In the late 1970s, when Anita and I were in seminary in Louisville, Ky., my maternal grandparents, who lived four hours away in Huntington, W.Va., were the relatives to whom we most closely lived.
Whenever we could, usually a few times a year, we’d visit them in the modest home my grandfather had built with his own hands after he mustered out of the Navy and took up work as a machinist and mechanic for the C&O Railroad.
These grandparents had an on-again, off-again connection with the little American Baptist Church to which they more or less belonged.
My grandfather had once been treasurer, at a time when there wasn’t much money to go around and a lot of tension about how the little bit of money should be used.
He got caught in the crossfire of church politics, got wounded and was never very active after that hard experience.
When I was growing up, he often said to me: “Son, church is too much about money: who’s got it, who wants it, what they’ll do to get it, and who controls it.”
Though he never talked about it, he must’ve also had at least one really messy run-in with a preacher, because, though there were exceptions, he didn’t think much of the clergy.
When pastors and preachers became a topic of conversation, he’d mumble something like: “I like to keep company with a better class of people than them fellows – drunks and thieves, for instance” or “A lot of air, a lot of hair, and not much there.”
This grandfather was, and is, so important to me. He taught me, by listening patiently to me, most of whatever I might have learned about listening.
He also offered me lessons I am still trying to learn about how strength and humility are not rivals but partners; about how anger is energy to be harnessed and handled, not denied or indulged; and about how marveling at the immensity and intricacy of God’s world calms the soul and heals the heart.
He also had to swallow hard, I think, when my plan to go to law school got hijacked by a call to ministry. He adjusted. He always did.
One of the things he delighted to do was to think up questions to ask me when we visited – questions he thought (hoped) would trip me up and show me that I didn’t know as much as I thought I might.
They were the kinds of questions that come from reading the Bible so literally that you end up not taking it very seriously. He always asked them with a twinkle in his eyes, as if to say, “I know these questions are ridiculous, but I like watching you fumble for answers.”
You’ve heard his kinds of questions:
â— Did Adam and Eve have belly buttons?
â— Where did Cain and Abel get their wives? (Remember we’re West Virginians, and we know how badly things go if the family tree doesn’t branch much.)
â— If Moses wrote Deuteronomy, how did he write about his own death?
â— Did Noah take two mosquitoes and two ants on the ark? If so, why didn’t he kill them while he had the chance?
â— If Jesus turned water into wine, why do some Baptist preachers fuss so much about drinking?
On and on, the questions would go.
One day, though, he said: “Son, this is a real question, not like them others. How is it possible for a man to go to church for 50 or even 60 years, and it not make a lick of difference in him? Sit there, year after year – in Sunday school and preachin’, readin’ the Bible, listenin’ to sermons and prayin’ prayers – sit there all that time, all them long years, and be just as mean, as mean as a snake, as the day he started goin’?”
My PaPa Fred wanted me to explain to him how church people could be so resistant to change and how we could defend ourselves, year after year, against any real and lasting transformation.
He wanted to know why people who say they love Jesus don’t act, look or sound much like him.
I’ve never been able to shake that question, and my years in ministry have only intensified it and made it more urgent.
This much I know: Genuine change requires honesty, vulnerability, humility, openness, mutuality and community.
By contrast, many of us have a lot invested in keeping up appearances, especially the appearance of having it all together. We like the feeling that we can go it alone and call our own shots.
Genuine change hinges on Jesus, not us, being Lord. And a lot of us like running our own lives even if we are ruining them.
I also know that true transformation is not a self-help exercise. It is not a do-it-yourself project.
We do not change ourselves; we open ourselves to be changed. And, we open ourselves by paying attention to Jesus.
Too many of us, though, give our focused attention to the wrong things: to small ambitions, or grand but misguided ambitions, to trivial pursuits, to petty rivalries and to stupid distractions.
These things make us small and shriveled, frivolous and weightless. They consign us to spiritual and emotional sameness.
We’re called instead to allow Jesus to shape our thinking, feeling and acting; to let him tell us who we are, who we can be and what life is all about; and to listen to him in worship, in the reading of Scripture, in the experiences of prayer, and in the voices of the needy and oppressed.
Over time, his life becomes our life, and we become the people we’ve always dreamed we could be – people who are radiant with the love and wonder of God.