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"The North Country Revised Translation" - Allan J. Ferguson

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One task every preacher or priest faces is translating the words written in the Bible into a language people can hear. Presbyterians take this task most seriously. Their tradition requires clergy to study Hebrew and Greek so that no ordinary mistranslation interferes with the divine message. Methodists assume the most popular translation on the market received enough divine inspiration to trust. That does not mean the task of translation ends when holy writ enters English, though. Every community, every congregation, speaks its own language of faith and meaning. It does not matter whether the word spoken on the street is English, French or Korean. The diversity of religious language holds true everywhere, including the region nestled between the Adirondack Mountains and the St. Lawrence River.

The people of the region have an influence barely evident when viewing the terrain. The St. Lawrence River divides the United States from Canada, yet no one has seen a physical line in the water dividing the two countries. Armies suffered each other to exist in forts and barracks on opposing sides of the river for more than a hundred years, while Scots and Scots-Irish citizens crossed the river (and border) at will. The greatest reason for crossing of the river had less to do with politics than economics as settlers weighed which government taxed farm land at a lower rate than the other. This Celtic practicality and independent mind did not undermine loyalty to either flag–or the clan. The names of Scots and Scots-Irish men who served the Canadian flag and the American flag fill village memorials on both sides of the border and military cemeteries on both sides of the Atlantic.

Other elements of the Scots and Scots-Irish independence and practicality reached as far as the Adirondack forests. Hunting season falls on the calendar as a third holy season, exceeded in importance only by Christmas and Easter. In fact, some families treat their hunting camp as a clan affair. One family–the Clan McAdam, as they named themselves–established its hunting camp during the Great Depression to assure the extended family’s well-being through the North Country seasons. A successful deer hunt provided enough meat to carry everyone through the winter. The result of this emphasis on hunting and outdoor skill created a school where children learned from parents, grandparents and aunts and uncles how to handle themselves in the woods, brave a zipline across the stream running through the center of camp and swap stories at the communal fire each night. The McAdam deer camp lived strong and well, sixty and seventy years after the first Clan hunt during Herbert Hoover’s presidency.

Any minister moving into the zone between the St. Lawrence and the Adirondacks needs to reckon with this dialect in the Scots and Scots-Irish soul language. Some clergy never learn its cadences. One minister publicly pronounced a curse that any man who spent Sunday hunting when he should be in church should not see even one deer. This legendary statement lingered years later, partly for its harshness, partly for its error. Anyone raised in the area knew hunting was not strictly a man’s pursuit. Some women have stocked the freezer with venison better than their husbands. Other ministers master the tongue well. To understand the dialect of hunting season does not require a hunting license or a good rifle, only the willingness to share the stories and venison of a successful hunt.

I managed to learn the language well enough to receive adoption into the McAdam clan. (Personal disclaimer: I have never shot an animal, though I have caught my share of fish and released them back to the St. Lawrence and other bodies of water. That served as adequate credentials for the clan elders.) Adoption into any clan has its benefits and costs. The benefits are obvious: immediate citizenship among people who accept you for the person you are, complete with your usual sins and foibles. The cost is harder to explain to those not used to the Scots and Scots-Irish world. Too many people look down and call them names like “hillbillies,” “rednecks” and “hicks,” all of which contain some truth. The cost, however, is part of learning how to translate a message into the people’s language. Far worse things can happen in a minister’s career than to be counted with a clan of hillbillies or hicks.

One of the costs in my adoption into the McAdam clan charged itself when the youngest son of the youngest son married the woman of his desire. The groom’s father asked me if I would permit a clan “shivaree” at the end of the marriage ceremony. He explained the meaning and practice as: “We make the noise we do on a deer drive to announce Kitty got her buck.” Given that the request was for “the end of the ceremony” and nothing sounded like it violated laws of New York or the discipline of the church, I agreed not to hinder custom or tradition. The moment the bride and groom kissed each other after the last prayer a chorus of cow bells, turkey calls, deer grunts and assorted noise makers arose from the McAdam clan pews. Monday morning the church secretary informed me the McAdam clan had conducted themselves disgracefully at the wedding. I feigned a small amount of ignorance. Anyway, her daughter married into the clan. The secretary should have expected some kind of McAdam clan celebration at the wedding of the youngest son of the youngest son.

