When I was in third grade, we moved into a Cape Cod house in Nashville, Tennessee. The magnolia tree begged to be climbed, mimosa blossoms scented the yard, and a sloping driveway went all the way around back to the basement sliding door. The basement included a den along with bedrooms for my brothers and me. Upstairs was a rented apartment accessed only by an outdoor stairway; the flat roof of the garage served as its porch. The formal living and dining areas were reserved mostly for Sunday dinner guests who entered the front door
But our family entered through a breezeway between kitchen and garage. The year dad remodeled that kitchen, I fell in love with home design watching the 1930s galley become a 1970s L-shaped wonder with avocado green appliances. At one end was the door to the formal dining room. At the other end were two doors; one led to the garage, and one to my dad’s study. That door was always open.
Dark paneling and carpet sucked the sunlight out of the study, window to the front yard notwithstanding. Along one wall, bookshelves extended ceiling-ward, and along the opposite wall was my dad’s desk. There were lower bookshelves next to the desk, and stacks of Bibles and commentaries across the top. And on a plastic mat in the middle of the floor was my dad’s office chair. Curved and smooth, the well-worn arms of tiger oak radiate strength and stability just like my dad. The base was a metal post with four swivel feet and it rocked backward. But dad always leaned toward his desk, eyes straining at the text as he hand wrote sermon notes for Sunday.
Decades later, I’m in another study of dad’s, helping them pack for a final move to Phoenix. Because I’ve moved quite a bit myself, I’m incredulous at some of the items my dad kept. What in the world was he thinking? The reason behind such choices is surely subconscious; we’d be hard-pressed to describe those selections to anyone else. But what we choose to keep communicates something about what we value.
A glimpse of our past; what we treasure most.
Dad’s desk was like a paper trail of the last five decades. I found pocket calendars dating to 1994; mail from siblings as well as high school classmates; programs from musical performances he was in or directed; ancestry notes on his family; term papers from high school. Of this last category, one was titled “That Inferior Feeling” and described the uncertainty of not-quite-measuring-up to (self-imposed?) standards. I imagine my dad at that young age and I wonder whose expectations he was trying to meet. I think of myself at that young age, and my dad making note of the one “B” on my report card of mostly “As.” Compassion and empathy increase as I realize that his parenting grew out of his own experience, with parents and teachers alike. We are all products of our past, sometimes broken, doing the best we can with what we’ve received.
One entire bookshelf was filled with 9×6 inch black notebooks, each one a three-ring binder of sermon notes, carefully typed outlines from his decades of preaching. In the mid-90s (when his old typewriter died but he hadn’t yet made the move to a personal computer) you see a shift to hand-written sermon notes, still in outline form. As the years progress (and his job becomes part-time) the hand-writing becomes more wobbly and the dates of sermons less frequent. As far as I can tell, he kept every single one, noting both date and location of its delivery. They are didactic in nature, not reflective or contemplative. Still, I struggle with whether or not to keep them as is, let them all go, or translate them all into an eventual festschrift of his preaching career. The notebooks serve as a window into his belief set, a time-worn record of his lived-out theology.
I always loved dad’s study. I loved the books, and the sound of my dad’s pen, and the atlas that rivaled the size of my younger brother. I loved the swivel chair so much it now sits in my own office where I write blog posts, research papers, and yes, sermons. My path to ministry has often been a winding and surprising journey. My daughter and I both followed in his footsteps as ministers, an ironic detail he missed in his commitment to a men-only church leadership model. We are shaped by our past, but we don’t have to be permanently defined by it. I think I honor him best when I follow God’s will, just as he did, even if he couldn’t understand the path I travel.
Maybe someday Dad’s chair will belong to my daughter. Maybe she’ll look through my books and files someday, wondering why I kept and wrote what I did. She’s walked a different road than mine, finding affirmation for her call through her college years, and ministry with a Chicago church plant. She’s also published articles, and walked through lots of open doors. Sometimes I think about ministry doors that slammed shut because of my gender. But the door to dad’s study was always open.