Thursday, January 30, 2014

Honest to God, Part V

My dad’s mind worked a lot like his father’s had, but my dad was a different kind of minister. Having grown up in an ultra-conservative church environment, Dad grew so disillusioned with the church that, as a young adult, he considered leaving it altogether. But once he discovered how much faith could thrive when the bonds of legalism were removed, he hoped to inspire young people to foster a healthy view of God and faith. Dad carried this vision with him as he entered youth ministry. He was the accessible minister, the one teens could talk to when their parents failed to understand them. And he was funny. When people were standing around my dad after church services, they were laughing. But still, while he was a minister to them, he was Dad to me.

Dad was an “old” dad—35 when I was born. Growing up, I got used to hearing, “Deana, your grandpa is here to pick you up.” At his college reunions, some of his former classmates already had grandchildren while I was still hoping for the Barbie Dream House for Christmas. He was a good ten years older than the fathers of kids my age. In a way, he was my very own, less-bookish Atticus Finch. When I was little, I loved watching him shave. He used an electric razor and the sound of it brought me running every morning. Standing in the bathroom watching Dad move the buzzing gadget all around his face, I would slowly reach a hand into his razor case and snatch the plastic razor cover. Hiding it behind my back, I giggled as Dad finished shaving, clicked off the razor, and reached into the case for the plastic cover. He pretended to be surprised that it wasn’t there and I thrust it out to him, laughing at my own sneakiness. I continued this throughout my childhood and, as an adult, would still run into the bathroom and snatch the cover while he was shaving. When Dad gave me away at my wedding, I handed him a plastic razor cover that I had hidden in my bouquet. He seemed taken aback, and then smiled and put it in his pocket. I found out later that he had one in his pocket to give me at that moment and was caught off guard when he realized I’d had the same idea.

During my childhood, I felt a kinship with Dad. He had been the youngest in his family, so when my older brother hurt my feelings, I knew Dad understood me. He was the cool dad who made all my friends laugh. While my friends’ dads stayed hidden behind newspapers at their houses, my dad followed my friends and me around our house, playing his ukulele and singing, “Five-foot-two, eyes of blue, but, oh! What those five foot could do, has anybody seen my GAAAAL!” I inherited his sense of humor, and we shared a restlessness that comes from the urge to always question things, to keep searching for meaning yet to be found, and lessons yet to be learned.

As I got into my teen years, Dad and I began to clash a little. He had been a teenager in the ’50s, and, even though he worked with teens and tried to relate to kids my age, ’80s teen culture sometimes mystified and alarmed him. But he still tried, and I think I made a little progress in my quest to convince him that Madonna wasn’t as evil as he thought she was. We survived my teen years, which included Dad being my youth minister. Then I went away to Abilene Christian University, which was then a somewhat progressive Church-of-Christ college in Abilene, Texas. In the middle of my junior year, my parents called with shocking news. Consistent with a pattern in conservative Churches of Christ across the nation at the time, the membership at our church in Beaumont was dwindling. With more elderly people than families with young children, the church elders could no longer justify the need for a youth minister. So they had to let my dad go. My dad was no longer a minister, and I was no longer a minister’s kid. After a rough year financially, my dad started another career—this time in funeral sales. “I don’t get as much backtalk in this job,” he joked.

Dad had been burned out on ministry for years by that point, and I think his forced vocation change came as something of a relief, despite the stress it caused. But I found it unnerving that a church family would reject one of its own. My dad’s father had helped start this church decades earlier and had preached for it until it could hire its own preacher. My family had at least a 30-year history with that church, and it forced my dad out. So when my husband Chad announced to me one day in 1995 that he wanted to become a minister, I was less than thrilled.

