In the mountains of Western North Carolina, just as Interstate 40 cuts a path Northwest for one last switchback pass through the Great Smokey Mountain National Park, a little stream known as Richland Creek first fills a tiny 200-acre man-made reservoir called Lake Junaluska before entering the Pigeon River toward Eastern Tennessee where it flows into the French Broad River.
On that mountaintop lake in 1979 — just days before his 62nd birthday — Carlyle Marney died of a massive heart attack. Twice a graduate of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, pastor of churches in Paducah, Fort Knox, Austin, TX, and Charlotte, NC, Marney was one of the best preachers of the 20th century. His sentences are strung together with the rhetorical mastery of R.G. Lee. His knowledge of Scripture and history and poetry and literature and art rivals that of W. A. Criswell. Indeed, a robust pastoral theology filled his every sermon with the love of Christ’s sufficiency. And while he corresponded and communed with men of renown, he ever suffered the little children at every turn.
I was re-introduced to Carlyle Marney last week while visiting the campus of Southern Seminary and have spent the last several days ordering out-of-print books and scouring the internet for anything I can find about him. And what a treasure trove there is, largely unopened and unexplored by Southern Baptists because . . . you know the National Council of Churches and Myers Park and all that. In fact, a fundamentalist preacher named Jack Hudson — founding pastor of the Northside Baptist Church in Charlotte — once wrote a little pamphlet entitled “Can the God of Carlyle Marney Save You From Sin?”
Apparently Marney smoked tobacco. Another reason to like him.
While in his mid-50s, Marney founded The Interpreter’s House, which takes its name from the roadside inn where John Bunyon’s Christian stops for a visit with the Interpreter, who shows him rooms of images that help him on his journey from the City of Destruction to Mount Zion.
Shortly before his death, Marney wrote out a prayer in his journal.
Have you ever sat with an open Bible and found yourself not able to read it for trying to stop the tears? Have you ever clasped your hands in prayer only to choke on your own words, unable to speak them? That’s what happened to me last night when I read Marney’s prayer:
If entering now the zenith of my brief arc around and within creation I should enter God’s grand hall tomorrow, called to my account for myself, I should offer this confession and defense if indeed I could do more than call down. But if able to give vocal response at all, I should say this, “Thou knowest, dear Lord of our lives, that for fifty of Thy/my years in ignorance, zest, zeal and sin I lived as if creation and I had no limit. I lived and wanted as if I had forever, without regard for time or wit or strength or need or limit or endurance and as if sleep were a heedless luxury and digestion an automatic process. But Thou, O Lord of real love, did snatch my bit and ride me into Thy back pasture and didst rub my nose in my vulnerability and didst split my lungs into acquiescence and didst freeze my colon in grief loss and didst press me into that long depression at the anger I directed against myself. And Thou didst read over my shoulder my diary of that long journey when I did melt before Thee as a mere preacher. Thou didst hear.
Hear now my pitiable defense. In all my sixty years I killed no creature of Thine I did not need for food except for a few rattlesnakes, a turtle or two, two quail I left overlong in my coat and three geese poisoned on bad grain before I shot them in Nebraska, plus one wood duck in Korea. In all my years I consciously battered no child though my own claimed much need to forgive me. And consciously misused no person. Thou knowest my aim to treat no human being as thing, never to hate overlong, to pass no child without catching his or her eye and my innermost wish to love as Thou doest love by seeing no shade of color or class.
And Thou didst long ago hear my cry to let me go from Paducah. Thou knowest my covenant with Elizabeth in our youth and Thou knowest it has been kept better than my covenant with Thee and wilst Thou forgive? Indeed Thou hast.
Hear now my intention with grace as if it were fact. I do and have intended to be responsible in creation by covenant and where I have defaulted do Thou forgive. Forgive Thou my vicarious responsibility for all the defection from Thy purpose of all Thy responsible creatures and accept this my admission of utter dependency on Thy mercy.
Naked I came into the world, how I am dressed at the conclusion makes no difference. A pair of jeans or a Glasgow robe, it makes no difference. Meantime, well I mow, I cut wood for winter, I clean drainage ditches, I preach what is happening and look to see what God will do in the earth. I watch out always for babies and little rabbits in front of my mower and old folks nearby and black snakes worth preserving, and little puppies on the road, and the young-old who stutter and laugh and can’t hear too. The cry of us all, “Come Lord Jesus, come.”