[This is one of the posts telling a story from the life of my Dad. Click here to see the others.]
As I mentioned in the tribute that I wrote for my Dad's funeral service, one of the things for which I am most grateful about the way that he and my Mom raised us is how they passed their commitment to church on to my brothers and me. I've written quite a bit about how they've influenced my faith, but in this post I'm trying to address something that's certainly related but also not quite the same: the commitment to those communities of people in which we learn to live in Christ, to love one another, and through which we represent Christ to the world (our churches).
As the tribute mentions, I don't recall either of my parents ever laying down a verbal rule about church, but it was undeniably ingrained in us that if it was a Sunday morning, we were always going to be in church. Even on the last Sunday of his life, when later that night he went into inpatient hospice care, my Dad was in church. A week after his last Sunday in church, when all of our family had gathered after his death on Thursday, many people were surprised to see us in church together. If they were surprised, it was because they didn't know my Dad well. We were simply doing what he had always done: it was Sunday morning, and we were in church together as a family.
As grateful as I am for this, something about it has puzzled me for a long time: I know that I'm not the only person in the world who grew up going to church every Sunday, so how is it that I came out of my childhood loving the church while many others who went often like I did grow up to become nominally committed to a church at best, or even wanting nothing to do with any church at worst?
I have two very early church memories with my Dad that begin to shed light on what may be the answer. He volunteered in various ways in the church we belonged to when I was very young. I was young enough not to have any idea what the role was that he was playing, but I remember two ways that he often let me tag along and play a role myself. One of those was that at the end of the worship service, he would carry me, holding me up high enough to where I could blow out the candles at the front of the sanctuary (obviously I had to have been pretty young). For me, blown out candles are one of those examples of how a smell can carry tremendously strong memories attached to it, so that about 30 years later it's hard for me not to have a flashback whenever there's a candle blown out, particularly in a church.
The second memory is of being with my Dad in the church office on Sunday mornings while everyone else was in their Sunday School classes. Again, I don't remember what kind of work he did in there, but what I do remember was that in that office there was a small button on the wall. Dad watched the clock and would let me know when the moment had come to push the button, and it would ring a bell throughout the classrooms indicating the Sunday School hour was over and that it was time to go to the sanctuary for the worship service.
I looked back on that memory while I was working for a couple of years in charge of a large Sunday School program, and something interesting about that memory occurred to me for the first time: I wasn't in Sunday School. That realization didn't surprise me. I have vague memories of really disliking Sunday School as a child, so the irony wasn't lost on me that a boy who disliked Sunday School grew up to be in charge of it.
Yet even though I disliked Sunday School so much as a kid (and I really have no recollection as to why that was the case), I never remember disliking the church. In fact, as far as I can remember, I've always liked it. I think the reason why is that even though it took a while for me to really like church (the things that we did on Sundays), I have always loved and been loved by the church (as in the people with whom we did those things).
From as far back as I can remember as a child, there were people who made going to church fun for me. And the really interesting thing as I reflect on it is that all the people who come to mind when I think of those who did this for me were adults. I liked my friends like every young person does, but they weren't the difference maker for me. Obviously I liked spending time in the office with my Dad and being held up by him to blow out the candles. I've also written here about a hero of mine named Chester (see The Man Who Never Had a Bad Day) who made church fun for my brothers and me. Then there were others when I was a bit older, and later it was youth ministers... always adults, and the difference they made for me always happened in small ways apart from the plans of the normal church programs. They knew my name, liked it when I sat next to them in a worship service, and offered me candy or a high five. Those things meant the world to me as a kid, even though I didn't realize it at the time.
I love the church we are a part of now that I have my own family. It's the first time in my life I've been part of a larger church, which certainly comes along with its advantages, as this church is able to do a lot of things that we'd never been able to do in previous churches. But one of the drawbacks can be that since we have so many good programs, it's a temptation for us to think that kids will grow up to love the church as long as we have them in those good programs. But what it really comes down to is adults who love God going out of their way to help the young ones grow up knowing that they matter. Any adult in a church can do this, and every Mom and Dad in a church must do it. So with my little ones growing up in church now, it has me wondering two things: Am I giving my kids the chance to develop those kinds of relationships with adults in our church? And am I playing that role for the young ones in our church (both my own kids and others)?
I don't know why my parents decided to let me spend the Sunday School hour in the church office with my Dad rather than making me go to a Sunday School class I didn't like, but the lessons learned in that office were just as valuable as what a Sunday School teacher would have tried to teach me (and I probably wouldn't be writing about a regular Sunday School lesson three decades later). I saw my Dad serve his church in the ways that he could, and whether or not he realized it, a boy being by the side of his Dad who was so dedicated to his church, and by the side of other adults whom I looked forward to seeing, made an impression on me that will never go away.