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Walcutt Road Memories

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When I was in second grade, our family moved to a huge house on Walcutt Road in Hilliard, Ohio. The house was actually a dilapidated mansion. There was a long carriage drive made of cinders that made a loop from the road to the house and back to the road. Steps led from the front door down a paved walk to granite columns where there had once been a gate. You could still see the rusted hinges attached to the granite, and one granite block, faced and polished like a tombstone, had a date carved in it.

Behind the house was a crumbling swimming pool, half filled with broken concrete, masonry blocks, and twisted metal—detritus from someone else’s life. Rainwater collected in the bottom of the pool and made an excellent breeding ground for mosquitoes. There was a covered walkway between house and garage and a mud room where you could take off dirty footwear. We kept a bag of dog food there, and each of us kids sampled it from time to time. It was crunchy, and the dogs seemed to like it.

A concrete veranda ran all along one side of the house with French windows opening on to it. We used to ride our tricycles (and sometimes even bicycles) on that veranda. It also made an excellent surface for drawing chalk hop-scotch squares.

Inside the house was grand. The French windows opened into a great room that ran the length of the entire house. Dividing the French windows on either side was a huge fireplace, and on the floor above it was a smaller fireplace in the master bedroom, a room we children were forbidden to enter without special permission. One end of this room had floor to ceiling bookshelves with a window nook between them and a window seat. A spent many a lazy afternoon on the seat reading. The other end was at the front of the house and opened off the entryway. We used to put up our Christmas tree at that end, huge trees that nearly brushed the ceiling covered with colored incandescent bulbs and metal icicles. Some of the lights were designed to blink, and we kids would lie on our backs under the tree and watch the changing colored patterns of light they would cast on the ceiling.

The house had a huge basement with a concrete floor. We kids used to roller skate down there. The laundry room was also down there with a door that opened out at the back of the house where the defunct swimming pool was. Mom had a wringer washer. It had a wash tub with an agitator, but after the clothes were washed, they had to be taken out and run through the wringer to squeeze the excess water out. Then she would put them in a basket and take them out and hang them on a clothes line to dry.

We lived there only three or four years, but the house and the time we spent there assumed mythic proportions in our collective memories. Mom loved that house. Though we were renters she felt it was hers in a way no other house ever did. My parents liked it so much that when the owner decided to sell, they tried to buy it. Dad went to the bank and applied for a mortgage. He was a laborer, working maintenance in a factory, with a wife and eight kids. The bank told him that he could not afford a mortgage. He pointed out that the payments would be less than he was already paying in rent. The bank was immovable. A short time later someone else bought the place, and we had to move. We packed up all our goods and moved to a small house on Alum Creek near Groveport.

On the day we moved we took almost all our furniture, kitchen goods, and bedding, but we left behind our clothes, books, and the piano for the next day. We were moving in January. The house had a fuel oil furnace, and the new owner wanted to make sure it was ready for them to move in, so he had the fuel oil tank topped off. My dad had had the tank filled several times before and knew that the fill gauge was broken. Unless you were careful, you could overfill the tank, and the overflow would spill onto the basement floor. That is what happened that night. When the furnace turned on, the spark lit the spilled fuel oil and started a fire. The house was destroyed. We were able to salvage a few possessions from the rear of the house, but most of clothes and books were lost. We kids lost all our Christmas presents. We also found, before we went back to get things that might have been spared, looters had stolen everything of value that hadn’t been damaged by smoke or fire.

My mom took the loss especially hard. It wasn’t just the loss of the house and our things; it was also the way people we didn’t know behaved toward us. The Hilliard community, hearing of our loss, collected clothing for us. We got bags and bags of used clothing, most of it unusable. My mom went through much of it, snipping off buttons and ripping out zippers because she hated to waste anything useful, but she finally gave it up and threw away whole bags of other people’s cast-off clothing because it was unfit for any use but rags. I think this experience left her soured on the charity of other people for a long, long time. She saw that many people, perhaps most, were capable of giving possessions they would otherwise discard as useless while congratulating themselves on their own generosity. How tempting it is to give without feeling the price! How rare the person who insists on sacrifice!

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What Is Sin?

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Sin is a religious concept, and it is impossible to understand it it without invoking a religious context. Atheists tend not to believe in it because they recognize that sin is an offense against God, but they don’t believe there is a god (See, for example, this speech by Dan Barker). For those who do believe in God, sin can still be a troubling concept. It seems to denote both individual deeds and a rebellious attitude, acts that nearly anyone would regard as wrong (murder, rape, theft, fraud, perjury) and acts that seem wrong only if you subscribe to a particular set of beliefs (working on Saturday or Sunday, playing card games, cussing, drinking, smoking, and dancing). In the popular—and secular—mind, sin seems to be nearly synonymous with illicit sex or even with ordinary pleasures. So what is sin? And why do Christians make such a big deal out of it?

