My Father Wasn’t Big on Church
AUGUST 31, 2016
My friend Joe Battaglia—president of Renaissance Communications, the agency representing Key Life—is working on a new book with Joe Pellegrino. It’s a follow-up to their great book, That’s My Dad! This one is titled, What Fathers Say.
This morning Joe asked me to contribute a chapter about my father for the new book. He wants me to tell a story about my father and then to draw on something important I learned from him. I was kind of surprised. Joe and I have been friends for a long time and he knows that my father wasn’t the kind of role model you put in a Christian book…unless it’s a book on hustling pool sharks or drinking whisky. My father went to church only when we were singing in the children’s choir or playing a shepherd in the children’s Christmas play…and even then, he would leave after we did our part.
My father wasn’t angry with Christians. I never heard him say a word about “those hypocrites” or about how political or greedy the church was. He just didn’t think he fit. And I suppose he didn’t.
But nevertheless, I’ve been thinking about my father. I’ll have to write something for Joe’s book because we have been friends for so long that he knows “dirt” on me and I suspect he isn’t above blackmail. What in the world could I say about my father? What kind of story could I tell?
Maybe the time when I was refused admittance to a local theater because they said I had lied about my age in order to get a cheaper ticket. (I didn’t.) When I told my father, his face turned red, and we went together to see the manager. My father said loud enough for the people there to turn around, “I understand you called my son a liar.” I can’t tell you what else my father said but after that encounter I got into the movies free for the next ten years. My father taught me how to “cuss, spit and threaten” and…
…uh, that won’t work in this Christian book.
Well, maybe the time I first played pool with my father. He “ran the table” three times without my ever getting a chance to play. Then he took off his glasses, leaned on his stick, and grinning, said, “Son, when I was younger, I was better.” My father taught me how to be a better pool player.
Okay, okay…that won’t fit in Joe’s Christian book either.
I could write about how my father would come home from an all-night bender, sit on the couch, call us to him, and with one son under each arm, read the funnies to us. I can still remember the smell of newspaper print…and booze.
No, that won’t work unless I leave out the booze.
Maybe my father’s reaction to my stealing cherry pies would be a good story. Nah…that would seem to suggest that it’s okay to steal pies. (Stolen pies tastes, by the way, better than bought ones.)
Then I thought about the time I almost blew up an old lady sitting on her porch. That starts kind of raw but it gets better. That might work.
I honestly didn’t see the lady when I threw that cherry bomb. But when I went back (with my friends) to check on her, someone got my license plate, and by the time I got home an hour later, the police had already been there. When I looked at my father and heard him ask, “And where have you been?” in a way that suggested he didn’t need an answer, I knew I was in trouble…big trouble.
I don’t want to talk about it. To make a long story short, I went to the police (twice) and then to the house where I had thrown the cherry bomb. I sat with the elderly lady I had almost injured and listened to her son (a very big and angry guy) threaten to kill me. And then I had to face my mother who made that man look like a kitten. It was not a very pleasant experience and, just so you know, I haven’t touched a cherry bomb since.
Was my father happy with me? Are you crazy? I lost my driving privileges until I was 45 years old. But you know something? Throughout that whole time my father never left my side…not once. Not only that, he made it clear I was his son (I thought I would be disowned) and he loved me deeply.
My wife Anna (when I told her what I planned to write in this letter) reminded me of the time when our daughter Robin was a little girl struggling with a serious case of pneumonia. My father walked into the room where Anna stood there crying. I was out of town, and Anna felt quite afraid and alone. She said that my father stood by her and put his arm around her, squeezing her shoulder. “He didn’t say a thing,” Anna said, “He just stood there with his arm around me and quietly waited.” Anna said that his presence made all the difference and she felt everything would be all right. I understood that because, under very different circumstances, my father did the same for me.
When I think of my father, I remember Joshua getting ready to succeed Moses when God’s people were preparing to enter the Promised Land. Moses gave a farewell speech and said, “Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6). When I think of my father, I also think of the Psalmist’s words, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4).
But mostly I think of Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:11, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” The first time I read those words, I thought, Wow…If that’s true and God loves me half as much as my father did, I’ve got it made.
As I mentioned, my father wasn’t big on church because he didn’t think he fit. Actually, he didn’t think he was good enough. He wasn’t. Neither am I. Neither are you. But that’s the message of Jesus, the fact that he came for people who weren’t good enough. My father never understood that but he does now. Just before he died, his Christian doctor told my father that he had only three months to live at most. He said, “Mr. Brown, we’re going to pray and then I’m going to tell you something more important than what I just told you.” They prayed and then that beloved doctor told my father about Jesus and his love for those who didn’t fit, who were sinners, and who always felt on the outside. That day my father ran to Jesus.
So my father is in heaven. Maybe when we all get Home, you’ll get a chance to watch him play pool…but probably not. I can’t find any mention of pool tables in the Bible and besides, my mother—who was sure the devil resided in pool halls—would go ballistic. (Maybe hell is pool tables made from the finest slate and mahogany with expensive felt-covering…but no pool cue.) I do know that my father felt more comfortable in a pool hall than he did in church, and that’s kind of sad.
That’s one of the reasons I’m so passionate about the truth of God’s radical grace. There was, of course, my father’s unconditional love that I would later recognize in my heavenly father. But when I think of my father missing the central message of the Christian faith because he didn’t think he was good enough, didn’t fit, and thought he would be rejected, I wince. I wonder how many others are just like my father.
Maybe you know someone like that.
Go tell them the truth.
He told me to tell you.