My father has been dead for more than thirty years, but every Easter, I remember him as vividly as if we talked just last week. I am going to show you two really ordinary pictures today. They are pictures of socks. They aren’t very good socks. The elastic is getting pretty relaxed and there are some little holes up on the ankle. But they were Dad’s socks and I wear them to the Easter services at our church every year.
I want to begin by saying that these socks “represent” something. I put the word in quotes this time because I want to use it literally; the socks “make present again”—they re- + present—a certain part of my relationship with Dad and that I why I wear them at Easter.
Dad had a lot of trouble with the Resurrection. I do too. But he thought it was important so he never quit wrestling with it. I haven’t either. Dad was in a great deal more contact with “resurrection” than any casually orthodox Christian would have been. I think Dad knew the Resurrection about as well as Jacob knew the angel he wrestled with and for most of the same reasons.
I wear his socks at Easter to honor all that wrestling Dad did and to help me remember to fight the good fight myself. More about “the good fight” in a little while.
I sometimes thought of Dad as a diver who was a long way below the surface and who was brought up to the surface too quickly. He got DCS (decompression sickness), commonly called “bends.” As his son, I never got to the depths he reached and I took a lot longer coming to the surface, so I didn’t have to confront the bends myself. Very much. Here’s how I saw that in Dad.
Dad came to maturity in a very conservative religious culture. You didn’t have to understand what the Resurrection was, but you did have to believe that it was true. That was hard for Dad because that same culture taught him to be very careful about his own integrity; not to say something was true if it was false or that it was unimportant if it was crucial. Some of the religious practices that produced seemed to me more humorous than tragic. In a church service where we were saying “what we believe,” Dad refused to submerge his own beliefs in any kind of “we” at all. He said that if the Apostles Creed began “We believe in God the Father Almighty,” and so on, he would have no trouble with it. “We” do, in fact, believe in God the Father Almighty.
But it doesn’t say that. It says “I believe in God the Father Almighty” and so on. Dad didn’t have any trouble with that particular clause, but there were clauses that troubled him a good deal and he didn’t say those clauses. The effect was like a radio with a loose connection and some clauses would be easily audible, then some silence, then another audible phrase.
My father was a serious man and he had long ago learned the meaning of the teaching Matthew passes along on “swearing.” Let your yes mean yes and your no mean no” the Matthean Jesus says. “Everything more than that comes from the Evil One.”
As an adult, Dad got a little breathing space from some very modern Christian teachers. Of these, I think Harry Emerson Fosdick was the best known. Fosdick was “a modernist” at a time when “the modernist/fundamentalist controversy” was in full swing. There were a lot of things about Fosdick’s ministry that meant a lot to Dad, but I think it was Fosdick’s panache that really sold him. He said new things and he said them coherently and on occasion wittily. He represents the surface that Dad, following the DCS (bends) metaphor, came up to too quickly.
Here is a story that might illustrate the difference. In the community where Dad grew up, no one would have said “I don’t believe in God” but if anyone had, he or she would have become the focus of a great deal of emotional energy—some of it generous and redemptive, another part of it angry and threatening. But no one would have said what Fosdick said when a young and aggressive parishioner said he didn’t believe in God. “Tell me about this God you don’t believe in,” said Fosdick in the story I heard Dad tell dozens of times. The angry young atheist started down the catalogue of things God has done and things His followers have done that are horrible to contemplate. “Oh…that God,” said Fosdick. “I don’t believe in that God either. Let me tell you about the God I believe in.”
In making Crossroads Brethren in Christ church of Mount Joy, Pennsylvania one pole of Dad’s experience and Harry Emerson Fosdick the other pole, I am not being fair to either, but I am trying to suggest the very great distance Dad had to cover to get from one to the other. And he was forced to do it too quickly. That is how he got the bends.
Somewhere in the transition, Dad acquired the “modernist” belief that theology ought to make sense. In the world where Dad grew up, a world of German pietism, “making sense” was not a high order achievement compared, say, with accepting the mystery of grace on faith. In the world where Dad lived when I knew him, “making sense” was crucially important, but it wasn’t hard to achieve if you began with the right questions. Of course, “beginning with the right questions” isn’t all that hard if the community of Christians you live in takes it for granted that the questions can be reformulated so as to be open to modern rational answers. That didn’t work for Dad. He continued to ask the old kinds of questions and to try to answer them with the new kinds of answers. The effect of that, to finish off the bends metaphor, is that Dad was never quite at home on the surface. He didn’t become “a modernist.” He did reject the belief patterns of his youth. He touched the surface now and then; he aspired to the surface—the place where Fosdick lived—but he couldn’t live there.
