“But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”-1Corinthians 2:14
Lately, there has been an awakening in my heart to the existence of the “Natural Man.” As Paul wrote in Corinthians, the natural man is unable to perceive the things which are of God, for they are foolishness to him.
Tonight, while on the “dreadmill,” the old Porter Wagoner song came on my playlist, “Fallen Leaves.” The beautiful melody began to play as the sunset out the recreation center windows bid the bitter, cold sunset adieu. It was then the voice of one spoke to me, reminding me of a natural man I had once known so long ago, and how his end was very much like those fallen leaves, “All the friends that he once knew are not around.”
It was a gray, windy, bitter-cold day. As I walked to the gravesite carrying my fiddle, I noticed there were but just three or four others walking up the hill toward me from their vehicles parked down below. We were at Oakwood Cemetery in Siler City. Preacher Bob Wachs was walking up with the others, mostly the men and women of the family that had hired the dead man to work for them. I don’t recall how I had been notified, but here I was, to do my part. When it came my time, I began to pull my bow across the frozen strings of my violin making the most awful sound. I had never played before in such bitter, cold temperatures and didn’t realize the impact it had on the tuning of my fiddle. Quickly, with nearly numb fingers, I found the proper place to recall the melody, and soon, the hauntingly fitting strains of Amazing Grace found their way onto our ears. The howling icy winds carried the sound away as quickly as it landed. The tiny funeral procession huddled, shivering against the elements while around us, solemn reminders of those gone on stood watch. Brown, withered leaves danced past as the strings played their mournful sound. The biting cold wind caused my eyes to tear up as I choked back the emotions. It was one of the hardest things I had done up to then.
Here lay in the ground, a man without friends or family to bid him adieu. It was like Porter had known the deceased man before us when he penned the lines, “All the friends that he once knew are not around. They are scattered like the leaves upon the ground.”
And so, I played one last song for my friend Robert, one more song to say goodbye.
Robert Johnson was as humble a human being as I ever knew. He lived in an old abandoned camper, the shell of which hadn’t seen the light of day in nearly half a century, so entombed was it from the dirt of the nearby chicken houses. Like the home in which he inhabited, Robert was usually as filthy from working in the poultry barns. His language was often as foul has his outer body, coloring much of what he said. He worked for a farmer as his hired hand, tending to the commercial chicken houses each day and night. Part of his pay was his housing, which didn’t account for much, but at least it was a dry place to sleep.
Our paths crossed when I began renting land from his boss on which I pastured my cattle. Often, I would pull in to the area where he lived to pick up my tractor to take hay to my cows, and there would be Robert sitting and resting in preparation for his next shift of either picking up dead chickens or checking their feed. The houses in which he worked were not up to the modern standards of today’s houses so that there was much more manual labor involved. Each time I saw him, he’d smile that big broken grin, and wave, “Howdy.” He was missing all of his front teeth. He never shared with me if they were missing from a single punch from someone’s fist or if they had rotted out from neglect. Regardless, his smile was one that you would not soon forget.
The more we spoke, the more Robert opened up and shared with me, no matter where we ran into one another. He would often hang out at the local grocery down in Goldston, sipping coffee, smoking his cigarettes, and just shooting the breeze. He told me of the old days of Siler City and how he had grown up, living on the “hill” as he called it. He would share with me some of the antics he had been known to play on folks back in the day. From looking at him, in his worn, dirty rags, you’d never guess he’d have the heart of a joker, but he did. He recalled how one time he took buckshot to a turkey shoot, and when the proprietors of the event weren’t looking, he loaded his shotgun with the heavy-duty ammo. When they gave the word to fire, Robert’s target disappeared from view, obliterated by the number two shot disintegrating it upon impact. He rolled with laughter at that point. When he told such a story, he would break into laughter, then begin coughing uncontrollably; the years of chain smoking catching up with him. It was always a bitter-sweet moment. When he had recovered, he recomposed himself and said with a smirkish grin, “They didn’t like that none too good,” and then broke into another round of chuckling and coughing.
