Pentecost, Bill Gothard, and Raising a Daughter By The Rules

by Ross Decker Sr

It was Pentecost Sunday yesterday. The birthday of the Church. It was also the anniversary of the day when I dedicated my daughter to the Lord.

The church I was attending at the time was a small inter-denominational church. They didn’t believe in infant baptism so they substituted “baby dedications.” The thinking was that, since babies could not assent to Christianity, the weight of the decision would fall upon the parents. While the baby could not desire to live for Jesus, the parents would commit to raising her in such a way that the baby would have no other option. So, the baby dedication had very little to do with the baby and had quite a lot to do with the parents. It was their day. Like everyone else, we invited our closest friends. We invited friends from out of state. They were to be not only spectators but future finger pointers when we went wrong. In fact, part of the service was the pastor charging our friends to keep an eye on us.

Having our baby dedicated on Pentecost Sunday proved to be a mistake. The good part about this mistake was that we were not to blame. Like many independent churches, the pastoral staff was a family. The assistant pastor was the son. The administrative pastor was the brother-in-law. The facilities manager was the son-in-law. The church secretary was the pastor’s daughter. And, it was the pastor’s daughter/secretary through whom we scheduled the dedication.

Unfortunately for her, the Church planned a big day for Pentecost. It was, after all, the birthday of the Church! There were special songs. And more special songs. The service began to drag on. Kevin, one of the assistant pastors (not related) sensed that there was a problem. And, that’s when it got really wild. He whisked my daughter from my arms and held her up like the scene from the Lion King. He wanted to get the pastor’s attention. And, when he did, the problem became evident. The pastor had no idea why my daughter was dangling aloft. He wasn’t forgetting my daughter’s dedication. He hadn’t been informed. He had no idea. His own daughter had forgotten to add the dedication to the calendar.

Kevin acted swiftly. There was only one course of action. He dashed down the side aisle to the second row and spoke directly to the most powerful person in the church. My pastor’s wife! She walked immediately up to the pulpit, interrupting the Scripture reading, whispering into her husband’s ear. The dedication was back on.

Being a parent in that church was often nerve wracking. Being a father in that church was worse. The pastor taught that the full responsibility for child rearing was with the father. He stressed a complete patriarchal system. Bolstering this thought was a name we’ve seen lately in the news – Bill Gothard. Gothard devised a morality system from the patching together of scripture and seduced many conservative christians to follow his teachings. The Duggars did. He was their moral teacher when their son famously got into a bit of trouble. Never mind that rumors of inappropriate behavior dogged Gothard. My pastor followed him, taught from his material and continued until the evidence just overwhelmed. All church activities shut down for a week each summer when the Bill Gothard caravan rolled into Ocean Grove, NJ. The congregation was urged to take their family vacations at that time and go to Ocean grove to be at the “seminar”.  Often, my church congregation filled several Bed and Breakfast style hotels on in that Jersey shore town. We were totally insulated and quite happy about it.

During the year, the men of the church were expected to attend the twice monthly “Men’s Institute.” The pastor facilitated it using Gothard materials. Even older teenage boys and college age single men were expected to attend this teaching in order to learn God’s way for men to lead their families. Often, on Sundays, parents were cautioned to not let their daughters marry a man who had not been a faithful attender of this Men’s Institute.

So, with that responsibility upon my shoulders, there were few things as scary as raising a daughter. The message I absorbed was that it would be my fault if my daughter “slipped.” What if she kissed a boy? What if a boy “touched” her before marriage.  What if they held hands? What  if, what if, what if? It would be on me if she did. Not the boy. Maybe his parents, but not the boy. He could repent and be “restored.” If my daughter slipped she would be “that girl” for the rest of her time in that church.

That whole church identity was built on that. Fathers protected their daughters from the sons of fathers who shirked their duty. Fathers steered their families. Wives humbly obeyed. So, is it any surprise that Bill Gothard, the architect of the pure family, tumbled from his perch amid rumors of his own sexual abuse? Is it shocking that he felt he could counsel young Josh Duggar?

Here comes the spoiler alert. My daughter grew up as a princess. Yes, she made it to the altar pure. She’s a great mom to two children. She picked a fantastic husband. But, the irony of it is that she did it on her own. Turns out that her values were inborn. They were her own, not mine. And she fashioned the life and value system that worked for her.

Looking back, I’d have it no other way.

Spanky Bit Me

by Ross Decker Sr

I love Spanky. He is my Chihuahua. I admit to being a bit over the top in my affection for him, but who could blame me? Spanky is the greatest dog I’ve ever known. He’s the best dog I’ve ever heard of. In fact, I’m pretty sure he’s the best dog who has ever lived.

Despite all that, every now and then Spanky bites me. Once he was sleeping under the covers near my feet. I called to him and patted the mattress. I wanted him to come up closer so that I could pet him. He just looked at me for a moment and then stood up. I took that to mean that he was coming up to lay down next to me and I reached for him. That was when, much to my surprise, he bit me. Hard! He snarled and growled and drew blood. I yelled “no” and flipped him onto his back. That’s what I was taught to do when I took him to the obedience class he flunked. I locked eyes with him until he looked away in submission. Then, I got up and got the Band-Aids.

While I was putting the Band Aid on I started to think about what had just happened. I love that dog and I know he loves me. But he bit me. He can’t even feed himself. He needs me to do it for him. And he bit me. I buy the food, open the bag and put it into the bowl. He sees me do it. And he bit me. I bought the bowl too. And, still, he bit me.

He is incapable of letting himself out to go for a walk. I have to take him. But he bit me.

