Although my dad died over eighteen years ago, I feel I have been on a special journey with him over the past six weeks by reading one of his sermons each morning during Lent.
I have written several times about these boxes of my dad’s sermons that my sister fortunately saved after his death in 2002, the first of which was when my sister and I discovered them in an old file cabinet in storage.
Since that time, I have been on a multi-year mission to read each and everyone one of them. And as with previous Lenten seasons, I chose to read a sermon a day during Lent. Over the course of this period, I read 47 of his sermons, getting me almost halfway to the goal of reading all 759.
If you have not read my posts about these sermons previously, they date as far back as 1949 when my dad first became a Presbyterian minister. On the outside of each folder, my dad meticulously chronicled each time the sermon was given, preserving as a permanent record the date and church where it was given. Some he gave numerous times and others, maybe only once or twice.
When I started my Lenten journey on the morning of Ash Wednesday, I was in a series of sermons that he first wrote towards the very end of his ministry in Natchitoches, Louisiana in 1959, about 10 years into his ministry. This is the town where I was born, but since we moved away from there when I was only three years old, I have no memories, beyond images I have seen in old home movies, of this time.
Some of these sermons that had been only given once or twice were still recorded in my dad’s own handwriting on these half sheets of paper.
As my dad repeated some of his sermons many times to different churches he served over the years (he didn’t do reruns at the same church), he began to type them which made my reading of them much easier.
Each morning when I would reach for the next folder, I would begin to feel a special closeness to my dad as I read what he had to say to me that day. To put each sermon in context, I would first read the Bible passages upon which the sermon was based. Then I would jump in trying to hear his voice through the words written or typed onto the pages.
Over the days of my reading, it was not surprising to discover that certain themed sermons were consistently given at that period of time. Obviously, his sermons on Advent or Lent were always given during those special times as well as other significant dates such as Pentecost or Thanksgiving. But when I was about halfway through Lent, I came across one sermon that he consistently gave whenever he was leaving a church or when he was filling in at a church where the minister had just left.
Over his 40-year ministry, my dad served fulltime at seven different churches, mostly in Louisiana. Growing up whenever we were told that we were moving to a new town, my dad would often explain to us kids why he was becoming pastor at a different church because, as in his words, we had been called to serve a new church, his work at the existing church now complete. But as I grew older, I learned from my dad that whenever he served as an interim minister, it sometimes was when the pastor had left due to divisive reasons and there was healing that needed to occur.
After my dad retired, he gave this particular sermon three times apparently at churches in such a situation. In fact, my mom, often the humorist in our family, referred to him as the “Hit-and-Run Preacher” whereby he could come in and say what needed to be said and leave it upon the members of the congregation to reflect on his words and move forward. The sermon was about the parable of the mirror; what better way to get everyone to reflect on their situation with this analogy.
Included in each folder, my dad also retained a copy of the bulletin from the service in which it was given. The oldest in this set of folders were over 60 years old. After having read his sermon, I would then go through each bulletin reading through the announcements.
In this one, I came across an announcement of what was probably one of my first visits to Montreat, that peaceful location so loved by my family.
In another, I sadly read about the death of one of my dad’s brothers. At the time, I would have been about three years old and obviously have no recall of his passing or the funeral.
My dad would include these “family” announcements in the bulletin to communicate to the congregation that he and his family would be travelling and not available. Not one to leave the congregation high and dry, he would always arrange for elders or deacons to lead the service or would arrange to have a guest minister come to hold the services in his absence.
I would occasionally find announcements of when we were leaving a church as well as when my dad would be installed as a new minister. In fact, I found in one bulletin from November 1st, 1959 that he would be serving as the chairman of the Presbytery Commission for the establishment of a new church in West Monroe, Louisiana, a church that he would serve starting in 1960, and the one from which I have my earliest childhood memories. Whether or not he knew at the time that he would next be called to that church I will never know.
As I continued to encounter these announcements, I began to realize that a part of our own family history was preserved in these old bulletins. I’ll never know my dad’s true intention for saving each one of these but for me and my siblings, they serve as historical records of events in our lives.
These and other bulletin announcements were much like milepost markers along the journey of our lives, documenting for all time these significant events. For recorded in them were dates of our birth, our marriages, and other special occasions.
As I came to the close of my Lenten journey reading through my dad’s sermons, I was once again glad I had chosen to do that. For it served as an intense time of learning from my dad’s words. And touching the very pages my dad had touched so many years ago, gave me a special connection to him, one that I would continue each Sunday for the rest of the year.
Thanks, Dad for preserving this historical record of your ministry and our family and thanks, Sis for saving them long after he was gone!