"Shhhhh!!" Our mother would say. "Your dad is studying." Dad always had a way of stopping us in our tracks. Our small bodies peered into his study. Dad was covered up with books and papers, his head bowed as if in prayer. We tiptoed past him before picking up steam again and squealing into the backyard to play.
Dad was a lover of the Word.
He adored poetry, and kept in memory favorite passages, like John Milton's: "They loved bondage with ease rather than strenuous liberty."
As I said goodnight to him a couple of years ago, he was in his usual bedtime pose with a book propped on his pillow. He looked up and asked me, " Nancy, next time you go the store, could you pick up the complete works of Tennyson?" (Would that be in aisle 7 at the grocery store?)
Dad took great delight in the words of the poets and writers of great literature, but he positively levitated in his love for the biblical word. For Dad the word of God was just as the book of Hebrews proclaimed, "..alive and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit….and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart." (Hebrews 4:12)
Like the ancient rabbis, Dad experienced the study of the Word as a noble and worthy journey---"a light unto his path, and lamp unto his feet"---illuminating the holy in our lives. Later in life he wrote:
We (scholars) are often accused of being unspiritual academics, or of escape from the practical world in absorption in antiquities. However, my testimony is that such has been a powerful resource for whatever spiritual life and ministry I have had…Many times while studying the Bible I would feel a powerful presence of the living God…and I wanted to rush out to grab the first passerby and demand, "What do you know about grace?"
Dad carried around his Greek New Testament wherever he rushed about in his ministry. He thought all Christians should be able to read the New Testament in its original language. Dad was bedrock Baptist. The Word was not for the few, but for the many. He resolutely practiced the priesthood of the believer, believing that with the right study and encouragement, any of us could understand the Bible from it's original sources. "God's truth is too precious to waste on the professionals," he would say.
Dad's love of the Word was akin to his love of mountain climbing. It was arduous, exhausting, and difficult, but the journey of discoveries was worth the effort. The work opened up the possibility of being transformed, body and soul, and awakened to life in all its shimmering God-filled glory. Dazzling mysteries were always there to behold. "Did you see that eagle catching the wind currents?" "Did you see how the Greek word is better translated, not a 'cheerful giver' but a 'hilarious giver'? This life-long love of the Word was a daring exploration, capable of uncovering new revelations, and new 'a-ha's' to share. "Jeanette! Jeanette! Come here! I want to show you what I have found in this passage."
You can imagine the heartbreak when thieves broke into his Southern Baptist house and stole the birthright of spirit-infused interpretation of the Bible. In a letter to one president of one Southern Baptist seminary that had been ransacked and taken over, he wrote of "alien forces that had invaded Baptists. And what will your trustees do with that remarkable library?"
As his children, we experienced Dad in the multi-faceted ways of the people of the Bible. He was as commanding as Moses, with no votes being taken at the Red Sea as to whether we wanted to cross over or not. We were going. He was as complicated as King David….charming and charismatic, yet often irascible, self-absorbed, and controlling. Yet, like David, he had an irrepressible passion for life that was infectious.
Like his favorite prophet, Jeremiah, Dad had a fire in his bones that could not be shut up. They both spoke in exclamation points. They had a relentless longing for us to get the eternal message of hope in the providence of God.
Like the apostle Paul, Dad was brilliant, head-strong, opinionated and wise. He was disciplined and he could impose discipline. Both were men of deep faith and conviction in the resurrected Christ.
Like the Word he loved, Dad was not easily explainable and never containable. Like Jacob wrestling, we have had our own long nights of wrestling. We have wrestled with our Dad, not always certain of the outcome. But dawn does break and blessing comes. Even with a limp in our step, we can mark our journey with gratitude, thanking God for the blessings that emerged from the burdens.
Dad's last years have been in the study of Isaiah, the poetic prophet. He called him "the flying eagle." From the prophet, the image comes clearly into view, the wolf and the lamb feeding together. Conflict ceases. Forgiveness happens. Peace at last. There is hope, hope for all of humanity.
Just before Dad moved to an assisted living place, and three years after his beloved wife died, Helen was making up Dad's bed and discovered that Dad had taken a black marker pen and written on his side of the blanket these words:
He covered himself with the Word, even on the darkest and loneliest of nights.
The Lord Reigns
Let all the Earth Rejoice
He gives to All Life and Breath
This was his life and witness. This was his hope, that we all be covered with the holy Word that brings life and breath and joy.
Selah. May it be so.