I usually sat next to my father in worship. After my early years my mother worked two out of three Sundays as the head cook at the Ford County Nursing Home. “Families that pray together stay together” was too simple a slogan but it applied to us. There were drawbacks to sitting next to my father. He was tone deaf when he sang the hymns, or at least I thought he was. It seemed like we sang “Holy, Holy, Holy,” page 1 of the Methodist Hymnal, almost every Sunday, and it did not sound good in a drone. In front of us sat Rev. John Killip, a retired minister, who was sometimes called upon to pray in the service, and who, I was certain, could easily pray aloud for many hours straight. (But such a tall, affable, white-haired gentleman he was, teaching me to do a proper ‘Methodist handshake.) My father, who worked regularly sixteen hour days on the farm, would often succumb to the warm, quiet, restful atmosphere, and I would have to be alert to nudge him before “The Snore” began. We always stayed until the last people left the building as we talked with friends. I do not recall ever wanting to be anywhere else on Sunday mornings.
I was amazed in my father’s last years, when I again had the occasional privilege of sitting next to him in worship, how much his singing had improved, how beautifully tonal it was, and how alert he had become. He was always an intelligent man, so I wasn’t surprised by how intelligent he became after I left home, but I was moved by how his potential for embarrassing conduct had diminished.
God blessed me with children who were not only independent thinkers, who often resented the constant pressures of churchery , but who also respected my wishes that they take part in worship, even though they often had to sit by themselves. Alicia gave me fair warning when, as an infant, she burped some milk down the back of my suit coat just before I walked down the aisle, though I didn’t know it at the time. Nathan found that the pulpit made a good hiding place and pews provided a good racetrack for imaginary race cars, complete with quiet sound effects. As they grew they showed me that the presence of the Ineffable had taken root in their lives, the same One who was present for the dunkards, quakers, methodists, various anabaptists and separatists, Lutherans, Catholics, and Jews who were our family ancestors.
Parents learn most of their parenting skills from their parents, for better or worse. Teachers learn most of their teaching skills from their teachers. Where do preachers learn? I learned in an environment that seems much different from the prevailing values today that I began to wonder how many opportunities I lost along the way to nurture that mutually accepting family environment. Why did I not contribute more to an enriching spiritual life for other families? Some parents and young people accept the challenge of worshipping together, but they are a minority. They will find a center for their lives that will hold them steadily and graciously.
As I listen to other ministers, active or retired as I am, I realize that I am not alone in this sense of missing many chances to nurture varied families and their young people in the worship of God. There is no comfort in this commiseration. There is only comfort in the prospect of communities of faith doing better, and the awareness that some are.