A Tribute to Elder Sonny Pyles
From the dawn of time, there have been – I suppose – men whose stature and presence is deemed “larger than life.” Such men were some combination of powerful, influential, colorful, but most of all impacting to the piece of the world they occupied. Elder Sonny Pyles was just such a character, and the “world” that he influenced will likely never know the full effect of what the Lord blessed him to do and impact during the course of his life. This tribute is my personal reflection of the man that I dearly loved, whose passing makes the world a little lesser without his presence, and to what I believe I owe him in helping me in my own journey. These reflections are by no means exhaustive, for a man as colorful as Bro Sonny was cannot be encapsulated in one piece of writing. The vessel of wisdom that he was on earth is broken from us, and the best tribute we – his friends – can give to such a man is to carry parts of that wisdom with us that we were blessed to draw out from that vessel over the years.
Whenever I think of Bro Sonny, so many things spring to mind, not the least of which is how he referred to something he found ludicrous. “That’s a bunch of baloney: b-a-l-o-n-e-y. I know some of you are out there saying, ‘Doesn’t he know it’s b-a-l-o-g-n-a?” You can call it that if you want, but it’s nothing more than b-a-l-o-n-e-y.” Springing from a generation of men who were not afraid to call a spade a spade, one never doubted where he stood or what he thought. He taught me the value of saying what you mean and meaning what you say. One of my own personal mottos sprang from this: “I would rather people know what I think and disagree with me than wonder whether they agreed with me or not.” And yet, Bro Sonny’s blunt manner was tempered with a measure of discretion not known in today’s shameless culture. Many times listening to his preaching, I would see him pause and say, “And that’s as far as I’ll go in the presence of women and children.” Bluntness in his book was no excuse for overt crudeness, and these two things working in tandem made him even more of an oddity in society as the years went on.
The greatest advice I gleaned from him was a well-worn saying, “Don’t try to exercise influence where you have none.” Though I bear the scars of not heeding that advice over the years, it has saved me on multiple occasions from bringing undue hardship and pain on myself. Though not short on giving his opinion, Bro Sonny was not one to go around the country and indiscriminately give unsolicited advice. He certainly had built up a great bit of influence among my family, and his stays in our home were everything from instructional to riotously hilarious. He could vacillate between giving you gold nuggets from the Scriptures mixed with some of the funniest anecdotes about his times among our people. So many “ditties” were brought to the table of conversation in our home, and I still cherish the memories of listening to him and my father talk about the “Hell Bound Order”, “Hell Blown Out”, and “Hell Boiling Over” of HBO, along with the “dope operas” of “Who Are My Children?” while we search for some “Guiding Light” drowning in the sands of time waiting for the day “As the World Burns.”
As mentioned earlier, the reach and influence of this man will likely never be fully known as his life touched a great many either directly or tangentially. His ministry positively affected so many, and the lessons others learned from him were in turn passed down to others coming after. Much like Paul instructed Timothy, Bro Sonny took what he knew, committed it to faithful men, who in turn taught others also. (II Timothy 2:2) My natural father taught my brother and I much that has blessed us in the ministry. Many of those teachings came from people like Bro Sonny. As a young minister, dad said, “Elder Bill Walden was a father to me in guiding my direction in labor and pastoral care. Bro Sonny gave me the keys that unlocked doors of Scripture that I didn’t even know existed.” Many ministers have said as much in that systematic study was encouraged to them by Bro Sonny. I still employ his 4 rules today: “When trying to figure out what a verse means, you have to consider 4 things. 1. What do the words mean? If a verse has words like ‘purloining’ or ‘lasciviousness’ in it, you’ll never know what the verse is talking about without those definitions. 2. What tense is it? It makes a world of difference if the thought is in the past tense, currently happening, or yet to come. 3. What is the immediate context? What is said directly before, directly after, who said it, and who did they say it to? and 4. How does this fit within the overall framework of Scripture? Whatever conclusion you reach from the first three, it can’t fly in the face of some clear teaching somewhere else as the Bible harmonizes completely. Now, the first 3 can be done in 5 minutes, but adding the fourth will create a lifetime of study seeing how things fit together.”
One bit of personal influence that he gave me – likely without ever knowing it – occurred when I was a teenager. During that period of my life, I would have been termed a “worry wart.” Though many might think me very cavalier now, I was consumed by worry then. He delivered a sermon on human emotions that talked of the good and bad of different emotions and what happened when we failed to temper them like we should. When dealing with emotions of anger, fear, and sadness, he talked about what happened when they led down the path to worry: “Everything people worry about fits into one of two categories. It is either something over which they have no control, or it is something over which they have some control. Don’t kid yourselves folks. Ain’t none of ya got full control over nothin’! Why worry over something you can’t control? It’s out of your hands. But, if you worry about things over which you have some control, the worry will keep you from doing what you can in that situation. So, in both cases, why worry? Do what you can when you can, and leave the rest to the Lord. Just shred your credentials as Master of the Universe, and bow in submission to Him who is the Master of the Universe.” Those thoughts started me on the path that freed me from much of the bondage I was being driven to by worry.
It would be unjust, however, to say that the man didn’t have his foibles. Some of those foibles made his “color” even more resonant. He was a real man. Not a demigod with superhuman ability. Through the years, youngsters – like me at one point – expected that he put his spurs on everyday, rode his horse to town like John Wayne, was a quicker draw than anyone in Texas, and could throw a lasso as far as he could spit his tobacco; the truth is that for all his “presence” he was a shy person. A dear sister that I currently pastor told him years ago, “You may be the most misunderstood person I’ve ever known.” As I grew from being a youngster, much of the myth I had built about him dissolved as I understood him better, being a shy person myself. He put on the clothes of an extrovert, though anyone that saw him on the farm where he “dwelt among his own people” could quickly see that he loved solitude, learning, and walking in the quiet with his God.
Because of many of the myths built around the man that have over time grown into legend, his hidden talents would surprise you. Being very compassionate at his core about the Lord’s bride, his grace in individual interaction flew counter to the public face of the western curmudgeon. Seen often to get up during song service or absent himself entirely from it, some – like me – were stunned to learn that he not only could sing but do it very well. Many kind and personal remarks were given through the years from him to me, and I will always treasure the rendition I witnessed him lead of “Rest for the Weary” coupled with his made-up “Little Bo Peep” to the tune of “Weeping Sinners” in our living room. His color was as permanent as the indelible print of a tattoo, while his spiritual fire was as edifying as any I’ve had the pleasure to meet.
Any who heard him preach a measurable amount will testify that no subject delighted him more than the resurrection and the 2nd coming of Jesus. Though not all of his predictions came true, he lived his life fully expecting to be standing on the earth when the Lord returned. “I’m not looking for an undertaker but to the great Uppertaker. Haven’t made any arrangements to make a hole in the ground as I expect to make a hole in the sky.” Regrettably for us, that prediction did not hold, but delightfully for him, he experiences great gain as his soul and spirit have made a hole in the sky on the wings of the great Uppertaker. Soon, his body will be committed to the ground, and like Job, though skin worms will destroy the body, yet in his flesh he will see God beholding him with his own eyes and not another’s. (Job 19:26) Believing the same things that he preached, I do expect to see him again one day. He is still Bro Sonny in heaven right now. No longer bowed over from an incident with an enraged cow. No longer having to be gregarious as a naturally shy man. No longer preaching about Jesus but having Jesus preach to him. Singing every note in perfect song and experiencing that true rest for the weary on the other side of Jordan in the sweet fields of Eden. He was no phony baloney. He was the real deal, and now he mercifully enjoys the real deal of full, unceasing rest in the Paradise of God.