Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

from the museum--Blessed Assurance

Years ago, when I was revising a novel, Romey's Place, I didn't know exactly how the plot would end. What I knew when I'd started the revision was that I was off in a new direction, writing a different story really because I'd been reading Phillip Yancey and Kathleen Norris and came to realize that that story I was telling had much more to do with grace than I'd ever imagined. 

That manuscript was ten years old already, had made the rounds to publishers. In the early drafts, the kid's father had died while away in Europe, making it impossible for the two of them to talk about differences the narrator couldn't help but feel. But in this revision I knew I wanted the two of them to have that talk. I didn't know where it would take place, nor why or how it would turn out, only that something had to be said. Somehow, the protagonist and his father were going to talk to each other in a way they never had.

Right about then, my parents came out to Iowa to visit. One Sunday morning we went to church, and that morning's liturgy included the old hymn "Blessed Assurance." There I stood, beside him, watching him--and hearing him--pour his heart out and I knew right then how the novel would end. The protagonist, now a father himself, understands that what all of his pent-up antagonism doesn't have to be spilled, doesn't have to soil his father's love. So he doesn't tell his father the story he'd wanted to, doesn't say it because he's learned--after all those years--something abiding about grace, a lesson he'd learned from a tough kid he hung around with in those turbulent years when they grew up together.

That Sunday morning, my father gave me the denouement of Romey's Place at the moment we were stood there singing "Blessed Assurance." That moment informs the final scene of the novel.
Just as he was for so many others, my father--bless his soul--was forever a peacemaker. Throughout all of my life, in a hundred varied ways, my father showed me the paths of truly selfless righteousness. Even now, in his last years, I still thank him for offering me a witness of what is pure, what is holy, and what is true.
But now that I’ve walked through those years again, now that I’ve gone back as deeply as I could into a story that ended in Cyril’s death, I’ve come to believe that Romey’s place in my life has become more consequential in the decades that have passed than that place may have seemed at the time. What my own foolish soul has come to understand is that while my father taught me goodness, it was Romey who taught me grace.
And that’s why I don’t need to tell my aging father the long story I couldn’t bring myself to tell him years ago. There’s no need to explain what role he played the night I lost a friend, no need to remind him of what, for years, I might have called his sin. All I need to say is that no matter what, he is my father. That’s part of what Romey taught me.
When my father died, I remembered that moment clearly and told myself that at his funeral I wished we could sing again "Blessed Assurance." I didn't push that wish on anyone because I couldn't help feeling that some witches' brew of motivations was at work: life and art and ego subtly and fearfully mixed. Had I told my sisters we should sing I wanted to sing the old  hymn, I would have felt idolatrous after a fashion, as if my story of my father's story was more significant than his story, his life.

I had no part in planning his funeral. My sisters did it while we were on our way to Wisconsin. They told me what they were planning once we arrived, and one of the hymns they'd determined to sing, they said, was "Blessed Assurance." 

My sister said that Mom had claimed her husband's deep faith was something she'd always admired and even envied; he'd never really doubted God's love, and she'd marveled at, or so she told my sisters, because there were times she did, she said. My mother chose that old hymn for reasons all her own.

Was that okay? my sisters asked me.

Sure, I said. Of course it was.

So we sang "Blessed Assurance" at his funeral. Of course, I will never again sing that hymn without thinking of him. There it is on his gravestone--Mom made sure it was there. 

Part of my inheritance includes that same assurance. Like him, I don't doubt my Father's love. Never have--hopefully, never will.

My dad never took me hunting, never took me to ball games, never did a whole lot with me really. By today's standards, he didn't work at building a relationship--just as his own probably hadn't, a preacher with ten kids, mid-Depression. 

But my father taught me a great deal about this life and the next by his own humbling blessed assurance.

That's his story--and mine.

And it's also our Father's story, or so it seems to me.

first appeared on October 22, 2007

1 comment:

Pastor Jan P said...

Here in Ontario, Canada we just celebrated "Family Day". Your "Blessed Assurance" post is helpful for us aging fellows raised in Dutch immigrant homes as we revisit our father child story. Thanks.