Sunday, January 14, 2018

Retirement Reflections

On Sunday, December 2, 1973, a little rural church in the Missouri Ozarks, deep in what is now known as the Mark Twain National Forest, called a very green kid who was still 27 days shy of his 20th birthday, to be their fulltime pastor. The church was Grassy Hollow Baptist Church. That boy pastor was me.

A lifetime of vocational ministry that thus began 44 years ago drew to a close last month on Sunday, December 17, when I preached at Gospel Community Church Rivermont for the last time. As of that day I officially retired.

Forty-four years ago I could cradle my entire theological library in one arm. Today I have some 40 bankers boxes filled with books—and that after culling my collection by at least 20%. But I collected a lot more than books over those 44 years. My ministry has taken me from Missouri to Texas, back to Missouri, California, back to Missouri, Chicago, Wisconsin, Virginia, and in a short time, once again back to Missouri. In addition, my many mission trips have taken me to the Amazon Basin of Brazil, Russia, Yemen, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kuwait, Thailand, Guatemala, and the United Kingdom. Along the way I’ve gotten to know and love some amazing people. Joyce and I have collected some wonderful memories.

The setting for the next chapter of our story will be close to where it all began, back in Washington County, Missouri, just a few miles east of the little village of Caledonia, a quaint little tourist town about 80 miles south of St. Louis. There my brother, Lindell, will be building our new home on a ridgetop clearing in the woods near the farm where our family lived when I was in high school. Here I hope to do some serious writing, both fiction and non-fiction. When I’m not writing I intend to slowly transform those 7½ acres of Ozark woodland into our own private garden. And I expect I’ll still be doing a lot of preaching in the dozens of little country churches within an hour’s drive of our new home.

Construction of that new house is set to begin in a few weeks. But it will be a big job. The access road must be improved, power has to be run to the site, a well drilled, a basement dug… the list goes on and on. Till then we will be at the mercy of family members for room and board. Our well-ordered world will be in chaos for the next several months.

I’ve come a long way from that terrified 15-year-old boy who preached his very first sermon on March 9, 1969 at Fellowship Baptist Church in High Ridge, Missouri. Yet in some ways, it seems like only yesterday.

Life has been an adventure. The story is not over.

Thursday, January 04, 2018

A Eulogy

My 87-year-old father died on December 30, 2017. I shared the eulogy that follows at his funeral on January 3. - GL

I have trouble even imagining the world of my father’s childhood.

Fred Harry Land, the fourth of six children born to Holman and Mary Land of Crawford County, Missouri, entered this world on the night of December 21, 1930, the night before the winter solstice—the longest night of the year. As the story of that event has been passed down, it was a night of heavy snow and bitter cold in the Ozark countryside just a few miles south of the little village of Leasburg.

Dad was born in a weathered, rough sawn, oak slab, cabin with a rusty tin roof. It boasted neither electricity nor plumbing. An old wood stove in the front room and a wood cook stove in the kitchen struggled to provide such heat as there was, but this was insufficient to prevent ice from forming in the chamber pots in the two small bedrooms on such a night as that one. Kerosene lamps offered dim illumination at best. Water was hauled by hand from a nearby spring. As an alternative to the chamber pots, there was a privy out back for those willing to brave the elements. Newsprint, pages from old catalogs, and as a last resort, corn cobs served as toilet paper. In many respects that cabin wasn’t much different from the far more spacious oak barn that provided the family milk cow and a mule shelter from the elements. But at least the cabin had a wooden floor.

Dad grew up deprived of the many advantages that he and Mom gave to Mona, Lindell, and me. The Great Depression was barely into its second year late in 1930 and for millions of people around the world things would continue to get worse long before they got better.

