Some of my earliest memories of my father are of him in our local church. I would peek into the side room, down brown carpeted hallways and pale beige walls, and listen to him teach Hebrew and Greek to the willing. To him the words of the bible could only be understood if one got to the original text of the early church. He strived for the truth, whether if it was in his job with the Police Department or in his current teachings in the church. I feel like my childhood was governed by such phrases as, “the word is law,” or, “in all things speak truth.” The bible was our handbook to all things, be it décor or dialogue. This is the basis of the discourse of my family as a child; the “Good Book” defined our existence.
If one was to walk into the house of my childhood you could literally see the writing on the wall. In light brown picture frames you would read psalms and proverbs; the words to live by were not just passed orally but visual through the medium of needlework. Your eyes were pummeled by the dogma of my family from the moment you stuck your head in the door to the moment you walked out on the, “God bless you,” mat. My father’s jewel was the room at the end of the hallway, the one whose acquisition had forced me and my brother to sleep on bunk beds, which had been converted into a library. Floor to ceiling were the books and smells of biblical knowledge. From apocryphal discussions to the large leather bound tomes that were never to be touched, the spines of all these books spelled out his great respect of the written word. At the end of every meal my father would go and grab one of his books and read some passage he had been pondering while he locked himself away after work. He would ask us questions to check our comprehension and my brother, sister and I would squirm and day-dream of escaping his inquisitions.
My parents had met at a small bible college in the woods. It was the 70’s and it was more of a Christian hippy retreat then a bible college. They, and a few small families, had decided that they would live separate from main stream Christian culture. They built a school, church and living space on the property they had bought so that their children could learn in an immersive Christian environment. To go to the school you had to be a part of the church to assure that the doctrine they so fervently believed in would be safe in the hand of the future generations. Every breath, every word and every scratch on paper would be in testament to the glory and power of God. Amen.
One verse that dictated much of our discussions was Ephesians 4:29 “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” To break this law, to swear (the temptation as a child was so great) or speak badly of another would entail the punishment of my parents. This created a very separate world in the dialogue between my parents and the conversations with my young friends. With my parents a slip of the tongue could have you sent to bed without dinner. With my friends the curses and bad talk spilled out like a satisfying deluge. My siblings and I quickly learned the language of Christianity and the language of the outside world.
As my family aged, views began to develop and change. My mother watched as the steam of our childhood piety evaporated. My father and I’s communication turned quickly into debate, which he welcomed as long as he held the higher ground. He would take out a dusty book and find the answers I apparently needed. I pulled out contradictions and he reverted to faith. The word “faith”, to have it and believe wholeheartedly in it, was the only answer when push came to shove. But one word wasn't good enough for me. Words had been what he had given me and I used them in all their glory; my father was faced with the monster he had created. As I began to read books by the Dalai Lama and talk to people of other backgrounds I lost the language of my childhood and I formed my own. The arguments, that my father and I had, held an intimacy reserved for when a religious father knows he’s losing his son to the outside world. Before the end of high school (one I had switched to after too many problems in the first one) I had moved out of the house. My language and beliefs conflicted with my parents and they couldn't understand me anymore. I no longer went to church and my parent’s greatest fears were embodied: I had lost my “faith”.
Now, many years after high school and many of those years spent traveling on my own, I have moved back to my home town. My father has retired from the police force and is just a pastor now. They have long since separated from the old church and school, that is still somewhere in the woods, though the picture frames with the needlework still hang on the walls. He is more relaxed now and we understand each other better. He apologizes for his strictness and I apologize for my verbal attacks I had once been so proud of. Why has our dialogue changed? Maybe it is that I’m not a child anymore, and maybe he isn't the authoritarian I had once believed he was. I believe the discourse of our family, like in any family, has evolved. Amen.