I think the first time I offered this particular not-very-veiled threat – okay, ‘poignant advice’ — was at that business meeting in Nigeria outside of Lagos.
Or, maybe it was with those engineers in Madrid… Or, then again, perhaps it was with those oil chiefs in Siberia… No… Or, maybe it was at that new business associate’s office in Bangkok…
To tell you the truth I don’t remember the first time. But I do remember the last time I leveled it in conversation. That was the other night. During a discussion at the church. My church. Christian Stronghold Church in West Philadelphia.
It was after our group leader, Brother Charles, got up to tell us that the elderly Sister Lee is frightened and threatened by her adult son. He’s been in and out of prison on various drug charges. Now he is out. Living at home. And back in ‘business.’
Strangers are coming in and out of her house at all hours. There have been threats. And Sister Lee, who was absent that night, lives in constant fear.
At first Brother Charles wanted us to pray on the matter.
But before everyone got to hanging their heads, I spoke up. Loudly. And I kind of startled everyone… like I am apt to do regularly there:
“Whoa!” I insisted. “We need to do more than pray. Answered prayers don’t have a deadline. And I’ve always appreciated that it is better to be three hours too soon than a minute too late. I’ve learned over the years that a good scare is worth more than good advice. Besides, after thousands of years of Almighty instruction, we already should know what to do.”
It arrested their attention. I’ve been known to do that from time to time. And here I was doing it yet again. Folks kind of turned their heads and blinked my way. For once more the white boy was speaking up. Although after 10 years there I don’t really think they notice nor care that I am only one of three white guys in the 4,000 congregation. Or, that I am Jewish.
Sometimes I am dismissed as a ‘Doubting Thomas.’ And sometimes not. But it is in my nature… to stir the pot. Ignite conversations. For every answer there should be another question. Getting folks to think outside their Bibles… and often times getting me to think inside one.
At that I shared with the group what my dear ol’ Pappy told me about the only man who would give him a loan so he could start his chain saw business over 60-some years ago.
Mr. Shultz, a squat no nonsense Pennsylvania Dutch fellow in wire-rimmed glasses, told my father they didn’t need to sign any agreements – “A bunch of paperwork.” Because a man’s word was more than his bond; it was the key to the door of success… or it could be the key to the trap door to hell.
Simply translated, as my father, a young man at the time with a young wife and very young children, recognized: Wisdom consists of the anticipation of consequences.
At that I then related that ‘wisdom’ and ‘advice’ to my own business dealings about the globe.
That after signing all the papers. And all the documents. That after all the handshakes, and promises… I would search the aura of my new business associate, and inform him clearly and poignantly:
“I really don’t care about the lawyers and all their paperwork. All that matters to me is your word. Because if you don’t honor your promises, it won’t be lawyers knocking on your door after midnight.”
At first each and every new business associate would usually laugh more than a tad uncomfortably. Then he would study my steady hazel eyes as I often elaborated: “We didn’t sign papers to be friends. Or to waste time and money. We shook and signed about our obligations. And all obligations have consequences. And I don’t believe in lawyers.”
It always seemed to translate well.
To the good folks at the church meeting I was – once again — a conundrum in a riddle.
Now, you’ve got to understand that nearly 10 years back – ever since my last ex-wife literally poisoned me, and cast me adrift to die in a stormy sea – a wretch like me somehow washed up on the pews of Christian Stronghold Church in West Philly. And their mercy and grace, as well as unquestioning acceptance, proved to be a wonderful alternative — to becoming a masochist.
But, of course, I am sure they figured this white boy wouldn’t stay put long… like so many forlorn and lost souls that have resurrected themselves upon their blessings… that once I got the wind back in my sails I would shove off.
But au contraire, mon bon amis!
Because long ago I recognized that we should all live our days like we are going to die tomorrow; but we should learn every day as if we are going to live forever.
And I’m still learning. And obviously I’m still there.
So I shared my conviction. Although I am a sort of wise-ass, there are times when these folks perk up at my moments of sincerity. They well perceive that I have a bloody past. But they’ve seen me, at times, simply surrender.
So I repeated myself. And when I do I often invoke my erstwhile North Carolina drawl to be sure that I am clearly understood.
“We can pray for the dead,” I said. “But meanwhile we must fight like hell for the living. A man who mistreats the kindness of his mother is a coward. The coward only threatens when he feels safe. So it is time to unlock the safe.”
Now, what surprised me at this point was the different reach of reactions generated among those older than I am, and those younger.
Younger men, like Ben, fretted what the consequences would be of our actions. That the son could reciprocate further against his mother, Sister Lee.
“That is,” laughed a street-smart Ben, “if you’re not talking about actually killing him. Are you, Drew?”
I smiled back knowingly. Like, most of us, Ben, too, has a past of surviving his desires.
“Ben,” I gasped in mock horror. “Killing is always a mistake. In fact, you shouldn’t do anything you can’t talk about after dinner.”
So Ben and others suggested that we urge Sister Lee to file papers with the Courts to keep her son at bay. Stay away orders. Protection orders. And so forth.
“That’s nice,” I agreed. “But that doesn’t really solve the problem. It only salves the wounds. It’s like the Red Cross administering to the dead and dying.”
At that I asked the devout group of black faces around me, how many of you have faith in our judicial system? In our courts? In our cops? In our laws?
Hmm… these folks are pious Baptists. Their only faith is in the Lord.
So finally Brother Rayfield spoke up. He is over 80. Dark ebony. With eyes that widen to their whites with his well rehearsed Biblical incantations. Still lithe, muscular and tall, he spent his life as a stone mason. And when he hugs me in greeting, I sometimes feel my ribs crack.
“I agree with Drew,” he stated simply.
Hmm… Imagine that. And he didn’t quote any Bible verses. Except perhaps to mention Elijah.
Cheerily I offered: “I’m beginning to believe in miracles,”
And then Brother Rayfield lifted himself forward as he recommended something that definitely sparked excitement in all of us. Even me. And Ben. He suggested we get a group together and hold our next meeting at Sister Lee’s house.
There are times when I beam in admiration. And wondered aloud: ‘Should I bring some of my ‘acquaintances’ along?’
A twinkle bounced across his dark eyes.
“Won’t be necessary,” he said. “We have a couple of policemen in the congregation. Perhaps we should ask them to show up with us.”
You know, there are times when I think I am getting through to some of them. Most times, however, it is I who is learning to forgive quickly… and kiss slowly.
At that Brother Charles intoned: “Perhaps now we have something to pray on.”
And dats yDrewIS on dis penal colony…