Indulge me a bit here if you don’t mind, and perhaps we will stumble across an insight along the way.
Dad would have turned 100 on September 2nd—tomorrow. I wish he were here to mark his centennial with his family, but instead he’s been an absent father — gone almost a quarter of a century, a victim of a physical heart not nearly as strong as his true heart.
But perhaps in his absence, there has been some room made for growth of those he left behind.
Dad was a typical small-town Baptist pastor, passionate about his faith, but not a great preacher. Minimally educated, he brought a heart to the pulpit that easily outpaced his oratorical skills. His theology was simplistic, largely an unexamined God-loves-you-but-sin-lurks-around-every-corner type. Raised in the Depression South, the middle of seven sons of a sharecropper, he found little use—at least early in his career—for the finer subtleties of theological discourse. But what he lacked in pulpit skills, he more than made up for in his relationships with his parishioners. Almost universally loved, the ability to bond and provide spiritual succor was definitional in his life.
I am not sure where he got it; his brothers, about half of them also small-town preachers (and the ones who weren’t still wore their fundamentalism on their sleeves) were about as self-righteous and judgmental a book-burning lot as Arkansas could produce. But Dad was the very essence of caring and compassion, so much so that no one seemed to notice what a bad preacher he was. In the years since his death, it has never ceased to amaze me how so many people in so many towns remember that he “was just the best preacher we ever had.” “Preacher” to them had little to do with pulpit skills; it was about being a part of the community, knowing everyone by first name, and being there through the triumphs and trials of life.
I guess they could all see something that my teenage myopia kept me from perceiving. I hope in the years since Dad’s death—and in the many hours reflecting on his life—that I have finally learned what he understood intuitively:
Believing right and being able to say it in good form is ultimately meaningless unless we can live out those beliefs in relationship with others.
From the core of his being, he understood that belief is only meaningful as a precursor to activity. He never articulated it, but he lived it every day.
Thanks, Dad, for that lesson from your true heart.