A Son of the South: Raw Cotton & Hope

Not long ago I signed up for something on Facebook. The reason – the name. Bourbon & Boots. Today I got an email – an ad no less for Raw Cotton.

Get your lb of cotton at http://www.bourbonandboots.com/

For $25 you can buy a pound of cotton from North Carolina – The Cottonman. I think that’s awesome and I’m thinking of buying some but not just because I like cotton. Rather, it is because the first time I saw cotton fields they captured my imagination and led to an experience that I’m not likely to forget.

I was driving in rural Alabama. It was the time of the cotton harvest. It was a beautiful day – which is mostly the case in the Deep South (even when it is so hot it feels like someone wrapped you in a wool blanket and poured hot water over it). The sun was out – but there was something white blowing across the road. I had seen white stuff blowing across the road before – but that was when it was gray and cold and the sky full of clouds. This wasn’t snow.

It was cotton. Some bits and pieces pulled free from huge cotton bundles on trailers as trucks took them down the road. Other bits and pieces blew from the once white fields made mostly brown/black stalks by enormous, green harvesters. The fields were a jumble of sticks and dirt and bits of left behind cotton.

Harvesting Cotton John-Deere-7760

Cotton and cotton fields have long-held a place in my imagination. As a little boy I was drawn to Civil War history, to Mark Twain, and pretty much anything to do with the south, her history and culture. Cotton and plantations were always somewhere in the background of my imagination. The reason, I think, was quite simple. I could not make sense of it.

What I mean is that I have always loved the south but as young boy I couldn’t make sense of the painful, sad parts of her history – which was most often represented in my minds eye by cotton fields. I can close my eyes and see them – the white fields – plucked clean now by machines – where once they were filled with men, women and children – stooping, pulling, and filling sacks. It is hard not to connect the full white fields to days when Americans “lawfully” enslaved people. In the land born of liberty and freedom there was slavery, injustice, and oppression; all for money. That painful, sad history extended beyond the fields, entering into city ordinances, state laws, churches, and schools and my imagination.

Black people picking cotton while their white overseer rides a horse (Photographer unknown, ca. 1895)

It took the law of love to bring change. It was encouraged by pastors and extended by children, some as young as six. The children went from churches – marching to pray, singing hymns and spirituals as they went, all the while suffering abuse and jail from their fire-hose and dog wielding oppressors. This history is not lost on me as a Christian, a student of history, and a southerner who hates racism while loving the south (and one who for love of union and abolition is glad “we” lost the war).

And yet – now the image of cotton fields reaches into my imagination and memory reminding me that even out of pain and sadness there is hope. God’s children are not without suffering. We are not without pain and sadness. And yet there is hope – God can bring good out of the worst possible places, out of slavery, out of racism, and out of the cotton fields of Alabama.

My family and I were living in Alabama – a state filled with places that look like a scenes from To Kill a Mockingbird. A friend, Mark, invited me, to attend an unusual gathering of folks. Mark ran a farm of sorts near the campus of Alabama A & M. All the work Mark and others put into raising food was so that poor people could eat. Mark believed that God wanted him to farm (despite not knowing anything about farming) and give the food to the poor. Turns out the Bible supports that notion – and Christians are to care about folks flourishing – it has something to do with shalom.

It also turns out that many folks really needed the help (that’s true everywhere but AL is the third poorest state in the US – “23.4 percent of households said they were unable to afford enough food, which is the second highest rate in the country“). It also turns out that folks wanted to help. That included Alabama A&M – which provided the land as well as a canning facility. It also included local farmers who brought crates of fruits and veggies to give. Whether they knew it or not they were living out of an Old Testament practice of leaving enough food in the field for the poor to glean. When it came time to harvest, men, women, children stooped, pulled, and filled sacks stooped, buckets and crates; poor people, white, black – just people.

When all the work was done folks didn’t leave. Instead they started to gather in a large, hanger like building that had once been A&M’s cannery. This was what Mark had invited me to witness; it was an experience I will not easily forget. Folks began to gather at one end of the building, in a close semi-circle. They sat on buckets, chairs, and the concrete floor. An elderly, African-American gentlemen sat down and the shuffle of feet subsided. Mark looked at me with a big smile as the gentlemen began to sing.

