Remembering biker preacher John “Bullfrog” Smith (1942-2019)

Photo from Blues Preacher

By Steve Beard

John Smith, an evangelist, author, and founder of the God’s Squad Motorcycle Club in Australia, died on March 6, 2019, after a long battle with cancer. He was 76 years old.

According to news reports, hundreds of bikers were in attendance at Smith’s funeral to pay their respects – including those from so-called outlaw motorcycle clubs such as the Hell’s Angels, Gypsy Jokers, Bandidos, Coffin Cheaters, and Immortals, reported Eternity News. The celebration of Smith’s life took place at Wave Church in Ocean Grove, a coastal community in the southeast of Australia.

Smith, a clergyman and social activist, became the founding President of the Melbourne chapter of God’s Squad in 1972. Currently, there are God’s Squad members in 16 nations around the globe.

Sean Stillman, president of God’s Squad UK chapter and author of God’s Biker: Motorcycles and Misfits, described Smith at the funeral as an “academic, a pastor, a preacher, a prophetic voice, an irritant to a comfortable church, an advocate for justice, the poor, the marginalized, and the arts,” reported Sight Magazine. More significantly, Stillman said, was his role as husband to Glena, Smith’s wife, and father to his three children and 17 grandchildren.

Smith garnered attention through his Christian message, appeal to social justice, friendship with so-called outlaw bikers, and roaring motorcycles. Smith earned his nickname “Bullfrog” because he was considered to be the “loudest frog in the pond,” revealed Glena, his wife for 51 years, in a film about Smith’s ministry called “Smithy.”

Stillman spoke of Smith’s ability to connect with men and women “whether it be in a smoky clubhouse bar, backstage at a rock ‘n roll gig, or in the corridors of political power, a chapel pulpit, a street corner talking to a complete stranger, sitting amid Indigenous communities, engaging in academic dialogue, or crying in the pouring rain at a graveside.”

Smith believed that Christian discipleship and mission were best taught and learned “on the road,” said Stillman.“It was where you worked out what it meant to be a follower of his hero, Jesus of Nazareth. The road would take you to the marginalized. He taught us that the Gospel still ought to be good news for the poor and uncomfortable news for the powerful.”

Smith was a tireless advocate for human rights and indigenous peoples. Aunty Jean Phillips, an Aboriginal Christian leader from Queensland, testified at the funeral to Smith’s friendship with the Aboriginal community and recalled his “real heart for justice.”

Stillman read an email at the funeral from U2 frontman Bono. “John quite liked that some churchy people thought of him as a heretic: Big smile across his face. ‘You mean like Jesus matey?’” Smith would respond after decades of being misunderstood because of his hippie looks and biker associations. Bono and the band first became acquainted with Smith while U2 was touring through Australia in 1984 during the “Unforgettable Fire” tour.

“To John the Bible was an incendiary tract – not some handbook on religion,” wrote Bono. “It was not a sop for mankind’s fear of death – it was an epic poem about life. It spoke about culture, about politics, about justice.”

Bono continued: “When Bob Dylan sang ‘always on the other side of whatever side there was,’ he might have been singing about John, an outsider in an outsider community, an outlaw of a different kind preparing the way for the coming of a different kind of world, speaking truth to power.

“In our last meeting he spoke truth to me, gave me a hell of a hard time, thought I had gone soft and become too comfortable around the powerful. Thought I was living too well,” Bono recalled. “He was probably right. I still think about it.”

Smith’s theological role model was John Wesley, the 18th century itinerant evangelist and founder of the Methodist Church. The Rev. Ian Clarkson, a Uniting Church clergyman, said Smith, by one calculation, had travelled some 2.25 million miles on his motorcycle. “Wesley did some 225,000 miles on horseback and preached 40,000 sermons. I reckon John would probably have eclipsed that here in Australia,” Clarkson said. Smith’s ministry, like that of Wesley’s, was focused on those who were on the edge of society. “John went to those who were left out, who were on the margins, who were sometimes despised,” said Clarkson, “who sometimes didn’t know where they were at for all sorts of reasons.”

Stillman observed that Smith “remained passionate about the need for the message of Jesus to be faithfully proclaimed in the public sphere, But he also taught us that it should be something that should be lived. Putting it into practice was not an optional extra.”

