By David J.
My father was a Methodist minister who worked for the national church and was a supply preacher during the summer for vacationing pastors. That meant he drove up to 100 miles from home, leaving in the early morning. Some of my fondest memories involved riding with Dad.
Six decades after my early-morning rides with my father, a seminary classmate of mine moved to a church in Illinois. I sent my congratulations by email and mentioned I had lived in a little town not far from his new home. He invited me to preach if I ever returned. Having recently taken early retirement from parish ministry, I accepted his offer.
The rector planned a potluck lunch on the lawn after church that day to assure good attendance, so the church was filled with people who looked and sounded like friends and relatives from my Midwestern hometown.
The theme of the lessons that Sunday was about not being conformed to this world but being transformed, so I told an illustrative story from my childhood:
One Sunday morning as we drove on nearly empty roads there was some congestion ahead as cars were slowing down and pulling off onto the shoulder. When we stopped to look we saw that a truck had run off the road down an embankment and was turned over on its side. The driver wasn’t there but the load of 25-pound bags of onions was scattered in the field. People were picking up the bags and hauling them back to their cars as fast as they could.
We stood beside the road and watched awhile and when I asked Dad who the onions belonged to, he said, “I don’t know, son, but they don’t belong to us,” and turned and got back in the car.
After the service the rector and I greeted people at the door who said kind things about the sermon as they always do to guest preachers. Near the end of the line a man with a cane and a bad limp looked distressed and held back a little to let people go ahead of him.
He was the last in line. As he shook my hand he threw his other arm around my neck and began to weep from that deep down place where old memories of pain and sorrow lie buried that only grace can restore. Through his tears he sobbed, “I was there, I was there.”
I glanced over my shoulder at the rector for some guidance but he looked as surprised as I was. Perhaps seeing some doubt in my face, the man said, “It was a canvas-top 40-footer with an orange cab lying on its left side with a shredded front tire in the air.” I had not mentioned these accurate details in the sermon.
I asked the rector if we could talk for a few minutes as I guided the man to the last pew. He told me that every few months when he was growing up his father would go on a payday bender and not come home Saturday night. Over the years his mother learned where she could usually find him and set out early Sunday mornings to bring him home.
That morning they were heading home when they saw the wreck. His father made his mother stop and he brought his son down the hill, where he grabbed two sacks of onions and had the boy drag a third up to the car and quickly drove away.
“While you were on your way to church with your daddy, I was stealing onions with mine,” he said. “As a boy, I swore I’d never drink. I was a star athlete and won a basketball scholarship to college, but coming home late one night from a bar in my senior year in high school, I hit a bridge and crushed my pelvis.”
He recounted his long bumpy road to sobriety and spoke of how lucky I was to have the father I did and what a bad example his father had been. Finally I tapped him on the forearm.
“My father never had a drink in his life but daddies can only do so much, one way or the other,” I said. “I lost my career in the church for the same reason you lost your basketball scholarship, but today you and I awoke with the same prayer on our lips: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
I helped him up from the pew and he led me out on the lawn to break bread again.
The Rev. David J. is a retired priest living in North Carolina.