Personal Ecclesiastical History (childhood into adolescence): Twilight Musings Autobiography (Part 7)

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Personal Ecclesiastical History (childhood into adolescence): Twilight Musings Autobiography

Elton Higgs

I need to drop back and describe my early religious and social life, from childhood to graduation from high school.  The center of my social life has always been connected with my family’s church attendance.  We went to church at least three times a week, as did many people of my generation.  We had two hours of Sunday School and worship services on the First Day of the week, and then there were regular evening services on Sunday and Wednesday night Prayer Meeting.  In addition, my father, as an elder of the South Side Church of Christ in Abilene, TX, often went to “business meetings” on some other night of the week.  Once or twice a year, especially in the summer, we would have a week-long “meeting,” an evangelistic effort for which we gathered every night to hear an out-of-town guest speaker.  We were supposed to invite our neighbors to attend in the hope that they would “obey the Gospel” by going up to the front of the tent, confessing their faith in Christ, and being baptized.  Ideally, they would then become a part of our congregation.  Often those who were already Christian would go forward to confess their straying from the Lord. This was called a “restoration” and would be counted along with the baptisms to evaluate the success of our Meeting. During the mornings that week, the guest speaker would conduct classes, mainly for the ladies, since the men were at work.

The South Side congregation was at odds with the other congregations of the Church of Christ in Abilene, and indeed with all of the “mainline” Churches of Christ in the country.  We all in common practiced taking Communion every Sunday, did not use instrumental music in worship services, and insisted on immediate baptism as a part of the conversion experience; but we differed in our views of what the Bible taught about the End Times.  We, the minority group of the Churches of Christ, were premillennialists, that is, believers that the Second Coming of Christ would usher in a literal thousand-year reign of Christ on earth, along with His faithful followers.  Mainline Churches of Christ were vehement rejecters of this doctrine, asserting that the thousand-year reign mentioned in Rev. 20 was figurative, not literal.  The family of my best friend in boyhood were members at a mainline Church of Christ only two blocks away from my church.  That congregation had been established primarily to combat the heresy of their wayward brothers and sisters down the street.  Both their regular preacher and most guest preachers for their week-long evangelistic meetings would target the South Side church in their sermons.  My friend often tried to win me away from my error, but I stood firm in my belief.

This rivalry would have been comic if it had not driven such a wedge between congregations which were much more alike than different.  However, being a persecuted minority did open us up, years before the mainline began to have this insight, to an understanding of the power and importance of prayer, and of the truth that we are saved by grace and not by works.  These two elements in Christian belief and practice would seem to be self-evident from Scripture, but mainline Churches of Christ for many years were quite comfortable combining their emphasis on being the true “New Testament Church” with what amounted to embracing a kind of salvation by works, since their main emphasis was proving that they fulfilled all the requirements set forth in the New Testament to be identified as the True Church.  It was a highly rationalistic approach to religion, one that was not sensitive to the “feeling” side of religious experience.

My earliest memory of attending the South Side Church of Christ is of my pre-school Sunday School teacher, Miss Addie Prater—just “Miss Addie” to all the kids.  She handed out little picture cards to illustrate the stories she told us.  She was a kind woman and was beloved by all.  I don’t remember having a personal attachment to any of my other Sunday School teachers, but I felt quite comfortable in my general interactions with adults.  I became friends with the other children whose families were regular attenders, and several of these endured through my high school years.

I have memories of the physical layout of the church building.  Inside, it was arranged like most Churches of Christ, with a Communion Table in the front center of the auditorium, and a raised podium with a pulpit, and behind that a built-in baptistry,  a layout reflecting the church’s emphasis on weekly participation in the Lord’s Supper and baptizing new believers immediately after their confession of faith in Christ   The church was heated by floor heaters fueled by natural gas.  They had to be lit with a match attached to a long stick.  These heaters with their grates received frequent unintended contributions of coins held too loosely in children’s hands.  In the summer, cooling had to be supplied by pulling down the tall top windows with a long pole with a hook at the end.  Very few churches were air conditioned in those days.

The outside of the building had wide steps leading up to a covered porch supported by three or four tall pillars.  On either side of these broad steps, extending out from the porch, were broad concrete “arms” extending horizontally from the top of the steps to the bottom, creating a drop-off at the end of about 4 or 5 feet.  It was a wonderful place for show-off boys to jump down from, sometimes pretending to be Hitler jumping off a cliff. 

Behind this “new” brick building was a white frame building that was the former church building, which in my young days was used for Sunday School rooms at one end and to house the preacher’s family at the other end.  There was no connection between the two buildings, and in rainy weather, one had to make a dash in the open air to get to a Sunday School class.

The big lawn beside the church building, in addition to being used for tent meetings, was also often the site of “dinner on the ground,” that is, a potluck meal.  I doubt that even in the early days the food was actually spread out on the ground, like a big picnic, but certainly in the 40s and 50s long tables were set up to hold the food and to seat at least some of the eaters. The home-cooked dishes that were shared on these occasions attracted probably more than did the tent meetings. It was certainly a time of good cheer and fellowship.  

This lawn was also a wonderful place to play croquet, a favorite game of the young people’s group during my teen years. The youth group met weekly usually on a Thursday night and was overseen by the preacher and his wife.  There were indoor table games as well.  Some of them included throwing dice to determine the number of spaces to move on a game board.  My father, who was an elder in the church, did not allow dice or playing cards in our home, and he objected to the use of dice in the young people’s games.  So our preacher, Karl Kitzmiller (the earliest in my memory), made a spinner that took the place of the dice.  Those nights of youth activities were satisfying and full of fun.  I was closely bonded with about a half dozen other young people.  I still remember the names of some of the people I knew best: Ray Conant, Frances and Wanda Prater, Janice Evans, Barbara Burroughs, Rita Hagar.  On Wednesday and Sunday nights after church, we would often go over to a drugstore on Butternut St., about a 15 minute walk, for fountain refreshments.  Since I lived within walking distance of the church and the drugstore, I would drop off at home as we walked back.  Other preachers I remember from those days were a newly-married couple from Kentucky named Frank and Pat Gill, and a mature man, Jimmy Hardison, who had a daughter named Sylvia, for whom I later, after her family had moved to Louisville, KY, had a brief infatuation.  She was the first girl with whom I held hands!  But the romance was squashed by her father, who informed me through a letter that she was too young to be courted.

I was an earnest believer in my youth, and I even made occasional forays into personal evangelism.  There was a boy 2 or 3 years older than I in the congregation named Jimmie Evans, son of one of the elders.  Jimmie was a football player and not by temperament a pious young man like me, so I undertook to bring him to Christ—specifically, to persuade him to be baptized.  I would sit with him in a car outside the church between services or after church and preach to him.  Amazingly, he finally went forward and was baptized, but it didn’t seem to have much affect on his life, for he became increasingly wilder as time went on.  He married right out of high school, and as I remember, the relationship didn’t last.  I don’t believe his “conversion” was a very strong validation of my evangelistic methods.

Growing up in the South Side Church of Christ was certainly a spiritually nurturing experience and laid the foundation for my continued church involvement through my life.  I learned the value of fellowship with a spiritual family, and much of my identity as a Christian was established in this setting.  Sadly, the personal ties made there did not long survive my family’s move away from Abilene, but while they lasted, they helped form my character.  I will speak more of my church experience during the next two years in Rule, my high school town, and Stamford, where I lived on my own and had a full-time job during the year between high school and college.

 

 



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Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

My year in Small-town Rule High School: Twilight Musings Autobiography (Part 6)

My year in Small-town Rule High School: Twilight Musings Autobiography

Elton D. Higgs

          I don’t remember all the details of my family’s move from Abilene to Rule, TX, in the summer of 1955, but I’m sure it must have been once again because of my father’s ill health (cancer) and the need to be near my brother Otho and his family.  They had moved to Rule a couple of years earlier to establish an appliance sales and service store, with a jewelry repair service at the back of the store.  For me, it was a radical change in culture, and the year I spent there introduced me to experiences that I would never have encountered in Abilene.

          Rule was a small town of around 1,500 people, surrounded by small farms.  It had a couple of blocks of stores on the main road through town, a cotton gin at the edge of town, and a farming economy that depended on rain and good crops.  The high school had about 100 students in it, and the focus was much more on athletics than on academics, as is common in small towns in the South.  My graduating senior class had only 21 students, so my previous experience in a “big high school” of several hundred students identified me as a sort of egghead nerd who had never been exposed to the close-to-the-ground life of a farming community.

          Athletic games were great social events for the whole town, and boys who played football were minor celebrities.  I remember the star of the team was one Sonny Wharton, a good-looking lad who led the pack of boys in my class.  Since I had never played football and was not very big, nobody thought it strange that I didn’t volunteer to join the team; but those qualities were no hindrance to my going out briefly for basketball, and then a few weeks of running track.  I was pretty much a flop as a basketball player, but I might have had some success at track if I had known how to train.  As it was, when I was running my first (and only) 220 yard dash competition, I didn’t pace myself and found my legs giving way, and I skidded several yards on my belly on a cinder track.  I had scars for years afterward from that incident.  That brought an inglorious end to my athletic endeavors.  The burly coach at the school gave my brother Otho a concise assessment of my athletic abilities: “He’s the most uncoordinated 18-year-old I’ve ever seen.”  Just as well I had other places to shine.

          More to my taste and abilities was participating in the drama team.  Since the pool of actors was small, we prepared only a one-act play for the regional drama competition.  I learned my lines and was ready to go, but the afternoon of the affair, I was running a fever, and it was all I could do to get through the play, let alone do a quality job.  It turned out that I had chicken pox, and I was out of school for a week.  Happily, my other drama roles had better results.  One of my electives was a Future Farmers of America class (there was a scarcity of alternatives), and one of the activities was a little radio drama on farm safety.  Our team went to the state competition and won first place!  Who would have thought it?  My final thespian venture was the senior play, a farce in which my role as a father involved lathering up my face and pretending to have hydrophobia in order to scare away an unwanted suitor for my “daughter.”  The audience loved it!

          There was, however, a cruder side to my taking the Future Farmers course.  Every class member had to join the school’s FFA chapter, and traditionally that meant going through an initiation of the sort that only high school boys can devise.  Like all such unpleasant initiations, it hinged on humiliating and intimidating the new guys, and their showpiece exercise was to have them strip to their birthday suits, get down on all fours, and pretend to be hogs being judged.  Each of us had a handler shouting instructions on how best to display our porky selves.  The faculty leader was present, but he merely laughed nervously and looked on.  I survived the ordeal, but the image of it is indelibly etched on my pictorial memory.  At least my enduring without complaint made me accepted by the guys, even if I was basically a city boy.

          I held several jobs during that year, the first of which was helping my brother Otho in the installation of appliances and TV antennas.  Poor TV reception in Rule meant that many people chose to install an outdoor antenna on their housetop or atop a 60-foot tower with a rotator so that it could be turned 360 degrees to catch the signal from a particular station.  Those who couldn’t afford such luxury had to make do with a “rabbit ears” indoor antenna, which usually brought in only a “snowy” picture.  I learned some basic electronics in helping install those devices, and that has been a valuable asset ever since.  I also clambered on rooftops and climbed up some of those 60-foot towers, which gave me the confidence when I needed to do that for myself later on.  (I even installed my own rooftop antenna with a rotator on it at the first house my wife and I bought.)

