Recently I heard a church choir offer a hymn of praise to Satan. I’m satisfied they did not know what they were doing, and would not have done so had they thought about it.
As the C-Span cameras focused on the flag-draped coffin containing the body of former President Ronald Reagan in the Capitol Rotunda, the other C-Span outlet replayed the 1973 funeral of former President Lyndon Johnson. We beheld mourners gathering inside a Washington, D.C., church to pay their respects with tributes, a sermon, and several hymns. Then, as the pallbearers ushered the casket from the sanctuary, the choir sang:
A mighty fortress is our God
A bulwark never failing;
Our helper He amid the flood
Of mortal ills prevailing.
But still our ancient foe
Doth seek to work us woe,
His craft and power are great,
And armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.
Only one verse, end of hymn, end of service. I sat there stunned, wondering if anyone else noticed what had just occurred. By singing only the first verse of “A Mighty Fortress” the choir had paid tribute to the devil himself–using Martin Luther’s words, admittedly–and had left the matter there, as though nothing more needed to be said.
Last Wednesday night in Indianapolis, Franklin Graham spoke before a convention hall filled with Southern Baptists and brought us up to date on his parents. His father, the venerable evangelist Dr. Billy Graham, has endured a couple of difficult surgeries lately, lives in pain, and has trouble getting around. But, he’s gradually improving and expects to be preaching soon. Mrs. Graham–the equally outstanding Ruth–spends her days in a wheelchair, no longer able to walk.
Franklin said, “The other day, Daddy hobbled into Mother’s bedroom and said, ‘I feel so bad. I feel like the Lord is ready to take me home.’ Mother said, ‘That must feel wonderful.'” As we laughed, Franklin said, “He won’t get any sympathy from Mother!”
I feel bad enough to die. When I die, I’m going to Heaven. That will be wonderful.
Seventeen of us sat in the seminary classroom that evening, complaining. It was September of 1972 and our beloved New Orleans Saints were playing in town that Monday night, with the game broadcast on television. As pastors, this would be one of the few games we might be able to attend. Unfortunately, our doctoral colloquium ran to nine o’clock and attendance was mandatory if we expected to graduate on time. With the game blacked out locally, we couldn’t even watch it on television. Through this cacophony of grumbling, the professor entered the classroom.
V. L. Stanfield was a legend on the campus of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Over six feet tall, he added to the effect by wearing western boots, an oddity in our city. He laughed easily and welcomed laughter in his classroom. Stories about him abounded, including the time he told why he moved to a French Quarter apartment above a bar: “I’ve always wanted to live above sin.”
Striding toward the front of the room, Stanfield called out, “Well, who has been a good boy today?” He was obviously in a playful mood.
“I have two tickets to tonight’s football game,” he announced, “which I am going to give to two of you.”
Since our family reunion has become a tradition with more than a decade of regular get-togethers, we are building some new customs of our own. First, we hold our meetings at the old home place, built a hundred years ago by our grandfather, and secondly, we sit around a Saturday night bonfire in the front yard until midnight telling and retelling the family stories. This last part is what I want to tell you about, specifically the account of the 1951 murder of one of our neighbors.
The first time we sat in the fire-splashed dark telling our stories–that would be May of 1994–I decided to bring up the story of Mrs. B’s murder. It was the most exciting thing to happen in our county for years and the young folks had more than likely never even heard about it.
That year Junior Roman’s cotton was the best ever seen in that part of North Alabama. His twenty acres looked like a December snowfall in Wyoming. Had the bolls suddenly turned loose and dropped the cotton to the ground, it would have been knee deep. When a half bale to the acre was the rule for most farms, people drove for miles to gawk at Junior’s crop.
I had been looking for just such an opportunity. My pride as a farm boy was at stake, and here was the chance to redeem it.
It all stemmed from our high school classes in vocational agriculture. When we were not discussing the sex life of Herefords and Durocs and vicariously of sixteen-year-old males, we turned the class into a primitive macho testing ground where every one sought a territory over which he was the champion.