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THE BANJO PICKERS

March 25, 2017

Uncle Archie was an eccentric fellow. He drove a Model T Ford, was married at least three times, fathered fourteen or more children, and he played the five-string banjo. I remember Saturday afternoons spent singing on the front porch of the Hutson family homeplace in Barnwell County, South Carolina. Uncle Archie picked the banjo. Cousins Parnell and Billy played guitars. Neighbors came with a mandolin and a fiddle. Uncle Creech was the percussionist, alternating between a scrub board and two clacking spoons. Sometimes there would be a harmonica, a jaw harp, or a one-string, broom-handle washtub base. Uncle Archie’s brother, Uncle Quincy, would occasionally play a limber handsaw. But the banjo was the featured instrument. It was on that front porch in the sandhills that I grew fond of the five-string banjo.

I got my first banjo when I was a senior in high school. It is a Gibson extended neck five-string. My banjo is just like the one played by Dave Guard of the Kingston Trio and by the folksinger Pete Seeger. I learned to strum a few chords, but I never have learned to pick the way the best banjo players do.

Jerome Fowler of Clifton taught me to play the guitar. When I showed my banjo to him, he said, “Playing the banjo will drive you crazy!”

That must have been what happened to Uncle Archie.

Most people who have tried the five-string agree that in order to pick the thing you have to be a little bit addled. If you’re not deranged when you begin, that short drone fifth string will drive you batty with its constant ringing of a high G-note.

In 1965, when I was a senior at Furman University, I was president of the Pep Club. One of my responsibilities was to organize a campus-wide concert on Friday night before the Homecoming football game.  I decided to hold an outdoor event in the middle of a big grassy field. I made arrangements to borrow an eighteen-wheel flatbed truck.

I delegated most of the details to other club members and plans were in place. All but one! The guy who promised me he would secure a band came up empty.

With the event only two weeks away, I decided to call on a fellow from my hometown, Spartanburg, South Carolina. Our band for the event was pure country. I engaged Don Reno and the Tennessee Cut-Ups.

I wondered how the Furman student body would respond to bluegrass music.

Don Reno and his boys climbed onto the flatbed decked out in cowboy hats and boots. They cranked up the volume and cut loose with a rousing performance. On that cool, sunny afternoon the Furman student body heard one of the best five-string banjo players ever. Using his unique three-finger style of picking, Reno had some students clogging in the grass. Many were toe-tapping and knee-slapping throughout most of the concert.

Don Reno was born in Spartanburg County.  His family moved to Heywood County, North Carolina, when he was a boy. He first picked the banjo when he was five years old.  He was basically self-taught. He became known as one of the best by the time he was a teenager playing with Arthur Smith and the Crackerjacks. He recorded with Woody Guthrie. He joined Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys, playing with them for several years.

Later in his career, Reno reunited with Arthur Smith for one recording session.  Together they produced “Feuding Banjos,” which was later re-titled “Dueling Banjos” for its use in the 1972 film “Deliverance.”

There are other great banjo pickers from Spartanburg County. Buck Trent was born and raised in Arcadia. He played with Bill Carlisle, Porter Wagner, and Roy Clark, and was a regular on the television show “Hee-Haw.”

Bobby Thompson from Converse Mill worked with Carl Story, and became one of the best studio musicians in Nashville. He played in the band on “Hee-Haw.” He was credited with developing the melodic style of five-string banjo picking.

Some have said, incorrectly, that the banjo is the only instrument to originate in this country. By the early 1600s, the four-string banjo had been brought to America. Enslaved Africans fashioned instruments like those they knew in their homeland. Early versions were made from tanned skins stretched over gourds connected to strips of wood. Gut and hemp were used for the strings. Slaves on Southern plantations used African names for these instruments. Called bangie, banza, banjer, and banjar, the instrument finally became known as the banjo.

Joel Walker Sweeney had a traveling minstrel show with banjo players in the early 1800s. Sweeney added the fifth string to the instrument. So, it is the five-string banjo that is a uniquely American instrument.

