Column by the Rev. Clay Smith: The box


When my mother and father first married, the preacher at my family's church came to welcome my mother to the community. As the pastor made inquiries about my mother's spiritual status, he found out she accepted Jesus in her teens at a revival in the Methodist church in Venus (Venus, Florida, not Venus the planet). A week or so later, my mother, grandmother, uncle and aunt were baptized in a pond and brought into the fold of the Baptist Church.

In the midst of finding out my mother's spiritual journey, the preacher saw a deck of cards on a side table. In those days, some Baptists objected to the playing of cards. I'm not sure why. It might have been because playing cards was associated with gambling. Or maybe, as comedian Chonda Pierce extrapolates, playing cards was thought to lead to beer. Beer, at that time, was considered the root of all evil.

The preacher concluded his visit, and my mother thought no more about it. That is, until the next Sunday. In his sermon, the preacher railed against the loose morals of the young people in the community. He roundly condemned drinking, dancing, going to the movies and working on the Sabbath.

Then in shocked tones, he gave the example of visiting a newlywed couple and discovering playing cards in their home. It was a small church, and my parents were the only newlywed couple in the church. It was as close to naming a name without naming a name as he could go.

I remember my mother telling me the story years later. She said she almost died of embarrassment. Never mind my father's father had been a preacher. Never mind that she lived with her mother-in-law, who did not object to having a deck of cards in her house. Never mind her sisters-in-law, their husbands and their children were in the congregation that day and met the preacher's denouncement with icy stares. Mama said she wanted to crawl under the church and never come back.

That day in September 1945, the preacher drew a box and told everyone that if you followed Jesus, you had to fit in his box. If you liked to cut a rug, you did not fit in the box. If you went to the movies, you did not fit in the box. If you took a drink of alcohol, you did not fit in the box. And, if you liked to play cards, you did not fit in the box.

Church people still draw boxes and demand people fit inside them. The boxes change from church to church. There are not too many churches left that tell you not to dance or go to the movies or play cards. Maybe they all went out of business because they were majoring on the minors.

I have known churches that build a box around a certain translation of the Bible. If you do not read that translation, you are not going to heaven. Another church I know says your truth can be anything you want it to be. If you were to participate in that church and suggest there might be such a thing as absolute truth, you would find their box is just as restrictive as a church that insists on using a specific translation.

Not too long ago, a woman asked me, "If I follow Jesus, do I have to become a Republican?" Of course, the answer is "no." Partisan politics are just another box that church people try to insist you get in. When a church insists on adherence to a box, it usually ties the box to the promise of heaven. "If you want to go to heaven," they say, "then you have to get in our box."

Jesus never talked about boxes. Instead, he said, "Follow me." If you follow Jesus, you arrive at heaven because you have a relationship with him, not because you fit in a box. Ironically, it is harder to follow Jesus than getting in a box. If you get in a box, all you must do is stay in the box. Staying in the box is passive; following Jesus is active. If you follow Jesus, you must stay close enough to see where he is going. You must talk to him about your journey. When Jesus says to stop and rest, you stop and rest. When Jesus says go, you go. Your focus is on him.

When that story my mother told me flits across my consciousness, I cannot help but wonder: What if my parents let the preacher's box chase them away from church? What if the preacher's box chased them away from Jesus? Then I get a picture in my mind. I do not know if it is true or not, but the picture is of Jesus and the disciples, gathered around a fire in the cool Galilean evening, going over the day, Jesus explaining his teachings. Then, as conversation lags, Jesus turns to Simon Peter and says, "You want to play a game of cards?"

The Rev. Dr. Clay Smith is the lead pastor of Alice Drive Baptist Church in Sumter.