My grandfather had been raised a "primitive Presbyterian", but became a Methodist when he married my grandmother. He was one of those people who belonged to a different era, an era of Rotarians and pancake breakfasts and lemon meringue pie and church deacons. He was a lay minister in the United Methodist Church, who in his elder days would sometimes be called upon to give sermons at little rural churches in the Arkansas woodlands.
When I was college-age, I went with my grandfather to hear him preach at a little church of a few dozen members in the near-literal middle of nowhere. Since the time I'd been in high school, I'd been an avid reader of liberal Christian theology,
weighty tomes for which I lacked even the theological vocabulary to fully "get". My teen years were filled with that odd mix of religious passion, religious thought, and raging hormones not uncommon in some kids. When I went to hear my grandfather preach, I was filled with ideas about ways to reinterpret, to integrate, with keys to all mythologists even German Idealists could not anticipate. I was awash in Tillich and Bonhoeffer and the roiling seas of Perelandra, while fighting the mundane spiritual battles of surviving Calculus II and my youthful general lack of charm, praying fervently for redemption from sins (perhaps sadly) not committed.
I was eager to hear my grandfather speak, as he was one of those men who tended to do what he believed and not say what he believed. I, by contrast, felt that the saying "the road to hell is paved with good intentions" was all wrong, because what justified a person's faith better than his intentions? I was eager to hear what my grandfather had to say--my first chance to hear what he thought on the "big questions".
I sat on the wooden pew, in a small congregation of mostly elderly people. We sang those good old fashioned hymns in the Methodist religion, like "Were you There (when they crucified my Lord?". Then my grandfather, who must have been roughly eighty, arose to preach.
My grandfather took his text from the standby hymn "Give me that Old Time Religion, it's good enough for me", and proceeded to explain his view of the world that the world needed a bit less free thinking and a bit more conformance with old-time religion. Rather than putting forth some explanation for the various inconsistencies and asynchronies I continually tried to reconcile in my mind, he instead argued that we would all be a bit better if we merely embraced the
older forms. My grandfather was certainly not alone in this view, as in my own region of Texas nowadays people argue for a world of ideas which no longer seem to me to suit the world as it is, or as I believe it is.
But I think that the details of this sort of thing are much less fascinating than the little jolt I got that day--that sense that this man, whom I admired (and admire) so much, was at heart not only close family but also so very different than I was. It's that little shock that the familiar is so exotic.
On another day, my grandfather and I were in a field in which for some indefinable reason we were trying to get mules to move from here to there. My grandfather spoke the
"mule-directions" for "go right" and "go left", intoning "gee" and "haw", as if he spoke with mules every day. In fact, my grandfather lived most of his life in town, driving his car about the country, buying cross-ties for a St. Louis concern.
But that childhood "gee" and "haw" were still embedded in him, like old-time religion.
I think we do not always realize the rich differences that exist among even those who are very close to us. It's so much easier to discount those we love as fitting in a very tidy place in our personal melodrama. But my grandfather never lost the ability to surprise me, and, really, I suspect no family member ever really does.