The drone fifth string gives the instrument its distinctive sound. Constantly tuned to a high G-note, that fifth string is the steel demon that will drive you crazy.

My grandfather, born and raised in middle Tennessee, told me that Uncle Dave Macon from McMinnville, Tennessee, was the best five-string player he knew. Macon was the first star of the Grand Ole Opry. There have been many other notable pickers from Mark Twain to Steve Martin to Ricky Skaggs.  Each person who plays the instrument develops a unique picking style.

One of the finest is Ralph Stanley, born in Big Spraddle, Virginia. His mother bought him his first banjo when Ralph was 15 years old. She agreed to pay five dollars for the used instrument. The woman she bought it from took payment in groceries from the small mountain store run by Ralph’s mother. His mother, a member of the famous Carter Family, taught Ralph to play using the claw hammer style in which the thumb and the first two fingers move rapidly across the strings.

Stanley and his brother Carter formed the Clinch Mountain Boys. Drawing on the minor-key singing style of their Primitive Baptist tradition and the harmonies of the Carter family, the Clinch Mountain Boys found their place in Bluegrass music. They were featured in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” a movie produced in 2000. Ralph had learned the theme song of the soundtrack, “Man of Constant Sorrow,” years before from his dad.

Among the banjo players in my acquaintance are some unique people. Ralph Boney not only plays the five-string, he picks it left-handed!

Walker Copley, who sells and repairs watches as his day job, plays the banjo on the side.

Clare’s cousin Donna Roper plays the five-string continuing the tradition of many fine lady pickers.

On a Sunday afternoon nearly five years ago, 2,300 mourners crowded into the famous Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee. An iconic banjo surrounded by dozens of floral arrangements decorated the platform. A closed casket was placed in front of the famous stage.  The audience gathered to pay tribute to bluegrass musician and Grand Ole Opry star Earl Scruggs who died on Wednesday, March 28, 2012. He was eighty-eight years old.

Scruggs’ public funeral service was held at the same auditorium where he had played his songs for years on the Grand Ole Opry. The four-time Grammy Award winner recorded his final album at this Nashville landmark. Nearby is a cluster of downtown honky-tonks where Scruggs’ music is still played. A plaque in his honor hangs three blocks away in the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Charlie Daniels, best known for his fiddle playing, commented, “No one will ever play the banjo like Earl.”

Ricky Skaggs stated that Scruggs “was the most humble musician I ever met.”

On Sunday evening just a week later, the Academy of Country Music held its annual awards show in Las Vegas. Rascal Flatts was joined by a special guest on banjo, Steve Martin, to pay tribute to Scruggs.

Earl Scruggs put his trademark on bluegrass music.

The North Carolina native started playing the five-string banjo at the age of four, using the traditional claw-hammer style of picking.  By the time he was ten years old, he had developed a three-finger method that became known as Scruggs style. Combined with a string-bending technique, Earl elevated the banjo from backup to a lead instrument.

Scruggs joined Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys in late 1945 and quickly popularized his syncopated, three-finger picking style.

The unique banjo picker played for twenty years with guitarist Lester Flatt. The two were best known for their song “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” from The Beverly Hillbillies television series.  Their song “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” was featured in the 1967 movie “Bonnie and Clyde.”

In January 1973, a tribute concert was held for Scruggs in Manhattan, Kansas. The concert was filmed and became the 1975 documentary film “Banjo Man.”

Earl learned to play on the banjo belonging to his father, who died when Earl was only four years old. Earl’s last banjo, a 1935 Gibson RB-3 flathead nicknamed Nellie, was surrounded by flowers on the Ryman Auditorium stage for his memorial service.

Born and reared in the Flint Hill community in Cleveland County, North Carolina, Earl Scruggs is, hands down, the best of all time. At an 80th birthday party for Earl in 2004, country singer Porter Wagoner said, “Earl was to the five-string banjo what Babe Ruth was to baseball. He is the best there ever was, and the best there ever will be.”

