No Man Is an Island

Coley and Me, Dyess, AR, circa early '60s
Coley and Me, Dyess, AR, circa early '60s

What lasts is what you start with. –Charles Wright


 My very first sermon was titled “No Man Is an Island.” Okay, not very original, I’ll give you that. Another pastor/poet named John Donne beat me to the punch by well nigh four centuries, in 1624. But it said all I knew to say at the time and took all of twelve minutes to preach. I describe the sermon as my “very first” to underscore time’s passage. It’s now been over four decades since I held forth that Sunday morning at Bowman Baptist Church outside Lake City, AR in the late spring of ’77. My campus ministers at Arkansas State University, Benny Clark and Glenda Fontenot, had surprised

me with the request, which became the closest   thing to an anointing I’d ever known.


I’d never prepared a sermon before, had hardly ever even stood behind a pulpit, except maybe to read scripture. So I arrived early, a knot of nerves. Looking back, it surprises me that I was alone. I’d probably asked my parents and friends to stay away, given my jitters. Or maybe the august occasion simply didn’t rate. Who knows? In northeast Arkansas, there’s a preacher, usually a Baptist, under every rock.


 The small box of a sanctuary was warm, the two-dozen or so worshippers kind. I had hair back then, lots of it. An afro to be exact. Given my nervousness, I must have struck them as a cross between Marjoe Gortner and Don Knotts. (Younger readers might want to Google these two names.) One especially empathetic deacon stood up unannounced before the sermon and had us join hands, bow our heads, and pray that Jesus’ peace would settle this young man’s heart and give him the strength to proclaim God’s Word. That helped. But what carried me through did not happen until a moment later.


I’d taken the long walk up the center aisle and climbed the two steps to the pulpit. I felt at sea, perched in a crow’s nest. I somehow mustered the courage to look out across the little sanctuary before my opening prayer.  It was quiet, except for the occasional siss of traffic slipping past on Highway 18 in the drizzly morning. Then, there—I saw him. Sitting on the back row to my left, Coley Johnson. My grandfather had made the drive all the way in from Dyess, quite a hike for a man disabled by emphysema and bad cataracts. But he was right there, in that pew, sitting off by himself against the aisle, and what I noticed, even then in that wobbly moment, was how my Pentecostal grandfather was trying hard to sit up straight and proper, how his back, bent by years under the sun as a sharecropper, rose up straight in that moment. Never underestimate the virtue of pride.


When my first full collection of poems, Chicken Train: Poems from the Arkansas Delta, was released about a month ago, I wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of response. The book was a labor big on love and small on resources. I whittled away on some of these poems for years. Others came in a flash. My daughter, Hannah Proffitt-Allee, put lots of sweet attention and creativity into designing the book’s look, both inside and out. We still glory in her “Johnny Cash-inspired” cover. Gradually, with the generous support of my editor, Matthew Lippman, many friends, John Dillon and Steve Cash from the one and only Ozark Mountain Daredevils, and my publisher at Middle Island Press, Christina Taylor, the Chicken Train left the depot.


See what happened? What began as a little DIY project became the gracious gift of community.


Which brings all this back around to you, especially you who have spent your good money to purchase Chicken Train, or have passed the word on to others, or have even taken the time to offer an Amazon review. Know that all your energy has given this little locomotive steam. Sure, it’s the little train that could, but, heck, we’ve climbed as high as #203 in Amazon’s “Books > Literature & Fiction > Poetry > Regional & Cultural > United States.” A sub-category height I’m glad to attain, and, because of you, I take certain pride in.


As lonely and hard as writing can be at times, I am never without communion with God and community with you. I hunker under, sure, and sometimes the isolation can feel heavy. But the silence and solitude necessary to the effort are ever full and never truly empty, whatever my fleeting feelings might say.


“No Man Is an Island” is really the only poem I have ever lived. It may just be my one sermon. I preach it time and again, except these days I do so with inclusive language and ecological intent. I’ll keep preaching it—until the lived reality of these words ascends into that great “cloud of witnesses,” where faithful and loving folk like Coley Johnson, even now, take great pride and chorus me through from the balcony blue, steeling my bent back.




No Man Is an Island


No man is an island entire of itself; every man 

 is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; 

 if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe 

 is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as 

 well as any manner of thy friends or of thine 

 own were; any man's death diminishes me, 

 because I am involved in mankind. 

 And therefore never send to know for whom 

 the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. 


--from “Devotions upon Emergent Occasions”

 By John Donne 




Write a comment

Comments: 3
  • #1

    Michael "Big Dog" Abell (Tuesday, 17 January 2017 18:42)

  • #2

    Michael "Big Dog" Abell (Tuesday, 17 January 2017 18:44)

    Hey Pal,
    Wow! I feel that I was just dropped into the river of memories! How well I remember 3 shaky unlicensed preachers standing in the pulpit at Kearns one Sunday after another. The nerves; the insecurity; the sweat; the hair!
    I then remember another Sunday afternoon (or was it evening?) standing in the pastor’s office at that same church. Benny was talking with you about a little preaching spot in a little church in Grantsville and I can still hear him say to you, “We ought to get Mike out there.” I went the next Sunday and stayed for over a year. Every Sunday driving (I could still see good enough to drive) out the 1 hour to the evening service in the Lion’s club hall. Wayne and Jean would lead the music with his piano and her violin. I would sometimes take my girlfriend (now wife) on the trip and eat fries and shakes at the Tasty Freeze after services. There were rarely more than 8 people there each Sunday, but I loved every week!
    I still have each handwritten sermon that I wrote for that time. The only ones missing were those times that I chose to “wing it” and those that are on note cards and scraps of Church bulletins.
    I remember Easter Sunday and how I wanted it to be special. I had all the people I could muster to make the drive. Even Mayo Brown came to the service with Guy and Gernice Ward. I even remember Jacqui Gardner was present. I felt like Billy Graham!
    Your blog reminded me of one man that made the trip. He sat about half way back on the right side of the aisle of the folding chairs in the hall. I still remember the yellow cardigan sweater and green golf shirt that he was wearing that night. After the preaching was done ( I think that I went on for almost 30 minutes), I stood at the front while Wane Harlow led the congregation of “Just as I Am” and offered the invitation.
    Half way through the first verse, he started down the aisle. He averted my gaze as tears began to fill his eyes. He wrapped his arms around me and sobbed quietly in my ear, “You got it son!”

    My father died that next fall while I was in my first semester at Grand Canyon University. I still have the last letter he wrote me; the books that he printed my name in on page 32 of each book; the memory of his love. Thank you for bringing me back to the river and plunging me in!


  • #3

    Write My Essay (Friday, 01 September 2017 03:47)

    It is a superb opportunity to make a while be just right for you but never in opposition to. because time is all that students have while they may be targeted on long time and complex projects, you've got an opportunity to shop it and manipulate two times greater effective than regular. We offer you the pleasant situation for safe and obvious instructional thesis writing first hand for the reason that works without any intermediaries unlike most of the people of academic writing businesses.