In fact, I cried. A lot. We would become one of those families who lived in the glass house my dad had always reminded me of. People would expect me to be a certain way, to believe a certain way, and to act a certain way. Our parents would have to pay for our children’s Christmas presents. We would invest in a church, and it could reject us. I kept crying, and we sought advice from older couples who had been in ministry for years. I finally arrived at a cautious peace about Chad’s decision, he completed seminary, and we began interviewing at churches. A Church of Christ in southeast Texas, 60 miles from my hometown, hired Chad. Once we got there and I saw Chad in action, I knew he was in the right job. He naturally related to teens and was always looking for ways to make the youth program more effective for them. He built a successful program and recruited volunteers to join him in mentoring the young people in the church. Chad was great at his job, and I was proud of him. And while money was tight, the pay scale for youth minister in Churches of Christ had improved considerably since my dad’s ministry years. But an inner voice nagged at me. I felt a duty to go about being a minister’s wife the way my mother or grandmother had. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized I wasn’t like either one of them.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Honest to God, Part IV

I’m sure one reason I identified so deeply with church is because the men to whom I was closest in my family were church leaders. Our congregations were not huge—ranging from 250-500 members—but I believed the church work the men in my family did was important. I remember sitting on a wooden pew at my grandparents’ church in Beaumont and listening to my grandfather preach from the pulpit while I admired the shine on my black Mary Janes. At our own churches, my dad was the youth minister, and I was proud that all the teenagers—who I thought were the coolest people on Earth—liked him. When he would preach, or even make a simple announcement to the church about youth group activities, a proud voice in my head said, “That’s my dad.” As an adult, I’ve listened to my own husband from the pulpit, been proud when people complimented him, and have silently raged when he has been criticized. All my life, my last names have brought reactions of “Oh, you must be related to Brother Hamby,” or “You must be Winston’s kid,” or “You must be the youth minister’s wife.” Some church members stand on the fringes of a church body, content with minimal involvement. But because of the tradition of church leadership in my family, I’ve always been in the thick of church life. And for a long time, I liked it that way.

W.J. Hamby was known as “Brother Hamby” to the church people who knew him. He had a stern demeanor and spoke with a booming voice through the church P.A. system when he preached. He didn’t have an easy childhood. Born in Leesville, La., in 1907, W.J. grew up picking cotton on the family farm—and hating it. One brutally hot day, W.J. finished picking a row of cotton and turned to start on the next row. His eyes traveled down the row of cotton that was so long, he realized he could not see the end of it. He vowed to do whatever he could to leave that way of life behind. So he dove into his studies and ended up graduating from high school as valedictorian of his class in 1924. The ’20s didn’t exactly roar for the Hambys. They couldn’t afford to send W.J. to college, so he moved to Detroit and worked on an automobile assembly line to save money for his education. Even then, he was able to pay for only one semester at Louisiana State University. After marrying my grandmother and moving to southeast Texas, he studied for the CPA exam through a correspondence course, and passed the Texas State Examination in 1940. He went on to enjoy a successful career as an accountant and was probably the first in his family to make a significant amount of money. He never earned a college degree.

My grandfather was probably the smartest person I have ever known. His brain was always working on something. He was in his 70s when the Rubik’s Cube craze hit, and he worked on it for hours in his home office until he solved it. In 1987, he published a commentary on the book of Revelation. This book of the Bible tends to make Church-of-Christ people nervous, so this was a daring and admirable task for him to take on. The Church of Christ upholds an extremely literal view of scripture, and it’s difficult to do that with a book of prophecy that deals with a seven-headed beast emerging from the sea (13:1), and a dragon with an appetite for newborn babies (12:4) Not to mention all those pesky references to musical instruments in heaven. With God handing out harps (15:2) and angels playing trumpets (8:6), it’s hard to back up what the Church of Christ sees as a scripture-based ban on musical instruments in worship. So the last book of the Bible is often ignored, or at least approached by Church-of-Christ folks with the caution one would use in the presence of a rabid pit bull. But my grandfather tackled this project with vigor, hiding away in his home office during his retirement years as he studied and wrote about this mysterious book of the Bible. The result was a 111-page book that was published by the Church-of-Christ-owned Star Bible Publications publishing company. The book breaks Revelation down, chapter by chapter, in a style of prose that has never succeeded in holding my attention. Regardless, I still got a kick out of browsing through Church-of-Christ resource catalogs and seeing the book with “by W.J. Hamby” across the cover.

