Leaving Fred Craddock’s funeral, yearning just to be Christian

I was early to Fred Craddock’s funeral. Cherry Log Christian Church is less than two hours from Atlanta, but a trip to Appalachia seems farther so I gave myself way too much time. I had been told to eat at the Pink Pig barbecue restaurant, but it’s only open Thursday to Sunday. I had, however, brought an autographed book to read as we waited for the service to begin. Craddock Stories is a collection of Fred’s greatest hits. Preaching aficionados identify the stories with a phrase, “the church voted 234-2,” “playing hide and seek,” “the lady in the grocery store who thinks he’s hitting on her,” “poor as Job’s turkey” and “Jesus winning the Georgia football game.”

Fred Craddock changed preaching. He grew up with preachers who filled sanctuaries with three points, multiple subpoints and a poem to encapsulate the boredom. These preachers told us what they were going to tell us, told us, and then recapped what they had told us without noticing that we stopped listening after the first summary. Fred realized that what keeps most of us from living for Jesus is not a lack of information. He invited preachers to stop teaching the lessons of Scripture and start telling the stories of faith. These stories, he argued, do not illustrate the point, because they are the point.

When he was 20 Craddock went to hear Albert Schweitzer. His plan was to criticize Schweitzer’s Quest for the Historical Jesus, but before he had a chance Schweitzer invited him to go with him to help the dying in Africa. Fred said, “I learned, again, what it means to be Christian and had hopes that I could be that someday.”

Craddock’s first pastorate was near Oak Ridge, Tenn. When the little town boomed the church voted not to follow Fred’s recommendation that they reach out to the new residents. Years later, after telling his wife that painful story, they went to see the little church. They were surprised to find the parking lot full. A great big sign said, “Barbecue, all you can eat.” Fred said to Nettie, “It’s a good thing this is not still a church, otherwise these people couldn’t be here.”

When Craddock was a young pastor, one church told him he had an emergency fund with $100 in it. He could give the money to anybody who is in need that is not the result of “laziness, drunkenness or poor management.” Fred asked, “What else is there?” He figured they still have the money.

Fred told some stories you wish you had not heard. He was teaching at Phillips Theological Seminary when a woman brought her dying brother to be healed. Craddock said, “I can pray for him, but I do not have the gift of healing.” She responded, “Then what in the world do you do?” Fred said, “What I did that afternoon was study, stare at my books and try to forget what she said.”

A woman a few pews in front of me had come to the funeral with the same book of stories and the same idea. It is easier to cry before the service begins, because no one is paying attention.

We sang “Soon we’ll reach the shining river.” Fred’s daughter Laura spoke with deep affection of waiting with dread for her father to mention her in a sermon. “O God, what is he going to say?” His son John, who is much bigger than Fred, said he liked it when his father called him “a block off the old chip.”

We heard Paul’s promise that “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Tom Long preached, imagining Loyd Bentsen saying, “I served with Fred Craddock. I knew Fred Craddock. Fred Craddock was a friend of mine. You are no Fred Craddock.” But Tom made us think about Fred and the God who holds us all. We closed the beautiful, modest service with an Appalachian folk hymn, “And when from death I’m free I’ll sing on, I’ll sing on.”

Fred Craddock wrote, “When I was in my late teens, I wanted to be a preacher. When I was in my late twenties, I wanted to be a good preacher. Now that I am older, I want more than anything else to be a Christian. To live simply, to love generously, to speak truthfully, to serve faithfully, and to leave everything else to God.”

I left Fred Craddock’s funeral wanting to be a Christian.

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The Itawamba County Times: The Only Newspaper in the World that Cares about Itawamba County

If I had to choose between The New York Times and The Itawamba County Times, I would pick my parents’ weekly newspaper. Before we visit Mantachie, Mississippi, my mother starts saving The Times. If I am there on a Wednesday, we have a quiet competition to see who will get the ICT out of the mailbox.

