Honoring my father

It is hard to imagine that one week ago today, we buried Dad. He’s not far from the chapel, which seems very appropriate for a preacher, don’t you think?

I do not know what possessed me to tell my mother that I wanted to do his eulogy. As I mentioned that day, I’m more of a behind the scenes kind of person, not stand in front of over four hundred people (that’s how many were there; even the balcony was full) and tell them about a man who meant so much to so many people. I remember saying a small prayer to Dad as I fed the birds that morning: “Okay, Dad, if you do just one thing for me today, please make sure I’m not a blubbering idiot as I’m giving your eulogy. Okay? Thank you.” I was not a blubbering idiot. People told me it was a beautiful eulogy; one of the ministers who helped with the service told me that she heard Dad’s voice when I spoke, and then she saw him in some of the gestures I did. I’ve always told Dad that I was not a people person, but at one point during the two hour visitation before the service, I looked up at the ceiling and said, “Okay, Dad, I get it. I’m a people person. You were right, I was wrong.” I’m sure he got quite a laugh out of that.

Here is what I said that day, minus some ad libbing I did. They are just words, but they tell a small part of the life of a man I loved very much, miss tremendously, but I know that I’ll see him again. I love you, Dad.

I’m not a preacher; I’m a writer. I’m not used to standing up in front of a lot of people and talking. I prefer to be behind the scenes, so please bear with me, and forgive me when I falter.

I was sitting in Dad’s office around 11:30 pm on Thursday night, and I was trying to think of what to say today. What can you say about a man who meant so much to so many people? From the people at Panera’s, the place he called his “office”, mainly because so many people came to him to talk there. To the wonderful man who led them on their tours of the Holy Land for almost twenty years, was like a brother to Dad, and who was so upset to hear about his passing that for the first time, he had to have someone else lead his tour group? To the young people he listened and gave advice to? To his angel, his soul mate, the love of his life? To his daughter and his grandson? To the people who have called us, come by the house, or seen us in public? So many of you have come to me and told me what a wonderful man Dad was, how he touched all of your lives in one way or another, and how you all loved him like a brother. What can I say that will make you feel better? What can I say about the man who loved me, who cared for me, who gave me more than a few swift kicks in the behind, who supported me as I started my writing career? The man who was there for my only son when he needed someone to listen to him that wasn’t his parents? How do you put all that into words that will make people smile and laugh? I hope what I have come up with will do this for all of you here today.

Keep this in mind as we go: Mark 4: 30 – 32: Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all the garden plants, with such branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade.”

My father grew up in the oil fields of southeastern New Mexico, in a small town called Eunice. My grandfather, Lee Roy Massey, was not a man who went to church, but in the glove box of his old Chevy truck, he carried a Bible. And when he would spend a lot of time, sitting in his truck, watching the rigs, he would pull out his Bible and read it. Dad saw him do this many, many times.

A tiny seed is put into the ground.

It was a Baptist minister who first got Dad to go to church. Shocking, I know, but it’s true. This minister happened to be Dad’s high school choir director, and he was the one who first got Dad to sing in a church. You’ve all heard him sing at one time or another, so just imagine what it was like to hear that fifteen-year-old voice singing a hymn. The little seed grew just a tiny bit then, but at the time, he probably didn’t quite realize what God was doing with his life.

I’m sure it won’t surprise you to know that he was a chaplain’s assistant in the Army during the Vietnam War. He used that wonderful voice during services; I can only imagine what the men who served with him thought when he sang the hymns they had learned in church back in the States. I would like to think that it gave them some comfort during those terrible times. I read a letter once, from his commanding officer, thanking him for what he did during the services, and he specifically mentioned his singing and how Dad shared his faith.

The seed grew a little more.

After a while, Dad became a lay pastor for two small churches in Oklahoma: Pryor and Adair. He also had two adorable, cute, sweet, angelic daughters: my sister, Melody, his blonde headed, blue eyed youngest angel, who loved to dress up and wear anything with lace and frills; and the red haired, hazel eyed one, who would eventually refuse to wear any type of dresses with lace or frills, and despite all attempts, could get said frilly and lacy dresses dirty and/or torn to shreds in a record eight minutes flat, especially before church. If you don’t believe, ask Mom. It took me forever to get her to realize I preferred slacks and tennis shoes to dresses and heels! I tell you what, the things we have to go through to train our parents!

