I had a really neat—and that’s not a term I use very often— experience a few Sundays ago.
I’ve been the fill-in preacher at The Rock Baptist Church in The Rock, Georgia for a few months. Prior to my engagement there, my only connection to the town of The Rock (let me add, for my young readers, that the town is not named for former world champion professional wrestler and future Academy Award-winning actor Dwayne Johnson) had been the carpet that my parents bought there, back when I was a kid and The Rock had a carpet store. They purchased it to, for reasons I’ll never understand, cover up the beautiful hardwood floors in our little house on Memorial Drive in Barnesville. My mother described the carpet’s texture as “semi-shag” and its pattern as “mingledy.” It was lovely.
Anyway, one Sunday a man I used to know came to worship with us at The Rock. He and I hadn’t seen each other in forty years. I was a teenager when I started preaching and, sometime during my adolescent attempts at proclaiming the word of God, he heard me preach. He was a grown man at the time, and he started preaching right about then, too. I heard him preach a time or two.
So there he was, on February 7, 2016, listening to me preach for the first time since around 1975.
In our brief conversation before the service, he told me a couple of things I didn’t know. For one thing, he worked side-by-side with my mother in the cutting room at Carter’s Mill. He said he remembered when she quit to stay home with me. That would have been in 1958. For another thing, he said that my father helped him find some places to preach when he was just starting out. His stories warmed my heart. My folks have been gone a long time, and I like to hear people who knew them talk about them. I love learning new things about them.
When I shared a brief version of this story on Facebook, a friend asked me if he said whether my preaching had improved since the last time he heard me. I said I was afraid to ask. As a matter of fact, though, as he exited the sanctuary, he said, “I know your Mama and Daddy are rejoicing in heaven this morning.”
And I thought, “I sure hope so.”
I mean, how am I supposed to know? Mama’s been gone forty-one years, Daddy thirty-seven. I was sixteen and hadn’t started college yet when Mama died. I was twenty and hadn’t gone to seminary when Daddy died. I graduated from Mercer and earned two seminary degrees. My experiences have been so much different than theirs. Mama pretty much never left Barnesville. Daddy left Yatesville to join the Navy at the beginning of World War II and spent most of the war in the Pacific. Except for those years, he stayed pretty close to home, too. So far as I know, Mama attended one church her entire life. Daddy attended the same one from the time they married until we held his funeral in it. I’ve served several churches as pastor, have taught in a university, and now work as an editor for a publishing company. My life has been broad, my education solid, and my reading extensive.
My faith has developed, evolved, deepened, and changed.
Sometimes I wonder if my parents and I would be able to talk about religion. Then, when I really think about it, I think I know about how such conversations would go if they were here to have conversations with me. I’d suggest something I thought was a little beyond their boundaries. Mama would say, “Why do you think about things like that?” and that would be that, as far as she was concerned. And Daddy would say, probably out of earshot of Mama, “You know, I’ve wondered about that myself.”
Still, I’m not sure they’d think my sermons really constitute “preaching.” Maybe they’d at least think I give a nice talk.
A couple of years before Daddy died, while I was a student at Mercer, I told him that I thought I might be becoming a liberal. He gave me a sideways look, then asked me what I meant. I told him that I was asking a lot of questions about things and I wasn’t sure where they were going to take me.
“Let me ask you this,” he said. “Do you still believe in Jesus as your Lord and Savior?”
“Yes,” I replied. Honestly, I might add.
“Well,” he said, “just hold on to that. Everything else will work itself out.”
I was the educated one. He was the wise one.
I still believe that, by the way. I try to give expression to it the best way I know how.
Maybe that’s reason enough for them to rejoice in heaven.
I sure hope so …