September 27, 2016: Apple Days, Associations, and Yellow Jackets

The Kentucky Apple Festival is once again upon us, and while Johnson County welcomes most visitors we must also acknowledge those we aren’t so eager to see: the white-faced hornets, or yellow jackets as they’re known locally, whose population is always at its highest this season and whose numbers at the Apple Day festivities rival those of the humans. And whenever I think of yellow jackets or any other similar stinging insects, I always recall my father with a smile. I’ve said before that Dad was one of the calmest, most sensible men I ever knew, but if there was one thing that made him react from the gut rather than his head it was a wasps’, hornets’, or yellow jackets’ nest anywhere near our place.

I’m not certain why. Dad wasn’t a beekeeper, but he liked honeybees and didn’t want them bothered. He liked bumblebees because he said they were the only insects that could pollinate red clover. He tolerated dirt daubers too, because they hardly ever sting, and I can recall him when I was young, showing me a dirt dauber dragging a katydid to its nest as food for its larvae. But as far as he was concerned it was open season on most other such pests with nests. Grandma (yep, the same Grandma who air-conditioned her front door with the Smith & Wesson) used to say that once when Dad was little, he’d put on a shirt with several “waspers” hidden inside it and he’d harbored a grudge against them and all their kind ever since. She may have been right. But I do know for sure that, while our neighbors mostly used common sense in destroying a wasps’, hornets’, or yellow jackets’ nest, waiting until dark for all the insects to return and then squirting gasoline on it or in it, invariably killing them immediately, Dad would march right out to any nest he found during the sunniest part of a hot summer day armed only with a fly swatter. He’d knock down or break open the nest depending on its location, jump back, and start swinging that fly swatter like a knight wielding a sword against a fire-breathing dragon until both he and his winged, stinged adversaries were worn tea-totally out. He never wanted me along on these pesticide missions, perhaps fearing that I was, unlike him, allergic to insect venom, but I wasn’t really all that crazy about joining in the fight anyway. Many’s the time I’ve watched him from a safe spot and when he’d finally turn back toward the house with a big grin I knew he’d scored another victory. Sweet Tater’s seen him do it too, both before and after she and I married. Mom always quarreled at Dad as she applied vinegar to his stings, wondering out loud and loudly why he always had to turn pest control into a battle royal, but he’d just smile at her as if to say: fuss to your heart’s content, darlin’, you can’t take my triumph away from me.

Though I’m no more allergic to stinging insects than Dad was,I still prefer a more subtle approach to dealing with them. I once described my favorite method to another preacher, years ago at a church association meeting. Like the Apple Festival, association time is always in late summer or early fall when the yellow jackets are busiest, and on this occasion the host congregation had set up several tents and long picnic tables outdoors for the crowd’s lunchtime accommodations. Trouble was, the yellow jackets were out in force and seeking fellowship too, and they pretty much insisted on taking communion with us that afternoon.It was no love feast, either: everybody was on guard for yellow jackets hiding in their sandwiches and floating in their pop. As I waved a couple of the buzzing pests away from my drink I observed to the brother clergyman nearest me, “You know, if the moderator of this church had thought about it two weeks ago he could have solved this problem.”

“How?” he asked, batting at several more yellow jackets hovering over his dessert.

“Why, if he’d only taken all these yellow jackets all down to the creek, baptized them, and put their names in the membership book,” I replied, “within two weeks they’d have left the church. It works for humans often enough, doesn’t it?”

My dining companion laughed. But if one’s going to risk being stung by yellow jackets or people, at least we can presume that the less painful, harmful kind will be more common this weekend. Happy Apple Days.


September 20, 2016: Squirrel & Muslims

When I preached, I was never the type to holler out “ayMAYun?” during sermons as if I wanted or expected a congregation to shout it back to me in approval. (That’s “amen” for you non-natives; it’s just how preachers often pronounce it around here, don’t ask me why. Some of ‘em quote “the Boible” at “waship” services too.) Still, considering how often I’ve heard that trick used, such responses must be gratifying, although they depend largely on a congregation’s mood. And yet for all the satisfaction “ayMAYuns” may provide, the question lingers: which is better, honesty or popularity? Should one always tell the truth of one’s conscience, even if it provokes a houseful of scowls, or say something non-controversial and witty—or half-witty—for the quickie “ayMAYun?”