Even with his world-wide fame and numerous awards, the talented musician from just south of Boiling Springs, North Carolina, remained a humble man who remembered his roots. He never forgot his own people, and they will never forget him.

In the 1960s, my brother Lawton, while a student at Gardner-Webb College, joined a folk group called The Joyful Noise. One Monday, the Campus Minister asked the group to sing in chapel. They gladly accepted, but Lawton had left his banjo at home in Spartanburg.

The college chaplain said he knew where to find a banjo for Lawton to borrow. A maintenance man at the college loaned his banjo to Lawton. When Lawton returned the impressive old five string, the generous fellow said, “Thank you for taking care of my banjo. I wouldn’t want anything to happen to it. It belongs to my brother.”

The maintenance man’s name was Horace Scruggs.

His brother’s name was Earl!

THE FIRST DAY OF SPRING

March 19, 2017

The brief snowfall last Sunday reminded me of the March when I was in the tenth grade. That year, 1960, snow fell on three consecutive Wednesdays in March.  Just a few years ago, the temperature plummeted to fourteen degrees on a night in mid-March, nipping in the bud the bloom on many of our tender plants.

The Bible says, “for, lo, the winter is passed, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land” (Song of Solomon 2:11-12 King James Version).  Even in my backyard now the truth of that scripture is verified by the blooming of flowering bulbs and shrubs. Birds are singing.  The robins and the bluebirds have returned, preparing for their nesting.  But so far I have heard no sound from a turtle.

When I was a boy I used to think that passage was one of the strangest in the Bible.  I’ve spent a good bit of time out of doors and have heard the voice of a turtle only a time or two.  On one occasion, a very large snapping turtle had the poor taste to chomp down on a catfish line, embedding a large hook in his pallet.  An angry snapping turtle makes an unmistakable sound.  I doubt that the poetry of the Bible had that hissing in mind.  Later translations substitute turtle with turtle dove, a bird I see every day in my backyard.

The fact that spring is close at hand is unmistakable.  In his “Ode to the West Wind,” Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote, “If winter comes, can spring be far behind?” A better question is, if the daffodils are blooming, if the bluebirds are nesting, if basketball’s March madness is in full swing, can spring be far behind?

Monday, March 20, 2017, marks the official arrival of spring. At precisely 6:28 A.M. Eastern Daylight Time, the sun will cross directly over the earth’s equator. In the northern hemisphere this moment is known as the vernal equinox. Simultaneously, in the southern hemisphere, the same moment marks the autumnal equinox, the beginning of fall.

The word equinox means equal night. Because the sun is positioned at its zenith above the equator, day and night are approximately equal in length throughout the world.

This brief moment of balance between light and dark occurs because the earth is tilted on its axis. Because of the tilt, we receive the sun’s rays most directly in the summer. In the winter, when the earth is angled away from the sun, the rays pass through the atmosphere at a greater slant, bringing lower temperatures. That tilt provides our seasons.

For thousands of years, the vernal equinox has been the occasion for rituals marking the advent of spring. Many early civilizations celebrated fertility rites because the earth becomes fruitful again in spring.

Early Egyptians built the Great Sphinx so that it points directly toward the rising sun on the day of the vernal equinox. The mysterious Stonehenge on Salisbury Plain in England is thought to have been an ancient observatory dating to 5000 BC. Archeologists believe celebrations occurred there on the first day of spring.  The vernal equinox also marks the beginning of Nowruz, the Persian New Year rooted in the 3000-year-old tradition of Zoroastrianism. Christians in the west always celebrate Easter on the Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox.

Daffodils and their smaller Spanish cousins, jonquils, are harbingers of spring. Other flowering bulbs, like crocus and Lenten roses, are welcome sights even in the snow. Once daffodils bloom, we have no doubt that the seasons are changing. It is as if the nodding trumpet-shaped flowers herald the arrival of spring.

