Boxes held far more than just paper

Published 4:36 pm Monday, January 19, 2009

They were in brown manila envelopes and there were two boxes of them.

The first of the two boxes was a cheap metal thing. You can find them at any office supply or discount store.

The second was handmade of wood and metal. It will be here long after you and I are gone.

I came into possession of the two boxes many, many years ago.

My mother gave them to me.

In them, enclosed within brown, manila envelopes, are pages, now yellowed and brittle, hundreds of them, that hold the outlines of my father’s sermons.

My father was a Methodist minister. After graduating from the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, he served churches throughout Northeast and North Central Texas.

In the first many years I had those two boxes, I never explored them.

But then, finally, one night, I did.

And, doing that, I never felt so small, so insignificant.

The man who wrote what was in those boxes earned $6,000 the year he died. That was 1966. As far as I know, he never owned a house or, except for a car, any property of any real value.

Today, even with allowances made for inflation over those many years, I make far more money than he ever thought about making. I’ve owned a businesses and I once owned a house worth more than my father earned in his whole life.

But in the face of what is in those two small boxes, of what is represented by the material in them, everything I am, everything I have ever done or probably ever will do is worth so much dust.

For in those boxes is a tremendous understanding, a warmth, a caring. I can imagine the man who wrote the words contained in those boxes as, often late at night, he penned them.

Some of those words were to congregations who, despite his best efforts, simply could not or would not see what he was trying to tell them. (I’ve always thought it was ironic that some of the worst examples of non-Christian behavior and attitudes can be found in churches.)

My father’s words were compassionate, and I truly believe he felt them. Even today, I am unable to feel that way toward some of those with whom he dealt.

Some of the words my father wrote in his beautiful hand were directed toward the grieving families of those whose funerals he conducted.

Some of them bore a powerful message. One of those I remember best was triggered by a fellow pastor’s announcement that he would take a sabbatical leave, a year off, so to speak. In response, my father wondered rhetorically what would happen if God were to take a sabbatical.

Some of my father’s sermons were written for special occasions. One of those was his Mother’s Day sermon.

Noting that it was worn almost beyond use and that many of its pages were tear stained, he always used his own mother’s Bible when he delivered that message. Holding that worn book, he told his congregation that it had seen his mother through the death by electrocution of one of his brothers and through the death of his father in a hunting accident. He recalled, even those many years later, her smile and her prayers.

I, as a youngster, had little enthusiasm for my father’s sermons. But I did enjoy the illustrations with which he sprinkled them. Some of those still linger with me today.

One focused on the death of a farmer’s wife. She was a plain, good woman who had brought up a fine family of sons and daughters. They all had eventually grown and gone away and after she had struggled through a few years with the silent, gnarled man who had been her husband, she simply collapsed, dead, over the wash tub one day.

At the funeral, the husband did not weep. And he gave no sign of grief at the grave.

But after the simple ceremony was over, the farmer lingered behind to talk to the pastor. He handed the minister a small, shabby book. “It’s poems,” he said. “She liked them. Would you read one for her now? She always wanted us to read them together but I never had time. I guess maybe you don’t get into your head what time’s for until it’s too late.”

No, I am not and will never be the man my father was.

But if you’ll back up four paragraphs and read through that “illustration” (another minister once called them parables, I think) maybe I’ll have shared with you some of what my father was. And maybe you’ll find time to read the poems before it’s too late. Dad would like that.

David Sullens president of Roanoke-Chowan Publications and publisher of the Roanoke-Chowan News Herald and the Gates County Index.