Now, over at a Methodist church in Monett, Missouri, there was a young youth director. She was worried that she would never find her soul mate, and said a small prayer to God, asking Him to give her guidance. Little did she know that this prayer would soon be answered. She went to a youth director conference in Oklahoma City. She pulls up to this lot, but has no idea where to park (despite the fact that there is a long row of cars off to one side). So she stops her little yellow Mustang beside a young man, and asks him where they are supposed to park. He gives her a “are you kidding me?” look and points to where all the cars are. “Over there.”

Well, they break into small groups, and guess who is in her group? Yep, the guy who gave her that look. Oh boy. Well, after a while, she decided he was kind of cute. So they began to talk. When the conference ended a few days later, guess who followed her back to Monett? Yep, that guy. Now, for years I was told that they were engaged after one week, although there have been protests filed in recent years to the contrary. Regardless, they met in May 1975, got married at the Methodist Church in Monett three months later in August. Now, let me say right here that Dad was born in Hobbs, NM, raised twenty miles down the road in Eunice. My mother was born in Roswell, NM, and raised about an hour away in Artesia. There was only about an hour and a half to two hours between these two towns. But they had to go to Oklahoma City to meet. Go figure!

They spent their honeymoon moving to Dimmitt, Texas. Ah, married life…right next to the FFA lot, where the future farmers were raising all their animals. Lovely smell to wake up to every morning. Dad served as the music director there, but there was another church that called out to them, and they ended up in Mother’s hometown of Artesia.

Here is where that seed took a firm hold of the ground, and began to grow. The minister at that church, Bill Hutchinson, began to talk to Dad. And the more they talked, the more that seed started to sprout. That is when Dad decided to go to Perkins School of Theology to get his Master’s degree. He had decided to become a minister.

He did his student preaching at two small churches just south of Dallas: Bristol and Palmer, which is about eight miles from where I live right now. It was here that Mom & Dad got the idea that it would be great to have a live Nativity. Now, Palmer has farmers, which means plenty of access to live animals. But believe it or not, that is not where one of our favorite family stories came from. Mother decided that my sister and I were going to be angels. Quite frankly, I wanted to be a shepherd. Guess who won that argument? Yeah, not me. The angels appeared to the shepherds, we gave them the message about the birth of Jesus in a small manger in Bethlehem, and we slowly started to back away into the darkness. Unfortunately, one of the angels found that one little bump in the grass, and tumbled backwards. All you saw were pink jeans kicking in the air as she fell. Sorry, Mel, it was too good of a story not to tell.

So Dad has this Master’s degree, and we’re waiting for our first appointment, and where do we end up? Jal, NM, which is twenty miles south from this other little town…Eunice. Two years later, we moved forty miles up the road to Hobbs. Dad once said, “If this keeps up, we’re going another forty miles up the road to Tatum!”

But the good thing about being in these two towns was the fact that Dad understood what they were going through, especially as the oil field boom came and went, because he had grown up around there. Wherever he went, he brought his smile, his laugh, and his faith. Now you all know that Dad was a talker. After church, we would go to lunch, we’d order our food, and he would see someone he just had to talk to. By the time he came back to our table, we had eaten our food and were ready to leave. The point is, he was sharing his love of God, and his seed was growing into a strong tree.

There was one area of his life where Dad was greatly outnumbered: at home. He was surrounded by females. Wife, two daughters, a mother-in-law…even the DOG was female. When I found out I was pregnant, I got one of those “I just know” revelations. I knew I was going to have a boy, and I told Dad that. His reply? “Do you mind if we wait for medical science to verify this?” The day I had my ultrasound, I called them. “How does James Charles sound?” “Yes, HALLELUJAH! I am no longer the only man in the family!!!!”