“Brother Hamby,” with his voice that boomed God’s word through the pulpit microphone, was how church members knew my grandfather. To me, he was “Peepaw.” We spent hours in his office assembling the jigsaw puzzles he loved, and when something funny was said at the dinner table, his deep, stern voice gave way to a high-pitched giggle. When I was young, I sat in Peepaw’s lap as he read to me. Once, he stopped reading to listen to something on TV, and, trying to regain his attention, I took the book and hit him across the face with it—launching his glasses across the room. If my parents had witnessed this, I would have been in the biggest trouble of my life. But Peepaw, after recovering from the shock and reclaiming his glasses, thought it was funny. He retold that story for years, punctuating it with his high-pitched chuckle.

In my copy of The Book of Revelation, Peepaw wrote, “To Deana:” and then pasted this typewritten poem by Charles Kingsley, the English priest, historian, and writer:

Be good, sweet maid, and let who will be clever;
Do noble things, not dream them, all day long;
And so make life, death and that vast forever
One Grand Sweet Song.
Then, in his own handwriting:
From “Peepaw”
W.J. Hamby

Peepaw was 79, and I was 15. Over the next 18 months, a resurgence of cancer gradually robbed him of his health and strength. I would visit my grandparents’ house in the evenings, and help Peepaw walk to the bed when he grew tired. One night, he said, “I’m probably going to die soon, and I’m ready.” And that’s what he did two weeks later. Hundreds of people came to his funeral, and someone said the only man who had been a better preacher than my Peepaw was the Apostle Paul himself. That made me proud.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Honest to God, Part III

Somehow, New Mexico became the answer.

My dad was using an accounting degree he never wanted. A jazz trombonist, he had music—not numbers—in his blood. But his accountant father had dreams of “Hamby & Hamby” on the sign outside the firm in their southeast Texas town of Beaumont. He would only pay for college if my dad got an accounting degree. This is how my dad became a CPA against his will.

But forced careers will only get you so far. By the time he and my mom had a toddler, my dad needed another job. Something that wouldn’t kill him from the inside-out. There was only one vocation more noble than accounting to his father. If my dad went into ministry, he could escape the number-crunching and still have his father’s blessing. And a family friend knew of a church in New Mexico that needed a minister. So my parents sold their house, packed their stuff, and with a four-year-old in the backseat and me tucked away in my mother’s womb, they said goodbye to all four of my grandparents. Then they set off for a drive clear across Texas.

Parts of New Mexico are breathtaking. The ancestral puebloan ruins of Chaco Canyon in the northwest. The centuries-old churches of Santa Fe. The mountains of Taos that lie under a blanket of pristine snow. Stately mesas that line the horizon beneath a massive canopy of clean blue sky.

Lovington was near none of this. Lovington sulked away in the forgotten and lonely southeast corner of the state. The town smelled of stockyards and a soon-to-close oil refinery. The relentless wind kept a fresh layer of dirt on everything. There were a few elegant homes, which were a mystery to me since I couldn’t imagine how people got rich out there. Neighborhoods of poor to modest homes filled out the rest of the town. On the outskirts, Mexican migrant workers lived in trailers with rubber tires on top to keep the never-ending wind from blowing the roofs away. Decades later, a Lovington High School graduate named Brian Urlacher would become the NFL Rookie of the Year and finally bring a sense of pride to the town. But in 1971, Lovington had no one to cheer for; no future to hope in. Just dirt, wind, and a horizon that was too far away.

My parents rented a house on Birch Street, but the house wasn’t ready when they arrived in town. So my parents and four-year-old brother moved in with a family from their new church. Five months pregnant with me, my mother became ill with an ovarian cyst and, having just moved 700 miles away from her parents, had to be cared for by people she barely knew while my dad was at work. My mother had grown up the child of an Army officer, and she had come of age in exotic places like Panama and Japan. Now, as sharp pains shot across her swollen belly, she looked out the window of a stranger’s house and watched tumbleweeds roll down the street.

