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.


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