I have lived my life by way of stories.
It comes with the territory of being a preacher. I have carefully written down, chronicled, recorded many of my stories in my blog, South of God, writing down experiences in my life. And, I have attempted to make sense of life through these stories, as I author my own,
I have also collected stories of others, filing them away in my mind, computer, and manila folders. I have a particular affinity for Sufi stories that literally seem to dance. And some of the Hasidic stories I got from Rabbi Abraham Heschel are particularly poignant. But a lot of stories come from simply listening and paying attention to the stories folks tell. I used to love sitting with old men and women, as they shared their stories. Now, I R one.
My friend, John Claypool, who was recognized as one of the great preachers of a generation, once told me of going to a church while on vacation. John was a bit surprised to hear the preacher trot out one of his stories with not so much as a head fake, acknowledging the source. As John left the service at the conclusion, the preacher thanked him for the story, adding, “When I buy someone’s book, I feel like I own the stories they share. They are mine.” Brass.
John shared the story with me over a glass of wine, with a smile on his face. My academic self-righteousness must have been showing, thinking it was the unforgiveable sin of the academy: plagiarism. As my elder brother in the art of preaching, John responded with a wisdom I had not yet attained: “David, we’re all just passing the biscuits.” What a perfect way to put it. God, I miss my elder brother.
My daughter gifted me a year ago with a birthday present that sends you a prompting question for you to reflect on your life and the stories you have both heard and made. This week, the question was asking what was my favorite story. I have many, including a fateful trip to New Orleans at the Sugar Bowl that had the Dooley Dogs tangling with the Irish from Notre Dame, bringing together two mammoth fan bases for the tilt. At a New Year’s party, I convinced my brother to hop a Delta jet, (thanks Dad!) in order to chase down a girl I was dating. I found her on the corner of Bourbon and Toulouse….and she became my wife.
There is the story of the two leopards on the beach on Cumberland Island. And there’s the hopping a freight train at the Emory campus, hoping it might be going to Athens. It didn’t……but almost landed my ass in jail. There’s my time as a bouncer at a hot club at the Prado. And of course, the plane flight over the island of Eleuthera, piloted by the leading drug runner in the Caribbean, winding up being questioned by a banana republic police captain. almost ending the careers of a future doctor, a lawyer, a dentist, a business man, and a priest. As Buffett says, ah, the stories we could tell.
My favorite story is paradigmatic to my approach to life. My grandfather took me fishing with “the boys”, the members of the Friendship Class, the old men’s class at Oakland City Baptist Church. It was a rite of passage, a Baptist bar mitzvah, as a sign of becoming a man, though I was probably pushing seven.
We were at Dr. McCartney’s lake, a friend of my granddad who had a farm/ranch in West Georgia. His pond, referred to as a tank in Texas, was not big and provided relief from the hot Georgia sun for his cattle, which could make for some interesting fishing.
My grandfather had provided me a Zebco rod and reel. His one goal for the day was for me to catch my FIRST fish. He wanted to share his love of fishing, of being in nature, and he hoped to witness my initiation in the club. We fished from a boat in the deeper part of the lake where the cows would not go. We fished from a jon boat in the middle of lake. We fished from the bank of the dam, usually highly productive. No luck. The fish were not biting.
As the day wore on, my grandfather looked concerned. Finally we moved on the bank with a slight grade, where the cattle could easily enter their watery relief, their bovine spa . After many casts, and my grandfather exhorting me to hold my mouth “just right”, my red and white bobber suddenly went down, signaling a fish had taken my bait. He cried out, “Reel ‘er in boy!”
I laid back on the Zebco and reeled as fast as I could. My pole bent with the weight and force of the fish, my Zebco reel screaming resistance. The large bass, the delicious kind that Napoleon Dynamite would cook for his girl, broke the surface of the water, shaking his head from side to side, as if to say, “No you don’t, little man.”
But I kept at it, reeling him closer and closer to shore. Finally, I saw his silver skin beneath the water, darting here, then there, reflecting the lowering sun’s rays.. I had him….or at least I thought I did.
As I got the fish to the bank, his belly slid on the red Georgia clay of that pond, which caused just enough friction to cause a pause, releasing the critical tension, allowing the hook to come out of its precarious place on his lip. He was free from the pull of my desire. Free, and yet he did not yet realize it.
This is part of what theologian Paul Tillich meant, when he waxed about the Eternal Now, the invasive present moment of eternity invading into our lives. I have framed that moment in my mind, both my sense of pause, and the fish’s ignorance of his own freedom.
In the moment, out of my peripheral vision, I saw a flash of movement from my right. It was my grandfather choosing to dive into the water, wanting to save my first fish for me. I remember the explosion of the water as he hit, and my surprise accompanied by my native child laugh, the kind of laugh you offer before you are taught better. “Unbridled” is a favorite descriptor of mine, and could be used at this Now moment.
There he was sitting in the water of the lake, droplets pouring off his bald head as his straw hat floated on the water.
Now, when I was preaching, I would tell this story and refuse to tell the end of the story. Did he get it? And I would respond,”That is not the point.” My point, and what I carried away from that moment was that he wanted something so badly, he was willing to dive in, to give his all, put it all out there, 110%…I’ve heard it expressed in a variety of ways. Now that I am his age, I now know just how big a risk that was….life and limb. But he jumped in.
And I took it as my special experiential gift from my beloved grandfather, Glen Pollard, a retired Atlanta policeman. That’s how he was. That moment held the essence of who he was as a person. And, by God, that is how I wanted to be. Just like my hero, my private John Wayne, with a heart of gold. And as Merle Haggard nailed it, I tried.
And by the way, the fish was delicious.