From Duke to Uganda

“How long do I have to think about it?”

“I need to know by tomorrow.”

I was in seminary at Duke Divinity School. I had inquired about a field education placement in rural Uganda. Most of the Divinity School’s placements were to rural churches throughout North Carolina and were funded by one of those big endowments. I had already been assigned to a placement on Lake Norman where I could lead worship from a dock in flip-flops with boats anchoring for worship. But a fellow student who had committed to one of the Duke’s intentional placements decided to back out. I heard about it and immediately called about the placement.

I was a place in my life where I wanted adventure. I didn’t have a girlfriend to miss. I had grown up in small town in Georgia and felt I already understood the life of two lane roads, pastures and the local lake. I called up the director of the program.

“Well, why are you interested?” Connie asked.

“I’ve always wanted to go to Africa.”

“Well, Africa is not just one place. This is Uganda in Africa.”

“Yes, that’s what I mean. I have heard Uganda is an amazing country.”

“You’ll be in a Catholic setting working with a priest. How does that set with you as a Methodist?”

“Well, I used to go to the Baptist youth groups on Wednesday nights when I was a kid. I’m pretty ecumenical.”

She thought it over, “Well, we need someone to go and you’re the only candidate we have.”

I wasn’t exactly inspired by those last comments, but I accepted them to be sign of God’s handiwork. Everyone else around the Divinity School seemed to be happy with their summer placements and if that meant no one to compete with me for this placement, then maybe it was providential. With my mediocre grades, maybe the good Lord knew that this was how I could find my way to Africa. Many of my fellow students were steeped in Hebrew and Greek, had read St. Augustine’s Confessions before they had ever stepped onto the Duke quad with the towering chapel shadowing the school. Not me. I had lots of red ink on my seminary papers. Maybe that’s the difference between competition and calling, evolution and providence. People like me require God to work a little extra, but I was happy to work in return.

After telling me I had to let her know my decision by tomorrow, I called my parents. Even though I was 24 years old at the time, I felt an obligation to get their permission. I called them on their land line which meant both could be on the phone together. (It feels strange to feel the need to explain this detail). After minutes of niceties, I finally said, “I’d like to go to Uganda this summer.”

“Isn’t that in Africa?”

“Africa in not just one place,” I said. “This is Uganda and it’s in Africa.”

“No. I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“Well, I do and I need to let them know by tomorrow.”

That night, my father visited the State Departments website to learn about Uganda. My dad was a prison warden and was never overly emotive about things.

The next morning I spoke with him, “Well, buddy, I just got some concerns. The State Department says they’ve had lots of warfare in the northern section over the years.”

“I saw that too, but it’s safe,” I said.

“How do you know?”

“The priests in Uganda. His brother is a professor at Duke. And I spoke with him. He said it’s fine and safe. They exaggerate things on those sites. And if you’re going to tell me about malaria, it’s true. It’s there. But we have medicine to take.”

“Well, Will, I’m not crazy about you going. But it sounds like you’ve made up your mind.”

“I have. I know this is what I’m supposed to do.”

“Well, you’ve made my life hard. I’m going to have to keep your mother calm all summer long.”

“I’ll write you” I said.

“Well, I have already researched it. We’re going to get you a satellite phone to check in. It’s going to cost a fortune, but it’s worth our sanity.”

“Sounds like a deal.”

And so I hung up the phone and ran to tell Connie my decision. Yes, it was my decision. There was wood on the fire in my soul. I was going to Africa. I stood on the steps for a moment of the Duke quad with the stone stacked buildings all around, the slick leaves of the magnolia tree reflecting the sun and the deliberate steps of students heading to class. I was going to Africa, wild and free. And I had could not imagine what would await. I could not yet imagine the beautiful and the terrible, the laughter and the pain, the learning of colonial tendencies and the privilege that would make going to Africa possible for me to visit and return.

“Well, Connie, sign me up.”

“I had already worked on your paperwork. It’s obvious that God is in this.”

Easter Promises

There’s something mysterious about the hour before sunrise. On many mornings, I like to rise for that hour and sit in my favorite chair. The drip of the coffee maker and flicker of the fire are the only noises in the house. In an hour, I know the house will be full of noise and grumblings of school and what’s for breakfast. A night of sleep has quieted my mind from the joy and frustrations of the previous day. And I can be alone with my thoughts.  And I type on my computer. My creative energies are fully engaged, not yet worn down by a day of decision making. There’s something mysterious about the hour before sunrise. 

