NORMAN — We are preparing, in my family, for a big birthday celebration. My father, who generally doesn’t want any fuss, who answers, “nothing,” when we ask him what he wants for Christmas, whose idea of hedonism is Dr. Pepper and vanilla ice cream in a big glass, and who spent a total of 27 cents during our two-week bus tour of Spain, suddenly lit up like those light bulbs they don’t sell anymore when we suggested we might throw him a 90th birthday party.
“Who all should be on the guest list?” we asked. “The whole church,” he answered. Suddenly, we weren’t in the back room at Hideaway Pizza, but rather, in the community hall with potentially hundreds of people. Who is this guy?
So, we’re putting together a list of guests beyond their church friends that includes people he knew in the bicycle business, people who live in their neighborhood and friends he’s made in the local arts scene, thanks mainly to my musician sister’s entrance into said scene. His little brother, who’s only 88, will come from Colorado. Cousins will come from Fort Worth. People we didn’t even invite will probably show up, and by golly, they will get a piece of cake, too.
Looking over this pile of photos I now have amassed on my dining room table, it occurs to me that the chapters in a life of 90 years are dense with varied experiences. It also occurs to me that I come from people who have aged extremely well (whew.) And, it occurs to me that a great percentage of my dad’s life experiences orbited around the Methodist, and now United Methodist, church.
Listening to the sermons by Brother Bonner in rural Alabama in the 20s in an un-air-conditioned, frame church building with graves right outside the open windows surely shaped my dad’s theology. Baptisms down on the riverbank were surely more dramatic (and wet) than the ones I do with a few drops of water over the fount in my sanctuary. And hymns sung out of the brown Cokesbury hymnal surely planted the seeds of a life of solo and ensemble singing that led him to audition for Bob Wills’ band, sing in the Tulsa Opera Chorus, and help fill out the tenor section every Sunday in worship for decades.
When two of my grandparents died within 10 days of each other in 1987, my mother must have asked, “What do people do who don’t have church families?” 13 times. Someone brought food. Someone else watched our house during the funeral… just in case. Someone offered to take Mom out to walk, talk and cry. Others would nudge me as the years passed and I did something special in church and would say, “Your grandmother is smiling down on you today,” because they were a part of our church family and knew just how she loved being a part of three generations of Venables in church.
Who is your faith family? Who sees to your needs? Who comforts you when you are bereft and celebrates with you when you are on top of the world? Maybe you’ve found a religious community already, and if you have, I compel you to think about who might need to be invited through those doors. What young kid might be looking for a place to share his talents? What teenager might need a “chosen grandparent” who has more time to listen than a busy parent might? What older person needs a place to ask questions and wrestle with the mysteries of faith? Who’s going to be having their 90th birthday at your place of worship many years from now, just because you invited them in?
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