I went to church with my dad and stepmom while visiting them in Arizona. To some, this might not seem like such a big deal. To me, it was a momentous occasion. During our phone conversation the day before my flight, Dad asked me if I would go to church with him on Sunday. I nearly spewed the lemon water I had just sipped but not swallowed. My dad had never asked me if I wanted to go to church with him—ever. He may argue otherwise, but even though he’s mentally sharp at 82 minus three months and counting, his memory is no match for mine, especially when it comes to short conversation, which I have a knack for remembering verbatim.
This was the same dad who many times before had told me not to talk to him about God or Jesus or heaven or whatever happens after you die because, well, I don’t remember the because but I know he never liked talking about “religion”. I protested that I’m not really all that interested in religion either, at least not as much as in a relationship with Jesus.
I explained that one of the reasons I love Jesus is because He didn’t care much for the “religious” either while He walked the earth—at least not those who thought they were in better standing with God because they were “good” by their own definition. In fact, I explained, Jesus reserved His harshest words for the kind of “religious” folks who didn’t like those who broke free from their human-invented book of rules and regulations. And God forbid one might appear to threaten the power positions of the “religious” leaders! Why, that might just get one an order of crucifixion by the political leaders, pressured by the “religious” who got to witness the blood bath, enjoying their own “clean” hands, feeling like they had seized the day!
Same thing happens today with those in power.
My dad likes this kind of talk about those in power who do horribly unrighteous things. He laments loud and often about the damned liberals, although he does concede—when I point it out to him—that even conservatives have the ability to be imperfect—at least occasionally—but only those who do not support the NRA—which is none of them or they’re not really conservatives.
Dad always likes it when I criticize the “religious”. So do most of my non-believing friends. They become temporarily derailed when I agree with them about not liking religious stuff much, even though I do go to church regularly, and I do serve the church. You know—all those imperfect people who congregate on Sundays, confessing their sins and all, just to go home and swear something that begins with “s” and ends with “t” when the Packers make a stupid mistake. That would be me—until I catch myself and tell my teenage son I should have said “crap” instead of “s**t” because “crap” is a nicer sounding synonym. But the other word FEELS better to me, for some strange reason. I don’t tell my son that. It’s better to keep some feelings to oneself.
I’m still working on my mouth. But I give myself some grace. At least I’m a progressive in the language department, if not the political science department. I blame my upbringing—mostly that of my dear departed mother—which I do believe will take me a whole lifetime to overcome. Because how is one supposed to have a clean mouth all the time when you are served a steady diet of words such as “son-of-a-b**ch” or “bas***d” or “assh*l*” or “go*dam*t” or “J****C***st!”—which was all I knew about Jesus Christ till I was twelve—that when your mom is REALLY mad at you, she calls on the name of the LORD! Oh yes, and my mom, God bless her departed soul, used to tell me that my grandma “wouldn’t say s**t if she had a mouthful of it”. Right. Like really? I’m not believing it, let alone picturing it. And so, “s**t” is still a stumbling block for me in the language department. But the fact that I have my swearing down to one word, mostly, proves how progressive I am. AND spiritual.
I think Dad likes how lightly I take this whole “religion” thing—how I don’t take myself too seriously in that department because, after all, who wants a pushy saleswoman beating her 82 year-old-minus-three months-and-counting Dad over the head with a spiritual stick to convert or be damned? Right? So I don’t scold him when he says a swear word either. I won’t mention what those ARE. Well, maybe just one. He has a fondness for the term “Illegal” since he lives just 30 minutes north of the Mexican border. To me, that’s a swear word and I do chastise him on THAT one when I get my fill.
Spiritually speaking, these days I’m letting God deal with Dad as God sees fit. But I do pray a lot for Dad, because I love him. And I wonder if he’s softening his stance toward Jesus in his old age. Maybe the years have softened him. Or maybe love has softened him. Or maybe he’s starting to wonder if something does happen with his soul after death—that maybe there IS a heaven and a hell. Maybe it’s because Dad’s spending a good amount of time these days making sure he’s got all his ducks in a row (I HAD to use a cliché, which you’ll understand in a moment). Or maybe he’s remembering what I’ve told him a couple times over the years . . .
“I’ll be MAD at you if I get to heaven and find out you’re not there to welcome me just because you’ve been a stubborn ASS about not trusting in Jesus as your ticket to eternal life—with ME!”
Because it’s all about ME . . .
At his age, he finds me funny when I use a word like “ass” and act all sassy with him for fun. I like seeing him laugh. And I figure a little sassy humor with a slang animal name thrown in might expedite matters of spiritual importance. After all—asses ARE in the Bible . . .
So I prayed about going to church with him Sunday, thinking about him getting his “ducks in a row”. And what did we see as we pulled into the parking lot and walked toward the front door of the C.H.U.R.C.H.?