When Mary arrives at the tomb on that Easter morning, John tells us that it was still dark. I like to think that Mary was in that quiet place too.  A night of sleep has given her traumatized heart a slither of strength. She is planning to crawl into the tomb and unwrap the grave clothes from Jesus’ body. She has planned to pour fragrant oils into the wounds of his hands and feet. It was a burial ritual. It would be an hour of quiet healing for her. It would give her space to make sense of Jesus’ miraculous life and violent death. There’s something mysterious about the hour before sunrise. 

Have any of you needed that quiet time? Perhaps it’s a break from the raucousness of raising children. Or you’re uncertain about the prospects of the future. Or COVID-19 has worn you down. Your nerves are about to break. It’s in that dark place just before sunrise that the shock of Easter sends Mary running. She arrives and notices someone has tampered with the tomb. Jesus is not there. She sprints. All of those emotions she had quieted come roaring back. 

“They’ve taken the Lord. They couldn’t even let him rest in peace.” She tells these other two disciples, Peter and the beloved disciple. They too sprint to the tomb. They both look inside and to their astonishment, he’s not there. They leave. But Mary lingers. She doesn’t return home. 

She stoops down one more time and peers into the tomb. There are two angels sitting where Jesus’ body had been. They ask her, “Why are you weeping?” Now, I’ve preached the Easter story for more than 15 years now. I have never really paid attention to this question. I always thought it was a throw away question. But John, the author of this gospel, is an artist and every word counts. “Why are you weeping?” Typically, I thought the angels deliver this question with the tone of, “Come on Mary. Stop you’re crying. There’s no crying on Easter!” But as I read this scripture again it hit me, they asked this question with great empathy, “Why are you crying?” She gives her logical conclusion,  “They’ve taken my Lord.” Mary is stuck. She can only turn to one explanation. Something evil has happened to Jesus again. We can’t fault her. She’s witnessed the awfulness of the world. She’s watched political leaders deceive the crowds about Jesus. She’s watched soldiers beat his innocent body for the public to see. She’s watched the soldiers gamble for his clothes. She’s seen enough evil in the last three days to last a life time. Maybe we can understand where Mary’s coming from. We live in the same world. 

Then Mary turns away from the angels and sees a man she thinks is the gardener, but it’s Jesus. Jesus asks Mary, “Why are you weeping?” It’s the exact question the angels asked. She says, “Sir, if you’ve taken his body, please give him back.” Now, gardeners were honest, hardworking people. She’s skeptical of him. She turns away from this man who seeks to understand her grief. “Why are you weeping?” and all she can say is “Somebody stole his body.” 

We’ve all been there. We’ve all experienced grief. We’ve all watched a movement come to a tragic end. We’ve all experienced a failure. When we do, we often turn away from help. We turn away from life. We turn away from believing in a future. We simply turn to a closed position. How might you answer that question on this Easter day. “Why are you weeping?” 

Just as Mary has turned away from Jesus and his question, Jesus delivers the one word that could jar her out of this place. Her name. “Mary.” And Mary turns to Jesus, “Rabbouni.” It’s the same Jesus who once said to her and the disciples, “I call my sheep by name and they know my voice.” This Risen Jesus indeed is a gardener who has called Mary’s name and is cultivating life again for her. That’s Easter. That’s the Resurrection. Easter is about Jesus calling our names and turning us towards the promises of life. 

We all need Easter angels, messengers who call us out of the dark places. Easter turns our guilt into hope. Easter turns us to the promises of life. 

Years ago, I was in seminary. During my first year, my dad called. I was in my dorm room, “Hey Buddy, I got some bad news. There’s no easy way to say it. I have bladder cancer.” I hung up the phone and I tried to pretend I was ok. Didn’t bother me. But the truth was, I was scared. It didn’t sink in the first night. But the next day, I couldn’t concentrate. I would sit at my desk with my books open, but I couldn’t study. I was one big ball of anxiety. After three days of this feeling, I slipped away from my friends. And I just went for a long walk and the chapel on campus was open. I sat down and found myself paralyzed by grief. The rivers began to flow from my eyes. And I just prayed and cried and I may have cursed too. I was mad. 

