miraculously, upon the opening of his message, those people did the unthinkable and actually repented, changed their ways, reconciled with God.  It does not say that they dropped their enmity of Israel, which apparently did not happen if history is any clue.  They just repented.   Jonah, prepared for the Apocalypse that never happened, went off and pined away for his own death.  The Lord pointed out to him, to no avail, that obedience was important because this was a large city full of many people the Lord did not want to perish—to which point Jonah says something that is astonishing:  "I knew you were going to do that" (save them, that is).  This is how it ends, but all most Christians ever do is jump up and say “Big Fish” when someone says “Whale”.

So is that all that Jesus meant in his references?  Many of the things Jesus said had multiple, or masked meanings, (for example, referring to the Temple and himself simultaneously, confusing those around him).  We have the great benefit of time, history, and interpretation by great learned men and women that those people standing around listening to Jesus did not have.  We consider ourselves superior because of this, not unlike my attitude to my fellow travelers at the Dollar General.  I have heard Christians swoon in how they wished they lived in the time of Jesus, to hear him speak, imagining that they would have been his devout followers.  Not me.  I would more likely have been the Roman throwing dice for his clothes, and lost.  Thank God for the perspective and experience of the saints that came before me. I’m more like Jonah (not in his action, but in his attitude at the end) and am disappointed when the Lord doesn’t condemn my enemies.  So to be disappointed when the power does not go off, or that the Lord does not return to take way my problems, or that I am somehow superior to the people all around me yet all the while taking no responsibility for their welfare (just as the Lord had to make Jonah to do).  We should all hope that the Lord would use us like Jonah and not leave us to our own, selfish, devices.

And yet I think in the words of Jesus on Jonah was a greater, yet more subtle message:  Love your enemies.   No greater eternal way exists to effect that command than to tell those enemies the good news.  That is the sign of Jonah we should be looking for:  When men will abandon all things, personal preferences, national allegiances, likes, dislikes, whatever and love their enemies (however they may define them).  To start, maybe focus on picking that group that you would consider most personally repugnant to your underlying belief as a Christian and make it your mission to love them, pray for them, and help to get the gospel to them.

Or you can be like me, buying a Nutty Bar at the Dollar General hoping the for the Apocalypse to somehow validate you were right all along.  This is called pride and it leads to destruction.

I remain,