Saturday, July 21, 2012

In Memory of Old Teeth

July 21, 1968 marked the passing of my Papaw, the Rev. Kenneth Hicks.  He was a former hobo who struggled with alcohol before turning to Christ through the faithful witness of his wife, my Granny – the granddaughter of moonshiner Bill Birchfield.

Papaw represented a bygone generation of “old-time” country preachers, the kind who work up into an exhaling rhythm.  He was a hard preacher.  But his doctrine was perfectly orthodox and biblically literate.  Papaw personally knew men like Oliver B. Greene (The Gospel Hour) and Harold Sightler (The Bright Spot Hour) and was heavily influenced by their no-nonsense, straightforward presentation of substitutionary penal atonement and call to practical holiness in a life “worthy of God.”  A few years ago I listened to recovered audio tapes of his sermons and was pleasantly surprised by their clear and forceful logic.  No rabbit trails, no hobby horses, no sensationalism.  He represented the emotionalist tradition of Appalachian Christianity without succumbing to the baser elements of folk religion.

That’s not to say Papaw was an exemplary man.  By the grace of God he was what he was – a faithful preacher of the gospel.  But he, like all believers, proved Luther’s dictum of simul iustus et peccator.  He had his moments – like the time he and another preacher left my tired and thirsty dad, then a youngster, for hours while he set up for their tent-meeting.  Papaw wasn’t particularly great with small children, either.  I used to actually dread going to visit him because of his annoying habit of sticking his false teeth out at me.  He had a devilish sense of humor.  “Don’t want to see old teeth,” I used to mumble.

Foibles aside, when he passed away his home on the ridge above Harriman, TN was covered with hundreds of mourners – friends, neighbors, and former parishioners from his sundry pastorates.  On a sultry July’s dusk as I sat on the tailgate of an stationwagon eating Pop Tarts with a couple of pretty teenage girls I had never met before, I realized that my Papaw had had a far-reaching impact on the lives of many people from the Cumberland Plateau to the Blue Ridge.

At the end of his last sermon, preached the very day he passed, he asked the congregation to repeat this refrain:

Saved by the blood of the crucified one
All hail to the Father, all hail to the Son
All hail to the Spirit, the great three in one
Saved by the blood of the crucified one