24 July, 2014

A Preacher's Grandson

I didn't grow up as a Minister's kid, I grew up as a Minister's Grandson.  As a kid I didn't truly appreciate the relationship I had with my Grandfather.  To me, he wasn't a Methodist minister, he was just Grandpa.  Grandpa was, to me, really far away during my first twelve or so years.  Of course, once I grew up and had a better grasp on the world, I realized Grandpa and Grandma were never more than a couple of hours away.  Still, as a kid, I didn't see him more than a few times a year.  About fifth grade, Grandpa and Grandma moved to "my town" and I got to see them quite often.  Again, I didn't appreciate the fact they were so close, but I did get to see them more often.  As I aged I learned that Grandpa had taught me many, many lessons.  Yet again, my youth prevented me from realizing how important he was to me.  I never had the chance to have any conversations with Grandpa as an adult.  He died when I was 17.  Much too soon.

I was forced to attend church when I was young and I hated it.  Chalk it up to youthful rebellion I guess.  I've always wondered if I may have liked going to church if it had been voluntary.  When Grandpa and Grandma moved to town, Grandpa took a position at my (more on that later) church as, if I'm remembering correctly, Pastor of Visitation.  He was essentially retired but being a minister was his calling and he intended to do it until he could no more.  He started his life as a minister in small country churches so there was a good dose of evangelical preacher in him.  He was so very good with people and had such a calming feeling about him.  He had a smile that wouldn't be forgotten, he wouldn't hesitate to take off his jacket, roll up his sleeves and help someone fix their lawn tractor (he was a farm boy at heart) and, basically, just be a good person.  I witnessed actions such as these quite often but had no clue that he was showing me how to be a good person.  I helped him deliver firewood to a lady who needed to heat her house, I helped him make wooden crosses for church functions, I went golfing with him where he taught me how to interact with strange people, also while golfing with him I learned that I could not expect people to pay for things all the time and I would have to earn my own way, he taught me that giving is better than receiving, he also taught me to be gracious when someone gave to me.  I had no clue that this was going on.  Forget for a minute that he was a minister.  To me he was just Grandpa.  In a mix of his day job and his family life, he married my parents and an aunt and uncle, he baptized me, all of my siblings and most of my cousins.  He also married my sister.  Then, as now, I didn't separate his day job as a minister to his role as my Grandpa.  Grandpa was a minister.  Period.  If he had remained a farmer he still would have had the same influence upon me.  As a minister he shared his lessons with an awful lot of people.  And I miss him dearly.

Some other things that further intertwine Grandpa's life and mine are related to our family history.  Grandpa's family had moved to my Dad's little village where Grandpa was minister of the Methodist church.  It's how my Mom and Dad met.  My immediate family has always had a fondness for this little village as it's a quaint little place where the sidewalks are rolled up at sundown, everyone knows everyone else and things are simple.  My Mom once told me that this village was special to her, not only because it's where she met my Dad, but because it was the longest her side of the family had stayed in one place.  From this village my Dad went off to the Navy and my Mom went off to college.  After this little village, Grandpa and Grandma (and my Aunt and Uncle) moved to what is now my hometown.  Grandpa presided over a Methodist church that no longer exists (sad, really.  It was located at what is now an useless parking lot) but supervised the building of the "new" Methodist church.  Grandpa and Grandma served at three other Methodist churches in the state before coming back to "my" church.  The one Grandpa had built.  I didn't, as usual, appreciate the significance of this event until it was too late.  The story of my life.  Regardless, Grandpa and Grandma were close and a big part of my life.

