April 2011 Archives

Subject as he is to the ready onset of Anglophilia, the ol' Bloviator should have known better than to watch "The King's Speech" just a few days before the high pageantry and ceremony of the never-to-be-forgotten Willy-Kate nuptials. Of the former, he will say that although he is surely no movie critic, by golly, he knows what he likes, and this film certainly belongs in that category. It features great performances by Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, and Helena Bonham Carter, but the story itself is also terrific in its own right and wonderfully evocative of the Brits at their chipper, stiff-upper-lipper best in confronting adversity of the direst and most painful sort. This account of Prince Willy's great-grandpa George VI's, struggle to overcome his horrendous speech impediment in the face of his Hitler-loving brother's decision to abdicate his throne rather than deny himself the round-the-clock charms of a divorced floozy from Baltimore could well be an allegory for his nation's coming struggle to survive the relentless pounding of Nazi bombs and rockets. In the end, both the King's and Britain's ordeal showed each in what Churchill rightly called "their finest hour."

This keep-on-keeping-on approach to life even comes through in the  storied ancestry of none other than your humble correspondent himself. One Thomas Cobbe was the "bailiff" or estates manager for 6,000 acres or so of land controlled by none other than Thomas Cranmer, who served as the Archbishop of Canterbury during the wild and crazy-- not to mention  tense and tricky--years of the sixteenth century when that horny ol' bastard Henry VIII broke with the Roman Catholic Church and founded the Church of England after the Vatican refused to grant an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon on the grounds that she had failed to give him a male heir.

The OB was shown first-hand evidence of the fallout from this parting of the religious and marital ways when the current owner of Tom Cobbe's old digs was kind enough to invite him in for a look-see at the huge oak mantles on the fireplaces, both of which gave evidence of the urgent gouging (ca. 1530) that had been necessary to the speedy and altogether prudent removal of  the conjoined symbols of England and Aragon that had once adorned them. This didn't make old Tom's position completely secure by any means, however, especially when Elizabeth Barton, a scullery maid in this very house, began sounding off about powerful and sometimes terribly frightening revelations supposedly bestowed on her by none other than Jehovah God his own self.

Unfortunately, the Big Guy happened to let it slip that he was really pissed at Henry's recent behavior, and naturally she felt compelled to blab about that to anybody who was fool enough to listen. Alas, not only did the upshot of the so-called Holy Maid of Kent's losing her head in this fashion turn out to be losing it in the other fashion too (1534), but several of her patrons and followers suddenly showed up shorter--and deader--as well. Not so, however, with great-great........... Grandpa Tom, who had already checked out on his own several years earlier with his head firmly affixed, but not before shipping loose-lipped Lizzie Barton off to a nunnery where she resided until Henry's goon squad finally caught up with her. Sadly, ol' Grandpa Tom and his wife Grandma Joan did not appear to part on the best of terms, for although he was generous in his bequests to local churches, he left her but a pittance and warned in his will that "if my wife is not contented with this portion and vex the executor, she shall lose and not have anything." (Ms. OB, please take note.) At any rate, a  little more than a century later, Tom and Joan's great-great-grandson Ambrose would shove off for Virginia, and as they say, the rest is history.

The OB feels that this same muddle-on-no-matter-what mindset that saw Grandpa Tom through his travail was on display everywhere in this morning's ceremonies in which an extremely attractive, make that "smokin' hot," couple who have been going at it like hamsters in a Viagra experiment for the last decade were magically and quite regally re-virginized and imbued with  all the innocence and hope that is supposed to accompany new beginnings. Within all that, there was a royal family, about as fractured and dysfunctional as they come, all of them haunted by the spectral presence of the princess/"mum" who wasn't there, celebrating a very personal event in front of roughly two billion of their closest friends. By rising to the occasion one more time, they were hopefully offering their subjects a rejuvenating "up" after what has been for them and their country fully a generation of "downs," marked not only by tragedy and scandal among the royals themselves but by Britain's faltering  economic fortunes, declining prestige, and a rapidly fading national sense of identity and purpose. With Queen Elizabeth's eighty-seventh birthday now come and gone and, bless his heart, the not-so-Bonnie Prince Charlie lurking awkwardly in the wings, British people have probably been wondering what it will be like to be saying "God save (us from) our king," but now there is at least the prospect that if they can somehow muck through his monarchy, happier days await with Willy and Kate.