          My work experience with Otho was not without problems.  On the lighter side, one time when we were installing a rooftop antenna during the winter, with some snow still on the ground, I was up on the roof following instructions from Otho on the ground.  At some point, I started sliding on the wet roof and didn’t stop until I hit a snowdrift down below.  When he was assured I wasn’t hurt, Otho burst out laughing, and he enjoyed telling that story for months afterward.  He said I just slid down smoothly as if it was a joy ride of some sort.  I suspect he wished he had been able to film it. 

But another action on my part almost cost him a finger.  He had installed a telescoping tower on the back of his pickup to use in raising home towers and accessing them for servicing.  While we were in transit, the telescoping tower segments were held in place by a wire wound around the overlapping legs of the segments.  The wire had to be taken off, of course, when the tower was ready to be cranked up.  One day, the tower seemed to be stuck when I tried to crank it up, and Otho climbed up to see what was wrong.  Unfortunately, I had failed to remove the restraining wire, but I kept applying pressure to the crank while Otho was trying to find where the bind was, and the restraining wire snapped and the tower shot up a few feet with great force, catching Otho’s thumb and almost completely severing it.  I remember Otho hollering something like, “Elton, you’ve ruined me!”  Somehow he managed to keep the thumb from coming completely off, wrapped his bleeding hand with some rags, and drove to the hospital, where they managed to get his thumb sewed back in place.  He recovered, but my terrible error rather soured our work relationship for a while.

Another job came from Novis Owsley, the dry goods store owner down the street from Otho’s shop,.  They were good friends, so Novis (Mr. Owsley to me, of course) dropped in frequently to the store.  One day, he asked me if I would be willing to come in early each morning, before school, and sweep out the store and take out the trash before the store opened for business.  I consented, and I spent some good hours listening to popular music on the radio and enjoying being there by myself.  I still remember some of the hit tunes of the time that I became familiar with, like “Que Sera, Sera” and “Love and Marriage Go Together Like a Horse and Carriage.” Then, when the fall cotton harvest time came around and the “braceros” (migrant workers from Mexico who picked cotton) would come into the store to buy basic clothes, Mr. Owsley needed someone who could speak enough Spanish to service these workers, and my basic Spanish was sufficient for the job. 

So I became a dry goods salesman, along with two classmates who also worked part time.  Sammy and Sharon were “an item” at school, so they obviously worked well together, and the three of us became fast friends.  Sharon was a sweet Southern girl who showed affection to everybody.  Her pet name for me was “El-twan,” and she used it regularly.  Sammie was a pleasant but serious young man, and easy to work with.  Between us, we sold quite a few clothes for Mr. Owsley.  (Some years later, I was surprised to find out that when Sammie and Sharon went away to college, they split up and did not get married as everybody expected.)

My final job in Rule was as a school bus driver.  That required me to get a chauffeur’s driving license, which stood me in good stead when two years later I applied for a college outdoor maintenance job which required a special driving license.  I drove the afternoon bus to take the kids home.  My route included both town and country stops and took me about an hour to complete.  A couple of times, I got supplementary work driving the bus for out-of-town sports events.  One of those times was to transport the girls’ basketball team, and I asked for one of my friends to go along with me.  The principal was understandably reluctant to permit such a thing, for reasons I think I was too naïve to understand at the time.  Finally, however, he gave in, based on my solemn promise that my friend Herbert would never be out of his seat next to me in the front of the bus.  Bus driving certainly added to my experience and skills in a significant way.

At the end of the year, I was declared to be the valedictorian, based on both my Abilene High School and Rule High School grades.  My family had a little celebration after the ceremony at our house, and I remember my brother Otho coming up to me with some advice: “Elton, stick to your books.”  By which he meant, don’t try to make you way in life doing anything that requires great coordination or practical skills.  I took his advice and pursued an academic career, but I’m also glad that I gained more from my practical experiences in Rule than perhaps he thought I had.



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 Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Jr. and Sr. High School: Twilight Musings Autobiography (Part 5)

Jr. & Sr. High School in Abilene: Twilight Musings Autobiography

Elton D. Higgs

Five of my last six years of public education were in Abilene, but I spent my senior year in Rule, TX.  The year at Rule High School was such a contrast to all my Abilene school and social experiences that it deserves a separate essay, which will come in the next installment.  My junior high and first two senior high school years in Abilene entailed growing through exposure to new educational structures and fresh opportunities for developing skills.  It was during these years that I had to come to terms with having to work hard in my courses, instead of breezing through, as I did mostly in grade school.  I learned to adapt to trying to do my best, even when my best was not going to bring me the good grades that I was used to.  In reality, some of the courses that were most difficult for me turned out to have long-lasting benefits. I hope that perhaps I made some first steps toward humility in the process.

It was during junior high school that I played in the band for a couple of years.  My brother Thavis got me a cheap clarinet and encouraged me to participate.  The director, Mr. Griep, was a classmate of Thavis in the master’s degree program at Hardin Simmons University, but that connection didn’t bring me any advantage.  I was a mediocre player, neither the best nor the worst in my section.  I remember being a part of a trio and practicing with two girls for a competition.  We did a passable but not an excellent job. The band played and marched at half-time for football games, so there was a lot of practice for that.  We traveled with the team for out-of-town games as well as performing at home games.  We went to the state band competitions, and I think we got a first, as a result of Mr. Griep’s vigorous drilling.  By the third year of junior high, I was losing interest in the band and didn’t sign up again.  However, I still remember the embouchure (lip configuration) for the clarinet and can make some kind of appropriate sound when I pick one up.  That is the only musical instrument that I ever learned to play, but it sharpened my ability to read music, which was a lasting benefit.

I had another girlfriend experience in junior high.  There was a girl named Charlotte Elliot who appeared on local television as a singer, and she caught my fancy.  I left notes in her locker, but, alas, she did not reciprocate!  I lived through it somehow.  As well as I can remember, all of my subsequent infatuations were with girls from church, none of which lasted long.

Taking a couple of years of Spanish in junior high school led to my first trip out of the U.S.  The class went to Monterrey, Mexico for cultural exposure to a Spanish-speaking country and practice in the language.  My family couldn’t afford the cost, so it was a blessing that someone at the school paid the fee.  I never knew for sure who it was, but I suspect it was my Spanish teacher, who thought I had done well in the class and wanted me to go.  I gained some proficiency in speaking Spanish, and even my rudimentary ability enabled me to work in a dry goods store in my senior year in Rule, selling clothes to Mexican migrant workers who were there picking cotton.  They were commonly referred to in Texas as “wetbacks” because they were pictured as having entered the country by wading the Rio Grande River (sound familiar?).

I went to Abilene High School for my sophomore and junior years, and I have several good memories of those two years. One of my initial courses there was two semesters of typing.  I was terrible at it, and my grades were the lowest of any course I ever took.  But the basic skill I gained has been monumental in its significance.  I became thoroughly immersed in touch typing, rather than hunt-and-peck.  I have often thanked God for making sure my advisor signed me up for the class. 

The high point of those years was singing, first in the Men’s Chorus and then the next year in the Acapella Choir, with admission only by audition.  The Acapella went on tour for a week toward the end of the year, and all music had to be memorized.  The director was Gene Kenny, a man with high standards, demanding the best we could deliver and using mostly classical and folk music for his material.  Those who heard the Choir commented on its mature sound for a high school group.  There was individual talent, too, in the person of a marvelous bass-baritone named Julian Long.  The Choir made a recording (33 rpm disc) of its repertoire, of which I still have a copy and play from time to time.

Another major high school memory is two world history classes I took from a dynamic teacher named Sarah Hardy.  She was probably in her 50s or 60s and had been around for a good while.  She engaged my attention and interest more than any other high school teacher.  I didn’t realize at the time that her anti-Russian bias marked her as a political conservative, but she was fond of saying that Stalin was from an Eastern culture and could not be expected to act like people from the West.  The framework of Western History she gave me in those two courses has been useful during all of my subsequent academic studies.

My five years in junior high and senior high in Abilene were a time of broadening my cultural and political perspectives.  My Spanish courses not only took me to my first visit to a foreign country and provided skills used in employment later, but also laid the foundation for studying other foreign languages, such as French and Latin, which were necessary to my graduate studies in English.  And not only did I enjoy singing high-quality music in the Acapella Choir, I developed an ear and a taste for classical music and excellent choral singing.  My early enjoyment of classical music was reinforced during my high school years by occasional times when I visited my brother Thavis’s room while he was attending college.  He had records of classical music that I listened to while he was in class.  And my world history class broadened my cultural and political outlook and paved the way for pursuing more history in the future, which meshed well with my interest in English literature as it developed in my college years.  All in all, my advanced public schooling in Abilene gave me valuable chances for trying new things and adjusting to the mix of success and failure in those endeavors.

My family’s move to Rule, TX in the summer after my junior year was necessitated, again, by my father’s illness with cancer, this time of the lungs.  We needed to be near my brother Otho, who had moved to Rule a year or two previous to our arrival to establish an appliance and watch repair store.  Otho provided work for my Dad in minding the store when my brother was out doing service or installation for the appliances he sold.  My enrollment in Rule High School was a part of the process of resettling, and it proved to entail experiences I would never have encountered back in Abilene.  More of that in the next installment.


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Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)


Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Early Difficulties Translated into Valuable Lessons: Twilight Musings Autobiography (Part 4)

Early Difficulties Translated into Valuable Lessons: Twilight Musings Autobiography (Part 4)

Elton Higgs

My family’s move from Stamford, TX, back to Abilene when I was 7 years old turned out to entail challenges that became opportunities for me to grow.  The transfer to a new school is often difficult for a child, but since my illness in Stamford had forced me to begin 1st grade again, I went into 2nd grade with the advantage of being ahead of my classmates in both age and classroom experience.  That advantage put me ahead of the game for the rest of my primary school years.  Adding to the ease with which I made the transfer to a new school was the fact that I had very supportive teachers there, and that spurred me on to do my best.  I was hungry for approval, and it came most easily to me by performing well in the classroom.

I’m not sure what the immediate catalyst was for my family’s making the move back to Abilene in 1944, but it coincided with a downturn in our financial security.  Since my brother Otho and his wife Lucille had already gone back to Abilene and set up a business in watch repair, it made sense for my family to be there so that we could be more easily helped by them.  Not long after we moved back, my father was diagnosed with throat cancer, and that necessitated my going to work at an early age to earn some pocket money and eventually to contribute to the family’s purchase of groceries.  I had to adjust to the need for me to be a contributing member of the household, not just a dependent. 

We rented a house in Abilene only a few blocks away from Travis Elementary School, so I was able to walk to school.  I have numerous memories of my years at Travis.  My second-grade teacher, Mrs. Buttrick, enabled me to attract the attention of the woman who was to become my third-grade teacher, Mrs, Jackson.  Mrs. Buttrick had given me the task of reciting a little piece for the Parent Teacher Association, and after the event, Mrs. Jackson summoned me from the playground to tell me what a good job I had done.  Her commendation was a complete surprise, and it paved the way for a close relationship with her when I went into her class the next year.