My head was downward so I didn’t see anyone. Suddenly, I feel this light tap on my shoulder. I look in the pew behind me. It’s a fellow seminary student named Jason. Jason was training to be a chaplain. Jason and I didn’t know each other well. We may have spoken a handful of times. He said, “May I sit down?” I said, “Sure.” And then he asked, “Why are you crying?” Usually I kind of like to play the tough, stoic individual. But I just let it all out and told him everything about how I was feeling. How I was so mad at this awful disease. How I missed being so far from my family. He listened. And then he said, “Can I pray for you, Will?”  When I heard my name, I knew without a doubt God had sent Jason to minister to me in that moment. I felt this reservoir of the Christian faith well up in me. It was the faith poured into me by my parents and by the local church and by my risen savior. I had an assurance that moment that whatever happened, our family was going to be ok. He prayed and cried and then I laughed. Hearing my name was an Easter moment that the resurrected Lord knew my name. I could turn from grief and turn to the Easter promises. As I remember back on that experience, I was trying my best not to be found. But that’s what grace is. It’s when God finds you even when you don’t want to be found. 

Over the next two years, I may have spoken with Jason two or three more times, but on that day he was an Easter angel. I remember when I returned home for the first time at Christmas to see my dad, I was in a good place. When I walked inside our house, I saw him standing there waiting for me by the kitchen sink. He had a gallon of Blue Bell ice-cream waiting for me. I wrapped my arms around my dad. He said, “Will, it’s going to be ok. Let’s have dessert.” Friends, it’s Easter. Jesus Christ is alive. Jesus Christ is turning us to the promises of a new life, a new creation. I’m not sure what’s going on in your life, but I’m here to proclaim to you. It’s going to be ok. And if you believe it, can I get an Alleluia? It’s going to be ok. Alleluia. It’s going to be ok. Alleluia. It’s going to be ok. Alleluia. Friends, it’s Easter. Christ is Risen. Let’s have dessert. 

Choose forgiveness over anger

God desires for us to be forgiving people. But why is it so hard to show grace? Usually it comes down to one word: anger.

Anger is not all bad. There’s good anger. Even Jesus would flip over a table or two. In Latin they had two words for anger:  Ira (which is where we get the word ‘irate’) and furor (which is where we get the word, ‘fury’.). Ira was the kind of anger that was motivated by an injustice and could help one respond and speak out. Furor was blind wrath when anger took over and distorted all views of reason. We sometimes call these moments a “blow up” or for parents, a “tantrum.” Anger is part of life and the more we can acknowledge it, the more we can learn how to show grace in these moments. The great Fred Rogers once said that our emotions are not only mentionable but manageable.

Here’s the problem with anger. Our anger can consume us. Think about a time when someone ridiculed you in a group setting. You stew on that moment and you dream up the perfect comeback. Your heart becomes consumed with revenge and anger. It’s paralyzing. This sort of anger poisons our spirit.

I bet you can think of a time recently where your anger distorted reason. Just this past Saturday, I came to the church looking for our Haygood table cloth that has the Haygood name and logo on it. It was such a nice day that people were gathering at the local park right across from my house. I wanted to engage with the community on behalf of Haygood. I purchased some popsicles to hand out. But I needed that tablecloth for some credibility. I didn’t want to be the strange grown man in the park, passing out popsicles to kids. So I came to the church and I could not find it anywhere. The more I searched, the more agitated I became. So I politely texted our staff on a Saturday. They politely responded they didn’t know where it was. So less politely I replied saying, “We got to find this. It shouldn’t be this difficult.” I knew it wasn’t their fault, but my anger was rising and starting to move to blame. Thankfully, Caroline, was a voice of reason and said, “Have you checked the little camper? We were putting a lot of stuff in there on Christmas Eve.” Guess what. She was correct and my agitation was replaced by relief. Anger can consume us and poison us.

God does not want us to live in anger because it cripples our spirit. God’s answer for anger was Jesus who taught us the way forward was forgiveness.

My grandmother’s witness to Sabbath

I was at my grandmother’s funeral when I heard a speaker tell a story about her asking to borrow a cup of sugar on Sunday. It’s amazing what you can learn about a person at their funeral. “Yes, Clarice called me on Sunday afternoon. She said she needed a cup of sugar for her cobbler she was making. I told Clarice, “Clarice, I’m happy to give you a cup of sugar, but why don’t you just go to the store?” Clarice said, “Because it’s the Sabbath. I can’t shop on the Sabbath.”