Even though Grandpa was a man of the cloth, I don't recall even one time where he forced religion on me.  Sure, there were quotes from the Bible at times, but they were reactionary to whatever situation seemed to apply.  Mostly it was woodworking, golfing, steam engine gatherings and the like.  When Grandpa came back to what I like to call "his" church, he had a secondary roll.  He knew it and the other members of the parish staff knew it.  Nobody ever pretended otherwise.  My confirmation classes (similar to catechism for you Catholics out there) were handled by another minister, himself a good man and good "preacher".  Though Grandpa had no direct input as to my confirmation proceedings, he was present during the final ceremony and that meant the world to me.  In those days even simple things such as confirmation were important enough to warrant professional photographers which, no surprise, resulted in very nice "class" photographs.  It warms my heart to look at my confirmation "class photo" and see my Grandpa there, familiar smile and all, with me.  Grandpa married my sister a few years later, but my confirmation was the only religious event pertaining to me, other than my baptism, that Grandpa was part of.  He was gone long before I even considered marriage, so I look back at my confirmation as something very dear to me because Grandpa was there.  Then things took a turn for the worse.

When I was 16/17 Grandpa came down with a cold he just couldn't shake.  I remember seeing him in his basement, which he remodelled all by himself by the way, on the couch, under a blanket and near the wood stove he liked so much.  Not long after that he was diagnosed as having a brain tumor.  The tumor was removed and he returned home to convalesce.  Basically, he returned home to die.  I recall it as being less than a year before he was gone.  Still, in his terminal state, he was teaching me lessons.  He showed me that not having any hair, having people help you out of bed to change bed pans etc. was nothing to be ashamed of.  Truly a marvelous and dignified man to the end.  Even as he was dying, he was showing me that it was possible to maintain ones dignity.

I remember the gray day that we buried Grandpa.  I don't recall the service but I remember the burial.  I didn't cry.  I did the crying much later in life when I had begun to realize how important he was to me.  It may seem callous, but I think he knew that I wouldn't have a complete grasp on what was happening.  He probably knew I was a dumb 17 year old.  What I'm left wondering is if he knew how his death would destroy what little religion I had.  It's sad that the one big issue I had with religion, couldn't be discussed with the one person who could have provided me with a solution.  Years after Grandpa's death I began to question faith and God.  I asked to no one in particular, "How could God take a man so dearly loved by not only his family, but his congregations; a man who devoted 40 years of his life to God, from us?"  The rubber stamp answer of "It's God's plan." didn't hold any weight and, in fact, every time I heard that statement I only became more angry.  I couldn't see why it was more important for God to call Grandpa "home" when he was needed by his family and his congregation so much.  It didn't add up and I was pissed off.  If a holy man would be snatched away for "God's plan" when he was needed among the living, I figured that the rest of us didn't amount to shit.  When these thoughts entered my conscience and I had time to process those thoughts, that's when I realized I was agnostic.  It was a revelation.

Realizing that I was an agnostic was like being released from a mental prison.  It was also a slight curse.  You see, Christians tend to equate agnostic with atheist.  That tended to drive me even further away from religion.  If a "Christian" couldn't take the time to even learn the definition of "agnostic", I had no time for them.  The very people who claimed to be Christians were showing that they didn't grasp the core values of what it means to be a Christian by not accepting someone like me as an agnostic.  Basically speaking, the only real difference between me, as an agnostic, and them as Christians is faith.  A good chunk of Christians believe what they're taught and that's the final word.  Me, I have faith in a higher power but I believe that such a thing cannot be proved in this plane of existence.  For me the only way to prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that there is a Heaven and Hell, is to die.  And I'm in no hurry to find out.  Christians have faith in an afterlife.  I, as an agnostic, have hope that there's an afterlife.  Big difference.  I do sincerely hope that there's an afterlife.  There's a lot of people who I didn't get much time with in this world that I would like to see when my time is up.  I would be told that I'm going straight to hell by some "Christians" because I haven't live by their favorite version of Christianity.  To be fair, I have seriously broken some of the Ten Commandments, but nobody is "pure".  When my time to die comes I may be face to face with St. Peter.  Or not.  Nobody can say for sure.  If I do see St. Peter at the Pearly Gates I hope to hear him give a favorable review of my life.  I'm sure he would wince at some points, but I think he would see that I've been living a good life as a good person.  My Grandpa taught me how.

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