I did not know the song. I had never heard it before and at first I thought he was making it up – beautiful, soulful as it was. Then, just as he finished the first chorus – folks around me joined him. They filled the room with their voices, with their songs, and they were tied to the fields painful, sad history.

There was no way for me to know the words to the songs. These were not my songs because these were songs born out of the pain and sadness of slavery, of injustice, of oppression. They were songs born in the fields and tied to the cotton field’s history of pain and sorrow songs BUT not left there. These slave songs were born out of pain but written and sung and passed down with hope that God by His Son and through His Spirit would redeem his people. 

What I saw that day was truly one of the most amazing worship services I’ve ever seen. I didn’t know the first song. I could only stand back and listen. Mark couldn’t help smiling at me. “It’s like this every week,” he said.

That worship experience was more than fourteen years ago. I’m not even sure if Mark is still farming – we moved away from AL six years ago. Yet I can close my eyes and just about hear them sing. They sang songs that had been passed down to them by their parents and grandparents, slave songs – which, though born out of something terrible, connected them to the same hope and joy which has lifted God’s people up since Adam. They knew the same God who sets the captives free in the Bible is the same God who set their great grandparents free, set them and their children free from injustice and  sets them free in Jesus.

So they sang the same songs their ancestors sang. They sang as the Psalms teach God’s people to sing and to pray; fully, holding nothing back.  The Spirit filled their songs, reminding them (and teaching me) that God does bring good from the painful, broken, sad, places of our lives.

In the Old Testament book of Psalms – David (the Psalmist) wrote, “For the LORD loves justice; he will not forsake his saints. They are preserved forever, but the children of the wicked shall be cut off. (Psalm 37:28 ESV). It is an extraordinary claim – isn’t it? It is if you believe it (which I do). When we are in the midst of painful, sad places we often have trouble believing this about God – especially when it seems like nothing will change or God is taking a very long time. Kilian McDonnell, OSB, has a book of poetry the title of which captures this feeling: Swift, Lord, You Are Not.

If you haven’t spent much time in the Bible you might be surprised to find that it isn’t all “puppy dogs and rainbows.” In fact, it is true to life – telling humanities story and God’s intervention in sometimes graphic terms. Some folks struggle with that aspect but I think it is quite helpful because most folks I know struggle with one thing or another. I don’t have much capacity for the pushers of Pollyanna theology, the “God just wants you to be happy and healthy and rich” – you know the big ego, big stadium, big hair kind of folks. I’m not sure what version of the Bible they are reading – if they are at all.

The Old Testament doesn’t skip over the bad parts. Those slaves songs, like the Scriptures, were passed down from parents to children (Deut 6). They were meant to prepare people for life in a fallen world and point them in a Godward direction. Sometimes I think we do kids a bad turn when, in an effort to protect them, we insulate them from reality. They are bound to have troubles because, until Jesus comes, that’s the way of the world. There are things beyond our control and we’d do better by our kids to prepare them – shape their character and their moral imagination.

The Psalms, in particular, give shape to the way God’s children learn to pray and sing and live. Reading them gives a person the full scope of life. The people who sang  and prayed these Psalms had once been slaves in Egypt, and they sang of God’s deliverance.  They knew pain and sorrow – a great deal of which was their own fault (which sound familiar to me). They also tasted injustice and hatred – and they cried out to God. Psalm 137 is one of those Psalms; it is written from anguish and heartbreak: “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our lyres. For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill! Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy! (Psalm 137:1-6 ESV)”

These were God’s people – they had been carried away in exile. They knew pain and sadness well. Their lives were ripped open. They were mocked, abused, forced to leave their home. They knew hardship and pain in ways that I don’t even want to imagine. But they wrote about it – as prayer to God. 

What stands out to me is the fact that this text still remains. It is a painful Psalm to read because of the anguish, the anger, the pain. It was a dark time in the lives of God’s people, a terrible time. And yet, this Psalm, marked this time and it was passed on from one generation to another – down to this very day. 

I think I know why – at least I can speculate. The Babylonian Empire hasn’t existed for – well a very long time but God’s people still do. Apparently, God really does love justice and he does keep His saints. I also think what is expressed in this Psalm gives shape to the way God’s people pray and sing. Because sometimes we feel the way they did and because God delivered His people – and still does.