That story summed up my grandparents. They loved God’s way of life and they tried everyday to live it out. One of the most concrete practices I can remember from them was their observance of the Sabbath. I remember visiting them on many occasions at their home on St. Simons Island. It was a given we were attending church. And after church, we headed back to their house for a big meal. We sat at the kids table in the kitchen while they sat in the dining room. We’d sit at the table for an hour with fried chicken and cornbread. Afterward lunch, my parents would rock on the porch while my cousins and I would fish for bream at the pond in their back yard. My grandfather would head to his room with his tie undone and shoes off. He would recline in his green chair and turn on TBS to watch the Atlanta Braves. He would lay there the whole afternoon. Interestingly enough he believed it was fine to watch the Braves on Sunday, but he wouldn’t think of attending the game in person on Sunday. And he could fall asleep with remote in hand, then wake up and give you a summary of the game including his critique of manger Bobby Cox. There was another time as a kid that my grandparents came to our house. After church, we had our family meal. I was putting on my baseball cleats to head for a Sunday afternoon practice. I was heading to the car when my grandfather stopped me and he said, “Where are you heading?” I said, “To baseball practice.” He said, “It’s Sunday. This is the Lord’s day.” My mother smoothed it over and I headed on to practice. But those moments have stuck with me. Because as I think back to those days with my grandparents, Sundays always felt different. They did indeed feel separate.

We live in a different age. The day of blue law store closings on Sundays are passing away. I certainly don’t mean to pile on guilt for those young people who practice sports on Sundays. But there’s a message in there. The Sabbath day was part of the Ten Commandments from Exodus 20. For some folks, those laws may seem a little dated to today’s fast-paced, get ahead modern life. And yet, I find I speak to people running with their hair on fire and they tell me, “I just need a day off. I’m just burned out. I just want to enjoy time with my family and I don’t know how.” There are days I feel the same. It’s in those moments I remember that God’s law is filled with promises of a better life. From the foundations of the earth, God designed us to work hard and to put in the sweat and earn a living and cart children in our mini-vans across the city for piano lessons. Then God taught us to take a day to rest and relax. It reminded me again that God’s laws are not meant to be restrictive and oppressive. They are designed with a promise of life in mind. The good book tells us, “the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work.” What if instead we read it this way, “on the Sabbath you shall have time to put your feet up on the couch. You shall have time to play Chutes and Ladders with your children without the added guilt of not getting your work done. You shall have time to invite over friends for a big meal without needing to rush away. You shall take an hour to lay in the hammock.” How does a day like that sound?

At my grandmother’s funeral, I remembered a special connection to God on those Sabbath days. Without her, would I ever know again the pleasures of Sunday afternoons like I did when I was a kid? Although I didn’t always like being told no, there was always a yes inside of it. It was yes to a life with God, a yes to a checkers game with my brother, a yes to bike rides with dad. God says we get a day like that every week.

First Job in a Cemetery

My first real job was working in a cemetery. My freshman year of high school, I spent my Saturdays laying tombstone for Wilson Memorials in the cemeteries all around Jackson, Barnesville and Griffin.

Ralph Wilson, the owner, was my first boss and a good one. I had known him all of my life. His daughter Annette and I grew up together. My dad said to me one day, “I spoke with Ralph Wilson and he needs some help with his new business. He needs you to help put some tombstones down.”

“As a volunteer?” I asked.

“No. He’s going to pay you. He said he’d pick you up at 6 o’clock on Saturday.”

“In the morning?”

“Yes, it’s called work, Will.”

Ralph pulled up at daylight. I had my jeans, gloves and work boots. He said, “Will, we’re heading to Elberton this morning. We got to pick up the stone.” We chugged along with all the jerky motions of a heavy stick shift flatbed truck with a boom on the back. Ralph stopped in Monticello and grabbed us both a biscuit at the local gas station. The people knew him by name. We made our way toward Elberton. I asked him, “Do you ever worry about stepping on the graves?” “Oh no. You get over that pretty quickly. It’s not the dead people I worry about. It’s the ones above ground.”

We pulled into the shop where they cut the granite, the workers in t-shirts and smoking cigarettes. He asked, “Will, do you see that saw? They have diamond tips to cut through the stone.” After loading the truck with headstones and slabs, we headed off with an extra 2,000 pounds. You could hear the truck guzzling gas at this point.

As we drove through the curving two lane roads, past gentle sloping cow pastures and ponds, I fell asleep. I have to admit my embarrassment of sleeping on the job my first day. The truth is I didn’t lift a finger on my first day of work. Ralph dropped me off at the house. I have often wandered if Ralph knew some of my own difficulties. I had a terrible hip injury as a kid and now that I was in high school I had pretty severe limp and was trying to figure out life and friends. Having someone believe you were good enough to hire meant something, although I wasn’t sure what at the time.

