Tuesday, November 1, 2022

Things I picked up from my father - Part I

 A major life event, like the loss of a parent, triggers a great deal of introspection, taking stock of your life and values, philosophizing, etc. For me, I always think "I will remember these lessons forever" and then I don't. So I'm writing some of them down here, before they fly away. It won't be polished, but at least they will be recorded.

My dad grew up in small town Indiana, descended from people who moved into Indiana from about 1800-1850. There were Revolutionary War patriots, Quakers from North Carolina, German farmers from Prussia who took a riverboat up from New Orleans with their life's possessions in a few crates, English, Scottish, Scots-Irish, and Welsh. Whatever their background, and none were very wealthy, they banded together and helped turn Indian territory from wilderness to fruitful farmland. Today isn't the post for full-on genealogy, but trust me, I've grown in appreciation for the shaping influences of generations before my grandparents while getting into that hobby. Suffice it to say, he inherited humility, honesty, industriousness, kindness, courage and conviction from his ancestors. And this may be reading into it a bit, but it's my rambling blog after all - I think he also inherited a bit of impulsiveness, risk-taking, and a stubborn commitment (the kind that digs in when challenged by "superiors") to what he believed was the right thing to do. The courage of his convictions. He was not naturally patient... but few people would have known that outside his family, because he kept impatience in check.

His parents were not wealthy and worked hard - his father reported 60 hours a week in 1950. He didn't go to kindergarten... that was still a newfangled thing in the 40's, I guess. ADHD as a diagnosis also hadn't been invented yet... so he was allowed to grow up more or less normally, only developing an antipathy for those teachers who had a clear prejudice against him. Orville Redenbacher was the county agricultural agent and his wife was chair of the PTA. Popcorn was one of the four food groups, and he had a side hustle with a school buddy buying a truckload of ripe watermelon to take to Chicago and sell. He had other side hustles... the longest-serving paperboy for the Princeton Courier for example. He knew every business owner around the town square and took us on visits to the fire department and some of the farms he knew. He had a chemistry set as a boy and made mad experiments with it... including a bottle rocket that waited approximately 40 years to be let off, one 4th of July. He was part of the class of '57 that had its dreams. He was headed for a Navy ROTC scholarship to Purdue to be an engineer, when he felt the call to become a minister. 

So he started down the Road Less Traveled. He went to Muskingum, a small Presbyterian school in Ohio. He studied Philosophy and History, met my mom, became lifelong friends with my "uncle" Wayne, and was a member of the Ulster club, a fraternity for prospective ministers. Philosophy, taught by Roy Will Butler, was a challenge but he was determined to master it, and did. (My mom added philosophy to her list of majors, but said she never really "got" it other than in a book-learning way.) He spent a year after college in Ethiopia, originally intending to be just one of a team of young men doing grunt construction work... but was recruited to teach middle school English and math instead because of his college degree. He came back from Ethiopia with a lifelong heart for missions and eagerness for travel, and a love of the spicy Ethiopian beef stew, Wat, served with hard boiled eggs and pancakes when I was growing up. Later, he would hear of the fall of Ethiopia into Marxism and the persecution, perhaps torture, of some of his former students. My memories of this are fuzzy, but impressed on me importance of knowing what you stand for from an early age. (Of course, growing up as the child of both my parents did this anyway, but it was a real-life application of what they were teaching me anyway.)

Back from Ethiopia, he married my mom. 

They moved to Pittsburgh, where he attended Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Mom taught middle school (yes, I got it from both sides!) and Dad studied under John Gerstner, the token conservative at a liberal leaning seminary. Gerstner was relegated to teaching church history, where management thought he could do little harm. You can still find Gerstner's video series on church history... the most theologically oriented church history course in church history, probably... from Ligonier, the ministry founded by his most famous student, R.C. Sproul. Gerstner used to encourage the brightest students who were in his inner circle... maybe they used to call themselves the "Fundy Club", I'm not sure... to seek post-seminary education from (in Gerstner's opinion) the keenest theological mind in the world, Gerrit Cornelis Berkouwer, professor of Systematic Theology at the Free University of Amsterdam. It was a personal crusade for Gerstner, who had witnessed liberalism take over the mainline Presbyterian church. Dad was interested in the mission field, after Ethiopia, or possibly a preaching and teaching ministry in a small church; but Gerstner was stern in his insistence that there must be men trained at the highest level in theology, or there might not be a faithful church left to send out missionaries at all. (This from a conversation with my dad some years ago). So in his final year of seminary, Dad worked on learning Dutch. He told the story of how R.C. Sproul and his wife came to visit them in the seminary apartment to get some tips about preparing for Holland (R.C. was a year behind Dad, I think) and Dad spun him a yarn about how he was concerned about the Dutch theologians, they might be only 4-point Calvinists, denying Irresistible Grace. The way Dad told it, he had R.C. going for a bit, and then showed him the Dutch vocabulary card for tulip - "TULP" it said.

So Dad and Mom moved to the Netherlands. Mom taught at an American school, learned Dutch, played basketball, and apparently got really into knitting when she was pregnant with me. Dad had his studies in Amsterdam, about half an hour from Dordrecht where they lived, and I of course know only what they told me, or what was recorded in pictures, letters, or audio tapes, about this time.

I was about 20 months old when we returned to America, on a ship, and Mom was pregnant with my brother. Dad had achieved his "Doctorandus," roughly the equivalent of a Masters with an IOU for a dissertation. Mom's family home in Middletown, OH was our landing pad. My brother was born there, and within a few months of Dad sending out resumes and applications, he had a call to a United Presbyterian Church in Akron. I gather that he planned to serve that congregation for about 5-8 years, while working on his dissertation, and then seek a job in higher education teaching theology, at a seminary or university. But that didn't happen as planned, and that's a story for next time.