Steve Beard is the editor in chief of Thunderstruck. Special thanks to reporting from Dean Troth at Eternity News and David Adams at Sight Magazine.

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Happy Birthday Flannery O’Connor

Art by Kevin Christy, The Atlantic

Today marks the birthday anniversary of the late Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964), the acclaimed novelist who wrote with a splash of hellfire and holy water. She used her enormous writing talents to often delve into spiritual transformation of those in the “Christ-haunted” American South.

Bruce Springsteen once said, “the short stories of Flannery O’Connor landed hard on me. You could feel within them the unknowability of God, the intangible mysteries of life that confounded her characters, and which I find by my side every day. They contained the dark Gothicness of my childhood and yet made me feel fortunate to sit at the center of this swirling black puzzle, stars reeling overhead, the earth barely beneath us.”

“There is something in us, as storytellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance to be restored,” she observed. “The reader of today looks for this motion, and rightly so, but what he has forgotten is the cost of it. His sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration. When he reads a novel, he wants either his sense tormented or his spirits raised. He wants to be transported, instantly, either to mock damnation or a mock innocence.”

O’Connor, a devout Catholic lay woman, was never short of pithy statements about the human condition.
• “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.”
• “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.”
• “All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.”
• “I can, with one eyed squinted, take it all as a blessing.”
• “There is a question whether faith can or is supposed to be emotionally satisfying. I must say that the thought of everyone lolling about in an emotionally satisfying faith is repugnant to me.”
• “‘Lord, I believe; help my unbelief’ … is the most natural and most human and most agonizing prayer in the gospels, and I think it is the foundation prayer of faith.”
• “Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to. You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self is the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon. The crescent is very beautiful and perhaps that is all one like I am should or could see; but what I am afraid of, dear God, is that my self shadow will grow so large that it blocks the whole moon, and that i will judge myself by the shadow that is nothing. I do no know you God because I am in the way. Please help me to push myself aside.”

O’Connor died at age 39 after having suffered from lupus for the final decade of her life. We are grateful for her gifts and remember her talents with great appreciation.

“What people don’t realize is how much religion costs,” O’Connor wrote. “They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe. If you feel you can’t believe, you must at least do this: keep an open mind. Keep it open toward faith, keep wanting it, keep asking for it, and leave the rest to God.”

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Bono: ‘Capitalism is not immoral – it’s amoral’

By Michelle Hennessy, The Journal

The U2 frontman participated in a panel discussion at the World Economic Forum in Davos today with Managing Director of the IMF Christine Lagarde, Rwanda President Paul Kagame and others.

“We have to just ask ourselves deeper questions about where we are with the project called capitalism,” he said. “And, you know, capitalism is not immoral – it’s amoral. It requires our instruction. Capitalism has taken more people out of poverty than any other ‘ism’, but it is a wild beast and if not tamed it can chew up a lot of people along the way. And in fact those people’s lives that it has chewed up are pushing the politics in our homes towards populism.”

Bono made similar comments during a panel discussion with former British Prime Minister David Cameron at the 2014 World Economic Forum, when he said: “Capitalism can be a great creative force but it can be a destructive force. It is not immoral but it is amoral, we need to give it some instructions”.

To read entire article, click HERE

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Great white shark “Deep Blue” thrills divers off Hawaii

A shark known as “Deep Blue” swims off Hawaii, U.S. on January 15, 2019 in picture obtained from social media on January 17, 2019 @JuanSharks/@OceanRamsey/Juan Oliphant/ via@JUANSHARKS/@OCEANRAMSEY/JUAN OLIPHANT/ONEOCEANDIVING.COM VIA REUTERS

By Mindy Pennybaker, Honolulu Star Advertiser

The surprise arrival at the feast was big and regal and as wide as your grandmother’s hot rod Lincoln, and when she cruised onto the scene the other diners fled — as was only natural, for she was a great white shark, said Ocean Ramsey, who studies sharks, advocates for their conservation and leads educational, cage-free shark diving tours on Oahu’s North Shore.