When I was a child, I thought sin was breaking a commandment. God had a list of rules everyone was supposed to keep. If you broke one of the rules that was a sin. This list of rules, I learned, included the Ten Commandments. To a child, these rules seemed both arbitrary and unnecessary. It made sense that the first rule was to have no other gods. Imagine the confusion that would result from having more than one Rule-maker! But the rest just seemed like nonsense or else so obvious that no one would need to have it written down. Who wants to make graven images? Or take another man’s wife? Or commit murder? The two that made the most sense to me were the requirement to honor my parents and the prohibition against desiring what someone else had. I’ve written elsewhere about this last commandment, but what is especially odd about it is how unenforceable it is. How do you make a charge of coveting stick? The other commandments all enjoin or forbid specific deeds, but this one forbids something that no one around you may even detect. It is one of the earliest indications that God cares as much about why we do what we do as about what we do.

Another thing I thought as a child was that God’s rules are absolutes. In fact, I was very much a rule follower. I was seldom tempted to break rules, and when I did, I was racked with guilt about it until it was discovered and I received punishment or absolution. The existence of a rule was therefore often sufficient to keep me in line. I was surprised, then, when my own children showed no propensity to regard rules in this same way. Most of them would do a quick cost/benefit analysis in their heads before breaking a rule. If the benefit seemed to outweigh the cost, they had no compunction about breaking the rule and no apparent sense of guilt about it. My own natural bent made me a compliant child, but it also set me on a path to becoming a Pharisaical Christian. When you’re good at keeping rules, it’s tempting to think that rule-keeping is sufficient for life. It isn’t.

What I referred to above as “cost/benefit analysis” is a capacity we all have. It is the capacity to decide for ourselves whether a course of action is good or bad. In the myth of the Fall found in Genesis 3, Eve exercises that capacity when she decides “that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom.” Set against her own judgment is the mere prohibition of God, which has nothing to recommend it except God’s power and authority. The serpent even undermines that by accusing God of self-serving motives: “God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” God doesn’t want any competition. He only forbade it keep you down. He lied about the whole “you will die” thing. Eve desires good things for herself, and the serpent persuades her that the only thing standing in her way is God’s absurd rule.

This is the normal course of sin. It begins with desire for something God has forbidden. Desire magnifies all the good things that will come and diminishes or eliminates all the potential harms. Then we set our own judgment against God’s and do what we want instead of what we should. Sin begins with disagreement with God.

In orthodox Christian belief God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and present everywhere at once. So his commands are grounded in love and wisdom and strength. But he doesn’t need to have infinite capacities in order to make wise rules. He only needs to be stronger and wiser than you are. Just as good parents who are stronger and wiser than their children make good rules for them to keep them safe and teach them, so God, who is our Parent, makes good rules for us—his children—to protect us and teach us. If we disagree with him, we are always in the wrong. There is something breathtakingly audacious about disagreeing with God, about trying to explain something to him as if he didn’t know, or about thinking we have a perspective he hasn’t considered. It’s like explaining relativity to Einstein. When Abraham dared to do it, he at least showed some trepidation and humility.

Of course, disagreeing with God is not sin; it is only the beginning of sin. For one thing, it is impossible to always agree with God, for to do so, we would have to always believe only what is true and right. Now, each of us thinks that what we believe is true and right. Who would hold on to a belief knowing it to be false or wrong? But we know, since we are human beings with limited perspective, that some of what we believe is not true, even though we don’t know exactly what it is. It is only when we insist on our own way in defiance of God’s command that our disagreement rises to the level of sin. And what is God’s command? He commands us to love him first and foremost and to love our neighbors as ourselves. If our lives are not characterized by loving our neighbors—by sincere respect and affection, wanting what is best for them—then we deceive ourselves when we say we love God.

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Brother Shadwick

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When I was about 14, my family started going to a new church. It was still an Assembly of God church, but it was not the one in Columbus, Ohio we had been attending. This one was in Delaware, about the same distance but in the opposite direction. We were living near Sunbury, Ohio at the time. I don’t remember why we switched churches, but I think it had something to do with our former pastor leaving. The church in Delaware was small, maybe 35 or 40 members, so when the 10 of us started going, of course we were going to have an outsize impact. The pastor, Brother Moore was a young, sincere man, and the congregation was made up mostly of middle aged and older folks. I’m sure our family alone doubled the number of kids attending.

Fifty years ago, churches had Sunday School followed by Worship Service every Sunday morning. Sunday School was a time of instruction, mostly for teaching kids, but most churches of my acquaintance also had adult Sunday School classes, but the folks who attended were mostly people with kids who were bringing them to be taught. The format was usually less formal than public school. Classes were small. There were often kids from 3 or 4 grades mixed together. Still, you were expected to listen to the teacher teach, not interrupt or talk in class, and generally behave yourself. At 14 I was really good at that, having attended church since before I could remember.

