Press Toward the Mark

This sermon is dedicated to Cosby Jordan Waugh Hatfield,
born 100 years ago this week (July 18, 1912)
I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. 
—Philippians 3:14 
 I. The Sea Refuses No River
The other night, I had the good fortune of attending a mini-concert by Gustavo Romero at White Sands. He played both Debussy and Gershwin, and though I’d normally prefer the Gershwin, it was the Debussy I paid closest attention to that evening.

That’s because the greater part of the Debussy he played was a book of préludes composed in 1912 and 1913, while the composer was living in Paris, on the Seine River. If you go down the Seine far enough, of course, you’ll end up in the Atlantic Ocean. Crossing the Atlantic, it’s not too hard to find the Gulf of Mexico and the mouth of the Mississippi River. If you navigate up the Mississippi and then continue up one of its bigger tributaries, the Ohio, you’ll eventually come to the Big Sandy River. And about twenty miles up Big Sandy you’ll come to the mouth of a stream called Cat Creek. Should you go up that creek to the place where it forks and choose Big Cat over Little Cat, you’ll get to a place that has great significance for me, for it’s the place where my grandmother was born almost exactly 100 years ago, on July 18, 1912.

Of my four grandparents, three of them were born in that same county—Lawrence County—in northeastern Kentucky, and all four (especially my two grandmothers) were fine people. But it was the grandmother born up Big Cat that I knew the best. She lived just a block from us when I was little, and I probably spent more time at her house than I did my own. And of all the influences in my life, none was greater or better.

When she was born, they named her Cosby, and she spelled it just like it sounds to most of us—the same way Bill Cosby spells his surname. But when they recorded her birth in northeastern Kentucky in 1912, they spelled it just like it sounded to them: C-A-U-S-B-A. When she was born she was a Jordan. She was the only one of her family who pronounced it that way, and it’s a pronunciation she adopted after moving to the city. She told me that when she lived in the country, she, too, pronounced it Jerdan.
II. Bessbug, Cocklebur, and Horse
Of my four grandparents, she’s the only one who graduated high school. By that time, she’d moved from Lawrence County to a little place called Denton in Carter County. And when she graduated from Denton High School, she was the valedictorian of a class of five or six (she couldn't remember how many). She always told me that her valedictory address was entitled Press Toward the Mark, referring to the Apostle Paul’s admonition to the Philippians.

But that’s not the only story she told me. There were many others, some of them frightening ghost stories that her parents and grandparents had told her had really happened to them. These are the stories I wish I could remember, for I’d really like to know if today I could tell the difference between reality and something that got told under the influence of local moonshine around a campfire during a fox hunt.

There were three stories that I do remember, though, and these were the three that fascinated me most as a kid. I don’t know why. But I asked her to tell them to me again and again. They were things that really did happen, and they happened to her. One of them was the time she was bitten by a bessbug. This story sounded really frightening to me, because she’d shown me bessbugs, and they were really big and mean-looking. She said that after she was bitten, her father had wrapped her finger in a tobacco leaf to “draw out the poison.” As I was writing this, I looked up bessbugs on the internet and couldn't find any reference to them being venomous. But a poisonous bessbug story is a story that little kids can’t get enough of.

Another story which she liked to tell was about the time one of her friends had told her that if she placed a cocklebur on her tongue and tried to say a certain word, it would come out of your mouth sounding like another word, a dirty word. Of course I never had any idea what either of the words was, since this wasn’t that kind of story. What happened when she tried it was that she swallowed the cocklebur and it got stuck in her throat. They had to pull it out of her with tweezers. This was an agony that mini-me couldn't imagine. Though now I don’t reckon it was life-threatening, as a youngster I just couldn't imagine how a person could’ve survived such an ordeal.
And then there’s the story that really was life threatening, and that was the time she was drug by a horse. She was getting down off a horse that she’d borrowed to go to school one day when the horse got spooked—I believe she said it was by a rattlesnake—and took off with her foot still in the stirrup. While the other two standard stories were probably not nearly as dangerous as they sounded to a little kid, this one was probably more so. She’s lucky to have survived being drug by a horse.
III. The Introduction of Asparagus 
Of course not all the stories my grandmother told me were intended to be frightening or entertaining. Some of the stories were intended to be purely educational, and these are the ones that I hope had the greater influence on me. The early 60’s were a time of social change in the world around us, even though we didn’t experience firsthand much of the turmoil that accompanied that change in the part of the world I grew up in. I doubt I’d have known anything about the violence that accompanied the civil rights movement, for example, if the news hadn’t come to me filtered through my grandmother. Though I knew nothing of the violence, I did know that whatever was going on, a man named Martin Luther King was the good guy, and that his people (whoever they were) were the victims of people who didn’t want them to have justice.