And that’s why his voice turned off and on when he “recited” the Apostles Creed and that’s why he continued to struggle with the real event of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. And I do too.
And that is why I wear Dad’s socks to our Easter services every year. But I don’t have the bends, the way Dad did, and I have him to thank for that. For one thing, I was not raised in the depths, as he was. I was raised kind of half way up. Not to do more with this simple metaphor that it will really allow, we “visited” the depths where Dad had lived. And we visited the surface where Fosdick’s successors lived. But we didn’t “live” at either place—at least I didn’t.
I also have Dad to thank for being willing to talk about these things with me. I never heard a story in which some older trusted person was willing to sit and listen to Dad’s doubts and to help him find an authentic way to a mature faith. I can’t think who in his life could have done that. I had Dad.
And in the late 1960’s I came to live at the surface. I never had to traverse the distances Dad did and at the distances I did have to travel, I had him as a guide. Dad was not a guide because he had arrived at the place I wanted to be. He was my guide because he never gave up on the questions that shaped his religious awareness from the time he was small and because he never gave up on trying to make sense out of the answers that were available to him as an adult.
So, from my late 20s onward—the way I have told the story I was 28 at the time and that is probably about right—I tried to understand the essential “truths” of the Christian faith in a way that made sense. I was free, as Dad was not, to mess around with the questions and that is how I was able to come up with “answers” that fit the questions better. Like Captain Kirk, subverting the Kobayashi Maru exercise, I have felt free to reprogram the computer and manage not to die.
But for me, too, there is the matter of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. I don’t understand what it was. I don’t understand it as a template of what is in store for everyone. I don’t reject it because I don’t have an ultimate allegiance to “things I can understand,” but I do continue to wrestle with it, like Dad did, and I honor that struggle in myself as I honored it in him. Which is why I wear his socks to the Easter services and have done so every year since he died. I have worn them 32 times.
Some years before he died, Dad became more and more constrained by Alzheimer’s Disease. My guess is that the loss of cognitive function didn’t affect his life of faith at all. He still trusted Whom he trusted. Alzheimers didn’t do good things to his theology, however. He continued to wrestle with the old questions for awhile, it seemed to me, but without the reservoir of strength he had once had. And then, after a while, it seemed to me that he stopped wrestling, as if he had passed that job on to a successor.
Dad’s last years were spent in an Alzheimer’s unit at a retirement center where he was given very good care. But it was a public place, not a private place, and that is why he needed to have his name taped onto everything he was going to wear. Of the socks I show you here, one of the tapes is still clear, as Dad had been. And one is blank, the identity has come off, as Dad became. And I think about that when I put on the one sock; then the other.
But I really don’t struggle with the bends, to go back to that metaphor, the way Dad did. I
didn’t dive as deep, the surface therefore wasn’t as far away, and I had someone to talk to. I say the whole Apostles Creed, which Dad would not do, because I know why they put some of those clauses in there—“and under the earth,” for example—and I think there were good reasons for them to do that. I participate in the process because I honor it; I don’t withdraw from the process because I can’t understand the meaning of the words. And I can afford to do that because I don’t have the bends.
Something happened to cause the disciples to change their view of what had happened in the life and death of their friend, Jesus. The various gospel writers give us little scenes that were intended to show why the disciples were persuaded that it was a real event and that Jesus was still, in the present post-Easter time, a real person. The scenes the gospel writers offer us don’t do the job of clarifying for me just what the nature of the post-Resurrection Jesus was. And it may not have answered that question for the disciples either. But without question, they did have the sense that Jesus was “back” and that the whole story of his life and death now meant something they had not understood at the time.
Whatever it was that happened—as illustrated by these scenes from the scriptures—is what I call “the Resurrection.” I believe that “it” happened in the sense that I believe that something which had the recorded effects happened. I don’t say “it” didn’t happen just because I don’t know what to call it.
You would think that would be enough, wouldn’t you? And it is, most of the time. But at Easter, it doesn’t seem to be quite enough and I wrestle again with what else it could mean. And while I wrestle, I honor my father.
I am sure I have walked a mile in his socks by now and I think I understand how he felt. Thanks, Dad.