Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: Challenging My Childhood View of Reality

Author Thomas Sowell is quoted as saying, "All that makes earlier times seem simple is our ignorance of their complexity." When I catch myself longing for ‘the good old days' when life was simple and uncomplicated, I read some history of those ‘good old days' and discover that times were not so simple as I remember them to be. I was simply ignorant. I lived in a small world uncomplicated by anyone or anything that lay beyond 20 miles of the geographical center of my reality. I heard that there were Catholics, Episcopalians and ‘other breeds without the Law' out there somewhere, but I had never actually seen one of them. The world was not simple. I was simple. My world view was circumscribed by my limited experience.

There were only two churches in the rural community in which I grew up --Methodist and Baptist. Methodists had worship service first and third Sundays and the Baptists on second and fourth Sundays. Most everyone attended both churches with religious regularity. Nearly every Sunday we sang the old song: "When the Roll Is Called up Yonder I'll Be There." Like everyone else, I accepted the theology of the lyrics of that song with literal intensity. When I reflected on the impending date and time suggested in that hymn, I was quite sure the geographical location of ‘up yonder' was the cemetery located directly behind the Methodist church in Bermuda, Alabama. That was where all the people I knew who had died were buried, and there was no doubt in my mind that Bermuda Cemetery behind the Methodist church would be the epicenter of the great and final judgment.

When I went away to college my childhood view of reality was severely challenged. I actually met some Catholics, Episcopalians and ‘other breeds without the Law', and I was dismayed to learn they were just as sincerely dedicated to their Christian view as I was to mine. It was a threat to me that all these other people out there were just as Christian as the Methodists and Baptists in Bermuda, Alabama. It was quite a mental and emotional struggle for me to include the people from Auburn, Pensacola, Troy, Atlanta and Chicago in my world view. But what could I do when my world got so enlarged but try to figure out some way to include them in my view of reality? Let me tell you a story.

Dr. Fred Craddock, one of the great story-telling preachers, tells of returning to a little church of his childhood in Tennessee. He had not been there in years. Walking into the sanctuary, he noted that the congregation had purchased new stained glass windows. Admiring the windows, he noted that at the bottom of each window there was the name of the donor. But he did not recognize any of the names.

"You must have had many new folks join this church since I was a boy," said Fred to one of the members. "I don't recognize a single name."

"Oh, those people aren't members here," said the member. "We bought those windows from a company in Italy. They were made for a church in St. Louis, and when they arrived, they did not fit. New windows were made for that church and we bought those windows that did not fit. The price was so cheap that we could afford it."

Craddock then asked why they did not remove the names. And the member said, "Well, we thought about it and we decided to leave those names in the window. We thought it would be good for us to sit here on Sunday mornings and realize there are some Christian people besides us in the world."

Can you hear what that story says? I can, but it is still not easy. On days when I am lonely for the simple world in which I grew up, I am a little disappointed that God is not going to set up shop in the Bermuda Cemetery behind the Methodist Church for the great and final judgment.