During my early childhood, my parents were tenant farmers and sharecroppers. We lived on three different farms in eastern Tennessee before I was nine years old. Two of the land owners made indelible, contrasting impressions on me. They helped to form my images of God and power.
One landowner scared me! I was only five years old when he held me over a rain barrel, threatening to drown me for playing on the roof of one of the farm buildings. “You’re gonna learn to respect me and my property,” he said angrily as he dangled me over the water.
“Respect” to him meant compliance, obedience, and “knowing our place.” We were among his possessions and considered to be subservient and dispensable. The housing provided for our family of six was a two-room shack with no insolation in the walls, no electricity, and no indoor plumbing.
I didn’t respect him. I was scared of him! Yes, I addressed him thereafter as “sir” and lived in constant fear that I would do something to displease him, but I secretly loathed him!
At that time, our family attended city-wide religious rallies, camp meetings, and revivals in which God was portrayed as a stern and sovereign judge who keeps records of all our wrongs. The end of the world was drawing near, and God would punish the wrongdoers and those who had not “accepted Jesus” by sending them to a burning hell for everlasting punishment. It felt as though I was being held over a burning inferno.
Though I didn’t consciously make the connection as a young child, the cruel landlord and God got connected in my mind. They both were all powerful, owned our livelihood, and expected, above all else, our respect, obedience, and acceptance of our place as “miserable sinners.”
That’s one image of God and power — authoritarian; dominating; controlling by intimidation, power-over; the superior enforcer; the judge. It’s often more subtle than what I experienced from that landlord, but it is no less dangerous and destructive.
Thankfully, we moved from that farm shortly after the incident with the rain barrel. The new landlord, Mr. Street, lived in a neighboring state. The house provided had four rooms and was much more comfortable for six people, though still no electricity and indoor plumbing.
The owner always let us know when he would be coming to visit. We eagerly waited for his arrival because he would bring us kids candy and my parents some useful gift. He would spend the day working in the field alongside us. (Yes, we children worked in the fields, too, hoeing rows of corn, cleaning out the barn, etc.) He was always kind, affirming of our work, and respectful of us!
We stayed on that farm for two years. The owner actually encouraged my dad to get his own small farm and offered to help make it possible. Tragically, he was killed in an accident on his farm in North Carolina. We were all saddened by the news. We respected him, trusted him, and enjoyed his presence.
Shortly after the kind landlord’s death, we moved again, this time to a small, hilly farm of 20 acres, which our parents bought on credit. Located within sight was McKinley Methodist Church. At age ten, I visited the church for the first time. Though it was seventy years ago, I remember it well. The teacher, Mrs. Mahoney, met me at the doorway and welcomed me with a warm hug.
The lesson that day was on the Good Shepherd. Mrs. Mahoney made a startling comment that began reshaping my image of God. She said, “God is like a good shepherd who searches for lost sheep and safely returns them home.” She not only told the story; she embodied it!
God was not the severe landlord eager to punish and destroy the world. God was a tender shepherd who cared for the sheep, protected them, even willing to lay down his life for them.
And God is more like the kind landlord who respected us, worked alongside us. He empowers rather than dominates, engenders love rather than fear, and encourages instead of terrorizes.
The contrasting images of God and power operate today in the worlds of business, education, politics, and religion. Maybe there is some of both landlords in all of us. But I know which one is most like the God we know in Jesus.