At some point in my 3rd grade year, the principal of our school, Mr. Etter, gathered all the boys to present some basics on the “birds and bees.”  I suppose it was an appropriate time for such a lecture for me, because I subsequently developed a crush on my 4th grade teacher, Miss Caffee, and in the 5th grade I exchanged romantic looks and notes with a girl in my class.  It was there that I learned how “love” was engendered by the locking of eyes “across a crowded room.”  She sent me a little missive saying she liked me, and I manifested my early linguistic skill by replying “Likewise,” a word that probably no other boy in my class would have used.  I don’t remember that the girl to whom it was addressed responded, so our brief remote romance must have faded.

I was honored in 5th and 6th grades to be voted a Patrol Boy, which gave me the responsibility of standing at the pedestrian crossings outside the school to make sure traffic stopped to let the kids cross safely.  I was quite proud to wear the belt and the badge that went with the office.

Our Physical Education teacher was Mr. Sherman, a tall man who had a commanding presence.  Under him I learned to play soccer, a relatively new game at the time in the U. S.  It had this strange rule that you couldn’t touch the ball with your hands, so you had to learn literally to “use your head,” as well as your feet.  Mr. Sherman also coached the competitive team sports, football and softball.  My parents would not allow me to go out for the contact sport of football.  However, I did have a stint catching for the softball team.  I did not excel in sports, so early in life I accepted that my greatest successes would be achieved as an “egghead.”

My 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Barnes, inadvertently became an early sponsor of my entry into the work world.  She was a kind older lady, and my chief memory of her was her answering the door bell when I was going door-to-door selling greeting cards, my first work for pay.  Out of pure charity, no doubt, she bought some of my wares, for which I was grateful.  Though I don’t remember much about our relationship in the classroom, it must have been generally positive. 

Peddling greeting cards brought me my first pocket money, with which I bought my first bicycle, enabling me to graduate from self-employment to a brief career in selling newspapers.  I broke into the newspaper trade by walking around downtown Abilene selling the Fort Worth Star Telegram (which competed with the local paper, the Abilene Reporter News) on the street, in hotel lobbies, and in restaurants.  Getting up at about 4:30 in the morning to do this job; I rode my bike downtown to pick up my papers, passing by the lighted clock on a bank on Chestnut Street, which shone eerily on the deserted pavement.  I would set out with a bundle of papers under my arm, for which I had to account at the end of the day by giving my employer the wholesale price for each paper sold and returning the unsold papers.  It was a marvelous feeling to pay him his money and have no papers to return.  There were tips from time to time, but I didn’t have to tell him about those.  I found that areas around hotels were the best places to sell, since out-of-town people were most likely to want a newspaper from a major city like Fort Worth.  The papers were delivered twice a day by truck from Fort Worth, mostly on time but sometimes not.  When the papers were late and the delivery boys got rambunctious, Mr. Bennett, who managed the Abilene franchise for the paper, used to say, “When I die, I won’t go to Hell; the Lord will just make me wait for the paper truck to come!”

After several months of selling on the street (newspapers only!), I advanced to doing home deliveries on my bicycle, which gave me a steadier income.  The wind seemed to be my adversary during my newspaper delivery years.  When I was peddling papers on the street, the wind at the corners of tall buildings (as much as 17 stories in Abilene at the time!) would nearly rip my papers out of my arms.   When I was riding my bicycle on the residential route, it was exceedingly difficult to make headway facing into the wind.  Moreover, the bicycle I was riding supplied an additional challenge: it had only a cruising speed and it took a lot of initial energy to get it going.  However, that necessary struggle on the bicycle turned out to be good for my legs, creating good, firm muscles that have stood me in good stead over the years.

Meanwhile, back at Travis Elementary, my 6th grade teacher, Mrs. Lavinia Ward, took me under her wing and I worked hard for her, but my efforts were more quantitative than creative.  She didn’t much challenge that deficiency in my work in 6th grade, but it turned out that she went up to junior high teaching (7th grade) the same year I entered South Junior High School, so I had a social studies class with her there.  Her standards at that level, however, were appropriately more challenging.  I turned in an assignment (making a papier-mache map) on which I spent a great deal of time and turned it in expecting that I would receive the same kind of praise from her that I had in the 6th grade.  However, she returned the map with the comment that she expected some original thinking on the assignment, not mere hours spent.  That was my first real experience with thinking analytically, and I am thankful to Mrs. Ward for initiating it.  I was thereafter academically the better for it.

Our very early experiences shape attitudes and character.  In my case, God used what appeared to be difficult circumstances (early illness and the need for me to work) to help me develop special strengths.  My late start in schooling gave me an academic advantage which fed into my choosing an academic career.  My days selling greeting cards and delivering newspapers developed self-discipline and a sound sense of thrift in using the money I earned.  My family struggled financially during those years, and I was able to help out with my little bit of earnings, as well as being able to buy a few small things for myself.  I was profoundly affected by my father’s example of being a faithful tither, even when things were tight.  Even before I began earning my own money, I would put two or three cents of my weekly allowance of 25 cents into the offering plate on Sundays, so it was easy to transfer that principle when I had my own earned income.

I entered junior high school eager to navigate my last six years of public education and prepared to continue working to help the family. More about junior high school in the next installment. 


Elton_Higgs (1).jpg

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)


 

Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

The Early Years, From Gutter Sandpile to First Grade: Twilight Musings Autobiography (Part 3)

The Early Years, From Gutter Sandpile to First Grade

A Twilight Musing by Elton Higgs

If we stay long enough in one place, our personalities are affected by where we have lived.  I spent my first 24 years in Texas, and Texans absorb certain outlooks and perspectives.  For example, we smarted from Alaska’s joining the Union and becoming technically the largest state.  After all, one can travel 1,000 miles from border to border and still be in Texas.  The sky itself is bigger in Texas.  Everybody’s your neighbor in Texas, and we are a generally friendly bunch in casual interactions with each other.  Texas is so big, it has at least four distinctive topographies within its boundaries: “piney” forest in the east; flat, semiarid plains in the west and north; “hill country” in the central part, and hot, humid coastland in the south.  I grew up in the part of the plains called West Texas, mainly in a town called Abilene (named after the one in Kansas), in a region of cattle ranching and oil production. 

I lived with my family in Abilene the first four or five years of my life  My earliest memories (late 1930s, early ‘40s) are connected with the little house my family owned on Locust St. in Abilene.  A couple of them were traumatic, like getting into a red ant bed, or waking one morning to find that the city had cleaned the gutter outside our house, thus depriving me of the sand pile I had delighted playing in.  I was greatly offended by the maintenance workers’ arbitrary decision to take away my sand pile!  I flew in to tell my mother, with indignant tears, about this abuse of municipal power.  But in a happier vein are pictures of me in my overalls playing outside the house, or sometimes posing with my brothers.  One showed me in a little cart pulled by a goat, so there must have been enough money to give me a treat once in a while.

A couple of vivid memories from the house on Locust St. had to do with my paternal grandmother.  She was a wizened little lady who sat in her chair chewing snuff and spitting nastily into a receptacle at her feet.  When she died sometime around 1940, we went to the funeral and burial in Nugent, TX, a little town north of Abilene close to the family farm where my father had worked until he got married.  It had rained heavily the day before, and we had to drive carefully through a creek flowing high enough to cover the running board in order to get to the burial site.  As we sat in the car at the graveyard, my father wept freely, the only time I ever saw him do so.  

While we were at Locust St., my mother suffered a complete psychological meltdown (what was then described as a “nervous breakdown”).  I remember her spending whole days in bed, unable to get up and function normally.  I was sent to stay with my uncle Oby and Aunt Sarah, out in the country in the little village of Nugent.  This was rather fun for me, a change of pace from town life.  I enjoyed my aunt Sarah’s home cooked meals and going with my uncle on his rounds in a pickup to check on the large oil pumps that took the crude oil from the ground and pumped it into big tanks nearby.  I remember the cigar that he kept in his mouth most of the time; he must have put it out when he went to check the oil pumps, since we never experienced a conflagration on those trips.

As I look back on these earliest remembered experiences, I realize that in the midst of feeling secure with my family and feeling that I belonged, I was also being forced to deal with the realities of pain and loss.  Indeed, introduction to that mix of pleasure and unpleasantness is typical of our early years, and the places we have lived form a significant context for that stage of our education, both informal and academic.

We moved to Stamford, TX, when I was about 5 or 6, because of my mother’s felt need for some change in our situation.  My dad hoped that moving to Stamford would help her, and he was able to continue his bread delivery route from there.  Mother was a lifelong hypochondriac and was much pampered by my father, according to my brothers.  She was certainly focused on her illnesses and seemed always to be under physical and psychological stress. 

My earliest memories in Stamford were associated with the fact that my brother Otho had joined the Army Air Force and was stationed in Delaware, with the result that his wife, Lucille, came to live with us while he was away.  While there she gave birth to my oldest niece, Linda, and I had my first opportunity to observe an infant first hand.  That was my introduction to the anatomical differences between the sexes and my first lesson in sex education.  I knew nothing, of course, of the implications of those differences, but it made a deep impression on me nevertheless.  Socially, I was informed that I was now an uncle, and I was told later that I was very proud of the fact.  At some point we went to an event involving the Red Cross (related to war time, I imagine), and I was given one of their little pins.  So now I bragged that I was an uncle and a member of the Red Cross!  My sister-in-law was much amused.

Lucille was attended by a Dr. Metz, who sported a little mustache (rather resembling Hitler’s), and she drew a caricature of him on one of my Tinker Toy pieces (all wooden, no plastic) that gave us both a chuckle.  Lucille took a special interest in me at that time, and we continued to have a special relationship until she died many years later.  I was to her like an adopted son.

My memories of those early days in Stamford include playing on the sidewalk outside our house (a quite safe thing to do in those days) and encountering a girl with golden curls as she walked home from school with her mother.  Her name was Gwendolyn Rogers, and she was the object of my first crush.  I evidently had an early attraction for older women!  To her I was no more than a little boy on his tricycle whom she walked past on her way home, but she was my chosen one.  The attachment must have come to an end when I started to school, but I remember no trauma attached to the separation.

I have other memories of Stamford during my pre-school years.  We were within walking distance of the town square, and my brother Thavis took me sometimes to the drugstore, where we would drink a limeade at the fountain.  On the way there and back, I remember going by a shop that had a partially assembled small airplane, probably a military one, visible through a big window..  I don’t know the function of the shop, but the image of the plane stuck with me.  The town was evidently safe for kids to play in, even a little way from home.  I remember going down to the railroad tracks to watch the engines go back and forth, switching cars.  I have a vague recollection of meeting another little boy in that area, because he allowed me to read his Captain Marvel comic books, and I tried to see if the magic word that turned little Billy Batson into Captain Marvel (“Shazam!”) would work for me, but it never did.

On perhaps my fifth or sixth birthday, my mother made me a cake that lasted a few days after the party.  On the day when only one piece was left, my dad wanted to share it with me, but I said I wanted it all for myself.  That little act of selfishness haunted me for years afterward.  I’m not sure when the guilt faded, but the memory has stayed with me all this time.