Years ago two of our sons and I took a backpacking trip during spring break along the Foothills Trail in the Dark Corner, the northwestern section of South Carolina. When we crested a hill somewhere between the Keowee and the Whitewater rivers, the stunning sight of hundreds of yellow daffodils greeted us. An old homestead, now marked only by a crumbling fieldstone foundation and collapsed chimney, had long since disappeared. The flowers that graced the site each spring had survived, spreading through a meadow and across the forest floor.

The English poet William Wordsworth memorialized the daffodil in lines penned in 1804:

I wander’d lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o’er vales and hills,

When all at once I saw a crowd,

A host, of golden daffodils;

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Gene was a dear friend who grew up on a farm in Cherokee County, South Carolina. His success with the family business enabled him to build a home on the family farm within a stone’s throw of the old home place.  The beautiful new house has a wrap-around porch, graced with big rocking chairs. Visitors approach the home by a long driveway, flanked on the left by a horse pasture and weathered barn. Up a hill to the right is the foundation of the former home.  In the early spring, this hill is covered with bright daffodils. Originally planted by Gene’s mother around the old farmhouse, the flowers have naturalized, scattering helter-skelter down the hillside.  Each year the daffodils bloom from late February through March, making the yellow-splotched hill a sight to behold.

Several years ago, after Gene experienced several months of increasingly serious health problems, it became clear that he was quite ill.  The diagnosis was a rapidly-growing rare form of cancer.

In mid-March, Gene went home from the hospital. On a bright, warm Sunday afternoon, Gene asked if he could see the daffodils.  Surrounded by his loving wife, children, and several grandchildren, Gene was transported by wheelchair down the driveway near the barn.  He sat quietly for a few moments, taking in the sight of the hillside covered in delicate yellow blooms, dancing in the breeze.

Three days later Gene died. His death came quickly, far sooner than most of us had expected. While his death was anticipated, it was also sudden, making the grief experience jagged and confusing for family and friends.  Before the funeral the family picked bright yellow flowers from the hillside next to the old home placed. At the graveside in a country churchyard, his children and grandchildren each placed a daffodil on the polished wooden casket.  Even though yellow daffodils bring to mind bittersweet memories, they will be a perennial symbol of hope for Gene’s family.

In his concluding lines in the poem “Daffodils,” Wordsworth captures, for all who find in them a signal of hope, the wonder of these spring flowers:

And then my heart with pleasure fills,

And dances with the daffodils.

Jesus taught his followers how to cope with worry and anxiety. His counsel was to pay attention to birds and flowers:

Look at the birds of the air (and)…the flowers of the field.

(Matthew 6:26, 28)

For Gene’s family those flowers will always be daffodils.

Here is a two minute look at daffodils.

SAINT PATRICK

March 17, 2017

The story of Saint Patrick, one of the most beloved of all saints, is a strange mixture of history and legend. Patrick was born into a wealthy family in England about 385 A.D. His father was a deacon from a Roman family of high social standing. His mother was a close relative of Martin of Tours. Patrick’s grandfather was a priest in the Catholic Church.

As a youth, Patrick had little interest in Christianity or in education. Neither was forced upon him, but later in life deficits in these areas would become a source of embarrassment for him. In the early 440s he wrote in his Confessions, “I blush and fear exceedingly to reveal my lack of education.”

When Patrick was sixteen years old, Irish pirates captured and sold him into slavery in Ireland. Patrick worked as a shepherd for his master, a Druid high priest in the religion of the ancient Celts.

In time Patrick came to view his enslavement as a test of his faith. During his six years of captivity, he became devoted to Christianity through constant prayer. He explained in his Confessions that the Lord had mercy on his youth and ignorance and gave him the opportunity to be forgiven of his sins and to be converted to Christianity.

