Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

My Father, My Grandfather, and Committment — Sermon by the Rev. David Pyle

Last preached on March 17th, 2013


As has been mentioned… today is my birthday.

I was glad that Rev. Jan and I

celebrated our birthday’s together last month,

because it is not often I celebrate my birthday at all,

or at least not for the last 20 years.


You see, I was born on March 17th,

my father was born on March 18th,

and my Grandfather, my mother’s father, was born on March 19th.

In fact, over two thirds of my family members

were born sometime in March,

and a majority of the others

were born in February and in April…

And the three day period between mine,

my father’s, and my grand-father’s birthdays was the center,

the high-holy days of the birthday season for my family.


Yes, if you count back from March,

you can take a pretty good guess

what my family’s favorite mid-summer pass-time is.


And yet, I have not really celebrated

my birthday at all these past 20 years,

because it was 20 years ago last week

that my father passed away unexpectedly from a heart attack.

I have never really engaged the issue of his death

at such an early age from the pulpit,

and I’m not really going to do so today.

I bring it up because at this time of year

I am always thinking about my father, my grandfathers,

and what I learned from their living and their dying.


Our theme this month is commitment,

and it is a good theme for us in this congregation right now.

It is a good theme for us to have on our minds and in our hearts

as our committees and our board are working

on crafting our strategic plan for the next 5 years.

It is a good theme for me,

as I explore what my commitment is to my ministry here

in light of the exciting ideas and visions

coming out of that 5 year planning process.

Commitment is a good theme as many among us

are attending membership classes

and making appointments

with Rev. Jan to make a pledge,

sign the book, and commit

to being a member of this congregation.

Commitment is a good theme as we are coming

into our annual “faith-based budgeting” process,

and looking carefully at how we can leverage

our congregational resources to ensure that we are the home

for all of those seeking Liberal Religion

in Western Ventura County.


And yet, even without all of this,

I would be thinking about commitment at this time of year,

because if there was any lesson I learned

from my father and my two grandfathers, it was commitment.


It was not a lesson learned by anything they said

or anything they even intentionally sought to teach me.

It was a lesson learned the way the best of lessons always are…

I learned it from their lives… from the example they set.


In Unitarian Universalist religious education teacher training,

there is a point we try to impress

upon all of our teachers and facilitators…

and that is that the children will learn far more

from the examples that you set

than they ever will from the curriculum you present.

As I preached in a sermon last fall,

the method of teaching is itself the message that is being taught.

Children learn the importance of hearing all voices

by our finding ways to hear all voices in the classroom.

Children learn that they have value

when their contributions in class are valued.

Children learn that it is important

for a community to have boundaries and rules that are respected

when they find the boundaries of the classroom

being held with wisdom and compassion.


The truth is, we are all models for someone.

Someone is learning from our behavior

each and every moment of our lives.

Scary, isn’t it?


Parents know this intimately…

or at least they learn it the first time

they catch their children replicating some behavior

that they learned from watching you.

One of the primary ways we human beings learn

about cultural norms, about ethical and moral behavior,

about values and ideals is by learning

from the behavior of others in our lives.

For some of us, we accept positions

where we become intentional models,

such as teachers and ministers,

or mentors or even supervisors.

And, probably the most profound models, for good or ill,

that many of us have in our lives are our family,

and in particular our parental caregivers and grandparents.


I remember one day, not long before he died, when my father confided in me that he had never thought

he was a good enough person to have a family.

It was in a conversation when we were

saying good-bye to each other,

for what I thought might be the last time

because of how dangerous the mission

I was going on for the Army was.

It instead turned out to be our last time speaking in person,

because he died while I was overseas.

We were in the long, convoluted, father-son process

that is saying to each other how much we loved one another,

that he said that one of the reasons why he so loved his family

was that he never thought he was good enough to deserve us.


The reality is that my father, for all his flaws and fears,

was actually a really good man as men go.

He was a soldier, a policeman,

and a profoundly committed father and family man.

And by flaws and fears, I don’t mean small ones…

though he had overcome many of the prejudices

he had grown up with,

he certainly had not overcome his problem

with pinko-commie loving Unitarians and the like…


I became a Unitarian Universalist after he passed away…

he had been one of the Army Intelligence agents

that had investigated Unitarian churches

and other left-leaning groups in the 1970’s

here in the Greater Los Angeles area.

Coming here and serving as your minister

is a little bit of my penance on that score…


What was never in doubt for me

was my father’s commitment to me, and to his family.

Growing up, I might have doubted a lot of things,

but I always knew that my mom, my sisters and I

were the last thing my father thought about when he went to bed,

and the first thing he thought about when he woke up.

In my teenage years, those thoughts

were often exasperated ones…

but they were always there.


From my father I learned what it meant

to be committed to something that was beyond oneself.

I learned what it meant to place the needs of others

on the same level, or even before the needs of yourself.

Or, that’s not quite correct…

what my father taught me was to see that

by serving the needs of a wider community,

I truly would be serving what I needed myself.


This is not an academic lesson for me.

It is what keeps me serving as an Army Reserve Chaplain,

even though a narrow view of my own individualistic needs

might argue that I’ve gotten most of the benefit

I’m personally likely to receive from it,

and decide it is time to move on.

And, it is what calls me to look closely

at what the needs of our congregation are in this next 5 year plan

that I can fulfil as an Assistant Minister,

rather than look for a senior or called minister position

of my own somewhere else.