My Sunday School teacher at Delaware Assembly of God was a man in his 40s named Brother Shadwick. (In the Assemblies of God of my youth, every adult was either Brother or Sister from the pastor on down.) Brother Shadwick was short but wiry; he looked like a fighter with close-cropped hair, big ears and a bulbous nose, thick lips, and one of those sallow complexions that would go beet red when he got angry. He proved also to be proud and ignorant, always a dangerous combination.

Our class was in a small room off the fellowship hall. There couldn’t have been more than four or five of us. I don’t know if Brother Shadwick took an instant dislike to me, or if it was our first skirmish that made me his enemy. The lesson that day was about Jesus calming the storm on the Sea of Galilee. Brother Shadwick was trying to set the scene. He told us that fishing boat Jesus and the disciples were in was very small, about the size of a row boat.

I raised my hand.

“It must have been bigger than a row boat,” I said. “It held Jesus and twelve disciples and their fishing gear. Jesus fell asleep in the prow. How could he sleep in the prow of a row boat?”

Brother Shadwick looked daggers at me. He stopped the class and had us all bow our heads. He prayed that God would forgive my sins and overcome my rebellious spirit. I was embarrassed, of course, but I also knew that I was right and the Brother Shadwick was wrong. Rather than admit to being wrong, he had treated me as if I had done something shameful. I knew I was not rebellious. In fact I was a compliant child, and I resolved to keep my mouth shut unless I was called upon.

I don’t want to give the wrong impression. I was a 14-year-old boy. There is no other age when boys are more obnoxious. I was certainly not immune. I was no doubt tactless and cocky. But I was not interested in how he felt having his word questioned by a mere boy. I was interested in truth, and it mattered to me that he was changing the story to suit his own preconceptions. But after that incident I was wary.

Some months later another incident occurred. Our class had been combined with another, and we now met in the fellowship hall where there was more room. My younger sister, Lani was in the class. There may have been as many as a dozen students. This time the lesson was from Jonah. The story of Jonah is bizarre even compared to other Old Testament stories. The feature most people remember is that Jonah was swallowed by a whale and survived inside it for three days, but that is not what makes it truly bizarre. Taken as a whole, it is a story about the compassion of the God of Israel for people who were not Israelites, who were in fact enemies of Israel. The last sentence, which God addresses to Jonah as a question, makes the point explicit:

And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals? (Jonah 4:11)

Brother Shadwick claimed that this meant that the people of Nineveh were savages, unable even to tell their left hand from their right. He compared them to people living in mud huts, eking out a living at subsistence farming. Sitting there listening, I kept thinking, “I’m not going to say anything. I’m not going to say anything.”

Then Brother Shadwick looked straight at me and asked, “Isn’t that right?”

What could I do? I pointed out that Nineveh was the capital city of the Assyrian empire, that they represented the dominant political power in the region at the time, and that the verse probably referred to children rather than to the entire population of the city. Brother Shadwick turned red. My sister rushed from the room to find our mom or dad. I found out later that she thought he was going to hit me. He did come toward me and stand over me. But he did not lay a hand on me. Instead he resorted once more to prayer for my rebellious spirit because I had dared to know more than he knew.

I do not know what resources Brother Shadwick turned to when he was preparing his Sunday School lessons. Perhaps he thought, as many people still think today, that he needed no resources but his own understanding to make sense of stories that were hundreds of years old. I was not so self-assured. My family had encyclopedias, bible dictionaries, study bibles, and alternate translations. When I read the bible, I referred to those resources to help me understand. I still use such helps when I read the bible.

Two more incidents help illuminate Brother Shadwick’s character. Both occurred shortly before my family left the church. The first was that Brother Shadwick got into a fight with a co-worker and was badly beaten. His nose was broken, and he came to church with his face heavily bandaged. He sued his attacker and lost. The judge decreed that Brother Shadwick had provoked his attacker, so no compensation was due. The second was a confrontation between Brother Shadwick and a new pastor who had come to set make things right at the church. I don’t remember what it was about. I just remember Brother Shadwick standing nose to nose with the pastor, flushed with anger, his hand balled into a fist and spitting his words between clenched teeth. He still had bandages on his nose. The pastor regarded him with absolute calm but refused to back down. We left that church, and it closed for good not long after.

Some people would have been soured on church forever by these incidents, but I was fortunate in several respects. My parents knew me well. They knew I was not trying to cause trouble or show up Brother Shadwick in front of the class. They didn’t berate or discipline me for standing up to Brother Shadwick when he said things that revealed his own prejudices, especially when he asked for my opinion. I also knew that Brother Shadwick was not best representing the character of Christ in these episodes, so they did not make me question God’s goodness. Besides, I had my own relationship with Christ, and he sustained me even when others who also claimed to follow him misunderstood me. So I bear Brother Shadwick no ill will. I hope he has found peace and been delivered from his anger.

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