I have vivid memories of playing indoors at our house in Stamford during my pre-school years.  My toys reflected the context of wartime.  I had a bomber model that dropped marbles, with which I destroyed imagined enemy installations.  One Christmas I was given a model electric train by Otho and Lucille, and it engaged me many hours with its electric engine and circular track.  It was operated by a transformer box with a lever that made the engine go backward or forward, and I often derailed it with my rapid changes in direction and speed.  I can still smell the oil with which I lubricated the wheels of the train.

Most of our news came from the radio, supplemented by the newspaper, and though I don’t remember listening to any of President Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats, the family must have listened to some of them.  One program that I do remember my mother listening to faithfully was the commentary of Gabriel Heater.  I can hear even now his soft but confident voice, delivering his opinions on the news of the day, particularly of the war.

My first-grade experiences in Stamford were dominated by respiratory illness.  I was sick so much during my initial enrollment that my parents decided just to pull me out so that I could concentrate on getting well.  Consequently, I started again from scratch the next school year.  Since I had learned the basics of reading in my first enrollment (including phonics, an exercise in audial perception that has helped me throughout life), I spent much of my convalescence time developing my reading skills, and consequently, when I went back to school, I had a head start on the other students.  In fact, I read so well that the teacher asked me to listen sometimes to students reading and to correct them, while she worked with still another group. That spotlight on my advantage was, I fear, unhealthy food for my ego—I enjoyed it overmuch.  However, being one of the oldest in all my classes thereafter contributed materially to my academic successes.  Being held back in early primary school is often a good strategy for an initially struggling child.

I should note several other memories of my first-grade years.  My family bought a milk goat because someone had said that drinking fresh goat’s milk is good for ailing children.  The nanny goat my father milked became a pet, and it was great fun to play with her baby when he was born.  We took the goat with us when we moved back to Abilene around 1944 and created a shed and pen in back of the house.  I remember going out with my dad to milk the goat, and he taught me how to do it, though I never became really proficient at it.

I had significant interactions with my brother Thavis (eight years older than I) during our stay in Stamford.  He was a builder of model airplanes, and he spent hours meticulously cutting out parts of the plane from sheets of balsa wood and gluing them precisely together.  His room was off-limits to me, but I sneaked in when he wasn’t home and looked over his work.  I don’t remember seriously disturbing anything, but when he caught me in his room, his displeasure was strongly expressed.

Another of his wartime activities was to collect tin foil from chewing gum wrappers and roll them into a ball to convey to a recycling center for the war effort.  I can still see and feel the process of starting at the corner and carefully peeling back the foil from its wax paper base. I helped with building some of the balls of foil, and they became rather large, say about the size of a hardball or larger.

While we were in Stamford, Thavis got a job at a little grocery store owned by a man named Earl Stagner.  He and Thavis became good friends and remained so for years after we moved back to Abilene.  Another of his jobs in Stamford was working at a little café, where he learned to cook some of the dishes he served.  As a result, he introduced me to an egg and jelly sandwich which was made with three pieces of bread, with a hole cut in the middle of the middle slice to fit over the fried egg resting on the bottom slice.  Jelly was added to make it a memorable taste experience.

My most traumatic experience with Thavis was his trying to teach me to swim.  After a few rudimentary instructions, he decided that it was time literally to let me sink or swim, and I sank.  I was very frightened and swallowed some water, I think.  The swimming lesson failed, and much to his disgust, I refused to try any more.  It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I made any progress in learning to swim.

Thavis decided to run away from home after we moved back to Abilene, in order to finish his senior year in high school at Stamford.  Our time together in Stamford created a bond between us, and he continued to be a special big brother to me even after we were separated.

These scattered memories attached to places lived make me aware of how important seemingly insignificant details of experience can be.   Being stung by the red ants and being deprived of my gutter sandpile were my introduction to loss, but it took the brief, isolated event of watching my father weep at his mother’s death for me to have my first limited understanding of the grief attached to death.  I had the dawning of conscience in the small incident of not sharing my birthday cake.  Early experiences with my sister-in-law and my brother Thavis were not dramatic, but they were the foundation for more mature relationships later on.  My illness as a little boy actually resulted in my having an advantage when I finally started school.  So it was that my early years in Abilene and Stamford contributed significantly to who God has enabled me to become.    

 


Elton_Higgs (1).jpg


Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)


Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Assessing One’s Parents: Twilight Musings Autobiography (Part 2)

Assessing One’s Parents

Twilight Musings Autobiography (Part 2)

  

          Not all people have siblings, but we all have parents, and their presence (or absence) in our lives exerts an irradicable influence on who we turn out to be. I once heard of a college counselor who regularly told his undergraduate counselees that “We all have to come to the point of forgiving our parents.”  That is to say, whatever our relationship to our parents, to some degree or other, usually by the time we become adolescents, our parents’ faults will have become obvious to us, and we have to deal with our perception of their failures. 

            That may seem an ungenerous introduction to talking about my relationship with my parents, and I must make clear at the beginning that I suffered no abuse at their hands, and indeed they loved me and provided for me as they were able.  But their age when they were raising me, the last of their brood, meant that they did not have the energy or the health to be very actively involved with me.  Nevertheless, I received some significant guidance and nurture from them.  Sorting through this mixture of influences from my parents challenges me to honestly identify and evaluate their effect on me, being thankful for the good things they gave me and gracious about any deficiencies I thought they had.  It takes God’s help to review one’s upbringing clearly and to take responsibility for what we have become, whatever the advantages and disadvantages of our early home life.

I remember my father as a generally kind man.  He certainly went extra miles trying to make my mother happy, and he seemed to be well liked by his customers and fellow workers during his long employment as a bread delivery man.  Women responded well to his gentleness, and one of my sisters-in-law adored him as a surrogate father, having lost her father early in her life.  Dad was a Bible-reading man and a steady Christian, qualities that led to his appointment as an elder in our congregation of the Church of Christ we attended in Abilene.  He had strong convictions.  I remember that when the Revised Standard Version of the Bible came out in the 1950s, he was adamant in upholding the greater authority of the King James Version because the RSV rendered the quotation of Isaiah that “a virgin shall conceive” a child (Jesus) as “a young woman shall conceive.”  To him, that was changing the very Word of God; he had no conception of such a rendering being justified by a scholarly appeal to the meaning of the original Hebrew.  Neither he nor my mother went past the 8th grade in formal schooling, and neither of them had traveled beyond Texas, so they had no experience that exposed them to any culture except what they had grown up with.

My father and I didn’t share much at a deeply personal level.  When I was small he took me along with him on his bread route sometimes in the summer, but I don’t remember hanging out with him just to engage in some mutually satisfying activity, like attending sporting events or making visits to a park.  He was a hard-working man, and our only regular family activity was going to church and having an occasional extended family meal with my brother Otho and his wife and children.  Things were financially tough for my father and mother and me after he became ill with throat cancer.  After his employment with Mead’s Bakery came to an end, he took up selling Watkins Products from door to door, and I would sometimes go with him on his deliveries and his trips to the warehouse to purchase products to sell.  That ceased when I began to have jobs of my own to pay for my personal purchases and to add to the household income. 

My mother’s health was always precarious, and she had several operations to correct internal problems, including a hysterectomy.  Sometime during my early childhood, she had an emotional meltdown, or what was then referred to as a “nervous breakdown.”  For a period of weeks, she was unable to take care of household chores; I think I was sometimes taken care of by some of my aunts and uncles during this period.  She frequently felt bad, and though there were some real physical problems, my brothers and I, and several of our close relatives, I think, considered her to be a hypochondriac.  From the time I was aware enough to make an evaluation, I responded to her perpetual health problems by wishing that she could be more stoic in enduring them.  I can remember overhearing her telephone conversations with her female friends discussing clinical details of her ailments and medical treatments.

Merely by token of my being at home alone with her after she had sufficiently recovered from her meltdown to be active again, she exerted a kind of environmental influence on me.  I was a rather sickly child up through my primary school years, often having to stay home from school.  Indeed, I had to drop out of school during first grade, starting again the next year.  (Incidentally, this gave me an ongoing advantage in my subsequent years in school, always being a year or so older than my classmates.)  My mother took good care of me when I was ill and was very solicitous of me when I was well, insisting that I always wear a cap in cold weather.  I have some very vivid memories of being treated when I was ill.  As I recovered from upper-gastral problems, I was fed mashed banana and saltine crackers as soft food to re-accommodate my stomach to eating solid food again.  When the problem was constipation, the remedies were always unpleasant and awkward, involving either milk of magnesia or non-orally administered water to loosen things up.

All of this care could have established a close emotional bond, but my mother’s wearing her emotions on her sleeve actually effected a determination in me to repress my emotions, and that early development has been manifested in my adult life.  It took me years to learn to share emotionally with others, including my wife.  Even now, I remain governed more by rationality than by emotion.  That has probably been good for my scholarly pursuits, but less so for my personal life.  I was especially turned off by my mother’s frequent appeals in my teen years for me to tell her that I loved her.  The more she appealed, the less inclined I was to respond in the way that she wanted.  I loved her dutifully, but not fervently or deeply.  I honored my mother according to the commandment, and I saw to her needs to the end, but I did not weep when she died.  Indeed, I rarely weep at all, which is probably a deficiency in my life.

I remember being envious of one of my closest friends during my post-high school years.  His mother had heroically continued as mother to her two sons and a daughter as the family tried to make a go of their farm after the father had left them.  She was a warm, affectionate woman, who welcomed guests and always had a treat ready when her children’s friends visited.  I admired her for her combination of strength and warmth, and I wondered why my mother was so different from her.  I can’t remember my mother ever acting with that kind of spontaneous hospitality toward my friends.

More than balancing out any deficiencies in what my parents gave me was our religious life together.  We went to church three times a week and took it for granted that all of us would be there if not hindered by illness.  We lived close enough to the church building to walk there, which took about 15-20 minutes.  The routines of our household also reflected commitment to serving God.  I remember vividly our custom of praying together every night before retiring.  My father and I would kneel, and he would lead the prayer.  This time was called the “family altar,” and my parents told me that it had been their custom to do this from the beginning of their marriage.  Prayer came naturally in our family.  We gave thanks at every meal, and that’s where I first learned to pray aloud.  My mother was especially dedicated to prayer and had great faith that prayer was a spiritual privilege that produced results.  Her great faith and readiness to pray anytime conditioned me to see prayer as a natural part of everyday Christian living.

My Christian walk, then, was undergirded by the example and teaching of my parents.  Their lack of bitterness and their strong faith in the face of my father’s illness and loss of income encouraged me to work alongside them to supply the family’s needs.  I might not have learned the value of hard, honest work if we had been better off financially.  Their faithfulness to one another during over 35 years of marriage was another powerful working out of their desire to honor God and one another.

On the other hand, my lack of strong personal connection with my father and reaction against my mother’s excessive emotionality resulted in my taking a long time as an adult to learn emotional sensitivity to others, particularly my wife.  I am by temperament strongly inclined toward a rational outlook, and my upbringing did not contribute to tempering that inclination with appropriate emotional expression.

