Faith Works 1-19-13
The Bishop's Candlesticks
My first encounter with "Les Miserables" was not the book, nor the musical, but in a chancel drama for church.
It wasn't even a production I saw, but a still photo and the story that went with it from decades before I was born.
The picture in the First Christian Church history room was in black and white, of course, and showed a rather cobbled together bishop in mitre and robe, holding a staff, a couple of women in housekeeper's uniforms, an obvious stage set of table and chairs and flats behind for a wall, with an angry looking man crouching forward in the foreground, almost ready to leap out of the picture.
And a pair of candlesticks on the table behind him.
The angry man was young, in the picture, but his face familiar. It was Red Clover, who was to me, when I first saw that photo, older than God.
Cloyce Clover signed my ordination certificate at Valparaiso, Indiana in 1989 along with other elders and clergy present on that occasion, and he died the next year at 90. But twenty years earlier (when, I now realize, he was only twenty years older than I am now, clearly nowhere near older than God), Red Clover taught me to pray. He was the first person I went out with to take home communion to shut-ins other than my dad, and Red Clover prayed as if God was a very respected friend who was right there in the room. His prayers didn't presume a casual acquaintance or an informal offhandedness, but they were personal, from him, to God, and drawing anyone else in the room into the conversation.
Red Clover was not always an elder, nor was he always on good terms with God. He had been a young man back in the 1920s, and as the Depression pulled people down in 1930, Red got drug into a corn auger. He lost a leg, shockingly high. Everyone told him his survival was a miracle.
Miracle was not how he saw it, he explained to me as we drove from one nursing home to the next, but a curse. And he cursed God. And found that drinking helped him curse God more fluently. He left the church, slept in on Sundays after cursing God Saturday night, but built his strength and kept on in school weekdays, and planned to get a degree in scientific agriculture at Purdue University.
He got good at working around his disability, and using his new artificial leg. Just about everything on the farm he'd done before, he got back to doing. And one day, he was atop a haybaler, powered and mechanized, back in the days before safety cut-offs and other such improvement. And he slipped.
From a perch up above, Red slipped into the mouth of the baler. Thunk, thunk, thunk, the arms of the device swung and chopped the thick heavy hay and shoved it deeper into the machine. He had no purchase on the metal chute, and slid on down. Thunk, thunk . . . chunk.
The baler's arms bit deep into . . . Red Clover's artificial leg, and stuck in the cork and wood and metal, jamming the equipment to a stop. He reached down, unstrapped his leg, clambered out, and at least when he told me the story, "hopped on one leg all the way to church, just so I could apologize to God properly."
Not long after, the Young Adult group was doing "The Bishop's Candlesticks" in worship, and they asked Red if he would play Jean Valjean; the picture tells the tale from there.
His story and that of "Les Miserables" will always be utterly intertwined for me.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County. Tell him about what you've seen recently in an old photo at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.