If you read The Common Tater, you already know how I settled that question for myself. But if I wrote a religious column and wanted to take the easy road to a quickie “ayMAYun,” all I’d need to do is condemn Muslims. Around here they’re completely safe to criticize. No matter that we’ve had Muslim residents in this neck of the woods since the 1980s and before, most of them hard workers and good citizens: the 9/11 terrorists were Muslim, Saddam Hussein was Muslim, Osama bin Ladin was Muslim, and so Muslims as a group are perceived in today’s American South to be as dangerous as the Russians were back when I was growing up. Any challenge to the common perception is met with hostility, if not accusations of heresy or worse. But after you’ve seen one Baptist deacon draw a pistol on another in a church parking lot over a disagreement that didn’t merit even a moment’s consideration from either, let alone threats, it gets a little tough to hurl stones at another religion; and since the pistol-pulling incident happened at approximately the same time I began working with Muslims in the healthcare industry, 1982, I thought I’d offer an anecdote about the single time in thirty-four years I ever heard a Muslim acquaintance set his religion apart in any opposition to the majority opinion of our area.

It happened at the second hospital I worked in, with a young Muslim physician “taking call” for an old GP who was going off to hunt squirrel. The two met in the ICU where I was drawing blood, and as I worked nearby the GP thanked his substitute for the favor, promising to bring him a mess of squirrel upon his return. The younger doctor looked embarrassed and, obviously choosing his words carefully, began to explain why Islam’s dietary laws forbade his family’s eating squirrel: their Imam (another doctor there) had to verify that the animals had died without pain, etc., to which the old GP replied with an understanding smile, “Oh, I get it! You’re KOSHER!” That produced a laugh from the Muslim, who answered, “Yeah, something like that!”

And that’s all there was to it. No acrimony whatsoever. And a great many of us on the first floor enjoyed the observance of Ramadan that year too, though we weren’t Muslims. That young doctor’s wife was a night-shift ER nurse, and during Ramadan she brought in enough good food for after-sundown dining to gorge us all.

But what about bin Ladin and ISIS, you may ask? Well, what about that sneakin’ deacon with the pistol, and how much damage might he have done if some good Christians with common sense hadn’t restrained him? But he wasn’t a TRUE Christian, you may protest. TRUE Christians don’t act like that. Really? The old fool had made a good enough testimony to get ordained as a deacon, hadn’t he? He claimed that night that the sheriff had told him it was okay to pack the gun, and if true, that may have kept him out of jail. My point is, you can find good people and stupid, violent people in any religion; their actions, not their creed, make the only difference that counts. I can understand why anybody unfamiliar with Muslims might be afraid of them, and I’d respond, well, go see one or two of the local doctors then, and rest easy. What really disgusts me is to see people who’ve worked with Muslims as long as, or longer than, I have, mouth the same paranoid rhetoric you hear from people who don’t know any better.

But who knows? Right now at least one major American political party seems to think that the Russians have become just the nicest guys ever, so maybe there’s hope that some day anti-Muslim prejudices might fade too.


September 13, 2016: Pulpit Politics, Part 2

William Faulkner remarked in a novel that the past is never dead; it’s not even past. For some reason that quote’s stuck with me through several years, juxtaposed oddly in my mind with a statement from one of the old preachers who ordained me: once he observed to me that he had never, ever known how mean folks could really be until after he joined the church. I thought he was teasing me, in the rough manner older men used to rib young ones and maybe still do, but when I looked into his eyes I realized he was completely serious—and I couldn’t think of a single reply. The past isn’t even past, and how mean folks can be: all of it comes together for me in the tale of my single foray into mixing religion and politics as a pastor, and I still kick myself over the fool I was.

For years, the ratio of Republicans to Democrats in Johnson County was almost identical to the proportion of men who fought for the Union in the Civil War (Republicans, the majority) versus those who joined the Confederates (Democrats, the minority). And so, more than a century and a quarter after Appomattox, I found myself pastoring a church just across Levisa Fork from one of the few Democrat precincts in heavily Republican Johnson County: Greasy Creek, which also included Banjo Creek a little further downriver and which had once even been known as the Little Confederacy. It didn’t matter much that the Democrats and Republicans had almost completely switched political philosophies over the years, either. Several of my older members who lived nearest the church were as hardcore Democrat as you could get, their opinions solidified all the more by the Great Depression. Now, if you remember the 1980s and 1990s you know that several prominent televangelists had by then largely succeeded in branding one political party good and the other evil in the South’s public consciousness, but that didn’t matter to these folks. They felt like they knew right from wrong, and nobody would change their minds. And in any case, you didn’t talk about stuff like that in church. It was bad manners.

Just my luck, I had a visiting preacher that tried it. He was another out-of-stater like Brother Foale, though not from the same state, but evidently it was a place where that kind of pulpit talk was becoming accepted even within a traditionalist rural sect like ours. But when he started lambasting the President, my old members, especially the sisters in the left-hand corner right below the pulpit, suddenly went white around the mouth with indignation and started glaring daggers at him. They may not have paid any attention to Brother Foale’s Palm Sunday text but they sure picked up on this other fellow’s comments quickly enough, and I don’t recall ever seeing a bunch of sweet old ladies giving a preacher more baleful looks during a worship service in my life. My mind raced. What to do, grab the man’s coattail and seat him and shut him up? Sing him down, maybe? Both were historically valid options in our sect’s practice and I’d even done the latter once, but either could still cause a scandal and so in the interests of what I thought at the time was peace I waited on him to finish as patiently as I could, followed his sermon up with one of my own, and soon made my old sisters happy once again by criticizing the wife of a former President, of the other political party of course, for consulting astrologers. One thing must have canceled out the other in my members’ sensibilities, and most were once again willing to shake the visitor’s hand when the service was over. And for whatever it was worth to either of us, the Presidential critic was willing to shake the pastor’s hand too.