In sum, God gave me parents with both virtues and flaws, like most people.  I thank God that the benefits I received from them outweigh in significance those things I wish they had been able to give me.  I can’t blame any of my deficiencies on them, for I am responsible before God for what I have made of their gifts and how I have compensated for any disadvantages they might have passed on to me.  I must be as charitable and merciful toward them as I hope my children will be toward me.


Elton_Higgs.jpg

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)


Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

My Family: Twilight Musings Autobiography (Part 1)

My Family

Twilight Musings Autobiography (Part 1)

Elton Higgs

Prologue

          In February of this year, I did a Musing justifying writing an autobiography.  My reasons were that every life has a story that will be interesting to somebody; that if one has lived as a Christian, his or her life will reveal what God has done in that process; and that people should have access to a record of their forebears’ lives.  My own notes for an autobiography were experiencing a long pause when I had a lengthy conversation with the manager of this site, David Baggett.  He encouraged me to get back to the notes and the drafting of the treatise because (bless his heart!) he wanted to see it come to completion.  And he had the concrete suggestion that I use material from the autobiography to do my Friday Twilight Musings.

          I will try to comply, but I don’t want these very personal Musings to be the undisciplined ramblings of a garrulous old man, and I want them to have something of take-away value.  I trust that my wife and David and his wife Marybeth will prevent my using this venue for mere self-referential satisfaction.

 

My Family

          My life began with my being different from my three older brothers.  I was born in Hendrick Memorial Hospital, Abilene, Texas, on June 14, 1937, the youngest of four sons and the only one to be born in a hospital; the other three were all born at home. There were eight years between me and my closest sibling, so I was raised pretty much by myself, and some of my brothers saw me as rather pampered, which may have been true.  At any rate, I avoided the kinds of problematic development that made things difficult for my brothers.  I believe that God’s hand was in my being born the youngest of the four and in my coming as late in my parents’ lives as I did (I doubt that my arrival was expected).  Let me expand on how my life was significantly formed by my being last in the birth order.

The oldest son, Ordis, was born with cataracts on both eyes and was sent off at an early age to a school for the blind to learn how to make his way in the world.  He engaged in some rebellious behavior at the school, resulting in his being sent home before he graduated.  In spite of that rocky beginning, he eventually married, had children, and became a responsible Christian citizen. Although he was designated as legally blind, he was able to transcend his limitations through learning braille (which he used mostly to read the Bible) and taking advantage of jobs for the blind supplied by the state he lived in.  For many years he operated a stand selling newspapers, snacks, and other items in the state capitol building, and he was able to take up a similar job when he moved to another state. 

The two middle brothers were also rebellious. The second in line, Otho, got married before he was out of his teens, and he and his wife had to live with our family for a while—a complicated beginning to an enduring but troubled marriage.  However, he managed to achieve some stability by joining the military during WWII, gaining enough G. I. benefits to fund some training in watch repair and electronics.  He eventually had his own store selling home electronic devices and repairing watches.

The third son, Thavis, ran away from home when the family moved back to Abilene from Stamford, because he wanted to finish high school in Stamford.  He ended up joining the army so he could finance his college education after he finished his army stint.  Having played an instrument in an Army band, he determined to get a degree in music education. He was ambitious and determined to have a life with more opportunity than had been available to him at home, and he wanted the same for me.  He had a variety of music-based jobs after he graduated: teaching band at the high school level, being a traveling sales representative for a band instrument company, and owning a music store.  He earned extra money during most of his life playing the saxophone for dance bands.  His vocational life was rounded out by a decidedly non-musical job, doing rural mail delivery.  That gave him some retirement benefits, along with a bit of social security income.  

All my brothers, then, worked at a number of jobs, and the middle two were very entrepreneurial. I was the only one of the four who led a fairly normal and conformist life.  I was a “good” boy and unduly proud of it, I fear.  Perhaps the lack of adventuresome activity in my early life was attributable in part to my parents’ being already in their decline by that time; they were less restrictive with me and and I was less dependent on them than my older siblings had been  It was also true, however, that my temperament was more sanguine than that of my older siblings, particularly the middle two.  Whatever was the cause, my upbringing was more peaceful than that of my brothers.

The lesson that I draw from these circumstances in my childhood and teens is that they laid the groundwork for my later life going in more conventional directions than my brothers had.  I also had the advantage of being encouraged in my development by the two closest to me in age: Thavis urged me to equip myself intellectually and socially to have a better life than my parents had, and he furnished me with the model of completing a college education.  And during my senior year, Otho gave me some hands-on instruction in basic service to electronic devices.  However, after seeing my ineptitude for applying what he had taught me, and seeing that I excelled in academics, he gave me the memorable advice to “stick with your books.”

So it was that God helped me to avoid the difficulty of a rebellious early life and provided a push toward my pursuing an academic career.  But more about that in another Musing.


Elton_Higgs (1).jpg

 Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)


Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Be a Zombie for Christ!

Be a Zombie for Christ!

A Twilight Musing

By Elton Higgs

 

          O. K., I have your attention.  What could the guy be thinking.?  Isn’t a zombie a dead person inhabited by some alien life form?  Well, the idea of a Christian application of this bizarre concept came right from the Apostle Paul: “I have been crucified with Christ.  It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20).  And further, “. . .  if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.  If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom. 8:10-11).

          Let’s think a few minutes about the implications of this jarring metaphor of Christian “zombies.”  None of us would desire to become like the zombies in movies, who move about mindlessly, controlled by an inhabiting animation or by some magical power.  But in reality, unless we have accepted Christ as Lord, we are in a similar state of being, for we are governed by what Paul calls “the flesh,” by which he means not just the meat that covers our bones, but our fatal attraction to putting our slowly dying bodies in the driver’s seat of our lives.  We are urged by Jesus not to invest in that which is temporary, but in that which is eternal (see Matt. 6:25-34).  If we hold on inordinately to these decaying bodies we live in, we submit to a truly terrifying kind of zombieism, which Paul describes in more detail. 

In our natural condition, Paul says, we are “dead in [our] trespasses” (Col. 2:13).  “For while we [are] living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, [are] at work in our members to bear fruit for death” (Rom. 5:5).  But does not God’s law direct us how to live for Him in moral perfection?   How then can it be the source of our being controlled by sin?  Because in trying to keep that Law perfectly, we find ourselves in a battle that is unwinnable using only our natural resources:

Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure.  For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin.  I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good.  So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.  (Rom. 7:13-17)

We are not fully aware of the horrors of this captivity until we have been “crucified with Christ” and thereby delivered from our sinful slavery to these dying carcasses.  “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.  For one who has died has been set free from sin” (Rom. 6:6-7).   

Here is a kind of take-over of our bodies that we can embrace just as a captive rejoices at being delivered from prison.  What a scandal it would be if we were to act as if we were still incarcerated after being freed from jail.  Rather, we are told,

Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions.  Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.  For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.  (Rom 6:12-14)

Or, as Paul sums it up in Romans 8:2, “the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.”

          Far from being a threat to our welfare, being a “zombie” for Christ offers us freedom from the “death in life” that we are born into as fallen creatures.  If we are to be taken over by an outside force, much better to be inhabited by the Holy Spirit than by the decaying spirit of the flesh.

 

 

 

Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

On Sin as a Corruption of Language

On Sin as a Corruption of Language

A Twilight Musing

By Elton Higgs

 

 

          From the beginning of creation, God manifested Himself as a user of language, One Who spoke things into being and then named them.  Each act of creation was a result of His Word: “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Gen. 1:3).  His next act was to separate the light from the darkness, and to name them, Night and Day (1:4-5).  God continued this process for the next five days of creation, speaking into existence the Heavens, the Earth, and the Seas and giving them their generic names.  In the process of creating plant and animal life, God designed each species to reproduce “according to their kind,” thus giving each of them unique characteristics that enabled them to be identified by name.  Finally, on the sixth day of creation, God had a conversation with Himself (i.e., between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit): “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Gen. 1:26).  Thereby, the pinnacle of creation, human beings, were to be sentient, aware of themselves and of God, and, unlike the beasts of the field, capable of speech.

          The first man, Adam, was given mastery over all the rest of God’s creation, and a part of that responsibility was to name the various animals (Gen. 2:19-20).  In doing so, he manifested a key characteristic of his bearing the image of God; that is, he used language to define what had already been created, as God did for the Earth and the Seas and the Heavens.  It was also by verbal commands that God informed Adam of his responsibilities and warned him against eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Gen. 2:16-17).  In the unfallen state of the original creation, language was an emanation of the nature of God, with a direct, unambiguous, perfect relationship between speech and the referents of speech.  There was no need for symbol or metaphor.  God spoke and material things came forth exactly as He spoke them.  Adam named the animals and that was their distinctive nomination.  God gave His commands to Adam and Eve, and His words were fully comprehended and happily followed.  Truth reigned in creation and gave perfect balance and coherence to the new world that God had pronounced good (Gen. 1:31).

          All was well until by Satan’s power a lying serpent was introduced into the Garden of Eden.  With his deceptive speech, he tempted Eve.  “He said to the woman, ’Did God actually say, “You shall not eat of any tree in the Garden”?’” (Gen. 3:1b).  When the woman replied that God forbade only eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the Serpent made a direct assault on the veracity of the Word of God, so that the woman accepted the Serpent’s word rather than God’s Word.  Satan used corrupted, lying speech to sow doubt about God’s perfectly truthful speech.  After she had eaten the forbidden fruit, Eve in turn persuaded Adam to partake of the fruit as well.  As Eve was condemned for listening to the Serpent rather than to God, so was Adam condemned for listening to his wife rather than to God (Gen. 3:17).  As a result, humankind’s communion with God was broken because they accepted the perverted language of their evil Adversary rather than God’s truth.

          It is significant that from then on, sin was compounded by the failing of humans to listen to, believe, and obey the Word of God, and by the continued corruption of language through lying.  Cain ended up slaying his brother Abel because he would not listen to God’s warning against being angry with him (Gen. 4:6-7).  Cain “spoke to his brother Abel (Gen. 4:8) and lured him into the isolation of the field so that he could kill him there.  Mankind became increasingly evil afterward, leading to God’s sending a flood to drown all the sentient life He had created except for Noah, his family, and selected animals.  Several generations after Noah, mankind pridefully used their unity of language to raise an idolatrous tower to “make a name for ourselves” (Gen. 11:4).  In response, God went down and confused their language, “so that they may not understand one another’s speech” (11:7).

          What follows in the Old Testament is the sordid account of God’s Word being rejected, even when He issued it in great detail in the form of the Law issued to Moses on Mt. Sinai.  It is significant that two of the Ten Commandments explicitly address sins of the tongue (taking the Lord’s name in vain and bearing false witness); in addition, implicit in honoring one’s parents is the obligation to listen respectfully to their words and not to speak ill of them (see Mark 7:10). Throughout the O. T. books of poetry and the Prophets, false speech is at the root of people’s rebellion against God.

A good number of the Proverbs inveigh against sins of the tongue, such as “crooked speech,” and “devious talk” (Prov. 4:23-24).  Another proverb points out that

“Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits” (Prov. 18:19-21).  The prophets also regularly detail sins of speech among the wicked acts of the people.  Isaiah excoriates those who tell such blatant lies that it’s like turning things on their head and despising the Word of God.

