I’ll be staying home for the Thanksgiving holiday this year so on Saturday I took a quick trip up to southeastern Oklahoma to spend a few days with my folks. Everyone else in my clan had stuff to do so I made the trip alone.
As a recluse by temperament, I always look forward to the prospect of a three-and-a-half hour drive with only AM talk radio and small-town FM stations for company. Though my bride can’t comprehend it, and takes it on faith that it is so, a long lonely drive is actually my idea of a good time.
There is one non-commercial FM station that I can only pick up for about 45 minutes once I enter the foothills of the Winding Stair Mountains. I know I’m in range of the signal when, just north of Atoka, I cross Muddy Boggy Creek.
Yes, with a flair for redundancy, the namers who settled the area 100 years ago named a waterway, Muddy Boggy Creek. That must have been some seriously murky water. “Muddy on the palate, yet with prominent notes of bogginess lingering on the finish.”
Or perhaps it was a compromise solution brokered by an unsung Henry Clay figure, stemming from a heated conflict between the faction insisting on the name Muddy Creek and those equally passionate for the cause of Boggy Creek. This solution also eliminated the possibility of confusion with another “Boggy Creek” about 40 miles to the east, just across Arkansas border. The one that was featured in a movie that gave me serious creeps when I was a 13.
It didn’t help that the setting for the “true story,” the titular Boggy Creek lay about 40 miles from where I slept every night . . . out in our rural home . . . with the creek back behind the house. Yes, my happy, simple country childhood was complicated somewhat by an dark undercurrent of Sasquatch dread.
Oh yes, that radio station . . .
This particular station’s format is hardcore “Southern Gospel”–a style of music I enjoy (in small, targeted doses.) As a boy, we always had the TV on on Sunday mornings as we got ready for Sunday School. We would see the end of Oral Roberts pioneering show, (“Somthing GOOD is going to happen to YOU!”), and then the beginning of “Jubilee.”
Jubilee, as you know if you recall it, was a gospel singing and quartet music show that usually featured The Florida Boys, The Happy Goodman Family, The Blackwood Brothers, The Cathedrals, et. al.. This radio station takes me back to those days. It also reminds me of one of my first jobs in radio–doing news and traffic reports for a station in Oklahoma City owned by Jimmy Swaggart (years before all that motel-related unseemliness.) That station played preaching programs 9a to 4p but Southern Gospel music the rest of the time. Oh, and a Jimmy Swaggart song at 25 minutes after the hour every hour.
Since I discovered this station, I play a little game every time I listen to it. I keep track of how many songs deal with either the theme of heaven or the rapture.Â By my estimate, the average weighting is around 80%. In other words, four out of five songs played on this station are saying “Sure life is hard, bitter, painful and grim now, but hang on ’cause we get to go to Heaven someday,” OR ” Sure life is hard, bitter, painful and grim now, but hang on ’cause the Rapture’s gonna happen any minute now and get us out of this mess.”
Don’t misunderstand. I’m not mocking. This is “roots music” in the purest sense of the term. And these roots run back to the Great Depression. This style of music was born in subcultures and in times in which the hope of heaven by-and-by seemed to be the only prospect of relief.
Another thing that sticks out as you begin to analyze the lyrical themes is that an astonishing number of the “Heaven” songs center on “crossing over Jordon,” “chilly Jordan,” “muddy Jordon,” (but oddly enough, never “Muddy Boggy Jordan,”). The metaphor of crossing the River Jordan into the Promised Land seems to make an appearance in roughly half of all Southern Gospel songs.
A classic of this genre was actually written by the father of an old buddy of mine. Years ago, Bud Chambers (father of my friend, Danny Chambers, who is now a pastor and widely-known worship music artist) wrote a song called “One More River to Cross.” Indeed, there are about a dozen Southern Gospel and Black Gospel songs titled “One More River,” but this is the best, in my opinion. Jimmy Swaggart recorded it and it was my favorite of all the Swaggart songs my station was required to play at :25 after.
Here is Bill Gaither and his posse giving Bud’s song a go:
Swaggart’s arrangement was much more toe-tappy-er.
There is just one teeny theological problem with all these songs, and there are thousands of them . . . The crossing of the Jordon by the Israelites into the land of promise is not a type or shadow of the believer’s passage into Heaven. It is an Old Testament type of the believer’s passage into a good, new life via salvation. Passing through the river is a metaphor for baptism.
You see, for the Israelites there were battles to fight and ground to take on the other side of that river. There were giants to slay and cities to conquer and occupy.Â That’s not the case in Heaven. But it is the case for the Christian. “Occupy until I return,” Jesus told his followers right before he left Earth. (Luke 19:13)
Don’t take my word for it. Hebrews 3:16-19 makes this clear. You enter into the promised land at salvation. Oh, and while I’m being Mr. Southern Gospel Song Buzz Kill . . . Jesus never said there were “mansions” in Heaven . . . , but rather “. . . in my Father’s house are many dwelling places.” (John 14:2)
Look, I’m all for looking forward to Heaven, but the fact is, a theology that moves the land of promise to the sweet-by-and-by is a prescription for defeat, passivity and surrender in the gritty here-and-now. And that’s precisely what we’ve gotten.
And the visit with the folks? Thanks for asking!
Mom and Dad are doing pretty well considering the mileage (77 and 79 respectively) and the lack of proper, routine maintenance in their younger years (little or no exercise, all the wrong foods, etc.).
Even so, I believe they’re going to be around a good while longer (if the sasquatches don’t get them.) And when they do go to Heaven, it won’t be by way of a chilly, muddy river. They crossed it long ago.
And for that, I’m truly thankful.