A Cowtown Beatdown
A young Fort Worth-area pastor was beaten bloody in an alley behind the church where he preached. He was a protege of the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Fort Worth, the notorious J. Frank Norris. Like Norris, this youngster, who wore a cowboy hat and boots with his Sunday suit, was using the pulpit to relentlessly attack the evils of alcohol, gambling, and houses of ill repute.
The 20th century was only in its late 30s at the time. Fort Worth was still a rough-and-tumble cowtown, where hard-fisted men made small fortunes dealing in the vices. On the backside of the Great Depression, these men would go to bloody measures to protect their investments, to brace themselves against the wolf howling at the door.
W.W. Baker, the young cowboy preacher beaten up by an unnamed group of men on the streets of Fort Worth, felt in the steel of the pistols and the bones of the bare knuckles with which they beat him the depth and sincerity of their commitment.
Baker was in his 70s in the late 1970s when I met him. He was by then the pastor of a small church in Oklahoma. I accompanied evangelist Ed Ballew to minister in an old-fashioned Revival in Baker’s church. I was still a youth in my freshman year at seminary. I was taken along to minister to the youth of the city while Ballew preached Heaven sweet and Hell hot.
One night, after the evening service, over coffee, which I had not yet learned to appreciate but sipped anyway, Baker told us that story.
He said that after the beating, he was despondent and afraid, and considered quitting the ministry altogether. But he got a visit from J. Frank Norris.
Everyone in Fort Worth knew Norris. He was, in fact, becoming a man of national renown. Norris was a hard-edged, tough-as-nails, give-no-quarter fire-breather, and he was in the process of building (at that time) the largest church in America while going toe-to-toe with the giants of the Southern Baptist Convention, all of whom he bucked and berated for the liberals he believed them to be.
Before he was done, Norris would be tried and acquitted of murder and arson. Norris shot and killed a nemesis right there in the pastor’s study of the First Baptist Church. He claimed self-defense and was acquitted. His church was set on fire and he was accused of setting the fire. He was absolved of those charges, too.
A word fitly spoken…
Norris said something to W.W. Baker to this effect, and this is not an exact quote, “Baker, I am attacked all day every day. My life is constantly under threat. I have been accused of terrible things, even in the papers. But I haven’t quit. I won’t quit. Never quit.”
Baker did not quit. Instead, he stuck around, kept preaching, and in the 1950s, established the First Baptist Church of Haltom City, Texas, just northeast of Fort Worth, and adjacent to it.
Baker said he was still a pastor in his seventies because of the encouragement he received from J. Frank Norris when Baker was still in his twenties.
The men who beat him up told Baker to quit that church and leave town. Instead, he stuffed a revolver in his belt and, when he ascended the pulpit the next Sunday, still visibly bruised from the beating, he lay it on the pulpit and preached his sermon. Steeled by Norris’ words, Baker named his assailants and their bosses in his sermon that morning. There was no small stir in the congregation.
You can imagine the impression this old preacher’s story made on me, as an aspiring preacher but still a boy.
Fists leave their marks for sure. But words! They leave an indelible mark. They make an impression that may last a lifetime.
Thinking in words
I was thinking this morning about words, which is funny because to think about words, you have to think in words, right?
I thought about the agility and utility of words in the English language. You can take one word and, depending on the context, say a variety of things with it. The same word can be instructive or exasperating, depending on its use.
For instance, take the word stress. If you stress something in a lecture or an article, you can enhance understanding.
You might say something like, “I can’t stress this enough.”
Then you highlight, reiterate, illustrate, and otherwise drive home a point.
On the other hand, if you stress over something, that is completely different than stressing it. You stress over it and, before long, you are stressed out. Stressing a thing can be instructive. Stressing over a thing can be destructive, causing anxiety, mental anguish, stomach upset, or worse.
I just can’t stress enough the damage stress can do.
See? Words can be agile and agitate at the same time.
The word I was thinking of this morning rhymes with stress. It is the word press.
You can be a member of the Press, which means you are a journalist or a reporter of some sort. You cover things like sports, politics, and fashion trends. You can press a button and make magic happen. It might make a doorbell ring or it might be like one of the keys I am pressing now and cause words, ideas, and nonsense to appear on a screen, one alphabetic letter at a time. If you are the President of the United States, it might mean nuclear war. Or you might just be calling Pizza Hut.
If you have an iron in your hand, you can press a shirt or put a nice crease in your drugstore cowboy jeans.
You can press someone for an answer.
And this is just the beginning. If you add a prefix to the word, now you have a new beginning, and it changes the meaning of the word entirely.
You can depress, oppress, impress, express, suppress, or repress.
No pressure, mind you. Just do what you want with the word. It can mean almost anything you need it to mean.
This is the beauty, precision, and power of language. You can be evasive or invasive. You can be exact or ambiguous. You can confess or confide. You can open up or shut down.
Words are kind, cruel, stimulating, exhausting, inspiring…
In Proverbs 25:11 of the King James Bible, wise king Solomon gives his appraisal of a good word at the right time: “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.”
I rather like the way the Holman Christian Standard Bible renders the text: “A word spoken at the right time is like gold apples on a silver tray.”
Whether it is a picture of a golden apple in a silver frame or it is an apple made of gold, displayed on a silver tray, the point is that it is a beautiful thing, a thing of great value, a thing to be admired and cherished.
To say just the right thing in just the right way at just the right time is beautiful and invaluable.
Timely advice, a word of encouragement, an expression of love. Someone comes along and says just the right thing at a critical moment, which may alter the very course of a life.
We can do everything from incomprehensible damage to eternal good just with our words. They are the most powerful tool, the deadliest weapon, and the best medicine we have. Why, then, are we so careless with them?
May I press upon you the importance of choosing your words with care? May I stress that finding the right word to express your thoughts in the best way can make all the difference?
I wish you could ask W. W. Baker about that.