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Too often my posts have seemed to meander to my boyhood days here in the Appalachians. Before long, I’ll start to hear Earl Hamner’s voice in my head as I write up these recollections (“Good night, John Boy…”). Still, it’s difficult not to recall formative events or people primarily during the 1970s. Swinging away from the Viet Nam trauma and psychedelic counter-culture; a boy had to navigate the world with little information. Our only source of news was Walter Cronkite every night and a smattering of articles from the Bristol Herald Courier.
Summers were filled with mowing lawns and baling hay. At least the hay came later when I was old enough and big enough to wrangle a bale. I imagine that old farmers whined about boys having it easy with square bales vs. loose hay as they do now about round bales vs. square. Technology has made life easier for boys at a time when they really don’t need it easier.
So before that age, my mother would arrange for me to attend at least one Vacation Bible School during the summer. It meant having to clean up and actually have to be somewhere on time during summer for Pete’s sake. I usually ended up at Slemp Creek Baptist Church for a week. That was probably in the sweltering July time frame.
Now Slemp Creek Baptist was not exactly a megachurch. In fact, it was a one-room church that eventually felt the need to add two rather stately outhouses. The church was oh, about 20 ft. wide by 40 ft. long. Maybe. There were four or five pews on each side of the center aisle. There might have been a small step up at the front – I don’t remember. I do know that a pot-bellied stove sat in the middle of the aisle and the front row pretty much was in swinging distance of the preacher.
The church invited the home-missionary to conduct the VBS. That was Larry Smith. I remember my Mom and Dad talking about Mr. Smith. It seems that he had been an extension agent for the county. That would have meant a solid regular income, working with farmers all over the county. He would probably have had a degree from Virginia Tech and held a coveted job. He walked away from that. He walked away from it to spend the summers with a bunch of hick kids in the middle of nowhere, teaching them that they were loved by God. He taught us a love for scripture. He taught us to not be ashamed of the gospel.
We had Kool-aid and awful sandwich cookies. Which if I had to guess were paid for out of his pocket. We made plaster casts of the saints and had to memorize scripture. At the end of the week, we had to recite the verses to parents and well — parents. Nobody else was going to waste their time hearing us stumble over Romans.
But what I remember most is the Bible-drills. I remember very clearly being stacked on the back pew with my cousins (that was our part of the building for class – the smaller kids were toward the front). Mr. Smith would lean over toward us. He had on a tie and remarkable clear blue eyes. He was as kind and gentle a man as I have ever known. He would stare us down and say, “Draw your swords.” That was our queue to hold our bibles between our hands – thumbs at the ready. Then he would say, “Hebrews 10:19-25,” or “Exodus 14:13-14,” or “Mark 14:22-25.” And he would of course thrown in Habakkuk 3:18 or Zechariah 9:9 just to keep us honest.
Once he made that announcement, we were off to the races. The first one to find the book, chapter, and verse (in the KJV of course) started to read it aloud. No one kept score that I remember. It was all competition to me then. But I think of those drills almost every time I go searching my (NKJV) bible. Just like the round bales, I pine for a time distant when we didn’t simply type the verse into our phone and have it instantly displayed.
A few years ago, I had the chance to catch up with Mr. Smith. Time had worn on him and his thin, graceful wife. They had tragically lost their adoptive daughter – who I remember as the older girl from our VBS days. He was conducting the service that Sunday. He was has joyful and animated by the Grace of God now as he was then. His blue eyes still flashed.
Mr. Smith is not influential. He is certainly not wealthy or the leader of a large congregation. He will never receive the accolades of men. Yet he has a legacy. A heritage. His service, his calling, his work has eternal consequences. I am part of that story. And my greatest tribute to him, outside of my salvation which he so desired, is a life of service.