By the time I showed up and rounded us out to a family of four, my parents had moved into the rent house and Mom had made friends with a group of church women. They had all been pregnant, too, so the women gathered at each other’s houses and we babies rolled and crawled around on the floor.

My dad went to a mysterious place called “work” every morning. I don’t know when I realized he worked at our church. Our church was a red brick building with a steeple, which made it unusual: In the Church of Christ, many congregations view steeples as unnecessary ornamentation. My dad was the youth minister at our church. Youth ministry was new back then and there was no training in the area yet. No books, no models of youth ministry, no Christian rock bands. My dad knew only that he had grown to hate church as a teenager, and he wanted to make church more teen-friendly. He held after-church evening devotionals in which he dimmed the lights while youth group members sat in a circle on the floor of the fellowship hall and sang “Kumbaya.” The church elders learned of this practice and put a stop to it, saying singing on the floor in the dark could cause something called “emotionalism,” something the Church of Christ has traditionally feared.

My dad responded by moving these devotionals away from the church building so the elders would be less likely to find out what was going on. One night, the youth group went to a park and sat in a circle on the grass. I was a ridiculously cute three-year-old by then, and the teen girls argued over whose lap I would sit in. Settling into the winner’s lap, with the girl’s arms protecting mine from the cool wind, I looked up into southeast New Mexico’s only natural beauty—the clear night sky. It looked as though someone had flung a diamond-studded ebony sheet high above our heads. The youth group must have worn out “Kumbaya” because my dad began singing “How Great Thou Art.” The teens joined in, and when we got to the line about the rolling thunder and I still felt so safe in the girl’s arms beneath the enormous twinkling sky. I thought that if we could sing about thunder in such a beautiful setting, it might not be that scary after all.

If the night sky was Lovington’s only redeeming quality, the nearby town of Hobbs was its respite. You went to Hobbs if you wanted to go to McDonald’s or to see a doctor. I had been born in Hobbs since Lovington had no hospital. Hobbs also had a Kmart, a large car dealership, and a busy business district. We drove there every week for my brother’s piano lessons. If you needed something Hobbs couldn’t offer, such as surgery, or a prom dress that didn’t look like everyone else’s, you drove two-and-a-half hours to Lubbock, Texas. Lubbock was an actual city—a metropolitan oasis surrounded by dirt and cotton fields on the Llano Estacado of the Texas Panhandle. Lubbock had a giant mall with big department stores and a college people had actually heard of. We made a trip to Lubbock every November, and my dad carefully corralled my brother and me while my mom made secret purchases. A month later, we opened Christmas presents that could not have come from Lovington or Hobbs. I had heard Christmas presents came from the North Pole, but I suspected mine came from Lubbock, Texas.

What I did not know then was that my parents paid for those presents with my grandparents’ money. Our church elders believed ministers should only be paid what they need to provide for their families. Back in Beaumont, my dad’s accountant salary had put my parents in a nice house, on the guest lists of charitable events, and on the fringe of the town’s higher social circles. But now my grandparents paid for all the extras, such as Christmas presents, birthday presents, and piano lessons. Right before I turned three, a church in Hobbs made my dad a better offer, which included a four-bedroom brick parsonage. More than the money and the house, my dad was restless. Stuck with a vocation that was not his first choice, he seemed to find some contentment in a change of scenery. We made the familiar trip to Hobbs once more, but this time in a moving truck with everything we owned.

Moving somewhere, getting settled, and uprooting once again. We would repeat this succession of events four more times during my childhood. We stayed in one town only 18 months. We lived in another town twice. I don’t remember my mother ever complaining about the places my dad’s job had taken her, or the expectations that each congregation placed on her. When one church didn’t allow ministers’ wives to wear pants to church, she complied.

