As a young college student, preoccupied with making sense of my own religious background, confronted by hard-nosed science, I found a defense mechanism that could get me through the night.
It’s called humor.
My grandmother, who I talked about a few weeks ago, who claimed she was a witch, had a wicked sense of humor. Her Scots rapier wit would slice and dice, making a comment about someone she wanted to cut down to size. She could be cruel but mostly her McBrayer wit was employed for fun as she mastered pre-Seinfeldian observational humor about the world around her.
My grandfather, the Atlanta cop, had a bone dry sense of humor that got him through some tight spaces. My favorite example of his sense of humor is found in his comment when he noticed that birds in his yard “messed’ on his Chevrolet. He would pause, look up into the pecan tree, and remark, “They sing for some folks.” As a kid, I thought that was a hilarious comment, seeing comedy in the middle of less than optimal conditions. I have tried to follow in his giant footsteps in similar situations in the church.
My mother was sort of a combination of both. I have told the story of her “taking down” the mayor of East Point, a notorious “clothes horse”, as he would parade in front of the church as an usher. She got his attention while he was passing the collection plate one Sunday morning, whispering to him that his “fly was down”. He quickly put the collection plate over his crotch, retreating to the back of the church to remedy the situation, only to find he had been “had” by Miss Doris. Then, there was the time in a Bible class that she asked Dr. Jones, the pastor, how the officials in the Jewish Temple knew whether or not a person was circumcised. When Dr. Jones, holding back his laugh, allowed that there were qualified people appointed to check, my mother raised her hand again, asking if she could volunteer.
These are all stories I plan to offer to a jury of my so-called peers when I am brought to trial as reasons behind my defense of lunacy. A waxing moon, indeed. Just a family, south of God.
So when I was living in the scientific bastion of Emory University, I was informally confronted with my prior life within the Baptists South of God. Half of our student body was Jewish, which raised some natural questions I did not have to confront in my prior life in the southside of Atlanta. It was like I got the experience of going to college in the North without freezing my tookus off!
The context of my time at Emory was the early 70s. It was a time in our country where evangelicals did not spend their time defending a corrupt President, but were focusing on building up their own kingdoms. There were a menagerie of actors. Pat Robertson with his 700 Club and Regent University. Jerry Falwell with his Moral Majority. Jim Bakker, with wife Tammy Faye and the Heritage USA development. And my favorite, Ernest Angley, who had the worst hair piece, even worst suits, with an effeminate lisp, as he would bellow, “Heal!” that might, in fact, scare the Devil back to the deepest ring of Hell.
In the middle of the milieu, or situation for you South of God folks, I resorted to my McBrayer humor by creating a comic figure that I would trot out on occasion for good humor. Ernest Angley was clearly the base of my impression, with full lisp. But my better impression was really Pat Robertson, with his signature, “Ladies and gentlemen, what we have here is deviancy!” Truth is, it was an amalgam of the whole lot of them.
I would do my imitation at an improvisational setting in the basement of a dorm, or at a late night party where things had definitely gone south. But my favorite venue was the Sigma Chi house, in the kitchen, early, and I mean “EARLY” in the morning at breakfast.
Our fraternity house served breakfast every morning beginning around 6:30, provided by our two cooks, Ethyl and Pearl. These two women “got me through” my Emory education by becoming my mother figures. I can’t begin to tell you how important they were to me, and to most of my fraternity brothers. They could “love you up” when you were down, bring you back to earth if you were bearing an inflated ego. I’ll let you imagine which one they did for me most. But they were better than any psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, guidance counselor, or priest. And their secret was that they loved their boys, and by God, we loved them.
I lived in the house three of my four years in college, and they greeted me every morning. I am not sure how it all started but one day, we decided to “have church” in the kitchen, and I went into my alter, not altar, ego, “The Rev.”. After a few times of me holding forth, either one or both of the two would make the request, “Come on, Rev, give us a sermon” and it was there I learned the fine art of improv. I would take on my character and go for ten minutes or so. And they were a great audience, giving me the “Amen”, or “Hallelujah!” or “Preach!” to drive me to my sermonizing on the sins of the fraternity.
Now, I have to tell you that Sigma Chi at Emory had a bit of a reputation of having a large number of Jesus freaks at the time. Many were involved in Campus Crusade for Christ with the inimitable Four Spiritual Laws that could be recited forward, backward, or exponentionaly by our brethren. They did not take too kindly to my parody of evangelical preachers, which made it much more fun for me. Several of the “strong” Christians would try to protect the holy but vulnerable Christian sisters from the wiles of a traveling evangelist like me. And, thank the Lord, they were successful….mostly.
But my real audience was Ethyl and Pearl. That was my congregation, and they would laugh, guffaw, chortle, and howl, keeping this poor boy sane, thank you, Jesus.
Now at some point, during our summer break, someone stole a sign from a local church, I presume. I think it was Robert Tucker, but I am not sure, in my tottering old age. The sign was a “parking sign” meant for a church parking lot. It was a white painted (white, a noted sign of purity) piece of wood with black letters with the name: Rev. Galloway. How about that! It took it’s place over the window in the kitchen to let anyone know that this was the haunt of the Right Rev. Dr. Galloway, the pastor of the What’s Happening Now Church.
Two more notes from this story to ponder. One, when I was in seminary, I did a directed study where I went to Ethyl and Pearl’s church over near Grant Park. I attended for three months, being a participant/observer, taking notes on how their honest-to-God church functioned on Sunday morning. The mourner’s bench, the prayers, the music, and yes, even the preaching of the legitimate pastor was a blessing to me. But the real gift was to be with my dear mothers, Ethyl and Pearl, in their home setting. Blessing does not even begin to describe the gift I got.
Secondly, it seems that God is the best audience of comedy, or at least, God has a hell of a sense of humor. Going to Emory, trying to make sense of my heritage of Baptists South of God, I happened to launch into a full fledged pilgrimage to find out about this Jesus fellow, and the Spirit that seemed to animate so many people I met and interviewed. I have written before about the odd gift of my first quarter, being introduced to the quest of the historical Jesus that lay beneath the Christ figure we worship. It proved to the the quintessential detective story that has occupied my mind and heart for coming up on three score years.
I had a friend call me earlier in the week, which prompted this article. We wound up talking about his life, what he had done, where he had been, what he had been spent for in his life. He is in the mood of reflection, thinking back on the decisions, good and bad, that he has made. He seems to have little regret but there seems to be a pause, a catch in his step these days. It reminded me of a question that Dr. Bill Graham used to use in his sermon as a “set-up”. He would frame it this way, “People come to me and ask me, ‘Billy, what’s it all about?'”
And that is the existential question we all face: What is this life we are living all about? What gives the time and energy we spend here worth it? Pause. Ponder. Wonder.
What is your answer?
My friend reviewed his commitments to family, to his marriage, to raising children, contributing to our common life serving in a civic capacity. Those were the marks of achievement he pointed to, literally making his case, as it were (he is an attorney). The question must have emerged for him one of those dark nights we all have, but he wanted to face it down in the light of day. We agreed to continue to chase it down, for as long as it takes. I am honored that he has asked me to come alongside him in this quest. I am pretty sure he did not choose me for the sermonizing that he heard me do at the Sigma Chi house, but he knows I am a quester, too. I, too, love the questions of life, and the praxis in which we discover truth.
We all are questers, some more diligent and intentional, but all, making sense out our existence.. We all give our answers in the commitments we make, in the lives we live. While we may philosophize, reflect, and wonder, our real answers are written with our lives.
What’s it all about? Indeed.