There is often a tone of disparagement in the observation that the British do ceremony really well. (The same could be said of Hitler, after all.) Yet without letting them skate in the least for the manifold sins of their imperial past, I'd say that investing such meaning in the ceremony that we just witnessed helps to explain why they do a pretty damn good job with reality as well. Perhaps rather than look on their behavior with such puzzlement, we should ask ourselves why so many of us were up well before daycrack today taking it all in, with some even donning garb appropriate to the spirit of the occasion, if not the time.  

 We love to laugh at 'em, (though not nearly so much as they seem to love laughing at themselves) but regardless of how hopelessly archaic and cumbersome their dogged insistence on ritual pomp and fuss may seem at times, it marks them nonetheless as a people aware of being part of something older, bigger and ultimately more important than themselves or their concerns of the moment.    It used to be that a presidential inaugural, which once signaled at least a brief suspension of partisanship and a common renewal of faith in the sanctity and power of our governing institutions, conveyed a similar sense, but the OB finds such a  feeling increasingly hard to come by over here these days. The origins of our population are far more diverse than they were even fifty years ago, but our sense of kinship with Great Britain was always less about bloodlines than the feeling of common values and purpose between our nations and our people.  While we  all should  probably be thankful that royal weddings don't really happen that often, this one seems to have come along at a very good time for our friends across the pond, and if it encouraged a few Americans to search out their "inner Brit,"  then it's hard to see much harm in that either.


The ol' Bloviator requires neither the calendar nor his annual torment in pollen hell to clue him in to the season. No sir, the unmistakable constriction in his hind parts is more than sufficient to remind him that it is mid-April once more and time to open the old checkbook and let Uncle Sam have his way with it yet again. The atmosphere of this season of not exactly joyous giving seems almost superheated this year, what with the ongoing debate in Washington about tax reform, the new budget, and what is to be done about the gaping, gargantuan deficit that threatens not only to undermine our short-term prospects for economic recovery, but effectively cripple generations of Americans stretching far into the future. The S & P's recent hint that we may be on our way to becoming the world's largest issuer of junk bonds speaks volumes about the absolute urgency of beginning immediately to reduce government spending. Getting the hell out of Iraq and Afghanistan would be a great way to start, but entitlement programs clearly have to be on the table as well.   The latter admonition is aimed, by the way, not at the bleeding heart lefties but at the 70 percent of Tea-Baggers who claim to be such deficit hawks, but when polled opposed any cuts to Medicare and Medicaid, the single biggest budget-drainers we have.

As if our political environment were not polarized enough, here come more charges that the uber-rich contribute too little to our national coffers, to be followed, almost certainly, by counter complaints that the reverse is true, especially since nearly half of American households pay no income taxes whatsoever. The precipitant for this latest firefight is a new report based on IRS tax-return data revealing that in 2007 an American earning $500 a week paid 22 percent of that modest sum back to the feds, while another who earned $1 million a day wound up forking over only 16.6 percent of his or her slightly more substantial take.

In 2007 the top 400 households in the country averaged some $345 million in annual income as compared to a mere $47 million in 1992. In case you're interested, that's an inflation-adjusted increase of 399 percent. Over the same period, the effective tax rate on this highly select bunch dropped from 26.4 percent to 16.6, with only 33 of the top 400 paying taxes at the max rate of 30 to 35 percent. Part of the reason for this apparent discrepancy is the fact that while the payroll taxes paid by this group were too miniscule to matter, capital gains, which are only taxed at 15 percent, accounted for two-thirds of the top 400's haul in 2007 as compared to scarcely one-third in 1992. (By way of perspective, households in income percentiles 95-99 ($255k-$451k) paid an additional 1 percent of their incomes in taxes compared to the swells up at the very tippy-top.) Keep in mind, of course, that these numbers are for 2007, when capital gains were a lot higher than they likely would be after we tumbled into the current financial sinkhole.

