"The strength of a man's virtue must not be measured by his efforts, but by his ordinary life." - Blaise Pascal, Pensees 352
The scene is early August, 1998. Shelby's wasted and withered body lays in his hospital bed. The cancer, or perhaps the cure for it, had taken its toll. No morphine to cut the pain, this 81 year old man's family gathers around him to provide what comfort they can. His daughters, and their children and grandchildren come in from all over the country to make vigil at his side, knowing that the end will be soon.
In his younger years Shelby was a hard man. An over the road truck driver in the 40's, 50's, 60's and 70's, Shelby drove Highway 78 from Atlanta to Birmingham, then on to Houston, Texas. The days before the interstate system meant that Shelby had long hours of hard driving. For Shelby, hard driving also meant hard living. He knew the watering holes and used them often, frequently being thrown out of them for fighting. In the 40's and 50's this was what being a man meant, and Shelby was truly a man.
His family lived a couple hundred miles away, his wife Olive raising his four daughters as best she could, seeing her husband on weekends. His daughters knew the man on weekends, a father who drank as hard then as he did during the weeknights. He asked his teenage daughters to drive him to the tougher parts of town to the local watering holes to buy moonshine and other forms of liquor for him. The daughters grew up and moved on, still calling him daddy but never forgetting the man of their childhood.
His grandchildren faired some better. Never seeing him drink in front of them, Shelby kept his beer in the boat shed and would frequently slip off to cut the edge off of his day. The grandkids knew when Bigdaddy's nose was red, which it frequently was, he would be in a good mood.
In 1980, Shelby retired and came home to his wife and the remains of his family. The itch to be gone, though, continued, and Shelby took a small driving route for a local bank, driving daily between branches in a small Nissan truck provided by the company. From 6:00 am to 6:00pm five days a week Shelby was once again free to drive the roads.
His wife and family had been members of 8th Street Baptist Church for 40 years or better, but in 1980 Shelby began to attend regularly. He and his wife became friends with the long time preacher and his wife, the couples began to make trips together, Shelby, of course, acting as chauffeur. They traded their small house on 40th street for a small new house next to the preacher and his wife. During these years, his drinking became less and less, whether from the necessity of age, or the realization that a man can be defined by things other than how he holds his liquor (or fails to). His church attendance increased, and he began carrying his bible to church. This hard living man was granted at least a partial repreave. He could begin to repair his relationships with his wife, his daughters, and his grandchildren. And though not perfect, he made the effort even in the ordinary things he did.
Fifty one years earlier and half a world away, a Bedouin boy named Mohamed Ahmed el-Hamad was looking for some lost livestock in a mountainous region of the Dead Sea. While throwing a rock in a high cave, the boy heard the distinct sound of breaking pottery and went in to investigate. What he found was numerous unbroken clay pots through out the cave dating back some 2,000 years. But as if finding ancient pots was not enough, contained within those pots were the Dead Sea Scrolls - Jewish writings from the time contemporary with the times of Jesus.
The find was incredible. Eleven caves containing thousands of manuscripts. Ancient copies of Old Testament books, including one 27 foot scroll containing the entire book of Isaiah, commentaries on various books, pieces of other books, and a treasure map some believe contain the locations of the Temple's furnishings before its destruction in 70 A.D. All wrapped in linen and stored in ordinary, run of the mill, clay pots. The find advanced biblical understanding of not only Jewish thought at the time of Jesus, allowing us to step back in time and walk with the people who Jesus walked with, and enter their minds to better understand the Scriptures.
What does the Dead Sea Scrolls have to do with Shelby?
But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. (2. Cor. 4:7).
When Paul spoke of treasure in jars of clay, he spoke not of scrolls hidden in the hills of Qumran, though he might have known about them. He spoke of us, and that while the outside vessel is ordinary and common, rough and chipped, the treasure inside is far surpassing that of the Dead Sea Scrolls. For in us, His people, there is a treasure that reveals the all-surpassing power of God.
It is amazing how God uses the ordinary, and perhaps the unlikely, to show forth His power. A hard living truck driver, with a body broken and emaciated by its many years of exposure to the elements, spoke simply "I love you" to his wife, daughters, grandchildren and great grandchildren and went to sleep. The pot was broken, and the treasure revealed. The Shelby of 1979 was not the Shelby of 1998 in that hospital bed. And the treasure revealed in those final days of his life revealed more than the all the Dead Sea Scrolls combined.
We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body. (2. Cor. 4:10-11).
My Bigdaddy did not teach me how to live as a man, but he did teach me how to die as a believer. And for that, I am thankful.