Sunday, May 22, 2005


When my grandparents traveled to Mexico for my father's funeral, they found in his room a stack of letters. He had used to ditto sheets to make copies of every letter he wrote, including ones to me. He had taken numerous trips to Mexico and Central America as part of his missionary work, but it was only in the last one that he took on archiving as a project. I am reading them now. I've read these letters before, perhaps ten years ago, but the experience wasn't as emotionally charged as it is now. The letters are stirring feelings on a number of different levels.

The most obvious feelings are the least immediate, that is the notion that these letters suggest a loss, a relationship I was unable to have with my father. We were both very young when he died -- he 27, me eight -- so there was a lot of unfinished business. As I've said elsewhere in this blog I didn't much like mmy dad. His faith scared me. But I am now just a few pages into this collection of letters, which span the time from late April 1976 when he first arrived in Minatitlan, Vera Cruz, Mexico until his death in October of that year, that he was undergoing a tremendous change which I have no doubt would have laid a foundation for reconciliation between the two of us.

But that's the least of it. A deeper pain is journalistic in nature. I feel that dread one feels when tackling a big, difficult but important and exciting story. The pain is more accute here because I am attached to it at the onset. But more signiificantly because it is shapping up to be a project unlike any I've ever taken on. So much of the story telling will be what I bring to it, and less what the story brings to itself, as is the case with most journalism. The structure is far froom obvious, and I tend to agonize when I don't have a fairly clear vision of where I'm going at the commencement.

Deepest pain of all comes in the aspect of discovery that is bound in this project, that I am not only going to unearth a story but that I am going to find aspects of myself, ugly ones, and that the project itself is a vehicle for self-discovery and change. All journalism projects are this way to a degree, but obviously this is a higher notch. Especially because this deals with issues of faith, spiritually and a sense of purpose in life and family and nation. I am at a stage of intense spiritual transformation, due to a number of factors I could name here but which I fear would be redundant and self serving. The main point is that I'm reading a historical record of the process of a spiritual transformation in a young man who was a lot like me, from whom I come, and in this reading come very difficult challenges to my own ways of being and assumptions and so on.

This, from a letter to Nan and Jim dated Friday, May 6, 1976, struck me:

For the first time I'm beginning to really like prayer and worship. Maybe that is not exactly true. But I have picked up a new perspective llately. It's so evident in the churches I visit what their worship is like. You can tell where a church is at from how they sing their songs and how they pray. It's a spiritual thermometer. Not only is it a thermometer but it is actually when the church really receives life from Christ. So long I didn't see it. All I saw was my own ministry or the church structure and so many times when there was worship I was nervous and anxious to get on to the "real thing," the thing that had substance. But now as I get closer to my ministry I'm beginning to see it has no substance at all to it. "We have all been unprofitable serveants." The real substance is fellowship with Christ. Nothing else really counts, not my church structure, not my ministry. If God takes us and uses us for silly looking things and forms of siilly looking structures out of our churches it doesn't matter. I can see that only in this light and perspective can the Kingdom of God be really shared and we can really be obedient. Otherwise other things can become our Lord. How ironic it can be.

I read this and regretted the post I wrote yesterday about Zion Chapel. I regretted my reaction to the service, my walking out and hoofing back to town on a country road. I regret too my propensity to criticize and preach. Over the last year it seems I've been apologizing a lot over outbursts of hot-headedness and self-riighteousnness.

Also, it's obvous here how simiilar I am to my father. He's clearly alluding to past conflicts he's had with his church, his judgement of how they choose to worship. I will probably learn more about the specifics of these co\onflicts in the coming years. But foo\r now I can see that if my dad had not died there would have been a moment, or moments of reconciliation where he would have realized how overzealous he was in his faith and how it really frightened me as a young child and messed up my own relationship with and understanding of God for many years to come.

This is a letter he wrote to me three days later:

Dear Joe,

How are you? I hope O.K. Last week i got a little sick for one day, but I am alright now.

Thursday I went to a small village with Miguel [the pastor he was working with]. The village has a church made out of boards from a palm tree. One side is curved and the other is straight. The roof is made out of leaves.

Anyway it is too small now and they wanted to build another church building, so we went there to start the new building. Miguel preached.

I am always amazed at how poor the people are. They have dirt floors and animals come in and out all day long. We were sitting in the living room and a pig walked right in the front door and out the back door. The place we ate didn't have a stove. They had a metal table with a camp fire on it, but there was no chimney, so the smoke went out through the palm leaf roof.

After lunch, we went to sleep for a while, then we went to the well, where the people get their water. They don't have sinks where the water comes up, so everyone has to walk a quarter mile outside the village to the well. The well is just a hole in the ground where the water comes up. All day long, people come to the well to get water in buckets, and they carry it home. Some dads send their kids to get the water. They ride down on burros with 2 water buckets on their burro in front of them. They get the water and then take it home to their houses.

Later in the day Miguel preached and then we ate and went home. It was very interesting. The neat thing is that people are happy here. They aren't sad because they doon't have electricity or water or cars or floors and a lot of other things.

I hoope that you write to me soon oor at least send me a few pictures. Also tell Grandpa to take a pictuure of you with the camera and send it.



I cavalierly say that I didn't like my dad, but I really loved him. I especially loved his inate sense of the surreal, his childlike wonderment at the absurdity of the world. This letter touches me. I can almost remember feeling tickled when I read it, or my grandma read it to me, with the image of the pig just waltzing in. It's great writing, really; so simple and clean that it's downright subversive. It was addressed to a middle-class kid in the Midwest, who assumes that things like solid roofs and floors and straight walls are the norm for the entire world. To learn that there is something different actually made the priviliged norms of my world seem absurd.

I will share more by and by

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