In last Sunday’s lectionary devotions, Bert wrote a very short but stimulating section on the book of Psalms reading. He mentioned his own church background in two short but poignant sentences and I responded by writing him a letter. I did not send the letter. Here is the letter response about church background. I enjoyed thinking of it all week.I got “saved” in the 8th grade in my grandmother’s church which was called Church of Christ in Christian Union. Like this sermon title, if it is needs explaining then it is probably too long of a name!
Church of Christ in Christian Union was real clear in its teachings. Lots of nos. No smoking. No dancing. No drinking. No cards. No movies. Turn off the TV if any kissing scenes were on TV. No kissing before marriage. No one else was going to heaven. No Catholics, Lutherans, no Baptists.
There was no smoking, no dancing, no drinking, and no girls on the baseball field so I played a lot of baseball. My Church of Christ allowed baseball.
In my senior year of high school, I ran for and was elected Student Council president. I resigned from the office the next day when the Student Council Advisor, Miss Lynn Hill, went over my job description. The president was responsible for planning two dances during the year…the Homecoming Dance and the Prom. I resigned from being president.
The next day Miss Hill told me she had changed the job description to accommodate my religious beliefs. She made the vice-president, Terry Stevens, responsible for the Homecoming Dance and the Prom.
So I was again the Student Council President and my vice-president planned all dances. I was thrilled with that.
Miss Hill asked me one day what I was planning on doing after high school. I told her I was interested in being a preacher. She suggested I go out and experience life for a few years before becoming a preacher.
So I joined the Air Force.
In California, at church at an Air Force base, I met a Methodist girl. She was a convincing theologian. Soon I was converted to movies and the idea that Methodist girls might be going to heaven. Grandma was leery of her because she was Methodist and Methodists believed in reading the Revised Standard Version of the Bible. Church of Christ in Christian Union knew that only the King James Version was what Jesus personally endorsed. This Methodist girl was old-fashioned in many ways that I liked though and I finally agreed to marry her on June 21, 1975.
But I told her I did not believe in alcohol and that I could have no alcohol at our wedding or in our home after marriage. She and her Methodist family respected that demand of mine so we had straight punch at our wedding. And no dance. No first dance with the bride and groom. Her Methodist family honored my beliefs.
After we married, I then told her I wanted to become a preacher. So a few years later we moved to Texas so we both could finish college and then I could go to preaching school.
At Austin Presbyterian Seminary my first year of preaching school, I flunked Old Testament. Flunked. I had never flunked anything before. I went on to do two things that day I had never done before.
I went into the basement of the seminary and played my first game of racquetball to take out my frustrations in life. Felt good to hit a ball for an hour as hard as I could.
Secondly, on my way home I stopped and picked up a bottle of wine and took it home to Pam. We shared our first bottle of wine that evening at dinner. Presbyterians convinced me that wine was okay. Presbyterians drove me to drinking.
Saved by the Church of Christ, Converted by a Methodist, driven to drinking wine by the Presbyterians. God was working me over in life.
Last Sunday Eric asked me to visit his father Mr. Mendelman in Deer Creek Rehabilitation Center. Mr. Mendelman is in his 80’s, is from Estonia, was a Lutheran pastor for over 55 years, has Parkinson’s disease, and has been an inspiration to all.
On Monday, I dressed to go visit a Lutheran. Clergy shirt with clerical collar, dress pants and shoes, heavy James Avery neck chain and cross given to me at ordination by my Methodist father-in-law and mother-in-law, gold wedding band made by James Avery with Christian sign of the fish on it given to me by my Methodist bride on June of 1975, and I took my hospital communion set given to me by Bill and Sharon Kurtz of Disciples of Christ stock in May of 1984. Reverend Mendelman and I were going to have communion together.
As soon as I walked into the Deer Creek facility, an elderly woman in a wheelchair asked me if I would pray a Healing Prayer for her and her hurting gall bladder. We did. She thanked me so much. She recognized the clergy clothing. Others stopped me and asked for prayer also. I prayed with each person who asked me for prayer.
Mr. Mendelman can hardly speak but has full mental awareness. He studied and held my cross. He rubbed my ring and the fish sign. He pointed me to his two wall hangings…both Certificates of Appreciation marking his 40th year in Ministry and his 50th year in Ministry.
I read the scriptures to him, starting with today’s lectionary Matthew reading. He went to sleep immediately. Like Curtis, as soon as I started talking, he went to sleep. I read for nearly an hour. I wanted to be reading when he woke up. Pam used to read to our two babies and sing to them for hours on end to comfort them when they were ill. I read chapter after chapter to Reverend Mendelman while he slept. An hour later he woke up and I was still reading, chapter after chapter for him.
This past summer I saw Miss Hill from Bellbrook High for the first time in 37 years. She attended Daniel’s graduation party in Ohio along with two other teachers of mine, Mr. Steve Berryhill (baseball coach and teacher of some subject that I don’t recall) and Mrs. Sharon Berryhill. Miss Hill thanked Pam for her influence on my life. Pam thanked her for her influence on my life.
I had always wondered why Miss Hill changed the jobs around in Student Council so that I could remain as president, so I asked her this summer, 37 years later. She told me things I never knew about. She said the student that ran against me for president (not Terry) was a known drug dealer whom she did not want in the leadership position. I had no idea what she was dealing with. She made the calls she needed to make in order to protect students and culture at Bellbrook High. All this time I thought it was about me! It was about a good teacher trying to protect her all of her students and thinking creatively to do so.
When a person of Faith in our congregation read this sermon title this past week in the bulletin, she wrote back to me:
If I were to do a sermon, it would have to be titled “Grew up heathen; sampled Presbyterian, Lutheran, Unitarian, and Roman Catholic as a young adult; eschewed organized religion until I got a family; was noticed, convinced, saved, nurtured, and matured in Christian Church (Disciples of Christ); blessed by CTRC.” Not a very elegant title, but accurate!
Ten years after my grandfather died I found out he was a Presbyterian but attended the Church of Christ in Christian Union with my grandmother to keep peace in the family.
Point? Point is that God is bigger than any of our denominations, bigger than any of our labels, larger than any of our doctrines. God will work to connect with you and me through any and every denomination or set of teachings.
I now enjoy dancing the Texas two-step among other dances. Pam taught me that dance.
Mr. Mendelman and I broke bread and shared the cup together. He marked MY head with the sign of the cross before I departed. I went to support him and he in turn blessed me by marking the sign of the cross on my forehead. We are blessed. Amen.
By GARY L. SMITH
Reverend – Christ the Redeemer Church