In the following weeks, my friend Eron and I worked on Saturdays with Ralph. Ralph was also part owner of the local funeral home. We’d begin by meeting him there and wait near his office. Although Eron and I never ventured too far back, we knew there was probably a body in the back room. We’d wait for Ralph and head to his outdoor shed to grab our tools for the day. There’s no work like digging holes, wheelbarrowing dirt and pouring concrete in July in Georgia. It gave me new respect for people who use hand tools all day. I was surprised by how much precision went into the work. We had to ensure the tombstones were level which required lots of crowbar work and Advil.

The most interesting feature of graveyard work is the way it makes you think about death. On most every job, we knew how a person had died. What was most haunting for me is that many of them had died young. Ralph retold the stories as we passed by the graves. “He was a good kid. Everybody loved him. He just a made stupid decision and got behind a wheel drunk. That’s all it takes. Don’t ya’ll do that when you turn 16.” “Now, she was in the band. Terrible situation there.” As you work with heavy stone that sits on top of a vault six feet in the ground, the gravitas of death begins to sink in. Just four years earlier, I had barely escaped death from a car accident at our home. I had to be life-flighted to Atlanta. I couldn’t help but imagine being under my own headstone and having my peers working with Ralph having a similar conversation about me. As heavy as such a thought may be, it’s also quite liberating.

Ralph loved to talk. Eron and I would begin a job and Ralph would amble over to a visitor who had come to see the plot of their loved one. They would talk near the loose red dirt where the tombstone would be. I was always amazed at how he could make a sale and comfort a grieving widow with a shovel in hand. We spent a lot of time waiting for him in the truck, but we were getting paid for it so we didn’t mind. Eventually he’d finish and take us to eat catfish for lunch. We were no good for the rest of the day.

I was always appreciated that first job. I wasn’t used to getting a check. On several occasions, as Ralph was trying to balance his books, he’d call me, “Now, Will, you got to cash the checks.” That first job taught me a lot about the value of a hard day of work and to take pride in it. Every time Eron and I would pass by a tombstone, we’d admire how level it was. “That must have been one our jobs.” We were quick to criticize the sloppy work of other companies.

Years ago, after my dad died, Ralph did his tombstone. After it had been installed, I came to the Jackson cemetery to see it. No one was around. I touched the stone and felt the engraved words, “You shall mount up with wings as eagles.” I thought of that day my dad saved my own life. And because he did, I was standing over his grave instead of he over mine. I stood and I admired the beauty and smoothness of the marbled granite and remembered my wonderful dad. I stood up and suddenly heard the shovels of another company nearby being thrown into their truck as they completed a job a hundred yards away or so. As their loud truck pulled away through the cemetery gates, I remembered that day when my dad told me about this new job in the cemetery. “It’s called work, Will.” Indeed, it was work and I’m thankful for it and for all those who have given me work since.

Deer Hunting on Brownlee

Some of my favorite memories as a kid in Jackson were the hunting expeditions with my dad. Hunting was a way of life for many folks. Pull up to any gas station at 11am on a Saturday morning in October and you’d find a truck with camouflaged men and deer in the bed.

My dad loved the outdoors. He grew up in Valdosta, Georgia where he spent his weekends fishing, duck hunting and deer hunting. He passed that love to us. I had two older brothers and they had been hunting with dad for several years and had killed their first deer. By the time I was 7, he wanted to take me, which I had eagerly awaited. While hunting never became quite the passion for me as it was for him, I did enjoy that time.

He was serious about gun safety. He ensured I took my gun safety course and he pressed me at every step. “Will, treat a gun like it’s loaded every time you hold it even if it’s not.” “Always keep the barrel pointed to the ground.” He owned lots of guns. He was a prison warden and although he wore a suit and tie to work, I came to learn there was always a gun and his badge within his reach. He joined a local deer hunting club off of Brownlee Road. I remember the first time he took me. “Will, this is Mr. Billy.” Billy organized the club and was generally known as one of the premier hunters in Jackson as evidenced by the deer heads hanging in his house and rabbit stews he would host in the winter. He was good man who talked with a toothpick in his mouth. “You come on out with the guys tomorrow and we’ll get you a deer.”

We hunted on Saturdays. Sundays were dedicated to church. I went to bed early that Friday night. I felt a light tap on my shoulder, then the flickering of lights. It was 4:30 in the morning and already I could smell bacon and hear grease popping. We had an entire closet dedicated to camouflage and boots. I geared up, ate my breakfast and headed to the truck. My dad had the loudest truck in Jackson, which seemed like a bad idea if you were trying to sneak up on on deer. It was an old yellow Ford truck with no muffler or heat, but it had it had big tires for muddy roads which came in handy in the red slick clay of middle Georgia. It had a gun rack in the back window with a Bugs Bunny sticker, which seemed odd but gave it a little character. As an aside, prisoners on work detail one afternoon near our house hot-wired the truck and sped off in an attempted escape. They ran over our bushes on the way out of town. But with a truck that yellow, loud and slow, they were caught 10 miles down the road. Apparently one of the prisoners lamented, “You would think the warden would own a better truck.”