Life on my Grandpa Land’s farm would have been tough enough had the economy been booming. Those rocky clay ridges begrudgingly yielded a living at the price of cruel toil. Boyhood for Dad was little different from what his ancestors many generations earlier would have known. Two adults and six kids were crammed into a tiny cabin—personal privacy was the luxury of the rich. Food was what you could raise, grow, or bag hunting. Meat on the table was salted pork, fried chicken, or squirrel taken with the heavy old 10-gauge, double-barreled, black powder, shotgun that was the only gun in the house. Most meals were accompanied by thick flour gravy. The rest of the meal came from Grandma’s garden. It was a high fat, high calorie, high salt diet in which lard figured prominently, but long hours of hard manual labor demanded it. Obesity was never an issue.

Bathing was limited to a once a week ritual when a big galvanized wash tub was hauled into the kitchen and filled with water heated on the cook stove. The same water that rinsed off the lucky guy who got first dibs was still in the tub for the hapless soul at the end of the line. The soap used was the harsh homemade lye soap that Grandma was still making when I was a little boy in the early ‘60s. After all these years I would still instantly recognize its distinctive smell.

It was a tough world that demanded toughness from those who survived. That was certainly true of my father. When he graduated from high school at age 17 he was a wiry 5’9” and 150 lbs. By this point he had survived a bad concussion that left him blind for a couple days and a broken arm that was improperly set by the local saw bones, leaving him with a slightly crooked right arm. (Believe it or not, he got the concussion from running down a hill jumping stumps. He lost his footing and did a header into one of them.) He had a quick temper, a tendency to boast, and a habit of settling arguments with his fists.

Dad was no scholar. Educational opportunities in Leasburg were rather bleak in those days, and to make matters worse, Dad had vision problems that glasses never completely corrected. Consequently reading for any length of time tended to give him a headache. But his educational attainments had nothing to do with his intelligence. He was certainly bright enough to know that there was no future in remaining in Leasburg. He wanted to see the world. So in 1948, shortly after graduating, he got Grandpa to sign for him so that he could join the navy.

The first bit of the world beyond Leasburg that Dad saw was the U.S. Navy’s Great Lakes Training Center just north of Chicago. He wasn’t impressed. In fact, he was convinced that he’d made the biggest mistake of his life. Just eight days after enlisting he petitioned—in vain, of course—for a hardship discharge.

But in many respects the navy was good for him. With the high protein diet that he enjoyed in boot camp he quickly added 30 pounds of muscle to his lean frame—mostly on his chest and upper arms. He maintained the upper body strength that this gave him until just a few weeks ago by which time cancer had finally taken its toll. One of the contributing factors to his muscular upper body was the fact that Dad was the undefeated company boxer in boot camp. He boasted of beating the Golden Gloves champion of Chicago in the ring. He particularly liked boxing because after a bout he got all the steak he could eat.

Dad avoided most of the usual sailors’ vices. He didn’t drink, smoke, or womanize. But he did gamble, both poker and craps, and he was good at it. So after a few hours in port, when many of the ship’s crew came back aboard from liberty hungover and broke, Dad was saving his pay—and putting it to work with a little payday loan business for his cash-strapped shipmates. Consequently, when he was discharged he had enough money saved to pay cash for a brand new ’51 Chevy and to make the down payment on a house. The financial futures of his shipmates I leave to your imagination.

It was in the navy that Dad learned the trade that he would pursue until he retired. He was discharged with the rating of Electrician’s Mate 3rd Class. Not long after moving to High Ridge, he went to work in St. Louis for American Car and Foundry rewinding electric motors for trains. It was a dirty, dangerous place to work, so when an opening in the electrical shop at the Anheuser-Busch Brewer came up, he jumped at it. He would work at the brewery, first as an electrician and then as an electrical foreman, until he retired. He soon became known as the best electrician in the brewery. Plenty of men could fix a piece of equipment if told what was broken, but Dad was a troubleshooter. He could study a piece of complex electrical machinery and figure out why it wasn’t working. It was his rare skill as a diagnostician that made him so valuable to the company. When lesser men were stumped, the order would go out: “Send for Land!” I have often wondered what Dad might have accomplished with a first class education. He had a good head for math. Combined with his mechanical aptitude and his analytical ability, he would have made a fine engineer.