In 1999, Mom & Dad took their first trip to the Holy Land. It made them want to go back again, so they did, several times. In 2010, they took James with them. They both told me that it made them look at things in a different way, because they were seeing it through his eyes. Dad baptized James on Christmas Day 1994, and he baptized him again in the River Jordan during that trip.

I have to tell this story: I got married to my wonderful husband, Buddy, in December 2002. We got married in that little Methodist Church in Palmer. After the ceremony, we are standing there at the altar, waiting for Dad to sign our marriage license. He looked up and said, “What happens if I don’t sign this?” I said, “Then you’re stuck with me.” Let me tell you, folks, I have NEVER seen him write his name so fast in my life. I’m not even sure you can actually read his signature on the license.

By now, that little seed that was planted in a small town in New Mexico all those years ago has grown into this enormous tree, one that has branches that reach from coast to coast, and all the way to the Holy Land through a special relationship with a wonderful man named Munzer, who was their tour guide for their trips. Dad loved him like a brother, and Munzer felt the same way about Dad.

For over seventy years, this man has brought us joy and laughter; he has prayed with thousands of people; he has preached to tens of thousands. What started out as a sharing of his faith through song became the sharing of his love of God through his words. He married his soulmate, the woman he called his angel. He raised two beautiful daughters, who have grown into two strong women who share their faith in their own special ways, and he was a wonderful Papa to his only grandson, who has a strong singing voice, like his grandfather, as well as Dad’s gift of talking to people. Would it surprise you to know that Dad and James were both born on Sunday? “Sunday’s child is full of grace”, and the two of them shared their faith in the exact same way.

I will admit, though, that I have frustrated Dad because I don’t go to church as often as he wanted me to. It’s not because of a lack of faith. My faith is very strong, and I will tell you why. We all talk about the power of prayer, and we all wonder if God ever hears our prayers. Yes, he does, and I know this because He answered mine twice: one was a selfish one, I suppose. We were on vacation in Ruidoso, NM, and Dad said on the last day, if it wasn’t raining when we got up the next morning, we’d go play some putt-putt golf. I was about fifteen then. We got up, it was raining. As we drove to McDonald’s, I silently prayed: Please, God, just let it stop raining long enough for us to go play. By the time we finished eating, it had stopped raining. Off we went. By the time we hit the 18th hole, it had started raining again, but that was the best round of putt putt we ever played, because Dad, Mom, Melody and I had so much fun together.

The second time was when James was sixteen. He had just started his sophomore year of high school, and he had come home from youth group sick. By ten pm, we had him in the emergency room. By three am, he had been admitted to the hospital. By noon, they decided they were going to take out his appendix that afternoon. Buddy came to stay with James while I drove home to get a few things. As I drove back to the hospital, I prayed: God, please be with James, give him peace, let him know he doesn’t have to be afraid. Let him know that You are with him. Later that night, James told me, “As they were getting me ready for surgery, I saw a man in a long white robe standing in the operating room with me, and it made me feel better, and I wasn’t scared because I knew I was going to be alright.” Now, you tell me that God doesn’t answer prayers. My faith is good and strong, because I had a good foundation to build it on.

Dad is gone, but that little seed that grew into a tree is still here. The branches are reaching out over all of us, beckoning to us: “Come over here, lean against me for a while, rest, and pray. Tell me your troubles, tell me your triumphs, tell me about your faith.” Little seeds from that tree have been planted in each and every one of us, and it’s up to us to keep those seeds growing.

I think it is only appropriate that I close this with Dad’s own words. This comes from the Christmas message he delivered in the contemporary service on Christmas Day in 2011. When you’re ready to watch it, you’ll find it on YouTube, believe it or not. I sat in Dad’s office early Friday morning, and listened to it over and over. This part applies to all of us, and please remember this when you leave here today: “And when you come to the manger, and it comes to the time, the hard time, when you look and a loved one has been called home, God’s gift to you this day is to learn to love in a new way. The reason you have to wait for this time is because you can’t love this person in this way while they are sitting next to you. When this person dies and goes to heaven, God says ‘Now you’ll see the fullness of the love that grows inside of you that I couldn’t give you before.’”

As Dad would say, “And the people said Amen…”

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