We pulled into into the hunting club and parked our truck near the others. It was a heavily wooded area. My dad inspected the map of the deer stands. It was stapled to a wooden sign with hard plastic covering the map and a red pencil hanging down for the hunters to mark where they were hunting that morning.

We grabbed our guns. I hunted with a 30/30. My dad had taken me the week before for target practice. He taught me how to put it on safety, which was no easy task. You had to pull the firing hammer half-way back until it clicked. But perhaps the scariest part for me was learning how to take a fully cocked firing hammer and bring it to safety. Because it was a lever action gun, every time you loaded ammo you put it into a firing position. I learned to apply pressure on the hammer with my thumb and squeeze the trigger and slowly bring the hammer to a fully disengaged position. But a slip of the thumb would mean an accidental firing. It terrified me.

As we sat on the tailgate, my dad brought me over a brown bottle. I said, “Dad, what is that?” “We’re going to put some of this on your boots.” It was an awful smell. It was fox urine that was meant to hide the human scent. We headed for our deer stand in the cold morning, our boots stomping the hard dirt and the deer sure to mistake me for a fox.

I climbed the nails hammered into the side of the tree and my dad followed me up. We pulled our rifles us with a rope with barrels pointing downward. We sat in the cold. My dad pulled out a tall green thermos and I could hear the slight squeak as he turned it. He poured a cup of coffee with a little steam rising that you could see now as the orange sun slid through the trees. He sipped it and offered me a cup. It might as well have been a beer the moment felt so important.

We sat in the cold. My dad read a magazine while my head was on a swivel. I was sure every squirrel rustling below was a 10 point buck. Suddenly, I heard the faint sound of barking dogs. My dad looked up from his magazine. He gave me a nod to say it was nothing. I put the gun back down. The barking grew louder. This time dad put the magazine down. In the distance, I could see it. It was a big deer with big antlers. “Will, get your gun ready.” The dogs were still out of sight, but it was obvious they were on the trail of this deer. “When he stops, I want you to shoot him.” I whispered, “No, I’ll miss. You shoot him.” “Get your gun ready.” I put my eye to the rifle’s scope and could see the brown and white fur. But it never stopped. It kept a good pace. “Will, just take a shot.” My heart was pounding. I cocked my rifle, felt the cold brass of the trigger and had him in sight. “You shoot him daddy. I’ll miss.” My dad pulled up his rifle, but it was too late.

All we could see was a white tail flying in the air, sprinting in glided motion to the horizon. A few minutes later the dogs appeared under our stand. “Well, that’s ok Will.”

On the way home, we stopped for gas at the local Gulf station. Daddy went inside to get us a Coke while I pumped gas. A couple of hunters walked over to our truck and looked in the bed. “Well, it’s still early in the season.”

I hunted many more times with my dad. I never killed a deer. As I got older, I exchanged the camouflage for sports uniforms. I’m not a hunter today. I’m not sure I was one back then. Most hunters will tell you that just being in the woods, away from the noise and into the morning dew is enough. Perhaps that’s true. But for me, it was riding in that loud truck with my dad and brothers, early morning yawns and laughter that I remember most.

Little league in a small town

Little league baseball was close to a religion in Jackson, Georgia. I remember one season in particular. I got the call. “Will, I hear you like to play short stop. And I hear you can pitch.” I was 11 years old and was going to be on Homer William’s little league baseball team. Homer was legend in Jackson. He had coached little league baseball teams for the Parish Drug Co. for more than 20 years. (A good thing about a small town is the way the local businesses sponsored the local recreation teams.) I had never met Homer but had heard the chatter around the baseball diamonds about his teams. Like many coaches, he had learned how to recruit players. He would choose a player’s parent to be an assistant coach. Parish Drug had 4 assistant coaches that year.

On the first day of practice, Homer was holding a worn green canvas bag full of baseball equipment. This was a standard issued equipment bag from the Butts County recreation department. When you saw that bag as a kid, you almost began to salivate. Baseball had arrived. Homer had a plump red face, gold rimmed glasses and chaw of Red Man tobacco tucked away in his right jaw. At the end of the season, many of the parents wanted to gift Homer with a month’s supply of Red Man, but other parents, including my mother, didn’t want their money going to the tobacco company.