My sister reminded me of another way this issue was playing out in our world when we were children, and that was through an organization called the Homemakers Club. Some of the homemakers had decided it was time to integrate the club, while others disagreed. My grandmother was one of those who stuck with the club when it integrated, while others quit. We still remembered the names of some of those who had quit the club. My grandmother did not end her friendship with them, but as children we had a very definite idea of what the right thing to do was in a situation like this.

My grandmother’s husband, my Grandfather Waugh, was killed in an accident when I was seven. After that, she learned to drive and she got a job as a county extension agent. There were no food stamps in those days; instead, people in need got what were called commodities—actual food like people get from a food closet these days. My grandmother’s job was to teach them what to do with it. One of the things I remember most was her claim that she introduced asparagus to northeastern Kentucky. That may or may not be true, but one thing’s for certain: She didn’t introduce it to me. I wanted nothing to do with asparagus.
Cosby  Waugh Hatfield
I may not have received the nourishment of the vegetables my grandmother advocated when I was younger, but as I look back on those days now, I cannot help but acknowledge that I was nourished by the ideals of equality, justice, and education she taught me.
IV. ‘Joseph Smith Said He Saw an Angel’
I was also nourished in the faith, but in the same way—not by having beliefs pounded into me, but by simply hearing the reality of what people believed and deciding for myself whether or not I intended to validate those stories in or with my own life.

And make no mistake, faith was important to my grandmother. She may have been from up a hollow in Appalachia, but her religion was a very urbanized Methodism, and that was the religion I was brought up in. Though there were revivals in our religious culture, the general idea of Christianity for us was that it was a religion in which one was to be nurtured, and a faith into which one should grow. Though the word wasn’t really used, I see it now as a kind of integrity: Becoming more and more Christlike as the grace of God was realized in different areas of a person’s life.
Cosby Jordan  Hatfield
One of the ways this religion was played out was through death to sin. One story I remember my grandmother telling me was about a dream she had. Even when describing a dream, she had a way of making it seem quite dramatic. In the dream there was fog or a heavy mist through which she could not penetrate upward. She interpreted this dream as a need to rid her life of some known sin (in this case I believe it was either gossip or perhaps even gossip magazines).
Cosby Jordan Waugh
Another even stronger aspect of the faith I grew up in was tolerance, and I’ve mentioned this in sermons a couple of times before, because it’s something I’m eternally thankful for. I remember my grandmother talking about Mormon missionaries visiting my grandfather, who was himself unchurched. I don’t know how many times they came back, but at some point my grandmother finally asked that they not return. There was nothing mean-spirited in this, and when I was told about it, she made sure I knew that she wasn’t questioning their experience of God. The exact quote I remember from her went like this: “Joseph Smith said he saw an angel, so who am I to say he didn’t?”
Cosby Jordan Waugh Hatfield
And regardless of what somebody’s religion is, when I come up against any differences between their religion and my own, that’s the exact loop that plays back in my head: “Joseph Smith said he saw an angel; who am I to say he didn’t?”ugh
V. Closed Circuit
The other night when one of the circuits of my life was closed by hearing the music of 1912 Paris the same week I was meditating on the year 1912 up a hollow on Big Cat Creek, I was reminded how important the lessons are that we learn as children, and how each word an adult speaks to a child can carry a weight that we simply can’t comprehend.
Cosby Waugh
A loving family is a gift that not everybody has, and in this era of bad news and mistrust, we should be especially thankful for all the loving and responsible adults who guide our children in the way they should go. Part of the love adults share with kids is not simply affection and affirmation, but also firm teachings—teachings that don’t necessarily reflect what everybody else around them is saying, and which may go against what’s popular at the time.
Cosby Jordan
From my grandmother I learned that even the most frightening events of our lives, when recounted to the next generation, can become stories that instill courage and integrity. I learned that pedigree has nothing to do with a person’s dignity. I learned that religion was not a weapon to be embraced at another’s expense. I learned justice is more important than the status quo. I learned that service was an integral part of life, not something that was to be performed when there was time to do it. I learned that learning itself was fun, and that a person simply couldn't know too much about who they were, who their people were, or what made their country tick. And I learned that, even if I couldn't accomplish in my own lifetime all that needed to be done, I was only one of many pressing toward the mark of a high calling. Reaching it all by myself was never the point anyway. I strive on behalf of others, even as those before me helped get me to where I am today. 
Cosby Hatfield
In the end, the news out of Paris in 1912 was no more important than the tidings from up Big Cat that same summer. All of God’s children contain the same seeds of integrity and love, and there is not a baby born who cannot make a difference in the world.
—©2012 Sam L. Greening, Jr.