News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Religion

February 7, 2014

THE JOY LADY: A half-crazed squirrel, Sister Bertha and secret sins

Today we’re going to discuss Sister Bertha Better Than You. She’s the dear sister who was immortalized in Ray Stevens’ “The Mississippi Squirrel Revival.”

Perhaps a little review of the infamous incident is called for. It seems that as a lad, Ray (by way of songwriter Carlene and Jr. Kalb) would go to Mississippi to visit his granny. He caught a squirrel, put it in a shoebox and snuck the squirrel into church. But when he showed the squirrel to his good buddy Hugh, in the very last pew, the squirrel made a run for it. He ran up Harv Newlan’s coveralls, causing much commotion and consternation, what with Harv’s dancin’ and screamin’ and such. Then, as Harv was kneeling in the aisle, the squirrel made haste to the other side of the room. That’s when, in the Amen Pew, the squirrel ran into (and onto) Sister Bertha Better Than You.

That Bertha. Can’t you see her? She’s looking at the whole thing with a superiority that she wears with well-practiced ease, saying to herself, “For shame, Harv. Acting like that in God’s house!” Oh, dear.

Well, when the squirrel made laps inside her dress, Bertha used sailor-blushing language to confess to sins the congregation never thought Bertha would be involved in. But what got her the most attention was when she started speaking of her love life, “And then she started naming names!”

The rest of the song recounts how people were saved, money was raised and volunteers got ready for the Congo. I’m sure you can sing along with me the last verse of the song: “Now you’ve heard the Bible story, I guess/How He parted the waters for Moses to pass/All the miracles God has brought to this ol’ world./But the one I’ll remember to my dyin’ day/Is how He put that church back on the narrow way/ With a half-crazed Mississippi squirrel.”

Know what makes that song so funny and memorable? It’s got some truth in it. We commit our secret sins, and when something comes along that scares us into obedience, we find ourselves back on the narrow way.

But the most truth is found in Bertha. She’s the one who says, “Since I was created in God’s image, I have more than returned the favor.” She’s the one who criticizes the preacher, the sermon, the music, the deacons, the elders, the Sunday school teachers. She’s the one who goes out for dinner after church and criticizes the crowds, the service, the food. She knows all the church gossip and repeats it, sometimes adding extra details as she thinks they’re needed. She feels justified in doing so, for she knows that she is better than you, me or anyone else in the church. Truth be told, Bertha would be shocked to know that church is not all about her.

Don’t laugh. You know a Bertha, don’t you? Or maybe you are a Bertha? Do we need to let a half-crazed squirrel loose in our churches for revival to occur? God forbid.

Verna Davis, speaker and writer, may be reached at vrdspeaks@ yahoo.com.

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