This was before the days of travel baseball. Perhaps there were travel teams around, but they just didn’t travel their way to Jackson. I would not have had it any other way. Most of my friends didn’t just play one sport. We played them all and were the better for it.

There was some hard lessons in baseball. The rule was that every player got to bat and play in the field each game. That seemed fair enough. Except it became common practice to put in players at the end of the game to satisfy the rule. I watched many of my classmates gingerly cheer on the team as they awaited for the coach to put them in the last inning with the game usually out of reach. I’m not sure if this was a lesson in the real world or more of a reality about competition, but it was part of the game. I remember not liking it.

Perhaps the most exciting day of the whole year as a kid was opening day at the baseball field. It had all the ambience of Easter. Spring was in blossom. The crowds populated the bleachers. The uniforms were colorful and the concession stand was loaded with frozen Reese’s cups.

We had the ceremonial throwing out of the first pitch. It was usually done by the mayor. Ernest Biles, the director of the recreation department, would call out every single player from all different ages to jog onto the field. It must have taken an hour but we didn’t mind as we stood in the spring breeze with the scent of hamburger smoke passing under our noses.

It would take a longer blog post to describe the next point, but it’s worth mentioning. Little league baseball brought together black and white people. Jackson was an amazing town, but it was also a southern town with all the tensions of our racist pasts. Although I had good friends at school who were black, we rarely saw each other outside of the classroom. But the baseball field was one of those places. It reminded me that fields were a place of reconciliation where I could learn to speak a common language of strikes, double-plays, pop-flies and teamwork. We shared lots of laughs together and built trust. In some small ways, I am haunted by sports fields to this day because I miss them and the common ground it gave my black friends and me.

As I think back to the opening day of recreation baseball, it was a beautiful moment to watch unfold. The parents stood in rapt attention. Every single player’s name was called. The crowd cheered for every child no matter the color of skin. We stood in the sunshine, our back pockets filled with gum, our heads tilted high with the hope of a new season. Yes, opening ceremonies felt like a sort of Easter, but maybe more so.

My first sin in Jackson

Most of us can remember our first sins. In my hometown of Jackson, we didn’t have the lures of things you’d find in the big city. In fact, our local government prohibited the sale of liquor throughout Butts County. And yes, Jackson is in Butts County. If you are a licensed Jackson driver, you get the joy of riding around the world with the word Butts stamped on your license plate. (I’ve caught more than one person taking pictures of my car tag when I was away at college). But back to sin.

I was 7 years old. I was over at Joey Brown’s house. He and I were best friends since birth. Our parents had put us in the same nursery care at Playtime Nursery. Joey lived off of Highway 36 which was one of the main arteries in and out of Jackson.

Joey’s mother, Cathy, had a green thumb. She had a bed of roses she tended just off her driveway. They were beautiful each year. These were the days before knock-out roses. These roses were bigger, more full and beautiful. They had also long, sharp thorns, a lesson I learned pretty early as I chased errant basketballs. But next to the roses was their apple tree. I don’t remember many apples trees in Jackson, but for some reason they had one. They were pretty sour in taste, but they were just the right size for throwing.

On this particular day Joey and I were outside. The Browns lived on a pretty severe curve of Highway 36. You could hear the cars whizzing down the road for a good half-mile before they suddenly appeared around the corner. I looked at the apple tree and then I listened for the cars.

I said to Joey, “I bet I could nail one of those cars.”

Joey and I stock-piled the apples on their driveway, then ducked behind the tree and waited for cars as if we were deer hunting.

The first car appeared. I jumped out like a ninja and threw the apple with all my might. I missed by a football field. If you’ve ever played quarterback or have shot clay pidgeons, you know the real skill is in leading your target. I had never played quarterback at this point and I certainly had never tried to aim at car screaming down the road at 60 mph. We would need more apples.

For the next 30 minutes, Joey and I took turns but with no luck. Until we did. Through trial and error, we had figured out the secret. You had to throw the apple before you saw the car.

We listened again. We could hear the wobble of rubber tires. Joey and I both jumped out and heaved our apples at the same time. Then a blue Plymouth turned the corner. The apples were high in the air and time stood still for a moment before we heard a thump and watched the pulp splatter across the windshield.

In sheer exhilaration and terror, we high-fived each other. We gathered more apples. But before we could meet our next victim, we saw the same car traveling from the opposite direction turning into the Browns driveway. The Browns had woods and creek in their back yard. Joey and I ran like escaped inmates.