At the age of twenty-two, Patrick had a dream, encouraging him to escape from Ireland. In that dream, the voice of God promised that he would find the way back to his homeland in England. Patrick began this journey by walking across Ireland to the coast where he convinced sailors to let him board their ship. After three days of sailing, he and the crew abandoned the ship in France and wandered, lost, for twenty-eight days—covering 200 miles in the process. At last, Patrick was reunited with his family in England.

Patrick recounts another vision he had a few years after returning home:

I saw a man coming, as it were from Ireland. His name was Victoricus, and he carried many letters, and he gave me one of them. I read the heading: “The Voice of the Irish.” As I began the letter, I imagined in that moment that I heard the voice of those very people who were near the wood of Foclut, which is beside the western sea—and they cried out, as with one voice: “We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.”

Interpreting this vision as a call from God, Patrick became determined to free the Irish from paganism by converting them to Christianity.  He never lost sight of that vision.

As a free man, Patrick traveled to Auxerre, France, where he studied and entered the priesthood under the guidance of the missionary St. Germain. In 431, Pope Celestine consecrated Patrick as Bishop of the Irish and dispatched him to Ireland to spread the gospel.

There Patrick met with hostile resistance.  Legally, he was without protection.  He wrote that he was, on one occasion, beaten, robbed of all he had, and put in chains.  Patrick wondered if, perhaps, execution awaited him.

Regardless of that reception, it is said that Patrick converted the entire country of Ireland in less than thirty years. Through his preaching he convinced Druid priests and peasants alike that they would become “the people of the Lord and the children of God” by accepting Christianity.

Interestingly, Ireland had very few Christian martyrs. The willingness of the Irish people to accept Christianity was due in large part to Patrick’s familiarity with their culture and Celtic religion. The genius of Patrick’s approach was to mesh the symbols of Christianity with those of their ancient religion. The Celtic cross, for example, combines the most recognizable sign of the passion of Christ with the circle of life central to the fertility religion of the Celts.

According to legend Patrick used the three-leafed shamrock to teach the Irish the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Its green color and the number three were already considered sacred in ancient Celtic religion. Prominent in ancient Ireland was the belief in the Triple Goddesses named Brigid, Ériu, and Morrigan.

The Gaelic word seamrog means little clover. Most botanists affirm that white clover is the original, authentic shamrock. In the Upstate of South Carolina, white clover grows wild in many lawns. This same white clover plant is the plant that Patrick used to illustrate three persons in one God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.) For this reason, shamrocks are a central symbol for St Patrick’s Day.

According to legend, Patrick is also credited with banishing all snakes from the Emerald Isle into the North Atlantic Ocean. The tale holds that during a forty-day fast, he was taking a stroll on a hilltop near the sea when he encountered the snakes. The forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness where he was tempted by Satan come to mind.

All biological and archaeological evidence suggests, however, that Ireland never had snakes after the ice age. Author Betty Rhodes has suggested that the snakes Patrick banished actually referred to the serpent symbolism of the Druids. Druid priests often wore tattoos of snakes on their arms.

In time Patrick brought Christian structures to Ireland by electing Church officials, creating councils, founding monasteries, and organizing the country into dioceses.

Though he was never formally canonized by a Roman Pope, Patrick is on the List of Saints and has been declared a Saint in Heaven by many Catholic churches. Saint Patrick is also venerated in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Patrick founded his first church in a barn at Saul, which was donated to him by a local chieftain.  Many believe that Patrick died at Saul but was buried alongside St. Brigid and St. Columba at Down Cathedral in Downpatrick, County Down. Nearby on the crest of a hill is a statue of him with bronze panels showing scenes from his life.

The year of Patrick’s death is uncertain. Many scholars ascribe a date of 493, making Patrick 107 years old when he died. This improbability has led some historians to suggest a two-Patrick theory, the idea that two different people by the same name carried out the ministry ascribed to Patrick.

Saint Patrick’s Day is observed on March 17, the date of his death.  In the dioceses of Ireland, it is a holy day of obligation; outside of Ireland, it can be a celebration of Irish heritage.

