Truth be known – and preachers are supposed to tell the truth – truth be known I don’t remember the cow’s name. But Lewis did, as in Lewis Cheek, a dairyman who was a member – no that doesn’t say enough – a dairyman who was the heart and soul in many ways of Bethel Baptist Church, the church I first served as a pastor. I just made up the name “Elsie” since it came to mind because of the television commercial I saw growing up about Borden milk which starred – you guessed it, Elsie the cow.
The day Lewis directed my attention to Elsie, or whatever the name of the cow was, was some day in 1983. Let’s just say a long time ago, too long for my memory to be precise. What I do remember is pulling up into Lewis’ driveway and Lewis, who was out in the yard, coming to greet me. Lewis, tall and thin, more up than wide, I noticed – Lewis reached out his hand to shake mine. He was friendly by nature. Probably friendly by birth. One of those people who seemed to have been nice his entire life.
I was his new preacher and I was making the rounds. Bethel Baptist, although not far from Chapel Hill, was a country church with a beautiful white frame building and a bell tower. Children loved to ring the bell. And the congregants loved for their minister to visit, not only upon starting at the church but they pretty much liked and expected a visit from their pastor on a regular basis. Folk didn’t have to be sick or in need of counseling; they simply wanted their pastor to show his face every now and then.
As I stood chit-chatting with Lewis on the first of what would be many visits to his home he pointed his finger at a cow. “That’s Elsie,” he said. “That one over there, that’s Martha.”
I was amazed. One, how could he remember that many cow names? Two, how could Lewis distinguish one cow from another cow? A lot of the cows looked like identical twins to my untrained dairy eyes.
Lewis said, “Well, you want to learn each cow’s name because it’s important to know which cow kicks. You don’t want to be getting ready to milk a cow and get kicked. Some cows are kickers.”
Lewis Cheek was a wise person, and not only when it came to cows.
Lewis told me I would know I had preached a good sermon if I could keep a dairyman awake.
I learned quickly that the dairy business was not a piece of cake: early morning hours, late evening hours, and kicking cows, just to mention a few difficulties.
No dairy difficulty, however, was as difficult as what Lewis faced with his mother, Ola. Have you ever heard the phrase “skin and bones”? Lewis’ mother, Ola, was skin and bones. She had withered away to almost nothing. She couldn’t die. She couldn’t have weighed more than 70 pounds. For years she hung on until finally one day she took her last breath and Lewis and the family, though full of grief, were relieved.
I’ll be preaching the homecoming sermon at Bethel on October 4. It will be good to see so many people. The hard thing will be that Lewis and some other wonderful individuals who were members at Bethel will not be there. Lewis died of cancer this year. His death was not long and drawn out like that of his mother, but he died of cancer and as his wife, Evelyn, told me it was a hard death.
Death is hard, in and of itself. I don’t know why God permits hard deaths, deaths like that of Ola and Lewis to happen. I plan to ask God one day. In the meantime, I give thanks for a man who knew the names of all his cows, a man who tried his best to stay awake during my sermons.