Life in the clan carried on as it had for decades in the years after I left the congregation. Methodist etiquette requires clergy to leave their former parishes and return only when invited by the current minister. I left under less than happy circumstances, so invitations to return came rarely. My reason for leaving the congregation was simple. I mastered the language of the Scots and Scots-Irish element of the church, but not of those who led the church’s life. My successor did better working with the church leaders, but not as well with the Scots and Scots-Irish who occupied the pews. He was glad enough to invite me back when the ringleader of the McAdam clan left this life for the great hunting camp in the sky.

The elder daughter called me to explain what they expected to see in the funeral. Start with informal. Everyone would wear their hunting clothes. The family had decided to bury their father dressed in a flannel shirt and jeans, hunting hat on his head. A nephew wanted to share a eulogy about the lessons Uncle Paul taught him and his generation about life, hunting and loyalty to the clan. So far, the requests sounded reasonable. I asked if I would be out of place wearing my clergy robe and a stole in the breacan nan Clearach (clergy tartan). I added quickly that the plaid’s colors were blue, black and grey, acceptable colors for a hunting plaid. “That will be perfect,” she said. The daughter added later they wanted to carry out their own ritual some time in the service. The ritual, as explained, came from the deceased’s long history of teaching his children, nephews and nieces and grandchildren what to do in the woods. “Always carry a whistle or spent rifle shell or some noise maker in case you get lost. Sit down and stay where you are, and make lots of noise. Then listen for somebody to answer. The family will never let you down, even if you are lost.”

The service at the funeral home lived up to expectations. Clan members milled around the room in plaid vests and clothes suitable for hunting camp. Friends came in traditional funeral attire. Stories of faith revealed in God’s creation and hunting camp percolated through the service. Nothing in the funeral service went awry. After the benediction, the sound of bagpipes escorted the casket to its transport to the cemetery–the deceased’s pickup truck. That was not the only nontraditional vehicle in the funeral procession. The clan had retrieved its “doodlebug” from hunting camp, a modified truck able to handle the last unpaved miles of the trek to camp. The doodlebug led the procession, followed by several family members on all-terrain vehicles and the funeral truck. I rode in a van to the cemetery with the funeral director, who repeatedly muttered the word “McAdams.”

We arrived at the grave, not by the route the funeral director intended but as the clan saw fit to use. They knew every road in the cemetery because they had mowed grass, maintained graves, and cared for the roads for years. Family and friends gathered beside the open grave. No tent protected them from wind, sun, or rain, should it fall. The comfort of a funeral tent would have been improper for a clan that did not mind any of earth’s weather. The bagpiper posted himself about fifty feet away, waiting a signal to commence his final salute.

The Methodist committal service is a brief affair: a prayer, scripture reading, words of committal to the grave, and a concluding prayer. Tradition governs the shape of the ritual. Many people say the words “this body we commit to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust” with the preacher. To omit these words is sacrilege even to families who never attend church, let alone those who dedicated an hour a week for worship (except during hunting season). I had decided before the service in the funeral home that this was the moment to perform the family’s requested ritual. Instead of pronouncing a final blessing, I said clearly: “Paul taught all of you what to do when a hunter fails to return to camp by sunset. One of our number is missing.”

A blast of whistles and screels of breath blown over spent rifle cartridges pierced the air for ten seconds, twenty seconds. As the whistles eased their noise, I nodded. The bagpiper blew air into the instrument, slapped the bag to push air into the drones and created sound. Then came the chanter, the melody pipe. No American, least of all Scots and Scots-Irish Americans, can picture a funeral without a final hymn of “Amazing Grace.” The last whistle stopped to give way as the unsung but faithfully memorized words sank in: “. . . I once was lost, but now I’m found.” I did not need to repeat what everyone already knew. Paul had slipped from our sight, but he was not lost. One greater than all of us had found Paul and taken him home, just as he promised. The family will never let you down.

Other ministers have thought of unique or inventive ways to retell the message Christians have handed on for generations beyond record. Some clergy find a vein of spiritual ore that makes their work memorable and, following the custom of the profession, expect to see it copied by preachers, priests and liturgists in hundreds of settings. The Kirk in Scotland has no rite called “kirking the tartan.” That ritual was born in America when a minister tried to speak to the children of Scottish immigrants. Plenty of families bury their father or grandfather in his hunting clothes. Only once in my career has anyone asked to sound the alert for a missing hunter–and gotten the answer Paul wrote to Corinthians nearly two thousand years ago by a set of bagpipes:

Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” (1 Corinthians 15:51-55)

Call what happened that day “a modern translation.” Call it contextualization or some other very theological term. What matters is that the clan heard the message they learned during years of believing and living as the Clan McAdam.