Dad’s death was a shock to us. We should have been better prepared. At forty-two, He had survived heart by-pass surgery before the treatment of heart conditions had been mastered. He was left with only a portion of his heart functioning. He always said that God kept him alive for one reason: to preach the gospel. That is exactly what he did until his death at the age of fifty-eight. I remember how young he seemed compared to many of the ministers who were there to eulogize him. The service took place at Maranatha Assembly of God, the church he had pioneered twenty-five years ago. One of the ministers spoke about how beautiful the church looked. How it was dad’s legacy that would live long after his death. I glanced at my mom and smiled. We were thinking the same thing. If these people only knew!
Maranatha’s first service took place in our living room. Dad had converted it into a makeshift sanctuary by removing every stick of furniture and cramming five old rickety pews into the small room. The pews were angled just so they would fit with a few inches of space on one end to allow access to the back rows. Mom had shouted in every ear that would listen that they had better not scratch up her hardwood floor or tear her new flower-patterned wallpaper.
Dad feared that nobody but his wife and four children would attend that day, but his fear was unfounded. His conversion had been big news in our town. Excitement built until the day we gathered, smiles as thick as St. Augustine grass, for that inaugural service. Dad had chosen as a sermon topic Overcoming the Influence of the Devil. The enthusiasm, the moment, the hallelujahs rising in the air must have filled dad with boldness as he commenced to pounding on Old Slewfoot something fierce. "Don't let that Devil steal the cheese off your bread," he roared, "cause he’s nothing but a defeated foe anyway."
Well, the Devil didn’t take too kindly to dad’s pounding, and he started a little uprising in the congregation. Not too much at first, mind you--just a little distraction here and there. A young couple had just been blessed with a new baby girl. While dad was letting fly some scripture concerning being still and hearing the Voice of the Lord, the beautiful cherub let out a slight whine. No real cause for alarm. Just a little"yelp" like a baby will let out from time to time. You would have thought all hell was pouring over the horizon, breaking loose upon the land.
The mom grabbed up the child and dashed right past dad into the dining room; then the grandparents followed close behind, crossing right in front of dad as he pretended not to notice the commotion; next, friends of the parents and grandparents dashed by. One elderly gentleman pulled out a pack of Lucky Strikes and headed out the front door to light up on the porch, establishing a flow of traffic that intersected right in front of the spot dad had chosen to deliver the Words of Life.
The room was about to recover when dad’s own children gave way to the devil’s influence. As the oldest, I led off with my own contribution. I had taken a shower just as the service began. In those days I wore my hair long, a sign of the rebellion of my generation. I didn’t have the time to dry my hair so the thought occurred to me to use the same tactic as Old Red, our Catahoula Cur, and just shake it dry. So I shook my head ferociously, letting my hands slap against the hair to speed up the process, unaware--I swear it--that half the congregation who remained after the baby crises was looking at me, mouths open in wonderment, as mist flew everywhere. Undaunted, dad plodded onward, putting a little extra mustard in his voice as he cried out, just like the Lord had those many years ago, "Peace, be still!"
Neil, the baby of the family, had wormed his way down to the floor against the wall, discovering the spigot to the gas line that fed the gas heater dad had removed to make room for the pews. Pssssssssss. Psssssssssss. Everybody looked around curiously, Neil hidden from view by the pews. Pssssssssss. Pssssssssss. Pssssssssss. Dad was visibly shaken as he struggled to maintain his line of thought, searching, like everybody else, for the source of the noise. It sort of dawned on all of us at about the same time as the smell of gas began to overwhelm those closest to the spigot. The devil was making my little brother turn that spigot on and off, on and off, on and off. Mom, mortified, jerked him up and plopped him in his seat, taking a chunk out of his arm with her patented pinch and twist.
Stacey, the only daughter, was in the back passing notes with her girlfriends. She was scribbling how she loved Johnny, Jimmy, or whoever happened to be the cutest boy ever to walk God’s green earth that week. What possessed her to start tearing out those sheets of paper from her spiral notebook was a mystery, at least to everyone but dad. The sound of long, protracted rips of paper mingled in the air with the smell of gas and flying mist to pretty much shut down whatever it was dad was bravely trying to explain to us about the devil’s distractions. You could see the anger rising in him. Even the most self-disciplined and patient of men would have struggled under such duress.
Not wanting to give in to the idea that his new church was beginning with such a monumentally disastrous outcome, dad pressed on with passionate diligence. Casting all care to the wind, he set his jaw and gave the devil all he had left. Of course, the devil still had Packy in his quiver. Normally, Packy was the one who wreaked havoc at times like this, but, for once in his life, he had managed to make it halfway through an event without catching a thump to the back of his head from mom. She was always scolding him about the importance of being quiet in church. Then she would put her index finger to her lips and shush him so loud it hurt your ears. That day, Packy sat there like a missionary, nodding at just the right times. There was a neighborhood kid, younger than Neil, who was playing with a toy truck at Packy's feet. Every now and again, the kid would run the truck over Packy’s foot, or slightly up his leg like a four-wheel drive going up a mountain. Unusually gracious that morning, Packy allowed such frivolity until the boy started making it up the hill, shooting across his knee and onto the plateau that was Packy’s lap.
Once, twice, and a third time, Packy pushed the boy’s truck off his lap, trying to ignore the goings-on. But the devil whispered something in Packy’s ear that caused him to put a stop to this brat. He lifted his hand as though about to shout out an "Amen!" but, instead, came crashing down on that poor boy’s hand so hard that it sounded off like a shotgun in that small living room. People ducked, pews ripped back against the hardwood floors, the toy truck went flying through the air, crashing against mom’s new wallpaper, and the boy started screaming at the top of his lungs as Packy resumed his missionary posture and readied himself for more of this good teaching.
Dad’s face went from red to purple as the grand opening of our little church pretty much ended right there. Dad’s eyes glowed as he grimaced, "My kids go upstairs. Now! Everybody else, get out of my house this minute before I beat the tar out of every one of you." As cars were cranking up outside, his kids were making tracks upstairs. Dad never did punish us that day. In fact, he never mentioned it to us, and none of us ever had the guts to mention that first service to him again.
He preached thousands of messages in that church which grew over the next twenty-two years. I listened to the testimony of his impact on people’s lives at that packed memorial service and for the first time realized the difference he had made in our community. His wife and four children sat proudly in that large new facility he had built, dabbing at tears as those he had reached shared stories. Every now and then I was distracted from the proceedings as Packy thumped his son to shush him, Stacey whispered to someone sitting close to her, and Neil leaned over to settle down his children with a pinch and a twist.