But my mother didn’t go along with everything. When our church would not allow me to have instrumental music as part of my wedding, she helped me find another church that would. And when people from church raised their eyebrows over this, she spoke up in my defense. I think she knew that some expectations of ministers and their families were reasonable, but there were lines that were not to be crossed. Even if church is your home, your life, and your air.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Honest to God, Part Two

So here I am, a third-generation minister’s wife. Except Chad and I did something that flew in the face of both our families’ Church-of-Christ heritage: We jumped ship. In 2006, Chad left his job at a traditional Church of Christ for a ministry position at a non-denominational church. We’ve been worshiping with musical instruments for almost seven years now. Our daughter plays bass guitar in the youth group worship band. My grandparents could be spinning in their graves. Or maybe they don’t care. Heaven knows I don’t.

Somewhere in my early 20s, I realized being born into the Church of Christ was not a stroke of celestial luck that would seal my salvation. Turns out the Church of Christ is just another faith group with its own strengths, weaknesses, and first-rate screw-ups. My salvation is something to work out “with fear and trembling” (Life Application Study Bible, Philippians 2:12), and not a perk that is handed out by membership in the church that is the most “right.”

But for me, there was a sort of salvation in the Church of Christ.

My earliest memories are of being at church with church folks. They were not just friends; they were part of our family. We worshiped together, ate together, planned weddings and funerals together, and looked forward to heaven together—since we were the only ones going. Church was like air to me. I knew I would always need it and that was OK, because I knew it would always be there. People who did not go to church were a mystery to me. Church was my home. Church was where my family was loved. Who would not want that?

I had been part of six congregations by the age of 11, and I had encountered this strong sense of community at each church. There was the sweet group of women at Third and Central who hosted a baby shower for my mom when she was pregnant with me and then taught me Bible stories in the church nursery. There was the fun, vibrant, curly-haired girl at Taylor Street who became my best friend in our pre-school Bible class, and we are still friends to this day. There were the teenagers in my dad’s youth groups who doted on me and let me sit in their laps during after-church devotionals led by my dad. The closest friends of my family were the people we went to church with. When I was 11, we moved to my dad’s hometown of Beaumont, Texas, and our church friends there knew three generations of my family. Even in my teen years, while listening to ministers rail against the evils of rock ‘n’ roll and MTV, I sat in silent disagreement—I was and still am an enthusiastic fan of rock music—but never thought of leaving the church. It was my home.

After Chad graduated from seminary and accepted his first ministry job in 2000, I was consumed with anxiety. What kind of minister’s wife would I be? Pious and proper, like my grandmother? Careful and guarded, like my mother? If I adapted to the role in a different way than my family’s previous generations had, would I get to choose it? Or would I be shaped by pressure and a sense of duty into something I would not recognize? I had developed a strong sense of self and individuality by that point, and the prospect of somehow losing myself to my husband’s vocation frightened me. I still wanted to love rock music. I still wanted to be me. I did not want to disappear into a vacuum of church members’ pre-formed expectations. As we made our way across Texas to our new town and new church, I looked forward to being a stay-at-home mother to Julia, our toddler, and starting a freelance-writing career. But I hated not knowing what the minister’s wife role would mean for me.

To be continued...

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Honest to God, Part One

For my graduate degree, I completed and defended my thesis, Honest to God: Confessions of a Pastor's Wife, last spring. It's a weird thing to have 70+ pages of my life story just sitting around. So I've decided to post sections of it to my blog occasionally. I mainly want to show that even though I haven't identified with the Church of Christ--the faith group of my heritage and background--since 2006, my association with that particular church is still a big part of who I am today.

The Luckiest Kid Alive

I didn’t mean to become a minister’s wife.

Well, at one point, I must have given it brief consideration. When asked as a child what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said, “A youth minister’s wife.” That’s what my mom was, and I didn’t know there was anything else to be. But honestly, I didn’t spend much time thinking about my future married life back then. I was too busy trying to process something fantastic that I had realized about my life.

