Wednesday, April 30, 2008


My father started preaching the gospel when he was 8 years old. At first, he was a novelty, the cute kid who they would pull up to speak at Camp Meetings who would speak for a few minutes about Jesus' love. By the time he was 13 though, he was getting press in the local papers when he would be speaking at a revival. True, the novelty was still there, but he began to build steam. He wasn't yet 15 when he started getting air time on the local radio station to preach.

I don't know a whole lot else about him or his childhood. I know his father was abusive, and he once told me about catching a beating because he climbed up on their new camper after he was told not to. The fact that they were all playing hide-and-seek and the kids whose parents owned the camper were all hiding on top of it didn't factor in. I know that he was locked in closets as punishment, sometimes for as much as 24 hours. I know his favorite toy (a scooter) was taken away from him each Sunday as his sacrifice for the Sabbath. My mother told me he had a homosexual experience in high school and then again in college, but I have no idea how he figured those actions into his narrow interpretation of religion.

She met him in a church run university where he was the most popular boy in school. Girls flocked to hear him preach, and while he wasn't much of a student in general, his passion for the Word of God carried him through school. My mother dropped out to marry him after he graduated, and they became traveling evangelists until she got pregnant with my brother. They settled down in a small house to focus on building a family, and he took on his first church.

An amazing speaker, my father was really best suited for evangelism. He could sweep into a town, hold a week long revival, get people running the aisles and then head on to the next town. Taking on a church required paperwork, money management, and working with a board of individuals that want to see the corporation of Jesus run in a certain way. This was a challenge for him, and he leaned on my mother to fill in the gaps which she did to the best of her ability.

Still, it would usually just be a handful of years until things would start to go bad. The Church Board would be against him, or circumstance, and then God would call our family to a new city and a new church. So we started a cycle of moving around through Indiana and Ohio, from church to church, holding what I've come to think of as "Extended Revivals".

When it comes to his adult life, I know almost less than I do of his childhood. He left the family when I was ten, so my memories are of a caricature...not a fully formed person. I know that he had affairs. I know he was always seeking out get rich quick schemes, investing money we didn't have into pyramid schemes and roofing businesses. He sold advertising. He sold sleeping bags along road sides. The electricity would get turned off. We ate a lot of fried bread.

He loved to pick up hitchhikers, something that made my mother so uncomfortable she wouldn't talk to him for the rest of the day. He was devoted to his congregation and loved to be a part of that bigger family. He loved to give gifts, and is truly a person that I think liked giving more than receiving.

But in all this, I never saw someone speak the way he did. He would get entire congregations moving.

He would be speaking, preaching, teaching and then the mood would strike him. He would jump from the pulpit and sit behind the organ and start to play and sing, getting the congregation to stand and join him. It wasn't choreographed, it felt organic and natural. A piece of scripture would trigger a song, or vice versa. His sermon notes were just a blueprint, a jumping off place, and he rarely gave the same teaching the same way twice. He had years of notes and sermons, and that was just his own work. He also had hundreds from his father as well and would sometimes pull an old sermon out he remembered from his childhood.

After I moved out of my mom's house, years would go by without contact with my father. My anger over my childhood eventually fizzled out and just became a kind of sadness for him, and eventually became a gentle apathy. I no longer wished ill on him, I just didn't care. Things could be great or rough for him. In the end, he was another in a long line of strangers out there.

When we heard he was dying, my brother and I made several trips to see him. He was weak and the cancer was robbing his personality along with everything else. We would just sit and chat. He would call Jennifer "your wife" because he didn't know her name, but he would ask about her, and it seemed like he really wanted to know about who she was. His current congregation loved him, and he always had a room full of flowers and visitors.

When he passed, one at a time, the members of his church stood and told stories about this stranger. They would talk about how he would stop talking mid-sentence and go over to play the organ, and how they loved not knowing what would happen on Sunday mornings. They talked about how he was always at the hospital to visit with them and their families. They talked inviting to their homes after services for dinner, and how he was an engaging delightful guest.

In the end, I think that sums him up pretty well. He really was an engaging delightful guest. I guess in the end, there are a lot worse things you could be.

This morning, here at work, a Ben Folds song came on about a kid that climbed a tree tripping on acid and in the morning he came down a born again Christian. It got me thinking about my dad, and I wondered what he would have seen if he had dosed some blotter and climbed a tree.

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