There is also the very real fact that, even when paying at a comparatively lower effective tax rate, in 2008 the top 1 percent of taxpayers (above $383k) accounted for 20 percent of the adjusted gross income reported nationally but 38 percent of all federal income taxes collected. Meanwhile, the bottom 50 percent (below $33k.) received 13 percent of the income and paid but 3.0 percent of the federal income taxes. Moreover, roughly nine in ten of these bottom-halfers paid no federal income tax at all. 

 A lot of the misunderstanding on both sides of the tax reform debate has to do with terminology. For example, it is important to differentiate between the 45 to 47 percent of American households who pay no income taxes and the roughly 10 percent who pay no federal taxes whatsoever. Three-fourths of American workers actually fork over more in federal payroll taxes, i.e., Social Security and Medicare, than in income taxes. Certainly, it may be argued that these payments are merely fractional downpayments on deferred benefits, but take it from somebody who has been doing this for a while, there is certainly no guarantee that the benefits ultimately received will equal or exceed what an individual worker has contributed.

There is also the use of percentages, which can skew perceptions of how much (or little) one income group actually pays in comparison with another and also distract us from the importance of income absolutes, which means that even if, as a group, the super-rich are footing a disproportionate share of the aggregate national tax burden, as individuals they are still paying taxes at well below the rate that would be required to crimp their styles in the least. Recall from above that while 1 percent of all the people who filed a federal tax return in 2008 showed an adjusted gross income of more than $383, 000,  50 percent--That's right, one-half!--reported adjusted incomes less than $33,000. So, in the off chance you've never thought of it, there is one hellaciously big difference between what's left after paying 20 percent of $33,000 as opposed to 20 percent of $383,000.

Even in the best case scenario, restoring even the historically steepest tax rates of 90 percent on the really high rollers isn't going to solve the deficit problem in and of itself, and  the OB acknowledges  that, in actual practice, jacking up their taxes (which are now the lowest they've been since 1929--Does that date ring a bell?) will simply spur them to sink more money in tax-avoidance schemes and devices. He does not, however, give the least bit of credence--let him make it abundantly clear here, he means not the least bit--to the notion (embraced in the 1920s by the Coolidge/Hoover crowd who gave us the Great Depression and resurrected in 1980 by Ronald Reagan)  that the spending and investment benefits of cutting taxes on the rich will "trickle down" to the folks at the bottom of the economic pyramid.  First of all, I got a flash for you! If you're making $345 million a year, the chances are pretty good that, in addition to the entire contents of the Brookstone and Hammacher-Schlemmer catalogues, you already have all the oversized and over-decorated houses, ridiculously expensive automobiles, and ostentatious mega-yachts you want; so your consumer spending is typically not going to turn out to be the equivalent of a private mini-stimulus bill. If there were a means to guarantee that the tax savings on ultra-high incomes could be channeled directly to investments guaranteed to produce more and better jobs and expand opportunities across the board, the OB might  be willing to give that strategy a shot. Let's face it, however, whether your objective is becoming ridiculously rich or simply edging into the upper middle class, as America's identity as the world's greatest producer nation has gone straight into the toilet over the last generation or so, the key to accumulating wealth for a large swatch of our population has been buying and selling paper to which there is supposedly some financial value attached. This is precisely why "hedge-fund manager" and "filthy rich" have become well-nigh synonymous. Corporations have frequently enhanced the attraction of their "paper" for those with the highest disposable incomes by cutting back on payroll costs, either by further mechanizing, downsizing, or transferring jobs and facilities to more profitable operating environments beyond our borders. In short, as the chart below indicates, much as they did in the 1920s, during and since the Reagan era, tax cuts for the rich have done nothing more than exacerbate already extreme disparities in wealth, while the average American household has seen its income grow to the dispiriting tune of one-third of one percent annually.