March 17 usually falls during the season of Lent. For more than 1,000 years, the Irish have observed St. Patrick’s Day as a religious holiday. Traditionally on St. Patrick’s Day, Irish families would attend church in the morning and celebrate later. On Saint Patty’s Day, many folks enjoy a meal of corned beef, cabbage, and Irish potatoes. Others imbibe green beer and Irish whiskey until they see leprechauns. All of these customs celebrate the feast day of a Celtic Christian saint.

I have traced my family tree to the MacNeil clan, which originated in Celtic Ireland.  These kinfolk migrated to Scotland and then returned to Northern Ireland during the Irish Plantation. My American ancestors were Scots-Irish.

The notion that Saint Patrick initiated the custom of pinching folks who fail to wear green on March 17, the day he died, is silly.

Still, on Saint Patrick’s Day I plan to wear green, just to be sure.

THE IDES OF MARCH

March 15, 2017

In his play Julius Caesar (Act 1, Scene 2), William Shakespeare depicts a prophetic encounter. The ominous dialogue is an exchange between the Emperor and a soothsayer in the crowd.

Sensing a threat, Caesar pauses to challenge, “Who is it in the press that calls on me? I hear a tongue shriller than all the music cry ‘Caesar!’  Speak, Caesar is turn’d to hear.”

“Beware the Ides of March.”

“What man is that?” inquires Caesar.

Brutus identifies the voice. “A soothsayer bids you beware the Ides of March.”

Shakespeare borrowed this scene, along with other details of Caesar’s death, from the Life of Julius Caesar by the first century scholar Plutarch, a Greek historian and biographer.

Tradition alleges that Julius Caesar was a superstitious man. He wasn’t likely to take a soothsayer lightly. Caesar might have heeded numerous harbingers of impending danger – the chilling warning, a violent thunderstorm, and his wife’s nightmares. Even so, he ventured forth to the Senate and to his doom on the Ides of March. The Roman Emperor was assassinated by a group of political conspirators, including Brutus and Cassius.

The soothsayer’s warning to Julius Caesar has forever shadowed the day with a sense of foreboding.

In early Rome, the Ides of March did not necessarily evoke a dark mood. It was simply the standard way of saying March 15.

Notable people other than Julius Caesar have also died on March 15. Among them are Abe Saperstein, founder of the Harlem Globetrotters; Aristotle Onassis, Greek shipping magnate; Rebecca West, historian and writer; Tom Harmon, football player and sports broadcaster; Benjamin Spock, pediatrician and writer; and Bowie Kuhn, Commissioner of Baseball.

March 15 begins the last official week of winter. I can remember very cold weather during the month of March here in the Upstate.  One March, when I was a teenager, snow fell on three consecutive Wednesdays.  Just a few years ago, the temperature plummeted to fourteen degrees on a night in mid-March, nipping the blooms on many of our plants. It is the time of year when peach farmers pay close attention to the buds on their trees and to the weather forecasts.

Spring usually comes to the Upstate a little early.  Our most avid vegetable gardeners plant sugar snap peas and red Irish potatoes by Valentine’s Day.

On a recent afternoon, I walked through my garden.  Rain has revived the pansies and the violas.  Crocuses are blooming bright, daffodils are nodding in the breeze, and Lenten roses are peeking out from their cover of evergreen foliage.  A mockingbird and a Carolina wren are singing.  The robins and the bluebirds have returned and are preparing for their nesting.  The waterfall is flowing freely, and the wind chimes ring to a gentle breeze. From the looks of things, spring is close at hand.

In my neck of the woods, the Ides of March is not a reason to beware. Rather it is a time to be aware and to be glad.

THE WIND

March 5, 2017

Here in the Upstate of South Carolina the month of February was unusually mild and often pleasant. As March approached, I wondered if the old adage, “in like a lion and out like a lamb” would be a realistic description of March this year. But on the first day of March a cold air mass collided with the warm air over the Piedmont.

