From Old Movies To Old Men

Female Colleague: Did you have a good weekend?

Me: I spent most of my time in fabric shops.

FC: What were you looking for?

Me: I wanted to see if I could find any bargains in edging materials: something with lots of ruffles and flounces.

FC: I didn’t think you’d be interested in anything like that.

Me: Yes, at the weekend I’m always on the lookout for cheap frills.

FC: So you’re doing some redecorating, then?

Awkward pause.

Me: It’s a joke.

FC: What is?

Some days, you just can’t win.

Cheap thrills? Perhaps not, but I have to admit that for most of my life I’ve gone to great lengths for the sake of a cheap laugh. I’ve filed away jokes for decades, waiting patiently for someone to furnish me with the feed line. Once, I was walking down the corridor at work when…

No, we’ll be here all night. What I was wondering is this: how do you feel when you hear all those old jokes about people in the bible, or those parodies of hymns and choruses that make some folk smile? “Zerubbabel the bouncing Jew”? “Who was the biggest woman in the bible? The woman of Samaria!” Can you get through “While shepherds watched” without “washed their socks” slipping in? And what about the children’s chorus, “I will make you fishers of men”? If you’re fond of that one, please don’t read on. I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you.

Let’s go back, once more. It’s the Wednesday night bible study and prayer meeting. As a one-off, the young people are in charge of the proceedings. Right now a sixteen-year-old boy is standing at the front. He’s only been saved for about six months, he says, but he wants to share something of what he’s experienced in that time. He’s speaking of the seriousness of sin; he’s not talking about something insignificant, he says, such as buying an ice cream on a Sunday. He smiles. He’s fresh-faced, and just a little flushed. He’s not used to being the centre of attention.

Before he can continue, someone else speaks. The voice comes from the back corner of the room. It’s loud and deep and hard and flat. “Neither I, nor any member of my family, would ever dream of buying an ice cream upon the Sabbath!”

The boy pauses. Someone whispers, “Go on, go on!” He stumbles over the next few sentences, looking down at his notes; his face is red and his smile has vanished away. Then, he’s done, and he goes back to his seat; he sits down and stares at the floor.

It was a long time ago, but it left a lasting impression on me. And what of that sixteen-year-old? He drifted away from the youth group, and from that church; he pursued an academic career, and joined the medical profession. I’m not saying his faith foundered on the rock of that rebuke: our Lord knows His own, and He will keep them to the end of this life and on into the next. No, that’s not my concern; instead, after all these years, I’m still wondering why that Deacon - the Church Treasurer, no less - found it necessary to make that remark.

I could describe the man in more detail, and multiply examples of his overbearing and intolerant attitude, and how he eventually helped to lead the church down the path to doctrinal disaster; but the real question is this: why was this man in a position of authority in the first place?

Recently I listened to E. A. Johnston lamenting the sad state of many American Baptist churches. One of the problems, he said, was that the Deacons directed the churches, rather than the Elders/Ministers/Pastors, and they could hire and fire Pastors at will, and thus quickly put paid to any preaching or teaching that they didn’t like. They were often in office, he suggested, because they were influential individuals, or professional people, or wealthy and well-connected businessmen, instead of men chosen because they conformed to the pattern outlined in Paul’s first letter to Timothy.

I’m a Baptist (by conviction, not because of my background), and I’ve had some experience of Baptist churches in this part of the world. In those churches, too, Deacons seemed to rule the roost. Often, there were one or two families who acted as though they owned the church, in the way that you might own a family business: their authority was passed on to their offspring and they were determined to hang on to their positions of power at any cost. 

Was that why they were so often both pious and yet poisonous, respectable yet ruthless, faithful to the church but utterly unforgiving if anyone ever opposed them? Perhaps it was something to do with the way their churches were founded, often as a result of divisions concerning doctrine - or rather, personality clashes played out as struggles over the interpretation of scripture.

Perhaps these men were brought up on old movies, and when John Wayne said: “Never apologise, mister, it’s a sign of weakness!” (“She Wore A Yellow Ribbon”), they presumed that it was a text taken from Proverbs. At any rate, they acted as though it would be a cold day in hell when they ever said they were sorry.

Our subject for the last couple of Saturdays has been Christian manliness, if you remember. These men should have been my rôle models; as it was, they were far too often as follows. 

If you know the tune, you can join in the chorus. All together, now!

    I will make you vicious old men,

   Vicious old men, vicious old men;

   I will make you vicious old men,

   If you follow me...

It was funny, the first few times I heard it. 

Now it isn’t even remotely amusing.

To be continued.