growth-in-income-inequality1.jpg

             The OB has little patience either with the whining of people whose tax bills amount to little more than pocket change, or lifetime support programs for people who would not work in a pie factory.   He does feel though that  we should be slow to take any action that would exacerbate the already strained circumstances of the substantial and regrettably growing population of the fully employed "working poor,"  who are quite simply doing their damnedest simply to get by. Okay, so much for the top and bottom income tiers, how about the folks in what is a very sizable middle, which the OB guesses, includes him and the Missus? In fact, it's good that you asked, because the OB is willing to offer the Bloviator Household not necessarily as representative, but at least as a case in point to suggest that there are probably a good number of folks in the supposedly suffering middle-class who may not really be suffering all that much. As empty-nested baby boomers with not much in the way of the standard write offs, he and Ms. OB seem to get touched up by the I.R.S. for roughly 20 percent of their adjusted shekel count every year. Writing these checks ain't the least bit enjoyable, but for all our ritualistic complaining, we are certainly thankful that we've thus far been able to keep on writin' them and not be uncertain in the least  as to whence cometh our next meal or twelve-pack of Sam Adams (not necessarily in that order).

The OB's real point here--and I know you've been wondering for quite a spell now if he really had one--is that there is almost certainly a substantial group of Americans for whom a little bit of additional taxation would still be more of an irritation than an actual burden, especially if we thought our "contributions" would be complemented with legitimate spending cuts and utilized to make this country a better place not only for us and our kids but for those who would truly make the best of whatever opportunities it continues to provide.  For example, the aforementioned poll shows that even 45 percent  of  the rabidly tax-averse Tea-Baggers, not to mention 43 percent of Republicans overall and a whopping 63 percent of Independents think it might be OK for Uncle Sam to take a little bigger bite out of  those with incomes above $250,000.  Unfortunately politicians seldom make the effort to distinguish between what their constituents prefer and what they will accept.  Thus, with neither the moral credentials nor the moral courage to exhort us as a people to listen to, as Lincoln put it,  the "better angels of our nature, " our would-be leaders of all stripes can offer only the narrowly self-serving politics of exaggerated grievance and  ill-concealed greed that already lies at the center of the current impasse.


               

MIRACLE ALCOHOL.jpg

When a good friend sent me this now semi-viral  photo captioned, "Miracle in the Alcohol Aisle," I recalled immediately that Item #1 on my list of indications that a truly "New" South  (not to be confused with "The Rapture") has finally arrived is:  "The Baptists will start to make eye contact in the liquor store. "Then I flashed to the story of the minister who, when pulled over for driving erratically, assured the policeman that the cup resting on his console contained nothing but water. When the officer's examination ascertained that the vessel actually contained wine, the good Rev. broke into a huge smile and proclaimed, "Praise  God! He's done it again!" Naturally, the fact that the lady in the photo who is most definitely looking to wet her whistle with something a bit stronger than water has risen miraculously from her wheel chair also brought to mind the tale of the faith-healer who asked Mr. Jones, who suffered from a serious speech impediment, and Mr. Smith, whose broken leg had put him on crutches, to step behind a curtain at the front of the church while he used his special hotline to pray to God to heal them of their afflictions. Satisfied that he had gotten the job done, the preacher indulged his flair for the dramatic by commanding Mr. Smith to cast down his crutches and stand unassisted and instructing Mr. Jones to speak to the expectant congregation in a clear, crisp voice. The first sound was a decided "whump" followed by "Mither 'Mith just busted his AATH!"

By now my mind was positively whirring, suspended in a cyclone of preacher/church/religion jokes, not the least of them Lewis Grizzard's famous tale----which you probably have heard, but so what?----where the preacher repeatedly exhorts his flock to "Tell it all, Brother!" by confessing their darkest sins and elicits a progressively more disturbing series of admissions to drunkenness, adultery, gambling, thievery, and the like,  each confession affirmed from pulpit and pew with, "Tell it all, Brother, Tell it all!" Finally,  there remains but one visibly uncomfortable congregant who has kept silent about his worst transgression, but the resolute Rev. refuses to give up until he browbeats the poor fellow into revealing that he has violated the laws of man and nature with a goat, whereupon the entire church falls into an immediate and deathly silence until the utterly nonplussed preacher recovers sufficiently to advise, "Damn, Brother, I don't believe I'd 'a told that!"

