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Written by R.W.Cothern   

The Banner of Love - Nov.1, 1964

Editor's note. This article was published several years ago, but by popular request we are reprinting it.... A. E. Richards.

It was a clear starry night. The full moon shed the softest light over the deep canyons and towering peaks of the Mongollon Mountains in Western New Mexico and it filtered down through the restless foliage of the quaking-aspens and through outstretched arms of glorious spruces and pines.  Deep down in 'Willow Creek Canyon and close to the water's edge, glowed a roaring campfire around which four men busied themselves with chunkling up the fire, watching the bucket of boiling coffee and a big skillet which was the center of attraction. You could not guess who or of what profession these men were by looking at them. The judge the preacher the doctor and myself had borrowed what clothes we could get into to make the wild trip and to fish away a couple of days for the change and rest.

The tall graying, handsome judge of the courtroom  yesterday, stood over the fire in slouchy garb, all spread-eagle fashion on one foot with shoe in his outstretched hand, trying vainly to dry his wet foot without scorching it. The mischievous little doctor sitting on the end of the bed-roll, smiled broadly from beneath his "bring-em-back-alive" hunting hat, while the preacher, with all the polish and gravity that London's Seminaries could instill in him strangely missing, posed awkwardly in his ill-fitting riding breeches, three sizes too large, and pantomimed a perfect gesture of pushing the gawky growing old judge into the fire. With the informality of such occasions I had lifted the skillet off the fire and was sampling a hunk of trout when I remarked "does anyone want to say grace before we eat?" The judge pulling on his wet shoe said "Do you know what Jesus said to the unfortunate fishermen who ate the fish they could not catch?" I was busy chewing... the preacher was sipping his coffee so the doctor answered, "Loveth thou me more than these?" Then the conversation drifted to personal religious experiences, and as the supper kindled, and the fire burned low, the preacher got us to agree to an old English custom to close our little fishing party with each member either singing a song; making a speech, or reciting a poem or praying a prayer.

After much discussion about who was to do what, the judge wrote on four pieces of paper, "song", "speech", "poem" and "prayer" and put them in his old hat. The preacher began to pass the hat around. Suddenly, the fun seemed to leave us... things were becoming very serious. We had pledged on our honor to carry it out, and you can see that they meant to do it even if it hurt ever so much. The preacher drew the "speech", the doctor drew the "poem", and the hat was reached to me... it was either to sing or pray. I haltingly drew my fate, and without looking at my paper I rose and passed the hat to the old judge. His face was a little pale as he opened his paper and saw written in his own bold hand, "prayer".

It seemed to be so still up in the trees; we threw some more driftwood on the fire, each man preoccupied with his own thoughts. Then according to agreement, the preacher mounted a large flat rock just to the left of the campfire which served wonderfully as a rostrum for the wild amphitheater that was ours. He began by saying: "I consider this one of the really great privileges of my life, to address you men here alone... just you and God." And he talked ten minutes on "Man's service to man." He warmed his subject and a surely richer oratory never echoed through the halls of Westminster Abbey than echoed that night through the canyon of Willow Creek. He stepped down and each man silently shook his hand. Then the little doctor was assisted up to the high rude stand and recited the great poem of Bryant, "Thanatopsis." It displayed a brilliant mind; perhaps one in ten thousand could do it. But what's more, he put his heart into it in a way that lifted our souls as on the wings of an eagle. He lifted his hands high and tears glistening on his cheeks, continues... " the hills, rock-ribbed, and ancient as the sun" and faultlessly reaching the long conclusion, dropping his voice to a whisper, he said, "Like one who wrap the drapery of his couch about him, and lies down to pleasant dreams!"

I sank lower and lower as I thought of the gravity of the situation. The speakers that has gone before had crowned the very hills with heaven's solemnity! Great and noble men. Comparing myself with the other three I felt so useless and helpless. Now I must do more than sing a song; I must sing it with the spirit and understanding, that only God can give and why should He give that to me? The judge sat pale and still. My heart went out to him. I sensed his inward longing for grace to carry out his part of this lottery, this bargain made among fishermen. Were we really going to fish in God's name... lovest thou me more than these? I mounted the rock very much as a criminal would mount the gallows. I has a few times sung at classes or conventions certain solos, thinking little about it, but this was the hardest audience I ever faced, the trial seemed more than I could possibly bear. Finding my voice I began singing "I am a Poor Wayfaring Stranger." The truth of it, and the way it fit my feelings seemed to give me strength and poise. There was hope in the words "I'm going there no more to roam" and I even felt a surge of joy as the echo came back down from Beaverhead Point, "no more to roam".  These men reached down from the rock and they shook my hand saying, "God Bless You".

Then the judge solemnly asked us to kneel for prayer... the only prayer I ever heard him pray. "O mighty God, the night is ours. The world is ours when thou art near. I don't know if I am truly thy child... I have tried so hard to know for fifty years. But O Lord, tonight I am willing to leave it all in Thy hands and say, "Thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven." A more touching, and powerful prayer I am sure I never heard. We seemed to soar on wings far above the hills. We must have reached the zenith of mortal's joy, and our hearts could not contain it. The hills seemed to shout His praise. The rocks cry out... the trees indeed clapped their hands in joy.

Late in the night I still lay sleepless. Why sleep when there was so much to enjoy? Now and then a tear drained from the corner of my eye and I could hear the old judge sniffing, trying to get rid of his tears, like a baby entering dreamland. The doctor and preacher snored peacefully from their cots. The moon went down behind the rugged heights of the mountain. The wind sighed through the graceful pines. It seemed so heavenly to be there with all the world shut out and seemingly with the Holy Spirit shut in. I arose and walked over to the Judge's cot and gently patted his shoulder as I saw him weeping. It was too much for him; he gathered me in his arms and gave full vent to his tears. His poor old heart just had to run over.

The next summer I read in the papers where he had died  very unexpectedly and when I returned to Silver City I sought out his grave on the rocky hillside and stood there a long time looking down at the wreaths of molding flowers and tried to thank God that our trails had crossed in the deep canyon of the wild Mogollons.

R.W. Cothern.

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