I must confess that it was this very ability that used to frustrate and exasperate me no end. I grew up hearing Dad say—and if I heard it once I heard it a thousand times—“What man has done I can do!” And though there was a lot of hyperbole in that boast, it also reflected a solid core of optimism and self-confidence that defined who my father was. Faced with a recalcitrant piece of equipment, maybe something that he had never worked on before, Dad would tear it down and tackle the repair, confident that he could master the problem, leaving us lesser mortals shaking their heads in shamefaced wonder when he succeeded. I recall one particular winter Saturday when Dad left for work having assigned me to a day of woodcutting. I headed to the woods but try as I might, I couldn’t get the chainsaw started. (I never have been on very good terms with 2-cycle engines.) When called to give an account at the end of the day, I reported to my father my tale of woe. To my lasting mortification, he went outside and had the saw running in five minutes.

But Dad’s biggest accomplishment while in the navy wasn’t boxing, loan sharking, or learning the difference between AC and DC. It was marrying his sweetheart back home. On May 31, 1950, while on leave, Dad married Beverly Faye Pennock, a young girl from the neighboring town of Bourbon. After a whirlwind honeymoon Dad reported back to his ship, the USS Abnaki (ATF-96), and headed out to sea, bound for Korea. They wouldn’t see each other again for a year. Perhaps that is why for the rest of their 67+ years of marriage, they did almost everything together. Theirs was not a relationship that included poker nights for the boys or coffee klatches for the ladies. Whether it was work or play, they almost always did it together. Mom would provide the creative impetus—there was nothing of the artist in my father—and Dad would provide the muscle. They made quite a team. Together they built and remodeled multiple homes. In fact, I would argue that they were never happier than they were sweating together in the middle of some big project.

Dad is one of only a handful of men that I have known in my life who could literally build a house from digging the footings to the finish work without having to contract out a single task. He could do it all. He really didn’t have the patience to do fine finish carpentry—he was much better at framing. Of course wiring the house was no challenge for him. And he was a self-taught plumber. His water lines didn’t leak and his toilets always flushed properly. But as I was reminded just a few weeks ago when spending the night at Mona and Joe’s where I used a shower that my Dad had installed many years ago, he had this weird quirk, as many of us can testify, of getting the hot and cold water lines crossed. After Mona and Joe bought the house from Mom and Dad, Joe set about uncrossing numerous mixed up waterlines. That shower was the only one he hadn’t gotten around to. I kinda hope he leaves it as it is—a memorial if you would. But if so, a warning label needs to be added for the benefit of the uninitiated.

Generosity is perhaps not the first trait that leaps to mind for those who had the occasion to share a meal with Fred Land. How often I remember Mom’s exasperation with Dad as he inevitably took the first place in line at the buffet table at some family gathering. Nor was he shy about laying claim to the last piece of pie. If challenged it was hard to fault his logic. “I’m the one who worked to earn the money to buy this food, who better than me to eat it?” But any greediness in such petty things was more than compensated for by his extraordinary generosity when it came to the big things in life, especially when it came to his children. I remember the pride in his voice when years ago Dad told me that he realized that he had become a millionaire. He had added up his cash plus the value of his stocks, bonds, and property and for the first time the total topped one million dollars. Not bad for a kid who left home with the clothes on his back.

Most of that million is long gone. In part this was from some bad investment decisions. But the fact is that Mom and Dad have given much of their hard-earned assets to their children and grandchildren. A car here, a house there, a school loan paid off, a farm signed over, a big wad of cash handed over free and clear… the list goes on and on and on. If nothing else, my parent’s generosity is an effective curb on any tendency toward pride that I might have. When I get in one of those self-congratulatory moods I need but ask myself, “Where would I be were it not for the help of Mom and Dad?” I was once tempted to tell a pastor search committee: “I was born in Bourbon and Anheuser-Busch helped put me through seminary.”