For those truly unfortunate folk who think even a joke must have some larger meaning, the one here would seem to be that while God's forgiveness knows no bounds, the same is clearly not true for all of his mortal would-be followers. I've always thought that you could learn a lot about a society or culture by paying attention to its humor, which is usually generated at the pressure points where its laws and mores start to constrict and chafe. In this case, imposing  behavioral standards based on strict, literalist readings of the Holy Bible's pronouncements on the nature and consequences of sin simply asks for more than most humans are capable of delivering. Unable to abide by such a narrow and inflexible moral code, southerners and other citizens of quasi-theocratic societies who were forced to pay public obeisance to rigid religious dogma and ritual have frequently responded by mocking it in private. Since the aforementioned Baptists were and remain the predominant would-be moral enforcers in the South, they also bear the brunt of humorous derision as the kind of people who refuse to have sex standing up lest someone mistakenly assume they're dancing.

At this point, full disclosure demands that I exchange the third person for the first and admit that, in this case, I am making fun of myself as well my people, for though I have been a professing, if not  always practicing, Episcopalian for more than a quarter century now, the truth is that in a great many respects I will always be the Baptist I became even before I formally joined the church at age nine. My case is hardly unusual, I have found. It's certainly true that the Episcopal Church (whose communicants have no problem with eye contact thing, believe me) has traditionally been a favorite hangout for recovering Roman Catholics, but in these parts, at least, you won't have to skin many Episcopalians before you expose a wayward and occasionally still-discomfited Baptist lurking within. 

There are many reasons for this, I suspect. One may be that some of these refugees from the Baptist flock simply couldn't take anymore of those prolonged  "invitationals," where the preacher, mindful that he had not wheedled, bullied, or just plain terrified a new convert into coming down to the altar in a good while, asked the congregation to remain standing, "with every head bowed and every eye closed," while the choir softly hummed  just a few more stanzas of "Just As I Am" ("without one plea, but that Thy blood was shed for me") because the Lord has "laid it on my heart" that there was someone in the congregation who needed, in the worst way, and, indeed, that very day, to come to Jesus . When it became obvious that the Reverend was not going to dislodge a single sinner from his or her pew, he typically went to his "Plan B," and with the choir still humming and everybody still standing----including the sweet old ladies whose ankles were swelling so fast you could almost hear them----he asked anyone in need of a special prayer of supplication in his or her behalf to quietly raise a hand. People, I was present on many such occasions in my youth, and in the spirit of "Tell it All, Brother, Tell It All,"  I must confess that my curiosity frequently got the better of me, and I opened my eyes enough to check out whoever might be so needy as to seek divine succor. Although I'm not proud of what I did, I can say that I didn't feel particularly uplifted to hear the preacher say repeatedly, "I see that hand. God bless that hand," when I could see perfectly well that not a soul in the entire congregation had lifted so much as a pinky. This dubious tactic became so notorious, in fact, that it inspired a story of the Baptist minister who lost his part-time job as a lifeguard because his instinctive response to a drowning person's frantic signal for help, i.e., simply bellowing, "I see that hand! God bless that hand!" proved singularly ineffective.

In the end, I think I signed off on being a Baptist, in the active, participatory sense at least, because I just couldn't accept the idea of trying to win converts primarily by threatening them with the horror of eternal damnation when holding out the prospect of eternal and unconditional love was also an option. I don't miss hearing such sermons, which are, to say the least, frowned upon by the Episcopalians. Unfortunately, so are songs that were actually written with the idea that somebody might try to sing them someday. Hence, something I do and always will miss very much about the Baptist services are the wonderful, stirring, uplifting hymns that we used to sing before the preacher got up to condemn us as incorrigible sinners and warn us that if we didn't come down and profess our faith in Jesus on that very occasion, we might suffer a head-on collision exiting the parking lot and be hurled straight from our car into ol' Satan's 24/7 "Lake of Fire." Although the preacher had some powerful material to work with, for me it just didn't match up to the message of "Love Lifted Me." There was also "What a Friend We Have in Jesus," which also enjoyed a certain resonance outside the Christian faith, at least according to a Jewish friend who swore that as proprietors of a small-town department store in South Georgia, her father and uncle had been known to break out in this very  tune on Christmas morning as they shared a bottle of good bourbon and reviewed the season's sales numbers.