One of the great disadvantages of living in a small town and you know everybody. The lady driving knew the Browns and reported us. Ms. Cathy, perhaps the most generous of people I knew, didn’t say much to me, but the word got back to my father. Have I mentioned my dad was a prison warden?

I grew up in the local Methodist church. A sin like this probably wouldn’t get mentioned at church. But Joey was baptist and this could take a little longer for him. And I felt bad about that.

I’m sure I had committed many sins before this day, but this was the first one I could remember. I knew it was wrong. I bragged about it. I found pleasure in it, despite how dangerous and destructive my actions were. I guess that’s what makes sin what it is.

A sour lesson on Fox Hollow

Fox Hollow was the first neighborhood I could remember. It was only a couple of miles from the city courthouse. Our parents moved there when I was 5. As I got older my friends and I would ride bikes to the city square where we could get a Coke for 35 cents outside the Rexall Pharmacy. (A Coke can also mean a Sprite). But back to Fox Hollow. It was one big circle of houses, a mile around. I lived a few houses down from my friend Will Garland. (As an aside, Will and I always called each other by our full names. We were Willgarland and Willzant to each other, I guess not to confuse ourselves). The Garland house was the house where it happened. They loved all things British, including gardens, antiques, and Welsh Corgis. It was the place where my friends and I all met. Will’s parents didn’t seem to mind the racket. I give them tons of credit for allowing a bunch of rough boys to run around the house with all the expensive antiques and paintings. The one rule was not to wake up Mr. Byrd at night or else he would call our parents. Will’s room was upstairs and directly over his parent’s bedroom. You were taking your life in your own hands to try to sneak down the steps. They were the loudest steps in the world. Will’s older brother would later introduce us to the rooftop exit off of the upstairs playroom. Thankfully, it was only an 8 foot drop to the porch.

One of my first memories in Fox Hollow was setting up a lemonade stand. I’m pretty sure our parents just wanted us outside the house for a while. Will and I lugged a table down to the bottom of the hill. Our parents dropped off the lemonade we had made. In fact, we had made it from scratch. Will and I squeezed lemons, mixed in sugar and chipped out the ice from his freezer. It was quite the Norman Rockwell moment as we set up shop near the bottom of the circle where Fox Hollow Drive and McCaskill Drive intersected. There was a creek at the intersection where we would spend hours in the summer with small nets trying to catch crawdads. (Are there crawdads in Georgia?)

Our parents had instructed us not to pester our neighbors as they drove by. Will and I stood behind our handmade sign that priced the lemonade at a quarter. Sure enough, our neighbors stopped and gave double our cost. We stored our earnings in a Tampa Cigar box. We split the money at the end of the day. I saved up for some Upper Deck Baseball Cards. But what I remember the most was the next day. The next day, my dad was driving me home from school. As we turned onto McCaskill drive, we were swarmed by 3 other neighborhood boys. They were Will’s older brother’s friends. (I won’t name names). They were the cool older guys in the neighborhood. They were jumping up and down with signs for $1 lemonade. They obviously got wind of our financial prosperity the day before. My father purchased a cup for the two of us. He handed me mine. As I looked out the window, I could see these older guys jumping down towards the next car behind us. I took a sip. It was pink lemonade and weak and had the slight taste of water hose.

As we pulled into our driveway my dad said, “I like yours better.” I asked, “Dad, why did they copy us?” He said, “Will, that’s life. Get used to it.”

Stories from Jackson

It’s the New Year. Time for resolutions. I’m not going to fool myself and make a year-long goal. I’ll just try to kick things off for January.

I am going to write down some of my favorite stories of growing up in Jackson. Why? I’m not sure. Perhaps I am wanting to sharpen the writing craft in this new year or needing to bounce around a sermon illustration or two. But it’s more likely I want to stroll down memory lane and visit old friends. Like that time first time hunting with my dad and having to smear fox pee from a bottle on my boots to hide my scent. Or those fall nights when Peek’s Clearing and Grading opened up their shop for a Towaliga community stew with cakewalks or playing little league baseball for the legendary (to Jackson at least) Homer Williams who was so superstitious about winning that we wore the same underwear to each game that he had his wife mark with black thread. I hope some will be fun, others sad and some revealing. But mostly, I hope they’ll stir up good memories.

Today, I relate differently to my childhood friends. I hardly see them. I share different viewpoints about life and my Christian faith. I want to remember my friends well and the time we shared without overthinking it. They made me laugh and invited me over to shoot basketball and watch a movie on a Friday night. I look forward to visiting in spirit old friends. They’ll be rough cuts for sure. I’ll try to crank out a story every few nights throughout January. So if you’re interested, join along.