That’s not to say that the bad times we go through aren’t bad. Sometimes all we have to hold onto is a stubborn resolve that God will do as He has said. That’s when Psalms like “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” (Psalm 30:5 ESV) and “You have turned for me my mourning into dancing; you have loosed my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness, that my glory may sing your praise and not be silent. O LORD my God, I will give thanks to you forever!” (Psalm 30:11-12 ESV) give shape to the way we think and pray. I think Psalms like these are most beneficial when things stink – really stink. They may help us to rejoice when the time is right but they also form our lips to sing, to pray, to hope for the day when we will be dancing, clothed with gladness and singing forever. They point to the fact that one day this will be true of God’s people.

The New Testament shapes our hearts for the tough parts as well – and it gives shape to hope. In the New Testament book of Romans – chapter 8 – Paul wrote, “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, Abba! Father!” A bit later in the same chapter it says  “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good.” (Romans 8:15, 28).

Verses like these giving shape to our hopes by telling us that we are God’s children. We have been adopted by God (and I love adoption); we are His sons and daughters. Of course, our adoption is made possible through Christ – that’s what Paul is trying to tell us – our place is sure in Christ.

But something else gives shape to our hope – its phrase cry Abba or Father. When does a child “cry out” for their dad? In times of pain and trouble, of course. And – since we know we are his sons and daughters we know that we can do that – approach God as Father in the midst of troubles.

But how does we hope a father will respond? Well, in all honesty I don’t alway respond with the sort of kindness and compassion that I should. Sometimes when my sons cry out I’m busy and I don’t want to be bothered. Well – that’s my way but not God’s way.

Children also cry out in moments of joy and surprise. That’s always a good sound – when your kids are glad to see you – when they say, “I love you.” When they thank you for the good things you’ve done for them.

But this “crying out” in times of pain and joy both have an element, an expectation of hope linked to them. Hope that the one who hears the cry will care respond and step toward us – make things good and right. That’s where Romans 8:28 fits into this: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good.” (Romans 8:28).

Isn’t this a nagging verse? Is the Bible giving an assurance that things will turn out for good for God’s people? It sure seems so…But isn’t this the hope we long for? 

I think it is. Even though we may not understand why it is that we go through things and they may be terrible – in the midst of them we want and need hope that things will work for good. God gives this hope to His children which is part of the way we can  persevere. In fact, I believe the story of the Bible is wrapped up in this hope – that Christ by His life, death and resurrection makes new lives out of broken ones (something I can personally attest), sets captives free (and we are captive to something), restores human beings to God, brings peace (shalom) to fractured relationships, and brings light into dark places. The essence of the Biblical story is that God, through Christ, redeems the painful, sad parts of life and makes them good as only God can.

I think this hope has carried God’s people from the time of Adam until now – ultimately God will restore all things and make things right and good. I think it was this hope that shaped the slave songs. Their assurance was bound up in Jesus in ways I could only image. Jesus turned their mourning into gladness – even as they worked those fields. The foundation of their songs wasn’t sorrow, nor self-pity – it was hope, a hope in Christ, a hope that all their suffering and hardship was going to turn out for good. It is a hope that all God’s children can sing about.

I may buy a pound after all…

Links and Resources:

  • Learn to sing the Psalms: http://psalter.org/
  • Want to know more about Civil Rights & The Children’s Crusade – Birmingham 1963 http://library.thinkquest.org/  http://www.pbs.org/godinamerica/interviews/clayborne-carson.html http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/face/Home.jsp  http://www.history.com/topics/civil-rights-movement   http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/freedomriders                                      See King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html
  • Check out the history of Negro Spirituals, Cabin Music and Slave Songs http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/singers/             http://www.negrospirituals.com/news-song/index.htm           http://ctl.du.edu/spirituals/                                                                               Honey in the Rock: The Ruby Pickens Tartt Collection of Religious Folk Songs By Olivia Solomon, Jack Solomon
  • Check out the ad for Raw Cotton here: Raw Cotton | Cotton Man | Bourbon & Boots.
  • Want to learn more about the South and the Civil War – Professor David Blight’s course from Yale on The Civil War and Reconstruction – Lecture 2 is all about King Cotton. They are free and worth the listen.
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The Struggle For Joy

Every year Sherry and I try to set a theme for the year. The last two years we kept the same theme (we liked it so we kept it). So 2009 and 2010 were the year(s) of laughter. That was born out of the fact that almost every thing we encountered when it came to TV or movies seemed to be obsessed with death in some form. It isn’t like we watch a lot of TV – or movies. But we do enjoy a few programs (especially Master Piece Theater on PBS – don’t mock me – they are really well done programs). So, we made sure that we watched TV shows and movies – as well as focused on laughter – and we laughed a lot. That was good.