After my family got to know of Robert, we’d make an extra plate for him on holidays. He didn’t have any family that anyone knew of, so we’d take it down to him at his shell of a home. He was always grateful for the hot plate of food. He’d smile that broken grin and hold the food up to his nose and sniff, “Mighty fine, mighty fine,” he’d exclaim, then he’d squeak out in a long southern drawl, “Thank you, …you didn’t have to do that.”
Once in a while, when I’d catch him taking a break, I’d take my fiddle down and play him a tune or two. He liked old-timey music, so I shared with him when I could. While I played, he’d rear back on an upturned five-gallon bucket in the garage next to his home. He’d close his eyes and take another draw on one of his camels, and then wash it down with a long drink of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. He’d smile that chasm of a grin and exclaim, “Mighty fine, mighty fine.” I would usually close his one-man show with Amazing Grace. He would lean his bucket back down square on the ground and solemnly remark, “That was beautiful, just beautiful.”
Robert was as much a natural man as I had ever known. His world was only that of which he cared to obtain through his flesh; his love of beer and cigarettes. Back in that day, no matter how much I offered up faith to him, he never cared to discuss it in depth. To him, the scriptures were just words written on paper in a book that he didn’t have time to open. He believed in God, but that was about as far as he would go. The natural world was all he knew. He could never break free from the simple pleasure of the flesh, no matter how fleeting their effect. Had he been able to do so, he might have found a new body, a new life, one which elicits awakenings to the glory of God. He would have found a place; a sensation that far exceeds anything here on earth. Yet, like the song, he passed from day to day, paycheck to paycheck, stuck in a life that appeared defeated. His story could easily be summed up in these few lines, “Some folks drift along through life and never thrill, to the feeling that a good deed brings until it’s too late and they are ready to lie down, there beneath the leaves that scattered on the ground.”.
On one of those occasions I pulled into the tractor shed area to pick up something from my tractor, I found Robert sitting on a bucket, looking more worn than usual. His leg had a large bandage around where something had cut through his clothing and into his flesh beneath.
“What happened to you,” I asked, curious to know what had slowed him down?
“Oh, nothing,” he said, “It’s just a cut I got on one of the feeders in the chicken house.” He continued on with something else, not worried about the wound. The thought of cleanliness and infection crossed my mind, but I didn’t give it another thought. Not long afterward, I heard that he had been taken to the hospital after passing out at the chicken house. I was told that he had a pretty serious infection from the leg wound I had seen. He continued on in the hospital for quite some time but eventually was released. I’m not sure if he wasn’t truly healed, for not long after being released he was back at the hospital after collapsing once more.
This time, he never returned alive.
We buried Robert in the cemetery located on the hill where he grew up. It was almost fitting. He had come full circle in his life, seemingly alone, but now united with the world in which he lived; the earth. The memory today matched the next few lines in the song, “Lord let my eyes see every need of every man, make me stop and always lend a helping hand, then when I’m laid beneath that little grassy mound, there’ll be more friends around than leaves upon the ground.”
One more gone that we might have never known but save that he never found a way to rise above his natural being. How much greater a journey he would have found had he not been like those leaves scattered on the ground. How much greater would his eternal life abound, had my friend’s soul been united with our Savior’s grace, and then his soul would have not been gone down, but risen with those on high, to live forever not in, but above the ground.
Tonight, I pray that on that final judgment day, Robert will have been saved by the grace of God and that we shall someday meet again. I know it’s possible, for with Christ all things are. As the scriptures say, “Even unto them that believe on his name,” may become the sons of God.
Believe on His name.
This much I pray.
Thanks be to God.
The birds and flowers that were here now can’t be found
All the friends that he once knew are not around
They are scattered like the leaves upon the ground
Some folks drift along through life and never thrill
To the feeling that a good deed brings until
It’s too late and they are ready to lie down
There beneath the leaves that scattered on the ground
Lord let my eyes see every need of every man
Make me stop and always lend a helping hand
Then when I’m laid beneath that little grassy mound
There’ll be more friends around than leaves upon the ground
To your grave there’s no use taking any gold
You cannot use it when it’s time for hands to fold
When you leave this earth for a better home someday
The only thing you’ll take is what you gave away.”- Porter Wagoner