One of my early memories—I was about six at the time—was seeing my father baptized by Pastor John Sullivan at Fellowship Baptist Church, our church in High Ridge. Just a couple years later I would follow his example. Dad was never a Bible scholar. Reading typically put him to sleep. Nor was he inclined to talk much about his faith. But I never doubted the reality of it. For by the time I was old enough to watch and learn from his example, that brash young man from Leasburg had matured into a solid, sober, faithful, loving husband and father. The life he lived was a far stronger testimony of what a godly man is like than any sermon that I’ve ever preached. There wasn’t a lot of “do what I say” in my father. But there was a world of “do what I do.”

Dad taught us the meaning, importance, and value of work. I’m sure that he must have called in sick on occasion but such occasions were so rare that I can’t remember one. What I do remember is Dad getting up early to put chains on his pickup so that he could make it to work on time in the teeth of a winter storm. I don’t think he ever missed a day of work because of weather, even when he was commuting 80 miles from the farm to St. Louis. And when he got home from work he worked at home. I still remember the winter in Caledonia when he overhauled the engine of his old Chevy pickup in an unheated barn, handling those pieces of cold metal dripping with gasoline with his raw, chapped hands. When he did relax, he enjoyed nothing more than following his beloved St. Louis Cardinals. And unlike many baseball fans, Dad really understood the game.

Dad taught us the importance of loving and caring for your family. Not once did he ever lay a hand on my mother in anger. He didn’t hesitate to spank one of us kids if we had it coming, but he never struck us with a clenched fist. And when we needed him, he was always there. He never made a promise to me that he didn’t keep. He never disappointed me. He never let me down.

I never saw him drunk. I never saw him paralyzed with fear. I never caught him in a lie. I never heard him make an excuse. My father taught me what it means to be a man. As a young man his dashing good looks included a mane of thick, wavy, jet black, hair. He bore a striking resemblance to how Superman was depicted in the comic books of my childhood, which is appropriate, since that is how I always thought of him.

He had plenty of opinions but he wasn’t one to offer unsolicited advice. After I left home he only did so twice: Always buy good tools and have your kids close together so that you get them out of diapers quickly. He also told me, “When in doubt, vote Republican,” but I think that was before I moved out.

Over a decade ago Dad was diagnosed with an aggressive form of prostate cancer. The doctors attacked it with a vengeance: surgery, chemotherapy, hormone therapy… the works. And though in the end all of their efforts failed to permanently eradicate the disease, they did buy him over a decade of continued life. But such aggressive treatment was not without a cost. For the rest of his days he would cope with such unpleasant side-effects as a leaky bladder.

How he responded to all of this tells us much about the measure of a man that some of you knew as Fred, others as “Grandpa,” who my sister called “Daddy,” who my brother called “Pop, and whom I simply knew as “Dad.” To be reduced to wearing a diaper in your old age might cause a lesser man to slide into a permanent state of depression. But not my Dad. Optimism tempered by pragmatism has always defined his outlook on life. He seldom complained and he NEVER whined. Instead of bitching about the umpire’s call, he just hit what was pitched. A pithy comment he made to me soon after the cancer treatment ended, succinctly summed up his attitude. He said, “A man only has two pleasures in life. At least I can still eat.” In an email a while back my friend, Bob, put it this way, “Your dad would survive a concentration camp while others perished out of frustration and hopelessness.”

I once made a list of the most influential people in my life. Four of those individuals are in this room today:
  • My mom, who first opened my mind and heart to the truth of God’s Word.
  • My old friend, Bob, who for some 50 years has been there for me through thick and thin and who kept me honest through it all.
  • My beloved wife, Joyce, the one great love of my life, who provided a much needed civilizing influence on me.
  • And my Dad, who taught me to be a man.

Late on the night of December 30, lying hand in hand beside my mom, Dad peacefully slipped into eternity to stand in the presence of his Lord.

A couple weeks ago in the Belgrade Bank Selma Akers briefly mistook me for my father. Joyce tells me that with each passing year I look, sound, and act more like him. And some mornings when I look into the bathroom mirror I think, “What’s Dad doing in my bathroom?”  That said, I close with this. I can think of no greater honor than to have it said of me, “He reminds me of Fred Land.”