 My very favorite hymn, however, was actually "When We All Get to Heaven,"  which not only assured us that "the wondrous love of Jesus" had our backs but promised "soon the pearly gates will open; we shall tread  the streets of gold." Now that's what I'm talking about! It's also why one of the longest playlists on my iPod is labeled "Gospel." This might surprise----and I'd like to think, even please, some of my old (and truly beloved) Baptist brethren. I don't reckon I can risk showing them my playlists, though. Those things are displayed in alphabetical order, after all, and you rest in peace now, Doug Clark, I'm not even studying about deleting the "Hot Nuts."

PS. Once again, the folks over at LiketheDew.com have been kind enough to allow the Ol' Bloviator to share his musings with them. If you haven't paid them a visit yet, time's a'wastin'.

               

MIRACLE ALCOHOL.jpg

When a good friend sent me this now semi-viral  photo captioned,  "Miracle in the Alcohol Aisle," I recalled immediately that Item #1 on my  list of indications that a truly  "New" South  ( not to be confused with "The Rapture") has finally arrived is:  "The Baptists will start to make eye contact in the liquor store. " Then I flashed to the story of the minister who,  when pulled over for driving erratically,  assured the policeman that the cup resting on his console contained nothing but water. When the officer's examination ascertained that the vessel actually contained wine, the good Rev. broke into a huge smile and proclaimed, "Praise  God! He's done it again!" Naturally, the fact that the lady in the photo who is most definitely looking to wet her whistle with something a bit stronger than water has risen miraculously from her wheel chair also brought to mind the tale of the faith-healer who asked Mr. Jones, who suffered from a serious speech impediment, and Mr. Smith, whose broken leg had put him on crutches, to step behind a curtain at the front of the church while he used his special hotline to pray to God to heal them of their afflictions. Satisfied that he had gotten the job done, the preacher indulged his flair for the dramatic by commanding Mr. Smith to cast down his crutches and stand unassisted and instructing Mr. Jones to speak to the expectant congregation in a clear, crisp voice. The first sound was a decided "whump" followed by "Mither 'Mith just busted his AATH!"

By now my mind was positively whirring, suspended in a cyclone of preacher/church/religion jokes, not the least of them Lewis Grizzard's famous tale--which you probably have heard, but  so what?--where the preacher repeatedly exhorts his flock to "Tell it all, Brother!" by confessing their darkest sins and elicits a progressively more disturbing series of admissions to drunkenness, adultery, gambling, thievery, and the like,  each confession  affirmed from pulpit and pew with, "Tell it all, Brother, Tell it all!" Finally,  there remains but one visibly uncomfortable congregant who has kept silent  about his worst transgression but the resolute Rev. refuses to give up until he browbeats  the poor fellow into revealing that he has violated the laws of man and nature with a goat, whereupon the entire church falls into an immediate and deathly  silence until the utterly nonplussed preacher recovers sufficiently to advise, "Damn, Brother, I don't believe I'd 'a told that!"

For those truly unfortunate folk who think even a joke must have some larger meaning, the one here would seem to be that while God's forgiveness knows no bounds, the same is clearly not true for all of his mortal would-be followers. I've always thought that you could learn a lot about a society or culture by paying attention to its humor, which is usually generated at the pressure points where its laws and mores start to constrict and chafe.  In this case, imposing  behavioral standards based on strict, literalist readings of the Holy Bible's pronouncements on  the nature and consequences of sin simply asks  for more than most humans are capable of delivering.  Unable to abide by such a narrow and inflexible moral code, southerners and other citizens of quasi-theocratic societies who were forced to pay public obeisance to rigid religious dogma and ritual have frequently responded by mocking it in private. Since the aforementioned Baptists were  and remain the predominant would-be moral enforcers in the South, they also bear the brunt of humorous derision as the kind of people who refuse to have sex standing up lest someone mistakenly assume they're dancing.

