I write this on April 5, 2011, one year after my Dad’s death. I knew that this day would fall within the forty of Lent, so I knew that on this day I would write of Dad’s influence on my spiritual path and life’s work. Some of these essays or reflections on the Forty have been easier to write than others. But writing about one’s parents is difficult for many reasons. For one thing, there is a lot to write, and much to edit.

I have already written that my Dad, Harry Victor Kellam, Jr., was more openly “religious” than Mom. When I was a child, it was Dad who taught me to pray. I don’t actually remember a particular prayer, but as our family gathered at the Sunday dinner table, Dad said grace. Once a week, on the Sabbath, seemed to cover our gratitude for daily bread. “Thank you for this food and for all our daily blessings. Amen.”  Short, sincere, and a model for a small child’s developing faith.

[If that wasn’t the first prayer I learned as a child, the New York State “Regents’ Prayer” was. “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our Country.” Partnered with the Pledge of allegiance, that was our official “opening exercise” in primary school.]

Mom and Dad laid a very subtle religious foundation for us as we grew up. My first memory of “church” was a short experiment at a local Methodist church a couple of blocks from our house. While my parents had attended (and probably joined) the Presbyterian church where they were to be married and where I was baptized in my third year, they moved across the river when I was four or five, and they tried that Methodist church for awhile. Didn’t take.

I’ve already written here of a Mrs. Plymale who was connected with a new Baptist church that popped up in the lot next door, a modest brick structure that didn’t look much like a church, but sure sounded like one, even on Saturday nights, I think. Maybe it was during the Released Time Education with Mrs. Plymale era, but at some point a school friend must have invited me to a special children’s program at that church. I asked to go there, and since it was right next door, Dad let me go…by myself.

The only thing I remember about that night was being offered a free personalized pencil if I would go back the next week. Dad said no. “But it’s a pencil with my name on it.” “No.” Dad was guarding my theological sensibilities, and knew bribery when he saw it. So, no, I didn’t go back. But I suffered through the sounds of the service that next week as they floated into my bedroom window from next door . I wonder what ever became of that pencil.

Since those things religious are often and rightfully linked to justice issues, I have to mention here something very important that my Dad taught me when I was of elementary school age. I had come home with the “eenie, meenie, miney, moe” rhyme (you ever spelled that out before?). When I was in the process of making some earth-shattering decision, I said the rhyme out loud, “Catch a N____ by the toe…,” and Dad immediately, and gently, said, “We don’t say that word here.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s not a nice word, and it can hurt people’s feelings. So even though your friends might say it, we don’t say it in our family. Say, “…Catch a doggie by the toe…” That was around 1951. My father continued to model for us human dignity and sensitivity.

As I said, Mom and Dad weren’t much for that Methodist church down the road nor the Baptists next door. When we moved back across the river to their (and our) original hometown, the home they bought was right across the street from that Presbyterian Church where they had been married, and on whose cemetery wall they had sat eating ice cream cones while dating. (Mom confessed they’d done some other things in that church cemetery, but that doesn’t exactly fit my theme here!)

My first Bible came at Christmas, 1957, with Dad inscribing it, “From Mother and Dad.” (It may have been the same year Mom gave a Bible to Dad, one with olive wood covers from the Holy Land. Both Bibles were the King James edition. Dad probably read his more than I read mine in 1957.

Throughout my years in ministry, when folks asked why I was a Presbyterian, the most straightforward answer was, “The Presbyterian church was across the street from my house.” More seriously, there was a bit more to it than that. Some of it was no doubt my parents’ long history there, for there were two other churches nearby: oddly one was Methodist, the other Baptist. But even though Dad and Mom would not become very active there, it was our family’s church home until they moved away.

Dad did usher once in a while, and they both participated in some of the church’s more community-oriented activities, dinners and such. But I remember coming home on a spring break from college (where I was a pre-ministerial student), and finding that no one but me was going to church on Easter Sunday. I couldn’t believe it. When I protested their absence from church on such a special day, I was roundly chastised for my holier-than-thou attitude, and for not respecting my parents’ personal decision to stay home that morning. It was not a pretty scene, but it is one I recall vividly. It was in the dining room, my Dad shouted at me, and I left in a huff. Not a Happy Easter!

Dad eventually followed IBM to Raleigh, NC, and my parents joined the big steeple Presbyterian church downtown, liking both pastors there, one with a Scottish brogue, the other with a Southern drawl. Mom complained that at a church dinner everyone stood up when they sang “Dixie.” Everyone but her and Dad, I guess. They would later move their membership to at least one other Presbyterian church, maybe two. But neither of my parents was much for the institution.

 Later I would hear Dad make fun of hymns, and right there in front of my church-musician wife. When I pointed that out, he was embarrassed, and apologized. It wasn’t his only problem with worship services. Dad was never one to sit still very long, and he was quite critical of many sermons he had had to tolerate while sitting still. In their later years, except for Mom’s bowling friends, my parents weren’t at all social, and I think all that came into play as they let “church” slide.

Having written all that, Dad had more than “faith the size of a mustard seed.”  Remembering his many books on religion, and a small collection of Bibles, I am aware that my Dad had more than a passing curiosity about the things of God. He was an avid reader, and he loved history, and, to a lesser extent, the history of religion. I do regret not feeding his thoughtful curiosity with the likes of Frederick Buechner, William Sloane Coffin, Jr., and, more recently, Karen Armstrong.

I know that Dad prayed, but how regularly I do not know. He certainly supported my call to the ministry, from day one, and right through my last years as a pastor. He even wrote a sermon for me once. It was about the value of Christian unity based on loving one’s neighbor. Dad prefaced the hand-written words on yellow legal pad paper with a disclaimer, saying that he certainly didn’t have my experience in sermon writing, but I was free to use any of his thoughts in a future sermon.

It has just occurred to me now (as I write this) that when Dad spoke of God, he was most likely to call God, “The Good Lord.”

While I could continue to write about both my parents for hours to come, I want to finish this entry before midnight EDT. It’s 11:55 P.M., so I’ll conclude with something very personal. When Dad was dying, there was some question about whether we would be able to make it to Raleigh in time to say what we wanted to say to him. So, I wrote him a letter. Since we both knew that his time was short, but he was mercifully in full control of his thoughts, I wrote of my love and respect for him as a person, writing down special memories, appreciations, thanksgivings, and even confessions. And I wrote the following, the only part of that letter I feel comfortable sharing: in a bulleted list… “I think of you as:

  • the man of Spirit; yes, that’s a capital “S,” for it deals with God. I learned from you to “say my prayers.” And to offer grace at a meal. Perhaps the most critical walk you and I took together was the short trip across Liberty Avenue when you delivered me to Sunday School the first time. I was in 5th or 6th grade, and it was a sunny September Sunday. It took. I know you are not an institutional Christian, but your faith has been an inner journey, one of honest longing and reading and searching, and, I trust, as much as any of us can say, understanding the meaning and purpose of life.

 That walk to the Union Presbyterian Church set me on a path that was far more than a career; it was a call, a vocation, a lifetime of what I pray has been, for me, a form of what we in the church like to call “servant leadership.” Dad, I feel very good about my life’s work and I owe that to you…and our Creator. And I am still, as often as I can, literally walking up that front walk to Union Church.

…I know you know me well enough to realize that though this is ink and paper, there is much heart in it. And love, deep and lasting.

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