Meteorologists warned that the weather could get rough, and sure enough, it did. As the colder air moved in the turbulence became severe, especially across North Carolina. Rain and hail were accompanied by strong northwest winds with gusts as high as sixty miles per hour.

March came in like a lion or some other roaring beast.

On Wednesday afternoon, before the worst of the storms arrived, I sat on my backporch enjoying the warm weather, sipping a cup of coffee, listening to the wind blow, and thinking about times when I had experienced strong winds.

I recalled a time when I was a boy. I was preparing for a camping trip with my scout troop. I had just come home from school to prepare for the outing. I was assigned the task of bringing ice for the cooler in which we would store our food. I finished packing my gear, when a sudden storm with strong winds and quarter-sized hail broke loose. Our chicken house was blown face-down off the concrete blocks that served as a foundation. Chicken feathers flew everywhere. The hail pelted down and piled up fast. As soon as the storm blew over, Mama phoned my dad at the lumberyard to report the damage. Read more…

MARCH, ASH WEDNESDAY, AND LENT

March 1, 2017

March is a tumultuous month, a restless time.  Many of our familiar clichés and quotes about March confirm the unsettled nature of this, the third month on our calendars.   The time-honored adage, “in like a lion, and out like a lamb,” describes the dramatic changes we expect.  “As wild as a March hare” implies that even rabbits are more impetuous during these thirty-one days.

In his play, Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare depicts a prophetic encounter. The ominous dialogue is an exchange between the Emperor and a soothsayer in the crowd.

Sensing a threat, Caesar pauses to challenge, “Who is it in the press that calls on me? I hear a tongue shriller than all the music cry ‘Caesar!’  Speak! Caesar is turn’d to hear.”

The soothsayer warns, “Beware the Ides of March.”

Basketball has the sports spotlight for the month of March.  The National Collegiate Athletic Association showcases conference tournaments, closely followed by the Big Dance, the NCAA basketball tournament.   The top sixty-eight teams in the country compete for the national championship.  All of this basketball has surely exceeded the wildest imagination of Dr. James Naismith, the man who invented the game by attaching a peach basket to the wall of a YMCA in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1891.   The roundball frenzy has become, indeed, March Madness.

In March, cabin fever gives way to spring fever.  Usually, the winter has kept us more confined than we like.  Much of January and February are spent on the inside looking out.  Winter has not been nearly as harsh this year as in the past. All around are signs of the hope of spring.  Flowers and trees are blooming earlier than expected. School children fly kites in open fields. Golf courses are busy with activity.

Early-blooming Lenten roses nod in the cool March breeze. New shoots and sprouts pierce the earth.  Early bulbs of jonquils, daffodils, and crocus join pansies and violas to add bright colors to an otherwise drab landscape.  Yoshino cherries, crabapples, cup and saucer magnolias, Bradford pears, redbuds, and dogwoods, each in turn, are breaking forth into bloom.  Birds of every feather pair and prepare for spring nesting: robins in a honeysuckle vine, mockingbirds in a pyracantha bush, wrens in a hanging basket, and brilliant bluebirds in a cedar box.  In March, all of creation yearns for new life.

Emily Dickinson wrote in one of her sonnets,

A little Madness in the Spring

Is wholesome even for a King.

Spring-cleaning is wholesome madness.  Most homemakers have a moment, often in the spring, when they are seized by an impulse to clean.  Spring-cleaning goes much deeper than ordinary routine cleaning.

There is, however, another perspective. This year, Ash Wednesday is March 1 and marks the beginning of the season of Lent.

When I was a boy and a member of a Baptist church, the observance of Ash Wednesday was a strange custom to me. I though it must be the day to clean out the fireplace after the winter. When friends came to school with a cross of ashes on their foreheads I was curious, but thought asking would be rude.

The season of Lent was also an unknown concept to me. Because I was unfamiliar with the word, I thought it was the season of lint, maybe a time to clean out the vent on the clothes dryer. I heard my friends talking about giving up something for Lent. Boy, was I confused!

