Sunday, April 12, 2009

Tight Buttons, Soft Pews, and Church Homes.

Here’s an Easter memory with just a little bit of profanity.

I had a little trouble buttoning the collar button of my dress shirt this morning. I need to lose some weight. But my button, and the fact that it’s Easter, reminded me of my father.

When I was little, Mom conscientiously got me into church, but Dad didn’t go. Whenever we visited churches during vacations, he’d sit in the car reading Westerns. We got him to church on Christmas and Easter, and that was about it. Therefore Dad didn’t wear dress shirts frequently enough to have a well-fitting supply, plus he was too frugal to buy a new shirt. So on the infrequent occasions when all three of us went to church together, ridiculous struggles ensued to get his top button buttoned. My mom pitched in. I think my folks even had a little hook tool to help.

I don’t know much about Dad’s childhood, for his father was long deceased and he was estranged from his mother. He was paradoxical, angry and caring, cheap and generous, strong willed and eager to please. Dad was afflicted with what Theodore Roosevelt called “the fun of hating.” For instance, he unfailingly referred to his stepfather as “the bald-headed son of a bitch” or “that goddamned bastard,” years after the man died.

Yet Dad loved George Beverly Shea, the long-time singer with the Billy Graham crusades and owned some of Shea’s LPs. Unless Mom prompted him without my knowledge, Dad also bought me my first Bible. He and I were downtown in our hometown, and he took me into the G. C. Murphy store and helped me pick out a King James Version which I still own as a keepsake.

I don’t remember exactly why my mom and I started church-shopping back in the fall of 1975, when I was eighteen, but we began attending the local United Methodist congregation. What a wonderful, welcoming church! We even talked Dad into coming. What a great opportunity this seemed: to help Dad have a connection to a church.

But the worst thing happened: the first Sunday we visited that church with Dad, the minister preached on tithing. Tithing sermons can be a little scolding---or perhaps "challenging" to folks who could increase their giving. Dad, with his Depression-era frugality, was very put-off. “At least those padded pews made my ass feel good,” was his comment about the service.

But he was also welcomed by local people he knew. The pastor visited our house, was happy to meet him, and made him feel respected. When we joined the church, Dad was baptized. Over the years, my parents enjoyed the church’s fellowship and programs. I'm not sure how the issue of the collar buttons got resolved, but as Dad grew older he "shrank" a bit and didn't bother wearing ties anyway. When he died in 1999, his service happened in the church’s sanctuary.

Dad was one of those men who kept his deepest feelings hidden; Mom, who was married to him for 58 years, never professed to know the wellsprings of his emotions. I could only sense some things. But the fact that he became a churchgoer late in life is a testimony to the power of the risen Lord acting through a caring pastor and loving congregation.

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