 

Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!  Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and shrewd in their own sight! . . .  Therefore, as the tongue of fire devours the stubble, and as dry grass sinks down in the flame, so their root will be as rottenness, and their blossom go up like dust; for they have rejected the law of the Lord of hosts, and have despised the word of the Holy One of Israel.  (Isaiah 5:20-24)

 

          Jesus warned in his teaching that sinful speech is at the root of alienation from God and is subject to His judgment.          

You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.   (Matt. 12:34-37)

The epistle of James makes even more graphic the peril of the tongue as an untamable source of evil:

6 And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.  7 For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, 8 but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.

 

When God finally sent the remedy for all of this sinful disease into the world, His Son Jesus Christ, He was described as the Word.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. . . .  And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.  

(Jn. 1:1-4, 14)

 

“The Word became flesh.”  The Word that created the world in the first place--the essential and pure language of God if you will—brought light and salvation to the fallen creation that was corrupted by humans listening to the wrong word.  Only by this supreme and ultimate sacrifice could the consequences of thousands of years of corrupted hearing and perverted speech be eradicated.

          The book of Revelation presents a picture of perfectly restored language in the Kingdom of God.  The book begins with messages from God the Spirit to seven churches (chapters 2 and 3); each message is introduced by the phrase “the words of” and ends with “hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”  Chapters 4 and 5 depict the words and songs of praises to “him who is seated on the throne” (4:9) and to “the Lamb who was slain” (5:12).  After a cascade of catastrophes to be brought by God on a wicked earth (chapters 6-18), we are ushered into the concluding chapters of Revelation in which God’s original purposes for the world He created are finally brought to fruition.  Chapter 19 begins with more words of praise to God and preparation for the great wedding feast between the Lamb and His bride, the Church, those have been faithful to their redemption by the blood of the Lamb.  But the Lamb of God is also a conqueror, and He is depicted in Rev. 19:11ff as the righteous Judge who makes war.  We know this is the Son of God who lived, died, and conquered death, because His unique name is “the Word of God” (19:13).

          We do well to remember the power of words for good and ill, and to realize that the gift of language we take for granted is God’s tool for communicating His will and our tool for spreading His Word about that will.  We even have the power to share in God’s creative power of words by shaping language into beautiful poetry or narratives of history or imaginative fiction.  In a practical way, we use language to share our understanding of God and the world He created.  But like all gifts from God, language can be used responsibly only when sanctified by His Spirit.  Like Isaiah when he saw God and heard His command to speak to the people (Is. 6:1-7), we are “of unclean lips” and are in need of an application of God’s purifying fire to our lips so that we may speak not merely our words, but His.  Our enablement is incomplete now, but we have the hope of being eternally in the presence of the Very Word Himself.

 


Elton_Higgs.jpg

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

         

Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Holy Fear

Joshua passing the River Jordan with the Ark of the Covenant  by  Benjamin West , 1800

Joshua passing the River Jordan with the Ark of the Covenant by Benjamin West, 1800

In Christian Bible classes we sometimes hear people discuss the meaning of the biblical admonition, predominantly found in the Old Testament, to “fear God.”  Does not the New Testament present God as our loving Father, whom we are privileged to address familiarly as “Papa”?  But the Old Testament clearly sees fearing God in a different light.  The “Preacher” of Ecclesiastes, for example, sums up his treatise by asserting that we are to “fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.  For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Eccl. 12:13-14 [ESV]).  But in the New Testament, disciples are frequently told not to fear, and in I John 4:18 we have a radical negation of fear: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.”  How do we get from the O.T. fear based on God’s judgment to the N.T. saying that Christians (the new Israel) should have no fear of judgment?  The fear of God still has its place in the N.T., but it is a fear embedded in the fact that Jesus Christ has bridged the gap for us between the austere fear of God and the joyful trembling that comes from being in the Presence of an awesome, loving, and gentle Father who accepts us as brothers and sisters of Christ Jesus.

Those under the Old Covenant were acutely aware that to be in God’s Presence was dangerous because of His perfect holiness and His fearsome judgment on human sin.  Three passages from chapters 6 and 8 of Isaiah and chapter 33 of Exodus illustrate this reaction, even in men who were being called by God.  In Isaiah’s vision of God “high and lifted up” in all His glory and holiness; the prophet’s immediate reaction is fear that he is going to die because he has “seen the King, the Lord of Hosts” (Is. 6:5).  Even though he is a prophet of God, he is terrifyingly aware of his sinfulness, and in order for his life to be preserved and for the conversation with God to continue, Isaiah has to be purified (depicted figuratively by the application of a burning coal from the Temple altar to his lips), so that his “guilt is taken away, and [his] sin atoned for” (v.7).  Moses has a similar experience (Ex. 33:18-23) when he asks God, “Show me your glory” (v. 18); whereupon God allows him only a glimpse of His back, and even that could be granted only with God’s protective hand covering Moses, for “man shall not see me and live.”  Human beings do well to fear the Presence of God, for the fiery holiness of that Presence will consume them unless God Himself offers protection.

          The transition between the O.T. fear of God’s judgment and the N.T. casting out of fear by Love is provided by the visitation upon the sinless Lamb of God of all the wrath of the Father deserved by rebellious mankind.  With God’s judgment satisfied, we can be empowered to serve and obey Him without the fear engendered by our sinfulness.   As Paul expresses it, when we accepted the liberating blood of Christ, we “did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but . . . received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, "Abba! Father!"  Thereby we have the liberty to “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in [us], both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13).  As Paul points out in Gal. 3, the final deliverance of mankind from sin was not to be accomplished through obedience to the Law, as necessary as that obedience was.  As he concludes in that chapter, “the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.  But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith” (Gal. 3:24-26).  God’s love, fully manifested toward humankind by the sacrifice of His Son, is the instrument for transmuting human fear into effective fear of God. 

And so we come back to the statement in I John that “perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love” (I Jn. 4:18).  What a glorious privilege is granted to us who live under the New Covenant, that we may glory in standing before God without fear of punishment for our sins.  Although we no longer tremble in physical terror as Moses and the people did when they encountered the fiery Presence of God at Mt. Sinai, we are nevertheless admonished to approach Him in Mt. Zion, the Heavenly Jerusalem, “with holy fear and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb.12:28-29, NLT).  We still need the protective covering of the blood of Jesus to keep from being consumed by the Fire of God’s judgment.  Thus we are able under the New Covenant to fear God perfectly and joyfully.


Elton_Higgs (1).jpg

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

         

 

Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Cardio-Circumcision

          We are used to seeing various kinds of body piercings and skin adornments displayed in public, but have you ever seen anyone with circumcised lips?  Or circumcised ears?  Probably not, since we have trouble even visualizing what such physical alterations would look like.  The source of this terminology comes from Scripture (Ex. 6:12; Jer. 6:10), but it is obviously intended to be interpreted metaphorically, along with the often-repeated references to circumcision of the heart (e.g., Deut. 5:16).   This turning of circumcision into metaphor is bold, even a bit shocking, but it is a revealing instance of using physical reality as a bridge to spiritual truth. 

Like any metaphor, figurative circumcision is rooted in physical circumcision.  Although the practice of excising the male foreskin, particularly for newborn infants, is now a common medical procedure, its religious significance has its origin in God’s Covenant with the Jewish people, first instituted by God as a sign of His Covenant with Abraham (Gen. 17:9-14) and later reinforced under Mosaic Law (Josh. 5:2-6). Since the ritual inherently applies only to males, the question arises as to how it signifies God’s Covenant with all His people, male and female.  I would suggest that seating this procedure in the male reproductive organ carries significance in two ways.  First, in the patriarchal society of ancient Jews, men bore the primary responsibility for seeing that the meaning of the Covenant was passed on to the next generation; the circumcision of their male sons at eight days old was a commitment to teach those sons what it means to serve God.  Second, circumcision of the foreskin betokens a dedicated channeling of male libido under the Lord’s discipline.  The man is not free merely to pursue his own lust, but is to dedicate this intimate part of himself to honoring God, through marital fidelity and self-control, thus assuring the perpetuation of a pure line of God’s Chosen People.  So we see that the rite of circumcision betokened much more than the physical marking that took place in infancy.

Scripture actually places more emphasis on circumcision of the heart than on physical circumcision.  Even in the Old Testament, where physical circumcision is required, there are more references to inner circumcision than to physical circumcision.  Circumcision of the heart, as presented to the children of Abraham, involves above all submission to God’s will and obedience to His commandments.  “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn,” Moses tells the Israelites in Deut. 10:16.  He also tells them that “God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live” (Deut. 30:6).  What begins as a command for outward obedience to God’s law ends up as a challenge to go beyond the outward process of being physically marked for the Covenant to being spiritually marked by the Covenant.

Under the New Covenant instituted by Jesus’ death and resurrection, the requirement of circumcision was laid aside, along with the rest of the ritual laws about animal sacrifice and Temple worship.  Nevertheless, some Jewish Christians from among the Pharisees insisted that circumcision was still necessary for those accepting Christ and the New Covenant.  This issue came to a head in the Jerusalem Conference of all the Apostles and leaders of the church (see Acts 15:1 ff.), at which it was determined not only that circumcision was not required of uncircumcised Gentiles who became Christians, but that the core of the New Covenant was salvation by grace, not by meritorious works of law-keeping.  Peter testified how God had shown him that the Good News was as much for the Gentiles as for the Jews, and God “made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith.  Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?  But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will" (Acts 15: 9-11).

Thus, under the New Covenant of salvation by grace, not only was circumcision not required, but it actually became a stumbling block to new Christians, for it came to represent a dangerous emphasis on salvation by works.  Paul thundered against this heresy in his writings, as in Gal. 5:1-6:

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.  Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you.  I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law.  You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.  For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.  For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love. 

Nevertheless, the figurative, deeper meaning of circumcision is still very much in evidence in the New Testament, as in Col. 2:11-15:

In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.

 

In this passage, baptism, like circumcision under the Old Covenant, marks one as a participant in the New Covenant; and though it is a physical act, it signifies and expects an inner change that equates to “circumcision of the heart.”

          We conclude, then, that even a God-ordered ritual has no spiritual value within itself; it becomes significant only when it represents, and results in, an ongoing ordering of the mind and heart toward God.  The Lord wants to make His mark not just in our bodies, but in our souls.  The command to “circumcise the foreskin of your heart” is still relevant.

 


Elton_Higgs (1).jpg

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

 

           

 

Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Take Heart, Be of Good Courage

Take Heart, Be of Good Courage

A Twilight Musing

 

          A while back a friend who spends part of each year in France responded to some great difficulties I was having with the French word of encouragement, “Courage” (pronounced “koorage,” as in “garage,” accent on the last syllable).  Recently I found that a similar sentiment (“take heart,” or “be of good courage”) is prominent in the Bible, and I would like to consider the theological significance of the idea behind those phrases.