So who was the better man, him or me? Looking back, we both appear pretty sleazy in my estimation, and I’m still every bit as ashamed of and disgusted by the incident and my response as I was the day it happened. Hindsight’s twenty-twenty but now I wish I’d simply grabbed that man’s coattail and seated and silenced him, especially since he later did more to prove to me how right my older colleague was than any other man I ever worked with. Live and learn, I guess. This November if I see anybody in the blind man’s ditch from a similar blunder you can bet I’ll be offering a sympathetic hand up rather than a self-righteous foot down.

September 6, 2016: Pulpit Politics, Part 1

As a paid Common Tater, when I write about current politics I try to be neutral. To paraphrase Merle Haggard, if you want to see the partisan side of me, check Facebook. But I’m still an equal-opportunity critic and an ex-preacher both, and at the risk of sounding like Earl Pitts, American, one thing that makes me sick at heart and stomach both is to see secular partisan politics of any sort get into a house of worship. Church politics is a repulsive enough mess on its own, comparable to sausage in a way: if you like it, make sure you never watch it being made. But when you add secular issues into the religious mix it becomes an evil greater than the sum of its parts, more like a cow pile: the harder you stir it, the worse it stinks. And with the active encouragement of evangelists both on and off television, eager to acquire political power for their own personal gain and skilled in the ways of the Ephesian silversmiths described in the nineteenth chapter of Acts—working a crowd until some cry one thing, some another, the majority doesn’t even know what’s really going on but everybody’s as mad as wet hens about SOMETHING—nowadays it’s happening more and more all the time.

I’ve written about one basic example of this type of thing already: the last local-option vote and its accompanying hyperbolic prophecies of drunks passed out on every corner and strip joints lining Main Street if the city should “go wet,” both sides of the issue getting mightily angry at one another but neither threat ever materializing. Occasionally, too, in this Internet age you hear of a church posting sermons online that are partisan politically, causing the IRS to warn the preacher that he’s risking his church’s tax-exempt status and ultimately making a hullabaloo community-wide because the government’s supposedly persecuting the poor man of God and making him a martyr for his faith. I can think of a few choice four-letter responses to this idea, the cleanest of which is “bunk.” There’s no martyrdom, or even suffering, involved here. If any church and/or preacher wants to tell people whom to vote for all they need to do is voluntarily give up their tax exemptions and pony up like the rest of us. Then they can “electioneer” completely legally, but I don’t see anybody giving up any tax exemptions any time soon, religion, bunk, or no.

Still,neither of the above examples qualify as the worst local church-and-state violations ever to occur. I’ve often heard my folks speak of the 1960 Presidential contest when at least one community congregation actually sent its members door-to-door to campaign against John F. Kennedy: as one of those dreaded (back then, anyway) Roman Catholics he’d surely let the Pope take over the country. Al Smith was accused of the same thing in 1928 when he ran against Herbert Hoover. In Kennedy’s case, though, voters didn’t need to worry so much about the Pope as they did the Pop. If old Joe Kennedy hadn’t had a stroke between Election Day 1960 and Inauguration Day 1961 I suspect that his sons—both President John and Attorney General Bobby—would have hopped every time their old man said “frog.” Then again and for all we know, if old Joe had stayed healthy he might have kept John away from the Bay of Pigs and both sons might have lived longer and done more good. Who can say? In any case,in 1960 White Anglo-Saxon Protestant churches all over the country attempted similar anti-Kennedy/anti-Catholic campaigns, not only in eastern Kentucky, and none ultimately affected the election. And nowadays, only the most extreme hen-house sects have anything ill to say about Roman Catholic candidates, or even those of other non-Protestant faiths—except Islam, of course, which is still freely criticized around here in spite of all the Muslim physicians and their families who’ve been good citizens in this area for decades. For the 2012 election the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association actually removed all the anti-Mormon rhetoric from its website in honor of Mitt Romney’s Presidential run. I suppose in some way you can call that progress. I never checked to see if Franklin and Anne put it all back on the site after Romney lost.

And then twenty-odd years ago there was that young fool of a pastor that—but I guess we’ll just have to finish that story next week, won’t we? Stay tuned. I’m like the little boy that ate too many green apples about this one: you see, I’ve got inside information.