This year we went a bit more spiritual – which is something you’d expect from a pastor his wife and kids. We decided that 2011 was going to be the year of joy. The end of 2010 we talked about it – and tried to think of what that would look like. We told a very good friend of our decision to declare 2011 the year of joy. He smiled (he may have actually laughed – it still being 2010 and all) and politely reminded us that joy is often something we have to struggle for. “You’re right,” we said. Nevertheless, joy is something worth struggling for – we just were not sure what sort of things we’d have to struggle to have joy.

Have you ever given that much thought? Have you ever thought about the place of joy in your own life? Perhaps you have. Joy is a funny thing in many ways. It is one of those things that we most often notice when it seems to be missing from our lives. The Bible speaks a lot about joy.

One place in particular draws my attention to this notion of struggling for joy. The Psalmist, in Ps 30:5 wrote, “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” And Psalm 126:5 says, “Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy!”

Those Psalms make me think about this notion of joy coming on the heals of struggle. That seems to be a pretty consistent picture throughout the Bible and it is consistent in terms of being an accurate portrayal of what it means to be human. Joy is often related to struggle. In fact, we may not even be able to fully appreciate joy until we have struggled.

The struggle for joy is real – very real. There are all sorts of things that come up that create a challenge for us to have joy. That became clearer to me as the subject of forgiveness occupied a huge chunk of the day. If there was ever anything that could cause a person to have to struggle for joy – it would indeed be forgiveness. Think about that for a moment. Think about times when you knew that you had to go to someone who you had wronged. Think about the times when you knew you needed to forgive someone else. Think about the struggle that you may have accepting the fact that God – through Christ – moves toward you to forgive you and draw you to Himself.

There is a tremendous scene in the book Les Miserables (if you’ve never read that book – believe me – you are missing out – again don’t mock me for reading French literature – I’m smarter than I look). Jean Valjean is one of if not the main character. He is a convict whose life was “redeemed” by Christ through the life of a priest (Bishop). But Jean Valjean was never really ever supposed to know forgiveness or redemption or restoration according to the culture of the day. Throughout the novel he is tormented, chased by his past and by Inspector Javert. Javert will not rest until Valjean is punished forever. He is zealous for the law. Valjean has experienced grace.

There is a powerful scene where Jean Valjean has a chance to escape forever. A man is arrested and the authorities think he is Valjean. Valjean can keep his mouth shut. He has lived a good life. He had done loads of charity work. He has totally changed his life. Helped the poor. He was a well-respected mayor. He was a good man. So one night he comes to terms with himself. He goes back and forth in this great scene wrestling with the notion of forgiveness. It is a powerful scene as good and evil wrestle within the heart of this man. In the end though, I’d have to say that it was as much as struggle for joy as it was about good and evil and his sense of forgiveness.

I will not spoil the end of the novel for you (the movie doesn’t include it – sorry you’ll have to read). But the picture of Jean Val Jean struggling for joy even in his own soul is a profound picture to me. Especially because so many people have to wrestle with the notion of what it means to both forgive and to be forgiven. Many of us think often of the people who have wronged us in some ways. We may mouth the words, “I forgive you” but in our heart of hearts there is still a very deep burn. Many more of us can read or hear these words, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). We may nod, say amen, but we still walk away from those words with a lump in our throat – wondering, could it be true.

Forgiveness contributes to the struggle joy. Of, sure, there are other things that add to that struggle. But today, as I thought about forgiveness and thought about joy I could not help but think about the intersection of these two things.

