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St. Jack

By the Rev. Zachary Bartels

I’ve shared with you my semi-obsession with Michigan lumbering history. Some people think that it’s a weird thing for a pastor to be interested in. They’re half right. I mean, lumberjacks were notorious for indulging in all manner of vice when they returned from camp. Yet, at the same time, they lived by the “timber feller code,” which meant that they never let someone go hungry or suffered someone weaker than themselves to be victimized in any way.

Besides, what makes lumbering history so interesting is the lumberjacks themselves. It’s not dates and places that make it fun; it’s all the personalities involved. So, in a sense, I’m drawn to pine lumbering history in the same way I’m drawn to biblical history. It’s not knowing that the Assyrian exile took place in 722 B.C. that gets my blood pumping about the Bible; it’s the very real and colorful people that we encounter in the pages. People with real strengths and real flaws, like David, Samson, Deborah, Joab, and Benaiah (what do you mean who are Joab and Benaiah?! You better re-read II Samuel and I Kings). And don’t forget Peter, who was perhaps the wildest of the bunch. Compared to some of those people, my favorite lumbermen are pussycats.

One of my favorite personalities of the Michigan pine forests and lumber towns is Silver Jack Driscoll. He was a Canadian who came down to head up lumber camps in the Saginaw Valley and Muskegon. He was a hard worker and a tough customer, known for raising his share of sheol during the off season. But apparently he also had a bit of a spiritual side, as evidenced in the 1880s lumber camp song known alternately as “The Lumberjack’s Revival” and “Silver Jack the Evangelist.” This is one of my favorite poems. I hope you enjoy it.

I was on the drive in ‘eighty
Working under Silver Jack,
Which the same is now in Jackson
And ain’t soon expected back.

There was a chump among us
By the name of Robert Waite,
Kind of slick and cute and tonguey,
Guess he was a graduate.

He could gab on any subject
From the Bible down to Hoyle,
And his words flowed out so easy
Just as smooth and slick as oil.

He was what they called a skeptic,
An’ he loved to sit and weave
Highfalutin’ stories
Telling what he don’t believe.

One day while we were waitin’
For the flood to clear the ground,
We all sat smoking cheap tobacco
And hearing Bob expound.

“Hell,” he said, “is all a humbug.”
And he showed us clear as day
That the Bible was a fable,
And we ‘lowed it looked that way.

Miracles and suchlike
Were too thin for him to stand;
And for Him they called the Savior,
Why, he’s just a common man.

“You’re a liar!” someone shouted,
“And you got to take it back!”
And then everybody started;
‘Twas the voice of Silver Jack.

He cracked his fists together
An’ he stripped his duds an’ cried,
“Twas by that there religion
That my mother lived and died;

“An’ though I haven’t always
Used the Lord exactly right,
When I hear a chump abuse him,
He must eat his words or fight”

Now Bob, he was no coward
An’ he spoke up brave an’ free,
“Stack your duds and cut your capers,
You’ll find no flies on me.”

They fought for forty minutes
While the boys would whoop an’ cheer
When Jack spit up a tooth or two
Or Bobby lost an ear.

But Jack just kept on reasonin’
Till the cuss begin to yell,
And Bob ‘lowed he’d been mistaken
In his views concerning hell.

Then Jack he got Bob under,
An’ he slugged him onc’t or twic’t,
An’ Bob straightway acknowledged
The divinity of Christ.

Then the fierce discussion ended
An’ they got up from the ground,
And someone fetched a bottle out
And kindly passed it ‘round.

And they drank to Jack’s religion
In a quiet sort of way
And the spread of infidelity
Was checked in camp that day.

What makes that so funny? The thought of a burly, crass cuss of a lumberack defending the claims of Christianity in a rough and tumble no-holds-barred fight. Really, I don’t think ol’ Jack got it. Apparently, his mother should have catechized him a little better in the faith. Then again, Jack’s in good company. There are lots of those fiery personalities in the Bible who wanted to defend God with punches, kicks, and broken teeth..

St. John was all about calling down fire from Heaven to consume a Samaritan village, simply because they wouldn’t roll out the welcome wagon for Jesus and his disciples. And then there was his buddy Peter and that little matter of chopping off Malchus’s ear when the mob came to arrest Jesus (removing ears seems to be a habit that St. Peter and Silver Jack have in common). This misguided response to an attack on Jesus is at the same time funny and sad.

I admit that I’ve responded along those lines on “God’s behalf’ (when I “hear a chump abuse Him.”) Haven’t ripped off any ears or anything, but there was the time in high school when my buddy BJ used the name of the Lord Jesus as if it were a four-letter curse word. To be fair to myself, I warned him once before popping him one. Looking back, that was about the worst witness I could have possibly lived out in that situation. “Here’s a knuckle sandwich, compliments of the Prince of Peace.” Huh?

That’s a very human way to respond. And it needn’t involve physical violence to be off-base. How many times have I responded with a cutting insult (either expressed or implied) when someone denigrates my faith? How about you? How many times have I used weapons—not a sword, but an over-bearing sense of manufactured guilt or fear-mongering to shove someone into a corner and make them see how wrong they were (never mind that they’re really no more convince than Robert Waite when he "re-considered" the Divinity of Christ).

Granted, our Lord Jesus often preached about the reality of the coming judgment and used that as a wake-up call to people who needed to put their faith in Him. But with Jesus, the last word was always about grace, mercy, and love, It’s easy to be an “undercover Christian” until someone insults the faith either in word or deed...then come out swinging. It’s a lot harder to consistently send the message that Jesus has changed my life and saved me from my sins, and he can change anyone else too if they’ll put their faith in him.

The loud, incensed, affronted Christian is a picture that I believe does more harm than good in the long run. Sure, there is a time and a place for us to point out injustice or warn of God’s coming wrath (in humility), but if we’re really about love, grace, and mercy, we’re not going to be sucked into a tit-for-tat exchange; an offended, stinging counter-barb designed to cut down the opposition; or a smug, dismissive “well you’re a sinner, so what do you know?” retort.

Because—Joab, Silver Jack, and pre-Pentecost Peter are all interesting personalities, but they’re not exactly good role models, not of faithful discipleship.


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