Basically, I could not believe my luck.

As an 8-year-old, I was aware that the world contained people who were oppressed, starving, and dying of diseases I would never need to worry about. I knew I lived in a free country while other people suffered under the iron rule of Communism. I knew my church was the only church that was doing things right and that unsuspecting Methodists and Baptists were doomed to an eternity of torment. I knew that millions of people around the globe were living in the wrong countries and going to the wrong churches—if they went to church at all.

But, through some magnificent stroke of luck, I had it right on both counts. I had entered life in not only the best, strongest, and most prosperous nation in the world, I had been brought into the world by two members of the Church of Christ. And if I did everything right my entire life and never left that church, I would go to heaven. Just by being born, I had hit a celestial jackpot that would seal my prosperity in this life and eternal reward in the next. What were the chances?

My luck at having been born American didn’t boggle my mind nearly as much as the fact that, just by an astoundingly fortunate roll of the cosmic dice, I had arrived on earth as part of the true Christian church. I was born with automatic membership. Not salvation, though. Because the Church of Christ does not baptize infants, that would come later. But I would not have to find my way to the true church. I was already there. It was like entering a race just before the finish line. When I chose to cross it, my salvation would be a done deal.

The Church of Christ is a devout, passionate, autonomous, simplistic, paranoid, and quirky bunch that reports about 1.5 million adherents in the United States and U.S. territories (Royster). The Church of Christ is a product of the American Restoration Movement, which took place mostly in the 19th Century and was championed by a group of men who believed that church creeds divided Christians and that all believers should be united in Christ. Ironically, but predictably, the unity-seeking Restoration Movement ultimately produced three divided branches: The Disciples of Christ, Christian churches, and the Churches of Christ. While the names are similar, the differences are huge to the people who care.

Church of Christ people don’t think they’re being unimaginative when they name congregations after the streets the church buildings are on. They don’t think it’s grammatically incorrect to lowercase the “c” in “church” in their congregations’ names on church letterhead. They are just showing that the only thing that matters about the names of their churches is the name of Christ. They don’t think they are being unreasonable by forbidding their teenagers to go to prom, or by pulling their kids out of the square-dancing segment of P.E. class. They just devoutly believe that dancing is a sin. If you see church youth group members wearing jeans on the beach in the dead of summer, there’s a good chance they are Church of Christ kids.

I’ve worn jeans on the beach in the dead of summer. I’ve also never been to a prom. My childhood church resume includes several street-named congregations: Third and Central Church of Christ, 14th and Main Church of Christ, and Taylor Street Church of Christ. My family, at least four generations’ worth, is rooted in the Churches of Christ, the branch of the Restoration Movement that was united with the Christian Church until a dispute over the use of instrumental music in worship caused a split. The Church of Christ folks left organs and pianos behind and set up shop as an independent, a cappella group in 1906. I didn’t come along until 1971, but the church ban on musical instruments in worship was still going strong. I was not exposed to instrumental accompaniment in church worship until I visited my boyfriend’s Baptist church in high school, and thinking I was standing up for my faith, sat in silence as the rest of the church sang with the band.

My family were not merely members of what we called simply “The Church.” We were leaders. My grandfather W.J. Hamby made his living as an accountant, but he was a volunteer preacher and elder (the highest rank in Church of Christ leadership) as long as I can remember. He helped start churches and then preached for them until they could afford to hire clergy of their own. His wife, my grandmother Annie Hamby, taught what was called “Ladies’ Class,” a class taught by women, for women. (Traditionally, women are not permitted to teach men in the Church of Christ.) My father, Winston Hamby, started out in banking, but ended up in Church of Christ ministry for 20 years. My mother, Mardell Hamby, taught children’s Bible classes, chaperoned church youth group trips, and eventually became principal of a Church-of-Christ elementary school. And my husband Chad, halfway through a Ph.D in genetics, came home one day in 1996 and said, “I think I want to be a minister.”

To be continued...