Sunday, December 30, 2007

Sermons by Cardinals and Dogwood Trees

Many years ago, (sounds like the beginning of a fairytale doesn't it?) Many years ago I sat in a small white frame country church during a spring revival and I listened, using only one ear as the preacher gave us hell fire and brimstone and tried to put the fear of God in us by trying to tell us that the commies were coming and our lives would be worth nothing unless we, “gave our hearts to Jesus.” We sang a few rounds of Just As I Am and we went to the basement for cookies. I was nearly twelve or maybe just over that mark.

The next night I went back, we sang some rousing gospel songs, prayed between them, scared up a few more bucks for the evangelist to take back to his Indian Reservation Mission in some part of the Oklahoma Territory and then we prayed some more and then he preached. This time I turned him and his anti communism laced sermon off, the cold war had been over for a few years, (I'd never been through a duck and cover drill,) I really wasn't concerned that the CCCP was most likely the Antichrist. Instead I sat in the blond oak pew and looked out the window as, “heaven and nature sang.” The view was serene, a beautiful red cardinal sat on a branch in a dogwood tree with pristine white blossoms, each shaped like a cross. Even then at such a young age, just starting in the church, I knew that the real sermon was being preached outside that window.

Outside the window I could see creation at its perfection, a gnarled tree covered in white crosses, a blood red cardinal seemingly enthroned in the tree, his song more beautiful than any hymn I had ever heard. I wanted to nudge someone and point it out, two things kept me from it, I knew better than to nudge in church and secondly, I was sure that they wouldn't see what I was seeing. I knew even then, not everyone sees or hears things like I do, they see and hear things like they do.

Instead of there being cookies and a meet and greet with the evangelist that night, we lined up at the door to shake his hand and hear an invitation to, “come back t'mar.” He stood at the door in a western cut suit in a shade of green usually reserved for shady used car salesmen, a bolo tie and rattlesnake boots. I stood behind my aunt who had taken me to church with her, the evangelist invited her back as he pumped her arm like she was a pitcher pump, she went out the door into the warm spring evening. The man in his cowboy clothes shook my hand and said, “you should pay attention to me instead of lookin' outta that winder.” I said nothing, I didn't go back either.

I can see that tree, amass of white blossoms and that bird in contrast perched on the branch as vividly today as I could on that warm spring evening.

A year or so later I was a baptized member of that small country church. I never told anyone what the wannabe cowboy preacher said to me and I never told anyone about what I saw outside of that window, until now.

While in junior-high school, no such thing as middle schools then, I made friends with a boy my age named Dan, we weren't exactly close at that time, I couldn't even say now how we even met, but I liked him, it was that simple. As we progressed through high school together our friendship grew. We don't hear from one another much any more, but I still think of him as my brother. His parents called me son #4. His father was a preacher in a Baptist church across the county and I transferred my membership from the little country white frame church to the little bigger ochre brick country church on the other side of the county.

Driving cross town on the way to church, midweek prayer meeting and then choir practice I had time to think. I thought often about the sermon outside of the window and how beautiful it was. I would sing to myself, “...he speaks and the sound of his voice, is so sweet the birds hush their singing...” If the clamoring cowboy had quit talking would he have heard the preaching of the cardinal? If he had hushed his, “singing” he could have heard the sermon that the bird was giving.

Dan and I grew up together in many ways, a lot of folks called me Dan by mistake, I never cared, after all we were/are brothers. Dan and I sat with our peers while his father preached gentle and loving messages about God's mercy and grace. Through his sermons I came to know that God loved me, no matter what and our relationship would never be different, God loved me, case closed. I'll never forget Rabbi, as I called Dan's father, preaching a sermon called, “Who Does God Love?” He started out with prisoners, the drunken, (remember we were Baptists,) thieves, murderers and Don and Thelma and Martha and Robert and Jerry and Hester and the list went on, he named every person in that sanctuary, not in the order they were seated, but randomly and he included the choir seated behind him and he ended by saying, “and God loves me, and I don't know why because I'm a sinner. Please remember, I don't stand before you as your judge, but next to you as the accused. Yet, God loves me just as I am.”

I know there were those who looked out the windows at the growing corn after their name had been called, maybe they were seeing a sermon unfold outside the window, others were keeping score trying to catch him, surely Rev. Stan would miss one and they could be mad at him for doing so. There were those who were simply not listening.

One evening that autumn I sat in the living room with Rabbi and Mom II, the fireplace was going, Rabbi reading the paper, Mom II knitting and I sat on the floor next to Mom II's chair. She was still teaching 3rd grade and probably was in her 24th year at the local township grade school. Dan was a freshman in college. I looked across the bookshelf, these books, next to Mom II's chair were her books. The Shepherd of the Hills, a few children's books, some helps for Sunday School teachers and two other books, the titles of which I've never forgotten, one titled, The Geranium on the Windowsill Died and You Kept on Talking, the other, You Think Just Because You're Big You're Right.

I asked Mom II about them, she told me that both books written by the same man, an elementary school teacher, learned these lessons from children in his classroom over the years. He wrote them so that other teachers wouldn't make the same mistakes that he did. She told me that I could read them. I declined, I knew what they said just by the titles.

“The geranium died,” this title reminded me of the Cowboy Evangelist, he talked right through the sermon outside the window, “and he just kept on talking.” Rabbi looked up from his news paper and said, “The other will mean more to you later.” Once again, this man who knew who God loved, knew that the other title would mean much more when I became a man.

It does mean much more, it reminds me of the Cowboy Preacher who tried to tell me in his own way that, “just because he was big he as right.” and that I should listen to him. I see now that each of us as we walk through our daily lives have moments, hours, days, weeks and or months when we think that we are big and we are right. I do, I won't lie about it. I miss the dead geranium on the windowsill too and what's more, I forget at times where I stand, judge or accused.

I'm grateful for a God of grace who doesn't forget where my place is. He's big and he's right and he never ignores the dead geranium or the preaching cardinal, after all, “His grace is sufficient for all.”

12 Comments:

Blogger Carl said...

You never cease to amaze me with your wonderful stories. How wonderful that you have such a great memory and can recall the happy times as a child. Keep on keeping on. I love to read every word.

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Blogger Don Bryant said...

Thank you Uncle for your confidence and encouragement, I am grateful for your love, and the way that you believe in me.

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