On Jan. 15, Ramsey and her team had taken their dive boat to monitor tiger sharks feeding off a dead and decomposing sperm whale that National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had towed 15 miles offshore from Sand Island, where it had lain against the shoreline, attracting sharks, when, to her astonishment, the female great white appeared.

“We saw a few tigers and then she came up and all the other sharks split, and she started brushing up against the boat,” Ramsey said in a phone interview that evening, her voice trembling with exhilaration and exhaustion after swimming with the shark all day. “She was just this big beautiful gentle giant wanting to use our boat as a scratching post. We went out at sunrise, and she stayed with us pretty much throughout the day.” …

One thing that surprised Ramsey was the presence of dolphins, who usually avoid great whites. “There were two rough-tooth dolphins escorting her, nudging on her fins, twirling around her nose. These guys wouldn’t leave her alone — they were having so much fun.”

She was especially thrilled because, based on the shark’s size and markings, she tentatively identified her as Deep Blue, a shark she has swum with on research trips to Guadalupe Island, Mexico. “I’m without words; it’s heartwarming; she’s probably the most gentle great white I’ve ever seen. Big pregnant females are actually the safest ones to be with, the biggest oldest ones, because they’ve seen it all — including us.” (Sharks only bite humans when they are curious or mistake people for their natural prey, she said.) “That’s why I kind of call her, like, a grandma shark.”

To read entire article, click HERE

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How did Elvis get turned into a racist?

Jeffrey Smith

By Peter Gurlnick

The New York Times, August 11, 2007

ONE of the songs Elvis Presley liked to perform in the ’70s was Joe South’s “Walk a Mile in My Shoes,” its message clearly spelled out in the title.

Sometimes he would preface it with the 1951 Hank Williams recitation “Men With Broken Hearts,” which may well have been South’s original inspiration. “You’ve never walked in that man’s shoes/Or saw things through his eyes/Or stood and watched with helpless hands/While the heart inside you dies.” For Elvis these two songs were as much about social justice as empathy and understanding: “Help your brother along the road,” the Hank Williams number concluded, “No matter where you start/For the God that made you made them, too/These men with broken hearts.”

In Elvis’s case, this simple lesson was not just a matter of paying lip service to an abstract principle.

It was what he believed, it was what his music had stood for from the start: the breakdown of barriers, both musical and racial. This is not, unfortunately, how it is always perceived 30 years after his death, the anniversary of which is on Thursday. When the singer Mary J. Blige expressed her reservations about performing one of his signature songs, she only gave voice to a view common in the African-American community. “I prayed about it,” she said, “because I know Elvis was a racist.”

And yet, as the legendary Billboard editor Paul Ackerman, a devotee of English Romantic poetry as well as rock ’n’ roll, never tired of pointing out, the music represented not just an amalgam of America’s folk traditions (blues, gospel, country) but a bold restatement of an egalitarian ideal. “In one aspect of America’s cultural life,” Ackerman wrote in 1958, “integration has already taken place.”

It was due to rock ’n’ roll, he emphasized, that groundbreaking artists like Big Joe Turner, Ray Charles, Chuck Berry and Little Richard, who would only recently have been confined to the “race” market, had acquired a broad-based pop following, while the music itself blossomed neither as a regional nor a racial phenomenon but as a joyful new synthesis “rich with Negro and hillbilly lore.”

No one could have embraced Paul Ackerman’s formulation more forcefully (or more fully) than Elvis Presley.

To read the rest of Gurlnick’s article, click HERE

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Maui Cookie Lady and The Rock

“This is not a drill,” wrote Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson on Instagram. “This is 16oz of hand made, hand rolled, slap someone in the face cause it tastes so good, decadent and dangerous chocolate chip cookie … as a gift from one of my fav cookie spots in the world.” The actor’s endorsement would prove to be a vivid example of the power of social media and small business marketing.

Almost immediately, Mitzi Toro (aka Maui Cookie Lady) got inundated with orders for cookies – her website crashed temporarily – and the business shot through the roof. She had sent a basket of her treats to Johnson while he was filming “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” in Hawaii in 2016. The small gesture paid off in big ways. 