          In the Old Testament we find exhortations to the people to “Be strong and courageous” (Deut. 31:6, Josh. 1:8) and to “take courage” (II Chron. 15:7-8) in going about what God has told them to do.  In the New Testament, Jesus Himself several times encouraged those to whom He was ministering to “take heart” because He was going to meet their need for healing or for the forgiveness of sins (or both).  In the case of the man let down through the roof by his friends (Matt. 9:2-3; see also Mk. 2 & Lk. 5), Jesus said, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.”  When blind Bartimaeus cried out for help to the Master and Jesus responded, the blind man was told by the disciples to “take heart.  Get up; He is calling you” (Mark 10:49).  To the woman who timidly touched His garment in order to be healed, He said, “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well” (Matt. 9:22).  The point of a parable told by Jesus about a persistent widow asking a judge for justice is that his disciples “ought always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1).

 Jesus established the principle that “taking heart” is an attitude of trust that God is willing and able to strengthen us and to meet our needs.  Such encouragement (you see “courage” embedded in that word?) urges boldness to replace reticence and assurance to replace doubt.  When Paul is threatened with assassination, God assures him that he will be protected: “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome" (Acts 23:11).  

Paul, in turn, assures the Corinthians that we can be buoyed up even when we are experiencing bodily suffering.  His own suffering is mitigated by the assurance that “he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence” (II Cor. 4:14).  Consequently, “We do not lose heart.  Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day” (4:16).  Moreover, God has “given us the Spirit as a guarantee.  So we are always of good courage. . . , for we walk by faith, not by sight” (II Cor. 5:5-7).

We may wonder when we suffer hardship if we are loved by God, but the writer of Hebrews tells us (quoting from Proverbs), “Do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you,  because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.  Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons” (Heb. 12:5-7).   

          We can draw some helpful conclusions from all of this for our daily living. 

1.    God knows and empathizes with our struggles, and He wants to encourage us not to give up, but to persevere and be strengthened by the experience.

 

2.    God has not engineered us for failure, but for success in spiritual growth.  He calls us to Himself to experience healing and forgiveness.

 

3.    Taking heart and being of good courage consists of consciously choosing the way of faith—complete trust in the goodness of God and confidence in the future if we leave it in His hands.

 

So when we are under stress and feeling discouraged (again, that embedded word), we can remember that God admonished the fearful Israelites to be bold in going in to conquer the promised land: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go" (Josh. 1:9).  And we can recall that Jesus tenderly raised a man paralyzed by his sins by saying, “Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven” (Matt. 9:2).  Strength and healing come from the courage God gives us when we need it most.

           


Elton_Higgs (1).jpg

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

A Twilight Musing: The Education of Jonah

 

                  Jonah is well known for running away to Tarshish to keep from having to preach to the people of Nineveh.  We tend to assume that Jonah’s flight from God’s command is a spontaneous reaction.  But actually, the author reveals at the end of the book that Jonah’s refusal to go where God sent him was based on deep reservations about God’s mercy: “for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (Jonah 4:2, ESV).  Essentially Jonah is saying to God, “I knew you were setting me up to look ridiculous: I go in there full of fire and brimstone, and then you go soft and don’t zap them after all.”  So it’s obvious that Jonah needs an education, and God sends him to school through the journey to Nineveh.

          Jonah’s conscience is quite bothersome as he boards the ship to Tarshish, for he is fleeing “the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1:3).  God responds by saying, in effect, “You want to hide?  I can do you one better than the hold of a ship.  How about the belly of a big fish?”  From that place Jonah cries out to be restored to the Lord’s presence, and he is cast up on shore by the fish, ready to hear again the Lord tell him to go preach to Nineveh.  He’s now turned around to do God’s bidding, and he dutifully walks the three days’ journey through the town warning the citizens of their impending doom.  But he evidently does not have the heart of his merciful God in delivering his message, and, perversely, he is even chagrined at his success in turning the Ninevites from their wickedness!

          We then see the last unit of Jonah’s course acted out in the last chapter of the book.  First, we see the compassion of God contrasted with the vindictiveness of Jonah as God “relented of the disaster he had said he would do to them” (Jonah 3:10), and Jonah was angry at God’s mercy.  God asks him, “Do you do well to be angry?” (Jonah 4:4), and Jonah’s lack of an answer is an implicit “Yes.”

          The next step is for God to show Jonah how sinful is his sense of values.  When Jonah builds a little arbor for shade as he self-righteously waits to see “what would become of the city” (Jonah 4:5), apparently without much charity in his heart for the inhabitants of Nineveh, God makes His final point with Jonah by supplementing the prophet’s shade with a vine, for which Jonah is glad.  But as quickly as it came, God caused it to wither, once again making Jonah angry enough to want to die.  God asks a second time, “Do you do well to be angry” over the loss of such an insignificant thing?  God drives home the absurdity of Jonah’s feeling more for the loss of a trivial comfort than for “a great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” (Jonah 4:11).

          We are not told whether Jonah took God’s lessons to heart and changed his attitude toward those he preached to, but we would do well to heed God’s lesson to His prophet: don’t be more wrathful toward sinful people than God is.


Elton_Higgs (1).jpg

 Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

 

         

         

Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Why Write an Autobiography

A Twilight Musing  

Recently I felt moved to write an autobiography.  You may ask why I think an account of my life is worth recording and who I think would (or should) read it.  Those are questions worth asking and answering, so I will proceed to do so.  (Perhaps we could call it my apologia autobiographica.)  My basic reasons for undertaking this task are three: (1) Everyone has a story, and the best time of life to tell it is from the vantage point of advanced years, and my four-score and one qualifies.  (2) An account of my life, if written from a Christian perspective, should be a testimony to God’s goodness and faithfulness, so it has the potential of being an encouragement to others.  (3) Recording the events of my life will provide some documentation for our children and grandchildren to understand better their relationship to the past.  And in a more personal way, I want to leave some information about myself that enables them to know me after I’m gone.

One of the stereotypical characteristics of older people is their being inveterate story tellers who patch together episodes in a kind of stream-of-consciousness manner.  I want to tap into this inclination to look back and recall events, but give it structure and thematic unity.  My theme would be to recognize, acknowledge, and give thanks for the many people whose lives contributed to the formation of my character and the development of my skills.  Some of these may be obvious and stand out, while others rendered their services so unobtrusively as to be easily forgotten.  A carefully written record will assure that even my quiet benefactors are recognized.  I remember, for example, the loving attention given to me and others by “Miss Addie,” my first Sunday School teacher.  She never drew attention to herself, but she introduced scores of little children to Bible stories and the love of Jesus over the years.  In contrast, my mentor and sponsor in college days was a larger-than-life professor named James Culp.  Dr. Culp took me under his wing and held out the vision of pursuing an academic career.  I worked as his student assistant in my senior year, and he nominated me for a graduate fellowship that paid my way for the first year of a doctoral program.  After I completed my Ph.D. and was employed as a college teacher myself, he continued to be interested in what was happening to me and rejoiced in my successes.  Miss Addie and Dr. Culp differed greatly in their visibility and the sophistication of their help to me, but I owe them both a significant debt of gratitude.

It has taken a full lifetime for me to come to the state of confidence I now have in the absolute reliability of God.  He has, so to speak, rolled up an overwhelming “track record” of meeting my needs and giving me the strength and resources to do the tasks to which He has called me.  Some account of these experiences is appropriate to share with others—not to brag about, but to give praise to God.  Some of my examples were epiphanies of God’s goodness and dependability, but others were more diffused blessings, like having godly parents who taught me the Word of God and moral responsibility, and having educational opportunities that fostered my intellectual development.  Prominent among the notable instances of God’s provision was His identifying an adult foster care home for our daughter, Cynthia, whose Huntington’s Disease-generated behavior had exhausted our mental and spiritual resources.  Thanks to our being unexpectedly connected by a politician with some influential people, Cynthia was placed in a foster care home within a week of the initiation of procedures.  I hope that more examples of both kinds of God’s good gifts will be of benefit to others and bring Him praise.

Nobody has requested that I write this treatise, so there is no guaranteed audience for it, but I hope that my children and grandchildren, in particular, will see its value once it’s done (a point in time that seems to recede farther the more I write!).  My efforts will have been rewarded if their eventual personal interest in this record morphs into a broader appreciation for the larger history that concerns us all.  Valuing the records of the past is a much-needed perspective in the present Western culture of chronological snobbery.  Our society places so much value on the present and on the supposed advancements of the future that the past seems irrelevant.  Whereas the truth is that we don’t even know who we are without some serious attention to understanding the past.  Even more important for Christians is the fact that their faith is founded in the history of God’s work with His people, and that history is the substance of the Gospel message.

In writing about oneself, it’s difficult to strike a balance between egoistic projection and transparent honesty.  I hope there is something to be gained in reading about both my supposed successes and my failures.  I will do my best neither to exaggerate the one nor to gloss over the other.  Beyond the mere relation of events, I want to present to potential readers some sense of how I see my life experiences and how my understanding has changed over the years.  Of one thing I’m sure: For my having reached this point in my long journey with mind and body pretty much intact, God is greatly to be praised.  I hope that my account of that journey will supply more evidence of His goodness.


Elton_Higgs (1).jpg

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Finding God in the Darkness: What I Learned in the Hospital

A Twilight Musing

          I recently went through nine days in the hospital being treated for severe pneumonia. It was the longest hospital stay of my life, and it was extremely stressful, both physically and spiritually. But it was revealing as well. I learned that Satan will take advantage of us when we are most vulnerable, and that God can and will cause us to grow spiritually when we are subjected to unavoidable interruptions to our comfort.

          The onset of my crisis was quite sudden. Although I had already had a visit with my primary care physician and received an antibiotic to combat my infection, a return visit quickly turned into a fast trip to the emergency ward and immediate application of measures to keep me from lapsing into a life-threatening condition. I was subjected to an intense regimen determined by the medical professionals, and I was merely carried along on its tide. Needles were inserted, and IVs attached. I was pumped with fluids and antibiotics, subjected to prescheduled vital sign checks, and perpetually tethered to a bunch of tubes that had to be hauled along whenever I got out of bed. Had I been knocked out, I would have not known what was going on, but I was awake most of the time and had to grab naps when I wasn’t being waked or poked or prodded by nurses and their aides.

          The first two nights after being admitted were the most trying. Because of the medications being administered, I was hypersensitive to physical and psychological stimuli, so that during those two nights I felt a palpable presence of Evil, and I had to battle fear by calling out to God to deliver me from it. During the initial nights I had a frightening sense that I was being subjected to the equivalent of an endless loop of bizarre dreams, like clips from a horror movie. Something was messing with my mind. But God answered my prayers and gave me the strength to regain some spiritual equilibrium after a couple of days. During that first part of my stay, I felt myself enveloped in a kind of heart of darkness (a la Joseph Conrad). I didn’t feel God’s Presence, but I kept hanging on to my intellectual conviction, reinforced by long experience, that God was present and that His Love was working on my behalf. In that situation, I could exercise choice only in how I reacted to the medical regimen I was being subjected to.

