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.


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