The New York Times consistently fails to report stories The Itawamba County Times covers. The ICT does a superior job with births, birthdays, school awards, graduations, weddings, anniversaries, retirements, church news, and local mischief.

The NYT is not as good with high school basketball. In the ICT, Sam Farris wrote about the buzzer beater in the Mantachie Lady Mustangs’ thrilling 56-55 over the Mooreville Troopers. (Full disclosure: my cousin Jan’s husband Jeff is mayor of Mantachie.)

 Wagster caught the pass in stride and took three dribbles and in an act of heroism had the presence of mind not to go try for a layup but to stop, pull up, and take the three. The ball left the junior forward’s hand and in mid-trip the horn sounded throughout the building, but all eyes were on the ball that was seemingly hanging in the air. Wagster’s shot fell and the roof nearly blew off of the Mustang Corral. Players were jumping up and down, fans were cheering, and one very proud mother was beaming with pride as tears of joy fell at what her daughter had just done.

Anna’s mom cried again when she cut out the story for the scrapbook.

Mrs. Sumner’s “Charleston Place News” keeps readers informed on the goings on at the assisted living residence. Jo Ann writes, “The main problem with most at our facility is one of the residents referred to as Mr. Arthur.” I assume she means arthritis. If there actually is a Mr. Arthur I hope no one reads her column to him.

Mrs. Dobbs writes the “Mantachie Talker,” which shares the good deeds of citizens like the group from Tombigbee Baptist Church “bringing two months of wood for my fireplace” and Eddy “picking up my medicine at Walmart.” Edna has been through a lot. She suggests, “Use a different caregiver after each stroke so as not to overdo one child.” Maybe she needs to use a different doctor to keep her from having another stroke.

In a small town paper your classified ads cannot lie. Under “House for Rent” the description is, “House is very nice.” Bobby knows that if he writes “Exceptional house with exquisite master bedroom overlooking lake” his friends will laugh at him.

The “Church Page” lists the starting times for Sunday school, worship, and Wednesday night services for 123 congregations—64 of which are Baptist—along with a devotional and Bible Trivia.

The winning entries in the Annual Coloring Contest are printed in full color. Madi Daugherty of Fulton won the four and under category. Her work is suspiciously good for a four-year-old.

Terry Allen and Brandon Isbell were arrested for breaking in to Gum Church of Christ. They allegedly took sound equipment, heaters, televisions, a coffee pot, and toilet paper. If they had realized it would be listed in the paper they might have skipped that last item.

The ICT’s “Law Enforcement Reports” are addictive even to an outsider. Each entry is a chapter title in a mystery—though you need someone from Itawamba to tell you the stories behind these entries:

These three, for instance, leave questions unanswered:

“Suspicious activity, Hwy. 178 West”

“Disturbance, Sunset Dr.”

“Scam, Shiloh Rd.”

This could be an embarrassing 911 call to make:

“Vehicle stuck in field, Dobbs Rd.”

Should this be against the law?

“Contributing to a minor, Ryan Rd.”

What does this mean?

“Secure landing zone, Sandy Springs Rd.”

You might think this could be cleared up before the police arrive:

“Livestock in the road, Estes Morrow Rd.”

You hope this call was from a police officer’s spouse: “Request to speak with officer, Van Buren Rd.”

Big city newspapers are landing on fewer driveways each day, but the press is thriving in small towns. While the daily papers are closing up shop, 8,000 weekly newspapers are going strong. 23,434 people live in Itawamba County. The ICT has 28,685 readers.

Sandra Newton, the office manager, says the difference between her paper and the big daily newspapers is that, “We know the people we’re writing about.” Weekly newspapers are part of the community they serve. They tell the stories of people whose stories are not going to be told anywhere else. The ICT proclaims, “Your story is our story.”

Churches should remember this. People love to predict that mega churches will soon swallow up small local churches, but rather than compete to have the biggest, most entertaining church, local churches should tell the story of the people who live next door. The church is there to care for those who are not going to be cared for anywhere else. Our churches need to say, “Your story is our story.”

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