          Strategically, I had to be content with short naps, rather than extended periods of sleep. Once I accepted that process, I found peace in not expecting more. One of the nurses talked to me in the middle of the night, after I had complained about being unable to sleep because of all the sounds and activities around me. She explained how my (and other patients’) expectations in a hospital stay need to be brought into line with hospital objectives and practices. “Most people come to a stay in the hospital expecting to rest, whereas the purpose of a hospital stay is to be cured of your illness. Once that is accomplished, we send you home to rest.” That would seem to be analogous spiritually to the instruction of Jesus (see Matt. 6:25-34) not to worry, to trust God for sufficiency in all that we need, and to experience the peace that that trust brings.

My encounter with Darkness during these nine days in the hospital was unique in my experience, and I want never to repeat it. Nevertheless, it gave me a new perspective on the Christian’s struggle with Evil. Darkness can be a very effective teacher, but its lessons require a radical sacrifice of our comfort.


Elton_Higgs (1).jpg

 Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

 

Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Three Poems on the New Year: Perspectives on Time

Photo by  Alex Guillaume  on  Unsplash

          The measurement of time is so ingrained in our society that we take it for granted.  On a daily basis we have schedules that mark the beginning and ending of assigned or chosen tasks.  On a larger scale, we track the progress of each week, month, or year.  Our annual celebration of the transition from one calendar year to another invites a summary and evaluation of what has been accomplished or merely taken place in the past year.  In a more personal way, we celebrate birthdays as milestones in the progress of our lives.  Underlying all of this measurement of time is an awareness that we humans, along with our social and political institutions, have limited lifespans.  We are all on the path to death.

          It has not always been so.  When God created the Earth to be an environment for living things, especially for his ultimate creation, human beings, there was no sense of limited life, and so no need to measure time.  But all of that changed when Adam and Eve chose to disobey God, thereby incurring the promised penalty of death.  Very quickly after the two of them were banished from the timeless Garden of Eden, the narrative about their offspring began to be marked by the passage of time: how many years between the births of their children and how old each person was when he died.  How different the human and divine perspectives on the passage of time had become.

          I have imagined in “Adam’s first New Year” how he might have ruminated about his new perception of the passage of time on the anniversary of his and Eve’s expulsion from Paradise. In this monologue, Adam, though keenly aware of the sad new world he and Eve have brought about, realizes that God is still with him, transcending His own edict of judgment, just as He had done earlier when He clothed the just-realized, sin-conscious nakedness of the pair. 

Adam's First New Year

 

Adam paced the field

Made rough by tilling,

Unwilling ground since God

Withdrew His Presence from it.

The sun itself, now cyclic,

Gave only partial beams

To warm the stubborn soil.

 

"No need in Eden's bounds

To think of ebb and flow,

Of patterned change

Which gives us markers

For the progress of decay;

But now each day reveals

That something more of what we were

Is lost,

And nights accumulate

Until the sun comes back

To mark the point where death began.

 

"That day, I made a world

Where beginnings add up to ends,

And cycles are incremental.

Can God be heard in such a place?

Can timeless Love be found

Where time feeds hateful death?

I know only that breath,

Though shortened now,

Is still from Him;

And though I sweat for bread,

He feeds me yet."

 

            The next two poems show the same paradoxical way that God goes beyond our

time-limited understanding of the flow of events.  He sees without the restrictions of past, present, and future.

Tying Up Loose Ends

 

Accumulating year-ends is a purely human occupation:

Piling up tinsel monuments

And stacking shards of shattered plans.

Only the illusion

That things which matter have beginning or end

Spurs mortals to wrap up one year

And open another.

 

Celestial perception

Tolerates imperfection,

But gently urges us not to mistake

Our clocks for absolute.

We will accept, then,

The fragmentation of experience,

And search for the splices of God

By which the worst of the past

And the promise of the future

Are always joined.

           

            Finally, I offer a poem that reflects the perversity of our fallen wills in opting so often for the immediate, but temporal, pleasures of our mortal world, rather than the eternally significant treasures of God’s grace.

Bankrupt

Borrowed time

Is what we all live on.

Profligate spenders,

We purchase the gauds and trinkets

Of Vanity Fair.

We prefer our own

Purchased pain

To the gift of suffering

Which is beyond our means;

Our own indebtedness

To the solvency of Grace.

 

Kyrie eleison,

Christe eleison!

 

Lord, have mercy!  Christ, have mercy!  Grant us the eyes of eternity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Incarnation: The Intersection of Two Universes

Gerard_van_Honthorst_-_Adoration_of_the_Shepherds_(1622).jpg

A Twilight Musing

The word “incarnation” gets a lot of use this time of year, and like most frequently-used terms, its full meaning tends to get lost in its commonness. Literally, it means “being manifest in bodily form,” and it can refer to any disembodied entity assuming physical shape. However, when Christians say “The Incarnation,” they are of course talking about the Son of God being born and living out an earthly life as a human being. That bare fact would be astounding even if God had taken human form in the perfect world of the Garden of Eden; but His being incarnated in a world corrupted by sin betokens a cosmic intersection between changeless Divinity and the ever-changing sin-diseased heavens and earth. When the apostle John wrote the prologue to his Gospel account (John 1:1-18), he called the part of God that took human form “the Word,” which “was God” and was “with God” (v. 1) before He “became flesh and lived among us” (v. 14). Deathless Eternity was enveloped by mortal flesh, locking them in a battle from which either Eternal Life or endless Death would emerge victorious. Praise be to God, we know the outcome of that battle won by the Savior Jesus, whose incarnated flesh suffered death, but was raised in glory, the firstfruits of the victory over Death.

Both of the poems below reflect the process of the Word being encased in flesh, but then also emerging from flesh to become the Eternal Word again, having triumphed over Sin and Death. In the first poem, I have assumed a symbolic correspondence between the “swaddling clothes” in which Mary wrapped Jesus at His birth and the customary shroud in which His crucified body was buried. Although there was great rejoicing at Jesus’ birth because of the promises associated with His Advent, the lowly circumstances surrounding that birth indicated that His earthly existence would not fulfill the conventional expectations of powerful king and conquering hero. Just as His birth hid the death embedded in it, so His death was the womb of the Life embedded within it.

The second poem traces the same cycle of progress from the absolute and timeless Presence of God, to the extension of His Essence into the original creation of Earth, and finally to that Essence taking on human form, but without the corruption of sin. Through that Birth, Earth will be delivered from its corruption once again to embody the Essence of God’s original purpose for it, thereby empowering it to be the dwelling place for God’s eternal Presence.

"And the Word Became Flesh"

(John 1:1)

When Word invested in flesh,

No matter the shrouds that swathed it;

The donning of sin's poor corpse

(Indignity enough)

Was rightly wrapped in robes of death.

Yet breath of God

Broke through the shroud,

Dispersed the cloud

That darkened every birth before.

Those swaddling bands bespoke

A glory in the grave,

When flesh emerged as Word.

Take up this flesh, O Lord:

Re-form it with Your breath,

That, clothed in wordless death,

It may be Your Word restored.

1985

Immanuel

In God's Presence

Is the essence

Of perfect earth;

In one birth

Knows all earth

The essence

Of God's Presence.

Elton D. Higgs

Nov. 12, 1977

May the wonder of the Word becoming flesh be made real to each of those who rest in its redeeming power; and may each of those inhabited by the Spirit of Christ know with assurance that “this flesh . . . clothed in wordless death” is being transmuted to the “Word restored.”

 

Image:"Gerard van Honthorst - Adoration of the Shepherds (1622)" by Gerard van Honthorst - Google Art Project. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gerard_van_Honthorst_-_Adoration_of_the_Shepherds_(1622).jpg#/media/File:Gerard_van_Honthorst_-_Adoration_of_the_Shepherds_(1622).jpg

Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

For a Friend Battling Darkness

A Twilight Musing

I just finished an astoundingly blessed conversation with a dear friend and brother in Christ who is in the midst of a struggle with severe depression.  I am aware of the danger of being presumptuous in trying to help someone negotiate depths of horrible feelings that I have not gone through myself, and I can justify it only by believing that in our conversation God was at work spotlighting truths that go beyond either of us—truths that are the bedrock of the relationship that God has with us through Christ.  In that spirit of belief, I will honor my friend’s request to put into writing the thoughts that God prompted during our conversation, so that both of us can refer to them later.

My friend (I’ll call him Peter, since the apostle of that name also experienced deep darkness when he realized he had denied his Lord) had already in an e-mail told me that he was having a really hard time, so after a couple of days I felt strongly urged to follow up that communication with a phone call.  Peter was more than ready to hear from me and to share more of what he had been experiencing.  It turns out that much of his present darkness hinges on unresolved guilt regarding his long-term attempts to care for and help his brother (let’s call him Andy), who, even now, when the two brothers are approaching the end of their two lifetimes, continues to be recalcitrant, angry, and accusatory in response to whatever is done for him.  Peter feels he is and has been a failure, and he can’t get out from under the guilt.

He said that a counselor had suggested that he, through an act of will, detach himself enough from the situation to imagine hiring someone to care for his brother, not just physically but to minister to his deeper needs.  What would be the job description and statement of expectations?  If the worker did everything imaginable to help Andy, and still failed to get the desired results, would he be blameworthy?  If not, should Peter hold himself any more responsible than he would hold the worker?  We agreed that this is a good technique to use, and that it can help Peter to see his situation more objectively.  But the problem—and the answer—goes deeper than that.  Battling the darkness of guilt and depression requires embracing the Light, even when you don’t see it.

I reminded Peter of two things: the supremacy of God’s Light over the Devil’s Darkness, and the function of darkness in helping us to see the Light.  As to the first, the apostle John, in the first chapter of his Gospel, tells us that through Christ, “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).  The Devil is called the “Accuser of [the] brothers,” who “accuses them night and day before our God” (Rev. 12:10).  But even more relevant for us personally is the fact that he accuses each one of us, not merely to bring sin to our attention (the Holy Spirit also does that), but to speak the dark lie that the sin is so bad that we are unforgiven by God.  But Satan is not only the Accuser, he is also the embodiment of falsehood, the great Liar.  And his most effective agent for falsehood is unresolved guilt.  So Peter (both in the Bible and my friend) needed to realize that the darkness of guilt he is experiencing is a direct work of the Adversary, the Father of Lies, the Master Accuser.  It is a bedrock truth that in the Light of Christ the Savior, we are forgiven, and the only function of guilt in that realization is to lead us back to the incredible truth that we are forgiven.

That leads to the final point I felt needed to be articulated: It often occurs that one doesn’t realize the overwhelming beauty of the Light until he/she is enveloped in the darkness.  I think I can do no better than to reproduce a poem that I wrote years ago. It expresses a truth that goes deeper than my wisdom can take credit for.  I like to think that God knew when he gave it to me that it would speak to “Peter’s” predicament.

Shadows

Shadows lengthen, deepen, merge.

Darkness is all, and I am there.

No thought of shadows when

The sun is full, for then

They merely accent the brightness.

When all is shadow, love may thrive,

Though hope be dim; when all is bright,

Shallow bliss holds sway.

Even the Arctic is both night and day.

Darkness gives more to defining light

Than light to the understanding of dark.

I will see the shadow grow,

And dwell in it even, to know

That light is its own verity,

And darkness but an island in its midst.

 

                         --Elton D. Higgs

                           (Dec. 31, 1974)

 

Image: "Wintertime is candletime" by Groman123. CC license.

Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)