Back when the weather was warm, an old friend showed up at our church mysteriously bearing artifacts he said an acquaintance of his had bought at a yard sale.
He held out tattered Bibles that had belonged to my father, Dad's minister's record book of baptisms and marriages dating back to the 1950s, an old VHS tape of a service from our church and a religious book called Secrets of the Vine, inscribed by my son as a Christmas present to my mom.
This past Sunday my friend showed up again, this time carrying five more Bibles that had variously belonged to my grandmother, father and mother.
I can't tell you how these keepsakes got lost, much less how they were found. My dad suffered from dementia in his latter years, and by the time he died, a lot of his things had simply vanished. My best guess is he packed boxes of his possessions into a rented storage unit somewhere and failed to tell the rest of us what he'd done. After he died, perhaps the unit's contents were sold for non-payment.
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That's just a guess. Thanks to my friend, though, I now have this small assemblage of family treasures to thumb through.
For instance, there's a battered, black New Testament with this dedication:
"Presented to — Paul Prather For Perfect Attendance at The Daily Vacation Bible School at Langdon St. Baptist Church, Somerset, Ky July 1939. Presented by —Mrs. Chas. W. Hogg Mountain Missionary Teacher — Sarah Cook"
My dad would have been 8 years old when he received that award.
There's a Bible with my mother's name engraved on the cover in silver lettering. Inside, in my dad's pen, it says he gave this book to "My darling wife, Alice ... Christmas, 1972."
There's another frayed Bible stuffed with newspaper clippings, as well as theological musings scratched on pages from lined notepads.
Its flyleaf reads, "This belongs to Lennie R. Prather. Presented to me on Dec. 18 1962 from my Dear Husband Fred."
A gift from my grandfather, Fred Prather, to my grandmother.
Below that Granny wrote, "Study to show thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed rightly dividing the word of truth 2nd Tim — 2 — 15."
It strikes me that if, for some reason, you cared to learn about my family, these few heirlooms would tell you everything worth knowing.
In other clans, the members pass along musical ability or a family business or money or alcoholism.
In my family, we give religion. Generation after generation.
Flannery O'Connor might have been thinking of people like us when she coined her famous description of Southerners as "Christ haunted."
My father died penniless, but by a circuitous route left me the church where I'm pastor and this stack of Bibles and a slew of beliefs, many of which have helped me and others cope with life's never-ending challenges.
I've always been at a loss to understand why we Prathers set our trans-generational course on God.
I was a grown man before I realized not every kid grew up attending church three times a week (at least) or praying over every meal or committing Scriptures to memory or discussing Jesus as if he were a classmate at school.
That was simply how our family functioned. I thought all families did.
There are a number of possible interpretations for that: maybe we were blessed by divine grace; maybe we were smitten with a God gene that zigged where other people's zagged; maybe we suffered from a vague, hereditary mental disorder.
Ask me on three consecutive days and, depending on my own mood, I'm liable to give you three different answers.
But all in all, I'm grateful for this inheritance. I count myself lucky.
Despite my ancestors' myriad faults, and my own, I'm probably better off for their predilection toward religion than if they'd followed another course.
Which I don't mean as a reflection on your family or anyone else's. I realize there are a great many families out there not nearly so Christ haunted as mine who have fared well and brought up their children exceedingly happily.
I'm only saying my parents and grandparents by-and-large held to a benign faith that benefitted them and me and, presumably, my own son and grandchildren.
Religion helped them remain faithful to each other and to stay wed for life and to be generous toward the less fortunate. It kept them sober and honest. It gave them joy and passion and hope.