Weighing over six ounces each, her overstuffed cookies include hidden Oreos, Snickers bars, pineapple chunks, and peppermint patties. Other cookies incorporate Kona Coffee, Maui Brewing Company beer, Waihe’e Valley macadamia nuts and include exotic flavors such as Pineapple Lychee Passion. 

Rapper Ludacris went so far as to fly nearly a 100 miles in a helicopter to personally get a cookie from Toro while he was in Hawaii. “I literally rented a helicopter to fly all the way from Honolulu, Oahu, to Maui to meet this woman right here; it’s on my bucket list and it’s all Dwayne Johnson’s fault,” he said in an Instagram video. 

“Food unites people,” said Toro in Hawaii magazine. “I learned early on that it doesn’t matter what religion or culture you come from or what language you speak, food is beloved by all.”

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In Praise of Boredom

By James K.A. Smith, IMAGE

The long human grind of mere survival, still a daily reality in too many places, has always threatened to consume any time or energy for play. Plato’s philosopher-kings banish poetry from the city, while consumerism’s corporate-kings are more sly, turning every endeavor into a commodity. Fascists shut down the theater while the gods of stem shut down the music program.

But human longing has always managed to overcome such threats in order to make art that limns the beyond. Somehow our ancient forbears, exhausted by hunting and gathering, made time to create the ancient beauty that adorns the walls of caves in Lascaux. A Hebrew shepherd, and the poor of Appalachia, made stringed instruments sing. Those oppressed by slavery bequeathed to us jazz and the blues. We don’t deserve A Love Supreme. Out of the unspeakable horrors of the Shoah, Night appeared.

Every work of art that is true or beautiful is, one might say, a pièce de résistance, telling the truth about how the world really is and offering us a portal to what we’re called to be. Such art resists lies, apathy, and all the forces that would diminish us to mere consumers or enemies or copulating pieces of meat. Such imaginative works are at once disconcerting and enticing. They remind us that we’re not as good as we think we are, and they call us to so much more than this. As in Terrence Malick’s Thin Red Line, a dappled light finds its way through the cathedral of palms while war rages below, making us look up and wonder. And hope.

To read the entire essay, click HERE.

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The History of Hot Sauce in America

By Matt Gross

Illustration by Jeremy Nguyen

Once upon a time, in 1830s New York City, a woman named Jane McCollick noticed a barefoot 11-year-old selling newspapers at Washington Market. McCollick had an idea for the “plucky young waif”: He should offer to clean up the meat scraps from the butchers and sell them to Indians in Hoboken. The kid, whose name was Seaman Lichtenstein, took her up on it and made one dollar the first day. He soon became McCollick’s ward, boarding with her, studying at night school, teaching her the bookkeeping tricks he learned, and eventually investing $600 in her food business.

With Lichtenstein as a partner, J. McCollick & Co. grew to become a manufacturer of—as one 1860 newspaper ad put it—“Pickles, Preserves, Sauces, Jellies, Jams, Catsups, Syrups &c.” Among those sauces was a hot sauce, technically a “bird pepper” sauce, likely made from chiltepins and sold in a hexagonal glass bottle. This wasn’t just any sauce, though—it’s the one of the oldest commercial hot sauces in America, and probably the oldest for which bottles (empty, sadly) still exist.

Today, this country is awash in hot sauce. From sea to shining sea, fiery condiments crown our every meal, transforming workaday eggs, chicken wings, and noodle dishes into incendiary delights. It seems like there’s always a new hot sauce debuting at a farmers’ market or Whole Foods, made from famous or obscure chili peppers. Those racks and racks of bottles fuel an industry that’s currently valued at $1.5 billion—and growing fast.

It was not, however, always this way. Cast your palate back just over a decade, and Sriracha, the so-called “rooster sauce” from California-based Huy Fong Foods, was still a niche player. Go back another decade or so, and you might not have tried anything fancier than Tabasco. In fact, the whole history of hot sauce in the United States isn’t much more than 200 years old—which is kind of odd, considering that people have been eating chili peppers for thousands of years. Here’s how it all went down.

To read entire article, click HERE

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Celebrating the first Native American congresswomen

Candidates Deb Haaland, New Mexico, and Sharice Davids, Kansas. (Twitter photo)

CNN – The first two Native American women elected to Congress hugged on the House floor Thursday after being officially sworn in. Democratic Reps. Deb Haaland of New Mexico and Sharice Davids of Kansas shared the tender moment just before new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the House to order to congratulate all the new members of Congress. Haaland appeared to wipe away tears.

Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna, and several of her guests wore traditional dress to the swearing-in. “New Mexicans are in the house, the US House that is,” she tweeted Thursday with pictures of her guests. “I believe that Native women are seeing positive role models in the wins that happened this year. I will keep supporting them.” Davids, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin, also makes history as the first openly LGBTQ member of Congress to represent Kansas.

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Sister Wendy Beckett, BBC Art Star, Dies at 88

Sister Wendy Beckett in 1997. She soared to international stardom with her BBC documentaries on the history of art. Credit Librado Romero/The New York Times

By Robert D. McFadden•       Dec. 26, 201

Sister Wendy Beckett, a Roman Catholic nun who interrupted a cloistered life of prayer in England in 1991 and soared to international stardom with lyrical BBC documentaries that made her one of the most improbable art critics in television history, died on Wednesday in the village of East Harling, England. She was 88.

Her death was confirmed by the Carmelite Monastery in Quidenham, England, where she had lived in a trailer for decades, though not as a member of the Carmelite order.

Bending backward in her black habit in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, gazing up through large eyeglasses at Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam,” Sister Wendy spoke with a storyteller’s wonder at the solemn, sensuous moment on the ceiling as two fingertips near the touch that begat the creation of life.

“Adam’s sprawled there in his naked male glory, but he’s not alive,” she told viewers in 1996. “All he can do is lift up a flaccid finger, and out of the clouds whirls down the God of Power. In his great flying cloak there’s a world. Whether that’s Eve or not, there’s a human face there looking straight at Adam with the eyes daring him to respond to the challenge. And God’s finger touches that of Man.”

It was a magical moment of television, too. Sister Wendy was small and stooped, with a plain face, buck teeth and a slight speech impediment that rendered R’s as W’s. But her insightful, unscripted commentaries — a blend of history, criticism and observations on Leonardo da Vinci, van Gogh, Botticelli, Rembrandt, Monet and other Western masters — connected emotionally with millions in Britain and America.

By 1997, as she marked 50 years as a nun, the Oxford-educated Sister Wendy had made three television series, the most successful BBC arts programs since “Civilisation,” the art historian Kenneth Clark’s landmark 1969 documentaries. She had also written 15 books on art and religion, and was a celebrity on both sides of the Atlantic, featured in articles and mobbed by fans.

For all her success, she remained a nun with commitments to prayer, solitude (when possible) and vows of poverty. She assigned all her earnings to a Carmelite order that had sheltered her for decades, and she attended Mass daily, even when traveling.

Until she was 61, she had been a model of worldly renunciation: a hermit living in a windowless trailer on the grounds of the Carmelite Monastery in East Anglia, subsisting mainly on skim milk and rarely speaking to anyone. She prayed seven hours a day and went out only to morning Mass or to a mobile library van for books.

She was ambivalent about celebrity. She liked “wonderful sweet people” who thanked her for helping them understand paintings, she told The New York Times in 1997. But, she added: “Nothing is more humiliating than being on television. You make such a fool of yourself.”

Some art critics agreed, calling her amateurish. But audiences were captivated by her richly human tales, which brought art to life. At the British Museum, standing beside a Greek wine jar painted 2,500 years ago, she embroidered the portrayal of Achilles slaying Penthesilea, the Amazon queen, at the fall of Troy.

“As he drove his spear through her throat,” she said, “their eyes met, and he saw how young she was and how lovely and brave. He fell in love — but he killed her.”

Sister Wendy eventually wrote some 25 books, including collections of poetry and meditations, and made a dozen documentaries, many released on DVD. She always returned to the austere seclusion that was her home for nearly a half-century, although her trailer was upgraded in 1994.

“The sisters worried about the lack of insulation, so they put up a small mobile home, which has a lavatory, bathroom and light fittings,” she told The Telegraph of London in 2010. “I have an electric kettle, fridge, warming oven and night storage heater, so my life is as comfortable as it needs to be.”

To read entire New York Times obit, click HERE

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