At this point, full disclosure demands that I exchange the third person for the first and admit that, in this case,  I am making fun of myself as well my people, for though I have been a professing , if not  always practicing, Episcopalian for more than a quarter century now, the truth is that in a great many respects I will always be the Baptist I became even before I formally joined the church at age nine. My case is hardly unusual, I have found.  It's certainly true that the Episcopal Church (whose communicants have no problem with eye contact thing, believe me) has traditionally been a favorite hangout for recovering Roman Catholics, but in these parts, at least, you won't have to skin many Episcopalians before you expose a wayward and occasionally still-discomfited Baptist lurking within. 

There are many reasons for this, I suspect. One may be that some of these refugees from the Baptist flock simply couldn't take anymore of those prolonged  "invitationals," where the preacher, mindful that he had not wheedled, bullied, or just plain terrified a new convert into coming down to the altar in a good while, asked the congregation to remain standing, "with every head bowed and every eye closed," while the choir softly hummed  just a few more stanzas of "Just As I Am" ("without one plea, but that Thy blood was shed for me.." ) because the Lord has "laid it on my heart" that there was someone in the congregation who needed, in the worst way and, indeed,  that very day, to come to Jesus . When it became obvious that the Reverend was not going to dislodge a single sinner from his or her pew, he typically went  to his "Plan B," and, with the choir still humming and everybody still standing--including the sweet old ladies whose ankles were swelling so fast you could almost hear them, he asked anyone  in need of a special prayer of supplication in his or her behalf to quietly raise a hand.  People,  I was present on many such occasions in my youth, and in the spirit of "Tell it All, Brother, Tell It All,"  I must confess that my curiosity frequently got the better of me and I opened my eyes enough to check out whoever might be so needy as to seek divine succor. Although I'm not proud of what I did, I can say that I didn't feel particularly uplifted to hear the preacher say repeatedly, "I see that hand. God bless that hand," when I could see perfectly well that not a soul in the entire congregation had lifted so much as a pinky. This dubious tactic became so notorious, in fact, that inspired a story of the Baptist minister who lost his part-time job as a lifeguard because his instinctive response to a drowning person's  frantic signal for help, i.e., simply bellowing "I see that hand! God bless that hand!" proved singularly ineffective.

In the end, I think I signed off on being a Baptist, in the active, participatory sense at least, because I just couldn't accept the idea of trying to win converts primarily by threatening them with the horror of eternal damnation when holding out the prospect of eternal and unconditional love was also an option. I don't miss hearing such sermons, which are, to say the least, frowned upon by the Episcopalians. Unfortunately, so are songs that were actually written with the idea that somebody might try to sing them someday.  Hence, something I do and always will miss very much about the Baptist services are the wonderful, stirring, uplifting hymns that we used to sing before the preacher got up to condemn us as incorrigible sinners and warn us that if we didn't come down and profess our faith in Jesus on that very occasion, we might suffer a head-on collision exiting the parking lot and be hurled straight from our car into ol' Satan's 24/7 "Lake of Fire."  Although the preacher had some powerful material to work with, for me it just didn't match up to the message of "Love Lifted Me."  There was also"What a Friend We Have in Jesus," which also enjoyed a certain resonance outside the Christian faith, at least according to a Jewish friend who swore that as proprietors of a small-town department store in South Georgia, her father and uncle had been known to break out in this very  tune on Christmas morning as they shared a bottle of good bourbon and reviewed the season's sales  numbers.

 My very favorite hymn, however, was actually  "When We All Get to Heaven,"  which not only assured us that "the wondrous love of Jesus" had our backs but promised "soon the pearly gates will open; we shall tread  the streets of gold." Now that's what I'm talking about! It's also why one of the longest playlists on my iPod is labeled "Gospel." This might surprise-- and I'd like to think, even please--some of my old (and truly beloved) Baptist brethren.  I don't reckon I can risk showing them my playlists, though.  Those things are displayed in alphabetical order, after all, and, you rest in peace now, Doug Clark, I'm not even studying about deleting the "Hot Nuts."

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