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One night, he and Osborne were in the process of getting several hundred chickens ready to go into the smoker when they started to chat about God. Being a preacher as well as a barbecue cook, Bear proceeded to tell Osborne about his personal walk with Jesus, and impressed upon him the need to be saved.
"I know, Bear," Osborne said, surveying the big tables full of gutted hens. "I just hope that when I get to heaven, God is not a chicken."
After we all got through laughing at that — the image of Jennings Osborne standing guiltily before an enormous, scowling rooster clothed in light — I asked them if they thought God worked His will through Jennings Osborne. They said they know He did.
"He taught us humility," Shretta said. "He taught us that things weren't everything, and that if you're not making a difference in someone else's life, then what are you doing? ... I believe God put on shoes and came down and showed us, in the form of a man, how to give love unconditionally."
Shretta Morris thought awhile, then began to speak of Matthew 19:24, the passage in which Jesus told his followers it's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to get into heaven — how maybe Jesus was really talking about something other than St. Peter turning away a man like Osborne.
She didn't get it all quite right as I have heard it, but I knew what she was talking about: the idea that the verse is actually a parable; that in Jesus' day, there was a low, narrow gate in Jerusalem called "The Eye of the Needle," and in order to enter the city, camels laden with treasures after their journey across the desert had to be divested of their riches in order to slip through. For a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God, the idea went, he had to be stripped of his finery — to come as naked to The Lord as when he had been sent into this world.
As Shretta Morris spoke of wealth beyond this place, the auctioneers inside the warehouse and out of our earshot rolled on and on in their quick, sing-song rhythm, paring away — lot by lot, thing by thing, treasure by treasure — the vast burden of riches from the ghost of Jennings Osborne.
"I believe," Shretta said, smiling, "that rich man is in heaven now."
Look for a slideshow from the auctions on Wednesday morning.
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