I saw God’s mighty sense of humor on full display!
There by the front door was a carved stone fountain with a blue-bottomed pool catching the overflow of sun-infused splashing water. And what should sit on the ledge of the pool but a large flock of yellow rubber duckies sunning themselves, all in individual rubber outfits!
Any church with its own flock of fashionably dressed yellow rubber duckies is high on my list, making me a sure repeat attender! I was certain the rubber duckies were a sign from on high that Dad had picked the right church.
I tried to act like an adult over the duckies but the Peter Pan kid in me badly wanted to run over and put them afloat. Gently but firmly, I held little Heather back, as any proper church-going parent would do, telling little Heather that we would return later to play with the duckies, along with Daddy. And we did!
But first . . .
THE CHURCH . . .
Once inside, I noticed pipes hanging on both the left and right walls. Not the smoking sort, but rather the organ sort. Oh boy, the geezers just have to have their pipe organ music or it’s not really church, don’t you know! Then I noticed a grand piano off to the right. I breathed more freely, seeing there might be hope for some bit of modernity.
We were a half hour early, the first to arrive, and got our choice of seats. Then the steady stream of congregants poured in. My dad leaned over and whispered rather LOUDLY in my ear, “God! I hope nobody lights a match in this place with all the oxygen tanks in here!”
My father did NOT just say that!
Alas, he did.
So I did what any adoring daughter would do.
I laughed, rather loudly.
I counted the number of humans under, let’s say, 55—like me. I’m pretty sure there were only FOUR—a few elementary school-aged girls, probably sent to Grandma and Grandpa for the weekend from Minnesota or something since the people they sat between we certainly older than I and I’m fairly certain they weren’t Father Abraham and Mother Sarah. After observing all the congregants and hoping my dad would behave and not cause me to snort or pee my pants with one of his wise-crack remarks, I turned my attention to the altar.
Behind the transparent cross was a sweeping view of the Santa Rita Mountains to the east. And from where I sat, Mt. Wrightson was smack-dab in the middle of the cross.
When I shifted a bit to my left, the cross framed Madera Canyon where the trail head to the peak began.
Two years ago, my husband and I, our then-15 year-old son Nick, and my brother from Seattle climbed to the top of that mountain—9,456 feet high. We also came back down in the same day. The climb wasn’t that difficult actually. And the view—7,000 feet above Tucson—was nothing short of spectacular.
When we started our decent, however, I realized I was in serious trouble. About a quarter mile down, my left knee started to hurt badly. Just a bit further down, my right knee started screaming too. I wasn’t sure I was going to make it down at all and I had visions of the others leaving me there and calling a helicopter to airlift me off. What if there was a freak snow storm or something? I could DIE up there! I mean, that actually did happen to a group of Boy Scouts one year. I began to panic. My husband and I sent the other two down without us. Todd would not leave me alone. He insisted on helping me all the way down. Each step excruciating. I had to turn around and walk down backwards on the rocky trail to relieve the strain of the steep grade on my knees. Still, Todd stayed with me. He warned me of trail hazards I couldn’t see since I was walking backwards. Finally, even walking backwards became impossible on my own. I turned around and faced the trail once again. But I had to lean into Todd and let him bear my weight—all my own weight I couldn’t bear. The rest of the way, he held me tight, all the way to the bottom. By then, my legs were so wobbly, I couldn’t even stand. But he still stood there, right by my side, holding me—holding me up. And he helped me get into the car where I praised Jesus saying, in His own words, “It is finished!” I died to self on that trail. But leaning into love saved me that day . . .
Sitting in church, seeing that mountain through the cross, God reminded me that ascents are often the easiest parts of life. The descents are the hardest, the most painful. They’re the ones that bring us to the end of ourselves, making us helpless to hold out on our own. It’s then that we discover how loved and supported we really are. And that kind of love is both humbling and strengthening at the same time. Because when we view our peaks and valleys of life through the perspective of the cross, we find Jesus there holding all. He’s with us on the mountaintops. He’s with us in the valleys. But the down parts of life? They hurt. Mostly because they’re so humbling. But once we let go, we realize it feels better to be loved than to try and hold onto our pride—our false sense of self-control.
After church, where the sermon was on knowing God in our hearts, not just our heads, Dad and I drove home. I grabbed my camera. Dad drove me back to church to play with the duckies. Photographer that he is, Dad helped me with lighting and exposure and angles. The little kid in me was tickled yellow to be snapping away at the flock of rubber duckies with my Daddy standing beside me, now 82 years old minus three months and counting, with the peaks and the valleys in the background.
Isn’t it amazing how God speaks to us in such fun and meaningful ways—through duckies and dads and mountains—at CHURCH?
Now THAT’S Jesus for you! Always mixing it up! Never quite what we’re expecting. That’s why I love Him.
And, oh, how He loves you and me, Dad!