In our sophomore year of college, Clare and I started dating each other. She was a Methodist. I had a lot to learn, and she had a lot to teach me. She tried to teach me how to dance, but, alas, I was dancing impaired. She did teach me about Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent. I warmed to these ancient Christian practices that were so new to me.

Eventually, I joined other Christians at the altar on Ash Wednesday for the imposition of ashes. I began to see Lent as a time for spiritual renewal. The practice of giving something up for Lent was a challenging concept. It is based on the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness following his baptism, a time of prayer and fasting.

One year I gave up nothing at all for Lent. Then, almost as an afterthought, I decided that I needed a post-Lenten fast. I went on a media fast – – no television, no radio, no newspapers, no magazines. This occurred before the introduction of cell phones and home computers. Clare would want me to add that this was not only after Lent, but it was also after the NCAA basketball tournament.

When the media fast was over and I turned the television and radio back on and started reading news again, almost nothing had changed in the world. Other than the Stanley Cup champions of the National Hockey League, a few robberies, and traffic problems, I had missed very little. I had gained immensely from my reading.

Several years ago, I decided to give up Facebook for Lent. Good decision! Though I enjoy hearing news about friends, I really don’t care what you had for breakfast. I realized what a poor substitute for actually human interaction Facebook has become.

Over the years I have heard the question, “What are you giving up for Lent?” many times. The answers are sometimes astounding. I have known people who gave up chocolate, coffee, all desserts, and other good things to eat. One man even said he had decided to give up watermelon for Lent. We all know how good watermelon is in March!

By observing Lent, the individual imitates Jesus’ withdrawal into the wilderness for forty days at the beginning of His ministry. It is a time of spiritual discipline.

The idea of giving up something for Lent is derived from the customary practice of abstaining from meat.  It is not a time of physical starvation or dehydration.  It is rather a time of self-denial and self-emptying.

Giving up something for Lent has sometimes been trivialized. Is deciding not to eat calves’ liver or brussel sprouts really a sacrifice?  Will giving up coffee or chocolate help you become a better person?

Lent seems to always come just in the nick of time to restore hope to a world in despair, to restore peace to the turbulent earth, to restore saneness to the madness of March, and to bring healing to the fevered, frantic pace of spring. As we greet March, we celebrate Lent!

I have thought about the question, “What are you giving up for Lent?”

I have a suggestion that is not original. In fact, it comes straight from the writing of the Apostle Paul. In this particular year, in this specific season of Lent, all who are Christians need to relinquish these things as instructed by scripture.

“Give up all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice.” (Ephesians 4:31)

This is what I intend to give up for Lent. I hope you will consider joining me. Even if you do not observe Lent, even if you are not a Christian, we all would do well to give up bitterness, hate, anger, wrangling, slander, and malice. As Paul points out, these must be replaced by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23) If we can be disciplined enough to make that change for forty days, we might do it longer, even for a lifetime. And if we do that, the world will certainly be a better place for all of God’s children.

THE WAY TO WISDOM– PROVERBS 9:10

February 20, 2017

 

  1. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom:

and the knowledge of the holy is understanding. (KJV)

 

  1. The reverent fear of the Lord, worshiping Him and regarding Him as truly awesome, is the beginning and the preeminent part of wisdom.

And the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding and spiritual insight. (AMP)

 

  1. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,

and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. (NIV)

 

  1. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,

and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight. (NRSV)

 

  1. To be wise you must first have reverence for the Lord.

If you know the Holy One, you have understanding. (GNT)

 

  1. For the reverence and fear of God are basic to all wisdom.

Knowing God results in every other kind of understanding. (TLB)

 

  1. Fear of the Lord is the foundation of wisdom.

Knowledge of the Holy One results in good judgment. (NLT)

 

  1. Skilled living gets its start in the Fear-of-God,

insight into life from knowing a Holy God. (The Message)