The reality of this is simple. I have committed myself to caring for that little dog no matter what. I love him. A commissioned silhouette of him hangs on my office wall next to a clock made from his photo. Yes, I’m obsessed. I suppose that there is some number of bites that might get me to change my mind about that, but I know for certain we are nowhere near that number.

It reminds me about something my friend Glenn said to me. He’s a pastor. And, a pretty smart guy. And, a realist. He said that one of the certainties in ministry is that sheep will bite the shepherd. The shepherd, if he is truly a shepherd, gives his all for the sheep. He lives with them, feeds them, waters them, and protects them. And, instead of steadfast devotion to him, they repay him by biting him. They, like Spanky bite the hand that feeds them.

Yesterday was Good Shepherd Sunday on the Church calendar. My pastor gave a fantastic homily about the calling of a true shepherd. He spoke of the joy he felt in baptizing, in performing weddings and, yes, hearing confessions. Especially long overdue confessions. He said that the most joyous confessions he hears are the ones that begin, “Bless me father for I have sinned. It’s been 25 years since my last confession.” Reconciling after a 25 year absence! He loves being part of the lifting of the sin burden. He spoke of the honor of “doing what I was ordained to do,” celebrate Mass. He spoke of his sadder responsibilities, performing funerals and visiting the sick. But he never once complained about being bitten. He has been, of course. But the joys of his vocation outweigh the occasional nip.

If you’re in a calling that demands you give your all to others you might do well to remember that. Teachers – sheep bite the shepherd. Your students will act out. Parents – sheep bite the shepherd. Your children will call you mean. Pastors – sheep bite the shepherd. Despite all your care and counseling, your congregants will turn on you. But if you are true to your calling pastors, parents and teachers, it can’t be about how those you love and serve treat you. It’s about how you love and serve. You will continue to give your all and be repaid with bites. No matter how dearly you love them, sheep bite the shepherd. After all, Spanky bit me.

GRAM PARSONS AND THE LORD’S FIERY RAIN

Churchinwinter

by Ross Decker Sr

I was flipping around channels on Sirius recently when a song that I’d not heard in ages came on. It was Sin City by the Flying Burrito Brothers. The words really inspired me. I immediately went and bought a notebook.” I’m blogging, I told myself, I’m blogging!” I wanted to say something about the song.

For me, the song invokes bleak imagery of a desolate, downtrodden town. Perhaps it’s a mining town. Certainly, it’s a “company” town. It has the same lonely feel of a beach town in winter.

The theme is that of a person struggling to be good. Try as he may, he repeatedly loses his struggle against sin and finds himself straying. The songwriters, Chris Hillman and Gram Parsons, address the power and inevitability of sin with the lines “This old town’s full of sin, it’ll swallow you in..” and see the only just fate to be  “the Lord’s fiery rain.”

There, you find the struggle.

This isn’t a new theme. Like sin itself, it’s common to man. One of my favorite hymns, Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, explored that theme long ago. Robert Robinson penned the words, “prone to wander, Lord I feel it. Prone to leave the Lord I love.” It is a theme though that is expressed often  in country music, both in the songs and in the lifestyle.

There was a time when other folks’ struggles were so simple to me. I thought that you could judge the wanderer by the wandering. His sin defined him.

Now, I see it differently. The agonizing over his sin is how I define the man. It’s his desire to return, no matter how unsuccessful it appears in his life, that is the true measure of a person. He’s defined by the grace of God within him that stirs in him the desire to come home.

He needn’t face the Lord’s fiery rain

MOTHERS’ DAY 2015

Churchinwinter

by Ross Decker Sr 

Yesterday was Mothers’ Day. Earlier in the week was my mother’s birthday. And, while rummaging through some all photos, I found her confirmation certificate. My mother passed away several years ago.

This is usually the set up for a piece on how much I miss her and how dearly I’d want her back. But, that would require me to be a better person than I am. I had none of those feelings, although seeing the confirmation certificate made me think of her life in a way I never did before.

She spent all of her childhood in a Lutheran orphanage here on Staten Island, as did her twin sister. And, although that’s pretty sad, the story immediately gets even sadder. Both their parents were living. When they were brought to the orphanage, the person doing the bringing was her mother. No one was dead. It was just that The Great Depression was just ending and the two girls were too expensive to keep. Her brothers stayed at home with their mom but the twin girls were brought to the orphanage where their father worked as the custodian. Her mother and father were separated. Her mother came to visit occasionally but her father, although working there, never made an effort to see her.

She grew up with no one fussing over her hair. She never had someone who would buy her favorite color socks. Her shoes and clothes were the same as all the other girls’. She spent every day wearing the uniform of an orphan. No one took her picture. There were no family events to commemorate. No one had a tea party with her. No one brought home a teddy bear. She had birthday acknowledgements, of course. The home gave the girls birthday berets and oranges. But, she knew that she was not getting a birthday party given by someone who loved her. They weren’t proud of her. They didn’t get excited over her graduations or her first teenage birthday. They had no hopes or expectations for her.  No one did.

She couldn’t be adopted because both her parents were living. So, barring a change of heart from her mother she and her sister would be there until they were eighteen.  And,that is what happened. She stayed in that orphanage with her sister, knowing her brothers were with their mother. Feeling that her brothers were more loved and more valuable to her parents.

My mother never had any example of how a caring mother might act. I know she was truly doing her best. But, the job of motherhood was outside of her skillset. She was always cold to me. Or mean. She beat me with belts whenever I would misbehave. And she would threaten to send me to the local orphanage.

Somehow, I knew even then that she was doing her best. SChurchinwinterhe did good things, too. Every day she sang hymns to me. Whenever I left the house, she would send me off with a Scripture verse. So, I choose to remember the mother who, like Fanny Crosby, “did what she could.”