I know people who feel deep joy – inexpressible joy – each time they take the Lord’s Supper. They are overwhelmed because they have tasted – not just the bread and wine – but God’s forgiveness for them. As their pastor – serving them – I’ll tell you there is nothing more electric than seeing the anticipation in their eyes as they take the bread and cup in their hands.

There are others who hold such animosity in their hearts that joy is foreign to them. What they have tasted, even as they often take the bread and cup, is not forgiveness and joy but bitterness, regret and perhaps as a result apathy.

As the discussion of forgiveness came up I wondered aloud about the starting place of forgiveness. Some theologians would argue that it begins with reconciliation – I’m pretty sure that’s missing something theologically. Some would say it begins with hell and we work our way out from there – I know that’s missing something. Some would say it begins with the cross – and I think they are right. It starts where we start – as human beings – in light of our creation as God’s children and in light of God’s move of love toward us. We see that best in light of the cross.

But, when I think about the ways in which I have to struggle for joy when it comes to forgiveness – when it comes to think about who wronged who (or whom), or how I see myself in light of being forgiven (or not) – it seems too big – too grand of thing to think of the way that God has forgiven us (and me). But when I think of what it means to be human – and the deep desire that God has created within my heart for joy – and what a challenge forgiveness is in the struggle for joy, then I think, maybe the starting part of forgiveness is joy.

What I mean the starting point for forgiveness may be that God intended men and women to be people of joy. The whole notion of being restored by the gospel is seen in the Fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5). “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness…”So perhaps the place for “us” to begin when we think about forgiving or being forgiven is with joy. We were made for joy but we may have to struggle for it. We may have to wrestle with forgiveness. But I think in our heart of hearts we want joy. As human beings the motive to move through the process of forgiveness is in the end because we know we have to struggle for joy.

When Sherry and I thought about this being the year of joy – well – we intended it in some ways to fall right along with the year of laughter. It does not work like that. Joy is more than happiness and it is certainly more than just laughter. It is something that we were made for but it is also something that we often have to struggle for. But I’m confident the struggle is worth it – at least the proverbs seems to imply that, “A joyful heart is good medicine” (Pro 17:22).

Next year, however, it might just be the year of BBQ – that’s probably good medicine for my heart too.

 

This is the best BBQ I know of…and I’ve eaten some great BBQ – but this takes top billing in my book.

If you ever want to try it – it is in Bluff City, TN. Not far from the Race Track. It will make you slap your granny it is so good.

It brings our family great joy!

In the Perpetual Ruins

This morning I came across Psalm 74:3 and the words that spoke to me in some strange way. The Psalmist cries out in prayer – asking for God to, “Direct your steps to the perpetual ruins…”

For some reason I wanted to cling to that part of this passage – not so much for some fatalistic, black cloud, hopeless reason. Rather, I think it is right and fitting that these words would give shape to the way that people cry out to God.There is something about seeing the world from the perspective of a perpetual ruin that draws me to hope in the gospel all the more. In fact, the whole notion of working for the renewal of all things and the promise of Jesus that He has come to restore us God and to bring about the fullness of God’s Kingdom is the only counter to the notion of ruin.

That’s what is so astounding to me. There are some things – some words – some ideas – which will not exist in the fullness of God’s kingdom. Ruin is one of those things. When Christ comes – and fully and finally directs His steps to this perpetual ruin – all ruin will be gone – forever and ever.

But there is more to the notion of perpetual ruin – because it speaks to me about me. I find, the older I get, the more ruined I become – physically. Now, I’m not old, really. I’m middle-aged – hopefully. I’m young by a lot of standards. But I’m feeling the change in my body. I can’t run or lift or hike or swim or eat like I used to. In fact I’m in the shape I’m in because of the way I did run, lift, etc. But I’m trying to get in shape – but I’m fitting a loosing battle to some extent. I’m fighting against the perpetual ruin of my physical body.

But When Christ comes in His fullness – when He steps toward this perpetual ruin – I will be made new, whole, not for a while – but forever. There will be no more ruined knees, or back, or shoulder, or neck (thank you contact sports). There will be wholeness.

So, I can pray as the Psalmist prayed – asking God to “step toward these and this perpetual ruin” and know that in many ways I am really praying as John prayed in Revelation “Amen – Come Lord Jesus!” Direct your steps to our perpetual ruin!