Thinking back to brother Lynwood

Published 4:21 pm Friday, March 30, 2018

Last Sunday morning — the Sunday before Easter — our good friend Ryan Howell from Birmingham sent me a text, saying, “I sure miss the old days when all the LaGrange people came up to Birmingham for our spring meeting.”

He reminded me that going to Birmingham that week was just part of growing up. About half of the church members from LaGrange’s Murphy Avenue Church of Christ would make the pilgrimage, making it a homecoming like no other.

The meeting would always begin the Sunday before Easter and end on Easter Sunday. That last weekend was the one where mama would always buy us new clothes and shuttle us up to Birmingham. They always had a young speakers service on that Saturday morning, and that was one of the places we cut our teeth on trying to give lessons at church. I’m not too sure how effective our little talks were, but I know we looked good, with our hair slicked back and our suit pressed tight. Brother Lynwood Smith — a Mississippi preacher who happened also to be the world’s greatest storyteller — would always do the preaching during that meeting. Lynwood was an old bachelor — lived and died that way — and he didn’t have anything else to do but travel the country preaching the gospel. Well, that, and, when he was home in Mississippi, writing gospel songs.

He had nothing against getting married, as far as I know, and almost got that way one time, I’m told. But the hitch in that wagon broke before it got to the altar. But being single has its advantages, and it seemed to serve Lynwood well. He had plenty of time to study, travel, preach, think, meditate and write songs there in his little home in Brookhaven, Mississippi.

Some people wanted to introduce him as a great songwriter — which he was — but I’ve heard him say many times in his gruff voice, “No, just say I’m a gospel preacher. That’ll do.”

Lynwood was right about that, too, even though it was a close race as to which one he excelled at the most. I’ve read quite a few great poets in my day, but I’m not sure I’ve ever read anyone who would surpass the Mississippi preacher in poetry — “song poems,” as he called them. One of my favorites he wrote tells about an old friend he would think about often as he milled around his lonely country home:

“Have you heard of my friend who is dearer to me, than all wealth that the world can command. ‘Tis a joy just to know such a Savior is he. He’s my friend with the scars in his hand.”

Lynwood penned those words back in 1971, right at the height of our Birmingham-journeying days. I was just a young teenager when he brought that song to Birmingham for the meeting, and it became my favorite “Lynwood” song of all, and there were many.

When we made our tearful exodus from LaGrange in 1973 and headed to Texas, we also left behind that yearly Birmingham feast with its endless buffet of gospel singing and preaching.

Lynwood would make sure you had your fill of both, because he could weave a gospel story as well as he could gather lyrics for a spine-chilling song. If he got onto the story of that legendary prodigal, he’d draw you a picture so clear you could see the dust on the penitent boy’s feet and the trembling of his lip as he bowed in shame before his father, saying, “Father, I’ve sinned.” It’d make you decide right then and there you didn’t ever want to have to give that dreaded talk to your own mama or daddy.

I’ve only made it back to that meeting once in the last decade, but that absence only makes me miss those old times the more.

I’m thankful to my buddy Ryan for taking me back there this past week. Ryan, I’ll ask you a little favor: When you stand to lead a song this week during the meeting, will you pick out a special one for your old friend who now resides out in Texas? Sing the one that has a chorus that goes like this: “When you meet him you’ll know, as onward you go, Through this friend-less and cold dreary land; he’s a friend you will always be happy to know. He’s the one with the scars in his hand.”

Sing that one, my friend, and you’ll likely see me sitting over on the front row the way I used to, with my hair slicked back and my suit pressed tight.