Without meaning to, my very anti-communist father

taught me by his very example

the commitment to put the needs of the communities

I love and believe in ahead of

any individualistic understanding of my own needs and desires.

I wonder if he knew he was raising a communitarian?

If I could have one gift for my birthday today,

it would be the ability to have that conversation with him.


One of the realities of my childhood

was that I never knew any of my actual grandmothers.

I was not without grandmotherly love,

as until I was in my early teens

two of my great-grandmothers were still alive,

and I knew them well…

and one of my grandfathers, Jess,

was remarried and the other, Jack,

was engaged to the same woman for 26 years…

and I called her “Grandmother Hazel”.

One of my actual grandmothers died before I was born,

and the other was long estranged from our family.

My mother’s father, my Grandpa Jess,

remarried after his first wife died.

The woman he married already had a family of her own,

five children and a whole mess of Grandchildren

(mess is a Tennessee term that means

“too many to count easily”).


So, here was my Grandpa Jess…

he had three children of his own,

two daughters and one adopted son.

Among those children he had his own mess of grandchildren.

And yet, he treated all of his grand-children,

those by blood and those by adoption or marriage…

he treated us all equally.

He was Grandpa Jess to us all.

In fact, it was years before I even realized

that half of my “cousins” I was not actually related to at all,

except by the late-life marriage of my grandpa.


Unlike my father and I, I never asked my Grandpa about it.

Mainly because I knew what he would say.

He would tell me that when he married my Step-Grandmother,

he married their entire family.

His commitment was not just to her, but to all of them.

Those children needed a Grandpa

just as much as I and my sister’s did…

and so he became that for them.

And in doing so, I gained a whole mess of cousins

I was not actually related to.


What I learned from my Grandpa’s example

is that family is what we decide it is going to be.

Family is about love and commitment

far more than it is about birth and blood.

I think that is one of the reasons that I so love

both the idea and the reality of church…

because this is a large, extended family

that we have chosen.  This is our village.

Our bonds here are ones that we forge

out of love and commitment…

which is really what a religious covenant is after all…

the intersection of love and commitment.


My grandpa Jess had a covenant in his own heart…

a covenant he made the day he, as a widower himself,

said I Do to a widow name Jesse.


It was the day her children and grandchildren became his.

That covenant is that family is what we decide it is,

what we commit to with love.

What we make part of our covenant.

He taught me this without ever saying a word.

He just loved us all.


Yet perhaps the most profound lesson of my life

about commitment was not from my Dad,

or from my Grandpa Jess…

but rather from my Papaw Jack…

or rather, the commitment that I saw between my Papaw Jack

and his fiancée of 26 years, Hazel.

Twenty six years was simply how long they were engaged…

as far as I know they had dated for about ten years prior to that.


They met through the Masons and the Order of the Eastern Star

not long after they had both retired in their late 60’s.

Much of their early dating

was working together in social service projects,

or in taking tourist bus trips across the United States.

They were already engaged when I was born,

and so I never knew them apart.

From my earliest days I knew Hazel as “Grandmama Hazel”.


I remember the day when I was about 11 years old

that I asked my Grandmama Hazel

why she and Papaw had separate houses.


She sat me down and said “Well David, we’re not married.”

When I asked her why not she said,

“Well, it’s not because I don’t love your Papaw,

or that I don’t love you kids.

It is just that I really like that when I’m tired

of spending time with him, I can send him home.”


I knew my Papaw, so this made perfect sense to me.


The lesson that Papaw Jack and Grandmama Hazel

taught me about commitment is that one size does not fit all.

They taught this by the example they set for me,

not by anything they ever really said or meant to teach me.

No one who ever saw the two of them together

could ever doubt how deeply they loved one another.

When you see two people holding hands while they walk,

well into their 80’s, it shows a level of love and commitment

that simply is not easily understandable at a younger age.

When my Papaw began the slow process

of leaving us through Dementia,

Hazel was really clear that while she still loved him

and would spend time with him,

she would not even try to be his primary caregiver,

and that the rest of the family

would have to step up and figure that out… which we did.


I will always remember Hazel, sitting at Papaw’s bedside

in the final hours of his 96 year life.

She held his hand and said to him,

“Jack, if you are waiting on me, you go on ahead.  I’ll catch up…”


He died a few hours later.


I tell people that my Papaw and my Grandmama

were never married,

but were engaged for 26 years, and they laugh.

But the truth is that the love and commitment

that they showed to one another in over 35 years together,

I have never seen its match in anyone else.

They decided how they were going to be together,

and just let the rest of us figure out

what our reactions to their relationship would be.

They shared with each other a depth of love and commitment

that few of us ever experience.

They taught me that marriage is in the love and commitment

a couple feel for one another, not what society says about it…

a lesson that has been of deep meaning to me,

in these last ten years that I have been performing

marriage and commitment ceremonies for couples

who could not find anyone else willing

to celebrate their love and commitment with them…

couples that reminded me of the love and commitment shared by

my uncle Doug and my Aunt John,

my Papaw Jack’s youngest son

and his partner of over 40 years.


He likes to be called Aunt John, and I do whatever he likes.

Got in trouble at school for it once.


We, each and every one of us,

we are models for our values and beliefs

each and every day of our lives.

People learn from who we are, from what we do,

from the love and commitment we show in our lives.

We never know how the examples we set

will affect the lives around us.


I don’t know about you,

but that thought makes me want to be

my best self most of the time…


So may it be, blessed be, and amen.

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